Having had success in St. Croix and loving the course last year, I decided to take a run at it again this year. Only, this year was a little different. This year would be the last iteration of the race, the competition would be a little tougher as the 70.3 World Championships slots up for grabs were for Chattanooga, TN, rather than Australia, and I had a friend racing with me, too. The event did not let me down, delivering a brutal day and living up to the reputation of being one of the toughest races out there.
Race Day Has Arrived
After a dinner consisting of Domino’s Pizza with chicken on it and a bedtime, relaxing tea, I racked out for a solid seven hours. It was a great sleep. Things went a little haywire.
On the night before the race, I set my alarm for a 3:30 AM, plenty of time to get up, take care of the morning ritual, and get to transition at 5. Normally, I would not focus on being in transition right at opening, but we had a limited time, as we had to swim to the starting point across the channel.
It was a great plan. It just had one fatal flaw. The alarm I had set was only set to go off on weekdays. Yeah, I know, brilliant.
Fortunately, my wife has a great internal alarm clock, and she woke us up at 3:40, only ten minutes late. Whew. That could have been problematic. It put me a little behind schedule but not alarmingly so. I proceeded to plow through the race day morning routine, drinking my coffee and shake, loading up on some water, and final checks on the backpack with my gear. I topped off my bottles and threw on my TeamODZ tri kit, and then we loaded up the bikes.
Unlike some of the small races I have done, the crew at the St. Croix Triathlon were ready to receive us, and transition prep was so smooth. Deirdre and I racked our bikes, laid out our gear in an orderly fashion, and walked the routes from swim in to the rack to bike out and bike in to the rack to run out. It’s something I do every race, and it helps me an element of thought during the transitions when my body doesn’t need the extra stress of trying to figure out where I need to go.
Off to Feed the Sharks
Ok, transition was set. The only left to do was to swim over to the start area. I tucked my pre-race drink in the back of my swim skin and jumped off the walkway into the cool Caribbean water. Deirdre jumped in right behind me, and we made our way across the 250 meters that separated the transition and the start area on the beach of the Hotel on the Cay.
Once I got to the beach, I checked my watch and saw that I had about 25 minutes to wait before the start. Time to knock back my pre-race drink. I chugged down about two-thirds of the bottle, hit the bathroom one more time, and made my way back to the start area for my wave to be called.
Shortly after I arrived, the volunteer called for blue caps. I had a silver cap, but I was told that I was in the first wave. I asked another silver capped racer why we weren’t first, and he told me the blue caps wave was first. Gee, thanks. A few quick questions later, I figured out that I had been given the wrong cap at check-in and should have had a blue cap. I explained that to the volunteer at the entrance, and she let me pass.
Finally, I was in the starting pen. Tom Guthrie, the Race Director gave us some last-minute instructions for the swim course, and we placed our goggles over our eyes, readying ourselves for the aqua mixed martial arts that breaks out in the first few hundred meters of the swim start.
The horn sounded, and a number of people in our wave took off running into the water. This is normal; however, the St. Croix course is anything but a normal course. The beach entry is not gradual. It drops from shin deep to chest deep in the matter of two or three steps. Most of the group who ran into the water did not recon the entry. It made for a mad mash-up of people, as the first entrants did not take two steps and then dive. They took two steps and then stumbled on the third, as the ocean floor quickly fell away. The ensuing flailing and falling created the appearance that we had all just been dumped overboard and were trying to survival swim. It did not look pretty.
Once we got going, the swim was pretty smooth. The course was a triangular-ish one with the longest leg being the first. The course was roughly 1000 meters out at an angle along the channel, then a right turn heading back toward shore for about 500 meters, and the remainder along the sea wall to the exit. When we hit the 500-meter mark, the waves began to pick up, and sighting became difficult. Fortunately, I was nowhere near the front of the swim pack, so I had plenty of heads to follow, and I could see them plainly swimming up the waves in front of me.
