Running on Empty
Richmond Rox Olympic Distance Triathlon
6/14 AG 92/244Overall
September 21, 2014 – The culmination of my first triathlon season was the Richmond Rox Olympic distance triathlon. The name stems from the fact that the race is the same distance as the triathlon in the Olympic Games, which is 51.50 kilometers. Alternative names are the “international distance,” and the “5150” for Ironman brand races of the same distance. Most people, however, simply refer to it as the Olympic distance.
This race was going to be quite a step up from my two prior triathlons, which were both sprint distance races. The Olympic distance triathlon features a 1500 meter swim, a 40k (25 mile) bike and then a 10k run. My two prior races were completed in approximately 1 hour 15 minutes and 1 hour 30 minutes respectively, and my goal for the Richmond Rox triathlon was sub 3 hours. In addition, my longest triathlon swim was only 650 meters in the Tavern Triathlon, but that was all down river with the current. The swim at Richmond Rox was upriver and downriver, so there could be no faking it by floating along with the current. Slow down enough on the upriver portion, and you’d be carried backwards.
On race morning I was up at 4:00 a.m. to have my obligatory bowl of oatmeal and my cup of coffee. Just enough nutrition to get some calories and caffeine in my body without weighing me down. I had checked and rechecked my gear the night before, so it was simply a matter of grabbing a quick shower and hopping in the car to head down to Rockett’s Landing.
It was still dark when I arrived at the race site, and it was slightly cool. By the time that I walked my bike down to the transition area and set up, however, the sun was beginning to rise. Rockett’s Landing has a fantastic view of the Richmond skyline a mile or so away, and I took it in a few times to try to relax. As always, my nervous bladder sent me to the porta-potties more than once. I’m not the only one who has that problem, based upon the fact that the porta-potties seemed to have a higher athlete density than the transition area.
Leigh Anne, the kids and my mom were my spectators, and arrived about thirty minutes before my start time. The half-iron race participants were beginning their swim prior to the Olympic distance folks, and we watched them take off and head up river. Soon enough, however, it was time for the Olympic race to start, so I said my goodbyes and headed towards the dock.
Swim- 33:02 (2:12/100 m)
Unfortunately, I did not yet have a wetsuit and the race was wetsuit legal based upon the water temperature. The water temperature was nearly perfect, so the lack of a wetsuit was not all bad. Still, wetsuits make for faster swims, so I made a mental note to acquire one in the offseason.
The swim was a wave start, and I was in the second wave to take off. Prior to the starting horn, the swimmers were required to jump into the river from a dock, and we had to swim forward a bit to keep from being swept backwards by the current. The current was not terribly strong, but the first half of the swim was upriver, and the going would be slower than normal for me. Once the horn sounded, I did my best to swim away from the mass of swimmers so that I would not get kicked or have my goggles knocked off. I also headed towards the left bank of the river, hoping that the current would be less severe near the shore.
The first half of the swim was relatively uneventful (other than turning left a bit too much), and I soon neared Gull Rock, which marked the turn around point. As I rounded the rock, something odd occurred – my hands began hitting the bottom of the river. In fact, the area around Gull Rock was only a couple of feet deep, and I considered crawling since I really could not swim. Instead, I pushed myself farther away from the rock, and soon enough, I was in deeper water.
Once I made the turn, the current was with me and I continued to sight the smokestack at Rockett’s Landing to stay on course. On the way back I stayed more in the center of the river to take advantage of the current. The only issue that I had coming back in was the inadvertent intake of a leaf into my mouth. That led to a 10-15 second coughing fit, but soon enough, I was on my way again.
The dock marking the swim exit soon became visible, and I tried to increase my stroke turnover, knowing that I would soon be done. The last 100 meters or so went by quickly, and then I was climbing the ladder out of the water. The inevitable dizziness of standing quickly after swimming hit me once I got upright, but I was ready for it this time and never really lost my balance.
