Friday, November 9, 2012

Duel with the Sun - Ironman Florida

Duel with the Sun - Ironman Florida 2012

As sunrise just begins in Panama City Beach, there is a loud "BOOM" as the crack of the canon fires to send off thousands including myself straight into the ocean to start my personal duel - with the Sun. One-on-one - me vs Apollo the sun god - racing to the finishline. All indications were the Sun would set at a predictable time nearly 11 hours later - my performance at ironman florida was not to be quite so predictable.

Background: 18 marathons or more completed and 2 Triathlons – one sprint tri and an ironman (IMTX) both about 18 months ago. I'd had on my life goals to complete an endurance trifecta including Boston Marathon (done), Kona Ironman World Championships and Western States 100 miler endurance run. The first ironman proved to me a runner does not a ironman make - mastering the other 3 disciplines of a triathlon (swimming, biking and stomaching enough food) takes some work.

Ironman Florida 2012 appeared my best opportunity to get to Kona without flying expenses. A new age group this year meant a little less competition for Kona slots awarded to the top x finishers in each age group so there was kinda a feeling of now or never to sign-up. Advanced planning is required as these races are so popular. I had to have hand on mouse when registration opened a year before the race and submit the (overly complicated) application before it filled up which took 15 minutes for 2012's race (btw - it took less than 1 minute for next year’s race).

After registering I tried to forget about it and stay focused on my running adventures. I polished off 3 marathons (one 2:40) a fifty miler and loads of relay races and shorter distances before coming back to thinking about the ironman. In fact I was having good times with running and considered seriously bailing on the ironman. I had some idea what it would take to even have a Kona shot and as time came to start putting in the kinda training required I found motivation to add the other sports lacking. In the IMFL program this year there's an article profiling the "average" ironman describing 80 hours a month in workouts for 7 months - that's average mind you - at max max running training volumes I rarely - maybe never over 40 hours a month and usually I'll train about 3 months for a marathon - sometimes up to 4. I'd decided I was NOT going to put that much time into training - a Kona slot is just not worth that much to me - so instead I changed my goals to just have a good race - get to a "respectable" level of fitness and try to improve raceday execution over the prior ironman.

The "plan" when I signed up was to train for IMFL after the Boston Marathon in April - that would have been 6 months - seemed adequate to get the job done if I really put my all into it - but instead I decided to (and needed to) slack off a bit until June - I was pretty worn down from lots of racing in the first third of the year and the body needed a rest. I was still running at a maintenance level volume and did a medium fitness kinda marathon in Anchorage towards the end of June (which was a blast) then thought I'd extend my slacking off/maintenance mode kinda working out thru July - finally in the first half of August I got on the bike and jumped in the pool to start picking up the other sports to do IMFL - 3 months is enough training for a marathon - I figured it should be enough to be at least "respectable" for an ironman. Here's the training I ended up doing:

So in the end about 10 hours per week average over 12 weeks - about 1/2 the "average" ironman does to train - and about 3 months instead of the average's 7 months of training. Although short of average, I felt pretty good about it delivering something respectable - beating the sunset seemed like a realistic goal for with what I had in the tank - sub10 hour is what it took for Kona in 2011 (actually 9:54) - I figured that was a <10 chance.="chance.">
SWIM: Swimming is by far my weak leg. A 25m pool at the YMCA was where 90% of my swimming was done. I'm sure with more focus I could cut down my swim time a lot but I really just wanted to do the minimum to get by because I just really didn't enjoy that part of the training - and this is all for "fun" afterall. I got two open water swims in the wetsuit and one full distance swim (in the pool) during the training. I was confident I could get by much like I did at IMTX although I was nervous about ocean swimming as I had never done that before short of playing in the waves as a kid or with my kids. Talk of Sharks, Sting-Rays and Jellyfish certainly didn't help. I arrived in Panama City Wednesday night and at least swam through the breakers a couple times Thursday/Friday mornings - but two 5 minute (somewhat fearful) swims was still quite different than 2.4 miles. But I figured I'd get over the nerves once the canon fired. IMTX's swim leg I finished in 1:32 - figuring the effects of ocean+wetsuit buoyancy and reduced crowds - I thought I'd be a bit quicker at IMFL.

