Holy crap that was hard!
Syracuse 70.3 officially takes top spot for hardest course I have ever done, and also one of my favourite 70.3's to date. In my prep for Whistler I wanted to find a 70.3 that would allow me to test out my gear and nutrition strategy on a similarly challenging course profile. Turns out I also managed to simulate Ironman suffering about as accurately as possible without actually doing an Ironman...so all in all it was mission accomplished!
I went down to Syracuse on Friday night with my parents to stay with our long time family friends who live about 20 minutes from the race site, and I was immediately kicking myself for not doing this race before. It's a beautiful area and with it only being about 4.5 hours away it's also one of the closest Ironman 70.3 events to home. Being able to stay with friends so close by made it that much more enjoyable.
I got my race prep done early on Saturday and got a feel for the terrain in the area. If the hills weren't enough the forecast also called for 104F humidity and 25mph winds on race day. I knew that I was in for some serious suffering, but that was kind of the whole point!
Possibly even more important to me than my performance or result was that it was going to be the first real test of my new IM nutrition strategy that includes a lot more sodium and tweaking my carb intake both on the bike and run. In a few of my recent long course races I have run into stomach issues that I had never experienced in training, so it has been difficult to replicate or predict. I figured "sh*t hitting the fan" conditions in a 70.3 would be a pretty good simulation for Ironman :)
Now for the race itself...
Similar to Milton a couple weeks ago, my primary goal for the swim was just to get through it alive and without any shoulder pain getting onto the bike. After a quick warm-up and some of LPC Coach Alex's dynamic stretching and core activation exercises it was my turn to get rolling in wave 10.
I managed to find clean water fairly quickly...that is until we hit all the previous waves of swimmers. But that's par for the course in any Ironman event so I just did my best to get through the traffic without wasting too much energy or demolishing anybody.
About 4-500m in I noticed some pretty significant chop that was in our favour for the time being. You know when you see the waves rolling past you while you're swimming with them, it's gonna suck going the other way! I quickly realized this would mean a long and difficult 900m back to shore so I backed off the pace a bit to anticipate a negative split in effort on the way back. I already had the feeling that this race was going to be ridiculously hard in every way possible.
Sure enough as I made the turn the wind made for a challenging swim coming back. It was tough to sight and not get pushed off course but I was able to stay relaxed and focused on a good turnover and staying high in the water. I kept reminding myself of my mindset for the day: the process and execution is more important than times or results. When I got out of the water I didn't see anyone else from my wave around and not many bikes were gone on my rack, so I knew that regardless of the times I managed to swim reasonably well. I took some extra time to throw on my Castelli jersey that I'll be using for Whistler to give it a test.
Accurate depiction of the scenic venue...terrible depiction of the tough conditions
I knew that this was going to be a challenging bike course, that's why I chose this race. But man, it's a friggin challenging bike course!
There wasn't much time to settle in and find my legs before the first climb...which was 9 miles long. The first 40k of the course was almost entirely uphill and into that stiff headwind that was whipping up the lake earlier. My power numbers were on the low end but I knew this was the perfect simulation for Whistler so I focused on climbing efficiently and executing my nutrition strategy.
I can assure you that's a grimace and/or tears, not a smile
After what seemed like an eternity of riding uphill into the wind I laughed when I saw that I had averaged under 30km/h at ~240W through the first hour on the bike. After a few brief moments of feeling good from 30-45k I was starting to feel like I was 150k into an Ironman, not 50k through a half. My legs were empty, my butt was sore, it was already stupidly hot and I was getting frustrated seeing the low power numbers I was putting out. Let me tell you, this was a beast of a course to not be feeling strong or fresh for. And 90k of 30+km/h wind and 3500ft of climbing is a long time to question your life decisions when you still have a half marathon to run after.
Questioning life decisions
I had to catch myself a few times when the negative thoughts started flowing as I watched the miles tick by impossibly slowly and my power dropping. But I was able to stay focused enough not to get down on myself or pack it in mentally. I told myself that worst case, this would be a great IM simulation day even if I shuffle through the run. Best case, I know I'm still fairly fast and efficient on the bike at my IM power output, and my legs might come around for the run to still finish well.
I decided that I was going to ditch my Garmin at T2 and just run by feel. I wasn't sure how things were going to go but I wanted to give myself the opportunity to reset and just let things happen rather than tie myself to a goal time or pace. This turned out to be the best decision of my day.
Run:I settled into what seemed like a reasonable pace through the first 5k of the run, but having never done a 70.3 run without a Garmin I wasn't totally sure how I was running. It was already total carnage on the run course with the heat and hills, and looked far more like an Ironman run course with a large percentage of athletes from the earlier waves walking.
I was feeling decent and I knew that as long as I kept moving forward I would pass a lot of athletes. My two goals for the run became: 1. Don't barf, and 2. Just. Keep. Running. My stomach was still a bit testy through the first lap of the run as I made sure I got enough carbs and fluids in to be in good shape for lap 2. I backed off the pace a couple times to let my stomach settle down, but was able to bring it back up shortly after each time. Despite what seemed like a slow pace I was passing literally hundreds of athletes from the waves ahead and there were very few on the run course who seemed to be moving as well as I was.
Where's the next aid station, I need my watery flat ice-coke
When I got near the finish my support crew was yelling at me that if I kept pushing I could break 5 hours, to which I thought "Are you f***ing kidding me?!" I had thought that 4:30 would be a strong but realistic goal on the challenging course. But it turned out that only 14 people broke 5 hours on the day, and my 4:57 put me 12th overall and 5th in a clearly competitive age group. To put it in perspective that's about 40 MINUTES off my PB when I finished in a nearly identical position (11th and 4th AG) on a similarly hot day in Muncie a couple years ago.
I have to say that despite being dealt incredibly tough conditions on an already difficult course, this was one of my favourite races I've ever done. It was an epic course and very well-run event, and I'm already looking forward to coming back sometime to really target it for another crack. Despite having a sub-par bike I felt like I executed to the best of my abilities on the day, and ultimately it served it's purpose as the perfect tune-up for Whistler.
Thanks again to everyone for the words of encouragement and support, my parents for coming along on the road trip, Dave and Linnea for the great company and accommodations, and of course Amanda for holding down the fort with two occasionally pain-in-the-ass fur children for the weekend :)