This was my first Half Ironman and my strategy played out almost perfectly. Coach has a mantra, swim to your ability, bike smart, and run like hell. That . . . is almost exactly what happened.
I spent quite a bit of time looking up information on Muncie. By all accounts the swim was fairly technical, the bike was fast, and the run was going to be hot. That too proved to be true.
Racer K and I pulled into town on Friday, registered at the convention center (why couldn’t this be at the race site?) then went out to the Prairie Creek Reservoir for a short swim, bike, run.
The water was right on the edge of being wetsuit legal, and felt a tad cold at first, but 200 yards into a warm up, it felt perfect. I definitely didn’t think we’d need a wetsuit, but would likely wear one for the advantage if legal.
Racer K and I had ridiculous challenges with directions all weekend and showed up late to the team meeting where about 12 athletes and coach were discussing strategy for the next day. Start as far left as you can on the swim and take a straight line to the red buoy. Same strategy on the return. It was counter-intuitive, but if we followed the buoy line, we would be swimming a longer distance.
We also talked about hopping other riders on the bike. Starting your 15 second pass by going right into their draft, then kicking out to pass them. This turned out to be a major part of my strategy, especially since my age group was one of the last to start the race (nearly one hour after the pros).
After that, we hit a pre-race meal at Olive Garden, which seemed a little questionable at the time, but turned out to be the perfect call for missing lunch and a state of famish. I ate three bowls of salad, salmon, broccoli, and maybe a half dozen bread sticks. I went back to the room and added a Powerbar for good measure. I fell asleep at 8 pm and woke up promptly at 10. It would be a predictably long night of tossing and turning, but all in all I felt rested when the alarm went off at 4:30.
Nothing like walking around a hotel parking lot at 5 am that is full of triathletes strapping their bikes on cars. A year ago I thought this was crazy, now it’s kinda normal.
We had been holding our breath for a week as we looked at the extended forecast for Muncie. It was bordering on cool with lows in the 60’s and showers for much of the week before clearing and highs around 80. It seemed too good to be true. Even the water temperature was below normal, bordering on the possibility of making the race wetsuit legal.
I rode up with Racer K and we both hoped it would NOT be wetsuit legal, mainly because we didn’t want to make the decision. Obviously it would be an advantage, but we’ve been feeling good about our swim and thought it would level the field. We got a chance to swim the day before and it was perfectly fine without a wetsuit which also made us a little leery of overheating.
We pulled into the parking spot and the volunteers were all shouting, “The race is wetsuit legal.” It was still dark and a little cool, so I knew I would be joining nearly everyone else with a wetsuit that day.
The Swim –
It was an age group wave start and the pros launched at 7 am, but I would have plenty of time to relax before shoving off at 7:57. I actually heard the canon while I was sitting in a port-o-john.
I walked down to the swim exit and watched as the pros filed out of the water in around 30 minutes. Then I gazed at the throng of age groupers coming into shore at a ridiculous angle and promised myself I would take a different route by sighting off a tree about twenty yards LEFT of the swim exit.
The swim course at Muncie is basically an inverted triangle. I’ve added the red “x’s”, which are supposed to represent the location of the actual swim start and exits, along with red lines to show the proper angle to the first buoy and the swim exit. I’m estimating, but the distance from the red x to the first yellow buoy on the diagram is probably 50 yards, so logically you’d want to start at the red x and stay as straight as you can to the far red turn buoy. Well, this was my plan. About halfway to the turn I was rubbing shoulders with the yellow buoy line. I have no idea how it happened, but it did, and I’m sure it cost me at least 100 yards.
I had one major objective on this swim. Stay calm, and don’t over exert. By the time I reached the first turn (which seemed like an eternity) I was right on my game plan. I felt fresh and strong.
I took a perfect angle into the first turn and hit stride with no contact. In fact, I made very little contact the entire swim. The waves were spread about 3 minutes apart and the water was basically wide open. Especially on the outside where I pledged to stay.
The sun was in full force and sighting was a major challenge. When I circled the second red buoy for home I stopped briefly to pick out the tree I would be sighting on the way to shore, but there was a line of trees as far as the eye could see and they all looked the same height. The bright sun pierced my eyes like an interrogation lamp, and left me with only one option, stay as far away from the line of yellow buoys as possible until a kayaker swatted me back on course with their paddle.
