HITS Triathlon Series is the new kid on the block. Could it unseat Ironman as THE triathlon? How does it compare with the juggernaut of the WTC and does it have a future?
On November 10, 2012 I participated in my third “Half” or “Half-Iron” (1.2mi Swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1 Mile run) Triathlon and my first with the HITS Series. With the first-ever triathlon to take place in Lake Havasu, Arizona, would there be victory or tragedy? Or maybe a bit of both? Would the HITS formula be a hit… or a miss?
Let’s be frank. The American athletic event has been slowly eroded in recent years, with the likes of the Rock n Roll series of events leading the charge to the bottom. From 2009 until today, I’ve seen the quality of most events slowly eroded by the corporate juggernaut and the failing economy (leading to things like using contaminated water out of trash cans – Yes, that’s you US Half Marathon and RocknRoll Las Vegas ).
But I was intrigued by what I read online about HITS. Their website was clean and easy to read, unlike the Rock n Roll series websites. Information was fairly easy to find. And, they had a distance for everyone (a brilliant marketing strategy if there ever was one). Additionally, not only were the people behind the event series triathletes themselves (and not corporate douche-bags like you find in big organizations like.. shall we say.. Rock n Roll), but they also had the experience of organizing events from the equine world. But would that experience translate well?
Our first introduction was the very quaint, idilic city of Lake Havasu, Arizona, the home of the original London Bridge. This planned community is a unique treasure in the middle of the desert. But exploring the town would have to wait, because I was late for the expo.
After securing our hotel room, we proceeded to expo to retrieve our race goodies.
Things were pretty laid back when we arrived 30 minutes prior to the athletes briefing. Having participated in races as large as 45,000 people to as small as 100, I found the atmosphere refreshingly easy and straight-forward.
I then went over to the transition area. Unlike every other single transition area I have ever encountered, this one was… Organized.
“Stool in front, bike to the right.”
Each entrant had their own bike spot, labelled, with a stool and an area to place their stuff. This was fantastic – no more getting there hours early just to get the right spot. No more fighting over space on the bike rack. This setup means more work for the organizers, but was infinitely better than any other system I have encountered.
Score one more for HITS.
During the athlete’s briefing, race director Mark Wilson went over a few important items for those of us participating in the Half and Full Triathlon distances:
- It was going to be a beach start for the swim (my first!).
- There would be 3 buoys each 633 meters apart (Holy crap! I’ll get lost for sure)
- The swim course was not “closed” – kayaks would be warning boaters of the swimmers
- There were hills on the bike (understatement of the year)
- Drive the bike course
- Stool in front, bike on the right
- Drive the bike course
- Follow the cones
- Stool in front, bike on the right
- The bike was not a closed course
- Watch out for cars backing out of driveways (absolutely zero problem during my bike)
- Sight-lines were excellent for the bike (true dat) [singlepic id=1868 w=320 h=240 float=right]
- Don’t walk through the run/bike/swim arches before the start (to avoid timing chip duplications)
- There were stairs… a lot of them… on the run (can you say crossfit?) as you go over, under, and over again on the London Bridge
- Yes, you were running over, under, and over again the London frakin’ Bridge
- The second turn-around on the run was in the middle of a beer festival (not planned but ironic).
- There would be no porta-potties on the bike course.
No porta-potty on the bike course? Was I going to have to perfect the triathlete technique of “Stand’n’Pee-Pedal”? Was I even ready for that? More importantly… would there be any dehydrated trees along the route?
As it turned out, the lack of a porta-potty was the least of my worries the following day.[singlepic id=1816 w=320 h=240 float=left]I spoke with Mark after the race and he indicated they really wanted to have porta-potties on the course, but the cost – and the fact the route went through residential areas – prevented them from doing so. I suspect the bike course will be revised for next year as there were 26… Yes, 26… turns throughout the course.
I don’t mind turns. But the chances of getting lost increase every time you ask someone to change direction.
In any case, one unique aspect of the bike course was its almost entire distance was run through local neighborhoods. This required paying attention to driveways, but considering most of those were uphill anyway… It really wasn’t an issue.
But I digress.
After the athlete’s briefing (and was I ever glad I went to that!), we briefly drove the bike course (I do listen to advice by the people in charge… sometimes) to discover holy crap there are a lot of hills. Thank goodness for my Red Rock Canyon training!
Next, it was to begin my nightly pre-race ritual.. Two hours of going through the goodie bag (some nice coupons here), washing/cleaning/degreasing my bike, setting out my clothes, showering, arranging my nutrition, cleaning my sunglasses, ensuring all my stuff was in the right spot, and generally always forgetting something crucial (in this case, it was the bike mount for my Garmin).
Then, sleep. Yes, I actually slept before this race. Palm Springs Full Triathlon.. Probably another story.
