Friday, December 12, 2014

Going Big in Bahrain

The inaugural Challenge Bahrain lived up to it’s hype and delivered an athlete experience unlike any I’ve previously been a part of before. This was the second Challenge Family event I have raced, and from an athlete’s perspective, we were treated like royalty throughout the time spent in the small Middle Eastern island country.

The first indication Challenge Family pulled out all the stops was upon arriving at customs in Bahrain. There was a special hospitality area for all participating athletes. The usual $20 tourist visa fee was waved and athletes were rushed through our own VIP line. Airport passport and customs lines in the Middle East are typically a big problem so saving an hour of time upon landing was an appreciated perk that did not go unnoticed.

My parents are retiring in the summer of 2015 from careers spent in Saudi Arabia so this trip was marking the last time I would be traveling over to the Middle East in the foreseeable future. It was a short trip across the King Fahd Causeway, the 30km bridge connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and one they make a few times a week to enjoy a bit more Western culture. They were as excited as I was to see this world class sporting event.

As we drove to our hotel from the airport, it was evident the marketing and promoting of this event on the local level was unparalleled to anything else in the triathlon world. Huge signs lined the highway announcing complete road closures on race day as well as massive motivational signs urging on the competing athletes. Indeed, we would have an entire side of the main highway in the country (4 lanes wide) to ourselves, free of vehicle traffic, on race day.

One of the only minor downfalls of traveling from the US on a short turnaround is jetlag but as a friend who is a global executive and frequent international traveler suggested, it is made easier if you remain flexible and realize that despite being a bit blurry eyed you can still achieve an excellent performance by keeping a positive outlook on the situation.

I arrived to Bahrain on Thursday around midnight so Friday was spent running the usual  pre-race errands including bike building, packet pickup, and bike check-in. As Bahrain is a small island, only 34 miles from the northern to the southern tip and 11 miles from east to west, the race was a point to point and required checking in our run bag the day before too.

Our good family friends, Bob and Deb Lumpa, made the drive from Saudi Arabia to check out the spectacle and we met them at the Bahrain International Circuit, the ten year-old F1 race track, which doubled as the main hub of all the race activities. As this was the first triathlon event they had seen, I warned them it was likely to be the finest endurance production in the world, and not to false expectations if they attended other events in the future. As career employees of an oil company in Saudi Arabia, and knowing the intimate involvement the Bahraini Royal Family had in the production of this event, they knew the Middle Eastern mindset and knew that no expense would be spared.

After picking up packets and checking out the F1 track, we drove back to Bahrain Bay where the Swim Start and T1 was being staged. It was an elaborate set up with massive billboards lining the entire bay area promoting the event sponsors and the race organizers. We learned they had paved the entire T1 area earlier in the week and the pavement was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. They had also constructed a floating pontoon that athletes would use entering and exiting the waters. Having produced events in San Diego, I was utterly amazed in the quality of the set up at the start area. Not only would this have a positive image amongst racers but as the event was being televised live on Bahrain TV as well as live stream on-line, the world would take notice of their attention to every detail.

I was excited for race morning for two reasons. It was a bit of a homecoming race for me as the first triathlon I ever raced was in my Dad’s 8th grade PE class in Saudi Arabia. On Saturday, there were over a hundred athlete racing from the Saudi Aramco communities and many times more from the surrounding Gulf Countries. It also marked the last race of the year for me so after a full season of racing I was looking forward to closing the books on the year.

All the hype leading into the event was on the pro race as the best in the world were gunning for their share of the $500,000 prize purse, making it the richest half-iron distance race in history. To the credit of the Challenge Family, they started pro men and women separately and provided a 30-minute gap till the start of the age group race. Being in the first wave, it was fun to have a front row seat and watch the pros exit Bahrain Bay.

The 1.2-mile salt water swim was simple to navigate as it was an out and back course and Bahrain Bay was situated with massive skyscrapers on each side which served as excellent landmarks to reference and a bit of architectural eye candy during the swim. It was wetsuit legal and the water was cool so I had nothing to complain about. As is typical for me, I had a quick start and was with the two leaders for the first 400-500 meters. Then, as is also typical for me, I had to back off the pace and settled into my own rhythm. Near the turnaround point, a handful of swimmers caught me and I tailed on the back of that group the rest of the way.