This was the best strategy, but for some reason it was very hard to stay left. I kept drifting closer to the yellow line and would take hard left turns to correct my line. About halfway to shore I started to pick up the pace. I still didn’t have a clean line on my exit and it’s funny how your mind plays tricks on you. I KNEW the exit was 40 yards left of the line of buoys, but I saw nearly everyone hugging that line and thought, “Maybe they know something I don’t?”
I stayed strong on my line and about 300 yards from short picked up “my tree” and started hammering. I sighted every 3 or 4 strokes and finally even saw the archway for the exit. I was dead on it now! Tons of other people swam to my right and were doing much more work. I was pumped and put my head right on the target!
Three strokes, sight, three strokes, sight, three strokes, BAM! I swam right into a kayak! I looked up at that woman and said, “What the hell?” I was dead on the exit and she was right in my way. Maybe kayak interference is why coach said this was a technical course.
I tipped over her kayak (not really) and thrashed toward the shore. After what seemed like an entire day of swimming, I finally felt my hand scrape sand. I cautiously stood and jogged through the arch and up the hill where I was greeted by a group of three kids ready to strip my wetsuit. I laid back and they ripped it off in one big motion. I stood up to a little disorientation and staggered toward the bike. I was a bit delusional and seeing my coach Robbie leaning on the fence only made it worse.
“Good job, Mike, be smart on the bike!”
Robbie started about 40 minutes ahead of me and in the state of confusion my first thought was, “Is he already done?” I ran by him with a nod of the head, but it stayed on my brain as I got ready for the bike. Did I really just see him or was it a doppleganger?
Obviously it was something to do with an injury and for a couple minutes I was bummed. He had put in some serious work for this race and had a legit chance to qualify for Las Vegas. Later I’d learn that he came out of the water in 30 minutes and blew out his ankle on the run to his bike. That quickly, his day was over, but mine was not.
Swim time: 37:05
The Bike –
This would be my first real ride with a new bike fit, race wheels, and fancy new tires. Somewhere in my head all of that loomed large as I headed out of transition for a 56 mile ride around Prairie Creek neighborhood.
I didn’t wear a Garmin and had no speedometer on my bike. I was determined to go by feel and take my chances with a chrono watch.
I started a new lap when I got on the bike with a plan to ride each 5 mile segment of the first half at 20 mph (or 5 miles every 15 minutes). My first 5 mile split was something like 15:10 and felt like a breeze. That was a good sign.
I stayed within myself and constantly downshifted if I felt my legs pushing too hard. I wanted to spin more than push, especially on the way out. My ten mile split was around 30:10 and felt very natural. Till this point, the road was very tempting, but I held back with one goal. Stay consistent and save my legs for the run.
At mile 15 I was right on pace for 20 mph, then we hit a mile-long no-passing-zone, which slowed me way back. My first reaction was a tinge of anger, but I quickly decided everyone had to do it, so I might as well use it to recover. I loaded up on fluid and ate another chunk of my PowerBar.
The buzzword on the bike is nutrition. I kept hearing about all these crazy plans that take mad scientists to formulate, but I chose to keep mine very simple for this race. I had two PowerBars and I would take a bite every 5 miles. I did plan make a 50/50 water/Gatorade bottle, but forgot and stayed with water.
I “thought” two large bottles would be enough, but was very thirsty out of the swim and went through bottle number one before the 15 mile aid station. I made the decision to chuck one of my favorite water bottles and take a new one. I drank 3 bottles of water on the 56 mile ride, mainly out of paranoia and I think it was just a bit too much.
Anyway, once we left the no-pass zone we hit a ten-mile-ish out and back that was super bumpy and very congested. It was almost impossible to keep non-drafting zones and much of that section was coagulated by one bike coming at me, one in the middle and one on the right. Passing was difficult and a little nerve wracking at times.
But for my money, this was the difference in my bike time. The road sucked and it was easy to see that most racers were not crazy about this part and it challenged your mental toughness. I made a concerted effort to trust the road and not let up.
