The Pros and Cons of Race Management

The Ironman finisher's chute...one of the best places in sports.

The Ironman finisher's chute...one of the best places in sports.

Looking back on each Ironman I've completed, there's always one standout lesson to take with me for future races.

My best statistical Ironman race finish (26/502 AG, 151/3202 OA) yielded the most boring of lessons so far. Who wants to "manage" anything?  We save that for office paperwork, right? No, when we're racing, we want to "crush," "annihilate," and "punish." Racing is where we unleash our inner warrior spirit. On Sunday in Tempe, my warrior spirit manifested itself in the form of a clinician instead.  Once I checked the morning race weather report online and saw 16-22 mph winds, I switched off my inner Animal and transformed into Greg Maddux. Steady. Crafty. Calm. Unsexy.  Was that the right choice? Should I have infused a bit more "Anything is Possible" into my race-day planning? That is what this race report will explore.

Pre-Race

The days I spent in Tempe leading to the race were just about perfect. As always, I could've used more time to get settled and relax. A Wednesday arrival would be ideal instead of Thursday afternoon. I don't recommend arriving beyond 3 p.m. on Thursday as it becomes a sprint to packet pick up and if  you have to retrieve your bike from a transport service. In addition, I may rent a car next year. (Yes, if you're paying attention closely I just wrote "next year." I signed up.) Flying saves a lot of downtime, but I'm a bit of a control freak pre-race and not being able to just go to the grocery store whenever I wanted or be confined to restaurants within walking distance didn't sit well for me. Thank goodness my pal Christophe put up with me for an afternoon. He'll tell you how high maintenance I can be.

TJ Nuccio, my friend and Fortius Coaching teammate, sent me a care package of Runyon Canyon apparel to enjoy for the weekend. I was pleased to be able to wear a comfy tank top in the middle of November!

TJ Nuccio, my friend and Fortius Coaching teammate, sent me a care package of Runyon Canyon apparel to enjoy for the weekend. I was pleased to be able to wear a comfy tank top in the middle of November!

 

I woke up a little too late the morning of the race, after a surprisingly easy night of rest. By the time I reached T1, after listening to the Imperial March on repeat for my walk to the park (BECAUSE THAT IS HOW I FELT), it was close to 6 a.m. with bottles to drop, tires to pump, wetsuit to put on, bags to stow for the special needs crew, and give my morning clothes to my folks. This caused unnecessary stress as I was among the last to leave the transition area because I couldn't find my family. I even started to put on my wetsuit backwards from rushing too much and not thinking! That's not how you want to start your day.

Fortunately, I found fellow game devs Christophe, Ryan and Bryan in the swim entry line. That immediately relaxed me and it felt like a normal training day. Almost. We hugged and swam in the 68-degree water through the scrum to the start line, where we treaded, floated, clutched onto kayaks...and waited.

SWIM

Gear: BlueSeventy Helix wetsuit, BlueSeventy Neoprene cap, Aquasphere Kayenne smoke-tinted goggles

Absolutely love my custom BlueSeventy Helix wetsuit. It fits super snugly and doesn't restrain my shoulders.

Absolutely love my custom BlueSeventy Helix wetsuit. It fits super snugly and doesn't restrain my shoulders.

My plan was to start 10-15 yards to the right of the buoys, aiming for the fourth buoy almost 1,000 yards ahead.  The course curves slightly to the right, so I was trying to swim an efficient line. That became almost impossible with literally hundreds of bodies thrashing around me. It's survival of the fittest, almost literally, in those first 500 yards. You swim where there's a lane and where you get hit or kicked the least. I found myself drifting farther to the left and closer to the buoys than I would have preferred. Overall though, I couldn't complain. My Tower 26 swimming was paying off immediately as I pushed a strong pace without fatigue nor panic.

The return trip was notable for only two reasons. First, I've never peed so much during a swim portion of a race. I have no idea why except that I hydrated using at least three Herbalife 24' "Hydrate" packets the day prior. They're filled with electrolytes, along with the six Salt Stick tablets I popped the day before as well. Only in triathlon can one be so proud to pee while moving without losing speed. Second, I almost got a penalty for missing the "proper" way to swim around the final turn buoy back to shore. I was getting pushed left by a pack of swimmers and just went with the flow, so to speak. Until an official on a kayak started shouting at me to turn the proper way. I had a feeling he meant business so complied. That cost me around 20 seconds. More on that later.

