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 day that will hopefully be one of the most enjoyable race days you will experience.
So, race day dawns, you’ve swallowed down a breakfast at least two hours before the start of your wave, 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, but get in the water and get going! Check your bike, make sure the gears are where you will want them for the first km, check the tires, and put your drinks in place. Check your transition bags and make sure you know where they are.
Don’t forget to apply anti-chafe under the places your wetsuit tends 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.
I always start on the side of my wave of athletes, and make sure that I am on the right (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 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!
On the run up from the beach I always like to wash my face off under the showers provided 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 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! (Besides, weighing up the energy expenditure on a hill sprint doesn’t really justify the seconds gained in return.)
Because there are so many athletes, and so many waves, 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 focussing on my own race, my own pace, and my own strategy. It has worked for me. My best result is 11th overall, finishing as the second age grouper across the line. I raced myself, nobody else)
Find your 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. Think about that principle for everything you choose to do in transition. Hopefully you will also have practiced your transitions well before race day. I like to walk through the actual race transition the morning of the race exactly as I will do it later. It helps to settle me and I know exactly what I am doing and where everything is.
On to the bike. Don’t get caught up the day of the race by watching others put their cycling cleats on the bike and thinking you should try it too. Race day is NOT the day to experiment. Do what you are used to and comfortable with. Once on your trusty steed 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, especially the first half. 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.
So, I will always set my computer on the heart rate setting with the stopwatch on, 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, or 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.
I use the stopwatch purely to tell me when to eat. I take a gel every 30 minutes and have two bottles of energy drink on the bike. Do what works for you, but most importantly…what you have practiced!
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. Get out of the saddle too, change position frequently. Spend a moment to savor how cool it is to be cycling on a National Freeway!
If you must, put down the hammer a little on the way back, you have been disciplined so enjoy the downs, but… The last climb back into town coming off the freeway 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 making you look like a newborn giraffe.
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. Keep up the eating and drinking plan. The weather will also determine how much fluid you need. Spray down your legs, wet yourself often. However, if your takkies don’t have vents on the soles, try to keep water out of them or you will be punished with blisters.
There is only one big climb each lap, mentally prepare yourself to run slowly or walk up that 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.
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!