The Journey and the Taper
Training and planning for a 70.3 distance triathlon is not for the faint of heart. In January, I registered for Ironman Augusta 70.3 with the goal of beating my time on the course from 2015. But as 2016 progressed, I suffered injuries and illnesses, moved, experienced drastic family and personal changes, moved offices and had an evolving role at work. To say I’ve been stretched thin is an understatement. But I had made the commitment to Ironman Augusta 70.3, so I was determined to see the training and race through.
Fortunately, I didn’t experience any major taper tantrums or freakouts this year. I think having this race under my belt gave me quite a bit of extra assurance knowing what I was getting myself into. I welcomed the decrease in volume so I could focus on last-minute logistics and turn to the mental preparation. Like last year, I chose to drove the 950 miles each way from Dallas to Augusta. I left on Wednesday and arrived in Augusta on Thursday. Waiting for the athlete check-in to open on Friday afternoon led me to get a bit stir crazy and give Snoop another wash, but at least my anxiety was focused for good.
If you are considering racing Ironman Augusta 70.3, I highly recommend joining the non-Ironman owned Facebook group. It is packed with extremely helpful individuals, mostly led by the wonderful local TriAugusta club. They plan a pre-race swim on Friday evenings with kayak support, so athletes can test the water and swim a portion of or the full course.
I woke up really excited for race day! When I got to transition in the morning, I heard the announcement that the race was wetsuit optional for the first time in its eight year history. The water temperature rose about 4 degrees between Friday and Sunday, putting it over the 76.1 degree Fahrenheit cutoff. The organizers deemed it wetsuit optional; meaning you could choose to wear a wetsuit and move to the last wave but you would not be eligible for age group awards. I was very surprised it wasn’t a wetsuit legal race, but I chose to stay in my wave (#17 out of #26) because I was already starting over an hour behind the first wave. I’m not reliant on the buoyancy of a wetsuit and the Savannah River provides a helpful downstream current. I wanted to stick with my 8:40 am start time and not wait until after 9 am because that would put me on the run course even later.
While checking my bike again in the morning, I realized I forgot a rubber band to help keep my aero bottle in place. Ack! Something as small as rubber band makes a big difference keeping my bottle in place. I asked a few ladies near me in transition and luckily another racer kindly gave me an extra. PHEW! I returned the favor and let her borrow my pump to top of the air in her tires. I’m so thankful for helpful triathletes! After getting everything setup, I took the shuttle up to swim start and watched the waves before me being released. I had over an hour to try to relax use the restroom, and begin warming up.
The nerves started to hit me as soon as I lined up with my wave. I was mostly excited for the race, but the nerves were definitely present as I did last minute stretching to stay loose.
This course is described as fast because the swim is all downstream in the Savannah River. I positioned myself more towards the center of the river and closer to the buoys than I had last year because the race director recommended during the athlete meeting that this was the safer area (away from docked boats) than swimming closer to the shore.
The swim went well. My breathing was controlled and my stroke felt smooth. I drafted perfectly the first 500 meters, until my draft chose to find her own draft closer to the shore. I wanted to stay closer to the buoys, so I swam solo for about 250 more meters until I found my next draft. I stayed on her hip and we were so in sync I could clearly see her red goggles. The only downside to staying central was that I encountered more underwater foliage. I felt branches and plants getting attached to different body parts, and I tried to push them away or wiggle out of them. I saw a few men from the two waves in front of me that had an eight minute head start before my wave, so I was really pumped to be passing dudes like last year 🙂
I stayed with my draft until it was time to take a hard right turn in to the exit chute. I kicked it into high gear and swam until my hands were scraping the bottom and volunteers were helping pull me up out of the water.
Distance: 1.2 miles
Average Pace: 1:45 min/100 meters
Division Rank: 71
Overall Rank: 1529
The run through transition follows the shore line and then wraps around into the sea of bikes. I had to thoroughly rinse my feet before slipping my socks and shoes on. I grabbed my bike and ran about 20 paces before I realized – DOH! I forgot my nutrition! I had to turn back around to grab my bars and gels and cram them in my back pocket. I lost probably 45 seconds having to double back and gather my nutrition, but not having my nutrition wasn’t an option.
I love that the majority of this course is across state lines so you ride from Georgia to South Carolina and back. Once on the bike, I settled in and mentally prepared for the 56 miles. I topped off my nutrition with a Gu and starting taking in hydration within the first 15 minutes.
The bike course changed from last year because construction required a reroute. Around mile 5, we took a left turn and headed up (and up and up…) a fresh spread of asphalt. The course topped off and we had just a few inclines but mostly flat road for the next 10 or so miles. Then another steep hill near mile 18, with up and down rollers peaking again around mile 34 and 36. I saw several people get off their bikes to walk them up hills. I was focusing on keeping my cadence smooth, chest up and open during inclines, and keeping my body relaxed. I passed people and people passed me. The field is very crowded on the ride, but I tried to be extra vigilant and follow the rules for no drafting (six bike lengths behind the rider in front of you). I was feeling good on the bike course; my energy levels were being sustained and I didn’t feel any aches and pains. I refilled my water reserves at every aid station (while staying in motion on the bike – WOO HOO for that victory!). But after passing the second aid station at mile 36, I started having trouble eating my nutrition bars. I should have taken in three Bonk Breakers but had trouble getting the second one down over a 20-minute timeframe. I substituted with another Gu and hoped that would be enough to sustain my energy.
