A week prior to Ironman Wisconsin, my wife asked me how I was doing going into the race. She was surprised to hear that I was really enjoying the anticipation of race week more than usual.
“It’s the best part,” I said. “I can still dream about a great day.”
After race day, you’re left staring at reality – good or bad. If it’s the latter, that often means more questions than answers that can start sentences with coulda, shoulda, and woulda.
“I coulda swam faster if I didn’t have to swim through so many damn people.”
“I shoulda been smarter with my nutrition and not relied so heavily on EFS for my ride."
“I woulda biked this course better had I trained on it.”
These are all statements from my more immediate after-race report, the version I sent only to my coach and pal, Dusty. None of it matters, and it’s not healthy. I know, because I over-analyzed what became a pack fodder performance at Ironman Wisconsin. It took Dusty's stern but well-intentioned words to snap me out of an emo funk that Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man would have been proud of.
First, a quick note. YES, I completed Ironman No. 9 a few weeks ago. NO, I didn’t say a word about it to hardly anyone outside my family unless they actually trained with me. I felt that with friends and family trying to either evacuate from hurricanes or reassemble their homes plank by plank from them, it didn’t feel right for me to tell people to get hype about my race at that time.
As for the race itself, rather than an excruciatingly detailed account of the day, the more economical version is: I came to Madison physically and mentally prepared for the race of my life, all my training data indicated that literally I’ve never been in better physical form and fitness. Mentally, I was supremely confident. The idea of a “bad” race didn’t seem possible, and I didn’t gameplan for it (more on that later). That said, I had experienced some minor right knee pain (more of a dull throb) on a few treadmill runs the last several weeks in my final build phase, but as quickly as it appeared the discomfort subsided. I noted it once to Dusty, and tried to put it of my mind. I figured there was no issue since it didn’t hamper any of my longer runs.
Ultimately, I was wrong. My knee started to act up by mile 50 on the bike. That’s never happened to me before, not in training, never in a race. I got spooked, and the negative self-talk dominated most of my ride. “How could I possibly run a marathon on a tight knee?” I wondered.
Fortunately, my knee discomfort seemingly subsided by the time I finished my ride, though I walked/staggered into T2 atop the Lake Manona Terrace parking lot helix feeling tired physically and mentally. I plopped into a chair to collect myself, and hoped for the best as I ran out onto State Street.
My knee held up very well for the first eight miles. I was running so much better than I expected given the situation that I walked most of the aid stations to ensure I took in enough nutrition for a strong day. I passed four people in my age group and was poised to pick more off, until my gut acted up around mile 11. Also a first in an Ironman – I had to stop for a restroom break.
I’m not sure if it was the sitting that locked up my knee, or the exhaustion after struggling to put my drenched sleeved tri kit back around my sweaty torso – but when I left that porto-potty…the day had changed. My body and brain felt heavy. The air felt heavy. The concrete seemingly became mud.
I struggled to finish the first loop but got it done, feeling like I could keep a decent pace. Then, as the second 13.1 loop began, my body shut down. I could hardly bend my knee at all – it felt like the Tinman suddenly ran out of oil in the joint. I tried walk-jogging, anything to get back into the spirit of the day. My energy sagged, and so did my inner fight.
By mile 16 I was only walking. Minutes later, I turned off my watch. The day was over. The only reasons I chose to finish were to bring a medal home to my daughter, and I have a couple pals who are retired Navy SEALs – I couldn’t stand the thought of telling them I rang the proverbial bell because I was in discomfort, feeling sorry for myself, and tired. More immediately, my friend Rod drove in from Milwaukee with his family to see me race, and I didn't want to set a bad example for his kids. A DNF was therefore unconscionable to me. So I settled in for a long walk, and took comfort in helping a few people in worse shape than me, whether it was with a joke, or literally putting my hand on one guy’s shoulder as he vomited near an aid station.
This result was particularly hard for me to process because I honestly thought I would finish within the top 15 in my age group – if not better. And with so many talented athletes racing in Chattanooga, TN for the 70.3 World Championships…maybe I could sneak into a Kona slot? Zig while everyone zags, ya know?
Apparently lots of other people had the same idea. I was on pace for a sub 11-hour finish, which over the last two years would have been a high placement. This year, had I even stayed on pace, I likely would have been in the 20s.
What really hurts about this result is that I was so sure I was going to have a great day. Dusty was sure. My training partners were sure. When it didn’t happen that way, I was left wondering what the hell I do this crazy sport for…all the training hours, all the schedule juggling, all the sacrificing. The worst is when you're wondering that DURING the race.
Failure truly forces you to confront your “why” in the most no-bullshit of ways.
So where does that leave me? What’s ACTIONABLE? How can my experiences be of use to other athletes? Especially now that I’m coaching fellow endurance athletes.
Here’s what I came up with.
