As many of my friends know, we lost my dad earlier this year. The grieving process is not linear; the realization of it comes and goes.
Dad instilled many values in me, among them curiosity to learn as completely as possible about things that interest me, which has served me pretty well in my career (though might bore a number of my friends), but most important a love for endurance sports. It was he who got me running. First a 10K, then another, and pretty soon I was running my first marathon with him.
That was an interesting moment in our relationship. We had been training together all of the summer of ’82, and I was 20 years old to his 47, so naturally as I got fitter I started to get faster than him. In 10Ks I could finish 4 or 5 minutes ahead of him, and this made me start to think that I should target a faster time in my first marathon than his 3:30 pace.
There were two problems with this idea:
- I had never run a marathon, where he had. Experience counts for a lot in the longer distances.
- The marathon we had picked was the Frontier Days Marathon in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which was at over 6000 ft.
I took off (from memory) at around 5 miles and was on pace to run 3:15. By 19 miles I was walking, and sure enough here came Dad. It would have been so easy for him to leave me in the dust and teach me a lesson, but he slowed and stayed with me, helping me through horrible miles of walking in the heat. We finished together in 3:42 and change, not exactly the auspicious beginning I had hoped for. But I took that lesson with me and did better the next time.
I’ve since gone on to run 30+ marathons and finish 18 Ironmans, and Dad was there for a number of them. My siblings have similar stories, so among other things we did to honor his memory was run up Pike’s Peak this summer (he raced the Ascent in 1981). An MIT graduate, he also prized academics, and he had two sons go to Rice (and one of them go on to get a PhD at Cal Tech), so I thought a fitting way to honor him was to name the Rice Invitational Cross Country Meet after him.
My brother Scott and I in our respective times at Rice both had very good friends on the track and cross country teams, even if neither of us was good enough to actually run for the school, but it’s a sport I believe deserves more support – the inherent discipline it takes to do all of the training and endure all of the suffering is a pretty good parallel to what it takes to excel academically and out in the work world, so I’m happy to do my part in contributing to the program.
If you’re in Houston on Friday, September 8, please go out and cheer the runners on! Here’s a link to the event.
Miss you, Dad.
“Dude, WTF happened? WTAF?”
“The tracker’s messed up again. Did you finish?”
The short story:
I had entered Ironman Santa Rosa about two weeks before the race. In some ways, I had no business being there – I hadn’t really been doing targeted Ironman training – but my fitness was really good, and more important I finally had the motivation to do another Ironman. This one fit into my schedule and was close to home. I enlisted the support of my training buddy Mikey, and off to Santa Rosa we went.
The day went surprisingly well – easy 1:12 swim, then a surprisingly challenging bike (lots of rollers, and some really bad pavement), but I rode very conservatively, making sure I got plenty of nutrition in, and came off the bike in a not-too-bad 5:27, feeling great. Moreover, I was 4th in the age group.
By the end of the first of three run loops, I was 2nd in the age group and flying. I had what I believed to be the second Kona slot in my greedy little hands.
Within a few miles after about mile 11, though, it all went horribly wrong. First, my stomach was sloshing, and it became clear that nothing I was taking in at the aid stations was being absorbed by my GI tract. A portapotty stop after the halfway point didn’t really help. I started walking more and more, then apparently I started staggering (people passing me were asking if I was ok, which means I must have looked really bad). Then I threw up. Six. Times.
This was within sight of the mile 16 aid station, and a wonderful woman whose name I was unable to retain stayed by my side while the volunteers called the medics. I got checked out on the spot with everything they had – BP cuff, EKG, blood glucose – and the EKG, heart rate and glucose were normal, but the BP was 80/45, which pointed toward severe dehydration/electrolyte loss. Oddly, though – and contrary to my normal race experience – I had experienced no cramping.
The medics strongly recommended calling it a day, and I did after finishing the second loop so that I could meet up with Mikey. 8.7 miles short of Ironman #19, but happy with how I had raced it. I got cleaned up and we met a couple of teammates for a quick dinner, and I chalked up the day to nutrition problems.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. At 3 a.m. I had another sequence of vomiting, and this time I actually passed out on the bathroom floor, awaking in a disoriented, sweaty, vomit-soaked mess. I cleaned myself up, but had another episode at 9 a.m., and at that point I felt so weak that I knew I needed to go to the ER.
