Ironman California 70.3 – Race Report

Ironman California 70.3 – Race Report

Apr 02

One of the most satisfying things that can happen in racing is to set a goal, train for it, and achieve what you set out to do.  I woke up this morning (the day after race day) feeling like I was 80 years old, and I could care less because I had a fantastic race yesterday that validated the months of hard work and training that goes into this insanely absurd sport that keeps us pain junkies coming back for more.

Before I get into the details, let me just say this…..Ironman triathlon racing is fucking hard.  Somewhere around the mid-way point of my bike yesterday, as my back was blowing up, I asked myself “Why the hell are you doing this?”.  I also asked myself  ”What the hell were you thinking signing up for another full?  This is hard enough, and its half the distance!!”.  One of my favorite quotes, which I first heard from Nina Jack (my first tri-coach in 2010 that showed me the ropes and who shares the blame with Marvin Tabangay for all of this), is “It never gets easier, you just get faster”.  This can’t be any more true of a statement. Yesterday’s race was filled with unique challenges that were physical, mental, and environmental that are what make this sport so attractive to me.  Every race is different, and every race is hard.  Its so true, it really never does get easier, you just get faster.

There’s a school of thought that before every race, you should set an A, B, and C goal.  The ‘A’ goal is what you’d hope to achieve if everything goes perfect.  It assumes ideal conditions, mechanically sound equipment, and a body that fully cooperates on race day.  The ‘B’ goal is what you’d hope to achieve if you encounter any sort of adversity that is typical to most race settings.  Let’s face it, things are rarely perfect.  And the ‘C’ goal is a contingency plan in case you have any serious issues along the way (flat tires, physical distress, etc…).  I only set A and B goals at this point…..if shit goes south, my ‘C’ goal becomes to throw on a smile and enjoy the atmosphere, throwing time goals out the window and make it about the experience.

My ‘A’ goal for this race was a 5:00 finish.  30 minute swim, 2:40 bike, and 1:45 run with 5 minutes of transition.   My ‘B’ goal was 5:30, knowing that a 1:45 half-marathon would be a PR for that distance AND that I have a history of blowing up on the run.  I ended up finishing 5:30:59, which is close enough to my ‘B’ goal that I consider it a complete success.  More importantly, this was a breakthrough race for me of sorts because I DIDN’T blow up on the run.  My #1 goal yesterday was to hold my pace on the run and finish strong, and I did just that.  It took some pride swallowing, which I’ll explain in a bit, but all in all I consider yesterday’s race a complete success from top to bottom.  There were plenty of obstacles along the way, and it wasn’t easy, but I’m ecstatic with the end result.

I didn’t sleep at all the night before the race…..I was getting up to go to the bathroom what felt like every 45 minutes because of how much I had hydrated during the day.  I was tossing and turning till about 2:30 or so, finally fell asleep and was promptly yanked out of dreamland at the ridiculous hour of 4:00 AM.  Order of business #1 was to get the plumbing working after the previous night’s dinner with friends and fellow racers so I popped out of bed and crushed 2 cups of coffee.  A pre-race shower to warm my bones and a quick breakfast (english muffin with peanut butter & nutella) later, I was out the door at 5:00 to head down to the race start.

My first obstacle of the day was forgetting to bring a second pair of shoes…..this race had two separate transition areas, and we had to drop our run gear off at T2 before heading over to the start.  This meant leaving my run shoes (which I was wearing), at T2 and going to the start shoeless.  I decided to leave my run socks on instead of leaving them at T2.  I don’t normally bike with socks on when I race, but in the spirit of keeping my feet semi-protected before the start I kept the socks on and figured I would just ride with them.  It seems completely trivial on the surface, but anyone that has raced this distance will tell you that the smallest of issues can become massive when you’re 4-5 hours into an event.  More on this later……

In what seems to be tradition at this point, I somehow found myself running to the start line….I got caught up watching the pros swim, not realizing that my wave start was only 10 minutes after them.  I also didn’t realize that they were funneling all of the waves into a tiny chute that led to the boat ramp, so after watching the pros I suddenly found myself in a massive traffic jam, caught behind several waves that were set to start after me.  Me and several other ‘yellow caps’ had to plow thru the crowd in a semi-panic.  When we finally caught up to our wave, they were sending us into the water, completely reminiscent of my start at Vineman last year.  No time to think whatsoever, just throw on the goggles and get ready.

Oceanside is an in-water start, so we had to tread water for a few minutes before the gun went off.  The water wasn’t nearly as cold as I was expecting which was a nice surprise.  The swim takes place in the harbor, so I was expecting super calm conditions, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.  It started out calm-enough, minus the chaos of a typical swim start.  When the gun went off it was frantic as usual.  I took a punch to the face, but it didn’t seem to phase me too much.  I could immediately see the lead group starting to form and pull away, and I settled in with the 2nd tier swimmers.  There was a group of us that seemed about 7-10 deep, and everybody seemed to be locking into about the same pace.  I was feeling good about the swim until we turned the corner to head out towards the marina breakwater, and this is where I started to lose control of my swim.

