There's nothing quite like competing in your first full-distance Ironman as an athlete, and there's quite nothing quite like experiencing others' journeys as a coach.Read More
I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin this past January without knowing much about the race. Sure, its reputation is pretty legendary as a challenging but well-spectated event. Beyond that, I knew two people who had raced there and the feedback was simple: The bike course is hilly, the swim and the run aren’t too bad, and the weather is largely pretty good. That was enough for me.
The months ticked by, the training ramped up. I didn’t even seriously think about Madison or the race course itself until around July. At that point, I realized how very little I knew. So this post is written for people who may consider Ironman Wisconsin in the future, and would like a one-stop resource on where to stay, where to eat, how to train and even smaller logistics like whether to rent a car, where’s the nearest Whole Foods, etc. All the stuff you don’t want to be thinking about in the last few weeks before your race. Or, all the things you may want to know before you click Register on the Ironman website.
Oh, and if you want to see how the race turned out for me, click here. (There's a kinda funny, kinda not funny video there of me driving on Barlow Road for the first time.)
Swim: Lake Monona is terrific. There’s some moss and ankle-high grass when you first enter the lake ramp, which makes your entry a bit slippery but nothing to concern yourself with. Beyond that, temperature is pleasant with a wetsuit – and for those of you who enjoy swimming with a sleeveless wetsuit, go for it. You’re probably looking at mid-high 60s temperature.
The swim is very straightforward. You’ve got about nine buoys on your left side before you make your first left turn – don’t forget to MOO as it’s a tradition apparently. The Lake Monona Terrace is on your right the entire time. You’re not facing the sun, and I’d venture to say that in my race, we were swimming with whatever current there may have been. You’ll swim past approximately 13 buoys after another left turn, back the way you first came I’d recommend polarized goggles as you are swimming into the sun. I used Aqua Sphere polarized Kayenne goggles, and had no issue with glare. You’ll eventually make another hard left turn, and then your final left turn can throw you if you’re not careful. It’s more of a diagonal line back to the swim ramp, and several folks swam a little farther than necessary because they were sighting to the beginning of the course rather than the shore. Try to follow the loudspeaker noise and angle yourself inland.
As you exit the water, the real fun begins. It’s time to run up a few story parking helix to T1. And it’s AWESOME. The helix is loaded with fans leaning out over the parking structure walls, encouraging you. I didn’t even feel the runand probably had a stupid grin the whole time. My point here is this though: If you’re not practicing deck-ups – where you propel yourself out of the water at your pool, jog in place or do a quick running lap if permitted before diving back in – you’re missing a chance to ensure an easier transition at IM Wisconsin. If you’re not careful, your heart rate can explode powering up that ramp, and at some point during the bike ride, it will come back to bite you.
One final note on the swim: Sometimes you hear people take outside lines slightly away from each buoy as a race strategy. Because there’s such little current and chop at Lake Monona (based on what I experienced), you will find the buoy line is littered with bodies – especially on the back-half of the swim. I found I was largely in the clear for the first three-quarters of my swim to the first turnaround and then I had to navigate a LOT of traffic the rest of the time. If you’re a strong swimmer, I’d start your swim about 30 yards to the right of the buoys on your left and gradually angle yourself left to the first turnaround, and then come out wide on the return trip and do the same thing. You’ll probably have much cleaner swimming. If I race here again, I’ll likely employ that approach.
Oh, the bike course. If you fancy yourself a strong cyclist, Ironman Wisconsin could be a great race for you. But it depends on what kind of great cyclist you are. I do particularly well on long, sustained climbs that require a steady tempo effort. I’m weaker on shorter but punchier climbs – which is a lot of what you’ll see on the Ironman Wisconsin bike course.
The first 16-18 miles of the course are called “the stick” as it’s fairly straight heading out of town. Then, you get to “the lollipop,” two 40-mile loops featuring the bulk of climbing. For the lollipop portion, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, the best approximation I can think of is the portion of Mulholland Drive from Topanga Canyon through and past Las Virgenes Road until you reach Cornell and turn right through that patch of pesky rollers. If you add a slow but noticeable swirling wind, you’ll be able to picture the course that much better. I recently rode this loop and it was about 28 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of climbing. So, it’s a little more climbing than you’ll encounter on race day on a per-lap training loop basis, but the up-down-up-down-turn-turn-turn nature of the ride is a good primer for what to expect in Madison. Two additional courses that remind me of the 40-mile loops at Ironman Wisconsin are the first part of Wildflower with its ranging hills and somewhat tricky descents, and the Silverman course in Hendrson, Nev. The latter especially because at Silverman, you struggle to build and maintain momentum because the road pitch is always changing.
Road conditions are largely fine, though this is a source of debate based on the many articles I read and podcasts I listened to going into the event. I found that most potholes were properly marked or covered with road patch that had been recently poured. Further, if you decide to visit Madison to ride the course (which I heartily recommend), the course is well marked with lots of arrows spray-painted on the ground. You’ll need them, as it’s a very turn-rich course.
One final note. I rode my bike with tire pressure at 110psi, on latex tubes. It’s been three weeks since the race, and my upper shoulders and neck are still sore. That could be the byproduct of not getting a post-race massage, a bike fit that needs adjustment, a low but steady wind that kept me gripping the aerobars, or filling my tires 20psi too much. The bike techs on site were recommending approximately 90-100psi on the morning of the race – I chose 110 because that’s largely what I had trained with. I’d take the bike techs’ advice in the future.
I think the run course is awesome. The climbing sneaks up on you – I hit 627 feet over 16 miles before I turned off my watch out of frustration. That said, it didn’t feel like a run that would approach 1,000 feet of total climbing for all 26 miles. There’s plenty of downhill running, and a nice-size crowd will do its best to keep you energized. Plus, there are plenty of aid stations that are very well-stocked and staffed. The only real “challenging” part of the course is a decent-sized hill you have to climb going into the end of the first loop of the marathon and the finisher’s chute once again. It’s “only” 1-3% for about .4 miles, but it feels a lot worse on tired legs. One caveat here is that a good portion of the run is on concrete, though you will have a nice trail break on the backside of the University of Wisconsin near the lakefront. Oh, and the football turf at Camp Randall Stadium.
