While in graduate school at University of Washington, I enrolled in a triathlon course through the student recreation center. That coach, Aaron Scheidies, turned out to not only be an amazing coach, athlete, and mentor, but was also legally blind. He, like Adrian Broca, had experienced vision loss during their teenage years, with both individuals struggling with depression and self-doubt until they turned to endurance sports as a venue of self-expression and personal achievement.
Aaron trained me through my first ironman – Vineman 2012. He introduced me to heart-rate based training, periodicity, intensity versus volume, and generally changed the direction of my life. While legally blind, he could ride his bike so long as he followed the white line or rode right behind me. At first, I thought he was totally crazy, but later I realized that he had to do these things. It’s so true but so often we don’t realize what we have until we do not have it. Both Aaron and Adrian, and I suspect many people in their situation, embody courage and bravery, two traits I highly admire. While inspiring, I also learn a lot about life by just being around them.
In fall, 2017, Aaron called me up and asked if I might guide a Los Angeles-based visually-impaired athlete in Ironman Canada 2018, which is currently held in Whistler, British Columbia. He described Adrian’s athletic profile, noting, in particular, that he was a sub-three-hour marathoner (2:50 PR). In other words, Adrian is a beast. I had a busy spring with travel for work, so only got to train with Adrian for a weekend in April/May. We did a 93-mile bike on his tandem in the Santa Monica Mountains, two-mile swim in the choppy LA ocean, and a nine-mile run. That session helped us get a feel for one another. In addition, Adrian’s wife, Brenda, told me I might be the funniest guide they’ve had, which pleased me greatly.
I had paced several half-marathons and a marathon, but guiding is obviously much more involved. With run pacing you just stick to a steady pace (say 6:52 for a half-marathon); whereas guiding requires constant awareness and communication (which is the fun in it). Adrian can sense levels of lightness/darkness and can sort of detect peoples’ positioning say on a bike trail (which is critical since he’s always burning by everyone). He described his vision this way: open your eyes in a muddy pond and look up towards the surface. With these challenges, it was my responsibility as the guide to adjust to the needs of the guided athlete to ensure their protection with the goal of letting them reach their athletic potential.
The Ironman Canada swim is held in Alta Lake surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains. Challenged athletes can either start just behind the lead professional athletes or in their “expected” swim finish time position (ironman and half-ironman races now usually have a staggered start as opposed to everyone starting at the same time). With the former you get a bit of a lead on everyone else, which might help one ease into the race, but then you risk getting mowed down by faster (and more aggressive) front-pack swimmers. Adrian opted to start in the staggered pack with everyone else, as he is on the newer side of swimming, so we situated around the 1:30-40 range.
We are tethered together around the hip and upper thigh during the swim. I swim on the left and slightly ahead, he swims on the right just behind. Adrian can tell where to go when he feels the tension on the cord, adjusting accordingly throughout the entire 2.4 miles. For the most part, the swim was not overly crowded, and we only got knocked a bit. We did get caught up in the 70.3 lead swimmers who started about an hour after us so I had to keep an eye on all that glancing behind me every so often. One guy mowed through the center of us and got tangled in the tether resulting in a ferocious response from me to the likes I didn’t know I had. But he apologized and obviously he didn’t swim through us on purpose. But when you are charged with essentially protecting someone in those conditions your instincts are powerful. Thus, we moved off to the side and kept swimming all the way through. We exited the swim in 1:42.
Moving into transition our first task was to hit up the wet suit strippers who help strip your wetsuit off facilitating your transition to the bike. Honestly, we cannot thank the volunteers enough. We grabbed our transition bags, headed into the tent, put on our helmets and bike shoes, got our gear (Adrian opted for a backpack with two hydration packs to make refueling at the aid stations easier) then jogged over to our tandem bike. During this time Adrian would put his hand on my shoulder to make sure he didn’t trip or fall.
The Ironman Canada bike is one of the more grueling bike courses on the ironman circuit, with 8-9000 feet of total climbing. Bike courses are not equal, and your time is generally dictated by three things (holding fitness level constant): temperature, wind/rain, and elevation gain. Ironman Canada has a ton of climbing, the temperatures got to over 90F towards the back-half of the ride, and there was some wind (not crazy, but some). Combining that with a tandem bike that probably climbs about half the speed I would climb on my own tri-bike made for a long and grueling bike ride. At one point, someone in running shoes rode by us on one of the climbs. To make up for "lost" time we descended like maniacs hitting speeds close to 50mph passing tons of people descending and ascending in the other direction. Luckily, I do a lot of climbing and descending so felt generally cautiously comfortable but it must have looked ridiculous.
The upside was that at least Adrian and I had a good time making jokes for at least the first 80 miles or so. The other benefit of a tandem is that all the fans notice and express special cheers. The amount of times I heard, “hey look, a tandem” were countless, but the best was: “look at that wicked tandem.” I said to Adrian, “I think that guy was from Boston”, to which he agreed. Also, I should add we received lots of encouragement from fellow athletes, which is small, but helps a lot when you are beginning to struggle.
The last 30 or so miles for me were a real struggle. The bike positioning of course is not my normal setup, and I had some challenges with hydration and nausea. But given the heat it was imperative to continue taking in liquid, electrolytes, calories, and salt even if that resulted in the occasional Gatorade burp. The end of the bike in some ways is the hardest part of an ironman because you are starting to fade, are generally feeling shitty and sorry for yourself, but begin to dread the marathon. Our bike split was 7:33.
Coming into transition we were both elated but shot. However, Adrian is a solid runner, so I knew we were going to be passing people the whole way. Moving into the change tent we found seats and began changing into our running shoes and socks, gathering our running water bottles and the like. During this time, I tried burping a bit and realized I might need to puke. So I vomited all that built up liquid (combination of water, Gatorade, Coke, Red Bull, Perpetuem) into the nearest trash can. No bile or anything, just enough to get those air bubbles out of the stomach. Immediately I felt better and we were off on our way to complete what we had started.
The Ironman Canada run is a beautiful two loop out and back with a finish in Whistler village. We began the run during the hottest part of the day but for two Southern California boys that wasn’t really an excuse. I’ve trained and raced in significantly worse conditions (e.g., Kona and Palm Springs). The course has about 1,300 feet of elevation gain so isn’t “fast” per say, but relative to the bike there were pockets of shade. In addition, the views were insane: snow-capped mountains, cloudy turquoise lakes, lush green forests, truly beautiful. We got into a steady groove but given the crowded bike-trail conditions and run traffic coming the other way, it was a constant battle of acceleration and deceleration, navigating turns, moving up short climbs and descents, and making sure to consume the proper nutrition at each aid station. While our splits overall may not look that impressive (due to aid stations, turns, navigating through traffic, etc.), we were running 7:50s-8:30s (per mile) in the open section for a good part of the marathon feeling more like a 3:40 effort rather than the 4:15 posted split.
Ironmans are very uncertain events, even top athletes break and have to walk during the run. Early on, I wondered if Adrian would crack; at mile 11 he stopped, bent over, and loudly dry-heaved. I thought maybe this was the moment and that stomach problems would begin to slow us down. But, like my T2 puke-fest, it was a momentary weakness and we recovered our running form shortly thereafter. At that point, I realized Adrian was a true warrior and that we were going to grit this thing out if it killed us.
We continued one foot after another, runner up, Adrian pass on the left I’d pass on the right. “Adrian, the line is clear, two runners ahead on your left”, etc. “Trail now bending right, now left, look out for that root, there’s a cone, now a sidewalk curb, etc.” At the final turnaround with about five miles to go we picked up the pace and just started trucking. Adrian asked what mile we were at, I said, “Mile 21.” He said, “Wow, that’s awesome.” The final miles were a bit of a blur, but I saw Sarah around the 24.5-mile mark, providing us inspiration. With that extra boost of energy the last bit of adrenaline started to kick in, the kind where you get the sheets of electricity running through your body and your emotions begin to get the better of you. I was so proud of Adrian hanging tough (and me too), and proud to guide someone through such an accomplishment. As we came down the finish line shoot I think both of us were overcome with emotion as the cheering got louder and fans/supporters realized what they were witnessing. We crossed in 13:48, with a total run time of 4:15.
If you are interesting in guiding challenged athletes or learning how to support them you can visit Challenged Athletes Foundation on Facebook or their website.
It has been a while since the race, but here is my race report. The lead-up to Ironman Switzerland was actually very challenging. I had been traveling for about three weeks, first to a friend’s wedding in Hawaii, then up to visit my hometown in Northern California, and then to Bend, OR, to participate in the Pacific Crest Long Course Triathlon (Half ironman distance). As soon as I returned from Hawaii I did my first triathlon of the year — an olympic distance race in Big Bear than traveled north that day after the race. I spent a few days in Humboldt then drove up to Bend, OR, with my mom. In the past I’d managed to put together races on back-to-back weekends, but I seemed to struggle this time.
At Pacific Crest, a few Aussies (Ironman 70.3 World Champion Tim Reed plus colleague) showed up to smack everyone around on a training day, but besides them I came out of the water in 10th place, then biked my way into third place. The ride was amazing, basically one long climb up and around Mt. Bachelor followed by a 10 mile pills to the wall descent. Given that the race paid five deep I was pretty excited as I started the run. Immediately my legs felt strongish. I started the run and was ticking off 6:20s or so (at 4,000 feet) then about half way through the wheels began coming off. The last five miles were five of the most painful miles I had ever experienced as I was unable to pick up the pace, getting passed by two guys. What made matters worse was that Sun River is a resort and there are people leisurely biking along and floating down the lazy river with beer. The juxtaposition was hard to handle.
After these events I was a bit low on running confidence, despite having run a 2:43 marathon in May. I had not fully recovered from that race (upper achilles strain) and had a hard time running more than 30 miles a week leading into the ironman. Upon returning to Riverside from Oregon, I did a 10K foot bike climb up Oak Glen and Onyx Summit with a few training friends, attempted an hour transition-run in the 90F degree heat and conked hard. I barely made the last two miles to the car and had to pour water down my back just to keep the feet moving forward. Clearly, I was overtraining.
However, I gained some of my confidence back the following weekend when I went up to Bishop with Josh and Duane for some (even more) hardcore training. I had relaxed the intensity heading into the weekend and built in a little more recovery time. We stayed near Aspendell. We did a 3K foot climb Friday evening, followed by a 40 minute base run, all over 8,000 feet. The scenery up there was unbelievable. The next day, Duane and I did a 30 minute swim in an alpine lake to get things going. Our plan for the day was a double-brick. The first was a 6,000 foot 30 mile climb from the Owen’s Valley basin up White Mountain to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine center in 90F+ heat. This is the 9th hardest climb in the U.S. and is definitely very challenging with a few 15 percent grades. We split the ride into two parts stashing several Gatorade bottles half way up. The ride took me about 3.5 hours. This ride was immediately followed by the first brick run of 60 minutes. I split the run into 20 minutes base, 20 minutes tempo, 20 minutes base, using HR as my metric, since the wind was very strong so pace would be an inaccurate gauge of effort. We then did a ~1.5 hour ride along highway 395 towards Mammoth and back, once again into a headwind. Our last run of the day was a 30 minute run — which I held steady around a 7:25 pace. The pace held at this run is a pretty good indicator of what you can probably average during an ironman. I felt pretty good but the last ten minutes were a struggle as I had inaccurately gauged my calories and felt gnawing hunger pangs and energy depletion as I slogged along the Bishop streets as day turned to night. All told, we started our training at about 7am and finished at about 8pm. We were absolutely shattered but overall the day went about as well as it could have for me. The next day we drove down to Independence and hit the Onion Valley climb, the sixth hardest climb in the U.S. and an absolute bruiser. Given everything we had done the day prior, I was surprised at my effort and I completed the climb with relative ease. This training block let me recover some confidence I had lost after Pacific Crest.
