70.3 number two of the year would be in the US Virgin Islands, very close to Puerto Rico, home to my toughest ever day on a triathlon course back in 2016.  I had a point to prove on warm weather courses, though with the benefit of hindsight, I maybe should have looked for an island with less hills…

I entered the race about 7 weeks before it, on a bit of a whim, but mainly because Andrew ( who was racing with me plus Kevin and Barry ) had a serious chance of qualifying for the 70.3 Worlds, meaning he’d do that plus Kona in the same year, which would be some feat.  There were less than 150 people listed when we entered and less than 200 when we turned up on race weekend, so it was a real chance.  It was also the final running ( the 30th ) of an iconic 70.3, so added attraction.

The lead up to race wasn’t especially ideal.  Of the four weeks prior, the first two were in California on a fantastic family holiday and I was ill for 10 of the other 14 days and really busy in work, making training a nightmare.  Saying that, in the week leading up to the race, I was feeling great and really looking forward to it and seeing the other guys in an exotic new place

I fly out on Friday via Miami, and it would take about 20 hours door to door which was a long old trip, arriving to the hotel about 10pm Friday night before the race on Sunday.  Sadly no upgrade on the long flight to Miami.  Highlight of the trip was the free guacamole with margarita and beer in the business lounge in Miami… top race preparation indeed.

I’m also delighted to see my bike box has survived the first leIMG_3239g of the trip, but I’m concerned about the glint in the baggage guy’s eye when he says ‘leave it with me sir’ at Miami.  There’s no room for it not showing up on time.

The gate for the flight to St Croix is probably 1/3rd athletes and some of them look a bit useful, so clearly Andrew’s not the only one who’s seen the lack of entries and is hoping to get to the worlds.  Our flight is smooth and two hours and a bit later we land in St Croix which looks pretty agreeable despite it being very dark.  I’ve never ever seen so many bike boxes come off a plane, though the pink cr@p club box stands out to say the least and the box gets some admiring ( well, strange ) looks.  Jump in a taxi and off to the hotel.

The hotel we’re at is on a tiny island just off the main island, so I lug my bags and the bike into a little boat for the 200 metre or so trip.  The hotel is in a great location ( swim starts at the hotel beach ) but is pretty basic with no lift, and once checked in I have to lug the bike box up to the third floor, which is a right pain.  We’ve arranged to meet for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 8am, so I get pretty quickly to sleep ready for the early start.

Inevitably jet lag kicks in about 6am and I eventually give in and put my bike back together.  It goes surprisingly well and is all done by about 7.30, so I get dressed ready to go get some food and then over to registration.  The restaurant is right on the beach and the view over our omelettes is pretty tremendous.  This seems like a great place.

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We get the boat over to registration which is very, very relaxed.  Sadly they don’t recognise my Welsh Triathlon license so I have to stump up $15 and sign my life away.  Bib number is 45, which is probably the lowest I’ll ever see in an Ironman race, AWA and all that.  Normally with Ironman races you get an ace ‘free’ rucksack ( Dubai and Wales being especially fine examples ).  This time is a bit of a shocker – it’s a carrier bag with a sticker on it.  Ouch.

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I’m also utterly devastated to see there’s no merch tent.  In fact the only things they have on sale are gels, CO2 and about 3 souvenir t shirts which look a bit like the free ones we’ve just been given at registration.  At least my wallet won’t take a further battering on this trip.  I do love a merch tent.

Back to the hotel and we decide to do a recce swim, around our hotel island.  It’s amazing – turquoise water, crystal clear, fish swimming around, completely idyllic.  It’s a little bit choppy away from the shore, but the 1000m loop is a high point we all agree.

We then get our bikes together to go bike the run course.  It’s a couple of miles west, into a big hotel with beautiful grounds and a golf course, then back to town.  10km or so in total.  It’s a bit lumpier than advertised, including one immense hill on the golf course, which we don’t even bother trying to bike up.  Bodes well for tomorrow.

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Then it’s race briefing time at transition.  A very calm affair with everyone sitting in the shade under a big tree.  The briefing is super-relaxed and completely unlike any other briefing I’ve been to, especially IM ones.  There’s no 10 minutes on the drafting rule and 5 minutes on cut offs, no tattoos, no body marking, no racking the day before, no bike/run/street bags.  Much more low key and refreshing.  The guy doing the briefing has organised the race for 30 years and it’s his last one, so he’s on fine form.

