Monday, November 15, 2010

The Great Drafting Disaster of 2010: Ironman 70.3 World Championship Race Report

Little did I know, the proof is in the shirt.
My 2010 triathlon season ended Saturday in Clearwater, Florida, at the Foster Grant Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And surprisingly enough, I didn't go out in flames (as is the usual case for the Disaster Magnet). But I also didn't have the "Race of My Life" (R.O.M.L.). The positive thing about not having the R.O.M.L. is that it keeps me hungry for the future and the hope that I will someday HAVE the R.O.M.L. The unfortunate thing about it is that I would have liked to have had the R.O.M.L. in the "World Championship" (read: WTC Mdot 70.3 Championship). Despite this, my second showing in Clearwater was respectable but not without its few near-disasters threatening to derail my race.

I should have known something bad was coming because for the first time ever, packing and traveling to a race destination went completely without incident. Even getting our rental car -- a complete disaster last year due to overbooking of cars -- went smoothly and without having to wait in a queue. And race registration and picking up my bike from Tri-Bike Transport also went without incident or long waits.

Fast-forward to ten hours of sleep on Thursday night, a great warm-up spin and run on Friday morning and... you could almost FEEL the disaster brewing on the horizon. And that's when it happened. Sometime around 10 a.m., I bent a certain way in the hotel room and wammo! Something in my lower back gave out when I stood up. It wasn't excruciating, but the pain was enough to make it difficult to... well... stand up. I stretched maniacally and had my husband Jim mash at it for a bit. It wouldn't be perfect, but it was far from being bad enough to keep me out of the race.

Then came "Back Pain, Part II" (isn't getting old a bitch?). After breakfast, we went down to Clearwater Beach to scope out the start and go for a short warm-up swim (or freeze-up swim as the case was in 64-degree water). After about ten minutes in the water, I stood up and stretched my arms a bit only to be struck with a sharp pain between my shoulder blades. This can NOT be HAPPENING! It was the kind of pain that sometimes compromises getting a lungful of air. I stretched. I bitched. I started to panic. Why is this happening today, of ALL days? I got back in the water to make sure I could swim with my newest ailment.

I could -- and I WOULD -- start the race. Pain or no pain. We went to a drug store and stocked up on air-activated heat pads and I downed 800 mg of Ibuprofen.

Bike and gear bag check-in
I packed my transition bags, and we went down to the race site to rack my bike, see the transition zone, and drop off my bags. The weather was beautiful -- sunny, dry and not ridiculously warm. My bike would be very easy to find on race day -- it was racked in the second row along the last aisle at the end of the entire transition zone. I would therefore only have to run a few steps with my bike. I couldn't ask for anything better. I walked through the transition with a race volunteer who explained the set up. He was not from Clearwater. An older gentleman, he and his wife were there on vacation -- they do it every year, and he volunteers at the race. (As usual, these race volunteers never cease to amaze me.)

Jim and I relaxed the rest of the day in the hotel room and then went to dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach. The reason I mention this is because their specialty, homemade gnocchi, is THE best gnocchi I've had this side of Italy. It was so good that Jim and I couldn't bear to let the leftovers go to waste and took them back to the hotel (something we rarely do when out of town).

After a fitful night -- Jim said I dozed but I don't think I caught any Z's whatsoever -- race day was upon us. I got up at 3:35, downed my usual breakfast (Hammergel, protein powder, banana, orange juice and coffee), and took a hot shower to help loosen up my back. The great thing about staying in a hotel five minutes away from the start is that you can go back to the room and relax before the start. And that's exactly what we did. We walked to the start, got body-marked, set up my transition and went back to our hotel room. For the first time EVER, I didn't have to stand in porta-john lines (and neither did Jim!).

Pre-race, post warm-up
The race started at 6:45 -- the male and female pro waves would go first followed by the age groupers. I would start in wave 3, the first non-pro wave, women 45+. After a short swim warm-up, I made my way to the corrals to await my start. I took Jim's recommendation to start up front because I'm usually one of the faster female swimmers (assuming my back was not an issue).

The Clearwater swim is a very long rectangle -- it's almost just an "out-and-back." I was alone for most of the swim. It was a bit rough on the way out, but when we reached the turn buoys, it got much worse. On the way back in, it was hard to spot buoys because we were looking directly into the sun and the waves were choppy. I stopped to get my orientation and found a building on the horizon that lined up directly with the orange buoys. It helped immensely -- spotting individual buoys in rough water with a bad back would have cost me much more time in the end. When I finally reached the shore and checked my watch, I was very disappointed at my time -- well over 31 minutes. But all the swim times were slow. And the reason I couldn't find any feet to draft off was because I was actually fifth out of the water in my wave.

Watch check out of the water
My swim-to-bike transition, T1, went much faster than usual because I had concentrated on making it faster in the days leading up to the race. The wetsuit strippers were efficient as usual, and I found my bag quickly. Because my shoes were clipped onto the bike, all I had to do was retrieve helmet, number belt and sunglasses, all of which I donned WHILE running to my bike (note: new concept for me, old news for everyone else).

The bike leg was where my race really started to fall apart. From the very start of the ride, my legs felt BAD. Not "I-need-to-get-my-land-legs-back-after-the-swim" bad, but really fatigued and, dare I say, painful. And they were NOT coming around. The Clearwater course is ridiculously fast, and after 15 miles of the 56, I still had not hit speeds anywhere near my pre-race plan of 23 mph.