That was two weeks out from Ironman Switzerland. I flew out to Europe on July 18th, which gave me enough time to recover from jet-lag, as the race was July 24th. A few days later Sarah arrived from Ethiopia, and my Jason Bourne fantasy trip through Europe began. I spent the next few days adjusting to the time zone, writing and reading, and doing light workouts.
Ironman Switzerland takes place in Zurich, which is a fantastic city. I cannot recommend this race more strongly. Switzerland is a beautiful and well-organized country. Put it this way, I had an easier time taking public transportation in Switzerland than I did when I went to Philadelphia.
Sarah and I stayed in an airbnb home about ten minutes walking from the race headquarters. One thing I’ve learned, staying near race headquarters is mandatory. I headed down to check-in race morning relatively early and was one of the first people to arrive. I set my bike up, pumped my tires, then walked down to the swim start. Overall, people seemed more relaxed about the race than what I’ve seen in the States. For me, I was definitely nervous even though this was my eighth ironman. You just know how much pain you will have to endure, so even if you are the world champion you have to contend with that reality. You don’t know precisely when that pain will occur, you don’t know if someone will kick you in the gut during the swim, whether you will get a flat on the bike, slide out of control on a descent, bonk hard during the third lap of the run, or have the will to take a chance during a key stage of the race. Even though this is a superfluous sporting event, for you, in that instant, it is the only thing that matters.
The swim start is rolling, so I positioned myself between 1 hour and 1:10. The entry was organized as eight athletes enter the water every 5-10 seconds (knowing the Swiss is was probably exactly 7.5 seconds). Given my traveling, I hadn’t been swimming as much as I liked, but did manage some decent swim efforts in Lake Zurich in the days leading into the race. My plan was to try and not go anaerobic at the beginning, get into a draft and try and stay as relaxed as possible. The course buoys were confusing so I just swam behind people. We set a pretty good pace for me and I managed to draft for much of the swim. This helped me towards the end when swimmers started to separate more, but overall there were people around me the whole time. I came out of the water in 1:07, which is a pretty consistent swim for me.
The swim exits onto a little island, you run over a bridge, into the change tent, and then to your bike. Somehow during this process my wetsuit was removed and I was on the course. The course wends around the northern part of Lake Zurich through Zurich and then along the shore for 15 miles or so. It then heads away from the lake into the foothills of the alps through small mountain towns, with supporters yelling “op op op” and ringing cowbells. Eventually it descends back along the lake then heads down the other side. Cyclists then head up “heartbreak hill” where they can restock their nutrition/energy supplies. The course is two loops.
The bike course is a medium to medium-hard course, as there is more than 5,000 feet of climbing but the wind and heat did not play much of a role. This type of course is well-suited to my abilities as a cyclist. Overall, I biked well and only got passed by a few guys the whole course (the two guys who passed me I saw walking at one point, which brought me great satisfaction). The first 20 miles (before the climbing) it was tucked aero, staying out of the draft zone, and just passing lots of people. I tried to keep my power under 260. Hitting the climbs, I was toying with some young German guy who I know was pushing too hard. Young ironman athletes, unfortunately for them, also tend to be the most stupid. Often, they brazenly push large amount of watts then conk hard on the run. However, this guy tricked me a small amount into his game, as I noticed I was pushing 280-300 watts up the larger climbs. It just felt good passing all the Swiss, Germans, and other Euros who think that universal health care is a freedom and right when we all know that true freedom is the ability to die from a curable disease. However, this mistake came back to me the second loop as I lost a bit of power the final 40 miles of the ride. The main issue was that I probably pushed a bit too hard up the climbs, as I started to fade somewhat the back half of the second loop. Still, I finished in a time of 5:01, so almost identical to my Kona split. In addition, during the bike I only wanted to quit the race for about 45 minutes, so that’s pretty good! I was quite pleased with this time but of course it’s always an embarrassment to bike slower than five hours.
Coming off the bike, I was already out of my bike shoes. Finishing 112 miles is always a mixed bag. On the one hand you don’t have to ride anymore, on the other hand now you have to run a marathon. Wait, why am I doing this again? Running into transition I took off my helmet, wracked my bike, then ran into the change tent. As I switched into my shoes, put on my Rudy Project sunglasses, visor, prepared my salt and gels, I felt a deep rumbling inside. I had to drop a bomb so my T-2 time was a bit slow. Luckily getting out and back into my amazing Louis Garneau trisuit was much easier than my old suit. With a front zipper down the chest it was actually pretty quick. Given a bit of stomach distress, my most recent blow-up at Pacific Crest, and my lingering achilles injury, in the moment I knew I had to start the run slowly.
Starting the run slowly is unnatural; many people are passing you and the tendency is not to let this happen. This is especially the case because I am a fairly strong runner. However, I stuck to my guns and spent the first of four loops easing into the run at a 7:45-7:50 pace, something that was probably about 45 seconds slower than my “ideal/capable” pace. I wanted the stomach to settle and my hamstrings were still quite tight from the ride. About four miles in I saw Sarah at an aid station and told her I was taking the first loop easy. Around this time I started to stretch out the legs and expand my stride. This seemed to help as I began passing lots of people who had passed me during my first loop. I began to get my stride and the average pace started to gradually tick downwards. I continued working a bit harder each loop as I drove the HR up a bit, stabilized it, then slowly drove it up some more. No signs of cramping and I was feeling pretty good, still making jokes on the third loop. I have found that my desire to crack jokes in a race is directly correlated with my mood and level of difficulty I am experiencing.
Because we were allowed to have a helper providing food/drink at designated spots on the course, Sarah played a huge role in my successful running. I saw her about four miles in and she gave me a hand bottle with Perpetuem and some electrolyte supplements. As the course went on she provided me with coke and Red Bull every other loop, which was key to keeping me going. The downside to this cocktail, though, was another restroom break on the second loop. The back half of the last loop I picked it up and split the last three miles in sub 7 minute pace. In the end, I posted a 9:35 time (1:07 swim, 5:01 bike, 3:20 run), which, I think in most comparable U.S. races would place me in the top 5 age group for a KQ (Kona Qualifier), but as it was I was 14th in M35-39. I was a bit amazed by that but them’s the breaks. It’s a bit of a shame to put in such an effort and have nothing to really show for it, but I have to remember that the Europeans start riding bikes at a much earlier age, in general. In the States, my bike split is usually one of the top few in my age group. This allows me to more or less bike into KQ contention in any amateur race. But in Switzerland I was a little further down. There were several guys who were biking in the 4:50s and even a few in the 4:40s, which, on that course, is ridiculous.
In sum, Ironman Switzerland is a fantastic race, and I could not recommend it more strongly. Switzerland is a beautiful and safe country. When I rolled into Zurich at 11pm at night there were women riding their bikes by themselves through forested areas along the lake. That really amazed me given that one would be unlikely to see that in the U.S. The race, much like the (at least parts of) country, is run very well and highly organized. It was fun to shoot the breeze with other athletes from all over the world after the race. Sarah and I then spent a week driving around Switzerland and Northern Italy, before heading up to Denmark for my family’s reunion. In many ways it was a trip of a lifetime, except I’m sure we’ll go on many more amazing trips because that is our style.
I ran my first marathon (Vancouver, BC) in 2008 along with my graduate school friend Rachael Sanders, who, incidentally, qualified for Boston in her first attempt. I clocked a 3:30 something and was of course instantly hooked. We were just starting our graduate school program then, which pushed me mentally very far outside of my comfort zone. I found running extremely cathartic -- it allowed me to shut off, soak (literally) up the beautiful sites of Seattle, and also reduced my stress. I looked forward to my long runs where each weekend I'd plan an ever-longer route through some new neighborhood or destination not knowing whether I'd have to catch the bus home. It was such an adventure, looking back on my life, that was the time when I shifted away from my heretofore work hard – party hard lifestyle into a more healthy forward-looking approach.
In many ways, running provided me an escape. I think most people who get deep into running have that in common. Non-runners often see the task as boring, mind-numbing, and perhaps painful, which, to be sure are accurate statements at times. This was how I had always felt about running before I started 'running.' But, I've played a lot of sports in my years, and I can honestly say that there is nothing that can compare to a well-paced run where the machine is working just right. You feel unstoppable. You get runner's high. It's probably not far off from the sensations one gets from opiates. Running can break you down to the point of tears, a battle that tests who you are as a person. In short, running probably taps some sort of survival mechanism within us that is rarely felt, at least among most people in the western world.
However, over the years as I have developed as an endurance athlete and steadily moved up the ranks, running has become harder, more mechanical, and yes, more painful. In training, specific paces and heart rates need to be met; specific workouts need to occur at specific times. But, in my quest for best Napoleon Complex of the century, I researched the science behind running, and have gotten to the point where I analyze all my workout data, splits, heart rate, and any conceivably useful metric. Turns out all those statistics classes were useful! As my Strava friends can attest, my training leading into OC was strong, the build and peak were well timed, as I began to hold 6:30 and 6:40 paces in high zone 2, which I had only seen once before (last year right before Ironman Texas). Heading into the OC, most of my metrics were indicating I was capable of running around a 2:40 marathon. However, given that this race was perhaps a B+ race for me as opposed to an A race, my taper was limited to just a week, as opposed to a more traditional two-week taper.
So, as I lined up on Sunday at 5 freaking 30 am, 2:40 was my “goal time.” Anything faster than 2:40 and I would be shot-callin', between 2:40-2:45 I would be happy and satisfied, and anything between 2:45-2:50 would still be a PR but I would know I had significantly underperformed. Looking at previous results would probably place me in the top 5-10 slots with these times, but as we lined up the announcer revealed an elite crowd of about 6 men and 4 women; and one of the men had previously recorded a 2:11! Scanning the runners I noticed a guy with a Kenya reference on his shirt. Well looks like I'm not winning this one!
The OC course is mostly flat although there are definitely some hills and rollers, with a total of about 350 feet in elevation gain. That may not seem like a lot, but compared to some courses it is not flat. As we began the first mile (uphill), I was reading a 6:20/6:30 pace and my heart rate pretty quickly jacked to around 163 or so. I knew this was a bit too high for me but also with the adrenaline I figured it would settle in. Pretty quickly a lead group of 10-15 runners emerged and I had to make a decision whether to stay with this lead pack or keep to my own plan. By the time we hit the MacArthur descent this was mostly sorted for me as a group of a few guys and one woman took off ahead of me.
I played it cool and let my heart rate settle under 160 for most of the downhill stretch. I ran with a few guys until we hit Ocean Blvd near Corona Del Mar but they gradually dropped back. Around this time (mile 4), I reached the third place woman who was running strongly and as I passed her she tucked in just behind me. We basically ran like this until mile 9 when I had to stop and drop a bomb (stupid cheese pizza I told them to take it easy on the cheese!). But, they always say train like you race, so I made mince-meat out of that bano in under 30 seconds according to my calculations. Back on the road I grabbed a few quick gatorade sips at the aid station and was back on my way. The woman and the second place woman were just ahead with really no one else to be seen.