Our hotel was minutes to the start and for once I was able to wake, get dressed, and get to the start within an hour. Although this did affect my nutrition slightly (it’s usually a wakeup call 3 hours before race start, including the drive to the venue, setup, swim warmup, etc), the extra sleep was greatly appreciated.[singlepic id=1830 w=320 h=240 float=center]We arrived at transition on the morning of November 10 completely in the dark. In fact, thanks to the fact that Arizona doesn’t follow daylight savings, we completed all of setup and wetsuit putting-on-stuff in the complete dark. Fortunately, the 7am start had just enough glow of a sunrise to make the swim start not completely dark and overnight they’d decided to add two more buoys to the course (whew!).
The water was a wonderful 65 degrees as we began our beach start. (Click the video below for the actual start!)
For most people, the swim may be long in the Half triathlon, but it’s not intimidating.
Not for me. For me, I have a problem with open water.
In practice, I can remain cool and calm. But the moment the gun goes off I have a serious problem avoiding panic attacks. Being left behind by everyone can get a little discouraging. Since I have almost drowned as an adult twice (both involving boats either sinking or being sunk too far from shore for rescue) and almost drowned as a kid (including having an out-of-body experience of watching myself be resuscitated), every time I enter a triathlon I have to face those demons. The only way I can do it is by keeping my heart rate low, my strokes slow, measured, and easy.[singlepic id=1835 w=320 h=240 float=center]The swim, for me, isn’t about saving time. It’s about survival. It’s a mental game. For 1 hour or two, I have to keep myself from panicing, giving up, and giving in to the despair of being darn near last. Now, someone might say I should practice more, get faster, and then I wouldn’t have to face my issues for so long.
Ya, duh. I know. I’m still working on that part.[singlepic id=1843 w=320 h=240 float=right]In any case, this swim was a challenge for me beyond even the normal stuff. Despite a very fast, successful warmup (boosting my confidence), after the start everything went to hell. My goggles filled with water and, despite stopping and taking the time to fix them, refused to stay dry. Nothing I did, and this was a first for these goggles, would keep water from filling my right eye.
That alone wouldn’t have been so bad if the sun didn’t rise directly over the top of the second and third buoys. One thing I haven’t practiced – Sighting directly into the sun with one eye full of water. I was so slow, I got my own personal kayak escort for a good part of the race and I meandered toward the finish line.
I eventually made it out of the water, despite fighting the fear I wouldn’t make the cutoff. The fear proved to be silly. Even though Ironman will tell you your day is done if you don’t meet your cutoff, HITS Triathlon seems a bit more casual about the swim cutoff. They actually want you to finish.
Okay, I missed the low-five from the race director, but I was still worried about getting to the swim arch before the cutoff. I shouldn’t have worried.
I faced new challenges in transition. Originally, when I looked at the weather forecast, I saw the temperature was supposed to be only in the mid 50’s for most of my race. After training in the Las Vegas heat, I thought for sure I was going to be too cold. So, I packed extra warm clothes for the bike. But, after the long swim and having my heart rate spike several time, during T1 I was more than warm, so I made the decision not to add any extra layers.
Turns out I made the right choice, as the weather turned to the perfect temperature. That made up for only one minor problem that cost me nearly 2 minutes in the transition.
I’d lost my Garmin mount for the bike. I kept searching for it when, in fact, I simply have shrugged it off and moved on. I’d practiced with the watch on my wrist before, and not putting it on the bike, while less convenient, actually does save time. But I wanted it on the bike.
I still haven’t found that #%#!(*) mount. I remember having it in my hand in the garage…
In any case, I finally gave up and headed out for the bike. My feet were cold, my legs cold, but it didn’t take long to transition when you’re headed up hill through a street fair (although for us Half distance triathletes, the fair really didn’t get underway until after we passed through).
[singlepic id=1859 w=320 h=240 float=center]The bike was challenging.. there were no flat spots except for a few miles at the beginning and at the end. During one out and back, I was able to find a tree that was dehydrated and needed watered. But considering almost the entire course was in residential neighborhoods, I came darn close to deviating off course to the one park I saw near the route and finding a public bathroom.. Or any private spot. I lost some time, but after watering that bush, I felt so much better that my pace improved dramatically. I’m just glad that the “deuce” gods didn’t come calling during this race.
Cramping is still an issue for me on the bike, however, as I faced that problem at about mile 50. As annoying as it is, I know it’s my own fault for pushing my heart rate too high during various climbs during the course.
Throughout the bike, I kept repeating a mantra in my head. “Setup for a good run. This isn’t about a fast bike, it’s about a fast run!”
I wanted to beat my previous week’s time at the US Half where my girl had set a PR. I not only wanted to beat my previous run split – I wanted to beat her solo 1/2 Marathon time.
Rolling into the transition things began to relax as I entered what was and has been one of my stronger disciplines. My T2 time was quick (but should be quicker if I didn’t fidget with my laces and use the porta-potty) and I was off to run what was, for me, a very flat course.
[singlepic id=1874 w=320 h=240 float=left][singlepic id=1886 w=320 h=240 float=right]Except for one thing.
Stairs. Lots of stairs.
Most triathlon courses don’t include stairs, but I’m a trail runner. These things are not new to me, but my legs were not happy with me as I ran up, over, under, up, across, down, around and every which way about the London Bridge (for those that don’t know, yes, this is the real London Bridge from London, England. How it got to Lake Havasu is a great story.) My personal photographer, however, was thrilled as she has a thing for bridges. For her, there wasn’t anything better than standing on the London Bridge taking pictures.
