November 14, 2009
70.3 Ironman World Championship
My mid-October race didn’t go well. Especially the bike leg. I needed to accept the setback and bounce back to a good performance. My resiliency test date was coming up quickly. What felt like a great idea to compete in the 70.3 Ironman World Championship on August 1st, didn’t feel like a good idea after racing in Dallas. Earned a qualifying spot for this race at the Steelhead 70.3 Ironman race in Michigan. Had full intention to be back at peak shape in November. At four weeks out from race day, I’m stressed about Chicago’s cold and rainy weather from mid-October into the winter. Proper bike training for the race never materialized. Rode only four days a week. My longest ride was never more than 30 miles. Wanted to race to a best time and best place showing. Being risk adverse, wanted to prep more for this race to not embarrass myself. People want to succeed in everything they do. They just need to be given the opportunity. I earned the opportunity but started questioning my will and determination.
I didn’t want to be stressed out from prepping for the race or from a poor performance afterwards. Didn’t want to sabotage my race from a poor mental approach or lack of adequate bike miles. Unfortunately, I was getting to a bad place on both areas. Lost some quality training days, especially for cycling, due to a cross country drive to relocate my aunt to the Chicago area from Nevada. And when in Chicago, the weather was either too wet or too cold for sustainable outdoor multi-hour bike rides. I considered calling an end to my race season and deferring a trip to Florida for another race during better training weather.
I was tapering down for my final race of the season while Hurricane Ida was tapering down as the final storm of the 2009 season. We were both headed on a collision course to meet in Clearwater Beach. Fortunately, Ida arrived a couple of days before the race. She oscillated from tropical storm to hurricane status three times before crossing into Florida racking havoc to the swim course with high winds, high waves, and a high surge. The storm made a mockery of the swim course markers in the Gulf of Mexico. The day before the race, the race director moved the swim location to the Clearwater Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico beachfront.
I flew into Tampa International Airport late evening on Thursday and drove straight to Clearwater Beach. I planned to pick up the race packet but arrived too late. Instead, picked up a Swiss triathlete who was hitchhiking her way to the pre-race dinner festivities event. This worked out great. She got a ride and I learned where the event was held. She checked-in earlier so I followed her into the dinner event without a participant wrist band.
The Ironman organization is a class operation in promoting and operating race events. They market their races months in advance to generate excitement for qualifying races around the world that funnel into two Ironman World Championships, the full Ironman Triathlon held in Kona and the half distance version named 70.3 Ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, followed up with a 13.1 run). Next comes the anxiety of pre-race days check-in for the athletes. Followed by a pre-race meeting that sometimes includes dinner. Then it is race day with the full fanfare of any major league sports competition. Yes, we pay for the honor to compete in these events but the costs are usually cheaper than paying spectator prices for other professional sporting events at world class levels. For us as competitors, these events are our reality sports. We are the cast members competing for national and personal pride. The Ironman championship events culminate with a unique celebration at the awards dinner.
The qualifying races are located all over the US and the world. Some races are almost permanent in nature, held year-after-year in the same location while other races stay in a location for only a limited time. All of the races are destination races for most of the triathletes. The Ironman brand races host an unfettering loyal following of its participants in their triathlon race portfolio. Each race lures thousands of triathletes from all over the country and many international locations.
For their 2009 World Championship race in Clearwater Beach, over 1,600 qualified triathletes from six different continents representing 55 countries and all fifty states competed. Joining them were an estimated 4,500 family or support team members. The race brought in an estimated $6 million dollars of revenue to the community in a short time period. This is outside the take from Ironman entry and sponsorship fees, the airline travel costs, and sport’s equipment providers who reap a fair portion of the triathletes’ spending for the year.
The morning before race day went out for a 30 minute easy run, stretched, showered, grabbed some breakfast then drove out to Clearwater Beach to get checked-in for the race. Unfortunately didn’t fully read the race instruction ahead of time not realizing I needed to check in my T1 and T2 race bags along with the bike. At some races the bags come with the athlete for drop-off on the day of the race and sometimes, like Clearwater Beach, you drop-off bags the day before. Jumped back in the rental car and returned to the hotel. Frustrated by my ignorance of not being prepared, I numbered up my bike, helmet, race belt, and transitions bags. Stuffed the T1 bag with my helmet, sunglasses, suntan lotion, and gels. Then simply placed my race belt, hat, and running race shoes in the T2 bag. Nothing else needed.
