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.

Good things come in threes

It’s been a busy few months.

First, my wife and I kicked off a big home remodel project in June. We had never done an extensive remodel before – by “extensive,” I mean both expensive and disruptive – and I don’t know many people who actually keep living in their houses when they’re having the type of work done that we were: not only full kitchen remodel, but knocking down the wall between the kitchen and the living room/dining room, new floor throughout the house, revamping the 1955 electrical system, new roof, skylights, moving the front door 18 feet forward and pushing the wall of the living room out 6 feet, adding a half bath, all new entrance doors, garage doors and interior doors, and that’s just what I can remember offhand.

I’m an endurance athlete, and despite that my hand got tired from writing all of those checks. But more than that, there were a lot of unknowns at the beginning of the project, so we ended up having to make a lot of decisions as it progressed and having to recalibrate timelines as we realized we needed to order things (like carriage doors for the Garage of Pain) that have a lead time of up to 9 weeks. But the results so far have been worth it – here’s a before-and-after view of the same corner of the kitchen:

Before

Before

After

After

(The cat still does her “freaky drinking,” just not on ugly linoleum. 🙂 )

Anyway, while all this was going on, I was trying to prepare for “the Big Dance,” as many in the triathlon community call the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Most, though, just call it “Kona.” Kona is indelibly linked with the sport of triathlon, much like the Boston Marathon is with running.

I’ve been fortunate enough to do Kona four times, though I should put “fortunate” in quotes, as it’s a very difficult race. The NBC television broadcast of the race doesn’t really do it justice; there is no dramatic music, no deep-voiced commentator delivering punchy metaphors that glorify your endeavor, and no powerful slow-motion pedaling and running through the lava fields. Well, I take that back – it can be slow motion if you walk. Having qualified last November at Ironman Arizona, I had 11 months to prepare for this race, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing – it kind of sneaked up on me. Physically I was pretty ready, but my head was occupied with several other things that were going on even as I boarded the flight to Kona eight days before the race.

It’s always exciting to come to the Big Island; you never really know what the elements are going to throw at you. This trip it seemed to be heat, humidity, wind and rougher-than-normal water, all at the same time. My first heat acclimatization ride involved some of the wildest crosswinds I have ever experienced between Kawaihae and the beach at Mahukona; I was glad that I had packed a shallower alternative to my Zipp 808 front wheel. I did a few swims either at Hapuna or the Mauna Lani and experienced swells, chops and current the likes of which I had never seen on my many Big Island trips. And my short training runs were just sweltering. This was going to be interesting.

Race day turned calmer wind-wise, but the oven was definitely still on. This was my first Kona with the separation of starts for age group men and age group women, and it was a definite improvement. I started at the far left, waited about 30 seconds after the start to swim, and I swam basically unmolested the entire way, other than a few slaps of my toes every so often by someone drafting just a little too closely. I was also quite slow, exiting on the steps at 1:21 (vs 1:16 in my 2013 race, but faster than my 1:25s in my first two Konas). It turns out pretty much everyone had a slower-than-normal swim, so I’m not too bothered about it.

What did concern me was getting on the bike and not having any oomph at all. My normal Ironman normalized power is anywhere from 190-195W, yet I found myself riding 175W with the perceived effort I get at 195W. Not good, but I tried not to be negative, since that can have a snowball effect as the day wears on. Focusing instead on making sure I stayed plenty hydrated, I took fluids at every aid station and calories in the form of gels or banana halves where I could.

In the "hot corner" after a steep descent, 2 miles into the bike

In the “hot corner” after a steep descent, 2 miles into the bike

Going back up Palani from the hot corner, not to be seen again for 100+ miles

Going back up Palani from the hot corner, not to be seen again for 100+ miles

It took until Kawaihae before I saw the first pros coming back (they did have a 30-minute headstart on me 🙂 ), so my ride wasn’t going that badly. In fact, I was on pace for about a 5:20 ride, which should have been pretty conservative. I did finally get some headwind on the climb to the turnaround in Hawi, and even got rained on for a few minutes, which was pretty pleasant except for making it very challenging to see through my sunglasses. The ensuing descent can often be quite the white-knuckle affair if you get heavy crosswinds, but race day seemed to be mostly tailwind, so it was pretty easy to stay down in the aerobars and just cruise this section.

