Since I paid for the official race photos, I might as well post ‘em!
Since I paid for the official race photos, I might as well post ‘em!
This was my 14th Ironman. Once you’ve done a few and have generally been on an improvement curve, you tend to take it for granted that each race will get better — the times may vary according to conditions, but you expect better each time.
Then you have a day like I had in Cabo: one of my slowest Ironmans and by far my slowest run ever, though to be fair there wasn’t a lot of actual running involved.
My training had been excellent leading up to the race — solid long rides, best power ever on the bike, a decent 1:24 half marathon the day after a longish ride, and even my swimming was improving a little. The one fly in the ointment was a slight hamstring strain I had gotten while running two weeks before the event. Some aggressive ART sessions and a stretch taping by my friend Jen seemed to have resolved the issue. So I had reason to expect a good result. But — like life — sometimes things just don’t work out. The first ominous sign was a flat rear tire when I arrived at the transition area on race morning — that had never happened to me before. Luckily, I was carrying two spare tubes in my tool bag, so I made a quick change. No real drama. It was also a little nip and tuck getting down to the beach through a very narrow corral; my coach Tim (who was also in the race) and I weren’t sure we’d make it down before the gun went off. But it all worked out.
Once the race got underway, the day started off well. Only about 900 competitors started the race, which meant a very nice swim with minimal contact. The Sea of Cortez was pretty calm and a nice 73F or so. I got off well and swam relaxed, focusing on my technique and sighting, and was surprised to see the clock reading 1:05:xx when I exited on the beach. A PR by almost 4 minutes — things were looking good!
The bike course isn’t easy or particularly fast — lots of rolling hills on the corridor road between the two Cabos, and much of the road surface is rough chip seal. There were also a few nasty potholes that were hard to see until you were almost on them (or in them). Luckily, with a field that was pretty small and spread out and a three-loop bike, it was easy to ride right most of the time and also to remember approximately where the hazards were.
I was targeting a bike time of around 5:30 — just over a 20-mph average. The initial climbs put me a little behind, but by the time I had done the first of three loops, I was right on schedule (speed-wise and power-wise) and feeling pretty good. Pretty good, not great.
That was as good as it was going to get, though. I had done a 5.5-hour training ride at a Normalized Power (NP) of 217W, and here I was 20W lower but unable to up the ante. For you non-data-geeks, that means that I couldn’t turn over the pedals as hard on race day as I had done pretty easily in training. I’m pretty sure the heat had something to do with that.
Another view (sorry to geek out) is where I had my best power for 30, 60, 90 and 120 minutes. That would be…drum roll…in the first half of the bike:
This is not the way you want the day to go — instead, you want your best power late in the ride. I did have a technical glitch, though, where in the last hour+ my bike computer just locked on 153W no matter whether I was pedaling or coasting, climbing or descending, so in essence I could no longer rely on my power meter to guide me. I’m not sure I would have liked the real numbers anyway, as cramps began to set in with about 20 miles to go.
This was looking like trouble. I’m used to cramping in the run, but it doesn’t happen often on the bike. Except when it’s really hot, like that disastrous half Ironman in Las Vegas I did. I’m not sure what happened, as I thought I had stayed on top of my fluids and electrolytes really well. One thing I noticed was that my shoulders were fried from the sun, despite having put on a lot of sunscreen (I’m going to have to go with a sleeved jersey instead of sleeveless tri top next time). Anyway, I found that I could keep the cramps at bay by standing on the pedals out of the saddle, so I decided to, um, go ahead and do that.
Standing some and getting more electrolyte caps and fluids in seemed to do the trick, and I finished the ride in 5:42 — some fall-off in pace the last lap, but it could have been much worse. “Worse,” as it turned out, was still to come.
The run-in to T2 was a downhill with 4 or 5 nice speed bumps, and soon I was happily dismounting the bike. Grabbed my bag and headed into the changing tent; I made sure to get all sunscreened up, even though a lot of the damage was already done. I actually felt pretty good when I started running, probably partly due to the Hokas I was wearing (shoes that are the opposite of minimalist — big, cushioned soles that make it feel like you’re running on pillows). My Garmin was taking a while to sync, and I went through mile 1 before starting it, so I’m not sure what my split was (probably 7:30-7:40). Saw most of my support crew in the first mile and then again a little while later as we did another short out and back.
