Thursday, June 14, 2012

HITS Marble Falls Triathlon - same but different

I participated in the HITS Marble Falls Triathlon back on April 29th. This was a half iron distance triathlon, which is the same as the Ironman Texas 70.3 Triathlon that I did back on April 1st. So, it was essentially the same basic type of race with the same distances; but in many ways it was completely different...

To start with, it was a much, much smaller race - just under 100 total people for the half iron distance (and less than 20 that did the full iron distance); compared to the nearly 2500 participants for Ironman Texas 70.3. The venue was also very different... Marble Falls is in the Texas Hill Country, with remote county chip seal roads and lots of rolling hills (including a couple of fairly big ones). TX 70.3 was at Galveston Island on the coast along the beachfront - smoother roads and flat as a pancake. Additionally, the HITS triathlon is a fairly low key event with relatively few spectators; while the IM TX 70.3 is an official WTC Ironman-branded event with all the associated hoopla and thousands of spectators. So, a very different race in those respects... but still the same 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run!

Race Summary
Here's the short version for the ADD crowd: It was a tough day with hot, humid, and windy weather; and a very hilly bike and run course. Even though I came into the race feeling just as prepared and strong (if not more so) than Galveston, I finished about 17 minutes slower. With the small number of participants, that was good for 7th place overall, and I won my age group... sorta kinda... You might want to read the part at the end about the strange/unusual way that HITS handles age groups and awards : )

Now on to the full blown race detail...

Pre-Race/Race Morning
Since it is just about an hour drive from my home, I had previously confirmed with the event staff that it would be OK to show up Sunday morning to pick up my race packet and check in my bike (one of the nice perks of smaller races). As soon as I arrived, I was impressed with the staff and volunteers - they were all very friendly and helpful. I was able to quickly check-in, got my race numbers and chip, and headed over to the transition area. The HITS folks have a new and different type of transition area setup, and I must say that I really liked it a lot! It is such a smarter way to do things compared to the typical metal poles you hang your bike from. They actually have a wooden structure on the ground that forms a box for each athlete to put their stuff into, and two grooves cut into the box where your wheel fits to hold your bicycle. That has two nice advantages over the traditional set up: 1) The bike is fully on the ground and much more stable, and 2) The boxed off gear area allows you to set up your bike and run items without fear of having them kicked around or blown away. They even provide a stool for you to sit on! Here's a picture where you can see the stool and the boxed storage area:




While I was getting things organized in transition, I ran across my good friends Kat and Justin. They have been part of our local triathlon community for years, and both have very fun and positive personalities. Kat was there to cheer on Justin, who was also doing the half iron distance. It was nice to see some friendly faces. Here's Justin and I just before the race start:



There wasn't much else going on before the race, so once we were set up and ready to go, we just made our way down to the water. A little warmup swim, and it was time to start the race...

Swim
With just over 100 total competitors, everyone started at the same time, including the athletes that were racing the half. Plenty of room, and the course was well-marked, so a fairly stress-free swim. Time ended up being very close to my time at IM TX 70.3, about 35 minutes. Kat was able to spot me coming out of the water and grab this video:

video


T1
I had been told that there would not be wetsuit peelers, but there were! Yay : )  That helped make for a quick transition, and I also liked how easy it was to pull the bike out from the slots in my transition box and get going (no clutter of stuff to worry about, either). As I headed out of transition, I saw Justin starting his bike just ahead of me. Hey, wait for me! : )

Bike
Here's a short video clip of me heading out to start the bike (thanks again Kat!).




video

Once the bike course gets away from the lake, we had to cross the main highway that goes through Marble Falls (Hwy 281). There was a fair amount of traffic to cross, and a short section of the highway to ride on before we made our turn onto the country roads, but the police were doing a good job to get us through.

It was cloudy and overcast, which was good; but also VERY windy, which was not so good. And the first 10 miles were mostly rolling hills and an upward elevation trend, so I knew right away that today was not going to be a terribly fast day. The exception to the upward trend was a VERY BIG hill that we went down around 4-5 miles from the start... Hmmm... didn't that mean we'd be going UP that hill at the end of the bike?!

