Wednesday, December 03, 2014

IRONMAN Arizona Trip Report Part II

[Note: I wrote this mostly as a reminder for myself, but I think it might be helpful to other triathletes as well. I recognize that it may seem overly detailed, but triathlons are complicated affairs that require some trial and error to get right.]

This is part II of my IRONMAN Arizona 2014 trip report. It concerns all the stuff that happened on race day. The details leading up to race day can be found in Part I.

I was up by 0400hrs on Sunday morning. Actually, I was up a bit before that but I did not feel tired at all, nor was I really that nervous. This is an endurance event, not a test of skill, so there is really nothing to be nervous about. I think my body was just readying itself for the task ahead.

The first order of business was to follow my usual morning routine. One of the golden rules of triathlon is to never do anything out of the ordinary before a race, so I still took a shower even though I was about to go swimming and then sweat for another 12 hours. I finished up by putting on the heart rate monitor, tri-suit, timing chip, and finally my street clothes.

I hung out in the hotel room for a bit reading the news and checking the weather. I was disappointed to discover that the winds on the race course were expected to be 25 knots after being nearly dead calm for the last few weeks. It was only after the race that I found that that this was a gross under-prediction. The actual winds were a sustained 40 knots, gusting to ludicrous speeds...

I was down at the hotel breakfast by about 0500hrs. I had a little coffee and a bowl of cereal, but that was about all I could get down. I would have loved to be able to send a thousand calorie breakfast down the pipe for some insurance, but it was just not possible. Fueling in an IRONMAN is called the "fourth discipline" for a reason - it is very difficult to get right. No one has the kind of built in reserves to last an entire race, and your digestive system is carefully evolved to come to a screaming halt during athletic endeavors. You have to take on calories as you go and stay ahead of the reaper, but you have to be careful about how you do it. I saw more than a few athletes "praying to the dusty ground" during this race. I was not too worried about the slim breakfast though because I had a well tested fueling plan for the race.

I was back at the hotel room at 0515hrs to pick up my Orange and Black special needs bags, as well as my Green "morning clothes" bag. I put all of my swim gear in my Green bag the night before, and planned on swapping it all out for my morning clothes once I got suited up for the swim. The wife and I jumped into the rental car and made it close enough to the starting line by 0530hrs. She took the obligatory "before" picture, gave me a kiss, and then headed back to the hotel to get the boy up.

I walked among the rapidly growing crowd of athletes as we made our way into the transition area for final race preparations. The first order of business was to drop off my Orange and Black special needs bags. Then I made my way back to the Red and Blue transition bags. I added some hydration to each, and put my athlete tracker into the Blue bike transition bag. Finally, I put my bike computer on my bike, and then got suited up for the swim.

I should probably expand on my swim "uniform". I wear a Tyr Hurricane Cat 3 wetsuit in size Large, a Tyr wrinkle free swim cap, then my goggles, and then the required IRONMAN swim cap. Sandwiching your goggles between two swim caps is a great way to keep them from being knocked off during the mass swim, and also affords you a bit more head insulation. I also wear some silicone ear plugs to prevent from getting dizzy during the swim. I am not normally prone to inner ear issues when I swim, but on rare occasions strange stuff happens.

After packing all of my morning clothes into my Green bag, I handed it over to one of the morning clothes bag volunteers and then headed over to the long lineup of athletes waiting to get into the water. The actual swim start is about 200 metres from the swim entrance, so you have a nice non competitive warm-up swim to the start line.

The pro-men entered the water first and started their race at 0645hrs. The pro-women enter second, and start their race five minutes later. While all of that was going on, the race volunteers do their best to get over 3000 age group athletes in the water as quickly as possible. Whether you are in the water or not, your race starts at 0700hrs so there is a lot of effort to keep that line moving. The line looked incredibly long, but I am pretty sure everyone was in the water on time.

I figure I was somewhere in the first third of age groupers waiting to get into the water. Tempe Town Lake was a lot lower this year so they had to continuously warn people to be careful when they got in the water. Despite that, somehow the top of my left foot scraped the bottom and I lost a nice chunk of skin - none of which I felt at the time, probably thanks to the adrenaline...

The water was not nearly as cold as I remember it being at the practice swim, but I did require a few minutes to acclimate before I felt comfortable putting my face in and swimming normally. The race officials told us the temperature was about 68F, which felt about right to me. I took my time making my way to the starting line, occasionally looking back and waving to the spectators on the bridges above. All things considered, it was the perfect warmup.

