We did it! Potholes and rain couldn’t stop us (well, unfortunately it did stop some, but there will be other chances!). After competing with you all at the innagural 2021 IRONMAN Tulsa, this first North American IRONMAN race held in 2021, 2nd during the pandemic, I wanted to touch base with what happened and what to expect with this race and perhaps others moving forward.
First of all, RACING IS BACK!
It’s been a long time… 19 months for me since IRONMAN Chattanooga in 2019. IRONMAN did have some races in 2020, 2 halves and a full, but were mostly skunked in 2020. I believe IRONMAN Tulsa has proven that events can go on, and especially in cities like Tulsa, OK, who are ready to have athletes and events back.
So what does an IRONMAN in a pandemic look like now? Honestly not a heck of a lot different. Actually, some changes are good changes I hope they keep!
- You can select your check in times. This helps reduce concentration of people at check in and IM village. I like it and hope it stays. No long lines waiting to get through. They took the precautions for social distancing, but Oklahoma recently updated their COVID policies and masks were not required for vaccinated individuals inside and outside at IM village locations for fully vaccinated individuals. They did not ask if you were as it was on the honor system, but plenty of people chose to wear masks anyways and no one gave anyone trouble. Everyone was there to race in the spirit of cooperation.
- IM village was significantly reduced from a vendor perspective. Usually they are FULL of companies selling their tri related goods, but IM village aside from the merch tent was eerily vacated more than any IM I have attended.
- The only situation that masks were required was on the bus ride to swim start. The buses were decently full, so this makes sense and everyone obliged. But, during check in you got a mask in your swag bag, so you were all covered, literally.
- Changing tents were gone. Now, it you needed a full change, they did have port-a-potties to pull a superman in. With the rolling swim start spreading out athletes, this actually worked well as there was not a huge glut of people in transitions at any one time. Personally I didn’t miss them as I never get fully undressed anyways and were my tri suit the entire race. Transition was at your rack space, which worked just fine for me. They also transported your T1 bag to your T2 spot and it was there when I got off my bike. It was nice knowing all my gear made it back to where I would pick it up and I would not have to wait in line to get it like in races past. I kind of hope they keep that!
- No in person athlete briefings or welcome ceremony. While a bummer, they did have videos they sent out for each that you would watch when you wanted. Not exactly the same, but when you are in a pandemic and you are trying to reduce large gatherings of people, makes sense.
- More rack space, YES! It only took a pandemic to get more space by your bike, but keep in mind for full IM distances, you were not changing at your bike spot like this year. It was nice to have that added space in transition not to feel like sardines. I hope they keep that as much as possible in the future.
- Spectators… a big question mark, but when I ran the chute, they lined each side and it was like the good ole days. The finish area was a bit different with food handed to each athlete prepacked and then the area for athletes to sit and eat being the open green space fences off from spectators, but really not that much different. IM did not allow spectators on the buses to T1 and swim start, but they lined the bike course at intersections and anywhere they could stop and gather. They also lined the run course and if you didn’t know any better about the times we are in, it was really no different than pre-pandmic. NOW, I will say that Oklahoma has been more lax on COVID restrictions than other states, so this may not be the case at all IM events in the future. IM is at the mercy of each location and restrictions. I say that so we can all be cool, go along and get racing back! Take it in stride and take what you are given and prove we can have these races and not cause a problem.
What was the swim like?
I’m glad you asked.
This event has a LOT of logistical moving pieces. Separate T1, T2, swim start and finish line area. IRONMAN offered a valet service for those wanting to drop off their bike and T2 bag at T2, or you could drive your bike and T1 bag to T1 Saturday. If you opted for valet, you needed to bring your T1 bag with you race morning. Following me so far? Stick with me here…
Race morning you drop your special needs at T2 and hit a shuttle to T1 with your T1 bag if you dropped the bike off at T2 Saturday, or just morning clothes if you dropped off the bike and T1 bag Saturday. At T1 you could check your bike, bathroom break and fart around until they called out estimated swim times and then we walked 1ish miles the swim start. There it was a dash to get wetsuits on (wetsuit legal with temps below 70). If you have a wetsuit, bring it for this race as long as it’s in May. Full is best as it was chilly, at least for me. I even wore a neoprene swim cap as I tend to get cold on the swim.
At the swim start they had corrals chutes for fast to slower. The volunteers did they best they could, but there was no signage to really signify what speed was what chute. Lots of confusion by athletes where to set up, so signage would have helped. Word of caution, definitely seed yourself correctly. There were several swimmers that should have maybe stayed back with different speeds, but overall the rolling start did what it needed to do, space people out. You lined up in 4’s and every 5 seconds a BEEP and athletes in the water.
At this point there was not much for social distancing and no masks required. So, heads up if you are worried about that. The take was locally that if you are vaccinated and outdoors, no masks. You could certainty wear one if concerned, but being outdoors and vaccines widely available, there was not much concern for COVID from athletes and no strict authoritarian rule from IM officials to enforce all small tidbits of conduct. Everyone was cool, no one gave anyone hassles, and mostly uneventful in that regard.
As I have mentioned, this swim course was technical with several twists and turns, so hopefully you practiced your sighting. You can see my path from the photos on the right. I made sure to sight often and not lose time and add distance but going head down for best speed and keep wondering off course. For me, it paid off with a pretty straight path and solid swim time. They had just the right amount of buoys between turns, turns with red buoys and plenty of kayaks and support in the water. Just keep in mind that if you are consistent with sighting, this course should be no problem. It also did not hurt it was cloudy and no sun in your face at all on the swim.
