The infamous Litchfield Hills Triathlon was a couple of days ago now—Sunday, August 21, 2011, to be exact—and for the third year in a row, I competed. Two years ago my wife Sally and I did it as a mixed tag team with me doing the aquabike portion and her running. Last year, I just entered the race and then ran it solo, the second of two Oly’s I did that year. 2010 was kind of a breakthrough year in that way. But every year is different, and this year one of my goals was to not feel quite so married to triathlon as I’d felt last year. So I only put one Oly on my schedule this year, and really, I only did that because the fine folks at the Hartford Marathon Foundation they sent me a 10%-off coupon.
Is that the right attitude to take into a race? Who knows? I haven’t been training any less this year than in past years—quite the opposite, in fact—but I’ve had less of a focus on competition. And overall, I think I’m both fitter and a little more mentally sane, so maybe there’s something to it. In fact, all things considered, I think my approach to the season has been something of a life-saver. If you read this blog regularly, then you know that my mother died in April, and that my grandfather died a week and a half ago. So it’s been a tough year personally in many ways, ways that I’m still struggling to understand. I’ve spent a lot of time lately taking refuge in the simple acts of swimming, biking, and running, and honestly, I don’t know if I could have survived without that outlet. With that said, against a backdrop of grief, the idea of scoring a PR in any given race is a lot less important than it probably would have been otherwise.
Eh. To tell the truth, I’d have scratched this race if I hadn’t spent $80 entering it. I was very close to my grandfather, and his funeral was only last Saturday. If I’d had my druthers, I’d have spent the past weekend doing a simple long bike ride followed by an afternoon of watching cartoons with my kids. But since I’d already committed to the race, I didn’t want to back out—and lose my $80 for nothing—especially since I’d already put in a full season’s worth of training. Physically, I knew I was about as ready as I was gonna get. Plus, it’s not like there’s a substitute race next month or anything. You can find sprints pretty easily in Connecticut, but I can only think of four Olympic distance races in our state, and one of those others was held the same day as Litchfield Hills. Thus, scratching the Litchfield race meant not just skipping a single event but actually missing a whole season’s worth of Olympic distance racing. I didn’t want that. When Sally and I talked about it the night before the race, I told her that, bottom line, I didn’t care how I did in terms of time, but that I wanted to run a smart race and finish strong. What I didn’t want to do was to push hard early and then wind up in triathlon purgatory during the last half of the run. Heh.
One of the things I’ve learned this year is how important yoga is to my pre-race warm up. With that in mind, I set my alarm clock for 4:30 and made sure to get to the race site early. The race itself was scheduled to start at 7:30, so I made sure to get there by 6:00, giving me a full 90-minutes to check in, get set up, do maybe 25 to 30 minutes of yoga, and then head down to the water to actually warm up. I loaded up my bike and my bag and all my various water bottles the day before, and for once, all of the pre-race stuff went strictly to plan. I was done with set-up by 6:30. I spent maybe 20-minutes doing yoga in a field beside transition, and by the end of it, I felt pretty good. It was nice not to have put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well, especially for a race that was basically the culmination of an entire season’s worth of training. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily choose to make Litchfield an “A” race if there was a better race to focus on, but with only one Oly on the schedule and with the Fairfield Triathlon cancelled this year, Litchfield became my season’s de facto focus. Like it or not, it was the hardest thing I’d put on my calendar.
In any event, I got down to the beach at around 7:05. I stretched, set aside a gu (with caffeine!) and a cup of water, carefully placed my flip-flops at the exit of the chute at the endpoint of the swim, and then got in and swam. After that, I got out, downed my gu and my water, listened to the final race instructions, and at last we were ready to go.
They changed the swim up a little this year. They made the race an in-water start, moved the first buoy down about 400 yards to the left of the race’s start-point, and unhappily, they let the women lead off in the first heat of swimmers. The net effect of these changes was to add maybe 200 yards to the total swim course and to make the middle of the swim leg of the race into an absolute zoo. For me specifically, I had to fight through the usual scrum at the start of the swim followed by a second, even wackier scrum starting right around the first turn as I and the rest of the male swim leaders caught up to the slowest of the ladies. So, bottom line, it took me a solid 12 or even 14 minutes to get out into open water, and by that time, I felt like I’d been thoroughly tossed around.
Still, I felt pretty decent when we started. Right from the start, a little group of guys took off and swept me up in their wake, and believe me, I was more than happy to let them pull while I drafted. Unfortunately, the fastest of those guys burned out about 100 yards short of the first turn—right about the same time we reached the stragglers from the women’s heat—and I was left on my own for the remainder of the race. But I’ve done a lot of open water swimming lately, and despite everything, I felt reasonably comfortable. In fact, I felt fast and light and happy right up to the last turn. From that last turn, I confess that the beach looked small and far away. Still, I made it in eventually, grabbed my shoes and the shirt I’d worn down to the start, and started running up the hill to T-1.
Roughly 1-Mile Swim: 22:11 (Approximately 1:25/100 yds). 1/21 Age Group; 7/249 Overall.
If you’re wondering, that’s about 3-minutes slower than I was on this course last year. I know I’m swimming better this year than last year—for example, last year I was 14th out of the water at this race; this year I was 7th—so I’m guessing that this year’s swim course was between 200- and 250-yards longer than it was a year ago. I didn’t measure it with a GPS, of course, but I’d put money on it being within 100 yards of exactly a mile.
