MICHAEL LOVATO | Professional Triathlete




Ironman Hawaii Race Report

Monday, October 20, 2008

Post-Underpants Run, I was feeling relaxed and ready to rumble. I had confidence in my build-up, and I knew I was ready to improve upon my 2007 Ironman. I had decided to implement a few new nutritional tricks to my routine, based on my, um, evacuation problems in the last three Ironmans I have done. This time around, my goal was to minimize time lost to porto-stops and poopy pants.

My nerves woke me up at 10:30PM, 1:30AM, 2:30AM, and finally at 3:30AM. Other than those brief and expected interruptions, my sleep was sound and restful. There are certainly some advantages to being part bear.

The best way for me to start my Ironman day is by doing a light jog in the pre-dawn dark and calm of Ali’i Drive. I don’t go far, and I don’t go fast, but I love to get out there and soak up the final calm energy before a very energized day. I felt particularly spunky on this year’s pre-race trot.

After the run, I positioned myself for a nice breakie: coffee, Justin’s Almond Butter, some Monkey Brains, toast, and a banana. For those who are interested, I do not refrain from drinking coffee in the weeks leading up to the race. I don’t believe the drastic shock of reintroducing caffeine to the system is a sound practice. Why shock the body on race day?

Amanda and I arrived at body marking at about 5:00AM. There really is not a lot to do race morning, but I like to have everything done by about 5:25 or 5:30. This gives me time to hang out in Kris’ room (my massage therapist) for the hour or so before I jump in the water. It’s a good way for me to save up all my energy, and to apply my Vaseline, Body Glide, and sunscreen.

During the swim warm up, I found Paula, who was to be leading the swimmers on her paddle board. She gave me a quick embrace or sorts, and told me to have my day. She refrains from the typical “good luck” or “have fun” well-wishing, as she feels that it’s not really that fun out there.

My race began better than it has in each of my nine times racing Hawaii. I found open water immediately, and I swam very aggressively. In past years I have made the mistake of picking one guy to swim with; this has left me dropped from the main group each time. This time around I was taking control of my own destiny. I put myself in position to have a great swim.

200 or 300 meters into the race, I found myself in perfect spot: I was behind two swimmers who were side-by-side. The draft was huge, and I felt very comfortable with the pace. I knew (not sure how) I was in the front group this time.

All the way out to the boat, and making the turn back to the pier, I felt that the pace was very moderate. I was focused on not losing the feet in front of me, and I knew there was a swimmer or two behind me, which is a comforting feeling. Near the Coast Guard buoy (about a mile to go) the group made a surge. It was a noticeable change in pace, but I felt prepared to handle it; however, about 250 to 300 meters later, I lost contact with my group. The fellow behind me had already come through and displaced me to the position of caboose. I feel that every train needs a caboose, but I was gradually coming detached from my train. Damn. Double damn.

Getting dropped was not fun, but for the first time that I can remember, I managed to keep swimming strong on my own. I did not ever blow up, I just lost contact. I gradually lost a bit of time over the final kilometer or so. Fortunately for me, I was not swallowed up by the chase pack, and I exited the water in my best ever position or time for Kona.

Onto the bike I was about a minute back of the group, and in around twenty-fifth place. I made a gradual push to catch the leaders, not knowing they were out of my reach. Seeing them on the first out-and-back gave me good feedback: many of the main players were in the group, but I was close.

Behind me I saw stormin’ Normann coming on strong. I figured I would use him to tow me up a bit further. I gave him about twenty meters, as I was not about to risk a drafting penalty. He pulled away, and I fell back… no, I did not “let him go.” He went.

Looking behind me, I saw a small group of four coming up on me. Within the group were my back-up plan riders, Rutger Beke and Marino Van Hoenacker, as well as Maik Tweselik (the young German who won IM Wisconsin last year). I integrated myself into the group, and proceeded to watch the dynamics of a group of strong cyclists.

I should note that my cycling has come up a notch this year (over the past three months), and I was confident that my ride would put me in position to use my run weapon, as I have grown accustomed to doing in past races. I was riding strong, and I was prepared to notch my best ride to date. And I truly believed I was capable of coming off the bike within striking distance of the top five.

I rode along as the middle part of a Belgian Waffle (with Rutger and Marino). The German was hanging on the back, and we picked up the Swiss athlete who finished fourth. Nearing the forty-mile marker, Rutger stopped for a penalty, and we picked up Andy Potts and Luke McKenzie, both of whom had just finished serving their penalties. This meant we were four minutes back to the lead group, and it meant our group was picking up its casualties. We were growing in size, so I made a move for the front. I figured it was time for me to lead the charge for a spell, and I did not want to risk being in the middle of a larger group.

From mile 37 to 42, we had some tough headwinds, a welcome blast-from-the-past, in my mind. My speed dropped from 26-28mph to 19mph in a matter of seconds. My normal tendencies are to thrive in headwinds, as others suffer more than I on the mental side. I enjoyed this section of feeling controlled and in control. However, feeling strong for these first two hours somehow caused me to lose track of my nutritional plans.

Climbing up to Hawi was when I first started to notice something was not right. I got passed by one guy in the group… then another… then another. I was steadily moving backwards, but I attributed it to the fact that I typically allow more room between myself and the rider in front of me, while many others like to keep it a bit tighter. I figured it just meant that the others were not comfortable giving that much space; that they wanted closer contact.

The 17 miles of climbing from Kawaihae to Hawi are normally one of my best stretches. I tend to pass those around me, and drop those behind me. It’s early in the ride (mile 43 to mile 60), and it’s when I make a bit of a move. This year was completely different. I was getting dropped, and my legs would not respond. They felt weak and powerless. I pushed and pushed, but did not gain ground.

