I have been registered for a 70.3 race -- 1/2 Ironman distance -- before. I backed out because I was afraid of the swim and because, deep down, I was afraid of the distance. That doesn't really make any sense -- I've done an Ironman-distance ride, plus added 8 miles onto it by biking to and from the start line, because 112 miles vs 120, what's the difference really? I've swum more than twice as far, I've "run" for 15 hours+ in ultras. But for some reason 70.3 combining all three sports was fearsome to contemplate. Nevertheless, it was a beast that must be slain before I could think I was worthy of taking on 140.6, AND it was on my training plan for this week, so I did it.
There are no official 70.3 races in Florida or anywhere in the Southeast, as far as I know, in August. Why? Well, duh, because this is weather that can kill people. Also because an 8-hour block in any day has a huge possibility of race-ending thunderstorms. Both of these were factors I had to take into consideration when planning my own personal 70.3. The location was a small beach off of the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The causeway has an 8-mile long bike path running between Tampa and Clearwater. The bike path is almost entirely unobstructed, with only a few parking lot entrances to be careful of, so it's a perfect place to just get miles without thinking too much. While the swim was definitely not going to be ideal -- bay water rather than ocean -- the other logistical advantages made it the best choice for a 70.3. The plan was to start my swim around 2:00 pm on Saturday IF the radar looked decent. If there were thunderstorms, I would reluctantly move it to Sunday morning. Why such a late start? Because if I started at the crack of dawn, I would be heading out on my run at midday, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to handle the heat.
There were a few big, dark clouds in the sky during the drive to the beach, but the skies were clear once we got a little farther west. I was running late, naturally, having worked that morning and also dropped off dogs at various places because Will isn't home and I knew it would be a long day. So I didn't actually get in the water till 2:30. It was a bright, sunny afternoon and the water felt like a hot tub. Also, this beach is apparently a popular place for jet skis. There were lots of them. The warm water was full of seaweed, jet ski fuel, and, probably, flesh-eating bacteria and brain-eating amoebas. (I feel fine today and none of my various Florida skin inflammations look infected, Mom, so please do not worry.) Nevertheless, I started my 1.2-mile swim. My plan was to go out parallel to the shore .6 miles, or 1075 yards, and then turn back and finish. After 300 yards, I swam out of the public beach area, dodging jet skis and rednecks on floaties drinking beers, and right into a huge seaweed forest. I had been swimming through seaweed the whole time, but the density of this was just too much. Also, I saw a large black swimming thing off to my right. I'm sure it was not a shark, but despite the fact that I had just bragged, "I'm not afraid of no sharks," as we parked in the parking lot, I realized that I was, in fact, afraid of sharks. So I turned around and swam back and resigned myself to the idea of making this an out-and-back, out-and-back, out-and-back swim, and that is what I did. Over and over again through the seaweed and jet skis and rednecks. You would not believe how hot ocean water can feel under direct sun. It felt like I was boiling. I felt like it was going quick, but actually it was 58 minutes. Longer than I wanted, but I knew all the obstacles and the disgusting water had slowed me down. I also knew that a wetsuit and a downstream current would be two huge helps in Chattanooga. So I was overall OK with my swim and just happy to be able to get started on the bike.
I ate a PB&J sandwich and sprayed myself with Tri Glide where I thought I felt a chafe under my arm. Then I put on bike shoes, helmet, and gloves and headed out. My T1 time was an unimpressive 7:25. I wasn't hurrying, but neither was I purposely dawdling. One thing I realized was that there were a lot of decisions I should have made BEFORE T1. Like, what do I need in my pockets? (Answer: a Gu, BASE salt, chapstick. I got the GU but not the other two, and was desperately wishing for the other two by the time I hit my first turn-around.) Also, it's really not a good idea to be hunting through your food bag in T1 deciding what to eat. I should have known that beforehand. But today was designed to be a trial prep day for race day, so I'm not getting mad at myself; I will just take that information and use it to do better on race day.
I set out on the bike at 3:33 p.m., and it was HOT. I knew it would be hot, but I did not know it would be this hot. Probably being boiled alive in the ocean previously was a contributing factor, but there were other contributing factors: 1) the causeway is in full sun, no shade at all, 2) it's August in Florida on an almost cloudless day, 3) I was starting dehydrated. Although I had eaten a sandwich, I just plain forgot to drink anything at all. That was stupid, and another mistake I hope not to make again next month. Nevertheless, I had a tailwind riding east, the views were new and gorgeous, there was just one climb -- a nice little bridge right in the middle of the 8-mile stretch -- and my legs felt totally fine. As soon as I hit the turn-around, though, it started to suck. I was now riding into the wind and into the ball of fire that was the sun. I was feeling chafing starting in both my other armpit, the one I hadn't sprayed, and both inner thighs, where my sleek wet trisuit was bunching up somehow. Ouch. Also, I had totally and completely underestimated how much hydration I would need. Normally on my long rides of around four hours, I can get by with one bottle per hour. Sometimes it takes me two hours to drink the first bottle if I start when it's dark and cool. This time I got through almost all of both bottles on the first 16-mile out-and-back. (One bottle of Tailwind, one of water.) I was dragging and burning up when I finished the first out-and-back. I probably lost 5 minutes refilling bottles, spraying Tri Glide everywhere, unzipping my trisuit and rolling it down so my upper body was uncovered except for sports bra, picking through the food bag looking for BASE salt and chapstick, and kicking beach sand out of my cleats so I could clip in again.
