Personal Best Triathlon. Still Room for improvement.

Dateline: Sunday, Aug 28, 2011.

Scott completed the Chicago International Distance Triathlon.


I had a great time with my family downtown.  We walked a bit more than I’d like.  We got down to the Hilton Hotel (the Chicago Tri sponsored hotel) right before lunch.  We checked in, and then walked to Macy’s for lunch.  I’m a big fan of the Seven on State quick serve restaurants especially Rick Bayless’s Frontera Fresco.  MMM… Tacos.  Probably not the best idea for a pre-race meal, but so worth it.  Then, we walked back to the Chicago Multisport Expo to pick up my race packet, get marked, and attend the course talk.  I skipped about 1/2 of the course talk due to off-timing of the my lunch and the schedule.  Luckily, the course didn’t change from last year, and I was able to revisit my notes from last year which calmed the pre-race jitters.  Speaking of pre-race jitters. They started a week before the race.  I could sense the tenseness, and I’m sure my family could sense my distracted mind.  I was focused on the race.  I had difficulty even meditating to calm myself down. After attending, the expo. we walked to Millenium Park, had a great dinner at Harry Caray’s, and then visited Chicago Summer Dance.

Pre-Race Goals:

My main Triathlon Goal is to break 3 hours and be above the average.  That hasn’t changed.  However, I took note of my last year’s time and incorporated my training times, and came up with these goals:

Realistic Goal:

Swim: 35 min (my 2010 swim time)
Tran 1: 7 min (my 2010 time)
Bike: 85 min (17.5 mph my 2010 bike avg)
Tran 2: 5 min (my 2010 time)
Run:   56 min (9 min miles. pace run during 2011 training pace)

Total: 188 min

Stretch Goal:

Obviously, this is above 3 hours.  So, I created a stretch goal to finish under 3 hours:

Swim: 32 min ( quick swim)
T1:  5 min
Bike: 83 min (18 mph)
T2: 3 min
Run: 55 min (8:40 min miles)

178 min

How did I do?


In order to get a good spot for transition, I woke up at 3:40am to get out the door about 4:10am and make my way over to transition which opens at 4:15am.  Before transition set-up, I like to shower to wake-up.  I also want fresh ice for my water bottles, and I like to eat a pre-race breakfast of a banana and a cliff bar.  I always bring too much stuff with me, just in case, to transition.  My suggestion is only bring what you need.  I don’t need an extra set of running clothes.  Although, I don’t know if I will listen to this advice in the future.  I like to be prepared in the event of rain or just some odd occurrence.  It was a windy morning, and there was a rip-tide warning for the beach.  So, I was starting to get mentally prepared to be battered during the swim.

My wave for the race wasn’t until 9:06am.  So, instead of watching the sunrise and the first heats, I met my brother in the transition set-up and we walked back for a little pre-race Bagel.  Next year, if I have a late start again, I think peanut butter on a bagel will be an awesome breakfast choice.  I then went back to the room, and tried to sleep.  That didn’t happen, but I did walk through the race twice using visualization techniques to help prepare myself.  That was very helpful.

The 1.5 KM Swim:

It always takes me a while to get my wet-suit on.  So, I like to get to the swim-start about an hour before my race time.  This gives me some time to relax.  It gives me some time to put on my wet-suit which takes me about 20 to 30 minutes to do.  Then, I get some time for photos and then off to the chute.  Waiting in line is fun and exciting, but still stressful.  Both last year and this year, I experienced an unexpected swim-shock.  Its really difficult to see in Lake Michigan especially when its choppy and wavy.  I’d categorize myself as a strong swimmer.  Yet, when swimming with a big group of other guys all starting to swim, there’s no room.  I don’t position myself in the front.  I position myself in the middle.  Maybe I should change that next year.  By being in the middle, you have wait for the front of the line to start.  So, the first 100 yards or more, I swim freestyle with my head above water so I can see where I’m going.  Its similar swimming style when you try to swim freestyle without goggles.

