Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Great Floridian Triathlon 140.6 Weekend Surprise

I have not written for a while. I've been preoccupied. I knew training for an iron distance triathlon would be time consuming, I just didn't realize quite how significant that time consumption would be. Today I finally have a little time on my hands again, so I'm writing.

This Saturday, October 24th, I participated in the 25th running of the Great Floridian Triathlon, a 140.6 mile iron distance triathlon. No, it's not an Ironman. That's a trademarked brand. But it was the same length as an Ironman and evidently considered one of the more difficulty iron distance triathlons in the United States. Why? Because in ultra-flat Florida, where generally heat is the big determiner of difficulty, the Great Floridian bike course is covered in hills. Nothing very tall, of course. But relentless up and down with some quite steep climbs (Sugarloaf and Hospital Hill, in particular) and barely a flat section to be found. It's relentless, especially for us south Florida people who consider a bridge to be a climb.

I had signed up for the Great Floridian last November shortly after finishing the MiamiMan Half Iron Triathlon. The Great Floridian was offering a tremendous deal, $250 registration fee, and I figured I'd risk that amount of money for a shot at a full iron distance triathlon. Who doesn't want to finish an ironman (lowercase "l"), right? Once I finished Skydive Ultra in January, training has focused almost exclusively on the Great Floridian and race day arrived damn quickly. A week before the race, I pulled all my training numbers out of Strava to see what my preparation looked like:

  • Swimming 270,221 yards (~153 miles) - the work I'm most proud of as it moved me from a bona fide back of the pack non-swimmer last November at Miami Man Half Iron Triathlon to a solid middle of the pack sorta-swimmer this time
  • Biking 3,084 miles - probably not enough
  • Running 1,067 miles - a few more miles might have been good, but not too bad

I had no idea if these numbers were where they should be or not. I hadn't followed a specific training plan and sorta winged it by developing certain training habits. Monday, Wednesday, Friday was swimming with a Master's swim group. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday were running days. Tuesday and Sunday were biking days. And then I'd toss an extra bike or run where they felt convenient, and began swimming five days per week a couple months before race day. I simply followed the habits formed and added volume to my training. Would it be enough? Who knew?

Back to the Race

October 24th was race day. My kids and I headed to Clermont, FL the Thursday before the race and my wife followed Friday. Thursday we drove up, signed in and attended the athlete pasta dinner. Friday I spent about 20 minutes swimming at the practice open water swim session and checked my bike into transition. Then it was back to our hotel in Orlando to pack transition bags and special needs bags, and let the kids play at the hotel water park until my wife arrived. She arrived, we ate dinner, and we headed to bed. 

Incredibly, I slept. I slept from about 9:45PM to 4:59AM, one minute before my alarm was to go off. I popped out of bed quite surprised I had slept so well since I usually can't sleep at all before a race. I ate a quick breakfast of a honey and butter sandwich and my first cup of coffee in over a month (weening off of coffee then adding caffeine back in on race day seems to work for me) in my brand new awesome Great Floridian mug before I hopped in the car and headed to the race. I also managed two (no shame in triathlon, right?) bowel movements before leaving the hotel, a huge race day bonus!

I arrived at the race location with what felt like plenty of time. However, after what felt like a few minutes of checking over my bike, handing in my gear bags and another potty visit; it was announced the race was wetsuit legal and we should be heading to the beach for the swim start. Oddly, no nerves despite the frenetic pace and massive race I was about to begin.

Swim (1:15:35)

When I signed up for the race, the swim scared me the most. At MiamiMan, I was nearly the last person out of the water and really did not enjoy the swim at all. In fact, I hated it. However, I had put in quite a bit of yardage trying to become a better swimmer and had attended as many Boca Raton Triathletes open water swim sessions as possible. My swimming was much improved, but I really had no idea how that would play out on race day.

The race began with a mass swim start. I seeded myself approximately in the middle of the pack, and we were off! I LOVED THE MELEE OF THE MASS START! My fondest memory of the entire race other than finishing were the first 10 minutes of banging and shoving in the water. After that, it was a beautiful swim. Water temperature was just right for wetsuits. We got to watch the sunrise over the Clermont hills. I wished I had worn my dark goggles, but other than that and some issues swimming straight, it was a great swim. 

