I decided to mix things up this year and try a few different competition formats. This was mostly to keep the year interesting, and to hopefully stave off the inevitable burn-out which comes from many months of sustained training. Based on the performance at this race, I have a mixed reaction thus far to this strategy. There is no question that I was inadequately prepared to perform at a high level for this format. However, I had a great time, and had some really nice outcomes from a personal development standpoint. I’ll chalk it up as a victory.
When selecting my races this year, the conversation with my family has largely revolved around not turning vacations into race-cations. To that end, I’ve had to select races that were either close to home, super spectator friendly, or I would be there alone. This was the case with the Monterrey Half Ironman I did last month. Definitely not a great place to take the family for a fun filled vacation. Language barrier would be the hardest obstacle.
Las Vegas is a location the wife and I have always talked about going to with our kids. We thought we might try to do it this year. However, neither of us had ever been out toward Lake Las Vegas (the race venue) and we weren’t sure what to make of this as a venue. We wouldn’t be near the strip, and I didn’t want them to feel trapped. Further, based on all of the on-course photos I had seen, it wasn’t clear that this was a spot where we would have a fun time with the kid-bots.
Turns out we were right and wrong. The location is in the middle of nowhere. That’s not a lie. Getting to the turn-off from the highway, in the dead of night, feels like you are pulling into no-man’s land. To get to the Westin is about another 2-2.5 miles of driving, and there’s not much in the way of lighting. It felt remote. It is remote. However, the Westin has a high production value; very resort-y feel. They have multiple pools, with a splash pool dedicated to kids, and a larger pool targeted at kids, which also has a water slide. They also have a beach with access to the lake, and additional amenities. My kids would have had a blast. The race itself doesn’t afford a ton of viewing possibilities, with the exception of the swim exit and the entry/exit point from the main road (blocked on raceday) to the trails (but really, a rock quarry). If you are going to the races with your family so they can soak in a very high energy vibe, this may disappoint. Put a different way, there were more people in my wave in Monterrery than racing in totality in Vegas. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s definitely a different feel.
I arrived late on Thurs night so I could spend Friday with a pre-ride of the course and a pre-swim. Both activities made me feel way way worse about the coming race. By all counts, I should have been feeling supremely confident about this race. The distance is shorter than 70.3 racing, I’m a reasonably competent mountain biker, and the total race time would be hours shorter than 70.3 racing. Some of this worked out in my favor, but others did not.
Let’s start with the bike. Below is the map as presented by the race organizers. 17.5 miles and 1400 feet of climbing. Additional information provided by race direction (in the athlete packet) included additional information. Specifically, it said not to expect protracted areas of sand, and to expect long sustained climbs. From my hotel room, where I could see some of the course, things looked pretty tame and I was excited. The pre-ride revealed some hard and bitter truths.
First of all, there is 2300 feet of climbing (according to Garmin and Strava). That delta may not seem like a lot, but it matters. Second, there is one or two “sustained” climbs, but nothing very long. Long to me is Tiger Mountain in Seattle. Or the 7 mile climb on the Cap Forrest 50. Those are long and sustained. Aside from the two longer (and I am being super generous here) climbs, there was nothing that was very long. Sadly, they were very steep. Very. Steep. The only race where I have seen steeper is Roslyn, WA, which starts with a complete “you’ve got to be sh!tting me” type of climb.
What made these climbs harder was the fact that the surface was loose rock on top of hard pack, which meant poor traction on the line. The other issue was that there was one line, and it was three inches wide. Get off that line, and you are into the really rough marbles. This course rewards staying on the race line. Do not waver from the race line.
Most of the climbing is in the front half of the course, and when I finally felt like I was descending and done with it, and on to some ripper parts of the course, I discovered the other truth about this course. Sand. Lots and lots of sand. There is one specific part of the course, maybe a half mile in total, where you are riding in sand. Deep sand. Tuck your front and drop the bike if you are not on your game sand. For a pre-ride, I was super discouraged. I had never ridden sand before. I wasn’t having fun.
