Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Coach Lisa's Long Course Duathlon World Championships Race Report

“The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavour is taking the first step, making the first decision.” –Robyn Davidson

Following is my race report from the Long Course Duathlon World Championships at Powerman Zofingen in Zofingen, Switzerland earlier this month where I placed 15th woman overall and 2nd in my age group.  The race report is long but so was the race: 8 hours 22 minutes.  For those wanting a quick recap: Powerman Zofingen consists of 40K (24 miles) of running interrupted by a 150K (93-mile) bike ride with 1600 meters (5249 feet) of climbing and a maximum grade of 16%. This would be my longest and most difficult race to date and I felt out-trained, out-geared and out of my league.  If I had been given the chance to withdraw from the race before it started, I probably would have.  I’m glad I did not- finishing among the top elite athletes, I finally learned that we only accomplish the unimaginable when we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone.   --Coach Lisa

Just ten days ago I found myself as part of Team USA at the start line for the Long Course Duathlon World Championships at Powerman Zofingen in Zofingen, Switzerland. I ended up there almost by accident, having qualified at the Blackwater Duathlon in Cambridge, Maryland, a 10K run/70K bike/10K run race on a pancake flat course I was familiar with after doing several other races there in the past. When I qualified for a spot on Team USA at Blackwater I didn't even know that what I "earned" was a chance to race a 10K run/150K bike/30K run duathlon on what has been described as one of the toughest duathlon courses in the world (, as evidenced by the bike course elevation profile- THREE loops of the following:

I spent countless hours in the months leading up to the race Googling past race reports and trolling the testosterone heavy Slow Twitch discussion forums for any information I could get about the race. The more I read the more I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Not only had I never ridden a course as long or difficult as that at Powerman Zofingen, I had never done a race lasting more than about 5 hours. Powerman Zofingen would take me at least 8 hours and as many as 10 or 11 hours.  In our excitement to travel to Switzerland and participate again as a member of Team USA (I was on Team USA for the short course duathlon championships in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2010) I hadn't really stopped to think about the fact that it would mean I would have to train for- and race- this apparently epic duathlon.  For the first time in my racing history, I doubted my ability to even finish this race. I trained to the best of my ability but within the constraints of my life as a full-time mom with limited time and resources.  I was completely intimidated by the course and apparent experience of the other athletes I knew who were doing, or had done, this race.  I kept my plans to do the race very quiet because I wanted to spare myself the embarrassment if I tried, but failed, to finish.

On top of the concerns about training and racing, I was also worried about leaving our three young kids the first week of school even though I knew that they would be in great hands and have a very special time with their Miri and Opa, who are more than capable of taking over parenting duties (and spoiling the kids) while we were away.   The race fell after a whirlwind of back to back end of summer travel, leaving just two days after returning from vacation to pack my bike, our bags and get the kids started with school before leaving for Switzerland.  Luckily, a hectic schedule meant little time for worrying about the race.

Once we boarded the flight to Switzerland, I had plenty of time for the worries and self-doubt to creep in. I worried about everything and anything: Were the kids OK?  Would my bike make it safely? What if it was cold and rainy on race day (steep descents in rain scare me and I have almost no experience riding in the rain)? What if I experienced a flat or other mechanical problem on the bike (I am incredibly technically incompetent when it comes to the bike)?  What if I couldn't make it up the 15% grade climb and fell off my bike trying? What if I couldn't finish the race?  Or worse, what if I got hurt on the bike?  In the overnight hours on the flight to Switzerland, while others slept I cried silently just praying I could make it home safely to our kids and families.

We arrived in Zurich on Wednesday to sun and 80 degrees (and my bike, safely off the plane) but a weather forecast of cold rain for the days following.  While we toured Zurich, I obsessed over the weather. I quickly learned how to find the forecast for the weather (ironically, "wetter" in German) in the papers since we had limited access to the internet. I ducked into the Apple store regularly to search Accuweather, Intellicast, Weather Channel, Yahoo Weather and any other source of weather information I could get my hands on. My biggest nightmare was rain.  I imagined myself skidding off the mountainside on the steep switchback descents. On Wednesday and Thursday the forecast was for rain on Friday and Saturday but ending Sunday with sun and a high of 68. I could live with that but the rain leading up to Sunday worried me- what if that rain stuck around just a little longer into Sunday?  Sure enough, when I checked the forecast on a rainy, cold Thursday afternoon it had changed to rain through the race on Sunday.