I made the first right turn with two other swimmers and subsequently got plowed over by a part-dolphin swimmer from the second wave. Seriously, this guy passed me like I was treading water. I made ZERO attempt to jump on his feet and draft. The rest of the swim went pretty fast. A storm was moving in, and the current and waves gave us a push for about 300 meters toward the shore. That churn slowed us down a bit on the exit leg, but it affected everyone, even the half-dolphin, half-man hybrid. Swim time – 37:44, 37th position.
White-knuckled Death, aka the Bike
Up and out of the water, I burned through transition and was out on my bike before the clock flipped into the 40s. While it took me a little longer than I would have liked for the swim, I felt pretty good. There were a ton of bikes still on the rack, and I did not see a lot of riders up the road. One kilometer into the ride, I finally slipped my feet into my shoes and secured the straps. Almost immediately, a rider blew by, face grimacing and really hammering. My immediate, natural, testosterone-fueled response was to give chase. Fortunately, I shut that stupid voice down before the little red demon could send the order for the legs to go into hyperdrive.
Thirty seconds later, it started raining. The year prior, heavy rains the day before the race left the first 25 miles a bit messy due to debris being washed onto the road. The surface was dry, though, so I was able to carry speed through most of the turns and bomb down most of the hills. The rain changed that, and rather quickly.
Immediately, I began doing mental calisthenics, recalculating the distance needed to brake to take turns at a safe speed. Let me tell you, that is way harder to do than you think while hurtling down a slick road, trying to stay upright, and staying on the edge of safe. I erred on the side of caution through the first corner and decided to keep it that way for the time being. Hell, I was barely 2 miles into a 56-mile bike leg, why risk a crash so early?
Not everyone made the same call. As we closed out the eight-mile opening circuit by coming back into town, we passed through a very technical section that the Race Director had declared neutral, meaning no passing. One schmuck decided that he didn’t need to adhere to that guidance and decided to pass me and another rider in the sketchiest section called the Hot Corner. The Hot Corner is an alley, barely wider than a car, with a 90-degree turn at the bottom of the small hill. Oh yeah, the turn has no room for error. There is one good line for a rider to take when it is dry. There are no good lines when it is wet. Mr. Awesome didn’t care that he put two other riders at risk, though, and proceeded to attack us. No worries, we would revisit Mr. Awesome later in the day.
Following the jaunt through town, we headed out on the highway toward the dreaded Beast. Before that, though, we had a small climb and a lengthy, fast descent to manage first. Rolling toward the descent, I began picking off riders here and there, but one rider managed to stay just about 20 meters up the road. Since I knew we were about to start the downhill on wet roads, I sat up a bit and decided not to attempt to reel him in until we made the turn. Good call.
We crested the hill and our speeds rapidly went north of 30 MPH. I had the good fortune to see his line, so I was able to make adjustments to mine, and the gap between us continued to shrink. As we approached the turn, I was within striking distance without having put forth any extra work. I did misjudge one bump, though, and my back wheel tried to slide out from under me. I caught it just in time to roll into the turn.
At the turn, the words SLOW were painted all over the place. Apparently, a couple of riders did not heed the warning, as they now sat on the side of the road in their shredded kits, showing the wounds from a lost battle with the road. Moral of the story, if the road tells you to slow down, listen. It knows what it’s talking about.
The next six miles went by like a blur. The clouds parted, and the sun began to shine. The formerly rainy conditions began to shift to hot, humid, and windy conditions. Finally, the last turn before the Beast lay ahead. I made the turn and began to put a little more into the pedals. I needed to wake the legs up a touch to get ready for the misery that they would soon face. The foreboding letters began to appear on the road.
“The Beast – 2 miles ahead!”
“The Beast – 1 mile ahead!”
“The Beast – 1/2 mile ahead!”
