PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Coeur d'Alene, ID
The media and the experts were sure of two things prior to the 2005 Ironman USA-Coeur d’Alene: that the winner would be from Boulder and his last name would begin with “L”. Their arguments were very convincing: Chris Legh was the defending champ, and he had done twenty Ironmans in his career; Simon Lessing was an Ironrookie, but he was Lessing, so he would be in the mix; and Michael Lovato had won the race in 2003. Their forgone conclusions brought a smile to my face and a question to my mind: do these people forget that this is Ironman and anything can happen?
Having become quite familiar with at least one contender who seemed to be getting the pre-race shaft, Viktor Zyemtsev, I knew our Legh-Lessing-Lovato trio would be challenged from an outside contention. In addition to the fleet-footed Ukrainian (Viktor had run away from me five weeks ago at the Disney Half), I noticed several strong competitors in our field who could potentially make an impact on the pre-race predictions.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the hype, and I entered the race with a great deal of confidence that I could make an honest go at a top finish.
Having already snagged my Hawaii slot back in April, I chose to take this race with a very different mentality. Whereas my early-season IM had one primary goal set before me: to qualify; this race’s objective was different: to challenge myself and my competitors. There would be no negative repercussions, so I would take the opportunity to learn as much as I could, to have a dry-run for Hawaii, and to have some fun. On all accounts, I met my objectives.
After an enjoyable race-week build-up that included quite a bit of reminiscing about my showing at the inaugural IM CDA, race day finally arrived.
After much internal debate, I decided to start the swim aggressively to see what I was made of. I had been swimming very well in the pool, so it seemed time to test my mettle. The starter’s gun prompted me to swim on the feet of Brent Foster and Simon Lessing. A third member of our lead group was James Bonney, and we were off and running. Soon my too-hard effort caught me (in form of some nasty lactic acid), and later the chase swimmers caught me, too. I was in trouble and it was quite early in the race. The remainder of the swim went like this: swim, get dropped, find a new pack, swim, get dropped, swim backstroke, find a new group, get dropped, and repeat. My first painful lesson was learned: I can’t swim with Simon in the pool; I can’t swim with Simon in the lake. But at least I tried.
Transition in an Ironman is unique, and a big part of why is the wetsuit stripper. For those of you with no familiarity with a wetsuit stripper: they strip me, not themselves. I was soon free of my neoprene enclosure, and the change tent lay before me. I scurried through it, donned the helmet and glasses, and was off.
I arrived at my bike rack, eager to test my new steed for the first time in a race situation. Three weeks prior to the race, I upgraded my Javelin Arcole to the flagship Barolo. The differences between the two bikes were subtle, but they were there nonetheless. The carbon rear end was the perhaps the most important modification, but the Veryfast Red paint job, was perhaps the most noticeable. This bike looked fast, and I was about to find out just how fast it was.
I felt a great deal of relief at the start of the ride, when I discovered that my legs felt fresh and powerful from the get-go. There seemed to be no struggle to find my rhythm, as I have dishearteningly experienced in the past. I was strong, and I was ready to ride.
After advancing a few spots early on, I settled into sixth place, a position I held for most of the first loop of the bike. Occasional updates from a roving leader board told me that I was taking time out of those who led me. Midway through loop one, I caught and passed Tom Soderdahl, and focused down the road to fifth. As I entered town at the close of the first loop, I quickly gained on, and passed Chris Legh and Zyemtsev. Taking third place gave me a nice boost, and I applied some pressure through the following ten miles. My surge inspired Chris to follow, but Viktor lost a bit of ground.
As I passed through the special needs area, with Chris close behind, I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to refuel. I had already jettisoned my empty bottles, and I needed fresh supplies. However, instead of my much-needed dose of E3, the volunteer mistakenly tried to hand me Chris’ bag. I declined with a moan, and kept riding. In retrospect a brief stop would have been a smart move, but it’s never easy to handle a stop in forward progress, so I carried on.
With only Simon and Foster up ahead, I set out to ride a strong final fifty miles. I had a solid three week build after Disney Half, and I knew my second-half bike strength had improved… if I could just be rid of my hanger-on, Legh.
By mile 90, after nearly thirty miles being shadowed by Legh, I found the strength to make my move. I knew that if I rode the final twenty-two miles faster than everyone else, I had a chance at entering T2 very near the lead. As I felt quite strong, I also hoped to ride the running legs off of as many of my competitors as I could.
