27 July 2006

The IronMan Report

Race Report - Ironman USA 2006

As promised, the following is a detailed account of Ironman USA 2006. The pain, the suffering, the joy, the unbearable tedium. It's all here.

If you are thinking of competing in an Ironman this might be a helpful look at what to expect on raceday, but then again this is just one person's experience and probably won't be typical.

Mileage, as they say, will vary...

The Cast

  • Myself, Jeff M in the role of ironman virgin and blog host.

  • MG as experienced Ironman and Clydesdale phenom.

  • DS as 2nd time Ironman looking to improve on the Lake Placid course

  • PH as support crew, both technical and spiritual

Thursday July 20: MG PH and myself drive from Toronto to Lake Placid. An early arrival is good, as it gives you some time to acclimatize to the race location and to find a certain comfort level with the surroundings. Arriving too close to race day would be a little too hectic and nerve-wracking, and besides, registration is actually 2 days prior to the race so last minute arrivals are impossible.

The town of Lake Placid is picturesque, very affluent, and pretty much entirely white. That's a bit of an adjustment for a boy from Toronto, but since triathlon is largely a white sport anyway (for whatever reasons - I'm not going to supply a socio-economic critique of multisport here) it wasn't too much of a shock. We were talking to Ironman North America head Poo-Bah Graham Fraser on Friday down at the beach and he told us that Lake Placid is about the perfect size for hosting an Ironman event. Any city over 30,000 is too big because there are just too many other distractions to compete with the event. In the smaller venues an IM is a really big deal, and the volunteers come out in the thousands. And make no mistake, they are needed to ensure the success of the race.

Friday July 21: We register for the race. That includes a weigh-in so that if you look like you're in serious trouble crossing the finish line they can tell if you've lost a dangerous amount of weight and get you hooked up to an IV in a hurry. More on that later. We get fitted for a competitors bracelet and pick up our swag bag, which unlike other races does not include a T-shirt. Nobody gets a shirt until they cross the finish line, which makes an IM shirt a very valuable item of clothing indeed.

In the two days prior to raceday we drove the bike course (just one 90km loop) to familiarize ourselves with it, swam a loop of the swim course and biked a loop of the run course, all for the sake of eliminating at least some of the unknowns of the race. For me at least, an Ironman is largely uncharted territory so this was helpful.

What was not helpful was the rain that started to come down on Saturday. By the time we had to rack our bikes in the transition area it was raining hard, hard enough to require some hasty garbage bag bike coverings to prevent everything from getting totally soaked overnight. Best case raceday scenario on Saturday night was looking like rain in the morning, maybe clearing by the afternoon in time for the run. Yikes. Not good. 180km of riding in the rain is nobody's idea of a good time, including me - I packed extra shirts plus a rain jacket in my T1 bag so I would be prepared for any kind of weather on raceday. Good move. I also packed extra socks in my run 'special needs' bag (which you pick up after loop 1 of the run - typically stocked with additional food but also with odds & ends like extra socks, sunscreen, Advil or whatever) in case my feet were wet. Nothing worse than blisters with another 21km to run.

When we went to bed on Saturday night it was still coming down in buckets, but for some reason I wasn't too worried about it. I've raced in the rain before and I imagine I'll race in the rain again, so it didn't keep me awake.

Race Day

We were up at 4:45 so there would be plenty of time to get some food in before hitting the water at 7 a.m., and lo and behold the rain had stopped. It was still pretty wet on the ground, and it was a chilly 12 degrees or so but at least it wasn't raining. Hallelujah brother.

PH gave the three of us a lift down to the centre of town so we could get our wetsuits on and throw our dry clothes into a bag for pickup after the race. Mistake #1: as PH was pulling away to head back to the hotel I realized I had left my water bottles for my bike behind. Doh! Arrgggghh. The very first thing you have to do when you get on the bike is start drinking, in order to rehydrate after the swim. Sounds weird, but it's not like you can carry water with you on the swim and for sure you can't drink the water in the lake so you are typically in need of some rehydration immediately into the bike portion of the race. And here I was with no water on my bike at all. None. I felt quite the fool at this point, but both MG and DS reassured my that there would be plenty of water available on the course. MG even unselfishly gave me one of his water bottles to start the ride with - a noble act indeed and one that I was extremely grateful for. It calmed me down immediately too, which had at least as much benefit as the water itself.