And then she appeared. The entry to the Beast is an uphill, left-handed turn designed to take away any momentum and punish those who forgot to shift into the appropriate gearing, small chain in the front and big cogs in the back. Seriously, a toothed dinner plat would be a great cog to have for the climb. At seven tenths of a mile, it is not very long, but it averages around a 14 percent grade, peaking at 26 percent. It’s pretty fearsome.
I hit the turn and shifted to my second easiest gear. I could see at least five riders on the lower slopes grinding their way up. My original strategy was to work through my remaining two gears in the saddle before shifting up to climb standing. Mother Nature took an axe to that plan. The wet roads limited the amount of power I could put into the pedals while standing, as my rear wheel slipped on the wet surface. Thus, I spent a lot more time than planned climbing in the seated position, which for me is not my preferred option on short, steep climbs. I attacked it as best as I could, picking off all five riders I saw on the lower slopes plus two others that were further up the road.
Unfortunately for one of the riders, he was struggling up the hill. As I arrived at the bottom, he was halfway up the lower slopes, pushing his bike. He made it up to the halfway point and remounted for a second, brave attempt at powering up the slopes. As I crossed the .6-mile mark, I heard a crash and a something like a giraffe dying. The poor guy must have cramped up and literally fell over. That’s the Beast, completely unforgiving.
The three-mile descent was an adventure due to the wet pavement, albeit not as crazy as the previous big downhill. Weaving around the potholes that remained after the repair crews made a herculean patching effort two days prior, I used as much of the road as possible, drifting into the right lane as needed to avoid rough terrain. At the bottom, I handled the 100-degree right turn and got on the gas.
The Wind Tunnel
Shortly after finishing the descent, we made our way onto Highway 66 for a rolling ride into a 20-plus MPH headwind. Honestly, it wasn’t too bad. The hills broke up the wind a little bit, and I was able to pick off a few more riders, a couple of whom had re-passed me after the descent (gravity works both ways, unfortunately). We finally passed through the Sunny Isles Shopping Center intersection which left one last climb before heading out to the back side of the course. It’s a nice, little climb with just enough of a grade to make it difficult for the big guys. At the top, we took a right turn, and I did my best Chris Froome impression.
No, I didn’t go all gangly on my bike. I hit the gas and dropped down to a seated position on the top tube with my chest on my handle bars. I absolutely flew down that hill. It was awesome. As I shot through one intersection, blocked by the police, a kid stood there taking a video, mouth agape at my position. The cop made a comment that I won’t put in here, but it revolved around my sanity, or lack thereof.
Coming off the descent, we hit the winds again. This time, we were much more exposed. It was rough, but everyone was suffering at this point. I simply returned my gaze to my power meter and kept churning away. Amazingly, I was still gaining ground on riders. Every so often, I passed another rider who just looked shocked to see me go right by.
At this point, I had no idea where I was in terms of positioning. I knew that I had made up a lot of ground, but nobody told me anything. Finally, I passed a group of spectators on the side of the road, just before Grass Point Hill who shouted out that I was in 10th place.
Ok, top ten so far. Not bad. I feel pretty good, too, so this may get even better.
Rolling up the ten percent climb into the headwind on Grass Point, I caught a glimpse of ninth place…and my predator instincts woke up. He was still a bit up the road, but he was within striking distance. Over the next five miles, I gained ground on him every time the road pitched up. Before long, I had ninth place ready to overtake and eighth place in sight, too. On the first of a series of three climbs on the back side, I went after it, catching and dropping ninth. I bombed down the hill and set up eighth place for the next climb, not wanting to burn the extra energy to pass him on the downhill or flat section.
The road pitched up again, and I bolted out of the saddle, going by him like he was on a Sunday leisure ride. I wouldn’t say that I was pegged during the move, but I was definitely at the higher end of my pain limits. As the hill crested, I got my speed up and returned to my dive-bomber position. Yes, it is a risky position, but I didn’t want to give back my hard-earned gains.
