Boulder Ironman Race Report

Boulder is a great place to run an Ironman. It is, after all, the unofficial triathlon training capital of the US. The folks in Boulder embrace the race and the city itself is bike friendly with tons of healthy food restaurants. Boulder 2014 was my first Ironman so I’m not an expert but I thought it was well organized, the volunteers were simply awesome, and the ambiance was wonderful.

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The Boulder Reservoir with a gorgeous view of the Rockies

Race day in Boulder was perfect. Sunny to partly cloudy with an expected high of 82F. The big question on race day was “What would the water temperature be?” Below 76.1F, it’s “wetsuit legal” — you can qualify for awards and a slot to Kona (the granddaddy of all triathlons) wearing a wetsuit. Above 76.1F, it’s “wetsuit optional” — you can wear one if you want, but you no longer qualify for awards. 

Two days before the race the water was “wetsuit optional”. The day before the race it was “wetsuit legal”. You swim faster in a wetsuit so everyone was hoping the temperature would stay down. When we got off the buses at the reservoir the official word came down: “wetsuit optional”.

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Obligatory wetsuit selfie. Dang! Where am I going to put the phone? There’s no pockets in this thing.

I decided to wear a wetsuit anyway. There was no way I was going to win an award, I’d trained in a wetsuit, and they make you float like a cork. 

“It’s always good to float like a cork when you’re a mile from shore and already tired from swimming.” 

                                                                                                      — Words to live by.

They made all us wetsuit folks (about 1/2 the race field it seemed — about 1,000 people) enter the water last. While we were waiting I struck up a conversation with a woman and her husband who’d raced Boulder before. Her advice to me as a newbie was “Don’t forget to enjoy the day”. It was great advice.

The non-wetsuit folks got to enter the water in self-seeded waves. (Just like a typical road race.) The faster folks moved up front, the slow folks to the back, and everyone else somewhere in the middle. The race director had signs up to help people judge where they should be. (Under 1 hour, 1- 1:15, 1:15 - 1:30, etc.) This helps prevent the faster swimmers from having to swim over the top of the slower swimmers. (Who, oddly enough, seem to resent it.) 

Strangely, they didn’t do that for us wetsuit folks. After the non-wetsuit folks were all gone, they waited a minute and then opened the flood gates.

Thus, my swim was very crowded. All 1,000 of us tried to get into the water at the same time. Fast and slow swimmers were jumbled together and it took about 400 meters to get to the point where I could swim with a little open water around me and not get bumped or whacked. But even so, I was surrounded with people the entire race. 

The good news: I never got lonely. :-)

Out of the water I ran over to the wetsuit stripping station. (The triathlete motto is “Never do anything that you can get a volunteer to do for you.”) With wetsuit in hand, I then ran over to get my bike bag (a large plastic bag with all my cycling gear). Then it was a dash into the changing tent to assemble myself, stuff the wetsuit and goggles into the now empty bike bag, hand the bag off to a volunteer, and run (waddle — I was wearing my cycling shoes) to the bike. Grab the bike, turn on the cycling computer, and then run a good distance to the mount line. 

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The bag drop and changing tents for T1

My transition time was over 8 minutes! (In previous triathlons it’s been 4 minutes or less.) On the other hand, the total distance traveled was probably 1/4 a mile. A 1/4 a mile which doesn’t count towards the 140.6, by the way. (And, yes… I’m keeping count.)

Out on the bike course I settled into my groove, shifted into the big ring … and heard a strange noise. It varied between a squeak, a squeal, and a serious rubbing noise. I had taken my rear wheel off to clean the bike thoroughly prior to the race and I thought perhaps I’d installed it poorly and the brakes were rubbing. (I did test ride it in the parking lot when I reassembled it. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid-crazy.) 

