Vineman 70.3 – Rumors of My Demise…

My third half Ironman of the season would be a valuable test to see what I need to address for the remainder of my season, which culminates with Ironman Arizona in mid November. That seems like a long way away, but it isn’t that far out in Ironman terms.

My last race, California International Triathlon in Pleasanton, was ok but not great – I got 5th in the age group but should have been 2nd or 3rd (3 minutes faster) on a normal day. Nothing clicked that day, and I realized it was partly or maybe mostly to do with going out for a pretty hard 40 miles on my bike the day before. I thought that that wouldn’t take much out of me, but it did.

So no crazy workouts close to Vineman – just short and easy. But work got really busy (we’re putting the finishing touches on a new office in the Bay Area), so my days leading up to the race had some pretty late nights and not a lot of sleep. The day before the race, my sister, who was in town visiting, and I drove up but got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam in San Francisco – what is normally a 2:15 drive took over 3.5 hours, so we had to do the last mandatory pre-race briefing (Vineman makes you go to those and get a wrist stamp before you can do packet pickup). On to an 8 p.m. dinner, and I was trying not to be all stressy about the race. Several glasses of petit verdot with dinner helped in that respect.

Not so much help the next morning, as I discovered that that particular varietal seems to be headache inducing. Part of me wanted to bag the race and go back to bed, but it was go time. Luckily, I was in one of the last waves, so instead of a pre-7:00 a.m. start, mine was at the leisurely time of 8:24, which some people hate because it means more heat on the run. I, however, am a big fan! If I can start at a civilized hour, count me in, regardless of heat.

My only other Vineman was in 2007, where I did a 5:05, which included getting to the start late and needing a bio break in T2, so I thought that sub 5 should be doable. I did my first and only sub 5 at St. George back in May, which is a harder course, but my training volume has been down since then, so I wasn’t expecting great things.

My swim was so-so: I opted to wear my white long sleeve FusionSports top under my wetsuit to save time in T1 (it’s not that easy to put on when you’re wet), but I felt as though it restricted my arm movement a little – my arms felt heavy. I minimized the standing in the shallow parts of the course, but right after the turnaround it was so shallow that there wasn’t much choice. As I exited the water, I saw that I had a 34:xx – damn, thought I had a 31 or 32 in me. I made up for it with a decent transition for once, and I was off and pedaling in under 3 minutes.

The only negative about starting late is having to pass lots of slower riders from earlier waves, which in this race is a bit of a challenge sometimes. For one thing, there are a lot of less-experienced riders who don’t appear to have heeded instructions to stay right. For another, they lack the situational awareness to look behind them before jumping over to the left to either pass another rider or avoid a pothole or crack (and there are plenty of those on parts of the course). Consequently, I was in a constant “on your left” yelling mode.

At about 20 miles in, though, I started getting passed by a few of the fastest M29 and under athletes, who had started 12 minutes behind me. I was averaging 22 mph, so these guys were flying! A group of three passed me at mile 30, all drafting off of one another, which kind of pissed me off. Where were the draft marshalls when you needed them? At least one of the guys, I noted later, placed in the top 5 of his age group.

Anyway, I was more worried about my own race, so I just tried to keep my power consistent and save a little extra for what I figured was going to be a hot run. I backed off a little in the last couple of miles and cruised into T2 with a 2:33 bike split. I had a little miscue finding the rack where my shoes were, but the good news is that I didn’t see many bikes in the rack. The Ironman site says I was 15th in M50-54 at that point.

It was a longish run out of transition to start the actual run, but my legs felt awesome – it felt almost too easy. I settled into a quick, but not forced, rhythm, the idea being to build into the run. I got passed by a couple of younger runners in the first 4 miles but also by one guy in my age group, who was going enough faster that I decided to let him go and see if he came back to me later. It wasn’t exactly a calculated move – he was running faster than I could comfortably run at that point, so I didn’t have much of a choice.

But it gets tougher and hotter as you go, and sure enough, around mile 4, I reeled in a guy I recognized who pretty much always beats me at the Olympic distance. I decided that if and when I passed a guy in my age group, I needed to pass convincingly, so I put on a slight surge as I went by to discourage any notions he might have had of going with me.