The three of us slugged it out for about four miles but as we crossed half way in about 1:21I threw in a 30 second speed change (for kicks) and that seemed to crack them a bit. I settled back into my pace looking back occasionally and saw that the gap was widening. Sarah showed up around this time on a bike and informed me I was in about seventh place and that at least one of the guys ahead of me was not looking so hot. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I was happy I was able to talk albeit I wasn't exactly in a conversational mood (it indicated my breathing was just about right for this distance). Around that time (a long straightaway) I saw the guy she was talking about. I was definitely gaining on him and caught him around mile 15 or so. He tried staying with me for a bit so I threw in another speed change and that mostly did him in. I thought about crop-dusting him and the aid station volunteers just for a laugh but frankly it was a risky proposition given my previous visit to the bano.
It seems to be that although people talk about mile 20 as "the wall," mile 16 is the spot where shit tends to go down. A lot of people tend to fade hard at this point as they become carbohydrate depleted and the effects of running too hard early on really start to emerge. While I was not feeling great, I was not feeling terrible either, which, in terms of marathon running, is pretty fucking good! I worked my way (rather quickly in hindsight) through the shopping center and onto Bear Street in Costa Mesa. I found myself all alone and it would stay that way for the next 9 miles. It became what it always becomes, a grind.
The last 8 or so miles of a marathon are indeed the most crucial and most painful. This is where experience and mental strength show themselves. The legs slowly turn to led and the mind begins to look for excuses to slow down. You feel your form and gait changing, which may be true or may just be the numbing in your legs leading you to think that is what is happening. During these miles, it is imperative to stay in the moment, focus on one mile at a time, and draw on as many positive motivations as you can (e.g., I'm doing this for my mom who died of cancer, my brother is going to think I suck, I want a PR, etc.).
Miles 20-22 were on the Santa Ana River Trail, a bike trail with which I am very familiar so I knew exactly where I was. I was getting close but I decided to break the remaining portion into two mile chunks: the bike trail, the hilly section between miles 22-24 which I had deemed the hardest part of the race, and then the home stretch where I would have to rely on adrenaline to take me home. This is exactly how the race played out and even though my pace dropped the remaining four miles (mostly on account of the elevation gain), the fall-off seemed not as bad for me than for most other similarly situated athletes.
Coming home through the fairgrounds the last half mile was a grind, but I saw my friend Michael John and gave him five along with some other half marathoners who were hanging out and drinking brews at 8 in the morning!! My watch was reading 2:42 and as I rounded the corner for the final 200 meters I gave it everything I had reaching the finish line in 2:43 and change. A little short but a solid time nonetheless for a triathlete who, while appearing petite, is actually quite bulky in comparison to an average elite or semi-elite runner. Sarah and I then hung out for a while, grabbed a beer, some food, got a massage, cheered some runners in, hit up an amazing Mexican joint in Anaheim where we ordered in Spanish (until they spoke to us in English), then headed home to Riverside! Thanks to my Snapple Triathlon Team for providing support and motivation, and our sponsors Rudy Project (glasses), Sweat Vac (visor), and Pierce (shoes I use for training). Also thanks to Riverside Roadrunners who provide track and long runs Tuesdays and Sundays, respectively, and a hamburger after the race (I don't normally eat a lot of red meat)! Thanks also to Sarah for supporting me and encouraging me along the way. And of course thanks to my parents and in-laws for watching the splits come in during the race.
Sometime last year I registered for the HITS Palm Springs olympic distance triathlon, which was held the weekend of December 5-6. I forgot about that and realized in early November that I had this race on the books. I wasn't really in the mood to do the race because I had completed Ironman Arizona just three weeks before, and Kona five weeks before that. Given that I was a bit dissatisfied with my IMAZ bike, I emailed HITS and asked if I could register for the full and volunteer the following day to pay for the difference. They abided, and so I planned to do the full swim and bike. An aquabike is fantastic training and I planned to nail the bike as hard as I could knowing that I would very likely fade at some point.
The logic here is that while I now roughly know my tipping point for an ironman bike, I don't really know that point for just riding that distance. Could I hold over 150 heart beats per minute and still feel strong at the end? Normally I keep my long rides and race efforts not much higher than 145 beats per minute and usually even lower than that. In other words, I want to understand my profile better. By pushing the pace knowing you won't have to do the run you experience different sensations than what you might normally, so you can assess your mood, nutrition, timing, and cramping in ways that you might not normally experience when riding at ironman pace.
Unfortunately, I set my alarm for 4:40pm and not am so woke up at 6:30 when the race started at 7:30. I made my way to the race start but full distance athletes had already started. I spoke with the race director and asked if I could just do the bike segment and get a DNF. They were fine with that, and given that the water was about 55F I was very happy with the outcome.
I prepped my bike, etc., and watched a bunch of the half-distance athletes coming out of the water and jumping onto the bike. Everyone looked miserable, obviously the water was very cold. I started the bike ride based on when I thought the full leaders would be coming out of the water. In hindsight, apparently they were quite a few minutes behind so the leaders must have been wondering who was this guy way in front of everyone slamming it.
The HITS course is pretty terrible, to be honest. It's very flat but there is wind, and it is four out and backs. While people might complain about this, keep in mind that the cost for this race is generally quite low relative to a WTC ironman. The main problem with the course is that there are lots of bumps, cracks, and holes in the course. While this is manageable for two out and backs, everything became very uncomfortable on the third and fourth out and backs.
I had a seven scoop bottle of Perpetuem but started to burp this up late in the ride. It seems that my body can only handle about five scoops. I had increased my load so that I didn't have to stop at special needs. I took six gels with me. I probably would have preferred having a few more gels as I faded a bit towards the end.
In terms of the race I started out very quickly and started chasing down all the half-ironman athletes. It was pass, pass, pass. I passed the 56 mile point in 2:18, which actually was faster than any of the half-ironman finishing athletes, and wound up with a total time of 4:41. The winds increased and changed directions throughout the day, but unfortunately I was having power meter issues again so had to once again rely on my heart rate. The first 60 miles or so I managed to keep my heart rate in the upper 150s, probably around 157, but the last lap and a half my effort level decreased some. On the last lap I really started to struggle, but just tried to stay positive. The final ten miles or so I was having some GI isssues and a bit of cramping. Luckily, the temperature was not especially hot, but I did take some Base Salt when I felt some of the cramping.
Ultimately, I completed the bike in 4:41 and change, just outside of my goal. I just couldn't manage to maintain my effort the last twenty miles despite my efforts at telling myself to buck-up. However, I did get some useful information, and feel fairly confident that I can hold a higher heart rate during the ironman bike moving forward. Normally, I'd be around 140 or so, but think I can handle closer to 150. It was nice to roll up to T-2 and tell the guys that I'm good, no need to put on the running shoes.
Ironman Arizona (IMAZ) is probably the most popular Ironman-branded race in the continental United States. This is mainly because it has a reputation for being relatively easy so people looking to bucketlist an ironman are attracted to this race. Other people look to IMAZ as a place to set a personal record/best time, so they can brag to their friends about how great they are. In addition, IMAZ is the closest major ironman to those of us living in the Southern California region. All of this is to say that IMAZ sells out fast such that most athletes go to the event a year in advance to volunteer and then get to register in person for the following year. This is precisely what I did in 2014, knowing that there was an outside chance I would qualify for Kona at Ironman Texas in May and if that was the case I would just deal with it.
Ultimately, I did qualify for Kona at Ironman Texas, which meant I came into IMAZ not entirely fresh, having completed an ironman five weeks prior. To make matters worse I had made a bike seat adjustment three weeks prior in an attempt to generate more power, went out and smashed two 90 mile back-to-back rides and came away with a muscle strain in the back of my knee. I readjusted the saddle and the problem went away but the injury remained until race day. I missed several bike workouts and ran very little for five weeks. Heading into the race, I had not run farther than 8 miles since Kona. People kept telling me that my Kona fitness would get me through the race but I did not feel especially confident that my injured leg would hold up. I even considered not doing the race but in the end the fact that I dropped over $700 to do the damn thing was reason enough to push through.
The week of the race I went to a doctor who gave me some anti-inflammatory medication as well as some 'magic' ointment. His assessment was overall quite positive, and even though I asked for a cortisone shot he thought that was too risky because I could possibly do long-term damage to the affected muscles. The pills/ointment seemed to help, as my injury began to subside just in time. I did a 30 minute training run the day before the race and while I noticed the injury it did not greatly affect me as it had even the Tuesday prior to the race when I went to track practice.
I stayed with some people from the Seattle Greenlake Triathlon Club who I had gotten to know over the last two years when I'd go up to Seattle to stay with Sarah for the summer. It was my first time at a race with so many other people (in the group) participating, so it felt more like a family atmosphere even though none of my biological family members were there (do they not love me?). I've come to realize that having a support structure of sorts is really helpful, even for a self-reliant hardcore individualist like myself (someone once described me: under that gruff exterior is more gruff exterior).
I had mixed feelings about the race, on the one hand I was hoping to PR with something like a 1:05 swim, 4:40 bike, and 3:10 marathon. This would put me in around 9 hours and easily get me a slot to Kona. I knew this was a stretch given my injury and relative lack of training the previous month. A secondary, more realistic goal, was to shoot for a 1:10 swim, 4:55 bike, and 3:20 marathon or thereabouts putting me around 9:30. Anything over 9:30 would basically be an indication of me moving backwards and that I was probably overtraining/doing too many ironmans in one year.
The swim was a rolling start. The clock begins when you descend the stairs into the 'lake.' I posted up between the 1 hour and 1:10 signs, which meant I got in within a minute of the firing cannon. Given my recent injury, I had spent a lot of time (for me) in the pool and had been posting my best workout splits of the year. Thus, I was quite certain I could swim at least a 1:05. I started the swim cooking but the water was very dark, making it basically impossible to see any feet. There was a fair amount of crawling, battling, and head-knocking. I'm so used to this by now it rarely bothers me when I get clocked in the head or have my foot grabbed. I drafted fairly well, but on the way back the course seemed to be a bit bumpy. I quickly realized the course marshall boats were creating fairly choppy wakes from driving fairly quickly up and down the center part of the course. This was a bit incredible to me as anyone who has ever swam in open water knows that boat wakes are a pain in the ass and will incontrovertibly slow you down. Thus, I swam over to the boats and told them to stop, just kidding. I hitched two rides on the way back to transition on two separate pairs of feet. As I made the final left turn I noticed a lot of people heading in. I knew this was a bad sign and that I was probably closer to 1:10 than 1:05. Indeed, I was right in the middle at just over 1:07, about 20 seconds slower than my other ironman wetsuit swim this year (Vineman Aquabike). Damn it, I need to figure this slow-ass swimming out and plan to spend a good part of the winter hating life by swimming more in the cold outdoor pools of Rivertucky. There's no way I'll ever win my age group by emerging from the water 10-15 minutes down on the leader. There are just too many guys who can swim 55 minutes and also bike and run moderately well.
