Tuesday, June 23, 2009

IRONMAN Coeur d'Alene Idaho Race Report


Starting on the beach with over 2,400 swimmers was nerve-racking, even though this was my 3rd Ironman. The cannon went off at 6:59 and the wrestling match began. For the first 800 meters, instead of swimming it was more of a survival situation. People clawing over each others legs, grabbing ankles, swimming over each other, locking arms...2,400 people in a battling for space swimming along a line of buoys.

My training partners Slater Fletcher, Keevin Blue and I kid each other
about "crushing dreams" on tough workouts. Apparently my dream crushing skills are so strong that I managed to crush MY OWN dreams this past
weekend at the 2009 Ford Ironman Coeur d'Alene! And I am not joking either.


Training has gone according to plan, without any injuries since March. My
key benchmark workouts indicated I was ready to go 9:30-9:40 at the race.
I figured a 1:05 swim, 5:00 bike, and 3:20 run plus transitions would get me there. All were conservative figures that I could knock out on any given day at my "steady"
heart rate without a problem. I was going to under-promise and over-deliver!

A close examination of the past 6 years' race results showed that as long as I finished under 10 hours I would qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Qualifying for "the big show" was the prime directive and motivating force to get me out the door every day. I told myself I would not allow ego (an overzealous "fast" bike split) get in the way of a "perfectly executed" and balanced race. I had the false assumption that 9:50 or under would be a Slam-Dunk. Wrong-O!

The Swim

The swim was two loops of a 1.2 mile rectangular course. After the first lap, athletes exited the water, ran around 50 feet down the beach across a timing mat, and
plopped back in the 65 degree lake for the 2nd and final lap.

At 32:45 I exited the first lap and was a bit disappointed, but realized that the first half mile must have been very slow with the wrestling and constant sighting/heads-up swimming. I put my head down and hoped for a sub-30 2nd lap.

Those hopes quickly vanished as the wind and waves picked up and we were forced to swim into waves, current, and wind for the next 900 meters. Every breath was met with a wave slapping me in the face, and every stroke was an awkward stab into the diaganol waves. Not fun! I have years of ocean swimming and surfing experience, but typically you do not swim straight into windy white-caps for 900 meters. I finished the swim in a sub-par 1 hour 10 minutes.

After the race I learned that everyone would wind up with swim splits 5 to 10 minutes slower than usual.

The Bike

I set off on the bike knowing that I was "in my element" and could record a top 20 split overall at a comfortable pace without nuking myself for the run. Assuming conditions were typical, 4:55-5:05 was the range I was shooting for on this day. On a course with over 6,000 feet of vertical gain, managing my pace and precisely timed shifting would be the secrets to achieving my goal. Carrying momentum on and after the downhills would be a key advantage for me, given my size.

Unfortunately, I learned a mile into the 112 mile ride that shifting was going be a problem. A BIG problem. I was unable to shift my rear cassette lower than the 19. Occasionally it would skip on it's own a bit lower, but only randomly. Nightmare!

This of course meant that I would spin out my gears at just 24 miles per hour, and I would be unable to pedal on descents or flats with a tailwind. I stopped before a long descent and tried to diagnose and fix the problem, but to no avail. I manually lifted the chain and placed it on the 12, my lowest gear, and descended. Hoping that the problem would rectify magically. It didn't.

Before the race, I did a short shake-down ride on the race wheels I had borrowed from a friend: a Zipp disk and 100mm deep front wheel. Everything seemed kosher, except a slight skipping from the 21 to 25. It seemed to be ok if I soft-pedaled more than usual while shifting, but not nipping this problem in the bud would be my undoing. I sabotaged my own race. I Crushed my OWN dreams!

I spent the next 110 miles riding tiny gears on a course where I could have gained massive heaps of time on the rolling hills, flats, and descents. At 180lbs, one of my strengths is pushing big watts at a lower heart rate than most racers. I spent an enormous amount of time, money, and energy on perfecting my aerodynamics to ensure that those watts would translate into a 4:50ish bike split at the lowest energy output possible.

Not on this day. (sound of dream being crushed)

Dealing with this fiasco was difficult emotionally, but my splits along the course said I would still finish the leg somewhere between 5:05 and 5:10. Not the end of the world, and I figured (constantly) that I would still be able to finish the race around 9:40s.

I decided to focus on what WAS under my control at the time: sticking to my fueling plan and trying to have the discipline to not make up for the time I was losing on the flats and downhills by climbing too hard. I kept my heart rate under 150 for 99% of the bike ride and forced myself to keep a positive attitude.

