Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Race Report: Ironman World Championship

by Austin Whitman

Somewhere along the Minuteman Bikeway in Lexington the word “Kona” is spray-painted on the surface of the path.  I ride or run along this path frequently – sometimes twice a day.  I am not sure whose work this was but when I first noticed it several years ago, it became a subtle reminder of my far-off goal to compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona.  In the weeks leading up to Ironman Mont-Tremblant this past August, I thought about that word and all it represented.  People asked me whether I’d qualify; I gave it a 10% chance.  Since the qualifying slots are awarded by place, not time, you never know what it will take.  I figured I’d need to cut 30 minutes from my previous Ironman PR (10:11 in 2010) to be in the running – not a small order.

I approached the training for IMMT as I did my last Ironman, favoring quality over volume, and emphasizing time on the bike.  I’ve never been a stranger to injury, and spent all of 2011 recovering from a back injury that put me on the bench.  When asked how he was dealing with an injury, a friend once said, “well, we’re all always injured to some degree.”  And it’s true.  Any given day that nagging tweak in the hip flexor, or the dull ache in the sole of the foot, or the twinge in the shoulder could morph into a season-ending muscle strain, or plantar fasciitis, or a rotator cuff injury.

At the starting line of any big race I always think about the near miracle it took to get there.  In addition to injuries averted, I think of the dozens of things that could have gone off track during the months of preparation: the sicknesses, the business trips that jeopardized crucial training days, the near-misses on training rides.  Challenges on race day are never insignificant, but we’re only lucky enough to face those challenges if we can first overcome the cumulative chance that something could keep us from ever making it to the line.

I followed a self-designed training plan this year, a mish-mash of plans I’d collected and amended in the past.  I combined this with on-the-fly adjustments, a smattering of acupuncture and massage, stretching and foam rolling, and a dose of hope, and managed to get to the race in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec on August 19th no worse for the wear.  The conditions were tailor-made for me: windy, with a technical and hilly bike course, and cool in the afternoon, with rain showers toward the end of the run.  I had outlined and practiced my nutrition over and over, and come race day it all fell into place.  I was the 12th amateur across the line, 4th in my age group, with a 35 minute PR of 9:36.  I was going to Kona.

I had eight weeks between IMMT and IMWC to recover, resume training, and then taper again.  My approach was hardly scientific, more based on instinct and feel than on any formula.  Other than some irritation in my knees (which I traced to tight quads, which in turn I traced to tight hamstrings), I came away from Mont-Tremblant feeling the best I’d felt all year.  The biggest challenge, it turned out, was keeping motivated in the face of shortening days, cooler training sessions, the ending of the open water swimming season, and a creeping sense of burnout.  I’d been at it for a while, and yet I still had eight more weeks of waking up and thinking “okay, what are my workouts today, and how am I going to fit them in?” 

Over the last couple years I’ve come to appreciate the tremendous sticking power of endurance training.  What takes months and years to gain also takes months to lose.  I haven’t forgotten the (scientifically unvalidated) rule of thumb I learned in high school – that it takes a week to lose four weeks’ worth of fitness – but I am convinced this applies mostly to high-end speed, not endurance, and only occurs if you start rested and do absolutely nothing for seven straight days.  With all of this in mind, after IMMT I brought myself back up to 17-18 hours per week and then down again with a 2 week taper, not terribly concerned that I had lost fitness in the taper and recover periods on either side of the race.

It took me a while to grasp fully that I was going to Kona.  Setting and striving to achieve an ambitious goal, it remains abstract, tantamount to pursuing an idea more than a real outcome.  As high schoolers, we imagine ourselves admitted, independent, and enlightened college students.  As twenty-somethings we imagine ourselves mature, successful professionals or happily married and settled down or full of resolve and purpose.  As a triathlete I had imagined myself a Kona qualifier.  In their abstract, goals exist in isolation, a step or two away from reality.  When they happen, they come crashing down onto the pile – thrilling us as they land, but then they simply sit there, another layer added to life’s experiences.  It took some effort for me to stand back and digest it.  And so I would repeat it to myself: I am going to Kona.

