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? What if Ironman is just a long day of exercise, with an incredibly accessible 17-hour window in which to finish? Nothing more, just a really absurd way to spend a weekend – along with whatever personal meaning one chooses to attach to the experience to justify the financial and time investments. What if I will never, ever have the opportunity to “KQ” because genetics didn’t bless me with the tools to be the 1% best in my age group, no matter how hard I try? What if the literal and metaphorical costs of learning life lessons swimming back and forth in a pool outweigh the benefits of doing so?
Such was my state of mind from last December through April this year. Sleep deprivation, not to mention the baby who caused it, can quickly re-arrange priorities and shatter seemingly bulletproof convictions. Yet Ironman Vineman lurked on the calendar, a decadent byproduct of a more naïve time when I thought I was the Work-Life Balance King of the World and all who cannot juggle career, family and sleep shall bow before me.
Whoops…and “now what?”
I had a choice to make, which in turn led to a gut check moment about whether triathlon was still important to me, and if so…why?
Even with stripping away any realistic thought about a KQ one day, I concluded during several casual bike rides that triathlon did matter to me. Even removing a Kona Quest as a reasonable goal, I enjoy the training and racing at a core level. It’s the never-ending process. The structure. The challenge of pushing my limits and the daily grind itself help keep me centered.
So I fully committed to Vineman, mind, body and soul. The only problem was the calendar – it was mid June, just after my industry’s big tradeshow, E3. Six weeks until the big race. I took the challenge, seeing an opportunity to experiment with different gear and nutritional approaches. And I figured 17 hours was plenty of time to finish if it all blew up in my face.
To be fair, I had been getting back into shape since the end of April. My good friend Sebastian, a first-rate human and uber-triathlete, coaxed me off the couch then and offered to help build a coached plan for me. I was a poor friend and skipped or re-arranged plenty of his suggested workouts – mostly because I simply wasn’t ready to commit mentally to regular training yet.
Eventually, like Lincoln Hawk in Over the Top, I turned my proverbial hat backwards and got to work. So what did I learn about training for an Ironman in six weeks? Here’s my BuzzFeed-style list!
· Keep it Simple
With Seb’s help, I condensed the structured approach of a six-month plan into six weeks, building the last four weeks myself. We used the first 7-10 days to reacquaint myself to two workouts a day. No crazy intervals – just establishing a pattern for consistent, low-intensity workouts. Next came a sprinkling of strength-oriented workouts such as hill repeats. Then, I focused on training in the heat almost daily to build a tolerance for wine country in July. I extended workouts in the last three weeks as much as possible, paying careful attention never to push too hard. This was successful in that I was able to train for six weeks straight without a day off, and never felt overly tired. I also opted for a very short and light taper since I had been maintaining such low intensity overall. There’s not a lot to taper for on six weeks of training!
· Less (Data) is More
Speaking of simplicity, I eschewed polluting my brain and draining my psyche with a bevy of acronyms to complicate how I perceived my training. I never looked at my performance management chart data on Training Peaks, for example. So, no Training Stress Score. No Training Stress Balance. No Chronic Training Load. No Accumulated Training Load. No Functional Threshold Power – or FTP tests. No heart rate monitor either. I trained and raced how I felt, with general ideas of what I wanted to accomplish in each individual workout and awareness of what I needed to achieve each week overall. To be even clearer, there were many workouts (mostly swims) that were unstructured as I decided on the fly which kinds of intervals made the most sense to integrate – always with the big picture in mind. (Oh, and I didn't waste time with swim drills.)
During the actual race, I chose to wear my Garmin Forerunner 920XT and use it primarily as a nutritional alarm clock. During the bike portion, I only periodically checked my normalized power but it was at most once an hour. On the run, I disabled my alarm for mile splits and used it instead as a reminder to eat and drink (which I still failed to do well enough).
