Race Report: Vineman Full Aquabike, 2012

Tom Davis

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I had planned to race the Vineman half-ironman aquabike and last year it was possible to sign up until quite close to race day, but this year, even though I tried to sign up quite early, I found that the half aquabike was filled and that the waiting list was also full. In my weakened mental state, since I was already planning to sign up for something, the devil made me sign up for the full aquabike: basically the first two-thirds of an ironman-length triathlon.

On the other hand, the aquabike omits the marathon at the end which has been my downfall in all the ironmans I've ever completed. (See my other race reports for descriptions of Ironman Canada and Ironman Regensburg.)

My swim is pretty good, so mostly I made sure I could ride 112 miles fairly solidly in my training to get ready for the event. I think that since I had done a few ironmans already I was a little too relaxed about this race, and for some reason, wasn't worried at all about it. Maybe I should train on longer rides: in the past five years I have only ridden more than 100 miles five times: once per year, and always 112 miles in an ironman-length race.

This is a pretty bad race for spectators, since there are few places to watch, and because the finish area is in blazing sun without much shade, it's no fun to wait. For that reason, I did it alone, without my wife Ellyn to be driver/sherpa. Most triathlons have the two transition areas in the same place, but at Vineman, the swim and T1 are at the Russian River in the town of Guerneville and T2 and the race finish are in Windsor: about 15 miles away. This makes the logistics a bit complicated, especially if you don't have your personal driver/sherpa.

I drove up the day before having booked a motel room for two nights. I clearly needed one the night before since the race site is about three hours from home and the transition area opens at 5:00 am. I booked the second night since my friend Amy had planned a celebratory dinner at a great restaurant after the race, and even though it was "just" an aquabike, I wasn't happy about doing the three-hour drive home when I would be pretty wiped out.

I checked in for the race, listened to the required pre-race briefing, got my numbers and chip timer and checked into the motel. That night I had a very early dinner at Fresh Choice with another club member, Jimmy, and we gorged ourselves and talked about the race. Jimmy is an amazingly good swimmer: one of the few people in the club who clobbers me in the water. When I got back, I set up all my gear for the next morning, set the alarm for 4:00 am and was asleep by 10:00 pm.

I woke up at 2:00 am and couldn't go back to sleep, so after tossing and turning until about 3:30 I just decided to drive to the start and get a really good parking place. When I got to the swim start and T1 in Guerneville, the parking places on the main street were filling up as fast as cars arrived, but I got one only a block from the beach access road. Well, at least I got to sleep early and got 4 hours. That's more than sometimes when I toss and turn trying to go to sleep. In fact, hardly anybody gets a good rest the night before a race with all the adrenaline surging: your best bet is to get a good sleep two nights before and then you'll be on par with everybody else.

There were some reported car break-in stories from the half ironman race at the same location two weeks previous, but I figured that a car parked on the busiest part of main street would be pretty safe. Also, my wife needed the van which I usually take, so I was driving her Saab which has a big enough trunk to hold the bike but has no indication on it that it belongs to a triathlete like bike racks or the "I-heart-triathon" or "140.6" stickers (which would be an advertisement that this car is going to be left alone for at least 10 hours).

The T1 transition area opened at 5:00 am and I got there at about 4:55, so I stood in line for a short time, but got in early and had first pick at a spot to rack my bike.

As I said previously, I was too relaxed about this race and consequently I made a bunch of mistakes in T1:

  1. This wasn't a serious mistake, but I just crammed some random racing food in my Bento box (a couple of gels and three "Stingers" waffles -- which really taste good!) and loaded a large bottle with incredibly-concentrated Hammer Perpetuem (about 12 scoops of powder and then topped off with water resulting in a bottle of liquid that was of the consistency of thick syrup. My plan (and I'd done this before in IM Canada and Regensburg) was to take a sip of the stuff followed by a big gulp of water each time). I had the aero bottle of water hanging between the aero bars and I planned to take on just water at the aid stations to refill the aero bottle. I also carried one "emergency" bottle of water in the holder behind my saddle in case it was a hot day. (The temperatures were predicted to be pretty warm but not horrible.) Other than being pretty tired of the food, the only real mistake was not having practiced getting the Stingers waffle packages open while riding, and they required more tooth work than I'd thought. While I was trying to open a couple of them, I came to some fast bumpy descents and I just had to cram the half-opened package in my mouth until the riding was easier.

