Tuesday, November 25, 2008

6th Place Ironman Arizona

The final days leading to Ironman were essentially a blur when I look back. I had prepared mentally and physically for nearly 4 months after deciding to try the distance after Lake Stevens 70.3, but as the day drew near and I was surrounded by my family and friends, the days bled together until I was being corralled by race officials across the timing mats and into the water at 6:35 in the morning on Sunday. I had managed to stay healthy all the way through my taper, and I knew I was ready physically after logging countless hours on the bike, in the pool, and on mountain trails in Durango. Mentally, I had convinced myself that if I nailed my nutrition, the weather cooperated, and raced my race, it would be possible to go 8:30. This was my Ironman debut, so there were definitely some huge unknowns, and when I tore a ten inch gash in the left shoulder of my wetsuit putting it on right before the start, it took all my mental faculties to relax and remember that the swim would only be a short part of the day. I warmed up a little with the torn wetsuit, and it immediately filled my upper body with water. It felt like I was swimming in a XL t-shirt, and every stroke was like lifting weights as the sleeves were also full of water. On a positive note, I didn't come close to overheating during the swim, which has been an issue for me at times, but probably wouldn't have mattered since the water was a brisk 63 degrees on race morning. Because Tempe town lake has some curve to it, pros were spread out at the line, some choosing to track the buoy line, and others opting to swim the tangent and try to cut the distance a little. I just did my best to settle in with a group that felt comfortably hard, knowing that my suit was causing drag, but that I had to just get through it and then go to work on the bike. Looking back, the swim was probably a touch short, and I covered the distance in 52:53. Coming out of the water well behind people I normally swim with/outswim was difficult, and I had a slow transition as I struggled with the wetsuit, but I got on my bike and felt good (always nice to come from 6500 ft. above sea level down to 1140). My plan from the beginning was to ride strong until I made contact with the leaders, and after my swim, I was chasing hard through the first loop of the bike. I passed several guys, focusing hard on staying LOW and out of the wind as we headed out on the Beeline highway into a headwind. At the turnaround, Jozsef Major and I were already making up good time on a larger group up front, and by the turnaround on lap one, I moved into the lead of a group that would stay largely intact for the remainder of the day. My biggest fear entering Ironman was that I would have trouble eating enough calories during the bike leg, so I set a ten minute timer on my watch and ate and drank religiously, only missing two of the eventual 27 feed reminders. On the second and third lap, I traded places near the front of the larger group with Frederik Van Lierde, Major, Brandon Marsh, and Chris McDonald. Race officials were following our pack to ensure proper spacing, but I took no risks and stayed near the front. Finally on our last trip out of town we caught some of the other guys who swam and biked strong, including Mark Van Akkeren, who led the group back into town until I passed him before transition. I had heard from a number of Ironman athletes that the race really begins at mile 90 on the bike, and despite feeling fatigued near that point, I had stuck to my plan and my legs felt good as we headed for the change tents. My bike split was 4:30:30, and was good enough for 4th fastest on the day behind Chris Lieto, Jordan Rapp, and Kieran Doe.
My transition was pretty solid given that I took the extra time to put on my compression socks, and I ran out on the course feeling confident that I could put together a solid marathon. I immediately got away from some of the other guys who came in with me on the bike, and since the GPS watch I planned to use for help in pacing had died during the bike leg, I relied on my other watch for mile splits. My goal for the marathon from the outset of training had been a generic "break three hours," and as race day drew closer, I had honed that down to an ideal day 2:54 high, averaging approximately 6:40's. I went through the first mile feeling great, but I clocked a 6:10 and knew I had to slow down and be patient. So, I backed off the gas a little and waited for mile 2 to come. Unfortunately, as I neared the marker, I looked at my watch and realized that I hadn't slowed at all, posting 12:20 for 2 miles. Fortunately for my pacing plan, eventual winner Andreas Raelert passed me about 2 1/2 miles in looking like he was running a 10k. This helped sober me a little and I settled into something much closer to my goal, and my first 3 1/2 miles were covered in 6:26 pace. I stayed steady for the next 8 miles, averaging 6:35s, but I was battling the onset of gas and serious discomfort, stopping at port-o-lets near miles 12 and 14. My Dad was hanging out on the lonelier side of Tempe town lake, and he relayed a message via phone from my coach, saying "the guys who win these know how to eat." I kept on trying to get food down for the next 6 miles, but the two stops and pain from gas slowed my pace dramatically, as I covered those miles in an average of 7:11. It was during this stretch that I was repassed by Major, who had apparently dealt with his demons and was now cruising again towards the leaders. A few minutes later, near mile 20, I was passed by Ironman Florida champ Jan Raphael, and I was struggling to keep a positive outlook. This was my crux moment, the deepest valley I had encountered all day, but when a spectator giving splits warned me of Paul Amey's oncoming, I found new strength and told myself I would not be denied my 6th place. I ran as efficiently as I could, still trying to get calories and fluids down, but losing most of them as my stomach decided it was done for the day. I focused as hard as I could on making my legs imitate the motion I hammered into them at the track so many times, and fed ravenously on the energy from my support crew and the growing crowd. As I headed back towards transition and the finish line, I poured everything I had into my legs, closing the last 6 miles in 6:20 pace and holding off Amey by 3 minutes. Instead of elation at the line, I talked for a few seconds with Chris Lieto, and then I was wheeled to the med tent for 3 bags of saline. Total marathon time was 2:56:12, and I think that could have easily been a minute faster without the stomach problems and two stops. Total time was even better than my best projection, at 8:24:13.

