It might be about the bike after all…

I have to admit it, the Dimond bike is a head turner.

The Dimond is ready for its close up

The Dimond is ready for its close up

It looks fast. But the question is, is it fast? When I switched over in the middle of last season from my tried-and-true Specialized Shiv (the original with the nosecone), I took a little bit of a leap of faith that it would be. Sure, there was some wind tunnel data, but this data gets endlessly debated on Internet forums by “experts” of all kinds, so it’s hard to know. Also, it had just been ridden to a convincing victory by pro TJ Tollakson at Ironman Mont Tremblant, but pros are likely to be fast on any bike.

What is important to know is whether I am faster on it than on my old bike. For that, we need data. Luckily, I have lots of data-gathering devices – especially the power meter – and I also like to do the same races either every year or every two years. Call me a creature of habit.

The key in performing an apples-to-apples comparison is to eliminate as many variables as possible. I only had a couple of races on the bike in 2014; the second one was Ironman Arizona. Here’s a comparison between 2014 and 2012:

imaz comparison strava

The overall times aren’t quite right since they’re when I started/stopped the bike computer, but they’re close enough. The heart rate data is almost identical, and the power data is pretty close. The split is a lot slower on the Dimond, though, so at first glance it wouldn’t appear to be a faster bike at all.

However, 2014 was really windy, and 2012 had no wind to speak of, so the conditions weren’t comparable. In 2012 I had the 4th-fastest bike split in the age group, and I did again in 2014, so that might argue that the two performances were equivalent. However, placing is a factor of who shows up, and two trials aren’t enough to claim a trend. So onward we go.

Then comes last weekend’s Ironman 70.3 St. George in southwest Utah, a venue that’s become one of my favorites. I did race here last year on the Shiv, so this race presents an opportunity to generate more comparison data. First, the tale of the tape:

stg comparison ian

A minute faster in the swim and 4 minutes on the bike (we won’t talk about the run). So the Dimond scores on the initial numbers; however, we have to examine two main variables: was this year’s course faster than last year’s, and how did the efforts compare in terms of watts?

The course was slightly different this year; while it eliminated some strange, slow sections on a bike path where two parts of the course crossed one another, it did add a section on a bike path in Snow Canyon, which we then partially descended and had to execute about the tightest 180-degree turn I’ve ever encountered in a triathlon. Then climb the canyon. The total elevation gain recorded by my Garmin, however, was nearly identical at just under 3300 ft (1000m for the rest of the world).

Another way to look at relative difficulty is to look at the pro times. Since many of the same pros raced this year and last, they’re a good benchmark, since as a group they have the most consistent fitness year over year, and they are racing for a living, which means they’re both supremely motivated to push hard and also able to sustain a higher intensity level than age groupers, in part because their race doesn’t last as long. 🙂 (Joking aside, that’s actually true if you look at the formula for how Training Stress Score is calculated – to achieve the same metabolic cost, measured in TSS points, for a workout, if your duration is less, then your Intensity Factor is higher, actually by its square.) Anyway, if we look at the male pros:

stg pros male

(2014 is on the left and 2015 is on the right.)

What we see is that the same pros year over year were mostly 2 minutes or so slower this year than last year. The male pro race dynamics could have been different, though, so let’s look at the female pros:

stg pros female

Not quite as many repeaters as the males, but of the 6 or so, the gap – other than Heather Wurtele, who was not quite 2 minutes slower – is 3 minutes or more.

That tells me that this was definitely not a faster year, and in fact was probably a bit slower (I’d love to hear from any of the pros about the differences from their perspective between this year and last, especially if I’m missing something key in my analysis).

The other possibility, then, other than the bike being faster is that I worked harder this year, i.e., put out more watts. But that doesn’t appear to be the case:

tp stg 2014

tp stg 2015

Compared to 2014, my faster speed in 2015 was achieved at 6W lower normalized power and 10W lower average power – for .8 mph better average speed. I hadn’t worn a heart-rate monitor in 2014, so I can’t compare the efforts along that dimension.

