Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ironman World Championship Race Report!

It has been a long time--over a year!--since I last wrote in this blog. It’s not that nothing has been happening; in fact, it’s been quite the opposite! By far, the most important thing that has happened since last September is the birth of these guys:


We found out that my wife Kacie was pregnant on the first day of school (in early August) last year. We found out that they were twins in late September. Soon after, we found out they were identical, then that they were identical boys. On March 27, we welcomed these two awesome guys. They are now seven months old:


As the above picture from the Lake Logan Half suggests, I spent a lot of their first several months of life training and racing. I had some success, too, including overall victories at the Rock and Rollman Half Iron in June, the Blalock Lakes Intermediate later the same month, and the Lake Logan Half in August. It was all prelude to the Ironman World Championship on October 11.

I've blogged plenty in the last twelve months, but most of my blogging has been done on the Atlanta Tri Club blog. If you’re interested in taking a look, you can find my “Road to Kona” blog entries here. Entry one was about my previous experience in Kona and my determination to return to the race in 2014 and better my performance. I’ve written about that extensively in this blog, so none of that would be new. Entry two was about the biggest lesson that I took from Kona, 2012--that I needed to improve my swim. That, too, has been covered in this blog, so it's not new, either. Entry three was about the difficult birth of the twins, and some of the issues that we faced in the aftermath. Entry four was about my learning to balance being a new dad and training for Kona. Entry five was about my turning up the intensity of my Kona training in the last two months before the big race. Entry six was about how nervous I was in the last month before the race. Finally, Entry seven--which I wrote in Hawaii--was about some of our experiences on the Big Island prior to the start of the race.

I also wrote race reports for Lake Logan and Rock and Rollman, but I posted them on my club forum rather than posting them here. If you’re interested in any of those, drop me a line, and I’ll email them to you.

Pre-Race!

During race week in Kona, the question that people ask most often is “Have you done this race before?” This was appropriate for me, because my previous experience in Kona loomed over my time in Kona this year. The last two years have all led to this race, and I couldn’t help but continually compare this race experience to my 2012 experience. From the first hours of our arrival, though, it was clear that this would be a much different trip. During the week leading up to the race and even during the race itself, I kept thinking, “This is not 2012.” The phrase passed through my head and across my lips so much that it became a bit of a mantra.

My family and I arrived in Kona over a week ahead of time. Getting there so early meant that we were able to get over our jet lag, adjust to the Hawaiian heat, and absorb any unforeseen issues. Alas, there were several:

--Our credit cards were flagged, so my wife Kacie had to ditch a basket of groceries in the store.

--The rental car company split our rental in half, meaning that we had to return to the airport and trade out our car.

--The boys developed a bit of thrush and had to be seen at Urgent Care.

--Tri Bike Transport was late getting my bike and most of my gear to the island.

--I developed a cold on the flight over.

The boys have had thrush before, and the case was so minor that the doctor didn't even want to give us a prescription. Given that, the most worrying thing was the cold. I spent the first five days that we were on the Big Island drinking gallons of Emergen-C and Airborne and trying not to think that all of the time, effort, training, money, emotion, and support from others would be going to waste because of one germ that I picked up on the plane. All of the focus on rest, vitamins, and nutrition paid off, though. The cold stayed out of my chest, and by Thursday, it had begun to fade. On race day, I was in that “post-cold” phase where I was not really suffering, but I had some congestion hanging on. I was confident that once my body heated up, it would burn out. It did.

I actually had less unstructured time in Hawaii than I expected. Between training on the course, tending to race duties, and spending time with my family, my days were full.  On Tuesday, we took the boys to their first ever National Park, Volcanoes National Park:  

The days also went by quickly because I went to bed so early.  Six of the eight nights that we spent in Hawaii prior to race day, I went to bed before 8:00. After three nights sleeping in the same room with my wife and the boys as I do at home, Kacie on Monday night said that I should go ahead and start sleeping solo in a neighboring bedroom in order to make sure I was getting enough sleep before race day. Volunteering to take on 100% of the nighttime responsibilities with two six-month-olds who were getting over jet lag, adjusting to sleeping in a new place, and trying to stay comfortable in a house with no air conditioning was an INCREDIBLY generous thing for her to offer. Of course, it’s only one of the many sacrifices that she made in the year leading up to race day.

On Thursday night, I went to the athletes dinner, where Mike Reily announced that my AG, with 288 starters, would be the largest AG in the race. “Good luck if you plan to finish high in that age group,” he added. I took this as a good omen, because he had said something similar at both Coeur d’Alene in 2012 and Wisconsin in 2013. In both of those races, I finished second in the largest age group in the race.

On Friday night, I had a spaghetti dinner with my wife, the twins, and my parents, who had arrived in Hawaii on Wednesday night and given Kacie some much needed help with the twins. We were joined by some friends—Adam Heiser, Christian Dodder, Tara Pepper, and Laura Barnard—who had made the trip from Atlanta to experience the race and cheer for me. It was a nice gathering, and it felt like the perfect final ritual. After our guests went home, my wife showed me the custom t-shirts that she and our friend Anne had made for race day, with matching onesies for the boys. I got my final things together, drank some Osmo, put on the temporary tattoos that I had spent months choosing, and went to bed. After all this buildup, the race was actually going to happen.

Race Morning!

