Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Birth of George the Swimmer

First things first, let's check in on my sun-tattoo:

Two weeks later, it's still obvious that I was #1375 at Kona.  Sweet.  A comment on my last blog said that his sun-tattoo didn't fade until the beginning of the next year.  Will I be ringing in 2013 with these numbers still on my arm?  Let's hope so!

I like still seeing the numbers on my arm in part because I had to take off my orange athlete bracelet on Monday.  Normally, I leave the bracelet on until I'm ready to move on to the next training block.  This time around, though, I had to take it off early in order to undergo surgery.  The surgery was to remove the plate below from my clavicle, along with the eight screws that had held it there for the past three-and-a-half years:

(This is destined to become a family heirloom.)

After a heavy crash during a bike race in March of 2009, the plate was put on my clavicle and two more plates put on my scapula.  The ones on my scapula will never come off; they are too deeply buried.  The one one my clavicle, though, was just under the skin, and it had begun to bother me greatly.  I have been eager to have it removed, but only now do I get the chance, since I am at the start of my first long-term break from training since I had it put on there.  My next big race isn't for another eleven months.  (My next race of any kind isn't for another five months, at least.)  I have time to get the surgery, recover, and begin training again with plenty of time to spare.  Right now, the stitches hurt a bit, but I'm happy to be rid of the plate.  I didn't know how big it was--a good four inches across--until they took it out.

I've spent the last several days processing my race at Kona.  I've read race reports, looked at my data, and asked for advice.  With the benefit of hindsight, I see that my race was not as bad as I had initially thought, and the fact that I underachieved a bit really didn't subtract from the overall experience at all.  Nonetheless, I believe that there were several things that I can fix in the event that I have another opportunity to race there.  I'm hoping to return to Kona in 2014 after qualifying at Ironman Wisconsin in September, 2013, but I know not to start planning my trip.  A lot of things can and will happen between now and then.

I learned a few small things in Kona, but this was to be expected.  After all, the Ironman World Championships was only my third Ironman and my ninth triathlon.  Small things, though, didn't break my race.  What did break my race?  The swim. 

The Big Lesson: I Need to Learn to Swim Better

Well, duh.  According to the enhanced Kona results on, I spent 15.9% of my total race time in the swim.  That was the second highest of any competitor in Kona.  Had I run better--and by the way, I'm still investigating the cause(s) of the poor run--I probably would have been number one.  In practical terms, that means that I was the most imbalanced triathlete in the entire 2012 Ironman World Championship Race.  That alone should inspire me to take action, but there's more.

The key moment in my Kona race came only about ten minutes after the start.  It was when the field swam away from me and I was left alone in Kailua Bay.  At that moment, I was bound to have a much different race than the one I had envisioned. 

According to the awesome folks at, the mean swim time in the race was 1:14:00.  In my age group, it was 1:08:00.  The median swim time was about three minutes faster than that.  In effect, there was a huge clump between 1:00:00 and 1:10:00--everyone who swam anywhere in that range will attest to that--but the crowd thinned very quickly.  After the swimmers going 1:15:00, the field became very sparse.  So someone like me, who would swim 1:20:00 on a good day in good conditions (and according to the veterans, the conditions in the water were on the more difficult side), was bound to be alone in the water and swim slower than expected.  As I wrote in my race report, I hadn't prepared emotionally or physically to spend an hour and forty minutes running into surfboards and fighting currents.

In addition--and more importantly--coming out of the water half an hour behind everyone else also meant that I would spend the rest of the race alone.  Consider this side-by-side comparison of me on my bike in the lava fields around mile 20, and my friend Sonja at the same spot.  Sonja came out of the water at 1:07:00.

It's like a totally different race.  Mentally, this meant that I had to set my own pace for virtually the entire race.  Yes, I had people on the bike course with me--I passed more than 900 folks on the bike, after all--but I was cruising along at least 2-3 mph faster than most of them.  Effectively, I was by myself, trying to press the pace enough to have a good split but not too hard to blow up.  Try to do anything mentally difficult for five hours straight--read philosophy, speak a foreign language you don't know well, take the SAT--and you'll be pretty wiped out by the end of it.    

In addition, I didn't get the physical advantage that attends riding with others that are cruising at the same speed.  In a non-drafting race, it doesn't seem like being alone on the bike should make any physical difference, but by all accounts, it does.  Even if you ride your bike entirely legally, you still save watts by having other people around who are going roughly the same speed.  Over the course of five hours, that extra work adds up.  Kona veteran and my new friend Matthew Rose--who came out of the water ahead of the pack--estimated that I gave up 10-20 watts to those who got out of the water in the pack.  I worked for a year to get those watts, and then I threw them away by getting dropped on the swim.

I continued to be alone on the run.  There was almost no one in the run who was running what I was running. I was either passing people (as in the first eleven miles or last five miles) or they were passing me (as in the middle ten).  This probably took a higher mental toll than physical toll, but at that point in an Ironman, is there really any separating the two?  After my difficult swim, when I really needed some camaraderie, my interaction with my competitors was limited to the tiny amount of time it took for one of us to pass the other.  For nine hours.  I realize now that if Kacie hadn't been on a bike talking to me between miles 14 and 24 on the run, I would have struggled even more than I was, and I may have failed to finish.  Whew!  That definitely makes the overpriced bike rental worth it!  

