Another medal for the big guy! Vineman 70.3

Another medal for the big guy! Vineman 70.3

by Tom S.

8+ months of training have paid off, as I finished the Vineman 70.3 on Sunday, July 15th. I’m happy to report that I finished with a smile on my face and was pleased with the way the day went. Another medal for the big guy!

This was the longest tri I’ve participated in: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. Due to scheduling conflicts, I didn’t get to any Olympic distance tri’s this summer so went from sprint tris to a half Ironman distance tri this year. While it would have been nice to get some Olympic time in prior to this event, overall it’s really all about the prep that you do training and I felt pretty confident going into the Vineman from the focused training I was doing starting at the end of 2011.

The race itself starts in Guerneville, California, which is in Sonoma County. If you have been to this area, you know how beautiful it is. If you haven’t, I’d highly recommend a trip out to either Sonoma or Napa County. They are truly lovely areas of the country, with stunning scenery, great people, and lots of great outdoor activities. Having lived in the East San Francisco Bay area for a while, I also know that Sonoma/Napa can get pretty toasty during the summer too. I certainly was checking the weather forecast for at least 10 days prior to the event with fingers crossed that we wouldn’t have a 95+ degree day. I was a little concerned on Wednesday July 11th when the temps out there reached 100!, but the weather gods smiled kindly on Sunday the 15th with a morning temp of 57 and a high of 85 in the afternoon. Pleasant weather, little humidity, and a beautiful blue sky day to run the race.

Saturday July 14


The Vineman is a point to point triathlon, which means 2 things: 1) You have the two transition areas in separate locations, and 2) if you’re like me and have never done a point to point race, you’ll spend hours fretting about how to set everything up. Actually, it wasn’t that bad. Once it sunk in about the logistics, at least on paper it looked pretty straightforward.

Day before the race, you went to transition area #2 where the packet pickup was, the expo, and the mandatory 30 min meeting to go over the safety and needed items to know for the race. I really enjoyed the pre-meeting; you could tell that everyone there was excited about the next day’s endeavor. Knowing that the weather was going to be great only added to everyone’s enthusiasm.

The expo was well done, or maybe it was just very pleasant doing an outdoor expo on a nice sunny day. Either way, I enjoyed the free samples and walked away $200 lighter with all kinds of Ironman branded bling.

I had decided to have my bike shipped with RaceDay Transport, so I went to visit the bike and do a test ride. All systems go on the bike, and getting out on the roads I’d be riding next day really got me in the mood to go.

Sunday July 15


Was out the door to arrive an hour before my 7:42AM wave start in the Russian River. Swim start for the Vineman starts at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, which as you’d expect is also where Transition #1 is at. I went and got my bike from the good folks from RaceDay and set up my transition spot. I decided to wear a wetsuit given the 57 degree morning, plus always nice to get the extra buoyancy from it for the swim. I’d say about 75% of the folks chose the wetsuit.

Headed down to the beach area, and they had a nice little practice area in the river set up. Paddled around in it until 7:35 when it was time to get ready for take-off.

“Brraapp” goes the horn at 7:42 and off go myself and 170 other 50-54 year olds. The river itself was nice, and the water was warmer than the outside temperature. I started near the back of the pack since I wanted to have a relaxed start, and that strategy worked out fine. The water itself was great; clean, not choppy, and a negligible current. As usual, it takes me a bit of time to get into my rhythm, but it’s nice to feel confident enough in the water that there’s no sense of panic.

One of the simultaneous benefits and minuses of the Russian River is that it gets shallow in some spots. Benefit being that if you’re an anxious swimmer, without much difficulty you can find a place to stand and catch your breath. However, you also may have to swim through a collection of people standing and/or walking, so that can be a challenge. Some folks would dolphin-dive through the shallow areas… Note to self: practice dolphin diving.

Overall, swim was pleasant and I felt great after the 1.2 miles up and down the River.

Transition #1

OK, I’m not the fastest guy during transition (really, just not the fastest guy triathlon-wise anyhow.) However, as simple as the directions are of get wetsuit off, get bike stuff on, get on bike, I ended up spending enough time for a nice riverside latte overall. Partly since I needed to get everything in a “swim bag” to be transported by the Ironman folks to Transition #2 and partly since it was a bit muddy by the bike area, it took me extra long before I finally got my a** in gear.


Just to foreshadow the upcoming 56 miles, leaving transition you immediately head up a steep but short hill. Those not prepared were literally falling off their bike if they were in a little gear. But I was in the right gear, and right frame of mind…  Having “survived” the swim, I was ready to go.

