Monday, June 11, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Greeley Triathlon

Even if Greeley were not the town in which I grew up, this race would hold a special place in my heart as being the site of my first complete triathlon. Since the race is so well run and such a pleasure to do, it holds an even more special place.

Training has been going pretty well for me this year, so I was anxious to test my mettle in conditions more ideal than those from the Summer Open Sprint three weeks ago. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples since Greeley is a shorter sprint, but close enough for my purposes.


As my wife and I made our way to Greeley mid-morning Saturday, we immediately noticed the column of smoke rising from somewhere in the mountains west of Fort Collins. It didn’t look to serious at the time, but this would blow up later in the day and is now being called the High Park Fire and is, as of this writing,  the second largest forest fire in stat history. Obviously, I was concerned about what all that smoke could do to the race, but there was not much I could do about it.

The race director, Jim Fuller, conducted a series of meetings on Saturday as people were picking up their packets and previewing the venue. Some were even swimming, running or riding though I personally would rather save the day before for rest. Jim did a nice job of succinctly pointing at all of the relevant information and answering questions. I really do appreciate the focused, but low-key approach he’s taken for this one.

I got to bed around 9:30 and asleep by about 10:00, ready for an early morning. Just before 3 am, I was awoken by the sound of wind that could have been a freight train. I looked out the window and saw trees blowing all over the place. Not good. This was what we had in Longmont three weeks earlier. Frustrated, I tried to put it out of my mind and go back to sleep. Since I can’t control the weather, there was no point in letting it rob me of some needed rest.

My brother, also competing in the race, and I loaded our bikes up right around 6:00 am and made the easy ten minute drive from our parents home to the race venue which is an office park on the far west side of Greeley.

The wind was still blowing but perhaps not as hard. It was still pretty cool as well…say around 55*.  I knew it might be unpleasant as I waited for the start but once I got going, I would be fine. Being too cold has rarely been a problem for me.

We arrived in transition to discover that body marking and chip distribution had not started even though it was after 6:15 and the first wave of races were slated for less than an hour. A volunteer told us a “decision” about the race was still pending. So we set up our bikes but left our transition bags packed. While we waited, the sun rose above the huge smoke cloud, the temperature improved and low and behold, the wind calmed. Shortly thereafter, the announcement was made; the race was on though anyone who wanted to opt out of the swim could do so. More on that later.

Once I got my body marked and my chip, I set up my transition area, donned my wetsuit from the waste down (it was now too warm to zip it all the way up) and headed over to the swim start area. This race is the site of the USAT Regional Junior Championship (ages 16 – 23) and they also host a shorter race for ages 13-15. Those two went first in a mass start.

With this being my second year, I knew how the line-up would go. It’s in reverse number order which is basically also reverse age order. From there, races start time-trial style, with one person going about every 3-5 seconds.

The Swim

My turn to start came quickly and I felt a lot of nervous energy as I approached the platform. Having taken most of the week off, I think I was champing at the bit to get going again. Then it was time to tell the timer my number (which he entered in the timing computer) and then have the starter tell me “go.” I dove in (literally though I don’t think I got any style points) and was on my way.

A lot of my open water swims have been characterized by hypoxia within the first few minutes as my heart rate tries to catch up. I could feel this coming on so I slowed my stroke just a little bit and tried to put it out of my mind. You’re in good cardiovascular shape, I told myself. This should not be a problem. That seemed to work because I didn’t feel out of breath the rest of the way.

The lake in which the swim portion takes place is very clear and clean (I’ve been told before that the water is nearly drinking quality) and it was also in the low 70* range which meant no shock. I didn’t do a perfect job sighting as the map below shows, but I didn’t swim too far out of range either. During the entire swim, I passed several and I don’t believe I was passed by anyone else.

Greeley is, so far, the only race I’ve down with wetsuit strippers. I needed a couple of seconds to get my Garmin off my wrist and then I just got on my back and voila, the wetsuit was yanked off by two big guys. I thanked them and high-tailed it for transition.

The Bike

Having had a pretty lousy transition in my last race, I wanted to get through this one quickly. I got to my bike and decided that I would skip socks for the ride. I could decide to put them on or not when the run started. At 2:19, it was a little faster than I had planned, but not bad. I ran the bike out to the mount line and was clipped in and headed out a few seconds later.

This year’s bike course included more riding within the Promontory office park itself and that meant a couple of sharp but manageable turns around traffic circles. I felt a little winded, but mostly strong as I navigated these and then it was time to head out onto the open road portion of the race.

Much to my pleasant surprise, I was able to climb to a pace over 25mph and maintain it which was more than I was hoping for on the flatter sections of the course. A right turn took us down 95th Avenue including probably the biggest descent of the whole course. I barely hit over 30mph before having to slow down for a hair-pin u-turn that sent us back the other direction on the same street, but now going up hill. Since my two big rides on the previous week, most hills just don’t look all that daunting. I was up this one and back out onto West 10th Street in what felt like just a little bit of time.

I continued to make better than expected time before I came to the first really sustained climb of the course. At just over 5.8 miles complete, you start a steady climb from 4094 feet to 4162 over the course of 0.9 mile. That makes for a grade of only about 1.4%, but it’s enough to shave a few mph off your speed. As I crested the hill, the wind which had been holding off suddenly gusted and I didn’t pick up much speed on the backside. It was just a gust and though it was in my face for most of the rest of the way, I still felt okay.

