Greetings race fans. Fancy title, isn’t it? I’m sure some of you are wondering just what the heck I’m talking about. Well, it’s pretty simple really. On the periodic table, Iron (Fe) has an atomic number of 26. Aluminum (Al) has an atomic number of 13, or in other words, half that of iron. Have you put it together yet? Yup, this race report will be about my recent experience in Huntsville taking part in the Ironman 70.3 event there (a half-Ironman). Of course, this isn’t my first 1/2, or even full Iron-distance tri, but it was my first crack at an ‘official’ Ironman-branded event. It was also one of two that I will do this year, since in a few weeks, I’ll be tackling the full Ironman event at the same venue! Read on for more pictures, details and a video of my race experience in a place that has a special place in my heart!
For any of you that are unfamiliar with the basics of a triathlon, or indeed a half-Ironman, let me break it down to you. Swim. Bike. Run. In that order, in different lengths depending on the event. Always continuous and on a marked course. For a half Ironman, it is typically a 1.9km swim, followed by a 90km bike, capped off with a 21.1km run. Between each leg, you visit your transition zone where you change, grab any food and/or equipment you need, and make your way to the next section. There is no external help, and on the bike, you can not draft off people around you. Each competitor must complete the race using their own power only.
For my album of pictures click the left and right arrows on the image below, and you’ll see all the pics I have of the event.
So, why Muskoka / Huntsville? Well, for starters I love the area. It’s very nature-oriented with great lakes and scenery. Secondly, it is where I got together with the love of my life, and eventually even proposed to her there. The host venue, Deerhurst, is where we got engaged, and in fact, the location of the swim start of the race is precisely WHERE I genuflected and put the ring on her finger! Also, we have some friends in the area that are gracious enough to host us on occasion when we visit, making it a nearly perfect getaway. Also, when I decided to embark on my first ‘official’ Ironman, I realized it would be the first time they hosted one in Muskoka, so I figured I’d tackle the inaugural event, and racing in the Ironman 70.3 event in advance of that would give me a good sense of the course.
Ironman-branded events are known for their efficiency, great support, and organization. They feature lots of onsite information, organized logistics for things like parking and moving around the area. This was my first experience with the ‘Ironman machine’, and overall, I was reasonably impressed. Admittedly, after doing hundreds of events, I’ve seen the entire spectrum, and while I wouldn’t say it was the best I’ve ever seen, it was definitely better than average, definitely in terms of the sheer number of people helping out making sure everything was smoothly executed. Despite there being nearly 1,400 athletes, I got through the whole sign in process very quickly, walking out with my race number, timing chip and swag bag in under 10 minutes (including filling in waivers!). The key? They put people where they were needed and these volunteers knew exactly what to do in their posts!
In addition to the registration area onsite, there was a modest race expo with a number of vendors showing off their wares, a bike tune-up / tech area, and of course the ‘official’ Ironman merchandise store. I was blown away by just how much merch the IM machine churns out, and equally surprised at the number of people stocking up, kitting out their whole family in commemorative gear. Certainly looks lucrative. In case there was any doubt, I bought nothing. The experience, coupled with the finishers hat, medal and t-shirt were enough for me.
After cruising the expo / store area, I also had the opportunity to listen to an Ironman legend give a talk on how to build from your Ironman 70.3 to the Ironman event just 8 weeks later. So who was the legend? None other than Lisa Bentley, an 11x IM Champ! She not only knows a thing or two about Ironman racing, but is a local hero, and one of the driving forces that got this race going in the Muskoka region. I listened to her talk, and took a few mental notes on how I might apply her tips to my own situation (which is a bit complicated with things like a 6-day trail running race in Colorado BETWEEN the two events …).
Once that was over, it was time for an all-athletes briefing to let us know how things would unfold the next day, including details on food on course, things to watch for, time cutoffs, etc. They made plenty of time for any questions, to make sure that all the athletes left the briefing comfortable that they knew what to expect. With that out of the way, it was time for a nice supper with friends in Huntsville, sort my transition bag one final time, and head off to slumber land before the 4:30am wake up, to allow time for eating, drinking, digesting, and setting up my final T-zone before heading to the waters’ edge for the swim start.
