St. George 70.3 is often billed as the toughest half ironman course in North America. The bike has roughly 3500 feet of climbing with a 1000 feet in the signature 4 mile climb through Snow Canyon. If that wasn’t enough it is followed by 1300 feet of climbing on the run course with 5k straight uphill right out of transition. So you train for the hills, okay. But then there’s the weather factor. In 2015 temps soared near 100 degrees. In 2016 it was cold and rainy. One friend claims to have stopped and hung out in several portajohns just to stay warm during the bike leg. There are stories of people weaving back and forth on the road to get up the steepest climbs. And folks walking their bikes up the hill. But regardless of the climbing or the weather, everyone says they’d do it again for the scenery, or the rip roaring descents.
So what possessed me to select this tough tough course for my return to the half iron distance this spring? Honestly I don’t remember how we settled on it. I think Tom and I had a romantic notion of traveling there in the Airstream and spending time before and after exploring Zion and Moab and the Grand Canyon. I figured it would force me to spend a lot of time in the saddle learning how to climb and growing not only some bike legs but also the mental strength to persevere on a hard ride. That November day when Mt. Lemmon brought me to tears was a turning point. I HAD to grow into a better cyclist. I wanted to climb the mountains and needed to figure out how, both physically and mentally.
All kinds of life happened between that first Lemmon ascent and March 20th when I finally registered for the race. The most important being I fell in love with riding my bike. Tucson may not be my forever home but it will always be a special place because of the cycling community. It is no wonder so many pros live and train here, it is the perfect setting to get fit and train outdoors when the rest of the country is stuck on their trainers. My naiveté helped because I tackled mountains I probably wasn’t ready for and grew into them on my way to the top. There were great rides and there were ugly rides. They balanced each other out and by the time I got to taper week I was ready to take on St. George at whatever pace my legs would go, power readings be damned. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t finish. I only wondered what I’d have left for the run and there was no way to know til I got to T2. All I could do was ride my heart out and trust my training.
I started my current job 30 days before the race. So my funemployment days were over and I was squeezing workouts in on lunch breaks and under the hot afternoon sun. It was exhausting but I barely missed any workouts – I love my green Training Peaks boxes 😀 As race weekend drew near, it was clear I was traveling alone, which stressed me out, but just one more thing to manage. I switched from the in town hotel to the Base team house next to the reservoir (swim locale) and buddied up with a Canadian teammate Saskia who had road tripped all the way from Calgary with her grandmother. It was nice to have someone to go over logistics with and do some practice swims and bike mechanic check rides.
Thursday was a long day. 8 hours of driving with the highlight being a work conference call. I went straight to the expo to check in and meet up with LauraLee and Saskia. Nothing out of the ordinary except that I didn’t shop at the merchandise tent. We caravanned back to the house to prep for a practice swim since I hadn’t been in open water since France – and we all remember what a fabulous swim that was… after a very sweaty wetsuit zipper debacle we waded into the 64 degree water. It was a short swim and the water felt great. It is a beautiful clear “lake” but I got a little dizzy exiting which made me nervous. I was demo-ing my brand new aero one piece tri suit and it is fabulous. Short drive back to the house and we hopped on our bikes. Saskia was having seat post issues and I was having brake rubbing issues. I couldn’t hear anything in my borrowed aero helmet with the ear covers so I had to take it off and ride up and down the street to figure out what was wrong. I also noticed my brand new-to-me di2 battery was low because I was stuck in my small chain ring. This is why you do shake out rides friends!
Quick trip to Wal-Mart for groceries led to the sad discovery that they don’t sell wine (welcome to Utah). No matter, dinner, a beer and Normatec boots and I was in bed. I let myself sleep in til 8am Friday then finished prepping my gear bags. Saskia, Gran, and I set out to drive the whole bike course. We wanted to check out Snow Canyon but also wanted to take in the scenery because we knew we’d be working hard and not enjoying it as much the next morning. The first 4 miles around the south side of the reservoir are probably my favorite, vista-wise. I’m committed to bringing the Airstream back and camping there – gorgeous red sand beaches. After a steep climb to mile 5 the course had its easiest stretch into the town of Hurricane before a long stretch on SR-9 which featured a long but not particularly challenging climb to mile 20. Turning left onto Washington Pkwy there were some super fun descents and some more climbs finishing at the second aid station on the far side of the bridge over the interstate. I was just so thrilled at the road conditions – very well maintained, a stark contrast to the whiplash inducing cracks in the Tucson roadways. More descending into St. George before climbing up Red Hills Parkway and riding right through the middle of the run course. The neighborhoods were beautiful, impeccable landscaping, prickly pears blooming everywhere. Once you hit the roundabout you start the odd little out and back with a VERY tight turnaround and then it’s time for Snow Canyon. We chatted with the ranger at the gate and he was very encouraging but said the second half of the climb did feature some double digit pitches. He also noted that the canyon didn’t get the wind like the rest of the area. I made Saskia hold the GoPro up out of the sunroof to video the drive. It really is stunning. And the road is freshly paved and total perfection. We were surprised at how not scary the climb seemed. It was a huge relief to have driven it and the descent back into town had us absolutely giddy.
