Chances are that words and abbreviations like; ITU, Olympic Distance, 70.3, WTC,draft legal, non-drafting, full distance, and half distance mean either nothing or something completely different to the majority of Americans than they do to triathlete Americans. Triathlon as a competitive sport just doesn’t have the penetration in American culture that it does in other countries. This is probably due to the fact that as a sport it has only existed since the seventies and it has only been in the Olympics since 2000.
Generally speaking, Americans are inpatient with endurance events. Did anyone really know who Meb Keflezighi was before he won the 2014 Boston Marathon? To give another pertinent example, in the last Summer Olympics many people can remember Missy Franklin’s fantastic performances, but do you remember who won the 800 meter freestyle gold medal? Many have forgotten that there was another young American woman who decimated her competitors, her name is Katie Ledecky and you will see her in future Olympics. In swimming we tend to focus on events 400 meters and less (Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, Mark Spitz) because it takes a lot less time to get the race finished. Watching a race for 9 minutes (800) or 15-16 (1500) is tedious to people because often the finish isn’t as exciting as it is in the sprints.
To the point, if you didn’t know who Katie Ledecky is then I am all but certain the name Javier Gomez means nothing to you. Javier Gomez is the World ITU (International Triathlon Union) and World WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) 70.3 distance champion as well as an Olympic silver medalist. This is what he looks like:
Those times without the proper context don’t really mean anything. Lets just focus on his run. One hour, nine minutes, and twenty seven seconds. That is for a half marathon which is 13.1 miles. That puts his split time at roughly 5:27 a mile. Can you run even one mile at that split? To put that into perspective, that time would have placed him 4th in the Denver Colfax Half Marathon in 2014. He would have placed 20th at the Boston Half Marathon – a much more competitive race. Now for the proper context; he also swam 1.2 miles and biked 56 miles before he put on his running shoes. If I took the top Boston 1/2 Marathon finisher (1:00:34) and had him ride his bike for 56 miles at any pace and then start the half marathon once he was finished (and Javier rode his normal pace), Javier would surely beat him on the run, not to mention easily besting him at the other two disciplines.
Considering those times, anyone who asks “who is the best endurance athlete right now” Javier’s name would be in the top 5. Among other people you have never heard of like Alistair Brownlee (Olympic Triathlon Gold Medalist), Marino Vanhoenacker (Ironman distance world record holder), Frederik Van Lierde (reigning Ironman World Champion) and those are just the men…and just the men competing in traditional triathlon. We aren’t even talking about XTerra triathlons which are incredibly challenging triathlons. I haven’t even touched on the women who are growing more impressive to me every time I see a race result. I wonder to myself, will there come a time when people are posting times in the individual triathlon events that are about as or more competitive than their open race counterparts? If it can be done, it will probably be done by someone named Gwen Jorgensen…
Ohhh so much has been said about this topic and this is sure to stir up a pot somewhere, but even a very basic logical analysis of the drafting issues at M-Dot races conclude that the sport should be come almost universally draft legal. If you are reading this and thinking “Draft beers should always be legal!”, you are thinking of the wrong ‘draft’ and an example of how cycling and triathlon are not exactly mainstream in the United States.
To explain the difference between draft legal and non-drafting races, just look at either Olympic or UCI bike races. In these events you have two principle types of cycling, the mass-start road race and the time trial. The mass-start road race is the one you typically see on TV, people ride in huge groups and occasionally a star will break from the “peloton” and make a run for the finish, first one across the finish wins. The time trial is a different race. A course is set up and a biker will race the course alone and the winner is the one with the best time. By very definition, the time trial is “non-drafting” because there are no other bikes to draft off of. Drafting in a bike is similar to drafting in NASCAR, if you get close enough to the low pressure area behind another moving object, your high pressure area is sucked along behind the low pressure area in front of you – thus requiring less power to move you along. In NASCAR this is done to save fuel, in biking it is done to help conserve power, measured in watts. Someone behind a few bikers can exert fewer watts per speed unit than the leader.
