A lot can happen in 140.6 miles. The challenge in an Ironman triathlon is how to prevent “issues” from derailing your race.
Ironman Lake Placid 2011 went nothing like I’d planned, but it may have been my best race so far in terms of issue management.
I finished well over my goal time and I didn't make any of the goal splits, but my primary objective was to be shipping my bike from the ITU World Championships in Beijing directly to Kona Bikeworks come September.
I captured the primary objective, but it wasn’t easy. I came out of the water on race day in 71st position, but caught 57 people on the bike and nine more on the run to finish 4th in the age group and take the third of four Kona slots.
The last year has been challenging for me due to various injuries, starting with a calf strain ten days before Ironman Lake Placid 2010, suffering an appendicitis after USAT Nationals in September, and a fracturing my sacrum and herniating a disc in January. Due in large part to great docs and physical therapists, and a superb coach, I’d recovered well and felt that I was in pretty good shape for Lake Placid this year.
My goal was to go under 10 hours at Lake Placid. I felt ready by late June/early July after turning in my fastest 4000m swim time ever in training, completing a strong 120 mile bike ride in the Shenandoahs followed immediately by a fast six mile hilly run, and running 25 miles in heat and humidity the following day at a pace faster than my Ironman goal pace of 7:30.
Then, just as I entered the taper phase, disaster appeared to loom again with pain behind my right knee during the upstroke while cycling. Coach Karen Smyers suspected that I had a bad bike fit (which I’d gotten in mid-June) with the seat too high, overextending a hamstring tendon and resulting in an overuse strain during the high volume training. We lowered the seat, but I had absolutely no power in my right leg as the muscles shut down to protect the tendon.
I shelled out more bucks for a computer bike fit on July 8th and rested the leg, hoping for a quick recovery with ice, ice, ice, massages and physical therapy. I had almost three weeks for the hamstring to repair and, since it didn’t substantially affect my running, I was optimistic. Once again, Karen was right. It healed and by race day, I was left with no basis to excuse a poor performance.
The strategy for race day was simple. Find good drafts for what I expected would be a crowded non-wetsuit swim; be conservative on the bike to protect the hammie and conserve energy; and hammer the run with a 3:15 marathon. Karen advised me to be steady all day, with no highs or lows. Keep moving forward; you never know what is happening ahead of you; endure the temporary bad patches that were inevitable and, above all, stay positive. Be concerned only with what you could control. However, I considered my original goal time to be unrealistic due to the high likelihood of a non-wetsuit swim and the planned conservative bike leg. But Kona was the real prize anyway.
I arrived in Lake Placid on the Tuesday before the race, as I always do. We usually stay at a house on the run/bike course on Mirror Lake Drive, but it had some foundation erosion, so we were moved (at no extra charge) to this remarkable old house above the Starbucks on Main Street. The house had a wonderful front porch overlooking Main Street and Mirror Lake, and it was only a ten minute walk to the swim start. It had been recently renovated and there were three floors with seven bedrooms and four baths.
We spent much of the week resting while watching the Tour de France on a monster flat screen TV. My son Nathan and I were joined by Bob and Sadj, the Kish family, the Miele family and Alex and Rosalie Oliveira (from Brazil). The house was “open” to MMTC’ers and other friends during the day and evenings, and we had some delightful meals joined by Suzie “Rocks”, Dawn, the Schlossnagle family, and many visitors including Mike Petersen, Jim Bettis, Kim Sheridan, Linda Giampalmo, Alice and Tom Spreisterbach, Pat and George McNabb, and others. Needless to say, I’ve already booked the same house for 2012.
Due to the hamstring issue, I cut back on what I usually do for the final taper week at Placid. I swam three times, doing one loop of the course Wednesday, followed by 20 minute and 10 minute swims on Thursday and Friday. Mirror Lake has never been so warm and I was fairly confident I could put the wetsuit away. I biked twice, 20 miles easy on Wednesday and 20 minutes to check the bike on Friday; and I ran once (4 miles around Mirror Lake with a fast two-mile pick-up) on Thursday. And I rested, maximizing sleep and banking the protein (grilled fish mainly) until Thursday, when I shifted to carbs (primarily pasta and pancakes). I also had 90 minute deep tissue massage sessions on both Thursday and Friday from Kris McFarland, a massage therapist from Boulder that Karen uses at Kona. I’m now a firm believer in pre-race massage.
The weather on race day was absolutely perfect. A high of mid-70s, with partly cloudy skies and low humidity. I ate my standard race day breakfast four hours before the 7 a.m. gun: a bagel, a banana, an energy bar, 20 ounces of accelerade and a cup of coffee. Down to transition at 5 a.m. to drop off special needs bags, pump the tires, load the bike with nutrition and get body-marked.
