Jenn and I attended Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach last weekend. The purpose was two-fold: first, to be there to sign up for the race in 2009; second, to watch the race. My flickr photo set is available here, although as of the time of this posting, I haven’t tagged or described anything.
We had a good time and enjoyed the race. Of course, to define what “good time” means, I have to relate that I turned to Jenn at one point and asked, “How many of our friends do you think believe we are a bit crazy for voluntarily standing around for hours cheering on people who run by?” For perspective, we spent a good two hours standing in front of the turnaround point for the marathon (this was a two-loop course, so the turnaround is in easy sight distance of the finish) cheering for people who were either about to be done, or still had thirteen and a half miles to go. It was easy to tell which was which from the smiles.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ironman™ distance triathlons (also known as long distance or full distance, “Ironman” being a trademark), it’s a swim/bike/run course with a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and ends with a marathon (26.2 miles) for a total of 140.6 miles. If you see a “140.6″ mile sticker on the back of a car, you know they completed an Ironman. “70.3″ would be for a half-Ironman.
The Florida Ironman has a two-loop swim course and a two-loop run course, with only a single loop bike. The two-loop swim led to some interesting things happening. For one, the pros were mixed in with the age-groupers (amateurs) during their second loop. I imagine that is a bit disconcerting for the age-groupers, although the pros are probably used to it. Having some dude come swimming past me at a rate 45% faster than mine would irk me a bit. Another interesting thing about the two-loop swim was that the racers had to exit the water, pass over a timing mat, and then go do the course again. You’d think, sitting there at your computer, that this was a simple task. Not so, apparently! The lead pack of age-group men headed the entire wrong direction as the came out of the water and had to be directed back to the gate.
The last interesting tidbit about the swim was the presence of sandbars about 50 yards out from the beach. You can see the swimmers on the left having to traipse over the bar rather than swim through. I’m of two minds whether this is a good or bad thing.
As the first few pros exited the swim and headed for swim/bike Transition (T1 in triathlon parlance: Transition one) Jenn and I wandered over to see how it was handled. In Ironman races, all of your transition needs are packed into numbered bags. For example, coming off the swim and going to the bike you need helmet, glasses, shoes (maybe socks), perhaps a shirt if you’re not wearing a tri suit. These and anything else you need are handed to you by loyal volunteers in a massive scrum that I don’t have a good picture of, but here’s a representative example of the beginning of the confusion. The first few racers (the pros and fast age groupers) get their bags hand-delivered as the come up to T1 by calling out their numbers and the volunteers running the bags over. The massive age-group wave coming out of the water had better be prepared to go get their own bag. Not to deride the wonderful volunteers, but there are too many people and too much confusion for an orderly process. However if you need to put a contact back in, the volunteers are your go-to people.
We stood around and watched the T1 Bag grab for a little while. There was a woman standing at the entrance to the bag area with a bullhorn who was calling out the racer numbers. You might think that this was a good thing, but from where I was standing, the bullhorn was actually making it more difficult to hear people calling numbers. I also found that the volunteer staff should take a page from the military by calling out race numbers as a series of digits, rather than the full number. In other words, if the number is 1915, the caller should shout “One, Nine, One, Five!” rather than “Nineteen Fifteen!” which could easily be mistaken for “Nineteen Fifty” or some other number. I observed several cases of confusion both at T1 and at T2 and the marathon turnaround.
After watching the beginnings of the age-group entrance into T1, we went over to the T1 exit, where all the bikers were starting the bike course. This was both interesting and supremely boring. It was interesting because you could see the slow decline in bicycle value as the people leaving transition were becoming of the less and less competitive classes. It was interesting because we could observe what people were carrying on their bikes for equipment and nutrition, plus they were doing the most interesting things while still confined to the chute. Note to competitors, if you absolutely have to start sucking on a PowerGel or put on your gloves, at least wait the 30 seconds until you’re on the road and have more room for maneuvering. All of your fellow racers will appreciate the consideration. It was boring because it was an unending series of “schoop schoop” as bikers went by. We quickly moved on. But not before we saw a competitor flat out (tire went pooey!) only 100′ from the bike start. That sucks.
