Category Archives: Race Reports

Ironman Muskoka 2015: Race Report

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On August 30, 2015, I was fortunate to have participated in the inaugural Ironman Muskoka, in Ontario, Canada.  It was a very challenging event in a beautiful setting.  The following is a race report.  Just like all my race reports, my goal is not to discuss the boring aspects of my own performance, but to give a useful guide to future participants in this event.  

Travel:

I live in the Chicago area.  While driving is an option from this area, my wife is pregnant and it just would be unfair to her.  I shipped my bike through Tribike Transport and we flew into the Toronto area.  Based upon the airport and traffic, it is a 2-3 hour drive to the site of the race. Canadian highways (at least those that we saw) are nicely maintained by US standards, but the signage at night is not very reflective and can be confusing.  Also, road signs indicate upcoming turns and there often is not a sign directly at the point of a turn.  Another interesting difference with US highways is the tollway, which runs charges after the fact by matching license plate numbers to credit cards.

Oh, and by the way, as a dense American it just didn’t occur to me that Canada, our good friend to the north, is a foreign country.  Therefore, I had not set up a data service for my cell phone and had to turn off roaming to save money.  This did become an issue at some points while driving, since a cell-phone map would have been really helpful.

Also, passports are required.  Make sure you obtain or update yours with a couple months to spare.

Hotel:

Deerhurst Resort

Deerhurst Resort

We decided to stay at Deerhurst Resort, which is the location of the race, including the packet pickup, swim start, transition area, and finish line.  This is very convenient, especially just before and just after the race, but VERY overpriced.  We paid prices that would be unsurprising for the Four Seasons in Chicago.  These high prices were not only for the room, but for meals at the hotel.  While much less convenient, there were plenty of other lodging options in the area and other dining options, as well.  For a quick meal, I recommend the Pita Pit.  For a nice breakfast (at half the price of the resort) I recommend Three Men and a Stove.  

We stayed in a room, at the bottom of a hill, literally 50 feet from the swim start.  The room was of decent size and clean, but certainly was not of high-end quality consummate with the price.

Our hotel did have a tiny trickle of WiFi which only appeared to work in our hotel room.  This aspect of the hotel was especially disappointing.

Packet Pickup and Expo:

The race was not very large (under 1300 registrants) and packet pickup was a breeze.  The expo was of good size and was adequate to get any last minute doodads necessary for a triathlon.

Other Pre-Race Comments:

The legendary 6x Kona Champion, Dave Scott, was at the race for the three days leading up to the event.  He led a number of free group clinics.  I participated in a group run 2 days before the race with Dave and about 20 other people.  What a thrill to be told by Dave Scott that my running form sucks (all though not in so many words)!  Seriously, he was gracious, energetic, and simply great.  He, and dozens of other current and professional triathletes, are amazing examples of why our sport is so cool.  Is there any other sport in which regular people can just go for a run with pros?

Also, there was a swim-up coffee and juice bar about 150 meters from the beach.  This was really fun the day before the race.

Bike and Gear Drop Off:

In all Ironman events, these things are handled in the day or two before the race.  This was easy, summarized in the race guide, and well-supported by volunteers.

RACE DAY

At the time of writing this race report, it has been over a week since the race, and I am feeling nervous, again, just thinking about the start of the race. Wow.

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Dropping off my special needs bag and getting marked.

 

The Swim:

 

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This swim was a beach run-in to a comfortable (69 degrees Fahrenheit), clean lake.  The start was staggered according to anticipated swim time (under 60 minutes, 60 minutes to 70 minutes, and so on) and started at about 6:45 AM, instead of the traditional 7 AM.  This led to the obvious question: “does this mean that some people get more than 17 hours to complete the Ironman?”  But the last finisher was at approximately 16:50, so this never was an issue.

 

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Mentally preparing and playing with my Garmin

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The swim course was a clockwise rectangle with the out and back portions being very long and the connecting lengths being shorter.  The finish was actually inside a cove closer to the transition area than the swim start.  So, the return leg was the longest.  The buoys were always on the right and were yellow for the first half, orange at the turns, and dark red over the second half.  Since it was cloudy and I am color-blind, it was hard to see the buoys on the return leg of the swim.  I ended up following other swimmers more than sighting on buoys.  This is reflected in my GPS data, which shows much straighter lines of travel over the first half of the swim than the last.  Anyway, I was delighted with my swim time (1:09 and change).  

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The first 100 meters of the race

Some people felt that there was a helpful current headed toward the finish once we entered the small cove at the end.  I did not notice this (since I was being run over by, primarily, female, faster swimmers), but I did notice that the water was cooler at this point.  This felt great.

At the end of the swim, there were awesome volunteers helping people out of the water (it was slippery).  Then, there were wetsuit strippers who worked in teams of two.  I love these people!

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Seaweed hanging off of me…

T1:

There is a considerable hill running up the left (from the perspective of the swim finish) side of the resort to get to the transition area.  I ran barefoot and I did not experience any sharp rocks, gravel, or other discomfort.

After reaching the top of the hill, race participants enter the hotel, run along a nice carpeted hallway, and enter his and her changing areas.  Volunteers help participants to find their seats (on and under which both the bike and run gear bags are stored), organize their gear, and then stuff and close the gear bags.  Essentially, my volunteer did everything for me but put on my helmet, sunglasses, socks, and shoes.

