Joyous Ordeal: Du Nationals 2016 Recap

During a recent 8-day stretch, I participated in three duathlons…and none of them were easy.  As I sit down back home, I now view those 8 days as a joyous ordeal.  During the moment, though, it was anything but joyous.

Like most trained athletes, every event as an A, B and C goal associated with it. Typical “A” goals include winning the race/game or setting a personal best.  My “B” goals include doing well in my age category and seeing a reflection between my training goals and my race results.  “C” goals would be to cross the finish line in one piece.  Each of these last three races had different grade and outcome.  Even as I type this, it is hard to believe that all of them happened in such a short window of time.

Duathlon #1: Powerman West Virginia.

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Setting up at the start of Powerman West Virginia

I didn’t reach my C goal.  During the cycling portion of the event, one of the spectators walked across the race course during the race and stepped in front of my bike path.  My efforts to follow cycling etiquette and rules for safe riding were not enough.  Upon impact, I went over my handlebars and slid on the pavement.  I limped my bike into transition and abandoned the race.  I was sore and bloody, and I began to question my ability to compete the following weekend.  After counsel, I decided to talk to a lawyer, see a doctor and spend some time healing and while getting my bike shipped out for repair.  Seven days later, I was still struggling with a sense of anger that someone would decide to walk across the race course and not apologize for their actions, and I felt pain, as my back was deemed to be burned by the abrasions from the road and was still bleeding when I got on the plane two days before Nationals in Bend, OR.

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Finger to the sky at the end of the USAT Duathlon National Championships in Bend, OR.

Duathlon #2:   USAT National Championship, Standard Length.  Grade B.  It was a good performance, all things considered!  Going into Nationals, I was physically unable to go at 100%.  My left hip flexor did not have a full range of motion, and I could not rest my full weight on my left elbow while on my tri-bars.  As such, I took off all of my electronic gizmos that measured my bike and run metrics and decided to race by feel.  To my surprise, event timing chips showed that my bike splits were way ahead of what I thought they might be, considering I couldn’t put much weight on my left forearm.  In addition, my runs were as good as a training run, and I was pleased with that, as I couldn’t kick hard as I normally do.  During the last 3 minutes of the final run, I passed 3 others guys in my age category, all of whom were suffering more than I was, and I confirmed my TeamUSA slot for 2017.  That all said, I laid down on the grass after the race was over and had a tough time trying to stand up 15 minutes later.

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Walking across the finish line, ITU style.

Duathlon #3:  Pacific Crest Olympic Duathlon (even though there is no such thing as an Olympic Duathlon!)  Grade of A!  Going into that event, I knew that I wouldn’t be recovered from the previous day’s race, but I knew it would be great training effort to get ready for Zofingen.  Between races, I spent as much time resting and hydrating as I could stand but as late as Saturday night before the Sunday am race, I am almost cancelled, as I didn’t see how I was going to get up and complete for two more hours.  When I finally decided to look beyond my muscle soreness, I decided to race with electronics measuring my efforts, and I did the race with my best effort.  My Garmin showed that my cycling average reached nearly 22 mph on a hilly course.  I was amazed that I was able to sustain the speed on the bike for 28 miles, knowing my limitations. When I got on the 10k run at the end, I was unable to sustain even what I did the day before.  I went with best effort, watching my heart rate to make sure that it was high enough to be in its upper limits but not at threshold.  I held back until the last mile, which I ran about 30 seconds faster than any of the first 5 miles.

Seeing all the people that I had passed on the race, I had an idea that I had done well, and that knowledge gave me a confidence that I can’t always count on.  When I saw the finish line, I knew that my 8 day ordeal was about to be done, and I decided to savor the moment the way that the elite ITU athletes do on TV. I walked across the finish line knowing my ordeal was over and that I was a better athlete for trying to do three races in 8 days.  Although the race management’s timing chip didn’t record my numbers, I reviewed my Garmin data afterwards.  I came in first place out of 91 athletes!

Did I get better through the races?  Depends on what better means.  I was most ready for the 1st race, but I couldn’t even finish it.  I was least ready for the last race, but I raced within my limits and had my best result.  The middle race had me most concerned, as there was more on the line during that race than any of the others.

I conclude that I mentally improved.  Physical improvements are more difficult to evaluate.  Every run in every race was slower than the previous event.  Ugh.  Yet, every bike was faster than the previous event.  I now feel more comfortable competing successfully while injured, and that mental strength only came to me from experiencing adversity.

