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John Culwell's Ironman Santa Cruz 70.3 Race Report: Be The Pelican

by John Culwell

Heart racing and nearly on empty, I dashed past a competitor and weaved breathlessly through the crowded streets to get over the line. I did it!!! I found a parking spot for Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz.

I now had the first challenge over with. The 6 hour race I was prepared for: I had been training with TCMTriSquad for over a year and this was my second 70.3. The Squad was great - they were consistent trainers, motivators, and athletes with all types of backgrounds under experienced coaches. Just reading their recovery routine chat set your emotional stress level to extreme calm. And this was important because you were going to swim in the wild ocean soon.

I had a few goals for the race, 1) finish strong 2) maintain bodily functions 3) personal best, and maybe crack the top 35 in my age group, since I was 46th last year.

I got my parking spot close to transition around 5:30AM (truth be told, last year I parked in the massive Boardwalk lot around the same time and that was fine too). I was just wrapping up all my gear prep around 6:30 when everyone got kicked out of the transition area. Wearing a headlamp definitely helped setup. I put on my wetsuit, started to leave, and then remembered to grab my goggles - whew.

Swim: I did a warmup swim and got in the corral by the 37-40 minute sign. I swam close to the buoys line, but the water was boiling with other racers, and I had to sight more than I wanted. I was out by 40 minutes, not the fastest, but since I didn’t get attacked by an otter or kicked in the face, I was off to a good start.

T1: My bike rack was right in line with a palm tree, third row from the end, so it was easy to find. I’m always slow getting my wetsuit off my ankles and the timing strap, but I got into my rolled-up socks and ran out of T1 with my shoes already on the bike. I ran past a few racers stopped at the mount line and got my feet in the shoes during the short climb onto the bike course. T1: 4:34.

Bike: You do not want to be low on carbs and bonk during this race, so to make sure I got my carbs in, I put 90g NeverSecond powder in my 700mL bottle and drank it over the first hour. A second bottle held my flat kit, and I have a 500mL aero bottle on the down tube that held another 30g. I used 3 pH30 gels over the second hour, tossing my first bottle at the aid station for a Gatorade bottle. A lot of a headwind out required a steady effort, and I paced myself on feel, just trying to keep a consistent push on the quads throughout. The ride has gorgeous views and it’s enjoyable the whole way. Leading up to the race, Coach Gunnar prepped me with longer aero sessions, and these kept my back in shape for the long ride. There are rolling hills the last few miles, and I slowed down a bit there from fatigue and also thinking about the upcoming run. I cruised on the Santa Cruz streets coming back to T2 and pulled my feet out of the shoes on the flat before the Dream Inn. Bike leg; 2:50:19.

T2 of 1:48 went quickly. TCMTriSquad does training and emphasizes quick transitions and I definitely moved up in the ranks because of faster transitions. Or better to think of it that we don’t need as much rest between events!

Let’s face it, the run is hard. Your life at this point is not going to be improved by your productivity hack or your air fryer. Out on the run both my quads started cramping early, just after the steep hill by the Dream Inn. I tried to run it out and the cramping calmed down after I took an electrolyte gel and had some fluids at the first aid station. At each aid station afterwards I tried to catch the front water volunteer and pour that cup over my head; then at the back find a volunteer that had Gatorade. I stopped briefly to drink it because I know from experience that choking on Gatorade is a great way to ramp up the suffering.

I just tried to run a steady pace through the first 9 miles without overheating. Shout outs from the amazing race volunteers, and seeing all my TCMTriSquad teammates crushing it on course were a huge boost.

I had taken 3 gels on the run at that point, plus the gatorade, but it was getting rough. I remembered coach saying use mantras, focus. I tried to Zen out. The last 4 miles are so tough- with 3 miles to go a bunch of pelicans flew overhead and I tried to imagine that I was a pelican floating on air and it seemed to help. Please sign up for my run like a pelican floating on air course now streaming :). I found some more energy, made it past the lighthouse and down the last hill, and heard the crowd cheering the finishers. I ran through the final sand chute raising my arms and crossed the finish line in 1:55:40. Final time 5:32:53, a PR and 20th in my age group!

After having the best tasting can of Coke ever after the race, I hung out with the Squad and recovered. It is such a great feeling to finish that race and share the experience with your teammates, and so I 100% recommend this to you: join a motivating squad, get a great coach, and when it gets really tough, run like a pelican.

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