The fun was pretty short-lived, though. My pace really started to slow after 4 miles or so, which is not exactly confidence inspiring, but I made it through the first of three loops by walking the aid stations. By that point, I had moved up from 11th in the age group off the bike to 7th. That was as good as it was going to get.
The cramps hit around mile 9, just after I had passed the finish line for the first time (cruelly, we had to pass right by the finish line twice before finally going down the finish chute on the final lap). Not bad at first, but then accompanied by nausea. I saw my crew again, and Matt asked how I was. “Bonking,” I replied. “I need to get some calories.” “You need to top up on Coke and ice the next few aid stations,” he told me. So I did that, and I made it to the half marathon mark in the high 1:5x range. That’s still sub-4:00 pace, but the trend wasn’t in my favor.
Usually when you have a bad patch in an Ironman, you come good at some point — “it never always gets worse” is a useful mantra to remember. So I kept trying to figure out what I needed in order to keep going, thinking at any point my second wind was coming.
It turned out that what I needed was to walk.
And so I walked, because at least that was forward progress. There was no way I was going to let myself DNF.
When you walk, the miles pass vvvveeerrrryyyyy slooooooooowwwwwwwwwwly.
Every once in awhile, I would break into a trot just to see whether my body’s response had improved.
Um, that would be a “no.”
It’s hard to describe almost a half marathon of walking. It sucked. I felt like a failure. My feet were blistering; my neck and shoulders were sunburned, and I wasn’t having any fun. But dammit, I was going to finish this f****r.
With around a mile to go, my crew were out on the lonely, somewhat pungent section along the estuary. “White Lightning, what are you doing?” asked Matt. “Having a nice sunset stroll,” I answered. My wife Jeanne chased after me, telling me “this is the first time I can keep up with you.” The course doubled back on itself, so on the return — about a half mile to go — I told myself “f*** it” and started to run.
The crew was happier now that I was running. “F***ing Sheeper,” I lamented as I went past. “I could have done a nice 70.3 in Oceanside yesterday, and instead I’m here doing this.”
But, you know, the finish line at an Ironman is magical. It wasn’t pretty. I had been weak. I hadn’t been willing or able to suck it up when it counted. It wasn’t my best time. It wasn’t my worst time. But it was a tangible reminder that you can never take a finish for granted. It was bloody hard work to get through this one, and I’m glad I did.
Now on to some recovery and then some shorter races. :-)
By the way, I could never have done it without my support crew: my wife Jeanne and my great friends and teammates Mike, Luree, Matt, Jen and Lisa. And of course Tim Sheeper, who always inspires me to reach beyond my comfort zone and have fun doing it. I’ll try to have more fun next time!
The San Francisco Peninsula is a great place to live and train; the cycling in the Santa Cruz Mountains and along the coast is hard to beat (especially if you like climbing). But the one fly in the ointment in training paradise has been the few drivers and motorcyclists who make cycling not just unpleasant, but downright dangerous — and sometimes fatal.
Today was a running day, and as I was heading home from Woodside Elementary School (where we park to go running in Huddart Park), a Mini Cooper turned onto Woodside Rd. from Mountain Home Rd. without stopping and proceeded to tailgate the SUV directly in front of him. The SUV had another car in front of him and was going the speed limit. Nothing really out of the ordinary, though, until the Mini driver started “slaloming” in the line, alternately cross the centerline and going into the bike lane. He almost took out a cyclist.
Then he continued weaving, even trying to pass the two cars ahead by going right into the bike lane. Luckily there were no cyclists there at that moment, but he got stopped at the light at I-280, where Woodside Rd. splits from one lane in each direction to two. I ended up right behind him and snapped his photo:
He wasn’t pleased — he got out of his car (as did his passenger) and started threatening me. Luckily, I had witnesses all around, so he thought better of escalating things any further. I would have been happy to discuss things with a county cop present.
The point of this is not to single out this one guy (though he’s definitely one of the most aggressive drivers I’ve ever encountered, especially in a town like Woodside, which is usually crawling with cops on weekends); the larger question is how to use the power of social media to rally cyclists around identifying these dangerous drivers and doing something about them. They are literally life threatening.