I returned back to the race site and parked across the street. With the frustration episode behind me, pulled out the bike, wheels, shoes, and bags for the next day’s race then headed to the equipment check in. Volunteer safety personnel checked the bike’s integrity, ensured all bar-end plugs were properly in place and race numbers on the bike, helmet, and race bag matched the number on my wrist band. Afterwards received an escort to the corresponding number on the bike rack in the transition area. I was entertained by the race numbers clearance check though the process reminded more of the assembly line in a local health clinic: Check-in with ID at the reception desk, receive multiple labels showing ID numbers, proceed to the lab, validate date of birth and name to labels, confirm blood draw matches test plans, etc.
The volunteer was a teenager who took his responsibilities seriously. He pointed out the swim-to-bike entrance, bike exit, bike-to-run entrance, and run exit. He watched carefully as I racked my bike, to ensure proper placement with the bike seat set on the rack and the front wheel down on race number side. He watched me attach the bike shoes on the bike. First, the left shoe on the left pedal followed by a big smack of my fist on the top of the shoe with a solid sounding “snap” that ensured proper engagement with the bike shoe cleat and pedal. Then repeated these steps on the right side. “Smack!” “Snap!” If the sounds had visuals, it would look like one of the late 1960’s campy Batman TV series on-screen fight scenes. The volunteer was there to make sure competitors do not sabotage others’ equipment before the race. If it ever happened, then someone would for sure seek out the perpetrator with a big Batman sign of “POW!” Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, Ironman! The defender of bikes in Transition City.
On race day parking was limited at the beach. Competitors who did not stay in accommodations near the transition area needed do get to the race by a Park and Ride scenario. A couple of hours before the race start, boarded a luxury coach bus with 50 other competitors and we headed off to the race staging area down by the beach. The bike course was already segregated from vehicular traffic with the dividing lines marked by orange traffic cones. As the driver headed west over The Memorial Causeway Bridge he drove over a cone and dragged it along on the road in the bus’s undercarriage. We could hear the cone scrapping the top of the road. A few passengers saw what happened and glanced around at each other with an uneasy grin thinking that could be them hit and dragged by a bus while riding our bikes over the causeway. Think of it this way, a cyclist would lose in every event of a bus vs. bike accident.
Getting hit by a vehicle while on a bike is on the mind of almost every triathlete sometime during a workout. Most triathletes know of someone, if not themselves, hit by a bus, motorbike, car, truck, or bike during training. The cone worked its way free and the dragging sound stopped. The bus went up and over the causeway and before reaching street level the bus driver swerved slightly left and tagged another orange cone. The triathlete passengers’ grins changed to a nervous laugh. I made a mental note to be sure to stay clear of all luxury buses, especially during the upcoming bike leg of this race.
I arrived at the beach in darkness with clear skies, no wind, and temps in the high 50’s. The day would be a beautiful one for racers and spectators. The Gulf waters were flat too. Still the swim would be held in the Harbor as the course was already marked and race equipment re-directed there the day before.
The pre-dawn activities before race start were a well-executed plan of calmness as racers arrived to the venue. Race excitement slowly built for the triathletes and crowds alike as announcements were made of the various elite competitors showing up. The music played louder and with stronger beats boosting anxiety levels. I relaxed on the sand for a while, then stretched and ran on the beach board walk to warm up for the race. The setting was wonderful. The waves in the Gulf of Mexico lapped softly at the shoreline of the flat and fine sandy beach. The salt water smell gave a sense of being on vacation. Condos rose from the streets setback from the coast. Racers, families, and volunteers moved around to ensure everyone got what was needed prior to race start including plenty of public restrooms and showers along the beach. The crowds were forming in an orderly fashion. There was a sense of specialty at this race rarely felt elsewhere. This was a pinnacle race, the 70.3 Ironman Worlds Championships complete with great athletes, great spectators, great weather, and great performances waiting for all the triathletes.
