135 days: Ironman 70.3 St George race recap – long version – part 3

I have a plan to raise $10,000 for some awesome organizations by Sept. 22, 2013 – the day I run in Ironman Lake Tahoe. Only 4 1/2 months away! Raised so far: $5,717! Want to increase this total? Chip in a few bucks to one of our causes here, or find out how you can get involved by pinging me on Facebook or by dropping me a note.

Ironman 70.3 St George race recap – long version – part 3

On Monday I offered up the super-compact executive summary of my Ironman 70.3 St George experience: I shouldn’t have raced, but I did, and had an amazing time.

Tuesday was the introduction to the long version of the story, starting off with the time leading up to the race and our arrival into St George. To summarize the tone of this post all I need is just one word: awesome. (full disclosure, the post itself wasn’t awesome… our impressions of St George were awesome)

Wednesday was dedicated to the day-before-the-race stuff. Mostly the course preview… In a nutshell, the bike was shaping up to be gnarly…. and the run downright brutal.

Race Day

3am arrives quickly on race morning. You wake up a bundle of nerves and energy, ready to get the day started. The focus in the wee hours was coffee and fuel. Learning from mistakes of races past, I was focused on fueling early and often – past races I’ve bonked because I didn’t keep up with fueling needs. After a good sized breakfast, a measured amount of coffee, and a two applications of sunscreen I grabbed my transition bags, kissed the wife adieu, and jumped on the shuttle bus.

A quick stop at T2 at Ironman Village to drop off my run bag and check out the transition entry/exit routes, jump on a crowded school bus to take us to the race start, and we were off! I had an interesting conversation with my seat companion on the half hour ride out there – turns out he works in the same general field as me, so we had a lot to chat about.

The rest of the morning marched along at a leisurely pace. Set up my T1 spot, fill the bike bottles with hydration mix, turn on the GPS… and then wait… and wait… for the pros to start the swim. My wave was taking off 44 minutes after the pro men, so there was no rush. With about half an hour before my wave was set to start I began stuffing myself into my wetsuit and getting ready to go. As I was headed toward the start line I looked over and noticed none other than Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson and his wife Lisa “The Hammer” Nelson standing to the side – I walked over, wished them both luck, and headed over to my corral. Seeing Fatty and the Hammer was cool, as I’ve been an avid follower of his blog for years, and have fashioned quite a bit of this year of blogging and fundraising after what he has done.

The Swim (1.2 miles)

The bike course was shaping up to be difficult, and the run course promised to be diabolical. But it was the swim I feared most this morning. The previous year, when the race was still a 140.6, the swim started off calm… until the winds kicked up and generated 5-foot swells and 25% of the field had to be pulled out of the water. This morning was perfect – the water was smooth, no winds, ideal air temperature, no chance of 5-foot waves this year – so why the fear? The water temperature just a couple of weeks before the race was in the low 50’s. Brrrr! Even with a wetsuit, that is just too cold! We were told that the temperature had risen by about 10 degrees since then… but when our wave was given the go ahead to step in the water, every one of us let out a collective gasp. We were stepping into a giant pool of icewater.

After a brief warmup swim out to the starting line and “acclimation” period – in quotes there because you don’t really ever get used to water that cold – we were given the starting horn. Off we go!

I started off with the usual getting bumped/kicked/swim over/get swum over bit at the beginning. That is just part of the starting line madness of any triathlon. After getting through that, and the customary panic attack at about 1/4 mile (where I can’t quite catch my breath and begin cursing at myself for taking up such a silly and ridiculous sport), I began to settle down. The only problem: my spotting of the buoys was horrible. I would swim for a while, only to realize I was headed off course. I’d set a new aim, swim for a bit… only to find I was headed off in some other direction. Ugh… not good!

The map of the swim course. Upon reaching the first turn you'd think that you were 1/3 done... Too bad the artist didn't quite get the proportions correct! The backstretch on the swim was MUCH longer than the legs leading out and coming back. MUCH, MUCH longer.

The map of the swim course. Upon reaching the first turn you’d think that you were 1/3 done… Too bad the artist didn’t quite get the proportions correct! The backstretch on the swim was MUCH longer than the legs leading out and coming back. MUCH, MUCH longer.

