I struggled with what should be the easiest part of this race report…the name. Trying to come up with something funny and witty, the ol’ brain got stuck on Swim, Bike, Bonk…so here we are.
The first half of my tri season has focused on short course races. My approach was to race a few times leading into a somewhat early June half, to work out my transitions and hopefully develop a bit of speed (or at least do some speedwork) before Ironman training took over my summer. Enter the High Cliff Triathlon.
Located near Appleton, Wisconsin, the High Cliff Tri is a smaller race with a reputation of a scenic bike and run. I’d heard mixed reviews of the swim, which is in Lake Winnebago. The past few years had seen short swims, choppy conditions and a good amount of green algae in case you need to top off your morning breakfast. None of this is too unfamiliar for most triathletes in the midwest, as the swim can be a crapshoot at most races in this area. The trail run course sounded like a nice change and I got mixed advice from my friends who’d raced it in the past. A few said race flats (tri style) would be fine, while another recommended more supportive and substantial running shoes. I’ve been using the Pearl Izumi isoTransition flats for everything up to the half-iron distance since 2011, so I decided not to change anything up for this race.
Weather forecasts were sketchy the week leading up to the race, calling for anything from thunderstorms to a picture-perfect day. Again, typical. I drove up on Friday afternoon, arriving around 3:30pm. The race was the next day and Friday was very windy. After picking up my race packet, I grabbed my goggles and a towel to check out the swim course. The lake was high 60′s or low 70′s, so I was very comfortable without a wetsuit for a shakeout swim. Strong winds of 20+mph made the lake very choppy. I swam out past the first several buoys, directly into the chop. Treading water there for a few seconds and adjusting my goggles, I was mentally prepping for my race day swim to feel that exact same way. In short, it was a fight to get a rhythm going and to sight buoys while getting a face full of waves. I turned and swam parallel to shore, which was partially with the current, to see how it would feel, then after a couple hundred yards I turned to swim back into shore. This is when I was met with a surprise. The swim back in was not remotely smooth. I’m not sure if it’s the shape of the shoreline, a small wall of rocks that juts out into the lake or what, but I had a pretty strange experience. The current wasn’t simply pushing me into shore. I actually felt like I’d get hit from behind with a wave, start to be carried toward shore and immediately pulled back or to the side by another wave. It felt like the waves were reflecting off the shore or something, to the point that it actually rattled me a little. I’m a fairly strong swimmer and confident in the water, but I was actually excited to swim far enough in that the whole “reflecting current” went away and I was able to settle back into a relaxed effort. This was something I hoped race day would not bring, but if it did, I reminded myself that every other athlete would be faced with the same conditions.
After heading back to the hotel, getting organized and setting up my bike for the race, I went with some friends for dinner. A great restaurant and very entertaining company made for a relaxing, early evening. We made a quick stop at Wal-Mart, during which I picked up a new race-day addition to the arsenal…an Angry Birds beach towel to use in transition. This was too funny to pass up and I figured why not have some fun, while giving myself an obnoxiously colorful towel to locate my spot. Back at the hotel I set out breakfast and got everything lined up and ready to go for morning.
Race morning went like clockwork. As usual for races, I woke up before my alarm and changed into my race kit. Breakfast was simple and I’d planned a smaller meal of mostly liquids, hoping to reduce the chance of any GI distress. I had a bottle of Gatorade G Series PRO carb energy drink, packet of Prime, an energy bar and a bit of water. I also had a bottle of cold Endurance Formula to sip on before race start. The total was approx 800 calories.
My transition spot was great, first rack next to the bike out and bike in. While High Cliff takes the less-than-wonderful approach of assigning race numbers and waves based on the date and time you register, I submitted a few race results and was placed in the “Elite” wave. This meant I was in the first wave of 60 athletes to go off, including both men and women. Not sure how they selected folks for this wave, but in any case I was happy I’d be dealing with less “traffic” on the swim and bike. After checking, re-checking and re-re-checking my transition setup I headed down to the lake for a warmup swim.