Practically the hardest part of the Litchfield Hills Triathlon is the run up from the lake to Transition. It’s about a quarter mile climb up a loose gravel road, and what makes it worse is that there’s still a lot of race left, so you don’t want to muscle it. You just have to breathe deep and let it come to you.
I made it—eventually—grabbed my stuff, decided not to wear socks, grabbed my bike, and ran down to the road to start the bike leg.
T-1: 4:46. 7/21 AG. 81/249 Overall.
In past years, I’d have told you that the hardest leg of this race is the bike leg. There’s a 2-mile climb at the end of the bike, and it’s a bear. But I’ve been riding a lot more this year, and I’ve been riding a lot more hills and intervals this year, and to be honest, I really didn’t think the bike leg was all that tough this time. In fact, I really, really enjoyed the ride. I felt light and fast the whole way, descending like a rocket on the dry roads and climbing strong when the roads turned up. Having come out of the water 7th, the folks that passed me were mostly the strong bikers of the race. And yet, even then I found myself reeling them back in on the climbs. I’m a heavier guy for a triathlete; catching folks on climbs is not normally my best thing. Doing it this time felt like a major victory and a validation of the way I’ve been riding this season.
As I climbed the last hill, I actually thought, “Wow! That’s all?!” At that point, I knew how far I’d come since last season, and I was elated.
24.5-Mile Bike: 1:14:34 (~19.4 mph). 10/21 AG; 86/249 Overall.
My legs hurt coming off the bike, so I walked most of the way up the hill from the road before finally jogging into T-2. After that, I dropped my gear, changed shoes, and took off my shirt. Then I took a second to stretch my hamstrings before taking off for the run. The clock said 1:42 as I left T-2.
T-2: 1:17. 6/21 AG. 94/249 Overall.
I thought, “Wow. As long as I don’t completely implode here, I’m gonna finish with a terrific time.” Famous last words.
Look. It’s not called Litchfield Hills for nothing. The run course is insanely hilly, and I run like shit anyway. You come out of T-2 and immediately drop down all the way to the lake before climbing back up the gravel road from the beach to transition. From there, you climb another little hill, and it’s steeply rolling the rest of the way… down, down, down, and then up, up, up. Rinse, repeat, and then do it again.
So anyway, I made it to Mile 4 before I imploded, but when I finally cracked, I cracked wide open. Actually, even before that, I’d had a wicked side-stitch, and all things considered, at that point, I just did not want to be there. I’d done the two legs that I enjoy, and I’d done them well. Moreover, I’d put in a solid 2:15 worth of hard effort, which is about all the contiguous training that I ever have time for. So when I hit the Mile 4 water station, I stopped—briefly—to suck down a full cup of Gatorade and to try to get my shit back together so that I could finish strong. But as God is my witness, I could NOT make myself start running again. It just wouldn’t happen. And when I finally did start going again, my chest constricted like I was having an asthma attack. Ugh. I don’t know if it was all the cut grass in the air or the heat or simple dehydration, but that ended any thoughts I had of somehow finishing well.
Eventually, I started jogging the downhills and the flats and walking the uphills, losing—I think—around 10 minutes off of what was to that point probably the best race I’d ever run. And do you know what? I didn’t even care.
6.2-Mile Run: 1:05:10 (10:30/mile). 19/21 AG. 201/249 Overall.
I finally crossed the line at 2:47. Not the sub 2:40 I’d thought I was gonna put in there for a while but still… that’s not a bad overall time or anything. It’s a Hell of a lot more respectable than I’d thought it was gonna be while I was out on the course.
Litchfield Hills Olympic Triathlon: 2:47:55. 10/21 AG; 101/249 Overall.
If I didn’t exactly put in the kind of performance I’d wanted—i.e. smartly paced with a strong finish on the run—it’s still true that my overall time wasn’t really the point. I ran my race, I did some good things, and I lived to tell the tale. I’m content. Considering that I was ready to scratch at the beginning of the week, I guess that’ll have to do.
Going forward, it’s clear that I’ve got some things to work on. For one thing, I spent the last year focused on riding. Now, I think it’s time to become a better runner. I need to be able to run easier and run longer. And then, too, I’m not nearly ready to end my season yet. I don’t want to end it this way, distracted and half-grief-stricken, not wanting to race. I didn’t last week when I was down at my grandfather’s funeral, and I still don’t. There’s no reason to. I’m still in shape, and we have at least two and a half months of decent weather left before it starts getting cold. I wish that somebody in Connecticut would organize an International Distance Duathlon for some point in October or November, but in the absence of that, Sally and I are gonna try to run the Hartford Half-Marathon on October 15th. I’ve never finished a half before, and I suspect that that’s something I need to do if I’m ever gonna improve as a runner. In the meantime, we still have the Westport Kiwanis Triathlon on September 11th; that’s a race I really enjoy, and it’ll be Sally’s first ever open-water tri.
In the larger scheme of things, I think I might take a break from triathlon next year. If the Hartford Half goes according to plan this fall, I might make the Fairfield Half one of my “A” races next summer and then do a couple of long charity rides on top of it. Maybe do the Tour of Litchfield Hills and some local ride that supports cancer research. That’d be appropriate, I think.
The races I’ve enjoyed most this year have been the ones where time wasn’t a pressure. Going forward, I’d like to find a way to focus on that a little more and just spend time trying to enjoy the ride. As I’ve said before, triathlon is a journey, not a destination. This year in particular, that has become a poignant thought for me. I don’t want to focus quite so much on where I’m going and what my time will be when I get there. It’d be nice to spend a little more time enjoying the time spent trying to get there.