The ironman triathlon is the ultimate endurance race for triathletes. To say that you are going to swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles, and then… do a marathon sounds crazy, especially to rational folk. It’s that last part, the marathon, that seemed the most difficult to wrap my head around. I’ve done a marathon, multiple long-distance bike rides (BSG, AML 400), and a half-ironman, but this sounded like an incredible, perhaps impossible challenge. But after reading a number of race reports, it seemed a number of people from all walks of life do ironman triathlons because of this ultimate challenge. For most, just finishing the race, even after 15 hours, is a major accomplishment.
For my first ironman race, I chose to do Beach to Battleship (Wilmington, NC) because a) it’s a relatively easy race (fast swim, pancake flat ride and run), b)it’s close (2.5h drive), and c) by the time I’d decided to do an ironman, most races had sold out. The race is an iron-distance triathlon (140.6 miles total), but not an Ironman-branded race (the Ironman name and brand are owned by the World Triathlon Corporation–a private company, sold recently by a private equity firm to a Chinese executive–that promotes races world-wide, its most famous for its world championship race, Kona).
For those new to triathlons, everyone races in five year age groups. For me, I would be racing in the 55-59 age group (AG). An interesting phenomena in this race and others is how the number of racers peaks in the mid 40’s age groups. Could this be an indication of the “mid-life fitness crisis”? Hard to say. The more important question was the exponential drop off in racers in the 50’s and 60’s. Are people getting wiser and not putting up with this nonsense? Are they getting injured and dropping out. If so, then are we left with either the “late-life fitness crisis” folks (unlikely) or the truly hard-core bad asses who have survived and thrived (likely and unsettling)? At any rate, my field end up being 30.
Getting to the Starting Line
Training for me was a little wonky over the summer. I’ve taken the last two years to do mountain bike racing. After dislocating my shoulder at ORAMM and suffering a “motivational lapse” at Cohutta/Big Frog, I decided to return to triathlons. A good transition race was an Xterra tri (Greensboro Xterra) that combined swimming, mountain biking, and a trail run. I’ve still been toying with long-distance bikepacking, so I was also training for and did the AML 400 as I was heading into B2B. I tried to combine the fitness from AML with swimming and running, emphasizing running since the marathon was going to be the most challenging.
I got Joe Freil and Gordon Byrn’s book, Going Long: Training for Triathlon’s Ultimate Challenge. The book is geared for beginners and intermediates doing an iron-distance triathlon. Here are a few quotes I found particularly useful:
For your first Ironman-distance race, you should build gradually toward a target of three key sessions each week (one for each sport): one long swim of 75–100 min., one long ride of 4–6 hours followed by a 20- to 30-min. transition run, and one long run of 90–150 min. Everything else is filler (emphasis added).
These key workouts are done over the course of first a month, then a fortnight, then a week, and finally a weekend.
That said, you should avoid the “death” weekends that many people recommend. For better recovery, plan your long run for midweek and your longest training day for the weekend. For example, you might opt to ride long on Sunday, swim long on Friday, and run long on Wednesday.
Be particularly careful with your running volume. Many athletes run far too much for Ironman-distance racing. Remember that the best place to build endurance and aerobic fitness is on your bike. Running beats you up, and the greatest challenge for most folks training for Ironman-distance racing is how fast they can recover. There should be a specific purpose to each run session. Remember that there is no such thing as a “recovery run.” Recovery sessions should be non-impact-oriented.
Marathon performance for this event is built on superior cycling fitness.
The core of your week is your longest endurance workout in each sport. Plan to build your swim up to 4,000 m, your ride up to 5 hours, and your run up to 2.5 hours. Build up very slowly: three weeks forward, one week back, repeat. Never add more than 5–10 percent in terms of duration to any week or any long workout—with your running, you would be wise to build less than 10 percent per month.
Given the need for a 55-year-old body to recover, my weeks usually involved 4 workouts, a key run, bike, and swim, plus an additional bike or run (I was least worried about the swim), all relatively long distance, separated by a recovery day (no workout), especially when a run was followed by a bike or vice versa. I mixed in a little tempo work but did almost no high intensity training. My overall training volume was a little over 10 hours a week (July, Aug, Sept, Oct), again, trying to balance recovery and key workouts (see below–the blip in the middle was the AML 400). This is less volume than most ironman training plans but I still felt I was going in prepared but more importantly, arriving at the starting line injury-free. Details on swim, bike, run volumes can be found here.
Besides staying injury-free, I had to battle off illness on the home front. Several weeks before the race, both my wife and daughter came down with a horrific cold, aches and pains, searing sore throat (strep negative), and then lots of lung congestion and endless coughing. I washed my hands like I had OCD; did not breath when I was in the house (does that increase lung capacity). No hugs. No kisses. No nothin’.
