St. George 70.3 is a Half-Ironman located in the beautiful red-rock country of southern Utah. Ever since I found out about this race a few years back I had been wanting to do it not only because of the raw beauty of the venue but also because of the difficulty of the course, which I will discuss throughout.
Before delving into the specifics of the 2014 race, a few notes on the history of the race. From 2010 to 2012, St. George was a full ironman course. However, in 2012, heavy winds led to three to five foot swells during the swim leading to many DNFs. Moreover, the wind caused major problems on the bike course leading to further DNFs. Times were much longer than other ironman times, and this typically contributes to much complaining/bragging among age-group athletes. When it comes down to it, 90% (estimate) of triathletes want to brag about their times (myself included), so they'd prefer to do Ironman Florida or Arizona because these are fast and mostly flat courses. This is evidenced by the speed at which these events sell out. If you only do a few ironmans then you want the best time; hence, after 2012, World Triathlon Corporation (the company that owns the Ironman brand) shifted the race to a more manageable 70.3 (Half) distance. But, St. George became the U.S. Pro Championship, which brought a larger prize purse than other 70.3 races. This has resulted in stellar pro fields on both the men and women's sides, but particularly the former. 2014 featured amongst others, Joe Gambles, Andy Potts, Jan Frodeno (eventual winner), Tim Don, Jordan Rapp, Brent McMahon, Terrenzo Bozzone, and Sebastiaan Kienle (four of these gentlemen finish top 4 at the 2013 Worlds).
As I have mentioned in a previous blog post (I think), my training for the first half of the year has been a steady build-up to Ironman Coeur d'Alene (fondly known as IMCDA) in late June. It is usually a good idea to do a half ironman four to eight weeks prior to an ironman as a way to synchronize full ironman conditions such as pain tolerance, nutrition, focus, travel, and mental preparation. Thus, St. George being a mere five hours from Riverside was selected.
I convinced one of my buddies, Dylan, to roll out to Utah with me for some camping, triathlon spectating, and hiking in Zion National Park (albeit but brief). We rolled out of Riverside on Thursday night and made it all the way to Mesquite, NV, a retirement and golfing community on the Nevada-Arizona border. It was painful to drive by Vegas and not blow all my hard-earned professor cash on some slots, but life can be unfair. Waking up the next day, we ate some continental breakfast and listened to golfers discuss their sport. I have to say, few things are worse than cocky, fat golfers on a "business trip." It took but an hour or less to get to St. George. We immediately went to athlete check-in where I got my bib, listened to some nonsense, and chit-chatted with other people at the race. The weather was hot but nice, and the expo was top-notch. St. George is a nice little town where no one over 22 is single, you have to order fries with your beer, and kids are everywhere. In other words, it is a very homogeneous environment.
We next made our way to our campground, which incidentally was on the lake where the race started. We set up our tents in the red sand and then made our way over to the race start area where people where getting in a final workout. Everyone was very serious but also in a good mood. I took a quick swim in the lake, followed by a 20 minute ride up to the top of the first climb, and a 12 minute run. I felt good all around, as I had taken three of the previous five days off of training (although I was starting to feel fat). I then dropped my bike off at T-1, and Dylan and I drove into town to hit up the Pasta Factory for an early dinner (always wise). After dinner, I dropped my run bag off at T-2 (downtown, not at the lake); then we drove the rest of the bike course. Driving up through Snow Canyon was mesmerizing: the climb looked intense but it was somewhat gradual on approach. Compared to many of my rides it wasn't shit. That said, I knew I would have to sustain 153-160 bpm heart-rate for a good 20 minutes, which is never easy. Note: heart rate beats per minute is specific to each individual. Finishing off the bike course we rode back to our campground just as day was turning to night.
I set my alarm(s) for 4:00am, but actually woke up at 3:57am. Wow, I should join the military! I actually slept quite well considering I was sleeping on a pad on the ground (thank you red sand). I made my breakfast and at 5am or so Dylan and I drove the 2 miles over to the race start and T-1. I was on the earlier side of arriving athletes, which cuts against my nature but is becoming a more common trend. It is nice not to have to rush, that's for sure. I joked around with a few of the guys around me, mainly to assess whether any of them would beat me...didn't seem like it. I set everything up, did a 10-15 minute run warm-up, hit the john a few times, then strapped on my wetsuit.
Most 70.3s start in waves. The pro men began at 6:55, followed by the pro women a few minutes later. I was in the fifth wave (blue caps, represent!!). It kind of sucks to wait around getting all nervous and shit, but at least I didn't have to wait until 8:00am like the older racers. They get double-whammied because they have to wait around and also will be out on the course longer enduring the heat. Some of these folks take eight hours to finish, which means they're still racing at 3pm when it was 94F. On the flip, it's much much statistically easier for them to qualify for Worlds, so seems like a fair trade-off.
