Tuesday, September 24, 2013

To Achieve a Good Time, or to Have a Good Time?


Wow! Do I know how to pick an Ironman!  First, my previous Ironman’s were in St. George, Utah. The first two were felt to be quite difficult (the first had extremely cold water temperature and the second had an extremely hot run, in addition to a very difficult course) and the last one in 2012 has arguably been felt to be the most difficult Ironman of all time, with a DNF (Did Not Finish) rate over 30%.  When I signed up for Ironman Lake Tahoe I didn't quite realize what I was getting into. Yes, it was at a higher altitude than any ironman I had ever done. Yes, it had a lot of climbing. Finally, the possibility of inclement weather in September in Lake Tahoe was always in the background. I arrived in Lake Tahoe a week before the race in order to get acclimated to the altitude. This actually worked pretty well and my breathing was fine by race day. From the day I arrived, however, the weather report started calling for rain and cold weather the weekend of the race. I spent a fair amount of time obsessing over what I would wear on race day.  I have to say this turned out to be very useful with a couple of exceptions that I hadn’t anticipated. The day before the race there were some weather reports that were forecasting freezing temperatures on race day but when we woke up it looked like the temperature would “only” be in the low 30s. The day before the race one brings their gear bags to both transitions. It turned out we put our gear bags outside on the ground for the swim to bike transition and our run bags in a tent for the bike to run transition. While I had duct taped the top of my bike transition bag I still worried the night before the race that because it had been raining all day that it could get wet so when I arrived on race morning I checked the bag and my clothes at the top of the bag were dry. Despite all my planning and preparation I was somewhat scatterbrained on the morning of the race and ultimately forgot to do a few things like putting my red potatoes in my special-needs bag, or to calibrate my power meter on my bike, and a few other items. Because of the cold weather I decided to try to get to the race venue a little later than usual so I would not be spending as much time outside. In the end, I found myself rushing to get bodymarked, put my wetsuit on, get my bike calibrated, and put a cover over the opening to the stem on my disc wheel and get ready to get the beach in time for the start.  I arrived in the corral just a few minutes before the race was to start. In fact, I was still tightening up my wetsuit, pulling it up, getting it properly on with just a few minutes to spare when suddenly there was a tear in the crease of my right elbow about size of a quarter on my wetsuit. There was really nothing I could do about this except make sure I didn't make the tear bigger and monitor it during the swim. Fortunately, the water conditions were “good”. Because there was little wind there were no waves and the water temperature was about 63° out in the middle of the lake but probably in the 50’s in the shallow part as we waded in about 100 yards to the area of the lake where we would actually be able to start swimming. This wasn't too much of a problem at the beginning of the swim, but subsequently when getting out of the water would lead to increased issues as we exited in cold water, then walked up freaking cold sand and concrete to the changing tent. 