Jordan Rapp had the pro version of my race, and he blogged about it.  He was left behind by the main pack of pro swimmers and swam 59:00 solo.  Like me, he had to ride the bike alone.  (I was effectively alone, having no one that was riding my speed around me.  He was actually alone.) Like me, he thought that a good run could rescue his poor swim, but in the end, the mental and physical anguish of his solo effort wiped him out.  He estimates that he spent all but one minute of his race alone.  "By the time someone ended up in my sights," he wrote,  "It was because they were going backwards, not because they were someone to share any part of the burden--even just the struggle of being alone--with."  That was disturbingly familiar for me.  Jordan's takeaway: "I should just swim better."  Me, too, Jordan.

Jordan also waxed philosophical about how the importance of getting into the front group on the bike in Kona increases the value of the swim.  The enhanced importance of the swim in turn makes Kona a more balanced three-sport race than one might deduce from looking at the relative distances of each discipline.  This is a good point, and it's contrary to the whole reason that I moved immediately to Ironman distance as soon as I became a triathlete: because I felt the swim would be much less significant in such a long event.  I was right about most amateur Iron-distance races.  Kona is an exception.  You won't be a part of the race in Kona unless you can swim.
So, what now?  

After I qualified for Kona, I told my wife I would start attending Masters swim classes.  I had shied away from them in the past because of the ignominy of swimming in the slowest lane (where I would probably get dropped).  She reasoned that no one could make fun of me if I was a Kona qualifier.  Perhaps she's right.  Regardless, I came up with an excuse to not go to them between Coeur d'Alene and Kona.  In retrospect, that was probably a mistake.  A few classes in August may have gone a long way in October.   

So why did I break my promise after I qualified for Kona?  I realized that answer this week: I'm not confident that I can actually improve.  I don't know if I have what it takes--the flexibility, the strength, the coordination, the rhythm, the patience--to get faster in the water, and that discourages me from making the sacrifices necessary to try and become a better swimmer.  Over the last several months, my swimming has plateaued out around 2:00/100y.  I fear that I'm doomed to stay there forever.  

Be that as it may, I have to give it a shot.  If I want to go back to Kona and have a better race, I can't ignore the single biggest lesson I learned: that I need to swim well enough to emerge from the water with the group.  In fact, I have resolved that if I do manage to qualify for the 2014 World Championships at the 2013 Ironman Wisconsin next September, I will only accept my slot if I feel that I'm making sufficient progress toward being able to stay with the pack and swim sub-1:10:00 in Kona.  I plan to suck it up and start Masters classes as soon as my shoulder heals.  Come mid-November, I'll be there, decked out in my Kona finisher shirt, hat, and jacket, ready to get beaten, again and again.  And several more times.  This feels like a major undertaking.

Thus is born George the Swimmer.  This will be my focus--both in training and by extension, in this blog--for the next several months.  I think I'm going to have to change my cover photo.    

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

2012 Ironman World Championships Race Report!

Our trip to Kona was great!  It was an experience that everyone should have.  My race, however, was not quite what I hoped it would be.  I'm still processing what I can take away from the race experience, and I'll include that in a separate blog post.

While we were there, I was mostly focused on my race.  Even though her primary mission in Kona was to support me, my wife Kacie sampled a bit more of Hawaii, and she's going to write a blog post about her experience in Kona soon.    


We landed in Kona on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.  The land surrounding the runway was all lava fields, and they looked exactly how I'd always heard that they look.  It gave me goosebumps not only because it was unlike anything I had ever seen, but also because those lava fields are so huge in endurance sporting lore.  I was excited to have finally made it.  I had been focused on getting to Kona since before I did my first triathlon last year.  I can hardly imagine the feeling that those who chase the Kona dream for several years must get as they are landing.  Incredible.  

With me was my wife and my parents.  Here we are in the race hotel in front of a flowery M-dot: 

In Kona, we met up with our friend Anne, who took a different flight.  Anne is one of Kacie's colleagues.  Anne's our good friend, she was the crew chief for Kacie's Double Ironman in February, and she crewed for Kacie's RAAM team this past summer.  Anne put a lot of time into t-shirt and banner-making ahead of the race, and once we were on the Big Island, she took most of the photos.  Here's Anne:  

 (Anne is now looking for a sugar daddy to pay for her to stay in Kona permanently. To apply, e-mail me.)

Kailua-Kona is essentially a small beach town, much like many of the tourist-y scuba/surf towns that you can find around the world.  It reminded me a bit of Cozumel, where Kacie and I did Ironman Cozumel last year.  However, by the time that we arrived, it was completely overrun with triathletes.  It was almost like a college town on football game day or like uptown Atlanta on Peachtree Road Race morning.  People were running and cycling in every direction, and there were vendors all over the place.  Powerbar, Cytomax, Muscle Milk, Gu, and Bonk Breaker even set up refueling stations for people who were out for training runs or rides along Ali'i Drive or on the Queen K Highway.  There were signs everywhere advising drivers to watch out for "Ironman Athletes in Training."  The expo--which is normally a two-acre affair with a couple dozen companies--spilled out of the official race area and covered several blocks.  Bike manufacturers took over coffee shops.  Pro triathletes rubbed elbows with amateurs at restaurants, along the roads, and in the water.  Nutrition companies rented their own houses.  They were even broadcasting videos of past Ironmans on the side of the race hotel--yes, on the outside wall of the freakin' hotel--and you could stand in the yard or sit on the curb to watch.  Baller.

On Thursday morning around 7:00 a.m., we went for a swim at the pier.  It was a zoo:

There were a couple hundred people in the water, including Chrissie Wellington.  There was a boat about 500y from the shore that was handing out coffee and swimcaps.  As soon as I left the water, reps from TYR handed me a bag.  Meanwhile, the underpants run got underway on Ali'i Drive.

