Excellent race report and valuable to all members. Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens – Lessons Learned
On Sunday I raced my first ever “official” Ironman 70.3 race in Lake Stevens, Washington.
It was the toughest race I have ever done. Although I really crapped the bed on this race (fortunately that is only a figure of speech!), I actually learned a lot from it and thought others might benefit from my mistakes, so I’d like to share what I learned by way of my race report.
After racing two pretty great half-ironman’s this season, I was really looking forward to doing an official Ironman 70.3. Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle two weeks before the race. That really interrupted my training. I had had a tough week already when it happened on a Friday morning, and was planning to do a big cycling weekend. Instead of climbing Mount Baker (150 km round-trip) as planned, I stayed inside and wrote my thesis all day the next day. No exercise on a Saturday? Sucks, trust me. The next week and a half, I kept trying to ride my bike, which I was able to do while wearing a brace, however, it would be sore the next morning. The end result was ride my bike, take a day off, try again, take a day off = more days off than I would like to count! Running was out of the question as well, but was able to swim with 3 limbs at least.
Heading into race weekend, I was still pretty iffy on my ankle’s condition. It hurt to run if I didn’t wear my brace and felt very unstable in both cycling and running. I tried to be positive though! Lake Stevens was only my 5th half-ironman distance race and Alan told me I needed to do the official Ironman races, as “that’s where the competition is.” Well he was right. I walked into the professional racer’s pre-race meeting on Saturday to see former world champion and Canadian Triathlete of the year Sam McGlone (I’m sure she really needs no introduction). Holy crap! I also recognized ITU world championship medalist and world cup champion Sam Warriner and former world champion Joanna Zeiger. Of course all the pros know each other and are all chatting away while I stand nearby in awe.
Throughout the meeting the race director kept skipping over parts of the race rules because “you are all pros and you know the rules.” Yeah except for me! He mentions that the water temperature is 72 degrees, so it is likely to be a “skins” swim. I didn’t know what that meant, so I just ignored it.
After the meeting I went back to the racecourse and checked out where my rack position was in the transition area. They had everyone’s name printed on their rack sticker, so I checked out the other female pro’s set to race. I recognized about 10 other names from TV and past race results including Ironman champions Linsey Corbin, Tyler Stewart and Kate Major. So apparently the field is ridiculously stacked this year! I later learned that they paid a bunch of pros appearance fees to race this year. Based on last year’s results, I thought I had a chance at sneaking in for 5th place, as there were a few big names last year, but not nearly this much depth. I adjusted my race goal to just go for a good time and not worry about the big names; oblivious to the horrible suffer fest I would endure the next day.
On race morning it was announced in transition that the water temperature was 72.3 degrees Celsius, 0.3 degrees over the cutoff for pro’s to wear wetsuits, but age-groupers were still allowed. I saw the pro’s around me in transition putting on these thin black suits; I then realized this was what they referred to as “skins” in the meeting the day before. I headed down to the starting dock to realize that I was the only pro out of the approximate 45 males and females not wearing a “skins.” I was okay with that until I jumped into the water and realized that my top and shorts both opened up to create a parachute effect as I was swimming. I hadn’t expected the water to be warm enough to be a non-wetsuit swim and was not prepared for it. My shorts didn’t have a drawstring and I had never raced in that top before.
Lesson #1: be prepared for any conditions!
Let me tell you it’s tiring on the arms to pull against that much resistance. Apparently the reason for the skins suit is that is slippery to prevent resistance, and makes you hydrodynamic (the water version of aero). I managed to hold onto the pack for about 300 meters then swam the rest of the race alone. At the first buoy I started to turn left as I could see a buoy across from me. I later realized that I was supposed to continue swimming straight, so had to backtrack.
Lesson #2: familiarize yourself with the swim course beforehand.
I’ve done the same thing before, where I get totally lost and head toward the wrong buoy or have to stop and orient myself because I don’t know how much is left or where on the course I am. It doesn’t help that I am near-sighted so I can’t see very far in the distance (really need some prescription goggles!). From now on, I am going to make sure that I know the shape of the course, how many buoys (and what colours) are on the course and try to figure out the distance between each buoy (even if its only approximate). I find that if I don’t know how much longer the swim is, I tend to give up a bit as I can’t judge how much effort I can afford to expend. There is nothing worse than getting to a buoy that you think is the last turn, only to realize that there is one more to go 400 m away! When that happened this time, I just pictured myself getting further and further behind the ridiculous pros that I was up against, which made me give up even more. I was sure that I was dead last. My thoughts were fluctuating between negotiating how far I would go before dropping out on the bike and trying to stay positive and tell myself my best two sports were coming up.
