Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Race report: Augusta Ironman 70.3

After a tough first half-Ironman last June, I was determined to make my next Ironman 70.3 (as the official Ironman organization prefers to call a half) not suck as much. At Eagleman, my Garmin froze up halfway through the bike ride, then I cramped up, then I faced brutal headwinds, and finally ran in some of the hottest conditions I had ever faced. I finished in 5:55, beating my "B" goal but still coming out disappointed.

I had already signed up for the Augusta race when I ran Eagleman, but by all accounts Augusta was a friendlier event. By late September, the Georgia summer has usually lost most of its punch. The swim was a easy one, aided by a 1-knot river current, and there were great crowds to give support along the run. The bike course was hilly but still quite fast, with a downhill finish.

Things were looking up when I arrived in Augusta on Friday. The water temperature was 74.7, and seemed unlikely to rise to 76.1 (which would mean wetsuits were not allowed). I met up with friends Jen and Liz, and Jen and I decided to preview the swim course. We hopped in and swam the entire 1.2 miles in a leisurely 29 minutes—13 minutes faster than I raced Eagleman! That's some current aiding the swim!

On Saturday we drove through the bike course and saw that most of the hills looked quite manageable, and that there was ample shade on the course. We had a big pasta dinner, and went to bed early, visions of PRs dancing in our heads. This time my "B" goal was to beat my 5:55 at Eagleman. The "A" goal was a big stretch: Break 5:30.

I woke up at 5:10 on race day, 5 minutes before my alarm was set to go off. I got my gear ready, had a granola bar and banana for breakfast, and then asked Liz if she had heard anything about whether the race would be wetsuit-legal. She checked the race Facebook page and shrieked: "F***, it isn't!" The race director had assured everyone that it almost certainly would be at the pre-race briefing yesterday, but of course allowed that the official measurement had to be taken on race morning.

"Oh well, there goes five minutes of free speed," I thought, and pulled my wetsuit out of my gear bag. I also got rid of my calf sleeves, which are legal to wear on the swim under a wetsuit but not in an unaided swim. I certainly wasn't going to take the time to wrestle them on wet calves during transition.

After Liz, Jen, and I had finished commiserating about the lack of wetsuits in the race, all there was left to do was hop into the car with their partners, James and Steve, who would be our sherpas for the race. We set up our gear in the transition zone and walked the mile to the swim start. It was a beautiful, cool morning, but the weather forecast was for another hot day, similar to Eagleman last June. For now, however, it seemed much cooler and less humid. Here's a pre-race photo of me, Jen, and Liz:

Yes, we match. Jen (left) and Liz are on a fancy tri team, and I just match by accident

Several friends from Davidson were at this race, and I saw my bike training partner Jim, as well as fellow DARTers Nicole, Jack, Rebecca, and Randy, in the starting area. Jen and Liz's buddy Judd, who I had met on Friday, was also in my swim wave, so Judd and I chatted nervously as we watched the waves ahead of us start. We were both starting at 8:28, about an hour after the first swimmers had started.

Jen and Liz had started closer to 8 a.m., but it was difficult to spot them on the swim from our vantage point. Soon it was our turn to walk out onto the dock and hop into the water, which was refreshing at 77 degrees. It may not have been wetsuit-legal, but it was much cooler than the lake I'd been swimming in all summer, so it felt great. I could also feel the current dragging me on to the course. The dock was already lined with swimmers, so I grabbed on to the shoulder of another swimmer while we waited for the start. Finally we were off. In an instant it seemed like everyone took off in front of me.

Eventually I got going and headed down the river, trying to focus on good form. Somehow I could never really get into a groove, though. I wasn't struggling, but I could tell this was not ideal. Whenever I focused on one thing, like reaching straight ahead or keeping a solid core, something else would fall apart, like my arm position or my kicking form. Slowly, I passed buoy after buoy. I knew that the first half of the buoys would be yellow and the second half were orange, but I couldn't remember how many buoys there were. Was it 9 of each or 10 of each? After a while I noticed that the buoys were numbered. I passed 2, 3, 4, and 5. I passed 6, 7, and 8. I passed yellow buoy 9. Was I halfway home? I decided I'd let myself take a break and look at my watch when I got to the first orange buoy. The sun was in my eyes, though, so it was hard to see what color this next buoy was until I was right next to it. It was orange! Great! I looked at the watch quickly and saw 17-something for a time, and a distance of zero. Zero!?! Was my GPS not working? I looked again and it still said zero. I sincerely hoped this problem would not carry through to the bike and the run. Also, the 17-something time seemed really slow. If I was halfway done, then that time should be faster than 15 minutes. Surely I was going faster than Friday, when I had practically floated down the river.

