My coach told me that Ironman 70.3 St. George would be all about "the grind". "On the bike, you will be on 12% to 15% grade hills. If there is wind, it will feel like 25%. The same on the run. And you will be more hot than you are used to... it's in the desert which is much more hot and much more dry. And then you are also at higher altitude. But you need to think about moving forward. No matter how slow. It will feel very slow. But don't be discouraged. Focus on effort and play it smart. This course will be harder than everything before. Follow our plan and you will finish the race happy. This is a hard race, and maybe your hardest ever. Don't think about your time. Think about your training and your effort and focus on being strong the whole way. If you can do that, you will have a good race."
I jotted Coach Bjoern's sage advice down a few days before Ironman 70.3 St. George. And, indeed, it will go down as my toughest race ever. Ever.
My wife and son gave me this race as a Birthday Present. Eli has started to say things like "Dadda fast. Dadda swim. Dadda bike fast. Dadda run fast.". When I penciled in this race, I also did not know it would become the US Pro Championships. So for my birthday present, I got to compete with one of the best pro fields and what turned out to be the biggest age-group field I've ever seen. The cutoff was at 2800 competitors.
I arrived in Vegas and drove right to the venue on the Thursday (it's a Saturday race). I could say my motivation to get there early was to scan the race course but.... actually... I won tickets to hang out with the founders of TrainingPeaks.com, and the CEO and sponsorship team of the Ironman corporation, and Crowie (Craig Alexander, one of my heroes). I'll spare the details, but I had an amazing 30 minute conversation with Crowie about the support our families selflessly provide so that we can pursue this sport. He even got emotional at one point when I told him that Eli and I watched some post-race interviews of Kona last year where Eli was genuinely sad hearing Crowie's race recap and even hugged my iPad when watching it. Needless to say that Crowie is still one of my heroes of the sport. This was a really nice evening for me.
That same night I was putting my bike together and discovered a few "concerns". For one, my front brakes may or may not be working. Awesome. I cracked a piece of the integrated brakes on my Trek Speed Concept during packing. Shit. Oh well, I will be going so fast I will only need rear brakes, right? The second concern was cosmetic... the cover on the integrated bars was also cracked. I probably don't need that piece anyway. This whole thing could have ended poorly. Fortunately, I pack electrical tape, duct tape, and other emergency rations. Black Mamba (my bike) might not have looked pretty, but after finding a plastic cup, some scissors, and mounting the wheels to test my braking, she was ready to go. I felt like I was about to ride the "town bike".
Next day, I drove the tough sections of the bike and run course and dipped my toes in the water that would prove to be my nemesis. I got some light workouts in to rev the engine and checked in my bike and run gear and had a great pre-race evening meal at a local spot.
I even found time in the afternoon to get some real experience with the dry heat and walk around some unshaded mountain bike trails. This little walkabout was where I laid out my race plan:
SWIM: It'll be chilly but you've been in worse. I'm swimming well right now so focus on getting on the toes of some faster swimmers and let them drag you around. Don't get knocked out when you get kicked in the face.
BIKE: I'll be cold at the start. Pull off the pre-staged toe warmers from your shoes if it seems it could heat up fast. Don't drink fluids until my body warms up. Stay in high Zone 3 effort the whole way, even on the climbs if I can. Follow my nutrition strategy (gel every 20 mins, salt every 15 mins, fluids as required).
RUN: Hopefully I have gas left after the bike. It'll be hot now. Desert heat and dryness. It's a hilly run but nothing I haven't done, so just be mindful of form, effort, and nutrition.
FINISH: Take all the cold sponges out from your sponsored outfit. Zip up your uniform. High five everyone who's within your reach and sticks out their hand. Smile when you finish and don't look at your watch.
If all goes to plan, I'll pull out a 5 hour race.
I went to bed early and fell asleep quickly.
4 am wake-up calls are never nice. They're especially not nice on an earlier time zone. As I got up, I couldn't help thinking it was 3 am at home. Still, I had 7 hours of sleep, which, if you are an experienced racer, you know is a TON of sleep on the night before a race.
