I’ve done over 70 triathlons over my lifetime, and after each one I would easily be able to describe the indomitable feeling coming over me as I made my way to the starting-line. It was almost always a melding of three…nervous-excited-aggressive, or maybe a combo of two of those three. At the 2012 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas, I found myself in a very unusual emotional state that put me in unfamiliar territory. I was afraid…scared as hell of getting my butt thoroughly kicked and handed to me. I will admit it…the magnitude of this race overwhelmed me a bit.
There were the huge crowds, the helicopters, the media, the huge expo, all the bells and whistles within an incredibly decadent venue…no expense spared, the many languages being spoken (the German guys scare me the most), the chat with old cohort Mark Allen (greatest triathlete ever), and then there was the collectively utter sophistication and unbelievably fit look of the 2,000 athletes. My goodness...there might have been a couple pounds of adipose tissue amongst the whole of them! And, yes, I did catch myself sucking my belly in a couple of times… so weird to feel like I’m the little chubby guy. J
These Ironman 70.3 races are now the hot ticket. They include 50 events all over the globe, and have very rapidly become the most competitive and highly sought-after races on the planet. Ironman Inc. can’t put these 70.3 races out fast enough to keep up with demand. For example, the Vineman Ironman in Santa Rosa filled in under an hour, with 2,200 entrants paying $300 a pop...in under an hour! The Worlds race is the culminating championship event and consists of a collection of athletes who earned one of the 2 or 3 qualifying slots allotted to each age-division from each of those fifty races. All of which meant that I would be competing against extremely high-caliber athletes from around the world. In over twenty years time, since my days as a professional, I’ve have one race under my belt that even comes close to this level of competition, and that was at the Vineman Ironman, almost two months ago (how I qualified for this race). But that race was small potatoes compared to this one.
Enough about the scary context of the competition and the large scale of the race. Let’s talk about the other even greater horror that awaited me.
I’m sure most of you are familiar in some way with the Las Vegas environs. The land, the desert, the beat-down heat where you’ll find that only a select few specially adapted organisms have honed the most incredible of survival mechanisms. Las Vegas is really, really hot, but 110 degrees out on the bike course the day before was just a little disconcerting. Hmm, this could be really ugly. Specially adapted triathletes will be the order of the race-day!
And the course? Nope, don’t get a break there either. For a major race, certainly a World Championship triathlon, you’re unlikely to find many with real elevation change throughout. The run is just a brutal, fairly steep, pavement only, up-one-mile-down one-mile-again-and-again affair with no flat running whatsoever. The bike has just enough climbing, that I believe it gives climbers a definite advantage over non-climber types, which tends to be the large majority of triathletes, particularly the older athletes. The climbs on the bike, coupled with the heat make it a very challenging bike course and will very much minimize the drafting problem. The swim is in warm water, so no wetsuits allowed, which means much more effort and a greater expenditure of energy will be required. Indeed, the whole course is quite challenging in itself and will take much longer to complete than any other 70.3 race out there.
I’ll spare you the details of going through all the before race check-in and mandatory stuff required by the Ironman organization. Just know that, if you’re like me, you may very well feel like, at some point in the process, you’ll be asked to get a micro-chip implanted in the back of your shoulder, and that you should be prepared to do bureaucratic work for the interplanetary state of Ironman Galactica if called upon in the future, in order to sustain the great republic. Please Ironman Inc., don’t forget that that you will be prone to having too many layers! Let’s find a way to keep it about the athlete experience, O.K.?
Let’s get to the race.
The swim happens in the small Lake Las Vegas located on the outskirts of the city of Henderson and adjacent to the Lake Mead Recreation Area, and is surrounded by resort hotels and golf courses. Water is a very comfortable 82 degrees and the air temperature was 86 degrees!!!...really?!...at the start?!... whoa!!! I’m the second to last swim wave, which is significant in that I’ll be riding and running in much hotter temps than those starting somewhere between say 6:15am and 7:15am, compared to my 8:00am start. Oh well, I guess all the lucky folks in my age-division (45-49) will have it the same any how. There’s an in-water start with about 150 athletes in my wave, all spread out quite a bit, which disoriented the heck out of me as I had no clue where to position myself. After a few minutes of wading around back and forth like a nutty duck, I just said the hell with it and put myself somewhere in the middle. During the countdown to the starting horn, the fear of being blasted back to Chico has now subsided into relief, knowing that the deep suffering I’m about to put myself through will push all the thoughts of failure into oblivion as I get into the more primitive part of my brain. At this point, I’m all medulla and brain stem!
Well, with no wetsuit, it became apparent real quick that this was gonna hurt more than usual. It turns out that positioning myself in the middle wasn’t so good as I was comically looking left, then right, then left again, and so on, looking at two nicely forming packs on each side as I was kind of in no-mans-land (or water). Finally, I decided to take the inside pack to the right (swim was clockwise with the buoys on the right), but by the time I got over there, I was gapped a bit and didn’t have the usual punch to get up on them. Finding swimmers who are clearly better than me to draft off of is essential in my book, but was not to be on this day. Wasn’t feeling particularly good swimming and I could sense that there were way too many up ahead of me than I would have expected. Under-achieved during this segment. Bummer. Twenty-fifth out of the water. Upon looking at my splits and those of familiar athletes in comparison, I probably under-performed by 90 seconds to two minutes. My swim-to-bike transition was semi-slow, losing 30 to 45 seconds to many in my division.