From a training perspective, I would emphasize hill repeats for strength, and longer runs would ideally finish with some climbing too. My long runs were probably a little too flat, with most of my climbing coming from longer and more subtle gradients, punctuated by a couple sharp pitches.
All in all, this is a tough but fair run course. If you don’t overcook the bike, or are a strong runner, you can make up a lot of ground here if you’re patient.
Most of what I just wrote might be found in some form on other race reports or podcasts. I found it harder to figure out where to stay, eat, get a good cup of coffee, pick up groceries, etc. So here’s my recommendations for aspiring IM Wisconinites.
Hotel: With the exception of Ironman Arizona, where I stay three blocks from the finish line, I try to stay away from Ironman Village. The nervous energy is typically so palpable that it can drain you. Plus, the prices are much higher. It’s similarly true in Madison, especially on a weekend when the Badgers football team is at home.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn Suites West, about eight miles from town, in Middleton. I did so because there was a free race-day bus shuttle service from the hotel to the event start at Lake Monona. I also liked that each room had a microwave, and free breakfast each morning – though on race day it was too late to utilize.
I’d stay here again, though I think you could find a hotel closer in downtown Madison that may still be far enough away from the race. That said, you’re less likely to run into a party atmosphereon a football weekend. Our hotel was largely comprised of out-of-towner Badger fans who were in their 50s and 60s. The mood was mellow, which I appreciated. And the service across the board there was stellar. Really friendly staff.
This Hampton Inn was also a block away from a decent coffee/breakfast spot called Yola’s Café, and several other restaurants I didn’t venture to try but could have been fine. Better still, Trek Bicycles has a store about a half-mile away from the hotel – so if you were to have bike problems or needed some supplies, you could quickly address your need without wading into Ironman Village chaos.
Worth noting, there’s a Whole Foods for all your organic groceries just a few miles from the hotel, on the way to the University but not quite there. If you arrive on a Thursday night like I did (and rent a car), there's plenty of time to check into the hotel, eat dinner, and get your grocery shopping out of the way -- all within a two-hour window.
Finally, post race, depending on when you finish and how you feel, Uber/Lyft is probably your best bet for getting back to an off-course hotel quickly. The shuttles run every 30 minutes, and as the sun sets, wind is likely to increase and the temperature will drop. Not a good look if you’re draped in nothing much more than a Mylar blanket. I took the elevator back down to street level from the convention center and hailed an Uber. I was picked up within 10 minutes.
Restaurants: I spent a rather disproportionate amount of time on Yelp looking for restaurants. I found a couple I’d recommend to people staying out of the downtown Madison area, and one must-visit burger spot near the University.
Vin Santo: One of the upsides of this charming little restaurant is that it sits across the street from the Museum of Mustard. Yes. For reals. And there’s a 1950s-style diner across the street too if you’re hankering for a piece of classic apple pie. The food and service at Via Santo were solid, and I highly recommend the chicken marsala. The restaurant is less than 10 minutes from the Hampton Inn. And they deliver to the hotel too if you don’t want to move.
Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse: Don’t be sucked into Ruth’s Chris or any other steakhouse if you’re craving a good piece of red meat prior to your race. Johnny’s is where it’s at. Period. The steak was flavorful and cooked perfectly, while the sides were every bit as savory as the bigger-name steakhouses. The price is about what you’d expect for a premium cut of meat. This restaurant was truly a highlight of my trip.
Dotty’s Dumpling Dowry (downtown): I had been aware of Dotty’s since I visited Madison for the first time in the 1990s. Since then, I’ve been back twice more, and each time I try to find a way back. The burgers are solid, and the atmosphere is what you’d expect from a college burger joint. Think a Wisconsin Badgers-themed TGI Fridays in terms of décor. Ian’s Pizzeria is supposed to be amazing too, and it’s next door to Dotty’s. Both are just off the run course route, so your family can enjoy a good meal while you toil away.
Rent a Car vs. Uber/Lyft: I can only speak for my experience staying away from Ironman Village, but I particularly enjoyed the freedom of being able to drive wherever I wanted for nearly four days. That said, I had no friends or family in town whom I could snag a ride from, so I more or less needed it. I could drive the race course, go grocery shopping, or venture into downtown at will. And I had the peace of mind knowing that if I missed the bus into town for any reason at all come race day, I could speed there without issue.
Renting a car is a more expensive option though. For example, you’re not going to use your vehicle on race day. That’s more or less $50 out the window with taxes. But the costs are surprisingly similar over the long haul with a car service though. It’s roughly $30 from the airport to Madison via Uber, so roundtrip that’s at least one day’s rental fare. Each trip into town from Middleton to Madison is at least $10-$15 or more. And if you’re using a food delivery service instead of driving to a meal, you’re racking up fees there as well (though maybe gas cancels that out somewhat). Ultimately, you have to decide how much is peace of mind worth when you’re in unfamiliar territory for a race you don’t know much about.
If or when I return to Madison to exact revenge on this course, I’ll likely rent a car again.
Packet Pickup: woke very early on Friday morning, probably due to some mild jetlag flying in from Los Angeles the night prior. I arrived at packet pickup around 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes before it opened at Lake Monona Terrace, fourth in line. By the time packet pickup opened, there was a long line -- but not longer than any other Ironman race on a Friday. Several podcasts I listened to cautioned strongly against the long lines for packet pick-up but I didn’t see that play out. Instead, this was probably the most organized and well-staffed process on the circuit that I’ve experienced.
A good order of progression when you pick up your packet would be:
- Find parking across the street from Lake Monona Terrace, near the Hilton hotel there. (BTW, there’s a sky bridge to the convention center if you go through the hotel lobby…pro-tip!).
- Pick up packet, return to car, grab workout gear.
- The swim start is a quick elevator ride down from the convention center, and if you used TriBike Transport, you can dry yourself post-swim, claim your bike literally 20 yards from the swim entrance, and get a quick neighborhood spin in on the lakefront bikepath. You’re done with everything within the first 1.5-2 hours of your day. BOOM.