I had several process goals on race day, all of which were born out of my poor race execution in 2012. The first was to stay in bed until my alarm went off. (In 2012, I was nervous and couldn’t sleep, so I got out of bed about two hours early.) Even though I was mostly awake by the time the alarm sounded, and even though it got harder to stay in bed as I could hear the town waking up and getting ready for race day—helicopters cranking up, traffic growing, alarm clocks in neighboring houses going off, etc.—I accomplished this important first goal. I got out of bed at 4:40, made my breakfast, and got dressed. We left at 5:20 and drove the five or so miles from the house we rented to the starting area. 

Once at the starting area, I split from my family and headed to body marking. It took several minutes, and there was a lot of negative nervous energy there. I was glad to get it over with. After that, I was weighed, as is the standard at most Ironmans where heat is an issue. I weighed in four pounds lighter than I had in 2012. This was welcome, but not surprising. After several months of watching my diet, I was the leanest that I’ve been in over fifteen years. I made my way back to the front of the King Kam hotel to meet my family and supporters, put on sunscreen, and get dressed for the race.


At about 6:25, I headed into the transition area, pumped up my tires, set my computer, put my bottles on my bike, and used the bathroom. I put on my swimskin and got in line to enter the water. As usual, I promptly started worrying that I had waited too long and that I was going to miss my 6:50 start. And as usual, I ended up getting in the water at the perfect time. I swam the 100 yards to the starting line, getting about as far to the left as I could, per my coach’s instructions. I floated and waited for the cannon, trying not to get rattled by the referee who was yelling at all of us to back up and trying not to think about all that lay in front of me. In 2012, the cannon malfunctioned and failed to fire. This time, the cannon fired.

Swim—1:14:20

The morning after we arrived, I did the Ho’Ala Ironman Practice Swim. It was an inaugural event, and 400 people swam the course. I used it as a chance to rid myself of the memories of my disastrous swim of 2012. Two years of focusing on my swim paid off, and I swam the practice swim 25:00 faster than my race swim of 2012. This boded well for race day. I relished the accomplishment on the sea wall after the practice swim:


Of course, the practice swim would be different from the race.  I didn't wear my swimskin on the practice swim, and there were only about a third of the people in the practice swim as there were in the race.  As the race started, I was nervous, thinking that the practice swim meant nothing and I was potentially going to swim terribly again.  Then, twenty-five yards into the swim, I ran into a turtle.  I RAN INTO A TURTLE.  He hit my hand, then my knee.  That was one of the highlights of the race. This isn’t to say that the rest of the race went poorly, but how often do you run into a sea turtle? Awesome. I didn't know it at the time, but sea turtles (Honu) are regarded in Hawaiian folklore as signs of good luck and peace. Woot!  As it was, the turtle set me at ease a bit, and I set about trying to find a rhythm.  

My goal for the swim was simply to emerge with the pack, which I figured would take about a 1:13. I knew that it would be physical throughout. In fact, that’s what I wanted. A high-contact swim would signify that I was surrounded by others and thereby accomplishing my goal. As I expected, there were several very aggressive swimmers, particularly in the first half. I followed feet when I could, but it was difficult as everyone (including me) got into their groove. This was complicated by rough seas and large swells that kept pushing us around. I made the turnaround at almost exactly the same time as I did during the practice swim despite the fact that the water was much rougher and there was a lot more contact on race day.

On the return, I found a pretty good pair of feet, and I ended up staying on them for about the last mile of the swim. I have found that when I’m following another swimmer’s feet, I tend to be more aggressive about holding my position. It’s like I get very proprietorial of the feet. (“My feet!”) I had to fight off several others who wandered into our path, particularly as the lead female age group swimmers (who started ten minutes behind us) began rocketing through our group. I came out of the water in 1:14, surrounded by other people. It was an IM swim PR, in rough water, without a wetsuit.  It was 26:00 faster than I had swam in 2012. It was a good start.

T1—3:29
In Kona, they make you run around the perimeter of the entire transition area, regardless of where your bike is located. It’s a way of managing the crush of people that hit the pier at the same time coming out of the water and a way of equalizing transition times. I grabbed my own bag because it was located at the very end of the row, hit the tents, changed, and ran out with my shoes in my hand. I grabbed my bike and ran with it through traffic. Just before leaving transition, I handed my bike to a couple of volunteers who were hanging out, just watching the action. I threw my shoes on, took my bike back from the bewildered volunteers, and ran out. Solid transition.

Bike—5:04:04
I saw my family soon after I mounted the bike. I pumped my fist at them, and the photographer happened to catch it:


I had come out of the water 185th in my age group and 1180th in the race. I was in the dead middle of the pack, as I had hoped. (The good folks at Runtri.com say that the average swim in Kona this year was 1:15.) The early morning masters, the private lessons, the endless yards in the 25y pool had all paid off, and I had accomplished the most important thing that I set out to accomplish in the first couple of weeks after I was dropped by the swim pack in the first ten minutes of the 2012 race. Even if everything else fell apart, I had something that I could be proud of. 


The problem this presented, though, was that I was surrounded by other cyclists as soon as I hit the road. What’s more, I was surrounded by strong cyclists--people (like me) who had made it to Kona with so-so swimming but strong cycling and running. It was a different sort of challenge than I’m used to. Normally, I get out of the water, hop on my bike, and begin mowing down the cyclists in front of me. I haven’t been passed on the bike in a triathlon in two years. The first forty miles of the Kona bike, though, I was constantly passing others and being passed. I was continually speeding up and slowing down in order to stay within the rules and stay out of the draft zones of the people around me. 

