PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Lubbock, TX
Buffalo Springs 70.3 is a special race for me, and one that has been near and dear to my heart for the past 13 years. When I first started triathlon down in Austin, Texas in the early 90′s, I had heard all about how this was the race to do; the race to challenge oneself; the race in Texas to try and win. I shied away from it for many years – fearing and respecting the conditions – but in 1999 I made my way to the West Texas Llano Estacado for my first go ’round. I have raced the event 7 times since, and it remains one of my favorite events on the circuit.
Sunday’s race got off to a subpar start, as once again I ignored my gut feeling and chose the full suit over the much more appealing sleeveless. I admit that my love for the TYR Freak of Nature was too great to ignore, and although I knew I’d likely overheat in the (probably 80-degree) water. If anyone sees me in that lake next year with anything other than a Sleeveless Hurricane, please punch me in both kidneys.
At the swim start, rational thought overrode my competitive drive, and I “allowed” the front group of men to swim away from me. I knew that my only chance was to reign in my speed, and to ease into a steady swim. I felt good about my plan until about 800 meters, when I realized that even without a swim cap, I was about to burst into a flaming neoprene mass of flotsam. I admit that I toyed with the idea of giving up the chase. I am not one to quit, but I was not enjoying myself one bit, and I felt that I had sabotaged my race by not carefully selecting the proper equipment for race day. However, after a few strokes on my back, I flipped back over and tried to suck it up. It never ceases to amaze me how poorly I handle hot swims, whereas my tolerance of hot bikes and runs is quite high.
Onto the bike, I proceeded to assess the damage. I knew I lost time to the contenders, but would not know how much until the first turnaround on the bike. I put my head down and tried to pedal the bike at a decent output, knowing I had my work cut out for me. After the initial shock of overheating and climbing up a couple steep hills, my elevated heart rate began to normalize. My plan was to gain control of that HR, then attempt to gradually bring up the power to my 70.3 watts.
Technical Aside: In my previous two 70.3 races, my normalized power was 306 (San Juan) and 325 (New Orleans – 51 miles). As reference, I ran 1:18 in San Juan in hot/ humid conditions; and I ran 1:16 in New Orleans with great weather. I knew my fitness in both bike and run had greatly improved, and that my bike and run training should enable me to achieve much higher outputs. I also knew that the Buffalo Springs bike and run courses were more challenging than either of those events. In either case, I had calculated that my best bike ride would be in the realm of 315 to 325 watts, depending on the amount of wind we faced. And I knew I was capable of running anything sub-1:19, again, depending on conditions.
Back to the details of my bike ride…
At about 10 miles, the bike ride took its first challenging turns: into a headwind, with a gradual down and up through a canyon. Normally, my strength will shine in scenarios like this, and I power well into the wind and climb. However, at that moment I began to realize that I was not yet firing on all cylinders. I could not manage to bring the power up into zones that were typically quite manageable (330 to 355) for climbs and headwinds. Often I am struggling to keep the power under 370-375 in scenarios like this. What was worse, I was seeing very low heart rate numbers on this section of road. I had succeeded in dropping the numbers from immediately post-swim, but now I was unable to lift the HR back up into the upper 150′s, again, a place that is normally quite doable.
Never one to dwell on past (or current) shortcomings, I resolved myself to be the “smart” back-half racer, who would be later pointing to superior late-game power numbers. I truly believed I would eventually come around and find that wattage I needed to find.
Seeing the large gap I faced to Luke Bell, the Bowsteads and Terrenzo (and the others!), I did my best to stay positive and remain in the moment. I cannot say that I was entirely successful with this goal. I did find myself getting uncharacteristically down on myself, and, again, contemplating giving up. But, as I said at the awards ceremony, nothing about this race in Lubbock condones giving up. I won the race in 2001, but a year later finished in dead last – after 8 hours of racing and tons of walking (result of a bike crash). I do not give up then, and I certainly could not quit at Buffalo Springs.
Back to the bike ride…
I did my best to find my mojo as the miles ticked on. Hunting for some external motivators, I told myself that I had to power up the custom Team Lovato 4000 that Kestrel had provided us – it was wrong for the maiden race to be a slow one! Facing the remaining hills and headwinds, I tried very hard to rally. I admit that every time I looked at my PowerTap Joule, I got a bit more depressed, so I tried to ignore it and ride with some gusto. My new game plan was to tackle the final 12-14 miles of headwinds and crossing headwinds, and to finish strong enough to run well.
I finally managed to see some normal half ironman watts on the final straights back to T2. While my average power was firmly stuck in the realm of Ironman watts (285-295), I was hoping a solid block of riding would bring me back in range of the leaders. I was finally enjoying the race for the first time that day – feeling a bit of strength in the quads, holding a gear, spinning a nice rhythm. I put aside all the negative thoughts that I had been processing for the past couple hours. Whether or not I was under rested going into the race, or if the lack of power came from overheating in the swim, it no longer mattered. I needed to move on and do some justice to my slick Brooks Pure Connects.
