Sad to acknowledge that it’s late September and I am sitting down to write my first official race report of 2015. Even sadder to revive so many difficult memories from this past weekend’s Ironman Lake Tahoe, without a doubt the most challenging triathlon experience of my life. HOWEVER, I want to start by acknowledging, despite all the struggles and disappointing outcome, that this was a success and that I have multiple positive takeaway’s in the form of valuable learning experiences AND am proud to have finished when the option to drop out seemed so obvious, to end my season a 4 time Ironman.
The obstacles for this weekend, on and off the course, were significant to say the least. Right from the start I showed up 5 mins after the apparent cutoff for my rental car and as a result had to search around to get something I didn’t want at twice the price. I almost grabbed the perfect hatchback Toyota however it was snatched from me by an elderly couple because she liked “the color”. In the days leading up there were varying concerns about weather and smoke, considering there were fires burning similar to the ones that contaminated the air and cancelled last year’s race and predictions of cold temperatures comparable to that of 2013, where frigid air caused a 20% DNF rate, the highest of any Ironman ever. The race was at elevation (getting up to 7,200ft at Brockway Summit) and although I wasn’t completely sure how I’d respond if Mammoth training trip was any indication I knew the answer would be “not good, really not good!!”. And to top it off my calf still didn’t feel right, which is a very intimidating feeling for going into an Ironman. I had told friends and teammates that the theme of the race was “no expectations” however I was still asked if I intended to win, run a sub-3 marathon and get a Kona spot. The pressure to do well enough and remedy my Ironman Lake Placid first ever DNF was surely there and in a big way.
Jumping into it, Pre-race Strategy
My only direction for this race was to “take it easy” and disregard data in an effort to stay out of my own head. I had heard multiple stories of athletes who followed this strategy resulting with a PR, Kona spot, Pro card and eventual World Championship, however I knew that this would not be my “taking it easy”. Taking it easy for me would mean a slow and controlled swim, followed by a smooth and also slow bike (with lots of fueling), and a slow but hopefully consistent run resulting in a favorable experience for once, void of pain with a time that didn’t matter. There were two goals that I had, knowing if I could achieve either that I would have a successful day. #1 Goal) solve my piriformis problem. In every triathlon since Placid 2011 I have gotten out of the water with at least some glute/lower back pain ranging from annoying to agonizing and completely debilitating. To remedy this my plan was to loosen the glutes with the Vyper massage roller first thing in the morning, get a good run and banded side walk to hit the adductors, and long stretch of the hamstrings, glutes and piriformis, something I have never really done. #2 Goal) being run comfortably off the bike no matter how slow of a bike that would take.
I took the swim SUPER easy. Lining up in the 1-1:10 wave and trudging in slowly (also pissing myself) while everyone charged the water around me. I swam to the inside of the yellow buoys to avoid other swimmers, losing their draft but evading all the mayhem. My only concern was thinking of the right mental playlist to distract me while taking smooth even strokes. As I approached the swim exit, after the water had become waist deep, I stopped for 30 seconds, foot over knee sitting into it to get a deep stretch on both sides. I could see a 1 on the clock but the rest was obstructed by a flag. I was expecting a 1:2X.XX, or perhaps a 1:1XX.XX at best, so I was shocked to see the next digit a “0” and amazed to see another “0” after that. “Could I possibly break an hour?!?” From there I jogged it in and was so happy to see a 59:48 swim time on results, regardless of how short the course might have been, pleased to have at least one new PR this season.
Things did not start off well here and they ended worse. I had heard one of the volunteers yell out “athletes, the temperature outside is currently 39 degrees”, so I was happy I had taken the time to change out of my speedo for a dry kit, jacket and gloves. The temps were manageable enough in the sun but heading into the shade by Squaw they dropped very notably. Fun new thing, within a mile into the bike race my front right shifter decided to pop off the aerobar horns. It just dangled there, still allowing me to shift electronically but providing no support and making me fearful that this expensive component would pop-off. When I stopped at an aid station around mile 30 I was able to shed my jacket and fix the shifter with duct tape as best as possible.
I didn’t do my homework on the course so my only thought until about mile 50 was how beautiful everything looked and how surprisingly little hills there were. This was very short sided as I found out the majority of climbing was in a 3 mile section with 1000ft of steady ascending up Brockway Summit. I wanted to do the first climb controlled and completely comfortable however running out of gears I struggled to get up, knowing I’d have to do it a second time. By my next lap I was strangely completely toasted, to the extent that I was looking for a nice spot on the shoulder to not just stop but collapse over. This was around mile 90. By the time I got to 100 something was definitely wrong. I just felt REALLY bad, the kind of bad you’d feel lying at home sick from work, not the kind you’d hope for with an Ironman marathon to go. Athletes were passing me left and right at this point. All I wanted to do is make it to T2, where I could assess the damage, without passing out.
