Going into the race, my main concerns were (a) going too hard too early on the bike course and having trouble with the final hills, (b) how well my legs would take to running after that ride and (c) not being able to get in enough Calories. Fortunately, I didn't have any problems with those things - partially because I was very cautious about those aspects, but mostly because I vastly overestimated their significance. As I noted earlier, my training season didn't go as well as I would have liked and that significantly hurt my confidence going into the race. That, in turn, made me a bit gun-shy on the day of the race and made me overlook other smaller details that I should have paid attention to.
What went Wrong
Either way, in order to move on and aim for better the next time out the main thing to consider is exactly what when wrong and why:
Ultimately the largest problem this time around was dragging my feet on ramping up the mileage during training. I was overly worried about being careful after coming back from the interruption, and that resulted in me pushing back the mileage climb several times. While being cautious after an injury is important, pushing it back too many times meant that I left myself with very little time and resulted in a steep climb to where I needed to be before the race. That meant making compromises on more specialized training (speedwork, hill training, etc.) in order to get the base fitness where I needed just to finish.
Aside from the direct consequences of not having that training in, this also was a strong strike against my confidence going into the race. When you've done everything possible to train for a race, it's easy to put your trust in that program and go into the race knowing absolutely that you are ready to go. In scenarios like this, however, I didn't have that to fall back on and I was questioning my readiness across multiple aspects. The result of all of that is that, during the race, every time a decision came about to either push it harder or fall back, I'd always go toward the latter.
This manifested itself most strongly on the bike course, as the anti-drafting rules tend to not allow riders to just get comfortable and cruise like one can on a run. When you come up on a slower rider, you either have to accelerate to pass them within the provided 20 seconds or you have to back off. That's not too bad when it's only one person, but when there is a column of them then going past might require an extended effort at higher power levels. Fortunately, it's much easier to recover from sprint efforts on a bike than on a run, but when you're trying to budget yourself for a demanding course that is a difficult decision to make.
My lack of confidence meant that on way too many occasions I dropped back when I should have floored it. This was especially true on many of the climbs, as I found myself shifting way down a lot earlier than I normally would because riders ahead of me slowing down. In addition to losing time because of the lower speed, it also disrupted my rhythm and made it more difficult to properly carry forward the momentum from the preceding downhills. Looking over my telemetry after the fact illustrates this, as both my average and maximum heart rates during the race were about 7-10bpm lower than I'd typically see on normal training rides of similar length.
Another side effect of being forced to rush the training up to the necessary levels was that it didn't give me enough time to experiment with different things. Since the tight scheduling meant that it was critical that I safely nail all of my training sessions, it was too risky to play around with alternate nutrition strategies and products. As such, when it came time to plan out my strategy for the race I didn't really consider anything other than what I had used in the past.
In previous races I've always just used Gatorade with a few gels on the side to add a bit more Calories into the mix, but for this race the nutritional requirements would be much greater. When I elected to go with the water and gel plan, I was so concerned about getting in enough Calories that I neglected to give proper weight to the reduced quantity of electrolytes I'd be getting. I was flirting with the idea of some Nuun tablets in the reservoir or just using salt pills, but I had no experience with those products and didn't really want to experiment with anything new. The gels did have some electrolytes in them, and the temperatures were forecast to be low, so I mistakenly assumed I'd be okay.
Unfortunately, that gamble didn't pay off and I ended up getting a muscle cramp that cost me a little over a half an hour thanks to walking significant portions of the run. It was impossible to precisely quantify how much I needed ahead of time, but had I used either of the above products during the ride I likely would have avoided this problem altogether.
Not Knowing the Course
The final major mistake this time out was not going up to Muskoka some time in the late summer to re-familiarize myself with the bike course. This race was probably the most complicated course that I've ever competed on, and thus requires somewhat sophisticated strategic planning to get the most out of it. While I had pre-rode the course the previous year, knowing the terrain was only half of the equation - knowing how my body would react to said terrain in its current state of fitness was just as important.
When I headed out on race morning, I had an exaggerated image of what I was up against and that dramatically changed my strategy to how I rode the course. My knowledge of the route was based on a pair of legs that were just coming off of a six week hiatus, and while my training wasn't as strong as I would have liked, it was significantly better than it was at that juncture. As such, I blew a lot of time out there saving myself for gigantic hills that would never come.
Not on the same scale as the above, but this was a mistake that I made in my previous Triathlon and carried through this time. While I had planned things out well, I never really got around to actually practicing this procedure and when it came to the race it took my a lot longer than it should have to change back and forth. This is basically free time, as if you can do it efficiently you can easily shave minutes off of the race which is a lot harder to do out on the course. I didn't give it much heed this time as the goal was just to finish, so my objective was more on the racing bits of the equation, but if I want to aim for a decent time I'm going to have to work on this.
What went Right
On the other side of the coin, it's also important to recognize what did go well during the race as losing sight of those things makes it easy to screw them up the next time out. Fixing a problem, but messing something else up in the process just ends up in the same place ;)
Primarily, the swim was the one component of this race that went off largely without any problems. I managed to draft where the conditions were appropriate, the contact in the swim didn't throw me off at all and things pretty much went precisely according to plan. My sighting wasn't perfect, and I need to work on improving my pace, but those are aspects that are more related to training than race day execution. In the end, I didn't experience any degree of fatigue over the course, I managed to hit the exit around my time target and I was in good shape to continue on with the remaining legs - can't do much better than that!
