I’ve been anxiously awaiting this race for months now. As triathletes we train hard and many of us truly enjoy training. But the race brings it all together. It answers the nagging questions in the back of your head, those that even at dinner table you dare not answer. Do I train the right way, do I have the right endurance, the right plan, the proper nutrition, can I put it all together, am I going to die in the middle of it… You know, simple questions.
In a sense I’ve been training for a half-ironman for well over a year now. In fact, my entire season last year was built for a 70.3 so it’s no surprise that I’d been waiting for this race with excitement and angst. There were a lot of unknowns too. With the race being quite early in the season, the training had been quite limited. Aggravated by my knee issue, my off season was very mild with December and January virtually completely off and then a slow build back up. Add to that some cold weather and my bike volume was quite low. In fact, put it all together and my longest ride was 50 miles and my longest run was 11.5 miles before the race. I would have very much preferred to see a 14-15 mile run and some 60+ mile rides to add the right level of endurance and confidence before the event but alas, it was one thing outside my control.
A month out of the Kinetic I did a test race at the International Rumpus in Bumpass. Though the conditions were horrid, my performance was pretty much the same as last year’s which indicated I had a lot of work to do with little time to do it and a trip to India and another to France in between. So I did what I could and packed on two hard volume weeks where I tore it up pretty good and gave myself a killer taper week in France with some fine (and healthy) dining. I’m sure this might not be a plan the folks at purplepatch fitness or carmichael training systems would approve but it certainly was my best chance to get a decent race in. After that, all that was left to do was rest, hydrate and plan. So to overcome lack of preparation, one thing I could indeed control was planning.
I’m a big believer of planning. I don’t do it in all parts of my life but I’ve never started a race without somewhat of a race plan. Even if it’s simple, a plan gives you something to focus on during the race and usually prevents you from doing something stupid. The plan was to race primarily by heart rate for most of the race. Sub 145 HR until midway through the bike and sub 150 after that. The run would a 9 minute pace for the first 7 miles and then push it for a sub 1:55 Half Marathon. All this with a conservative sub 40 minute swim I was hoping to end up around 5:30 for my first Half Ironman which I would consider an honorable performance on a rolling hill course. With all this planned, I picked up my Zipp 404 Carbon Clincher rentals from Conte’s bike in Arlington (they were out of 808s) and I left my house early to drive down to pick up my race packet and get a good night’s sleep at the Holiday Inn Express in Thornburg – about 25 minutes from the race site.
The morning of the race followed my normal routine of oat meal + banana and everything was ready for me to put the kit on and get in the car. With my friend Kevin we swung by McDonalds for a quick coffee and I recall commenting on the fact that their small coffee seemed to be quite large. Nevertheless, the morning nectar is a necessity for me and I took my time to drink it all. I like to get to the race site early to remove the number of uncertainties and Kevin is the same way so we got along fine. After racking my bike in a great spot, we picked up the timing chips, were marked and went off for a quick dip in the 70 degree lake. There was no current, no wave, it was perfectly flat on this misty morning.
At 7:03, the second wave took off – me included – from a beach start. The start was actually a bit less chaotic than I imagined (this would be my first beach start) and I quickly got into a groove. I soon realized however that the mist made it difficult to see far and I’m not sure that I took the most direct line to the first yellow turn buoy. Regarding the second one however, I’m confident that I didn’t and ended up colliding with another swimming which knocked my goggles off. I note that I always put my goggles – under – my swim cap which is probably the reason why I didn’t loose them altogether. The other swimmer was not so lucky and had to keep going without his.
Though I couldn’t sight well on the first two (of three) legs of the swim, I had spotted that on the swim back it would be best to get on the inside of the orange buoys and that’s exactly what I did despite the fact that most other swimmers seemed to stay on the outside. Towards the end of the swim, I experienced some chest pains which seriously worried me. I had read a while back about triathletes never coming out of the swim and it just wasn’t a thought that I appreciated. After some calm thinking and quick self-diagnosis I remembered the “small” McDonalds coffee which I thought was quite large. This volume of coffee along with being in a horizontal position exerting myself hard for over 30 minutes surely gave me heart burn. I took three breast strokes lifting my head up and it seemed to alleviate the symptoms. Though it still hurt I put my head down and pushed through rather confident that I wasn’t going to drown. A few minutes later I emerged out of the water (alive) in 36:30, well within my plan.
