Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Plan Comes Together: Ironman Wales Race Report

I hadn't really planned to race Ironman Wales; it just sort of happened.  In the fall of 2010, a friend had said that he planned to race Ironman St. George, a notoriously difficult course, in May of 2011.  I was planning on spending the winter really focusing on marathoning, with the goal race being Shamrock in March, so I knew I wouldn't really be ready for a May Ironman.  But improper preparation has never stopped me from bullishly flinging myself toward nearly certain doom, so I went to the IMSG webpage to sign up, only to find that it had closed out moments before.  I was surprised -- it hadn't looked close to full -- but by then I had come around to the idea of doing an Ironman this year, and in my disappointed internet wanderings, I noticed that the inaugural Ironman Wales had opened for registration on that very day.  I'd never been to Wales but love that area of the world, so I decided, why not?  It looked beautiful and, if the videos and pictures on the website were to be believed, calm and sunny.

It even appeared that the resort town of Tenby, where the race was staged, offered a calming Spanish guitar backdrop, which seemed like it would be great during an Ironman run.

And so, with about 30 seconds of consideration, I signed on the line and broke my post-Cozumel vow never to race another inaugural Ironman.  Fittingly, an hour later, IMSG registration re-opened; it turns out that it was just a temporary website malfunction.  But fate is fate, and mine apparently was once again to serve as a hard-luck guinea pig in World Triathlon Corporation's macabre laboratory.

Happily, throughout the winter and spring, I found myself very much looking forward to the race.  I'd taken a much-needed year off from Ironman in 2010 after racing that distance for four years running (although I'd wish I'd done more running in the races themselves), and I was recharged and ready to go.  I spent the winter focusing on running -- I didn't do a single bike workout for six months -- and, at the Eugene Marathon in early May, managed a 3:07 PR that qualified me for Boston in 2012.  I'd set PRs in the run portion of every triathlon I'd competed in over the summer.  And, in addition, I'd set PRs in the Mountains of Misery double metric century, Diabolical Double double metric century rides, and I'd put down the fastest AG bike split at the DC Tri, so I felt ready to go.   As insurance, I'd really cranked up the cycling volume in August, at one point doing extremely hilly 300k (190 mile) and 200k (125 mile) rides three days apart, and feeling strong throughout.

Still, I had some concerns.  Most notably, early reports from Europeans who'd pre-ridden the Wales course suggested that it could be... memorable.  In early June, the race organizers had hosted a "Long Course Weekend" in which athletes could practice the swim course on Friday, the bike course on Saturday, and the run course on Sunday.  Unfortunately, it seems that there was an exceedingly strong current ripping right through the swim course, and it literally flung the swimmers hundreds of yards out to sea.  In fact, it was strong enough that the kayakers couldn't even reach them.  In the picture below, the swimmers are attempting to get from the bottom buoy straight to the top one, and the current is moving from left to right:

Swimmers trying to go straight from the near buoy to the far one.  Fail.

A number of people who attempted that practice swim were sufficiently terrified that they immediately withdrew their registrations.  It sounded, frankly, nightmarish, and early feedback on the bike and run course made it clear that this would be a race for the ages, with more hills than Placid and very steep ones (16% grade) to boot.  As one professional triathlete put it, "The bloke who designed this course is either incredibly fit or has never raced an Ironman."  Everyone agreed that it might be the slowest course on the Ironman circuit.

As if the difficulty of the course itself weren't enough, the weather reports leading up to the race looked like a sick joke.  Apparently the race would be taking place in the tail end of the hurricane system that had slammed the east coast of the United States the week before.  When you're planning for an Ironman, basically the last thing you want to read is that surfing conditions are predicted to be historically terrific, but that's what we were told: 40+ mph winds and driving rain seemed to be our destiny.  The predictions also called for 11' swells. Swell.

I had very mixed feelings about all of it.  I felt truly ready, training-wise.  At the same time, though, my last three Ironman races had been disasters; I'd just fallen apart on the runs and wound up with splits approaching 5 hours for the marathon.  I knew I could do much better, but it's very intimidating to have to prove it on an extremely difficult course in conditions unsuited to man or beast.  In a nod to the conditions, I did at least cover my bases by bringing along as Zipp 404 front wheel, in addition to my normal race 808.


I flew to Wales on a redeye the week before the race, arriving on Thursday morning.  I was lucky to have Emily, a longtime friend, with me to sherpa and make sure I left the race with as many appendages as I had when I started.  

Hi, Emily!
The trip to Wales was uneventful but exhausting.  We flew into Heathrow, which meant a 5-hour drive on very little sleep.  Combine that with having to learn to drive manual with my left hand and on the left side of the road, and it was a bit of a sketchy adventure.  The Brits probably weren't used to guys in tech clothes doing push-ups and running around gas stations.  Ultimately, however, we wound up at the B&B where we'd stay for the next week.  It's the site of a 13th century church and abbey, and was truly gorgeous, with views of the ocean off of the balcony.

Ruins on the grounds of the abbey
The lodge at Penally Abbey, where we stayed, with the ocean in the background

The days before the race were relaxed but rather grim.  In the pictures above, it's not raining.  I believe that the time it took for the camera to record those two images comprised the entire non-raining timespan of the first three days we were in the country.  And it was windy as all hell, the kind that makes small dogs disappear from the ends of leashes.

The Wales expo was a step up from Cozumel's -- more triathlon gear, less native art -- but it was largely deserted.  I spent some time in the 110 Play Harder tent, where I tried on some really cool compression gear with sleeves made for their custom ice packs.  It's like an ice bath without the ice bath, and I'd have gotten some but for the fact that the pricing was higher there than it is back in the U.S.  I highly recommend checking it out.  I also made friends with Michi Hange, a 48-year-old German who, I learned, is racing solo RAAM (Race Across America) next June.  That's simply a sick endeavor: 3000 miles in about 10 days.  I began to realize that the guys racing Wales may be tough bastards.  Given my proclivity for biting off more than anyone should try to chew, Michi's comment that I "have the perfect build for RAAM" was arguably unhelpful.  :-)

Meanwhile, it turns out that conditions were of concern to more than the athletes.  At Friday's pre-race briefing, the race directors informed us that the swim might be moved from the south beach of Tenby, right below the transition area, to the northern part of north beach, which is clear across town, nearly 3/4 of a mile away.   We were told to stay tuned, and that, on Saturday morning, a final decision would be made.  On Saturday, they confirmed that the swim would indeed be moved, and that we'd therefore have to plan to run approximately 1k up a steep ramp to the top of the cliff at north beach, and then across town.   We were instructed to bring a pair of running shoes -- but not the "run" running shoes, which would be in our gear bags -- to the swim start on race morning.  It promised to be one of the longer transitions in the history of triathlon.

The swim was moved from right under the "South Beach" notation to the northern part of the orange strip denoting North Beach.  The transition area is just above South Beach.
 Meanwhile, I headed down to the practice swim, where conditions had not improved.  The water was 58 degrees, and the wind was blowing so hard that the race signs had no chance.

Thar she blows!

I did manage to get in an easy swim in my new wetsuit, a Blue Seventy Helix.  Despite the conditions, I felt solid -- the neoprene cap and boots did wonders.

I defeated the practice swim.


From there, I racked my bike in the wind and rain.  There's nothing quite like having a transition area at the top of a cliff in the tail end of a tropical storm.

I decided at the last moment to go with the shallower Zipp 404 front wheel, along with the 808 I typically ride on the rear.  I was slightly annoyed with myself for wimping out, but I noticed a distinct lack of deep-rimmed front wheels among the athletes and decided to yield unto Caesar.  It turned out to be a provident decision.

After racking the bike, Emily and I headed out to drive the course I'd heard so much about.  The layout was an odd one: a first loop of 70 miles, and a second of 40 that duplicated the last 40 of the first one.

The ride starts in Tenby, on the far right, and goes southwest around the western loop, before heading back east and then north around the second loop.  Riders then repeat the second loop again

The first 15 miles didn't seem so bad -- a few climbs to get the legs warmed up, but nothing that would be out of place at Ironman Wisconsin or Placid.  It skirted south from Tenby largely along the coast.  One thing I quickly noticed is that the roads were extremely narrow, with no shoulders whatever and frequently with high walls or hedges on both sides.  As often as not, they were effectively one lane, such that a car had to pull half off of the road in order to pass another one coming the other direction.  These walls and rows, I assume, are designed to protect sheep and cattle from the wind, but in order to get in and out of the properties, the walls and hedges are punctuated with large gates that you can't see until you're almost on top of them.  These gates allow the wind to pass through freely, such that you can be buzzing along happily until you reach a gate and are suddenly slammed with a 40-mph sidewind.  Local athletes told me it wasn't uncommon for riders to be blown clear across the road.  Lovely.

The western loop proved to have somewhat unusual terrain -- very open and grassy.  In this region, there's really nothing to shield one from the gale, although the whitecaps in the background were very pretty.

Angle, on the western-most point of the bike course.  The grass reveals that it's not so calm out.

You'll notice my hair blowing in the breeze.

The eastern/northern loop, which we'd do twice, seemed pretty hilly, with a couple of climbs in the range of 15-17%.  Still, there were cool castles tucked away here and there, as well as little villages that were bedecked in celebratory streamers and signs.  In all, I thought I could handle it.

The run course, in contrast, was a huge unknown.  Well, actually, it was all too known: four out-and-backs, where each "out" was straight up a hill for a couple of miles, then back down the hill, before looping through Tenby, which itself is hilly as heck.  I knew it would be a tough day.  I just hoped it wasn't pouring rain for the entire race.


Given the difficulty of the day, I decided to simplify as much as possible by carrying all of my nutrition with me, and just replenishing water on the bike.  That meant a bottle of CarboPro 1200 on the downtube (1200 calories), plus 6 gels and 3 mini Clif Bars scotch-taped to the top tube.  I got a good night's sleep, had my traditional pre-race meal of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts and topped with a Honey Stinger gel, and chased with a couple of stroopwafels.  I felt ready to go!

Inexplicably, we left the B&B to find something I never expected: it wasn't raining!  Perhaps it would be my day after all.  We parked in town near the transition area, and I got my bike set to go, putting the computer on auto-pause to minimize distractions in T1.  For whatever reason, there was no body marking.  The winds were blowing stuff everywhere and the temperature was about 55 degrees.  It was expected to peak around 60, so I was undecided whether to wear arm warmers, which I left in my bike gear bag.  We headed off on the 15-minute walk to the swim start at North Beach.

North Beach in Tenby is a world-famous coastline; it was ranked by National Geographic as the second-most pristine coastline in the world, or something to that effect.  And its rugged beauty really is something to behold.

View looking north from the top of the cliffs along North Beach.

View from the cliffs, looking south this time toward where the picture above was taken.  The colorful town of Tenby is easily seen.  Also, the cliffs are high.
As I arrived at the water, dawn was breaking over the swim course, which faced to the east, and it was really beautiful.  I headed down to the water to get in a brief pre-race swim in the cold Atlantic waters.

I make neoprene look damn good.
Off to battle!

I'm pretty sure I had theme music, which unfortunately you can't hear in this picture.

It turns out that there were other athletes in the race.

It's cold!  I don't want to go back in there.
The scene before the race was one of epic beauty.

Many Germans.  Almost no women.  I'm about the fattest guy there.
Finally they brought everyone into the starting corral, played the national anthem, and the horn sounded.  We were off!  And still not a drop of rain.  I felt great.


When the horn went off, an odd thing happened.  It turns out that the race directors had arranged the course in a triangle shape, but one that was flattened against the shore.  It looked something like this (although this was the course for the original location, at South Beach).

The result is that it would be faster to run along the shore for a fair way before diving into the water to swim perpendicularly out to the first buoy.  And people saw it immediately.  Thus, when the race started, it was a combination of open water swim and cattle stampede north along the shore.  Here's a video of the chaos.

I had to decide quickly what to do, and I couldn't think of a reason why running along the shore would be illegal.  After all, it's legal to walk in the swim if you can.  I wasn't entirely sure whether it would be legal to run on the land, but if running in 1" of water is legal, why not?  I'd be curious to hear from an actual referee on this issue, because I've never seen anything like it and it's proved immensely controversial on the messageboard post-mortem.  Here's another view.

The swim proved to be pretty enjoyable despite the chop, swells, and cold temperature.  The Helix wetsuit felt amazing, and when swimming into the rolling waves on the long back stretch, I concentrated on increasing my arm turnover rate a bit and concentrating on the catch.  Even though the water temperature was 58 degrees, with the full suit and neoprene cap, I was quite comfortable, and the amount of body contact was minimal, although I did get my goggles smacked crooked on one occasion.  I finished the first lap in just under 29', and clocked 1:00:17 for the whole distance.  The run at the start might have accounted for most of the difference, but even assuming the run hadn't been possible, a time of 1:01 or 1:02 would have been a solid result.  

Happy to be swim-free!
GOAL: 1:05
TIME: 1:00:17  
ASSESSMENT:  Mission accomplished.  Stayed relaxed and swam smoothly and efficiently.


Normally there's not much to say about transitions, but in this case, it was almost another discipline. Because the swim had been moved to North Beach at the last moment, we faced a 1k run up the cliff and then across town to the transition area.  We'd left pairs of running shoes hanging from racks on the exit ramp, which zigzagged a couple of hundred feet at an uncomfortable incline.  

Up and at 'em.
The Trot Across Tenby proved to be enjoyable enough, with everyone feeling pretty sociable.  

But it was definitely a haul: my T1 time of 12:07 was firmly in the top 25%.  It was somewhat sunny by that point and I was warm from the swim, so I decided to forego the armwarmers, although I did have calf sleeves for a little bit of warmth.  I grabbed Reo the Speedwagon and off to battle we headed.


Ok, I admit, I carried a little bit of bike swagger coming into this race.  I'd been hammering my training rides and races pretty consistently throughout the summer.  At DC Tri, an oly, I'd had the fastest AG bike split by more than 2:00 in a group of 135 athletes, and throughout August I'd been crushing myself on difficult rides, at one point topping 415 miles in very hilly terrain over the course of a week.  I'd put down big PRs at the Diabolical Double and Mountains of Misery rides, both of which are exceedingly nasty, and throughout it all I'd always felt like I could have kept going.  I had every reason for confidence heading into the hills of Wales, and my drive of the course had suggest a challenging but not insurmoutable day.  My goal was to keep it solid and smooth but to leave a good bit in the tank for the difficult marathon ahead.  

Well, perhaps I should have had a bit less confidence, because I was about to get owned in truly epic fashion.  The thing I hadn't realized on my drive was the extent to which constant winds of around 30 mph, and gusting to well over 40 mph, can destroy one's will to live.  Usually courses are either windy or hilly, but Wales was both hillier *and* windier than any Ironman I've ever attempted.  It was hillier than Wisconsin and Placid, with steeper climbs than either, and the winds made Cozumel look positively tranquil.

The first several miles, heading southwest, were relatively uneventful, and I kept it light.  There were a couple of early climbs to keep things honest.  Here's a long grinder with the race leader blowing back by the other way, some 25 miles ahead.

As Angle grew nearer, however, it became extremely difficult to stay on the road.  I would reach for a gel and find myself suddenly blown 5' sideways and swerving just to keep pointed in the right direction.  Twice I skidded sideways simply from being blown so hard, and so suddenly.  The tail of my aero helmet was being buffeted from the side and my head was therefore being yanked around like I was on a string.  Angle itself was solid whitecaps, and we rolled down the steep grade at only 15-17 mph due to the gale.  Climbing back out of Angle, the hills proved to be much steeper, and much more of a wind tunnel, than I remembered on the drive, and sand was being driven at us at great speed from off of the dunes.

Meet the tunnel of pain.  Note the sand.

It was long.  It was steep.  And it hurt, a lot.  Yeah, we went up there.

The air up there -- top of the climb on race day.

It briefly occurred to me that, a mere 25 miles in, I shouldn't be feeling so gassed.  But I wasn't pushing too hard.  It was just a fight for every mile against the elements, and in that war, we were all losing.  The first aid station wasn't until mile 25, which, given that I was only carrying one bottle of water, was pushing things a bit, but I hoped the cool day would help me out.

One thing I noticed: cyclists in Europe are f-i-t dudes.  There's something inherently demoralizing about finding yourself surrounded by guys named Klaus and Hans on a bike course.  There doesn't seem to be the culture of Ironman participation in Europe and the UK that you find in the States: races don't sell out, but the people who register aren't thinking anything about cutoffs.  They're simply hard blokes, in the local parlance.
The ride back east from Angle proved to be a little bit better, with some easy cruising and wind at our backs.  I hit about 45 mph on a couple of descents, which caused some challenges of itself.  We were riding on the left side of the road, which was a first for me.  I even grabbed bottles left-handed, which was different.  But what I couldn't understand is why, on long, fast descents, guys insisted on riding right smack down the center of the road.  I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do, pass on the left (illegally), or pass on the right (illegally).  It's like they couldn't imagine that, given their Teutonic might, anyone could possibly descend faster than they.  Lack of road etiquette apparently isn't limited to the Nations Triathlon.

By mile 30, when we headed north into the second loop of the course, I was feeling pretty good.  We blew by a couple of castles that dated from the 1100s.

The castle at Carew, as seen from the bike course.
And then the slaughter began.  The climbs were long, steep, and relentless.  I came to realize that the last 15 miles of each loop would not be remotely out of place in the Savageman Half, with climbs from 12-16% grade that last, in some cases, nearly a mile.  And the descents were little better: exceedingly steep and technical, with narrow roads between stone walls that make 90' turns.  It's amazing how much more difficult it is to judge trajectory when you can't see around corners, and many people took things too fast.  There was a rash of broken collarbones from people slamming into walls, and on the run course, road rash was everywhere.  On the upside, there were a couple of really neat villages at the top of the climbs, and the locals had put up streamers and were out in force ringing bells, yelling, and playing music.  Here's one of them on the day before the race.

The quaint town of Narbeth.

At the 70-mile point which was the end of the first loop, I was about 10' behind schedule, and I honestly wasn't sure how I'd manage another 40 miles.  Many of the pros decided not to, and abandoned right there. And the crazy thing was, I was feeling okay -- no stomach upset or nutritional issues, I was just getting my butt kicked fairly and squarely.  I've found that, in every Ironman, there comes a moment where race strategy, pacing, and time splits get thrown out the window, and the focus becomes on just surviving and moving forward, and in Wales, that moment came with nearly half the bike course to go.  

By mile 90, things were going from bad to worse -- I just had nothing left, and I was seriously considering abandoning the race.  I got off of my bike for 2' to stretch my lower back and give myself a virtual "snap out of it" slap, and found myself declining a glass of lemonade offered by an 8-year-old boy standing in his yard watching the race.  Getting disqualified for outside assistance would have been a too-fitting end for an event like this.  Given how defeated I was feeling, I suspected that my longed-for good run was a pipe dream, especially given that the run course was at least as hilly as the bike course.  But I realized that I had no justifiable reason not to continue: I'd flown overseas for this race, and I wasn't in danger of missing any cutoffs.  I was just feeling sorry for myself, and I realized that, if I had to walk the entire marathon, so what? I'm not a pro looking for money this week or next.  I'm not too good to walk if that's what it takes.  It might not be what I was looking to do, but I needed to HTFU, get back on the bike, and do what I could.  So onward I went.

The last 20 miles were exactly the death march I thought they'd be.  It felt like I was riding Savageman after doing hill repeats and an hour of heavy squats.  The last couple of climbs, "Wiseman's Bridge" and "Heartbreak Hill," were just agonizing: lowest gear, out of the saddle, torquing with the upper body and fighting for every pedal turnover.  For those of you who've ridden Mountains of Misery, the grades were like those on the third climb of the double metric, and the first one on the century.  Nasty, nasty, nasty, about 16%, and it felt every degree of that steep.

I finally straggled into T2 with my tail firmly between my legs in a time of 6:21:01.  That time was about 40 minutes slower than I'd ridden Wisconsin in 2007 and Placid in 2008, and I'm a much stronger cyclist than I was back then.  I'd thought that a time of 5:50 was most likely, with 6 hours being disappointing but not disastrous.  And it was a fair time: no mechanicals, no bonking, no nothing.  I just got crushed.  I thought at that moment that I'd have to walk every step of the run, and prepared myself for a finishing time in the 14-hour range.  I took a couple of minutes in T2 to collect myself, and off I headed to face the run course that many were describing as every inch the equal of St. George, and among the very hardest on the circuit.

TIME: 6:21:01
GOAL: 5:50
ASSESSMENT:  I got straight-up owned.  Well played, Wales, well played.


Heading into Wales, my Ironman run PR was a 4:36, and that had been set back in 2006 in the dead-flat ChesapeakeMan.  More recently my runs had gone from bad to worse, culminating in a 4:56 at Cozumel in 2009.  I'd been running well all summer, so I desperately wanted to lay down a strong performance.  I thought a 4-hour run was just on the edge of the possible if everything went right, but Wales is the opposite of a PR course, and the bike course had taken every bit of strength I had to survive.  Knowing that a tough day was possible, I'd hedged my bets by putting a windproof shell in my special needs, which Emily held at the designated spot at the end of each of the four run loops.  (This was not outside assistance, but the way things were expected to happen at this race.)  

Throughout the leadup to Wales, I'd realized one thing: I'd always fallen apart from the get-go, and I've known in the first few steps off of the bike that I was in trouble.  I'd suspected that, if I could just run well for the first three miles, I'd put myself in a position to carry on running throughout the rest of the race.  And, amazingly, when I headed out of T2, I felt... good.  My legs felt light and peppy, and I cruised through town thinking that maybe things weren't so bleak after all.

One thing I've finally learned, I think, is to listen to what my body is telling me, and to push myself as hard (but only as hard) as I can go at the moment.  I'd set my marathon PR at Eugene by running entirely without a watch -- purely on feel -- and I decided to do the same thing at Wales.  I figured that my watch couldn't tell me anything more than my body was; if I were behind goal pace, I'd risk getting discouraged or speeding up and blowing up, and if I were ahead of it, I'd risk slowing myself down and potentially not getting out of myself everything I had to give.  Unfortunately, the need to trust my system was immediately tested by the fact that, in T2, I looked at the Fuel Belt full of Carbo Pro 1200 and realized that I wanted nothing to do with more of that stuff.  So I headed out on the course resolved to live off of the land, whatever it brought me.

The run course proved to be every inch as difficult as people had said.  The first two miles of each loop were straight up a long hill nearly as steep as Skyline Drive or Stafford Street, for Arlington locals.  After cresting the hill, you'd turn around and run back south to Tenby, before looping around through very hilly parts of the town.

And then you'd do it again, and again, and again, each time getting a different color of hairband snapped around your arm such that you could always tell what lap everyone was on.

I decided to adopt a strategy of walking the aid stations and running between them, with occasional walk spells on some of the steeper hills as necessary.  But I resolved to run every inch of every downhill, and to force myself to run as much as I could on the ups.  The drinks on the course were water, Gatorade, and Pepsi, and at each of the few aid stations I had a cup of Pepsi, and one of water.  And a funny thing happened at the top of the first climb: I'd realized that I'd been running at a 7:30/mi pace, and that I was feeling looser and better than when I started.  I was getting it done.  And that was amazing.

But I was also getting hungry, which was a new sensation on a run.  (Much more often I've had GI distress to the point that food sounds awful.)  Not having any food on me, I decided to trust what my body was telling me yet again, and it was telling me that bananas sounded wonderful.  So at each station for the next few miles, I'd have two cups of Pepsi and half a banana.  Toward the end of the first loop, I craved salt, so  I grabbed a handful of Ritz crackers -- yes, oily, fatty Ritz crackers -- and scarfed them down with Pepsi before running once more.  It occurred to me that eating such fatty stuff might be a bad idea, but I figured that either I'm going to trust my body or I'm not, and I just went with it.

At the end of the first 6.5-mile loop, I saw Emily and for the first time in an Ironman run, actually felt good.  I didn't know what my split was, but I knew that I was feeling as good as when I'd started.  Still, I didn't have confidence in myself: I'd done so badly in previous Ironman runs that a part of me was convinced that a meltdown could happen at any moment.  Once it did, I knew, I would get cold and start stiffening up, making running all the harder.  To cover my bases, I asked Emily to bring my windbreaker to the end of loop 2 so that I could have it for loop 3 in case I needed it.  Happily, she befriended an English guy with a nice camera (thanks, Tim!) who was there supporting his sister (who crushed me in the race), and he snapped some great shots.

Cruising toward the end of loop 1.

Loop 2 was about as good as the first.  But the clouds were rolling in and the winds were blasting us, and I was very concerned about the chill.  I looked forward to getting my jacket at the end of the loop, and that desire was amplified when, on the way back to town, the rains that had held off all day struck with sudden and epic fury.



At the end of loop 2, I knew I was halfway home.  I just had to do it one more time.  And, I realized, I didn't have to go fast -- simply keeping a light jog would be enough for a huge run PR.  Time to HTFU.  I put on the jacket to stave off the chill from the rain, but two minutes later, I realized I was running.  I was fine.  And I didn't need the damn jacket.  So I took it off and tied it around my waist, and at the end of loop 3, I tossed it back to Emily because there was no way I was going to let myself shut down on the last loop.

Take this jacket and shove it.  :-)
The last loop was simply agonizing, but it was the last one, and I resolved simply to keep moving as fast as I possibly could.  Pepsi, bananas, crackers, and guts.  I concentrated on catching the next person in front of me and striding it out on the downhills, leaving nothing on the course.  Amazingly, as I crested the top of the hill for the last time, I saw bedraggled cyclists fluttering back into Tenby just ahead of the bike cutoff.  I couldn't imagine what they'd been through out there; after the race, guys who finished near me agreed that we couldn't have stomached the thought of another kilometer.

For the whole of the last lap, I'd been trading off with a blonde girl who seemed to run at a consistent pace, no matter what, come hill or descent, aid station or not.  And, as we rounded the last straightaway toward the finish with her about 10 yards in front of me, I decided to stick up for mankind everywhere and hoof it to the line.  And so I did, and thereby scored a minor victory in what was truly a major war.  Given how the day I had gone, I'd been hoping against hope to sneak in under 12 hours.  When I saw 11:38 on the scoreboard, I knew I'd put a serious run together at last.

I'm on television!
Bringing it home.
Winning.  With armbands.

The post-race meal was admirably appropriate: fish and chips with Mars bars and tea.  It was all delicious.  I didn't know what any of my splits had been, but I'd thought my run may have been as good as a 4:05-4:10, which would have been a 30-minute run PR on a brutal course.  When I found out later that night that I'd run a 3:57:16, I knew that I'd just run the toughest mental race of my life and succeeded in every respect, bike course be damned.

TIME: 3:57:16
GOAL: 4:00:00


This was my best race.  I beat my Cozumel time by a minute, and that course was dead flat.  I beat my Cozumel run time by an hour.  And I did it on a savage course and under some of the most challenging race conditions I've ever experienced.  In short, I had every reason to quit, but I fought through it and turned the race around completely, from debacle to enormous personal victory.  I've proved to myself that I won't fall apart on an Ironman run, and with this psychological breakthrough, I have every reason to think that I can smoke this time in Cozumel in all three disciplines.  I've learned how to keep going: Now it's time to go fast.

I took three big lessons from this race.  First, no matter what happens, keep yourself in the game and give yourself a chance to do something you didn't think you were capable of.  I was a shattered human being on the bike, but I got off and destroyed my run PR, something I'd have bet a lot of money was simply impossible.  If I'd have dropped out, or just walked out of T2, I'd never have known what I was capable of doing.  

Second, in an Ironman race, there will always be a time when things look truly bleak.  It happens to everyone, and in that moment, it's difficult to imagine that it will end in anything other than disaster.  Just keep  eating, keep drinking, and keep moving; things will improve if you let them, and if you stay focused on small steps.  Get to the top of the climb or through the next mile.  Run to the next aid station.  You can go from utterly destroyed to feeling great much faster than one might guess, but only by keeping an open mind to the possibility, a sense of humor when possible, and some perspective.

Finally, trust your body.  Heart rate monitors, power meters, and nutrition plans are great.  But none of it's as good as your inner sense of what's going on with you, right then and right there.  If the thought of another gel makes you sick, find something else.  Don't drink soft drinks?  Great, and congrats -- but you may find that Coke is a miracle beverage on an Ironman run course, and you shouldn't rule it out on principle.  I'd never eaten a banana on a run before Wales, and I'd certainly never ingested Ritz crackers during an athletic event.  In the abstract, I'd have said it's a terrible idea.  But I realized on the run that bananas and crackers sounded terrific, so I trusted that sense and I didn't have a jot of stomach trouble as a result.  Likewise, watches and heart rate monitors will tell you how hard or how fast you're going, but so what?  If you pace yourself strictly according to a watch, that might be too fast or too slow for that course on that day.  Heart rate can be confounded by any number of factors, from heat to nutrition to fatigue and caffeine.  Your heart rate on a 2-hour training run often gives little insight into what it'll be at mile 15 of an Ironman marathon.  Our bodies are smart machines.  Go in with a plan, but as Mike Tyson said, "Everybody's got plans... until they get hit."  I think that focusing on electronics and gadgets can sometimes distract us from what's really going on inside of us, and can prevent us from reaching that flow state where things really get done.  

I'm happy to say that, after taking a week or so to reflect on Wales, go completely off of my dietary restrictions, and not training at all, I'm raring to go like I haven't been in a long time.  Bring on Rev3, and bring on Cozumel.  Time to rip up some PRs.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reconsidering electrolytes for Cozumel

For years, I've been convinced that, as a "salty sweater," it was necessary for me to take in considerable amounts of salt during hot-exercise training and racing.  At Mountains of Misery this year, I took in nearly 800 grams an hour for the 10-hour ride in 85-degree sun, and felt great.  Likewise, at Musselman Half, I PR'd the run on a very tough course in extremely hot conditions, and I was taking a similar amount of sodium (among other things).  Recently, though, I've begun to rethink whether it's all necessary.  Joe Friel has been convinced for years that we can basically do without electrolyte supplementation as long as fluid is consumed only to thirst, rather than to excess.  His position relies heavily on the research of Dr. Tim Noakes, an interesting interview with whom can be found here beginning around the 35-minute mark.

At Ironman Wales last week, I decided to give Noakes a try, and I took in no sodium beyond what was contained in four gels.  For hydration, I had water, and for calories, CarboPro 1200 and gels.  The course and conditions were simply macabre -- a race report will appear here soon -- but I nonetheless set a 40-minute run PR without a hint of cramping.  I'm still trying to figure out what I think about it all heading into Cozumel in two months.

A useful video on descending technique

Every couple of months, I lead a clinic on descending technique for newer triathletes on the team.  This video gives some extremely helpful illustrations of many of the topics we cover.  Many thanks to whomever created it!