6 hours and 4 liters of IV fluids later, I was released to the care of my wife Jeanne, and we headed out to Bodega Bay to start a couple of nights of resort stays. I felt much better. However, the next night Jeanne was violently ill, which I initially chalked up to food poisoning until I got a text from Mikey in the morning saying he had been throwing up all night. The light kind of went on at that point, and I realized I must have had some sort of stomach bug, which explains a lot – I rarely have any kind of GI distress in races, and it had never been like this one.
So I’m taking the fitness and race experience I got from this and trying my luck again in Ironman Arizona. Back on the horse!
The worst part was definitely the first shower later on in the day. After that, I wrapped myself in Tegaderm (and had some help doing the shoulder and upper back, which I couldn’t reach myself) and waited. Every day got better, and in about a week I was able to swim again. Riding and running had continued, though the riding was pretty much all indoors for that first week.
Going into Honu, my chief concern was sun protection – you want to avoid direct sun exposure on the wounds if you care about scarring. Although my modeling days are pretty much behind me, I took the advice to heart and made my race-day wardrobe choices: short-sleeved tri top, white arm coolers, a thin knee warmer on my right knee, and white compression socks, all of which would be put on in T1. I was definitely not going to win any “fastest transition” prizes.
I was, however, eager to see how my swim went. I’d visited Karlyn Pipes and her Endless Pool on my final day in Kona for Epic 5, and she had had me make a number of modifications to my swim stroke. I’d been finding myself swimming well in masters sessions in the pool, basically going as fast without gear as I had before with the Roka sim shorts (aka “cheater pants”), but I didn’t know how that would translate to open water.
The Honu swim changed format once again this year, taking last year’s age group waves and adding a rolling start within the waves, in which four swimmers went every few seconds. The other change was the direction – clockwise instead of counter-clockwise. I don’t know how much these changes affected things, but I ended up having my second-best swim here ever (out of nine times) in 36:30, which is 4-5 minutes slower than I swim in calmer water with a wetsuit, but I’m still happy with it.The transition from swim to bike took a while, as I was putting on arm coolers, a knee cover and compression socks in addition to my normal helmet, glasses and shoes. This added an extra 3-4 minutes of time over the normal process but avoided sunburn and additional scarring of the residual wounds from 13 days earlier. Once out on the Queen K, I settled into my target power of 210-215W. This course, however, is quite undulating, and the winds shift fairly frequently, so it’s difficult to ride a steady power. I found myself fluctuating quite a bit:
Ideal would be mostly Zone 3, but that would likely come on a flat course with little-to-no wind. Here’s last year’s for comparison, where I went 11 minutes faster:
The amount of Zone 3 riding is actually higher in 2017, which is mainly because I pushed more into Zone 4 last year. The Normalized Power this year was 7 watts lower, which by itself wouldn’t account for 11 minutes of time, so I’ll attribute most of that to more difficult wind conditions this year. I was also consciously holding back a little more on the bike, hoping it would have a positive effect on my run. Even so, I started getting leg cramps in the final 10 miles of the bike, which didn’t bode well for having a good run.
The bike split was 2:40; I’d certainly expected a few minutes better.T2 was a bit pokey as well – I wasn’t feeling that great. Still, my wife Jeanne and niece Tana – my support crew – were there, so one needs to be positive and smile for the camera. 🙂 Initially my running legs didn’t feel that bad once I headed out on the course, so I was optimistic that the run wouldn’t be the crampfest I’ve often experienced in this race. I was, however, wrong. After starting off well in the first mile, the cramps and associated walking started kicking in. I was determined, however, to run as often as the cramping allowed me, then walk the aid stations and get as much fluid and electrolytes in me as I could, hoping to eventually turn the tide around. This graph illustrates the progression:
The pace got very ugly in the middle of the race – obviously there I did a ton of walking. But my heart rate also dropped during that section, which allowed my body the opportunity to absorb more of what I was taking in at the aid stations. The effect of that, which the graph illustrates, is that mile 13 ended up being my second-fastest mile, and I definitely felt like I was coming good again.