All I could do was keep swimming. Periodically I got entangled with river grass, which again hadn't been much of a problem on Friday. I guess all these swimmers were churning things up. Slowly I passed the orange buoys, 1, 2, 3, then 4, 5, 6. Just three more! I could see the boat ramp where we'd be getting out of the water. I had been swimming close to the buoys, near the center of the river, to try to maximize the effect of the current. Now I had to cross over several swimmers in an attempt to get out closer to the shore and the swim exit. Finally we reached the exit and I ran out of the water. I had finished the swim in 35:06. Normally that's a great time for me for a 1.2-mile swim, but I knew I had swam the same distance 6 minutes faster just two days before. I don't think I was giving anything less than a full effort, so I guess I can chalk the difference up to the wetsuit and the choppy water from thousands of swimmers.

I ran up the ramp and around the transition area to find my bike. The transition went without a hitch; I took a moment to stop and get my back sprayed with sunscreen, then headed out for the ride after an official T1 of 3:41.

The start was narrow and crowded as we rode on a street that was partially fenced off for spectators. A lot of cyclists were taking their time getting going so I passed as many as I could. Then we headed onto the the highway. The first five miles were flat and I was easily maintaining speeds of 22-23 mph. That seemed a little fast but as long as I wasn't exerting myself I decided that was fine. I was steadily passing other riders. There seemed to be more room here to do this compared to Eagleman because the bikes had a full lane of a four-lane highway. The next section was also mostly flat and again I was able to keep my average speed above 20 mph. I set my watch to display heart rate while my cycle computer showed speed and distance. I figured as long as my heart rate was below 150 I would not be pushing too hard on the ride.

At Mile 10 we turned on to the detour section of the ride. Instead of another long, flat stretch, we'd have to climb two major hills. The first one was a long burner, and the bikes quickly bunched up. I found I had plenty of energy, and my heart rate was down in the 130s, so I pushed the pace and passed riders in clumps. I kept my effort up as we crested the hill and turned onto another 4-lane highway. Now we had a long downhill stretch and I kept pedaling to make up for the speed I'd lost on the climb. I finished the section with a 19-mph pace, despite the major climb, which gave me confidence that I might be able to finish the ride averaging faster than 20 miles per hour, faster than I did on the flat Eagleman course. Soon I finished the second climb on the detour, again averaging 19 mph from mile 15-20. The next 5 miles was more of the same. Around Mile 25, I caught up with Judd, who asked me how I was doing. I said I felt pretty good, and we stayed near each other for the next five miles or so. I passed him for good around Mile 30, where I was finally able to get my average pace back above 20 mph.

All I needed to do now was stay strong until Mile 40, where I knew the course would become predominantly downhill or flat, all the way to the finish. Again I averaged around 19 mph for the next two sections. At Mile 40 I was ready for the downhill to start! Unfortunately it didn't quite start exactly at Mile 40. But it did start soon after, and I found my pace steadily increasing to an average of 21.9 mph from mile 40-45! There were some sections where I was hanging on for dear life, not wanting to sacrifice speed, but not wanting to die either, as the squirrelly tri bike approached 40 mph! A couple of times I succumbed to the urge to move my hands out of the aero position so as to be closer to the brakes, but I resisted the urge to actively brake. Mile 45-50, with a bit more climbing, went by at 21 mph. Finally we hit the serious downhill finish and my speed quickened to 23.8. I kept pedaling on the flats as we neared the transition zone, passing more cyclists before stopping and leaping off the bike. Total time for the ride was 2:45:39, a 20.5 mph average.

But my first few steps off the bike were wobbly. I had to run most of the length of the transition zone, perhaps 150 yards, with my bike, wearing bike shoes and cleats. I tried to run but the legs simply wouldn't cooperate. I decided a fast walk would be the wiser choice. Soon I was sitting on the ground next to my gear, pulling off my bike shoes and putting on the running shoes. I decided to spray myself down completely with sunscreen. Then I grabbed my hat and race belt and ran for the exit. Fortunately the running seemed easier now. My decision to spray myself with sunscreen turned out to be a good one—I didn't see a race volunteer at the run exit to cover me with another layer.

