PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Kona, Hawail
Every single time we Ironman athletes toe the line, there is a common goal among us: to get to the finish line. We each start the day with a different list of goals, each prioritized differently. When I did my first Ironman in 1999, the goal was to prove to myself that I could complete the distance. I was 26 years old, and the thought of going 140.6 miles in one shot was daunting. (I did it.) In 2003 my top goal was to use my newly found competitiveness at the distance to notch a top-ten placing. (I did it.) In 2009, my goal was to break free of my string of 9th-place finishes by reaching the top five for the first time. (I did not.) By the time 2011 rolled around, I was still aiming for a top-ten, but my overriding goal was to get the most out of what might be my last race in Hawaii. (I did; it wasn’t.) In each of these years, I did what I could to realize my primary goals; and in each case, I found myself modifying the goals mid-race – always focusing on new objectives and new paths to get there. However, in each case, my default goal was to arrive at the finish line. And in each case, regardless of how I did it, my default goal was realized: I had finished the race 12 times.
2012 came around, and for the first time in many years, my season focus was not centered around Kona. I had other races in mind, and I had planned my year around racing IM NYC and IM Cozumel. I was excited about my plan, and I tackled the year with energy and focus. As it turned out, my NYC race left me full of questions and doubts about my preparation. While I thought I was ready to contend for the win, I was sorely mistaken, and my best effort on the day left me well behind the leaders. And so I hatched a plan to return to Ironman Hawaii for the 13th time.
And my plan was a good one. With the guidance of Matt Dixon, and a truly unique approach, I used the nine weeks between NY and Hawaii to the best of my ability. My preparation was very good, and my level of fitness and preparedness was quite a bit higher than it was in August. And I knew I had the physical tools to finish well in Kona.
The nice thing about being a veteran is that the worry and wonder that goes with a Hawaii start was completely removed from the equation. I knew enough to avoid the pitfalls that come with an Ironman World Championship. And I was lucky enough to arrive at race day healthy, fit, rested, and ready to roll.
My training centered 100% around being ready to swim my best and then ride with the potentially erratic and intensely paced leaders for as long as I could. I can truly say that my training was spot-on, and I was ready for the task at hand. However, early on in the swim, the plan jumped the tracks.
I went out well in the swim. I felt fast yet in control, and was ready to respond to any moves or surges. Unfortunately, race circumstance was not in my favor. My position seemed good, and my company equally solid. With McCormack to my right, and top contender Andreas Raelert in close quarters, I made the bad assessment that I was where I needed to be. But I could not have been more mistaken. By the time I made the turnaround, I realized that I was not in a good group. The effort was then painfully easy, and I knew my goals were in need of their first reset. Not since my early days in Hawaii have I exited with such a large deficit to the leaders.
But thankfully, transition was super easy and fast; and I noted that many strong-cycling contenders were around me. My plan B was in full effect.
Jumping on the rig, I felt a great relief when noting that my cycling legs were there! I had been missing that early spark for my last three races, and to have that power early on was great. I got right after the early miles, and counted Kienle, Raelert, Schildnecht, Zyemstev, Amey and others in my group. We had some solid contenders to work with, and moving forward I knew I was still in the hunt.
However, another set of race circumstances left me in a bad spot at the top of Palani. Hitting the Queen K, a gap opened on the cyclist in front of me, and I was unable to bridge. Riding at redline was part of the plan, and I was fine with that effort; but I quickly realized that going above redline did not seem doable. I tried very hard to catch on the tail end of the group, but by the airport I had to alter the plans again, and I chose to settle into regrouping mode.
Disappointed, I had lost every chance to join a train to Hawi, I really eased up on the pedals. My next 10-15 miles were smooth and easy. I knew I needed to focus on a back-half strategy, so I saved up for later in the day. When I got to mile 35, Jordan Rapp passed me. I was ready to respond to his pass, and the increased pace seemed surprisingly easy. My goal was to ride with him for as long as I could, knowing that he tends to ride a very even pace throughout the day. I had been alone for too long, and the company was motivating.
On the climb to Hawi – a section of road that most typically suits my style of riding – I overtook Jordan in an effort to share the burden up front. For the next 18 miles – Kawaihae to Hawi – I felt like I was in the mix. My legs were strong, and I had good company to pick away at the leaders. Coming down from Hawi is historically a spot of particular weakness for me. I find myself in an emotional and/or caloric bonk at that point, and miles 60-75 will often be my worst. However, this day was different. I focused on keeping contact with Jordan, and was able to stay in touch, and even offer a few token pulls at the front. Cresting the final climb to the Queen K, I made one final attempt to share the front running burden, and I can only assume that it was one try too many. Mile 80 came, and Rapp went: allowing the gap to form, then grow, then grow again. I was solo.
