This post is mostly about my experience at Ironman Louisville, but I begin with a brief background about ironmans in general, and my triathlon experience heretofore. An Ironman is a long distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run in one shot. The professional men typically finish between 8-9 hours, and average times tend to be between 12-13 hours. The cutoff is 17 hours (midnight) -- many older, less well-trained people aim just to finish. Times vary greatly from course to course depending on heat, swim conditions, wind, and terrain. This is a significant athletic feat; athletes typically train 4-6 months (or yearly) in all three sports. Excessive training, improved eating, regulated sleep, early rising, learning about health and food, and reduced socializing outside of long bike rides are just some of the inevitable side effects of training for an ironman. But the euphoria of crossing the finish line is quite unlike anything else I've experienced. Emotions pent up from sometimes years of hard work, discipline, mental focus, pain and brutal training come together as you run down that finish line chute. For all of these reasons, triathlon has greatly enhanced my life.
I came to triathlon about three years ago, when I registered for a triathlon class during my fourth year of graduate school. I had been running marathons -- self-trained -- for several years, notching a PR of 3:07 in the Portland Marathon (good enough to qualify for Boston at the time) but undergoing a string of injuries in the process. In brief, my training was ineffective. My athletic background was mostly in soccer, playing at Chico State for three years before getting cut my final year (it turned out as a blessing!). In any event, I had grown to really love running and equated it with the slog of the Ph.D. process. Given my injury background, I had long been wanting to get into triathlons if only to learn new ways of working out so that I could stay fit as I aged. But I had neither a good bike or knew how to swim properly. In other words, the startup costs were high. In the fall of 2010, however, I began working for a professor who was a fairly avid triathlete, and he emailed me one Saturday letting me know that the Ironman World Championships were on TV. I tuned in and watched Craig McCormack ("Macca") bust out something like a 2:42 marathon and was amazed. That time is good for a stand-alone marathon, let alone doing it after a nearly full effort 112 mile bike ride. These guys are savages I thought. For me, when I think someone or something is a savage, I want to do it too. Where to start? Within a week or so I signed up for a half ironman, and registered for an intermediate swimming class, as well as the triathlon class.
Three years later, my triathlon ability has markedly improved. I had success initially in the run unsurprisingly, but my swim and bike were not so great. My splits usually went something like this (for say, a local triathlon): 50 percentile swim, 30 percentile bike, 10 percentile run. By my third year I had managed to get these times down to 15, 7, and 4 percent, respectively. This summer (2013), with maybe a 3 day taper, I recorded a 4:37 half ironman placing 9th at the Musselman Tri in Geneva, NY, winning my age group. Admittedly, while Musselman has a bit of a national draw, it is mostly a regional triathlon so the competition pails in comparison to any WTC M-Dot event. Last summer, I endured my first ironman, the Vineman, in Sonoma County, CA, placing 6th in my age group in a time of 11:02 (dinged 4 minutes for wearing an ipod, idiot!). For the Vineman, I had hired a coach (Aaron Scheidies) who wrote out a weekly training plan lasting from February - July. I used the same plan for Ironman Louisville except I had to slap on an additional month, and I vastly extended the length of my weekend rides.
To the race. I arrived in Louisville the Friday before the race via Knoxville from DC, as I had been doing some archival research on Estes Kefauver at University of Tennessee. I immediately biked the run course, which, honestly, is not a very great course taking you through some semi-crappy neighborhoods with zero bucolic scenery (it's a two loop course). I then picked Sarah up from the airport and we drove the bike course (just one loop of the two loops). I was immediately struck by its elevation gain and its bucolic scenery (ahh). So not only would the race be hot it would also be hilly. These two elements actually makes IMLV one of the harder ironmans on the circuit. Even though I knew this in advance, seeing the hills with my own eyes is always a new experience. Fortunately, for me, I had done tons of hill climbs in the Inland Empire earlier in the year, including Mt. Baldy, Big Bear, Mt. Islip, and Oak Glen climbs. Because I'm light and fairly powerful (from years of soccer), climbing is one of my bike strengths. Seriously, the Inland Empire is amazing for hill climbing.
