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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ironman Vineman 2016 Race Report


2015 was a tough year of racing for me, and it showed in some of my racing results. Coming off of a great first year of Ironman racing, I seemed to have taken a step back, swimming a little slower despite improved pool times, and running (ahem, "walking") quite a bit slower as well. In all I just felt drained after putting in really heavy volume training for many weeks and not seeing performance gains made in training realized in races. It led me to reevaluate how I was training and racing to see how I could do things a little smarter for 2016.

Fast forward to 2016, which has so far been off to a great start. Two races and two top ten age group finishes (8th at 70.3 Oceanside, and 5th at the Orange County Triathlon). This after tweaking my training program by reducing overall volume, slowing down my "easy" days, and adding more quality workouts. I've also cut down on swimming to prevent fatigue and give myself some more time.

Most importantly, I've deliberately ended my obsession with chasing results. If I'm in this for fun, I'm damn well going to chase the fun. If fun is no longer a primary goal, then I shouldn't be doing this sport. Solely chasing time goals does not make for a fun experience. Yes, goals are good to have (I'll get into mine later), but with the number of variables that come into play during a long race like an Ironman, goals have to become moving targets. Also, progress comes gradually in this sport, and patience needs to be practiced.

The "pie in the sky" goal that I've been chasing for the last three years has been Kona. I'm not unique. There are many, many people in this sport that are chasing that same goal. Few realize it, many do not. I have not. In fact, I have not been close enough to even really sweat it. It's always just been a "what if" sort of dream for me. Yet I have obsessed about "eventually getting there since beginning in triathlon. When I first started training in 2013, I knew it was far-fetched, but I always had it as my primary goal (see my first post for a bit of history on this).

Relying too much on the singular goal of qualifying Kona can be a recipe for disappointment. With only 40 slots to allocate across a couple thousand people, there's too many variables that come into play, including who shows up to race. I had to revisit my goals and consider qualifying for Kona more of a "passive" goal - one which would be amazing if I achieved it, but not the pass line where I would put all my chips (is that an appropriate Craps reference? I suck at Craps).

Which leads me to Ironman Vineman. My primary goal this year has been simple. To once again have fun racing. Yes, I know that's the hokey sentimental goal that everyone says is their goal, so here are my more tangible goals, of which I ranked them from 1-3 (1 being the most unlikely but most amazing achievement I could hope for, and 3 being the goal that would consider a great day).

1. Break 10 hours
2. Run well off the bike (For me I would consider a sub-4 hour marathon "running well")
3. Finish

Hitting number 2 was going to be my primary focus in this race because that meant that I would have a shot at number 1, and that I would be forced to bike conservatively (something that has been challenging for me in the past).

Days Before the Race:

We drove up to Sonoma from San Clemente on the Wednesday before the race. We had rented a converted barn through Airbnb, but it burned down. Yes, you read that right. A barn... full of hay... burning down before a race. I knew it was a sign, but I didn't quite know what that sign was. So we scrambled and found a really small cottage right on River road between the race start and race finish. It ended up being... well... cozy for the four of us, but logistically perfect for getting to and from the race start and finish.

We spent the next couple days getting familiar with our surroundings, checking in, etc. The Russian River area is beautiful, but the concern of a lot of people was how to get 2,000 people into the river and onto the roads. In the past, this race had only a few hundred people. This year it would be 3 or 4 times that.

In the end, it all worked out perfectly due to the rolling start. It really helped to spread people out.

Gratuitous Speedo shot
Russian River
Practice swim with support
My mantra as far as nutrition is concerned hasn't changed; "keep it simple." The day before the race I had my usual morning shake, some oatmeal for mid morning, eggs, rice, and butter for mid afternoon, and eggs, rice, and butter for dinner. Our massage therapist was kind enough to lend us her rapid release massager, and that was a godsend. Marie worked on me the night before, and cleared up any tight spots that came about due to all the walking required to check in bike and run gear. Then it was into my Normatec boots for an hour and off to sleep. I had never felt more fresh before a race.

