Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Ironman Canada Experience

I've finally found time to write an Ironman Canada race report. It was a trip I'll never forget. The past 3 weeks since the race have been some of the busiest weeks of my life; 60+ hour work weeks in addition to coaching, but all is good and life is full of blessings.  I am still looking for a bit more balance in my life, but am learning a lot about myself, as well as (trying to, at least) learn to force myself to take a break at times, which is difficult for me.  In my last post, which was more like a full book in length (found HERE), I explained the struggles I've gone through this year - mentally, physically, and emotionally, and my search for a balanced life involving triathlon. I also shared how I contemplated leaving the sport altogether.  I was amazed and encouraged by what came from that blog post- various emails, messages, and calls from runners and triathletes who shared similar experiences and struggles.  I'm glad the blog post sparked beneficial discussions and enabled me to relate to others and talk through our experiences.
 In that post, I also explained how I felt the need to go and race Ironman Canada; it was something I felt I needed to do.  I've come back from Ironman Canada refreshed (as odd as that may sound) and am excited to get back at it with a new perspective.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been injured most of the summer. I entered Ironman Canada with about 8 runs under my belt in the past 2 1/2 months leading up to the race due to a lingering heel spur that I couldn't get to calm down, a calf tear in my right leg, and tendonitis in my left knee which flared up again due to changing running shoes around in efforts to rid the pain of the heel spur.  I ran a 12.5 mile run 6 days prior to the race, in which I made it 7 miles until having to walk off and on the remaining miles due to my knee. I didn't run after that until race day, as I knew I needed to stay off the running legs to get all the inflammation down before the race. After that run, I looked into getting a cortisone shot, and was convinced out of it by a doctor who explained that he has seen the injection actually flare up the pain in the part of the knee in consideration in other runners who have had the injection, rather than help it.  I opted for a prescription anti-inflammatory /pain killer (after making sure it was not on the banned substances list, of course), which I took every 12 hours for 5 days leading up to the race...and thankfully it worked... very, very well. 
Other than the 12.5 mile run, I had run a few 8 mile runs and a few 5 miles runs. Unfortunately, that was all I was able to do in the months leading up to the race. Obviously, I knew 100% that the run leg would be rough, and at some time I would blow up, it was just a matter of when. I had never run over 18.5 miles before, and that run was three years ago, and only a couple of runs longer than 13 miles earlier in the winter, and zero brick workouts since April. Obviously, prep was far from ideal, though I knew I could get through it as long as my heel or knee didn't flare up too badly. After all, Ironman is a battle of keeping nutrition right, and of the mind anyways...who needs training ;).

We had a big crew up in Penticton, BC which included my wife Amy, my sister Kristyn and her two kids, my parents, as well as my mother-in-law and father-in-law, Tom. Tom also raced, which was really the big reason I was there, since I committed to racing it with him months ago. If Tom hadn't raced it, none of this would have happened.  I was less nervous for this race than any other race I'd done in the past few years, which was a nice change.  Most of this was because my goal was simply to finish the race.  I had no pressure, and just wanted to have a good time and enjoy the experience. I had to humble myself a bit, knowing I had to race in the pro division, and knowing I wouldn't be at the front of the race.

The age group swim start of 2500 athletes
 Before the swim start
There were about 18 pro men in the race. We started 15 minutes ahead of the 2500 other athletes, at 6:45am.  My plan for the swim was to simply stay calm, swim easy and steadily, which I did, and save as much in the tank as I could. I knew it was going to be a long day.  It was my longest consecutive swim to date, but it felt good and easy. I swam about 57 minutes, nothing to write home about at all, but came out of the water with the main large pro swim pack and feeling very fresh.  I think the swim leader swam a 53 or 54 minute split, and Matt Russell, the race winner, swam a 1:02.  It shows you that Ironman distance racing surely is a distance where weaker swimmers can still be successful in the sport. Matt is a prime example. Props to Matt as he learned to swim only about 2 years ago. The swim felt slow, very slow, and very easy, which was a bit of a surprise.  I knew it was going to be a long day, so was fine with taking the swim easy and relaxed.  My TYR Freak of Nature from the guys at Kompetitive Edge was amazing. Honestly, that wetsuit is like nothing I've ever worn, mostly because of the amazing shoulder flexibility it offers.
The swim course is outlined in the orange buoys. 2.4 miles.
The city of Penticton & the swim start with Skaha Lake in the background, where the majority of the marathon course was
I had never experienced the "change tent" in transition 1 before, which was kinda fun.  Athletes run out of the water to the wetsuit strippers, where they sit down on the ground while the strippers rip off the suit.  Athletes then grab their bike gear bags and run into the change tent where they can take a seat inside on folding chairs.  While putting on the bike gear, volunteers stuff the wetsuits back into the gear bag for the athletes. The volunteers at this race were amazing, so helpful! I've never experienced volunteers like this before, so thank you to all the volunteers!

The 112 mile bike was my 4th ever ride over 100 miles.  Due to my insufficient training due to my work schedule and injuries, I knew I needed to play it conservative the first 60-70 miles. There are two mountain passes on the challenging bike course, with the first starting at about mile 60.  Due to my new job, I was able to ride on average once (to up to twice) a week during July and August. I rode one 115 mile ride, two 80 mile rides, and a couple 60 milers.  Obviously, training was far from ideal and far from a true proper Ironman plan.  Due to this, my plan was to keep my average wattage below 235 the first half of the bike, and rely solely on my power meter, forgetting about what race position I was in or who was around me.  I had averaged about 270 watts in a half ironman last year (Rev3 South Carolina), when I was more fit, so I calculated that anything much over a 230-235 watt average simply wouldn't be doable without totally blowing up at the end of the bike or on the run. About 15 miles into the race I was caught by a pack of 4 pros riding together, including race champ Matt Russell, who is a stellar bike-runner.  I keyed off the group for about 10 minutes, trying to pace with them slightly ahead of me, though saw my average wattage raise to about 265-270 watts at that time, so knew I needed to be smart, back off, and let them go, which was difficult and humbling.  I rode nearly the entire first 80 miles of the bike course completely solo with not many other riders in site, other than the women's race leader whom I passed about half way through (until she took an accidental wrong turn and short-cutted about 10 minutes off the course and ended up well in front of me again...she never did complete the full 112 miles, but I won't rat her out ;).  I averaged 240 watts for the first half, with a max 5 min average at 306 watts, which was while climbing up the first mountain pass. That said, the last 20 miles of the bike were pretty rough. I was ready to be off the bike.
I nailed my nutrition perfectly on the bike according to my race plan (500-600 calories per hour), which consisted of Powerbar gels, Saltstick tablets, one Powerbar, 2 bottles of coke, 1 bottle of Generation UCAN, and a number of bottles of Powerbar Perform drink and water.

I started the run forcing myself to run slower than I felt like I wanted to. My big fear on the run, as always is muscle cramping. My salt tablet plan on the bike had worked perfectly, and I knew I needed to keep taking in salt on the run.   I know the Ironman is all about patience and pacing.  My GPS was reading 7:08 pace the first few miles, though it felt much slower. My plan was to run about 7:20 pace for the first 1/2 marathon, and hang on for dear life the 2nd half.  I've never really run anything slower than 7:15 pace in training, ever, even on my easiest recovery days, but knew it was necessary. I ran about 7:15 per mile pace for the first 9 miles or slow, and slowly saw the pace creep a bit slower into the 8 minute range around mile 11 or 12.  As I new it would be, it was simply a matter of when , not if, the giant gorilla would jump on my back, also known as hitting the wall. At about mile 7, my knee pain flared up a bit, though it went away less than half a mile later. I was shocked, and so thankful. I kept getting in the nutrition all throughout the run, taking advantage of most aid stations. Again, like the bike, I nailed my nutrition almost perfectly on the run. 
Right at the 13 mile mark of the run. Proof that the gorilla jumping on my back wasn't just in my imagination.
Around mile 13, the sufferfest really began. My quads were completely shot at that point, and my achilles tendons were both very flared up. I've never pushed through such shredded legs before as I did that last half marathon. Those were the two things that slowed me down - the quads and the achilles tendons.  It was inevitable due to my lack of run training volume, that the body couldn't handle the stress any better.  I simply kept one foot in front of the other, kept taking in my nutrition, pouring water on my head, and trudged to the line.  I was running 10 minute miles the last 8 miles or so, at least, though it felt like I was running about 6:45 pace. Funny how that is ;)
At the run turnaround after the special needs stop. Luckily I didn't need my pain killers I had stashed in my special needs bag.
The last 4 miles, unfortunately I had to make 4 or 5 stops at the restrooms along the course, as I was dealing with some digestive issues, which cost me about 5 minutes. I was able to run the last mile in 8:05, probably due to small boost of adrenaline. I finished the race in 10 hours and 1 minute, which really was right around what I suspected I would do.  Many people who had finished Ironmans before explained to me what the finish line feeling would be like. They explained the hype that comes with it, the sense of accomplishment, and the flood of emotion. To be honest, I didn't really experience any of that.  I felt somewhat emotionless at that moment. I think I was just trying to process everything.  I think at that point, I still didn't even realize I was actually there or really know how I ended up there.  Perhaps it was because I didn't train right, and really didn't experience the true Ironman journey to get there like most.  The emotions came later on in the evening, after it was dark, when I went back to watch my father in law and watch the other finishers come cross the line.  I'll never forget it; people raising their hands to the sky, crying, screaming for joy. That, was cool! Those were the times where I felt most emotional, watching those finishers.
Ouch. That was fun. Let's do it again!
I crossed the line in a mad search for drinks, and for restrooms!  Once I stopped jogging, my legs completely seized up.  I was eventually helped to the massage tables, though had to make an urgent rush to the restrooms, which was the unfortunate trend for the next 2 hours - not fun when you literally can't walk, nor sit down. Again, thanks to the amazing volunteers and my wife for shuttling me around.  I did end up on a massage table for about 20 minutes next to my good friend Matt Smith, who had an amazing race.  It was nice to talk to Matt and see him excited about his race. Earlier this summer, I had shared a bit of my journey this year with Matt and his wife Molly, who always had great words of wisdom for me throughout the summer.
In deep thought at the finish...

My father in law Tom finished in 13:22, an hour ahead of his goal, and was able to run nearly the entire marathon other than walking some aid stations. He is an incredible man in so many ways.  Tom did Ironman Coeur D'Alene about 5 or 6 years ago, but had several knee surgeries since then, so we didn't really know how his knees would hold up. He said this Ironman likely would be his last run ever.  He had an incredible race and miraculously, like myself, had almost no pain on the run from injuries.
Tom and Laura after Tom's stellar finish.
I'd be lying if I didn't say the race makes me want to do another one.  After the race came the as expected thoughts of, "I wonder how I could do if I actually was fit and able to train right."  Hopefully I will find out next year and race another.

Thank you all for the support! Here are a few more photos as well as a short video which Canada's Shaw TV aired of Tom & I two days prior to the race.

My father in law Tom & I after his finish.

Explaining to my wife Amy at the finish how I felt like I could do another one, right then! jk

Tom and I at the pre-race dinner

The finish line. The most important part of this picture is my Kompetitive Edge teammate Kendra Lee getting interviewed. Yes, she posted the fastest female time of the day! And she whooped me. Congrats to Kendra on a spectacular race!!

Canada's Shaw TV feature. Click HERE for full Video.

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