The last part of the course is this single track section that runs along the shore of the lake. It’s not that challenging, but has sand, and many thorns if you get off line. There are also several long corners that are off camber, and right above a steep drop. Short drop, but they are penalty corners if you get them wrong.
Based on my initial read of the map, I figured I would be done in the race at 1:30. Based on my pre-ride, I adjusted my expectations down to a 1:50 for the bike portion.
Discouraged from the bike, I went back to the hotel to rest. The swim course wasn’t open until 1pm, so I had some time to get off my feet, which was welcomed. The other truth about this course is the wind. When it wants to blow, it can howl. When it howls, it churns up the lake. The swim course was set up as a two loop affair. My inner sense says we swam longer than 750m per lap, but I didn’t swim with a GPS unit. The pre-swim, though, was a complete mess. The current was so strong. I was riding waves on the way back, and having trouble getting breath without swallowing water. When I hit the beach after the pre-swim, I was super discouraged. Many athletes were complaining about the current, the chop, and how tired they were. Oh well. You can’t control the weather, and it was going to be hard for everyone.
With Friday out of the way, I had to get my head around a new race format. Since this was my first off-road triathlon, I wasn’t sure what to expect for times, the level of competition, or how to pace it. I did run into a guy who was wearing a finisher shirt from a race I did in 2014, and asked him how many of these off-road races he had done. He said quite a few, so I asked about the level of competition versus half Ironman racing. His response, which was perfect, was, “It’s always fast at the pointy end.”
Coach Ben had given me some advice ahead of the race, but the one that stuck out was that I was going to get a lesson in how fast people can ride mountain bikes. I knew that my training has been focused on the three half Ironman races I am doing this year, and that what is required to go fast on a mountain bike is a combination of intervals and handling training. I had not done much for bike handling skills this year. My intervals training was not focused on mountain bike racing. This race was a nice reminder of the difference between road-fast and mountain-fast. These boys (and girls!) can ride. Young dudes. Old dudes. You name it, there was fast a plenty on the course.
When the gun finally went off for my race, I was actually quite calm. I was suited up in my new Roka Maverick Elite wetsuit. The winds had died down a bit over night. My warm-up swim felt really good. BOOM! The cannon went off and we were off into the water. This was my first tactical mistake. I am a capable swimmer. Usually. For this particular swim, I had done myself a disservice in the pre-swim by allowing the current and chop to get into my head. I really fumbled this swim. Bad sighting, poor heart rate management, and overall labored affair. I did not do my training justice.
The bike itself was rather what I thought it was going to be. Hard. Much harder than the profile on the website suggested, but inline with what I previewed the day before. At least I knew where the steep bits were, and had a sense of what I was going to be running into along the way. Knowing those things didn’t keep my HR under 170. It’s not the best bike course in the world by a long shot. I did, thankfully, discover that there is a non-sandy (quad sapping to the uninitiated) area in the flood wash area. I sadly didn’t discover that until the first lap of the race, but did use that info on lap 2, and during the run.
My main objective for the run was simply to run the whole thing…I have a nasty habit of blowing up on the run in triathlons. Save for some of the really steep pitches on the run, I accomplished that goal. I was even smiling for most of the run. That was a welcome happening.
I don’t know who that other guy is, but he got bunny-eared.
All told, this was a fun format, to be sure. I was not adequately prepared to race this format, as all of my A races this year are 70.3. I may decide to do more of these in the future. I don’t know. I feel much more engaged on the bike when I am on a mountain bike than when I am on a TT bike. That will be something to think about throughout the rest of this race season.
Many thanks again to my wonderful wife Christy, for supporting my racing hobby. Coach Ben for his continued training, support, and mentorship. The Project 529 Legion boys for all of their long distance support. #RideMore #SummerOfSRAM