Challenge Aarhus 2011

Yesterday, Sunday July 3rd 2011, I competed in the Challenge Aarhus half-ironman distance race.

I finished the race in 4:58:54, 48th place out of 132 competitors in my age-group, M40-44. It was the first triathlon race for me after a 14 year hiatus, and I loved every second.

Pre Race

Saturday I took the train with my bike to Århus for registration and bike check-in. I arrived around 11:30. Registration was open from the morning, so I did that first, then I hung out a little and spent some money at the expo. So much nice gear, including some awesome Enve 6.7 wheels on display. And the bikes. Oh, the bikes. Being a gear freak is sometimes painful. And I definitely need a new bike. More on that later.

At 13:00 bike check-in opened, and I got in and placed my bike and helmet, and broke out the plastic bags to cover the things I wanted to keep dry, as it was raining, and would continue to rain through the night.

At 14:00 it was time for race briefing, a good and thorough one adressing everything you needed to know. And I liked the head referee and the way he snuck a little humour in there from time to time.

It was revealed that the 1900 m swim was almost certainly not going to happen on the planned course, because of the rain some sewers had overflowed and the water in the bay was contaminated with sewer water.

Plan B was to do a 2-loop swim avoiding the contaminated water, and plan C was cancelling the swim and substituting a 4 km run, which they really wanted to avoid.

From the questions it was clear there were a lot of first-timers present, and the briefing was dragged out to 1 hour instead of the planned 45 minutes.

After the briefing my club-mate Jes and I got a lift home with Thomas, another club-mate. Nice not to have to take the train home.

Later in the evening it was announced online that the swim would happen, and that the water temperature was 13.2ºC. The ITU rules say that it is not allowed to swim more than 1000 m when the water is under 14ºC, and that wetsuits are mandatory.

So the distance would be 1000 m swim, 90 km bike, 21.1 km run.

Good call all around, and I was really happy that the swim was not cancelled. A 4-90-21.1 km duathlon would have sucked.

Race Morning

I got up at 05:00 after having slept almost 7 hours, which is real good and long for a pre-race sleep. It still felt very early, because it was.

I proceeded to have a nice mug of glorious espresso from my 4-shot Bialetti espresso maker, then a smoothie of 2 bananas, a big handful of frozen blueberries and strawberries, a big scoop of protein powder, lemon peel, vanilla powder, rice milk. Yummy.

Then another 4-shot mug-o-espresso. Glorious. Feeling great.

I was now ready, except for an extra check of the bags I had packed the evening before, total OCD. Everything was there, I had triple-checked against my list the evening before.

At 6:15 I was picked up by Jes and his wife Dorethe, we picked up Thomas, and off we went. I think we arrived at the race around 06:50 or so. Lots of time before T1 was closed at 07:30. So I went into T1, removed all the plastic bags and checked things through according to my check-list:

  1. Check the 2 spare tubes, CO2 and patch kit (yes, I carry all that, a DNF from flats is just not acceptable, be prepared)
  2. Pump tires and check pressure (I run latex tubes for racing, and they leak 20 psi overnight)
  3. Put bike in the right gear to get started in (53×21 for this race)
  4. Place shoes on pedals and arrange with elastic bands
  5. Place bike bottles
  6. Place helmet
  7. Mount bike computer and make sure it's ready to be turned on and acquire satellites quickly

Bike ready to go

Well before the 07:30 deadline I was done preparing the bike, so I had ample time to walk around a little and practice finding my bike again after the swim.

Only problem left was getting my stuff packed into the green post-race bag, because I had clearly brought too much stuff, including some things I didn't really need. I managed to stuff it all into the bag and check it in, along with the bike and run bags.

Swim

The swim start was moved to 10 minutes later, so the overall schedule for the road closures would not have to be modified.

I was sipping my strong solution of 4 scoops High5 4:1 in 500 ml water 30 minutes pre-start, just dropping the bottle in a garbage can when done.