Originally triathlon was very small, the idea was that you did all three events yourself, in as much of a time trial format as could be managed. This is the true test of the athlete – what can you do on your own. However, as races get larger, they start taking on the feel of a mass start event. In most triathlons, you only get a small slice of road to ride on (it is not common for entire roads to be closed) and depending on the number of participants situations arise where drafting (riding within 3 bike lengths of the person in front of you) is not only impossible, to attempt it would be dramatically unsafe.
The result is predictable, a high profile race occurs, drafting occurs, and a bunch of people complain on forums like slow twitch (link here). A lot of ideas come up, stagger the swim start, more officials, etc. but none of them really work. If we have learned anything about trying to ban something that everyone will do anyway (like marijuana) it is to stop banning it and wrap rules around it. There is precedent for this; the ITU series of triathlons and the triathlon in the Olympics are all draft legal and unsurprisingly not only did the world not end, but complaints of drafting went away.
There are a few reasons why this is not a popular idea but I suspect the real problem is the cottage industry of time trial bike manufacturers. In draft legal races you will notice that everyone rides a similar style of drop handlebar road bike. In time-trials and non-drafting triathlons the bikes are different, commonly referred to as “TT” bikes. Because of some safety concerns about the way TT bikes are set up, mass start races ban TT style bikes. For professionals, this isn’t an issue, their sponsor will simply provide the required bike for the race the athlete is doing and be done with it. The problem is with the thousands and thousands of age groupers who had enough money for one high end bike and chose a TT style bike. Changing the format to primarily draft legal racing would alienate those racers. I am unsure of how those racers could be un-alienated, but just as sure as the US will eventually have universal health care, WTC races will and must become draft legal.
I started this year with a couple of very lofty goals, the first was to complete the Boulder Half Ironman – which for someone who couldn’t run a mile without collapsing was very lofty. The second was to complete the Colorado Triple Bypass, which was similarly lofty. I achieved those two goals so now I am left to consider where to go from here. I have an ITU distance triathlon next weekend which I am somewhat prepared for, and a classic distance event the month after. The last event of the year for me is the Rock and Roll half marathon in Denver, which will be my third half marathon of the year.
My first goal is to run the half marathon in October in under 2 hours. I have been focusing on running the last couple of weeks, I saw substantial de-conditioning after the 70.3 and I am just now building back the miles. I think it is doable, but it will be a challenge. I am setting this goal because my next 70.3 goal (Vineman 2015) is to run the entire half marathon.
My 70.3 goal is the only triathlon goal I have set for 2015. In Ironman Boulder ferver, a bunch of my friends signed up for Ironman Boulder 2015 but I held back. I had originally wanted to do Ironman Lake Placid but that sold out very quickly. I then considered Ironman Boulder, but ultimately decided that I wasn’t ready for that time commitment. As much as watching IM Boulder was inspiring, I decided that when and if I did a full 140.6 distance race my goal would be to run the entire marathon. I don’t think I have the time and mental capacity to tackle that yet.
I left the tri-club I had been a member of since last November. We were no longer getting the value out of it (principally because our tri season was light after the 70.3) and we could no longer afford the expense. We will probably start working with a tri coach again in 2015 but we will consider less expensive options, including working with coaches independently or as part of a team that is not affiliated with a club. I will consider the LT team again because I like the coach there, but we will save that decision for December/January.
Next week I will publish my race report for the Maple Grove Olympic Triathlon, so stay tuned.
I swam well, I biked well, I blew up on the run, I finished. Everything after this can be summarized exactly like that. I am extremely happy that I have completed this 70.3 because it represents 7 months of my life that have been more or less dedicated to this cause. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the change in my lifestyle that I went through we should compare where I was in October/November of 2013 and where I am now. In October I could not run two miles without stopping. In October I could not swim more than 300 meters without stopping. In October I averaged about 15 mph when I was on my road bike. I am about 25-30 pounds lighter now than I was then. I can run 13.1 miles without stopping (fresh that is, we will get to that later), I can swim 1900-2000 meters without stopping, and I ride the bike at 20-21 mph.
There were some key milestones along the way:
January – 10K, longest run
April – 13.1 miles, longest run
May – 70 miles, longest bike
June – 1st Triathlon
Each of those are accomplishments in there own right but putting it all together is another challenge all together and one that I respect much more now than before I went through this experience.
