On Saturday, May 19th, I participated in and Ironman Triathlon in The Woodlands, Texas. The triathlon consisted of a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. This was my 4th Ironman Triathlon, and my goals going into the race were to win my age group and to finish the race in under nine hours.
My plan for the swim was to get up in the first row or two, put myself in a good position after half a mile or so, and then find a small group to work with for the remainder of the swim. With 2200 athletes starting at the same time, you expect to get pushed around a bit. When the cannon went off, I made it out of the chaos well, with very little contact, but I couldn’t quite find a solid group to work with until I hit the buoy at about a mile into the swim. Here I was passed by two swimmers who were absolutely rolling. So I told myself that I would try to stick with them as long as I could comfortably. It actually turned out perfect for me, as they were moving fast enough where if I lost focus for more than a couple of strokes, I would lose their feet and the subsequent draft they were providing for me. So several times I had to put out a decent effort to gain back up to them. By this time there were very few swimmers around us, so I knew I was having a good swim. When I got out, I was pleasantly surprised to see a big 56 on the clock. I was thinking a 58 minute non-wetsuit swim would have been great for me. I was extremely happy that I raced the swim intelligently and made good decisions that led me to a time that was probably a couple of minutes faster than I could have swam on my own.
The changing tent was not too busy, so that was definitely a perk. The volunteers are absolutely fantastic in Ironman races. After forgetting to put on sunscreen in Kona in 2009, I made sure to spend a little time getting sunscreen before I headed out on my bike.
This may shed some light on my ineptness as a bike geek (hey I just like to ride my bike), but I knew that in the morning that when I was getting my bike all set that I couldn’t calibrate my power meter. There were too many other signals, and my Garmin couldn’t isolate just mine. So I figured I would calibrate once I headed out on the bike course. As I mounted my bike and got settled, I tried twice to calibrate the power meter, but both times calibration failed. So instead of continuing to mess around with it, I decided to just ride old school and forego power feedback. I felt really smooth on the way out, and with a nice tailwind I was averaging just over 24.5 mph for the first 25 miles of the course. Fortunately for me, the bike course was eerily similar to riding on two “staple” loops back in Williamsburg. So I felt right at home, powering away on the small rollers and long, sweeping flatlands. Around mile 40, I entered Sam Houston National Park, which provided ample shade and some nice forest scenery for about eight miles. The roads were narrow and twisting, and it was a blast flying through them with that constant tailwind. I would say that over the first 45 miles there were no real challenges that presented themselves to me. My nutrition was spot on, I was staying cool, I was keeping a steady cadence, and I was passing those faster swimmers steadily. It was about at mile 45 that the bike course entered Grimes County. For the first time, I had to pay attention to the road surface and monitor my efforts on a couple decent climbs. There was a fair amount of chip seal, which all in all isn’t the worst thing in the world, but the roads were strewn with pothole patches and cracks, and I had to stay mentally alert. At one point it became clearly evident that I was racing in Texas, as I passed a man standing in the middle of the road creating a barrier between the right side of the lane and a rattlesnake that was chilling out in the middle of the road.
This was also the time where there were fewer and fewer riders up the road to chase down. I started passing many of the female professionals who had started 10 minutes before me, and even a couple of the male professionals. At this point, I knew I had to be close to the lead of the amateur race.
I was able to catch up to Robbie Wade, a friend racing in the pro division right around mile 50, and we traded the lead several times over the next 50 miles. With very few people out on the course, it was very helpful to have someone else of similar ability helping keep the pace honest (especially with no reliable power readings). We continued to pass other riders up the road every five or six miles, and to my surprise, just about all of them were in my age group. So even at mile 80 or 90, I was still very unsure about my age group position in the race.
The stretch of road from mile 70 to mile 90 was pretty brutal. No shade, a decently stiff headwind, and I was still far enough away from the end of the bike that I wasn’t quite getting excited about starting the run yet. Instead of focusing on negativity during those miles, I tried to focus on those things that I could control. I kept taking in fluid and stayed right on my nutrition plan. I got out of the saddle when I could and stretched my legs. I talked to God. Once I turned the corner and gained a little cover from the headwind, my legs came around again, and I started feeling much better overall. Robbie Wade was still within 20 seconds of me, and my average speed hadn’t fallen terribly, so I knew I would be coming off the bike with a new PR assuming I could maintain my effort for the last hour.
The next turning point in the race came around mile 95. This was the first time I had been passed by a rider all day. Patrick Schuster, last year’s overall amateur winner at this race, came through and was looking smooth. Immediately I recognized him, and having done my homework I knew that his strengths were the bike and run. If I wanted a chance to win the race I needed to stay with him through the end of the bike. So for the next 10 miles, Wade, Schuster and I traded pacing duties (all legally). I was able to share a couple of words with him, as he was wondering if there were any other age groupers up ahead as well. It seemed that both of us were in the dark.
