With three weeks left to go before Ironman Wisconsin, it's tempting to call this race a "tune-up." But it wasn't. Everything about a sprint race is different than an Ironman. My strategy for the IM is to carefully stay within myself throughout the vast majority of the race, avoiding a catastrophic breakdown on the run that'll leave me shuffling along through most of the marathon. In a sprint you just go hard and hang it out on the edge, trusting your training and pushing through the hard parts. All the careful pacing and attention to nutrition that are such a part of IM training sessions doesn't matter much when you're only going to be on the course for about 90 minutes.
I drove up the morning of the race and liked what I saw. I've heard many people recommend the Luray races and I understood why. The venue is scenic and spacious, with a neat little picture postcard of a lake nestled below the transition area on a bluff above. There were numerous club tents and food vendors, and campsites for racers who come the night before or had done the international-distance race the day before. The vibe was family friendly, and many triathletes, particularly novices, had big cheering sections with them to celebrate their accomplishment.
I set up my transition area quickly and headed back down to my car for my wetsuit -- surprisingly the lake had cooled enough to be wetsuit legal. I'll take the suit option any time it's available. Some argue that it's not worth it for a sprint, claiming the time advantage on the swim is offset by the time it takes to get the suit off. Just my two cents, but if they have trouble getting their wet suit off quickly they haven't practiced enough. After a quick warmup swim in the lake it was time to go.
My wave was second to go -- a nice change from next to last, where the 50+ crowd usually is in most of my races. I seeded myself well up in the front. I'd put in a lot of long-course swimming this summer and was feeling confident I could hang with the front edge of the wave. By the time we hit the first turn of the triangular course we already up on the back edge of the first wave. Full-contact swimming ensued as I rounded the buoy -- I was hit in the head so many times I probably would have been pulled from an NFL game.
I found a bit of room after the scrum and navigated the next two legs with no difficulty, pushing the pace and trying to key off the swim fundamentals I've worked on through the summer -- head down, rotate around my body's axis, engaging the big muscles in the back. The overcast conditions made sighting easy, and soon I was up on the beach, running towards the stairs leading to transition. I didn't see many white caps from my wave, but plenty of red waves from the wave before. So far so good!
Swim (750 meters) -- 14;12. 4/24 AG, 43/298 OA male -- Turned out I was only 30 seconds behind the fastest swim in my AG -- that's a very good result for me.
Despite the long run up the stairs to transition I was determined not to lose any time here. The wet suit came off quickly (thanks Body Glide!) and I grabbed the bike and took off.
T1 -- 1:44. 1/24 AG, 22/298 OA male. So much for wetsuits slowing you down in transition...
I hopped on the bike at the mount line and slipped my feet into my shoes as I pedaled out of the park. The elevation profile for the bike looked challenging, and the course lived up to the billing. Right out of the gate we hit a lengthy hill, then a succession of false flats followed. On another day I might have admired the scenic aspects of the course, but today it was mostly lost on me as I kept my head down and kept grinding. My bike's power meter served as an effective conscience, reminding me to go harder every time I was tempted to soft pedal a downhill or ease up on a climb.
I rode solo for quite awhile, but was caught by a pack around mile 10 and we constantly swapped positions as the road suited our strengths. While I kept going hard, I didn't try to match my fellow athletes at the base of the climbs. They inevitably got out of the saddle and pushed hard, while I downshifted and kept my RPMs high. In most cases the strategy paid off -- I'd catch them near the middle or top and have enough in the tank to upshift and crest the hill on an acceleration.
As the ride ended I slipped my feet out of my shoes, executed a nifty flying dismount and ran into transition ready to tackle the run.
Bike (17 miles) -- 54:00. 2/24 AG, 53/298 OA male. Pleased with the effort on the bike. A tough but fun course.
T2 -- :59. 3/24 AG, 44/298 OA male. Shoes on, no socks, grab hat and race belt and go.
I caught a couple of quicky calf cramps as I started the run, but wasn't too concerned -- just the natural result of a hard bike. The run started with a flat section, so I kept my stride short and turnover quick until my legs shook out. As I settled into the run I took stock. I hadn't seen anybody in my AG on the bike, only one 55-59 competitor I recognized as a top age-grouper at most races. If I could put in a good run I felt confident I might be able to snag a podium slot.
And the run went well. The course was a straight out and back, so I could see I was fairly close to the front edge of the race. I passed a dozen or so runners on the way out, and scanned the pack for threats on the return leg. With the exception of strong-looking woman from the FEXY team, I didn't see anybody who looked like they had the legs to catch me if I could keep going hard. Runners were sparse, so I picked a couple of runners 50-75 yards ahead and tried to close the gap.
I picked off one of them, a 31-year old guy, while cresting a hill, and put my efforts into staying ahead of him. Sure enough, the FEXY team woman caught me with a couple of hundred yards to go, but I was able to keep the gap close and finished strong (turns out she was third woman overall, so I don't feel too bad about that...)
Run (3.1 miles) -- 23:31. 3/24 AG, 61/298 OA male. I lost some steam at the end of the run after starting off with two crisp 7:15 miles, but very pleased with the overall effort.
Final result -- 1:34:25. 2/24 AG, 36/298 OA male. It pays to be consistent across all three disciplines. My overall placement was 7 places higher than my best result in the swim, bike, or run. A good day, and I qualified for USAT AG Nationals for 2013 -- the fourth year in a row I've qualified.