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Friday, April 11, 2014

Flo Wheels Product Feature

I haven't taken much to reviewing products on this site, as I figured it might infringe on my "no negativity" rule. Additionally, I felt my experience in the sport had yet to merit any credibility on any particular subject. I then realized that this is a blog, after all, and any opinions which are expressed here are well worth the paper they're printed on (which is none because, well, no "paper". Only the electric ether of the internets). In all seriousness though, after a few races under my belt, I'm beginning see what works for me and what doesn't. Thus I am choosing to not necessarily "review" products, but instead just write about stuff I like.

Now, just because I don't review a product doesn't mean I don't like it. In fact, the lack of a feature here could mean a lot of things (such as power meters not being part of my regular training, or a piece of equipment being far to expensive, or I just didn't get off my lazy butt to write about it). But just know that it's not a critique or endorsement of that product.

Well that was all useless information. Now on to the review... er... "feature".

There are a variety of accessories which, outside of any variable conditions, can provide free speed and performance on a bike, and depending on who you talk to, each may have more benefit than another. In no necessary order (and I stress that to avoid involving myself in the endless debate of what will best improve bike performance) they are the engine* (in other words you), the bike frame, the bike fit, the clothing, the helmet, and of course the wheels. I've put an asterisk next to the engine because that is the number one thing a cyclist can change to improve performance. Even if you add all the other bells and whistles, your bike will still just be sitting in your garage. Improving the efficiency of the rider will be the best way to improve how fast, how far, and how long you can ride.

That said, today we will be discussing the wheels. For all of my races leading up to the Ironman Los Cabos, I had been racing on Fulcrom Racing 7 wheels, which were essentially the stock wheels that came with the bike. This is not to say that they were poor wheels. In fact, I have been using them for over a year in training and racing with a great result. However, wheels traditionally associated with racing have specific advantages I wasn't benefiting from. The main difference is the design of the wheel, which improves the aerodynamics of the ride. The carbon fiber fairings (which are what make the rims look super thick) act almost like a sail in the wind. Instead of wind just going through the wheel, it would catch the fairing and help reduce drag and propel it forward. With the consideration above that I could buy some free speed by purchasing new wheels, I was interested in seeing my options.

The key phrase there is "buy". Turns out this speed was not free after all. If fact it was expensive speed. Very expensive speed. Many of the wheels that offered an aerodynamic advantage were well over $2,000 for a set! Some were more than I paid for my bike. Discouraged, I gave up on my search and came to terms that I would make do with racing the wheels I had. Until I began hearing the buzz about Flo Cycling. I will spare the details of the company (you can view their site for more information), but I had seen through various websites that this small startup company wanted to satisfy a niche in the marketplace to provide aerodynamic wheels at an affordable price. Many of the reviews were very positive, and the price point was 1/3 of the price of the major competitors.

Because the wheels are inexpensive, and because the company is still relatively small, they have an order once a month or so, and the wheels sell out within an hour, depending on the wheel set. The prospect of having a great racing wheel set for a fraction of the price of regular wheels led me to pull the trigger on the Flo 60/Flo 90 combo, a popular combination with a 60 mm faring in front and a 90 mm faring in the rear. At the very least if I wasn't happy with the wheels, I could very easily sell them on ebay or craigslist without much of a loss. In fact, I checked ebay for Flo wheels for sale and found very few results. Those I did find were very close to, if not exactly, the selling price. Another good sign.

I've heard a number of complaints about the ordering process. Since they are flooded with orders over a short period of time, things tend to get "stuck", and people miss out. Fortunately, I didn't have any of these problems. Within a couple minutes I had the Flo 60 and Flo 90 in my cart and had made the purchase. Because the inventory for disc wheels is much less and the demand high, these wheels sell out much more quickly.