Pre Race – Check In
Check in started at Boulder Reservoir the Friday before the event for people that wanted to be insanely early. On that day I made a phone call to my wife asking her to please take my bike to Wheat Ridge Cyclery and have a pair of Bontrager race wheels fitted. Originally I had not planned on renting race wheels but on Thursday night I felt like it would be nice to try a new wheelset. Basically everyone was sold out except for my favorite bicycle shop in the Denver area. Sarah had the day off and she agreed to run to WRC for me, bike in tow, to satisfy my geeky need for new equipment.
WRC was great to work with. The Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 wheels I wanted were not compatible with my 11-speed cassette (which I found odd because it says they did on Bontrager’s website) so they fitted a pair of Zipp 404 Firecrest clinchers instead. They even gave Sarah two tubes with the 80mm presta valve which they won’t charge for unless we actually use them. All in with the cassette and brake pad swap it was $100. Keep in mind the firecrests run about $1000 a wheel retail!
The ol’ Domane looks ready to race with the big zipps and 25 millimeter Vittoria tires.
The lifetime group checked in Saturday morning after a short taper workout where we worked out any last minute issues. One in our group bent the wheel on her bike because it fell off her car. Luckily the bike mechanics onsite were able to true the wheel up and fix it for her.
While we were there we did some shopping (Ironman is big on branding stuff) and Sarah and I got some Project Rudy interchangeable lens sunglasses. I have been wanting new sunglasses and was eyeing the Tifosi brand sport sunglasses but we really like the PR ones. They say don’t try new equipment on race day but in this case it seemed OK.
The in-laws were in town and staying with us so we spent the rest of the day with them. We hydrated and ate well. Surprisingly, we slept extremely well, wakening to the alarm of whiny dog at 0400 exactly the next morning.
Sarah and I arrived at 0500 which was when the transition area opened. There were about 3000 athletes at this event (it was sold out) so getting there early and setting up was critical. I lucked out in two ways. My row was third back from the bike out and run out. That made it easy to find. The person right next to the guy next to me didn’t show up, which meant he could move his bike over a little bit and the whole row got a little more space. We ran into people we knew, and it was smiles and happiness before the misery started.
Leslie and Sarah get a quick selfie while in transition.
This was a big day for the Lifetime Tri club and a couple of other clubs as well like Endurance House and KompetitveEdge. Lifetime and KE set up tents right next to each other along the run course for athletes to hang out at before they started. This was nice because for people like me, who were in the penultimate swim wave, there was 3.4 hours between the opening of transition and my swim wave.
While we were hanging out waiting for the event to start I had an opportunity to talk to Fiona Dretzka who is otherwise known as the “Millennial Blogger” on 303Triathlon and her mother. Fiona is the youngest person signed up for Ironman Boulder and a high performing high school athlete. She did so well that she earned a swimming scholarship from Siena College in upstate New York. She was unhappy that while her friends were traveling Europe on a end end of high school trip she was in Boulder training for Ironman. When she goes to college there will be plenty of kids who went to Europe, she is probably going to be the only one (maybe in the whole college) in her incoming class who is an ironman. Besides, going to Europe with a bunch of chaperones would suck, doing it your junior year of college with your buddies is much better.
In typical Ironman fashion, the swim starts were perfectly staggered in 5 minute increments. The pros started, then the all world athletes, then the normal age groupers. We had people spread across the age groups so once the all world athletes were off people started getting into the water to warm up. In this race the organizers packed the older folks in the first waves and the younger ones in the later waves.
The girls had to get there obligatory wetsuit photo…
Nick and I were in the same swim wave so we had time to burn. Jason (pictured right) was hanging out providing race support. He had competed the week before in Ironman 70.3 Kansas.
