During the summer, I saw an advertisement for an impressive discount for the HITS Palm Springs triathlon series. HITS is a fairly recent triathlon brand offering sprint, olympic, half-iron, and ironman distance races over the course of a weekend. The deal was so good I opted for the full distance (ironman). This would be my third full ironman, and I targeted a sub-10 hour time given the flat nature of the bike course. I then called up my buddy/coach, Aaron Scheidies, who wrote up a 10 week plan beginning three weeks after Ironman Louisville (late August). My two goals for the race were sub-10 hours and a W. Given that there would likely be but 100 competitors in the full the W was realistic. Indeed, the previous two winners posted times in the 9:50s, which, based on my training and previous results, was within striking distance.
Before I get to the race I want to say a few things about HITS. The series and organization is fantastic; and I will be very surprised if they do not continue to grow. The race director is probably the best in the sport, cracking jokes and showing concern for the athletes the whole time. Unlike my experience at IM Louisville, HITS provided a nice meal right there at the finish line. Moreover, the prices are reasonable. So many triathlons these days cost a full month's wages, and accordingly have become somewhat elitist affairs cholkablock with expensive bikes and gear. With HITS there is a wider range of participants, leaning towards the greener side but that is beginning to change evidenced by the fairly fast olympic and half-iron top-10 finish times.
I arrived in Palm Springs the Friday before the Saturday race. I stayed at my roommate's place in the Springs, but the race was actually 40 minutes away in La Quinta. I got a 30 minute easy massage at the race venue and took a quick dip in the lake. It was cold, definitely below 60 possibly mid 50s. I rubbed some vaseline on my face and double-bagged my swim-cap. This seemed to help so I planned to do that on race day. I then drove most of the bike course, which appeared flat but had many cracks and bumps. Furthermore, looking at the weather forecast I saw that air temperature the next morning would be in the low 40s topping out in the mid-to-upper 50s during the day, all with a possibility of precipitation. This presented a clothing situation, so I decided to pack my special needs bike bag with gloves and a few other warm items. I decided to make a judgment call coming out of the water whether to wear a jacket on top of my tri-suit, so I would have my jacket in transition. I also purchased some toe covers for my bike shoes -- which turned out to be an excellent decision. After leaving the facility, I stopped off at a grocery store to get some breakfast items, then went to an Italian restaurant on my way back to where I was staying.
The race began at 7am, so I woke up at 4am and had breakfast: two 350 calorie ensures, half a bagel with peanut butter, and an applesauce, blueberry, banana, granola mix. One never sleeps well the night before a big race, but my sleep was decent all things considered. I will say it is a lonely feeling packing for an ironman all by yourself. Knowing that you will be putting yourself through the gauntlet with no fan support is challenging, but that is how it goes sometimes. I left the house about 5am, and stopped off at a gas station to get some tums on the way. This would be my insurance against the inevitable stomach issues that crop up towards the latter half of the bike and into the run. This also proved a wise decision. I got into transition probably around 6am or so, and it seemed half the crowd was already in their wetsuit. It always amazes me how so many people get to the race way too early. I prefer not to hang out and get even more nervous. I set my transition up how I wanted it and then went for an easy warm-up jog around 6:30. By 6:45 we were down by the water and I did a quick warmup swim just to prepare my body for the cold.
At 7am the half-iron and iron males lined up for a beach start, which was actually my first such start. There were around 300 of us or so. I lined up fairly close to the front but not in front as I am not a fast swimmer. It is times like these that I realize just how short/small I am! No bother I thought, I will still kick 95% of their asses. My plan was to get away from people as fast as possible and hope to draft people going by me. The course was an out and back loop, which the fulls had to do four times with a little jog in between each loop. The gun went off and all hell broke loose. I tried to stay steady in my breathing and basically rolled with the chaos. We got to the first big buoy and then people stood up as we rounded it, as we were in shallow water. We then bent left for 10 meters or so and left again back to the start area. Things thinned out somewhat here and I was able to get into an easier groove but the wind had picked up a bit so one had to be careful not to take in water during each breath. The crowd thinned as time went on and by the third lap only the super slow half-ironman racers were left, in addition to the 100 or so full ironman athletes. As I entered the water for the third loop some idiot dove in and clocked me in the right eye/goggle. My initial reaction was to give him a beating but I knew that would be useless and obviously it was a mistake on his part, albeit a stupid mistake. Seriously, what a lack of awareness. A few minutes later I began to see some full participants walking along the edge of the shore. It seemed like cheating to me so I let one of them know. At this point my arms and feet were getting numb, so I turned my focus back to the swim and tried to speed up for the last lap. I exited at 1:07 apparently in ninth place. My friend, Sebastiaan (whose wife was doing the 1/2) was waiting for me by the swim exit and we had negotiated in advance that he would strip my wetsuit. The plan worked well, as stripping the wetsuit by myself would have been hard with numb hands.
I got to transition quickly and put on my bike shoes, helmet, etc., and got going. I wasn't all that cold other than my extremities so I opted against the jacket. Apparently there was a party in transition but I didn't get the memo. I came out in 2:30 and change; almost everyone else was 8, 9, 10 minutes, some 14, others 30 minutes, but then I remembered I was in Southern California.