That afternoon, I checked in, and we went to the expo.  I met Steve from my sponsor, Cycleops, who gave me a great t-shirt and visor.  I also picked up my bike from TriBike Transport, who had let the bike sit outside in the salty air since the previous Saturday.  As a result, it had a rusty chain.  Normally, I have nothing but good things to say about TBT, but in this case, it seemed to me that they were a bit careless.  Anyway, once I got the bike squared away, we went up to Kawaihae so that I could preview a key portion of the course: the climb up to Hawi.  It was indeed difficult, but it wasn't quite as long as I had heard.  The meat of the climb was about seven miles, during which there was a swirling headwind in my face.  It slowed me way down, but I found that the descent, while dangerous, was wicked fast.  I learned, among other things, that the crosswinds are dangerous not only because they're gusty, but also because the gusts are unpredictable.  As I would also notice on race day, I would have a steady wind coming from my left, when suddenly a blast would come from my right.  If I was leaning too hard into the wind, the gust could potentially knock me over.  

While I was practicing my bike handling skills in the wind, my parents flew to Honolulu to see the governor.  My dad knew the governor from several years ago, and my parents figured that if they came this far, they might as well take the forty-five minute trip to the capital to see him.  Here they are, with Governor Abercrombie in the middle:

The governor sent me some sea salt in a wooden State of Hawaii bowl as a good luck gift:

(I don't think I used this correctly.)

On Friday, I got my things together, packed my race bags, and prepped my bike:

(Note that the number was a ProTour-style plastic number rather than a sticker.  Sweet.) 

I spent the rest of the day with my feet propped up, reading and watching TV in our rented house.  Anne and Kacie took paddle-boarding lessons and went to see manta rays, but I'll let Kacie tell you about that in her blog.

Race Morning!

By about 3:30 a.m., I couldn't sleep anymore, so I got up.  (Side note: I slept pretty well the entire time I was in Hawaii despite having crossed six time zones to get there.  I woke up earlier than I normally would have each day, but that was actually a bit welcome given how early I would have get up on race day.)  The rest of the crew got up over the course of the next hour, and we headed out just before 5:00.  The first step was body marking:

The next step was suntan lotion:

  (Note Kacie's beaded shirt and  turtle tattoo. They were parts of the Anne Cheer Plan.)
Then, it was goodbye to the family.  I spent the next hour or so doing final prep on my bike, lining up for the swim, and generally milling around trying not to be nervous.  With just under half an hour to go, I got in the slow-moving line heading into the water.  With about ten minutes to go, I entered the surf.  With about four minutes to go, I swam out to the starting line and began treading water.  In the process, I looked up and saw my friends and All3Sports teammates Yvonne and Stephen amongst the green army wearing Dynamo Multisport t-shirts.  At 7:00, the cannon malfunctioned, and Mike Reily simply yelled, "Go!"  

(Three-fourths of my cheering section waiting for me to come out of the water.  They would be waiting a while.)


My goal for the swim was sub-1:20:00.  I swam 1:20:35 at Ironman Cozumel in November, 2011, only five months after learning to swim from scratch.  My times in the pool are much faster now than they were then, owing to the fact that I've now been swimming for over a year.  I allowed myself to think that I could potentially go as fast as 1:15:00.  Knowing that swimming is a big mystery to me, though, I convinced myself to be content with anything under 1:25:00 and not to panic if I got out of the water with a time in the high 1:20s.  After all, I missed my swim goal in Coeur d'Alene and still had a really good race.      

The swim was, in short, one of the worst experiences of my athletic career.

At the starting line, I positioned myself in the place where I knew the middle-of-the-pack swimmers would be.  Even though my goal swim time was slower than the mean swim time for the last several years, I figured that I would have several people with me throughout the swim that I could follow.  I was wrong.  By about 600 yards into the swim, the entire pack had swum away from me, and I found myself virtually alone.  I would continue to be alone for almost the entire swim.  

I realize in retrospect how accustomed I've become to swimming in the middle of the pack and how reliant I am on the other swimmers in the race.  First, other swimmers provide a draft.  Just like in cycling, drafting can provide a huge benefit, particularly to weaker swimmers and particularly in current-heavy water.  As it was in Kona, I was left to swim directly into the current alone.  Second, other swimmers help keep me on course.  I don't sight well, and normally I judge whether I'm swimming in a straight line by monitoring the swimmers next to me.  Without swimmers next to me, I had no way of determining whether I was swimming in a straight line unless I picked my head up and sighted a buoy.  This was especially hard because the buoys were all on my right, and I breathe only to the left.  On several occasions, I drifted into the course marshals on their surfboards and had to be directed back onto course.  Third, and I only now realize this, other swimmers give me comfort.  I've read the race reports of other Kona athletes, and they complain of how physical and difficult the swim is . . . because they're not accustomed to swimming with other people like I am.  I basically had the opposite reaction.  I wish that I had had more people around me; I wish that my complaint about the swim had been that I couldn't find clean water.  One-third of the way through the Kona swim, I felt like I was alone in the ocean.  That was a very desperate feeling.

To complicate matters further, I knew that I was losing massive amounts of time.  If I had had no expectations for the race, it might not have made any difference.  As it was, the knowledge that I was spotting my competitors such an advantage right off the bat made me really panicky.  And, of course, that probably made my swimming even worse.  