I'll save the pre-race jitter reports, which are usually: issues with sleeping, issues with food, issues with taper, issues with registration, general anxiety, and irritability. I've gotten better at handling these things as I know more what to expect now, so I did not make any major mistakes pre-race.
Swim: Historically, ironmans are mass starts, where the gun goes off and 2-3 thousand crazy people go buck wild on each other trying to hit the first buoy. IMLV has a unique time-trial swim start, where people line up and jump off a dock one-by-one into a channel of the Ohio River. Athletes swim upstream around an island and then move out into the main part of the river heading downstream. I was probably in the last third of athletes to get in. The water is quite warm, I think it was 82 degrees, meaning that most people do not wear wetsuits. In fact, if you wear a wetsuit you are ineligible for age-group awards. I had purchased a skin suit a few weeks prior, and let me tell you that thing is badass. Skin suits are designed to make you glide through the water more quickly but provide no buoyancy advantage that a wetsuit provides. As I began moving, I realized there were some seriously slow swimmers in the mess, and so my first challenge was navigation. After two years of swim struggles I had (literally) hit my stroke earlier in the summer after getting some guidance from the DC Tri club masters program. For the most part, I navigated around the block of swimmers in the channel, although a few times people grabbed my leg. It is important not to get hot and bothered when someone does that despite one's initial tendency to want to turn around and yell at them, which wastes effort. I just tell myself, they're not doing it on purpose. Upon entering the main part of the river, the crowd thinned immediately. Unfortunately I could not find anyone to draft off of, a procedure that allows one to race at the same speed as someone faster than you. Fortunately, there was a mild current. Compared to my last ironman, what I noticed was that I could slug it out in the water in zone 3 pretty much the whole way. I felt good but had no idea of my time until I exited the water and my watch said 1:02. Wow! Last year I did 1:15. Surely, much of this improvement was the current, but also my endurance gains and technique had improved.
T1: I ran out of the water and when someone passed me I realized I needed to pick it up so I passed several people over the ramp and into the changing tent. My split was 3:05 -- a pretty good time considering the run distance and the changing tent arrangement. I then ran over to my bike took it out of transition and jumped on.
Bike: This is the hardest part for me. I do not yet own a power meter and so I had been having trouble sorting out my pacing and target speed. To boot, my heart rate monitor had broken previously in the year so I had trained mostly without heart rate all year (I had purchased the Garmin Forerunner 910XT a few weeks prior to the race). Earlier in the year I had hoped to average 22mph, but in hindsight, I had not trained enough at this pace, as I spent several months just building up my endurance capabilities and doing hardcore climbs. That, and a unique summer living situation forced me to miss/reduce the length of several key bike workouts. The half ironman I had done earlier in the summer notched me an average speed of 22.4 mph. So I loosely targeted 21 mph and change knowing that the elevation and heat would likely slow me down. At Vineman, I had started out too quickly and had significant stomach problems like bloating by about 60 miles. So I decided to stay around 130 beats per minute for the first 50 miles, and steadily increase my race effort if I felt like it. This is a hard thing to do the first 30-40 miles of the bike because the legs are feeling relatively fresh, you're ready to race, tons of people are passing you, and, as a competitive person you want to pick up the pace. I held back though, and by about 60 miles picked up the effort. The last 30 miles is net decline so I was able to keep the pace strong during this stretch. My strategy of slowly building in intensity appeared to pay off resulting in only a few insignificant stomach issues and a time of 5:32 (about a 12 minute improvement over Vineman). In hindsight, I probably could have notched a 5:25 or so, but I didn't want to push given that this was only my second ironman. With some more high-intensity bike training, I should be able to get my bike splits down into the 5:15 range within the next year or so (hopefully).
T-2. The transition arrived earlier than I thought and I did not have time to get both of my shoes off while on the bike. This was probably my only obvious "mistake" of the race (other than putting my power gel gummies in a baggy to bake while on the bike). Anywho, I hopped off the bike, ran down to get my T-2 bag and hustled into the tent. My legs felt alright, not great, but not mush. I had had some monster training days, and given that this wasn't my first rodeo I knew what to expect. A volunteer helped me with my race belt and other belongings. I had a quick drink of water while in the tent and I was out. T-2 took about 3:30 because there was a bit of a run out. I saw Sarah dutifully waiting for me as I exited; it's always great to have people supporting you even if it's hard to acknowledge them at the time.