Race morning brought much improved weather over Friday afternoon. It was overcast and in the mid-70′s. A bit humid but nothing major. The big factor was less wind…the lake was fairly calm and the charming green coating of algae had disappeared. I hopped in, swam for maybe 10 minutes with a few short efforts mixed in and then made my way back to the swim start. They pulled everyone out of the water at about 6:50am for the national anthem. Before I knew it, we were allowed to wade into the water and up to the start line. I positioned myself in the second row, each of which was about 7 people wide.
They started us and after a bit of running, it was two dolphin dives and then straight into swimming. Based on how I felt at Leon’s and San Diego, I opted not to full-on sprint at the beginning but to whatever degree I have “different gears,” I tried to swim closer to what felt like a threshold effort. I wanted to push my pace without completely redlining and risking the need to back off much. This strategy worked okay, though I was definitely passed by a handful of folks immediately. It was a fairly physical swim start, more so than I anticipated, as two guys were swimming next to me and we had what seemed like incidental contact several times the first several hundred meters. Nothing crazy — no deliberate forearms or elbows and certainly nothing to the head, but I didn’t want to waste more energy fighting these guys for position when we had a ton of open water in front of us (not to mention a long swim). I veered left a bit and opened up space between me the guy to my right. There was another swimmer who’d been tapping on my feet every few swim strokes and despite mixing in a few small surges I couldn’t shake him. He followed me left and we continued. The water was pretty calm and while the buoys were not the easiest to sight, thanks to yellow and orange buoys that were pretty beat up and dirty, this part of the swim was uneventful. After about 1/3rd of the swim we turned right for a shorter portion of the swim distance. This is where it started to get interesting. There were a couple kayaks and a boat to our left, so it wasn’t tough to stay on course, but seeing the buoys started to get tougher as waves were kicking up. Since we were swimming parallel to shore I started breathing only to my right, hoping to shield myself from the waves. I couldn’t quite figure out how we went from calm water to waves, as I thought we’d have been swimming directly into the waves earlier had there been any real chop. I yo-yo’ed back and forth with a few swimmers and tried to follow the buoys, knowing we’d soon turn right again toward shore. This is where “interesting” turned into “complete cluster.” The swim course was an inverted triangle, with its two longer sides being the out and back. The longest stretch was the swim back to shore, so we were heading back east and the sun had just come out. Several factors made this portion of the swim a challenge: swimming directly into bright sun, small orange buoys that were dirty and very tough to see on their own, let alone in bright sun. And to top it off, the water had gone from calm to a bit wavy to full-on washing machine. Again, I couldn’t figure this out, but my swim the day before sort of prepared me for the swim back into shore. Nevertheless, the waves were impacting me and I honestly couldn’t see ANYTHING. I was swimming water polo (tarzan) style, trying to see the next buoy and several times was hit in the face with big waves. Swallowing more lake water than I wanted, I just tried to sight off the shore rather than the waves. In the distance I could see the larger yellow buoys that marked the sprint distance swim — the sprint athletes went off immediately after the half-iron athletes, so the sprint course was just a much shorter part of the “out and back” from our swim. While sighting off the shoreline helped (there was a pavilion in the park near the swim start), I was really wasting energy fighting the waves and getting knocked around in the water. A couple other swimmers around me were in the same predicament and at one point I swam right into another athlete at almost perpendicular paths…not sure how that happened. Finally, after apparently passing the breakwater, the water calmed down and I swam hard for shore and tried to make up a bit of time. Here is where the courses overlapped, so I was swimming through waves of sprint-distance athletes who were walking in water that was about waist-deep. Finally reaching shore, I stood up and ran up the ramp out of the lake and toward transition. I glanced at my watch to see a time much slower than my goal of sub-30, but everyone had to deal with the same conditions.
