I've been doing the NJ State Triathlon (Olympic distance), for 4 years, practically from my first year as a triathlete. I have improved a lot over the years (from 3:24 in the first year to 3:03 in 2009), but I still have get under that elusive 3 hours mark. If you want a PR, the NJ State course is the best place, given the flat bike and run course. This year I haven't trained as hard as in past years, but I had some strong running and swimming PR's, so I was really hoping I'll go under-3. The main hurdle seemed to be the fact that the bike course was almost 2 miles longer this year (it was short before, and the new one is 25.5mi, so longer than the standard distance). Another problem was the heat. We're in the middle of a heat wave, and the day before we hit 102 degrees in the afternoon. It was expected to be scorching hot this day too.
In my first Oly, I had a dismal 1h+ time for my 1,500m swim, but that went down to 51 minutes in the 2nd year, and 42 minutes in the third. All these were without a wetsuit (since the Mercer Lake is usually very hot in July). Then, last month at Black Bear (with a wetsuit) I hit an unexpected 36 minutes, even though that was the second day after a sprint triathlon. Honestly, I was secretly hoping to get to 30 minutes, But it was the swim where I was hoping to make up for the 2 extra miles on the bike. The lake was unbelievably hot. 88 degrees, and as I went in to warm up, I had to accommodate to the heat.
In the water, it felt like the Cayman Islands or Honduras waters that I visited this spring. There was no questions about wetsuits, and I knew this might slow me down a bit. The swim itself felt good. Was getting into a rhythm, never felt too tired, the only problem is that I kept swimming of course so I was pretty much zig-zagging, at least in the first half. I passed some people, and hundreds of other passed me. But however, my time was an extremely super-disappointing 51:29. I'm trying to figure out what went that much wrong, and can't find any explanation. This is slower than 2 years ago. Fifteen minutes slower than the tired race last month. Could the extra distance I swam account for all of this? I'd rather not even think about this anymore... I didn't feel dizzy as I used to be after a long swim. I went through T1 in 4:31, which is pretty good for me (I'm a slow transitioner)... among my better times.
The NJ State course is almost completely flat. The roads are good, and this year the course seemed almost completely closed (most of the busy roads were closed to traffic, or we had at least one lane coned-off for us). Normally there's no wind, but this time the breeze was quite welcome. Last year I averaged 19.8mph, but this year I knew I wasn't in such a good shape on the bike, and I hoped I can get around 19mph (although it felt like quite a stretch). I felt strong on the bike, I went quite consistent, and tried to think that there's a run afterwards (sometimes I tend to go all-out on the bike, and then crash on the run). I finished the course in 1:22:15, which averages (officially) to 18.6mph. But there's a very long section in and out of transition, over a grassy hill, so that result can't be always accurate. My bike computer showed exactly 19mph for the actual bike ride, so I have to be very happy. My T2 was great. At 2:51 it's my best ever Oly transition, so at least I got one PR on the day!
I felt pretty good at the beginning of the run. I used to have my legs fried from pushing too hard on the bike, but this time it was all good. But also, it was very hot. It was almost 11:00 and the heat index was supposed to be around 96 at that time. I've done long runs in the heat, or short fast workouts, but never a longer, tempo effort in this kind of heat. I started quite fast, but soon the heat hit me hard. I couldn't breathe (the air was very thick), and while I didn't actually cramp, a lot of muscles seemed to be hurting. Since I knew my time goals are all gone, I had one more goal left. I was doing this race with my friend FLorin, who was at his first ever Olympic tri, and since he's a very good swimmer, he built a huge lead, so he was almost 10 minutes ahead of me when we started the run. But I couldn't let him beat me, after all I've been working at this for 4 years :) So I started in pursuit of him. after about a mile, he was 6 minutes ahead of me. One mile later, the gap was just 4 minutes. So I kept my hopes up. Already, lots of people were walking. Others were stretching on the side of the road. Some were doubled over and throwing up. The only reason I had to stop was to take a piss, since it had bothered me since one minute after getting out of the water (couldn't it have happened just a couple of minutes earlier??).
After the first 5k section, we went by the start/finish area and started the second section, and here's where it started getting worse for most competitors, because the second half was all exposed to the sun, with no more tree cover. It was scorching hot, and I'd say 60% of the people were just slowly walking. I'm happy to say I never had to stop (except at the water stops, since I can't really drink while running). I used all the 3 Gu gels on the run. At each water stop, I drank one water, poured another one on my head, and drank 1 or 2 energy drinks (they have Heed... quite bad, but there's carbs and electrolytes in there). Except for the first faster mile, I kept my pace quite consistent (even in its slowness). At the final turn-around, around Mile 4.5, I caught up with Florin, so my objective was accomplished :-) They also had ice cold towels at that point, so I put one on my head, under the hat, and that gave me a final wind to push through the rest of the course. I don't remember ever passing so many people in a Oly tri run. My run time was an abysmal 1:03:28 (10:15 pace - my slowest for an Oly), but I'm happy with it in these very hot conditions.
As for the final race time, it was a PW (personal worst): 3:24:32. Barely slower than my first one, when the swim took an hour, and I couldn't run at all. Minutes slower than Black Bear, which was the day after a sprint, and it had all those steep hills. But if you ask me, I'm not as disappointed as I should be. I felt like I gave one my best efforts ever. The conditions were grueling, so just finishing seems to be a victory. It's only the swim that bothers me, but I'm sure it was just a glitch. And well, now I need another one to get under that elusive 3 hours mark.
There's some better news when I'm looking at the relative ranking. On the bike I was about in the top half... had been much better ranked, but for my current training level, I'm more than happy! And also, top 51% on the run, which I've only been able to do once before in an Olympic race, and I was 7 minutes faster then! So apparently the hot run was hard for everybody, and I didn't just suck. Overall, I was in the top 73%, which pretty much ties my best ranking for this distance. 3:24 now puts me in the same percentile as 3:04 in much cooler weather.
The race was again flawlessly organized by Larry and Michele from CGI Racing. Their races are always the best, and they're getting better. And by the way, another nice touch was the misting tunnel at the end, where you could get in and get sprayed with cold water from all the sides, the perfect finish to such a hot race. After eating 4 hotdogs at the Jersey Shore Tri Club tent, we stopped at the Tavern on the Lake in Hightstown, where I had the perfect recovery meal: a huge bacon cheeseburger with fries, and a full pitcher of Sam Adams. And now it's time to put triathlon to the side, and get ready for our first baby!