We hit the turn around and my split was almost exactly 20 mph (19:91). Now it was time to go to work.
I took the same approach, but upped my aggressiveness and passed a lot of people on that bumpy road. The bike felt great and my legs were strong. I started moving the needle to the other side of my 15 minute 5 mile splits and by the end was safely in the 21 mph average range.
A better time was definitely possible, but I was concerned for the run and frankly the congestion made you hold back often. It was probably a good thing.
Bike time: 2:43:39 (20.53 mph)
The Run –
As I hobbled out of T2, coach was there to remind me to “Keep the first two miles EASY!” I was happy to oblige, but as many of you will know, slowing your legs after the bike is a challenge.
About a half mile out of transition I realized I had to go to the bathroom, badly. As luck would have it, there was a port-o-let just across the road, through a ditch, and up on a hill. I looked at it, looked away, looked again, then darted across the road. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with me, but may have saved my run.
I’d reset my chrono lap when I left transition and when I got to mile one, it said 9:03. That included my run up a hill and going to the bathroom. Without that pit stop, my first mile would have likely been way too fast.
As I made my way through the first aid station I kept hearing coach’s advice, “Grab a ton of water, dump it on your head, grab ice when they have it, hold it in your hands, take sponges, put them in your tri top, get fuel, stock up. By the time I hit the end of the aid station my arms were full of merchandise. I was literally using my forearms to hold cups against my chest. Cups, sponges, ice, Bonk Breakers, you name it. Something had to give.
I started dumping water on my head, eating ice, and stuffing sponges everywhere. I was a mess and in my confusion I veered toward the center of the road and knocked over a trash barrel, sending cups flying all over the road. The volunteer looked at me like I was a maniac and all I could do was muster, “I’m sorry.”
The temperature wasn’t bad, but it was nearly noon and the road felt hot. At the mile two aid station I made a vow to train more often in my tri top because it was really bugging me at that point. Wearing a shirt that was tight and hot was not a feeling I was used to on runs.
From the start of the run I had a mild, sort of “on the verge” stomach cramp. It wasn’t that bad, but it lingered. I deduced it was from too much water, so I passed on fluids at mile 3 and four. By mile 5, I took a little more water and sucked on ice as I ran toward the turn around.
I never looked at my watch until I hit the mile markers and my goal was to keep at around an 8 minute mile pace. By the time I hit mile 6 I was at 49 minutes and some change. Almost perfect. My halfway split was an 8:10/mile pace. Now, to complete my plan, I’d have to pick it up a hair.
Mile 7 and 8 inched stayed near an 8:10 pace, but mile 9 proved to be the beginning of the end. The slight cramp remained and I tried the “Coca Cola trick” along with some Perform, but neither seemed to help.
Let’s make no mistake, the run will always be painful, but my biggest pain was an equipment issue. I love my shoes, but they were not cutting it now. The black top was very coarse and every step started to feel like hot spikes shooting through the sole of my Pearl Izumi Streaks. The soft and relatively thin rubber had me dreading each step. I was losing pace and knew my negative split was gone. Now, to finish strong and at least hit the prediction goal from my coach of 5:16 for the race.
Just after mile nine I quit looking at my watch. In fact, I quit looking at almost everything except the horizon. I purposely tried to miss the mile markers and hope I would magically look up expecting mile eleven and it would be twelve. I pulled out every mental trick in the book and focused on a very quick pick up so my feet wouldn’t hurt.
The course was surprisingly hilly, but none of the hills were that tough. The course in general was spread out around the reservoir and aside from the excellent aid stations I saw only a handful of supporters, which was about the only true gripe I can muster about this race.
There were several times during that run where my focus drifted and I thought I may crumble, but at mile 12 I finally believed I was going to hit my goal. One more 8 minute mile and I had it.
There was one point around mile 8 where you could hear the announcers voice teasing you from across the lake, but with a half mile left, I knew my name was soon to fill the air. What separates triathletes is often simply the will to fight through pain, and that the only thing on my mind as I turned off the road toward the finish. The minute I hit the Ironman carpet the pain drifted away. I glided toward the finish line with ease and finished my first 70.3 race in 5:16:49, exactly what my coach predicted.