Bear Delaware was the site of my final race of the 2005 season: the Diamondman half-ironman, or “Tinman”. I had done several Olympic distance triathlons: (1.5 km/0.9 mile swim; 40 km/24.9 mile bike; and 10 km/6.2 mile run) but this would be my first half-ironman (1.9 km/1.2 mile swim, 90 km/56 mile ride, 21 km/13.1 mile run). Although it was just more than twice the distance (113 km vs 51.5 km), it would be much more than twice the effort.
Lis and I travelled to Bear – about 2.5 h from our home the day before the race and arrived early in the afternoon. It was held at ‘Lums Pond State Park’ so, as you guess, the swim was held in Lums Pond. We collected my race packet and had my bike checked before heading off to our hotel.
We had fortunately booked the hotel well in advance as it was sold out and full of triathletes; almost every vehicle sported a bike rack. Some very fit, and serious looking, athletes were in the lobby, but also fortunately a few plodders like myself which made me feel better.
For dinner we went out and found an italian restaurant which allowed me to have lots of carbohydrates, the best meal to have the night before a race. Lis and I were amazed at the American serving sizes (you would think we would have learned by now!) and I had trouble finishing my meal. It was surprising to see that others didn’t have the same problem, and they were not racing the next day. Don’t know where they fit it. We then headed back to the hotel for an early night since I had a very long day ahead of me.
The race was scheduled to start at 07:30 so we were up just after 05:00 so I could breakfast and have a warmup. The hotel’s breakfast area was crowded and it was interesting to see the different pre-race meals people have. I am a muesli and fruit man, along with some toast with peanut butter. Others appeared to be ready to run only on caffeine, while others had HUGE breakfasts which would weigh down my stomach to no end.
It was still dark when we left and very cool. Glad that we hadn’t camped out the night before! We joined the convoy of vehicles with bikes on the back and headed over to the start area. There was a long queue of vehicles parking in the dark field and by the light of dawn unloaded my gear.
The preparation for a half-ironman consisted of not only training, but also sorting out a nutrition plan. With upwards of 6 hours (or more) of racing, it is necessary to ensure sufficient intake of food otherwise one will “bonk” and run out of fuel. We had combinations of energy gels (I needed 200 calories/h) and sports drinks. With races over 2 h it is also necessary to have some protein and, since it was to be a hot day, electrolytes and salts are important.
I parked my bike in the transition area and laid out my gear carefully. I learned from my previous races to double check everything to ensure a smooth transition (for example, ensure the laces on the shoes are completely open, socks and gloves turned the right way around, glasses placed so that they can be put on before the helmet, etc.
It was interesting to see the different bicycles since that helps you to determine the seriousness of the competitor. Newbies used basic 10 speed road bikes – and even mountain bikes – while serious (or rich) people have bikes that cost several times what I paid for my first car.
The swim was in Lums Pond which was about half a mile down a trail from the transition area. This meant that we had a moderate run after the swim before we got to the transition area. I decided to wear my sandals for the run as the path was quite rough in places so I carefully placed these near the water exit where I could easily find them.
Waiting for the swim start, Lis and I met Taneen from my running club, who was also competing. There was quite a crowd with 478 competitors and their supporters. They started us off in waves and we (the 40+ crowd) were in the fourth wave. The competitors walked into the pond and formed a group about 30 yards from the shore from where they started. The floor of the pond was very soft and I sunk up to my knee. Unfortunately, there was a large rock at the bottom of the mud so I got a bad cut in my foot (which was to take about a month to fully heal). Bother. A bad way to start a hard race.
Just before we started one of the competitors called out “OK guys. Let’s go out and show the young ones what triathlons are all about”. We laughed but there was a grain of truth to it; the 40-49 group is probably the most competitive. I was in one race where I came in the middle of my age group, in a time that would have won the 30-39 age group! My theory behind this is: (i) we are not so old that we have begun to seriously degenerate; (ii) we have more disposable income than the younger ones so can buy better gear; (iii) our families are older/careers more established so have more time for training; and, probably most importantly, (iv) there is a male ego issue.
The time came and we were off. Since completing my ‘Total Immersion’ swim training course I have new confidence in swimming. No longer am I at the back of the pack, and I actually pass some people now! The water was very dirty and one couldn’t see more than about 2 feet. It hadn’t helped matters that several hundred people had churned things up before me. Fortunately, the course was marked by large orange buoys and so I just made a relatively direct line towards them.
Most people don’t know that triathlons, or at least the swim portion, are a contact sport. It is really aggressive out there and you have people elbowing you, kicking you, but at the same time you also give as good as you get. There is an excellent video which shows this (and it really is like in this video) that can be seen by clicking here. When I was a good way towards the turn around point I started getting passed by the next wave, but I didn’t mind as I knew I was doing well (for me). Before Total Immersion I would have been passed in the first 200 yards!
The biggest problem I had was swimming in a semi-straight line. On the way back the rising sun was in my eyes so it was even more difficult, but I eventually made it back to shore and was up out of the water. A great side effect of my new ‘Total Immersion’ swim technique is the way in which my legs are much stronger when I exit the water. I felt really good and had an excellent time for me.