Race Morning:

I was up at 3 am after a decent night of sleep. Immediately I had a blended breakfast of one cup rolled oats, a banana, flaxseed, and a handful of almonds. I also had a cup of coffee and sat in my Normatec boots for about 20 minutes. Marie dropped me off at the race start at around 5 am and I had second breakfast of a cup of brown rice with butter and salt just outside of transition. Again, keeping it simple.

After checking out my bike, getting situated, and using the toilet, I headed down to find my family to say one last goodbye and pass off all my morning stuff to them. Then I did a quick swim before jumping in the swim corral.

I remembered at the last minute that I forgot to do my Wim Hof breathing. Anecdotally, I found that doing the Wim Hof breathing calms my nerves, floods me with oxygen, and provides me more energy. This, in turn, has seemed to improve performance. I sat down in the swim corral and did 3 rounds of breathing before getting in line.

Swim:

Knowing that the roads on the bike course would be narrow and crowded, I wanted to give myself as much of a cushion from the crowds as possible, so I lined up toward the front of the 1:00-1:10 self seeding area. I had no clue what my swim time would be due to my inconsistent Ironman swim times in the past, but based on recent pool times and 70.3 times, I figured around a 1:08 was in the cards. My plan was to swim a bit harder early on to stick with the faster swimmers and then back off to drift into clear water. Due to the narrow and shallow nature of the swim, I was expecting it to be insanely crowded.

As the horn sounded, I noticed that they were taking their time with getting people into the water, which was good. The race organizers did a hell of a job spreading out the masses. I finally got into the water probably 5 minutes after the actual race start and found open water almost immediately. That's not to say it didn't get crowded, since there were small packs of swimmers forming throughout the course, and it was hard to get around them.

Sighting on this course is super easy, since it's a narrow river. I only looked up occasionally to make sure I wasn't about to be kicked in the face. I kept my turnover really high, and found I was passing a lot of people, and not getting passed myself. Using the treeline as a guide, it appeared as though I was moving pretty fast. The swim out is against the very light current, so I figured it should be slow, but it certainly didn't seem slow to me. I tend to think that the mass of swimmers created a strong draft effect, especially at the front of the pack. If that's the case, it's a huge benefit to line up toward the front and get the benefit of the fast swimmers!

We had been warned that the river was shallow at parts, and that turned out to be absolutely true. I did my best to keep swimming, and it felt like swimming was faster than walking. The only times I had to put my feet down were when I ran into someone who was standing in front of me.

The swim out seemed to take no time at all, and as we rounded the turn buoy, I checked my watch to see about 33 minutes. I was very happy with this, since that had me on track to do a 1:06 if I could maintain pace, and the rest of the swim was downstream. I didn't get too excited though, since I had over a mile to swim, and I'd already been pushing pretty hard. I didn't want to wear myself out, and I didn't know how much the current would assist us back to the swim finish.

The rest of the swim was relatively uneventful aside from scraping my hands a few times on the shallow parts. A high elbow catch definitely helps!

I enjoyed the heck out of this swim. Not just because it felt fast, but also because it was just so beautiful. The water felt clean and the trees lining the water were just beautiful.

I came out of the water and checked my watch to see 1:03. I have absolutely no business swimming a 1:03 Ironman! Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected that. I figured that the swim must have been short*

*After reviewing my data, I found out that I swam just over 4,400 yards, so the swim was not short. I also placed better in my age group than I ever have in an iron distance swim, so I guess I swam well! It's so great to see hard work in the pool pay off!

After so much time feeling anxious about swimming, frustrated with not getting better, and just putting in so much time, it's so exciting to have had such a great swim!

