Beating the Beast – Ironman 70.3 St. Croix
Well, the moment I’ve been waiting for. The post-race write-up. Does this mean I finished? You’ll have to read on for that. Does this mean I survived? Yes!
I’m going to draft this in a few parts. For those of you looking to read the high level summary, you can stop after this. I finished! For those of you looking for my race summary, read on. I won’t be offended with any of the options.
T-Town opened at 5 am, and much the same as my Olympic in Naples, we picked the hotel farthest from the start. Situated at the base of the BEAST (more to come), we drove miles 8 – 20 to the race start. Ok, not exactly the race start (yes, more on this as well). At 4:15 am it’s dark, and at 4:15 am in St. Croix during rainy season, it’s, well, raining. Today was to be no exception because Ironman 70.3 St. Croix needed just one additional challenge to solidify its position as the hardest half iron in the world! For many years, St. Croix and Ironman Hawaii were the two major events in the sport. On the 24th anniversary (25 years, but Hugo led to the only cancellation several years back), it marked the return of Lance Armstrong. St. Croix is also the only location in the world without a Starbucks. Fortunately the several days on the island prior to the race provided the necessary time to go through detox.
Racking the bike
No matter how carefully you plan, racking your bike and laying out your gear is riddled with challenges. The first, of course, was the darkness. The second was the rain. And the third were the folks that show up late after you’re all set and push your bike and your towel with gear every which way to fit their bike into the spot on either side of you. When all else fails in a triathlon, this one holds true every time. The final step in preparation is to grease up the inside of your wet suit, squeeze your way in, and allow others to quietly comment on every single wrinkle in the rubber exterior. Those, of course, representing every percentage of body fat us amateurs have over the 6% that everyone in this race seemed to be sporting. In fact, I was one of only a few in a wetsuit!
St. Croix is special for many reasons. The first of which is the pre-swim swim. Yes, that’s correct. The race starts on an island off of the island, so all 600 racers get to swim to the race start about ¼ of a mile out into the ocean. I believe they do this to weed out the folks that forgot swimming was the first leg of a tri, giving them the opportunity to call it a day before the day begins. It’s also the opportunity for the race director to remind you that with a wet suit, you will not be eligible for one of the two Hawaii qualifier slots for each age group. It was my opportunity to remind him that my time will certainly rule that out. The opening swim to the swim was a chance for me to turn the first ¼ of a mile (that does not count towards the 1.2 mile ocean swim by the way) into about ½ of a mile with my unique approach to zigzagging in the water.
Official Cutoff – 60 minutes
There is a saying that every journey begins with the first step. In triathlon this isn’t exactly true. Triathlon, of course, starts with a swim. In this case, a 1.2 mile ocean swim. Like many races, we huddle by the start with different colored swim caps distributed by age group. Mine, of course, was hot pink. Lance wore the traditional Livestrong yellow. The pros start in wave one (men) and wave 2 (women). Then the male age groupers followed by the female age groupers. The athletes gathered to watch the men start, with cheers of “Go, Lance,” “Get ‘em, [Andy] Potts,” and “Where’s the bathroom?#*!” Ok, the last one was my battle cry.
The ocean swim was a triangle, with the first leg being the longest and into the waves and current. The first leg is also the best time to get kicked, have your goggles smacked off your face, and stray significantly off course when you train to breath left (for my first sprint in Chicago where the wall to mark off of was on the left). With many people passing me along the way, including a one or two 60+ women that started about 20 minutes behind me in the last wave, I got kicked a lot, smacked a few times, heckled by one or two people, and waved to by one of the underwater scuba divers they provide for safety. I’m proud to say that I did not lose my goggles, nor did I stray too far off the course!
With “I’ve been working on the railroad” looping through my head (why, I have no clue), I peacefully swam through the 1.2 miles in around 49 minutes, waving to my wife as I swam along the pier towards the finish. I accomplished goal number one, which was to beat the 1 hour cutoff!
T-Town continues to amaze me. You get all types of athletes in this small community fenced off to the public. I can’t describe many of them, of course, as they were all well into their bike ride when I entered. I did spot a few laggards, and as I dumped water over my head to wash off the salt water, I asked the obligatory question of “Are we in first?” Unlike Naples, St. Croix was intense. There were not a lot of smiles or laughter on the course. I did my best to engage in both for the entire race, which tired out my mouth almost as much as my legs given the time the race took me. As I left transition one, I remembered my timing chip (forgot it in Naples after peeling off my skinny jeans of a wetsuit) but of course forgot my iPod. Riding 56 miles alone without music is painful.