This race used a rolling start where the athletes seed themselves based on their expected time. I had previously swam about an hour and 10 minutes, with the exception of the 2012 St. George swim, but my swim has recently improved and I thought I could go a little faster so I seeded myself in the group that expected to go between one hour and an hour and 10 minutes. Let me start by saying this swim probably ended up being about four or five minutes slower than most swims, based on the times of the professional triathetes. Part of this may have been due to the cold temperatures but more likely was having to wade out approximately 100 yards before being able to swim both going in and coming out of the water. The first group started at 6:40 AM and I slowly walked to the starting line and then made my way fairly quickly into the water. I splashed cold water on my face which I knew with the cold temperatures would be important so as not to shock my system. I did my best to high step out as far as I could into the water and then when the water got above my knees to start swimming. I did keep a pretty good pace with the people around me and didn't feel like I was falling back or anything. I immediately headed towards the first swim buoy and I will say for this race I did a pretty good job of staying straight although I might've drifted a couple times. I realized that I was best to stay on the inside towards the buoys and because I breath to my right I can watch to make sure that I'm keeping the majority of the swimmers just to my right. The water was definitely cold right in the shallow parts of the lake but as we got going it was relatively comfortable. Obviously the first thing I paid attention to was the hole in the crease of my right elbow of my wetsuit. A couple of times I could feel water entering the wetsuit at the point of the tear, but quickly realized that really only occurred when I didn’t keep my elbow up during my swim stroke. Ironically, high elbows are a really important part of good swim form so I spent the rest of the swim focused on keeping my elbows high and really only felt water coming in a few times. I even thought to myself laughingly that perhaps I shouldn't repair this hole because it might be a good reminder to keep my form during a swim. I also thought about what this was portending for the rest of the day.  2013 had already had it’s share of challenges for me and my family.  Since I started with a group of people who should be swimming around my pace, it really wasn't difficult to swim along with the group and to find people to draft off. I got into a good rhythm and just got into my head that I was trying to swim comfortably, not too hard, and enjoy swimming in Lake Tahoe. Occasionally it got crowded and people pushed into me and I would push them away, especially around the turn buoy where I literally grabbed hold of some people to make my way around the buoy. About two thirds of the way through the first lap a woman punched me in the face. I don't think it was on purpose but who knows? It was the first time I've ever been hit by a woman while swimming in a triathlon. We made our way around the first loop and after I turned to start the second loop I looked at my watch and realized the first loop had taken me about 35 minutes, so I was pretty much on track with my swim. The second loop was fairly uneventful, in fact it cleared up a little bit for a while and I even went a short period of time without being able to draft off anyone. Then, I  found some people that were going about my pace and got behind them and tried to maintain a good comfortable effort and pace. When drafting I will at times touch the foot of the person in front of me and I had a number of swimmers that started kicking really hard to push me away. I don't do this, in fact when someone is drafting off me, I think it's okay for them to touch my feet and I wish other people would feel the same, but what the heck. As I came to the end of the swim I was feeling pretty good as I walked out of the water and started taking off my wetsuit I could feel the cold sand, as we were walking and literally as we made our way to grab our transition bag I began losing sensation in my feet. In fact by the time I grabbed my transition bag and moved over to the wetsuit strippers I literally couldn't feel my feet. They literally felt like two blocks of ice. On a sidenote I'm sure the people who swam for a longer period of time, or those who used short-sleeved wetsuits, were destined to get hypothermic during the swim and absolutely it didn't take long with 34° temperatures after leaving the water to have your body temperature go down pretty quickly.

