Starting a Business on a Bus – My Startup Bus 2013 Recap
The premise is simple… and a bit crazy. Spend 3 days on a bus going to Austin, TX with people you don’t know to conceive and build a startup company. It’s not like I don’t have anything else going on and I can just pick up and leave at a moment’s notice, but for the second year in a row I found myself in a seat on the Startup Bus.
To get on the Startup Bus you have to first be invited by someone else who has already been invited. Once invited you fill out an application telling why you think you should be on the bus – the application is a blank canvas – be as creative as you need to be. After that comes interviews with the bus conductors (this year there were 7 buses in total). And you may or may not be asked to complete a task/produce work before getting the final decision.
I wasn’t anxious to do it again, but this year one of the buses would be a “master’s” bus – just for alumni, with different rules. I was also told that a pilot for a TV show would be filmed on the master’s bus. I thought it would be a fun opportunity to get on the bus again and be part of this. Last year I pitched an idea and had helping building it – this year I wanted to jump on a team and help someone else who already had the idea and vision.
With the filming being set up our departure was delayed over an hour. Some of us already started sharing ideas and tried to get a feel for who we might want to work with. One of the first things that happens on the bus (Ray, our conductor instructed us to call them motor coaches not buses. His company provided many of the buses for this event) is everyone gets to introduce themselves, sell their skills, and then pitch an idea if they have one.
The next thing that happens is we are given time to form teams around the ideas/businesses we would like to work on. I decide to work with two guys that I talked to before we got on the bus – Dave and Stu. Stu pitched this idea for a personal safety app called Yaank, where when you yank the headphones out of your smartphone, the app sends text and emails to your emergency contacts informing them that you may be in trouble. We’ve got the back end development covered by Dave, and the planning and design by myself and Stu. We are short on a native app developer. We decide that we want to be competitive, since it IS a competition, but we will take time to sleep if given the chance.
We were informed that over the course of the three days we would need to cut the 7 teams on the bus down to 2. I wont say too much about how that happened because it will be revealed on film – eventually. The level of uncertainty, confusion, and stress in this process was very high.
But a few interesting things happened on the bus. After 15+ hours on the bus the first day we pulled into a water park at 2AM in Knoxville, TN. We begged them to open up just one water slide for us but it didn’t happen.
On the second day we stopped at a rest area somewhere in Alabama. A “wayward traveler” asked if he could hitch a ride. He auditioned for us by playing his guitar and we voted to take him with us to New Orleans, our next stop.
The next day in New Orleans we formed an impromptu choir around a street performer playing a saxaphone and sang a rendition of “Oh when the saints…” We prefaced it by telling the crowd we were competitive singers and had been practicing for months. You can imagine the look on their faces when we absolutely SUCKED it.
We made a harlem shake video. We lost power on the bus about 7862 times. We lost internet access 2546203 times. Not the greatest conditions for working.
On the third day we arrived in San Antonio where we were hosted by Rackspace for 2 days – a great sponsor that definitely rolled out the red carpet for us. Here we worked on our app and pitch. We ended up bartering services with another group – I did some design work for them and one of their developers did some app development for us. We also used elance – another sponsor this year – for app development.
At Rackspace there was a series of tech and marketing pitches each of the groups had to do which helped solidify the final two groups which would compete in the finals against the other buses. We had a working app and I was excited when Yaank was chosen to be one of the teams in the finals.
The finals were to be an event at Rackspace’s location at the SXSW conference. We spent the last day of the competition writing a script for our pitch, practicing, refining, practicing, and rewriting and refining on the spot.
The final pitch was probably one of the most stressful and intense public speaking things I have ever had to do – a small presentation stage, a live crowd standing basically right on top of you, untested technology, cameras, lights, and some well-respected judges in the startup world.
The full pitch is below. We were told ahead of time that we had 5 mins to present and 5 mins for questions. As soon as I stepped on stage they decided to cut them down to 4 mins. F*ck. Even as fast as I talked, I still got cut off at the end. We did not win, but here is the feedback we got from the judges.
- Love the idea, it’s important, don’t understand how you will charge for this, need a woman on your team.
- Dave McClure said “You want to prevent sexual assault, but your name is Yaank?” Considering he normally curses people out, I consider this a win. We expected that this comment was coming.
- Our market is too small and we don’t have the right team, need someone with a marketing background.
- Robert Scoble said “It’s too negative. I wish there was a way to associate something positive with the yanking.”
All of these could have been addressed, but just like that we were out of time and it was over.
Over the course of three days you become so obsessed with your idea and what you are working on. What you are doing is the most important thing in the world. Nothing else exists outside of the small workspace you had on the bus. When it finally ends, you don’t know what to do with yourself. There is a sense of relief, but also disappointment.
It takes days to decompress (and catch up on sleep) after something like this. I’m really glad I decided to take on the challenge again. It’s things like this that inspire you and make you realize how much you are really capable of. Most importantly, I am completely humbled by the talented people on the bus. Would I do it again? I’m going to hold out for the Startup Boat.
The Final Pitch
As an avid runner and running coach, I have many friends who are runners. Last year my friend Anna was out for a run by herself and was sexually assaulted – an extremely unfortunate situation that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody. Anna wasn’t alone – this happened to 244, 000 women last year. 2700 of those being females on college campuses – that’s 7 incidents PER DAY – that’s scary.
At the time, my friend Anna didn’t have a good way to alert anyone that she was in a a dangerous situation. This is where our app comes in.
Introducing Yaank – a personal safety alert system that uses what you already own – your headphones and your smartphone.