The first thing I noticed was that the water wasn’t calm, AT ALL.  The surf this weekend was pretty decent sized, and you could feel the power of the swell making its way inside the breakwater.  It was bumpy as hell and was making it super hard to get a rhythm.  About the same time I noticed this, some fucker decided to draft off me and was punching my ankles about every other stroke.  I don’t have a problem with drafters (well, I kind of do), but this guy was so on my ass that he was hitting me over and over.  It was making me angry, and I could feel myself losing my grip.  Instead of focusing on my stroke and figuring out a way to combat the 7 Seas, all I could think about was wanting to turn around and punch the dude behind me in the face to get him off me.  It completely unravelled me and I finally stopped swimming altogether to let him pass, which was a big mistake.

Stopping and letting him pass meant losing the group I was swimming with which completely took the life out of my swim.  To make matters worse, the water turned out to be a lot colder than I initially thought…..I couldn’t move the fingers on my right hand so I found myself swimming with an open hand which obviously is much less efficient then with the fingers lined up next to each other.  Regardless, I finally settled in about 3/4s of the way thru and was able to make up quite a bit of ground as we got closer to the finish.  I was able to catch up to the guys at the back of the 2nd group and was happy just to get out of the water.  My time out of the water was 35:00, 5 minutes off what I was hoping to do but still fast enough where I felt like I potentially make it up on the bike so I was in good spirits.

In my ‘A’ race plan, I had given myself 5 minutes for both transitions, and I realized right away that there wasn’t a chance in hell of this happening.  The run out of the water just to get to T1 was LONG.  My first real moment of panic during the day happened as I was stripping off my wetsuit.  Out of nowhere, my left quad completely imploded, locking up in a monster cramp.  I practically fell over but managed to balance on my right foot, wetsuit at my ankles, screaming “What the fuck!!!”.  It eased up as quickly as it came on, but it spooked me as the one thing I can always count on is my quads…..I can’t remember every having a quad cramp up before.  My initial panic subsided as I had to get to business.  Helmet, gloves, socks (which were disgustingly dirty from walking around in them before the race) and I was ready to go……not so fast!  Because of the 2 transition set-up, we had to pack all of our swim/transition gear into the bike gear bag the provided so they could transport it to the race finish for us.  The 5 minutes I gave myself for both transitions was easily eaten up in T1 between the length of the run-out and the gear packing.  A 5:00 finish was getting away from me but I hadn’t given up as I just needed to drop the hammer on the bike to make up the time.

Remember that thing I said about how your ‘A’ race assumes the conditions are perfect?  It took all of 5 minutes to realize that this was not going to be the case on the bike.  It was drizzling pretty hard from the very beginning of the bike.  While not rain, it was enough to make the roads wet which kept my pace slower than I would have liked.  Any time someone passed, it would shoot dirt up into my face and all over my body.  My bike looks like I raced a mountain bike event with how dirty it is.

The wet roads weren’t so much an issue on the straights, but on any turn it required caution…..where I would normally be completely comfortable leaning into a turn while still in aero, I would pop out and ride the breaks.  My target pace average was 21 mph, which meant hammering the first half at about 23 to give myself a buffer for the hills on the back side.  The road conditions kept me at a little over 22 thru about mile 28.

Around mile 20 my back started blowing up on me…..I’ve been pretty fortunate this season that I’ve been able to ride pain free on most days.  About 2 weeks ago it started acting up on me, and my back pain, in all of its glory, made a triumphant return yesterday.  It starts as a dull ache and then builds towards a full scale attack of pain that goes from sharp to a sort-of buzzing/throbbing.  I like to use the ole’ baseball bat to the spin analogy to describe it.  Hills make it worse, and at around mile 28 I got the first big surprise of the ride which was a massive hill that I could spot in the distance that made me say to one of the riders next to me “Are we riding up that thing?”  I could see little ants making their way up and I knew it was our destiny.

I was confused, as on the course profile I swear the majority of the climbing was from miles 30-36.  This hill was STEEP.  At one point I looked at my Garmin and I was going 5 mph. The guys I was riding with were all laughing and joking about how brutal it was, which made it more manageable.  There’s some sort of strange comfort in knowing that everyone is suffering.  I worked my way up the hill and watched my average mph plummet.  I knew I needed to do some serious work to keep my average up, but my back pain was spiraling out of control, and to make matters worse I was starting to lose feeling in both of my feet.

Which brings me back to the socks……at this point they are soaking wet from the steady drizzle and sweat, and I was beginning to worry about running in wet socks.  Of more immediate concern though was the numbness in my feet, which I imagine was the result of a combination of cold wet feet along with an improper fit with my relatively new tri shoes.  Over the next 8 to 10 miles there was a very slight but steady grade along with some shorter climbs of .25-.5 miles each thru the backside of Camp Pendleton.