1:03:27, 24th in 35-39, 196 overall - Strava Data

Bike:

I had a pretty slow transition. I don't know what it is about the transition setup at Ironman events, but I have an easier time transitioning when all of my equipment is next to my bike. In the tents I usually just find myself dumping my bag onto the ground and staring at the contents for a few seconds before figuring out what I need to do.

I finally got it all settled and ran out of the transition toward my bike. I chose to run my bike up the short hill just after the dismount, and it looked like I was the only one who did so. Once to the top, I mounted and went on my way.

The goal for the bike was to back way the hell off. I "could" ride the whole bike leg with my heart rate in the high 140s, but I chose instead to keep it in the 130s. It felt very light and easy, and it also gave me some cushion to make surges to pass large groups of people.

The first two hours I was very cold. Taking it easy probably didn't help this. It made my shoulders and neck very tense and I became sore. I tried to enjoy the cool air because I knew it would get very warm later in the day.

I could see how this could be a deceptive bike course that would urge a person to push the pace. The first loop felt very easy, with rolling hills easy enough to get over without much effort, and only a few short climbs. The flat section before Chalk Hill seemed very fast with no wind.

On the second loop, the course seemed to change. As the air temperatures increased and the wind picked up slightly, the hills seemed to pack a bit more punch, the roads seemed a bit stickier, and the flat section was a lot slower. With the headwind, on a section where I was averaging 23-25 mph on the first loop, I was now averaging about 18-20. I actually got off my bike for a second to see if my rear wheel was rubbing, because it felt like I just wasn't moving as fast as I should have.

Despite that, I stayed true to my goal of taking it easier on the bike. While my head was telling me to go faster and break 5 hours, I held true to better judgement, and finished the bike well, happily just over 5 hours, and still with the 4th fastest bike split in my age group.

5:07:03, 5th in 35-39, 42nd overall - Strava Data

Run:

Getting off the bike, I was very nervous. After spiking my heart rate to get up Chalk Hill the second time, I tried to coast the remaining 10 miles into transition at a very easy pace. The bike handoff was quick and painless and before I knew it I was once again staring at the contents of my transition bag. Snapping out of it, I put on my shoes, race belt, and headband that my daughter had made for me. It's a new tradition we're starting to help get my kids more involved, and it seems to be a good luck charm for me.

"Extra Life" headband made by my daughter. I needed all the lives I could get!
Running out of the tent, it was time to see if holding back was going to work for me. System's check showed that everything so far was good. Pace was easy, stomach felt okay, no cramping, breathing felt fine. Checking the heart rate I was in the low 150s. Quite a bit higher than I wanted it, but I was feeling okay, so I just decided to keep an eye on it.

I deliberately avoided watching my pace because I did not want to chase the time. In training, I had practiced taking it really easy, and had found that my pace was faster than I would expect, so I kept faith that everything was working out fine, and I would find out my splits at every mile.

Mile 1: 8:03. Okay. So far so good. Now the key will be to delay slowing down for as long as possible.

Now that I had a pace dialed in, I continued out onto the first loop committed to keep the first loop steady and easy, easy enough that I wouldn't be tempted to walk at any point, and easy enough that I could get water and Gatorade in.

About a mile into the run, there is a relatively steep downhill section for about a quarter mile (we also have to run up that hill on the return trip each time). I stifled myself from charging down the hill too hard, and kept the pace steady. As I got to the bottom of the hill I saw my second mile split at 7:45. Excellent.

The next 6 miles or so are out and back into the vinyards on a relatively flat course exposed to the sun. On this first loop, there weren't many people out, just a few age groupers and the pros. It was quite nice actually. Those miles clicked off pretty nicely, a few sub 8 minute miles, and a few 8+ minute miles until I got back to the big climb.

I once again held true to the mantra of taking it easy as I approached the hill for the first time, not wanting to burn out my legs. The hill felt surprisingly "not hard", and I kept running toward the first turn around. I saw my wife and kids there, which gave me a quick burst of energy, and I told them I was feeling good as I headed out for my second loop.