Finally, if we go back to Strava, we can use the segments to compare each year to see whether I rode the course any differently, i.e., did I push the uphills or downhills more in one year than the other?

strava stg 1

strava stg 4

I’ve just shown the beginning and end pages here (I skipped another couple because I see many eyes glazing over already), but you can see the trend: I did start a little harder this year (2015 is on the right), but after those initial climbs I was faster on pretty much every segment, and at lower wattage. In 2014 I pushed up Snow Canyon a lot harder (I was also probably fitter, having come off of Ironman Los Cabos at the end of March), but even so my splits are very close. I have a few theories:

  1. The Dimond definitely seems faster on the flats and downhills. I saw the same phenomenon on training rides, when I started getting Strava segment PRs on routes I ride pretty often. These always came on flat and downhill sections.
  2. The fact that my uphill splits were so close (and still mostly better) at lower wattage is somewhat baffling. I don’t weigh less than I did last year, so watts/kg doesn’t explain it. The Dimond itself weighs about a pound less than my Shiv, which could be part of it.
  3. Both bikes are equipped with Quarq power meters. They both run the same firmware version, but they are slightly different models, so I suppose there could be a slight difference between the power readings on the two.
  4. I did run a different wheel combination this year – Zipp 808 front / Super 9 disc vs. a pair of Reynolds Aero 72 wheels – which likely gave me some of the better speed on the flats and downhills, though likely cost me a little on the uphills due to weight. Tires were, in both cases, Specialized S-Works Turbo 24s with latex tubes, so no difference there.
  5. Finally – and this could be a big factor – I could be spending a greater percentage of my ride down in the aerobars than I have in the past. This season I have been making a concerted effort to do my hard efforts on the trainer in the aero position, and I’ve also been doing a weekly stretching class (and reinforcing the exercises at home during the week), so I feel as though I maintain the position more easily. I can’t quantify this as a percentage of my race, but it could certainly explain some of the better speed at lower watts.

To be clear, I do believe I have enough data to say conclusively that the Dimond is a faster bike than the Shiv, at least with me on each of them. What is unclear is how much faster. I rode 4 minutes faster on a course that the pros rode 2-3 minutes slower on, and I did that at 6W less normalized power. So that alone would say that it’s way more than 6W faster. However, some of the other variables I listed above potentially contribute to some of that speed gain, so I don’t feel I can say anything more than “it’s at least 6W faster than the Shiv.”

The rest of my season has a lot of repeat races from last year and/or two years ago, so it will offer plenty of additional data points to see whether this trend holds. I’m happy thus far, though, with what I’ve seen from the combination of Dimond and rider. We’ll try and keep improving the rider as the season progresses.

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.

results

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.

Coach, heed thyself!

Giving advice is easy; taking the advice you so freely give is a lot more difficult when it applies to yourself.

My lead-up to Challenge Rancho Cordova was a week of a nasty cold – my first in at least two years – along with two airplane trips across the country, and not the best diet or sleep. Wednesday through Friday were the “height of misery” days, which made me dubious that I would even drive up to Sacramento on Saturday to pick up my race packet.

But as these things go, I woke up Saturday morning feeling human enough to go on an easy spin with the team and test out my race setup on the bike. So the drive up to Rancho Cordova (a suburb of Sacramento that looks like a technology park with housing developments and color-coordinated strip malls thrown in) was on; the plan was to see how I felt on Sunday morning before deciding to dive in and actually start the race. IF I did end up racing, I told myself, I would do it at Ironman race pace instead of the higher intensity I would normally do in a half Ironman. The objective of even doing this race, I reminded myself, was to mimic Ironman Arizona conditions and race setup.

Sunday morning had me feeling decent enough to start the race, even though I still sounded terrible. My coach Tim was there to spectate and questioned why I was even doing this. “I feel better than I sound” was the only thing I could come up with. Conditions were really nice, actually: calm 68F water, perfect for a fast wetsuit-aided swim, and though the day would get very warm indeed by the run, the first couple of hours of the bike were doing to feature ideal air temps.