I made it a point to make my transitions as fast as I could. Lately I've been posting four minute transitions, which is just embarrassing. I got in and out of T-1 in about three minutes, which I was happy with. I think if I came out of the water sooner my transition would be faster because I wouldn't have some asshole in front of me running like they're going to a tea party. I had done a practice ride on the IMAZ course a few weeks earlier (in fact it is what resulted in my strained back-of-knee muscle). I had jammed it that day (two weeks post Kona), and rode 2.5 laps at 250 normalized power, which is good for me. I was feeling powerful that day given my new bike arrangement, and was out on the Beeline learning fools. However, I totally conked out towards the end of the ride, losing all power for the last 15 miles. Therefore, as I entered the bike course, I was a bit scared, so I kept the power at a relatively conservative 230 watts and aimed to build my power throughout the day.
IMAZ is a three loop bike course. Everyone rides like a fucking champion the first loop then tends to lose power throughout the day. What this meant was that several people passed me on the way out. One group of three guys when steaming by, I decided to stay with them a bit just to see what type of power they were rocking and that perhaps I could legally hitch a ride. My power meter went up to around 280 watts as I was following them for a few minutes. Yeah, that's not going to happen. While I wish I could hold 280 watts for an ironman, that's a bit high even for this champion of the common man (and woman). Overall, the day consisted of basically just passing a bunch of struggling-looking people. Occasionally I would see someone I knew, but (especially after the first loop) the course got so crowded I really had to concentrate and spent little time trying to spot my friends. Here and there a guy would go by me but it was rare. About 50 miles in, the rain started to come down, slowly at first, but then a steady Seattle-like downpour (not torrential but definitely raining). Post-race many people seemed to complain about this but the rain didn't really affect me much. I would rather it rain than be sunny and hot. Unfortunately, the rain knocked out my powermeter, so I was 'stuck' riding the rest of the ride on heart rate and perceived effort. How old-fashioned of me!
Upon exiting Tempe Town Lake, the course cuts through several backroads and makes its way out onto the Beeline Highway for about nine miles, which consists of a steady but mild uphill grind. At the intersection of Shea and Beeline, the course turns around retraces its steps. Triathletes do this thrice. Overall, the course is lackluster at best, and I really didn't like it. However, it is relatively flat and easy. At the top of my second out-and-back I had had enough of this bullshit and decided to up the tempo a bit. Thus I upped my heart rate from low 140s to mid-to-high 140s for the next hour or so. I felt pretty good the entire ride and had no real nutrition problems. In the end I biked 4:54, but that was too slow to put me in contention for a top three age group. Since my power reading dropped 50 miles in, I can't say for sure what my overall power was, but at the point of dropping, my average was 239, normalized was 240. My guess is the overall race power was between 235-240, very similar to my Kona load. I'm still trying to figure out why I went so slowly relative to my power to weight ratio of about 3.5 watts/kilograms. After the race, my back disc wheel had major streaks on one side where the brake pads press. Indeed, upon closer inspection and even walking the bike post race, one side of the wheel was experiencing brake rubbing. I'm unsure how much that would factor into the power/speed discrepancy. In general, I think I ride pretty aero and don't get out of the saddle much, except to access my nutrition, etc.
In terms of nutrition/energy, I took six Hammer gels (three espresso, three non-espresso), two Gu gels, and two bottles of 4-5 scoop Perpetuem. I began with Heed electrolyte then replaced that on course with Gatorade/water combo. I also took one or two salt pills per hour, as needed. Every hour or so I cracked an anti-fatigue/endurance amino combination. The latter really do help, as my ironman bikes this year have been extremely consistent. I routinely have a variable index of 1, 1.01, and never any higher than 1.03. This means I ride balanced, don't fall off towards the end, and reduce the chances of a bonk late in the bike/on the run.
I got off the bike and ran into the transition tent. There was maybe one other guy in there, which was a good sign. However, I knew several guys were up the road. T-2 took me way too long (3:30 or so) because I spent probably a minute trying to get my compression socks on. I can't keep doing this bullshit, especially when the hands are cold. I grabbed a few gels and gummies, then headed out the door. I felt about as good as I could and was just happy it wasn't hot. A few other guys beat me out of transition and/or passed me in the first mile or two. I paced off of them until the first aid station, then one of them dropped off and the other headed farther up the road (I passed him later, that bastard). I was holding around a 7:20 pace, which seemed manageable. I kept this up through most of the first loop of the two-loop course. My plan was to mostly take it easy through mile six then pick it up a bit if my body would allow.
Because it wasn't hot I didn't stop at any aid station and just kept plowing through, taking a gel now and again, and water and gatorade at most stations. A few miles in I started hitting the coke, then I started hitting the Red Bull late in the race. At special needs I added two more Hammer gels and two bottles of Perpetuem. I've gotten to a point where I can handle gel, coke, red bull, water, salt pills, all at the same time (but I won't get too cocky here). A lot of people get all mechanical talking like “I'll take a gel every 24 minutes, a coke every other aid station, two salt pills every 45 minutes, and just for kicks I will eat a quarter of a Cliff Bar every 10 minutes.” To me, that is just ridiculously complicated plus I secretly (well not so secretly anymore) detest anyone who consumes solid food (except bananas) in an ironman.
Around mile 16 I felt a twinge in my right calf. Damn it, this is where the lack of run training in the past month began to play a role. I immediately went for a salt pill, then also took in some Base salt. Because of the rain, a mud path emerged around the same time. The combination forced me to slow a bit, as I started posting a few 8:00/miles. The cramping never got severe but it was present enough such that I continued to monitor it, and change my gait whenever it reappeared. I've experienced this in the past but not until much later in the marathon. My pace gradually slowed, but it never got ridiculously out of control slow. Around mile 23 I decided to give it one last go and see if I could finish strong. It's important to test yourself in these conditions. One of these days I will get into a battle of attrition and will have to be ready, so might as well test that out. As I picked up the pace though my right calf started acting up again. Damn it, looks like that idea was out of the window. Thus, I went back to my mediocre pace and just finished out the race.
Watching the finishers video, you can see as I cross the finish line I'm basically like whatever, I'm just glad I don't have to run anymore. This was my seventh ironman (three in 2015), and I have to say this one was probably the most anti-climactic. I netted a 9:28 total time (1:07 swim; 4:54 bike; 3:20 marathon), which is pretty good by most standards, but in the end was a bit of a let-down for me, in part because I missed a Kona slot (rolldown) by one. Ironman Arizona is generally considered a PR course, but I missed a PR by two minutes. Overall though, given my recent injury setbacks and the fact I had recently completed the hardest ironman of them all (Kona), I have to be pleased with the result. Many people try and be a hero and then sling together several sub-par ironmans. Three ironmans in 2015 and three sub-10 results is something to be proud of, even if other people are beating me. For now I'll take some time-off of structured training, and begin to sort out how to get five minutes faster on the swim, if it kills me.
The Ironman World Championships (aka, Kona) began in 1978 when a few Navy guys got together to see who was the most baddest of asses across their respective sports. The idea was to take good people from the three respective disciplines and see how they would do across all the disciplines in what became known as the ironman. The first few ironmans were in Oahu: 2.4 miles of swimming was the distance of the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, 112 miles of biking following the Around-Oahu bike race, and then participants ran the course of the Honolulu marathon (26.2 miles). Initially, participants were mostly just whack-jobs sort of like ultra-runners today (meant in the nicest of ways), but the race gradually grew in the early 1980s, such that organizers moved it to the more rural Big Island of Hawaii. In the mid 1980s Dave Scott from Davis, CA, emerged as the dominant force on the Big Island capturing six ironman victories. He was later challenged by Mark Allen, as the two demonstrated the limits of human endurance in the 1989 Iron War where they swam, biked, and ran side-by-side for nearly the entire race until Allen took off towards the end posting a 2:40 marathon in the process. Their top times are still world-class today. In the early 1980s Julie Moss captured worldwide attention when she collapsed feet before the finish line and crawled across in second place. Baddest-of-asses worldwide shivered and since then the legend of Kona has only grown. Probably more than any other race on the planet, Kona is known for breaking people.
Over the years, Ironman has moved from fringe sport more into the mainstream such that there are presently 39 Ironman-branded races around the world, with a concentration in North America and Europe. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) owned the ironman brand but was recently bought out by a Chinese company, so we can expect the brand to continue to expand into areas heretofore un-ironmanned. At each of these races there are between 50-75 total qualifying slots allocated to the top competitors in each age group (e.g., men: 35-39) based on the proportion of starters from that age group in the total field. However, each age group is guaranteed a slot if there is a finisher in that age group. Thus, the likelihood of qualifying in the M35-39 age group, in general is 1-2%, whereas this number can get as high as 50% in older age groups where not dying is the main goal.
I first became aware of ironman as a kid, mainly because my dad was a marathoner and one of the top triathletes in the world at the time (Mike Pigg) just happened to live in my small Northern California hometown of Arcata, CA. As a kid, I always thought I would complete a marathon one day, but I never really thought I would get into ironmans. Besides, my main focus as a kid was soccer; I wanted to play professional soccer and even spent a year in the Netherlands during my junior year of high school pursuing my dream. During that year I lived with a few other American boys in an apartment in Den Haag. It was one of the more foundational years of my life as I struggled to cope with being away from everything comfortable. The soccer level was much higher and I struggled at times to stay up with the impressive and skillful Dutch. I was not used to playing year round on frozen fields. However, it gave me perspective, as I realized all the amazing things people (especially my mom) did for me. I learned about hardship, not to take things for granted, and that failure is a part of life.
My senior year of high school I moved back to California but about four hours south of Arcata to Santa Rosa, CA, to play soccer there. I rented a room in a house relatively close to campus and was given a chance to develop a new, more confident identity (when you grow up with a rat tail until 9th grade it’s hard to live that down until you move away). I had a decent season and eventually was recruited and attended Chico State to play soccer. There, I had a relatively lackluster career at a D-2 school. In fact, I was cut my senior year, which was emotionally devastating. My analytic mind led to too much worrying, I think, resulting in bouts of confidence issues. By the end of college I was mostly over it, although I continued to play in adult leagues for another seven years. However, I figured my athletic career was basically over, and so spent the next 10 years or so developing my career in politics and later in academia with the same focus I had brought to my earlier athletic pursuits. During graduate school I routinely stayed in the office until 3am writing programming code and crunching data, often drinking upwards of 5 quad-Americanos a day to stay awake. Coming from a state school competing with colleagues from more elite educational backgrounds, I had a massive chip on my shoulder/inferiority complex and knew that my one advantage was my willingness to kill myself to get ahead.
I relay all this because it helps explain why someone of my background is drawn to ironman competition. Our previous experiences (both highs and lows) push us towards this ostensibly irrational endeavor. For those who get good at this, usually there is a massive driving force that governs our life. Being average or ok is not acceptable. If I am going to do something, I am going to commit to it, and I am going to do it as well as I can. We also love the feeling of conquer, the sense of battle, and the massive adrenaline rush one gets from facing the unknown. Many of us are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in our chosen path. There is something so base and simple about it that basically cuts through all the bullshit and walls we throw up just to live in modern society with all its regulations, institutions, and unfair power relations. To me, ironman is about overcoming obstacles, and it is about perseverance. It is about doing, and not talking. It is about honesty, truth, and authenticity, not fakeness and imitation. However, it is also about humility. I may be good at triathlon, but I am far from great. I may be fast but on any given day a course will break you forcing you to walk. The addiction of it is trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together just right.
