Vineman 70.3 Race Report
The Vineman 70.3 (Half-Ironman) race takes place in beautiful Sonoma county California. It has a long history as one of the most spectacular and well run half-iron distance races in the world, but until this year, it never had a professional division. This year, however, the race organizers secured a sponsor for the pro race and, suddenly, with $25,000 in total prize money up for grabs, the race became one of the most competitive 70.3 races in the world, with only the Wildflower half-ironman being as competitive. Vineman 2006 on Sunday, July 30th had a truly world class field including multi-time World Champion and perennial speedster Simon Lessing, 70.3’s winningest racer Chris Legh, two-time Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom, multi-time Wildflower winner Cameron Widoff, two-time Ironman winner Michael Lovato, four-time Ironman winner Chris Lieto, and a whole host of other outstanding athletes. It was definitely the most competitive race I had ever done, with a pro male field of 24 total athletes.
I flew out to the race the Thursday before, and got some nice workouts in around my hotel in Petaluma. I had some really excellent workouts the week before, including some real bang-up swims, and my legs were feeling really sharp after absorbing the hard miles from Canada. I also had some fancy new wheels courtesy of Bontrager, which I go over in the entry before this one. So all in all, I was feeling really good about my prep, but also very nervous given the level of competition. One very fortunate circumstance that also boosted my confidence was the breaking of the oppressive heatwave that had been pounding all of California. The previous weekend had seen temperatures as high as 115F. But the mornings when I was there were downright cold, with lows in the mid-50’s and highs only in the low-80’s. So that was another nice bit of luck.
Race morning was nice and cool, and with a start time of 6:30AM, I was hopeful that I’d finish before the heat really settled in. The swim takes place in the Russian River, the namesake of the valley known for it’s excellent wines. It’s an up-and-back swim, going upstream for the first 0.6 miles and then back downstream for the second 0.6. The river is dammed for the summer months, so there is very little current, making it much more similar to a lake swim. The start was a deep-water (sometimes called floating) start, where we all start behind an imaginary line between two buoys. I didn’t get much of a chance to warm-up, but got a couple strokes in that felt good. The men and women started together, so I got into a good draft pack for a nice chunk at the beginning of the swim, and hooked onto one strong swimmer all the way to the end of the first section. Coming around the turn, I pushed ahead and started to swim on my own, mixed in what I would eventually learned was the third group of swimmers. The swim continued along prettty uneventfully, with me swimming hard and what I thought was pretty fast. Coming into the last third of a mile or so, I caught up to a faster swimmer and tried to hook onto his feet. But this particular swimmer had a really strong kick, and I started to feel a bit queasy in the turbulent water. But, knowing how much faster it is to draft, I stuck on the feet. And then suddenly, I threw up. I slowed a bit, mostly out of surprise, and sort of did a “systems check.” But I actually felt much better. I took some hard strokes and caught back up to the swimmers feet but as soon as I got into the draft, I started to feel queasy again so I dropped off his feet and figured I would be better off to swim on my own. I was a bit nervous at this point, since I didn’t know how I’d feel when I got out. I finished up the swim and exited with a small group of other athletes. I had not started my watch at the start, since gun went off very quickly, and this actually worked out in my favor since the swim took about 28 minutes, which would have been a bit depressing to see. Fortunately, the swim was a bit long or slow, since the fastest swim of the day was only a shade under 25 minutes, so I wasn’t in as bad shape as I might have thought had I seen the 28:22 on my watch. It was still not a great swim, since I’ve been closer to about 2 minutes back of the leaders in swims of that distance.