I’m reminded of a great early website from the mid 90s: The Highway 17 Page of Shame. It was entertaining reading back then, and all of us have experiences like this at one point or another. But with all of the technology available today — camera phones and small video cameras with amazing resolution, plus the social networks to distribute the content to a wide audience — maybe it’s time to put that to use to ferret out not simply those drivers that annoy us but rather those who recklessly put our lives at risk.
For anyone who missed the memo, I’m a big fan of Hawaii. My wife covers the state extensively in her travel writing career, and I often go along and/or drag her to races over there, particularly the Ironman in October and its affiliated half Ironman in late May / early June. So when my friend and coach Tim Sheeper told me his midlife crisis-driven “Aloha Triple” — the three big world championships held in Hawaii (the Ironman, Xterra and Ultraman) — well, I wanted to be part of it.
I was part of it already by virtue of having qualified for this year’s Ironman, and Tim qualified easily by winning his age group in Ironman Coeur d’Alene. At Kona, he had what for him was a so-so race, going 9:45:13 for 11th in the M50-54 age group. At Xterra, he won the M50-54 age group on a borrowed 29er hardtail. So all that was left was this little event called the Ultraman. Here’s where I really got my chance to be part of the Aloha Triple.
See, Ultraman is the opposite of Ironman. Instead of 2000 Type-A racers taking over Kailua-Kona and the Queen K highway for more than a week, Ultraman has roughly 35 competitors, doesn’t close any roads, and has no aid stations. Each athlete is completely supported by his own crew, from a guide kayaker on the swim to a van that acts as a mobile aid station, leapfrogging the rider to hand off food and drinks and anything else the rider needs.
The distances are extreme, and it’s run like a bicycle stage race, where you might win an individual day but still lose overall based on the accumulate time from all three days. The days look like this:
That’s 320 miles total that take you around the entire Big Island, with all sorts of weather conditions: ocean swells, wind, rain, heat, and even cold. The fastest guys spend 7-8 hours per day racing. The only way to describe this race is “epic.”
Tim’s support crew consisted of me, Keith Terada (another Team Sheeper guy who’s also done Kona in the past), Bruce Smith, a swim and triathlon coach who did Ultraman back in 2001 (got 4th overall), and Sierra Sheeper, Tim’s eldest daughter, who was on crutches after a powderpuff football mishap. We bonded very quickly and worked out the division of labor. Keith was the paddler who accompanied Tim in the swim. Bruce drove the support van on Days 1 and 2; Keith drove on Day 3. Bruce and I planned to pace Tim at various points during the run. Sierra mixed nutrition, filled bottles and sorted food. All of us handed Tim foods and bottles, which is easy on the run but not so easy on the bike, especially when Tim is flying by at 25 mph. You basically have to do a full-on sprint while holding a bottle or banana out for him to grab. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Day 1 was fantastic. Tim came out of the water 2nd, 10 min behind Hillary Biscay, whom Tim coached back when she first started triathlons (she was a collegiate swimmer).
But Tim passed her about 20M into the 90M bike, so we were on our own after that – we didn’t see another team the rest of the day. The elements were tough: headwinds, crosswinds and pouring rain, plus a final climb of almost 3000 ft up to Volcano and the finish line.
But he ended the day with a solid lead over his rivals, which put a big target on his back for Day 2.
The course on Day 2 is fantastic – you get to see the side of the island that most tourists never go to. But it’s 171 miles, the first 100 or so of which is pretty fast — there’s a big 25M downhill to start, and then tailwinds through Hilo, so Tim hit the Ironman mark (112M) in 4:48 — that’s fast! His rivals were all there and pushing the pace hard.
Tim had his first bad patch and lost some time, but got his second wind in Waimea and was able to recover some of that on the final 6.5M Kohala Mountain Rd climb. So he still led after Day 2, but the lead had narrowed. And the effort had cost him physically — the run was going to be, well, “interesting.”