I received my wheels about a month before Ironman Los Cabos, which gave me a chance to ride them on a few training rides. Unfortunately, I have nothing to compare them to except the Fulcrum 7's, since this was my first experience with aero wheels. The first ride was a little wobbly at first which had me nervous. It was a windy day, but Cabo would be windy as well. I would venture to say that this wobble factor in gusty wind exists for all aero wheels since their surface areas are similar. However, after a dozen or so miles, I became accustomed to it. The noticeable difference is that upon accelerating on the flats and downhills I could easily maintain higher speeds at less power output. It felt as though the high winds were propelling me forward. On the hills I didn't notice a significant difference from the Fulcrums since they are approximately the same weight. However, once over the peak of the hill the wheels seemed to want to scream. The noise is loud as the air passes through the hollow fairings, but it sounds fast, so that's good!

Ironman Los Cabos was the true test for these wheels (and myself for that matter). It would be the first time doing a long distance ride on these tires, the first time with this level of climbing, and the first time having to run a marathon after riding on them. I have to say that these wheels performed like a charm. The relentless climbing that was the bane of many racers that day seemed comparatively effortless on the Flo wheels. And once hitting the downhills the bike seemed hungry for acceleration. But it was in the crosswinds where these wheels excelled. I had a lot of concerns coming into the race about the winds being a major factor. During training rides my pace would slow dramatically in head or cross winds. In this race I barely felt them, and they only minimally affected my pace. Certainly not to the extent that they did in training rides.

Important too was that off the bike I felt fresh and ready to run, as opposed to training where I had felt fatigued during my longer 5-7 hour rides.

I averaged about 20 mph on the bike, but to compare that pace to any of my other races would be like comparing apples to screwdrivers. I went faster in my half in palm springs, but that was a completely flat course without the heat and only half the distance. The most important thing here is that I felt faster and fresher on these wheels. In a race where how you feel can be the difference between a PR and a DNF, perceived effort can be the most important measure you have. Because the ride feels effortless and fast on these wheels, it gives me all the confidence to race strong.

One further endorsement for these wheels is the service. The owners of this company have a genuine interest in the service they provide. They take a very personal approach to their customers, often responding directly to customer inquiries personally, involving themselves on multiple online forums, and providing ample technical support via their website, YouTube, etc.

Did I mention the price? Well if I forgot, you can get into a pair of these wheels for a small fraction of the price of even second hand race wheels. In fact, it is likely that you can get a set of Flo 30's (training wheels), a set of Flo 60's or 90's, and a disk for less than the price of a set of competitive racing wheels. How do they perform against those competitive race wheels? I don't know, but I will say the risk/reward is much better for the consumer than many of the other wheels on the market. And if at the very least I'm not paying for free speed but for improved feel, then I would say that the product is well worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ironman Los Cabos 2014 Race Report

First and foremost I want to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to all those that supported me in this crazy adventure. The support of my loving family and friends is what helped me through some very challenging months leading up to this race. My wife, Marie, is truly an Ironwoman, as she had to spend the last year dealing with my blood, sweat, and tears (literally), a few tantrums, endless talk of better aero positions and weight savings which had her bored to tears. Additionally, she fed me some great, healthy meals along the way to keep me strong. She had every opportunity to quit as well, but literally was with me all the way through to the finish line. That is real commitment, and I very much love her for it!

Through the generous donations to the three causes I was fundraising for, we were able to raise $1,542 for Compassion International, $1,542 for Feeding America, and $1,804 for Alex's Lemonade Stand. That's almost $5,000 to charity. Even before the race began that is a big win. It goes to show that fundraising for worthy causes while improving oneself can be a win for everybody! Thank you to all those who donated to these causes.

And now on to race day.

Pre Race:

The days leading up to the race were filled with lots of anxiety over the unknown and the uncontrollable. At that point I had already done everything I could from my end to control my race; trained as best as I could, ate as well as I could, set my expectations as best as I could. What I feared now was the weather, mechanical problems, and water temperature. Being that the temperature in the ocean was within one degree of being wetsuit legal, I was at risk of having to do something I've never done before - swimming 2.4 miles in rough ocean water without a wetsuit.