As we got further away from the city into the back county roads, the roads also got a little worse, but nothing too terrible (not if you're used to Texas chip seal roads...). The turns and intersections were very well marked - big white signs with black arrows pointing you in the right direction. There weren't always people around, though, at least not people that were visible. That, combined the small field of participants, made for one of those rides where it was mainly just you and your own thoughts. I did see Justin once in while, usually when we'd hit a long straightaway and I could see him up ahead in the distance.

Even the aid stations were very quiet, usually it was just one guy out there handing out water bottles. There were supposed to be sports drinks, bananas, gels, etc.; but all I remember seeing or being called out was water. I did not actually stop, so maybe there was more there... but it didn't seem like it to me. I hope nobody was counting on that for their nutrition!

I ended up catching up with Justin around mile 22 of the bike course. It's too bad that on a wide open course like that you are still not allowed to ride near each other, even side by side; as it would have been nice to just chat for a few minutes... It's a long day : )  I did say hello and ask him how he was doing, and we wished each other luck. Shortly after that we came up to a pretty tough, steep hill; which Justin tackled with a bit more vigor than I did, so he was up ahead of me again after that.

I reached the turnaround at the 28 mile point, and caught up with Justin again. This time I ended up passing him and moving a little ahead. Guess it was my turn to be the rabbit : )  Right after that we hit a great section of road that seemed to be smoother and had a dowhill elevation, and we had the wind at our back! Didn't last long enough, but it was nice for a while. That section ended in a small city (Burnet) where we went through a neighborhood with a number of cross streets, but nobody around to help look out for or direct traffic; which made me a bit nervous. I made it through that area fine, though, and headed back on the same roads that I had started on. That meant it was time for the Revenge of the Big Hill. Yes, that hill that we had flown down at the beginning was now coming back to give us something to work on before we could finish the bike. And oh, by the way, the run course also came out on that same road... so, hey - I'll be seeing you soon!

I got back into town and finished off the last few miles of the bike. As expected, a fairly slow bike course; coming in just under 3 hours. And now it was very hot, and it was time to run 13.1 miles :  )

T2
I slid my bike into it's slot in the transition bikes, pulled on my running shoes, grabbed the visor and race belt, and it was off to the final leg.

Run
Here's another video clip, this time of me starting the run and trying to get my race belt on... The tall guy in red that you see as I go by is another friend of mine, Jamie Carlile. He was training for Ironman Texas (a FULL distance IM), and was out for a 100 mile bike ride that he routed thru Marble Falls so he could see Justin and I race. BTW: Jamie did complete IM Texas and is now officially an IRONMAN - way to go Jamie!.


video



As best as I could tell, I was around 10th overall as I started the run; assuming that I had counted returning bikes correctly. The sun was out in full force, so it was very hot, and I knew I had a hilly run course in front of me. Right off the bat, there is that slow uphill climb leading away from the lake, which is a little tough on the legs after a hard bike ride. I did settle into a rhythm, though, and concentrated on knocking off one mile at a time. The aid stations were spread out a little further than the 1 mile spacing that I'm used to, so I made sure to take advantage of each one; getting plenty to drink and cooling down with water, sponges, etc. Running in hot, humid, sunny conditions on the open road with no shade and already tired; I knew I had to stay on top of the heat and hydration from the beginning.

The last aid station before the halfway turnaround point was around 4 1/2 miles in, and I was starting to feel a little bit nauseated, so I had to start backing off on the drinks (especially sports drinks). The hills were also taking their toll, and my legs were feeling very fatigued. I started seeing the race leaders during that stretch as they headed back the other way, and was able to count them and see that I was in 8th place overall.

As I made the turnaround point (again, no timing mat), Justin was coming up right behind me. As we passed each other, I told him I was pretty cooked and I thought he'd be passing me pretty soon. He smiled and gave a shake of the head with a look that said "maybe not"; so it was clear he was suffering a bit as well.

As I came to the Big Hill that I had been dreading, I caught up with the person in 7th place, who was walking. I had already determined that I was going to have to walk a good part of the hill, or I'd end up setting off some massive leg cramps. So, I settled into a walk next to him and we both talked for a couple minutes as we made our way up the hill. The volunteers at the top of the hill were yelling out encouragement to keep going, and told us not to worry - everyone else in front of us had walked that hill as well : )  Towards the top, I was able to start running again, and my hill buddy also took off a few seconds later; staying not too far behind me for the last few miles.

