Leadman Tri Epic 250 – How Legends are Born

Race morning: Seton contemplates the enormity of the task at hand...

I’ve competed in triathlons half my life so I’ve been around the block.   A few years ago I started wondering what might happen if I showed up for an Ironman and just did it- no training.

If my average Ironman finish time is 10 hours after a focused training season, what would I do without training?  10:30? 12:00?  14:00?  That idea took me to the start of Lifetime Leadman Tri Epic 250, a 3.1 mile swim, 140 mile bike and 13.6 mile run. While the run falls short of the Ironman marathon, the bike course makes up for it.  There is over two miles of vertical gain including the brutish White Domes climb, a sting in the tail known locally as “Playground of the Gods”.

Sunday, February 27: The Idea.

My last Ironman was Lake Placid ‘09. I went 10:02, 50th overall.  After Lake Placid I swapped roles with my wife, Debbie Claggett while she trained for her first Ironman.  I kept fit, but her training took priority.  I hadn’t been in the pool since Lake Placid ’09. A bout with the flu left me weak in mid February. My fitness was gone.

On February 28th Lifetime Fitness CEO Bahram Akradi announced the Lifetime Fitness Leadman Triathlon at the Triathlon America conference, an event designed to be one of the most difficult in the sport. The race was 3 months away.  The crazy person inside of me says “self, that would be a really messed up race, you should do it.”  The idea crossed my mind, and quickly left.

In good company: (L. to R.) Coach Troy Jacobsen, Ironman specialist Hilary Biscay, Seton Claggett, TriSports.com founder.

Tuesday, March 1: Training to Train.

I finally start what I would consider any semblance of training the first week of March.  I was getting in the pool 3 times/week, commuting to work on my bike a few times a week, getting some rides in on the weekend and running a couple times a week.  This was my training to train to train workouts.  I would say I was working out about 12-14 hours per week, nothing serious just getting out and about.  Fast forward again to early May and I would put myself as a 3 on a scale of 1-10 (10 being where I am when I stand at the starting line of an Ironman); and I don’t start real Ironman training until I am at a 6 or 7.  Since I haven’t raced in 20 months I decided last minute to go do Wildflower with a few friends.  I plowed my way through the race, sat at the finish line and thought about a conversation I had with Thomas Gerlach, one of our sponsored athletes, who was in the shop a few days before. He says to me “yeah, you know Ironman St. George is still open until next week.”   I am thinking to myself, just minutes after bombing down Lynch Hill, “I think it is time to do my experiment.”  Needless to say at the last minute I didn’t sign up for St. George (Jimmy Riccitello unknowingly talked me out of it).  Thomas did sign up for St. George a few days before and was the 15th amateur.

Tuesday, May 10: The Call.

“Hey Troy, what’s happening?” I said, seeing Coach Troy Jacobsen of Spinervals fame (and one of the most well regarded businessmen in the industry) at the counter in TriSports.com.  Jacobsen tells me he’s going to Leadman. Alarm bells sound in my head – I forgot about Leadman.

Nine weeks earlier I couldn’t have contemplated doing a sprint triathlon, let alone a race with a bike leg further than I’ve ever ridden… in my life.  On my ride home that night it hits me: Now or never. This is the perfect opportunity for my test.  I e-mail Jacobsen at 11:30PM that night. He gets back to me early AM on Wednesday, May 11 with the race director’s contact. Less than 24 hours later I am on a plane to Leadman.

Race morning: shaking off the butterflies and setting up the transition area prior to the swim start.

By The Numbers:

On my way to Las Vegas I had time to contemplate the folly of my impending (mis)adventure.  My most recent Ironman is Lake Placid and, since the course is hilly, it’s a good baseline.


Assuming I could hold the same pace from Lake Placid on the Leadman course I would have gone 11:03.  But this prediction doesn’t hold water. The bike course at Leadman is harder than Lake Placid, the conditions tougher. I’m not as fit. I’ll be closer to 7:15-7:30 on the bike.  The run course was much more difficult than Lake Placid, albeit shorter. I am fairly certain I could hold my Lake Placid pace.  I would peg my “on form” Leadman time at about 11:30 based on my prior Lake Placid times. Problem is, I am a long way from being “on form”.