That's Adam in the blue visor with his cell phone, trying to take a photo. I went to slap him on the back and nearly fell over!
Not everyone was so diligent. Around 30 miles, a straight-up group ride of about 25 riders caught up with me. While some people in the mass were trying to stay within the rules, it was clear that others were very much seeking the benefit of drafting off stronger cyclists. As they were going by me, a spectator yelled at the group: “Cheaters!” The spectator was right. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how these folks were able to qualify for the race. Between the passing, being passed, and trying to stay out of draft zones, it was difficult to find a rhythm for the first ninety minutes or so, and it was hard not to burn too many matches with so much surging. In addition, there were a lot of egos jockeying for position in the first several miles, given that these were riders who were accustomed to being faster than the other folks with whom they came out of the water. I had to work hard not to get caught up in that. Ultimately, I decided that I would be better off relaxing and waiting for things to thin out once the climb to Hawi began rather than beating myself up and wrecking my race messing around with a bunch of hammerheads.

Soon after the group ride passed me, with about ten miles to go on the Queen K highway, the wind really, REALLY picked up. The other cyclists and I began getting blown all over the road, and our speed dropped significantly. I kept passing people, but none of us were moving very quickly. At one point, I was pedaling downhill in my small chainring at fourteen miles per hour. We passed the fans at Waikalola Road, and they were darting all over the place chasing hats and signs and other items that had blown away. When I went by the aid station in this segment, all of the tents were blown over. We got a short break when we made the left turn to descend to Kawaihae, but when we veered back to the right to go to Hawi a mile later, the wind was once again in our faces. About halfway between Kawaihae and Hawi and three miles before beginning the climb, there is a spot where you can look toward Maui and assess the severity of the wind on the upcoming climb by counting the whitecaps in the ocean. When I arrived at that spot, I literally saw more whitecaps than ocean. And sure enough, the last five miles up to Hawi were into a swirling headwind that stood us all straight up. I had ridden from Kawaihae up to Hawi on Wednesday in order to preview the route. On race day, it took me eight minutes longer to go that nineteen miles. When I hit the turnaround at sixty miles, my average speed was 21.1 mph. My goal had been to get under 5:00, and on a good day, I thought I could be several minutes faster. I was on track for a 5:18. There were two pieces of good news, though: (1) I was still steadily passing riders, and (2) the headwind was about to become a tailwind.

The plan had been to keep a fairly steady effort until the climb to Hawi, then press it a bit up that climb. I would continue pressing on the descent, regroup, and depending on how I felt, press some more on the return on the Queen K. I screamed down the descent, finished the rollers to Kawaihae, rode up the climb from Kawaihae, and turned right back onto the Queen K. Now, with the wind at my back, I began FLYING. Past Waikalola Road, now heading south, I was pedaling at 110rpm in my biggest gear. I rode several miles at over 40 mph, topping 42 on several sections. I kept the hammer down and covered the hilly twenty-nine miles from the turnaround at Hawi to the Scenic Overlook in 1:07--an average of over 26 mph. At 90 miles, my average speed was all the way up to 22.6. I was back under 5:00 pace.

The wind soon died down, and by the West Hawaii Veteran’s Cemetery, near mile 100, it was back in our faces again. By this time, the field had gotten a lot more strung out, and it was increasingly difficult to pass riders.  Near the end of the bike, I saw Adam and Christian:  


This was actually the only time I got a little bit choked up during the entire race.  I had been concerned for months that I wouldn't be able to hold my emotions together.  It has been an emotionally wrenching year, and I've been truly moved by the sacrifices my wife and others have made so that I could try and have my best race in Kona.  Strangely, though, Adam's fist-pumping at the end of my solid bike ride was the thing that nearly put me over the edge.  I believe that it was because it was the only time in the entire race that I stepped back mentally and thought about how everything was going rather than focusing on the task directly at hand.  Christian snapped one more photo as I went by:


The wind had abated some in the last few miles, but by the time that I climbed off at T2, my body hurt and my feet were on fire. My ear hurt from where a bee stung me on the descent from Hawi. In total, I was feeling pretty beaten up. I think we all were; it was a rough day on the bike. Nonetheless, I was happy with my ride. I had moved up almost 800 places in the race, and about 120 places in my age group. I was looking forward to the run. 

T2—4:04
Once again, we had to run around the entire perimeter of the transition area. I grabbed my bag, put on my socks and shoes, and I started making my way out of transition with my hat, sunglasses, and race belt in hand. I forced myself to use the bathroom even though I didn’t really feel like I had to go. It turns out that I did.

Run—3:07:11
My bike had been a pretty aggressive effort in very difficult conditions. Thus, I wasn’t sure how much I would have left for the run. I set out for the opening out-and-back section on Ali’i Drive, and I got a boost from seeing my family for the first time in a few hours. By chance, I ran my first mile in the exact same split (6:23) that I ran for the first mile in 2012. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. (Also like 2012, the online tracker suggests a more erratic pace than the one I ran. My splits were much more consistent on my watch.) I was determined to keep everything in check, so I started talking to my coach, Matthew Rose, who was along the side of the course at several spots on the run. I told him about the wind and the whitecaps and the climb to Hawi and pretty much anything else that came to mind.



Down and back on Ali'i, I found myself running next to a tall guy from Denmark dressed in all yellow. We began talking a bit, and I learned his name was Fredrik.  In my head, I took to calling him “Fredrik the Danish Banana.” At each aid station, I would pause for water and gel, and he would almost always put about fifty feet on me. That really brought home for me how slowly I was moving through the aid stations.  My trisuit, which I otherwise liked, didn't have pockets, so I was entirely dependent on the on-course nutrition.  This meant that when I got to an aid station, I had to get a gel from a volunteer, and unfortunately, the volunteers weren't always handing gels out.  On several occasions, I had to go to the table and get a gel out of the box myself. Once, late in the race, the aid station didn’t even have gel. There happened to be one on the ground right there, so--yes--I picked it up and ate it. It was coffee-flavored. Gross. I figure that I lost at least two or three minutes on my run because I was spending so much time looking for gels at the aid stations.   

