IRONMAN Tulsa 2021 Race Report

2020 was supposed to be a big IRONMAN year for me culminating in Kona as part of legacy program but Covid stopped that and so all 5 of my 2020 races were postponed. Texas in 2021 got pushed to October (which I can’t do because its the same weekend as Kona so no 10th anniversary belt buckle for me 😦 ) which makes Tulsa my first IRONMAN in 18 months and my first in this new post-Covid world. I still have CDA next month, pretty sure Mont Tremblant won’t happen and then Kona.

I’ll start out saying I was completely unconditioned for this race. I only started swimming again 3 weeks before the event and had literally done no running. My bike was the only thing I had really been training so my expectations were super low for the marathon portion! I don’t think I actually believed it would happen 😀

The lead up was fairly standard except no race numbers were given in advance (I’m AWA and still didn’t get in advance), and the athlete guide was only available a couple of weeks before. A lot of this is because they were not sure the event would actually happen which is apparent in a number of other ways. Also at the last minute the CDC changed mask guidance however there were still a number of distancing measures. I thought I’d summarize all of them quickly but note, there seem like a lot BUT none of this really took away from the amazing day.

  • Register in advance for registration time. This was not enforced, and I was able to actually register earlier than my time slot
  • Virtual athlete briefing and welcome video
  • Only athletes allowed in village
  • Bib etc. not personalized
  • Gear check-in time slot given at registration (bike and bag drop off for T1/T2)
  • No poster or flag
  • Swim cap was generic IRONMAN, no event name on it
  • Shirts don’t have date on (but did have participant names on the back)
  • Finisher gear was for sale straight away in the store
  • Wear mask on bus from T2 to T1 at start of day
  • No body marking or sunscreen people
  • Staggered swim start but that was fairly standard anyway and there was no social distancing that I could see other than different wait sections (corrals) but within those everyone bunched up 🙂
  • No wetsuit strippers but did help with zip and getting out water
  • No changing tents (but then someone said there WAS one at T2 no one knew about!)
  • On run did not hand drink/nutrition to athletes mostly. Nutrition and drinks were handed to you on bike
  • Gear is left with bike or bike rack if point to point (like a half)
  • Mount own bike at T2 but you are going there anyway
  • Handed you medal in hat, shirt, did remove chip for you. Still helped if needed. Picture at end still taken
  • Finisher medal – no date on it
  • Family cannot pick up bike/gear (no ticket)

One big change is a couple of weeks before the event you had to register for a packet pick-up time which was a one hour window on one of the two registration days leading up to the event (Thursday and Friday for a Sunday event). I picked a 3:00 Thursday session since was driving up Thursday morning.

I left home about 7:30 am and it was pouring rain all the way up to Tulsa. I arrived about 12:00 and went straight to the athlete village. Even though my appointment was 3pm it looked pretty empty (it was still pouring with rain) so I headed over and they didn’t even ask. There was no temperature check they just asked basically “any Covid symptoms” and then let you on your way. You got allocated your race number as you arrive (I got 418 as obviously was one of the first). The downside is no name on your bib etc. You got your timing chip, race cap, stickers etc as usual. Got your 5 gear bags and backpack but NO poster and NO flag. This is because of the cost of printing things that I think they were not sure would happen.

Tulsa is the most logistically complex event I’ve ever done. There is the swim start which is a mile walk from T1 which is a 20 minute drive from T2 which is a half mile walk from the finish. This means IRONMAN have various elaborate options to make your life easier. For example you could get a voucher and TriBike Transport would take your bike from T2 to T1 and rack it for you (you would drop it off to them Saturday and take your bike transition bag with you on Sunday morning). They also had shuttles picking people up from downtown to take them the 1 mile to T2 on Sunday morning and then from T2 another shuttle to T1 and then you walk to swim start. If you were going to drop your own bike off at T1 Saturday you picked a time slot and got a little card for when you would drop the bike (and bike gear) off at T1 yourself and then you would drive to T2 to drop off run gear bag. If on race day you were not getting a shuttle you picked a parking pass for T2 or downtown. You get the idea. Honestly I found the sheer logistics kind of stressful as did others. One problem is the T2 (where you have to go at the end of the day to pick up gear) is a mile walk back to downtown hotels (where they had shuttles in the morning) but you can’t get on shuttles with a bike after so basically you are faced with walking a mile with all your gear at the end or driving. Unlike previous IRONMAN events only athletes are allowed at the village, start, finish and T2 (meaning family can’t pick up gear for you). I decided to take my own bike to T1 on Saturday and would walk back at the end on Sunday.

In the store they did have Tulsa gear (no date on any of it) but they did have names on shirts and what was interesting is they also had finisher gear out (jackets, shirts etc). I did buy the finisher shirt as it meant I didn’t need to get to the store at 6:30 AM Monday to get one. The finisher gear was black on black soooo you can’t really see much and if I remember this t-shirt was $90!