Then it’s back to the hotel to relax, and back to the main island again early evening for some pizza.  We do the usual race time predictions which are hugely varied.  I don’t really have a clue what I’m going to do on this course, though feel reasonably confident it’s not going to be a Puerto Rico style disaster, despite it having been really hot all day and this being a tougher course……

Early-ish to bed after laying breakfast and kit out for the morning.  I’m pretty tired so don’t sleep too badly, and although I wake up a few times in the night, I feel very good when the alarm goes at 4.15.

We planned to do our bike racking really early, so we’re queuing for the boat at 4.40am.  Ouch.  The four of us are in transition by 4.45… it’s still pitch dark, but pretty warm.  I pick an easy spot on AWA racks, all very relaxed, no numbers, old school transition with towel and all kit laid out by the front wheel.  A nice change from the usual IM bags stress,

I make final checks of tyres, gears and kit and we head back to hotel just after 5am.  Spend the next relaxing hour having breakfast, toilet stops, getting sun screen on, toilet stop, watching the other athletes across the bay getting racked and then swimming over to our island where the swim was starting … amazing sight

We all meet at 6.10 at reception and head down to the beach to get ready for the 6.30 AWA start.  I debate a practice swim but can’t be bothered and chat to Kevin and Barry instead.  Andrew’s thrashing about in the sea getting warmed up of course.

The swim course is a sea swim, immediate sharp left turn then a wedge shape – 800/900m out, then 900m or so back to the main island.

There are about 50 or so athletes in the AWA wave, and I was in no rush, expecting to be among the slowest so put myself towards the back of the group.  6.30am arrives and we’re off.  The temperature is amazing and despite this being a no wetsuit swim it feels lovely.  There’s quite a lot of contact as we turn the sharp left around the island and onto the main straight.  I’m soon into space though and get my head down for the 800/900m against the tide straight.

I feel strong, happy I’m swimming a good straigh-ish line.  There’s some difficulty sighting the far buoys but not too bad for this part.  It’s lovely to see to the bottom of the sea.  Like yesterday, it’s pretty choppy as we head out to sea, and I have to time the waves to sight the buoys.

The turn has us heading straight into the sun for a short space which was tough and then the long straight towards the finish I find really tough to sight.  I regularly find myself swimming on my own, with occasionally another athlete 10m or so to my left or right which I take some confidence from.  My Garmin suggested I was drifting towards the ‘out’ section and had to make a few corrections.  Must get better at sighting as well as swimming.

The final section is a short swim parallel to sea wall and I realise this is going to be long – maybe as long as I’ve done in a 70.3.  Also realise it was HAMMERING down with rain which wasn’t really expected and might make the bike course interesting.

A volunteer hauls me out of the water onto the exit ramp and I look down at the watch…. 48 minutes !!  Indeed the longest by far in a 70.3 and really disappointing.  Lack of wetsuit and going against the tide for half of it are probably the main factors, though my sighting for second half wasn’t good enough and Garmin later suggests i’ve swum 2300 metres.  Duh.

T1 on the other hand was really good for me.  I’m pleased to see some bikes left there so I wasn’t last out of the water, even of the AWA group.  No wetsuit meant I was done in 2 minutes with socks, bike shoes, shove my gels in back pocket, sunglasses in pocket ( was sure I’d need them in due course ) and then helmet on… and it was onto the bike.

The bike course is a fairly complete tour of St Croix, with one notorious hill called The Beast and some other hills that Andrew had described as rollers.  We’d learn otherwise.  The course has over half of the Ironman Wales elevation though gets heat, humidity and stronger winds thrown in for good measure.  The island is also well known for strong winds on the back half of the course as you move east to west.

As I leave transition, I hear a shout from Kevin who was at the exit changing a tyre … he shouts he’s OK and I carry on.  Not a great start for his race though.

The first 10km or so is a bit of a drag as it’s hilly and into the wind, but gradually the rain stops, we turn back towards the capital, go through town past the main support and the next 20km or so, heading east, with wind behind are really nice.  I get up some good average speed and roll past some absolutely amazing scenery.  The sun was well and truly out and I could feel the temperature rising.  Sunglasses are on.  The first 30km takes about an hour which is pretty pleasing.  ‘Was the wind going to behave?’ I was asking myself.

