Ironman 70.3 Augusta Race Report & 2015 Tri Season Recap

In general, there are no “bad” days when you are racing. To have the opportunity to behave like a boy for a prolonged period of time, without a care in the world (other than “get to the finish line”), is a magical thing. Sure, there are days when you could have performed better, got hurt, or even had a DNF. Those suck; they aren’t bad. You’re still racing.

For anyone looking to race in Augusta, here’s the stuff you will care about:

  • The current in the river is real, and it’s fantastic. I got my pre-race information from this site for the Savannah River flow rates. Overall, with a point to point swim you can loaf it in the water and still be fine. I think there was a minute and half between 25th place and 89th in M40-44, and 89th was 26:51 (me), and normally I am 31-34 minute swimmer (depending on conditions). I was holding back…more on that later.
  • The bike course doesn’t feel as flat as the profile. It *felt* like there was more up and down than the 1K feet vertical. The wind on the bike course seemed to be moving around, and felt like the was a consistent head or side wind. For the most part, the pavement is serviceable. I don’t recall any “whoa!!” moments with potholes or anything like that.
  • I am not sure that there is a term “absolute flat” (as in absolute zero, #nerdreference) but this run course is that. It also belies a bit of logic in that it never seems to cross itself, but there are multiple double backs. There are many spots with double-backs, so there were loads of viewing opps if you have kids.
  • Staying out at the hotels near the Jameson Inn is totally fine if you have a rental car. Side bonus, Waffle House around the corner.
  • The morning of the race, park at the garage across from the host hotel for $7, get on the shuttle, go to transition, and catch shuttle back. Get on the first shuttle, regardless of your wave start time. The lines for the later shuttles were long, and there’s no reason for that stress on race morning. One guy on my return shuttle went back to his car to sleep for an hour.
  • Despite cloud cover every day I was there, the temps were low to mid 70s, but the humidity upped the real feel temp.
  • From a family-friendly perspective, the fact that the swim start is a solid half mile from the host hotel, and then another 1.2 miles to the transition area, which is about 2 miles from the finish line, if you have family and/or kids, they will be moving around. Once you go out on the bike, they won’t see you again. They will see you plenty on the run.

With that out of the way, here’s my read on how the day went. It was a great day. Not a good day, but a great day. Why? Because I finally ran off the bike. The. Whole. Damn. Run.

It’s been a long time that I have been tilting at the 70.3 and 140.6 windmills. Prior to this race, I had 10 half Ironman and 2 full Ironman races to my credit. That’s almost 1,000 miles of racing. Sadly, almost every race played out the same way. Decent swim, reasonable to good bike, catastrophic failure on the run.

When I first signed up with Coach Ben of VO2MultiSport in Bellevue, WA, I came in after a long hiatus from racing due to kids. We started our journey together almost exactly three years ago. In that time, leading into this race, I had done 1 IM and 5x 70.3 races. My 70.3 PR was a 5:44, which came on the back of a very fast bike, and horrifically terrible run, in Florida.

I didn’t have a background in endurance sports, but figured if I just kept at it, I would improve. My first race was a smack in the face. Over 6 hours. It was in Kona, HI, and we figured, based on the feedback I gave him, and the data (no power meter) that I had over rode the bike and blew up in the heat. Racing at Lake Stevens, WA later that year, I put up a 5:44. A solid first year with Ben, and I matched my PR from 9 years prior. My run was a 2:01, and I walked a bit of it. The real challenge was a terrible bike, made worse by having a :10 pit stop late in the race to fix a derailer that came off. The weather was also quite cool; if memory serves, it didn’t get over low 60F that day.

So we thought we had it sorted. I needed a race with cooler temps, and I needed to keep building back my fitness. Thus we planned the 2014 season. A repeat appearance at Kona (looking back, this wasn’t a great decision, but I felt “beaten” by the course, and couldn’t let it stand), and IM Canada. I wanted another IM, and living in the PacNW at the time, I believed Canada would likely be very cool relative to other locations in July. The heat in Kona beat me into ground for a second year. The wheels came off on the run, again, with the same issue; legs not responding to “run” command. IM Canada, same problem. Also, strangely, it was very hot that day. Heat seemed impossible for me to escape.

