Phil Armitage

Triathlon & running

In 2004 my brother suggested a challenge: competing in an Olympic distance triathlon (1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run). Moreover, he set as a goal a finishing time of 2 hours 30 minutes, the "logic" being that Alistair Campbell (then Tony Blair's 40-something press secretary) had completed the London Triathlon in a little under 2:45. Surely we could do measurably better than a middle-aged man who, if not weighed down by his conscience as chief UK spin-master, must at least have been forced to balance his training with the crushing responsibilities of high office. Needless to say, my first attempt at a triathlon in 2005 was an amusing litany of errors, but since then I've competed in a bunch of races. My "best" result in absolute terms remains a 1/2 iron distance showing of 5:28 in 2009, though in recent years I've gotten swept up into a local enthusiasm for trail races where times are somewhat secondary to the overall challenge and race locale.

2015 Death Valley trail marathon

Finishing time: 4:37:09
GPS track

The Death Valley trail marathon is a point-to-point race that starts near Beatty in Nevada and follows a jeep road through Titus Canyon to finish on the floor of Death Valley. There's about 2000 feet of climbing - mostly gradual, though with one steep mile at the end - before you reach Red Pass at mile 12, followed by 5000 feet of continuous descent over 14 miles to the finish. That's an average grade of 7%...

After a couple of frustrating injuries I somewhat deliberately took it pretty easy in the lead up to the race (my longest run was only 16 miles). I tried to take it easy in the race too, hiking the steep-ish but still runnable ascent to Red Pass, and felt decent through mile 18 and on course for a 4:30 finish. Eventually the downhill took its toll, however, and the final miles were slow-ish and hard on the legs (though not tiring - it's all downhill)! I'd recommend the race, though if you want to take it seriously putting in miles on 5-10% downhills is essential.

2015 Liverpool 1/2 marathon

Finishing time: 1:45:16

You can't escape the Rock 'n' Roll series! The Liverpool version at least featured a city actually known for its music, and running past a band playing the Beatles' "Penny Lane" in Penny Lane was admittedly fun. I knew my fitness was not too great, so the time was about right.

2014 Moab trail 1/2 marathon

Finishing time: 2:25:48

Everything changed so that the time would stay the same! Between 2013 and 2014 the Colorado contingent of runners dispersed to the East coast and Arizona, but we reunited in Moab for another crack at the marathon and 1/2 marathon. It was a good deal warmer at the start, and with the benefit of experience I paced the race a great deal better, slowing to a walk only on the steep final pitch of the initial climb and toward the summit of the jeep road. A finish inside 2:20 seemed plausible, until a blunder saw me wading downstream through waist-deep water when the actual race route had exited the creek! Ignoring the time though it was altogether more fun second time around, and even the marathoners were recovered enough for a hike the following day.

2014 Denver 1/2 marathon

Finishing time: 1:41:57

In the years since I last did the Denver 1/2 the race has become part of the Rock 'n' Roll series, which although professionally organized was a bit lacking in either rock or roll in its Denver incarnation. Still I was very happy with the time - my fastest 1/2 marathon.

2013 Moab trail 1/2 marathon

Finishing time: 2:25:39
GPS track

The Moab trail marathon and 1/2 marathon follow spectacularly beautiful courses in the red rock landscape adjacent to Canyonlands national park. Both races start with 4 miles of solid climbing that gains about 800 feet, and from the elevation track you might think (and I did think) that reaching the top would be the crux of the effort. In fact even the nominally downhill section features several morale-sapping reverses, and there's a steep jeep road to ascend at the 10 mile mark. When all that's said and done with, there's a lengthy section of ice-cold creek to wade / run through before you sight the finish. The whole thing is tough but tremendous fun, and the race was the highlight of a great weekend in the desert with a bunch of friends and colleagues. I'm planning to be back in 2014!

2013 Jelm mountain run

Finishing time: 1:50:27
GPS track

The Jelm mountain run involves an ascent of 2050 feet at an average grade of 7.5% along the 5 mile-long jeep road that leads to the University of Wyoming's observatory, at which point you turn around and run back down. Depending on how you look at it, this sort of event is either an appealingly pure challenge of fitness or the height of insanity, and going in I had no illusions that it would be anything other than a brutal climb. And indeed it was. If you're thinking of trying it, it's well organized, friendly and certainly memorable.

2013 Fruita trail marathon

Finishing time: 4:49:45
GPS track

My first trail race! The Fruita trail running festival - the marathon course involved 26 miles and 3,400 feet of climbing - came highly recommended by the keen trail runners in my department. And they were right, it was a low key but well organized event that made for a fun weekend in western Colorado. Easy though it was not! The trail was surprisingly rocky and technical in places, and although I'd done a moderate amount of trail running in training I hadn't really prepared for steep trails where a mixture of running and hiking is the best strategy. My vague goal had been to finish in 4:30 but early on I realized that wasn't going to happen. In fact some tough miles climbing a relentless jeep road just after the last aid station (around mile 20) left me wondering if I could even break 5 hours. I recovered just enough to finish at running pace, but in no mood to race the woman who sprinted past me to the line!

