Monday, May 29, 2006

Weekend in Review: On-Course at Ironman

Triumphantly returned from an excellent all around weekend in Wisconsin, my first training on the Ironman bike course. The weather was spectacular, lots of sunshine and relaxation with family, but lots of solid work done too.

Let's not kid ourselves here. Let's be free of exaggeration and encouragement: this bike course is hard. Seriously difficult. It's extremely technical, with bends and turns all over the place and major elevation events throughout the Verona loop (the 40+ mile loop that makes up the bulk of the Ironman course). It pretty much begins right away when the loop starts, with a quick and significant ascent on Valley Road that just as quickly comes down before just as quickly flying up again, only this time through a right turn that continues to climb. But after that climb, you make up for it all with a long and fast descent. These descents, throughout the course, are no joke. You want to be afraid, and you start to watch your speedometer click past 40 and think...2 square inches of rubber separates me from catastrophe here. The instinct is to ride your brakes, but that's only the fear at work...and Men of Iron know no fear. Best to lean back in your saddle, tuck low with hands on the horns and a finger on the brakes and let fly. Madness.

But a number of these descents start bending and turning, and one comes to a hard right turn at the bottom; you have to always be thinking, always be ready for what's next. You don't live in the moment on this course; you can't afford to, and I'll be wise to spend as much time as I can on it. Just from the two loops I did, I learned so much and was so much better prepared the second time from the first. There's a section, once you turn on to Witte, that's essentially a roller coaster. Up and down and up and down. Quick quick quick. So while you're flying down you're facing the climb ahead, and you have to plan for it with your gearing in order or you'll hit that ascent and come to a standstill. You have to gear smart, because you're going so frequently from the big chain ring to the small, and all the gears in between, that it's extremely easy to lose your chain and have to stop on the middle of an ascent - forsaking your momentum - to get your chain back on (happened to me 3 times). There are no flat sections that come to mind - not a single one. You're either on a long, low grade ascent, a long, low grade descent, or you're on a roller coaster - with 3 notable exceptions:

About 10 miles into the loop, the roller coaster starts. It's crazy, but manageable, because you spend so much time going downhill that you have momentum to start to climb the next ascent and time to let your heart rate go down. At around mile 17 you have a long and serious descent - about a mile - fast as hell but bending, too. With a few short bumps you really continue to fall until about mile 23. This whole time you're thinking "whoohoo!" and imagining all the time you're making up flying downhill. For about the next 3-4 miles, then, you're lulled into a sort of routine - easy and short hills that don't require much effort. You roll through lush farmland and over bridges - it's insanely beautiful (hopefully more pictures next time...too busy for many this time). But then the road curves left, disappearing into trees, and when you get there, at about mile 27 or so, there's a climb. A serious climb. No short hill. A steep ascent that winds and bends as it climbs. You come into it with no downhill momentum, and your heartrate hikes right up. On my second loop - and I thought my legs were fresh - I was in my easiest gear and was still having trouble moving. I finally had to get up out of my saddle and stand up on the pedals to climb up. It's a wretched mutha. Once at the top, unlike so many of the other climbs on the course, there's no relief. It sends you into some light climbs and falls before asking you to climb another, shorter but still serious climb - and you're not well recovered from the first one. It's hard damn work. At about mile 32, at last, you get another long descent, this one following the IMWI Modus Operandi - a wall of climbing stares you down the whole time you're falling. So you get that bit of relief, but it's not enough to make up for the energy you've just spent on the other climbs. This section, from miles 27-32 of the loop, are - I think - the definitive miles. This is the make or break time. If you've been smart and kept your legs fresh through 5 hours or so to get to these on the 2nd loop with fresh legs, you'll likely pass a whole gaggle who decide to hell with this and are just walking their bikes up. I'll be spending some of my shorter workouts just on these sections, trying to develop strength and familiarity. This is also a critical piece where weight savings will be very important.

