2017 Storm the Fort Triathlon Half Ironman [Race Report]

The Storm the Fort Half in Kingston, TN was a great race, and I am very pleased with my performance. After doing Ironman Texas in April, I was looking for my next challenge. Also – I had blown my Triathlon budget for the year (and then some), so I was looking for a really good non-Ironman branded event to save a few hundred dollars. When I heard about Storm the Fort, and looked at the previous year’s results, photos, and videos, I knew I had to do this race. Not only was it competitive, but it was also only a three-hour drive from home, which made heading up on a Friday evening possible.

James delivers my finisher’s medal to me

My goal for this race was speed. I’d demonstrated endurance in the full distance, so how much could I turn up the intensity and lay down a great finishing time. I had heard someone say that to calculate your times between half and full ironman distance, you take your half time, double it, and then add an hour. So, finishing my full at a few minutes under 11 hours, I figure I should be able to finish the half in under 5. This course was quite a bit hillier than Texas, so finishing under 5 hours was my sole goal. I broke that down into the following sub-goals:

  • Swim: 40 minutes
  • Bike: 2 hours, 30 minutes (not having looked at how hilly the course was, this was more ambitious than I thought it would be)
  • Run:  1 hour, 45 minutes
  • Transitions: together under 5 minutes total

That would give me 5 hours exactly, so if I could beat one of those goals, then I could break 5. Two days before the event, I looked closer at the bike course, and realized that there were a decent number of hills. Also, 2.5 hours was about what the winner rode in 2016, and not many people rode it that well. “Oh well,” I thought, “maybe a miracle will happen.”

Pre-race Taper and Carb Loading (done wrong…again)

Two weeks out, I did my final long stretch of hard riding on Saturday. After that, I dialed back training a bit, but still pushed pretty hard until about a week out. Then I really reined it in – cut out one of my two daily workouts, and overall just tried to stay rested. The taper portion went pretty well. I started to miss the massive TSS numbers I accumulate each week – and I felt a bit like a fat blob the days leading up to the race – but I trusted the rest would pay off. Carb loading, on the other hand, went wrong.

For the few days leading up to Saturday, I started eating a bit more – trying to get some more simple carbs like white bread instead of the usual whole-grains I’m used to. Thursday night, I did something pretty stupid. Audrey made spaghetti, which was delicious. So I ate three plates of whole-grain spaghetti. It was so good! Then, about an hour later, just before bed, I had three bowls of frosted mini wheats.

So there’s two issues with this here. One – that was a stupid large amount of food. Two – and I cringe in writing this, but I don’t think my body likes wheat that much. I can eat it, but I notice that when I have a lot of whole-wheat stuff, I kind of don’t handle it well (gas for sure, but then other issues sometimes as well). Well, at 3AM, my stomach starts hurting. It starts hurting bad. I lay in my bed in fetal position for two hours just in pain. At about 5AM, it mostly went away, but I think the acid in my stomach just got too strong. I’ve had that happen before.

What’s worse, the morning of the race, I had the same pain from about 3 to 4:30 – and then it was time to get up. I hadn’t eaten as much – and certainly not that much wheat – but I think it was a spillover thing from the day before.

The one good thing that came from all of this is that it cleaned out my system. The biggest obstacle to a faster time at Ironman Texas was my bathroom trips during the run. Well…I didn’t think that would be a problem with this race, since every possible bit of food I’d ever eaten was now thoroughly gone.

I honestly think for my next race I need to not carbo load. It brings me more misery than benefits (at least the benefits that exlax couldn’t give me).

Leading Up to the Cannon Shot

My dear wife, Audrey, and our two kids jumped in our van about 5PM on Friday and drove up to Kingston. We hit cracker barrel on the way up, where I found a decently normal meal that wouldn’t be too weird on my stomach (not that it helped a ton). We also learned that 5PM is not the time to drive with James, my 13-month-old son. He was high-pitch screaming the entire time. It was a rough, long drive. Audrey and I were joking that I might want to rethink my race goal; the longer I took, the longer I could enjoy peace and quiet. When we finally got to the Hampton Inn in Lenoir City, things were better. Everyone was fed, happy, and ready to sleep. We were all passed out in our beds by 9:30.

Another mistake I made was the choice of Hotel. We went with the nearest Hampton Inn, which I could book with points and save on the budget, but it was 25 minutes from Kingston and the race starting line. This didn’t seem like a big deal to me months in advance when I booked it, but as I’m setting the alarm clock for me (and more importantly my family), 25 minutes of travel time before the race starts is much too long. I need to make sure I’m within 5-10 minutes of the starting line in the future. Again – my awesome wife made it happen, and it all worked out, but something to remember.