I took a spot about 20 metres back from the starting line on the far left side, closest to the buoys. This has the advantage of swimming the shortest distance, while still being far enough back that you do not get mowed over by faster swimmers. I treaded water while Mike "The Voice of IRONMAN" Reilly got the crowd excited. A few minutes before the starting gun, they played the Star Spangled Banner, which ended with a roaring crowd and more than a few athletes yelling "Play Ball!".

Once the gun went off it was down to business. I am not a fast swimmer, so my plan was to draft as much as possible and make it out of the water sometime between 1:20 and 1:30. The early parts of the swim reminded me of what it would probably be like to be a member of a zombie horde. You really cannot see or hear much, and everyone just stumbles along more or less in the same direction.

In general I just plodded along doing my best to keep clear water in front of me and sighting from one buoy to the next. I forgot to make a count of the buoys before the swim started, so I settled into a sustainable groove and kept following the yellow buoys until that gorgeous red turnaround buoy appeared in the distance. The way back is easier to swim because the field of swimmers is a lot more spread out and you can judge your remaining distance by sighting the two bridges just before the swim exit.

As for complications, I barely ran into any at all. Until you get past the turn buoy, the big struggle is to find clear water and avoid athletes who suddenly stop. If you feel like you need to stop during a mass swim, please turn backwards to face oncoming traffic. Most swimmers are more focused on buoy sighting, so there is little chance that they will see you in time.

Other than that, the other big thing to watch out for is swimmers who converge into you. Shortly after the start you are more or less in a pod of people going about the same speed, but not exactly the same direction. The challenge is to "de-couple" once you find yourself converging with another swimmer. Your strokes tend to become synchronized and you have to work at making sure there is enough spacing between you. If there is clear water, you can adjust pretty easily. Otherwise you just have to accept that you are going to bump into someone a few times while you get things sorted out. Most people are cooperative and do their best to make room, although a small minority seemed to want to hold their line at all costs.

All told I got hit in the face twice, and had a few additional bumps here and there. Otherwise everything was fine. I heard some stories of people taking a foot to the face, but none of them appeared to have suffered any real injury. Another athlete told me stories of people swimming over the top of him, but nothing like that happened to me. The best way to avoid anything like that is to be realistic about your swimming abilities and start a bit further back than you think you should.

As you cross under the two bridges near the end of the swim, you can really hear Mike Reilly and the crowds cheering the athletes on. The crowd noise and the image of the swim exit as you round that last corner were really motivating and it made that last leg of the swim a lot of fun. I have to admit that I was a little sad for that part of the race to be over - and trust me, I am no big fan of swimming.

Since the water was so low this year, the bottom step of the swim exit was above the water level. This required some effort to actually get out of the water. The idea was to put your back to the exit and hoist yourself up into a sitting position on the bottom step. Then you twist around, and use the rail to pull yourself to your feet. A volunteer is there to help, but I was surprisingly stable getting out of the water and did not need any help.

The first order of business was to raise my goggles to my forehead and strip my wetsuit down to my waist in one graceful motion - all while walk-running with a large pack of athletes who are doing more or less the same thing. Next you encounter the wetsuit strippers who have you lay down so they can get the rest of you out of your wetsuit in about 3.5 nanoseconds.

Once I had my wetsuit off, I made my way over to the changing tent while stripping off my swim caps, goggles, and ear plugs. I passed by the Blue bike transition bag area, yelled out my number and my bike transition bag magically appeared in my hand courtesy of a very helpful volunteer. Since I finished the swim in 1:25, the most average time imaginable, it was prime time in the changing tent.

I managed to find an open chair, and used it to hold my swim gear while I rummaged through my bag for my bike gear. Contrary to what you would imagine, you really do not need a towel in T1. You may be a bit wet, but it dries off incredibly fast, and even putting on socks is not that hard by the time you get to the changing tent. The only issue I encountered was all of the dried grass that sticks to your feet - I was still picking it out of my luggage after we got home. For that reason alone, I will probably bring a small towel next time to get the gunk off of my feet before I put my socks on.

Some of the athletes were doing a full change of clothes, I opted to remain in my tri-suit for the bike - which turned out to be a good idea. Once I was ready to ride, I stuffed my swim gear into my Blue bike bag, handed it off to a volunteer, and then went over to the Sunscreen volunteers to get all of my pasty white Irish skin covered. From there I headed over to my numbered bike location, shoved my cleat covers into my saddle bag, and walked my bike out of the transition area and to the bicycle mount line.