The real challenge was trying to figure out what was happening. Every sign pointed to heat. I would come off the bike, and would not be able to run. The legs simply didn’t work. I could run for short spurts, and then would have to walk. There was nothing there. Sometimes I had rot gut. Sometimes I had gas issues. The hard part was that this problem only surfaced on race day, and in some race simulation bricks. Specifically, I was having the biggest problem with the “tri” part of triathlon.

Ben and I looked at the data. We looked at my salt intake. My nutrition. My diet. We changed our approach to training. I was willing to try anything.

Additional data which started to surface, now that we were micro-investigating, was an annoying habit of my inability to ride consistent power for more than 2 hours. The power would just start to slide off. My FTP (tested) is 250W. I haven’t tested since Nov 2013. I should test again, but riding harder didn’t seem like it was going to help, and I couldn’t hold power any way. I had to prove that I could ride at 82-85% and then run.

To be honest, it was just weird, but I loved the training, and I liked working with Ben. I could tell I was making fitness progress, and I was able to do all of the different races I wanted to do. Long distance running. Half and full Ironmans. Sprint XC mountain bike racing. Endurance mountain bike racing. The problem of running off the bike seemed solvable since there was almost :30 difference between my 70.3 run PR and half marathon run PR (set in 2014). Maybe all my problems were related to a lack of focus. Who knew. At least I was racing.

When 2015 rolled around, we had a singular focus; to PR. We changed my nutrition to full liquid; no more gels. We figured that would solve the rot gut issues. It did. We also focused on me drinking more water. This is something I did to a fault in the first race in 2015 in Monterrey, Mexico. Regardless, I had a great bike, and a good 4 mile run, then a ridiculous 7.5 miles of stupidness, followed by 2 miles of running. My legs wouldn’t work. We thought I just had too much water sloshing around, but the legs still didn’t work. Looking at the power data, I over rode the bike (a common theme), and my power dropped off as usual. That said, I PR’d by 8 minutes. However, and this was the rub, it wasn’t hot. In fact, it rained on us during the bike. Was over-heating my issue? Over biking? My first lap was 9 minutes faster than the second. My overall power was not where it was supposed to be.

Entering the second race of the season (IM 70.3 Boulder), I was completely keyed up on following the bike plan to the letter. I did not want to have that be an excuse. Post-race analysis showed that my numbers looked fine, though they again showed that annoying trend of my overall power numbers coming in 10% under target. However, getting off the bike, I actually felt great. My power didn’t show spikes, and my HR was within the limits we had set. Yet, the wheels came off on the run. It was also in the 90s that day. So was it just heat and sodium as my issue? Comedy of errors, I PR’d again, but this time by 1 second.

A common problem I would have after hard rides was that my legs would be tight for a couple of days after. They would feel like bags of cement were in them. Transition runs didn’t work out if the ride was over 50 miles. Long runs the next day were always challenged. I had no answers to questions I wasn’t specifically asking. I just assumed this was “normal” wear and tear.

I found myself in August starting to think that 10x 70.3 races was enough. I wasn’t having fun any more. Blowing up at races sucks. Explaining that to people after the fact sucks more. Watching first timers go faster than you really sucks, but watching people post faster times than you when you know you aren’t performing at your best is a super bummer. When you repeatedly fail at something, you either have to try something new, or stop doing that thing.

I asked for help. I had the luck of meeting a local pro and asked her how she solved her run off the bike problem with her switch to 70.3 distance. We talked about the problems she was having, and I echoed similar problems. So she suggested I make an appointment with her bike fitter. I was hesitant, as I had done a bike fit a couple years prior. However, this was advice I asked for, so ignoring it seemed silly.

Ryan Ignatz at Colorado Multisport was the suggested fitter. I could tell straight away that this was a different level of attention to detail than my last fit. The questionnaire was fine, but the Retul bike fit system was super cool. There’s a cynic in all of us that would think “of course he said your fit was wrong, he’s a bike fitter!” I will admit, part of that went through my mind. However, what stood out to me was that Ryan watched me pedal for a bit, and then said two things: first, that my pedaling mechanics were strong, but second, that I was pedaling wrong.

