Strategic Learning

In the software industry (my day job), if you make a mistake usually its just a mistake.  But sometimes the mistake is part of learning to do something better, and the learning could not have been achieved any other way…except through the mistake.  Such mistakes get called “Strategic Learning”.  Strategic learning and career development can go hand in hand.  Many times you learn more from the mistake then from when “nothing happens”.

So it goes in skating sometimes as well.  My Canada marathon saw me turn in a  lack luster performance, after hesitating during a hill attack near the end of the first lap, I got flushed out the back of the lead pack.  I chased them down after about a klick and a half, but when I caught them, they attacked again, and I was forced to conceed…to let them go.    I still managed an ok finish, but it was several minutes longer than my result for this same race last year.

In different ways, hesitation has cost me at several races.  Looking back I can connect these different mistakes into one pattern of hesitation; waiting too long to close a gap, not moving up in reaction to changes in the pack in front of you,  not reacting soon enough after an attack etc.  My strategic learning from this race is don’t hesitate!

The gritty details…

The Canada Day marathon is kind of a replacement for our national competition road race.  its not officially part of the national competition (for worlds team selection etc.), but in spirit, it is our big show :)   This marathon is held in Cambridge about an hour outside of Toronto.   The location has the advantage of have some really nice road conditions, 90% of the course is fresh or good quality pavement, and there are some nice smooth flats, some not so big uphills and one moderately big downhill.

The course isn’t very technical, except that there is one 90% clockwise turn on the back end that is high speed (at the end of slight downhill).  Normally not so much of an issue, but this year they had the cones for the turns really tight, barely a meter from the gravel on the side of the road.  It made the turns a little scary since people were clipping the cones and the cones would get flipped towards people farther back in the pack…such as moi.

Unfortunately this year July 1st fell on a Wednesday and even though the race was at 8:15 in the morning, there was still a good amount of traffic, including transport trucks and other heavy vehicles.  No accidents, but because the course isn’t closed to traffic this made things a little risky.    Fortunately everybody stayed on this side of the yellow lines and most of the passing traffic gave us the lane.

Overall though, a great course and usually makes for a very good finish time.  In previous years the course was short 42K by a few hundred meters, this year it was corrected and we got full 42K distance in.  This year turn out was a little lower, but a nice spread, skaters from recreational to elite and skaters from both Canada and the US.  Skaters from Alberta who had come for the nationals stayed for the marathon.

When the dust settled, Peter Doucet was standing atop the podium with Sergio and Benoit from our Ottawa club flanking him.  Several other Ottawa skaters claimed podium spots in their classifications.  You can browse the full results.  For myself I finished in 1:17 and change…an ok result, but my result from last year at this race was 1:12 and I’m pretty sure I could have been sub-1:14 on this race had I not messed up my first lap.

At the start line I was a row back, but not too worried about not being in front.  Race starts can be a little weird, sometimes they go full tilt at the start, but sometimes its a slow start as people wait for someone else to “go”.   For this race is more of the later option.  Off the line there was the usual chaos of skates everywhere in a small space, but within 50m a couple of lines started to form.  I found a spot in  a line, and then the lines merged.

Right away Herb Gayle (more on him later!) broke to the left and headed further up.  I got on his wheel, went with him and we had a couple of lines again.  The start line is just before a moderately big downhill.  As we hit the hill, everyone merged and we essentially had one big pack again.  We cruised the hill, it seemed like a pretty comfortable start, no one was doing anything serious as yet.  With gravity though we were cruising at 46kph :)

As we passed the finish area, there is a short but fairly steep hill, climbing the hill separated the pack a bit, and coming around the first corner I was still with the lead pack.  Things were pretty low key, about 2Km in there was a surge at the front and I had to pick it up to 40kph to stay with the group.  At about 4km just before the next turn, another surge this time I had to jump up to 47kph to stay with the group.

After rounding the corner we regrouped and I was with the pack again, but was feeling like my body wasn’t responding as comfortably as it should.  Not that sprinting at 47kph should be comfortable, but it just felt like this surges were taking way more out of me than usual.  In the weeks leading into the race, I had not been getting good quality sleep…working two jobs, trying to keep up with training, volunteering, and blogging ;)   I think the lack of quality sleeping was a factor in not being as recovered as I should have been.   That aside, there were hesitation issues that ultimately did me in.

Somewhere just after 6Km the girl in front of me (a girl from Toronto that I don’t know but seemed like a good skater), fell back a little bit, we were both at the back and she was in front of me, leaving me in the suicide position.   Not wanting to get dropped in the same way I did near the end of last years race, I moved around her, but waved for her to hop into my draft.  She waived me on, I think she was having back problems.

At that point there was a good 150m between me and the pack, so I had to work to catch up, I picked it up to 38kph and caught the lead group before the rounded the next turn.  At this point I was the tail end of the lead pack of 13 skaters.

My thinking at the time was that this isn’t an NROC race, I don’t care about ranking (for points), I just want to get a PB finish time (sub-1:12).  So I wasn’t eager to move up in the pack or work any harder than I had to, I just wanted to save as much gas as possible, and stay with the lead pack until the finish line.   The problem with this thinking is that being at the back is never good, you have to work a LOT harder to deal not just with surges but the attacks at the front are amplied in time (farther back reacts slower), so the farther back you are, the longer you have to sprint.

This was a big factor in my undoing, just too much work. You can do it for a while but at that pace, it just wears you down too quickly.  No matter your strategy, don’t hesitate to move up, its not even a matter of being aggressive, middle of the pack or higher is just a lot easier to skate in.    Working harder than everyone else is not really good unless your looking for extra training.