Fortunately, race morning came with water temperatures still wetsuit legal. This calmed my nerves a bit, but I was still about to embark on something I've never done before. What awaited me was 2.4 miles of ocean swim followed by 112 miles of constantly hilly and hot biking, and a marathon in the hot Mexican desert heat, none of which I have done in combination during one day.

Leading up to the race I heard nothing but horror stories from people who had raced this course the year before. Hot, windy, and hilly were all themes that I heard from people. 41% DNF rate the year before, and currents that would carry us all down to Cabo before the race was over. "For your first Ironman," one very fit participant in my age group informed me. "You sure picked the hardest course." I had relieved my expectations a bit, which was originally to shoot for a perfect race which would put me in the running for a Kona slot. Secondary (and more likely) was to finish between 10-11 hours, finishing the bike in sub 6 hours and the run in sub 4. I knew achieving even the secondary goal would be unlikely given the difficulty of the course. The challenge of the distance and the conditions was becoming a reality to me, and now I just wanted to finish.

Race morning I was up at 3:15 am to have breakfast, which consisted of oats, blueberries, a banana, and almond butter blended up for easy consumption. Before I knew it it was time to head out and catch the bus to Palmilla Beach at 5 am. The bus dropped us off at the top of the hill at Punta Palmilla, and we had to walk about a half mile to the transition area. We were essentially walking down the bike exit to the highway which was a climb to the highway. Once at the transition area, I got my numbers remarked. I had them originally marked the day before, but they faded. It's okay, because they told me that I'm remarkable (ha!). No, that joke didn't go over very well race morning either.

I checked out my bike one last time, inflated the tires, dropped of my special needs bags, and took a couple (yes, a couple) trips to the porta potty. Sunrise was absolutely beautiful that morning, and the conditions for the swim were absolutely perfect (as long as the wind stayed calm). I had plenty of time to jump in the ocean for a practice swim before the race start, which has been very important for me in the past to calm the nerves and get used to the feeling of swimming.

At this time I wasn't feeling to anxious. I thought I would be worried about having to use the bathroom once I had my wetsuit all the way on and the transition was closed. I thought I might be worried that I would panic in the water. I thought I might be worried about large fish joining us for a swim. However, none of this really concerned me at this point. As I stood in the corral waiting to get ushered onto the beach, my only concern was that I might get dehydrated on the swim. The rising sun was really starting to get warm now, and I could feel myself sweating in my wetsuit. I knew I would be in the water for about 1-1.5 hours and that was a long time to be exercising without water. I took some gatorade and hoped for the best. Finally we were let onto the beach for the swim start.


I positioned myself to the far right a couple rows back from the front. Enough back so that I wouldn't be pummeled by the aggressive swimmers in the front, but close enough that I could run into the ocean. I liked the right hand side for the start because it would offer a little more open water, and from my perspective a straighter route to the turn buoy without having to fight for space. My first thought as I looked across the beach was that the number of athletes looked pretty light. They kept saying there were 1200, but it only looked like a few hundred.

I remember standing there for a few minutes before the start of the race, but don't remember much about the start. Only running toward the ocean and then a flurry of bubbles and flailing of arms. As always, it took a while to get open space enough to focus on good stroke form. For the first few hundred yards to the turn buoy my intention was to save my energy and simply stay in the pack to utilize the man made current. Around the first buoy I finally had a chance to see where we were swimming to. I couldn't see another turn buoy, just a number of marker buoys off into the distance, so I just focused on getting to one buoy at a time. The swim felt very pleasant and easy, and I was able to draft off of a few people for the length of the swim. I even found myself leading a draft pack for a while.

2 kilometers into the swim we made the turn toward the beach and headed into the final stretch. Looking at my watch briefly here I could see that I was at about 36 minutes. Doing the math I was right on track of where i wanted to be. The last stretch was relatively uneventful, except for the very large crowd on the beach slowly getting larger and larger. Before long I was up on the beach, out of the water in 1:10. That was exactly where I wanted to be and I couldn't be more stoked.

