Friday, December 30, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year . . .

. . . is July. Although Andy Williams would disagree, Kacie and I believe that summer vacation, warm weather, and the Tour de France trump Christmastime. Nevertheless, the last month has been very nice. Since Cozumel, I've been doing all of the things that I did not do during my Ironman buildup. I've relaxed my eating standards, which coincides nicely with the holidays. I've read books like Hellhound on His Trail and The Fall of Giants, both of which I recommend. I've even gotten a cold after staying completely healthy for the entire first half of the school year. (I'm not sure that that last one fits with the overall festive mood.)

All of this means that I'll sneeze my way into the new year tomorrow night heavier, smarter, more relaxed, and ready to conquer the next set of goals. My coach and I worked out the following list for the first half of 2012:

1/16 ~ MLK 5K
1/21 ~ 200K Brevet
1/29 ~ Callaway Half-marathon (training tempo run)
2/11 ~ Chattahoochee Challenge 10K
2/18 ~ Tundra TT
3/3 ~ 200K Brevet
3/18 ~ Georgia Half-marathon
3/25 ~ Powerman Alabama
4/14 ~ Wheels ‘o Fire Century
4/22 ~ Cheaha Challenge
4/28 ~ Issaqueena’s Last Ride
5/6 ~ REV3 Knoxville 70.3
5/12 ~ Brasstown Bald Buster Century (this is a maybe)
6/2 ~ REV3 Quassy 70.3
6/24 ~ Ironman Coeur d’Alene

I'm looking forward to each of them, even though it's a little bit difficult to imagine running a 5K in two weeks given how terrible I feel right now. I'm sure that I'll bounce back soon.

The Georgia Half-Marathon and Powerman Alabama are going to be major focus events, as will be the two half-iron triathlons. Of course, they all lead to the grandaddy event of the summer, Ironman CdA. The Half-Marathon and Powerman are going to be important markers, too, because they will represent the moment in my training when I switch from shorter VO2 max stuff to longer LT stuff. As I've written before, starting with the shorter repeats and moving to the longer stuff is new for this training cycle, and I'm looking forward to it. Between now and mid-March, I'll do a lower number of hours but with higher intensity. This will include my Coach's "Ultimate Cycling Sessions" twice a week, some faster stuff in the pool, and plenty of shorter repeats on the gravel track across the street from our house. After the Georgia HM and Powerman (both of which should be faster as a result of the shorter, faster training), I'll build my hours and switch to longer, less intense training sessions. As a result, I hope to be better prepared to perform well at Ironman CdA.

With the start of the new year, I'll clean up my eating, I'll quit missing workouts, I'll start losing the weight I've gained, and hopefully, I'll kick this cold. After a month of rest, I'm looking forward to it!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On to the Next One . . .

In the last two years, I have listened to Jay-Z's "On to the Next One" more than any other song on my iPod.

Parental advisory . . .

I like it because it makes the monotony of endurance training and racing seem dynamic and even edgy. Even though I am CERTAIN that Jay-Z didn't have this in mind, the song helps me to put one workout or race behind me and look ahead (with a bit of swagger) to the next one. Over the last several months, I often listened to this song immediately following hard workouts or good races, and it helped me focus on what was next. Post-Ironman, I wasn't ready to do that for a little while. I am ready now. Enough wallowing on Cozumel. It's on to the next one.

Of course, I won't be doing any eight-hour bricks just yet. Unlike Kacie, who has a double Ironman in February and is already back to doing two-a-day workouts, I I have a bit more time to chill. This will let me catch up on stuff that has fallen by the wayside in the past few months. Among other things, I will be sending out our Christmas cards that will feature pictures of us in Cozumel. Check them out!