Participants then run back down the carpeted hallway and out to the bike racks. On the way to the bikes, I stopped at the sunscreen station, at which my wife was volunteering, and got a really healthy layer of sunscreen.  I then got my bike off the rack and headed into hilly hell…

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About to get sunscreen blitzed.

The Bike:

This course is challenging and technical.  The total elevation gain is 2252 meters.  The course is a clockwise loop, completed twice, around an area of lakes.  To reach the loop, athletes ride about 5 miles from the transition area.  Even from the very start, there are hills and these become increasingly challenging up to about a third of the way through the loop.  I was constantly shifting gears and, truly, used every single gear on my bike.  I also dropped the chain once. The middle third of the loop is fast and feels like a net downhill.  Finally, the last third of the loop contains the two hardest hills of the loop.  These are painful the first time around and agonizing the second. After completing the two loops, participants return along the same 5 mile connecting “tail” from the beginning of the bike course.  This area was very surprisingly difficult at this point in the race.  Did they regrade the roads in the 6+ hours I was out there?

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The bike course was simply beautiful.  It looks a lot like western Washington State, but without the mountains and with maples instead of alder and birch.  We rode along lovely lakes at several points and through a couple of cheering crowds.  Most of the ride was along residential roads, but there was some very smooth-feeling highway riding (with generally decent shoulders) in the second fifth or so of the loop.  Traffic was generally quite light and usually, but not entirely, respectful of race participants.  

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I have raced Ironman Wisconsin, which has a total elevation gain similar to Ironman Muskoka.  I have also done the Horribly Hilly Hundreds in southwest Wisconsin, which is much more difficult than Muskoka.  Other famously hilly races I have done include Branson 70.3 and St. Croix 70.3, with its legendary “Beast.”  But I had a bike crash last year which led to surgery on a clavicle.  I also have had problems with muscle cramping on the bike.  So my approach to this bike course was pretty cautious.  Some of the downhills were just screaming fast and, yes, I chickened out and braked.  The wind also picked up over the second half of the bike and this led me to be further concerned about excess speed on downhills, since a crosswind could lead me to lose control.  This cost me in time, but my goal was to be able to finish the race, not break records.

My plan was to keep my power around 70% of my functional threshold power for the entire ride and I was passed quite often by other people powering up hills.  Oh, to be fast!  But I stuck to my plan, drank, ate, consumed salt, and conserved energy so that I would not be crushed by the run.  I finished in about 6:25 or so, which was about 10-15 minutes slower than expected.

T2:

When I dismounted off of my bike, a volunteer took my bike to rack it for me.  I then took off my cycling shoes and ran inside of the resort, again, to the changing rooms.  Once more, volunteers were present to really speed along the transition process.

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Running from the T2 changing room. A blur!

The Run:

Okay, the bike was tough, so race organizers are going to even things out with a flat run, right? Very wrong!  The run course has a total gain of elevation of 608 meters and, by my count, 46 hills of various sizes.  That’s right, more than one hill per kilometer. Some of these hills are very steep.

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The run course is an double out and back in which participants essentially travel from Deerhurst Resort to the Village of Huntsville (which is very quaint and cute), through and beyond the downtown area, then back to Deerhurst.  There is almost no tree cover at all and it did get a little warm and sunny at points (I think it reached 76 degrees).  The aid stations were, in a word, AWESOME.  Participants essentially have access to 24 aid stations during the race.  

I am at about 7:38 of this video, above. 

Another aspect of this race that I enjoyed was the metric system.  A marathon is 42.2 kilometers.  That means that there are a lot more markers of progress than in American races!

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Embracing the suck

There are a lot of good runners who participate in triathlons and I am not one of them.  For some reason, my running performance has declined a lot over the last year.  Knowing this, I had been conservative on the bike and just planned to keep an even, easy pace during the run.  At no time was my heart rate going to get over zone 2.  I was careful to drink and eat and even took salt tablets during the run.  I continually ran, except walking through aid stations, for the first 8 miles, until I started to feel horrible.  I drank and ate extra and just slowed down until I started to feel better.  Then I ran-walked (more like walked-stumbled) the rest of the way.  Just after the halfway point, a guy to whom I was speaking before the swim start, Tom, tapped me on the shoulder and we shared the misery for the rest of the race.  Finally, another guy, Marcio, joined our slog for the last 10K.  These guys made it immeasurably more fun to get through the run.  My marathon performance simply stunk.  I was hoping for 4:45 and I achieved 6:02.  But I finished. This was an amazing feeling.  

Final Thoughts:

By any standards, this was a tough race.  There were 1298 registered participants and only 1056 finishers.  I think I had excellent training and a good approach, but my body just wasn’t able to respond as I had hoped.  But I have been through a lot over this last year.  18 months ago I had the bike crash, in an iron-distance race, that led to surgical reconstruction of my clavicle and recovery.  Then, almost exactly a year ago, in another iron-distance race, I passed out from heat stroke at mile 16 of the run.  So just finishing safe and well was a “win” for me.

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REALLY happy to be done!

I have not spent nearly enough time mentioning the volunteers for this race.  These volunteers were simply the best volunteers I have encountered in ANY race, of any kind, in my 10+ year “career” as an amateur athlete.  There was uniform enthusiasm, energy, patience, and kindness throughout every aspect of the race from check-in before the race to check-out that night.  

