I have just finished my first ironman 70.3 (“half-ironman” or “half distance” triathlon) the other day. Because I found what others before me have written about this course very useful, I am writing my account of the race to try and help others in the coming years.
In my opinion the Austin ironman 70.3 is a well organized race taking triathletes through a fair course. The volunteers are AWESOME and very prominent throughout registration and race-day. However, for those of you who will not want to read down to the detailed account, I would say that perhaps the only three real problems with the race were (in the order of importance, as I see it): the weather (which is usually too hot, too humid or both), the run course (which boasts a few hills that are not to neglect) and the lack of official online information (such as real-time water temperature updates or information about how to track athletes). For those of you that still want a detailed account of the race, I will write in as much detail as I can remember and I will try to break it down according to the race sequence of events. By the way – The book that got me through training and helped me achieve my goals was Championship Triathlon Training by George Dallam. A must read in my opinion.
Most of the competitors in the Austin ironman 70.3 are local Texans. Some come from Austin and many from neighboring cities such as Houston, San Antonio or Dallas. For these racers the pre-requisite for checking in your bike the day before the race is probably not a major issue. However, for people like myself who flew in to participate, the day before the race proved like a bit of a scramble, especially as the earliest flight got me to the registration around 12 noon.
The first thing you have to do is register. Not surprisingly, there is a long line of others who have to do just the same thing. And this takes time. Registration took us about an hour and a half or so. It included picking up my bib number and stickers, signing a waiver and receiving a (cool) bag of goodies. Not bad, just time consuming.
Next, is the mandatory bike check-in. This takes place at T1 which is about 1-1.5 miles away. In my case, because I flew in with my bike, I needed to assemble it. I am not an expert mechanic, but thanks to Jody (from ACE wheelworks in Somerville, MA) I managed just fine. Then after a short test ride (wear a helmet or they disqualify you) I got to set my equipment up on the rack.
In case you didn’t know – an ironman 70.3 race has two transition zones (T1 for the transition from swimming to biking and T2 for the transition from biking to running). Athletes need to arrange their equipment according to transitions and put it into bags and leave each bag in the appropriate transition area. This does not have to be done before race day and can theoretically be achieved on the day of the race itself. However, transition closes at 7:15 (though officials were really good about allowing late-comers to dash in and out to get their equipment set up – Thank you, by the way). With the (expected) morning traffic jams obstructing the entrance to the parking lots, accomplishing everything on race-day morning is not easy, unless you want to arrive at the race very early (before 6:00 AM). For this reason, I chose to arrange my equipment on the day before the race. This obviously took time which was limited, because transition closed around 5 PM on the pre-race afternoon. I was surprised to find that there was no running water to fill bottles on the day before the race, so I needed to find a CVS (the nearest one was about 15 minutes drive away) to get some water to fill my bottles. Other than that it rained on the night before the race, so if you left your equipment hanging, you risked it getting wet (mine didn’t).
Race day morning
If you arranged all your equipment the day before the race, then theoretically you can arrive to your wave start. BUT – parking is limited and there is still more to do on race day morning with your equipment. For this reason, I chose to arrive early that day. Parking is actually near T2, while the race starts at T1. There are shuttles that take athletes (and family members) from parking to T1. At T1 you need to achieve two assignments before 7:15. The first, is body marking. There are many volunteers that are happy to help with that (it is easy to achieve on your own – just write your bib number on each shoulder and your age on the left calf). The second thing to do is hop into the transition area and set up your equipment next to your bike. If you are like me, and you choose to leave your equipment in a bag from the night before, that does not take long. But it still takes time.
Shuttle buses on the way to T1
Most athletes converge around the port-a-potties after setting up their equipment (don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean…). From here it is a short waddle toward the corrals which mark the start.
The Austin half ironman is a wave start race (it is not a mass start race). You can find your wave on the website or ask the volunteers in the corral. It should not be difficult to figure out because the organizers keep announcing the various waves over the speakers.
Most athletes chose to swim with a wetsuit. The race is almost always wetsuit legal. This year (2013) the water was really cold (around 71 degrees Fahrenheit) so my full length suit was just fine. According to the internet, most years the water is a bit warmer, and a sleeveless suit is probably better (I, for one, get arm cramps from the full length suit tugging on my shoulders).