Once I crossed the bicycle mount line, I was officially out of T1 and on to the bike portion of the race. My target speed of 18.8 mph has me through the bike course in just under 6 hours and leaves me with plenty of "juice" to run the marathon. On a flat course with relatively calm winds, this translates to around 175 watts, well under 80% of my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) of 267 watts. If I went all out, I could probably do the course in under five hours, but I would have absolutely nothing left for the run.

Like my old Chief Engineer used to say, no plan withstands first contact with the enemy. The winds turned out to be a sustained 40 knot headwind on the climbing portion of the course. I later found out that they were the strongest in the 11 year history of the race. This makes it all the more amazing that someone broke the course record this year - two time Olympian, Brent McMahon finished in 7 hours 55 minutes!

Despite the wind I was still able to complete the first lap exactly on schedule. I took stock of my situation after that, and realized there was no way I was going to have anything left if I kept the same pace for the remaining two laps. I dialed it down quite a bit and did my best to make up time on the downwind side of the course. I lost 15 minutes on the second lap and 30 minutes on the third lap. I think I could have done better, but after my complete meltdown on the run at IRONMAN St. George, I was trying to be as cautious as possible.

Another issue on the bike was my fueling plan. Originally it called for a mix of Honey Stinger gels and mixed nuts - something I had tested throughout my training. Unfortunately my stomach completely shut down just after the beginning of the ride, and I had to abandon all forms of solid food and stick to gels (one every ten miles). This was not nearly enough calories to get me through the race, but it was better than nothing. I put a can of Red Bull in my special needs bag and downed it during my second lap and that helped immensely. About five minutes after drinking it the world got brighter and AC/DC poured forth from the skies! I have a lot of work to do on my fueling plan for next year, but I am fairly certain that more Red Bull will be part of it.

One thing I did get right was to not waste any weight carrying my own hydration. The volunteers have stations set up every ten miles with a variety of drinks and food, including water bottles with pop tops that fit perfectly in your bike cage.

As I got closer to the bike leg finish, I was quite ready to get off the bike. A tri-suit does not have the usual amount of padding, and riding in a hunched over "semi-aero" position takes its toll after a while. Aside from the positioning issues, I came into the bike transition feeling really good. About a mile out I started loosening my shoes, and by the dismount line I was able to pull my feet out and leave the shoes attached to the pedals. A volunteer took my bike while I trotted over to the run transition bag area. I yelled out my number, a volunteer handed me my bag, and I was on my way into the changing tent once again.

The changing tent was still chaotic, but not nearly as much as during the T1 transition. I found a seat and got to work switching out my bike gear for my run gear. Instead of doing the Marathon in my tri-suit, I opted to change into traditional running gear. It took me an extra few minutes, but it added a lot of comfort to a very long run. Also, in future races I may try doing the bike ride without any socks. I do not believe the socks helped me at all, and I ended up changing into a new pair for the run.

I noticed in the changing tent that my right eye was very cloudy. I thought my contact lens had gotten "gunked" up, but my right eye was still cloudy after removing the lens that night. I have no idea what it was, but the cloudiness was gone when I woke up the next morning.

Once I was ready to go I stuffed all of my bike gear into my run transition bag, handed it off to a volunteer, and hit the sunblock station. I should note that I was surprised at how little the sun seemed to affect me until I noticed a very red silver dollar sized area on my back the day after the race. The sunblock applicators missed a small spot and I had a very ominous demonstration of just how bad I would have been burned had I not been so diligent about being covered.

Looking back at IRONMAN St. George 70.3 in May, 2013, I remember feeling like death when I left T2. 13.1 miles seemed like a lot at the time, but I was incredibly grateful to not have a whole marathon ahead of me. Much of my training since then has focused on making sure that never happens again. I learned to budget my energy on the bike better, and I did a lot of bike to run training to get used to the feel of running after a bike ride. It seemed to pay off this time because I felt amazing once I started running. Truth be told, I felt like I had not even ridden a bike at all. Granted, this feeling did not last very long, but I felt very happy knowing that I had made some major progress on one of my biggest problems.

My first mile was a respectable 9:17, and the next six averaged just over ten. From there my average settled in at 12:32 per mile. This was actually a slower overall pace than IRONMAN St. George, but the distances were much longer and I felt a lot better. All things considered, I feel like it was a major improvement. For comparison, when running fresh, I can easily lay down 8 minute miles for a half marathon, and I just did my first ever sub-20 minute 5k.

