Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Case of Diminishing Skills

Napoleon Dynamite: Well, nobody's going to go out with *me*!
Pedro: Have you asked anybody yet?
Napoleon Dynamite: No, but who would? I don't even have any good skills.
Pedro: What do you mean?
Napoleon Dynamite: You know, like nunchuk skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills... Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.

My triathlon hobby started in 1989. I had been doing running events since the day I was born (or so it seems), moved up as far as CAT 3 in US Cycling in the mid-80s, and competed in duathlons as early as 1987.

But I was not a swimmer. And that single component held me back from jumping into triathlons. Until an eventful evening in the winter of 1988. I was working pharmacy retail at that time in Bryan, TX. I had just finished another draining twelve hour day and was now vegetating in front of the local cable access channel on my television. I was watching the little weather bar at the bottom of the screen trying to decide if I wanted to do a late night run when an ad suddenly caught my attention. It was from the Bryan-College Station Park & Rec department. They were starting a Polar Bear swim club. Simply put, swim at the outdoor pool logging in a minimum amount of meters each week for 12 consecutive weeks and you got a cool Polar Bear long-sleeved T-shirt and other goodies.

I, of course, laughed at first. In North Dakota, where I grew up, being in a Polar Bear club meant you cut a hole in a frozen lake. You dived in and out quickly and raced to a nearby Finnish sauna. The temperature would usually be below zero.

But this? Swimming outside in a heated pool? When the temp maybe got below forty above. Pshaw! But after sleeping on it, I decided to check it out. The thought of being able to compete in a triathlon had been nagging at me. Now in 12-short weeks I hoped to be able to do just that.

Every day over lunch, adults would show up at the outdoor Bryan pool. We'd change inside the non-heated locker area. Then walk briskly to the pool. Most days the temps were in the 50-degree area. But there were days that it dipped into the thirties with the lightest of snow in the air. Steam rising from the heated water. Swimming laps was so friggin' cool in those conditions! Some days the mist was so thick we could have used a foghorn to keep from running into each other in the lanes.

I started slow and gradually graduated from being able to swim one complete lap to swimming 1500 meters by the end of the Polar Bear session. And I earned my T-shirt! It was now time to do my first triathlon. And I picked a doozie.

I always like to tell people that I once raced against Lance Armstrong. That usually gets their attention. I don't bother to tell them that he whooped my rear-end by 35-minutes in a triathlon.

On May 13, 1989 at Speegleville III Park outside Waco, Texas there was a certain buzz in the air as the athletes were all saying, "watch this kid, he's really something." This tri was a 0.6mi swim, 28mi bike, and 6.5mi run. Lance finished in 1:54:05. His closest competitor finished over 6-minutes back.

All I remember is Lance was finishing up the run as I was coming in off the bike. Here's a image of the race summary. Unfortunately, splits were not available.

Waco Triathlon Results – click on image for larger view

I did the swim in 25:07 (2:23 pace per 100 yards, remember this was my first ever effort); the bike in 1:20 (20.9 mph avg); and the run in 41:18 (6:21 pace). I was hooked.

I continued to compete in triathlons for a number of years. Even continuing when I made the move from Texas to Minnesota. My last event, before my...ahem...15-year retirement was in 1993 at the Turtleman Triathlon in Shoreview, MN.

Turtleman – click on image for larger view

Then came marriage, focus on career, international travel, and a baby. In a blink of an eye, 15-years went whooshing by.

In the fall of 2007, I was fighting bad health. Something had hit me a year before and I couldn't shake it. Poor sleep, irritable bowel, constant fatigue, depression. All the signs of living for the moment and burning the candle at both ends. My mantra had been, "Don't tell me I'm burning the candle at both ends. Tell me where to get more wax!"

I went through a myriad of medical testing locally. Everything always came back normal. I spent much of the summer of 2007 at the acclaimed Mayo Clinic. At first, they were stumped as well. Then, a break.

My wife's best friend from high school had attended a dinner party in New York. She met a nice young lady and somehow the subject of my health had come up. Seems the young lady's father was one of the lead GI-doctors at Mayo. He was the guy patients were sent to when no one else could figure it out.

The daughter phoned her father. The father, vacationing in France, called me and told me to contact his assistant as he would be back in the states within a week. A week later I was sitting face-to-face with him when he asked, "Has anyone tested your testosterone levels yet?"

We tested the same day. Normal total serum testosterone levels for a person of my age are 600 - 900 ng/dL. Mine? 70 ng/dL. Finally, an abnormal test!

Further testing eliminated all the nasty causes. Be it pituitary tumor, hypothalamus issues, adrenal tumors....all negative. So I was stuck with an unexplained low testosterone level. There was some talk on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

I was put on testosterone replacement therapy. And I started to get more energy back. But I was still tired. Still sluggish. Still down in the dumps. So, what does a person do in that case? What would any sane person do when they are fighting fatigue and low-energy? As I sat staring out the window one particular depressing day, I decided to start training again.

I could only run a mile at first. Could only swim one length of the pool. My bike was snail slow, barely sustaining 14 mph pace. It took time. But I got back into shape. I had a good 2008 season, placing in the top three overall in three of the six events I entered and won my age group (45-49) in four of those six events. I look for even better results in 2009.