I didn’t get to really see the village because, well, there was so much rain and I just ran to the car. One thing they seemed to go above and beyond was communication. They texted updates including water temperature on Friday which made it clear it would be wet suit legal (it was 68 Friday night) and I really think were trying to do all they could to communicate to help the athletes. The athlete briefing was also virtual but gave great detail.

I stayed at the Hyatt which was a nice hotel, was a mile walk to T1/village and had a really nice restaurant which I used for burger and pasta 🙂 I also visited Hurts Donuts and Andolini’s pizza.

Saturday came and all the worrying about logistics was (as normal) not required. There was lots of parking at the lake (T1) to drop off the bike and bike gear bag. They did not take a picture of your bike and your bike bag was just left with your bike. At T2 you dropped off your run gear bag at the bike rack where you will leave your bike. As had been notified, no changing tents were visible which made sense with the gear bag next to the bike, you change there as required. The process was very smooth though. For the rest of the day I just kept sipping on electrolyte water, had pizza for lunch and pasta with chicken breast for dinner.

The other worry was the roads were described as something out of a horror movie by everyone that drove them. Pot holes everywhere, gravel, mud, you name it. Also the weather forecast was constantly changing but as we got closer it became clear it would be raining for the entire bike ride (and it did). So wet roads and poor road conditions. Yay. As it turned out this was not an exaggeration.

At 5:30 I had a shower, applied my Tri Tats then put on a layer of sunscreen. At 6:30 to bed.

Alarm went off at 2:00 am but I was already awake as for some reason slept terribly. I got up and had a protein shake, half a bagel, applied another layer of sunscreen, put on my tri shorts, timing chip, tri watch, Ironman wedding ring 🙂 Also a shirt just to wear in transition and some comfy flip-flops. I had decided to just walk to T1 and that at the end of the day I would just handle the 1 mile walk back with bike and bags.

I left the room at 3:15 as was bored just waiting so got to T2 (where the buses to T1 were leaving from) at about 3:40 and they already let people in to T2 to check their run bag and there were buses letting you on already so I hoped on. They had masks to give you if you needed one. This was the only time you needed a mask all day. It was maybe a 30 minute drive but had a great conversation on the bus.

At T1 as usual there were bike pumps available and bike mechanics if you needed help. The headlamp I always carry was super useful as it was pretty dark. I pumped my tires up to 95 PSI as rain was forecast and with all the pot holes people talked about I felt 95 was a compromise as I really had zero clue what to do 😀 We knew it was going to be wetsuit legal but they announced 67 degrees. I only have a sleeveless wetsuit and was a little worried about getting cold but it was totally fine.

They walked us over to the swim start which was about a mile walk away. They walked us over based on our estimated start times. The idea being when we got to the start we would be in corrals to help separation but that didn’t work out as I get the feeling the plan changed. We were originally told to have throw away shoes for the walk from T1 to swim start but on the day they said morning clothes drop off would be a swim start so you no longer had to throw them away. Also at swim start you could put on wetsuit if you wanted so they walked us over on projected swim time but then once you were there they did not put you in corrals, you just all mingled until you felt like going into a corral which meant the corrals were no longer time based but all mixed together. People attempted to move between as they asked people what time they thought they would be but was a bit of a cluster 🙂 I don’t think it was a huge problem and a minor teething issue.

As they released each corral you lined up into about 4 lines at the swim start arch and we were going in every 3 seconds I think. As I entered the water it was “wow, this is cold” but forgot about it pretty quick. The course was a point-to-point but really just a rectangle single loop (with one side longer than the other obviously 🙂 ). The water was just thick brown, you could see zero, not even your own arm. On top of the water the visibility was good and I had no problem sighting the buoys. I used clear goggles and was using “snake and pig” brand which were awesome, no leaks! Support on the swim was great with lots of canoes and I read many stories of people helping swimmers who were struggling, talking to them to calm them and helping them regain themselves and carry on. That really was a theme, the volunteers, the spectators and the IRONMAN team were all amazing. Also there was not really any mad clashing with other swimmers as you were pretty spread out. Towards the end of the swim my hands were getting cold but overall it was totally fine. It also started to rain. Oh good I thought.

I was 95 minutes so a bit slower than my normal 90 but considering I had done almost no swimming I was fine with it. There were people to help you get out the water and while there were no wetsuit strippers there were still people to help unzip the wetsuit to at least get you started. You ran to the bike rack (where your T1 bag was as well) where you got changed as there were no change tents. Not going to lie I missed having a chair 🙂 There were volunteers to make sure you were OK. You put your wetsuit etc into the T1 bag, grabbed your bike and on your way. On my way with my brand new Canyon I’d only done about 5 miles on in total.