We followed the course all the way back to transition then parked and dropped off our run gear bags. We did do a little shopping and I stocked up on my Base products. So now I really wanted to see the run course, and it was absolutely petrifying. The path just climbed and climbed and was totally exposed up on the ridgeline – full sun, and all the wind. Well, it’s a good thing I’ve been training on long climbs and in heat and sun and wind!
Back to the house for a last bike check ride – and some antics with the horses and climbing around on red rocks. Then it was time to drop off our bikes at the reservoir and take another practice swim. I was amazed at how many people had left all their gear and nutrition on their bikes to bake in the sun all day when we had hours to access them in the morning. We left nothing but the bikes. Everyone was swimming. And there were a lot of folks from the campground hanging out at the boat ramp too. Some of them jumped in the cold water sans wetsuit and declared themselves to be ironman. Yes, that’s all it takes really. I’m sure they would appreciate the 4am loudspeakers and stadium lighting wake up call. This swim went even worse than the day before when my zipper split wide open about 100m out. I kept going to see how bad it was, in case it happened again. It wasn’t fun but it was doable. Get all the kinks out before race morning right??
After eating and booting and eating and hydrating I finally fell asleep around midnight feeling a little nervous and when the alarm went off at 4:45 I was feeling more nervous. Just for the swim really. I don’t know why I struggle with it now when it didn’t bother me for my first two seasons of triathlon. Something happened in France and it almost happened again this time but fortunately I scared it off. LauraLee dropped us off to get on the short shuttle into transition around 6am. We both found bike pumps nearby (lucky for me bc I was racked on the total opposite side of transition from the provided pumps). After setting up all my gear I realized I forgot my trislide so I went hunting for some friends. Carley was still at her bike so I got lucky and borrowed hers. Still chafed a little on my neck – I’m just out of wetsuit open water swim practice. Stupid Arizona.
I stumbled into Saskia again after my potty stop and we tried to go do a warm up swim. But apparently we couldn’t. So we just had to wait with the masses until go time. Now, the day before the Ironman powers that be made the decision to smush up the swim waves in order to get us onto (and off of) the bike faster bc of the crazy winds in the forecast. I would love to know if anyone actually did the math to see if this had the desired outcome. The swim is a deep water start and they held each wave on the beach until the previous wave started. So you had 2 minutes to wade in and swim out to the start buoys. This is not enough time to acclimate to 64 degree water and get your heart rate and mind ready to start the race – let alone take your obligatory wetsuit warming pee. I hadn’t even been able to get my goggles wet and had to dunk them several times to activate the anti-fog spray. My goal was to stay wide right to avoid the stampede but the kayaks were keeping the lane pretty narrow and I was running into people and knew the men in the wave behind us would be on top of me in no time. So between 200 and 400 meters into the swim I was starting to get those anxious feelings like I had in France. Even though I know it’s only half the distance, and I’m in a wetsuit, I was struggling to settle into my breathing and stop stressing out. Then it was time to make the first turn and sure enough I look up and see a kayak 6 feet from the turn buoy so everyone is climbing on top of one another to take the corner and multiple waves of men were upon me now. It was a cluster. By the time the buoys changed color to indicate I was half way I was feeling more in the groove but then more men would start swimming over me. I mean these guys were jerks. Grabbing my thigh and pushing me down. Slapping their arms right into me and not missing a beat. They weren’t even going much faster than me, they were just being inconsiderate. Around this time I saw a neon orange swim cap on what I assume was the bottom of the lake and I wondered to myself if I should tell a kayaker just in case there was a body down there with it. Bad morbid thoughts. Just keep swimming. As excited as I was to make the second/last turn, as soon as I did I felt a wake pushing me sideways out to the right. Again, I don’t mind swimming wide to get away from folks but I heard some kayakers fussing at people to stay left so I tried. And more jerks wanted to beat me up, particularly one in a silver wetsuit. Grr. Finally I was near the boat ramp but tried to stand up twice before I actually could which wasted some time. I started stripping myself but was struggling so I walked over to a volunteer who yelled at me to get down then yanked my wetsuit off my legs. My blue seventy thermal socks made running on the concrete rather pleasant so I jogged to my bike and loaded up my bike gear and nutrition before struggling to stuff the wetsuit in the stupid bag. I swear I used to be good at transition but now I guess I’m out of practice. (Racing only once a year and racing only full where they have volunteers that help you in transition can make a girl lazy.)
