Until this past weekend at Ironman Arizona, I thought the concept of “the perfect race” was a fallacy. There is no such thing. Especially with my bad luck finding good weather, not to mention past nutrition foibles, pacing problems, occasionally gloomy mental outlook and all the other “little” things that can add up to a major malfunction on race day if not addressed properly.
Now I know that experiencing the perfect race is improbable. But not impossible. I can write that with certainty, days after the race of my life. It took almost five years and nearly 20 triathlons to find Tri-Nirvana, but I assure you the journey is well worth it. Even then, there are a few niggling things I still could have done better.
In Tempe, the weather FINALLY cooperated, my experience took over, my outlook remained positive while my focus remained steady. I experienced the proverbial, no-longer mythical “perfect race” not because I was physically in the best shape of my life, but rather because of my mentality. In fact, my watts on the bike were at their lowest for the year, my leg power balance on the bike was off, and my swim performances were sagging compared to earlier in the summer. The only physical momentum I had going into Ironman Arizona was that after my accident last December, my running form was finally peaking 11 months later based on my Training Peaks data.
Oh, and there was that little thing called Ironman Lake Tahoe that I had tackled seven weeks prior.
My brain, not my body, propelled me. Here’s how, and perhaps why.
I did two key things different prior to ever leaving for Arizona. Maybe they made all the difference. First, I wrote a detailed race plan that outlined everything from my race goals and strategy to a packing checklist and what I was going to do each day I was in Tempe. While I’ve gone through the exercise before, my coach, Gerardo Barrios, told me over breakfast to write it with a more positive and assertive tone. See, my feelings of anxiety and intimidation from past Ironman performances were peeking through my pre-race report narrative. Instead of writing, “I will move fluidly and with purpose through T1, ready to ride in seven minutes or less,” I had written, “I CANNOT stress out in the T1 changing tent, I need to stay calm no matter what is happening around me amidst the chaos.” As you can see, one position is far more confident in tone than the other. I re-wrote my pre-race plan and the mere exercise of doing so was calming and therapeutic. It forced me to commit, at least enough to type words on a screen, to a different mindset. Then, I re-read the report every couple days going into the race. That reinforced the belief and what seemed awkward and inauthentic at first ultimately felt natural…and expected.
Second, and this REALLY saved valuable time in my hotel room leading up to the race, I packed all my gear and special needs bags before I left for Tempe. Every Clif Shot Block, every Honey Stinger waffle, every long sleeve running shirt and even spare Pepto Bismal tablets were carefully laid out in labeled Glad trash bags. All I had to do was dump the contents of each bag into their proper “official” Ironman gear bag after packet pick up. I didn’t have to spend two hours in my room the day before the race obsessing over every detail. That’s mentally draining. My pre-race plan covered everything in advance, and while I still double- (OK, triple) checked each bag, investing 30 minutes was far more relaxing than the alternative. I had extra time to watch the Ironman World Championships broadcast instead, worry-free.
In other words, I was mentally prepared to race well before the starting gun boomed.
One final note on this topic. I also committed to positive self-messaging pre-race in the form of a framed Kobe Bryant quote in my run special needs bag, as well as individual messages on each of the six water bottles for my bike ride. I used to think that was too “new agey” for me and unnecessary – even if legends like Chrissie Wellington personally recommended it to me in the first place. I always felt like mental toughness was a strength of mine and I didn’t need those cues, but after Lake Tahoe I realized that any reminder to hang in there, no matter how small, can have a major impact. Each message I wrote on my bottles honestly helped me stay in the moment. It was like a little gift to myself every hour when I changed water bottles on the aerobars cage mount. And it encouraged me to stay hydrated as an indirect result. On one bottle, I wrote down the number of hours and miles I had trained for the entire year – a cue to reward myself for being present in the moment. On another, I wrote a shortened version of the Kobe quote, “Rise above.” On another, “Last one, best one,” referencing my likely last full Ironman-distance race for some time.
I will not race without going through each of these exercises. They are essential to success for me now.
In the race itself, proper pacing, proper nutrition and proper attitude led to my personal-best performance. Not once in the swim, bike or run did I try to push beyond my capabilities. Gerardo and I scheduled a functional threshold power test for the bike a few weeks after my Ironman Lake Tahoe recovery so we could recalibrate my power zones. That confirmed my watts had decreased and enabled us to be more realistic about what I could do on the bike. There are few things more frustrating than pushing diminishing power over time and not knowing why. By being realistic with my ability level, I was able to relax more. When I looked at my power data post-race, my Variability Index (VI) – a measure of power consistency throughout a ride – was near perfect (1.03). During my recent run training, we set up a plan to run longer while maintaining my Ironman pace, even trying to amp up the intensity towards the end of each session. My legs were trained for more pain, and I was able to dial in my nutritional needs for that kind of effort. Plus, strength training with Fitamorphosis really helped. I doubled my strength training workouts in the weeks leading up to the race. Finally, I knew my swim pacing would be pretty similar to Ironman Lake Tahoe, give or take a few minutes. I didn’t worry about it as much, focusing on refining technique instead of power in the pool.
