Friday, September 7, 2018

Powerman Zofingen World Championship

Third time's a charm.

This is the third time I've sat down to write about Powerman Zofingen.

The first time, weeks before the race, I started writing about my goals for the race:
  • A Goal: Podium
  • B Goal: Top 5
  • C Goal: Top 10
Before I could publish that, I thought I strained my calf - and the whole trip to Europe was in question for about a week. 

So, the second time I started writing about Powerman, I was writing about the injury and how sorry I was feeling for myself...

Before I could publish that, my calf started feeling a lot better.

Now that the race is over, I don't have any excuse not to publish this blog.

Brass Tacks

I finished 6th in 6:25:52 and I nearly met my "B Goal." I'm very happy with the result - I had a good day out there, but there is room for improvement. Suffering through and finishing the race was immensely satisfying, but the process; the preparation was something more.

Link to the results with splits: https://services.datasport.com/2018/tri/zofingen/rang207.htm

Thanks for the photo, David.

That Process

It all started last year when I raced Alistair Eeckman at Standard Distance Duathlon Nationals in Bend. I didn't know Alistair at the time, but we raced and I saw that he was an "elite" duathlete. That is - he was a card carrying USAT/ITU professional duathlete. It surprised me - I didn't think many Americans were still trying to compete in international duathlons at the highest level (there is very little incentive to do so). But I really respected his commitment. Shortly after nationals, he went to Zofingen, had a great race and finished 10th. That got the wheels turning in my mind.

If Alistair could do it... Why couldn't I?

In December of last year, I set my goals and made Zofingen my "A Race" for 2018. I emailed Alistair and asked him how to get there, when to get there, what to expect... etc. His responses were very helpful. At a race that is always dominated my Europeans, I couldn't wait until we put 2 Americans inside the top-10 and showed Europe, and the rest of the world - Americans can run-bike-run with the best of them.

Some of you know what happened to Alistair. Two weeks before the race in Zofingen, Alistair was killed in a collision with a vehicle while cycling in Austria. His absence in Zofingen weighed heavily on the weekend. But the tragic event also drew us duathletes closer together. Many efforts were dedicated to or inspired by Alistair. When I was suffering up the hills in the second run - I thought about Alistair and I knew I could suffer just that much more for him. And if I could just pass one more guy... I could do it for Alistair. It wasn't until after the race I realized that my number (27) was the same number he raced with last year.

I wish he was here so I could thank him. Thank him for the inspiration to go for it at such a crazy race; the motivation he unknowingly provided me with while training, and for the encouragement to keep pushing. Thanks, dude.

The Training

Of course the other part of the process, the training, also made this a memorable Spring. Lingering plantar fasciitis and tough weather conditions made for a slow start to January and February, but things started to click mid-March. I didn't have a great race at standard distance Nationals in Greenville, but it motivated me to get my ass in gear.

I think I had the longest, healthiest, most productive stretch of training I've ever had from March to late-August. I was in something of a flow state of training - super focused on just being an athlete. And day after day, I surprised myself.

Side note: I realize I am tremendously fortunate to be able to wholeheartedly pursue athletics. I have to thank my dad for supporting me in everything I do. Multisport is not a cheap hobby. And like I said, there is very little incentive to pursue duathlon. For example - I didn't even win enough in Zofingen to cover the cost of my wife and I's plane tickets to Europe and back. It's only the support of my dad, my wife, my family and my friends that has enabled me to do what I love to do. I know there are other, better athletes out there; but without substantial support, they may not be able to focus solely on training or able to travel to Europe for some silly pissing contest.

