The triathlon training blog of Phil Barnes

Michigan Titanium Full Iron Distance AquaBike Race Report

Iron Aquabike, 3.8K swim + 180K bike. Swim = 1:08:56 (probably long), T1 – 1:41, Bike – 5:43:56 (31.4kph, 2.25W/kg Avg, 185W NP, IF=0.776). Total time = 6:54:34. 4th overall. Challenging course. Over biked 1st lap and suffered the last. Glad I didn’t have to run. Well organized. Probably wouldn’t do it again, but wouldn’t discourage others from going.

The Turning Point: how the podium was lost.
…And then it happened. At 120 km, on a short incline, my thighs cramped hard… and then 5 seconds later, I was passed by an aquabiker. Don’t panic. Keep it together. Don’t let him get too far ahead.  Right where the pass was made, a guy on the side of the road: “Keep it up! You guys are 4th and 5th!” I’m punching my left thigh – it seemed like a good idea to cure the cramp – it didn’t help. I need electrolytes… I need Gatorade… (my bottle is dry)…. And as if on queue a sign appeared: Aid Station Ahead.  “WATER AND GATORADE PLEASE!” – I quickly slid one in the empty cage and grasped the other by my teeth --- I emptied the Gatorade in my aero bottle and squeezed the water all over me – the shock of the cold woke me up, but the damage was done. Despite my best intentions, I had over biked the first loop and would pay for it for the remaining 60k. “Second is fine, second is good”. I kept riding as well as I could. Every incline would bring a grimace of pain. It was hot. I was cooked. I wasn’t sure I would be able to complete the ride. Finally: the turn back towards the finish. “You’re done! Congratulations!” A volunteer whisked my bike away to the aquabike rack. I stumble around a bit, regain my composure and hobble over to the rack…. 4 bikes. Four. I came 4th. Four bikes in front of me on the road. Three were Aquabikers. I was number four. Fark.

About MiTi
The Michigan Titanium (MiTi) is an independent triathlon near Grand Rapids Michigan. The event includes a Full Iron distance triathlon as well as Half Ironman and Olympic. There are also relays, duathlons, and aquabike categories for each race. The aquabike category is the Swim and Bike portion. I have been dealing with foot issues for almost a year and haven’t been running. The Full Iron aquabike was ideal for me: 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike (3.8K and 180K in Canadian). Guylaine was entered in the Full distance triathlon (tack on a marathon after all that, a mere 26.2 miles / 42.2 k). For us, the event is ideal as it falls at the end of the summer, is within a reasonable driving distance, and isn’t overcrowded. There’s also no pressure to sign up a year in advance. In total there were 750 or so participants. Ironman brand races with 2 to 3 thousand participants don’t appeal to us.

The event was extremely well organized. Pre-race communication, expo, packet pickup, swag, race meetings, transition zone layout, on-course support, race-day timing, finish line chute and atmosphere, awards and prizes, post-race food and amenities: all top-notch.

Grand Rapids
We split the 11 hour drive up into 2 days, staying overnight in Sarnia on Thursday and then crossing the bridge and travelling the remaining distance on Friday. We arrived early enough to preview the bike-course from the car… despite all the pre-event hype on the athlete facebook forum: it didn’t look that bad [note to self, things always look different from a car].

Grand Rapids appears to be a really nice city. We had booked an apartment through Air BnB in the Heritage Hills area. This is a very nice old neighbourhood with grandiose old houses. We were a 10 minute walk to downtown which includes the Grand River, parks, open-areas, museums, an arena, bars, hotels and conference centres. On Friday night, we strolled around town and took in a comedy show at the BOB center. Saturday night, we strolled around again, and passed through the Jazz festival. We hadn’t really planned out what to do, and didn’t want to indulge in the 60+ local craft brewers too much before the race; the race seemed to weigh on us and kept us from really hunting out the gems and appreciating what the city had to offer.

Downtown Grand Rapids

Our Home in Heritage Hills

Photobombed by an astronaut (!/?)

Hidden Banksy (?) along the waterfront

I'm not saying we rented the place we did because of the pinball machine.... but I'm sure it had a lot to do with it :))

We headed to the venue, Versluis Park, about a 20 minute drive from our apartment, for the 10AM practice swim. The lake looked fantastic. It was calm and clear. The buoys were all visible, and the course was obvious. The practice swim went well, sighting was easy. I messed up my garmin, and had it in Bike mode. It recorded my swim as 2.5K in 32 mins. The distance seemed off to me as I essentially swam the Olympic course (1500m) plus a little extra… but surely not an extra 1000m. Oh well.. at least the swim would be easy – the buoys were bright and big.
Practice Swim setup (Bill Ott, Facebook)

We headed over to the race expo and packet pickup at the YMCA after the practice swim. There was a good mix of vendors and services. We were able to pick up the salt pills that Guylaine was looking for, plus a few extra t-shirts. The pickup was easy, and the mandatory pre-race meeting was clear and concise.