Then a helicopter or two flew in to capture the race for the TV audience. I headed down city streets walking in my wetsuit carrying goggles and swim cap for a couple of blocks to the race start. I simply followed the crowds. In a few minutes, everyone would be following someone over the next three plus hours upwards to seven hours of racing. Near the start everyone paused to follow protocol as we sang to the Star Spangled Banner. In 3 ½ hours race announcers started calling out the names of every single finisher from the first pro to cross the line to the final contestant. A cannon blast cut deeply through the crowds’ cheering followed by a pack of professional triathletes prancing through the water then diving forward and settling into a splashfest of the swim start. Adrenaline surged for all of the age-groupers working their way to the water’s edge for our own race start. My pounding heart became more noticeable in the tight wetsuit. No surprises for me though. This was expected as part of the pre-start anxieties. I would worry more if there was not a personal adrenaline shot.
All non-pro’s entered the swim area along a small dock. We lined up in the street according to the planned age group wave starts based on age and sex. However, because of the swim venue change, the actual start was switched to a time trial start. Within the waves we were instructed to self-seed based on estimated swim completion times. Faster swimmers start in front of the slower swimmers. Every two seconds another competitor jumped off the portable dock into the 69°F degree Harbor waters for the start of each triathlete’s individual time trial. The concept of self-seeding was lost on racers as faster swimmers overtook slower swimmers almost upon entering the water. As I reached the dock I took note of a Pirate ship on my left side that marked the end of the swim course. That would be my destination target for the return swim. I jumped in the Harbor and quickly found smoother waters to leave the chaos behind for others to sort out.
Right away the saltwater taste hit my senses. Nothing to worry about as it matched the saltwater smell of the beach. Just different than a swim in the health club pool or any other open water swim for a triathlete who races away from the coasts.
The swim out from the dock was due east directly into the rising sun. I put faith in the competitors in front to accurately track the pros already out on the course to swim a straight line for the rest of us to follow. The course was laid out in a 1.2 mile roughly rectangle shape. Swim 800 meters out, then turn north for 150 meters, and turn left to swim the hypotenuse of a modified triangle/rectangle as the end point at the Pirate Ship moored just to the north of the starting dock.
For such tight quarters in the Harbor, the swim turned out fine with plenty of spacing including the turn areas. At big races, the area around turn buoys can be the roughest swim condition by being congested with the quantity of competitors and infested with aggressive swimmers who grab their way over scared shitless, timid swimmers. The openness of spacing on the water allowed for the various levels of swimmers to naturally settle out between the age groups.
The sunlight did not impair my route as initially expected; however, the goggles started leaking between turning left down the short shoot before the left hand turn on the diagonal to the exit. Usually this would not be an issue but the eyes burned from the salt water. Kept on swimming towards the exit point then spotted an older swimmer walking. I stopped stroking and found the water to be waist deep. I stood, dumped water out of the goggles, and pushed them back on tightly this time. Then sighted for the pirate ship and dove towards it picking up my stroke cadence. At 300 meters from the exit someone decided to swim right over me. No one was around us and he could have easily picked a side to swim by me. I composed myself then focused on finishing the swim that included a self-directed close encounter with the jerk who swam over my back.
I reached the pirate ship, standing up on the plank that reached into the water as soon as my hand hit it. The run out of the swim-to-bike transition was longer than most races but not an uncommon distance for a championship race, even with the use of the back-up venue. I dashed by the wetsuit strippers, found the transition bag, changed, and grabbed the bike.
I didn’t bike race distances for two months before Clearwater. Bike workouts were 25 miles and consisted mostly of tempo rides with some short burst of speed tossed in to mimic physical race stress on the heart and lungs. I didn’t work-out as wanted to be bike ready on race day. I had not rode my bike for 56 miles in a workout or race since qualifying for Clearwater Beach back on August 1st. In between I focused on training for shorter races, then cold weather arrived, and I started traveling for work. The day before the race I rode a mental rollercoaster of knowing only the unknown tomorrow in how well I will do on the bike leg. Frankly, I was scared of the unknown, not from a safety aspect but from embarrassing myself of what I could do with training versus what I would do without the proper training. I could be over-trained and under-rested in the swim and run, and over-rested and under-trained in the bike. Mentally, I lacked the confidence of being able to ride a competitive bike leg.
