Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz

Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz
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You know the feelings that rush you when you achieve a big goal? Pride, disbelief, joy, relief.

Now take all of those, and add surprise – as in, “Ha. Who knew this would feel that easy?” – and you know what it’s like to rock a BOGO race.

    A BOGO race
    noun

    1. A race that you can pull off of the fitness you built training for your key race of the season, which was of similar or longer distance, duration or level of difficulty, and took place four to six weeks earlier. A “train for one, get one free” race, if you will:

    I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz knowing that, at only five weeks after Vineman, it would be my BOGO race.

All summer, I trained 20-hour weeks building up for Ironman Vineman with no idea how it would affect me physically or mentally. So I was on the fence about Santa Cruz. If I feel like my recovery is going well, I figured, I’d sign up. If I was feeling like crap and unwilling to get my butt off the couch, I’d pass.

A week after Vineman, I decided that I was feeling well enough that in a month, I could go for a half-Iron race. In fact, swimming 1.2 miles, biking 56 and running a half marathon now seemed… short. Crazy how that works.

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“Training”

It really didn’t feel like training! This was my fifth 70.3-distance race and I remember vividly how exhausted I used to feel as I built up volume on the bike and in the pool. (Running, I always enjoy. Can’t complain!)

To prepare for Santa Cruz, my main goal was to recover from Vineman. I took a week off of structured training after Vineman, only doing a few short swims and runs — and plenty of rest days:

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The following week – and the weeks after that, I built up training volume to 13 or so hours a week. Unlike prior years when peaking at 15 hours a week left me feeling like a rag for days, 13 hours a week now felt like nothing.

My “long” rides for those weeks were three to three-and-a-half hours long, and the few “long” runs I did were hardly over an hour and a half.

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My speed was nowhere to be found on both the bike and the run, but as the days went by, I got some of my pool mojo back (I don’t use the term “speed” here, as I am far from a good swimmer… Oh well).

And last but not least, in the two weeks leading up to Santa Cruz I had five flats on the bike over three bike rides. So I got plenty of opportunity to practice this:


A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

I took all that “flatting” to be a good omen, though: better in training than on race day!

Pre-Race

Santa Cruz is a short 40-min drive away: no need to book hotels, pack bags, or ship bikes. Easy and low-stress!

I drove to athlete registration and mandatory bike drop-off the day before with my training buddy Joe. That was going to be Joe’s first 70.3 and naturally, he was a ball of nerves. I did my best to entertain him with stories about peeing and pooping, because that’s what triathletes do to take their minds off of the serious sh*t that awaits. Ha. Pun intended.

Race morning, Joe picked me up at 5 a.m. for the drive to Santa Cruz. In hindsight, we should have left earlier. This race was no Santa Cruz Tri or Tri Santa Cruz, or even the Big Kahuna (Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz’s predecessor): all fairly small local events with a few hundred participants.

There were two-freaking-thousand triathletes racing that morning and, as you can imagine, the parking situation was tricky. Luckily, we found a spot maybe only a third of a mile away — but next time, we’re leaving earlier.

Obviously, my first order of business when we got to Transition was to line up for a porta-potty. To anyone reading this who may be about to do their first-ever 70.3, or tri, or any race for that matter: line up for the porta-pots first thing. Even if you don’t have to go. Always a smart decision.

It was especially in this case: the line was short and, as we would find out just a few minutes later, we wouldn’t have much time to spare to set up our transition stuff!

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We entered the transition area, which took over an entire football field by the parking lot at Depot Park, where local races typically stage transitions. To give you an idea of how large of a space we took up this time, this was, at best, a quarter of it (taken at bike drop-off the day before):


A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

I had barely walked over to my bike and started setting up, when I heard the race announcer say, “Fifteen minutes, folks! You have fifteen minutes until you have to be out of the Transition area.” Wait. Fifteen? Or fifty???

