Monday, May 7, 2012

IRONMAN St. George 2012 (Race Report)

Short version: 
I did Ironman St. George on Saturday. It was hard. Only 5 athletes in 7 finished. 28% drop-out rate!! The swim was insane. 6' swells. Ridiculous current. The bike was so rough. 30 mph gusts. Heat without shade. The run? Yep, it was hard. Hill repeats. Heat repeats. I tried to take it easy. I walked a bit. I had fun!

If you're reading this, then you probably already know this race report's back-story. A week ago, I signed up for Ironman St. George. Two days ago, I raced it. That's not a lot of time to prepare for any triathlon, let alone the most challenging race on the U.S. circuit! But the opportunity to do a race like this one doesn't come around every day, and when I found out that registration was still open, I just couldn't pass on the chance!

Doing this race on such short notice gave me the chance to test my fitness two months ahead of Ironman Zurich Switzerland. Freed from pressure and expectation, it also gave me the ability to relax and [try to] enjoy the event itself. It was nice not to feel the need to push myself to the absolute limit every minute of the day!

Anyway, I'd like to try not to write another horrendously long race report, so I'll just try to quickly fill in some details below. [Edit - I failed. This sucker is loooong.]

Before the race

Before the race, athletes had to meet in the center of town and take a bus from St. George to the swim start/T1. This seemed like an inconvenience, but I found that I quite enjoyed the ride. It was nice to chat with a few other athletes in a quiet place where people aren't really distracted by transition set-up or pre-race ritual. The woman I wound up sitting next to on the bus turned out to be from Busselton, the site of my first-ever Ironman. Small world!

The swim

The swim was ridiculous, and I mean that in the worst way possible. As soon as we entered the water, the wind across Sand Hollow Reservoir began to pick up. The crowd of 1,400 competitors swelled against the imaginary "start line" created by two buoys. Many athletes pushed well beyond the line prior to the start. Rather than muscle up to the crowded front (and be beyond the start line), I opted to stay back. I wound up swimming over quite a few people, but by the first of three left-hand turns, I had moved through most of the crowd and found myself toward the front of the pack with room to breathe.

Unfortunately, that left-hand turn marked the beginning of some of the most heinous swimming conditions I've ever had to battle through.

The aforementioned wind was gusting 25-30 miles per hour over the reservoir, triggering whitecaps, spray and six-foot swells. The second left-hand turn pointed us straight against the current. It was like swimming in a washing machine on a sailboat in the ocean during a storm. Going was slow. The field was scattered. Even sighting future buoys was a challenge. I managed to make a few adjustments to my stroke and kick pattern, but solid rhythm into those waves was tough to find. This was the hardest swim I've ever done -- an uphill battle all the way!

No one came close to their target time on the swim. In fact, almost three-hundred people failed to make the original swim cut-off. Race officials were pulling swimmers from the water early -- it was simply too dangerous for some of the weaker swimmers. Insanity.

I took my time during both transitions. What's two extra minutes on a day that's going to be more than twelve hours long?

The bike

The bike was also atrocious. I came prepared for climbing. That would have been totally fine. But the wind that plagued the swim course stuck around to make the bike course a living hell. I can handle a little headwind, but this wasn't just headwind: it was headwind with whipping, gusty crosswinds that seemed to come from all directions at once.

The northbound miles, especially on the first lap, were absolutely demoralizing. Some riders appeared to be cruising along in the aero position, but I don't understand how -- it was all I could do just to keep my wheel perpendicular to the road. Every gust felt like it was trying to lift the bike out from under me. Terrifying. I crawled along at a frustratingly slow pace. Riders passed me in a steady stream. I was already having second thoughts about my ability to finish. "You didn't respect the race," I thought, "And now it's making you pay."

After what seemed like eons, we reached the northernmost point of the ride - the Veyo Wall. Ordinarily, this climb would be what competitors would share stories about after the race. The burning pain induced by a steep, unpleasant climb. But after that northbound stretch into that headwind, climbing a 7% grade for a while with a tailwind felt like a walk in the park. Veyo Wall was a break from the misery of the northbound Gunlock section.