  2. Because the weather was possibly going to be hot I decided I'd put on arm coolers (they do help a lot on hot days) in T1, so I brought them along. Of course when I was in T1, I discovered that they were inside-out from the previous washing, and in my altered mental state after the swim I probably blew a minute or so getting them turned outside-out and then on my arms. Maybe they would have worked under the wet suit?

  3. Since T1 was 15 miles from the finish line, we were supposed to cram all our stuff into a plastic bag with our race number on it to be delivered to the finish line. But I brought a big backpack with my stuff, wore extra clothes to be warm, and found that there was no hope of getting that backpack and all the rest of my gear into the transition bag. I came up with the solution of putting the wetsuit, goggles and cap into the bag, tying it up, and then tying the whole thing to the backpack, but I had to do that in transition, too, for another 30 seconds or so. It worked out well: my dry clothes stayed dry in the backpack and the wet stuff was segregated. Also, 30 seconds in such a long race had no effect on my division placement.

  4. The truly novice error I made was that I simply racked my bike without looking at the gearing and of course there's a hill up from the beach to the main road and when I got to the mount line at the bottom of the hill, I noticed that the bike was in a huge gear from the end of the last ride I'd done. Rather than trying to ride or trying to change the gears, I just jogged the bike up the hill and started, so I lost another 30 seconds or so.

This year there were more people than ever racing. The main race of the day was a full ironman-length triathlon. But they also ran a half- and full-length aquabike plus a special women-only half-ironman-length triathlon called "Barb's Race" as a breast cancer benefit.

The river isn't all that wide and the swim course involves two loops: up the river on one side and down the other. The half ironman and half aquabike folks did a single loop, but there were so many entrants that they started relatively large waves of people every two minutes. I crossed into the entry area as soon as my wave was called, but by the time I swam to the line of starting flags (it was a water start) the starting gun went off. Thus I had no swim warmup and I also didn't get my usual chance for a pre-race pee in my wetsuit.

The water temperature was very comfortable and I figured since it was a full 2.4 miles that I'd just warm up in the first 100 meters or so, and everybody else was in the same boat. I got off the front of my group pretty quickly, but then the problems started. My aquabike wave was the very last to start of the 2.4-mile swimmers and with waves ahead of us spaced two minutes apart, I immediately started having to pass the slower swimmers in earlier waves. It seemed to get more and more crowded as the race went on and I was almost never going at full speed. My friend Jimmy (who's a much better swimmer than I am) had a prefect description of the race: a 2.4-mile-long pinball game.

I can understand random bumps and people accidentally brushing your legs with their arms, but a couple of times somebody actually grabbed my leg and held on. Although I never use it in normal racing, I do have a pretty good kick that comes in handy. The only other major excitement was when somebody going the other direction in the river crossed the center line and he (or maybe she) and I had a solid head-on collision: no fun.

I was a little shocked at how slow my time was when I got out of the water: about 5 minutes slower than my worst-case estimate, but I was a little relieved to find that another guy in my club who consistently swims races with times within 20 seconds of mine got into transition at the same time, so he had the same pinball problems that I had. After the race I talked to Jimmy, and although he finished 5 minutes ahead of me, he was 5 or 10 minutes slower than he'd planned, too.

After limping out of transition, having wasted two or three minutes due to stupid mistakes, I got on the bike and started racing on the road along the river. Within the first mile, I heard the sound of air hissing out of my tire, and it was loud: loud enough that the tire should have been completely flat in four or five seconds. But it didn't, and when I got off the bike, everything looked ok, and the tires seemed fully-pressurized. I got back on and the hissing started again. So I stopped again and looked carefully at the brakes, and it turned out that somebody's race number had come off and my tire had picked it up by the sticky side and slammed it into the brakes where it was rubbing against the tire. It sure would have been depressing to get a flat right at the outset, especially since I had checked the tires before the race and they were both almost new.

The race course goes for about 10 miles along the river and then does one or two big loops (depending on whether it's for the full- or half-ironman length). In order to minimize the number of aid stations, there were none on the river part, since all the others would be used twice by most riders. So although the average distance between aid stations was about 13 miles, the first one didn't come until mile 22 or so. I picked up water since I'd emptied my aero bottle and rode off, but realized that I really should have used the toilets at the aid station because I'd missed my chance in the river, but I held on for 13 more miles and the next station and spent another couple of minutes standing in line for the porta-potties but I didn't waste the time totally: I was eating and drinking as I waited. From then on I never had to get off the bike.

At about mile 30 I was really kicking myself mentally for not signing up in time for the half-ironman distance race, dreading the 80 miles yet to go, but I was able to keep riding fairly strongly. It's also a little depressing at the start of the ride to have so many people pass me since I'd gotten past so many of the faster cyclists in the water.