Fast forward to the event, and these types of emotions/memories always crop up, as I tend to reflect on how I got to where I am. To tell the truth, I was feeling a bit burned-out from a year of hard training and hard academicing. It’s hard to be successful in both categories but the trick is to minimize one’s social life unless it’s on the bike or at the gym. In addition, most people include much inefficiency in their day (such as watching television and having children) that I exclude so that I can put in the necessary amount of training to be good at ironman. But my taper was good and my body was sending me the “I’m ready signs” (i.e., my legs feel worse than they should) during my last few pre-race workouts on the Big Island. Moreover, arriving in Kona on Thursday it was hard not to get awed by the spectacle of the ironman, so I was very excited to race. Besides, my dad, brother (who incidentally lives on the Big Island fuck yeah!!), and mother were going to be at the race.
The main difference between Kona and all other ironmans is the quality of the competition and the race’s unpredictability. Will it be windy, humid, hot, sun exposure, rainy, wavy, calm? Maybe a mix, maybe more one than the other. Who knows? Will the swim be aggressive and physical? Yes. Will other bikers challenge your prowess? Yes. Will you be able to drop people on the run? Probably not unless you weigh 135 lbs. Will you be humbled? Yes.
I was hoping to swim between 1:05 – 1:10, considering that Kona is a non-wetsuit swim. Even though I had improved my swim over the summer, Kona is a mass ocean start so it is hard to go fast once you get boxed in. Basically, 1400 men tread water for 10-15 minutes until the cannon bangs, then everyone goes nuts. Unless you can swim at a pace of 1:15/100 yards or faster and are positioned towards the front, it is impossible to escape the fighting. If you haven’t seen a Kona swim start it is worth youtubing it, as it is quite the spectacle and highly motivating. While the salt water adds buoyancy, the waves affect the speed. I swam a 1:10 and was satisfied, although looking at my GPS data it appears I actually swam 2.6 miles with an average speed of 1:29/100 yards. So while 1:10 is not a PR for me, my actual speed is definitely an improvement over other swims.
This was the first legitimate mass start I had done. By legitimate I mean that I have done other mass starts but it was only a couple hundred people of varying athletic ability. I was surrounded by guys just like me – competitive people not willing to give an inch. Never have I raced a full 2.4 miles in a pack the entire way. I drafted where I could, and did my best to reduce the number of elbows to the head (I managed an n of 4). I also clocked a few guys myself (accidentally). Probably the best moment occurred while I was sighting and noticed a guy’s arm coming straight for my dome piece. Instinctively I reached out with my left arm, grabbed his wrist and threw it away. In any event, it was quite the enjoyable experience. The one thing I learned was the need to hold one’s line when getting onto someone’s feet. Other people will try to steal your ride and it’s important to stay strong and not give-way. In the past I’d move over and just go find another pair; likely I will be more aggressive in the future and work to steal others’ feet.
I had a decent transition as I ran around the pier, but there were lots of people out by now so I got stuck behind slower transitioners. The main challenge was getting on my bike-onesy, which had to be rolled down under my swim skin. The thing is just so dang tight it is hard to get the second arm in. So I hung out under the water pipes for 20 seconds struggling to get the thing on (might as well try and wash away the salt water while I was at it). My shoes were clipped on my bike so off I went running it to the bike mount.
There were a lot of other people around so the pace was fast from the beginning. The course does a little loop in town and then a four-five mile out and back before heading up onto the Queen-K highway where the bulk of the ride takes place. The course takes riders up to the small but cute town of Hawi at the northern end of the island, then turns around and traces most of its steps back to Kona. It is a fantastic course with a bit over 4K feet of elevation gain, lots of sun and heat in the lava fields, and a hefty dose of wind (although this year the wind was not ridiculous).
People were really jetting up the small initial climb so I just tried to stay within reason and not draft. I didn’t really worry too much during those first few miles as many people passed me. I focused on getting in some calories/drinks/other nutrition to prepare me for a long and hot day. The sun was already out and Mauna Loa (or Kea?) could be seen, which is a bad sign. Pushing up onto the Queen-K I got into my groove. My plan was to hold between 220-240 watts as consistently as I could. During the climb up to Hawi I planned to increase my effort levels but nothing much beyond 280 watts (my average watt up the 19 mile segment was 250).
Initially, I had planned to kind of hang out on the bike train (legally), but that was difficult to do because there were people going at slower paces than my heart desired. At the same time passing people is challenging because you often have to jack the effort level up quite a bit to get by another stubborn rider who may not take kindly to being passed. Motorcycles with officials were all over the course looking for drafting violations, so anytime I went to pass I looked over my shoulder to check for race officials. At one point I saw them just as I was starting to pass but was also thinking twice about it; however, I realized at that point I had moved into the draft zone so technically had less than 20 seconds to make the pass. But the pass included about 12 bikes; thus I was forced to attack for about two minutes jacking my power above 300 watts just to stay legal. In ironman racing, most (decent) people can handle 2-4 of these efforts throughout the day (called burning matches), so I was extra careful to recover after that (I had prepared for this in my training). Thus, a cat and mouse game developed all the way through Hawi (the turn-around).
Leading up to Hawi a group of about 4-6 guys rotated places as we passed many people up the long but not steep ascent. It was during this time I saw Darren, the guy I was staying with. He was holding back a bit, smartly saving himself for the latter part of the course. The three miles before Hawi were the hardest part of the bike, as not only were we climbing but we also faced a stiff headwind. Then a localized rainstorm developed, which cooled things temporarily but presented vision challenges. Luckily I had gone on a ride of death in September with a few Riverside friends where we faced thunder, lightening, monsoon rain, heat, wind, fire, and dust, all within 30 minutes, so the little rainstorm in Hawi wasn’t so bad.
The Hawi descent was the best part of the day. While there was a cross/tailwind, the speeds were upwards of 35 mph for a good 10 miles. Maintaining my watts above 200, I began to pass grips of bikers who were either soft-pedaling or coasting. My sense was many had really juiced it on the way up to Hawi and were now recovering, which is not disciplined but rather ego-driven riding. Coming out of the descent, the temperatures began to creep up once again as we approached the lava fields. I began dumping bottles of water on my bag and neck at each aid station to cool my core temperature. While it was exceedingly hot, my body managed the heat relatively well as I had definitely trained in hotter conditions over the summer and into the fall. I was steadily moving up in the field and as we approached the Queen-K I saw a couple guys I had raced in the past. A few of us chatted and then it was back to business. I know I’m having a good day when it’s mile 70 and I’m stilling slightly peppy and cracking jokes when talking to someone.
The ride back to Kona was the most crucial part of the day up to that point. At any ironman, I would say about 80% of the competitors tend to fall off during this time. This is usually due to poor pacing and the temptation to push too hard the first half of the bike. Thus, if you ride within yourself, you can make massive jumps in the field during this time. A creeping headwind emerged on the Queen-K, so tactical riding now became paramount. You have to have enough power to quickly close the gaps between you and the bikes in front of you otherwise you will drift back, begin to get passed, and start feeling sorry for yourself. While you must maintain four-five bike length distance between you and the next bike, there is nevertheless a minor benefit from riding behind someone. I was keeping my watts in the 220-230 range for the most part, and played cat and mouse with a few other riders all the way to KOA, at which point a few guys dropped off. I continued to pass people all the way into T-2, just like I had done at Texas. My acceptable goal time was 4:55-5:10, and I wound up with a time of 5:02. Thus, coming into T-2 I was feeling as good as one might hope having just finished 112 mile bike ride wondering how the hell you’re going to run a marathon.
In terms of nutrition, I took about seven Hammer gels, a salt pill every 30 minutes or so, and had two bottles of 4-6 scoop Perpetuem (one at special needs). I began with a bottle of Heed, then replaced that with Gatorade and water as needed. Gatorade Endurance is a bit sharp so I like to dilute it with water. Beginning at Hawi, I also would grab a bottle of coke every aid station and drink 2/3rds of it then toss the bottle (hopefully it was recycled).
As I got off my bike I felt all right, I was able to run around the pier in transition ok and didn’t have any noticeable stomach distress. If anyone ever says they are feeling great at this point they are lying. I grabbed my bag and went into the changing tent. I was freaking hot and as I changed a volunteer dumped some ice water on me, which was wonderful. I powered my socks, tied my shoes, and got my nutrition ready. I then dunked my new neckerchief (buff) in the ice water, put on my hat and off I went.
I knew the run would be hot, as the temperatures were now in the high 80s or low 90s with zero cloud cover and little shade. The run begins with a five mile out and back on Ali’i Drive. Although the route basically goes along Kailua-Kona Bay, there is almost no breeze. It really does feel like you are running in a sauna, and it is absolutely miserable. I unzipped my onesy to get some ice in it and that thing basically unzipped the whole way down exposing way too much man-cleavage, but at that point, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the jokes that would come later.
My pace for the first three miles was good, as I felt relatively comfortable at a 7:15 pace. But then we began some climbs and that pace then dropped to 7:25. At the five mile turn-around I was feeling about as good as one might hope, and was playing cat and mouse with some guy in an orange outfit who appeared to have some fans on the course. That pissed me off that he had more fans than me so I made it a point to pass him if I could. It’s little things like this that keeps the internal fight burning. I think I was at about 7:30 pace when we hit the long Palani climb and I saw my parents and brother cheering me on and snapping some shots of my cleavage. I managed a smile that was probably more of a grimace and gave them the thumbs up indicating what a glorious amount of fun I was having.
Heading up the Palani climb most people were walking. I took this as my opportunity to ditch the guy in orange but around the same time a steady guy in a homeless beard showed up. Here I am going from Orangeman to homeless beard guy, I really couldn’t catch a break. It’s hard to take a homeless beard look seriously in an ironman because it is totally not aerodynamic on the bike. The way it developed was at each aid station I would dunk my hat in ice water, put ice in it along with a sponge, and also dunk my buff/neckerchief in the ice water. I then grabbed and consumed every liquid item, save Red Bull, and hoped my iron stomach would handle it. It is an understatement to say that I was not willing to put all the ice in heaven down my top. This water dunking and ice would cool my core temperature, but I probably suffered at least a 20 second penalty at each station. Next time I might just use water but it was just so satisfying to dunk my clothes-items in the ice water and gaze into it longingly if but momentarily. Thank you ice water buckets. The homeless guy would then be about 20 seconds ahead of me and by the next aid station I would have passed him. This developed for a few miles but eventually he faded back.
