On the plane to St. Croix I read a book entitled “Off The Deep End” by Hodding Carter. It was a personal account of a guy in his mid forties, that was attempting to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Trials in swimming. He was a decent swimmer in his younger years, a Division III All American, but not Olympic caliber. It was inspiring to read how he refused to listen to those tell him that his dream was impossible and that everyone slows down with age.
In the book, he quoted some coaches ingredients for success: motivation, opportunity, and incentive. Another ingredient that was mentioned was brainwashing detox. “ We are conditioned by society to know that we can only run fast when we are young. Overcoming that mindset is, perhaps, the major battle. “You can’t help but be affected by those prevailing negative comments asserting that when you get older, you get slower.”
I knew the competition showed up for the race in St. Croix this year and they were fast when they were young. If I had any chance of picking up an Ironman slot it would have to be due to the miscalculated pacing efforts of my competitors. I’m just not that fast.
Dana and I were up at 3:45 am for our pre-race meals. I typically take a mixture of Perpetuem, HEED, and a banana and peanut butter. My mix totals about 1000 calories. It tops off my glycogen stores and is slowly absorbed in the hours leading up to the race.
We loaded up the bikes and drove down to the race site around 5 am, racked them, and set up our gear. There was plenty of time to chill out and talk in the transition area. St. Croix is laid back. I was putting my shoes on my bike when some guy came running up to me and said “what are you doing with my bike?” “Huh?” I laughed. He was getting aggressive and started pushing me. “Hey watch it bud” I said.” Finally he looked at the bike. “Oh this that isn’t my bike...Sorry” “What ever dude. Get some glasses.” That was awkward. I suppose when everyone has a Cervelo P3C there is bound to be some confusion.
The swim starts on a island beach, so competitors have to opportunity to warm up by swimming the 200 to 300 meters over to the island. From there the race goes off in heats starting with the pros at 6:15 am. The following heats are separated by 2 to 3 minutes. I went off at 6:43 am, so I had plenty of time to do some pick ups into the boat mooring area.
Before long it was time to head over for the beach start. The course goes out about 75 meters then makes a sharp left turn. My goal was to be second or third to that buoy. Instead of blasting out at a 58/59 second 100 meter pace to gap the field, I choose to just settle in and let someone else do that. Once I felt they petered out, I was going to gently surge past and conserve energy.
The plan was executed perfectly and I soon found myself in the lead swimming into some chop and current. I had one swimmer in tow, tapping my feet. It was Ken Glah, the ex pro. We all were wearing blue caps but somehow Ken had a purple one on. He was easy to spot. I don’t know why he had the purple cap. It is the color of royalty, and he certainly was that.
Ken has been top 5 overall in Kona multiple times, and nobody can forget the sprint finish he and Pauli Kiru had in IMNZ; Ken won. Now he has a travel business which caters to Ironman triathletes. Dana went to Brazil with his group last year and is going to Austria in a few months.
Once we were closer to the turn around buoy, I juked and surged. I looked back under my arm and he was gone. “ Um, that was easier than I thought” I made it around the congested turn and swung wide to avoid the mess of swimmers who went off in heats ahead. I looked to my right and there was Ken stroking away with his regal purple cap. Darn!
My goal of this race was to conserve energy whenever possible, so I swam over to him and returned the favor; I got in his draft. Swimming in Ken’s slipstream, and the “tailwind like” current that brought us back in to T1, made the swim feel almost effortless. I was one arming it to avoid running up his back.
Once we made the turn on the final stretch to the swim exit, I pulled out and to the right and punched it. I could tell he didn’t like that. He wasn’t going to let me just take this easily and I could tell his stroke count had increased. At that point I felt I had made a tactical error. I was to his right side and the swim exit was to the left. I would have to get a good lead then cut the tangent quickly to the ramp.
Mission accomplished; I was first out of the water in 27:50. Ken came out four seconds later. Ok folks what do we have for the swim winner of the mens 45-49 age group? Maybe some bragging rights?
Anyway, I had saved some energy for the day ahead, so I was pleased. It was cool to be able to battle with such a triathlon legend like Ken, but I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to stay close to him on the bike. At the mount line I commented “nice swim” but got no response. See ya later swim guy.....> He was gone up the road.
