Practicing is different from racing

Excerpt from Chapter 10: Practicing is different from racing

ulie Moss helped publicize triathlon to the masses when in February, 1982, she collapsed and was passed only 25 yards from the finish line. Rather than give up, she crawled the remainder of the distance across the finish line as millions of Americans watched, mesmerized by her courage and determination. ABC would use the footage as part of their “agony of defeat” campaign. This episode came to define triathlon for many who had never heard of the sport and the grueling Hawaii Ironman became the mystical standard distance for most non-participants. Julie later married superstar triathlete Mark Allen.
That same year, a second Hawaii Ironman event was held as the organizers switched the event from the Spring to the Fall. The winner of the second 1982 event was a young woman named Julie Leach. Julie had been an Olympic kayaker (not whitewater) and had met and married another Olympic kayaker: Bill Leach.
Bill was an accomplished athlete in his own right. As mentioned, he was an Olympic kayaker and had qualified for 2 separate Olympics. The second happened after the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow and required 4 more years of intensive hard training for Montreal. Bill also played water polo at the college level. He was not a tall man, but he had broad well-developed shoulders and bulky quads. He had the physique of a gorilla – in a very positive muscular way.
Living in Southern California, I was exposed to the outdoor fitness revolution and my lifestyle gave me ample time to train. I had picked up running and now considered myself a runner. I had started to extend my distances on some of the runs, but I did little cross training. A neighbor was training to qualify for the Hawaii Ironman (a race that would later frustrate him on his first try) and the local free sports magazines often carried articles about triathlons. The sport seemed fresh, challenging and I decided to give it a try. I chanced upon a community college course entitled Triathlete training and signed up. To go to school or be in a group was very against my core personality and I paid the $55 registration fee, thinking that I could drop out and forfeit the fee easily enough.
I walked into the first class and discovered that only 2 of the 20 people there were enrolled students and could even use the college credit. The rest of the people were already triathletes and were there to get better. We went around the class introducing ourselves and stating our athletic goals and our goals for the class. It was an impressive group and some people wanted to shave a few minutes or seconds off of a particular part of the 3 sports. Others wanted to work out as a group. Some were friends of the instructor and had signed up just to make sure that the minimum level was reached so that the class would not be cancelled. People had completed the Boston Marathon and any number of local races. Some wanted to learn more about the equipment available or its maintenance. Some were seeking inspiration or motivation. I was curious and a novice and had no past performances of note to cite.
After the circle of introductions, we returned to the instructor for him to introduce himself. He was friendly and humble, encouraging each person after their self-description. He, Bill Leach, was a middle-aged guy who looked in shape but not formidable at all. He had a good tan, not much hair, and was dressed for a gym workout. He talked about his background in water polo and kayaking and the agony of knee surgery that had been slowing him down for a year. Then in his next sentence he introduced me to the concept of age groups. He said “my goal is to win the World Age Group championship for 50-54 year olds in a year and a half.” Wow, talk about setting the bar high and to plan this out a year and a half in advance. This got my attention as I immediately thought that it was a lofty goal, he hadn’t run in a year, world, not local, and so many other things. That night marked the beginning of Bill’s role in the development of my thinking about being an athlete as it encouraged me to seek my own discoveries.
The class was interesting enough. We met one evening weekly for 3 hours. This time was divided into 3 parts: a training activity, a “lecture” and a weight training session. All of this was relatively new to me and I had fun. The weight training session was done in the gym near our classroom and the 20 of us had private access during this after-hours session. I had lifted weights some at a health club on my own, but never with any consistency, real knowledge or purpose. Our workout here was geared towards being a triathlete and hence our objective was to tone our muscles rather than build them. This was accomplished by circuit training. Essentially, the number of stations (mainly machines) equaled or exceeded the number of people. And we would do a workout on one machine before moving to the next machine – these were assigned numbers so that we didn’t use the same muscle consecutively. At each station, we chose a weight level that we could do consistently for 30 seconds. On most machines, that translates to at least 15 reps. As soon as the 30-second bell sounded, we sought out the sequential number, adjusted the seat and the weight amount and a few seconds later, ding, we started anew on the new machine. This continued nonstop until we had completed the circuit. It was an incredibly efficient way to complete a workout in minimal time. We only did one circuit followed by an abdominal workout. This was and continues to be my weakest area. I feel that I have strong abs, but I can’t do many sit-ups, planks don’t go long, my supermans have someone tugging on my cape and crunches crunch my stamina quickly. And so I did about half of these ab workouts (they increased in duration at the same rate that I did!)