The swim course is two loops counter clockwise into the gulf around some buoy about 1/2 mile out. When I got to Florida on Thursday the seas were very rough with a sea breeze to stir them up. By sunrise on raceday the sea was breeze was gone and the sea was calm which helped to calm my nerves. My wife and kids joined me race morning and after dropping off all the transition supplies and getting my bike all set up for the ride we were able to hang out on the beach before the start. I was given the advice from a long time ironman to line up way way away from the crowds to the right away from the buoy - can't go inside the buoy but can swim as far away from then as you like. Perhaps its commons sense but the distance to a buoy 1/2 mile away is pretty much the same if you move 1-200m down the beach - and the crowd difference is so much nicer.

A few last pictures with the family and I wade out into the water and wait for the "BOOM" (yeah - I thought it was a "beach" start but I guess you can wade out however much you want pre start). Duck under a couple breakers then pretty clear water - visibility ~5-10' - lots of room between swimmers - SOOO much nicer than Lake Woodlands in IMTX - I almost like this :). I'm able to get right into rhythm and crank out the strokes. I get around the buoy - a little more crowded there but not bad - accidentally go inside the buoy and get a quick re-direct by a guy on a surfboard - no problem. With about 1/3rd of the race down I discover a couple mistakes in my race planning 1) A little glide on the neck would have been a great idea, 2) Wearing my slightly too small bike shirt to save time during transition might was a bad idea. Whatever - a little chaffing – no big deal. That big hotel off in the distance keeps getting closer and closer:). Finally get close enough to body surf a wave in then up and run the beach for the 2nd loop. Thought I was cruising but a little surprised my 1/2 split was only 45 min - I was hoping closer to 40ish for the split - no big deal - I'm still delighted by such a pleasant swim - ok that's going too far but it didn't suck anyway. Back into the water - duck a few breakers and back to smooth swimming again. Each chaffing point becomes a little more painful with each stroke but there was really nothing I could do about it but keep going. Lots more of the same then I'm standing up and running up the beach pulling off wetsuit and stuff. 1:35'ish - again a bit slower than I'd like but I'm mostly happy it's over. It wasn't anywhere the euphoria of been DONE with IMTX - because it just didn't suck anything like that.

T1: To make this a quicker transition my plan was to just strip off the swim stuff, put on my bike shoes and go - with one exception - I MUST have my socks! The pros may do the bike/run without but I refuse to even try. I cross the swim finish and watch for my wife and kids and see some big smile and give back a big smile myself:


Then the strippers, a quick walk through shower and I'm jogging to get my transition bag. My wife tells me after that if we ever do another of these things she really wants to be a volunteer stripper - she just had a ball watching those guys and gals stripping off the wetsuits. I jog my way with my transition bag into the changing area and spend all the necessary time to put on my socks - toe socks (injinji) on wet feet take some extra time but I have such good fortune with blister resistance with those - they were worth the extra 1-2 minutes to me. Jog out in my bike shoes - get some sunscreen and a volunteer has my bike waiting for me - sweet - off I go.

BIKE: The bike training went pretty good. No crashes!! I got in one 100 miler and bunches of 50-80 milers on the weekends with time on the aerobars up to 4-5 hours at a time - amazing how time consuming biking it! I got to ride a bunch with my son Ryan which I enjoyed a lot. I practiced fueling unlike for IMTX - and figured I'd learned some things about how to do it wrong at IMTX so was looking for improvements. My best rides were in the 19ish mph range which for 112 miles - not quite where I got to for IMTX where I averaged 19.3 for the bike leg. Then I got the suggestion (thanks Tim Wilson) to try ZIPP tires - I'd never thought of that before but for $150 it looked like I could expect at least a 0.5 mph bump - Tim said even more - as much as 2 mph - but I didn't want to expect that kinda improvement. For fueling I thought I had a decent plan - I'd tested elements of it in training but never to full length at full volumes consumed.