Nope, he said fifteen. It turns out, even though the race officially started at 6:50 a.m. – and my wave in particular was scheduled for 7:48! – the transition area had to be cleared out by 6:15. So there you have it – the reason to get a nice and early start if you ever plan to race IM 70.3 Santa Cruz.

On the positive side: this is a one-transition race, which is pretty rare for an Ironman event. So rather than having to deal with four gear bags, everyone brought all of their stuff in their regular transition backpacks, satchels, what have you.

Which meant that I had (now) less than 15 minutes to dump all the cr*p out of my huge t-bag, arrange everything, squeeze into my wetsuit and head towards the beach.

Done – and done!

Swim

I love the swim start at Santa Cruz races. It’s a beach sprint, then you dive into the waves and have to get working right away – because often, those are some waves! It looks like this:


[I don’t have any photos or videos of the beach or swim this year, so imagine it like this one, from the Big Kahuna in 2014, but with many more people and loud music, and M-Dot branding everywhere.]

There were a gazillion waves going off before me, so I spent quite a while watching the scene above on repeat. Joe and I chatted for a while, then it was his time to go and about 10 minutes later: mine.

I noticed that they played 70s rock music for the men’s waves that started before me, but when the 30-34 women were about to go, they played Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies. Hm. Then our song came on: ladies 35-39 this year enjoyed running into the salty ocean to the sound of Derulo’s Want to Want Me.

That darn song was stuck in my head the entire swim.

    It’s too hard to sleep. I got the sheets on the floor, nothing on me. And I can’t take it no more, it’s a hundred degrees…

And then I’d invariably think, I wish it were 100 degrees, but unfortunately, the water could not have been more than 60.

All the more reason to keep pushing water, right? The faster I swim, the sooner I’ll be warm!

Unfortunately for me, I’m not a good swimmer, so I spent 39 minutes in the water. That is one too many repetitions of “It’s too hard to sleep,” I tell you.

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Swim time: 39:08
Division rank: 30

T1

Like all Santa Cruz Main Beach triathlons, this one involved a long transition run from the beach to T1. Seriously, it’s 0.4 miles. Some people around me put on running shoes or flip flops, but I’ve always done it barefoot and it’s been fine. (This is where having hobbit feet pays off.)

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Brisk run over to my bike, get out of new Roka wetsuit (awesome, by the way!), jump into socks and cycling shoes, throw on helmet and sunglasses and off we go.

Transition time: 6:45

Bike

I kind of knew the bike course, but kind of didn’t. I did the bike leg of the Big Kahuna with a relay team in 2014, and I’ve ridden the 20 miles on Hwy 1 to Davenport and back many times. Those rollers don’t scare me!

But there was one big change this year – the addition of the Swanton Loop. I had seen the elevation profile and knew that it would be a climb, but as usual, I didn’t ride or drive it beforehand. Because, why not be surprised?

im703santacruzbikecourse

It was a good surprise! The road may not be as smooth as the rest of the course (it’s quite gritty, in fact), but the climb is not bad at all and you’re surrounded by tall, green and shady trees. Beautiful way to spend a little part of your Sunday morning!

OK, I admit I did wonder if and when the freaking climbing will ever end. But after no more than 10 minutes, it did. We descended back to Hwy 1 (dicey turns!) and went on with our ride.

I only had one little scare on the way back, coming down on one of the Davenport rollers. That is a very nice descent, if no one is blocking you. Or there is no traffic, consisting of a long line of cars moving slower than they’d like to – because there’s a race going on, obviously, and the section where cyclists merge onto Hwy 1 was policed. Still, all was fine until a beige SUV unexpectedly swerved to the right, nearly brushing one of the cyclists in front of me — and caused me to slam on my brakes a bit too strongly, so my rear wheel came off the ground. I managed to shift my weight backwards immediately and no flipping-over happened, but I admit, it scared me sh*tless. A few f-bombs were dropped.

So keep this in mind, if you’re planning on ever doing IM 70.3 Santa Cruz: Hwy 1 is not closed to traffic. There are cars, and many of them are not thrilled to be sharing the road. Be cautious.

