PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Sunday, June 27, 2010
On Sunday June 27, I raced my fifth Ironman Coeur d’Alene up in beautiful North Idaho. After winning the inaugural race in 2003, I had finished in third place three times (’05, ’07, ’08). After Sunday’s race, I managed to punch a trade-marked stamp of authority on the number THREE up there. Yes, I now have four third-place finishes in CdA. How’s that for consistency?
Showing up in Coeur d’Alene for an Ironman at the end of June has become very familiar territory for me. I know when to travel, where to stay, how to spend my final days of preparation: everything. It’s as much of a home course race for me as any Ironman could be, and for that – and many other reasons – CdA is my favorite Ironman outside of Kona.
I’ve learned the course inside and out, and I’ve tackled the race with just about every strategic swim-bike-run combination. I’ve swum fast; I’ve swum terribly slow; I’ve set bike course records; I’ve blown sky high at mile 50; I’ve run my marathon PR; and I’ve been forced to a staggering walk, only to rebound to a strong finish. I’ve seen a few highs and a few lows, and they periodically come within the same race.
This year, however, was a unique race for me. I planned my 2010 season around an early Ironman in St. George. My training was spot-on from February 1 to April 1. My strength was building day-to-day, and my confidence was rising equally well. I was on the path to confidently crush the inaugural Utah course. And then I got injured.
Every dark cloud has a sliver lining, and in the case of this setback, my bright side was the addition of CdA to the schedule. And the change in schedules gave me loads of comfort. However, the down side – as is always the case with injuries – was time off in a key training block.
My rationale for mentioning this rocky start to my race season is that I hope to express how very pleased I am – more than I normally would be, even – to be back in the mix at such a competitive Ironman. I truly feel that finishing third on Sunday was every bit a victory for me, and one that I am very proud to have notched.
Facing Lake Coeur d’Alene at 6:10AM, swinging the arms, watching the sun come up, I had a sense of excited calm come over me. I knew that I was ready to race, and I was fired up to do so, yet I knew I needed to keep control over my emotions for the next several hours. I tried not to get too amped up, and I dove in for a warm-up swim. I made my way back to the beach to join my fellow competitors at 6:22. We gathered at the water’s edge, and I found myself sandwiched between Luke Bell and Tom Evans: two guys who normally put two to four minutes on me in a 2.4-mile swim. Heck, Evans has gapped me by over six minutes before. Tom joked about sitting on my feet, and I joked about sitting on his. Neither seemed a likely outcome.
52 minutes later, I exited the water feeling fresh and comfortable. I had managed to take control of what seemed to be a low-effort swim, yet somehow I touched ground in front of Evans and Bell. Either my swimming has found its way back to a high level, or Tom and Luke felt sorry for me and gave me the gift of an early confidence boost.
Luke and I got onto the bikes first, with a staggering six-minute deficit to Andy Potts. How on Earth did he get that much time on us?! We lead the chase out to the first turnaround, but did so cautiously, hoping that Potts’ inexperience at the Ironman distance would force him to ride way too hard. We were the veterans, and we were intent to pace this challenging bike course appropriately. The gamble was on: who knew the best way to get to T2?
At about mile 8, I took position at the front of the pack. Realizing that Luke was not going to launch an early attack on the lead, I settled into the train-conductor’s position of our little pack of six. Not too much later, Courtney Ogden and Matty White of Australia both came barreling past our group. Grabbing firmly a hold of my emotions and competitive drive, I did what came quite unnaturally to me: I watched them ride away. My plan was to evenly pace this ride, and it became clear that Bell, Evans, and the others had the same plan.
By mile 25, we were all caught up by a hard charging Chris “Big Sexy” McDonald and Matt Lieto. Seeing their gaps at the early turnaround, I knew they had put forth a good effort to catch us by that point. It was nice to have their company, as each of them took willing turns at the front of our chase pack. Later in the first lap, most everyone seemed content to leave me in the pacesetter’s role. I admit that I was more comfortable in front as well, knowing that control over my effort was more firmly in my own hands.
Finishing loop one, and heading out to tackle the hills again, I felt that my race was going exactly according to plan. I did not feel that I had done any hard riding yet, and with the challenging back half of the bike ride ahead of me, I was very eager to drop the hammer. Nearing the 75-mile mark, a noticeable change in pace – and effort – struck me hard. I pushed the pedals, but they stopped wanting to move the bike forward. My speed dropped, my watts dropped, and my spirit followed suit. Lieto took charge at the front, and Bell followed suit. Additionally, Big Sexy and Evans seemed to sniff weakness, so they took off in pursuit of Matt and Luke. They happily left me for dead.
I came to terms with what was happening, and I dealt with the problem the best I could: calories, calories, calories. Covering the next eight or nine miles was a bit challenging: I briefly started to feel sorry for myself, but then the chocolate boost kicked in, followed closely by a steady dose of Pre Race and EFS. My mental game was back, and the legs were coming around as well.
Mile 85 came, and some anger arrived with it. I felt used and abused by the others, but the tables were turning. Heading into mile 90, I had a head full of steam, and I was determined to return to my pre-race plan of pushing hard to the finish. The headwinds helped me get going, and the sight of Evans, McDonald and Lieto fueled my charge. I tried to pass by them without so much as a glance or a how-do-you-do? I tried to break the elastic before it had a chance to take hold, but these guys were strong and they were every bit as determined as I was. Our train now included Courtney Ogden, who must have lost contact with his early riding buddies.
We came back to town, facing a six minute deficit to Luke Bell (who had absolutely crushed the final 35 miles!), and about ten to Andy (who was clearly executing a smart and strong race). Out onto the run, I felt incredible. My bike pacing plan had paid off, or so it seemed, and I was easily able to transition to my running legs.
Within the first mile, I found myself in a comfortable rhythm. I was in fourth place, and the day seemed to be going exactly according to plan. Looking back at my mile splits after the fact, I may have taken out that first half marathon a bit too hot. It felt comfortable, but I don’t believe I respected the toll it was taking on my legs.
I have always felt that one of my greatest assets in Ironman racing is my back-end marathon strength. I love the mental aspect of that portion of the race, and the physical part is normally pretty solid for me. However, this time around, I found myself in uncharted territory. I had not done nearly as much run training in the weeks leading into the race as I normally would do, and I felt that my legs might have been a bit soft and underprepared. Nonetheless, I knew my mental game would still be there to help me through.
At mile 14 I managed to take a firm grasp on second place. I was not making up too much time on Potts anymore, but I was holding steady in my position. I kept plugging away, knowing the meat of the marathon was still in front of me. Luke and Courtney were both running strong enough behind me that I had ample reason to keep an honest effort going.
By mile 18, things started to get a little shaky. My mind was prepared for the muscular pains that come deep into the game; however, I was not anticipating the total breakdown I was about to experience. Fairly abruptly, every part of my body from the belly button down began to ache: joints, muscles, tendons, bones, everything. I was hurting in a very new manner. And I was in trouble!
Within the ensuing two miles, I tried every mental and nutritional trick I could think of to push through the discomfort. I knew I could do it, but my knees had a different plan. My knees? Am I that guy who complains about his knees?! The line from a famous commencement speech rattled in my brain: “Be kind to you knees; you’ll miss them when they’re gone.” I missed them already. Get me to the finish, ASAP.
Mile 20 in CdA treats you to a nice, little up hill (not so bad), and the complementary down hill (very bad). Courtney rolled by me just as I hoisted the white flag. Darn it. Courtney was racing such a bloody consistent marathon, and he glided by with exactly the poise I hoped to have in my final 10k. Well done, my friend.
I wobbled down the hill, chugged through a couple more miles, then somehow found a new rhythm of running. My paces did not tick back down to where I wanted it, but I did manage to do what I no longer considered shuffling for the final 3 miles of the day. Running scared is never fun, but I did my best to enjoy myself, while periodically peeking over my shoulder for what I feared would be Luke’s return.
Cresting the final hill, and making the final turn, I made my way down Sherman Avenue, which is quickly becoming one of triathlon’s greatest finish straights. I grabbed an American flag from my kind home stay, Ann; and I galloped to the carpet, where – who wouldn’t? – I cut a quick rug.
Nearly duplicating my finish time from at least two of my past CdA races, I proved that I am nothing if not consistent. I soaked in some incredible crowd energy, and I congratulated the deserving champion on his well executed race. And I hobbled myself over to a chair.
Three days after the race, I’m finally able to move about in a normal fashion. The swelling is gone, or nearly gone, and the temporary tattoos and body markings are all but a tan-lined memory. I am reflecting on my finish, and more appropriately, the path I took to get there. I went to Coeur d’Alene to bring home another Ironman title and a Kona slot; however, I also went there to get myself back in the game, after a rocky start to the season. Obviously I did not accomplish all of the goals, but as far as far as I’m concerned, I realized the most important one: I’m back!