I have started thinking a lot about how the race felt and what I did to prepare. In particular, I have considered the overall arc of my training and what I can change in the next six months ahead of Ironman Coeur d'Alene. In December, I hope to spend time recovering and gathering up my motivation. Come January, February, and March, I'd like to put in some miles, but also some short fast stuff to build my power and speed. Around mid-April, though, I want to switch to higher volume LT work on both the bike and the run. In other words, I want to switch the traditional means of race-preparation.

The standard means of going about training an endurance athlete is to have them do base training and then some tempo work when they are several months out from an event. As you approach your event, you shorten the workouts but increase their intensity. By the time that the target event arrives, athletes should be feeling rested, "sharp," and speedy. This is the overall plan that I follow with the high school cross-country runners I coach, and it's one that I've followed myself several times over several seasons.

Ironman, though, is a totally different type of race. The race, as I learned the hard way, is not about going hard from the gun, but rather moving through the day at a moderate intensity. Even in the last two hours when it gets hard, it's not hard because you're pushing to run fast. It's hard because you're pushing to run AT ALL. Given this, it seems to me that the trick is not to arrive at the start line feeling speedy, but to arrive at the start line feeling as if you could go all day at a moderate intensity--which, after all, is precisely what you have to do!

To this end, I've asked my coach to design a training plan for the next 24 weeks that will start with the hard, fast stuff and then add the moderate-intensity volume at the end. I'm excited to give this a shot. Anybody have any feedback on this idea?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ironman Cozumel Race Report; Part Three!

I've decided to split my Ironman Cozumel race report into three parts: the pre-race, the race itself, and the lessons I learned from the experience. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here.

On Tuesday, we traveled home via ferry, bus, plane, and car. It was a long but hassle-free trip back. On Wednesday, I went back to work, and one of my students had put this on my dry-erase board:


Team Darden had two major goals when we first signed up for Ironman Cozumel: to gain experience for George and to get a PR for Kacie. We accomplished both of those. My superstar wife shattered the twelve-hour barrier with a 34-minute PR of 11:35:55. And I certainly learned a great deal that I can apply both when I start training for Ironman Coeur d'Alene in January and when I race it on June 24, 2012.

Training Lessons!

Lesson #1: More time on the road bike and less time on the tri bike

In the run-up to Cozumel, my training on the bike wasn't what it could have been. Unfortunately, mental and physical breakdowns compromised my training a few times in the last few weeks, and it always seemed as if cycling was the discipline that was most heavily affected. I never missed a single run in the two months prior to Cozumel, and any swim that I missed was made up within a day or so. On two occasions in the last six weeks prior to the taper, though, I quit trainer workouts on the bike early because I didn't have the physical and/or mental strength to push. On at least two other occasions in the last six weeks, I shortened bike rides by an hour or two. I normally only had bike rides on my schedule twice a week, so missed and shortened workouts reduced my bike training by nearly 50% during that crucial final buildup.

The physical breakdowns were a result of not getting enough sleep. That happened because I was completing my dissertation. That won't be an issue in the spring, now that I'm Dr. George.

The mental breakdowns were a result of letting myself reach a burnout point with cycling that I didn't reach with the others. And the main reason that I hit the burnout point was that I rode my tri bike too much in the month of October. On the tri bike, there's no scenery. Even when I'm on the trainer, all I do on the tri bike is stare at the stem. Further, being in the aero position is automatically more intense for me. I appreciate this intensity during a race, but it makes sustaining weekly training much more difficult. Of course, specificity is important, but training a little less specifically (i.e. by riding my road bike rather than my tri bike) is significantly better than not training at all. I'm gong to be a bit more sparing with the time I spend on my tri bike in the spring so that I can make sure that I don't reach a point where I'm quitting workouts in the six weeks prior to IMCdA.

Lesson #2: More time on the bike in general

On a related note, I need to be on my bike more than twice a week. I'm going to lobby my coach to put a third ride on my schedule each week, even if it's a fairly short one or a mid-week brick. The timing should work better on this one given that the days will be getting longer in April and May when I'm reaching my peak training.

