Monday, December 26, 2011

How I Smashed Personal Records in 2011

"Hell, there are no rules here -- we are trying to accomplish something."  -Thomas Edison

2011: Groovy, baby.
As the year draws to a close, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the past 14 months -- what I've changed, what's worked, what hasn't, and what I might do differently for next season.  ("14 months" isn't a misprint: I started running 6 days a week for the spring 2011 marathon in November of 2010, and then trained straight through Ironman Wales and Ironman Cozumel.  It's been real.)  I changed a lot of things for this season, and most of them seem to have worked out; after plateau'ing for two or three years, this year I set personal-best times in the marathon (by 26 minutes), 10k (by 5 minutes), and half-Ironman, and I was on pace for a 1-hour+ Ironman PR until my wreck late in the bike segment.  Other successes were a personal-best Ironman marathon run time at Wales, and an AG-best bike time (by 2:40) at DC Tri.  I finished the year a faster swimmer, cyclist, and runner than I've ever been, and it can't all be due to the Elliptigo.  It's time to take inventory, and to figure out how to finally nail that elusive Ironman.  As Mr. Edison put it, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."  But what the heck: none of this would be any fun if it were easy.  It's only by honestly appraising myself that I've gotten anywhere, so it's time to think things through once more.

There were four broad areas of change in 2011: (1) Changes to training methods; (2) Changes to bike fit; and (3) Changes to nutrition and diet; and (4) Changes to philosophy.  But, anterior to any of those, an important fact is that I headed into last winter's marathon training fully rested, because I really didn't train very hard in 2010.  Last year, a bad bike wreck in May left me pretty beaten up for a month, just as the season was getting into swing, and my bike frame was broken in a couple of places.  I didn't wind up getting the repaired bike back for six months -- until winter -- and, without it, my motivation to train was pretty low.  For the first time in five years, I didn't race Ironman and didn't train diligently.  One obvious result is that my race performance was pretty poor, but another result is that, by the time it came time to train for the Spring 2011 marathon, I was physically and mentally prepared to throw myself at the training in a way that I hadn't been in a long time.


It's about training hard so the race feels easy.
November 2010 to March 2011 (Shamrock Marathon training).  For the first time in years, I didn't train as a triathlete.  I didn't do a single bike or swim workout in those five months.  I was burned out on the cycle of riding on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, running on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and swimming on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  That schedule had gotten me a long way, but I wanted to dedicate a few months to being a single-sport athlete and seeing what I could do if I applied myself fully to a single sport.  So, I followed a pretty aggressive, 6-day-a-week running plan from Endurance Planet that really put the screws to me.  It peaked at around 70 miles a week; included two track workouts, a hill workout, and a long run each week, along with "easy runs" of 7-10 miles twice a week; and featured a level of intensity I'd never experienced before.  The long runs, for example, maxed out at 23 miles with miles 11-22 at marathon race pace and the last mile all-out.  There was a track workout that included 8x1600 at a 6:06/mile pace.  It just really crushed me, and toward the end of the program, I was struggling to hit the times on some of the critical workouts.  I was getting faster, but by the end of the program, I was very tired of running all the time.  Shamrock marathon went well: a 3:15, down from a prior personal-best of 3:33.  Still, I'd hoped for something a little closer to 3 hours, and even though 3:15 technically qualified me for Boston by a whisker, it was unlikely I'd actually be able to register due to the new "faster qualifiers get first priority" system.  So, I quickly signed up for the Eugene, OR marathon in early May, only six weeks out, to see if I could do better.

March and April 2011 (Eugene Marathon and tri training).  I knew I could run faster at Eugene than I had at Shamrock, but I was just sick of running all of the time.  With only a six-week turnaround between the races, I knew timing would be tricky, so I decided to back off of the running volume and to start cross-training once more, i.e., training as a triathlete.  I scrapped the hill workouts and fast-finish long runs, and instead threw in two hard bike trainer interval sessions each week with tough 15- or 20-minute transition runs immediately afterward.  I resumed swimming twice a week.  And I also started doing yoga 3x/week at work, and lifting weights regularly for the first time in years, usually a 30-minute circuit twice a week including core work, squads, pull-ups, hamstring curls, and a few other things, all with pretty heavy weight.  (I also continued to commute by bike at an easy intensity: call it 75 minutes per day.)  My running volume dropped from 60's per week to 30's, but I definitely felt much stronger and balanced heading into Eugene, and it showed: I ran 3:07, felt great, and grabbed a Boston slot.

May 2011 through November 2011 (triathlon training and ultracycling).  The contrast between Shamrock (where I'd been a pure runner for five months) and Eugene (where I'd run less and included cycling, swimming, lifting, and yoga) convinced me that there are many benefits to cross-training.  The experience of lifting regularly, in particular, was a breath of fresh air: I just felt stronger, tougher, more balanced, and healthier.  I remembered that, for the first year or two that I trained for triathlon (2005-2007), I'd hit the gym regularly, and it was only after I started to neglect strength training (2008-2010) that I'd had cramping problems in long events and encountered my plateau'ing performance issues.  The yoga was also a revelation.  I can't say that I enjoyed it particularly -- I found it somewhat dull -- but there was no arguing that I swam, cycled, and ran better after I started hitting it regularly.  With greater hip flexibility came better extension when running, and thus more efficiency.  With greater shoulder flexibility I was able to hold a narrower position on the aerobars on the bike, and I could get an earlier "vertical forearm" in the pool that in turn helped my catch tremendously.  So, through the rest of the year, I made lifting and yoga mandatory parts of my regime.  I also made changes to the way I trained for each individual sport.

My favorite part of the swim.
On the swimming front, I swam twice a week, as I'd done in past years.  The problem was that, although my swimming was pretty solid, I'd felt for a long time like I wasn't making any progress.  I could swim three times a week or once a week, and either way, my Z4 pace per hundred yards would settle into the low 1:20's.  It wasn't much of an incentive to get up at 5:00 a.m. to swim.  But this year I did find something that allowed me to have a pretty big technique breakthrough: the Swim Smooth Catch Masterclass DVD. To my mind, it has an exceedingly clear way of explaining and illustrating certain concepts I'd struggled with previously; in particular, it explains ways to think about how things should feel so that you can tell when you're doing it correctly.  

From watching the DVD a couple of times, two things became clear: my catch needed a lot of work (I didn't grip the water well), and I was a severe overglider (my stroke rate was far too low).  I was efficient in the water, but I didn't have much propulsion, which is why my times in rough outdoor swims never seemed to live up to my times in the pool.  I began swimming with a metronome with the goal of increasing my stroke rate by 10-20%, and incorporating a lot of sculling, "doggy paddle" drills, and single-arm swimming drills.  At all times, I made sure to get my palms facing the wall behind me as quickly as possible.  The results were almost immediate: I could cruise in Z4 at speeds approaching what my previous "sprint" speeds had been.  I just found another gear.

Computrainer Time Trials: You'd better go to 11.
On the cycling front, things were tough for quite awhile: after not doing a bike workout for six months, I was sucking wind on even mild rides.  I didn't start bike training until April, so I had to try to get as fast as I could as quickly as I could, and my approach was to crank the intensity up and hang on for dear life.  Twice a week, I'd do interval workouts on the Computrainer that literally had me lying on the floor gasping at the end.  My track workouts suffered a bit as a result, but I figured that, after all of the marathon training, my running would be there as long as I could get off of the bike with some snap in my legs.  I've found that my running fitness doesn't readily translate to cycling fitness, but that cycling fitness does do a lot for my run.    

I also paid better attention to periodizing my twice-weekly trainer workouts.  I let my long outdoor rides on the weekend satisfy any need I had for base training, and instead cycled my trainer workouts between pretty intense (Z4 threshold efforts) and extremely hard (Z5b Vo2-type) intervals.  I rotated these types of intervals in blocks: two threshold workouts a week for six weeks, two Vo2 workouts for four weeks, and then back to threshold.  The idea is is that lactate threshold is very trainable, but it takes a long time.  Z5 work gives a very quick return, but the work ceases to pay large returns after a few weeks.  Alternating them seemed like the perfect approach, so that's what I did.  The intensity was very high, but the overall volume of cycling wasn't: I only rode long on a couple of occasions, including the Mountains of Misery double-header (78-mile Wilderness Road Ride and 128-mile MoM double-metric) and the Diabolical Double.  

