Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Runner's Survival Guide to the Half Ironman (do as I say, not as I do)

This race report is very after-the-fact. But will I care when I look back at this in 5 years, will I care? No.

We raced the Thomas Cook Ironman 70.3 last weekend on Mallorca. I have done maybe 10 smaller triathlons and I felt they required annoyingly complicated check-in procedures: bike checks, helmet checks, setting up your transition area hours before race start, and then waiting forever in your wetsuit. This race had 3500 participants and we must have spent a total of 5 hours waiting in lines, listening to briefings, getting our chips, checking in bikes etc. I will admit that everything was very smooth once the race got going, but I don't think I will do a triathlon that big anytime soon.

The Swim

The dreaded swim... Everyone on our team knew how worried I was about the swim. They all swam in the ocean in the mornings and would come back with stories about the enormous size of the waves and Portuguese man-o-wars. My wetsuit is in the US, but luckily I was able to borrow a suit from our club chairwoman. She is a little shorter than me and, of course, more female than me. However, the wetsuit fit really well. Actually, it fit better than my own overpriced Orca wetsuit.

I would advise runners like myself to warm up. I have done this a few times in triathlons and it really helps avoid that feeling of panic. Well, I warmed up, waited for a half hour in a corral and the start went. I kept thinking, "don't panic, don't panic". I walked in slowly, hyperventilated a little and prepared for oceanic tranquility. 10 seconds later it felt like being inside a school of eels, all nibbling at my heels and stroking my back and hair. And I panicked. I sat up, treading water, waiting for almost everyone to swim past.

In the end, it wasn't so bad. I was able to crawl the majority of it. There were a few swimmers like myself, way off the back, some breaststroking it all the way, almost as fast as I could crawl. My time was 44 minutes; I was worried about making it under the cutoff of 70 minutes. So relax, runners. There is plenty of time to get the swim done.

Coming out of the water felt very, very good. At least I had made it that far. Several clubmates were cheering me along. On the way up to the bikes, I saw someone had dropped their swim cap. They are pretty cool-looking cap with Ironman logos etc. So I grabbed it, which many spectators found very amusing.

The Bike

This is how one should dress: Baggy running shorts and a SpongeBob cycling jersey. I had nothing else along, so that's what I wore. It was a very, very wise choice. Leaving the transition zone, the stern-looking guy, who makes sure you don't clip in until after the red line, pointed at me and screamed "Bob Esponza! Bob Esponza!" I must have gotted cheers from over 200 volunteers, racers, spectators and kids otherwise bored with watching people zip by on their $10,000 tri bikes.

I suddenly fancied myself very cool. Like I was doing a half Ironman but not really caring too much about it.

I am not a particularly strong biker on the flats and I was on a rented road bike without an aero bar. So I was slow. I got passed by tons of people from later start waves. Everyone wore their numbers on the backs, so I could see the name, country and age group of everyone who passed me.

I took it easy and waited for the big climb. Ah, how I love to climb on a bike! Runners, if you are new to triathlons, you will most likely feel slow on the flats but surprisingly fast on the climbs. Being lighter than your typical triathlete is part of it, but even the weight can't explain the phenomenon. There are people from my club who are such strong bikers that I can't even hold their wheels in a pace group. Yet I am able to drop them on the climbs. Ok, so I have done countless hill repeats up Granddad bluff in La Crosse, so climbing is something I have trained, as opposed to tempoing on the flats. Anyway, after feeling like Superman up the hill, I resumed feeling like Bob Esponza for the flat second part of the route.

Runners, please realize that no-draft triathlons are all about cheating! People draft, and no one cares. One French gentleman in his 50's named Yves had absolutely no body hair, or regard for the rules. He rode the entire way less than a foot away from the next rider. Except of course when he heard a motorcycle coming up, in which case he sat up and drank a bottle, making it appear that he had just been passed. Most other people drafted a little here and there. But think about it: If 3500 people are supposed to ride 10 meters away from the next rider, that's a 35K peloton. So that's not realistic. Trains of elites on expensive aero bikes blew by, obvisously having formed little pace groups.

Interestingly, it seemed like the Challenge people during Challenge Copenhagen that the Girl did were way more strict. There, one guy got thrown out of the race for public urination - 2K before the finish of an ironman!

Anyway, runners, please know that a little cheating is expected.

The Run.

Runners, even if you didn't draft, running with triathletes will feel like you're cheating. After feeling like a novice for hours, now it's your time to shine. I was lucky to have really good legs. Sometimes, it takes a few K to warm up, but I felt like I jumped straight into a good pace. The transition zone was half a mile long, though, so walking my bike for minutes may have warmed up my running legs a little; who knows? Oh my gawd, running was fun. I ran the half marathon in 1:22, feeling super smooth the whole way. I stopped to fuel often, as I worried about bonking, but the whole race felt almost easier than a normal half marathon.

Of course, all the faster triathletes were all off the course by the time I started running. But still. Most triathletes are very tired when they get to the run. I passed people continuously, the entire time. Not a single person passed me and only one single person tried to hold on for maybe 10 seconds. So, runner, you will feel superhuman during the run, and it makes the indignity of swimming and biking well worth it.  

The Girl had an awesome race, especially considering her 100 miler the week before. My time was 5:33 and hers was 5:53. That amounts to "relative chicking" or "relative wifing" in our lingo. Usually, relative chicking happens when I am less than one minute per mile faster than her, but it doesn't translate well to triathlons. Anyway, I was relatively chicked (and simply chicked, actually, by many, many women). I was even chicked on the run, as one woman ran it in 1:18. Whatever. Like Bob Esponza even cares.

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