The climb back up to the Queen K marks the final 30 miles or so, and this is where you get to take stock of how your day is going. You might think you’re close to the end, but you’d be wrong – you often get headwind on parts of this section, and there’s a decent amount of climbing still to be done. At around 85 miles I passed the Mauna Lani resort, where my rental house was, and briefly had a vision of how nice it would be to just turn down into the resort and head to the air conditioning, a relaxing shower and a beer – I knew the front door code, after all. A brief vision, of course, because above all you need to respect Kona – it’s a race that so many people want to do and never get to do that I feel I should never squander an opportunity to finish here. And besides, Mums didn’t raise a quitter.

The day started getting a lot less fun by mile 90, and the astute reader will recall that it hadn’t been that much fun all day. My best guess was that I was running low on calories – “bonking,” as we say (this word apparently means something quite different in the UK) – so I grabbed whatever food I could get my hands on at the next aid station and soldiered on. A female friend of mine who had started 15 minutes behind me passed me with a couple of miles to go in the ride; she had a leg issue so wouldn’t even be starting the run, and all I could think right then was that I envied her. Not doing the run was just not an option – I mean of course it was, but it really wasn’t.

Off the bike with a 5:48 split, I felt about as crappy as I’ve ever felt entering T2. But I just noted it; I didn’t dwell on it. The key question was “what do I need right now?” and what I needed was to get my ass on the run course and take some calories in pronto. The picture at mile 2 tells you exactly how I was feeling:

My body and I are not amused

My body and I are not amused

There’s an old adage, though, that goes, “It doesn’t always get worse.” I ran along as best I could, walking the aid stations and getting as many fluids in as I could, as well as ice down the shirt, ice down the shorts, ice in the hat, cool sponges – anything to keep my core temperature down. I chatted with other competitors who were having a tough day as well. I was not alone in my suffering.

The first turnaround is just past 5 miles, and on the return leg my body started to show some signs of life. Here’s a picture of me in happier times, around mile 8:

There's that smile - this is fun, after all!

There’s that smile – this is fun, after all!

The fun was short lived, and I was soon back to a run/walk. The key from here on out was to keep the walks as short as possible while maintaining my ability to just get to the finish line. I saw my family on the steep climb up Palani (just past 10 miles), who were probably dismayed to see me walk up it, but I needed to save my energy.

Once on the Queen K, my main issue became not calories, but sloshing in my stomach, which likely meant I was low on electrolytes. Luckily I had a lot of Succeed S-Caps on me, so I started taking those along with some of the Base salts that you put right on your tongue to ward off cramping. It took a number of minutes each time for the sloshing to subside, at which point I could start running again.

As best I could calculate, if I continued to have to walk I would be looking at a PW – “personal worst” – Ironman finish of around 12:30. All other goals besides finishing now out the window, I made beating that my new secondary goal. As I got out of the Energy Lab and back on the Queen K for the final 10K, a breeze had kicked up, and I suddenly felt much, much cooler.

So I ran.

And I kept running.

And I kept telling myself there was no reason I needed to walk again.

Just. Keep. Running.

So I did. And all of a sudden, I realized I didn’t need to get a PW. In fact, I could still break 12 hours. If I could just…keep…running.

By mile 24, I knew I was going to do this thing. As I got to the top of the final hill and then turned down Palani for the final mile, I saw my brother Paka and sister-in-law Shelton on their way back to their car – they had to make a red-eye flight back, and I was way behind schedule 🙂 – but we had a quick hug and I continued down the hill, hoping just not to cramp before the line.

The finish on Ali’i Drive was electric, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see a finish line. I was high-fiving every hand I could see. This had been a hard one, a well-earned finish.

finish 1

“Ian Hersey, you are an Ironman!”

11:50:22 was my official time, which turned out not to be even my slowest Kona (though my 4:29 run split was my only run here over 4 hours).

The effort had cost me, though. After volunteers led me into the finisher area and removed my timing chip, I realized I was about to pass out. A couple of volunteers walked me over to the medical tent, and the next thing I knew I was in a wheelchair and cramping up like I had never cramped up before: hands like claws, elbows bent, various muscles in both legs forcing me to straighten them, my jaw tingling.

I needed IV fluids badly, but the volunteers said they had to weigh me first to make sure that I was dehydrated and that it wasn’t something else. This seemed incredulous to me – I knew I was severely dehydrated and electrolyte depleted (after 16 Ironmans and countless other races I know my body really well – but they insisted and had to lift me out of the chair and onto the scale. Down 7 lbs, and that was with shoes on (they’d weighed us in morning without shoes), so they finally agreed with what I’d been telling them for 10 minutes. 10 minutes of absolute agony.

