2020 has been a tricky year to race for the triathlon community. I didn’t know it when I planned my season at the end of last year, but by accident I picked one of the last races before events got COVIDed and one of the first to resume the half distance calendar.
70.3 Gdynia at the Polish Baltic coast was originally scheduled for August 5th, but was pushed to September 6th. The organizers put together a race concept that accounted for the current situation, looking to maximize safety for staff, volunteers and athletes. COVID measures included altered bike and run courses to reduce overtaking / lapping and counterflows, mandatory masks in the race office and at bike check in / out and athletes picking up on course nutrition by themselves. All in all the measures surely contributed to everybody’s safety while not significantly impacting the race experience.
Probably the biggest modification was the start schedule. Not only were athletes starting in the tried and tested 10-second wave start, but were also separated into groups of 250 athletes every 30 minutes. As a result the start was pleasantly uncrowded and relaxed and athletes were evenly distributed across the bike course. I’ve never seen so little drafting, because it was never so easy to ride clean. Ironman should take note, this format should be considered in all races, pandemic or not.
Bib collection and bike check in were easy. Again, you could pick a time slot for bib collection, which made for a super quick and smooth sign in. Bike check in was late on Saturday evening and again super smooth. To streamline transition and reduce social contacts the organizers moved away from transition bags and instead let us keep everything at the rack, old school. Transition itself was super easy to navigate as it was just a long straight line of bike racks, but on the downside it was a very long straight line of bike racks, challenging IM Hamburg for the longest transition I’ve seen so far. I figured it would take quite a while to get to the mount line and back. If there ever was a reason to transition with shoes clipped in, this was it.
Race morning was relaxed. I was assigned the second starting group at 7.40am and transition and the start were only a short walk from my airbnb, which made race morning logistics manageable. I got up at 5, took a shower and had raceday breakfast: English muffins with Nutella. After that I went to transition to prepare cycling and running gear, then back to the apartment for the elegant wetsuit-over-racesuit-dance. I’ve got myself an endura suit with silicone cuffs and silicone applications on arms and shoulders. It is super comfy, looks cool and is supposedly fast. It is also the worst suit ever to be worn under a wetsuit. The cuffs roll up and it takes like a 14 hours to smooth everything out. Not to mention that I also got a Huub wetsuit with its stupid breakaway zipper. If you don’t know what that is, it’s feature creep at its finest. You can pull the zipper out completely so it disengages all at once, for a super quick transition. Which is fine, although I’ve never really felt like unzipping my suit held me back. The terrible bit is though, that it is almost impossible to engage the zipper by yourself. Couple that with a super sticky silicone race suit underneath and you’re walking to the start with an open suit, desperately begging strangers to zip you up. Luckily this problem is shared by many so it was easy to find a fellow athlete to help me out.
It was pretty cold that morning, walking to the warm up beach the wet cold sand hurt my feet. After the pros went off I went for a warm up swim, which was so cold. 18° maybe? I remember cold feet and for some reason a remarkably cold neck. Apart from a lack of Celsius the water was nice, fairly clear and remarkably unsalty. Some jellyfish, maybe the size of my fist and I hoped they weren’t of the stingy kind.
Once we were called into the prestart area I walked up and tried to get a spot at the front. One of my biggest steps forward in swimming was the ability to embrace the chaos and get comfortable swimming in a busy crowd. The combination of getting a good draft and not having to sight as much probably gives me a minute or two versus TTing such a course on my own. Sure, faces were punched, feet tickled and heads kicked. But I’m absolutely convinced all of that happens by accident. We started with the rising sun directly in our faces and a light chop that would become stronger once we left the harbor. Between the waves, arms and the sun shining directly into my face I could not see squat. Nothing. I made sure stay with my group of maybe 4-6 others and occasionally catches a glimpse of a triangular buoy ahead, just to make sure that I am not following a herd of lemmings off course. No idea how far we’ve come, no idea were the first turnaround was.
Halfway in I briefly reflected on where I was – In the dead cold, swimming the dark waters of a Baltic harbor, with plenty of jellyfish. In almost all scenarios this would totally freak me out, I would never ever come out here for a swim. But in a race, you just get on with it. I often reflect on why I do this and whether it is worth to leave my family for a weekend for a stupid race. But it is exactly these moments when I am way out of my comfort zone that make me come back and sign up again every season since I began triathlon.
I helped that the marshals placed their boats and board as barriers so that we wouldn’t miss a turn and that someone in my group knew how to navigate properly. I felt like I could have broke away from the group, but I figured that not having to navigate was of more value. I reached the timing mat at 32:18, 3 minutes off my PR, but good for 11/197, showing how slow conditions were that day.
We reached the exit, climbed the stairs and jogged into T1. Wetsuit off, helmet on, off we go. And as I said it was a long way to the mount line that required treading carefully with cobbles and potholes only covered by a thin carpet. I’ve made it though without rolling an ankle.