Thank you, volunteers!  Thank you, Muskoka!  Thank you, Ironman!

Most of all, thank you, Jessica, my wife, for putting up with me on this journey.  I love you.

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Race Report: Ironman 70.3 Racine – 2015

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On Sunday, July 19, 2015, I participated in the Racine 70.3.  This was the 11th race I have completed at this distance and the second time I have done Racine.  Like many other “Ironman 70.3”- brand races, it was run with a lot of professionalism.  The following is my race report. Like all race reports I do, I am not interested in promoting my athletic abilities (or lack thereof), but, rather, to provide information that will be helpful for you, as a future participant, as you plan your race.

Pre-race

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Packet pickup was at the Racine Civic Center, which is just about a mile south of the transition and finish line areas for the race.  Packets were available on Friday afternoon and early evening and also on Saturday, at the odd time range of 9 AM to 4 PM. There is a mandatory drop-off of bikes at the transition area from noon to 5 PM on Saturday.  This means that those people who may have to work on Saturday morning are left with a potentially awkward 3 hour gap between mandatory check-in/packet pick up and mandatory bike drop-off.  However, I spoke with an athlete Sunday morning who was in just that situation.  She informed me that she asked for help from the race director. He took her bike from her on Saturday at 9 AM, brought it to the transition area, then texted her a photograph of her bike safely on the rack.  Great service!

I had some commitments on Saturday morning, so my wife, Jessica, and I arrived at the Civic Center at about 2 PM.  There is 2 dollar pay parking directly across the street.  Then there was a long line.  It took about 40 minutes to get everything  I think people after me waited even longer.  But there were over 2000 participants in the race and the Civic Center is not a huge building.  Race volunteers seemed to be on the ball.  I just don’t see how the line could have gone much faster in that structure.

The drive to the transition area took about 5 minutes, including parking.  I just walked my bike down a steep hill, racked it up, fidgeted with it to let it know I care, then left for home.  As I was dropping off the bike, there were tornado sirens.  Uh oh.  But it was still sunny.  By the time we had driven about 20 minutes, there was a torrential downpour and high winds.  I was certain that my bike, and 2000 others, would be blown off the racks and damaged (but this, fortunately, was not the case).

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Race Day

Transition opened on Sunday at 5 AM and closed at 6:30.  The race start was at 7 AM (my wave was at about 7:25) and it is about a mile walk from transition.  I like to get to races early, so I awoke at 3 AM and drove up from my house in Illinois, to park near transition at about 5:10. This is relevant because almost all of the parking for the race is on local side streets.  Later arrival times quickly translate into much longer walks before and after the race.  I was able to park about a block and a half away from transition.

When I got to transition, my bike was sitting on the rack exactly how I had left it.  I proceeded to get my area set up.  Then I gave my tires a squeeze.  The rear tire was very soft.  Oh no!  I borrowed a pump and inflated it.  This was at about 5:55 AM.  I then had to make a decision about replacing the inner tube or just hoping that temperature fluctuations and, perhaps, an unnoticed error with screwing down the valve the previous day was the reason for the soft tire. I decided that the inner tube was probably okay.  For the next 30 minutes, I was the idiot who kept squeezing his rear tire.  I never completely stopped worrying about this until nearly finishing the bike leg, but the tire remained inflated.

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The transition area was a large rectangle with clearly-marked ranges of numbers at both ends of each row of racks.  It was an easy transition area to navigate.  A clever guy near me laid a strip of orange tape on the ground leading, perpendicularly, up to his area.  I wish I had thought of that.

Here is a photo of the pros setting up:

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I walked unhurriedly to the race start and milled around with everybody else.  The water temperature was 60.6 degrees Fahrenheit (cold, not frigid), but the air temperature was about 78.  So I stepped out into the water, in my wetsuit, trying to find the right depth to balance the ambient air temperature and the water temperature.  For me, this depth was just over my waist.

This race is really groovy in that there is a decent pro purse ($50,000, I think).  Consequently, a lot of the world’s best male and female pros show up to race.  I love watching pro starts and this race was no exception. The pro men started at 7 AM and the pro women (along with a, trailing, challenged athlete) started next.

The Swim

The last time I did this race, the start was a run-in from the beach.  But, because of large-ish pebbles, the race organizers changed the start to waist-deep water.  This was true for both the pros and the amateurs.

The race course was exceedingly simple: swim eastward for a couple hundred meters, hook a right to swim southward along the Lake Michigan shoreline, then turn right again to swim another 150-200 meters westward to the finish gate.  Two years ago, the waves were so difficult that I had to alter my stroke and some people reported vomiting during the swim.  There were waves, again, this year, but not very challenging at all.

I followed my usual routine of swimming harder-than-race-pace until the first turn, then settling in.  Usually I look for a good draft but today I couldn’t find any that I liked. As it turns out, I couldn’t find a draft, perhaps, because I was having an exceptional swim (for me).  Two years ago, I had a brilliant swim (for me) at 38 minutes and change.  On this day, I finished in 33 minutes and three seconds.  Crazy fast, for me.

T1

There is a long run-in from the beach to the corner of the transition area, then an additional run all the way from the south end of transition to the north end.  However, there were also wetsuit strippers, which makes up for almost anything.  I gave mine a big “thank you” and headed to my bike.  The tire was still inflated, so I was able to relax a little as I got the bike gear and headed out.

