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Ironman Barcelona Race Report
When I finally allowed myself the reality that I wanted to undertake the challenge of my first full Ironman in fall of 2017 I started by looking at the race schedule. I had already signed up for London Marathon in April 2018 and wanted to run well there and knew that effort would both need a decent amount of recovery as well as take a bit away from cycling and swimming during the build up. I also knew that having just qualified for South Africa for 70.3 WC’s I wanted to perform well there and that build could work nicely with building to a full race a few weeks/months beyond. Additionally, and being a bit ahead of myself (or just wishful thinking) I knew that there was no way we would be able to swing a trip to Kona in the same summer so finding a race in late September/October really seemed to be the best option to give myself another year to focus on Kona if I should qualify. This quickly narrowed the race options down and on final review IM Barcelona seemed to be the winner. I approached the race with the idea that I wanted to limit the ‘complications’ as much a possible, travel, course difficulty, etc etc. Barcelona was a single, relatively inexpensive and limited air time travel race from London, winner for travel. The course is very fast, (usually) calm seas, flat, smooth, simple bike course and a flat, smooth and simple run. It wasn’t that I wanted an ‘easy’ race, but I’ve never competed in a race of this distance or time and adding in a huge amount of elevation gain at my first go seemed like a unnecessary complication. It also helped that it was Barcelona, so a few days on the beach afterward seemed like a fantastic way to end the season!
The first two races I had on the calendar in 2018 were the IAAF Half Marathon Championships and London Marathon. This gave me a solid run focus through the spring and through April. I purchased a Tacx Neo smart last year which has been a great tool for training and has allowed for consistent bike training during the variable London weather. It also allowed me to make efficient use of my ‘other’ training time during the run block and retain some quality on the bike. Given that (at the time) I couldn’t mount the Dimond to the trainer had had an old roadie bike that I set up with the same gearing and fit to replicate my race setup. I was also using my daily bike commute (about 10k each way) to pad my weekly miles or use as a cool down for the mornings workouts.
By virtue of the 70.3 WC’s and Barcelona my season was very much focused on getting to September/October fit and healthy. Generally my weeks were in the 10-12 hour range with a few pushing up beyond that mark. As a note, I never counted my commuting time/mileage, it was always just ‘extra’. There were a few larger weeks built into the schedule with one 100 mile ride (done outdoors) and one 5 hour ride (on the turbo). Otherwise my longest ride was no more than 4 hours. My longest week was around 15-16 hours, before adding another 5 of commuting. I wanted to do well at the WC’s but my primary focus had always been Barcelona, so I was very happy to have take away a 9th in my Age Group performance at the race with about four weeks to go before the big race (I’ll write a separate post about that race).
Skipping a bit to Barcelona
Travel always means packing the Hen House. I’ve actually had the travel bag longer than I’ve had my Dimond and I used the bag to travel to Milwaukee and Chicago when I was living in the states for USAT National Champs and ITU worlds. I’ve always loved the ability to have the bike with me, and (knock on wood) never paid a bike/baggage fee. Since moving to London I’ve used the bag to travel to Australia, South Africa and Barcelona for races all without fees or hassle. With the Dimond I use the carrat case and have self reinforced the bag with custom cut lexan sides. I love that the bag is light enough to pick up and huff off from baggage claim without much fuss and allows us to rent whatever car we want as the bags aren’t bulky (another cost saver)!
As mentioned, Barcelona caught my eye because it was flat and fast. After arriving at the race I was quick to set up my bike and see the course with my own eyes. The race is actually set a bit further north in the city of Calella. The transition area is right on the beach (they take over an astroturfed soccer pitch) so the transition zone is concise. However, that means that you need to get through the old part of the city to get out to the main road where the majority of the bike is held. This means no aero bars for the first 3k. However, once out on the main highway they road is smooth, clean and fast. There are a few slow rolling hills as you arrive or leave the small villages you ride through but primarily the course along the ocean is flat. Perhaps, in an effort to break up drafting, they updated the course with a small out and back about 1/3 of the way into the loop which went uphill and away from the sea. Looking at the course map it looked like the great pyramid of Giza but once you realized that it was only in comparison to the pancake flat remainder of the course it wasn’t bad at all.
