Thursday, July 15, 2010

Smooth Racing at the 2010 Pacific Crest Half Ironman

I had a blast last weekend joining 550 triathletes at the 2010 Pacific Crest Half Ironman in Sunriver, OR. Although I was familiar with this beautiful course, it had been a few years since I did the "tri thing". It welcomed me back like an old friend.

There's a magic about Central Oregon in the early summer, when snow-capped peaks contrast a hot dry heat and lure soaked Oregonians from their caves. Everyone comes out to play...and I mean EVERYONE. This weekend hosted the Pacific Crest Endurance Weekend, with over a dozen events from kids triathlons, to marathons, to tri's and du's of all distances, as well as the USA Cycling Junior Championships, a regional tennis tournament, and a golf fundraiser. Outdoor enthusiasts were out by the thousands enjoying nature's playground!

I hadn't originally planned to do Pac Crest this year, but when I saw the fine print on my winning lottery slot for Ironman Hawaii that said "you must complete a half Ironman or greater in the next 90 days to validate your lottery slot", I knew this would be the perfect qualifier. I had completed this race three times ('03, '04, '07...yikes, am i that old?) so I knew what to expect. I was going to need that course familiarity to make up for my lack of swimming and cycling training. Plus heading to Oregon would provide an opportunity to visit with family, see friends, and enjoy their ideal July weather. Christi and Sophie came along for the fun!

(Awaiting the start on a clear morning)My aged and dusty gear was clear evidence I was a "runner-faking-his-way-through-a-tri". The wetsuit was showing more wear from wakeboarding than swimming. My road bike, retrofitted with some left over aero bars, wasn't nearly the NASA-grade time trial machines that lined the T1 transition area. Even the battery on my power meter ran out, so it didn't even have a speedometer! The final straw was the body marking volunteer writing "41" on my calf to indicate my age. I don't usually have issues with my age, but it stole my breath to see a number starting with a 4 on my calf in permanent black ink for the first time. Team Geritol at your service. :-)

(These two were stoked to tackle their first Half Ironman)As the sun illuminated the diamond-shaped, 1.2 mile swim course on the reservoir, a group of elk peered from across the lake to see what the hub-bub was all about. I hung out with triathletes old and new along the starting ramp, and everyone was eager to soak up this perfect day that was scheduled to hit mid-80's by the afternoon. Wave by wave we eased into the chilly mountain water, and swam into the sun.

I was surprisingly comfortable by the first buoy, picking a line wide of the fast guys and finding a nice aerobic rhythm. Clearly the month I had squeezed in at the pool, thanks to stealing away during Sophie's swim lessons, had given me a base to work with. I was also trying the "lesson of threes" that I had picked up from some Ironman veterans who had given me some pointers on how to use a practice race to determine my best goal pace:

  • Split the distance of each discipline into thirds
  • Swim/bike/run the first third of the discipline at a pace slightly slower than your goal
  • Take the middle section at your goal pace
  • If you feel good, go a little harder on the last third.
  • The goal is to save enough energy that you can be comfortable transitioning, then enter the run knowing you could run a marathon within 15% of a marathon best effort. For example, I should be able to come off the bike feeling like I could run a 3 hour marathon (15% off my marathon PR) if I gave it everything.
  • If you don't feel good enough to do this, then you're going too fast too early in the game. This is where 5 minutes in the swim, or 15 minutes on the bike, could cost you an hour in the run when you're walking.

Just like Schoolhouse Rock says, "3 is a magic number"! I felt good at the second buoy, so I picked up the pace a bit, flashing a smile to the elk with each turn of my head. My gosh, this swim is...enjoyable!

(The finish line beacon that summons us)

I came out of the water feeling good, and at 38 minutes was oddly within 60 seconds of all three of my previous swim finishes. How weird is that? I guess all that running counts for something. The volunteers were amazing and got us out quickly, and I was glad to not have a 10 minute port-o-pottie stop like in 2004 (note - no matter how bad you have to go, take the wetsuit off BEFORE getting in a sun-drenched port-o-sauna).

The 58-mile bike (2 bonus miles!) is the crown jewel of this course, zooming down the Cascade Lakes highway before climbing up to Mt Bachelor and unleashing a 16-mile white knuckle descent. With no watch or power meter, I had no choice but to soak it all in and stick to my "lesson of threes" tempo. My pace felt fast, and I was grateful to have a pack of cyclists to work with. Even though we can't draft, we can help each other keep a rhythm (just like in ultras!).

(Getting a few cheers while zooming down the super-smooth highway)

(Mt. Bachelor is our final climb!)