The weather was gorgeous! Temperatures in the morning were ideal for getting in the water, and starting to exert yourself but not overheating. For those curious, the water was definitely cold enough that wetsuits were worn by pretty much everyone. For my swim, I didn’t really know how I’d do, but hoped to swim similar in speed to my last events. I can definitely say that training in my pool using the Swim Tether that I bought has been very beneficial. Had it not been for that, I likely would not have gotten much swimming done at all!
I waded into the water, with my age 40-45 red-capped competitors for the start. As it turns out, my age category boasted the biggest field and the greatest depth of talent. Say good by to ANY podium hopes on this one! I eased into a smooth pace, deciding to relax and enjoy the day, and not get caught up in the start pandemonium that can catch racers off guard at the start. Before long, I was swimming along smoothly pretty much undisturbed, near what I can only figure was about the top 25% of my group. The water was clear and refreshing, and swimming towards the rising sun was pretty special. It put me in a great mental state before finishing the swim loop and moving towards the next leg of the race.
Although the water exit was only wide enough for 2-4 racers at a time, there was no bunch up at all. Volunteers were on hand to help you climb up the exit stairs in case you didn’t have your land legs. Then, after crossing an arch and the timing mats, there were teams of strippers (wetsuit strippers that is!) to help us out. You just had to undo your zipper, flop to the ground, and they would peel you like a banana, toss your wetsuit back to you and cheer you on as you trotted up the steep, long climb back to transition. Luckily, with the adrenaline, I hardly noticed the 300+m uphill slog, and found myself face to face with my bike in good time. I wasted little time putting on socks, shoes, helmet and running out to the mount / dismount line.
What can I tell you about the bike? Well, for starters, although I had mentioned that the bike leg of a half Ironman is typically 90km, they made this one 94km. Just for fun 🙂 Or maybe because that was the only logical loop roughly that length in the area… At any rate, it was a doozy. Plenty of rolling hills the entire way. There were virtually no flat sections to speak of. On the plus side, it kept things interesting, but the flipside to that is that it was pretty taxing after a while.
Luckily, pretty much all my training is on hills and non-flat roads in Gatineau Park, so I’d say I was well prepared mentally for this type of course. As tempting as it would be to ride along with people and chat, such behaviour is actually an actionable offense. Penalties can abound if you are either blocking, drafting, or riding beside someone. Too bad, as I think it might make triathletes a more friendly bunch if they could just talk to each other on the bike 🙂 I saw bikes of all sorts out there on the course, from super top end tri machines to Canadian Tire specials! As I already knew though, the bike is secondary to the engine powering it. Granted, if you are at the pointy end of the stick, I’m sure the more aero bikes can give you those precious minutes, but in my level, I’m happy on my steed, and focus on form and technique.
For my efforts, I’d say I was rewarded. I managed to complete the whole 94km rolling course in 3:04, which is over 30km/hr, and a speed I was VERY happy with. I had planned on averaging something closer to 28km/hr, so I had some ‘found time’ to work with now. The roads had been quite good, and the aid stations well staffed and well placed. Anytime I thought I could benefit from a fresh bottle or some food, it seemed I hit an aid station (and there were only 3 on course). I had brought my own nutrition, but good to know there was food available had I needed it. I took advantage of the Gatorade out there to supplement my Nuun, and make sure I was well hydrated, as the weather was getting warmer as the day progressed, and overheating on the run is no fun (as I have experienced many times…).
Rolling back into transition, I had mentally worked out my plan, so it was another quick transition for me. Change of shoes, grab some Fruit2 snacks, trade the helmet for a cap, and off I went. I was hoping to crush the run, since in my mind it is my strong suit. I was only partially right. Compared to many other racers, I was definitely a faster runner in my age category, but the overall time was not all that impressive, but I guess given we had already swam 1.9k and cycled a tough 94km course, that is to be expected. I don’t know why, but I always imagine I should be able to bang out a 1h30min half marathon each time. I have to learn to adjust expectations.