Slammed some breakfast and caught my hotel shuttle to T2 to catch yet another shuttle to T1. Got my area setup quick, pumped my tires, then headed for the obligatory portapotty visit. I'm coming to realize the quality of a race organization team can be measured in the number of minutes in line for the portapotty on race morning. St. George goes down as the best organized race ever, by that scale.
I was scheduled to hit the water at 7:25 but they wanted us out of the transition area by 6:30. "Wishful thinking", I thought to myself. Still, I moved quickly and with purpose and got out of there. We weren't allowed to set up our gear (we had to survive with what we put in our transition bags the night before) so I would have to trust that I made effective choices last night. For one, I decided to pack toe warmers for my bike shoes. I stuck them on my shoes the night before so that I could make the game-day decision to pull them off in T1 if the temperature felt right. I also decided to rock my number belt out of T1 instead of T2. That way I could move through T2 with purpose and get on with the chase. I also had my arm compression (slash sun stoppers) on under my wetsuit. In the end, these were all things that proved well thought out and executed... in fact one of my highlights of the day.
And so now, here's how that day went....
SWIM: They make you swim out to the start line so you can get warmed up. This is because the water there was between 12 and 15 degrees celsius. This was unpleasant. This was my first open water swim of the year. I did not pack my neoprene swim cap, so I double-capped instead. Still not enough. Even the well noted "pre race ritual" didn't warm me up. My shoulders etc. were warmed up by the time I showed up at the start line. My head was not. Horn went off and I went for it. I positioned myself in the front 1/3 and put out a good 300m start. Then I started to see dark spots in my vision, started to feel very off balance, and started to hyperventilate. And then I barfed. I tried to do freestyle again and catch back up, but then many more black spots came and I stopped. In that moment, I genuinely thought that I may black out and force myself to be rescued from the water. I lifeguarded as a teen so knew what I was probably experiencing. I just sat there for a few moments (probably a few seconds but it really felt like a long time). A rescue kayaker paddled over and told me I either needed to start moving or call it a day; if I just stay there, I will get too cold and go hypothermic. This was my very first time in that situation: I could literally get pulled from the water and my day is done; the day that Jen and Eli gave me as a birthday present. I actually thought about quitting. I also thought I might actually not make the swim cutoff time. Lots of thoughts happening quickly. So, I asked the rescuer to stay with me for the next 300m, until I turned the first corner buoy. He said "why don't you get started and let's see how this goes". So I got started. Doing breast-stroke. I do have a good breast-stroke but it is not as fast or efficient as freestyle. I also knew I'd spend some energy that I would probably need later on. But "whatever", I thought. My plan is already out the window and I need to switch into survival mode and just honour the present Jen and Eli gave me. ...and do what I intended to do: finish the hardest course I might ever do. So I alternated between freestyle until I got dizzy (barfed a couple more times) and breast-stroke (no barfing). I got out of the water in about 45 minutes. Freestyle would have got me out in 32 minutes.
T1: This race had a T1 the size of a football field, with a long run-in and run-out. Still I moved as quickly as I could and got to my bike. Stuffed down a Roctane Gel, got my shit together (even tore off the toe warmers, as it started to feel like the heat was coming), and got on my bike. Not the most stellar T1 but fast enough. I already knew I was now doing this for pride and not for performance.
BIKE: Took a good 10 km to warm up. I was focused in those first 20 minutes to get calories and electrolytes back into my body. After all, I had a desert to deal with. I always pack a "breakfast" of calories for the bike in case something goes down on the swim. I had never needed it until today. In the first 10km I had put down 4 gels, 4 salt tabs, and a bottle of water. None of this is "on plan". I never drink in the first 30 mins so that my digestive track warms up. I never pound down gels as it can become a digestive issue pretty fast. I was in survival mode and just accepted the consequences. But remarkably, the only thing that came back to haunt me was the liquid: I ended up "going" three times during the ride. But employing my emergency rations of gels meant I could hold a good strong (albeit conservative) heart rate for the whole bike... even on the toughest desert valley climb of all time. Coach was right: This big climb was really stupid and hot. Really really stupid and hot. As I past people walking their bikes up the hill I thought to myself: "Self... back home you climb this shit all day. So what if it's hot and dry out and you are chewing threw your liquids. At least you were prepared". And so I climbed. By the end of it, I had the wind and moisture sucked from me. I put down another 2 gels, a full bottle of liquids, and just gunned it downhill passing many many people who were a bit more cooked than I.