By this point I was out on Highway 34 and climbing a gradual but longish hill that lead to the south entrance to the park. Then another hill in the park and that was followed by a flat stretch back to transition. I didn’t notice at the time, but I was about two minutes ahead of where I’d hoped to be.

The Run

I dismounted easily enough and was running back to my section of transition. I had considered not wearing socks for the run, but I had also developed a couple of blisters during the preceding week and decided I’d better protect my feet. I probably took 15 seconds to get the socks on, but I think it was worth it. T2 timed out at 1:45 which was more than the 1:30 I planned, but not disastrous either.

I usually feel pretty winded as I start the run and while I was working, I also think I have a lot more cardio-conditioning that I did last year. That’s not to say that my HR didn’t spike a little and that I didn’t have to struggle to pick up my pace, but I also didn’t feel like I was going to suffocate. That’s always a good thing.

The problem I did encounter was cramps. First, it was on my side on the lower part of the right rib cage. Then the pain moved to the area just below the sternum. It was pretty easy to tie the pain with my respiration rate and my uneducated guess is that my breathing was irritating something. It hurt, but I felt like I could run through it.

Despite the pain, I was consistently keeping my pace under 8:00 per mile, well under in certain areas. It seemed that most of the people who were passing me were younger and those that were older were not in my age group. I didn’t know how long I could keep up the pace, but each step forward meant that much less time I had to commit. This was a lot like the BolderBoulder two weeks prior where I figured I ought to bank as much time at the front in case things broke down later.

Fortunately, they did not and I stayed strong. With the finish line less than 0.2 mile in front of me, I kicked the pace up to a sub 7:00 mile and went across the line strong. I felt pretty good. Looking at my net time of 1:03:36, I was really pleased.

My bro and I waited around for a while to see the results. Both of us ran at times that would have won the age division the year before. But then that was last year and you never know what the field will look like from one year to the next.

When the results came in, I was very happy to see that I had finished third in my age division. My brother did even better with a second place finish thanks to his smokin' run time. I’ll grant you that there were only five participants and one of them appears to have either opted out of the swim of DNF’d, but I still beat the next closest person by a couple of minutes and more importantly, I shaved over eight minutes off of last year’s time.

For my success, I was awarded a white cow bell indicating my podium status within the age group. This race just got a little nearer and dearer to my heart! It’s truly an honor to get rewarded for what I did and it's really cool that both Johnson boys placed in this one. This race is off the beaten path and in most fields, I’ll soon return to my MOP status, but today, I got to stand with the winners and I have to admit, it feels pretty good.

The Race Review

The Bad:

I feel like an honest review of the race needs to contain some criticism. No one is perfect. However, as I rack my brain, I can’t come up with anything. The organizers were facing several challenges this year including high wind and a massive forest fire. The decisions they made regarding the race were thoughtful and focused on safety, first and fore most. Try as I might, I can’t really come up with anything constructive that isn’t completely nit-picky. It’s rare on this blog, but the Greeley Tri gets an A+ in my book this year.

The Good:

Information: Lots of detail on the website, a pre-race meeting, a director who was more than happy to answer any and all questions all made this one of the most informative races you can do. No guessing about where the bike course would go. No wondering where the aid stations on the run would be. Where you swam and how you started were abundantly clear. They’ve been doing this one for several years and have learned well from past year’s mistakes. I love being able to know all I can before a race. No one else has delivered this the way the Greeley Tri did.

Course: The swim, transition, run and bike all work well for the venue and the size of the field (around 230 registrants and 158 finishers this year). The time trial start makes for a less crowded lake. I had no problem passing folks and there were no traffic jams around the buoys. The bike was not so spread out that watching the drafting rule didn’t come into play, but I was able to pass or be passed without issue. Likewise, there was no threat of anyone running into me as I dismounted. The run goes on the sidewalk for part of the race, but again, the field was thin enough that there were no crowding issues. Even better, for the most part, the run and bike are flat and fast.

Support: Entry fees go almost entirely to local organizations that send people out to volunteer for the race. That means a high school cross-country team that comes out to hand out water or strip wetsuits gets some money back to their organization. This drives lots of people out to provide help and support and it shows. In addition, the Greeley Police Officers Organization (presumably their union) is a sponsor so off duty officers are at the major intersections protecting the safety of the athletes and the integrity of the race. That’s a really big plus.

Intangibles: There are multiple factors that make this such an enjoyable race. Competitors of all abilities and levels of experience are made to feel welcome so whether you’re a hotshot riding a fast bike with carbon race wheels or the last person in riding an old ten-speed, you’re treated with the dignity and respect that everyone who competes in triathlon deserves. Winner’s names and hometowns are announced as they cross the finish line and volunteer hands you an iced towel, a big bottle of water and a medal when you do. The race is organized and supported by the Greeley Triathlon Club and their pledge of a race by triathletes for triathletes is evident. These folks know what they want in a race and they deliver it on race day.

I occasionally hear a knock on the sprint distance. It’s short, it’s over in around an hour and you often find yourself pushing far harder than an endurance athlete might normally expect. This is true, but I still find it’s a great way to get back into the season. You can fine-tune your transitions, get used to the multiple event environment and, if you’re lucky, maybe even snag a spot on the podium.

With that in mind, I’m inclined to return to this event again. My hat’s off to the organizers of this race. I know they work very hard at it and their effort shows on race day!

With this one in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to get back to hard training. The next event will be much more difficult, the Boulder Peak including its treacherous 15% climb on Olde Stage Road. More riding, running and open water swimming are planned. More posts to come.

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