Racing Ironman St. George

Racing Ironman St. George

Chris Carmichael wrote an article in December of last year for the IronMan web site in which he suggested that taking on a tough “challenging” course increases the chances of qualifying for Kona as it might keep some of the competition away.

If you think about it carefully there is really no such thing as an easy IronMan. If you put out your best effort on the day it does not matter if it is flat like Florida or almost constant hills like St George. Florida is simply faster. Both are hard.

The challenge of St George is pacing. Again that is not any different from any other long endurance race but a mistake in St George has more serious consequences. When you go up the third long climb on the run (out of 4) and went too hard on the bike, your race will end in a very bad day.

Besides the hills the course is a little different than most IM courses. T1 and T2 are about 20 miles apart. The swim is in a spectacular lake to the East of the town near the boundry of Zion National Part. The bike course takes you back towards town skirting it’s northern edge. At that point you start a two-loop route with a short leg at the end into the center of the city and T2. The run is an out and back twice, up long and in places steep hills.

Looking at the bike course profile you are immediately drawn to the long bike climb from about mile 30 and the 8/10 of a mile “Wall”, which you climb twice. If that is all you focus on it’s a mistake. You have already climbed almost 2,000ft when you get to the start of the two loops. One of the longest steady climbs of over 4-9% is in those first 30 miles. There is only another 3,000 ft to go to the top of the long climb and it is a series of mostly shorter uphill segments, false flats and some descents. Then it’s 3,000ft of almost constant downhill before starting the second loop/climb. I

Training for a course like that especially with the event in early May ads more challenges if you live in a cold part of the country. Living up against the Rockies helps and so does a Computrainer. (Disclosure: I do contract work for the makers of the Computrainer, RaceMate). Racermate has made a Real Course Video for St George (before the inaugural event last year. When I worked the expo last year the constant feedback from visitors to the booth was how invaluable the Computrainer (and video course for St George) was.

The Computrainer gives you an intimate visual knowledge of the hills length and grade and an opportunity to fine tune pacing such that you can ride fast for the conditions but not so hard that running hills becomes a nightmare. It also allows you to determine gearing so that you can make it up the Wall (12% grade) without living out of the saddle and a big enough gear to get going fast back to town (an 11-26 in my case with a 50-34 Chainrings).

Speaking of gearing getting this right is extremely important in any IM. Thinking that you can ride the same gears on say Florida and St George is a big mistake. Even less different courses need different gearing. Going cheep and not having more than one cassette is silly when you consider the money you spend on everything else that it took to get to get to and compete in an IronMan. Based on watching athletes coming up the Wall last year I would say that one in three had the wrong gears.

So the plan for this race should be let people pass you on the hills in the early part of the race, they will be back. As you crest the hills accelerate quickly but not up at Threshold Power. When I did this I was being passed with lots of heavy breathing and then flying by the many of the same people as they recovered at the top. To use Cycling terminology, you should not be burning many matches in an IM and certainly not in the first 56 miles.

As you head out of town into the spectacular hills surrounding the town of Shivwit and the Gunlock Res the effort up the stairs should be the same. There are two hills that look a bit daunting at mile 36 and another shortly after that. Neither are too long to get your HR racing unless you are pushing your power too high. On this first loop let the uninformed hammer past you.

The Wall arrives at about mile 42. With the right gears most athletes (who have trained for an IM) should be able to get up the hill in the saddle. That’s not to say you should do that. Smaller athletes will probably be more comfortable switching back and forth. I stayed seated until the grade got over 8% and then did a few turns out of the saddle for 15-30 sec to stretch the legs. Let the speed demons go.

The Wall is also not the end of the hills. You might think so looking at the profile but there is enough left such that if you hit the Wall too hard you are going to loose a lot of time to the true top of the climb.