The Swim: 3.8 Kilometres (2.4 Miles)

Into the water with 2399 other bobbing heads to the strains of The Star Spangled Banner and 'Clocks' by Coldplay. This is my favourite part of any race, especially when it's an in-the-water start (as opposed to a beach start). For some reason I just like the moment of floating out there waiting for gun to sound, surrounded by all those identical faces - swim caps and goggles and ton of nervous energy, it's a weird and energizing feeling.

The crowds at Lake Placid are huge, too. Unlike most local races where you might have a few hundred (or fewer) spectators, an Ironman draws a big crowd - thousands of friends, family and local residents come out to see what is one of the most exciting moments in sports, the mass swim start. Mirror Lake is long and narrow with a sort of a sheltered beach at one end so it forms a kind of natural amphitheatre. It was packed.

The trick to surviving a mass start is to pick your spot carefully. If you are a slow swimmer you need to get near the back of the pack so faster swimmers aren't swimming over top of you once the race starts, and conversely if you are a good swimmer you need to be nearer the front so you don't have to swim over top of anyone else. You'll have enough to worry about with swimmers on both sides of you anyway. For me, I'm kind of a middle of the pack swimmer so I don't get too near the front. If you pick your spot right you'll generally be swimming with the same crowd for most of the race.

My plan for the swim was to hit the beach at 1:10 to 1:15, and after the first loop I was 35 minutes gone. Right on track. I think I swam off course more in the second loop, so I finished with a 1:14:something. Not bad for the longest swim of my life. After letting a couple of lovely wetsuit peelers pull my suit off I headed to transition feeling pretty good. Even my heart rate was pretty well under control at this point, which meant I hadn't spent too much on the shortest part of the race.

T1 & Bike: 180 Kilometres (112 Miles)

I decided to go with the short sleeve jersey and to carry a light jacket in my pocket. Good move, because after about 10 minutes I was absolutely freezing. I stopped and put on the jacket right away and immediately felt better. Losing a couple of minutes on a long ride is no big deal so I was feeling quite pleased with myself at this point.

My target time for the bike ride was 7 hours. I knew if I hammered it I could put in a quicker time but after my miserable experience in Peterborough 2 weeks before I felt that a more reserved bike pace was better strategy and would leave me with something for the run. I had read over and over in many magazines and training guides that "An ironman is not a bike race", so an easy, steady ride was my gameplan.

That gameplan didn't include 9 stops along the way (one for putting the jacket on, one for taking it off, and 7 more to answer the call of nature) but as it turned out the stops didn't affect my time at all: I finished the 180km in 7 hours, 1 minute and 25 seconds. Right on target.

MG passed me while I was stopped for a nature break and a quick drink mix pretty early on the first loop. As is his wont he was hammering his ride and would turn in a sub-6 hour time. I didn't see DS until late in the first loop, almost back into Lake Placid. We would ride more or less together until about a third of the way into the next loop, and then he was gone too. He would finish with a 6:33 bike time. Nicely done, lads.

The Lake Placid bike course is pretty spectactular - mountains, valleys, lakes and rushing streams, plus a long out-and-back leg through a mostly forested area. The entire region is a national park so it's very lightly populated. I brought along a disposable camera to shoot some snaps along the way and this made the ride even more enjoyable. Lots of laughs and surprised faces from the spectators and support crews when they saw me taking their picture!

T2 and Run: 42.2 Kilometres (26.2 Miles)

PH was making the most of his IM experience by volunteering at the race, something I wish I had thought of last year, so he was right there in T2 when I dropped off my bike. It was great to see a friendly face and get a high five after a long day of riding. I love my bike, but 7 hours in the saddle is long enough. I was glad to be off the bike and doing something different.

Into the change tent and into the run gear, then quickly out onto the course. By this time the weather had warmed up considerably. In fact it was pretty much a perfect day and had been that way since less than half way into the first bike loop. Mid to high 20's, scattered cloud cover and light winds. Amazing, especially when you consider what the weather might have been like based on predictions the day before.