After that, my ride was uneventful. It took me a bit longer than I hoped – I would have been thrilled to at least go under 3 hours on this course – but at least, having not pushed too hard on the bike, I hoped to be setting myself up for a good run.

Bike time: 3:04:25
Division rank: 21

T2

This was (relatively) quick: out of bike shoes – into running shoes, helmet off – hat on, grab race belt and go.
T2 time: 2:55

Run

The run is always my favorite part of triathlon – and this was my favorite run of all triathlons I’ve done so far. And that tells you something!

It is a beautiful, beautiful course! It is nearly flat. You are by the ocean almost the entire time. The sky was overcast for us, even mid-day. What more could you want?!`

When I started running, I decided I wouldn’t look at my Garmin for at least the first mile and pace myself on feel. I kept a pace that felt a bit challenging – but nothing that I couldn’t sustain for a half marathon. My legs felt good! No cramping, no foot pain – even that rubbery feeling you get so often when you run on the bike wasn’t there.

I looked at my watch just as I passed the first mile marker: 7:45 pace. Interesting. I was feeling good, so I kept on the pace and effort level – though I admit I did wonder just how long this feeling would last. When would my legs turn into bricks?

Two things really helped me mentally on this run: 1. most people were running slower for some reason, so I could continuously zero in on someone, pass them, move onto the next runner ahead of me, repeat. And 2. this is possibly one of the most beautiful places to run.

We started on the swerving West Cliff Drive (after an initial small climb up the hill from Depot Park), continued on through Natural Bridges State Park, and – five or so miles in – entered Wilder Ranch State Park.

This is where we hit trail territory. I was not expecting that. We went from nearly flat, smooth road to uneven trails with a pronounced camber and mild, but noticeable hills – especially if you’re wearing racing flats!

My pace was now in the low 8s – and I was OK with that. If I could keep that up, I knew I would PR the run in a half-Ironman (the time to beat was 1:54:41 from Challenge Rancho Cordova in 2014). More importantly, I was still enjoying this run and feeling good!

As we returned on West Cliff Drive, I picked up the pace again to under 8. Now all I had to worry about was the half-mile run on the beach. My legs were feeling stiffer and I suspected that running on the sand would be the end of them. It was just something to get over with on the way into the finish chute.

Yet… I had just over a quarter mile to go, according to my GPS, and had yet to enter the beach? What was happening?

It turned out, Ironman changed the run course. They somehow made up for that half mile in the sand by adding distance elsewhere on the run — and the first thing I saw when I made the right turn from the road and into the beach, was the finish line.

Can you be both pleasantly surprised and annoyed at the same time? I was obviously thrilled to be done. But I was also hugely annoyed at myself for not studying the course beforehand. Another case of “I thought I knew”! I was sure – and still think it quite possible – that if I knew that I didn’t have that long, dreadful half-mile beach run to wrap up the race, I could have picked up the pace over the last two miles by at least 10-15 seconds per mile. I had it in me, I was just saving it. (Or so I like to tell myself.)

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Crossing the finish was still awesome! Even more so when I looked at my watch and realized that not only I had PR-ed my half-Iron run, I had done so by 10 minutes! And my overall time – 5:37:59 – was only a minute over my 70.3 PR, which also happened at Rancho Cordova, a race with much, much shorter transitions and a flat bike course. (Just to give you an idea, my T1 time at Rancho Cordova was 2:43 and, if I remember correctly, my bike was set up no more than 100 yards from the swim exit.) So there you go!

Run time: 1:44:46
Division rank: 13

I had also moved up in my age group from 30th (out of 87 finishers) to 13th. I have no expectations when it comes to placing in Ironman events – they are too competitive, so I’m very happy with this!

Back to the finish line, though. Almost immediately after I crossed, I saw Joe. He had finished a few minutes ahead and smashed his goal of going sub-6 hours in his first half-Iron race. See? No need to be nervous!