[singlepic id=1806 w=320 h=240 float=center]The running route consisted of road, bike path, and even running through some shop patios. Not being very near the front of the pack, this wasn’t an issue for me on crowding, but many of the people perusing the shops were not aware an event was taking place. Weaving amongst them they didn’t get rude, as these people aren’t from Rome or say San Francisco, where you had average people trying to block entire masses of runners so they could cross their cars in front of them (Where were the police US HALF?). In fact, most of them seemed mildly amused at us running among them, and several folks, once realizing a race was underway, became impromptu cheerleaders.
To the fellow who offered me the beer – thank you, I’ll take you up on it next time.
In any case, the run was a unique course that probably would “upset” the “pros”. But, I’m not pro, and part of my personal challenge is overcoming each races unique obstacles (intended or not). If I’m successful, that’s when I get to finish – and no whining.
[singlepic id=1808 w=320 h=240 float=center]
Speaking of finishing, I was quite happy with the post-race grub. Although US Half had some very nasty weird veggie/meat pies of dubious origin and were cold when they were supposed to be hot, HITS actually had some decent pasta. And peanut butter, jelly, bread, and other snacks. It reminded me of some of the trail runs I’ve done but with a better, warmer selection.
[singlepic id=1812 w=320 h=240 float=right]
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the professionalism, organization, spirit, energy, and down-right getting it rightness of the HITS Triathlon Series far outshines what I experienced just one week prior to this race. I was beginning to despair that a small race could be organized like a big one and in many, many ways, be even better. Even My Girl was inspired to do a triathlon… and she hates athletic events, and never liked triathlon. Ya, that’s right… The Anti-Triathlete now wants to try one just because of her experience as a spectator during this race.
There can’t be a better endorsement of HITS than that. Really, you have no idea.
After the race I took a moment to speak with Mark Wilson and other members of the team behind HITS. I found them both approachable, but very friendly (unlike… never mind). I even managed to get a picture with the man behind the race.[singlepic id=1817 w=320 h=240 float=center]
I am now a huge fan of the HITS Triathlon Series, and if they bring the same sort of organization and skill to their recently announced Running Festivals, I’m sure it will be a success. I like what they are doing in just about every aspect of triathlon. The family-friendly atmosphere, the pricing, the 1-year age groups… it all works. Considering that Ironman(Registered Trademark) is getting crazier and crazier, I think I’ll be skipping the Ironman races in the future. Do I really want a 2000 person swim start?
Hell no. I can live without hearing “You are an IRONman” because that’s like saying, “You are KLEENEX!” since nasal tissue is the real name. Completing the “Ironman” distance is a phrase I shouldn’t use, since I’m infringing on WTC’s trademark (Kleenex).[singlepic id=1842 w=320 h=240 float=right]I’d rather finish the distance. I think that is more in keeping with the founders of the “Ironman” triathlon philosophy anyway. In fact, it’s a philosophy that allowed Iron Cowboy to continue his quest to finish 30 Full Triathlons in one year – including towing a disabled child behind him for the entire race. Lake Havasu was his 27th attempted race this year alone.
Earlier, I was tempted to call off my Full Triathlon quest. But after Lake Havasu, its back on. Bring on 2.4 miles of swimming, 112miles of biking, and a marathon! I’ll be there December 1.
Below you’ll find my race summaries, Garmin courses, and Google maps of each stage of the HITS Half Triathlon Lake Havasu, AZ.[singlepic id=1815 w=320 h=240 float=center]
Serious panic issues started after I couldn’t keep my stupid goggles clear of water. Even stopping, reseting, taking a deep breath – nothing worked! Fortunately the fresh water didn’t sting my eyes, but it made sighting into the sun difficult and finding the buoys. Fortunately, a last-minute addition made 5 buoys an easier navigation than the original 3. During warmup, I had NO issues… What the hell? My technique went to hell, my swim sucked hard. Warmup was fast and comfortable. I need to learn not to have panic attacks while swimming. I NEED to spend more time in the pool! (And I was the second to last person out of the water in the Half).
Hills? Did anyone say hills? Some of the athletes were complaining about hills… but compared to Napa Valley, these hills were little bumps. On the other hand… those hills killed my legs! A unique course through residential streets and through a street fair… With 26 turns, the course will be improved next year, but for a first run… Damn fine! I almost crashed only once when a pickup randomly slammed to a stop in front of me… The purpose of the bike was to setup a good run, and it seemed to work!
All day was to set up for a good run, because I wanted to beat last week’s Half Marathon time (And push my girl to work for better times). The only thing standing in the way: Stairs. Yes, stairs… Up and over and up and over across THE London Bridge. Yes, THAT London Bridge (The original anyway). For the first time I ran the entire half without walking, and actually beat my first-ever marathon time. My fastest ever Half Marathon (of any kind) is only 12 minutes faster, so I must of set up myself up well! In the end, I set a PR of 7:07… 23 minutes faster than my previous!