It’s often said that you can’t win it on the swim, but you can sure lose it. And that’s exactly what I did at the 5150 U.S. Championships /Hy Vee Triathlon last Sunday. I gave away 3 to 8 minutes to the 50-54AG leaders with a poor swim, and even with a strong run, didn’t reach the podium.
You just can’t make mistakes at this distance. There simply isn’t enough time to recover.
Nevertheless the Hy Vee Triathlon in Des Moines, Iowa, may become one of my favorites. This was the first time I’ve done it and there is no doubt in my mind that I’m going back. Des Moines is my hometown and it’s fun to return there to race and see my family and old friends.
The Hy Vee Triathlon spans the whole weekend. The U.S championships for IronKids was Saturday morning. Sunday featured four races: the 5150 Championships and the regular triathlon in the morning, and the professional men and women on Sunday afternoon.
The course is fair and, at times, fast. The swim is in a calm Gray’s Lake (similar to, but a little larger than, Centennial Lake); the bike course is completely closed to traffic on generally smooth roads, and the run is flat and fast (except for a grueling uphill finish in the final few hundred yards). Five miles of the run are on a bike path and the last mile is in the city, leading to a finish before crowds in bleachers in front of the gold-domed Iowa Capitol Building.
The race is fairly well-organized and the post-race feed was incredible. The sponsor, Hy Vee, is a grocery chain and no one could complain about either the quality or the quantity of the recovery food including ice cold chocolate milk, ice cream bars, watermelon, cantaloupe, melon, strawberries, pineapple, cookies, muffins, chips, apples and oranges. And, unlike some races, they didn’t run out: there was still plenty left when the final finishers came in around noon. At about 12:30, during the awards, I heard a supervisor say, “OK, all the athletes have eaten; volunteers, have at it.” And there was still plenty left for them.
Over 3000 people registered to race, but only about 700 were racing in the WTC 5150 U.S. Championships, which was sort of a race within a race. The 5150 racers, each of whom qualified to get there, went first, starting at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning in a series of swim wave starts. For us, neither the lake nor the roads were crowded. The swim waves were small (about 50 in mine, which combined the 50-54 and 55-59 age groups) and the swimmers were polite and cooperative (likely due to their experience levels). The water was calm and there was very little unnecessary contact in the swim start. The regular Hy Vee Triathlon started about 7:45 a.m. with time trial swim starts, and the relays followed.
The 5150 age groups were surprisingly small. There were only 29 racers in 50-54 and 23 in 55-59. Don’t let that fool you. 19 of the 29 in my age group finished under 2:30, and all but one finished under 2:39.
The race itself was a mixed bag for me. I missed my overall time and split goals, but I learned a lot (as usual). I also gained the confidence that I can go back there and maybe go sub 2:15, which I’ll have to do to podium when I age up next year, because the 55-59 year old age group is absolutely scary: this year’s 55-59 AG winner did a 2:10, and second and third each had 2:15’s. Aging up is no guaranteed podium finish in this race.
The lead-up to the race was a little tense for me. I was scheduled to fly out on Thursday and, due to work obligations mainly, I delayed breaking down the bike until Wednesday night. Mistake #1. I could not, no matter how hard I tried, get the seat tube out. This was totally unnecessary stress before a race. Solution #1: call 1-800-Tom-Kish.
I rely on Tom for help for anything bike related. Twenty minutes after he arrived, together we were able to get it to move. Ten minutes later, it came loose. Lesson #1: do NOT, repeat do NOT, wait until the last minute to break your bike down. Tom may not always be available on a moment’s notice.
I also got the bad news Wednesday from my wife that Giant (the grocery store) called. They had left a message to inform me that other people were reporting salmonella symptom from the same shipment from which I’d bought a mango. And here’s the real problem. I’d already eaten the mango. My brother (an internist) advised me that salmonella usually presents 4-7 days after consumption and usually in the form of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and fevers. Perfect. The race was five days away. More stress. I prepared for a repeat of my experiences in Beijing and Kona 2011, but it turned out to be a false alarm. The stomach was solid on race day. (I still swigged some Immodium as a pre-race precaution.)
