Spinning Plates at Ironman Racine
One indisputable fact I have learned from triathlon racing – there is no such thing as a perfect race. There are just too many moving parts and dials to adjust in our vain attempt to cross that finish line with complete satisfaction that everything went perfectly according to plan. Even the first place finisher will find some fault in their race that can be improved. It’s a never-ending, never reaching Holy Grail quest filled with exquisite highs and frustrating lows for all of us. Much like vaudevillian plate spinners who feverishly balance the multitude of plates on slender, wavering poles, we triathletes juggle the variables of the race like our equipment, nutrition, paces, and training. We seek even those tiniest of improvements as we tweak this and that only to see another element of our race seem to stagnate or even regress. Add in a full measure of things we cannot control like the weather and course conditions and our whole race plan can blow apart and all the plates come crashing to the floor. This is what makes racing so much fun for me – exploring the seemingly unreachable possibility of one day having a race where every element is dialed in, all the variables are perfectly controlled and I can step back to see all the plates spinning in unison. Ironman Racine wasn’t one of those days. Still, I learned a lot about myself in this race and made mental notes of what worked and what didn’t to take back to the laboratory in hopes of creating a new and improved version. The only problem is I am on version 346 and no closer to perfection….
In many ways, this year’s race in Racine rang with an air of familiarity as it was my 4th time racing there in the last five years. I missed out on last year’s sufferfest with the crazy heat famously and fantastically endured by other members of the Experience Triathlon team. Some of the subtle differences in this year’s race included going to the race the day before instead of two days before. It didn’t seem necessary since I lived within and hour and a half of the event. Maxine, my wife, was also participating in the event with me – we had not done this race together before. We opted to stay in a hotel a little further out from the race venue for a little less money and we had no problems with access to the race site or parking. We picked up our race packet and swag and set up our bikes in transition the day before, remembering to let out some air in our tires lest we risk blowing them out as they sat in the hot afternoon sun. We got in a little swim time after checking in the bikes and found the water to be refreshing. It was then back to the hotel for relaxing time, a little pasta dinner and an early turn in time in anticipation of the race the next day.
I slept well. Experience in this race helped me to feel little anxiety thus I fell asleep rather easily and in what seemed like a moment, it was four a.m. My race gear, transition bag and nutrition were laid out the night before, thus after a getting some food in my belly, I was out the door with Maxine fairly quickly. Getting to the race venue early allows for a nearby, prime parking space that is so invaluable when it comes to leaving the race site and getting all the gear back to the vehicle when the body is aching and tired from the race. I joined the rest of the throng of racers descending upon transition to set up my gear. As usual, the transition was packed with over two thousand racers which meant the spaces between the bikes were cramped for setting up the gear. Lessons that I have gleaned from fellow ET members and pro racers have helped me to whittle down the transition gear to the basics. I work now off a very small towel. I did afford myself one luxury in transition set-up and that was an extra towel. Racine experience has taught me that after a beach run from swim exit to the bike in transition, I need a small towel to wipe the sand from my feet before getting into the bike shoes. With transition set up, I was off to the swim start with Maxine.
On the way, we found the ET tent near the finish line and got well-wishes from Coach Joe and the rest of the world famous ET cheer crew. I mentioned to Coach how excited I was to have a good race as the weatherman said it was only going to be a high of 85 degrees for the day. What could go wrong when given such a perfect weather day to race….?
It was a mile walk north along the beach shore of Lake Michigan with the rest of the racers to the start line. Three quarters of the way there, the cannon boomed and the pros were off. This meant I had about thirty minutes before my wave was to go. I slipped on my wetsuit, goggles and swim cap (goggles under the swim cap) and did a warm-up swim – felt good, everything was loose. After some final mental preparations, I was ready to go and joined up with the rest of my purple-headed competitors of wave eleven and slowly marched up to the start line to await the blast of the air horn. Five, four, three, two, one….
With the scream of the horn, I started my Garmin watch and high stepped into the shallow waters until futility set in and I began to swim. Surprisingly, the swim start was very clean for me. No grabby hands on my feet; no kicks to the head or elbows to the ribs. Made it to the first ninety degree turn buoy and started my pace for a mile long swim before encountering another buoy to turn towards shore and the swim exit. The only memorable aspect of the swim was swimming into a mild current that made for a slower swim time for everybody. Once I hit the shallow shores at the end of the swim, I was high stepping again, peeling off the top of the wet suit on my way through the swim exit. As predictable as Old Faithful, the ET cheer crew were scattered throughout the quarter mile jog to the transition. Pumped me up big time to hear them urging me on. Just before going into transition, I had a first at Racine: I used the strippers and they expertly threw me down to the ground, peeled that suit off and flung me into transition – loved it! It reminded me so much of Ironman Wisconsin. I got to my bike area easily and in two shakes, I had my helmet, glasses and race belt on. With a quick wipe of the sand off my feet (remember the extra towel I had – so glad I had it), I was racing for the bike exit and a perfectly executed flying mount onto my bike…a perfectly executed flying….awww, crap! I lost one of my bottles by hitting it with my foot during the mount. Chased down the bottle in front of all the spectators and started the climb up the start hill from a dead stop – smooth! I was off onto the course and back into the anonymity of my fellow racers.