I must say, I definitely did start out quite strong, passing a lot of people on my way out of Deerhurst and into the hills that feature prominently at the start as we made our way to Highway 60. I felt light on my feet, and very happy given my strong bike time. Kilometer after kilometer I plodded on, until I was in the town of Huntsville and got to see the lovely Deanna for the first time since my swim exit. She had been on course taking photos and video while I was racing, and had staked out a nice spot in town. I ran over and gave her an ‘air kiss’ before trotting off towards the turnaround a couple kilometers further.
That’s when my GI issues kicked in a bit. Until then, I’d stopped 2 times (once on bike, once just after the run transition) to relieve myself, but now I was feeling some definite churning below that I know too well from other races. I had to make a slightly longer stop in a pink porta-pottie before I could head back out. After that, while I didn’t have to stop for a pottie again, I did get some nasty stomach cramps, first on my left side, then on my right. I sucked my energy out. I’m pretty good at managing pain, but these were cramps that I literally COULDN’T run while having them. At one point, I was limping as fast as I could while squeezing my side as hard as I could to stop the pain. It was far from pleasant, and I was wracking my brain trying to understand what caused it. I hadn’t strayed too far off my normal nutrition plan, so it might have just been bad luck this time.
At any rate, the next 5 or so kilometers were ‘painfully’ slow. My reward for suffering through the rest of the run was a time of 1:48:07 on the half marathon run. Still a very decent time in my age group, but I KNOW I could have shaved about 5 minutes off that with no GI / cramping issues. Regardless, I didn’t let that hamper my spirits. If I had been out to win, it might have mattered, but my goals are pushing myself, and enjoying the course, both of which I achieved. As a result, when I crossed the line with a final time of 5:34:18, I couldn’t complain, and had a huge smile on my face. Certainly better than the 6 hour prediction I had made due to the terrain.
The other great thing (as always) after crossing the line was the fact that Deanna was there to congratulate me and tell me she was proud of me. At times after races, I can be self-deprecating if I’m not happy how it went, but without fail, she tells me I’m awesome, and it just makes you feel good to know someone thinks you rock! After the obligatory finish-line hang out, enjoying cold water, even colder Erdinger alcohol-free beer (check out where it stands in rankings here), and watching other racers finish, it was back to the expo hall for a post-race meal and the awards.
The food was quite good, which wasn’t that surprising given that we were being hosted at a resort. The awards were typical, in that we had to go through all the age groups, and it was just a big room of people waiting to learn whether or not they had won slots into the Ironman 70.3 World Champs. There are a number of slots up for grabs in most age categories, and if you get one, you have to sign-up and pay ON THE SPOT for the privilege of racing in Austria. I was glad I didn’t have to stick around for all that! Probably the funnest part was the fact that the top male and female finishers each won gigantic mugs of the Erdinger alcohol free beer as part of their prizing, which just looked goofy and awesome!
All in all, I was definitley impressed with the event, and would recommend it to any looking to take on an Ironman 70.3 event in a beautiful venue. If there is one other thing worth mentioning it is the fact that the entire community is behind this event. Most volunteers were residents, many of them both volunteering and taking part on things like relay teams, etc. There is obviously a huge benefit for local businesses and the community, and they have recognized and embraced this. In spite of roads being semi-opened to traffic all along the route, I never once witnessed any bad behaviour by angry locals, which is more than I can say for other races I’ve done.
If you’ve gotten all the way here, but don’t quite think you got the full sense of the race, then you’re in luck, since I was also filming the event. Below is my final video showing various aspects of the entire race, and giving an idea of the scenery. Watch and enjoy, then keep your eyes peeled on this site for future stories from my upcoming race in Colorado! 6 days of trail running Nirvana! Cheers!