2012 Bolder Boulder (10km road race)

Finishing time: 44:12.8

2012 5430 Sprint triathlon (750m / 17.2 mile / 5km)

Finishing time: 1:31:07
Splits: 12:02 (swim), 51:34 (bike), 23:25 (run)

The Sprint triathlon is developing a reputation not so much as a mellow confidence-builder for the more serious races to come, but as a harbinger of doom. After a dismal showing in 2008, in 2012 I went down with some sort of food poisoning on the Thursday before the race! Fortunately I'd recovered enough to race on the Sunday, and took 9 minutes off my previous time. That was good, but better was the feeling that, finally, I have this open-water swimming thing sorted! I started out as a (formerly) decent swimmer, and in the first few years made the mistake of trying to regain seconds of pace in the pool... while there were minutes to be had from improving my sighting and open-water swimming skills.

2012 Boulder Peak triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:35:27
Splits: 24:42 (swim), 1:20:14 (bike), 45:17 (run)

MECHANICAL MISHAP! "That sucks!" was the succinct observation of a fellow competitor as the chain started flailing around amidst my bike's drive train at mile 18. Up till then the race, held for once in cool and overcast conditions, had been going pretty well. My swim was just a few seconds off my best time, and though the ascent of Old Stage Hill is never going to be one of life's sublime pleasures numerous repetitions in training did at least numb the pain. And afterwards, I did by far my best run in a triathlon. So overall it was a good day, and had I paid a little more attention to the zen of bike maintainance it would unquestionably have been my best Boulder Peak time. Sub 2:30? Probably not, though it would have been close. For 2013 I reckon the lessons are that I need to add some intensity to my bike workouts and either (a) give my road bike more tender loving care or (b) dump it and splurge on a real tri bike with a set of aero wheels! Option (b) might, I grant you, seem like a profoundly unsatisfying way to "improve" my bike time but, hey, everyone else is doing it. Looking round the transition area at the Peak I'd guess the going rate is about $1000 per minute.

2011 SteelMan triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:36:20
Splits: 25:53 (swim), 1:18:17 (bike), 48:14 (run)

My entry into the UK SteelMan, held at Dorney Lake just outside London, was both a good excuse to race with my brother for the first time, and a retread of my "cunning plan" of 2009. The course here is ideal for a newcomer to triathlon: the swim is in the rowing lake, where sighting is a breeze (in fact, you can follow the ropes used to anchor the rowing lane markers!); the bike is 8 loops on a flat closed course; and the run 4 out-and-back trips alongside the lake. Null points for having no aid stations on the bike (that's cheap, guys), but still it should be a really fast course. It didn't work out too great for me though. I was pleased with my swim, but never really felt very powerful on the bike, perhaps because I wasn't used to it (I hired a pretty nice Specialized bike for the day). The run could probably have been a couple of minutes quicker, but I didn't push it too hard. So a fun day out, but no best time.

2011 Boulder Peak triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:39:11
Splits: 24:37 (swim), 1:21:40 (bike), 48:49 (run)

I'm not retreating, I'm advancing in another direction! Despite my putting in only a handful of sessions in the pool, this was my best ever swim split in a triathlon, an outcome I attribute (a) to more open water practice courtesy of the Stroke and Stride and (b) to my finally abandoning my stubborn refusal to wear a wetsuit. Alas, the "less training makes you faster" theory didn't seem to work so well for the bike and the run. Old Stage Hill is still not getting any flatter, and although I moved pretty speedily once over the top the damage, I fear, had already been done. The run, actually, felt OK at the end, but it took a long time - almost 3 miles - before I found my legs, suggesting again that my fundamental weakness was the bike. The attentive reader will doubtless observe that a lack of bike fitness has been the central problem since my very first triathlon, in 2005, and will thus view my vow to focus on the bike next time round with the scorn that it merits. But 2012 will be different. Really...

2010 Boulder Peak triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:34:11
Splits: 26:24 (swim), 1:18:20 (bike), 46:27 (run)

For 2010 I was on sabbatical, which you might think would have been a golden opportunity to devote more time to training and, yes, finally best 2:30! It didn't quite work that way though - in practice I spent a lot of time visiting other institutions and giving talks, and, despite the best of intentions, it's hard to train much while travelling (though I did a couple of nice runs in a Beijing park when the pollution wasn't too bad!). I did get in some good swim / run sessions courtesy of the Boulder Stroke and Stride series, but still I think I was a little weak on base fitness. The race itself went pretty well, but though I thought I was moving fast on the bike the clock told otherwise - just one minute faster than 2008. Knowing that 2:30 was out of reach the run felt hard, though in fact I picked up more time on that than anywhere else.