Entering the changing tent was an experience to say the least. I saw one description on Facebook that describe the situation in the changing tent as a cluster fuck. The bottom line is despite the fact that my swim was in the top 25th percentile of all the athletes (one hour and eleven minutes) the changing tent was already completely packed with athletes. It was a completely disorganized mob scene with people roaming around trying to find a place to change, some were changing at chairs, others just changing right there in the middle of the tent and literally you could actually have trouble finding an empty space of any sort.  Furthermore, it was dark and you could hardly see.  I made my way to the far end of the tent and found a seat that was empty and put my gear bag on it and opened it up. I opened it up and started getting into my race gear. I realized that the first thing I needed to do was get dry and clean my feet so I moved my bag to the front of the seat, sat down, grabbed a towel and started drying myself off. I stood up and put on my racing pants and then my racing top, which I needed a little help from the volunteer to put on, and then put on my arm warmers which also needed some help. They'd been much easier to put on when I was practicing in my hotel room where it was nice and warm and dry but in the cold and damp conditions it was a bit tougher to put on the arm warmers. I then put on my new Jabba winter cycling jersey and then put on a second set of arm warmers. Finally I put on a lightweight short sleeve windbreaker and sat down in my chair and I went to take care of putting on my bike shoes. Once again, I went to dry my feet off and then went to take the socks out of my bike shoes and to my dismay found that my socks were wet! Lesson number one for the future if there's any chance of inclement weather, put your socks in a Ziploc bag so this does not happen. I did have shoe covers on my bike shoes and so I had to make a quick decision whether or not to put on wet socks in freezing cold temperatures or to go without socks. I thought briefly about this and made a quick decision to go sockless and deal with the consequences. I at least figured the shoe covers would protect my feet from the wind and sooner or later my feet would warm up. On the course they didn’t warm up till about halfway through the bike. I finished putting both my shoes on and zipping up the shoe covers. Of note probably because of the way I put the shoe covers on they were never fully zipped, and during the whole ride I intermittently would have to reach down and rezip them up or they were just sort of partially open and dangling, not the most aerodynamic set up. Next I went to get my gloves and again to my dismay my gloves were soaked. This was a really tough decision.  Do I put on wet gloves, which first of all would've been hard to put on and then go out and have my gloves freeze to my hands or do I go without gloves? Once again I made a quick decision to go without gloves. I knew my hands would hurt but sooner or later they would probably warm-up. This is an interesting calculation because we didn't really know what the high temperature for the day would be and in fact I'm not sure it ever got out of the mid 50’s and there was more cloud cover then I would've expected based on the weather report. Yes, I almost forgot to mention that while sitting on my chair someone stepped on my toes. Of course I couldn't feel it because my toes were numb.  Finally, I got up and I made my way ever so slowly out of the changing tent, through the mass of dazed athletes, and walk/ran in my bike shoes all the way around the bike transition to the far end where my bike was. I really did not like the layout of this bike transition.  The way it was set up made for an interminably long transition.  First, the changing tents were difficult to navigate and secondly you had to run all the way around all the bikes to get your bike and then run back through the entire bike set up to get out of the transition. I would much prefer the St. George set up where we literally came out of the swim into the changing tent and out of the changing tent straight through all the bikes and even had volunteers helping us grab our bikes and getting them to us as we ran out of the of the bike transition to start on the bike course. So in the end my transition from the swim to the bike took 18 minutes. I'm not sure that this was that much longer than a lot of people’s transition time and certainly shorter then some. For those who were slower swimmers this certainly would've presented a problem in making the swim time cut off.     