Official Cutoff – 5:30 from the race start
On the hills in Barrington IL, I’ve done 56 miles in 3 hours. In the mountains of St. Croix in pouring rain, humidity and heat, I was just a bit off this time. The course starts with a nice 8 mile loop of hills and huge puddles. The people of St. Croix, who are some of the nicest around, love the triathlon because it is the one time of year where the corrupt government (their words, not mine) pave the road. OK, so they don’t exactly pave. They fill pot holes on just the left side of the road, which is where you bike and also drive (now they tell me!). The pavement was nice and oily from fresh pavement, and the rain was intense at some points. When I returned from the first 8 miles, I realized it was as hard as the 56 miles in Barrington. Onward to the next 48 miles. St. Croix’s course reminds me of a long escalator that goes up into the clouds, and at the end you’re magically at the bottom where you started. There were hills upon hills, and they all seemed to go up at steeper and steeper inclines. To make it more interesting, when there was an occasional downhill, it was incredibly twisty with a 90 degree turn at the bottom so that you couldn’t build any momentum.
Mile 19.5 is where the Disney characters sing and dance (in my head) as they always do on your ride through the log flume right before going down the big hill. In this case it marked the entrance to the world famous BEAST. The beast is a 0.7 mile bike up a winding black diamond skill hill with inclines getting up to 25%. Earlier in the week on fresh legs I biked up it. At mile 20 after a 1.2 mile swim (ok, 1.4 mile swim if you include the appetizer) and 20 miles of hills, I joined the other folks that were walking up in our soaking wet socks. This was one of only a few spots where I saw other riders – I didn’t get passed by very many, but I didn’t pass very many either. The 13 minute climb was exactly what the devil on my right shoulder called for after putting the angel on my left into a sleeper hold. It was intense.
Reaching the top of the BEAST is an amazing journey, and one you cannot enjoy too much as the clock is ticking and there are 35 miles of hills to go. Yes, the course after the BEAST is significantly harder than the course leading up to it. At this point the rain let up a bit, however the damage to the course was done. I was soaked, adding unnecessary weight to the balance of my ride and there were puddles the size of small lakes in various spots along the course. It was after mile 21 where I saw many folks on the side of the road with blown tires, bloody shoulders from their falls, and a few on stretchers. I assume they hit the puddles that went up to our pedals and went sailing.
The last 10 miles of the bike has some of the longest winding up-hills of the course. Unbelievable! With tired legs, upset tummy from the Gu and other nutrition I brought to snack on, and so much dirt and grime that my gears had trouble shifting, it was time to plow through the last leg of the bike. It was also at this time where I found myself looking for the two or three gears lower than what my bike actually had. Brutal, but I accomplished goal number two, which was to beat the 5:30 from the start of the race! I came in at around 4 hours, leaving my elapsed time at around 5 hours due to my lengthy T1.
Transition 2 was hard to digest. The winners were not only finished, but showered and on their planes back home. OK, they weren’t on their planes, but they were long finished. I watched Lance Armstrong and his entourage exit T-Town with a very disgusted look on his face. I would later find out that he led the race after the bike and first 6.5 miles of the run, and then bonked and finished 3rd. Not only were the pros done, but quite a few age groupers were as well, and I was just getting ready to start my first half marathon run. It had been 5 weeks since I last ran (aside from on the elliptical) due to a stress reaction in my right shin bone. I had gotten up to 11.5 miles prior to the injury, and that was on fresh legs and a lot of sleep. As I left T-Town with my headphones on, Jenn reminded me that I wasn’t wearing my compression sock. Back to my gear, I found it and was off to the races.
Official Cutoff – 6:30 from the race start to hit the 6.5 mile turn around
Running is hard. Period. I’m not a runner, though to my credit, triathlon keeps many fantastic runners and bikers out of the sport due to the swim. Given my amazing times so far, I was fortunate to run in the hottest part of the day. I was very lucky however that today was overcast and cloudy, which proved to be the only break I seemed to be getting. Actually that’s not true. I was blessed not to drown, dehydrate, wreck my bike, etc. As well, I felt great at the run start. I truly did. I couldn’t believe it!