The vein burst with their first attempt, so they went to the other arm but had trouble locating the correct gauge needle. I could barely contain myself; I felt as though I was going to die right there while someone figured out how to get an IV in me on a day when you could have easily forecast a higher-than-normal rate of severe dehydration.

Finally they got one in me and pumped me full of fluids (two bags) and magnesium, and this took effect quite quickly. The claws started releasing, and my elbows straightened. The volunteer doctor was very nice; he himself was a triathlete who was hoping to qualify for Kona someday. I joked that I wasn’t sure I would recommend it based on today. After about two hours, they released me to my wife Jeanne and our friends Mike and Luree, who had already conveniently retrieved my bike and gear bags from transition. I made quite the slow hobble back to my room, which was fortunately in the race hotel right by the finish.

They say that how you deal with the challenging times says a lot more about you than how you deal with the good times – on days in which you’re physically on fire and you’re setting personal bests, finishing comes a lot easier – so I’m happy with my race in that regard. Not satisfied, but happy. As luck would have it, that same “finish what you started” ethos was being tested almost simultaneously in my work life.

As many people saw announced today, my employer Saffron was acquired by Intel. Yes, the Intel.

It’s a great outcome for all concerned. For me personally, though, the decision of whether or not to join Intel as part of the acquisition prompted a fair bit of soul searching. Not because there’s anything wrong with Intel or Saffron, but more because of both my stage in life and my long experience in small companies vs. large ones. Large ones scare me.

In the end, though, I realized it’s just like the anxiety you feel five minutes before the start in an Ironman. You know you’ve trained for this. You know you can do it.

But you also know that you don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. There will be hurdles. There will be things you hadn’t anticipated. But the combination of all of those things and of how you respond to them and how you decide to act…well, that becomes the story you write.

So here, like in Kona, I didn’t hop off the course at mile 85 of 140.6 to go home and drink a beer. There’s just too much more fun to be had before the finish line.

And I’m pretty sure I won’t need the med tent after this one. 🙂

So…How We Doin’?

We’re in the middle of the triathlon season now, and I find myself less than three months out from my fall Ironman campaign, which features both Kona and Arizona, five weeks apart. I remind myself every once in a while that I’m actually training for two full Ironmans, seeing as there will be just enough time to recover from the one and roll into the other. Recent races have indicated pretty good fitness but have also highlighted some areas to work on:

  • Swim. I had a disappointing 38-minute swim in the Hawaii 70.3 race, but that time was mitigated by seeing the splits of others that I know are fast, and they also had (for them) slow splits. On the flip side, I had a three-minute PR swim for 1.2 miles at Vineman, but the comparative times there were similarly quick, though I did somewhat better than usual in my placing. So I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic on my swim, other than needing to do some longer swims to be ready for the full distance.
  • Bike. My 2:30 split a Vineman was a three-minute PR. This was due to a combination of a faster bike – the Dimond, which prior race analysis has already shown to be quicker – and putting out 9W more power over the course of the ride than last year. This was also the weekend after a big training block over the July 4 weekend, which I just felt recovered from a couple of days before the race, so I’m feeling good about both my bike setup and my bike fitness.
  • Run. By contrast with the other two sports, my runs in the three 70.3s I’ve done have been subpar – up to 10 minutes slower than “normal” and all marred by severe cramping. I’d be tempted to chalk it up to overcooking the bike, but if that were the case, I would have had dead-feeling legs coming off the bike. If I look at my initial mile splits, I see this: race comparisonThe table illustrates “data regret”: I opted to forego wearing my heart-rate monitor strap in my 2014 races – I don’t look at my heart rate during the race – but it sure would be nice to compare the data year over year to determine whether I have a fitness issue, a pacing issue on the bike, or simply – as I believe to be the case – a hydration/electrolyte management issue. Lesson: don’t be like me and get data regret.

The run segments aren’t strictly comparable year over year; St. George in 2014 was a half mile short of 13.1, Hawaii was hotter this year in the run, so everything suffered, and Vineman was cooler than the prior year so should have been a little quicker. The big difference for me, though, was that last year I didn’t cramp during any of the runs, and this year I cramped in all three. Badly, and at multiple points. In any case, it’s something I need to address before I face the lava fields of Kona, and I am a man with a plan, so stay tuned on that front.

After all, I have various family and friends joining me this year in Kona, but one guy I specifically did not invite was Crampa.

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!