Later in the day, we would return to the venue to check in our bikes. I’m not a fan of leaving the bikes overnight, but I understand how it helps with race-day morning logistics. Especially this race, as there is little on-site parking, and unless you are dropped off, athletes are bussed to the site from a nearby parking lot. We dropped the bikes off around 2:30. The tires had been pumped up to race-day pressure. How much pressure could you really lose overnight? It was hot and sunny. I changed my mind, and let out the air. PV=nRT; I didn’t want to risk a blown tube – we’ll bring the pump with us in the morning.

The rest of the afternoon was spent organizing the different race bags: T1, Bike special needs, T2, Run special needs, and dry clothes.

Racked and ready

Racked and ready

After the usual restless night of pre-race sleep, we woke at 4:40 to be on the road for 5:15 to be at the parking lot for 5:35 to be at the venue for 5:45 to have an hour to prep and be by the water for the 6:45 warmup and announcements. Everything seemed to go as per the schedule we planned. Tires were re-pumped up: and we earned some karma points lending out the pump to various others. At 6:45 we were counted in to the swim corral and ready to get the day on. The lake looked different…

The pre-race announcements were made. A blessing was shared by a local pastor. The US National anthem was sung beautifully acapella by a young lady. We were on time, and ready to go. The swim start was from waist deep in the lake. I was on the front row. 3-2-1-Go.

The Swim – 3800 meters (2.4 miles) - 2 loops of an approximately isosceles triangle – each vertex marked with a large pyramid shaped buoy.

Keep it in check. I was determined to not go out too fast. I went out exactly as planned at a good, controlled tempo. 50 meters in, the gaps were opening up. There were 2 lead swimmers side-by-side I was number 3. Someone was nipping at my toes. It didn’t bother me. I was comfortable. It was a little disheartening to not be tucked in behind someone, but I didn’t want to risk swimming too slowly. Around 100 meters off shore, it became apparent this swim would be bizarre. The water was warm, the air was cool. There was a one foot thick layer of mist on top of the water. Forward visibility was about 10 feet. We couldn’t see the huge colourful buoys. I could make out the splashes in front and I was relying on the lead swimmers to set the course. Eventually the buoys would come into focus. At the first vertex, turn to the left, and…. nothing. Zero visibility.  Mist plus the rising sun equaled zero visibility. Everyone was stopped, treading water. The stationary kayaker (sitting above the mist could see the buoys and probably couldn’t understand our dilemma) over there – and pointed his paddle – we continued on, the lead pack was now all together. From the practice swim I knew there was one marker between the 2 corners of this side of the triangle. We found it, and the group started treading water again… one person turned, “That’s not the turn!” I yelled, somehow they figured it out. We resumed swimming into the sun, hoping to find the pyramid. We did. And now the quest for the line back to the beach began.  Somehow, we completed loop 1, and were on our way onto loop 2. Surely the mist will have broken by now. It was marginally better, but the sun was now blinding. Things cleared up a bit for the final leg of the last loop and I was able to see the shoreline as my target – the sandy beach appeared below me in the water, and the swim was done. Despite the navigation confusion, and the treading water, I knew I had swum good and hard as my shoulders were aching from the effort. I caught the clock on the beach – a 1:08 swim. Rats, that’s slower than I had hoped. Oh well. I knew I was close to the front.

Dat Mist Tho'


It was a short run up to transition. I was able to get my wetsuit down to my butt as I ran. This made an easy job for the wetsuit stripper to do the rest. A volunteer shouted out my number, and my transition bag appeared as I rounded the corner. I had opted for a full-zip race-fit bike jersey. I had practiced swimming in it under my wetsuit a few weeks ago. I didn’t like the tight feeling when I swam, so I had planned to put it on after the swim - wet. The sleeves have a grippy material which makes the jersey hard to put on even in dry conditions. I had pre-folded them up so that I would be able slide my arms in more easily. It worked. My transition was very fast.

Not sure why I'm staring at my arm

Bike – 180K (112 miles) - 2 loops of a lollipop style – stick out, lollipop loop around, stick back and repeat.

The bike course on paper didn’t look too bad. The pre-race drive proved that there were “rollers” and that the conditions weren’t ideal in some patches, but surely, it wouldn’t be terrible. It wasn’t terrible, but it was much harder than I expected. My plan was to arrive at the finish line absolutely spent with no gas left in the tank. This was a strategy I had successfully used and enjoyed at the Barrelman Aquabike last September. Key to this strategy would be my power pacing. The Power Tap pedals that I won from Sportstats last year would be my silver bullet. To figure out my magic power number, I would need to know my FTP, and the % FTP I was able to hold for 180K. 236W and 85%. Those were my numbers and 200 Watts was the target. [I laugh out loud now when I read what I just wrote].

