Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Round 2: P2A 70k

Last year this race kicked my ass. You can check out my report here, but I can summarize the painful details by saying that it was one of the worst race experiences I've ever had. The event itself is extremely well organized and it's an epic course but I was mad at myself for pacing so poorly and not respecting the demands of the race.

I'm not quite sure why I was so motivated to give it another crack this year. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment...maybe I just wanted a chance to have a more positive experience this time. So with a new cross bike, some fast wheels and tires, and the valuable experience I gained last year I was looking forward to improving on my execution and result this time around.

Last year I finished in 2:40 and roughly 320th place which was barely good enough to allow me to start from Wave 1 this year, just behind the Elite/VIP wave. I thought cracking 2:30 would be a good (however arbitrary) goal this time. But I also had it in the back of my mind that if you finish in the top-100 you can enter the elite wave the following year.

Now 100th place doesn't seem like something I would normally strive for. But with a couple thousand riders and a large elite field of domestic pros, national champions, World Cup CX racers and even some pro tour riders, finishing in the top 100 is the "holy grail" as Coach Chris told me during last week's Tuesday night interval ride. He estimated that if conditions were fast I would need to go around 2:13-2:15 to achieve that. I decided that would be a great long term goal after a few more years of cross experience, so my main goal this time was just to have fun and feel like I gave it my best effort.

Similar to last year, despite another late spring the course was in excellent shape. Apparently too excellent, as I heard that they actually dumped a ton of water on a couple of the mud chutes to make things more interesting?! I lined up about 20 minutes early in Wave 1 and was already near the back of the corral. It didn't bother me too much though as it would lend to my strategy of starting a little more conservatively this time and leapfrogging the groups as I gradually increased my effort throughout the race. I managed to find Balance Point athlete Craig Linton to talk strategy just before the gun sounded.

The start was still a bit sketchy with Wave 1 being a little more aggressive than Wave 2 last year, but I managed to avoid the craziness and let a lot of athletes blow by as I settled into a good pace on the opening 10k of fast rail trail. As we started ticking off the miles I slowly worked my way forward through the long string of athletes and I got myself to the front of the main bunch just before the first off-road sector without expending too much energy. I learned from my mistakes last year and kept my effort in check on the first big climb. There were still a few good sized groups up ahead, but there was a LONG way to go to catch them :)

Just before the first road section I saw fellow triathlete Scott Dickie come up beside me. I know he's a very strong rider and he was clearly committed to a big effort to get to the front of the race so it was all aboard the pain train while he started riding through some small groups ahead. I was still trying to be careful not to blow myself up too early so I put in a bit of work but also took advantage of some small energy savings like sliding to the back of our small group on the climbs and making it up on the downhills and corners.

I was already putting in a bigger effort than I had wanted to in the first 20k but I didn't want to lose our small pack that was moving up through the field. From ~12-25k the course is mainly gravel roads with farm laneway sectors every couple k's, which is where I went way too hard last year trying to stick with cross packs. But we were rolling along well and I couldn't believe how quickly the miles were going by and how much more comfortable I was compared to last year on my rigid mountain bike. Scott was pulling much of the road sections and I would take the lead on the dirt and was able to make big gains on groups ahead through the technical stuff.

Around 25k we hit one of the more challenging farm lane sections and Scott misjudged a corner and ended up in the grass. I knew it would be a big hit to our firepower but there was a group of 10-12 guys less than 30 seconds ahead. I wanted to wait for him but I had to commit to catching the group as soon as possible before the next long road section. I managed to bridge up and got things organized to keep rolling through the field. I had the feeling we were getting towards the front of our wave so my strategy was to keep a few strong riders at the front of the group working together on the roads, then get to the front before the trail sections and hit them HARD to see who I was with on the other side.

I was starting to put in some much bigger and longer pulls to keep the pace rich but I still couldn't believe how much better I felt than last year and how quickly I was getting through the course. At the half way point I did some rough math and even knowing the second half is harder I was on pace for a huge improvement from last year's time. When we got to one of the final farm sectors at 45-50k (ie. the point where I completely died last year) there were 3 or 4 of us who were putting in a lot of work, and about 10-15 guys sandbagging along for the ride behind us. Then this thought popped into my head from my race report last year:

"At 50k there was a short trail then a long 10+k flat section of rail trail. In hindsight, this would be the spot to really put the hammer down and set up for a great race."