I got off the bike, spun the wheels by hand, and they spun freely. Not the brakes. Nothing seemed obviously wrong with anything else. I didn’t have a lot of options so I got back on the bike and pedaled away. They were four roving bicycle repair crews on the race course, but you can wait an hour for them to get to you (depends how busy they are) and they don’t work miracles. Basically, they change flats.

Fortunately (ha!), I had lots of time to think about the problem. I was going to be on the bike for 6+ hours, after all.

The noise only came when I shifted into the big gear on the front crank. (So not the brakes.) The noise happened whether I was pedaling or coasting. (So not a chain alignment issue.) Maybe it was a wheel alignment issue. I got off the bike around mile 10 and made sure the rear wheel was centered in the fork. That seemed to help a little, but not enough to completely make the problem go away.

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So, for the first 30 miles, I stayed in the little ring. That meant no pedaling down the hills cuz I’d have to pedal like Pee Wee Herman. I got passed by people willy-nilly. (A triathlon is a race against the clock, not against other people. You’re not supposed to get sucked into duals because that will pull you off your plan and you’ll crash on the run. I know all that, but getting passed is demoralizing anyway.) 

Eventually I found by trial and error that sometimes when I shifted on the big ring, the noise wouldn’t come right away or was very slight. If it was really noisy, I’d shift back to the small ring and try again. So I just tried to finesse it for the rest of the ride. It’s not like I had anything else planned to do that day after all.

The ride was actually quite pretty in parts (it is Boulder after all). It was hilly, but the only killer hill came at mile 90. I tried to remember the advice I got earlier and enjoy the day.

The course was two 40 mile loops and then a 32 mile jog. During my ride I discovered that Boulder has a ‘mystery hill’. Mystery hills are places where nature defies the laws of physics. Parked cars left in neutral will roll uphill, razors stay sharp forever, and Elvis sells homemade beef jerky from a roadside stand when the moon is full. Ok, not the last two things, but due to optical illusions, hills that appear to go down, actually go up.

At mile 16, we rounded a corner and started going down a very mild grade (or so it seemed). We were on chip-seal — the bane of all cyclists — but there was no head wind and yet despite pedaling with some effort AND going ‘downhill’ I was only going 12 mph. At first I thought I had a flat tire. Then I thought my brakes were suddenly rubbing. I glanced around and realized that we had all slowed down so it wasn’t just me. I looked at the horizon, I looked at the slopes, and was convinced we were going downhill. But clearly we weren’t.

On the second loop the exact same thing happened. (I just checked my Garmin data and lo-and-behold!, Nelson Road at mile 16 does indeed go uphill running east to west, the direction we were going. And pretty substantially too — as it would have to in order to slow us all down that much. It was a very good optical illusion.)

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The volunteers on the ride were wonderful. There were aid stations every 15 miles and the volunteers would hand off a bottle of water or Gatorade on the fly (sometimes getting sprayed with the contents when the rider dropped the bottle). I doused my back and head with water from time to time to stay cool, drank a lot of Gatorade, and ate about four Clif bars over the course of the ride.

The 112 mile mark finally came. My back and shoulders were sore but mostly my feet hurt. My shoes were digging into the sides of my little toes despite loosening the straps. 

I dismounted and ran my bike into the bike-run transition. Again, it was a long run to the transition area in my cycling shoes (maybe a 1/4 of a mile). I handed my bike to a volunteer, found my run bag, and hobbled into the 2nd changing tent of the day. Swapped shoes, ditched the helmet, gloves and glasses, donned a hat, strapped on my race belt (with the mandatory race number), and jogged to the exit. Another 8 minute transition.

This was the moment of truth. The swim is merely what you do to get to the bike. The bike is where you can save significant time. But if you go out too fast on the bike, you leave nothing for the run. 

Some people will boast that they killed the bike ride but blew up on the run. Experienced triathletes will counter that a triathlon is the sum of all three sports and it does you no good to be so fast on one segment that you fail on another.