- If you start your morning around 8:30-9 a.m., that leaves you ready to grab a nice brunch-lunch in downtown Madison – then, if you stay away from the course, you’re home in the early afternoon at latest to enjoy the rest of your day stress-free. Or, you can use that time to drive the bike course like I did.
I hope this was helpful for you! MOOOOOOOO!!!
Training for an endurance race is kind of like parenting an infant. You show up, day in and day out. Workout after workout. Rain or sunshine. The reward? Nothing discernible for weeks...or months. That smile you think you saw on your baby's face directed just for you? That was probably gas. You begin to wonder whether you're making a difference. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you notice a subtle change. You're seeing responses, adaptations. Growth. And then it's back to prolonged periods of what seems to be...nothing. Just the monotony of the day-to-day grind. "Will this child ever love me?!" I've definitely had those frustrating thoughts many times the last 18 months with Audra. Similarly, I wondered after months of slow, easy runs nowhere near a Boston Marathon-qualifying time, "How in the heck am I going to run 60-90 seconds faster for 26 freaking miles?!"
This past weekend at the California International Marathon, all the consistent, unglamorous training paid off. Not only did I hit my goal pace for 26.2 miles, I beat it. Of course, my marathon wound up being *26.3* miles, but that's the story you already know from yesterday's post.
This entry is for runners of all types trying to grow in their own way, whether you're running your first 5k, considering a Boston Marathon qualification attempt, or a seasoned elite runner already.
Here's a look at what I think worked and didn't work so well in my first BQ attempt.
Training Regimen: After researching a few options, I purchased a personalized marathon plan from MacMillan Running. I had a few people I trust review the plan, and they agreed it was on point. The occasional email check-ins by assistant coach and Olympic athlete Andrew Lemoncello exceeded my expectations. This wasn't a cookie-cutter plan devoid of personal attention. Combined with the strategic approach, accessible workouts and positive reinforcement, I would recommend a MacMillan personalized plan for people not seeking hands-on daily coaching but rather a plan to guide their training.
I do prefer more frequent interaction though when I'm seriously training for a race. When I learned that longtime friend, Wattie Ink teammate and mentor-figure Dusty Nabor was entering the coaching ranks at Accelerate 3 with my 2015 Ironman Arizona coach Brian Stover, I eagerly signed aboard. Dusty and I both have been heavily influenced by Brian's training approach, so the coach-athlete fit is natural. Plus, Dusty knows my tendencies and is local...he'll help protect me from myself! Tying it all together, the MacMillan program reflected our general collective approach of high-volume, low-intensity training. This allows for more training, better recovery and a gradual increase in vascular-muscular-aerobic capacity. Optimal training.
But what exactly was in the plan? Most of it called for easy, aerobic-paced runs -- literally four out of every five sessions at least. These were the same kinds of runs I did ad nausea preparing for Ironman Arizona with Brian last year. Guess what though? They work. Sure, I did some speed work typically once a week and as the race drew closer there were at least four 18-20-plus mile runs that included some tempo pacing. But overall, steady volume at a conversational pace was the typical daily workout. My biggest issue was staying slow and easy, not going harder or faster.
So if you see workouts like 3x10-20-minutes at tempo or threshold pace routinely during your coached marathon training...well, good luck with that. I've been there before, and it's counter-productive.
Race Day Nutrition: Race week approached, and confidence in my training allowed me to free up mind space to think about other important race day issues like nutrition. I consulted Brian and Dusty for their thoughts and created my own plan based on their input about a basic caloric threshold I'd need to hit to maintain energy from start to finish.
I think we nailed it. We figured I'd burn at least 2,500-3,000 calories over the course of the marathon, and I did. To put back roughly half of those calories into my system, I ate a bowl of oatmeal with almonds and raisins, half a peanut butter sandwich on cinnamon-raisin bread, and a banana roughly two hours prior to the race. During the race, I consumed five Gu Roctane gels (5x100 cal.), a Honey Stinger packet of chews (160 cal.) and 18 ounces of Fluid Performance (~150 cal.). I lost one Gu gel packet early in the race and wished I hadn't, but still believe I ate and drank enough throughout the morning. My pacing was almost perfectly consistent and I never felt like I hit a mental wall -- especially in the spots I typically do during an Ironman marathon (miles 13-15 and miles 18-23). Nor did I have any issue with getting the food and drink to stay down. Better still, I hardly experienced any cramp-like moments, outside of a brief twinge in my right hamstring very late in the race and some abdominal tightness within the last two miles. I attribute that good fortune at least partially to the Sport Legs pills I take prior to races and long training runs.
Pacing: This took a giant leap of faith. I really had no idea whether I could maintain a 7:19-7:21 overall marathon pace, though Dusty, Brian and my friends who have qualified for Boston assured me otherwise. I chose to listen to them and absorb their good vibes.
Prior to race day, I bought a pace sheet from MyMarathonPace.com for a nominal price (thanks to Jason Weilert for the tip). You pick the race, enter some predictions about goal pace, fast or slow start, how much you expect to fade towards the end, and negative or positive split. You then receive customized data for mile splits further influenced by the course elevation profile. Then you can print it to create a DYI wristband. I planed to use the wristband as a specific target as much as possible. I knew it would serve as a fun mental distraction and tap into my videogames sensibilities. I pictured racing games with time bonuses for each mile I completed, including 8-bit music sounds for perfect pacing.
How'd I do? Here are the race-recorded milestone paces shown on the results page:
-- 10k: 7:21/mi
-- 13.1 miles: 7:21/mi
-- 20 miles: 7:21/mi
-- Finish: 7:23/mi
As each split came in, my friend Sebastian Kouladjian exclaimed to my family and friends following along digitally, "He's the Human Metronome!"