Swim time — 34:40
I had a pretty smooth T1 and ran out to the mount line with my bike, my shoes already on the pedals. I hopped on and got moving, slipping my feet into my shoes. A girl riding out of T1 next to me, from the sprint transition area, kept looking at her back wheel. I glanced over and she asked if she had a flat and she sure did. I told her that and tried to block flats out of my mind as I spun toward the “High Cliff hill” that is the start of the bike course. I spun pretty easy up the hill, with a few guys sprinting up the hill past me in out-of-the-saddle efforts. No worries, I had a plan and knew I’d catch them later…I didn’t really even take time to look and see who was in the half vs the sprint. I just ripped the set of PRO Series chews off my handlebar and put them into my jersey pocket (eating 2 immediately), and drank some Gatorade. I had two bottles (44 oz) of Gatorade PRO Series Endurance Formula on my bike, one in a bottle between my aerobars and one in my Torhans bottle on the frame.
I gave myself about 10-15 mins of a steady zone 2/aerobic effort before focusing in on pushing my goal effort. I used power to regulate my effort and prevent going too hard on the bike. Once I began settling into my race effort, I re-passed a few of the people that had zipped past me on that initial hill out of T1. A few miles out, the sprint athletes turned left while we continued on straight and this is when the “traffic” became non-existent. I could see a few racers up in the distance, knowing I’d see them soon. Sure enough, I continued to pass athletes while holding my planned effort. I flipped screens on my Garmin to get an idea of the pace I was hitting with that effort and was happy with the results. It was pretty windy on the road, as most of the course was unsheltered and was surrounded by open fields (farmland or otherwise). For much of the first half of the ride I found myself in either strong headwinds or crosswinds, even riding in a lean to my left for a several extended stretches. The first aid station was around mile 15 or so. I chugged some of my bottle from between the bars and ditched it just past a bottle exchange sign. I’d been making up ground on two riders, but slowed down about 100 meters before the aid station as they went through it. Neither of them had been able to grab a bottle, as the volunteers were standing still and they were going way too fast. I slowed a bit more and pointed at a volunteer holding out a bottle of Gatorade. Apparently I didn’t slow down enough, as the bottle hit me in the hand like a ton of bricks and bounced on the road. I tried to recover and get a bottle from the last volunteer, but wasn’t able to do so. Oops…I had another full bottle on the frame, so figured this would get me to the next aid station where I’d be more careful. At this point I also took one of three gels I had with me.
At about mile 20 I was passed by a small group of four riders, all grouped fairly close together. They weren’t in a true paceline but were drafting nonetheless. I initially just put my head down and let them go by me, but after a couple minutes, their pace slowed a bit and they were riding just up the road a few hundred meters. At this point I decided to put in a small effort to re-pass them, which I did at about mile 22. I looked back to make sure none of them stuck to my wheel after the pass. One of the first two guys had broken off the front after I passed them, but I was pulling away from him even after dropping back to my goal effort. I continued on, hoping for a few sections of tailwind just for some relief. It was getting hot, so I made a point to drink liberally from my remaining bottle of Gatorade. I went through the second aid station and grabbed a bottle of water, immediately taking another gel and washing it down with water.
Around mile 40 I came up to and passed another athlete. The only reason I remembered this guy was he was riding a DA4, almost the same as my DA3. As I passed him we exchanged a glance, but no words. I was still holding right at the top of the wattage range of my goal effort for the bike. After about 30 seconds I glanced back and the guy I passed was no more than 100 meters behind me, so I thought I might see him again. Sure enough, a couple miles later, he passed me back. I didn’t fight it and while he was moving just slightly faster than I was, I figured he was putting in an effort to do so. I gave it another few miles (we had just passed the 47 or 48 mile marker) and I re-passed him, this time for good. I put in a small surge to put a little distance between us, going up to my threshold for a few minutes. This worked as I didn’t see him again, but this was not necessarily “smart racing.”
I’m used to being in the same wave as my age group. I knew going into the race that I was not going to be in competition for the top overall spot — High Cliff only gives out a 1st place overall award, then drops down into the age groups. So while I knew the guy I’d just worked to pass had been in the elite wave of the half iron race, I didn’t know what age group he was in…my “better safe than sorry” decision to put in that extra effort was, in retrospect, possibly not needed. And regardless, I should have just sat on my goal effort and if I re-passed him great, if not, then fine. In any case, I picked off a few more riders including one at the 54 mile mark, while moving through a small subdivision near the state park. Of note was the third aid station, which was at the top of a small incline (with a tailwind). It was completely unstaffed, with a table on the side of the road half-covered with Gatorade bottles. There were a few stacks of boxes next to the table, most of which had toppled over in the wind. I opted not to stop for a new bottle, though I probably could’ve used one. After a smooth flying dismount (again, thank you cyclocross) I entered transition for T2.
