Tuesday, May 9, 2017

St. George 70.3 2017 Race Report: Happy Place

I honestly don't even know where to start with this race report about St. George 70.3. It certainly won't be "fair and balanced" because I've fallen completely in love with the race. Part of me just wants to post all the gorgeous pictures that I took of the scenery. But...let me give this a try.

Ironman 70.3 St. George is the North American 70.3 Pro Championship. It had the feeling of a championship event: the vibe around the cool little Utah town was similar to that of 70.3 Worlds. In addition to 2500 age groupers racing on Saturday, there was a world class pro field, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee, who would be competing in his first Ironman-branded 70.3 event. For weeks leading up to the race, there was huge hype about how Brownlee would do compared to some of the greatest competitors in the sport. I couldn't believe that I'd be there in person for this race!

Trent and I made the 9-hour drive from Denver on Thursday. Neither of us have seen this part of the country before, and the scenic drive passed by very quickly. We arrived in St. George early enough to enjoy a little sunset drive through Snow Canyon, where we would be riding our bikes during the race on Saturday. The landscape is so gorgeous and unique with the enormous red rocks, contrasting green foliage, bright blue sky, and warm desert sand.

A petrified sand dune in Snow Canyon.
On Friday, we did a short shakeout run from the hotel, grabbed some breakfast, and headed over to Athlete Checkin at the town square. Then we drove to Sand Hollow to do a practice swim in the reservoir, ran through our gears, and racked our bikes in T1. Then back to the town square to drop off our run gear bags in T2. Everything went smoothly. The water was cool and inviting at 61 degrees, because the air temperature was an unseasonably warm 96 degrees! The weather was supposed to cool off overnight for race day, so I wasn't too concerned.

Ok, so this sign at the front of the park was a little concerning, although clearly not for our teammate Chad!
Because we registered late, we were racked at the end of the age group bike racks, which happened to be right next to the pros. Here's a pic of Trent next to the spot of one of his favorites, the lovely Maggie Rusch.
Star gazing in transition.
That evening, I received an alarming text message from a friend. The swim waves were being moved up because the weather forecast was for high winds that would increase through the day. They wanted to have people off the bike as early as possible. My heart sank - one week ago on a training ride in Boulder, I was literally crying on my bike because I felt like the strong crosswind was going to blow me into traffic, and I shortened my ride, citing "I'm a wind weenie" on Strava. We went to bed early and I just hoped for the best.
In transition on race morning. I just love racing with this guy. ❤️
Race morning came and it was fun to ride the shuttle bus from the town square to Sand Hollow, and to chat with friends in transition. Before I knew it, it was time for my wave to start. My goal for the swim was to get on some fast feet and stay there. After swimming Masters for months, I am fully aware of the benefit of the draft, and even though I'm uncomfortable being in the middle of the fray, I was determined to do it this time.

I lasted about two minutes in a wonderfully fast pack of splashing arms and feet. Then, I started to feel panicky. I was wearing a new aero top that zipped all the way up to the neck, which I'm not used to. Combined with a tight wetsuit and constricting heart rate strap, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I swam off to the right of the pack, pulled my wetsuit neck down to get some water into my suit, and tried to breathe. This panicky feeling came up several times throughout the swim, and whenever I wasn't trying to compose myself, I was swimming as fast as possible to try to make up for the little breaks I was taking.

That is one of the great reasons to do a practice race before your big event - to figure out things like this. Next time, I'll simply unzip the neck of my kit before the swim. I definitely recommend a sleeved aero suit like the one I wore for St. George - it was comfortable and aerodynamic on the bike, protected me from the sun, and felt cool on the run on a hot day.

After 37+ minutes, the swim was over, and I ran up the boat dock to transition. I didn't have any particular goals or expectations for the bike. It was my first race on a new bike with a fit that isn't perfectly dialed yet. I've been riding up mountains for several months, so I wasn't worried about the ~3000 feet of elevation gain. I was looking forward to riding through Snow Canyon, a 4-mile climb that began around mile 40. As I rolled out of transition and out onto the road, the wind was picking up, but I wasn't scared like I thought I would be. Instead, I was uncontrollably smiling, enjoying the race, enjoying the ride! The scenery was ridiculous. At one point we were riding towards this huge mountain, with breathtaking desert landscape on either side.

Absolutely loved my first race with my new bike.
There's a section of the bike course, around mile 30, where it's parallel to the run course. I saw Alistair Brownlee at about mile 4 of his run, winning the race. He was running so fast and effortlessly up the enormous hill that I was descending. Moments later, I saw Lionel Sanders giving chase, and then more pros. How cool is that? Even being so enamored with the pro race, I couldn't help thinking about how hard it would be for me to run up that hill later.

After many rolling hills, twists, and turns, we finally rode into Snow Canyon. I exclaimed to a cyclist nearby, "isn't this beautiful!?" and he agreed. I was happy to find that the steady 4-mile climb wasn't too difficult, just spin spin spin. I did pass by some folks who were walking their bikes up the hill. I wondered if they would really keep walking for the 4 miles up the canyon to the main road.

