It took 13 Ironman finishes, but I think I’m starting to figure out this whole 140.6-mile racing thing.
Physical fitness matters. Especially at the pointy end of the leaderboard.
But guts, guile and gameplan matter even more.
I’ve received several texts, phone calls and emails about what transpired towards the end of my Ironman Santa Rosa race this past weekend. Not because I was particularly fast overall — it was a middle-of-the-road performance for me. But rather because people asked me to explain how I was able to resurrect myself after a steady but steep demise from miles 9-18 during the marathon.
Here’s my best attempt at an answer.
For context, below is a visual layout of my mile splits during the marathon. I could have made four circles here, labeled based on the theme of my internal monologue at each point:
Miles 1-8: “Hey, this is smooth and steady; you’re killing this!”
Miles 9-14: “You are not killing this; work the problem!”
Miles 15-17: “Damn it! Bonked again! This sucks! C’mon! Don’t give up!”
Miles 18-26: “What do we tell the God of Death: NOT TODAY!!”
Before proceeding further, I should add another layer of context. Many of the people whom I suspect will read this recap know it’s been a challenging year so far. My dad, Mitch, has a rare form of bone marrow cancer (primary myelofibrosis) that accelerated and required a rushed stem cell transplant a few weeks ago. Prior to that in January, I suffered some complications recovering from sinus cavity surgery that wiped out roughly two months of training altogether through mid-March. Between my full-time career at Insomniac Games, growing my own Good Wolf Coaching practice, and remaining a dedicated husband and father, I would not be bringing much physical fitness to this race.
Six weeks ago, I actually discussed with my wife, Stephanie, ditching my Ironman World Championship Legacy quest. I didn’t think I’d be strong enough to even cross the finish line for my Kona slot validation race in Santa Rosa. Until the week of April 1, my longest week of training came 7 days after my January 22 surgery (8.5 hours) with most weeks hovering between nothing and up to five hours. Flu, bronchitis and pneumonia relentlessly took over through late March, though I managed three quality-driven, 10-hour training weeks from April 1st right up to race week.
So it would be easy to find excuses why it was OK to shut things down at any point in the race, in other words.
If I was going to earn my Kona validation, I’d have to race smart, and with heart. Steph urged me to go for it. I’m glad I did.
Besides, we both knew this race wasn’t just for me anymore. Not by a longshot.
See, whenever I visited my dad at the hospital, he’d mark his daily laps walking the transplant wing with his tethered IV stand by practically growling, “We’re going to Kona.” Followed promptly by a two-hour nap as he’d exhaust himself trying to impress me with his Festivus-like Feats (feet?) of Strength.
If my dad could endure that kind of pain and discomfort, and still put on a show for me, I had better be able to return the favor and honor his determination and focus.
I believe this was the answer I needed for the inevitable inner demon question we all face during a long race like Ironman. Anyone who has raced understands the dance between our inner good and bad wolves. That tempting voice that tells us it’s OK to shut things down, to conserve energy, to just jog to the finish…because who cares?
In my case, it sounded like this: “You know you’re not fit enough for this anyways. You’re only “racing” this on six weeks training. Why over-extend yourself? All you have to do is cross the damn finish line in 17 hours to earn your World Championships Legacy slot. Reeeelax.”
I had listened to that voice and fallen prey to its mesmerizing spell in more Ironman races than I care to admit. That voice is seductive, like the ssssssnake Kaa in Jungle Book. “Loooook into my eyessssssssss….”
I started bargaining with that sssssmooth voice around mile 8 of the marathon when it became apparent I was sssssslowing down and getting more tired. The voice ssssslithered around my throat for the next ssssseven miles, and sssstarted choking me out ever ssssso gently. Nuzzling me to ssssleep, gentle sssssweet sssssleep.
I remembered my dad. In the hospital wing. I thought of my buddies who told me (with love) they’d be heckling me via text message thread all race. It would have been perfectly fine to fold in that moment. This was, as Thanos said…inevitable.
No, it was not inevitable. Not by a longshot.
Try to run
Try to hide
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side
This was the moment. Nowhere to hide from my own inevitable truth. Run, or hide.
I chose to honor my dad. I chose to will my friends to start texting each other something new, “Hey, Schneider’s flipping the script!” I chose to honor the prophecy of my own coach, Jim Lubinski at Tower 26, who implored me to find a breakthrough performance on the run in his pre-race plan.
Prior to that moment, I thought I understood what a breakthrough meant. In my head, it was simply hitting a “grind” switch. And hoping the body flickered to life.
Now, I think breakthrough performances are more than that. For me, four things happened, and they all have equal value. It’s not a moment. It’s a process.
I never gave up mentally. Not once. I slowed down. But never quit.
