A PR high is a dangerous thing. And unless you can guarantee fitness improvements (or easier courses), you’re going to have to accept that PR streaks will one day come to an end. My sub-5 hour race in Austin on Sunday, as happy as I was with it, did get me thinking again about limits—pushing them, stretching them, breaking them. Limits bring to mind the question of what is possible (a 1:38 half marathon?), versus what’s just not realistic (1:30)? These seem like pretty important questions, and ones not necessarily limited to triathlon. Whether or not my 4:56:16 will stand forever as my best time, I will always remember this race, which takes place in one of America’s hippest towns, as my entrance into the sub-5 club.
We arrived on Thursday evening, our gracious host (my former D.C. roommate, Austin) ready and waiting to whisk us off to quirky East 6th Street, where we learned quickly that Detroit knows how to do pizza, and both Austins know how to do good food.
I signed up for this race in early August, after missing 5 hours by 42 seconds at Vineman. It was distant enough that I could enjoy a little “mid-season off season” in August, and I returned to training in September highly motivated, even through a week-long work trip to Kona.
I was more anxious for this race than normal. I’d heard the bike course was fast, and qualifying for the 70.3 Worlds in Mont-Tremblant taunted me. To do that I’d have to place in the top five at least, and then cross my fingers for a roll-down slot. According to last year’s results, a sub-5 would put me around third or fourth. (Second and third in my age group went 4:50 last year, with four on all over 5 hours. I figured that with the bike split I thought I was capable of (2:28), I had a chance. My run workouts had been going well, and I thought I could pull out at least a 1:45 half. I had high hopes for my swim too, thanks to technique tips from Hux and numerous visits to the Y for solo drill sessions. An 1:35-paced open-water swim with Robert three weeks before Austin showed me that my sighting and drafting were improving as well.
I even went as far as listening to a race-day mental preparation webinar from TrainingPeaks. (Geek alert!). I might edit articles on this topic all the time, but I’m lazy when it comes to applying them to my own training and racing. I often get frustrated by the vagueness of mental skills language, but I came out with a better understanding of my goals (“outcome,” “process,” and “secret”), and how each affected me differently. I also chose a mantra borrowed from a recent read: “It is important in life not to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once.” Measure yourself became my race-day mantra; in a broader sense, I think it also answers the question of why I do this sport at all.
On Friday, between Melvin’s stacked Pastrami Reubens, Brazilian food, and local beer sampling at Quickie Pickie, I was able to prep my race things and get in a 30 minute jog on Austin’s (Winnipeg-esque!) river trail. Saturday we hit the race site and I took Amelie out for a 30 minute spin, warmed up my Zoot Kiawe’s, dropped off my bike, and swam for 20 minutes. Then it was a quick trip back to the 6th Street food truck lot for veggie tacos (me), Philly cheese steaks (Mark), and zombie sightings. The rest of the day was spent relaxing at Austin’s, watching some Dexter, and topping off my popcorn stores.
Less floating, more swimming
We woke to rain on race morning, but beyond a few rogue drops, it subsided by the time the cannon went off. I was one of the last waves, and didn’t hit the water until 8:45. I knew I was capable of swimming at least a 34—maybe a 32 if I could get on feet. I sighted every 10 strokes, and was able to get on feet for at least half of the swim. Wahoo! As I exited the water, Mark yelled “34!” I think I made a face, but later was happy to learn that it was actually 33:44 (1:36/100 yard)—a 3-minute swim PR for me. (My former swim best was a 36:30 at Wildflower 2012, and this year, despite months of work and improved pool times, my race results had been stuck stubbornly in the 37 to 38 range.) Whether it was a different wetsuit or a short course (my Garmin broke before the race so I have no measurement of what I actually swam), I’ll take it!
Hammer: My favorite tool in the box
After spending far too much time in T1 and clipping in my muddy cleats, I started cranking out the watts, knowing that I could bike hard and still run decently (for me). My late start left me with the fun, two-and-a-half hour task of weaving through a field of 2000 other riders. I held the middle line most of the time, but then would feel guilty and tuck in behind a rider on the right-hand side of the road for a second or two, before pulling out to pass again. (As I later found out from my new friend Slater, I should’ve held the middle line.)
If I return to this race again it won’t be for the bike route, which is quite rough and roundabout. If I do, I’ll need to attend a cornering clinic to combat the extra minute or two I wasted braking and surging around all the turns. Still, I’m happy with my 2:29:44 (22.4 mph) bike split—fourth fastest in F30-34 field as well as female amateurs. (Props to the winner of my AG, who rode a 2:25:45.)
