by Chris Bagg

Ed. Note—It’s been three weeks almost to the hour since we wrapped up the third annual Wattie Ink./Chris Bagg Coaching Group Tucson Dream Camp, which seems as good a time as any to recap what we did this year, to post some pics and vids, and to look forward to the other camps we’ll run in 2019, repeating what went well in Tucson and tweaking what needed changing. 

Thursday, January 31st
Arrival Day

Day Zero of camp reminds me of my time spent as a cook in professional kitchens back in the early aughties: customers start ordering at 5:30, so you better have your shit together by 5:15. On Thursday of Tucson Camp we feverishly try to finish packing campers’ swag bags while managing multiple trips to the airport, getting ahead on food preparation, communicating with the hotel, assembling bikes, and fielding messages from campers caught in the Midwest’s Polar Vortex. Despite all that, we had most of our campers accounted for by dinnertime on Thursday, which was a classic Italian Pasta night but with Chef Aaron Vinten of The Athlete’s Table’s homemade twist: he’d spent the afternoon making pork and beef meatballs by hand, adding something special to something familiar. We ran through Friday’s plan and sent the campers to bed, knowing Friday would be a big day.

Friday, February 1st
Day One

One thing we always focus on at our camps is giving swimmers a sense of what their threshold swimming pace is, so they can take that back to their own training at home. We kick off camp with everyone’s favorite thing: a 400 and 200 time-trial that results in individual Critical Swimming Speeds (CSS), which predicts an athlete’s pace for 1500m/1650y. Having this number in hand is similar to knowing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or Threshold Pace/Heart Rate (FTHR) on the bike and run, respectively. I’m always surprised at how many athletes know the latter two but not the former, choosing to predict their race performances by the pace they can hold in repeat 100s (a flawed method, since it doesn’t account for accumulating fatigue). We tested the athletes and then had them test out their new CSS paces, while starting the process of capturing their strokes on video—something we do at every camp we do.

Friday afternoon saw bike assembly and then a cruisy two-hour ride on the Tucson Bike Path system, followed by an easy 30-minute run to familiarize campers with the location of our run workouts along the River Trail. All in all, a fairly easy day, as we try to set up our camps to build in intensity and difficulty over the course of five days. Aaron cooked Coconut Curry and Grilled Naan for a houseful of hungry campers who knew they had a big day ahead of them, and the day finished with a visit from superstar Ben Hoffman, who discussed dealing with adversity in training (Ben is coming back from a sacral stress fracture) and on the race course itself. 

Saturday, February 2nd
Day Two

With a little fatigue in the legs from Friday, we set out to challenge the campers a bit: we’d ride out to Heather Jackson’s favorite Kona training loop: a 9.8 circuit to the southeast of town called Pistol Hill. It’s about twenty miles to the start, and one rolls past Saguaro East National Park, which is dotted with—you guessed it—the stately king of cacti. Once out to the loop campers did one, two, or three circuits at around 70.3 goal pace or effort. What began as a cooler day soon warmed up, and proper nutrition and hydration rewarded dutiful campers. Our sag team of James Haycraft and Jesse Vondracek (the two men behind SAG-IT Cycling) kept campers fed and hydrated (a big thanks goes out to Herbalife Nutrition for providing drink mix for all our campers) and on course, and soon we were headed home for a slightly longer, slightly harder run off the bikes to finish our second day of training. Saturday night was Heather’s night to talk, which meant it was also time for Heather Jackson’s Favorite Mac and Cheese, a staple of all our camps. HJ spoke about skill acquisition in triathlon, and how one improves over the course of a triathlon career, and her own path from swim newbie (flirting with the swim cutoff at Ironman Malaysia) to sub-60’ regular over 3.8k.

Sunday, February 3rd
Day Three

By the third day of camp, I always like to see some cracks in our campers’ armor, and people were a little tired and quiet when they rolled to Base Camp on Sunday morning. The desert had decided to rain that day, which was perfect for the workout we had planned: 1-2 mile repeats on the Tucson River trail, a classic workout that HJ and I have been performing since we met at a training camp here in 2013. The cooler temps worked out in the campers’ favor, with many nailing their interval paces, despite the longer and harder ride the day prior. This was the first interval work for most people for the year, and we were all pleased with the performances: people were tired but strong, something we always like to see at camp. You can still go well on heavy legs!

Midday saw our yearly Fieldwork Nutrition Company smoothie contest, with campers assembling their best concoction from a small galaxy of ingredients Aaron had assembled. After that, campers had a small window of time to get a quick nap in at the hotel before we took them back to the pool for an afternoon workout using their new CSS paces. This session always seems easy up front, but has a real sting in the tail. It’s a series of 100s on short rest, interspersed with lengthening intervals, like this:

4x100, :10 rest
200, :15 rest
4x100, :10 rest
300, :20 rest
4x100, :10 rest
400, :30 rest

For those of you counting, that’s 2100y at threshold pace on short rest! Is it coincidence that a 70.3 swim is exactly 2100 yards? Hmmm…I’ll let you be the judge of that.

After the swim, we gave our tired campers a night off to watch THE PATRIOTS WIN THE SUPERBOWL and get an early night’s sleep, since tomorrow was another big day…

Monday, February 4th
Day Four

One can’t go to Tucson and miss Mt. Lemmon, the area’s legendary climb, which starts at 2500 feet above sea level and rises to over 8000 feet over 25 miles of ascending. The rain from the previous day had passed, but it was a cool morning, the sky behind the mountains thronged with clouds. We knew that going all the way to the top was unlikely, but got everyone a good amount of time on the mountain anyway. Campers climbed to either Windy Point (at fourteen miles) or a section of road at mile marker 17 before turning back for home. In the end, it was the right amount of challenge for everyone, with a few of our returning campers settling a few scores they’d had with the mountain from 2018.

Monday evening means our farewell dinner, which always seems to come too soon. We opened the festivities with an hour at the Tucson Hop Shop, a favorite ride-ending location for Wattie, and then headed onward to Oregano’s, HJ’s favorite cheat night establishment.

Tuesday, February 5th
Day Five

Camp closing day is a bit like Day Zero, only in reverse. Campers begin to head to the airport throughout the day, although we had almost everyone for our first session of the day, an open-water skills workout back at Oro Valley. We like to finish with this set, since it’s fun and low-key and something that athletes often forget to include in their regular training. The set finishes with an elimination-style handicap race that went down to the wire with Heather Jackson squaring off against camp stalwart Don Geddes. HJ took the win, but only after a valiant battle by Don. All campers left with smiles on their faces.

Then it was all packing and trips to the airport and goodbyes, although some of our later departures managed to squeeze in a run before their flights. That evening the staff gathered for tacos and some badly needed unwinding time before splitting for our various homes.

Camp was, as always, fun, exhausting, inspiring, educational, and productive. By now our campers should be seeing a little bump in their abilities, as the training dose from camp will have kicked in, and we hope they’re already dreaming of next year’s adventure in the Arizona desert. I’d like to thank Heather, Wattie, Molly, Aaron, Jesse, James, Kurt, and Amy for all the work they did to make camp happen—it truly is an amazing team effort—and I’m already planning on making year four even better than year three!