East London has been a happy hunting ground for me in the past, with a couple of age group wins, and a best result of 11th overall in the race. It is because the race is ideally suited to the fourth discipline of an endurance triathlon; mental discipline and strength.
If you can race to your strengths, ignore the rest of the field, and hold back on the first half of the bike, to the point that you feel that you might be making a horrendous mistake, you are likely to race your personal best on race day.
Just like any other major triathlon, Buffalo City 70.3 with its 3000 entrants will always make even the most seasoned triathlete weak at the knees early on race day. What follows is a take on how to approach the race to ensure not only your fastest possible time on the day, but also a race that will hopefully be one of the most enjoyable days you could experience.
Race day dawns, you’ve swallowed down a breakfast two hours before the start, you’re well hydrated, and you make your way down to the beach. Everyone is worried about the weather, and you have been following hourly updates for the past 3 days. What you now realize is that there was absolutely no point in that exercise. All it did was get you uptight, and for what? Here it is…whatever ‘it’ is…same for all, and not a thing you can do about it!
Don’t forget to apply anti-chafe on the places under your wetsuit where you tend to chafe, have an energy gel 20 mins before the start, and I always like to put my goggles on under my swim cap. Losing your goggles in the bunfight that signals the start of the race is no fun at all.
A rolling start is a perfectly civilized way to get your day started, but make sure that you start in an appropriate position. There is absolutely no point in adding extra pressure by starting with faster swimmers where you feel like you’re being left behind throughout the swim.
Ideally you want to be with swimmers who you can slipstream. I like to swim on the right of a bunch (as I breathe predominately to the left, and like to look over the swimmers, which helps me to sight and swim straight). Starting in the middle of the pack (even in a rolling start) is always going to be stressful and either athletes will be swimming over you, or you will be swimming over other athletes. Regular sighting to the front will make sure that you swim the straightest line possible.
East London seems to deliver cold water on race day (I have no idea why) but I always find that the less I think about it, and instead concentrate on my stroke, breathing and swimming on the feet of a slightly stronger swimmer who is swimming straight, the less I feel it. It’s normally only cold for the first 200m anyway.
The swim is a great time to try to relax, the first 300m or so will always be an adrenalin frenzy and might take your breath away, so expect that. Even the pros feel that on race day, it’s perfectly normal. So the sooner you can consciously deepen your breathing, stretch out on your stroke and find a rhythm, the better. Unless you are completing for a podium place, the swim is about pacing yourself to ensure you leave the wet stuff behind with plenty of gas in the tank!
Take in the experience, don’t wish it away too quickly. You’re privileged, you’ve worked hard to get there, and many wish they could be you. Absorb all of it.
As I exit, always like to wash my face off under the showers, and get the sand off my feet. Take your time to do so, it’s worth it. The pros will sprint up the steep little hill from the swim exit to the transition. Resist that urge! Walk up and catch your breath. This particular half ironman is all about how fresh you can feel once you’ve completed the bike course. The race is all about second lap of the run. The more you have held back, and the more disciplined you can be about pacing yourself, the better your run will be, and ultimately, the more athletes you will pass on that last lap of the run. Trust me on that one!
Because there are so many athletes, and its a rolling start, it is impossible to gauge how you are doing overall. As an age grouper completing for the first 3 positions I found this hard, but have always successfully raced this triathlon by focusing on my own race, my own pace, and my own strategy. It has worked for me, and the results prove that. Race yourself, nobody else.
Find your bike transition bag, and take enough time in the transition to make sure you have everything you need. I normally use socks for a half IM, favoring comfort over the 20secs I lose by putting them on. Hopefully you will have practiced your transitions well before race day. It is very important to use the first 10km on the bike to get your heart rate down. Settle into a rhythm. I like to take a bottle of water from the first water point to spray over my trisuit to wash off the salt, and will always carry whatever I need on the bike with me. However, if your goal is a finish and not a win, make use of the aid stations. Take the time to say thanks, say hi to the athletes that pass you or that you pass. Little things, but they tend to lift me, and help me to focus on positives.
Now, here’s the key to Buffalo City…. Set your cycle computer onto the time setting. NO average speed, NO current speed.
If you can set it on Heart rate, even better. It’s no secret that the bike course is hilly. I have seen so many really strong bikers think that they can hammer the bike, and that they will do well as a result. All of those athletes (bar none) have found out the hard way that that strategy doesn’t work! As a strong cyclist the aim is to use that strength to complete the course with lots of gas still in the tank. I will say it again…this race is about how good you can feel once you’ve climbed off your bike. Therefore, I will always set my computer on the heart rate setting and will keep my HR between 150 and 155, my max on the bike is 171. I do this regardless of who passes me, how slow I am going, how much I need to slow down to keep the HR low. And it always works. I love to make a mental note of all the athletes that pass me, and there are always many. I cannot tell you how good it feels to pass them all again on the run, or towards the end of the bike.
So sit up on the longer climbs, breathe deeply, spend time in your small blade. Especially on the way out to the turnaround. It will all pay dividends. Spend a moment to savor how cool it is to be cycling on a National Freeway!
You start the race with a full box of matches, and each time you over exert or push your heart rate too high, you burn a match… keep your box as full as possible.
If you must, put the hammer down a little on the way back, you have been disciplined so enjoy the downs, but… The last climb back into town is the perfect time to sit up again, back off slightly and let your legs spin a little. Try to recover a little so that when your legs touch the ground again they don’t want to buckle under you.
Transition 2 is the same as the first one. Take the time you need without dilly dallying. Take your time over the first 3-4 km of the run, ease into your running style, walk early if you need to. Set small goals for yourself like 2min walk, 2 min jog. Your running legs will come back. Give them some time, and don’t stress.
There is only one big climb each lap, mentally prepare yourself to run slowly or walk up the hill. I find that I always have a better overall run split if I take those hills slowly, and work the flats and downs hard, than if I attack the hills hard.
There is no shame in planning to walk Bunkers before you even start the race. The time you will lose you will make up by not depleting your reserves.
When you pass the athletes you recognize because they powered passed you on the hills on the bike course, resist the urge to say something like “hey bro, you smashed the bike…well done..hang tough, you’ll get to the finish before cutoff for sure!” Nobody likes a smartarse!
Glowing inside…is enough.
From the 15km mark, the run becomes a mind over matter exercise. no matter how much you have held back. Keep yourself cool. Stay hydrated. Keep smiling, it helps.
Before my first endurance race I was given some really awesome advice that I’ve never forgotten, ‘hold back until you see the finish line at the end of the red carpet’. It’s all about your ability to pace yourself, not get swept up in the emotion of the day, and the competition with the other athletes on the course. Aim to finish the race with something left. What I can promise is that there won’t be…but you will look back at a really fantastic race, and you have the best opportunity to finish strong. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!