2014 USAT Long Course Nationals: Matt Aaronson, 4:31, 8' PR!

The short version is that I had a great race at the USAT Long Course Nationals. Despite a lot of training setbacks this year driven by injury and work, I managed to take advantage of outstanding weather conditions and set an 8-minute PR with a 4:31:31 finish time. Most importantly, my run split was 1:29:15 which was a 6:30 PR, beat my goal of sub-1:30 and I FINALLY proved to myself that I can do a half-ironman run at pretty close to marathon-pace. The race also validated that sub-4:30 is a half-ironman goal that I can target and should be achievable on the right course in good conditions…and with an improved swim…

My placing in the race was 39th of 711 overall, 37th of 491 males and 6th of 63 in my age division (M3539). Next year I will be in the M4044 age division and in that age group my finish time would have earned me a podium spot in 3rd place! This qualifies me for Team USA at the Long Course World Championships next June in Sweden. I have about 3 weeks to accept that spot. That race would be a “triple Olympic-distance” which is about halfway between a half-ironman and ironman distance. So some thinking to do in the coming few days…

Garmin links:

Summary of race stats:

Matt Race Stats

 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some shout-outs of appreciation:

  • My family which is super-supportive of all the long rides, runs and other training shenanigans
  • The EnduranceNation coaches and team members who have created such a rich and supportive learning environment that I continue to value even after 4 years of membership
  • Team Zoot and Zoot Sports who have a ton of sweet gear that I’m fortunate to train and race in this year

I should mention that I wasn’t the only Aaronson racing today. My dad raced the Olympic-distance and at 69 years old not only won his AG (M6569), but also he beat everyone in the AG younger than his (beat the winner of that AG by ~5 minutes). His next race will be at the AG Nationals in Milwaukee in August where he will race under age-up rules as a 70-year old to vie for a spot on Team USA for the 2015 world championships. If he can repeat today’s performance he should be in good shape to compete for a spot. He is racing in EN kit for the third year this year.

And finally, a great pic of me finishing the race that a buddy found online at the Grand Rapids newspaper website, which pretty well sums up my view of the race:

matt finish

 

 

THE LONGER VERSION FOLLOWS BELOW

Training, ingoing fitness and FTP

This January marked a return to triathlon training for the first time since I went into a run-only training mode last June to prepare for the Chicago Marathon. I had been off the bike for around 18 weeks through mid-October then some unstructured biking in November-December. Then just as I started my January training, I slipped on the ice and ended up with a bone bruise and some tissue injury that put me into a walking boot / cast for 6 weeks. I was highly compliant so that meant no running or biking for 6 weeks, then a pretty gentle run/walk for 4 weeks to ease back into training. So that was a setback. Compounding that was that in April, just as I started the run/walk, my work started to get really busy and require travel to Asia about once every 3rd week. Luckily the trips were only 2-4 days so I was back on Saturdays for the key long training ride, but the travel certainly killed any consistency and seriously undermined the biking frequency and the swimming overall.

Given the above, ingoing fitness was very hard to judge.

  • Run: Despite the early-season injury I felt like my running speed and even endurance (at least for the HIM distance) was back to pre-injury levels. Maybe not quite to VDOT 54, but for sure in the 53+ range.
  • Bike: My FTP was untested but I was seeing improvements and although my bike volume was down, my business travel gave me non-travel weeks in Chicago where I was getting in 4 bike workouts a week in between travel weeks where I could only do my long weekend bike upon arriving back home. I think the mini-volume hits on the bike compensated for the lack of volume and I roughly estimated my FTP at 255…a little lower than last year’s high of 260 but pretty close. My weight is realistically about 4lb up from last year at 140-142lb, so pretty much right at 4.0 watts/kg.
  • Swim: For sure lower than last year but I missed the last 1000TT so no good test. In one 16x100yd workout I was hitting paces only 1-2 sec/100 slower than last year, but it was on a bit more rest intervals.

Race selection / logistics

Other than the American TTT last year, this was my first long course race not “branded” by WTC / Ironman. I picked it because:

(a) the date was good for me

(b) proximity to Chicago

(c) I had heard good reviews, including from our own EN-er David Salzman

(d) it was chosen to host the USAT Long Course National Championships

Overall I was impressed with the race management and although it didn’t have all the “hoopla” associated with a WTC race, it was very well-run. Also I think the bike course in particular is very fast. The run course is not slow but not fast either, due to a couple of reasonably-sized hills. The parking was super-easy (and we did not arrive really early to the race at all). Finally the hotels were plentiful although none were terribly close to the race site and the road access to the nearest hotels isn’t perfect. If I did it again I might consider staying in one of the really nice hotels in Grand Rapids downtown because I don’t think they would take materially longer to access.