Gear and Equipment
Given the water temperature was predicted to be in the upper 60’s to lower 70’s, I chose a full-length wetsuit (thanks Brett!) as opposed to a sleeveless version. Under that, jammers and my DeSoto tri top and HR monitor (HR for the bike leg). The bike was a Giant carbon TT bike with HED wheels (thanks again Brett!), two water bottles and room for plenty of nutrition. I was going to wear cycling shorts (no bibs) with my tri top, a thermal vest and arm warmers (forecast: sunny, windy, in the 50’s)
For the run, I really like my DeSoto tri shorts. They are snug and have good compression. I’ll keep the tri top on and add compression sleeves for the calves and run in my trusty Asics. I had a long-sleeve shirt that I could put on if it got cold (low in the 40s that night) In my race belt, I had my clear lens for my glasses, chamois butter, and salt, along with 5 Gu’s on the belt.
Being a point to point to point race, the race logistics were a bit more complicated than a typical tri. To get organized, I put together a series of checklists (here). The swim begins at the tip of Wrightsville Beach (at Masonboro Inlet) and head down Banks Channel, with an incoming tide, to the Sea Path Marina. From there, a several hundred yard trot takes you over to a changing tent (given the distance of the bike, most folks change into cycling gear, especially for more padding than a normal tri short) and then out to grab your bike and off for the ride.
The ride heads from Wrightsville to Wilmington, then north on 421 and then back to Wilmington on a series of rural roads. The ride has been known to have strong headwinds (this year was no exception!). Back in Wilmington, T2 was at the convention center where your bag was hanging on rack with 2000 other bags. A change of clothes and then off on the run, a double out and back through the streets and parks of Wilmington.
Pre-race activity involved getting everything into the bags (see checklists) and then dropping the bags and bike off at the right location. It was all very well organized and not a big deal but you had to pay attention, read instructions and plan accordingly.
For the race, I put together these objectives:
- Finish the race
- Finish mid-pack (based on 2014 mid 55-59 AG)
- Swim: 53
- Bike: 6:24 (17.2 avg speed)
- Run: 5:25 (12:23 pace)
- TOTAL: 13:24 (with transition times)
- Execute the plan esp pacing for start of swim, bike, and run
- Control the race, don’t let the race control me
- Be in the moment
- Embrace the run
- Learn, learn, learn
- Keep a positive attitude
- Race my own race
Knowing that many of my triathlon finishes have been mid-pack, I did come up with a predicted time (~13.5h), though that wasn’t really a goal (I also wanted to give the fam an idea of when to meet me at the finish). Mostly I wanted to have a good race, learn how to race this kind of distance (I’m signed up for Ironman Chattanooga next September) and accomplish a challenge that several years ago seemed utterly impossible.
To meet these objectives, I put together a detailed race plan (here).
As is typical for me, I went to bed at 9p but got virtually no sleep. “What is the marathon going to be like after 112 miles on the bike?” “Why am I doing this?” “Did I remember to put chamois cream in the T2 bag. A lot of chaffing can occur on the run” “This is going to be really painful. Am I sure I want to do this”. And so it went, on into the night. At some point I convinced myself not to race. But eventually, I decided to just get myself to the starting line and start the damn race. It might have taken more effort to get the starting line than race the race!
Up at 5, oatmeal and a banana, dressed in the kit and off to T1.
With wetsuits on, myself and 600 other “full” participants took a series of shuttle buses to the tip of the island for the swim start. I got there around 6:30 and sat around until 7:15, stretching and chatting. Many people brought throw-away clothes for staying warm that could be dropped off for Salvation Army on the way out to the start. We lined up in the chute ( I found myself very close to the front) and they asked for a show of hands of first-timers and I raised my hand proudly (looked like over a third to maybe half). I was at the starting line!
Then they played Eminem’s Lose Yourself and we were off.
Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
Sweaty palms, weak knees, and heavy arms yes, but no vomit. I started on the left side of the chute,and since we were entering the water and moving to the right, this gave me a chance to move out into the center of the channel where the current was swiftest (I used to race sailboats in Banks Channel as a teenager so I was familiar with the currents and geography). There were several sighting buoys along the way with one turn buoy for heading left towards the marina. The water tower was our first indication the turn was coming up. After the turn, you had to sight slightly upstream since the current was still washing swimmers down the channel. Once out of the channel, the current, though weaker, still moved you toward the marina. At the marina, wooden ladders with helpers got you out, strippers pulled off the wetsuits, and then we were on our way to T1.
The swim was very nice, with the sun rising above the beach. I tried drafting but found myself running into people so I kept to myself most of the time. A headwind was blowing down the channel which built up a decent chop which at places turned into small swells. I tried a shorter, higher turnover for some of the swim to keep the momentum up. I also swam with bilateral breathing (every third stroke). I found that during training I was able to keep a decent speed with the bilateral breathing (1:52 pace; 1:42 pace w wetsuit over 3600 yard open water training swim) and it kept me from going too hard early on in the swim. The combination of a wetsuit, salt water, and the swift current made for a fast swim.