I tried to enjoy Switzerland through my worry and the rain. We walked around Zurich, discovering the chocolatier Sprungli and its specialty, Luxemburgli. We took the (timely, clean) train to Bern and walked with umbrellas to see the city's rose garden and bear park (complete with cold, wet bears). We experienced sticker shock at the prices (easily 4 times the prices in the US) but admired the health-conscious lifestyle of the Swiss. The country has strict requirements for its food- there is an emphasis on local sourcing and all food must comply with the Swiss Food Law which restricts additives, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMO). Most commercial US food cannot be sold in Switzerland because of the additives. Even McDonalds food is considered healthy by US standards because of the requirements (making a Big Mac almost worth the $12 price tag). The number of people- adults and kids- riding bikes was impressive, encouraged in no small part by bike lanes and laws requiring motorists to yield to cyclists and pedestrians.

Friday we took the train to Zofingen. Arriving to cold rain and a forecast still showing rain through the weekend, we dropped off my bike to the local bike shop to be reassembled and met up with my teammate Shannon and her husband who were kind enough to offer us a driving tour of the bike course in their rental car. As we drove the course in the rain I tried to joke away my worries and gather as much confidence as possible from Shannon and her husband, both experienced and accomplished cyclists, but ascending each of the three major climbs, including the infamous Bodenberg (with a maximum grade of 15%) and coming down the steep, winding descents, my stomach sunk. If it looked this bad by car, how would it look for three laps on bike?

We enjoyed dinner with friends and old neighbors who now live in Switzerland on Friday night but after we got back to the hotel room the panic started to set in full force. I spent a sleepless night worrying about the rain, the course, the kids back at home, and anything else I could think to worry about. At that point I wasn't even concerned with finishing; I was only concerned about making it back home in one piece. 

Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain on parts of each run course, which consisted of a hilly route through the forest on gravel-packed trails, more akin to cross country than the road racing I am so used to. Many times I heard that the race didn't truly start until the last run, and I figured if I made it to that run (a big “if” in my head) I would have it made with my strength and background as a runner. The parts of the course I saw on Saturday made me realize the run was no joke, but I at least had the confidence of being on my own two feet instead of at the mercy of my bike.

After a pre-race pasta party and Opening Ceremonies on Saturday night, I tried to get some sleep before the race. The forecast was almost impossible to decipher- 40% chance of rain on Sunday with little grey cloud/rain icons all day. As I fell asleep to the sound of continuing rain outside our window, I had crazy nightmares and a night of on again/off again sleep until I finally got up at 4:45. I checked the weather on my phone and saw 47 degrees and 40% chance of rain. Listening outside, I was sure I heard rain but when I finally got outside I realized it was just remaining water from the night before coursing through the city's drainage system and the road were, miraculously, almost dry and the temperatures felt closer to 50s than high 40s.

We racked our bikes as daylight broke and for the first time since we arrived had dry, albeit overcast, skies. The forecast showed the highest chance of rain for 12-1 pm.  I just prayed the rain would hold off until after my first lap on the bike course, so I could at least see what the descents were like before having to attempt them in the rain. Lining up at the start, it actually felt warm but I kept on my arm warmers and gloves (a last minute expo purchase) knowing that the descents on the bike would likely be cold and wanting to err on the side of being too warm instead of too cold.

Right before the start gun went off I thought about the long day I had ahead and how much work I would have to do before it was over and I could just get home to the kids.  I didn't know if I would be going home a Poweman Zofingen finisher, but if I could just make it through the race safely I knew I could go home.  Mentally I broke the race up into pieces- the first 5K run lap, second 5K run lap, three 50K bike laps, then two 15K run laps. One lap at a time, and I took comfort in the fact that I would run first before I had to tackle the bike.

The first run started up a steep 2K (1.2 mile) hill up into the forest and onto a trail that continued up for another .5K before heading back down to the start area, where we would do it all over again before heading into transition and onto the bike course. I reminded myself over and over not to get carried away on the first run. Even if I ran a minute per mile slower than my normal race pace I would lose just 6 minutes in an 8+ hour race. I had to remember I had over 90 miles of biking and another 18 miles of running ahead of me.  I started up the first hill steady but strong, and found myself half way through the first 10K towards the front of the pack, ahead of even most of the elite (pro) athletes. As Dan cautioned me to watch my speed after the first lap, I double checked my effort but felt comfortable and kept a steady pace through the second lap and into transition.  Total time: 38:51.