The lesson from this is that I need to do a much better job of taking nutrition in during the bike segment in order to avoid these kinds of lows during the run. If you come into the run depleted, you can’t take enough in and have your body actually make effective use of it unless you slow way down and drop your heart rate – this seems to be especially true in hot, humid conditions. In races on the Mainland I don’t typically see the mid-run crash like I do in the Honu race, even in fairly hot (but not humid) venues such as the Vineman race.
The slowdown was costly; my run split ended up being 2:10:56, which made my final time 5:37:44, still good enough for 6th in my newly-minted M55-59 age group. A more normal run split for me here in the 1:45-1:50 range would have netted me 3rd or 4th. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. 🙂
The upside is that I didn’t feel that bad after the race, and on top of that, it was vacation time! We spent a few days down in the Pahoa area, riding bikes, hiking around the lava flows, ziplining, etc. And I did the lava boat trip one afternoon, which ranks as the single coolest activity I’ve ever experienced in Hawai’i:
Next up? Not sure yet. A full Ironman might be on the horizon. Or it might not – still not sure where I left my Ironman mojo.
Let’s be clear right off the bat: I didn’t participate in this insanity as an athlete, but rather as crew chief for the illustrious Tim Sheeper. This is not a race; it’s more of an adventure. Five Ironmans in five days on five different Hawaiian islands. Complicating the enormous athletic challenge are the many logistical challenges. We had assembled a stellar crew of Team Sheeper athlete/coaches: Mike Osmond, an experienced Ironman and a great planner/organizer, and Jen Ford, a great athlete in her own right but also a chiropractor/massage therapist. The schedule looked like this:
Day 1: Kaua’i, 6 a.m. start; 10 p.m. flight to O’ahu
Day 2: O’ahu, 6 a.m. start
Day 3: 6 a.m. flight to Mokoka’i, 9 a.m. start
Day 4: 6 a.m. boat to Maui, 10:30 a.m. start
Day 5: 8 a.m. flight to Kona, 11 a.m. start
Looks simple until you realize that the athlete is going to take anywhere from 12 to 17 or more hours to complete each day. Between increasingly late starts and accumulated fatigue, that tends to lengthen the time it takes each day to finish, so you can imagine that doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleep – either for the athlete or the athlete’s crew. This was brought into its most acute state between days 4 and 5, in which Tim (and I) got a grand total of 40 minutes of sleep between his finishing the Maui stage and our leaving the condo for the airport.
I could write a novel about the event, but to give the highlights:
- Kaua’i. We arrived here a few days early and stayed up in a nice condo in Princeville. The event started down the hill in Hanalei Bay, and the water was calm, making for fast swimming conditions. Of the 10 athletes, Tim was the class of the field in terms of swimming, so he was out of the water in about 54 minutes with a pretty good lead. This put us out on the bike by ourselves, and we didn’t see another soul until Tim had circled the island to the turnaround point at the road to Polihale (65 miles). It was hot, and Tim was having trouble all of a sudden keeping food down (though he kept the extent of this to himself, unfortunately for his crew – this would have been good info to have had). Untimely double flats with 10 km to go made him lose 30 minutes, and the “lead” (this was an event, not a race, though some of the participants seemed to be treating it as a race). We would be plagued by flats on two more stages, and as all of them were pinch flats I’d consider riding latex tubes next time. The run was on a course near the airport in Lihue in order to facilitate getting to the evening flight as quickly as possible, but it was a not particularly pleasant course to run in Friday afternoon pau hana traffic. Tim was on a plan of 25 minutes of running followed by 5 minutes of walking, then repeat. His nutritional challenges on the bike came back to haunt him, though, so he modified that pattern to a 12/3 run/walk in the second half of the run, then walked the final 2 miles in. Total time of around 12:30, including the flat and very leisurely transitions. A quick massage by Jen and we were off to the airport. Somewhat worrisome was Tim’s continued inability to eat; this didn’t bode well for the O’ahu stage.