I've had flashbacks to the swim several times over the last few days, the same way that one might have flashbacks to other traumatic experiences (like a car wreck or a mugging).  I continually think of one moment, about 1500 meters in, when I looked up and realized that there was no one in my line of sight, and I didn't know where the next buoy was.  At that moment, I actually thought I might not finish.             

Even after the boat at the turnaround finally came into sight, it seemed like it took forever to reach it.  Once I circled it and turned for home, I couldn't resist looking at my watch.  It said 53:53.  Right at that moment, a marshal on a paddle board encouragingly said, "Okay, halfway done!"  My heart sank.  I swam on, but I began to think that I might not make the swim cutoff, given that my second half is normally slower than my first.  I pulled myself together, though, and I started re-adjusting my race goals in my mind.  I'm very proud of having done that, actually.  Only occasionally did I let bad thoughts enter my head in the last half-hour of the swim, and that's probably one of the reasons (along with the current) that I ended up swimming the second half several minutes faster than the first half.

With about 500 yards left, I suddenly found myself in a big group.  My first thought was, "Where the hell have y'all been???"  I still haven't quite figured out the answer to that question.  My wife thinks that a lot of people who were spread across the bay got funneled together in the narrow finishing area.  Perhaps.  My All3Sports teammate Yvonne was on the pier at the finish, and she clicked this picture as I was coming in:

(See how it looks like we're all going in different directions?  That's what you get at the back of the pack!)

This was my official coming out of the water shot.  As you can see, I took off my cap and goggles immediately, and I threw them in a trashcan as I emerged from the water:        

There were a few other shots that the photographers got of me running out of the water and into transition.  In each, I look frenzied, and I'm surrounded by relaxed, smiling women that look to be about my mom's age. I checked: I actually beat the five people competing in the 80+ division out of the water.  Boo yah!  I cannot say that about any other age group, men or women.  (It was not even close in any of the others, actually.)  In my checking, I found that I emerged from the water with a German man named Georg who would finish in 14:30:56 and win the men's 75-79 age group.  Perhaps that's me in about forty years.  This year, though, in the men's 35-39 age group, George from the U.S.A. came out of the water 208th out of 210 competitors.  One of the guys I beat would DNF.  The other finished in over sixteen hours.     
In retrospect, my entire race was colored by my terrible swim.  It drained me physically.  I've never spent an hour and forty minutes swimming, and my eating and drinking plan didn't really take into account twenty additional minutes in the water without nutrition.  More than that, though, it drained me emotionally.  For the remainder of the race, I felt as if I was hardly holding it together.


Woot!  Good transition!  The advantage of finishing the swim 1847th place in a field of just over 1900 people is that you get a fairly empty transition area.  I ran in, took everything out of my bag, and ran out with it all in my hands.  When I got to my bike, it was sitting all by itself.  On the one hand, this gave me yet another emotional hit.  On the other, it meant that I could actually put on my shoes, helmet, and sunglasses without worrying about anyone else.  I ran out completely untouched.   I don't think that I have ever been so happy to be on my bike.


(Hot Corner!)

I missed my cheering section when I came out of transition.  My emerging from the water so late threw them for a loop.  Kacie was down at the medical tent making sure that I hadn't been pulled from the water.  (Anne said that she knew something was seriously wrong when Kacie removed her grass skirt.)  As such, I made it out of town without their seeing me.  It's probably just as well; had I seen them, I may have fallen apart.

Every account of the race I read said that it's so crowded in the first five miles of the bike that you can't really pass anyone.  Ha!  Those people have never emerged from the water in 1:40:20!  Most everyone was eleven miles out of town at this point, so I had no problem passing folks from the get-go.  Look again at the picture above of me cresting the hill at Hot Corner, only about half a mile into the bike leg.  Does that look crowded to you??  Take that, fish!

I'm no stranger to getting out of transition last and passing people.  In my first-ever triathlon last year, I was 298th out of the water in an event with 303 people.  In the Rev 3 Quassy aquabike this summer, I was came out of the water in the middle of the pack before getting two flats in transition.  I'm sure I was one of the last few people to leave transition that day, too.  What made this different was (1) my emotional state, and (2) the bikes people were riding.  At the World Championships, folks aren't riding beach cruisers or mountain bikes.  The folks I was rolling by had expensive tri bikes with nice wheels.  They all wore aero helmets.  In fact, the only bike I saw all week that wasn't a super-sleek tri machine belonged to Sister Madonna Buder, the 82-year-old nun:

(Sister Madonna's humble bike reflects her overall humility.  She would miss the time cut-off by ten minutes.)
After doing a lap around town, we headed out on the vaunted Queen K Highway--a road that I will henceforth refer to as My Nemesis.  At this point, I was shaking off the swim and moving fast:

 (It may have all been worth it just for this photo.)

I wasn't happy about the amount of fatigue in my shoulders and back in the opening stages.  It was no doubt due to my having spent about 25% more time in the water than I had planned, though, so I tried not to focus on it.  Instead, I focused on my power and HR, both of which I was determined to keep within my prescribed limits no matter how much time I had lost.  I kept telling myself, "You may be a terrible swimmer, but you're not stupid."  I knew that if I tried to make up ground too quickly on those that I had spotted thirty minutes, I would blow up on the bike and have nothing left for the run.  I pedaled away and hoped that my starting half an hour later than the bulk of the field wouldn't mean that I had to deal with stronger winds.  Within just a few miles, I began passing clumps of riders, and this would continue throughout the bike.  Ultimately, I would pass 922 people on the bike.