Weather forecast for the day was a 60/83F with dew points around 60 (translation hot and humid) with a light breeze building from near zero to around 5 mph WNW - little cloud cover so I can keep an eye on my queary the whole day. First part of the ride was into the small breeze going west. Pace plan was to be very easy the first 30 miles to help much needed digestion for the rest of the race and slowly step it up a little with a negative split effort over the bike. I figured below ~135 HR would be pretty easy - typically I was averaging 140-145 on my bike rides - sometimes up to 150 for a hard ride. Pace came in consistently 20+ mph despite "easy" and even a little headwind - these ZIPP wheels are very very cool! I'm zipping by everyone - advantage of finishing so far back in the swim is the majority is ahead of you waiting to be passed :). Turn north for a bunch of miles - cross'ish wind - then turn East. At the turn east there just so happened to be an oil tanker truck working its way by all the bikes and I had the nicest little 30 mph stretch tucked right behind it. I'm not real sure about the drafting rules regarding vehicles - it’s illegal to draft another cyclist but I don’t recall any rules about drafting vehicles - probably that is illegal but it was so much fun :). That really only goes on for a little over 1/2 mile before it's going too fast to keep up with. A bunch more miles East still feeling easy and still cranking out lots of 20+mph miles - turn south and now I'm very slightly creeping the effort up - still pretty easy. A nice tailwind creeps the speed up with some pretty fast splits as fast as 24 mph. A turn NE then around 50 miles in I was feeling pretty speedy with the average up over 21 mph - then there was the 5 mile out and back road that revealed my mistake #1 for the bike. The road was very very bumpy with lots of obstacles (bottle, CO2 bottles, spare tires) that had rattled off the cyclists ahead. My rigid steel frame did well to translate every bump straight to my rump. I didn't lose any bottles or anything else on this ride but I after it was done I took stock and something was very different. I didn't have the full power stroke in my legs any more - turns out the screws for my seat weren't tight enough and I lost a couple inches. It didn't seem too bad and there wasn't much I could do about it - I tried to pull the seat up a couple times but no way. A little more north then a turn for a good long stretch west - with a bit more headwind. I started thinking a bit less about negative split - my third bottle of fuelling was not as easy to take as the first two - taste seemed a bit off - harder to drink. I finish it down - but then energy level seems to be dropping. I cheat a couple times and take a break drafting. Take a South turn at the same spot I drafted the big truck - I'm thinking 4 hours 1800 calories consumed in 3 bottles - 450 cal/hr - not too bad - slightly less than I wanted. I stick with water for a while trying to clear the stomach. I chew on a ginger laced shot block also trying to settle the stomach down a bit. I'd planned 4 bottles of the stuff I packed on the bike but I couldn't take a sip of the 4th bottle. Instead I grab an Ironman Preform bottle from an aid station which I'd planned to be my 5th bottle at the end of the bike. I'm around 90+ miles in and I take a sip of this mango flavored Preform - yuck - what kinda flavor is that - within a couple miles I'm forced to stop and toss cookies - first and only time I unclipped the shoes - I get going again but energy is weak and my stomach isn't going to be taking any more Preform - or that 4th bottle of stuff I've got. In the last 20 miles or so I'm just cruising much slower - some tailwind so not TOO slow - sipping water - I at least chow down the rest of my ginger laced shot blocks so get a couple hundred calories - but by the end of the bike - I'm not fueled adequate to run a marathon.

Target for the bike was to get around 2500 calories consumed with maybe a 200 calorie buffer from the minimum I'd need for a good run. This would have had my Fuel tank around 60% full which would likely be enough to sustain a 7ish mpm marathon. Instead my gas tank was down around a 1/4 tank with maybe 1800 calories from the bike. I knew this run wasn't going to go very well - add in the heat/humidity of the middle of the day with the life sucking orb - going to be a long run.

Mistake #2 for the bike turned out to my fuel choice and maybe my mixing of it. Ultrafuel is a ~70/30 mix of maltodextrin/fructose - long chain Carbs are good for getting the high calorie/minute movement through the stomach - a pretty normal fuel for cyclists as far as I can tell - but I mixed it a bit too strong - instead of 6 scoops + 24 oz water I did 6 scoops and filled up the 24 oz mixer cup - so the actual amount of water was less than 24 oz since the powder took up some volume - I think it won't pass the stomach that strong until diluted down with the water I was drinking. Also I think the mixture might get rancid in the heat after a while. I took it out of the fridge at 5am and was drinking it until ~8 hours later. Although there is no warning on the Ultrafuel bottle - I notice on other energy drinks "Time, temperature, humidity....may cause fatty acids to turn the presence of carbohydrates" - 3rd ingredient in Ultrafuel is a fatty acid - Citric Acid - I'm betting my 3rd bottle baked in the heat for 8 hours had got rancid. I'd used this stuff on long bikerides but the longest one was cool weather so it was refrigerated. One 3 bottle workout in the heat I was wondering a bit about that third bottle - but I didn't get far enough to see the results. Live and learn - I won't choose that fuel again.