Jeff Gaura, racing against Europeans at the Powerman World Championships
The final run, against my peers from Europe.

My body is now in need of healing and recovery.  I have no more competitions until ITU Worlds.  For the next 9 weeks, I am preparing to go back to Zofingen.

Four pots on the stove

I recently read a blog regarding the four burner’s theory.  The author’s hypothesis starts with the premise that each segment of our life can be compared to a burner of a stove.  On each burner is a pot that contains a gourmet meal.  Each pot requires not only special ingredients, placed in at specific times.  Each vessel requires also unique stirring patterns and variations in heat and cooking times.  The act of cooking and keeping focus on one or two pots, at the same time, is reasonable.  Three pots can be managed, with training and practice.  However, 4 pots at once isn’t reasonable.

But we all innately disagree with this conclusion.  We pretend that we can overlap skills used to cook in each pot, but we end up with anything but gourmet output.  We end up with Walmart grade food, or, to get it meaningful, we get drive through quality from every pot, when we attempt to focus on all 4 burners at once.

The pots have names

Pot 1 is called family

Pot 2 is called friends

Pot 3 is called health

Pot 4 is called work.

The four burners theory states that if you are the only cook, you need to cut off one burner if you want to be successful.  If you want to be REALLY successful, you need to cut off two burners.

If you are normal, you are already deep in disagreement.  You are not even pausing to evaluate the many positions presented in this argument.  Some of you even conclude that your life represents not just the exception to this rule-you represent the case study that disproves this position.  You stand and shout, “I have a great support structure that accommodates doing all of these well!”

I, too, have a great support structure.  I have very much thought that I have done them well.  I am happily married to a happy wife.  I gather with friends nearly every Tuesday night and Sunday night and do life with them.  I am an uber-fit athlete who has  experienced success. I am the president of a business and own a beautiful house with no mortgage.

Garbage.  I am NOT capable of 4 pots, on the stove, at the same time, despite the fraudulent evidence I present both to you and myself that I can do 4 pots.  Set aside, I have spent years of my life taking turns letting the contents of my pots become inedible before starting over.

This weekend, I am “off” on the health pot, and this month, I have been “off” on the work pot, too.  Just a few hours ago, my oldest son got married.  Of the pinnacles of life as the father of a groom, my primary tasks as a parent reached completion.  At our guidance, he is now educated, gainfully employed, lives on his own and has publicly selected his girl with the words, “until death do us part.”

Yet, some regret trickles in.  This weekend, the ITU World Championships in both sprint distance duathlon and standard distance duathlon are taking place in Aviles, Spain, and many of my friends are posting on Facebook and the like of their travels and the buildup for the big event.  I wish that I had this burner cooking, right now.

Without regret, I joyfully chose to stay at home and celebrate as my wife and I get our first daughter!  Welcome to our family, Lauren!

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Later this month, I will supervise our scout troop at summer camp in the Pisgah National Forest for a few days before heading out to do Powerman West Virginia.  A few days later, I will travel to Bend, OR, to compete in the USAT National Championship both in Standard Length Duathlon and Sprint Distance Duathlon.  After that, I will focus nearly exclusively on work and health, as I prepare for the ITU World Championships in Long Course Duathlon in Zofingen, Switzerland, early in September.

What pot do you pretend tastes good, when you know you’ve left it alone for too long?

Ask your spouse…I’ll bet that they know.

 

 

No longer waiting for weights!

Throughout my whopping three of years of endurance training and competition, the areas where I have knowledge deficiencies continue to show up.  The moments are humbling.  Here is my “latest” discovery that I put in the category of dumb moves.

My “solid” logic has been to skip weight training.  My reasons were “thoughtful.”

  • I need long twitch muscles to be an excellent endurance athlete, and that is where I put my focus. Weight training builds up fast twitch, and I don’t use many of those during a race.
  • I continue to improve my outcomes by training more in running, biking and nutrition.
  • I only have so much time during the day (I have a full-time job, a ministry, a family, a scout troop, etc.), and it was easy to cut out the weight room.

I had the equivalent of a flat earth argument perfected.  However, my thinking was missing one element, namely, it lacked evidence that this was the best way to go.

As I took a look at my performances, I saw that I wasn’t getting exceptional results most of the time.  No podium finishes at Worlds.  Sure, there was King of the Mountain at Nationals, but no first place overall finishes in any of the events around here… just first in my age group from time to time.