- Don’t take “niggles” for granted. I probably felt that dull kneecap tightness/discomfort about three times in the weeks leading up to the race, always on the treadmill. After the second time, I thought it would be wise to get a massage, or maybe focus on foam rolling. I dismissed the first option because I didn’t want to lose any power or springiness in my legs in the middle of my long run preparation. I also simply didn’t want to spend the money on a proper sports massage. Penny wise, perhaps pound foolish. Now, I instead wait and see what the orthopedist will say about my knee. The real takeaway? Trust your gut. I knew something was a little “off.” I chose to ignore it, and paid a price.
- Savor great training, as that might turn out to be your greatest race victory. This is a major part of finding your WHY behind your training and racing. If you’re not swimming, cycling and running because you love triathlon and aim for consistent improvement, overcominga sub-optimal race result is only harder. I felt “present” for much of my training, and do remember several excellent sessions where improvement was palpable. I even channeled those thoughts on the race course to remain in a positive mindset as best I could. Post-race, I’ve still been able to hang onto those workouts as I struggle to re-gain momentum in my training.
- Race more. Ironman Wisconsin marked only my second race of 2017 – I decided to race less this year to save some money on the homefront, as our daughter began pre-school and expenses increased. When you put so many proverbial training eggs in one or two race baskets, an unsatisfactory race experience is that much more frustrating. It hangs dankly in the air, in this case possibly until 2018. There are many different local (Los Angeles area) races to choose from that don’t cost too much and don’t require overnight stays, let alone flights. I need to race more in 2018 and use races as progress reports, not final exams. There has to be a better middle ground. But that’s life as an age-group dad!
- Data can tell a different story. That crappy race I thought I had? Well, thanks to my friend Christophe’s tri-data site, http://www.obstri.com, I was able to see that my swim and bike performances were among my best in nearly eight years of Ironman-level racing when viewed against the competition that day. All that conditioning wasn’t wasted. Even though my swim time was in the rather pedestrian 1:09 range, it was within a percentage point of my best swim relative to the competition, which was more than two minutes faster at Ironman Arizona a few years ago. It was even faster than some of the top 10 age group finishers. This reflects a much greater emphasis on my swim training the last several months, and is something to build upon. And, while a 5:55 hour bike performance is nothing to squawk about without context, it was my second-best Ironman performance relative to the competition -- thanks to the hilly course. Considering my best ride split was just over 5 hours, that’s saying a lot.
Data works both ways though. My ride data strongly suggests I over-cooked the effort. For starters, ideally you’d like to see a very small difference between 1.0-1.05 from your average watts and normalized watts during the course of a ride. Mine was 1.08. Definitely high, but not necessarily disastrous given 5.5k of climbing. My takeaway here is that in some cases, I had to burn matches to simply keep momentum up a hill, like on Barlow Road (18% grades, see video above!). Overall, while I didn’t feel like I was actively trying to muscle through a climb – it’s clear that I needed to scale back even further. My Training Stress Score for the ride was a whopping 334. You really don’t want to be over 300 if you can avoid it, and something closer to 250 is an ideal scenario.
BUT, I was able to run pain-free for 10-plus miles at a faster than expected pace.
BUT BUT…a marathon is 26.2 miles. Not 10.
- Plan for every scenario. The night before the race, I texted a friend of mine who was among the most accomplished athletes in the world before he recently retired. I asked him how he mentally prepared for events the night before – how did he handle the pre-race jitters? His response surprised me, and was an omen. He told me he thought about every single scenario that could go wrong, and then took time to think about what his response would be to mitigate it. Until that moment, I hadn’t actively considered what would I do if my race didn’t unfold the way I expected it to. I had drank my own Kool-Aid, and believed I was invincible. This is inexcusable since I actively coach my own athlete-clients to prepare for Murphy's Law to strike before and during every race. (Cue "Do as I say, not as I do!") My best Ironman performances occur when I remember nothing is guaranteed on race day, I keep my head down, vow to run a SMART race, and then simply execute.
Before he signed off, my friend shared with me a quote that became pivotal during my Ironman Shuffle to the finish, from Samuel Beckett: “I cannot go on. I shall go on.” Sometimes it’s as simple as that, especially in an Ironman. I lived with piercing self-doubt for the final 80 miles of the bike and run portions, and I came dangerously close to quitting at least twice – even talking to medics around mile 20 of the marathon. But that quote, “I cannot go on. I shall go on,” stayed with me.
So I went on.
And I finished.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this, I visited an orthopedist to examine my knee. Structurally, there’s no damage. But I do have patella tendonopathy, or tendonitis. I’m somewhat relieved I wasn’t making something up in my head about a knee issue. And I’m especially grateful that in the range of knee injury possibilities, mine is easily treatable. I can continue to train, though I’ll be wearing a knee brace on runs for a few weeks at least. I'll also start physical therapy this week, per the doctor. We’re focusing mostly on electronic stimulation and ultrasound work, along with some gait analysis and correction. If that doesn’t work, the next step is an MRI and possibly a platelet-rich plasma injection – the same treatment Kobe Bryant opted for when he blew his knee out a few years ago. I don’t think it will come to that for me. I’m looking forward to healing up and resuming full training.