Then I followed all the other green swim caps into the pre-start area, and a met Jes again there. He looked really nervous, and said he was, while I was mostly just impatient and a little excited, yet calm. With 5 minutes to start we were allowed into the 13.8ºC water, and it wasn't as bad as I'd have expected, I think I could have done the full distance swim without getting too cold, but skinnier and smaller athletes would have been in trouble.

They called out “One minute!”, and I got ready where I wanted to be, and then the horn went off.

There was a little contact and fighting for position in the beginning, but nothing bad, and out to the first buoy it was as uneventful and simple as it could realistically be. At the turn-around, which was a long soft curve of buoys, I took a longer way around to avoid the fight, and then proceeded towards the finish. Somehow I picked the wrong feet to follow, because I couldn't spot the finish from the turn (I should've checked some land-marks before the start). With 200 m to go I realized I was in a small group aiming too far left, and tried to get back on track, but apparently the rest of the group had the same realization, so I ended up staying with them.

Close to the shore there was a lot of sea-weed in the water, and the smell, in the water, of rotting sea-weed was so bad that the last 20 m I held my head out of the water to avoid it. The name of the bay where the race was held is “Tangkrogen”, a direct translation to english would be something like “The Sea-weed Corner”, and it showed.

I kept swimming until my hands touched the bottom before I got up and walked up the ramp out of the water and the first 20 m after to avoid spiking me heart-rate in transition, then I started an easy jog to the transition zone, picked up my bike bag and entered the changing tent where I stripped off the wetsuit, threw 3 gels, patch kit and a spare CO2 cannister into my pockets and put on sunglasses.

I threw my wetsuit into the bag and ran off to find my bike, handing the bag to a very busy volunteer on the way.

Bike

I had no trouble finding my bike in the rack. I put on my helmet and ran to the mount-line, about 150-200 m of running, mostly on grass, but crossing a gravel path. While running I started the computer so it had a few seconds to find the sattelites. Past the mount line I pressed start on the computer and got on my bike and got up to speed pedaling on top of my shoes before I slipped into them.

I elected to ride with just tri shorts and singlet, temperature was around 18-19ºC, and supposed to be climbing. Worked out fine, I was never cold.

Coming out of T1 the course starts out with 500 m of a wide road completely closed to other traffic and fenced off, so it was easy to find space and get going in good order and without danger. Very good.

The first part of the course is mostly uphill, but with dozens of little ups and downs, very hard to get a rhythm going, and as usual I saw a lot of people really working those little sharp hills. I just let them go. This was also the only part where I saw packs forming when people bunched on a short hill, then having difficulty breaking apart again.

At around 8 km another athlete passed me and told me the elastic band was still hanging on to my shoe. I looked down and saw the band on the left shoe was still intact and hanging on to both the shoe and quick-release. I reached down and pulled until it snapped. Sometimes you just overlook things in the heat of competition, so you need a plan, mental rehearsal and preparation to know what to do at all times, including the times you hope doesn't come (flats, GI distress etc.). So something new to add for next time: check that the elastic bands break.

Challenge Aarhus bike course elevation profile

The bike course had it all, hills, flats, small roads, big main roads, technical turns and beautiful scenery. I loved it, it's a course that suits me. It's a semi-technical course, but if you ride it right it's a fast course too.

In general everybody rode clean, very little drafting going on, and that was mostly due to the nature of the course when things slowed down on a hill and people bunched up. No blatant drafting from where I was, although I saw a few times where people didn't slow down or overtake as fast as I would have done.

It's in the nature of triathlon racing that you sometimes have to take it easy to avoid drafting, and sometimes to go faster than you ideally would in order to overtake someone and be in compliance with the drafting rules.

All the way through the ride I passed a lot of the female competitors, they had a 20 minute head start, and it really bothered me that they all rode downhill real slow. It's like they thougt that the hills were for sitting up and resting, possibly exercising the brakes a little if the speed went over 50 km/h... They should really use the hills for staying as aero as possible, and rest. No brakes, ever. Unless there's a turn involved. It's a small thing, but it adds up in the end. And inefficiencies like that really bother me.