As always, my learning began with a moment when I start wondering if my strategy may be wrong.  Oh, how my wife loves it when I start with that word “wrong” and refer to myself…Despite never having an “in your face” moment that pointed out what was missing, there was a moment. I came in several minutes behind a guy at Long Course Nationals who weighed 25 pounds or so more than me.  He was the same age…so I started reading more, and I challenged by assumptions. Listening to stories and reading provokes some questions regarding my ideas regarding effective training.  The more I read from folks whom our community deem to be knowledgeable, the more I concluded that my formula left room for improvement.

In my mind, there existed a disconnect when it came to weight training/resistance training and long-distance endurance training. I believed that weight training was not necessary as an endurance athlete.  I most certainly didn’t want to become bulky and thereby slow down while going uphill.  Climbing mountains is an art that also doubles as a balancing act.  As one gains mass, there is more weight to pull uphill. All things equal, the lighter cyclist goes up the hill faster than the heavier cyclist.  Climbing is about maximizing my power to weight ratio…so my conclusion was that a bigger me is a slower me, especially on hills, right?

I have had weight training on my workout schedule in the past, but it used to get very low priority. High-volume endurance training without strength training can easily lead to the wasting of muscle and a much “softer” physique…and I certainly had that after Switzerland last fall.

So, now the evidence is coming back in that all physiques are not equal.  Recent learnings now teach me that If I want a lean and powerful physique, weight training is a must. Not only that, I need to treat my time in the weight room with the intensity that I treat my hard bike rides or tempo runs.  I got a blessing when I learned that weight training does not have to be a long duration activity; I can knock out a great session in 45 minutes.  Now, I attack the weight training with some of the same intensity that I see in my oldest son who loves hard workouts in the gym.

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My oldest son knows something about weight lifting…

So far, I have seen my weight go up (7%), but I have also seen my running pace sped up, while my heart rate and perceived effort have not.  At a recent 10-mile race, my average heart rate was the same as it was a year ago, but my pace was 45 seconds faster per mile than a year ago.  That is a big jump!  Yesterday’s long bike ride averaged 22 mph for the first 20 miles.  I am sure that I was not at 100%, either.  The course was hilly (1300 feet of elevation during that first part).  Weight is up, but power is up more!

It required a bit of courage to put research to the test, especially research that may prove me wrong.  Now that I have put it to the test and am seeing results, I am glad that I was wrong.   Sure, the research overwhelmingly claims that vigorous weight training builds lean muscle and significantly increases metabolism, but I didn’t know what how this would manifest in duathlon.

Since starting this experiment, I have found that my pants and shirts are tighter, but my waist has only gained ½ of an inch.  I don’t want new clothes.  However, running faster makes the idea of getting a few pieces of clothing all worth it.

I encourage everyone to examine their fundamental beliefs.  Learning requires the rejection of previous hypotheses!

 

Jeff Gaura at the finish line of Powerman Zofingen

ITU World Championships 2015 – My Story

When I first got into Duathlon three years ago, finishing strong at Zofingen was more than 1000 miles away from my mind.  Sure, I’d heard of the race and how hard it was (see previous post as I address the myths and truths of Zofingen).  That said, I thought the only way I would ever “do” that race was to put it on my schedule, spend money and commit to going.

So, I did just that, about a year ago.

Then, the year went by, and I found myself, in a hotel room, the night before the race, wondering if that decision to commit by spending money was a good idea…or was this the same thing as paying for a gym membership for a whole year, hoping that would motivate me to get into shape.

Prayer overcomes all fears.  God tells us repeatedly, “do not be afraid.”  This race was no reason to start becoming overwhelmed with fear.  Sharon reminded me over email that I had done all the distances in my training, and I had just finished a week in the Pyrenees, getting my legs ready to ride through the “rolling hills” of Switzerland against the best duathlete folks in the world.

Truth overcame fear, and I slept like a rock.  I was ready.

I had race goals.  I wanted to finish the race; considering that typically a quarter of the starters don’t finish the course.  I wanted to be the fastest American in my age category.  There were three of us, so that seemed both reasonable and possible.  Lastly, I wanted to get on the podium and earn an ITU medal.  Considering that I still had no experience on the course, or with this distance, I placed this last goal as a “one of these days,” sort of goals.