We left the transition area at the Beach and immediately rode over the Memorial Causeway and continued along a 50+ mile ride in a clockwise direction around Clearwater, Largo, Safety Harbor and East Lake. We went north, east, south (crossing over the Bayside Bridge) and finally headed west before going north back into the transition area. We went through the Clearwater Beach city center then along residential streets. We crossed over water with beautiful views rarely seen in the grain-belt farmlands of the Midwest. The bike leg was all flat with the exception of the brief encounters going up and over the bridges. Cheering spectators lined the course along the entire route save the Bayside Bridge. Residents supported the event each year. They reinforced the positive aspect of the race by never complaining about road closures, volunteering in great numbers, and by ensuring spectators yelled encouragement to us from the sidewalks along the city streets.
Clearwater was known for its scorching quick bike splits and drafting among participants. The course and riders delivered on both aspects. Most of the roads were shared with traffic though divided by the orange traffic cones which resulted in narrow lanes for the estimated 1,600 competitors. A narrow and flat course put high performing triathletes with similar capabilities in a less than satisfactory situation to be rule compliant. Packs of younger, faster triathletes on high-end bikes passed me as if they were swarms of bees headed to the hive to deliver their honey. I’m envious of their speed, the look, and the willingness of others to spend mega money on their rides. While hating the drafting, I hated more the sense of arrogance of the riders as they buzzed by me.
At 35 miles into the bike leg I experienced déjà vu from the bus ride into the race site. I heard a thud then looked up and over and saw a triathlete hit an orange traffic cone head-on. Not sure why he was so far towards the middle of the road unless he was blocking without paying any attention as to where he was or he was drafting blindly behind someone in front of him and edged too far towards center line marked with the traffic cones. He went down and skidded across the roadway with the cone trapped under his wheel. Other cyclist in the pack scattered. I was 20 meters behind the pack. A water bottle popped out from its holder on his bike seat post and came rolling towards my bike wheel. Not being in the draft allowed me to easily swerve out of the way. However, his carnage was nasty. His tri top now shredded and his hip was raw from the slide on the blacktop. Though conscious, I thought he was down for the count and out of the race. However, the triathlete caught up to me 20 miles later riding at the back of yet another pack. A mile later at the dismount line, he walked beside a medical person towards the medical tent.
Seeing the raw flesh of another competitor, thinking the full water bottle of fluids could have easily caused me to crash, and acknowledging yet another pack of drafters was pushing me further back in the placings, I needed to do something different. I had 21 miles left to reach the transition, less than an hour of riding. I had to be decisive to either push my pace for a championship performance at a championship race or whether to simply convince myself my training only allowed for a conservative bike ride to T2.
Searching for the right decision, I remembered reading years ago some of Scott Tinley’s comments. How his legs hurt when riding but they didn’t hurt any less if he backed off trying to conserve them for a strong run leg than if he kept pedaling hard. I stepped up earlier in the season at Steelhead to get qualified for this race. And now for the Clearwater race, the risk of racing hard for the reward of a higher podium finish seemed no different than working harder and smarter for promotions in the work world. I didn’t choose not to draft, I couldn’t hang with the draft pack. Instead, I aero’d down, stepped up my cadence, went up a gear, and tried to keep them in sight. But this was all futile as I watched the drafting asses on bike seats disappear in front of me.
The roadway narrowed after crossing over the Bayside Bridge. As we pedaled closer to the transition area the bikes bunched up more into two pace lines than in a full-on peloton. At this point, drafting could not be avoided. The course could not accommodate the cyclists nor the officials on the motorbikes to call out violators. Ironically, the bike speeds dropped as there was no room to pass within your pace line. Bike speeds dropped as triathletes at the front slowed for the transition and the followers got compressed. This situation impaired two classification of riders. High tech warriors and drafters.