My run, however, would not be so amazing. I felt awful right from the start. This is not unusual - in many past races I have felt terrible getting off the bike and I had anticipated this for the IM, so I wasn't too worried about it and just pushed ahead anyway. I thought things would come around in a few minutes and I could get down to the business of plodding along with everyone else. Wrong. I managed to run much of the first loop, following my plan of walking every aid station, but my stomach was doing flips the whole time. I was forced to walk more and more until finally on the second loop I actually came to a full stop and sat down with my head in my hands for a few minutes. Someone, thankfully, yelled out to me to keep moving and I snapped out of it enough to get back to my feet.

After hobbling along for another couple of kilometres my stomach finally won and I had to have a quick hurl at the side of the road, not 20 metres from an ambulance and a few state troopers. Nobody noticed. At the time I was torn between wanting them to see me and take me off the course (and perhaps shoot me a few times) and hoping they wouldn't so I could keep going. Lucky for me the sight of someone puking on an Ironman is no big deal and the paramedics paid no mind. I got up and stumbled on.

By this time my stomach had shut down completely. The thought of actually eating or drinking anything was right out of the question, but I knew that if I didn't at least drink something I would be in serious trouble before long. I managed to choke down some Gu and some water, but mainly just chewed ice and sipped Coke for quite a long time. My pace got slower and slower and I noticed that not only was I not moving forward at anything like a brisk walking pace, I was actually staggering along like a Saturday night drunk. I don't think I have ever felt worse in my life than I did at that point. Thankfully that didn't last too long - I started chatting with a woman who was walking beside me for a while, I think she was talking to another guy and I sort of jumped into their conversation. I ended up walking with the guy (sorry, don't remember your name), an Italian guy from somewhere around Poughkeepsie NY and also feeling like death on a stick and cursing the day he signed up for an Ironman. I remember both of us swearing we would never be stupid enough to sign up for another one, and how utterly crapulous we both felt. We walked for a long, long way. A couple of hours I think, because we made the turnaround on the River Road and walked all the way back to the top of the first hill on the outside of town about 2 miles from Lake Placid before I started feeling better. By this time it was dark and getting cool and we had grabbed some mylar sheeting to wrap around ourselves to keep warm. The multiple cokes had done the trick and I felt up to attempting a run. He didn't - his problem was cramped muscles, not stomach issues so he wished me good luck, we shook hands and off I went.

Incredibly, the final 4 miles felt really good. I was running at a decent pace and stopped mostly at the aid stations. I warmed up quickly, and felt good enough to run the last 30 meters of the Big Hill in the middle of town, which made the spectators there go nuts. What a great feeling. There's a guy every year who parks himself at the top of that awful hill and barks through a megaphone at all the runners, shouting encouragement. He saw me break into a run and it must have looked like Lazarus rising from the dead. "Look at this guy! Hey, buddy, where you been hiding that run?!!" People were screaming their heads off at me as I ran by, pumping my fist. A rush? You bet.

The next couple of miles were long, but the final 500 meters into the Oval and the loop around and into the finish line were an amazing thing. What a great feeling to finally break that tape.

MG and PH were at the finish line, and a welcome sight they most definitely were. A race official grabbed me though and hung on for a couple of minutes while firing questions at me to see if I was coherent or not. I must have passed the test because she let me go eventually, without even a trip to the scales to see how much weight I had lost. For sure I lost some weight - PH and MG both commented immediately as I crossed the line, and the finish line photo confirms it. How much is hard to say, you don't have to take much away from a 146 lb frame to make it show.

A quick photo with the medal around my neck, a slice of pizza and another blessed Coke (which I normally loathe) and we were ready to scram. Just in time too because just as we were packing up it started to pour rain again. I can't imagine how miserable it would have been to have still been out on the course at that point, trudging along in a cold rain. Awful.

Final finish time: 14 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. I had actually allotted myself 14 hours to complete the course so I wasn't too far off that mark, though I now know that had I not been suffering from such a bad stomach I could have easily bettered the 14 hour mark. My overall place was 1700 out of 2159 who started the race, 180th of 233 in my age group. Not very impressive! But acceptable when you consider the number of DNFs.

MG's time: 12:30:01 I think the :01 part stung a bit, but that's a great time.

DS's time: 12:58:31 Also a good time and a huge improvement on 2005.