The swim felt very fast and easy, and I would learn later that it was a fast swim for everyone. The pros were out of the water in under 50 minutes, and I was about middle of the pack for my age group, which was absolutely fine with me. 56th out of the water in my age group out of 116.

Swim time: 1:10, 59th/116 in 35-39
Garmin File: http://connect.garmin.com/dashboard?cid=15042400


Transition from swim to bike was a tough experience. Immediately when I stood up from swimming, I could feel the cramps forming in my calves and I knew I had to slow down. I jogged up the beach a bit toward the tent and the effort definitely felt labored. Once into the tent, I got my wetsuit off, but then got a bit disoriented. I had a couple volunteers ready to help me, but I didn't really know what they could help me with. I got everything out of my swim to bike bag, put on my helmet, and then started putting on my shoes. Then I realized my feet were sandy and I didn't want to run in cycling shoes to my bike on uneven surface. So I aborted the putting on of the shoes and ran to my bike. I put my shoes on when I got to my bike, grabbed my bike and started running up the hill to the mounting area.

I mounted my bike without any trouble and started climbing toward the highway. Immediately, I looked at my heart rate and noticed it was way to high (it was in the low 160s, and I should not be exceeding 149). I shifted to the lowest gear to climb the hill and lower my heart rate, but to no avail. I was just too worked up, and the climbing gave me no opportunity to recover my heart rate. Nothing I could do about it, just adjust it when I get to the highway.

Unfortunately, once I got to the highway, I had no opportunity to recover, since there was another climb. No matter how low my gears, I couldn't bring my heart rate out of the 150s, and I was getting passed by other people starting their bike. I thought for sure my race was over at this point. I feared that going anaerobic this early in a long race would hurt me for sure in the long term. Once again I had to accept another thing I couldn't control. So I adjusted my race strategy. I allowed everyone to pass me and over exert themselves up the hill and make up time later on the bike. I would run the first lap very conservatively, taking in nutrition and making sure I was hydrated. I would take it slow and keep my heart rate in the 130s to condition myself back to fat-burning.

That strategy worked for the first outbound trip to Cabo San Lucas, and I maintained my position without getting passed, and without making any aggressive moves on anyone in front of me. I knew I could at least finish the race if I kept this pace, and if I felt good after about 20 miles I could pick up the pace and start gaining positions. Easy spinning up the hills, and fast descents down. A few miles before the turn around in Cabo, there is a gradual descent which provided a good opportunity to pick up speed. It was at this point that I began feeling comfortable passing some people while still keeping my perceived exertion low.

On the way back to San Jose, there was mostly a crosswind with occasional tailwind, which was very helpful up the hills. However, I could really begin to feel the heat as I kept pace with the 10 mph wind up the hill (thus feeling no breeze at all). But then the downhills came, and they were a blast. People said this was a constantly hilly course, and it certainly didn't disappoint. I was actually worried about this at first, but during the race I felt great and was having a blast on the course. It was a beautiful day, I was feeling good, and I was doing a coastal bike ride with no traffic! Speaking of which, some of the most serene times came when I could see nobody in front of me. It felt like I had the whole road to myself which was just awesome.

The next two laps I passed a number of people. I ended up gaining 32 spots total on the bike ride putting me in 27th place in my age group once the bike was done. My nutrition plan worked out perfectly. I had a bottle of glucose and salt in my seat tube cage, and a bottle of water in my aero bars. I discarded the aero bottle at each aid station and grabbed another. My second bottle of sugary goodness was waiting for me at special needs, along with a spray can of sunscreen and some Butt'r, if it was needed. I decided against using the Butt'r, much to the delight of the volunteer staff.