Entering transition the next morning, though, I saw that others had been overcome by fear, and the onus was to be there for them.  My problems were few.  The temperatures at race start were predicted to be in the upper 40s, and the forecast had the temperatures rising to near 70, by late afternoon.  There was also rain in the forecast.  “What do I wear,” consumed me for a bit, before I eventually concluded that I needed to be flexible.  I got a pair of arm warmers from Jackie Miller, another athlete, and decided that I would wear them as long as I needed to.  I didn’t know what kind of food hankerings I would have after the 150km bike ride, so I went for comfort foods.  I opened a can red bull and made myself a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, and I put both in my ITU provided bin, along with a different pair of shoes in case the rain came down and a change of uniform in case I wrecked and needed to replace either the top or the bottoms.

All of that took a whopping 5 minutes, and I had another hour to use.  How to use my time was an easy decision…apply WWJD.  I decided to walk around transition, praying for athletes who appeared anxious to find peace.  There were a whole lot of nervous athletes, and most of them were, like me, in Zofingen racing for the first time.  5467580_orig

Food Station, full of sugars, fluids and almost nothing else!
Food Station, full of sugars, fluids and almost nothing else!

Eric, another TeamUSA guy, obviously had a poor nights’ sleep, and I asked to pray with him.  He smiled for perhaps the first time that day and he closed his eyes to receive prayer.  When I looked up at the end of the prayer, there were two most noticeable points.  Eric was crying, and a cameraman was recording us.  Beautiful.  There was also a Dutch gentleman whom I’d met a few days before, and I sought him out.  I placed my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him, as well.  I walked by the elite athletes and looked at their readiness strategies.  The woman who eventually won the race had a water container the size of Lake Erie and had brought along clif bars as her source of carbs during the 4-hour ordeal of riding the Swiss terrain.  The elite men were all looking at one another but not speaking much.  Sizing up their opponents in that moment would provide no competitive edge, nor would add any confidence.  They needed to race the best race of their lives, regardless of how those around them raced.  Before the race started, I knew that many athletes were having positive energy sucked from them by their worrying.  My fix?  Hang out with TeamUSA girls!  They were happy just to be there, and they were quick to laugh.  Nearly all the guys were overtly serious and a far cry from loose.

Jeff Gaura, praying
Jeff Gaura and Eric….right after some prayer.

As the race got built up by the announcers, I knew that the first run is nearly irrelevant in determining whether or not I was going to meet my goals.  As such, I knew I needed to make that first 10km as low impact as possible.  So, I set my watch up to beep at me if I let my heart rate exceed 140 beats per minute.  As Sharon has repeatedly told me, “Keep your heart rate down.”  By the end of the run, the strategy of keeping my heart rate down added a few minutes to my time.  So what?  There was a 4-5 hour bike ride ahead as well as a couple of hours of running to add on top of that.  I hit transition 1 with a controlled heart and lots of energy for the bike ride.

Leaving transition on my bike, I quickly got into a groove with many other cyclists who were at my level.  One specific group of guys kept my attention for the whole 5 hours:  Fortun (Belgium), Schmidt (Germany), Hernandez (Spain), Jennaud (France) and Monacchini (Italy).  For sure, we were similar in pace, but I felt that I was stronger on the hills than they were, c/o my time in the Pyrenees.  That said, my inattentiveness to details got me in trouble.

As part of the pre-race briefing, we were all told about the rules with regards to drafting.  Specifically, we were to stay 6 bike lengths behind any other rider, so as to not have an unfair advantage while riding.  However, during the climbing portion of the race, when we are all going at speeds of less than 10 mph, drafting isn’t a factor, and we were informally told that the ITU doesn’t enforce the rules as much then as they do on otherwise flat surfaces.

Jeff Gaura, cycling at the Powerman Zofingen World Championships
Getting the attention of a driver while cycling.

Boy, what I wrong about that translation!  About 15 minutes into the bike ride, I was whistled for drafting Fortun and was told to proceed to the next penalty box.  I went through a battery of emotions. I was mad that I was caught (typical criminal response), when there were a pack of cyclists concurrently ahead of me, all doing the same thing.  They didn’t get a penalty, and that hurt my feelings.  I was upset in that the penalty would cause me to give away time on my group and might get overwhelmed by anxiety to catch up with them.  I lost confidence and questioned, albeit only briefly, whether or not I could even finish the darn race.