The Bike

The bike course starts with a steep hill right out of transition.  This is no problem with correct gearing.  But there was someone next to me who walked his bike uphill.  The rest of the bike course consisted of some easy rolling hills but, mostly, a flat course as we headed out of Racine and into rural Wisconsin.

In spite of the topographical apparent easiness of this course, I found it challenging two years ago and, again, in this race.  This is because there are extended sections of road that are just uncomfortable.  For example, a lot of the pavement in Racine, itself, was fairly chewed-up.  I understand that race organizers put “a ton” of fill in many of the gaps, and the orange warning markings were truly superb, but it was still rough.  Then there are areas of single-file in which I typically sit up to stay safe.  Unfortunately, other people choose to pass in these areas, leading me to be even more self-protective.  I had a bad crash last year, and I have five kids, so maybe I am more nervous on the bike than most people.

There were two or three course marshalls cruising around the course.  I am sure that it is really challenging to be a course marshall, but drafting was really rampant.  There was one funny wheel sucker in particular.  This was a tall guy in a fancy “I’m a cyclist” kit on a road bike.  He was drafting off of a much smaller woman who was on a tri bike.  He was truly inches from her rear wheel for as long as I could see him.  Clearly not a Sufferlandrian…

The volunteers at the three aid stations were fantastic.  This, by the way, was uniformly true for every volunteer with whom I interacted from start to finish at this race.  The hand-offs of fluids and other goodies were smooth and easy and I shouted “thank you” over and over.

Anyway, aside from having a decent ride, my goal was to set myself up well for the run by carefully taking in fluids, electrolytes, and calories and NOT cramping.  I achieved all of these goals, but was not quite as fast as I had hoped.

T2

The bike ride ended going down the same steep hill with which it began.  After dismounting, I ran in with my bike, changed gear, took a deep breath, and ran out.  This was a very sunny day and there was a line of volunteers by the exit with sunscreen for race participants.

The Run

The run consists of a double out-and-back running along the shoreline north of the transition area and finish line.  On the run out, there are two significant hills (these are essentially access paths for beachgoers to get to and from the beach).  A photographer (apparently every year) camps out near the top of the steeper hill and gently mocks panting competitors.  Troll! But the rest of the course is pretty flat.  Much of the course has pretty vistas over Lake Michigan.  The inbound course does not go up and down the beach access paths, but, instead, goes through the Racine Zoo.  I looked and did not see any animals, but I think the race course only touched upon the periphery of the Zoo.

There were aid stations every mile and a half.  Each and every station was well-supplied and well “manned” with volunteers.  Choices included water, sports drink, cola, pretzels, sponges, ice, and energy gels.  There may have been other stuff that I have forgotten.

I am not a very good runner and when conditions are difficult, such as they were at this race, this is accentuated.  The temperature was in the low 80s and it was very humid.  This doesn’t sound so bad, except that Chicagoland has been very cool this summer.  So the weather felt much hotter.  Also, there is almost no shade on the run course.  Whine whine whine…

I drank a lot, put cold sponges down my front and back, dumped ice down my front and back, and ran with an ice cube in each hand.  I also consumed several gels and salt tablets. But mostly, I just kept going.  I really did try to run faster and I simply could not.  There were a lot of other athletes out there, including Team USA members and pros, who appeared to be struggling, as well.  But there were other people who just flew, including a really big guy who had tiny feet that just barely touched the ground as he cruised. Humbling.

The Finish

Naturally, I mentally prepared myself that the finish line was just beyond the turn-around point. The loudspeakers at this point were loud and clear.  But, sadly and painfully, the actual finish was about a tenth of a mile farther along.  Not much? Well, it felt like a lot.

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I finally heaved myself over the finish line and my cute pregnant wife was waiting for me.  This finish line area was relatively uncrowded for a big race.  I got a hat, a medal, and a bottled water.  The food tent, which was very well staffed by volunteers, was just a short walk away. I got some food, sat down next to Jessica for a few minutes to recover, then got my gear and headed home.

My finish time was considerably slower than I had hoped (about 5:47), but I had given all I had that day.

This is a really nice, very well run “Ironman 70.3” – brand race.  I am sure I will do it again.

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The Bigfoot Triathlon, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

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On June 28, 2015, I participated in the Bigfoot Triathlon in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  This event was produced by RAM Racing.  I have participated in a number of their events over the years and have been uniformly impressed.  This race was no exception.

The race has both sprint and international-distance options.  I chose the international distance. Packet pickup was in Deerfield, IL on the Friday before the race and at the race site the next day. This is one of the only races I have ever done that does not have a free t-shirt.  On the other hand, however, the race swag included a superb transition bag.

The race start-time was 7 AM.  Transition closed at 6:30 AM and opened, I think, at 5:15 AM.  I arrived at the site at about 5:35 AM.  I, very wisely, paid the extra 5 dollars for a parking pass in the park when I registered for the race.  The free parking option was, I believe, about a mile and a half away.

I took this photograph from my car as I was waiting in line to enter the parking area.  That is one of the swim buoys to the right.  This is same road used for the staging area for the swim start and for the start and finish of the bike.