The sky was clear, the wind didn’t feel like a factor, and I was on the bike. The course starts with a gradual uphill. My watts were in check. This is it.

This fool thinks he can ride 200W for 180K

The bike is 2 loops, and I will break down the meat of each loop into 9 unique segments. Here are the details, and the numbers.

Lap 1
Lap 2
Speed (kph)
Avg P.
Avg P.
Many rollers, net uphill
Slight downhill
Shit Show
Many steep up and downs
To the loop
A few short climbs
The Loop
Mostly flat
chip seal
From the loop
Net downhill
Shit Show 2
Many steep up and downs
Slight up hill
Many rollers, net downhill

Meat of the Loop

The bike course did feature a 6 km section (2 times per loop), therefore 24 km total for the ride that could best be described as a shit show in terms of road condition. In that stretch, there were many sections of ruts, potholes, miscellaneous patch jobs and sections of missing pavement. It also happened that this section was narrow, had several steep up and downs and was under tree-cover, littered with shadows for extra difficulty in sighting. Most of this section was ridden hyper-conservatively, gripping the bars tightly.

Typical condition along the Shit Show segment
As posted in the forum after someone's recon ride.

And this is why I prefer smaller independent races. Overall I passed 2 people and I was passed by 3 people. For 99.9% of the ride, there was no one around me. It wasn’t lonely, the aid stations were well placed, and police officers manned the intersections. Being at the pointy end of the race meant I would see the rest of the field coming at me on the opposite side of the road for the second half of loop 1 and the rest of loop 2.  There was also a great support crew for Team World Vision, and I felt like a rock star when I rode through their cheering section. And there was also the road kill - the hundreds of carcasses along the way in various states of decomp kept things interesting - I did feel a bit sad for the fresh deer fawn.

Approaching the turnaround was my chance to assess where I stood in the race. I saw the lead biker go by, and then a huge gap… and then a guy who had passed me earlier… and then another guy who had passed me… that was it. I was fourth to the turnaround. I was certain I was the first aquabiker. Oh yeah.

The ride went south at 120k. My thighs cramped hard, and wouldn’t let go for the rest of the ride. It would give me cause to groan out loud at any effort over 150W. I still had aerobic capacity, but I was limited because of my legs. There were times I didn’t think I would be able to finish, I was getting glum. When I hit Lincoln road again for the last time, I cheered up a bit. With 10K to go, I was pretty sure I could make it back.

I didn’t really like the bike ride. It didn’t suit my strengths. I prefer to put my head down and just go. If I’m going to go up or down, I prefer either longer climbs or shorter ones. The rollers here were too long and steep and relentless for me to get my rhythm. Often I’d catch myself trying to power through a hill in the big ring, and having to verbally accost myself to switch to the small. I was constantly in the big and small chain ring and scrolling from 27 to 12 on the back.

The Big Finish

The crowd at the finish chute was completely unexpected; the energy pulled me in to the line. Staggering around at the finish I was pretty pumped. I knew I was 5th biker finished (out of all the competitors in the Full, Aquabike and Relays). I had been passed once on lap 2 by an aquabiker. I knew for sure one guy ahead of me was in the full, and I had assumed the other 3 were too… low and behold… nope…  of the 4 people in front of me, 3 were also aquabikers. I would be fourth. Rats.
Final time: 5:43:56. Basically I had overcooked the first lap. I was 9 minutes slower for lap 2. I had not respected the course. The hilly/rolling nature made it difficult for me to keep my power in check.  Looking back through the results though, I was 6 minutes behind 3rd place. I’m certain even with a better pacing strategy I could not have made up that time gap.


My race was done. Now I had 5 hours to spare while Guylaine finished her bike and ran a marathon…. But that’s another story (spoiler alert: she kicked butt and PR’d on a tough day, ran the fastest marathon for all women, and finished 3rd overall woman, netting prize money).

Out for a run in the blazing sun (this was a little shaded spot).
Podium! And a cheque!

Proud Coach.

Nutrition Report
Breakfast: 2 bowls of Apple Jacks + 1.5 mugs of coffee
Pre-Swim: 1 Cliff Bar, sipped water
Post-Swim: ½ Cliff Bar
Bike: Gu Jet Blackberry, Gu Roctane (Vanilla/Orange), Gu Roctane (Strawberry Lime), Gu Roctane (Pomegranate Blueberry), Gu (Lemon Sublime), Cliff Blocks (Margarita w/ 3x salt), Gu Blocks (red package), 1 Cliff Bar, 1 Bottle of Endurance Gatorade, 5 bottles of water (+/-), 1 salt pill.


I don't remember seeing "The Donald" there, maybe he lent his bike to someone else.