In addition to the workout and inevitable body sculpting that occurred, I learned about the difference in muscle building and tone. This carries over into the other disciplines, such as the strength, speed and long running workouts and the sprints, hills and long rides on the bike. However, while in those activities any muscle growth occurs in muscles specific to and useful in the sport, building bigger muscles for a big chest or powerful physique was vanity. Even worse, big muscles add weight and slow you down. So while you look stronger, anyone versed in the sport would see you as slow and slow-witted. You needed to show your muscles by having no body fat and not huge useless biceps. That made you cool, sexy, and the Holy Grail, faster. It also took less time in the gym, interfering less with an already full workout card both in terms of time required and muscle recovery time. I adhered to the lower weight amounts and higher rep levels then and now, over a decade later, I still do. And I am proud to say that I still don’t have a lot of muscles popping out. As for my abs, they still seem too weak, but even if I have a six-pack, it lies hidden underneath a protective layer of belly built by cookies and good food.
The other learning that I got from this was a better understanding of complementary muscles. Not having lifted much before, I assumed that a rep was a rep. In the class and by looking at the images on the machine, I learned that most of the lifts targeted, benefited and tired a specific muscle. A biceps lift can be followed quickly by triceps and by alternating legs, upper body, abs and back, there is little reason to ever take a break except to talk or ogle. But by learning about the locations, functioning and recovery of specific muscles, I better understood the sport of triathlon. After all, at least for me, swimming was an upper body activity, biking was all quads and running for the most part tests the hamstrings, glutes and calves. Shifting between the sports and the accompanying fatigue and discomfort is basically related to the speed at which the brain can redirect the blood carrying fuel and oxygen. Running was another place that I discovered different muscles. They are all connected and the hamstrings are important, but the role of quads climbs greatly when running up hills (providing strength) and when running downhills (absorbing shock). This means that specific training for a downhill course like the Boston Marathon can lower your time and make your legs feel better at the same time. The other muscle trick comes during shorter or longer flat races. It is complicated, but some of the superior runners can alternate which muscles they are using by changing their stride or turnover. So if your calves are tired or about to cramp, try running taller or shorter or whatever feels like it is calling upon a different muscle. Switch it up and let the affected muscle relax. I have never perfected this but I have successfully used the technique to fight off cramps in the late stages of marathons and as a way to keep my brain busy while I covered additional distance.
The class portion varied on what we covered. Marco Ochoa, a local runner and coach who finished fifth in the US Olympic Marathon trials and thus was an alternate, came and spoke. He talked about the pressure, the pageantry, the honor, the opportunity and about what not knowing if he would be selected at the last moment or not meant for his training. He talked about how he planned to train for a very hot fast Summer marathon, but hydration was not an issue for me yet back then. What I did grab from his talk is that he did speed work for a marathon and not for a shorter distance. That meant that he ran 5-7 mile repeats on his speed day. Five to seven mile repeats with a warm-up run and a cool-down run and with a short recovery run in between sounded like more mileage than my long run. Mile repeats? This told me that good runners do speed work regardless of their race distance. It told me that speed work at short distances might prove very valuable at short distances. Part two of what I heard that night is that to become comfortable with any given pace, the distance and the speed should match the target more closely. In a marathon, speed without stamina means failure. Since that time, I have tried to include intervals and fartleks in my runs on a consistent basis. Part three is that this was a normal guy that could run, but he also trained. He had no special gimmicks or tricks, he just put it all on the table and on a given day, he came up big.
