Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ironman 70.3 World Championships -- 2008

Clearwater Race Report
This post is mostly therapy. I'm writing mainly to organize my thoughts about my participation in a race that I worked hard to qualify for, but which has left me feeling conflicted. Despite a 20 minute PR, my results are empty. And it's because the bike split was at least 5 minutes of BS.

Yes, there was drafting, drafting that enhanced some bike times to preposterous levels. It's a fact. This course isn't any faster than Cancun where I raced a few weeks ago. It's cooler, but I'll lay odds that under the same weather conditions, Cancun is a faster bike course. In Cancun I went 2:27 at 200 watts riding in a virtual isolation chamber without so much as a draft from a passing peleton. Here, I rode alone at 205 watts at 23.5 mph for the first 20 or so miles, so not all that different. However, my Clearwater bike split wound up a full 10 minutes faster than my Cancun split, a 2:18. I didn't earn 5 of those minutes. Maybe I could have gone 2:23, but 2:18 was only possible because I drafted (mostly at a legal distance, but it feels no more legit) behind an illegal peleton of 20 - 30 riders. It was like following an 18 wheeler. Heck, I could have been 7 meters back and still have gotten a pretty solid draft.

After my initial solo effort of 25 miles, a pack of 20 riders riding wheel-to-wheel came up from behind, a number of them guys I had passed earlier. There were a couple women who I had blown past miles earlier tucked into the center of the pack, pedaling almost entirely for effect.

I instantly employed the strategy I had been planning all week, one that Jimmy Riccatello suggested at the athlete meeting. I jumped legally onto the back of the peleton and hoped that 200 watts would be enough to hang onto the pack's 25.5 mph. To my great surprise, my watts dropped from 200 to about 150 - 180 while my speed increased from 23.5 to 25.5 -- at 4 lengths back! Interestingly, holding a steady 200 watts was impossible -- not remotely enough to pass the peleton and too much to stay 4 bike lengths back.

There were times when I absolutely rolled into the draft zone and failed to complete the pass. God knows I tried though. At first, I thought I would go to the front to complete the pass when this happened, but because of the lack of spacing I had to pass every rider in the pack. And it soon became obvious that passing a 2-3-wide pack of 20 riders traveling 25 - 26 mph was idiotic. I was way better off just accepting a penalty than to make repeated 300 plus watt efforts. And there's no way I could have passed the peleton repeatedly anyway. So rather than drift completely off the back into the peleton giving chase, I came to terms with the fact that I could, if I didn't brake quickly enough to avoid sliding into the draft, incur a penalty. Fine.

I tried my best to avoid getting too close, but I figured that if I got a penalty (something I wouldn't have argued for one second), the whole pack ahead of me would get one too. I actually found myself rooting for the race officials to stop the bunch of us. And if that had happened, I probably wouldn't have written this post. Justice would have been done. But justice would have to have seen the peleton to issue a penalty.

From the second my watts went down and my speed went up, I felt dirty. Sure, I could have dropped completely off the back and just pushed my 200 watts until I was caught by the next group, but I'm a moral realist, not a saint, so I adopted the ahh F#$% it attitude and kept doing my best to keep stay at the limit, while not letting the pack leap away from me every time we hit a turn or a hill. I actually felt better when I was forced to pound out 400 watt efforts to hang on to the pack -- a form of self-punishment, I guess. I didn't deserve fresh legs for the run and I didn't want fresh legs for the run. All year I had trained to set a run PR with tired legs and I'd be damned if this peleton was going to deny me that opportunity. But ultimately, who knows whether 20 huge accelerations exacts the same toll as 200 watts for 56 miles -- I don't. And so I also don't know whether my 3 minute run PR is worth anything.

So that this post isn't just one big pile of self-serving crap, I tried to think of some constructive advice on how to fix the problems with this race location -- I know I thought I knew the answers before I did the race -- but I'm completely dumbfounded after having lived and breathed it. The race officials explained the rules in multiple languages, they spread out the wave starts and added waves, they had officials on course, and yet we had people pr'ing bike splits like they were riding mopeds.

Clearly the initial problem is that someone, or a couple of someones, starts drafting. And when competitors for podium spots (a group that I'm not remotely in) see this, all hell breaks loose. Not wanting to be at a disadvantage and seeing no one in any penalty tents, people take the law into their own hands and begin "defensive cheating", if you will. Then people like me latch onto the back of the huge packs and "legally" catch a huge draft off the now completely illegal peleton. (I'm sure there's a philosophical discussion in there somewhere). And since the course is narrow, with tons of vehicle traffic a few feet to the left of the bike lane for most of the course, race offcials can't even get to substantial sections of the course, which just gives the opportunists more confidence and solidifies the resolve of the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em crowd".

So my solution is a bit of a non-solution -- at least for Clearwater. I'm voting in the ST pool to move the race. I hope word gets back to the organizers (like they don't already know about the problem).

To be clear, I liked Clearwater just fine and if I'm fortunate enough to earn my way back, I'll go. For me this is just a celebration of a good season -- there are only personal triumphs when you're fighting to crack the top half of your A.G.

I thought the swim and run were teriffic and the organization was good, but I have some good friends who were competing for podium spots in women's A.G.s who didn't have the power to do what I did and weren't morally flexible enough to tuck into the middle of the pack like some of their competitors. It really sucked to see them tear up when they talked about watching their competitors fly by in a draft pack and feeling demoralized and powerless to stop it. It sucked even worse to hear them discuss their options for next year -- cheat or lose. Pretty rotten options. Let's move the race before we breed a whole generation of morally flexible athletes.

Yes, I know -- nothing new here, but I feel much better now.