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 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.
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.
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".
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.