Sunday, August 23, 2009

Taking Notes...

While my original plan was to run the Orillia Try-a-Tri this weekend an injury threw a wrench in those plans. As I never got a chance to watch one, however, I elected to head up anyway to observe and take notes about the various technical aspects of the race. The transitions are likely the biggest potential pitfall, so my focus was to watch how people handled them and what mistakes commonly caused problems.

Either way, I headed up in the morning and got to the start line just before 10:00am - about an hour before the start of the race. The sprint tri started at 8:00am, so that gave me a chance to catch the tail end of that race, as well as watch the registration and setup of the try-a-tri group. As such, as soon as I got to the site I headed over to the transition area for the sprint race and watched those still running the race - hoping to pick up some ideas from the more experienced athletes. Unfortunately, two hours into the race there weren't a lot of people still out there and those that were didn't appear to be in too much of a hurry so there wasn't a whole lot to pick up on.

As such, I headed over to the try-a-tri section and watched people setting up. The first thing that struck me was that the bikes were being crammed in very close together. Even an hour before the race, the racks (at least in the wave 1 section) were pretty much full and people were trickling in and searching for places to set up. This didn't leave much room for people to set up their stuff, and the bikes were so close together that people were having trouble with bits of their bikes getting stuck on their neighbour's frames. If they were having trouble at this point, I was a bit concerned about what would happen during the race when they are fighting the clock.

As the start approached, this only got worse as people were squishing their bikes between others already on the racks. As such, transition areas that people had carefully set up were being moved around by others. The racks near the back end of the section still had a good amount of space left on them, but people wanting to be close to the entry/exit chutes were basically pushing their way in. This was a bit disconcerting, however it's one of those things that is valuable to see happening before you jump in so that you can avoid it in the future ;)

Either way, the transition setup was pretty similar for most people - their helmets and sunglasses mounted on top of the headset, a towel on the ground with cycling and running shoes and a bag near the front for everything else. Lots of people had tupperware containers filled with water to clean the sand off of their feet (definitely a good idea). About half of them appeared to have socks set up, and there were a lot of people out there without wetsuits. Most people hung their bikes from the front of the saddle, however others were hanging them from the back of the saddle or the handlebars depending on the height of their bikes. While the sprint transitions were pretty orderly with bikes on alternating sides, the try-a-tri section was all over the place.

With about 15 minutes to go, I headed over to the beach to watch the start and what warmup procedures people were doing. A good number of people were in the water, and many of them were going pretty far out on their warmups. With a few minutes to go, they were called back in (this race has a beach start) and people lined up in their wave positions. Once the starter's horn sounded, the mass of people headed out and kept in a suprisingly tight formation. While the line was pretty wide, other than a few straglers everyone appeared to be going at a similar pace until the first bouy. At that point, things spread out a bit more as the turn forced everyone to concentrate back into a single column and the traffic slowed things down.

Once the first wave hit the second bouy, I headed back to the transition area so I could watch the leaders do T1. We waited a few minutes, and the first fellow headed in and did a picture perfect transition - quickly losing his wetsuit, putting on helmet, sunglasses and bib then running off with his bike (shoes were attached to the bike). As more people trickled in, one relatively young participant ran into some trouble removing her bike from the rack as it's brake levers were catching the seat stays of an adjacent bike. After yelling a bit and struggling with the bike, it eventually came free - a bit of a testiment to how the pressure of racing can get to you in these circumstances.

Watching a handful of people perform this transition, a lot of individuals elected to leave their cycling shoes attached to the pedals. This is certainly the fastest way to go (one less step in the transition zone, no need to struggle with running on cleated shoes, etc.), however it requires a lot more skill to slide your feet in after you get rolling. I expected a lot of this in the longer races, but I figured that it would be relatively rare in an introductory distance like this. There's no way that I can master this with the time remaining, however it's something that I'll have to practice for the next season.

When the cyclists returned, I turned my attention to them. The biggest problem here appeared to be finding their place, as the empty racks looked a lot different than when they were full. There were a lot of people wandering around; the longer it took the more agitated they became and the less efficient they were at searching for their spot. As such, it's clear that it's critical to remember your exact location and, if possible, use some form of brightly coloured towel/bag/etc. to make it easier. A lot of people lost a lot of time due to this, so it's likely the most important lesson to take away.

As expected, a lot of them opted to use elastic shoelaces to simplify the switch, however most people appeared to have a lot of trouble getting their heels in as there was nowhere to sit down. A simple throwaway shoehorn would have done a lot of good here, so I'll have to think about adding that to my kit. I'm still not terribly crazy about the idea of moving away from conventional laces, however tieing them takes a considerable length of time so there are good reasons to make that compromise.