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After parking and getting body-marked, I reached my rack in transition at about 5:55 AM.  So, it took a while.  I said “hi” to my neighbors, set up my gear, and then had a few minutes for a warm-up run.  I got back just as transition closed (yes, they hold strictly to 6:30) and then walked to the beach area.

There was an opportunity here to get in the water.  However, I learned that the sprint racers were going first and it was a cool morning (low 60s).  I have shivered before other races and I did not enjoy the experience.

The entire starting area was on a road that ran by the beach, which is narrow. There really was no place to sit so everyone just stood and watched the earlier waves compete.  The first wave was off at just about 7.  I was in the 15th out of 17 waves.  So, I didn’t start until about 7:55.  This meant standing for about an hour and a half.  This is not ideal, but everyone else had exactly the same conditions.

The swim was a simple out and back along the shoreline of Lake Geneva.  For the international distance, there was a slight dogleg to the left about 40% into the course.  The swim was clockwise around this course, so the way back was closer to the shore.  In areas it was quite shallow and people could, and did, walk rather than swim in these areas.

My wave had about 40 guys and the starting chute was pretty narrow.  So I was expecting a lot of physical contact once the swim began.  However, there was very little. I had planned to go pretty hard and I was fortunate to find good drafts for much of the swim. When I draft, I usually do not sight quite as often as I otherwise would.  This led to me following another triathlete into oncoming swimmers as we missed the left-dogleg.  It is frightening to suddenly see people swimming in your direction!  I finished in 27 minutes and change, which was not quite as good as I had hoped, but not bad for me.

T1 involves a lengthy run up the street that leads back into the park.  This was not a particularly good performance for me, largely because it took extra time to remove my wetsuit.  This race used a disposable timing chip.  This chip was about twice the size of many other timing chips I have used and it really hung me up.  Practice!

This photo was from the start of the bike.  Notice the swim course, and swimmers, in the background.

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The bike course was truly one of the most lovely bike courses I have ever raced.  There were rolling hills (out-of-saddle optional) and flats with a little wind.  The pavement was in great shape and the course was well-marked.  Also, over the last quarter or so of the course, there was a slight downhill and I often felt like I was flying.

I had planned to go pretty hard on the bike, with an intensity factor (IF) of about 0.9 (90% of threshold power).  I felt like I was really working, but my IF ended up at 0.82.  My average speed was also less than expected, at 21.2 mph.  I think I was still fatigued from the half-iron race I did two weeks prior.  Also, I developed a bad cold later that day (and a fever the next day), so I may have been in the early stages of an illness, affecting performance.

T2 was pretty uneventful.  I racked the bike, changed shoes and hats, and ran out.

The run was unique.  Unlike every other triathlon I have done, which have run-legs on streets, paved park paths, or packed-gravel paths, this run was on grass and dirt.  I have only done one cross-country race (as an adult a few years ago), and this run was very similar.  To be more specific, it involved two loops on soft and boggy (damp from the previous night) grass, dirt trails, and a very tiny paved area as the course essentially passed over a road.  There were a number of challenging hills, especially toward the beginning of the loops, and one very-steep downhill. There were protruding roots as well, but I never seriously worried about tripping.  But the course was energy-sapping and I ended up going much, much slower (9:07/mile) than expected. I felt like I had the fitness to go faster, but I was limited by burning quads.

If this race is your “A” race for the season, your best bet for a good result is to practice for the run!

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I ended up finishing two seconds behind the 12th place guy in my age group, to place me 13th out of 44.  While this was not the placement I had expected, I was really happy with my consistent hard effort and pacing.

After finishing, the race volunteers handed out bags of pre-organized food, which included pretzels, a banana, a cereal bar, soy milk, and other items.  There also was an enormous finishing medal with spinning swim, bike, and run icons.  Cool.

This is the transition area after the race.

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The Bigfoot Triathlon is a well-run race on a beautiful, challenging course.  I plan to return.

Grand Rapids Triathlon, Half-Iron Course, 2015

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On June 14, 2015, I participated in the Grand Rapids Triathlon, half-iron distance.  This was not a good performance for me, but the purpose of this article is to provide helpful information to future race participants.  I will intersperse, in this report, some comments about my own performance, especially as these comments may help someone else plan their race more effectively.

This was my first race in the rain.  Not drizzle: a downpour so strong that I could not drive within 10 miles-an-hour of the speed limit on the highway as I headed to the race.  Normally, I would share a bunch of photographs of the race, but I was concerned that my phone, even in a protective plastic bag, would be damaged.  So, I apologize about the lack of visuals.

The race start for the half distance, the first race to start, was at 7 AM (7:05 for my wave). Transition opened at 5:15.  I arrived in the area around 5:40 AM.  Parking is very difficult for this race.  I was fortunate to find a public parking space within walking distance of the transition area.  I was nice and dry, steeled myself, opened my car door, and started the rest of my day!

For those people who had a ride to the race, or who showed up later, there was a bike/gear drop-off zone at about a 10 minute walk from the transition area.  Traffic was quite congested in this area (I walked through it).  The idea is to use the drop-off, then park in another area.  A shuttle trolley would then bring the participants (and spectators who arrived later) to a point that was about a 5-10 minute walk away from the transition area.  This concept appears like a lot of wasted time to me, but I learned later that the trolley service ran very smoothly all day.

After about a 15 minute walk to the transition area, I tried to get body-marked.  This is one of the really rare situations in which self-marking, or marking the day before, would have been better.  The body marking volunteers really tried, but the ink would not stay on anybody.  Oh well.