Here’s why Anna and all of my runner friends love it – it’s simple and intuitive. You launch the app – arm it – and let it run in the background. When you feel like you are in a dangerous situation or feel threatened… you simply YAANK the headphones out of the phone. Within seconds her emergency contacts are notified by text and email.
When you yank the headphones first there is a countdown so you can cancel the alert sequence – yanking the headphones out could happen accidentally – or you might forget that the app is running. The phone also vibrates and beeps – again to notify you that the sequence has been initiated.
The texts and emails contain a link to a page that shows your location on a map and the time of the incident. All of these features are configurable in the app settings.
One important thing to note is that the alert sequence triggers are scheduled immediately in the cloud – this was done because an attacker may take the phone and smash it – we want to be sure that the message goes out every single time.
This idea is unique and we have already started the patent process. And the market is huge. For example:
Anyone who leads an active lifestyle – runners, joggers, triathletes – 15 million people finished a running race last year in the US alone.
Colleges and universities – There are 4500 higher education institutions in the US where safety is top of mind and they can benefit from our product. Here we will license our platform or offer an SDK to implement in their existing app. Bakersfield College set a precedent by removing their blue light system to be replaced by an app.
Those are just two examples, you are probably already thinking of other markets where this technology could be applied.
I mentioned SDK – a recent survey showed that 70% of runners listen to music while running. We have identified 25 apps that can benefit from using our SDK by implementing our functionality and this would increase our distribution.
How do we make money? It’s simple. We charge for premium features, a subscription service to a 24/7 call center, and per incident fees.
I am Adam, I have a passion for endurance sports and good design. This is Dave, the genius behind the backend of our app. And Stu – a phd student who loves to solve problems. He thought of the idea while running on the treadmill – if you yank a cable on a treadmill for safety, why can’t you do the same thing with your phone?
We are team Yaank and we are making my friend Anna and everyone else safer.
Apps and Tris
This month two great things have kicked off that I have been lucky enough to help organize and be a part of.
The Student App Design Competition
After my experience on the Startup Bus last year, I really wanted to bring some part of that back to Ithaca College and create a similar experience for students. For the past few months I have been working with a few colleagues to plan and organize Ithaca’s first student app design competition. It will be loosely modeled after the Startup Bus competition in that students pitch ideas and form interdisciplinary teams to build a working app over the course of 9 weeks. Here is a short article about it from our student newspaper: Students to compete in developing apps
30 students showed up to the kick-off meeting and 11 teams (over 50 students) will be moving forward and building apps. The final judging will take place on April 12th and cash prizes will be awarded to the top 3 teams. The apps will be judged by local professionals and IC alumni.
Winter Triathlon Training Program
Last fall as I was preparing for the Ultraman World Championships, I was approached by a Mary Lou Corcoran Physical Therapy in Syracuse to plan and organize a winter triathlon training program that would run for 8-10 weeks this winter. I jumped at the opportunity as I enjoy working with other athletes and sharing my training knowledge. The facilities and PTs are nothing short of amazing here.
The goal was to create a program that would be different from all the others in the area in that the athletes would get to work directly with the PTs and get individualized athletic assessments to enhance performance, reduce risk of injury, and improve overall wellness. I will be working with athletes of all levels over the next 2 months doing spin classes, swim stroke assessment, a running clinic, and at the end we will be holding our own indoor, timed triathlon.
Disintermediation and Why Some Professors Should Be Scared
I recently spoke at the International Conference on Technology, Knowledge & Society in Vancouver and talked about higher education branding strategies on social media platforms. One of the other discussions I took part in was about the topic of disintermediation. This is a topic I have been interested in since I discovered the Internet.
Disintermediation is the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain, or simply – the removal of the middle man. Expedia and Hotwire killed travel agents. Amazon disintermediated bookstores. And to some extent Amazon and other online retailers disintermediated big box electronic stores – Circuit City is out and Best Buy is on the ropes. Netflix killed Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.
Last month Redbox released its Redbox Instant service – for $8 a month you get unlimited streaming AND 4 credits for rentals at the kiosks. Movies are also available for sale on the site as digital downloads. All are also accessible by smartphone and tablet apps. This could be a real threat to Netflix and a killer service.
I recently put my house on the market and when I mentioned “for sale by owner” to my agent she did everything in her power to convince me it was a bad idea. Internet transparency (fsbo.com and trulia.com) is letting home buyers view real estate listings on their own which can reduce the search and buying costs of home buying.
Another killer service I came across is Onlive.com – streaming video games. Traditionally, video gamers are required to choose a platform – Xbox, Playstation, personal computer, etc. But with this service, you don’t need a console. Or even a computer. Onlive runs the hardware and servers on their end, you connect with your tablet, smart phone, computer, or through a small box/controller connected to your TV. Essentially this means that you can play an xbox game on your iPad. This is great, and I wish I had time to play video games.
In the past 20 years, the Internet has played a big part in disintermediation, but not to the extent that most expected. With some industries like online grocery, it has been tougher to change consumer. Maybe some retailers provide essential experiences that can’t be replicated or enhanced virtually?
What is next? I am interested in higher education and their branding process (and also how they lose brand equity). Online course services like coursera.com are gaining popularity, but the drawback is that none of them are accredited (i.e. they aren’t offered for credits you can’t transfer them to another institution).
Straighterline.com, however, is different. Straighterline offers self-paced courses priced by using a subscription type model (you can pay on a month to month basis, or for a semester, or for a full year). There are no professors that teach the courses, but rather “facilitators” who are available for help and guidance. I would assume that they pay professors to design and create the course material upfront and then turn the actual instruction over to someone else.