Grand Rapids is also pretty close to Chicago so it was a good road trip with my dad who was racing the Olympic-distance and another buddy of mine. We met up for dinner on Saturday with EN-er Bruce Thompson who I have done some biking with this year, and also EN teammates David Salzman and Paul Hough. Overall it was great to see such a huge EN turnout at the race. I met Ian at the finish line and gave shout-outs to all the folks wearing EN kit on the run course.

Overall goal for this race

One consistent disappointment in my half-iron races to date has been that I have never had a run split consistent with my potential. Targeting MP a low-1:30’s run split should have been achievable for the last 2 years. But I have never managed better than just under 1:35 (and most in the 1:36-1:38 range). The consistency of my runs in the mid-to-high 1:30‘s had really caused me to question if I could ever run close to MP in a half-iron. Last year after marathon training my VDOT reached a high of ~54.5 giving me an MP of ~6:45. So a 1:28-ish split would be the half-iron target running at MP. My goal for this race was to run sub-1:30, period. I committed to dialing-back on the bike in order to achieve this…i.e. going back to EN first principles of “there is no such thing as a great bike split followed by a bad run”. Not that my prior runs have been bad, but they just haven’t been great or close to my potential. 

Taper

My taper for this race was a bit strange. The weekend before the race I did a 2:20 bike on Saturday and did it really hard. Then I did a short 20′ run while my kids were at swim class an hour and a half later. Then I got on an airplane and flew to Miami where I spent the whole week at a company meeting. While in Miami I got in 2 swims in a resort pool that I estimated was ~33 yd at its longest point. So that was good. I also did a 45 minute run on Tuesday with some colleagues but they are hardcore runners so we basically ran it at my TP around 6:35 pace – it was a tempo run not a taper run to be sure. Then I did a short 30′ run on Friday morning and almost melted in the Miami humidity. Zero biking on race week – literally zero other than riding my bike in the hotel parking lot on Saturday night before the race to make sure my tires were installed correctly and the RD was adjusted to accommodate my disc wheel. Although highly unorthodox, I think this taper was actually pretty effective. I did watch what I was eating (which is tough at meetings like that). I will say that flying home on Friday night, arriving at 9pm and having to pack for a 9am departure on Saturday morning was not a good way to reduce stress!!

Nutrition

Race week – All week I was at a meeting that featured high-end conference food (if there is such a thing) during the day and epic fine-dining in the evenings at different restaurants. Overall I restricted calories as well as I could and stuck to large salads during the day. In the evenings I managed to control to 2-3 drinks and reasonable food. Not ideal but my weight was pretty stable until ThursdayOn Thursday I cut out most fiber (i.e. no salads) and promptly gained 2lb. I went into this race about 3-4 lb over my usual race weight.

On Saturday I totally failed to do the “big lunch” strategy due to schedule. I had a high-carb breakfast, then my pre-race usual snacking on heavily-salted mixed nuts and espresso-chocolate trail mix. After check-in we still hadn’t eaten a proper meal since breakfast over 5 hours prior, so went to McDonald’s and had two hamburgers. We started dinner late for a good reason (see “drama” below), and I hereby apologize to Bruce and David and Paul for being late. Dinner was pasta with some Italian sausage, plus lots of bread. And I had a beer at dinner too. It’s just carbs, right?

Drama

Well every race experience needs a little drama and a snafu or three, and this was no exception. At packet pickup me and my dad and my buddy Jon got all split up since you had to go to tables that were arranged by race number. My table had a long line so I waited and talked to Bruce Thompson who we had met upon arrival. Then my buddy Jon comes up and says that I better finish quickly because my dad had run into a place glass window and cut himself. I got to the bathroom of the packet pickup place (the Amway world HQ, so nice corporate facilities) and there he was, bleeding from a cut above his eye and with the First Responders just arriving. They covered the cut and taped it but my dad was pretty freaked out, especially since he had put some much work into training for the race. Well lucky for us our very own David Salzman is an ER doctor so was able to assess the cut. He did say that it needed professional closure so my dad ended up at a local hospital ER getting 5 stitches. Of course you aren’t supposed to swim with new stitches (and esp not in open water), but we took a calculated risk and the race was still on for my dad.