So here I am mounting my bike thinking hey, I wasn’t the last one to T1, good job Hansen! Oh wait, what is this? Our first uphill and everyone is creeping along like snails. Did they not gear down appropriately? Oh, no, there’s wind. Hmm. People are pulling off to check their bikes. Men are commenting to each other about how badly they’re grinding their gears. So I peek to my left at the nice downhill around the corner and sure enough there is a line of triathletes just inching along, pedaling hard going nowhere fast. Great, this is how we start the ride? The first 4 miles should have been a nice downhill spin the legs out warm up before we hit the first real climb – a steep one. But no, I’m going 11mph downhill into the wind. Lord have mercy. Here goes nothing! That first climb was interesting. While I kept my legs spinning and passed a lot of folks, some guys rode by my in their big chain ring only to be caught back by the top. And that poor woman walking up the hill with her bike slung over her shoulder, derailleur hanging off the side… my heart broke for her. First category 4 climb done, 345ft in 1 mile, 8mph average. Sounds about right lol. The next 9 miles were nothing special, some cattle guards, country roads, first aid station, then the left onto SR-9. We were riding in the far left lane of a 4 lane (with center turn lane) highway. We had the shoulder too but there was a rumble strip that made passing complicated. And I was passing. A lot. There was some great descending in here and tucked in aero I felt unstoppable. There were a lot of road bikes that didn’t stand a chance on the downhills. Of course there were some speedy dudes passing me and a few leapfrogging but I averaged 29mph for a 3 mile downhill segment and nothing will give me more confidence than sustaining anything in the 20s. Then we get to the bottom of the 2 mile climb up SR9. And it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as it seemed from a car. Just spin and get some nutrition. Again some road bikes passed me, but not for long as the aero advantage on the downhill was just too much for them. A support vehicle hollered out the window asking if my rear water bottle was “supposed to be hanging off like that” which it obviously wasn’t. Thank you hippie man in the Subaru! I had frozen a bottle of Rocketfuel and put it on my rear cage before the swim so naturally as it melted the bottle morphed and [presumably riding over the cattleguards] it shook itself into a precarious position that no one else seemed obligated to inform me of. Muchos gracias señor. Love my BASE Rocketfuel. For whatever reason I convinced myself that once we got to mile 25 we had most of the climbing under our belt, minus Snow Canyon of course. The section from SR-9 to the second aid station was just plain fun. Maybe just passing people is fun. And hitting 47mph in aero is fun. Scary yes, but fun too.
As we crossed the highway into the aid station a guy in front of me did the ol’ honk honk motion with his arm to the drivers down below and we got some feedback so that was fun. The motorcycle cop parked on the bridge seemed slightly less amused but we pedaled on by all the same. I was still passing people changing flat tires. Some were taking neutral support, some managing on their own. Why was everyone flatting?? I kept praying for a safe, non-mechanical ride. Thank you Jesus, because these tubulars have been enough drama. No flats, phew! There was one steep short down and up that Saskia and I decided we would most likely want to get out of aero for, and sure enough I did, as some girl on a pinked out road bike whizzed by me yelling “wee!” Yes I abso-effing-lutely passed her back pronto and no I didn’t yell “wee!” in the process. Sidebar – I did – for a moment – consider riding my road bike on this course because of the climbing, so I get it, I do. But with all the descending between the climbing, there is no way a road bike is a better choice on this course. No way, even with the insane winds. Thank you Theoden for confirming this for me. Aero, on a mostly closed course, on pristine asphalt and a FAST descent, is such a rush. I, like him, would do this race again, just for the descents. SO MUCH FUN.