I drank my own full-strength High5 Energy Source (3 scoops to a 750 ml bottle) finishing the first bottle well before the first aid station at around 30 km, so I got a fresh bottle there, along with a gel for later, in addition to the 3 I carried from the start. Around 50 km I was done with the second bottle and started taking the watered down High5 from the aid station and from now on supplementing with gels. I got another bottle and 2 or 3 gels at the second aid station around 60 km.

In total I took in my own 2 full strength bottles and about 1⅓ bottle (1 l) of the watered down High5, along with 4 gels. Around 1200 kCal, depending on how watered down the handed out High5 was (I'm guessing half strength), no GI trouble.

The last part of the ride is downhill, real fast riding, and a good place to spin the legs and prepare for the run. It helped that I used to live in Århus and knew the roads so I had a clear expectation of when it would be over.

Coming in towards T2 I unstrappen my feet and pedaled on top of the shoes again, leaving them on the bike as I jogged towards the bike racks where volunteers guided us to the rack where they took the bike and racked it for us.

Run

I found my run bag easily, and ran to the changing tent and emtied my pockets for gel wrappers (I take “no littering” seriously), patch kit and CO2 cannister, threw in 2 caffeinated gels and put on shoes and my Garmin FR60, then shoveled everything into the bag and ran out, handing it to a volunteer again.

I got the watch into measurement mode and saw it pick up heartrate and foot-pod signals just before I passed the timing mats and could push start and be on the run.

The run course is a 3-lap center of town affair, and very unorthodox and exciting. Lots of turns and an underground parking lot where you'd go in and run down a spiraling ramp two levels down before you got out into the sunlight again, then through an aid station and up the stairs and through ARoS, museum of modern art, then doubling back down though town and up through the underground parking lot again. Really desorientating, but the course was exceptionally well marked and there was never any doubt where to go. Excellent course. The stairs up to ARoS was really nasty to me, the first time I half ran it, but almost cramped, second time I walked it, and the last time around I walked it and the next 15 m. Nasty.

I started running a sub-5:00/km pace, which I knew were too fast, I aimed for 5:20/km. It took me quite a while to run that slow. I had the watch set up to show time, cadence and pace, and I mostly looked at just the time, and a few times when it beeped at me for an auto-lap every km, just to check on pace. In the end I averaged 5:14/km for the whole run. Much better than expected.

The first lap I used to settle in and get acquainted with the course, I was surprised by it, and knowing the course in advance would've helped a little. But I found my rhythm, and stuck to it throughout as well as I could, and I really suffered like never before, going as fast as I could, all the way, no lulls in the intensity, only slowing down at the aid stations. It was awesome.

At around 2 km in at the first aid station I took a caffeinated gel and some water. At the next aid station it was watered down High5 and water, and after that it was just coke and some water poured over my head to cool down. On the last lap I took some Red Bull too, not sure it helped, but it didn't hinder either. I was a mess at that point, it felt like what I took in didn't really get absorbed, and I didn't really feel like I needed a lot anyway, so I mainly concentrated on cooling down with water, it felt amazing. Temperature must have been around 23-24ºC, high humidity and almost no wind. It was tough running conditions.

The last lap was pure agony, just hanging on and keeping the rhythm and speed going. As I got showed off the laps and onto the last stretch of the course back to Tangkrogen and the finish line I felt relief, now it just can't go wrong, and if I run real fast, soon the suffering will be over. So I ran real fast, and started to feel an oncoming cramp in some obscure little mucle on the back outside of my right knee. So I just kept that in check, while going as fast as I could.

Coming in towards the finish line was the most awesome experience. It was a great party atmosphere, lots of spectators and loud music, and I just knew I had nailed it. How well I didn't know at the time, but I knew I had left everything on the course, and had made no serious mistakes. I had raced very, very well.