After a while I reached the first red buoy, indicating a left hand turn was in order, and a good chunk of the course was complete! Woohoo! This was going faster than I had hoped! According to the course map the backstretch was short, and the swim into shore always goes quickly. Well… after swimming past several buoys on the backstretch I started anticipating the arrival of the next red turn buoy. See another buoy in the distance… nope, not red. Swim (in my continued zig-zag fashion) some more… another buoy! Nope, not red. The artist’s illustration of the course was wrong. It wasn’t 1/3 out, 1/3 backstretch, 1/3 back… it was more like 1/5 out, 3/5 backstretch, 1/5 back. Wow, that was one long slog!

Somewhere near the end of the backstretch something really good happened, though! I finally found my rhythm and was spotting accurately! The minutes of zig-zagging around the course were behind me! I was swimming much straighter and gaining speed!

I finally reached the red buoy, made the turn, and was excited to be on the home stretch! As I was cruising along, finally feeling good about being out in the still bitter cold water, the sentiment took a turn for the worse. No, I was still swimming (mostly) straight… my right calf muscle seized up. CRAMP! Have you ever tried working out a cramp while still swimming? Not easy. So I’d swim a stroke, kick, then flex the calf to work out the cramp. After a couple of buoys I was able to get that under control… only for the left calf muscle to cramp up, too! That last 1/3 of a mile or so was somewhat unpleasant trying to move forward while nursing two cramped up calf muscles.

The best part about the swim happened soon enough: after several minutes of battling those darned calf cramps I reached the boat ramp that takes us out of the water and into T1. The swim was over!!!!!

Plus, I could always take consolation with the idea that though I didn’t swim the fastest out there, I was most certainly in the running for the dubious distinction of swimming the farthest!

The Bike (56 miles)

T1 is usually fast for me – run in, strip off the wetsuit, put on the helmet, grab the bike, and off I go! As long as it takes to read that sentence is just about how long T1 usually takes me. This race was a bit different. The wetsuit didn’t come off as quickly as normal – I had to sit down in order to get it off my feet (they were pretty much frozen numb). Then I had to pull the helmet out of the transition bag, put it on, spray the shoulders with sunscreen (a lesson learned from the Napa 70.3 last year), then stuff the wetsuit back into the bag… extra steps that took time I’m not used to taking.

I was soon on my way, jetting down the road, though. This is the part of the race where I am happiest – I start passing others by the droves. Racers from earlier waves, and faster swimmers from my wave (and later waves that passed me out in the water!). The first couple of miles were fast and I was gunning down cyclists quickly! The first hill hit us at mile 3 – it was just long and steep enough to cause the field to become congested… and for me to realize that the lack of training and the lingering effects of the viral infection were going to be an issue for me today. Climbs are usually my strong point in this distance of racing – I rarely get passed while going uphill. This particularly morning I was getting passed by for every 2 racers I passed – I just didn’t have the power in the legs that I was used to (lack of training), and the lungs were still too tender to take full, deep breaths (that damn virus!).

The rest of the first part of the race were much like the few opening miles. There were wicked fast flat and downhill stretches where I would blast by the field, followed by another hill where I would get caught by the faster riders. At one point a fellow cyclist gave me a heads-up: the water bottle cage zip-tied to the bottom of my saddle had broken loose and was dangling. Arg! I couldn’t let that break loose and fall off! I was going to need that bottle later in the day! So I stuffed the bottle in the back pocket of my racing suit (thank goodness I got one of the rare suits with a big enough pocket back there!) and pedaled along listening to the “tink-tink-tink” of the carbon fiber bottle cage bouncing off my seat post the rest of the ride.

The first hour of riding went by pretty quickly – I was averaging 21mph over that stretch, with two pretty good sized hills under my belt. The course organizers did a pretty good job with the bike course. We would get in a good mile or so of really fast road, they’d throw in a hill to make it tough, and then give us another mile or two of fast road again. It was tough, but fair.

I was focused during the bike on four things: Eat. Drink. Stay cool. Regain the feeling in my toes.

  • Eat: Every 30 to 40 minutes I would force myself to eat something whether I was hungry or not – I needed to keep fuel in the system for later in the race.
  • Drink: Every time I looked down I would take a swig of hydration mix out of my water bottles – I had to stay hydrated and keep the electrolyte mixture flowing to ward off cramps and dehydration.
  • Stay cool: Every aid station I would take a water bottle from a volunteer, dump it over my arms, back, and legs. This was also metaphorical, as I needed to not go nuts during the ride – I probably could ride faster, but at what cost to the run (and to my health? I was still feeling the effects of that virus and risked making it worse).
  • The toes: The swim was cold, and I didn’t regain feeling in my right toes until halfway up Snow Canyon. That was kind of a new experience.