 I mounted my bike and made a sweeping right turn coming out of the transition, and there was Rudy holding a pair of gloves but I just saw him at the last second and couldn't really stop. In retrospect I should have. I made my way down the main road in Lake Tahoe and quickly got up to speed going around 20 miles an hour.  My legs felt good and my power readings were about where they should be and my fingers were cold. I blew on them every 30 seconds or so which probably wasn't the most aerodynamic thing to do. I started taking sips of my electrolyte drink and there was a short little turn off and a little hill that they had put on the course that we went up three times throughout the course of the day. It seemed like on this course despite the fact that there were two major climbs that they decided to put in a bunch of other short little climbs just to make things all the more difficult. Next was Dollar Hill which was basically about a 7/10 of a mile climb which the first time up it really wasn't too bad. I took my time and hoped that I would be warming up but I looked up the sky and it was cloudy. Originally I thought that there'd be sun out on the course and despite the mid 30s it could warm things up but nope that was not to be the case. Typical to my way of thinking I realized that I didn't have gloves and I wasn't going to have gloves and my fingers were going to be cold so I better figure out how to deal with. Ironically, my fingers began to hurt so I never really paid too much attention to the fact that my toes were frozen as well. I had the red potatoes in a little bag on top of my top tube and it was “fun” picking those up with frozen fingers but I did manage to get my nutrition for the day. This is actually very important as it all three previous Ironman St. George’s I had stomach problems on the bike with cramping that generally continued throughout my run. I have recently been playing with the red potatoes with a little olive oil and salt on them and this seems to both provide good nutrition as well as keep my stomach under control. I also had some gels that were made primarily of honey which I can tolerate but they were in my Gabba jersey which was covered by my windbreaker which is why every time I reached to get the gels out of my jersey I couldn't. It's kind of funny what you think and don't think about during the race because it took me about halfway through the race to realize that my windbreaker was covering the back of my jersey! So instead of those gels I just grabbed a couple gels from the aid station as I went by. In the week leading up to the race I had ridden on this road a couple times and there generally was a tailwind. Today there was a headwind. Nevertheless I kept a fairly good pace on this part of the route, although it would've probably been a little easier to go a little harder if I wasn't in pain from my fingers. As I rode, I recalled that the one special needs bag station was right off theisroad and I began hoping that it was within sight of the bike course and I thought maybe I can go get my gloves which I thought I had put in the special-needs bag. Interestingly my gloves were in my run transition bag so that wouldn't have mattered and fortunately the special-needs stop was not within sight of the bike course. As I worked my way into the town of Truckee I knew that Rudy had planned to be there seeing me as I made my turn from Truckee at the 25 mile mark. I began to hope that perhaps Rudy would've thought to bring my gloves to that spot and fortunately he did. While one is not supposed to receive assistance from anyone outside the course, I figured that it was more important for my health and well-being that I get gloves on. I pulled over and couldn't even put the gloves on myself. Rudy put them on my hands and I took off once again. Shortly after I started shivering and realized that I had been on the verge of hypothermia. I hoped and was correct that after a while my hands warmed up with gloves which by the way weren't the most aerodynamic gloves, but they certainly were warm. Shortly after the town of Truckee we had a turn off to yet another climb and a bikepath where there was a brief respite because of a no passing zone. I always like these because it was a short break and less pressure not worrying that someone is going to pass you during this time and so there's no pressure to speed up or go faster. Coming out of the short climb we turned onto the road and made our way again after a series of other short climbs and then down towards Martis Camp. Apparently, the people who live in this area didn't want cyclists riding through it preparing for the race, so there was no way of checking out this part of the course prior to race day. Now that I've rode through it I have no idea what they were concerned about because we really weren’t riding through neighborhoods or near houses or anything like that. 

 The more problematic aspect of the climb through Martis camp was the fact that you have short relatively steep climbs and then descents, but at the bottom of the descent would be sharp right turns leading to the next climb so you couldn't carry the speed into them. I had originally thought that climbing Martis Camp was just a basic 3 mile climb but it turned out to be a series of smaller climbs after smaller climbs. Finally, coming down from the top of Martis Camp we had a relatively technical descent that didn't allow us to really get our speed going too much. As we finished that, we then had the major climb up to the top of Brockway Summit. That was an approximately 3 mile climb that got steeper as you reached the final part of the climb, probably close to 10%. Turns out the pros were going about 8 to 9 mph on this climb and my speed up the climb was about five and half miles per hour the first time. We'll talk about the second time later on. As I climbed I was passed by a ton of people. I still think the most likely reason is that people tend to put out more power going up climbs and I choose to maintain my power but also on the flats keep my power at the same level whereas others probably don't do that. Considering that I typically tend to catch the people who passed me on the climbs I don't have any plan in the future to change that strategy. Coming down the other side of Brockway was a very fast screaming descent, where I hit 43 miles an hour while generally staying out of my aero bars but occasionally went into them for a brief period of time. As we came to the bottom I finished the first loop of the bike course. I have to acknowledge that I never looked at my watch to see how long it was taking and interestingly it didn't seem like it'd taken that long. This is probably a testament to my continued attempts and approach to stay in the moment and enjoy the race. I think that on my way again through Tahoe city and back onto the second loop of the bike course I was actually feeling fairly good.

