Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Race report: Eagleman Ironman 70.3

Near the end of my 4-month stay in India last fall, I began ruminating on the idea of completing a half-Ironman. I was starting to recover from my hamstring injury, but still didn’t seem to have much speed running. But in a half-iron distance you don’t really need to run that fast. I could run as slow as 9-minute miles and still end up with a very respectable time in a half. How hard could it be?

Before I knew it, I had signed up for not one but two IM 70.3 events: Eagleman, in June, and Augusta, Georgia, in September. Eagleman, in Cambridge, MD, was nice and flat but could be hot, and Augusta, while not flat, had a very fast downstream swim and great crowd support on the run.

On Sunday I completed the first of the two races, which proved to be everything I had heard about. It was perfectly, absolutely flat, and it was brutally hot. I had done some heat-acclimation runs over the previous two weeks, so I felt confident that I could run pretty well in hot weather, and I had ridden the flattest terrain I could find in hopes of preparing for the flat course on the ride.

The plan was to swim the 1.2 miles at a steady pace, within my capabilities, then ride according on heart rate, staying in zone 3, around 130-140 bpm. Based on previous rides, this would probably be somewhere around 21-22 mph for the 56-mile course. Finally I’d just let it all hang out on the 13.1-mile run, hopefully hitting that 9-minute pace or even a bit faster. If I did all that I should be comfortably under five and a half hours for the whole race. If the heat or something else got to me, I hoped to still finish under six hours.

I awoke feeling strong on race morning. My wave started at 7:32 so I walked from our B&B at 5:30, planning to arrive at the start, a mile away, by 6:00. There was a beautiful sunrise, so I stopped to take a photo before checking in to the transition area.

Looking good...for now!
The morning already felt quite warm. It was nearly 80 degrees, and the skies were clear, so it was only going to get hotter. As I set up my gear in the transition area, a large moth landed right next to my shoe! I stopped to take another picture of this surprise!

One of the biggest I've ever seen!
The other competitors in my area were all in the same age group, and we chatted nervously about our race plans as we set up our gear. I took care to slather myself with sunscreen before heading to the swim start with my wetsuit. I found a shady spot to sit down and wait for the race start, still 45 minutes away.

Finally, with 20 minutes to go, I struggled into my suit and lined up at the start. Each swim wave of 100-150 people started 4 minutes apart, and the groups lined up together before finally wading into the water. Before I knew it, it was my turn to go! Into the water I went, and we were off!

The start wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be and I was able to find clear water fairly quickly. The salty water surprised me — this was the first open-water swim I’d done in saltwater, and I wasn’t quite ready for the taste of it. But soon I adjusted and tried as best as I could to focus on form and swim in a straight line.

The course was a U-shape, with the longest segments being the “arms” of the U. Swimming along the first arm, the water wasn’t very rough, and my main concern was just sighting the buoys and avoiding other swimmers. Finally I arrived at the first turn and headed towards shore. Now I was swimming straight into the chop, and the going was a little tougher. I had swam in bigger waves, so these were more of an annoyance than anything but I’m sure they slowed me down a bit. I tried to look at my watch to see how well I was doing, but I couldn’t see the screen and decided not to worry about it.

Here there were spectator boats and support kayaks along the outside of the course. I was trying to stay clear of the other swimmers but the kayaks insisted that I swim close in to the buoys, which was a bit annoying; I was just looking for clear water. Whatever. Just swim, Munger!

Finally I rounded the last corner and headed for home. Once again the water smoothed out and I could just focus on my swim form. I noticed some swimmers in green caps (my wave all had yellow caps). Was this the previous wave catching up to us or me catching some of the wave ahead of us? Whatever. Just swim, Munger!

I was actually surprised at how quickly the swim finished. I hopped out of the water and ripped off the top of my wetsuit. I always have trouble getting my legs out, so I opted to use one of the volunteer wetsuit-strippers, and together we wrestled the rest of the suit off. I hopped back on my feet and ran for my bike. Greta was there cheering me on and got a neat photo of me running for the transition:

Still looking good!
I dried my feet and got ready to put on my socks — wait, where were my socks? I knew I had an extra pair in my bag but I was sure I had laid them out. I looked frantically around and finally found them behind me, three feet away; they must have been dragged over there as I pulled out the towel. Otherwise the transition went without a hitch. I put on my HRM strap, shoes and helmet, and took the time to reapply sunscreen, then ran off with my bike.

I ran through the gate, hopped on, and started riding, but struggled to clip in. What was going on? Finally I realized what was the matter. I had left the cleat covers on my shoes! Argh! There was nothing to do but stop my bike and put them on, a hundred yards in to the ride. A volunteer urged me to move off the road because other riders might not be looking ahead as they struggled to clip in. I ripped off my cleat cover and threw it in the grass in disgust. “That’s a litter penalty,” the volunteer noted. Crap! He's right! I got all the way off my bike and grabbed the cleat cover. My tri top had tiny pockets and I struggled to cram it in the pocket. Then I took off the second cover and took even longer to find the other pocket for that one. Ugh! I had lost at least a minute of my precious ride time. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, I got back on the bike and rode off, clipping in easily this time.