In triathlons, much of the new bike technology is cool. The equipment provides something people didn’t know they needed or knew they were missing out on it like: power pedals, Shimano Di2 electronic shifting, straws that reached three feet to a hidden bladder underneath a bike seat, or oval chain rings. All cool stuff in various levels of usage at Clearwater. All I wanted was to get back leg speed from my youth. I didn’t want the complexity of everything new on a bike, or worse, even more stuff I never knew anyone needed.
No one can argue drafting didn’t occur or provide some wind breaks but the drop in speed helped only a few racers who beat the compression effect before reaching the dismount line. Of course, for the racers who drafted miles before the Bayside Bridge funneling, they chose to ignore the integrity of the sport.
A cool benefit at many of the Ironman races and at all of their championship races are volunteers who gracefully take a bike from you right after the dismount line and rack it for you in your reserved spot. Once you release your bike, and legs willing, you grab your T2 bag and head to the sex specific sections of the change tents. There you swap out shoes, exchange your helmet for a hat or visor, and take to the roads. The volunteers may help cram the bike stuff into your bags to save you a few precious seconds in race time. The transition pace at Worlds is much quicker than the relaxing but steady progress experienced in other races.
While my biking lacked in training, I overcompensated with swim and run training. I ramped up swim yardage to full Ironman distance. I did over-endurance run workouts as the fall daily temperatures dropped. I also did one to two hour run workouts when on the road traveling and away from my bicycle. At the end of October, three weeks out from the race date, I dropped run mileage and picked up the speed in workouts. Mentally rationalized if the bike leg went okay, then my running would get me to the end of the race in good shape. The strategy, while not optimal, paid off for this race.
Also going bare bones low tech on the run helped. I ran with a simple watch, some light racing flats, and the intensity to cover the 13.1 miles as fast as possible. A mile and half after exiting the transition we started climbing up the Memorial Causeway. What seemed like a slight incline on the bike took on the feel of a miniature concrete mountain rising from the water below for the running triathletes. The Causeway fully exposed us to the sun and wreaked havoc on tired bike legs. Passing strong cyclists who were now transformed into muscle cramped plodding runners added to my confidence.
The Causeway slanted at a 12 percent grade then leveled out at enough height to let the tall ships pass easily below. On the east side of the Causeway we dropped back down to ground level and did a short loop through a small downtown area and by some waterside homes then back up and over the Causeway going west towards the beach. We circled by the transition area with screaming spectators and were teased with the finish line, especially since the lead pros were finishing the race after already completing their second loop. I still had another 6 ½ miles to go to cover the up and over of the Causeway and back a second time.
In all, we ran up and down the Causeway four times. Residents in neighborhood near the turnaround point offered lawn hose showers for racers who wanted them. This area offered lots of shade too compared to the openness of the three mile long bridge. The course was lined with spectators away from the causeway, just not at the finish. The support was unexpected and gratefully welcomed. Everyone standing near the race site from the bottom of the Causeway to the finish line cheered non-stop as competitors continued to stream into the finishing chute.
I found a running partner early on the first lap. He was in a pink colored race kit. He excelled in running fast when around the cheering spectators. He passed me coming out of T2. I followed him up the climb then he dropped off the pace over the Causeway. I passed him and ran ahead of him until coming into the neighborhood area on the far side of the first loop. He picked up the pace a bit. People seemed to cheer wildly for his pink uniform. He seemed to run fast in response to the attention he received. A few of the stronger runners seemed to key off this Russian in pink. Our small pack also received a morale boost by passing 3 or 4 of the slowing pros. We recognized they held a 6.5 mile lead on us since they were on their second lap and we were still on our first lap of the run leg. Our race tactics differed too. The pros we passed were exhausted from over-extending themselves to earn prize money. We paced ourselves to finish for a medal. The professional triathletes adopted a definitive risk vs. reward payout approach for this race. What was surprising to see afterwards were how much faster those slowing pros overall times were than us quick moving amateurs. A humbling experiencing of understanding metrics to ensure numbers tell any story you want them to that I won’t bother to share with you here.