I came out 60th of 257 starters, a huge improvement from eleven months prior!

Transition 1 (8:46)

Nothing eventful here. The race was set up nicely with cots to lay back on for wetsuit strippers to pull the wetsuit off. I popped on a pair of DeSoto 400 Mile Shorts over my trisuit, grabbed my baggie full of nutritional items, a moment to toss on some sunscreen and socks and shoes and I was out of the changing tent to my bike and helmet.

Bike (6:53:16)

The Great Floridian is all about the bike course. It's brutal. It's relentless. I was completely humbled by the bike course, and it shows in my bike split. The course was three laps of the same route. This was the first year in which the race featured all big climbs on every loop: three times up Hospital Hill, The Wall, The Buckhill gauntlet and Sugarloaf Mountain, Florida's highest point. In years past, most of those climbs were only featured once.

I had intended to really take it easy on the first lap and settle in. Instead, I went out way too hard and I finished in roughly two hours and hammered the climbs. I kept reminding myself to take it easy and slow down, but continued to fail to do so throughout the lap. It was still morning and the air was cool and still, so it never felt too hard. But my heart rate was often far higher than I was planning for. At the end of the lap, I stopped briefly at Waterfront park to grab two new bottles of Tailwind from Special Needs, then headed back out. 

On the second lap I tried dialing the ride back, but things started to fall apart. First, I dropped my sunglasses on Hospital Hill and had to stop 2/3 of the way up. What a joy to get the bike moving mid climb! Then I was hit with the wind and heat as the day progressed. Heat was expected, wind not so much. While having a pity party with myself about the misery of this bike course, I passed another competitor who only had one leg. ONE FREAKING LEG! The negative talk stopped immediately and I was completely inspired by this other competitor. Then everything seemed to be on track until the fifth climb on Buckhill when I felt the twinge of a cramp in my quads. Nothing serious, but an odd sensations as I hadn't experienced cramping issues even once during training. From Buckhill it was a 3 mile relatively easy ride to Sugarloaf. About 3/4 of the way up Sugarloaf, the cramping fired up again and much more significantly this time. I pushed on for another 50 feet or so, but feared my muscles would cramp fully and destroy the rest of the day. I unclipped and pushed my bike up the final yards of the climb. Shameful, perhaps. But it felt like the right decision. After Sugarloaf, it was a ride back into Waterfront Park. I passed one unfortunate other biker with a split tire, and sent the support truck to him when I passed them a few miles later. 

Another bottle switch at Special Needs at Waterfront Park, a downed miniature can of Coca Cola, a quick stop at a portapotty, and I was out for my third lap. The third lap was similar to the second. Same cramping issues on the two same climbs, same heat and wind to contend with, but otherwise uneventful. The aid stations on the bike course were great. Volunteers were super helpful. The stations were well stocked with water, ice, bananas, gatorade, Coca Cola and other miscellaneous items. I had been concerned as some previous race participant reviews indicated low supplies. I didn't experience any shortages.

Laps two and three were slow, but I had finished the horrendous bike ride in 98th position. My nutrition plan had been well executed having finished six bottles of Tailwind and a Trader Joe's stroopwafel every half hour. An Endurolyte Extreme per hour seems to always work well for me and did on this day, as well.

I was right about my training. More biking volume would have been helpful.

Transition 2 (10:31)

I returned to Waterfront Park where the bike valets grabbed my bike and helmet, and I was on to get changed for the marathon. I had brought a DeSoto Skincooler shirt in the event of a hot, sunny day and decided to toss that on over my trisuit, a decision that would bite me later on. Again, an uneventful transition. I didn't rush, but also tried not to linger too long. I took my time to tie my shoes well.

Run (4:25:43)

The run went great. If anything, I took it too easy and was concerned with a blow up that never would never come. I simply didn't know how my body would react having never run a marathon and never completed an ironman. 

I came out of transition feeling very good. The heat was still pretty stiff with not much shade on the course. However, having spent the summer running in Florida, I was quite acclimated to the conditions. And the wind, so frustrating on the bike, offered cooling benefit on the run. 

The run course was set up to be very spectator friendly. It was a three lap course out of Waterfront Park, first 4+ miles to the east along the lake and then 4+ miles to the west along the lake making up a lap. The east section was about half covered in shade, the west almost entirely in the sun. The entire course was quite scenic and a great place to spend a few hours running.

