Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga 2021

Wow, has it really been almost 2 years since I had a real race? My last triathlon was shortly before my son was born in 2019 and I had planned to take that fall off. The only race I had after that was the Miami half marathon in February of 2020 but Melanie and I run that as a fun run and not a race most years. Then, of course, COVID hit and all of the races I had planned last year were cancelled/rescheduled. When Chattanooga got cancelled, I took the option to defer to 2021, hoping the pandemic would be a memory. Its not quite a memory but I’ve been vaccinated for months and the pool has been open so off to the races!

This was actually the first year I’ve ever followed any sort of real training plan. I joined MyProCoach Unlimited Athlete for unlimited training plans and coaching via email. I also got serious and picked up a set of Assioma power meters for my Cervelo. The lead up to this race has been great. The training was making a real difference and while having a virtual coach isn’t the same as a personal coach, I found the level of touch was perfect for me. If I had a question, it got answered quickly. I don’t need (or really want) constant supervision. Leading up to the race I’ve never felt so prepared, physically. I’m running faster than ever and my FTP went up significantly with a focused plan.

There was only one thing I was worried about and it was the heat. I did a brick about a month before the race and about 4 miles in I absolutely fell apart and walked the rest of the way home. (Fortunately only another 2 miles) I’ve always struggled with dehydration in hot weather because I sweat a high volume. I switched to Skratch a couple years ago and it mostly solved my problem. But not entirely. When its hot enough and the effort is long enough, I still end up self destructing. It’s ruined many a race for me. And I knew after that brick that it was quite possible to happen again. I decided to get some of Skratch’s hyperhydration. This stuff is not for normal efforts but when you really can’t replace your fluids. I never really got a chance to try it though since I can’t really test it without the weather being hot enough.

Pre-Race

I made only one mistake leading up to the race. With COVID restrictions in place, Ironman is requiring everyone to register for a packet pickup slot and those emails did not make it to my inbox. Which I only realized 2 days before the race. I was a bit panicked and emailed the race who got back to me quickly and let me know I only had from 2 – 5 on Friday or 4 – 5 on Saturday. Well, that was fine since I landed at 2:30 and had checked into my hotel and was at the expo by 3! Other than that, my pre-race prep was fine. I have a checklist that I always use and it made packing mostly stress free. I say mostly because after not having raced for nearly 2 years, I was still a little unsure if I had everything. Triathlon logistics are no joke.

Since I was all alone in Chattanooga this year, I mostly just focused on relaxing, nutrition and hydration. I did my shakedown ride after getting my packet and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at my hotel. The day before my race couldn’t have been any easier. I normally go for a light run but my plan had me resting on Saturday and that was actually great! My bike dropoff was at 10am so I had a nice hotel breakfast and then got my bike to transition. And I absolutely won transition this year. The transition area is a huge parking lot. There are 3 pay booths that can serve as landmarks but otherwise, its a fairly bland transition area so it can be hard to remember where to go in the heat of the race. Not for me this year. My transition spot was the end of a rack immediately next to the last pay booth. It wouldn’t have been much easier to find my bike during the race even if it were the only one in the whole lot.

Race Morning

I did not sleep well the night before the race but that isn’t really anything new. I did get about 5 hours of sleep, finally, but I knew I’d mostly be working off of adrenaline the rest of the day. I had a bagel and muffin in my room for breakfast along with some coffee. Since my bags were already packed, I left for transition around 4:30 since I prefer to get there around when it opens. That way if ANYTHING is wrong, I can correct for it. Usually that means I stand around for a few hours pre-race but I’ve had a couple races over the years where that extra time was needed to change a tire or go to the bathroom.

There was nothing to correct though…I got my transition area all set up the way I liked it and then just waited to head to the swim start. Normally there are buses but this year, due to COVID, we’d be walking 1.5 miles to the swim start. Hey at least we get to warm up! They have people go according to your estimated swim finish but I always get in with the faster groups. I don’t care if I get passed in the water and I’m more concerned with the heat on the run than some bumping in the water. I will say this was the most disorganized part of the whole event but I’ll give the race a pass on this. They never have had to walk us all there before and on top of that, it was a new swim entrance on a different side of the river. They really did the best they could, it wasn’t a big deal. It was a cluster though!

Swim

So this year, they moved the swim to the other side of the river and made the whole thing down river. Great! Now it’s 1.4 miles. Not great! It is a river so you get some current assist but my experience with this race is you either have a moderate current or its completely calm like a lake. We got the latter this year and the bonus of extra yardage. But the river temperature was actually really nice and the new swim start entrance through a boathouse full of crew boats was pretty awesome. Even though I started towards the front, I found myself passing as often as I was passed and there was essentially no contact in the water, which was a nice change from most races. I did have a leaky goggle that I needed to deal with at the start but once I got it adjusted, I never stopped. My time was 41:34 which for 1.4 miles was a great time for me. I’ve taken longer on shorter distances. I was hoping for a bit more current since I’ve done this river 10 minutes faster before and I knew those minutes were going to be valuable later in the race. But the swim for me is all about coming out feeling ready for the rest of the race and I felt great getting out of the water (after a couple of attempts to actually climb the stairs).

T1

Its a LONG jog from the water to transition. And probably one of the bigger hills to climb too! My T1 times are never great and the fact that I had to get my wetsuit off on my own didn’t help. But I told myself before the race not to get myself worked up if I struggled and when I got stuck on my right foot, I grabbed my spray on sunscreen and used it to lubricate my foot. And out it popped! It took me way too long to get out of T1 but at least I didn’t get lost looking for my bike! Total time in T1 was 7:47.