The tailwind on the way out, the relief from the TriGlide, and a little BASE salt revived me for the second out. But when I turned around, it was back into the blazing sun and headwind. I was very hot again, and again drinking almost non-stop. I tried riding in aerobars for a while, but I could not get up my speed even though I felt pretty comfortable using them. I thought you're supposed to be FASTER in aerobars, but I was not. So I gave them up. My speed on the first out-and-back was 16 mph, exactly one hour. The second time it was 15.3, so I was losing time. My legs really felt fine; I was losing motivation. I look at this picture and feel like I can see the redness emanating from my burning skin. (Another thing I forgot? Sunscreen -- leading to an extremely messed-up tan line on my back, ruining the perfection I've been cultivating this whole summer.)
Out-and-back number three. This time I was cheered by two things: 1) the sun was starting to go down, and it was slightly cooler, and 2) this was my last full out-and-back; my last one would only be a partial. The turn-around is just past the "better" Courtney Campbell beach, Ben T. Davis, and there were a thousand people out there drinking, blasting music, and generally having more fun than I was. I didn't know whether I should envy them or they should envy me for doing something badass and difficult. I never did make up my mind about that.
For my last out-and-back, I only had to go out four miles. I dropped two bottles of Tailwind at Mile 2 and a bottle of ice water at Mile 4. I was hoping it would motivate me to get through the run if I knew I only had to go 2, then 2, then 2.5, then turn around. That's how I break up distances in my head when it's a very long distance. I can't think 70.3 or even 13.1 or I will shrivel up with fear and drive to a movie theater instead.
I finished the bike in 3:43 with an average speed of 15.1 mph. I really wish I would've been faster than that. While it's still within the time limit, I had NO excuse for a slow ride today other than the heat. My legs weren't tired, my chafing was an annoyance rather than actual pain, I didn't have any street crossings or vehicle traffic to worry about, the course was flat other than the bridge, and I could use my aerobars relatively comfortably. I felt like I was in the right gear and everything. I really do not know why I am such a relatively crappy cyclist. Swimming I understand, but biking shouldn't be this hard. IS it my bike? Do I need a new bike?
I changed into running shoes, ate another PB&J and had a Dr. Pepper. I had no idea if I would regret that later, but the fizz and sugar were amazing right at that moment. Also, I had had to pee since T1. Amazingly, even after drinking almost 6 full bottles, I still only sort of had to pee, which tells you how much fluid I needed for this workout. There were two outhouses on this beach and both of them were occupied. I waited... and waited. Banging and thumping sounds were coming from the inside of one of them. Finally, after 5 minutes, the door opened and a guy came out. He wasn't carrying anything to give me any idea what all the noise was caused by. Because of the long outhouse wait, my T2 time was pretty terrible too -- nine minutes and three seconds. I comforted myself by thinking that if it wasn't for the line, I would have been under five minutes.
You know what you most likely DON'T want to do after an almost five-hour-long workout? Run 13.1 miles. There was some good news, though. The sun was fully setting and it was much, much cooler. Also, my legs still felt almost perfectly fine. My breathing was a little ragged and my heart rate was higher than it should've been, and I don't think I'll drink a soda on the start line of the marathon in Chattanooga (I'll save that for Mile 18 or so), but I did feel basically fine other than the usual "I don't want to be here doing this" feeling, which is present in all endurance events for me. So I set out knowing I only had to go 2, 2, and 2.5, then turn around and be done with all this. I kept 10:00 pace/mile till the turnaround, at which point I lost a lot mentally and was like, "I don't care if I run or walk. All I need to do is get back to the car." And although I had long stretches of decent running in the last 6.5 miles, by which time it was full dark and there were fireworks going off in Clearwater, I walked a lot and my performance was pretty unimpressive. I finished in 2:19 with a 10:40 pace which is not great but I guess is acceptable for my first stab at the half-Iron distance.
I felt really, really good after. No nausea, although I wasn't hungry either. Very little soreness. Not exhausted. No ill effects from the heat other than a nasty heat rash on my upper thighs that is still there today. No queasiness from jet ski fuel/Gulf bacteria. Best of all, I know the answer to the question, "Could you have kept going if you had to? Could you have run that distance twice?" Yes, I could. Nothing but my mind was stopping me. And although I wish my mind wouldn't stop me, and that I wouldn't let it, I also know that my mind is much more focused in the real event than in any training, no matter how "real-life" the training is meant to be.
So, was this event a success? Yes. I learned some great lessons for the real deal, and I added a layer of mental toughness just knowing I can finish within the time limits. Also, I got a medal so I know I did something. (This wasn't an official event; there is no 70.3 Tampa -- but I can tell you, if you're ever helping a friend with a really, really long training day in preparation for a big event in the future, and you see fit to make up a medal for them, they will think it is the coolest thing ever and you are the coolest person ever.)