As a side note, to anyone who is going to these sorts of events. While I took some good pictures, I was unable to get images of particularly interesting things, like the poor woman who flatted on T1 exit. Definitely bring a long lens to an Ironman.
At this point, we went to Waffle House for breakfast. There’s a 4.5 hour wait for the first pros to start coming back (4:19 was the best bike split in this race) so we had some time to kill. After sating ourselves at what has to be the worlds busiest restaurant during spring break, we wandered back to the transition area and waited around for the bikers to start coming back. The volunteers who were prepping for the T2 (bike to run) transition were being fed and just bumming around. The majority of the volunteer pool for this race seemed to be high-school aged kids who didn’t look like triathletes. I wonder how they sell volunteering for this race to them?
The first pros came in to T2 transition (Tom Evans, then Torbjorn Sindballe) and they were caught and racked. What does that mean? In this sort of event, you (the racer) don’t have to rack your own bike. You dismount at the T2 entrance where the aforementioned volunteers catch your bike for you and you run off to get your T2 bag from another set of volunteers. The bike is taken and racked on your number in the correct location. One amusing thing about this is the number of people who gather around to marvel at the utter coolness of the pro’s bicycles. Jenn remarked that a hot babe in a bikini walking by would get less attention than the first bikes on the racks. I don’t really blame these guys. The bikes there are top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art carbon fiber space vehicles. I don’t know how much the frames and components cost in aggregate, but I bet it’s not less the $12k.
After watching the first several catches, we went over to the entrance chute to watch people come in, and see what their technique was. Jenn also did her best impression of John McCain. The top competitors in this sport don’t wear any socks while they are racing. They also don’t put on their bike shoes until they’re out on the course. The shoes are already clipped in to their pedals and they ride with their feet on top of the shoes until they have a chance to slip their feet in. For the elites and experienced age-groupers, this feet-into-shoes act takes about four seconds as soon as they hop on the bike; a matter of practice and technique. On the way back into transition, the do the opposite, taking their feet out of the shoes and riding on top of them, so they can swing their leg over the bike (riding on one side or the other) and run-dismounting into T2. I was shocked when I saw a guy in the top 50 bikers come in with socks on. Very unusual.
After watching the T2 entrance, we walked over to the T2 exit to see the racers leaving transition and heading onto the run course. Conveniently, this is also the location of the marathon turnaround for the second loop. At this point, the racers pick up their marathon special needs bags where you can stash anything you might need for the second half of your marathon. For the top racers, this tended to be some nutrition and a few other smaller things. For the slower age-groupers, this also included clothing for running during the cooler nighttime hours.
This image is of Tom Evans (the eventual winner) picking up his special needs bag at the 13.1 mile mark. Again, as in T1 and T2, there were volunteers checking race numbers and fielding the correct bag to the runners. You can see the bags lined up in the photo.
These two guys were fun. They are identical twins Stijn and Stefaan Veldeman of Belgium. They were running together at the marathon turnaround, which I assume means they raced together from the beginning. Stijn smoked Stefaan in the last 13.1 miles though, coming in four minutes ahead of his brother.
In the end, Tom Evans won this race, coming in at 8:07:59, which I think was a course record. Torbjorn Sindballe came in second at 8:17:51 and Petr Vabrousek was third with 8:23:00. The image above is the three of them showering the cheering spectators with champagne. Just for the numbers, so you don’t have to go look up the results yourself, Tom Evans had a 48:15 swim time, which is a 1:17 pace per 100 meters; he completed the 112 mile bike course in 4:19:00 which is a 25.9 MPH average; he finished the marathon in 2:57:19 which is a 6:47 mile pace. Damn damn fast.
For comparison, the mean times in my age group of Male 35-39 are:
- Swim – 1:15:01 (1:59 per 100 meter pace)
- Bike – 5:52:16 (19.3 mph pace)
- Run – 4:47:19 (10:58 per mile pace)
I’ve got some catching up to do, even if I want to do better than the mean in my age group.
