Des Moines, IA
June 20, 2021
After being away from long distance racing for several years, I started to get the itch to try it one more time. My last 70.3 (Muncie 2014) is arguably my best race ever. I was overtrained (training run for the full Ironman Wisconsin 6 weeks later), perfect health, optimal fitness, fast/flat course, and perfect weather. I beat my PR by 52 minutes and got separate PRs in all three disciplines. As I said at the time, it felt great to show up to compete, not just to complete.
I knew a return to Ironman 70.3 would not be a repeat of Muncie. I would be simply trying to complete. But, I was motivated to improve base fitness, and then work diligently thru a training plan. I wanted to show up confident, to have a plan, to execute that plan, to do the best I could, to finish strong and happy. When Ironman announced in 2019 that a new race in Des Moines would also be the North American Championship event in 2020. It would be close to home, flat bike with a small lake. It would be perfect. I signed up and started training in early 2020.
Of course, that was the year the world changed, and my plans for a solid training block and a well executed race went out the window. It turned into a dumpster fire where I became convinced that I would earn my first DNF. The goal on race day was to 1) not die, 2) not end up in the med tent, and 3) use all of my experience to figure out a way to keep moving forward and, somehow, to cross the finish line. It was a hot mess, and felt great to be back! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning…
I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Des Moines when it was announced in 2019, with a race date of June 2020. I had a desire to try long distance racing again. Obviously, it didn’t happen last year.
The race was deferred to 2021 and I didn’t think that it would happen this year either. I lost motivation and slid into a sedentary lifestyle again, and I gained 15 lbs. The RD offered another deferral and I almost took it. But, I just could not pull the trigger. Realistically, 2021 would be a rebuilding year. I should start with a 5k, try a sprint triathlon, then maybe a 10 mile or HM. My first race off the couch should not be a 70.3. But, I do stupid stuff, and I just could not pull the trigger on the deferral.
So, with 7 weeks left, I joined a gym, and started training. Needless to say, the 7 week couch to 70.3 isn’t a thing (nor should it be), but that’s was what I was gonna try to do. Having it on the calendar motivated me to get back into regular training…something I badly needed. I had accepted a likely DNF as the outcome of this event, and I was ok with it. I would fight as hard as I could to avoid that outcome, but I did enough of these events to know that I would not be ready. Injuring my knee with three weeks to go was the final nail in the coffin. But I was still excited to get back to in person racing. It would not be the event I was hoping for when I signed up in 2019, but would be a welcome return to in-person racing after COVID 2020.
I drove down to Des Moines the morning before the race. We have had an extended heat wave and it wasn’t letting up for race weekend. Forecast for race day was ugly. Morning thunderstorms, hot and humid midday, then more storms by mid-afternoon with possible lightning, hail, and maybe even a tornado. Wonderful. Driving down, I had no idea if the event would even happen. But, the day before was gorgeous (but very, very hot). I got to Des Moines early. Athlete Village was downtown and I beat the crowds. Timing chip, packet, shirt, backpack, and into the merchandise tent. Only picked up one extra shirt. The water temp was reported at 81F…no wetsuit. There was a great farmers market right next to athletes village, and I killed a little time there. I then proceeded to transition to drop off the bike. Parking was over 1.6 miles from transition…which was a long haul when you are trying to stay off your feet. Transition was huge…I had forgotten how big Ironman events can be. I walked past the lake, and it was tiny. We would basically be doing a lap around the outside of the entire lake. As expected, the lake was shallow and calm.
I headed back to my car and did some recon of the bike course. The roads were all in great shape, but a lot hillier then I expected. There weren’t any really steep hills, but there were a lot of hills that just seemed to go on forever. I had signed up expecting a flat course. I was intimidated by what I saw.
I headed to the hotel feeling a little rattled. I drove past the finish line that was being assembled…and I wondered if I would see it on race day. I reached the hotel and got to bed early. Just before turning off the lights, I got a message that the race start would be postponed by 30 minutes due to expected morning storms. Transition would open much later then expected, and we would only have 30 minutes to set up before the race. On the bright side, I was able to get an extra couple of hours sleep…
I got up on race morning and the future radar was a mess. Storms predicted until mid-morning. Storms picking up mid to late afternoon. These storms consisted of lightning, likely hail, and risk of tornadoes.
Not surprisingly, I received a text advising us NOT to report to transition until further notice, with the next update by 7:30 am. So, the race was on standby mode. I had only experienced this once, and it was for a sprint tri…there was a lot more at stake here. I got geared up, packed and organized the rest of my stuff, checked out of the hotel, and went to get some breakfast. While eating, I checked the radar. This was about the time we were originally supposed to start, and this is what I saw…
I checked the race’s Facebook page and there was a lot of speculation. Most assumed the swim was gonna be cancelled. Others thought that we might only get time for the half marathon between the storm windows. I was leaning towards either a modified olympic distance or full swim/full run. Some thought the whole race might get cancelled. Nobody thought we were going 70.3 miles that day. Well wishers were texting me wondering what was going on. Somehow, I actually found all of this amusing and a nice stress relief. At some point during this delay, I drove to athlete parking so I would not need to deal with the traffic jam that I am sure would happen when we were told to report to transition.
