Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's not about the Beast: St Croix 70.3

Long, very rambling - off topic - only interesting to a very small number of people, feel free to ignore, pass on by, nothing to see here. I might even start taking and posting about photographs again, some time soon. SoFoBoMo is right around the corner. Go on, make a book. You know you want to!

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I've been wanting to do the St Croix Half Ironman for a long time. Probably ever since I heard about it. One of the hardest 70.3 races in the world, a beautiful island in the Caribbean, great crowd support, 1.2 mile ocean swim, really tough 56 mile bike course, hot and humid half marathon to top it off. What's not to like?

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I was all set to do it in 2008. Finishing Ironman Arizona in 2007 I was in the best shape of my life. I just had to cruise through to next year and I'd be ready to head out to St Croix. Then I broke my ankle playing my one annual game of squash. Except of course I didn't realise it was broken for about a year, so after many attempts at rehab; trying to run; frustration; and weight gain later, I finally had surgery and got things fixed up.

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More rehab, more frustration, traveling for months with a leg brace, the fun of going through security and getting carted around airports. In April 2009 I struggled through the Lifetime Fitness Indoor Triathlon. I was barely able to finish a 10 minute swim, 30 minute bike and 20 minute run after training for months. Quite a change from my previous tri!

Still, I kept building on that and finished the San Antonio Half Marathon by the end of the year. Finally started to feel like I could run again so St Croix looked to be back on. Settled in to train for it properly around January of 2010, building on the running base, trying to get back some cycling fitness. I read about the Beast - the 7/10ths of a mile long, 14% average grade, with a 21-27% grade kicker hill at St Croix and tried to get prepared. Realised quite quickly that there aren't any hills like that around Austin, but resigned myself to lots of repeats on Fitzhugh Road, riding out to Johnson City. I'd do repeats on the bigger hills I could find out there, feeling like I was getting in good training. Some weekends, I'd swim at Barton Creek then ride home from there, hill after hill, back out to Dripping Springs, and feel like that was also good training.

Started swimming again some time in March, and probably didn't do enough, given this was going to be my first ocean swim, but was doing about 2x3000m workouts per week, so I wasn't too concerned. Running was going well and my ankle was holding together. Started to try and get some heat acclimation by running in the evening and doing outdoor spin workouts in the sun, at Pure. Had a few confidence-building solo runs, across Austin and up Mt Bonnell, in the mid April heat, and started to feel almost ready.st_croix-6

We flew out to St Croix on the Wednesday before the race, to try and have a bit of a holiday and also to give my bike time to arrive. I'd heard that the small American Eagle planes often don't have enough space for all the bikes going to the race so it might take a few days. The bike arrived on the same flight, in one piece - one panic out of the way.


We stayed at the Buccaneer hotel on St Croix. Supposed to be the best accommodation available. Had a slightly weathered and faded feel, as if its best days were behind it, but still a lovely location. The weather was hot when we arrived - 88F and humid, 80%-90% all day, every day. Over night it dropped to about 78F. Not much like Austin at all. I did my best to get used to it, driving with the windows down in the car and the AC off. Staying outside when I could. Hydrating, hydrating, hydrating.

Amanda & I ran the Paradise 5k race on the Thursday night, giving us a taste of what the heat and humidity were like to run in, even late in the evening. Not my fastest race ever. I got a chance to swim in the Christensted harbour the next morning, swimming the race course at the practice swim. The water was lovely, 80F and only a couple of feet swell. The water was so clear you could see everything around you. I got used to the waves and pounding, working out how to breathe to the opposite side, wishing I'd practiced more bilateral breathing in the pool. Nothing too dramatic.

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Then we drove the bike course and I got to see the hills for the first time. Didn't seem too bad in a car! Even though at one point the car wheels spun out and couldn't really cope with how steep the road was. I tried to put that out of my mind.

On the Friday night, the carbo loading party coincides with 'Jump Up' - a town-wide street party. Many of the restaurants get involved, lots of music in the streets, generally a great time. Better than the buffet in a tent in a carpark that many races have.

Got up, bright and early at 4am on race day, had some breakfast and headed off to check in. Found my rack, set up my gear and got ready for the start. I'd noticed at packet pickup and saw again that most of the people here looked like top end age groupers. Started to feel more out of place. About 400 people total started the race, haven't done a tri this small since the Chester Tri sprints in England!

The swim start is beautiful. All the athletes swim across the harbour to a small island and the start is from the beach there, looking back to the transition area and the rest of the Island. The sun was just coming up and the wind was still fairly calm. You could hear the national anthems drifting across the water and then the pro field was off. My wave was only a few minutes behind them.

st_croix The swim was quite uneventful. I got a bit distracted waving/ smiling at one diver down below us who was filming the race, but other than that I just settled in behind someone in my wave and drafted to a very relaxed 39 minute swim. There were about 90 people in my wave, not much drama or shoving, because I started wide, on the outside of the first turn, which is only 100m from the beach. It looked a little more congested on the inside of that turn.