Pre-race went smoothly. Deano (who stayed with me and my family) and I arrived at transition just before it opened, snagging a close parking spot. The 5150 racers had their own transition area, and each transition area had plenty of portajohns. The announcement came that the water temperature was 78.6 degrees and that wetsuits would be legal. Mistake #2 for me: I didn’t bring my wetsuit to Des Moines. The water temperature had been in the low to mid 80s in August (following several weeks of constant 100+ degree temperatures). There was no way, I thought, the water temp would drop below the threshold. The water temp was 81 degrees only that Thursday when I arrived. So, in order to travel more efficiently, I brought only my speedsuit. Lesson #2: don’t assume anything. Bring the wetsuit even if you don't think you'll get to wear it.
Race day conditions were as close to perfect as I’ve seen. Very similar to the ITU Worlds last year in Beijing but even better. No wind. No rain. Cool temps at the start in the mid-60s, finish in the low-70s with low humidity. A little sunny for the swim, but then light overcast. We wouldn’t see the sun again until after we finished.
Swim: 28:39 (15/29 AG)
I knew I was going to give away time being one of the only swimmers without a wetsuit, but I didn’t stress out over it. I’d made my mistake and it was no longer anything I could control. I’d been swimming fairly well post-Lake Placid, both in the pool and in the ocean. My 100s splits were easily below 1:30 in pool intervals of 200, 400 and 500 yards. My strategy remained the same as always: find a good drafting partner who would do the driving. I felt confident I could still swim sub 26 minutes in my speedsuit and then make up whatever time I lost to the “wetsuiters” on the run.
Not this time. I never caught a good draft in the murky water. There weren’t many drafting targets to begin with and the faster guys (in wetsuits) got away from me in the first 200 yards. I ended up swimming alone almost the entire way. I actually prefer a little more mayhem in the swim, because of the drafting opportunities. This was an eerily calm swim.
Going solo forced me to navigate as well, and it didn’t go smoothly. My right arm is dominant and on a counter-clockwise course, I have a tendency to drift wide to the right. Twice I found myself well to the right. Once I ended up in water that was shallow enough to dolphin dive. So I did.
I think my stroke was decent and my pace was good, but I added a couple of hundred extra yards during my “wetsuitless” little tour of the lake. Even worse, I had to do all the work myself.
I have much more work to do for next year in the pool and maybe a few more open water practice swims solo are called for in order to improve the navigation skills when I can’t tag along behind someone.
Glancing at my watch as I came out of the water told me I had a lot of ground to make up. But, unlike Eagleman 2010 where I spent 20 miles of the bike ticked off about a slower than expected swim and needlessly wasting energy, I just let it go. There were too many bikes missing from transition and I knew I had a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it.
T1: 1:57 (3/29 AG)
T1 went smoothly, because I keep it simple. The shoes were on the bike, so all I needed was the number belt, sunglasses and helmet, which were on the aerobars waiting impatiently for me. I thought I’d have a faster transition since I had no wetsuit to strip off, but it wasn’t to be. The minutes you gain with a wetsuit swim vastly outweigh the seconds it takes to get it off.
Bike: 1:07:21 (10/29 AG)
Most of the roads were wide and smooth, but there were three 180 degree turnarounds and one of 120 degrees. There were also some long rollers, but nothing grueling. The only treacherous areas involved railroad tracks and about 5K of rough road over the course of the entire 40K. The temps were so perfect, I carried only one bottle of Nuun on the bike. (There were no waterstops on the bike course).
I caught a few 50-54 AG guys on the bike, but not nearly enough. I thought I was moving pretty well about ten miles in, when I got chicked (probably by Melinda Peters’ cousin) and then passed by some of the younger Clydesdales who Bob Villaneuva has probably crossed swords with. Except for the turns and the rough road, the course was fast. I, however, wasn’t fast enough. When I returned to transition, there were too many bikes there for my comfort.