That is my arm there…
The swim course is very well marked with easy to see buoys. There are also plenty of volunteers on paddle boards and kayaks that are there to keep you safe. Each wave is launched about 5 minutes after the previous one. This means that if you are a decent swimmer you will surely pass slower swimmers from previous waves along the way (I have noticed a few people doing a lazy backstroke, which I found weird). The swim course is shaped like a triangle, and is organized in such a way that you do not swim against a current. On the way out and back the current is perpendicular to your course. I misjudged the intensity of this current which cost me some navigational errors (and a minute or two of time), so pay attention if you want to stay on course.
Getting out of the water is okay but not perfect. First of all, there is a gentle hill to run up and it is grassy (and muddy if you are not one of the first elites to run up). Family members can cheer you on and basically run beside you (on the outside of the fence) the whole way. Half way up there are “strippers” which can help you get the wetsuit off. I loved that. It really made that part easy.
If you look at previous years’ results, you will notice that the transitions in the Austin ironman 70.3 are a bit slow. The reason lays in the size. The run from the water to T1 is about 200 yards (I think) and the transition zone itself is perhaps as large. This adds up to a couple of minutes of commute. Add that to the fact that the recommendation was to pick your bike up (as opposed to roll it) because of thorns and potential flats, and you get a long transition…
We carried our bikes to avoid flats from thorns
And one more thing – for the SOB that dropped my bike, messed up my equipment, detached my cat-eye in the process and didn’t pick up the mess – I hope you had a flat.
Austin ironman 70.3 bike course
My bottom line about the bike course is that it was fair. There was some uphill, some downhill, some back wind and some head-wind. Overall, not the hardest course you can imagine. Most of the course takes you through the back roads of the countryside around Austin. I thought it was interesting. There were ranches, and horses and fields. I have read that others thought it was bland. I didn’t think so.
The main problem with the bike course, though, is that the roads are really poor quality. Coming from the Boston area, I did not think I would complain about the roads, but I am… For much of the ride we rode on very rough asphalt. The ride was so ‘grainy’ and shaky that I had to make sure I did not have a flat. Many people did. I saw at least two dozen riders on the side of the road exchanging their tubes. I would definitely practice that if you are planning on the Austin half. While there are support crews that drive up and down the course, they are limited and it is probably faster to just do it on your own and flag them down for a proper pump once you have most of the work done yourself.
At the bike finish
Another point I would like to make about the bike course is that people arrive with ridiculous equipment. It is hard to find riders without aerobars or carbon race (‘Zipp’) wheels. There are many who ride tri- (‘time-trial’) bikes. So if you are one of those people who want to rank high, don’t think you can rely on your superb abilities alone…
Arriving at T2, family members and friends can again see their loved ones. There are actually shuttles that they can take from T1 to T2 after athletes have started the bike leg. Many people choose to utilize this time to go out and grab breakfast and others actually make it into a field day and barbeque on the sidelines. The final few hundred yards leading into T2 are very exciting. After literally being on your own (more or less) for 2.5-3.5 hours, you are engulfed in the excitement of the crowd. Stay focused…
This just looks sad
After dismounting, running your bike to your rack location, switching to your running shoes and snapping on your bib number (which is mandatory for the run, not the bike ride), you are off. Again, the transition area is large and transition takes longer than you may be used to from smaller events. Overall T1+T2 took me about 9 minutes (I was anticipating as much as 10 minutes for both).