Combine the crowded swim, with not being able to see, with a changed swimming style, and the adrenaline of a competitive race, and you get my heart rate racing super high and consequently my breathing was uncharacteristically hard.  In fact, my thoughts in the first 1/4 of the race, are Why the heck am I doing this to myself again?  What’s the benefit of doing this triathlon thing again?  So, I can scare myself and swim in a lake with a bunch of other people,  Why?

After I get to the buoy turn-around, I know that I’m 1/4 of the way done with the swim.  so, I usually settle down.  For some reason, I didn’t settle down as much.  It took me unbelievably long to get into a rhythm. I am normally a breath every 3rd stroke swimmer in the pool.  However, in the lake, I turn into a breath every other stroke.  In addition, I know my form was off.  I was not feeling the water.  It felt foreign. I know I was not stroking the way I can. I think more practice in the wet suit is required. As I’m going along, I’m thinking I have to get my stroke back, and I’d break into a little bit of a sprint, then I’d have to stop and do a little breast stroke to see where I’m going, then do the whole sequence over again.  One part, I’m glad I practice is cleaning my goggles while in the deep end of the pool.  My goggles were foggy about 1/3 of the way through with the swim.  Once, I cleared my goggles, I seemed to calm down and get my breathing under control.  Now, about half through the swim, you are back at the swim start.  That always energizes me, because I know I’m half-way done.   However, the next part of the swim is where the break wall opens up, and the waves were really pushing me around.  I was kicking much stronger than normal, and it seems every fourth breath, I’d get a wave in the face.  Happily, Lake Michigan, being a fresh water body, tastes much better than pool water.  For the next part of the race, I was playing bumper body / tag with a couple of other swimmers.  We were all at about the same pace, and one would go a little faster, and then I would pass him, and back and forth until finally, I concentrated on my form, and I pulled away from that pack.  However, I ran right smack into a slow group of swimmers which means I had to concentrate on sighting better to swim around all that group.  Once, I got to the final buoy, I was swimming towards the stairs, and I had a little difficulty getting out the lake.  Happily, the volunteers were great in helping us out of the water.

Part of the Chicago Triathlon Swim, is about a 450 yard jaunt back to transition.  I did my best to unzip my wetsuit while running.  I had to run around a few participants which was good.  I’m glad the cloth they had on the ground was in tact.  The cloth really helps running bare-feet on the concrete path.  One thing that was new this year, was I heard my wife call out to the kids.  “Oh, there he is.”  I quickly turned and tried my best to wave while running.  That put a smile on my face after the wavy choppy swim.

1.5 KM Swim Time:  37:23 minutes

I am a little disappointed in my swim-time.  I can swim faster than that.  I know I have a sub-30 minute swim in me.  I guess that gives me incentive to freak myself out again next year.

Transition 1:

I wanted to beat my transition time of last year (7 minutes).  I like to sit on the ground when I take of my wet-suit.  It just makes it easier for me.  So, as soon as I cross the timer, I find a spot in the grass, pull of my wetsuit.  Then, I ran to my bike.  put on my socks/shoes.  Throw on my shirt and shorts.  Grab my iphone and put it on my bike.  Set-up runkeeper on the iphone.  I totally forgot my glasses.  (Can I blame my bike time on lack of glasses?)  Luckily, I’m not blind.  I just have a little difficulty reading signs that are far-away which wasn’t a requirement while riding.  I also drink some water, and grabbed my bike nutrition.  I think I want to get a little bento box or something for my bike so I can reduce the time for that.  I also have to work on transition.  it still feels slow!  I did my best to run to bike out.  I was quicker than last year, but I feel I go get better.

Transition 1 Time:  06:12 minutes

The 40 KM Bike:

I forgot the first part of the bike course requires an ascent for the initial ramp onto Lake Shore Drive. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the initial burst of energy required to get up to speed.  Combine that with the Head-wind coming from the North, and that lack of initial burst set the pace for a mediocre bike ride.  Last year, I averaged 17.5 mph.  This year, I averaged:  16.8 mph.  Quite a bit slower.  The one saving grace, I feel is that I was rarely passed by anyone with non-road bicycle. In fact, I think only one non-road bike passed me.  The rider looked like he was 6’8″ tall.  I have a fitness bicycle, the Trek FX 7.3.  It has a similar riding position to a mountain bike or hybrid bike, but has tires and bicycle frame styling closer to a road bike.  So, on a windy day like Sunday, my riding position really is a detriment.  Knowing that, really set me back.  Mentally, due to wind, I  let myself relax in the first quarter of the race and did not push as much as I should have.  That was my second mistake.

