I had no idea what to expect driving to the Sierra Nevada range for the June Lake triathlon. Expectations got me in trouble for Ironman 70.3 Boise. I've since learned that when coming back from an injury of any type, expectations are fairly meaningless. Data can tell you one thing -- or maybe what you want it to tell you, but unless you're racing exactly where you train in the same weather conditions, anything is possible. Expectations just cloud the truth, which is this: Your body and mind are either ready to race...or they're not. I made a decision after Boise to stop worrying about how I'd race and just focus on the training. Focus on one workout at a time, that is. The upside of that is that every day brings a new chance for growth and improvement. The downside is that you can forget to see the metaphorical forest while you're lost amidst the trees. In this case, the very large pine trees near the Nevada border up at 8,000 feet.
As was the case at Boise, expectations and reality didn't line up. Only this time, the scales tipped in my favor. Here's my race recap.
Swim, .93 miles
My teammates and I arrived to the transition area about an hour and a half before the event's start. For a race of this relatively small size, that is definitely overkill. There was plenty of time to just sit and wait around before getting in the water with five minutes to spare. The water temp was likely almost to the degree what we'll experience at Ironman Lake Tahoe, low 60s. Gorgeous, crystal clear water that made drafting incredibly easy. Sighting was only slightly challenging with the sun peeking through our eyes as we head out on the first third of the triangular-shaped course.
For those folks racing at Ironman Lake Tahoe, be prepared to fight your breath for the first 300-500 yards of the swim. I deliberately started off slower than usual and yet it felt like I was pushing much harder. I found that focusing on my breathing and sighting kept me calm, but I had to actively think about breath control and relaxation to avoid blowing up. I remember seeing an initial pack of 7-10 green caps take off in front of me and thought, "Great, I've lost the race before it starts once again." It's so hard to stay positive in those moments, but all you can do is stroke, breathe, sight and repeat.
That's just what I did. The water felt heavy even though there was very little current. Still, I pushed on, relaxed and drafting off someone's feet. I never worked too hard to stay in this guy's jetstream, so if he sped up a bit I'd let him go. If my rhythm got me closer to his feet again, I'd enjoy the benefits.
I exited the water in around 25:30, which was a pleasant surprise. My swim felt much slower yet I was only 1:30 off my all-time PR. The key lessons for me were not to panic or fret too much, sight repeatedly, and just focus on the work.
Bike, 25 miles
My T1 was just shy of two minutes. Considering I usually have problems getting out of my wetsuit I'll take it. That wasn't a problem this time. My stupid but correctable mistake was going on one side of the rack to kick off my wetsuit and then having to run around to the front of the bike to grab my shoes and helmet. C'mon Schneider! Your'e better than that!
What surprised me the most though was when I came out into T1, all the bikes but one were still sitting on the racks. Of course there were several racks, but I realized that maybe I didn't have the crap swim I thought. And now we were getting to my specialty.
I think the June Lake Triathlon course, which is really one giant loop around June Lake, was basically designed for me. Fast in many parts with some nice climbs towards the end. It ranks as one of my favorite rides, and the best part is that the roads are practically deserted so I was able to use the entire road on the curvy descents. I felt like I was a part of my very own Tour de France time trial in the Alps.
Surprisingly, the altitude didn't affect me too much. But my coach, Gerardo Barrios, predicted exactly what it would do to my power threshold and he was right. I typically ride closer to 85-88% of my FTP capacity in races, yet at elevation I could only muster around 75%. That may be because of accumulated training fatigue but elevation definitely had something to do with it. Knowing this would likely happen going in helped me stay calm and focus more on breathing, cadence and staying in control. At Boise, I fought hard to maintain wattage, ignoring the elements and unfortunately, eating and drinking as much as I should have. Not at June Lake, I nailed my nutrition. Even though the ride was just under an hour and 10 minutes, I took in a full bottle and quarter of Fluid Performance Sports Drink and a full Bonk Breaker, broken off into pieces. So that was roughly half the calories consumed as I exerted, which I believe is the magic ratio you want in a race.
The only frustrating part of my ride was that I didn't really see any other age groupers in front of me -- just slower half-Ironman competitors. Every time I found someone to pass and got close enough, they were wearing the wrong colored bib for it to make a difference. So, I was unsure if I was making any progress climbing up the ranks.
