Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ironman Muskoka 2012 (Part 2) - Final Preparations

It's been a while since I posted here as I got out of the habit during my injury and didn't really do a good job of working back into things.  As such, I'm going to do this race report in three parts - firstly covering the buildup and training for the race, secondly, the final preparations for the race and, finally, on the race itself.

With a sub-optimal training season, naturally my nerves were a little frayed going into the final weeks before the race.  In previous years I had used highly regimented training programs, and regardless of the doubts that I may have had I could always fall back on trusting those programs.  This year, unfortunately, I had succumbed to the temptation of making excuses, and it was harder to have confidence in my preparations especially with a race covering such a large distance on hostile terrain.

The other concern that I had was that I didn't get a chance to head back to Huntsville to do another pre-ride of the course to familiarize myself with it.  We had arranged a group ride in early August, but heavy rain on that day forced us to cancel it.  Unfortunately our schedules didn't mesh for the remaining weeks, so we never got a chance to head back up there.  Fortunately, I had ridden the course the year before so I remembered most of it, but I wasn't sure how my legs would handle it this time around.

On the upside, without an aggressive time goal it did allow me more flexibility to adjust my pace on the fly.  The primary objective of this race was just to get to the finish line, and my limited fitness meant that there would be little temptation to try and push myself too hard.  I was comfortable enough with all of the distances that I wasn't really worried about not being able to make it, so if I had to walk up a few hills it wouldn't really be a huge issue.  The time cutoffs were long enough that I could have easily walked the entirety of the run stage, so there was little risk of missing the target here.

Logistics Planning

Either way, at this stage there was little that I could do on that front so I simply had to focus on planning the race as best I could with the tools available to me.  Unlike running races, there is a lot more moving parts for Triathlons and that's especially true for distances such as this.  The logistics of dragging all of your equipment up to the race, setting it up, handling transitions during the race and then breaking it down at the end are complicated.  Further, nutrition is a lot more complicated as you're burning around twice as many Calories as a marathon and as you can't really take anything in during the swim, you start off at a healthy deficit.

Compounding this was the fact that this particular race used a Powerbar sports drink (Ironman Perform) rather than the standard Gatorade provided at most races.  On the occasions that I've tried it, Perform has not aggreed with my digestive system and I'm not a big fan of the taste either.   My typical strategy in the past has been to stick with Gatorade supplemented with a few gels, as that keeps things simple (ie just drink to thurst and the Calories and electrolytes balance themselves out pretty well).  Unfortunately, their choice of sports drink made that plan untenable so my choice was either to (i) load up the bike with my own Gatorade or (ii) stick with water on the bike and use a heavier dosage of gels.

Option one would be the simplest solution, but with the crazy hills of the Muskoka course the thought of having to drag several pounds of extra weight along wasn't appealing.  Using the bottle exchanges I'd only have to bring about 750mL of drink with me, and I could pick up another 1.5L en route.  Doing the same with Gatorade basically meant bringing more than 2.25L (~5lbs) of the stuff from the start.

Going with option two meant having to fiddle with more variables, however it allowed me to use the two bottle exchanges to refill my water reservoir (I was using a Speedfil).  Using a stem bag I could bring along as many gels as I liked, and as they weigh next to nothing it would be easy enough to handle.  It meant things were more complicated as I had to remember to eat them every 15K, and it slowed things down a bit as trying to open, squeeze out and then put away the wrapper (littering is explicitly against the rules) is something of a juggling act when you can only use one hand.

I flirted with a few other ideas like carrying a 2-4x concentrated bottle of Gatorade on the rear carrier and then pouring it into the Speedfil after the course water, but I didn't have time to work out the details of what concentrations would stay in solution and whether it would mix.  The engineer in me tossed around ideas of rigging a venturi siphon in the Speedfil's straw, but that wasn't exactly something I was equipped to build.  Ultimately, though, I ended up going with the gels and water approach as I figured it would be the simplest to execute.