I exited the water in 1:07:37, nearly a 1.5 minute personal best in all my Ironman races. I couldn't be happier, though I think with better sighting I should have been closer to 1:05:00. Tower 26 has been a huge help in improving my swimming, and I'll be back for more in the future. Also, for future IMAZ swims I'll look into polarized lenses as I'm sick of being blinded staring into the sun!

Rocketing out of T1, feeling great. Loving my new Wattie Ink camo kit. Zero chafing, perfect fit. Do recommend.

Rocketing out of T1, feeling great. Loving my new Wattie Ink camo kit. Zero chafing, perfect fit. Do recommend.

 

BIKE

Gear: Cervelo P5 Six Di2, 11/25 cassette, Reynolds 72 Aero front, Zipp Super 9 clincher rear, Speedfil rear and front hydration systems, SpeedPlay Zero pedals, Fizik shoes (Balaga wool socks), ISM Adamo Prologue seat, Kask Bambino helmet, orange-tint wind visor. Wattie Ink "Camp Contender" tri kit.

The wind looks so calm in a still photo...

The wind looks so calm in a still photo...

I felt phenomenal coming out of the water. My legs were springy and I bounded to T1. Last year, I took my time in T1. This year, I was very efficient and out in less than five minutes. If I wasn't fiddling with some food options it would have been closer to four. Nothing I'd really do different here though. I took my time while going fast, sitting down even at the changing tent to put on socks and shoes, taking a deep breath, and allowing the sunblock volunteers to slather me.

Once on the bike, I immediately knew it was going to be a challenging day. The winds picked up just leaving Rio Salado near SunDevil Stadium and didn't relent until the Beeline Highway turnaround 15-plus miles later. "Manage the race," I literally said out loud to myself multiple times. 

That morning, I predicted I'd hit around 1:50:00 per loop and when I came in at 1:46:00 with a pee break on the bike I was pleased. But things were not as they seemed. Like in 2010, I wasn't able to eat solid foods without feeling bloated. I tried a gel instead and actually had some light vomit issues while pedaling. That's never happened to me before. I powered right through, because, well, I had no choice.

Saying hi to the Fortius crew and heading back out into the wind. Hiding my GI discomfort.

Saying hi to the Fortius crew and heading back out into the wind. Hiding my GI discomfort.

I can't stress enough the power of positive self-talk. Instead of getting down about the winds, feeling my bike PR slip away or worry about my nutrition, I focused on the things that were going well. Even the smallest of things like grabbing a water bottle on the go at an aid station. I'd say something to myself aloud like, "That was really efficient. Nicely done!" I did this throughout the bike portion when I was losing focus or even if things were going well. It helped me remain present, and I stayed on track for most of the duration even as my watts dipped below my desired .70 intensity factor.

I even remember thinking to myself how much I enjoyed the challenges the race was presenting as it kept me thinking over and over, "Work the problem." It felt like solving a mystery instead of absently looking at a watch to maintain a constant wattage. Working the problem led me to ingest some Pepto Bismal pills to calm my stomach, and that helped almost immediately. While my overall mental strategy was effective, maybe I needed to snap out of my happy place more often and return to my normal racing Beast Mode?

Looking back, I'm torn about my IMAZ bike riding. My second and third bike loop splits were unimpressive and don't reflect my true cycling capabilities. I turned in a smooth, controlled effort (1.03 VI) but I could and should have pushed harder up the highway in the wind knowing I'd be able to rest and recharge with the free speed back into town. But.. I managed the race well considering all I could eat for 5.5 hours was 1.5 Bonk Breakers, banana, gel, a quarter of a bagel with almond butter, and one packet of Gu Chomps along with drinking six bottles of Fluid Performance with honey. In other words, I made strategic decisions based on the signals my body was sending back to me. Not sexy, but effective.

RUN

Gear: Newton BoCo AT shoes w/ Yankz lacing system, Fortius Racing hat, Oakley Jackets, Balaga wool socks

Like most people finishing a 112-mile bike ride, I was relieved to rid myself of my bike, especially flat-tire free. There were many scattered along the side of the road changing tires, and I truly felt bad for them.