After navigating the streets of Gdynia and some brutal headwinds the course soon led into a proper climb out of the city. I lost quite some time in Oman by climbing too timidly, so this time I wasn’t afraid to push up to FTP on the steep sections. I got up the hill alright before the course turned into a rolling terrain between small settlements and forests.
I wish I could have admired the beautiful landscape more, but heavy winds forced me to keep my head down as much as possible. There were plenty potholes and cracks to be navigated and so I had to look up and scan the next 50m, then turtle the f down again.
My heart skipped a beat or two around k20 when I heard the unmistakable noise of air escaping from my rear tire. „Pfffft – pfffffft – pfffffft“ with each revolution. That’s what you get for ditching the GP5000 in favor of Pro One TT, just because you wanted skin wall tires. Luckily though, the sealant found the puncture quickly and my problem was solved. Until k35, when the noise was back, even louder. I began panicking, but was once again saved by the tubeless sealant. All the mess in my workshop, all the shouting and cursing because it took like 4 attempts to convert the wheels to TL now had paid off.
I soldiered on, trying to execute my race plan. After my last race I gained a few more watts and this time I was hoping to land between 215 and 220NP. However, during the first half of the course I was struggling with my left hamstring tightening up, limiting my ability to put out more power. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to run hard afterwards. The course was varied enough that I could occasionally sit up on the climbs and eventually my hamstrings accepted their fate without shouting at me. The final third of the course was a huge downhill back down to the city and 10k TT on super fast mainroads back to transition. In the end I averaged 204w/209NP, about 10W below my initial goal, pushing 3.1 W/kg / 0.75IF for 2:33:43 and 24/197.
Arriving back in T2 I dismounted and began the long jog back to my rack. Found it, racked it, put on shoes and began another long run to the start of the run. My watched tracked T2 at 800m which felt like 8000m.
I left transition not entirely sure how I felt. My pace in training was slower than in the previous block and so I was preparing for a slower race. The ride was also subjectively harder with more harder efforts. And so I left T2 with two guys that racked their bike near mine and followed them at a 4:18 pace. The pace felt okay, but until k4 I was convinced that todays goal would be to maintain that pace without fading. I had my breathing under control and was happy to follow those two along, no ambition to start a fight. After the turnaround however something magical happened. I realized that the previous 3k were a long false flat uphill drag and I only noticed the gradient once it tilted downwards. Now on the downhill and with my breathing and HR adapted to the run I was flying. I clocked the next 3k at a swift 3:57ish pace without raising my RPE significantly and left the other two behind. I now understood the course and made a plan. Let it fly on the downhills and flats and manage my RPE as good as I can on the uphills. On this 2 loop I would reach the turnaround the next time at around k16. The k16 or 10mi marker is usually my mental finish line. I can suffer a lot for 5k, so I often try and manage my pace and RPE until there and then throw all caution in the wind. The rest of the loop was another short uphill, followed by a steeper descent and a dash along the waterfront. Now having a race plan I pushed on, maintaining an average pace of about 4:07, touching 4:20 on the uphills and 4:00 on the downhills.
Eventually I executed the plan perfectly, fading slightly to high 4:20s the second time on the long uphill, but blasting the downhill and flats until the finish. I crossed the finish line at 1:29:11 and 12/197 in AG. I believe the course was a bit long, the final split in the tracker suggests a 7:42 pace but I sure af did not slow down towards the chute.
Review and Way Forward
Coming into this I wasn’t sure what to aim for. Of course there are the obligatory goals of having fun, staying safe, and remaining humble and all of those had been achieved.
Preparation went as good as it could have gone. I reached my previous swimming plateau quickly and accepted that I neither had the time nor ambition to invest more into breaking out of it. For the bike I was determined to become better and increased my volume by about 75TSS per week, mostly by substituting the Friday aerobic rides with slightly longer group rides. I also spent more time riding my tri bike in aerobars and on rolling terrain. I gained another 10watts FTP and reached 4.1 w/kg, hitting numerous All Time power PR’s along the way, albeit the big gains all coming in the <20 min range. Running prep was okay, I followed my plan diligently but could not break out of my previous plateau and my training pace was trailing previous performances a few seconds.
Other race goals? Always hard to say, because they are so difficult to measure and compare. For sure I wanted to shoot for another WC slot, knock on the door of an AG top ten and set PRs. But I also knew that the conditions would be more difficult than in earlier races and that the field would be more competitive. In the end I reached none of these goals. 12th in AG is close enough, but I’ve missed the WC slot by several minutes. No PRs in sight and overall not an exceptional performance. I am happy that I could prove that I can get near the top ten and a slots on a good day. But it is also clear that I could not have trained any more or harder. So to move forward I guess the next stop will be a race with more climbing, something like 70.3 Nice, were my relatively strong w/kg can make up for my lack of raw horsepower.