Yesterday, I noted my watch showed I was actually faster than these pace markers. And honestly, I wasn't trying to maintain 7:21 overall as much as I was trying to match and manage every single mile. To that end, I only hit the exact mile split once (7:20 at mile 19), but came within three seconds either way for 18 total miles, and was faster by more than three seconds for all but two of the other miles. Better still, I was faster than my pace predictor from miles 21 practically through the end of the race, except for being one second slower in mile 25.
I attribute my successful pacing to proper nutrition keeping me mentally strong enough to remain focused throughout the race. It's easy to get distracted when you're surrounded by enthusiastic spectators, hordes of runners, and pace leaders yelling out every mile or so. Through that ruckus, I was able to remain calm and stay within myself, even letting the 3:13:00 pace group leaders go during various parts of the race when their pace didn't feel right to me.
Course: The CIM course is billed as the fastest for BQs in the western United States, possibly in the entire country. Almost every mile is net-downhill.
But that doesn't mean the race is flat! Far from it. My friend Jason warned me at dinner a few times prior to the race that the CIM course "undulates." He added that there really aren't many roads locally that truly emulate the course either. I would now agree. Every mile through 21-22 features at least one fairly significant rise in the terrain that felt like it lasted between five to 15 seconds. Taken individually, these tiny ankle-biters are inconsequential. But your body will beg to differ late in the race, especially near the bridge around mile 21-22. Pacing the race correctly becomes that much more important. It would be all too easy to go out and blast the first 10k to 13 miles but I think you'll regret it.
The best example I can come up with to help you visualize the undulations would be portions of Pearblossom Highway (California State Route 138), that lonely narrow road connecting Antelope Valley to Victorville on the way to Las Vegas. If you've driven it before, you know there are long, flat stretches punctuated by small but noticeable rollers. CIM's rollers are even less pronounced than Pearblossom though. Another example might be some of the smaller hills on Zoo Drive at Griffith Park near Travel Town (not Trash Truck Hill!), and the rolling hills on Griffith Park Road heading towards Los Feliz Boulevard. The rollers there are more exaggerated than at CIM though, and the distance between rollers is greater at CIM. You get the idea though, CIM isn't an all-out downhill sprint course.
The weather was just about perfect. The race started in the low 40s and finished in the low-mid 50s, with perfect sunshine and no wind (I got a slight sunburn, in fact). You can see in the images I didn't have to bundle up, and I'm a notorious weather wuss. The other great thing about the course is how well spectated it is. I can't remember one section of the entire race that was completely devoid of residents cheering runners on. That became especially important later in the race.
Pre-Race Routine: I traveled to Sacramento alone the day before the race, and outside of my friends Kayla and Alison, I didn't know anyone racing. I kept to myself in my hotel, (Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel) situated literally across the street from the CIM expo and a bus departure for the race start in Folsom. Following packet pickup on Saturday and a quick visit with Kyla, I didn't leave my room from around noon Saturday until 5 a.m. on race day. Toes up! I controlled all my meals without worrying about pleasing other racers or family. Speaking of, Paesanos will fill amply fill your carb-loading Italian food needs.
There's so much to be said for not needing to drop off multiple Ironman pre-race bags, a bike and thinking about a pre-race wetsuit swim. Having so much free to myself felt truly luxurious, and I know that mental and physical opportunity to unwind contributed to my race performance.
Following the race, I just had to walk about three blocks from the State Capitol back to the hotel. The walking actually felt good to stay moving, despite the soreness and my shivering. And if you want to fly back to Burbank same-day, the 2:55 p.m. flight on Southwest Airlines is ample if you're speedy. I took the 4:30 p.m. flight home and hung out in the airport for an hour.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
Poor Boston Prep: I'm likely going to miss the 2018 Boston Marathon cut-off time not necessarily because I wasn't fast enough -- though technically that is the case. I'm probably going to miss the 2018 Boston Marathon cut-off time because of ignorance. While I knew there was a difference between a qualifying time and the age-group cut-off time, I was under the impression that an approximate two-minute gap would guarantee first-week acceptance into the race. Heck, why would the CIM pace groups be "3:13:00" and not "3:15:00", or "3:37:00" and not "3:40:00"? So obviously that is not the case. In 2016, my age-group cut-off was 3:12:32. Had I simply researched this in advance, I would have entered "3:11:30" as my desired finish time in my marathon pace calculator spreadsheet. This is an inexcusable error on my part, and completely avoidable.
If you are contemplating a Boston Marathon qualification attempt, do your homework! Leave extra room for unexpected added distance covered too.
Missed the Decisive Final Kick: There's a larger issue here first. And that is: If you're going to even partially rely on pace leaders at a marathon, try to speak with them in advance to understand how they're going to pace the group. Will they be consistent from start to finish? Start slow and build steam? Are they planning to kick hard at the end? When? I looked up the Strava performance for one of the 3:13:00 pace group leaders. While his overall pace was 7:21, this leader's last two miles were his fastest of the entire race. In fact, during miles 17-24, the pace leaders were running just at or slightly slower than BQ pace and then dropped to 7:15-7:16 the last two miles. I wasn't quite prepared for that, it was already hard enough just to stay close to BQ pace.
As you can see in the image further above in the pacing section, I'm running ahead of the 3:13:00 pace group at around mile 21. I had been in this position mostly from mile 10 onward, until mile 24 when the leaders took off. Because I had been bouncing back and forth with the pace group for most of the race, I didn't think much when they surged forward. I only realized what was happening when they put a significant gap on me around the onset of mile 25. By then it was too late. I had slowed down to a 7:30 pace while they were speeding up.
Poor Body Mechanics: See that crimson smudge on the inside of my left shoe? That's blood. My blood...from my inside right ankle. My left leg is collapsing inward, swiping my ankle enough to rub it raw and cause it to bleed down into my sock, like Curt Schilling. It's likely a hip issue, complicated by an uneven pelvic girdle. My left hip dips slightly and my right hip is raised. Further, I had been facing some Achilles complications in my left heel the last few weeks. My heel and lower calf felt tight enough to where I eased back a critical training week with about three weeks left before the race. Fortunately, my longtime massage therapist Efren Jimenez helped me work through the Achilles issue with electronic stimulation work and some deep tissue massage. He also recommended kinesio tape for the race. I knew Dusty was dead set against this. After doing some research on my own, I concluded that the tape wouldn't likely help me. But it wouldn't hurt either, and it could possibly help promote blood flow or add the slightest amount of stability. I didn't feel any pain in my Achilles or calf, and haven't been sore in that area post-race. Did the KT tape help? Probably not. But it didn't hurt either.
