Austin 70.3 Ironman Race Report

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Austin was my 3nd triathlon and my first 70.3. Like a lot of triathletes, I’d started as a marathoner who switched to cycling while injured. One thing led to another and suddenly I was a triathlete. :-) Here’s what happened at my first long distance tri…

My day began at 5:30 AM at the Austin Expo Center. That’s where the end of the race is located and so that’s definitely where you want your car to be when you’re done. No sense schlepping your gear any farther than you have to after racing 70.3 miles, right? The start of the race was about a mile and half from the finish. School buses were parked at the Expo to shuttled us to the start. 

I found my race number on one of the bike racks in T2 and dropped off my running gear in the empty spot underneath — carefully noting where the heck my spot was in relation to the entrance and the exit. This was a lesson I learned the hard way in my 2nd triathlon after searching for my bike for a few frantic minutes in T1. Mission accomplished, I exited T2 and boarded a bus.

Thus my day began with about 30 ridiculously trim and athletic strangers wrapped in colorful lycra wedged into bus seats sized for 4’ tall adolescents.

At T1 I stood in a short line to wait for a volunteer with a black sharpie to write my bib number on my arms and my age on the back of my left calf. Of all the volunteer jobs at a triathlon, that’s got to be the best: coloring on athletes with a magic marker.  Once sufficiently doodled upon, I went to set up my stuff. I’d dropped off my bike in T1 the day before so I just put out my bike shoes, got my socks ready, and put my helmet, water bottles, and sunglasses on the bike. 

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T1 before all 2,800 bikes were racked

And then I waited. The race started at 7:30 AM so I had about an hour and 1/2 to kill. Which is about how long it takes me to put on a wetsuit properly so I made good use of the time.

There were 2,800 people in the race so the swim start was grouped in waves of about 200-300 people each. I was in wave 5. We were the 50-54 year old men and — wait for it — the collegiate triathletes. I’m not sure how those two populations of athletes fit together, but what the heck...

Each wave gets their own color swim cap. (I’m not sure why. I’m guessing it so when you’re drowning the lifeguards in the kayaks can make a judgment call: “Hmm. Blue cap going down for the third time over there. Let’s see… Blue caps are the women 20-24 years old. Yeah, I guess it’s worth getting wet to save her.”) My color was purple. Well, lavender actually. The volunteer who handed it to me told me all the women athletes really liked that color. I believed her and would have been happy to trade them for a less emasculating color.

When it was our wave’s turn we waded out to the start buoys which were in water just barely over our heads. Triathlon wetsuits make you float like a cork so that was no problem. The water temps were perfect, too. We were packed about 5-6 deep and maybe 20 across. The horned sounded, I started my waterproof GPS watch, and we were off!

Imagine standing in a fairly tight group in a crowd. Now imagine everyone suddenly trying to lie down, swing their arms, and kick their feet at the same time. That’s the swim start. There’s a lot of contact during the start. 

Check out this video for a humorous take on the swim start:

There’s a strong element of truth to it…

After getting pummeled a bit, I just held still and let the first wave of overachievers take off for a few seconds to gain enough room to start full swim strokes. And that was the start of my first-ever 70.3 triathlon!

The course (1.2 miles long) was more-or-less a triangle. Swim straight out from the shore, turn left at a large orange inflatable buoy, swim straight a bit more, turn left at another large orange buoy, and then head back to shore. Between the turn buoys were smaller, different colored (and numbered!) buoys to guide out path.

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What we were supposed to do

Sounds simple, right?

What I actually did

Apparently, I can’t swim straight to save my life. I always arc to the right. So I’d sight on the next buoy in line, swim for a bit, re-sight, re-adjust my path (grr!), rinse, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. I clearly swam farther than I needed to because I took a curved path between each buoy. I suppose that kept me out of most of the swimmers, but I ended up swimming over some people and some people swam over me all throughout the race no matter where I was anyway.

By the midpoint of the swim I found myself in a mass of orange capped swimmers. It was the tail end of the previous wave of women that started 3 minutes before my wave. That was heartening (although it didn’t stop them from trying to club me to death — nor me, them.)

At the swim exit, I stood up and ran, well walked, (ok, ok — staggered) up the beach and headed towards my bike. Removing a wetsuit on the go is almost as difficult as putting it on and there is an entire floor in the Triathlete Library of Congress full of dusty tomes of research each claiming to elucidate the fastest way to shed neoprene. My plan was to reach up with my left hand, grab my goggles and swim cap and pull them off while reaching for the zipper on the back of my suit with my right hand, strip the wet suit to my waist leaving the goggles and cap in my left sleeve. Then you can either run to the wet suit strippers who yank will off your legs or just run to your bike and step on the legs one at a time and hop. (More accurately: “try to hop”.)

This is standard wet suit stripping protocol for many triathletes.

What happened instead was: stagger, stagger… Oh, yeah, I should be doing something right now. Right, my goggles and cap with my left hand. <Pull>. <And pull>. My damn cap won’t come off! It’s stuck!

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That happy feeling you get when you finally manage to peel off your lavender swim cap

I tried grabbing the top of the cap and pulling instead of peeling it off. That didn’t work too well because the suction was trying to draw my eyes into my skull, but I was a bit out of it at the time. Eventually I managed to get it off. By that point, I gave up trying to pull the wet suit to my waist; I let the wet suit stripper volunteers do it all for me.

They handed my inside out wetsuit to me (with goggles and cap in the left sleeve! Success!) and I walked briskly to my bike. I stuffed my wetsuit into the plastic bag with my bib number on it (for this very purpose), dried my feet, put on my socks and shoes, clipped my helmet, and donned my sunglasses.

