PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: New York, New Jersey
Very early in the morning of Saturday August 11th, I awoke and began preparing myself to race the U.S. Ironman Championships. Technically, because the race was in New York, New York, my 2:45 a.m. wake-up was really still nighttime, considering this city is rumored not to sleep. So I woke up late Friday night to get myself ready to race my 30th Ironman…
I had big plans for this race. It was the primary focus of the first half of my season, and I laid out a solid plan of attack for the event. I thoroughly enjoyed a great summer of training, and my body was feeling strong and ready to vie for my fourth U.S. IM title. The field was deep, and I knew that it would take a special performance to win the day. In the end, I was right, Jordan Rapp taught us all a few lessons out there – on racing strong, racing smart, and racing tough. His title was well deserved.
After my early wake-up, I tended to business as usual: pre-race breakfast, coffee, kiss the wife goodbye. I felt calm, relaxed, and ready. Stepping outside the hotel door, walking 15 meters, and getting on the 4:00 a.m. ferry to transition could not have been any smoother or easier. Yes, it was a trifle earlier than I am used to venturing over to the race site, but my tardy self actually appreciated someone getting me there early. The boat ride over was also quite relaxed and easy: I chatted with my friend about his pending first Ironman, I drank some EFS, and I ate a bit more food. Once we got to transition, it was nearly 5:00, and I had plenty of time to carefully get my gear sorted.
Once the tires were pumped, and the race nutrition loaded on my custom Team Lovato Kestrel, I made my way around the park for a short warm up run. Again, the body was feeling fresh and ready to rumble. We pros paraded through transition together and collectively boarded our special ferry to the swim start. Although the boat seemed to take about as long to get to the start as we would later take to swim the course, the transport was smooth and easy. I had already warmed up the lats with some stretch cord exercises in transition, so I felt there was little more to do, other than visualize my dive start from the barge.
Quite promptly at 6:50 – after discussing with TJ whose dive would be superior – about 26 pro men dove into the Hudson. I admit that I loved the start, in fact, more triathlons should have dive starts, and it seems pretty likely that our “creeping forward” counterparts would not be allowed that luxury of jumping the gun. And if they did, we’d have a pretty good photo of them so we could hand out a penalty!
From the first two strokes, I knew I was going to have a strong swim. I felt fluid, controlled, and the rhythm of my stroke came to me immediately. The only complaint I had early on was that it only took five strokes for me to promptly swallow exactly one gulp of Hudson River water. Let’s chat in about six weeks, and see if I have grown any extra digits…
Luke Bell was out hard, and a group of five of us settled right into his wake. I could not tell it at the time, but our group had pulled away from the others within 500 or 600 meters. My Garmin was set to vibrate every 500 meters – a really useful feature – so I could estimate when we had lost the group, and how far we had to go. About midway, the four guys in front of me started to weave back and forth a bit. I lost contact momentarily, and a small gap formed. At that moment, Matias pulled through and took the lead to close out the swim. Unfortunately, we lost about 50-60 seconds to the leaders, but, fortunately, we were able to put time on the chasers.
Once in T1, I began focusing on the bike ride. My transition felt quick, but I managed to lose time to Matias, and he gapped me on the initial climb. This proved to be only the first of many guys who would ride away from me on the day.
I climbed the hill, and did my best to keep the power in check. While I have found the power meter very useful in training, I have yet to use it to great results in a race. I focused very much on what the numbers were saying, rather than getting on with my bike ride. I was passed by two guys within one mile – both of whom were one minute behind me after the swim. Once up on the highway (2 miles in), I was passed by another few men, including Jordan who was almost two minutes down after the swim. What was I doing? I told myself I was the smart one, and that saving my legs in those initial hills would pay dividends. I continued to watch the watts.
By the time another group of three came by me – athletes who were four minutes behind after the swim – I started to question my strategy. Why did I bother to have a fast swim if I was just going to let several guys ride right past me?
Nearing the end of the first out-and-back, I found myself feeling a bit labored. After trying to curb the power in the opening 10 miles, I was struggling just to feel that strength. But it was still so early, I anticipated having a great back-half ride. Six or eight miles after the first turn (around mile 36 ish), I was overtaken by a group of four. My friends Chris McDonald and Trevor Wurtele were second and fourth men in that group. They passed, and I proceeded to join the train. I knew the company would not hurt my day at that point. Trevor was kind enough to ask me if I was alright, which made me wonder if he could see how bad my legs felt. Probably so, and he’s also just a nice enough guy to ask about another’s well being.
After about four or five miles of following this group, it became evident that I could no longer keep up with this pace. While the effort seemed ridiculously easy on flats and downhills, it took everything I had to make it up the climbs, and there were many of them to come. I made the choice to back off the pace, and hope that my mojo would come to me on the second loop. In all my years of racing Ironman, I do not ever recall feeling this pathetic so early in a race. And I also never recall not turning things around.
But things never turned around. The highlight of my entire bike ride was that I executed yet another solid fueling plan. My body would be ready for the marathon, if I could just get off the seemingly interminable bike ride.