During long hours of training I have questioned whether chasing speed is too solipsistic and self-gratifying.  But then I project forward to a time when I’m no longer physically able to ride five hours before lunch, and ask whether I’ll look back and regret not fully taking advantage of my good genetics and cumulative fitness from 20 years of competitive sports.  With this I’m able to reason partway to a justification, but there has to be more to it. It is not complete without the other parts: friendships, born of long hours training together and tales swapped and shared experiences; personal interactions, catalyzed along the way by spontaneous talk about your last ride or your nerves or your excitement; and inspiration, when you’re out there on race day together with thousands of others who are chasing the same immediate goal, each bringing unique circumstances to the game.  When I ran cross-country, my teammates and I would chafe when people claimed it wasn’t a team sport.  True, results are based on individual performance.  But the goals and the outcomes involve so much more than just how fast one man moves through physical space over an interval of time.

We arrived in Kona on Tuesday afternoon before the race, and within minutes I was sweating in the heat of the sun.  This race is going to be hot, I thought.  Really hot.  Immediately I felt the need to start hydrating – and get out of the blue jeans I’d been wearing since we left Boston the day before.  Victoria and I were lucky enough to be staying at her cousin’s cozy and comfortable house just outside of Kailua-Kona.  With that as our home base, over the next few days I did some short swims, runs, and rides and worked on my bike to get it ready for race day.  As with prior IMs, I rented race wheels – a ZIPP 808 for the back and 404 for the front.  I’d ridden 808s in IMMT but had been advised that the wind in Kona would be fierce.  When it came to race day, I wouldn’t regret the decision to roll with a 404.

Kona is the crown jewel of the Ironman race series, and everything about the race logistics reflected this.  Hordes of friendly volunteers made Thursday registration quick and painless.  When I dropped my bike off on Friday, I got a one-on-one walk-through of the transition area with a volunteer who answered every question I could think of.  They do a great job of making you feel like a VIP, and with good reason.  120,000 people compete in IMs around the world each year, many of whom have had a dream of going to Kona.  If people come home from Kona saying that the race was, ah, so-so, the franchise loses one of its biggest customer incentives.

The other noteworthy feature at bike check-in was the collection of marketing interns with clipboards who lined the fences at transition taking notes as athletes walked by: this bike is a Specialized with ZIPPs, that one is a Trek with SRAM, that guy is wearing Mizuno and carrying a Louis Garneau helmet, and so on.  As I glanced over my shoulder at the huge finishing stand being built, and took my tour around transition, I smiled to myself.  Holy shit. I’m in Kona.

Matt had described the underpants run as the “opening ceremony” of Kona, and while it lacked the Olympic torch it certainly featured hordes of the world’s fittest people.  That thong underwear was the standard uniform was a double-edged sword, and I did my best to take a selective eye to the scenery. Perhaps the best/worst uniform out there was Matt’s choice of red-white-blue briefs and a Dartmouth rowing tank top. He’d been cagey when I asked what he was going to wear, and with good reason.  It was a fitting rebuttal to the striptease I did in my Cornell rowing shirt earlier in the season.  Old rivalries die hard.

I can’t imagine how it would have been to go into this experience without the benefit of so much advice from people who had been there.  Whether it was Tim Snow’s admonitions about the heat, or Matt’s suggestions for pre-race eating or his caution against getting swept up in the ceremony and family and forgetting to prioritize my pre-race needs, I was equipped with enough useful information to write a how-to guide.  On the Friday before the race, a comment from Pat kept coming to mind.  This race is a celebration of having gotten there, he said, as much as it is a race unto itself.  Enjoy every moment.  And indeed, when people had asked me my goals for the race, I would respond: first, to cross the line and be coherent; second, to have as much fun as possible; third, to come in around 10 hours.

I felt unusually relaxed on Friday.  We spent some time at the beach and even did a bit of snorkeling.  I think this helped Victoria feel like she was on a Hawaiian vacation.  I certainly wasn’t doing much to help.  

We met up with my parents for dinner that night.  As soon as we arrived at their rental house I figured out that I’d have to cook dinner if I wanted to eat, because my dad was busy spraying the house with insecticide and my mom was recovering from almost drowning in the Hawaiian surf earlier that day.  Classic moments in the Whitman family. They never disappoint.

Jet lag had been on my side all week, and when the alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. on race morning, I was already awake. My nerves were pretty quiet, and when I went into the kitchen I found I was actually hungry enough to put down a decent number of calories.  Victoria gave me a ride downtown to pick up Matt and then over to transition, where I had the distinct pleasure of getting my first body-stamping.  Race number 1509 inked there onto both arms, at least until I sweated it off later.  It wasn’t hot yet but we still had more than an hour to sunrise.  And on this day, I thought, it wouldn’t be so bad if the sun decided not to show up at all.