Arriving in T2, I was told I faced an 8:30 gap to the leader(s). The number seemed ridiculous, but I reminded myself that experience on the BSLT course could pay big dividends. The heat and hills of Lubbock have a funny way of punishing an athlete late in the half marathon. I told myself to abandon a sound strategy of easing into the run (something I normally do there, so I can better prepare for the closing miles and heat). I told myself to run whatever pace felt natural, and to keep the pressure on. I figured there was still a chance of making the podium.
For only the second time in a race, I chose to wear a Garmin to record splits. For years I have training with GPS data, and this time I thought I’d use it to help myself pace properly. In this case, I also used it for a bit of extra motivation. Knowing that the fastest run times on this course had not been under 1:17, I felt that a 5:45-5:50 average would be an exceptional effort. I tackled the first three miles in 16:42, but then I did my best to regroup a bit on the 10% grade hill leaving the park (at 5km). I did not want to blow my effort level through the roof; again, experience was my friend on the day.
I got back on top of the pace for the next couple miles, and by mile 5 I had passed a few more runners. I then noticed that Luke Bell was walking an aid station. Just ahead was another athlete, who I appeared to be catching. I did not know my placing at the time, was fast approaching the end of the out-and-back known as Energy Lab II. I would soon see my deficit.
In addition to the positive feedback my Garmin was giving me, I had absolute and total faith in my fueling plan. Despite the hot, dry temps which were drawing near on triple digits, my First Endurance nutrition plan was flawless. Even with zero salt tabs, my muscles were resisting all urges to cramp or fail me…
By then I was in third place, and I did some basic math to note that I was over 5 minutes down from the leader (Bowstead), but only 30-40 seconds off second (Umphenour). I felt that it was time to see what was left in everyone’s tank. I upped the ante a bit while catching and passing Joe. He encouraged me, and I sportingly yelled that he and I could still catch first. He took my bait – dang it! – and came with me.
Somehow – perhaps something to do with my 9th mile split of 5:24 – I managed to reel in the leader by the 9.5 mile mark at the top of the third and final climb of the day. From that point on, I was able to benefit from multiple cheers and words of encouragement from my fellow competitors who were making the outbound run. I knew I had to keep the pedal down, as Joe was still gamely hanging onto the pace. The final 5km of running in Lubbock can test your resolve, as with the finishes on most half irons. I kept the throttle open, and threw a couple of peeks over the shoulder to determine whether or not I had dropped Joe. I realize that one should never show weakness by looking back, but in a case like this, I had to carefully dole out what energy I had left. It’s never over until it’s over, and I knew that protecting my position in front was they only goal I had left. I could no longer afford to run with abandon, and risk cramping up, only to see Joe scoop up first place.
By mile 12, I realized he was no longer in close contact (gap was over 30seconds). I finally allowed myself to stop grunting at the other athletes (grunts of encouragement?), and began handing out a few high-fives to some familiar Texans. I was there. A mere 11 years since my first win at Buffalo Springs, I was taking another title. I was elated, and I soaked up as much of that finish line energy as I could.
Crossing the line, I was very pleased to run a 1:16.32, several minutes better than my best at BSLT, and, I believe, the fastest pro run time in the race’s history. Normally I’m not one to harp on splits and records, as I know that in triathlon the only thing that really matters is who crosses the line first. But in this particular case, I wanted to focus on what I did best. In this case, my run was my best event on the day, and more importantly it highlighted the fact that I was able to turn things around, despite not really wanting to do so at times. I did not give up after a really poor start (swim-bike combo), and keeping the faith despite the odds enabled me to take home the victory.
And with regard to splits and overall times, it pleases me very much to say that my friend, occasional training partner, and carpool companion, Drew Scott, put together a stellar show in the age group race. He swam, biked, and ran with confidence and strength; and his finish time at the end of the day showed up 2 seconds quicker than mine: an impressive feat for the 21-year-old amateur. I love that he was able to win the age group race, and I enjoyed seeing him dominate his field while we were both on course together. His amateur win, combined with my overall pro victory, meant that our car ride home had some seriously speedy conversations. And mix in Amanda’s fourth place finish in the women’s field, suffice it to say that Team Ford Flex out of Boulder, Colorado had a pretty good trip to Lubbock this year!
For those interested in seeing some of the heart rate, power, and GPS data, I plan to write a recap and share this data. Check back soon for all the numbers!
Thanks to the sport’s best sponsors, without you I could not have done what I did. Big thanks to Rev3 for the belief in my ability to promote your events no matter the venue; thanks to Kestrel, First Endurance, Brooks, TYR, Recovery Pump, Jack and Adam’s, Boulder Running Co., Zipp/ SRAM, ISM, CycleOps, TorHans, and Louis Garneau. And a special thanks to each partner who helps out along the way, including Headsweats, Yurbuds, Justin’s Nut Butter, and Monkey Brains. Y’all are the best!