Facing the final 7-mile stretch of up hill headwind is normally a highlight of the race for me. This year I found myself down shifting and slowing down: not good!

I took inventory of my situation: I calculated what I had consumed; I looked at my pace; and I assessed how to get myself back on track. But I came up with no clear answers.

Making the turn and beginning my decent, I got one final slap-in-the-face reminder that I was off my game: Rutger and Ain-Alar Johannsen went screaming by me, and I had ZERO ability to latch on to their momentum. I was dropped faster than they had caught me.

During the descent, I finally determined what I was lacking. I had shoveled in a bit more food on the climb, and it did not seem to kick in. Like a light bulb clicking on, I realized I was getting dehydrated. More appropriately: I was dehydrated! I looked like a margarita; I was hot; and I was, very prematurely, out of steam.

As my emotional side began to wonder how long it would take me to walk the marathon, I formed a bail-out plan. I would cut back on calories (knowing gastric emptying slows with dehydration, and not wanting a bloated belly to boot); I would suck down as much water as I could; and I would dig myself out the best I could.

My lull lasted from mile 51 until mile 88 or 89. During that time I was slow (for me), I was weak, and I could not stay with anyone who passed me…. and believe me, I tried!

Somehow I managed to get enough fluids in me, and I began to regain my power. I picked up a few athletes who were spit out of the group. And I began to think I might be able to run the marathon after all. The six-hour walk was not appealing to me one bit.

I entered T2 feeling rough, but by the time I got up from the change tent, my legs were there. I climbed the mini hill on Palani 10:30 down from tenth place. I have faced worse deficits, but this ranks right up there with the worst of them!

My first mile felt smooth, but my goal was to shorten the stride, to minimize energy output, and to save up for the Queen K. The temptation was there to blow through the first ten miles in an hour, eating up the time immediately, and placing myself closer to the contenders. However, I have seen the carnage that results from giving too much too soon, and I stuck to my conservative run plan. I wanted to run a strong marathon, and I could not afford to blow up.

By mile six I was still well back of tenth. I felt a bit of pressure building, but was able to immediately duck into a porto-potty. The mile split was 6:50 with the stop–a bit off pace–but I was feeling clean and empty and ready to roll. Marino Vanhoenacker passed me while delivering the quote of the day: “Michael, did you have a nice poop?” (Read with a strong Belgian accent.) Hilarious. Naturally, I let him know that I did, and that I felt much better.

My gradual pace continued along Ali’i and up Palani. They call it Pay and Save hill, as there used to be a store there with that name. Pay now or Save for later is the current meaning of the name.

I chose to save, and I followed my pre-race plan to open it up at mile 11. Mile 11 comes just at the base of the Dave and Mark hill (later on that is mile 24). It signifies to me that it’s time to race. With a conservative opening stretch, I allowed my stride to open up and go. I went for it, and I went hard. The splits were changing in my favor, as I was catching tenth.

Into the Energy Lab I really began to open it up. I could now see the leaders, and I could now begin to see the ones I had in my reach: Marino, Normann, Faris, Andy, and Matias. They were the ones I could see fading before my eyes. I pushed hard.

Back on the highway with seven miles to go, I really began to dig. I was gaining on the temporary duo of Faris and Normann. Passing them would give me tenth. At some point, Faris dropped Normann, and I was left to pass them both individually, which was actually quite satisfying. I knew they had both really gone for it on the bike, and early in the run. They were in damage control mode, a place I had been for quite some time during my ride. Hawaii was doing its thing.

Once in tenth, I took a deep breath, and sighed with relief. I had overcome a large deficit, and was in the safe zone. But I wanted more.

Up ahead was the duo of Potts and Switzerland’s Hecht. I wanted badly to catch them both, and the encouragement I was receiving from Amanda, Stephanie, Cassie, and Robin Ficker (aka Mr Fuzzy Duds) was amazing. I was going to catch them.

Taking the turn at the top of Palani, I made my push for the catch. I bombed the down hill like I have never done, and I was grimacing in pain. Breathing hard and grunting, I passed the throngs of screaming spectators, and only one face did I recognize: that of Simon Lessing. He yelled for me to go for it, and so I added to my list of motivating reasons the idea of gaining redemption for the whipping that Potts had given me and Simon at Timberman in August. I would catch them.

Rounding the turn onto Kuakini, I could see that Potts had dropped Hecht. They were only about twenty and twenty two seconds ahead of me. I was gaining, and I was the stronger athlete (I told myself this over and over).

With barely a mile to go, I had the stride opened up to rival that of Carl Lewis. I was in a big-time sprint for the finish. And then my left hamstring cramped up so bad I had to limp to a quick stop.

Not now! Not now!

I chuckled to the crowd my rhetorical question: “how can I cramp now, after all these miles? Why now?!” Touching the toes once seemed to work… briefly, and I cramped again. I touched them again, stretched those hamstrings out, and began my jog to the finish.

I could not switch off my competitive drive, and my desire to be top American made me sprint again. This time I was rewarded with a calf cramp on my right leg. OK, I got it. I chose to hold my tenth spot, and to stop risking the kind of continued cramps that would leave me walking (and getting caught by my pursuers!).

I soaked up my finish, waved my American flag, and cramped one final time as I walked across the line. I was ecstatic.

What a day I had, and what a battle I fought! I was very proud of my efforts; I was happy to notch another top-ten finish; and was pleased to learn, once again, a new lesson in racing Ironman Hawaii.

Not long after the race, the fifth-place finisher was disqualified for not serving a penalty, and I was moved to ninth place. I have now notched three ninth places in Hawaii…. and I’m ready to cut that number in half next year… or maybe even in thirds!

**Photo courtesy of Dirk Friel

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