But I didn’t know any of this as I headed out onto the bike. I was looking forward to gaining a bit of an extra edge courtesy of a course change due to a washed out bridge that pushed the bike out to 57.5 miles, so I had some extra miles to make up time! I started out really well, riding hard right from the get go, as opposed to Florida where it took some time to really get warmed up. I passed a bunch of riders early on, and then had a long stretch of riding solo. Riding solo wasn’t entirely bad though, since the course was absolutely stunning, passing by vineyard after vineyard in the Russian River and Alexander Valleys. The course rolled along, with no real hills, just a lot of dips and rises, until near the very end. Coming into the hilly section at about mile 40 I passed two more athletes and then reeled in and passed 2006 IMAZ winner Michael Lovato right before the first long climb, which was a real boost, since I had not even come close to him the last time I raced with him at Timberman 2005. I passed one final rider on the way into transition, but in general, it was a bit less exciting than Florida since I knew that the really big guns were still out in front. Overall, I think I paced myself more evenly than in Florida, and, more importantly, I felt really good and strong coming off the bike. My final bike time was good enough get me third overall biker split (and second overall among race finishers) with a 2:15:43, so just over 25.4mph, which I think is pretty fast for that course.
I came into T2 right on the heels of Matt Lieto, younger brother of uber biker Chris Lieto who posted the fastest bike split of the day but was forced to pull out less than one mile into the run with a calf injury. Matt is a really inspirational athlete, having been at one point about 75 or 80 lbs. heavier than he is now. He totally turned his life around about four or five years ago (I think) and is now a fantastic triathlete and one heckuva nice guy. I caught up to Matt about two miles into the run, and we had a nice short-winded conversation. We agreed that since we were both out of the money at that point, running in 9th and 10th, that it would be best to work together to set a fast pace to try and run ourselves up and then duke it out at the finish line. Our tactic worked well, as we moved up one spot before the turnaround at the beautiful vineyard of title race sponsor La Crema. We continued to gain ground on places 6 & 7 as the run went on and also hold off fast charging Michael Lovato who was close on our heels at the turnaround. As I reach the nine mile mark, I started to pick up the pace, hoping to close and catch the runners I could just see in the distance. I continued to push the pace each mile, and in doing so I began to pull away from Matt, who was really awesome and gave me a good cheer as the pace picked up.
As I hit the two mile to go mark, I looked back and saw that Matt was pretty far back and that Michael Lovato was nowhere in sight. As good as that felt, I still thought I might have a chance to move up one more spot, so I pushed the pace hard. I also really wanted to break 1:20 for the half-marathon, which I knew would be a tall order given the hilliness of course. As I passed by the twelve-mile mark, I started counting off seconds, knowing I was closing in on the finish line. I finished up in 8th place, not catching anyone else, with a 1:19:28 half-marathon (6:04/mile) including running about 5:30 or so for the last mile, which was a nice pr for the distance during a race. My run ranked 7th on the day, just missing 6th fastest of the day by 0.1 seconds. It was nice to feel so strong for the whole race and to feel like I finally had “four-hour fitness,” something which I did not have in Florida.
My final time of 4:06:43 was a bit slower than in Florida, but given the relatively long swim and bike, I figure that I am really knocking on the door of the 4:00 mark, which I hope to break in the future. I was really pleased to be in the top-10 overall given how competitive the field was. It was also nice to race some of the guys I raced last year, Chris Legh and Michael Lovato, and to see that I’ve improved about 10 minutes or more relative to where I was last year at about this time. I’m hoping that I can put together a better swim at my next 70.3 race on August 20th at Timberman in New Hampshire. That was a breakthrough race for me last year, and if I can combine the solid swim-bike of Florida with the solid bike-run of Vineman, I think I can have a really great race. I’ll spend the early part of this week recovering from the race, and then have about 9 days or so of hard training to try and get a little bit more race sharpness in the body, and then it will be time to get everything ready to race.
Thanks again to all my sponsors, who continue to provide me with new and improved equipment, which makes my hard training pay off even more. And a very special thank you to my parents who came out for my birthday and to watch me race. We had a really great weekend, including a rare treat of a one-day vacation post-race where we toured some vineyards in the area. Our touring adventure gave us another great memory at the Jordan vineyard in the Alexander Valley, so a very appropriate wrap-up to a wonderful race weekend. I’m already looking forward to next year!
Final Stats: Swim ( 0:28:22.6 ) T1 ( 0:01:26.0 ) Bike ( 2:15:43.9 ) T2 ( 0:01:42.3 ) Run ( 1:19:28.8 ) — Total ( 4:06:43.8 )