While physically I felt like I was breaking down, it was still really cool to take in a part of the base that I would otherwise never have access to.  During that first climb I could hear a constant barrage of gunfire in the distance, and on more that one occasion passed a massive group of marines armed with what looked like AK-47s.  I also had absolutely no idea that there’s an entire airfield tucked away behind the mountains.

Around mile 42 to the hills came to an end and it was time to hammer it for the last 14 miles to try and make up some lost time on the hills.  I wasn’t able to make up as time as I had hoped though with the roads being as wet as they were.  At an aid station around mile 48ish the guy in front of me grabbed a water bottle, took a drink, tried to throw off to the side and in the process went down HARD.  His wheels just slid out from underneath him with the slightest twist of his upper body, so it was definitely a cautious descent from there on out.  I did manage 45 mph in a couple of spots, but for the most part had to dial it back.

I made it to T2 with a 2:46 bike split, 6 minutes slower than I had hoped but all in all a pretty decent time all things considered, so I was happy with it.  I knew by the time that I finished the bike that 5:00 was a pipe-dream, so I set my sites on 5:30.  In T2 I had my very own volunteer to help me out which was amazing.  She told me to just dump my bike gear and she’d handle packing it up for me.  She also reminded me to put on sunblock, which completely slipped my mind.  I had to lay down for a couple of minutes to stretch my back out, but just getting off the bike was enough to make the pain back off.

I started the run about as conservative as is possible.  There was an aid station immediately after the run out which I walked thru.  I doused myself in water to cool down and sucked down a few cups and got myself going.  I had to stop about 100 yards later to take my shoe off and adjust my sock.  My socks were drenched and I could feel the left one already slipping down inside my shoe.  I got it sorted out and started up again….about a half a mile later I realized I never took my bike gloves off which made me laugh.  I quickly checked my head to make sure I didn’t still have my helmet on as well, and thankfully I was saved that epic brand of embarrassment.

My split for the first mile was 10:20, which wreaked havoc on my mind temporarily. I knew that a 1:45 course split was out of the question based on how my body felt. I still couldn’t feel my feet, and my back, while better, was still brutally painful.  I knew I needed a 2:00 run split to hit 5:30, and while I was super tempted to start to hammer my run, I thought better of it and decided to ignore that first mile and let the run come to me.  I wanted nothing more in this race then to make it thru the run without a bonk, and holding back in the beginning was the best thing I could have possibly done.  It took about another mile for me to feel me feet again and before I knew it had settled in.  I wasn’t paying attention to pace, I just wanted to run by feel and get comfortable.  By doing that I settled into the 2:00 pace that I needed without even thinking about it.

The run was uneventful for the most part…..there was a lot of spectator support, it was super flat, and I was feeling good and confident.  I completely blocked out the fact that I was getting passed left and right by stronger/faster runners, and I didn’t let it tempt me to push my pace into a zone where I’d blow up. I’m a competitive mofo, so watching people pass is a real hard pill to swallow, but I knew I had to set my pride aside and race my race.  I saw my friends Anabel, Dave, Alex, and Dana out on the course several times (it was a loop),  and everyone looked strong which made me smile.  I staved off potential disaster at several of the turnarounds when my hammies tried to lock up on me.  They didn’t appreciate the sudden movement to switch directions, but thankfully the cramps didn’t hit me full on.

When I hit the 10 mile mark my pace was still solid, and I knew with 3 miles left that a bonk wasn’t happening.  Early in the year I made a habit of trying to follow up at least one mid-week bike ride with tempo run of 2-3 miles to simulate running on tired legs.  Its given me a mindset that in no matter what state I’m in, I can bang out 2-3 miles so when I hit that 10 mile mark I knew I was golden.  I was able to pick up the pace a touch and take advantage of the slight downhill grade on the way back from the last loop.  I hit the strand, saw that finish in the distance and knew that I had finally conquered the run demons that have been haunting me during the longer events.

For me this race was completely about finishing strong, not finishing fast.  Its something I’ve needed to learn how to do……the speed will come over time, there’s no question about it.  But being able to utilize that speed the right way is something that takes discipline and a familiarity with one’s body that can only be learned thru practice and experimentation.  Did I sell myself short on the run by ditching my initial goal of 1:45?  Possibly…..After finishing I felt like I didn’t leave it all out on the course and that I had a faster run in me.  But with my #1 goal being to not blow up, I’m completely good with how it turned out.  I PR’d this race for the 70.3 distance and now have a solid benchmark to work off of for the future.  I also realized that I think 70.3 might be my favorite distance and it could very well be my focus next year.

All in all, it was a completely successful weekend and I’m STOKED with the results.  Thank you Oceanside!!!!