Fitness Level: This is a minor point, and more of a pet theory of mine. I haven't ridden my bike much at all since Ironman Vineman in late July, and I have't swam once since that race. My fitness level is fine enough as a pure runner, but compared to my usual triathlon training it's very low. I think had I been consistently swimming and biking, albeit not at intensity, I would have run even faster at CIM without affecting my fatigue and recovery levels. I plan to test this theory at some point in the future.
Before ending this gargantuan post, I would like to thank my wife for always and enthusiastically supporting my goals. Stephanie makes all of this possible and best of all, ensures that the only guilt I feel about training comes from me and not anyone else.
I also would like to thank Dusty and Brian for their support and insight. I'm excited to return to Accelerate 3! Efren, thank you for physically getting me through that race pain-free. And Andrew, thanks for checking in with me on the running plan.
There are two special forces veterans I'd also like to thank too. Out of respect for each, I'll keep their names private. But their inspiration drove me throughout the race. One, a former Navy SEAL, gave me a challenge coin that I keep in my wallet. It's truly one of my most cherished possessions. He once told me that what kept him going in tough moments was something he internalized during his early SEAL training, "We don't do it because it's easy. We do this because it's hard." I thought of him a lot those last two miles.
Finally...Audra. I hope you read these posts one day. I hope they inspire you. Dream bigger than you thought possible. Push yourself farther than you thought possible to achieve your goals. You won't always succeed. But that journey will be more than worth it. I love you.
The second day after an intense endurance race is always the worst. Gone is the adrenaline high, while cortisol levels have come crashing back to earth. What lingers is the physical soreness that feels closer to the onset of rigor mortis… and looks like it too. You’re just plain tired, physically, mentally, emotionally. And that glorious moment when you truly believed you’re once again young and invincible has cruelly vanished without the decency of a Dear John note.
I like writing a race report during this window. The event is still fresh in my mind, but I’m not so over-stimulated as to miss key moments that led to the race result. The balance between pain, insight and pride is just about even. Plus, I can’t really move…so what else is there to do but write and eat junk food?
I chose to run the California International Marathon because I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That’s it. Success would be measured in “yes” or “no”, not personal bests or beating a rival. I wasn’t on some metaphorical journey to prove something to myself, or even to inspire others in the same way I tried to at Ironman Vineman this summer. This was about me, plain and simple. I accepted that earning a top-five age-group placement for an Ironman World Championship slot was likely not going to happen in this lifetime. So I moved to the next item on the Bucket List: From “KQ” to “BQ.”
Unfortunately, sometimes life doesn’t always allow for binary outcomes. If my Strava and Garmin race data were the sole determinant for entry into the 2018 Boston Marathon, I’d likely be guaranteed to go. My watch data says I ran 26.2 miles in 3:12:21. Last year, the Boston Athletic Association cutoff time for Boston Marathon qualifying times in my age group was 3:12:32. So, while any time faster than 3:15:00 in my age group qualifies a runner to be Boston-eligible, only runners with times faster than 3:12:32 actually earned a place on the starting line in April. Close to 4,500 age groupers earned BQ times but were not invited to participate in the actual event.
We goin’ to Boston! We goin’ to Boston! We goin’ to…wait…what? My chip time at CIM was… 3:13:07? Why the difference? When you’re running around and through people during the race to avoid traffic, or veer to the aid stations for a quick drink, you’re likely adding subtle amounts of distance to your race. So, in the end, I ran *26.3* miles. I should have noticed this during the race, as the distance grew between miles registered on my watch versus the actual mile markers on the course. In the heat of racing, I figured the course markers had been moved or were positioned slightly off – I never imagined I was dooming my own race.
How easy it is to think the world around us is flawed, without first looking within! And haven’t we all at some point run unnecessarily farther to reach the same finish line? In this case, those extra 44 seconds will likely spell the difference between “yes” and “yes…but no.”
I guess my race performance was kind of like winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College. (Too soon?)
As I continue to reflect on the overall race experience, it would be easy to grow bitter. I’ve done that before. In college, I earned an internship to write for Sports Illustrated, directly through the magazine (how that happened is another story for another day). Except my university’s journalism department didn’t participate in the Time-Life internship program, so I wasn’t allowed to accept the opportunity. I thought to myself, “Well, that’s as close as I’ll ever get to my dream job. I guess it’s not meant to be.” I wrote for the college newspaper sports section for one more semester, and quit. My soul had been ripped out – I believed my own mopey narrative.
What a crock! I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self. How weak-minded and self-pitying. Failure is not what defines us. How we respond to failure does. I’ve since vowed never to make that mistake again. So, I already signed up for CIM 2017, and I’m not going to leave any room for doubt next time.
That’s the big-picture look at my race. And yes, there's a small chance that maybe the Boston Athletic Association gods will smile upon me and a 3:13:07 will be enough to squeak into the race in 2018.
For more in-depth “runner-focused” insight and analysis from CIM, I’ll post a separate entry tomorrow. I learned some valuable lessons the hard way for better and worse, hopefully so someone else won’t have to.
This is my eighth Ironman race report. The past recaps all have a similar feel, something like:
“I trained really, really hard over many months for this one-day event. It took on significant meaning in my life, and there are now profound lessons learned through a long day of swimming, biking and running that I can apply to my career and interpersonal relationships. The weather challenged me, the competition was fierce, and I discovered something new about myself. I placed relatively well, but not good enough to quality for the World Championships in Kona. That’s OK, I’ll get there one day.”
What if none of that was true?Read More
“There is no such thing as a recovery day in fatherhood.”