The third lap the wind started to pick up, and it was blowing around 15 mph in exposed areas. My bike handled very well in these conditions, and the tailwind really made the third trip back to San Jose a breeze (ha! - Yes, I will remind you every time you need to laugh at one of my sorry attempts at a joke). Looking at my watch, I could see that I was going to succeed with my goal of doing the bike in under 6 hours.

Getting back into San Jose is loads of fun. After climbing the hill back to Palmilla beach, there is a really fast descent which takes you to just above sea level and then ascends a low grade hill with a left turn. It's very scenic and very fast. It reminds me of what James Bond would feel like racing his Aston Martin along the cliffs of Monte Carlo. On the descent I got up to about 40 mph and was able to maintain the high 20's around the curve. So much fun!

Back into town, we took a right turn into the downtown area toward transition which was a gradual descent. I was heading in really hot, and I could see how, if you weren't paying attention, you could go flying through the transition Wyle E. Cayote style. Fortunately there weren't any Adam shaped holes in the transition tent this time around and I was able to do a graceful dismount into T2.

Bike Time:  5:34, moved up to 27th/116
Garmin File: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/471417801


Transition went very well. I had two excellent volunteers helping me, handing me water, putting sunscreen on me, putting all my bike gear into my bag. I just put my shoes on, fuel belt, and hat, and off I went. Once again it was tough to settle into my heart rate zone. I didn't want to exceed 149 on the first half of the run, but it was sticking at just about 150. At a certain point in the first lap I decided that it was close enough and just went with it.

The one way I would describe this run would be hot. But I was expecting that. I had trained many months with extra layers on to mimic the heat of Los Cabos. It seemed to be paying off in the first part of the run. For the first 9 miles of the run I was running in the low 8 minute miles. I was ideally hoping that I could be in the high 7's, but I was okay given the heat, and I saw everyone else on the course suffering as well. A lot of the spectators were cheering me on, saying that I was looking strong. I certainly didn't feel strong. Right off the bike I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that I was about to run a full marathon.

One of the awesome things about this Ironman experience was the ability to run along side some of the pros in the field. I watched Matthew Russell pass me on the other side of the road on his way to taking 6th place. I also paced Lindsey Corbin for about a half mile on her third lap (my second) on her way to winning the race.

A couple of tough parts about the race. We were told during the pre-race meeting that we would be getting bags of water on the run course, which sounds odd but is actually good because you can easily break it open while you're running and drink it (unlike cups which are very difficult to drink while running). Unfortunately, they 86'd the bags and went with cups. This meant more frequent stops to drink the water instead of inhaling it. Second, and more of a psychological issue, was the layout of the run. The run was a three loop course around a small town which ended right in the middle of town. To make sure they fit in all 26.2 miles, we had to zigzag our way around the little town, meanwhile hearing the cheers at the finish line as each person was called an Ironman. We had a turnaround to take right at the finish line, which was mentally tough to d o.

Around the second lap I began to fall apart a little. I noticed that I had lost one of my nutrition bottles. I was also having trouble, as my legs just didn't want to cooperate. I was no longer having trouble keeping my heart rate down, but instead I was having trouble keeping my strength up. Additionally, I was beginning to have some stomach cramping. I tried to take in a lot of salt to break it down, but it wasn't working too well. I had to walk every aid station to get some water, but I was still able to do most of my miles under 9 minutes. It was during the second lap that I really started to do math to see what it would take to finish under 11 hours. I knew I wasn't having a perfect day, so I wouldn't be Kona-bound. Additionally, at that time of the day my math was very poor. I couldn't figure out how long it would take me to finish 10 miles, or what time it was, and I certainly didn't trust myself. It began to get quite demoralizing.

During the final turnaround into lap 3 I started to feel my stomach drop out of me. I think my body had had enough at that point. I hit the porta potty and, leaving the gory details aside, I stayed in there a few minutes. The worst part is, when it's hot outside, it's really hot inside a porta potty. Add onto it that that porta potty had been used by many other people before me and you get a pretty poor combination. I began to feel pretty light headed in there. I remember thinking to myself "please do not let me pass out in here. Do not let them find me like this!" But, I made it through, determined to run the last 8 miles as strong as I could.

