Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tim Ferguson's Wind Tunnel Vision

Note: this was originally posted by Tim to ICE Racing's blog (which is now gone), so I've copy and pasted it to my own (schwing!) for your viewing pleasure.

I’ve always liked the phrase “it doesn’t get easier, you just go faster.”  Put in the hard work and reap the benefits.  Part of that hard work, though, is understanding that there are things you can do to create speed without having any physical gains.  Free speed.  I haven’t met an athlete yet that doesn’t love it – but just like physical gains, you have to think and work for it.

How do you go about finding yourself some free speed?  Simple things like keeping your drivetrain clean and oiled can help reduce the mechanical drag from dirt and grime.  Finding a comfortable saddle so that you’re still and steady on the bike is key.  In fact, my friend James Haycraft , aka “The Pro”, wrote an excellent article on this topic.

Of course, athletes can always do what I did: marry a beautiful and wonderful woman who gets your desire to go freakishly fast, and get you the greatest Christmas/Birthday combo present ever: a trip to the A2 Wind Tunnel in Mooresville, NC.  I’ll take a moment to let the awesomeness of this gift wash over you.

Before I get ahead of myself, this requires two points of explanation: 1) I was in the market for an aero helmet and, 2) I’m a dork.  The latter point helps to explain the former and the lengths I went to figure out which helmet to select.  Trying to determine the optimal helmet for myself was a major dork-a-palooza.  During the “offseason”, I researched and read about every helmet from the Giro Selector to the Lazer Tardiz.  I mean, I created a spreadsheet and cross referenced characteristics to find the optimal helmet.  (Yeah, so like I said, I’m a dork).  But as much information as I could immerse myself in, it was all hypothetical: I couldn’t know for absolutely certain what helmet would work the best.  So, I made a choice and wrote a note to Santa Claus – obviously.  Fast forward to Christmas day and my awesome wife is handing me a gift certificate for A2. I took my helmet from Santa back to the store with a smile on my face.

When I arrived at the A2 Wind Tunnel, I was ready to listen and learn.  This team at the tunnel had recently hosted Craig Alexander, Mat Steinmetz, and the Specialized team – the best thing I could do was ask intelligent questions and soak it all in. They were going to tell me real answers to all those hypothetical questions that I had posed during my helmet research.  Dave Salazar, the manager, and Jim O’Brien, the bike-fitting guru, were on-hand to walk me through the process and answer all the questions that I had (which were a ton).  They got me set up in the tunnel and had me begin to spin so that Jim could take a look at my present position to determine some adjustments that could be tested.  While my #1 goal was to find an aero helmet, I knew I had an opportunity to make some tweaks in the position.  After the warm up, we needed to develop a baseline from which we would compare/contrast all other tests.

Now, this goes without saying, but each individual is affected by the testing differently.   And while thousands of know-it-all Slowtwitch users can pontificate on the best helmet on the market or the ideal position, your specific characteristics drive your needs.  I can’t stress that enough as I go through my own individual results – the information makes sense for me, but may not even be remotely similar for many others.

The “aero” (and I use that term loosely) helmet I had been using was the Rudy Syton.  However, it had a large crack in it so I opted to bring my road helmet to test as my baseline.  As they informed me, each test would be about 40 or so seconds in duration and it would feel like a high tempo to threshold effort. They wanted to mimic a race like ride so that they could get as accurate position as possible (in a short amount of time).  We did this test twice to get a solid base:

Baseline Test. Game Face On. Obviously.

First and foremost, the wind speed was tested consistently at 30 mph.  Second, as you can see from the data above, there are numerous metrics that were measured.  Many people understand CdA and drag grams.  For this article, I am going to focus on “Aero Watts” as it is easiest to conceptualize.  With that in mind, focus on the “input MPH = 23” on the upper right corner of the table.  You’ll see that my MPH is set at 23, which is approximately my average speed in most of my 70.3 efforts.  Simply put, the “Aero Watts” is a measure of the power that is necessary to produce 23 mph on a flat course.  With the baseline, I was looking at 186-188.  There was definitely room for improvement.