Just as I suspected, Ironman is a brand new animal, and despite feeling good about my result and securing a spot for Ironman Hawaii next fall, there are countless things which I feel I could improve. Still, this is the time for rest and relaxation. I will now take significant time off structured training, and enjoy some wonderful holiday time with family and friends. Thanks to everyone who made this possible, including my wonderful parents, sister, family, girlfriend, supporting friends from Durango, Santa Fe, and Flagstaff, coach Elliot Bassett, the masters swim team, all my sponsors, my website guru Dave, and anyone who sent me a card and watched the live updates. I am deeply thankful for all you have done and recognize how important this support network is for accomplishing my goals. I'll be posting again when the spirit moves me. Until then, enjoy your winter plans, and look for me to make another trip to Pucon in January for a little summer in the middle of the Colorado cold for the Cristal Ironman Pucon 70.3.

Friday, November 7, 2008


It's funny how you can spend so much time doing one thing, and then one day you realize something much larger that lends itself to a deeper understanding of your chosen task. Most people call these realizations epiphanies, but I'll just call mine a breakthrough because I prefer the imagery behind that wording.

I've been racing triathlon for almost 4 full seasons now. I started as a member of the University of Montana triathlon club team in 2004, and I took one year off to pursue goals of learning spanish and traveling in South America in 2005. Otherwise, I've had consistent training in the three disciplines since the fall of 2005, taking the necessary breaks each year to restore psyche and let my body recover from the physical stress of each racing season. I've seen steady progress in the sport from the very beginning, and I can only think of a couple times when I felt like I didn't improve with each race. Usually those were due to some kind of small injury or mistake made through lack of experience (which in itself is learning, and hence, improving). In fact, it's been one of the hallmarks of my career thus far that I've finished all but one race I've entered, and never truly had a disastrous result. However, it was while I stood on the track last Thursday during a particularly nice fall day that I realized how far I had come, and just how much I have matured in the second half of this year. It's hard not to plateau in most any pursuit, and my case was no different with the first part of the racing calendar in 2008. I felt like my debut year as a pro in 2007 was (in the words of a University of Montana triathlon team alum) strong to quite strong. I was in the mix in most races despite my less than perfect swim, and I was knocking on the door for the majority of the prize purses, taking home enough money to convince me that pursuing this sport as a career was a legitimate goal. And whether it was the increasing depth and skill of the professional fields at major races, or just the fact that my improvement wasn't keeping up with everyone else's, I found myself in a similar situation throughout the early part of this year; several close calls, finishing in the top ten, but not always in the money. So fast forward to this fall when I'm standing on the high school track and the thin mountain air is just the right temperature for a brutal 10x 1mile at 5:40 on the 7 minute only days after my hardest effort and best time for a half ironman in Tempe, Arizona. I'm 4 miles into this workout, doing my best to ignore the obnoxious taunts of some clever sophomore in the stands, and it hits me during my 1 minute and 20 seconds of rest: This is what I am MADE to do. I'm an athlete through and through, and I'm so far into this Ironman training that it actually feels BETTER to be running fast miles than jogging and waiting for the next one. My body has learned what it's designed to do, and it's given up the fight to be lazy and resist my efforts to transform it. These are the moments that define my transmutation in triathlon, from level to level, from mindset to mindset, from average to best.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Suffering for Love

This is an article on Velonews from elite cyclocrosser Barry Wicks about one of his motorpacing sessions. It helps shed some light on the mindset of an athlete dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, and it reminds me of a conversation I once had early in my triathlon career that inspired a very critical element of my training . It was the summer of 2006 and we were spending a few days at professional triathlete Matt Seeley's cabin in Washington. This was right in the middle of a summer-long campaign which saw friend and coach Elliot Bassett and I attack the triathlon scene in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, racing on almost every weekend for 2 months as we lived and traveled in a suburban with our camping and racing gear. For those people not familiar with Montana Triathlon lore, Matt Seeley was one of the original members of the infamous Team Stampede, which included the likes of olympic gold medalist backstroker David Berkoff, the ever eccentric Todd Struckman, John Hartpence, Ted Zderic, Chuck Dumke, and others. He's also known for some great Ironman races, particularly at Coeur d'Alene. Almost every year the group shoots for a reunion race and a few days of hanging out. Probably because I was a fairly green triathlete at the time, I was paying close attention to all the triathlon banter, and I will probably always remember John Hartpence's conclusion about his racing season, saying, "I need to remind myself to suffer more. I definitely avoided suffering too much this season. I've never been able to race fast if I don't 'teach' myself to suffer in workouts." Of course I don't really think I understood what he meant at the time, and for people not trying to make a living by training their body to undergo intense physical distress for hours at a time I'm sure this seems at least mildly counterintuitive, but it's really the path to success. Even Lance Armstrong said, "what makes a great endurance athlete is the ability to absorb potenial embarrassment, and to suffer without complaint. I was discovering that if it was a matter of gritting my teeth, not caring how it looked, and outlasting everybody else, I won. It didn't seem to matter what sport it was--in a straight-ahead, long-distance race, I could beat anybody. If it was a suffer-fest, I was good at it." So, the text in its entirety below:

