I participated in a different type of endurance event this weekend. The first leg involved a 6.25 hour drive in traffic to St. George, Utah. After a slow 8-hour sleep T1, I rode 94 miles of the St. George Ironman bike course Saturday morning. I picked up the pace in T2 with a 45 minute lunch at the Pasta Factory in Ancestor Square and staggered into the third leg, the drive to Las Vegas and a bachelor party evening for my future brother-in-law, Craig. Then I drove home yesterday through a rain storm and snow flurries. All told, I drove around 700 miles, biked nearly 100, spent nearly ... well, a lot ... and learned a number of invaluable lessons for Ironman St. George. Below are my Top 5 Ironman St. George Bike Loop Lessons.
1) Pace Thyself!
I rode the two main loops that comprise the bulk of the St. George bike course. That means I started at the intersection of Snow Parkway and Bluff Street. At this point in the race, cyclists will have pedaled around 20 miles through what sound like gentle rollers for the most part. I didn't preview that part of the course but from what I read the roads are well-paved and the hills won't bust your legs. That's good, because there are three climbs in a town called Gunlock that may make you wish you were shot by the time you make it through your second loop. I've been told the hills are described as a baby, momma and a poppa. That is accurate, though the first hill must represent a very large baby with a nice 8-10% grade that lasts a few hundred yards around Gunlock State Park. The hills get progressively harder, culminating in a long poppa climb with a headwind before heading towards a windswept small town called Veyo. Then, it only gets more challenging, with a long two-mile climb featuring what feels like a 30-mph headwind and a steady 6% grade. Once you think you've hit the top of that hill, you're rewarded with even more wind! Even as you get a reprieve with a steady downhill return to St. George, you're fighting that wind. My bike hitched and pitched left and right with every gust. So much so that if you're considering disc wheels you might end up blasted across the road if you're a smaller guy like me.
Anyway, my main point is this: Those Gunlock hills don't occur until what felt like around 25-30 miles into the loop. Until that point, the course may feel pretty smooth and even relatively fast. That's a false assumption. I will need to keep my heart-rate down into the 130s and 140s or I could be blowing up by mile 75-80. Hopefully, I'll buy a power meter between now and the race date to regular my power output. If I don't though, I won't make the same mistake I made at Ironman Arizona -- do NOT fight the wind. It will win every time.
Ironman St. George will most definitely not represent a cycling PR for me. Now I know why it's one of the hardest Ironman bike courses around. The "good" news is that it's a blend of the winds from Ironman Arizona along with the rolling hills reminiscent at Ironman Coeur d' Alene. In other words, this course while pretty represents the toughest parts of my two previous Ironmans. But I finished both so I know what to expect and how to handle it.
2) Ride the Tri Bike
I've been debating with myself whether I should bring my road bike or my tri bike to St. George. I had heard about all the climbing, and I'm relatively strong on my Colnago EPS road bike. But after riding the course I'm convinced using a tri bike is the way to go. I'd rather have the luxury of being in aero and resting my body through the wind than hunched over the drops with no reprieve to rest on my elbows. And before anyone says, "Hey, just put clip-on bars on your Colnago," I can't because the handlebars are carbon and they'd snap from the torque. Had I not ridden the course I would have continued to torture myself with this inner debate. I'm really glad I can focus on other things now. Cervelo P2 it is.
3) Ride Outside
I'm torn on this topic. On one hand, I think my Computrainer has helped me improve my power over the past several months. On the other hand, I think it's harder to elevate your heart-rate on a stationary bike without proper ventilation indoors. Plus, it's hard to precisely simulate windy conditions. As much as I've appreciated the luxury of staying home and catching up on more television/movies/video games while riding indoors, I think I need to suck it up again and get back outside early to tackle more hilly/windy conditions. It's hard to say how much I can improve my conditioning in the next three weeks but I'm going to give it my all to get outside three times a week and try.
4) Coke is It
When I started riding the St. George loop, I met a group of local triathletes who were doing the same. They kindly invited me along to join them. I did my best to keep up and did for the most part, but for some reason my heart-rate remained higher than it should have considering my effort level. Was it the elevation? Fatigue from a brutal trail run and a long drive from California the day before? I don't know. I do know I was hurting pretty bad when I hit the convenience store at Veyo. I was so happy my new friends stopped for refreshments. I needed a break! So much so that I tried something I rarely do: I bought a bottle of Coca-Cola and put it in one of my bottle cages. That drink saved me for the rest of my ride! I was impressed that two of the triathletes were training with 5 Hour Energy drinks and knew exactly when to consume them on the course. I've learned from my Wildflower Mistake not to experiment with that stuff anymore, but you had better believe that one of my three bottles will be filled with ice-cold Coke at St. George. A little extra sugar and caffeine will go a long way that day, I think. Plus, it worked for me during the Coeur d'Alene marathon.
5) Scout your Lodgings Too
The race is obviously the most important part of an Ironman, but where you're staying and the rest you get while staying there is also critical. I'm really glad I stayed this weekend at the same hotel I'll be at for the Ironman. I learned where the nice restaurants (and not-so-nice) are located, where Stephanie would be best-suited to watch the race from, and which room-types to avoid at the hotel. I'm also a light sleeper, and realized I'll need a fan in the room to drown out noisy neighbors and thin walls. I would have been miserable in the room come race weekend had I not known that in advance.
Even though I "only" covered 94 miles of the course, even though I didn't have time to see the reservoir where the swim is or drive the run course, I'd still consider the 5.5 hours of training in St. George among the most important I've ever had. I learned that this course is to be highly respected but not feared. I learned that if you're smart you can get through it just fine and that if you're not...well, it would be a long, long day. I am prepared and ready for what's in front of me.
It's going to hurt.
I wanted to be challenged by the most challenging course out there and that's what I'm getting.
No turning back now.