With vivid memories of how cold I got after Vineman, I grabbed a space blanket from a volunteer – but then the sun came out – and not a minute too soon! So we set the blanket on the sand and sat near the finish for a while, soaking it all in.

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The only downside to this situation? Because the finish line is on a public beach, no alcohol is allowed — or food, for that matter. So a few minutes later, we headed back to the transition area to eat and drink. (Surprise, though: no beer there, either. Oh well. At that point, even the can of generic Cola tasted like ambrosia to my sugar-starved body and brain!)

We ate some pizza and headed over to our bikes to collect our stuff – and take some finisher photos at what looked like a battlefield:

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How about that mess behind me, eh?

I called the family to let them know where to meet me – they were already on their way to Santa Cruz to pick me up – and with our bikes and bags, we went back to the beach. Magic Bike needed his time in the limelight with my race bling, after all:


A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

The family showed up a few minutes later, and we did what anyone would do: headed to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for an afternoon of fun. I might have hobbled — but that was OK!

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Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz:
Swim: 39:08
T1: 6:45
Bike: 3:04:25
T2: 2:55
Run: 1:44:46
Overall: 5:37:59
Overall Rank: 543/1979
Age Group: 13/87

Run like a Honu at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii

Run like a Honu at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii
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May the winds be always at your back.

Perhaps the bright-eyed, smiling volunteer at packet pickup was Irish. The Big Island is a haven for tourists, after all. Or maybe she borrowed this Irish blessing because it was… well, appropriate.

Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, or Honu, as it is colloquially known, has the most famous bike course on the 70.3 circuit. It’s the second half of the World Championship bike course. The hilly part. The windy part. (Though arguably, the first half of the World Championship bike course is just as windy; but I digress.) It also, apparently, has one of the most difficult run courses at the 70.3 distance. I learned this just days before the race. Ignorance is bliss.

I signed up for Honu months ago, with minimal knowledge – but some suspicion – of the power of the elements there. I knew it would be hot and humid; that’s as much part of Hawaii as the hills are par for the course in San Francisco.

I knew I would have a memorable race – I just didn’t suspect how memorable it would turn out to be. Here is how my Ironman 70.3 Hawaii went down. It’s a long story, so grab a cold one!

Adventures in Hawaii

Contrary to what I first thought, Ironman 70.3 Hawaii does not take place in Kailua-Kona. That’s where you go to do the big dance. For the half-Iron race, athletes converge about 30 miles north, in Waimea. The base hotel for the race is the Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, hosting the Expo, T2, and race finish.

It’s a fabulous property to stay at, if you’re OK with spending $500 or more per night on a hotel room. Everyone else: consider staying at the Fairways, a complex of town homes typically rented by owners at less than half the price, just a third of a mile down the road.

The Fairways Hawaii

That proximity came in handy when we managed to miss our flight to Hawaii and arrived a day later than planned. (I will spare you the details, other than confessing that I took us to the wrong airport. Now I know to always check our departure time and location before leaving.)

So instead of leisurely picking up my race packet on Thursday and checking in my bike and doing a practice swim the next day, I had to do everything on Friday — the day before the race. A bit stressful. Or a lot.

Athlete check-in was a breeze and picking up my bike from TriBike Transport: nearly so. Both tires on my bike — which I found completely deflated for some reason — exploded the second I put air in them. Why this happened, I don’t know. The folks at TBT told me the tires (brand new race ones purchased and installed before I dropped off my bike at Sports Basement, to be picked up and shipped to Hawaii) were too loose for my wheels. So when I inflated my tubes — though I had done this without a problem before bike drop off — they got pinched and BAM! Explosion. Why that didn’t initially happen before I shipped the bike, I’ll never know. Long story short, two new tubes and tires later I was good to go. That’s one way to get all the bad luck and tube explosions out of the way before the race, I suppose.

On my brand new tires, I rode the 7-ish miles from the Fairmont Orchid to Hapuna Beach State Park to rack my bike in T1 and take a little practice swim at the beach.

