Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My (first) Ironman - Busselton 2013

OK, the race is run and done, what's the verdict?

Well, first off, I'm an ironman!  I've heard those words!  What does that mean? I think Miranda Carfrae described it well in one of those are Kona video bits to camera, its not something you can buy, you can't inherit it, you can't win it, the only way of hearing those words is to earn it! Perhaps more than just about anything else in my life, getting to hear those glorious words has been an act of will on my part, I chose to try this, I chose to train for this, I chose to do this, I earned this! That's a special feeling, to hold something, as ephemeral and yet so magnificent as a feeling of an achievement deserved.

Anyway, how did the day go? Well let's go back a step, what was the plan?

My plan back in December last year was to go sub 12 hours for my first Ironman.  Ballpark, that was an hour for the swim, 6 for the ride, 4.5 for the run, 15 minutes for transition and about 30 minutes for fuck ups along the way.  To be honest I didn't really think this was viable and needed everything to click in training but a stretch goal is always good.  Getting closer, a day out to be precise, I discussed a more detailed plan with my coach, Sean Foster. That plan wasn't based on times, rather it was a plan of the 'process', which turned out to be far more valuable on the day.

The plan was relatively simple, go out comfortably in the swim, just roll through it and emerge ready for the bike. On the bike use the first lap to settle in, give myself a moderate start then build intensity on the second lap. On the first lap resist surging but on the second let myself go a little more to commit to a pass and if I hit a bit of good road and felt good let it rip a little.  The third lap was to be split in two, the first was a continuation of lap two, solid pace the occasional surge if required but overall solid.  The last 20km however was a change down, take the pressure off my legs, up the cadence, make sure I get plenty of food in and basically prep for the run.  The run plan was even more simple, go out easy, walk the aid stations, and just keep going until I couldn't anymore.  Even in planning the process I knew that the back half of the marathon would be a struggle so I planned for that too. If I simply couldn't sustain a solid run I'd run/walk, if my run let go I would drive through the walk, no pleasant saunter, no staggering shamble, just because I wasn't running I was still going for time.  I'm going to earn this ironman, not stagger to a default finish!

Now, the day.

The swim.  I hate the swim.  I'm not a bad swimmer and I'm pretty confident in the open water, I dont mind the press of bodies - essentially I just get really bored.  On the ride and run I can break the effort up, 15 minutes until a gel, 11 minutes to an aid station etc, but the swim there's none of this, just an hour or so of plugging away and it seems to stretch forever.  That said, the swim at Busselton is about as good as an IM swim is going to get and this day was as good as Busselton gets.  Lovely cool water, crisp and clear, little or no wind and a gorgeous sunrise coming up about 15 minutes in (and no sharks!).  So I simply executed the plan, the gun went off and I slid into a nice little patch of water near the jetty and just set up a sustainable stroke.  I even managed to find some feet and cruise for segments, something I'd never really been able to do before.  While I wasnt pushing I could feel I was getting a good catch on the water, I was making decent progress and most importantly I was comfortable.  I got a little surprised by how far out from the jetty the turning buoys were but in the end I think getting the clear water I had near the jetty was worth the inconvenience of having to push back out to the turning point and decided to repeat the process on the way in.

So around the jetty, tuck in nice and close, head down, stretch the body out long and flat, get a catch, pull through, repeat.  About half way to shore I could feel my grasp on the water slipping, you just sense that each stroke has a fraction less power, you are just moving a little slower.  Here was my first decision.  I could certainly keep the speed if I wanted to, I know how to do that, but its not free, it will cost me energy.  Instead I decided to let the time slip a bit and hold back.  My thinking?  The swim will take about an hour, I'm in the last 15 minutes, its not going to take less than that no matter how hard I push.  On the other hand its not going to take more than 20 minutes if I keep this intensity and let the speed fall.  For me, this is a no brainer, give up the five minutes and bank the energy for later.

It feels like the shore is not getting any closer, it feels like I'm sighting every ten strokes (Im not) and the view just isnt changing.  But then it starts getting crowded, I feel more bodies, see more bubbles.  I know what that means! I sneak a quick look, I'm tracking straight for the swim exit and its 50 meters away.  Head down and count them out, 20 strokes, my fingers brush the sand, stand and I feel great.  I mean it, I felt better than the end of either of the swims in my two 70.3s.

Quick look at the clock, 1:11ish - not shabby - I could have gone quicker but rewind a second, I feel brilliant, this is better than I could have dreamed of.

The ride.  Ok transition first but it was nothing special, found everything, getting help was cool, just tried to keep my head and not screw up.  And it went fine.

So, on the bike and couldnt help laughing.  Im feeling brilliant, the bike is humming, I'm up to speed, my heart rate is right in the middle of my zone and I'm off.  For the first lap there was really not much else to say.  I suppose I learnt a fair bit though.  What I learnt.

1.  Im carrying waaaaay to much much on the bike and could rely on aid stations far more than I had factored into my plan.

2.  It not that easy to simply maintain your own pace.  People slowly drift back into you, forcing you to either slow or overtake, others drop in front of you forcing the same decisions.  I dont have a power meter so I cant even guess how great the surges were but there are certainly ebbs and flow of power being forced on you (at least when you are a mid packer like me right now).  This wasnt a bad thing at all, in fact at Busso the variation was kind of welcome but it did surprise me a little.