Looking back, the bottle on my frame had a couple ounces of Gatorade left, as did the water bottle between my bars. I estimate that I took in approx 40 oz of Gatorade Endurance Formula and 20 oz of water, along with 3 gels and 4 Gatorade chews (one serving). This was approx 600-700 calories. I hadn’t brought any salt pills with me, not expecting a very hot day. The skies had cleared and it was very sunny and in the mid-80′s by the time I finished the bike.
Bike time — 2:23:04 (23.7mph)
After my sunburned head experience at San Diego, I brought a hat with me onto the run, along with a handheld 20oz bottle of Gatorade and two gels. We had to head up the “High Cliff hill” yet again to start the run, after which we’d do two loops through trails in the state park and then run back down the hill. I took it very easy up the hill, not wanting to “cook” myself. That said, I felt pretty hot despite my easy effort up the hill, which had no shade. I took in a few sips of Gatorade before reaching the top, which was maybe 3/4ths of a mile into the course. There was an aid station at the top of the hill. I didn’t need anything as I had my own bottle, but I immediately threw my hat into a garbage can just past the aid station. I burning up and as I was expecting mostly shaded trails, I changed my mind and would go without the hat. I was also feeling some frustration, because I felt more tired than I had expected just moving up the hill. I tried to let myself relax through the first mile marker. Starting to pick it up after the first mile marker, I noticed that I felt weak. I continued to sip Gatorade and took a gel, focusing only on the trail ahead and trying to block out what my body was saying to me.
The course was tougher than I expected in a couple of ways. First, during the first portion of the loop you run across bedrock that just plain hurts in race flats. Second, the one major hill coming out of transition is tough, but since it’s so early it forces you to go easy right off the bat — no big deal. However there are lots of little inclines and declines, mostly very gradual, but you still have to pay attention to your footfall. You could easily land awkwardly and twist an ankle or faceplant, evidenced by a large number of people that I saw with dirt all over one side along with some wicked scrapes.
Back to my run. The first mile was tough as it included the hill, but I had a distinct feeling of weakness, even after that first mile and my heart rate recovered from the climb. I blocked it out and did my best to pick up the pace, but I could tell pretty early on that my run goals would be out the window. My second mile was faster than the first, but based on feel and not pace, I felt like I was running a 5k. Not a good sign with over 11 miles to go.
Around mile 3.5 or 4, there was a long stretch of unshaded grassy trail that looked like doubletrack. There were two grooves where 4×4′s or mountain bikes had dug into the terrain over time, so you either had to run directly in one of the two small grooves or off to the side. Around this time I really started to feel lightheaded and even weaker, despite taking another gel and continuing to sip from my handheld bottle. I was pretty certain now that I was entering the beginning of a bonk — when you have gone too deep “into the well” in terms of calories consumed compared to energy expended, and I knew that the day was going to get worse. In fact, during this section I was actually talking to myself out loud, basically saying to pick it up and forget how crappy I felt, when I heard someone maybe 20 to 30 feet behind me. “Hey, do you know Russ Kuryk?” I felt a flash of embarrassment, because I figured this guy had heard me cursing at myself, but hey we’ve all been there at some point (maybe?). I said back to him, “yup, I sure do.” He asked my name and said Russ, a teammate of mine on both Well-Fit Elite and Iron Cycles, had told him I’d be at High Cliff. I hadn’t met Dean before, but had heard of him several times from Ted and Russ. We exchanged a few words about the scenic course and increasing temperatures as he passed me. I tried in vain to speed up, hoping that having someone to pace off of might help me mentally, but after about a minute I fell off his pace and back to my own.