Now, on the second quarter of the loop, the wind is a tail wind, and boy did that feel awesome!  I was riding at super speeds.  I was really hoping the tail wind would make up for my early bike ride mental lapses.  In fact, I was cruising and passing many of the road bikes which felt awesome.  Last year, I rarely passed anyone.  The other difference was last year, I was an early heat (7:38am swim-start).  So, I had fewer bicycles on the course.  This year, the bike course, felt really busy.  I think passing the slow riders artificially inflated my confidence in my speed.

Lessons Learned:  Weather is a challenge, but if I had stayed strong mentally, I think I could have averaged a faster time.  Be prepared for the initial ascent.  its an easy climb, but if I charge the climb up and really push the climb, that will set the pace for the entire ride.

I also need figure out how to get faster on the bike without the use of technology.  Can I get to an 18mph average with my current bike set-up?  What can I change?  seat-height?  Training style? Ride more intervals?  Do more hill-work?  One training style I changed this year compared to last year, is this year, I rode much more road trails compared to last year, I rode more forest preserve hiking/biking trails which are more gravel, hilly, and twisty.  Maybe, I should return to the forest preserve trails?

Technology wise,  Should I think about buying shoes & clips, aerobars, a new helmet, or maybe even a road bike?

40 KM Bike Time:  89:50 minutes (16.8 MPH)

Transition 2:

Last year, I changed my shirt from biking to running.  I was sweaty, and thought I’d feel more comfortable. In an effort to speed up my T2 time, I decided not to change as I planned.  I tried to run back to my transition spot on the rack, but I got caught behind some bike walkers.  I also took too much time switching my Runkeeper iphone app from bike mode to run mode.  I grabbed a drink of cold water from my insulated mug which was refreshing.  I grabbed my race belt.  Part of me wonders if I shouldn’t just wear the race belt for the bike portion to speed up T2.  T2 should be easy.   Rack bike, change shoes if needed, and go.  I know I can improve my T2 time.  Granted, I beat my last year’s time.

T2 time:  04:00 minutes

The 10 KM Run:

I’m proud of my run.  In fact, this year, I feel I can call myself a Triathlon finisher.  Last year, I didn’t have that finisher feeling.  Why?  Last year, it was so hot and I was unprepared, I walked about 4 miles of the run.  This year, I was determined not to walk.  I didn’t even want to stop to walk near the water stations for fear that my momentum would be lost.  So, slow jogged through the stations gulping at water.  The Chicago Triathlon run is deceiving.  You think Chicago, and you think flat-land which is totally true.  The run south is a little more elevated than you think.  So, there’s some hills and some elevation climb.  Not much, but enough that its noticeable.

Now happily, the wind was at our tail for about 2/3 of the run.  That was great.  In fact, it was a cool breeze.  So, when I got to the turn around just before the 4 mile mark and the wind was now blowing into my face, I felt refreshed.  It really helped me.  In fact, I yawped at the turn-around how great it was to be there.  The Run was not easy by any means.  Its a mental battle.  Yet, I was determined to run the entire thing.  I wanted that finisher feeling that I lacked the prior year.

In fact, I trained for the run much differently this year.  Last year, I did more biking & swimming with less running.  This year, I was balanced between the swim/bike/run.  My longest training run this summer was 10 miles.  During the doldrums of the running race, I mentally chatted with myself that I didn’t run a 10 miler just to walk the run portion.  I didn’t do all my training all summer long just to feel a little deflated at the finish line.  That’s why I’m proud I won that mental battle.  I ran the entire portion.

I have to say the last mile was difficult, but so worth it.  I pushed it. I have Sean to thank for pushing it. I remember him suggesting to leave it all on the course.  I knew I could run faster, and I tried to pick up the pace a ton that last 1.5 miles.  It doesn’t show in my times, but I’m sure that helped at least keep me consistent and not slow my time.  The last mile is a little more challenging than you think, because you go down hill under a tunnel, then you have to go back up hill to the finish line.  So, its not a forgiving flat run that you would expect.  You think you’re finished, but boom, you have this incline to face.