Once again my digestive system completely shut down, and I was not able to take anything in but water. This happened shortly after the first mile, and did not let up for the next five miles. I felt certain that I was going to puke a few times during that period, especially after forcing myself to down a gel at mile three, but nothing happened and the feeling slowly passed.

I have no idea why all of these digestive issues happened to me, but I will be looking into it as part of my 2015 training plan. After the sixth mile, I started drinking watered down Coke with some ice in it at every aid station, and added cups of warm chicken broth once they started making them available after sundown. My body tolerated all of that quite well. Ultimately my performance is going to be limited if I do not solve this fueling problem...

I managed to run the first six miles, only walking briefly through the aid stations. After mile seven my quads really started to hurt and my walk through the aid stations took longer and longer. By mile 15 I met up with another racer who was going my speed, and we started a pattern of walking a quarter mile and running three quarters of a mile. It was painful, but doable. We also had some great conversations that did a lot for our mental focus.

By mile 24 you can really hear Mike Reilly and the crowds in the distance. We hit the last aid station at mile 25 and did a little extra walking so we could hit the finish strong. At the last 0.2 miles, the road bends to the right and goes up a slight incline. This is where the crowds start to line up, and they get thicker and thicker as you enter the finish area. As we approached the corner I felt like it was time to put what energy I had left into the final run to the finish. I thought my running partner was going to come with me, but as I picked up speed, he wished me well. I told him I would see him at the finish line and took off. It felt good to pick up speed like that, but I knew I could not sustain it for very long.

The finish was an absolute blur. All I remember seeing through my cloudy vision was a lot of flashes and the approximate location of the finish line. I vaguely remember hearing my name called and the title of IRONMAN conferred on me by Mike Reilly, as well as the cheering crowd noise in the background. I also remembered to not touch my Garmin watch until well after I crossed the finish line. They warn you about this in the race packet. Apparently a lot of athletes cross the finish line with their head down and their hand pressing buttons on their watch. It makes for a terrible picture as you cross the finish line.

As soon as I crossed the finish line I stopped running and nearly fell over. One of the volunteer catchers grabbed me and held me upright while another volunteer removed my timing chip and gave me a foil blanket. My catcher walked me over to get my finisher medal, hat, and t-shirt, and then took me to the picture station to get my finisher picture taken. Finally, she brought me over to the food tent, put me in a chair, and got me some of the best tasting cold pizza in the whole freaking world. Right next to the food tent was a free massage area, which I took full advantage of. I am not sure if it was the 13+ hour effort, or the magic hands on my masseuse, but that massage felt amazing.

Other than finding it hard to walk, the only real issue after finishing was that I could not regulate my own body temperature. I am not sure what I would have done without that foil blanket.

The whole area from the finish chute on back to the rest area is for athletes only, so the wife and the boy had to greet me from the fence. I was really happy to see them, but could barely get out of the chair to give them a hug. It turns out they had already gotten my bike out of the transition area and turned it in to the TriBike Transport people. They also picked up my transition bags and were ready to go as soon as I was rested enough to walk out of there. Since they ended up parking a mile away from the finish line, we took a bike taxi to the rental car. Normally I would never pay for something like that, but this time it was worth every penny - plus the guy had some killer tunes playing on his sound system.

We got back to the hotel where I had a nice soak in the tub to wash the stink off, and then hit the sack feeling very satisfied. I lounged around the hotel the whole next day while the wife and boy went to do some college campus tours and check out Sedona. I was really sore for the next few days, but by the second day after the race, I felt good enough to race the boy up several flights of stairs - which I won quite handily.

I want to save the final words in this post for the amazing volunteers. At every station and situation, the volunteers were well trained, highly enthusiastic, and ready to help in any way possible. I did not suffer a moment of confusion, or unnecessary discomfort thanks to them. They did their best to energetically support all of the athletes from sunrise to long after sunset and I have nothing but effusive praise for them. I wish all of the volunteers the very best and give them my sincere thanks for their time and energy!