Coming into the Day 3 run, bear in mind that Tim didn’t have the kind of lead he’d hoped for after Day 2. His two closest rivals, Alexandre Ribeiro and Miro Kregar, were 16 and 31 minutes back, respectively, but had much better Ultraman running resumes than Tim’s lone 7:24 time from 2007. So, given that, the plan was to run steady and not only make Miro and Alexandre come and take the remaining time off of him but also let them try to destroy one another and see if one or both paid for it in the second half.
Part of the plan worked — Alexandre cracked, for I believe the first time ever in Ultraman. Not that surprising considering how fast those guys went out — we heard some hard breathing when they passed mile 2, and there were still 50.4 to go!
The first 13.1M for Tim was 1:40 and change. Things started to get tough at around mile 16 before Kawaihae – he developed a nasty blister on his foot. We sat him down and lanced the blister, put second skin and Aquaphor on it, and changed socks and shoes. That didn’t solve the problem, so we bought duct tape in Kawaihae and put that on.
We started pacing him at Kawaihae for short stints, but on one of mine it became clear that he was going to need a pacer from there on in. So I prepped myself to go as long as I could. He passed the halfway mark in around 3:38 – we then sat him down and lanced the blister again and put more duct tape on. I then became fulltime pacer and water carrier (actually, ice in one bottle and sport drink in the other; shot blocks in the pockets). The goal became to just keep moving, and I had to make sure I didn’t let his walking breaks last very long. We switched from Sprite to Coke at mile 40 but switched back around mile 45 because the Coke wasn’t agreeing with him. It was also getting quite hot out.
Part of the pacing change of plans was that I wasn’t really fully prepared to go for an entire marathon myself — I didn’t pay enough attention to my own nutrition and cramped badly at around my mile 20.5, so at my 21 (47.2 for Tim, I handed pacing duties over to Bruce, and he brought Tim home. The second marathon was not quick — around 4:51 — but it could have been much worse if not for Tim’s grit and determination.
It was just a “git ‘er done” day. At no point in the time I paced him did Tim care or even want to know about his place vis-a-vis anyone — he just wanted to get to the finish, and he went to the well to do that. His official time was 8:29:40, and the three-day total was 24:57:12, good for 4th overall. Very impressive ahead of Tim in 3rd was Hillary Biscay, who ran superbly (and quite evenly), and almost reeled in Ribeiro in the overall standings.
Regardless of outcome, what a great experience it was to crew at this race. As much as Tim suffered in this race, I’m almost wishing he’ll give it another go next year — knowing what we know now, we could avoid a few costly mistakes and be back with a really experienced crew. After his first one in 2007, he swore he’d never do the race again, so never say never, I guess. :-)
This weekend (Fri-Sun) is the Ultraman World Championship on the Big Island. It’s a three-day “stage” triathlon:
This is the opposite of Ironman. Where Ironman is glitz and hoopla, Ultraman is low key and focused on what the Hawaiians call “ohana” — “family”/”community”. The race is small — 40 competitors vs. 2000 or so in Ironman. Like Ironman, though, it has a long history — the first Ultraman was in 1983, only a couple of years after Ironman moved from Oahu to the Big Island.
I’m not doing the event — I’m part of the support crew for this guy:
Tim really embodies the spirit of Ultraman. As accomplished as Tim is as an athlete, he is very humble and unassuming. But on race day, the warrior comes out. Even at age 50, he is going to surprise some people this year.
I’ll be shooting out photos and live updates on Twitter (@ihersey). Good luck to all of the participants — should be a fun way to spend the Thanksgiving holiday!
This year’s Ironman World Championship race in Kona was Ironman #13 for me. I came into the race probably the fittest I’ve ever been, at least in the swim and bike. The run was a bit of a question mark due to some persistent hamstring issues I’d had earlier in the year; I did seem to be over them thanks to my miracle worker of an ART specialist, but I didn’t have much of a base — one 20-mile run in a training camp at Tahoe in late August was my one and only run over 12 miles in the past few months. Luckily, running is supposedly my strength.
I got to the Big Island 10 days before the race in order to try to get heat acclimated. The simplest way to describe the protocol is “train 2-3 hours a day in the heat at low-to-moderate intensity.” It worked out pretty well — in particular, I got a lot of afternoon rides in on the Queen K once the wind had picked up, which is pretty much what we athletes would face in the last 30 miles of the actual race. I knew where the climbs were, and I knew to save some watts for this part of the course.