Remember that dork-a-palooza from earlier?  Well, within that nerdfest, I definitely came across a recurring theme: an aero helmet saves watts/time.  Sure, the number itself changed from source to source and website to website, but that fact remained.  My next two tests were the Giro Selector and the Giro Advantage:

Feeling faster...
In case you need a clear interpretation, my road helmet is aero death.  I did not move one millimeter on my position, and still both aero helmets dramatically improved my position.  The Giro Selector (Test #2) is the newest addition of Giro’s aero line and an “upgrade” from the Advantage (Test #3).  The Selector was a little more difficult for me to get on quickly, and had significantly less ventilation.  While this contributed to the better aerodynamic numbers, it was the only helmet that made me sweat significantly during the short test.  The Advantage was a little cooler and did not have a built in visor, but it came in testing a bit worse (181 to 176).

...but not fast enough

There is one thing you may have already noticed: my general position isn’t that visually aero.  No one is going to take these pictures and put them on the cover of Triathlete Magazine or Peloton Magazine.  But, my preferred distance is long-course and positional comfort is as important as my general aerodynamic position.  If I am up and out of my aero bars for half of the race, what good would an aero position be anyway?  I happen to be a pretty flexible person, but based on some specific fit criteria (which is another post for another time) and my power numbers, this relative fit works.  Having said that, you can probably surmise that a long-tailed aero helmet won’t be the most ideal.  My back isn’t as flat as, say, Fabian Cancellara.  It was difficult for me to position my head to keep the tail of the helmet flush on my back – or at least close to that position.

So Aero

Not everyone can be like Fabian

While Cancellara displays a great position for a long-tailed helmet, you can easily understand that I do not. It is difficult to see from the side view, due to the white back of the jersey, but if you look closely at the overhead shot of the Selector you can tell that there is a decent gap between my back and the tail.

Luckily for me, the A2 tunnel actually received some helmets from Kask to test just before my appointment.  One of these helmets was the Bambino, made famous during last year’s Tour de France by Team Sky and eventual winner Bradley Wiggins.  With its unique design and short tail, it became the next tested helmet.

Now we're talking

Did someone say free speed?  Yes. I. Did.  One helmet alone changed my aero watts from a 188-186 baseline to 173.  No positional changes. No additional physical effort.  One helmet.  That looks like a jelly bean.  To say that I was mildly excited is to say that McKayla Maroney was indifferent. FREE SPEED.
8 months later; still not impressed

If I didn’t make it clear enough that this test is individual in nature, I’ll give you a prime example: there was a gentleman who tested before me.  He tested a Cervelo P5, was very thin, and had an extremely aggressive position – it was almost cartoonish.  Even though the Bambino was almost 20 watts more favorable to me, it was EQUALLY as bad for him across the same 30 mph wind speed.  I’ll repeat: the same helmet that provided me free speed managed to strip it away from my predecessor.  Amazing.  With his aggressive position and body type, he was better equipped to utilize a long-tailed helmet.  On the other hand, the short tail – really, no tail – of the Bambino was able to better displace the wind across my back and more broad shoulders.  As I type now, I am still floored that there was a 40+ watt difference against 30 mph wind between he and I with the same helmet.

After determining that the Bambino was a potential winner, we set about making some tweaks and changes to my position.  Many of these changes took place within the cockpit area, mainly adjusting my stack height and/or aero bar angle/length.  Again, through this test another misconception I had was displaced: I had thought if I dropped my stack height even lower, I should be significantly more aero.  However, as you see in the table below, my results were relatively inconclusive, or at least, not indicative of a big change from my original position.  In addition, some of the positions below were not ones that I felt comfortable maintaining for 112 miles.

Still missing something

The picture to the left shows a slightly better back angle with lower stack height, and yet – and much to my surprise – there wasn’t much difference at all.  Now, I will admit that I need to do a better job of working on head position and that also can help reduce drag.  But as you’ll see in a moment, even with “head position awareness” there gain wouldn’t be significant with a smaller stem.

We conducted another test with the Selector to see if anything changed (it didn’t).  We then raised the stack height back, kept other changes (aero bar extension and pad width), and tested two more times with the Bambino, the final test focusing on “head position awareness”.