Eventually, we were told to report to transition for a 9:50 am start time, and transition would only be open for 30 minutes pre-race. They didn’t tell us what, exactly, we were going to be racing. I checked the future radar and there was supposed to be a nasty storm cel right over transition and Swim Start at the new start time. I hoped that the Race Director had a more accurate weather report since there was no cover for athletes there and we would all be over 1.5 miles from our vehicles.
As I was pondering that, the race details came thru:
⁃ Full swim
⁃ Half bike
⁃ Full run
I was stunned…that sounded way too optimistic. I could not see us starting until 11:00 am based on the radar I was looking at. Severe storms were likely by 3-4pm. But, the RD included the caveat that they would be monitoring the weather and further race changes might be announced later. The tracking app started being updated with segments getting deleted from the bike course. I was relieved to see some of the more unpleasant bike segments removed (two of the toughest climbs and the roughest section of road). Thinking about it, this solution made sense (if the storms would get out of here). The swim would be fine if the lighting was done. The shortened bike course would be completely in the break between the storms. If later storms hit, the entire run was on 4 miles of trails and downtown roads…a lot easier to clear the course and find shelter for everyone. And, we would be doing all three legs of the race.
It was still raining by the time I got my gear together and headed to transition. Rain stopped completely by the time I arrived. I expected transition to be a muddy swamp by the time it opened, but it wasn’t bad. I quickly set up my gear (most in huge ziplock bags to try and keep things dry) then walked 0.6 miles to swim start.
The pre-race briefing advised that this would be a time-trial start and that social distancing standards would be maintained. That did not happen. We were packed into a funnel like sardines. We wound down the beach we’re they had 6 chutes ejecting racers into the water every 5 seconds. Before I knew it, I was on my way.
Swim 1.2 Miles
This was a no wetsuit swim. I had been practicing open water swims at a local beach in my swim-skin. But it had been 2 years since I experienced the chaos of a triathlon start. Within seconds, swim anxiety paralyzed me. We were more packed together then I ever remember being in the water. The water was also extremely warm. I was overheating in seconds and started to hyperventilate. I was starting to panic and then I got kicked in the face by another swimmer. At that point, I swam over to the first kayak on the course. I stayed there a minute or two to calm down. I was not expecting this…not on this swim. The lake was small and shallow, and should not be causing me this kind of stress. I looked at the continuous wave of swimmers entering the water and I panicked some more. I could not afford that. I swam fine in the pool and a nice pace. I should be able to finish the swim in 45 minutes. But my open water pace was questionable. My Garmin and Apple Watch had given me conflicting data about my OWS distances and pace. Best I could figure, I was on the bubble for the 1:10 swim cutoff. That was if I was actually swimming. If I just sat here next to this kayak, I was done for sure. I moved away from the kayaker and started making my way towards the first buoy. Panic hit me again, and I found my way to the next kayak. I was really getting angry with myself by this point. I had not come all of this way just to get pulled on the swim. I started back and resisted the urge to stop again. I made it to the turn buoy and then the next marker buoy. Contact with other swimmers was almost constant but I had found my stride and was able to (mostly) tune it out. The buoys changed from yellow to Orange indicating that I had passed the halfway point. The sun came out before I hit the final turn buoy. By the end of the swim, I was overheating. As I emerged from the lake, I looked at my Garmin…I failed to start it at the beginning of the race, but my Apple Watch indicated a 54 minute swim. I had made the cutoff. I glanced up to find that the swim exit photographer had taken my photo. Worst swim finish photo ever, but I had survived the first leg of the race.
Swim Split: 53:49 (2:47/100 m)
Bike ??? Miles (best guess – 27.44 miles)
We never did get an exact distance for the bike leg, or a revised cutoff time before the race started. Usually I’m very aware of cutoffs and making sure I hit them. But, I had the chance to bike an Ironman course again, so I was excited!
