Sunday, June 14, 2015

2014 IRONMAN Arizona. Different. Good.

Forty-two miles into the IRONMAN Arizona bike, I was in a dark place. My back and neck were on fire and consistent head and cross winds were wreaking havoc with my well-formed race plan. My inner dialogue was sour and getting meaner by the mile. "Why are you here?" "What are you doing?" "You're letting yourself down!" "Racing-self honors training-self, it doesn't screw him over!" Long gone was the magic of an IRONMAN day and the elation of a near 15 minute swim PR. All I could see ahead of me was the meager power number on my Garmin and about 20 feet of windblown blacktop.  All I could think about was that at this pace, I was going to be on the bike all freaking day.

Sixteen months earlier, riding high after my first IRONMAN finish, I registered to be a volunteer for the 2013 version of IMAZ.  Four months after that, I flew to Phoenix and spent a gorgeous day in the Arizona sun, helping strangers on their IRONMAN journey.  Sixteen months is a really long time to think about and work towards something.  Hell, I got engaged and then married in less than six months!

So 16 months can add up to a lot of weight and expectation riding on your shoulders. A lot went down in that time - thousands of training miles, another IM finish and some major life events.  On top of all of that, this IRONMAN was supposed to be "different" than the previous two.

Different how, you ask? Well that's an interesting story. As I was preparing for my first attempt at IRONMAN I stuck to the vague, "I just want to finish" goal that, I expect, defines most everyone's first IM start.  Actually, it became something of internal joke.  When I thought about IM and race day, I would often ask myself, "I wonder how many times you have to line up before 'just finish' isn't the primary goal?"  Going into IM number two, "just finish" was still on my mind.  Sure, I had thoughts, hopes, dreams about what a great day might look like and I had specific execution plans, but "just finish" was there, in the front of my mind, as a primary goal.  And again, as I was typing up my race plan for IM number three I actually included my inner monologue as an open question to the group that I train with.  It read something like this:
IMAZ Goals and Goal Times
As always, my number one goal is to finish.  I’m curious, can anyone tell me when (if) this will stop being the number one goal?
I did follow that up with some execution based goals, but "just finish" was out there, in writing, just waiting to EXCUSE the pain and the suck that comes with IRONMAN.  Sure, my race plan read, I want to go faster than I went before, but my primary goal is to "just finish".

Fortunately, some very smart and perceptive people read that and immediately called bullshit!  They pointed out that I had worked too hard to be satisfied with finishing.  They pointed out that IRONMAN is hard and "if you're content with just finishing, then it's real easy to give in to the overwhelming urge to just trot along for the last two hours".  The key to racing IRONMAN, they said, is making every mile of the back half of the run feel like it's harder work than the previous mile.  This is the only way not to slow down and this is not consistent with a just finish mindset.

So I revised my goals and for the first time in my IRONMAN journey, just finish was nowhere to be found. 
IMAZ Goals and Goal Times
This is the race where I want to race to my proven capability and show why I've been doing all of this work.  To make that happen, I have specific goals around execution: I want to stay in my box, ride my numbers, remain patient and disciplined, push the suck out as far into the run as possible and when the suck does start I want to feed on it and turn it into a source of motivation and energy.
Different.  Scary.

And let's just say that plodding along at 10 MPH into a kickin' headwind, making meager watts was nowhere on my goal sheet. So yes, I was being hard on myself, looking for motivation, trying really hard not to spoil something that had been so long in the making, something that was going to be different.

For a day that was supposed to be different, it started just like any other.  I got through my morning routine, loaded up my bike nutrition, dropped my clothes with Cath and worked my way up the line towards the swim stairs. I was excited and the weight of the day was nowhere to be found. This would be my first wetsuit assisted IRONMAN swim and I was pumped about that. I'm not a good swimmer, this is no secret, so I was hopeful that the wetsuit would help me to overcome some of my swimming quirks.  The morning was beautiful and seeing the sunrise from the water was something new. I think there was some sort of traffic jam getting everyone into the water and it seemed like the cannon did not go off at 7:00.  Regardless, it did go off and the water went crazy - all thrashing arms and kicking legs - but eventually it settled out into a typical, crowded, IRONMAN swim.  I felt strong and fast all the way to the first turn, which appeared before I even had time to wish for it. I focused on form and rhythm and I noticed every time that my legs dropped deep into the water.  This was new for me and it reinforced my focus on form.

The first turn was a crazy mass of humanity and so was the second. I found some clear water on the way back but I also had some navigation issues and ended up swimming a zigzag pattern between the markers. My back started to get a little sore, but before I knew it, I was making the third turn and the stairs were in sight.  I was careful getting out of the water and nearly tripped climbing the stairs to shore, but that didn't keep me from smiling when I saw 1:18 on my watch.  My perfect-day swim goal was 1:25.  My previous best was a 1:33. Different. Good.

Transition went by in a blur and I pedaled out of the park and off towards the desert.

One of the final, critical, elements of the training program I follow is the idea of the "one-thing".  Somewhere in the IRONMAN run, the program says, your brain and your body are going to disconnect and start to argue. Body says to brain, "Hey brain, this sucks, why are we out here? Hey brain, you better have a damn good answer or I'm going to slow us the hell down." The one-thing is your rehearsed answer, the f-you body, I'm the brain and what I say goes. At that critical moment and for many moments after, your one-thing is all that stands between you and slowing down. So I've done my homework, I have my one-thing all prepared and rehearsed and ready to go.  Actually my one-thing has been with me all through my training and preparation, on my mind, every day.  The hitch is, I think to myself, your one-thing is for the run and you're not even halfway into the bike!

The bike breaks down into 9 mile increments:
Administrative bullshit out of town towards the beeline. Aimless. Shifting winds. Disappointing power numbers.

The beeline out. Head down and power up. More determined. Eat, drink, stretch and repeat. Yell at the asshole who spent 10 minutes on my wheel. Laugh as he passed me and immediately sucked up behind the next guy.

The beeline back. Pee. Maintain power. Eat and drink more. Laugh after hearing "1659 (not my number) four minutes for drafting" and seeing the official ride away on the back of the motorcycle.

More administrative bullshit back into town. Listless. Lose a water bottle. Worry about getting dehydrated. Wonder if there will be 500 flat tires today or maybe 1000.

Repeat... Three fucking times! (in my best Robin Williams, Scottish voice)

I've never been so happy to get off of the bike in my life.  But somehow, I've never felt as good coming off of the bike either. I don't know if the difference was the long downhill back into town or the fact that my overall effort was lower than expected or maybe it was the low humidity and the fact that I was dry. Of course it could be that I spent the last 70 miles thinking about my one thing.

My one thing is my dad.

Like many fathers, mine had a strong and positive influence on my life. He was always an athlete and an adrenaline junkie before that term was even coined. But more than anything, he was a runner and a cyclist. As a young teenager, I remember him qualifying for Boston, in his first and only marathon, by running a 2:53. As an adult, I remember him pulling me along, on his single speed, on my first group ride after getting back into cycling, post college and kids and adult life.

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer at 55, I was 29. He lived with cancer for almost 20 years but he didn’t let cancer define him, instead he defined himself through the people he helped and the causes that he supported. He was actively involved with Habitat for Humanity, Animal Friends, Cyclists Combating Cancer and Spokes of Hope. At one point he was even a grant reviewer for the Livestrong Foundation.

He and I got to share the memory of my first IM finish, but he passed away last October, before I went to IMAZ as a volunteer and before my second round at IMTX. I thought about him a lot in Arizona last year, as I was helping others on their IRONMAN journey. He would have enjoyed that; spending the day outside helping other people achieve something special.

Training and racing IRONMAN keeps his memory strong for me. This is the sort of challenge that he respected and appreciated. When things get tough, his memory always gets me through. Honoring my father for all that he was and continues to be, that’s my one thing.

And that's where I went at mile 42, as the walls were collapsing in and the lights were going dim.

The bike was a challenge for many people that day and more than a few ended up overcooking themselves.  In my age group, two of the first five people off of the bike ended up DNF and seven of the first 25 off the bike ended up falling 25 places, or more, during the run!  But don't worry, my story has a happy ending.  All of my mental gymnastics aside, my dark place was rooted in the fact that I knew I could go harder, that I should have been doing more.  And the fact that I was doing less? Well, that set me up for some magic on the run.

For those few who care, I rode a 6:07:xx with an IF of 0.67, a VI of 1.03 and a TSS of 280, which looks like perfect execution, save the fact that I trained to hold an IF of 0.71. 

I ran through the grass in my socks and took my run bag from the volunteer - "Thank you!"  I dumped the bag, put on my shoes, picked up the ziploc bag full of all of my small crap and started running.

Cath, Elizabeth, Jenna, Gemma and Arty were all waiting just past special needs.  Seeing them was a real boost.  Lizzie ran with me all the way to the team tent and we talked about the bike and how beautiful the day was.  I waved at coach and everyone else in the tent and then I just ran.

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they've got a second. Give your dreams all you've got and you'll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you.”
-William James

I love to run. I get to retreat into the quiet place inside my head; to be alone with my thoughts and dreams. Running helps me to see past the distractions, past the energy and the pain, through to the passion that’s required to achieve my dreams.

Over the course of this season I’ve built a deep internal energy reserve by logging countless hours and miles in the heat, the cold, the rain, the “whatever came my way”.  That reserve and I have been dating for the last 12 weeks, getting to know each other, sharing secrets, pushing boundaries, messing up and then cleaning up after.  We know each other like family and my marathon plan was to use that knowledge to extract every ounce of energy I’d spent the previous year depositing.  The reality though, is that I knew it was going to take more than my own energy reserves to get me where I wanted to be.  It was going to take a second wind and maybe a third and so that’s what I planned to give.

There is nothing quite like an IRONMAN marathon.  You reach deep into that reserve and test yourself. You suck energy from the crowd and push yourself. You go back into your reserve, dig deeper, push yourself further and harder. And then it happens, you get to the place where you’re faced with the decision to keep going or to quit. Many people pass that point without knowledge or acknowledgement, they simply slow down. Some, myself included, realize that they’ve passed that point but are unable to do anything about it.  You just get slower. You know it, you think about it, own it, try to change it even, but the seconds tick by faster than the miles.

I’ve run all the way in my previous IRONMAN marathons but both times I’ve fallen victim to the slowdown. This time the goal was to be different. This time I planned to find something else, anything else that I could draw from to be able to maintain pace. Of course part of this comes from careful planning and dedicated execution. But the other part has to come from within. Don’t slow down. Different. Good.

My first six miles are at LRP plus 30 seconds. The idea is that those six miles and the extra three minutes give your body time to regroup. Time to get past the pure joy of NOT BEING ON THE BIKE! Time to settle out and find the right pace. Those first six miles felt like I was crawling. It took everything I had not to sprint off out of transition and bang-out a couple of 8 minute miles. Fortunately I forced myself to stick to the planning and execution goals that I spelled out leading up to the race.

After mile six, the 30 second cushion goes away and I have to push the pace to LRP. This actually felt pretty good and my splits dropped exactly like I wanted. Miles seven – thirteen passed without incident, at LRP, and the suck stayed at bay. Miles 14 – 18 got progressively harder as I finished off my first wind and started into the second, but I was holding pace. Miles 19 and 20 are on the far side of the lake and are slightly downhill. The downhill helped, but these miles were hard.

I held pace. Miles 21 and 22 are out and back, slightly up hill and then slightly downhill. Again, I held pace.

Mile 23 has the only significant uphill on the entire course. Holding pace here would be a major victory and just might provide the emotional lift, the third wind that I would need to finish like I wanted.  Dig deep, hold pace. Mile 24, downhill and then back up, fast and then slow, but faster than the mile before – holding pace. Mile 25, downhill across the bridge, towards the finish. The reality starting to settle in, as fast as the mile before, holding pace. Mile 26, around the corner towards the finish chute. Energy left. Faster than the mile before. The picture becoming more and more clear by the stride.  Finally, the finish line in sight, the emotion breaking through, the dream realized. I didn’t slow down. I DIDN’T SLOW DOWN!

From the course splits:

Lap1 Lap 2
0:17:55 0:17:41
0:17:57 0:17:12
0:13:44 0:13:24
0:24:25 0:24:13
0:19:21 0:19:31
0:11:05 0:10:53
0:16:26 0:15:17
2:00:53 1:58:11
Run: 3:59:04

I've never run a standalone marathon, so this is the first time that I've run a negative split and it's the first time I've ever run under four hours.

Overall - 11:32:xx, which is 29 minutes faster than my previous best.

So, I've been sitting on this race report for so long I've almost given up blogging all together. I'm not really sure what happened or why but it just never quite seemed finished.  Or maybe I just didn't know how to finish it.  This is supposed to be the part of the story where I talk about how this race changed me, about how everything will be "happily ever after" because I had a great day during IRONMAN.  Of course I don't believe that, but I'm happy that I got to spend the day with friends, family and the memory of my dad.

And I'm happy that I doubled down and decided to go again...

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