I arrived at transition at 6AM, which gave me a good hour and a half before the cannon would go off to signal the start of the race. Every time I have more than an hour to prepare, I am always grateful I arrived so early. It takes so much pressure off, and I have plenty of time to peacefully prepare and put my mind at ease. I think that was a major learning from my early days of arriving 30 minutes before the race starts – it’s worth whatever it takes to get there early.

After checking in and getting my cool swag (shirt, and Storm the Fort socks), I heard an announcement that the water was 77.9 degrees, and was therefore wetsuit legal. I had brought my wetsuit as an afterthought – just in case – but I seriously doubted I would need it. I’d never raced in a wetsuit – and I hadn’t practiced in one for at least 4 or 5 months. So this was going to be a bit of a wrinkle, but nothing too scary.

I found a good place in transition, and hung a towel on the outside rack so I could easily see where to go when I was running in from the swim. I also was near the edge fence, so there was room for my laundry-detergent-turned-triathlon-gear-bucket that I like to use to sit on during transition. That’s been a nice little trick that when used right, sure helps with putting on shoes quickly.

With all my gear laid out and a quick couple trips to the port-a-potty, Audrey helped me put on my sunscreen and then wetsuit. Then I remembered that I hadn’t applied the body lube. But that wetsuit was so difficult to put on, Audrey said there was no way we were taking it off and putting it on again. So after so creative maneuvering, she was able to apply the body lube by just unzipping the wetsuit. Quick side note that I think is hilarious. I was walking around getting things situated after this, and was away from Audrey and the kids for a bit. Audrey later told me that at one point, she saw some guy in a wetsuit and started checking him out. She assures me that she almost never does this… Anyway, she was looking at this guy and thought, “man, he looks gooood.” Then, she saw him turn around and realized it was me. Then she felt equal parts really excited, and a bit guilty. I thought it was hilarious.

My cheer team takes selfies while I’m warming up in the lake.

With everything ready to go, I jumped into the water a bit to warm up. Right away I could feel the restrictions on my arms – they weren’t used to the extra resistance from the suit. I was worried – but decided to just go for it and hope that the wetsuit actually did help with my time.

We had a quick briefing by the USAT official (looking 100% legit in an actual referee uniform – that was impressive). She warned about drafting, and a bunch of other stuff that I couldn’t hear at all. Then, it was the countdown.

The starting line was unclear. Half of us were out in the water, just a bit off the dock slowly treading water. We all were in about the same location, but it wasn’t really pointed out where exactly we should start. Nevertheless, the countdown commenced. Forty seconds. Twenty seconds. Five seconds. I started my Garmin watch. Side note again – I got a new watch for this race – a used Garmin 920xt off of eBay. It has the ability to connect to my bike’s power meter, which my Vivoactive does not. It also is just an all-around better triathlon watch – and it came with a bunch of accessories, including the quick release kit to easy switch it from my wrist to my bike. BOOM! The cannon and the competitors went off.

Swim – Shockingly Fast

I started off very strong, with a very high stroke rate – pushing 90 strokes per minute for the first minute. I was right behind the lead pack, and I was able to draft a bit, but I couldn’t maintain the pace. Just before the first buoy, I fell back a bit and lost the draft. I was still going strong, and I could only see half a dozen people in front of me. I pulled hard, and I was amazed at how much I did not enjoy the wetsuit. I could tell it was helping me – I felt like I was flying through the water – but man, it was stressful on my arms. After the race, I really only felt more than normal pain in one spot, my arms and shoulders. Halfway through the swim, I thought to myself, “I am really ready to get this thing off and get biking.” That’s a funny thing to say to myself, because I say the same thing in all three sports: “Man, I can’t wait to get off this bike and run.” “Man, I can’t wait to be done running.” I guess that means I’m pushing myself.

The entire time, I felt my heart pounding. My heart rate monitor caught two quick readings, both in the upper 150s to 160s – which is high zone 4 for me (maybe even bouncing up into zone 5). Needless to say, I was giving it my all. I figured that if I was going to break 5 hours, I needed to make something happen in the swim. There were about 3 or four people that passed me throughout the whole 1.2 miles. Each time, I tried to spend a minute or two drafting behind them. I never really felt an increase in speed or decrease in effort, but I think it paid off to at least try.