As Heather M. reminded me just a day or two before I left, my strength is my mental game.  I needed to deploy that now to get an edge.  I was one hour away from the penalty box and having to sit down for 5 minutes, and I didn’t know how to turn that into an advantage.  I needed to make some lemonade from my newfound lemons.

I decided to convert this race over to a tortoise and the hare event.  I exerted extra effort to ride directly next to the others in the group of 6, look them in the eye, and yell out, “let’s go” hoping to get them to go harder than they otherwise would.  If perhaps they exerted extra effort on the first lap, I might be able to catch them on lap 2 and 3, when I was more rested than they might otherwise be.

I, too, went hard on the first lap, but I most definitely held back in places where there was no intrinsic value in going fast.  For example, after the descent of the highest point on the race, there is a 10 km section at a -3% grade, and I spun out.  My bike was in its largest gearing, and I was putting out over 200 watts of power, when I realized I could drop to 100 watts and lose only 1 mph for the effort. I let the group get ahead of me, knowing that at the end of this downhill run was a 4 km climb.  The strategy worked perfectly. I was the first one to the top of the climb, alongside Monacchini, and looking back, I could see that the rest in our group was winded.  I wasn’t even close to zapped. I yelled out from the top, “Let’s go!” again, hoping to get them to go up the hill, that much harder.

Within 10 minutes, we approached the end of the first lap, and I let myself drift into the back of the pack.  When the penalty box approached, I slid into the box, undetected, and let them go ahead.  My plan, now, was to eat, hydrate, practice my German with the penalty box staff, then to go out and be steady Eddie, until I caught those guys.  I got about 500 calories in my body and nearly a full bottle of liquid in those 5 minutes.

Leaving the box, I had no anxiety. I knew what I could do, physically, and I had a new goal….actually, I had 5 goals.  Catch those five Europeans.

The plan worked to perfection.  An hour out of the penalty box, I caught up to the first rider, and before I finished the last lap, I had accounted for all of the riders but Monacchini.  None were in front of me, and I passed each one with eye contact and a “let’s go!” As I turned into transition, I thought, “damn, I wish there were 4 laps to this race,” as I was feeling strong and felt that another 50k of bike racing would have worked in my favor.

Running through transition was most interesting.  The women started a full hour before the men, to prevent us from crossing paths.”  The World Champion was finishing the race as I was leaving, and the crowds were cheering and clapping for her.  I had to slip out through the pageantry and begin an 18-mile trail run and leave a stadium full of very happy people.

Jeff Gaura, racing against Europeans at the Powerman World Championships
The final run, against my peers from Europe.

Too bad I wasn’t happy in that moment.  The run was on a combination of trail and paved paths, comprised of a blend of uphill, downhills and flat surfaces.  My legs were hammered, and I ran much slower than I anticipated.  The trail runs that I had done at the US National Whitewater center were not nearly as difficult as the Zofingen trails, and I gave up nearly 2 minutes per mile as I pushed up and down the hills.   I quickly concluded that my brick runs after long bike rides weren’t enough to adequately prepare me for this race.  On the steepest of hills, I did what nearly everyone else, including the world champion did,  I walked up the steep hills and ran everything else.

I was not fatigued, even as I neared the end of the race.  However, my legs were not as strong running as they needed to be, and I could tell that I was not going to be on the podium.  However, even before I entered the stadium, I knew that I had beaten the two other Americans in my category and was about to finish the race.  My joy trickled through to my finish line behavior-I literally jumped over the finish line, tapping my heels together in the air, before landing. Two of my three goals were met!

After receiving my post-race goodies and getting a shower, I headed to the chow hall to get some nutrition.  In the tent, still stinky and wearing their national team uniforms, were Schmidt and Fortun.  I greeted Fortun.  I told him that I got a drafting penalty riding behind him, and he smiled.  I reached out to shake his hand and said,

“See you next year?” He looked back at his coach, then to me, and he took my hand and said, “Yes, I think so.  Let’s go.”

Oh, the irony.

A few hours later, as I sat in the airport hotel, waiting to go to sleep and fly home, the finality of the experiences caught up with me.  I really missed my family, perhaps more than at any other time over those 19 days.  I missed my dog, my job, my chickens and the sunsets with my wife over a glass of wine on the side porch of our house.  It was hard to add up what I had done in the last 18 days.  I had cycled the Pyrenees, Coast to Coast, and had competed in the World Championships, at the highest of levels, and I did well.  I finished 12th in my category and 97th, overall.