- O’ahu. After overnighting in the Ala Moana Hotel with about 4 hours of sleep, day 2 started with a swim in Ala Moana Beach Park with two out-and-backs. Tim went really easy in about 1:15 and took a very leisurely transition to steel himself for the logistically challenging bike, which consisted of many turns through Diamond Head and Kahala, then heading through the windward towns of Kailua and Kaneohe to the eventual turnaround in Laie. Tim had turned the flame down very low; we were characterizing this as a “recovery Ironman,” so he was riding near the back of the field. One nutritional challenge with Tim is that he is a strict vegan, so some refueling options are off limits. Luckily there was a Whole Foods in Kailua, so we were able to find some chia gels and drinks, as well as some other gel blocks and electrolyte drink mix at a local bike shop (where we also got some replacement tires and tubes for Moloka’i, where there are no bike shops). With all the traffic lights, stops, and the reduced intensity level, the ride took around 8 hours, and adding to that another leisurely transition, Tim took off on the run around 5 p.m. Given that he was walking, not running, this was going to be a long night. It was time to initiate a crew resting strategy as well, so I took the first one in order to be freshest for Moloka’i, getting about 5 hours of sleep in two separate stints. Tim ended up finishing at midnight and getting to bed at 1, and we had a 4:30 a.m. departure from the hotel. An 18-hour day and about 3 hours of sleep. This was getting ugly.
- Moloka’i. The least tourist-friendly island presented some major logistical challenges. First, the typically rough ocean meant the organizers had set up a pool swim in the 6-lane, 25-meter pool in Kaunakakai, the island’s main town (you might say only town). Second, Moloka’i on a good day has very few restaurants or grocery stores, and on a Sunday you can cut that number by two-thirds. Luckily, all we really needed was water and ice, plus some food for the crew. Third, what was open was going to close early – no gas after 6 p.m., and only one restaurant open after that. For the swim, Tim ditched his wetsuit and used Roka neoprene shorts to provide hip flotation without letting his body overheat. His “easy” 1:02 put him out of the water well ahead of the rest of the athletes, so once again he was soloing on the bike in front of everyone else. The course was spectacular, first heading east 21 miles towards the Halawa side, then turning around, coming back through town and heading up a long climb towards the ghost town of Maunaloa. The eastbound out-and-back was then repeated to fill out the 112 miles, ending at the Hotel Moloka’i, where the run started. Tim was having a much better day than he’d had on O’ahu, so managed to run a fair amount before he started bonking, and Jen walked him in just after midnight. That made for about a 14-hour day and set us up for 4 hours of sleep before getting up to head to the chartered ferry to Maui.
- Maui. Perhpas the most logistically challenging of all of the days, Maui was tough, kind of like the third lap in a mile race. You’re not in the home stretch, but you have to push hard to maintain the same speed that you were doing more effortlessly earlier. The ferry docked in Lahaina, and we boarded two sets of shuttles, with most heading directly to the swim start in Kihei and the lead drivers heading to the airport in Kahului to pick up the minivans. In this process, one of our pieces of luggage went missing, so we were down a few items (mainly replaceable supplies like washing poweder and batteries – in the grand scheme of things more annoying than devastating. As the van driver, I arrived just after the swim had started, and the ocean was looking rough! The course was 9 laps of a quarter-mile or so out-and-back, and Tim was in his element. Surprisingly, though, a bunch of the other competitors exited the water way before Tim did, and confusion ensued, since Tim had been motoring past them the entire time. It turns out that they were struggling in the conditions and, seeing 2.4 miles on their Garmin watches, decided to exit after only 6 laps. WTF?? I won’t go into the technicalities of why you don’t trust wrist-based GPS in a relatively short swim course (e.g., you don’t use GPS mode in a pool), but this was blatant course-cutting on the part of those guys. This put Tim, who swam 1:30 under those tough conditions, in a 40-minute hole relative to the cutters vs having a 40-minute advantage. Again, this wasn’t a race, and Tim was mellow about it though disappointed that his strength as a swimmer