Tuesday, July 24, 2012

IronMan 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake

On Sunday, June 24, I completed my second half IronMan, 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake, in Lubbock, TX (the first being Austin 70.3, plus the not-quite-half RoT Tri). While I am glad I finished, I am also extremely disappointed I didn't beat my time from Austin, which I don't feel is very representative of my abilities as a triathlete. On the positive side, I was quite pleasantly surprised that my swim time was much better than Austin, though it's still far from competitive. A 6:48:32 is far from a great time, but for a tough course on a hot day, and not my "A" race, I'll take it.

After the sprint-distance Lake Pflugerville Tri the prior weekend, I resumed my normal training regimen through Thursday, and then had a short ride/run Friday evening. I woke up early on Saturday, so I could drive the six hours up and arrive in the early afternoon. I was prepared for a massive queue of people at packet pickup, but there were almost no athletes when I got there. The volunteers were at the ready, and it took almost no time. I checked out the little expo they had there in the hotel, and since I was already there, I stuck around to hear a talk from two professionals, Michael and Amanda Lovato. I don't know that I got anything specific that helped me with this race, but it was a fun talk, and maybe there was a germ of something that will grow and help me in the future. From the host hotel, I went and checked into my hotel nearby. I got some spaghetti for lunch, and then drove out to the race venue.
There was a line of cars queued up to get into the lake/park area. I didn't feel like paying the $6 or dealing with that many people to get a preview of the swim and transition areas, so I drove the bike course. The course is mostly flat, except for the two canyon crossings. The first was dead straight, and seemed like it could be fun. The second canyon was much more technical, especially the "spiral staircase" at the far end. However, since I didn't go into the park, I missed previewing the hills there.
It only being about 4pm, and not having much else to do, I went back to the host hotel to see if I could pick up any last-minute tips for the race. While I was hanging out there, I took part in a research study Texas Tech was doing, part of which involved getting a body composition analysis. It's some interesting data, but I'm not really sure what to do with it. Around 6, I went out and got my "traditional pre-race dinner" on a vanilla milkshake. It wasn't quite as good as the ones I get in Austin, but it was still tasty. From there, it was back to the hotel to start prepping for the race. Since there was still plenty of light, I went for a really short bike ride, a run around the building a couple of times, and splashed around in the pool for a few minutes. It was after 11 by the time I got to sleep, much later than ideal.

I woke up around 4 Sunday morning. I ate a little, filled up my bottles, loaded the car, and drove over to the lake. I got my first view of the few miles of the bike course inside the park. It didn't seem too bad in the car- downhill, back up again, and then down again into transition for the end of the bike. There was a bit of a queue to get parked, but it was still moving well when I got there. I did my final bike prep- air in the tires, bottles on, computer on- and walked my gear down to transition. I wasn't paying too much attention at that point, but that hill- which we would be riding up to start the bike course- was pretty steep. I found my designated rack spot, near the end of the rack, close to the bike exit. Once I had my stuff set up, I tried to figure out the swim course layout. I had seen the swim exit, and gotten a look at the lake to have some idea of the actual swim, but it took a while before I found the actual swim start. Because of the relatively early 6:30 race start, and the unusual practice of not closing transition until almost that time, I had been lulled into thinking I had more time than I really did. I was in the first age group wave- after the professionals and paratriathletes- and was scheduled for a 6:36 start, so I didn't have time to dawdle. When I realized the time, I was a little panicked as I made my way down to the water. My confusion wasn't really abated when I got there, as it wasn't clear what the start procedure was. There wasn't any signage that I could see, and the instructions were being given via megaphone, which I couldn't hear across the small bay from the start area to where I had gotten into the water. It all felt pretty chaotic, with 1200 racers crowded around the shore, but that was nothing compared with the start of the race. When I was finally in the start area, with my wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles on, I learned the start procedure. Everyone started on the sand, and had to cross a wire slightly buried, which would read all the timing chips, between two tiki torches. After the male pros, female pros, and handcyclists, I was up for my first "dash" start for a race (up until this one, all my races have started in the water).

