Not too long into my transition from “runner” to “racer” I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t spend any time looking behind you as something back there might very well catch you. When I am racing I am all eyes forward all the time. I’m looking ahead to the athletes in front of me, the next curve to the road or the next hill to be climbed. I don’t get caught from behind often, in fact I don’t remember being passed once on the 4-loop run during the half-marathon portion of the Kerrville Half-Ironman.
Finishing with the 6th fastest run time in the event, my memory is probably pretty spot-on, as the runners who were faster than me were also in front of me from earlier waves and/or stronger in the swim or on the bike than I was.
But after a race I do like to take a few days to let it all marinate a bit, remember the things that went as well as or better than expected and file those away for the next race. More importantly of course I try to honestly evaluate the rest of the race, the parts where I perhaps could have done things a bit differently and how I can improve the next time I am faced with the same challenge.
Wins from Kerrville clearly were:
1. Our training plan – I did not do what many athletes do when preparing for their “first” new endurance event such as a half-marathon, marathon, triathlon, half-ironman etc. and that is to look for a published training plan put together by another athlete, coach or “expert” to tell them what workouts to do on what days to prepare. I may not have ever toed the line at a half-ironman before, but I have trained for numerous races including a couple of Boston Marathons, a New York City Marathon, many half-marathons and a handful of short course TRI’s. I knew my fitness level and skill set going into training for Kerrville and I decided that I would know better than anyone else what I needed to do to be ready.
I created my grid, placed my workouts on the calendar and went to work. 3 swims, 3 bikes and either 4 or 5 run workouts every week depending on the schedule. That amounted to 10 or 11 individual workouts every 7-day period, with enough work across all three disciplines to either maintain or improve our fitness level, endurance and racing economy. I built up our mileage sensibly and made sure I had numerous swims, bikes and runs that exceeded the distance required to cover for that discipline on race day. Peaking with three different 3,000 meter swims vs. 1,931 on race day, a 20-mile run and several 16-18 milers vs. 13.1 on race day and several rides between 56 and 60 miles vs. 56 on race day.
Planning the work and then working the plan is part of every successful race I have ever put together. Kerrville was no different.
2. Race Day Nutrition Practice – I made sure to practice the type of fueling that would work best for me on race day during my long rides following my long swims on Saturday mornings. I monitored closely the amount of calories I took in at home after my swim, and the fluids and nutrition I took on the bike to reach the house feeling like I could hop out of the saddle and still be ready to knock out a long run without bonking. I ate the specific sports beans, including the flavor, stinger waffles and mixture of EFS, Gatorade and Water that I would carry on the bike in Kerrville.
I did not want to take any chances with race day nutrition and risk an upset stomach or an empty tank with miles to go on the run. We came pretty close to threading the needle on this one in our first attempt at the distance.
3. Transition planning and set-up – I took a lot of time prior to the race going over in my mind all of the potential problems I could run into on race day regarding my transition areas. Specifically I asked what I’m sure were “irritatingly stupid first-timer” questions of my friend Erin who had completed Kerrville last year, and numerous triathlons over the years including a full Ironman. By the time race day arrived I knew exactly how I wanted to set things up, what gear I would race in and where the potential “gotchas” might be as I perceived them prior to the event.
Of course we still had a timing chip issue, but I’ll save that one for the Misses section below.
4. Swim preparation – I am not a strong swimmer. This is a fact. Despite being able to swim somewhat far, I am not a fast swimmer, nor do I have a ton of open water/racing experience. You can swim all the laps that you want in the pool with a roped off lane and a thick black stripe to navigate by on the bottom, but swimming in open water in a crowd is different. Very different. Knowing that this was going to be my longest ever swim in competition and the fact that it would be our first wetsuit swim I needed to log some long swims in my suit to get ready for Kerrville. In 100 degree Texas weather, this was not going to be easy.
I swam several times at Deep Eddy Pool in Austin, which is a spring-fed outdoor pool with water temperature at 68 degrees year round. For those workouts I swam long and steady, no intervals or speed work, just non-stop steady swimming up to 3,300 meters. Just 500 meters short of twice the distance we would need to cover at Kerrville. I also shared a lane whenever possible with another swimmer to get some practice “swimming close” to another athlete. In hindsight these workouts were as beneficial as any of my other swims leading up to the race as I entered the water perhaps as calm as I ever have for a triathlon. I still had the usual nerves, but I was able to push through that initial uneasiness and post my fastest swim per 100M than I have at any triathlon in the past regardless of distance.
We are still not a strong swimmer, but for the first time the hole we were in after getting on the bike was not so large that we could not dig our way out of it. We were able to make the podium with a strong bike and run, but most importantly our swim kept us in the game. They say that you cannot win a triathlon in the water, but you can certainly lose it there. I would agree with that sentiment. We did just enough to give ourselves a fighting chance, and on race day, that is all any of us can ask for.
5. Race plan – Again, without a playbook to go by or any experience at this distance, determining our pace goals for the swim, bike and run was going to be challenging. I poured over the results from last year, compared my performance in previous triathlons to the same athletes at Kerrville in 2011 and tried to determine a rough estimate of what we might be capable of. I spent some time really thinking about pace vs. effort and just how hard I could push on race day. I knew that given the adrenaline rush of race day and the hopefully cooler temperatures that my “times” may be faster than my summer training paces given the same “effort”. The key is to not get scared and back off of your effort just because the numbers on your bike computer or your run watch are sending you signals that you are moving quickly. Monitor effort and ensure you are metering out your reserves according to how much “race” remains is the key.