Gear

I made two major gear changes this year. First, I got a new bike fit in December. My prior fit had been in 2010 when I started triathlon, so I figured it was time to update and I could probably stand something more aggressive. The fit was certainly less comfortable for indoor training but outside on my training rides it was fine. The only issue was some inner knee / quad pain I kept getting after about 2.5-3 hours. But I figured my half-iron ride would be shorter than 2.5 hours so wasn’t too concerned. The other thing that worried me about the new fit was that on some familiar routes I was actually going slower than last year. Obviously wind and weather conditions make a difference to things like that but I couldn’t shake the concern that at similar wattage levels I was going slower…i.e. the opposite of what the fit was supposed to do for me. At the end of the day I think this fear was misplaced and the fit was not slower. But I’m not totally convinced this fit is optimized and plan to revisit my fit in the coming weeks.

The second major gear change was to join the Zoot team in the footsteps of our own Matt Ancona (the “other” Matt A and someone who’s shoes I will not try to fill!). So I am racing with lots of Zoot gear this year. The race kit worked out really well and so has all the training gear like running shorts and shirts. I have tried many of the shoes by now and for this race wore a brand new pair of Ultra TT’s. I have been using the Ultra TT’s for all of my indoor running and really like them since they are supportive and have decent drop, but are still very light for racing. Matt and others suggest the Kiawe’s are a great race shoe but I haven’t used them for any more than 4 miles and was concerned to take them to the half-iron distance with such uncertainty. I may race an Olympic-distance with them in the coming weeks then race with them at Racine. Overall I have been really impressed with the Zoot gear. Btw, in case you are wondering, I do not get it for free and have spent way more $$ on gear as a result of this affiliation than I would have otherwise. On the other hand, I now have a brand new triathlon wardrobe!!!

Swim 1.2 miles (36:32, chip time 37:31 including wetsuit stripping and run to T1, 271/711 OA, 31/63 M3539)

First off, I will say that the swim was probably a bit long given (a) my Garmin recorded 1.29 miles and (b) the fastest swim times were frankly not all that fast despite calm water and good conditions. However, I’ll also say that my time – over 2 minutes slower than my mediocre swim split PR – was a reflection of not enough swim training and just not a great swim in general. I found open water. I tried to draft a bit. But it just wasn’t happening in the water. I was all over the course, my arms got tired in strange places due to this being the first wetsuit swim in a year, and whatever other inexcusable excuses you want to hear. I had no gameplan for the swim. It was not my best swim. I will need to focus on swimming to improve, and for sure the triple-Olympic distance will kill me if I don’t improve. So some thinking to do about that. Again.

T1 (1:34, 39/711 OA, 5/63 M3539) – No problems. Seemed efficient. I took a bit of time to remove my 910xt and stash it where it wouldn’t get stolen (as happened at Kansas 70.3® in 2012).

Bike 56 miles (2:20:25, avg 23.9mph, 20/711 OA, 4/63 M3539)

As noted above, my goal for the bike was to set up for a good run. Given the uncertainty in my FTP, I thought targeting 215 watts NP was a good goal – that would be 85% of a 250 FTP or 83% of a 255 FTP. I knew that 80% of a 250 FTP was 200 so was willing to go that low if it seemed to be necessary. I set 230 as the upper limit since that is 90% of a 255 FTP and the highest IF I’ve ever ridden in a race (Steelhead 2011 when I biked a 2:20, something I didn’t repeat until this Sunday).

The roads were wet and it was raining lightly at the start of the bike. My HR was high but not as jacked as in some races coming out of the water. I got my feet into my shoes, and very quickly settled in and started passing people (one of the few great features of being strong on the bike and weak in the swim). Per my plan, I started out at an easy RPE and took stock of where it looked like my power numbers were netting out. The auto-lap was set to 5 miles and the lap power was 215, i.e. right at 84-85%. RPE was very easy so I knew it was going to be a good day. I was settling in really nicely and the next 10 miles was uneventful at a moderate RPE at 225-ish power. Close to the high-end of my limit but I was feeling really good. After the first 15 miles I took a 30-second break to sip some water, have a gel and re-zero my powermeter.

