Race Report – Golden State Sprint Triathlon – Go Ahead and Draft

On Sunday, I closed out my 2013 triathlon season with the TBF Golden State Sprint Triathlon. This is probably the fifth time I have done this race. It’s a really fun race; not just because it’s a sprint, but because drafting is legal. Before you start imagining an ITU-style race, I’ll stop you and tell you that it’s not. Still, it’s a really fun race and the legalized drafting introduces a very different dynamic and set of strategies.

I arrived at the Discovery Park, the race venue, about 90 minutes before my start. The race course is a 1/2 mile swim in the American River, about 2/3 upstream and 1/3 downstream, a 3-loop 15-mile closed bike course, and a 3-mile run on the American River Trail.

Discovery Park

I racked with the Chico Tri Club, who were there with a good number of athletes. This was the best part of the day. These people are like family. Since I picked up my race packet and prepped my gear the night before, there was little I needed to do. I quickly set up my transition area then went for quick run and some drills to warm up. When I finished, took a PowerBar gel, got into my Custom Wattie Ink Blue Seventy Helix wetsuit, and walked across the bridge to the swim start with Greg and Tammie Watkins from the Chico Tri Club (Greg is currently club president).

As I said, the drafting format introduces a very different dynamic to this race. You don’t need a time trial bike to do well here. While most of the faster athletes race on time trial bikes, there was one year when two athletes with road bikes swam fast, got out on the bike course at about the same time, worked together, and gained the top podium spots. The biggest factor contributing to a fast overall time is finding a good wheel and the chances of finding a good wheel are mostly based on when you get out on the bike, which in turn is mostly based on when you finish the swim. When you finish the swim depends on your swim speed and starting wave. Consequently, the third start wave (usually men 45+) is pretty ideal for fast swimmers, because they exit the swim and get on the course with lots of fast young cyclists and plenty of wheels to draft on. For me, this wouldn’t be much different from other races. As a fast swimmer starting in the second wave, I might pick up a group on my second or third loop, but I would likely be on my own for most of the the race. As Greg said, if you start early and swim fast you pass the train, but if you start later and swim fast you catch up to the train.

I lined up at the front of my wave and, at the start, sprinted out hard to get ahead. As I settled into a rhythm, swam past the first bridge, and then the second, the upstream current picked up significantly. I could see the turn-around buoy and it didn’t look far, but seemed to take forever to reach. Gloria has compared it to going the wrong way on a treadmill. Once I rounded the buoy and turned downstream, I felt as if I had been shot out of a gun and reached the swim exit in no time. I have also “broken in” the Heliz at this point and it felt really good. I didn’t even notice it while swimming (although I still prefer a swimskin). I was a bit wobbly standing up, possibly because of the cold water, and walked up the stairs as carefully and quickly as I could. At this point I noticed that I had not started my watch. Okay, so no overall time. As I reached the top of the stairs, I started the timer, hit the split button to start to start timing my T1, and let it go in my mind. I ran across the grass towards the transition area, grabbing the leash of my Helix and pulling it up (the Helix unzips from the bottom up). Once reaching my bike, I quickly peeled the suit down and pulled my feet out. Every time I have used the Blue Seventy Helix I have been impressed with how fast and easy it is the get out of. Once out of my wetsuit, I donned my wetsuit and rolled out onto the bike course.

As I looked down the road, I could see the course was pretty empty. I easily could have counted on one hand the number of athletes I saw on the first loop of the course.  I saw few athletes until I was halfway through the second loop. By the third loop I was passing a lot of athletes, but no trains to jump on. I hydrated with my Speedfil A2, which I deliberately chose to use for this race so I could hydrate and have both hands available for bike handling.

I finished the bike and estimated that I was fifth as I downed another PowerBar gel and set out on the run. Of course, with the wave starts there is almost no way to know your overall placing, but I figure the fewer people who are ahead of me, and the farther anyone is behind me, the better I am doing. I felt quick and fast… sometimes. The course has a fair number of turns and small hills. If you want to drop people, these are good spots to do it., but I may have pushed too hard in these section and now I was paying for it. Still, I probably finished with a decent enough time and fast enough to win my age group. To no surprise, the men 50-54 was one of the fastest groups. The guys swam fast, jumped on a set of wheels, and were smart enough to work with other athletes to finish fast. It goes to show how big a difference drafting can make, especially when people are willing to work together.

One more thing about this race is that there is a beer garden at the finish. On Sunday it included Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Racer 5 IPA. I highly recommend Racer 5. This was a great finish to race season and to a day with friends.

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