You can race harder than you train. That is what training is for, especially training through fatigue. That is also the purpose of a proper pre-race taper.
6. Race Execution – Having a good plan is one thing, executing it well is something else all together. Back to my race report, as Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Having my race plan committed to memory and being committed to it – meaning that if things started to go wrong in one event I was going to stay calm, focused and stick to my plan in the other disciplines was a key on Sunday. At the end of the day the goal was to race all 70.3 miles no matter what happened out there. But a huge contributor to our final race result was my choice to go with the bike when it was coming “easy” to us early and not let it get into our head that we had finished the bike leg more than 8 minutes faster than we anticipated.
The plan on the run was to settle into a pace I could maintain for the opening 10-miles and that is what we did. Yes it got difficult in the end, but having the confidence to stay steady and not tuck tail and fold the tent was a critical piece in finishing the race strong. There were some dark moments fighting into the wind on the looping run course, but knowing we were on track to finish out the race on our terms was a big win in our first half-ironman.
The Misses in Kerrville:
1. The first 200 meters – If we are going to ever really make some serious noise in the Triathlon we are going to have to become a much more aggressive swimmer. :30 seconds before the horn as I was treading water behind the starting line. I looked around in the water and fond myself in the front 20% of the pack. I decided to move to the back, dropped 10 meters to the rear and started swimming about mid-pack. The distance I gave up and the “track position” was one thing. But the mind-set was something entirely different. I got passive. I decided to just go with the group instead of hammering out and making the swim my own race.
It took that other athlete’s kick to my face quite literally to wake me up and get me going. Thankfully he knocked a little sense into me and reminded me that I was in a race. Next time we are going to tap into that mindset at the start of the swim and compete from the horn to the shore. At the end of the day the difference over that 200 meters amounted to not even :40 seconds, but it is not in my nature to race that way. I need to be aggressive, set the tone, push myself and outwork the other athletes. I’m never going to be the most talented swimmer in the water. But I can work the hardest.
2. The chip – I need to make sure that I am aware of everything going on around me in and out of transitions. Whether someone else is pulling off my wetsuit or not, I need to be much more dialed in mentally and should have made damn sure I did not run into bike transition without my timing chip. I own that one 100% and if not for my amazing wife, we would have been an official “DNF” according to the event timers. As it was we finished in 5:06:57 and a 3rd place podium Age Group Finish.
3. Bike Transition – I did not practice pulling my bike off of the rack with the two water bottles tucked into my behind the seat bottle cage. The bottles were too tall, I needed to then push the bike out backwards which jostled off my front aero bottle. The strap came undone, I had to re-secure it and the entire fiasco cost me :30. At the end of the day the :30 seconds did not cost me placement in my age group, but I did finish just :01 seconds out of 17th place overall, finishing 18th. Without that slip up, I am one place higher in the final standings.
It is amazing that you can race 70.3 miles over 5 hours and it all comes down to :01 second – but that is the way the triathlon goes. Next time I will know better.
Other than those three misses, we had a pretty clean first half-ironman. Our clothing choices, shoe choices, nutrition, hydration, race plan, execution all really came together for us. My final glance over the shoulder at Kerrville is a very positive one. As we leave Triathlon season until 2013 and now shift our focus to the Houston Marathon in 14 1/2 weeks our eyes are firmly on the prize.
Sub 3 hours in Houston. Nothing else, and I mean nothing else is even remotely on my radar. We are going to race on Thanksgiving and again on December 7th at the Lights of Love 5K to benefit Ronald McDonald House here in Austin and on those days, in those moments we are going to push it as hard as we can and try to lay down a special effort. Thanksgiving will be our first 5-miler, so a PR will be established one way or another. At Lights of Love last year I missed my 5K PR by just :05 seconds. I would like to set a new one this year at that distance on a fast course for a great cause.
But both of those races will really be just a part of the journey on the way to Houston. Wednesday morning we went for our first run after the Half-Ironman, just 6.2 miles to knock the rust off and take some inventory. The legs felt strong and I closed with a final mile in 6:59, just a few ticks of the watch above marathon goal pace.
84 runs and 869.90 miles to go until we cross the finish line in Houston. Some of those miles will be fast, some will be slow. Some will be easy and some will be tough. There will be hot miles, cold miles and miles in between. I am going to get rained on for certain more than once and maybe even a snowflake or two. At the end of the day they are all going to lead to the same place. The starting line outside of Minute Maid Park in Houston on January 13th. 14,000 runners will be there all hoping for a personal best. Some of them will make it, some of them will not.
With good luck, good health and good weather I hope we get the chance to one more time see what we are made of. Days like last Sunday in Kerrville tell me we have what it takes to dig deep and grind it out when times are tough.
But right now we are a long way from the glamour of race day. We’re just a spot-light on a dark trail in the morning running along Brushy Creek 3 1/2 months away from race day. These are the runs that make all the difference.