3.  My recent practice at riding solo, controlling my own pace and nutrition was paying massive dividends.  I could keep my heart rate nicely in the target zones and hit my feeds every 15 minutes as planned.  Riding with the MTC group is sensational, those 'moderate' rides to Frankston and beyond at speeds that leave me gasping for air has driven me to levels of intensity I wouldnt go to alone but the solo training is essential and now really paying off.

Lap 2 and the Ironman started to get real.  Hit the special needs station at the 90 km mark and a quick stop to refill my gels.  Nothing - no bag!  Not a massive surprise, I had an inkling that there had been a screw up earlier (my fault no one else to blame) but getting a bad suspicion confirmed still isnt fun.  I had some spares, done some thinking on how to supplement from aid stations and was running a little ahead on time so not a disaster.  Then the first cramp.  In my 'traditional' bike cramp area - just guessing but from a diagram on wikipedia I think its the Adductor Longus muscle - I know this pain, I also know I dont have to stop, I can ride around it.  So change up, stand and rock into it, shift the effort around a little.  Sure enough the cramp settles.   I'd been meaning to shift positions on the bike but probably hadnt been doing this enough - note to self, get into a stand for 30 seconds after every feed and activate some other muscles once in a while.  The cramp comes back occasionally but I know this, dont stress it, work it off.

Lap 3 and I'm feeling good.  Im about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, been working to plan, had passed about 80 riders, been passed by about 20, and was going ok.  But now I began to feel ill, I'd worried about the sheer amount of artificial crap Id taken on, was that upsetting me?  I hadnt trained with gatorade and was relying on that in the absence of the special needs bag, was that the issue?  Or was I simply over thinking this and talking myself into issues?  I decided that option 3 was actually the most likely and so gave myself a 5 minute 'rest' at a slightly lower heart rate, gave myself a chance to look around at the scenery, breathe nice and deep, and enjoy the experience.  My body settled, I lifted back up to pace and turned straight into the headwind for the trip home.  Really the wind wasnt bad, wouldnt even rate a mention on a beach road ride but still the timing sucked.

Choice number two.  30km to go, about 50-60 minutes riding.  I was planning to back off a fraction here, and recharge for the run, but with this wind I could drop 10 to 15 minutes.  Instead I decided to keep pressing and maintain speed.  Didnt go crazy and sprint or anything, just kept the pressure on for a bit longer than planned before easing up as I entered town (and had to slow behind a camper van that had got on the course somehow).

Check the garmin; 5:41 - excellent.  I've stuck to the plan and feel surprisingly good.  Do the maths in my head, my god, I'm looking at about 7 hours racing, I'm actually on for my dreamed of 12 hour time.  Lets get this on!

The run.  So set off carefully.  Keep my strides short, keep my hands low, watch the intensity.  Im actually deliberately slowing myself.  Eat at the aid stations, drink, ice, run, repeat.  Its simple, just pound this out and we'll be right.  10km down and this is very doable.  So far I'm running off gatorade, coke and watermelon and doing ok but starting to feel weak.  Ah, nutrition, use my gels!  So had a gel and almost instantly threw up, I didnt hurl but it was a close run thing.  What had worked fine in training and perfectly on the ride suddenly was not going to be and now I was in new territory.  What to do?  I kept running, using the aid stations, gatorade, coke, watermelon, ice - repeat.  It worked, my guts settled, but I was weakening.  I held the run for another hour, not fast but it was a run.  But at the 17km mark I couldnt sustain it.

Choice three.   Back right off, effectively have a 'moving rest' try and get more nutrition in and hope that my legs come back?  Or do I presume that running is unlikely to happen much more now and really push a run/walk?  I do the maths in my head and its a close run thing.  I reckon that with a really solid walk and run I can average 7:30-7:45 minute k's.  That will get me my 12 hours.  I cant believe it, Im struggling but I can make it.  So starts the most serious run/walk I've tried.  This isnt a relaxing time, I'm pushing hard.  Occasionally people are urging me to run, they mean well, but I have a plan, its coming off and running just to make it look 'right' actually risks that.  Curiously my legs do come back for a while, I manage to run out about 6km but it didnt, couldnt, last.  Back into the power walk/run.  38km down - 4 and a bit km to go, and my calculations tell me I have 10 minutes to spare - 11:50 I cant fucking believe it!

But no, I was wrong.  I'd screwed up the numbers.  We'd started at 0545 not 0600, I wasnt 10 minutes up, I was 5 minutes down.  3 km to go, run!  I broke into a run, but it wasnt ever realistic, I tripped, I stumbled.  My legs were gone, my core muscles were shot, I was struggling to hold myself straight.

Choice four.  I wasnt going to make 12 hours but Ironman was never about 12 hours, was I am Ironman if I did 11:59 but not at 12:01?  That was bullshit thinking.  So now, I remembered something a few people, especially Aaron Keefe had told me, you only get to do your first Ironman once, enjoy the run to the line, soak it in, remember it.  So thats what I did.  I eased off for 500 meters, got that black band and ran.  I ran with a light heart, legs that felt strong, and just about crying like a little girl.  I ran down the carpet, I felt the crowd, I listened to the announcers, I cried.  It was everything I had dreamed off.  I was, I am, an Ironman.

I can do this, I will do this again.  I will do better.  I know my training had 'holes', I know how to fill those.  There are other changes I need to make that I havent thought of yet but I will get to those later.  Right now though, I'm going to spend a little more time reminding myself, I am an Ironman.