Winner. The last one is the fast one.  By practicing my “turtle head”, I was able to improve 4 aero watts off my previous best test.  We discussed the test results and realized that my best position was here because I was most comfortable.  Even had we reduced the stack height and I focused on my head position, my natural comfort is in the position you see to the left; hence, the best test result.

Free speed was mine!  I dropped 18 aero watts from my worst run to my best – with an aero helmet and a few small tweaks.  Crazy right?  Most importantly, I now had confidence with data back-up to know that I was in the best position possible to get the most out of my physical ability – nothing wasted.  Free Speed.

Free speed isn’t exclusive to me, you just have to read Haycraft’s blog, understand that aerodynamics are specific to the individual, and, you know, marry a significant other who “gets” your crazy hobby and gives awesome gifts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Feeling weak?

This is a good time of year to feel pretty weak.  The only people racing triathlons now are those crazy (and rich) enough to travel to other parts of the world that are in the southern hemisphere, or perhaps those who already live down there.  I'll stick to my Turkey Trot and local 5k performances, mmk.

Here's my guide to the most useful things you can do for yourself (as a triathlete) during this time of year:

1) Swimming

You don't have to swim a lot of volume, you just need to swim some. You can either continue to work on strengths (biking, anyone?), which will gain you small percentage points in your FTP (if you're lucky), or you can work on a weakness (swimming, anyone?).  Most of you are weak swimmers.  I'm not saying that specifically, I am saying it generally. Triathlons is a sport for generally weaker swimmers (because they are frequently new to swimming).  Compared to a 12 year old year round swimmer girl, I am also a weak swimmer.

Be that as it may, this is the time of year to do something about that. Instead of spending hours and hours on the indoor trainer, why don't you spend a few of those hours inside with friends in a nice pool (and not your virtual friends, REAL friends) and work on a raging weakness.  In 2 months of dedicated, purposeful, and committed swim practice you can make pretty significant gains to your glaring weakness. If you spend 10 hours/week on your bike through March you may gain 5% in your FTP (if you ended the season as a trained individual), and that's great.  Good for you.  But if you don't swim, you'll go from a 40 minute half ironman swim to a 42 minute half ironman swim that sucks the life out of you.

If, however, you choose to work on your swim, you can drop minutes off your time (potentially) and be a better biker and runner in your triathlon racing.  I see a lot of people sign up and do races that reward swim weakness (Chattanooga, Augusta, etc) but then qualify for races where a swim weakness is exaggerated (Kona) and just get utterly obliterated.

Don't let it happen to you.

2) Relax

Now is not the time of year to worry about getting in every single little workout.  You need a mental break from being Type A from March through November.  Take one (/some).

3) Buy stuff

Sometimes I need a nice little purchase that functions as a little pick-me-up from a motivation standpoint.  Since I've moved out to AZ (and don't work at IOS anymore), I haven't bought much.  But you should.  This is America, after all.  And the American Dream is to buy s***.

4) Plan

This could mean a lot of different things. Maybe talking to a coach about a plan for next year gets you excited about racing.  Maybe doing a little variety gets you excited to go hard (CX, MTB, etc).  Maybe your schedule for next year in terms of races is enough; whatever it is just make one! Planning is good for the soul

5) Try new stuff

Juicing is a good example.  Hiking is another.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

2016 XTERRA World Championships Race Report

Phew, it’s been a long trip to Hawaii.  I’m not going to complain - you’ll never hear me complain on this blog - but it almost feels like it’s been TOO long. We arrived in Hawaii on September 29th and we are right now on our flight home on the evening of the 23rd.  So yea, it’s been a while. 10 days in Kailua-Kona followed by 14 days in Kapalua, Maui is definitely a jam packed month of hotness.  I mean that both literally and figuratively, as Hawaii has been hot and humid but also hot as in full of stolen goods. No...wait, that was wrong.  Lots of fit people have been the name of the game. Lots of FAST people.  I suppose that should be taken for granted when you’re competing in two World Championship events (world championships because the companies that produce them CALL them world championships, mind you) but it didn’t really quite click for me until racing my own.