The transition area was quite long and narrow.  I believe it was simply set up in the middle of a street, not a parking lot (like many transition areas).  There was a nice soft carpet running up the middle. But for only about 500 participants it sure was a long, congested run through transition.  For those people who have raced Steelhead in the last couple years, imagine a smaller version of that transition area.

It was still raining by the time transition closed.  I walked over to the corral area for the swim start.  The swim was in a river that was very slow-moving, more of an estuary in feel than a river.  The course went counter-clockwise around a dogleg to the right.  The vast majority of the distance was in the out and back, with only a small stretch of crossing the river to come back on the other side.

The half-iron distance race had only three waves and my wave was quite large, perhaps 100 guys. This led to a fairly physical start of the race, but also to a lot of drafting opportunities. Honestly, I was so happy to be in the water and underway, that the start was not a big deal to me.  I tried to find a comfortably hard pace and got quite a few good drafts.  The swim course did feel a little short.  I got out at just under 34 minutes, which is really good for me. There was a volunteer knee-deep in the water at the end of the swim course helping people out. Thanks!

On the way to transition, there were also wetsuit strippers.  Nice!

As I mentioned, above, the transition area was long and narrow.  I got my bike and trotted to the mounting line.

Before the race, I had put a chocolate Powerbar, unwrapped, in my bento box on my bike.  My salt tablets were in a plastic bag under this.  I had planned to eat the Powerbar during the first hour of the bike and periodically take salt tablets.  Unfortunately, with the rain, the Powerbar became guey and made negotiating the salt tablets impossible while riding.  So, after about a minute of riding, I stopped for a few moments to start to eat the Power-goo and dump the salt tablets into the bento box.  Ugh.

The bike course was a simple out and back with very few turns.  The rain, at this point, was an intermittent drizzle, but parts of the bike course were covered in shallow puddles.  Even with avoiding the puddles, my wheels were wet continually and I had to be extra careful with braking and cornering.  Most of the road surface was really good, with a few areas of lightly chewed-up pavement.  The course was mostly flat with some undulating hills.  There was no point at which I had to get out of the saddle, but I did sometimes just to change muscle groups and stretch.

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As a cyclist, I have always been a masher, with a cadence of about 75-80.  I also often get hip adductor cramps about 30-40 miles into hilly bike rides.  Therefore, my coach wisely suggested that I race at a higher cadence in an easier gear, but still try to maintain power at about 80% of my FTP.  Well, I succeeded in the higher cadence, averaging 93 for the entire bike course.  But my power numbers stunk.  My average was about 70% of FTP and showed a decline throughout the bike leg.

What happened?  Well, I got very little sleep the night before for a variety of reasons that were out of my control, including a break-down in the air conditioning system in the house we were renting.  Also, I had a hard time steering the bike and it was, consequently, hard to control the bike while taking nutrition.  I learned after the race that my bike’s headset needed repair and was sticking at 12 O’clock.  Yikes!  Finally, my lower left buttock/upper left hamstring became extremely sore during the bike leg, possibly because of the high cadence I maintained (for the first time ever at a distance like this).  Whatever the reason, I underperformed dramatically.  My average speed was just under 20 miles per hour: very slow for me.

When I pulled into transition, I still felt okay.  I was hoping to finish this race in under 5:30 and this was still possible with a good run.  My run training has been really good this year, so I was quite optimistic.  I got my shoes on, ran out onto the run course, and my legs just would not respond.  My plan, as is typical for me, was to run more easily for 5 minutes, then pick it up.  But my legs felt like lead and only felt worse, not better, as the run continued.  I ended up walking a lot.  This was extremely disappointing to me and my finish time was very far off of my goal.

The run course, itself, was essentially a double out and back that passed through nicely wooded neighborhoods.  The course for the half-iron distance was generally flat with some gentle hills, except for one short area in which there was a steep walk-up hill that had to be covered twice per circuit (up and over the hill, turnaround at a timing mat, then up and over the same hill). The international-distance course did not include this little geographical feature.

It was great to finish in spite of my performance.  In this race, family members can run across the finish line with athletes.  Here are some photos of the end of the race.  I was physically feeling terrible, but seeing my family made me so happy!

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In the finish area, there was a good supply of food and beverages, including the #1 post-race food: pizza.  The rain had started to strengthen again at this point in the day, so I ate very quickly and tried to get my family back to shelter.

This report would be incomplete without a mention of the race organizers and volunteers.  This race was smoothly run by pleasant people.  Packet pickup was easy.  The course was well-marked and simple to follow.  But most importantly, volunteers stuck it out for hours and hours in the rain to support the race.  The temperature was cool (68 degrees Fahrenheit) for people standing in the rain.  In spite of these conditions, the volunteers were cheering, smiling, and generally beautifully supporting this race.

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I would recommend this triathlon, or its shorter sprint and international-distance companion races, to anyone interested in a friendly, well-run, mid-sized race.

30th Annual Tower Triathlon, Niles, Illinois

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The Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles, Illinois held its 30th Annual Tower Triathlon on May 17, 2015. It was a small, well-run, sprint triathlon that I would do again.