Through half-way my watch was reading probably close to a 7:40 pace, but as I made my way into the energy lab at mile ~17 I truly was not feeling well and my pace continued to slowly slide. Fortunately an ocean breeze hit us and around this time cloud cover finally emerged. Thank you Baby Jesus. A few smart-looking guys passed me during this time but there was not a whole lot I could do about it. Finally, at the bottom of the Energy Lab we hit special needs and I collected my well-deserved goods – two bottles of Perpetuem and two Hammer gels in the form of a water belt. Thus, for the first time in an ironman, I ran the last eight miles with a water belt. I sipped off the Perpetuem every few minutes. Coming out of the energy lab I knew I had about 6.5 miles to go. The temperatures were still hot but not devastating like they had been. Still, I continued to dump ice and water every which way. At one point during my neckerchief dunking routine, I saw a piece of ice the size of two fists and stuck it into my side. That was a genius move as it stayed there a while keeping me “cool.” While I was feeling really horrible I figured I wasn’t the only one and that I had to do myself justice by continuing to soldier on. I was passing people all the way to the end, but would also occasionally get passed. I really detested everyone who passed me, especially the guy who went steam-rolling by as if it was a 5K. Seriously, no joke. Perhaps the highlight, though, was the guy who pulled over at mile 17, and, as he pulled his pants down to take a shit, said, "Sorry guys." Moments of levity like that help pass the time and I cannot thank that man enough. On balance, though, I did much more passing than getting passed and that kept my attitude positive. At no point did I have a really negative outlook about the affair, I just kept putting one foot in front of the next telling myself just make it to mile 25.
Finally, mile 25 came along at the top of Palani Drive and there were some fans out there. I gave several a high five as I knew I had less than 1.5 miles to go, more than half of which was downhill. Heading down Palani I leaned forward and let gravity do its work. I train on a lot of hills, so am pretty good at going down them. I must have passed about five guys going down the hill, which always feels good. The last stretch I picked up the pace and passed one more guy. It always feels good to pass someone at the end because you know damn well there is nothing they can do about it. As I rounded the corner onto Ali’i a massive feeling of euphoria came upon me. Finally, I had done it, and was close to not having to run anymore. The fan support was awesome, and elation came over me as I came down the finisher's shoot. My family saw me and yelled my name. I managed to turn my head and see them. Crossing the line I stopped my watch and realized I had just beaten 3:30, which I had worried I wasn’t going to do. My main goal was to beat Sarah’s Boston-qualifying marathon PR she got in Vancouver last May in perfect running conditions. I managed that by only one minute, which is a bit embarrassing, but a win is a win!
Thank you to my parents and brother for coming to the race. It was wonderful having you there even though it may not seem like I care during the race. I glad you got to see what it's all about, truly awe-inspiring. Not having to do pre-race and post-race stuff by yourself is so much better than going solo. Thanks to Darren and Jennifer for hooking up the sweet place, and it was a pleasure hanging with the rest of the DC crew. The advice from Darren and Mike was very helpful. Thank you to my nutrition sponsor Hammer. I absolutely love your products. Thanks to Sarah, my main squeeze. May your star shine bright while you pursue your research goals in East Africa. Thanks to Mary Sue and Gary Dreier (Sarah's parents) for your continued support and interest in my triathlon racing.
Coming off the high of Ironman Texas and my first successful Kona qualification, I had planned two summer races. The first was the Vineman Full Aquabike in July, which resulted in a blown rear wheel and a DNF; the second was Lake Stevens Half Ironman in mid August. Given my unique lifestyle as an academic, I have a relatively flexible summer schedule, and for the past three summers have left Riverside to spend time with my girlfriend/life-partner Sarah in DC and Seattle. Thus, I had been traveling quite a bit since the end of the spring quarter, first visiting folks in Northern California, then traveling for a few research trips to the South. All of this made training a bit difficult for much of the month of July, although I did my best to get in workouts where I could. Also, in mid-July I spent a week at a statistics conference in Chicago and brought my bike. Somehow during the flight my power meter went bust, and I was basically stuck with a month of an inaccurate power meter, which made training less precise. Luckily, Stages replaced my existing power meter a few days prior to Lake Stevens.
For the month of August I was based out of Seattle before heading back to Riverside in early September after our annual political science conference. Seattle is a beautiful destination in the summer, usually not too hot or too cold. Thus, before Lake Stevens, I had begun to get my training mojo back a bit and felt quite good going into the race. I had taken two one-on-one swimming lessons during the summer, and had finally begun to notice some improvements in my swim after a sort of plateau for 2013-2014. Lake Stevens was my first M-Dot race back in 2011, and I was curious to see how my times would compare to my earlier attempt despite a significantly harder bike course. The other interesting aspect to the race was the professional field had been cut for the first time in 2015, as WTC reallocated its professional prize purses to fewer races. Looking at previous results, I thought a top-5 overall was a realistic possibility, and of course there is always something exciting about being towards the top of the field.
Lake Stevens is a beautiful course that begins with a series of age-group starts. I was in wave 3, with the M45-49 field taking up the first two waves. The swim course is mostly an out and back, with cords that connect the buoys together, making sighting extremely easy. The trick with the start is to begin front-left so you get onto the line as soon as possible. Of course this is also the most aggressive place. I lined up close to the front behind a guy who looked like he knew what he was doing. The gun banged and off we went. Compared to my two previous (both 2.4 mile swims) races I went out really hard hitting anaerobic capacity for the first 300 meters. I felt like I might be going too hard but after about 300 meters I realized I could hold the pace and that I was actually in the front pack for once. I fell in behind a guy who seemed to be slamming it and drafted off of him for the next 300 meters. Heading towards the first turn buoy I shifted to another guy who seemed to be going faster and stayed with him for the next 1000 meters or so. We were catching up and passing guys from the first two waves, which is always annoying but good for one’s motivation. On the return trip my guide seemed to be slowing so I moved around him and then slammed it for 100 meters trying to create separation. I then moved onto the sight line and slugged out the last 500 meters into the finish. I exited in 30:50 or so, my first 30 minute ½ iron swim (I had swam 28 minutes once but I’m pretty sure the course was short). Looking at the results, that put me in 5th place in my age group, and 73rd overall putting me into the top 7% of all athletes. For comparison, I swam 38 minutes in 2011, and was way back in the field at 39% overall.
All World Athletes were put up towards the bike exit where the pros used to be so my run up to the front was a little slow, mainly because the pavement is very uncomfortable so you cannot really run quickly. Very few bikes were taken from their rack and there were only two other AWA guys picking up their bikes. All good signs. I jumped on my bike and started hitting it. My legs felt good but not amazing. I was throwing out 260 watts-270 watts for the first five miles but then this settled down a bit more. I ended up with 252 normalized watts, a mark very similar to my other half ironman this year. Too bad, I was hoping for more watts but that’s how it goes. About 10 miles in some dude passed me and I passed him back. He then got me on a climb and I decided not to go with him. He was the only person to pass me on either the bike or run, and he turned out to be the eventual winner. The bike is beautiful, not windy, and not hot, but tons of climbing. It is one of the slower bikes I’ve done, as there are a few sections over 12-14% grade so you’re really going all out during those sections, which can get you later.
I came into T-2 feeling taxed but ready for the run. The weather was heating up but it was not really hot. I overheard that I was in 5th place, and was pretty sure I was second in my age group. I put on my compression socks but that took a little extra time because they are so tight. I didn’t really care that I was losing a bit of time (although I should have because some guy beat me by six seconds), but will have to change my setup for Kona. I started running and the fans got behind me for the first ½ mile, which is always a nice boost. I was running strong, putting numbers in the low 6:20s for the first four miles. During this time, I passed one guy and he was the only guy I passed all day (well, I passed other people on the second loop). About four miles in, there’s a long incline that you go up, go down, then turnaround and go up and down the other way. This dropped my average pace down to 6:26, which gradually increased over the rest of the run, with a final pace of 6:30, my old marathon pace.
My second loop was about one minute slower than the first, which isn’t too bad. By the time I hit the second loop a lot of other runners were out on the course and it simply became a passing game. It feels good to be the guy passing, as opposed to the guy getting passed, which was my experience at 70.3 Worlds last year. I took a few gels on the course, but mostly lived off of Gatorade and Coke. The kid volunteers loved it when I came smashing through grabbing everything, splashing everything about, blowing snot rockets, and generally, not giving a fuck. I also had my Base salt, which I’d pop every 20 minutes or so to ward off any potential cramping, since once that happens it’s hard to bounce back. On the last out and back I was eager to see where my place was relative to the four guys ahead of me. There had been some movement up front, as I had made up ground on a few of them, but also lost ground on a few of them. One of them ran a 1:21, and the other a 1:22. I came in at 1:25, a pretty consistent result for me. While I’m still waiting to get down to a 1:21, as I think that’s possible given my standalone PR of 1:15, I was very pleased with the result given the fact that I hadn’t been running quite as much this summer (travels). The last mile is basically downhill and a straightaway along the lake. It’s really quite beautiful. I started feeling some cramping in my right Achilles/calf, so shifted my gate a bit the last half mile, but managed to keep up a fast pace.
Coming into the finish line is always a great feeling, mainly because you can stop running, and in this case eat some pizza. I was very pleased with my results, and wound up with a 4:32, which is quite fast for the course (in 2011 I posted 5:00 on an easier course). The winner posted a 4:28, as he put two minutes on me in both the bike and run. Less than 15 seconds separated third, fourth, and fifth. I had hoped I would be able to get into the mid 4:20s, but my bike was just too slow to bring down the time. I chilled for a bit, talked to some people, then went and watched Sarah come around after her first loop. She was looking quite strong, and had posted a 40-minute swim, and 3:18 bike. Her swim was about 10 minutes faster than we thought, but her bike was a bit slower than I wanted. Getting the bike right is a very hard thing. I then saw her come in strong to the finish line, posting a 1:54 run, which was about what I thought she’d do if she hadn’t overcooked it. She came in at 5:59:52, which is awesome, because a sub-6 hour ½ ironman time is really fast for a first-timer, especially on that course. Several other people from the Greenlake Triathlon Group and Seattle Triathlon Club were out on the course, so I cheered them on, especially my man Bigsby who does way too many ironmans.
In the end I came in fourth overall out of 1,025 starters. As my former coach Aaron Scheidies once said, “I’m on my way to becoming really pretty good.” As I stated after the race, this was my best all around race (good placings in all of the disciplines), but not the most excruciating. There was never a point in the race where I was cooked and had to dig really deeply – everything was controlled. While I feel a bit cheated, as it’s fun to tell the excruciating stories, I think it means I’ve really dialed into my body and have learned to race right at the edge without burning too many matches. I qualified for the 2016 70.3 World Championships in Australia, as an automatic qualifier (as opposed to roll-down), which means I got a coin and a hat. I now wear the (trucker) hat ironically and carry the coin with me.
Up next is Kona in early October, followed by Ironman Arizona in November. I am not at all looking forward to competing in two ironmans so close to one another but I’ve been registered to do IMAZ since last November, and was unsure whether I would make it to Kona. Without a doubt, these will both bring a fat dose of humble pie. I will probably take some time off triathlon after that, and may not do a full next year so I can concentrate more intensely on my research, although not having an ironman to look forward to/focus on will be weird, since it’s basically been my non-work guiding force for the past four years.
One reason I enjoy triathlons is I love having something to work towards, a distant goal, that takes commitment and delayed gratification. The reason is because the award, once achieved, is that much sweeter. In my relatively short life, few things are better than reaping the award of putting in long tough hours, organizing a race plan, and then executing that perfectly given the challenges of the day (wind, heat, humidity). Everything really came together for me at Ironman Texas on May 16th, 2015, and I can say I raced very close to my potential on the day. Given that long-course triathlon is full of uncertainty and most race reports go like this: someone punched and kicked me during the swim, I slipped on a banana during transition, the first 40 miles of the bike were great then I conked out half way, then the run, the run turned into a shuffle; it's nice to write about a well-executed race.