had been negated, and we (his crew) were livid. I would guess only 4 of the 10 swam the full course, and I’m not even sure of that. Anyway, Tim was finally off on the bike around 1 p.m., which headed first down through Wailea and Makena to La Perouse, then headed north to Kahului before circling part of West Maui through the pali, the town of Lahaina and the resort areas of Ka’anapali and Kapalua before reversing course and ending back at the beach in Kihei. I had gotten a couple of hours of sleep while Tim was out on the bike, done our laundry and gotten some food for the crew (and a veggie burrito for Tim to help him get calories). Tim got back around 8:30 p.m. and started the run around 9. He was severely depleted, so this was going to be a walk rather than a run – another “recovery Ironman.” I sent Mike and Jen back to the condo to get some sleep, so it was just me in the support van for the long night. The veggie burriot wasn’t sitting well, so we got some Rolaids in him (thank goodness for the Epic 5 staff members who had some extra supplies and came to meet us with them). Tim was essentially going about 20-minute miles, so we were looking at an 8-hour run. Normally-busy Wailea and Kihei were eerily quiet in the wee hours of the morning, other than one drunken couple stumbling along the sidewalk in Wailea who became quite animated when Tim passed them…animated, if not exactly coherent. At the suggestion of staff member Mary Margaret, whose husband is an experienced ultrarunner, I headed to Kihei’s 24-hour Safeway once we were back from the southern out-and-back 16 miles and bought some chocolate Ensure, which provided essentially a 350-calorie meal in a can. That worked very well when cut with some water; the other thing we tried was chicken broth, with worked horribly at room temperature, and even once I threw some in the microwave Tim couldn’t tolerate it. The Ensure did work its magic, though, and Tim started to come around. I turned over shephering duties in the final mile to Jen and Mike, who had been able to get a few hours of sleep, and headed home for a quick 40-minute nap while Tim finished and Mike and Jen organized the van and packed up. As bad as I felt when I was rousted out of a sound sleep, I knew Tim must have felt way worse – he looked like a zombie. That’s what another 18 hours of an Ironman + 40 minutes of sleep will do to you.
- Kona: we got to Kahului airport in time to make the charter flight to Kona, and again (as with the flight from O’ahu to Moloka’i), we had to decide which few pieces of luggage we could leave behind to come in on a later flight. We left the spare wheel case (which we never needed – lesson learned for the future) and the massage table, and they dutifully showed up mid afternoon. The Kona course was the same as the Ironman World Championship course, except for the run, which due to road construction on the Queen K was turned into a double out-and-back along Ali’i Drive down to Keauhou (which added a cruel series of short steep hills). The ocean was rough, and with all the inevitable delays the swim started around 11 a.m. Tim seemed pretty chipper for someone operating on such enormous fatigue – probably some combination of the better nutrition kicking in and the knowledge that this was the last one and was on a course he knew very well. The conditions were rough enough that the paddlers were having problems, but Tim knocked out a “relaxed” 1:06, about 30 minutes clear of anyone else. We took our time getting him ready for the bike, now using white arm and leg cooling sleeves to avoid further sun damage, which he’d incurred in the previous days despite frequent applications of sunscreen. It was hot and windy for the initial portion of the ride, and the winds were really ripping on the road between Kawaihae and Hawi – fortunately, Tim’s a confident bike handler. The question mark for today was going to be the run: how much of a toll had the previous four days taken, and was it going to be a run or a walk? It turned out to be a run! The best news about that was that neither he nor his crew were going to be up all night. 🙂 This ended up being his second-fastest day (after Kaua’i), so he really ended on a positive note.
10 athletes started, and 10 athletes finished, which was a first in terms of both sheer numbers and of a 100% finisher rate (we’ll ignore the Maui swim for record purposes 🙂 ). Overall, it was a great experience, and we made so many new friends among the other athletes and crew – joint suffering will do that. I can promise my wife Jeanne, though, that I have little to no interest in actually doing this one myself.