Race week was a blur — lots of stuff to do (registration, expo, bike adjustments), including keeping the muscles loose with some light training. What always surprises me is how many athletes you see out on Ali’i Drive during race week just absolutely hammering their runs and bikes. Not to mention irritating the locals by not stopping at stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, and generally acting as though they owned the place. Not to single out any particular group, but this behavior seemed particularly acute among the Euros.
Many folks, myself included, seem to walk around town with a look on their faces that showed the weight of apprehension and expectations. In many ways, once you’re on the island, race day can’t come soon enough. I actually slept pretty well — better than I have before many of my races — so I woke up even a few minutes before my alarm clock and thought to myself, “Let’s do this thing!”
Saw a few friends between body marking and the walk to the transition area, at which point I got all my little tasks done pretty quickly. I got in the water after the pros took off, and swam out to the far left of the start where there were fewer swimmers and I could get a nice, uncrowded warmup. As the start approached, more swimmers started showing up near me, so I had to jockey for position a little bit, putting myself almost at the very far left and maybe three rows back.
The cannon went off, and the race suddenly got very real — I was in the Ironman World Championship! Unlike in the two other times I did this race, I seemed to have seeded myself exactly right, as I was very quickly in clear water and not getting a ton of contact with other swimmers. I found some feet to get on and just tried to keep focusing on having an efficient stroke. I reached the turnaround boat, glanced at my watch and saw 32 minutes, so I seemed to be on a good swim.
There’s often a slight current against the athletes on the way back to the pier, though, but once I was on the way back the field was spread out enough where I could swim very close to the buoys without bumping into people; the only hazards were the occasional paddleboarder volunteers who had actually drifted into the course and were yelling at swimmers to stay left — they were actually in the line between the buoys and were causing swimmers to bunch up needlessly.
You can see the pier for quite some time before you actually get to the swim exit; I entered what I thought was the final stretch at 1:10 and change, but by the time I got to the stairs my swim time was 1:16. Oh well — still an 8-minute Kona PR, and what’s more, it didn’t cost me as much energy as my previous swims had. My technique work had paid off.
The only casualty from the swim at all was some chafing on my pecs from the swim skin rubbing against salty ocean water, and I would definitely feel the sting of that later in the day — splash some Coke or sport drink on a fresh abrasion and let me know how it feels. :-)
I had a pretty good transition for me — 4:32, ok considering the long run around the pier and taking the time to put on arm coolers and a bike jersey. The main reason for both was to avoid a blistering sunburn; with my fair skin and the intense Hawaiian sun, I can’t put on enough sunscreen to last for the duration of the Ironman bike. The regular bike jersey also gave me some pockets I would turn out to need later. Anyway, soon I was off and riding, feeling good.
The first part of the ride was fast; it wasn’t very hot out and we had a nice tailwind. Being a slow swimmer by Kona standards relative to my bike and run, I was passing more people than were passing me, but I had to do some small surges to avoid being in a drafting position.
I was riding well within my planned power output and feeling good, but around mile 35 (near Puako), disaster struck. A guy I was passing suddenly moved left (without looking) into me. I had a guy coming up on my left so had nowhere to go. I called out to the guy, but he was already touching me; then his front wheel hit my bike, and he went down, which then took my rear wheel out from under me. The next thing I knew, I was sliding on the pavement on my right leg. F**k!
The good news was that I could tell I wasn’t hurt badly — just some road rash on my right leg, hip and a little on my right elbow, plus my shorts and arm cooler were ripped. Then I looked to see how the other guy was, and what he wasn’t was at all apologetic. In fact, he tried to blame it on me: “why didn’t you tell me you were there?” First off, I did, and second, why didn’t you look before moving left? Anyway, there was no time to get into an argument — I had an Ironman to finish. Now came the bike inspection:
I had to wait for a break in the line of cyclists to retrieve my tool bag and bottle holder, and then just as I was getting my rear wheel off, the Bike Works support van pulled up. They were apparently on their way to help someone else, but they saw me first, so they did the tire change and also had a floor pump so that I didn’t have to waste a CO2 cartridge. I put the tool bag in one of my jersey pockets and left them with the now-useless bottle cage, then one of them gave me a nice “pro” push start to get going again. All told, my Garmin says I lost 8 minutes; the Ironmanlive tracker shows I lost more than 150 places in that section of the bike.