The next 10 miles were really strange. By now I was reasonably near the front of the race. So bring on the referee motorcycles. There was a motorcycle within spitting distance of me literally for the next half an hour. To make this even more complicated, I was riding in a pack of fast guys who kept passing and leapfrogging. In prior races I have never really concentrated on how many bike-lengths I was from the next guy or how long it was taking to pass someone or “drop back” but now my brain was firing full-bore as I ignored the powermeter and just tried to stay away from other folks and not get caught into a drafting or blocking situation. It was really hard – a couple of times I found myself passing someone on an uphill and having to burn major matches to complete the pass in 15 seconds (and of course the people would speed up when I was passing). That 10 miles almost to the turnaround was 92% and 89% of FTP and although it wasn’t fatiguing me, it just made me damn nervous that I was burning matches and undermining my overall goal of running well off the bike. One of those laps was VI 1.04 to give you an idea of how much power-spiking had to happen on those passes. But some of the output was highly sustained. My peak 5-minute power was IF 1.003 and within that 5 minutes was my peak 2-minute power of IF 0.988 at a super-low VI of 1.00. So not exactly textbook execution, but I felt like the only way not to draft in this particular race was to keep passing people.

The return trip after the turnaround was bizarre. The motorcycles got tired of writing down race numbers and disappeared. Many people began blatantly drafting. My VI from miles 30-35 and 35-40 was 1.07 and 1.04, to give an idea of how difficult it was to avoid people. I must have passed the same guys several dozen times. One guy in particular on an orange Guru bike was just blatant about drafting. Also a woman on a road bike with clip-ons and a bright pink Rudy Project helmet. Another guy and I rode beside each other for a while talking about how this was ridiculous. We considered putting down a hard 5′ FTP interval to break away from these guys but at this point it seemed inadvisable. In the last 12 miles the course got even more crowded as we caught up with the tail end of the Olympic-distance race. Overall that last 20 miles was impacted by the other riders and a nice tailwind. My power dropped but by now I was so mentally focused on having a good run that I didn’t care to break away and try to ride 15 watts higher for another 0.5mph or whatever it would have been.

On looking at the data it is clear that there was impact from drafting. Not like hanging onto someone’s wheel in training where I see 160 watts at 23mph and save 60 watts, but certainly a 10-ish watt decline, elevated VI and lower HR. It was only for about 10 miles but it shows up quite obviously in the data. In the final 10 miles the wattage comes up a bit but the VI drops back to normal levels as I was riding my race again. By then I was backing off a bit on the power in anticipation of the run, and just trying to keep clear of a relatively crowded course.

Nutrition and hydration-wise I was very light on the bike. About 5 miles before the end of the bike I had another gel, so that made for a grand total of 2 gels and 3/4 of a bottle of water on the bike. I didn’t have a pre-swim gel so this was very light. But I didn’t feel like forcing myself to eat gels.

T2 (2:44, 309/711 OA, 28/63 M3539) – Obviously extremely slow. I needed to go to the bathroom about 2/3 of the way through the bike but held it in. So in T2 I took about 55 seconds to take care of that. Lost time obviously but there was just no way to run for an hour and a half without doing that.

Run half-marathon (13.1 miles 1:29:15, avg 6:48/mi, 35/711 OA, 7/63 M3539)

The run was two loops of an out-and-back. It was not a hard course but there were a couple of reasonable hills – one in particular about a quarter of a mile after the turnaround point, and another shorter one leading up to the turnaround.

My plan for the run was just to start easy for the first 10 minutes then settle into a good  pace, hoping that the day would give me MP. I think (and if others feel differently I’d love to hear) that a half-iron run is too long to push for 15 sec/mi faster in the first half if you just don’t have it in you that day. So some of this is a bit of “how good is your day today”. There is always the possibility for freak cramping and side stitches too, so I was basically just hoping for a good day and no ‘bad luck’.