For whatever reason, there weren't many waves. Whereas at Austin 70.3 there was more than an hour between the first and last racers, here there was only 20 minutes. While there might have been slightly fewer people at Buffalo Springs, there were still well over 1000, and the waves each had over 100 people in them. To say it made for a chaotic start would be an understatement. I, of course, did not attempt to be the first out, lest I be swam over by 100 people. I started somewhere in the middle and still felt like dozens of people tried to swim over top of me. It was a total frenzy, while I was being passed, I was also trying to pass other people who were going a little bit slower. At one point somebody kept hitting my legs, so I just kicked harder until he found his own piece of water. After getting pretty sick of the fray after 100 meters or so, I tried to pull to the side, slow down, and let the faster swimmers get past, but there was nowhere to go, and hands kept coming at my feet. After another 200 meters or so, the field was much more stratified and it was a lot less chaotic. So, instead of bumping into 5 different people, I bumped into the same guy 5 times.
It was around that time that my stomach started hurting. It felt like side stitches, but also like my stomach was upset. I couldn't tell if it was because of something I ate, if I started too fast, or if I had swallowed to much lake water in the early churn. It wasn't too bad at first, I tried backing off my pace a little to see if that would help. Between the first and second turn buoys, not even halfway through the swim, the pain was worse. Not likely related, but probably because of the haste with which I put on my wetsuit, my crotch was also pretty uncomfortable at that point as well. I basically gave up on trying to get a good swim time (relative to my previous performances). I switched to the breast stroke, which didn't really help the crotch, but did help the stomach. I mostly swam the breast stroke until I could see the final turn buoy. I was feeling better, so I decided to try to go back to freestyle. It worked better this time, and I made the turn, and tried to pick up my pace a little more. For some reason, I was having trouble making out the exact swim exit, so I was mostly going where everyone else was. I finally made it to the exit, got some help from the great volunteers to get out of the water and get my wetsuit off. I hit my watch, and was quite surprised to see 41:10. Somehow, as terrible as it felt, the time was better than Austin 70.3. According to the race results, my pace was even better than my previous Olympic-distance swims, with a 2:08/100 meters, which is almost the pace I swim in the pool. I have no idea how that happened, but my watch and the official results agree, so I guess it must be true.

I didn't worry too much about having good transition times. I wanted to make sure I had everything set for the next stage. The transition area for this race is more like most local races- one space for both transitions, you can leave your stuff on the ground- unlike Austin which has split transitions and "clean transition." I think it's easier this way, but things can get messy, and it can create obstacles to getting in and out. Another consequence of the large wave sizes, and my being in one of the earlier waves, was that there were a lot of people leaving T1 at the same time. It moved quickly, but there was a solid line of bikes streaming out of transition and onto the course. It had broken up a lot during the bike, so coming in for T2 there weren't as many people coming in. Then by the time I finished the race, the transition area was at least half empty since I was one of the later finishers.

When I started the bike, the air was still cool, and being wet I actually was a little chilled. Not for long, as almost immediately out of transition was that steep uphill. The temperature rose steadily while I was out on the bike course, but I didn't really feel it until about 40 miles in, coming back up out of the last canyon, where the air was more still (it being windy elsewhere). The wind actually wasn't as bad as it can be out in that area, it was blowing around 10-15 mph most of the time. What threw me was that at some point it shifted and picked up. Most of the time I was on the road, the wind was from the south. So, when I was finally out of the canyons, with about 10 miles to go, headed almost due west back to the park, I was expecting a cross wind. I was confused when I turned west and was hit with a headwind. I was planning on going those last few miles fast, but I wound up putting in a lot of effort to only be going about 18 mph.
There was a downhill section and another uphill before I even left the park, then it was pretty flat from there to Yellow House Canyon. Going downhill southbound, into the wind, was pretty fun, and at a top speed of about 40 mph, I still felt reasonably in control of my bike and able to navigate around a few other bikes. It was a slog up the other, slightly steeper, side. The course went along a flat section for a few miles before turning around and going back north through the canyon. This time, with the tail wind and slightly steeper road, the speed got to be pretty frightening. I peaked about 45 mph, and was hanging on for dear life. There were two or three other bikes around me going just slightly slower I had to navigate through. Going that fast, with my hands on the aero bars, I had little control. I would have tapped my brakes to slow down, but it felt like if I attempted to move an arm I would crash. Somehow I survived the descent and carried as much momentum as possible up the other time. After cranking back up to the top of the canyon, the course was flat again for a few miles before descending into another canyon. Just before starting the descent, I passed a guy with no legs on a hand cycle, who then passed me on the way down before I passed him again. The road down the western side of Horseshoe Bend Canyon was nice and gradual, with a tree-lined section providing some respite from the brutal sun. The eastern end, the Spiral Staircase, however, was very steep and twisty. It was a very tough climb, and it was nice that people had come and chalked inspirational messages on the road. There was only a short flat section at the top before turning around and going back down into the canyon. I was not about to attempt to bomb down the switchbacks, and was sat up with my hands on the brakes the whole time. Then it was back up the other side, and headed for home. After fighting the wind back to the park, came what, to me, was the worst part: That last uphill inside the park. I don't know if I had forgotten about it and put too much effort into the rest of the course, but that last climb was the most painful. My quads screamed out at me as I fought just to make it up, at any speed. I didn't even get to have a nice cruise down the other side, as it dropped straight into transition.
The bike was very strange to me in a way: I was probably passed by at least as many bikes as I passed. Normally, even when my wave is early, I'm not passed by that many people, as I pass countless other people. That was even the case at Austin 70.3. It must be a testament to the caliber of athletes that some to this notoriously tough race. It was also seemed different to me in that it seemed to be a pretty solid stream of bikes. The pros, of course, were well off the front, but at the points where "the snake passed its tail," so to speak, there were few gaps until later in the race, and well behind me.
While I had several bottles of electrolyte water, I mostly drank plain water from my aero bottle. I took, I believe, three bottles on the course to replenish it. I took all six of the salt tablets I had, and two or three gels. I also had a mini Clif bar, which was a good size to get in a little bit of solid food.
While I'm a little bit disappointed my 2:53:17 split was below 20 mph average, and a few minutes longer than Austin 70.3, I think it was a pretty solid effort for some serious climbing (my main weakness). The overall 19.4 mph is a lot better than the 17.8 mph recorded at the 15-mile split, at least.