I had a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach as I finished the run, realizing I was leaving my comfort zone and setting off on the bike for three loops of the 50K course.  I didn’t give myself time to dwell on it- I got on the bike as fast as possible and focused on the relatively flat first portion of the course, reminding myself to take it easy and use the first lap as a reconnaissance lap to get the lay of the land and save my energy for the climbs.  I ate some of my nutrition and drank water as I prepared myself to start getting passed by other racers.  To my surprised, I was only passed by a few elite women on the first part of the course.  I kept waiting to get passed by more age groupers (non-elites) but found myself out on the course relatively alone during the first lap.  I wasn’t too surprised by how spread out the course was on the bike, as the men had a start time one hour later than the women so the rest of the field hadn’t even started before the women were out on the bike course.  I knew, though, that I should at least see my teammate and friend Shannon on the bike.  An impressive cyclist, she would certainly make up the time I gained on the run to pass me on the bike. 

The first climb was long but nothing too terrible and seemed to be over relatively quickly, thanks in part to the spectators at key portions along the ascent cheering on the riders with shouts of “hopp hopp!”  A quick steep descent on the other side allowed for some welcome recovery, but I knew the Bodenberg was coming up quickly.  My approach to the Bodenberg, and the other two major climbs on the bike course, was to take it slow and steady.  I kept repeating to myself “just get it done”- it didn’t have to be pretty or fast.    The first part of the Bodenberg climb has a short break in the middle before heading up again at the steepest grade.  Again, enthusiastic spectators with words of encouragement greeted us at the critical points, giving me the motivation to keep pushing even when my legs felt like they wanted to give out.   Just before we reached the steepest part of the climb, I heard an approaching racer encourage me, in a German accent, to “ride fast, lady!”  I turned around to thank her for the words of encouragement when I realized it was my jokester of a friend and teammate, and cyclist extraordinaire Shannon.  Seeing her buoyed my energy as she cheered me to follow her up the steepest part of the climb.  For weeks before the race, I wondered what exactly 15% grade looks and feels like to ascend.  The first lap of the course I had a chance to experience 15% grade on the Bodenberg climb- brutal! I was glad to have Shannon to follow on that first attempt as I attempted to emulate her strong riding.  As we ascended, I remembered what I had heard about the bike course- “the first lap is hard, the second lap is harder, and the third lap is balls.”  I imagined that the third time up the Bodenberg I’d be in full agreement with that sentiment.   

Once at the top of the Bodenberg, we came upon the first feed station on the course (there were two, one at 25K and one as we went back through town at the 50K mark) which was well-stocked and staffed by great volunteers who handed us “vasser” (water) and “banane” (banana) as we rode by.  I had nutrition with me on the bike (Honey Stinger waffles) so passed on the food the first lap but did take an extra water bottle after tossing my own in the designated discard area immediately before the feed station.  As the saying goes, what goes up must come down and the Bodenberg was no exception.  The descents were long, steep and winding along switch-backs and a sharp 90 degree right hand turn at the bottom; one wrong turn and I’d end up tumbling down the steep mountainside.  Shannon, much braver than I, descended with abandon and I lost sight of her as I took it a bit more conservatively, imagining how much trickier- and dangerous- it would have been in the rain.  Many racing told me they hit 50-55 mph on the descents.  Even though I tried not to hit the brakes on the descents, my maximum speed was about 40 mph.  Again I said a little prayer that any rain would hold off until after the bike, or at least after my third and final descent down the Bodenberg. 

After the descent we enjoyed some fast sections (and recovery) before one last gradual, but long, climb before reaching town again and starting the second, and eventually third, laps.  We passed the transition area each time, which included a “coaching zone” where coaches (or friends/family) could hand off extra nutrition, drink, or give other assistance.  I passed Dan’s offer of extra Honey Stinger waffles on the first pass but grabbed the bag from him on the second pass before the third and final bike lap.

On each of the bike laps I managed to take in the beautiful Swiss countryside, including plenty of spectators, both human and bovine.  I often heard cow bells and looked around for cheering spectators (in the US spectators often use cowbells to cheer on racers) only to find that it wasn’t spectators but actual cow bells- on cows!  I was especially boosted by the kids along the route who put out their hands for high fives (and squealed with joy when they slapped hands with one of the cyclists) and who, upon seeing USA on my jersey, seemed to enjoy trying out their English with shouts of “awesome!” and “good going!”    