A relatively small field combined with age group waves made for a very civilized start, and after the first couple of hundred meters of adrenaline-fueled strong pace, I settled into a moderate, Ironman-type effort. Swimming when your nasal passages are congested is quite an interesting experience – the activity itself already produces enough hypoxia that you don’t really want any additional difficulty getting oxygen in. I didn’t feel exactly panicked at any point, but I did stop briefly a couple of times to clear my nose out a little (no further detail necessary). My left calf also cramped a few times, which I guessed was due to the dehydrating effect of all the decongestant I’d been taking. Fortunately, I swam a pretty straight line, so I exited the water with an average swim time for me that turned out to be 34:02 (I wasn’t clocking it on my watch).

I spent too much time in T1 fumbling to get into my tight long-sleeve top (sun protection), so that was a good lesson and “opportunity for improvement” for Arizona. Once on the bike, I felt pretty good other than fatigued arms and shoulders (note to self: more swim time!). The first half of the ride was mostly rolling and a net uphill, with a couple of climbs that forced me into the small chainring. I was averaging around 215 watts for that part, which is slightly above my Ironman target effort. I did allow myself to spike well above that for short sections on the steeper climbs but otherwise held myself in check. The first aid station was, uh, interesting – for some inexplicable reason they had set it up near the bottom of a long downhill, so the chances of successful bottle handoff when riders are going 30 mph was practically nil. Oh well – I still had plenty of fluids at that point.

After 25 miles, the climbing was pretty much over, and the course had a net descent of about 600 ft over the remaining 31 miles, which meant fast riding for less wattage – I averaged over 23 mph on this part with only 186W of average power. That allowed me to focus on hydration and electrolytes, and I came to the end of the bike feeling reasonably good, although a little hungry (the aid stations only had enough volunteers to hand out bottles, so my only calories came from the one gel I had in on me). My bike split was 2:35, which I think equals my best half-Ironman split ever, even though my average power was Ironman effort. All that says is that the course was fast. 🙂

I had debated about ending my race as soon as I got to T2, but I decided to see how I felt. Since the course was two 6.5-mile loops, I told myself I could always stop after the first loop. Here’s where the voice of the coach and the voice of the athlete were at odds – if it were one of the athletes whom I advise, I would have told them in no uncertain terms to stop after the bike. The competitor in me, though, doesn’t like DNFs. The competitor won round one.

rancho cordova bike

Once out on the running course, I tried to run relaxed. The legs felt good and wanted me to do some quick turnover, so I started out at around 7:00 pace. Pretty soon, though, I felt as though I should back off – I was still pretty congested and coughing a bit. Through 3 miles I was averaging 7:15s, but I also realized that I was violating my rule about not digging a hole for myself. Right then and there I decided I was going to be done after the first lap, and at that point I started running an easy 8:15ish pace and walking the aid stations.

What did we learn? A few things:

  • Work out how to more quickly put on that long sleeve top after the swim.
  • Take more calories than one gel per 2.5 hours on the bike.
  • Slightly alter the angles on my saddle and aerobar pads/extensions for more comfort and weight balance.
  • Learn to listen to the coach in me sometimes and not the athlete!

As somewhat of a sliver lining to the DNF cloud, the organizers let me switch to the Aquabike division after the fact, which I apparently “won” (they still gave the official awards to those originally entered in the division, which is fair enough). I love customer-friendly flexibility! Thanks to Challenge for creating the event, and special thanks to USA Productions and SVE Timing, who actually made the event happen.

I have some work to do before Ironman Arizona. The first “to do” is to get healthy! The second is to listen more to my inner coach. 🙂

Age Group Nationals: small fish in a big pond

My binge-racing campaign of 2014 continued with a trip to Milwaukee for the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in the Olympic distance. It’s relatively straightforward to qualify for this event – finish in the top 10% of your age group in a sanctioned race – but the event itself is anything but. Like Kona, it’s similar to my freshman year at Rice, where I had to adapt to being a small fish in a big pond – going from being at the top of my class in high school to being one of many who had been at the top of their classes in high school.