I don't have any sponsors - and honestly, I don't expect any. I get a few pro deals from companies (thanks Gu Energy, Williams Cycling and Pearl Izumi), but duathlon is not a sustainable profession. When USAT asked me to submit sponsor logos for my race kit, I almost told them I didn't have any. But then I thought about my biggest financial backer - my dad. We have a family business back home in Georgia. My Grandad, Albert E. Harrison, purchased Ellijay Telephone Company in 1956. And over the years, it's evolved to provide telecommunication services to a large portion of North Georgia. My dad and his siblings inherited the company from their dad and it is still a family run operation in small town Georgia. So, without even asking for permission from Ellijay Telephone Company (ETC), I found one of their logos online and submitted it to have it screen printed onto my race kit. I was really happy to be able to represent the one company I can completely believe in - a company that has supported me, indirectly, more than any sponsor ever could.

End side note...

Like I was saying, training went really well. I had several key long workouts and things kept progressing. It all culminated with a standard distance (5K-40K-10K) duathlon in Coeur d'Alene three weeks prior to Zofingen. It was a small race, but a good opportunity to go through a "dress rehearsal" and put in a hard effort. I ran steady 5:30's and rode ~ 315 Watts. The day after that, I rode 5 hours with 2 hours over 300 Watts - and felt really, really good doing it. I was very confident after that big week.

But a couple days after that, I had sharp, crampy pain in my left calf. It got worse as I went for easy runs... I feared I had strained my gastroc. I moped around for a few days... stretching, icing, going on short easy rides. I was really emotional. I thought I had totally blown it. But after a few days, I noticed stretching my calf wasn't doing much good. Instead, stretching my hamstring and the back of my knee seemed to hit the spot. The more I read, I began to believe my problem was my popliteus (back of my knee). Then I remembered, I had moved my saddle up two weeks prior to the onset of the pain... And it dawned on me. As soon as I figured out my popliteus was the problem, I started stretching and icing it and I lowered my saddle. It improved rapidly. The popliteus ordeal was a minor setback - it made for some added emotional stress and a weird taper. I missed several workouts, then once it was feeling better, I crammed in a few workouts up until about a week out from Zofingen - at which point we left for Europe.

As far as training goes, I wouldn't do much differently. I believe the injury was largely a result of improper bike fit. Which... maybe I should go get a proper bike fit...

Perhaps I would do more and slightly longer long runs next time. My longest run in this build was only 25K. I'd like to edge that out to 28-30K next time, but probably only twice in the build up. I would also run more hills off the bike. That was the most difficult part of the race - grinding up the hill three times. Another one of my weak spots - downhill running. I'm slow downhill! And this hurt me in the opening 10K. I would catch guys on the flats and uphills, but get gapped coming back down. The gap after the first run would prove to be pivotal to my race day - but I'll talk about pacing and tactics later.

Europe...

We left Sunday morning, one week before the race - flew to Seattle, then non-stop Seattle to Frankfurt, arriving Monday morning. I slept no more than 20 minutes on the plane; so I was wasted when we got there. We promptly picked up our rental car and hit the German autobahn.

Which was terrifying.

As I fought to keep my eyelids open at 130 kmh, Porsches, Audis and BMWs must've been coming by us in the left lane at 200+. I learned real fast - keep right.

Somehow, after a couple very stressful hours, we made it to our hotel in Strasbourg, France. It was too early to check-in. So, we stashed our bags and went out for gelato. The rest of the afternoon is kind of a blur. We walked around the old town. There was beer, charcuterie, flatbread... and a stop at a market with really good fresh figs. I slept hard that night.

Jet-lagged American's in Europe...

My kind of breakfast...
After pain au chocolat and cappuccino the next morning, we left for Luzern. On the way, we drove through Zofingen. So, we stopped and ran on the course. Because of the 9 hour time difference, I felt like we were running in the middle of the night. We ran back into the forest, climbing out of town on dirt and gravel paths - it was lush and green. It was a welcome change from the dry, dusty, exposed gravel roads of the Palouse. We stumbled onto some of the course... really hilly.

We had lunch at some pizza place (yeah, more pizza) and continued to our hotel outside of Luzern, Hotel Restaurant Hammer.