We reached the 40-mile mark and the climb had begun up to Snow Canyon. Just when you thought the hill would stop, it just got worse. At the entrance to Snow Canyon Park I looked up and saw a beautiful red cliff at the top of a bluff, snaking miles ahead in the distance and taunting us well over 1,000 feet above our heads. The scenery was absolutely amazing. It was enchanting to be cycling through this canyon. Until that moment of dread hit me when I remembered from our driving of the course the previous day: that bluff way above our heads, we need to bike to there.

Ugh! So we all just put our heads down and kept on cranking up, up, up the canyon. After about 7 miles of climbing straight up, one pedal push at a time, the park abruptly ends and we make the right turn onto the highway. Downhill at last! I immediately cranked it up to about 50mph and blasted down this glorious stretch of highway. A couple more uphill sections over the past 10 miles – the course designers were very careful to never give us too long a break on this course – and the bike was soon over.

The course map downloaded from my GPS of the bike leg of the race. The course was very difficult - particularly Snow Canyon - but absolutely gorgeous.

The course map downloaded from my GPS of the bike leg of the race. The course was very difficult – particularly Snow Canyon – but absolutely gorgeous.

The bike course elevation profile. Snow Canyon was a beast of a climb. Over 2,700ft of total climbing, most of it in that Snow Canyon stretch late in the race.

The bike course elevation profile. Snow Canyon was a beast of a climb. Over 2,700ft of total climbing, most of it in that Snow Canyon stretch late in the race.

The Run (13.1 miles)

After dismounting the bike and running to my spot on the rack I was glad to see that there were fewer bikes on the rack here than were gone when I left T1. I had made up some ground during the bike… but there were still many more runners out on the course in front of me than I am used to seeing. A quick donning of the visor, shades, number belt, socks & shoes, and a quick slathering of sunscreen and I was off to try and reel as many of them back in as possible.

Lauren captured the early part of the run on video (if it doesn’t make sense, follow this link – heck, just follow this link first, get a good laugh, then watch my video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1hWGjnHGpY)

Having ridden the run course the previous day on my bike, I was fully aware of how much this run was going to hurt. It starts off uphill, and at about mile 2.5 it turns STRAIGHT uphill (at about a 9% grade). The course then levels off, then goes straight downhill. Turn around and do it all over again. I fell into a good, moderate rhythm and started running with a lady from San Diego. She would set the pace on the hills, I would set the pace on the flats. We worked pretty well together and were working our way through the pack. I carried my hydration with me, and would religiously dump water over my head at every aid station to stay cool. I stopped only twice, each for just a couple of seconds at miles 8 and 10 so I could drink a cup of Coca-Cola at the aid station without having it go up my nose – nobody wants bubbly syrupy goodness up their nose at that point in the race.

This run was extremely difficult. But the eat/hydrate/cool strategy from the bike was paying dividends. Though I was tired and the legs were fatigued, as long as I kept running and refusing to stop, I could keep on doing it. I wasn’t going as fast as I normally run, but I was getting it done. Upon reaching the top of the “last hill” I met a runner who lives in the St George area and we were excited that the last 3.5 miles were downhill… but his words still ring in my ears to this very moment, “But I did see a little detour on the map halfway down the hill. And since this is St George, I have a feeling that they put one more hill on the course.” His premonition was correct.

The map of the St George run course. The little detour at the end was just mean.

The map of the St George run course. The little detour at the end was just mean.

The run course elevation profile. It looks steep... because it is steep! And that last hill? Yeah, that wasn't on the elevation profile the organizers had posted... that was just mean!

The run course elevation profile. It looks steep… because it is steep! And that last hill? Yeah, that wasn’t on the elevation profile the organizers had posted… that was just mean!