Biggest takeaway was something we already knew: Tim Sheeper is an animal! 🙂
Confession: I haven’t been motivated this season to do an Ironman. In what should normally be a banner year – being the youngest in a new age group (I moved up to M55-59 this year) – I haven’t been able to bring myself to register for a full Ironman yet. Part of my reticence is physical: I had two poor Ironman races last year, plagued by cramping starting on the bike and continuing in slow, painful walk/jogs. But the larger reason is mental/emotional – my heart just hasn’t been in it.
I lost my dad in January, and the grieving process likely plays a big role there. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been training; in fact, I’ve been adding a lot of functional strength work to my routine, and I’ve done some big bike and run blocks – big in terms of frequency/consistency, at least, if not really high volume. So I actually feel really good, and I think I discovered the issue with my abductor/hamstring cramping: my bike position. Dan Empfield of slowtwitch.com came to San Francisco recently for a marketing event that included “express fits” – a quick process of taking my current fit coordinates and trying a few simple tweaks on a nifty electronically controlled fit bike. The bottom line was that I was 3 cm too far forward in the saddle and 4 cm too far forward in the elbow pads. I made the changes based on Dan’s recommendations, and – voilà – no more abductor issues…so far, anyway.
I have signed up for a couple of half Ironman races in May and June, and I’m thinking I might get my Ironman mojo back by mid-summer, but in the meantime I picked the Lavaman Triathlon as my first tri of the season. It’s an Olympic-distance race that takes place in the Waikoloa area (swim in the calm Anaeho’omalu Bay, bike up the Queen K to the entrance of the tony Kukio resort, then back to Waikoloa, then run on a combination of roads and rocky beach sections that beg you to fall and scrape yourself on lava rocks or twist an ankle – in short, FUN!). Roughly a dozen of my Team Sheeper mates were there, which made it a really fun destination race. Now that we’re part-time residents of the Big Island, it’s great to introduce friends to the lesser-known treasures of our home away from home.
So…the race. Attentive readers will note that the swim is not my strength, and in Olympic-distance racing that’s more of a liability than it is in half Ironman or full Ironman, since it makes up proportionately more of the race and also since the bike and run distances are less likely to test the limits of stronger swimmers. So my goal in the swim was to keep my losses to a minimum. I was in the last wave of males, which was 55 and older. Yeah, that didn’t make me feel like a geezer! The good thing was that I got off to a great start and avoided getting battered by my competitors, so had a pretty decent (for me) time in the water. I still gave up 5 minutes to the fastest guys in the group, but did catch a bunch of swimmers from earlier waves as well (waves were 6 minutes apart).
The transition included a longish run, but I got out on the bike relatively quickly for my first race of the season – some transition practice is in order. I felt great on the bike and immediately started passing riders. My watts were high but controlled – around 240, which is getting within 5% of my threshold – and that was part of the plan. The first half of the bike was a long gradual uphill, and it turned out on the day to also be a headwind, which made for a double whammy.
My power was solid – I had a 20-minute average of 242W in there, and at times I was pushing close to 300W, which for me is cranking. The Dimond felt fast, and my recently-tweaked position felt comfortable. I knew from the conditions on the way out that the way back would feature mostly downhill and a tailwind, so I decided to allow myself to push the power going out – I’d get to recover a little on the return. The focus was on staying aero.
It wasn’t all easy on the return, but I definitely recovered a little, and I did my flying dismount into T2, notching a 1:05:30 for the ride (222W AP, 229W NP), and the first thing I noticed when I got to my rack area was that there were NO OTHER BIKES there. 🙂 That didn’t tell me for sure that I was leading the age group, as the bib numbers were a little spread out, but I thought I was doing pretty well. Anyway, the run is usually a strength of mine (except sometimes in the heat of Hawaii), so all I could do was pace myself and run as hard as conditions would allow me to.
The first 4 miles were mostly on pavement, but then we got onto the “off-road” sections along the King’s Trail and shoreline, which involved lava rocks, coral and the danger of slipping and opening up gashes (I saw a few walking wounded after the race). The footing was really tricky in parts, but I just tried to go as fast as I could while maintaining balance.