On the last climb of the series, I hit it hard again, knowing that I had a long sweeping descent after the climb. At that point, my chaser gave up and let me go. Afterward, he told me that he was certain I would blow up, but I just kept putting the screws to him.
At mile 53, I went back up Lowery Hill for the second and last time and headed back to transition. As I approached the 1K-to-go mark, I slipped my feet out of my shoes and prepared for the dismount. As I approached the transition, I saw Mr. Awesome (remember him from earlier? I told you that we would revisit) leaving T2 and heading out on the run. I really wanted to catch him, but he had a good two minutes or so on me.
I blazed in to the dismount line, slammed on the brakes, and hit the ground running. Ninety seconds later, I was out of T2 and heading out on the run. Bike time – 2:46, 8th place overall
Running in the Furnace
Last year, I went out on the run like a crazy person, rolling through the first two miles at under a 6:30 min/mile pace. I was not going to do that this year. I checked my watch and monitored my power output to ensure that I could manage the effort. I also began doing some mental calculations about the heat.
Make no mistake, it was hot. The earlier clouds and rain had gone away, leaving the heat and humidity behind. As I closed in on the first aid stations, there was plenty of water, soda, and gatorade. There were even cool sponges. There was not any ice. Ok, this could be problematic.
Two miles into the run, and I made the turn into the golf course. I could see sixth and seventh up the road a good bit, but they were not close enough to see if they were suffering. Honestly, at this point, we all looked a bit haggard but still strong. Turning into the tree cover on the running path, thank goodness, I realized that I had to pee. I hadn’t taken the time in transition because I wanted to get running.
I looked around, knowing that nobody was within two minutes of me, so I took a quick pitstop in the trees along the path. Holy cow did that feel good. Sure, I burned a good 40 seconds, but I felt so much better. Ok, back to work.
The first lap was honestly very low drama. I finally got a little ice at the three-mile mark but just barely enough to throw down my shirt. As I approached the mini-Beast, a short climb that peaks out at 14 percent, I just focused on turning the legs over and getting up the hill. Not too bad. I made it up without walking and endured the feet-pounding, knee-rattling descent to the exit of the golf course. I made the right turn back on the road and headed back to town.
By miles five and six, the aid stations had all gotten some ice. While I felt like total crap and a bit overheated at this point, I was supremely confident that I had it managed now that I had access to ice.
As I closed in on town, I passed a runner who had been in fifth place before a spectacular implosion. He was now walking, complaining that he had made a wrong turn. I know exactly where he made the wrong turn. It’s a bit confusing, but suck it up. It’s everyone’s individual responsibility to know the course. Plus, had he looked around at the turn, he would have seen an arrow indicating the correct way. One more down.
Although they still had a gap on me, I got the chance to get a glimpse of fifth and sixth place as they headed out on lap two, while I finished lap one. The gap was much smaller now, and they both looked “turrable”. Not terrible, turrable, as Charles Barkley would say. Mr. Awesome occupied fifth place. I wanted to catch him.
Before doing that, though, I had to get my body temperature down. Through the next three aid stations, I dumped a couple pounds of ice down the front and back of my tri kit. At one point, my soaked shorts made me feel like I was one of those babies with a full, leaky diaper in the Huggies commercials. I didn’t mind. The cool, melting water felt amazing dripping down and out of my shorts.
Lap Two – A Tale of Two Strategies
Running out of town, I quickly reeled in sixth place. I noticed that he wasn’t taking on much at the aid stations and wasn’t really hitting the ice. He kept looking worse and worse. Since I was taking on fluids and ice, I made my way through the aid stations slower than he did. At the first one, he got a good gap on me, and I caught him just before the second one. At the second one, the gap was smaller, and I passed him before the third one. At the third one, he caught up to me but got subsequently spit out the back, as I started running again. By this time, I was feeling pretty darn good.