Bike

This is always my favorite leg of the race and part of why I enjoy coming back to Chattanooga is that I really enjoy the bike segment here. The initial ride out of town is a little rough with a few tracks to go over but once we get out onto the highways and country roads, its clear sailing. The course is rolling which adds some challenge to the ride but none of the climbs are particularly long or hard. I really prefer this to a flat course since I can get some breaks on the downhills. The course wasn’t overly crowded for me but there were a few times that I did see riders in packs or blocking. It made me wonder if the lack of racing last year and lack of real race briefing meant that there were more people who didn’t know what to do. This is the first time I’ve ever done a race and without seeing a single referee.

But none of that affected me. My coach had advised me that I should maintain about 208 watts for the bike leg and I knew from training that that was going to leave me very fresh by the end of the ride. I often go into the ride knowing that I need to hold back a little bit so I can be ready for the run but I often push too hard on the bike in the excitement of the race and cook myself for the run. At 208 watts I often had to check myself to not go harder because that usually felt so easy but I was also happy to see that I was averaging close to 20mph. I was actually running slightly lower by the end (I averaged 193 watts for the ride) but I really really wanted to make sure I wasn’t overexerted for the run.

The best part of this for me was that I just really enjoyed the entire ride. I didn’t worry about who I was passing or who was passing me since I was really riding my own race. It wasn’t very warm during the ride so I mostly was making sure to stay hydrated. I actually changed my rear bottle holder out last summer for a dual holder which gave me 4 total bottles for the ride. There have been times I’ve run out of hydration a few miles before the end which always sets me up to start the run dehydrated. Today that wasn’t an issue and I basically coasted into town with a full bottle and fresh legs. This was one of my fastest bike splits while also pacing myself which really speaks to my conditioning for the race. Total time was 2:54:21.

T2

Coming into T2 I made sure to grab my full bottle off my bike while I went into transition and got some more drink down. T2 is always faster, especially since I didn’t have to struggle my way out of a wetsuit. I loaded my gus into my kit, got my shoes on, and did a quick spray of sunscreen. Then, before I was off, I drank about half of the Skratch hyperhydration I had put in a bottle at transition. Did it help? Its hard to say what would have happened if I hadn’t had it but I never felt dehydrated on the run so I’ll definitely be bringing to any hot races in the future. I got out of there in 4:33.

Run

The run is where my races go to die which is always very frustrating for me since I’m a decent runner. My half PR is 1:49 and its not a problem to run sub-2 whenever I want. Not so at a triathlon. I would be happy with anything between 2:00 – 2:10 generally but usually I start off ok and implode a few miles in and finish closer to 2:30 or even longer. I know that heat affects me more than some other people but that just means I haven’t found the right strategy. I discussed this with my coach and she recommended that I run to HR rather than pace and, while this sounds obvious, use every bit of shade possible.

That’s exactly what I did at this race. I needed to finish with an exactly 10 minute pace to hit my 6 hour goal but I forced that out of my mind because I didn’t want to blow up my race trying to hit, for me, a challenging goal. I actually started off the run right around a 10 minute pace for the first 3 or 4 miles. I fell slightly behind that pace after hitting a porta potty around mile 3 which I took as a great sign. I’ve never had to do that in a race. I was definitely NOT dehydrated.

The aid stations were all well stocked with ice and while I had my own bottle with Skratch in it for the run, I made sure to dump water on my head every aid station and fill my jersey up with ice. And somehow, I never slowed down. I was not fast but the temperature was in the upper 80s and crept into the 90s for the run. I decided to just keep that 10:30ish pace that I was on for the first lap and see how I felt and what I would need to do at that point to finish at 6 hours. When I hit mile 7 I did the math in my head and was pretty sure if I pushed a 9:45 pace for the rest of the race I’d do it and I gave it a brief try, only to see my heart rate shoot up.

At that point I made a choice. I would just stick with the pace that had worked all day without a single issue and actually enjoy my race. And that’s what I did. I never had to walk because I felt miserable. I only walked up the big hill that you do each lap because I wasn’t going to waste my energy on the one big climb and otherwise just kept moving. I filled my bottle up a couple times with Skratch during the run and stuck to my nutrition plan every 4 miles. Staying ahead of my hydration made it easier to remember to do the things I planned during the race which was basically the opposite of what normally happens halfway through the run.

I finished the last mile with a strong kick, helped by the fact that its mostly downhill, and when I hit the line, my total run time was 2:17. This was actually my 2nd best run in a 70.3 and the only one better had come on a very rainy day. (And well, there’s Texas in 2019 that would have been the best if the race hadn’t been suspended with 4 miles to go…but that’s only a dream of what could have been)

Overall

This was a PR! My total time was 6:05:34. I can’t overstate just how hot and challenging this day was and I was very proud of my run time on this course. I could have tried to push harder and I would have absolutely fallen apart. My goal was sub-6 but on this day, that was not realistic. By every measure, this was my best ever 70.3 race performance. I PRed the course, and the distance, and finished strong and happy. It was never unenjoyable. From an Ironman points perspective, I scored the highest of any race which is a definite indicator that relative to the field, this was a great performance for me.

This is a race I’ll always come back to but I think my performance here is about max for what I can do if the weather is always hot like this. I’m starting to look at other race venues for where I can do a real PR performance. I race Chattanooga because I love the town and the course. But its time to pick a race for its weather if I want to really see what I can do.


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