The rain had cleared out, and it was full sun. It was already very warm as we had a 2/3 mile barefoot run to transition. Once I got there, I did a not so quick change into my bike gear. Surprisingly, there was only one small mud pit in bike out (and some of the pros were already returning from their ride…damn they are fast!). For the first mile, we was riding on very flat bike paths. I was easily getting 18-20 mph, and I was thrilled with that. Soon after, we hit the main road out and the first long hill. Quick right turn and we were on the main loop. The road was brand new. No potholes. It was great! It was also closed to vehicles, which was awesome! “Rolling hills” would be a kind term…there were several long grinds. There weren’t overly steep, but each lasted longer then you would expect for Iowa. The crosswinds were intense and the temperature was climbing. There was no shade to be found. The term “blast furnace” kept creeping into my mind. Despite a thick coat of sunscreen, I was feeling the start of a sunburn. I somehow maintained a healthy pace to the turnaround and made my way back. The one (and now only) bike aid station did not go well. I just can’t grab stuff handed to me while cycling without losing control, so I eventually just pulled over and the volunteers ran up to get me what I needed (volunteers were AWESOME for this event!). I tried to keep up on fluids (both down my throat and on my head) but I was overheating (which I never do on the bike…but “blast furnace”). This gave me a bad feeling about the run. But, I figured I should just bank as much time as I could on the bike and figure out the run when I got there. I held it together for the rest of the bike without my legs becoming pure jello. A short time later (and a bunch more hills), I was back in transition.
T1 Split: 12:26
Bike Split: 1:37:51 (16.83 mph)
Total Time: 2:44:05
Run 13.1 Miles
So, just running my bike in from the dismount line was taxing in this heat. I filled up on fluids, and made a not so quick change into my run gear. Just like the bike, it was full sun. But, there was rarely a breeze (lots of trees near the run course, but not close enough for shade). I slow jogged less then a mile to the first aid station. Ice was the key commodity here. Fortunately, it was available every mile. Drink Gatorade, drink ice water, pour ice water over head, pour ice water (with ice cubes) down shirt, stumble thru another mile, repeat. By mile two, I knew I would end up in the med tent if I tried to run the whole way, it was just too hot and I was not acclimated to the heat. So I half jogged, half power walked the “run course”. I could actually recover during the power walk, and it wasn’t that much slower then my rather feeble attempts at running. I started trying to do the mental math in my head about the cutoff times and what pace would be needed…and I could only guess because of the course change. So, I just kept this up as best I could (with more walking/less jogging as I pushed past the half way point). Fortunately, my knee injury behaved itself. I did not even think of it during the race! The run was two loops…around Grays Lake, an out and back on a walking trail, then run thru downtown, and back for a second lap. Downtown did offer some much needed shade, but it’s always tough to do the turn for lap two lass then a block from the finish line. It was a pancake flat course (except for one overpass) which was welcome after the bike course. The second loop saw a lot more power walking. I started making friends on the second lap and managed to keep ourselves somewhat distracted from the pain (as with all races, the party is at the back). We tried to guess what the cutoffs would be, and calculated out pace. We thought we were safe, as long as we didn’t get caught by storms. By the time I was close to finishing, I could see dark clouds on the horizon and heard some rumbles of thunder in the distance. I was just over a mile from the finish and I did not want to get pulled from the course due to weather this close to completing the race. I tried to push a little harder and the rain held off. As I made the final turn, I saw the famous red carpet that I have not seen in 7 years. I had a little bit of speed left in me for a final sprint across the finish line.
T2 Split: 11:45
Run Split: 3:11:00 (14:35/ mile pace)
Finish Time: 6:06:48
I actually had a hard time standing up after that final sprint. I was very lightheaded as a volunteer got my timing chip off of me. I was handed some water and my finishers medal (love it) and my “finishers hat” (which was a generic Ironman 70.3 hat…no venue, date, finisher…nothing. I knew this was the case from other events this year…but still a letdown). I then made my way to post-race food…but my stomach could barely handle fluids…so I just made my way to the shuttle back to transition and home.
Overall, I liked the event. They did a really good job communicating delays and changes. They managed to give us as close to a 70.3 experience as was possible under the circumstances. The course was challenging, and I don’t know if I would have finished if I had to do the whole course. I was underprepared and the bike was challenging, but it was easily my strongest event in the race…so I think I would have been successful. It was only my second triathlon affected by weather. The swim anxiety is something I need to work on if I will continue in triathlon. That said, I’m happy with the day and my performance under less then ideal conditions. It also got my fitness kick-started post Covid-19. Ideally, a 70.3 is not the idea first race back, but I somehow made it work.
Will I continue long course triathlon racing? Likely not. I have some nagging injuries and I am much slower then I was 7 years ago. I’m glad I tried it one more time after a seven year hiatus, but I think this will be my final Ironman event. I do have a virtual marathon this fall. I said I was done with Virtual, but Boston is offering a Virtual option this year. No qualification needed and I will be an “official Boston finisher” and have an official Boston unicorn medal. I have mixed feelings about the virtual race thing, but I had to sign up for this one. Other then that, I have a local sprint tri coming in August and will try to get into the Twin Cities 10 Mile (lottery) as well. Because, you know, this is a rebuilding year…
Ironman Medal Collection:
Full Marathon and Ironman Medals