I kept pedaling along happy and focused until I passed another highlight on the course. We ride by Amazing Grace Baptist Church at mile 45. This church is a huge supporter of the race and always has several volunteers outside cheering for people, and the pastor records inspirational messages that are played over the loud speaker for riders to hear as they pass. As a fun aside, last year the pastor trained and completed Ironman Augusta 70.3 after being inspired watching the race for many years. I got to the church this year and knew I was entering the home stretch. I heard the inspirational message, and then out of nowhere I burst into tears! I didn’t immediately recognize why this emotion was coming over me. I allowed myself two minutes to sob while still pedaling, then collected myself so I wasn’t wasting energy and breath. I think it was the enormity of the distance, knowing how hot the run was going to be, and that I was going to have to adjust my expectations for my overall time. I took advantage of the final flat and downhill stretches of the course and made it back into transition. My bike time was to the minute exactly my race plan.
Distance: 56 miles
Average Pace: 14.91 mph
Division Rank: 80
Overall Rank: 2124
After 56 miles, I was pretty happy to be off my bike. I re-racked my bike, then fished out spray sunscreen from my bag. Yeah, I should have left it on my transition mat in the morning but I forgot. So another 30 seconds or so were added to my transition time to grab my sunscreen. But again, that extra time was well spent in my opinion. I also asked the race volunteers to spray me with their sunscreen because the sun was blazing at this point and I knew there was a high likelihood of getting badly burnt. I headed out the run exit and started running on wobbly and numb legs.
Annndddd run and done! Or something like that…My first mile felt great! I ran it in about 10 minutes. I encountered the first aid station and filled up on water and sips of Gatorade. I tried to take off again, but it very quickly turned into a run-walk. I suddenly felt the enormity of the exhaustion my body was feeling. My mind was focused and my lungs felt strong, but my body was screaming “let’s not do this; I’m exhausted.” By this time it was over 90 degrees with humidity, and the sun’s rays were radiating off the asphalt. I quickly adjusted my expectations and strategy and knew I would have to do whatever was needed to get through the run.
The run course is awesome because you loop through several streets downtown. Spectators are plentiful, which gives much needed encouragement. I stopped at every aid station to take in available hydration. I began grabbing multiple cups of water and dumping it over my head to try to stay cool. About halfway through the run. I realized I had white marks on my black kit. I am not typically a salty sweater, but I knew I was losing more sodium and minerals then usual. I now realized what the potato chips and pretzels were at the aid stations for. I took in some chips and they seemed to help. I tried the pretzels but they were too dry to get down. I sucked on a few orange slices when available, and chomped on my Clif Shot Bloks. My pace was much slower than I had originally trained for, but I made adjustments in order to get to my finish line.
The best part of the run was interacting with the spectators and other racers. I paced with a couple the first half of the run, and it was a huge help to have the three of us in it together. Spectators were really encouraging as so many of us were struggling in the heat. I passed fellow racers who were not faring well; the medical team was great and attending to athletes needing assistance, but the sheer number of athletes needing assistance seemed really high. I saw athletes laying on the road on the run course receiving IV bags, and groups of people being taken away on the carts. I really felt for them, but was thankful for the medical staff attending to their needs..
I watched each mile tick away slowly but surely. At mile 11, I started to get emotional from exhaustion again. But with a little over 2 miles to go, I knew I couldn’t quit. I tried to buckle down and run the shade, walk the sun (as a WONDERFUL TriAugusta coach on his bike was encouraging runners to adapt their strategy). I recognized the final turn behind the finish line that added the last mile needed, and I did my best to bring it home strong. I turned the corner and had the finish line in sight – and it was the most beautiful finish line I have ever seen! I had tunnel vision and didn’t see any other athletes; I just saw the glorious arch and finish line!
Distance: 13.1 miles
Average Pace: 13:50 min/mile
Division Rank: 78
Overall Rank: 1999
Date: September 25, 2016
Location: Augusta, GA
Distance: Half Ironman or 70.3; 1.2 mile open water swim, 56 mile bike , and 13.1 (half marathon) run
Conditions: Mid 90s, 3-7 mph wind and 60% humidity with no cloud coverage. Very hot and humid!
Total Time: 07:37:47
Division Rank: 78
Overall Rank: 1999
Post-Race and What I Learned
It’s hard not to compare my 2016 race against my 2015 race. My original goal was to at least beat the 7 hour mark this year, and my stretch goal was to finish between 6:30 and 6:45. But the conditions in 2015 were much more favorable. I know the high heat and humidity and additional hills on the bike led to my slower bike and run times compared to last year. Yet I still see this race as a success.
- I overcame a very difficult year. I still put in my training and had the endurance to finish.
- I stayed calm for a non-wetsuit legal swim and executed a smart swim strategy.
- I fought the hills on the bike and finished to the exact minute against my race plan, and still felt I had some energy left.
- I adjusted my expectations and strategy on the run to account for the high heat and humidity.
- My hydration and adjusted nutrition plan kept me mentally focused and physically sustained enough to finish.
- I crossed my finish line with my parents there to support me.
This race holds such a special place in my heart because it was the site of my first 70.3. I’m truly proud of my performances in 2015 and 2016 and had a great time. The only thing I would change for a return trip is the travel – I probably won’t spend the time driving but will fly and use a transport service for my bike.
So what’s next? Well I plan on spending the next three months of winter taking a break in the volume of racing and looking at my goals for 2017. I need to work on getting some of those life things in order before I can commit to a heavy training and racing year again. In the meantime, I am looking forward to enjoying some new adventures!