Then I remembered my HRM. I had forgotten to start it at the transition area, so I reached over to turn it on. The HRM is turned on by holding its center button for three seconds. I carefully counted to three and let it go. Not I just had to wait for my Garmin to recognize it. I waited 15 or 20 seconds and then glanced down at the watch. No HR. Was the HRM not on or was the watch just failing to recognize it? I didn’t know. I decided not to worry about it — I could just ride in that 21-22 mph range and figure that was good enough.

For the most part this speed seemed comfortable. I could spin easily and maintain that speed without putting an unmanageable burden on my legs. At this pace, I was passing lots and lots of riders. It was almost annoying, saying “on your left” over and over again. I guessed I was doing pretty well! Still, I got passed, fairly often too, so it’s not like I was some cycling beast out there.

There was around a 10-mph wind that day, and I soon figured out that the ride seemed easy when I was going with the wind and much tougher when I was heading into it. My speed varied from about 18 mph to 24 mph, and I wished I had the HRM data to make sure I was giving it a consistent effort.

The mile markers clicked by every 5 miles, and my watch beeped on auto-lap, indicating that my Garmin was doing its job properly. That is, until we got to Mile 20. There was no beep from my Garmin, and I noticed that we were only 9:34 into the split. There’s no way I could ride 5 miles that fast; a 22-mph pace works out to around 13:30. I didn’t worry too much about it at the time, just kept looking at my speedometer and trying to maintain that 20-22 mph pace.

Then I got to Mile 25, and there had still been no “beep” from the Garmin. I glanced at it again and saw the same 9:34 time. Uh-oh. Had I accidentally stopped the watch? No, that would have put the Garmin on a different screen. I reached over to press the buttons on the watch, but there was no response, no matter what button I pushed. Dammit, the GPS had frozen up. Now I had no Garmin in addition to no HRM. There was nothing I could do about that; I just needed to focus on riding.

I had planned to consume 600 calories during the ride by drinking Tailwind, a Gatorade-like concoction that was easier on my stomach. Each scoop of Tailwind powder is 100 calories, so I had put two scoops mixed with water in my main water bottle mounted on my handlebars and four scoops with water in my backup bottle on the seat tube. There were four aid stations on the ride, so if I drained the main bottle each time and replenished it with about a third of my backup bottle plus water from the aid station, I’d never had to drink the warm, super-concentrated beverage in the backup bottle straight up. The plan worked pretty well, because as the day warmed up, I got cold water from the aid stations and the resulting mixture was never too warm or too sweet. Keeping my mix right helped distract me from my technological woes.

Around Mile 30, though, another problem began to impose itself. My legs were starting to cramp up. I think the new saddle, which was very comfortable for my tush and privates, was not so comfortable on my inner thighs, which began to throb in protest. After a while, the pain was almost unbearable. I tried slowing down, but it hardly seemed to help. I tried standing and pedaling for a time, and that did seem to help, but the pain would resume nearly as fast as I was back down in the saddle. Between adjusting my position by standing, riding upright, and the more-efficient aero position I was able to come to a compromise, but still, it hurt. A lot. And I had over 25 miles to go.

Each mile marker brought a little relief. Mile 35; only 21 to go. Mile 40, just 16 left! But around Mile 45 we were slammed with the worst headwinds of the ride. Would we be riding into the wind for the last 10 miles? My pace slowed to 16, even 14 mph. The slower I went, the longer this would go on. Argh! Finally the course turned, and we got some relief from the wind. It was blowing more from the side now. I wasn’t able to ride 22 mph, but at least I was in the high teens. Then we were riding along the run course, and I could see some of the race leaders. We were past Mile 50 now, so there were less than 6 miles to go! I pushed as hard as I could for the last bit of the ride, then finally arrived at the transition area. I was done with the ride! But would I have anything left for the run?

I got off the bike and tried to run with the bike to my spot. It was a struggle, but I could do it. I was moving faster than most of the other riders. I put my bike away, then wrestled my running shoes on, applied more sunscreen, and threw on my hat. I was ready to go. I had been holding back the urge to pee, and now I saw there was a row of porta-potties with only one person waiting for them. I hadn’t managed to pee off the bike, which is the “pro” move, so it seemed prudent to wait a few seconds for an open stall. I went in, did my business, and ran off. The transition took under five minutes, the same as T1, so I think I made the right call.

The run was where I was really going to miss my Garmin. You can’t really look at it while you swim anyways, and the speedometer on the bike gives you at least some information, but on the run, I always rely heavily on the GPS. Even worse, during a tri, there are no clocks on the course. They wouldn’t help much since everyone starts the race at a different time. A couple of times I asked other runners their pace, but I didn’t know if they were pausing during the rest areas, whether they were giving instantaneous pace or average pace, and in any case, it was either someone I was passing or who was passing me, so our paces were by definition different. After a while I gave up on doing even that, and just tried to run by feel.