I’m confident the difference between a “trained” Ironman and an “untrained” Ironman is 60-90 minutes.  It’s a box on my bucket list, and I am getting ready to check it off.

Saturday, May 14, Leadman Tri:

I knew this race would be small, maybe a few hundred people. Forty showed up (this includes the half and relays).

Most of them are the best long course athletes on the planet – Jordan Rapp, Angela Naeth, Hillary Biscay, Troy Jacobsen, Tara Norton, Katya Meyers, Victor Selenow. Lifetime Fitness wanted an event with an extremely hard course that took people beyond their limits. This course did exactly that. A soldier once opined, “No one intends to make history” but we were about to put one in the books that may never be matched.

A beautiful dawn over a technical swim course. The scene is reminiscent of the very first Ironman in Honolulu.

The Plan:

With less than 72 hours to prepare I knew I would be fine in the swim.  I budgeted 190-200 Watts for the bike; I figured this might be doable since I held 215 watts at Wildflower two weeks prior. I packed plenty of food. I’d be on the bike over 7 hours.  On the run, it would be a matter of survival: getting to the finish line.  The forecast for Las Vegas included a high of 93 on Saturday, but only 78 on Sunday.  The only way to get this temperature plunge in the desert is from wind. Lots of wind.  I was ready for it, especially on the way back – the triathlon gods wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Swim:

The most beautiful triathlon swim of my life.  The sun was coming up, clouds cresting to the east. The water was clear, the temp perfect. The swim navigation was technical since it was a 2-lap course with right and left turns. It’s a good thing there were so few of us.  My strong swimming background helped me put down one of the faster swim times. I took my sweet time in T1 – with a full change to TriSports.com cycling kit, Zoot arm coolers and a layer of Scape sunscreen along with all my food.

T1: On a course this difficult taking time to get dressed in cycling clothes and sorting out your nutrition for a long, tough bike course is key.

The Bike:

I headed out as planned, just chillin’.  The aid stations were 15-20 miles apart, most of them at the bottom of a hill.  In all fairness, they told us this at the pre-race meeting and said they had to have them where they were because the “Park” (Lake Mead Recreation Area) required them to put the aid stations in parking pullouts.  What I didn’t realize is that we were in the “Park” for nearly 120 miles.  At the third aid station I stopped to mix some energy drink.  One of the volunteers mentioned, “Wow, you are actually stopping, you are the first to stop.”  Her comment foreshadowed the carnage about to unfold.

The bike twists and turns out to Overton before a turn-around and a 20 mile baptism of fire in the Valley of Fire.  On the run in to Overton I passed fellow Tucsonan, Ironman legend Hillary Biscay.  That didn’t make sense. Either Biscay was having a really bad day or I was about to have one.  Hillary owns 47 Ironman finishes and an Ultraman. She knows what she is doing. When Biscay is having a good day and I am too we are about the same speed. In 2006 she went 10:08 to win Ironman Wisconsin. I went 10:08 that same day and was 33rd overall.  We said hello and kept chugging along.  By the time I entered the Valley of Fire I did a time check on Jordan Rapp, a former TriSports.com athlete.  He had an hour on me on his way to the overall win.  The Valley of Fire burned our wicks at both ends.  There are some impressive climbs there, one identical to the back of Gates Pass.

Good power numbers and a measured effort through the early bike course.

When I exited the Valley of Fire I knew something was wrong.  At special needs I saw my planned 196 Watts average.  Leaving the Valley I could barely manage 150 Watts.  The wind accelerated to 35mph, directly in my face.  It was nearly 100 degrees. I switched to survival mode into the headwind.  My drink combination combusted in my stomach. I had no desire to eat.  I was limping at 13mph, weaving at 7-8mph on some climbs.  Katya Meyers catches me at mile 100. As she passes I notice one of her shoe insoles in her jersey pocket.  My right foot is hurting so bad I can barely pedal.  I pull my foot out of my shoe. I pull my insole out also.

