From the archives: Race Report: Ironman Germany 2006

Since I’m rehabbing from surgery and not racing, I’m resurrecting some race reports from days gone by. These reports were shared on a listserv-based online group called Dead Runners Society.

Ironman Germany was my third Ironman-distance race, the first being the European Championship in Almere, Netherlands in 1985, and the second being 20 years later in Ironman Germany. I came back to Frankfurt the following year to try and better my time. Enjoy.

They say Ironman is an event that you get better at with experience; this year’s race would certainly put that assertion to the test. Why would a Bay Arean travel all the way to Frankfurt for such a test? Course knowledge might be one reason — I did this same race last year as my second Ironman ever, and my first in 20 years — and it turns out that all my Ironmans have been in Europe (my first was the 1985 European Championship in Holland when I was a young and stupid 23). The long flight aside, though, the logistics are easy: I speak the language, and I get a nonstop SFO-FRA flight followed by a 20-minute taxi ride. Simple.

Another bonus this year was that my brother Neil had just moved to Wiesbaden, a half hour drive from Frankfurt, so to make it a kind of family reunion, I brought my dad over (in addition to my wife Jeanne). To further add to the fun, Jim Cummins and his friend, “the infamous [Tom] Zak,” were racing as well. In fact, Jim and I had a €50 wager on the outcome.

My preparation this year wasn’t ideal, but then it never is. While I have well over 100,000 miles with my butt in an airline seat this year already, my training mileage was down compared to last year. But what you can’t overcome with training, you can make up for with science and money. I got a little coaching on my swim technique, which had me swimming more relaxed, if not exactly faster. For the bike, I worked during the winter on pedaling efficiency using a device called PowerCranks, then got a new tri bike this spring that was more aerodynamic and also had a power meter, a tool to measure the amount of watts one puts out. Power-based training is all the rage among competitive cyclists now; I bought the same system that the newly crowned Tour de France champion Floyd Landis uses. So the only difference is that he actually rides his bike a lot. 🙂

Running of course is my alleged strength in the tri, although I had kind of a mediocre runup to IMG. One 10K in Austin in almost a PW 40:44 (ok, it was hot and humid, but the 40-minute barrier wasn’t something I had seen the other side of since, well, 1981 or something), and then a PW Big Sur Marathon in April in a painful, barely-under-3:10 survival shuffle.

On the other hand, I had a minor bright spot in early June at a half Ironman on the Big Island, in which I had a solid 1:38 half marathon off the bike in hot, humid conditions on a slow course, which at least gave me hopes of running better in Frankfurt than my 4:31 of last year.

So we arrived in Frankfurt five days before the race, and the first challenge was clearly going to be the heat. Germany, like much of Europe, had had a heat wave going on for many weeks, and there was no end in sight. It was getting into the 90s every day, and every day seemed to be slightly hotter than the previous one. Things were made uglier still at Friday’s pre-race briefing — the water in the Langener Waldsee (the swim venue) was so warm that, for the first time ever in any European Ironman, no wetsuits would be allowed. For you non-triathletes, that means less buoyancy in the water, thus more drag and slower swim times. Weaker swimmers are affected by this more than stronger swimmers, so it’s much like a regressive tax. 🙂 The job at hand, therefore, had just gotten tougher.

The evening before the race, we did get some relief in the form of some heavy rain and violent thunderstorms, which cooled things down substantially. I awoke at 4:30 am to catch the bus to the start, and as I walked along the Zeil — the big pedestrian shopping street — there was almost a chill in the air. Almost. It was still probably 70, but it felt cool by comparison. It was weird to see a few people stumbling home drunk or digging through trash cans at that hour juxtaposed with the legion of superfit athletes converging on the bus pickup area.

After a longish 12K bus ride, we were there and setting up in T1. Having dropped off our bikes and gear the afternoon before and then having had the storms, we found things not quite as we had left them. My bike bag had been tied tightly, so none of my stuff had gotten wet, but the guy to the right of me found completely wet socks and was not having a good day.

My slim hope that they would change their minds on the wetsuits after the cooling rain quickly evaporated — the lake temperature was 27C (81F), Hawaii temperature basically. My guts were not behaving well either, probably due to the time change, but one competitor I overheard talking to his friends outside the portajohns kind of summed up my feelings: “ich muss mindestens einmal richtig kakken.” I’ll leave that untranslated, but suffice it to say that eric would not show up when I wanted him to.

So I was swimming in my one-piece trisuit, which I guess affords some hydrodynamic advantage insofar as it covers the pelt on my chest, but mainly it makes for a quicker transition after the swim since I would already be wearing my cycling clothes. It was a deep-water start, which meant treading water for 10 minutes before the gun went off — decidely more difficult than it was with the wetsuit last year. I found an uncrowded spot over to the far left of the wide starting line, hoping to avoid the melee in which I had found myself in the previous edition.

