It’s easy to look at repeat races year after year and make judgments about yourself as an athlete based on how the times compare. My experience racing Columbia Triathlon (for what I think was the 9th time this year) gives proof that times/splits only tell part of the story. I went into this year’s race feeling as “fit” as I ever have (due to a much stronger foundation of consistent training and higher volume from focusing on more half iron distance races). My swim training has been going well, with base intervals that are consistently faster, my bike training has been strong, in large part thanks to my Quarq power meter and still-relatively-new Elite bike, and though I don’t have the snappy speed I’d like without having done track work, my run strength is the best it’s been (and hey – a rarity – I’m not injured and haven’t been for nearly 2 years!) The missing component (run speed work) should have been less a factor on a strength course like Columbia, so I wasn’t worried about that part.
The field this year was exceptionally deep compared to other years, with plenty of quality (including Olympians, world champions, multiple multi-time world cup podium finishers, etc.), since it has become a 5150 series race (the series culminates in huge prize-purse hype at HyVee in September). We knew it would be competitive (which oftentimes means very fast). We had about the best weather I’ve ever had at the race (many years being cold and/or raining). You would think I should have crushed my times from all the other 8 years (particularly the first year, when it was my first triathlon ever).
As it turns out, my fourth place finish yielded a time which my mom tells me was in fact my fastest, but by less than a minute. I would have expected to go a lot faster, to be honest. It started out well with a decent swim (I was not with the main front pack but not as far back as I’ve been in some other fields with that many fast swimmers), and I made my way up gradually and consistently throughout the bike ride. Except for a couple of lapses in bravery (where I braked in places I didn’t need to) and getting stuck for several minutes behind a truck (which was also stuck behind more racers and an official motorcycle), I was pleased with my ride. I ate my two gels, drank my electrolytes, metered my effort appropriately (I’ve been working on putting out slightly more even power on up- and down-hills), and felt encouraged getting off the bike in the company of two very strong racers. I heard Brendan yell “you three are 2-3-4 right here, number 1’s about 90 seconds up the road.” On a course like Columbia, it’s much more feasible to outrun another pro by 90 seconds than many other courses, since the hills really come up to bite you, especially if you don’t know to expect them. I started my run under control with the intention of building effort through 5k (and through the worst of the climbs), and then really pushing hard the second 5k. Unfortunately, though, within two miles, the terrible side stitch so familiar to me (but which I haven’t had much this year) began to taunt me. “Ha you think you are going to go faster? We’ll see about that!” I was a prisoner to the evil stitch- running harder makes the dagger go in deeper and the ability to get a clean breath even less likely… Instead of building my pace, I slowed. For a while I kept #2 in sight and was hoping to strike later in the race, but there came a point where I switched to survival mode, no longer in a competitive mindset. When #4 passed me, which put her in the #3 spot, I didn’t even give a thought to going with her. I’m disappointed I didn’t maintain more mental toughness, but anyone who saw me finish could see that my form was ridiculously bad. This cramp/stitch really throws me off. I need to find a solution to rid myself of it…
So in looking at my race splits, it would appear that it was a sub-par swim (there was one funky year where I swam over a minute faster than I’ve ever swum in any race before – that one was a throw-away – and several other years I swam similar times), a less-than-impressive bike ride (I would have thought I’d best myself by over a minute), and a very disappointing run (if I could’ve matched my previous best time on the course, I’d be in the hunt for the win instead of sitting 4th place). But the truth is that I raced hard and gave as strong an effort as in any other year. The swim times overall were slower. (Even on the same course, funky conditions can affect the times). The bike times similarly weren’t super impressive. And Laurel Wassner, who outran me by a lot, was the only one with a fast run split that exceeded runs I’ve had in other years. So obviously the run was not the fastest for pros this year. So I cannot look at the result and say that my performance was weaker, or that I am not progressing in general, despite the lack of a huge PR. Instead I have to look at the big picture – where am I in my training year? Who was I racing against, and how could their races have affected mine? What were the course conditions and how did the race play out? What was my nutrition/hydration compared with other years? And, most importantly, where am I in the overall performance spectrum (which encompasses not just basic fitness but speed, race sharpness, mental acuity, etc.)? In the grand scheme of things, I’ll take this race as a positive, given its context.
I’ve had a lot of help formulating theories for the how/why of side stitches, though the truth is there hasn’t ever been any real scientific proof or advice. I believe one culprit is my lack of run speed work. You know, that high-end training that forces you to breathe really hard and deal with it. Since breaking a bone in my foot in 2010, I have avoided high-impact speed work, and it has been ok for longer races but won’t do for shorter ones. I need to bring that speed work back – I do believe it will help my breathing muscles compensate better for higher outputs. Another theory is nutrition/hydration. I have tried various things but haven’t noticed a pattern. One consistent characteristic, when I think about it, was the lack of desire to drink my bottles. In the most severe side stitch episode last year (at DC Triathlon in June), I had a similar feeling and also was burping up my nutrition. Perhaps these are contributors. My chiropractor (Aleck Wong of United Wellness) and I have determined that the cramping is not in any particular abdominal muscle (we tested them today) so, as much as I need core work, I would not blame it on the abdominal weakness… And I know for sure that I did not overdo my effort during this ride (which was another theory). Hmmmm… I think electrolyte imbalance and breathing muscle weakness may be the issues here!! I’d welcome any other theories.
But back to the race. Columbia is one of my favorites – local, cozy, well run, and challenging. Congratulations to all of you who raced it, and thank you to anyone who came up to cheer (like Matt and Clay in their kilts!) I’ve got another semi-local one coming up (Eagleman 70.3 on June 10)…. And I know I’ll see many friendly faces there as well. Cheers!