The final almost-mile-long section of rocks and beach was especially tough, but you could hear the finish line announcer from pretty far away, so at least you knew you were close. I went sub 45 for the “10K” (my Garmin got 5.7 miles, so it was about a half mile short), but that got me the second fastest run split in my age group by 15 seconds or so, and that combined with my top bike split gave me my first age group win in quite a while.
I can’t say enough good things about Lavaman – and not just because I got a W. The event still has that ohana feel that the Ironman-branded events – much as I love them – have lost. Plus, you’re done by mid-morning and enjoying complimentary Kona Brewing Co beer by 11 a.m., so this race just screams “vacation.”
Anyway, the season started off great. More adventures to come, and I’m definitely getting my mojo back…gradually!
It’s been a long season, with a mixed bag of results. The highs were few — a PR and podium finish at Vineman 70.3 — and the lows, at least compared with past seasons, were numerous: DNFs at Honu 70.3 and Superfrog 70.3, and less-than-stellar finishes at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Ironman Arizona. That doesn’t mean the year was a disaster — I had a lot of fun training, and my Coeur d’Alene experience was really about being there for my friend Jim’s first Ironman, so that part was a success all around. But this year my run really let me down a number of times, and seeing how running has mostly been one of my strengths, that’s kind of hard to take. At 54, this year more than ever I’ve noticed the decline.
But a great thing happened this year as well. In addition to my triathlon team, Team Sheeper, I’m also part of the Excelsior Running Club based up in San Francisco, and have been for about 15 years. I haven’t been that active the past few years, as triathlon season and important races are hard to balance with competitive running races, but we had a great organizer this year — Nakia — who tirelessly rousted dormant team members, coaxed and cajoled via email and other means, got me to actually race three 5Ks and two half marathons in the middle of triathlon season (sometimes the day after a long ride, which trust me is not the recipe for a fast time), and the end result is that both the male 40s and 50s teams find themselves in first place in the Pacific USATF road racing series.
The capstone of that series is the California International Marathon, which is important because (a) it’s much more difficult to field a full team (which needs three runners in order to score) of 50+ guys, because, you know, we’re old and fragile, and (b) it’s a double-points race, which means it counts for a lot. My last time here was 2009, eight weeks after my very first Kona, and at that younger age I was able to scratch out my last sub 3:00 (barely — a 2:59:54). This year’s was only two weeks after Arizona, so I had no real idea of what to expect in terms of time. My last open marathon was 2011 when I did the Boston-Big Sur double (3:03 and 3:04, which showed at least that I could recover decently in two weeks), but then again I’m five years older now and my runs this year weren’t that great. I told Nakia I’d be happy if I broke 3:20, and I meant it.
In the meantime, my recovery from Arizona consisted of doing a little swimming and crewing for Rob Gray at Ultraman, which was an awesome experience. It did involve some running, but it was mostly short sprints to hand off fluid bottles as he was riding by at fast speeds, but I did notice that my legs felt pretty decent. The following Tuesday I did a 5-miler at the Old Kona Airport that involved two quickish miles to see how the legs liked 7:00 pace or faster, and that went pretty well. So all in all my confidence was increasing that race day wouldn’t be a total disaster. Still, two miles at race effort is a long way from 26.2.
Given the unknown of how my body would react to both the residual fatigue and a pace that I hadn’t done any really long runs at, the question was what my race strategy should be. My feeling was that I should be conservative and go out at 7:15-7:20 pace through at least midway and then pick it up if I felt good. I discussed this plan with my teammate Cliff the evening before over a pre-race Indian meal (yes, really!), and I got the impression that he thought I was maybe selling myself a bit short. Plus there was my ego — I’ve only run two marathons slower than 3:09:50, one being my very first one when I was young and stupid (I’m no longer young), and the second being one in which I paced my brother-in-law through his first marathon — so I started thinking maybe I should think about holding 7:10s, which would get me around a 3:08 and keep my record intact. So yeah, I started getting greedy.