Aside from the electrolyte side of the equation, my caloric intake and hydration strategies worked out relatively well. While my stomach was a little heavy at the beginning of the run due to the second gel, it never rose to the level of discomfort. Even after being out for over seven hours, I still had plenty of energy at the end and I wasn't hungry or thirsty at any point in or after the race. This was a big unknown going into the race, so it's good to know that I managed to nail two of the three nutritional variables the first time around. This will be a great help for next time, as I'll be able to go into the race knowing (a) how much I need and (b) how much my stomach can take.
While the run ended up going horribly overall, pretty much the entirety of that was because of the muscle cramp. On the parts of the course where I was able to run, I felt great and had lots of energy. I managed my heart rate well, and was able to control my pace with little trouble. Further, when things turned to pot I avoided getting discouraged and just retooled myself to deal with the situation at hand - I kept forward momentum going and pushed my way to that line as best I could.
Lessons for Next Time
- Start training sooner - As well noted here, most of the above problems could have easily been resolved by getting proper training started sooner so I could have taken a more measured and controlled approach to getting ready. This is a long race, and cramming things in the way that I ended up doing this year is never a good approach. Some of that was out of my control, but when interruptions do happen it's important to get back up and running at a faster pace.
- Use a structured plan - The other flaw with my approach this time around was that my training was largely ad-hoc and didn't follow a structured regimen as it has in previous years. Some people might be able to get away with that, but unfortunately I tend to not do well unless I have a formal plan laid out for me to follow. Being able to adapt that plan is important, so it can't be too rigid, but too much flexibility opens the doors to excuses!
- Don't be so anal about the rules - I took the anti-drafting rules a little too seriously this year around, as very few people were going to the lengths I did to stay within the letter of the law. As the officials were obviously taking a more liberal approach to things, the important thing is more to avoid actively trying to draft versus worrying about the formal 10m spacing or 20sec passing times. From a functional point of view, on a course like this it is nearly impossible to stay 100% within the rules so a more nuanced approach appears to be important here. With that said, if I ever ride on a flatter course things may be significantly different on this front.
- Experiment with different approaches - The issues I had with nutrition planning were largely because I had a limited quiver of choices to draw from, and none of them were a good match. Once I find something that works, I have a tendency to stick with it. If you keep doing the same thing, that tends to be a good approach, but when you are trying something more complex sometimes you need different tools. With that said, it's important to do this early in the season - before a bad choice can mess with critical training.
- Practice, practice, practice - As noted above, I need to do some more practice with some of the more mechanical parts of the race. My hideously slow transitions ate up a lot of time, and this is pretty much the definition of low hanging fruit. As long as I use socks and don't pre-attach my shoes to the bike, I'm never going to get it all the way down there, but there is still a lot that I can do to make it more efficient.
With all of that said, I've now basically got a year to get things in order if I want to take another shot at it in 2013. The nutritional component is easy enough to fix, so I can easily slice 30 minutes off of my time by not screwing that one up. The bike will be a little more work, but with better quality training and a more aggressive approach on race day I think shaving 30-40 minutes off should be within reason. Finally, the run should have a good amount of room for improvement as my training was a shadow of what I've done in previous years.
The first step, however, will be to trim back my weight a bit as I gained a few pounds during the two interruptions in this cycle. During high mileage race training it is very difficult to shave it off as you don't want to short glycogen stores and run out of fuel during a session. Now that I've got a few months with no races on the horizon, it's a good time to focus on base training and widdling away at my waistline to get it back to the ~160lbs range. Having to tow around less mass will make everything easier in and of itself, and will put me in a better position to restart an aggressive training regimen when the time comes around.
I'd also like to take the opportunity to work a bit more on my swimming during the off season, as despite doing well on that leg my ranking was pretty consistent with the slow bike and horrible run times. I've got a good base of endurance and can pretty much go for as long as I'd like at this point (I've done 6,000m continuous swims without issue), but my speed hasn't improved for years and I need to find a way to deal with that. I've always gravitated towards the long set approach, as that's worked for the other sports, but the more I read about it the more it seems that shorter high-intensity sets do a lot more good for swimmers. I'm not a huge fan of that approach, but if it will help me finally break the 2:00/100m barrier than it's worth giving it a shot.
Finally, I have to do some more digging and find myself a proper formal training plan for Triathlons of this length. The Pfitzinger-Douglas plan did wonders for my running, but I haven't found anything similar on the Tri side of the equation. As such, I've largely adapted the former to suit my needs and that's worked reasonably well in the past - but having something more structured for the sport in question would be beneficial.
I've got a book from Joe Friel with some stuff that might work, but it's unfortunately structured around time based workouts. I can always convert those into distance based targets knowing how fast I expect to go, but I'd prefer to find a formal plan explicitly designed around mileage and not time. Either way, I'll have to do some digging, grab some other books and hopefully find what I'm looking for.
Aside from all of that, I need to ramp my volumes back up to where they were before the broken foot last year and build a base that will allow a more aggressive approach come training season next year. It'd also be a good idea to find a few early season races to test out my fitness, and hopefully get my running times back to where they were earlier as well (ie training runs below 5:00/km, races in the 4-4:45 range). Naturally, I also need to get back into the habit of doing two sessions per day as running twice a week is not remotely enough. Finally, I also need to experiment a bit with different nutrition products and see if I can find a better plan for handling things next time out.
Either way, that about wraps things up for this insanely long race report! For those that stuck with me all the way through this wall of text, a big thanks for your patience :D