The hotel is an old wooden house, built by the Hammer family, in the remote Eigenthal Valley. It sits way up on the side of Mount Pilatus. I'd been up Mount Pilatus when I was in high school, and I knew it was a nice place. We had three days there in Eigenthal… It's a very relaxing and beautiful place. There are trails right out the front door - great for running, hiking or mountain biking. The road riding wasn't bad either - as long as you didn't mind climbing mountains (I don't, I just wished I had a normal road bike and a 32T cassette). We had one sunny afternoon and morning before rain and fog moved in. I made the most of it, with one final tune-up workout.

The view up the Eigenthal Valley
Riding towards Schwarzenberg the next morning.
After 3 days in the Luzern region, we took off for Zofingen. I rode a lap of the new bike course Friday afternoon in a misty rain -- Rough roads, road work, sharp turns... and the climbs were really mellow (short and not very steep). I'm still not sure this is the best route for the race; but what do I know? I had expected more climbing and steeper climbs... but the course had a lot of long, flat sections where absolute power and aerodynamics were going to trump power-to-weight. It was an "all-rounder" course. You and your equipment needed to be and stay aerodynamic, and you had to be able to put down power on the long flat sections, but you had to be able to handle a few climbs too. My 66 kg frame and lightweight Cannondale Slice TT bike would have preferred more climbing... but there was nothing I could do about it.

Pre-race

The pasta party Friday night was a welcome break from the routine of searching for restaurants, navigating unfamiliar places, menus and struggling with communication barriers. It was comforting to see Americans in a foreign place. I caught up with Keith Jackson and stuffed myself full of tortellini.

In the pre-race briefing Saturday morning, we were told we could not receive any nutrition support (bottles, gels, bars, etc.) from our coaches unless our coaches were "accredited." This was an issue because I had planned on taking bottles and gels from my wife on each lap of the bike. The Athlete Guide published to the race website stated that elite athletes could take feeds in the marked "coaching zone" on each lap, but it didn't mention anything about coaches accreditations... So, now they're saying I can't take any bottles from my wife because she doesn't have some sort of certification? Seemed like some bullshit to me. Apparently, others thought so too as there was an uproar amongst the elite athletes. Like myself, several others had planned on using the feed zone to take bottles from coaches or significant others. Some athletes asked if they could get their coach "accredited" that day. The ITU officials just scoffed. After the meeting, Marc Widmer and I stayed to talk to the organizers. The head ITU referee said the Athlete Guide was wrong -- and I promptly told him that's no excuse. If he or the other ITU officials made a mistake, they should own it. We athletes should not have to pay the price for the ITU's mistakes. I got so flustered, I just walked off. Marc kept a cooler head, but couldn't get the ITU to back down.

I went back to the hotel to rethink my nutrition plan. I ended up concentrating four servings of GU Roctane in my small aero bottle, filling a GU flask with five servings of GU and taping one SIS Go Energy Electrolyte Gel on my top tube. This way, I could just take water from the neutral aid stations. I'd take a swig of the concentrate or a shot of GU and a few swigs of water. No problem - it actually worked really well. I ended up taking 75-80 g CHO/hr and a total of ~3L of fluids while on the bike. For the run - I had 3 gels... but I can't remember how many cups of water and isotonic sports drink I took from aid stations. Thankfully, the weather was overcast and cool - so hydration was pretty easy to stay on top of.

After a week of nerves and stress, I finally felt at ease the day before the race. I finally felt like I'd made it to race day. I slept really well Saturday night.

Race Day

The late 9:00 am start made for a relatively relaxed morning. Up at 5:30. Breakfast was carb heavy - a Bobo's Oat Bar, a GU Stroopwafel, a banana, coffee, milk, GU hydration drink mix and some muesli from the hotel. 

Bike check-in, a short warm-up jog and we're on the line.

