2011 Season Lessons Learned

     My primary goal for the 2011 season was to get started on my pro racing career. After racing the first half of the year as an amateur, I won the Amateur Championship at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in June, and then made the leap to the professional ranks in August. So in the most basic sense, I achieved my primary goal. However, looking back on the season in such a simple manner would be a mistake. There is much that I can learn from a critical analysis of 2011 in terms of both correcting limiters, and developing goals for 2012.

Swim

     The biggest lesson I learned when making the jump to pros is that the swim really matters, even in iron-distance racing. As an amateur, I could cover up my swimming deficiencies, because there were almost no amateurs who could hang with me once we hit the land, and I could easily ride or run down just about anyone. Unfortunately, racing against the pro field, I no longer have that massive advantage on the land, and it’s extremely difficult (borderline impossible) to make up large gaps out of the water. It’s especially difficult on flat courses with a large field (such as IM Arizona), because those conditions lead to the formation of drafting pacelines on the bike. If you’re good enough to make the swim group, then you get out of the water with the group, and you’ll be in the paceline that naturally forms early in the bike. If you don’t make the swim group, then you’re riding solo in no-man’s land, and it is a massive disadvantage. The exact time advantage gained by being in the paceline vs. riding solo depends on the terrain, the wind, and the spacing of the paceline, but the one thing that’s sure is that being in the paceline is a significant advantage. So in reality, an improvement in swimming leads to a two-fold benefit in finishing time. Because as a faster swimmer you are 1) out of the water sooner (obviously), and 2) you make the bike paceline, which improves your bike time.

     Why am I so focused on the advantages of making the swim group? Because without a doubt, the swim is my weakness. I am well aware of this, and I’m working hard to address this. Whenever this comes up with certain people, they develop a really serious tone, as if they’re about to say something extremely profound, and they say something like, “Well, I think you just need to focus on technique.” The first thought that pops into my head is usually, “Oh really??? Why didn’t I think of that??!?!!? Your brilliant insight is sure to change my life!!” This is one of the problems that triathletes often run into: there are a lot of people out there willing to give useless, obvious, pointless, or just plain terrible advice. Fortunately, I’ve found someone who actually gives useful advice. Angela Naeth (numero uno training partner) and I have hired Geoff Hanson, who is an assistant swimming coach at the University of Arizona. He has been a fantastic help, and has already made some significant changes to my stroke. I think that with his help, I’ll be able to cross that threshold from “not making the swim group” to “making the swim group”. It will only require some modest changes – just an improvement of a few seconds per 100 meters, and some improved “pack swimming awareness skills”, to cross that threshold. Once I cross it, I’ll be able to make the paceline on the bike, and the entire dynamics of my race day experience, and performance, will make a dramatic turn for the better.

Bike

     At my three iron-distance races this year, I comfortably averaged 249 watts, 259 watts, and 255 watts. Those power numbers will not put me up with Chris Lieto, but they do indicate that I’m putting out enough power to ride with some of the podium contenders at the pro level. That’s the good news – it looks like I have the engine and the potential to ride very fast. There may just be a couple of minor issues that need fixing to see large improvements in my bike times.

     -Better swimming will lead to better bike times. I covered this extensively, above.

     -My 61 cm Cervelo P3 is too big for me (I had no idea about bike fit when I bought it 3 years, and 30,000+ miles, ago). In order to put my body in a reasonable riding position, Ivan O’Gorman at Retul was forced to put on an 80 mm stem, which has resulted in a bike that handles quite poorly (it’s responsiveness could best be described as “twitchy”, and possibly as “dangerous”). A new frame that is the correct size will allow for a longer stem, thus improving my handling, allowing me to ride more aggressively, which will improve my bike times. A few seconds on every turn can add up over the course of a race.

     -I need to drop the front end more. I have a fairly open hip angle with my current set up, so I could probably drop the front end another 1-2 cm without compressing my hip angle too much, thus improving aerodynamics. A smaller, better fitting frame, will help in this department.

Run

     Running, fortunately, is very simple. I feel good about my stride, so at this point, it’s just a matter of durability and pain tolerance. I feel that if I get off my bike within striking distance of a podium spot, my willingness to suffer is a great advantage, and will allow me to duke it out on the run with almost anyone. I will, of course, continue to train hard with my running, but I feel that everything is on track, so I don’t feel a need to make any major adjustments.

Mental

     I’ve never considered myself much of a headcase, but my mental weaknesses were exposed a bit this year at IM Arizona. Going into the race, I was terrified of people judging me negatively, and it really got into my head. I tried to convince myself that no one else mattered, and all I could do was go out and do my own race. But once I fell behind in the water, all of the little doubts in my head started talking a little louder, and by the time I was halfway through the marathon, those doubts were screaming at me. I convinced myself that I had nothing left to race for, and that was reflected in my slow marathon time.

     Simply going faster, of course, will fix a lot of those “mental” issues. But it’s also a feedback loop, and I can choose to make it a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop. If I have the confidence to swim well, then I will swim better, and I’ll make the swim group, and then I’ll feel better about myself, and I’ll get even stronger, and it just positively builds on itself, etc… But the converse, in the negative direction, is also true, and for all of October and November, I was stuck on the negative side of things.

     Fortunately, Angela Naeth and Chuck Veylupak have been great in helping me in my mental aspects. Besides Ethan Brown, they’re the first people who have ever said they really see potential in me as an athlete. I mean, I’ve had “well-wishers”, or people who think it’d be “cool” if I succeed, but I’ve never really had anyone who actually believed in me. I think they see my potential because they’ve seen how I train, my willingness to hurt myself during workouts, and my level of commitment. And you know what? It means a lot, a lot more than I ever thought it could.

     I’ve learned that so much of what we do is largely the result of self-fulfilling prophecies based on how you feel about yourself and your potential. You can read all the inspirational quotes you want, but I think they just come across as trite and shallow. In my case, I’ve learned by experiencing the difference that self-belief, or self-doubt, can make. Angela and Chuck are starting to make me believe in myself, and I think it could make all the difference.

 So that’s that. The 2011 season is over, and it’s time to start looking towards 2012. I know what I need to do, and on Dec 5, I’ll get back to work on making it happen.

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One thought on “2011 Season Lessons Learned

  1. Nice introspection and you are totally right on the swim. I basically stopped biking and running because I knew my swim wasn’t there. With the drafting rules and no-slipping stream on the bike you have to make the pack. I think you are headed to Clermont with Pedro and Ethan but if you are still around in Tucson and want to swim then hit me up. Best of luck in 2012.

    -TG

    Thomas Gerlach
    Professional Triathlete
    http://www.thomasgerlach.com

    Save 10% at Trisports.com with Coupon Code “TGER-S”

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