There are times when the end of a bike ride can’t come quickly enough; this was not one of those times. I was so comfortable on my new rig that I truly felt sad to hand it off at T2. Regardless, I did so, and I set out to change my gears.
I must admit that I relished the similarities I saw to my 2003 race: I trailed a talented Brit by just over a minute; I led a formidable Aussie by a few more, and I had just notched the top bike split of the day. The only similarity left unknown was the outcome.
Early in the run, I had the chance to size up my competition. Simon showed only his poker face, if he felt bad he didn’t reveal it; Viktor looked strong and aggressive; and Chris appeared to be a bit off his stride.
By mile two I had lost nearly thirty seconds to Simon, and all of forty-five seconds to Viktor. Since those two miles ticked by in a few seconds over twelve minutes for me, I didn’t panic. I felt great, and was content to wait out a long run.
When Viktor made his pass, I briefly decided to let him go. I have reeled him in on past marathons later in the game; this could be the same. But should I chance it? I opted not to wait, and I drew up to his left side: a spot I held for the subsequent eight miles.
Each time we entered an aid station, one of us would move ahead, knowing a single-file progression would enable us to make the most of the available aid. Our goal for the next seven miles was a common one: to catch Mr. Lessing, and catch him we did.
Near the mile nine mark, together we took the lead. Assuming Simon would join our battle, I urged Viktor on: “let’s go,” one of very few words we exchanged. Unsure of how far back Simon was, and only concerned with the upcoming aid station, I kept the pressure on.
I never really planned to make the move; it just happened. It was my turn to take the lead through the aid station, so I accelerated just enough to do so. In doing so, I thought I sensed a weakness in my counterpart. It sure seemed like a gap was forming between us. We would soon see, as I took advantage of the long, gradual hill to keep the pedal to the metal. If Viktor was feeling a low, I would exploit that low. I felt great; I wanted to see what I could do.
Since my move coincided with what should have been an opportunity to take in more fluids and calories, I had to focus more attention on one or the other. I chose to focus on dropping Viktor, after all, I had the lead now, and that felt good. I could always get more calories at the next aid station.
Burning up the pavement on the subsequent downhill, I was fueled by cheering spectators, urging me to take control. I went with the momentum, and I never looked back.
Unfortunately, I never had to look back, because Viktor didn’t stay back there for very long. I stayed away for about a mile before he was back by my side. At that point, I was seeing a few stars and birdies: the bonk. I knew I needed to find some calories quick, but the current task at-hand was to run with Viktor again. But could I? Did I make him angry when I attempted to drop him? Of course I did, it was battle, and I had challenged him to a duel. It seemed to be a duel I was no longer controlling, and I soon relinquished the lead.
Sadly, the bottom, as they say, fell out. I went from a comfortable 6:01 to an uncomfortable 8:09. I was, as they say, in a spot of bother. The leader had left me, and I was left to contend with the marathon solo. Fortunately, I had plenty of experience with that, so I plugged on, encouraged by the many who lined the streets of
After my dismal mile, I managed to find my way back to some seven-something, and even a few more six-and-change miles. I was still alive. However, the rollercoaster ride had begun. I was up and down in calories and pace for the last nine miles, but fortunately, my downs weren’t too down.
A late—mile 21—pass by Finland’s Tom Soderdahl moved me to third place. I was hurting, but I had enough gumption to respond to his pass. I did go with him, but could only do battle for fifty to sixty meters. I was on the survival path, and I ultimately changed modes to one of cutting my losses. After all, a third place finish would still net a National Ironman title for me.
The finish in Coeur d’Alene is spectacular: the crowds are enthusiastic and intense. Prior to the finish chute grandstands, thousands of eager spectators crowd the lane in a manner similar to a Tour de France mountain stage. I “stretched” my arms out about three inches to high-five the ranks on my either side. It was thrilling to be there, and I felt absolutely invigorated as I finished. My time was my second fastest at the distance: an 8:32 and my status as top-American meant I own the title of National Ironman Champion for one year.
Shortly after I crossed the line (somewhere between dancing a little jig and heading for the med tent), I reflected on my day. I was proud to have succeeded in nearly all of my pre-race goals. Yes, I had suffered, and yes, perhaps I made a premature move on the run, but I had tried, and I had learned. And in the end, after a thoroughly enjoyable day, I had accomplished a goal shared by each of the day’s participants: to go sub 17.