I remember thinking that during the initial weeks of my firstborn child’s life. The exact moment is foggy, shrouded amidst fits of daylight and darkness. Somewhere in the kitchen, a milk bottle warmer probably clicked and ticked, a maddening reminder that while my biological clock felt like years had suddenly past, the buzzer signaled precisely six minutes. No matter what time of day, it’s a certainty at that point I was wearing the same spit-up stained bathrobe.
Cycling kits remained on hangers. Running shoes gathered dust in the closet. Swim gear sulked in a corner. Bikes lingered on their garage racks. For months.
No, being a multiple Ironman finisher did not prepare me for parenthood. Only parenthood did that. It’s been exactly one year since my daughter was born. The experience has been exhausting, rewarding, incredibly frustrating, and completely surreal. BC, “before child,” I thought I would conveniently call upon my triathlon training – the discipline, mental toughness and ability to push through fatigue -- to guide me through some of the more challenging parenting moments. It’s been the other way around. Being a father has reformatted my views of triathlon.
Six years ago, I fell in love with this sport. I poured my soul into discovering whether I could achieve what then seemed impossible. I even chronicled every step here in this blog, as a future gift to my then-unborn child. A lesson in how to reach beyond what she might think possible. But then, the monster within grew. Gradually, a new question emerged, “Can I get faster?” Followed by, “Can I win?” As that transformation occurred, triathlon shifted from hobby to obsession. My self-identity shifted uncomfortably closer to “I am a triathlete,” not “I’m a man who happens to enjoy triathlon.” Sometimes everything else took a back seat.
Bringing a new person into the world has gradually helped me regain perspective in my own. The process was a painful one though, filled with symptoms that felt dangerously close to addiction withdrawal. It took weeks if not months of fighting, depression, anger and acceptance, but I finally have re-centered. Ultimately, it took having a baby to remind myself that there’s more to life than swim, bike, run. A first-world lesson indeed, but I believe it’s one that many of us often forget in our constant pursuit of faster, faster, faster.
Before Audra was born, I’d occasionally cry while riding on my trainer watching re-run after re-run of the Ironman World Championships broadcast. Because I knew how bad I wanted that to be me one day. That single-minded pursuit had me always looking ahead to the next workout, or the next race. Now, I cry at movie scenes like when Ant-Man flies into his daughter’s bedroom to kiss her before saving the world. Because I’m happy with everything I have right in front of me, and I can relate to that sentiment even more than the growling desire to race with the best in the world. Those Kona broadcasts haven’t been watched since.
I used to wonder why “average” middle-aged triathletes with kids showed up on race day when they knew they were probably going to finish towards the middle or back of the pack. Why put in all the effort? If you can’t fully commit to being the best, why waste so much time? I missed the point completely. Before kids, I cared about crossing the finish line because how cool that would look and feel. Now, I see that the true victory is getting out the door to exercise at all, let alone having the opportunity to toe the line happy and healthy surrounded by family. Those “average” age groupers I couldn’t relate to have it so much harder than I imagined. They’re my new heroes, and they’re anything but average.
Parenthood is so much more challenging than anyone could have ever made it seem. There are times – more often than not, I admit -- where I feel like I’m failing miserably as a father and husband. And nobody could have possibly prepared me for the crushing rejection when my daughter wants nothing to do with me and only prefers her momma. Friends are quick to say, “It’ll get better, trust me.” But that doesn’t really help in the moment. I yearned to be a parent for 41 years and when the Hallmark-quality script in my mind didn’t match reality…I struggled.
Still, I wouldn’t rewind time back to “BC” even if I could. I feel like a richer, better, wiser person with Audra in my life. The all-too-fleeting moments where I catch a loving look with eyes that match my own, an eerily familiar wrinkled brow expression, or a giggle when she looks at me after a fart make my constant state of bewilderment and confusion worthwhile.
"There's a few ways we can skin that cat."
My coach, Brian Stover, said, texted or wrote this to me more often than he probably realized during the last five months. Usually because we needed to figure out how I was going to swim, bike and run at the appropriate volume while on a tight work and family schedule.
I'm not a fan of cats. They're too fussy and fickle. Plus, I'm highly allergic to them. But I became a fan of how Brian and I "skinned cats" to maintain the most delicate of balances between triathlon, career and home. All while being able to preserve enough energy to juggle everything without going crazy...mostly (right Seb?!).
In terms of training in 2015, there was B.A., Before Audra, and A.A., after. I made some pretty big changes to how I approached my training and racing once I became an IronDadMan, mostly out of necessity. Instead of a traditional race report from Ironman Arizona 2015, I think it may be more insightful for others if I share what I learned about those adjustments.
Besides, my race report would sound like a lot of other people's I've read the last few days. Something like:
Swim: "The rolling swim start felt weird, the buoys moved farther right from past years, why do my calves keep cramping (???) and I came out of the water pretty much when I expected I would, within seconds of the long end of my predicted time."
Bike: "'F-ing IMAZ.' That's what I kept saying to myself with a laugh while cycling. The weather reports predicted fine weather all day for weeks and it was too good to be true. I was cold and wet, but had no nutritional issues to report. I peed a ton and couldn't figure out why. Much to the chagrin of people behind me while peeing on the bike, the wind kept shifting throughout the course... Overall, I biked pretty much how I expected I would, within a minute of my predicted overall window. Took some risks in terms of increasing my watts over my target goal and it seemed to work fine at the time."
Run: "After an embarrassingly slow T2 due to being unable to feel my fingers, I started running and shocked myself with a much faster pace than expected. I decided to go with it because the pace seemed manageable and I was able to keep nutrition down. The rain didn't bother me...until it did (along with the mud) later in the race around mile 16. Managed a massive PR for an Ironman half marathon (1:39 by my watch) but couldn't hold the pace for the next 12 miles. Ran pretty much what I expected I would overall though, within a minute of my coach-predicted time. Glad I took the initial risk on the pacing instead of slowing down. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
As for the race result itself, I have very mixed feelings, which I'll share at the end.