Lesson #3: Work on my power/HR decoupling point

My bike really went downhill after my power numbers and heart rate decoupled. Through training, it's possible to focus on pushing back the point where that happens. In addition to focusing on producing more power at a lower HR, I need to make sure that I do workouts that are particularly geared at keeping my HR and my power aligned. This means different types of rides than I've done: ones that are more appropriate for maintaining a moderate effort level rather than ones that help me recover quickly from hard surges (such as what is necessary in a bike race to stay in the peloton). Even though CdA is a hillier bike course that will require more surging and recovering, I think that I'll benefit as a triathlete in general by training more like a triathlete cyclist than a road racing cyclist.

Lesson #4: More running time at goal marathon pace, particularly when I'm tired

During the marathon, I found that when I had my brief "emergence" from the dark ugliness, my body sank into roughly 7:30 pace. Many of my long runs were at 7:30 pace. While many of my shorter runs were at 7:00 pace or better, and while I did plenty of running at faster paces, my "slog through it" pace was 7:30. I don't think that that was a coincidence that these two paces--the pace for my long runs and the pace for my Ironman marathon--were the same.

When I was solely a runner, I didn't pay much attention to my pace on my "easy" days. As long as they were easy, that was all that mattered. During that stage of my life, though, I was also doing a lot of very fast running (in the form of workouts). I also was never training for a race that I would be running while very tired (i.e. the Ironman marathon). In the spring, I need to make sure that my pace, even or perhaps particularly on days when I'm feeling tired, is close to what I want to run for the Ironman marathon--namely, about 7:00 pace. I need to get more locked into that pace. It needs to be the speed that my body knows to run when I'm tired and on auto-pilot.

Lesson #5: Keep swimming!

My swimming has continued to improve over the last several months. In June, I finished nearly last in the swim section of my first triathlon. A couple of months later, I finished a wetsuit-legal half-iron swim in 42:00. At Cozumel, I did a full-iron non-wetsuit swim in 1:20:00. Even though I don't feel like I'm improving, I clearly am. Further, my swim teacher told me when I saw her a couple of weeks before Cozumel that she saw "a lot of places where we can make you faster." I don't think that I will ever be the first out of the water, but there are several minutes I should be able to take off at CdA.

Racing Lessons!

Lesson #1: Control myself on the bike

This one is obvious. Our friend Sonja--who beat me, by the way--told me after the race that you have to race the cycling leg "with your brain." I didn't do that. Rather, I ignored what I knew was right in a vain attempt to exceed my physical limitations. This is precisely what you have to do in a bike race in order to achieve. To win a bike race, you have to turn your brain off and as Jens Voigt suggests, you have to say, "Shut up, legs!" If you fail, it's okay, because there's a good chance that you would have failed anyway (given the team tactics, the win-or-go-home nature of bike racing, and how hard it is to win), and you'll probably get another chance the next weekend to grab a win. I'm good at that type of headbanger racing. Long distance triathlon is not for those who want to kill themselves on the bike. I have to learn that.

This is a particularly important lesson to apply in CdA. According to the good folks at, a great deal of people at Coeur d'Alene in 2011 actually did precisely what I did at Cozumel: went too hard on the bike and didn't save enough for the run. Here's their scatter graph:

The x-axis is bike split. The y-axis is run split. All of the dots in the upper left quadrant and lower right quadrant are people who didn't have comparable bike and run splits. The folks in the upper left went fast on the bike but slow on the run. The folks on the lower right went slow on the bike but fast on the run. While most people had comparable splits, the people who made these graphs for each Ironman said that there was an overabundance of upper-lefters compared to other races. In other words, Coeur d'Alene seems to be a course that inspires going too fast on the bike and not having enough left for a good run. Given that I have done exactly that in 100% of my Ironmans so far, I need to make a special point to ride "with my brain."