My T2 was under two minutes, and that was with sitting down to put on shoes, calmly reach for some gels and have sunscreen applied. Slow can be fast when it comes to transitions. Once on my feet, the first two miles of any triathlon run, to me, are the most stressful. You have no idea how your legs are going to respond and can only hope for the best. I was especially nervous after Ironman Silverman 70.3, where I experienced leg cramps even while putting on shoes in T2. Mentally, that's like running on egg shells. All I can do is focus on breathing, posture, cadence, and feel what's happening to me physically. Control the controllables, as they say. Fortunately, my pace quickened easily as did my heart rate. I was easily able to drift into the desired sub-8 minute miles while keeping my heart rate in a low aerobic state, and remained there for almost the first half-marathon. I couldn't believe how smooth everything felt. I was truly having fun in an Ironman, especially when Wattie Ink's own fabled Eurostar smacked me HARD on the ass along the riverfront. The concept of not having fun sounds foolish as this whole thing is supposed to be a hobby. But when your gut is bothering you, your feet hurt, you're suffering from a mild, dull headache and think that you won't be done for another 24 miles...fun is hard to come by.

Coming out of T2, hoping for the best. Only 26 miles to go!

Coming out of T2, hoping for the best. Only 26 miles to go!

However, while my run was just starting to unfold nicely, I had already made the second-biggest mental mistake of the day. Coming out of T2, I looked at my watch and noticed, for the first time all day, that my overall time was 6:47:10. Doing the math quickly in my head, I knew I couldn't break 10 hours as hoped. Even if I had put it out of my head before the sun rose (mistake Number One), the spark of my dream was still lit. Until that moment, of course. Not once did I think, "Well, if I run a 3:30:00 marathon I can still come in eight minutes ahead of my PR from 2013. I didn't set an aggressive goal for myself, instead I just resigned to missing my top mark and hoped I had good run legs underneath me. By making that choice, or lack thereof, I failed to challenge myself to greatness. I "settled" and merely hoped for a solid marathon, and to pass as many people along the way as I could. The reason I did this was simple: I didn't want to fail. I knew I needed to cross the finish line to validate my ongoing quest for a future Legacy slot if I can't qualify for Kona on my own. It is no longer acceptable to think that way. Period. 

The worry over being "safe" limited my vision to be great. I took no chances throughout the entire day. I managed my race and finished with my best Ironman placement ever. But for what? Why? Is finishing an Ironman the mark of greatness, or is the mark of greatness picking a seemingly impossible goal and pushing to the limits of our physical and mental abilities to achieve it? Even if you fail, you've tried for something gallant, something bold and daring. The reward is worth the risk. Ask Mirinda Carfrae.

Back to the race. From the first mile, I was bloated from the bike ride. No food sounded good, so I focused entirely on water and Coke at each aid station. Within four miles, my stomach tightness was gone, but my appetite hadn't arrived. Around mile 12, I began to fade. Aid station pauses turned to full-on walking. My pace slowed by almost a minute per hour. Still, I honestly never panicked. "Work the problem. Work the problem," I thought. I was running with gels in each hand, along with electrolyte tablets just in case. I popped some pills, tried a gel, slammed a banana and a quarter of an orange. It took five miles to pick my pace back up, and that was mostly thanks to seeing Christophe trot by looking strong and fresh. I knew he was coming for me and I needed to pick up the speed. This actually led to my favorite part of the marathon, miles 20-26. Honestly, who thinks the last six miles are the best?! Certainly it was my first time thinking that. Yet, I had the energy to run through aid stations entirely, and without cramps. I was 100% focused on passing as many people as possible, as was my strategy throughout the day. Since I knew my PR wasn't going to be hit (so I thought), all I cared about was eating people up on the course. And I did, to the tune of 18 age-group competitors in the marathon alone.

Is finishing an Ironman the mark of greatness, or is the mark of greatness picking a seemingly impossible goal and pushing to the limits of our physical and mental abilities to achieve it?

I rounded the right turn on Ash Avenue prior to making the left onto Rio Salado. It felt so much easier than last year, when all I kept humming to myself was "Carry me home tonight" from that F.U.N. song.  An uncontrollable grin began to emerge. Still, I had no idea what my overall time was for the day. I hadn't looked once since switching my Garmin watch mode to pace, lap time and heart rate. While I began my fist-pumping elation, letting loose all the pent-up emotion from the day and last several months of training, I saw the clock: 10:25:40. My PR was 10:25:36. My marathon PR had been 3:53 the year prior. On this day it was 3:39:46. 

