St. George 70.3 2016

St. George 70.3 holds a special place in my heart. I did my first pro race in September 2013 at Muskoka 70.3. Long story short, I won the race over the great Andreas Raelert. It is likely that Andreas was deep inside his Kona preparation, so the significance of this victory may have gone to my head a bit too much. 8 months later I did my third pro race in St. George. At that time, it was one of the best 70.3 fields ever assembled. Jan Frodeno, Sebastien Kienle, Tim Don, Brent McMahon, Andy Potts, Terenzo Bozone, Bevan Docherty and Marino Vanhoenacker were just a few of the names on the list. Having won Muskoka 70.3 I felt that I had a real shot at competing for the overall win. Every day in practice leading into the race I envisioned myself crossing the line in first place. Another long story short, I ended up finishing 18th place, ten minutes behind race winner Jan Frodeno.

That experience was a true test of my love for triathlon, as I began seriously contemplating quitting the sport. The reality of the race was very far removed from how I had envisioned it. In the immediate hours after the race I was a terrible person to be around. I was miserable and did not want to talk. I felt terrible about myself. The worst part though was the embarrassment. All of my friends and family were watching. Many of them too thought I had a shot at competing for the overall win. The reality was that I lost time in all three disciplines to the top athletes. They were in a different league!

The next morning I went for a jog with my mom through the St. George desert. I reflected back on why I got into triathlon in the first place. I was in poor mental and physical health. I entered in an Ironman to help remedy those issues. After just 8 months of devoting myself to triathlon both my physical and mental health were completely transformed. But there I was less than four years later, feeling many of the same poor feelings I had when I embarked on my triathlon journey. It was there that I realized I had lost my way. Somewhere along the lines triathlon had turned from an endeavour in which I developed positive qualities, to an endeavour that was beginning to create and enhance negative qualities. I awoke right then and there from my slumber. I knew I needed to change my orientation and attitude towards triathlon. From then on I vowed that I would only do triathlon for fun and for the joy of pushing myself to the limit. If I ever crossed a finish line again without joy in my heart, that would be the last finish line I crossed.

I would say of all the lessons I have learned over the years, this was the most important one. Winning races is irrelevant if you are winning them with a poor orientation. You will have bad races, you will have mishaps. With a poor orientation to triathlon these experiences will have a negative effect on your mental and physical health, as well as the health of those around you. You are doing yourself, your friends and loved ones, as well as the triathlon community as a whole a disservice if you allow these types of negative feelings to go unchecked. When I changed my orientation to triathlon for the better, it felt like a weight had been lifted. There was no more pressure. There was no more disappointment or negative feelings. There was only one goal now: To push myself to the best of my ability, regardless of the cards I am dealt. I arrived in St. George on May 4th 2016 wanting to give thanks to the race for teaching me this invaluable lesson.

Unlike Oceanside 70.3, my build up for St. George went smoothly. After Texas 70.3 I took a few days easy, and then I put in a hard two week block. In that time I ran a lot of hills and did a lot of riding on the CompuTrainer out of the saddle, as I knew the course was going to be very hilly. I also mentally prepared myself to suffer more than I ever had before. But, I knew that due to the course being so challenging, I was going to have to be very patient. If I started off too crazy, it was likely that I would blow up, and not be able to push myself as hard as I could if I was more patient with dispersing the energy.

It was rather chilly the morning of the race (around 50 fahrenheit). Being on the heavier side for a pro triathlete, I knew this was advantageous for me. They were also calling for possible thunder showers, and I knew that a cold swim, mixed with cold air temps and rain would also be advantageous for me, so I kept my fingers cross for torrential downpours.

The swim was fairly uneventful for me. For the first 400m or so the water was quite calm, and I was swimming pretty well. I started right beside Sebastien Kienle and Cody Beals. I sighted often and was very close to both of them until the first turn buoy. Around this point I started to fall off the pace of the 25:xx swim pack. I was surprised how choppy the water got once out into the middle of the lake. This did not help my cause any, and the gap to the 25:xx group started to increase a lot quicker from then on. I emerged from the water with about a 4 minute and 30 second gap to the leaders. I knew this deficit would be difficult to overcome, but I welcomed the challenge.

St. George Swim

On the bike, my mantra was “be patient.” I wanted so bad to smash the hills. I knew my only shot at winning this race was to run very well, and I knew that smashing the hills would not fair well for my run legs. The only time I spiked the power was when passing people, and even then I tried my best not to spike it too much. I was surprised by just how quickly I was pulling time back from guys who I was sure swam 2-3 minutes faster than I did. The major changes I made between Texas 70.3 and this race is that this time round I used latex tubes for the first time, and I had CermicSpeed check my drive train before the race, and flush and lube the hubs of my wheels. As well, I was noticeably more comfortable on the bike; both from a position standpoint, and a fear of speed standpoint. Going down the hills at 60-80kph, despite it raining, I felt close to no fear. This allowed me to focus on producing good power, and holding my body taut and my head low.