My legs felt like absolute crap when I got on the bike. That has happened before of course, so I tried to push through it. Slowly my mind drifted back to the Debbie Downer version again and my effort level would lapse, because “there’s no point, I’m so far behind.” My quads were so tight and sore and I was really feeling the effects of the lack of training from the past two weeks due to my sprained ankle. Age-group men started to catch me (they started 8 minutes back).
Lesson #3: If someone passes you (who isn’t blowing by you), use them to force yourself to put some effort in on the bike and try to keep them in sight for as long as possible.
I found this tactic would give me something to concentrate on, other than how crappy I felt and I would end up going faster. But even after 30 km, which is usually how long it takes my legs to warm up, I still felt like death. I didn’t think there was any way I could finish the race at that point, I felt like I could barely ride. My average speed kept dropping. I was hoping to average 35 kph and was down to 31.x at one point where I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. I decided I would drop out after the first lap of the bike where I would likely see my boyfriend, Dave, waiting for me. Then, sweet salvation: a downhill section! What I failed to realize was that the second half of the course isn’t quite as tough and uphill as the first half. I made a mental note of this for the second lap. I thought about something Dave (a total physics of cycling nerd), told me.
Lesson #4: You will be faster overall if you put more power into going uphill, when there is less wind resistance to slow you down, and less power into going downhill, against wind resistance, rather than trying to maintain the same average power for both.
I don’t have a power meter, but I judged this by effort. I focused on aerodynamics on the downhill section and gave my legs a bit of a rest, so that I would be better able to power it up the hills, which are usually my strength anyways. When I finally saw Dave, he told me there were pro women only 2 minutes ahead of me. I felt a huge wave of relief. For the past two hours I had been picturing myself at least 15 minutes and counting behind the ENTIRE pro field. In my unusual state of mental weakness, I failed to remember one of my favorite mantra’s that I learned from my high school cross country coach:
Everyone else is hurting just as bad as you. If you think about it that way, the race then becomes a contest of who is toughest, who is better able to push through the pain…which just happens to be my specialty. So I decided to keep going for two reasons:
1) I wouldn’t get a very good workout from only 2 km of swimming and 45 km of cycling
2) My best sport was yet to come!
Not much later I actually caught a pro woman! I fed off that to try to push harder. My average speed was almost 33 kph, so I set a goal for myself to hold that average for the rest of the race. My second lap felt slightly better. The age groupers were now all out on the course. Negotiating those narrow roads around them was a bit tough, and of course, as is typical, got into a few passing battles with some age-group men who refuse to be passed by a woman.
FYI, to any men out there who repeatedly sprint to keep passing female pros only because they don’t like being passed by a girl: its actually a huge hindrance to our race, because it forces us to stop pedaling to get out of your draft zone and therefore lose distance on our real competition. Either suck it up when we pass you, or pass and keep up your speed and stay ahead!
I tried to stay strong for the last 30 km. In both the run and bike, thinking about technique when I am hurting really helps me to go faster by a) zoning out and b) having good technique! Duh! For the bike, I think about activating my core, keeping my knees in tight to the top tube, not dropping my heel and visualizing power transfer directly into the crank. The heat was getting pretty intense over the last hour of the bike, and I knew it would be bad on the run. From my perspective as an exercise physiologist, I thought about two things.
1) I’d be sweating a lot more than usual (my two other halfs this year have been overcast), therefore, I would need more salt and electrolytes then usual for that race distance.
2) Research indicates the best way to fuel in distance triathlons is to take in most of your nutrition on the bike.
In spite of these two things, you can only metabolize so much food at once. Luckily, I always have more Gatorade and food with me on my bike than I would typically use. So I took in more nutrition, but made sure to spread it out evenly, as to not spike my blood glucose level.
I managed to achieve my goal, and kept my average speed at 33.1 kph for the bike. I headed into T2, sat down (yes I sit, it doesn’t take me any extra time and it reduces the risk of falling when balancing on one foot!), stuck on my Vaseline filled socks (if you don’t do this, then start! I LOVE IT), and my Newtons and headed out. Dave told me there were 3-4 pros within 4 minutes.