One down. :-)

Then about a mile later, I came up on the guy who had passed me early on. I could hear him fight to go with me as I went by, so I decided to hold the surge for longer – well into the loop on the dirt/gravel path around La Crema Winery. On the subsequent out and back, I could see that I had a good gap on him, and an even bigger gap on the guy I had passed before him.

Two down.

There must have been others, but I either didn’t notice them or they were in the 53-54 age group, which had started 6 minutes behind the 50-52 guys. That made the age group battle somewhat difficult to call, since both start groups rolled up into the M50-54 age division. That meant that no one would know my division place until more than 6 minutes had passed after I finished.

Anyway, I wasn’t exactly doing that mental math at that point; it was getting hot, and I had missed a couple of aid stations (too crowded and not enough volunteers), so I was focused on staying hydrated and dumping enough water on my white sleeves to cool myself off a little. My pace was holding pretty steady, so I took things a mile at a time. At mile 11 I still felt strong, so I started picking it up a little. And at mile 12, I told myself it was “go time” – I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to run me down.

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The finish line beckoned, and I was definitely working hard the last half mile, but it paid off: I went just under 1:33 for the half marathon and got an overall finish time of 4:47:00, a new half Ironman PR by over 11 minutes. What’s more, I hadn’t had to “go to the well” and wasn’t my usual “Crampa” afterwards. A refreshing change!

Vinceman result

This netted me my best Ironman placing of the year (Ironman events tend to be more competitive), 6th in M50-54. The top 4 were in a completely different zip code; even 5th was well out of reach. Regardless of place, though, I’m ecstatic with my first real crushing of the 5-hour barrier. I’m not sure what I did right on this one, other than maybe going in with low expectations and just focusing on pace and preparing myself for the heat during the run.

Or perhaps three glasses of petit verdot and a healthy portion of bacon-wrapped ahi is the perfect pre-race meal. :-)

 

Life Imitates Triathlon

Jess Smith, you are an Ironman!“You can learn a lot about life…” announces the familiar deep voice of Al Trautwig on the NBC broadcast of the Ironman, “…on the Big Island of Hawaii.” I look forward to that broadcast every year – it’s so beautifully produced that you could swear that the course is lined with dramatic music and athletes moving in detail-rich slow motion. Having done the race several times, I can tell you it’s not like that, but it is challenging, and, like life, no matter how well you’ve planned things, no matter how fit you are, the race will throw you curve balls, and you will either overcome them or let them end your race.

I’ve learned a lot of life lessons in the 14 Ironman races I’ve done, and a lot of them translate well to the business world. I was reminded of this by the recent breakthrough performance of my friend and coachee Jess Smith, a professional triathlete I have the pleasure (and sometimes pain) to train with and also help coach. Jess came into the professional ranks relatively late in life, and unlike most professionals didn’t have an extensive background in short course before moving up to the Ironman distance.

After becoming amateur World Champion at the 70.3 (half Ironman) distance and top amateur at the very tough Ironman St. George race in 2011, Jess turned pro and had a good first pro race that year at Ironman Arizona, finishing 12th in 9:34, a personal best by a significant margin. After that, though, things started going downhill. Disappointing races, illness and DNFs followed, which were mysteries to those of us who had trained many miles with her and knew how talented she is. Long story short, my two partners Tim and Mike and I formed a new coaching Hydra to see if we could help Jess revive her career and, more important, her joy in being a triathlete. Project Jess was on!

We changed a lot of things, and I’ve come to realize that a lot of what we did translates really well into our everyday professional lives – certainly into mine, where I’ve had very positive outcomes but also very disappointing ones. Since social media audiences seem to like lists, here are my Project Jess Business Life Lessons:

  1. It Takes a Great Team. Tim, Mike and I complement one another. Tim is the experienced former pro, the guy who’s been there and done that, who has been able to maintain a high level for a very long time – while having fun and adventures doing it. Mike is the organized one, the extrovert, the one who keeps us to a schedule and maintains consistent dialog with Jess. I am the analytical one, the numbers guy who has stuff like power meters and heart-rate monitors and knows how to use them, making the most of my meager talent. And of course there’s Jess herself, the biggest part of the team. We can design all the programs and analyze all the data we want, but Jess has to execute the training. And she has to give us feedback when things aren’t working, which is often hard to do.
  2. You Plan, Then Stuff Happens. Adapt. We sometimes stressed Jess enough that she couldn’t complete the planned sessions. We looked on that not as failure, but as a data point that we could learn from. Being a professional triathlete requires a level of volume and intensity that can bring the athlete right to the breaking point – fatigue is a signal that you’re right there, and so you need to make adaptations in the training plan. The same holds true in the business world: not every tactic or strategy you put down in a plan is going to be successful. You need to be willing and able to adapt.
  3. Monitor and Communicate Regularly. We had meetings either every week or two weeks depending on schedules to discuss how the training had gone, outline the next few weeks’ objectives, go over metrics (hours per week, power numbers on the bike for different durations, pacing on the run), effects of dietary changes and also the mental aspects – confidence and will to win, to name a couple. But the key was regular, consistent measurement of both objective and subjective data – it was the only way other than hope to know that we were on the right track.
  4. Mix Things Up. Triathlon seems simple: swim, bike and run. But if you do the same things all the time, you get stale and the body ceases to improve. So we changed up the program in little ways every few weeks, giving Jess different challenges within her already considerable weekly training volume. One example of this was a cycling challenge in which she had to do increasing amounts of out-of-the-saddle climbing on every ride – I remember doing one of these with her where we were up to 90 minutes of standing for the ride. That hurt! But it was also fun and different, and it served a strength-building purpose.
  5. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Not everything went smoothly – Jess had two disappointing (compared to her expectations) races at the half Ironman distance. But because we had lots of data and experience, we knew (a) that we hadn’t specifically trained her for the higher-intensity shorter race distance, and (b) hadn’t rested her for those races. And we had specific positive things we were looking to get out of those races that we did get, plus we got important power and heart rate data from a race situation that we could not have replicated in normal training. Anyway, the goal was a solid result in Ironman Coeur d’Alene, which is exactly what we got. The lesson is that when you have a strategy you believe in, you stick to that strategy, even if some interim steps along the way make the outside world question whether things are working.

In the end, we got the biggest prize we could have hoped for: the return of Jess’ confidence in herself and her joy in training and competing. As in the business world, success breeds success, so watch this space – there’s more to come.

Honu 70.3 – Happy Birthday to Me!

Late May on the Big Island has become a tradition with me – it’s not only my birthday, which is a good enough reason in itself to go to Hawaii, but the Big Island also features the race I love to hate, the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii (known informally as “Honu,” the Hawaiian word for sea turtle). I came into the race confident in my fitness after my sub-5 at the St. George 70.3, but I wasn’t confident in my left calf, which I had torn a few weeks before Honu in a track session. Some trips to my miracle worker of an ART specialist had me hoping the calf would hold up on race day, but I had two weeks of no running at all – I would find out after T2 if I was going to finish or not.

in front of the Fairmont

One of my wife’s birthday presents to me was a room at the Hapuna Prince – right by the swim start – so that I could just roll out of bed and walk down the beach a little to get to the race. But wait – it gets better. She also got us a room at the Fairmont Orchid right by the finish line; in fact, it directly overlooked the medical tent. This would become ironic – not Alanis Morissette ironic, but actually ironic – later on.

The day was pretty breezy already at the swim start, which was likely going to make the bike interesting. The field was split into three waves: pros went off at 6:50 a.m., male age groupers at 6:53 a.m., and female age groupers at 7:00 a.m. This cut down on some of the mayhem in the swim, but not all of it – there were a lot of male age groupers. I started to the far right, though, and got off without any real contact. The crystal-clear water made it easy to see anyone swimming around you, which is somewhat reassuring. The only really challenging part was when we turned for home and were swimming directly into the rising sun, which made it impossible to see the swim exit. I just hoped the guys around me knew where they were going!

They did, I guess, and I exited the water in 36:26, my usually mediocre swim performance, though about a minute faster than I had ever done here. But it only gets better from here – usually. I had a trouble in T1 getting my white long-sleeved top on, and that cost me a little time, but after having had success with it at St. George – both in terms of avoiding sunburn and of keeping me cool – I figured whatever time it cost me in transition would be paid back many fold later on.

I started off pretty aggressively on the bike, pushing some high power numbers. High, but not crazy high – other than some brief periods above 300W. The wind was blowing but it didn’t feel that bad in terms of crosswinds. I passed a couple of Team Sheeper mates in the first 10 miles, including my frequent training partner Mike, who was happy with his day since he had beaten me out of the water. :-)

The only real crosswind-induced white knuckling came on the rollers between Kawaihae and the turn at Mahukona. There was headwind all the way from there to Hawi, but I had plenty of power and got to the turnaround almost before I knew it. From there it was a nice tailwind-driven descent at around 40 mph, coasting some of the way since I didn’t have a big enough gear to get any resistance.