Anyway, Fredrik and I carried on.  My mile splits hovered around 6:50, with a few above and a few below (including the 15-20 seconds I was giving up per mile at the aid stations). Mile 8 was over 7:00, but Miles 9 and 10 were 13:50. Just past Mile 10, as I prepared to make the right turn and run up Palani Hill, Fredrik the Danish Banana and I passed Apollo Ohno. He would eventually do about 9:50. I was very impressed with his race. I gave him a tap on the lower back as we went by, and he acknowledged me.  

L-R: Me, Apolo, Fredrik.

I then crawled up Palani Hill and took the left back onto the Queen K.  This is where my race had come to an end in 2012. That year, I pushed too hard going up Palani, and everything just came crashing down. I learned my lesson, and having nearly walked up Palani, that wasn’t a problem this year. (My wife said that I went up Palani so slowly that she was worried something was wrong. She knew that I was planning to run up it slowly, but she didn’t think that I meant THAT slowly.) Fredrik the Danish Banana and I continued on, but around Mile 13, my stomach started hurting.  (A second problem of being dependent on on-course nutrition: I had to use the brand of gel they offered.  The race was sponsored by Gu, which is thicker than the Powerbar gels I prefer and have used successfully in the past.)  I stayed calm, quit taking gel, and soldiered on. As it happened, my splits actually sped up a touch because I wasn’t spending so much time in the aid stations trying to secure a gel. My stomach calmed down, and I went back to taking gel, until it bothered me again. I would continue dealing with it for the remainder of the race.

At about Mile 16, we turned into the Energy Lab. I was feeling fine and still clicking off miles just under 7:00, so I felt confident. I had had a good run in the Lab on the Monday of race week, so I didn’t feel intimidated. Further, the sun had tucked behind some clouds, and it wasn’t as deathly hot as it had been on the bike. I ran down to the turnaround and back out of the Lab without fanfare. I was still passing people, but just as it had been in the latter stages of the bike, I wasn’t mowing anyone down. Most passes were slow. What’s more, I realized at the turnaround that there were some people that I simply wasn’t catching. 
 
I had dropped Fredrik the Danish Banana before we entered the Energy Lab, and fans weren’t permitted past Mile 14 on the run. Thus, more than anything, I felt lonely as I left the Lab. I was in need of some support. I saw my fellow Atlantan Erin Humsi’s husband around mile 19, and soon after, I got back to where Matthew, Adam, and Christian were waiting for me.  I exhorted them to give me some love:

They obliged, and they spent the last several miles leapfrogging me, willing me to hang on. 

Hanging on was tough. As had been the case in Ironman Wisconsin, my legs stiffened considerably in the last 10K. It felt like everything from my hips down was cramping. The stiffening and cramping forced my pace into the high 7:00s for a couple of miles before I bore down and tried to finish strong. Even so, I was stuck in the 7:20s. With about three miles to go, Christian yelled to me that everyone was “clumped up in front of me.” To me, this meant that if I could keep pushing, I would be rewarded by passing not just one or two more people, but several more.  That's what I did until we approached the end of the Queen K.  At the base of the last hill—Mark and Dave Hill at about mile 24.5—I looked up and could count seven people in front of me. I resolved to catch them all by the top of the hill. I caught five of them, and I was closing on the last two as I crested the hill. Matthew yelled, “Go! Now!” and somehow I found another gear. It still wasn’t super-fast, but it was enough to push me past the remaining two people in the clump and bring a couple more into sight. I hurried down Palani Hill, turned left on Kuakini, and ultimately turned right down Hualalai. 


Just before the final right turn on Ali’i, I passed one more person, bringing the number of people I passed from the base of Mark and Dave Hill to the finish to ten. I hurried down Ali’i, worried that the last guy I passed would be trying to hang on. With about 200 yards remaining, I snuck a peek back, and he was nowhere to be seen. I backed off, zipped up my trisuit, and I started high-fiving fans. 


I didn’t hear Mike Reily say my name—because he didn’t, as it turned out—but I wasn’t worried about it. I was proud of the effort I had put in, and I felt as if I had indeed made up for the bad race I had in 2012.


On the run, I passed another 253 people to bring my overall place to 153rd. That included 46 people in my age group, bringing my AG place to 20th. As it turns out, that last person that I passed just before turning onto Ali’i Drive was in my age group, and passing him means that my name appears on the first page of my age group results sheet rather than the second. I was in the top twenty American age groupers in the race, and I was the fifth American in my age group. I’ll take it.

Finish time—9:33:08

After the race, I milled around the finisher area for a while in a daze. I picked up my t-shirt, hat, and finisher medal, all of which were very cool. I had my picture made, and I just laid down in the grass for a little while. After several minutes, I dragged myself up and made my way toward the hotel. I immediately saw my dad, and he took me to where the rest of my family was waiting. I was happy to see them, but my legs were completely wrecked. We parked on the floor of the lobby for the next hour until I felt like I could move without having every muscle in my lower body seize.

My son is munching on my number.
Eventually, I changed clothes and went to check on my bike. Along the way, I ran into Matthew, and we discussed how difficult the conditions were. 