I continued to monitor my heart rate as I ran, and surprisingly (fortunately) it was only rising very gradually. I maintained a 1:3 breath to foot strike and that felt good at the time. I was also focused on form and high cadence, which seemed very comfortable. Aside from getting to be a little more crowded, the second lap was relatively uneventful. The second time up the hill was tougher than the first, but I still made it up and continued running. Aside from a couple porta potty stops, I hadn't walked yet, which was an Ironman first for me!

After getting up the hill for the second time, I was definitely starting to feel the pain and fatigue, and new that the last 9 miles were going to be tough. I once again passed by my family at the turn around and told them that the last loop would be hard, but I would see them at the finish line. I decided that once I got down the hill on the third loop, I would up the effort and change my breathing pattern to 1:2 breath to foot strike ratio to get more oxygen. This would increase my heart rate and energy output, but would also be more comfortable. With 10k to go, this was the time to do it so that I could maintain pace.

On the third loop, since I was breathing more, I briefly walked each aid station to make sure I got in Coke and water without choking or gulping a bunch of air.

By now the course was pretty crowded, and I was trying to politely run around other racers (though some were making it very hard to do so). My pace was slowing a bit, but I was still running between 8-8:30 minute miles with a few 9s sprinkled in. It became apparent that I would achieve my goal of breaking a 4 hour marathon, but it was also starting to dawn on me that I could break 10 hours. The calculus going on in my head was pretty intense, but all of my calculations seemed to imply that it was going to be a close call!

I climbed the hill one last time, knowing that once I crested I would only less than 2 miles to the finish. I briefly walked up the hill just so I could have the energy to run the last leg. It was hard to start running again, so I knew that I couldn't stop anymore.

My mind was focused on finishing and running strong. I heard a few people shout encouraging words about how great my pace was. As I got to the curvy section of the park, I knew I was close, and had to dodge a lot of crowds to get through.

And then comes the magical moment as you hit the fork in the road. To the right is another loop on the course. Straight ahead is the finish line. As the crowd recognizes that you are going straight instead of right, they begin to cheer wildly, and the overwhelming sense of relief, euphoria, adrenaline, and pure joy overtake you.

As I entered the finishing chute, I recognized that it wrapped around half of the high school. This was the longest finisher's chute ever. Finally, I took a right turn and saw the finish arch before me, and I let out a wild scream as I passed over the finish line. Unclear of my finishing time, but seeing 10:22 on the arch (factoring in that the clock time included the pros, who started about a half hour before the amateurs, breaking 10 hours was going to be close). I collapsed on the grass and laid there for a few minutes. I could not walk very well.

When my wife found me, she was able to tell me my finish time.

9:55.

With all of the exhaustion and emotion I was feeling, I teared up at the knowledge that I had achieved my ideal goal.

Run time 3:37:11, 6th in 35-39, 34th Overall, 23rd Overall Amateur - Strava Data

Post Race:

My wife went on to tell me that I was 6th in my age group. I thought surely that it was a mistake, or that it was too early to tell, and that more people in my age group would finish with faster times (since the swim was a rolling start). That never happened. I was in 6th place, and when the realization hit me that that's where I would stay, a nervous feeling began to form in the pit of my stomach.

I had the sudden realization that for the first time I was actually in contention for a Hawaii World Championship slot.

Oh shit... This is what it feels like!

All of those race reports that I had read over the years about lucky age groupers, who had punched their tickets to Kona after tons of hard work, and now there was a chance that I could be that guy. This pipe dream that once seemed so unattainable was now actually in sight.

This would lead way to obsessive Iron-stalking later that night. I was checking Ironman.com for previous race results of each of the 5 people who finished before me in my age group, hoping to find that they had already qualified at an earlier Ironman. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any relevant results for any of them. I had to wait until the morning to find out. Damn you, Ironman cliffhangers!

