Wednesday, June 12, 2013

ITU long course worlds...channeling my inner polar bear

After a spring of rainy Saturday training rides, it was apropo that some decidedly Vancouver-ish weather accompanied me to France.  In the days preceding the ITU Long-course worlds, we saw lots of grey sky and rain clouds.  Indeed, it seemed fortuitous that the Canadian team uniform consisted of a rain jacket and wind pants.  We could have used some good-ol Canadian toques (note:  not beanies) as well!
Top 'o the mountain!  The (cold!) summit of the Ballon d'Alsace with my awesome teammates

Scoping out the run course and transition area.  Not even polar bears swim in that lake!
The pretty run course.

Pre-race was pretty low key as I tried to stay as warm and dry as possible, ignore taper pain and modify my body clock to the time difference.  3am jetlag insomnia...you suck!

I enjoyed gluten-free hotel camping with the best roomie ever, scoped out the course (hills, mud, gravel, cobblestone, oh my!), made a panicked trip to the local sports store (long undies! gloves! space blanket!) and sought out last minute physio for an injury of stupidity (damn you soleus!).  Spending time with my awesome, well-humored teammates was a great way to alleviate my normal let's-get-this-over-with pre-race anxiety.  In those three days, we firmly established the following to be true, for better or for worse:
  • French public swimmers do not hide well their dismay for silly Canadians who dare swim in their lane of the 90 degree sweat-box of a pool.
  • Steak frites may be the best pre-race food, ever.
  • Chocolate coated rice cakes are highly underrated.
  • Garmin GPS has no clue how to pronounce street names in French...nor give proper directions.
  • French sports stores do not stock gloves nor clothing made from Merino wool in the month of May.
  • Every street in Belfort is under construction.
  • Acupuncture is awesome.      
Based on the frigid water temps, the ITU made the decision to modify the race distance from a 4k swim / 112k bike / 30k run to a long distance duathlon (9.5k run/ 87k bike / 20k run).  The term "duathlon" is a generous oversimplication of the race - winter riding / cross country running / mud slinging / cross racing is really a more apt description.  Kinda like an ITU world championship tough mudder.  Appreciating the absurdity and maintaining a good sense of humor seemed to be the best way of dealing with it.

The telltale sign of the duathlon.
Although it was not unexpected that the swim would be cancelled, the conversion of the race format brought along with it a bit of anxiety...how to pace, what to wear, how to transition.  It may sound dumb, but duathlon is really a different sport.  It took a bit to wrap my head around the whole thing.  Thankfully, coach Bjoern was well-equipped to deal with our panicky queries.  And, being the ├╝ber-coach that he is, his killer run-bike-run workout two weeks previous looked like utter genius!

Thankfully, the weather folks in France as are poor at their jobs as the ones in Vancouver and race morning turned out not nearly as dreadful as initially predicted.  Under a 9 degree grey sky, the rain threatened but did not appear in any great amount.  It was humid and chilly - and a complete mud pit in transition.

Due to 90 percent humidity, I made the decision to run in my tri suit only and pull my newly acquired French polyester long underwear, gloves and vest on for the ride.  No point in being soaked with sweat.  Huddled at the start line in our garbage bags, Gen and I looked very much the idiot Canadians while channeling our inner polar bears in our skimpy tri suits.

Saving money on team uniforms at the start.  Who needs spandex when you have Glad?  
Run #1 was a wave start, my wave which included all women up to the age of 44.  It was basically like a cross-country race, with a lot of pushing and jostling onto the gravel trail.  One poor girl wiped out within a few feet of the start, and was trampled.  Within a few minutes, we had caught the men's wave in front of us and it was extremely congested for the first kilometers.  My injury of stupidity nagged, particularly on the uphill sections, so I held back a bit, assuring myself it was better to finish the race than risk injury in the first part of the race.  The run course was tough, but extremely pretty.

Run #1.  Go Polar Bears Go!
T2 was "interesting".  My brain had not locked on to the concept of running before riding, and I made a couple of mistakes, including forgetting to take my runners off!  My body was not happy at me at all for the first 30-40 minutes of the ride.  Run, then ride like a woman possessed...what kind of madness is this?!  Furthermore, my equipment (Cervelo R5, no aerobars) initially felt like a poor choice.  With false flats and headwind, it felt like I was riding with two flat tires.  I even stopped at one point to check!

No females were passing me, though...so I rationalized that everyone must be feeling the same sluggishness.  That being said, a TT bike would have definitely been the better choice at the beginning of the ride.  My splits indicated I lost about 2 minutes compared to my competitors in the first section.  As soon as the up/down and technical riding started, however, I was very comfortable on the R5 and enjoyed a lot of confidence in the descents.

The wicked climb and descent of the Ballon d'Alsace was the highlight of the day.  The ascent started well in advance of the "posted" climb, and was about 25k of up, up, up including the last 11k kick up the Ballon.  Sweat inducing, seemingly never-ending climb (how can a 28 cog can feel so hard?  Did someone switch my cassette?  I feel like barfing.  Damn you Euro super-cyclists!), followed by an absolutely wild ride on the way down.  Flinging yourself down a pitch of technical switchbacks is really kinda nuts.

Stock photo of the ascent.  Fun!

The elevation profile of the ride...hilly awesomeness.  Why isn't every tri like this?!
Though I felt well-trained well for the climb given my recent training block, channeling a polar bear was really all I had on the way down the Ballon.  It was very much like the cold descents down Mount Baker or Cypress that I am accustomed to...minus proper cold weather gear.  My hands and bare legs were absolutely freezing as I descended the switchbacks, and my poor legs cramped viciously on the way down.  Though after the race, every racer I spoke to described the same wicked, uncontrollable cramping, it was quite disconcerting at the time.

T2 was incredibly slow - I picked up my bike a la cross racing to get through the mucky transition, and my frozen fingers and cramped legs declined to cooperate to put my shoes on.  A volunteer helped me put on my shoes, or I may never have left T2.  My quads, hamstrings and calves twitched in warning every step - if I stopped, they were stopping too. I talked myself along a kilometer at a time...running with quick feet and power-walking when I needed to.  Upon crossing the finish line, I found myself unable to walk.  Thankfully, my legs waited until 20.1 kilometers to give up!

The end of run #2.  Legs please don't fail me now!
The entire Canadian contingent showed great fortitude (and an equally great sense of humour), and my amazing roommate Rachel kicked a** with 3rd overall in the pro category.  Evidence of the power of chocolate rice cakes!  It was incredibly fun to race with teammates - huge thanks to Rachel, Gen, Lawrence, Don and the rest of Team O for their company, support and humour, Joyce and Dave for keeping us all in line, Coach Bjoern for his unwavering guidance and everyone from Vancouver who was out supporting during the day!

I'm chuffed that six months post-surgery I was able to compete somewhat reasonably at this level.  I didn't kill it...but it didn't kill me either.  A work in progress!  All in all, it was a fun, never-to-be-duplicated muddy and absurd experience made most memorable by my teammates, the rest of Team Canada and their support squads.

And, needless to say...when the race was over and the holiday began, I caught the first flight out to sunnier, warmer climes :)

SUNSHINE!!!!!  No polar bears here.