Suddenly we were off, and I found myself immediately in pretty clear water, so no repeat of last year’s panic. I just tried to focus on swimming with long strokes and not kicking too much, just staying relaxed. The swim was two loops — but not the *same* two loops — with a short run along the beach between the loops (called an “Australian exit”). Sighting the course because of this is a little tricky, but I got through the first loop ok, in fact a couple of minutes faster than last year. The trick was they had moved the start line up by 200 meters, so it was not actually faster. The second loop proved that. I stayed relaxed, though, and finally exited in 1:36, a slow swim even for me, and 11 minutes slower than last year. If I was going to hit my number 1 goal of beating last year’s time, I already had my work cut out for me.

T1 was a minute quicker, though, since I didn’t have a wetsuit to peel off, and soon I was off on the carbon fiber machine. Naturally, it was raining again, and it would keep raining through most of the first loop of the two-loop bike course. The two loops didn’t start, though, until after the 12K ride into downtown Frankfurt, and coming over the bridge into town I saw Jeanne and my dad. Since I was somewhat behind my predicted time, I felt compelled to offer up excuses. “I need a wetsuit!” was all I could come up with as I went by.

The plan was to keep an even pace and not push the watts too high — under 200 on the flats and under 300 on the climbs. The bike course is completely closed to traffic — the only Ironman where this is the case — but it does have a few short climbs and some tricky corners through some of the small villages, plus a brutal 500m section of bone-rattling cobblestones through the middle of one village, and these technical sections were made more dangerous because of the rain. In fact, last year’s winner, Normann Stadler, would crash twice on the bike. Water was spraying off of my tires in buckets, and I saw lightening off in the distance several times. So the weather was a blessing and a curse — it kept things relatively cool, but it also meant slower going and, for a number of folks, crashes.

I made it through ok, though, and was averaging about 20 mph — not quite what I hoped but what I could do on the day. I was not very comfortable in the aero position, though, in particular my neck and shoulders, so that’s something I realized I would have to work on more in training. I also had a technical glitch with my Succeed dispensers — they had gotten wet in the rain, and most of my caplets were coagulating into a gooey, salty mess. I forced a number of them down despite that, not wanting to experience a crampfest later.

Towards the end of the first loop, the sun came out and the road was drying, which was good. It was also heating up rapidly, which wasn’t so good. I passed by my cheering section (by then my brother and family had joined Jeanne and my dad) and headed off for the second loop. Roughly 80K (50M) to go.

I was staying pretty well hydrated — the numerous aid stations had bottles of water, Coke, Red Bull and “iso” (pronounced “ee-zoh”), the German generic term for sport drink (it’s short for “isotonisch,” I guess). I had packed several bottle of Cytomax, but once they were done I switched over to iso, which in this case was supplied by PowerBar. All that liquid eventually had to go somewhere, so I pulled over — like many guys on the course did — for a pee break during one of the sections where we were riding along farmland. Not that the German spectators would care if you did it right in front of them — they have quite a different attitude about nudity and bodily functions than we do in the US.

On the last climb, a guy passed me and started chatting in English — it turned out he was a Brit and had seen my first name printed below my number. He told me not to worry — he had just passed me “for show” during the spectator-filled climb and I would re-pass him shortly. I did, but not before joking that “I hear we have a little run coming up”. We both chuckled, but it was a laughter tinged with dread, because a marathon is a long run on a good day. In this heat, and after 112 miles on the bike, it could be a death march.

The last 10K into town is a nice long descent, and I used the opportunity to get out of the saddle and stretch out both legs, plus take on board whatever water and fuel I could get. I finally got into T2 with a bike time of 5:50, 3 minutes better than last year despite the rain and the pee break. So I was still down over last year and would need to have a good run. I exited T2 at 7:34 into the race, which meant I’d have to run 3:25 to break 11 hours. I felt good, but not *that* good.

The run course consisted of four loops of 10.5K each. I thought I would try to run each loop in 55 minutes, which if I could do it would get me a 3:40 and a low 11-hour finish time. The fun — and at the same time depressing — thing about the loop course is that you are running with people who are one, two, or, in the case of the top male pros, *three* loops ahead of you. The way you know who’s on which loop if by the colored armbands you collect during each loop — first blue, then orange, then green, then white. Once you look like Neapolitan ice cream, you get to proceed to the finish.

I was moving well my first loop and was about 5K in when the lead woman passed by on her third loop. Then came the then-lead man, Timo Bracht, on his fourth, though he would be passed by the Kiwi Cameron Brown on his was to a 2:48 marathon. This in 90+ degree heat after averaging over 25 mph on the bike. Unreal.

I got to the end of the first loop in 54:55, and that included my 2:00 or so of T2 time, so I was a little ahead of plan. Unfortunately, maybe *too* ahead of plan, because the wheels were starting to come off. Midway through the second loop, I walked through my first aid station, and that wouldn’t be the last time I walked. My cheering section had staked out a place just past the 1K mark of the loop, and each time they would hand me a Succeed, spray me with sunscreen, and then Neil would jog about 400m with me. That went well until the third loop, where I was walking with Neil, and some dude suddently pushed his way through some other athletes behind us and then elbowed Neil in the back and yelled, in a thick Swabian accent, “Scheisse! Koennt ihr nicht rechts bleiba?! Verdammt!”

