World’s Toughest Half – The 3rd Act

Looks like it’s going to be a gorgeous Friday, and an even better Memorial Day! I hope you have BBQ plans, pool plans, friend plans, nap plans, and hopefully some exercise plans.

I recently wrapped up my 3rd World’s Toughest Half in Auburn, CA, quite realistically named for being one of the most brutal (if not the most brutal) 70.3ish races in the world. Anytime a race has “are you tough enough?” as a mantra, you know you’re in for a massive beating…

The long-course races consist of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike, and a 13.1 mile run. For this particular race, none of those distances were accurate and adhered to a more “close enough” approach. When racing something this long, nutrition and hydration become a lot more important, and require special considerations the day before and day of. Lots of electrolyte drinks, including extra Skratch labs, the day before, as well as all the pretzels I felt like stuffing into my mouth. Morning-of breakfast consisted of yogurt, a banana, three fried eggs, and 2 cups of white rice. I was feeling good, excited, and had the appropriate amount of pre-race anxiety! It was go time, and was going to be a great race because I have been absolutely hammering my bike and run training (thank you TrainerRoad).

There’s a nice seven mile bike ride down to T1 to begin the day, and in the cool, crisp air of the morning, it was refreshing and invigorating. Transition was a bustle of triathlon noobs and seasoned veterans, so I quickly racked my gear, and headed for the water. I try to avoid all the anxiety that can be felt in the bike racks. The race has a deep-water start, meaning you’re all floating out in the lake instead of charging from the shore. The buzzer sounded and we were off! My goal for the race this year was to stay smooth and reserve energy until the last 30% of each of the three events, hopefully leaving some gas in the tank for a huge kick. Last year I struggled on the run, and posted a sad (and very painful) 9:30/mile half marathon. This year was time for revenge!

I slid out of the main pack of swimmers and quickly snuck in between the two lead athletes that I spent much of the race with. As we approached halfway, a boat grabbed one of the buoys and yanked it 50 yards opposite the direction we were heading.  Didn’t affect me as much as it could have, I adjusted on the fly to our now moving target, but I gained 10-15 seconds on the other two who weren’t sighting as cleanly. We wrapped the remaining part of the swim in good form, and I came out of the water in second. Transition was kind of a mess, and I got my leg stuck in my wetsuit for a frustrating 30 seconds, but then it was off to the bike, a hill-filled climbing adventure of doom and destruction!

The course starts with a multi-mile climb up and out of a canyon, and has some steep freaking hills; conserving energy is critical! I worked hardest on my mental game, focusing on nutrition, breathing, and saving gas for the last 20 miles of the race when I would be steaming back into town. Trying to remain light with high cadence on your pedals isn’t easy, especially when you feel like you’re scraping your body up a hill, but the dividends paid wonders later in the race. We finally escaped the initial climb out of the ravine and headed north out of Auburn proper, where the rolling hills began. It was climb followed by descent, miles and miles of grind and coast, grind and coast. At one particularly unpleasant intersection, many racers were accidentally sent the wrong direction by race volunteers and CHP – a definite obstacle  – but one which quickly passed despite the additional miles and frustrations.

I settled in as we approached the steep uphill grind that would make or break everyone’s stores energy later on the run. I cruised through the hill in fine form, with the help of my chocolate waffles, and headed back to town feeling great that the worst was behind me. I drained the remainder of my Skratch electrolytes, tried to keep the legs pumping and energetic, and came screaming back into T2. A quick shoe change, spray of sunscreen, and the world’s fastest porta potty stop and it was on to the half marathon.

Click to expand.

I have always struggled with my momentum heading off a long bike ride and transitioning into a run longer than an hour. I normally take off like a bat out of hell, but this time I promised my wife and myself that I would conserve the energy. There is a monster, one mile climb at mile 5.5, plus two more climbs between miles 8 and 11, so I needed all the energy I could find. My focus was lasered in on breathing, keeping myself cool with water and ice, and trying to keep my breathing and cadence in a range where it landed light and quick. The weapon of choice for the run were my Altra Paradigm’s, a pillowy, long-distance shoe that had recently delivered a PR on a road half marathon just a few weeks prior. I passed a few competitors who burned themselves out on the bike, and I felt strong for the first 5.5 miles. I hit the huge hill with all I had, alternating walk and run, and floated right up to the top. Obviously, it hurt like crap, and my legs were on fire, but I was staying light on my toes and making good time. I cleared the top and took off! I was more than 50% of the way done, and it was time to empty the tank and RACE!

The leader was way out ahead of me, but I did cross paths with the second place athlete and exchanged a quick hello. There are a few out-and-backs over the course, which is a great time to check on your competition and get your head back in the game. The sound of AC/DC at an aid station at the top of another bump in the road made my day, and felt almost as great as the icy sponges I was wedging into my kit. The run was coming to a close, and I was still cruising strong but I could feel my mental game fading fast, along with the dissipating shade. The heat was approaching 90 degrees and we had been outside five hours already… it was time to be DONE. I managed to drag my dead legs up the final hill and crossed the line in some form or fashion that represented a mix of joy and utter exhaustion, and one of the quickest runs of the day. I placed 3rd overall, and 1st in age group, one of the greatest successes of my race career! Even though I had a slightly slower course time than two years ago in much cooler weather, (being misdirected and the heat attributed to the slowness), I was still stoked! I kept my energy in check for the entire race, controlled everything that was in my power to do so, and finished with a smile. It was a day of beautiful racing in an area of gorgeous creation, and it all finished with a bang.

For all the gory details, here’s the link to my Garmin GPS map, which was logging everything for the entire 5 hours and 33 minutes. A huge thanks to my wife, and my Sierra Endurance Sports teammates. Almost time for IRONMAN Santa Rosa!

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