The bike was a standard 112 mile course with a couple of big hills but overall the elevation was fine. My Garmin said it was 5,300 feet of elevation gain and in total it took me 6 hours 10 which I was fine with. But it was raining so the roads were wet and the roads were bad. So many pot holes, so much gravel and put that with the wet roads it meant I was actually going faster UP the hills than down them as I was squeezing my poor new breaks who really were not doing very much 🙂

The bike had aid stations every 15 miles or so and they were handing out the nutrition like any other IRONMAN. I had to pee at every aid station and it took me 2 hours to realize I was drinking too much. I was used to training in my garage in the heat. Well in the cold rain I was not sweating so I slowed down my drinking and that fixed that.

The bad roads really were not exaggerated. To IRONMAN’s credit there was orange paint everywhere warning you but there were sections of the bike course that were a disaster scene. So many people with flats, people with broken bikes, people had crashed. You just needed Adagio for Strings playing and it would have been complete. I think if it had been just the bad roads or just the wet roads it would have been OK but both together was just a nightmare. At many times there were signs “Poor road conditions ahead” and in my head I was thinking “WORSE THAN THIS???”. I had images of parent bikes telling their little trike children if they were bad they would be sent to ride on Tulsa roads.

I was lucky and escaped issues. The bike ride actually went pretty quickly, I think because you were not just mindless peddling. It was like a video game really focusing on the road to map out your line to try and minimize impact on the bike and bunny hopping at certain points. I’m much stronger on bike than swim so I was pretty much constantly overtaking people which was tough because people were not staying right because of road conditions and nervousness. Understandable, but made it challenging. I think the bike course was nice, the aid stations were well stocked but honestly I don’t remember much about the course because I was just laser focused on the road pretty much the entire time.

During the bike I ate a waffle each hour and 1 gel each hour. I used the on course gels as I switched to them (Maurten) during training and actually now prefer then over Gu. It’s a strange jello type consistency but I like it. I drank some Gatorade and some water with Nuun.

The bike was point to point so into T2 I went. The bike went to plan. I averaged about 180 watts (which is what I trained at) and I got off actually feeling pretty good. You rack your own bike (because you have to go there anywhere as that is where you T2 bag is) and I changed socks, shoes, hat sitting on the floor at the bike rack. NOTE we were told no changing tent but the next day someone posted to Facebook “I was volunteering in the changing tent at T2 and no one came in”. It seems like they had a small changing tent but never told us. I didn’t bother putting on sunglasses as although the rain had just stopped there was no sun (although somehow I still got slightly burned?). Off onto the 2 loop run along the park that had loads of great crowds and it was a nice, flat course.

My original plan was to run/walk 1-minute intervals until my quads gave in due to lack of conditioning which I figured would be about an hour and then walk the rest. I did this at first but quickly realized if I did this till my quads failed I’d then be hobbling and slow for the rest of the marathon. I therefore changed plan and power walked, figuring I’d try and do random little runs where possible. This worked but was obviously slow.

Aid stations were every mile and were well stocked. Volunteers were not supposed to hand you nutrition but made sure cups etc were easily available and never ran out of anything. I spoke to a few people but generally I was too slow for the people running and too fast for the people walking so was generally pretty lonely. At one point I caught up to the guy I had spoke to on the bus who was having hip problems and walked with him for about 10 minutes but then went off on my power walk again.

With about 400 yards to the finish a member of the crowd ran up next to me (as I was still power walking) “come on big fella, you’re inspiring me, run with me” so I started running with him and he ran with me until we basically got to the last turn where I carried on running across that finish line. Slow but happy! Thank you random stranger 🙂

At the finish they handed you the medal in a hat, got your finisher shirt for you and took off your timing chip.

Once again very well organized. Got your picture taken and on your way!

You then grabbed your morning clothes bag and went to the food tent. Now this was a disaster for me. It was burgers, hot dogs and steak but the line was insane. I was too tired to stand in a line for 10 minutes so I figured I’d grab food somewhere else later (a mistake).

There was a shuttle to take you from finish to T2 to collect bike and bags. I asked people where it was but no one really seemed to know. I went in a general direction and there was a flag saying shuttle but no one was there and I wasn’t sure if it was correct. Fortunately a family were walking to T2 and they knew the way so I walked the .5 mile with them, grabbed my bike and bags then walked the 1 mile back to my hotel. Where everything was shut and no food available. Nooooooo. I had a protein shake and a donut. That was it 😦

I’ve said it already but the IRONMAN team, volunteers and crowds in Tulsa were amazing. Some of the best I’ve ever seen at an IRONMAN. The negatives of Tulsa (roads, rain) were really nothing IRONMAN could do anything about as I suspect were the logistic complexities as they have to work around road access, locations for transition etc. but they did a good job of removing as much pain around the various locations as possible.

Up next CDA!