Lap one went well. The heat was bothersome and I grew tired of Tailwind nutrition. I ran with a handheld bottle premixed, and was carrying extra Tailwind to mix up bottles along the way. However, after finishing my first bottle, I decided to switch to water in the bottle and then live off the course... Coca-Cola and Gatorade Endurance. Near the end of lap one, I stopped for my second potty break of the race and realized I had made one time-consuming error. In order to pee, I had to fully remove my sunshirt and then pull down my trisuit. Sounds easy, but removing a skin tight, sweat soaked sunshirt loaded with nutrition in the pockets is no easy task! The whole process took about 10 minutes. However, I realized I could simply run with the shirt on and the shoulder straps of the trisuit pulled off. Problem solved should I need to stop again.

Lap two went better. The sun started to set and the heat dropped immediately. My pace picked up a tick at a similar heart rate. I reach the half marathon mark and was feeling great! I was going to finish, and do so possibly without a death march! I alternated Coke and Gatorade at each aid station which seemed to keep my energy high.

As I came across the line to start lap three, I saw my wife for the first time. I told her I'd be wrapping up in about an hour and, if she brought the kids to the entrance to the finish chute, they could run with me. 15 minutes later, I realized my math skills were not functioning well and it would be closer to an hour and a half before I got back to the finish. Fortunately, on the way back to the west and final out and back, I saw my wife and kids and let her know. On the third lap, I also experienced my only difficulty during the run, just the idea of a cramp in my right groin. I was worried it would get worse, but it never did. 

The third lap went even better than the second. My pace picked up even more and I realized I had left time on the table. My original plan called for a run/walk schedule of 25 minutes running and 5 minutes walking. It's how I trained and always works well, allowing for me to take in nutrition and rest a bit. I modified this to a 27 run/3 walk schedule the day before the race. But on the final lap, I dropped the walk entirely and simply ran. I estimated I could have run a good 15 minutes or more quicker. 

There was now a short section on the east end of the course completely in the dark. The permanent path lights were not functioning and the lights put out by the race also seemed to have failed. I loved running in the dark with only the light of the near full moon to guide the way, but have a feeling many people were quite unhappy about it. This was perhaps a quarter mile section. The west path was lit up the entire way, and I was running at a good clip for this final 4+ mile section, roughly 8:30 minute miles. I didn't expect to be getting stronger as the marathon went on. But it was a wonderful feeling.

Finally, I came up to the finishing chute and my wife and kids were waiting. My daughter joined me to run down the chute. My son refused, sure that he would get into trouble. A minute or so later, my daughter and I crossed the finish line together and it was awesome! 

Finish time: 12:53:49

I had told my wife beforehand that I thought I'd be done in 12 hours if things went beyond perfect and 14 hours if things went to hell. Right down the middle feels like just the right finish! The bike was exceedingly slow, but the swim had gone much better than my 1:30 goal time and the run went great making up some of that time on the bike. My finishing time isn't fast, but it also isn't slow. And it means I met each of my goals: 1) don't drown, 2) finish, 3) in under 14 hours. Success!

The Weekend Surprise

But the weekend wasn't done at the finish line. There was a BBQ and award ceremony for The Great Floridian Triathlon Sunday morning, but it was finally time for me to focus on family again after months of neglect to train. Sunday morning (after no sleep whatsoever), my wife and I took our kids to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Seven hours of walking may have not been the best way to begin recovery post ironman, but such is life. However, as we were sitting down for lunch at Universal Studios, I received a message from another Boca Raton Triathlon member and competitor at The Great Floridian that perhaps I should have come to the award ceremony. She sent me a photo of a 1st Place Age Group plaque and explained that the award was mine. I had placed 1st in my age group!

It's a fluke. It's silliness. It's apropos of nothing. One year of training does not a triathlete make. I certainly am not a competitive iron distance triathlete and my finishing time would have not held up in any of the other large age groups. But on this day and under these conditions, I was first place in the 35 to 39 age male age group category! 

It's pretty freaking awesome!

I have to stop typing now. I want to write a section on "lessons from my first ironman", but I think that will be reserved for another post. This is long enough, a bit like my finishing time!