2009 SGTRI (Olympic distance "triathlon", St George Utah)

Finishing time: 2:10:28
Splits: 24:19 (5km run), 1:17:13 (40km bike), 25:04 (5km run)

As Blackadder's Baldrick would say, "I have a cunning plan". For 2009 I resolved to crack 2:30 by trying my hand at an easier course (the Boulder Peak not only includes a vicious hill on the bike, but it's also 42km rather than the regulation 40km Olympic distance)! Alas it was not to be: high winds forced the cancellation of the swim leg of the 2009 SGTRI which transmuted instead into a rather weird two leg run / bike event. A pity, but 2:30 probably wasn't on the cards anyway - although the St George course is very beautiful (and the right length) it's far from being blazingly fast: the roads are none too smooth and the run, especially, has some sandy patches.

2009 5430 Long Course triathlon (1/2 iron distance)

Finishing time: 5:27:59
Splits: 36:13 (swim), 2:51:51 (bike), 1:52:45 (run)

A half iron distance race features a 1.2 mile swim, 56 miles on the bike, with a half marathon (13.1 miles) to finish. Although I trained quite diligently for all of that, there's no avoiding a certain amount of apprehension on the start line of a half iron-distance race. You have to get the intensity right! Whereas for an Olympic distance triathlon you can more or less be sure of running to the finish whatever happens earlier, for a 70.3 there's a very real danger of going out too hard and having a long walk home on the "run". In the event though it went great. I'd targeted 5:30 - 6:00 as optimistic / pessimistic limits and came in just under my most optimistic estimate. The last 3 miles on the run were tough enough that I reckon this was close to optimal pacing given my state of fitness.

2008 5430 Sprint triathlon (750m / 17.2 miles / 5km)

Finishing time: 1:40:06
Splits: 15:16 (swim), 54:28 (bike), 25:09 (run)

Felt slow, and the time was slow. Not completely sure what was wrong, though I'd driven back from LA (where I'd spent a month) the previous day. So the leading excuse is lack of acclimatization to the altitude.

2008 Boulder Peak triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:36:50
Splits: 26:21 (swim), 1:19:15 (bike), 48:20 (run)

Still didn't break 2:30, but I was pretty happy with this effort.

2007 Bolder Boulder (10km road race)

Finishing time: 43:19

2007 Boulder Peak triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:45:59
Splits: 28:38 (swim), 1:24:15 (bike), 49:19 (run)

After a bunch of well-executed training plans for running races, I approached my second triathlon with what turned out to be foolhardy confidence. Yes I was (much) fitter and (somewhat) wiser than in 2005, but the signature ascent of Old Stage Hill on the bike was still brutal and the run mercilessly hot. I was moderately happy with the time - 10 minutes faster than in '05 - but still finished with the thought that I'd survived rather than raced the race. In retrospect, failing to put enough miles in on the bike was, once more, the biggest problem with my training. The lesson of course is that for triathlon you have to train for your weakest discipline, rather than succumbing to the temptation to work on what you find easiest.

2007 Colorado marathon

Finishing time: 3:44:00.6 (8:33 / mile pace)
Split: 1:50:23

You gotta love an organization that times a marathon to the nearest tenth of a second! The Colorado marathon in Fort Collins features a truly stunning, mostly downhill, course through the Cache La Poudre River Canyon. I trained for my first marathon following the tried and tested formula: a steady upward succession of weekly "long runs", interspersed by monthly rest weeks with less distance. The final long run, a couple of weeks out, was only 19 miles, but as advertised it was enough and I finished fairly strongly. Probably I left something on the table as I felt largely recovered by the middle of the week afterwards.

2006 Denver 1/2 marathon

Finishing time: 1:42:53 (7:51 / mile pace)

The Denver city half featured a fighter jet flyover to mark the start (memorable though perhaps stereotypically over-the-top). I paced this one pretty well and - at least in 2006 - this was about as fast as I could go.

2006 Boulder Backroads 1/2 marathon

Finishing time: 1:54:16 (8:43 / mile pace)

The nice thing about a 1/2 marathon is that a fun outing is possible even without extensive preparation. This was my first half and I took it pretty easily on the way out and ended up negative splitting by some huge margin. The Backroads is a beautiful though maybe not super-fast course.

2005 Boulder Peak triathlon (Olympic distance)

Finishing time: 2:55:44
Splits: 28:29 (swim), 1:29:50 (bike), 53:02 (run)

So much for 2:30! The run up to my first attempt at a triathlon was characterized by what Joe Friel, in his canonical Triathlete's Training Bible, politely describes as "random" training. For 6 months or so I ran, biked (exclusively on an exercise bike, which is not recommended) and swam quite a bit, but with no readily discernable plan. Among a litany of errors the most egregious were (a) a spur of the moment decision to train for a "warm up" half marathon - which led to a foot injury, (b) a total absence of open water swimming practice, and (c) epic vacillation that culiminated in my delaying buying a road bike until a week before the race! All in all this was not so much of a race as a survival experience, but it was still fun and on the theory that one learns from one's mistakes this was a crash course!


Philip Armitage
University of Colorado, Boulder, CO80309-0440
Tel: 303-492-7836; FAX: 303-492-5235