My goal for the bike was 5:05:00 or better.  If things went well, though, I felt as if I could be under five hours.  My cycling had gone well in the lead-up to Kona, even though I didn't feel quite as sharp as I would have liked.  I got out way ahead of that pace, even though I was staying within my prescribed limits.  I figured that the sixty-mile mark in Hawi would be my first real indication of what my overall time could be.

 (Look at those GUNS!  It's definitely not an optical illusion . . . )

I hit the sixty-mile mark at about 2:41:30.  That's an average of about 22.3 mph, which would put me just over five hours if I maintained the average.  I turned around and headed down the descent.  For the next seven miles, I was cruising along at about 36-37 miles per hour.  A few times, I took my elbows out of my aerobars and clutched my brake hoods in order to stabilize my bike in the crosswinds.  Otherwise, the wind didn't force me to slow down at all until I reached the bottom of the climb and got back into the rolling section leading to Kawaihae.  Even with all the roll, I covered the 14 miles from the turnaround at over 26 miles per hour.  That brought the average speed back up and made me think that I could probably still get under five hours.  I began thinking that with a good run, I could potentially become the first person ever to swim 1:40:20 and still go sub-10:00:00 in an Ironman. 
On the bike, I stuck to my normal nutrition plan of Perform and gels, but I added in a banana (about 80 calories) in order to try and make up for the calories that I hadn't been planning to spend in the water.  I also drank a great deal more water to try and supplement my overall fluid intake.  At every aid station, I grabbed a bottle of water, drank some of it, and doused myself with the rest.  Even though I tried to make sure I got enough electrolytes and fluids, by the time that I climbed out of Kawaihae and got back onto My Nemesis, I was covered in salt:

(Are my legs tanner than they were in the first picture?)   

I had to use the bathroom, too, but more urgently, my feet were on fire.  I had tremendous hot spots that really began to torture me in the last twenty-five miles.  This made it painful to put a lot of power into the pedals, and I had to slow down on several occasions in order to unclip my shoes, straighten my legs, and move my feet around.

I read several descriptions of the bike course before the race, but I somehow missed this: the final stretch along the highway from Kawaihae to Kailua is extremely difficult.  Grueling, even.  Between fatigue, dehydration, intense hot spots, intense heat, headwinds, uphills, and lingering emotional distress, the bike felt as if it would never end.  In fact, it was my slowest segment of the day--keeping within my wattage and heart rate limits brought me down to an 18 mph average for the last twenty-five miles--and it brought down my average speed for the whole ride almost a full mile-per-hour.  It was one of the most difficult segments I've ever had on a bike.  The climb to Hawi was a leisurely spin compared to the return from Kawaihae.             


There were a lot more people in transition this time around!  I used the bathroom and hurried into the tent.  I was in such a hurry that I nearly left all of my gels in my transition bag.  I retrieved them, though, and I headed out on the run.  I was thinking that if I got out of transition before 7:00:00 into the race, I would have a chance to get under 10:00:00.  I ran out at 6:57:40.  Game on! 


Getting off the bike, I didn't feel great.  I felt, in short, that I had worked harder on the bike than I should have.  I wasn't confident that I had enough left for a good run.  My numbers on the bike had been on target, though, and were comparable to what I did at CdA.  In addition, whenever I do a brick, I always feel kinda terrible in the first mile or so.  Thus, I put aside the bad feelings and started running.

I saw Kacie as I turned at Hot Corner about a quarter-mile into the run.  It was the first time I had seen her since before the race started.  It was good to lay eyes on her, but given how excruciating the last ninety minutes of the bike had been, I wasn't feeling great.  Kacie had rented a bike, and she rode alongside me for a little while updating me on the rest of the folks cheering for me, both at the race and at home.  I didn't have much to say to her; I was concentrating on staying relaxed and not running too hard.  Kacie peeled off, and I hit the first mile mark in 6:26.  Soon after, I saw my parents for the first time.  They were PUMPED!  I was inspired to give my dad a high-five, which Anne captured:


Soon after, I saw my teammate Yvonne, and she was almost as loud as my mom!  With that crew behind me, I hit the second mile in 6:48, the third in 6:53, and the fourth in 6:59.  The haze began to lift, and I hit the fifth mile in 6:38.  I saw my Hawaiian host family during mile six, and I realized how much better I felt as I said hello to them.  Perhaps this race would turn out okay! 

I continued in this fashion until about mile ten, which I reached in 1:08:35.  The athlete tracker had some craziness in these splits, claiming that I ran a couple of miles under 6:00.  I didn't.

 (Passing, passing, passing.  I probably passed 300 people in the first ten miles.) 

Just after the ten-mile mark, I took a left and headed up the steep quarter-mile hill on Palani Drive.  It hurt.  A lot.  I crested the hill and turned onto My Nemesis.  The eleventh mile, with Palani hill, was 7:56.  I expected that.  The twelfth mile, which included some downhill was 7:45.  I didn't expect that.  The thirteenth mile was almost entirely downhill.  It was 7:21, and I knew I was in trouble.  The fourteenth was 8:11, and this is where the wheels started really falling off.  I was soon passed for the first time since T1, and after that, a steady stream of runners went by me.  The next seven miles, including the four-mile out-and-back into the Energy Lab, took me over an hour and ten minutes--an average of 10:03 pace.  I was shuffling on the run and walking slowly through every aid station.  I was drenching myself with sponges and dumping ice down the front and the back of my jersey.  I somehow managed to keep eating and drinking, but I was starting to get stomach cramps anytime I swallowed anything. 