Sarah went out a few waves before me and soon we were wading chest high in the water waiting for our signal to go. The swim course was set up like a giant staple again with the key difference between this and the sprint (my only other triathlon to date) being that the course was more than twice as far. 750 meters for the sprint compared to 1900 for the 70.3. When we finally started I immediately had a problem. My aquasphere open water goggles started letting water in on my right eye. I cleared the goggles once, happened again. Cleared it again, happened again. Cleared it a third time and I adjusted my cap. I was then immediately kicked in the left eye by the swimmer in front of me. After that, the leak didn’t come back for the duration of the swim. I am not sure if adjusting the cap did it or if the swift kick sealed it up, either way I was back in the game.
The first set of buoys went by quickly enough, there was some crowding around the first turn buoy so I swung wide. You are allowed to hang on to the buoys if you need to rest and some people were taking advantage of this rule. It was on the second leg (the course looks like a big staple from above so this would be the top part) I became a little disoriented. I was still passing buoys like I was supposed to but they changed color halfway through and I lost my land reference in the chop. I raised my head to spot a couple of times and sighted my buoys but that didn’t comfort me too much because that wouldn’t tell me if I was going in the wrong direction, or if I cut off a turn buoy. By the third time of raising my head I was able to sight the turn buoy and my disorientation faded. By the time I got around the second turn buoy my wave had spread out. I looked up and was able to see the swim finish on the horizon. It is an interesting sensation to see a line of buoys into the distance and a tiny little finish on the horizon. At this point I had settled into a rhythm and my sighting was good. I was starting to run into slower swimmers from waves ahead of us and they could be hazardous. I encountered a few unexpected backstrokers and people who spontaneously started breast stroking. Coach Nicole told me to start walking out of the water only when your hand hits the bottom. I did that and and trudged into the swim finish in 39 minutes.
T1 was uneventful. I didn’t have the wooziness that I did in the sprint and I managed a quick trot from the swim exit to T1. I heard my buddies cheer me on as I got my arms out of my wetsuit. I was feeling good at this point, the swim didn’t take it out of me completely and I was ready to get on the bike.
Let me get this out of the way, I did this too fast. I did it in 2:40 which is twenty minutes faster than I ever did in training. I have done that pace plenty of times, but on 30-40 mile rides with 3 or 4 mile transition runs. Never 56 miles with a half marathon afterwards. In fact, the time I did a run after this exact course I cycled the course in 3 hours.
Now that the negative is out of the way, lets talk about how friggin fun it was. At that time of day it was sunny and cool out with just a slight touch of wind. I was outfitted with my cool race wheels and I was able to push the rig a little. I passed cyclists not one by one, but by tens and twenties. I have an aptitude for climbing the bike so on the long grinding climbout from Boulder Res to Broadway Street I was passing people by the droves. In fact, the first 20 miles on the bike was spent getting around the age groupers that had early swim waves.
I am very familiar with the bike course so I was extremely comfortable on it and it felt great. The winds started picking up near the end of the ride but it was not unmanageable.
I saw almost everyone that I knew was racing that day on the bike course. Unfortunately a member of our team and a friend of ours crashed out on her bike when she took a turn at too high a rate of speed and flew off into a ditch. The medics checked her out and she seemed OK but by the end of the race she was in a visible amount of pain. She went to the hospital and it turns out she fractured her skull! She literally broke her head but still finished the race.
Everything was going great, then I started running and it all turned to poop. My plan had been to be between 10-11 minute miles, which didn’t seem out of the question because I did that without drama after the bike in training. However, the combination of the opening swim and pacing too quickly on the bike proved to be too much for my race plan. To be clear, the half marathon was always going to be challenging. Doing an open half marathon isn’t easy, doing it after working out for 3 1/3 hours is a huge challenge.
I was able to hold my planned pace for about a mile or two but then it started falling apart on me. The first two miles of the course are very hilly and I started walking on the second hill. I never really maintained a steady mile over mile run after that. This was a two loop course and the first loop was emotionally draining. I knew I had done this exact workout in training and to start failing on game day was heartbreaking.
I ran into the millennial blogger on the first loop and had talked with her for a moment. She had a fantastic swim, which we were all expecting. I talked to a few other people on the run course who were utilizing the part of the rules that said walking was acceptable. Some more experienced triathletes had clearly made the same mistake I had and went too hard on the bike. I was passed by one of my friends (who ended doing the thing in something like 5:18) who was cranking out the run like a seasoned professional…even though this was only his second triathlon ever.
