My last major big race of the year came in early November, when I traveled to Lake Havasu City, AZ, not for Spring Break but rather to participate in the HITS Triathlon Festival. Last December I competed in the HITS Palm Springs Full Ironman distance race, so I knew precisely what to expect from the Havasu race. HITS is a national triathlon brand with a local flavor. Relative to WTC (Ironman brand) races, HITS races are not so competitive as there are few if any professionals/elites; however, the prices and customer service are much more reasonable. That said, anyone who participates in triathlon seriously has heard of HITS and likely has raced an event if it is within a few hours drive of their home. All of this is a long-winded professorial way of saying I usually have a chance to win a HITS race outright. Undoubtedly, this is exciting: there is nothing better than charging towards the finish line knowing you are the best athlete on the day.
Leading up to the race I was probably in my best fitness all year as I had done two half-ironmans in the previous two months and had remained injury-free. In addition, I had trained consistently all year long with a few weeks off after Ironman CDA in July. I was eager to see what times I could post as this was the first half-ironman this year for me that did not involve over 2700 feet of elevation gain on the bike and heat and hills on the run.
However, I was not well tapered for the race, as my legs were still exhibiting signs of soreness from the previous weekend’s 90 mile 7K elevation bike and 1:24 half marathon effort, as well as a tough track workout on Tuesday. This is because while the race was important to me, I have already started to shift my focus towards Ironman Texas, which is my first marque race of 2015. Nevertheless, I hit the road after work on Friday and drove the four-ish hours out to Lake Havasu to do some damage. The drive is beautiful replete with a desert sunset. As I explained to Sarah, “everyone else is here for fun, I came to do business.” But given my late drive I did not get a chance to view the course beforehand.
Per usual, I selected a campground within a mile or two from the race start. This made getting to the race on race-morning very easy and continues my trend of camping during ironman weekends. The only downside was that the run leg went right by my tent, twice. I would have to fight the urge to take a quick nap. I showed up to the race a little before 5 am, and it turned out I was the first person there. This turned out to be a good thing because I got everything handled with plenty of time and had the chance to get in a good warm-up. I saw some nice bikes but also some not-so nice ones, a las, this was not the 70.3 World Championships where I got a healthy dose of bicycle inferiority. In transition, I saw Coach Tony and Sinta, who seem to be at all my races lately. They’re unflappable!
Eventually I strapped on my wetsuit and walked down with everyone else to the beach start. I took in a gel with some water and then waited for about 15-20 minutes for the race to start. I’m usually blah before race start as I don’t drink a caffeine stimulant like coffee when I get up. I made sure to take a gel with a little caffeine in it and this perked me up a bit. After the National Anthem I got in a quick swim warm-up and then lined up in front.
The metaphorical gun banged once again and off we went. I focused on separating myself from the other hooligans and drafting as much as possible until the first buoy. I then turned left and swam into the sun. Eventually the pace settled in and I worked on rotating my hips more than I had in the past. The lead group separated but they were not too far ahead of me. I swam next to a few other guys/gals until the next buoy where we hung another left and caught a few people. Around this time, or shortly before, I unfortunately clocked some guy in the head. I apologized, “sorry man,” and hoped that it was good for his character. Always apologize when you do this because the last thing you want is some guy to tackle you and spike your heart-rate. Coming around the last buoy I felt like I was moving sort of slowly, but I kept another swimmer in my sights and tried to match her pace. Eventually we came to the end, and I started kicking my legs hard for the last hundred meters or so to prepare for the transition to bipedalism. I came out of the water, looked at my watch, and it said 28 minutes and change. This surprised me as I had never swum under 30 minutes in a half ironman. Perhaps the distance was a little short, but I’ll take it (for the record, triathletes only complain when the distance is too long...).
The transition was very fast as our bikes were basically on water’s edge – it really is a perfect setting with palm trees everywhere, etc. The other nice thing about HITS races is they give you a stool. I raced to my stool, sat down and got my wetsuit off more quickly than usual. I then put on my glasses and helmet and was heading out of T-1. The whole arrangement took a little less than 1:40, and I think it was the fastest on the day.
I moved onto the bike, made a few powerful pedal strokes and then velcroed one foot into my bike shoe then the other. My most successful swim-to-bike transition to date. My heart-rate was in the low 160s, and my adrenaline was pumping, so I started firing on the bike right away. A minute or two into the ride I put down a gel and took in some Heed electrolyte drink. I started the bike in 16th place or so, but there were people in my sights right away. Given my faster-than-usual swim I did not have as much ground to make up as what I’m used to.