I'm wearing the custom shirt that Kacie and our friend Anne had designed!
It was generally agreed that this was the hardest day since 2004. I later found out that the wind on the far end of the Queen K actually changed directions late in the day, so that some people who fought the wind on the way out had to then fight it again on the way back. Several back-of-the-pack cyclists were forced out of the race, including Harriet Anderson, Lew Hollander, and Sister Madonna Buder. I also learned that several outstanding pros like Tim O’Donnell, Andrew Starykowicz, and Andreas Raelert had struggled in the tough conditions. There were 17 DNFs in my age group, and about 200 in the race. 
 
Adam offered to pick up my bike for me, and I took him up on the offer. My family and I headed home, and I called it a night early. I didn’t make it back to the midnight finish. On Facebook, one friend pointed out that I was likely the top finisher in the “Father of Twins Under One Year Old” category. He’s probably right. Being the winner of that group certainly excused me from having to stay up until midnight. 
 
The next day, we hit the finisher’s store, and we got light massages that our friend Laura gave us as presents. We flew out on Sunday night and arrived back in Atlanta on Monday afternoon, ten days after we arrived. It was a great, great trip. 
 
So what's next?

On the way home from the airport, my wife said, “You really had a lot of pressure on you for this race.” Yes, I did. It was far beyond a regular A race.  We all devoted a lot of time, energy, and money into my performing well in Kona.  Will we go back?  Yes, but not next year, and probably not the year after that.  I learned a lot about how to race there effectively, but I'm content with my performance for now.  I’m in no hurry to return.  

I’m not sure what’s next on my calendar.  I have a bit of a "Kona Hangover," and most things that seem appealing for 2015 are inexpensive, local, and logistically easy.  For the past two weeks, I've been resting, recovering, gaining weight, and hanging out with these guys:


Thanks, everyone, for all of the support! I would not have had a successful race without the help and love along the way.  At the top of the list is, of course, my wife.  I cannot begin to tabulate the hours and hours that she gave me a pass on being a dutiful husband so that I could train and recover.  How is it possible to have six-month-old twins and still train for Kona?  It isn't, unless you're married to someone who is truly as invested in the goal as you are.  After the race, Kacie found herself saying, "We did 9:33!"  I was happy that she saw it that way.  My parents were also super-helpful, both in helping us pay our way to Kona and in giving Kacie much-needed breaks in the leadup to Kona and once we arrived on the Big Island.  My in-laws have been great; we would really be struggling to try and raise twins without them!  My coach, Matthew, was super, both in helping me address the weaknesses that led to a bad performance in 2012 and in helping me balance my work, my family, and my training.  His Dynamo colleague, Maria Thrash, deserves all the credit for improving my swim.  My friends Christian, Adam, Tara, and Laura offered me and my family a lot of much-needed support on race day, and most of these photos are photos that either Adam or Christian took.  Josh Glass, Collette Reagan Glass, and all of the good folks at Georgia Sports Chiropractic and Georgia Sports Massage kept me healthy in the important final weeks before race day.  And finally, my triathlon club, the Atlanta Triathlon Club, has been super-supportive since I joined at the beginning of last year.  I'm proud to call all of you my teammates.   

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ironman Wisconsin Race Report!

Nervous, nervous, nervous.  I was very nervous before Ironman Wisconsin.

As I wrote before the race, I was concerned that ten weeks simply hadn't been enough time to get ready for the race.  Even though I had some good indicators in training and B events, I never had that breakthrough day that convinced me that I was ready to roll.   Further, I trained for this race differently than I had trained for other races in the past.  Even though I firmly believed that a new approach was warranted, it felt like a gamble.

As race day got closer, my nervousness transferred to the race itself. I started worrying that I would have a mechanical issue on the bike.  (I even chose shallower wheels in part so that I would be able to change a flat tire more easily.)  Then, I worried that the volunteers might lose my special needs bag (as if I really needed it anyway).  I worried that I might get kicked in the face during the swim or that I might get a undeserved drafting penalty.  If there was a race-ruining scenario, it crossed my mind.      
Why did it matter?  After under-performing in Kona in 2012, I basically came up with a two-year plan that would take me back there in 2014 with a mind to doing it right.  Part of "doing it right" would mean focusing my training on Kona for the better part of a year.  Qualifying early at Wisconsin was key; if something went wrong on race day, I would have to rethink my whole plan.    
        
I don't have to rethink my whole plan.   

 The finish clock is still on "pro time."  My finish time was actually ten minutes faster--9:30:29.
Notice the celebratory outstretched arms of my friend Harvey in the upper right. That may be my favorite part of the photo.

Swim--1:18:50

The first goal in our family is always to start.  It's a good goal, and it's one that shouldn't be taken lightly.  Injuries and accidents happen; I know this too well.  On race morning, after a fitful night of sleep, I rolled over and looked at my watch.  It said 6:35.  I bolted upright, thinking that the race would be starting without me in twenty-five minutes and that I had actually failed the first goal.  I realized quickly that it was in stopwatch mode and that everything was okay--it was actually 4:38 a.m.--but it was jarring.  I had been on edge so much already that this didn't help!     

My wife and I went to the lobby at 5:30 to meet my parents, and they had been there since 5:00.  Evidently, my mom forced my dad to get to our motel a half-hour ahead of time in order to make sure that they didn't make me wait.  We all headed to the Lake Monona Convention Center.  They dropped me off and found a parking place.  I got my tires pumped up, checked my bike computer, and put all of my nutrition on the bike.  Over the next short while, I slowly did all the basic pre-race things: got marked, put on my wetsuit, etc.  I reunited with my family, and we got a couple more pictures.