Three laps and 150K later (and the rains still holding off despite some passing dark clouds) I was overjoyed.  Total time: 5:09:12.  As this picture illustrates, I was literally shouting for joy at being safely off the bike:

Little did I know what was to come.  I had been warned many times that the race didn’t start until the second 30K run, but I was confident in my running abilities and sure that if I could make it safely through the bike, I’d have a competitive advantage on the run.  The day before the race I previewed just a small part of the 15K (two loop) course, which began with two miles of uphill climbing into the woods.   I didn’t venture much into the woods along the crushed gravel path, but Dan did and reported back that it was brutally hard with steep ascents and descents.  I discovered his description was spot-on when I entered the woods on the first loop of the second run.  There was no flat along the course, and the crushed gravel only made it harder as I felt like I was expending a lot of energy just keeping my balance.  The course did flatten out, and go back onto paved path, at the turnaround point at 7.5K, but then I knew I was only headed back to climb the descents I had just traveled. 

The cruelest part of the second run course was that we ran out and back on the first 15K loop, entered the arena and ran straight to the finish line- only to turn around a cone about 3 feet from the finish line and do the course all over again after receiving a wrist band that indicated you had already finished one lap.  Knowing that I was headed back UP two miles only to face the steep ascents and descents of the run course, on legs already exhausted from 7+ hours of hard running and cycling, I conceded to the fact that I would likely have to walk part of the second loop.  I have never walked in a race- in fact, I can only remember having to walk in a training run once over more than 15 years.  Regardless, I had seen the majority of racers walking parts of the course and allowed myself permission to walk if necessary. 

On the initial ascent of the second loop I found myself running at a speed close to walking speed.  I knew my form was starting to deteriorate and that I was wasting energy trying to “run” up the hill so I gave in and power walked up the hill.  At this point, one of the Elite members of Team USA (elites are similar to professional athletes; the rest of us are referred to as “age groupers”) came up behind me- remember men started one hour after the women so essentially he was one hour ahead of me but also on his second lap of the run course- and encouraged me to run with him for a bit.  It worked for a few hundred feet but I then slowed to a walk again, apologizing for my inability to follow him up the hill.  “It’s OK, we’re all in the same boat,” he said, making me feel a little less guilty about walking.  This is how I felt about that second run:

I made myself run for short intervals before taking short walk breaks for the remainder of the 2-mile hill.  After that I ran on flats and downhill sections and power walked the uphill sections.  Part way through the second loop I could feel myself hitting “the wall,” another unfamiliar sensation.  I immediately started getting any nutrition I could from the well-stocked nutrition stations every 2K, even trying the bars they offered along the course and Coca Cola.  Typically I won’t try anything new during a race, but I was desperate for a boost and figured that any gastrointestinal distress would be better than the sharp drop in energy I was starting to feel.  Luckily the bars and coke agreed with me and within about 15 minutes I felt a boost in energy.  Somehow I made it back through all of the ups and downs of the gravel-packed trail and back onto the paved path for the final descent into the arena.  Looping through the arena for what I knew would be the final time, I was overcome with emotion as I realized that I was actually going to finish this epic race.  Total time for second run: 2:30:28.  Eight hours and 22 minutes after I started, I crossed the finish line.

Post race I found my teammate Shannon and congratulated her for her 1st place age group finish.  When the results were posted, we were both shocked and excited to find out that we were the first two non-elite finishers.  It took a while for me to realize what that meant- not only had I finished the race, but I had finished strong and placed 15th overall, 2nd in my age group.  In the world. 

With an early Monday flight back to the US, we had just enough time to attend the awards ceremony, say goodbye to our new friends, disassemble and pack my bike (this time without the assistance of the bike shop) and get a few hours of sleep before heading back to the train station and airport.  By Monday dinner time we were back home- kids happy and safe, spoiled by a week with their doting grandparents and full of stories from the first week of school and all of their adventures.

In the week and a half I’ve been back, I have had time to reflect on this whole adventure.  I realized so many of my fears were unfounded.  As someone who was not athletic growing up, I think I still have trouble seeing myself as a “real” athlete.  I am often intimidated by the fancy bikes and experience of other multisport athletes.  I’m a mom first- I train mostly by myself around my kids’ busy schedules and can’t afford the time or money for a lot of the fancy equipment and coaching that competitive athletes often enjoy. 

I went to Switzerland hoping to just finish a race that was longer in distance, duration and harder than any other race I had ever attempted.  I left having made new friends, experienced a new and beautiful country and learning the important lesson that we never know what we are capable of until we try.  

1 comment:

  1. Dear Coach Lisa-That is an awesome report. I think you are awesome, too. I am glad to call you my co-coach and friend. Bravo! Love, Coach Julie