Santa Cruz 70.3 – My First DNF

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I have been racing Triathlon for 4 seasons, and at this point I would consider myself to be accomplished and I’m getting closer to feeling experienced in the sport. One of the things that I have never experienced in the sport is having to pull out of race, until Santa Cruz 70.3 on Sunday, September 11th.

The leader of my Sales Team at G5 and a great friend of mine, CJ invited me to do this race with a few of his good friends who live in Southern California. After figuring out the logistics with April, I was in and very excited to have an end of the season race weekend to look forward to. Coming off of Ironman Canada, my training for Santa Cruz wasn’t very specific or intense, but I was excited to head down to do one of the things that I love most…race!

CJ picked me up at 6am on Friday morning, and we loaded up along with Collin, a fellow teammate on the 10 Barrel Brewing racing team. Off we went for a 9-hour drive to Santa Cruz, just south of San Francisco. The drive flew by and was filled with conversation and energy about the weekend that we were beginning.

 All loaded up and ready to hit the road with CJ!
All loaded up and ready to hit the road with CJ!

We made great time and arrived in Santa Cruz by 4pm. After pulling into the hotel the weekend was off to an amazing start, we could see transition and the athlete check-in area for the half-ironman from our hotel – how convenient! It was so nice to have access to the event, our bikes, and all the happenings for the days leading into the race.

 My Cervelo P2 all dressed up for the big race! Zipp wheels, Power2Max power meter, new bike fit, almost as aero as I think I'll be able to get it!
My Cervelo P2 all dressed up for the big race! Zipp wheels, Power2Max power meter, new bike fit, almost as aero as I think I’ll be able to get it!

We quickly unpacked, got checked into the race, and headed down to the pier to get in a short swim to test out the cold ocean water. The swim takes place in Monterrey Bay and you swim around the Santa Cruz Wharf for the 1.2 mile swim. The water wasn’t as cold as we expected, but it was very murky and hard to see. That was the only part that got to me, especially since I’m used to swimming in clear lakes and am incredibly scared of sharks.  After leaving the beach feeling good about our swim, I quickly transitioned into running gear to go out for a short transition run to test out my leg…

They say that you should never do anything new on race day, but I also believe that you shouldn’t make any radical changes to your training leading into a race. I went against this advice and got a professional bike fit 3.5 weeks before this race, which was an incredible birthday gift from my wife. The purpose of a bike fit for Triathlon is to get more comfortable on your bike, while hopefully getting as aerodynamic and powerful as possible so that you can race to the absolute best of your ability.

When I went in for my fit, the awesome team that was working with me informed me that my old position was almost 100% quad dominant. My saddle (seat) was far back, like a road bike, and I was only using my quads…this isn’t efficient and it’s not smart to ignore your hamstrings and glutes. When they finished up my bike fit, 3 hours later, I was much more aerodynamic, comfortable, and powerful than I was before. However, to accomplish this they warned me that I was going to be experiencing new soreness in my hamstrings and glutes as these muscles had been neglected in the last THREE YEARS of riding my Cervelo P2 triathlon bike. “Awesome” was my response, and I safely assumed that I’d adjust no problem.

5 days later, now within 3 weeks of the race, I felt pain in my left leg during a short run with our pup, Riggins, that I’d never experienced before.  I chalked it up to being tired, but when it came back my next run – I knew something was wrong.  I then set out on a 3 weeks, very intense round of chiropractic and massage work to try and get my leg back to working order. Thankfully, I felt strong while swimming and biking so I made those my priority, and did my best to manage the pain while running. Needless to say, I had some nervousness about how the run was going to go at Santa Cruz, which is why I was so excited and nervous to go test it out 2 days before the race.

 I felt strong during my short run and enjoy a low-key night with the guys in Santa Cruz eating good Mexican food and getting to bed early. Saturday was an absolute blast, we had a big breakfast, attended the athlete pre-race meeting to make sure we knew all of the race day logistics, drove the bike course, and got in a few low key workouts to make sure our bodies and equipment were ready to rock and roll.  CJ’s buddies drove in from Southern California that morning, so we spent the afternoon relaxing, eating some incredible food, and getting our minds right for the big day ahead.

