Goals: My general goals for this race (my third tri and first half) were to get a great workout in, to experience the half Iron distance for the first time in a low-key venue, and to test my nutrition (mainly water and Gatorade as needed, a 600-calorie bottle of Maltodextrin-enhanced Ironman Perform on the bike, SaltSticks, and a gel during the run). My specific goals were to swim steadily, average 235-240W on the bike, and run well. I didn’t have any time goals in mind for the run because it was an offroad/cross country style course (that turned out to be long) but I wanted to have a strong final leg.
Pre Race: The 4:15 a.m. wake-up call came and went, and over the next two hours, I methodically ate breakfast (oatmeal cooked in almond milk with two bananas, half a Clif bar, and coffee), loaded the car, drove to Delaware, and set up my transition area. The water temperature was 0.5 degree below the cutoff of 78, so it would be wetsuit legal.
Cocked and Loaded
After the pre-race meeting, which started about 10 minutes late, the athletes walked the 3/8 mile from the transition area to the lake. Since everyone was together, I wasn’t rushing to the starting line even though it was already well past the posted start time. When we arrived, the announcer was already corralling athletes in my wave (which was first). My wetsuit wasn’t even all the way on yet, and I hurriedly put my arms through when the announced balked “90 seconds” as I was still 100 yards from the line.
Then, at literally the last minute, I realized all the shoes lined up at the edge of the lake were placed there by athletes who were planning to slip into them after the swim for the trek to T1. I had planned to run barefoot as I thought others would. Luckily, I had my shoes. So I had to rush to arrange my laces in such a way that I would be able to get into them easily. Then I sprinted for the line putting on my cap and goggles as I ran. I arrived with less than 15 seconds to spare. Amateur hour.
Swim: I was lined up all the way to the left, and by coincidence started right next to the token uber swimmer (at every triathlon, there is at least one former collegiate or stud club swimmer, who may or may not be a good triathlete but destroys the field in the water). Had I been more prepared for the start and more aggressive at the gun, I might have gotten on his feet. Instead, I opted for a more relaxed start, thinking that I’d leech off a less torrid pacer. Soon, I realized the next best swimmer (merging in from the right) was quickly fading and was going to be too slow for me, so I forged ahead. For the first 500 meters, the top guy couldn’t have been more than 15-20 meters ahead, but when you’re already pushing and trying not to go hypoxic, bridging that gap is extremely difficult.
At the turn buoy (roughly 800 meters), the margin to the leader was insurmountable and I was feeling fatigued in my shoulders and overheated in my wetsuit. Doubts started to creep into my mind about blowing up on the first leg in my first half Iron. On the return, I concentrated on maintaining a more relaxed pace and sighting off the splash of the leader’s stroke (with the sun immediately ahead, it was nearly impossible to see the sparsely placed buoys). With about 400 meters to go, I was feeling terribly hot and slowed down perceptibly. The leader seemed to double his margin in the last section. After what seemed like an eternity, I was on shore to cheers and encouragement. Delirious and stumbling around, I almost put on another athlete’s shoes (seriously though, who else has bright yellow shoes?). I struggled to pull down my wetsuit, which I was dying to get out of, as I was jogging toward T1.
My swim split, inclusive of the jog to T1, was 29:47, so I was likely out of the water in around 27 minutes, about what I’d hope for and expect for a wetsuit swim.
Bike: The lead man, who had put 90 seconds into me on the actual swim, had a poor jog and T1, and I arrived at the mount line just as he took off. At the outset of the bike, my legs felt strong but my heart rate was out of control and I was still feeling a bit seasick, if you will. I just concentrated on keeping my power numbers under control (the urge to push 300+ watts and take the lead was strong). I settled into a rhythm and passed authoritatively within a couple miles, and from that point on I had a lead vehicle escort to clear traffic.
Sky High Heart Rate at the Bike Start
It was then I realized I felt good–damn good, actually, given that my power was at 260W+. My peak 20-min power was between 5 and 25 minutes (263W) and it felt reasonable. For the next 20-25 miles, there was nobody in front and nobody that I could see behind. Although I knew the field wouldn’t be deep, I knew there would be some studs (as there always are) and there would be others gunning for the win. With data from my Garmin and a skewed-by-willpower perception of exertion, I had a savage internal dialogue about whether or not I was going too hard.
On one hand, I had rested and my legs were feeling strong, and with the competition effect perhaps my target wattage had been a low ball. I thought of an interview with Andy Potts in which he mentions that his physiology is unique such that his half Iron race power is 30W higher than what he pushes in training. On the other hand, I had pushed 251W for 56 miles in training just weeks prior–on these same roads, no less–and had written accordingly:
The [251W] effort took its toll–I felt trashed at the end despite proper fueling. Had I needed to, I doubt I could have run a fast half marathon in that state. So I learned something important with the workout: my 235-240W target for half-Iron competition is probably right, even though I’m capable of better.
My heart rate started to come down (+1 for the keep pushing side) but my perceived exertion rose predictable as the miles clicked by (+1 for the tone it down side).