With the quick transition, within a few miles it turned out I was in second place. The bike course was a three-loop mostly flat course -- although my Garmin had me with about 2,000 feet elevation gain. About mile 15, I got a look at the leader on the out and back on Pierce Road -- the only section of the course that was strictly for the full distance. He was riding hard and already had a 15-20 minute lead. I kept my beats per minute between 135-140 per the race plan and my training and decided against chasing him. On my way back from the Pierce turnaround I saw a huge pit bull chase and attack a rider going the other way. Luckily the rider avoided a direct hit. That had my adrenaline pumping, so I was ready for him the next go round with water bottle in hand. I was still in second place at the end of the first and second laps, but the wind was picking up drastically and it was hard to get into any sort of rhythm. It seemed the wind was always a head or crosswind; and only rarely a tailwind. Even though I was keeping my bpm in the correct zones I was unable to get extended periods of time with more than 20 mph.
Around mile 90 or so, I was passed by a few guys. The wind had really picked up halfway through the bike (up to 38 mph wind gusts) and at one point I was riding 9 mph on a flat. The wind greatly affected me as my power started to weaken. I realized I would not make my time goal of 5:15/5:20; moreover I'd be lucky if I even got the same bike time as Louisville. This, coupled with the ever-present stomach queasiness that develops around mile 80 put me in a bad mood. While I figured during the run I'd catch the few people who passed me, it seemed unlikely I'd eventually catch the leader unless he took a dump during the run. That would be unlikely since he'd likely ease off on the speed -- given his large lead -- to ensure he could keep going. The pity party continued as I slogged through the last 15 miles on the bike, and I noticed at times that my heart rate was dropping under 135 bpm. When I could, I took in nutrition, which I knew would help alleviate some of my bad attitude. I took in gels, gummies, tums, heed, some water, and perpetuem throughout and in general I'd say that my fueling strategy was effective.
I arrived in transition probably in fifth place, at least that is what someone told me whilst in transition. However, I exited transition in fourth place as one of the guys was taking his sweet time. My transition was pretty fast, again in the 2:00 range. I took another roll of tums with me along with some sports beans and of course my salt pills, which I began taking every 30 minutes about an hour into the run.
As I exited, I assessed how I was feeling, and despite feeling down on the bike, my initial pace was strong and my stomach felt alright. Furthermore, it was not hot, so I figured I had a shot at a run P.R., even if I would not P.R. the event. The run is two out and backs, mostly flat with aide stations every mile and a half or so. The wind was at my back the first two miles or so, and people from the half coming in looked to be struggling. My target race pace was 7:30 so I pushed that down a bit to 7:00/7:15 for the first two miles just to take advantage of the wind. I also planned to take water and heed at each station for the first few miles and slowly begin working in the calories depending on how the stomach felt. Indeed, this was the general trend and I didn't walk my first aide station until about mile 16 or 18. My pace stayed at about 7:30 through the halfway point. I passed the third place guy around mile four and the second place guy around mile seven and a half. It seemed I had second place sowed up, but things began to unravel some between miles 15-21. This almost always happens to everyone (at least I think so) -- the key here is not to walk and to be disciplined about how far you let yourself slip. This is the point were mentally weaker athletes begin to walk, so I make it a point to not let that happen.
The pace simply began to slow, and accordingly my beats per minute dropped under 140. Around mile 20 or so I finally stopped at an aide station to fuel up. My pace had been slowing for a mile or two and I felt like crap. As usual, at this point I was wondering why I was doing this and that things would have been easier if I had just signed up for the half. The key here is to think just 15 minutes ahead and to set mini-goals...only a 10K left, and things like that. So I had some pretzels, coke, water, heed, and then a bite-sized snickers. The latter seemed to do the trick. I began running and my pace started to slow to the high 8 minutes and even into the 9s a little. I set my new goal to not go over 9:00 pace and then refueled similarly at the next aide station. I started to feel a bit better and the adrenaline of knowing the finish line was in reach helped me to pick up the pace as I got it back to sub 8:00 for the last 3-4 miles. The temperature was dropping now and nighttime was here. However, I felt relatively strong the last few miles and just kept plugging away giving it what I had. I was on target to run around a 3:20 so I loosely set that as my goal.
Cars were leaving the triathlon site in droves -- people who had finished the half -- some giving a honk of support. As day turned to night and I was within a mile, I reflected a little bit on the situation. It truly was amazing to see people beginning the run course with headlamps on and zero fan support. While I also think it's silly to do an ironman if you are not strong and it will take you 16+ hours, I also find it amazing that people who are either too old or not physically gifted are nevertheless willing to do such an event. To know the race will take you 16 plus hours, that you will be running alone, in the dark, with zero fan support, that teams of people are not waiting for you at the finish line like WTC events, seems crazy. But it speaks to the human spirit and the desire to know one's personal limits, breaking points, and boundaries. We all have our reasons for doing ironman, but to see people conquering this event without any glory is a beautiful thing.
I crossed the line in second place with a time of 10:21 and change, about 20 seconds slower than my Louisville time. However, my run time was 3:22, a 17 minute improvement on my previous best ironman run and easily the fastest run of the day. The winner came in around 9:49, so it was an easy victory for him. I found out later he actually races pro, so I felt a little better about that. I was glad to simply be on the podium with him. While I was a bit disappointed because I didn't break 10 hours, given the horrible wind conditions on the bike, and the generally crappy weather, I knew "it wasn't my fault." Moreover, I got some pretty sweet swag for finishing second, including a Rudy Project race helmet, fuel belt stuff, and XX2i sunglasses. All things that I will use for once! So here's to a successful 2013 season, where I finished 10th, 1st, 9th, 104th, 1st, and 2nd in my six triathlons. My bike will have to improve a lot in 2014, but that's what is fun about this sport -- there is always something to improve upon.
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.