‘Racing’ Ironman

In 1982, the fearsome reputation of ‘Ironman’ was set for all time as Julie Moss staggered/crawled across the finish line, some 4 years after the greatest endurance race in the world was originated in 1978.  Who could possibly swim 2.4 miles, followed by 112 miles on the bike, and then run a marathon of 26.2 miles…all in under 17 hours or less?…a few hundred did in the first few years, and now thousands do in each of over 20 Ironman brand races across the world, plus scores of others that feature the same distances, without the Ironman logo.

Worth 3 minutes to watch Julie:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbWsQMabczM

Ooouch.  Tough to watch that one.

Many people…friends and family included…to this day, fundamentally believe that all Ironman finishers look like, and/or feel like that…if indeed they haven’t collapsed, or died along the way in the mad attempt to find the finish line through glazed eyes, body shut down with all muscles cramped, and a mind barely functioning.

But it’s really not like that…at all.  There were quite a few happy people in the same video, finishing smoothly, happy people.

Of course some Ironman racers push to the edge, their careers, reputation, or even inner, competitive drive push them well into the pain zone to finish as fast as they can, to achieve a personal record, or a ‘Hawaii spot’, or to simply know that they left ‘nothing on the course’.

On my way back from my 4th Ironman, on a 10 hour drive, I was talking with coach Gale, and found myself saying to her…

I’m not really sure how to say this, and I know that it sounds weird, but the Ironman this year was easy.

Alright.  I know.  Nobody is supposed to say that, never mind write it down.  I’ll probably get thrown out of the Ironman Club. 

It was a long day, but not a ‘hard’ day.  I did have a challenge in the swim, when my wetsuit zipper split open 2-300 meters into the first lap of the swim, that cost me quite a bit of time and mental energy for the first 2 hours, but other than that it was a pretty straightforward day.

After 2 hours in the water, plus a slow transition with nothing to eat or drink except for saltwater swallows on the swim, it took about 2 hours into the ride to get my stomach settled, and hydration and nutrition levels back to a point where I felt good again, 4:30’ish into the Ironman…I did overshoot on the hydration though, and therefore did spent the next 1-2 hours peeing a lot (probably more information than you want to know), which cost me some additional time, but did get settled down, and was more or less in a stable state throughout the rest of day…particularly on the run.

It largely felt like a long training day, although the time went fast…at least on the bike…on the run, it began to drag a bit…but _really_ until mile 22 of the run, when my quads were starting to stiffen…not cramping though, so that was good…I was at an intensity that was so within myself, my nutrition and hydration was dialed in, that it simply became a great training day.

Of course this year, with a relaxed time of 14:29:27, it should have been easy, some of my ‘experienced’ buddies would say…but it wasn’t slower this year because I was suffering, or falling apart…it was easy because I was operating at an intensity level that allowed my stomach to process foods at will, and therefore essentially stay in balance…take the wetsuit thing out of the equation for 30 minutes or so, 10 minutes off the transition for not being so cold, maybe 20-30 minutes off the bike if I didn’t overcompensate/overshoot the hydration after the swim and pushed the bike more towards my potential on the day, and 20 minutes off the run to press all the way to the finish, if I pushed it all, and guessed right and didn’t go over the edge, I probably would have had a 13:10 – 13:20 Ironman…not my fastest (12:57:44)…not my slowest to date (13:31:30)…and if I actually achieved it all without tanking, would probably have had much sorer legs after for a much longer period of time…and instead of 53/84 in my division, would have finished about 42/84.

So ‘racing’ Ironman has a lot to do with why you’re at that starting line in the first place.  For me, it depends on the year…overall it’s largely about the training, and lifestyle decisions around it…the ‘event’ is there on the calendar to help get me out the door for training and burn enough calories to enjoy eating and drinking with some options each day…so to a vast degree I’ve accomplished my ‘goals’ by the time I’m at the starting line.  I still like to finish strong, and do well…but this year, by way of example, I was sort of left with ‘why do your do an Ironman?’….’because I can’ would have been the honest answer.

Could I have been faster this year?….sure.  Should I have pushed it more on the bike, hang on for the run, and when the quads started to complain, keep the pace up, live through the pain for 4-5 miles and have a faster time?…maybe.  But since I didn’t, I did learn a lot this year about balance during the event, that I otherwise wouldn’t have found, and _really_ ‘enjoyed’ the day.