T2: Pretty spent from the bike. Thought about throwing some band-aids onto my toes that were threatening blisters. Thought to myself "attack the run, but not too hard". I looked at my watch as I exited. It told me I was running 4:15 face and I felt really good.
RUN: 4:15 pace did not prevail. It was now 28 degrees and there would be no shade on the run course. There would also be no flat sections: either climbing or descending. Steeply. So I'm exiting T2 with encouragement, thinking I'll pick off a hundred runners. Then the reality of the first 5km set in. Climb time. Then the next 11km is rolling climbing. Mostly steep climbs, except a 400m descent to the halfway point. Then it's an obnoxious climb to the 15km point (I descended that section only recently), then a quick descent, followed by another dumb climb, and then we're finally back to descending for the last several kilometers. In the desert. In the dry heat. Thankfully I had fueled well on the bike and followed my run plan for nutrition: Gel every 15 minutes, electrolyte tabs at the same interval as long as the stomach was holding up, go to Cola only when necessary (13km is where I gave in), and drink water as required. Bad blisters had set in during the first few KMs. I had to land on my heals for much of the run or risk bursting the water-balloons in my shoes. Ultimately, it was the blisters that did me in on the run. I'm going to experiment with my sock selection... too much padding really just doesn't work for me.
FINISH: Take all the cold sponges out from your sponsored outfit. Zip up your uniform. High five everyone who's within your reach and sticks out their hand. Smile when you finish and don't look at your watch. Executed to plan.
I actually don't remember my finish time beyond knowing it was north of 5:40. Officially my second worst time since I started Triathlon.
Immediately after, as I was fetching some food and admiring my medal, I knew I could have pushed it harder on the bike and on the run. I really had a lot of gas left. But really, how do you plan for this kind of race. You train and you test and you train some more. But when you have the swim I had, become concerned for your fuel and effort on the bike, then try and manage your run so that you actually finish.... well you certainly learn a lot.
I sat there on the grass, with my 4 slices of post-race pizza, my 4 bottles of coconut water, my 2 bags of chips, my 2 oranges, my 2 cartons of chocolate milk, my 3 bottles of water, my salt crusted race kit on, and my shiny finisher medal around my neck. My effort during this race did not waiver. It might have been conservative but I never gave up or coasted. I did not know what the course would bring so I gave it respect and I played for the finish. Now that I know St. George, I would play it different... less respectful, more aggressive. I learned that heat doesn't hit me when I fuel right. I'm an armadillo.
I'm not going to pretend that I didn't almost pull out at the start. There was that moment where I knew I wouldn't freestyle anymore, switch to breast-stroke, and risk not making cut-off (or worse). I wanted to get through this swim (and safely) and had to change my plan to one with no (or little) risk.
But honestly I'm not stressing about it. This course at this time of year was meant as a test. I have a bigger race to get done and I know more about where my fitness is than what training alone could tell me.
Did I mention this was the US Pro Championships? I'm having my pizza and I'm watching Andy Potts and Matty Reed get cornered from fans (justifiably). I think to myself that they're going to scarf the food and head right to the massage tent. Nope. In fact. Both gents come park themselves next to us fellow racers and start chatting about the course, the local support crew, and the strong field of competitors. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day.
I drove back to Vegas immediately after the race. Exhausted, I just stayed in my room, got in-room dining, and went to bed. Another 4 am wake-up to get to the airport.
Finally made it home. Eli was pretty excited to help me unpack my bike. "Dada racing?", he asked as he went and got a chammy and started to clean my bike. "Dada, fast?". "Eli fast", I said.