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!