Friday, November 20, 2009

Ironman World Championships 70.3 - This ain't your momma's triathlon!

This is a special race. Everyone is fit. Everyone is fast. And EVERYONE can run. I know I’m not a strong swimmer. But my cycling has come a long ways the past couple of seasons. And running has always been my bread and butter. In most races, if I can stay close enough on the swim, I can usually make up some ground on the bike, and then attack the run. Not in Clearwater. Not at the World Championships. Dropped in the swim? Guess what. GAME OVER! Enjoy your next 3+ hours of racing. Because you have no chance.

Not that I had a bad swim (for me anyway). But this course, and everyone’s ability to run well under a 1:30 for the half marathon, sets up to really punish the weaker swimmers of the bunch. You have to be balanced to do well at this race. And by balanced I mean, you can’t have any weaknesses. Lesson learned. You want to play with the best? You’d better bring something more than a strong run.

The swim started out fine. They moved it to the causeway water due to the conditions in the ocean from Hurricane Ida. That changed the start to a time trial instead of waves. Basically, you walked across the timing mat, and your race started. It got very crowded and people were fighting to get in the water once they crossed that mat. I got a great feel for how international the race is while waiting in the starting chute. Two German guys were confused as to how to get into the water. It was only about one foot deep, so the officials announced that you would be disqualified for diving in. The German guys didn’t get the distinction between jumping in the water and “diving” head first. “Everyone is diving, no?” Nein. Don’t go head first. “AHHHH!!! Danke.” No problem, dude. Have a good race.

FOCUS on the swim. The time trial start was both good and bad. It was less crowded than most wave starts are. But the faster swimmers would run right up on you and you would do the same thing to the slower swimmers in front of you. I got kicked in the head a few times. All in all, I would prefer a mass wave start. I’m sure the guy that took second place in my age group would agree, since he lost by one second. Four hours and two minutes of racing, and this guy loses by one second—probably with no idea that it was that close because of the time trial start. Unbelievable.

About 400 meters into the swim, I was starting to settle in and find a good stroke when I noticed that we were swimming through a bunch of seaweed. The water was so shallow that my hands were hitting the sea bottom. I tried to swim shallow to not touch bottom, but I ended up cutting my middle finger on something. Of course, my first thought was “I’m bleeding in the ocean. Great.” It hurt, but there wasn’t much I could do about it so I just kept swimming. I had trouble finding the turn buoy because we were swimming directly into the sun. I just followed the others and eventually saw a red buoy—time to make hard left turn. 800 meters into the swim, and I stood up and walked around the buoy in water that didn’t even come up to my waste.

The only other trouble on the swim was the exit. It was very difficult to see where to go. With no practice on this course the days leading up to the race, I had no idea what to look for as I was swimming in. I kept having to stop and look around to get my bearings. Finally, I exited the water and headed to the transition—35 minutes after I started.

CONCEDE on the bike. This bike course was all that was advertised. Flat, fast, fairly windy, and lots of big groups of cyclists. About 15 minutes into the ride, Michael Dawdy went by me. That man is a beast on a bike! And he had EIGHT guys sitting right on his wheel. They were lined up like he was leading them on a breakaway. I’ve never seen guys ride that close in a triathlon before.

Not much else to say about the bike. I stayed aero, followed the race plan, stayed within my power zones, kept up with my nutrition, ignored all the guys that were passing me, and finished with plenty of legs to run on (or so I thought at the time). One of the most uneventful, near perfect bike splits of any long course race I’ve been in. The most interesting thing that happened was looking down at my hands and noticing that I was still bleeding from the swim. My new, white Fizik bar wrap is now stained with blood (as are my new white shoelaces. I don’t think I stopped bleeding until I stopped racing.).

I averaged 24.4 mph for the bike and finished in 2:17.

STAMPEDE on the run. That was the plan anyway. In almost every long course race, my lower quads cramp in the first mile of the run. This race was no different. About 4 minutes in, the cramping started. I usually just have to slow down a little until my legs realize that we are now running, not pedaling, and the cramping will subside. Sure enough, just as I started up the causeway, the cramping stopped and I was able to run strong. Not as strong as I had hoped, but close.

Speaking of the causeway . . . that thing is steep! I knew we had a “bridge” to run across four times, but I failed to consider the size of the ships that have to pass under that bridge. The first trip over it wasn’t too bad. I found my legs pretty quickly and ran the first 5 miles in just over 35 minutes. The second trip over the causeway took a little bit out of me. I slowed a little during that sixth mile. It didn’t last too long and soon, I was running strong again. I think the best I felt all day was during the second half of the seventh mile. I felt as strong as I have ever felt in a half Ironman.

Then I went over the causeway for a third time.

I had been taking Gatorade at every aid station up to that point. Gatorade will often upset my stomach, so I try to stick with gels. But when I’m working that hard, it’s almost impossible to eat a gel and keep up the pace. So I was taking one drink of Gatorade, followed by a drink of water, at every aid station. Just after the eighth mile, I was coming off the causeway, feeling strong, with only five miles to go, and I decided to skip one aid station. I don’t know if it was the day, the lack of focused training the past two months, skipping the Gatorade, the causeway, running too hard when I started feeling good, or a combination of all of these, but at that ninth mile, someone flipped a switch, and I entered a really low spot. Every step was a fight.

I did everything I could to keep my pace up, but to no avail. And when I cracked, I cracked! I slowed by about a minute a mile for the next two miles. I started taking Gatorade again, and managed to pull myself together for the last two miles. But by that point, it was too late. The damage was done.

I had run the first half in 46 minutes (only one minute off my goal pace). The second half took me 51 minutes. And that was mostly due to the last four miles. My total run time was 1:37.

Overall impressions. My total time was 4:37, which is my fastest time at this distance. I can look back now and see where I could have easily gone several minutes faster (for one thing, my transitions were pathetic!). But even looking at where I lost time, I think the best I could have done that day was possibly still not good enough to crack the top half in my age group.

This is very humbling (humiliating?) for me. I never thought I would go there and win. At least not this year. But I didn’t think I would be 100th place out of 137. I don’t think I really appreciated just how fast everyone there was going to be. Now I know. And next time, I’ll be ready for that. That race is all business. One thing’s for certain . . . it made me want to experience Kona even more. There’s just something about competing with the best that appeals to me. And I can’t wait to do it again. I will be back. But not until I am ready to actually compete.

Right now, I’m just not fast enough. And if I learned one thing, it's that just because you're fast enough to get there, doesn't mean you're fast enough to compete there.

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