Sunday, November 15, 2009

Clearwater Race Report

As you may have guessed, the Clearwater 70.3 World Championships are the world championships for Half-Ironman triathlon. And since most of my efforts this year have been focused on speed in that distance, this race was probably the most important of the year in terms of milestones.

Clearwater Beach is a fun and small collection of cool restaurants, fancy hotels, and gorgeous waterfront. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a real gem of a hotel - the Tropical Isle Motel By the Sea - nestled just near a 5 star resort at a fraction of the price. The owner, Steve, really took care of myself and my roomate, and as a bonus, he also happened to know all the best places to eat!

The day before the race, the organizers actually canceled the ocean open water swim. Hurricane Ida, bless her heart, had left behind some lingering inclement conditions, so the entire swim venue was moved across the island to a small bay with much less "chop".

And since there was no big beach on the bay for a traditional running beach start, the plan was to simply have all athletes enter the water one-by-one, tripping a timing mat with an ankle chip as they entered the water.

We left in the approximate order of our race number, and as athlete #1604, I had a bit of a wait before entering the water. As it was, the long wait led up to a rather anti-climactic swim start.

The normal affair for these type of events is for a cannon-boom or airhorn to send hundreds of athletes flurrying in the water at once, in what amounts to an overwhelming feeling of being thrown into a washing machine full of bowling balls. You then kick, punch and claw your way forward in an all-out sprint for 200 yard before the pack thins out.

In contrast, the Clearwater time-trial swim scenario went like this:

Race official: "OK, step forward please."

Me: "Me?"

Race official: "Yes, go ahead and get in the water."

Me: "Just get in?"

Race official: "Yes, don't dive though."

Me: "So when do I start swimming?"

Race official: "Now. OK, next person step forward please."

So I just basically started swimming. It was...boring. The swim was uneventful, a bit slower than expected (due to less salt in the bay water, and maybe less current pushing me in), and involved an enormous amount of self-motivation without the churning crowd of swimmers pushing me along. It was a good two minutes into the swim before I actually felt like I was *racing*.

Coming out of the water, the swimmers were directed into a narrow, single-person wide ramp that had us lined up nearly thirty swimmers back. Just standing there, waiting to exit the water. As you recall, my race number of 1604 dictated that 1603 other athletes (some very slow athletes) were lined up there in front of me.

Moo. Moo-ve. Please moo-ve.

29:00 on the swim. My goal had been 25:00. I kinda shrugged it off when I saw the high number on my watch, since there was really no way to compare this swim with last year's swim due to the completely different course.


Finally elbowing my way through the crowd of sedated swimmers, I took off in a dead sprint to transition, bypassing the wetsuit strippers, where a literal line of athletes were waiting patiently to have their wetsuits "stripped".

Transition to the bike felt pretty good and quick, but with the size of the transition area at this huge venue, this still meant over 2 minutes spent weaving my way through the maze of bikes to finally exit and start my favorite, strongest leg of the sport.


My bike felt good. Fantastic actually. With a smart taper, a chance to train in both Hawaii and Jamaica in the last few week's leading up to the race, implementation of the recommendations from my Bioletics testing, and continued pre-race use of Enerprime and delta-E, my body felt 100% primed, my legs were fresh and the heat was a total non-issue. I've also been using a brand new recovery product that I'll be able to reveal soon, but it is made by Mt. Capra (same company that makes the double-bonded whey protein that I use) and it has some serious beneficial effects, especially in the heat.

I left the disc behind for this race, but even with the Zipp 909 wheelset, the Specialized Transition is a very fast bike, and I spent a couple hours before the race tuning it perfectly.

The first 15 miles SAILED by (again, zero fogging in my new Zeal sunglasses), and I was literally powering through the entire field of cyclists. With hundreds of riders to navigate through, it was a bit like driving on a busy highway, but I was seriously focused.

Usually around this time, I have to begin gritting my teeth and painfully digging in for the next twenty miles or so, but my legs just never went stale. Of course, I was using my usual fuel - GU Roctane combined with Millennium Sports Athlytes.

***BY THE WAY, Millennium Sports actually OVERNIGHT SHIPPED ME my Athlytes when I informed them I accidentally left Washington without their proprietary blend of electrolytes and lactic acid buffers. This company literally gives you the best service you'll find, anywhere. Check them out.***

In the shift in direction at South-North turnaround, about mile twenty-five, I glanced behind me and realized that I was towing a group of about a dozen cyclists. Once we made the turn, over the next 5 miles, this group morphed into a peloton of well-over twenty riders.

Three times, I made a very concerted effort to ride off the front and leave the group behind, but I was gradually wearing myself away, and the pack swallowed me up after less than two miles every time.

I can confidently say that I was one of the best riders in the field on Saturday, and despite these damaging momentum surges from the large draft-packs, I would have easily posted close to a 2 hour bike split, if what had happened next did not happen.


Just a few minutes after the mile 45 aid station, I rode up into the back of the largest pack of riders I have ever seen in a race. The Clearwater bike course is such that they allot ONE narrow lane to the entire field of athletes, and this lane is lined with a curb on one side, and large cones on the other.

