Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Race Report: Challenge Williamsburg Olympic distance

This past weekend I did my first race in the Challenge Family series of races - Challenge Williamsburg, which offered both a half-iron and an Olympic distance event. This race satisfied my desire to get in an additional Olympic-distance race this summer and to try out the Challenge series.

Challenge is well-established in Europe and around the world, but is new to the US, and recently grew with the acquisition of the Rev3 races. So bear with me as I present a race report intertwined with a race review as there were a number of aspects of the race that were new to me.

Pre-race day

This is a two-transition area race so upon my arrival in Williamsburg I stopped first at T2 to check in and get my race packet. Next I got my timing chip and I noticed that rather than give out a pre-numbered timing chip, they program your timing chip right then and there, during which time they also take your photo ("for the finish line") and double-check your information. Lastly, I went to get the "swag bag" - given in exchange for providing information about your hotel nights, number in your traveling group, etc (i.e. economic impact).

The swag bag included some product samples (not shown), a red bluetooth speaker, 
and a copy of Triathlete magazine.
Shown also - my bib number, tshirt, finisher's medal.

The checkin area offered a bounce house and activities for the kids as well as a number of vendors including (I think) TriSports who had just about everything a forgetful or upgrade-needing triathlete could want!

As I was getting checked in, the pro panel was beginning with Meredith Kessler, Alyssa Godesky, Kevin Collington, and Matt Chrabot. This was my first race ever with pros racing simultaneously on the same course. Did that matter to me? Yes, it absolutely did. I loved that and would like future opportunities to do races with pros as they elevate the whole race for everyone!

I left T2 and drove to T1 for the mandatory bike check-in. As I rolled the bike to T1, a very friendly volunteer escorted me to my spot (albeit not necessary, but a nice gesture). It's handy how they label the racks with your name and number so everyone gets the same amount of space (no one likes a rack hog, people!).

After getting the Roo settled in, I checked out the swim venue, swim in, bike out, and drove the bike course. I noted a half mile section of very bad road on a loop we'd need to do twice. At least I was prepared.

Race day!

I had my usual race day breakfast of oatmeal with a banana and two single serving packs of almond butter, coffee, and a can of Beet Performer (to top off the two from the day before). I'd prepared three bags - one of the things to drop off at T1, one of the things to drop off at T2, and a bag of things I'd need for the swim. Then there was no forgetting, and more importantly, minimal thinking required on race morning!

T1 on race morning was a sea of bikes. It was already plenty warm and muggy. 

There was a LOT lot of red. I gather the Challenge Family really likes red.

Rather than body marking with Sharpies, in your race pack you get temporary tattoos - a race number for each arm, and an age and race ("O" for Olympic or "H" for Half) for your leg. I was supposed to apply the leg ones like this:
But the way I did it, it looked like I was 480 years old!!

Swim (28:54)

The water was in the low 80's and just perfect without a wetsuit! The 70.3 athletes all went before we did so we could see the effect of the slight tide pushing many swimmers to the right, beyond the first turn buoy. I made a note to start further left and at the front. We also watched the pro men dolphin diving for quite a ways through shallow water at the end of the swim. That looked exhausting. I decided I would swim until my knuckles dragged the bottom.

It felt like a good swim for me! Despite our very large swim wave, people spread out fast so I didn't get much of a chance to draft, though I did actually RACE and pass a few people along the way. About 1000m in I had some cramping in my lower left leg and could feel one of my toes involuntarily crossing over the other in a spasm. It was a little unnerving (haha) but what could I really do but just keep going and try to relax that leg.

I was able to swim until maybe 25y from the shore when my hands struck the bottom. We were all slow through that stretch of water but I passed about four people on the run from the shore to my bike!

My Garmin had me at a 1:41 pace per 100y which is not too bad for a 1500m swim where I don't get to push off a wall for added speed along the way. It's a big effort for me to hold a 1:36/7 on a 1000y swim in the pool so I'll take this for a 1500m. It was the 17th "fastest" out of 88 female finishers. Best of all, I felt strong and confident!!

Note: Challenge offers nervous swimmers the option to wear a red cap so that guards and guides on the water can keep a closer eye on them. That seems like an excellent idea and I noted a number of athletes opted for the red cap.

Bike (1:08:49)

In my races I am really focusing on pushing hard on the bike and not consciously or unconsciously holding back to "save" for the run. The bike has become my strength, and on this hot and humid day I wanted to gain as much of an advantage there as I could and just run with whatever was left. Plus I don't think "saving" really works for me. I wanted to look down and see watts over 200 as much as possible. The power meter was a really good reminder to keep the effort up!!