Before the Race:

After having nightmares all night about being late to the start of an Ironman triathlon, I awoke at 4 AM.  I ate some oatmeal and a banana along with a lot of water.  I avoided coffee because of my episode of tachyarrhythmia two weeks ago in a half-marathon. Soon thereafter, I headed out the door.

There was a traffic incident with a developing emergency response on the highway close to my exit, but I was able to take an alternate route and arrived at the race site around 5:45 AM.  I parked right across the street from the transition area, unpacked my bike and gear, and walked to the registration table.  It was easy and quick to get my race materials and body marking.

The racks were not marked in any way.  This normally would bother me a lot, but the small number of participants in the race assured that there was plenty of space without crowding or inconvenience.  As is my preference, I racked my bike close to the bike out/bike in gate, next to a point where two racks came together.  This gave a little extra room to tuck away my transition bag after I was set up.

Here is a view of the transition area with the Leaning Tower in the background.  Yes, it is real.

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I have a NEW Garmin Vector power meter (love it) and took five minutes to calibrate it along with finding the GPS satellites.  I put my bike in the correct gear, arranged my helmet, shoes, race bib, etc. until everything was set.

There were only three lonely port-a-potties by the transition area.  This is terrifying to me! However, it turns out that athletes had access to an indoor bathroom (in a locker room), as well, so there was never a potty line.  Nice!  I’m one of those people who really cannot use bathroom facilities too much before an event.

I got familiar with the small transition area, then walked over to the swimming pools.  This race is unique in that it is set up as an indoor swim followed by outdoor cycling and running.  The ambient air in the pool area inside the Y was very warm and the pool that was to be used by the men (the 25 yard pool) felt like warm bathwater to me.  Uh oh!

It was then about 6:30 AM (transition was to close at 6:45 AM), so I returned outside to run a short warm-up.  Since I was concerned about overheating before and during the swim, I decided to cut my warm-up run a little short: 11 minutes as opposed to 15 minutes.  But I got a good sense for the pancake-flat run course. This gave me something to visualize as I did the swim and bike.

The Swim:

I was very impressed with the organization of the swim, which started only a minute late at 7:01.  The men, as previously mentioned, had the 25 yard pool, whereas the women had the 25 meter pool. The way this worked was that the first participants crossed a timing mat, which was on the deck of the pool, before entering the pool.  Two people shared each lane.  As each participant finished his or her allotted laps (18 for men, 16 for women), a volunteer would put a marker board into the water with one hand while raising the other arm in the air.  This would identify the lane that the next participant would occupy once the swimmer saw the marker and got out of the lane.  This was a very smooth system.

When it was my turn, I tried to start with a challenging pace for 25-50 yards, until settling to a moderate-hard pace.  I was worried about overheating in the water and being “cooked” for the rest of the race.  I finished in 7:48:05, which put me 33rd out of 178 participants and 3rd out of 14 in my age group.  Not bad for me, but not quite up to my capabilities.  But an all-out effort did not seem to be the best strategy here.

T1:

After getting out of the water, there is a relatively long run around two sides of the building, over pavement, grass, and some dirt, to get to the transition area.  Wetsuits were not allowed and I would not have worn one anyway, so the focus was just to throw on bike gear and go.  I decided before the race to not attempt a flying mount (poor coordination and a turn coming right out of transition) so I ran about 30 feet in my bike shoes, mounted, and rode away. My transition time was a humble 2:10:00.

The Bike:

There were some changes, because of construction, to the bike course.  Apparently it is normally 5 loops, but was now 6 loops.  The bike course was under 10 miles in distance and included 6 turns.  It was completely flat and ran through a light industrial area that included such factories as Affy Tapple.  There was an approximately 15 mile an hour wind, as well.

My plan was to go hard.  I was expecting to rest a little with each turn and that is exactly what happened.  I averaged 229 watts (95% of threshold) and 22.9 mph (29:17:45 total time), for 11th out of 178 overall and 3rd out of 14 in my age group.  This is not bad and, because the bike course was really more like hard intervals with short rests than a continuous effort, and because I have been training effectively, my legs were not wasted for the run.

T2:

I was so sweaty that the bike slipped out of my hand before it was safely racked.  Fortunately, nothing was broken and my neighbors’ items were undisturbed.  I quickly pulled on my shoes, replaced my helmet with my hat, grabbed my number belt, and ran out. 1:12:40 total time.

The Run:

The run is usually my weakest leg and, relative to others’ performances, this remained true for me in this race.  However, I felt good.  I kept my pace in check for the first 3-5 minutes, then tried to maintain a hard pace for the middle part of this 5K course.  There was a water station at about the 45%/55% point (this was an out and back course) and the water was cold!  I was sweating like nuts at this point and the cold water was awesome.

Over the last ¾ mile, I tried to push the pace progressively faster.  This was really hard and really fun.  I finished in 22:46:95 for a 7:21 minutes/mile pace (33rd overall, 7th in my age group).  My GPS recorded that the course was actually 3.01 miles and that my pace was therefore 7:35.  In either case, this was a good performance for me.

The Finish:

At the finish line, the volunteers gave out nice, solid medals.  Total time: 1:03:14:85, 17th out of 178 overall, 5th out of 14 in my age group.  Not my best performance, but a solid start to the triathlon season.

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Maybe I am getting old and grumpy about food, but my single solitary gripe about this race was the post-race nutrition.  There was bottled water and sports drink, along with bananas cut in half.  That’s it.  I had hoped for bagels (yes, I love bagels) and other choices for recovery.