Lesson #2: Bad patches do indeed fade

When I started hurting on the run, I was actually kinda scared. I was worried that I was going to spend the next several hours on the run course walking and barely jogging. But after a few miles, I felt better--good enough to pick up the pace significantly. I had always heard that it was possible to go through both good and bad "stages" in a long race, but I had never experienced it. The take-away is that if I start feeling bad, my race isn't necessarily over.

Lesson #3: A good Ironman isn't all that exciting until the last hour

On the ferry heading home, I talked to a doctor from Boston who qualified for Kona in the age group above me. He said that he almost blew it because he was passed by four guys in his age group in the last eight miles of the run. Some of them put ten minutes on him in that section.

Clearly, the way to be successful is to treat the race like a long warmup to the last hour, and that's precisely how I'm going to approach the next race. In and of themselves, the paces that I need to do on the swim, on the bike, and on the first fifteen miles of the run are not all that tough. It's the accumulation of fatigue and the onset of aerobic creep that makes the Ironman a race. I've never done a race like this before--where you basically jog and jog and jog until you're the last one jogging. Rather, every other race I've ever done--and there have been hundreds of them--have been races from the gun. Kacie told me before the race that my general race experience would probably serve me well when I did my first Ironman. I thought it would, too, but in reflection, I realize that the Ironman is a unique style of race. I'll be better prepared for what lay ahead of me at my next starting line.

After a few weeks of rest, I'm going to start training seriously again. I haven't had a solid break from training since last September, so I'm keen to rest. In January, my job will be to help Kacie prepare for the DOUBLE IRONMAN that she's doing in Florida in late February. And after that, it's all about Coeur d'Alene. When I crossed the finish line in Cozumel, I was not sure that I ever wanted to do another Ironman. That night, after Kacie finished, I still couldn't talk about it. By Monday, though, even as I hobbled around with my wrecked body, I began to get excited about what's to come. Now, after a week, I'm looking forward to the training. I'm not ready to start it just yet, but I'm eager to undertake the next challenge.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ironman Cozumel Race Report; Part Two!

I've decided to split my race report for Ironman Cozumel into three parts: the pre-race, the race itself, and the lessons I learned from the experience. Part One can be found here.

Even though we had three alarms set, I woke up on Sunday morning just a few minutes before the first one went off. We got dressed, ate a fairly leisurely breakfast, and made our way down to the front of the hotel. There were to be shuttles from our hotel to the race start, beginning at 5:00 a.m. When we arrived around 5:15, the first one was leaving, and the line for the second one was pretty long. We got in line behind some other folks from Atlanta, and we waited for the next bus. And waited. And waited.

Kacie and I were immensely careful throughout the week about what we ate. Not only did we feel it necessary to make sure we were taking in high-quality calories during the taper period, but we both wanted to make sure that we avoided any food-borne illnesses in Mexico. It did not appear as if everyone was as concerned as us. We saw several people who ate and drank indiscriminately throughout the week. I'm not sure how they fared on race day. Anyway, neither of us had any hints of illness . . . until Saturday night.

On Saturday, I had an unsettling feeling in my stomach, and indeed, my fears were confirmed while we waited in line for the bus on Sunday morning. This knocked me off my game a bit, but I took some Pepto and hoped for the best. Happily, I can report that this never surfaced again. Whew! That would have SUCKED!

Swim: 1:20:35

YES! My goal for the swim was 1:30:00, so to do ten minutes faster than that was monumental. Leading up to the race, I figured that at best, I could hope for a 1:25 or so. I chided myself for considering anything faster than that. Even so, I never thought that I might swim 1:20 given that I couldn't cross the pool in June. I got out of the water and did two double-takes--one at the clock and the other at my watch.