Well, that was a long lead up to the topic of this blog entry. What have I noticed on my return to triathlon? What skills have I lost never to regain again? I put some thought to this.

  1. I ain't as fast as I used to be: Really, that only holds true in running. My 5K's used to be in the mid-16's. Now I am struggling to get under 20-minutes. Yeah, I'm 48 but I see plenty of guys in my age group running in the 18-minute range..even faster. I know I should be one of those guys. And it frustrates the hell out of me. On the flip, my bike is as fast as ever probably due to better gear. My current bike, a Cervélo P3, is feather light compared to my racing bikes of yore. And my swimming has never been better or more comfortable. But overall, the speed just isn't there any longer.
  2. It takes longer to recover: Use to be I could race twice on a weekend. Hell, I even recall a day in Milano, Texas where I ran a Double Dare. I ran in the 10K race, winning it. I got a 15-minute rest then ran the 5K race, placing fourth overall losing only to those who were running the 5K only. Now? During the 2008 season it took as long as two weeks for me to recover. Certainly, most of that was due to the health issue and it being my first year back. I've been in three running events so far in '09 and have recovered fully (no aches, etc) in two days. But still, it can take me a long-long-long-long time to be able to function when first getting out of bed each morning. There is no immediate, "Hello day! How are you! Lets go run a 10-miler!"
  3. I have to work harder on stretching: I hate stretching. No, I abhor stretching. I look at it is thirty to sixty minutes wasted when I could be practicing one of the three disciplines. So, considering that I now incorporate stretching, yoga, and dynamic core exercises into my workout tells you that without it, I be suffering greatly. The days of having muscles and tendons immediately respond to great exertion without kicking up a fuss are long gone.

What about the flip side, though? Why have I still been able to compete and continue to achieve my one constant target - finish in the top 10% overall in each race?

Simple, experience. I know what's ahead of me in each race. I don't get nervous or tighten up or start to hyperventilate like so many of the young, inexperienced bucks do. You know the ones - you can see it in their pre-race motions. In their eyes. In the way they come up to the starting line. You know they are going to go off like a rocket and at some point during the event, you will pass them in the middle of a unrecoverable bonk.

Not in a mean sort of way, but it brings me great joy to pass a person half my age and see the look of astonishment on their face when a grey-haired, white-whiskered, pot-bellied old fuddy-duddy passes them.

I know how to pace myself. I can set off at a certain swim or run pace in my head. Wanna stay on target for a 6:30 per mile run? Just jump behind me. Wanna know how to play the wind, the next big hill, the time to hit the big cog or the little one during a bike? All second nature to me. Think experience doesn't matter in a tri? Ask Scott Tinley or Dave Scott. All were competing at high levels well past when most people thought they could.

At your next event, take a look at the overall results. Which age group puts in the highest percentage of the top finishes? Is it the 20-24 or 25-29 age group like you think it would be? Often times, it is not. It is the 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, and even the 45-49 age group that is competing for the top honors. Triathlon is truly a sport of experience matters.

It's not the water we are drinking. Despite our diminishing skills, our experience continues to get us through. And I have a feeling that we're going to continue to see that paradigm move even further out and start seeing some incredibly fast times from the 50's, 60's and 70's aged triathletes.

And that should be an inspiration to all of us.


cdnhollywood said...

Great inspiration - especially for a newbie and not-so-young-buck at 37. :D

Reminds me of one of my favorite stories. Last year I was doing an early-season Oly distance tri, and I was really hurting in the run. I hit the last turnaround point at 7.5k and started walking. Just then, I heard "If you're hurtin' now, wait until you're my age!" An older gentleman was trying to get me moving again, and he did. We ran together for about 25m, and as he left me in the dust, he said "The only good thing about my age group is that there's only two of us. I always go home with a medal!"

The number on his right calf told the rest of the tale - he was 62.

To be honest, I *love* getting passed by older folks. For me, it shows that there's a lot more runway left for me.

Borsch said...

This is a great post! And very inspiring to a young tri-athlete wanna be (2 weeks away from my first).

Thanks and good luck this year! If I pass you on the bike just give me a pat on the butt and tell me to pick it up when you blow my 9-10 min mile run pace.

Vagabond said...

I am ecstatic to know that I beat someone that raced against Lance Armstrong!!!! "I was at the valentines 5k, and I know you were injured haha." Nice post, are you still planning on getting your fit done on the 28th?? Are you getting the whole deal, retul and cleat positioning?? I am very interested in hearing how it goes. I hope you blog about it.

Take it easy - Jack

Brian said...

Jack - Yes, the full meal deal on the bike fit. This Saturday. Pedals..everything. I will be posting on it. Pretty excited to see what they alter and then have 8-weeks to settle into it before my first du of the season.

Chad in the AZ Desert said...

An awesome story! Good luck in your 2009 campaign.

trimybest said...

i love reading the reasons people choose to participate in endurance sports. i didnt realize you had taken such a long time off! you should come out to madison to watch the ironman this year! it makes it real easy to sign up for 2010!