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I had a good average speed going – over 21 mph – by the time I got back to the Queen K at around mile 47, so I was looking at a ride time in the mid 2:30s. I took the opportunity in the remaining few miles to get as many fluids in as possible to make sure I was hydrated going into the run, which has almost always been a crampfest for me. I was trying to make this year different.

I executed an almost-perfect flying dismount coming into T2, only one of my shoes caught the ground once I was off the bike and came out of the pedal, so I had to go pick it up. I put a compression sleeve on my left calf to help support it – I didn’t waste time putting one on my right calf, thus creating my own Michael Jackson kind of look. But otherwise I was off and running pretty quickly. Initial feeling was that the calf was good – no grabbing, no pain.

I wasn’t sure of the exact race time, but I was pretty sure based on my swim and bike times that I would be around 5 hours if I could run around 1:40 for the half marathon, which is easier said than done at this race. Sure, I had run 1:31 at St. George, but Honu is humid and has a variety of surfaces, including a lot of time on the spongy grass of the golf course. The male pros typically run 9-10 minutes slower here than they do at other 70.3s, so that put me with prospects of around, well, 1:40 – if I ran well.

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One thing that was apparent right away was that there were many fewer runners around me than I had ever had, which meant I was having a good day in terms of overall place. My first couple of miles were quick – right at 7:00 pace. It felt easy enough, but it also wasn’t sustainable as the day heated up and the lack of recent run fitness caught up with me. I faded first into the 7:30s, then to around 8:00 pace. But on the other hand, the dreaded cramps from years past were staying away, though I had a few close calls here and there. The final really tough section is a long out and back starting just before mile 9 and ending just past mile 11 – it was here that a petite blonde age grouper went past me like I was standing still. “WTF was that?!” I thought.

It turns out that it was Colleen de Reuck, a former world-class marathoner with a number of sub 2:30s on her resume. Now 50, she’s been doing triathlons for a few years, and is tearing up the circuit – her 1:25 run split ended up beating all of the female pros. She ended up winning her age group by 30 minutes.

But I wasn’t running anywhere close to 1:25 pace; I was struggling. The last couple of miles seemed to take forever, and I alternated between not caring if anyone passed me to thinking I should push just in case someone in my age group was coming up on me (turns out the next guy was almost 7 minutes back, but I had no way of knowing that). And of course trying hard not to cramp. I finally crossed the line with the clock reading 5:06-something, but that turned out to be based on the pro start time, so in fact I had done a 5:03:45 – a course PR by about 8 minutes.

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I paid for the effort, though, dry heaving as volunteers grabbed each arm. They took me over to a shady area, sat me down and gave me some water, which I used to wash down a couple of electrolyte caps. I felt ok, but a few minutes later, I realized I couldn’t stand up, and then the leg cramps started. Bad cramps. Cramps so painful they almost make you scream. The volunteers came back and decided to take me to the med tent, and for once I offered no resistance – I wanted that IV and I wanted it now!

An IV when you’re severely dehydrated is like a miracle cure; you feel better almost instantaneously. It was at that moment of relief from the cramping that I looked up from my lounge chair and saw my wife Jeanne on the lanai of our room – directly overlooking the med tent. Isn’t it ironic? :-)

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My PR was good enough to put me 90th overall in the race – the first time I’d ever been in the top 100 – but it was only good for 10th in the M50-54 age group. Luck of the draw – I’ve finished as high as 7th in the past with a time 10 minutes slower. Oh well.

Honu result

The result was, however, good enough to put me temporarily into 5th in the age group in Ironman’s world age group rankings (I’ve since slipped to 8th as other races have been held and expect to continue to slide unless I put together some better races in Vineman, Lake Tahoe and Arizona later in the year). But short-lived glory is still glory. :-)

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Happy Birthday to me! Thanks to Jeanne “Best Wife Ever” Cooper for making it so special, and to all of my Team Sheeper teammates for the fun times. This is one of the great destination races out there, even if it is kind of tough!