About the time that I really started to hurt around mile fourteen, Kacie rode up on her bike.  She tried all sorts of things to encourage me to get going, but my body was just not up to it.  The physical and emotional toll of the race, going all the way back to the swim and carrying through the last ninety minutes of the bike, had caught up with me.  Palani hill had put me over the top and into the red, and now, every uphill (and there seemed to be endless uphills) felt like a mountain pass. 

Kacie reminded me that we don't give up and we don't walk.  I kept shuffling along, hoping that I would somehow pass through the bad patch.  I really wanted to let go of the race and just walk the rest of the way, but I couldn't bring myself to give up entirely.  As I approached Mile 21--just as my knees started to ache from running with such a chopped stride--I began thinking of my last bad Ironman run, at Cozumel.  I remembered how in Cozumel, I felt terrible, yet I somehow found the strength to speed up in the last half-mile.  In reflecting on the race, I had been frustrated that I clearly could have gone faster, yet I didn't go any faster until the finish line was virtually in sight.  That, I told myself, was simply unacceptable.  (In my head, I used much more colorful language.)  Thus, I willed myself to start picking up the pace with about five miles to go.  Mile 22, which included a slow walk through an aid station, was 8:51.  Mile 23, which included a less slow walk through an aid station, was 8:21.  Mile 24, where I sped through the aid station, was 8:10, and mile 25, with hardly any walking at the aid station at all, was 8:00.  I ran the last 1.2 miles in 8:37, or about 7:10 pace.  I passed about thirty people in this final push to the line.  Ultimately, I crossed in 10:30:09, completely spent.  In twenty years of endurance sports, this was about as deep as I've ever had to go. 

 (Yep, my eyes are closed. Nope, that wasn't on purpose.  Genuine exhaustion.)

I finished 652nd, which meant that even with my sub-par run, I passed 273 more people.  All told, that meant I went by 1195 from the time I exited the water until I crossed the finish line.

I milled around the finish line for a while, got my finisher's medal and leis, and spoke to a few people.  I then went out to meet my wife.  I was overwhelmed by the emotion of the day, but I was too worn out to really let loose emotionally.  We sat in the hotel for a while and rehashed the race until my parents and Anne found us.  Then we took a few pictures:

(I didn't wear the medal much longer.  It weighed about ten pounds, no lie.)


Kacie, Anne, and I cleaned up, got something to eat, and headed back for the midnight finish.  It was fantastic, but I was completely wiped out--much more so that I was at the midnight finish of the other two Ironmans I've done.  I tried to put that aside for the sake of this picture, which is now one of the leading contenders for our Christmas card:

Just for fun, here's the other leading contender, which we took the next day:

Which do you prefer?

The next day, we assessed the damage.  I felt run down and dehydrated, of course, but I had a sweet sunburn that has since morphed in a much less painful suntan.  I'll be interested to see how this looks in a month:

(Who needs a 140.6 tattoo?  I have a 1375 tattoo . . . on both arms!)

In all, I'm very happy with the experience, even though the race was not as good as I had hoped.  I heard many people say that I shouldn't have had any expectations ahead of my first time in Kona, and I can imagine someone saying that as they read this report.  But I simply don't operate that way.  I have to have a goal, even if it means that I might be frustrated with the race when I'm done.   

Nonetheless, I'm more proud of having simply finished this race than I ever would have thought.  I'm particularly satisfied that I held it together after the atrocious first half of the swim, and that I was able to dig deep in the last five miles of the run to finish strong.

As I wrote at the start of this post, I'm still digesting the race a bit, and I'm going to write another post in a week or two about what I learned from Kona, both in terms of training and race execution.  There are several things that I did wrong that bear hashing out, particularly if I want another crack at My Nemesis . . .                       

Sunday, October 7, 2012


The word "Kona," much like "Boston," "Leadville," "Badwater," "Western States," or "RAAM" carries a lot of weight in the amateur endurance sporting community.  Over the last several weeks, when I have told runners, cyclists, or triathletes that my next race is Kona, I haven't really had to explain to them what Kona is or what it means that I get to race there.  Even when I tell folks who are not endurance athletes that I'll be racing an Ironman in Hawaii, I've gotten comments like, "Oh, you're doing the original Ironman," or "You're doing the real one" (as if iron-distance races in Florida, Kentucky, Penticton, Coeur d'Alene, California, New York, or anywhere else are somehow fake).

While qualifying to compete in Kona was my goal as soon as I quit cycling full-time to become a triathlete, I realized a few weeks after qualifying at Ironman Coeur d'Alene that Kona's reputation had me spooked.  I was feeling the pressure, and I even, at times, dreaded the race.  As soon as I started getting back in shape, though, I began to get excited about what was ahead.  Now, with only six days until the big show, I'm excited for the start.  

Tracking Information!

The race starts at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (Yes, Saturday.  Most Ironman races are on Sunday, but the World Championships are on Saturday.)  Kona time is six hours behind eastern time, so I won't be starting until it's 1:00 p.m. in Atlanta.  (And yes, adjusting to that time difference in only a couple of days before the race has me a bit nervous.)  I'll be wearing number 1375.      

You can track me at They will have streaming video of the race, but it will be focused on the pros at the front who will start twenty minutes before me.  There will also be television coverage of the race broadcast in a month or so, but it too will be mostly focused on Craig Alexander, Chrissie Wellington, and their ilk.    

