Friday, August 10, 2012

Ironman 70.3 Boulder Race Report

Rocky Mountain high...Embrace the Burn...and then pass the oxygen!

John Denver wrote a lot of songs about Colorado but I needed more of a "Racing In Boulder for Dummies" book to better prepare me for the handicap I was going to feel. Boulder has never really been a “bucket-list” race and this year it was selected not because of the venue but more on timing. The area around Boulder is beautiful and the temperatures during the summer are eerily similar to Boise. A month ago I contemplated not making the trip because the entire state was burning from wildfires and racing in smoke sucks. I wanted one more hard half IM effort about 2 weeks out from Canada. There isn’t much on the schedule that wouldn’t cost a fortune to get to so Boulder looked like my best option. It’s a tough location for most people to race at an elevation of 5,430ft which intensifies the sun and the air is so thin you feel out of breathe just watching the college students ride their single speeds. There’s a great Tri presence in the area with local amenities and a small-town feel that make it easy to understand why so many Ironman champions call this place home. Not that I’m leaving the Boise area any time soon, I can just see some of the benefits.

My plan for this race was simple, race hard and quit sucking. I left my bike set-up the same as Vineman, no power meter and race mostly by heart rate and feel. Racing by “feel” turned out not to be very effective because the high elevation made my lungs and legs burn on pre-race rides and runs. Arriving 3 days before race day wasn’t going to be enough time to adjust; advantage here goes to the locals or at least those that call this place home for part of the year. The reason I left my bike set-up unchanged from Vineman was because I had a fit adjustment scheduled for after the race.

Water at the swim venue was…well, let’s just say I’m pretty sure Coors doesn’t use any of this "Rocky Mountain spring water" for brewing their lager but hands down it beats swimming in the Hudson.  The algae bloom was so thick I was certain I could walk on top of the “water” with a pair of snowshoes. I hate when waters gets like this in the summer because it plays on my childhood fear of water and I mentally struggle swimming when I can’t see the bottom. Prior to the race I opted to stay out of the reservoir during training and instead slap feet with the “Who’s Who of Triathlon” in the public pools. This time I was prepared for any water temp with both my TYR Freak of Nature wetsuit and Torque Pro swim skin. The water temps were almost 80 degrees when I arrived but the days leading up to race morning had thunderstorms with wind which helped cool the water off enough to make it wetsuit legal. Swimming at elevation, I knew my swim time was going to be a couple of minutes slower than Vineman. I told myself that if I could come in around 32:00 and with a pack that I would be setting myself up for a decent race. I just needed to find the pack within my pace and stick with them.

Ohhh…the burn! Swimming at 5,430 feet hurts, bad! 500m into the swim it started to feel like hypoxic training. Everything burned the entire loop but I was happy when I exited the water in 31:22 with a pack of 4 other girls. I had this euphoric feeling when I stood to run out on the beach because I wasn’t exiting the swim alone but that was quickly substituted with a feeling of disorientation and dizziness. As I crossed the timing mat my legs felt like rubber, I was seeing stars and my head was spinning like I had just spent 30 minutes on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the amusement park. So this is what it feels like to be on the verge of blacking out...I don't like it. I’m sure I was quite a sight as I attempted to run a straight line into T1. I tied for 15th out of the water but still a good time, all things considered.

I could tell by the number of bikes lift on the racks that most of the girls were on the course ahead of me. There were 4 other girls in T1 with me and as I exited I quickly passed one of the gals that exited ahead of me as she slipped her feet into her shoes. I held off putting my feet into my shoes longer than normal because I wanted to add some distance between us. All for not, she then caught back up to me as I put my feet into my shoes as I rounded the first corner. She shadowed me as we came to the first hill but then she tried to grind up the hill as I spun up and added some distance that would take her a while to make up. That climb in itself was enough to reinsure my last-minute decision to change out my cassette so I had more gears for the hills. I wasn’t expecting a ride of epic proportion, simply something that exhibited my true capabilities. As the miles ticked away I continued to meticulously pick off riders in front of me. A smile, a wave and words of encouragement as I passed each girl. As physically draining this ride was, it was quickly becoming mentally strengthening the more miles I put behind me. I was focusing on anything but the burn in my legs and then on the second loop I rode up behind this girl riding ahead of me with the weirdest race kit design from behind. As I rode closer it became apparent that her speed-suit up her crack…now my eyes are burning too! A G-string on the bike cannot be comfortable…is that even legal race attire outside of Brazil? Girl…get a bigger suit, as cool as it looks, that suit does NOT fit! I inserted a 3 mile interval just so I wouldn’t have to look at that the rest of the ride. Apparently passersby in cars found it more amusing as they slowed to video the “scene”. As I rode into the AG waves, which can make it a little difficult to tell whether I was passing anyone of interest, they were giving me race splits as I passed them; the nicest racers I've raced with. Having others on the course with you helps with the mental aspect of the race because you aren't alone on the course but I was quickly reminded that I still have to be on alert as a gal came to a complete stop at one of the aid stations instead of rolling through. I just about dumped my bike as I maneuvered to avoid a collision and consequently missed my opportunity to get a refill of water. Since there aren't any out-and-back portions on this 2-loop course I had to assume that I was still doing well and I needed to push harder to negative split the second loop. Embrace the burn! My Trek Speed Concept carried me passed a total of 7 gals for a new PR bike split of 2:21:37 to enter T2 in 9th. This bike split bested my previous PR by 11 minutes which was set last season on a very, very flat Rev 3 Portland course which felt good knowing I still could have gone faster. I almost felt like I rode like my hair was on fire, it was nice to have that feeling again.