Also start my nutrition, which was basically boat loads of salt tabs to try to keep off the cramps ( fail ), 4 or 5 gels, about every 30 mins and 1 or 2 cereal bars depending on how I get on.

About 30km into the bike, we start to get nice warnings on the road that the Beast is approaching… 3, then 2 then 1 mile to go painted on the tarmac.  A sharp left turn and you’re straight into a double digit % gradient.  It goes on for about a mile and averages in the high teens.

I start off feeling OK, passing quite a few people, staying seated.  But my hear rate climbs fast and the temperature was rising nicely… already into the high 80s and this was about 8.30 in the morning.  There was also plenty of gravel which made getting traction tough.  I end up being very disappointed ( ashamed even ) to say that about half way up I let myself convince myself that I’d be better off following most of the other athletes and pushing, otherwise I’d be in danger of burning out way too early.  Grrrrrrrr.

After getting home I checked Strava and the fastest Beast split is about 5 mins or so and I took 10.  So I’d probably cost myself 2 or 3 minutes by walking, but as soon as I got to the top, took some water on and started on the downhill, I start to feel a bit better.

The next bit of the course is pretty dangerous … steep declines, but lots of turns and wet, gravelly surfaces.  There were several wipeouts, some of them still lying in the road getting medical help as I go past.  Ambulances are soon on the way.  I take it pretty easy which is the right thing to do, but it means I can’t really get the speed up ( only managing about 40kmph speed on that descent which is pretty lame ).

The section of the bike between 40km and 80km is a REAL slog.  It’s really hilly, straight into strong wind ( some of the strongest I’ve cycled in ) with long straight lonely sections where you can see perfectly what’s ahead of you.  I do my best to get into aero and get on with it, but it’s demoralising to see the average speed struggling to move above 26/27kmph which would mean a slow bike leg.

There is some good camaraderie with other athletes who are, in the main, not enjoying the bike course.  Spectacular as it is in places along the coast, it’s one of the toughest bikes I’ve done.  An especially low moment is being overtaken by a guy with panniers on his steel frame road bike.  I get him on a downhill ( full aero, pedalling like crazy ), but he soon gets me again on the next climb!

The final 10km is back east towards town and the bike finish area.  Sod’s law means there’s no real tail wind or nice descents to build speed up.  So the average speed for he bike is a disappointing 26kmph, meaning a time of 3h 25.  Slowest 70.3 bike to add to the slowest 70.3 swim.  So far I’d had a good T1 and that was about it.

Looking at Garmin later I noticed that despite realising the danger of going too hard on the bike ( and having that message drummed in by Lawrence ), I’d spend a third of the ride in zone 4 heart rate.  Pretty bloody stupid in this heat, with a tough run to come…

T2 was a huge relief to see and I was again pretty quick… about 2 minutes, all quite smooth.  I pulled a cr@p t shirt over the cr@p vest to try and get some shelter from the sun on the exposed run course.  I was soon on my way, though I get scolded for trying to run out of the bike exit and have to go back in to find the run exit and onto the course.

I realise really quickly this is going to be a toughie.  The course is a 2 looper, west on the road for a few km, into a hotel, around the grounds and then back.  There are some comedy hills as we’d seen on our recce the day before, including one we called the mini Beast.  Not that there’s anything mini about it when you tried to run up it.

I manage the first 5km in 28 mins, not too bad, but the heat was shocking and despite copious amounts of water and ice and gatorade at the aid stations I’m suffering and have little left in the tank.

Then I crash big time and start walking anything that resembles an uphill.  Km’s 6 and 8 take nearly 16 minutes which is shocking pace, though not as bad as some that would come later on.

I pass Andrew on the way back to town and he looks OK, though swears about how tough a day he’s having, which gives me some comfort that it’s not just me.  He also gives me a bottle of water which is very kind and well needed … he has an aid station just ahead.  I also pass Kevin and learn he crashed out on the bike ( broken derailleur disaster ) after three miles and has decided to do the HM run for fun … which is completely mental.  This isn’t fun at all!  He has a great attitude about it later, kudos to him.

