Branson Ironman 70.3

by Peter Wise

I like symmetry in my world. If am doing my first half Ironman, then I might as well do the first half Ironman to be held in Branson, Mo. Mike Comerford raised the idea of the new Branson race last November. The discussion gained steam at his wife’s birthday party. By the end of the night, four of us, Comerford, Scott Harry, Diane Hillard Sembell and I had agreed to register. Diane must have been the most sober because she did not hit the send key.

With a date of Sept. 19th, I suspect that the race organizers visioned an early fall day with lows in the upper 50’s and highs in the upper 70’s. High pressure would dominate so there would be no wind and low humidity. Perfect weather for racing. Perfect weather for camping. Other than the absence of wind, this vision did not come to pass.

I did a little research on how the town of Branson was named. Turns out that Branson is an acronym for

  • Ball busting hills
  • Ridiculous hills
  • Ass kicking hills
  • Never ending hills
  • Sick hills
  • Ominous hills
  • Narly hills (according to Missourians, narly is an acceptable spelling of gnarly)

I consider myself as having friends in the local multisport community. Right now I am wondering where these friends were when I started talking about doing Branson.  A true friend would have given me a gentle dope slap and would have pointed out that Branson is smack dab in the middle of the OZARK MOUNTAINS. One evening at the New City time trials was the only time anyone expressed any concern for my well-being. Dave Bagot gravely spoke to me about Branson’s hills, heat and humidity. Thanks Dave. I should have listened.

Camp Tony

We were not able to put three bikes on one vehicle so we struck out for Branson mid morning on the Friday before the race in two cars. The idea was to set up camp and relax knowing that Saturday would be a busy prelude to Sunday’s race.

We had an easy drive to Collinsville before Scott’s Oldsmobile van nearly expired on I 55. In quick succession the van lost power steering, electronics and began overheating. We limped to an exit, turned right for no particular reason and nearly ran into a GM dealership with a Mr. Goodwrench shop. The shop had the parts and manpower to fix the broken serpentine belt, water pump and other assorted problems. Mike and I continued on in his Jetta so that we could set up camp. Maybe we should have found a VW dealership as well because he had no AC.

We arrived at our campsite around 6:30. Scott made up some serious time and arrived shortly thereafter. Some might question our decision to camp given potential weather issues and the like. I like to camp because you don’t have to rely on restaurant food. But you are at the mercy of who is camping next to you. Right after Scott arrived an older black Lincoln Town Car pulled into the campsite next to us. Out spilled Tony who was more than happy to strike up a conversation with us and be our campground “friend”. Things were going from bad to worse as he hung up a coonskin cap, and buried a hatchet blade in a tree. He advised that he liked to play video games and planned to play all night. Then he cracked open the first of many malt beverages.

To deter Tony from any more attempts at discourse we busied ourselves with camp chores such as dinner. We ate like kings. We baked sweet potatoes, walleye fillets and wild King Salmon over open coals. In the end Tony was OK. He did keep us up for a while Friday night with the electronic pinging of his computer video games. Over the course of the weekend we asked him to watch over the thousands of dollars of gear we had at the campsite when we were away.

Saturday blew by. We were first in line at race check in at 10:00. We then dropped some serious coin at the expo on Branson 70.3 gear and stuff that we either forgot or convinced ourselves that we needed. After a good but lengthy race briefing we collected our gear to set up our transitions. This race was a two transition site race. T1 was at Moonshine beach, on Table Rock Lake, the swim venue, while T2 was in downtown Branson. Slogging through the Branson traffic in the heat was very tiring. After these tasks were accomplished we decided to drive the bike course. We nearly cried. I don’t know if the pictures do justice to the steepness and length of the hills of the OZARK MOUNTAIN High Road which made up about 75 percent of the bike course. Other parts of the course had shorter hills. But at least they were steeper.

Abigail, “Wake Up”

We ate an early dinner Saturday night. My wife’s eggplant lasagna was the main course of our pre race meal. The idea was to get to bed and sleep. But it was too damn hot to sleep. But a young lady named Abigail found a way to sleep. She over served herself. We had dozed off only to be wakened by a gaggle of Abbey’s drunk girlfriends giggling and pounding on a car window and pleading for Abbey to wake up. They must have stopped to use the bathrooms which were across from our campsite. Abbey had passed out with the keys locked in the car. We were sorely tempted to assist their drunken efforts with Tony’s hatchet.

The Swim

4:30 came very early. We ate quickly so we could cheat and park in the lot of the Chateau Hotel near the swim start. At the race briefing the race director forbade anyone from doing so. Too bad. We were not going to drive eight miles into Branson to stand in line for a shuttle when we were less than two miles from the hotel and swim start. As a precaution, Mark Lee gave us a room key so that we could assert that we were hotel guests if we were challenged. Thanks Mark. We slipped into the lot with no trouble.