Alchemical transformation complete, C has become Fe...

Did I enjoy the experience? Overall, yes. Two thirds of the race I felt great, nine tenths of the run I felt horrible, but I feel pretty good about just finishing the race. My objective going in was to finish the race without requiring medical attention and although it was close at one point I did accomplish at least that. The finish time is irrelevant now, at least for a first attempt.

For the next one I have to sort out my nutrition issues and I think it would be wise to hire a coach or follow some kind of structured training plan. Going it alone might work for some people (like MG for instance) but for me I would feel more confident with some professional assistance in the training phase.

When will the next Ironman be? Hard to say. Maybe not next year, but a return in 2008 sounds likely.

26 July 2006

Mission Accomplished

And unlike George W. Bush I'm not standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or wearing a codpiece while doing so.

Watch for a full and horribly detailed race report coming soon. There may even be photos taken during the race, if they look ok.

19 July 2006

Go Time

It's only a few days until the race now, so the heavy training is done and the heavy fretting begins.

Am I ready? Can I do this race? Will I enjoy the day or will it become a festival of suffering? These are questions I keep asking myself as the 23rd draws nearer. There's nothing more to be done that can affect my fitness, and to be honest I feel like I'm as fit as I've ever been so that's good. The question is whether it's good enough.

Three of us (fellow competitor M plus cycling compadre P) are leaving tomorrow morning, which gives us plenty of time to acclimatize in Lake Placid. Fourth man and 3rd competitor D is travelling solo, as is his wont. He'll be there today for an extra day of pre-race angst.

It's recommended that all athletes take a good look at the course beforehand, so even though it won't be new to any of us (I scoped it out last year even though I did not race) I think we'll likely drive the bike course and bike the run, plus swim a loop of the swim course.

My Race Plan

Swim: just swim. Don't do anything special, just stay comfortable in the water and let the giant draft effect pull me around the course.

Bike: Go easy. No pushing, especially on the first loop. Keep as much energy in reserve as possible, so I can run reasonably comfortably off the bike. I'm riding a very comfortable steel road bike (Cervelo Super Prodigy) that in the past has always left my legs feeling pretty fresh for the run. If I can resist the temptation to turn the bike leg into a race I should be ok. The bike ride is all about the "3 Rs": Recover (from the swim), Rehydrate, and Reserve. And above all, don't worry about my personal peloton (M and D) coming up behind me. That was my downfall in Peterborough.

Run: Again, an easy pace even if I feel fantastic off the bike. Walk every aid station, pay attention to fluid intake, and try to stay in cruise mode for as long as possible. If all goes well I should feel ok until somewhere on the second loop, which is when the inevitable difficulties will begin. Even a straight marathon is never a party all the way through, and an IM marathon will be even tougher. I read recently that the run on an IM is "20 miles of hope followed by six miles of reality". So we'll see how real it gets towards the end of the day.

Time prediction: Not making any. Well north of 12 hours is all I know, but beyond that I'm not going to tie myself into any hoped-for result other than to finish the race and stay out of the medical tent. There won't be any qualifying for Hawaii, that's for sure.

That's all for now. Watch for a post-race report next week!

10 July 2006

Painful Lesson

Yesterday was my final tuneup race prior to IMLP, a half-iron distance race in Peterborough Ontario. The weather was almost perfect and as usual there was a great turnout for this well-run IM Canada qualifier.

My plan going into the race was to take it easy - keep things at IM pace, no more. That would mean a likely 6 hour + finish time for this half, which would be a pretty slow time for a half.

The swim went well. I didn't push it at all and came up with a very good time anyway, mainly because I only have one swim pace. Pushing the swim for me is futile, all it does is burn more energy for very little return, results-wise. So I work on form and on staying comfortable and out of trouble. I managed to keep my line (very important) and in spite of being grabbed (!) from behind a couple of times I hit the beach in just over 34 minutes for the 2k.

So far so good.

The bike was supposed to be a cruise, no big effort and no over-exertion. I THOUGHT that's what I was doing, but evidently my perception of my effort is a little off. Looking back on the ride I can see now that I did push things a little too hard at times. That would come back to haunt me later in the day.

