Gulf Coast 70.3 Race Report

Post race sunset made it all worth it!
At some point in the last five years, I have somehow mastered the mysterious art of getting a good night’s rest the night before a race. So, after a restful night’s sleep, Jason and I woke up at 3 a.m. Saturday morning. I mixed three bottles of Infinit for the bike (one per hour), and cooked my pre-race breakfast of oatmeal with coconut peanut butter. We looked out our hotel room window over the swim course and confirmed that the ocean was as angry as it had been the day before.

We left our hotel for transition at 4:30, and immediately within sight of the bike racks, we heard the announcer delivered the bad news: the 1.2 mile swim was canceled due to strong rip tides. The officials felt that safety personnel could not stay in place on course, and they were concerned that out of control kayaks and paddle boards could actually harm swimmers even more than the riptide.  
Even though we knew it was the best call, neither of us could hide our disappointment. After feeling that I had conquered my anxiety of the tough conditions in our practice swim, I was really looking forward to proving myself. Jason had been working tirelessly on improving his swim since last season. In a sport that’s as much mental as it is physical, it can be difficult to come to terms with not being allowed to complete an event to which you’ve dedicated months of training. 

Jason not taking race morning very seriously!
Instead of a 6:00 a.m. swim start, all 1,500 athletes would line in order of their bib number for a time trial start, meaning that an athlete would start the race on his or her bike every 4 seconds beginning at 6:20 a.m. Fortunately, with last season’s Ironman points, our club earned its own bike rack in transition.  Since our numbers were sequential, we were not only allowed to start together, but having lower numbers allowed us to beat some of the afternoon heat that the later starters were subjected to. I was pleasantly surprised out how seamlessly Ironman was able to organize 1,500 athletes into a semblance of a line, and the start went by quickly and smoothly.

Immediately upon leaving transition, we had to climb what I’ve dubbed “Mt. Panama City”, the pedestrian walkway at Edgewater Resort. At the final descent of Mt. PC was a narrow 90 degree turn. The first few miles were similarly technical, and we weren’t able to truly settle into our aero bars and stay at a steady speed until after the first few miles. As soon as we turned onto Bay Parkway, however, we had smooth, straight pavement, and I felt like I was flying. I watched my average creep up almost effortlessly… 17…18… 19!!! By the time we turned onto Hwy 79, I knew that we must have a tailwind. At this point, I was strategizing how much to hold back to save my legs to fight the headwind on the way back. I decided to trust my training, and push my legs as much as I could, while still maintaining what I felt was a comfortable heart rate.  
NOT happy to be racing with this
number for the first time

About mile 26, I spotted Jason across the highway on his way back to transition and waved. It’s always a major boost when I get to see him on the course! I absolutely hate when we cannot race together. Seeing him having a good race always inspires me.

By mile 28, the half way point turnaround, I was instantly so thankful that our training plan called for 60-70 mile rides for the last couple of months leading into the race. It seemed overkill at the time, but now my legs, used to longer distances, felt fresh. I also was averaging 20.2 mph, a new feeling for me, as I usually average about 15-16 mph in training. However, I did not let the speed go to my head, as I knew the average would only drop once I turned and headed back toward the beach, as we would now be fighting a headwind.

Unfortunately, I found my stomach was not allowing me to take in much Infinit nutrition, which is what I had in all three bottles on my bike. I felt fine and so far it had not been a hot morning, so I wasn’t concerned. I told myself I would just need to stay on top of my water intake on the run. (Cue foreboding music.)

Although initially, the headwind wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated, the closer I got to the beach, the stronger the wind got.  As anticipated, my average was dropping and while my legs still felt strong, my lower back was really giving me problems at this point. To compound the problem, I was only twenty minutes out from transition, and I realized I had barely drank half of the bare minimum fluids I was supposed to take in on the bike.  Since your stomach cannot handle a whole lot of fluid while it’s being jostled on the run, the best place to hydrate and take in nutrition is on the bike. Great bike split or no, I was going into the run on a deficit.  Not good. I started chugging, but there was little I could do in the last fifteen minutes.

Once we turned onto Front Beach Road, our headwind turned into a tough crosswind. It was a bit of a struggle to keep the bike on course, especially in the breaks between condos, when a wall of wind would blow you sideways. My average was now 19.0. I knew I should take it easy and spin into transition to get my legs fresh on the run, but I couldn’t bare to watch my average drop any farther, on what I already knew was my best bike split ever. Knowing I can usually run well off the bike, I pushed hard.

As I neared transition, I saw Jason heading out on the run. He’s a much better cyclist than me, and I’m sometimes stronger on the run. Leading up to the race, we had a playful banter that we were going to race the half marathon. I waved, then signaled that I had my eye on him. He waved and shook his head, knowing I was going to do my best to catch him.

Sure enough, I pulled into transition hanging on by a thread to that 19 mph average! My watch had messed up early on (and I’m not good at math), so I thought I had finished about 2:15- a time I was ecstatic with.  I knew I had to have a fast transition if I had a chance of catching Jason, so I racked my bike, sat down long enough to take off my bike shoes and lace my running shoes, then grabbed my race belt and hat which were hooked together.  I ran through the transition exit and back up “Mt. PC”, the pedestrian walkway. I read a tip somewhere to put your hat and race belt on while running, and this little hack has saved me a lot of time! My legs felt good, and I was comfortably running a 9:30 pace.