That said, my two sub 1:30 half marathons run shortly on the heels of long bike rides did at least provide some empirical validation to my plan (the old “double your half marathon time and add 10 minutes” rule), but that approach implies that you have sufficient training mileage for the longer distance. Here’s what my run volume looks like for the past six months:
That’s right — 15 miles per week average, and the only weeks over 30 miles were those that included an Ironman. No running coach would recommend a program like this.
I had a few things going for me, though:
- I get a lot of weekly volume from cycling and to some extent swimming.
- I have a lot of marathon experience, and I have always run pretty well off of low training volume.
- CIM is a fast course that’s ideal for “rhythm runners” like me.
- I’m not very smart. Sometimes you shouldn’t overthink things — just do them.
I carried all my nutrition except for the water and Nuun I’d get from the aid stations. The nutrition consisted of three Glukos gels (60 cal each), which I planned to take every 45 minutes, four Glukos tablets (15 cal each), which I planned to take as needed in between and after my last gel, and about eight Succeed S-Caps sodium/potassium caplets, which I planned to take every 30-40 minutes early on and then more frequently later if I got crampy. This array worked very well for me as it turned out.
The race had pace groups oriented around times two minutes faster than the Boston qualifying marks (since that was the gap you needed this year to get in); I wasn’t so concerned about that since my qualifying time of 3:40 is easily within my capabilities (there are certain benefits to being old), but 3:08 seemed perfectly aligned with my revised goal for the day. The race started, and it took my group about 30 seconds to cross the start line, so I started my watch then. The 3:08 pacers were a little quick to start with, taking us out in 7:03 (vs the 7:10 you need to hit 3:08) and then following that with some sub 7:00s. The course is pretty rolling in the first half, so you expect a little pace variation, and in my case my legs felt very good and the effort felt very controlled aerobically, so I went with it. At the first aid station before mile 3 I pulled slightly ahead of the group, remembering how crowded it got in 2009 trying to get fluids when you’re in the middle of a pack. That felt fine, so I basically kept rolling at just under 7:00 pace average — sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower.
Mile 9 at 1:03:06 was the first time my average crept over 7:00, and that began the middle third of the race in which I definitely started to feel less fresh and energetic. Still, I hit halfway in just over 1:32 and mile 18 in 2:03:32, which meant my second 9 miles were run in 1:03:24 — only 18 seconds (or 2 seconds per mile) slower than my first 9. Sub 3:10 was definitely looking more and more possible!
The effort level to maintain this pace, however, was hitting an inflection point. Mile 20 (2:20:53, or just under 7:03 average) was my last mile at 7:10 or faster, and even though I felt positive mentally, physically I was slowing despite putting out a lot of effort. My quads were very sore by this point, too, so every footstrike hurt. Not bad at first— mile 21 was a 7:15 — but each subsequent mile became that much harder, slower and more painful. 7:26, 7:27, 7:38. With 2.2 miles to go at 2:50:40, I basically had 19 minutes of breathing room, so all I needed to do was not cramp. My quads and hamstrings were tingling, though, in that “I’m about to cramp” sort of way, so I just tried to change my running form up a bit and take some of the pressure off by leaning forward a bit and making sure my foot was striking underneath my body.
Mile 25 was a 7:25 — good! Just keep it going, I told myself. But that last mile was awful; I felt like I was running in slow motion through quicksand. The 3:08 pacers caught and passed me, but weren’t pulling very far ahead, and the road signs helped count things down — “a half mile to go,” “400 meters to go,” “200 meters to go!” I don’t remember very much except turning into the final straight, seeing 3:08:xx on the race clock and hitting stop on my watch after I crossed the line.
But there’s a basic truth in there somewhere, particularly as it relates to teams. I always seem to race that little bit better and try that little bit harder in workouts when I’m doing it with and for others beyond myself. If I look back at my best memories from this past season, they all revolve around training sessions with my teammates or races in support of not only myself but others — Jim’s first Ironman, the Hana Relay with my Maui ohana, Ultraman, and now this.
Bonus: I didn’t have to stop at mile 16.5 for a hot shower. 🙂