Summary:

This is a nice, small, well-run, early season Chicago-area race.  I would certainly do it again.  Also, I should add that race results were available online later on the day of the race.  Nicely done, Tower YMCA!

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Borgess Kalamazoo Half-Marathon

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The Borgess Kalamazoo Half-Marathon was held on May 3rd, 2015 in, predictably, Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Here is my race report.

Pre-race:

Before the race, the organizers did a good job of sending, through email, useful information to participants.  Since I drove in from the Chicago area, daily updates about traffic and construction were especially helpful. Unfortunately, the instructions were more cute than clear and we ended up adding 30 minutes to our ride.

The race expo was scheduled from 11 AM to 6 PM.  We arrived around 5:15 and about 3/4 of the small expo’s vendors had already packed up and left.

Race Morning:

I stayed at the main hotel for the race, the Radisson.  The hotel had a generous supply of grab bags of food and fluids for participants.  They also provided a bus service to the race start.

This billboard, photographed in the early hours of the morning, greeted runners as we were close to the finish of the race:

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The race starting area was well laid-out.  Of paramount importance, there were very ample port-a-potties.

The Race:

The photo below was taken about 10 minutes before the start, which was on-time.  Most runners looked pretty relaxed.

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I really liked the course, but it was more difficult than expected.  One of the aspects of the course I appreciated immediately was the wide road down which we ran for the first few miles. This reduced the temptation to weave in and out of other runners to maintain a goal pace.

This photograph was taken by Jessica, my wife, at mile 3.5 or so.  Why is that idiot smiling?

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Most of the course was on roads and the course was downhill to flat over most of the first half of the race.  Later in the race, there were a bunch of difficult hills.  Yes, I am from the Chicago area and any hill looks large to me, but there were two or three hills that led a large number of people around me to walk, not run.  The most challenging part of the course was over the last three miles when it wound up and down hills, some quite steep, on a paved path through a beautiful wooded area.  The final half mile was back on the original wide street and it was amenable to a nice sprint to the finish.

Volunteer support was excellent.  Water/aid stations were well staffed and the volunteers were energetic.  There were eight of these stations along the route.  I think that this would have been adequate for someone who was not carrying fluids, but I was carrying my own water and only took two or three cups of water from volunteers.

The route was well-marked without any crazy turns.  However, mile markers, until the last 3-4 miles, were few and far-between.  Maybe I just didn’t notice them, but I doubt it.

The Finish:

The announcer did a good job of naming people as they finished.  The volunteer who approached me after I finished could tell that I was not feeling well.  He was appropriately helpful and gave me a bottle of Gatorade.

The Race, however, did not have a food area immediately beyond the finishing chute.  This was a surprise to me.  Instead, I had to walk to the other end of the “tent city” area and wait ten minutes in a line for food.  About 70% of people in line were not participants in the race.  There was also an $8 charge for this food.  The food, itself, was excellent and was anchored by fabulous dry-rub barbecue boneless chicken.  But, with the price of registration, quick food, like bananas, bagels, pretzels, oranges, and cookies should be automatic and easily accessible.

*Jenn Davis, who also participated in the Half-Marathon, contacted me to inform me that there was a table of food immediately after the finish line.  I must have missed it.  Thanks, Jenn!

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My Performance:

This is the least important part of this article.  My intention, really, with this article, is to provide a helpful review for future participants and I only include my performance for people who are interested.

I have an excellent coach in Jennifer Harrison.  My goal race this year is Ironman Muskoka in August.  This half-marathon was really just intended as a test of my progress and practice for my triathlon season.  However, I really wanted to perform well.  I am not an especially talented runner.  My fastest half-marathon was a couple years ago and was about 1:44.  My training with Jennifer has been excellent so I was hoping to break this PR.  She gave me some long runs over the past six weeks and even tapered me into this week.  She also reviewed the race plan with me, including nutrition, warm-up, and pacing.  I was ready.

My plan was to run between an 8:00 and 8:15 pace for the first 10K, then dig deep and push as best as I could.  I did a lot of things well, many of which I learned in the course of writing this blog:

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  • My wife allowed me to turn on bright lights immediately after I awakened in the morning since this has been shown to enhance exercise performance.
  • I made every effort to run a straight line throughout the race, since it is easy to add a LOT of distance by weaving between other runners or otherwise not running the most efficient distance.
  • I ignored the many people who surged past me at the beginning.  This runs counter to my nature!

Well, I finished the first 10K at an 8:10 pace, according to my Garmin.  Unfortunately, I was having some GI distress starting at about the 4.5-5 mile point.  This is an issue for me at many races and is just miserable.

At 10K, I tried to surge to about a 7:50 pace, hoping to hold this for most of the remaining race. Sadly, I was only able to hold this pace for about a half a mile before my belly was just agonizing.  So, I slowed down.  I followed my nutrition plan for the most part and tried to accelerate a few more times, but it just wasn’t there.  The hills at the end extinguished any hope for a big push over the final 5K.

I finished in 1:52:04 for an 8:32 per mile pace.  This placed me 35th out of 117 in my age group, 45-49.

In summary, the Borgess Half-Marathon is a nice race that I would do again.  With a few small changes, it could be an even better experience. With luck and a new set of legs, I could run it faster.