I truly suffered through the back half of this ride. I found myself in survival mode, and to make matters worse, I did something strange and inexplicable to my ribs on my right side. I made myself dig my fingers under my ribcage to attempt to loosen up my rectus abdominis, and even tried to massage my intercostals on that same side – no luck. I still do not know what happened to cause this pain, but it was bad enough that I hoped it would not prevent me from running well. (Strangely, four days after the race, the soreness in my quads has dissipated, but my ribs are still achey.)
Thankfully, I finally made it to the end of the 112 miles. I was doing everything I could to keep my time under 5hrs – how quickly we have to reassess goals to keep motivated!
Entering T2, I kept thinking the thought that got me through the bulk of that bike ride: I can’t wait to run this incredible marathon course. The inaugural IMNYC run course did not disappoint. Even with the deeply disappointing bike performance in my recent memory, I was determined to put my best foot forward to finish on a high note.
It’s never a good sign when spectators and race announcers and wives neglect to even give you splits when you start the run. I have been there before, and I have learned that when they give no time split, they think there is very little hope for you. At that point, my primary goal was to run a strong marathon. And if that goal were realized, I figured the overall placing might change a bit in my favor. And if it didn’t, well, at least I will have run fast.
Lucky for me, Amanda was positioned about a mile into the course, and she was finally able to see me moving well. I know she would have been worrying about me having been so far off the back on the ride. She gave me great encouragement, and I told her I was relying on my Buffalo Springs strategy to run back into contention.
I cannot say enough about how much I loved the IM NYC run course. The first 15 miles of the race were up, down, up, and down over 8% hills that lasted about 500-800 meters in length. I felt great from the outset, and even my pesky ribcage was cooperating. We had a hefty dose of shade at this time, but the humidity was hovering between 92 and 96%. Thankfully, the temperatures were much lower than they could have been, and we were only experiencing the low to mid 80′s.
I felt strong, controlled, and I felt the rhythm I love to find on my long runs. I was in control and in my groove for the first time since the swim. And I was enjoying myself.
Since I lost so much time on the bike, I knew that my best case scenario would mean that I was not going to be back into the race until the final 10-15km. So I chose to focus on feeling good, and on enjoying the marathon – I encouraged my fellow competitors, and I analyzed both the men’s and women’s races. I had one tiny bad patch exactly at the half marathon mark, at which point a hamstring threatened me to tighten up. I slowed, loosened it, and regained my composure. Other than that brief slow-down, I felt very proud of my opening 15 miles.
Climbing to the bridge (10% hill), and climbing onto the bridge (stairs) made mile 16 quite a doozie. I felt I was running quite hard, yet my split was just at 8:00 (after the previous 15 averaging about 6:30). Back on the bridge, I opened up the stride and set my sights on the others ahead. The view from the bridge was amazing, and even in that state I was able to take in the sight a bit.
Coming down the stairs and entering Manhattan was a bit of a struggle. For the first time in my run race, my legs were revolting against the constant change of rhythm. Up, down, stairs, turns, hills, flats, concrete, asphalt, metal. It was shortly after that point that I realized my charge was going to slow a bit. My calves got angry at me for forcing them to sprint past a fading Twelseik and Ambrose. I kept fighting, and embraced what I love about Ironman: the mental struggle over physical distress.
Nearing the closing 8km, my body and mind agreed that we might want to stop racing. The time deficits had come way down, and there were athletes just ahead, but it was unlikely that they’d give up those remaining six to ten minutes. My chance at a top eight had faded away.
Zigzagging through Riverside Park was far more challenging than I thought it would be. Despite the advertisement of a “flat and fast” final 9 miles, we athletes continued to tackle up hills, more stairs, and even some off road running. But the competitor in me really kind of liked that.
Finishing the race was pretty spectacular. The crowds were loud, and they made me feel like they did not care if I was 13th or 1st. I am sure they made every finisher feel that way, and we should all be thankful for that amazing energy. I crossed the line with a 3:06 marathon split: indicating that I had fallen off pace by a full minute per mile in the second half of the race, a staggering realization considering how carefully I felt like I doled out my energy. But I believe this stat is a testament to how challenging this run course was.
Looking back at the race, I can say that I truly enjoyed competing on the day. I felt very proud of my swim and bike, and was happy that I did not let my powerless bike ride discourage me too much. I was happy with the efforts, but I’d be lying if I said I was satisfied with my performance. I went to New York to contend for the win, and after the swim I was never in the mix. I came well short of my goals, and I was very disappointed to have done so. And yes, it’s possible to be happy and disappointed at the same time.
Finishing what was arguably one of the most unique Ironman events ever was pretty cool. With the high levels of humidity, the terrain, and the point-to-point nature, this was the hardest IM marathon I have completed. And yes, that counts Kona. I won’t say it was the hottest ever, as that honor still belongs to Kona with Cozumel close in the mix; but I will say it was the hardest.
And in case they decide to host this race again, I would definitely recommend it. But be forewarned: it’s a hard race, there are some logistical challenges, and it’s not easy on the spectators. But then again, who ever said that Ironman should be easy, or even that it was made for spectators?