I run faster with color coordination.
On the running front, I simply discarded all extraneous volume.  My miles per week figures were low -- perhaps 3 runs a week, totaling something in the 30's -- but I kept the quality from the marathon plan.  My track workouts were usually 10x800, 6-8x1600, or 3x3200 at a very hard pace, and with relatively short rest.  Perhaps most important, I made it mandatory to do a short transition run after every trainer workout, whether I wanted to or not.  These 2-mile runs, I think, gave me a tremendous bang-for-the-buck in terms of training time, and I found myself running faster off of the bike than I ever had before.  I found that it was critical to think of the runs as just part of the bike workout; if I thought of them as "bonus," I'd have a hard time getting off of the floor after the last trainer interval.

One other wrinkle to my run training was that, from April through Cozumel in November, I performed all of my track work on a treadmill set to a 1% incline.  When the heat is in the 90s over the summer and the humidity feels like a tropical island, it's extremely difficult to get in quality training: you're training for heat at the same time that you're trying to rip off fast intervals, and the blunt fact is that it's often one or the other.  For me, it's simply impossible to run the same times when it's 90 degrees as when it's 40 degrees, and I wanted to make sure that the quality didn't suffer simply due to the temperatures.  I got my heat work in, but I did so on the long runs and, in particular, during long summer rides like Mountains of Misery, the Diabolical Double, and my long August training week.  I think it worked for me, and I got quite a lot of looks running sub-6:00 mile repeats on a treadmill in the Main Justice building, which is populated primarily by 50-something professional nerds.


I got a new bike this year, a Speed Concept 9-series with Di2 shifting.  Meet Reo:

I did a lot of experimentation with my fitting before I chose the size bike and stem, because I wanted to ensure that I could get more aerodynamic than I was on my previous bike.  I even took a weekend trip to California to get certified as a Fit Institute Slowtwitch (FIST) bike fitter, and while there, I had my own position reviewed by Jordan Rapp, John Cobb, and others.  The result is that I got much more aerodynamic: my drop from saddle to armpads went from 9 cm to 14 cm, and my arms got narrower.  Below are pictures taken in 2010 and 2011 -- the difference is obvious.
2009-2010: Wide arms, split hands, high head, wind hitting the chest.
2011.  Lower and narrower, hands together, nothing extraneous.

2011 from the side.  I think I can get a bit lower, but it's OK for an IM fit.  Gotta get my hands up a smidge.
One thing I love about the new setup is the visor, which I had custom-installed on a Specialized TT helmet.  It saves time in transition and affords really terrific visibility, especially out the top, which is important in my newer, more aggressive position.  I'll never go back to shades if I can help it.


My eating habits saw perhaps the biggest change from 2010 to 2011.  I've always eaten reasonably well, but in October of 2010 -- just prior to the start of my marathon training -- I decided to do a 30-day cleansing diet.  For 30 days, I drank nothing but water and green tea, and I ate nothing but salad and lean meat.  I quickly came to realize that, even though I'd never eaten much fried food, I had been abusing my system in countless ways, from sucking down large quantities of coffee and taxing my adrenal system, to pounding Diet Coke and indulging my sweet tooth with gummy bears and Swedish fish.  I'd grown accustomed to eating huge bowls of popcorn whenever I watched anything on tv.  I'd rarely eaten much salad, and my consumption of pure water was minimal.  Before every workout, I'd have gels or bars.  I was, in short, a typical carboholic triathlete.

Top 20 Fueling Myths
The cleansing diet made me realize that I didn't need a constant glucose-and-caffeine drip in order to function.  In fact, I felt streets better without those things: no afternoon crash, better mental clarity, higher quality sleep, and just feeling clean.  I decided that there might be a considerable amount of low-hanging dietary fruit (sorry) if only I could figure out how to integrate a more paleo-like diet with serious endurance training.  Serendipitiously, I discovered what I consider to be one of the most valuable training resources I've found in years: Ben Greenfield Fitness, including the associated podcast and books.  I think the e-book he released recently, Top 20 Fueling Myths, is perhaps the best use of $7 in the endurance world, and the podcasts are required listening for anyone who takes this stuff seriously.  I'd been around the Ironman world for long enough that I thought I knew the answers: make sure you eat a little bit before a morning workout, eat many small meals throughout the day to keep energy levels and blood sugar steady, have a mix of carbs and protein immediately after every workout, never risk finding yourself under-fueled, yadda yadda.

After listening to the entire available library of back podcasts and reading a few of Ben's books, I've become convinced that all of these accepted ideas (and many more) are wrong, or at least incomplete, and I've made huge strides this year by often going out of my way to do the opposite of what the received wisdom would suggest.  In fact, in the course of two months this spring, I went from 9.5% fat to 5.0% fat, as measured by a DEXA scan, and did it while training for 2-3 hours a day and without losing a gram of lean muscle mass.  That's incredibly valuable, because estimates are that each pound of body fat lost translates into a 2-second-per-mile increase in running speed.  Even if it's an approximate number, losing 10 pounds could equate to about 20 seconds a mile, or about 8 minutes in a marathon -- time that was crucial in chasing Boston. To make it happen, I changed a number of things from the way I'd always done them.

Godzilla salad plus grilled chicken.  I have a big refrigerator.
First, I changed my nutrient intake.  I viewed food as fuel, not pleasure, so I changed what I ate and ate less of it in general.  I cut out processed food, fried food, refined sugar, and grains almost entirely.  That includes eliminating soft drinks completely.  No more sandwiches with sun chips and a Diet Coke for lunch.  No more personal pizzas.  Instead, I lived off of salad, fruit, and lean meat.  My strategy for doing this was pretty simple: each week I'd make a massive salad in a serving bowl.  I used organic ingredients wherever possible, and these salads truly covered all of the bases.  A typical one would be a massive amount of baby spinach, topped with red peppers, mushrooms, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, black beans, apples or pears, walnuts, almond slices, and a sprinkling of chia seeds.  I'd also grill up a few pounds of organic chicken breast or wild-caught salmon.  Each day, for lunch, I'd pack some salad (to which I'd add avocado each day, to avoid browning) and some lean meat, occasionally with guacamole.  That would be lunch.
Typical lunch and snack: Living Fuel shake, salad with avocado,
chicken breast with guacamole, and apple slices with hummus.

Given that most of my intense workouts occurred right after work, I also brought some light snacks for the afternoon.  On the day pictured to the right, these snacks comprised a bag of organic apple slices ($1 at Costco) with an individual-size package of organic hummus ($0.25 at Costco).  Finally, I would include a Living Fuel Supergreens shake, which is about 400 calories of the cleanest, most nutrient-dense nutrition one can imagine.  I found that, by eating lunch around 1:00, and then having the shake and apples with hummus about 3:00, I was ready to cruise by 6:30 or so, when I'd have my treadmill workout and bike ride home, or my ride home and then Computrainer brick workout.
I've never measured precisely, but I think this stuff is probably on the order of 1300 calories.  That might sound like a lot for lunch and a snack, but I consumed less per day than it implies, due to change number two.

Second, I changed my nutrient timing by practicing regular intermittent fasting.  The notion of fasting is probably anathema to many endurance athletes, who often are accustomed to eating constantly for fear of underfueling.  But it turns out that there are myriad health benefits to periodic fasting, including significantly reducing blood cholesterol levels, triglycerides, weight, blood sugar levels, and risk of coronary heart disease.  This is not an outlying article: for a thorough discussion, Mark's Daily Apple provides links to countless other other articles and the underlying studies, including ones that explain that calorie restriction is convincingly correlated with increased longevity.  Counterintuitively, fasting even triggers the release of a flood of growth hormone.  Perhaps best for endurance athletes, it teaches your body efficiently to burn fat as fuel.  Here's an interesting, accessible read that dispels many myths about fasting, and other worthwhile articles can be found here, here, and here.

If I got hungry, I'd drink some water.  Mmmm, water.
So, fasting and calorie restriction seem to be healthy.  But as an endurance athlete, I knew I needed to fuel myself.  That's why I decided to give intermittent fasting a try. Intermittent fasting is what it sounds like: instead of fasting for a day, or a week, one fasts frequently for shorter (but still meaningful) periods.  The Leangains website explains several different ways that one can integrate an intermittent fasting regime into a training regimen, but there are some common threads, including a fast of 14-20 hours each day, including for a couple of hours before bed.