My overall time for the 1500 meter swim was 33:02, which was in the ballpark of what I was expecting.
T1 involved a long run from the water up to the main transition area. I would estimate several hundred yards, which led to a 3:00 transition time. Once I found my bike, I put on my socks and shoes, and then threw on my sunglasses and helmet. It was then a short run to the “bike out” area, accompanied by the click clack of my cycling cleats. I hopped onto Blue after crossing the mounting lines, and had no issues clicking in and taking off.
Bike – 1:18:29 (19.02 mph)
Having never completed an Olympic distance triathlon before, I was not sure how my body would react to running a 10k after a 25 mile bike. Thus, I did not want to overcook myself on the bike, so I was definitely trying to pace myself, particularly early on. Based upon my training rides, I knew that I had the ability to hold 19.7 mph for 25 miles, and my training takes place on relatively hilly courses. The Richmond Rox course was not quite as hilly as the normal courses that I ride, so I was hoping to average 19.4 – 19.5 mph, leaving some juice in the tank for the run.
I had one water bottle with me on the bike, and there was a single aid station just past the turnaround point. Unfortunately, my bottle was filled with water instead of Gatorade, and I neglected to bring any nutrition with me. I had not had any nutrition during my two prior sprint distance races, and I wrongly assumed that I could get by without nutrition during an Olympic distance triathlon. So, off I went on the bike, having consumed no calories since my breakfast of oatmeal and coffee around 4:15 a.m.
The first two miles of the bike course were largely uphill, as you gain approximately 140 feet of elevation while heading south on Route 5 out of Rockett’s Landing. Its then mostly flat or downhill until mile 9.5. I took it easy in first two uphill miles, and then began to push it a little harder once the course flattened out. There were a lot of other bikers around early on, and I did my best to avoid incurring any drafting penalties by keeping my distance from them or by passing them quickly. Things got a bit more spaced out after the first 20 minutes or so, but there were generally several people in sight at any given time during the first half of the bike.
There was a big drop off as I crossed over I-895, and I remember thinking that I was not going to be happy when I came back in the other direction. Immediately following the drop off, the course went back uphill, and then was fairly flat through the turn around.
Once I hit the turn around cone, the one and only aid station was a few hundred yards off. I still had about 40% of my water bottle left, and I naively bypassed the station, thinking that it would just slow me down. I could have just slowed down for a few seconds to grab a bottle of Gatorade, but I had made up my mind that those few seconds would be costly and difficult to make up later. That was a rookie mistake and a bad idea.
The second half of the course backtracked over most of the first half, but a few portions were different. In particular, we crossed back over I-895 in a different spot, but there was still quite an incline to go up. The incline was not quite as steep as the prior descent, but it was a longer grade. At the time, the uphill climb looked as though it would never end, but in fact, it only went on for about two miles. By far, the hardest portion of that climb was at the I-895 crossover, and then it was about a 1.7 mile long stretch of incline. To make matters worse, there was a slight headwind, and I really began to start feeling tired. That 1.7 mile stretch felt much longer than it actually was, but I finally reached the crest of the hill.
From the top of the crest, the course flattened out a bit, and I knew that it was only a short distance before I descended back down towards the river at Rockett’s Landing. I was feeling OK at that point, and the last few miles passed fairly quickly. I rested my legs a bit by coasting towards dismount point, and I dismounted without any difficulty.
T2 was uneventful, and I saw my family cheering for me as I ran my bike back to the rack. Off came the bike helmet and shoes, and on went my running shoes and my race belt with my bib number. My legs felt as though they belonged to someone else at that point, but I had begun to get used to that sensation by practicing bike to run transitions. As I hit the run exit of the transition area I reset my watch to monitor my run pace, and off I went for the final 10k of the race.