Exiting the water it was impossible not to get reenergized by the crowd support and Whit Raymond working the mic with his boundless energy. It was a 200 meter run to the bike bag grab and into the change tent and I exited T1 in 5th or 6th place in the age group race.

My goal on the bike was to push as hard as possible over the first 20km and then try to gauge my position in the race and decide how my body was responding on the day. I hadn’t put in a lot of volume in the lead up to the race and opted to include only quality sessions either at VR Cycling Studio with Steve Elliot or on my home trainer utilizing The Sufferfest video workouts. I knew I had good power and top end in my legs but I didn’t know how they would respond to the overseas travel or the whole 56-mile course.

I was simply amazed the entire 56-miles that we had a four-lane highway to ourselves! At different points during the ride, I rode in the far left lane, the far right lane and smack down the middle depending on what I imagined were the best tangents or the best spots to take advantage of the persistent crosswinds. The bike was a point to point that also served as a bit of a tour of the island and it was never lost on me how lucky we were to experience this first hand look at Bahrain.

I knew if I rode well I could find the front of the race but you can never predict who might be on the starting line and what their pedigree or shape is. In the case of the race on Saturday, Nick Gates, a former pro cyclist from Australia who twice rode in the Tour de France for the Lotto-Beilosol team was setting a fierce pace. I had bumped into Nick prior to the swim start and he didn’t let on to his cycling pedigree, only that he had recently relocated his family to Thanyapura and had been training a lot with Macca. Needless to say, Nick did collect the fastest age group bike split on the day but I only managed to lose four seconds to him. Unfortunately for both of us, he had a tough time shaking the eventual amateur race winner, Patrick Dirksmeier, who was tucked closely behind Nick and likely enjoying the tow.

The bike finished with a hot lap of the F1 track. It’s not often you can dive in and out of corners with complete confidence. Oddly enough, after a cramp free ride, the instant I reached down to unstrap my shoes for the T2 dismount, my legs locked up with massive cramps. My dad happened to be right at the line and caught the most pathetic dismount ever witnessed on video! Thanks Dad. Stopped dead in my tracks, I hobbled ten feet over to a retaining wall and stretch out my hamstrings, glutes and quads for what seemed like an eternity. I finally got to a point where I could hobble into the T2 change tent and upon trying to put on my socks seized up with cramps once again. It was one of a few opportunities my parents and the Lumpas could see me and I looked like a wounded deer as I shuffled out of T2 in 3rd place.

The run started on the F1 track and then proceeded to the Al Areen Wildlife Park which was plush with gazelle, giraffes and ostriches. The cramps subsided after the first mile and I found my stride. Around mile two I saw the men’s pro leaders closing in on the finish. Michael Raelert looked like one of the previously mentioned gazelles and not too far behind in 3rd was Tim Reed, who from my vantage point was floating over the road in hot pursuit of Andreas Dreitz who was 200 hundred meters in front of him.

Inside the park, the aid stations were electric with enthusiastic volunteers but otherwise only the odd rogue ostrich was seen, meaning they would periodically run in front of the running path. I held third in the age group race through the halfway point but was passed by Danish coaching legend Michael Kroeger, coach of Dirk Bockel and Camilla Pedersen, as well as the diminutive Swissman Patrick Wallimann. Up ahead with a big lead were Dirksmeier and Gates. I actually started feeling better in the closing miles and I think it was in part because I wanted to find out the final podium placings in the pro event. I lost one more spot at the 15k mark as another former pro cyclist turned triathlete, Tomas Swift-Metcalf passed me, but held onto 6th place across the line. The final kilometer, including the finish chute, was on the F1 track with what seemed to be thousands of fans cheering. Of course, many were waiting for Sheikh Nasser to finish, and indeed the Prince is a fast man, finishing in 4hrs 21 minutes!