The course was nice; it included one loop that was repeated. On that loop there was a stretch of road between two "End State Maintenance" signs that was pretty dreadful and required some careful riding, but otherwise I just pushed. I got passed temporarily by just one girl at about mile 14, trailed her for about 1/2 a mile to see what she had, then showed her who was boss (haha). That was the last I saw of her.

The course was very well marked with lots of color-coded directional arrows on the pavement and sufficient course marshals who did their jobs, thank you!

When I hit the 20 mile mark and had just under 5 miles to go, I pretended it was a threshold interval and that I had to give it all I had. I came into T2 at a good clip and for once did not come out of my shoes too early.

Run (49:18)

I took off on the run feeling decent. Thanks to the heat and humidity that was short lived. It was a two-loop run course for the Olympic; four for the Half. The first half of the loop is thankfully in the shaded woods, but it was rather twisty-turny and constantly either going up or down a short distance but at quite a grade. It was packed gravel which is just a slower surface for me. I decided not to look at my watch and run by feel. I hardly saw anyone on my first loop (and at one point feared I'd missed a turn!!) so I passed the time counting my strides up to 100 then repeating, over and over. Fun, huh?! To try to stay cool, I dumped water on myself and put ice in my tri suit at the aid stations.

That would be a "grimace"

The tricky thing with these multi-loop courses is you have no idea what loop anyone is on. I got worried about one girl and asked what loop she was on to be sure she was one behind me. At the turnaround on the second loop I saw another girl behind me, too close for comfort, with a mile and a half to go. I ran scared from her all the way to the finish and then figured out later she was also a lap behind!

I ran with all I had on the day - it was a threshold heart rate paired with something closer to my normal upper aerobic pace. Argh. What can you do? On the plus side, I stayed pretty positive on the course. However, I could have done better keeping my cadence up. As I reported to Coach Jim,

"Cadence was inversely proportional to my desire to sit down."

Here are some excerpts from the press about the race; heat was a central theme:
"Challenge Williamsburg delivered a doozy of a day, with 90 degree “feels like 100” heat and sweltering humidity that turned the run course into a war of attrition befitting the historic setting. Those that ultimately triumphed did so through calm, calculated efforts, knowing that any error of too-intense effort in the unrelenting heat would spell certain disaster." (Read more at triathlete.com
This was the hottest race I’ve participated in,” said Kessler afterward. “Ever, ever!" (Slowtwitch.com)

Total (2:30:44)

Overall I am happy with the race! I was 6th among the females, first age group, first over-40. There was a 12-minute gap between me and the next female finisher.

I got to share the podium with my friend Sami Winter, for whom this was the third race in 8 days. She is crazy strong!


After I finished my race, I got to watch the pros in the Half finishing up. I saw the men on their final lap, and the women on their third and then final lap too. They are amazing to watch! Even though Meredith Kessler led by a big margin, there was no doubt she was giving it a big effort!

My friend and former Endurance Films Racing Teammate Liz Baugher (below) raced but unfortunately pulled up half-way through the run with a sore hip flexor. She's coming back from a bad bout of mono so I was glad to see her erring on the conservative side right now. She has a long career ahead of her.

Awards for the Olympic race began on time and happened more efficiently and quickly than any other race I have been to. I very very much appreciated that! They had a nice podium and organized process for handing out the award medals and bags. Well done, Challenge staff!

And when I went to retrieve my bike and my swim-to-bike bag that had been delivered to T2, I found this on all the bike saddles. Cute!

Summary of Challenge Family race production

In summary, I would say based on my one race experience that Challenge definitely does an above-and-beyond job of running an athlete-friendly race! At $170, this race was more expensive than a typical Olympic race, but for all that went into it, I'd say it was worth it. The staff and volunteers were absolutely excellent. The communication was appropriate (neither too many nor too few emails) and the athlete guide was well organized and thorough.

I have only a few suggestions/ideas about the race:
  1. Provide a participant list that is sortable by gender, age group, location, etc. I had no idea how many people were in the race ahead of time. All we got was a PDF bib list for both races combined.
  2. Provide the address for T1 and T2. It's not enough to just give a map! Also, verify the course maps. The turn by turn directions for the bike course were not right.
  3. Have cold/ice towels on the run course!
  4. Consider a wristband type lap counting system so we can see what lap other competitors are on.
  5. Award top-3 masters!
Thank you!

Final thoughts - I just want to say thank you to Coach Jim McGehee, Coach Tom Williams (swim), Solar Connexion, and my family! I'm also very appreciative to the staff and volunteers for putting on a terrific race.

I will now wrap up this way-too-long report...next race is in four days. Back at it!