 Checking out the race course the day before the race. Beautiful course! The weather was cloudy every morning with the sun always showing up by early afternoon.
Checking out the race course the day before the race. Beautiful course! The weather was cloudy every morning with the sun always showing up by early afternoon.

Race Day

We woke up at 5am on Sunday, had a quick breakfast, and headed over to transition to make sure our bike tires were inflated to the right pressure, threw on our bike nutrition, and made sure our gear was (neatly) setup in the transition area. It was so convenient to be across the street from transition, as we were able to walk back to the hotel after getting setup to relax, get our wetsuits on, and take our time getting to the swim start.

 My bike all setup in Transition. You can hardly see it, which means that the wind can't either - that is fast!!!
My bike all setup in Transition. You can hardly see it, which means that the wind can’t either – that is fast!!!

Most 70.3 (half-ironman) races still do wave starts. What this means is that the Pro’s start first, then age groups go every 4 minutes or so. If you ask me, it’s a broken system, as my age group was the very last to go – which set me up for a tough day of passing, weaving, and yelling ‘on your left!’ and I’d love to see Ironman adjust this to a self-seeded rolling start like we see in 140.6 (full Ironman) races.

Because of the fact that I had over an hour to wait until I swam, I enjoyed watching all of my friends start, got to see the pros finish (which was awesome!!!!) and even got to cheer in Collin since he was fortunate to start in the 2nd wave of the day.

The Swim1.2 Miles, 30:44, 1:25/100y (1:35/100m)

I seeded myself at the very front of my wave. There were two waves for my age group, and I was in the second wave because it was ordered by last name and mine starts with a W (story of my life). As soon as the cannon went off, I bolted into the ocean and aggressively got myself out in front of the pack. I am confident in my swim and I’m fast, so I got in a group of 4-5 and within 3 minutes we were passing the swimmers in the waves that had started ahead of us. This really set the tone for the whole 30-minute swim. Quite a bit of weaving, and working hard to site with the current in the ocean to make sure I swam as straight as possible. But, the swim felt easy and I was happy to exit the water 14th in my age group of 180 people.

Santa Cruz 70.3 has an incredibly long transition, 1/3rd of a mile, to run from the beach to the transition area for the rest of the day. I went as quick as possible, but the pavement really hurt my feet, so I just made sure to be moving faster than everyone else that I came out of the water with.

The Bike – 56 miles, 2:40:35, 20.92mph

After a smooth, but slow and long transition it was time to fly! I knew that the bike was going to be tough with all of the people that were ahead of me, considering that I started in the last wave of a 2,500-person race. I probably passed +/- 500 people in the water, but there was a lot of work to do.  I was feeling confident going into the bike leg of the race, and my goal was to average 238-242 watts for the race while riding under 2:40, which would be tough considering all of the traffic.

The first few miles flew by as we rolled through town following the coast before entering onto highway 1, which is where the race really began. They (obviously) couldn’t close the 101, so I spent the next big chunk of the race tactfully trying to pass racers without getting hit by cars flying by at ~60mph. I did a good job of staying aero, however, my power was quite spikey in the early miles with all of the sprints to pass people – no biggie.

I stuck to my plan, ate every 20 minutes, dominated the big climb that diverts off of the highway, and had so much fun on the 26 mile, rolling hill return. My new bike fit definitely paid off during this section, as I was able to stay very aerodynamic while pushing out a lot of power. For the first time in all of my Ironman races, I gained position on the bike. Side note: typically, I come out of the water strong, lose a few places on the bike, and earn my ranking on the run which is where I typically shine.

I exited the bike in 2:40, which was a few minutes slower than I’d hoped – but considering the conditions and the number of people I was sharing the course with, I was incredibly happy with the effort. Even happier to come off the bike feeling very light on my feet and ready to give the half-marathon a go.