St George Bike

Around 55km I caught the tail end of the main pack. Michael Raelert was in this pack and I knew he is one of the greatest runners to ever do this distance. I wasn’t completely secure with coming off the bike with him, and leaving things to a foot race, so I tried to get rid of this pack as quickly as I could. By 65km I was in second place, with Cam Dye about 30 seconds up the road. Right at the base of Snow Canyon (a 5 mile steady climb) I entered the lead. At this point I had a gap on Michael Raelert, so I thought about chilling for the rest of the bike, but then I started to worry about Sebastien Kienle. He was riding well and I knew he had the potential to run very well; at 70.3 Worlds last year he out ran both Jan Frodeno and Javier Gomez. I decided to burn a few matches up Snow Canyon and see if I could come off the bike with a gap. By the top of Snow Canyon I had about 45 seconds on Kienle.

What goes up must come down. The descent from Snow Canyon was a bit sketchy as it was pouring rain and I was hitting speeds in excess of 80kph. But interestingly, I felt close to no fear. I’m not sure if this is good or bad. Either I am increasing in confidence on the bike, or my self perseveration mechanism is beginning to wane; let’s hope it is the former. Out of T2 I had about a 30 second lead on Kienle. My hands and feet were completely numb, and I struggled to put my socks and shoes on, so I think I gave back a bit of the time I had gained on the bike here.

The run in St. George is very difficult. It starts off with nearly 3 miles of continuous uphill running. I was hurting from the first step. I knew this run was going to be a very painful experience, but fortunately I was mentally prepared for this and embraced it. I knew almost immediately that Kienle came here to win. I ran the first six miles very hard, and put no time into him. We ran pretty close to even for the first 8 miles. My family was waiting for me at the run turnaround. My dad yelled repeatedly at me “who wants it more? Who wants it more?” I thought to myself “I don’t want it anymore!”

St George Run

As I grow in strength a third layer of perception seems to be developing. The first layer is my physical body. It was hurting badly and was sending signals to slow down. The second layer is my verbally expressed thoughts. It was saying things like “slow down and let Kienle catch up and run shoulder to shoulder,” as well as “second is good, Kienle is a three-time World champion. There’s no shame in that.” The third layer observes this whole process and sees it for what it is: a delightful game of me vs. me. Despite both my body and verbal mind screaming at me to slow down, the third layer was experiencing pure bliss in taking part in a good game of me vs. me. The more it hurt and the louder the screams to stop, the more joy I experienced. Something tells me Kienle was having a good game of me vs. me as well, because I am pretty sure he gave me a big smile when we passed each other after the turnaround.

There was a second turnaround on an out and back section where I caught a second glimpse of Kienle. By this point the gap had opened up to around 45 seconds. By this time my body was actually starting to feel pretty good, but my mind was still saying I should slow down. I kept the pace as high as I could. The final mile and a half is straight and downhill. A little ways into this section I looked back and could not get a good sense of how far back Kienle was. I did not allow myself to think I was going to win the race until about a quarter mile from the finish. At that point, tears of joy and pain started to flow.

St. George Finish

It was deeply satisfying to win this race. What was more satisfying was to duke it out with Kienle for so long. I would much rather finish second in a good race, then win an easy race. I think Kienle and I had a good race on this day. I owe a lot to him as he has been one of my biggest inspirations over the years. He was the first man to prove that you don’t have to be a front pack swimmer to win the biggest races in the world. To duke it out with one of your biggest inspirations is a cool feeling.

Kienle and I

Thanks to all of my sponsors for helping make this dream a reality. I could not do this without you. As well, thanks to everyone for cheering and following along. You made this day that much more special. If you are interested in the technical details of my race, TrainingPeaks did a cool analysis of my bike and run data. You can find that here:

http://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/race-analysis-lionel-sanders-victory-at-the-2016-ironman-70-3-north-american-championships

 

11 thoughts on “St. George 70.3 2016

  1. Great report. Great insight into the mental battle you faced. We were very excited for this substantial victory! A new memory to replace the past. Congratulations sir…keep us posted!!
    Fyi…you ARE in their league now!!
    Chao!!

  2. Incredible consistency Lionel. The manner in which you apply your lessons learned is so admirable. I am looking very forward to your performance on October 8!

  3. Well done! I saw you on the run while I was still in that cold wet bike and thought “at least he is warm”! Great race. Love the “me vs. me” as that is every race I run. Thanks for the honesty.

  4. Came across you on the Cup of Tri podcast and am following your journey with absolute joy. Loving the honesty from you. And this is a great read on so many levels.

    Keep it up, and I’ll be rooting for you at the 70.3 worlds. Given I’m a Brit, that’s sacrilege but never mind!

  5. Congratulations Lionel on the St George win. I really enjoyed reading your blog and your attitude toward racing and love for the sport is inspirational.

  6. Your candour about your journey, your races, your training and your life is both helpful and inspiring.

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