· 17 Hours is a LONG Time to Finish
As my race day unfolded, I began to realize that 17 hours is a LONG time to complete a 140-mile journey provided I made the segment cutoffs. There was no reason to worry about a DNF due to fatigue – a legitimate concern going in. After completing the race on limited training, I think the distance is much more doable in general, even for people with minimal triathlon experience. If you are smart about how you approach the day, an Ironman is not the impossible task everyone thinks it is. My friend Kevin completed Ironman Arizona in 2014 on literally three weeks training and had an hour to spare when he crossed the finish line despite never biking more than 50 miles or swimming more than a mile. Maybe it’s time to move the midnight cutoff to 10 or 11 p.m.? The real point here though is this: If you want to try an Ironman but are afraid you may not finish…chances are you can do it. What's stopping you from trying?
· Letting Go is Good
This was my most important observation. Once I ditched my Kona dreams and re-established to myself that I was simply here to have fun, I was able to relax more. In doing so, I was able to have more fun. By having more fun, I didn’t suffer from negative thoughts or from the elements such as weather and spotty road conditions. When things went wrong, it was easier to solve problems with a clean mind. There is a downside though if you let go too much, as it’s easier to give in to that little voice in your head telling your body to slow down. It sounds something like this: “Hey! You! Eaaaaasy does it…you’re not going to PR this race and you’re certainly not going to Kona here, so why not chill? Take a walk! Look at the pretty scenery…why are we rushing?” When your energy stores are low, it’s particularly easy to succumb. The fine line to manage is between racing carefree mentally, physically and spiritually while remaining focused and determined to achieve the overall goal.
· Knowing Why You’re Training is Critical
What is your goal then? What motivates you to train and race? This was especially important to me with a perfect 13-month girl along with a supportive and hard-working wife. I needed to justify the choice to get up early every morning and leave snuggle time in bed before work for an hour, or at night if I trained before dinner with Steph. I also found deep motivation in demonstrating to other young fathers that they could still achieve big personal goals for themselves with some creativity, flexibility, and yes…letting go a bit too.
· You’re Probably Over-Training
If “letting go” is my most important observation, then this is my most controversial. It’s crazy to me that I finished where I did considering the lack of training – I was on track for sub-11 hours until the second half of the marathon. (Yes, there’s a lot to be said for having a basic fitness foundation to compensate here.) Crazier still that I only resumed swimming at the end of April after a lengthy absence and hit the same Ironman swim split I pretty much always do but with way less time in the water (yes, this was a fast swim course indeed.). My bike was consistent with some of my past races too. (Admittedly, the marathon was a different story.) I learned that while I may not have finished where I’d normally like, the lack of sacrifices I had to make more than justified the result. Could you train a little less and still be almost as effective as an athlete? I now believe you can. More is not necessarily better. Sometimes it’s just…more.
· Fresher is Better
Too much training and racing can leave you feeling physically dull and looking for explanations why your day didn’t quite turn out as planned. Trust me, I've been there. For Vineman, I was so rejuvenated to train again that I looked forward to race day and didn’t have any mental baggage about desperately needing the day to be over so I could finally catch some rest or eat junk. I’ve never been fresher mentally and spiritually prior to and during the race. I had nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself really. It was just a beautiful day to be outside – and not riding the same damn route near my house for the umpteenth time. Being fresher mentally enabled me to maintain positive visualization, especially during bike climbs on the rolling course. I was able to literally picture myself climbing alongside Tour de France champ Chris Froome and Columbian mountain goat Nairo Quintana. I felt strong on the Chalk Hill climb both times as a result and passed many people who were struggling.
I attribute some of my pre-race mental state to a great audio book I listened to on the drive to Windsor, The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228. On the surface, the book is a narrative documentary about a group of aspiring Navy SEALs trying to graduate the ultra-difficult BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolitions Training/SEAL) program in Coronado, Calif. In reality, Warrior Elite validates that while physical toughness and skill matter, character attributes and state of mind are far more critical in determining what it takes to survive the most grueling of gauntlets. There’s a particularly valuable portion where one of the Hell Week instructors offers his six tips for surviving the crucible. None of his keys are skills-driven. It’s not about how well you maneuver your IBS (inflatable boat/small) or the manner in which you navigate the obstacle course (though those things matter). It’s about Guts. Commitment. Teamwork. Focus. Perseverance. I think the same applies in an Ironman. It’s not really about watts, pure speed or technique even -- though of course those things matter. It’s about courage, grit, determination, and fully committing to the experience – no matter what.