I got a good view of the start and then it was all business as my group made its way down the shoot into the water. The 24-29 year old men were in front of us, with three minutes separating each group. Their gun banged and then we had three minutes to swim out to the starting line. This was basically our warm-up. I positioned myself near the front and bang off we started once again. Unfortunately, I still felt a bit full from my breakfast and felt a little tight in my Xterra wetsuit. It wasn't until 20 minutes in that I let out a few good burps that I began to feel better. As the swim developed I tried my damndest to draft off of other guys. I did this quite well as I trailed two swimmers throughout. Despite the congestion there was not a whole lot of battling in the water, although unfortunately I managed to tag someone in the head with my elbow...sorry person. While my time was a somewhat disappointing but not unexpected 33 minutes, I was able to conserve a lot of energy by tailing these other swimmers. As such, I felt relatively fresh coming out of the water. This put me in the top 23 percent or so in my age-group of 200-250 athletes. Not bad, but obviously it would be nice to get under 30 minutes for once.
My transition was relatively fast as I ran up the boat ramp around the bikes and to my bike rack. I put my glasses on first, my helmet second, and then stuck my gel container and salt pills into my back pocket. I had my bike shoes already attached to my bike, so it was zip off I went to the mounting area. I took a few hard peddles and then got my feet into my shoes. The process was much more efficient than in the previous triathlon. Next, I started by bike computer and hit lap on my watch to begin the bike segment. All fields were reading including heart rate, hill grade, and cadence. Damn it, I love data (note: my work entails significant amounts of data analysis, wut wut); it's weird, but it makes me a more confident rider (and runner). I began passing people right away as there is a short climb out of the lake. The course goes around Sand Hollow Reservoir and about 4 miles in there is a steep climb. I hit this hard and got up to 160 bpm while passing several people. On the descent, however, a few guys passed me and it appeared the age group 30-34 race had begun. About four or five of us dueled it out over the next 10 miles. I backed off a bit as I didn't want my heart rate to really get much above 155. Indeed, I'm pretty sure I bested all of these riders as they faded one by one over the next 40 miles. After about 15 miles things settled down a bit and then we hit a two mile incline. During the climb I caught up with a group of guys who had ditched me at the aide station as I was refilling and putting down some calories. Evidently, the lonely time I had spent climbing up to Onyx Summit, Mt. Baldy, and the Unknown Coast paid dividends...delayed gratification if you will. That's why I like triathlon -- you truly get out of it what you put into it. There are no shortcuts.
We then hit another fairly long and curving descent where I was hitting speeds into the 40 mph range. Indeed, at one point I hit a bit of a hole in the road, looked down at my speedometer and was going 47 mph! Shit, I had never gone that fast, but the speed tuck/lean was in full effect. My strategy was to peddle like mad at the top of the descent to pick up speed then tuck over my handle bars and get into the drops to make myself as small as possible. It is a little precarious but is faster. The price you pay when you're a professor living the dream. Anyway, the course was comprised of several climbs followed by fairly long downhill/flat sections. I tried to keep my effort mostly consistent. I have to say, this bike course is amazing because it's either balls out up a climb or balls out fast as shit on a descent -- to use strictly technical terms. We made our way into St. George and around mile 40 began our entrance into Snow Canyon. I know for me, and I'm sure this was the case with the other riders, we were all thinking, Snow Canyon will make or break us. This is the point where differences in training methods really show. Are you the type of person who does what the crowd does, or do you go beyond that?
That feeling of excitement and anxiety begins to drum beat a bit louder second by second. I decided to take a salt pill. As I was approaching the climb up Snow Canyon I got my salt pill container out and as I cracked it open I dropped it. Damn it! It seems like I'm always dropping my salt pills. Luckily I had a relatively full bottle of Ironman Perform electrolyte drink so took a few swigs of that and off I went. The climb was awesome but grueling, and I must have passed at least 15 riders up the climb. While the climb was challenging I simply focused on one rider at a time picking them off and congratulating them for their effort (people love that haha). It is such a joy to gaze over at the rider next to you as you go by them up a 6-10% grade incline. That said, I looked at some of the pro splits up the climb and they were 2 mph faster than me, which is a ton at such a grade. St. George is definitely a good race for me. I've realized I tend to do well on hilly courses but not so well on windy courses (e.g., HITS Palm Springs).
After 20 minutes or so the climb was over and I immediately took a swig of my electrolyte drink then cracked it into high gear pushing hard on the initial descent. Now we were flying plugging at 30-45 mph for the next 8 miles. It is critical to maintain a high speed during descents to make up for speed lost during the incline. I passed a few riders down the hill and got into a dueling match with a few guys on the way down. I've discovered I love racing this way, it actually feels like racing as opposed to just "completing the race." Further, everyone benefits because the speed of the overall split tends to increase. I coasted into T-2 in 2:26 (22.9 mph) and change on the bike, the third fastest in my age group. To put this into perspective, German World Champion Sebastiaan Kienle notched a 2:07, which I think was the fastest on the day. I had exited the water in 49th place in my age group, but had moved up to 7th place after the bike split. Strava power put me at an average of nearly 290 Watts, although I think this is probably inflated due to a tail wind on part of the course. Nevertheless, the bike performance was my best of the three splits, and positions me quite well for IMCDA. My new Felt DA-3 bike is freaking awesome.