Then, I turned the corner onto the final climb before T2 and someone with a loudspeaker said, "7th Place."
"Were they talking to me?" I thought. "Seventh place in what? Age group? No wait...overall???"
For once, I put it out of my head. I just got back to riding. It didn't matter. The toughest and most unpredictable part of my day was coming up...the run.
Run, 6.5 miles
The most stressful part of every triathlon for me comes in the first mile of every run. What will my legs feel like? Did I go too hard on the bike? Are my muscles tight? From the get-go at June Lake, I felt nothing short of strong and fresh. I waited for my breath to get out of control due to the altitude but even that didn't happen too much. True, my tempo pace was achieved using a Zone 4 heart-rate zone. But I expected it and didn't fret. So therefore it felt like I was running at tempo mentally. That seems to be the key at elevation -- understanding that breathing will be a bit tougher and not trying to fight that reality but rather adapting to it.
The June Lake Triathlon course is very hilly -- not quite Simi Valley Bandit hilly, but it's on par with the tougher parts of the Griffith Park trails. I had two rabbits to chase, my 6th and 5th place rivals, which took my mind off the difficulty of the terrain and re-focused it on simply catching what was in plain sight. A Top 5 finish was possible -- whether that was age group or overall remained to be seen.
I never thought I'd say this, but watching a lot of cycling on TV helped me pass both competitors. First, this race solidified in my mind which kinds of races I excel at -- hard and hilly. Flat and fast simply isn't what I'm best at -- I've finally come to terms with that. So, with this insight in mind, I waited until the hills got steep, and like a polka-dot jersey contender at the Tour de France, I attacked. I snagged 6th place at the crest of the first major hill, roughly one mile in. No problem there. However, 5th place surged forward as we bombed down to the trail section of the race. Instead of going on full chase, I let him go, realizing we were about to climb again. I made steady progress in reeling 5th place in, but instead of going for the lead early, I decided to put my Tour de France watching to use. In the bike races, there's a benefit to letting the leaders dangle ahead even when the catch can be made sooner. It prolongs the inevitable, making them suffer just a bit more, wears out their legs from trying harder to stay ahead, and hopefully demoralizes them from trying such behavior in the future. That's just what I did on the trail. I made sure 5th place knew I was always within earshot and that I could easily see him. If he walked, I walked. If he surged, I surged.
As the climbing got more severe, I gradually closed in, until we were 10 yards apart on a flat section of the course. We'd continue the surge and slow dance until it seemed like he cracked. His pace slowed as we hit another gradual uphill and I decided that at mile 4 I could hold him off for another 2.5 miles. I felt great, I wasn't working too hard, and unless 5th place was playing me, I was the stronger man.
This proved to be the case until a steep downhill section. 5th place scurried around me and after some very cordial chatting, continued on his way. I knew there was a lot more racing to do and didn't panic. This was key as normally I would have tried to go for the immediate catch. But it was simply too dangerous for me as I'm not a great technical descender, especially on gravel and sand.
The final 1.5 miles of the race were my favorite. I made the last pass of 5th place just as we finished the trail portion of the race and returned to the street. Up ahead were two decent-sized climbs. I looked back to 5th place, who would now become forever known as 6th place, and took off. I wanted to be emphatic with my ultimate attack so there would be no thought on his part to try and chase. It was important for me to demonstrate that I could hammer this pace and not care enough to even look back. I broke that rule at the top of the second climb before the last descent to the finish. He was easily a minute back.
I crossed the line in 2:38:30, good for 5th place...OVERALL. First in my age-group! Who was second...well, the man known as 6th place. Our battle wasn't for third or fourth, it was for first and second. I had FINALLY earned my first age-group win in California and my first overall podium placement.
That was completely unexpected!
In addition to what I've mentioned above, the most important thing I learned was also unexpected: How to act after a win. It's never really been an issue since it hasn't really happened! But I got a great lesson in watching the top two overall champs interact with the rest of us podium placers. They made sure to shake all our hands in the presentation, and came by to chat more after the race. They were genuinely classy and interested in making new friends. I've seen folks play the "woulda/shoulda/coulda" game despite a great performance and sulk off in the distance. To see how it should be done was inspiring and something I paid very close attention to.
Because I don't want this win to be my last.
That means I need to find hard courses. And I need to get back to hard training.