Until now I’ve never actually raced a Half Ironman. I’ve survived plenty of them, but my #1 objective was always to pace myself cautiously so I could “feel good” by the end. Even with this strategy, I’ve still managed to regularly crack the top 5 …but I always feel like roadkill by the end of the race (My first 70.3 I literally cried at the finish because I was so relieved that it was finally over).
Longer distance racing is tough, and I usually hit a wall about 3-4 hours in. It could have something to do with the conditions of the particular races I’ve chosen, but I believe that 70.3 comes in a lot of flavors and “Easy” is never one of them.
My new experiment with Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz was to see how fast I could actually go… or at least how far I could get before Fast was no longer an option. I researched my competition, determined that the top finishers at Vineman 70.3 were coming back for more Half Ironman fun, and that the usual suspects were mostly in the 30-34 and 35-39 divisions. But one outlier, Laurence Delisle, only 23 years old, was a force to be reckoned with. She had claimed 2nd place at Vineman, thanks in part to a ridiculously fast swim. A former Olympic Trials swimmer, her swim split was an easy ten minutes faster than mine. TEN?!
Most of my competition would be starting at the same time as me, or just four minutes ahead. They were all likely to be out of the water before me, so after the swim, I figured I had 56 miles to try to chase them down, then the final 13 to seal the deal. Delisle was in the first wave, with a twenty minute head start, so I couldn’t worry about her. I’d just have to focus on catching all the 30-somethings.
Race morning we lined up on the sand, the strongest swimmers proudly staking their claim to the front line. As I hovered behind them, it occurred to me that I really dislike being tangled in that splashing mess of 100 people all trying to swim in the same 24 inch space of water. The faster swimmers have it so good – they avoid that mosh pit, leaving all the chaos behind as they slice stealthily forward.
The starting line had us standing pretty far back from the ocean’s edge, so it was at least a 20 yard run to get to the water. I may not be the fastest swimmer, but I can run! When the starting horn blew, I slithered past the front line and took off like a bat out of hell, sprinting down the beach. I was first to hit the water. I dove beneath a wave swell and I was on my way, quickly overtaken by the leaders, but happily leaving the majority of the group to fight it out behind me.
The swim went smooth and predictably, with the added bonus find of some brightly pedicured toes to follow for the duration of the 1.2 miles. I’m not convinced drafting in the ocean waves actually provides much benefit, but at least it gave me something to focus on besides that salty, salty water.
My swim time came out pretty much the same as last month’s Tri Santa Cruz, and then I was on to the familiar long transition run. But as soon as I hopped on my bike, I knew something was wrong. I could feel vibration and hear the hum of friction – the back brake was rubbing the rim of my wheel. I couldn’t bring myself to pull over to inspect it, so I pushed on, wondering how much energy I was wasting with that additional resistance. The bike course was crowded and I just kept riding, trying not to think about the misaligned brake. It wasn’t until about 16 miles in that we hit a long climb and the crowd began to thin. With a little more space and a slower speed, I carefully traced my hand down the seat tube, down the brake cable*, and blindly pulled open the brake lever. *don’t try this at home
The vibrating hum stopped and I didn’t even have to get off the bike to fix it!
Who needs brakes anyways?!
This was right about the time that the long climb turned into a screaming descent, with signs posted that warned “Steep Downgrade. No Aerobars.”
Brakes might have been nice after all.
Somehow I survived the winding, speeding downhill and after that, the rest of the course was on (sort of) flat Highway 1. I am sure the view beyond the fog was magnificent, but I didn’t see much of the ocean, riding along the coastline on this grey morning. I was so focused on catching my competition, that the miles seemed to fly by.
I finally spotted two fierce looking ladies in pink at the turnaround, just a minute or two ahead of me. Awesome! I would catch them in no time! But I pushed and pushed and mile after mile I couldn’t seem to close the gap (It took me another 25 miles to even get close enough to see who they were!)
I skipped the first two bottle exchanges on the bike course, preferring to stick with my own formula of Powergels and water, but by mile 40, it was time to re-fuel. I careened through that Aid Station like a bowling ball, sending bottles flying from volunteers’ hands and leaving an embarrassing trail of failed exchanges. Sorry Volunteers, hand-eye coordination has never been my strong suit. That’s why I’m a triathlete.
