PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Kailua-Kona, HI
Nearly a week after the race, I finally feel as though I’ve had sufficient time to reflect on the way the race played out, and I can now make a clear, less emotional assessment of the Ironman. Granted, I am normally a bit tardy in crafting the race reports, but this time around I intentionally took a few more days post-race to process the day. And even though I’ve waited a few days, I still reserve the right to attach emotional and irrational color to an otherwise level-headed report!
Arriving in Kona I truly felt I had put in some of my best preparation. I trained sensibly, and I paid close attention to a few details that I had left untouched in recent years. I.e., I spent a fair amount of time in Austin, acclimating my body to high doses of humidity, as well as moderately high temperatures. The time I spent at sea level in September was a nice complement to the strength-based altitude training I had done in Boulder in August. I was feeling fresh, motivated, and hungry to find my way back into the top ten in Kona. I knew that if I performed to my potential that my strength and experience could land me on the top half of the podium. In short: I was ready to race.
The time I spent in Kona pre-race was all business. Amanda was not able to travel with me, as she was attending her High School Sports Hall of Fame Induction in Maryland. I knew that I would be missing a key element of my Hawaii routine, so I did my best to minimize outside distractions. She always keeps me on-task, but this time around, I managed to put my head down as I topped off the final preparation.
Race day started at 3:30AM with my customary jog down Ali’i. I typically notch about ten minutes of slow running first thing in the morning, just prior to breakfast. This has always been a great way for me to wake the body, to shake off the initial nerves, and to get out and feel the Kona air. I do love that jog.
As I sipped my Ultragen smoothie and downed a cup of black coffee, I made use of Skype – and all its wonder – to video chat with Amanda. She got me fired up, by sharing with me some of the inspiration she normally gives me out on the run course. I was amped and ready to move.
I arrived at transition to pump my tires and place my food and drinks onboard. I found my Kestrel 4000 sitting alone, lacking all of the cameras of prior years (evidently I lost a bit of pre-race hype by finishing in 535th last year!). Zipp had hooked me up with some of their sweet new Firecrest 808 wheels, and I have to admit, they really made the race rig look sweet. When all is said and done, I’m still duly impressed by a fine looking machine. It did not take long to get everything loaded up: helmet + Oakleys on the bars, Jetstream filled, Bento Box chalk-full, tires aired, and shoes on pedals.
With that done, I made my way to my pre-race sanctuary: my massage therapist Kris’ hotel room. Doing my best to stick with all the rote activities of years past, knowing that the familiarity would keep away any unneeded stress. Before I knew it, it was time to head to the water.
My mom and Bob were the only family representatives of Team Lovato on-hand, and I was grateful to have them present. My mom pointed out that she had been in attendance at each of my Ironman wins, so that must be a good omen.
I jumped in the water at 6:10, which gave me 20 minutes to wake up my swim muscles. A major focus of my training this year has been geared toward raising my game in the water, so I would have little trouble exiting the water with the lead group of swimmers. My focus, especially through July, was unparalleled for me, and I was hoping to make use of my new swim prowess. I did not.
After getting out very well for the first several hundred meters, I found myself in what I thought was the middle of the main pack. But evidently I had been moved to the back of said pack, which tends to be a dangerous position. Despite giving what I thought was enough to stick in for the duration, I let my fate be decided by another swimmer who dropped off the feet of the back-of-the-pack folks. We were left to dangle, and despite my attempts to bridge back up, I was mostly on my own. After hearing the significant time split to the contenders, I could not have been more disappointed in my swim performance. However, I am not a newcomer to sub-par swims, so I was able to quickly dispatch the memory as I moved onto the bike ride.
Out on course, I was quickly passed by Norman Stadler, and a few others of my competitors came by. My typical plan is to chase those of the strong bike/ slower swim crew, in an attempt to bridge up to the lead groups. Having followed that plan to various levels of success, this year I chose to race my own race, with an attempt to dole out an even effort throughout the 112 miles. I am new to training and racing with power, but I figured I’d set myself up for solid day if I listed to what my PowerTap was telling me. So rather than race the guys around me, I raced within myself for the next several miles. Looking back I think this was a tactical error. To remove myself from the competition around me, and to not take advantage of the drive that comes with it was a mistake. However, at the time I truly felt that I was making a sound decision.