A big takeaway for me is that I probably need to up the intensity of my long swim sets. I do hard swims, but only for small intervals. Whenever I do longer intervals, I usually settle into a comfortable pace. I need to push myself beyond comfortable.

In the end, it paid off. Early mornings at Master Swim class, side-lessons with Susan teaching me how my form is all wrong (and I’ll assure you, I did not swim with perfect form during the race – or anything close to it) – and the high intensity sprint at the beginning. I walked out of the water somewhat dazed and hit the transition button my watch. It read 31 minutes. The official time said I did it in 28:24, but I think they started the clock just under 3 minutes late. That blew me away – I now had 9 minutes that I could bank against my bike and run.

Going with the official time, that means I swam at a 1:21 per hundred yard pace. Based on my garmin’s time, it would be 1:23. If you go with my Garmin’s time and distance, then it would be a more realistic 1:36. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. Either way, 1:37 is my absolute fastest 20-minute time trial in a pool, so I think the wetsuit definitely played a big part.

Transition 1 – Wetsuit Off, Game Face On

My first time taking off a wetsuit in T1.

T1 was quick, and except for getting off my wetsuit, uneventful. It got caught on my timing chip on my ankle, so I had to sit down and finagle it off. Both my legs were shaking and starting to cramp. My heart was racing still, which added to the stress to just get on my bike. Finally, it came off. I put on my aero helmet, shoes, and grabbed my bike. I switched my watch from my wrist to my bike (which I positioned on top of my water bottle – the prefect spot!) and was out of transition. I was still surprised how hard my heart was racing – I was definitely in race mode. I was very excited to get on the bike though, because that’s where I traditionally make the most progress.

Bike – Dialing Back on Calories Seemed to Work

Out on the road, I spent the first few miles just trying to get my heart rate to calm down a bit. It was roaring, and I was worried I was going to dip into anaerobic too much. I was pumped and warmed up though, so I wanted to push it. My heart rate peaked about 3 minutes into the bike at 171, but then decreased throughout the rest of the 56 miles, ending up with an average of 154 bpm. My average wattage was 233, normalized watts of 242. I was shooting for between 230 and 240 watts, so I was very pleased with that result. My FTP is 285, so 85% would be 240.

The route was great – not closed to traffic, but not much traffic. It was well marked, which makes a big deal. I was nervous of going off course, but that aspect was great. There are a few things that were less than ideal.

First – the mountain within the first five miles. The biggest climb comes at you right away, and although it’s not horribly steep, it keeps going for quick some time – just as I am getting used to my bike. The downhill afterwards is pretty good. However, it was very curvy, so I had to ride my breaks a bit. I passed a guy on the way up the hill, but he passed me going down because he just went for it. I was nervous about going down – but looking back, it probably would have bought me 30 seconds or so if I had been confidant in my descent. That being said – I’m still not sure I would fly down that hill if I did it again. It was very curvy. I guess I need to work on curvy descents.

The road was nice and smooth except for one section where it was horrible. It wasn’t quite gravel, but it was an older road in disrepair. It felt like cobblestones. I was nervous it was going to bust open my tires – it felt like swerving onto the shoulder on the highway it got so bad in some parts. Luckily. The way back through that section wasn’t nearly as bad (or my bum was numb by then and I didn’t notice it as much). I’m glad I had my water bottle taped down well though, because it could have easily flown out on those bumps.

I trailed someone for about 20 miles or so, which was nice for pacing. At one point, a dog ran out and almost ran into him. I was about 20 seconds behind, which gave me time to swerve over and give the dog lots of space, which worked. Eventually I caught up with the guy and overtook him. I like those interactions – there’ll almost always very friendly. We talked for a minute about the bumpy road section – to which he said that it gets worse every year. That part alone might justify a modified course for 2018.

Breakfast at Hardee’s while Dad’s on the bike – James LOVED it

The one other surprise was the water stations on the ride. There was supposed to be one at mile 11, 28,and then 44 (same as 11). However, Mile 11 came and went – and there was nothing. That was a shock – since I was playing a riskier strategy of only carrying the one 24 oz aero water bottle on my handlebars – something suggested by the All3Sports guys. However, realizing as I emptied my water bottle about 45 minutes into the ride, I had to reassess my fueling strategy. I had made it through 4 clif blocks (2/3 of a package or 120 calories). My water bottle had started off with about 150 calories of Gatorade – so I ate about 270 in the first hour. Total, for the rest of the ride, I only ate another 240 calories (8 more clif blocks) – for a total calorie consumption of 510 calories, or 204 an hour. This is way less than I did at Ironman Texas, but it actually worked well. I had way more calories on me, but I pulled back knowing I didn’t have as much water as I thought I would.