On the run, I packed my water belt with bottles of Gatorade to make things a bit easier.  That gave me a litre of the stuff to work with, and when that ran out the aide stations had flat coke that could take me the rest of the way in (and the Caffeine would help with energy for the final push).  It's easier to get calories in on the bike (no bouncing, so GI system works better) so while I brought a couple of Gels with me I didn't plan to use them.  I borrowed a Garmin 405 from friends so that I'd have a pace and distance readout while running, but still used my Edge (in a pocket) to actually record the data.

As for the transition, given the distance I figured that I was better off planning to be comfortable than trying to be too aggressive in shaving time there.  As such, I would put (pre-rolled) socks on before getting on the bike and sit down to do that, as I remembered fumbling around with that at my sprint tri (where I tried doing that standing).  I elected to continue putting my shoes on at the rack and run in them to the bike, as I don't really think I'm coordinated enough to do the whole shoes-already-on-bike acrobatics :OP  I also decided to take the time to put on my cycling gloves, as 94K of hilly riding seemed a bit daunting without them.

Pacing & Race Tactics

The Muskoka bike and run courses are both mercilessly hilly, so just going out and doing things blindly is generally not a good approach.  From my pre-ride, I knew that the final stretch has some monster hills and it's easy to go too hard in the middle third of the course (Dorset to Baysville) to put yourself in a bad place.  I was also unsure as to how well my legs would run after that ride, so I didn't want to go too hard on the bike.  I've been fortunate that running off of the bike has never been a problem for me, but the scale of this race is a lot bigger than any brick that I've done so I was concerned it might be enough to tip the scales.

The other tricky part of the equation is that pacing yourself on a course like this is extremely difficult, as there are little to no flat segments on the bike ride.  It's relatively easy to do with a power meter, as you can just set a target and stick to it.  Unfortunately, as I don't have one of those as of yet I'm left with only speed and heart rate.  Both of those are highly dependent on grade and make it hard to use either as a reliable benchmark.  Averaging the data helps with this, but then you're looking at a significant lag in the signal and your response comes too late to be effective.  In the end I chose to just trust my gut and go by feel, airing on the side of caution and keeping an eye on the data that I did have to help calibrate that.

Ironman Muskoka 70.3's 94K bike course (4K longer than standard half Ironman races) and profile charts.  Top plot is elevation and the bottom is % grade (note that both are smoothed a bit to make it easier to read).  Click for more detail.

Either way, the first third of the course has some relatively large hills but fortunately the grades aren't really too crazy in most places.  There are some pretty substantial downhills in this section as well, so the plan was basically to bomb down those descents as quickly as possible and try to use as much momentum as possible to get up the hills.  As I didn't want to tire myself out too early in the game, the plan was to switch to low gears as soon as that momentum ran out and stay down on the saddle.

Once I got to the first bottle exchange in Dorset, things flatten out a bit and it's really tempting to just get down on the aerobars and floor it to make up time.  The problem is that the final third of the race has some monster grades, and burning yourself out on these miles is a good way to make those painful.  As such, I figured that I'd just try and stick to a comfortable ~28-29km/h pace along this stretch and give the legs a chance to recover from the hills in the first third.  While there are a few hills in this segment, they aren't terribly long and you get a good run at them so I'd be a little more aggressive than in the first third but not go as far as standing at any point.

Once we make the turn in Baysville (the second bottle exchange) and head north, the course gets into the really mean hills.  Compounding this is the fact that there are a few stretches of road with horribly bumpy chipseal, which will significantly limit safe speeds and kill a lot of momentum on downhills (meaning otherwise simple rollers get a lot harder).  As such, the climbs here were going to need a lot more power so I would have to focus on selecting optimal gearing and standing up to climb the larger hills.  At the same time, this is a rough section and to survive to the end will require some conservation so the plan was to take every possible opportunity to rest when not actively climbing.

Fortunately, the last couple of kilometers are mostly downhill so the plan was simply to soft pedal down that segment to give any residual lactate a chance to clear.  I'd also take the opportunity to stretch the legs a bit to prepare them for the run as well as eat a gel before getting into transition.  By this point in the race, I would have taken in about 700kcal in total (one before getting on the bike, then one every 15K and final one heading into transition).