Kacie and I got in the water fairly late, only about three or four minutes before the start. We ran into our new friend Lesley amongst the 2300 people in the water, and that was reassuring. We parked ourselves near the middle of the pack and waited for the gun, which initially caught us a little bit off guard. The swim began with a very physical 500 meters to the first turn. Our friend Sonja wrote that she started in the front and was hardly touched the entire swim. NOT ME! In fact, I don't see how I even made any progress in the first 500 meters, since it seemed that nearly every stroke was compromised either by having someone right in front of me or by landing on the back, leg, hand, or head of another competitor. The turn itself was nuts, as one person's stopping seemed to cause a chain reaction and a giant bottleneck. Nonetheless, I felt that I drew energy from the masses, and I was charged up by the excitement of it all. Dare I say: I like the chaotic pack swimming?

About halfway through the swim, some guy caught with a Vanessa Gaynor-style punch to the ear* that rang my bell enough to make me stop for a second. He apologized, though, and I quickly went back about my business. Some well-placed clouds kept the sun out of my eyes, and the jellyfish stings--I got about a dozen on my arms, torso, and lip--were not bad. Besides having to stop to drain one goggle of water a few times, the swim could hardly have gone better.

[*Vanessa Gaynor was the girl who dropped me with one punch to the ear in fourth grade. We were fighting over a kickball game. That's all I have to say about that.]

At two points, I found myself drifting a bit away from the pack, swimming in clean water away from the buoys and away from my flailing fellow Iron-wannabes. At those moments, I did something that actually made me very proud of myself: I swam back into the scrum. I knew that getting the overall drafting effect of swimming in the pack was worth the pain and risk of taking a kick to the head or a stroke to the crotch. I believe that these moments are ultimately what got me my fast split.

I dashed out of the water, did my double take, and took off sprinting down the pier. I grabbed my bag, went into the jammed tent, got ready for the bike, and headed out. My bike was right next to the tent, which meant that I had to run through nearly the entire transition area with it. T1 time--6:04.

Bike: 5:12:51

Out of the water, I was in 1348th place in the race and 246th in my age group. Given that I swam faster than I thought I would, I was on a high. Thus, I blasted onto the bike course and immediately started mowing people down.

In retrospect, I started a bit too aggressively, and that set a bad tone for the entire ride. Even though my HR wasn't off the charts, it was higher than it needed to be less than two hours into an Ironman. And even though my power numbers were in the range that I figured they should be, I knew that my cycling training had been off in the past six weeks and I would be better off being conservative. After that swim, though, conservatism be damned. I figured that if I could go ten minutes faster than my swim goal, why not go that much faster than my bike goal, too? Bad, bad, bad thinking. I established a baseline heartrate roughly ten beats higher than it should have been, and I kept it there. It was not smart, but I wouldn't know how not smart it was until I started running.

The bike consisted of an abbreviated first loop of 33 miles, followed by two full loops of 39.5 miles. On the first loop, I averaged right at 22.4 mph, which felt quick but not suicidal. On the second lap, I dropped to 21.9 mph, but I felt like I was still cruising along well. On the third lap, the wind picked up sharply, and it shifted in such a way that a crosswind became a headwind and a straight tailwind became less of a tailwind. That sucked. In addition, I reached my decoupling point, and I had to significantly reduce my power output in order to keep my heartrate at the same level (which as I said before, was already about ten beats over what it should have been). As a consequence, my speed dropped all the way to 20.6 mph, and I started HURTING. When I stood up to stretch, I could feel my quads seizing. In the last ten miles, phrases like "Get me off this infernal machine" kept rolling through my head. Even my ears ached.

Out of all of my assorted discomforts on the bike, by far the worst were my feet. They were on fire. Several times after the halfway point, I had to unclip each foot and wiggle my toes just to get rid of the hot spots. At one point, it was so severe that my left plantar fascia actually began to cramp. I'm not sure if this is a bike fit issue or something else. Regardless, that is one of the first things I am going to try to fix before my next Ironman.