The descent is fast, very fast. It can also get windy. This year is was largely a head wind that got stronger as the day progressed. Anyone coming from sea level will be in for a surprise at the speed you can reach. I came close to 50mph for the first time in my life. You are almost a mile high at the top of the climb. The air is also dry and wind resistance is significantly lower than at sea level. Getting confident in riding the aerobars in strong winds, especially crosswinds, is worth going outside on days when you would rather not. Keeping to body low in cross winds lowers your center of mass closer to the ground and makes handling easier, it also makes you faster.
Loop two of the bike is the more of the same on what should be nicely warmed up legs. If you have done things right you will doing the bulk of the passing at this point. The ride down to T2 is a great time to top off the fuel tank but don’t forget about the wind. It can get strong enough were you do not want to reach for anything. So make sure you top off your aero fluid bottle before the descent.

At T2 (at least this year) run bags were out on the ground getting nice and hot in the almost 90 deg sun. Don’t count on having drinkable energy drinks in your bag (freezing mine worked this year, just). I walked fast thru T2 this time with the idea that it would help get me used to being vertical, it seemed to work.

The first 400 yards of the run is about the only flat section in 26.2 miles. Then the climbing starts. At first it is gentle but gradually over the first 2.5 miles the grade goes up until it is close to 10% for a short distance approaching mile 3. It’s a slow go but in some ways easier than the sharp downhill out of T2 in Lake Placid (a quad buster). Don’t worry there is lots of downhill stuff to take care of your quads to come.

After mile three you realize you have climbed a lot when you look over your shoulder down to the finish line. My guess is that in some years when the wind is blowing in the right direction you will hear Mike Riley at mile 3, 9, 18 and 23 (assuming you are not up there with the Pro’s). The road rolls a bit along the ridge looking down on the town for a bit and then descends to the turnaround, with a short climb in a loop off to the left on the way.

At the turnaround you probably will start to wonder how your quads will hold up. It is perhaps more important to train to go down hills in this race than to go up. If there is something to making a hilly course harder than a flat one this is it. And, if you have not included some long and steep hills in your training it will not be an easy afternoon, evening and night.

Aide stations can provide more than just nourishment and the ones in St George were especially good. My favorite was Kona Themed. It was Great motivation at the top of the hill. While the hills can be intimidating the course does not wander off into oblivion as some do. Support is great all along the route. You never need to feel alone in St George.

For my race this year when I got to the turnaround I was feeling very good, considering. I was sticking to my plan to walk thru the aide stations (30-45 sec) and fuel up. I had also planned to walk for 15-30 sec about mid way between aide stations. I adopted this plan with the knowledge that there was no way I would not be walking some of the course (never a doubt in my mind in any IM). I quickly dropped the idea of the shorter walks in exchange for walking up, and down the few short but steepest grades. This worked well in the mental game as I never felt the course was beating me.

When you get to the first turnaround you have seen what you are up against for almost the rest of the run. It’s not the same running back to the excitement of the finish line as the biggest grades are up on the way out and down on the way back. The 10% part that was at mile 2.5, now around mile 10 is very rough on the quads. If there is one place were I would recommend a walk that is it. The rest of the way back to the center of town are moderate grade were you can get the average pace back up a bit. With one exception, a very short out and back at mile 11 (and 24) up and down some more nice grades.

Loop two is going to be harder than one but now when you look back to town from the ridge you know you will make it. This year when I was up there the temperature was 90 deg. Last year it was in the 70’s. The water this year was a comfortable 63, last year it was a bone chilling 55. On Monday when we drove home to Colorado it was snowing at 6,000ft. The message, expect anything at this race. I think I would prefer the heat to what could have been the cold.

In April I lost a Kona slot by one second in the 70.3 race in Oceanside. By the time I got to the last turnaround at mile 19 I was reasonably certain I was in the lead. As I came down the sort hill (walking) on the out and back at mile 24 I thought I had company coming up the hill on the other side of the street. There was no way this was going to be a repeat. I stopped walking and learned something new about myself. There is always a bit more in the tank if you dig deep. I have never covered the last two miles of any marathon so fast.

I will be able to compare what is now being called the toughest IM course in NA and perhaps the world with Kona. Having been in Kona before I think the wind, heat and humidity will win but it will be close.

Simon Butterworth has been competing in Triathlons for over 20 years. He qualified and finished in Kona for the first time 10 years ago. Recently his 8 Kona Finish line resulted in a best place finish of 6th in his AG. He is planning on making 2011 even better.

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