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Ironman 70.3 St. George – Redemption in the Run

After a disappointing Ironman Los Cabos, I was looking for a win in my next race, IM 70.3 St. George. By “win,” I don’t necessarily mean 1st in my age group, but rather a race in which I performed up to my fitness and expectations.

Or, to put numbers to it, a great race would be anything that began with a digit less than 5. A good race would be anything that began with 5 and had a low second digit. I didn’t allow in my mindset for any result less than good – I find negative thinking counterproductive to getting positive results.

I was, though, a little distracted coming into the race, both by work and by trying to help my friend Jim get through his first-ever triathlon. I had basically talked him and two other friends, Karl and Marc, into doing this race, and I even had a friendly loser-buys-dinner bet with Karl, where somehow I had agreed to spot him 30 minutes (Karl is way too good of a triathlete – except in the swim – to give this kind of time to).

Everything was going smoothly up until just after bike checkin at Sand Hollow Reservoir on the afternoon before the race. I had planned a little open water swim session for Jim, who had done over 100,000 yards of swim training…in the pool…leading up to this race. He’d never done an open water swim, but was a certified scuba diver, avid sailor and boogie border, so I figured this would be a formality.

Wrong! He started off like a bat out of hell and was soon hyperventilating. Then sheer panic set in – the kind I had read about but never experienced myself. I figured it was probably a combination of the 61F water and his early effort, so I tried to talk him into relaxing and letting it flow. We tried a couple of short out-and-backs and swimming along the shallow shore, since being able to touch bottom seemed to calm him a little.

He was solemn at dinner, full of negativity and a resolute can’t-do attitude. So it wasn’t a surprise when I received a “Jim bailed” text from Karl the next morning as I walked into T1 to get set up. Well, shit. Time to focus on my own race.

The swim in this race was broken out into age group waves – the pros went off first (males, then 5 minutes later the women), and then the age group waves went off every 3 minutes. My wave was third from last, which put me starting at 7:57 a.m., 62 minutes after the male pros. Heat was going to be a concern for the later starters. The good part about being close to the end was that the portapotty lines got considerably shorter as the earlier, mostly younger age groups got underway, so I was able to take care of pre-race business without stress.

I got off fairly well in the swim, though the cold water made me thankful this was only a 30ish-minute swim instead of an hour plus like an Ironman would be. There wasn’t much contact, and I found some feet to draft off of for a while, but staying on feet was complicated by the constant reeling in of much slower swimmers that had started in earlier waves. I’m not the world’s fastest swimmer, but some of these people were barely moving, so I came up on some of them pretty quickly. Luckily I managed to avoid errant breaststroke kicks to the face.

The final run-in to the swim exit seemed to take longer than it should have – it seemed as though we were swimming against a current or some headwind. I saw a somewhat disappointing 35-minute split when I hit the exit ramp, but the day was going to be tough, so I told myself not to worry about a couple of minutes. The race had wetsuit strippers, which made getting out of the suit a lot faster – nice touch!

I took an extra 30 seconds in T1 to put on a zippered FusionSports sun top, trying to avoid the sunburn and dehydration I suffered in Cabo. This equipment experiment worked out great – it’s definitely coming to a lot of my longer races! I got going as quickly as I could and settled into my upper Zone 3 of power – 200-220 watts on the flats, pushing up to 250-280 watts on the climbs. The bike course had very little flat in it, constantly rolling up or down. The wave starts had spread the field out pretty well, and one benefit of my later start was the constant positive reinforcement of passing people vs. getting passed. I traded passes occasionally with a few guys in my age group, but mostly focused on keeping my power in check, keeping myself hydrated and avoiding the occasional slower rider who wasn’t riding to the right.

The “queen climb” on this very hilly course is the 4-mile stretch up Snow Canyon, with almost 1000 ft. of gain and average gradient of 4%. Not super hard, although there were some steeper sections toward the top that forced me out of the saddle a couple of times. I passed a ton of people on the climb, including one guy in my AG that had passed me pretty strongly on the earlier flats. He was a bigger guy, so physics was against him on a long climb. I wouldn’t see him again.

My normalized power up the climb was 240W, which is roughly 20-25W less than my threshold, so it had been a pretty good effort. Then came the long descent back into town, which gave me some recovery time. I didn’t pedal on some of the steeper sections and soft-pedaled on others, but as soon as I could get any resistance on the pedals I pushed it – I didn’t want to lose position after all that work on the climb. A long recovery period like this before T2 usually results in a good run for me, so I was taking maximum advantage of the opportunity to get fluids and calories in.