I forgot everything about raising my arms in triumph for the finish line photos, I was just so relieved it was over, because I had nothing left. I was handed a bottle of water and given my medal, and then found a fence to lean on, breathing hard like I had just finished a sprint race; and I had sprinted, without really knowing, I crossed the finish line with a 193 bpm heart-rate.

I was completely lost at this point, I wanted nothing but just to lie down and rest mind and body, but met some club mates that I chatted a little with, went to the food table with them to see if there was anything I wanted, but I didn't feel like eating anything. So I went outside again, walked as far away from everyone as I could and laid down in the grass and sobbed with relief, joy and happiness for a while. It was such a great feeling being back, efter 14 years of no racing.

My feet, post race, after a sockless run

I had executed a great race, something I could be proud of.

Analysis

Official results:

  • Swim: 0:15:38 (14th in my age-group M40-44)
  • T1: 0:04:08 (18th)
  • Bike: 2:44:47 (57th)
  • T2: 0:03:15 (17th)
  • Run: 1:51:08 (60th)

Total 4:58:54, 48th place in M40-44.

Had the swim been 1900 m it would have been a 30 minute swim, and the finish time around 5:13. I had aimed for 5:35 when I signed on, but as the race got closer I knew I could go faster, probably 5:20 with a little luck. 5:13 was pure fantasy. Until it—kind of—happened.

You can see the data from the run and the data from the bike over at my TrainingPeaks account.

I was literally shocked to see I had averaged 179 bpm for the run when I came home and downloaded. Good thing I didn't know that when I was running.

A 166 bpm average for the bike isn't too bad either, it really didn't feel as hard as it normally would have. And almost 33 km/h is pretty good with a bike like mine, just a standard road bike adapted as well as possible to triathlon.

This is what's so great about racing. Normal limits don't apply.

That said, there are things to improve.

I had trouble keeping aero all the way, lower back pain and stiffness meant I had to stand up and stretch on the bike every 10-15 minutes, even on a course like this where there were little hills and turns all the time where I had to break the aero position. Would have been even worse on a flat course.

The only solution is a triathlon specific frame that's built to be ridden on the aerobars. So I need that.

It also bothered me to see that the people around me were almost all on various kinds of carbon wheels. I was hopelessly out-biked on the equipment side of things. And I know that a triathlon specific carbon aero bike with good carbon aero wheels and an aero helmet will be good for an extra 3-5 km/h average. It's free speed (not in the monetary sense, of course). And it kills me not having that.

Instead of 2:45 I'd have a 2:30 bike split. That's a world of difference.

I had my bike computer set up to show heart-rate, cadence, distance and elapsed time, nothing else. It worked beautifully, I never had to change to any of the other screens I had set up, I never needed any of that info.

Same for the run. Time, cadence (to show if my leg speed went down) and pace. Heart-rate is mostly just a distraction that late in a race, I like to run on feel instead. In the end I only used time and a little pace. Never looked at cadence. So maybe just set the FR60 to display elapsed time, and maybe a lap time, in the future?

Nutrition wise it all went well until the run. I should have been a little better prepared for that, and probably just done coke and water, perhaps supplemented with some Red Bull late in the run. I don't think the gel worked well for me, it felt a little wrong the first 2-3 km after that.

The espresso + smoothie breakfast was awesome, and the pre-start High5 4:1 works well. And no issues on the bike, except I should have been taking in a little more gel when the full-strength High5 ran out, I felt a slight lull in energy a little after that, but I did take more gels when I realized.

It was good I took extra gels, because at one point late in the race I dropped a gel or two when I took out a gel from my back pocket. And that was exactly the reason I did take extra gels. Good planning there.

All in all, I did almost nothing wrong. I did all I could with the fitness and equipment I have. 99.99% perfect.

I'm extremely happy with my race.

Somehow I feel like this race report is a little rambling, probably because it's still very close in time. It was a very overwhelming and amazing experience, and I suppose it shows. But I think it's important to get this written down and published while it's still fresh, so hereby done. Thanks for reading.