Three years ago, I was between 190 and 200 lbs.  Now, I weigh 162.  Before I started, I could not run for an hour.  Now, I can run for 3 hours after a 5 hour bike ride and still not be fatigued.  I am in my element.

To reach my last listed goal, I need to lose 8-10 lbs. to have a better power to weight ratio on the climbs.  I will need a few days in the Alps to get my climbing legs ready, too.

And, I have a commitment to race Fortun again, next year.

And there is still a podium to stand on.

So, Sharon, Susan, Ellen, Isabel, Heather, Laura, and, above all, my wonderful wife Linda, let’s prepare to do this again!

Jeff Gaura, running the final 18 miles at Zofingen.

The Zofingen Duathlon: sorting out Truth from Myth

I have decided to tackle the job of sorting out Truth vs. Myth with regards to the Zofingen Duathlon.  There is no claim of “fact” here, but there is a need for an American with experience to address all the claims around this race.  This race and course are run by Powerman, a company that claims to be #1 in Duathlon.  So, let’s get to sorting out fact from fiction!

Jeff Gaura, running the final 18 miles at Zofingen.
Running the final miles

Claim 1: Zofingen is the greatest duathlon in the world!

Truth.  The Zofingen Duathlon is the greatest Duathlon on the planet, based on what I have experienced.  Besides the length and famed level of difficulty, it also has about 3 decades of history associated with it, and it has both culture and class.  The organizers have created a difficult course, but they have worked out any bugs associated with routing, timing, support and scheduling so as to make it the most enjoyable race I have ever attended.  The community embraces you, and there are no other events or touristy type things competing for the attention of the community during Powerman season.

Sadly enough, it is disproportionally unattended by Americans, and it shouldn’t be so vacant of those wearing the red, white and blue.

Claim 2:  The race is too long.

Myth.  Considering the overwhelming size and growth of the Ironman movement, this is a false claim.  The length of the two runs are shorter than the last run at an Ironman, and the bike leg of Zofingen is 20 miles shorter than a full Ironman.  Considering how many hundreds of thousands of people do Ironman each year, Zofingen isn’t too long…at least not if you are an Ironman.  The champions finish in 6.5 to 7 hours.  Mortals finish in 8-10 hours.  Ironman races require more time and cover greatest distances.

Claim 3:  Zofingen is a long way to travel for a race, and I can attend races that are both closer and cheaper.

Truth.  To “do” Zofingen, you have to fly to Switzerland then either take a train or rent a car to get to the little town near the German border.  It is a full day of travel, both coming and going, and the costs within Switzerland are high.  While in Switzerland, food and lodging are not cheap, and a thoughtful budget is required.

Claim 3:  The race is so difficult that you have to walk some of the running course. 

Truth.  To put the scope of the hills into perspective, the world Champion female walked up some of the hills this year, as they were too difficult for the best in the world to run efficiently.  It is a myth that the hills are impossible to run.  Many people try to run all of them.  Their choice, though, is inefficient…just look at the podium for proof.  Success in Zofingen requires some humility and an agreement with yourself to respect the terrain and walk when you need to.  If the World Champion has to walk, it is OK for you to do it!

Claim 4: The bike course is really hilly and it, too, requires humility to complete.

Truth.  My preparation of a week in the Pyrenees helped my performance greatly, as I was able to feel comfortable and ready to run after the long bike.  There are several  long climbs on the course. Preparation for those requires more than long weekend rides and trainer time during the winter to be successful.  I chose compact chain rings on my bike, and I am glad that I did, as they were required on two of the climbs.  In retrospect, I wish I had kept my standard sized big chain ring, as I could have benefitted from it on the flats.

 Claim 5:  There is some unique pageantry associated with the race that isn’t seen at other World Championships.

Truth.  Like most World Championship competitions, there is buildup to the race start.  The organizers had official introductions of the elite athletes, pre-race meals for all athletes, race briefings and anxious athletes pacing the town, waiting for the “real” event to start.  There were media days, interviews, photos, and stuff that makes a sports event into a money-maker.  There was one, most unique aspect of the local culture: the locals respect the athletes who attempt to do the race.  Local residents were quick to ask me if I was doing the Long Course, and when I answered their question with a “yes,” they shook my hand.  One even gave me a big hug!  They all know the suffering associated with the course and they also know the act of courage it takes to sign up and try to tackle the Goliath of duathlons.  There are cheerleaders at the start and finish.  Never seen that before at a duathlon.  There are also permanent structures in a nearby park that commemorate the race, posting the winners of each year’s race on the metal sculpture.