Most of the courses are your 100 level, intro courses. Straighterline is not accredited, but they have “agreements” with partner institutions – 2 year institutions and other online universities – so you can transfer your credits. They currently have agreements with about two dozen of these institutions. How do the partner agreements work? I have no idea, but perhaps Staighterline hires their professors to design the courses.
Picture this: A student enrolls at Straighterline for $899 a year and takes 30 credits of courses. They then transfer them to a partner institution (which is accredited), and THEN transfer them from there to a four year institution. It’s a hop, skip, and jump, but for $899 a student could theoretically have 30 credits, or one full year of college, covered. Sign me up!
The CEO, Burck Smith, is not a professor or former professor. He never worked in academia. He is simply trying to prove that if technology is used appropriately, it should result in lower prices. Prices for education have risen faster than inflation and this has become a serious concern for many higher education institutions.
Do lower prices and accessibility mean a disintermediation of college professors? Services like Straighterline could take a chunk out of a university’s bottom line. These intro level courses are their bread and butter – where most universities get high enrollments and make their money. I believe this is something that the next generation of professors will have to deal with.
If this situation plays out, I do think that professors who teach higher level courses and courses with more specialized topics, will be in higher demand. And perhaps in the position to be compensated better. Professors may be more like migrant workers – moving from institution to institution for short amounts of time working for whoever brings the best offer to the table.
How important is the course format and professor teaching the course to student outcomes? At a time when higher education has become increasingly competitive and commoditized, this is one more reason for academic institutions to really think about their brand and differentiate themselves. With students and parents being price sensitive and looking to maximize value, they are acting more and more like “consumers.”
Yes, prestigious institutions will flourish for centuries, but if others are not careful, could they be forced to close their doors?
Ultraman World Championships 2012 Race Report – It’s EPO Free!
My friend Steve recently asked me if Ultraman was hard.
I think my raised eyebrows and open mouth answered the question. But just in case, I replied, “Yeah… its really f*cking hard.”
Usually when I have this conversation with other triathletes and I explain the format of Ultraman – 320 total miles broken up into 3 stages – I get an “Oh… oooh!?” Almost as if the fact that it is broken up into 3 days makes it easier. In my opinion I think it makes it more difficult. You get 3 sleepless nights (instead of just one) where your body starts to go into recovery mode, only to be to put back out there for 8-12 more hours… twice in a row.
This year, like the past two years, training into the fall was difficult. But luckily we had some warm stretches into October and I didn’t have to suffer too much on the bike trainer. Going into the race, I felt great physically, but mentally I wasn’t ready for it. It seemed to creep up on me out of nowhere. I spent the week before the race playing tourist and that helped a bit. But once the race director puts the race bracelet on, that signals that vacation is over and it is time to do work.
Swim 6.2 miles and Bike 90 miles
If you know me, you know that I absolutely hate swimming. I spend a good month before the race examining tide charts, current charts, and jellyfish charts. Basically, I worry about everything that is out of my control.
In 2010 I think we had the ideal swimming conditions. With a favorable current I was able to pop off a 3:20 10k swim. In 2011 the current was a bit more stagnant and it was probably a “truer” 10k swim time for me – 3:40. This year, it wasn’t looking so good.
This year I had a new kayaker for me – a husband and wife team of Alisa and Phil – who are competitive canoe paddlers and Alisa has swam this distance and this route before. So I was confident that they would pick a good line.
The first half of the swim went according to plan – I stopped every 30-35 mins for water and nutrition. And according to my kayaker’s GPS I was swimming about 2 miles an hour – which would keep me on that 3:20 swim pace. The water was calm and I was happy.
But somewhere around the midway point, I felt the water change. I felt as if I was fighting more than usual. I stopped at the 3.5 mile mark because I was really being tossed around and I told my kayakers “Hey, this doesn’t feel good any more.” To which they responded, “Yeah, the wind is getting bad and there are whitecaps. The water is pretty shitty and we can’t get you out of it.”
There were some points where I could barely get my arms out of the water, and I was swallowing lots of the Pacific Ocean. I stopped again after another 35 mins to find that I had only gone .7 miles. I was beginning to mentally prepare myself for a 4+ hour swim. My kayakers informed me of two things: 1) I was actually passing other swimmers, so as much as I was struggling, others were feeling it too, and 2) about 400 yards ahead of me there was a whale breaching. I tried to lift up to catch a glimpse of the whale but the swells were bigger than I expected and I couldn’t see more than 10ft in front of me. I asked, “What happens if it doesn’t move?” They replied, “We might go over it.” Not sure if I should have been scared but I envisioned this cartoon-like situation where I was swallowed up whole by the whale and would then keep swimming around inside it’s mouth.
The rest of the swim, in two words, was f*cking bullshit. My kayakers did a great job keeping up morale. They smiled the entire time and kept encouraging me. But I was in the water for 3 hours 45 mins now and I still had about a mile to go. And that last mile by the way is the hardest. The current coming out of Keahou bay was crushing my shoulders. I actually screamed under water a few times. I had had enough. I finally reached the only bouy on the swim course which meant there was about 400 yards to go.
I got out around 4:20, and I asked my land crew “Was I the only slow one or did everyone else suck too?” I heard the race announcer say I was in 18th place, which was right in the middle of the field. To give some perspective, Marty, the fastest swimmer in the field, usually swims this in 2:20. This year he came in at just under 3 hours and was the only one to break 3.
I took my time in transition with a quick shower and got on some sunscreen. In his Australian accent, Phil said, “We were a bit worried about you out there mate. I wouldn’t have wanted to be out there.”
Having been here a few years in a row, I knew what to expect on the bike. The first 7 miles are hot with lots of climbing. The next 50+ miles are flat to rolling. And then the last 30 miles are all uphill – climbing to Volcanoes National Park. If it’s windy, it could be a killer. But today the conditions are almost perfect – no rain and little wind – even though I was chasing a small storm ahead of me.