Translated, he felt it was his right to shove his way through because Neil wasn’t on the far right side of the path. Except that the guy actually had plenty of room on the left, and this got me so pissed that I went off after him.

I caught him within 400m (amazing how adrenaline will turn a walk into a run), turned to him and said in English “Was that really necessary?” I used English because I wanted him to know that I was a foreigner and to think that he was creating a bad impression of all Germans by his actions. Anyway, it must have worked, because he rather sheepishly said, “No, it’s ok. Sorry.”

Maybe anger can work for you when nothing else does, because if there was one thing I knew at that point, it was that THERE WAS NO WAY IN HELL THE RUDE SWABIAN WAS GOING TO BEAT ME. I didn’t see him again in the third loop, which despite the torrid start I took 1:08 to complete (my second loop was 1:03), and things were definitely tough as I entered the fourth and final loop. I was bound and determined to walk as little as possible, and I actually lasted about 5K before I went through a bad patch again and slowed to a walk.

Just at the point where we picked up the armband for the fourth and final time — in a nice shady area just past the 7K mark (now 38.5K for me) — it happened. The Rude Swabian passed by, in a group of a few other runners. No matter how bad, how empty I felt, that reawakened the tiger — I started running again, passed the Swabian, and picked up the pace. I pushed hard over the last bridge over the Main River, picking off runners right and left, floated down the descent back to the river path and then picked it up even more as I neared the turnoff to the finish, picking off 3 or 4 more guys as I ran up the carpeted ramp to the finish, high-fiving waves of spectators — including my dad, who I recognized at the last minute — to finish in 11:46, an 11-minute improvement over last year in much tougher conditions. The marathon time was 4:11 — 20 minutes better — but I still have a lot of work to do.

As a volunteer escorted me along the chute to get water, Coke, assess my general condition, etc., all of a sudden there was Jim, showered and smiling, resplendent in his finisher’s polo shirt, looking like one of the pros who had finished hours ago. I knew I was €50 poorer, but the way he biked (5:13 vs my 5:50), there was no touching him this day. He earned it, and was gracious enough to spend it on a fat-laden Hessian meal with us in Sachsenhausen the following evening.

All in all, a great trip, and I feel I’m slowly making some progress at this Ironman thing. Whether I’ll do Frankfurt again next year or a different Ironman race is unclear. On the flight home, Jeanne dog-eared all the pages of interest to her in the “Road to Kona” guide that lists qualifiers for Kona. There’s South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Switzerland, … So many choices, so little time.

Return to Racing (and Blogging): Ironman 70.3 Hawai’i 70.3

The two readers of my blog may have noticed a dearth of race reports since my last one in 2018. Hey, I’ve been busy – we packed up, sold our house in Menlo Park, and moved full time to the Big Island in early 2019, and it’s been a whirlwind of house buying, house removating, dog fostering and sunset photos since then. Not much racing, thanks to the pandemic, other than the occasional local cycling time trial, and the racing scene on Zwift.

The 70.3 Hawai’i is the race I love to hate – it’s always around my birthday and rarely gives me a present. It’s hot, windy and humid, with little shade to shield you from the scorching sun (late May / early June is when the sun is most directly overhead in Hawai’i). Since living here full time (our house is just off the bike course a few miles north of Kawaihae), I have become more accustomed to the conditions, but since I’m, er, melanin challenged, I do have to watch my sun exposure.

The race was postponed multiple times during the pandemic, so it was bittersweet news to hear a month or so out that the race was likely actually going to happen. Sweet, because it’s good to see events coming back, but bitter because I wasn’t properly trained for the event. The main culprit besides the usual stuff (work, lack of motivation, etc.) was my right knee – running in particular had become very painful, so I was pretty much unable to do very much of it.

Various medical terms were bandied about – chondromalacia, patellar-femoral pain syndrome (aka “runner’s knee), some arthritis and deterioration of the cartilage. I was finally able to see one of the few ortho doctors on the island, and the X-rays showed nothing except a healthy knee, so he ordered an MRI and some physical therapy. The MRI showed no meniscus tear or anything – the only “findings” were these:

JOINT / CAPSULE: Moderate right knee joint effusion noted with mild synovial

PATELLOFEMORAL COMPARTMENT: There is focal full-thickness articular cartilage
thinning and irregularity over the lateral trochlear groove with mild
irregularity of the subchondral plate and mild subchondral sclerosis along with
moderate bone marrow edema extending within the lateral femoral condyle.
MEDIAL COMPARTMENT: Low-grade articular cartilage thinning and irregularity
without subchondral bone marrow signal change.
LATERAL COMPARTMENT: Low-grade chondromalacia.

In plain English, there’s nothing that requires surgery, so HTFU.

Since there was no tear, the plan – not necessarily enthusiastically endorsed by my medical team – was to go ahead and do the race and see how the knee felt when I got off the bike. Based on how the last couple of 5K training runs I had done had gone, I expected to have to stop at some point during the run portion once the pain seemed counterproductive, and I was fully prepared to do that.

