PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Thinking about this race report for a few days prior to writing it should have afforded me the opportunity to spill out all the details in smooth succession, with picture-perfect detail and eloquent wording. However, I am well aware that what should happen and what does happen do not always line up together. In this case, I am going to be happy if my thoughts and emotions and the description of my day come even remotely close to how I have been hashing them out in my head the past few days.
To look at my finish time from Saturday’s race, the natural assessment would be that something went disastrously wrong: that I belly-flopped on the Big Day; that I somehow managed to mess up my pacing, my strategy, or my nutrition; or that I executed a badly run race. The finish time was my slowest ever; the marathon was my longest yet; and the drop from 9th place in 2008 to 538th place this year was the farthest I’ve ever fallen. This was my worst Ironman ever; however, I executed an OK race. So what went wrong?
My season focus had been squarely set on this race. There was no doubt about it: throughout the year everything I aimed for was to help me prepare for my ascent up the ranks in Kona. My three ninth-place finishes proved to me that I know how to race in Hawaii; but this year was the year I upped the ante. I was going for the podium.
My race season was strong: I competed frequently, I trained hard, and I recovered well. I made my way to autumn with a hunger and a freshness I had not had in past years. My assault on the Hawaii Ironman seemed to go perfectly from February to August. I was on track and my confidence was sky high.
At the start of September my fitness was better than it had ever been when starting my IM training build. I was faster, fitter, and fresher than I had ever been. But then I got greedy. To look back now at the path I followed, and the choices I made, it seems obvious that I was going too far. However, my plan was to try something new to achieve a new result, so I kept on pushing. I was on fire in training, and I was getting hotter by the day. And then I got a bit greedier still. I wanted more. Logically, if I could take an even better swim, bike, and run into the biggest race of the year, I would swim, bike and run faster than I ever had.
Midway through September, I hit my first speed bump of the entire 2009 season. I hit the wall. I got angry. I got tired. I lost my momentum. So I took a short break to try and rebound. After the rest, I got back on track and proceeded to follow the track laid out before me. Mentally, I was right back where I needed to be.
In the days leading into the race, I truly believed I had dodged the bullet. The concerns and worries I had midway through September (that I had cooked myself too much) were gone from my mind. My taper sessions were spot-on, and I was attending to every detail. The support I got from Amanda while in Kona was incredible: she did everything possible to ensure that I was ready on race day. I felt great and I was ready to race.
My track record in the Kona swim is not too good. As has happened in the past, I was dropped from the group and I exited the water over two minutes down from the main contenders. But many other top athletes were still close, so I set out to join a good group for the bike ride. My training this year has allowed me to handle a very hard first hour of riding, with the ability to settle in and recover once I have bridged up. I have done this multiple times in my 70.3 racing this season, and I was very comfortable with the method. Within the first eight miles, I did everything I could to ride my way up to a competitive bunch up the road. With company on the Queen K, the miles go by much more smoothly. Sadly, my legs did not respond to my efforts. I pushed the pedals, but they felt squishy and unresponsive. My initial assessment was that I would come around later in the ride. I kept after the pace, and I pushed and pushed, disregarding the fact that my effort was not lining up at all with my speed.
At one point–approximately fifteen miles into the ride–I found myself around last year’s 4th, 5th, and 6th place finishers. Two of us took control at the front of our mini-group, and we encouraged one another to ride hard enough to bridge the gap. But I could not shake the feeling that my effort was not at all in line with my pace; I was working way harder than I should have been to see those numbers. But I put this out of my mind, and I rode as well as I could. And all along the way, I was tending to an absolutely perfect hydration and nutritional plan. My consumption was right on; but it did not make my legs feel any better. Execution has let me down in the past, and I was intent not to let that happen this time around.
Somewhere between Kawaihae and Hawi, I realized I was dragging a long line of guys up the hill. I figured that was a good sign, even if I was losing ground to the others up the road. I kept pushing, and I hoped that I’d be strong enough to handle the infamous Hawi winds. Finally, I did have a brief glimpse of strength as I closed in on the turnaround in Hawi. As I pedaled toward the turn, the seemingly ever-present headwinds in that segment were mild or nonexistent.
Approaching the turn in Hawi, I saw that I was way behind the leaders. There were also a lot more guys ahead of me than there typically are, which was a testament to the great field we had assembled. I did what came naturally, which was to shake it off. I knew I could ride that last 50 miles pretty hard, and I’d do my best to keep myself in the game.
On my way back home I started to feel worse and worse about the effort I was having to put into the ride. I had felt that way once before, in 2004, when I was giving everything I had to ride fast, but nothing was working. My hydration and nutritional plans seemed to be working, as I was alert, present and peeing. However, the mental toll the subpar ride was taking on my spirits was hard to ignore.
I managed to suffer through all the sections of the race I normally find extra challenging; however, I was finding it hard to tackle the sections I normally crush. Right now it is difficult to describe how frustrating this was, but I am well aware that many of you reading have experienced this sensation before. Some days you have it, and some days you do not. By my nature, I do not give up, and I continued expecting things would come around.
Finishing the bike ride, I was faced with a larger deficit than normal, but I am fairly comfortable with facing long odds in T2. I know this race very well, and I know my competitors equally well. The top step of the podium is won by the athlete who is strongest, smartest, and toughest; whereas many of the other top spots are won by those who win the war of attrition. I normally hold up pretty well in that regard. So I started the run with every intention of running my way to the top twenty or beyond.
Early in the run, all signs pointed to another strong marathon. I was hydrated, I was coherent, and I was freshly motivated. The splits I received were bad, but undeterred, I was ready to turn things around. Miles one and two were quick and comfortable. Mile three was moderate. But by mile four I found myself facing a challenge I had never had before: mentally I was drained. Looking back I can now see that I had used nearly every ounce of motivation in me, nearly every mental trick I had, and nearly every race tactic to merely survive the bike ride. I had drained the pot, and I still had over two hours of running ahead of me. I looked to my deepest reserves to see if I could race this race with a depleted supply of physical and mental energy. My initial answer was that yes, I could.
By mile six I realized that I was wrong. I was running down Ali’i; I was getting incredible support from my friends, my family, and other spectators along the road; but I was dreading the task at hand. I was empty.
I used the cheers and screams and shouts for another four miles. I knew they would carry me to the top of Palani. Crowd support in Kona is unreal. However, I realized that I could not finish a race on external motivation alone. And my internal drive was gone.
I crested the hill and turned onto the Queen K. Ironically, just at the point where I normally begin to reel in the competition and unload a full-fledged attack, I opted to walk and jog my way to the finish. I was not prepared to give up, but I was finally giving in to the fact that my body and mind did not have what I needed to keep racing, and I would need to cruise my way to the finish.
Shortly thereafter, from the side of the road, Amanda reminded me how much I love this race, and she told me to find the joy and fun in being out there. It was a great thing to hear, as I suddenly realized that throughout the draining and powerless bike ride, I had not only sapped my mojo, but I had not enjoyed any part of the race (something that is very uncharacteristic of me). I started the next fifteen miles with the goal of figuring out a way to enjoy my 10th finish in Kona, and finally, after a few miles, I managed to realize that goal.
Looking back at the whole 2009 Kona experience, I can see many errors in my ways. I can see that I did not really need to change everything to achieve goal to finish top-three. I can see clearly that I already knew how to prepare for this event, and that rewriting the book was unnecessary. However, I can also say that I have no regrets about how I approached the year. I changed things up, I raced hard, and I went for it. Along the way, I had a great season of racing, and I gave it an honest go in Hawaii. It just so happened that my body needed to race this event on a different day.
And it is safe to say that I will be back next year with sound preparation and a fresh pot of mental energy, and I will have another honest go at the podium. Without question or doubt, I will be back.