On Thursday, May 13, 2021, I made my 4.5 h trip to Panama City Beach, FL to race the Ironman 70.3 Gulf Coast. I had done this race once before, in 2018, as my first ever 70.3 race. In 2018, I came to Panama City with my good friend, who had convinced me to try a Half Ironman. To prepare I had learned how swim properly rather than breast stroke, had bought a road bike (my first ever!), learned to clip in and out, bought a cheap tri kit and trained with my friends Dad, who luckily is a Triathlon Coach.
I came away with a 5:44 h time and the love for this distance that resulted in multiple other races between then and now. I had improved drastically since that first 70.3 in 2018 and now, and I was here with the plan to win my age group.
I arrived in Panama City around 7 pm, checked into my hotel and went to get a mediocre pasta dinner. The hotel (Baymont Inn) I stayed in was in a prime location, about 0.4 miles away from transition, across the street from the ocean. It was also about $300 cheaper than the hotels on the beach. Getting to my room, I understood why…. let’s call it “sketchy”…. BUT whatever, location, location, location.
Friday, May 14, 2021:
Friday morning, I woke up super early, due to the one-hour time difference. The weather was beautiful and the ocean mirror flat, so I decided to get my 20 min swim out of the way first.
I honestly am not very comfortable swimming in open water. Mainly because I barely ever do it. So getting into the wetsuit and swimming alone in the ocean was a big deal for me. However, I could not have asked for a more perfect day to do this. The water was flat, 72 degrees, and crystal clear. I swam along the shore to the swim start, and then half way out to the first buoy and back. I was almost sad when my 20 minutes were over.
While I did not use this opportunity, the swim course had been put out the day before, and a lot of fellow athletes were practicing on the actual swim course. No race I have ever done had this opportunity, and I think it is great to help athletes feel more comfortable on race day.
After a long breakfast that I used to catch up on some work emails, I stopped at athlete check-in. Leading up to the race everybody had to choose an assigned time to check-in. Mine was not until 3 pm, but seeing that there was virtually nobody in line, I stopped and asked to check in early and was told they really don’t care about these assigned times at all…. Oh well, good for me, I guess.
Check-in was quick, goodie bag was disappointing (come ON Ironman!!!), and the shop expensive….but I definitely found some cool presents for other people (and myself).
I was assigned the time between 12- 1:30 pm to drop off my bike, so I went on a quick 10 mile easy ride, grabbed my things from the hotel, and biked to transition, where I dropped of my bike and went back to the hotel to nap.
The transition was the same as it had been in 2018… (I think?) but I guess I didn’t notice back then that the people with racks furthest away from the ocean, have a longer run through transition. Usually the entrance/exits are diagonal so that there are no advantages, but this transition had a 0.2 mile advantage for the people closer to the ocean. Luckily my bike as pretty much right in the middle, so oh well. I chose not to worry about these things, if I can’t change them.
The rest of the day was uneventful with my standard plain Pizza, simple salad, dessert dinner, and gear check, as well as some bad TV and an early bed time.
RACE DAY, Saturday May 15, 2021:
Due to the early sunrise in Panama City, this race starts at 6 am. This means transition opens at 4:30 am. I don’t usually need a lot of time in the morning, so getting up at 4 am is plenty for me. I had my usually - banana, plain bagel with butter, lots of water with Nuun - breakfast and walked over to transition. No driving and trying to find parking on race morning sure is nice!!
Gear set up was quick and no fuss - check the bike, wake up the powermeter, make sure watch connects to bike computer for HR, shoes, helmet, gels, nutrition, etc. The hardest part for me, hands down, is to get that darn wetsuit on…. The announcer made several announcements that transition will close at 5:45, BUT the first swim wave will meet at 5:30. There was a lot of confusion about that, but I really didn’t think it was that big a deal. We were also discouraged to leave transition once we were in there. I stashed my things, the porta potty with the shortest line, squeezed into the wetsuit while eating my Maurten Caf 100 gel, and joined the back of the first swim wave just as they started walking down the beach.
My hope was to swim 29 min, like I had in Daytona. So, I was going to try and catch the feet of a 28-29 min swimmer and hang for as long as I could….
The wait for the start was not too bad and because a lot of people had not managed their time as well and joined the first wave at the back, I definitely ended up a little more ahead of my planned swim start. They released us two at the time, every 3 seconds.