The swim had moved to a new venue this year – the Fairmont Orchid’s Pauoa Bay instead of the traditional swim at Hapuna. I heard the move was partly a result of difficulty getting a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR – which some locals say stands for “Do Little to Nothing Regularly), which manages Hapuna State Recreation Area. Whatever the reason, the big upside to this move was having one transition area for both T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run) – it made things so much easier logistically. Pauoa Bay can’t accommodate a big mass swim start, but now that Ironman is doing rolling starts (athletes basically starting a couple at a time), it worked perfectly. Pandemic protocols were followed as well, meaning we had to wear masks up to the point where we were at the start line seconds before send off.

I swim up the road at the Mauna Kea resort (Kauna’oa Bay) at least once a week, so I’m familiar with the pattern of winds and currents along the Kohala Coast. It’s almost always fast going south, then turning north you are fighting both a current and wind-driven chop/swells. So when I got to the third turn buoy and headed into swells and chop, it wasn’t a surprise – the main challenge was sighting, as we were heading directly into the rising sun. Luckily I could follow the shoreline and was pleased to find myself on track for the buoys as I drew near enough to them to actually see them.

I exited the swim and was surprised to see 42:xx on my watch, which was 6-7 minutes slow. I figured it was probably slow for everyone, though.

Gorgeous swim venue in Pauoa Bay

It was a longish run to the transition area, and then a longish run out to the mount line. I had my shoes on the bike already, and despite no racing in a long time, I was able to execute the mount and get into my shoes without issue. The first couple of miles were in the Mauna Lani resort, including an out-and-back section just to add the correct distance. I settled into position on my Dimond and consciously held back on my power output – I didn’t have many long rides in me, and also I wanted to give my knee the best chance of feeling good when I got to the run.

The DeSoto arm coolers are more for sun protection on the bike than for cooling

The climb out to the Queen K was against a pretty strong headwind, so that mean once we turned out of the resort we would be hit with some crosswinds. That’s pretty early in the ride for those to start, so I already had an inkling it was going to be a long day. Once through Kawaihae, the rollers start – this is where our neighborhood is, so I know them well. A couple are “stand up” steep.

I could ride this section every day, but I don’t

The crosswinds on the rollers out to the turnoff for Māhukona Beach Park were there but not as bad as they can be, and the same could be said for the headwind on the climb up towards Hāwī – challenging but normal by island standards. At the turnaround at Upolu Airport Road, my normalized power was at 198W, which was conservative for me in a half Ironman; moreover, my average heart rate was 131 bpm up to then, so I hadn’t burned many matches. On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly lighting it up speedwise – I was heading for a 3-hour ride vs my heyday of sub 2:30.

I kept it similarly conservative on the return, going by feel and heart rate more than power.

Not a poster child for flexibility, but I’m somewhat color coordinated

I hit the dismount line back at the Fairmont in 3 hours and a few seconds change, and felt probably the best I’ve ever felt coming off the bike at this race. I still had no idea how the knee would hold up, but I did notice that I was running without pain, so I took that as a hopeful sign. The run was three loops that included the infamous “Hell’s Kitchen” out-and-back section on the exposed service road, as well as a number of sections of grass on the golf course fairways. There were also a few short, steep uphills and downhills on cart paths, and the uphills were the one place where my knee complained.

Who doesn’t love 13.1 miles in the heat?

The right knee aside, the biggest problem I almost always have in triathlon runs is cramping, and this race was no exception. The good news is that it was less bad than in my last few races, and I chalk that up to the more conservative bike.

Still, the run was a grind, pretty much because my longest run in training had only been 5 miles or so, and I really didn’t have much running to speak of as I was trying to let me knee heal. I know how to soldier on, though, and eventually I got to the finish line, feeling much better than I had a bunch of other times I did this race.

Smelling the barn
A pro always stops his watch

What did we learn from this race?

  1. Training adequately is not strictly necessary if you have experience and know how to pace yourself.
  2. Sometimes just getting to the finish line is a victory.
  3. If you buy the race merch at the expo, you pretty much have to finish.
That was the last non-alcoholic beer I had that day, but not the last beer

So what happened in Ironman Santa Rosa?

“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!

Honu 70.3: Playing Hurt

Photo courtesy of John Rollins

This is me at the Morgan Hill Sprint Triathlon, 13 days before my first half Ironman of the season, the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii – more commonly known as “Honu” (the Hawaiian word for sea turtle). I’d gone down twice during the bike leg, scraping the same side of my body both times but fortunately not breaking anything except a few bike components. 

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.

Rinsing off the salt water

Heading up the long ramp to where the bikes are

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.

After a long transition to cover up my road rash, finally heading out on the bike

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.

Off the bike with a few leg cramps

Remember – this is supposed to be fun!

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.

This is probably the best my run would look all day

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. 🙂

Unbelievably I wanted more Gatorade post race

With my niece Tana, half of my awesome support crew. All photos courtesy of Jeanne Cooper unless otherwise noted.

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.

Epic 5: If One Ironman is Good, Five in a Row is Awesome, Right?