Eventually my mental anguish went away because I was clearly not the only one that had to walk/run the half marathon. By the time I made it to the second loop it was obvious that I wasn’t going to DNF and I wouldn’t even be close to the last person in so I relaxed a little bit. I used a porta-john at an aide station which had a broken latch. The winds had gotten blustery by then so as I was peeing the door was opening and shutting in the wind. Luckily a volunteer was posted outside and told people it was occupied.
After the longest half marathon in history, I got to the finishing area where I saw my team (and the two guys who finished before me) cheering at me which helped me run it in without looking like I just got hit by a mack truck.
I got to the finish line and was medaled by one of my friends who was volunteering at the time who also gave me a big squeezy hug. Another friend of mine who was volunteering got my timing chip off and a medic handed me a bottle of water. I didn’t fall over or lie down but I was awfully ready to sit down and relax for a bit. I got back to the Lifetime Fitness area where someone let me sit down for a minute. Here is my “after” picture grimacing a little bit at some minor hip cramping. As strained as I look I was thrilled to be done with the thing.
I chatted with my friends for a while and Sarah came in about thirty minutes after me. She had a rough run as well but a really good bike. Seems like we both learned our lesson that day.
Sarah got in and we put on our cool Ironman Boulder 70.3 finisher hats – a hat I will probably use in training because the top of my head got burned when I had my visor on.
The rest of our team (that hadn’t come in at this point) made it to the finish line within the time limits. We didn’t know at the time that our friend who took a tumble on the bike was rather seriously hurt. We saw her come through the finish line and she went immediately to the medical tent where she was carted off to the hospital in an ambulance. Our coach was a little annoyed that she wasn’t pulled off the course but medics are trained to tell if you have a concussion, broken arms or legs, severe abrasions, heat stroke, regular stroke, heart attack, dehydration, etc. They can’t tell if you have a fractured skull. They do not have MRI vision. The medic that initially did treat her tracked her throughout the course to monitor her and that is testament to the professionalism that these races are conducted with.
Closing thoughts and future goals
You might be tempted to say that if I were to do another long distance triathlon I should try slowing my bike down. On this day with that level of fitness you would be right. However, my goal for another long distance triathlon is to actually have the same swim and bike but improve my run. If I ran at my training pace I would have been across the finish line 26 to 30 minutes sooner (assuming I did the same pace on my swim and bike) which means I really just need to train on the run more. That experience really underscores how in-shape you really have to be in order to run the entire half marathon. Those of us who walk/ran the half marathon and those run ran the entire distance are on two different levels. I respect 70.3 and 140.6 athletes even more now that I have gone through this experience
My goal for my next long distance triathlon is to be well under 6 hours which is totally achievable with a faster run. I started this thing with the singular goal of finishing the 70.3. At this point I don’t want to waste all this training so I am looking at other long distance and Olympic distance triathlons. I have been pulled into the community of triathlon and I am not sure I want to leave it. Alp-D’Huez or Ironman 2015? Maybe…
I really like talking about the bike portion of triathlon for two main reasons. First, I really enjoy biking. When I did the Boulder Sprint last weekend I gave up a chance to do the Elephant Rock Gran Fondo which is a lot of fun and I was disappointed. Secondly, the technical nature of the bike is something that appeals to me. We aren’t just working out, we are operating a machine with nuts and bolds and sprockets and pieces etc. All of those come to together (along with the athlete) to produce an athletic result.
I have talked before about tri bikes vs road bikes and I have talked about how Sarah and I got fitted on the tri-position on our road bikes. I like to draw this contrast because even though a tri or TT bike looks so much different than a road bike, a lot of those differences are of questionable value to the average triathlete. This brings up the question then, can one high quality bike do both triathlon and a Gran Fondo like Elephant Rock?
Lets start with a comparison of sorts between two riders at last weeks sprint with a focus on body position relative to the wind. I focus on this because the human body is the largest aerodynamic drag on the bike, by a wide margin. Getting the body into a more aerodynamic position is the most critical aspect of an effective TT/triathlon position.