The water temp was announced as 77 degrees, officially making wetsuits optional. However, anyone who wanted to compete for an age group award or Kona could not wear a wetsuit. Two timing mats awaited us at the swim start: one for the wetsuiters to cross and one for those of us without. There was no decision to be made, and I’d mentally prepared myself for about ten days with high likelihood that the swim would be without a wetsuit. There were almost 2000 wetsuiters and less than 600 of us swimming without.
Swim: 1:15:20 (1:58/100m)
The swim was crazy violent for me. Mirror Lake seemed more crowded than ever. It was announced that over 2500 started but it seemed like far more. I think the non-wetsuit/wetsuit combination contributed to an incredible bulge in the first loop; those not wearing wetsuits were slower than usual, and caught by wetsuiters. The lake was totally packed and the turns were crazy. This was the most violent swim I’ve enjoyed.
Missing in action was what I have previously described as a cooperative, school of fish type swim. I was elbowed in the nose, kicked in the face, had my goggles pushed to the side, and once was even held underwater by wetsuiters climbing over me. However, I got good drafts when I wasn't being pummeled.
I did relearn one lesson: when drafting, trust but verify. One guy took me wide on the turn and I didn’t notice it until we were well to the right of the buoy line. My splits were about 37 and 38 minutes, putting me 5 to 6 minutes slower than each of my wetsuit swim times the past three years.
I wanted a faster transition and shaved about two minutes off last year’s time when I limped my way to the bike. I had no wetsuit to deal with, so that made it easier. I’ve never seen a more crowded tent though than this year. George was right: it was some level of Dante’s Hell. Unlike George, I didn’t wait for a place to sit down. Off with the speedsuit, and on with the number belt, sunglasses and helmet. I grabbed my shoes and I was gone. I ran barefoot to the bike, a volunteer got it while I put on my shoes, and I was off to the mount line.
Bike: 5:39:15 (avg 19.81 mph)
The first loop of the bike course was also a mob scene, probably because I was five minutes slower than normal on the swim and due to the additional registrants. (WTC keeps adding registrants while at the same time reducing the number of portapotties. I met Kevin Perkins in one of those incredible lines. Apparently for WTC, it is all about the money. If they didn’t have a choke hold on Kona, I’m not sure I’d put up with their races much longer).
The road from Placid to Keene was rough, but manageable. About five miles into the bike, I heard something go clang, but the bike was riding fine. A few minutes later, I looked to check my speed on the Garmin and it was gone. It must have dislodged when I hit a bump. Major $150 bummer. After that I marked my progress by attempting to hit the ten mile markers every 30 minutes; I made the goal splits on the first half of each loop, but flagged a little on the climbs back to Placid. I was riding conservatively per Coach Karen and shelved my original goal pace of 21.5 mph.
As I have often said, the real danger on the bike course, and certainly true at Placid this year, is our fellow Ironmen. While I did see one dude who crashed on his own in the 7 mile descent into Keene, I also watched cyclists take each other out by not communicating. You absolutely have to let people know you are passing, particularly on a crowded course. The water stops were highly hazardous; you need to be very careful and go wide if you’re not taking fluids. The fear factor in the first loop of the bike rivaled the violence of the first loop of the swim.
My tendon fully cooperated on the bike. My issue this year, for the first time ever, was nausea on the bike. I am not sure why, but many people reported nausea after the swim. Karen thinks it was stress related. I made no changes to my hydration and nutrition plans, but by mile 30, my stomach was upset. I was left with a decision: resolve the nausea by switching to water and tums, which would negatively impact my nutrition and my ability to bank calories for the run. I needed a solid stomach for a good run, but I also needed calories.
I decided to work on the nausea first, hoping I’d have time on the bike to switch back to accelerade where I get most of my calories. I was able to get down the PBJ (cut into quarters in the Bento box), but I was never able to go back to accelerade. The nausea was gone by the run, but I was severely deficient in my nutrition and I knew it. Manage your nutrition or it will manage you. I was concerned I was about to be manhandled.
There is little I fear on the bike more than mechanical issues and flats. (I still get night sweats about my 3-flat fiasco in torrential rain during IMLP 2008). While bumpy, the roads were clean this year and I saw very few flats. I dropped a chain on one climb and had front derailleur problems on the second loop. The chain cost me only a few seconds and allowed to me to stretch. The derailleur, stuck in the little ring during that precious descent to Keene, somehow resolved the problem itself on the flats from Keene to Jay. No real mechanical worries.
I’m pleased with the bike leg, given the circumstances. Despite the conservative ride, I knew I’d passed a lot of people in the age group (later learning it numbered 57), but I was also passed by Barry Lewis from Philadelphia and Ed Toole from Nantucket. Barry is in the top ten nationally in my age group and he’s an awesome runner. The odds were not good that I’d see him again. Ed won the 50-54 age group last year. But, I internalized Karen’s advice. Stay calm and race your race. You never know what would happen in their races and all I could do is focus on what I could control.
