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.
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.