Mile 95 to 105 is a sustained 4% climb.  Because of the hydration/food/foot issue the inevitable perfect storm was building: the lock down cramp.  My left leg shut down after doing all the work for over a mile when my foot was out of my right shoe.  With 20 miles between aid stations I had drained my bottles.  Somehow I got going again. From mile 110 to 120 the power came back online – only to fade again.  I limped into the finish of the bike.

One detail – the bike course that was supposed to have 5,650 feet of climbing actually had over 10,200 feet.  Two miles- straight up.

Battling a gathering head wind and brutal desert heat in the back 1/3rd of the bike course.

T2:

I walk into the tent at T2. One of the guys that passed me at the first turn around 5 hours earlier is laying on the ground hooked to an IV. He’s messed up.  Another guy walks in who was catching me during my foot trauma at mile 105. “Yeah, the van came by and asked me if I wanted to get in. They asked me at the wrong time. I got in.”  He was out.

A race director tells me, “We’ve only had one finisher so far. It’s complete carnage out there, if you can just make it to the finish you will do awesome.”

The entire field is melting in the heat haze. I still have to run 14 miles.  I see goose bumps on my legs.  It is 100 degrees outside, 115 degrees in the tent. I am dehydrated or have a heat injury- or both.  Ironically though, I feel fine. I grab my Ultimate Solo pack, switch to my run wardrobe and head out into the desert.

A net elevation gain on much of the run course but some excellent run surfaces.

Run:

I was hoping for a 10 minute pace. If there was a “race” it was decided hours ago, mostly by the course, the wind and the heat. Now it was about survival.  The first 3 miles were uphill. The climb was followed by 4.5 miles of flat out and back on the railroad trail used to build the Hoover Dam including five tunnels blasted through the rock.  The last 6.5 miles was like running up the Mt. Lemmon Highway in Tucson into a 20-30mph headwind. In keeping with the theme of the day the last mile stung like the tail of a desert scorpion. It was a 10-12% grade.  I refilled my bottle with ice and Gatorade at every aid station, pouring ice in my hat and taking an ice towel for my back.

Getting adequate nutrition and hydration on the course was more important here than even a regular Ironman.

This race distance seems perfect since the run is only 14 miles (22k) instead of a marathon. The last 8 miles on the run of an Ironman does massive damage to your body. Bad damage.  This run didn’t do that damage because of the distance and the uphill profile.  The next day I was walking normally- no Ironman limp.

There is, literally, a light at the end of a long, difficult tunnel.

Only 14 athletes finished the race.  Three-quarters of the men’s pro field didn’t make it off the bike. Impressively, all four pro women finished.  Of the 14 finishers 4 are from Tucson: Angela Naeth (women’s winner and 2nd overall and TriSports.com sponsored athlete), Troy Jacobsen, Hillary Biscay and I.  Surviving the race earned me 4th place male.  All 14 finishers would likely agree this was the hardest course we’ve done, an impressive endorsement since the 14 finishers own a combined total of over 250 Ironman finishes.

In the chute: There were no crowds trying to cross the finish line together. Yet. (Right: Photo Courtesy Lifetime Fitness)

The Future:

This is how legends in endurance sports are born: A small, elite field, a brutal course, epic conditions. The race is a legend forged in the desert, fired by the heat and wind.  One day this race may sell out to a huge field limit in a matter of hours as the new high bar in a sport where “ultimate” is a moving target.  The 14 of us that had what it took to complete the inaugural event got a chance to be in on the ground floor, at the outer limits of the sport. It reminded me of a when a bunch of people gathered on a beach Waikiki in 1978.

In rare company: Despite a strong pro field few athletes made it to the finish. Here Seton shares the celebration with emerging pro Angela Naeth.