Race report: 2016 USAT Age Group Nationals

Thanks to Lee for the following (very detailed) report from Nationals;

I raced the Olympic Distance event at the Nationals in Omaha this past Saturday the 13th. The race wasn’t a stellar performance for me unfortunately.  I had hoped to improve my 51st place age group finish from last year’s Nationals.  I came in 53rd this year, hampered by an off-course swim and a very slow run.  I have some lessons learned from the experience which I’m happy to share below.  First, a review of the race itself.
I have raced the Nationals twice, both years in Milwaukee.  This was the first year the race was held in Omaha.  If USAT sticks to past practice, there will be at least another year in Omaha before it moves again.  The venue in Milwaukee was very pleasant, with a swim in Lake Michigan and a relatively shady run along the lake.  Omaha was unfortunately not so blessed.  I’m not sure how USAT could have picked such an awful spot to hold a triathlon. The poor experience with the venue was compounded by an inexplicable lack of planning and organization on their part.
The site for the event was a park in northern Omaha, near the airport.  The neighborhood could best be described as sketchy, featuring burned-down homes and drunks lying around in the parking lots of stores selling discount liquor and “bundled meat.”  (Never figured out what the latter was…)  The park grounds were relatively clean but the lake was the murkiest I have ever swum in.  Forget being able to visualize your hands while swimming – I couldn’t even see my shoulders when I rolled.  The water was 85 degrees at race time, which precluded wetsuits.  To make the conditions even more challenging, the sight bouys were distributed seemingly at random between the start dock, the finish and the turnaround bouys.  That was the first comment everyone made at the start: “Ignore the orange ones boys – you’ll swim 2,500 M if you follow those.”
I found the bike course to be decent change, with a nice run along the Missouri river before heading out into the corn fields.  There were two surprisingly long and steep hills, which forced everyone to grudgingly drop into the small ring.  I heard some complaints about the road surface conditions but i didn’t find them to be any more rugged than the streets of DC.  There was a bizzarely long stretch between the Bike Out side of the transition area and the mount zone, which required you to run with your bike for perhaps a tenth of a mile.  By my watch, that added almost 5 minutes to everyone’s bike times.
Out of T2, things took a turn for the worse as competitors were treated to one of the worst run courses I have ever seen anywhere.  The first mile was nice and shady, inside the park.  After that, we ran on a concrete roadbed through an industrial zone to a small baseball stadium downtown, before returning to the park.  The scenery was uninspiring, featuring shuttered warehouses in between junkyards and weedy lots.  The total lack of shade was much more of a serious issue, on a day with bright sun and temps in the mid-80s.  To add to the misery there were no mile markers on the course.  The slog through the heat seemed endless.
Organizational challenges for USAT included a lack of planning for the time required to get all of the participants into the race area (access was via one single lane road), not providing shade for spectators, running out of water at the bottle refill station and not providing beverages with the post-race meal (“Oh, didn’t they give you a water when you crossed the finish line?”).
Aside from venting, the point of this is to make others aware of what may await them next year if they choose to make the trek to Omaha.  It will be interesting to see what ensues from the feedback that USAT gets from this weekend.  The athletes that I talked to were unrelentingly scathing in their critiques.
Despite these conditions, many competitors ran great races.  As above, I didn’t feel that I was one of them unfortunately.  In thinking about the good and bad lessons learned, as an ex-soldier I find myself reverting to the Army’s “Sustain and Improve” methodology for after action reviews.  Here are my sustain and improves:
Improve:  Not following the pack when visibility is poor.
I had a good idea of the sight lines that I wanted to follow in the swim, given that the orange bouys were best ignored.  The out leg went perfectly, with the sun behind us illuminating the first yellow turn bouy brightly.  On the way back the sun was directly in our eyes however.  It was impossible to see the exit ramp or even the misplaced orange bouys.  In general I am distrustful of the pack during swim legs; in this case i should have followed the swimmers in front of me rather than panicking and making up my own longer course.  When the final results are posted I’ll be interested to see how my swim ranks within the group.  Eyeballing the prelimins, I was at a defecit on the swim leg compared to those bracketed around me.  With all the practice I’ve been doing with Frank, that was a big disappointment.
Sustain:  Using a camp stool in transitions.
I always seem to manage to Charley horse (sp?) myself while putting shoes on during transitions.  This year I tried something new, which was to sit on a small folding camp stool.  It worked very well.  I loved biking and running without the old familiar pulled muscle feeling in one of my quads.  I saw a variant of this at Columbia this year btw – someone brought their gear into the transition area in a five gallon plastic bucket and turned it over to sit on.  Very clever.
Sustain:  Running in and out of transitions in bike shoes.
In years past I have dutifully rubber-banded my shoes to my bike.  The mud at Columbia this spring was bad enough that I tried running in the shoes instead, so that I could keep the mud and moisture out of the insides.  It worked well then, and this race made me a total convert.  I find that I run with a lot more speed and confidence with shoes on.  Zipping past other bikers on both the in and out lanes confirmed for me that the efffect is real.
Sustain:  Shipping my bike via FedEx Ground.
Checking my bike on American would have cost me $165 each way.  Shipping the bike box via FedEx to my hotel cost $50.  The box was waiting for me when I checked in and I was able to drop it at a FedEx location for the return trip after the race.  This saved me over $200 and avoided having to lug the heavy box through airports.
Improve:  Checking bike screws and nuts before the race.
