Friday, August 17, 2012

Lake Placid 2012 - Matt "Serious" Pokress

Each year at LP requires a slightly different perspective. The number one goal, of course, is to execute and go as fast as my fitness allows. Four years ago I was confident, but Kona qualification was terra incognita. Two years ago I wanted to prove that KQ was not a fluke, and I was scared and motivated all winter knowing there were at least three other proven qualifiers in my age group. This year KQ alone was not enough - I wanted to move up the ranks.

I have reasonably detailed records of all my training going back to 2004. It is humorous how many “empty” days I had throughout the springs of 2006, 2007, and even 2008. Times have changed. Every week this year I compared my output to what I had done the corresponding week in 2010. That can be a dangerous game, especially when adding something totally new (and totally awesome) like the Six States Ride. Still, I would be a fool to deviate from what brought success in 2010. Finishing atop my age group at Rev3 in early June was a first for me at a race of that caliber. That result, in the midst of the big runs and rides, gave me a good feeling. I never feel like I have done enough. Never.

Swim (56:55 11th AG/65th OA)
After an arrogantly aggressive start position in 2010, which resulted in too much pounding, I reverted to a position more to the right. Still starting in the second row, but with a much smaller crowd. The start was clean and relaxed and I hooked onto a perfect set of toes. Checking the clock at the end of loop one I saw 27:XX. That is quick for me, but I have gone 28:XX in the past and still ended up around an hour for the whole deal.

Shortly after re-entering the water I somehow pissed off the guy behind me. He took a few angry swipes at my ankles, after which I felt the timing strap flapping around. For the remainder of that lap I was cognizant of the fact that the chip might already be gone. Nothing to do but stay focused on the moment. I would deal with the chip later.

For the next 1.2mi I followed another good set of toes, and popped out at 56:55. This is over three minutes faster than I was in 2010. In addition to a new (better fitting) wetsuit this year, I added an extremely painful weekly swim session against Pat Dwyer at the Arlington pool. There was early evidence that the equipment and training were making a difference as I have been able to hang onto Joe Kurtz's toes for almost two whole loops at Walden a few times. I don’t think the course was short. Joe does.

The timing chip was my top priority as I went to the wetsuit strippers. Sure enough, after the peel I had a strap without a chip. My experience working as a timing volunteer in 2009 was invaluable here. Not wasting a moment, I ran back to the timing tent at the swim exit and called out my number. They handed me a chip on a new strap and I watched as they wrote down my number and last name. After that it was as if I was shot from a gun. T1 ended up being one second faster than my best.

As it turns out, my chip got stripped off the strap along with my wetsuit. It was on when I left the water, explaining why my swim time was properly registered initially. They found it in the sand after I was gone. Going straight to the tent was the right choice, though, and this is a fantastic example of volunteer experience contributing to better race execution. I will also be sure to bring my own timing chip strap to future races in case I am issued a short strap again.

Bike (5:22:21 10th AG/42nd OA)
Two years ago I was surprised to lower my LP bike split by nine minutes. I had high expectations this year given how powerful my training rides have been, and how I seem to be going faster on equivalent output at races. The swim placed me further up the string than I have been in the past.

The one truly humorous event occurred as I went too fast through the first aid station. The first two bottles slipped out of my hand. The third got knocked out and hit me right between the legs. I never expected to need an athletic cup for protection during a race. 

After the most confident descent I have ever had into Keene, I was motoring along Route 9 right on the watts. I got way ahead of myself and started dreaming about what my finishing time might be. There is very little room for this in Ironman, especially when not even two hours into the race.

Usually I overlap with the lead male on the out-and-back section of the bike, but Andy Potts was already on his way to Wilmington by the time I got to Jay. I counted the remaining bikes as I approached the turnaround and confirmed that I was in a good position.