Jog: The monster returns
My familiar chest monster showed up in the last quarter or so of the bike, ready to crash my 13.1-mile party once again. I’d decided before the race that I was just going to accept it as a part of racing, a burden to bear, and be glad it wasn’t something worse. It seemed to sit at about a 7/10 on the pain scale, and I chewed into it with sips of Coke and deep breathing. Still, it distracted me from what I knew was more important to focus on: cadence and extension, relaxed shoulders, forward lean. On my way out from T2, Mark informed me from the sidelines that all I needed to do to break 5 hours was run a 1:51 half. That gave me the extra bounce I needed, and I set off on the three-loop course that I’d mentally divided into three four-mile runs. I ran purely by feel, relying not on my Garmin but on Mark’s assurance that I was keeping a good pace. (I wonder if I’d known I was running 8:12’s if I could’ve pushed a bit harder. It’s always easier a few days after the race to think you could’ve gone harder. Much harder to know in the moment.)
I ran a 1:47:29 (8:12 pace), a minute slower than Vineman. I felt just as fit run-wise, but maybe I pushed harder on the bike, or maybe the Austin run course profile just didn’t suit me in the same way as Vineman’s. It just gives me a concrete goal for next year: Run a sub-8 minute mile pace half marathon off the bike. I also learned that this was the year for women aged 30-34 who can run 1:30 halfs to show up at Austin. Thanks, ladies.
A woman in my age group passed me just before the last three miles of the run, and I decided that I would not lose her. I managed to catch her just before I peeled off toward the finish chute, only to see her turn left to complete another lap! Thanks for the push, whoever you are. I entered the rodeo barn (the only indoor finish on the Ironman circuit), spotted 5:56:00 on the clock, and knew that me and the number 4 were about to get cozy.
Cross, collapse in a chair, pain coursing through my legs like a drug. Knife in the chest. Another race. Another finish. Another measuring of the self.
Every race teaches me more about this crazy sport. For one, you’d think that frequent racing would turn you into the organization queen, but it can actually have the opposite effect. Familiarity can breed laziness. Though I didn’t forget anything at home, on race morning (at my seventh half-Ironman) I was a little scatterbrained. I didn’t bring a proper backpack and so had to schlep a bunch of bags, my helmet, bottles, etc. around from site to site. I also forgot that I’d put my SRM power control in my bike shoe, and spent unnecessary time pawing through bags in the dark. I strapped my timing chip to my wrist for safekeeping before I was ready to put it on my ankle, but it slipped off during body marking. I had plenty of time to get a new one, but still, unnecessary stress. Just because you’ve done a million triathlons doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat each one as your first.
Mark dropped Amelie off with my best friends in the industry, TriBikeTransport, while I reclined on the grass trying to shake the chest monster. Back at Austin’s, I realized that I’d forgotten my wetsuit at the race. I showered, retrieved my wetsuit, with minutes to spare before the Butsko crew picked us up for an evening of post-race revelry. While I never feel like eating after a race, as you can see from the spread above, I decided that the chest monster was going to have to share space with an ahi tuna burger and a local IPA. Then, somehow a cupcake truck and Amy’s ice cream showed up on the scene. We finished off the day on Rainey St., indulging in Craft Pride’s array of local brews, doled out by bearded hipsters.
On Monday we picked Keith and Barb up for coffee at Houndstooth, where Barb put my new adage, “PR is for presents” into motion (see exhibit A above). We browsed and walked a little, and then met friends at IronWorks BBQ—I wasn’t about to leave Texas without being sufficiently stuffed with smoked animal products.)
In order to rest between “feedings,” we then headed back to Rainey St., where despite being closed, Bar 96 graciously opened its sunny patio to us. A whiskey sour and a pecan porter later, I was feeling that rare but lovely mid-afternoon buzz. We hit Home Slice pizza for a mid-afternoon snack before leaving town, then it was back to Austin’s for a too-quick goodbye.
While I’m not sure I’ll do this race again (I’m a bit of a sucker for trying new things), I would not hesitate to recommend the Austin 70.3. I leave you with a short list of reasons to weigh if you’re considering this race for next year.
What I loved
- The city of Austinis charmingly quirky and comfortably accessible. For me it brought a welcome taste of my prairie roots, with grain silos, cows, flatland, big blue skies filled with puffy clouds, and rain—all things decidedly not Southern Californian. Not to mention the food. Oh, the food.
- The 3-loop run course was a surprisingly enjoyable aspect of this course, as I mentioned above. Besides being easier to break up into chunks, it also meant that spectators were more concentrated, offering that extra bit of motivation many of us thrive on.
What I’d change
- The bike course could use a re-vamp. Despite setting a new 70.3 PR, the course was bumpy, twisty, busy, and not particularly scenic. Texas seems big enough to be able to cook up a few different 56-mile options.
- The competition.I didn’t expect this race to be so competitive. I guess its accessibility to so many triathlon-loving cities makes the race appealing. Travel is easy and cheap. Or maybe more people are just discovering the sport, which is fine by me. (Just not when I had the no-longer-secret goal of qualifying for worlds.)