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! 🙂

Lavaman: getting my mojo back

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 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!

California International Marathon 2016: Underpromise and Overdeliver

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:

  1. I get a lot of weekly volume from cycling and to some extent swimming.
  2. I have a lot of marathon experience, and I have always run pretty well off of low training volume.
  3. CIM is a fast course that’s ideal for “rhythm runners” like me.
  4. 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.

cim-results-2016I am beyond happy with the result, and it was a nice surprise for my team as well. “Underpromise and overdeliver,” to quote what’s now a cliché in the business world.

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. 🙂

The Streak of DNFs Stops Here

start of the dayI’ve had a poor Ironman streak of late. The astute reader will recall a disastrous attempt at a Kona/Arizona double last year; it took all I could muster (plus two IV bags in the med tent) to get through Kona, and then I basically had nothing left— either mentally or physically — for Arizona, where I got my first DNF that wasn’t planned (Tahoe 2013 *was* planned, since it was 3 weeks prior to Kona that year). I almost blew it at Oceanside, then DNF’d at Honu after I injured my foot the day before the race, then redeemed myself with a 70.3 PR at Vineman, but DNF’d again by being unable to get through the rough surf at the Superfrog 70.3. Three DNFs in less than a year. Not good. Add to that an ill-advised last-minute decision to enter Ironman Coeur d’Alene in August, where I started cramping at mile 75 of the bike and ended up with a personal worst Ironman finish (but a finish nonetheless), and I am looking at a very poor 2016 — except for Vineman.

With that backdrop, Ironman Arizona, the venue where I’ve had my four fastest Ironman times ever, loomed. People asked me what my goal was, and as I always say, Kona qualification is nice but not the outcome by which I measure myself, since it involves not only my race but the luck of the draw of who else shows up. I am not a naturally talented triathlete; I suck at the swim (relative to my swim and bike), and I’ve had to work really hard on my bike to bring it to the level of my run. In certain ways my run has actually suffered of late. Yet I had enough solid training sessions coming into Arizona to suggest that if I executed properly on race day I could go sub 10 hours. That — for me — is the holy grail, and at age 54 I am running out of time to be able to do it.

Arizona has moved from a mass start to what Ironman calls a “rolling start,” which means that swimmers enter the water a few at a time according to their projected swim time. This worked well for me last year when it was first instituted, but this year it was even better due to more restrictive funneling of athletes into the start. I think I had two, maybe three, incidences of any contact whatsoever, as opposed to the constant pummeling I was used to in this race. Anyway, this allowed me to get into an efficient swim rhythm from the get-go, and I exited the water right at 1:10, a PR for me in Arizona by 90 seconds or so, and that’s on not very much swim volume (but my trusty Vasa swim ergometer). One discipline down, two to go!

Out on the bike I felt really good — power was right on target and I was catching a lot of folks who were either faster swimmers or had seeded themselves further up in the starting corral. While the wind had been calm at the swim venue, it was definitely blowing as we got out of town, with the pattern of headwind/uphill in the first half of each of three loops and tailwind/downhill in the second half. This meant going as slow as 15 mph in some of the “out” sections and as fast as 34 mph in some of the “back” sections. I hit my first loop in 1:40 and change, which was what I had done in 2012 when I rode 5:04, so I was on a decent pace. Normalized power at that point was 193W — right on target.

The second loop continued in the same vein, though my stop for the “special needs” bag was a comedy of errors in which the guy with my bag ran ahead of me to the end of the dropoff zone while I was waiting near the volunteers who were stationed around where my numbered bag should have been. It seemed like it was an eternity until the guy came running back with my bag. I had put a few Glukos gels and a bottle of Skratch Labs in there, which is what I had trained with, so I was counting on the familiar nutrition more than making up for the time lost. The second loop was 1:41 including the stop, with a normalized power of 186W, so still in the range considering the stop.

Tight u-turn at the end of each loop

Tight u-turn at the end of each loop

The third loop was where things started to fall apart. I couldn’t sustain the same power that I had been riding before (and had ridden a number of times in training), and then the leg cramps started around mile 85. These were in the adductors, where I’ve been having lots of tightness worked our weekly by my ART specialist, and I am suspecting that my saddle might be a tad high — something to rectify in the off-season. Standing out of the saddle sometimes helped, but I couldn’t put a lot of pressure on the pedals without triggering more cramping, so my power numbers took a nosedive. On the plus side, once I made it up the hill to the turnaround at mile 93 or so, it was mostly downhill/tailwind back to T2, so I could coast some and try to let me legs recover. I’d been on 5:03 pace but ended up at 5:11, so that third loop was costly. And definitely not the textbook “build the power slightly each loop” execution I’d had in 2012 and 2014 when I qualified for Kona here.

Ready to be off the bike

Ready to be off the bike

All hope of a sub 10 wasn’t completely lost — I exited T2 at slightly less than 6:30 on my race clock, so “all” I needed to do was run 3:30 – basically 8:00/mile pace. Riiiiiiiight…

Trying to stop the cramping in T2.

Trying to stop the cramping in T2.

