For the third year in a row, I headed up to race the Wildlife Loop Triathlon at Custer State Park, South Dakota. I believe this is the only half iron distance race in SD, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more difficult 70.3 course in the US. I love this race for the grassroots feel and beautiful course with lakes, wildlife, nice roads, forest, and plenty of hills. Another draw is that it’s among the very few non-IM-branded races that has a prize purse for the top 3 overall.
My first year out, I finished 3rd overall and was a bit surprised by how hilly the bike course was. You know how course elevation profiles can vary depending on the scale…I expected hills, just not the >8% ones. Last year, I was more prepared at about 9 weeks out from Ironman Arizona and I took the win. This was quite a surprise, as I learned beforehand that Daniel Bretscher would be racing. Daniel won Ironman Wisconsin in 2014 in a course record, so I was nearly certain it would be a race for second. It seriously screwed with my head when I caught up to him on the bike. Is he out for a training race? But he traveled 8+ hours to get here. Is he injured? Is he in good shape but going to drop the hammer the second half? I bided my time and when he didn’t go any harder the second lap, I LET ‘ER RIP and passed him to go on and win. Craziness! This year, I knew he was signed up again and I really hoped he’d be in good shape so it could potentially be quite a race, because I was certainly in better shape this year, just 5 weeks out from Ironman Louisville. It also helped to be very familiar with the course. Then again, it was a really short taper and a bit of a training race, as Louisville is the priority.
Janée and I camped out the night before just a half mile away and I got up at 6am (vs 3:40am for 70.3 Santa Rosa!) – NICE. It was a nice relaxed morning taking my time eating breakfast and taking down camp and we went down to the start around 7 with a planned 8am start. After getting there, I learned that Daniel and last year’s 3rd overall finisher, who was also signed up, hadn’t yet checked in. If they weren’t going to show though, you still never know who else might be there. For being a race with a relatively low number of entrants, the prize purse could attract some up-and-coming studs from Boulder, etc.
Unlike the last 2 years, the start temperature was above 50! It was quite a challenge to get out of the tent in ’15 and ’16 with temps in the high 30s…We all swam through the “seaweed” that would have freaked me the hell out if I were alone, but I was with a bunch of people, so I had to act like I was totally fine ;).
Brandon, the RD, did the countdown and we were off. Quarter distance athletes started at the same time and did one lap while half iron distance athletes did two laps. I was happy to find myself in second by the first turn buoy, to a woman in a wetsuit with pink arms. As soon as I saw her stroke, I could tell she was a ‘real’ swimmer. She gradually distanced us the rest of the way. This was Morgan Chaffin who won the inaugural iron-distance Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon this summer. After the second buoy, Kona-bound Kirsten Smith passed me, so it was now two women in first and second and me in third, and it stayed that way until the swim exit. I came out of the water in 30:XX. It looked like it was official: Daniel Bretscher did not show, unfortunately.
After a nice and dizzy T1, it was on to the bike. It starts with a mile or so of uncomfortable climbing while your body figures out where the heck it needs to send blood now, followed with a glorious, winding 11.5 mile descent – it is incredibly fun if you’re comfortable on the downhills. By 13 miles or so, the average speed was 31mph, ha! It’s really easy to think you’ll be able to hold on to a good chunk of that average, but oh no ho ho, you are sorely mistaken. After that is when the climbing begins. The great thing, though, is you will never, ever be bored on this course due to the dynamic nature of it. You’re to the high point of the course at 26 miles after around 2,000 vertical feet of climbing and your average speed has completely tanked (there are luckily some downhills thrown in during this stretch to give you a bit of a break). I was feeling really strong – I felt like I had another gear that I usually don’t have at half iron distance. This is most likely due to high intensity group rides that coach has been throwing into the training schedule. With a lot of long, low intensity training, you can lose that top gear. I passed Morgan around 15 miles and was officially in the lead. After that high point, it’s onto a second loop, so you get to enjoy that 11.5mi descent again…and all that climbing again. After the second lap, you turn the other direction toward the finish. Going in to this race, I definitely wanted a course PR (under 2:39 – this is a testament to the climbing, as this is 27 minutes from my 70.3 bike PR) but I was hoping to hit 2:30, which is 22.4mph. I always forget how much climbing there is after turning toward the bike finish and I went quite hard while watching the average speed dwindle to 21.5mph – there goes that idea! I hit a heart rate of 160 on this stretch, which is around 5bpm higher than threshold. After the 1mi descent, I rolled in to transition in the 2:34s, a 5min course PR and 21.7mph average.
Starting the run, I felt as generally okay as I can expect to feel after a hard bike, ha, and just tried to settle in. The run course is out and back two times, and for some reason, to me it feels more difficult on the way out. That’s better than the other way around though! Perhaps it’s the grade of the hills, but it is a relief to get to the turn around. I was feeling pretty rough on the uphills and now I felt as though I was missing a gear, unlike during the bike. This may be due to the relatively high effort on the bike plus the hills, and/or I was still feeling the prior weekend’s long run and (really) long ride. I kept pushing though and came across the line with the win and a 1:23 run time. The run was short of a course PR by 8sec/mile but I’ll chalk it up to training fatigue and getting after it on the bike.
Overall, I’m happy with this effort and the course PR and it was a good status check and training stimulus heading in to Ironman Louisville!
If you’re looking for a tough course in a great location, I highly recommend you check this out! There is plenty of sightseeing nearby as well; The Needles, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave National Park, etc. Big thank you to Brandon Zelfer for putting on a great race! Thank you for the massive support from Janée, and of course my coach of over a decade now, Bettina, and my teammates at Racelab. Shout out to sponsors Pactimo, First Endurance, TriBike Transport, Rudy Project, Rocky Mountain Multisport, and Xterra!