Run: My pace was actually quite strong the first mile or so. I kept trying to slow it down because it is so easy to go blasting out of the gate in excitement and blow up later in the run. I'd say about 60% of the field does this, but that is an arbitrary number. Right away I saw a few athletes stopped ahead already struggling. I passed them and one ran with me for about two-thirds of a mile. However, it was clear he was pushing it as his breathing was steep and his stride was, frankly, ridiculous. I asked him his projected goal; he said 3:45 and then stopped saying his legs were cramping. He had gone too hard on the bike, obviously. Because the weather was hot and temperature was increasing, I kept the pace around 8:00 minute miles for the first 6 miles, and kept my beats per minute around 140. Sometimes the pace crept up a little, sometimes it went down a little. Several runners actually passed me in the first 4-5 miles. For each one, I examined their stride, and listened to their breathing. They were all in much worse shape than me. I passed every one of them later in the course, many of them were walking. About mile 6 or 7 (the turnaround), I increased the effort a little, but it was clear I was not going to get much under 8:00 pace this day, so I chose not to risk it. I followed several runners through mile 13 or so, but by mile 15 all the runners I had been following/competing with began popping off. I felt alright and maintained a relatively steady pace, slowing down a little between 12-17 miles. I also had to hit the john a few times during the second lap indicating I had taken in too many calories or perhaps too many salt pills. This was unfortunate as it probably added 3 minutes or so to my time. But mother nature called. Between miles 17-19 I began to increase the effort steadily as I ticked the miles off one by one. Two guys passed me at this point, but otherwise I was zooming by people -- many on their first loop. It is always upsetting and uplifting for me to see all the Ironman walkers out there. I think, why did they go so hard on the bike if now they're just walking? What's the point of doing this if you're just going to walk half the marathon? How hard is that? While these questions may seem inappropriate or elitist, I doubt I'm the only person who thinks them as I slog along. However, I'm sure I'll ask a different question when the roles are one day reversed. In any event, one aide station after the next it went. Water, ice, ice water, down the back down the front. The ice would rest in my shirt for a few minutes cooling my core temperature. I also imbibed Powerbar Perform at every aide station and began drinking coke around mile 10. I had a few banana slices here and there, and took a few gels along the way, but did not feel like taking too many. Around mile 8 I began walking through (quickly) the aide stations. Probably 90% (?) of athletes do this, but it definitely slows the overall split down. In the future I want to figure out a way to mitigate this as it would save possibly 3-5 minutes. It just seems too hard to get water, ice, Perform, banana, gel, more water, pretzel, coke, chicken soup, and fruit down the hatch all while running. I was still feeling strong and by mile 23.5 I decided to pick up the pace one last time. I think I ran around 7:00 pace (moving time) for the last 2 miles or so. It felt really good as the crowd grew and I was trucking along. I also had a massive blood blister on the left big toe that I had to contend with for the last 12 miles or so. Oh well, these things happen sometimes. I blasted through the chute and saw my final time was 10:21. My goal window was 10:10 - 10:40, so I was quite pleased with my performance. This put me in the top 4-5 percent of competitors but just 20th in my age group. Four slots were assigned to Kona, so looks like I'll have to keep plugging away to get closer!
Post Race: I was not particularly hungry after the race, which was interesting considering I ate quite a bit after my last Ironman. Sarah was there to greet me at the finish line and I sat down on the sidewalk for about 20 minutes taking it all in. We then walked back to our hotel. I cleaned up and we came back to the finish line area to grab some food and a drink. I had a small flight of bourbon (Kentucky) and a little food, but didn't take in too much. It is not a good idea to drink heavily after an Ironman regardless of how much you feel like "partying." We hung out in the chute area for a bit cheering people on, which is one of my favorite things to do. My legs were obviously shot and my big toenail was in a world of hurt. But I felt good and was pleased with my performance. I took a whole week mostly off of training, and the second week I did a few short rides and a few swims. By toe was tender for about a week, but that was ok since I wasn't planning on running for two weeks anyway. By my third week I was mostly back in action and began to run a little as well, logging about 17 hours of training. By week four, I was back at it building up my training preparing for another Ironman in early December.