The run-in is not great because it is shallow for a good bit. There was also a sudden drop off (too deep for me to run through) and then another very shallow bit (too shallow to swim). Once you are past this, the course is straight out, about 0.5 miles, a right turn and about 0.2 miles to the second right turn and 0.5 miles straight back to the beach.
Swimming out was surprisingly rough. Way more people than I expected with way more elbows and arms and legs hitting me. Also, while the ocean had looked really flat, it was not. There was a sneaky chop and swell as well as a current pushing left. Tending to swim left anyways, I ended up on the outside of the course, and definitely not on the shortest route.
I tried to swim hard and find the race pace I have practiced so often in the pool, but I have yet to find the rhythm and speed in the ocean that I am slowly gaining in the pool. On the way back to the beach the chop was coming at me on my breathing site. After a couple mouthful of salty water, I definitely ended up altering my breathing and making myself less efficient in the process. Also, the sun is basically directly in your eyes. Zero chance you will see any buoys. Knowing this, I just aimed for one of the hotel buildings that is behind the swim exit. With me drifting left, and the current now pushing me right, I had much fewer problems swimming the most direct route though.
On the course I had seen several pink caps passing me (female athletes), and coming out of the water and seeing my time felt like a kick in the stomach.
33:32 minutes, 5th in AG, 30th Overall.
Definitely not what I have been training for. After the race, talking to my coach, I realized that this was just a much slower swim than Daytona had been. Ocean vs. Lake. Choppy and waves, long shallow area in the beginning and end etc. I checked some of the other females that had been in Daytona as wll, and they also were about 4-5 minutes slower. Of course I did not know that coming out of the water.
T1: Being in a bubble, with no context about the race like this, my focus went to the bike…. Well, first to getting the darn wetsuit over the IM wristband, my watch and the dang timing chip…. My god!!! After that I focused on biking.
2:48 minutes, 4th AG, 21th Overall.
My goal for the entire race was to bike harder and see if I could still run. So once on the bike, I focused on trying to hold 85% of my FTP. It’s an optimistic number, which I knew from the start. So I also knew I might end up over biking and pay for it later, but this was the plan anyways. I believe the instructions I was given were “You have nothing to lose. I’d rather see you bike close to 85% and run a 1:50, than be around 70% and run a 1:30” .
The first part the bike course goes along Front Beach Road, with cars, lots of pot holes, pedestrians etc. It’s not great, but also not a big deal in the beginning, because it is still early in the day at that point. After that, the course takes you straight out on a country Highway to the turnaround at 28 miles. It’s not an exciting course, basically no turns, only a couple of bridges, usually a lot of wind. While I was surprised to see almost 880 ft of elevation it is pretty much just flat. Due to that, it is a game of being as aero as possible and putting out consistent power. There really is nowhere to go easy or rest a little. Hence, I tried to just put my head down and bike. I picked off a couple of people, got passed by a couple of guys, but was basically on my own for the first 40 miles. According to my calculations, I had at least 10 – 15 females in front of me and passed maybe 5. The rest I could not seem to catch.
My legs were feeling pretty crappy right away, but I promised myself and my coach to just trust them and myself. I have been working on gridding through these things a little better on the bike, so that is what I was focused on. Grinding, trusting the legs, following the plan.
I also realized that I was too slow on my nutrition and consequently I did not eat the gel that I was supposed to take at mile 45-50. As always I figures it wouldn’t be a big deal, even though my non-race mind knows better….
I felt my power drop towards the end but I tried to keep pushing, especially into the wind on the last 6 miles back to transition.
Those 6 miles are my biggest (and only) problem with this race. I understand the city will not let Ironman shut down the Beach front, but there needs to be more police. I literally had to come to a screeching stop going 23 mph when a pedestrian with a beach cart crossed the road walking directly into my path yelling at us to “stop!!! There are pedestrians here!!!”
It’s a dangerous stretch of road. In 2018, I almost got hit by a truck that was backing out into the road and blocked a bunch of athletes from passing.
Luckily, I made it back to T2 in one piece, though I wasn’t sure my legs would be okay to go and run a half marathon now….