Near the end of the run, I had to make the crossing at Highway 281 again; and this time it was a bit of an adventure. Racers were more strung out, and harder for the police to see as they came up the road; plus there was more traffic as it was now around noon. All that added up to the traffic not being stopped right away, and I couldn't really see where I was supposed to cross the street. So, I just ran down 281 looking for a break until the traffic was stopped and I could see the crossing point (a friend of mine had a similar issue on the bike and turned too quickly at the last moment, crashed and ended up with separated shoulder and possible broken finger).

Once across 281, I was on the final homestretch and happy to have more of a downhill run for the last couple of miles. I was really starting to hurt at that point, and I could see two people behind me (my hill buddy and my friend Justin). I kept thinking that I just wanted to hold it together and keep moving, so I could at least stay in the top 10. Then, with about a mile to go, I had sudden and massive leg cramps... The kind where your legs seize up and you can barely stay upright. I literally almost fell over, and started limping along trying to work out the cramps; massively frustrated that all that hard work could disappear if I ended up having to walk that last mile. Luckily, though, after walking about 100 yards it started relaxing just a bit; and I was able to slowly and surely break into a slow jog and then finally something resembling a run. Justin later commented that he could see me up ahead of him walking, and he joked that he thought maybe I was just waiting so we could have a sprint to the finish line : )

With the cramps worked out, the remaining run was just a steady, slow, "keep moving" thing of ugliness that nevertheless got me to the finish line. I ended up with a 1:47 run split, and kept my position of 7th place overall.



Post-race
Justin finished right behind me for 8th place, and here we posed for a picture; looking just a little more ragged than we did in the pre-race pictures!




There wasn't a whole lot going on in the finish area... I just hung around with Kat and Justin waiting for the awards ceremony and watching racers come in. There was plenty to drink, and some typical bagel/banana/pretzels type of fare. For the cost of admission, I really would have liked a couple slices of pizza or something similar; but not a big deal. 

One thing that's still weird to me about the HITS races is the award for every age (not age group, every age...). They give out top 3 male and female overall; and then each age gets a first place award (no second or third place). That leads to some goofy results - I'll use a hypothetical example to illustrate:

- 41 yr old does race in 5:10, another 41 yr old is 30 seconds behind
- 42 yr old does race in 6:02
- 43 yr old does race in 5:00, another 43 yr old 2 minutes behind
** Per HITS policy, the 41,42, and 43 that crossed first for their age get first place awards. Neither the 2nd 43 yr old (who was second in that total group), nor the 2nd 41 yr old get any award. It is what it is, though; and here's Justin and I with our first place Age awards:




Summary
Overall, I'm very happy that I chose to do the race. I didn't have to train much, since it was only 4 weeks after IM Texas 70.3. And with it being fairly close to home, there was no overnight hotel stay, etc. So, with relatively minor hassle, I was able to race another half iron distance triathlon, and in a really nice setting (I always enjoy Marble Falls, it's a great town).

As far as my evaluation of the race itself... This race costs about the same as the Ironman Texas 70.3 triathlon; so I can't help but compare them against each other. Based on that objective cost/value evaluation, I really can't see that I would go back and do this race again; unless they either raise their level of athlete support or lower their prices. While it was a fun race and I had no major issues, there were a few things that fall a little short; which mainly come down to more support for the athletes out on the course. Some of these things simply must get fixed: get enough volunteers, aid stations MUST be stocked with what is advertised, roads must be manned and have excellent traffic control, need to have timing mats at the turnarounds... and another one or two strategically placed aid stations on the run would have been good with that kind of heat. Perhaps this a bit of a chicken and the egg thing, in that they might feel like they can't put more into the race with so few racers. I think that will backfire on them, though; as the numbers likely won't come until that value proposition improves.

What's next?
The next event I'll be participating in is the Texas 4000 Atlas Bike Ride on June 2nd, which is a kick-off ride for a team of University of Texas students that ride 4000 miles from Texas to Alaska as a cancer research fundraiser. The rest of June is family vacation time, and then we'll just see what comes after that...

JD