The triathlete in pink faded again after losing the spectators as we progressed across the top of the Causeway. He found his second wind though on the downhill coming by the finish line. He picked up his pace running through the cheering crowds near the finishing chute as we circled around to start the second lap of the run. As the Causeway reached upward and the spectators thinned out he started to grunt loudly and dropped off the pace big time on the third climb. The strenuous and challenging run climbs finally conquered the Russian. I continued to push forward for another five miles and one more climb.
There spectators engulfed the transition and finishing chute areas. The cheers from the crowds combined with the music surrounding the competitors’ performances created an exciting race. The compartmentalization of the area near the beach did not easily reveal where the finish line was located. Palm trees lined the beach. There was also a two-story observation tower nearby. Flags blew in the breeze coming off the water. Sponsorship tear drop sail signs flapped in the wind too. I ran forward. I was emotionally charged from the crowd as I sprinted around the maize of cheering people towards the Ironman arch that marked the end of the race. I finished. My legs buckled from exhaustion. Totally spent but started to enjoy an adrenalin filled post race buzz for a while afterwards.
After the race most competitors met up with family and friends on the beach or on a grassy area beside it. I sat down by a husband and wife retirees who volunteered at the race. They volunteered every year since the race arrived in Clearwater Beach. The event was one of their favorite activities of the year. They said everyone in the Clearwater area welcomed the race. The Ironman event was good for the city and economy. No complaints from anyone as they embraced the celebration as a united community. The dedication of these two people reminded me of the people who consistently contribute the betterment of the communities they live in throughout the US.
The shuttle bus returned us to the parking lot to cars. No traffic cones were destroyed on the return trip over the Memorial Causeway Bridge. On the way to the post-race banquet four competitors were hitchhiking. With plenty of room in the car, I pulled over and picked up a small international contention of male and female triathletes. I asked how everyone felt. Tired but good came a unison response. Then I asked how everyone did. Three of the four laughed softly, hesitantly as to waiting for someone else to speak. The passenger in the front seat showed a big smile. Slowly, responses came from the backseat:
“Glad the race is over.”
The tri guy in the front seat said, “I finished 2nd.”
Turned out Daniel Fontana, an Argentine-born Italian professional triathlete and two-time Olympian, the overall runner-up of today’s race was riding shotgun. His friends were in the back. All wondered if he would fess up to his actual finish place since I was clueless to who he was. One of the athletes in the back seat grab my race poster behind her headrest to get autographs from all the passengers. Other competitors’ signed the race poster. One of the guys, Ed from Connecticut, qualified at St. Croix 70.3 Ironman back in mid-spring. He talked about his daughter Hayes who wanted to be a ballerina. He hoped she would not give up her dream. The framed poster still hangs on a wall above my bikes at the house.
In the evening we celebrated outside with food and drinks at the post race awards ceremony, under the stars by the calm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, on the white sands of Clearwater Beach. We cheered with 'oohs and aahs' as the party event wrapped up with a first class presentation of fireworks bursting in sync to such music as Van Halen’s “Jump” and U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day”. And yes it was, for all in attendance, a beautiful day of celebration in Florida.
Races in the Ironman series justify a premium entry fee than triathlons of similar distances put on by other organizations. But the events are not comparable. Generally, the caliber of competitors was much higher in the Ironman races. The quantity of racers was higher too with more volunteers to support them. Many races came with pre-race dinners and motivational guest speakers. The courses were safer. And the Ironman organization put on events, not just races.
My normal training on the roads was where I proved to myself I had the discipline to compete on race day. But yesterday, I also proved my capabilities to race against other world class triathletes in a championship event. Racing triathlons is not a basic recipe of combining ingredients like knowledge, ability and skill mixed together on race day, baked and served up with a great presentation. The sport requires training to learn how to successfully obtain the finest ingredients of competencies, being mentally prepared to make the race, and ability to handle the heat in the stress kitchen from the moment you decide to compete in the bake-off contest to the point of being served judgement by the clock and your peers. I showed my mental toughness and resiliency on the run after a less than average bike leg. Both are tremendously important ingredients for any athletes aiming to be the best they can be in a sport. Taking in the international aspect of this race, I realized I’m experiencing more fulfillment on this journey than I ever would have if competing in the Olympics.
Results: 242nd overall. 4th in age group.