At the turn around, I did get a water bottle that was about 2/3 full  (it wasn’t a disposable water bottle but a race day events refillable bottle that they had filled 2/3 full)– which was kind of worrisome as I thought that would be the only water for the rest of the ride. Luckily, by the time I hit mile 44, the water station had been set up, so I could fill back up and rehydrate before I had any issues. This was about the only flaw with the race I experienced – but it may have helped me in the end to properly fuel. Because I didn’t over fuel, I never really felt yuck running. In fact, that was probably the biggest breakthrough of the entire race – I ate less (despite planning to eat more) and I performed better.

Other notable parts on the bike – the hills went pretty well after that first big one. It was definitely rolling hills. Strava said I spent 28% of the time climbing, which I’m not sure is a lot, but it felt like a decent chunk of time was going up. I have been mostly training on my non-smart trainer indoors (on Zwift – which is awesome), so I hadn’t log a ton of hilly miles. However, I think that discipline of constant wattage output helped me conquer some climbs. I think I passed a couple people on climbs – and I know I was dipping into the 400 watt zone on some climbs, but it just felt good to crank it for a few seconds, and I don’t think it hurt me overall to get some of those hills quicker.

I saw one dead copperhead on the side of the road – about 3 feet long. A couple other dead animals – and I could smell a skunk. Whew – that would be a bad race obstacle.

Probably because the intensity was high for me, but I was ready for the ride to be over. It seemed weird to want it to end – I had done much longer rides, but with an average heart rate of zone 4.3, my body was ready for a switch. My Garmin said I only did just under 55 miles, but it underestimates the Silver Comet trail all the time, so I’ll take it. I rolled into transition after 2:30:32 (which was within seconds of my Garmin, so I feel good about that one).

Transition 2 – Grab and Go

T2 was quick, dropped off my bike, put on socks, then hat, sunglasses, bib, and then was gone. Total was 1:25. I probably could have shaved 30 seconds or so if I was focusing on it – but it did give me a chance to grab by breath. Audrey called out to me that I was 5th in from the bike and to go catch them.

Run – Let’s See If I Can Do 7s

As I ran out of transition my watch read total time around 3:05. That meant that I could almost run a 4-hour marathon pace for my half and still break 5 hours. I knew I could do that no problem. I felt good – and although I was starting to feel the pain, my legs felt strong. Most importantly, I didn’t need any pit stops.

A beautiful run along the lake

For the past couple months, I’ve been trying to hit more 7 minute mile intervals. I had a half marathon effort where I broke 1:40 a month or so ago, with quite a few miles getting around the 7 minute mark. So – that was my goal – see how long I could run 7s. My first mile was 6:57, second was 7:13. The whole run stayed right around that range until the last couple miles, which got up in the 8 minute range. The route had a decent number of pretty steep hills though, so if you adjust for grade, by splits never got above 7:41. My Garmin said I only did 12.4 miles (although I did the whole race and followed the signs), but there was also a lot of curved paths, so I could see how some underestimation could happen. I kept checking my time against my 5 hour goal, and was very encouraged around the 9 mile mark to know that I could do 10-minute-miles and still finish under 5.

This was Audrey’s time to shine as my cheer team. When I came into T2, she let me know that I was in 5th. She cheered, and Rachel cheered much louder. With all her strength, hands behind her back, Rachel would yell with all her 4-year-old glory, “You can do it Daddy! You’re doing great! I love you!” That made me smile every time.

On the second lap, Rachel, James and Audrey had moved down the course. Audrey told me that 4th place was less than a minute ahead of me, and starting to slow down. “You can catch him – he’s in black and white camo design.” He had actually been the first on the bike, so I knew what he looked like. About a mile after that encouragement, I was able to overtake him.

The run course was one of my favorites I’ve done (minus the hills). We ran by a little league football stadium with a game in progress. That was fun to run through the crown gathering there (for the football, not us). We also ran along the lake for quite a while, and through a nice park.

The aid stations were fantastic on the run. Every mile to mile and a half they had plenty of volunteers giving out water and Gatorade. Some stations had GUs, flat coke, salt tablets, and pickle juice. I drank Gatorade and water almost every station. About 5 miles in I started taking shots of coke on the stations that had it. I took one GU about mile 8 or 9, with mostly just waters after that (one for my mouth, one for my head). I was really starting to feel it – not to stop, but to slow down a bit.