The rider on the left is Kaira, a friend of ours and fellow triathlete, who is riding the Quintana Roo Kilo. On the right is Sarah, on a Trek Doman 5.2 modified with a pair of tri bars and a Retul fit from Colorado Multisport. We are looking for an aerodynamic body position, that is, how low can you get into the wind. From these pictures, which are not the best, you can see they are very similar, but Kaira appears to have a slight advantage. Sarah looks like she is riding a little taller on the bike, but not that much taller.
Other than the seat position the Q-Roo has an aero bike frame and an aero seat-post. Neither bike has race wheels and neither rider is wearing an aero helmet. On the topic of the seat post, a lot of things mentioned right below the aero cockpit when you read an advertisement for a Tri bike is the seat post angle. It is said that the tri angle helps “save your legs” for the run. Maybe this is true but for comparisons sake it is worth pointing out that the Trek seat post was adjusted in such a way to simulate a Tri seat post.
Looking closely at the pictures you notice that the riders’ knees are coming close to their elbows and handlebars but not too much so that comfort is compromised. The Q-Roo Kilo is known for its comfort in this regard. When you compare these two bikes, both can do triathlon. The Kilo can do a Gran Fondo because if Kaira has to get on the “horns” when being in aero is illegal (as it is in many group rides if you are within a couple of meters of other cyclists) her comfort will be OK. For Sarah, she can just take off the tri bars and go back to her road fit for the Gran Fondo, or keep them on depending on preference.
From the softer end of triathlon bikes, the difference between them and road bikes with aero bars is fairly minimal and as a result either bike can competently wear either hat. Either bike can be specced up with race wheels for serious racing. The Trek obviously can’t change it’s bike frame or seat post design but (as we will discuss in a later post), those two things are surprisingly less important than one would think. In fact, an aero seat post gives you about as much aero gain as holding your pinky finger out has in drag gain. That is to say, there is not much advantage to an aero seat post!
Now, for fun, lets look at the top end of road and tri bikes. Since engineers know that the human body is the biggest drag creator, they get extreme. Lets look at Fabian Cancellera, the famous Swiss time trialist, on his Trek Speed Concept.
His body is a good bit lower than Kaira or Sarah. His legs could probably smack his elbows. The top tube is so short that his elbows rest at a 90 degree angle when in the aero position. It is nearly impossible to duplicate this on a road bike because even the top end Trek Madone can’t get a rider into that position. Sure, you can drop the body lower and raise the seat but the top tube is too long, the rider would be crunched down too much and you wouldn’t get a good position on the aero bars. The fit on the top end Madone or Domane would look similar to the mid-range Madone or Domane. However, the top end Speed Concept is much more aggressive than the Q-Roo Kilo.
The body position is similar, and from this angle you really get a sense of how far forward the body is on the handlebars. His elbows aren’t as perfectly angled as Fabian’s, this is either by design or, since Fabian is a Trek sponsored athlete, he got a more perfect fit.
Obviously the Trek Speed Concept works great as a Triathlon or TT bike but would you take it on a Gran Fondo? Well, you could, but you wouldn’t. Primarily because in a GF it is against the rules to ride in aero around other riders – if it is allowed at all. If you are in a competitive GF, the officials will penalize you for breaking that rule, it is a safety issue. Riding a bike that is that aggressive on the horns is inefficient aerodynamically and, as people have told me, not comfortable at all.
At the top end of the TT/Triathlon scale, road bikes can’t compete. Similarly, top end road bikes are really no better (maybe even worse) with aero bars than mid-tier road bikes with aero bars. Top end road bikes are clearly more appropriate for a GF or really any time a hill needs to be climbed. As the bikes get more expensive, they actually get less flexible. There is actually a point at which buying more actually gets you less bike. In economics this is called the point of diminishing returns. The more you put in, the less you get out.
Let us also not forget that the most important part of the bike is they guy or gal riding it. Fabian on my bike will destroy 99% of the field of any triathlon on the bike leg no matter what the field is riding. The most efficient and cost effective way to gain speed is to improve the rider.