Now I’m on the bike. The oven-like heat is very apparent and if the function of the frontal lobe of my brain is indeed to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, I know I’d better make a visit there every now and then, and not forget about nutrition and pace. I also knew right away that my decision not to use a disk (I’d say about a third of the participants did) was a very good one as a pretty nasty climb welcomes you right from the get-go. It was also apparent on this first part of the ride that I had some very good bike legs, as I crushed a very large gear out of the saddle and had to be mindful of not running the other athletes over. And I will tell you; this was going to be so much more fun then the Vineman bike leg when I literally didn’t see anyone for a one-hour stretch, the result of being the first swim wave after the pros.
If there is such a thing as the Pac-Man effect, it was in FULL effect for me here in Vegas as passed athletes in droves! This bike course is my kind of course, which is one of the main reasons I put this on my calendar this year. Back-in-the-day when competing as a pro, I’d just crush the top triathletes in the world (except for my brother Scott, of course) in these dry, hot desert hills. Well, the magic was still there, as I went past (and I’m guessing) 500 or so athletes. I went hard throughout, fully knowing I could blow-up well before the bike leg was even over, but decided to just go for it. At the Vineman seven weeks prior, I had some very nasty foot issues during the run, and they could be even worse here today, so let’s have fun while we can. Lots of hills, heat, and the carnage was already becoming quite noticeable at about mile 40 as we climbed out of the open desert and back into Henderson. This is going to get nasty!
I had the third fastest bike split, less than a minute off the fastest split, and got off the bike in 5th place in my division, about 5 minutes off the leader.
Now I’m on the run. Feeling pretty smooth and focusing on my belly breathing. No cramping which is a good sign and kind of surprised me. Again, I’m doing the Pac-Man. Gosh, I love starting in one the last starting waves! Constant positive reinforcement and such a psychological boost. As I got a couple of miles into the second of three laps on the same out and back circuit, about mile 5, I moved into 4th place, so things were going nicely. Especially considering the absolute carnage taking place all around me. I can’t tell you how many faces that I saw with a look of disbelief, despair, and utter resignation as the heat and hills took their toll. It seemed pretty evident that a whole lot of folks were having their first taste of humble-pie, including some in my own division who I thought I’d had no prayer of beating.
Well at about mile nine, Mr. Desert-Devil came to punch my ticket as well. Like the Vineman, I was once again reduced to running largely on one leg as my right foot with its god-awful planter’s wart located dead-center on the big ball of my foot was feeling like there was a blow-torch flame right on it. I really did screw-up by not finding a way to alleviate that situation coming into this race…my bad. My legs were starting fall apart in every way. There was a twenty minute period there at the end where I had to literally focus on every stride, foot plant, arm swing, and three feet of road with no regard for the next. I lost gobs of time from mile 10 to mile 12, losing from two to four minutes to anyone in the top 10 and many of those behind me.
Adding insult to injury, I got passed by a guy in my division in the last 20 yards to take my top-10 spot. I finished 11th in my age division.
And finally, here are some things that I have extrapolated from my performance:
- 5th from the U.S.
- Oldest in the top 11 (which means I'm the favorite in 2014...hey, why not?).
- 3rd fastest bike split (a minute from the fastest). I believe that I can have my way with any athlete in my division on climbs.
- Beat some very notable athletes: Dan Stephens (last year basically tied for first), Ken Glah (former 2nd Overall Hawaii Ironman Pro), and a couple of guys (by a lot) who beat me at Vineman (and a few that won some pretty big IMs around the country).
- I can race in heat!!! Had no profound symptoms of dehydration, which is saying something considering the conditions.
- Gained some much needed experience racing in this context, which I'll admit was a bit overwhelming on many levels. Remember, I haven't done a damn thing on this level in 22 years! Experience counts for a lot.
AREAS NEEDING IMPROVEMENT (if possible):
- Underachieved in the swim by about 1:30. I'm probably much better with a wetsuit. Very hard for me to commit fully to 3 sports, and have not done so in the swimming...I swam 3 to 4 times per week, 1,200m per session. Looks like I'd need to do about 29minutes at Vegas to compete for a top 3 spot.
- Something god-awful is happening to my legs at about mile 9 or 10! Feels like every muscle, tendon and bone is tearing apart and breaking. Maybe I'm not particularly suited for this distance...may have to make my mark at USAT Olympic distance Nationals. We'll see. You can see on the race tracker http://ironman.com/events/ironman70.3/worldchampionship70.3?show=tracker&race=worldchampionship70.3&year=2012#axzz26E1HdxFX the huge loss of time after mile 9. Could very well be that I'm overreaching a bit on the bike, but I'd sure hate to give up my aggressive style of racing. I will say that improvements in my running seem to be harder and harder to come by...oh well, reality of age kinda sucks, but I’m going to continue working on my long running.
- Transitions really suck. Gotta put some time and thought into this area.
- Generally a bit overwhelmed by everything involved during the weekend and just getting to the line prepared and ready to go. The experience gained from this incredibly large-scale race should help me a great deal later on.
Also, I want to thank all of my triathlon training comrades from the CTC who were very much instrumental in my being prepared for this race. You all were very much with me as I competed against the best triathletes on the globe.