Well Ironman Vineman is in the books. I think I learned more in this one than the last 6 put together which surprises me, since I had the least lead in for this one and the least time in town to prep for the race.
Late Wednesday night, I arrived in Santa Rosa for the Saturday race which is cutting things quite short for me. I like to take at least the work week leading up to a race to settle into the city, scout out the course, double check my nutrition and sight-see. In this case, I called that “Thursday.” I woke up Thursday, drove the 40 minutes of town to where the swim start was, drove the bike course, picked up my bike from Tribike Transport, checked in to the race, picked up some last minute nutrition, got my gear bags backs and had dinner with my wife and a friend of mine who lived local to the race. Entirely too much to really get my head in the game. It wasn’t until Friday morning that I realized I didn’t even pack a swimsuit to wear under my wetsuit so I was going to have to swim in my underwear. But if something had to go wrong on raceday, I’m glad that was it.
As we were loading up the car on Friday, an older, friendly guy with an obvious ironman physique noticed my Ironman New Zealand hat and we struck up a conversation. Well, it turns out, he has done all of them. Literally! His name is John Wragg and he is one of only three people who has done every single Ironman race in the world. To top it off, he is an incredible ambassador of the sport. So amicable and engaging.
John Wragg and his wife, Elizabeth
Sleep never comes easy for me the night before a race and this was no different. It was ok though since the alarm was set for 3:30 A.M. Not only was the swim start a decent drive from town, there was only one road to it, and if the packet drop-off the day before was any indication, it could be upwards of an hour.
The swim takes place in the Russian River which at that time of day has a nice layer of fog hanging just above the treeline. It really is a very pretty venue. Water temp was 72 degrees which made it wetsuit legal and the throngs of spectators and fellow athletes were rendered safe from watching the Ramsey Underwear Show from commencing.
Most of the Ironman races I have done in the past have been mass starts with the exception of Cairns last month, and I did like the way that swim start began. I didn’t care for the Vineman start. It was quite literally, one at a time. We got in corrals, and due to the narrow width of the river, we had to enter the river single file. Once we got in the water we had to wind our way up the river 1.2 miles before turning and coming back down. Its far from a straight shot, with many twists and bends along the course of the river. It reminded me a lot of a river in Arkansas we use to go to every summer. With every stroke you could see the tree lined banks and the houses on shore.
With that being said, it was my least favorite swim course out of any triathlon to date. Having a river triathlon in California in summer during a drought may not be a great idea. In this river swim, you were either a salmon or a bear. I most definitely was a bear. If the water was any shallower, I may have tried to date it in college. At points the water was below the knees. I am much more of a shoulder-driven swimmer than a hip-driven swimmer. Without the ability to pull through the water, I couldn’t move at all. You would look up to sight down the river and see dozens and dozens of guys, all just walking. “Not me!” I said. “This is a swim!” I did my best to do the “crawl” through the water and I’m sure I looked like a T-rex. So, I gave up and did the walk of shame with my brethren upstream. But it wasn’t just in one spot. It was maybe 5 or 6 places in the river like this. And when it was shallow, all the plant debris got in your mouth and stuck to your arms and body. When we stood up, it looked like an army of Swamp Things bearing down on you. My swim time was only one minute faster than in Cairns, and there I was dealing with 7 foot swells, breakers, jellyfish, and open ocean where I couldn’t sight the bouys.
After the swim it was nice to be back on my own bike on the bike course. For the past two Ironman races, I rented bikes due to shipping cost nightmares to the South Pacific. I had a few mechanical issues including my chain not shifting to the small ring on the first big hill (NOOOO!) which caused me to dismount and then it came off two other times entirely. Not sure if it got jostled a little bit by Tribike Transport because I had it tuned up not long before I came out.
But the bike course felt good REAL good. It was a postcard course through vineyards with plenty of solid rollers and a few challenging climbs you have to encounter twice on the two loop course. I tried to go pretty ketogenic on the bike, and my main source of food was pecans. Every 5 to 10 minutes I would pop a few out of the Bento Box and they were much more satisfying than gu all day. I did use some EAS Myoplex BCAA + Electrolyes and I had two banana halves along the course of the 112 miles as well. With my ankle hurt I had to PUSH on the bike course, probably harder that I wanted to.
My HR stayed between 168-172 for the first 80 miles before I had to drop it down to 150. I know the run was going to be a long walk for me with my ankle healing, so it was a calculated risk spiking into zone 4 for so long. There was some knee pain, but feels more like IT band issues and could be from the new cleats I was forced to get two weeks out from race day when my old ones were so worn they wouldn’t stay clipped. The combination of the nutritional change to ketogentic and being on my personal bike helped me get a PR on the bike at this distance.
On to the run, my least favorite of the three diciplines. When I started the run, my knee was screaming at me after the bike ride. My ankle is still a little sore from the torn ligament, but at that moment, it was on another planet. I sprayed some icy hot I had in my transition bag on the knee and took off into the scorching afternoon sun. On the run course there is no shade.
That isn’t an exaggeration. The entire run course is exposed to the sun, going down the central street in town and then out by the vineyards on the outskirts of Windsor. Initially, the run course was suppose to be a two loop course will hills on the front end with level ground at the turn around. Due to a lack of volunteers they shortened it, made it a three loop course and decided that level ground was for wusses. The entire run course was undulated, and on turns, so when you were running up and down hill, they were around curves, so your footfalls weren’t even from left to right. The first loop for me was hot. My main motivation for jogging as much of it as a did was to get to ice at the next aid station as fast as possible.
I did the same walk/run combo that I did in Cairns and my feet seemed to be in much better shape this time, which I attribute to one thing: a change in my shoes. When I was in Columbus last year I got to meet with the legendary Dave Scott. He gave me a few triathlon tips, one of which was to switch to a particular style of Hokas that has a lot more cushioning for a guy my size. Even though yes, he is sponsored by them, when a triathlon deity speaks, you listen, and I am glad I did. My feet feel so much better than they have in the past following a distance race. My run definitely needs a lot of work and once my ankle heals, its where I plan on focusing the most of my efforts during the offseason.
I learned a lot but here are the highlights:
A ketogenic diet helped me during the bike portion of the race. Energy felt consistent and I need to find lightweight fuel sources to help me be able to replicate that on the run.
I maintained my strength training up through the week of the race where in the past I had stopped about a month out. I definitely felt more powerful on the swim (though it was wasted with the water level) and the bike.
HR training is critical. I only started really dialing it in the last month before the race due to my ankle injury. I should have done it sooner.
Hokas are the shoes I need
Focus on run during off season. Once ankle heals of course
Give myself more that 3 days prerace to be in the host city
WTC still puts on a good race. I learned that they license out the Australia races and don’t run them, so I’ll let them off the hook for the s&*tshow that was Cairns
I need a coach. Yes, I’ve managed to slog my way through 7 of these things through grit and determination alone. But I’m signed up for IMFrance next summer which is no joke.
Vineman is a must do race. Swim issues aside, the bike course is breathtaking with enough change in elevation to keep it challenging without being overwhelming. The run course is a great combination of spectator friendly as the loops (albeit two or three) take you through the town and tranquil beauty as you wind your way through the vineyards on the outskirts.