I had a plan for the bike. Treat the course like two olympic bike distance events and increase the power in the second half of the course over the first half. Nutrition plan was good – 3 bottles of Ironman Perform, a gel or shot blocks every ten miles and get a little extra water at the aid stations. I wasn’t so hot yet, so I elected to forgo salt tablets. In hindsight, I would have taken the tablets as the temperatures did kick up a bit towards the end of the ride and on the run. The ride was great! What little winds there were on the course served as a tailwind for the return trip back to transition – it made for a much faster second half of the ride. I saw 5 time world champion Craig Alexander during the ride and could tell he wasn’t having the best race as there were a few racers ahead of him, but he’s known to be a runner and would likely catch up on the run leg. I also found my fellow ET racers out there looking fantastic. Everyone I saw was looking awesome on the course. Half way through the ride, I was reaching back for my drink and found empty air! Yes, once again, I experienced the plague of my riding experience and another bottle ejected somewhere on the course. Crap! Made some adjustments in the nutrition plan by getting extra water and Perform at the aid station. Just one of those hiccups that can occur when racing. Before long, I was sailing down the finish hill into the transition area and performed a much better flying dismount. I must have been doing well on the bike as I placed the bike onto a lonely rack – there wasn’t anybody around. Exchanged my helmet for a visor and got my bare feet into my running shoes and flew out of the transition area and onto the run course. Once again, the Crew was there hooting and hollering – a great way to have the batteries recharged and boy, was I going to need it on the toasty hot oven they called the run leg.
The run for me is all about finding that comfort zone where I can maintain a consistent pace and cadence, running in automatic. My mind will fixate on something that can distract me from the thought of how many miles I have till I cross the finish line. Unfortunately, my distraction was the ever present envelope of heat clinging like a sweaty, cotton t-shirt. The weatherperson lied. It was not 85 degrees – more like 96 degrees. Nothing saps the speed out like a shadeless, hot sun. How do you cool off when the surrounding air temp is as warm as your natural body heat? It was time for an adjustment in the game plan. It was now about keeping the core temp under control and staying hydrated. This also meant a reduction in the run pace. I averaged about 45 seconds slower in pace for this race in the heat than one in cooler temps. Every aid station was not ignored – water, water, ice, ice and more water. Wearing a one piece race kit was very helpful as I could drop a bucket of ice inside of it to keep my core as cool as I could. The whole course was relatively flat except for a couple of uphill climbs from the beach into the surrounding neighborhoods. Remembering great advice from Dave Walters about hill climbing, I shortened up my stride and picked up the cadence to motor up the hill. It really worked! The “slow-down” demons only came a couple of times during the run. Once, at the dreaded turn around point where we get to witness racers finishing their run down the finishing chute while the rest of us have to turn around and go back into the oven. Fortunately, the ET team was there to spur me on – so glad they were there. The other time was at mile eleven. With two miles to go, the heat was riding on my back like an obese orangutan dragging its feet. Fortunately, the course volunteers were out in force with the water and ice. The idea of only two miles left started to set in and allowed me to shake off the heat a little and plow onward. Soon enough, the beach was in sight and the music and voice of the emcee could be heard – I was close to the finish. It was time to look one’s best as I zipped up my ET singlet and put on a big smile for the ET team and the rest of the spectators cheering me to the finish. With the announcement of my name and hometown, I crossed the finish line. It was done. Thank God! Caught Coach Joe at the finish making sure I was fine. Knowing that I didn’t have to run any more in that heat, I was more than fine. It was now time to be a spectator and watch the rest of the ET team and Maxine come in. Everyone finished – everyone was amazing! I was very proud to be a part of Experience Triathlon that day and seeing everyone reach their goals and doing it with a smile on their face. Sure, a few of our spinning plates may have crashed to the ground, but if we go the way of the Greeks, we celebrate the good fortune that comes with shattering some porcelain and say, “Opa!”
Click here to see the Racine photo set