I appreciate it when people follow along online.  I think of it every time I pass over a timing mat.  Of course, if you do follow along and if you see that 1500 out of the 1900 people competing are in front of me coming out of the water, don't sweat it: the swim ain't my thing.  Normally, I expect to be in the middle of the pack on the swim, but the middle of the pack in Kona last year was 1:13.  (The middle of my age group was 1:09.)  At this point in my triathlon career, it would take a miracle for me to swim that fast.  I'll be spotting the middle of the pack a good five to ten minutes at Kona.  

Speaking of My Expectations for the Race . . . 

I decided that I had better play it safe going into this race both in terms of what I expect from myself and what I tell other people.  Ahead of Coeur d'Alene, I matter-of-factly said that I figured I would be a middle-of-the-pack swimmer, one of the fastest cyclists, and one of the very fastest runners.  That's what happened.  In retrospect, though, I realize that my writing that in my blog was a bit brash.  I have too much respect for Kona and for my competitors there to write or say anything that could be construed as cocky.   

That being said, the first goal is to make it to the start.  This is always the first goal in our family.  Barring anything catastrophic, I should be at the pier on Saturday morning, waiting for the cannon to fire.  The second goal is to finish.  The third and fourth goals, though, I'm going to keep to myself.  As you can see from last year's results, even if I swim well, I can't expect to be mowing people down on the bike:  

The average bike split last year was 5:56.  In my age group last year, it was a much snappier 5:19.  If things go well, I should be able to go a bit faster than my age group average, but not a whole, whole lot faster.  The average run split in the race was a 4:15, while in my age group, it was 3:50.  My qualifying run split in Coeur d'Alene was nearly an hour faster than this.  In other words, if I remain patient and execute my race plan, the run is where I should be able make up the most ground.     

That's as much as I'm going to talk about my goals, though.  I'm confident in my capabilities based on my buildup (see below), but I don't want to come off as overconfident.  More importantly, I don't want to BE overconfident, and acting humbly is a good way for me to insure that I remain humble . . . at least until it's time to dig deep in the late stages of the race.  At that point, I become everything that I try not to be when I'm not racing: judgmental, superficial, self-aggrandizing, and downright mean.  If you're tracking me and you see that I'm passing a lot of people on the run, you will know that I'm mentally trash-talking every one of them as I go by.  

The Weather!

Much is made of the weather in Kona.  Specifically, people talk of the wind and the heat.  Wind is not my friend, and I don't relish having to fight the legendary mumuku winds.  Here's the forecast for the days that we'll be in Kona:

(This is like the weather-report version of a metronome.)

Of course, they don't predict any abnormal wind on race day, but we'll see.  Having been a cyclist, I'm confident about my ability to handle my bike if I get blown hard off my line, but I'm hoping not to have to test myself against any 60 mile-per-hour crosswinds.  I'm torn, though, as to whether I want a totally calm day.  Wind is not the same for everyone.  I'm a strong cyclist, which would suggest that I might want a tougher day.  But I'm also a lighter cyclist without the very latest cutting-edge aero gear, which means that I'm more susceptible to getting blown around.  Of course, regardless of what I want, I will have no control over the wind, and any stressing I do about it is probably wasted energy.      

And then there's the heat.  I know that it will be hot--particularly in the lava fields during the last hour or so of the run--but I feel that I'm well-prepared.  Here's the weather forecast for Atlanta for the time that we're going to be in Kona:

While our fall mornings are a bit cooler, the high temperatures are roughly the same.  I've been training in the 80s (and above) since July, and as the temperature cooled in the last few weeks, I've saved my outdoor workouts for the warmest part of the day (which was normally right about 80 degrees).  This is not to say that I'll thrive in the heat, but I do think that I'll be better prepared for it than someone coming from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, North Dakota, or even Colorado, all of which had snow this weekend.  I grew up in the South; I know heat.  

My Buildup!    
I pay close attention to my training in the last eight weeks leading up to an Ironman, and I pay particularly close attention to the last five weeks.  Having had a successful race at Coeur d'Alene, I feel like I know what works: a lot of cycling including some hard work and climbing mixed in, mostly longer runs with some fast workouts mixed in, and some long swims.  (My coach and I going to re-examine this formula before Ironman Wisconsin next September, but I'll write more about that later.  I haven't even discussed it with him yet.  Oh, by the way, I'm doing Ironman Wisconsin next September.)  This week, I looked back at my buildup to Coeur d'Alene between eight weeks to go and my taper week, and I compared that to the training I've done in my buildup to Kona between eight weeks to go and my taper week (i.e. right now).  I was expecting to see that I had actually done a bit less ahead of Kona, but I was pleasantly surprised.  In fact, my overall training hours were almost identical.  

I was further bolstered when I broke it down by sport.  The number of bike rides I did in each buildup was roughly the same (16 leading up to CdA and 15 leading up to Kona), and the number of hours on the bike (61) was exactly the same.  In addition, I spent seven days riding in the mountains ahead of Kona, while I only spent four days riding in the mountains leading up to Coeur d'Alene.  Ahead of Coeur d'Alene, I raced twice: at the Rev3 Half-Rev in Knoxville and the Rev3 Half-Rev Aquabike in Quassy.  Ahead of Kona, I haven't raced, but I have done several cycling events (i.e. organized centuries).  Ahead of Coeur d'Alene, I did a seven-hour ride and an eight-hour ride.  Ahead of Kona, I did a seven-and-a-half-hour ride.  All in all, I'd say I'm in a good place cycling-wise.  Last weekend, I set a personal record for the difficult Hogpen Gap climb in North Georgia during the renowned Six Gap Century.  That's obviously a good sign.  My last long ride on Wednesday had some good power numbers and a low heartrate average.  That's a winning combo.  