Part of the way into the second loop I was passed by a woman named Betsy that I had met a couple night’s before. She’s an excellent cyclist and I had actually expected her to catch me earlier than this so that felt pretty good. I then passed Betsy and was staying behind another cyclist by the requisite 7 m so that I was not subject to any drafting penalty. I was very careful having received a drafting penalty in one of my last races, not to put myself in that position again during this race. After drafting legally for a period of time I passed him and then realized it was my friend Toby who then passed me back.  We continued this for a while until we got to Truckee and Toby pushed ahead which didn't surprise me. I had been surprised to see Toby at this point of the race figuring that he always swims faster and bikes faster than me. It turns out that despite a fairly solid swim he ended up spending 35 minutes in the first transition, needing the warming tent to get warmed up because he probably was hypothermic. I think it's important to make a comment about hypothermia. I remember from the 2010 St. George race that many people got hypothermic during the swim. The amount of energy and calories burned that hypothermia takes on the body is certainly a huge factor in a race as long as ironman. I know that it affected Toby's race and in retrospect I'm sure that if I had been able to keep warm coming out of the swim onto the bike by keeping my hands and feet warm I certainly couldn't have save a little more energy to expend during the Bike or to preserve for the run. The other notable factory is that if you're burning more calories it's not so simple to take in more calories during the race because there's only so much that your body can handle at any time. I think in the future that Ironman Lake Tahoe is going to have to give a lot of consideration to this because a 30° temperature situation for an Ironman has a profound effect. I can only wonder what would've happened if this race was held a day earlier when it was cold and raining. I think they would've had to call off the race under those circumstances. 
During my training I had been holding and trying to maintain about 170 watts of power during my bike rides and during this race my wattage was closer to 160 W. I think between the cold weather and the altitude that this probably was not too bad. As I headed to Martis Camp the second time it wasn't much more difficult but I was noticing the hills a little more and began wondering how the Brockway climb would feel. Of note, I had noticed some cramping in my left quad a few times earlier in the race when I pushed a little harder on my pedals but I'd been careful and this did not return. As I headed up the Brockway climb the second time, it was a bit of a grind and about two thirds of the way up I stood up on my pdtals for a brief moment and my left quad just seized up. I immediately thought about what I needed to do and realized that if I continued to try to push up the climb I would risk some greater problem with that quad that might affect the rest of my ride and even more during the run. I did a quick calculation and figured that I was about a mile from the summit.  I got off my bike and walked the mile. I figured that by doing so I would probably lose about 10 minutes and in fact that's exactly what I lost timewise. As I got to the top of the climb I stopped and got some energy drink and as I was pouring energy drink I finally was able to pee.  Granted, right there standing next to my bike, in  bike shorts and down my leg. But, I was able to get some water to rinse off my leg. I for one have always had trouble being able to pee while riding my bike. This is a skill that perhaps I need to practice. Somehow, I'm not sure if I really can learn this skill as it may be more of a physiological issue. 

It was nice getting on the bike going down the Brockway descent again, giving my legs a chance to recover and rest before the final turn to go towards the finish which would be about 22 miles. The weather forecast had been correct and the headwinds on the way back had started to pick up making the ride to the finish a little more challenging. I kept my effort reasonably solid but again didn't want to push too hard in order not to exacerbate any issues with my legs. I finally rolled into the transition and got off my bike.  My bike time was approximately seven hours and 15 minutes which placed me about 800 overall off the bike. Since over 2200 people started the race, that wasn’t too bad. This had been one tough bike course, and only two of the male professionals rode the bike course in under five hours and the average time for the female professionals was over six hours. I got my bag from the transition, sat down and methodically went through changing into my bike shoes, putting some salve on both of my quads and getting prepared for the run. 

It was time to decide what was going to happen next.  It's kind of funny because later on as I was talking to another couple of athletes one said he did ironman for the healthy lifestyle and the other said he did it for the challenge.  I realized that I do Ironman for both the lifestyle and the challenge which meant if there wasn't a specific challenge (from a time perspective) to be had then this was an opportunity to enjoy the rest of the day.