My land crew of Beckie, Julie, and Gina did a great job as they got into a rhythm stopping every 5-7 miles for me to hand off water/nutrition/whatever I needed. I think I’m a pretty low maintenance athlete so I could usually just shout out what I need and then slow down and grab it, or tell them what I would like next time.
“GATORADE! GELS! SHOT BLOCKS!”
Crewing is a tough job. As ultra runner Marshall Ulrich said:
Crewing: the squeamish, faint of heart, self-centered, and glamour-seeking need not apply. It’s a grind, plain and simple. Repetitive, demanding, detail-obsessed, often boring, sometimes distasteful. It takes a certain kind of person, someone who’s really invested either in the runner or in the athletic accomplishment, to be an effective member of the crew.”
And I had a great one this year. It was almost as if they could read my mind and knew when to make shorter stops or give me things I didn’t even know I needed.
There would be no stopping on the bike today. Day 1 is the hardest day and I just want to get to the finish line as quick as possible. With the awful swim conditions I managed to cross the line in 10 hours 29 mins – which is the longest it has ever taken me on day 1.
Bike 171.4 miles
There was really nothing to complain about on day 2 – oh except that its 171.4 miles! The weather cooperated – no rain, no wind, and it really didn’t get super hot until about the half-way (Hilo) point.
There would be no stopping today as well. In the past years I would stop every 40-60 miles to stretch things out and take a break. The only time I stopped was after half-way when I hit a bump and my bike computer spun into the spokes on my front wheel. Not having a computer was frustrating, but I used the road mile markers to keep track of my distance. Doing math distracted me.
It’s another long day. I wish I could say that I thought about my dreams, goals, thought about a business I wanted to start, or where I wanted to travel next. But the truth is I just couldn’t wait until this day was over. It’s a challenging course – about 8000 feet of climbing, mostly rolling hills except for the 150 mile mark – the Kohala mountains – which is a monster climb.
My crew did an awesome job again. Beckie would write messages for me on a white board, which made me laugh. And Gina would break out some costumes now and then. I was definitely pushing it a bit more than I had in past years. I crossed the finish line in 9 hours 11 minutes. I guess I had gone through a traffic light at some point because I received a 6 minute penalty for that. I was mentally and physically burned at the end of this ride – more than any ride I had ever done before.
I remember getting off the bike and immediately laying down in the grass. The race director came over to hug me but apparently my crew told her I needed some “alone time” because I felt like shit. My legs were fried and everything below the waist was numb. Would I ever be able to have kids after this? Not likely!
Run 52.4 miles
Days 1 and 2 took a lot out of me. I was not feeling fresh by any means. In past years I’ve been able to run 10-15 miles before feeling any discomfort. This year I was hurting after 2 miles. I was really looking forward to Day 3 because it’s the one day when you really get to socialize with the other athletes on the course, and you get to see your crew a lot (I have them stop every 1 mile for me). But after a few miles I’m once again wishing this day would be over.
I was hoping to cut 30 minutes off last year’s time and finish this double marathon in around 8 hours. This is ambitious for me and I’m questioning if I’ll be able to do it in the condition I’m in. I think the key is to start off SLOW and be able to hold back on the pace from the start. I am always amazed how fast everyone takes off from the start line.
In the first 17 miles I run with a few people – Suzy (who has done this 14 times) and Allen from the UK (who has Chrohn’s disease) and Marty (the fast swimmer who asks me what my run strategy is). I go through the first 13 miles in just under 2 hours so I’m on pace.
My strategy is to let the course dictate the run – I’m walking all hills and inclines, but running when it’s flat and downhill. Because I’m trying to hit that 8 hour mark I probably run some of the uphills more than I should.
At the 25 mile mark I feel my left IT band tighten up. It hurts so badly that I stop to walk. What the f*ck? The pain is so sharp that I can’t catch my breath. I’m gasping for air. I know when something is wrong and I know when something is really wrong. Something is REALLY wrong.
I can barely walk, I’m just limping along while the cars pass, cursing, rubbing it. I look at my GPS, “Son of a bitch… not even halfway and it looks like I’m walking the rest of this.” At this point I start questioning – why did this happen? I made it through all of my long training runs with no problems. I prepare for a really long day. I walked about .25 miles while doing math – If I can walk 3-4 miles per hour I’ll get there in… 11-12 hours. F*ck.
I decide to try and run again just so I can get to where my crew is. As I try and run again, I am in excrutiating pain, but after a minute it subsides. I tell my crew that I’m screwed and they too should get ready for a long day. I think I even apologized. It hurts to walk so I take some Tylenol and I’m off limping again.
I try to run one more time. And as it turned out, if I kept running, the IT band would stay loose and hurt less than walking. At the next mile I tell my crew that I am not stopping to walk under any circumstances because it hurts too much. This is something I would have never considered doing coming into the race.
I crossed the half-way point in 4:09 to which I yell “F*ck you marathon!” I know that there is no way I can negative split this run by 19 minutes so I’m just going to try and maintain the current pace without causing any permanent damage.
At about mile 27 I was joined by a local woman, Monica, who I just met before the race who agreed to pace me for the second half. I brief her on the situation and tell her that the 4 hour pace is off and we are just running to get to the finish line. To be in company is good, I needed something to take my mind off the hurt. We tried to play games and she would ask me questions like “What’s your favorite color?” and “So… who’s your favorite Sesame Street character?”
My response to both was “Monica… are you f*cking kidding me??” That poor, poor woman. She heard some awful things come out of my mouth.
