Yesterday marked my 4th attempt at IM Florida. After several proclamations of Ironman “retirement”, I made a last minute decision to sign up for this race last November. I had just come off surgery for a sports hernia, and was feeling like I needed to give this race another shot. For a little background, I hadn’t had a good race here in 3 attempts. My first IMFL (which was also my first IM) I went in with a very poor mental approach….qualify for Kona or crash and burn trying. Well, I crashed and burned, and rather than finish the race…I dropped out, at mile 20 of the marathon no less. I don’t ever recommend dropping out of a race…as that decision lingers with me to this day. I signed up for the following year. However, for some reason, perhaps stress, I kept getting less and less sleep the entire week leading into the race. Come race day, my body was so tired that I felt sick to my stomach on race day. Although, I did finish in 9:48…I was “flat” all day. It was not the finish that I wanted. I came back in 2007, one more attempt to qualify for Kona. After racing pretty well during the day, I fell apart during the marathon. I wound up walking the entire last 10k…to finish around 10:30. So, even though Jenn told me that we were never allowed to come back to Panama City Beach again, I signed up. Just like I did with Lake Placid in 2010, where I redeemed myself for a poor 2006 race, I wanted to redeem myself for my prior poor races at IMF.
2012 has been an up and down race season for me….with more downs than ups. It started at Buffalo Springs 70.3, where I had high expectations, but a subpar performance. However, I was still able to manage 5th in my AG, which put me just outside of a Kona slot, but gave me a chance to compete in Vegas at the 70.3 Championships. After competing at AG Nationals in Burlington and some local races, I got ready for Vegas. Unfortunately, Vegas went even worse that Buffalo Springs. I had a terrible swim, terrible bike, and pretty much shuffled the run. I had purchased a new bike in 2012, and while I really love it, and it’s FAST, I had trouble with getting comfortable for longer races. So, I had my position looked at and tweaked after Vegas. I was worried that if my position was causing issues for 56 miles, then 112 was going to be a real problem. Also, in qualifying for Vegas, which is held at the beginning of September, I didn’t really start IM training until after the race….so about a month and a half. Don’t get me wrong, I had several long rides and runs….but no specific IM training until after Vegas. This was definitely a concern of mine.
I guess I don’t really have to mention this, but Hurricane Sandy caused travel havoc to Panama City Beach….and just a little stress! I guess I shouldn’t complain….as there are people in NJ and NY with much bigger problems than getting to a race. Anyway, after some travel hiccups, we got here on Wednesday night (originally scheduled to get here around 10am). The race is on Saturday (different than most IMs), so I essentially had two days to get ready. The days leading into the race were uneventful…a couple of short runs, bikes and swims…and by Friday I was itching to race….and feeling confident. As many know, I went into this race with high expectations. I thought I could be in the mix for an AG win, and high up in the amateur overall standings.
PRERACE: I got to transition around 5am. I would have gotten there a little later, but I needed to find a bike pump. I dropped off my special needs bags, got body marked, set up my bike and then tried to relax. Very methodical. In fact, that was my mantra during this race.
SWIM: I love the swim at IM Florida. I grew up on the ocean, so I don’t get rattled by the swells and chop in the ocean, or gulf in this case. The water was relatively flat the day before the race, but had picked up on race day. I positioned myself at the front of the approximately 3000 competitors. Once the gun went off, I quickly got myself through the surf and swimming. I got out quick and could tell I was up front. But, I just couldn’t get going. My arm turnover just felt slow. And, I started to get passed and banged around. There were some big swells on the way out to the first turn. Having experience in the open water doesn’t mean that you don’t swallow some of it…and I did. A lot of it. During the chaotic swim out to the first turn, someone also yanked on my leg and almost pulled off my timing chip. So, I was trying to be careful not to lose it. I definitely felt better on the second loop. If you look at my results, the second loop looks slower than the first, but that’s because it’s longer, as you have to swim horizontally to a buoy to start the second loop. As I exited the water and looked at my time….about an hour….I was a bit discouraged. I wanted to swim around 57 minutes. But, I think all of the times were slow due to the conditions.
