An unnecessarily long and personal recount of a 70.3 Ironman in Andorra
I have not written about my running/sports feats in a while. On the one hand I don’t think I have anything more interesting to say than what I said in my 10 Lessons I learned from running. On the other hand, I usually prefer to answer Quora questions about running and triathlons rather than writing a post about “about me”. But, given that I am on vacation, and promised myself not to “work” too much, and given that my last “adventure” was somewhat epic, I thought it was a good occasion to go back to writing about this. Also, fwiw, this has somewhat of a therapeutic effect and distracts me from all the work I do in my day job.
First, a bit of context. Even though I got a late start in races, and I ran my first one in 2011, 11 years later, I have ran 15 Marathons, a few ultras (up to 100k), and one full Ironman.
This Half IM in Andorra was my fifth. This was not a “normal” half IM though. In fact, the organizers, who we ended up becoming pretty close with, advertise it as the “hardest half IM in the world”. Why? Well, to start with, the whole event is in altitude (In case you have not heard about Andorra before, it is a so-called microstate in the Pyrinees). The swim happens in the Engolasters Lake, at 1,600m (5k ft) of elevation. The rest of the event is also at high altitude. Not only that, the 90 km’s of the bike course are brutal with 2,000m (6,500 ft) of elevation. During the ride you climb the “famous” Ordino port twice, and that is not even the hardest part.
By Bosonic dressing - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
You get the gist of it. This is no ordinary Half Ironman. In fact, I would argue that in order to finish it reasonably well, you need to be in shape to finish almost a standard Full Ironman. In fact, as I expected, [SPOILER ALERT] my final time was by far the worst of all the Half IMs I have done in the past. Now, importantly, I have done some tough races in the past: my first 70.3 was in Donner Lake, also in altitude and with elevation gain. I have run the Triple Tahoe Marathon in high altitude. I have done the Grand Canyon R2R2R… and so on. Because of this, I was confident I would finish this one. A bit too confident maybe, as I struggled through this one quite a bit.
Before we move on, I should introduce some of the players. To start with, and above all, I should introduce my partners in crime: Joaquin and Alberto. Joaquin and Alberto are my long-standing training buddies (and friends). While we started about 10 years ago with a much larger group, most of the others dropped. A few because they moved. Others because they picked up the pace, and are now too fast for us. Many because they are no longer running. Alberto and Joaquin have been constantly by my side in most of the adventures. They train with me at least once if not twice weekly, and I would not be here without them. Then there is Andres, an old training buddy of ours who moved and now lives in Madrid. While he doesn’t always sign up, he does come to our virtual Zwift meetups, and he agreed to do this adventure in a relay team. Last, but not least, is my sister Estibaliz. She lives near Barcelona. In fact, she is the captain of the Olympic Port in Barcelona. She is also a strong long distance swimmer, and more recently has gotten into running, and even some cycling. She was part of the Andorra 70.3 organization. She was in charge of the swimming portion, and ended up introducing us to most of the main organizers.
I don’t run as many races as I did before COVID, but I have definitely kept pretty active. I did the Santa Cruz 70.3 in 2021 in preparation for the California full IM that ended up being canceled because of the weather in October 2021. That was despite having done most of my biking indoors mostly on Zwift. In 2022, after I got a special invitation for this 70.3 in Andorra from the organizers (that included my sister), I did not up my mileage much. In 2021 I did a total of almost 7,000 km and 472 hours of training. In the 7 months of 2021 I have trained 273 hours and run/biked about 4,000 km.
Because we had done most of our bike training indoor, and we were expecting the bike portion to be brutal, we did a few long outdoor rides that mimicked the terrain as well as possible including the wonderful loop going to the Pacific from the Bay Area up Old La Honda, and back through Tunitas Creek, as well as the Mount Umunhum climb, which is in my “backyard”.
We did not prepare the swimming part too much, which, as we will see, was probably a mistake. However, in case you are not familiar with Ironmans, it is important to note that the swimming part is the least important of the three. If you are REALLY good at swimming, you can maybe beat mediocre swimmers by 10-15 minutes. In the bike, the difference can be 4 times larger or more. I did all my swimming in the local pool. I now count 15 1 hour long swimming sessions in 2022.
Regarding the running, that is usually my strong suit, and I did prepare for it as usual: train to be in shape for a good full marathon at least a couple of months before the IM. In fact, we did run the Big Sur Marathon in April, and I improved my PR from 6 years ago, beating it only by a few seconds. I did run another race the week after the marathon: the popular local “The Great Race”. Running a fast short race immediately after a marathon, and in preparation for a 70.3 is pretty dumb, and would definitely not recommend it. Finally, I had also signed up for a 100k ultra three weeks after the marathon. I ended up running only about 65k. The weather was very hot in the Bay Area that day, and I worried that if I pushed forward until the end I would end up injured, and miss the 70.3.
The days before
We all got to Andorra on different days. Alberto, was there for the whole week sizing up the situation, and sending us reports from the ground. But, by Thursday night, we were all there and ready to go (minus some jet lag for some, and a recent COVID situation for Joaquin).
On Friday, we went up the Ordino port with the bikes. It is a beautiful climb, and we enjoyed every bit of it. Plus, we all got used to the rented bikes (as a side note, mine was so good that it reminded me that I should probably get a new one at home).
On Saturday, we went up to the lake to drop the bikes and to “test the waters”. Water temperature had been a concern all along since we had heard that on Thursday the temperature was as low as 14C (X F). However, the organizers had told us that the had closed the gates of the lake and that would make the water temperature increase significantly. Interestingly, this also came at a huge cost for the Andorra government since they supposedly lost about $40k a day in lost electricity production. In any case, by Saturday the water was already 17C (62F), and it was clear that water temperature would not be an issue. In fact, I strongly considered using my sleeveless wetsuit for the race.
During these days, I became somewhat of a celebrity. The fact that I was coming all the way from California to this small country in the Pirenees, and the fact that I was well connected with the organizers, got me to do a couple of media interviews and I ended up making it into a local radio program and the Sport newspaper, the goto sports newspaper in Barcelona when I was growing up.
Everything seemed ready and set, although a last piece of concern that loomed upon us those days was the heat. Europe has experienced a pretty terrible heatwave this summer, and Andorra has not been any different. The expected temperature by the time we would start the run in downtown Andorra on Sunday was over 90F. That’s really hot, but, again, we are no strangers to running in those temperatures. In fact, the first 70.3 we did in Donner Lake also ended up being extremely hot, and, to make matters worse, under the smoke of nearby fires in Yosemite.
A bit more about the swimming course: it happens in the Engolasters lake at 5000 ft of altitude. The lake is small, so you can’t really get the 1.2 miles in a single loop. So, we had to do two loops to the lake and do an “Australian exit” twice. This means you have to get out of the water, run/walk under the timing device, and get back into the water.
As mentioned before, I was not well prepared for the swim, but I was pretty confident anyways. I have swam in altitude before, I have swam in colder water, I have swam longer…, hell, I have even done the Escape from Alcatraz. What could go wrong?
Well, whatever could go wrong went VERY wrong. I struggled to do the most basic form of swimming for at least one third of the distance. Before I exited the first time my pace was a horrendous 3:30 min/100m. My usual time is around 2 min. During that time I experienced the closest thing to what I can imagine a panic attack being. I could not breathe. I could not give more than a couple of strokes before stopping and getting all my head out of the water. And, of course, I was drinking a lot of fresh mountain water.
Now, both my other friends struggled as much as I did, with one of them deciding to swim the full course backstroke (a last resource we had heard from my sister who is a strong open water swimmer and was in charge of the water section of the race). So, clearly it was not just a ME thing. But, what really happened? Our best bet is the altitude, combined with the stress from the race, made it really hard to get our breadth under control. Now again, we are no novices on this, so it was definitely something that caught us completely by surprise. Next time, if there is a next time, I will make sure to spend a lot more time in the water the days prior in the same conditions of the race.
In any case, my final swimming time was a horrible 52:46. My expected time was around 35 or 40 minutes, so I did end up “losing” over 10 minutes in the water. But, I made it out. So, now everything should be downhill from here. Well, not really, since we had to climb the almost 7,000 feet of elevation gain in the bike.
Now, the path to the bike wasn’t easy either. We had to run around half a kilometer, the first part in the wetsuit, the second one in the cycling cloth (no cleats) pushing the bike from the forest to the road. By the time I got my bike on the road, I was somewhat dizzy and tired of pushing it uphill. Plus, I did not remember that I was using a rental bike, with different pedals. There is a pathetic video of me trying to get on the bike. By looking at it you would say that it was the first time I was riding at all (LOL).
The bike ride starts with a pretty long and dangerous downhill. I have to say that I am horrible at downhills. I have never been great, but ever since I had a pretty bad bike accident about 4 years ago, I have become even worse since I am not very comfortable going fast. That ends up making a difference in this course. My fastest speed in the course was 63 km/h. Some of the other riders I know were able to hit almost 90 km/h.