Swim Gear
  • Body Glide (Makes it easier to get into the wetsuit)
  • Wetsuit
  • Base swim cap
  • Goggles
  • Top swim cap
  • Defogger (I never ended up using this because my goggles were still fairly new)
  • Ear plugs
  • Garmin 910xt

Blue Bag (T1 - Swim to Bike)
  • 220 Calorie bottle of Ensure (Ended up drinking this)
  • Can of Red Bull (Cannot remember if I drank this)
  • Water bottle with plain water in it (Took a few swings of this)
  • Chamois Butt'r (I used tons of this in the morning, so none was needed)
  • Mole skin (I used this for a spot on my foot that tends to chafe a lot)
  • Socks (I wore these, but may not do so again at the next race)
  • Bike shoes
  • Helmet
  • Sunglasses
  • Athlete Tracker

Orange Bag (Bike Special Needs)
  • Red Bull (I ended up drinking this)
  • Snickers (Never ate it)
  • Chamois Butt'r
  • Fruit snacks (Never ate 'em)
  • Moleskins (Did not need them)

Red Bag (T2 - Bike to Run)
  • Amphipod with mixed nuts (Did not end up using this)
  • Fuel belt with race number and 10x Honey Stingers (Only used one Honey Stinger)
  • Small towel (Used to clear sweat out of my eyes; only needed it once on the run)
  • Chamois Butt'r
  • Socks (Definitely used these)
  • Moleskin (Had to re-apply because the first one came off with my bike socks)
  • Running Shoes
  • White running cap (Very helpful in all conditions)
  • Bottle of water (Took a few swigs from this)
  • Running shorts and tech shirt (Changed into these in the changing tent)
  • Tube of salt pills and some chewable Pepto (Took all of it)

Black Bag (Run Special Needs - I never used any of this)
  • Tube of salt pills and some chewable Pepto
  • Moleskins
  • Chamois Butt'r
  • Pro Bar
  • Red Bull
  • Snickers
  • Beef Jerkey
  • Fruit Snacks

Other stuff I packed in my giant duffle bag...
  • Bicycle Pump (Came in very handy)
  • Garmin 910xt charger
  • Garmin 800 (So I could read my stats on the bike without looking at my watch)
  • Garmin 800 charger
  • Pedal Wrench (Did not need it)
  • Cassette Socket (Did not need it)
  • Torque Wrench (Used it, but could have left it at home)
  • Socket Set (Used it, but could have left it at home)
  • Crank Tightener (Did not need it)
  • Chain link tool (Did not need it)
  • Precision driver set (Handy for changing batteries in the hear rate monitor, etc)
  • Scissors (Surprisingly handy)
  • Bike mounted fuel pouch (Very handy for storing gel wrappers, and solid food)
  • 4x Bike bottles (I used three of these)
  • Spare CR2032 batteries (I did not need any, but was glad to have them)
  • 2x Spare tubes (Thankfully did not need these)
  • Di2 charger (Did not need it)
  • Electrical Tape (Fantastically useful for mounting gels to bike top tube)
  • Clear plastic tape (I forget why I had this...)
  • Safety pins (Very useful for double securing race chip)
  • Sunblock (I should have used more of this, I got a light sunburn on Thursday...)

And last but not least, my official race results:

  • Distance: 2.4 miles
  • Split Time: 1:25:26
  • Race Time: 1:25:26
  • Pace: 2:12/100m
  • Division Rank: 238 of 502
  • Gender Rank: 1112 of 2270
  • Overall Rank: 1427 of 3202

T1: 00:08:32

  • Distance: 112 miles
  • Split Time: 06:41:31
  • Race Time: 08:15:29
  • Pace: 16.74 mph
  • Division Rank: 246 of 502
  • Gender Rank: 1098 of 2270
  • Overall Rank: 1366 of 3202

T2: 00:07:49

  • Distance: 26.2 miles
  • Split Time: 05:24:09
  • Race Time: 13:47:27
  • Pace: 12:22/mi
  • Division Rank: 244 of 502
  • Gender Rank: 1062 of 2270
  • Overall Rank: 1358 of 3202

Finisher Breakdown
  • 2390 finishers out of 3202 signed up.
  • 1696 male finishers out of 2270 signed up.
  • 378 male 40-44 finishers out of 502 signed up.
  • 2639 registered participants started the race.
  • 563 registered participants had a DNS (Did Not Start)
  • 241 registered participants had a DNF (Did Not Finish)
  • 8 registered participants had a DQ (Disqualified)

My Overall Percentiles
  • Male 40-44: 51st percentile (registrants), 35th percentile (finishers)
  • Male: 53rd percentile (registrants), 37th percentile (finishers)
  • Overall: 57th percentile (registrants), 43rd percentile (finishers)

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