I wound up finishing the bike leg in 5 hours and 10 minutes, about 15 minutes shy of my goal. After riding the course, I realized that my goal was a bit soft and 4:50 would have been no problem with a full range of 10 gears and not stopping for X minutes to try to fix my deraileur. The angel on my right shoulder told me during the ride that this was a blessing in disguise: I was forced to rest, keep a high cadence and low watts, ensuring more energy for the run. Would he be right?

Running out of T2, I knew that I was still right on target for my Kona spot. All I "needed" to do was run under 3:35 to break 10 hours, and I knew at my fitness level that even 3:20 would be very easy with the day's cool temperatures. I felt confident and focused on the mission at hand. I would pace myself according to the Game Plan and not get caught up in the emotional ups and downs.

The Marathon

With a 3:20 marathon in mind, I felt totally in control as that pace is roughly one minute per mile slower than I had ever run in training for this race, barring long hills.

At the start I set out at around 6:45 pace, my "steady" training pace for approximately 7 miles. That felt easy and I had to hold back to not run faster.
After tapering for 3 weeks I felt fresher than I had in months. You never feel "normal" in an Ironman marathon, but I knew what to expect and focused on one mile at a time.

By mile 8 I had some unresolved stomach issues that began after taking some EFS gel at the end of the bike. I had run out of Vitargo on the bike and only had EFS as my backup. At 400 calories per flask, with electrolytes and aminos, on paper it seems like a great product. In fact, I had experimented with it in training and found that as long as you dosed it very carefully, and frequently, it worked. Not quite Vitargo, but it would be an easy way to carry 800 calories in a small package.

I apparently took a bit too much and my stomach bloated terribly. I was unable to down water or food for the first 8 miles of the run. Instead I sipped at aid stations every mile and just waited confidently for the bloating to go away. It did not. So bathroom stop #1 for #2 cost me 2 minutes. I felt better and kept trucking, still "on pace". I slowed down slightly to lower my heart rate and allow my body to better digest the calories that it needed. Again, I was on pace for a 3:20ish marathon, sub 9:50 and my Kona slot. I was going to play it conservatively all day and do nothing to risk my chances.

At mile 15 I hit my special needs bag and grabbed my bottle of Vitargo and nuun. That bottle was a life-saver! I was immediately comforted and energized, and I knew that I would be good to go for at least the next 90 minutes with a two-scoop bottle of Vitargo. Knowing that you are taking in the best fuel that has never let you down is a huge part of the mental game in Ironman. I always train with nuun, which was not on the course at this race, so the taste alone of the nuun told me that I was getting the electrolytes my body needed and that I was "good to go" for the next hour at least.

Clicking off the miles, I continued to do the math, and realized that I could run 7:30ish pace easily between aid stations, walking through each one to take in water and after mile 20, chicken broth for electrolytes. At around mile 24 my hamstrings began to get tight and I slowed down to about 7:45 pace between aid stations, taking an extra couple walking steps to ensure I was still hydrated and had electrolytes. I knew it "ain't over til it's over".

The Finish

Turning onto Sherman Avenue at mile 25.5, I opened it up and turned on the afterburners as the crowds cheered on and the finish line grew closer. On a sidenote, my watch told me I would finish in 9:49, since I started it at 7:00am. I found out on that last mile that my watch was off because the race actually started at 6:59! I watched the clock tick over from 9:50 to 9:51 from a distance and slowed slightly, with nobody behind me. For some reason 9:49 had a nice ring to it, and would have put me in the top 3 or 4 in my Age Group in most of the past races.

I sprinted across the line, thinking all along that I had executed a good race and had my ticket to Kona. My lovely and talented and wonderful girlfriend HotWheels was there in the finish line chute and gave me the bad news after I asked my overall and Age Group place. 53rd overall...and 12th in the 30-34 age group. Top 6 in my age group were all in the top 25. What? Holy $#&@! So my elation turned to shock, horror, disgust and devastation.

After I found out that the last Kona slot was 14 minutes ahead, I realized that is a) about how much time I lost on the bike due to my shifting problem; and b) a bit more than I probably could have gained on the run, even if I had pushed the pace. I doubt I had a 3:10 in my legs on this day. 3:15 would have been pushing it. I have only been running for 4.5 months after a winter spent nursing foot injuries. Gotta be realistic!

Could I have gone faster on the run? Yes, but everyone believes that. I won't know until next time. It's all Theory until you actually DO IT. However I will be *slightly* less conservative and more aggressive next time.

Ironman racing takes practice...and 6 years between races left me a bit rusty. Now that I have a good benchmark for the distance at this fitness level, I believe that with the same fitness and improved execution, sub 9:30 is achievable at my next race, even this year.

