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 World Triathlon Championship Race Report
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By: Tony Frost (offline) on Tuesday, November 08 2011 @ 01:45 PM (Read 1196 times)  
Tony Frost

Not Plan A: Or how SB became WC in 2011


This was not Plan A.

Plan A was always Ironman Hawaii. It seemed so perfectly designed calendar-wise, like it was meant to be: my 50th birthday was Oct 10; the race was Oct 8. I would train hard, do the race with family and friends watching, and then we would have a big ol’ birthday party (where I would drink beer and everything!) in Kona. At home, we called Plan A “Hawaii 5-0”.

But there was one small logistical problem with Plan A: you have to qualify to compete in Ironman Hawaii. And that’s hard to do. Really hard to do. For my qualification race, I chose the Honu 70.3, a ½ Ironman distance race in June on the Big Island of Hawaii. There would be 1 Kona slot in Mens’ 50-54. Only 1. I knew the field would be strong and I also knew that peaking in June would be problematic for me given that most of my teaching for the year is clumped from March to May. Would I have enough time to train? To lose my winter fat? To bring my A-game to a tough race that I would probably need to win to qualify?

In the end, the answer was no. 45 seconds is not a lot of time in a 4 and ½ hour race, but that’s what tripped up Plan A. Passed in the last mile of the run, I watched Plan A wither in the lava fields of Hawaii.

The rest of 2011 seemed to be a series of adopted and then discarded alternatives to Plan A. Injuries, work, logistics – serial conspirators in the reformulated and then shattered race plans for 2011.

In the end, we did a version of Hawaii 5-0 anyway. The whole family went to Kona. We all watched the race and had an amazing experience over the course of a week. Joined by friends who were in Kona at the time (April, Jane, Tara, Peter), my 50th birthday was one of the most enjoyable days of my life. The crowning moment was opening the one gift I received from my family: a t-shirt that simply said “Hawaii 5-0”.

The Race

Whether the ITU Long Distance World Triathlon Championship was Plan D or E, I do not know. I lost track after a while. But this was the here and now. Las Vegas. A grueling course, billed as the “toughest in North America”. A 4K swim in 60 degree F water. Something like 5000 feet of climbing on the 120K bike course and another 2000 feet of hills on the 30K run. Wind. Maybe heat. Maybe cold.

Race morning the answer was revealed: cold. In fact, so cold that the ITU race officials announced early on that they were cancelling the swim. “Cancelling the swim? All that swim training for naught?” And a swim distance that is the longest in the triathlon world – precisely in the area of my biggest relative advantage. I was gutted. My friend Rich (a strong swimmer too) and I huddled in the athlete’s tent, trying to stay warm (it was about 5C), shaking our heads in disbelief? “What now”, we asked? “Plan F, I suppose” was my answer.

The race was reconfigured as a bike + run. There would be a time trial start with racers going off every 5 seconds on the bike. As the line of athletes – over 800 from over a dozen countries – snaked their way to the starting line, I reflected on my preparation.

I was nervous about the bike. On the one hand, I felt well prepared for hills– riding on the Big Island of Hawaii with three of my LCW buddies (Bob, Brad and Rod) in October had taken care of that. On the other hand, I had ridden most of the Vegas course 3 days earlier and it had nearly shattered me. I could only hold about 200 watts over the duration of the ride (which felt like race effort) and a fierce wind pushed my average speed down to 30 km/h. I felt slow. And I couldn’t tell if the fatigue in my legs was because I had lost conditioning or because I was tired, perhaps even overtrained . Time to rest, that’s all I could do.

I felt good about my run prep. I had pushed my long training run to the full 30K of the race, and I had inserted some speed work in the final weeks of preparation. I was moving well. I was excited about the run.

And there was one more factor that I hoped would be decisive: unlike at the Honu 70.3, I was lean. I mean really lean. Leading up to the race, family members began to refer to me as “SB” – for Skinny Beatch. In the past, my target race weight had been160lbs. On race day in Vegas, I weighed in at 155. And I had seen 153 on the scale the prior week, almost certainly my lowest weight since high school. Would this compromise my power on the bike? Or would I scamper up the hills like Alberto Contador?