Nearing the end of the second and final lap, you come around the back side of the fort before climbing up to its entrance. Audrey and Rachel were at the top of the hill yelling down to me. That was awesome. They were so loud that everyone looked up to see who was yelling with such enthusiasm. “I love you daddy!” was my favorite. It made me smile. It was attention-grabbing enough that one might have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t at all. I was completely stoked to have them supporting me. And it helped. I powered it the last half mile, up some very steep hills. I found out later that it was a good thing they were up on that hill. They were up there waiting and watching for me when 1st place started up the last stretch—and the officials and race workers were not ready. So she called out “runner coming” and everyone scrambled to get ready. She thought that was funny. Then, Rachel continued yelling at the workers every time a runner was coming up the hill “runner coming!”

Taking the exit from the route to the finish line, the support was strong. Audrey yelled out, “Hurry, someone’s right behind you!” Which was totally untrue, and someone laughed at Audrey for saying that. I looked behind me, and I was pretty sure, but I powered forward anyway. Up the hill and through the chute, I jumped into the air in victory. It felt amazing to be done – especially as my watch read 4:37 (official time of just under 4:35 – I think they were a couple minutes short).

I got my medal and a nice cold wet towel, and then went right over to my family and kissed each one of them. Then I hobbled over to the food area and slowly ate – not because I was hungry, but because I knew I needed food. Subway sandwiches, pepperoni pizza, watermelon, a couple Gatorades, a root beer, a cookie, a few other things that I probably ate but forgot – it was a very good after-race spread. The one other thing I wish they’d had was a photographer at the finish line – that’s one thing Ironman did a lot better on – photography. Of course, you also had to pay for it (not cheap).

Post-race celebration

Audrey and her new friend with me in front of the cannon they shot off to start the race and before awards – way louder than I thought it’d be

It was about 12:30 then, so I played with James and Rachel while Audrey walked back to transition to get our car. She witnessed someone else in the parking lot back into another car, and then drive off. She left a note on the victim’s car – and then had the police call her later to get a statement. She felt guilty ratting out who backed into the car – but it’s exactly what we would have wanted someone to do for us. With that excitement, we went and got my bike from transition, and then went by Sonic to get some food for Audrey and the kids. I used to work at Sonic – and I like their food, but I’ll be sick of it for the rest of my life – so she took this opportunity to go there since I had already eaten.

My first time on an actual podium – and third place left since awards were several hours after we finished

We made it back by 2 PM where they shot off the cannon again and had the awards. The awards were fantastic – I almost want to train with all my might to make a go at first place next year just from how cool the first place trophy is – an actual cannon ball. I would have needed to cut off about 12 minutes to win this one. Might be possible.

After awards, back to the hotel, where we all four took a nap. I then took James to the lobby where he walked around for a while as Rachel and Audrey kept sleeping. Then – Rachel and I hit the pool, and we hit up the Lenoir City Chinese Buffet for dinner. Glorious buffet goodness. Such a fun evening to celebrate together.

Final Thoughts

The Storm the Fort Half was a highlight of my year. The course was beautiful, the competition was strong, and the experience was near flawless. The biggest breakthrough came from the following:

  • Higher, prolonged intensity in all three sports – matching or breaking the limits of what I’d done just three weeks before in an Olympic race. This was likely a result of higher intensity training, good tapering, and good nutrition (less than I usually consume).
  • No bike or nutrition issues – most would say this was another stroke of good luck, especially with the rough patch of road, but I attribute it to answered prayers. I had prayed very hard that I would be safe, no bike issues, no digestion/nutrition issues, and that I would perform the best I could. All of these things came together, and I can’t ignore how perfectly God answered my prayers. If something unfortunate had happened, it would have been fine – but I am so grateful it didn’t. Everything went right.
  • Taking some calculated risks – not having swam with a wetsuit was a risk; staying with the front pack for the first part of the swim was a risk; starting out at 7 minute mile pace was a risk. All of these paid off well.
Definitely the coolest trophy I’ve received yet – maybe I can drop 12 minutes for the first place cannon ball award next year…

I’d highly encourage others to take on the Storm the Fort race. I would enjoy racing it again next year. Contact me if you have questions – I always like hearing from others, and before doing a race, I think it helps a ton to know exactly what to expect. Race Day Events did a very good job putting this on. I’d give them 4.5/5 stars – with just a couple places they could make it a five star event.

The Fort has been Stormed – and I smashed my goal. And with 5th overall, 1st in my age group, I really couldn’t ask for anything more. It was a perfect day for me.

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