I assessed the problem, fatigue and stiffness in this case, and addressed both for several miles through more conscious eating and drinking, along with popping two Advil gel-caps from my run special needs bag.
I committed to a singular focus of honoring my dad by pushing as hard and as fast as I could.
My mind and body went blank for the next eight-plus miles. I truly felt absolutely zero pain, only the sensation of (relative) speed, clarity of purpose, and focus. Nothing else existed in my world. Well, maybe intense motivation masked as my Kobe-inspired, Black Mamba-faced anger. (No seriously, ask Gary Michelson…he saw it haha.)
I think I found the mythical Zone.
I closed faster in this Ironman marathon than in any other. I literally (and metaphorically?) jumped over a snake crossing the river run path around mile 20 (NOT kidding!). And I strongly believe I could have run another 5k past the finish chute and still gained speed. I’m pretty proud of that. Especially when literally nothing but pride was on the line.
And yet. Pride sometimes is everything.
So is dignity.
So is honor.
I didn’t want to slink to the finish. Nor for my dad. Not for my Good Wolf athletes. Not for my friends. Not for me. No more. Not today.
So I chose not to.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
Except when it’s not. Still with me?
There are two other physical activities in triathlon, and when those are executed well, you put yourself into a position to succeed on the run. I was able to do that on my swim and bike ride, despite not swimming or riding much at all going into the race.
The first is my swim. Not my fastest swim, not my slowest swim either. Faster than last year on the same course, too. And consistent — to the tune of swimming one yard more year-to-year. My sighting allowed me to swim efficiently, and as you can see, my heart rate is never really elevated. Calm and steady.
I did have to contend with what had to be the WORST kicking swimmer in the history of open-water swimming. This ANNOYING guy clung to me for at least 2/3 of the race. I’d try to draft off him but his vertical scissor-kicking was causing some big jetwash turbulence. I’d try to swim around him, and his rotating sideways scissor kicks hit me in the ribs several times. I’d try to pass, he’d catch up. It was a futile battle and one not worth fighting so early in the race. I swam wider than I like on the second loop, found open water, and cruised.
Now for the bike. My longest ride all year was 70 miles about two weeks before the race (a casual jaunt up Mt Baldy LOL). I kept my effort measured, evidenced by an identical 1.03 VI (a good marker for consistency) from last year’s IMSR race. The first two hours of the bike ride felt bleak though. I couldn’t find any power in my legs and was 10 watts below my intended average. My climbing legs were fine on some of the steeper pitches, but I couldn’t generate power on the flats and rollers. By remaining patient, nutrition-focused and positive, I eventually got into a solid groove and my watts improved throughout the day until around mile 100. Then, it was a bit of a mental struggle to fight some low-grade but steady headwinds back to downtown Santa Rosa. Had I over-committed to biking hard to make up watts and time, it would have been harder to rally on the run.
Patience pays off.
But you need the courage to reinvest it later.
Then, if you’re lucky, you might just break on through to the other side.
Before signing off, I’d like to thank my family for yet again supporting this crazy, occasionally stupid, highly intrinsically rewarding pursuit. I can never thank Stephanie enough. And I hope one day Audra (and possibly future lil Schneiders) will appreciate the values that are so viscerally demonstrated during an Ironman race.
My parents and sister know how I feel about them. But thank you for always encouraging me, no matter what. if you want a KICK ASS blog in your life, check out my dad’s daily YouTube musings about his battle with cancer.
Good Wolf athletes…I wanted to set an example you could be proud of and shoot to top for yourself. Can’t wait to go on that journey with each of you. Heartfelt congratulations to first-time Ironman finisher Diana Olveira, who overcame some nausea issues during the bike and still came within 10 minutes of her desired finish time. She also PR’d her overall marathon time. F*ck Cancer Triathlon Team leader Jayson Williams completed Ironman 10 with a near 40-minute Santa Rosa course PR and a marathon PR while overcoming nearly being pulled from the water due to an asthma attack. That’s some Good Wolf mind-over-matter stuff right there.
My friends and teammates…you motivate and inspire me. Christophe, Doc Jon and Weilert in particular…your good-natured ongoing text message banter was more important than you know. Russ, Gary, T26 lanemates…the list goes on and on. Thank you.
Coach Jim and Coach Gerry Rodrigues at Tower 26 triathlon and swim coaching, thank you for being so understanding this winter and spring. Thanks for the encouraging texts and emails and phone calls when I was feeling low. Thanks for pushing me in a balanced and thoughtful way. I gave you my best effort as re-payment. And Efren Jimenez got my body prepped as best he could with a couple amazing massages. Thank you, buddy. Hands of G-d.
To my friends who have been touched by cancer in any way. I feel you. I’m with you. I’m one of you. We’re in this together even if we’re not the patients ourselves. Fuck Cancer!
Next stop: Escape from Alcatraz in three weeks!!!