The Kona shaka - hope springs eternal!

The Kona shaka – hope springs eternal!

Things weren’t bad to start; I was right on pace and it didn’t feel hard. But I got my first leg cramp in mile 2, which portended ill for the rest of the day. I waited for them to subside and then picked up where I left off, making sure to take in fluids at the aid stations along with my Succeed caps. I’ve found in the past that my body can catch up on fluid/electrolyte depletion, but it takes time. It was on again, off again like that for the rest of the first loop, but at the halfway point I was just over 1:50 in so was still looking at a 3:4x marathon and a low 10-hour overall time.

Halfway done! Now comes the hard half.

Halfway done! Now comes the hard half.

Just after halfway came the “special needs” bag for the run, in which I had a couple of Glukos gels and a HotShot – the hot pepper liquid that’s supposed to attack cramps at the nerve. I had taken one on the bike, which seemed to help, so I figured a second one might help me avoid the intermittent quad and hamstring cramps I was experiencing. I downed the little bottle and started running again, but didn’t get very far before I realized I was about to be sick to my stomach. That HotShot was not sitting well with me; I’ll spare the reader the details other than to say the next thing I knew, both legs were full-on cramping in seemingly every muscle. I was motionless just waiting for them to stop seizing up. Finally I was able to walk some, and then I started getting really cold. I looked at my race kit, and everything — shirt, shorts — was caked with white salt streaks. I was shivering and my hands were turning blue. I toyed with the idea of asking for a ride back from the mile 15 aid station and going straight to the med tent, but that would have ended my day and given me yet another DNF. Not if I could help it!

I made the turnaround without asking for a ride and shivered my way back towards the transition area and mile 17, where my wife Jeanne was. I was trying to figure out my options — the hypothermia was getting worse, and I felt I could likely make it to 17 but not much further without somehow warming up. Then it hit me: my hotel was right around 16.5 miles, just up the hill from the course. I could go there, get the front desk to make me a key, and stand under a hot shower for as long as it took to warm up. Then I could evaluate my options — continue or DNF. So that’s what I did, as you can see in this map view from TrainingPeaks.


That was 23 minutes incredibly well spent — I was like a new man! I even changed clothes and running shoes, texted Jeanne to let her know what had happened (sadly her phone was dead, though), and made my way back to the course to enter it at exactly the point I had left it.

I was still not completely out of the woods cramp-wise, but I felt much better and was able to go a number of miles without any issue. I even picked it up a little in the last mile to hit the line in 11:27:36, which though almost an hour slower than my slowest time in Arizona is waaayyy better than a DNF.

Got 'er done!

Got ‘er done!





























What made me finish when I was not having the day I planned?

I’d like to think it was my enormous self-discipline and willpower, but as I was walking towards mile 16.5, shivering and feeling sorry for myself, I had several thoughts swirling through my head:

  1. I’d bought two of the event T-shirts with all the athlete names on the back. How on earth was I going to wear either of them if I DNF’d?
  2. I was next to a lot of people who were only on their first loop (so 13.1 miles behind me). Surely if they were going to be out for many hours more completing 23 more miles, I could find it in myself to do 10 more miles.
  3. I tell people all the time that Ironman is like life — when it gets hard, your true character is revealed. What did I want to say about my true character?

Thanks to my wife Jeanne, my friends and teammates for their continued support in this crazy lifestyle I choose to lead.

Vineman 70.3 2016: Sometimes Things Work Out

This season’s been different. At 54, I’m at the top of the M50-54 age group in triathlon, and you wouldn’t think five years would make a big difference, but in this decade it seems to. The run is the first thing to go for most guys, which is hard to take when you come from a running background and are used to seeing the run as your weapon.

I had an OK race at Oceanside in spite of my pre-race blunders, and since then I’ve been trying to improve something each race. I jumped into the Wildflower Olympic distance at the last minute and had a fun time there, albeit plagued with cramping in the second run. I’ve also raced three 5Ks this season, having been called upon by my San Francisco-based running club to help our men’s 50+ team score some points. This is not a distance that’s suited to me, and my training definitely hasn’t included the kind of speedwork that you need for 5K, but as I often tell people, you should embrace your weaknesses. My first two were identical 20:05 times, which is a little embarrassing because I used to hit sub 20 for the first 5K in marathons (usually not the last 5K, though), but by the July 4 Freedom Fest in Morgan Hill, I was able to knock out a 19:51 after a big weekend of bike and run training, so that had given me some renewed confidence in my running. I needed it.

Especially after a disastrous Hawaii 70.3, where I notched an all-time half-Ironman bike PR of 2:28, only to DNF in the run thanks to a painful toe injury I had incurred the day before while entering the water for a last little practice swim. I hate DNFing – for me it’s the worst kind of race failure.