It got hot. Very hot. The temps were only around 85… but you have to add in about 85% humidity. And running on pavement through lava fields the entire time, it feels like 100+. My crew was definitely on point now. Along with supporting me with hand-offs for ice, ice water, gels, and salt tablets, they were also taking care of my pacer. A few times Beckie ran with me carrying “the stick” and other stuff I would randomly ask for.
There was one new technique that we tried this year. Before I even landed on the island, Julie had bought a pesticide sprayer. One that sprays a very fine mist. This proved to be excellent as they kept it filled with ice water and would spray me down when I came by. This was way better than dumping ice water over me. Last year that technique got my shoes soaked and led to me losing 5, yes 5, toenails.
With about a mile to go I dropped my water bottles with my crew. I told them to grab me immediately upon crossing the finish line. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk. I picked up the pace. I joked and told Monica that if something happened to her now or she couldn’t keep up, I was going on without her (maybe I wasn’t joking!).
My crew was waiting for me at the start of the finishing chute. We crossed the line together in 8:20. My second marathon time was 4:11, almost an even split. I’ll take it!
TOTAL TIME: 28 hours 07 minutes
Na Poo Poo and Puu Waa Waa
Vacation in Hawaii is just about over. In 3 hours the Ultraman race bracelet gets strapped on and then its no longer about beaches and Hawaiian beer.
So far Beckie and I have had an enjoyable 5 days on the Big Island. In the previous 2 years I came out for Ultraman, I never really played tourist, so this year we planned out a few things to be sure to do while here. Here’s some of what we got into:
- A visit to the Kona Brewery for dinner and beers. Oddly, the Kona beer is MORE expensive here than it is back home in our own grocery store.
- We visited one of the black sand beaches on the island. We saw a giant turtle resting on the beach.
- We kind of hiked to the green sand beach – 1 of only 2 in the world. Turns out, the hike out to it was a little longer that we anticipated and only packed slippahs (flip flops for all you mainlanders). We got about half way and decided to bag it. But then paid a local to drive us out to the beach in his 4 wheel drive vehicle.
- We hung out at South Point – the southern most point in the United States. We decided that visiting the northern most point would probably be a bit more difficult.
- We biked a few hours on the Queen K – we stopped at a giant lava tube, a national park, and a white sand beach. Beckie says biking on the Queen K sucks and would never do a race in Hawaii. She would rather bike in Upstate NY.
- We visited Lions Gate coffee farm (they are one of the Ultraman sponsors) and learned a bit about how to pick coffee beans (cherries) and macadamia nuts.
- We hiked up Puu Waawaa (the many furrowed hill) which was 6 miles round trip. Either all up or all down, no flat spots. Probably not a wise choice to do 3 days before Ultraman. We did see herds of wild goats and sheep that didn’t want to be our friends.
- We swam a few times from the Kona Pier. Saw dolphins almost every morning from our hotel balcony, but never actually got to swim with them. Sad.
Now, we are off to the Ultraman check-in and buy supplies/groceries for the race. 2 days until I take a nice 6.2 mile swim and 90 mile bike ride to the top of a volcano.
Yes, I Swam 8 Hours, Biked Here, and Have to Run Somewhere
It’s hard to believe that in less than a week I will be headed to the Big Island of Hawaii for the Ultraman World Championships. I feel fortunate to be taking on this race for the 3rd year in a row.
I’m in that state where I feel like I was just saying “Eight weeks to go? That’s so far away, I have plenty of time.” But as I sit here in the middle of packing with all my gear spread out in front of me (clothes, race clothes, shoes, spare shoes, water bottles, first aid kit, nutrition, wetsuit, goggles, spare goggles, etc. etc. etc. – the logistics of this race are almost as much of a killer as the distances!) and the weather outside is cold, wet, and gray, I really can’t believe this race is happening in less than 2 weeks. Have I done enough? Am I ready? If you talk to anyone doing this event, I don’t think you ever really feel ready for something like this.
It’s also the point where everyone else is smart ass and on a daily basis I get asked at least one of the following:
“How many hours are you swimming today? Eight?”
“Did you ride your bike here?”
“Are you running somewhere after this?”
It’s getting old people, come at me with something better than that!
On a serious note, the most frequent question I am asked is something like “Jeez, this is almost 2.5 times longer than an Ironman, how do you find time to train that much?” I usually tell people that it requires no more training than for an Ironman distance race. And then later in the conversation, I usually hear something like “ooh, oh! It’s split up into 3 days?” Suggesting that because you have time to sleep between stages, swimming 6.2 miles, biking 260, and running 52.4 is now easy. I would argue that it makes it harder.
Let me explain the training. I use this concept of stacking – where you do very large volumes of the same discipline on back-to-back or even back-to-back-to-back days and then give yourself a day or 2 off to recover (recovery is super important here). Of course you can’t get away with something like this unless you have a really good base – so I will only do stacking for the last 2 months of training. Most Ironman training plans are based on a 7 day schedule, but my Ultraman stacking rotation is 10 days.
Here’s what this year’s two biggest rotations included:
Day 1 Swim 2.5 hours
Day 2 Bike 3 hours
Day 3 Bike 5 hours
Day 4 Bike 4 hours
Day 5 Off
Day 6 Run 2 hours
Day 7 Run 4 hours
Day 8 Run 3 hours
Day 9 Off
Day 10 Off
Day 1 Swim 3 hours
Day 2 Off
Day 3 Bike 7 hours
Day 4 Bike 5 hours
Day 5 Bike 5 hours
Day 6 Off
Day 7 Off
Day 8 Run 2 hours
Day 9 Run 2 hours
Day 10 Off
So yes, for these 20 days, the training is my job. Trying to get this volume in with the rest of life happening… well, it’s been tough. But I think I’ve done a great job of holding it together and I feel strong.