Nutritionally, I decided to…err…follow my gut instincts. I heeded all the advice I learned from Sigma Human Performance sports nutritionists Ben Stone and Katie Rhodes, with my own spin. I relied too heavily on honey water alone during Ironman Lake Tahoe and learned the hard way it wasn’t nearly enough to sustain me for 140.6 miles. At Ironman Arizona, I ate a bigger breakfast than previous races (loaded-up oatmeal, banana and white bagel with peanut butter). That helped a lot to sustain me through the first few hours of the race. I was never hungry on the bike, though I took in either full packets of Clif Shot Blocks or Honey Stinger waffles every hour along with a full bottle of Fluid Sports Performance mixed with a 10-second squirt of honey. I probably came up a few hundred calories short of the sweet spot (replace half of what you burn) but I felt fine. On the run, I was able to maintain an 8:15/mi approximate pace for the first 13 miles but shortly thereafter started to fade. This is the one spot I could have made wiser choices. I was so pleased with my pace, heart rate and gut that I didn’t want to start taking cola too early. I relied on Ironman Perform (even though I don’t train with it), water, grapes and bananas for sustenance. Just before the two-hour mark, my pace dropped dramatically. I thought there was something wrong with my watch at first, as in perhaps it was somehow registering me every several seconds instead of being a constant speedometer. I still felt great, so I was confused. No such luck. My heart rate began to drop a bit, and I remembered my demise in Lake Tahoe. I would NOT let that happen again, so I began consuming soda earlier than planned and grabbed a coconut water from my special needs bag to immediately boost my electrolyte count. That helped, and at least my pace steadied even though it wasn’t as fast as the first half marathon. Overall, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, and it wasn’t until mile 23 on the run that my hamstrings started to cramp up. My secret weapon for the latter was salt tablets that I consumed starting at the two-hour mark on the bike, one pill per hour for most of the remaining race.
Believe it or not, the other reason my hamstrings stopped cramping was because I simply told them to stop. I’m serious. I literally said out loud, “No! No! No!” when they began to lock up again at mile 24. I willed them to stop, I’m convinced. And that is a snapshot of my attitude for the entire day. I went in knowing this was probably my last full-distance Ironman for a while, and it would be a tragedy not to enjoy this one as much as possible. I soaked EVERYTHING in, from the moment I arrived on Thursday even through yesterday when my Ironman finisher’s pictures arrived in my inbox. If you appreciate everything that’s happening around you, it’s hard not to smile. When you’re smiling, you’re relaxing. When you’re relaxing, you’re having fun. When you’re having fun, you’re in the moment. When you’re in the moment, it’s much easier to perform your best. During the race, I was often smiling, giggling at times even on the bike when the expected head-crosswinds on the Beeline Highway never materialized. I high-fived strangers, and said thank you to everyone who shouted my name for encouragement. I looked like Gerardo on his marathon at Ironman Lake Tahoe, which is funny because that’s the lesson I learned from watching him that day. The final piece to the attitude puzzle was remaining in control of my emotions. Even when I was smiling and laughing, I always knew I had a job to do. My water bottles on the bike kept me focused, and on the run, instead of counting down from mile 26 to zero, I simply broke up the race into 10k segments, half-marathons, and finally, 5k left to finish. I constantly told myself, “You haven’t done anything yet,” when I’d start to get giddy about my performance.
I didn’t emotionally relent even at mile 25, when I passed the Christmas-themed aid station and “We are Young” was playing by F.U.N. I heard the chorus, “Carry me home tonight!” and started to repeat that mantra out loud a few times to keep the pace going. “Carry me home, carry me home, carry me home.” A few speedsters passed me in the last half mile but that was OK. I only accelerated when I found a fellow age-grouper and wanted to beat him into the chute. The finish seemed to take forever. I could see the US Airways building at Rio Salado Drive in the distance and it just never felt like it was approaching.
Finally, it came into view. I rounded the corner towards the finisher’s chute. For the first time all day, I finally let go and allowed myself to revel in the moment of celebrating what I had done. Now, I let the emotions take over. Fist pumps, smiles, and some high fives as the chute started. I hadn’t looked at my overall finish time watch setting for several miles and it was only then, just before seeing the Timex clock in the distance, that I realized what I was about to do – break 10:25! A course PR by two hours and 15 minutes, and an overall Ironman PR by just more than two hours. AND, my first sub-four hour marathon, a personal goal of mine for some time.
I saw Steph at the very end of the chute and we both shrieked as I headed home. Gerardo looked at me right there too, with a, “I can’t believe what you just did!” look. Me neither, coach!
So that’s how my (near) perfect race unfolded. There isn’t much I’d change at all. I can rest easy now, finally. I know what I’m capable of on a perfect day. I don’t have to explain or defend my race times anymore when other triathletes ask me…I can now say, yeah, I broke 12 hours. Oh, and 11 too! Oh, and I flirted with breaking 10 hours for a while! Could I have gone harder? Yes. Could I have finished faster? Maybe. Would I have risked a blow up and a harsh end to the day? Perhaps. But I’m content.
My friends ask me about if Kona is possible now, the World Championships. Honestly, I just don’t know. It certainly is more possible than I thought last week! However, even on my best day, I’m still more than an hour away from qualifying. But before that, I was three hours. It’s within sight now…and I know what I need to do if I want to get there. The possibility doesn’t seem so remote now and it’s really a matter of… is it worth it? Is it worth the struggle to get there? Right now, no. It’s time to rest, revel and hang with my best cheerleader, friend, wife, my everything.
So long, 2013 race season. What a journey! What an ending!