Ironman Arizona: Coffee’s for Closers!

This was my fourth Ironman Arizona and – assuming I finished – would be my 15th IM overall.  But it came at the end of a very long season: I had some nice volume coming into the year, thanks to the mild Bay Area winter, but I started a new job (at Saffron) in February and went into Ironman Los Cabos without my usual focus. I had a disappointing race there, “running” 4:51 and deciding then and there to quit chasing Kona for 2014. Instead, I did lower volume but some higher intensity, and raced my ass off at Olympic and 70.3 distances – that training was much more compatible with the new gig and with re-establishing a sense of fun. And I managed to break my Olympic-distance PR twice and do my three-fastest 70.3s ever (StG, Honu, Vineman). For an “old man” of 52, I was pretty happy with that.

But then IMAZ loomed. Even if my shorter races indicated great fitness, my training volume numbers were way lower than I would have liked. I’m talking under 10 hours per week for all but 5 weeks in the past 6 months; biggest week just under 15 hours. By mid September I knew there wasn’t much to be done – you can’t cram a bunch of volume in, but you can do some focused volume, so I did one key 100-mile ride that I probably did 10 times before my breakthrough IMAZ 2012, and it went well enough to convince me I could do this thing. The race is also a qualifier for the 2015 Hawaii Ironman, and I figured, based on past years, that I would need to finish in the top 3 or 4 of my age group to get a Kona slot.

I wasn’t getting a lot of pool time (like 1x per week), but I did a lot of sessions on my Vasa to try to at least build some swim-specific muscular endurance in the upper body. It appeared to work, because when I did make the noon masters swim (I am not a morning person, unlike most triathletes), I was able to swim in my usual lane and sometimes up a lane with no problem. Also did our team’s “hour swim” and got 3800 yards in, drafting about 1000 of those, so I figured I was good for my usual 1:10-1:15 range.

Hydration issues in IM aside, the run has historically been my strength, so my only worry there was proper pacing – oh, and having the old body hold up. A last-minute equipment change was to run in Hoka Cliftons (not brand new – had run in them a number of times) rather than the Newtons I normally wear. The IMAZ run is pretty flat, but the surface is hard, so I figured the extra cushioning would come in handy. To that end, I also decided the night before the race to wear compression socks (really “sleeves,” since they didn’t cover the foot), but the only pair I’d brought was a non-kit-matching green. Oh well – going fast isn’t about fashion. 🙂

The final component of my race that I had to get ready was my head. The long season had taken its toll on me – mentally, I was ready for it to be over. Physically, I felt tired, and also got sick for the first time in two years, just prior to Challenge Rancho Cordova, which I was forced to turn into an aquabike because I felt so bad. The Wednesday before IMAZ, the congestion made its return – rut roh! I tried to remain upbeat and positive, and I was determined not to repeat my biggest mistake at Cabo: not having my head in the game.

Much as I tried to be relaxed about it, I did have the goal of getting a Kona slot, so there was the competition to consider. I had peeked at the bib list coming in, and the one name that stood out was Bill MacLeod – I’d met him at Malibu and knew he was out of my league. He also always shows up to races prepared, so that was one slot likely gone. Anything can happen in IM, of course, but he isn’t a guy who “blows up.” Beyond him, I didn’t really know anyone else to be a “heavy hitter,” which didn’t mean that anything was in the bag but simply that I had as good a shot as anyone else at a KQ if I executed well. Or so I told myself.

Anyway, the race:

Swim: I hate this swim. Not because of the water or anything – just way too many people. I’ve tried both sides but had my best luck on the left, so I headed that way again, and it was the right call. Other than some of the paddlers trying to move us right too early (no way I’m moving into that melee, pal!), I was moving along pretty well, with the normal bunching up at the turn buoys. I got right in the scrum there, but people were pretty good in general, and after the second one I moved over to the shore like a guy on Slowtwitch had suggested. Boom! No one other than a couple of other caps – everyone else was following the buoy line. My only regret was not staying right for longer; the buoys kept moving right, and I could have stayed near the shore almost all the way to the Mill Ave Bridge. Anyway, I looked at my watch on exit and saw 1:11, which equals my best swim here, so I was pleased enough. Score one for the Vasa!

Bike: I rode 5:04 here in 2012, but as soon as I hit the road it became apparent from the winds that that was going to be challenging to repeat. I had my wattage plan anyway – basically average between 190 and 195W, which is what I did to get that time before. My first problem was my Garmin 510 bike computer – for some reason the display wasn’t showing power, and the only thing I had changed before race day was to set alarms every 15 minutes to remind me to drink. This clearly wasn’t going to work – if your plan involves sticking to power but you can’t see power numbers, you’ve got a problem – but luckily it’s easy enough to change the data fields on the fly, which I did once things had settled down a little and I wasn’t surrounded by other riders. From there it was just a matter of being patient; I let myself go up to 205-210W uphill and into the wind and occasionally spike above that if I needed to pass someone quickly to avoid drafting, but otherwise I was Steady Eddie. I made sure to drink a lot. The first lap was a 1:42 – already a couple of minutes slower than I’d done in 2012, but it would get worse from there. I think my second loop was 1:45 or 1:46, but I was still mostly passing people. I didn’t see much, if any, drafting where I was. The real key was avoiding collisions with riders I was lapping, some of whom didn’t heed instructions to ride right. I did my best to announce myself as I was passing, but it was hard to hear with the wind out there.