Race week itself had a lot of rain.  It rained at various points pretty much every day we were in Maui but I feel like late Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday contained about a day’s worth of rain.  I read somewhere that this part of Maui (northwest) gets about 400 inches of rain a year (which is insane), and I believe it after our two weeks here.  Oddly, if you go just a bit further south to Lahaina (the biggest town on the west side of the island) it is mostly sunny.  This paragraph is called foreshadowing, by the way.

The bike course (and the run course, which starts out on the same trails and finishes on similar trails) has a lot of...well, it has a lot of mud.  There’s a mix of different types of mud: clay, volcanic, sticky, icky, gooey. All of those ended up being present on race day with the aforementioned rain. I made some hasty tire changing decisions (had to buy a new front tire and swap my formerly front tire onto the rear) and some emergency hacks for preventing mud buildup (thanks Ryan! Spray silicone held off the gunking mud for longer than if I hadn’t had it, i am sure) but other than those things there wasn’t all that much I could do. It would be a grip it and rip it kind of day on both the bike and the run.  My honest goal was simply to make it through the bike course with my machine intact and functional.  I didn’t have a time goal, or even a placing goal; just get to the finish and stop as few times as possible and don’t break any of my expensive bike s***.

The swim, on the other hand, kind of excited me.  I’ve never done a rough water ocean swim triathlon, but I have swum in plenty of rough water ocean.  Our family's’ time at the beach growing up was going to help me navigate the surf much better than my counterparts, or at least that’s what I hoped. I was also banking on my superior non wetsuit swimming abilities as compared to XTERRA Utah, which was wetsuit legal.  Wetsuits let a lot of people who aren’t fast in the water pretend to be fast.  No dice on that for Maui.

I did bike course recon, obviously. What I saw was not especially impressive from a technical standpoint, it was just plain difficult.  Lots of climbing (3200’ of elevation gain) from sea level up to a high point of about 1500’ nestled in the West Maui mountains.  Most of the trails are on private land (upper section) and are not used regularly (if at all?) and so aren’t really “ridden in,” so to speak.  That goes doubly for the “lower section” (first 3.5 miles and last 5.5 miles of bike course), which is “cut” the week of the race through the tall grass on the old golf course (seriously, there are golf balls EVERYwhere) and is only packed down by the athletes that week.  So, consequently, it feels like a slow rolling bike course.  Very soft, in some ways. But the takeaway during practice (lower section on Monday, upper section on Wednesday, lower section on Friday) was how absolutely disgustingly sloppy the course could be with lots of rain (especially noticed during Friday’s ride, which prompted the emergency changes to the bike setup!).  It really does not drain well, if at all.  There are sections with standing water that is near shin deep and essentially (by the time race day rolled around) were just gigantic mud pits.  I actually came to a physical stop in one of these on race day and my bike made that comical “sucking” noise when I pulled it out of the mud.  So in summary, when Christine asked how long I’d be out on the bike for her planning purposes as super spectator, I said “anywhere from 1:45 to 2:30” depending on how dry or wet the course is…

Fast forward to race day.  9:04am start in Hawaii time (it is VERY weird being on HST for almost a month, by the way.  You never realize how many junk emails you get each morning until you wake up at 7am HST but it’s already 1pm EST.  Also, football is on at 7am. Also weird) for all males under age 39.  This was nice, as it meant waking up at 6am gave me plenty of time on race morning.  I had a couple of cups of coffee (not a fan of Kona coffee, I’ve decided...after having it a LOT these past few weeks), some breakfast, and then rolled my bike down to transition (we were staying in a golf villa about a 15 minute walk from transition, pretty awesome!) before running back up to the villa to relax a bit before getting back into the fracas.

We walked down to transition again, where I set up my run stuff and then we headed down to the beach to scope out the swim scene.  Conditions were definitely LEGIT. This wasn’t going to be some glass smooth swim, no sir! The shore break was strong and the swells were pretty sizable even all the way out to the buoys.  The course was basically an “M” with two triangle “loops” and a beach run to connect the two. After the various ceremonial stuff, we were all lined up and ready to rock and roll…

Headed out to warm up a bit

Swim - 24:06 - 1st AG (whooooooaaaaaa)

I was lined up on the front row on the far left, and there weren’t too many people around me.  The announcer had said the current was moving strong from right to left (when looking out at water from beach, which is the “direction” the course goes) but watching the pros who had started ahead of us it didn’t look like there was too much of it, so I was content over there.  I was expecting to get pummeled, but I made it through the shorebreak and there was NO one around me.  Nobody to my left, nobody to my right…  

That's me raising my right arm on the left!