Whenever I race against my friends M and D, I can guage how well I'm doing by how long it takes them to pass me on the bike. I get out of the water ahead of them every time, but as every triathlete knows the race is never won on the swim. On this day I somehow stayed away from this two-man peloton for the entire ride. That alone should have told me I was going too fast for this race.

Finished the ride feeling really good. Really really good. A bad sign? I started out pretty easy on the run. It was hot, but no hotter than my last couple of training runs so I felt ok. The run on this course is an endless series of rolling hills. Not easy. But I was going to stick to my plan of walking the aid stations and every couple of kilometres to simulate my IM plan of walking all the aid stations (at every mile of the run). I managed to climb the first couple of hills ok, but soon began to run out of gas. My HRM was showing about 160 bpm on the climbs, a long way from my max of 179 but still kind of high so I started walking the uphills.

I actually didn't feel too bad other than just tired until the last 5-7k. At that point my breathing was getting shallow and I started getting a weird cramp in my side. I don't think the HRM was helping my comfort either, and it kept slipping down so I doffed it with about 5k to go. I'd had enough bad news anway so I didn't miss it.

I dragged my butt over the finish line in 5:46:something and immediately started feeling a LOT worse. Like 'I'm going to throw up" worse. I've never felt as bad so soon after a race.

I did manage to pack up my gear, but the thought of any post-race food was not appealing. In fact a quick and discrete hurl in the grass outside the transition area was more the thing. Felt somewhat better after that.

What went wrong, besides pushing too hard? Hard to say. Some kind of nutritional error, I'm assuming. I'll have to research that. One problem may have been that I drank too much of the wretched Gatorade on the run. I never drink that stuff normally, preferring instead the more refined Cytomax. I'll have to find some way of carrying my own hydration for IMLP.

The big lesson though, is that an IronMan (or even a half) is a LONG race. Really long. Go slow, take it easy and keep well inside the comfort zone on the bike because the real race starts late in the day and if the tank is empty it won't be pretty. Blowing up in Peterborough might actually turn out to be a good thing.

Special thanks to M for taking on the driving duties post race - I couldn't even see straight let alone drive a car, so I was extremely grateful for the ride. And for pulling over on highway 115 so I could throw up again. And for the coke, which helped. And for letting me crash at his house for a couple of hours until I was ready to get in my own car and drive home.

02 July 2006

The End is Nigh

Getting down to the end of the long training sessions now. Today was a 145k bike ride in a gale-force wind, so major training benefit but man was it a tough ride. I was down to 10 kmh at one point. When you ride out in the farmlands of southern Ontario you not only get some excellent rolling hills, you get miles of open land with nothing to break the wind. And I really hate the wind. I was knackered. Five and a half hours ride time, so do the math. Not that fast.

Tomorrow will be my final long run (20k+) not including next sunday's half marathon in the Peterborough Half Ironman. I said all along that I would not do the half so close to IMLP, but I've decided to do it now. I'll just be doing it at IM speed (ie. slow).

It will be good discipline too. Watching everyone fly past and not trying to reel them in (like I could anyway - lots of IM Canada hopefuls at this race) will be a good test of my patience and resolve to stick to the plan on race day. I'm just going to focus on eating properly, hydrating, and good form on the bike and the run. And the swim too, I guess.

After that the tapering begins.

27 June 2006

Lake Effect

Part of the fun of doing a triathlon, once you get over the initial stages of pure panic, is the swim. I remember the first tri I did back in 2001. It was in Midland Ontario and the swim had been changed from the traditional 'out and back' to a course that paralleled the beach. Bad idea. It was too shallow, too muddy, and way too crowded. I finally managed to drag myself onto the beach at the end of it all but not without a few 'wtf' moments. Horrible.

Anyway, I'm a much stronger swimmer now and I actually like the swim, especially if the conditions are nice. A sunny day, flat, weed-free water, plenty of room between swimmers... you can't beat it. I can't swim all that fast, so I just relax and enjoy it. It's way more fun swimming in open water than plodding along in an over-chlorinated pool filled with other people who are swimming either too slow or too fast and where the chances of a 'fouling' always lurk. If I could train in open water all the time I would.

'But wait', I hear you say. 'Don't you live in Toronto, right next to one of the largest freshwater lakes on the planet?'