I’m off in 5 days, get ready for an annoying amount of Facebook updates and tweets!
The NOTHINGMAN (a.k.a doing your own Ironman for training)
For the past two years I’ve wanted to complete an Ironman as a training day. Thats right – the full 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run – as a training day. And I don’t mean as part of an organized race. I mean going out and doing it on your own. What on earth would make anyone want to do this?
Training deep into the fall for late season races gets boring. It also gets cold in upstate NY. I thought this would be a good way to mix things up. When all the Ironmen have ended their seasons, are hitting up happy hour, and sleeping in, the Ultramen are still out there putting in the miles. Last year I used Ironman Wisconsin as a tune-up for the Ultraman World Championships, but after the race entry fee, the flight, rental car, etc., it turned out to be quite an expensive trip. I decided I would not be doing that again this year. So when my friend Ben said he was willing to do an iron-distance training day (dubbed the NothingMan) with me, I was all in to make it happen this year.
Now, there are some obvious disadvantages to doing this on your own:
- no lifeguards
- no aid stations
- no spectators to cheer you on
- no fancy finisher’s medal to show off to your friends
- no one really cares
But there are some great advantages:
- the entry fee is $0
- you won’t get kicked or punched in the swim
- you can make up your own course, and change it on the fly
- drafting is allowed (not encouraged, but certainly allowed)
- you get a t-shirt that no one else has
I extended the invitation to about a dozen people. Besides Ben, there were no other takers (except Chuck, who only did the swim). I wonder why no one wanted to come out?
We started at 7:30AM. Our swimming venue was a small lake in a condo development. Four down-and-backs would get us slightly more than the 2.4 mile swim. The water was very cold. No worrying about wind or rough water, our only problem was the police. That’s right… someone called the cops on us. At about the half way point I could see Ben exit the water ahead of me at the request of the popo. My first thought was to turn around and just keep swimming. But I decided against that and faced the interrogation. Can you imagine that 911 call? “Come quick, 3 crazy guys are swimming in freezing cold water… at the end of September… they might be terrorists.” The residents of this condo development are very vigilant about people swimming in their lake. But after I convinced the cops that I lived there, we were free to complete the second half of the swim and it was pretty uneventful. Considering we took a break to talk our way out of trespassing charges, we had a pretty fast swim. Those cops held me from getting a PR.
A 40 minute transition time. We were freezing cold, dried off in the car, and took our time getting our bike gear ready. I also ran Ben through everything I had in my “transition” area in case he needed something. Turned out, he would need a lot this day!
We rode towards Jamesville, NY where the skies were blue, away from an approaching storm. The first 10 miles of the bike were glorious. But at mile 10 it began to rain. At mile 15 the heavens opened up on us. I learned that my waterproof jacket is not really waterproof. Miles 10-40 were, in one word, MISERABLE. The storm seemed to pass after 2 hours and I almost felt like I was drying out. We banged out another 30 miles in good weather and took a break to refuel after 70 miles. The sun was out and we were feeling great. I did a quick wardrobe change and put on dry clothes. Ben ate about 5 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We headed back out for 42 last miles. Only one car beeped to cheer us on, but that was my girlfriend Beckie, so I’m not sure that really counts since she was obligated! At mile 90, another storm hit us. The temperature dropped drastically. It was cold, hard, zapping rain. Luckily we were about 2 miles from transition so we decided to stop again and regroup. The rain came harder. I gave Ben a dry shirt and a rain jacket for fear that he may get hypothermia. My friend Kristen from T2 Multisport texted and said “I hope you aren’t out in this weather!” And I replied “yes, we only need 20 more miles to reach 112!” We waited it out for about 15 mins and then went back out. We decided to do 10, 2 mile loops. I didn’t want to get stuck 10 miles away in the rain with a flat, or worse. But the loops plan didn’t work – we just rode up and down any street we could to get that odometer up to 112 miles.
I was impatient and wanted to be off the bike. Unfortunately Ben was running out of bike steam and our pace for those last 20 miles was about 13mph. We stuck together because this day was less about racing and more about getting in a long training day.
The rain pretty much ended by this point. Wardrobe change number three into running shorts and dry everything else. I drank an Ensure and ate some fig newtons to try and cram in as many calories as I could. It was 4:30PM and I hadn’t eaten any real food all day.
Another text from Kristen said “Do you guys need anything?” In which case I replied “Broth.” I instructed her that we would be running 4 miles to Green Lakes Park and she could meet us there. We would also be needing some caffeine so I texted Beckie and asked her to pick us up some soda. Yay for receiving outside assistance! The first 4 miles running were pretty easy and we clicked them off at 8:30 min/mile, but I told Ben if we were going to make it that we should probably get into a walking routine (i.e. run a mile, walk a minute). He has never gone this far or long before, so he didn’t know what to expect.
The chicken broth was certainly a tasty treat, and it was the first warm thing I ate all day. We stashed the thermos behind a tree for our next trip back into the park. We ran around Green Lakes a few times and then back to transition, totaling 12.5 miles. We were trying to get half of the run done, but as we got closer and closer Ben was fading fast – he needed calories and soda even though his stomach was not doing great. Back in transition we grabbed our headlamps, refilled bottles, and grabbed some gels. I filled up one water bottle with soda for Ben and took an Ensure for the road.