One other thing that struck me was that very few people bothered to take in any fluids along the way. Most of the bikes didn't have water bottles, and the runners didn't appear to bother with water belts either. I'm not sure if there were aide stations down the road that I didn't see, however for a ~40 minute race I would have expected more people to take in some water during the competition.

As for heart rate monitors, most people wearing them appeared to put them on before the race started and used their wetsuits to keep them in place. With that said, a lot of people swam with tops on so I didn't get a very wide sampling of what people were doing on this front. Either way, I guess this is another strong arguement for picking up a wetsuit ;)

Either way, it helped a lot to watch the process for once and gave me a better idea how things will play out. Asside from the information, knowing what to expect along the way can do a lot to boost confidence and avoid panic during the race itself. As for the lessons learned, the main take-away points that I got from this event are basically as follows:
  • Get to the race site really early and familiarize yourself with the exact layout of the different areas. Knowing exactly where your bike is without the aide of reference points that may not be there when you arrive back in the transition area is critical. Further, look at the entry and exit chutes so that you know exactly where you will be running (a lot of people had to be chased by by marshals for going the wrong way during T1).
  • Furthering the above, set up the transition area as soon as possible as it appears to fill up very quickly. As the race start approaches, hang around your bike as much as possible to dissaude others from squeezing in and messing with your setup. Additionally, selecting a somewhat sub-optimal position may be a better bet as the density of bikes will be lower than that first few rows (ie time lost due to additional running is ofset by not having to work in such a crowded space).
  • If at all possible, try to set up your bike alongside someone else that you know. There were a lot of jerks who knocked down adjacent bikes during their transition and just took off without bothering to do anything about it. Being flanked by people that you trust not to mess up your stuff has the potential to reduce the probability of problems like this.
  • Focus on remaining calm in transition, regardless of what was happening. The girl noted above who had trouble getting her bike free lost a good deal of time because she was just mindlessly tugging at it rather than figuring out what the problem was and addressing it. There is a lot of pressure on you when in this scenario, so it is totally understandable, but staying focused will almost always result in a better outcome.
  • Bring along some sort of bright and easily identifyable towel or bag to make finding your place in the transition zone a bit easier. Memorizing position in absolute terms (X racks down, Y meters in) will help, but with the adrenaline coursing through your system having a simple visual cue as a backup appears to be a very useful idea.
  • A lot of people ran the race without a wetsuit and appeared to not have any trouble, however the vast majority of the first group out of the water were wearing them. It's hard to tell if that's a cause (ie the wetsuit made them that much faster) or effect (stronger swimmers are more likely to invest in one), but it's a strong indication that it's a good idea.
  • The more competitive athletes in this race all used dedicated triathlon shoes, and left them attached to the pedals rather than putting them on manually. I'm not going to bother with that at this point as I need some practice doing this, however it is obviously something that I'm going to need to look into.
  • As for the socks issue, it appeared to be split down the middle for both races so it doesn't appear that there is a clear winner here. With that said, the people who did have socks didn't appear to have much issue putting them on so that's likely the route that I'll take.
  • There is a pretty wide variety of different people running these races. While I expected a lot of mountain bikes and people doing it just to finish, I was suprised how many people were running this race who had already done triathlons before. Given the type of race and prior finishing times, I kind of figured that this distance was pretty much only for first-timers, but when the announcer asked for a show of hands before the start a surprising number of people indicated that this wasn't their first shot.
Regardless, it was a productive day and I'm glad to have had an opportunity to watch one of these races before jumping in. I would have much rather have run the race today, however unfortunately that wasn't in the cards at this point. I'm hoping to make it to Guelph in a couple of weeks, however that's going to depend on how the ankle heals up over the next little while. If not, there are a couple of other races in the HSBC series, or I could simply postpone things until next spring.

The one thing I do have to say at this point is that I do find myself enjoying the variety that triathlon training is bringing to my schedule. While the Toronto Marathon is still my primary goal, I was almost more excited about this race than I was about that. Doing a distance again to improve time is enjoyable, however it's not the same thing as reaching for something new that you havn't done before.


  1. There were a lot of Try-a-Triers there... and the reason why the back racks were emptier is because it went in waves, based on age -- not necessarily vying for position. But I'm so happy that I got there early, and was able to get a spot close to the end of the rack rather than somewhere in the middle. There was water available on the run just before the turn around. Glad you made it up to watch... definitely helps to see one beforehand.

  2. It was certainly a valuable experience ;) As you say, it's clear now how critical it is to get down to the race site really early! With that said, the Sprint Tri side didn't appear to have the same crowding problem so I'm crossing my fingers that it was just poor planning and not representative of most races!

    Now if this stupid ankle would just get better so I can go about participating in one before the end of the season :oP