I reduced my speed, re-focused, and tried one more grab at the Aid Station offering.
Yes! Sixth time’s a charm!
I caged my new water bottle and resumed my tenacious pursuit of those mystery women just out of reach up ahead. Although I didn’t manage to catch them until 55.8 miles in, the result was a smoking fast bike split. I was second fastest overall, which beat my own ambitious goal time by several minutes. By the time I started the run, I was leading my age group.
I expected to run the first mile way too fast. I planned to allow myself this one quick mile, before reining it in for a more realistic half marathon pace. But I honestly have no clue how fast I can run a half marathon. Lately I’ve had 13 mile training runs that are faster than anything recorded on a race clock. My plan was to let mile one be about 6:50 if it wanted to be, then pull back to 7:30, maybe -hopefully!- even 7:15 if I was feeling strong. Either way, that pace range would safely position me in a good spot against my competition.
I ran Mile 1 in 6:18.
Whoa! Time to reel it back in! I calmed myself down and settled into a more sustainable pace.
I ran Mile 2 in 6:40. This was still much too fast and I knew it. But it felt great, and… easy. My heart rate was humming along at a relaxed 140 beats per minute. I debated whether I should just roll with it or forcibly put on the brakes.
I saw Laurence Delisle coming back the other way, nearly finished with her race, and my magical math brain did some fancy calculations to determine that she had about a ten minute lead on me (damn that swim!!). All I needed to do was run my half marathon ten minutes faster than her, and I actually had a shot at the win! But we wouldn’t know until after the finish…
Still, this was enough motivation to charge forward, totally abandoning my conservative plan to run a 1:35 half marathon. I was on target to go sub 1:30, and even though a lot could go wrong over the next 9 miles, I decided to risk it anyway.
I put down mile after mile, and still my pace miraculously stayed strong, even on the sections of dirt trail and rolling hills between miles 5-8.
When I rounded the corner back onto Cliff Drive, I knew I was on the home stretch – just 3 miles to go, and on target for a massive half marathon PR!
That’s about when my run stopped feeling “good.” Coincidentally, this was also about the time I ran out of Powergels – apparently 12 isn’t enough.
My Achilles was tight, my back ached, my foot was sore, and fatigue was beginning to sink its claws into me. I started to doubt whether I could maintain this pace for 20 minutes more.
This was when the real fight began.
What if I let myself slow down and ended up just seconds behind Delisle? I had no idea how fast she had run today. Anything was possible.
I passed through the Silicon Valley Tri Club Aid Station, friends and familiar faces, which gave me a little boost.
I passed someone holding a sign that said “Chafing the Dream!” and I read it out loud and deliriously giggled to myself.
As I neared the end of Cliff Drive, a balcony full of spectators exploded into cheers as though I’d just scored the Super Bowl’s winning touchdown.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
I tore down the last hill, and a volunteer steered me onto the beach for the final half mile to the finish…on S-A-N-D. Mushy, slippery, impossible-to-run-on sand.
No! No! No!
I tried to lift my knees and keep my feet quick over this vile surface, but every step felt like my foot was being swallowed by an endless expanse of heaviness as I made my glacial progress towards a finish line that wasn’t even in view yet. So close, yet still so far! It was that old familiar nightmare come to life – trying desperately to run with no traction.
After what felt like about seven years trekking across that beach, I finally rounded the corner to the Finish arch.
And with a new half marathon PR of 1:28:13!
It turns out Delisle had a solid run, and although I whittled her lead down to just a two minute gap, she still ended up taking home the win for the day. But I claimed second place by a decent margin, felt great about my race effort, and grateful to the women who gave me a reason to push so much harder than I thought I could. Most of them stuck around to join me on the F35-39 “podium.”
This awards ceremony was actually a bit anticlimactic, with the announcer rattling off names and times, and people coming up individually, grabbing their red piece of plastic, and heading on their way. I found it interesting that the only two groups who made a point of sharing the stage and congratulating one another were the Women 35-39 and the Women 40-44. It was acknowledgement that competition makes us better athletes, a show of mutual respect for the effort we all produced, and a celebration of the sport we love so much.