March 22nd was my first “big” race of the year. No more playing now. I signed up for the a 70.3 (half Ironman) race that takes place in Clermont, FL. There are a few names this race goes by. One name is the Florida Challenge Triathlon. There is a much more accurate name though – The Intimidator.
To put it in perspective, only one of my friends signed up for the race and this is includes people who were happy to do the Disney Dopey Challenge (5k, 10k Half Marathon, Full Marathon). But they did not want to do this race. Another friend basically called me crazy and he’s done full Ironmans.
To be fair, I knew that this race would be a challenge but because of my busy spring schedule that included 2 trips to New Orleans, 3 weddings and my girlfriend’s 30th birthday, every other possible 70.3 race I wanted to do was taken by another event. So it was either this race or nothing and I wanted to experience a 70.3 before I did Augusta 70.3 in September.
My training leading up to this race was excellent. The past 3 months I’ve done a great job of hitting the pool 2 to 3 times a week. My running training could not be better as I’ve gotten my half marathon PR down to 1:59 and running a HM around 2:05 has become an easy training effort. My bike training could be a little better but I’ve come to accept that hitting the bike will be tough when I travel as much as I do. Still, I had a 62 mile (100k) bike ride just a few weeks prior to the race so my fitness levels are where they need to be. The only thing I think I am missing is some brick style workouts so I will incorporate that a bit more.
The week leading up to the race could have gone a bit more smoothly. I was starting a new project in Raleigh and had a hard time waking up in the hotel for some reason. Then the treadmill was always taken when I wanted to run and I was nowhere near an LA Fitness and the weather was not conducive to outdoor running. So the week leading up to the race I actually did absolutely nothing. Not a disaster but I like to do some light runs at least.
Nutrition wise I didn’t really eat super either but I had plenty of carbs (ok, I had cookies, ice cream, brownies…) and the night before the race I had a seafood paella that wasn’t too bad. I didn’t bonk so I think my body was ready.
I was able to stay with friends in Clermont who lived 5 minutes from the race. Since I needed to get there early and do packet pickup this was really convenient. I wanted to be there at 5:45 when the doors opened and I woke up easily a few minutes before my alarm.
With as much time as I had, I stopped at the gas station for coffee and a muffin. Since I got there about 5:40, I was able to park very close to the transition area & sign in. I also would have easy access to my car all morning which is always helpful.
Sign in was quick & easy. I showed my USAT card and ID and then was given my transponder & race numbers. Then I got my tech-shirt and another sport bag (can never have enough of those). I have to say its a great shirt! Also I will never be mistaken for a deer in it.
From sign in, it was off to get body marked and rack up. I seriously won the the rack lottery for this race. My rack was half full, my spot was on the near end, and there was a huge lamp behind me. I had all the space and light I needed at 6am to get set up. Since I had so much time I spent a good half hour getting situated.
After that I had time to eat my muffin and finish my coffee since there was an hour until the race started.
The swim start featured 3 waves. They had men under 45 starting in the last wave so that they could close the water course as quickly as possible (I assume) but I’m a slow swimmer so that meant I was going to be out of the water near the end. I’ll start with the bad.
I made a mistake that I knew was kinda stupid going into the swim. I was taking a new pair of goggles into the water of a brand I’d never even worn before. The goggles had a nose guard that I thought would be more comfortable for the swim. And they may have been if they hadn’t been leaking the whole race. 3 times on the outbound leg of the swim I stopped to tread water and adjust them. I knew I should have tried them first since I had them for months. Don’t ask me what I was thinking.
I did finally get them to an adequate level of comfort that I was able to swim. Once I got my rhythm I felt great. My swim training really paid off. I usually get out of the water and feel miserable. During the first 300 meters of Trirock, I was questioning my decision to do IMFL. Not anymore. Its still not my favorite part of the race but I finished it in 43:20 and felt good doing it. I’m sure I lost a couple minutes messing with my goggles too. The half Ironman distance is 30% longer than an Olympic triathlon but only took me 19% longer than my Oly swim. That’s a great sign. The lake water was a cool but comfortable 72F and having the wetsuit really helped. Overall, I was very happy with my swim.
I popped out of the water and lightly jogged up to T1 to get my legs warmed up. So far, this race wasn’t very intimidating! But I knew the hard part was about to start.
My plan for the race was to use T1 to really prep for the rest of the day. A long T1 wouldn’t make or break anything so I went ahead and used my hand towel to fully dry off and apply sunscreen. I should have had a full size towel so I could dry off better for the sunscreen but I’ll know for next time.
I spent less time in T1 than I thought I would at around 7 minutes. I then walked my bike out to the mount point and got started.