Austin ironman 70.3 run course
Each triathlete has his own ‘Achilles tendon’. Mine is the run. Even fresh I am not a strong runner, so after the swim and bike it is that much harder for me. The Austin ironman run course has its pro’s and con’s. A major pro is that the course loops around 3 times. This is awesome for several reasons. First, after the first round you get to know the course and it allows planning for the next two rounds. Second, it lets you see your support crew multiple times during the run. For me that was a huge advantage. A second definite pro is that the run course is packed with well equipped aid stations. A third pro is that the 1-1.5 miles on the near end of the course (closer to the start/finish line) are packed with music, volunteers and people who cheer you on). There are several problems with the run course, though. First, as many have noted, it is hilly. Although there are hillier races out there, having to go up and down two hills 6 times is a true challenge. Second, although aid stations and volunteers were abundant and very useful, they were not located along the longest and hilliest stretch of the course. I wish they had at least a cooling station (with vaporized water or just cold sponges) along the hilly part. That would have made that much more palatable for me. Thirdly, much of the run is not shaded. When the sun comes out that really makes it hot as heat radiates from the asphalt back up at you. Although I promised myself I would only walk at aid stations, I became dizzy during the last uphill effort and had to walk a bit to fight that off. I think it was related to over-heating because after getting some water on my head the dizziness wore off. And finally, if you are not in one of the first waves you are very likely to still be on the course when others have already finished their race. As you see the course thinning it may pose a psychological roadblock, unless you are prepared (as you are now after reading this).
This is a fake smile. Yep.
A word about nutrition
I am willing to bet that many of you know much more than I do about what works best (for you) during a long race. The point I would like to make is that proper nutrition is crucial during a half ironman. Drink and eat between the swim and the bike. Drink and eat constantly while on the bike (if you don’t use gels, consider opening your energy bar wraps beforehand to make it easier to get to the bar itself). Drink before the run. Then, during the run, do what you can. Many people complain about their stomach cramping up. It sure did happen to me. But I still fought it and got some water and oranges in. Next time I plan to come more prepared and learn how to use salt tablets which I hear help prevent cramps.
In 2013 the weather on race day was the best that Austin can offer. It was about 70 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the ride and run and clouds offered some shade. The humidity was also in-check around 50-60% or so. The Austin ironman has been known to take place at 90+ degree weather with 80%+ humidity. If you are like me and heat plays a big role in your performance, you should take this into account.
A tip I was given that helped me a lot during the run was that more important than drinking was cooling off by pouring water on my head. I think that was a very good tip. During training I practiced doing that without getting my shoes wet (by pouring water backwards). It didn’t really work for me during the race, but maybe you will be able to do it better. I have also heard of people stuffing their hats with ice. Go for it if you think it will work for you.
I really wanted friends and family to be able to track me during the race. It turns out that the ironman website offers this service via live coverage and all you need is for them to know your bib number. The thing is that this feature was not well advertised on the site or by the organizers and most of my friends did not know how to track me (I tried to purchase the ‘mapmyride’ MVP but that didn’t work either for some reason – and good it didn’t as I ended up handing my phone to my wife on the sidelines as I was pouring all that water on myself to keep cool). So now you know.
Post-race athlete care
The Austin ironman boasts a ‘unique indoor finish’. I didn’t get it before finishing but I do now. Finishing inside a stadium (it is actually a rodeo stadium) has some very cool advantages. First, it is shaded and cool. Second, you can sit down comfortably and eat some of the (abundant) food that is offered (there are meat and vegetarian options). While the food is far from gourmet the hospitality is obvious and it is not hard to get your family a sandwich or drink, if they so desire (I have noticed most people were really fair and did not take food so as to leave more for athletes).
At the finish line there is also a medical tent. While I am proud to say I did not need it, some did. They offered massages and thermal blankets.
After recuperating a bit, athletes need to pick up their equipment. Entry into the transition to get your bike is easy enough. Volunteers will make sure you take your own bike. Then you go and get your T1 bag (which is transported during the race to the T2 area). At least when I took mine no one checked to make sure the bag I was taking belonged to me. But overall it seemed safe enough. If you want to you can also have the organizers ship a bag of morning clothes from T1 to T2. That is also useful for those of you who arrive without a support crew.
Equipment bags awaiting pickup after the race
I am sure most of you did not read this far. I would still like to use this virtual space to thank my support crew – my wife – for making this possible; from the endless hours of training, through the force feeding, the pre-race jitters and the post-race high. I am very pleased with my result and I am very happy I got to participate in this amazing event. Onward and upward!
This is race day morning. Not night. Morning.
See also what I wrote about training after a triathlon – What do you do after your goal race?