When we turned south, things become infinitely more enjoyable. The wind started to normalize - the gusts turned into something a bit more consistant and predictable. We sped back to St. George, propelled by the wind. I barely had to pedal for miles, and when I did try to pedal, I found that I was traveling at speeds that were beyond what my gears could assist with. More like that, please!

Unfortunately, the course is two loops, so after fifteen pleasant, tailwind-aided miles, we had to turn back north again. I knew what to expect and was prepared for another hellish slog, but at the start of it, I got a pleasant surprise -- Kristine had found a way to get onto the bike course and was cheering me on as I passed the halfway point! (I love you, sweetheart!!)

After that, the second lap wasn't so bad. Because the whipping wind had turned into something more uniform, I was able to get a bit more comfortable in the aero position. I just kept pedaling. And pedaling. And before I knew it, I was back at the fun, tailwind-y section back into town and rolling into T2.

The run

The run was a question mark for me coming in. My longest run this year was last week's 12-miler, so I had no major aspirations for this part of the race. The course is basically hill repeats - up and down one hill three times (~5 miles) and then up a longer (~2 mile) hill and back down. Do that three times.

This was super nice because it meant Kristine could very easily move from place to place on the course and cheer me on. And boy did I need her encouragement. That course was sweltering and hilly, and my legs were tired. A few miles into the first lap, Alex arrived up. He and Kristine became my IMSTG support crew!

I settled into a decent rhythm but decided to throttle myself back early on. I absolutely imploded at Vineman, and I didn't want to have to experience that again. I was running at about 8-minute-per-mile pace, but forced myself to walk each mile down to a 9-minute pace. This equated to running about 90% of every mile and walking 10%.

This turned out to be a great strategy, actually. My legs did start to break down around the 15th mile, so I began to make adjustments. I went from targeting 9-minute miles to 10-minute miles, and then installed a "walk the uphills, run the downhills" policy which had me averaging roughly 12-minute miles over the final six or seven. Not bad.

The finish, etc.

The last two miles of the race were downhill - a blessing! So when I started running at the top of Diagonal Lane, I didn't stop until I crossed the line on Main Street. Kristine and Alex were right there cheering me on. I couldn't have asked for anything more.

I was 28th in my age group and 195th overall. There are things I'd like to improve on prior to Zurich, but I am completely unable to be disappointed in my performance on Saturday. A twelve hour finish on one of Ironman's hardest days - having only decided to actually race five days prior - is something I can definitely be proud of! Bring on the next challenge!

Random notes:

  • Pictures will be along in a few days. I'll write another post with 'em.
  • Kristine, Alex and I came back out to watch the finishers during the final hour (11pm-12am) for the first time. It was awesome. Watching some of those people sprint across the line after sixteen hours of pain and anguish is incredibly inspiring.
  • I probably would have been a lot better off on the ride if I'd used my regular training front wheel (vs. my deep 808 wheel). Some guys had disc wheels..?!
  • Why am I so freakin' weak on the bike? I should be able to push more watts than what I push. It's freakin' lame. And frustrating.
  • I ate a lot more for breakfast (PRO bar, two stroopwaffels) and during the ride (two Bonk Breakers, two gels) than usual. I only had two gels on the run (vs. my usual 7-10), but drank a LOT more water.
  • My legs are sore, but my Achilles is not screaming at me.
  • I need to have my bike fit assessed again. I was just not comfortable in the aero position during this ride, and I could tell from the very beginning of it. I wonder if my saddle shifted recently?
  • Roughly 1400 people started the race and only about 1000 finished. That's a 28% drop-out rate. The general consensus from the organizers and experienced triathletes was that this might have been the most challenging Ironman ever.
  • Several multiple-time Kona qualifiers agreed: the crosswinds on the bike were worse than anything they'd ever experienced in Hawaii.
  • The fastest pro bike time was 25 minutes slower than the course record. That's a lot.
  • It was 80+ degrees, sunny and exposed just about all day.
  • St. George is a cute little town. The people there were very friendly and enthusiastic.
  • Alex and Kristine are awesome. :-)
  • More random thoughts here.