Once we turned up towards Wilmington it became apparent that this would not be a PR day. It was already hot and humid with a slight headwind working against us. The headwind became more pronounced on the way up Route 86. In 2010 I felt like I was floating up that hill. This year was a constant, head down, struggle against the pedals. It required a lot of mental effort to keep on top of the watts. The important thing is that I tuned in to that sluggishness and did not quixotically chase a number on the PowerTap.

Around mile 60 I heard the rumble of a V-Rod on idle. I knew even before looking over that it was the BTT course marshals (Joe Kurtz and Chris Borges). Don’t worry that I got special treatment, the bikes were way too spread out for any drafting. Joe gave me his highest compliment: "Nice swim". I explained the chip loss to them. Chris looked up the open road and (sarcastically) reminded me to stay four bike lengths back. They followed me to the top of the descent into Keene, and then Chris switched on my Contour camera. We stuck it to the side of his helmet expressly for this moment.

Loop two proceeded uneventfully and I kept on the gels, sports drink, and water. I occasionally grabbed a banana just to put something solid in my stomach. As in the past, though, I derived nearly all nutrition from gels and sports drink.

It continued to be a mental challenge to keep turning the pedals over as I biked past Whiteface again. I got a nice lift on Papa Bear going past the crowd of Boston area athletes from QT2 and Psycho. My own (extended) family was positioned overlooking the oval right at the end of the 112. They rallied me off the bike and into T2.

In any race, T2 is a major relief because there is no longer any chance of an equipment failure. That being said, I may have forgotten what those first few minutes off the bike in an Ironman feel like, or I was actually more fatigued than usual. Either way, I actually sat for what felt like 30” in the changing tent after doffing the helmet and swapping the shoes. It felt like I was catching my breath, but it was just a brief mental break. Then I was off.

Run (3:22:02 6th AG/30th OA)
Two years ago I gambled and ran very hard right out of town. I paid for that later. With that experience seared into my brain the new plan was to start more slowly. The past few Ironmans I have had a lot of success walking the aid stations to ensure that I can get the fluid and calories in. This year, with the heat, was no different. I consumed at least a cup of Coke and a cup of Perform at every station. Sometimes I drank a cup of water, too. If they had ice or cold sponges I would stuff my shirt. One of the truly great feelings during Ironman is that stream of cold water running down the front of my shorts from the melting ice. Heaven.

It is tactically much easier to figure out what is going on during the first loop since the runners are few and far between. I could tell that no one was breaking records (except Potts) because some of the pros were not that far ahead of me at the first turnaround. Finishing off the first loop on Mirror Lake Drive I saw that the gaps on the age groupers behind me were not closing. I was fairly certain that I had moved into second place in the AG. I high-fived the family in both directions and then headed out of town again.

The second loop is a bit of a blur. It becomes more difficult to discern position as there are many more runners on the course. No one was passing me, though, and everyone slows down on the second loop. Apparently a college teammate of mine handed me some water at one of the aid stations. I knew he was volunteering, but the tunnel vision was in full effect.

Slicing the run into three nine mile chunks is how I mentally attack the run. Maybe it is because that last “third” is only 8.2 miles. At LP, mile 18 is just before the turnaround on River Road. Kona Qualification is sewn up starting there. Running all the way to the oval would mean begging Shay to let me do one more Ironman this year. Start walking and, well...

The miles ticked off, and though I was obviously fatigued, I had no concerns all the way back to town. When I turned up onto Main Street I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to run anyone down, but I also knew that no one was going to catch me. It was time to close it out.

The turnaround cone on Mirror Lake Drive is unreasonably far away, regardless of what loop you are on. The deceleration and 180 around it resulted in a total left hamstring lockup. The cramp was unreal, and internally (at least I think it was internal), I thought: “Not now!!” I stopped, bent over, straightened up, walked a couple of dozen steps, and was then able to shoot down towards the oval. Even Nate's new pen pal, Craig Alexander, cramped at the end of the run on his way to a Kona course record last year.