The run took us about a mile out on Front Beach Road, which was an ever so slight, not even noticeable, incline, but also into a headwind. It took less than a mile for me to realize that this run was going to be HOT. I had one small bottle of water on my race belt, and I planned to fill it at aid stations. I decided not to run with Infinit nutrition (full of electrolytes and some other mystical stuff that prevents you from falling out on the race course), and supplement the water with my Cliff blocks, something I’d had success with in training this year.

About mile two into the run, a gal ran up beside me and said that we had been running about the same pace, and did I mind if we ran together. Turns out Sandy and I had both sailed for the same team in college-USF St. Pete! I didn’t realize at the time what a Godsend she would be!

I ran out of water very early on, and was watching my pace dropping to 10:00-10:30 minute miles. Sandy and I both agreed that, given the heat and lack of shade, this would be our goal pace. We walked through every aid station, and I seized the opportunity to fill up on water and ice.

When I started getting leg cramps at the beginning of the second lap, around mile 4, I knew it spelled trouble. I NEVER cramp. I knew then I was dehydrated and I immediately began regretting not bringing water as a backup with me on the bike in case my stomach decided it wasn’t going to like Infinit.  In addition to the cramps, I had a very new sensation: I felt cold, and had chill bumps all over my body. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I willed my body to keep going, and decided that I had to start drinking Gatorade Endurance for the electrolytes at each aid station if I had any chance of not being pulled off the course. Any seasoned athlete will warn you, never try anything new on race day! But I figured GI issues were a much better alternative than an almost certain DNF (Did Not Finish) on my race results. (Apparently chills are a sign of heat exhaustion and I probably should have stopped running. Oops!)

Each sip of Gatorade helped me fight off the cramps and chill bumps for about a mile, so my new strategy was just to get to the next aid station.  I was extremely thankful for the enthusiastic volunteers at each aid station. Their energy really kept me going, and I was so thankful for the cups of water, ice and Gatorade they handed me. I have no doubt they saved my race that day. I was also thankful to have a running buddy, as I think we both really pushed each other to stay on pace, but yet helped each other refrain from going out too hard as well.

Making a miserable run look easy
The run course was three loops, and while it was nice to know what I had left, I was desperate for a change of scenery, or at the very least the smallest bit of shade. The worst part of the whole run course was having to run by the water park and watch families float by in the lazy river. It took everything I had not to dive in myself! Also, with the run course being three loops, it meant for the first race that I can remember, I never saw Jason. This is different from an out-and-back course, in which you are guaranteed to see each other. However, I knew that the fact that I hadn’t caught him meant one thing-that he had nailed his nutrition, that he hadn’t gone out too hard on the bike, and that he was quite possibly having his best long-course tri run. I was a proud wifey!

As I neared the end of the final lap, the course turned into Edgewater Resort for one last time over the pedestrian bridge. (A cruel joke only a quarter of a mile before the finish.) I hadn’t made it half way up the steep incline, when my calf charley-horsed so bad that I was forced to limp the rest of the way. Speaking to what a sweet person and team sport Sandy is, she stopped right with me, and encouraged me as I walked up the bridge. Thankfully, once to the top, my calf relaxed, and I was able to resume some semblance of a jog to the finish.

I crossed the finish line in a daze and immediately collapsed into the arms of a volunteer. Hands down, volunteers are what makes Ironman events happen. Two guys saw my distress and immediately grabbed me the shoulders before I fell. They sat me down and brought me a cold wet towel. Carrying gross, sweaty, smelly athletes is not what any of us would want to do on our day off, so I thank them from the bottom of my heart!

Soon after, the hubby and Rebecca (our new friend!) found me. Once my body temperature came down and my head started to clear, I listened eagerly to the details of their race. They both said that the heat affected them and they were slightly disappointed in their results, but I was amazed by their solid times! They are both amazing athletes.  

We have the recovery part nailed.
As I headed back to transition to pick up my bike and other belongings, I picked up my phone and was overwhelmed with love and support of friends and my new co-workers. I had texts from every check point on the tracker, “you’re half way on the bike, go Ashley!!” etc. I also read a text from my good friend Brande that read, “You just went sub-3 on the bike!” I started crying with excitement when I read that because for some reason I truly thought I had ridden about 2:15. My somewhat secret, “stretch goal” was to go sub 6 hours on this race. After life happened this spring, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, and once the officials canceled the swim, there was no way for me to know how close I could have gotten. But with my bike time that day, if I had been able to pull off a good swim, I actually might have nailed the sub-6. Either way, I was even more ecstatic with a sub-3 bike (a 20 minute PR), as leading into the race I had really been frustrated with the apparent lack of improvement on my bike over the past few years.

All in all, while it was a tough day, it was an enjoyable race. I finished knowing that my training was working (Be Ironfit plan!), and I certainly learned that I either need to find an alternative to Infinit, or at least need to bring one bottle of water and two bottles of Infinit on the bike, so I can hydrate, even if my body cannot take on nutrition. 

Bike: 19 mph
Run: 10:50 min/mile (I'm embarrassed to even type that!)


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