When I finally passed off my bike, I was excited to start running, but I felt very spent by what I had endured in the last ten miles. Further, when I lifted my leg in the transition tent to change my shoes, my leg muscles kept seizing. I didn't think that that was a good sign, but I tried to forget about it and go on with the business of running. T2 time--3:01.

Run: 3:33:25

This was painful.

It started well enough. I rolled out of transition having passed 1021 people on the bike, nearly all of whom were in the first half. I was now in 327th place and 68th place in my age group. I told myself to relax in the first mile and that it was bound to feel slow after getting off the bike. I hit the mile mark in 6:41, and I felt great. I was poised for a 3:00:00 marathon, which would bring me home around 9:40:00 for the entire Ironman. Then, the second mile, which felt about the same as the first, was 7:24. [Uh, oh.] Then the third was 7:37. [I might be in trouble.] Then the bottom fell out, my stomach started to cramp, and I hit the four-mile mark in 8:43. I haven't run a mile that slow since I went running with Bill Clinton in 1994. I quit looking at my splits, but my next two miles (5 and 6) were in 18:39. Around that time, I saw Kacie, and told her that I was spent. In addition to being disappointed that my visions of having a great run would not be realized, I was actually a bit nervous. I didn't want to spend the next several hours struggling to finish.

Soon after, though, it began to rain, and my spirits began to lift. I turned mile seven in 8:22, and I passed through the next two miles (8 and 9) in 15:00. I saw Kacie coming in the other direction and yelled out, "I've come out of it! I'm back!" Mile 10 was 7:30, mile 11 was 7:39, and mile twelve was 7:26. I was still walking the aid stations, but I was feeling much better, both physically and mentally. Mile 13 was 7:31, and I hit halfway right at 8:25:00 in the overall race time. I figured that if I kept running about the same, I could do the last half-marathon in about 1:35:00, and that would put me right at 10:00:00 for the Ironman. That didn't happen.

While miles 14 and 15 were 15:28, miles 16 and 17 were 16:09. Mile 18 was 7:54, mile 19 was 8:10, and then I once again fell apart completely. Mile 20 was 8:52. Mile 21 was 8:38. Mile 22 was 9:01. Mile 23 was 9:06. Mile 24 was 9:38. Mile 25 was 9:00. I rallied a bit to run 7:19 for the Mile 26, but it was too little, too late. I crossed the finish line in 10:15:56.

In the last several miles, the bottoms of my feet felt terrible. After enduring severe hot spots on the bike, having to run in wet shoes was almost too much. The course was so thoroughly flooded that we actually had to cross a shin-deep puddle at one point on the course. And given that the course was an out-and-back loop, that meant four puddle fordings for me. In my blue tri suit, I felt quite sunk.

Nonetheless, I managed to pass 184 people on the run, mostly by summoning the will not to walk anywhere besides the aid stations. I moved up to 143rd in the race and 30th in my age group. It was not what I originally had in mind, but I am happy with it given that it's my first Ironman.

If I sound disappointed, I have to admit that when I crossed the finish line, I was. Even though my first goal (once starting the race) was to finish, I did not envision such a significant collapse on the run. My training and racing suggested that I would run brilliantly. I blew that chance, though, by riding beyond my limits on the bike. In other words, my falling short of my 10:00:00 goal was a failure of execution--something under my control. That's frustrating. As a result, I didn't get the rush of jubilation I was hoping for when I crossed the finish line. Rather than feeling the most pleasant exhaustion, I simply felt exhaustion.

My overall goal when I first signed up for Cozumel was to gain experience at the Iron level, and I certainly did that. As such, I count the race as a success. And certainly, I can't sneeze at a 10:15:56! I'm looking forward to lowering that PR soon, though.

In the ensuing four days, I've had plenty of time to reflect on the race, and I've drawn a great deal of lessons from it that I think will help me both in my preparation for and my racing of my next Ironman: Coeur d'Alene in 2012. I'll explain those lessons in Part Three!