The elevation profile for the course is not particularly bad: lots of rollers with one moderate hill that comes up twice because of the double loops. (Although the second time, at mile 100, it doesn't seem quite so "moderate".) The road surface, on the other hand, is not great (well, no, it's actually pretty crappy) and it was a pretty bumpy ride. I did notice that every time there was a serious bump that 20 or 30 feet beyond the bump was a pile of water bottles that had apparently been jarred loose from other bikes. In fact, one gal who passed me later in the race commented about my water bottle: that it was almost upside-down in the cage behind my seat, no doubt due to a couple of the bumps I hit. Well, I didn't lose any teeth but, especially on the descents, I kept a pretty solid grip on the handlebars.

When I got to about the 80 mile mark, people stopped passing me and in fact, I started playing cat and mouse with a bunch of them: they'd pass me, then I them, and back and forth. Then, at about the 90 mile mark, it started to be that when I'd pass them, especially on a hill, I'd never see them again. Of course many of them were looking forward to a marathon and I just had to finish the bike, so maybe I was going a bit faster with the prospect of the finish line coming up. I felt a huge psychological rush when I got to the top of the last major hill at mile 100 and knew that it was all downhill and flat to the finish, which I rode fairly solidly.

I did notice that at the beginning of the race I was able to be in aero position most of the time, but it got pretty uncomfortable beginning about half-way through the race, so I started alternating between it and riding with my hands on the brake extensions. I'd do one until it got too uncomfortable and then I'd swap to the other, back and forth. I tried to keep my standing up to a minimum, but I just can't climb hills well that way, but I did less of it than in the past. Also, at about mile 80 I started to get the usual "hot spots" on the balls of my feet due to the Speedplay pedals, and although it's annoying, I knew it wasn't doing any actual damage. On hotter days, it would have started earlier.

I never felt winded except at the top of the hills, but my legs were burning for a lot of the time. When I got home and looked at my heart rate on the computer, it was much lower than I'd thought: mostly in zone 1, and maybe only a third in zone 2 with nothing in higher zones. But I was pretty wiped out at the end and it's hard to stand up after I've been sitting for a bit. It seems like on flatter courses, my legs give out before my lungs/cardio. This in spite of the fact that I have been doing training rides on fewer hills than in the past.

The air temperature was good: a little chilly for most of the first bike loop and it only started getting uncomfortably hot at mile 90 or so. I did take on plenty of water and ate four salt tablets at random times during the ride. There was no indication of cramping, probably due to the lower temperatures, but I also had been eating a couple of vitamin D capsules every day for a few weeks previous as suggested by a physician friend.

At about mile 80 I was sick of the food I'd brought along so I decided to take a Clif bar at the next aid station. There was a gal holding a mini-bar out with another in her palm for the next rider and I managed to snatch both of them from her. And I ate them both, too! I was again glad to have the aero water bottle: the bottles that we picked up at the aid stations during the race were not bike bottles but just bottled-water bottles with the caps broken off. With my aero bottle I could just squeeze in water until it was full, take a couple of gulps directly from the aid-station bottle if it was not empty, and then chuck the mostly-empty bottle before I was out of the aid station.

I came in second place in my division, and the fastest guy was way faster on the bike than I was. I was way faster than third place, so the three or four minutes wasted due to errors had no effect on the final standings. I'd never heard of the first-place guy who clobbered me. And I clobbered the next guy. Here are the times for the first three places:

Name Swim T1 Bike Total
Rick Mareina 1:10:54 6:17 5:36:19 6:53:30
Tom Davis 1:09:01 7:24 6:28:47 7:45:12
Richard Reid 1:04:31 10:27 6:59:28 8:14:26

So saving a couple of minutes in T1 wouldn't have helped: I need to "save" about an hour on the bike.

Since I was alone, it took a while to get back to the motel: I needed to take a shuttle to Guerneville to get my car, then I had to drive it to the race finish in Windsor to get my bike, and finally, back to Santa Rosa where my motel room was. I missed the award ceremony since I was getting my car, but I was able to pick up my prize (a nice bottle of wine in a box with the "Full Aquabike: Second Place" inscription on it).

I only had time for a shower and no nap, and I drove to dinner with Amy, her husband and another competitor, Alice, at a fantastic restaurant (Zazu's in Santa Rosa). Amy's husband had not raced that day but he politely put up with all the discussion of every detail of the long-course aquabike.

For some reason, I didn't have any trouble getting my full eight hours of sleep that night.

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