Very strange. I ended up getting passed by either 2 or 3 guys before we got to the first buoy, but the gap remained relatively small as we turned and came back towards shore.  The way back was easier than the way out, but I was still sighting on almost every single stroke as timing the swells was difficult, at best.  I didn’t manage to catch any waves on the way in, but could tell there were more guys around me at this point.  

Making the turn to head out on lap 2
Rounding the flags

Not too crowded though, which was nice.  The next lap spread out everybody a bit more, and getting out of the shore break this time was VERY tiring after running on the beach for 15-20 seconds.  I made it out to the second buoy without too many issues and turned around and headed for the finish. I had passed quite a few pro women and not a small number of pro men (at least, that I could see).  It had clearly been a tough swim for everyone, as people were spread out ALL over the place.

Headed up to transition

Also, the distance on the Strava file is wrong, by the way. My running watch doesn't like being worn in the water for swimming and doesn't have the fancy algorithms the multisport watches do for wrist-worn swimming!

T1 - 2:24

The run was entirely uphill so I took it pretty easy. In transition I put on socks (didn’t want chafing with all the mud we were gonna experience) and went ahead and put on my gloves.  Not the speediest, but didn’t waste any time really.

Bur first, lemme get up this hill
Ready to roll

Bike - 2:19:32 - 15th

I don’t want to get too long with the bike.  Let’s describe this in terms of feelings, in rough order:

  1. Stay smooth, don’t go crazy
  2. Holy crap it’s muddy!
  3. Dammit, off the bike already?!
  4. Note to self, don’t hit ANY roots at a slant out here if you want to stay upright
  5. It’s kind of hot out here
  6. It’s raining again
  7. I didn’t expect to be walking my bike uphill this much
  8. Walking a bike uphill in slick mud is not fun
  9. Those athletes that have toe spikes on their shoes have got to be slaying it
  10. I can’t believe that pro woman just rode up this entire hill! Claps
  11. Yea I’m about ready to be done with this
  12. Can we please stop climbing? Please?
  13. See #11
  14. See #12
  15. Oh thank god, back on the lower section
  16. More roots, the sheer joy of this overwhelms me
  17. This is the hardest f***ing bike course ever, and not in a good way
  18. My bike hates me
  19. See #11
  20. Pull out the large tree branch stuck in my derailleur
  21. See #11
  22. Put chain back on for the 10th time
  23. See #11
  24. Finished, thank the tiny little gymnast baby Jesus

So yea, that’s it in a nutshell.  It was a true struggle. I’m not sure how big a fan I am of the idea of a “world championship” course being so subject to weather patterns.  When I say that was the hardest triathlon race bike ride I have EVER done (or ever hope to do) I am doing two things:

  1. Not exaggerating
  2. Not meaning it in a “fun” and “happy” way

That s*** was just plain ridiculous. My bike was COVERED in mud. My body was COVERED in mud (and I never even actually fell!). My nostrils had mud in them.  In fact, every orifice in my body had likely gotten mud in it at one point or another.  My lower back was on FIRE from all of the seated climbing (can’t stand up to climb because your rear tire gets NO traction) at low cadence and extremely high torque. My hands hurt. My neck hurt. My forearms and triceps hurt. My quads, adductors, hamstrings, calves, and achilles hurt (the latter two from the walking uphill).  It was just ridiculous. I’d pass someone fixing their bike, then they’d pass me when I had to fix mine.  People littered over the course with mechanical issues, just making do as best they could.  

Yea, a bit muddier than at the beginning
Still muddy

But, I survived. And I still had a damn run to do!!!

T2 - 1:22

Not much to report here, pretty clean.