I decided there weren't going to be any more free rides, and after riding well through the trail I was at the front of the group and put in a surge at the start of the rail trail. We still had 20k to go but it was time to commit to a big effort. When I looked back there were still a few hanging onto the back and one young guy who was able to pull through and help, so we shared the work load up to the left turn at 60k.

From there all that's left is a couple steep gravel climbs, two mud chutes and the crazy climb to the finish. There was no more working together...it was max effort to the finish line. It was also the only part of the course that I was a little nervous about the capabilities of my cross bike vs. the lighter gearing and stronger braking of my mountain bike last year. I thought my hands were going to give out on me going down Powerline Mud Slide from braking so hard down the 500m insanely steep and slick mud, but I cleared it and only had a couple Wave 1 riders left ahead of me.

Powerline brings out the most determined of faces

After barely surviving the final climb last year with 30x36 mountain bike gearing I wasn't sure if I was going to make it up on my cross bike with my 36x28. But once the climb started I was worried that if I unclipped I wouldn't even be able to walk up the hill to the finish. I put the bit between my teeth and told myself that every rider I could see ahead was 101st place and I HAD to pass them for top 100!! I almost couldn't believe my Garmin when I hit the finish line in 2:13. I was smashed and I felt that I had executed a good race, but I didn't expect it to be that fast.

I managed to finish in 71st place overall and 8th out of 400+ in Wave 1, almost 30 minutes faster than last year. Similar to Steaming Nostril it's hard to compare my time to the winners (about 9-10 minutes faster) who of course had the advantage - and challenge - of an elite peloton to race with. But I guess I'll find out next year when I line up with the big boys! I was thrilled to achieve my big goal for this race and had WAY more fun than last year...and I guess it gives me motivation to have some solid early season form next year too!

But for now it's time to switch gears and refocus with my final spring race this weekend at the Mississauga 10k where I have another big goal of trying to break 35 minutes. I wasn't sure how things were going to go this spring switching back to short course training but I've already exceeded all my expectations and I can't wait for tri season!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spring Tune-Ups

After waking up my legs in Florida with the Draft Legal Challenge, I got my local racing season rolling over the past couple weeks with some fun community races. Unlike last year when I focused my whole season around a few big events, this year is all about getting back to basics and smashing myself at the local favourites.

After spending most of last year focusing on volume I was really looking forward to getting back to some fast and hard racing this year. Partly because I'm not yet ready to dedicate myself completely to long course, but also because I've been keen to see if/how a new level of strength, durability and mental toughness can translate into speed.

Historically I've struggled to stay consistent in short course high intensity training and tend to get injured and/or burned out. Give me all the 30k tempo runs and six hour bricks in the world, but 4x2k hard used to nearly kill me. But I've put in some decent early-season hard yards on the treadmill and indoor track so I was cautiously optimistic about my spring fitness.

First up was testing my run speed at a local 5k put on in part by my parents!..the Komoka-Kilworth Easter Dash. Sure, I could have chosen a certified drag race of a course with a massive field, but the food and prizes wouldn't be nearly as awesome! After all my goal was simply to push myself as hard as I could to the line. I figured I'd just take things out at "faster than PB" pace and see what happens!

For maybe the first time ever in a 5k, after taking it out hard and already feeling it at the 2.5k turn I had the fitness and focus to maintain my pace. I certainly benefited from my new perspective on distance and pain and with 1k to go I knew I had a new PB locked down and it was time to see how low I could get it. I hit 5k on my Garmin in 16:35, however with the course slightly long (out of necessity for logistics) my official time was 17:01 for ~5.18k. It was a super fun event run entirely by volunteers, and proceeds go towards building a trail in my hometown community, so what more could I have asked for? 

I felt GREAT about that new PB, until all my Hurdle Project teammates crushed Around the Bay 5k this past weekend :) In all seriousness, it was an excellent early season bench mark and now I'm excited to see how much more time I can knock off on the next one.

The following weekend it was time to test my cycling legs and new cyclocross setup in preparation for Paris to Ancaster. Not that P2A is a priority race, but after nearly getting off my bike and crying in the fetal position half way through last year, I vowed to at least be prepared this time around. So I jumped in the smaller and slightly lower key "Steaming Nostril" 70k in Waterloo.