In another class we had an old man, I don’t remember his age. He may have been young at 60 or 65 but he seemed a hundred to all of us younger guys. However, it seems that he had been an Age Group winner at the Hawaii Ironman for the past few years and if I remember correctly, dominated his age group at the World’s. He showed slides and told stories that were inspiring and helped us to better understand the course and its demands. We stared at this guy and thought that if he could do it, it should be a piece of cake for us. His times were not awesome but there was no denying that he had done it more than once and that we could barely locate the island on a map. He could swim 2.4 miles. He could bike 112 miles. He could run a marathon in the heat. So what message does that communicate? Athletic endeavors can be lifelong passions and pursuits. Lacing up those shoes today can be fun or pain, but to succeed as he had, you have to lace them up tomorrow and tomorrow and …  But that makes it easier in a sense. I have never been particularly fast, but I do have a strong core base. Day after day, month after month, year after year, mile after mile, you have to do it. There is no substitute. This guy had obviously done it. And that is part of the hope that I have of someday being a top runner, and that is to keep moving until no one else can and then to luck into the right event with little competition.
Bill’s wife Julie retold the story of her victory with a modesty that implied that she knew its meaning and while it was important to her, it didn’t define her. It was an undeniable part of her past and, while she continued to work out, she had new interests. Still, she supported Bill’s passion. And Bill didn’t mention it then, but he touched on the balancing act that serious triathletes have with the never-ending workouts, the job and the family/friend. Bill tried not to wall off these parts of his life but to integrate them. He talked of vacations together that included participating in a race. Bike rides were serious training times, but they were also conversation times, bonding moments, and times to get practical advice. Bike rides could also be used as transportation to work. Expand your day. Do things with friends and have twice the fun. Live your passion.
We had classes that focused on specific portions of the triathlon. One of my favorites dealt with the importance of smooth and fast transitions. We thought through transitions, T1 & then T2. What are the steps? What are the elements? What is the order? What are the obstacles? What is the environment? Understanding the transition, its importance and treating it with respect seemed obvious, but it is often overlooked. After hearing it explained and thinking it through, we walked through it. Each step seemed obvious and easy, so we ran through it. It is hard to mimic how you will think and act when having just competed a swim or bike ride or how flexible you will be at the moment that you need to lean over to pull on your shoes, but we tried. And then we tried again. Most triathletes spend hours in the pool, cover many miles on the road and hit the pavement frequently to prepare. When the air horn sounds, you know how to put your face in the water and start swimming. When you mount your bike and start pedaling, you have practiced changing gears, drinking water and getting into an aerodynamic position. And when you start running, you have some feel for your pace, you know the direction and your planned distance. Bill simply communicated that the transitions were parts of the race as well and thus worthy of preparation and training.
And so we practiced. He covered some essentials and others have become more obvious over the years. There is a tradeoff if you wear a wetsuit. If you wear it, start getting out of it as soon as you can, etc. But I also learned to look at races holistically and be prepared for each portion. Read the briefing. Ask a question of someone who did the race before. Look at the course map. Take a look at the swim start, the locations of the marker buoys, the swim finish. Walk from the swim finish to the transition entrance. What is the ground like? What landmarks are there to help you remember where your spot is today? Can you remember to put your shirt on before the helmet? Can you live without socks – have you practiced that? There are a hundred details and any one of them can add 60 seconds to your time. Good preparation and training means no lost time, which often translates into gained time. I am not a list person, but before each race, I invest a little time in knowing what to expect. Sometimes it is knowing that Heartbreak Hill has a few hills before it or that mile 1 of a 5k is downhill or even that they are serving PowerAde and not Gatorade on the course. The ideas that started that night seemed intuitive but I had never had a reason to think it through. Hearing what other people had done reinforced that being smart also sometimes means not looking stupid. How about the many people that have begun the run while still wearing their helmet, or who ran to the wrong end of the transition area with their bikes, or who did one lap on a 2-lap course, or forgot to have a water bottle on the bike, or forgot to wear glasses on the bike and had “bug eyes”, or were stuck on the ground unable to wrestle the wetsuit off, or knocked over one or more bikes, or even worse, found their bike had been knocked over. Do you have a spare tire? When you practiced running without socks, did you have sandy feet? So 2 lessons here: (1) prepare for all elements of your sport and (2) I am not the fastest guy around but genetics doesn’t necessarily determine who is fastest in transition.
