Friday, September 14, 2007

The 2007 FIRM Half Ironman Triathlon: Fun at the Beach

The concept of a triathlon is intriguing in its simplicity: combine three sports into one event and see how well you can do at each, and all three cumulatively. The fun—and challenge—of a triathlon is in allocating your energy and effort optimally over the full distance of the race in order to maximize your performance.

At least that’s the way it is supposed to be. In reality—for me anyway—a triathlon is a pedal-to-the-metal sufferfest, in which finishing each discipline brings simultaneous relief (at having put one part of the race behind me) and dread of what is upcoming. Each leg of a triathlon brings its own set of hurdles and challenges. The swim (at least in the race I just completed), is a test of navigating choppy ocean water; the bike is the longest and most energy intensive in terms of pure effort output; and the run is a matter of convincing and coaxing your body to move (in at least some facsimile of running) when it wants to do nothing of the kind, usually in very warm midday conditions. So there you go: sounds like a fun way to spend a Sunday morning, right?

Of course, like all endurance challenges, the attraction is in overcoming these challenges and managing the hurt, in order to feel the satisfaction of crossing the finish line—hopefully near or better than the overall time you hoped for.

The 2007 FIRMman Half Ironman on September 9 in Narragansett, Rhode Island was my first triathlon since this same race two years ago. I suppose that makes me something less than a regular on the triathlon circuit. Mostly, I only do triathlons of this distance (or longer), eschewing the “sprint” or “Olympic” distance races. Since I don’t possess great speed (especially in the swim), I usually opt for an occasional longer race.

My training for this race was adequate, but not great. Mostly cycling, I added a weekly ocean “swim” (more like a survival dog paddle) and a weekly “long” run of 10 to 13 miles. Although I had planned to do a long “brick” workout of a roughly 50-mile bike followed by a 10-mile run, I never got around to doing it, instead opting for a measly three-mile run. At some point you have to be happy with the training you can accomplish without running your self into the ground.

Race day forecasts called for possible thundershowers, not what anyone involved with the race was looking for. When I went to pick up my race packet at Narragansett Beach (the race site) the day before the race, it was extremely hot and the wind was blowing so hard they had to tie everything down to keep it from blowing all the way back to Massachusetts. Of course, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction that we would be swimming the next day. After getting my packet I took refuge back at the hotel, turned on the television, and tried to forget about the weather.

The strategy was successful, as at 4:00 a.m. the next day the wind had abated quite a bit and there was no sign of rain. That bit of good news had me in an upbeat frame of mind. After a small breakfast I arrived at the race site and started to set up my gear for the race. This is no small task, since you need all your bike and run equipment ready to go. Forget about going to the car to find anything during the race.

The start entailed a long walk down the beach, as the swim route was point to point. I was a bit dismayed that the 50 and over age group was in the second of seven waves, starting just two minutes behind the elites. That meant that many behind me would be flying by during the swim. I had put on my wetsuit before the walk down the beach and was very warm by the time I got to the start. Better than being too cold, I suppose. I was hoping for the best in the swim, but the water was a little too choppy for my liking. At least it wasn’t raining!

Glad that's over!

At the horn I began tentatively, which was not a good strategy, since there were some sizable waves to get over (or under) in order to reach the buoy 100 yards out that we would swim around before heading perpendicular to the shore for about a mile before returning to the beach. Just like in my training swims at Nantasket Beach, the ocean swell, modest as it was, made it tough to sight the buoys marking the course. I had to stop every 30 seconds or so to make sure I was not drifting off course. Upon doing these reconnaissance sightings, more often than not I sucked down a mouthful of sea water. I told myself to simply keep going regardless of how little progress I felt it I was making, or not making. Sure enough, many swimmers in the waves behind me went by. At least by following them I knew I was on course. The turn for shore around the final buoy brought a profound sense of relief. Now all I needed to do was cycle 56 miles and run 13.1.