I found my sandals and ran through the woods towards the transition area. In a few of the worst spots they had put down matting, but there were quite a few areas where the path was quite rough — at least for a wuss like me with delicate feet!
As you can see from the photo to the left, I partially divested myself of my wetsuit so that I could remove it quickly in the transition area. I’ve learned a few things since my first race – like don’t remove your goggles and cap until after you have unzipped your wetsuit. The latter is difficult to do with something in your hand!
In the transition area I found my bike and was very happy to see that I was about in the middle of the pack (258/478). Soon I was on my bike, which is my favourite event, and heading out.
As I exited the park area onto the road, I saw a line of riders going in the other direction in a line spaced at the requisite three bike lengths between each other. They were moving at a very fast pace and were obviously the race leaders, or they should have been.
The ride took us through some lovely country side, but was quite windy in places. The roads were good but there were still the inevitable punctures. The organizers had a repair vehicle driving up and down the route so if necessary help would come by at some stage, but there can nothing more demoralizing than puncturing during a race and losing 3-5 minutes while you change a tyre.
There was a fellow who was moving at the same speed as I was and we passed quite a few cyclists. In fact, we rode together for almost the entire ride, but were careful not to draft each other. If you violate the 3 bike length rule the race officials will have you stop, get off your bike and stand for a certain time as a penalty.
The course was generally flat, but the wind still made the work a bit difficult. We had to cross a very large bridge which was the only major grade on the course. I don’t mind hills, thanks to my Tuesday night hill ride with the cycling club in D.C., so I used the opportunity to pass a few people. The expansion joints on the bridge were a bit of a worry as I descended quite quickly, but fortunately I didn’t puncture or bend a wheel. On the return leg I noticed a rider with a ‘Tricats’ (my triathlon club) water bottle. I admonished her for not having a tail on her bike (we have these ‘tiger tails’ that many of us put on our bikes).
The ride was soon over and it had gone well (88/478). Time for transitioning to the run. My triathlon camp had taught me a few good techniques, like removing my feet from the shoes while on the bike so I could immediately slip on my running shoes. I also had put toggles onto my laces which meant that there was nothing to tie. Yes, it’s fanatical to worry about a few seconds here and there, but after all, it is a race.
By this time it was warming up big time. The run took us back out of the park and then down adjacent to a canal. Much of the run was on gravel, which is not nice, but the heat was particularly difficult. I’m better than most in the heat — a good thing considering how much time I spend in the tropics — but even I found it hard going. Afterwards, Taneen told me that she had cramped because of the heat and not enough electrolytes. Easy to believe.
The run was a half marathon (just over 13 miles) and my plan was to do it at about a 7:45 min/mile pace. At the turnaround I was on schedule with 7:37 min/mile, a little fast but not surprising as in a race one has to constantly hold back on the throttle not to over-extend. I dialed back the speed for the next few miles to conserve energy. I always have a strong finish so my plan was to up the pace two miles from the end and then go flat out (Zone 5) for the last mile.
I followed my plan an upped the pace and then went absolutely flat out for the last mile. When I reached the mile post I realized that I had made a huge mistake; instead of starting at mile 11 I had started at mile 10! For some idiotic reason I had thought there was only 12 miles to run, not 13+.
By this time I had done about 69 miles under my own steam. The last sprint had taken most of what I had left out of me so I jogged a bit and then did my best to make it to the finish line. Just to add insult to injury, it was mainly uphill. Ho hum. I eventually made it to the park and was smoked by a woman who passed me like a jackrabbit. At least she also passed a few others! I made it to the line and that was it. My final run time was 8:10 min/mile, which shows how badly I did on the last half. As it was, I was 86/478 in the run so I actually did better than my bike segment. However, even with that it is a race run that I will always remember! Especially that a half-marathon is 13+, not 12+!
Lis was there and I parked myelf on the ground to catch my breath. After a few minutes I recovered and it was fun to see the others finishing. My final time was 5:09:50. I finished 99/478, 16/38 in my 45-49 age group. That is a sign of how competive it is; I was in the top 20% of the race, but only the top 40% in my age group! My splits were:
- Swim: 40:03 (2:05/100 metres)
- T1: 4:32
- Bike: 2:36:50 (34.5 km/h)
- T2: 1:36
- Run: 1:46:51 (5:02 min/km)
- Total: 5:08:38 – 99/478
In spite of the mistake in my run, I was very pleased with my race. I was aiming for less than 6 h, and to approach 5 h was better than I had hoped. The problem now is that I need to return next year and do it below 5 h!
These half-ironman races are very challenging, but I think one could only do a few each year without causing excessive damage to the body. In fact my coach Margie doesn’t do them at all, prefering the shorter Olympic distances.
It was then time to pack up the gear and head home, as less than 24 h later I was off to China. It was for business, but I took my bicycle since I was inaugurating an expressway with a 150 mile ride. But that’s another story.