Overall I finish around 5:45 for the bike leg - I figure I probably lost 15 minutes or so getting sick.

T2: I'd planned no change but also threw in a running shirt in case I wanted to get out of the bike jersey top and I decided to switch shirts. Otherwise this transition was pretty much change shoes - a little lube and sunscreen - and go. The neck scar from the swim hurt like a mofo when the lady spread the lotion over my neck. I down a gu and some water while I jog out of T2 and off I go.

RUN: Training was pretty much low mileage maintenance kinda stuff. One 20 miler - several 15 ish miles - a couple tune-up races - 10k and 5k - the 5k was 17:22 - a bit off my 16:40 PR but not bad for the low mileage I was doing with my running time crowded out by the swimming/biking. I was hoping to be running 7ish mpm which seemed like a pretty easy pace.

I take first couple miles very slow - my plan was to live off the course so I didn't bring anything for fuel or drink to carry. In an ironman there's an aid station EVERY mile so should be plenty of options. I'd planned to alternate Preform/cola from the aid station but I did water for first couple to help get the GU down. On the third I tried cola - that didn't go so well - 100m later I'm doing another cookie toss to the oohs and awes of a large family sitting outside their home watching the race. The fuel tank is now bouncing on empty and I just gotta sit down for a second and get my stomach under control. I picked the wrong spot as I was picking burrs out of my shorts after I got up a couple minutes later. I walk/jog onward - mostly walk - the calorie options at the next couple aid stations (mango preform or cola) made me almost sick just to think about taking them so I opted for pretzels, a slice of orange or banana - after a couple miles I see the most softest looking grass in the shade of a building - the idea of a little siesta was just too good. I couldn't stay there long and move along - I start getting the fuel gage off empty - every opportunity for chicken broth was taken - managed to down another gu after a while - I start developing a run walk routine that I could sustain. Running too slow was problematic - I'm not used to it - so I was either jogging ~8 mpm or walking and after a while the routine became 0.2 miles walk then jog to the next milemarker then repeat. It was a long long long time. Sunset happens around mile 17ish and I recall thinking - ok - you won. But the sun was not gloating - give me a very nice sunset - after that sunset it got very very dark for me for a couple miles. I finally took the prescription sunglasses off opting for blurry vision instead of dark and just keep the routine going - 0.2 walk, jog to the milemarker...repeat. What a long long marathon - but I was getting my damn finishing shirt and hat!

Final stretch - I'm jogging it in - I looking carefully to the right where the family is and see them and stop for high fives and a kiss. I hear "John Hill from Kingwood - YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!" from the announcer - love it! - and something about get on across the finish and greet the family later:). I charge across quite happy to have made it to the finish of my second Ironman. I'm very very weak but somehow make it through the after race section with my own personal "catcher" holding me by the arm and walking me through making sure I'm OK.

I don't really have any "mistakes" for the run - I did what I could with the fuel gauge bounce on "E" - just can't run like that.

My wife and kids were great waiting by the finish for extra hours for me to finish the run. They got to see all from the leaders ~8 hours to me at ~12.5 hours come across the line. They enjoyed teasing me about the one-leg'd guy and the guy on the wheelchair and many overweight guys and girls that made it to the finishline before me. I remember that wheelchair guy - I had a 10 mile lead on him early in the run but he rolled by with many miles to go - I'm still wondering how he swam w/o legs - incredible.

I'm a happy finisher but I'm also so so weak. An hour line to get my drop bags nearly had me passing out - I had to sit a few times with someone holding my place. Finally I'm back with the family swapping stories and eating pizza - life is good again - it was so nice to have the family there - other then them I didn't know a sole in the race or spectating. We had some great times before and the next couple days playing in Florida - a nice little vacation.

So it's done - made a few mistakes which is OK - I was hoping for much better but mistakes are OK - things to learn from. Looking at the results it actually would have taken sub9:30 to get a Kona slot in my age group. After a 1.5 hr swim I'd need a 5 hr bike and 3 hr run to get in the ballpark which was not at all realistic. Even with a lot more training and perfect execution I doubt I'd get that low. The 50-54 AG didn't look a whole lot easier. Maybe the 55-59 AG I'd have a shot. Maybe I'll just wait a decade before thinking of taking any more Kona shots - I don't think I can get that much faster but maybe I can work on getting older for a while. Shift my focus back to what I love doing - running.

Next up - Kingwood Marathon - 1/1/2013.

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