On race day, I woke around 4 am and immediately downed three Ensures. I also ate a banana. I've started doing this after listening to what some of the pros do and so far it seems to work better for me than eating more solid food like bagels and lasagna, for example. Bigsby, my buddy from Seattle and organizer of Seattle Tri Club, and I got all our race stuff ready, and Sarah, Francisco, and Samantha drove us over to T-1 to make any final adjustments to our bikes. This is when the serious nerves begin to kick in. After jerking around with my bike and special needs bags for way too long the crew drove us over to the race start at Northshore Park. I rubbed the necessary lubes/glides on and strapped on my swimskin. The amateur race began at 6:40 am and I slotted myself into the 1 hour - 1:10 group, hoping for a 1:05, although in hindsight this was unrealistic. I said goodbye to Sarah and moved into the swim corral about 5 minutes before the start.
IMTX swim start is now a self-seeded swim start and this is great. What it means is, in general, you are swimming with people around you who are around your ability. This way you do not have to swim over people and congestion is held to a minimum. Others prefer the mass swim start (like Kona) for a variety of reasons, but I prefer not getting clocked in the head for the first 15 minutes of the swim. I began at a relatively calm pace compared to previous races and worked on getting into the zone and drafting. I actually prefer swimming in a swimskin compared to a wetsuit as I can rotate my body and grab the water more easily, but the former is certainly slower. The water in Lake Woodlands is basically brown and you cannot see anything, even the monsters below you. I basically stayed in line with the buoys all the way out and then at the turnaround eventually began heading with the crowd over to the right towards the canal. Throughout, I drafted when I saw an opening, but didn't get all butt-hurt when I got ditched. Because, what was I going to do about it?! In the canal I stayed on the left and was happy to see the beginning of the spectators (thank your spectators!), I even smelled someone smoking a cigarette. Damn it Texas! After a while I saw the final red buoy and was excited to, as I tell my friends, "get this shit over with." Exiting I looked at my watch, 1:11. Damn it, 6 minutes off-pace, looks like it is time to hire a specific swim coach. I then moved into transition, grabbed my bag, almost bowled over a volunteer (sorry kind-hearted volunteer) then rushed into the tent. Transition took a bit longer than usual because a) I had cut the bottom of my big toe during the practice swim, and b) I had to jiggle into my bike skin.
My favorite part of any triathlon is the bike. I have spent years building up my bike power and speed only to (metaphorically) crash on ironman day and fade hard towards the end. Last year I posted some solid 70.3 bike splits, so was hoping to finally properly execute an ironman bike in Texas. Finally, this year, my training and new equipment (disc, power meter) paid off. That's the problem with this damn sport, you really can't be in the running unless you're riding on several grand. It's just way addicting so you shell it out when you can to keep moving up the ranks. It's taken me 5 years to work up to a point where I've had enough money to get all the equipment that I wanted (and there's always more!).
Moving onto the bike, I got to work right away. Based on my preview of the course and my short pre-ride recon, I knew the first half of the course was going to be fast, and that the scenery, while no California, was quite pleasant. Then about 60-65 miles in, a headwind would welcome us as we rode back into town. The straight headwind would last about 20 miles and then we'd enjoy a crosswind. I stayed patient but was passing and moving at a good clip. I think through 100 miles I was averaging around 24 mph, but the last 10 everyone slows down mainly because of all the cornering as we moved through the neighborhoods. All in all, I found the course relatively easy, given the Southern California terrain I train on.
On nutrition, I took 5 Hammer gels (two with caffeine), a bottle of Heed, a five scoop bottle of Perpetuem and had another three-scoop bottle of Perpetuem waiting for me at special needs. Unfortunately when I showed up at special needs my bag was nowhere to be found. It's important to not lose your shit (especially at a volunteer) in a scenario like this. There are always going to be problems like this during a race, so you have to keep your wits about you. Still, I was in a bit of a pickle so for about 30 minutes I rode without any nutrition. During this time, I think I backed off the pace a bit or at least let's go with that. Luckily another competitor gave me a gel. Thank you good sir. The last 40 miles I lived off of Gu and Gatorade Endurance from the aid stations. As I moved through the field the bikes became fewer and fewer so I knew I was starting to move into the hunt. When I could I grabbed water from the stations and dumped it on my back and took a few swigs just to mix things up. I also took salt pills along with a new form of salt that enters your blood stream in your mouth/cheeks as opposed to your gut (Base Salt). This was critical because around 100 miles I started to feel cramping in some of my inner leg muscles (which I've experienced in the past when I ride hard) so immediately upped my salt intake and adjusted my seat positioning -- eventually this went away. Throughout, I was very conscious of my body positioning and tried to stay as aero as possible. The bike adjustment from Coach Tony on Monday really helped, as you can see from the picture at the end that I'm pretty aero. I was, however, experiencing major chaffing, but just dealt with it (still dealing with it!).
In terms of my bike statistics, I was targeting about 220-225 watts, as this would put me in high zone 2. I also hoped to kick into low zone 3 towards the latter stages of the bike with the hopes of picking off a few people and building their character. I'm very empathetic in this regard as I think character is an important quality for people in general, and triathletes in particular. I knew I could handle this power because I had nailed a four hour ride up in Canada two weeks prior (the day before my girlfriend was busy qualifying for Boston Marathon) where I averaged 229 watts. Looking at my average 3 second watts through the first 40 miles it seemed I was consistently in the 220 range. Listening to my breathing periodically and leg comfort level (perceived exertion) corroborated the data. However, as the race progressed through mildly hilly terrain and a few uneasy roads I noticed that I was climbing in 230-250 watts but descending in 170-180 watts. In the end I settled in closer to 210-215 watts, and any time I noticed my range going below 200 I increased the cadence or down shifted. In the end, my intensity factor was 0.71, so a few decimals under my targeted 0.75, but pretty good nonetheless. Also, my variable index was 1.01, indicating I was even and consistent throughout. This explains why I continued to pass people even through mile 100-105 or so (I think, my memory is a little hazy).
The real challenge of Ironman Texas is the run. The combination of temperatures in the mid to high 80s (F), high humidity, a fair amount of sun exposure, and early in the season/year means that acclimation is essential. To wit, I hung out in the steam room/sauna for 10-20 minutes the previous week or so. Coming into transition it took me a little longer than usual because, again, my toe was cut on the bottom, and I opted (for the first time) to wear compression socks as opposed to sleeves. I also had to dump a ton of Gold Bond powder on my feet after cleaning them with water because transition was muddy. I also really was not feeling so good, and given that I had just rode like a savage, I was unsure how much I had left. But I know the best thing to do is to just get out the door and start running.
Leaving transition the first five minutes I looked down and was moving at a 6:30/mile pace or so. The first two miles of the run are usually the fastest because it takes a little while for the legs to adjust to a slower cadence. In theory, one is supposed to "get their legs" after a few miles and "settle into their pace." I'm not sure if I ever did get my legs but I did eventually settle into a pace. My heart rate monitor had conked out during the bike (on account of a water splash) but after a few miles the HR came back. Based on previous experience I was hoping to keep my heart rate in the 140-150 range. Anything above 150 and I was pushing too hard, anything below 140 and I was beginning to fade. In ideal/colder race conditions, given my training, I was hoping to hold a 7:00-7:10 pace, but as I moved through the course, clearly this was not sustainable for me. Instead, I settled into a 7:30-7:45 pace. Of all my ironman runs, I think this one was the hardest (I did IM Louisville a few years back, which was really hot, but I had been training in DC all summer so was more acclimated). Indeed, as soon as I exited transition all the way through mile 25.5 I wanted to quit). My legs hurt and I couldn't tell if I was going to get calf cramps at any moment. However, this is part of the "fun" of ironman. Can you out-suffer your competitors?
The run is a three loop course navigating parts of Lake Woodlands. About half the course has lots of spectators, and half has few spectators. The fan support along the canal is amazing, I especially liked all the guys in their speedos acting ridiculous. While it's hard to have a sense of humor during an ironman run, I tried my best and even sprayed a few of them with Perpetuem, take that! Sarah, Francisco, Sam, and Nando were in the busiest part of the crowd so it was a pleasure to see them each time through. It was fun to watch Sarah supersoak people. Around mile eight or so I noticed my heart rate dropping under 120 and for a bit there I thought I was heading into cardiac drift. Mild thoughts such as, am I going to stop sweating, am I going to pass out, creep in, but then I realized it was because my chest monitor was falling below my sternum and not picking up my heart beat very well. I adjusted this and the heart rate came back but then would fall off again. So for the rest of the race I sometimes had my HR to rely upon, otherwise I went off of perceived effort. The strategy that invariably develops is a) just keep running, b) hold off walking as long as possible even through the aid stations, c) take in gel/salt as needed, d) cool down with water, ice, ice-water, and sponges as that really helps lower the heart rate, e) make sure to take in plenty of liquids through aid stations but not too much so that your stomach starts giggling, and e) keep fighting to the end otherwise you'll regret it.
Around mile 15 I saw my friend Adam and he told me I was in sixth place in my age group. "How are you feeling?" Like shit, but I was holding a relatively good pace. Around mile 18 I passed a guy with a 36 written on his calf and, given his race attire, knew that he was the guy ahead of me. That felt good and gave me the confidence and drive to continue working hard on the final lap. Miles 19-23 were the hardest, darkest for me, as the pain and heat become excruciating, and the fan support non-existent. Why the fuck am I doing this? I tried to envision standing on the podium, paying $900 to go to Kona, earning respect from other athletes, not letting my friends down (not that they're like that), and thought about comments from my coach: just because you don't feel good doesn't mean you can't still bike and run well. The real worry at this point are leg spasms and cramping. Because once that happens you are almost certainly forced to walk and/or shuffle. So I was very cognizant and tuned into how my body was feeling during this time, despite bouts of delirium that set in from time-to-time. Mentally, I broke the course into little sections -- ok, here comes the hot section, just get to the canal, oh nice, now we're in the shaded part work the tangents on the road/path, stuff like that. I also picked up a 200 calorie bottle of Perpetuem at special needs and used that as my nutrition to get me all the way home. Damn, that worked like a charm.
Coming in, the final mile was a battle against the wind and a few tight corners but I knew I had it in the bag. As I approached the finish line there was a guy not too far ahead of me so I stepped on it just for shits and giggles but didn't quite catch him. Damn, nothing like catching somebody down the stretch. I wound up with a 3:21 run time, and total time of 9:26:22, for fifth place in my age group, 32nd overall (a huge percentage of pros DNF'd), 12th overall amateur (I think), and a slot to Kona. Needless to say I was overcome with emotion and had a hard time keeping back the tears. How fun for me, as I'm already scheduled for Ironman Arizona five weeks after Kona. Thanks to everyone for all the support, especially Sarah, Francisco, and Sam. I received a wonderful outpouring on social media after the event.
About a month before Ironman Texas (my first A race of the year) I found a relatively local half ironman out by Las Vegas. This race is not a WTF Ironman-branded race meaning that unless something crazy happened I would land in the top four or five competitors based on an examination of previous results. For some reason the race was called RAGE, so I was expecting a bunch of angry people there but in fact it seemed the naming was a misnomer (someone please enlighten me). Looking on the website in advance, it was evident the course would be challenging replete with lots of bike and run elevation, as well as heat. Given that the race began in the same spot as Silverman 70.3, which I struggled through in October, I knew this would be a very challenging race. WTF, can't I just do one easy half-ironman to post some sick-ass splits?!