 Representing for my favorite brand of socks. 


 Striking my best wetsuit model pose. 

I got in the slow-moving line to enter the water at about 6:35 and soon began to worry that I wouldn’t make it into the water before the cannon went off.  Like all of my other worries leading up to and on race day, that never materialized, and I actually entered the water perfectly, about five minutes before the start.  With about two minutes to go, it suddenly got really crowded around me, and I spent the last thirty seconds treading around trying to find some open space.  No dice.  I was in for a crowded swim.  Ironman posted a photo of the start on their Facebook page:


I lined up close to the shore.  I'm probably right in the middle of the photo.  They also posted a video:


I'm likely one of the last 100 people to come into view of the camera.  Unlike some other North American Ironmans, IMWI is still a mass start, which I prefer.  We all started at the same time (save for the pros who started ten minutes early), which meant that whatever place I was in when I crossed the finish line, that was my actual finishing place.  I don't like beating someone to the finish line only to find out that they started two minutes ahead of me and are taking my place on the results sheet.

After the cannon went off, I followed the advice of a friend and breathed every stroke until I got comfortable.  It was good advice; amidst the chaos of the opening minutes, I didn’t worry about not seeing things or not being able to get a breath.  After a few minutes, things settled enough for me to be able to start breathing more normally.  Being in the middle of the pack, I sighted every few strokes, but it was mostly just to make sure that I was still moving in the same direction as the group.  I didn’t have to look at landmarks or buoys. Around the first turn, I heard everyone mooing.  Having read about this in numerous race reports, I had been looking forward to this moment.  It was a bit of a letdown.  For one thing, I was not really able to let loose with a good moo.  My dad grew up on a dairy farm, so I have a good moo.  It’s in the genes.  On this occasion, though, I pretty much just picked my head up and said the word “moo.”  For another thing, it didn’t sound like people mooing.  It sounded like a bunch of people yelling in panic.  If I hadn’t been expecting it, I would have thought that something was wrong and folks were trying to alert an official or something.  It was nothing like any farm I’ve ever been to. 

As the swim continued, I focused on remaining “unflappable.”  That was the word I kept saying to myself: unflappable.  I was just going to do my thing and not let anything that was happening around me get to me too much.  I realized recently that a major limiter in my ability to swim fast in Ironman competition is my inability to manage all the craziness that attends swimming in the middle of a pack of 2500 people.  In the race reports I’ve read over the last few months, the biggest theme among those who have swam well in Ironman competition seems to be their ability to remain calm amidst the knocks and kicks and punches.  Thus, that is what I did.  It was hard, though.  As a less-skilled swimmer, I struggle to swim in a straight line in open water.  In the middle of the pack, almost everyone else has the same problem, so we’re all swimming in different directions, constantly banging into one another.  At one point, I swear, I saw something ten yards in front of me that can really only be illustrated with a Haley Chura-style graphic:

    Men were wearing green caps and women were wearing pink caps.  The arrows show each swimmer's intended direction.

 Three people.  Three different (intersecting) paths.  This doesn't really happen in the pool.

Several times, I’d be stroking along well, and somebody would come barreling across traffic at virtually a 90-degree angle.  Three minutes later, he or she would come barreling back in the other direction, often with two or three other people in tow.  It was worst around the buoys, where folks evidently thought that they had to go around every buoy.  (You don’t, FYI.)  I took to calling these people “wrecking balls.”  They were maddening, but not for me.  I was unflappable.  The only time I got upset was when one wrecking ball in cut in front of me and then stopped, sat up, and took a look around.  But I got over it quickly. 

The one good thing about the craziness in the middle of the pack (besides the drafting effect, but really, I think that the drafting is canceled out by the wrecking balls) is that it kept my mind constantly occupied so that the time went by very quickly.  Before I knew it, I was making the turn for home, and soon after that, I was out of the water.  

By all accounts, the water was choppier than it has been in the past few years owing to the windy weather, and that slowed down times a bit.  On shore, Mike Reilly was saying that fans should expect to see competitors come out four or five minutes slower than expected.  The pro men's race winner even said that the conditions reminded him of St. George 2012, which was a complete disaster in the water.  Accordingly, the good folks at Runtri.com reported that the average swim time this year was 1:25:00, four minutes slower than last year, and also slower than 2011, 2010, and 2009.  At the time that I emerged from the water, though, I didn't know any of that, and I didn't really care.  My swim was a PR, and more importantly, it meant that it was time to move on to the parts of the race I do well.  I saw my wife and my parents as I came out of the water, and I gave them a thumbs up.  I passed about thirty people as we trotted up the helix and into transition, high-fiving people dressed as French maids, fairies, and dinosaurs all the way up.    

Looking back, I was 794th out of the water.  That means that about 65% of the field was behind me.  Further, I was seven minutes faster than the average time.  If I compare this to Coeur d'Alene--where I was in front of only about 40% of the field and I swam exactly the average time--this feels like progress, even though my time was only four minutes faster.  Onward, George the Swimmer!  

T1-5:59

T1 in Wisconsin is notoriously slow because there is so much ground to cover.  Of course, the more running there is, the better it is for me.  Since there was nearly a quarter mile of running between the change room (yes, room--the transition area in IMWI is inside a convention center) and my bike,  I didn’t put on my shoes until I got to my bike.  This was pretty standard, as I noticed that most people around me were running with their shoes in their hands, too.  T1 was one of the first places that I got a sense of how many volunteers were working the race.  I had my own volunteer in T1 (which was a first), and a different volunteer even handed my bike to me so that I didn't have to run to the end of the rack to retrieve it.  