And a stunning bike ride it was! We went by vineyard after vineyard, up and down through redwood forests, and had so many vista views of Sonoma that you would have thought you were in a 3D Imax movie. It was really exceptional, easily one of the most scenic rides I’d ever taken.

The course itself was fairly hilly; I suppose technically it would be called a lot of rollers with a few substantial climbs (and descents). While I did a fair number of Midwest “hill” training rides, this course was much more like the 40 mile Madison, WI hilly Ironman loop. The biggest challenge on the bike course was “Chalk Hill” at about mile 44; there were lots of people walking their bikes up that mile or so 16% grade. I was pleased that I rode it all, although granny gear was certainly part of the ascent!

There were a number of teardrop helmeted uber-bikers that shot by me like I was standing still, but overall it was a pretty orderly bike ride. I generally enjoy the bike, possibly since it’s the main sport where I have a chance to pass people up.  🙂

I followed the nutrition plan sorted out for me by ET Team Dietitian, Laurie Schubert, and that worked out fine. Support on the bike course was great; there were 3 stops (miles 18, 30, 40) that featured snacks, ice cold drinks, ice, and washrooms. Well done and a great course. Bike time was about a mile/hour less than I was shooting for, but given the challenge level of the course I was happy with my time.

Transition #2

Substantially quicker, and after mile 56 I was ready to get off for the run. Still could have made it a bit faster here, but overall zip in, and kinda zip out.


Well, today I’m all the wiser on the topics of energy management and triathlon strategy. However, last Sunday starting the run I had a few issues to deal with:

  1. The bike ride took more out of the proverbial fuel tank that I’d anticipated. No problem in general, just wasn’t in “spring-fresh” mode on the run
  2. Of more consequence was a blister/chafe situation with the compression socks I had on. While I’d worn them in the past both on run and rides, for whatever reason I got to mile #3 with a few substantial blisters. Not ideal, but manageable. Note to self #2: Return to regular bike/run socks, get compression sleeves.

Combined effect of #1 and #2 was that my newfound “fast” run pace of the past few months dwindled quickly, so soon enough my run turned into a run/walk event. Which actually, I was completely fine with. My overarching goal of the day was to come out and enjoy the event, and close behind was also the important goal to finish the event. Also, given that the temps were now in the 80’s, I figured that I’d just enjoy the scenery, run for a bit, walk for a bit, and make the most of the run part of the event.

And beautiful scenery it was! Since I wasn’t whizzing along on a bike having to concentrate more on the road, now I had a chance to really enjoy the 13 miles through forest and by vineyard. One of the big highlights was actually doing a 2 mile loop through the La Crema winery vineyards; the run is on their service road, and stunning overall. I loved that part of the run.

After La Crema, you hit the turnaround point and back you go. By now you’re at mile 7, and I was feeling pretty good overall. I noticed quite a few people doing the “Ironman Shuffle.”  No one was in serious distress but they definitely were ready for the race to end.

With 6 miles to go and my run plan out the window, I just kept on with run/walk mode. I’d been keeping up with hydration at the water stops with ice cold water (ahhhh), but by about then Gatorade was doing nothing for me other than giving me an unpleasant stomach cramp. So, kept nutrition up with some shot blocks and also was using S Caps hourly during the entire event to eliminate any sodium/potassium imbalance.

Big Finish

Well, big enough for me. The Ironman folks believe in having an enthusiastic finish, so I revved up for a big final half-mile run and had a great feeling of satisfaction upon hearing, “Tom Sensabaugh of Naperville, Congratulations on finishing the Vineman!” I felt fine, no more or less exhausted than had I run a marathon.

As a real treat for me, as my family and I were walking out, we ran into Sister Madonna Buder, aka the “Iron Nun”. She’s 82, also had finished the race, and is known world-wide for doing marathons like Boston and 40+ other FULL Ironman events. She wrote a great book which I’d read and I’d been very inspired by her since I’d heard about her story last year. A thrill to meet her and thank her in person for all she does, not just for triathlons and running, but people in general.  A fantastic finish to a fantastic day!

My thanks to Coach Joe and his counsel, the good folks at Experience Triathlon, Terry Laughlin and his merry band of Total Immersion swim coaches, my good friends and motivators at CARA, and of course support from family. This was a great event overall, so if you ever want a stunning triathlon to do I highly recommend the Vineman Half Ironman.

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