In point of fact Peter does just that.  In the last two years at this race I’ve watched him drop back, skate at the back of the pack for a while, and then attack from the back.  I’m really not sure where that dude finds so much raw energy!

Before the next turn there was another surge at the front and things picked up to 44kph, we rounded the corner to the long straight back stretch of the course and the pack did the slinky a few times, but nothing major was happening.  We skated between 34 and 40kph.  At the end of the back stretch we made the tight 90 degree clock wise turn and then skated a few hundred meters to a short uphill that leads up to the start line (and then through the to finish area to complete the loop).

I was at the back at the time, and wanted to move up a bit, so I skated to the side of the pack and started to work a little harder, at the front Peter attacked mid-hill, should have seen that coming!  The sudden change  of speed caught me off guard, I was outside the pack, and sprinted hard (41kph) to catch up, but I was working too hard outside the draft of the group and I faded near the top.

As they got away from me, I know I had to work to get back, because this would be the end of my hopes for a PB finish time if I couldn’t get back on.   I gutted out 1km of skating on my own as fast as I could, through the start line down the hill, through the finish line and caught the group just as they were climbing the small hill before the first turn on the loop.

Peter attacked again.  Should have seen that coming too.

At this point my brain was saying “you need to go”.  My legs were saying “no dice.”  I gave one last attempt, but my legs were empty, I had to let them go.  At that point, mentally it was “Game over man“.

So while the first lap wasn’t the hardest lap ever,  I was positioned poorly during the the first hill attack, and hesitated to get into the back soon enough to stay on, and it cost me a place in the lead pack.   Into the second loop, I slowed down, dropped into cruising mode and just focused on going as fast as I could sustain while recovering.  My game plan now was to catch people who get dropped like me and work with them.

Such hope was a long time in being justified.  I skated a whole lap on my own.  Once recovered I was able to skate some sections at 32-33kph, but it was not enough to help me catch the lead group.  Going into the third and final lap I did catch up with Herb Gayle.  He had been dropped and was happy to see someone to skate with.  I was kind of happy to see him; good to have someone to work with, but Herb is an awesome sprinter, he might be a lot older than the rest of us, but he’s still a sprinter.  He was skating 27 sec and change 300m laps when I started skated a few years ago.

So now I have a problem.  I’ve picked up a sprinter, someone who clearly will make life hard for me at the finish line.   Still though, having someone to work with is more important so far from the finish.  About half way through the loop, we were overtaken by the chase group.  The US skaters (including Brian Osawald whom I’ve skated several races with), Dominique Lalonde and Candy Wong from Toronto.

We rotated the pulls, when my pull came up I was recovered enough to hammer for a bit, I brought the pace up to 36-38kph for 2km or so.  As we got to the 90 degree turn into the final stretch I started thinking about the finish line and my buddy Herb! After the turn I came to the front again, and pulled hard up the hill where I had originally been dropped.  Everyone was well rested though and the group was staying together.

Thinking back to Aaron Arndt’s advice of never leading at 100% I dialed it back a bit after getting to the top of the hill before the start line.  I focused on just being ready to “go”.  Even though my race performance fell far short of what I was expecting, the race still had lots of racing action to be had.  This was one of those moments, regardless of the pack you are in this is the moment when anticipation peeks and everyone is on the knife edge of readiness.

Among the US skaters with us were Larry Griffen and Allan Marcossan.  I *think* it was Alan who went first.  He broke to the left and tried to sneak up the left side of the roade.  I spotted it, and put the hammer down to take his draft. I heard stomping behind me and presumed it was Herb.

Allan was accelerating through 40kph and still climbing, felt ok in his draft! Allan drifted towards the center of the road, and Herb took this as his queue, he exploded to the right as we hit the top of the downhill, I knew this was “it” and put my arms up to turn it up to 11 :) I passed Allan on the right and caught Herb…got past him for about 2 sec, and then he stomped past me.  I tried to catch him again, but by the time I maxed out at 47kph we were only 75m or so from the line and I just wasn’t closing the gap quickly enough.

I eased up thinking it was all over ‘cept the cry’n, but I heard Dominique and Brian behind me and realized I hadn’t actually crossed the line yet.  I pushed hard for a couple of seconds and cleared the line.    Congrats to Herb, well earned.  Note to self, don’t pack up with sprinters!

The final racing action was a lot of fun, you don’t always get actual racing, sometimes it just ends up being grinding out the miles.  More often than not though, there is enough going on that you are kept busy dealing with surges, positioning, attacks, or falls.  There is always something.

I suspect that if Allan had started later, he might have stayed ahead of me, not sure if he could have held off Herb, but he likely could have held me off.  His attack started almost 2km from the line though, and that’s a long way to attack.  Was great to see the girls in the chase skating hard and much faster than last year.  Brian was givin’ it as per usual.  In the race photo (via Peter Doucet) you can see Brian (left), myself and Dominique (right) all gunning for the line, fun! :)


So, another race in the bag.  This one wasn’t one I want to write home about, but more learnings and more preperation towards later season races.  For sure I will be focusing on being more ready for Chicagoland coming up on July 25th.  This is the great thing about racing, there are other races and other chances to roll the dice.  Feeling lucky?


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Software Engineer and Inline Speedskater
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2 Responses to Strategic Learning

  1. Candy says:

    If I’m not mistaken, “unknown girl from Toronto” is Meaghan Buisson.

  2. Pingback: Mike Garvin- Strategic Learning & Training Update « Speed Skate World- By Peter Doucet- Online Since 1999

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