Okay, so I kinda forgot about the Red Hills Parkway climb, but at least we got to ride through as the pros were on the run course and it was pretty awesome to see Holly Lawrence out there (in her swimsuit – Lord have mercy, not in my wildest dreams) just absolutely crushing it. And I think I saw all the way through the top 10 women before I shot down under the highway and out to the canyon. There’s just the short little out and back section where you can see other riders and I got lucky to see Saskia about 2 miles ahead of me and Carley about 2 miles behind me and then I was in the canyon. THE canyon. This was the THE climb. What everyone comes here for and dreads and trains for and fears. At the bottom was the last bike course aid station and it was legit. There was even a full on mechanic tent where I witnessed someone with their bike on a stand getting like a tune up – say wha?? So here we go. What is left in the legs you might ask? I’ve ridden 41 miles in just under 2 hours and 30 minutes. Because I’m a total badass, clearly. [Note: the Brownlee boy who won the damn thing rode a 2:01. Freaking Olympians!?!] So in order to not totally embarrass myself, I’d like to be done in 3:30. Let’s predict a 40 minute climb, 20 minute descent, and off to the run we go. I manage a 26 minute climb (4 miles at less than 9mph) and a 22 minute 10 mile descent (freaking winds man!) but truly, I loved the climb. The scenery was just as beautiful as the day before. Although it was pretty darn hot in there – the ranger was right about the lack of wind. Sure it was work and I was getting tired but I knew it was only 1 more mile to the gate once the pitch got steep and after all the mountains I’d climbed in Tucson, I was going to get there – and I wasn’t going to resort to walking like these dudes I was passing. For REALZ. I only got passed like twice. And the one guy that passed me whose jersey I remembered (because he didn’t go very far once he did) I passed back on the downhill, yep, a road bike. The other guy ,who I also remembered because he was black, and let’s be honest, the black men and women stand out in triathlon because there aren’t that many, especially out here in Utah… I passed him on the run and he gave me a shout out, and I gave him one back for passing me in the canyon!
So the climb is done, and it wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be, but darn it all, I was totally planning on just cruising downhill to transition at 30+mph for the last 10 miles. That was not to be the case. I imagine that when the pros hit the corner 2 hours earlier they didn’t have 40mph headwinds blasting them in the face. But this was the hand I was dealt. The wind was pushing us around big time. Fortunately I’ve trained in wind but a lot of folks hadn’t and I was nervous passing them because I didn’t trust that they knew how to handle their bikes in these conditions. So I didn’t hit the speeds I hoped for on the descent and had to keep pedaling to stay upright and in control. It wasn’t the leg refreshing spin out I anticipated, but I was ready to be off the bike so I pushed through. I had gotten a little nauseous the last hour and got a little off track with my gels but I kept salting and drinking and felt like I had to pee so I considered that a win even though the last thing I wanted was to stop in a potty.
My transition seems to have been fairly slow. I tried to jog my bike to the rack but that weird adductor thing stopped me so I put on my shoes and swapped my nutrition and jogged out putting on my bib and visor and by then my legs were cooperating. As I ran by the potties I considered stopping but really didn’t want to. Then I saw Saskia pop out of one. How in the world had I caught up to her? I thought she would have swam 20 minutes faster than me and biked 30 minutes faster at least, so this seemed super odd. But I just said hey and kept on going. Before the first aid station I saw Lauralee then Matt. Well that was exciting. Now I won’t see anyone I know cheering for the rest of the race. Womp womp. The first mile wasn’t as steep as I feared but by mile 2 it got pretty intense. I reluctantly decided it was time to pee so as I approached the second aid station’s potties I unzipped and pulled off my sleeves – determined to make this a fast one. And it probably was – I can’t tell from my garmin readings how long it took me, and I walked a few times up the hill in mile 3 so overall it was far and away my slowest mile at 11:20 but not just because I peed. But the exciting thing that happened in that disgusting potty (I mean how do people literally leave clumps of poop on the seat? what the eff are you doing in there folks?) – is I discovered that… men close your eyes for a second… I started my period. Yes, in the middle of my first half ironman in 2 and a half years, 5 days early according to my tracking app, the flow arrived. No wonder I felt nauseous the last hour on the bike. It’s happened once on the morning of a marathon and even a 50k but I think this was my first triathlon flow. Well what are you gonna do? Zip back up and run your little heart out. That’s all I knew to do.