Bill helped me find a used tri-bike and I learned that tri-bikes have a different geometry that make it easier to use your powerful quads while in an aerodynamic position. Greg Lemond placed an emphatic stamp of approval on aerobars when he used them in a time trial in their first use ever in the Tour de France where he blew away the competition – and because of that won the Tour. I never did that and I still have trouble getting in the aero position. But that started the learning process that included spokes on wheels, aero helmets, drafting benefits and dangers – in bike rides not Tri races, drafting in running (some benefit – more for small runners than bigger people), drafting in swimming – don’t get kicked in the face, etc. It even carried over into swimmers shaving their legs and chests and whether to wear a shirt on the bike portion (even a tiny tri shirt) or whether to wait for the run. In the days of Speedos, this was common. Today most triathletes wear a top although trisuits are designed to be aerodynamic. Again the point was to let small marginal gains support the power of your engine rather than be a drag. (Pun)
The mainstay of the class was the track workout. I had never done this. I had never run with a group and I had never had any coaching. We were a mixed group, with abilities ranging from blazingly fast in my mind to slightly slower than me. Our workout had 3 basic components: a 2-mile warm-up, the speed work, and a mile of slow cool-down. I knew that warming up the muscles is considered important, but my runs usually started at my front door. The warm-up  run was in the local neighborhood and the pace was slow for me so the better runners were taking a stroll in the park. The cool-down was 4 laps on the track. Both were times for getting to know the other runners.
Tracks are meant to be run counterclockwise. Etiquette suggests that the fastest runner has the right of way and by yelling “track” indicates that you should get out of the way. Most tracks are now 400 meters instead of 440 yards (402 meters) but most people consider it a quarter mile anyway. It is shorter to run on the inside rather than the outer lanes, duh. You can start anywhere on the track, but it is customary to finish on a straightaway so most laps start there.  Your speed and effort should vary as little as possible until you make a mad dash at the end – that means don’t start fast and finish slowly. I tell you all of this because I knew nothing about track or speed work. Years later I now I know the benefits of speed, different distances, different surfaces, alternatives such as fartleks and intervals, and even the difference in a 5k or 10 k pace. I don’t do much speed work, but I know that my times suffer because of this.
Our basic workouts were 2 400’s, 2 800’s and 2 more 400’s. Between each set, we ran half a lap and cut back across the track to start again. So the faster you ran, the more rest time you got. This didn’t make sense to me and the second half of our group was never fresh enough. We lined up, Bill said go, & we tried to pick a stride and pace that was pushing it, but sustainable. Over time, we found our natural partners and competitors within the group and could pace off each other. Bill ran across the track to call splits and he ran back to call final times. Since the faster runners already had passed, he would need to hustle back to arrive in time. Bill was not running with us and was only beginning to run again, and his run across the field resembled that of a pirate in port.