My transition was pretty much flawless. Having lathered my wrists and ankles with body glide before the race, the wetsuit came right off, then it was sunglasses, helmet, turn on the computer and I was off. The plan was easy. Keep it inside 145 HR to where it doesn’t hurt – if it didn’t hurt my legs I figured I could last a while. There were a lot of people passing me which is very difficult being as competitive as I am. I kept reminding myself to race my race, that this was only a practice race, that I had to stay within plan. I can assure you that without my plan which I shared with my friend I would have pushed harder (and probably ended up paying for it later). Every time my heart rate approached 145, I eased off. It’s amazing how quickly 2 hours 45 minutes can go. I focused on what I could. I hydrated, took in my gels according to plan, checked my heart rate, checked my breathing, cadence, position. About midway through, I started to have to pee rather badly but stopping didn’t sound appealing. I knew there was a water bottle station coming up so I let two people pass me until nobody was behind me. Now came the hard part, relaxing the bladder. It took me a few tries but I made it. About a mile later, I grabbed a water bottle at the station, rinsed off and I was off again. As a friend told me later “Proper hydration trumps vanity any day” and I can’t agree more. In fact, I even repeated the process once later in the ride I can tell you that I’m an expert at peeing while riding, drafters beware!
After about 50 miles I got caught in a bunch of people and didn’t feel comfortable about it. The drafting – though involuntary – bothered me and I didn’t want to stay stuck in the group. As soon as I could I pushed the pace a little bit and left the group behind. This was my race, the measure of my training and performance and I wasn’t going let it be tainted by riding with a bunch of others. As I reached the transition I looked at my time and clocked in at 2:45. It was a much faster time than I thought (slightly over 20 mph) and I was feeling rather good. My bike-to-run transition was even faster than the first: socks, shoes, race belt, and I grabbed my FuelBelt hydration pack which I put on later and I was off.
As I looked at my watch I noted I had about 2 hours to make the run and still come in well inside my goal of 5:30, things were looking good…until I hit the first hill of the run. That hill was rather brutal and literally killed the legs. Though the pain eventually went away after a mile or so as the incline turned to flat, the knowledge that it was a three loop course was a bit haunting and I wasn’t looking forward to the “hill repeats” as my friend Ben commented later in reviewing my tracks. At this point I realized that my plan to take it easy the first 7 miles and then push wouldn’t work. Instead I had to try to maintain a constant effort and work with the hills both up and down. I peeked at my heart rate which indicated about 155. Based on a number of training and tempo runs I knew that if I stayed below 160 I shouldn’t blow up. This plan worked pretty well until about mile 8 where I felt like I was about to bonk. I was running very low on energy despite a rather good nutrition plan or so I thought. I quickly downed a gel, several ounces of gatorade and grabbed two quarter oranges at an aid station. With 5 miles to go I managed to keep it all together. With one mile to go I looked at my watch and noticed that if I ran a sub 8 for the last mile I could actually get below 5 hours and 20 minutes – the though of which pumped me up. So I turned on the gas and went all out. My last mile turned out to be a 7:34 which – considering it was my 70th human-powered mile of the day was rather good and I passed the finishing clock with an actual time of 5:19:18, a fantastic performance for a first time 70.3 athlete!
I surely didn’t break any records or place in any age group in this race. In fact, I finished well in the bottom half of my age group and at no point did this bother me. In a life balancing a demanding job, extensive travel, a family of 3 kids and a healthy social life I managed to finish a half ironman in under 5 and half hours. In terms of balancing the passions of my life, I’d stay I certainly established a PR on that one!