Inaugural Ironman 70.3 World Championships

11 11 2006

November 11th, 2006- Scott Fliegelman

We’d qualified in June at a race in Lubbock, TX and accepted the invitation to be amongst the first group of athletes to compete in the World Championships for the Half Ironman Distance.  It seems odd that an event requiring 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling, and 13.1 miles of running (totaling 70.3 miles) and takes from 4-8 hours to complete can be called “half” of anything.  Actually, I prefer this distance more than the “full” Ironman (twice the above figures), as well as the shorter races, and have competed in about a dozen Half IM’s in the past 5 years.

        My wife, Liz and I had both earned the final qualifying slot in our respective age groups, and in the short period of time that we had to discuss our options, decided to do the race in November and then extend our stay and make a vacation of it in Mexico or the Caribbean.  Well, we’ve done a bit of both as I am writing this report from the balcony of Cabin #7111 aboard the Carnival Miracle, a colossal cruise ship that has just left the dock in Grand Cayman… our first of port of call after sailing from Tampa the day after the race… which also happened to be my 39th birthday.J

But first… the race!  The weather was perfect on race morning… temps in the low 70’s, partly cloudy, not much wind, and the water looked calm and inviting… even to me!  The pros began at 7:03 am for their customary head start, and I noted while warming up that there would be quite a long run in knee deep water before starting to swim.

I found a spot amongst the large crowd of fellow 30-39 year olds, and spotted a friend and fellow competitor Gary Roseman a few spots away.  We both commented about how fit the rest of the field appeared, as they had all qualified to be here with top placing results in races earlier in 2006.

The gun sounded at 7:18 am, and 400 guys in rubber suits sprinted down the beach and into the shallow surf.  As I’d expected, we continued shuffling, pushing, and shoving another 50 yards or so until we finally took the plunge.  The course would head straight out to sea for 10 buoys before turning right for about 50 yards and then back to the beach for another 10.

Competing in this macho division, I was accustomed to the usual combat for the first couple of hundred meters, but somehow it didn’t subside.  Only every 10-12 strokes would my hand directly enter water, while most would first hit another swimmers head or back before gaining any purchase and propelling me slightly forward.  Of course, my neighbors returned the courtesy by wacking me from all sides with hands and feet, but fortunately I never took a direct blow to my face, gut, or groin area.J

I took some comfort in knowing that I’d started fairly close to the front of this group, and by this point we were all forced to be moving along at the exact same speed, regardless of swimming ability.  Even if I’d wanted to break away with a 100 yard sprint, there was simply nowhere to go.  Not that I ever did this during a swim, but the current gridlock meant that most of my faster-swimming competitors would not be doing so either.  This revelation was quite good news along with the fact that my breathing was not at all labored as it would normally be at about the half way mark…

We made the clockwise turn and headed for home… straight into a blinding sun.  With swimmers heading in all directions, the packs finally broke up and I settled into a strong rhythm.  I’d swam 3 days a week since January, and I was determined to get some benefit out of all that toil in these final 800-900 yards of my final race of 2006.  I swam as straight as possible, pleasantly counting away the buoys to my right every 90 seconds or so, until I could see swimmers in front of me rising and running up the beach.

I stood and noted my watch read about 31 minutes, which was just about on plan, as I removed my cap and goggles and the upper part of my wetsuit and trudged through deep sand toward the transition area.  But first, two determined volunteers would throw me to the ground and enthusiastically remove the rest of my wetsuit, and as I stood I had to double-check that they’d not also peeled of my shorts as well in their haste.J

T1 was quick and efficient (under 3 minutes as I’d learn later), and soon enough I was on my bike and heading out on the mostly flat and fast course.  My goal for the day was to break 4:30, which would represent a 7-minute PR.  Although my fitness was likely not at its all-around best of the season, the course figured to offer up speedy times, and I’d hoped that my marathon fitness from 6-weeks earlier would provide the needed endurance for a strong finish.  My plan called for a 30:00 swim, 2:25 bike, 1:30 run, and combined transitions of 5 minutes or less.  I was already behind by about two minutes after the swim, but was pleased with how fresh I felt moving onto the bike.

In my previous couple of races at this distance, I’d felt as if I pushed a bit too hard on the bike and was therefore unable to run as close to my “open” ½ marathon PR of 1:21 as I’d like.  This is one of the Golden Questions in triathlon… “How hard should I go on the bike?”  If I back off 5 minutes, then run 4 minutes quicker… it was not a good decision, as it is the net time that matters most.  On this day I would use my HR monitor attentively to keep me in a projected moderately hard intensity zone (<160 bpm), and hope to make up the difference on the run.

The route was something of a clover leaf, with about half on city streets and the rest along the Causeway that connected Clearwater to Tampa.  While driving this span from the airport two days earlier, I really looked forward to biking on the well paved, flat road, with the Bay along both sides… very different than Colorado!

The first 10-15 miles went great.  My Kestrel was cutting through the air at about 24 mph (23 mph was my goal), while my HR stayed at close to 157 bpm.  At about this time a pack of about 15 riders went by, which reminded me of the sporadic “pelotons” at Ironman Florida last year.  Of course it would be nice to jump aboard this train and enjoy faster speeds and lower effort, but the rules strictly prohibit drafting and regardless I was only competing against myself.  The road was wide enough at this point to allow them to pass by, and I returned to my relative solitude while hoping that an official would soon come by to break up their advantage.