The water was very smooth and no real noticeable current. From that perspective, it was not a fight with the water trying to push you off course or slowing you down. Perfect for a swim.
Advice for the walk from T1 to the swim start. I brought swim socks that I wore for the walk. I would not want to walk on the road for that entire walk. Simply slid them into my morning gear bag and off I went.
The bike… and it gets interesting
I’m not going to sugar coat it… the roads were rough. Overall the course isn’t a killer per say, but IM probably ran out of signs that said “rough road ahead”. I’d estimate the roads were over 50% in bad shape with potholes and cracks. I’m not bagging on the course or the area for having these issues. The midwest can go from -10 to 110 over a year and that wreaks havoc on roads. You just can’t keep up with them. They did repair some sections and repave and those were GREAT, but not all areas got the special treatment.
From a course perspective, this was no cake walk. You can’t fake your training and expect to have a good day out there. Personally I was only outside for 3 rides since October of 2020 and none over 90 minutes leading up tp this race. It showed in how achy my back was and having to stop at aid stations to stretch it out. That’s the rub with spring IM races… you have to train over the winter and for many of us, that’s all indoors. Rouvy was great as someone posted the course, and you can get very high quality work done indoors, but it’s just not going to mimic real world riding, especially when the pavement is rough and you get bounced around like this course.
Now, maybe they keep paving roads until 2022, but be prepared. There were a lot of bike boxes, water bottles and cages on the road shaken from bikes. It will happen. You also can not nod off on the course. You have to be heads up the entire time in case someone has to make a quick move to avoid a pothole to avoid a wreck. Personally I didn’t see any dangerous situations, and everyone seemed able to handle it.
Here’s the wild card… it rained… a lot on the bike. If you hate riding in rain, this race may require a second look. May in the midwest can be and usually is wet. Now, we got a break with VERY little winds, but it was wet from start to finish. My bike is nasty and my race wheels may never look the same again. There’s also a landfill entrance in the first 20 miles that was covered in mud. IM did they best they could and had it swept, and it was decently safe, but there’s nothing like a fresh coat of road grime on you and your bike. See the photos on the right of my bike bottles. Bought one for the race, but due to the bouncing and grit, they got pretty scratched up. Consider not bringing your favorite race bottles for this one. 🙂 Another piece of advice, visors. I have my Rudy Wing 57, and while I like them, that does not mean you need to have one, but what you do need for the rain is a large visor. Many helmets have them and in a rainy ride, nothing shields you better. Keeping my eyes on the road was no issue and have grit thrown on me from riders ahead was not an issue. Had I just had sunglasses, it might had been more of any issue.
I will say this for the bike… the last 12 miles was a KILLER. Hopefully you don’t burn the matches in the first 100 miles, because that last loop to get you to 112 was pain. Last section of rough roads, HILLS and CLIMBS. I cursed… as I though the tough stuff was done. You will want to have a bit left for that last loop shown on the right.
The run, bread and butter
The run was what I was looking forward to the most. I mean, yes, it gets harder as the miles go on, but no significant climbs and spectator heaven. If you wanted to see your athlete 4 times on the run, and bring the kids, there were playgrounds and AMPLE space to set up. Plenty of parking. Food nearby. Plenty of aid stations, port-a-potties and anything you could need on the run. It’s all paved trails and the hardest ascent was a hill under a road. Really not a demanding run course if ever there was one.
We got lucky. May is typically severe weather season in the midwest. We only got rain and hardly ANY wind. This may not be the case for future events, but you will need to plan for rain in cooler temps, or sunny and HOT and HUMID. It was humid, but with the clouds and max in high 70’s, this was SUPER mild for what it could be. For the bike I wore arm warmers for when it rained and cooled me off, and I kept them on the entire ride.
For the run, I had my breathable tri suit and did fine. Yes, sweat was had, but I munched on ice and really did not need dousing of water to keep cool. Even if the sun broke, a lot of the run course has shade from trees.
For one, if you think IM does not care, consider this. See to the right what my hotel tried to do… make us be out by 8am the day after the race. Not only did we need to consider race logistics, but how to get our cars out by 8am and then stuff to our cars dead tired and sore. I posted this in a FB group, and low and behold one of the IM staffers in the group consulted within the company and they got the hotel to move it back to 12:30. Yes, it’s been a ROUGH year for EVERYONE, but this is a small glimpse that the group is ran by humans and THEY CARE. I know I appreciated it along with the 300 other IM athletes at my hotel.
The town WAS SO SUPPORTIVE of us being here. I was interviewed for the news, as were many others. EVERYONE thanked us for being here and kicking off a hopeful comeback for Tulsa from the pandemic. The volunteers were GREAT and gave it their all. If you want a race were you feel like they got you, this is it. This is IM 8 for me, 5th in a new location, and it rivals or surpasses the support from the community.
The bike course is the ULTIMATE test if you are ready for this race. Practice hills and get outdoors to get those handling skills up. I survived off my past 8 years of training and racing IM distance, but if this will be your first, you will want the long rides outdoors as much as you can. I know weather may play a factor, but after 112 miles of Tulsa and outlying areas, you will be glad you did.