Barry Wicks: Learning to Suffer

The wheel in front of me twitches and pulses with enormous energy as it tries desperately to pull away from my gasping breaths. My legs ache, the pain beginning deep, unbelievably deep, slowly creeping up through the layers of my consciousness, finally reaching the threshold where my struggle to ignore it is overcome and it comes gushing out in great spasms. I steel myself and try to absorb the agony, become one with the sensation, find the zen in it. The road begins to flatten out, the pace eases ever so imperceptibly, and the screaming in my muscles goes down half an octave, I inhale violently, grabbing an extra ounce of air, exhale the burned up gases from my lungs and relish in my victory. This is a suffering I bring on myself. The motivations lie somewhere in my ego and desires to prove myself. The time to question my motives is not now. The road begins its inevitable trip back towards the Cruz and I have to go deep inside once again to slay the dragon. The workout finishes and I sputter out a cool down, muscles throbbing and ticking like a hot jet engine after a long flight. Straining to gain back a feeling and function of familiarity as the waves of lactic acid and whatever else I unleashed on them begins to drain away. My brain begins the process of rationalizing what it just did to my muscles and after short complaints, the euphoria pours in, and my legs quickly forgive and forget. How easily they are fooled into complacency as the wash of endorphins flood down from my brain into my body. How quick to think that this cruel head will never again subject them to such a beating. Such blind faith is rewarded with another bout and another, over and over again, beating the memory into them, as they begin to accept what it is they must do. The pilot of my pain is a 110 pound woman astride a suped up motor scooter. Who knew such a beautiful creature could cause so much agony and find such glee in causing this suffering? Her carefree smile and the angelic note of her voice is betrayed by a devilish gleam in her eyes as I race up next to her and begin another effort. She has no sympathy for my plight, no thought of reducing my suffering, even though it is by her delicate throttle hand that I live or perish, suffer or recover, succeed or fail.
But, then again, I have brought this upon myself in my quest for greatness. This quest she understands and is just as committed to as I, executing my torture I have asked of her. Would it not be greater and nobler if not self-directed and orchestrated, reaching for a higher ground or purpose through suffering. I could have just as easily stayed in bed, warm and comfortable under the sheets as the blazing orange sun rose above the fog, happy and content to doze off in bliss while the day began. Instead, something drove me out of that cocoon of comfort, into my slippery cold bike clothes and out onto that road and into that pain. That driving force, the thing that gives me so much pain, so much pleasure, and for which all things are ultimately done, is none other than love. Love of my bike, love of my being, love of my life, it is all about the love.

And now I'm headed out for a ride.


Thanks to good friend Alice Jones for the forwarded copy of this excerpt. Enjoy.

From: Down the River, "Footrace in the Desert" Edward Abbey"

Labor Day, 1980: the Hopi town of New Oraibi, Arizona. Seventh Annual Louis Tewanima Footrace. The course extends for seven long looping miles in the desert heat, over dirt roads, across the highway, and up a winding and sandy trail to the top of Third Mesa and the three-hundred-year-old village of Old Oraibi..."

"...We watch the lead runner approach, a bare-chested young man with a red bandana tied around his long hair. He has a bony, almost gaunt face, a small, lean, muscular, perfect body, and serious eyes. He runs steadily, uphill, breathing audibly but not, it seems to me, with any trouble. He is at least a quarter-mile ahead of everybody else. Watching him go, on and on at that apparently easy, unflagging pace, I feel an emotion which I have not felt in a long time: a certain awe in the presence of ability and determination far beyond any ambition of my own, a surge of admiration for the physical beauty of a good athlete in action.

'Who's that,' I ask.' Hoffman Shorty,' says one of the men near me.' Hoffman Shorty? You mean Shorty Hoffman?'' No, Hoffman Shorty. He won the race last year too.'

[...] A mile away and five hundred feet below I see one small lone dark figure streaking among the corn patches, the bean patches, the garbage dumps, and burnt-out abandoned Chevrolets that lie between Old and New Oraibi. Hoffman Shorty is far ahead of me. And of everybody."