But blows to one’s ego aside, it’s good to face tougher competition – it tells you where you really are. So I stood ready to take my licks, especially at a distance that doesn’t really play to my strengths. The problem for me at the Olympic distance is the swim: it’s barely shorter than the swim at a half Ironman, but both the bike and run are less than half the distance, so I don’t have as much ground to make up time on the really fast swimmers – I run out of “real estate.”

On the other hand, the Olympic distance is fun! You don’t have to worry about nutrition or even pacing that much – you just go hard for 2ish hours. The key for long course athletes is to be able to go into that higher-intensity zone; to that end, a group from my team had been organizing a weekly tempo run to force us to push into that uncomfortable zone for a sustained period.

Milwaukee turned out its best for the weekend: spectacular weather and a nice race venue, with the bike course completely closed to cars. Registration and bike checkin were a breeze.

All's quiet at the finish line the day before the race

All’s quiet at the finish line the day before the race

 

The race steed is checked in and ready to go!

The race steed is checked in and ready to go!

The race was split into age group waves, with a healthy gap of 10 minutes or so between the waves – this meant you wouldn’t be catching a ton of people from earlier waves, and also that no one would be catching you. Mine left at 8:04 a.m., which was enough time to rid myself of any fog from the previous evening’s wine bar, and soon all 200ish of us were off. It was pretty crowded, as we all had to funnel through a narrow gap after a couple hundred meters.

I almost always feel tentative in the first part of the swim when it’s crowded, but as things thin out I’m able to focus on stroke mechanics, so in the second half of the swim I started reeling a few guys in (as well as women from a previous wave). I wasn’t clocking my swim, so as I hit the exit ramp I didn’t know what the time was – the ramp was steep and slippery, so all I worried about was getting up without taking a spill. It was a fairly long run to T1, whereupon I had trouble finding my bike – I was in the right row but passed it before realizing my mistake. That cost me about 30 seconds, which is nothing in an Ironman but costly at this distance.

Out on the bike course, and it was hammer time. Well, initially it was time to pass a bunch of slower riders from prior waves and also faster swimmers from mine without drafting or blocking. The speeds were amazing on this flat course – I was over 25 mph on a lot of sections. The first slow section was a bridge, and that’s where I started a little age group battle with a few guys who were riding in kind of a pack. I passed them on the uphill, then they re-passed me on a sketchy section where they had us zigzag to the left for a while. Per the rules, I had to drop back beyond the draft zone, which I did, but then I just kept the gap for a while and watched them continue to ride as a pack. This was starting to piss me off, but I was also reeling them in by just holding my power numbers, so I amped it up in order to pass all of them quickly – went from about 240W to 350W or so for that period – and that pass held for the rest of the bike leg.

Once more up the bridge on the way back, and T2 was just around the corner. I did a nice dismount and hit the line in just over 1:02, which is my fastest 40K split in a triathlon by about 2 minutes. No time to celebrate, though – there was a run to do!

My T2 was decent – I opted not to put on socks to save time – and I was off and running, hunting down every 50-54 calf I could find. I looked at my watch a half mile in and was running about 6:15 pace, and I could hear footsteps and breathing behind me. The guy came up next to me and asked what the race time was and what pace I was targeting. I could see that we were 1:34 into the race at that point, which meant around a 2:12 if we could run a 40-minute 10K. The guy acknowledged that and moved ahead slightly, going a pace I wasn’t comfortable in challenging at that point.

I noticed, though, after mile 3 that the guy was coming back to me, and somewhere around 3.5 miles I pulled up next to him. He seemed a little surprised. I gasped out a laugh and said, “yeah, I’ve been tailing you.” Then we ran together and were flying past women and 60+ guys from earlier waves, and only occasionally passing a fellow M50-54 guy. I had no idea where I was in the age group, so I told myself just to keep redlining it. The field was getting pretty thin as we approached mile 5, and by this time I was leading the other guy and looked back to make sure I wasn’t pulling anyone else along.