The last part of the course winded through some of the Woodlands neighborhoods, so the crowd support really picked up and helped get the riders through the last five miles. Schuster and I finished within 10 seconds of one another and entered T2 ready to battle. My bike time was about 11 minutes faster than my fastest IM bike split, which is a super result that I am very pleased with. I knew three years ago that I needed to work on my bike, and this showed great progress.
Initially my legs felt a bit rough coming off the bike. My right toe had swollen a little bit in the heat, and had been aggravated by my cycling shoe, so it was a bit tender. It has happened before in summer training, so I knew I could push through it and run ok. Other than that, the only other feature I can remember about T2 is that I found out for the first time that we were the first and second amateurs coming in from the bike. It was on.
Even though Schuster entered T2 before me, I exited about 10 seconds before he did. This actually was really crucial for me as it turned out. I had a tough decision to make. Do I wait for him to catch up and run with him to help make the first lap or two of the run a bit easier mentally, or do I maintain my own pace and force him to catch up with me? I decided to find my own pace and go. If he caught me, then that would be an extra effort he would have to make. Honestly, the first two miles did not feel good at all. I was tight from the ride, my right toe was sore, and it was getting hot out. Very hot. The run provided a nice mix of shaded trails and open roads, and the open roads were punishing. The sun was just merciless on those stretches. So for the first two miles, I tried the sponges and water, but the relief from those cooling sources lasted about five seconds after I passed the aid station. So starting at mile three, I started pouring ice into my kit and that was much more helpful. My first mile was 6:38, then 6:49, and 6:46. I was happy at this pace, and I was staying relaxed and smooth. The next couple of miles were 6:52, 6:35, 6:42, 6:44. At the end of each loop there was a nice long out and back, where I was able to get a time gap between me and Schuster. After the first lap I had 1:10 on him. So that was comforting that even though I was running smooth and relaxed I was still able to get some breathing room on him. I stayed pretty consistent through the second lap at 6:50 pace. I started harboring thoughts that achieving my goals were a realistic possibility at this point. Even though I didn’t feel stellar, I was receiving positive feedback from people all over the course telling me I looked good and strong. I guess I have a good poker face! The second loop was a bit of a blur, I just kept talking to myself between aid stations, and during the aid stations I took as much ice/sponges/Coke/water as I could. Then I would go back to talking to myself.
At the same turnaround I now had 2:30 on Schuster.
Towards the end of the second loop I started feeling some spasms in my calves. I wasn’t sure if they were cramp-like spasms, so I started making a better effort of getting in salt. I dropped off of Coke at the aid stations and focused on getting Perform as much as I could. I also knew my special needs bag had a flask of EFS drink and a flask of EFS Liquid Shot, which has a massive amount of electrolytes, so I was really looking forward to making it to mile 19 to pick that up.
There’s really no way of getting around it: the third lap was hell. I was stuck in my own personal purgatory for about an hour, just praying that the miles would somehow go by faster than they had on the previous two laps. Running from the front in an Ironman was something I had never experienced before, and it was hard to convince myself that the guys behind me may have been suffering just as much as I was. The calf twitching was still there from time to time, but the electrolytes seemed to be helping with their frequency. My overall pace slowed during this lap, but that was mainly due to the fact that I was stopping a bit more at each aid station to make sure that I was keeping cool and hydrated. I figured at that point, losing an extra 10-15 seconds every mile would be well worth it if I could keep running 6:50-7:00 miles between them. It seemed much better than blowing up and losing what I had built up. It was also easier for me mentally to run for a mile and then treat myself to some glorious ice, Coke, and water. It was like Christmas came six times that lap!
I remember quite a bit from the last mile, primarily because I was re-passed by Caitlin Snow, the 2nd overall female. I had passed her way back around mile 40 or 45 of the bike ride, and finally she had caught me at mile 25+ on the marathon. She was absolutely flying. Having not seen Schuster by the turnaround, I knew I had the amateur title wrapped up. I also knew I had a sub 9-hour Ironman wrapped up by quite a bit. So for the last quarter mile, I enjoyed myself, gave a couple high fives to spectators, put a smile on my face, and soaked it in. I saw my good friend Nick Mathews right at the finish, gave him a huge high five, then crossed the line in a massive 21 minute PR, 8:51:45. Top amateur, 1st age group 30-34, fastest amateur marathon of the day, and a slot to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Couldn’t have been happier.
I was pretty smashed after this race. I got a post-race massage and hobbled back to my hotel room. I think I was able to go deeper in this Ironman than in any previously. Hopefully I’ll be able to take that mental strength and take it to Hawaii in October!
Thank you to 3Sports, CORE Fitness, First Endurance, Tori, my family, and all of my friends and training partners for their constant support.