Why yes, yes I do. It may be one of the largest, but it's not necessarily one of the friendliest. At least not right here in the city. Lake Ontario has a longtime reputation as a polluted cesspool of a lake, a reputation that it no doubt earned over several decades of mismanagement and indiscriminate filth-dumping by industry and inadequate waste treatment facilities. It has cleaned up quite a bit lately, however, to the point where there is even a tri right in downtown Toronto again.

Last night some fellow Lake Placid-bound friends and I decided to try our luck with an open water training swim in the Beaches. We wetsuited up and hit the water on a clear night at about 6pm. A stiff breeze was blowing in from the southeast, which around here means bad weather is on the way. It also means that waves have been travelling right across the width of the lake before hitting our shores, so the seas were rough, as they say. About a 3 to 4 foot swell with a few bigger waves in the mix too. Interesting. Also 'interesting' was the water temperature. Interesting as in 'I'm more interested in standing on the nice sand here than swimming in that frigid water'. I waded into the surf last, and instantly my hands and feet were numb and my breath was taken away. Not good! I jumped right out again after 30 seconds and a few strokes.

Standing there on the shore though, watching as my friends splashed away, I decided that cold water or no I had to go back in. So in I went and took off after them. And you know, it wasn't all that bad after a while. I got used to the cold (the wetsuit helped of course) and my breathing slowed down enough to get into a half decent rhythm. The waves were big, but they were real rollers so I was able to ride them up and down.

We were all having a grand time out there and feeling quite pleased with ourselves when the police arrived. I looked up to see the police boat bobbing beside us and a cop talking to one of my pals. I didn't really catch all that was said, something about taking an oar in the head. Also apparently we were advised to stop doing what we were doing. Something about us being in a boating channel or something. Huh. I guess the buoy we were using as a marker wasn't just for swimmers.

A couple more 'lengths' of our giant pool and we headed for the shore, cold but feeling quite chuffed about it all.

The local tri shop runs an open water swim there twice a week, so we'll be back.

20 June 2006

Package Deal

Most athletic training 'bibles' will recommend regular massage as part of a serious or semi-serious training program. Putting your muscles under constant stress is hard, of course, and a good massage can not only ease some of the resulting pain but can also prevent future injuries and make training a little less painful.

Since my wonderful shiatsu therapist left town at the end of April I have been sans massage, so I thought it was about time to find a replacement. An inquiring email to a shiatsu clinic close to my work went unanswered (I hate that) so last week I asked my osteopath to recommend someone. Without hesitation she said "oh, you have see C. She's great". No problem. Phone call made, appointment booked for 2 days later.

I get to the clinic. It's in a part of Toronto that's like a little piece of Vancouver Island broke away and lodged itself here, complete with organic markets, hippies, birkenstocks and 'alternative lifestyle' practitioners. Whatever, I needed a massage and I wasn't going to be picky about the touchy-feeliness of the neighbourhood.

C. as it turns out, was (is) a large, solidly built woman with a no-nonsense demeanor. A few pointed questions about me and my ridiculous training regimen, my complaints, my hopes and desires as to the outcome of the forthcoming massage, and off we went. And when I say "off" I'm referring mainly to my clothes. All of them. Which is quite different from the fully clothed shiatsu sessions I had been previously enjoying. Too late to back out now, so I doff the togs and climb under a full length sheet to wait for C. to come back into the room.

Was the massage good? Yes, yes it was. Was it painful? Yes, several times. But it was a good kind of pain. The one thing that stands out in my mind about it though is that for the first half hour while she worked on my legs and butt, all I could think of was "For sure she can see my balls". Even after a fast and discreet tuck, I was convinced that she was getting an up close and personal view of my junk. It was very distracting, I can tell you. And not at all arousing, thank god. Had C. been a lithe and youthful nymphette fresh out of massage school it would have been a very different experience, but as it was it was just kind of weird.

Afterwards I felt like I was about to have an out-of-body experience. My body felt like a ringing telephone and my brain was floating about 10 feet above my head. I had to walk around Hippie Town for a while because I was afraid to get back on my bike. It took a good hour to come down completely.

Highly recommended unless you have an irrational fear of strangers getting an eyeful of your packaged goods. Which I'm sure didn't really happen anyway. I think.