The race map indeed showed a little detour coming back down the big hill. The elevation profile did not show it as a hill. The race map was correct… the elevation profile on the race website was not. It wasn’t a huge hill, but when your mind was locked into a 3.5 mile downhill finish it was big enough to be demoralizing. It was short, but punchy, and temporarily took the wind out of my sails… until I crested it and realized that the uphills were now truly done. Only 2 miles of downhill left! I cranked it up a bit and enjoyed every last moment. One last splash of water at the aid station with half a mile left, and then let it fly! Hit the roundabout with the last right turn onto Main Street – the finishing stretch – and it was a glorious 1/4 mile downhill run to the finishing line! The streets were lined with people, I was finishing off in a sprint to the cheers of the crowd, high fives from random strangers… it felt good.

As I crossed the finish line I pointed to my Livestrong visor (like I do in every race)… and then bent over, clenched my fists, and did something I’ve never done: let out a barbaric scream/yell/yawp that released every single bit of pent up frustration of the past year. The injuries. The work pressures. The sickness. All of it was behind me… and I beat them all.

Yeah. That felt good. That felt REAL good.

All done!

After the race I gathered my finisher’s hat and medal, then jumped into the fountain in the park to cool off. Lauren found me, gave me a big hug (she endured the salt encrusted, sopping wet jersey), and gave me a giant jug of chocolate milk. Ahhhh… chocolate milk!

What I hadn’t disclosed before the race: I let on that I was recovered from the virus. In reality, I wasn’t. I was still coughing up until race morning. Nasty coughs. During the race I only coughed once, and that was early in the swim when I couldn’t quite catch my breath. Not even one the rest of the race. After the race, though, I couldn’t breathe or talk without coughing and all kinds of icky stuff coming up.

And that is when we saw super pro Andy Potts, 3rd place pro finisher on the day, he led the race through the swim and bike, former Ironman 70.3 World Champion and always the first racer out of the water, standing around with us mere mortals. I asked for a picture with him… what I got was a few pictures and a good 5 to 10 minute conversation with him. Quite simply the humblest, nicest, coolest guy I could have imagined meeting. We chatted about the course (he described the Snow Canyon climb as “legit” and the run as just being ridiculously difficult – he was right on both counts). Meeting Andy was so ridiculously cool.

Funny part is that the entire time I was chatting with Andy I didn’t even cough once. Adrenaline is an amazing thing.

Andy Potts - super awesome guy, fastest swimmer in the Ironman series, and former World Champion - took the time to take a picture with me. So very cool.

Andy Potts – super awesome guy, fastest swimmer in the Ironman series, and former World Champion – took the time to take a picture with me. So very cool.

Andy even stuck around to chat with me for a good 5 to 10 minutes. I even gave him a couple opportunities to back out of the conversation - he is a busy guy and just got 3rd place in this race, after all - but he was glad to be chatting with me... I couldn't believe it!

Andy even stuck around to chat with me for a good 5 to 10 minutes. I gave him a couple of opportunities to back out of the conversation – he is a busy guy and just got 3rd place in this race, after all – but he was glad to be chatting with me… I couldn’t believe it!

Aftermath

Race results. Not anywhere close to my usual results... but I made up a lot of ground on the bike and run.

Race results. Not anywhere close to my usual results… but I made up a lot of ground on the bike and run.

So, as a guy who is used to standing on the post-race podium in my age group and with top 5/10/20 finishes in the overall category, a 512th overall and a 92nd in my age group should leave a horrible taste in my mouth. But it doesn’t.

I overcame a lot of obstacles just to be in this race. Frankly, I shouldn’t have done this race – I wasn’t trained for it, I wasn’t recovered from that virus – but I am so glad I did. I learned a lot about my limits and staying within them. I was able to focus on race strategies like fuel/hydration/temperature regulation that I didn’t need to focus on in the past. In the long run this will make me a stronger racer… and will keep my ego in check.

I also know the course now… and what I need to do to be better. I’ll be back next year in my quest to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships next season. With appropriate training I should be able to take 10 minutes off the swim, 20 minutes off the bike, and another 20 off the run. That extra 50 minutes – let’s call it 45 for the sake of conservatism – would have placed me in the top 100 overall, top 40 of amateurs, and top 10 in my age group. Right where I’ve raced in the past, right where I know can perform, and right in the mix for a spot in the World Championships.

Yeah. I am so pumped for next year.

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One Response to 135 days: Ironman 70.3 St George race recap – long version – part 3

  1. Suzanne Oram says:

    You sure know how to take the reader along on your adventure. Well, without the pain and exhaustion, of course!

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