I didn't even care. To hit nearly the same time as last year under markedly different conditions was enough in that moment. Final time: 10:26:01. Except this year, I finished nine places higher in my age group than last year, and nearly 100 places higher overall.

A salty, exhausted, happy mess.

A salty, exhausted, happy mess.

Post-Race Thoughts

It may seem like I'm disappointed in my performance. I am not. I'm grateful to participate in a sport where I can learn such insightful lessons by testing myself physically and mentally. This race was necessary to experience before I could possibly challenge myself to push beyond conventional wisdom for a transcendent result. The kind of result that exceeds my own expectations because I dared myself to dig deeper and go faster when I think there's no capability to do so. If I want to qualify for Kona, I can't look at a weather report on race day morning and decide a top 10 or better placement is not possible. Managing the race is a nice thing to do when you're simply trying to have a good race, a nice race. But GREAT races require greater commitment, no matter the conditions or circumstances. I am now prepared, more than any other point in my training, to become great, and prepared for the sacrifices that greatness will require.

I will learn. I will evolve. And I will improve.

My Fortius teammate Ryan has a megawatt smile that just makes you want to smile too. Ryan was one of the folks who planned to race Ironman Lake Tahoe and moved to IMAZ after that race got cancelled. Glad I got to be there at the finish with him after I bundled up due to some shivering post-race.

My Fortius teammate Ryan has a megawatt smile that just makes you want to smile too. Ryan was one of the folks who planned to race Ironman Lake Tahoe and moved to IMAZ after that race got cancelled. Glad I got to be there at the finish with him after I bundled up due to some shivering post-race.

Special Thanks

My parents and father in law attended IMAZ this year, along with my biggest cheerleader and best friend, Stephanie. She happens to be my wife too, which is rad. To have that kind of support crew on hand, as well as a very special friend in Russ...that was awesome. Thank you for helping me create an unforgettable memory.

My Fortius Coaching family was outstanding in their support too. Coach Gerardo helped deliver me to the finish line healthy and ready to race well despite a very busy summer filled with travel and illness. This has been my most successful race season, results-wise. Thank you, G.

Fortius annual pre-race dinner at Oregano's in Tempe.

Fortius annual pre-race dinner at Oregano's in Tempe.

Representing Wattie Ink on the course was a special honor. The team had recently trimmed its roster by 1/3 and more than 500 applicants applied to the 2015 squad. To be selected for a second year meant so much to me. Almost to the point of a separate blog post on its own. Wattie Ink sponsors Herbalife, ISM saddles, Speedfil, Reynolds wheels, PowerBar, TriBike Transport, and BlueSeventy all played major roles in my race.

Gerry Rodrigues and the school of amazing fish at Tower 26 kindled a passion for swimming I never knew existed. I truly look forward to 5 a.m. wakeups now to swim with some of the most dedicated athletes in SoCal. I can't wait to see what kind of progress I make in the water next season.

Corey Enman at Fitamorphosis Fit Body Boot Camp whipped my body and mind into shape the last several weeks with some terrific tri-specific strength training sessions. I valued our laughing together as much as the workouts themselves. Ben Kleinbrodt, my longtime chiropractor, helped manage some misalignment issues in my back the last few weeks and I was pain-free on race day. Efren Jimenez kept my my muscles feeling smooth and that's why he's the top-rated massage therapist in Burbank.

There are three additional people I'd like to thank behind the scenes. Jason McFaul (who qualified for Kona in my age group at IMAZ '14), Caleb Sponholtz, and Gary Michelson have become good friends and mentors, but more importantly, people I just generally look up to. They send me motivational text messages, challenge me to think differently about my training and racing, and inspire me with their performances. Each helped me break through some big barriers this season. I'll be training more with Jason and Caleb this winter and can't wait. Gary, I'm ready to run with you too!

Finally, I'd like to acknowledge someone who won't be reading this post, but who lives on with me in spirit. Ethan Weiss passed away about a week before IMAZ. I wanted to honor him with a strong race and I kept him in mind all week, almost losing my composure on the walk to the race that morning. I think the wind had something to do with him messing with me, which is something Ethan would have done. Then, he would have shaken my hand at the finish line and said, "Way to go, Kid." I'll greatly miss him.

Honored virtual big brother Ethan on my race shoes. 

Honored virtual big brother Ethan on my race shoes. 

The offseason is here...for a week. Then, we begin training for 2015. The hunt for Kona continues.