On a positive note I was so happy to hear my name cheered by surprise spectators Larry, Ash and Hillary. Their voices energized me, if not just briefly, every time I saw them which ended up being multiple times on the course. The police crew on the Brockway climb weren’t bad to look at either J
When I approached T2 I barely knew who I was. I couldn’t really speak, was weaving all around and assumed I had the wrong bag when putting on my shoes because I couldn’t get them on. Turns out my feet were swollen to the extent my elastic laces were barely big enough. The volunteers told me to go to medical where I lied down on the floor for the next 30 mins, drinking some sort of apple juice to replenish my system. Funniest moment of the race was when one of the volunteers explained in detail the science of why my blood was splitting due to the elevation and how my body was basically murdering itself. I thanked him for this information but kindly asked him to stop talking.
The unintended benefit about being in medical is that you assume the world is over until you see others with blood dripping down their face, puking or shitting themselves uncontrollably, and think ‘maybe I’m ok’. After 40 mins on the ground I noticed some LA Tri Club friends coming in and decided I’d at least try for a bit, running with LA Tri King Jeff Gust as long as I could.
The run started out surprisingly well! The pace was 8:30 or slower and I was enjoying the scenery, spectators and company. All the sugar I had ingested in medical allowed my body to function reasonably again. We had bumped into our cheering squad in the village and the first 4 miles had unbelievable views of Squaw and the surrounding mountains.
I left Jeff soon after that and ran comfortably until the first turn around at mile 9.7. I had no watch so no indication of pace, which I LOVED. On the way back into town I picked up a couple running buddies, offering words of encouragement going shoulder-to-shoulder one aid station at a time. Having someone to lead provided a lot of value in a race that had no more time significance for me. I ran next to one girl for a bit that said almost nothing until in pain she requested I tell her a story. We continued for a few miles and I did my best to keep her distracted with quirky stories until my legs started to seize up and I had to break away.
Running solo through about mile 15 I noticed it becoming very difficult to speak. The volunteers would ask at each aid station what I needed, holding cups of ice, water, Power Aid, Red Bull, etc. I would smile, stare blankly at them, and grab cups randomly. At mile 19 my calf was beginning to act up so I taped it and decided I would only walk from there on. In the 4 Ironman’s I had done previously I’ve never had to give up running completely to walk, so I was in new territory with the realization that I had 6 slow miles left to go. In all honesty though it wasn’t that bad! I had a lot of fun out there talking to other athletes, hearing their stories and thanking the volunteers for their support. With the sun setting just as I began to see the finishing area I was filled with an immense feeling of happiness and gratification for getting there. In all my previous Ironmans I ran through the finishing shoot emotionless, stopping only to pause my watch on the line. This time I was encouraged to slow down and take everything in.
If you look back at my times this past weekends performance may seem like a regression in the sport – 10:46 (IMLP21011), 10:31 (IMLP2013), 10:14 (IMMT2014)… 12:30 (IMLT2015). To be honest I am still a little disappointed with the outcome knowing that I put in the work and followed my coaches plan every step of the way. In a bulletin calling attention to Jesse Thomas’s first Ironman and consequent first Ironman win he wrote –
“If you commit to the process, and love the journey, the results always come. Always.”
I’ve never had trouble committing to the process in the last 5 years I’ve taken this sport seriously. What I have had trouble with lately is enjoying the journey when the results didn’t come. This sport isn’t my job, it’s my passion, yet I’ve treated it like business recently and allowed myself to be consumed by negative energy dwelling on the setbacks and let downs. In Placid this year I was so adamant about having my entitled race that when the first thing went wrong (back pain out of the water and quick flat on the bike) I withdrew mentally and in doing so gave up on any chance of success. At Tahoe many things went wrong, and I mean MANY (acknowledging now there was nothing in my power that could have been done for a race worthy performance), but with every set back there was an opportunity for success and I feel that I answered in a matter that I can be proud of. When the weather got cold I dressed up to stay warm, when my bike broke I kept cool and taped it back together without hesitation, when the elevation got to be too much I backed off and turned to medical, and when my calf went I walked to that finish line. My time may not be what I would have wanted but looking back at race pictures I’m happy to see something I didn’t in the last three attempts, a smile at every opportunity throughout the day.
Ironman is very attractive to me in how relatable it is to so many themes in life. There will be days when you’re presented with positives and others (sometimes weeks, months or even years)with set-backs and disappointments but with every challenge lies an opportunity, depending on how you approach it. Success is not always measured in time but in disposition. I am certain that success is ahead and that achievement of my goals is obtainable. How long until I get there is unclear but I understand now that the path will be shorter if I can maintain a positive attitude and always remember to enjoy the journey.