That was okay, though. I was still on cloud nine for the amazing race that I had just achieved. Even if I did not qualify for Kona, I could not have given any more in my race, and I was over the moon with how it had went. Surprisingly I wasn't nervous, nor did I have any expectations. If anything, I expected I would not qualify, but I was happy enough just to be close.

Besides, I had more important things to think about. Like having a giant Cheeseburger... and cake... and M&Ms. Okay, all the junk food.

Awards and Roll Down:

After frantically packing up the car to get out of our Airbnb and on the road, we headed to Windsor High School to attend the awards and roll down ceremony. Okay, I won't lie, we had another detour to the donut shop.

Hell... Yes...
Watching the awards was pretty great. I had a chance to watch all of the amazing athletes that finished best in their field of hundreds of athletes. When they announced the 35-39 age group, I looked at all 5 of the people on stage and had the realization that those were the only folks in my age group that came in faster than me. For someone who traditionally comes in higher than 20th in an Ironman event, it was a pretty amazing and humbling feeling.

The third place male in my age group came by and sat next to me. I gave him my hand and congratulated him on an amazing race and his soon-to-be Kona slot (obviously fishing). After talking, he mentioned to me that he thought that first and second place had already taken slots, and thus they would roll down at least to 5th.

My stomach dropped at the thought. If he was correct, I was two steps closer to Kona. Now the wild card was 5th place. Would he take his slot? Things were getting really, really, really, real.

I began to tear up thinking about all of the hard work I put in. Overcoming depression and anxiety, achieving sobriety, getting healthy, becoming a joyful and optimistic person, committing to setting a positive and healthy example, becoming an Ironman. All of these things led to where I was at right now; in a ceremony celebrating my 5th Ironman finish, a PR of under 10 hours, so close to a ticket to Kona.

And now the moment was here.

It was inspiring, but painful at the same time, listening to all of the older age groups take their Kona slots. I was happy for them, but it also meant that no more slots than 3 would be allocated to our age group (if an age group doesn't claim a slot, it goes to the most populated age group). Waiting for the announcer to get to male 35-39 was an exercise in extreme patience.

I still felt that it was a longshot when they finally got to my age group, even if it happened to roll down to 5th. I was determined not to get my hopes up. As they announced the first place finisher, he got up and accepted his ticket. It turns out the third place finisher was mistaken, and he hadn't taken a slot yet.

Bummer.

Second place declined his slot.

Still hope!

Third place took his slot.

Well, I knew that was going to happen. Just two more have to decline and I've got it...

The announcer called the fourth place finisher. He raised his hand enthusiastically and accepted the 3rd and final slot in the 35-39 age group.

Missed it by two...

I can't say I was disappointed by this. There's a reason why it is so hard to get into Kona through qualification. It's because the field of competitors is incredibly talented, and there is only so much room on the pier. If it were easier, it just might not be worth it. Getting this close and missing it just made me hungrier, more confident, and more inspired to go out and work for it. It will also make the accomplishment sweeter when I get there. After this experience, I know that I'm doing things right. The training, the consistency, the recovery, the nutrition, the discipline is all paying off... gradually.

That's how it works. Results do not come immediately, they come over time. And the goal is to strive for continuous improvement, not continuous perfection. I came really close this race, closer than I thought I ever would. I learned a lot through this experience, and gained a ton of confidence, and that is a priceless result. Qualifying for Kona may happen next year, or it may not happen for 10 years. It may never happen. But as long as I continue to improve and enjoy this sport, I'll continue to be a part of it.

I achieved every goal I set out to achieve at Vineman this year, and nearly one that wasn't on my radar. To me that is a huge win.

I can't say enough for the volunteers and the community of people that make this sport possible. I know of no other sport where competitors encourage one another to the extent that they do in triathlon. As a perpetual optimist, it makes me proud to be a part of this community and to be encouraging to others working toward their own individual goals.

A new fire has been lit within me, and I really can't wait to start training for Ironman Arizona! But first, more rest... and donuts...