On the climb to Hawi, I paired up with Chris “Big Sexy” McDonald, a strong athlete and friend of mine. I followed his lead up to Hawi, thinking that the two of us could give one another a nice mental push to the end of the ride. In a strange but welcome turn of events, I found myself taking the lead on the downhill section from Hawi (normally down hills are a weakness of mine). While much of the ride was characterized by mild winds, we had some decent crosswinds (nothing like the days of old, but something!). Heading back onto the highway, Big Sexy took the lead again. We were later joined by Hell on Wheels Helriegel, who appeared to be pushing the gears of old. Pleased to have a mini-group for a while, I was left to push the pedals and tend to what was amounting to a perfectly executed hydration and fueling plan. BIG thanks to First Endurance for making the best products around!
Coming off the bike, I had lost a minute or two to my former partners. Riding solo at the end of the day is fine with me, as it gives me the ability to truly assess how my legs are doing, and whether or not I need to top off, stretch, gear up or spin the legs. In this case – and after notching a much slower bike time than I was capable of doing - I really felt ready to run my best marathon.
Transition felt great. Sometimes it feels like death warmed over, but today was great. I felt quick and ready to roll!
After taking the first mile and a half to ease into the marathon – while sipping a bottle of water – I settled into a nice rhythm. My goal was to even split or negative split the run. My last good marathon in Kona – a 2:52 – was run with matching 1:26 splits. The plan always seems smart when I have ground to make up – and I had A LOT of ground to make up. My past top-ten performances have always come after entering T2 in 18-22 place, with ten or so minutes down to the 10th place guy. I usually play my cards right, and take advantage of the conditions smoking out those who went out too fast. But this was not my “usual” day.
I got through the first nine miles in town feeling very comfortable, and controlled. I focused on fueling, pacing and nutrition. I was noticing that the others up the road were in one hell of a battle, and seeing the competition without being in it was tough. I kept my mind in the game, and began to push a bit more, just after cresting Palani.
At that moment I was feeling pretty confident that I was still going to run a solid marathon, despite my sub-par bike and swim showings.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself engaged in a battle with my own quads. This can be completely normal for an Ironman run: pushing through that quad burn is the thing that all true Ironman athletes thrive on – at least I would wager that most all of them do. It comes at various points of the run, depending on the particular race. Sometimes it hits early, sometimes it’s near the end; however, when it comes, those who love Ironman enjoy pushing into that feeling.
This time around my push was there and my pain was there, but my pace was not lining up. I did a quick rundown of my calories and liquid count: did I need more? Was I bonking? It did not seem likely, so I only made minor adjustments. I kept the pressure on, but as the pain increased, the pace did not reciprocate. And it was way too early to be experiencing this sort of downward spiral.
My mile splits fell way off, despite my internal gauge telling me they were staying the same – or even improving. I began to get discouraged, and to further that disdain, I crossed paths with the top ten runners way too early on the highway. They were really drilling the pace, and there looked to be none of the major blow-ups that characterize this race. While maintaining my own efforts to finish as quickly as I could, I took a small bit of energy to holler at some of my fellow competitors who were in the thick of battle. Not how I like to engage in the competition, but it was all I could do.
Somewhere within the Energy Lab, I found a bit more speed, but the paces were still nothing to scream about. I was pushing the best I could, and I was seeing a few folks who seemed to be catchable. Motivation was still strong to keep the pressure on. I hoped that the zip I was missing all day would find me, and give me a boost down that final 8 miles.
It turned out that all I had left was a little more of the same. Making the final climb of the day, and just prior to the final quad-pummeling downhill, I upped the ante one more time. I had to see if I could work every bit out of myself. I may not have been doing my best time – far from it, in fact – but it would not be for lack of effort.
Finishing the race is always an amazing satisfaction: after great days (like ’08), really bad days (like ’09), and average days (like this one). I soaked up as much of the Ali’i Drive energy as I could. That stretch of road is exactly why athletes yearn to race in Kona. That stretch of road can give so much satisfaction.
In an attempt to answer the ever-present question of why my race was not on par with what I had expected to do, I come up a bit empty handed. I can definitely say that I made a few key tactical errors – on the swim and bike – that might have made a difference in my overall outcome. However, those errors only contributed to the result, whereas something else was just as culpable. That something? It was just one of those days. We all experience the sometimes dramatic swing in performance from our best training sessions to our worst. We analyze and calculate and obsess, but we never can pinpoint the why. And maybe sometimes we shouldn’t. In our races, sometimes we have it, and sometimes we don’t. Scientists and engineers don’t like this answer, but the liberal art folks can latch right on. I don’t speak French, but I believe I just lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
On a day where the conditions were amazing, the level of competition was outstanding, and so many athletes pushed themselves to incredible performances, I congratulate all of my competitors. To those of you who had sub-par days, congrats on sticking it out, and hang in there: we’ll be back!