These two seemingly incongruous statements were hard to grasp. Then he showed me with pictures, video, and wireframe. Then he explained it to me very simply. He wanted to lower my seat, and raise me up in the front. My first thought was “well that’s not aero.” A little too much time on Slowtwitch forums perhaps. The reason he wanted to do this? My foot was pointed on the down stroke. So? This was the point in the conversation where he blew my mind: he told me “you probably blow up on the run and you don’t know why.”

Mind. Blown.

He then proceeded to ask me to push down with my leg with my toe pointed, and then with my heel down, and asked what different I felt. The former used my quad; the latter used my hamstring and glutes. For years Ben has been telling me to use my glutes, but until this very specific set of questions was asked, I did not know enough to know that I didn’t know what I needed to know. Quads are for running, and you also burn through your glycogen like mad when you use them. So Ryan made the changes. In all, I spent about 2 hours on that fit, and found that I was feeling burn in places I had never felt burn. He told me it would take some time getting used to the new position, but also that muscles that had not previously been used would need to be build up.

Over the course of the next month, on the run into my race, what changed did I notice? Not once did I have a problem running off the bike. Every run felt like my legs were fresh. In my race rehearsal, I ran a 10K off a 60 mile bike. And ran the whole thing. My average power numbers were up for rides over 2 hours. I was back near 82-85% FTP for the full distance, which is where I needed to be on race day. In short, I was floored.

This has been a whole lot of sharing to get to the point. 30 minute PR on race day in Augusta. PR swim (the current helped). 2nd fastest bike. PR run. 5:06. I was holding back in the swim. I was pulling back on the bike when I had the wind, and was super conscious of my HR the whole time. I even had to watch myself on the run. I did run into some problems on the run, mostly related to some stomach issues (TSS of 188 would suggest I rode too hard in the wind), but I was in completely uncharted territory from mile 4 onward. I had never known what it was like to be running, well, that late in the race. The whole time I kept pulling back to keep my HR in the limit and not blow up. 13.1 miles of fear of blowing up.

It was a great day.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to think that the silver bullet was the bike fit. That would be fun and easy, but also wrong. Changing your bike fit isn’t going to make you magically fast. 3 years of hard work, with excellent coaching, set up that day. Three years of hard workouts, waking up early, and putting deposits in the pain bank. A bike fit won’t get rid of rot gut. A bike fit won’t deal with sodium deficiency. Triathlon is a very hard sport. Long course tri is super hard. At best you are on a 70.3 course for 4.5 – 5 hours of hard effort. When things go pear shaped, you could be out there for 6-7 hours. It’s even nuttier for a full Ironman. There’s too many factors that go into a race result. Getting that last move on the Rubik’s cube may appear to be the one that solved it, but there was really 100+ moves before that which are quickly forgotten, often ignored, and seldom given credit.

Ryan gave me the last move, and for that I thank him. Ben gave me moves 1 to 100. When I got to Ben, I had been out of racing for 6 years, weighed 192 lbs, and had recently recovered from a broken neck. When the bike fit was made, I was 162 lbs, able to ride centuries with no problem, and having the time of my life with challenging endurance events I would have labeled ‘nutty’ or ‘impossible’ for me in 2013. Ben and I have a lot of work left to do, and I’m looking forward to seeing moves 102 to who-knows-what-number. Next season I’m racing in the Cape Epic in March, and a 70.3 in June. Broken neck and overweight to Cape Epic in 5 years. Amazing. The following year I will look to do either a healthy slate of 70.3 races, or maybe the Leadman series, or perhaps even a return to full Ironman racing.

11th time was the charm for me at the 70.3 distance. And for once, at this distance, I was smiling on the run and ecstatic at the finish.

The morals?

  1. If you have a coach, and you trust your coach, put your faith in that trust, and know you will be prepared for all your races.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  3. It’s seldom just one problem.
  4. Small changes matter; in this case, the seat height difference was about the width of a piece of tape.
  5. Small changes add up (nutrition, training, sleep, habits, salt, water intake, etc).
  6. Have fun; if you aren’t having fun, it’s time to find something else to do.