The majority of the few days leading up to the race were filled with the typical pre race shenanigans. Obsessing over your gear, obsessing over what you eat, significant other telling you to get a grip… you know the drill. However I do always enjoy bike racking. To me, it is really the first time to size up the race and who you might be racing against. Its always a great time to meet some new friends and chat about what brought you to whatever race you happen to be at. Living and racing in London and Europe I’ve only ever seen one other Dimond at a race. Combined with my American accent I do find myself the focus of some attention when racking the bike. Barcelona was no different in that I didn’t see any other Dimond’s but a few interested onlookers. Typically I find myself talking about how easy it is to travel with the bike. As I’ve not had a wealth of racing experience at the half or full distance before the bike I’m not one to say that its made me ‘’xx minutes faster’’. I’m more of one to talk about the bike as something that gets me excited to get out there and ride, to me it’s a part of a well rounded approach to racing, its not some magic bullet that will suddenly transform someone from an enthusiast to a champion.
Finally race day was upon me. My general race plan was to survive the swim, pace myself into a good position on the bike and go for it on the run. I knew the marathon would be my strength so my goal was to put myself in a position to run into a Kona slot. The weather had been sunny and warm for the preceding days but come race day it was cool and raining. The sea, which had been calm, was in full swell. Generally the specific race conditions don’t put me in a better or worst mindset, being from New England I consider my a ‘tough’ guy and tend to power through most conditions. I always try and remember I’m racing with the same situation as everyone else so I try not to get concerned. However, not the strongest swimmer to begin with I was concerned that swimming in these rough conditions might hamper my race plan. But by that point, there was no turning back and after the normal pre race screwing around with the bike and double checking transition bags we were off.
I had lined up in the 1:00 area thinking that was going to be my goal time, however, soon some staff ushered me down to the AWA starting wave. I think it’s a bit odd to have a specific AWA wave, there is nothing saying that I’m going to be faster (or slower) just because I’m AWA. It seemed odd to cater a starting wave to the group. However, I knew that if it put me that much further in front of the ‘crowd’ I’d be setting myself up for a quieter bike. The swim was easily the roughest I’ve ever done. I felt like I drank a gallon of water by the time it was over and sighting was a complete nightmare. I had to time sighting with the top of the swells or you’d never see the next buoy. When you did look up to sight I’d see swimmers going straight up the next wave. This was a race!! Making the primary turn I glanced at my watch and saw 30:00 and was pleasantly surprised. I knew that the second half was going to be into the swell but to have paced right to where I want to be gave me confidence. Powering through the second part of the swim I exited the water at just over one hour and was very, very, pleased to have had that swim behind me!
Jumping on the bike I knew this was where the work (for me) really began, I had a target wattage (230-235) and worked out a good nutrition plan. The goal was to take down a half of a honey stinger waffle every 30 minutes and supplement with a mix of Precision Hydration and Honey Stinger gels. The idea was that as I worked through the pre mix hydration I would take course water and cycle that into my routine. Starting the bike you always get a few guys that seem to go out like they’re going to win the race in the first five miles. I resisted the temptation and stuck to my plan. My average power seemed to be tracking a bit lower than where I wanted but I was moving along at a good pace and this being my first race I didn’t want to overextend myself now. I stuck to my plan for fuel and hydration and covered the first lap without issue. By the end of the first lap I had found myself largely riding alone and had been able to put in a few blocks of consistent power. However, as I began the second lap I could sense riders behind me and was starting to encounter last of the riders that exited the water late. On the out and back hill I could see my that while there weren’t main people in front of me but I was definitely the start of the chase. By the end of the second lap between passing those still on their first lap and the people behind me putting on good pressure I had been caught. My power suffered drastically and its definitely one of those times that I should have put down a good effort to get some separation, but I played it safe and stuck to my plan of not burning matches on the bike. In retrospect I really feel this was a poor decision and really wished i had put down some watts. I don’t think my run would have suffered all that much in comparison to putting some solid time into my competition on the bike.