I went from 9.5% to 5% body fat in two months, and lost literally zero lean muscle, by practicing intermittent fasting, plus eating nutrient-dense food, for five days a week, 16 hours a day.  In practice, this would mean I'd have a moderate dinner, typically salad plus lean meat, at around 8:30 at night (after my evening workout).  By 9:00 p.m., I'd be done eating, although I could still have water and tea.  I'd go to bed around 11, then wake up at either 5:00 (for morning swim) or 7:30 (for days with no swim).  In either case, I'd have a cup of coffee (because the caffeine is helpful to rev up fat-burning metabolism), and water, but no calories.  I'd then swim (or not), pack my lunch, and bike to work at a leisurely, fat-burning pace.  At work, I'd sometimes attend a light yoga session, and otherwise would have water and tea until 1:00 (16 hours after 9:00 pm).  I'd then eat lunch (salad and meat), and then my afternoon snacks (Living Fuel shake and apple with hummus) before my hard evening workout, after which I'd have an early dinner.  That's it.  On the weekends, when there are longer rides and runs, I'd eat normally -- no fasting here, because it's important to recharge every now and then -- but I'd still try not to eat for a couple of hours before bed, and I'd sometimes go on long rides with about half the number of gels I usually take.  The purpose, as always, was to teach my body to burn fat efficiently.

Green tea: No longer just for green-tea drinkers.
I expected a lifestyle of intermittent fasting to be tough.  And, indeed, sometimes it was.  But I discovered a number of benefits beyond the fact that weight fell off of me like water.  A chief benefit was that, in order to stave off hunger, I'd drink huge amounts of, yes, water (which I never had before) and green tea.  These quell the appetite very effectively, and they're hugely beneficial in their own right, including for weight loss.  Green tea, in fact, is very nearly a miracle substance for fat-burning and health generally.

Second, although sometimes I felt a little sluggish, overall I felt amazingly good -- light, clean, and generally just better. Hunger wasn't a cause for alarm; instead, I viewed it almost like a familiar companion, a sign of progress. The biggest challenge was starting the tough afternoon workouts, be they track or trainer.  I'd often find that, even though I'd eaten a good amount a couple of hours before the workout, my blood sugar wasn't where I wanted it to be; during warmups, I often suspected that I'd have to quit halfway through the first interval because I just wasn't feeling it.  Almost every time, however, once I dug into the workout and got my blood pumping, I'd find myself just crushing it.  I had to force myself to fight that initial mental battle, but once I did, the results were simply incredible.

In addition to the paleo-esque diet and intermittent fasting, I adopted a well-researched and fairly extensive supplement regime.  Each day, I'd take the following: fish oil, Vitamin D, magnesium, CapraColostrum, Extreme Endurance, CLA, cayenne pepper, green tea extract, resveratrol, acidophilus, evening primrose oil, coenzyme Q-10, and beet root powder.

Finally, the last aspect of getting to race weight was just living with an eye on the goal.  I work on the fourth floor of a building with very tall floors, and I never took the elevators.  At restaurants, I'd stay away from the bread baskets and desserts, except for the occasional unadorned berries.  And heck if it didn't all work a treat: in February, I weighed 170 pounds; in late April, 157 pounds.  I drifted into the low 160's during tri season, but the feeling of lightness and power remained, and my results showed it.

Changes to Philosophy

The last big thing I changed in 2011 is that, for most my most successful races, including the Oregon marathon and Ironman Wales, I raced purely on feel: no wattage, heart rate, or pace.  I ate when I wanted nutrition, drank when I was thirsty, and generally just tried to relax and absorb the feel of the race.  In Eugene, I wanted to run under 3:10, so I ran with the 3:10 pace group for the first 10k, and then picked up the pace a bit, and just ran by myself for the last 20 miles, taking what the course and my body gave me.  On a couple of occasions, I saw race clocks and literally looked another direction as I ran by, because I simply didn't want to know what my time was -- I'd go as fast as I could go that day, no more and no less.  But I wouldn't let my brain get in the way by seeing a time that was "too fast" or "too slow."  The result: a 3:07, good for an 8-minute PR and a Boston slot.

Sometimes, in races, ignorance is bliss -- and maybe a ticket to a P.R.
I took the same approach at the Musselman half-IM.  I raced the sprint hard on Saturday, and then raced the half on Sunday on a very hot day.  Despite the heat and a very hilly run course, I managed a 4-minute run PR for the distance, again with no watch.  And I repeated the feat in Wales, smashing my run PR by 40 minutes after one of the hardest bike rides of my life.

I don't think that this is coincidental.  I'm a believer in specific training, whether by wattage or pace or heart rate, because training sessions are designed to push us a certain amount, no more and no less.  If the object is to execute a threshold run, it is not better to run faster than threshold -- it simply generates more stress on the body and inhibits recovery.  Races, though... well, those are different.  There, the question really is, how fast can you go?  And what I'm realizing is that sometimes I can go faster than I'd think, but only if I don't let my head get in the way.  In my post on 10 Ironman Tips, I provided Ken Mierke's article on the Hedonic Mode of racing, where he talks about "focusing on feeling, not on numbers."  I find that, when I wear a watch or have a computer, I'm constantly looking down and trying to figure out whether my numbers are "right," or attempting to manipulate them in a certain fashion.  In doing so, though, I think that sometimes I fail to listen to what my body's telling me, and I'm realizing that the body knows what's going on inside it better than any computer ever can.   When I don't wear a watch when I run, I notice animals, kayakers, other athletes, and whether I'm thirsty; when I do wear one, I'm often so focused on the digital display that I can't remember half of what happened in the race.  That's a shame, and it's one I'm not going countenance in the future, especially when it might slow me down.

So, that's how I got faster in 2011.  In the works: what I plan to change for 2012.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Monuments at Midnight

On Christmas Eve, just before midnight, I joined about twenty other Z'ers on the second "mostly annual" Monument Run.  It was a crisp 35 degrees out; many people brought their dogs; and everyone looked forward to the hot chocolate and assorted... stimulating refreshments at the end of the run.

Three miles later, everyone had smiles on their faces.  The Mall is a picturesque place even at the worst of times, but late at night, in the crisp winter, and with nary a car or person in sight, it's something to behold.  

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Functional Finds, Vol. 1

From time to time, I post links to interesting endurance-related articles, items, and ideas that I've come across.

(1)  An investigative article on why Kenyans are world-beaters, by my training buddy, the all-around-inspirational Kendra Goffredo.

Race leader and two guys in danger of forced deportation.
(2)  Some wicked cool saddles.  Most high-end saddles clock in at around 200 grams.  These saddles by Dash Cycles are about 1/4 of that weight.  You pay for what you get -- their m.4 road saddle retails for $750 -- but what you get is a 47-gram wonder. 

Road 47(g) and tri (34g) saddles has a review of Dash's time trial saddle that weighs less than 100g, and comes with water bottle bosses on the back.

(3)  Bike-part clocks and lamps by "Clocks, Cleats, and Cranks."  They're nutty but kind of neat-looking.

Lamp made from mountain bike shocks.

 (4)  A lucid explanation of which extension shapes work best in what contexts., a truly terrific site, comes through again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I've Often Been Called Unstable, But...

My shoulder is actually glowing blue, but I assume that's bad, too.
Today I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon to have my shoulders examined.  One reason I got into triathlon six years ago is that I found myself suddenly picking up some serious injuries playing indoor soccer.  In fact, I partially dislocated both of my shoulders in a six-week span.  In the first instance, a big dude took offense to my existence and body-checked me into a wall as hard as he could.  I landed awkwardly, heard multiple pops in my shoulder, and after going to the ER, spent a couple of weeks with my arm in a sling.  Then, in my first game back, an opposing player shoulder-charged me head-on when we were contesting a 50/50 ball, and popped my other shoulder out of place momentarily.

This was the only picture that ESPN had of the collision that injured me.  I never realized how similar soccer and baseball look at the margins.

Since then, I've struggled with instability in my shoulders on-and-off.  Once every couple of months, I'll roll over in my sleep and tweak my shoulder socket, and it'll be sore for days.  Even hard coughing triggers the pain sometimes.  Throwing a ball over-hand is out of the question, as is a hard tennis serve.  Even holding an overhead grip on the Metro is dicey, as a sudden acceleration or deceleration can yank things out of place.

I've resisted getting my shoulders examined for years because I'm somewhat certain that I'll eventually need two surgeries, but rotator-cuff repair is no joke, with months of no training and painful rehab.  Having both of them done is really more than I can bear to contemplate, and I think that swimming has helped to strengthen my shoulder enough to get me by.  However, after going rock climbing on Saturday, my right rotator cuff has felt like it was fed thorough a meat grinder.  I've had to take painkillers to sleep, and it's so sensitive that it hurts just swinging my arm when I walk. 

