Friday, September 14, 2012

Curtain Call

My last trip to Kona wound up being my last Ironman.  It wasn't necessarily planned that way but that's how it wound up.  Perhaps there is another race still waiting for me, but the way life seems headed, there won't ever be time.

There is some truth to the third time's a charm idiom.  For the most part, however, 2005 was a good year simply because the weather cooperated and allowed somewhat faster times than the previous two years.  It's hard to believe 7 years has passed. I still have many friends from the days of racing, and I even have a few bikes.  The sport has changed considerably, the competition has grown with the entry fees, and the chances of me making a return trip continue to shrink.  Perhaps that is what makes Kona so special, how delicate a grip I had on it to begin with and how much of a stretch it has always been for me.

Ironman Triathlon World Championships 2005

Regardless of how you get there, racing in Kona is a pretty unique experience.  Part of what makes Ironman in Kona so unique is the course itself, which can seem both impossible and incredibly straightforward, all at the same time.  Of course the primary differentiator between Kona and other Ironman races is the caliber of athletes who participate at the world championships.  But the same is true of the ITU age group world championships which I watched in Honolulu the week before.  What sets “The Ironman” apart from all other races, and all other Ironman races, is that it has become an icon of the sport.  “Have you done Ironman” is often the first question asked of a triathlete by those who don’t yet realize that the number of Ironman distance races around the globe is roughly comparable to the number of world class marathons.  Even amongst my friends, most of whom participate in some form of athletic competition, Kona for some reason becomes more important than any other race. 

Two studs and a guy who can't keep his head straight
In 2005, however, I wasn’t terribly focused on Kona.  I’m not quite sure why, my best guess is some combination of burnout, changes in my employer, and preoccupation with my house, my dog, and my pathetic attempts at a social life.  I missed a few key workouts, something that wasn’t possible in 2003 when I had no job, and something that didn’t even happen all that much in 2004 when I was fully charged by the time October rolled around.  Of course, for reasons I still can’t understand, I managed to set PR’s in the marathon, half marathon, 10k, and 5k distances, as well as dropping my 112 mile time trial bike PR by over 15 minutes and my Ironman PR by 6 minutes.  So as October approached, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the race, specifically my preparation and commitment.  I wondered how I would perform mentally and physically when race day came around. I’ve had one solid meltdown in the past where I ended up with a 5:18 run split on my 2nd Ironman of the year, so I was concerned that I was setting myself up for another failure, but at the same time I allowed myself to have zero expectations about the day, hoping that it would somehow be enjoyable, at least partially so.

 Changes at work made swimming very difficult for me.  I either had to get up at 4am to walk my dog in order to ride my bike to the pool by 6 for practice, or I had to take an effective 2 hour lunch break to swim at noon. Neither of these happened more than a handful of times, so I basically had zero swim fitness for August and September.  On October 1st, I flew over to Honolulu to cram for the test and do whatever I could to bring my swimming out of the gutter I knew it must be in.  I averaged 5k/day for 10 days, half in a 50 meter pool (thanks John and David) and half at Ala Moana beach park (my favorite swim spot.)  I felt my swimming coming back to life by the end of this cram session, though I pretty much buried myself in the middle of it, so it was hard to evaluate much of anything other than my own misery.  I hoped it would be enough to at least get out of the water ahead of the majority of the other athletes in Kona so that I would have some free road to ride on.  More importantly, though, I was hoping to avoid getting out of the water feeling tired, something that is rather undesirable when you have to ride and run until the sun starts to set.

Sunsets are better Hawaiian style
In 2004 I flew from Honolulu to Kona on Wednesday, so again in 2005 I booked the same day to fly over.  The upside to going over late is that I avoid the craziness that sets in on Kona during race week.  I managed to get a bit of work done, saw a few of my closer high school friends, and I got to watch the ITU worlds race, plus I wanted to keep focused on my swim workouts through Tuesday.  The downside to going over late is that you don’t have any real time to spare futzing with bike parts or missing gear.  For example, in 2004, I used a bike that I keep in Honolulu at my dad’s, instead of the one I race on in San Diego.  That bike takes an Italian bottom bracket, instead of the more standard English version, and it was basically impossible to find an Italian ultegra bottom bracket in Honolulu.  So, in 2004, I raced on my duraace bottom bracket even though it was ready for replacement.  But by going through all of that in 2004, I had a nice stockpile of tools and spare parts in the closet that 2005 was problem free bike-wise.

So, basically, I was all squared on gear details, a little under-trained, and pretty relaxed about the race.  I ended up drinking myself somewhat silly on Wednesday night, and even having a beer at Lulu’s on Thursday. Walking my bike to check-in on Friday, I honestly was not even thinking about the race yet.  I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t nervous, and I wasn’t stressed, at least not about the race, all I can remember feeling is curiosity about the future.  The best analogy I can come up with is how it feels as a kid to go to bed on Christmas Eve.  You have some idea of what Christmas day is going to be like, but there are also some surprises (often both good and bad) as well.  Ironman can be similar to Christmas in that way, you’re not sure what you’re going to get when you go to sleep, but you know that it’s going to be an exciting day.

For some strange reason, 2005 was running relatively smoothly for me.  I shaved, ate dinner, and was ready to sleep by 4pm.  My dad suggested a movie, though, and since I figured it’d be hard to fall asleep at 4, off we all went.  About an hour later, after sitting in traffic, we found the movie theater and realized the only viable option was an animated picture, which I vetoed so it was back to the condo and lights out by 6:30 or so.  Surprisingly, I slept pretty well, though I woke up at 1:30 for about an half hour, then got a nap in until 3:30 when I woke up again, and finally was woken up the third time by the alarm at 4.  For me, it’s a very good sign when I wake up before the alarm on race day because the few races where I’ve been fast asleep when the alarm fires, have all been terrible.  For some reason, the morning was just really smooth, so I was out the door at 4:30 without having to rush, or forgetting anything.

One of these ladies has a top 3 at ultraman
I stopped by Cathy’s condo where Kerri was and forced her to slap some sunscreen on my back.  That was one mistake I had made the last two years, being a little too forgetful with sunscreen on the backs of my shoulders which are hard to get when you have the flexibility of a nail.  As Cathy and I were nearing the bodymarking tables, Peter Reid edged past us into the pro line, which I figured was as good of a sign as any to have on race morning.  The chaos of years past with bodymarking had somehow been resolved, so instead of an hour it only took about 10 minutes.  I put my shoes in my pedals, pumped my tires, and got my fluids in place, all before5:45.  So, I had an hour to kill, which was unusual and unexpected given how slow the mornings were in 2003 and 2004.  I slipped into the King Kam to avoid the crowds gathering outside and stumbled into Lance, who was quite amused at my liberal use of bodyglide as I got prepared for the swim.  In 2004, I forgot to lube my neck which got pretty chafed, and in 2003 I just didn’t lube enough at all and got chafed just about everywhere. The salt water really tears up my skin, so I just went to town this time.  At about 6:30 I walked back to transition, dropped off my bag, and got onto the beach to watch the pros start.  A few pros ended up leaving early, forcing the start instead of waiting for it, something I thought was rather amusing, but I guess with $100,000 on the line, it’s understandable to be somewhat jittery.

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades
 This year I had an idea to try something new.  In 2003 and 2004, I have started on the far side of the line, closest to the boat.  Since I breathe only on the right, this allows me to smoothly merge into the pack as the field spreads out.  But it always seems like I have to work pretty hard to get through that first stretch, and yet my swim split is basically the same.  So, since I wasn’t too sure how my fitness was, I decided to line up in the center and take my beatings, to see if maybe I could either sneak my way into a faster swim split or at least get out of the water with less effort than the sprint-and-merge technique.  The result ended up being plenty of elbows and knees, a few knocks to the head, a bunch of navigating around other bodies as they squeezed me out from both sides, and very minimal clear water.  The upside to the beatings I took was that I was not putting much effort into the swim on the way out.  Average HR was 153 to the turn boat, and as I clicked off a split, I was happy to see 29:30.  The swim portion of the Ironman is all but inconsequential for most of us, but it does set the tone for the day, and with my nonexistent training in the months prior, I was more than happy to simply be on track.  On the way back, I still got knocked around a bit, but as the field stretched out I had to do a bit more work to bridge gaps and navigate from small packs into larger ones.  Ironically, I almost wished there were a few more turns to tighten up the packs as I almost had to swim on my own for a few short segments of the return trip. Average HR was 157 for the second half of the swim, so I was doing a bit more work, but still within the realm of comfortable.  As we reached the pier, I paused for a quick pee break, one of my little tricks that I figure saves me a few seconds and lets me start the bike feeling good.  As I grabbed for a hose to shower off, I saw Patrick Baldwin an arm’s distance ahead of me.  Before I could yell “hi” to him, he was gone, but I figured I’d catch up with him later.  I stepped out of my outer swim suit, allowed myself one final second under the hose, and ran down the gear bag racks.  I shoved swimsuit, goggles, and cap into the bag as I ran, then fished inside for my sunglasses, dropped my bag near the exit of the change tent which I had successfully avoided the need to traverse.

For some reason that I can’t quite understand, I am a bit anal about time spent in T1.  Now it’s rare that T1 can lose a race, although it did for Scott Molina at worlds just one week before.  And of course there were already hundreds of bikes ahead of me, so it’s not like I speed through T1 out of pure competitive drive.  Instead, I figure a fast T1 partly makes up for my somewhat pedestrian swimming ability.  I pride myself in being able to get out on the bike ahead of stronger swimmers, it seems like a victory of sorts, even though it’s relatively meaningless.  Having a fast transition from swim to bike is actually more of an engineering challenge than an athletic one, and of course it changes depending on the layout of the transition area.  You have to know where all of your stuff is, know where you plan to do what, and be alert through the whole process even though it all happens very quickly.  This time I nailed it, and I was rolling out on the bike before I even knew what was going on.  Now, by no means was this an Olympic caliber transition, but for Ironman it was pretty good, and it served as a bit of a high point to my morning which was going pretty well so far.  Sometimes you need these small victories when faced with the enormity of the race as a whole.

Out on the bike I saw nobody I knew until the turnaround on Kuakini, which is in the ballpark of 5 miles from transition.  On my way down the hill, I saw Patrick, my coach Terry, and Katya, though I probably looked at some other friends of mine but didn’t recognize them.  I was right where I wanted to be, and feeling pretty good.  I allowed my HR to get past 160 a few times, and finally once we were out on the Queen K heading toward Waikaloa I settled in around 155.  I hadn’t worn a heart rate monitor in a race in a while, and I’m not quite sure why I chose to wear one this time, but I was somewhat curious about seeing some objective numbers just to make sure that rpe (my perceived exertion) was sill somewhat accurate.  The first 35 miles or so went by smoothly, no dropped bottles, good progress on food bottle #1, and clean exchanges at the aid stations.  I felt OK, but I suspected we were running a bit of a tailwind because it seemed so much easier than last year, though I couldn’t tell for sure since the trees and bushes weren’t showing much sign of wind at all.

 Between Waikaloa and Kawaihae, Pablo and Patrick ended up rolling past me.  Pablo didn’t pay me any attention (he says he didn’t notice it was me even though I gave him a cheer as he went past) but Patrick and I shared a few words of encouragement.  I was still in pretty good spirits at this point, I figured that my swim had gone pretty well even though my time wasn’t better than last year.  I started rationalizing things, perhaps the chop I felt on the way back had slowed things down a bit or maybe the 10 days of focused swim training had done something special for me.  Looking back on it, though, I think I must have ridden that first 35 miles relatively well, even though my average HR was probably in the 155 ballpark which still seemed pretty reasonable.

Between Kawaihae and the final climb to Hawi is where I get to see the pros on their way back down the hill.  I was delighted to see Faris Al Sultan and Michellie Jones with substantial leads already built up, both have the talent and experience to win but neither had been in such a position in the past.  So I knew that the mild conditions were keeping the pace up and allowing these two strong cyclists to put time into the field.  I also saw Tomppa Soderdahl, a friend from Finland, exactly where he needed to be.  It seemed like everything was shaping up great at the front of the race.

The climb to Hawi was where I started to fade a bit.  In 2004 I came completely unglued on that section, getting passed by coach Terry.  So this year I was determined to beat her to the timing mat at the turnaround if at all possible.  Magically, I managed to hold her off, though probably not by much.  The trip down from Hawi was sketchy as usual, it’s pretty much no aerobars and no eating for me for about 10 miles.  In 2004, I had started to make up some time on this stretch as it was the first bit with any sort of tailwind, but this year I was pretty tired and my feet hurt, so I did a fair bit of coasting as well.  The problem with coasting is you have to stay alert or you’ll get sprayed with urine from the people in front of you.  The trick is to watch the road for the long thin mark of someone peeing on the bike in front of you so that when you reach them you know to swing as wide as you can and pedal hard.  I did get sprayed once just a little bit, not too bad, but still not pleasant.  I’m not able to pee while sitting on a bike yet, so I guess in my dream world, nobody else would either, but when it comes down to it, ironman is a dirty sport and one of the hazards is urine spray on the bike, just like getting a knee is on the swim.

Kona is all about the bike
By my return to Kawaihae, the fight had left me.  My right foot really hurt from pressing against the pedals, and I was having some real trouble on the climbs.  I was passed by 2 or 3 age group women by Waikaloa, something that didn’t happen in 2003 or 2004, and was kind of a shellshock.  In retrospect, some of those age group girls were riding really well, and though I’d like to be able to ride that well, It’s fair to say that I can’t. What is always the hardest part for me is not focusing on how far I am from being as strong on the bike as I’d like to be, and instead working on milking every bit of bike fitness that I can.  My HR dropped into the 140’s and even the 130’s on the way back as I struggled, sometimes in the small ring, to just keep going.  It wasn’t that the conditions were difficult, as the wind was as mild as I had ever seen it.  I was taking in plenty of water, and I was up to date on food, but I was going through the typical mid-ironman letdown that seems to plague all of my bike splits.  I decided at mile 80 to try something new so I took a bottle of coke.  That seemed to help a little bit, though I assumed I was making deals with the devil, so I only took one more bottle of coke at around 100.  As I watched my HR sink, I noticed that my race time was near 5:30 at around mile 95.  I figured 1 hour for 17 miles was doable, and that a sub 5:30 bike split was about as much as I could hope for, even on a easy day.  So I tried to focus and get through the pain in my feet.  It was slightly better with my feet slammed forward into the toe box, though that was probably because of less circulation.  I did a few seconds of one leg drills to get pressure off the other foot.  I saw one guy riding with his feet on top of his shoes, and one of my friends told me he had done the same for a bit even though he rode sub 5 hours.  It was almost exactly the same pain as I had experienced in 2004, so all I knew to do was suck it up and get to T2.  I didn’t loose too much time on that stretch, but I figured Patrick and Pablo were way down the road already.  Andy Baldwin had passed me in the last 30 miles or so, and he was promptly gone, but I was hoping I might see him again.

One guy having fun, one guy suffering
By the time I hit T2, I was already thinking about the run.  I dismounted the bike smoothly, rolling it toward a volunteer as I took off onto the carpet.  I unzipped my suit to prepare for my pee stop at the urinal, another one of my tricks to avoid throwing a pee stop into my run split (anything to help the ego.)  T2 wasn’t as flawless as T1, as it took me a while to wipe my feet dry, put on socks and shoes, and fumble for my hat and gels, then get my pee stop taken care of.  But by the time I ran out onto Palani, I was on track.  I got a great boost from the crowd and probably started running a bit too fast, but I was so happy to feel good that I let myself get carried away. Actually, I didn’t feel good, I felt great, although it was really hot.  You simply don’t feel heat the same on the bike as the run, it’s much more tolerable at 20mph than 8.  I tried ice in my hat, but that gave me a headache, so I stuck to water on my head and into my stomach, and of course coke whenever I was up to date on water.  The stretch along Ali’i drive has been the most difficult for me in the past, but by mile 3 I was running smoothly, and I cranked off some great miles to the turnaround.  I saw Patrick and figured his lead was sizeable enough that I’d never catch him even if he didn’t run as well as I knew he would.  I didn’t see anyone else, though, so I wasn’t sure where Pablo was, and I hadn’t seen Ben all day, and I must have passed Andy at one of the aid stations or someplace else where I didn’t see him.  I was passing plenty of other people, though, and I was tempted to even pick up the pace and run harder except that it was still so early and so hot that I was scared to go any faster.  Average heartrate was in the 160 ballpark on this stretch, anything under 165 should be safe, though I go up to 170 on the run during a half marathon at times.  Slowly I started to feel my quads fatiguing from the pounding, and that started to scare me a bit.  I figured it might also be connected to the heat and inevitable dehydration I was putting my body through, and I knew the second 2/3 of the run course would be hotter and more desolate.  When I hit Palani, I had the wind knocked out of me.  I struggled up that hill, it seemed harder than I remembered it, and by the time I was out on the Queen K, I was in humble mode.  I ran well enough through the mile 13 marker, but my pace had slowed from 6:30’s to 7’s, and now it was approaching 8’s.  I did some math and realized I could probably run some 9’s and still make it home in under 10, which would be as far as I could hope to take this race, but I wasn’t sure how I would hold up in the heat.

Sometimes Ironman feels difficult
I stumbled upon Mike Drury, who also lives in San Diego, but I didn’t know who he was at the time, he was just a dude in a blue zoot singlet, running at the same pace.  I would have liked to have turned the 6:30’s back on, but I was struggling to put up 8’s on those hills.  I rationalized it to myself that it was just because it was predominately uphill and into the wind, but they aren’t steep hills, so I knew I was starting to fall apart.  I got a nice boost from seeing Faris heading in for the win, but was bummed to see Natascha had overtaken Michellie, though I gave as much encouragement as I could to all of the top pros.  Finally, after what always seems like forever, the energy lab was in sight.  I was really hoping to turn things around at this point, and dreaming of a 3:15 run split, which wouldn’t have been out of the question if my legs were halfway decent.  But running down the hill I knew I was cooked.  I saw Pablo and Patrick, about 2 miles ahead, both looked awesome and I was completely impressed.  So, from there on it was damage control as much as possible, me following Mike, then him following me for a bit, etc.  I was still running through aid stations at full speed, a tactic which might not have been too smart given how difficult it was to get enough water.  There weren’t too many volunteers, and there were a lot of runners around me, so some aid stations I only got one cup of water, which wasn’t nearly enough given how hot it was.  Mike was walking the aid stations and catching up to me when I slowed down.

At around mile 22 or so, when I was really struggling, I got a bit of a side ache.  I stopped to walk a few seconds and Mike passed me, telling me to suck it up.  I told him I just needed a few seconds, and forced myself to stick to that.  I was scared of letting a sub 10 finish slip away, but also scared of not finishing at all.  The real challenge of Ironman at the end of the run is not letting yourself dwell on how miserable you feel.  It helps when you’re passing people, but it’s hard to do when you’re being passed or just trying to survive.  The best way to get it done is to have a goal that is reasonable, and then work toward that goal.  My goal was clearly to break 10 once I realized that an impressive run split wasn’t going to happen.  So, Mike and I limped our way to Ali’i drive, me about 100 feet behind him for most of the last few miles.

One of my favs, I almost look normal
Perhaps the biggest challenge at Kona is the finish line challenge.  On one hand, you want to soak up the crowd as much as possible, so it’s cool to look around and enjoy the moment.  On the other hand, the ever elusive finish line photo is all but impossible to get without some other dude in the shot.  So you have to time your speed and location on the carpet as well as you can, all after 141 miles of misery, on legs that barely work, and in front of hundreds of other people who are trying to distract you from your mission.  The worst part is you always think you did such a good job until you see the actual photo and it totally sucks.  I haven’t picked up mine yet, but I’m hoping they were more like my T1 experience than the last bit of my bike and run.

Off to the awards…

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