The run, of course, is hilly as well. Why not, right? It goes 2 miles up to a resort hotel, 2.5 miles around the hotel grounds, and then two miles back to do it all over again on this double loop. I ran more of the first 6.5 than I walked, which I felt very proud of. There were hydration stops with bananas and oranges every ½ mile or so. Well, on my first loop anyway. My impressive elapsed time entering the second loop was slow enough to merit some of the aid stations being closed. I walked the up-hills on the run, and ran much of the rest on the first loop. Then came loop two. My legs seemed to detach and wave goodbye as I rounded the checkpoint. Luckily my amazing wife was there to jump in and run with me for the last 6.5 miles. OK, walk for most of it, and run slower than she was walking for the other parts. We talked a lot, which I’m really proud of. This meant that I was in good enough shape to have gone almost 7 hours at that point and could still walk, talk, and yes, chew Gatorade gum!
Though many folks were done as I began mile 7 of the half marathon finish, I did see a few of my friends that I met during my time on the island, and I did cross my buddy Jim (I was entering mile 7 or so while he was on mile 12) who finished long before me with a fantastic time! At mile 8 I noticed that the aid stations were fewer and fewer, but I honestly was feeling pretty good other than my legs starting to give out. By mile 10 my left knee was beginning to buckle, but I had it in me to finish. That was never in doubt. By mile 11 I realized that the 8 hour cutoff was closer than I thought, and I had to pick up the run / walk pace a bit.
The last ½ mile is very interesting. As you approach the finish line, you have to detour by turning left up a road that stretches about 4 blocks. Un-F-ing believable. They do this so that the triathletes can take one final stroll through town so that spectators can cheer. They don’t consider the novice, first time half Ironman athletes like myself. As I entered the final loop through town, there were very few spectators, and the only cheers came from a few of the triathletes that had long finished, showered, and were drinking the mandatory large quantities of beer that are consumed upon finishing any endurance sport. Oh well, this race was very personal and the only person I was out to impress was myself.
As I came up to the finish line, my wife and Jim’s wife cheered like crazy. This meant a lot to me, as I was dead tired and these were the only two spectators on the island that I wanted to see along the course and at the finish. As I crossed the finish and heard my name called, it brought tears to my eyes. There at the finish was a volunteer to put my finisher medal around my neck, and my buddy Jim to give me a big man hug. In just under 8 hours, I accomplished every single goal I had set when I received the email congratulating me on entering the race the morning after sharing a few bottles of wine with Jim and Jenn to celebrate finishing the Chicago sprint triathlon.
- I had fun. I truly did enjoy the entire race. When you race at your pace only to impress yourself, the pressure is nonexistent and you can truly enjoy the sport.
- I didn’t drown in spite of the long ocean swim.
- I beat every cut off time along the way, including the most important final cutoff of 8 hours.
- I got to share this experience with each of you, who supported me through 7 day-a-week long workouts for many, many months.
If you have read this far, you’ve endured something of a journey as well. I can’t possibly thank everyone by name, but I want to mention just a few who made this possible. My amazing wife, who understands endurance sports and the passion and drive that goes into training for them. We juggled her Boston marathon training with my half Ironman training for many months, and we both accomplished our goals of finishing. She believed in me from day one, and never once doubted that I was and will continue to be capable of anything I put my heart into. Coach Judie of Experience Triathlon for teaching me to swim, planning out my weekly training, and in spite of recognizing that it is incredibly challenging to go from a sprint to a half iron in just 8 months, came up with a plan that got me there, and in great shape to boot. Bill Jensen, my personal trainer for the past 5 years. Bill has been amazingly supportive of my athletic career from the Hustle up the Hancock to my journey into triathlon. I’m in the best shape of my life, and Bill ensures that I continue to improve upon it each and every day through his encouragement and intense weekly workouts. Sports medicine doctor Josh Akin, MD, who took time out of his busy life working on the Cubs and Bears to keep me fine-tuned for months leading up to the race. My buddy Jim Nelles who dared me to sign up and dragged me out on long weekend bike rides through the hills of Barrington. Jim now enters the next step of conquering a full Ironman 140.6! Finally my great friend Laura, who gave me a very special good luck buckeye to bring with me to St. Croix. It worked!
It has taken me a long time to admit it, but I’m an athlete!