I began giving myself little milestones to help me get to the end. One more trip around the Mega store and I saw the 20 mile sign. "One more 10K and then I'm home". Running up to the bridge toward the marina, "one more trip around the harbor, and then I'm on my way back over the bridge". "One more out and back along this street and then I can turn in toward the finish line."

As I crossed over the bridge I was reminded of the great sportsmanship and comradery which exists in these competitions. A woman in a 50+ age group who I had been riding with during the bike and now finally caught up to on the run said to me "you look like you're about to finish too." I said that I was and told her congrats. She said that I was about to post a great time for a first time Ironman. She went on to win her age group and is now on her way to Hawaii in October.

Making the last turn, a young kid, no more than two years old, was holding his hand out for a high five from the athletes passing by. I willingly abided and it seemed to have made his day. I saw the finisher's chute which had taunted me for the last two laps and finally took a trip through. As the spectators realized I was not going out for another loop, they stuck their hands out enthusiastically and I high fived the hell out of everyone on the way to the finish line. As I approached, I heard the announcers say something but I couldn't make it out. I'm sure it was along the lines of "you are an Ironman!", since that was the theme of the day. No matter, I raised my arms up and gave a furious fist pump and let out an awkward yell, which sounded like a seagull landing on a sea lion. I had made it.

Immediately I looked up to the clock above the finish line which looked like it was being reset. Then it reset to 10:45. I turned to one of the officials, who may or may not have understood my labored English at that point. "Is that clock accurate to the gun time?"

"Is almost." was his response. Gotta love being lost in translation.

It was the official time, and I had done it. A little over a year ago I couldn't run much more than a few miles, had never rode a triathlon bike, and could not swim more than a couple hundred yards in a pool. A year later I completed one of the hardest Ironman races in under 11 hours. It's amazing what is possible with the right attitude, a little humility, and determination. I am absolutely stoked!

Run Time: 3:52, Moved into 18th/116 in the 35-39 age group
Garmin File: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/471417804

Post Race:

I wasn't expecting that I would feel cold immediately following the race, especially in this heat, but I was shivering like crazy. I was also nauseous, hungry, and overjoyed. I downed some pizza they had available after the race and hoped it didn't come right back up. Fortunately it didn't. After I started feeling better, we began walking back to the hotel, and it was amazing the outpouring of support we had. One woman came up to me in tears saying how inspirational it was to see the finishers come through. Many people were out offering their congratulations. It really made me appreciate why I wanted to do this. I found something I'm passionate about.

When I was in college, I used to watch a show on the Travel Channel (back when the Travel Channel was about "travel" and not just extreme gluttony) about a guy named Albey Mangels, who dropped everything and just went adventuring. He traveled the world on a whim, and learned a great deal about people, cultures, and himself. During that time I wanted to be Alby Mangels. I wanted to be able to just drop everything and find my passion. Instead I just kept making excuses, delaying, and drinking. Partying became my priority instead.

Of course now I'm not leaving my life behind and going on an endless safari with an empty wallet and a mind full of dreams. Like Alby, I've discovered something I'm passionate about, and I went after it. My story shows that with the right kind of motivation, you can find the time to follow your heart. While I'm not in the Kalahari desert being chased by Rhinos like Mr. Mangels, I'm on my own safari, and it's a great adventure. I would encourage anyone to take their own safari. The time is there, the means are there. Just do it! Win or lose you'll be glad you did.

So what's next? Well, there's still Kona. I probably won't be able to make it in this year when I do Ironman Boulder, but who knows? According to the results of this race, the last qualifier in my age group was about 10% faster than I was. That means that I will have to improve 10% in order to be in the running for a Kona slot. Is that possible? Absolutely! The last 10% is always the hardest, but I came a long way in a year. I can sure make time to improve by 10%. Just to be safe, I'll improve by 15%. Keep on adventuring.