Since I’m a cheapskate I put my bike back together myself before the race.  I don’t know how I can still continue to come up with new race prep mistakes after so many triathlons…. The novel mistake this time was not checking the aero bar screws the morning of the race. They were nice and tight the night before, when I went for a test ride.  Somehow they managed to loosen themselves by the morning.  I noticed some play in the bars as soon as I got on the bike during the race.  It got worse throughout the leg.  See the picture below for what the bars looked like by the time I finished.  I was able to balance them while biking, so that they remained relatively flat, but I couldn’t pull on them and taking corners was an real adventure.  (See picture at beginning of post).
Sustain: Skratch and salt tablets
In past years I have developed significant stomach and leg cramps during the run.  The stool mentioned above helped with that.  I also credit the sport drink Skratch, which Frank introduced to me.  Thank you Frank!  Nice mild flavor on the Skratch, without the bottle-full-of-chemicals feel that you get with other sports drinks.  The salt tabllets helped too I think, particularly in the heat we experienced.
Improve: Lube isn’t just for wetsuits
I skipped the Glide this year, under the theory that I didn’t need it if I wasn’t trying to shuck off a wetsuit.  Big mistake.  Lots of chafing under the arms and other more sensitive and unmentionable areas.  Ouch.
Sustain:  Socks.
I am a wuss and put on socks before the bike leg, leaving them on for the run.  I have timed myself during transition practices and know that donning the socks adds 10 seconds to my already un-stellar T1.  I’m purely guessing with this, but I would estimate that I get that 10 seconds back and more during the bike and/or run by avoiding chafing.  The run course in Omaha reinforced that for me. With racing flats, my feet were sore enough after dealing with the concrete surface.  I’m glad that I didn’t get blisters.
Sustain:  Biking the run course the evening before the race.
If the run course is unfamiliar, and you’re racking your bike the night before the race, why not make your last pre-race workout a leisurely bike ride over the run course?  You know the run is going to hurt and feel like it lasts forever  You might as well get an overview of the course so that you can better judge the hills and the distances to the finish line.
Improve: My @#%^y run time.
I really don’t know what happened here, which makes it hard for me to figure out what exactly to improve.  At the Nationals last year I had a decent swim and a strong bike, followed by a cramp-inflicted run.  My run time last year was 48 min and change if I recall correctly.  I vowed this year to improve that leg.  When I was in Europe earlier this summer I had to spend 2 1/2 weeks off the bike and swim.  So I ran every day, despite the monotony.  (SO glad I’m not just a runner!).  I loosely followed the training programs in a book called Jack Daniel’s Running Formulas, which I would highly recommend to anyone.  A very precise and scientific approach to measuring and improving run performance.  I felt strong on the run after all that training and also felt that I was able to sustain this fitness through the second half of the summer.  So you can imagine how pleased I was to put up a 51:08 run.  51 minutes???  I haven’t run that slow on a 10K since the 9th grade.  Wow.
The heat was undoubtedly a factor, for me and all the other runners I’m sure.  When the final results are posted it will be interesting to compare how other people in my group did vs. their last year in Milwaukee.  The times that I saw in the preliminary results looked slower than what I would have expected.
That being said, I passed perhaps two or three guys in my bracket on the run and was passed by at least eight.  All of those who passed me were moving significantly faster and looked really strong.  I felt, and looked I’m sure, very slow.  Ol’ Jack D. (and yes, that’s really his name) stresses speed work to imprint the carriage and feel of the sprint onto your longer runs.  That worked for me this year, in that I felt light and relatively springy on my feet throughout.  The pace was the part that was missing::)
I have heard that your early to mid-fifties (which is the bracket I’m in) is when your run speed starts to decline significantly.  I could chalk up this year to advancing age I suppose.  The counter to that is that I can still bang out the fast runs that I do with my running group at the same pace that I’ve been holding for five years now.  So….  maybe the significant decline is my ability to run off the bike?  Perhaps.  There’s another piece that I want to explore, which is getting a professional bike fit.  I’ve had my new/old hot tri bike for two years now, courtesy of Ebay.  I have always been too cheap to get a proper fitting.  Perhaps I’m configured in a way that’s killing my run?  We’ll see.  Other than that, I’ll have to delve deeper into the Jack Daniels running plan.  At least that’s fun to say…
Sustain:  Slow force revolution bike training.
I read about this in USAT’s magazine this summer, and I must say it was a good tip.  To build muscle mass and strength on the bike, find a long hill and practice climbing it, not as you would in a race (with higher RPM in a lower gear), but with a higher gear and slower revolutions.  Keep cranking with lots of force and watch for the ensuing muscle density and strength.  That’s the theory at least.  It seemed to work for me.
Sustain:  Leaving it all out there on the course.
After finishing this race in the intense heat, I had to stagger around for another 1/4 mile or so to find the poorly-mapped recovery tent.  In it there were baby pools full of ice cold water, which was a nice recovery option.  Unfortunately the grass underneath had been mowed recently, so the pools had a slick of grass clippings and dissolved lube floating on top.  That ghouled out some of the competitors, but I plopped right in.  While I laid there at least eight people asked me if I was OK or needed a medic.  One woman offered to personally drag me to the medical tent, she was so worried.  I guess if you look that bad after a race, you weren’t leaving anything in the tank, right?  That somehow made me feel better about the whole event.  I must have done my best…..
If you’ve made it this far, all I can say is that I hope these random observation help you in your next tri.  Good luck and go fast!!
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