I’ve run some 12 or 13 marathons so I know what a typical marathon is like. You coast on auto-pilot for the first 16 to 20 miles just checking in now and then to make sure that you don’t go too fast. And then it’s a mental game at the end as you struggle to finish.

This marathon was different. I was surprised how tired I was when I got to the very first mile marker. There wasn’t going to be any auto-pilot mode. It was going to be 26.2 miles of the mental game.

So I tried to find my happy place, tried to remember to have fun. I read the signs people were holding (like “Smile. You didn’t drown.” and “You know what they call the last person to finish an IRONMAN? They call him an IRONMAN.”) and made sure to interact with the spectators, giving the kids high fives. My name was printed on my bib and I smiled when I ran. (Inside I was grimacing, but everyone thought I was smiling.) 

There were tons of people watching and many called out encouragement: “You can do this!” “Just a little bit more!” “You’re looking good, Philip!” (I’ll always wonder what they would think if they ever saw me when I hadn’t swum 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and run some unknown amount of miles. Because if they think I looked good then, on a normal day I’d probably look like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney all rolled into one to them… It’s a little scary when you think about it.) 

I walked when I was tired for as long as I wanted and then ran again when I felt like it. 

The course was a two loop out-and-back run along a river. (Actually, it was a Y-shape. One of the ends had two legs and for the life of me, I could never figure out where I was on the course. It was a confusing course and by then I had lost all reasoning capabilities.) But because it was a loop, I saw some people I had passed (or had passed me) on the bike ride, coming and going on the run. These were people with very, um, “distinct” racing gear. Like the gal with a hot pink tank top, one white calf-length sock and another hot pink one. One guy that I didn’t see on the ride but couldn’t help but notice on the run was ... Captain Awesome.

Captain Awesome was wearing a very small speedo (ugh!), a t-shirt that said “Captain Awesome”, and streamers dangling from his wrists. He passed me twice going the opposite direction. I’m thankful that I never had to view the speedo from the back for any length of time on the running trail.

Like I said, the run was a mental game and that view would have messed up my game. (Anyone's game, actually.)

Mile by mile I gutted it out. I cramped badly at mile 18, actually dropping to one knee as my right quads just seized up suddenly. I massaged it out the best I could, tried walking it off, and eventually started running again. (What else was I going to do? I wasn’t going to quit with just 8 miles left to go and I didn’t want to stay out on that course any longer than I had to.) I had to walk down the little hills on the path though — my quads couldn’t take running down hill. And I walked a bit more than before.

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Gutting it out

But in the end I finished. Chip time: 12 hours and 5 minutes. I am very happy with that result. Extremely happy. I was thinking 14 hours was realistic and hoping for 13.

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Done! My first Ironman!

*Oh, yeah. That rubbing noise? I took my bike back to my LBS and explained my mystery problem. The repair guy listened to my litany of symptoms and then immediately said, “I’ll bet the end of your front derailleur cable is rubbing on your tire. It’s no big deal.” He reached down, flicked the cable off the tire, and said, “Yup, that was it.” 

Look, I’m grateful that he ‘fixed’ the problem, but I’m a good customer of theirs. In my opinion the least he could have done was to put his hand to his chin and pretend to puzzle it out for 15 seconds or so — before showing me that the thing that had me riding in the little ring for the first 30 miles of my Ironman was, in fact, a trivial issue.  Oh well. Lesson learned. :-)

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My view 30 minutes after the finish. 

Sitting down seemed like a good idea at the time. It took me 3 minutes to stand up without bending my knees though! LOL

A special thank you to my friends Manuel and Daysi, and their son Manuel Jr. It was Manuel Jr.’s first Ironman, too. He and I had run the Austin 70.3 in 2014 and he decided to run Boulder in 2015. They let me tag along. :-) Manuel and Daysi were an incredible pre- and post-race support crew. Thank you!

Manuel, Manuel Jr., and Daysi at the Boulder Reservoir

 © Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016