At mile 5 I decided it was “go time.” Just go hard – if the guy comes by you, so be it, I told myself. The discomfort level was high, but I could see some more guys in my age group ahead, and I reeled each of them in. We were getting close the end, and with maybe 200m to go, I saw one more guy in my age group and surged hard to pass him. He tried to go with me for a moment, but I was going a lot faster, and I hit the line in 2:12:57 with a 40:05 10K split. A PR for the Olympic distance by almost 2 minutes – YES!

My body’s initial reaction was to almost heave in the finisher’s chute, but that urge quickly subsided, and I realized I felt fine. I headed over to the VIP tent (for some reason unknown to me, I had been given access to the whole VIP experience, which was awesome and completely unexpected) to refuel and sit in some NormaTec compression boots.

My finish time would win or at least get top 3 in a lot of local triathlons, but in the national champs it was good for 32nd out of 192 finishers in M50-54. The top 25 got Team USA slots to compete in the World Championship in Chicago next year, and I was about 2 minutes shy of the mark there thanks to my swim:

AGNats results

I’m happy with the result; I raced as hard as I could and as well as my fitness allowed. My rookie mistake in T1 wouldn’t have changed much – it might have cost me 4 or 5 places but not a Team USA slot. And I know what I need to work on if I want to be competitive at the shorter distances (hint: it involves water).

And it was a great weekend in Milwaukee hanging out with friends and teammates, eating German food and frequenting the Indulge Wine Bar. The championship is returning there in 2015, so until next year, I hope!

Vineman 70.3 – Rumors of My Demise…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One down. 🙂

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

Two down.

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

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

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

Vinceman result

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

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

 

Honu 70.3 – Happy Birthday to Me!

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

in front of the Fairmont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honu result

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

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

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Ironman 70.3 St. George – Redemption in the Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. George result 2014

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

Stuff Happens: Ironman Los Cabos

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This was my 14th Ironman. Once you’ve done a few and have generally been on an improvement curve, you tend to take it for granted that each race will get better — the times may vary according to conditions, but you expect better each time.

Then you have a day like I had in Cabo: one of my slowest Ironmans and by far my slowest run ever, though to be fair there wasn’t a lot of actual running involved.

My training had been excellent leading up to the race — solid long rides, best power ever on the bike, a decent 1:24 half marathon the day after a longish ride, and even my swimming was improving a little. The one fly in the ointment was a slight hamstring strain I had gotten while running two weeks before the event. Some aggressive ART sessions and a stretch taping by my friend Jen seemed to have resolved the issue. So I had reason to expect a good result. But — like life — sometimes things just don’t work out. The first ominous sign was a flat rear tire when I arrived at the transition area on race morning — that had never happened to me before. Luckily, I was carrying two spare tubes in my tool bag, so I made a quick change. No real drama. It was also a little nip and tuck getting down to the beach through a very narrow corral; my coach Tim (who was also in the race) and I weren’t sure we’d make it down before the gun went off. But it all worked out.

Once the race got underway, the day started off well. Only about 900 competitors started the race, which meant a very nice swim with minimal contact. The Sea of Cortez was pretty calm and a nice 73F or so. I got off well and swam relaxed, focusing on my technique and sighting, and was surprised to see the clock reading 1:05:xx when I exited on the beach. A PR by almost 4 minutes — things were looking good!

The bike course isn’t easy or particularly fast — lots of rolling hills on the corridor road between the two Cabos, and much of the road surface is rough chip seal. There were also a few nasty potholes that were hard to see until you were almost on them (or in them). Luckily, with a field that was pretty small and spread out and a three-loop bike, it was easy to ride right most of the time and also to remember approximately where the hazards were.

I was targeting a bike time of around 5:30 — just over a 20-mph average. The initial climbs put me a little behind, but by the time I had done the first of three loops, I was right on schedule (speed-wise and power-wise) and feeling pretty good. Pretty good, not great.

feeling ok

TP 1st 3rd IMLC bike

That was as good as it was going to get, though. I had done a 5.5-hour training ride at a Normalized Power (NP) of 217W, and here I was 20W lower but unable to up the ante. For you non-data-geeks, that means that I couldn’t turn over the pedals as hard on race day as I had done pretty easily in training. I’m pretty sure the heat had something to do with that.