Run- 52:48 (8:31 min/mile)
I am not a big fan of the run course, but to be fair, I did not know that at the time, having never run it before. The first mile is fairly flat along the river, and then the next two miles to the turnaround point are pretty much all uphill past Legends Brewery. It is tough to gauge your pace when you first transition off of the bike (particularly without a GPS), whereas your legs feel a bit numb. My stretch goal for the 10k run was 50 minutes, which equates to an 8 minute/mile pace. I really had no training basis for that goal, so I didn’t know if it was possible, but I was going to give it a try anyways.
I was still feeling decent leaving T2, and I set my internal pace to 8 minutes/mile. The first time that I’d be able to check my pace would be at the 1 mile marker, which was on Dock Street on the flat portion of the course. When I got there my watch read 7:05, and I was really hoping that the mile marker was off. Otherwise, I knew that I had really overextended myself on the first mile of the 6.2 mile run. I decided to dial it back a bit, and soon I was crossing the river to the south side.
From the south side of the 14th Street Bridge to the turnaround point, it is pretty much a constant upgrade until you take a right onto 12th Street just before the half way point. The grade is never super steep, but its constant and feels like it will never end. That feeling is compounded by the long lines of sight that show nothing but climb. The mile and a half climb was a soul crusher for me, and my lack of nutrition was really beginning to hit me at that point. I knew that my pace was slipping, but I still had the hope that I could make it up by hammering back down the hill on the way back in.
When I finally hit the turnaround cone, my run time was around 26 minutes, so 50 minutes was still within my reach due to the downhill portion on the back half. I did pick up my pace as I headed down towards the river, but I still couldn’t seem to get moving as quickly as I should have been able on the downgrade. Once I got back to the river and the flat part of the course, I no longer had gravity assisting me…and that’s when the wheels started coming off.
I was nearly back on my 8 minute/mile pace 5 miles into the run, but as I headed back down Dock Street towards Rockett’s Landing everything began shutting down. I had an overwhelming urge to slow down, and then an overwhelming urge to walk. Even though I had less than 1 mile to go, I was literally running on empty, having depleted my glycogen stores. By that point, I had been racing for the better part of three hours at a high intensity, and I had failed to take in ANY calories, solid or liquid. Big mistake.
My body was telling me to stop, and sadly, I was forced to comply – mostly. I didn’t stop, but I did walk for about 10 seconds. Another competitor passed me and urged me on, and I began to run again. About a quarter mile later, however, there was another 10-15 second walk break…and then another. Three walking breaks in the last mile of a 10k run! I thought that I was mentally tough, but my body was talking louder than my brain and I simply couldn’t push through the urge to walk.
When I was about a 1/3 of a mile from the finish line, I decided to finish strong, and ran in from there. The end of the course goes through an old building, and the finish line is not visible until you emerge from the other side. When I finally saw the finish line I kicked it into high gear and sprinted the last 100 yards. After crossing the finish line I resisted the urge to collapse, and managed to get my medal and walk out of the finishing chute. My run pace was 8:31/mile instead of my 8/mile minute goal, but that probably wasn’t too bad considering my final mile bonk.
After my first two triathlons, I had a brief recovery period and was then able to hit up the post-race food. This time, however, I felt bad. Really bad. The kids tackled the bounce house, but I sat in a folding chair under the food tent nursing a 24 ounce Gatorade. Once I got the Gatorade down I began to feel a bit better, but the recovery period was slow.
In a full Iron distance triathlon (140.6 miles), they say that nutrition failures are measured in hours, not minutes. Thankfully, my nutrition failure came in a triathlon of less than a quarter of that distance, so I only lost minutes. Still, I managed to finish in 2:48:56, which was more than 11 minutes faster than my goal. My run time suffered, but I learned a valuable lesson in the “4th discipline” of triathlon – nutrition. That lesson would serve me well in 2015, as I planned to tackle the half-Iron distance of 70.3 miles. I was already signed up for the Raleigh Ironman 70.3 race, and a winter of training was awaiting me.