So what worked and what didn't? First, here's what changed. After six years, I made a decision to switch coaches. I did so not because I was dissatisfied (I still heartily refer athletes to Fortius Coaching), but more because I felt like I needed a new voice and fresh perspective to shake up my training. That's exactly what I got. In short, my new coach (Stover) and I developed a plan that would involve more overall training volume, but spread more evenly throughout each week. That's triathlete-speak for essentially no rest days unless I was traveling on business or had a family obligation. Additionally, we dramatically increased my run frequency and volume to six or even seven days a week at 35-40-plus miles. I would estimate 95 percent of my workouts were entirely aerobic in intensity, meaning completed at a conversational pace and thus easier to recover from. This was a big change for me and took some time getting used to. We also went more than four months without a brick workout, and only scheduled two total. No track workouts either in the traditional oval sense. Taper changed too for me, shrinking from weeks to days. Five, in this case. Finally, we opted out of strength training workouts due to lack of time, replacing them occasionally with jump rope work after runs.
Also as part of my new lifestyle change (A.A.), I stopped trying to complete both daily workouts prior to leaving for work in the morning. There was no way that could work again. Instead, my wife and I would talk every day and more in-depth once every two weeks (before Brian sent my schedule over) about when I could fit in each workout without infringing upon family time. Cat skinning would ensue. I also reluctantly chose to suspend my early morning swims with Tower 26, much as I enjoyed and relied on the group along with the superb Gerry Rodrigues to improve my stroke. The added sleep was going to be critical to balancing all the moving aspects of my life. Fortunately, I found a terrific master's group, Golden Road Aquatics, 10 minutes from my office. GRA offered energetic lunchtime swims and that became critical to maintaining a higher overall training volume.
Everything Brian implemented seemed to pay off. The near daily running at an aerobic pace made me a much more efficient runner. In fact, almost my entire IMAZ 2015 marathon (99% literally) was done in HR Zone 2 (moderate) effort even with a record 13.1 mile split that was near my Ironman 70.3 pace. What?! Again, that was without really doing any brick workouts, which saved me a ton of time on the homefront. The aerobic work also translated to the bike, where the vast majority of my effort was in that moderate zone too.
I also wised up as a triathlete, finally following every workout as it was prescribed. (This was largely my fault in the past as I often found myself caught up in other people's workouts instead of completing my own as written.) And since the vast majority of workouts were at a moderate level, it was much easier to complete them. I only missed two workouts in five months, and both came on the final day of my build prior to taper due to a horrendous night of sleep and an early morning doctor's appointment for Audra.
Spacing my daily workouts out by a few hours was also beneficial. Each workout became more of a quality session, though my swimming suffered since it almost always became the second workout of the day. It's much harder to swim on heavy legs following a run. Still, I think giving my body more time between workouts enabled me to complete more workouts at the specified level and duration.
Finally, printing my bi-weekly schedule and posting it on the kitchen wall was one thing that subtly helped me remain engaged in my training. Steph and I could see what was on the schedule and discuss any potential conflicts. Plus, I could cross off each completed workout, which served as positive reinforcement and motivation to keep my consecutive workouts finished streak intact.
What Didn't Work
My swimming took a big hit the last few months, and it's primarily because swim volume was cut by between a third and a half compared to last year. Swimming is by far my weakest discipline, and something I need to work extra hard on to improve. But Brian recommended we focus more on improving my run as being fitter across the board would help me overcome some of my swimming deficiencies. Brian already told me we'll be swimming a lot more this winter. Joy. I'd like to strangle that cat and then skin it with a dull blade.
Since I was running so much, I found it even harder to keep my weight up to what I'd consider a healthy level. It constantly felt like I was pushing a giant food rock up a hill each day only to watch it tumble back down. I'd lose up to four pounds and try to gain five, day in and day out. That lack of weight likely affected my bike power output, which is something I think needs more attention in the future. I think the chilly weather at IMAZ affected me a little more than other folks perhaps due to my inability to use stored fat to keep my core temperature warm.
Despite getting more sleep than people told me would be possible with a newborn, it still probably wasn't enough quality rest to help me fully recover each night. Waking up three to four times each night can't be considered a helpful workout recovery tool, but I don't think it affected me as much as I expected. I feel obligated to put "lack of sleep" in the "What Didn't Work" section but honestly...it could have been much worse (thanks to my awesome wife) and I don't think it affected me on race day when it mattered most.
Three years, differing conditions, same result. Almost exactly. I trained more than I ever have before for an Ironman, improved my run, slightly improved my bike split and ultimately I came in at the same time I did when I was training with less volume but higher intensity. What does that mean? I made all these changes to take the next step in my evolution as an athlete. But did that happen? Percentage-wise, I fared better this year in my age group and overall than in 2013 (when conditions were more favorable). But I was worse compared to last year's results, when conditions were much windier on the bike and more favorable on the run.
Have I peaked as a triathlete? It's only going to get harder to find time to train now that Audra is growing rapidly, so finding more time to improve is probably out of the question. I honestly thought I could flirt with breaking 10 hours this year at IMAZ if the conditions were perfect and once again I was nowhere close. Is that goal a Quixotic dream? And Kona, which I thought could be a stretch goal I was closing in on, feels more distant than ever. A Legacy slot seems my best hope. Only five more years of Ironman races to go then! Hooray!
I'm not calling the Wahmbulance over this great injustice. I have no regrets about my training or the race itself. There were some big changes in my life that delivered a profound level of joy that is simply irreplaceable. That made those big training changes far easier to make. It's also important to note that April, May and June were largely a wash for me from a training standpoint due to illness, burnout, moving to a new home and of course, Audra's birth. So, Brian had to essentially build me up from scratch to where we wound up on race day. And to his credit, I arrived at Tempe Town Lake statistically in the best shape of my life. I'm reminding myself to stay positive and think what he and I can do together if we use this new fitness base to improve upon for Ironman Vineman next July.
During the race, I took calculated chances, and grew as a person and triathlete in the process. I dictated my race for a change, instead of simply managing the day based on what the weather gave me. That took confidence. I hope to take more chances in future races like Wildflower and Vineman, in fact. I liked the rush of not knowing whether they would pay off instead of simply going with the flow.