My total time at the start of the run was 3 hours and 28 minutes, which meant that all I needed in order to beat 5:30 for the race was a 2-hour half-marathon. Anyone can do that, right? The running seemed easy at this point. To run a 2-hour half, you need to do 9:09 per mile. I looked down at my watch and saw that I was running a 7:50 pace. Calm down, Munger, I told myself, don't rush things. I decided to limit myself to no faster than 8:30 per mile for the first 6 miles. If I felt good at that point, I could pick up the pace. But somehow I didn't manage to do that, and ran too fast. Mile 1: 8:17; Mile 2: 8:22; Mile 3: 8:34; Mile 4: 8:24. Meanwhile the temperature was climbing over 90 degrees, and the mid-day sun blazed straight down from overhead.

The aid stations were supposed to be "about every mile" but there had been a 1.7-mile gap from mile 2.3 to 4. Then that aid station didn't have ice. I had been loading my hat with ice at every station in an effort to keep cool. I wouldn't have that luxury for the next mile, and it showed in my pace, 9:17 for Mile 5. The next aid station was 1.4 miles away, and the extra 0.4 seemed to take an eternity. No ice at that aid station either. Grrrrr.

Fortunately the next aid station came quickly, and was fully stocked with ice. My pace, which had been 9:39 for Mile 6, dropped to 9:04 for Mile 7. Somewhere around this point, Nicole, who had started 8 minutes ahead of me, and who I had passed on the ride, passed me almost effortlessly. I said she was running well, and she growled "I just want to get this over with." Whatever it takes to motivate yourself! Meanwhile, my pace slowed again, 10:23 for Mile 8. I was in the second loop of the run, and I knew I'd soon hit the section where the aid stations were 1.7 miles apart. I did okay for the first stretch with no aid, but I eventually had to stop for a 20-second walk-break before I got to the aid station. Finally I reached the aid station and let myself walk through it, and for some distance past it. Mile 9: 9:04, Mile 10: 10:08. I was beginning to doubt I could keep running between every aid station when I saw a familiar face: It was Heather, a fellow DARTer form Davidson. I didn't know she was going to be here as a spectator. "DAVE!" Heather screamed, with open arms. It looked like she wanted to give me a bear hug.

I was pretty sure I would collapse into a heap if I got a bear hug at that moment, so I said "High Five!" and somehow managed to miss out on a hug AND a high-five. But still, seeing a familiar face cheered me up, and I pressed on. I didn't speed up, but I didn't slow down. Mile 11: 10:04.

I looked at the total elapsed time on my watch: 5:09. If I could finish in 21 minutes, I'd break 5:30. But though my watch had clicked Mile 11, the Mile 11 marker was nowhere in sight. By the time it arrived, my watch said 5:11. That's 19 minutes for 2.1 miles, or roughly a 9:00 pace. Could I do that? I wasn't sure. It was hot. My feet were sore. I didn't know where or when I'd get ice to cool off. My next mile took 9:41. That meant I'd have to do the last 1.1 miles at an 8:20 pace. There was simply no way. No way. I sort of gave up at this point, slowing to the slowest of jogs, and stopping for a very leisurely final aid station. I ran Mile 13 in 11:05. But suddenly, the finish line was right ahead of me, sooner than I expected. I ran for it. I ran through. I stopped my watch.

I finished in 5:31:33. I just might have had time to crack 5:30 after all—argh! I guess the last couple mile markers were off but the overall race was accurate; I had the run distance at 13.13 miles. Still, all in all I really can't complain—this was much better than I did at Eagleman. My pace on the run was much more consistent (probably mainly because I had a functioning GPS unit), and I was nearly a full mile per hour faster on the ride. Conditions here at Augusta were nearly as tough as at Eagleman, but I was able to overcome them for a 23-minute PR.

I got my medal and limped to the finish area, where I grabbed a banana and a Coke and collapsed on the ground. Fortunately helpful volunteers offered to bring additional food and water, so I sat and chatted with the other exhausted finishers next to me. I was spent. After 15 minutes or so I had recovered enough to walk to the restaurant where Stephen and James had set up a spectator station. There were Jen and Liz, who had both finished in PR times as well. Here's our semi-official finishers' photo:

Everything is better with beer!

And here I am soaking in my finishing effort.

Everything is even better with even more beer!

I later found that my DART buddies Nicole, Jack, Rebecca, and Randy had also had strong races; Nicole and Jack completed their first-ever 70.3 races, and Randy had a first-ever sub-5:00 70.3. Congratulations to all the survivors of Augusta 70.3 2016!

My Garmin record of the race is below: