By Ben Lakin
15th M25-29, 224th OA
Having spent a year intensely training with the BU Triathlon Team, I was ready for a new challenge. I had completed three Sprint and two Olympic Distance Triathlons over the past year, and I was ready to try the Half Ironman distance. I registered for the Patriot Half in East Freetown, MA in January, knowing that I wanted my second race of the season to be a half ironman. I trained hard all spring, focusing on building a lot of base for the longer distances. My goal was simply to finish in less than 6 hours (I was striving to break 5:45), and I was fairly pleased with my performance on race day. I raced hard, learned a lot and gained confidence that I could complete longer endurance sports.
Since the swim waves started at 7 AM for the Patriot, I awoke at 4 AM on race day. I quickly dressed in my tri gear and warm ups, prepared an English muffin with peanut butter, woke up my girlfriend who agreed to come to the race with me (I know…what was she thinking?) and lugged all my previously-packed gear to the car. We drove down to East Freetown as the sun was cresting over the horizon, and the scene made me more excited. The drive lasted about an hour, and during that time I ate my English muffin and continued hydrating. We arrived at the parking area around 5:30 AM.
Unfortunately, the lines for registration and body marking were already fairly long and growing quickly. I hurriedly signed in, picked up my “schwag bag” and waited to be body marked. Once marked, I proceeded into the transition area to set up everything. Typically, I warm up with a short run followed by a swim before the race start. However, due to the lines to get body marked, I had to settle for just a warm up swim. After ensuring my transition area was arranged correctly, I studied the entrances and exits to the transition area, memorized the location of my bike rack, donned my wet suit and headed to the race starting area for a warm up swim.
With swimming not my strongest sport, I’ve started doing a warm up swim before each race to calm my anxiety and let my body adjust to the water temperature. Thankfully, the water wasn’t cold on Long Pond as it was 70-degrees on race day. This is my first year racing with a wetsuit, and I have greatly enjoyed the investment. Before starting the swim, I examined my goggles and ensured they were adjusted correctly. For the warm up, Mark Slater (another graduate student on the BU Tri Team) and I swam out to the first buoy and back, and I simply focused on sighting and form and mixed in a few accelerations to increase my heart rate. Feeling pretty loose after the warm up swim, I proceeded over to the starting area and was ready to race.
The swim was a 1.2-mile rectangular course with a shallow water start. When our wave was called, we all proceeded over the timing chip mat and into the water. I dipped under the water once more to check my goggle seal and then made my way over to the right side of the mob in an effort to avoid some of the craziness when the swam began. Finally, the bell sounded and we started. Despite trying to move to the right before the start, I still was kicked and whacked a few times in the first 100-yards. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to stay with the leaders on the swim. I tried to stay focused, concentrated on my form, breathing and conserving energy for the remainder of the race. Thankfully, my open water swimming skills have begun to improve, and I found myself tracking fairly straight and sighting well. After about 200-yards, I fell into a rhythm and swam the long distance.
This year, I learned that swimming until your hands reach the ground is faster than standing up earlier and attempting to run out of the deeper water. That’s what I did, swam until my hands touched bottom. Emerging from the water, I was dizzy. I often become dizzy after a hard swim, but I focused on jogging out of the water and removing my goggles and swim cap. I started stripping my wetsuit as I ran towards my bike. As I ran to my bike, I noticed my friend Mark was already at his transition spot. Since we were the first wave, we were some of the first racers out of the water. Being new to wearing a wetsuit, I learned I need to practice removing it quickly. I struggled to remove the wetsuit from my feet before finally succeeding. Since I was doing my first half ironman, I decided to don biking shorts for more comfort on the ride. I slid those on over my underarmor shorts. Then, I put on my shoes, gloves and helmet and ran out toward the mount line.
Initially, it was a little cool on the bike as my skin began to dry in the wind, but the sun was continuing to rise, making for a beautiful day. Thankfully, the bike course was fairly flat throughout the race. I quickly settled into a rhythm and cranked out the miles. The course was a double loop course and was not closed to traffic. It was well managed and policed at the major intersections. There were two water bottle exchanges on each loop that I later realized I should have utilized. I had planned to average 17-18 mph on the bike to save something for the run. My legs were feeling strong after averaging 18 mph on the first loop. I kept the pace for the second loop. It was encouraging to pass my friends, girlfriend and all the spectators at end of the first and second loops.
After completing the first loop, the temperature began to rise. I realized it was going to be warm on the run. There was a beautiful causeway section over a lake on the ride about 20 miles into each loop. It was foggy and gloomy on the first loop, but the scenery was spectacular on my second pass. As I approached the camp and headed into the second transition, I knew I had lost a lot of ground on the bike. I anticipated this. I’m fairly new to cycling and I don’t have an aerodynamic time trial bike. I was also determined to save some energy for the run.
As I entered transition, my legs had their usual wobble. I quickly racked my bike, changed into running shorts, slipped into my running shoes, grabbed my race belt and hurried toward the run out. As I exited the transition area, I realized I forgot to grab my next GU. Oh well…there would be plenty of aid stations with Hammer Gel. I decided not to turn back.
The first ½ mile of the run course follows the same route as the bike. I had focused on bricks going into this race. My legs quickly loosened and my stride settled. I passed several people as I held my 8-minute mile pace. I passed Mark around mile 2. My legs and body were feeling great for the first 6 miles, and I maintained my intended pace. At the six mile marker, I suddenly ran out of steam. It literally felt like someone had turned off the power to my legs. My legs didn’t hurt, but I didn’t have any energy. At this point, I realized that it was quite warm (I later found out it was about 85 degrees) and I was beginning to feel the intensity of the sun. I slowed and walked for about 20-yds to try to regain my focus. I started running again, but my energy still was significantly lacking. After struggling to get some momentum going, I finally reached the mile 7 aid stations. I gulped down some water, HEED Sports Drink, and dumped a cup of water onto my race hat to cool off. At this juncture, I created a new plan to finish this race. I realized I was too dehydrated to maintain my goal pace. I started running to each aid station. I walked through the aid stations to pick up water, HEED and/or an orange slice (those tasted so good after 5+ hours of competition!). Then, I ran to the next aid station. I simply focused on running to the next aid station. After 3 miles, I began to get into a rhythm. This strategy quickly helped me get passed the 12-mile mark. My adrenaline began to surge as I continued to run towards the finish. I heard the spectators’ cow bells as I drew closer to the finish line. What a relief.
Coming into the camp, over the foot bridge and down the final straight across the line was a great feeling as the announcer called my name. I grabbed a water bottle, took a seat and tried to relax for a minute as my girlfriend came to greet me. I was pleased to complete my first half ironman and grateful that I was supported by several good friends. I learned a lot from this race, and I think my next one could be even faster.