Being a part of 1400 adrenalin charged triathletes milling about in the dark was a bit surreal. The sun did not come up until twenty five minutes before the start of the race. The swim waves started on time. The water was calm but not “crystal clear” as billed on the race website. The race was barely wetsuit legal. You had four to six feet of visibility. My wave of two hundred swimmers consisted of two age groups, 45 to 50 and 50 to 54. I was able to break out of the pack and find clear lanes to cruise to a 33 min swim. Comerford and Harry also had good swims. My transition was going smoothly until it was time to put on my right shoe. It was nowhere to be found. Panic. My transition neighbor must have had a bull in a china shop transition and kicked my stuff around. I found my shoe under his wet suit and towel. Not cool.

The Bike or Andy Schleck, I Know Your Pain

From the shore of Table Rock Lake there was only one way to reach the OZARK MOUNTAIN High Road. A seven mile rolling climb through the 100% humidity pea soup mist. The air temperature was also climbing. Climbing out the mist to the OZARK MOUNTAIN High Road we were rewarded with clear skies, a beautiful view and a sphincter shutting descent consisting of a very step pitch, a short section that leveled off somewhat, and then another steep pitch with a sweeping curve. The pavement was perfectly smooth, the road was closed to traffic and there was no wind. The drill was to get aero and fly. However, the fun came to an end when the road started back uphill. Looking at 9 MPH on the long uphill grinds was painful. After the race I was shocked to see my max speed for the day. My first lap on the OZARK MOUNTAIN High Road went well. I followed Dungan’s advice and did not attack the hills. The second lap was going equally well until I was coming off a downhill to an uphill section and I shifted to my small chainring. Disaster struck when I dropped my chain. I had ridden almost 1700 miles over the spring and summer without a single gear shift hiccup. Why now? Hey Andy, the Spaniard didn’t stop for me either. I pulled to the shoulder and put the chain back on. It took two or three attempts to develop enough momentum to stay upright and clip in. I had to stand to develop enough speed to climb the remainder of the hill. That is when the cramping started in my quads.

The next downhill allowed time for recovery. But not enough recovery. On the next uphill I perceived that I was close to irreversible cramping. I pedaled as lightly as possible and still move up the hill. This provided relief. Scott and Mike passed me and offered words of encouragement. The pain eased and I forged on. I was bummed that I could not hammer the rolling downhill stretch into Branson. Mike caught Scott on this stretch and they rode into T2 together. Their prototype Trek Looney Tunes tri bikes were the talk of the race. Once in transition I spent a few minutes stretching and I bathed my legs in Biofreeze. That did the trick and I was ?ne for the rest of the day.

This being my first 70.3 I am in no position to judge the bike course. So I will offer the assessment of Kelly Williamson, the pro who won the women’s race. “This bike course is probably the toughest bike course I have ever done,” said an exuberant Williamson after the race. “It was just one huge hill after another, they just never stopped.” Amen sister.

Helter Swelter

Coming off the bike I realized that I was soaked with sweat. T2, an asphalt parking lot, was cooking. The temperature had soared into the low 90’s. With my goal time in serious jeopardy, I promised myself that I would not walk at all during the run. I held to my promise for the first of the three shadeless loops. But on the second lap I began to feel lightheaded so I reminded myself that promises are made to be broken. The flat run course took us through the heart of the outdoor shopping mall known as the Branson Landing. This section of the run course was lined with crowds of spectators that were cheering their hearts out for racers they did not know. Children were reaching onto the course to give us high fives. I damn near cried. I did not walk on this section of the course. Running under the finishing arch is an indescribable feeling. It is a feeling that I want to experience again. The race finished at the fountain of the Branson light water and ?reworks show. The fountain is fed by the 55 degree spring fed water of the White River that runs along the Landing. Many finishers took a post race chill the fountain. AAHHHHHHHH!”

The Verdict

All of us had good races. On this day anyone who earned a finishing medal had a good race. Scott Harry finished in the top third overall. Mike Comerford put together a stellar swim, bike and run for his first 70.3. My swim was the seventh fastest in the 50-54 age group. Overall, I finished near the top third of the age group. I’ll take that for my first 70.3. I hope that my hyperbole about the bike course does not deter others from entering this race in the future. Judging from positive post race discussion in the blogosphere (Slowtwitch), the Branson 70.3 is here to stay. It was a well run and challenging race. A bit of advice. Train for the hills. I will be back for the downhills. That way I can put my head down and scream like the kid I am at heart. Aren’t all of us that like to swim and bike and run just kids at heart?