Toughman Alabama race report
Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,
I raced in my 6th half-ironman distance event last weekend. This was the first of hopefully many Toughman Alabama events produced by my friends at Team Magic.
They put on the best events in the Southeast, so I was excited when they finally took the plunge this season, after 20+ years of event management, into the half distance. I’ve been racing their events since 2002.
From the beginning this season it’s felt a little different. I was sick over the winter and delayed my training until later in the year – not really starting until mid February. That’s about 6 weeks behind schedule for me. I approached my training cautiously when I finally got started. But ultimately the fitness came back – it just took awhile longer this time. I didn’t train fast in the build up, instead focusing on just covering the miles.
The race day forecast was a little intimidating with temperatures expected to reach at least 95 degrees. After all, it’s Alabama in August, so my gut told me the race, with its high temps and admittedly hilly course, would live up to it’s name: Toughman Alabama. I’ve been trying for years to break 5:30 and I wondered if this might be another failed attempt under such conditions.
My friend Jeff and I drove down to Pell City Alabama on Friday – just east of Birmingham. From home it only takes about 2 1/2 hours, so Toughman is a great event for Nashville area athletes and I presume Atlanta based athletes as well. When we arrived we went directly the race site and checked in. We dropped our bikes off in the transition area where they would be guarded over night. I always appreciate when a race allows bike check in the night before, because it makes race morning less stressful, not worrying about wheeling your bike around in the hotel and bringing it to the race site.
After checking in we decided to go for a short swim in the beautiful Logan Martin Lake. We swam from the swim finish point out about 300 yards just to check the visibility and water temperature. True to form for an Alabama lake in mid-August it was warm and a little murky, but certainly clean enough. Afterwards we checked into the race hotel, the Holiday Inn Express, in town (about 10 minutes away). We opted for the most convenient dinner option and ate at the Cracker Barrel next door: French Toast for me.
With a belly full of carbs I went about prepping for race morning. I put my numbers on my arm, leg, helmet, race belt. I double checked my nutrition for the morning, laid out my race suit – and climbed into bed by 8pm. I was proud of myself for actually getting to bed early the night before a big race. By 9pm I was asleep. My wave would hit the water at 6:42 and Jeff’s at 6:45, so we got up at 5am and arrived back on site by 5:45am.
Race morning: When we arrived back at Lakeside Park in the morning, it was buzzing with energy. I’ve found long course athletes to be less stressed out and far more calm and supportive than short course racers. I guess the long course folks are saving their energy. I said hello and joked around with a number of friends in transition as I prepped my gear for the long hot day ahead. I then made my way across a short bridge connecting the finish area to the swim start beach and put my feet in the water. I prayed silently, asking God for a good day, for safety, and finally thanked Him for a strong body and a strong will to continually test myself.
My race started right on time. Its hard to believe I’m in the 40-44 year old age group now. It really seems like yesterday that I was starting with the 25-29 year old men. But in those final few seconds before Therese Bynum said “Go”, I felt a little proud that I was still out there racing. I plan to be for a long time.
I started near the front of the group, hoping to avoid the usual melee of a wave start. It was a wise choice, I was immediately into “clean” water without feet and elbows in my face. I could see one other person from my wave pulling just ahead of me, but the remainder of the group remained behind me. I swam unhindered almost all the way to the turn bouy.
If there was one thing I skimped on in training for the event it was my swimming. I’d guess I only swam about half of my usual training volume this time, so I was a little surprised to be swimming so far ahead of my age group. On the way back into the finish I passed a lot of the other age groups who started 3, 6, and 9 minutes ahead of me. It was a fairly uneventful swim for me – just a nice relaxing warm up for the real work ahead.
Swim time: 33:32. Not my best half iron swim time, but good enough for 2nd out of 38 in my age group.
Overall this is a pretty simple two point swim – out to a bouy and then a turnaround with a finish just across an inlet from the swim start beach.
The run from the swim exit to the transition area is mostly on a grass surface and not too long. After about a 3 minute transition I was headed out on the bike. I rode moderately for the first mile, intentionally staying in the small ring and not getting into my aero bars just yet. Once onto the open road, I picked up my speed a little and tried to settle into what hoped would be “race pace”.
Around mile 3 the course begins to point upwards though. The climbing seems gentle at first, but goes on for several sharply rolling miles from that point. I found my heart racing and my breathing out of control at around mile 5, and worried that I had started too fast. I slowed down for a ways and decided to ride the uphill sections in the small ring – nice and easy. Id make up the time on the flats and downhill sections.
There was a bottle exchange at the half way point.
The course is a straight out with a lolly pop on the end and then straight back in. Other than a few city sections that were well controlled by police and volunteers the course was very rural. I tried to focus on the smell of pine needles and the red clay at the road side. It was a pretty ride. Unfortunately though I had no data – my watch wasn’t working and my bike computer was malfunctioning as well, so I was riding purely on “feel”. I think that caused me to be more moderate in the first half of the ride.