As I left T2 I could feel the heat radiating down and even though the air temp wasn’t quite 80 degrees, it already felt like the mid-90s. The course offers no shade so you’re fully exposed to the elements as you grind your way through 2 loops. My lungs and legs were burning from the bike so I just kept an eye on my heart rate. I was thinking about how scenic this course could be but in reality reminded me of running along the irrigation canals back home. 3 miles in, my pace began to slow as my heart was jumping through my throat. It felt like I was wearing a run harness strapped to "Refrigerator" Perry. I soon started to see stars...again. No…not Dibens or Carfrae. The “on the verge of a black out” type of stars. I had to stop and walk for a couple of minutes while my heart rate normalized which allowed that last gal I had worked so hard to pass on the bike to pass me and put some distance on me. If only we were closer to the “so not Coors water” reservoir so I could jump in for a minute. There’s only one short little out-and-back section on the course then the rest of it is a loop so you really don’t get to see if anyone else if fading or showing any signs of a weakness that you can exploit before getting to the finish line. I had some ground to make up since I took that little star gazing break and I was still chasing my goal finish time of under 4:30. I’m not very good with numbers but my original plan was to run a sub 7:00/mi pace on the 1st  loop. My body was obviously not conditioned to the altitude so running sub-7’s to make up lost time would only put me in the medic tent after the race. I could tell I was regaining ground on the gal that passed me while I enjoyed my leisurely Sunday stroll. As I came around the corner between miles 11 & 12 I pushed harder trying to make up the rest of the gap but I ran out of  road and ended up 15 seconds back of her to finish 10th with an overall time of 4:33:43.Oxygen please!

I’m totally happy with my first top 10 finish in the 70.3 distance knowing there are areas where I can still make improvements. I now know a sub- 4:30 finish time is totally within my capabilities even on some of the more challenging courses. This was probably the best run WTC events I've competed in over the years. If they could change the course, the area would make an awesome full IM distance race.

Next Up

Canada…eh? One more of the bucket-list races and probably one of the races I’m most excited about; I toe the line August 26th. This is probably the closest I’ll come to international racing until I start making some money at this sport. I’ve wanted to race Canada for years because of the challenging bike course and beautiful race venue but I could never get the timing to work into the family schedule. I need to carry momentum from Boulder through the end of the season and keep chipping away at my times for each discipline. After Canada, a short recovery and focused training for Leadman 250 Bend. The 5k swim is not necessarily playing to one of my strengths but I’m super excited about the 223k bike that takes you over Mt. Bachelor twice. I love racing on courses that challenge more than your flat-land skills and this race will definitely be won by how smart you race the bike leg. It’ll be interesting to see what the weather does; cold, wet, maybe snow. I’ve raced portions of this course before during Pacific Crest so I know each climb over Mt. Bachelor is going to burn.


Try on your race day gear and practice in it before race day. If your speed suit feels like someone is giving you a snuggie when you’re on your bike, you should probably tell you sponsor that you need the size medium instead of extra small.

High altitude training (above 5,000 feet) can pay back huge dividends if you know how to incorporate it into your training. Not all of us have the privilege to “live high, race low”. I had planned my high altitude training around driving or riding to the higher elevations but then missed all of it because of smoke from local wildfires. If you can plan better than I did, there are other methods for replicating the thin oxygen, some more expensive than others. Be diligent on your research.

Right gear selection is paramount. After racing Oceanside I learned my lesson about being prepared for each course and conditions. I made a conscious decision to pre-ride or drive every bike and run course before race. After I rode the Boulder course before race day I knew I had selected the wrong cassette for the course and my lower altitude lungs. I would have been fine had I lived in Boulder or spent the last 3 weeks training there. Learn from my mistakes, make sure you are familiar with your race course before race day and trust your gut if you feel like you need to make adjustments to your gear selection.

I get tired of reading and hearing people complain about the course being too hard. It's a freakin' IRONMAN people! They aren't intended to be "easy" or "fast". This is exactly why St. George was cut to a 70.3 distance. The Ironman race is intended to challenge your inner warrior against some of the most difficult conditions, courses and competitors in the World. In reality this is supposed to be a race against the clock and the simple act of completing the course before midnight should be considered a personal triumph. We often get too caught up in chasing the dream of qualifying to race in Kona or Vegas and when we don't, we struggle to see through the fog and recognize the achievement that just occurred. I too struggle with the constant quest for a Kona/Vegas slot, more-so now since qualification as a Pro is not based on a single performance and many sponsors are only interested in signing the big names. At the end of the day it's not whether you won your division, but did you improve on your previous time and have fun doing it. Strive to continually challenge yourself and Embrace the Burn!