Once I made that connection – once I realized that I possess the same inner qualities that the Navy looks for in its finest warriors – I knew I was going to have a good day at Vineman.
· Use Transitions Wisely
Despite my confidence, I was still cautious about flaming out in the race. Accordingly, I moved at a glacial pace in transitions. That was a lot of free speed down the tube – as in 14 minutes. Always look to be efficient in transition. While smooth is fast, as the saying goes, fast is sometimes faster. Even in an Ironman where you’re just trying to have fun. Losing minutes in T1 and T2 can become a point of regret. Think ahead for every moment of the transition and consider in advance where you can save time. I could have packed more food on my bike and could have unwrapped a few more bars beforehand, for example. And the less “stuff” you have in your bike gear bag, the better. It’s easier to grab what you need rather than sorting for what you want.
· Try Something New!
Since IM Vineman wasn’t going to be a defining race in my life, I decided to myth-bust. Part of letting go, I guess. I switched my run shoes two weeks out, from Newton BOCO-Sol to Newton Distance Elite V (yes, there’s a big difference, especially in the calves). I did so because the Distance Elites are lighter by two ounces and breathe better, important given the temperature during the run was supposed to be in the 90s (wound up in the mid-80s instead). I ditched massages altogether, mostly due to time and budget-balancing at home. I never trained with heart rate data. I tried some new pseudo-nutrition too, Hot Shot. It’s supposed to be the cure for the modern cramp. Hot Shot is a spicy 2 oz juice shot. The jury is out on this one. I drank one shot 30 minutes before the swim as instructed – and about an hour or so later my hamstring locked up in the water when I kicked hard to get around a slow swimmer. However, I had no cramp issues on the bike even though I hadn’t ridden a century since last November. Part of that, in hindsight, is that my post-race data showed I rode a smooth 1.05 Variability Index – which measures the consistency of the overall ride. I thought this was particularly solid given the rolling nature of the course. I downed another Hot Shot about 11 miles into the marathon when I started to cramp again, and I largely held cramps back the rest of the day. Except when I started to have fun in the finisher’s chute. (Lesson: Don’t have fun in the finisher’s chute haha.) What are you curious about trying in a race? What’s holding you back? What do you really have to lose?
· Own It
I basically put one song on repeat during all my training runs for the last six weeks. With these lyrics from Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz, it’s easy to see why:
I never feared death or dying
I only fear never trying
I am whatever I am, only G-d can judge me now
One shot, everything rides on tonight
Even if I’ve got three strikes, I’ma go for it
This moment, we own it.
That’s just it. Own it. If you want to become an Ironman or anything else in life, commit to making it happen. Do the work required. Remain positive. Stay focused. Don’t let anyone take your goal from you. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Don’t quit. Get it done. It’s not complicated. Make a decision, commit to executing and own every little decision along the path to your personal victory. That’s how I got to the finish line. That’s how I’ll continue to live.
See you at the next race.
Note: I would be remiss if I didn't thank the Wattie Ink triathlon team for its absolute and sincere support throughout the past season. It didn't go according to plan and I even offered to resign my spot on the team. But that was immediately denied. I'm secretly relieved and happy because I have become friends with and fans of so many folks on the team. The sponsors are tremendous and make all our lives better and easier. I personally call upon BlueSeventy for my Helix wetsuit, ISM for my bike saddle, Speedfil as my hydration system, Zealios for my sunblock and of course the beautifully crafted Wattie training and racing kits.
I would also like to thank my wife for tolerating my not-so-rational "hobby" and being the best friend and fan a guy could ever ask for. Finally, this entire experience is dedicated to my daughter, Audra. I hope you will read this one day and dream bigger dreams than I ever did as a kid, and become more than even I can hope for you to become.