The Run – Just couldn’t make it happen

I started off the run after a speedy transition feeling good. However, I was cautious. I’d done a lot of rehab the past few weeks with all of my runs being short (less than 4 miles, with one double run day of 8 miles total), and only running every other day. My first 3 miles were 7:01, 6:51, and 6:50 – easy, for me, and I was feeling good.

Mile 4 began, and the all-to-familiar feeling of pain in my left leg started to flare up. I slowed to a walk, stretched both legs quickly, and presumed an easier pace. Still there. Stopped again, and the pain came back even sharper. I did my best to stay mentally and physically strong, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the race without putting the next few months at risk. My 4th mile took me 12 minutes, and my 5th mile took me just over 15 minutes. My race was over. I crept my way into the next aid station where I called for the aid station caption to let him know I was pulling the plug, and wouldn’t be finishing the race.

It took a few minutes for someone to be able to drive me back into town, and I had a lot of time to process what had happened. As soon as I got back to the hotel, I grabbed my phone and immediately called April via FaceTime. As soon as I saw her, I let a few tears out, but she helped remind me that I’d made the hard, but right decision. I love you, April.

Onwards and Upwards

The day before the race, Jesse Thomas, my favorite professional and arguably, one of my biggest role models in sport, had a lot of awesome things to say at the pro athlete panel that I had the opportunity to attend. The thing that stuck out to me the most was his response to the question that someone from the audience asked: “Jesse, how do you manage training and staying healthy knowing that you have been injury prone on the run?” Jesse said that he keeps a close eye on his running, and if the pain ever gets to a 7/10, he pulls it. Following that up by saying that when you push it to an 8/10, that’s when you end up in a cast and are out for 8-10 weeks, which happened to him a few years ago at Wildflower. Long story short, I knew that I was at a 7, and didn’t want to risk the next few months of wanting to be healthy as April and I prepare our home for our new son who we are expecting in January.

 A very awesome group of guys. Enjoying nachos and good times after the race.
A very awesome group of guys. Enjoying nachos and good times after the race.

Sport is a huge part of my life. From the outside looking into my life, many would say that I’m addicted to endurance, triathlon, and competition. Triathlon is a sport that has radically changed my life, my personality has evolved because of it, I’m a better man because of it, and I hope that I’m a better husband and soon-to-be father because of it. It’s taught me that anything is impossible, and I see that everyday as I work with other people who are just getting started in the sport. (HUGE shoutout to CJ who went sub 6 with a ~20 minute PR, I’m so proud of all that you accomplished this year!) I know that I’ll be back stronger than ever, and I’m excited to have an off-season focused on family, work-life-training balance, while still focusing on my macro goals as an athlete and working towards being better tomorrow than I was today.

Thanks for reading!

6 thoughts on “Santa Cruz 70.3 – My First DNF

  1. Mike,
    This post was huge to me. I think someone like myself who aspires to have this level of fitness often sees athletes like yourself and assumes the journey has become easy. Knowing the level of strategy and passion you put into your sport is beyond inspiring. I’m glad you’re safe and will be able to smartly recover and get stronger over the next few months rather than sacrifice the rest of the year in order to cross a physical finish line — the finish line of athletic dominance is way more important. You didn’t choose to quit. You chose to dominate.


    1. Thanks for the positive (and awesome) words, bro. I really appreciate. Looking forward to hitting the gym when I’m back on Thursday!


  2. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner on my road to Santa Cruz! You are an amazing man Michael and you are going to be an amazing father. I am so proud of you for listening to your body and pulling the plug. For your readers…I passed Mike on the run about 1/3 mile before he had to retire. (I ran a 1:58 half marathon at 9:01 pace) So when I was passing him I knew his day was over. It flat out broke my heart. He is a fighter. I love you Mike!


    1. Wow, thanks for the awesome and super kind words. What an awesome trip, and what a huge accomplishment and result for you! I was stoked to get to be a part of it. Love you too, brother!


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