I figure that I might as well be mature enough to admit I have a problem.  (Isn't that the first step?)  So, next Thursday, I'm going to figure out what my damage is, so to speak, and see whether continuing on my current non-invasive-treatment path is tenable or whether it will simply lead me to arthritis down the road.  If something has to be done, hopefully I can find a time to schedule the surgeries when it will have the least detrimental impact on my endurance pursuits.


Monday, December 12, 2011

All for the Adventure

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."  -J.R.R. Tolkein.

Cardigan coast, Wales, September 2011.
Why do I do this?  It's that time of the year when I begin to think about what's in store for next year.  And by "what," of course I mean, "what athletic events."  It's almost like I don't even consider the possibility of not doing them, even though, until six years ago, they weren't part of my life at all.  I was moderately content being a gym rat, flogging myself once or twice a week in indoor soccer, playing poker regularly with friends, and marching my way through the video games that had been a constant in my life until that point.  I'd even read books.

But now it's nearly a given that I don't have time for many of those things.  I still read a fair amount, especially about triathlon and endurance sports, but the last video game I played was long ago.  The poker crew has largely disbanded, in part due, no doubt, to the fact that everyone's lives have pulled them in different directions.  I'm certainly in that number; indeed, if someone were to ask me if I'd be up for a monthly poker game starting in February, I'd immediately ask, "what night?"  If it's a Tuesday, I'd be concerned that it would interfere with one of my two weekly Computrainer interval sessions; if it's a Wednesday, I'd have to figure out whether I could squeeze in a track workout around it.  Ultimately, I'd make it happen; I put a premium on keeping regular commitments with friends if it's at all possible.  The point is simply that, somewhere along the line, it became a given that I'd have daily -- or, perhaps twice-daily -- training commitments throughout the year.

This certainly isn't what passes for normal in America, and on some level, I'm not at all convinced that it's sustainable.  With a family, it's pretty selfish to spend hours a day away from home, on top of job commitments and the like.  Some people try it, and a few succeed, but I think the majority of them would ultimately admit that they're not the sort of parents they could be.  Ironman addiction has been the cause of more divorces than one would think; telling oneself, and one's family, that training for 15-20 hours per week is "inspirational" has always struck me as narcissistic in the extreme, and most spouses and kids would settle for a little less inspiration in exchange for seeing the athlete-in-training on occasion.

So, why do it?  Why even try to maintain the balance?  Does it make us happier?  I know plenty of athletes who train year-round in preparation for a main event or two, yet it's not obvious that it brings them daily joy.  They spend most days exhausted, and then, if the race doesn't go well, they have to live with themselves for months.  If, in contrast, it does go well, the joy is relatively short-lived, as they immediately begin focusing on how to do even better the next year.  Always striving, never content; it doesn't seem like a recipe for happiness.

But then again, maybe it's not about happiness as conventionally understood.  Maybe it's about meaning, and the unshakable belief that, through hard work and dedication, we can be better tomorrow than we we are today.  Maybe it's about having a palpable measure of progress and improvement in a world in which, many times, we're just trying to stay afloat amidst competing obligations.  Perhaps it's about a temporary victory over entropy and complacency.  Maybe it's because we know that, when we achieve something physically that previously was beyond our reach, it wasn't because we got lucky, or because we knew someone in a position of authority.  It's because we earned it, one mile at a time.

Luray, VA
This seems right, but for me, I don't think it's the whole story.  If I simply wanted to improve on what I've done before, I could race 5k's and have plenty of time for other things in life.  Instead, the distance and endurance are integral to the allure.  There's something irresistible about looking at a map of four states and thinking, "I covered that today on my bike."  There's something poetic about an elevation profile of a route that looks like the results of a polygraph test, and where you arrive at the summit, look down, and see your past snaking away thousands of feet below you.  It's metaphorical.

Pen Mar high rock, Maryland
The first race for which I registered in my adult life was an Iron-distance triathlon, not a 5k or a sprint triathlon, or anything sensible like that.  And I chose the race about 15 months in advance, at a time when I had done no running, did not own a bike, and could barely swim a lap without stopping.  It was a little crazy, yes, but looking back on it, the whole point was that I was a little bit terrified and completely out of my element.  I was not at all sure I'd finish, and I had very little idea what I was in for: I didn't even know anyone who'd done an Ironman.  Somehow, however, I got through it without a team or a training partner, and I learned a lot about myself along the way.  I also learned a great deal about the kindness of strangers, as when I twice had to hitch-hike back to my car when I suffered irreparable bike problems miles from the nearest building or cell phone tower.  There's nothing quite like a bike to teach survival skills.

I did survive that first Ironman, but it didn't quench the desire to expose myself to the unknown.  The next year, finding that I was insecure about my ability to climb steep hills, I signed up for the double-metric century ride at Mountains of Misery.  And, the year after that, the "beta" version of the Diabolical Double ride in Deep Creek, Maryland posed yet another potentially insurmountable challenge, so I threw myself straight at it, emerging 11 hours later a severely broken human.

Cresting the summit of the last climb at Mountains of Misery, 2011.
Indeed, whenever I've reached the end of the season and asked myself what's next, it's instructive that the first things circled on my calendar have always tended to be epic adventures without a clear map.  In 2009, I raced the inaugural Ironman Cozumel, and this past year, the inaugural Ironman Wales.  Next year, it will be the inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant.  In each case, a strong part of the draw for registering was that, not only had I never done the race, but no one had done it.  There are no race reports to be found; everyone is finding their way for the first time, and there's always the chance that something will happen that no one could have predicted.  (In Cozumel, logistical problems and mosquito swarms; in Wales, the remnants of a hurricane and... Wales.)

Still, as I get more experienced in endurance sports, I've become less possessed with Ironman races.  They certainly pose a staunch test of determination and will, but after the first couple, they become to real adventure what Buzz Lightyear is to Buzz Aldrin.  They're simply a known quantity.  There's a closed course mapped out well in advance, down to the foot, to such an extent that, if they're off by 1/10th of a mile, the race directors hear about it from athletes armed with GPS watches and and indignation.  There are cheering crowds, myriad volunteers offering all manner of gels, bars, snacks, and drinks, and support vehicles that will change your flat tire if you don't mind waiting a few minutes.  And, for the more established races, a quick Google search will yield so many race reports that you'll feel like you've raced the event before you've set foot near it.

I don't mean to denigrate the challenge that Ironman races present.  The point is simply that, when I think about what goals get me out of bed in the morning to train, it's not big races with expos and an army of support.  Instead, it's the thrill of facing a situation in which I'm not quite sure that I'll succeed.  This past August, a friend and I attempted a 300k (190-mile) ride through the mountains of West Virginia that included about 14,000 feet of climbing.  It was just us; no support vehicles, no aid stations, and no guarantees of anything.  After some nutritional mishaps, we found ourselves far behind schedule and racing daylight to crest the Shenandoah mountains so that we could descend before nightfall.  We ultimately found ourselves on the side of a highway, an hour after dark, with trucks flying past, wondering how it was we'd actually get home.  But we did, and that's a day I'll never forget.

In the next couple of years, I'm planning more of these adventures into the unknown.  This summer, I plan to compete in the Saratoga 12-hour Time Trial, where the object is to ride as far as possible on a designated course in 12 hours, in a self-supported manner.  Then, six weeks after Ironman Mont Tremblant, I'll try my hand in the Tejas 500, a 500-mile non-drafting bike race with a time cutoff of 36, 42, or 48 hours (your choice).  Success wins qualification for the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile, 9-day trek that I'll likely do as a relay with some friends in 2014.  Then, in winter of 2013, I'm planning an assault on Challenge Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand.

Challenge Wananka bike.
Challenge Wanaka run
Next, in the summer of 2013, I'm looking forward to attempting the High Country 1200k, a 4-day, 750-mile ride through the high peaks of Colorado.

High country.
Qualifying for High Country will require completing unsupported, hilly rides of 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k in the months beforehand, so that, too, will be an excuse to see where the road takes me. 

Someday, I'd like to toss my hat (and head) into the ring for The Brutal Double-Ironman in Wales, which is designed to be the toughest in the world.  The second half of the double-marathon climbs straight up Mt. Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales.

The Brutal, Wales.

I can't wait; in the words of Marillion, "Wide awake on the edge of the world."  It's possible, perhaps likely, that not all of these ambitions will come to fruition, but that's life.  In the meantime, there's no drawback to thinking wistfully about them.