This was really a key moment in the race. I could have been disappointed in the day and my time and been negative but instead I chose to look at why I do ironman and what feeling I wanted to have the rest of the day. If I do Ironman for the lifestyle and for the camaraderie and for the experience then I needed to approach the rest of the day for all those reasons. If I couldn’t achieve a good time, then I could have a good time!  And so with that decision I began the rest of my race. I walked when I could and I ran when I felt like it and I talked to people as much as possible. I met Lou, a very nice gentleman in my age group who as it turns out in 2011 finished Ironman St. George within one minute of my time. We talked about our families, we talked about triathlon and it turned out that he trains with a team not that far from where I live. I ran into Liz Barlow or rather she ran into me. She turned and said, are you Mike Wasserman? I said yes, it turns out that I know her father, we used to go to the same health club in Denver and I had run into him a few days earlier and to some friends of theirs a couple days later. It's kind of funny how things like that happen in the midst of the day like ironman. As the evening went on I ended up walking and running with Ross and Denny and as we got a couple miles from the end I ran ahead to use the port a potty but realized I still had some running legs under me. I had wanted to run on the way to the finish and make sure that I ran through the village to the finish line. 

On a positive athletic note, when I did run my form was good, but there was just only so much running that I could do. Furthermore, I might've been able to run a little bit more and shave off a few minutes from my nearly 14 1/2 hour journey but I wouldn't trade that for the people I met and for the experience I had. One of my favorite television mini-series is Band of Brothers and that's what we all were on this day. We were all in this together.  The experience itself was what made the day so epic and in the end I wouldn’t have done it any other way, except for having dry gloves and socks on the bike.

In the spirit of being challenged I have Ironman New Zealand and Ironman Boulder next year and I look forward to seeing what I can do on flatter courses with one at low altitude and the other, Boulder, at high altitude. As many have commented on Facebook, beware of any race that I choose to sign up for.  My daughter suggested that Ironman New Zealand might be accompanied by an erupting volcano with hot lava running through the course!  Who knows what will happen in Boulder?

With that said, however, every Ironman stands on its own. The experiences one has doing an ironman will also stand on their own. I know that many of the 25% that did not finish yesterday are disappointed, but it really isn't about finishing. It is about the journey to get there and the work we put in that really matters. To this day one of my proudest accomplishment is my only DNF, which occurred in the 2009 Long course world championships in Perth, Australia. I had a bike crash shortly after starting the bike ride and managed to ride my bike 48 miles and walk 3 miles before going to the hospital with a fractured collarbone and hip socket. Instead of being disappointed I was proud that I pushed on as far as I could, although my wife thought I was insane!

My run/walk turned out to be my slowest ironman marathon ever, at 5 hours and 30 minutes.  I finished 71st in my age group, out of 159 that started the race.  Thirty five of them didn't finish.  I finished 936th overall, out of over 2200 who started the race.  Over 25 percent of them didn't finish.

As I ran through Squaw Village and the people lined up against the barriers were cheering me on, I made sure to high-five with any kids, smile, and to raise my arms in celebration. I managed to do the highest jump I could imagine doing as I crossed the finish.  I was an Ironman again.

3 comments:

David Guerra said...

michael, just finished reading your recap of the event. i love lake tahoe and this ironman looked tempting to me because i've gone there on vacation in the summer for many years. in fact, we usually end up booking a cabin very close to king's beach where the event was held. i've also ridden my bike around a similar loop there as well. one thing that really scared me about the race was the elevation and the cold. the fact that you got through this race in less than ideal conditions is a testament to your perseverance and being able to turn a potentially negative situation into a positive. anyway, enjoyed reading your recap and i'm glad you made it through and lived to tell the tale...congrats!

Bryonman said...

nice recap! way to go IronBro.

Nancy Lundebjerg said...

Mike -- finally had time to read this (OK, yes, i was home recuperating from toe surgery and could ahve read this earlier but I have not been reading at all -- sadly -- until this weekend (other than work)).

Anyhow, great to follow along on the race with you and was particularly impressed that you were able to think about the why in the transition from bike to run and make a key decision to enjoy yourself (while still finishing).

Love following your journey but I am HOPING for others sake that you have better luck with the weather in New Zealand and Boulder.