IMAZ bike

IMAZ bike 2

My Garmin crapped out on the power data (and HR) around mile 80, so the last loop I was “riding blind.” This may have been a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to go by feel, knowing that I had a run that I really wanted to nail. Nail in a “don’t cramp up and lose a bunch of time” kind of way. I couldn’t wait to make that final turn at the top of Beeline, and once I did I really relaxed on the downhill and made sure to get a bunch of nutrition in. I was ready for the ride to be done, which was a good indication that my long-distance bike fitness wasn’t as good as it should have been. Still, I executed a decent flying dismount into T2 with a split of 5:19, my second fastest. A far cry from 5:04, but I’ll take it on the day.

For data geeks, luckily I was also running my 910xt, which didn’t crap out, so I got the stats. NP of 188W (5W less than in 2012), TSS of 286, avg HR of 127, VI of 1.03 – not 1.01 like in 2012, but with the winds and all this is pretty even).

Glad to be off the bike!

Glad to be off the bike!

Run: I felt ok running into T2, made a quick pee break (why don’t people push the locks when they’re in the portapotties??), and got out on the run course at 6:39ish into the race. I was pretty sure there would be no sub 10 at that point; my fastest IM run ever is 3:32 (from IMAZ 2008). That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try, but I’ve gone out at 7:00 pace in the past and that didn’t work out so well. Plus, I didn’t feel particularly punchy in my running, so I figured I’d just settle in. First couple of miles were 7:40ish, then on the return with a tailwind I hit a 7:15 mile 3 and told myself to simmer the f*** down. This would turn out to be a run in which I never felt really good, nor really bad. I was trading places off and on with an Executive Challenge guy I know – he would stop and I would pass him, then when he was running he would blow past me again. The two-loop course was new to me yet had a lot of familiar stretches from the three-loop course, including the climb up East Curry, but for Bay Area types it’s not much of a climb.

High-fiving my good luck charm Alexa

High-fiving my good luck charm Alexa

I was glad I had the Hokas, but after the first 10 miles or so even they didn’t feel that cushioned. I just kept focusing on nutrition and every once in a while on other runners (former world-class marathoner Colleen de Reuck flew past me at mile 16 with some guy in tow, so she was hard to miss). At mile 17, my wife told me that I’d come off the bike in 4th in the AG and might be as high as 2nd now, but that 1st was “out of reach” (that’s putting it mildly). That was the first update I had had all day, and to be frank I was kind of shocked. I thought I had blown it on the bike and was maybe running for top 10. Knowing how unreliable the live tracker can be, I didn’t fully trust the intell, but all the same my focus was now on maintaining – no way I was catching 1st, but if I blew up I could lose 2nd. Or whatever place I was actually in.

My mile splits were consistently in the 8:30 range, and I had had no cramping yet, so once I hit that East Curry hill the second time to get to mile 23, I started my push for the finish. I had no idea where anyone was at that point, and I’d had no updates since mile 17, so my job became simply to make it very hard for any geezer to come by me. Those last 3 miles hurt. A lot. One or two younger dudes went by me in the last mile, but just before the final turn into the chute my friend told me he was pretty sure I was 2nd. I crossed the line in 10:15:50 (3:36 run), my second-fastest IM ever and indeed 2nd in M50-54. Kona, baby!

Glad to be done!

Glad to be done!

With Jeanne, my biggest supporter

With Jeanne, my biggest supporter

To say I’m ecstatic with this result would be an understatement. I was worried I didn’t have enough volume coming in; I knew early on in the bike that my sub 10 goal was likely out the window, yet I got my best Ironman AG and overall (117th) placing ever. And I’m old. 🙂

So what did we learn?

Well, sports cliches are used in business for a reason – days like this are a metaphor for life. Here’s what I took away from the day:

  • Have a plan, but be prepared for things not to go to plan. I had time goals for each discipline, but the heavy winds changed things on the bike, so I adapted. I also had to adapt to not having power data throughout the entire ride, and just go by feel.
  • It’s tough for everyone, not just you. When you encounter tough conditions and get into a negative frame of mind, it can turn into a pity party. I tried to turn it around and revel in the conditions by telling myself that others were having it worse, that faster guys were going to overbike (trying to hit a time goal) and blow up on the run – basically, make lemonade out of lemons.
  • Don’t count yourself out, even if you think you know the score. I had no idea what my position in the age group was (and therefore what my chances of a Kona slot were) until mile 17 of the run, and even then I didn’t know for sure. I just kept trying to run my own race, and it worked out.
  • Mental toughness is equally important as physical preparation. I was in better physical shape going into Cabo than I was going into Arizona, but my head was in the game in Arizona – I paced myself well, and executed on nutrition and hydration better than I ever had before.

So my way-better-than-expected day really came down to execution. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time (and I joke about it all the time with the sales guys I work with) is this one from Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s harsh (as is the language), but I sometimes use it to toughen up and remind myself – especially in the last part of the marathon, where everything hurts – that I want to finish the race with no regrets. No regrets that I didn’t push when I could have, that I let up and someone else came by me. In other words, I needed to seal the deal, run “like I stole it” – in short, close.


Second place? I think I earned more than a set of steak knives.

Who's going to Kona? *These* four guys!

Who’s going to Kona? *These* four guys!

Thanks to my great support crew of Jeanne, Greg and Alexa, and to my awesome Team Sheeper teammates and training partners, who are not only great friends but who also push me every day to be better.

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