I started running and was seeing a 7:30 pace quickly dropping to the low 7’s then into the 6:50‘s. After about a mile or so I ran up behind a guy who was also settling into a pace around mine. We started talking a bit and running together. To make a long story short, we ran and talked until about mile 10. When I say “long story”, we obviously had a lot of time to trade war stories so it was quite fun. He is an ER resident and his wife just had their first baby a few weeks ago (can’t believe he was racing!!). At about mile 5 he complained that he didn’t like the gels on the course so I gave him one of the two I had in my pocket (I didn’t feel like having them). Running with him proved to be a really good move since it moderated my pace but also later in the race kept us both going. I could tell he was tiring since at mile 8 he did the obligatory “if you want to go ahead, please do”, but at the end of the day he proved to be the stronger runner since after the second turnaround he was the one who pulled ahead (he’s the guy with his back to the camera in the finish line pic about to congratulate me.

In terms of pace, I took splits at each turnaround point so you can compare the “out” and “back” segments. You can see the two “out” segments are really consistent, although that means the second was faster since there was no ‘settle-in’ at a slower pace. Also the “back” had a bit more uphill so the fact that segment the first time around was faster than the “outs” is significant I think. The slow final segment was a tale of two halfs – the first mile and a half after the turnaround I lost the guy who I was running with, faced a large hill and basically just lost focus. At some point I saw I was averaging 7:10 or so for that lap so I gave myself a reality-check and picked up the pace for the last mile and a half and ended up at 7:00/mi for that ~3 miles overall.

One issue I’ve had on half iron runs is catastrophic cramping in my right inner quad, and it really seems like a crapshoot as to if that happens or not. I do sodium loading to try to prevent it but still it seems like a pretty random occurrence. I could feel the cramp lurking from about mike 5 or so of the run, and I started to get really nervous at around mile 8 when it started to feel like work to maintain my pace. But fortunately it held off.

The one bummer is that I got passed by a guy in my AG just as I was starting to regain my focus and speed at in the last ~1.5 miles. I didn’t know he was in my AG until the end (no calf-marking), and I literally think he was the only guy (other than my “running partner”) who passed me in the whole of the run. I’d like to think I could have tried to keep the guy in my sights but he blew by me like I was standing still en route to a 1:25 half-marathon (which is my open half marathon PR, so there was no way I’d have kept up). He ended up in 5th place for the AG so a bit of a bummer, but it wasn’t much of a race based on his clear run strength and he finished about a full minute ahead of me after passing me with not that much over a mile to go.

Run splits:

matt run

Nutrition summary

Amazingly I took in very few calories during this race:

  • Ensure at wakeup and a Clif bar in the car on the way to the race (500 cal total)
  • Forgot to eat my shot-bloks while setting up transition
  • Forgot to take the traditional pre-swim gel
  • 2 gels on the bike
  • ¾ of a bottle of water on the bike
  • water from almost every aid station on the course, just one gulp or so, with the rest poured on  head…no slowing

The low hydration was a function of the conditions but the low calories was more because I didn’t feel like taking them down. When I gave my “running partner” one of my gels I thought to take the other one myself at the turnaround, but then I forgot and by the time I thought about it again at the last turnaround there was only 20 minutes left so no point. Overall I might not have hit that slight low point on the run if I remembered to take the gel at mile 5 or 6, but then again I didn’t have any side stitches (which I am a bit prone to having in races) and I finished really strong for 1.5 miles so tough to argue that I should have.

Aftermath

True to form, I promptly got into the car and drove for 3 hours back to Chicago, packed my suitcase and the very next day got on a 12+ hour flight to Asia for business meetings. This was not the best for mitigating soreness and I will admit to being stiff for a couple of days. But that said, I did go for a 35′ run this morning (Wednesday evening US timezone) and felt pretty normal. I will do another longer run tomorrow morning before my afternoon flight and feel like if I’m not I’m back to full-strength already, I will be by this weekend. So overall the fallout was limited…which makes me think I should have run harder…

In terms of next races, my season is a bit “TBD”. I’d love to do Racine but am figuring out the logistics and if I can somehow do it as a day trip. I am now pretty sure I can go sub-4:30 on the right course on the right day and would love to find a way to do that. I wonder if Tremblent 70.3® in September would offer that opportunity (hopefully I could get a slot at Racine). Steelhead is also a fast course to consider, and usually has more favorable (cooler) weather. All that said, I do want to preserve capital on the homefront because my real goals are next season which is my age-up year. I will hopefully find a way to make Sweden work for the Long Course Worlds, and have had my sights set on stepping up to the Ironman® distance as a 40th birthday gift to myself……….

Any and all thoughts and comments from my teammates are welcome and appreciated!!

AUTHOR

Coach P

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