Then I picked… up… my… bike… and carried it out of the transition area.

Apparently, there are “stickers” in the grass in Austin that can cause flat tires. (I had no idea what a “sticker” was until I looked it up, but it didn’t sound good whatever it was.)

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Cenchrus echinatus aka Southern Sandspur aka “stickers”

All the online review of the Austin 70.3 said it was safest to do it this way. (None of the reviews said anything about the “stickers” piercing your bare feet on the way to your bike, by the way. Apparently real triathletes’ feet are tougher than bicycle tires. That would explain all the black toenails…)

Once out of the grass, I rolled my bike on the pavement to the magical mount line and then got on my bike. The swim (35 min 31 sec) and T1 (3 min 22 sec) were over! It was now time for 56 miles of pure cycling bliss.

The bike segment was fun. I really like putting my head down and just pedaling steadily without worrying about traffic. There were rolling hills, some of which were relatively steep but nothing too long. The worst part about the ride were some sections of road that were very rough (worn chip seal). They were so rough that there was a noticeable increase in the rolling resistance of my bike. It was so hard to pedal that I actually turned back to look twice to see if I had started leaking air in my rear tire. (Could I have picked up a dreaded “sticker”?)

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The bane of all cyclists: chip seal

My goal was to pedal along at 18-19 mph and keep my heart rate at a reasonable level. I did exactly what I wanted to do, but it sucked getting passed by a lot of other bikers — something that occurred with a fair bit of regularity in the last half of the ride. (I was in an early swim wave and I’m slightly better than an average swimmer — so I popped out in front of the bike pack. They, being faster on the bike than me, caught up in the last half of the race and whizzed past. Grrr.)

Be that as it may, I just pedaling along and reminded myself that I was on plan and didn’t want to get sucked up in some testosterone fueled one-on-one bike race…

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Me, competitive? No need; I’m more aero :-)

Until I found myself behind a woman rider who was… 54 just like me. Remember the body marking? They write your age on your left calf. It’s very convenient on the ride to glance at the cyclists in front of you to see how old they are. When a 22-year-old zips past you, you figure “oh well”. When a 35-year-old leaves you in the dust, you can rationalize that, too. But when people in my age group are in front of me, I feel compelled to pass them.

The woman in question and I tagged teamed for miles. I was faster on the flats. She was faster on the hills. She’d pass me going up. I’d pass her on the way down.

Ultimately I won and left her far behind. Mwa ha ha ha! 

And then I stopped to hit a porta-potty around mile 39. I suspect she slipped past me then. I’ll never know.

Guess which mile included the pit stop

Serious, obsessive-compulsive triathletes don’t stop to pee while cycling. They simply pee while pedaling. If you read online triathlon guides long enough, you’ll find different peeing techniques discussed so that you minimize the amount of urine that you get in your cycling shoes. (Triathletes are weird.)

Why bring this up? So that you’ll understand what was going through my head when I was at mile 40 about four bike lengths behind a woman on the flats when I suddenly felt a few sprinkles hit my face.

There were no clouds in the sky.

Gross!* I slowed down and let her get way ahead of me.

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Note to self: Always close your mouth during the ride

Around mile 45 my lower back and my butt started hurting. By mile 50 they were getting uncomfortably sore. By mile 56 I was was very, very happy to get off the damn bike. I rolled up to the magical dismount line at T2 and hopped off the bike. (After unclipping my shoes from the pedals. Normally, I’d say, “of course” but after 3+ hours on the bike as the day got progressively warmer, nothing was “of course” at this point…)

I trotted to my spot in the transition area, racked my bike, and swapped out my riding gear for my running gear: running shoes, a hat, and my race belt with my bib number on it. I also grabbed a water bottle off the bike to bring on the run.

The ride (3 hours 2 min) and T2 (2 min 48 sec) were over! Just the run left. Then I ran out of T2 on wobbling bike legs at what seemed like slow motion.

As it turns out, I was making a common triathlon mistake. The cadence on a bike is fairly high and your legs want to keep turning over at that rate during the run. I was running at a 7:30 pace. I wanted to run at a 9 min pace. So I was running substantially faster than target yet it felt substantially slower.

Eventually I slowed down to an 8:30 pace. (It took several miles.) By now it was high 80s / low 90s and I was hot and tired. The run was three 4+ mile loops. I dumped water on my head at the aid stations and put ice down my shorts once in desperation. (Although I saw other, apparently sane people do this, having experienced it once I don’t recommend it. Ice in your hat, yes. Down your shorts, no.) I drank Gatorade, water, and warm Coke (for the caffeine and sugar).

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Contemplating the implications of frostbite

There were hills in the loops. Despite my fervent wish to gut through the hills, I ended up walking pieces of each one. Long story short: I walked more than I wanted but finished in under 2 hours — which was my goal.

Started too fast, finished too slow. Average pace: 9:01 min/mi. Perfect...

Interestingly, I found that I was able to run more steadily (albeit slowly) after 8 miles or so. I was getting my running legs back which I’d heard about.

All in all, I finished under 5 hours 41 minutes and 56 seconds. Finishing under 6 hours was my stated goal, but under 5:45 was my secret goal. So, despite getting whacked and going off in random directions during the swim, despite getting passed repeatedly on the bike, despite getting peed on! (probably), and despite walking the hills on the run, I was very, very happy with my results.

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*In hindsight, I realize now that it could have merely been sweat. It’s still gross.

© Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016