Occasionally I’d look down at my watch, which said 9:34, as it had since Mile 18 of the ride, and I’d think “Oh that’s not too bad,” but then I’d remember. DOH!

But the main thing I had to contend with was the heat. It was 87 degrees by now, and there was practically no shade on the course. Mile after mile, I baked in the sun. I was passing lots of runners, which was encouraging, but I had no idea if I was running at my target of at least 9-minute miles. Fortunately there were aid stations nearly every mile. I decided early on to walk through each aid station, getting plenty of water, and taking a cup of ice. I’d put half the ice in my hat, then hold on to the remaining ice cubes in my hands. When my hands got numb, I put the ice down my shirt. I was jealous of the women, who could put ice in their jog bras. My ice would slide all the way down inside my shirt to my belt, where it didn’t seem to do much good.

Around Mile 6 we turned onto a shady road, “Lover’s Lane,” which offered some relief, but now there was no cooling breeze. Then it was back into the sun at Mile 7, and instantly I missed the shade. Here there was a timing mat, and I found out later that I’d averaged 9:25 for the first 7 miles. Just 6.1 to go!

At Mile 8 we joined back onto the same road with the cyclists, and I was amazed to see that there were still some riders on the course. If I was feeling bad, I could only imagine what they were going through!

At each aid station I repeated the same routine, and I felt like I was running about the same pace. Lots of runners were stopping to walk between the aid stations, but I kept telling myself “you can run a freaking mile Munger!” I never stopped between the aid stations.

At Mile 10 one of the runners said “Only 3 miles left, right? Anyone can run 3 miles!” I agreed, silently noting that there were actually 3.1 miles left.

I told myself I could pick up the pace here; I was almost done. I’m not sure I really did speed up, but I think that at least kept me from slowing down too much. I kept looking out for mile markers, but not seeing any. Surely we were past Mile 11 by now? Shouldn’t Mile 12 be close? But I didn’t see one more marker. Maybe I missed them, maybe they had fallen down, but it was especially frustrating to not see the markers when I didn’t have a Garmin telling me how far I’d run.

Finally we arrived at the river and we could see the finish area in the distance. It seemed tiny and far away, but surely it must be less than a mile, right? At the last aid station I walked, but I didn’t stop to put ice in my hat; I just held it in my hands and started running right away. This probably saved about 10 seconds but it felt like I was making a “strong” move. I pushed harder, trying to pick up the pace as we neared the finish line. The other runners were pushing too, and so for the first time I wasn’t really passing anyone. The transition area came into view, but I knew we had to run past it, out to the point. Just keep running, Munger.

Then I was in the finish chute, and people were cheering, and the announcer was saying “Here’s Dave Munger, from North Carolina, a first-time Eagleman,” and I was running across the finish line with my arms raised!

I had done it, and I wasn’t dead. I got my medal, and my hat, and a big bottle of water, and wandered through the finish area looking for Greta. Then I found the food, and got more water, and gatorade, and some cookies, and sat down, and eventually Greta found me.

“How did I do?” I asked her. “I think you did great,” she said. I still didn’t know what my time was. I was pretty sure I hadn’t finished in under 5 and a half hours, but maybe under 6 hours? She had the results on her phone: 5:55:05. Not the best possible result, but still a solid performance in these conditions. I was okay with it.

I had done the swim in 42:41, a 1:59/100 pace, which was very good for me.

The ride took 2:52:46, an average of 19.45 mph. The cramps and headwinds in the second half had definitely slowed me down.

The run was 2:09:50, a very slow (for me) 9:54 pace. Again, I slowed way down on the second half. But actually my run was the fastest of the three legs relative to my age group — I was 45th on the run among males 45-49.

Overall I was 73rd out of 209 in my division, so not bad for a first effort. Again, I was hoping for more, but I will take this.

I do think that a couple of adjustments could have given me a much better result. A different saddle, one that doesn’t cause my legs to cramp up, could have saved me 5-10 minutes on the ride. And I think I could have at least maintained my first-half of the run pace of 9:25 for the whole run if I’d had a working Garmin to let me know where I stood. That would have saved me another 6 minutes, for 10 to 15 minutes faster overall. I’ve since learned how to reset a Garmin 920, so if it freezes up again, I can restart it (fyi, you hold the power button down for 15 seconds. I actually tried that on the run but only held it for 10 seconds. Aargh!).

But my first-ever half-Ironman is done, and I survived. I’m pretty sure Ironman isn’t going to be my thing, but I’ve learned to never say never. I’m definitely going to do the race at Augusta in the fall. Maybe I can get that elusive 5:30 there! Besides, as Brolympus points out, this one doesn't count: