Monday, July 30, 2012

Race Report: HITS 70.3 Triathlon Sterling

Where to even start a report like this is a big decision. The Chinese philosopher, Tao Te Ching said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey was 70.3 miles, but a single step is probably as good a place to start as any.

As I mentioned earlier this summer, the HITS event in Colorado was moved from the original venue in Fort Collins to Sterling. I think there were several factors, but the High Park fire, which began on June 10 and burned for weeks afterward was probably what tipped the decision to move away from Fort Collins. Though the fire is out now, there was just no way to know what conditions would have been.

As a result of this, it meant getting a hotel room in Sterling and planning to trek up there the day before the race. The town is easily accessible via Interstate 76 and while distant, is not what I would call remote. It's just way out there. In fact, the nearest town to Sterling is in Sidney, Nebraska! Here's a little perspective:

As we arrived at the race venue, North Sterling State Park, I was surprised and a little dismayed to see that some of the bike course was going to be on a gravel road. More on that later. Check in was organized and went smoothly. This was a small field so nothing like the hordes of people that descended on Boulder Reservoir three weeks earlier. We had our packets and goodie bags and there was a little bit of time to check out the transition area and go down to the water before race before the pre-race meeting started.

Mark Wilson, the race director, has done this meeting 8 times now and it was apparent that he knew what he was doing. He's a very personable guy even going so far as to try and learn the name of every participant which is impressive in and of itself. He gave an informative briefing. He also dealt well with a few idiotic questions and stood his ground on the race policy. A few of my fellow-triathletes would do well to remember that when you sign up for a race, you are agreeing to participate on the terms of the race organizers. If you don't like them, don't sign up. Specifically, you rack where they tell you to in transition and you wear the swim cap they give you.

Mark's briefing took about 45 minutes including the Q&A but that's not bad considering the extra details that go along with a 70.3 and 140.6 race (both were being done on Sunday with the Sprint and Olympic having already been run earlier on Saturday). He finished by mentioning that local folks in Sterling had turned out in droves to support the event. That included the local Lions Club who were providing volunteers. I'll speak more about them later in this post.

I regret not taking pictures of the staging area, but take my word for it, this was impressive. HITS travels from venue to venue via a couple of semi-trailers that would appear to carry everything they need. Whether it's the giant finish arches or the orange cones, they bring it with them. That, in and of itself is a fairly amazing logistical accomplishment.

My brother was also participating so he, and of course our wives, were along for the trip. We booked rooms at the Comfort Inn on the edge of town. There were several other triathletes staying there. However, the hotel is less than a mile from the Sterling Correctional Facility which is a Level 5 (most secure) State Penitentiary. That means there were also folks there to “visit” their friends and family who were located nearby!

We had a nice dinner at a place called Gallagher's River City Grill as did several other athletes. After a brief stop at Walmart to pick up some groceries for the morning, it was back to the hotel, to prep, watch some Olympics and then try and get to sleep.

HITS is making use of the products of a company called TriTats which provides everything including your body marking via “wet-on” tattoos. In addition to those, there are stickers, or what my brother called a “sticker book” (LOL) which include tags for your bike, helmet as well as your race number:

There were extras for things like a support crew (if your event includes that) and to label your special needs bag in for those doing the 140.6 event. You also fashioned a wrist band out of one of the stickers which gave us access in and out of transition.

Sleep came to me quickly enough, but I awoke on several occasions. Partly because of all of the water I drank at dinner, partly because the A/C unit went on and off all night, partly because cars and trucks going down the interstate made some noise, and I'm sure, partly because of nerves. I'm going to have to figure out how to be a better sleeper.

Nevertheless, I woke just after 5:00 and felt rested enough. Then it was off to the race venue. Parking in the area was such that, we had to walk about half a mile to the transition area, but that was really no big deal.

I've read and seen Facebook posts about how nice the transition area for HITS races is and this proved to be true. Each space has a folding stool and small bin next to your wheel to keep things such as your bag. There's also lots of space between you and the next racer. It was by far the nicest I've ever seen and one of the things that is going to distinguish this race series from its competitors.

Set up did not take long (this being my fourth race this year) and before long it was time squeeze into the wetsuit and head down to the shore where Mark was giving another short briefing. He gave us a few updates on the aid stations, reminded people about a few quirks on the bike course and then told us we had about 10 seconds until the on time start at 7:00. That was it, without any further waiting, he blew the air horn and my first-ever 70.3 event was underway!

The Race by Stages:

The Swim:

Many will disagree, but a swim is a swim. At least when it's in a lake and there are not factors like waves, it's pretty much the same wherever you are. This day was really no different. Because we all started at the same time (70.3 and 140.6 racers alike) it was a little crowded. On the other hand, we stared on the beach and the run though the shallow part of the water spread things out. It's a race, not a Saturday morning at Grant Ranch so more than likely, you won't be swimming alone. I was not worried about having a killer swim since, at most, that might give me a three minute advantage. That's huge in a sprint, but when your day will be over six hours long, it didn't seem all that important. I checked my watch at roughly the half-way point and was pleased to see that my average time per 100 meters was 1:33. This would be a good time to point out an important aspect of using the Auto Multisport mode. When you select it, you have to choose to “Start multisport” otherwise it just defaults to the sport you were doing the last time you used the watch. For me, that was swimming so the 910XT just thought I was out for an open water swim. As a result, it did not automatically change to T1 and then the bike later when I pressed the Lap button. I had to reset the watch.

As I emerged from the water, I was somewhat dismayed to see that the total distance was measured at 1.4 miles. That gave me a swim time of 38:39. I don't swim a perfect line, but I'm pretty sure that I didn't swim 0.2 miles out of my way either. The results bear this out as well. The fastest swimmer was out in 29:36, way slower than anyone I've seen at any race this year.

Much like the Boulder Peak, the distance between the water and T1 was pretty long. I took advantage of the wetsuit strippers who had me out of mine in seconds, even if I was a little Sandy and then it was on to the transition area itself. I got out of there fairly quickly, but with the longer run, and a little less urgency given to the longer race. T1 timed out at 5:08 which is fine with me.

The Bike:

The riding portion of this race is pretty easy for the first couple of miles. It's downhill or flat and I spun along in the low 20mph range. The hills at this point were longer, but not overly steep and climbing them did not tire me or wind me as I headed out. Indeed, for much of the bike, I felt pretty good. A series of turns down some county roads eventually found me out on Highway 14 where much of the race is staged. There's a net climb on the outbound portion, but I found it manageable. Truth be told, everything that happened on the bike was about what I expected. I ate a gel every 30 minutes and drank from my bottle of HEED in between. I took regular sips of water and it was easily replaced at aid stations. The volunteers at these stations were great. They were ready with whichever drink you wanted (HEED or water) and one told me to just throw the bottle on the side of the road and he would pick it up. That made refilling my aero bottle that much easier and I stayed hydrated throughout.

The one big hill on the ride comes right before the turnaround. You gain about 250 feet over the course of a mile and a half or so. It was slower, but really nothing I had not seen in many training rides. After the turnaround I prepared to shift into the big ring on my bike so I could gain more speed going back down. As I did so, I watched with irritation as the chain slipped off the ring forcing me to stop and reattach it. The last time this happened, the back derailleur came detached and the bike became unridable. Fortunately that was not the case here. It probably cost me a minute and some slightly greasy fingers, but I was back on and cruising down the hill to what would be my max speed of 36.6 mph.

It was mostly downhill from there and I made good if not great time until it was time to turn back north on the road that lead back to the park. These 10+ miles involve a net climb of only 200 feet or so, but there are several up and down hills including a 2% grade over 1.3 miles right before transition. That was a little tiring. I felt weak during those last ten and I was getting very saddle sore. I was wearing tri shorts rather than bike shorts and the reduced padding was starting to take a toll.

As I mentioned earlier, a short part of the bike (about 200 meters) was over a gravel road. It's not exactly fun to ride, but I and every other rider handled it fine. You just have to slow down and look for the packed areas. I negotiated it fine before hitting the last paved section leading up to the dismount line.

t's a smaller transition area and I quickly found my spot and got to actually sit down as I changed shoes. I would not recommend this approach for a Sprint or Oly, but for this long day, it was fine.

The Run:
A Couple of weeks ago, I went running after a 58 mile ride and it was brutal. I was hot, tired and I called it after going a mere 1.5 miles. This day started out much better than that. I'm sure a large part of it was getting a lot of water on the ride. I drank just about whenever I felt like it and was able to keep putting water back in thanks to all of the wonderful folks manning the aid stations. It's not like I was completely fresh, but I felt okay as I went out.

ou're greeted almost immediately with a steep hill, a steep down hill and then another really steep hill all in the first mile. Mark Wilson described it as “bumpy” but I think it was brutal. Still, I kept running until I reached aid station number one at the 1 mile point. I stopped. Yep, stopped, drank some water, put some ice under my hat, ran a cold sponge over my neck and then went on. This was, to me, not a standard half marathon. My approach was different and it was getting very hot outside. I stopped again at mile 2, going through the same routine and again at 3. By mile four, I decided I would walk for a mile and, except for one very short section, that's what I did. I picked it up again and ran from 5 to 6 where the course goes up a hill. Parts of this section were blocked from the breeze that was blowing and I walked some more.

At the turnaround for the run course, I got my usual ice, water, some HEED this time and the cold sponge before walking for about another ¾ of a mile. It was clear at this point that I was probably going to be doing the run slower than even my slowest goal, but I didn't care. The running and the heat were taking it all out of me. The course was one either gravel roads or sandy trails and while step to step was not that hard, the overall effect was tiring.

Run a stretch, walk a stretch, then run a smaller stretch was about all I could do. Just finish was what I told myself. Truth be told, I had a lot of company out there. Many people were walking and looking just as exhausted as I was. Though the breeze kept things better than a still day, it also probably was masking how hot and dehydrating conditions really were.

Just before the mile 12 aid station, I came across Rob Archuleta who is a friend of my brothers. I had met him that morning and figured he was way out of my league (he really is) since he had raced at IM Arizona last year. Even he was having a tough day. We walked and ran together sharing our misery. It was a nice boost to have a friendly face along the course and I enjoyed spending the last mile plus with him.

Rob is the founder of an organization called Addict 2 Athlete. His personal story is compelling. I won't rehash it here, but you should check him and his organization out here.

Rob and I decided that we'd run in the last little stretch of the race. If nothing else it made for good finish pictures and we looked good for our friends and family who were waiting for us at the finish.

I got my medal and then it was done. I was relieved. I wish it had been a faster race, but considering conditions, I don't see how I could have done any better unless I was being paced by an air conditioning unit!

The Race Review

My reviews of any event I do are, in all honesty, a review of the race director. That means I don't criticize events that are out of the control of that person or their staff. If something is listed as “bad” it means there was something that they could have done to make the race better. It could also mean they did something monumentally stupid, but that's rarely the case. Likewise, the items listed as “good” are aspects about the race that I really liked and would make me want to return.

The Bad:

Pre-Race Course Info: Not so much bad as could have been better. The race organizers had to scramble a bit after the venue was changed. It's understandable that it could even be a few weeks until detailed bike and run maps were posted. However, the run course info was not just inadequate, but wrong. Here's the map posted on the HITS website for Sterling:

I posted a Facebook message asking if the run course could be included on just as the bike course was. No, I was told, that was not possible because so much of the course was on the park trail. Using the results from my Garmin, here's the run course I mapped using

HITS held a camp out at the race site a couple of weeks ago that. I believe, included the run course. To create a map, all they needed to do was have someone run with a GPS watch and upload the map. I'm a planner and I like to know what my course is going to be like before I run it.

