August 4, 2013

Race Report: Fort Ritchie Sprint Duathlon

After a fairly restless night with the little one, I was up and out the door at 3:45am for the 90 minute drive to rural Maryland for the Fort Ritchie race series. The day featured four race categories: two distance options (sprint or Olympic) and two style options (duathlon or triathlon). Since the week was supposed to be a recovery week on the marathon training, I went with a brisk sprint duathlon.

Fort Ritchie is an abandoned military base in Maryland that is being converted into a residential and commercial community. But it's currently just what you'd expect an abandoned facility to look like, a ghost town in some spots and eerily quiet throughout.

The Course

The online profile made it clear that there were some moderate hills on the two 5k run legs, and a large hill effort on the back half of the 15-mile bike leg. The first and second run legs were 5k, weaving in and out of the facility. The first mile goes through corridors of boarded up barracks, with cracks in the asphalt and foliage growing around buildings, through the cracked streets, and overhanging the curbs. It resembled running through a zombie movie set at times, just an abandoned town. The second mile included some rock paths and asphalt roads, carving through some dense undergrowth in a quiet section of the base. The final mile sloped downhill towards a lake, with a scenic final push along the water to the transition area.

Elevation chart for both run legs.

The bike course exited the base gates and went along rural roads, most with a wide shoulder for safe riding. After some initial inclines and bumps, the majority of the first half is a screaming downhill and drops almost 1,000 feet. Of course, an out-and-back loop just means that that exciting descent is followed by an equally brutal ascent back to the starting area.

Elevation chart for bike leg.

Race Day

My drive to the starting line in the morning took me along the bike route, and as difficult as it looked in the fog at 5:45am, it would look even harder from the seat of a bike. I arrived with some time to spare and set up my bike on a transition rack near the bike in/out line. The morning weather was pretty close to perfect, lower temperature than the week before and no real breeze. The fog sat low on the lake next to the transition area and everyone seemed to be ready for a good day of racing.

As the starting gun went off for the first run leg of 5k, I went with a lead pack almost immediately. We pushed away from the transition area and started winding our way through the sections of abandoned barracks buildings, quickly hitting the first hills. Though it didn't look hard on paper, the inclines on the run were just long enough to tear up the legs in the first mile. By the midway point I had settled into a good pace  in the top eight or so runners, right about where I expected; after my AG 3rd place at the 2Xrip Duathlon, I was aiming for a similar finish in this race. Unfortunately the race didn't have separate bibs or body markings for the various races, so I wasn't sure who in front of me was in the sprint distance and who was in the separate Olympic distance race. I spent much of the second mile trying to figure out who was in my age group and where I needed to place myself to stay connected to the lead pack for my race. Coming through the final mile along the lake I backed off slightly and started my mental checklist for the transition. I hit the transition area in 19:49, about a minute over my standard 5k time, but just about where I wanted to be to conserve energy.

Abandoned zombie barracks.

The first transition was smooth; running shoes off, bike shoes and helmet on, and quickly out onto the bike course. By this point the faster racers in the two triathlon distances had exited the water and were also on the bike course, making it quickly impossible to identify who were competitors in my race. The first hills of the bike came fast and a few steep bumps had me out of the saddle and trying to stay in the big chainring. Finally the hills crested and it was all engines full speed ahead for the thousand-foot descent at 35mph. On a few turns you just had to grip the bars and let it rip, an ill-timed brake would've easily sent someone into the ditch. The first half of the bike course flew past me and it was time to turn around and start heading uphill. No sooner than the climb turned up did I find myself in the small chainring and almost on the easiest gear. The climb quickly sapped my speed, and there was nothing left to do but grab the middle of the bars, grit my teeth, and do my best Jens Voigt impression ("shut up, legs!")...albeit with less German panache. It
turns out that the climb ended up being a blessing for my overall results; the triathlon and aero bikes don't have any advantage on a twisting or uphill course, so my road bike wasn't a disadvantage for once. On the contrary, my nimble and smooth road bike performed like a champ. My fitness level from marathon training helped me start leap-frogging positions in the field the entire way up the climb. But it was brutal. By the end of the thousand feet I was having trouble keeping my bike in a straight line; I was slumped over, begging for breath, and just waiting for the road to turn down. When it finally did I threw it into the big chainring and started cranking for the transition area.


After cruising into the transition area in a tough 48 minutes, I got the running shoes back on my feet and took off for the final 5k. I quickly passed a couple people on the run and by the first half-mile I was all alone. There was no one in my vision ahead of me, and I was putting distance on those behind me. Once more through the abandoned barracks, up the cracking asphalt of the hills, past the darkened fire house, and onto the gravel road. The second mile was equally lonely, with just a water stop and a few cheering volunteers along the entire course. The solidarity and quiet of the run left me with just my watch to keep me motivated. I came through the final mile with a little extra kick to make sure no one had a chance to catch me from behind, and I came through the finishing chute in a respectable 20:47 for the final 5k, about two minutes over standard but I was happy considering the beating my quads took on the bike. Received my finishers medal, a cold towel, and headed straight for the food table. It was a good day of racing a challenging 15-mile bike leg between two undulating 5ks.

The Results

Run 1 (3.1 mi) :   19:49  |  6:23/mile
T1 (run to bike) :  0:55  
Bike (15 mi) :      48:05  |  18.7 mph
T2 (bike to run) :  0:41
Run 2 (3.1 mi) :   20:47  |  6:42/mile

Final:   1:30:15  |  Overall 2nd place (AG 2nd)

Was pretty shocked when I found out I came through in second place overall for the sprint duathlon. To be honest, I was pretty humble because I knew my performance, while certainly very good, wasn't that impressive and my placing was in part due to a lot of the faster folks lining up on the triathlon side of the venue. But you can only race who they put in front of you, and on this day, I was second.

2nd place mug, podium medal, finisher medal.

The Swag

Race registration included a short-sleeved tech shirt, and all finishers received a finisher medal (see general triathlon medal in photo under 'The Results') and a Racine transition towel. And for a really nice touch, the towels were soaked in ice water at the finish line and were perfect to cool down and clean up with.

The Verdict

It was a very early wake-up and drive and a long commute, and there wasn't too much on the run leg in terms of crowd or scenery. The bike leg had a bit more excitement with some twists and forests, and the challenge of the thousand-foot climb was worth the price of admission. Additionally, the Racine Multisports team runs a great event, the volunteers were supportive, and the swag was nice. Coupled with the relative lack of available duathlons in the area, I'll probably be back in 2014 to race Fort Ritchie again.