A 400 for me has 3 parts. The first is the first 200 where you have energy reserves and oxygen. You know that you can run faster although most of us really don’t know how fast we are running. When you reach 200 or halfway, you hear the split called (or check your own timepiece) and decide if you have started fast or slow. If you have started slowly, you know that there is no recovery and that you have wasted one of only six speed sets. If the time is reasonable, you then double that time and that is the time to beat. Coming in slower implies you started too fast and you can’t maintain it. The second part is the next 130-140 yards where you try to hang on, not slowing down by racing your engine to very near the limit without redlining. This is the part where you feel the fatigue and wonder if you will be able to maintain speed for the entire lap. You are doing one end of the oval and you run forward fast while curving 180 degrees. Then comes the third part, you are around the final curve and you are within sight of the finish. Everyone’s pace picks up and you have 2 simultaneous needs: hanging with everyone else without fading and beating the clock that despite your pleading, never lies. I have been running on the edge of my fastest possible pace and now I need to exceed it. So I pick up the pace and borrow future energy, going anaerobic, accumulating lactic acid, breathing in all the O2 I can and willing my engine to work at my maximum heart rate. It is unsustainable, but I beg it to wait for failure – or rest – for 10 more seconds. And then I am over the line slowing to half my running speed, trying to find air to breathe. My legs feel heavy, like lead is the common expression, but I have never experienced lead, so let’s just say that it takes an effort at that moment to run a 10-minute pace. I am still processing my body’s shock when I reach the halfway point and walk back across because, yep, it is time to do it again. And this is part of the learning. No single lap makes you a winner or fast, but that you need the ability to do it over and over. To run faster in the later laps, you have to slow down some in the earlier laps. To run a fast 5K, you can’t leave it all in the first mile. In a marathon, those last 6 miles will reflect all your training as well as the pace of the first 20.
The 800’s were the same, except part one was the first 200 split, part two was at the 400 – which you had to compare with the previous 400, part three was the next 300 meters where you had no measurement of your pace except internal and other runners, and then there was the extra fourth part that was the longer sprint home. I measured those laps 2 ways: how did the average for the 400’s stack up against the pure 400’s and how did the 2 halves compare to each other? I did all of this while regaining my breath because 2 more 400’s awaited. I was bone tired, fatigued so that I could barely move and I had run only 1.5 miles of speed work. The last two 400’s are supposedly part of the recovery after the 800’s but it is all about survival. The end of this self-inflicted pain is not far away and I always summon the energy to finish, usually with only minor damage to my times. Then I do the 4 laps on the outside of the track at the slowest possible pace. Unfortunately, some people have a faster pace and so I hang with them. I can recover later.
Lots of running programs include speed work, but generally there is a suggested pace; i.e., run your sets at slightly less than your desired 5K pace if you are training for a 5K or at slightly less than your half-marathon pace if you are training for a half-marathon. Most of us ignore this at our own peril. I thought that speed meant speed and I didn’t hold myself back. I ran, like everyone there on the track, as if I was training for the 400’s. I am now better about not running full speed when I need to get a feel for a pace. I am also comfortable with the idea of running some runs at substantially slower than my normal pace to obtain the aerobic benefits while promoting a rapid recovery which will not hamper another workout.
I ran my first marathon during this class and I think that it helped me understand pacing and to run it faster than otherwise. The funny part, though, is that when I went to the Wednesday night track workout before the Sunday run, Bill suggested that I might want to take it easy and not really push too hard. So that’s what they mean by tapering. I appreciate the taper much more now even though I still prefer less taper than the recommended times. And the Wednesday after the marathon, I was back at the workout. I was sore, but I hadn’t learned the rule: a day of non-intensive running for each mile of the race. I couldn’t afford a week off if I wanted to hang with my peers.
A few weeks before the end of the class, Bill announced that our final track night would have a mile time trial. I had never done this and so this would be my best time ever, but I didn’t know what my target should be. Could I sustain my 800 times and multiply by two? Most of the mile times out there are by people that ran that time in high school or college. There are few that run the mile for time when they start as an adult. I decided that a 6-minute mile might be a stretch, but it was a realistic, achievable goal that I would take pride in talking about. I thought about pacing but it is difficult to know how much to slow down early and how much would be there for a final kick. My 800 times had recently been in the 2:55 time range, so if I could maintain that pace I could run the second 800 10 seconds slower and still accomplish the 6-minute mark.