Devil: “If you slow down, you’re torched. So what if you’ve spent some time at the pool…the uber cyclists are coming for you. All you’ll see is the back of a Super 9 sailing away to victory if you ease up now. You’ll never catch them on the run.”
Angel: “You are the uber cyclist, man. You’re pushing 4 Watts per kilo. That’s more than enough. Settle it down to 3.8 so you can bring it on the run.”
And so it was for the first loop…then, during the back half of the race, my legs started to get crampy. Stupidly, I had decided to leave my SaltSticks in T1 since it was a cool day. I began feeling twitches in my calves and hamstrings, and getting out of aero (for a couple sharp turns) caused my right hammy to seize up entirely, and I had to coast and stretch several times. Besides the cramps, I was tiring but not dramatically so–250W required roughly the same strain as 260W had at the start. My heart rate was within a reasonable range and I just concentrated on staying comfortable and relaxed while holding 235+ and easing down to 200W as my hamstrings periodically threatened revolt. The last section was strong (250W+) as I was thrilled to be close to getting off my bike.
All said and done, I’d pushed an average of 251W (3.9 W/kg) for 2:08 at an average speed of 24.3 mph for 52 miles (the course was well short of 56, which I knew from having ridden the course). This was far and away the fastest ride of my life–my recent bike fit was already paying dividends.
Run: Coming into T2, I knew strategically that if I could keep my cramps at bay and not crater spectacularly, I would likely take the race with what I knew was my strength. I took a long time in T2 swallowing several SaltSticks, putting on socks, and drinking some more Malto/Perform. As I was about a mile down the road, little did I know the chase man had scalped 80 seconds of my lead during transition alone–my 2+ minute T2, and his 40-seconds one, could have been decisive factors in a different race–and he was a good runner too.
I took advantage of the first couple miles being flat and dry to cruise at 6-minute pace. My lead biker cleared the path, which was still crowded with sprint competitors, allowing me to focus on maintaining a steady pace. I could feel the liquid sloshing around in my stomach–not comfortable–and could not take any more fluids. With an early out-and-back section, I got a split on #2 and #3, who were running together and looked like they were absolutely crushing it out of T2. They were three-minutes from the turnaround, so roughly six back. I had a workable margin.
Seeing the other top guys motivated me to push hard for the next stretch, the cross country section of the course, which had short, punchy little hills with terrible footing–having rained the night prior, water puddles and slick mud were everywhere. I nearly lost it completely on a couple spots and my pace slowed drastically. The racing flats I’d worn were clearly meant for the roads. As my Garmin showed splits in the 6:15 to 6:25 range for the next 4 miles, I kept reminding myself everyone was on the same course and would be slowing too.
At around 7.5 miles there was another opportunity for a split on the chase group, and I was hopeful that with the pace I was pushing through the terrain, I’d be opening up my lead on second and third. This was not the case, as I clocked about 3:10 to the turnaround point (6:20 back). I’d made up only 20 seconds in 4 miles of hard running–these guys were running around the same speed as I. However, I knew that they too were checking the split and, in about 3 minutes, would see they weren’t making up any time at all. This would be harder news for them than it was for me.
Having seen the competition, I flew through the next 1.5 miles in 9:10, leaping aggressively over puddles and working the sides of the trail. By around 10 miles, the split on #2 was 3:30 (7 minutes back), and #3 had faded from contention. It was good news, because I was toast. To no avail, I took in a gel with 25 mg of caffeine in hopes of maintaining some semblance of a respectable pace. I hadn’t been able to take in fluids for about an hour. Mile 11 was around 6:50, which I knew was about my “stumbling home exhausted” pace from recent long runs. Miles 12 and 13 were worse yet. I hit 13.1 in around 1:25 and I wasn’t even close to the finish line–it was a cruel, cruel trick.
The consensus was that the course was 13.7 or 13.8, or roughly 5-minutes long, but I finished in 1:29:48, staggering into the chute at what felt like 9-minute pace, dehydrated and exhausted…but pleased with my race. My total time was 4:11:27.
Postscript: Taken together, the race was good. Performance wise, I was second out of the water for the men (third fastest overall), split the fastest time on the bike, and eeked out the fastest run split despite the late crater. I was able to stand on top of a triathlon podium for the first time and received a nice Polar running watch.
I learned a lot, but I made some critical mistakes. Ultimately, given how I finished the run, I may have gone about 5-10W too hard on the bike and/or cooked it a little too much in the first half of the run. I should be capable of a sub-1:20 half marathon (on normal terrain), and I don’t think my performance Sunday was equivalent (maybe 1:22 to 1:23). I need to work on transitions and carry the proper supplements at all times. The cramping, while a big concern because it can ruin a race, may have had more to do with my new fit utilizing the hamstrings in a different way (and not being accustomed to the strain) than any mistake on my part, but I need to investigate it further and try to recreate it and contend with it in training. I clearly need to work on my transitions. Since I’m not concentrating on the Olympic distance, I figured I could get away with weakness in this (unglamorous) aspect of triathlon, but transitions are important in long course, too. The Men’s 30-34 age group at the World Champs was decided by 16 seconds. Overall, this was a good race, but there’s plenty to improve upon.