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.    


  1. Jean Paul VaudreuilOctober 27, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    I wish I had your problem. The swim has never been too difficult for me. The bike and run on the other hand...

    I'm sure you'll improve. At this point it's mechanics/form and certainly not endurance.

  2. George, the way you feel about the swim is the way I feel about the bike...I feel like I get slapped in the face over and over again as I try to keep up. I put my pride aside at the beginning of the year and just went out with my husband and the boys and continued to get beat up every Saturday morning. Good luck to you, it will get better little by little and you'll be able to look back at your swim a year from now and hopefully be pleased with your progress. @MdotLife.

  3. You will most definitely be able to get those swim times down. A good masters group is a great place to make that happen, especially the way you thrive on competition.