Matt and I both decided to race in the new giveaway goggles we’d received on registration.  Trying something new on race day is never a good idea, but it turned out that goggles would be the least of my worries.  After triple-checking my bike and eating and drinking some more it was time for the national anthem and the start of the pros.  And then we filed down the ramp onto the beach and into the waters of the Pacific Ocean.  A troupe of Hawaiian drummers set an energetic rhythm from atop the seawall.  Thousands of spectators crowded the shore with binoculars and cameras, watching expectantly as thousands of athletes wetted their caps and goggles and warmed up out toward the start line.

I saw later from Victoria’s series of freeze-frame photos that the swim start went off like a human wave in a stadium, starting first at one end and making its way gradually to the other end. We heard a muffled “go go go go go!” and took that as a queue, but the cannon shot didn’t come until several strokes into the swim.  Miraculously I swam for about 600 yards without touching a soul.  Through the swells and over the coral out past where it turns to sand and then gets too deep to see bottom.  Morning sun shining through the turquoise waters.  This was going to be really fun.

Of course, you can’t have 2,000 people swimming for a single point without hitting a bottleneck, and it’s only worse when the field consists of people who can swim at least well enough to qualify for Kona.  Pretty soon I started bumping into people on both sides, and running into toes.  Either people ahead were getting tired or they were getting boxed in, but I had to break my stroke and tread water or switch to breast stroke about every 100 yards.  I couldn’t quite see where I was swimming, but as long as I had people on either side I figured I couldn’t be going too far off the mark.  

Eventually the mast of the turn boat came into view above the swell and I saw frothy water and a swarm of swimmers in front of me.  It felt like an eternity before I rounded the two turn buoys and I looked at my watch and saw 40:00. Oh God, I thought, this is the beginning of a long day if I’m going to swim 1:20 out here.  Then someone kicked me in the stomach.  I realized how much padding a wetsuit normally provides.  I took a few quick breaths to recover and kept swimming in short, choppy, uneven strokes.  For several hundred yards a small woman swam just off my left shoulder, veering into me every few strokes.  I told myself it wouldn’t be nice to punch anyone in the swim, especially not a girl.

I stepped up onto the swim finish ramp at 1:10 – 973rd overall – feeling relieved to be out of the melee but pretty disappointed by this first split.  Whatever line I’d chosen or pace I’d swum were the wrong ones, and although I wasn’t too concerned about my overall time, I noted that I was starting on the bike 5 or 6 minutes behind where I’d hoped to be.

Most mass-start swims are dramatic and sometimes violent, and this one was no different, but it was also scenic and provided a charge of adrenaline.  The bike is where the fun really begins for me though.  The transition tent was jam-packed so I pushed my way through after putting on my jersey and helmet and shoes and ran to my bike.  When I see my bike at T1 I always smile and feel as though I’ve picked a friend out of a crowd and linked arms.  I ran out of transition to the mount line, clipped in, and started up the hill.  Amazingly I noticed my sister and parents on the left side of the road and I gave them a celebratory fist pump and a smile.  They’d never seen me race before – had never even been to an Ironman – so this was one hell of an introduction to the sport.  I loved catching my dad’s face on the roadside there, screaming full of excitement, and won’t ever forget that image.

The first few miles of the bike leg are a rush.  After an hour of hearing nothing but the sounds of muffled strokes and steady flow of water on your ears, you hear the sharp sounds of chains shifting and cleats clicking into pedals and the claps and cheers along the roadway.  As I had been warned, the crowds of cyclists were thick on the road at that point, and if the ranks had been thinned and dissipated by the swim, it wasn’t by much.  At least certainly not where I was, halfway down the pack.  I fed off of the energy and stepped on the pedals up the 250 ft climb on Kuakini, relieved to be able breathe freely and start working my way back up through the field.  I pushed the watts a bit higher than normal.  It was only a couple of miles.  The descent back into down was short but fast – almost 40 mph – and then after a few quick turns I was up on the Queen K and headed out to Hawi.

My goal for the bike leg was to average somewhere between 215 and 220 watts, keep my heart rate in the low 130s, drink a lot, and eat according to the whims of my stomach.  A good sign of hydration is the need to pee around 2 ½ hours, or as someone eloquently rhymed, “pee before Hawi.”  I pushed the limits of my gut all the way out, drinking more than I thought I could handle.  But when I got to Hawi, nothing.  The rest of my body felt good, though.  I was right on target with my power, and damn was I enjoying the scenery.  I might have spent a bit too much time out of aero position as I looked left over the black lava fields to the ocean, and looked right up the side of the massive volcanic slope.  The winds were tricky, and tough at times, but thanks in part to the shallower wheel I had on front, handling the bike was pretty simple.  The toughest parts were when the road passed through cuts in the lava and the wind would bounce from one side and then the other, pushing me around a bit.  But I could watch the people in front of me and figure out the direction of the next gust and get ready for it.

About midway up the Queen K a guy blew by me and I thought man, that guy is going way too fast.  But I took a look at his legs and they looked unusually thick, sinewy, and up to the challenge.  And then I noticed the name on his shorts: JALABERT.  No way, I thought.  He was wearing his race number and so I looked for a first name and sure enough, “LAURENT.”  Permission to pass granted, sir, without the scornful, skeptical smirk I’d normally give to people riding like you.  Jalabert was the real deal.  This race was the real deal.

I made the turnaround and descended out of Hawi a bit nervous about my hydration, but feeling good.  Past the wind farm where Victoria and I had cycled in 2007, past the fields, and past the steady stream of riders who were climbing up into the headwind that was now at my back.  I watched my speed hover around 38 mph for a few minutes and did some quick math and thought if things keep going like this, I’m going to be happy with this ride.  I’ve found that the minute I start losing optimism on a long ride, it’s a good sign that I’m going too hard or losing too many fluids. Not today, not yet at least.

I crossed 70, then 80 miles and my legs felt great.  But still no pee.  I kept pounding the fluids but every time I went to choke down a Clif bar, my mouth was strangely dry.  I didn’t think I was sweating excessively, but it was hard to tell because I was also dowsing my arms and back with water at every chance.   But I was keeping my power on target, feeling good, and passing people, and so I just kept going.

In spite of the wind, the Kona bike course isn’t especially technical, but around mile 80 I almost made it very difficult for myself.  Coming into the turn at Kawaihae I got frustrated by how slowly a couple of guys were taking the bend, and decided to pass going through the turn. But I cut it close to one of the cones and had to do a last-minute swerve to avoid hitting it. It was careless, and made me realize that simply losing focus, zoning out, and doing something stupid was a major risk on this course. Forgetting to eat or drink, hitting something, falling into a draft zone and staying there just a bit too long -- until I was safely off the bike, I had to keep thinking about so many things and couldn’t afford to lose focus.

At mile 90 the clock said 4:04 and so I decided to back down the intensity for the last 22 miles. I’d been averaging about 22 mph and didn’t want to bike much faster than 5:10.  I needed the time to drink and eat and also needed my legs.  The final stretch was controlled, so far in the zone I almost felt embarrassed, but probably ended up being a smart move.

If T1 was a jolt after an hour of swimming, T2 provided even more excitement after 5 hours along mostly quiet roads baking in the sun and getting pushed around by the wind.  I turned right off the Queen K and cruised down the hill to transition amidst crowds, wondering where I might see my parents, my sister, and Victoria – and then out of nowhere appeared my sister screaming her head off. I waved to her and pulled my feet out of my shoes and hopped off my bike and those wobbly first steps felt as unnatural as ever, but by the time I had my running shoes on I felt balanced and psyched to run.  I saw Cynthia again at the start of the run and got a big smile and more enthusiasm.  What a great way to begin the toughest part of the day. 

The first 9 miles of the run are pretty flat, through town and out Alii Drive to the turnaround.  My plan was to keep my heart rate below 145, but as soon as I started out I realized I’d have to bump that to 150.  It was just too hot.  At the beginning of a long run like this you never know what’s going to work, or how the decisions you make at mile 3 or 4 are going to affect you in 15 or 20 miles.  But I felt pretty comfortable around a 150 HR so I stuck there.

A couple of miles into the run I spotted the BTT banner and across the street were my mom and dad, Shay and the Pokress kids, and Victoria.  I ran up to her and gave her a kiss and gave my dad a high five but missed my mom’s hand and would have to wait until the finish line for another shot.  I saw Matt coming back looking strong as I headed out to the turnaround and guessed he was about ¾ of a mile ahead of me – a distance that I could make up only if things went very well for me, and pear-shaped for him.  Based on his track record, I knew this was unlikely.

My stomach was feeling bloated in the opening miles of the run, and I was worried this could turn into cramps or nausea. I was still trying to solve the mystery of the missing fluids – all that hydrating I did on the bike and yet the equation wasn’t balancing. I put two and two together and decided to take a gamble.  Figuring my stomach was bloated because I wasn’t absorbing all of my fluids, I popped a bunch of salt tabs and crossed my fingers.

The electrolyte gamble paid off.  Soon my stomach felt better and I was balancing the fluid equation.  It was comical, actually, once everything started…er…flowing.  At one point I ran by a group of spectators who were cheering and clapping until I got close, and then their hands dropped to their sides they started whispering to each other and pointing. Well, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

Once the run leaves Alii Drive, it’s 1/3 of the way done, but that means you’re headed out onto the Queen K – the hottest, loneliest part of the race.  I took it easy coming up the hill on Palani, and just as I turned north I saw Pete Jacobs turning down the hill toward the finish.  It was a thrill to be out there on the same course where the top pros were battling for the world title.

I made it through miles 10 to 20 with two goals: 1) stay cool, 2) drink as much as possible.  I made judicious use of ice at the aid stations and put down as many fluids as I thought I could take.  With so much focus on fluids I worked myself into a glucose hole, and when I came up the Energy Lab access road back onto the Queen K I started to feel a bit sluggish. It wasn’t until mile 20 that I realized I had some serious work to do to get through this.  Fortunately I was carrying a package of Shot Blocks, which have saved me many times now.  No matter how I’m feeling or how sick I am of sugary fluid/gel/bars, I can always get these things down.  I decided to stop and walk before the next aid station, eat the Shot Blocks, and the chase them with some fluids.

Early in the run I had decided that I’d ignore the clock.  The more I race, the more I realize that setting time standards and racing to meet or beat them just wreaks mental havoc and leads to bad decisions.  I knew my swim was 1:10, and I knew my bike was around 5:10, but I didn’t have a time on my transitions or know where things stood on the run.  When I stopped to walk I figured I was sowing the seeds for a 10:30 overall finishing time, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.  In reality, as I figured out once I downloaded my heart rate data, I walked for about 8 minutes and had already logged some pretty quick miles.  So it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

With a few miles to go, I felt the energy levels coming back and started to picture the finish line.  I thought about the journey I’d taken to get there, and picked the pace up and bit and realized that between the minor bonk and the heat-induced pace, my legs were actually in pretty good shape.  In Canada my legs were trashed by the end of the run, but that was because I could hold 7:30/mile pace at a 144 heart rate. I was running 8:00/mile on the Queen K at a 152 heart rate.  The upside to this was when I turned right down Palani for the big downhill, I was able to take long, smooth strides and look around and soak up the moment.  People on both sides of the road, the finishing area just around the bend.  Left turn, right, then right onto Alii for the final meters.  I caught sight of my family a couple hundred yards from the end and waved to them and kept my strides long and … oh … my … god … I was done.  Ironman World Championships in the books.

I crossed the line in the narrow space between exertion and exhaustion, comfort and discomfort, just on the edge of the zone, right where I wanted to be.  My legs felt good.  My stomach was intact.  I was coherent, and fairly hydrated.  And best of all, I was able to find my family soon after I came into the finishing chute: for the high five I owed to my mom, the hug I didn’t get in Mont-Tremblant from Victoria, and the chance to look my dad in the eyes and smile and confirm for him beyond a doubt that rather than being just the province of the masochist, this sport is an outlet for determination, a community of energy, a fountain of so many inspirations.

Several days later, I read some words that resonated.  “It’s not about what you do when everyone’s watching on the Olympic stage; it’s about what you do to prepare—what you do when no one’s watching.”  My trip to Kona, and the long road to get there, was possible because of how I made it through those moments when it’s hard to know whether an extra mile or a third lap at Walden is really going to make any difference.  And fatigue tells you to skip out, but something else inside keeps you going.

The truth is, we never do this sport alone.  At every moment, even on the darkest, quietest nights, the challenges of friends echo alongside my footsteps.  Past coaches, teammates, and rivals are there in the many memories they have left me.  And of course there is my #1 supporter who told me not to fear committing to a single pursuit, encouraged me to embrace the risk of failure, and urged me out the door again and again to get the job done.  

No one may be watching, but many still are there.

Swim: 1:10:59 (973rd overall) – 1:50/100m
Bike: 5:12:44 (475th overall) – 21.49 mph
Run: 3:36:13 (407th overall) – 8:15 min/mile
Total: 10:07:27 (407th overall)
94th in age group (M 35-39)

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