The party didn’t stop at the finish line as athletes were provided with the finest Finisher awards I've ever seen, a puffy jacket from C4, and shawarmas (see pic below) for post-race food! Later that evening Challenge had organized for the Dire Straits to play at the post-awards party. It capped off a truly marvelous event, highly recommended as an end of the season experience not to be missed. Sheikh Nasser also announced at the awards ceremony a new Triple Crown Series in 2015 to take place in Dubai, Oman and Bahrain that would provide a further platform for triathlon to make a positive impact on the lives of youth and others living in the Middle East. As for upping the ante in terms of global exposure for the sport, the one million dollars in prize money, will surely have lots of media interest following these events and the athletes gunning for the big bucks!

Breakdown of Splits:

Swim - 26:21
Bike - 2:10:00
Run - 1:28:06
Total: 4:10:06

Monday, November 3, 2014

Oil Man - a bit of everything

Oil Man marked the first time since Superfrog in 2011 to toe the line of a half-Ironman and a reminder of the hangover the body feels the day after these longer events. I am now second guessing if I really want to put myself through the death by Chinese water torture of Ironman Texas next May.
Let’s start with the night before the race. Since moving to Texas last November I’ve become a bit of a weather snob and reacted like a snowbird would when faced with the weather forecast calling for chilly temperatures in the high-30’s with 15-20 mph winds. That is to say, I pulled out every piece of warm article of cycling clothing I own and threw it in my race bag. Booties, toe warmers, long fingered gloves, winter skull cap, fortified cyclocross skin suit, wind vest, wind jacket and more. It was a pathetic sight to behold and one that had Emily shaking her head in disappointment at the weakened shell of a man I had turned into.
Emily recalled hearing the alarm go off but, regardless, I slept through it. I scrambled out of the house an hour later than planned, not totally worried since the 30-34‘ers went off in one of the latest waves, but transition close was a firm time deadline for everyone. It caused enough panic in the house that Emily even got out of bed (thanks Sweetie) and got my coffee and PBJ toast ready while I piled everything into the car from the 35 mile drive up to North Conroe.
Arriving at La Torretta with little time to spare to transition close, I did the stupidest thing possible and that was ride my bike on the road to transition with my helmet buckled to my back pack and not on top of my head. There is no excuse for this as all racers were clearly warned in the race manual provided that it was a DQ without exception. There was nothing to contest when the USAT official stopped me. I was 100% in the wrong and irresponsible in my action. I was just appreciative they said I could still race (pic proof i typically err to wearing helmets even riding on rollers or doing video shoots).
Let’s get to the fun part, the race. Due to the nature of the age-group wave start - with waves spread out every four minutes - it would be difficult to tell where you were placed in relation to fellow competitors so I approached it more as a time-trial effort versus a tactical one. The swim was just to my liking as the winds on Lake Conroe kicked up a bunch of small but inconsistent chop making everyones’ strokes appear more like a thrash than a well-manicured freestyle. I’m a fairly good thrasher despite not being a great swimmer. There is a difference, trust me.
It’s always interesting to see the techniques used by different race organizers on how they get athletes safely out of the water and I think OUTLOUD! implemented a great method. They used three ladders perfectly placed deep enough into the water so you didn’t have to execute a rock climbing maneuver to get situated before climbing out. The last five minutes of the swim were spent considering all the wardrobe options I had awaiting in T1 and which one to go with. The air temperature hadn’t felt as low as the weather channels advertised so I went with a short sleeved skin suit, arm warmers, full fingered gloves (the kind with material on the fingers pads to allow to swipe smartphone screens), toe warmers and socks. Oh yeah, I had three full-size towels with me to make sure I dried off completely so as not to start the bike wet, and chilled. I think all of these precautions accomplished two things: 1) lead to an insanely slow transition time and 2) and more importantly, kept me dry and comfortable throughout the bike.
I had a few goals over the 56-miles of cycling. I knew there were some speedy cyclists on the relay teams who would be charging hard through the course, specifically Corey Meeks and Philip Shama, and I wanted to hold them off as long as possible. I also wanted to get to the front of the race as quickly as possible. That would eliminate the need to worry about time checks to other racers since I was in the last individual wave start. These were both potentially unrealistic goals since the only thing I had control over was how I was capable of riding, and not how others performed, but I simplified everything in my mind and focused on taking in as many calories as my gut would handle and applying force to the pedals while staying in a rocket-ship aero tuck that would have made wind tunnel experts proud. Sounds easy, right. Oh yeah, now toss in relentless hills in Montgomery County, and that game plan was quickly tossed out the window! I spent the entire back half of the bike keeping quad and glute cramps at bay and was constantly out of the saddle, standing, wrenching and stretching my way into T2.
Now that I’ve spent a full year in North Houston, I knew locals revered Oil Man as an end of the season, celebration race of sorts, putting a cap on a long year of racing. I wanted to have some fun. By the time I arrived into T2, the sun was out and it had warmed up, so on went the budgie smugglers. I learned at an aquathlon I once raced in San Diego that if you look ridiculous in these puppies, and I certainly have that box checked, that spectators will go along with it, cheer a bit louder and have a laugh at and with you. It keeps the mood light and racing relaxed versus tense and leads to a better performance output. Well, despite having to stop and stretch out some lingering quad cramps in the first few miles along with one of those nasty hamstring ones that come out of nowhere and stop you dead in your tracks, I focused on enjoying the run course. The spectator support around the course was inspiring, especially running through the gauntlet of the legendary hecklers, the SouthCoast Endurance support squad! I may or may not have chugged a cold beer in less than ten seconds on that final lap (photo evidence pending).
I’d like to say that was the end of the season but I’ve got one more race, Challenge Bahrain, I’m ramping up for a month from now. It’s a bit of a homecoming as I grew up a short drive away in Saudi Arabia and my parents are in their final year of living there. It will be an incredible atmosphere as the best triathletes in the world will be competing for $500,000 in the pro event. I’m going to see how I stack up against the melting pot of age-groupers which will certainly draw an excellent field with Europe a short flight away from The Middle East and many handy triathletes emerging out of the Gulf Arab States. Can’t wait to experience the show the Challenge Family team has on tap! *thanks to Paige DiLizio (wife to super hero Max Watts) for the race pics.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Iron Star to Oil Man