This is a place where I think that your mindset is the most important thing. I made a point of looking forward to the scenery in Snow Canyon, rather than allowing myself to get intimidated by the climb. I was not disappointed!
Snow Canyon. No picture can do this place justice!
Once you exit the top of Snow Canyon State Park, you take a right, and then it's 10 screaming fast miles into town. Well - it's supposed to be. I'd been warned that if it was windy, it would be the most dangerous stretch, because you can hit 60 miles an hour without trying on a calm day. But today, the winds came straight at us, and I was grateful for a headwind instead of a crosswind. I spent 10 miles riding at about 25 miles an hour, mostly out of the bars, trying to just stay steady on my bike. When you're about 2 miles from transition, the bike course and run course coincide again. It's a little disheartening to be riding your brakes down a hill, thinking about running back up it again in a few minutes!

Transition was uneventful. I dropped off Mr. Bike and thanked him for a great job on our ride that lasted 3 hours and 10 minutes, which is about the same amount of time I spent on the bike at my very first half, 7 years ago. I took a moment to duck into a porta-potty and then headed out onto the run course, which is the hardest run course I have ever been on, besides Norseman. Even Norseman's run course is flat for 15 miles. This one starts with a false flat, and then for 4 miles you climb and climb to the top of Red Hills Parkway, for a total of ~1000 feet of elevation gain.

I heard the announcer congratulating the female pro winner of the race, Holly Lawrence, as she crossed the finish line. I laughed, thinking how ridiculous it was that I still had 2 hours to run. Then the mental games started. I'm way off my normal time and pace for a half ironman. Nobody will care if I walk up this hill.

Well, I didn't walk. I didn't walk any part of the run, except for the aid stations. I'm immensely proud of this. I was inspired to continue running for several reasons...I noticed that I was passing people who had hammered around me on the bike, and that made me happy. Then, as I approached the steep hill that wouldn't end for 2 miles, I looked up it and saw a train of people walking. Of all the people on the hill in front of me, maybe 3 were running. And they were all women! As I saw their ponytails bouncing, I had this moment of pride and thought, I am not going to be the first woman to start walking. I asked my usual question: does anything hurt, or are you just tired? And with that, I ran my 12+ minute miles up the hill.

At the top of the hill, the wind was ferocious. I got hit by a tumbleweed rolling across the road, and then laughed as I was paced by another one that bounced along next to me as I ran with a massive tailwind. In this section, you weave down and then back up and down and up the same little hill. I was told before the race that this was the worst part of the run, because the sun beats down and reflects off the red rocks and black asphalt and it's stifling hot, but today the wind was blowing and I was distracted and laughing watching the tumbleweeds go by. Drink cups were flying everywhere at the aid stations. My hat kept threatening to come off, and the situation just made me laugh. It was at this point in the race where I saw most of my teammates, including Trent. From across the road, he cupped his hands around his mouth to yell something at me. Although I couldn't hear him through the howling wind, it motivated me to run faster.

Eventually, I reached mile 9, where I had been promised it would be all downhill from there. It was. The last few miles were blissfully downhill, but I had used up all my energy. I tried to run faster but could barely keep up a 9:45 pace. I ended up with my slowest half-marathon time that I can remember in recent years: 2:21!

Taking the turn towards the finish line and running down the chute was one of the most memorable experiences I've had at any race. It had the feeling of a full Ironman, the crowds lined the sides of the chute and offered high fives, of which I took at least 30. It was amazing! My finish time was 6:15, about 45 minutes slower than how I "usually" do, but I was euphoric crossing that line.

If you haven't yet high-fived an entire chute full of spectators, I highly recommend it.
Trent was waiting for me and we went to grab some food and get cleaned up. We wanted to come back for the awards ceremony at 4 pm to see all of the pros. I also had a secret wish to get a rolldown for 70.3 Worlds, but coming in 24th place in my age group wasn't going to be good enough for that.

Watching the pros accept their awards was fun, and seeing the strong, fit age group winners celebrate their podium positions was inspiring. Their times were incredible: the winners of my age group were more than an hour faster than me. I am just in awe of anyone who can go that fast on such a hard course.

Now that I've had a few days to think about it, I think difficult courses take quite a bit of pressure off, and I can think, "oh, it's a hard course, so it's ok to go slow." I probably should have pushed harder on the bike and the run, to test what I can really do. But having a good, positive race experience was important as well, and I'm glad to feel strong going into Boulder, both mentally and physically.
That's Kona champ Sebastian Kienle, y'all. He was so friendly and chatted with us a little bit about his race. 
Brownlee not only won the race, he set a new course record.
We went to dinner afterward at Chili's (of course) with our Big Sexy Racing teammates. I have to say that seeing teammates and friends that I have met through the sport is one of the best things about traveling to races. It was so great to meet a few more teammates at this one, and to make some more new friends!

St. George was a great first race to kick off the season. I've written before about practicing staying relentlessly positive during a race, but at this one, there was no need. I was effortlessly happy all day, to the point where it kind of freaked me out! Needless to say, St. George is my new happy place. It's a tough course, but that's part of what makes this race special. The town loves and supports the sport. The scenery is beautiful. The logistics are flawless and the volunteers are amazing. We'll be back for sure.

I just want to say thank you, as always, for reading this report and for your support and encouragement. It truly means so much. Next up: Ironman Boulder on June 11!