I have received good feedback from my last post about the experience of racing. Therefore, I will get back into the balance of that story after a brief description about Conroe Tri for Fun. This race was north of Houston at the local YMCA. This was a fun event. I have raced big races (15,000 racers) and I have raced small races (30 racers). They each have their benefits. This was a “small” race in comparison..about 90 racers in the adult wave. This makes for a much more relaxed and overall jovial atmosphere. Less peacocks walking around pre and post race. This event was well run with a heated outdoor pool swim, a 16.5 mile bike through traditional Texas countryside (from fracking manufacturers to outdoor shooting ranges…felt very Texas). Coming in off the bike we had a trail run for our 3.1 mile section with a finish where we had to run across a very pristine lake. Very cool race and very happy I added it to my calendar.
So, after you have made your way out of transition you try to make the true transition. That from swimming (with a bit of running) to cycling. All of the sudden a whole different group of muscles begin to start firing. They are warmed up from the swim (which is a total body event with a heavy focus on arms, shoulders, back and core) but now the lower half of your body is being called up to primary action. Even though you tried to slow your breathing down before you headed out of transition it was not fully possible. Your breathing is elevated. You can start feeling your heart ticking along at a rate somewhere between true aerobic and anaerobic. Your body is working now. It is an interesting feeling right at this point. It is something akin to a runners high. Your body is not exhausted. You are not fighting your muscles or your breathing to keep going. However, everything is just starting to burn. You are in that space where the body is truly alive….you feel yourself from the inside out. I think it is this feeling that makes the sport addicting. In the world we live in, with so much time behind our desks or steering wheels, it is tough to get that feeling of performance from our truly amazing body. Now, that period of “physical bliss” is brief. After all, you are racing. Soon the burning starts to pick up. You have settled into the bike and things start to change as you pick up the pace on the bike.
The bike, like the swim (and the run for that matter) is also about rhythm. Finding that balance of speed and control that helps you get through the bike leg as quickly and efficiently as possible. It takes a while for new racers to learn how to “use” their bikes effectively. With 18 or more gears at your disposal it can take a while for the art of bike racing to develop in the mind of a racer. But when it happens, when you become in tune with your bike it is a cool transformation. Your body feels the resistance that the bike is facing and makes the necessary gear changes or position changes without conscience thought. I have no idea how many gear changes I make in any given race because it is all done without much thought on my part. The legs and lungs feel the need to shift up or down and the hands react.
The bike leg has so many more variables than any of the other disciplines in the race. For that reason I think it is the most mentally taxing leg of the race. Even if your mind is processing information outside of your mental presence it is still sapping mentally. I was thinking about all the things that my mind is doing while I am racing. As discussed above it is handling the shifting. It is watching for debris or dangers on the road (this gets even more important at higher speeds or in bad conditions such as rain). It is ensuring that my riding is within the confines of the rules of the race. It is calculating progress and distance to go. Race rankings. Calorie and fluid consumption. It just goes on and on and on. The bike leg is definitely a physical endeavor but it is also one that requires a good deal of mental fortitude in order to maintain the focus of speed and efficiency.
That is why rhythm is important on the bike. Once you slide into the groove of a rhythm you are able to give your mind a break. Once your body finds the pace and starts holding that pace then your mind can relax from several of its duties and start thinking about how much you are hurting. And this is interesting, at least for me. I told someone a few weeks back that if you aren’t hurting your aren’t racing. There is truth to this. All racers, from the tip of the spear to the bottom of the broad handle, share one common thread. When they are really racing they are hurting. The elite racers are just able to go faster and endure the pain better than the back of the pack racers. So, when I get into the groove or rhythm I try to analyze the level of hurt. Is there more hurt I can endure at this point? If so lets pick it up a bit and re-analyze in a bit. Hurt without injury. Hurt that can be maintained over the distance required. Those are the things you are looking for in any given race.
The bike progresses until you find yourself coming back into transition to move onto the run. Again, in anticipation of the run you are wanting to make sure that you calm the body and mind down. A surprise for most new racers comes as they approach transition and have to dismount their bike. Triathlon racing usually does not involve a lot of tight turn or heavy braking at any phase of the course except when you come back into transition. I have said that cycling is a lower body sport…which is mostly true. However, when you come back into transition you quickly recognize that your shoulders, arms and hands have some fatigue also. Some of this has to do with how comfortable and relaxed you may be. A good relaxed position helps eliminate some of this fatigue. But often, spectators see an excited racer coming into transition. The excitement changes to a sense of perplexity as they try to navigate to the dismount point and get off the bike smoothly and quickly. This gets easier with experience as you begin to understand how your body is going to feel and how you need to approach this transition.
As you step off the bike and take your first steps (whether they are running or walking) you are immediately struck by a sensation that you are on a moving boat. Your leg muscles are still firing in a cycling fashion. They can’t make the transition so quickly. The cycling motion is pretty different than upright ambulation. The racer has to push through this sensation of unfamiliar legs if they hope to make a successful transition. Most new racers think they need to allow their legs time to stop firing in a cycling manner and get ready for running. This often is not the case. The legs will do what they are called upon to do…even if the mind thinks differently.
Heading back to your rack you try to get your bike back into position. You again have to clear the mind and focus on the task at hand. Get your cycling shoes off (if they aren’t already). Get your helmet off (unfortunately there are racers that forget this as they head out onto the run). Get your running shoes on. Race belt on. Hat on. And then remember where you have to run out of the transition.
On the run. The legs and lungs are already hot. They have been through the swim and the bike and now your mind is asking why we have to run. The bike involves a lot of mental fortitude to keep you safe and get you through quickly. The run requires a whole different type, in my opinion, of mental fortitude. It requires a lot of positive self talk. A lot of determination and drive to get you through the run. Your legs don’t start feeling like running legs for maybe a half mile (sometimes longer if it was a tough bike). Getting to this point is taxing on your cardio. You are fighting the burning in your chest. It seems that once your legs get in line it helps to calm down the cardio system. You find the rhythm. Now it is just a matter of enduring the hurt. You are going to hurt on the run. But you have to make sure that you are hurting enough to race like you want to. This is where the mind and the body disagree. In fact the mind and the mind often disagree. Your subconscious mind is telling you to stop..this is dumb…you should walk. Your racer mind is telling your subconscious to shut up and for the muscles to keep firing…get me to the line.
As you get to the finish shoot the endorphins that helped you start the race start releasing into your system again. The accomplishment and joy fuels the push to the finish. You come across the line and are greeted by volunteers who have dedicated their day to helping you at this point. That’s it. The race is over. You wonder why you put yourself through all that pain. Your legs and shoulders are twitching. Your lungs are burning. Sweat coats your body in an effort to get your core temperature back down to a normal level. You make your way out of the finishing chute…relax. Start thinking about when you can do it again!
Conroe added another 20 miles to the total. This brings us to 667.4 miles thus far. Many more miles to come.