Oh, but first there was the swim-to-run transition. Someone should have videotaped my pathetic attempt at this transition, to show beginning traiathlestes what not to do. As others flew out of the water and practically leapt onto their bikes in a single motion, I fumbled with my wetsuit in desperation, to get it off, and then fumbled equally with my bike shirt, to get it on. My mind was reeling from the swim and I must have rinsed my mouth out five times to get rid of the salty taste. All of my neatly laid out gear was strewn everywhere. In all it took me six minutes to get from the swim to the bike, at least three times as long as everyone around me.

The first few miles of the bike leg in a triathlon result in a strange feeling of exhilaration at being out of the water, discomfort in getting into a normal bike position, lightheadedness in finding my land legs, and panic in keeping up with the cyclists flying by me. The way people were riding, it felt as if the bike were five miles, not 56. Two years ago my bike time for the 56 miles was just under three hours, about 18.8 miles per hour. Under the right circumstances I felt I could improve upon that, having trained much more on the bike since that race. But it felt hard to just to keep a decent pace early on. I set my cyclometer and told myself I would check it only once every half-hour. The math was easy: nine miles each half hour is 18 miles per hour and 10 is 20 miles per hour. After 30 minutes I was at about 9.5 miles, but that had involved a significant uphill.

As the ride progressed I inched closer to 20 miles per hour and began to catch up to many women that had passed me during the swim. I was doing a decent job on the hills, pretty much holding my position and catching people here and there. Much of the bike course was on Route 1, a fairly major road. The good thing was that we could get into a nice rhythm, not having to worry about turns. But the off and on exit ramps required us to pay close attention to the vehicular traffic. The race did a nice job with this, but not so good on the aid stations. There were only two for the entire 56 miles, and only had water. Thankfully, I had brought four gels with me in a waist pouch and ate them all during the bike, washed down with fresh water from my bottle and a kicker of salt water, left over from the swim.

I thought cycling was suppposed to be the easy part.

We headed south for quite a few miles; I was really looking forward to the turnaround, since we had been battling a pesky headwind while traveling in a southerly direction. The turn was nice; we were headed for home and I could crank up the pace with a modest tailwind behind me. At 40 miles the time on the bike computer read 2:03; I had some work to do to achieve my 20 mile-per-hour goal. But with a little help from the wind I was able to do just that, wheeling into the parking lot transition in exactly 2:48. Sweet!

My bike-to-run transition was much improved over the swim-to-bike. Once out running, I felt that just getting through the run at almost any pace would be all right, since I had used a ton of energy on the bike and had achieved my pre-race goal in that leg. Still…since I had a decent race going I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. Although it feels like you are absolutely crawling in the early minutes of a run in a triathlon, you are going faster than you think you are. Two years ago, I had run the half marathon in just under two hours, about nine-minute-per mile pace. Could I hope for a similar time this year? I had done far less run training.

The many ups and down of the early miles made it hard to gauge the pace, but I was a little better than nines early on. In fact, I felt pretty decent and was passing people regularly. Maybe it was going to be my day! Just when I thought that, I had a bad patch, however, and retreated into survival mode. Getting to halfway was the goal, but once there I was not feeling great. We had a long out-and-back to cover and I envied those runners on the other side of the road, with only a few miles remaining to the finish. I reached 10 miles in 1:31, but boy, was I ever struggling. In addition, a long uphill to mile 11 lay ahead. But how hard could three miles be? I do that all the time. Once up and over and past 11, a nice downhill got me back up to speed and I could feel the finish getting close. But at mile 12.5 one final challenge remained: a quarter-mile stretch of running on the loose sand of the beach. After giving all I had for so many hours, my legs just could not move with so little return of energy from the surface. As a runner sailed by I slogged toward the line, hoping it would arrive quickly.

No, that's not my age! (subtract 10)

All kinds of good news awaited at the finish: I was done, no one passed me in the last 25 yards,and I had improved my time from two years ago by nine minutes, clocking 5:36 for the full distance. I even got my sub 2-hour half marathon, albeit by just 46 seconds. Even after a cool down walk and then sitting down, my heart was still hammering and my muscles were tightening up. But hey: that’s what a triathlon is all about, right?

1 comment:

Juli Aistars said...


Congratulations on your finish and on meeting your goals! I enjoyed the race report--your candid style of writing and the pictures made me feel like I was right there with you. It sounds like something worth attempting...