Bike-5:04:48
   
My HR was a bit high coming out of transition, but I knew that it was probably due to the hectic nature of transition and my overall excitement about successfully being done with the swim.  There was a lot of traffic in the opening stages as there normally is for me, but I steadily began moving up.  There was a short no-pass zone about two miles into the ride, where I hit a bump and dropped my bottle.  I quickly made the decision to pick it up, which I am confident was the right decision.  Combine the post-swim deficit with the fact that the first aid station wouldn’t be coming for about forty minutes, and it was a no-brainer.

The next two hours simply involved passing people and keeping a close eye on my HR and wattage.  The course--which consisted of a lollipop-shaped loop where you would circle the "pop" two times--was unlike any triathlon course I had ever ridden.  It was more like a charity century course than a boring out-and-back triathlon course, and the fans were incredible.  People were packed so densely on the uphills that it felt like a Tour de France mountain stage.  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a ride as much as I enjoyed my ride in Madison.

The thing that stood out to me most both in my course preview and in my first lap was that this was a course for skilled cyclists.  Between the rough roads, the number of turns, the punchy hills, and the technical downhills, this course called on more of my abilities as a former bike racer than any other course I have ever done in any triathlon of any length.  At the same time, for that same reason, it was also SUPER FUN.     


Because I was feeling good and because I felt that I could gain a competitive advantage on a course like this one if I pushed a bit in the hilly, technical sections, I decided to turn the screws a little in the second lap.  In particular, at the start of the climb up to Mt. Horeb at about 69 miles, I started going pretty hard.  I kept going hard over the hilly sections of the course and through the "Three Sisters" climbs.  I was having a blast.  I sometimes like to imagine what people might be thinking when they see me pass them, and I was doing that a lot.  At one point, I went whipping down a technical section, and, I blew past both a competitor on a bike and a race official on a motorcycle.  I put a couple of hundred yards on them in only a few seconds.  I imagined them saying, “Whew!  That guy can make that bike MOVE!”  I was so fired up that I actually yelled it out (to no one).

I backed off a little for the remainder of the second lap—I wouldn’t have gotten as much of a competitive return on the physical investment of pushing through the flatter, non-technical sections—and then I made the turn toward home.  The wind was in our face at that point.  That was unpleasant, but I had already begun to switch my mind over to the run anyway.  A friend had told me in the week leading up to the race that my strategy should be to “get the race to the run” and then unleash hell.  I felt that I had put myself in a good position to do just that.  I found out later that in the process, I had ridden the fifth-fastest amateur bike split.

I am immensely proud of this bike ride.  So much of what we read about competing in Iron-distance triathlons talks about taking it easy and conserving energy.  Certainly, that's important, but it's not really the way to the fastest time.  Floating, spinning, and jogging will get you to the finish line, but it won't necessarily qualify you for Kona.  I didn't ride this ride all out, but I did push fairly hard at a few strategic points, and I think that that made a huge difference.             

T2-2:43

No one really wants to read about how this would have been under 2:00 if going to the bathroom hadn’t taken so long.    
         
Run-2:58:09

One of my teammates captured this from the video feed and posted it on Facebook during the race.  He captioned it, "Ok Ironman Wisconsin, ready for a run clinic? Go get 'em George!"

As I wrote in my blog before the race, I wanted to have “one of the very fastest run splits.”  Strangely, though, I felt less confidence in my run coming into this race than I did in my swimming and cycling.  Changing up my running training meant that I didn’t have any of the traditional confidence builders that I normally have.  Also, in the last week before the race, an old injury started bothering me for the first time in over a year.  None of that really came into my mind as I hit the run course, though.  At that point, I was in 52nd place, and I was eager to start mowing people down.  Even if I only managed 7:00 pace--and honestly, I figured that that was about as fast as I could expect--I knew that I would catch a whole lot of people and put myself in a good position to be a Kona-qualifier. 

Even though I was fired up, I pride myself on running smart.  I have a very well-tuned sense of perceived exertion on the run, and I had mistakenly ignored it in my last Ironman.  More precisely, I had confused the feeling of pushing too hard in the early miles with the feeling of transitioning from bike to run.  I wasn’t going to do that again.  I relaxed as much as I could in that first mile, and I kept telling myself to "slow down, run easy, slow down."  There must have been a lot of downhill in that mile, though, because I hit it in 5:49.  I promptly concluded that it was incorrectly marked and kept telling myself to run slowly.  I hit mile two in 6:06, and again concluded (without as much conviction this time) that it, too, must be short.  When I went through mile three in 6:30, I decided to quit worrying about it even though my splits were so much faster than I expected to be able to run.  I tend to trust my running instincts, and I knew I was putting in the proper effort.  If that effort was giving me faster splits than I expected, well, that wasn’t really something to complain about.  Besides, I was having too much fun.  I was in a great mood after that awesome bike ride, and in the first few miles, I was talking to my competitors, thanking volunteers, waving to fans, smiling for pictures, and doing all sorts of other ridiculous and totally out-of-character things.  I only wish that I had thought to strike a Heisman pose for the photographer the first time I ran through the UW stadium.  My wife told me after the race that she couldn’t figure out in the first half of the run why I was talking to her so much. 

        
This is at the turnaround near six miles.  I was asking my wife, "What is this cool little section of town??"  Totally out-of-character.

The next twelve miles were all around 6:40 pace, save for a couple in the 6:50s and a couple in the 6:20s.  I was embarrassed to find out later that the Ironman tracker said that I was running 5:45 pace, then 7:29 pace, then back to 5:54 pace.  I don’t run that erratically.  I was much more machine-like on the run, passing people and taking gels every two miles.