I executed a perfect flying dismount coming into transition and had a pretty quick changeover. I left the white top on to protect my shoulders from sunburn and keep cool, but I did unzip the front for better ventilation. It was pretty hot but I felt good.

Having blown up in the run in Cabo, I was conscious of not repeating that experience at the half distance, so I settled into a conservative pace for the first few gradually uphill miles. Actually, some of the uphills weren’t so gradual, but I was passing people right and left while still running controlled. I had no idea of my place in the age group, but I was looking for whatever old guys I could find. After mile 4, the course descended 2.5 miles to the turnaround, and then we had to come back up what we had just come down. I had been dreading that return climb a little, but it wasn’t bad at all – I was picking up steam and passed a few 50-54 calves on this part.

Once up that last climb, I knew it was all flat or downhill, and the last 4 miles were mostly down –  here my pace sped up to around 6:30 per mile. I saw my friend Karl right as I passed 9 miles (he was hitting 4), so I knew my 33-minute cushion in our little wager was safe. I was running hard but controlled, and I was confident at this point that there would be no cramping – nothing to slow my flow. It was one of those rare race moments when everything just felt right – every runner up ahead became my prey to pursue, and I feasted a lot in those last few miles, even getting into a sprint battle with a fellow Wattie Ink guy in the final 100y (I prevailed, somewhat unusually for me, since I don’t have much of a kick).

I knew my run split was around 1:31, but I wasn’t sure of my overall time. I found my friend Donna, a local I knew through the online running group Dead Runners Society, and asked her if she could find my result. As I stood there, it started becoming apparent to me how hot it actually was – really baking. Anyway, as I said, anything under 5 hours would constitute a “great” day (and a PR), so I was overjoyed with a 4:58:39, good for 7th in the age group. A half Ironman PR at age 51 – I’ll take it! I also ended up with fastest run split in the age group, but it wasn’t enough to make up for my deficit in the swim and bike. There are no prizes for fastest run. :-)

Karl finished with a fine 5:45 – dinner was on him. :-) Marc also finished, albeit it past the official cutoff time, but he had survived his first half Ironman on a very tough and hot course.

St. George result 2014

The epilogue is that all glory is short-lived – a couple of weeks later, I strained my calf in a routine track workout and had to bag the run in a local sprint triathlon, so my status for next Saturday’s Hawaii 70.3 is questionable. I don’t plan on running until race day – in the meantime, it’s just icing and swim/bike training – so I guess we’ll see what happens in T2. The joys of aging.

Next up: St. George 2.0

Well, next weekend marks my return to St. George, Utah, the venue for the Toughest Ironman EVER™. Now a half Ironman, the race has retained some of its toughness and all of the scenic beauty of its predecessor.

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I’m racing along with three good friends, one of whom is doing his first-ever triathlon. He picked quite the debut!

Training has been spotty since IM Los Cabos, but I feel pretty well recovered, although I still have a nagging right hamstring strain that doesn’t prevent me from running — it just reminds me when I push it. Having gone back to full-time work hasn’t done wonders for my fitness either, even if I’m enjoying myself immensely.

My last little test was yesterday’s Team Sheeper Fearsome Tri, a little club event that involves cycling from Menlo Park over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Half Moon Bay, running an hour along the coast, riding back over the same mountains, and then swimming 2000y in the pool, punctuating each 500y with 10 pushups on the pool deck. There’s nothing like 5 hours of exercise before the swim to induce all kinds of cramping.

For data geeks, we have the Garmin Connect files:

Ride from Menlo Park to Half Moon Bay
Run an hour along the coast
Ride back from HMB to Menlo Park
Do 2000y in the pool, with 10 pushups on the deck after every 500y

I don’t have a data file for the 2.5-hour coma-like nap that followed when I got home.

Photo Gallery from Ironman Los Cabos

Since I paid for the official race photos, I might as well post ‘em!

 

Stuff Happens: Ironman Los Cabos

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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.

feeling ok

TP 1st 3rd IMLC bike

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:

TP Peak 120 IMLC 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.

IMLC bike 02

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.

IMLC run 01IMLC run 02DCIM100GOPRO

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.

IMLC run 04

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.

IMLC results page

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!