T1: I didn’t have the most efficient T1. First, even with wetsuit strippers, I had trouble getting my suit off. The arm got stuck on my watch. Then, I fumbled around a bit with my gel flask and glasses. I tried not to worry about it….it’s only a few seconds. They wouldn’t let the amateurs leave their shoes on the bike, so I had to run through transition to my bike with them on. So, I did my best not to take a header!
BIKE: Once out on the bike I started to roll. I knew I was out of the water in time to be out towards the front of the race, and away from the big drafting packs that plague the middle sections of the race. However, during the first 5 miles there was a lot of jockeying for position….and I could tell already this drafting was going to be an issue. Once I settled in, I watched my power and HR numbers and started to get my nutrition in. I felt pretty good on my bike, and I was flying along at 25-26 mph. When someone would pass me, I was very conscious to drop back about 7 bike lengths. Here’s the frustrating part and something I just don’t understand….I pass someone, they pass you right back, then SLOW DOWN! It’s so infuriating. Dude, I just passed you….suck it up and drop back! Anyway, around mile 20, about 3 of the guys I had passed, and about 5 others rolled by me in a pack. Let me just say this….I’m not naïve. I know that there is drafting at IM Florida. I knew it coming in. BUT, it shouldn’t happen at the front of the race, so blatantly, when there’s room on the roads to ride cleanly. Anyway, I dropped back and sat on the group for the next 8 miles or so. Even though I was riding legally, there is definitely a benefit to riding behind the group. Finally, just before mile 30 a marshal pulled up. I looked over at her and said that it was no coincidence that these 8 guys were bunched up….she agreed and proceeded up to give several of them red cards. I was so happy to see this. 4 minutes in the sin bin. Unfortunately, I just didn’t see enough marshals during the day. I became increasing frustrated throughout the ride as I saw several other small groups….with guys riding out of the aerobars and constantly looking behind them for marshals. The thing with these drafting packs is that you have to pick and choose your spots. If you try to pass all of them, you’re going to fry your legs. So, sometimes it’s better to ride easier at a legal distance and wait for your spot to pass. The other thing is this….if you’re drafting, the marathon is going to be a lot easier because your legs are going to be much fresher. So, seeing these guys drafting was really starting to piss me off. And, while sometimes drafting penalties happen for minor infractions: you don’t drop back or make your pass quick enough….the guys that I was watching were blatantly riding in groups. To me, if you’re racing for your AG, it’s just not fair. Might as well be taking PEDs. Anyway, I finally dropped these guys before mile 70.
As I was approaching mile 75, I slowed down to relieve myself…and as I jumped back on the pedals, here comes the same freaking group that got penalized at mile 30….riding in the same damn pack, no less. I guess that’s to be expected if the same group goes into the penalty tent at the same time and leaves at the same time. I was beside myself. Here I was busting my ass to ride a clean race, and a group that served a penalty for blatant drafting, passed me again, blatantly drafting. As the group approached mile 80, a marshal came up, but didn’t issue any penalties…which frustrated me even more. The group actually got bigger as they picked up a few more riders. Around mile 80, we turned into a headwind, so, I was able to pass a few of the stragglers in the group that couldn’t hold on. There’s an out and back section just after mile 90, where I was able to see the front of the race. I was feeling pretty good, and towards the end of the section, started to roll up on the group in front of me. This time, I decided to put the hammer down and pass them. So, I passed about 10 people as we turned back into the headwind…..and dropped them all….with the exception of one or two that tried to stay on my wheel. That didn’t last long though….as I rode the last 10-15 miles hard. I finished up with a 4:49 ride. Now, I know that not only is this a fast course, but also a fast conditions day….but it was still the best I’ve ridden at an IM. I stayed in the bars most of the day…and rode very strong. But, the thing I’m most proud of is that I rode as clean as I possibly could all day.
T2: I had a fairly quick T2, although I did fumble a bit. My Advil and salt tabs spilled all over the floor when I emptied my bag….and I missed taking my banana on the way out of transition. But, I gathered myself and was out on the run course.
RUN: I had to keep slowing myself down, as I felt pretty good. I continually watched my HR to keep it in my prescribed zones. It was pretty hot out. Not Kona or Vegas hot, but hot for this race (mid to high 80s). I was taking in nutrition and had no doubt that I could manage a strong marathon. In fact, coming back on the first loop of the marathon, thoughts of a 9 hour finish started to creep into my head…and I quickly had to dispel them. I knew that the second loop was going to be much tougher, and that I was definitely going to slow down. I had only done a couple of long runs leading into the race, so I knew a slowdown was inevitable. But, I didn’t anticipate what was going to happen around mile 14. I saw Jenn at the turnaround and gave her the thumbs up….my signal that things were going well. But, just after, at mile 14, I had the first signs of “issues”. My body started to rebel….which I’m pretty sure was from taking in the electrolyte drink of choice which is offered on IM courses (we’ll leave it unnamed!). In retrospect, I realized that I’ve had issues at my last two IMs where they had this…LP and Kona in 2010. In fact, at IMLP, not to be too graphic, but I had to empty my stomach right after the finish line. All of the drink mix came up. Anyway, once my body rebelled, I had trouble getting anything down. I just felt sick to my stomach. I tried taking cola in hopes to settle things down. But, that was the beginning of the end. Cola and water were the only things I could take. I stopped on 3 occasions to try to force myself to get sick, in hopes that I could empty my stomach and keep going. It just didn’t work. I was running on empty for the last hour or so….and just forced myself to try to keep running. I knew that I had given away a few spots in my AG during the last 4-5 miles….but there was nothing I could do. In addition, I was having issues with the shoes I was wearing….my feet were slipping around and causing a lot of discomfort. I’ve had a lot of success running in the shoes, but I hadn’t run a marathon in them before. Anyway, the fortunate thing is that with my stomach issues on the forefront, my shoe discomfort was an afterthought. As I approached the finish, I mustered everything I had to finish strong. A few people told me that I looked good finishing….well, I guess I had a good game face on, because I was HURTING. After I finished, I found Jenn and my parents (who came down to watch) and just had an emotional meltdown. For those that have done an IM, it’s such a long day…you know what I’m talking about. But, I got very emotional….I just felt like I let an opportunity for the AG win slip through my fingers. And, as I finished, all of the emotions I had through the day just culminated and came out. I managed a 3:27 marathon, walk/jogging the second loop, and I did finish in 9:24 (almost 9:25), which is nothing to shake your head at. But, I was hoping for better…and should have done better.
Just after the race, Jenn told me that she thought I finished 5th in the AG. While that was a disappointment, it still basically guaranteed me a Kona and podium spot. Only after I got back to my condo did I realize that I was actually 7th in the AG, which put me on the peripheral of qualifying. I figured that there were 6 AG spots….but with 600+ in my AG, I knew that if one of the older AGs didn’t take the spot, it would roll back into my AG. Well, as many know, that didn’t happen. Going into this race, if you had told me that I’d go 9:24 and not get a Kona spot, I would have thought you nuts. That time has won the AG in past years. But, it is what it is. IMFL is a race that, while fast, is one of the most competitive IMs on the circuit due to the European influence. Not to mention, Kona spots typically don’t “roll” because people have an entire year to plan and prepare for Kona. Again, what disappoints me is….how many of those ahead of me were guilty of riding illegally in drafting packs? I have no way of being sure…but I have my suspicions. And, after dissecting my race many, many times, I realized that if I hadn’t stopped to try to empty my stomach on a few occasions, I may very well have finished 5th or 6th in the AG. But, hindsight is 20/20. Other than the stomach issues that plagued me on the run, I really enjoyed the race. It was one of the first times I felt strong all day on the bike. That said, I have no plans on going back to Panama City Beach. Although I didn’t qualify….I’ll consider a 9:24 and a top 50 finish a success….redemption!