We had to stow all our T-2 running equipment in a bag. I wracked my bike and quickly put on my visor, socks, and my running shoes. I used to run without socks but that usually leads to nasty blisters -- forget that. I grabbed a gel, my race belt, and half a roll of Tums, as my stomach was starting to get angry. Note: stomach problems often crop up in long distance triathlon. This is a major concern for fast athletes and/or during ironman competition. Halfs are less of a nutrition battle but can still be problematic on the gastro-intestinal.
Upon exiting transition I felt like I was going 2 mph so I looked down at my watch and I was actually clocking a 6:00 min/mile pace. The course hangs a left and immediately begins a three mile climb. Sweet. My goal was to keep my heart-rate between 150-160 bpm, as this was about the maximum I was able to handle after hard bikes during training. As I began the climb my pace dropped into the 7:00s. I knew this would happen and ran according to heart-rate and did not go nuts. A guy passed me at this point and I thought, wow, that's good for my character. I'm not used to that. Then, three miles later, another guy, who later, I found out was named Francois, passed me. That one really hurt. When I began triathlon, I would get to the run and start passing fools left and right. This happened because my swim and bike were terrible. The faster I have become on the bike, the fewer competitors there are to pass, and the competitors that get off the bike around my time are often very good runners. I thought of this as I was running, and concluded, oh well, that is a first world problem of the highest order. I am choosing to put myself through this process.
The course leveled off and then we began a descent. Here it is essential to run fast down the hills. I had prepared well for St. George because there are lots of hills in my neighborhood. So I run up them, but also down them. Amazing. The temperature was steadily increasing now moving into the 90s. That really sucks but I had a good plan for that: at each station lots of water and ice down the front and back. This helps cool the core temperature and allows you to maintain your near maximum speed. I am proud of myself for how good I have gotten at taking in water, ice, Perform, coke, banana, gel, water, and ice down the hatch without walking. Indeed, I did not stop at one aide station -- which I had had to do at my last half ironman. I continued the march; after about 20 minutes into the run my legs finally started to feel strong again. Indeed, those first few miles after the bike always suck. During the run I probably took in 2-3 gels, but otherwise I took my calories in via coke and Perform. At the turnaround I saw a few guys that I recognized from the bike that were tailing me. This made me uncomfortable, plus, my halfway time was 45 minutes, which would put me at an unconvincing 1:30 overall time. So I dug deep and picked up the pace. My heart rate was now closer to 156. I told myself, just make it to mile 10 and the last three will be downhill. Now I passed a few people, including several women pros. Unfortunately one guy tracked me down, but as he approached I stepped on it and began the descent at a 5:50 pace. I just let gravity take over and tried to hold the guy off as long as possible. I created some space but he eventually got me with about a mile and a half to go. "Awesome pace, bro" is what he said. I couldn't hate though, he was evidently from California and a great athlete.
I decided not to trip him. But about that time, I heard a large bang. I looked to my right and a biker was laying on the ground not moving and people had run over to assess the damage. The dude had hit a cone during the final descent into T-2. That could kill somebody at 30 mph, so hopefully he is alright. Later, I searched around the internet but could not find anything. This is the second time I have seen a biker biff it during a triathlon. There was nothing I could do so I just gave it my all all the way through the finish line. There's something about the ironman chute that excites me, so I motivated the crowd as I came in. My final run time was 1:25 and change (a 6:30 pace which is exactly what I was targeting), resulting in an overall time of 4:30. Needless to say, I was elated. This was a nice improvement over my previous half ironman time and on one of the hardest courses in the country.
I notched seventh place in my division, so I decided to attend the roll-down ceremony. The top four athletes from my division were awarded a slot to the 70.3 World Championships to be held in early September in Quebec, Canada. Only two of those athletes took their slots, which meant the slots would roll down to the fifth and sixth place athletes. Neither of these gentlemen attended the roll-down ceremony, so the slot fell to me. I decided to take it, because as anyone who races Ironman brand events knows, age-group slots are extremely competitive. I did not know whether I would have this chance again. So I'm going to the Worlds in the early fall, which is awesome! With the event complete, Dylan and I rolled up to a local pub and had a 4% beer and some fries. Even at 4:00pm there were still plenty of people rolling in. It was a long day for me, but even longer for them. At 6:30pm we left downtown St. George and the clock read 94F. Wow. This was, definitively, my favorite race to date.
By day I am a political scientist studying campaigns, public opinion, and race and ethnic politics. By early morning and/or night I am an endurance athlete.