Soon after making a 180 and heading back toward the Causeway, the density of riders increased while the road began to narrow.  I instinctively moved my position from the aero bars to the bar ends to get closer to the brakes, as there were now several bikes within my “draft zone”, and no safe place to hide.  Within a few more minutes, I estimated about 50 riders had formed up as we rode over a short bridge and then out onto the Causeway. 

I chatted with a guy from England about “always wanting to do an ITU race” and he mentioned something in return about enjoying a nice “group ride with the chaps”… a phrase I interpreted as “cycling with the guys” as opposed to some kind of uncomfortable equestrian event in leather…

For some reason, despite having closed off the entire 4-lane highway to traffic, they’d coned off so much of each direction that only about 70% of a single lane remained for the riders, and there was a cement median blocking the far left.  These circumstances, together with several hundred strong riders within proximity to each other left very little option to ride along “illegally” and wait for a wider section of road where the stronger riders could pass and thereby string out the procession to the required 7-meters distance between bikes.  During this entire section I noticed but one USAT official who appeared to have given up hope of fixing the drafting problem.

The 180 degree turn back toward Clearwater created some space, and I was comfortably back on my own and pleased to see that my speed and HR were still on target.  I’d likely gained a few minutes’ advantage in the last several miles, but the relative break in intensity was offset by the stress of avoiding a crash or drafting penalty.  About this time, a guy named Joe Bonness came by on his own at about 27 mph, and it was tempting to see if I could keep up.  Despite Joe’s 51 years, he has created quite the legend by stringing together several impressive results within weeks of each other every fall, including Kona, IM Florida, and this race in only three weeks time…

At about mile 35, I endured one more period of “group riding” before settling into the final miles of draft free pedaling.  I’d consumed three full bottles of Amino Vital sports drink and nearly two bags of Clif Bloks, and my energy level felt good as I began to think about the run.

Despite all of the extemporaneous riding over the past couple of hours, I had not forgotten my plan of backing off the intensity at mile 50 in order to lower my HR and allow my legs to “spin out” any lactic acid build up.  As such, I was able to really enjoy the crowds over these last few miles, offering a wave and “thanks for coming out to cheer”, especially to the kids who lined the streets as we approached the end of the ride.

I hit T2 at about 2:20 and felt good about my effort and ability to best handle the drafting without incident or gratuitous advantage.  I’d ridden 2:24 in my last race of this distance, at altitude, and therefore felt as if the drafting did not provide me much time savings as compared with other riders of similar ability who I’d later note posted bike times as fast as 2:09…

I’d slipped my feet from my bike shoes before dismounting and handed it off to a volunteer who promptly dropped it on the ground.J  I found my bike-run gear bag, took a seat in the changing tent and reappeared moments later dressed as “Running Man”.  T2 took only 2 minutes… combined transitions- 5:00!  My plan “A” plan called for me to leave T2 in 3 hours or less and my elapsed time read 2:58 as I headed onto the run course.

I’d hoped to ease into pace over the first mile or two, and was pleasantly surprised to see that my first split was a 6:51.  The next mile contained the first of four significant climbs, each about .3 miles long as we would ascend and descend a bridge twice.  I felt strong, but allowed my pace to slow in order to save something for the later stages.

Just after mile 3, and a split of nearly 7:00, a 6’ 5” guy with a huge stride came by at a desirable clip.  As I’ve done before, I chose to politely borrow him to increase my pace.  We churned out a few 6:45’s, before he bailed out to use the port-o-let, leaving me to negotiate the next two hills on my own.  I wouldn’t run another sub 7 mile the rest of the way.L

There were runners heading in both directions on the bridge at this point, and I was looking for Liz who’d started 15 minutes after me and could be heading out for her first run lap.  I didn’t spot her, but I did get a nice confidence boost as I started passing a number of slower runners… keeping in mind that ALL had qualified to be here.

As the next few miles passed, I was growing doubtful that my 4:30 goal would still be reachable, but then I saw the mile marker and noted my split for mile 10 read 4:14!  Of course I wasn’t actually running that fast, but I’d hoped that somehow the errant sign meant that I was back on track to run 1:32 or less.  After a 9:20 mile 11 (also inaccurate due to mis-marked signs), I knew it was not to be, and then had to scale the final climb. 

I was passed by a number of runners at this point, most still fresh from their first lap, but reeled them all back in on the descent as I began to “smell the barn” and picked up the pace one last time.  The final stretch required passing close by the finish line, but heading down the road an unknown distance before U-turning back for the last few steps.  I was running hard in hopes of still hitting my time goal, but also began considering how best to avoid other runners at the finish line so that our respective photos would look best.  Alas, I broke the tape in 4:32, and as my race # had come off at some point during the run I may not get a finish line photo after all.J

I was assigned two volunteers to make sure I didn’t collapse, and for about 50 yards I was glad they were there before I felt confident on my own.  I spotted Gary and congratulated him on his race… he’d gone 4:30 and appeared to be quite pleased with his PR.

Liz would be along in about an hour, so I quickly headed back to our hotel a couple of blocks away to shower before greeting her at the finish line. Sure enough, her time was exactly an hour behind mine (5:32), which would make her very happy as well, given the moderate level of triathlon training over the past couple of months.

I’m now looking forward to a 6-week break from training and putting to use my new skis on the fresh snow which has fallen on Colorado while we’ve been away.  After New Years, I’ll begin doing some easy running, skate skiing, swimming, snowshoeing and cycling, as I begin to slowly ramp up my training for Ironman Coeur D’ Alene in late June.  I hope you’ll join me for some of the fun over that time…

Thanks for reading and good luck with your training and racing goals in 2007!

 

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