The gun went off and there was a sprint at the front. I watched the front runners pull away as I shadowed the second group, or was it the third? I took it out really conservatively. By the start of the second lap, my confidence was building and I was feeling pretty good. I caught up to a group of 5 guys on the flat section through town and brought back a couple more as we climbed the hill out of town for the second time. I was strong on the uphill - I'd gap guys, but they'd come flying by my as we hit the steep downhills. Like I said, this is something I need to work on.

Chilling through run 1. Note the ETC logo.
I had told myself if I got to the bike within two minutes of the front group, I could bridge up. In part due to a horribly slow transition, the gap was closer to three minutes by the time I got my leg over my top tube. I felt good - but that gap would prove to be too much.

Roll out...
I pushed the pace on the bike and I was bringing guys back slowly and surely... but I never caught a glimpse of the leading group of eight. And while I was surely bringing guys back. I was also pulling a few guys with me.

Powerman is not draft-legal. There is a 12m draft zone... but neither ethics, nor the threat of penalty seemed to deter guys from sucking wheels. After ~30K, we hit the bottom of the Wiliberg (the main climb on the course) and I waved guys around. Several came by and I badgered them - "How's the draft back there? Enjoying the free-ride? I bet you are!" No one responded. I continued to yell at them as they rode just feet away from each other's wheels. At one point a motorbike with a camera came alongside and yelled something in German. It seemed to separate the group for a few minutes. I shadowed the group for a few miles before deciding the group was not going fast enough - and if anyone was going to bring back the leaders, it was going to be me. It was do-or-die. So, I went back to the front and kept grinding, sure that someone was just sitting on my wheel.

A camera bike came alongside near the start of the second lap and got some footage of yours truly. I'll put a link to the recorded livestream HERE. Footage of the group begins around 3:14:00 and continues on and off for ~30 minutes. Here are a few screenshots:













As you can see in the photos, the 12m drafting zone rule was frequently violated - and this is while we were in plain view of the camera! Some guys were worse than others - I have very little respect for the Slovenian (red helmet) who sat on the whole time, only to ride away in the last 10K and outrun me. His lack of guts was apparent -  His lack of ethics, severely disappointing.

After watching the race footage, it doesn't appear things were any better in the front group.

The lead group on the climb... so much for 12m.

8 guys within 5 seconds on the climb... Yeah, nothing to see here...
I'm sorry if you think my criticism of others is unprofessional or unsportsmanlike. But drafting is cheating and cheating cannot be tolerated. Cheating is the ultimate form of disrespecting the sport, the organizers, the fans and your competitors. So if I can shame others into racing fairly, we're all better for it.

I did learn from the experience -  next time, I'll hit the climbs harder to try to shed the lazy, dead weight, gutless cheats and I'll push on alone. I also learned that I need to transition faster and keep the lead pack on a shorter leash in the first run to ensure that I can bridge up.

The most economical way to race would be to hold an even or progressive effort through the whole 6+ hour effort. That's what I set out to do. Unfortunately, that was not how the race unfolded and I never made up the gap from the first run.

I ended up normalizing 272 W, average 261 - almost on par for what I thought it would take to ride with the leaders and what I had trained for. I never looked at my Garmin during the race. After we hit the cobbles through Zofingen, my hydration system rattled backwards on my aerobars and completely covered the Garmin, so I couldn't see it. I didn't mind. I figured normalizing 275-280 W was within my capability, and I was pretty close to that just riding off of effort. And I was feeling good.

Into transition
I came off the bike and out of transition in 11th - and I felt pretty good running on the flat section through town. Then we climbed out of town on the trails. I struggled on the uphill - but I think everyone was feeling it. I caught up to the Aussie, Alister Caird, and we jokingly exchanged a few words about how grim our situation was. But we worked well together to move up. It only seemed appropriate that his name was Alister. We caught a few guys, and a few guys, who probably spent too much energy on the first run and bike, dropped out. I felt like I was just barely surviving, but somehow I was moving up!