Another view (sorry to geek out) is where I had my best power for 30, 60, 90 and 120 minutes. That would be…drum roll…in the first half of the bike:

TP Peak 120 IMLC bike

This is not the way you want the day to go — instead, you want your best power late in the ride. I did have a technical glitch, though, where in the last hour+ my bike computer just locked on 153W no matter whether I was pedaling or coasting, climbing or descending, so in essence I could no longer rely on my power meter to guide me. I’m not sure I would have liked the real numbers anyway, as cramps began to set in with about 20 miles to go.

This was looking like trouble. I’m used to cramping in the run, but it doesn’t happen often on the bike. Except when it’s really hot, like that disastrous half Ironman in Las Vegas I did. I’m not sure what happened, as I thought I had stayed on top of my fluids and electrolytes really well. One thing I noticed was that my shoulders were fried from the sun, despite having put on a lot of sunscreen (I’m going to have to go with a sleeved jersey instead of sleeveless tri top next time). Anyway, I found that I could keep the cramps at bay by standing on the pedals out of the saddle, so I decided to, um, go ahead and do that.

IMLC bike 02

Standing some and getting more electrolyte caps and fluids in seemed to do the trick, and I finished the ride in 5:42 — some fall-off in pace the last lap, but it could have been much worse. “Worse,” as it turned out, was still to come.

The run-in to T2 was a downhill with 4 or 5 nice speed bumps, and soon I was happily dismounting the bike. Grabbed my bag and headed into the changing tent; I made sure to get all sunscreened up, even though a lot of the damage was already done. I actually felt pretty good when I started running, probably partly due to the Hokas I was wearing (shoes that are the opposite of minimalist — big, cushioned soles that make it feel like you’re running on pillows). My Garmin was taking a while to sync, and I went through mile 1 before starting it, so I’m not sure what my split was (probably 7:30-7:40). Saw most of my support crew in the first mile and then again a little while later as we did another short out and back.

IMLC run 01IMLC run 02DCIM100GOPRO

The fun was pretty short-lived, though. My pace really started to slow after 4 miles or so, which is not exactly confidence inspiring, but I made it through the first of three loops by walking the aid stations. By that point, I had moved up from 11th in the age group off the bike to 7th. That was as good as it was going to get.

The cramps hit around mile 9, just after I had passed the finish line for the first time (cruelly, we had to pass right by the finish line twice before finally going down the finish chute on the final lap). Not bad at first, but then accompanied by nausea. I saw my crew again, and Matt asked how I was. “Bonking,” I replied. “I need to get some calories.” “You need to top up on Coke and ice the next few aid stations,” he told me. So I did that, and I made it to the half marathon mark in the high 1:5x range. That’s still sub-4:00 pace, but the trend wasn’t in my favor.

Usually when you have a bad patch in an Ironman, you come good at some point — “it never always gets worse” is a useful mantra to remember. So I kept trying to figure out what I needed in order to keep going, thinking at any point my second wind was coming.

It turned out that what I needed was to walk.

And so I walked, because at least that was forward progress. There was no way I was going to let myself DNF.

When you walk, the miles pass vvvveeerrrryyyyy slooooooooowwwwwwwwwwly.

Every once in awhile, I would break into a trot just to see whether my body’s response had improved.

Um, that would be a “no.”

It’s hard to describe almost a half marathon of walking. It sucked. I felt like a failure. My feet were blistering; my neck and shoulders were sunburned, and I wasn’t having any fun. But dammit, I was going to finish this f****r.

With around a mile to go, my crew were out on the lonely, somewhat pungent section along the estuary. “White Lightning, what are you doing?” asked Matt. “Having a nice sunset stroll,” I answered. My wife Jeanne chased after me, telling me “this is the first time I can keep up with you.” The course doubled back on itself, so on the return — about a half mile to go — I told myself “f*** it” and started to run.

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The crew was happier now that I was running. “F***ing Sheeper,” I lamented as I went past. “I could have done a nice 70.3 in Oceanside yesterday, and instead I’m here doing this.”