What picture in your mind's eye gets your pulse racing?  What mountain does your long road climb?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jingling the Majority of the Way

This would have been my view of the finish line had I finished 205 places higher.
This morning I raced the Jingle All the Way 8k, my last race of the season.  I've spent the two weeks since Ironman Cozumel with a stew of exhaustion, injury, and Mexican Death Plague, so I consider turning out for this race to be a victory in of itself.  I told my friends who were racing that I'd be happy with a pace of 7 minutes or better, and that's pretty much exactly what I did: 34:34, or 6:58/mile.

The first couple of miles were a little faster than target pace, maybe 6:40 or so.  It shouldn't have been hard -- I ran a 10k at 6:10/mile a month ago -- but I was sucking wind something fierce, and struggling to remember how it was that I was actually in shape relatively recently.  I had to stop twice in mile four because I was doubling over in coughing spasms.  Somehow I still finished close to the top 10% of my age group, which makes me a little sad for America.  I also set a PR at the distance, which says a lot about how often I race 8ks.

This mediocre performance is perfectly fine; it's my Month of Miscellaneous Mayhem.  No run training to speak of, no time on the trainer, and only swimming when I feel like it.  Instead, I'm doing all of the random fitness-related things that I just don't have time for in the regular season, such as rock climbing and whatever classes at the gym catch my fancy.  This past Friday I dropped in for Body Pump, i.e., Making Ironmen Cry.  What a diabolical class.  I'm no stranger to strength training -- I was very much the gym rat before triathlon days, with a bench max of 285 at one point long ago -- but I can't imagine a more mortifying way to learn exactly how far I've slipped on that front.  The women half my size were dusting the floor with me, and there is probably a word in German for the peculiar type of suffering induced by doing barbell tricep extensions for 4 minutes in a row to a Rhianna song.  I clearly need to learn it, because it's going to be a regular part of my vocabulary for a little while.  I'm still plotting my attack on the Zumba world.

After the race, I met up with a couple of buddies to kick around our long-term plans for endurance cycling.  This coming summer will involve a couple of very challenging 200ks (Mountains of Misery and the Diabolical Double), plus a 300k and a 12-hour time trial.  After IM Mont Tremblant, my year will culminate by racing the Tejas 500 at the end of September, which is a 500-mile bike ride that one must complete in 48 hours in order to qualify for Race Across America.  I don't think I'll do it solo, at least not for a very long time, but we're talking seriously about racing it as a team in 2013 or 2014.  To infinity and beyond!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

To Mexico in a Handbasket: Ironman Cozumel 2011 Race Report

"That's not what I meant by 'flying dismount,' bonehead."  -Yoda

Ah, Ironman.  I remember when, in 2006, prior to my first one, I had every intention of returning to real life following the big adventure.  Somehow, though, I ended up taking second in my age group on the back of the fastest bike split in the age group, and became convinced that, with a little more application, I might make something of myself in the triathlon world.

How time flies.  That was five years ago, and last weekend, I completed Ironman number seven in Cozumel, Mexico.  And, as fate would have it, I still have not beaten the time I got back in 2006.  That's true despite the fact that I'm a faster swimmer, cyclist, and runner, and I have a lot more experience under my belt.  At least I can say that I'm coming up with increasingly creative life lessons to impart to others as I wage my amusingly Quixotic campaign to fulfill my apocryphal "potential."

Background to the Race

I had every reason to think that this would be a breakthrough race.  I'd PR'd distances from 10k to marathon to half-Ironman throughout the year, and I was stronger in all three sports was than I'd ever been.  I'd run sub-4 hours at Ironman Wales in September on a nightmarishly hilly course following one of the hardest bike rides of my life, so I figured that the flat, fast run at Cozumel coming on the back of an easier bike course would make for a "gimme" personal-best time.  The only concern in my mind was the heat, which in 2009 had been considerable.   To heat-proof myself, in the month before the race, I'd embarked upon an acclimatization campaign the likes of which I'd never before attempted: Bikram yoga 3x/week, combined with 2 sessions a week in a sauna, working up to 45 minutes straight at 170 degrees.  I learned a couple of things from this.  

First, I learned that Bikram is almost completely intolerable.  It's not the heat, which is great, but the routine, which I find to be tedious, boring, unhelpful with respect to my own limitations, and profoundly affected.  If I hear the phrase "You should look like like a Japanese ham sandwich" one more time, I'm going to go mental.  I have no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich is; I wasn't even aware that the Japanese traditionally ate pigs.  A Google search isn't of much help, either, because all of the top hits seem to be from new Bikram practitioners trying to figure out what the heck their instructors are talking about.  In my mind, when I hear this phrase, I think, "You should look like some invented thing you've certainly never seen, and which sounds faintly amusing the first time you hear it, but which grows more annoying by the session, and which allows me, Bikram Choudhury, to sound deep and Eastern and enlightened without actually having any point at all.  Speaking of the point, have you renewed your membership yet?  If you do, one day you'll touch your elbows together, and then... um... here, have a minty towel!  Namaste."   

Bikram.  The face of wisdom.
The second thing I learned is that, if you stay in a sauna long enough at a high enough temperature, you start to relate to the The Scarecrow's psychotropic-spray victims in Batman Begins.  Your heart rate elevates, you sweat like nuts, and you start to panic.  Probably this is why the warning signs say to limit exposure to 15 minutes, not 45, but those signs obviously were not written by people trained in the ways of HTFU and  

Now THIS is the warning sign that they should put on the sauna door at the health club.
To be fair, I built up to this duration over a period of weeks, but I will say: it is seriously difficult mentally to keep from bolting from the room at certain points.

At any rate, I endured this nonsense with a modicum of good cheer, because I knew that I'd be about as well acclimated as anyone to the Cozumel climate.  In fact, I laughed a little bit to myself when teammates warned me about the heat.  I was simply ready for it, and with the main obstacle addressed, I felt ready to go.  My bike fit and nutrition were dialed-in, I was 10 pounds lighter than in 2009, and according to my most trusted adviser, "all signs point[ed] to yes."

In 2009, I'd finished in 11:39.  That time reflected a 54-minute current-assisted swim, a 5:35 bike, and a 4:56 collapse of a run.  This year, I thought sub-10:30 was a realistic goal: perhaps a 1-hour swim depending on the current, a 5:20 bike, and 3:50 run, plus ten minutes or so of transition.  I thought that, if everything went perfectly, a sub-10 finish could be in the cards.  


The initial signs were auspicious.  When I arrived in Cozumel in 2009, a tropical storm had just rolled through, and I spent the days before the race bunkering down against 50+ mph winds, wondering where one might find the tropical paradise about which I'd heard so much. This year, it looked so picture-perfect that the only thing missing was a Disney mermaid caroling earworms with her crustacean friends.

Un-dah dah sea!
Part of your worrrld!  To the right, the balcony where our coach would later find himself crying, naked, at 3 a.m.  Not that anything would go wrong.
I quickly made myself at home.  The first step was to arrange my race nutrition in the most Rainman-Asperger manner possible.

You should have seen the salad that I had along with it.  
I then set up my Recovery Pump system, where I intended to park myself with a book as much as possible until race day rolled around.

It turns out that, if you want TSA to search your luggage, a promising approach is hide inside your bag a nondescript electronic box connected to multiple sets of coiled wires.  
Thursday.  I arrived on Thursday, that is, on Thanksgiving Day, and had dinner with my parents and Noelle's folks at a local (Mexican) Italian place, "Prima," that was serving a traditional American dinner.  Somehow it worked out all right, as long as you like your food "tomorrow," which is quite literally when the restaurant anticipated that our waiter would show up for work.

The only worry was that our bikes hadn't yet arrived on the island.  I, along with about 100 others, had shipped our bikes to Cozumel using Trisport Express, a service that picked the bikes up locally and drove them, assembled, to Cozumel for pickup. The bikes had been expected to arrive on Wednesday, so it was mildly concerning that they hadn't shown up by Thursday night.  The transport driver said that he had been delayed, and that the bikes wouldn't be ready until Friday afternoon.  We were all a bit nervous, but we didn't need to check the bikes in until Saturday, and they couldn't possibly be delayed that long.  Right?

Friday. Friday began pretty peacefully.  Noelle and I went to the expo to get registered and stimulate the Ironman economy with our credit cards, which, as it turned out, were not accepted anywhere.  Remembering back to 2009, when I wanted to buy a simple cassette at the expo but all I could find for sale was Mexican triathlon art, this time I cunningly set out to buy Mexican triathlon art, and I kicked some ass.  It's all about setting realistic goals.

My oil painting.  Swimming, cycling, and that other thing I always seem to forget about until it's too late.
We also paused and posed under parental picture pressure.

I'm not sure what I'm looking at.  Maybe fate.
Having had enough of the Cozumel mid-day scene, we traipsed back to the hotel to check on the bikes, which... weren't yet on the island.  No one had heard from TriSport Express.  Friday is typically the day reserved for ensuring that bikes were in working order, a task considerably complicated by the absence of said bikes.  The bikes had to be checked into the transition area on Saturday, a sincere concern in that they'd been due to arrive on Wednesday, and each successive promised delivery window had come and gone without a trace.  I began to contemplate the possibility that, through no wrongdoing of our own, many of us could find ourselves without bikes come race time.  That would be incredibly disappointing for me, but I couldn't imagine how stressful it was for the many first-timers there who had set their lives aside for a year, and for whom there was no "we'll get 'em next year."  It was a bad situation.

On Friday night, the coaches held a meeting to let us know that, at long last, they'd heard from TriSport Express.  It seems that, due to a mix-up involving passport stamping, the guys driving our bikes to Cozumel had quite literally been arrested and jailed for two days somewhere in northern Mexico.  Awesome.  But we were assured that, as of Friday afternoon, they were no longer imprisoned, and were making progress toward Cozumel.  We were promised that the bikes would be on an early ferry from the mainland, and that we'd be able to pick them up in time to get them to race checkin-in.

Saturday.  We awoke Saturday to rather unbelievable news: our bikes were... there.  Or, at least, sort of near there, wherever there is.  They would be available in late morning.  Apparently.  So, I finished the last of my Ten Last-Minute Ironman Tips to the Z'ers, sent it around, and headed with Noelle on a rented motorbike to find our long-lost bicycles.

Although the bikes had finally arrived, it was very far from an ideal situation.  The day before Ironman is typically reserved for a very quick swim, ride, and run, then staying far away from sunshine and stress and doing as little as possible.  Instead, we'd have to get our bikes, test ride them, fix any problems that had arisen in the two weeks since we'd last seen them, check them in, and then find ride back across the island, all the while getting baked in the tropical sun.

As luck would have it, my bike was not in working order.  My power meter was entirely dead.  Or, rather, it would periodically pick up a signal, and I'd be relieved, only to find out that the signal I'd acquired belonged to some Panamanian dude riding by with a power meter on his bike.  After spending about 20 minutes futzing around with it, I determined that the battery in the power meter itself was dead, so I resolved to try to find a particular size of watch battery in downtown Cozumel.  At least my bike itself was in working order, except that the rear tire felt a little squishy the longer I rode the bike.  Yep, a slow leak.  I took the tube out, put a new one in, inflated it, and the new tube blew out like a gunshot.  Fine then.  Sweating in the heat, I removed the tire completely, checked it, used my second (and only remaining spare) tube, and it held.  It held, that is, until I'd ridden it about halfway to the bike check-in, at which point it, too, exploded spontaneously.  I finally gave up, walked it the remaining mile to the race site, and paid a local mechanic to install a tube correctly, which apparently I was incapable of doing on the day.

The race site, at long last, made us remember why we'd registered for this event.  It was simply beautiful.

Chankanaab Park, Cozumel. i.e., the swim start.  This is not the swim start.
It being Mexico, guns were allowed in the body-marking area.
Smile while ya can.
Reo the Speedwagon, ready for battle.
Not many transition areas are in tropical resorts.
Noelle, meanwhile, had patiently waited for me to sort out my tire (and sundry other) issues, and was ready to stop getting sunburned on the day before Ironman.  Somehow, however, she put up with me as we rode the motorbike around downtown Cozumel for another hour as I searched for the particular type of watch battery I needed for my power meter, which apparently existed in only one place.  That place, moreover, was a Mexican Brigadoon, appearing and disappearing in various neighborhoods around the island depending on whom one asked.  Eventually, after five hours in the tropical sun, we drooped back to the resort and attempted to get settled for the night.

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully, apart from a moving speech from our coach, who described in vivid detail his emotional turmoil regarding the fact that 2/3 of his team was missing bikes until the very last minute.  Apparently, he'd gotten a cell phone call at 3:00 a.m. from TriSport Express, telling him that the bikes were set to be on the ferry on Saturday morning.  It was then, Ed admitted, that he'd wandered onto the balcony in the middle of the night, buck naked, and wept tears of joy as he tried to spy the apocryphal truck from across six miles of moonlit ocean.  Only in Ironman, folks.

Race Day

Up and at 'em at 4:00 a.m., a time that seemed inhuman when I first raced Ironman in 2006.  I can still remember waking up in the middle of the night and sitting on the floor of my hotel room as I tried to choke down a massive, untoasted bagel slathered in organic peanut butter even though I wasn't remotely hungry.  Frankly, that was in some ways the hardest part of the day.  Now that I've become more experienced, the early breakfast isn't quite so odious -- it's more an excuse to get a last taste of real food before weathering a 12-hour gastric assault spearheaded by gels and cola, and supported by a flanking infantry division of electrolyte capsules.  My normal pre-race meal these days is oatmeal with raisins, walnuts, banana slices, and honey, plus a couple of Honey Stinger waffles.  This time, though, due to having no obvious access to hot water in the middle of the night in Mexico, I went with two Dr. Will Bars and two Honey Stinger waffles, and chased it with some green tea. Then it was outside to board the race buses for the 10-mile ride to Chankanaab Park.

When I got to my bike in the transition area, I quickly swapped out the battery in my power meter.  (Incidentally, the ability to do this without tools, and without sending the whole unit back to the manufacturer, is one of clear benefit of a Quarq system.)  After braving the loo lines, I downed my pre-race cocktail of supplements (4 Extreme Endurance, 5 Sportlegs, 2 caffeine pills/400 mg total, 2 Imodium tablets, and 2 Bonine motion sickness tabs), grabbed my swim gear, and headed to the water.

The swim

The swim in 2009 had been a beautiful thing in every way, including a strong assist from the current that had slung me to a truly ridiculous 54:49 finishing time, whereas my previous best had been over an hour.  What with currents being fickle things, I didn't trust that we'd get the same boost this year, so I set my sights on something around an hour.  (I'd swam 1:00 in the much tougher conditions in Wales in September.)

Getting into the water was a bit of a process -- 2500 athletes had to migrate to the far end of the dock, jump down into the water, and then migrate to the starting line.  I didn't want to get trapped behind the hordes, so I snuck around to the front of the mass and planted myself 2 rows back from the front line, reasoning that the swimmers who take themselves serious would do their usual 100-yard sprint to get clear, leaving me with room to mosey. 

Although the camera distorts things, the dock was at least 50 feet above the water. 
As gun-time drew nearer, there were still hordes of athletes jumping into the water, but we'd been told that there would be a jumping dolphin display before the start.  For whatever reason, it didn't happen -- we suddenly found ourselves underway!

The water was great, 83 degrees and perfectly clear, and early on I concentrated on a sprightly arm turnover rate and good catch.  The only issue was that, confoundingly, my goggles seemed determined to trap the entire ocean inside of them.  Normally, leaking goggles wouldn't be much of a problem, but with the duration of the event, salt water, and stinging sea lice, I really didn't want any more marine life than necessary interacting with my eyeballs.  As a result, I was forced to stop some 8-10 times over the course of the swim to empty out my goggles, and much of the rest of the time, I was fighting to see clearly.  I suspect this cost me a couple of minutes, because otherwise I swam smoothly and comfortably.  I didn't feel nearly as much of a current-assist this year; instead, what current there was seemed to be pushing us sideways, i.e., off-course.  So I wasn't surprised when my time was a little bit behind my 2009 split, but no problems, no drama, no whammies!

2009 time: 54:49 (current-assisted)
2011 goal: 1:00-1:02
2011 actual time: 1:01:49
Assessment: Mission accomplished.  Might have gone 59:xx without goggle issues, but not a big deal.  My swimming has progressed a lot this year, even though the times above don't reflect it due to the current in 2009.  I've ordered several new kinds of goggles to try; the old model hasn't been getting it done lately.