I have a lot of experience riding solo in this race, so I was not phased too much. I settled back into a regrouping pace, and begin chipping away at the final 30 miles. As is typical, I picked up some athletes at the Scenic Point (about mile 95), who had been blown off the leading train. This always motivates me, and I took a bit of energy from each rider I passed, even though my somewhat flagging emotional energy was a bit of a downer.
Looking back, I can see that my ride was characterized by very strong and spirited efforts whenever I had company present; but when I was solo, my own mental drive was a bit lacking. I kept a nice effort, but the edge necessary to keep a consistently high effort was absent.
Starting the run, I had Greg Bennet and a few others in transition with me. I told myself I’d have a smoking fast transition, but somewhere between handing off my bike and sitting on the T2 chair, I forgot that plan. My T2 was more than pedestrian: it was stationary.
Lucky for me, the company I lacked at the outset of the marathon was a blessing. The heat of Ali’i Drive was going to punish an early overextension in pace, and I knew I just needed to run my run. I felt incredible almost immediately. I was happy, I was light, and I was loving the start of that marathon. (In part because I had been on that bike for much longer than I should have!)
For 9 miles, I did my best to keep an easy pace, and to soak up the energy of the spectators. Amanda and Jack had told me I was only 16 minutes out of 10th, which was oddly encouraging. I knew I could close much of that gap, if I used my best mental game. I smiled and ran my way out and back, and truly appreciated being out there.
When I crossed paths with Craig Alexander, I made the choice to encourage him in his pursuit of his title defense. It was clear he was not on his A game, but he was fighting like the champion that he is. What struck me most was not that he was battling the best he could on the day, but rather that he – alone amongst all our competitors – chose to encourage me, too. This is the essence of our sport – the camaraderie of being out there on a race course together, and the mutual respect amongst athletes.
As my run progressed, very little changed. My smile remained, my legs were strong, and the support I received continued to be amazing. I knew I could gradually chip away at the giant gap between myself and the front runners. I knew I could run well enough to finish in the low teens, maybe even find that tenth (or ninth) spot. Somewhere around mile 9, I entered a short bad patch. I began to feel sorry for myself, and wished I had done a better job with part I and part II of the triathlon. I wondered if I had run enough in training, or if my legs were about to fail me. And as always, running up Palani proved to be the hottest and slowest part of the whole race.
Arriving back on the Queen K, and nearing my normal “go” point of mile 11, I was still in my slump. Amanda was there – with perfect timing – on the side of the road. I moaned some sort of complaint about how I was probably undercooked, and she called bullshit on me. She told me to get my shit together and run. And like a magic potion, her words snapped me out of my bad patch, and I got back to running well. As simple as that, I had displayed how big a role the mental game play in an Ironman.
Back in action, I realized that my friend Tom Lowe was just ahead of me, having passed me moments before I resurfaced. He looked like a good carrot, and so I got back into my groove. Eyeing Tom just ahead, and scooping up more road kill was motivating. I dealt well with my fueling and hydration, in fact, I almost felt like that aspect was on autopilot (it should be after so many go ’rounds).
As is typical, there was an exchange of energy within the Energy Lab. I know it’s rumored to be the hardest part of this marathon, but to me it’s a peaceful section where there is a give-and-take with the Island. Some years we athletes pay dearly, whereas other times we reap the benefits of that exchange, and the power flows back to us. I know I’m not the only Kona finisher who has felt this push and pull.
Seeing my competition going the other way painted a pretty clear picture that my goal of top ten had slipped away. There was just too little marathon left to get there. And with that realization came another: I was content with where I was. In all my races in Hawaii, and with all my battles to climb up the ranks, I found myself in uncharted territory. I was content to finish the race where I was. I did not need to drill myself; I did not need to suffer.
My incentive to keep running well was huge, and my need to give my best was also quite strong; but the thought of burying myself to finish 15th or 18th or even 20th was not appealing. My competitive instinct would not let me fold, so I was still protecting my position, while looking up the road for any fresh road kill. However, I was in a new state of emotion: I just wanted to enjoy my finish – what did it matter if I finished 20th or 25th? What did it matter if my marathon time was 2:56 or 3:03? In the grand scheme of things, and at this point in my career, I knew it did not matter much at all.
And so I did my best to soak up the energy that comes with the final 2 miles of running. I waved and smiled on Palani, rather than crushing my quads and toes to gain an extra 20 seconds. I waved and smiled on the Kuakini, rather than surging to catch that one more person. And I waved and smiled and walked on Ali’i, content to absorb as much aloha as I could on my lucky 13th finish.
And once I crossed the line, I felt a great sense of happiness. I had done a good job. I was not great, which is the minimum level of output required to secure a top-ten finish; I had only been good. Along with my happiness was a strong sense of disappointment. I had gone to Hawaii to compete at the highest level; I had gone there to be great. And I had fallen short of those goals. But soon after facing that disappointment, I was handed a finisher medal, I was congratulated by a volunteer, and I was greeted by my proud wife. And right then I realized that by achieving my default goal of making it to the finish line, I had succeeded. Again.