The M35-39 age group was heavily weighted toward the slower end of the pack. The mean times were consistently about 2% slower than the median. I haven’t analyzed the other age groups, but I have no reason to suspect this is any different.
On the women’s side, Bella Comerford won the race with a time of 9:07:41. She was followed by Tamara Kozulina with 9:14:15 and Jessica Jacobs who had a 9:17:51. Bella’s story is interesting because she is always racing in pink. This is a symbol of her support for breast cancer research. She has also won the Florida Ironman five times out of the ten times it has existed, and came in second on one of the others. That’s quite a dynasty.
After the first fifty or so athletes crossed the finish line, Jenn and I went to get some dinner at a restaurant that is right on the beach. One thing about Panama City Beach: it’s a tourist town through and through. Most of your food will be fried and delivered to you in a fashion that is designed to be as quick and easy on the wait staff as possible. I don’t want to be there for spring break. I think I already mentioned that.
After dinner we walked back to the race along the shore. It’s a very pretty place to be, easily as nice a beach front as anywhere I’ve been in Florida. The only exception I know of is the Guana River state park north of St. Augustine.
When we got back to the race, we parked ourselves by the marathon turnaround point to cheer on the runners. By this time, about 1/2 of the people who were passing us were going on to the finish. The other half were hitting the turnaround, gathering their special needs bag and continuing on for another 13.1 miles. As it became darker and darker, I kept having these visceral tuggings for the people who were slowly heading back out onto the course (staggering or limping in some cases). We were there when the 13 hour mark passed, with a cutoff of 17 hours so the racers should be able to walk the rest of the course in time, but if you look at the results, it’s heartbreaking to see the people who finish the swim and the bike, yet still get a DNF (Did Not Finish) because they didn’t make the 17 hour cutoff.
Nevertheless, we stood in that spot for about two hours, cheering all the runners who came past. My hands became very sore. I kept my earlier experience at the Nike Women’s Marathon in mind while we clapped and cheered for everybody. Around the 13.5 hour mark, we decided to sit for a bit, then go to the finish line and cheer on the people crossing the mat and becoming their own personal Ironman.
In a lot of ways, it was a very emotional experience standing in the finish chute while racers were crossing the line. Here were people who had been moving for fourteen hours (in some cases it was obvious that they were struggling just to cross the line). They’d trained for months to get here and this moment was the culmination of their efforts. That’s a lot of time and sweat and it struck me in a way that is probably directly due to the fact that I knew I’d be in their shoes a year from then.
Eventually, at hour 14 and a half, we got too tired to keep on. Especially because we had to bike back to our hotel 5 miles away. We decided to blow that popsicle stand and head back for a good night’s sleep.
On Sunday, we got up and drove back to the race location so I could sign up for 2009. The line was out the door and around the corner by the time I got into it, 45 minutes early. The 2009 race sold out in less than 25 hours.
I’m glad we decided to go to this race for several reasons. We learned a lot about how the race would be run and can make some educated decisions as to where to stay next year. Jenn and I were debating between us about whether it would be a good thing to stay in the same hotel as the race (there are pluses and minuses). Amusingly enough, we heard several different people having the same debate, and some of them were even this year’s racers!
I learned some things about what I need to bring to the race and how to prepare myself. If there’s one thing an Ironman is about, it’s planning and training. Knowing what to place in the transition bags, even what to have available for placement in the transition bags, depending on weather, is very important.
I also learned that I’m going to probably need a wetsuit. More things to stick in the budget for this year. A bicycle trainer, a wetsuit, a set of aerobars (although Jenn thinks I should get a dedicated triathlon bike), the travel expenses for the race, plus the myriad little expenses that come with training. I’ll keep track and let you know what I spend.
I’m looking forward to training for this Ironman. I’m also looking forward to doing this race. Otherwise I wouldn’t have signed up. I have a feeling that you all who read my blog are going to get really sick of me talking about my training in the next 368 days.