At mile 36 Jeff caught me. He pulled alongside me and said “this isn’t my idea of a flat course.” We laughed for a moment, but then as I began to realize he had caught me, I launched a hard attack. I rode all out at sprint distance pace for about 5 miles thinking I might distance him again. I didn’t look back. I didn’t have to. Eventually he pulled alongside me again and then ahead. I followed his pace for the next 10-11 miles. I have no idea how hard we were riding, but it was too hard for me. I decided to let him go.
I think racing Jeff for those 15-16 miles helped me though. I might not have ridden as hard otherwise. The mistake I made in racing Jeff on the bike was in forgetting my nutrition plan. I’d eaten a GU Salted Caramel gel at mile 10 and a LaraBar at mile 25. I was supposed to eat another couple of gels the rest of the way, but completely forgot. Not a big deal – if I hadn’t had a 13.1 mile run ahead.
Bike time: 2:39:30 (an exact tie with my bike split PR from Florida 70.3 in 2011)
Overall the bike course is on the challenging side. There is significant climbing throughout, but the out portion seems a bit more difficult than the back portion.
Total time: 3:18 (I was excited because I only needed a 2:11 run time to set my new PR of 5:29 for the half distance).
Jeff was still in transition putting on his running shoes when I rolled in. I sat down to put mine on and for a moment my hip flexor cramped painfully. I grabbed it and laid back to straighten the muscle. A volunteer rushed over to check on me. I thanked him and stood up to finish pulling my shoes on. I quickly swallowed two GU Roctane electrolyte tablets before starting the hot run.
Headed out into the park, the run starts off fairly flat. I passed 1 mile at 7:45 pace. Too fast! Out on the main road I could still see Jeff head about 100 yards. It stayed gradually uphill for the next couple of miles. I passed the 3 mile mark at 24:45. 8:15 per mile. Still too fast. I was starting to suffer for it. There were aid stations at every mile where I drank water and powerade and wrapped cold “ice towels” around my neck, but it wasn’t enough to save me from my own mistake in pacing.
We turned right off of the main road near the small airport around mile 4. I stopped dead in my tracks. I hadn’t slowed to a walk – I just stopped. I was overheating. I began to walk, but eventually began to jog again. I started running the number in my head, trying to calculate finish times if I could manage 9 minute miles – maybe 10 minute miles. I was cracking mentally on top of hurting physically. And Jeff was long gone.
At mile 5 I was walking. Just walking. No more running. I felt cold in 95 degree heat. I had goosebumps all over my body. My brain felt like it was on fire. I wiped my arms slowly trying to feel sweat. But I wasn’t sweating. I was completely overheated and dehydrated. I felt sick to my stomach and honestly, had there been an aid station between mile 5 and 6 I would have quit.
I managed to run into the mile 6 aid station to save my pride. When I arrived I was given an ice pack by a volunteer. I thanked him weakly and he said “hey man, I’m gonna tuck this icepack down the back of your race suit okay?” He put it between my shoulder blades and then made two more from ziplock bags. I put those in the front of my Pearl Izumi race suit. That same volunteer gave me two cups of Coke to drink. “You got this man,” he said.
It was like a miracle. The ice brought my core temperature down and the caffeine and simple sugar kicked in immediately. I was back running 8:45 pace like those dark miles, when I almost quit, had never happened.
The rest of the way I drank one cup of water, one cup of powerade, and one cup of Coke and grabbed fresh ice for my packs at each aid station.
Around mile 10 I was beginning to hurt again, but I passed a volunteer who said “You look great! Home stretch! Remember your training! You’ve been here before. Now finish this!” That man motivated me and ran strong again.
In the final 3 miles I thought about my friend and fellow triathlete Frank who is battling cancer for a 2nd time. I tried to pray for Frank instead of thinking about my own momentary and completely temporary pain. It helped.
With about half mile to go with the announcers within earshot my legs cramped. I was at 5:20. I had 9 minutes to cover a half mile with two cramped quad muscles. Achieving your goals isn’t meant to be easy, so I smiled in that moment and rubbed my legs for a moment. I started running again.
I crossed the finish line in 5:25…..4 minutes head of my goal time, setting a new PR by 5 minutes.
Run time: 2:07:32
Overall, the run course is extremely difficult. There are hills throughout – with long gradual hills at first and the significantly steep hills on the backside of the course near the turnaround. This run course will challenge you – in a good way. Again, if this sport were meant to be easy everyone would do it.
I was thrilled with a new PR, but destroyed physically.
I sat in the recovery tent under the cold mist and sipped on a water. I talked to Jeff about his day – a 5:05 finish! He earned it at Toughman Alabama.
After the race I met Rich, who owns the Toughman franchise. Over pizza and beer he told me and Jeff that Toughman Alabama is hands-down the most difficult race course on their circuit. I said “no kidding?” We laughed and stuffed our faces with pizza, Zaxby’s chicken, cookies, Cokes, beers, and everything we could get our hands on.
I will be back to Toughman Alabama for sure. Team-Magic, in partnership with Toughman events, put on a fantastic race. As always the course was well marked, heavily supported by volunteers and the community as whole. I’m never disappointed by a Team Magic event and Toughman is now among my favorites.
I always learn from triathlon. This time I learned about life and racing that just when you think you can’t go on, you have to push through, because you’ve never been closer to achieving your goals.
I love you,