But, you know, the finish line at an Ironman is magical. It wasn’t pretty. I had been weak. I hadn’t been willing or able to suck it up when it counted. It wasn’t my best time. It wasn’t my worst time. But it was a tangible reminder that you can never take a finish for granted. It was bloody hard work to get through this one, and I’m glad I did.

IMLC results page

Now on to some recovery and then some shorter races. 🙂

By the way, I could never have done it without my support crew: my wife Jeanne and my great friends and teammates Mike, Luree, Matt, Jen and Lisa. And of course Tim Sheeper, who always inspires me to reach beyond my comfort zone and have fun doing it. I’ll try to have more fun next time!

Ultraman 2013 – another Sheeper adventure

For anyone who missed the memo, I’m a big fan of Hawaii. My wife covers the state extensively in her travel writing career, and I often go along and/or drag her to races over there, particularly the Ironman in October and its affiliated half Ironman in late May / early June. So when my friend and coach Tim Sheeper told me his midlife crisis-driven “Aloha Triple” — the three big world championships held in Hawaii (the Ironman, Xterra and Ultraman) — well, I wanted to be part of it.

I was part of it already by virtue of having qualified for this year’s Ironman, and Tim qualified easily by winning his age group in Ironman Coeur d’Alene. At Kona, he had what for him was a so-so race, going 9:45:13 for 11th in the M50-54 age group. At Xterra, he won the M50-54 age group on a borrowed 29er hardtail. So all that was left was this little event called the Ultraman. Here’s where I really got my chance to be part of the Aloha Triple.

See, Ultraman is the opposite of Ironman. Instead of 2000 Type-A racers taking over Kailua-Kona and the Queen K highway for more than a week, Ultraman has roughly 35 competitors, doesn’t close any roads, and has no aid stations. Each athlete is completely supported by his own crew, from a guide kayaker on the swim to a van that acts as a mobile aid station, leapfrogging the rider to hand off food and drinks and anything else the rider needs.

The distances are extreme, and it’s run like a bicycle stage race, where you might win an individual day but still lose overall based on the accumulate time from all three days. The days look like this:

  • Day 1: 10K ocean swim from Kailua-Kona to Keauhou, followed by a 90-mile bike from Keauhou to Volcano that has almost 8000 ft. of climbing
  • Day 2: 171.4-mile bike from Volcano to Kapa’au along the Hilo side of the island, with almost 9000 ft. of climbing
  • Day 3: 52.4-mile (double marathon) run from Hawi to Kona

That’s 320 miles total that take you around the entire Big Island, with all sorts of weather conditions: ocean swells, wind, rain, heat, and even cold. The fastest guys spend 7-8 hours per day racing. The only way to describe this race is “epic.”

Tim’s support crew consisted of me, Keith Terada (another Team Sheeper guy who’s also done Kona in the past), Bruce Smith, a swim and triathlon coach who did Ultraman back in 2001 (got 4th overall), and Sierra Sheeper, Tim’s eldest daughter, who was on crutches after a powderpuff football mishap. We bonded very quickly and worked out the division of labor. Keith was the paddler who accompanied Tim in the swim. Bruce drove the support van on Days 1 and 2; Keith drove on Day 3. Bruce and I planned to pace Tim at various points during the run. Sierra mixed nutrition, filled bottles and sorted food. All of us handed Tim foods and bottles, which is easy on the run but not so easy on the bike, especially when Tim is flying by at 25 mph. You basically have to do a full-on sprint while holding a bottle or banana out for him to grab. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

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A little less crowed start than at the Ironman

Day 1 was fantastic. Tim came out of the water 2nd, 10 min behind Hillary Biscay, whom Tim coached back when she first started triathlons (she was a collegiate swimmer).

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Paddler Keith Terada leads Tim to the swim finish

But Tim passed her about 20M into the 90M bike, so we were on our own after that – we didn’t see another team the rest of the day. The elements were tough: headwinds, crosswinds and pouring rain, plus a final climb of almost 3000 ft up to Volcano and the finish line.