As I got back to the end of the first loop, I glanced down at my watch, seeing around 50 minutes. This put me on pace for approximately a 1:40 half-marathon…slower than my goal, but better than my best half-IM run split (1:43 at Kansas 70.3 last year). This would have brought me to the finish around a 4:40 total time, which I still would have been ecstatic with given that my PR at the half-iron distance in my first 3 attempts was still 4:57, from my first half (Door County in 2010). I passed the “straight ahead to loop two, left to finish” sign and groaned to myself, knowing that I felt bad now and another 6+ miles was not going to be pretty. Sure enough, that second loop was absolutely brutal. There were a few sections that, despite my best efforts, I ended up walking for 30 seconds at a time to collect myself. My head was pounding most of the second half of the run and I felt really lightheaded, to the point where I was worried I might pass out. It was then that I walked, then ran (slowly) as long as possible until I felt like I was on the verge of dizziness again. As races go, I’ve only had one other experience where I felt really bad — IM Wisconsin (IMOO) last year. But IMOO wasn’t bad where I felt like I’d pass out, I just had to make friends with every single porta-potty on the bike and run courses. High Cliff was different in that I knew I underhydrated or underfueled that day, or some mix of the two. Throughout the second loop I exchanged brief words of encouragement with a broad range of people doing both the sprint and half races (e.g. a University of Wisconsin-kitted guy, a girl walk-running in a Fleet Feet Brookfield kit, two guys in kits without logos but who I went back and forth passing and getting passed by). One young kid racing had taken a somewhat bad-looking spill while running and the whole right side of his body was pretty scraped up, his right arm and leg covered with dirt and some blood. When I and others passed him as he was walking slowly, we all gave him a nod for continuing onward. Around mile 10 I started to feel some raindrops and the temperature started to feel like it was dropping quickly. Between miles 11 and 12 the skies opened. While I was on a portion of the trail covered by trees, the rain was so strong that I almost couldn’t see where I was going. Combined with some strong winds whipping through the trees, it was a pretty epic experience…I actually felt a bit refreshed, as the rain cooled me down. The trail quickly was becoming a collection of puddles, so I half-avoided them and half stomped in them because at that point, I just wanted to enjoy the last few minutes of the race. By the time I reached the “turn left to finish” sign and headed back down the big hill, the rain had let up a little and was just a steady shower. I normally feel pretty good running downhill, as this is something I practiced this past winter and spring. I can usually lean into it and let my momentum carry me downhill. In this case, I was still feeling very out of it and had a vision of faceplanting and not being able to finish. So instead, I did my best to get down the hill quickly and around the final couple bends through the grassy expo area. As I got closer to the finish chute, I saw my teammate Stephanie shouting and running alongside. She had to drop from the race due to an injury, but from her enthusiastic cheers you would never have been able to tell. I saw the clock tick from 4:58 over to 4:59 and was steps from the line, so I knew then that I’d come in under 5 hours…a small, SMALL bit of consolation. Upon crossing the finish line I stopped to avoid falling over, walked to grab a banana and promptly downed three cups of cold soda pop. The second half of the run killed my results and was much, much worse than that first one…it took 1:08 (18 minutes longer than the first half of the run). Live and learn — I was just glad to be done.
Run time — 1:58:47 (9:04 min/mi pace)
It took about 30 minutes, but after stretching out and letting the sugar and calories get into my system, I started feeling human again. I packed up my stuff from transition into the car, cheered in some friends who were finishing up their races and headed for home (with the requisite stop for a burger and shake at Culver’s).
It was a learning experience, albeit a painful and frustrating one. While I avoided any GI distress during the race, I doomed myself with not enough fuel, poor hydration for the temperature and effort I put forth on the bike. Some positives were that I had a competitive swim despite rough conditions, as well as a bike PR that was 3rd fastest in my AG and 14th fastest in the overall race. A couple silver linings to take away along with the mistakes, and most importantly, more things to work on for Ironman Louisville in a couple months.
Swim — 34:40
Bike — 2:23:04 (23.7mph, 261 watts NP)
Run — 1:58:47 (9:04 min/mi)
TOTAL TIME — 4:59:19 — 10th M30-34, 37th overall