I took a long look over my shoulder as I entered the oval to confirm I was alone. Then I enjoyed my time approaching the finish as never before. Four years ago I had no idea where I stood in the race, and was gunning for a PR. Two years ago I was not only gunning for another PR, but I did not want to yield one additional second to Pat. This year the clock was already showing me seven minutes off my best time, so I actually stopped (or paused) for more high fives with the family before running the last few steps and making it official. I even heard Mike Reilly reading off some of my palmares.

Joe and Chris were just over the finish line, and after standing and talking to the family for a few minutes, I grabbed a seat right there (just like 2010). A few minutes later I was vomiting, so it was off to the med tent (just like 2010). At this point, I would consider it a weak showing to finish and not end up there.

How much is airfare? (9:48:09 2nd AG/5th Amateur/14th OA)
Experienced Ironman spectators post-race
The night before the race two years ago I looked at a picture of the 2008 start. Out of that mass of amateurs only 12 of them got to the finish before me. Could I possibly do that again? As it happened, I cut that number to nine. The day after the race this year I saw the big prints of the swim start. Only four of those people beat me to the oval! I do not take this feeling for granted as I still remember what it was like to run for four hours at LP.

Fun Pokress (FP) and I always tiptoe around the topic of Kona leading up to LP. It makes no sense to make plans until it is over. After 2010 I told the kids that if I went to Kona again they would come with us. The semantics of that statement did not commit me to taking the spot, it just made it all or nothing for our clan. FP and I had a private discussion after she and the older kids returned from the midnight finish. I had no interest in going alone. Vacationing in Hawaii with Fun Pokress is sublime, but we have done that twice and it is disruptive for the kids. We decided to think about it overnight and I would be happy either way in the morning. A short while after this conversation, I went into the bathroom and when I stepped out Ellie almost knocked me over with a big hug. Apparently her mom had just said to her "We're totally going to Hawaii!" Make no mistake: FP made it official.

Jane has now come with me to register for Kona on each of her three visits to Lake Placid. That is a very special tradition, and one she is finally old enough to appreciate. I leave all my Kona stuff at the bottom of my dresser for the months leading up to LP, but she wore the shirt we brought home for her in 2010. It was the perfect choice for that trip to the left side of the LP High School gym.

A pair of October truants

I am still baffled (in a good way) about the swim. There is no way I ever expected a swim split that was 11th in the AG and a bike split that was 10th.

What I gained on the swim I more than gave back on the bike. I am not happy with those 112 miles. Jane said last year (while I was hauling her uphill on the Trail-A-Bike): “The bikes are sad because they are moving slowly.” Damn right. I have a few months to make sure my bike is happy again.

My winter pipe dream was to run a Boston qualifying time at LP. Heat and humidity aside, it is clear that I did not have the foot speed to make that happen. I still ran through 10 people, three of whom were in my age group. Through that prism, while not the fastest, it is perhaps the best I have ever run in LP. The Ironman BQ still eludes me and pisses me off. That is a good thing.

Race day is tiring for the family, but it is (I think) the reward for what I do during the year.  This year Shay's parents, her brother, and his family came to watch the race. I think they were impressed by the whole experience. Shay's mom, in particular, has always had an outside view of Ironman and now has gained a new perspective. I am thankful she stayed with our kids when we went to Kona in '08, and watched them again this year so I could be "Serious" and Shay could be "Fun" (and ride the Kanc, which is both fun and serious) during Training Weekend. My own parents have been to LP on three previous occasions, moved in to watch the kids in 2010 when we went to Kona, and watched them this year so I could go out and have one last huge volume weekend.

About three weeks out from an Ironman FP  begins to stand for "Furious Pokress". Then I know it is time to taper. About six weeks from now I have to watch out! Seriously, I am fortunate to have a supportive crew behind me throughout the year. Seeing Shay, Ellie, Nate, and Jane excitedly cheering for me throughout the day makes the race much more meaningful. Bringing them all to the signature race in our sport will be amazing.

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