Mr. Awesome was coming back to me, and he looked like crap.
I continued to pull Mr. Awesome back and had him as we hit the last aid station before the mini-Beast. Like the previous competitor, he heard me coming and decided to forego taking on any ice or drinks at the aid station. I took on a little coke, as my stomach had started to not play nice a little while earlier. The excitement of catching Mr. Awesome, though, put any stomach (and possible accidents in the pants) to rest. My body decided to cooperate to punish him.
After dumping the last bit of ice down my kit, I set out after him, closing the gap very quickly. I could see that his stride had gone to crap and his body was fighting him every step of the way. I could have passed him right away, but I waited. We hit a slight downhill, and I made my move. I figured that if he was cramping up, he wouldn’t be able to go downhill fast. I was right. I carried the gap into the mini-Beast and accelerated.
I nearly puked about halfway up the climb. My body was cool with working together, but apparently my brain had forgotten to mention the part about accelerating up the climb. Oh, I also attacked the downhill really hard. The goal was to bury Mr. Awesome. I made the left turn out of the golf course after the descent and did a quick check out of my peripheral vision. Mr. Awesome was a broken shell. He was just cresting the hill and looking defeated. Mission accomplished.
I know, that sounds petty, but the guy put other racers at risk for nothing. He deserved to be broken. That’s just how racing goes.
The next two miles were relatively uneventful. I continued on at a solid pace, dumping ice and water on my body at every opportunity. Suddenly, I realized that an orange and black-clad runner was up ahead. He looked surprisingly like the runner I had seen in fourth place, way ahead of me going into his second lap. I thought, “No, can’t be him. That dude had two or three minutes on me going into the turn for lap two.” I kept running, getting closer to the turn-off for the .75-mile run through town. All of a sudden, Mr. Orange-and-Black swung over to the left and made the turn.
“Crap, he may be close enough,” I thought, but I would need some help. I needed to take him by surprise. He hadn’t looked back when he made the turn, and I was charging. I made the left turn up Queen Street, attacking the 4.5 percent climb. As I crested, I saw that I was within 200 meters of him. “Ok, if he doesn’t look back at the next two turns, I’m going to get him,” I thought.
The right-hand turn came, and he didn’t look. I accelerated. I made the turn, continuing to pull him back.
He made the last turn and didn’t look. I got excited. Then, as I was getting ready to make a final attack, one of the three spectators sitting at the corner shouted, “Look out, he’s coming hard after you!”
Mr. Orange-and-Black finally looked and saw me. He mouthed an expression of shock and took off.
Damn it! I had had him. His kick wasn’t enough that I wouldn’t have been able to outsprint him in the end. I just ran out of real estate. I didn’t have enough left in the tank to run an 80-second 400 meters to close him out.
He crossed the finish line about 20 seconds ahead of me, as I cruised the last 200 meters. No sense in sprinting against nobody. Run time – 1:44, 5th place, overall.
As I sat there waiting for Deirdre to come in, I sucked down some fluids and ate some food. Deirdre had successfully completed the bike course well within the cutoff time and was chugging along on the run course. About eight hours after starting, she crossed the finish line with a burst of excitement. It was pretty cool to see the emotion on her face after completing such a hard course, something that some people didn’t believe was going to happen. I knew it would, so I hadn’t been concerned. It was just something awesome to see.
We finished up later that evening at the post-race party and awards ceremony. I ended up taking first place in the military category and second in my age group (first place won the overall), snagging a slot at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships to be held in Chattanooga, TN, this September. I have no delusions about finishing on the podium in Worlds, but it should be a lot of fun. Hopefully, they throw some nasty hills at us on the bike course. If they can make it brutally hot, too, that’d be fine with me.
Despite the great day at the race, it also was a bit of a sad one. This is the last year for the race in its current manifestation. I hope that it comes back as an independent race in the future, as I would love another opportunity to see what this course throws at me.