So here we are at Vineman 70.3, one of my favorite races despite the terrible logistics of two transition areas 15 miles apart and loads of traffic all around. My goal for this race was simply to have a good race, which meant solid swim, fast bike and no cramping or walking on the run. My bike power has been very good of late, which gave me a lot of confidence that the bike would be good; my swim, well, has been hit or miss. Some days I’m really on and cranking; other days it’s a struggle. And the run was mediocre early in the season but has been coming around, thanks to two principal changes:

  1. Running more frequently during the week
  2. Going really easy on my easy days

The second point is hard to implement if you let your ego run your training. We amateurs also have the mentality that we have to make every workout count, and in our minds that means go fast. In making this change, I noticed that I wasn’t dreading workouts because I was allowed to go easy, and furthermore my subsequent bike and run sessions were done without the normal residual “workout hangover” I often get from a medium-hard run.

A bunch of my Team Sheeper and other occasional training partners were doing Vineman, so there was the usual pre-race chatter about not getting beaten by so-and-so, all good natured but with a modicum of pressure if you allow yourself to slip into competitive mode. Which I do, since I am competitive by nature. 

The first order of business was to have a decent swim; the M50-54 wave started fairly late, which meant we would have plenty of course congestion (slower swimmers and riders from earlier waves) to deal with, but it was a fairly large group that assembled at the narrow start in the Russian River. I got off fairly well, but the lack of warmup really hit me a few minutes into the swim – I got almost panicky from the hypoxia when you go out fast without a good warmup. I know this sensation from past experience, so I also know that it goes away after a bit, at which point the swim tends to go, well, swimmingly.

The water was very shallow this year at the turnaround, so I was forced to stand a few times and then dolphin-dive when it got deep enough. I was passing people from previous waves, but I was also getting passed by some of the fastest 35-39 women in the wave six minutes behind mine. That didn’t happen last year when I swam 31 minutes, but this year’s 33-minute swim was a different story. Not my worst, though, so I wasn’t panicking.

A couple of training partners and I had been doing some transition practice of late (trying to get the wetsuit off and bike helmet on as quickly as possible), and that seemed to help, though I fumbled with getting my bike shoes on. The bike exit was complicated this year, as the mount line was partway up a steep hill, so that pretty much precluded leaving your shoes clipped to pedals and jumping on the bike to get going. I had put my shoes on first and was prepared to run all the way up the short hill, but on coming to the mount line I noticed that no one was around me, so that gave me time to clip one foot in and power my way up the steep climb. I passed a few people this way and sped my way onto the course.

My early effort was at once frenetic and controlled – I was passing riders quickly while avoiding the cars that were on the course and making for some sketchy moments, but my perceived effort was well within my capabilities. What was interesting, though, was that my wattage was high (for me) – 23oW for the first hour, which is what I’ve done in my better Olympic-distance (25-mile) races. This ride would be more than double that, but as I said, my power on rides has been higher than normal lately, so I decided to just go with it.

The bike was complicated by some unusual headwinds, and for me it got even more complicated when my bike computer suddenly went dead at the halfway point (I thought it was fully charged, but I thought wrong). That meant the second half of the ride would be done all on perceived effort, a situation I had encountered before, so again I didn’t panic. We had some tailwind in the second half, so I felt like that had the potential to be faster. I figured I was on a 2:30 or maybe slightly faster ride; officially I hit the line at 2:29:55, my second-fastest half-Ironman ride ever, so I was pretty stoked when I hit transition.

I was even more stoked to notice a distinct lack of bikes racked around me, which meant that very few guys in my age group were ahead of me (in fact, I was in 6th coming off the bike). That meant one thing: run without cramping, and I was going to have a good result.

Easy to say; hard to do. But actually I felt really good leaving transition, and my plan was to run “relaxed fast” if that makes any sense. In other words, no pushing, especially early in the run. The one concern I had was that I had forgotten to put any calories into my carrier on the bike, so the only calories I had had were in Gatorade, which doesn’t have a lot. I had put some blocks in my transition bag, so I took a few of those, but I also noticed that I wasn’t running out of energy or anything, so my typical training ride that I do without calories seems to have conditioned my body not to expect anything.

I was holding 7:20-7:30 pace most of the time, and also holding the cramps at bay – I got a few twinges from my abductors, but all I had to do was to cut my stride a little and relax. I started going back and forth with one guy in his 30s wearing a “559 Multisport” kit, who told me “You’re a beast” and encouraged me to hang on to him in the last couple of miles, which I sort of managed to do.

I crossed the line with a time of 4:45:44, which is a PR for me by 1:16 and netted me 5th in the age group – my first 70.3 podium! I got absolutely smoked by the guy in 1st (21 minutes faster, mostly in the bike), but hey, I age up next year to the 55-59 group, where I’ll still get smoked by a few of the truly elite.

Oh yeah, and the Hawaii address – that’s a whole ‘nother story for a different post…

But I’ll take this – it’s a real confidence booster for the rest of the season.

Ironman 70.3 California, a comedy of errors

My first race of the 2016 season looks ok on the surface.

Not my best 70.3 time, but not my worst by a longshot. The bike is not particularly easy, and my run was 5 or so minutes better than any of my 70.3 runs last season, so no complaints on my fitness.

But my prerace routine was a disaster with a capital D.