In my usual state, making up 4 minutes would be nothing, if I could run 4:00/km like I had for my previous two races, I know there are not a lot of women that can hold that, so chances are at least a couple of those 4 Dave mentioned are not. Long story short, I did not run 4-minute km’s. Not even close. Typically I check my watch at every km, and if I’m over pace, then I kick my own ass to get back on pace. This didn’t work in this race for two reasons:
1) the US uses MILES not kilometers and;
2) the absolute crappiness of my legs that day compounded with the 32+ degree weather to induce a level of suffering I have never experienced before.
Lesson #5: know your pace times in miles and kilometers!
Your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen to calculate this during the race. Immediately, I felt the effects of the heat and got a huge cramp in my abs. The same thing happened a few weeks earlier in Penticton and getting some cold water in and on top of me helped, so I made it my mission to grab every cup of water in sight at the aid stations. I noticed that the odd section of shade that I encountered actually made me feel better pretty quickly, so I took advantage of this and picked it up a bit in the shade. The opposite response occurred as soon as I hit the sun again however. I managed to work the cramp out after 6 km, but the heat was still unbearable.
Dave told me that even in the shade his Garmin said 34 degrees. Heat during a race that is always hot is one thing, ridiculous heat in a race in which it’s not expected, is another. If I were racing IMC or Kona, I would heat-train. Two weeks earlier when I rode the Lake Stevens course it was so cold that I wore a long-sleeve the entire ride, and I had actually been concerned about it being too cold on race day!
Anyway, I won’t go into too much detail, but for the entire run I was in complete agony. Instead of my typical “hunter mode” during the run, where Dave gives me time splits and I focus on catching those in front of me, I was in survival mode, I didn’t even care about my pace per km anymore, I was actually concerned that I wouldn’t physically be able to finish, even now that I wanted to. I actually remember thinking about a quote from ironman creator John Collins that goes something like “if you quit, no one will care, but you will know.” If I made it this far, there was no way I was quitting now!
Lesson #6: At the aid stations, if you yell out “water!” and put out both your hands in advance, the people on both sides of the aid station will give you water, one in each hand. Dump the first couple on your head quickly, so that you can be prepared to grab some from every single person at the aid station, and take the last couple to drink.
I also took cups of ice when they were offered and poured it into my sports bra. I noticed that the shorts I was wearing held a lot of water after I poured it on myself. I could feel pockets of water in them. That is something I would consider in the future, for hot races, as you don’t want to carry around any extra weight! The Vaseline that I started putting in my socks this year, has really helped to prevent blisters, or at least attenuate their severity. I would hate to have seen what my feet would’ve looked like if I didn’t do it for this race. Its inevitable to get blisters in a race like this one, at least for me. Your shoes are soaked the entire run from pouring water on yourself, and your feet swell so damn much from the heat. I may actually think about buying a half size larger for my next pair of racing shoes for that reason.
When I finally crossed the finish line, I had caught a couple, but not many pros, and it turns out I wasn’t even last out of the water! I was immediately taken into the medical tent and proceeded to sweat profusely for a long, long time despite not moving, having a giant bag of ice on my shoulders and continuously pouring ice-cold water all over myself. My run time was 1:31:36, about 23 seconds per km slower than my goal pace. I choose to look at it as a positive: now I know the slowest half marathon time I can expect to run in any conditions.
When Dave finally found me in the medical tent, he told me that 2008 world champion Joanna Zeiger still hadn’t finished. I was completely shocked, I hadn’t even noticed passing her. She was the last pro to finish, about 14 minutes behind me. Dave said she started walking as soon as she got off the bike. The reason that I am mentioning this, is not to point out that I beat a world champion (although cool, its not something I’m going to brag about), it’s because the biggest lesson I learned about long-distance triathlons and professional racing from this race, was from Joanna. Dave told me he read an interview with her once where she said she would never drop out of a race if she could physically finish it, because its disrespectful to age-groupers. I have definitely heard stories of pros dropping out if they weren’t going to get the place or time that they wanted. If you think about it, that is disrespectful to anyone who is out there trying their hardest and finishes in a slower time than them.
After hearing, this, I was actually really proud that I finished. I was embarrassed for being so upset about potentially being last too. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Joanna Zeiger, she has a lot of integrity (I also remember her telling the women on the start line of the swim to move back to the actual start line when they were creeping forward waiting for the gun). Her perspective on racing is one that I plan on taking to heart.
Lesson #7: Never give up, always finish the race!
* Thank-you to George for his serious editing skills!