Once out on the bike, I discovered that my Profile water bottle that I put between my aerobars was loose. That little Velcro strap that holds it in place had come unthreaded. I pulled the bottle off and stuffed it in my shorts and proceeded to thread the Velcro strap through the loops as I rode. It took me about 2 miles or so to get this done. The process allowed my heart rate to settle and not chase after Ken, which would have been a foolish thing to do. It would have been tough to impossible to ride with that bottle loose on the front, so I was glad that I was able to fix it on the fly. I rode controlled until I got to “The Beast”.
On the way to “The Beast” there are some picturesque coastal roads. It was nice to just take in the sights and control the effort level. It was a beautiful day. Just before I made it to the beast, a few guys from my age group passed me. I just let them go. I thought to myself “I’ll see you guys on the last loop of the run.
The Beast wasn’t that bad. I think my wattage spiked at 330-360 and heart rate went to 160s. I kept it under control. The race starts after the speed bumps and once you get onto the Melvin Evans highway. Once I got to the highway, there was a decent headwind so, I was glad that I had kept a lid on it up to that point.
At around 40 to 43 miles, Joe Boness came by me with his entourage. It was sad but impressive watching a 54 year old man pulling a train of dudes behind him. The guy has huge quads. They all rode away from me and I was alone for the ride back to T2. Bike time including transitions 2:49.
I made a quick transition and headed out on the run with Jeff Cuddeback. He started a few minutes later in the heat after me, so he was actually a few minutes ahead. He is a triathlon god in my eyes and has accomplished so much in the sport. I thought he was keeping a decent pace so I would try to pace off him. Once we got to the Buccaneer golf course I had to stop to take a pit stop, so Jeff got away from me and eventually he ran out of sight.
It was so hot and humid out there. Aid stations were situated every 1K and I needed refreshment and ice at each one, but despite the heat, I felt good.
Typically, my long training runs are done the day after my long bike ride. I like to run them at a tempo pace and then on the last half I do a series of 6 x800 repeats with 400 jog recoveries at close to threshold effort. I feel this trains me to run the back half of a race like this faster. On a course like this if you miscalculate your pace early, it will come back to bite you on the last half of the run. Once I hit the turnaround, I hit the switch. “It’s go time”
I began to pass folks quickly. I felt strong. I was hitting some mile splits in 6:30‘s. My pace was faster than the first loop. Once we got to the golf course, I could see that I was gaining ground back on Jeff. Back on the road into town I surged past him on the last long grade. I could tell he was hurting. I kept the effort level high but he still hung with me. He was smoking his age group, the 50-54, but he wasn’t going to let me, a 47 year old guy, just run away from him. I was able to hold him off to the finish line. It was a thrill to race him. The guy is a competitor! At the finish he complimented me on my race execution. That meant a lot to me coming from a guy like him. Run time was 1:34. It is so tough to run sub 1:30 on this course in this heat and humidity.
When all was said and done, I had topped my time from 2007 by 2 minutes and went 4:51. In 2007, I won the age group by 7 minutes. In all the years leading up to this one, that time would have won my age group every year, but not today; I was 6th. Former pros and Olympic marathoners showed up and just smoked me.
None of those guys miscalculated their efforts, and on the final loop I was only able to pass only 2 or 3 guys. The guys who finished in front of me are all Kona caliber, and guys like that just don’t fade.
Looking back on the results, I would have placed higher in the 25-29 age group. So upon reflecting on Hodding Carters book, it’s true. Old guys are refusing to let age slow them down. The times of older guys keep getting faster every year. I won’t be going to Kona this year, but I look forward to seeing the results of those who do. The times are likely going to be the fastest ever.
Dana, my wife, had a great race too and finished 3rd in her age group. Unfortunately for her, the two women who finished ahead were also the top two women in Kona last year. So the top woman already had her slot from the Kona win, and the slot passed to second leaving Dana just on the cusp again. She is getting used to being a Kona slot bridesmaid. When we were on the plane back home, and away from all the other triathletes, she told me she was happy not to hear the word “Kona” anymore. I totally understood.
St. Croix is a fantastic race. The volunteers are great, the venue is fantastic, and the islanders throw a huge party for all the athletes the Friday before the race. I love this race and I will be back.