2:26:39 hours, 1st AG, 3rd Overall
T2: The approach to T2 is also interesting. It’s basically a sharp S-curve, with a very narrow road to squeeze in. I had unclipped but was sandwiched between two guys, and because of the sharp right-left turn, I had rested my foot on the pedals. At the dismount line, I swung my right leg over the saddle, ready to hop off and run into T2. …..aaaaaand my left shoe was half clipped in, I got stuck, and fell flat on my face (knee…but just as embarrassing). I brushed myself off assuring everybody that I was fine, despite the bloody knee, and went on to find my bike rack spot, which I promptly almost missed.
T2 is always pretty quick for me, but I made sure to just take a second to collect myself and let my heartrate come down after falling. Take a sip of super concentrated NUUN Instant.
Grabbing my visor, glasses, gels and race belt, I was on my way out and onto the race course.
Run: My legs felt completely awful running over the foot bridge right out of T2. Usually the first 2 miles off the bike feel great for me. Not that day. I spend the first mile just focusing on situating myself. Getting the visor and glasses just right, storing the gels, grabbing water right away etc. My pace was actually right on during the first couple of miles, right around 7 min/miles, though that was soon to change. Coming around the first corner, I heard a voice behind me saying “First female overall”… and I figured “oh dang…she is fast and is lapping me!!!!” So I kept turning to see her coming, but the bike just stayed behind me and finally the voice said “I am right behind you honey, you are okay, just do your thing!” which is when I finally realized that I was the 1st female on the course. Over the next 5 miles I just tried to ignore how I felt and that I was getting slower and slower.
Grabbing water also was a challenge with the new COVID regulations. Aid stations are now self-served, with cups sitting on tables. This is theoretically fine. Except, nobody tells you what is where. I’d grab a cup of water, just to realize its Gatorade and definitely not something I want to pour over my head. In addition, while the first loop was fine with only very few people, the second and third loop was crowded, so it became impossible to grab cups running 7 – 7:15 min pace (or slower at that point) and grab cups when people are walking through the aid stations. IMPOSSIBLE!! I ended up missing cups and not getting enough water and then later. This becomes even more challenging when you are hurting and your mind is starting to get a little cloudy… (Thanks mind…).
I ate my gels, but it got really, really hard at the end of the second loop. My awesome bike escort kept telling me I looked strong and got this, but I felt like I was just shuffling at that point. Mile 8 I heard that second place was 200 m behind me and I knew she would pass me and I could not do anything about it. I actually started feeling cold around that time too, which is never good when it is 85 degrees out and you are running. She passed me at mile 9 and I just I just tried to hold on.
Turns out that because of the self-seeded start, I actually had already lost the virtual lead at mile 7, and that the girl that passed me ended up 2 minutes SLOWER than me. Its messed up and makes my head spin, but she actually had a 1 minute SLOWER run time than me too, yet she passed me on the course. How in the world is that even possible.
In the end she finished 5th overall and I finished 4th overall by chip time.
1:37:54 hours, 1st AG, 4th OA
In the end I had mixed feelings about this race. Let’s start with the negatives:
I hated feeling this awful and I never want this to happen again. Though I know it will - if you race hard, and go to the limits of yourself, it will happen. In the end, that is one of the reasons why I love this sport, because it allows me to find these limits, and go to these dark, dark places and push through them.
I hated losing the lead and not being able to experience finishing first. Especially, because the girl that did was not ACTUALLY first and not even faster than me overall. However, I am learning to just race within myself and to do the best of what I can do on that day. In addition, my goal was to bike hard and then see what happens on the run. And now I know…. I suck running when I do that… ha!
In all honesty, these are the lessons that are so valuable for me to take into the next training cycle and into future races. So, I am so excited to take them, and use them to make myself stronger for the next race.
On the positive side: I really like this race. It has been there for 30 or so years (only the last couple where put on by IM though). The course is convenient logistically and great for spectators. With the exception of those 6 miles of bike course along the beach, it is safe too. It looks deceivingly easy on paper, but it is challenging in its own ways. First of all the ocean is usually never flat and calm, the flat bike course means you have to put out power none stop, and the winds are usually a challenge. The run course is flat and a loop, but it usually gets super hot. I definitely think this course suits me and how I like to race, so I am already debating to go back there next year.
And how lucky am I that I can race like this? In 2018 I was 14th in my AG and 73rd overall!
I have no background in any of the three sports and I have to work really hard to get better, but I am doing it, and I know I have not reached my limit yet. It is getting harder to push it, for sure, but I am still not done!
Written by Race Team Member Lena Schulze