I won't resume formal training for a few more weeks. Body, mind, and soul need a triathlon break, and I simply want to snuggle up with my wife and baby in bed every morning without rushing out the door to train. My first race won't likely be until next May. That will give me plenty of time to think about the athlete I am, the athlete I want to be, and what the best path is to arrive at my ultimate desired destination without sacrificing what matters most: family.
I'm sure there will be several ways we can skin that cat.
I started writing this blog post about two weeks prematurely. Ironman 70.3 St. George next weekend was supposed to be my final "pre baby" triathlon. It's been on the calendar for a long time. Instead, I have been fighting a full-on bronchial virus, just about a week removed from another week-long bout with bronchitis. I missed the start line for a race this past weekend because I wasn't feeling well either -- which is entirely unlike me. With less than two weeks to tackle arguably the toughest half-Ironman in North America, I think my body and perhaps the cosmos are trying to tell me something. Or maybe it's just that I'm finally listening.
It's time to say goodbye to competitive triathlon for a while. I'm shutting down this abbreviated season early until well after our daughter is born. I will spectate races and support my Wattie Ink and Fortius Racing teammates. I intend to road-trip to St. George to cheer on my friends. With true excitement in my heart to enjoy watching their efforts pour forth.
My friends and teammates will tease me and say, "Yeah, right. Didn't you say Ironman St. George in 2012 was going to be your last Ironman? That was three Ironmans ago!"
The only due dates at that point in time were when I was due for an FTP test.
Yeah yeah, I'm probably being overly dramatic. I've been accused of that in the past. The truth is though, I don't know what to expect next. Gone is the notion of "free" time. No spare time will be considered truly free because it will come at the cost of spending time with my daughter or my wife. The sign that I'm actually somewhat relieved to write this blog might indicate a lot already though. I'm much more interested in the Be a Dad Not a Fad movement than another PR.
So why is this hiatus different than any past "threat" I've made? I'm READY for a break. My schedule has demanded it for months though I've been too stubborn to acquiesce. Now my body is too (sick and) tired to protest. Plus, honestly I'm over the zone 5b track repeats, my heart and lungs begging my brain to slow down just a little. It's grown ever-harder to wake up before 5 a.m. to jump into a cold pool before sunrise. And I've fallen victim to my own competitive urges one too many times by ruining training sessions simply to prove a point on a hill climb. Stupid, but true. I placed so much pressure on myself to perform that at some point I forgot the meaning of "fun" in all this. I hope to regain that sensation again soon.
Even if I wasn't "ready" in the emotional sense of the word, my body is screaming at me to shut things down. I really can't recall in the last several years when I got sick within a week of recovering where travel didn't play an important role. And that's with hefty antibiotics following Oceanside 70.3. For once, I think it's time to listen to my healthier inner voice. Not the drill sergeant voice that demands I keep pushing no matter what. No, the gentler one that just recently gently touched my shoulder and whispered..."Enough."
So, for now...this is enough.
Triathlon has provided me more than I can possibly write about here. I'm a better man, work professional and partner because of it. I'm more confident. I buried insecurities from the past, never to return. I met so many teammates and friends and coaches who will always inspire me and changed my life. I'm fortunate to know that I have changed some people's lives in the same manner too.
I know this reads like a farewell when it's just a hiatus. But since I've been training almost constantly since November 2009 (literally what feels like almost every day) now is a good time to pause and honor a few people who made a special impact. I would like to thank Gerardo Barrios first and foremost, along with my Fortius Coaching family. I am hard to coach sometimes. Probably just as much of a pain in the ass to train with. I question, I improvise, I ignore and I get mad. My biggest enemy is me. Somehow, Gerardo absorbed a good portion of that, chiseled away at poor habits, helped me understand the value of persistent, consistent work, and how a leader builds an organization. He also reminded me recently in an email that I no longer have anything to prove to anyone. I almost cried when I read that. What a burden to release. That is where my triathlon journey started. A journey into the unknown of my soul. What was I capable of? Am I a quitter? Am I tough enough? And it ends here with a sense of self-ease I never mastered growing up.
I would also like to thank Gerry Rodrigues at Tower 26. There are very few people whom I'd consider asking to be my father figure if I didn't have a terrific one already. Gerry is one of them. The last few weeks, he's helped me understand in his own way (read: blunt with humor) that a truly strong man doesn't keep piling on more stress until he comes close to breaking. He takes care of himself as the top priority so he can then take care of everyone else to the best of his ability. I am able to step back with inner peace partially thanks to Gerry's wisdom. I cannot be the supportive husband in my wife's final weeks before childbirth if I'm sick, stressed and exhausted. It seems like common sense, but common sense isn't always easy to follow.
I would like to thank the leaders and my teammates on the Wattie Ink triathlon team. I had never really felt "elite" at anything in my life. I had been cut from more sports teams than I care to remember. I'll never forget sobbing in front of my friends as I missed the 8th grade basketball team by one spot. To be included in the company of some of the best triathletes in the country -- even if it was almost 30 years later -- filled an ultimately meaningless yet surprisingly deep personal void. I'm forever grateful and plan to remain a loyal teammate. For those of you looking to continue your own triathlon journey, I cannot recommend the Wattie Ink apparel enough. It is by far the most comfortable kit I've ever worn and it is likely one of the only things that will keep me motivated to stay in shape the next few months!
Finally, to my family...THANK YOU. Thanks for questioning but not protesting. Thanks for rising above your own concerns to see how this sport changed my life for the better and supporting me through all the training and racing challenges. Thanks for celebrating with me. Thanks for being beyond flexible with my schedule. Now it's time to give back. I'm here.
I reserve the right to change my mind about racing in the future. Chances are I will. The sport is too much fun, too tactically challenging, too adrenaline-filled, for me to call it quits 100 percent. After all, I AM signed up for Malibu and Ironman Arizona this fall. It's just time to turn the page from being the die-hard, consumed triathlete to a more mellow weekend warrior. Scones rides, here I come!
See you at the races. I'll be cheering for you.