Then, quickly onto the bike after a 3 minute T1.  Chewing gum in transition was a great help with getting over the saltwater in the mouth from swimming. The first loop is a fairly easy 8 miles of sheltered false flats and one smallish hill, then you start the bigger loop around the whole of the island. The first 20 miles fly by, with some crazy twists and turns through the narrow Christensted streets to keep you focused, then out into the countryside. I averaged an easy 21mph for the first 20 miles. Then right there, at mile 20, the undulating, gorgeous coastal bike course takes a hard left turn. Signs on the road let you know that this is the beast. No chance to keep any momentum going, you are straight into a 14% grade climb from almost a standing start.

bike course I'd done all my training with a 23 cog cassette as my biggest gear and switched in a 28 a couple of weeks out, to give me some extra gears, just for this climb. I'd expected to keep most of those in reserve for further up the hill, with a plan to start out 2 or 3 gears down. Straight away I'm in the 28 and trying to at least stay seated. I spin up the first 1/10th of a mile and then see 15.5% written on the road. Things start to slow down. The sun feels hotter. That breeze that had been at my back has disappeared. I'm already thinking that walking might not be such a terrible idea, but I know I'll never get back on the bike on this hill if I stop. So I keep pushing. Around 2/10ths of a mile, there's a 16% written on the road. I'm standing now, keeping things going around. 16.5% passes. Then the most depressing marker - Half-Way - Only half way! Still no letup, the road just keeps climbing and climbing, occasionally dropping back down to 12%, 13% but never any real relief.

The flattest part is about 4/10ths of a mile up, where it drops back down to a 10% grade. By now, that feels pretty flat and I get to catch my breath, but the next corner is the 27% grade that the car was slipping on. Somehow I make it past that, onto the final 17-18% climbs to the top. A lot of people are walking here. Several are zig-zagging back and forth across the whole road, trying to find any way to get up the hill. Thanks to the 28 gear I'm able to ride slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, straight up the road. I'm standing the whole way, trying not to swear too loudly, pushing and pulling as much as I can with my arms, hanging over the front wheel to get a bit of gravity on my side pushing up the hill. I've never worked this hard on a hill before and I'm in a 28 gear! 12 minutes and 15 seconds later I cross the line on the road at the top of the Beast. I stop at the water stop they put there. I have to ask someone to open up the top of my water bottle because I can't quite find the strength to turn the top open to fill it. But I did it!

63148-116-013fThe backside of the Beast is a long twisty downhill. A chance to recover a bit before you get into the real bike course. From here you head out to the North of the island and ride along the coast the full length of St Croix. Into a 15-20mph headwind the whole way. Without any shelter. It's just rolling hills

flattest spot on the climband false flats here, but that wind never goes away. Eventually you reach the end of the island and turn around to come back. Finally out of the wind! That's where the hills start again, lots of short, steep hills, only up to about 14% grades, but just relentlessly popping up in front of you. The Beast might get top billing on this course, but the 30 miles after it are what really takes the toll. I kept drinking and popping salt tablets all the way back.

I'd gotten some good advice at packet pickup from a guy who'd done the race 4 times before. Every time I felt like I was starting to push hard, I backed off the effort. All day in the swim and on the bike, whenever I felt like I was trying I eased off. Got to the end of the bike in 3hrs45 and felt really good. My legs felt great - relaxed, rested. No cramps, no tiredness, probably the best I've felt at the end of a 56 mile bike in quite a while, particularly one that hilly.

Another quick 2 minute transition and I was out on the run. Into the heat which was started to feel really oppressive by this point. I've read it was about 98F by then, no shade anywhere on the run course, not enough clouds in the sky, still 80% humidity.

st_croix-10 I ran out of transition, my legs still felt great and ran past the people cheering, and my heart rate kept going up and up. Really quickly I realised I couldn't keep running like this, and so the long walk began. Every time I tried to run my heart rate shot up. I tried running waterstop to waterstop (every 6/10ths of a mile along the road) But the heat was really getting to me. I dumped cups of ice down my shorts (more good advice), piled ice under my hat, poured water over myself and kept on drinking and taking salt. I could run for a few minutes each time I used the ice, but it seemed to melt away all too quickly. I decided I could keep really pushing the run, and not finish, or try to manage things and get, eventually, to the finish line. The best part of the entire run was when Amanda co-oped some kids on the side of the road to form a cheering section for me.

That's what a 3 hour half marathon is made of, lots of walking, lots of ice, occasional running for half a mile then trying to recover again. The half marathon course is quite hilly too, roughly the same as Scenic in Austin. Beautiful, out by the coast, passing by the beach, running around a golf course and up and down some more short, steep hills. It would have been challenging if I could have run, but going so slowly things were fine. Towards the second loop clouds started to come in and every time the sun went away I was able to run. Then it'd come back out and the heat would spike again and I'd be walking along.

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Eventually I crossed the line, 7 hours and 32 minutes after I'd started. I felt fine, never quite able to run fast enough to really hurt. Bit frustrated about the run but happy the swim and bike went so well. Felt recovered after about 5 minutes under a damp towel in the shade. I think I'll be back again.

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4 comments:

Eric said...

Great account! Congratulations on your comeback. I'd certainly be proud of an effort like that.

Nice photos too.

jimbo11604 said...

Great race report. Way to bounce back from surgery, therapy and get back into the mix. Sounded like a tough day in a gorgeous location. Between your writing and your photography, I think you are a double threat of creativity.

mikeINaustin said...

Well done!
thanks for sharing!

Anita Jesse said...

Sensational story. Wow. I'm impressed. Congratulations! If I had been there I would have gladly joined the cheering section.