I was mowing people down on the bike and by about 4-5 miles in I passed a guy who appeared to be in first place. He trailed me for a bit as we made our way through some no-pass twists and turns but as the road opened up he was gone. By mile 9-10 I passed a volunteer and asked him what place I was in. He said second, and that I was a few minutes back. Usually when an athlete puts that much time on everyone else on the swim in a race like this they are either mostly a one-trick pony or just way better than everyone else. I banked on number 1 so I kept firing.
The bike course is out and back, which you do twice. However, the turn-around is not a traditional turn-around but rather a loop through some extremely steep hilly sections. So I did not get a look at the leader. On my way back into town I asked another volunteer around mile 20 how far back was I, and they said about 1:30. Well, at the turn-around at transition I finally saw the leader and he was just making his way out of the transition and back up the short incline. This truly would have been disappointing for him. I had made up about 7 minutes on this guy in the first lap, and was planning on putting some more into him on the second lap. I caught him about 2 miles or so later and the nice thing was he was following a motorcycle escort.
As I came up on him I stepped on the gas so-to-speak and bumped my heart-rate up about 4-5 bpms for the next 5 minutes. I wanted to create as much separation as possible. I turned around and he was nowhere to be seen. I then followed the motorcycle the rest of the way posting a 2:23 bike split, which was about 13 minutes faster than the second fastest bike split. Even though the bike elevation gain was just 1700 feet or so, the slower split resulted in uneven roads and the course layout which involved several turns and slow sections that altogether probably tagged on at least 5 minutes. It was a blast, however, following the motorcycle because people (mainly other athletes) cheer you on as you fly by. This gives you much energy and I stayed positive as I hammered it into T-2. And unlike previous half-ironmans I managed to conserve my energy such that by mile 40 and 50, I was still feeling pretty strong and did not have that, “oh shit, my power is gone” feeling at all. I figured this augured well for the run.
I wracked my bike and heard the announcer say my name and that I was the first participant back into transition. I was in and out very quickly and out onto the run. I felt alright, better than in the past, but it takes about 2 miles to tell how you’re going to fare. I kept my heartbeat in the low 150 bpm region, which gave me a 6:20-6:30 pace for the time-being. I hung a right down into my campground and hit the first aide station. True to volunteer form, they were completely unprepared for me and I actually had to stop for a second and pick up the water. Luckily I had one spare gel with me so I chomped that just before hitting the station. I continued my pace through the campground and up the hill back onto the main looped road. In the process I saw my tent, it looked so lonely, but I decided to save the metaphysics for later. Upon exiting the campground there is a straightaway with full sun exposure and another aide station in the distance. I kept my pace consistent along this route, occasionally turning around to see if I could spot anyone. No one was in sight except bicyclists making their rounds. Many were giving me major props as they knew I was the leader. It’s quite an amazing feeling and this spurred me on.
I continued this basically for the rest of the run, but my pace slowed a bit on the second loop as the heat began to crop up a bit. The heat was just manageable, any hotter and the pace would have slowed considerably I think. Even though I knew I was probably way ahead I wanted to post a fast time so I decided to up my effort a bit to maintain my overall pace. Honestly, this was the best I had felt during a half-ironman, where normally by mile 8 I am regretting my decision to race. I thus bumped up my heartbeat to the high 150s, occasionally dipping into the low 160s. I maintained this as I continued my passing of first-loopers. We congratulated one-another on our excellent efforts, which is always a nice bit of camaraderie. The last two miles were a slog as my pace but not my effort dipped a little bit. Nonetheless I rolled across the finish line in first with a time of 4:18:38, posting a 1:24:37 run, my fastest half-iron run to date. Looking at the final results, the win was never really in doubt. Overall, it was a quality performance. Winning first in any race is exciting, but winning with a good time is more important to me. To boot, I won an Xterra wetsuit, a wireless mp3 player, and a Crowie-style fuel-belt.
In sum, this was definitely a break-out performance for me, as not too many amateurs go under 4:20 in even the most favorable conditions. My hard and consistent work, and my focus on diet, sleep, and learning as much as I can about triathlon training and preparation have all taken time to make their effects felt. But the rewards – even if mostly symbolic and ceremonial (i.e., no cash payments) -- are certainly worth it. Triathlon has made me a sharper, more critical thinker, and helps me deal with the various rigors and stresses of life -- I feel very fortunate and recognize my privilege to be able to participate in and afford this sport when others cannot. Thanks to Coach-Tony, Sinta Trocolli, and other Triathlon Connection folks for their support during and after the race, as well as Mark Wilson, the HITS Race Director, who is one of the kindest people I have met in the sport and a great ambassador (not that Tony and Sinta are not also kind!).
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.