Run - 58:44 27th AG

Sweet salesman baby Jesus, the run.  All I could think of the last ¼ of the bike was the fact that after ALL of that ridiculousness, I still had to get off that bike and run 6.5 miles on basically the same course.  Do I sound excited? Well, I was. Knowing that the first half of the course went uphill, my real goal was just to survive that as best I could. With the cramping issues I’ve been experience on XTERRA run courses this year and last year, I figured I was likely due for more of the same.  In spite of fueling pretty well and consistently on the bike, the sheer difficulty of the nearly 2.5 hours I spent on the bike was pretty overwhelming.  When I WAS actually running my stride didn’t feel too bad, but I was really just managing various discomforts.  My adductors being the worst offender, but also my right hamstring and both vastus medialis..es.  I tried to manage as best I could, but definitely gave up quite a few spots in the first 30-40 minutes of the run.  I’m not gonna lie, it is quite frustrating.  Take it to the road and I can outride and outrun just about most people.  Take it off road, however, and my road going stride just doesn’t quite cut it the same.  Oh well #roadtriathleteproblems

Slowly, but surely
The tortoise wins, right?

Once the course trended downhill, I was able to pretty much run continuously with the exception of a nasty last climb about .5mi from the finish line.  

The WORST part, however, of the ENTIRE run course was the 400m we spent running in soft sand on the swim start beach before getting to the sidewalk finishing line. I only ran it because the sheer shame of walking in the last 400m with all of the spectators watching would have overwhelmed me.  Given that I have my name on my kit, the shame is very specific ;)

Despite all of these aforementioned #firstworldproblems I managed to cross the line, and feel quite satisfied about it.  I was honestly just ecstatic to cross the line, both because it finished off the hardest race of my triathlon career, and because it meant I could stop moving.

So muddy, you can't see age groups

Pretty much says it all

Despite all of the complaining I have done in the previous 2200 words, I am pleased with this race.  I have not raced a “world championship” level event before and, though I expected to have a humbling day, I was not expecting this level of course difficulty.  I can’t even say that I think this type of course difficulty is even really good, as I would much rather RACE than simply survive.  I don’t like depending on luck to make or break my race.  I definitely have to say that XTERRA Oak Mountain is - to me anyway - a far better test of off road swim + bike + run, as the course is not AS dictated by the weather.  But maybe that’s just sour grapes.  I am very pleased with the result, as being top 5 american (although we only generally say that because internationals kick our asses so bad!) is never a bad thing, and I am really pleased and proud to have simply crossed the line.  I’ve come a long way with my XTERRA racing and have showcased some great fitness gains and specific skills I’d never had previously, but I think it may be time to get back on the road next year…

Uhh, THIS for 550 bucks and that hard of a race??

That being said, I CANNOT overemphasize how difficult this race was. A bit of a broken record, perhaps, but I really want to try and put into words the feelings of this race.  I would be extremely surprised if anybody was able to RIDE the whole course.  I suppose it’s possible, but the feeling of getting off your bike and walking up an incline you barely get traction on in your bike shoes is, in a word, FRUSTRATING.  The feeling of riding a bike that is so gunked up with mud and grass and other junk is like trying to wade through waist deep honey. Riding a bike up a hill that’s steep enough to require you being in your 30 x 42t gearing (easiest gear on many mountain bikes) at 60rpms is hard enough, add in 10 pounds of mud and s*** and slippery, often non existent traction is...hard. Professional winning times were 30 minutes slower than 2015.  30 minutes!! That’s a HUGE chunk of time.  How the top guys went under 3 hours is beyond me. Usually on the road I can wrap my head around how much faster the fast people are than me because it’s really a mechanical equation. But in this? I have no idea.

A little diry
I encourage EVERYONE to try and race off road triathlon at some point. It will give you an entirely new perspective on what “hard” means. People think a half ironman is hard (myself included)...HA. Try racing through that s*** for 4 hours! My bike split was roughly time equivalent to a 70.3 (a little under 2.5hrs) but the physical stress of those 2.5 hours was exponentially more taxing. I have no power meter, so can’t quantify its training stress with watts, but ultimately those only tell an exceptionally small portion of the story on the mountain bike.  It was a battle, and I’m tougher because of it.

Here are some great videos that recap some of the action: