10th Men 30-34/90th Overall (Last KQ went to 8th place in my AG)
(2239 Finishers/2587 Participants)
Four Minutes and Thirty Eight Seconds......
It's no secret to anyone that knows me that I have been chasing this dream for several years (and chasing it really seriously for about the last three). My training since 2011 has been consistent and has steadily improved in every metric. Going into Texas I was the fittest I have ever been and my run fitness and form were at all time highs. I knew the weather and competition was going to make this a hard race to nab a KQ, but felt my coach, Eric Limkemann, had prepared me well for the challenge. I also felt a sense of urgency going into this race because I have my first baby on the way in September and I know there are going to be some new and more important priorities moving forward!
In the past I have been a KQ bubble guy mostly because I have never run a really good marathon off the bike. I have run a few serviceable marathons but nothing of the quality necessary to be amongst the top competitors in my age group. Historically I have been able to swim to the front of the field, bike strong enough to stay in contention, and then watch helplessly as M30-34 calf markings zoomed by me on the run course.
After looking at run files from my Texas prep, I now know that historically I was not nearly as well prepared to run well off the bike at my previous 5 Ironmans. Going into Texas I felt things were going to be different and I had done the work to run 3:20-3:30 off the bike. I did several 20 mile runs on tired legs where I was running comfortably in the 7:45/mile range. My bike power has been at an all time high but I have been dealing with neck and shoulder issues on the bike which has made it challenging to hold aero for as long as necessary.
Based on these factors, I had a very different mindset going into this race. My goal was a 4:55 bike split and if my neck acted up I knew I had the fitness to ride 5:10-5:15. I was excited to get to the marathon so I could showcase all the run work I had done....I was actually more nervous about the bike which is a different mindset for me. However, Ironman is a fickle mistress and the day did not unfold on the marathon course as I envisioned.
It is no secret that the Woodlands in May is hot and humid. I tried to prepare for the heat by using a sauna protocol. Unfortunately I had to go on a business trip in the middle of the protocol and didn't spend as much time in the sauna as I originally planned. I have always liked hot races and done pretty well in them (2 of the three years I did Louisville were well into the 90's). I have no basis of knowing this for sure, but ultimately I don't think lesser time in the sauna negatively impacted my race in any significant way.
I arrived in the Woodlands on Wednesday night and got settled into the rental house. My mom and dad (Sherpa Ma and Pa) were kind enough to drive our bikes all the way from Virginia to Texas and our equipment was waiting for us safe and sound when we arrived. I stayed with two of my good friends Lindsay Wohlford and Trey McFerren (who were also racing). I was also lucky to have a strong contingent of my Hammer Tri Club brothers down in Texas. I am truly fortunate to count such outstanding men and athletes as my closest friends and I was excited to see what Jeff Tunstall, Moose Herring, Justin Moyer, David Gallagher, and Bob Flanigan would do. We were all well prepared and ready to get down to business.
Friday morning I went to the practice swim and felt amazing in the water. Shortly thereafter I dropped my bike and bags off at transition and made a concerted effort to relax. As usual, the day before the race ground along at a snails pace and dragged on forever. I finished out the day with my usual pizza dinner followed by a couple of hours watching videos of the bike and run course, and unwinding in front of the TV. I waited up for my wife who flew in that evening and went to bed around 10 p.m. with a 4 am wake up call right around the corner. I slept a few hours that night (which is more than usual) and woke up feeling fresh and ready to roll. I had a quick 800 calorie breakfast and headed down to the transition and swim start.
52:52 (1:22/100 meters)
The first 300 meters were pretty violent with all the strong swimmers jockeying for position. By about 500 meters a small group of about 5 of us began to form. I swam most of the out section in third position and made a move to join the two leaders at the turn. I felt great in the water and felt like I had the goods to break away if I went for it. I decided I was better served to work with the group and save my pennies for the rest of the long day. The back stretch before the canal was fun and everyone in the group was working together taking turns at the front. It was one of the most fun swims I have had in an Ironman. It was fun mixing it up at the front with some excellent athletes.
I rarely focus on transition times going into a race. I usually try to act quickly while thinking slowly (great advice from Coach Limkemann). Because I knew a KQ could be very close, I actually had a goal of 3:30 for the first transition and 3:00 for the second transition. Both transitions ended up being slower than I would have liked. The first transition went fairly smooth. Mom and Britt were standing right at the bike bags and helped point me to the correct bag. I grabbed it and jumped into the change tent where I pulled off my Blue Seventy PZ4TX swim skin (this thing is fast....highly recommend) and pulled up my LG M-2 sleeved tri suit. Pulling up the sleeves is always a little challenging when wet, but the volunteers were helpful. I elected to carry my bike shoes to the bike start because transition had turned into a massive mud pit with all the recent rains. I ran through the mud and overshot my bike rack. I had to back track to grab my bike and it probably cost me about ten seconds. I carried my bike over the mud, dunked my feet in a baby pool to rinse off, put on my bike shoes and I was off to conquer the bike course.
4:59:48 (22.42 mph)
Avg Power- 239, Norm Power- 242
VI- 1.02, IF- .74
Avg HR- 145, Avg Cadence- 85
This winter I did a lot of high quality work on the trainer and my power numbers reflected that. I had played around on bestbikesplit.com before the race and felt comfortable I could hit a 4:55 bike split if I executed my wattage and paced appropriately. Obviously such a split would be contingent on my ability to hold aero position despite my ongoing neck issues. Based on my training data I was confident that I could ride 250 if I needed to, but the plan was to ride conservative due to the heat and humidity. I intended to let the speed come in the first 40 miles (with a slight tail wind) then focus on nailing my power numbers on the back half of the race with the head winds, rollers, and chip seal roads. Another major goal was to focus on staying aero as I knew this would be critical during long sections into the wind. I planned to ride around 235 for the front half and then build to 240ish on the back half of the race.
The first 40 miles of the bike were pretty rough for me. This was the first time (in an Ironman) where I was out on an island for a long time. My strong swim had me well positioned in the race but it also meant that I didn't see a whole lot of other racers during the first 90 minutes of the ride. It really gave me an appreciation for how mentally tough the pros are when they ride off the front. During those first moments I kept thinking this isn't very fun being out here alone!!!! I did my best to block out those negative thoughts and focus on holding my power. The splits were ticking off right on cue, but there were definitely a few "dark" thoughts during the early stages of the ride. There were a few strong cyclists that went by me in those first 40 miles but by and large I was alone. I didn't feel like I was really racing until the halfway point of the ride when I finally started to regularly see some other competitors. From the halfway point I rode in close proximity with two other guys. There was a nice ebb and flow to the race at this point and it was good to have a few people to pace off and jockey for position. ***On a side note, I have worked my ass off to become a strong cyclist and it still amazes me how many guys can wipe up the floor with me. It just goes to show that no matter how hard you work there is always someone out there that is bigger/faster/stronger. It is nice motivation to keep striving for each and every extra watt during the winter.***
The back half of the bike course was largely into a strong head wind. I felt like I did a good job of staying aero, and I felt like my size worked to my advantage when the winds would shift to a cross wind (I wasn't getting blown around as much as the little guys). It was definitely challenging riding into the wind especially with fast rising temps and crazy humidity. Despite riding 22+ mph and dealing with a headwind, I noticed there was no evaporative cooling taking place. My skin stayed wet for nearly the whole ride.
I focused heavily on hydrating and made sure to drink an entire bottle of water between each aid station (approx. 10 miles). The only time I deviated from this plan was once or twice when my stomach started to feel a bit sloshy. I stuck to the nutrition plan and got all of my calories and sodium in as planned. For those doing the race next year, please note that the aid station after mile 80 came closer to mile 95 and not 90. This was a bit of a problem for me because it had gotten very hot and I was out of water by about mile 90. By mile 95 I was ecstatic to get my hands on a cold bottle of water.
The heat really started to bother me in the last 30 miles. I typically don't feel overheated on the bike, but I was feeling very hot due to the lack of sweat evaporation. I also started to feel like my head was frying underneath my aero helmet. This is the first time I have experienced that sensation. By mile 95 I was ready to get off the bike. I spent the last 15 miles trying to hydrate and mentally prepare myself for what was coming. I knew this marathon was going to be challenging in the heat and I tried to use the last 30 minutes pumping myself up with positive self talk. It was during these moments that I thought about my family, friends, and HTC buddies. I tried to channel all of their collective strength and put it in reserve for the upcoming marathon. I also tried to throttle back a bit to conserve a bit more energy in an effort to ensure a good run. It was such a relief to pull back into town, and even more of a relief to get my first sub 5 hour bike split. So far so good....now it was time to demonstrate my run fitness (or so I thought).
T2 was way slower than I anticipated. I'm really not sure why it was so slow. I felt like I moved deliberately and with purpose and I had good volunteer support. I was cramping a bit as I grabbed my run bag, but this is pretty typical for me. I also started to cramp when I sat down to put on my run shoes (again typical, nothing major), I know I spent a bit more time in the tent making sure I had my gel flask and Base Salt canisters. I also took a few moments to drink a few cups of water. It was steamy in that tent and I knew what awaited me outside would be worse. As I exited the tent my family was right there, the only words I could muster were, "it is too f*cking hot!"
I had a specific run plan tailored to my newly earned run fitness. The idea was to run the first loop comfortably around 7:50 pace and then build my effort on each of the three laps. The idea was to end up averaging around 7:45 pace with the third loop being my strongest. I had a hard heart rate cap of 160 bpm and my instructions were to walk briefly if I exceeded the cap.
Running out of transition I experienced some early cramping and had to stop and stretch a few times during the first mile. I always expect to cramp during those early minutes of the run so I focused on getting salts down and managed the symptoms until they subsided. I had to stop and stretch my hamstrings a few times which made for a slow first run split of 8:40. At that point my thought process was "no harm no foul", just get through the first mile and lock it in. After getting through the first mile the cramps started to go away and I focused settling into my pace. I was alarmed to see that my HR was 165 as I was running 7:45 pace. I had done 20 mile runs at this pace at 145 HR.....uh oh! I had already exceeded my HR cap 10 minutes into the marathon! I knew at that point that all plans were out the window and this was going to be a test of will.
I slowed down my pace so it matched a HR in the upper 150's. This roughly coincided to splits between 8:00-8:10. At that point I changed my plan to holding that pace/HR as long as I possibly could. It was during these early miles that I started to feel really bad and the pace started to go up the escalator. I have never experienced heat and humidity like this. I have done Louisville on some pretty hot years and had success. These conditions were on a whole other level. I couldn't mentally manage my pain or what I was feeling. There is also very little shade on the course and there was virtually no respite from the rays of the sun. The weather forecast called for partly cloudy skies and thunderstorms, but we ended up with blue skies and sunshine. I spent a lot of time that afternoon praying for rain to provide some type of cooling relief.
When I approached the crowds along the water I saw my friend Amy Ford who yelled some words of encouragement. I told her I was blown and the rest of the race was going to be ugly. She insisted that I looked great, everyone was struggling, and just keep running (this turned out to be the best advice of the day). Shortly thereafter I saw my mom and dad. I gave my mom a kiss and I told them both that I was deep in the hurt locker. I literally wanted to stop and sit on the wall in the shade with them. I begrudgingly started running again and planned to make it to the other side of the water to tell my wife that Kona was not going to happen....but hey we are having a baby so this year is still the best!!!!! When I got to the spot I thought she was, I couldn't find her so I decided to keep jogging until I found her. Fortunately for me, I never saw her so I kept jogging. This ended up being a small blessing because my heat fried mined switched focus to jogging to the end of the second loop until I saw Britt again.
The last two loops of the run are largely a blur of pain. My walking increased steadily throughout the day. Soon I was walking every aid station, then to the ends of the street, then to signs/trees, then ultimately several times per mile. I retired and un-retired from triathlon about 50 times. I vowed that I would never do this to myself again. I thought about family, and friends, and all the sacrifices....I cried. It is weird what happens during pain like this, I would get waves of intense emotion that would bring me to tears. I carried the positive thoughts of all my friends and family which is ultimately what kept me moving forward. I would run as far as I could until I couldn't bear the pain and then I would walk. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the walking was just as painful as the running (and was only going to take longer) so I tried not to walk anymore than a minute at a time. My mindset was laser focused on making the pain stop as soon as possible.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
I ended up 10th place in the age group and the last Kona slot went to 8th place (there were 2 roll downs). The 8th place guy beat me by 4:38....so close....again. I have spent much of this week second guessing my race. What could I have done to find those 4 minutes? Faster transitions? Three less walk breaks? Dial back the bike a bit?....I am not disappointed but I am frustrated. I am tired of being so close to a dream I have been chasing for years. I am also frustrated that my run split was in no way indicative of my fitness. That being said I learned some important lessons in the Texas heat.
- Never ever quit. Even when you think you are done there is more in the tank. We get so caught up in our own suffering that we don't realize that most everyone else was in the same boat, even the pros. (Read Joe Skipper and Lionel Sanders' blogs if you don't believe me). As Amy said, "you are still in it, just keep running"
- Despite doing a sauna protocol I don't know if there was anyway I could have adequately prepared for those type of conditions. I think the difference between those who ran well and those who didn't (among the potential KQers) was mental toughness. My toughness on the run course left something to be desired.
- This is a hobby. Remember why you do it. Thank your friends and family. Thank the volunteers. Enjoy the journey. A very small percentage of people will ever experience this level of fitness. Even fewer will ever learn what they are made of in the midst of suffering. You will find yourself in the darkest corners of your mind. You may not like what you see but we are fortunate to be able to gain a greater understanding of ourselves through crazy athletic endeavors.
Lastly, thank you to everyone who follows me and takes the time to provide words of encouragement. I had over 50 texts and nearly 100 facebook notifications when I got back to my phone after the race. I carry all of those things with me on the course and they help get through the tough times more than you know. Congratulations to all the IMTX finishers. That race was truly one to write home about. Love to everyone and happy training.