Ironman Muskoka 70.3 21.1km run course and profile charts.  Top is the elevation map, centre is an averaged grade plot and bottom is a raw grade plot.  By far the hilliest half marathon course I've ever seen ;)  Click for more detail.

On the run, things were a bit simpler as grade has less of an effect on pace (wider power band, no gears and no coasting).  As such, I elected to start the run off with an easy 6:00/km pace and then make a decision when I hit the half-way point (ie top of the biggest hills) as to whether I could speed that up.  I also left the door open to consider walking on the steeper portions of the hill on Muskoka Rd 3 (ie that giant bulge in the middle).

Fortunately, with the out and back arrangement of the course I'd have a good idea of what to expect in the second half, so making a judgement about how to proceed at the turnaround should work decently.  There were plenty of aide stations planned along the route, so supplies weren't going to be a big worry.  The downhills were a bit of an unknown, as usually they'd be good but depending on the terrain that can be pretty hard on tired quads.  With the return along Highway 60 being done on a trail rather than the road, however, there was the possibility of some dodgy descents.

The other complicated component was that I'd be starting the half marathon after noon, so there was the possibility of it being quite hot for the run.  Fortunately I did take the opportunity to do a lot of my long runs at mid-day so that would help, but after swimming and cycling all morning that heat could easily be a lot more uncomfortable.  Fortunately, the weather reports were calling for a cool day so that was less of an issue but it wasn't a guarantee.

Travel Logistics

As Ironman Muskoka requires all bikes to be checked in the day before the race, there was no choice but to stay in a hotel in Huntsville.  That made things a bit simpler as we could head up at a relaxed pace on Saturday morning, have some time to check out the venue and relax ahead of the race.  As there was a group of us going up, we arranged to meet up for dinner the night before to get our carb fix and get into the right mindset.

I was hoping to get in a short and easy run once we got into town to shake down the legs, but as we got closer to the date the weather descended into rainy territory so I elected to just forget about that and stay dry.  It's always good to stretch out the legs a bit, but it's not really necessary and the risk of catching something in the cold/wet air was not worth it.

My father expressed interest in coming with me, and that made things a lot easier as he could help with shuffling equipment around and simplify the driving part of the equation.  As the Deerhurst parking lot was used for transition, they had parking at a nearby airfield and used shuttle buses.  They wouldn't let you bring bikes on the shuttles, however, so it helped a lot to have someone to drop me off with my gear at the site and not have to mess about with the buses.

Heading Up

We left home around 10am and drove up to Huntsville, ending up getting into town at about noon.  We popped into Harvey's to grab lunch, checked into the hotel and then drove over to Deerhurst to drop of the bike and register.  I got dropped off with my bike and checked it into the temporary storage racks before heading in for registration.  Things were a bit cloudy at the time, but it wasn't raining and temperatures were pretty comfortable.

Once inside I got my race number, filled out the waivers and emergency forms then proceeded to register and pick up my kit.  As I was getting instructions from one of the volunteers, Ueli popped in line behind me and said hello.  We quickly finished registration, and headed over to the Ironman store across the way and looked around.  I was tempted by the jerseys, but decided not to go for it as they were white shirts and I'm not crazy about their tendancy to go transparent when they get wet ;)  They had some decent stuff, but nothing that I really needed so I avoided temptation and headed out when the others were done.

After looking through the rest of the expo and chatting a bit, we headed out to rack our bikes and rig some covers over them to protect them from the rain.  It was drizzling a bit when we went out, but by the time I got to the rack it started coming down in buckets so I had to rush and get it covered.  After a few minutes of fiddling around with bags, elastic bands and zip ties I had the Handlebars, Saddle and Speedfil securely covered.  As I was running over to cover, I realized that I forgot to put the race sticker on the bike, so I had to run back and stick it on the top tube (wasn't about to unwrap the seat post again).

We took the bus back to the car, then drove back to the hotel and relaxed a bit.  We popped over to a local church before heading to East Side Mario's to meet up with the rest of the group and have dinner.  After loading up on carbs, we headed back to the hotel and got everything organized for the morning, sat back and relaxed a bit and then went to bed early for the big day...

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