So up the hill I go. I saw some friends zoom by on their way down the hill to the finish line – damn me for having such fast friends, they really make me feel like a huge loser a lot of the time. But this was the worst part, the first 5k up the hill, then it was rolling, then it was down. I was prepared for this. I would make up for these first slow miles. Until I hit the wall of wind. I mean, seriously. Like you couldn’t even run fast DOWN the hill because the wind was so bad. I started cussing. Just a little, but enough to get some sideways glances from some guys I was passing. So after a brief walk break I kept running. Channel the anger Hansen. Run, salt, hydrate, smile. Once I got to the strange double side by side out and back on the ridgeline I was in heaven. All the people watching totally distracted me, I just zipped right down the hill and straight back up it, through the tunnel and do it again. I slapped some guy with a mohawk on the butt because he was standing in the middle of the course chit chatting with his buddy about how the bike blew him up. Uh, hello? This is a race. We run now. Chat later. Move your ass son. I’m just a giddy little son of a gun on the run course. Everyone hates me. Or hopefully loves to hate me. Yes I walk through all the aid stations, I take my ice and my coke and dump my water on my person and thank the volunteers and then I run. Run run run, wee!
Until the stomach cramps arrive. I’m still learning my ideal coke to water to salt ratio. And when it’s hot like it always seems to be, I tend to go overboard on the coke. So I had been chipping away at my one packet of honey stinger chews but between the menstrual cramps and the caffeine my internal organs were starting to revolt in a way I feared would put me back in the portajohn. So I backed off the coke and water and walked a little uphill. The W section was my fave, because there were people everywhere. Once we left that, around mile 9, it was kind of desolate again. Men were walking and pouting and resigning themselves out loud to walking it in. Boo. Let me pass right on by your negative energy. Because let’s be honest, I’m trying not to crap my drawers and I need to run – but I can’t run too fast or GI things speed up and I’d like to get to the finish line before disaster strikes.
At this point in the race it strikes me how quiet this race is. There’s not a lot of spectators and no cool aid stations blaring music. No bands, no cheerleaders, no distractions. With a mile to go I pass the one yard party with the icee pops and the kids squirting us with water guns. Maybe St. George is like Tuscon, full of snowbirds and folks who hate cyclists and couldn’t think of anything less fun than hanging out on a curb all Saturday afternoon cheering on a bunch of lunatics who felt like busting their butts in the hot wind and sun for 6 hours. At least the finish chute was lined with spectators hanging their hands over the rail for a snotty salty sweaty potentially poop smeared high fives. And the last few miles were a pretty glorious downhill. Not so steep that it hurt, but enough to push it, and pass right through the aid stations taking nothing, knowing that the end was near. And it would be a sub 2 hour run split. My only real goal (aside from not having a melt down in the lake or crashing my bike) was a sub 2 hour run split. Something to hang my hat on.
As I took my medal and relinquished my chip I quickly asked where the nearest restroom was, just in case. Then I looked down and noticed my shorts were rather discolored so I took that nice cold bottle of water and poured it down my front. We’re going to pretend that was coke I spilled on myself. Smile for the camera! We pay a lot of money to do this!
There is it. It’s done. I survived. I more than survived. I didn’t have a melt down in the lake, I didn’t crash my bike, or walk my bike, or crap my pants, or blow up my legs. The big scary hard race I thought I had no business signing up for, pretty much up until the minute I pulled on my goggles that morning, was over. It didn’t kill me. In fact, in retrospect, I probably didn’t leave enough out there. That’s not a totally fair statement because in the moment you don’t know what else is coming and I tend to be a little conservative just in case. And I hurt in the hours afterward. My cramping got really bad and I can only be grateful I finished before it did. I was messaging Kelly that I felt more beat up than from the Ironmans. But now that I’m a few days out I feel refreshed and springy and ready for action. So that’s weird right?
This was the first training block that really gave me any confidence on the bike. At the same time, I pretty much quit swimming. While it seems I maintained my run, in all actuality, it’s probably pretty strong, considering how hard that course was and I didn’t feel totally tapped at the end. Training for 3 sports simultaneously is complicated. Finding the time to get in the prescribed workouts is one thing. Finding the mental focus to really develop each area is another thing entirely. I can practice transitions, I can adjust my stroke, I can get more aero, I can run all the intervals. What I really need to level up now is beyond all that. It’s in my head. Pushing past the comfortably uncomfortable. Seeking the pain. That’s where my breakthrough lies. On the other side of endurance. More than executing a plan. No more saving something for the final mile.
60 days til Roth.
Time to get serious.