The first mistake was a mid-afternoon arrival the day before the race – normally not a problem, except when you haven’t done the race before and have no clue about the logistics. I parked near the bike checkin at the harbor, but it turns out that packet pickup and the expo were more than a mile away, which I only found out by walking and continuing to walk until my friend and I found it (my wife was waiting in the car since the bike was on the roof). This resulted in probably 3 miles of walking in the afternoon sun, which left me a little sunburned since I hadn’t put sunscreen on, thinking it would be a short routine.

But that paled in comparison to the mistakes on race morning. Things started badly by leaving our rental in Carlsbad a few minutes late, which put unnecessary time pressure on things. On my walk to the transition area, I reached in my bag and couldn’t find my timing chip. WTF? I was sure I had put it in the bag right away. So I went to the help desk and got another chip, no problem. Then I got to my bike to set things up, and as I pulled things out of the bag, there was my chip! So that was another thing to take care of. I got my bike set up, and then a woman wanted to borrow my pump, which I obliged since there are plenty of races where I’ve borrowed other people’s pumps. The thing was, the woman kind of disappeared, and I needed to go and take care of my now-extra timing chip. Finally she reappeared, and I took off with everything, went back to the help desk and handed over my original chip. I found my friend and prepared to head to the start, but I then remembered I hadn’t gotten body-marked in all the chaos with my other issues. So I went back and did that, and we were off to the start. 

Or what I thought was the start.

The swim course map showed an out-and-back course in the harbor, with the start on the side opposite the transition area. I don’t know why this got in my head, but I thought the entrance to the water was on that other side as well. So we headed over, despite the fact that NO OTHER TRIATHLETES WERE HEADING THAT WAY. Basically, every instinct I had that morning was wrong. Sure enough, I looked across the water and saw age groups entering the water RIGHT FROM THE TRANSITION AREA I HAD JUST BEEN IN. My swim wave was about 12 minutes from starting at this point.

So I RACED over, and told my friend just to head back to meet my wife. I got back to the transition area, put on my wetsuit, and then weaved my way through the many waves lined up behind my wave, taking care to avoid the pro men who were now coming out of the water and heading straight at me as I tried to weave past people who weren’t expecting someone to be coming through in the direction I was coming, and finally got to the water’s edge just as the final people in my wave were entering the water. Whew! Two minutes to the start.

The gun went off, and immediately I noticed two things:

  1. I should have done the spit-clean on my goggles to keep them from fogging up.
  2. I was exhausted from all of the prerace drama. I could barely lift my arms to turn them over.

Oh yeah, and the water was pretty cold. A lesser man might have given up at that point – and in fact that lesser man was sitting over my left shoulder, whispering stuff like “you should just make this a nice training day; don’t go hard” – but remember the old saying that “it doesn’t always get worse.” I did start feeling better, even though the swim was getting rougher as we approached the mouth of the harbor. At one point I looked up to sight and got a mouthful of nasty ocean water. 

The difficulty continued in a different fashion on the way back, as we were headed straight into the rising sun. I hoped the people who were splashing around me knew where they were going, but I decided a better tack was to follow the rocky harbor. That worked out pretty well, and soon enough I was exiting the swim, albeit in a sucky (for me) 37 minutes and change.

My transition was super pokey – it took a while to get my wetsuit off and my sleeved top on. Some practice would do me good. 

The bike course is…undulating…and the climbing starts almost immediately as you leave the harbor area.


I was in swim wave 10 – about the middle of the field – which made for a crowded bike course early on as we entered Camp Pendleton. Let’s just say that there was some drafting…


There were a few relatively steep climbs on the 56-mile bike, which made me wish I had put the 11-28 cassette on my bike instead of the 11-25 – there was some slow-cadence grinding up those hills. I steadily built my power over the course of the ride and ended up with a normalized power of 215W, one of my best half-Ironman efforts. I was also experimenting with using a lower cadence and bigger gear, and the test for the efficacy of that would come on the run.

Off the bike with a 2:41, which reflects the difficulty of the course if nothing else, I again had a pokey transition but felt pretty good as I started running.

The course was two loops, and there were some interesting steep ramps that the organizers made us run up.

These felt much better the first loop than they did the second.

I had been managing a low 7:00-mile pace for the first half, but the second half saw me closer to 7:40s. Nevertheless, I did pass a few guys with M50-54 on their calf, and I even got in a head-to-head battle with one around mile 9. I decided I didn’t want to get into a miles-long tête-à-tête, so I surged pretty hard to put a gap on him and try to break his spirit. By the next turnaround, I saw that my tactic had worked. 😎

With a mile to go, I was ready to be done and working pretty hard.

The finish line is always worth the suffering!

The 5:05 was only good for 16th in the age group, so I have a lot of work to do. But I didn’t cramp during the run, and my troublesome calves and hamstrings behaved themselves, so there’s that. And my switch to Glukos nutrition (the race top I’m wearing) this season seemed to work really well – I took mostly liquid nutrition on the bike and had no bonking or GI issues. (The road rash on the knee, by the way, is from a minor bike crash two weeks prior to the race.)

I give my race a B+. I give my prerace a big #fail. We can only get better from here.