Huddled in the tent with only moments to go, Rich and I discussed race strategy. He was for holding back on the bike, knowing that the last half of the course would be all headwind and mostly uphill. If you arrived at T2 with shattered legs, Rich argued, you would have nothing for the run. With a hilly run course – and a full 30K distance – you needed to put down a solid run. Patience, Rich cautioned. Smart, I thought. And this was from Rich Pady, one of the top triathlon coaches in Ontario.

But those who know me, and know how I race, know that patience is not my biggest virtue. I recalled my Ironman Canada 2007 race strategy, known among friends and family as the “throw-a-brick-on-the-accelerator“ strategy. My best race ever.

“5 seconds”. The starter looked me in the eye and counted it down. “2 -1, Go”. I was off. As it turned out, through a screw up in the registration process, I had been assigned the very last race number in the Men’s 50-54 age group. That meant that all 65 riders in M50 were out on the course in front of me. It also meant that I could calculate how much I was ahead of each rider as I went by them (5 seconds per number lower than me). I smiled at this realization. And then I started reeling them in.

Almost as soon as I hit the first hill, I knew I was “on”. No residual fatigue from Wednesday’s brutal ride. Flying up the hills, pushing over 300 watts, relaxed breathing.

As the course unfolded, I found myself cruising past M50 rider after M50 rider. A few tried to keep pace (one even passed me right back), but then dropped back. Then I began to pass M45s, who had started earlier. Then the M40s. And on it went. Nobody passed me on the day and, in the end, I tore through the entire field of M50s to record the fastest bike split of the day by over 5 minutes. It was thrilling. I averaged 248 watts for the 3 hours and 30 minutes it took to complete – way above what I thought possible.

Prior to the race, looking at the start list, I had quickly zeroed in on one participant in M50, an American, Kyle Welch. The same Kyle Welch who had beaten me at the Honu 70.3. The same Kyle Welch who had recently won the World Olympic Distance Championship. There would be other fast guys in the field, but Kyle Welch would be the man to beat in this race.

As I clicked past the 50K marker on the bike, I was surprised – giddy would be the better term – to see Kyle working his way up the next hill. I knew he had a 3 minute head start in the time trial format. And I was passing him before the half way point on the bike? Wow! As every coach will tell you, when you pass a key rival, pass him like you mean it. I gave it a bit of extra gas and flew by Kyle, tossing out a mini hand wave to be friendly (we had gotten to know each other after the Honu race).

This was going well – a little too well? Would the “brick-on-accelerator” strategy come back to haunt me on the run?

The Vegas run is virtually all hill – up and down along a 7.5K loop that we would do 4 times. And almost immediately as I headed down the first hill, I felt the twinge of a quad cramp. Oh no. I knew I was in the lead (Rich’s wife Heather had confirmed this as I came out of T2), but I also knew that a cramp would be the end of it. Kyle Welch would be coming. And the man can run.

I saw Kyle on the run course and, early on, he was closing the gap, running smoothly, looking good. I was clocking a 4:25 / km average pace – I couldn’t really complain about that. At that early point on the run, I was still able to do math in my head and so I ran the numbers: I calculated that he would need to run about 20 seconds / km faster than me over the 30K to win. He is a good runner, but he’s not THAT good. That would be a pro’s run time, not a 50 year old’s.

This would be my race to lose, it was as simple as that. And in the end, despite my legs feeling like they would shatter in the last 5K of the run, I held on. The cramps lurked in the background the entire run, occasionally stepping forward to confirm their presence, but never locking me up. I would run 2 hours and 12 minutes, the second fastest run split in M50 on the day. Kyle Welch would outrun me by 3 minutes. But I had outbiked him by 10.

As I entered the finish shoot, there were many cheers of “Go Canada” and even a “Ya Tony” from the Team Canada coaching staff. I gave the biggest arm pump I could muster and broke the tape.

I had won a World Championship. SB was WC.

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