We headed back to Green Lakes – now running completely in the dark – for the rest of the broth (which was cold by the time we got there). My role between miles 12-20 was now babysitter/crew for Ben (no offense Ben!), and this is when the real pain started for him. Every mile I was forcing him to drink soda, water, Ensure, and eat a gel to make sure he was getting caffeine and calories. He kept complaining he felt lightheaded. I also had to keep morale up by saying “Remember, no one else is doing what we are doing today!” He kept saying “I came this far, I am finishing this thing.” I was now carrying 2 bottles in each hand – 3 of these for Ben. Our walking breaks became longer and longer, while the running pace became slower and slower. We averaged 15 min/miles for those 8 miles.
We were back in transition and with 6 miles to go I was feeling OK but just wanted to be done. We had been on the move for 14 hours! We decided we would do 3, 2 mile loops to wrap this up, but we would do it at our own paces. I filled up Ben’s bottle with more soda and gave him instructions on how much to drink and eat. He was just kind of staring through me. I took off and finished up the last 6 miles at about a 9 min/mile pace. I walked with Ben a few times as I passed him on the loops. At 26.2 I stopped my watch which read 10:30PM, 4 hours 54 mins (that was just running time, I stopped my watch every time we hit the bathroom, breaked for broth, etc). Ben still had 3 miles to go and he was now sort of just shuffling along.
Beckie had been kind enough to order a pizza for us. I left a few pieces for Ben along with his NothingMan shirt on his car. I wanted to shower and go to bed immediately. He texted at about 11:15PM saying he was done. Wow! What determination! Ben… YOU ARE… A… NOTHINGMAN!
All in all, it was a 15 hour day for me. I would estimate that actual swim/bike/run time was probably closer to 13 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this whole experience, it feels like it was a dream. Saturday September 22, 2012 doesn’t exist for me.
The Phrase “National Championships” Must Be Greek for “Get Your Ass Handed To You”
I really didn’t intend for this blog to turn into a library of race reports, but during the summer racing is the highlight of my days. This is not a race report, just a fun recap on my trip to Burlington, VT for the USA Triathlon Olympic Distance National Championships.
Doing this race was never on my radar this season, but I qualified to race here 3 separate times this year (turns out I got fast this season!). I have been working hard and since I earned it, I would go for it. It was always going to be one of those bucket list races that I could check off. So even though I wasn’t training for it, I figured I should do it since qualifying next year is not a given.
I had no expectations since this race wasn’t in the plan. The best guys (and gals) in the country would be racing. This means going up against the fastest of the fastest. In fact, the winning time was 27 minutes faster than me (see this blog entry’s title).
Overall this was the most professionally run event I have raced to date. The race organizers paid attention to every detail – we got our numbers tattooed (temporary) on us (as opposed to sloppily written in sharpie), transition was well organized, there was ample food after the race, and the swag included a nice fuel belt. It was pretty cool to run down the finishing chute that was USAT branded and had a cushioned floor. I think Ironman and other race directors should take note.
The windy weather in the morning made for a really rough, choppy swim (someone actually died during the swim). So having survived the swim and even slogging out a decent swim time for myself in the conditions, Olympian McKayla Maroney was on hand to give me some feedback:
I had a conversation with another competitor at the start:
ME: No wetsuit for you in these conditions?
HIM: No, the water is too warm. I’m used to cold water. I did a race last weekend where the water was 52 degrees.
ME: Where do you race where the water is that cold?
ME: Wow, you came from Alaska?
HIM: Yes. But we don’t have many races there and this is my first year doing triathlons.
2300 people came from literally all over the country to race. I made a note of his race number and checked his swim time when the results were posted. 20 minutes! I hate this man.
The rolling bike course played to my strengths and it was very scenic. Aside from a giant climb right out of transition, the run course was flat and fast and I was able to put down a 40 min 10k. I wasn’t wearing my heart rate monitor, but if I was it would have read 300000 while I ran up that hill. As I slowed down to catch my breath and recover at the top, a course marshall pulled up next to me with a video camera. Turns out I made the official video (fast forward in to 1:25):
Some Hussel at the Mussel
The Musselman Triathlon is, hands down, the best race I have ever done. Having race directed two races myself, I can honestly say that this race is top notch. The race director pays attention to every detail, the swag is creative, the price is very reasonable, and local business are encouraged to get involved. Since 2004, Musselman weekend has been the highlight of many a triathlete’s season in Upstate NY. There are 2 races on back to back days: the Mini-Mussel (a sprint distance race) and the Musselman (a half ironman). This year about 800 people would be racing each one. And there were about 100 of us doing the Double Mussel (both races).
I raced here in 2008 and it was my first half ironman race. I decided to come back this year and race on back-to-back days to both see what I have to work on at this point in the season and because I thought it would be good training for the Ultraman World Championships. My plan for both of these races was to go as hard as I possibly could from the start and see where I blew up.
I followed the plan. I swam at an uncomfortable pace. I never looked at my watch. I never looked at my bike computer. I did not stop pedaling. I did not use the small chain ring. I did not use my GPS. I ran as hard as I could. I’m pretty sure that other runners were getting out of my way because I was making strange animal-like noises. I hurt. I had pains in my sides so bad I thought I was running myself into kidney failure. It hurt like hell and I was completely happy. I also won a beer in a small wager!
Place: 24 / 804
I was surprised that, for this race, I was not sore at all from the previous day. After the Mini-Mussel I immediately took an ice bath and that was the key (I swear by these). For the race, the water temperature was slightly over 78 degrees which meant that it would be a wetsuit illegal race. You could wear a wetsuit, but you would not be eligible for prizes. This was an easy decision for me – I am not the best swimmer, I wasn’t going to win, and for those of us doing the Double Mussel, prizes only went to the top 5 and I was not in contention. I would wear my wetsuit.