This was the part I had worried about. I just did not have much hill training leading up to this race. But its Florida! How much hill training could you possibly need? Well, they don’t call this race “The Intimidator” for nothing. Clermont is an area of Florida with large, rolling hills that is nothing like you’d find anywhere else in the state. The ride started out fairly flat and fast around the lake which a tailwind which I was already cursing. About 3 miles in, the hills started.
First hill was a climb up to Cherry Lake Road, where my friend Amanda and I had a disastrous ride last month when her front derailleur broke and then we got rained out before making the rest of the ride. This one was only a taste of what was coming but it was a decent little climb. From there, for the next 20 – 30 miles, it was mostly just rollers.
The road course was completely open and riding along US-19 was only slightly less terrifying than when Amanda and I tried doing it through the rain. This was also where I finally really started catching up to people so I had to perform quite a few passes and really watch for traffic. Being in aero, flying downhill, and trying to pass while looking over my shoulder wasn’t always easy but since I’m writing this I obviously managed it.
Once we got off US-19 we were coming back into the wind. Up until this point I had been averaging around 18 mph and felt great. The back half of the bike course was there to pull me back to reality. With the headwind, I mostly was just counting down the miles until I made it to Sugarloaf. There weren’t many other athletes in my area for a good part of that so I also was paying close attention that I didn’t lose the course. No fear of that as it was well marked but I didn’t know that!
I knew that Sugarloaf was going to come at me without warning and that was about as prepared for this only real hill in Florida. I can’t tell you the grade but its the steepest and meanest hill in Florida. While saying its our biggest climb doesn’t mean all that much, it is a legit hill and most of us have no way to train for the hilliness of this course as it is. Finally I came around a corner and there it was! Sugarloaf.
I was mostly surprised how many people were creeping up the side. And despite reports that there was no way to pick up speed leading into the hill, that is a lie. There is absolutely a very short but definite descent leading into the climb. When I hit the base I was going over 20mph so I had momentum on my side. Gravity, however, was not on my side. I was passing people while going about 4.5 mph up the side of this thing. I don’t know how long the climb really took. Several long and painful minutes to be sure.
Once I hit the top the 3rd and final nutrition stop was there along with a lot of people resting. I stocked up on Gatorade and water and made my final push. The rest of the ride was back to rolling hills and sparse competitors. The only thing I remember from the final 20 miles or so was a pair of cyclists who were drafting like nobody’s business and an awesome descent about 3 miles before the end. I have never gone so fast on a bike before and I saw 38.5mph on my speedometer before I focused my attention on just not falling at high speed. I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit over 40 but my TomTom doesn’t report top speed (why I don’t know).
I love riding my bike but I was ready to get off and hit the run.
I think in the future I need to take some time in T2 to hit the sunscreen again if I’m doing a half Ironman distance. (No need in the full Ironman, it will be dark during the run) T2 went as well as I could hope. I was in and out quickly and rather well put together.
Wow, I really expected something else but my friend Johnny summed it up well. The 13.1 mile run isn’t a half marathon…its the back half of a marathon. A really hard marathon. I planned for a 10 min mile which is way under my half pace but that was way too aggressive as it turned out. I started out holding 10:30 for 3 or 4 miles but then the wheels came off. I think the heat of the day had a lot to do with it (around 85) and the lack of shade.
It was great to see Johnny a few times on the course and get some words of encouragement. I needed it! I haven’t suffered this much in a race since the last 10k of the Disney Marathon in January 2013. But I was never not having fun. Finally at the last 3 miles I was able to dig down and while I definitely wasn’t breaking any time records I ran nearly all of the final 3 miles. It felt pretty amazing to cross the finish line and despite the hard day I just had, that is a genuine smile I have there.
Post Race Thoughts
Going into this race I was only considering it a B-race and a tune up for the rest of the year. But this race does deserve more than that. This was the 30th anniversary year of the race, making it the 2nd oldest series for Iron-distance races in the US. Its also such a challenging race, that you have to take it seriously as a race unto itself.
First of all, Sommer Sports, which runs this race is amazing. There was no lack of on course support and the organization was probably the best for any triathlon I’ve done. The post race food selection included pizza, cookies, bananas, all sorts of drinks, pecan rolls and tons of other things I can’t remember. I will happily do other races they host. I’m not sure I would do this one again because it is just REALLY hard and there are a ton of other Florida half-iron distance races in the spring I want to do. But if you live in Florida and enjoy this distance…do this race. They give a great finisher medal, tech shirt and finisher shirt as well.
I was ultimately really happy with my race. The time wasn’t important for this one because I just wanted to see what was working and what wasn’t working. I learned quite a bit out there. My swim is getting better than I had hoped but I need more brick type workouts for races like this. This was great preparation for Augusta in September though and with a 7 hour finish in this one, I set the bar nice and low to have a PR there.