Misery loves company. I'm glad I had Alister there to push me and keep me honest.
Hold it together...
I struggled in the second lap and started to feel a little light headed, so I backed off and let Alister go. I had another gel and grabbed a couple cups of sports drink at the aid stations. I was feeling better by the start of the last trip up the hill, and I was starting to bring Alister back. I pressed on, caught and passed him at the steepest part of the climb. I felt like I was hauling ass that last half lap and I could see I was securing 6th place. The last sprint down the hill back to town was very enjoyable.


Sometimes it's really nice to be taken to your limits and still get your teeth kicked in. That was Sunday.
That was, by far the most challenging athletic event I have ever experienced. It demanded intense focus and a constant effort for 6.5 hours. It took intelligent pacing, energy and nutrition management. It took confidence and it took so much perseverance. Of course, it also took months of preparation, sacrifice, sweat and suffering. And it took a lot of support from friends, family and people I don't even know. The Powerman really was an awesome experience.

Overall, the trip and the race was a great experience and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants a real difficult challenge. I'm already plotting a way back next year. It was incredibly satisfying and motivating. If I can do it again next year - I'll do more bike course recon, stay closer to the leaders on the first run, and try harder to attack and drop the wheel suckers. I'd also like to try to get an air-bnb or a homestay where we can cook our own meals... because living out of hotel rooms and having to dine out for most meals can be difficult and contributes to added stress pre-race. It's also expensive.

In training - all I would do differently is run more hills (up and down) and just a few more longer
runs.

I might also look into getting a more aerodynamic TT bike... My Cannondale Slice weighs 17 lbs. It goes uphill really well, but I know it's not the most aero machine. Like I said, the course did not have as much climbing as I thought it would and the hills were not that steep.

Support the Du

Someone asked me what Team USA does or does not do well...

In my opinion, racing in Europe is a severe handicap to anyone from outside of Europe. The travel, the language barrier, the unfamiliarity of being in a foreign country. Not to mention the cost. What Team USA does well is bring the numbers. There were 24 male athletes entered in either the elite or age group championship race. For comparison, there were only 21 Swiss athletes, 15 French, 23 Germans... So, the US does a fine job of recruiting participants - although I cringe when I attend the award ceremonies at nationals and they urge the people who "qualify" to immediately go into the hall and put down a non-refundable deposit. Sometimes I wonder if those people know what they're getting into. USAT does a great job of making "qualifiers" feel special. But guess what - the slots for this race are never going to fill up. If you completed a duathlon this year, and you want to cough up a few hundred dollars for the race entry fee, you'll probably qualify and USAT/ITU will gladly take your money. But that's the thing - a lot of American multisport athletes can afford to go race in Europe.

What Team USA lacks is some sort of support system that could help strong athletes get to races. The athletes left at home are the ones who can't afford to be there. It's not because of a lack of talent, effort or commitment. With lodging, food, entry fee, and flights, it's a commitment of at least a couple grand to get there and back with a bike. And for what? There's no guarantee of a pay day for elites. And for the age group athlete, it's just the opposite - a guarantee that there will be no prize money. So, that's one thing I would like to see in place, but I won't hold my breath. USAT is not going to support elite or age group duathletes. That's why you will see multisport athletes (age group and elite) setting up GoFundMe pages just to get to races or get through another season.

If you have the opportunity and financial ability to support others, I would urge you to do so. I would really like to see more individuals sponsoring others to pursue their passions - because for some, multisport is very difficult to finance. I know there is plenty of money inside multisport, but the majority of it is held by older athletes who have had time to establish careers, not by the young, aspiring elites. Even if you can't do it financially, you can help by donating gear, mentoring juniors or volunteer coaching.

If you want to see American athletes on international podiums, they're going to need support.

With that, I'll sign off. Thanks for all the love and support. See you in Miami, November 11th for Long Course Duathlon Nationals.

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