Overall, the conditions were not great. A storm was brewing so the swim was choppy and the bike was windy in spots. It also poured at one point while I was on the bike. During the run the heat and humidity were a killer. I tried to follow the plan again. I came out of the swim in 35 mins, which is a huge personal best for me. The bike went smoothly and was uneventful (except for the rain), until mile 50 when I started to run out of steam and I got passed by riders I normally wouldn’t get passed by. I generally try and shoot for a 20mph+ avg and I was still able to do that.
Hitting the half marathon run I felt great and was able to maintain a 7:15 min pace for the first three miles. I ran the first half with another guy from Rochester. Chatting with this guy made the first half of the run fly by and we were pushing each other (but if I was able to talk, was I pushing hard enough?). It got really hot on the run and I worked every aid station like it was my job – ice down the shirt, water over the head, gel, water in the mouth, and coke for the caffeine (but only for the last 5 miles). I got real messy, but the volunteers were outstanding at the aid stations.
After losing this guy at about mile 6, I was on my own for the rest. There are some killer hills on this course that I walked – a random staircase through a condo complex (?) and Barracks Road. They kept it interesting. I tried to keep a 7-8 min mile pace going, even with the small amount of walking I did. I must have had a good handle on the heat because it was starting to look like a death march. I passed lots of people walking and sitting down at the aid stations. The last mile seemed to take for.ev.er. And the animal noises came back. The last half mile and finishing chute was a blur. I was happy to check my time after another ice bath and see that I had improved my overall time by 12 minutes over the last time I did this race.
Place: 51 / 830
I ended up placing 3rd in the Double Mussel (they combine your times from both races). It’s hard to say what would have happened if I didn’t wear my wetsuit, so I’m completely OK with having made that decision.
Besides the races, there were a few other highlights: I got to reconnect with friends that I have not seen in a while. I got to race with not one, but TWO other past Ultraman finishers (there aren’t that many of us, so this was a huge surprise). And the best one… wait for it… was a random lady coming up to me and asking “Aren’t you UltraAdam? I follow you on Twitter!” Yessss.
I rarely do the same race multiple times, but this is one that I am ready to sign up for again.
The Trials and Tribulations of Swimming a 10k
A few weeks ago I was notified that I was accepted to be on the h2oaudio “sponsored” athlete team (more on that later), and this reminded me of something – I have to step up my swimming because I need to swim a 10k in November at the Ultraman World Championships.
First, lets just refer to it as a 6.2 mile swim. No one in the U.S. finds kilometers sexy.
Second, a bit of my swimming background. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 10. I took swimming lessons for 2 summers at a swimming school in CT. I was in classes with kids half my age. I hated it. I cried. I think I cried so much that they blacklisted me from that place. I couldn’t go back for more lessons if I wanted to.
I didn’t attempt to swim a lap again until 18 years later when someone convinced me to sign up for a triathlon. I struggled in the pool for a few months beforehand. That year I did 3 sprint triathlons and all were a disaster. I never put my face in the water. I got tired very quickly. I would often end up on my back doing the elementary backstroke and would get so disorientated I wouldn’t know what direction I was swimming in. The lifeguard kayakers would frequently ask me “Are you ok?” Yes, I wasn’t racing, I was just trying to survive.
If you told me then that I would be swimming 6.2 miles in less than 3 years, I would have laughed at you. But now I have swum that distance 6 times (3 times in races and 3 in training). But I still hate swimming. And no, I don’t wear a speedo.
I’m always asked “How do you train to swim that far?” More on this later, but I try and swim the full 6.2 miles in a pool about 3 weeks out from Ultraman. It usually takes 3.5 to 4 hours (shorts breaks included) and it is by far the toughest thing I have ever done mentally. I break it up into 30 minute sets. After 30 minutes, I stop for 1-2 mins for nutrition – usually water, half a bottle of Ensure (the 375 calorie bottle), and an occasional gel. I will also split up the sets by using a pull buoy and paddles. No speed work, no timing, no drills, just swim. I also find that using my h2oaudio waterproof headphone system for my iPod Shuffle helps to pass the time.
At the Ultraman, however, the swim is a totally different animal. As if just swimming 6.2 miles wasn’t hard enough. Here are a few other things to take into consideration:
- The start. 6.2 miles is far. This is a point-to-point swim. You can not see where the swim ends and there are no buoys to guide you. It’s a bit intimidating and can psyche you out. You must rely on your kayaker to guide you across the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully straight.
- The current. There is nothing you can do about Mother Nature, but I can tell you that there is a big difference in the difficulty of the swim at high tide vs. low tide. The last ½ mile is where the current drastically changes. I have seen a stick floating on the bottom moving faster than I was swimming.
- The depth. As someone who doesn’t get to swim in the ocean at all, I tend to feel dizzy from being able to see down 50 ft. to the ocean floor.
- Sharks. They live in the ocean too. This is self-explanatory.
- Jellyfish. I used to think sharks were the only things worth worrying about, but then I found out about the jellyfish. Box jellyfish are one of the most lethal animals on the planet. Past Ultraman competitors have been stung and hospitalized for days. Check out this short documentary on Diana Nyad where she talks about how a jellyfish ended her Cuba to Florida swim (if you don’t know who she is, you must be living in a cave). Fast forward to 10 minutes in. You will hear words like “we can’t see them” and “they are deadly” and “could be the end of your life” and “anaphylactic shock.” Yikes. Pretty serious stuff.
The biggest piece of advice? Don’t think about it. Easier said than done. But the truth is, when that starting gun goes off, your only job is to swim 6.2 miles and you can only control what is happening in the 3 feet in front of you.
I’m not thinking about jellyfish (yet), but I am thinking about that distance. What is the longest swim session you have put in? How do you get through it?