I had a retul fit done over the winter in preparation for this race which had moved me a bit lower and longer which yielded great results. I’m sure I could fuss about with the fit more and find either some additional aero advantage or power output but it would be starting to split hairs. Overall I felt very comfortable and relaxed on the bike, no areas of unreasonable pain or discomfort. I think this speaks of both a quality fit as well as a comfortable and stable bike under saddle. For the race itself I used Continental Force and Attack tires with Latex tubes and Stans sealant wrapped around HED Jet 9 and Disc wheels. The only other modification I’ve made to the bike outside of the factory ‘race’ set-up is the SLF oversized pulley wheels. I use a Stages power meter as I find that to be the easiest meter to swap between my training and racing bike. I currently have the Gen 1 Left only meter but just upgraded to the gen 3 L/R meter, so looking forward to that. I use a profile design refillable BTA bottle and amount a second cage to my stem (TriRig Sigma). Additionally, I have my tube and repair kit behind the saddle with another bottle. This set up works well for 70.3 races as it allows me to not stop at aid stations and easily take on course water but have my own mix for the full distance. I’ve made a reasonable effort to clean up my front end with the Sigma stem but there are definitely some gains that I could make by reviewing my setup.
However, with all that said about my ride clear differentiator for my bike is the color scheme. As a graduate of Virginia Tech the Orange and Maroon paint scheme was a given. My time there in was formative and provided me with the tools that have allowed me practice architecture all around the world. When I’m running up to my bike in transition I can hear the Metallica’s Enter Sandman playing at Lane stadium and sixty-eight thousand fans jumping up and down. The bike and the paint scheme signify the work that has been done, and the work that needs to be done, this is my time, my effort. I always jump on that bike ready to rock.
After two laps along the scenic Barcelona coast it was back into Calella, through the old town and back to transition. A quick shoe change (and socks on for this race) later it was out on the run. Coming off the bike I felt energized, I had made it through the bike without a crash, technical issue or any penalties. At this point I knew, no matter how I might do it, I was going to finish the race, even if I had to crawl across that line.
The first mile or two of the run felt amazing, being back on my feet, stretching my back a bit and opening the legs up was fantastic. It was also now I could hear Carly cheering which was a really nice pick up. We had run through a bit of what i’d like her to do in terms of split information so I was looking forward to getting an idea of where I stood in the race. From a pace perspective my goal was to run a 2:55, I felt I had that in me and was a good target to set. I started off at a brisk 6:40 pace and was holding it well for the first 3-4 miles before I saw Carly for the first time. She yelled something about 8th, or 8 minutes down… or something… I wasn’t really sure. Oh well, it is only a few miles in, I really need to run a bit and let the race settle to get a feel for the work I need to do.
The run course at Barcelona is three big loops with the finish at one end. Carly had positioned herself at basically the halfway point so I was able to see her both heading out and coming back of each loop. After the initial split where I didn’t really get where I was she had some solid information that I was sitting in 3rd and running the same pace as first but well above 2nd or anyone else around me. This was great news! Outside of finishing my goal was 3rd in my AG, I figured that would be a ‘safe’ position in my AG to secure a slot for Kona. Knowing I was running strong compared to others also gave me some confidence that if i slipped a bit I might have a bit of a buffer.
I continued pushing and ended up running with a few groups during the first half or so. At one point I ran with who would turn out to be the second place female professional and grouped up a few times with some other runners. I went through the 21k mark at 1:27:33, pretty much perfectly on pace for a 2:55.