As such, there was absolutely no way for me to pass this pack of riders, which appeared to be primarily comprised of female, middle-age cyclists, riding around 20 miles per hour. In total, I'd estimate this super-peloton to have been comprised of 90-100 riders. For the next seven miles, I tried countless times to pass the group, but it was literally impossible.

It was during those miles that I lost a good seven to eight minutes, and also lost any chance of clinching a podium spot. Just a few minutes into my "collision" with the back of this pack, I realized more me to make up this time, I'd have to run close to a 1:15. Realistically, I knew this wouldn't happen and it was disappointing.

Bike goal: 2:01; Bike actual time: 2:09.


At this point, mentally for me, the race was over, and now it was just about putting together a good run and enjoying myself. Plus, there was possibly a chance that other guys in my division experienced the same momentum suck on the bike, and I could still place decently.

As I ran into the transition tent and emptied my "run gear" bag onto the asphalt to change, I realized that I had actually been handed my "swim gear" bag. Don't get me wrong: the Blue Seventy Helix wetsuit and Element goggles are a great combo, but I'm usually not wanting to wear a wetsuit and goggles for a half-marathon, so I ran back out and grabbed my REAL run gear bag with my Avia Bolt racing flats. Not a big deal, but I lost perhaps thirty seconds in transition.

The Clearwater half-marathon run is a fairly straightforward double 10K out-and-back, and I managed to negative split with a 45 minute first run and a 43 minute second run.

Interestingly, I expected to have more energy on the run considering my unfortunate chance to rest and recover for the last 10 miles of the bike, but I think my mental motivation was not where it could have been. Again, a bit of a let-down, but if this sport was mentally and physically "easy", it wouldn't be a challenge.

When you're having trouble with motivation, that third 5K of a half-marathon is probably the toughest spot. You're tired, but not close enough to the finish line for the "almost there" adrenaline rush to take over. I felt a bit sluggish during this part of the race, and may have lost a couple minutes there.

Run goal: 1:25; Run actual time: 1:28


My goal going into this race was to podium. I knew that would take at least a 4:05, and my goal time, realistically based on my fitness, was a 4:00 to a 4:05 (this would have placed me somewhere between third and fifth at World Championships). If my bike split would have been "on", I could have easily posted a 4:05, and probably closer to a 4:02.

As it was, my final time was a 4:13. 20th place.

Psychologically, I was a bit down after the race and actual sat on the beach and had a bit of a cry for a little bit afterwards, because I put a good amount of fitness, training and focus into this culmination of the race season, and felt like a large part of the race was outside my control.

Nonetheless, this turned out to be quite a successful race season - and my major goal of dominating at Half-Ironman was achieved. I used a model of quality over quantity in my training all-season and NEVER trained more than 15 hours in any week, with an average of 10-12 hours. This allowed me to devote more time to family, work and hobbies, and still end up with some of my fastest races ever and a total of 15 triathlons in the 2009 race season.

I also have the best sponsors in the sport. I am very picky with gear and nutrition, and feel that I literally train and race with the creme of the crop when it comes to endurance sports.

Those names include:

Mt. Capra (recovery fuel)
Millennium Sports (racing fuel)
Impax (health fuel)
Avia (shoes)
Zeal (sunglasses)
Specialized (bike & cycling gear)
Blue Seventy (wetsuit & swim gear)
Bumblebar (energy bars)
GU (gels)
nuun (electrolytes)

If you EVER want to use any of the same products that I use in your training and racing, please e-mail me and I'll be happy to tell you exactly how I use the products from the companies mentioned above.

Thanks for reading.

Will I compete next year? You bet, and I'll be faster. Keep your eyes peeled for my 2010 Road to Kona.


Roger Thompson said...

Nice work Ben. Sorry you had some frustrations during the event that were out of your control and leave you looking into the sky wondering "why?" I have had MANY races like that, and they often come when you feel you are the most prepared for the day. But you race the race you have on that day, and you did that.

Kona huh? Wow, we plan on going again next year. Not racing of course :) Congrats on a great season.


Steve said...

Though I can't say I know exactly how you feel since I was in a completely different place in the race but those packs are absolutely crazy. I had 40+ on my wheel and I was SLOW.

Great race and even with all the negatives, you put a solid race plan together and represented well.

Great season and now lets try and close the gap:)

Todd said...

Wow, Ben. As usual, a very honest and candid race report. Congrats on an amazing season. Even though you didn't meet all your goals, you came back from a debilitating injury, and are stronger and healthier by training smart. You've also provided some great inspiration to other athletes with families, proving that you don't have to sacrifice your family life to succeed.

Look forward to training with you soon. Hopefully I can keep up. :-)

Spokane Al said...

Ben, congratulations on a great season. It is interesting to hear the stories of the packs of riders - that seems like a bit of a strange way to run a world championship - but what the heck do I know.

I do know I will be looking forward to following your 2010 adventures.

Pat G. said...

Impressive. For all the right reasons.