The bike

The Cozumel bike course is essentially three loops, and there are no surprises to be found.  It's windy, warm, and humid, with no shade anywhere.  It has the potential to be a fast course insofar as it's flat, but flatness alone is no guarantee of anything: it's very easy to barrel enthusiastically into the strong winds on the first loop, only to find oneself running on fumes five hours later.  What's more, the fact that there are no climbs or descents means that there is precious little ability to shift one's weight or stretch without suddenly turning oneself into a parachute, and sacrificing a lot of time.  I remembered from 2009 just how mentally draining this course could be, and had very defined wattage targets to hold for each loop: 195-200 watts for the first loop, and 200-205 for the second and third loops.  This would put me in mid Z2 for the first loop, and high Z2 for the remainder of the ride, thus leaving me plenty of gas for the run.

I haven't said anything about time goals; that's because I didn't really have one.  I rode 5:35 in 2009, and thought I could do somewhat better this year, but I'd made a conscious decision not to have speed showing anywhere on my bike computer during the ride.  Instead, I just wanted to know how hard I was going (wattage, in 3- and 30-second moving averages), how long I'd been moving (for fueling purposes), and how far I'd gone (for sanity).  On a course like this, where the winds are strong, I think that speed is at most unhelpful, and at worst actively harmful, to an even effort, which was my goal.  I hypothesized that, if I hit my wattage targets, I might go somewhere around 5:20.  Meanwhile, several people I train with were confidently declaring they'd ride 5-flat or a little under.  I wasn't quite buying it, but their plans didn't affect me one way or the other.

My nutrition plan was simple: a bottle of CarboPro 1200 on the seat tube, 6 gels in a bento box, and 2 Dr. Will Bars taped to the top tube, which came out to around 2200 calories, or 400/hour.  I had some Salt Stick capsules in the aerobars, and the hydration plan was simply to get a bottle of water from every aid station, drink most of it, and spray the remainder of it onto my arm coolers.  This would result in 30 ounces+ per hour.

Sure enough, when I came out of the park to start on loop 1, I was feeling good and blew past at least 200 people in the first 20 miles or so.  It was a struggle to keep my wattage down where I wanted it; it hovered around 215 for the first 30 minutes even though I felt like I was almost soft-pedaling.

Riding past the legendary Sherwood Forest of Cozumel.   Just kidding.  I don't remember this forest at all, honestly.

Turning back to the north to plow into the 10-mile headwind, I was feeling loose and easy, and was still reeling people in.  My wattage had calmed down to where I wanted it to be, so I was very happy with how things were going.  Each aid station I'd toss an empty bottle and grab a fresh one, like clockwork.

Confronting Aeolus.  In the distant background, Spain.
As I neared the end of the first loop, at about mile 30, I'd stopped passing people quite so quickly; the riders seemed to be segregating themselves by speed, so it was a question of reeling off the miles without working too hard at it.

The end of the first loop, in town, was a sea of Mexicana, with a cacophony of rattles and shouts as we blitzed through the twists and turns of San Miguel.  At times it was a bit like Frogger, with slow-motion pedestrians pushing baby strollers across the road as triathletes came shooting toward them much more quickly than they'd anticipated.  I just kept my head down, literally, and hoped for the best.

Keep your head down and ask no questions, Gringo.
I came through the first loop with an average wattage of 197, dead-on target for my goal of 195-200.  It felt like a steady effort but nothing too taxing, so, as planned, I allowed myself to hit the gas a little bit more for loop 2.

As I rounded the south side of the island for the second time, I was still passing people, but not one by one.  Instead, I wouldn't see anyone in front of me for a minute or two, and then I'd encounter a clump of three.  Or five.  Or ten.  In many cases, they were riding in a professional-caliber pelotons down the road, in flagrant violation of the no-drafting rules.  At one point, as I passed a group of these guys, I asked them if they took turns pulling.  They pretended not to understand what I was talking about, but clearly they grasped the concept only too well, as they were taking turns at the front, and the guys at the back were constantly looking behind them to ensure that no course officials were approaching by motorcycles.  I tried as best I could to steer clear of these yahoos, but it was tough: apart from the inherent aerodynamic advantage that a group has over an individual, these guys were only to happy to hop on my wheel as I came past.

If any doubt remained as to the philosophy that some people had toward the drafting rules, at one point I was riding 50 yards or so behind a cluster of 15-20 athletes, and Michel, from France, sidled up next to me and exclaimed, "Come on, let's work together to catch the group!"  Maybe he thought they had baguettes.

The remaining 2,499 athletes were clustered in a peloton that stretched around the island.
The second time through the gusting headwinds was less fun than the first, but my wattage was holding steady in the low 200's, just as planned.  It was getting warm, but I felt okay, and reasoned that I only had another lap to go.

On the second trip through town, I stretched a little bit to try to break up the trainer-like stress of being frozen in place for five hours.

They gave me an ugly water bottle cap color.  I overcame.  You learn a lot about your inner strength in these events.
On the third lap of the bike, things started to go a little bit wrong.  First, with about 20 miles to go, I realized that I couldn't stand up or shift my weight without my legs seizing up in cramps.  Then, I found myself drifting a little bit on the road, and was having a hard time thinking clearly.  My wattage was dropping a little bit as well.  I kept with the plan, drinking everything from each water bottle I picked up, but the problem was that I was in a deep hole: even though I'd been downing 30 ounces or so each hour, I think, in the heat, I'd probably lost closer to 45 or 50 ounces, plus what I'd lost during the hour-long swim in warm water.  I was simply dehydrated, and nothing was working correctly.  I just tried to keep it together until I could get to T2.

With 10 miles to go, despite the cramping and ditziness, I was still making good time.  Shockingly good, in fact: I was on pace to finish in 5:08-5:09, more than 25 minutes faster than I'd ridden in 2009.  There was only one aid station left, and I wanted to give myself the best chance of running well, so I grabbed a water bottle as usual, and held it between the thumb and forefinger on my right hand, and put the palm of my right hand on the brake hood.  With my left, I reached across my body for a bottle of Gatorade as well, and got close.  But then the volunteer, misunderstanding what I wanted, pulled it back a bit, and, in my slight mental haze, I reached further across myself with my left hand to try to grab it, without thinking clearly about what I was doing.  Suddenly, my entire upper body was twisting hard to the right, and with it, the one hand that I had on the handlebars swung to the right as well, as did the front wheel.  Before I knew what was happening, I'd flown forward over the handlebars and slammed into the pavement, HARD.

I flew a little further than this, but it's along the right lines.
I'd had cramping trouble before I'd trotted out my mentally deficient aid station technique.  But when I landed on the ground folded up like a pretzel, every muscle in my legs and lower backs seized up completely, and I was completely dazed.  It was one of those moments that hurt so badly that I almost wished they'd pull me out of the race, because I couldn't imagine even getting up, much less riding to the finish line, much less completing a marathon afterward.  Imagine getting crushed by a linebacker at mile 24 of a marathon, and you might have some sense of it.

The volunteers rushed over to me.  One guided bike traffic around my lifeless corpse, a second pulled my bike off to the side of the road, and a third asked if I wanted them to call an ambulance.  But I could tell that I wasn't actually broken, just stunned in a huge amount of generalized pain.  I didn't want the medical personnel; if I were going to DNF, it would only be because they dragged me off the damned course. 

So I repeatedly declined the volunteers' very strong suggestions of medical intervention, and after lying on the ground for a couple of minutes, I got up and staggered to the side of the road, next to the porta-jonhns.  Unfortunately, in addition to scraping my shoulder and knee, I'd banged my left hip and knee very hard and wrenched my right hip, which in turn twisted my right lower-back and aggravated an injury for which I'd already been receiving physical therapy in the month before the race.  To put it simply, I could barely walk, and couldn't bend over at all.  I leaned against the johns for about 10 minutes as I gathered my senses and resolved to finish the bike ride and go from there.

Picking up my bike, I was happy to see that the only thing that was scraped up was... the top of my saddle.  That must have been one pretty special fall.  Unfortunately, my bike computer was nowhere to be found, so I scanned the area and spotted it on the far side of the road.  In my current slow-motion state, however, I had no chance of fording the stream of cyclists blowing past, and even if I made it there, I couldn't bend down far enough to pick it up.  Thankfully, a volunteer came to my rescue and grabbed it, and off I went, pedaling at about 10 mph toward T2.

As cyclists came cruising past, one woman on my left looked at me and said, "Nice bike!"  I thanked her, but I was confused.  I mean, my left armcooler was stained red from the blood running down from my shoulder, and it was dripping off my ankle from where I'd slammed my knee into the ground and taken most of the skin off.  "Nice bike!" seemed like an exceedingly irrelevant comment under the circumstances, but I took what I could get.  People are nice.

Eventually I did schlep my way to the end of the course.  Amusingly, despite the wreck, my time of 5:30 was still 5 minutes faster than my bike time from 2009.

Bike Split 1 (33.5 miles). 1:31:38 (22.0 mph)
Bike Split 2 (39.1 miles). 1:47:25 (21.9 mph)
Bike Split 3 (39.1 miles). 2:11:14 (17.9 mph)
Assessment: I was on a 5:08-5:09 pace, hitting my wattage targets exactly, until I let myself get dehydrated and made a mental error.  I was drinking a lot, but it should have been even more.  Disappointing, but I'm not second-guessing my preparation or fitness.

The Run

I spent about 5 minutes gimping around aimlessly in T2, shrugging off volunteers who kept looking at me and asking, "Doctor?", until one of them finally convinced me to let him wash off the blood that had been running down my arm and leg.  After that, I got myself together to have a go at the marathon.  My only real hope was that my back and knee would loosen up after a couple of miles and allow me to run; otherwise, I was looking at a very long walk, at best.  So I put on my running cap with a flap around the ears and neck to keep the sun off, and headed out for my second encounter with the Mosquito Coast.

I kept up a sub-8:00/mi pace for about 50 yards.  I'd hoped for 26.2 miles more than that.
I emerged from the transition area to cheering crowds that included many Z'ers.  I was surprised that no one seemed appalled at my bloody appendages, but I guess the volunteer in the tent had cleaned me up reasonably well.  But what I couldn't tell them was that I was in anything but good condition -- I was just trying to stay upright, and to keep my back pain from becoming overpowering.

Remember when I said I was determined to keep going unless the medical personnel hauled me off of the damned course?  Well, about a mile in, they did exactly that.  I quickly realized that I couldn't run.  More disturbingly, however, I couldn't really walk, either; every time I moved my right leg, there was a bolt of sharp pain through my lower right back.  It felt like a torn muscle, both deep and sharp. The only thing I could think to do was an upward-dog yoga pose; perhaps the arch would stretch me out enough to continue.  But I quickly encountered a problem: I literally could not get down on the ground.  I couldn't bend over more than a couple of inches, nor could I lower myself down with my legs without them seizing.  So I shuffled over to the grass, leaned over as far as I could, held my arm out to break my fall, and flopped onto the ground.

Apparently Ironman volunteers are well-drilled to recognize that an athlete collapsing onto the ground is not a good sign, and they rushed over to me immediately.  "Doctor?"  "Ambulance?"  I kept saying, no, no, muchas gracias, I just needed to stretch.  But when I got up to go, they noticed that blood was once more running down my arm and leg, and overruled me.  Moments later an ambulance pulled up along side me and I was essentially pulled inside.  There, I spent about 10 minutes while the doctors cleaned and dressed my arm and leg, and ran through various system-checks like asking me what my name is.  I suppose I must have looked pretty bad.  Once they got done cleaning me up, I thought I could go, but they told me that my race was done, and that I needed to get checked out in the hospital.  I repeatedly said that I appreciated the help, but that I had 10 hours left to get through a marathon, and insisted that I would be okay.  They didn't like this answer, and made me promise to check myself into the medical tent at the finish line, but they did eventually let me go.

The kid did not want to play with The Amazing Bloody Triathlete.
Meanwhile, being off of my feet for 10 minutes had given my legs and hips the false impression that the day was done, and they'd tightened up immensely.  The most I could do was alternate a shuffling run with a walk, so I resigned myself to doing what I could while cheering those who hadn't taken flying lessons on the bike.  It was disappointing on one level, but on another, I was okay with it.  I'd simply made a mistake, and it was no one's fault but my own.  One thing that was clear was that running was just not in the cards; every time I'd make it 50 yards, my knee would start throbbing worse with each step, and my back would begin to cramp.  In that sense, things were easy: my choice was just to cover the ground, or to drop out, and I'd already decided not to do the latter.

Halfway through the first of three run loops, my Cozumel experience came full-circle.  Until then, it had been a lovely day.  That's not a problem in of itself, but those who have followed my Ironman career know that it simply couldn't last.  I was there for the floods in Lake Placid in 2008, the mosquito swarms in Cozumel in 2009, and the hurricane fallout in Wales in 2011.  I'm not sure I'd know what to do in an Ironman without Biblical weather events, and as it turned out, Cozumel 2011 wouldn't cause me to think through that issue, because the heavens opened up halfway through the first run loop, and it rained hard enough to drown the barracudas that apparently had bitten two swimmers.  "Rain is rain," I know you're saying, and generally I agree.  Except that, in this case, the roads were so flooded that they were overrunning the curbs on both sides.  Thousands of athletes were navigating a single narrow sidewalk because we literally couldn't see the pavement under the rushing waters on the road, but even so, we couldn't avoid the problem.  There was a street crossing where the water was halfway up our shins, and we had to cross it both ways.  It was more adventure race than run in that section of the course.

Downtown wasn't quite as deep in water, but the water that was there was... well, it wasn't water.  It was sewage.  The sudden storm had flooded the pipes and water was literally gushing upward through the manhole covers, and with it came a cloudy, noxious-smelling stew that made some people sick when they got near it.  And we got to run straight through it, both ways.  It occurred to me that, following dehydration and a painful bike accident that had left me with bloody wounds all over my legs, running through ankle-deep sewage water probably was not a recipe for good health.  But I did it anyway.  Why?  Because that's what I do, I run through sewage, and I've just gotta be me.

At the end of the first run loop, I spied my parents up on the balcony, and tried to explain through gestures that all was not well at the Circle-K, and that they probably should not expect me to finish anytime soon.

After the turnaround, starting the second loop, they'd come down, and I stopped for a minute to explain what had happened.

Heading out on the second lap.  Good thing I had the hat to protect me from the sun.
Explaining to my parents that they should audition other, less klutzy heroes.
Gratuitous bandage shot.
Clearly I'm in a hurry to start running again.
Off I go.
The remainder of the run was nothing to write home about.  It was a classic Ironman shuffle, and I finished in 5:27:52 minutes, setting a new record for Ironman run futility.  I did, however, get to see a lot of Z's out on the course having a much better day than I was, many on their first go-round.  Noelle, in particular, had a great day, and always had a smile on her face when we passed each other.  In all, it was great to see so many friendly faces out there on my march.

Run time: 5:27:52
Goal time: 3:45:00
Assessment: Hard to say too much, except "ouch."  Can't really draw any conclusions from it; I never had a chance to run.  But I'm glad I gutted it out.


This is the face that greeted my parents just past the finishing line:

Cozumel: Start of the Ironman Zombie Apocalypse.
I had no idea I looked this bad.  I had no idea that I could look this bad.  But sometimes a picture says it all, and this pretty much captures my race experience.  True to my word, I immediately checked myself into the medical tent, where they cleaned me up, yet again, and then pushed me down the road toward the pizza tent, which was just fine with me.  I hung out there with the Zers who were finishing up, eating and drinking everything in sight, and explaining to people who asked how it was that I hadn't finished hours ago.  "Boneheadedness," in a word.  When Noelle finished, we got a couple of pictures, then searched for the TriSport Express truck to drop our bikes off.

I think I was holding something in my right hand.  That, or it's a gang sign I don't recall.
An hour later, after wandering around downtown and bribing cabbies, we found the truck, and the Great Cozumel Bike Adventure concluded.  We spent the next few hours counting down until midnight, cheering in the last finishers, and then went back to the hotel, were I slept incredibly soundly once I stopped shivering uncontrollably from chill and exhaustion.


It was a tough end to a long, but largely successful, year, where I've set huge numbers of PRs and made large strides in many respects.  It wasn't the race I wanted, but I was cruising along in complete comfort until the hydration issue got away from me a little bit, and I made a single bad decision that cost me.  Until then, I was looking at starting the run at a race time of about 6:20.  A 3:40 run would have put me under 10 hours, and a 4:10 run would have put me under 10:30.  Due to the dehydration, I'm not sure how it would have gone absent the wreck, but I think I could have made a very legitimate shot at those times.  I have a lot of confidence to take with me into next year, which holds two marathons, an Ironman, and perhaps a 500-mile RAAM Qualifier on the bike.

For now, though, I'm going to take my own advice and take some time off.  It's been 13 months of training 6 or 7 days a week, and I need a physical and mental break for a few weeks.  But don't worry, I'll stay active by Elliptigo commuting, rock climbing, doing yoga, and perhaps even taking the Zumba world by storm.  Until next time!