Honu Bike T1

Honu was a non-professional race this year, but the organizers found a clever way to bring all the legendary pros to the race — at least in spirit — all while helping the 2,000+ athletes remember where they parked. (In my case, Belinda Granger’s rack!)

Honu Bike Racks

I jumped into the ocean for a quick 20-minute swim before heading back. The water was quite choppy, but I had heard that it isn’t like that early in the morning, so I shrugged it off. Choppy or not, it was warm, blue and fabulous!

hapuna beach state park

And that concluded my pre-race preparations. Race day was upon us and I was as ready as I’d ever be. (I hoped.)

Race!

If there is any advantage to racing in Hawaii (besides the place being not too shabby to look at), it’s that those of us in North America, at least, benefit from the time difference. Transition opened at 5 a.m. and I was planning to be up by 4 am so I can make a 4:30 shuttle to the beach. At 3:30 (technically 6:30 for us), I woke up fresh as a cucumber. Brewed a big pot of coffee, gulped down two mugs with two Honey Stinger waffles, squeezed into my race kit, grabbed the Bike Gear bag with my bike nutrition and bottles and was off to the shuttle. By the time we made it to transition, it was already light out. A race first!

Honu pre-race transition

I readied my bike stuff, filled my bottles and added my usual three tabs of Nuun in each, visited the porta pots and had time to spare for a little warm-up swim. A smooth start to the morning, and pancake-flat waters, to boot!

Honu warmup

The Swim

My understanding is that Honu used to be a mass beach start, which basically means 2000 people running into the water, from the beach, to start the swim. That must’ve been a sight! This year, however (and possibly in 2014? I didn’t do a great job researching this, did I??) we had a wave start. My wave was women 39 and under, and we started after all the men. There must have been roughly 200 of us (judging from the finisher results), but because the waves were only four minutes apart, the swim was still pretty crowded. Especially once the 39 and older women caught up to us, I felt some pretty aggressive strokes on the side of my head and a few people pretty much swam over me. Nothing out of the ordinary for an Ironman (70.3) swim!

The water at Hapuna Beach is brilliant, though. So blue and crystal clear, you could see the bottom of the ocean at any point during the swim. This somehow made me feel very safe and at home. I almost had to remind myself to keep pushing the water – this wasn’t a leisurely snorkeling trip, after all!

Unaided by a wetsuit, I exited the water a few minutes slower than my previous half-Ironman races – but still quite happy with my day so far!

honu swim out

Swim Time: 43:15
Pace: 2:14/ 100 yds
Division (age group) rank: 38
Gender: 208
Overall: 838

The Bike

Transition was quick and logistically easy. Onto the bike and, like the volunteer lady said: May the winds be at our backs!

I couldn’t wait to experience the famed bike course, but I was also a little terrified of what awaited us. Will the winds be horrible? The hills?

I started pedaling. The weather was great: not too hot yet, and not windy! The road was incredible. Silky-smooth surface with not a bump anywhere. Long, long stretches of straight black asphalt that curved gently up and down as we conquered roller after roller, lined by yellow shrubbery and lava on one side (that would turn greener and greener as we approached Hawi) and the brilliant, beautiful ocean blue on the other. Mile after mile, still no wind! Gentle turns here and there, but mostly a very simple, push-the-pedals and let your mind wander kind of ride.

Honu Bike 1

Right as we rode past a “Hawi: 7 miles” sign, a guy riding near me said, “Here we go, the hill. This is the tough part.” I kept pedaling, waiting for the tough part… but it didn’t come. Maybe the big climb is after this mile? I thought, pedaling. Maybe after two miles? Then I got so busy looking at the riders who were on their way back, on the famed Hawi descend, that I forgot that I was currently doing the famed Hawi climb!

Either I was drugged up on endorphins from the first 20 miles of this ride, or the wind never really came. I did wait for it, but before I felt even the slightest push of a crosswind or pressure from a headwind, the Hawi turnaround came.