Near the end, Happily, I saw my wife and two kids cheering me on.  It was exciting.  I waved my 6yr old son to run with me.  I know its probably not a good idea.  I could get other racers hurt, but I held on to his hand, and he ran hard.  He started to lag behind just a bit, and I said, come on Cam, we’ve got to run faster, and he started to pull my hand a bit.  I was so proud to finish with him.  Seriously, I’m beaming now just writing about it.  Cam and I got an official picture taken.  It felt great having my wife and kids there along with my parents.  Of course, my sister-in-law and her kids were there for my brother who finished about 10 minutes before me.  Having a cheering section really does help.  In fact, in a happy surprise move, I saw my parents in the first mile of the run.  They took pictures.  I was tempted to stop and give them a hug, but I did not want to stop momentum.  I wanted to break the 9 min mile mark.  Overall, I’m happy with my performance, but I know I can go faster.

10 KM Time:  55:09 minutes (8:53/miles)

Total Time:  192:36 minutes


The best part of the triathlon is getting the cold towel on the head to cool off and drinking the ice cold water.  This year, I grabbed some watermelon at the post-race bar-b-cue, and that was some of the best watermelon I’ve had.

The worst part of the triathlon is the 1.5 mile or so walk back from the finish line back to the transition area.  I just finished the triathlon.  I swam hard, I biked hard, and I ran harder.  Then, you’ve got to go collect all your transition items and pack up and go home.  That’s the grueling part of the triathlon.

Mentally, I have mixed emotions.  I am ecstatic that I ran the entire run.  I really feel like a finisher.  I feel like I can call myself an age-grouper triathlete.  I am happy this year’s time 192:36 minutes beat my last year’s time 213:51 minutes.  In fact, I think a 19 minute improvement is great. However, I missed my realist goal mark by 4.5 minutes, and I missed my stretch goal by 12.5 minutes.  I know I can be faster.  I just have to figure out how to adjust my training to become faster while maintaining endurance coupled with the difficulty of scheduling workouts with busy family life.

The future:

My kids asked me before the race, will you win the race?  My first answer was No, I won’t win the race. However, I went on to explain to them, I’m not running against everyone else.  I’m running against myself.  A Triathlon is a mental test as much as a physical test.   To me, Triathlons and Endurance sports in general are similar to Golf. I’m competing with myself and the course.  Can I  run my best race and achieve a personal best time? After racing in 2010 & 2011, I know I can do better, and that is reason enough for me to sign-up for another Triathlon next year.

The nice thing about racing the same event year after year, is you get comfortable with the course set-up.  You also have an easy ability to compare performances between years.  However, the Chicago Triathlon is a bit of a logistics issue.  There are so many people, and its so busy.  I love it.  Yet, I might try a different race for a more intimate experience next year.  We’ll see.

Final Thoughts:

After training for an entire summer, and then completing the pinnacle event of my race year, I want to tell everyone.

Of course, I tweeted it, I facebooked it. and now I’m blogging it.

In fact, on Sunday, I almost wore my medal when I ran out to pickup some Chipotle for dinner  just so I could show-off.  I didn’t do that.

Finishing a triathlon without walking is an accomplishment I’m proud of.  In fact, I received all sorts of congrats from online friends.

Thank you to my family for coming out to the Race.  I really appreciate it.  Thank you to my friends who gave me congratulations. Thank you to all the Volunteers for a great Race.

Philosophical Ending:

Yet, there are plenty of other endurance activities we don’t cheer on.

For example, I have prepared and practiced my trombone for concerts.  I then performed in the concerts.  I tweet it, and facebook it, and I get much less congratulation responses.

Another example, you have a difficult project at work, you prepare months for the completion of the project.  You announce the finale to your friends, family, strangers, they don’t seem to celebrate those accomplishments as much as an endurance event.

Triathlons make me realize that Life itself is an endurance event.

We all have challenges.  We all have accomplishments.

Cheer each other on daily!

–Scott Stawarz

In the meantime, Swim, Bike, and Run!

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