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Moving along the Mamalahoa Highway

But he ended the day with a solid lead over his rivals, which put a big target on his back for Day 2.

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Finish of Day 1 in Volcano

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Being interviewed by Jim Gourley for Lava Magazine

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It was love at first puff for Tim and the poofy pants; we used them several times a day

The course on Day 2 is fantastic – you get to see the side of the island that most tourists never go to. But it’s 171 miles, the first 100 or so of which is pretty fast — there’s a big 25M downhill to start, and then tailwinds through Hilo, so Tim hit the Ironman mark (112M) in 4:48 — that’s fast! His rivals were all there and pushing the pace hard.

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Tim in 2nd place on the stage just after the Red Road and before all of the traffic lights into Hilo

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After Hilo and starting to hit some nutrition problems

Tim had his first bad patch and lost some time, but got his second wind in Waimea and was able to recover some of that on the final 6.5M Kohala Mountain Rd climb. So he still led after Day 2, but the lead had narrowed. And the effort had cost him physically — the run was going to be, well, “interesting.”

On the final 6.5-mile climb and feeling strong again

On the final 6.5-mile climb and feeling strong again

Glad to be done with a harder-than-expected Day 2

Glad to be done with a harder-than-expected Day 2

Coming into the Day 3 run, bear in mind that Tim didn’t have the kind of lead he’d hoped for after Day 2. His two closest rivals, Alexandre Ribeiro and Miro Kregar, were 16 and 31 minutes back, respectively, but had much better Ultraman running resumes than Tim’s lone 7:24 time from 2007. So, given that, the plan was to run steady and not only make Miro and Alexandre come and take the remaining time off of him but also let them try to destroy one another and see if one or both paid for it in the second half.

Part of the plan worked — Alexandre cracked, for I believe the first time ever in Ultraman. Not that surprising considering how fast those guys went out — we heard some hard breathing when they passed mile 2, and there were still 50.4 to go!

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Early in the 52.4-mile run

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Not much “suck” to embrace at this point

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First half marathon in 1:40

The first 13.1M for Tim was 1:40 and change. Things started to get tough at around mile 16 before Kawaihae – he developed a nasty blister on his foot. We sat him down and lanced the blister, put second skin and Aquaphor on it, and changed socks and shoes. That didn’t solve the problem, so we bought duct tape in Kawaihae and put that on.

We started pacing him at Kawaihae for short stints, but on one of mine it became clear that he was going to need a pacer from there on in. So I prepped myself to go as long as I could. He passed the halfway mark in around 3:38 – we then sat him down and lanced the blister again and put more duct tape on. I then became fulltime pacer and water carrier (actually, ice in one bottle and sport drink in the other; shot blocks in the pockets). The goal became to just keep moving, and I had to make sure I didn’t let his walking breaks last very long. We switched from Sprite to Coke at mile 40 but switched back around mile 45 because the Coke wasn’t agreeing with him. It was also getting quite hot out.

Part of the pacing change of plans was that I wasn’t really fully prepared to go for an entire marathon myself — I didn’t pay enough attention to my own nutrition and cramped badly at around my mile 20.5, so at my 21 (47.2 for Tim, I handed pacing duties over to Bruce, and he brought Tim home. The second marathon was not quick — around 4:51 — but it could have been much worse if not for Tim’s grit and determination.

In the last mile!

Well, *that* was hard!

It was just a “git ‘er done” day. At no point in the time I paced him did Tim care or even want to know about his place vis-a-vis anyone — he just wanted to get to the finish, and he went to the well to do that. His official time was 8:29:40, and the three-day total was 24:57:12, good for 4th overall. Very impressive ahead of Tim in 3rd was Hillary Biscay, who ran superbly (and quite evenly), and almost reeled in Ribeiro in the overall standings.

Regardless of outcome, what a great experience it was to crew at this race. As much as Tim suffered in this race, I’m almost wishing he’ll give it another go next year — knowing what we know now, we could avoid a few costly mistakes and be back with a really experienced crew. After his first one in 2007, he swore he’d never do the race again, so never say never, I guess. 🙂