Saturday, October 8, 2011
70.3 Ironman Pocono Mountains
This was the inaugural year for this event, so everyone was seeing the course for the first time - the Race Directors included. There was no history of what to expect, because no one had done it before - we'd all learn together, for better or worse.
Two days before the event we got an e-mail that said they were cancelling the swim leg, which was set to take place in the Delaware River. Some aggressive rain in the previous week had the river at flood stage, and there were big trees and and a raging current barreling down the river. Everyone was pretty bummed, but when you physically looked at the river - it was better suited for whitewater rafting than a leisurely 1.2 mile swim.
So instead, they modified the event to be just a bike/run sort of duathlon. For myself, I'd done another Half Ironman three weeks prior - so I wasn't devastated by the modification. But for some people, they'd had this event circled on their calendar all year - and once you remove one of the legs - I don't think you can legitimately say you finished a Half Ironman. Still an accomplishment, but you can't get most of the way up Mt. Everest and say, 'eh, good enough - we'll say we got there.'
Race morning, the temperature was about 47 degrees as we got setup in the pre-dawn gloom. Those lamenting the swim being cancelled got over it quickly as the thought of jumping in frigid waters seemed less and less enticing. 2,000 of us in this fenced off parking lot in the middle of a State Park - all contemplating the new reality of starting a race on the bike, rather than jumping in the water. The cool temps (and misting rain) made selection of bike gear more than just a trivial matter. If you overheat, a 56 mile bike race on narrow roads is not an ideal time to stop and simply remove a few layers. Too few clothes, and your fingers will frost off as you bomb down a hill at 30 mph.
At the start, they did a time-trial type start - letting us off one at a time every 5 seconds or so. The roads were wet, narrow, scattered with leaves, and plenty of uneven and potholed surfaces. Oh, and the hills. This was easily the steepest and hilliest course I've ever done. Three hills in particular were so steep that I bet a quarter of the field had to get off their bike and push their bike to the top of the hill.
Wet roads on a highly technical course - combined with high speeds, is a recipe for disaster. I saw one guy 50 feet in front of me crash, and go flipping into the nearby rocky brush. Saw probably saw at least 15 flat tires, and another 20 or so people drop their chains from ill-advised shifting under load while hill climbing. I managed to stay free of any problems, fortunately. I'm an above average descender, and probably went a bit fast and took too many risks on the downhill sections - but a necessary evil to make up time for my slow climbing ability.
For all the perils and challenges of this course, it was a really fun ride - and took a lot of focus and concentration. Simply riding on flat roads on a dry day through suburbia can get monotonous. This course was like climbing through what I picture Ireland to be like. Low lying fog, unrelenting hills, not a hint of sunshine, and civil unrest.
Around mile 40 I noticed my toes were pretty cold. In fact, they were mostly numb...but numb toes locked into cycling shoes isn't all that bad really. But when I switched to my running shoes, I felt as though there were a couple of metal spoons lodged in each shoe. Big sections of my feet and toes had no feeling until around mile 2 - a very odd sensation.
I mentally decided I was going to do the half marathon non-stop, a decision that would prove incredibly tough as the steep hills continued on the run leg. I settled into a routine of drinking a half cup of coke and a bite of banana at each aid station. It helped that it was only about 50 degrees, so the sweating and overheating was kept to a minimum.
Finished the half marathon in 2:20, pretty decent given the hills and the 3 hours of biking that had preceded it. Great crowd support coming into the finishing chute, crossed the finish line, and immediately was wrapped in those big foil warming blankets.
All in all, fun to add some variety. Slightly dangerous I suppose, but definitely a challenge. Also, all the hills made for a good training run for my marathon coming up in 2 weeks.
To give you a taste of what the bike was like, here's a video some guy shot from a camera mounted on his bike. If you don't have a full 20 minutes to spare, jump forward to 2:37 or minute 16 - and you can get a feel for some of the hills (though I don't know that the video does it complete justice).