Swim-to-bike transition
Somewhere between miles 15 and 25, the next disaster struck. I was riding by myself and was overtaken by a pack of both male and female riders. Knowing how bad the drafting is on this course and the stated "crack-down" by officials, I tried to drop back to get out of this pack's drafting zone. I never made it. The next thing I knew, I was looking smack into the red card of a race official (who was also yelling at me: "DRAFTING! Go to the next penalty tent!"). Wha? You MUST be JOKING? I never even got a chance to drop back. I wonder if the referee noticed when my jaw hit my aero bar. He didn't stop to pick it up. He was too busy red-carding three more women in the pack -- now well in front of me.

It was my first drafting penalty in all my years of racing. I lost focus. I was upset, angry -- even sad. My bike leg was already suffering and now I would lose four additional minutes for the penalty. I decided to drop out of the race. The only question was where on the course to do it. In the penalty box? At an aid station? At the bike finish? Should I just lollygag to T2 and call it a day?

PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER JEANNE! I stopped at the 25-mile penalty tent to serve my four minutes. I got a black slash on my bib number, helmet number and bike number. The other women there were as agape as I was with their infractions. (Mind you, I'm ALL FOR cracking down on drafting.) And then, as if that weren't enough, when my time was up, I was held back to allow another huge pack of riders to pass.

But when I got back out there, the other feeling remained -- my biking muscles were still toast. Face it, I was riding slow, with or without a drafting penalty. I still made sure to follow my nutrition routine (250 calories and about 20 ounces water per hour using First Endurance E.F.S. Liquid Shot and drink mix, and Sportquest Direct Carbo-Pro with Thermolytes). By the time two hours on the bike had passed, I was beginning to mentally re-engage, and my legs loosened up just enough for me to actually consider taking on the 13.1-mile run. What could it hurt? You never know what will happen in front of you, right? And if things kept spiraling for me, I could always pack it in after the first loop.

A sight for sore eyes
(and sore legs)
I rode into T2, a dismal 2:41 split on my watch and a dumbfounded Jim on the sidelines. He didn't know my position overall in my age group, but he knew it wasn't favorable for me to make a stab at the top three. My body was stiffer than usual getting off the bike, but I was determined to give it a go at least from the bike to the transition tent. When my feet shockingly slipped right into my shoes, I figured it was a sign. My bike-to-run transition went pretty fast, mainly because, again, I focused on getting out of the tent with "stuff in hand." I put my hat on and gel and electrolytes in my pockets AS I made my way to the run exit.

It all starts here...
My run started with Jim's voice "relax - you can catch 'em." Even though I had no clue where THEY were. I just ran. I would assess the situation at Mile 1. At Mile 1, my watch said: 6:45. Thank the MAKER! I felt like crap, but I was on a sub-seven-minute pace! Even the first hill (i.e., bridge) didn't send my mile time over seven minutes.

The only mishap on the run was dropping my Roctane and electrolytes after pulling my number belt down below my pockets, creating the same "nutrition launcher" that plagued me at my last half. (Maybe it's time for new racing shorts?) I drank water and Powerbar Perform alternately at the aid stations, and I stopped once to down two extra Thermolyte capsules when I started to feel that old familiar nausea. The temperature had risen to the high 70s, maybe low 80s, and the heat was starting to take its toll. But, still, it wasn't unbearable.

My pace slowed a bit during the second loop, but I had already run down several women in my age group by Mile 6. It got confusing after that. On the second loop, some of them had just started the run, and some, like me, were on their second loop. I figured I had to run down anyone who had a "4-something" on the back of her calf. At the apex of the bridge with about 1.5 miles to go, I passed the woman who was second in my age group (although I didn't know it at the time). Coming into the finish about a quarter mile away, I saw Jim and he informed me I was "third but could still catch the leaders!" He had been getting text updates from our friend Nick via the online Athlete Tracker (the three of us were still unaware I had already passed the woman in second).

I had one thought: afterburners ON! I maxed-out my effort as I passed the transition zone and headed for the finish chute. As soon as I saw the finish line, I saw the woman who just crossed it. She had a "48" on her calf. I ran out of road. The race was over.

My black mark.
I finished in second place by 12 seconds. Devastating? Sort of... but not really. While we were sitting down after the race and I was telling Jim how angry I was about my drafting penalty, he said: "Look at your watch." I did. He said, "you have 20 minutes to complain about the drafting penalty and then you're done." At that moment, I was completely aware of how lucky I am to have Jim. He truly understood what I was going through and acknowledged my dumb luck that day. He felt I deserved an opportunity to bitch about it. But, in the end, all he really wanted was for me to enjoy what I did accomplish.

I ran myself from 21st off the bike to 2nd in my age group and recorded one of the fastest female age-group runs of the day (1:30:36). Overall, it could have gone better. But I learned a LOT about myself on Saturday. I learned a LOT about how to race on Saturday. I learned a LOT about how to avoid a nutrition disaster. I learned a LOT about how much pain my body can endure. And I learned a LOT about how to enjoy the experience even if it's not going the way I want or expect. Now I can't WAIT until next year. And that, really, is what it's all about.

But getting on the podium was awesome too.

Top 5, W45-49
L-R: Jocelyn Saunders, Gabriele Pauer, Bonnie Karas, me, Lauren Smith


  1. Incredible Run Jeanne! Perseverance is a great measure of a true athlete :) Glad to share the experience with you.

  2. Thanks Bonnie! and likewise - I especially enjoyed standing next to you and your gorgeous 100-megawatt smile on that stage

  3. When will you learn that you MUST put your feet INSIDE the shoes on the bike if you ever want to get faster? Even us slow guys know this.

    What we have here is another absolutely amazing race report by an amazing athlete who just happens to have impeccable taste in shirts. I was going to write a long comment but it’s pretty chilly in here. I think there might be a draft……

    All the best my friend,