This year, I've been trying to race less frequently not only to save money and reduce travel but mainly to dial in my training more specific to my longer-term objectives. However, for the past few years, I have done a half ironman about a month or so out from my target ironman as it is the closest simulation to race day experiences without taking you into the wells. This would be my second triathlon of the year, the first being the Desert Triathlon International distance out in Palm Springs in mid-March. For both races I tapered only a few days, as I did not want to spend a whole week tapering and lose fitness when my long-term goal is to perform well at Ironman Texas. All of this is to say my performance would not be peak performance, but instead the race would be viewed more as a hard training day. This is not to say that I will not go as hard as I can once the go bangs, but rather it is to tell it like it is -- you only have so many peaks in you in a given year.
On race morning I woke up around 4am before my alarm, and immediately chugged two Ensures, then slowly ate a banana. This probably put me in around 500 calories. This was my first try at a mostly liquid breakfast as I've often had indigestion during the first parts of my races and I'm tired of that shit. I then got my drinks ready -- a bottle of high calorie Hammer Perpetuem and another bottle of Hammer Heed (electrolyte). I stuck another few Hammer gels into my (aerodynamic) bento box. Everything else was good to go as I had readied everything the day before. One of the reasons it is good to do a half shortly before a full is, damn it, there is a lot of shit you have to do the day before a long-course triathlon. Just remembering all the stuff you will have to take care of is good practice. I even write lists now.
Around 5:10am or so I headed over to transition. As I checked in I chatted with a few people to make small-talk then realized the race started at 6:30am not 7:00am per usual. Before I realized it, it was 6:00am already so I then went for a 10 minute or so warm-up jog. Nothing major but just enough to get a little sweat going on and mentally prepare for the physical task ahead. My legs felt pretty good but not quite amazing. I then came back to transition and strapped on my wetsuit. We now had about 10 minutes to the start so I walked down to the water and took a quick dip so my body could adjust to the cold. The water was cold but nothing ridiculous. I also stretched out my shoulders. Then I went over to the start line and went basically right in front. I like doing this because I would rather other guys have to swim around me than vice-versa. I used to line up in the middle or off to the side but I'm tired of having to swim over people.
The gun banged and off I went. My heartrate jacked immediately as I battled with a few other gents for position. Usually the first 300-400 meters of a race are pretty helter-skeltar as you cannot really slow down because if you do you will be swallowed alive. So I held my position and tried to get into the draft zone (swimming right behind somebody). Rounding the first buoy was chaotic but after that -- as is often the case -- the crowd thinned out considerably and I found myself in a nice draft zone. The course was rectangular so I stayed in the draft the full 700 meters or so along the first long length of the rectangle. Picking my head up occasionally, I noticed we were siting well and indeed there were some people ahead of me but it was not ridiculous. I focused on trying to engage my core -- whatever the fuck that means -- and rotate my hips although the latter is hard with my highly buoyant wetsuit. As I rounded the buoy to make it back the last long length of the rectangle my guide was -- in my opinion -- too far out to the right so I decided to move out of his wake and align myself more properly with the buoys. This was probably a bad call as he ended up putting 30 seconds to a minute on me, as I swam the rest of the race with no assistance. Coming out of the water I didn't feel extremely optimistic with my time but my watch said 30:07 or something, so I was pretty happy with that. The official time was 31 something but that is because of the run-out, etc.
The transition up to the bikes was pretty shitty because the surface had gravel and little rocks everywhere. Moreover there were people getting ready for the Olympic and Sprint triathlons not even paying attention and sort of getting in our way. Rest assured I yelled at a few of them. I took my wetsuit off quickly and got all my gear on then (slowly because of the crappy flooring) ran my bike up to the mount line. All of that was a tad frustrating as I'm usually really quick on the run part of transition. Finally jumped on my bike and it took a few moments to get my straps on. I then passed all the guys going up the very steep first mile onto Lakeshore Drive. This is an amazing road to bike on -- constant rollers so you're also paying attention. With my new disc wheel on and the fact I had ridden this course a few times already I was ready to hit it. I should note that this course is fucking awesome.
This year I started racing with a power meter after wanting one for about two years. Nailing the bike (with still legs left to run) is very challenging and I've been hoping a power meter would help with my discipline and pacing. I have also enjoyed looking at the numbers and seeing my progression. Going into the race I had decided to try and average around 250-260 watts, given that my Functional Threshold Power (FTP -- aka, Lactate Threshold) is between 290-300 based off a 40K time trial I recently did where I averaged 295 watts in 57 minutes and change. These are fairly good numbers for an amateur but nothing amazing, as I know some amateurs who can hold 300+ watts for a half ironman (they're probably doping though). As you can see from my power profile above my normalized power for this race was 256 watts -- so almost right on the money and what someone with my FTP should be doing if they are in altogether excellent shape. I may have slightly overdone it with a 0.88 intensity factor, as I think I could have given a stronger run performance. More on that later. I will also say that my heart rate and power slowly and slightly declined over the course of the race -- which isn't all that surprising given my existing fatigue.
But getting back to the actual bike race, I think I came out of the water in 14th place or so and started checking fools off right away like usual. After about 8 miles of this I asked a guy what place he was in -- he told me fourth (he really should have said fifth). After another climb I saw two guys up ahead. The route goes out and back twice then a smaller out and back. This was done because of construction on the North Shore Road (former 70.3 World Championships route). In the end the course was 53 miles not 56, and it took me about 2:24 to complete -- a decent time considering I was unable to keep my heart rate very high throughout the course indicating existing fatigue. This put me right around 22 mph definitely faster than my performance at Silverman. I should note that I had to stop at one point for about 30 seconds because my extra tube and valves went flying off my bike when I hit a bump. Damn it I should have found a gorilla cage like Corey at Coates Cyclery told me to get. By the end of the first lap I had moved into second place but the first place guy -- on a pink bike no less -- remained elusive. In fact at the second turnaround point he had actually put a little time into me, which surprised me because he had looked like he was barely trying. On the last half lap I couldn't tell who had been making ground but I think I had put a little more time on him. Anyways, the course was fun because after the first loop we were just passing fools from the Olympic and Sprint left and right. Woosh woosh!
Coming into T-2 I had to yell at a few more people to get out of my way. There it was the pink bike and the dude was nowhere to be seen. The run is tough, as it was getting hot (mid 80s perhaps) and there was very little shade (only a few tunnels). The first 4 miles are straight uphill with only a few flat sections. In fact, there was more total climbing on this run than on either St. George or Silverman, so there! I did manage to keep my heart beat in the low 150s throughout the run, so that was good.
The course was a bit confusing at times and I even had to stop to look around. I had a loose idea as to where to go so finally made my way onto the railroad trail -- the flat section going along Lake Mead to Hoover Dam. Finally, mostly flat ground. Here I picked up the pace hoping that perhaps the leader might fall off and go too hard up that hill. Coming out of the last of five tunnels the leader passed me going the other way. I thought I was close to the turnaround but the drink volunteers indicated I had to follow along another path. That tagged on a few more minutes. As I finally hit the turn-around I was in doubt I would catch the leader as he was a pretty thin and young looking guy. It was probably another 5 minutes before I saw another competitor indicating I had a pretty large lead on the next few guys. Unless I had a heart attack I would take second. So I stuck to my pace and got some drinks in and a few anti-fatigue and endurance amino pills. I also popped a few Hammer gels along the path. In general my nutrition was solid and I had zero GI issues, no farts even (although Sarah told me I probably did just didn't remember. She made a good point). By about 12 miles we finally hit the last flat section and my legs were cooked. I had little sprint left in me so I began to recall that this is what the ironman run feels like for 10 miles. I finally came in at 4:27 -- a pretty decent result all things considered -- and I took second place. I had two chocolate milks, talked with some people, ate some food, then chilled out in Lake Mead for a bit. I then laid low the rest of the day. Overall it was a great and challenging race. I would recommend it if you are looking to get in a tough early-season triathlon in the desert!
My endurance sports career began with marathon running; after a few years of that and qualifying for Boston a handful of times I slowly moved over into the triathlon camp such that long course triathlon is clearly now my main sports focus. However, I have still been able to put together some nice marathon times (provided I peak for them, etc.) the past few years, as I usually begin my season with a marathon. 2015 is no different and I signed up for Surf City Marathon, along with Sarah, a few months ago.
While I'm still very much focused on Ironman Texas in May, between December and January I gradually shifted my schedule around to pay a little more attention to running than biking. In early December I posted a 1:15 half marathon, so if all goes well I should be able to run a sub 2:45 marathon at Surf City on February 1 (of course talk is talk and nothing is guaranteed in endurance sports). However, on January 3rd, while visiting my brother in Hilo, Hawaii, I ran a 50K, which I was not really prepared for since I had biked the Kona Ironman course just five days before and was still a bit shot from that as I had nailed it pretty hard. The ultra (~31 miles) was basically straight up the side of a volcano along a highway -- which, unfortunately, had an ever so slight tilt to the road obviously designed to shed water. I took third place but struggled majorly the last seven miles as I experienced cramps all over my body. The angle seemed to cause my ankle some problems as I hobbled a bit over the course of the next few days. However, I managed to complete a few easy runs over the course of the week then flew back to my home base in California.
Not thinking much of it I showed up to my running club the following Sunday morning for my long run. I was aiming for 1:45:00, so probably around 15 miles. Within 2-3 miles my right IT-Band started going nuts, an issue I hadn't really had since my early days of marathoning. I managed to squeak out seven miles that day and later put in an hour on the elliptical. To make matters worse, my foam roller was in dire straights so for the following days I did not do much about the problem. On Friday, I went for a tempo run. After a 20 minute warm-up I began my tempo bit; but about 10 minutes in I started getting the all too familiar pang of ITB stress in my right knee. Again, I limped home, cutting off the run 20 minutes short.
So here I was about two weeks out from my first big race of 2015, and Sunday was my final peak run, replete with race simulation surges and the like. I was not feeling positive about it Sunday morning but decided to plan my workout around the track hoping perhaps that surface would be forgiving. The workout called for 5 miles at Easy-Long pace more or less (followed by various marathon/half-marathon/tempo/recovery paces) so I ran down to the track just to check it out and see if it was open. It was closed so I began my run home where I could stop and get some drink and nutrition. However, on the way, my IT-Band started to strain again, which really depressed me. I thought, well I'll go back inside and roll it out hard and then go back out again.
And this is what I did. You can see from the Strava file that I stopped approximately every 4-6 miles and rolled the hell out of my ITB. Essentially, I used my home as a base and did various loops around it. I had never really done that before as usually I'd pick a destination and run there and back or something like that. While the workout called for continuous running more or less, that would have been impossible. I was nevertheless able to make all my splits pretty spot on, and in the end I had one of my better training runs in a long time. There was a fair amount of pain dealing with the ITB, so I'd stop and stretch it hard every so often. Hopefully I can roll the thing out for good before the race.
Luckily, the entire workout was fueled by Hammer Heed (melon) and Hammer tropical flavored gel, along with the occasional banana. Next time I may well opt for a few more Hammer products as I continue to experiment around with fueling.
By day I am a political scientist studying campaigns, public opinion, and race and ethnic politics. By early morning and/or night I am an endurance athlete.