Swim time: 55:12 (7th out 30 in my 55-59 age group; 125/352 overall men)
In T1, I grabbed my bag, headed into the tent to change. The tent was full of guys changing with only one problem. No light. So guys running into the tent would not be light-adjusted and run into other guys. Got my cycling shorts, vest, and arm warmers on and headed to the bike. I was lucky and had my bike right at the exit (Does an extra minute or two of transition matter much in a 720 minute race?).
We went through a number of turns, over the causeway bridge with the “death grates”, down I-140 and north on 421. The first thing I noticed was the headwind. The second was that my HR was in the 150’s (targeting 135, low Z2). Thirdly, my legs were aching! What is going on here? Not really weak but aching like I had the flu. I decided to take on some carbopro (liquid carbohydrate) and soldier on. I got the HR down, started to take on some solid nutrition (1 Clif bar or BonkBreaker every 45 minutes) and by mile 40, the legs settled down. The wind was still beating on us till about mile 50, where we turned left. Everyone was visibly relieved to have at least a quartering wind. The average speed into the wind hovered around 17.5 and then shot up to 19 on the return legs. Once I got my HR down to 135, I was able to maintain that rate (red line below) until the last bit where fatigue was starting to set in. The plan was to start out at 135 and build to 140 or 145 throughout the middle portion of the ride. However, when I got above 140, I started to feel like I was pushing too hard so I backed off. Plus, I was hitting good speed numbers overall so did not feel a need to push. Also, I kept thinking RESPECT THE RUN, so I kept the ride relatively conservative. Nutrition-wise, I started with solid nutrition and ended with liquid nutrition (carbopro). I didn’t want too much in my stomach for the run (local coach Marty Gaal has a nice set of slides and calculations on ironman nutrition–here). The weather was perfect. Sunny and cool. And the vest and arm warmers were just right.
So what do you do on a 112 mile ride? Look at your HR, look at the scenery, roll that chia seed from the Clif bar around in your mouth for a while, check in with your stomach as you take on more solid food, look at your HR more, shift your butt around to relieve pressure, stand up and pedal to take more of the pressure off, and look at your HR. Rinse and repeat.
I made only one stop for water (mile 60) and did not need to pee till T2. Overall, the bike was long but I didn’t feel wasted at the end. I’ve still need to work on getting the right saddle, aerobar, shorts combination since I was feeling it in my privates for the last quarter of the ride and could not stay aero for extended periods.
Bike time: 6:04 (7th in AG; 159/352 overall men) 18.3 mph, 137 bpm avg
So now, boys and girls, what we’ve all been waiting for: THE MARATHON! There seemed to be a lot of nervous chatter in the changing room (I must have been chattin’ it up since I posted a whopping 11:07 in T2, good for 25th out of 30). I got out of my cycling shorts, into my DeSoto tri shorts, lots of lube where it counts, downed my caffeine pill and naproxen (they’re not drug testing, are they?), put on my compression sleeves, socks and shoes and got out the door. Actually, I spent most of my time debating whether to put on a long-sleeved shirt since it was going to get into the upper 40’s after dark (they have a special needs bag you can pick up on course but they said it wasn’t going to be available after the race till very late and to consider what you put in the bag a donation). In the end, it looked like everyone was heading out with tri tops or SS shirts. So stuffed the LS shirt bag into the bag and off I went into the abyss of the marathon.
My long training runs (not off the bike) had me in the 9:00 to 9:30 pace range. So I started out trying to maintain something around 9:30/9:45. My main objective was keeping the pace in a reasonable range so as avoiding having to walk a significant portion of the second half of the marathon. Although I was in general injury-free, I did have a hip problem that began during my taper. I had it worked over just before the race my massage therapist (WellSport Bodyworks) and he suggest trying to shorten my gate to keep it under control. I took his advice but focused more on a mid-foot strike closer to my body. That seemed to keep the hip at bay till the very end.
My nutrition plan was to take on about 100 cal every 30 minutes with a gel every third aid station (1 station per mile), assuming ~10 minute pacing, through mile 15 and then turn to cola (you’ll notice in my race plan that I would assess my pace at mile 18 and pick it up if I felt strong–fat chance!). My half-marathon time was 2:12, a 10 min pace. A decent pace and, if I could hold it, would put me around 4:30 for the marathon. Around mile 15 or 18, hard to remember, my lower legs starting cramping, the shins, the side of the shins, the achilles, and the arch of the foot (not the calf, strangely enough). For the rest of the race, I managed the cramps by running through them (on the bike, stopping for a cramp can lead to total lockup) and putting salt on my tongue. This latter approach is somewhat anecdotal but I’ve seen it work for me and others.There is some sort of sensory perception thing going on that may signal to the muscles that salt is on the way (I’ve gotten rid of cramps after a workout within a minute of putting salt on the top of my tongue). The
salt did not get rid of cramps but using it every mile seemed to keep them under control. With the cramps, the pace dropped off and the stride length decreased (see pics, click to enlarge). The latter is cool data collected on my Garmin 920XT watch, using the on-board accelerometers, I presume.