I manage to average about 7 mins for the next few km, walking the hills and aid stations and trying to keep moving forward the rest of the time.  Cramps are hitting badly and I’m forced to stop occasionally to stretch quads and hamstrings which are in bits.

I do 1h 10 for 10.5km, which is absolutely terrible but I’m happy to get to half way and the second lap follows a similar pattern to the first … walking the hills with hands on quads trying to keep the legs moving and then running the downhills and just about the flat sections.  The aid stations are pretty fantastic — really well stocked with cold drinks, ice and cold sponges which are very welcome and cooling.

I see Barry on lap two who’s looking amazingly cheerful though pretty hot and after a few more km, I see Andrew at the same point we passed on my first lap, though this time he’s walking uphill looking REALLY hot and I’m running down.  I return the water favour by giving him most of a bottle, remembering that I have an aid station just inside the hotel very shortly.

In the hotel grounds I hook up with another athlete and we spur each other on for a few km, dragging each other practically to the hills, then walking/shuffling up.  He eventually pulls away and I can’t keep up, so back to the familiar run/walk pattern.

The 17th km is the low point, taking nearly 10 minutes – pretty spectacularly slow, though I know at this point it’s nearly done and a cool beer isn’t too far off.  I manage to pick up the ‘pace’ for the final few km, and soon see town and the finish line.  There’s a cruel twist though with a bonus km loop of the small town to do before we finally finish.  I see the guy I was with earlier ahead of me and I’m soon with him, encouraging him to start running again as there’s only 800m or so left.  He tries but can’t run at all so I leave him.  My pace is now under 6 mins per km finally and I find a bit of a kick to properly run the last km.

I’m very delighted and relieved to cross the finish line.  2h 26 for a half marathon.  Second ever slowest after walking pretty much the whole run in Puerto Rico last year.

Finsherpix later confirms it wasn’t a happy moment, but more sheer relief it’s finished.  I get the medal, a cold towel and some water, and walk slowly into the finisher area ( which is basically transition ).  Total time is 6h 45, ugghhhhh.

I see Kevin who’s looking pretty good despite running the half and we start catching up on our respective races.  We’re a but surprised not to see Andrew who’s definitely finished but isn’t around.  That clears itself up quickly enough when another athlete comes over and says our friend wants to see us in the medical tent ( one of the benefits of a pink kit is that friends in the medical tent can’t miss you half a mile away ).  Turns out Andrew crossed the finish line, looked really ropey, got asked some questions, failed to answer and ended up hooked to IV ( x 2 ) for an hour.  Nice.

We see Barry over the line soon enough and gradually get our stuff together to head back to the hotel, all agreeing this was an absolute brute of a course.  After a quick shower, change, check in at home with Karen ( who knows I’ve finished, but hasn’t heard from me for 2 hours after the finish ) and we meet at the beach bar for a beer and start reliving the race.  As always, great fun to share the good and bad bits of the race.  We calculate the winners of the race predictions and Andrew cleans up.  He doesn’t look thrilled though, having clearly taken it out of himself today.

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That evening we go to the awards ceremony and watch the roll down.  Andrew finished 12th in our age group, though sadly doesn’t come close to a slot.  Bummer.  We’re all shattered and despite a nice evening, just want to go and sleep, which we’re all pretty much doing by 10pm.

Next morning is a nice leisurely breakfast, packing the bike up, quick walk around town then a very welcome dip in the sea.  Then we head to the airport for our 3pm-ish flight to Miami.  Getting the stuff to the airport is a very hot affair and then check in and security are a nightmare ( unpacking the bike box at check in and then AGAIN at security ).  It takes over an hour so good job we left plenty of time.  Soon enough, we’re in the air and landing in Miami.  I say my farewells, get wished all the best for my next race ( 6 days time ) and we go our separate ways.  The rest of the journey is smooth but long and I’m completely knackered getting back home Tuesday lunchtime.

St Croix was an amazing place to do a race.  I’m really glad I did it, very happy I finished in not a total disaster time ( though way longer than hoped and 1.5h slower than a 70.3 three month earlier ).  I know you can’t compare times on different courses, but still.  That’s a big difference.  On the way back and when I get home, my mind turns to the next race, the coming weekend – another 70.3 in Pays d’Aix, France.  Would I recover enough to even do it let alone perform well?  I’d find out soon enough.

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