My bike spits were about 2:48 for the first loop and 2:51 for the second. I slipped my feet out of the shoes descending towards the dismount line, and moved quickly towards T2. I came off the bike in what I would later learn was 14th place. At the time, I just knew two things: 1) I had people to catch and 2) my nutrition sucked. The Wall couldn’t be far away.
T2 was okay, but should have been faster. I stopped at the portapotty. Next time I’ll take care of business one last time on the bike. (I know, TMI.)
Run: 3:38:13 (8:19 average pace.)
I felt absolutely wonderful at the start of the marathon. It almost always feels so good to run after 5 plus hours on the bike. However, I knew from experience that it would not last. My caloric intake on the bike was so deficient that I was headed for a bonk. I looked at each water stop as an oasis, taking as many calories as I could sip but slowly; usually a cup of cola and a cup of Ironman Perform, which I carried with me for at least a quarter mile sipping each slowly as the ice in the cups did its thing.
I took the first six miles at about my goal pace, then common sense kicked in. I knew I had to tap my fat cells with a slower pace or Kona would be history this year. I simply didn’t have the carbs to sustain a marathon.
From past experience, I was fairly confident that I would get a Kona slot with a finish under 10:45 (and it turned out I was right), so I cut the pace back to Zone 2, which is about 8:00-8:30 pace. I spent the rest of the race scarfing down calories, gels every six miles and fluids whenever I could get and tolerate them.
One thing I didn’t do as planned was take salt. I shelved the salt to avoid causing more nausea. This decision came back to bite me. The right hammie was feeling fine for most of the race, although a little tight. Then at mile 12 (right in front of the house I normally rent), it felt like someone hit my right hamstring with a board from behind. I went down like a sack of potatoes, peppering the air with an expletive or two. (My sincere apologies to the mother and her young son in lawn chairs right next to where I collapsed. They were very empathetic by the way.) A racer stopped to offer me salt. I took a few minutes to massage the hamstring, took a salt pill, regained my feet and started to limp forward. The hammie began to loosen and I started a slow jog, reducing my stride and pace. After a half mile or so, I was able to run again normally.
The rest of the race both hammies were close to cramping, but I continued to take salt every 3 miles and they held up without serious incident.
The best news from the marathon is that enough people came back to me to put me on the podium and guarantee the Kona slot. While I couldn’t reach the eventual winner (a Canadian named Yves Fortin who turned in a 10:05), second place Barry Lewis or third place Kyle Welch (my teammate on TeamUSA for Beijing who had a 59 minute non-wetsuit swim), I did catch Ed Toole (the 2010 age group winner) at mile 23. Ed is classy and had supportive words as I passed him, even though I knew it must have been hard for him. Later he told me he had bonked and was in serious pain. (He’s been to Kona five times but wanted to go badly this year to be with a relative who was going. Ed just missed the last Kona slot).
The finish was spectacular. It is impossible to describe the feeling of descending into the Olympic Speedskating Oval, with cheering crowds on each side of the track, and then coming around the bend to hear Mike Reilly call your name. I slowed to allow the guy in front of me get a good picture and then I saw the best sight of the day: Bob and Sadj Bartolo waiting on the other side of the white line.
I ended up placing 4th and making the podium, taking the third of four Kona slots. (I actually finished 5th but the guy immediately ahead of me wore a wetsuit.)
There is one thing that I did differently this year that I will do forever more. After the awards banquet on Monday, I took two boys wading in the Ausable River (which is next to the run course) and I spent over an hour waist deep in the cool water. It was almost as good as an ice bath, but far less painful. I highly recommend it. My recovery week has been awesome, in large measure due to the cold water.
The MMTC support all day was absolutely incredible. Thanks so much to those at the tent as well as the great shout-outs everywhere I turned, including at Papa Bear where this crazy banana, later identified as Chiquita Amy Krupka and her fellow banana, was leading the cheers.
Placid this year was a race of adversity, with risky but reasonable decisions, which saved my race. I don’t recall a single negative thought, despite the violent swim, the nausea on the bike and the hamstring cramp at mile 12. (Well, maybe when I realized I lost the Garmin. But I pushed on.)
So, it’s back to Kona with my wife Gail. We already have a condo booked near the Kailua pier where the swim starts. And, I’m going to be shipping the bike directly from the ITU Worlds in Beijing.
If anything, this race affirmed for me the importance of what I call the Ironman Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
Wisdom to know the difference; and
Guts to keep on pushing through the pain.
Thanks to so many who supported me this year, but particularly Gail, my wife and “enabler”, and Coach Karen Smyers.