The "run" went terribly for me. I didn't even make it a full mile before I started walking due to pain at the bottom of my rib cage. At least the first time I only slowed down briefly, finishing the first mile in a respectable 9:40. After a pause for water at the one mile mark, I slowed down to a pace I would have been okay with, time-wise, covering mile two in 11 minutes. Unfortunately, even that was too quick, and the pain would make mile two the second quickest of the 13 total. I did jog sections of miles three and four, but only enough to keep the full mile times under 14 minutes (13:59 and 13:13 respectively). Mile four ended just before the course went uphill again, so I told myself I'd start jogging again once I walked to the top of the hill. Once at the top of the hill, it felt as though we were a hundred miles from the dappled shade of the lakeside of the first miles, on some desolate salt flat. I made a couple of stabs at picking up my pace, but I never made it more than about 100 meters before my muscles stabbed back. At some point, the pain had migrated from the front left, below the rib cage, to the middle of my back. For the first 10 miles, it only hurt when I tried to go faster than a walking pace. By the time I got to the 10-mile mark, it hurt all the time, worse if I tried to speed up. I had been hoping to at least do the last 5k at a jog, but that was out of the question by the time I got to that point. I didn't give up entirely, I made a few attempts to see if I could steel myself and put the pain behind for the final mile. I couldn't maintain anything above a walk for more than a few strides until I finally hit mile 13 and I could see the finish line. It was hardly a sprint, but that last 0.1 mile felt fast after so much walking. My mind finally pushed aside the pain and allowed me to appear as though I was running pain-free for the finish line photos.
The aid stations, about every mile, were well stocked with ice and water, and usually something with sugar, as well as being staffed by enthusiastic volunteers. Even that wasn't enough to lessen the brutality of Energy Lab Drive, four flat miles of baking asphalt, with no shade, that went past a power plant whose lines crackled ominously. Not that it was all downhill after that stretch: There was still one more uphill before getting back to the lakeside. The final torture was the sound of an ice cream truck coming from across the lake, but never appeared. I didn't have any form of payment on me, if I had come upon it, but at that point I felt like if I had the chance, I would find the means to procure a frozen treat.

My run split of 3:08:30 was pretty terrible, but at least I finished the race. Once I finally crossed the finish line, I felt exhausted. I briefly considered going into the medical tent to have the blisters on my feet looked at, but they weren't really that bad, and it looked as though they were sticking saline IVs into everyone who walked in. I got my finisher's t-shirt and a few drinks and shuffled my way over to my bike. I wanted to sit in the lake for a little while, but I wanted to go to my stuff first, and then when I got to my stuff, I didn't want to walk more than was absolutely necessary. Plus, they were already breaking down the transition area, and I felt a little rushed to get my gear together and get to my car. Unfortunately there was a wall of a hill between transition and the parking area. While I was parked very near the top of the hill, I still had to get up it with my bike and loaded transition bag. A number of spectators and other athletes made comments about the hike, but nobody offered to help me. I finally made it up the hill and got to my car, which was about 150 degrees inside. I loaded my stuff, cranked the A/C, and headed back to my motel.
I took a nap after a shower, which is when I first realized how sunburned I had gotten, particularly my shoulders. I wasn't entirely refreshed when I woke up, but I felt better at least. I went over to the host hotel for a dinner and awards ceremony. It was nice to have a chance to talk to some other athletes, but there was a band playing cover songs way too loudly, so the conversations were mostly in the pauses between songs. I thought about hanging out after the awards, since I didn't really have anything else to do, but I was so exhausted I had to just go back to my motel room.
Monday morning, I packed up my car, had breakfast, checked out, and headed home. It was a long, boring drive, hopped up on caffeine to keep from falling asleep. Tuesday it was back to work and back to training.

PS I don't know why it took me four weeks to finish this writeup. Even though I've been busy working and training, it's not as though I haven't had time. I guess I just didn't have the combination of time, energy, and motivation. Oh well, I'll try to do better next time.

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