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.


  1. Such great lessons learned, both about training and about racing! :) That's the greatest part of your first Ironman... tons to learn. Going into CdA, you will have so much knowledge that can only help! :)

    Hopefully we can get some training in as a group this spring!!!

  2. Awesome race reports George!! Amazing first IM!!! I think the lessons you take away from this race will totally pay off for you at IMCdA.

    You aren't doing that double IM like Kacie are you? :)