Besides that, I enjoyed the brutal ride quite a lot. I loved the two climbs to Ordino, and ended up suffering on those “other climbs” that were not “on the map”. For example, after the second climb to Ordino, everything is supposed to be downhill. However, you do all of the sudden find some climbs over 5% that can break your legs.
I ended up doing the ride in 4:44. This is a horrible time if you consider that on a “normal” 70.3 my goal is always to do under 3 hours. I did end up thinking that I could have gone a bit harder, given that I did the uphill segments at around 200W (for an FTP of 360W that’s pretty low). However, given that I was expecting a pretty tough half marathon in the heat, that was probably as hard as I should have gone.
And boy did I struggle through the run. By that time of the day we were already hitting 90F (30C). And, remember, we were still at altitude. As I mentioned above, I had run a similar 70.3 run in my first one, when we ran in similar conditions in Tahoe. So, I knew what to do, plow through it, one step at a time.
Fortunately, the organizers had prepared the course for the weather conditions. There were ice buckets and hoses in every aid station. I don’t know that I could have finished without this.
Another very unfortunate thing happened during the run. Halfway through, a guy on a bike got in my way in the middle of the race path. I almost tripped over his bike and yelled at him. He came after me on his bike and told me he was a course referee and that he was coming after me because I was wearing headphones. What the actual f**k! I told him to go f himself. I was very annoyed he had gotten in the way, and he was now making the excuse of the headphone. While I continued my run I explained to the guy that I was wearing an “open ear” headset, which I knew for a fact was allowed according to their own race rules. The guy wouldn’t have it and harassed me for a few miles until I literally thanked him for doing so: the “distraction” was actually helping me run faster and not feel the pain. Believe or not, the asshole went on to disqualify me after the race, despite the fact he did not even show me a yellow card at that time, violating yet again, the race rules. I was able to revoke the decision easily because I “know people at high places”, but this was my worst ever experience in a race.
The finish made everything worth it. My sister was waiting for me with the medal. I don’t get to see my sister much since I left Spain. Spending a few days with her and share this moment was very special for both of us.
While the day after I felt so good that I thought I should have pushed more, the truth is that I was exhausted when I finished. My legs felt ok, but I was pretty dizzy and could barely walk. When I think about that feeling, I don’t think there was much more in me that day.
More on the silly Ironman rules
Ironman is a franchise brand that has turned into an international success by selling regular amateur triathletes the illusion that they are competing “almost professionally”. The truth is that you are sharing the road with world-class athletes, but the same is true in most popular marathons and even ultras. However, Ironman takes this a step further by allocating a few qualifying slots for the world championship for every age/gender group. Because many folks who qualify are not interested in it, getting the qualifying slot is relatively easy. I qualified for the 2022 World Championship in St. George Utah. My poor performance was still below the qualifying time of 8:30h.
All this “qualifying circus” implies that IM races have to impose a set of rules that are stupid for anyone who is not competing for a living. Those include e.g. a rule that forbids cyclists from “drafting” (riding behind another rider). This rule is absolutely stupid for most part, and, for what is worth, I have only seen professionals trying to break it by drafting in places where they know the judges will have no visibility (e.g. the tunnels in this Andorra 70.3).
Besides the headset incident, I had a couple more “situations” that can give you more insight into what I am talking about. In one of them, someone from the organization called me out for having removed my bike helmet strap AFTER dismounting the bike and while walking the bike to the transition area. As crazy and unexplainable as it might seem, there is a rule in this case that does forbid competitors to untie their helmet’s strap before they leave their bikes in the specified location in the T2 transition. You can be disqualified for that. Nuts. More on the Ironman rules here.
Understanding nutrition is a huge part of endurance events. This is true of marathons, even more true of ultras, and even more so of ironmans. The rule of thumb is that the longer an event is, the more you will be limited by your ability to endure while ingesting the right amount of nutrients. You can be in the greatest of shapes, but if the event is going to last, say, 12 hours, you better understand how to drink and eat during the event. You won’t make it otherwise.
Why are Ironman’s even harder than ultramarathons in this respect? The reason is that there is an added difficulty added to the the duration of the event: the different disciplines. You cannot eat and drink the same while swimming, riding a bike, and running. There are books written on this topic, but just to summarize, you need to ingest most of your calories (around XX an hour) during the bike, and keep a reasonable balance between carbs (aka sugar), calories, electrolytes, and water.
In my only full IM, and despite having done several ultras before, I did not do things right. I ran half of the marathon with pretty strong stomach cramps, had to stop several times in the porta potties, and struggled to the end. My conclusion is that I did not drink enough for the carbs that I ingested. But, who knows…
I usually don’t struggle at all with nutrition in the 70.3s that I have done. I can push through 6 hours of vigorous exercise mostly on gels, water with electrolytes, and an occasional nutrition bar. However, as already explained, this 70.3 was different. For starters, I exercised for over 8 hours. The temperature was also brutal, particularly during the run. And, we were doing all of that at altitude. I might have benefitted from “packing” a bit more nutrition and water during the bike, but all in all I thought my nutrition was pretty good. What I did:
- During the bike:
- 1 Huma gel every hour
- 3 Tahoe nutrition bars
- 2 bottles of water + Nuun electrolytes
- 2 bottles of water + Tailwind
- Occasional water only in some aid stations
- During the run:
- 1 Huma gel
- 1 bottle of water + Tailwind
- Water in all aid stations
- Some orange slices in the aid stations
What I like/dislike about Ironmans
What I like:
- They are endurance events, and I like endurance events in general
- Having to prepare 3 disciplines forces you to get in really good shape
- Ironmans are generally well organized, and located in very nice locations (this one was spectacular, and I would totally recommend it)
- Ironmans have good services. E.g. the rental bike service in this one was excellent
What I dislike:
- Ironman is a franchise, and therefore a business. That shows in many different ways. As an example, the organization was sued on how they handled COVID-related refunds (although, in their defense, the judge ruled in their favor).
- The stupid rules (see above)
- While I like cycling, I don’t like that cyclist are so obsessed with their bikes. Most IMs spend thousands of $$ on their machines. Plus, they then have to ship them around to all the events. Compare that to running, where you only need to remember to grab your shoes.
- Somewhat related to the above, I enjoy the vibes in ultras much more than in Ironmans. Ultras feel like a community of outcasts getting together to hang out and go on a long hike. Ironmans feel like what happens when you put together a bunch of type A rich folks and ask them to show off. (Not lost in irony the fact that I might fit that description pretty accurately).
- The swim. I have really tried to like swimming. At this point, I enjoy a nice open water swim on my own or with friends. I even enjoyed some of the most epic swims I have done, in particular the Escape from Alcatraz. But, this latest experience was awful, and it makes me wonder about how much I want to do it again (the answer is probably yes, but we’ll see).
The days after the Andorra 70.3 I felt very well. So much, that I continued doing almost my usual training. While I did slow my pace a bit, I continued running around 6 miles a day, and doing occasional biking. That was obviously a mistake, one that I have done many times before. No matter how well you feel after a race, you need to give your body a rest. The end result was that I had a hamstring strain a few days later that forced me to stop for a little while.
At this point, a few weeks after the event, my hamstring is totally ok, but I am still struggling with a minor achilles tendon issue that will likely take some time to heal. Make sure to recover after any event!
While I mentioned above that I was unlikely to do more Ironmans, I already have two on the horizon. The first one is the California 140.6 IM that was postponed last year because of the rain, and the year prior because of COVID. This race is in October, and as I get closer and closer to it, I feel I am not ready. To be clear, the Andorra 70.3 was part of the training plan. And, I think that if I was able to finish the Andorra race, I should be able to finish (even if struggling) to the end of a reasonably flat 140.6 like the California one. That being said, the recent injuries are somewhat worrisome. If I am not able to hit a good training pace and e.g. do an 8 hour training day combining biking and running in the next few weeks, I will end up dropping.
The other IM that I have “been volunteered” for by my sister and other organizers is the 140.6 in Vitoria, Spain, next July. That would be a very nice one. It would be in my country, and right after my 50th birthday. However, my friends have other proposals that include (oh no!) doing the Andorra 70.3 again. We’ll see how this all shakes out.
Besides, as I hinted to above, at this point I’d rather do different kinds of events. I love running and ultras, so that would be my first choice. I would love to run a marathon under 3 hours, but I think it is too late for me at this point. Running is also a hard sport that is more prone to injuries. Biking is nice in that regard, but is dangerous to train outdoors, and requires you to invest quite a lot in your equipment. Some multi day biking events such as the Haute Route are “being considered”.
What I am pretty sure is that this one won’t be the last thing I do. If you have any suggestions, feel free to send my way. And, if you want to see what I am up to in my sports, please follow me on Strava.