Am I pleased with my race? Given the circumstances and operational assumptions, hell yes. It was actually a Personal Record for me and a well-executed race given my goals and strategy. I did what I set out to do, in the face of adversity on a tough day. I know I am not the only one lamenting the "ould-haves". There were around 2,500 people in this race, and everyone at some point faced their demons and went through very low points. The satisfaction you feel at the finish line is correlated to the intensity of the pain, doubt, heartbreak and adversity you overcame during the event.

Had I qualified, I'm sure I would have patted myself on the back for executing a conservative race, albeit with critical lessons learned. Instead, I ponder the lessons and spend my recovery time self-evaluating and trying to learn something from my race autopsy.

As much as I was disappointed, I know how to better prepare for and execute my next race.

In an Ironman event, your age is marked on your left calf, so you can identify your age-group competition. Apparently, there was one case of "heartbreak" far worse than mine:

A glance at the results shows that the last Kona slot in the Men's 35-39 went to
Sam Picicci in 9:52:41...Chris Pollard, also 35-39, finished in 9:52:42. Sprint finish.


Learned some valuable lessons up in Idaho. I cannot wait to implement those in my next race against the clock. Which will be...

What comes next will be in my next post.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ironman Coeur d'Alene This Weekend...

Bike course doesn't look too bad...if you love hills and headwinds as much as This guy.

It's on.
Like Donkey Kong.

The race is on Sunday. If you want to follow the race LIVE, you can do so at www.ironmanlive.com . There will be live tracking throughout the race, and possibly audio/video. Intermediate splits throughout the course will give you a good idea of my progress.

The primary directive is to get off the bike feeling like I can rip a 3 hour marathon. Of course after mile 20 and close to 9 hours of racing anything can happen. Maintaining that outlook - and pace - may prove to be a bit more difficult. Fueling with Vitargo should allow me to race as close to potential as possible.

As always, you bring the popcorn, I'll bring the pain.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Huntington Beach Pier Swim Race Report

This weekend's 58th Annual Huntington Beach Pier Swim makes two open water races in as many weeks...and you can also make that two in the last several years!

This weekend we had another beach start, with over 100 hardy souls in my wave lined up on the north side (down current) of the Huntington Beach Pier. The horn went off and like a herd of bison we ran, high-stepped and trampled into the ocean at low tide for our 800 meter race. I attempted to follow the leaders, who precariously swam BETWEEN the completely barnacled pilings.

The current was quite strong and the strategy was swim in the slightly calmer water between the pilings. By the time we reached the end of the pier, the swimmers who had taken the outside route were coming across in droves, swimming over eachother, kicking, clawing. Once I had made it to the south side I was basically swimming diagnonally against the current just to stay south of the pier and eventually make it back to the beach finish.

My stroke felt strong, but the combination of the current and waist to chest-high surf made the going very slow for everyone. I was humbled by two waves. The second wave pulled me under for over five seconds, and sent me too close to the pier's pilings.

A Lifeguard made me swim back through the pilings, with the current and run up the beach to the finish. I eventually made it to the shore and did make the sprint to the finish in just over 12 minutes and 30 seconds. My total "swim" time was around 11minutes.

The craziness of the pack swim, navigating the pilings, battling the current, and being tossed around by the waves made it one of the most enjoyable races of any kind that I have done in quite a long time. I felt strong in the water, much stronger than ever before in an open water race. My navigational folly (not continuing south after passing the end of the pier) cost me valuable time.

However at the finish line I was grinning ear-to-ear and looking forward to this summer's many open water races. I have definitely regained my love of swimming and time in the ocean. I believe I can turn my relative "weakness" into a strength, and soon.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Playa del Run 1 Mile Ocean Swim Report

Playa del Run One Mile Ocean Swim
Huntington Beach
1st, Age Group
12th Overall

This morning I headed down to Bolsa Chica state beach for the Playa del Run one mile ocean swim race. I considered the aquathlon (swim 1k/run 5k) however I needed a solid benchmark for my open water swimming, and I had a long-ish run planned for later in the day. So just swimming for today! with only two weeks to go until Ironman Coeur d'Alene Idaho, I was anxious to see where my swim fitness was this late in the game.

At the start I lined up with about 25 other folks approximately one mile south of the finish line. It would be a running beach start, with a swim of around 150 meters offshore to the first buoy. There were 5 buoys we would pass on our swim north before turning east to the beach finish line.