Lack of Info Prior to the Venue Change: Even before the High Park fire started, it was evident something was going on with the venue. The course maps were take down from the website with no clear explanation. Since I had registered (and paid) I would have appreciated a little more information about what was going on.

Disclosure about the bike course: 200 meters of riding on a gravel road would not discourage me from doing a race. But I would like to know about it. Again, even waiting until after the camp to say, we've done it and it's really fine, would have been okay.

Swim Course Distance: In era of GPS receivers being nearly everywhere, correctly positioning buoys ought to be a straight-forward if not easy. Folks who do Geo Caching find locations within the foot. It's worth a look for future races.

The Good:

On-Course Support: This was really second-to-none. Aid stations at ten mile intervals on the bike and about every mile on the run made a big difference. What's more the stations were well stocked with everything I could imagine, especially on the run. I forgot to wear my CamelBak and I ended up not needing it. Mark and his staff at HITS understand that long distance triathlons bring their own special requirements and they were up to the task.

Transition: Having been herded into corals at some races, the space and amenities at this one were like traveling first class. I don't think it would be the sole reason to chose a HITS race over a competitor, but it definitely tips things in their favor.

Environment: I felt welcomed, appreciated for my business and fully supported all weekend long. HITS has a strong customer service ethos and its evident in how they treat their athletes at races.

Results: Part of the mobile unit that goes from location to location is a technical unit. This means that even as folks were still out doing the full (140.6) course, those of us who did the half (70.3) had our complete results. That's praise-worthy. I would have been happy to wait until the next morning.

Pre-Race Communication: Lots of presence on social media including both Facebook and Twitter. Why every race director has not figured this out, I cannot say. These outfit has it down and they did a great job of fielding questions not only about Sterling, but about all of their events.

Volunteers: I could go on and on about how fantastic the folks from Sterling were. When the opportunity to host this event presented itself, they stepped up in fine form. People were not just present, but present in numbers. Even better, they were so enthusiastic and anxious to help. That's typified by this story. When my brother reached the turnaround on the run, he jokingly asked for a hot coffee. It was in the nineties in the shade. The volunteer he made the joke said no, but they were going to see if they could get him some! That's how much they wanted to help. A kid at the twelve mile mark grabbed about six sponges from the ice water and squeezed them over my head for me which was about the most refreshing thing I've ever experienced. Everyone was so nice, so supportive and so friendly, that they bolster the notion of small-town folks being friendly. I have never come across a group of volunteers who were so terrific in every way.

At the end of the day, the highest praise I can give a race is whether or not I'd run it again. I think HITS has a winning formula and considering that this is their first year, they're doing well. I feel confident that they will continue to learn as they grow and put on better and better events. It is very good to see some competition in this space. WTC. Rev3 and competitor should keep their eyes open.

As for this particular HITS event, it's not as easy of a call. As I just mentioned, the people were spectacular. The swim was on par with anything I've done and the ride was actually very nice. The run, however, was just brutal. That alone would probably keep me out of any future 70.3 events. I would consider coming back for an Oly however. I'd also like to see about either competing at another event in Colorado, should they have one or even racing at one of their out-of-state events.

For now, I'm very happy to have this one in the rear-view mirror. I'll have to think about what my next 70.3 event will be and where I'd like to do it. The next race is the Rattlesnake Olympic Triathlon on August 18. Between no and then I'll be spending a few days in the beautiful California wine country of the Napa Valley and I'll have a few posts from there.

Thanks for reading (and reading and reading). Have a terrific week!


  1. As hard as that was last Sunday, why do I find myself perusing the Iron man 70.3 site and dreaming of next year?

    1. I hear you! I already have about a dozen candidates for next year. Checkout the IM 70.3 Austin. Looks pretty cool.