The big story for this race was going to be the conditions. If a 70k gravel race in early April wasn't crazy enough, the morning brought -15 windchill and more snow than we had at Christmas. So I mentally prepared myself for the battle ahead, and my wardrobe looked something like this: 

I started in Wave 2 as the first wave was reserved for riders with a UCI race license (which unfortunately is absurdly expensive), so my only goal for the race was to dial in my equipment, tire pressure and pacing for P2A...in other words, to inflict as much self-induced pain as possible and still get over the finish line. The insane conditions just made all that a little more fun!

After a pretty relaxed roll-out with a neutral start I wanted to stay at the front but be careful not to go bananas from the gun like I did in P2A last year and completely blow up. It was clear right away that very few riders in Wave 2 were committed to a big effort, but I wasn't going to get caught up in any tactics...my only reason for doing this race was to destroy myself.

They gave Wave 2 our own lead vehicle which was amazing! It helped feel like I was in my own race, and kept me motivated to push the pace all day. I found a couple allies who were willing to work with me early on. We got organized and put our heads down for the first 20k which was almost entirely into the 30+km/h headwind. After 20k it was down to two of us while we started rolling through bigger groups of Wave 1 riders. I made an effort to bring up the pace when passing groups, no free rides today!

stolen from Instagram...that's not me

The course to that point was relatively tame, mostly well-packed gravel roads with some pavement. The conditions were pretty brutal though and despite being well-prepared clothing wise my bottles were frozen and my shoes had a layer of solid ice on them. I put my gatorade bottle inside my jersey to make sure I had enough carbs along with a gel every 30 minutes.

At 30k we had made it through most of the headwinds and I was starting to think about whether I wanted to attack and go solo vs. see how long we could work together. But after a long pull I looked back and the decision was made for me...I was on my own. I set my sights on the lead vehicle and went into solo TT mode. It didn't matter to me that this was Wave 2 of a spring gravel race, to me there is no greater feeling in racing than getting off the front and chasing those flashing lights. I've enjoyed that feeling a few times in tri's, but ripping on my cross bike down gravel roads in the mud and snow just made it even more memorable.

I knew my chances of putting time into a peloton of legit Cat 1 riders in Wave 1 were pretty slim, but why not try!? I was inspired by Lionel Sanders' words "There are no limits!" and was chewing stem for the next 30k. When I got to 60k I was seriously in the hurt box and was telling myself "only 15 minutes left". Little did I know the race organizers had a little surprise in store, the kilometre from hell!

We turned off the gravel road onto a farm laneway, and first up was a mud chute that put Powerline Mudslide to shame. I tried to clear it but had to take a less than ideal line around some wave 1 guys walking down the middle...I got about 80% down, hit a massive rut and went ass over tea kettle. I got back up quickly but lost my bottle (it was frozen solid anyway) and my bars were pretty crooked. But there was no time to fix it yet, there were a few streams to run through first! This was the only time of the race I really wished I was in Wave 1 before the course was completely destroyed and full of cyclists who don't know how to run :)

But we weren't done yet! We had to scale about 200m of straight uphill through the trees. It's hard to put into words how steep and muddy it was...I managed to shoulder my bike and pull myself up by hanging onto trees. Others had to throw their bike ahead of them, crawl up a few feet and repeat. It was absolutely ridiculous, but hilarious at the same time. I managed to survive, quickly knock my bars relatively straight and get back on the roads. After one more awesomely fun laneway section I was just about smashed, but the end was near. A couple k's on soft rail trail, a short jaunt through downtown St. Jacobs, then up the famous "Stairway to Heaven" to the finish.

(photo apparently taken in far warmer weather)

I was completely destroyed but I told my legs it was just a brick interval and I survived running up the stairs to finish strong. I ended up finishing nearly 15 minutes ahead of the next person in Wave 2, but was about 10 minutes behind the winners in Wave 1. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't get closer, but they had a pretty solid field of Cat 1 pro's and surely weren't slowed down as much in the kilometre from hell.

Poor drivetrain...actually it performed remarkably well given the conditions

It was without question the most challenging conditions I've ever ridden or raced in and will give me a mental edge for the rest of the year. It might also take me the rest of the year to clean my bike, clothes and car. I couldn't have been happier with my effort, I was well prepared for the conditions, nailed my tire pressure and tread choice...and overall feel infinitely more prepared for Paris to Ancaster this year. I can't wait to bring that experience to P2A, and if its above -10 that's just a bonus!