It’s been a long time between drinks. 2007 was my first experience racing with OUTLOUD! and I’m dating myself as Oil Man was then called Iron Star. Due to renovations taking place at La Torretta Lake Resort and Spa, the race was staged that year as a point to point with the swim and bike start staged at the Lake Conroe Marina and the run through the Lone Star Parkway developments finishing in downtown Old Montgomery. My wife, Emily, and I were over the moon to sneak out of town after managing a pair of overall wins that day.
Besides the name and venue change from that ’07 race, much has also changed in my personal life in that time period. Emily I travelled in from Boulder, Colorado, where we were living at the time. We now live in The Woodlands. Back then we were newlyweds and spent significant time training and raced as neo-professionals. We trained like pros, often putting in 20-30 hour training weeks. Now we have two beautiful and energetic daughters and we choose to spend the majority of our free time with them. We now put a premium on quality of training instead of quantity of training.
A few significant advantages came from living and training in Boulder and coming into Conroe to race back in ’07. While the terrain is considered hilly in comparison to other areas in Houston, we logged most of our cycling miles in the Rocky Mountains. Riding in the mountains, made those country roads outside of Montgomery and Conroe feel flat. Additionally, we lived at 5430-feet so racing at sea level made breathing feel like we had massive supplemental oxygen tanks on our backs blasting excess oxygen into our system instead of the feeling of breathing through a straw like in the high mountains. Now we’ve lived in the area for a full year and when I ride outside it is typically on the country roads used in Oil Man’s bike course. My legs certainly notice the hills these days!
There are some advantages I feel to being a townie now versus a visitor. I know the roads like the lines on the back of my hand. I ride with a boosted sense of pride knowing these roads provide me with a home-field advantage over those traveling in. Despite being staged in November with potential for chilly race day conditions, training and racing a season through a Houston summer has hardened me up to face tough conditions - hot or cold - and taught me to be a better manager of energy distribution throughout a race.
The biggest advantage, besides the motivation of post-race libations awaiting at the finish, is sharing a course with friends and training partners. When you’re out pushing your body and mind to the limits for four-plus hours, it adds significant motivation and happiness to go to the well when seeing familiar faces throughout the day.
I can’t wait to zip up the wetsuit on Sunday and get after it and no matter what the day brings cross the finish line with a smile on my face! And maybe grab an extra beer.