Claim 6:  The locals are universally glad to see us and support us.

Truth.  Zofingen, Switzerland has been hosting this event for a quarter of a century, and the communities in and around Zofingen highlight this race as the cultural high point of the year.  It doesn’t rotate from country to country, and town to town, based on a competitive bidding process.  It is the Kona, Hawaii, of Duathlon.

The bike course traverses no less than 15 small Swiss towns, and residents of each town line the sides of the road, clapping and cheering as athletes climb up the hills.  Each lap includes about 3000 feet of climbing, so there are lots of places and times for spectators to observe athletes moving slowly past them.  It creates a Tour de France atmosphere for both rider and spectator.  The Swiss clap and yell out “hopp, hopp, hopp, hopp, hopp” as you approach.  Kids run next to you as you work up the final meters of the climbs and the names of local riders are written in chalk on the climbs, just like the Tour.

Claim 7:  This course is the most challenging duathlon out there. 

Truth, based on my short 3-year experience.  The race organizers are proud of the hills that they “present as a challenge to the athletes.”  The runs are flat less than half of the time, and the uphill and downhill sections do more to wear down and wear out our legs than an Ironman race of a longer distance.  The bike course contains sustained climbs that do not exist in most places in the world.  That translates into a lot of athletes doing climbs that they have not had an opportunity to practice before arriving.  In American sports terms, it is like asking a kicker to attempt a 130-yard field goal, with only a regular football field to practice on.

Since the race runs in September each year, it takes place over daylight provided by a single day.  Weather is unpredictable, and athletes have to make intuitive choices about what to wear throughout the day.  For example, the temperatures in the valley on the bikes are warmer than the summits, and nearly every year, there is heavy rainfall on the top of the Bodenberg, the highest climb of the race.  This year was no exception…on lap one, everyone got soaked.  On laps 2 and 3, the roads were dry and everyone was flying.

Claim 8:  This isn’t a race, it is a test of endurance.

Can’t answer that.  The single greatest comment I heard about this race and this course before I arrived was that both the run and the bike courses are really difficult. The truth is that the course has greater elevation change than any other race, and few training environments offer the sorts of distances needed to prepare for Zofingen.  Considering the near inevitability of walking parts of the course, many are quick to conclude that this is not a race.  When reviewed as a summation of splits and times, there is great variance.  I had hours when I cycled at nearly 30 mph for 10 miles; other instances, I barely made 8 mph.  Same course, different sections.  I think it is a race, but that is opinion.

Claim 9: This race is harder than an ironman. 

Not applicable.  Ironman starts with a long swim, a much flatter bike ride than Zofingen and a much flatter run.  Comparing the two is like comparing Ben and Jerry’s in a pint container to soft serve at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Zofingen distances are shorter, but mile per mile, the run and bike courses are harder.

Claim 10:  Qualifying for Zofingen is as difficult and as expensive as doing the race itself.

Myth, if you are trying to race ITU.  For an American, qualification is about as easy as it gets for an ITU level event.  Each year, USAT has a qualifying event.  Finish in the top 18 in your age group, and you get a slot.  However, since so many people are intimidated by this race, it always rolls down to the top 25.  Even with a couple of drafting penalties in qualifying and a neuroma in my right foot that had me in a walking boot literally two weeks before the race, I qualified.

Powerman North American has a qualifying process that requires participation in a regional event, followed by competing in a Powerman National Championship in Florida to earn a slot.  These awarded slots are not ITU level slots but are open, meaning they don’t start at the same time.  If you select this route to qualify, then, claim 10 is true.  I don’t suggest this route.

Final thoughts:  For those of you who have done duathlons because you like them but have held off on doing Zofingen, let me give you a hypothetical conversation.  Imagine someone saying the following:

“I love golf.  I play it and watch it on TV.  I work at a golf store.   But, I don’t want anything to do with the Masters Golf Tournament.”

Do Zofingen.  This is the heart of our sport.  It is the highest level in our sport, and it has earned that right.  Sure, it is hard, but it isn’t impossible.  It is a great test of fitness, too.