Mile sixteen (7:06) was my first mile over 7:00 pace.  It had started to get hard by that point, and I had quit being so chipper.  It got steadily more difficult after that.  My legs grew increasingly stiff, and my feet were starting to feel pretty beaten up.  I got some respite from the unpaved portions of the course:


I knew that I was still on track for a sub-3:00 marathon, so I concentrated on moving forward and not backing off.  Around mile 21, I lost my cool for the second time in the race when I saw this sign:


I saw lots of funny and inspiring signs along the way, but I thought this one was obnoxious.  It's missing its upper left corner because I attempted to rip it down while running.  Evidently, it was super-glued to that post, because that small corner was all I managed to remove.  

My pace continued to hover around 7:00.  My stiff legs were becoming a problem.  In addition to simply running more slowly, I was not as springy when jumping on and off curbs (there was a lot of that), not as sharp through corners (a lot of that, too), and not able to decelerate and accelerate as quickly when stopping for water at aid stations (yep, a lot of that, too).  I even had trouble moving laterally through the crowds of runners on their first lap.  Because of all of this, my twenty-fifth mile jumped all the way to 7:28. 

I pressed on, and I was rewarded by passing one more person—the thirty-fifth person I passed on the run—at the top of the last hill at about 25.5 miles into the marathon.  That made me the fourth amateur overall.  The next day, Mike Reilly would announce at the awards banquet that I had the fastest amateur run of the day.  Only two pros were faster, each by less than two minutes.  Near the finish line, when I took a right at the fork in the course to head to the finish rather than go left and back onto the course for another lap, the crowd around the finish erupted.  That was very, very cool.  A few folks captured the film of the finish, and you can hear my rebel yell on the video about three seconds after crossing the line:

My legs are so stiff that I have a hard time stopping myself. 

I was fired up.  I had PRed in all three segments, and my overall time was an Ironman PR by nearly fifteen minutes.  More importantly, even though I didn’t know my exact place in my age group, I knew I was going back to  Kona.

After I recovered a bit, we took a few pictures:


Like Couer d’Alene—my other good IM marathon—this was a good run borne out of really solid execution in terms of fueling, staying patient, positive thinking, and paying heed to perceived exertion.  Also like Coeur d'Alene, this was not a flat run course.  I was surprised by how much up and down there was, including a BIG uphill and downhill in the middle of the UW campus, and another long, gradual hill in the LAST MILE OF THE RACE.  In retrospect, I should have previewed the run course, just as I had previewed the bike course on the Friday before the race.

I'm left to wonder why my legs stiffened so much.  Yes, it was an Ironman, but my legs didn't stiffen like this in Coeur d'Alene.  Was the leg-stiffening a result of the differences in my run buildup?  Would I have stiffened less if I had done a twenty-mile run, a super-long brick, or more high-end repeats?  At the same time, I ran faster in Wisconsin than I did in Coeur d'Alene, so it's not as if my training for Wisconsin was deficient.  I'll continue to ponder and research this over the next few months.  

Official time: 9:30:29  

We went back to the motel, showered, read all the posts that people had been putting on Facebook and Twitter, and then went to dinner.  I ordered a cheeseburger with five different types of cheese.  That seemed appropriate.  We made our way back to the course, and we cheered for our friends Brent and Kyle Pease.  They finished in just over fifteen hours:


The next day, Kacie and I went back to the convention center where we claimed my Kona slot:


My legs felt so wrecked that I had to walk down the stairs backwards:


We also went to the awards ceremony where they showed this video:


And I went on stage with the other award winners from the 35-39 age group:

 

I also got a picture with Brent and Kyle:
 

So, what can I say?  It's a good day when you accomplish all of your goals.  Certainly, there is much I can learn from this race, but I think, in general, that I executed it extremely well.  For as nervous as I was, nothing significant went wrong.  It wasn't a solo effort, though.  I want to thank my wife, who took over a lot of the responsibilities around the house during my ten-week buildup.  It's more than that, though; I couldn't do anything--athletic or non-athletic--without her.  I want to thank my parents, who made the trip to Madison and were tireless fans.  I am really happy that they got to see me have a good race, especially considering that they went all the way to Hawaii last October to see me have a bad one.  I want to give thanks to Coach Maria Thrash and Coach Matthew Rose at Dynamo Multisport who have helped me to improve my swim and plan out my training schedule.  Even though I'm not on the Dynamo team, they have treated me like part of the Dynamo family.  I want to thank Adam Heiser, an athlete I coach who came to cheer at IMWI and is planning to compete there next year.  Adam was not only a great on-the-spot cheerleader, but he also went beyond the call of duty and looked out for my wife and parents during the race.  I very much appreciate that.  I want to thank Swiftwick for the great socks and CycleOps for the power meters and trainers I used to train and the wheels I rode to my fast bike split on race day.  There were also several other friends who helped and supported long the way, like Harvey Gayer, Ivan and Courtenay Wilson, and Tom and Colleen Kingery.  And finally, I have to give huge thanks to my Atlanta Triahtlon Club-mates who have really embraced me as part of their group this year and have supported me so much.  Throughout the year, I have looked forward to Tuesday Night Runs and Wednesday Night Energy Labs.  As I recently wrote in the club blog, endurance sports don't have to be solitary, lonely pursuits only for introverts.  I'm much happier in the sport--and I believe that I will ultimately be more successful--by virtue of my affiliation with ATC.         

On to the next one: Kona 2014.