If I compare my running over the same period, I find that I'm actually in a much better place now.  Ahead of CdA, I did 17 runs for a total of 199 miles.  Amongst those runs were two 20+ mile runs, 1 brick, 1 race (Rev3 Knoxville Half-Rev), and three traditional track workouts that I did on the dirt oval in the park across from out house.

(If the field looks familiar, you must have seen"What to Expect When You're Expecting." )

Ahead of Kona, I've done twenty runs for a total of 227 miles.  Amongst those were two 20+ mile runs, two bricks, five track workouts on the dirt, and no races.  While I'm happy that the raw numbers are higher, I put more stock in the fact that my workouts are actually stronger if I compare them one-to-one.  Three weeks out from CdA, I did an 80-mile bike ride with climbing, and then ran a hilly eight miles in 51:52.  Three weeks out from Kona, I did a 60-mile bike ride with climbing, and then ran a hilly eight miles in 49:08. My best track workout ahead of CdA was a 6x800 workout where I averaged 2:34 (5:08 mile pace).  My best track workout ahead of Kona was a 4x1200 workout where I averaged 3:48 (5:04 mile pace).  In my last twelve-mile run on trails one week out from CdA, I ran 1:20:12.  Yesterday, I did the same twelve-mile run in 1:17:53.  

Swimming?  Yes, I've done a lot of swimming.  A friend recently told me that I'm such a bad swimmer relative to my cycling and running that she figured that I must never swim.  In fact, I do plenty of swimming . . . I'm just not very good at it yet.  Granted, I don't swim as much as I do the other two sports, but I'm working on it.  In the seven weeks leading up to the CdA taper week, I did ten swims, including one workout and two races.  In the last seven weeks leading up to my Kona taper week, I've done twelve swims, including three workouts and no races.  I also swam a great deal more in period between twelve-weeks-to-go-to-Kona and eight-weeks-to-go-to-Kona than I did in the period between twelve-weeks-to-go-to-CdA and eight-weeks-to-go-to-CdA.  Thus, it stands to reason that I'm in a better place going into Kona than I was going into CdA.  Do I sound uncertain?  I am.  Swimming continues to baffle me.  I can hardly tell from one day to the next whether I'm going to swim 1:50 per hundred or 2:07 per hundred.  

I actually had a better swim at Ironman Cozumel (1:20:35) than I had at Coeur d'Alene (1:22:55).  If I compare the buildup to Cozumel to my current buildup, I find that I swam more leading up to Cozumel, but I did no workouts.  In addition, I was swimming more slowly overall at that point in my swimming career.  In my mind, I've been comparing the Kona swim conditions (warm, sunny, clear saltwater) to the Cozumel swim conditions (warm, sunny, clear saltwater).  I hope to get out of the water in Kona and be as pleasantly surprised by my time as I was when I got out of the water in Cozumel.    

Of course, the buildup hasn't been perfect.  In particular, I've struggled to get enough sleep.  Transitioning to a new job has messed with my schedule, and I had very few weeks where I didn't have at least one night of very bad sleep.  My morning pulse rate has been a few beats higher than it was during the CdA buildup in part because I haven't been able to rest well.  As a result, we're doing a slightly longer taper than what I did ahead of CdA.  I've also struggled with achieving and maintaining my race weight.  Even though I hit my target weight a couple of weeks ago, I don't feel as lean as I did ahead of Coeur d'Alene.  Then again, in the past week, I've PR'd on a steep climb and run my fastest workout in years.  I must not be too terribly portly.  Finally, I've missed a few swims in the last few weeks.  It seems that whenever life interfered with training in September and October, it always tended to interfere with swimming.  I said the same thing about cycling in the month before Cozumel.  Will missing a few swims have a significant effect on my outcome at Kona in the same way that missing some cycling sessions had a significant effect on my outcome at Cozumel?  I hope not, and to be honest, I don't think so.  We'll see.

Am I Ready?  

This week, the World Triathlon Corporation sent all of the Kona competitors an email with "last minute instructions." Putting aside that nine days out is not "last minute," the email led with this picture:

As if I wasn't nervous enough already!?!?  Thanks, WTC!  Actually, as I look at the picture, the only thing that makes me nervous is the long line of buoys stretching out in front of the swimmers.  That's a long way to go.  [Deep breath.]

We leave on Wednesday.  My mom, my dad, our friend Anne, my wife Kacie, and I will all be making the trip.  I wish that it was a longer trip; after the race on Saturday, we head back on Sunday night.  In fact, as I write this, I realize that this time next week, I'll be done with the race and preparing to fly home.  That's really hard to believe.

Our time in Hawaii will be harried.  We arrive on Wednesday and go to the party on Wednesday evening.  On Thursday, we will check in, swim a bit, pick up the bike, and go to the athletes dinner and meeting.  On Friday, Kacie and Anne are going to learn to paddle board while I get my bike checked in and rest.  On Saturday, I race.  On Sunday, we'll eat at about four different restaurants, take a tour on a fast boat, and fly out.  We only settled the itinerary this week, and that's what made it feel real.  

Am I ready?  Yes, I am.  My last long swim was today.  I'll have a massage tomorrow, and then I'll visit the chiropractor on Tuesday.  Somewhere in there, I will finish up some work and squeeze in a bike ride.  My goals for the next few days involve getting lots of sleep and eating the right foods.  Reflecting on the work I have done, I can confidently say that I've put in the necessary time and effort to compete well at the Ironman World Championships.  It's go time!