There really was no preparing for this except to taper a bit and I didn’t swim, bike or run on Tuesday or Wednesday before Wednesday night’s date with destiny. The great thing about a 6-minute race is that it takes 6 minutes and it is over and you get immediate feedback and grading. I ran the 2-mile warm-up with the group and lined up a couple of steps off the start on the inside of the track. We got a “on your marks, set, go” and we were off. Part one of the race, remember, is “where you have energy reserves and oxygen. You know that you can run faster although most of us really don’t know how fast we are running.” And that was the first lap. It was familiar territory and Bill had solicited a volunteer to call 200 splits while he called the 400’s. The difference tonight is that I had the normal race adrenaline flow that made fast seem slow and I had to fight through that looking to my muscle memory to save me. I also stayed near my normal running buddies hoping that they knew how to pace themselves. First lap at 1:28. Perfect. Second lap at 1:28 and 2:56 cumulative. The third lap was part two, that endless period “where you try to hang on, not slowing down by using your energy level to near the limit without redlining.” Third lap at 1:34 and a cumulative of 4:30. I needed a single lap at 1:30. I didn’t make it. I pushed hard, particularly as I rounded the final curve, and imagined that it was within reach. Mile time – 6:02. Not bad and very close to my goal. I was happy and a tad disappointed, but plotting another trial. My 2 normal pacers finished in 5:58 and 6:04.
I signed up for the spring class as did most everyone else and we reassembled to recover from the holidays and prepare for the upcoming season. The talk of past races switched to new names and places and completed registration forms. Southern California has gorgeous weather in January and February and it was a great time to train outdoors. I ran a self-timed 5:59 mile at a local track by myself but it wouldn’t count until I did it officially. Bill started running at the track some with us and he ran at about a 7-minute pace – and it didn’t look good. He was searching for a stride to match his revised mechanics. He continued to swim and put in some serious fast bike mileage. The man had those two parts down, but he was behind our last group on the track.
I got my redo on the mile about mid-semester and I nailed it with a 5:52 – maybe there is something to this speed work after all. I felt strong, confident and fast as a runner. My times in local races placed me around the top third mark in running, but I couldn’t translate this to triathlons and I didn’t have any real speed on the bike or in the swim. It is hard to dominate when the transitions are your only strong suits. Bill had reentered triathlons to test his knees and I saw him at a few. He was very friendly always, but his pre-race personality was focused, with a concentration on the event. I was loose and excited by the carnival atmosphere. We raced different age groups (he usually raced as an elite despite the chance to win an age group - this was training and he craved the competition) so we had different start times and I watched him from time to time. Now 49, he could swim and pedal his bike mightily, and usually ranked among the leaders when coming out of the second transition. But alas, that is where he lost ground as the young and healthy knees of others sped away. He had a steady determined gait, but it looked like he was hobbling along.
My times were just the opposite, with running being my highest-ranking portion. Triathlon statistics and times are great, fun opportunities to put any spin on the race you want. You can compare your place overall, within your sex, in your age group, in the swim, either or both transitions, the bike or the run. You can check how much higher your place would have been if you had been only 30 years older or in my case, just the run portion for a female 30 years older. The other great way to kill time is to check out all of the results and their implications for other athletes that you know. So I checked out Bill’s results (and invented this justification). The results supported what I knew. He was a top swimmer. He was a top biker. He was a master of transitions. But wait, he outran me!
And it wasn’t just one race. Bill was beating me consistently and by comfortable margins. On the track, I just assumed that he was slower than me – the knee being the reason. I trained more and ran faster and Bill continued to whip me even though I doubt that he ever compared his time to mine. Mid-summer before moving, we raced in a tri in San Diego that finished with a 10K. I did well and was proud of my result – but Bill did even better. So one day I just asked him how, with a bad knee and his slow workouts, he ran so much faster. His immediate but obviously considered answer was “that you just have to have a different gear for races.” For him, that meant training your body and mind to respond when really needed and so he just put down his head and pushed on to the other side. I have worked hard to find that gear and most races it is there. You just have to know when, where and how to shift into it.
Note: Bill Leach won the World Age Group championship for 50-54 year olds the following year.

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