By mile 18 or 20, it was time to be thinking about a run/walk strategy. I had seen lot of people using this as we’d leap frog each other, with me plodding along at a steady pace and them walking and then running fast (the general rule of thumb is 10:1 running:walking time). For me, the strategy was to run to the next aid station (1 mile), walk through it getting coke, taking some salt and then run to the next aid station. With only 6 miles left, this seemed a doable strategy. After the sun set, I changed my lenses to clear and bore down on the finish with my run/walk strategy.
I could hear the crowds and knew that I was going to finish. Oddly enough, a bunch of people were flying past me during the last mile. Is this supposed to be a sprint finish? No way. I’m not going risk a total leg cramp lock up and end up having to drag my body across the line. It would make for a dramatic finishing photo, though.
I turned the last corner along the boardwalk and headed down the shoot and saw the clock. 12:03? What? That must be a mistake. It should be 13 something. It’s probably the clock from the half. I’ll sort that out later since my mind is a little foggy. Across the finish line, I got my medal, got the stare from the med guy (they look at you real hard to see if you need to visit the med tent). I felt great! WOW! I DID IT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!
Run Time: 4:43 (5th in AG; 128/352 overall men)–10:47 overall pace
OVERALL TIME: 12:03, 7th out of 30 finishers in my Age Group (143/352)!
I was met by two of my daughters and my wife. I told my wife, “Infect me, baby” and gave her a big, smacky kiss, to the disgust of my daughters. I asked what time it was to double check that the 12:03 was real. What a shock!
We gathered our stuff, went to a Mexican restaurant. I had a margarita but when the waiter brought the meal, I took one look at it and had to go outside. All of a sudden, my stomach went into revolt mode. Luckily the fresh air was enough to keep from vomiting.
Over next several days I was sore, especially in the quads but not as sore as the marathon (but I went hard in that race so may not be a good comparison).
So how did I do on my race objectives (BTW, too many objectives)?
- Finish the race CHECK
- Finish mid-pack TRIPLE CHECK
- Swim: 53
- Bike: 6:24 (17.2 avg speed)
- Run: 5:25 (12:23 pace)
- TOTAL: 13:24
- Execute the plan esp pacing for start of swim, bike, and run CHECK FOR THE SWIM AND BIKE; RUN PACING TOO FAST AT FIRST.
- Control the race, don’t let the race control me CHECK
- Be in the moment MOSTLY EXCEPT TOWARD THE END OF BIKE
- Embrace the run CHECK
- Learn, learn, learn DOUBLE CHECK
- Keep a positive attitude CHECK
- Race my own race CHECK
Lessons learned and key take-aways:
- The body is an amazing thing. Never under-estimate how much it can accomplish.
- The mind is an amazing thing. Never under-estimate how much doubt it can generate before a big race like an ironman.
- It’s all about effective pacing and nutrition. The best training and fitness can mean nothing if you go out too fast and get behind on or choose the wrong nutrition.
- The race was a combination of executing the plan and problem solving when the plan couldn’t be executed. An important part of this was paying close attention to my body during the entire race. I needed to check in with my stomach, legs, knees, feet, and mind continuously. If thing weren’t going right, then something needed to be done. Experience told me what needed to be done. In some cases, what needed to be done was nothing (Reminds me of the best parenting advice I ever got: Don’t just do something, stand there!).
- The mental game of an ironman is quite interesting. Different people have different approaches. Some people work on positive images or positive self-talk or mantras. I did imagine myself coming across the finish line a number of times, which helped with the motivation. As to positive or negative talk, I took a more zen approach. I tried to not apply any value or judgement to a situation. Instead of seeing aching legs as bad or a tailwind as good, I tried to see aching legs as aching legs and a tailwind as a tailwind. That seemed to help keep me on an even emotional keel throughout the day.
- After you do an ironman, you know how to race an ironman. I could have gone a little bit faster on the bike (overall 125th on swim, 159th on bike, 128th on the run) but my overall nutrition and pacing was spot on.
- Don’t take this stuff too seriously. I took the time to give a little girl a high five as I was running down the street with cramping legs. I thanked most of the police officers directing traffic for the race. I gave a little word of encouragement to people I passed who really seemed to be struggling.
- Be thankful. It’s not everyday we get a great opportunity to race an event like this. Supportive friends and family go a long way to make it happen.