I did lose a few seconds in the last few hundred yards before transition. As I approached the crowd –lined streets, an official raised a red flag. For a second, I thought it was a good sign. He must be telling everyone to stay put because I’m coming. The crowd didn’t get it. When the flag went up, they spilled into the road to cross. I didn’t crash into them, but it was close. I lost a few seconds for sure. And seconds matter. I’d eventually miss the podium by ten.
T2: 1:10 (4/29 AG)
Simple works. Bike in and helmet off. On my butt for the socks and shoes. Grabbed a Second Surge energy gel (100 mg caffeine) for mile 3 and I was gone. I thought I’d be faster than I was. I seem to be saying that a lot.
Run: 40:02 (1/29 AG).
I like this course. The first part of the run course was a mile out and back, then three miles into the downtown area along a bike path and finally a little more than a mile in the city streets to the finish.
The run course was like a friendly Eagleman: flat without the desolation, heat or humidity. But the uphill finish is rugged, particularly when it’s unexpected. I didn’t scope out the full run course and only remembered this area of Des Moines as being flat. I was wrong. (Sorry, Deano, for misleading you.) Yet another mistake. Solution: even when you think you know the course, if you haven’t raced it, check out every inch.
Coming out of T2, I could tell I had decent leg speed and plenty of energy. I was confident I could hold 6:30 pace or better, but what I didn’t know is how many guys I’d have to catch. It’s during the out and back you can get some sense of your position, but the problem at the 5150 is that the race organizers (unlike at an Ironman) don’t let you know the numbers where your age group starts or finishes. I could only guess that guys in the high 500s or low 600s were in my age group. And, in that out and back stretch, I saw too many guys with numbers in the high 500s or low 600s. Too many were a mile or so ahead of me.
Although this hasn’t been one of my better years in terms of performance, I think it has been one of my best years for mental training. After seeing the flood of 50+ year olds ahead of me, I didn’t go negative. I couldn’t control where they were, but I knew I could control my pace, my hydration and my attitude.
I enjoyed this run more than any other run I’ve had this year. It felt good to suffer, and it felt better to pass people who were suffering even more. Most of those I passed seemed to be from the younger age groups, but finally a few of the 50-54 year olds guys started coming back to me. One tried to respond, but his footsteps faded after about half a mile.
The last mile is cruel. The course leads you towards the finish, then it loops you away for a half mile to a turnaround, returning you to where you’d been almost a mile earlier. You turn and climb for a block. Then you turn another corner, thinking you’re at or near the finish, but you continue to climb. And then you climb some more.
It’s not Columbia steep, but it felt that way with the lactic acid build-up in my legs. I think it’s a manageable finish, even preferred if you’re in hot pursuit of someone, as long as you’re mentally prepared for the hill. I wasn’t. It surprised me. Iowa is supposed to be flat. At least that’s what I remembered….
I crossed the line in 2:19:08, finishing 6th and about ten seconds behind the last guy who would reach the podium.
Perhaps if I’d been mentally prepared for the uphill finish, I might have made up the difference. Or if I could swim straight. Or if I’d brought my wetsuit. Or if the crowd had held their place as I approached T2 on the bike. But “what ifs” don’t matter at all. Seconds matter, and that’s what makes AG racing fun and exciting.
Dean finished shortly after me, and I hung around for my sister to finish. She got the worst of the weather. Not long after Dean and I finished, the sun came out and the humidity stormed in. The racers on the course, like my sister, baked. That’s what I remember about Iowa. Wetsuit legal in early September? You have got to be kidding me.
My sister eventually crossed the white line, and we got a great finisher picture of the two of us.
This was a fun race. I’m going back in 2013.
Although it wasn’t a PR for me, this is absolutely a PR course. But bring your wetsuit.