I can’t believe I’m here! The Hawi turnaround! With that happy thought, I pushed the bike into the hardest gear and slammed on the pedals. And it was amazing! The most incredible downhill ride of my life. My Garmin tracks bike intervals each five miles and during this descend, it beeped a 9:56 five-mile split. If I was having this much fun at an average 30.2 mph, I can only imagine the thrill of riding 50-60 mph (which is probably what the pros average on that segment)!

After reliving the road’s ups and downs on the way back (same hills, but backwards!), I rolled my bike into transition and a woman who came in at the same time observed, quite accurately: “Now time to do a li’l run.” Yes. It was time for a run and I was feeling like a million bucks! Let’s do this!

Bike time: 2:54:45
Speed: 19.23 mph
Division place: 12
Gender: 68
Overall: 491

The Run

It is amazing how things can go from rockin’ in one minute to bombin’ the next in endurance events. And I bombed so, so remarkably.

The Honu half marathon apparently is known for being crazy difficult. Who knew?! Not me!! I had looked at the elevation chart before the race and it wasn’t so bad. Not flat by any means, but not horribly hilly:

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Right? Except, the majority of this run is on a golf course with a billion gazillion little hills. You are constantly switching from grass to concrete paths, again and again.

Honu Run

The one larger segment, a little over three miles between mile 8.5 and 11.5, that is on a flat road is very appropriately named on Strava Lucifer’s back yard.

That is exactly what this run started feeling like, and I had just to see the first mile marker. The sun was directly overhead us in the cloudless sky, pounding hard. You could cut the heat with a knife. How did I not feel this on the bike? (Oh yeah, on the bike, you make wind…)

I had directions from Coach D to try and run the first few miles at a 8:30 pace, and then, when I find my legs, descend. The only thing descending, however, was my motivation. What the freaking heck happened to my freaking legs? – But with badder words. – Why so heavy? Why getting heavier?

Honu Run 2

I started gulping down coke at every single station, but it hardly helped. By mile 9, actually, I realized my stomach might’ve overloaded on sugar, so I stopped. Ice was being dumped in my bra, back and, eventually, pants, at every aid station, as well. (Ice down your pants is very cold, to the point of painful. Only try in extreme circumstances.)

The aid stations were about a mile apart and my goal became to run to the next aid station, then walk while I drink. After about seven miles, I abandoned that goal for a new one: survive to the next aid station, walk whenever. I was doing roughly 5-1 intervals (run/ shuffle for five minutes, walk for one). A stitch in my right side appeared. My entire left leg started cramping and tightening up at the same time. My shoes were so soaked they were making froggy noises with each step.

Each step, torture. A scorcher torture! I kept telling myself that the course is finite and I’ve made it this far. Quitting was not an option. During the first or second mile, a lady passed me and we briefly chatted about the course. “I’m running a full two minutes per mile under what I should be running,” I said. “Don’t worry, she responded, so is everyone else.” After a while, she moved on.

Then I ran for a bit with another a lady, from Atlanta. She let me borrow her mantra (and at that point, I was taking anything that might help): “Take the pain within and turn it into joy.” Thank you, nice lady! She, too, moved on after a few miles.

I didn’t care how many people passed me — as long as I didn’t pass out before crossing that finish line. It finally came – I heard it before I saw it – and I dug for whatever was left in my head and my legs… to manage a 10-minute last mile.

My mile splits are still painful for me to look at:

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This is the second slowest half marathon I’ve run in my life, and without a doubt the hardest one. So you can imagine the relief I felt when I was finally done. The finish line really did look out of this world beautiful to me (and now that I see it on the photos, it really was quite spectacular):

Honu finish line

Run time: 02:19:35
Pace: 10:39/mi

Total time: 6:06:36
Age group: 21 (out of 107)
Gender: 97 (out of 823)
Overall: 529 (out of 2,084)

It was finally vacation time!

Hawaii after Honu