Qualifying for next year’s event is in Texas this year, on the 2nd weekend of November.

Do it.  I will be there.

Jeff Gaura thoughtsintraining.com

Pyrenees, here we come!

Back when I weighed 200 lbs. and found entertainment from watching what others did, I was a Sports-on-TV guy.  Seeing athletes compete created nice to watch moments and sometimes awe, but not inspirational moments. Yet, there was one group of athletes that created a sense of wow more than any other group – Tour de France riders.

Jeff Gaura thoughtsintraining.com
Riding downhill in the Pyrenees

The images of these groups of cyclists, travelling green French country sides and passing through fields of grain were mesmerizing.  They would climb and descend some of the most famous and often intense mountain courses in the world, sometimes in torrential downpours and other times, in really hot conditions.

I never asked out loud, “can I do that with you one day?” but I did think it.  That sort of dreamy thinking was like asking if I could become the president of the world…But I did (and do) want to do it.  I kept that thought to myself.

Fast forward to 2015.  After qualifying for the Powerman World Championship in Zofingen, Switzerland, those thoughts or riding the mountains of the Tour de France from my fat days magically showed up one morning while working out.  I openly asked, “Could I find a way to cycle on part of the Tour de France as part of my preparation for Zofingen?”

Jeff Gaura Pyrenees challenge
Climbing a mountain in the Pyrenees

The internet is great for dreaming….I typed in my search engine “cycling the Pyrenees,” as they are what comes to mind when I think of classic mountain rides.   The Pyrenees are a mountain range that separate Spain from France.  Their role in history as separating two countries and cultures is the stuff of World History.  They are not populous, as they are steep and have limited water.  As such, people have not settled here much.

One ride of interest got my attention.  “Pyrenees pro cycling challenge” was the name.  The copy on the site read, “It is no exaggeration to describe this as one of the World’s great bike rides. You’ll climb some of the most iconic mountains in France – nearly all of them Tour de France regulars and often the sites of great, race-deciding battles in years gone by.”  Their schedule offered all sorts of courses and starting times, but I needed something that would finish about a week before the World Championship, and I wanted it to cover some of the places that I have dreamed of.  I wanted the hard work and the fitness that it would instill in me, with ample time to recover and taper a bit before the big race.

I sent out an email to the contacts listed on the website, with a brief introduction of what I was trying to do, and in the reply, he told me that they have had other world championship duathletes attempt this ride.  The price was right, as well.

What the heck! Life is short, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I committed to the Pyrenees Coast to Coast ride before the World Championship and bought my plane ticket, before I could change my mind.

My how things have changed.  2013 was one of the most unforgettable years of my life. I got to compete in the National Championship and began to get into really good shape.  2014 was a year of overcoming adversity and injury, but it ended with great memories, inspirational stories and personal records.  I got to compete in the ITU World Championships and an Ultra-marathon.

2015 is on track to trump both of those.  I can’t imagine doing 5 days on a Tour de France course with other great athletes followed by the Grand Daddy of all Duathlons.

Feeling blessed doesn’t cover it.  This is awesome.

Jeff and Alex Gaura at PowermanUSA

On Christmas Day, I am…

Jeff and Alex Gaura at PowermanUSA
Father and Son, at Powerman, Florida.

I am.

Lots of sentences start with that.  We use that catch all phrase to define themselves.

We also use it to state what we aren’t.  “I am NOT,” is just as common as, “I am.”

I am an athlete.  I am committed.  I am contagious.

Even on Christmas.

We had weather that begged us to be outdoors today.  Blue skies, light breeze and temperatures near 70.  It was gorgeous.  So, after opening presents as a family and consuming a great brunch, I walked out to the garage and cleaned up the two bikes, then my oldest son and I took a local ride that took us about 45 minutes.  After the ride, he went down the driveway while I did a 5k (ish) brick run.

Later, my youngest son took off down the driveway to do a tempo run.  After all, he, too, is going to Zofingen, Switzerland, to do the Sprint Distance Powerman in September.

In any “normal” world, we take days off and enjoy the gift of family and downtime.  For us, Christmas was family, downtime and some training.  It also meant enjoying some great meals, but without overdoing it.  We tracked calories on myfitnesspal and knew when to stop.

We are committed.

I will do some Pilates on the floor, some stretching, and Christmas present assembly before going to bed.  And tomorrow, life will continue.  And we will prepare for the race of our lives, even though it is 8 months away.