On the final climb, all I could hear was lungs desperately grasping at the little oxygen that remained at 6,500 feet. This was the last third of the race, so I allowed myself to get out of the saddle and crank it up to the top. I passed about 30 riders, but many of them caught me within the first two miles of the descent. The advantage of a time trial bike and aero helmet was pretty clear once we got going fast.

(This is basically your view on the descent)

I tucked in and hung on, noting how much smoother this newly paved road is than previous years. Could this course be any more amazing?!? I felt like Chuck Yeager reaching the sound barrier as my freewheel hit a pitch only dogs could hear. As we took the last turn for the final 3-mile stretch to T2, my legs were thankful for the rest and felt ready to run. Then I got off the bike...ah, yes, the T2 shuffle! How soon we forget. The volunteers were awesome again, and one who saw my Inov-8 shirt yelled out splits for Western States. Gotta love the ultrarunners! He also let me know my bike split - 2:45 - which was fast for me indeed on this long and hilly course.

(Tri nerd coming through! Note the striped Injinji tsoks)

As sore as my legs were, it was nothing compared to my Western States brethren who were cutting through the canyons, so I cranked it up 'til it hurt (~6:30/mile pace). At that speed, it felt like I was passing everyone. I summarized there were two great benefits to ultra training prior to tri's - you are used to going fast on thrashed legs, and I was one of the few who thought a 90-minute run was "short". But I was forgetting my lesson of 3's, so I eased up to a 7:15/mile pace and chomped ice to stay cool.

The 13.1 mile run course feels like it's mostly downhill, and there were lots of spectators at every turn. Occasionally when I passed a triathlete, they would surge and stay with me, often blowing up a half mile later and slowing again. What was that all about? Most of the time I just trade the usual pleasantries of "looking good"s and "atta boy"s, but if it was a fit older guy showing a little grey, he dug deep. Then I figured it out - the age written on my calf! It was fellow age groupers making sure they didn't lose a podium spot in the final miles. Very impressive!

Before I knew it, I heard the cheers for the finish line and saw Sophie and her cousins hooting and hollering. It was a comfortable pace from end to end, and I had plenty left in the tank. I finished in 5:06 for 36th place and 8th in my age group, pleased that Ironman Hawaii was officially on the calendar now. We got some beer and sat in the shade, congratulating my Dad in his 2nd in age group finish in the half marathon.

(All smiles at the finish)

(Sophie shows off her new sunglasses in the finish chute)

(Okay, clearly I didn't go hard enough)

We spent the rest of the day hanging with friends and enjoying the weather, occasionally slying away to catch the live video feed of Western States on my iPhone4 (oooohhh, technolust so good!). I stood up and cheered for each finisher with more exubrance than the World Cup fans glued to the TV across the bar, and I wondered if the futballers thought this salty and tanned guy with the "41" on his calf was a bit crazy.

Probably true. But that's what too much sun, exercise, family, and good friends can do to you. ;-)

See you at the Death Ride!

- SD


  1. Hi Scott, I have been following your achievements online for quite some time now and am very impressed! Looks like your run split was under 1:45, not too shabby at all.

    My brother-in-law, Alex A., has just taken up ultra-running (yes, he is another crazy, just like you) and may hit you up for some advice.

    Martin Hoe

  2. So what was the most sore the next day? That's usually what tells me that I went too fast in one section. I also heard it was "within 7% of your best marathon" to get your goal pace.

  3. Scott, great report. Enjoyed the read. Congrats.

  4. Looks like a blast of a wkend. Makes me want to take "the fam" there. (oh no, a whole 7% :) makes me smile.) Good luck in Hawaii. Btw, I was one of those who did a first 1/2 last summer. Me=new for sure.

  5. Hey Scott; this isn't directly related to this post, but how do you manage running in the heat with the Humidex factor? These past 2 or so weeks here in Toronto, Canada have been really really hot and muggy for the most part, often with a humididty factor of 40C by 11:00am but still already 37C at 7:00am.

    The worst part for me is that I am on medication that makes it a challenge to manage body temperature as is, which ensures that I need to drink lots of Power-Ade for even "short" runs of 15K. Do you have a temperature limit where you will simply refuse to run? Aside from sports drinks, what are your tips for keeping cool?

  6. Anon: Honestly, my ass was the most sore. Clearly I haven't put in enough miles to be comfortable on the bike. Thanks for the insight on 7% - where did you hear it?

    Kos Mos - that's a great question. I've never been great in the heat, but have to stop a run from it. I usually just slow down, take plenty of fluids, and wrap ice in a bandana around my neck. I'm know to dump water on the head too. Let me know if you find other good tips - the Burning River 100 is going to be Super Humidex for sure.


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