I looked around and noticed there were several fit-looking guys and gals who were in full body race-suits, not wetsuits. I figured they were probably better candidates to follow and draft behind rather than the other fit-looking folks in top-of-the-line wetsuits (whom I judged to be triathletes like me and thus probably inferior swimmers). After the race I would find out that the "purists" racing sans-wetsuit included former Stanford swim team members and Olympic trials qualifiers.

After the airhorn signaled the start, we ran down to the water, dolphin-dove through the surf (hoping to avoid stingrays) and we were off. I managed to stay with the leaders through the first 200 yards or so, part of my strategy to get on some fast feet. However I could not find a rhythm right away and the group of leaders (sans wetsuits) left me in their wake.

After around 1000 meters of soul-searching (why do I suck? why didn't I train more? what pace am I swimming?), and poor navigating leaving me around 50 feet too far out from the buoy line (costing me precious time) I finally found a solid rhythm and was able to increase my pace and finish the last 500 meters feeling very strong. When I hit the last buoy before making the 90 degree turn to the shore, I actually double-checked that there wasn't another buoy because I felt so fresh and it felt too early.

During the final ~200 meters to the finish I felt very strong but again screwed up my sighting and found myself drifting too far north of the finish line. I have to stop this habit of swimming bonus meters...not cool! The kicker was right when I was only 50 meters from the beach, the rip kept pulling me out. I was swimming in place for what seemed like forever. I finally took a wave in far enough that allowed me to get my feet on the ground and again dolphin dive towards the beach. I hobbled up the shore through the finish line in around 20 minutes of actual swim time, according to my Official Timekeeper.

My new BlueSeventy Helix wetsuit worked flawlessly! By far the fastest and most flexible wetsuit I have ever worn (I have owned 4 triathlon wetsuits since 1999: QRs and Orcas). It is remarkably easy to put on and take off as well, yet fits me perfectly. The old adage about a wetsuit being uncomfortable or even painful on dry land to swim fast just doesn't apply here. How much faster am I with this wetsuit? A lot. Every other wetsuit I have worn has severely restricted my shoulder flexibility. Zero restriction here. Hard to believe, but true! I am in love with this suit.

After I heard my swim time was only 20 minutes and change, I realized the course was a bit short. I spoke with the uber-swimmer leaders who all agreed the swim was 100, maybe 200 meters short. So as far as benchmarking for Ironman Coeur d'Alene, I will look at this as 23 minutes, conservatively. That would be equal to a 58 minute split for the Ironman which would be a bit on the fast side for me historically but about right...

I have several more open water swims planned for this summer and fall to prepare me for Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championships. The Playa del Run Aquathlon had a fantastic turnout! I plan on entering at least one this summer as well as part of my training program. Looks like a blast.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

T-Minus 14 days...

With two weeks to go until Ironman Coeur d'Alene, I am finally logging some nearly-respectable swim training both in the pool and ocean. A recurring shoulder issue seems to have cleared up for the most part, so I am cramming in the yards to increase my (lame) swimming fitness for the race.

On Sunday I will head down to Bolsa Chica State Beach, 2 miles from my house, to compete in the Playa del Run 1 mile open water swim race. It should provide a good race-simulation for the Ironman. I hope the little fella pictured above isn't in the neighborhood! He will be my motivation to stay near the front of the pack...

Steve Larsen Update (Get Your Cholesterol Screened!!)

Steve Larsen's official cause of death has apparently been ruled a
heart attack due to atherosclerosis.

Part of what I do for a living is help physicians educate patients on the risk factors
and consequences of atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in the arteries). The most common first symptom? Sudden death.

Many athletes I know are under the false impression that since they have 5% body fat and exercise 15-20 hours per week they are immune to atherosclerosis. They believe their arteries are clean as a whistle...guess again! It makes sense for all of us to have regular cholesterol screens including a discussion of our family history with our physicians.

In addition to the links above, here is a one-pager of links to other independent resources to learn more about your cholesterol and how you can slow the progression of atherosclerosis.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Taper Time?

Cresting the top of the Laguna Seca racetrack's main climb...

Test-riding the coolest bike at the Sea Otter expo...

With three weeks to go until Ironman Couer d'Alene, it is officially
Taper Time. That doesn't mean I am going to be training less, but instead
I will shorten the long run and long ride and increase the intensity on the
hard days. Recovering in between these tougher sessions is the "secret sauce" in
my training plan. In the past I never had the discipline to allow myself to recover
from long or hard sessions, which of course stalls improvement or worse, leads to debilitating over-training syndrome.

I am throwing in a few random shots from this year's Sea Otter Classic in Monterrey, where I competed in the Circuit Race on the Laguna Seca track. Definitely one of the "funnest" bike races I have ever done. I missed the break on the last lap, but managed to finish without crashing which was my main goal!