Wednesday, September 26, 2012

About Ironman 70.3 Branson

Before I get to the meat of the matter, there are a couple of housekeeping notes to take care of...

First and foremost, I would like to...

Thank God for giving me the physical and mental strength necessary to accomplish this task.
Thank my wife and #1 fan, Monica, for without her this would never have been possible.
Thank my coach and friend, Barry Baird for giving me the tools necessary to train for this event.
Thank whatever possessed me to upgrade my bike's cassette to an 11-28.  Clearly, without this, this job would have been nearly impossible...

Secondly, this race was dedicated to the memory of my friend Melanie Davis.

Selecting a race, or races, has always been an easy task for me.  There's no set criteria for doing so, other than the race site has to be within a manageable driving distance and for now, it has to be a race I haven't done before.  I'm always looking for a new and improved challenge.

And so it was how IM 70.3 Branson was chosen.

Yes, I did some research and YES I read all about the "Bike" course.  It seems that this race is solely identified with its more than "brutal" bike course.  But how bad could it be, right?

Upon registration last spring, I made two phone calls; one to my wife in which I told her "we're going to Branson" to which she replied "cool".  The other to my coach in which I told him I had registered for my third IM 70.3 of the year and this one in Branson, to which he replied "I see a lot of hill repeats in your future".

As the event date got closer and closer, I began to wonder, as I (and most all of us) do, if I had done enough.  Quickly, with the encouragement of family and friends, I began to trust and have faith in my training.  I had been there before.  It would all be okay.

We left for Branson on Friday morning.  The short eight hour drive, took almost ten.  We took our time.  It was a relaxing kind'a day.  The entire way I was at peace with myself.  I was ready to rock this race.  I remember thinking how cool, calm and collected I was.

And then we started getting closer to Branson. The roads, the hills, the mountains. Oh my goodness they were big, bad and went on forever.  The car, we have a medium size SUV, was having trouble keeping up with the climb.  The tachometer's needle kept moving up.  These were for real.  My happy disposition turned into one of concern.  My wife kept looking at me and all she could say was "Oh. My. God."  Thanks dear, I hadn't noticed!!!


For the most part, registration was well organized.  A bit confusing trying to figure out which line to stand, but quickly we were set straight.  We did notice however, that the lines were moving somewhat slow.  Didn't know what could be taking so long.  "Number Please", "Here's your bag", "Here's your band".  This process has never taken more than a minute or so, but today it seemed uncharacteristically slow.  Then we realized why.  The volunteers were elderly women.  This is not a negative observation by any means, for when we saw this, we totally understood and patiently waited our turn.

"Number?" She asked.
"228" I said.
"Did you say 238?"
"2. 2. 8. Ma'am"
"Oh, thanks young man"

Then she pulls out the Equipment Claim Ticket and said:

"This ticket you will give to your loved ones.  It is what they will need to claim your equipment should you get hurt or something"

"WHAT?  Should I get hurt?  I have done many of these races and I have never been told that.  Are you trying to tell me something"  I said.

"Oh no!  But just in case, give it to your family.  They can't get your equipment without it."

I knew what she meant.

Next I moved to the lady in charge of putting the blue arm band on my wrist.

"And how are you today?"  I asked her

"I'm doing just fine" she told me.  "Have you done this race before" she asked.

"No ma'am, I have not."

"Oh dear.  Have you been to the Highroad yet?"

"No, ma'am, I have not!"

"On my!  Oh well... good luck and have fun!"

"Thank you ma'am.  And thank you for volunteering."

So, I left registration with my bag in hand, armband in place and the lasting images of these two fine ladies.  I know they meant well.


Yes, both Bike and Run gear needed to be checked in.  And why?  Because there are two different transition spots.  Eight miles from each other.

So I checked in and racked my bike.  Then we drove to T2 and left my shoes and visor for the run.


We had been told that there was no parking allowed at Swim Start / T1.  Athletes and Family needed to go to T2 and take a shuttle back to T1.  This sure seemed like a catastrophe waiting to happen.  My wife graciously volunteered to drop me off at Swim Start at 5am and then she would drive and take the shuttle back.  Probably one of the smartest moves we made all weekend.  The shuttles were few and far in between.  There were athletes arriving at swim start with only seconds to spare.  Not bueno!

The temperature that morning was in the high 30's, low 40's.  Saving grace was the fact that there was no wind.  The water temperature was 74.2.  Yes, wetsuit legal.

As soon as there was some light, we jumped in the water to warm up.  I did for about 15 minutes.  It felt good.

My wave was off at 7:04.  First age group wave of the day.  This was a blessing because I didn't have to wait around in the cold air.

The water was beautiful.  Clear as could be.  You could see the bottom of the lake for the first 25 yards or so, the rest of the swim, you could see your hands.  Also, it didn't smell or taste of fish or diesel.  It was a pleasant swim.

Other than the swim in Augusta three years ago, I have never broken one hour on the 1.2 mile course.  I say "other than Augusta" because I don't count that one.  The river current is responsible for most of my speed. The Army Corps of Eng. had raised the water level by opening up the dam, as they do every year for this race, to increase the flow of the river.  Today in Branson, my official swim time was 57:10.  It was going to be a good day!


All of our Swim gear would be transported by the organizers to T2 after all bikes left.  Because of this, we had to leave all of our stuff inside a plastic bag, marked and tied.  This is just what someone who has a slow T1 time to begin with does not need.  It took me 9:29, but I got out.


Left "Bike Out", rode 100 yds out of the parking lot and turned left.  Rode about 1/2 mile and then the "hills" began.  After that point until mile 50'ish there was not a flat section on any road.  You were either going up or going down.

It didn't take long to find out why this race is defined by this course.  I don't think that any words, or pictures will do this course justice.

Ironman 70.3 Branson Bike Course

Upon entering the infamous "Ozark Mountain Highroad" it became quickly apparent that today's plan would be one of survival.

The Highroad is a bit over 7 miles long.  We would ride this over and back, 2.5 times.  Each climb would be done twice, one (the longest) would be done three times.  All climbs are at category 5 climb, which means the climbs are at least a 3° but not quiet a 6° and they have to be at least .5 mile in length.  I can tell you that these were a lot longer than that!

Total elevation gain for the day was 7709 feet.

I took each climb, one at a time.  Did not worry about what was in the horizon, for I could not see it, it was either around the bend or over the mountain.  I climbed each climb using every bit of every gear I had.  I was able to keep a constant cadence and a steady, albeit slow, speed. Not once did I have to get off the saddle, but more than once I had to stop at the top to catch my breath and fuel up, for after the quick descend, there was another climb waiting for me.

As it always happens, the descends are fast, to fast.  I remember one time my speedometer read 40.5 mph.  Obviously moving at that speed you would get to the next hill quick.  It took a lot longer to go up.  Every time.  Amazing how slow distance adds up when your speedometer only reads 4.5 mph.

Physically I felt as good as could be expected.  I had to deal with a couple of issues, but dealt with them quickly and swiftly.  Additionally, several times the quads felt tight, almost to the point of cramping.  Again, I managed to keep these in check for I knew that the run would be tough if my quads cramped.

After exiting the Highroad, another huge hill awaited.  But that would be the last.  Or so I thought.  As promised, it would be all downhill from here, plus a relaxing flat that would serve to get the legs ready for the run.

I welcomed this change of pace.  The worst was over and I felt a sense of accomplishment.

Rode around a ball park, on the bike path, for half a mile, give or take.  Exit park, turn right.  Then BAM... surprise!  One more hill.  Not just any hill.  This was a stinking wall.  As per my Garmin, the grade here was 6.2%.  It was such a surprise that I didn't have time to react, barely had time to shift to proper gears.

I considered un-clipping and walking the bike up the hill, but at 1 mph that would have been disaster.   So I took a deep breath, got off my saddle (for the first time today) and made it to the top.  I had to stop.  My quads were on fire.  I could see the knots and they were big. All the saving I had done during the previous 55 miles gone!  Spent!  Quads were shot.  The run would be hell!

Bike time:  4:24:43 (actually faster than I had thought)


The quads were hurting so bad, I almost fell to the ground when I got off the bike.  But I didn't.  Gingerly walked to my spot, racked my bike and changed gear.  Couldn't sit down.  I knew if I did, I would not be able to get up again.  Total T2 time was 3:22


As I left T2 my wife Monica was waiting for me with a huge smile, a great bit "attaboy", two thumbs up and a "So proud of you.  I love you".  All I could say in return was "Damn, that was hard"

I started running slowly, my feet were actually moving the way they were intended to move.  Until about half a mile down when the quads erupted again.  This happened in front of the biggest crowd I had seen all day.  How's that for timing.  "Never let them see you hurt" I always say.  So I sucked it up and made it out to a less crowded spot.  Walked some to get the cramps out.  This proved to be the theme of the run:  run some, cramp some, walk some, repeat.

Three loop courses are brutal.  Specially if the first two loops take you by the finish line.  But again, with every step I realized I was getting closer to the finish line.  Yes, the pain was intense but I've been there before, I've dealt with it before, I would do it again today.

The last loop didn't hurt so bad.  I was going from aid station to aid station.  I would thank the volunteers and high five most of them.  This made the last 3 miles plus more bearable.

And then there it was.  The finish line.  Run time:  2:54:10.  Ironman 70.3 Branson is in the books.


A race like this cannot be compared to any race because there are no races like it.  Other than the swim portion, nothing is equal to or even comes close to being equal to.  So comparing times against other performances would be useless.  I realized this early on and this was one of the factors which helped me "finish" the race.  Had I attempted to make a specific time, I would have been toast.  I'm glad I did not.

Here in Middle Tennessee we train in what we considered a pretty hilly terrain.  We have access to The Natchez Trace, which by all accounts is very hilly.  But nothing, absolutely nothing around can prepare you for what this course throws at you.  You just do the best you can and pray it was enough.

Word on the street this weekend, and this is not confirmed, is that this event will cease to exist.  This was probably the last year for Ironman 70.3 Branson.  In my estimate, there were no more than 800 athletes signed up and of those, more than a handful did not show up.  Although this event was well organized, it felt short of what I've come to expect from the Ironman events.  Small details that make a big difference were just not there; No name on the bib.  Not enough medals for the participants (although they did promise to mail them).  Not enough shuttle buses for athletes and family.  Not enough porta-potties.  I can see where the budgets were cut, and this made a difference.

My coach told me on Sunday after the race that I should be proud of having conquered the "toughest course on the 70.3 circuit".  He told me that I have earned "bragging rights".  I put this experience right up there, next to my Ironman finish as a highlight of my triathlon career.

So what's next?  Not sure what's out there.  I do know one thing's for sure... picking "me too" races, well that's not for me.  Any suggestions?