The Ironman cutoff is 17 hours.  My bike ride this year was 6 hours 30 minutes.  My run was 5 hours 22 minutes.  

It’s all a long time to recover if you’ve pushed too hard, or if your hydration or nutrition is out of balance…if you catch it early enough to do something about it…and enough time to make adjustments, pull back intensity if you need to, get what you need back into your body, and rebound feeling refreshed, even if it’s an hour or two later.

I’ve had it happen on long bike rides…on a particular day I may have been more tired than I thought, or not watched the hydration or nutrition as closely as I should, and my legs start to lose some power a few hours into the ride…I’ve often found when that happens, if I pull the power back, hit whatever I need…usually a gel or two, and or top up the hydration…and wait for it kick in, I can have the strongest hour of the ride in the last two hours of the ride.

Ironman is like that…or at least could be if that suits you…a balanced and ‘fun’ day.

What about time goals you may say?  or you’re pushing for a Hawaii spot?  or a personal best?

Goals in Ironman are personal.  I will say this though….if you want to be the fastest that you want to be on any particular day, no matter what your time goals are, if you stay within yourself, and keep the hydration and nutrition going, you will have the potential to have your fastest day.  Push too hard too soon…let your nutritional balance get out of kilter…and/or don’t watch it closely enough…and/or pass the point where your stomach even wants to process anything…and you certainly won’t have a very good day. 

This year I ended up ‘racing’ very conservatively…next year I may press it a bit more, to get closer to that ‘edge’.  Not really interested in going over it though.  Pain zone is one thing…pain doesn’t really bother me…trashing your body from the inside out is another thing. 

Experience helps.  Being measured during your training, and documenting how your body responds under different conditions and intensities is the only real way to have a chance of knowing what may happen on race day.  A very specific race plan including nutrition is a must.  Adjusting for what’s happening on the day and how you feel on the course, is usually just a best guess…even as measured and prepared as I tend to be, during the race I’m constantly adjusting for how I feel, and what I think is happening with my body.  I’d say, when in doubt take the conservative path, recover, and finish strong.  Looks better for the pictures anyway, and your family will thank you.

So what does one do for 12-13-14 hours while you’re out there?…I largely stay in the moment, focus on my race plan, monitor how things are going, and whether I think that I need to make adjustments…constantly:

  • in the water, just swimming…monitoring how I feel, focused on staying relaxed on every stroke, going through my ‘stroke thoughts’ from swim lessons, making sure that all the body parts on every stroke are where they should be…and staying relaxed…getting clean breaths of air on every stroke…sighting every once in a while to gauge the current and where I’m going, and know that if I just keep moving my arms, the swim finish will ultimately be there
  • on the bike, monitoring power according to my race day plan is the key focus, and now, on the bike my watch beeps every 10 minutes as a reminder to eat or drink…according to my race plan…so I’m constantly monitoring power, how the legs feel, how my stomach feels, thinking about what I’m therefore going to eat or drink at the next 10 minute beep, and/or if I need to adjust something based on the way that the day is going…and to watch out for other cyclists…constantly…since I pass a few 100, sometimes as many as 600, racers on the ride, I _really_ have to watch that I don’t run up into their drafting zone, and if I’m coming up on somebody, or a few together, I gauge what it will take to pass them…you have 20 seconds…and whether it’s going to conflict with my beeping watch, to ensure that I don’t miss a nutrition reminder…and what I’m going to need at the next aid station every 10 miles (30 minutes)…the bike ride is very busy, and the time goes fast
  • on the run, it begins by staying smooth, finding my running legs, staying easy, and have generally found my stride about 3-4 miles in…aid stations every mile, so about every 10 minutes, so exactly like the bike, except there are no beeps, just the aid stations, and follow my plan, and monitor to adjust, and focus on a smooth stride…and staying relaxed…and know that as the legs keep turning over, the finish will come.

Having said all of that, the pro’s often get it wrong and fall apart in a race or DNF (did not finish)…of course their job depends on pressing to the edge, or over it and hanging on…as an age group athlete therefore, it’s probably a bit wiser to leave a bit more cushion than you think you need…and if you’re so lucky, to feel so fresh at 20 miles into the marathon that you can’t help yourself, you can always pick it up to your 10K pace the last 6.2 miles, and pass lots and lots of people and pick up gobs of time.

Run it over the edge and remember Julie Moss.  She probably wasn’t much fun at the banquet party the next day.

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