Carly continued to offer updates and I seemed to making ground on second but wasn’t past him just yet, no mention of where 4th was so I kept on grinding. However, shortly after the turn around on loop two I hit the wall. Mentally perhaps I had gotten too comfortable, and physically perhaps I had gone out a bit too fast. Either way, mile 15-19 were pretty rough. I had been taking water and coke regularly throughout the race and added in some gels and red bull. I’m not sure if it was the added fuel or the fact that I started what would be my last lap and knew that was it, 9 more miles, one more lap. I checked myself back in the game and really tried to push myself with what I had left. I knew second had to be super close to second and if I put in a solid effort here I might be able to pick him off. However, as by now people were pouring on to the run course from the bike I had little to no idea who was who and if someone was on the first lap or third.
I honestly can’t recall the last information Carly gave me, but I’m pretty sure I asked her how far off and she said something like 4 minutes down on first, 4 minutes back to third… I had made it into second!!! I knew I wouldn’t see Carly again till the finish so it was up to me to close this out. I was terrified that at any moment my body would just say ‘nope’ and start to shut down so my goal was to get across that finish line as quickly as humanly possible. I told myself to suck it up and you’ve only got 4….. 3……2…..1… miles to go. Running back towards town I knew that once I passed back by the transition tent I’d have only a mile to go and I had made that my last ‘carrot’ before the finish. As I was closing in on the transition I passed by one racer, he looked over at me and asked ”second or third?”. Not really thinking/having any idea what he was asking about I told him ‘I have no idea’ and kept on cranking.
Passing through the transition tent with only a mile to go it started to feel real to me, that I’d actually finish this race and be an Ironman. I started to skip the aid stations and just push towards the finish. The course tightens up a bit near the end and a couple of times I found myself wedging myself through some slower moving runners.
However, as soon as I got to the last corner it was a sharp turn off and down on to the red carpet and I found myself running alone. It was down a quick hill and to the left with the finish chute all to myself. It all happened quite fast, I’m naturally one to race all the way through the line so in retrospect I do now get why people say to relax and enjoy the finish experience. I however, cruised through the line and promptly collapsed. It took me a few minutes to compose myself, I was totally drained…
A slow walk to the recovery area where I took my time to have a bit of food and drink. Looking around I saw a few male pro’s, one or two female pro’s and a few age groupers. It seemed like a pretty small group, but I really couldn’t tell. I hadn’t run one watch throughout the so I didn’t have an actual race time but I could piece it together knowing each of the disciplines and figured I was near 9:00, which had typically been where my age group’s third place finished. That, coupled with Carly’s encouragement, left me feeling good that I had secured a solid place.
After a bit of food and drink and chatting with a few of the other AG finishers and going around to congratulate everyone who had finished thus far I made my way out from the finish area to find Carly, she had been anxiously waiting for me and gave me a great big hug exclaiming ‘You won!!!’ I told her ‘No, you said I was second , but still I had a good day!” She replied, ”No, you caught first, you wont your age group!!’ Wow….. I made up four minutes in the final half of the last lap on first… I couldn’t believe it!!!
Still in a physical and emotional state of shock she handed over my gear and we slowly made our way back to the apartment. After some confirming glances at the Ironman tracker I finally did realize that yes, in fact I had won my age group, and in fact been the 6th Amateur across the line!! The next few hours were filled with a well deserved shower and a lot of food and drink. We went down to the finish line around 10:30 to cheer on those still working their way through the marathon. It was really exciting to see how jazzed everyone was to finish the race. Despite the fact that it was now pouring out there was a great crowd out cheering the last competitors across the line. It was really quite fun to watch everyone finish.
Monday’s award ceremony was certainly an experience. I had laid out some lofty goals for my first race, but to have placed first in my age group and 6th overall was really something I wasn’t expecting. I was really happy with my overall race plan and management and while I took a lot away from this race as learning experiences I feel like I put it all out there for my first race. I’m looking forward to racing Roth Germany next July which I hear is another fast course and then Kona in October!!!
It goes without saying but none of this would be possible without the unwavering support of Carly. Her ability to encourage me along this journey and be great partner is without measure. She is the reason I push myself to be better. Plus she’s pretty cute.