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.
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!
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.
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.