I took stock of my situation; I still had a good time going, but now that I was down one bottle cage, I was going to have to approach the aid stations differently, Up until then, I had been taking up to two bottles at each station, but since my front one was a fixed, refillable Speedfil, I could only take one spare bottle each time, but that in my downtube holder, then if I was lucky I could grab another bottle and add to the Speedfil. That mostly worked, unless I missed catching a water bottle in the first pass, which happened occasionally.
After the turn to Kawaihae, I saw the leader (I’m guessing Starykowicz) on his way back (hey, the male pros did start 30 minutes before me), followed by the chasers. Later on, on the rollers toward the turn for Mahukona, I saw a pack of at least 50 guys — this must be the front of the age groupers, I thought to myself. Then came Packs 2 and 3. Ironically, I had draft marshalls near me, and here you had these massive packs going the other way. Hard to say if they were intentionally cheating, but it definitely didn’t look legal, which was disappointing. Short of having more drafting marshalls out there, it’s not clear what Ironman can do to cut down on what seems like blatant cheating.
The good news was that I was almost to the turnaround at Hawi before I even realized it — there were none of the usual winds, either headwind or crosswind. I did pull over briefly after the turnaround to adjust my front quick release; it felt as though my front wheel might have been a little askew after the crash. That cost me another minute, but since there was some fast downhill coming up, I thought better safe than sorry.
The return trip from Hawi is where the work usually begins, and this year was no exception. The wind started picking up on the rollers to Kawaihae, and then we worked the biggest climb of the day — the short-but-steep slog back up to the Queen K.
Once on the Queen K, you’re on the home stretch, but it’s a long home stretch, and the headwinds kick up in the afternoon, which on this day made this the toughest part of the day. A look at my TrainingPeaks file confirms this from a numerical perspective — my Peak 30, 60 and 90 values were all on this stretch:
You’ll also note from my CP 180 that I negative-split the ride from a power perspective. So sometimes I do actually practice what I preach. My VI (Variability Index) was also quite even at 1.04. Moreover, the Queen K section (the last 35 miles) is where I picked up over 200 places, so my “save some watts for the Queen K” strategy worked out pretty well.
My bike time was 5:31, which was over 20 minutes faster than I’d ever ridden in Kona, so I was pretty happy with that considering the 9 minutes I’d lost in total to the crash. What I wasn’t sure of was how well my hydration had gone since losing the rear bottle cage, but I figured I would find out sooner or later on the run.
I got out on the run course at 6:57 into the race — earlier than in any Ironman I’d ever done except for two of my three Ironman Arizona races. So despite everything, this was going to be a quick day if I could put together a decent run. Initial signs were good; sub 7:30 pace felt awesome for quite a few miles.
But early enthusiasm often leads to mid-race problems. I had a great first 10 miles, then caught my struggling teammate Matt around mile 11, but I started having my own struggles after the halfway point, which I reached in 1:43. Repeating a theme from countless previous races, it was hamstring cramps — the kind that stop you dead in your tracks. I thought my fluid intake had been pretty good, but Houston, we had a problem.
Rather than focus on the negative, I tried to figure out what I needed (“fluids”) and how best to get enough of them in (walk the aid stations and take whatever it is they were offering). The cramps were pretty stubborn; I had to walk a good section of the Energy Lab, and even the running part was none too quick.
Eventually, the fluid intake did take effect, and I was able to keep myself on the verge of cramping instead of actually cramping for the rest of the run. I did pick up a number of places in the 7 miles from the Energy Lab back into town even though I felt as though I was struggling. At this point, I figured that if I could keep going, I could break 10:50, so that became my revised goal.
Underpromise and overdeliver — it’s not just a business cliche. It turns out I was able to pick up my pace a little, so I kicked it in down to Ali’i Drive and ended up finishing right behind the legendary Ken Glah, in 10:43:41.
Aftermath: chafed, bloody, blistered and tired. But ready to take this one on again in the future and do better.