More generally - man it was a great day. I got up really early, and it was hot, hazy and muggy. Fog clung to the ground and my windows wouldn't clear. I parked at Fireman's Park in Verona, some 200 yards from the IM course, and got organized to ride. I was horrified to find that, somehow, my map wasn't in my jersey pocket, where I put it when I left (my wife would call me later to tell me they found it in the yard...brilliant...), so I was 20 miles from home and only had a single memory of driving the course with my grandpa this winter to rely on. I knew at least the first couple of miles, so I thought - hell, I'll see how it goes and hope something looks familiar. Luckily for me (there is no luck, I'm more and more certain) a group of 4 guys was passing by at exactly the same time I was in my saddle and getting going, and one of them had cycling shorts with the Ironman M-DOT on it, so I thought maybe, by chance, they were doing the Ironman loop? I kept them on my radar for the first couple of miles before a flat or something stopped them, and I went past. Then I reached an intersection where I had no idea what to do. I went one way for, that doesn't feel right. I went the, that's not right either. What the hell. I was having nightmares of aimlessly riding through rural Wisconsin, off-course, on the one damn day I came to recon. But then the group went by and I decided to tail them - 15 miles later when I spoke to them I learned they were, indeed, doing the course, and were happy to have my on their wheel. Perfect. I still took a wrong turn or seven when I got detached from them, but it all worked out in the end. They were going a bit slower than my normal pace, but that actually was perfect because it kept me honest the first lap, and I saved my energy - which I'd need for lap two.

My cohorts stopped at a convenience store when we got back into Verona and I continued back to the park where I refreshed my Gatorade - by now, about 9:00am. Just as I'm pulling in this monster peleton comes out, all on gleaming tri bikes. Turns out they were some triathlon club from Chicago, out to do recon on the course as well. Must have been at least 60 riders. So I refreshed and, confident I knew where the hell I was going this time, got back out on the course. It was pretty surreal - by now, the course was crawling with training Ironman (dubbed evermore: Taconiteman, lest we be too casual with the unearned word "Iron"). I mean, we were everywhere. It almost felt like a race - you were never out of sight of somebody training the course. I stopped to help some woman with her chain, and we all assisted one another with shouts of hello and encouragement. It was really pretty cool. I felt part of something bigger than myself, and among people who understood what I was doing. It brought the concept of what we, as individuals and somehow collectively, are trying to achieve in September.

The last third of the 2nd lap was, as I describe above, thoroughly kicking my ass, and I couldn't believe how difficult these climbs were - were they this hard the first time??? I worked hard to get my heart rate down as I came into Verona, as I had a 2 mile run that I wanted to go well. By then there was a solid 15mph headwind slowing me down besides, and I decided to sacrifice speed for heart rate and leg strength, concerned after the climbing that my legs would feel like jelly on the run. But, to my surprise, my legs felt really strong on the run, and I managed my two miles with an easy 9:16 pace and a nice and low 138bpm average heart rate. The bike times aren't all that important - I mostly was out there for recon, and wasn't concerned about overall speed and distance strategies. Still, in my 5 hours I went about 85 miles (officially...with all my wrong damn turns and corrections it was probably closer to 90), with a 16.3mph average and 131bpm heart rate.

For perspective - and quite limited at that - if I were to do the Ironman bike leg at that pace, it'd take me just under 7 hours on the bike. I'd love to be sub 6:30, so I'll be working to increase speed. But again - speed wasn't a focus on this workout, so let's not be married to 16mph as some kind of concrete value. And weather variables on race day, on a course this technical, can have a huge impact - wind and rain can change everything. Most important will be keeping strong legs for the marathon.

On Sunday I was able to do some open water swimming for the first time all year and break in my new Orca Apex wetsuit - which is a kickass piece of neoprene, I tell you. Like butta. It was a windy and choppy day on the lake, so swim conditions were tough and caused for slow time, going .75 miles in a dreary 2:17 pace - but that's okay, I was really just wanting to put in some time, break in the wetsuit, and get back into open water. It wasn't a training swim so much as a meander about and see what's what kind of swim.

So all in all, a great weekend of work and rest. This week is a recovery week in training, where all my mileages come down. Perfect timing, as it's sure to be a crap week of training with the work demands of a short week and my heading to Boston this weekend for a wedding, derailing my weekend training. But - it's already race week next week for my A race Half Ironman on June 10th, so I can look at this as a bit of mini-taper.

Check out the new photos on the Training photos to the right (of the homepage, as always) for shots from the weekend, and I'll leave you with this image of a sign that's on the Ironman course...


Wil said...

Looking TOUGH in your wetsuit! I have last year's Orca... love it! Congrats on your cool ride, I'll be there the second weekend of July with some folks if you can come out :)

Todd said...

Buddy, glad to hear you had a successful weekend doin some recon and found your way on the bike course. I had a phenomenal weekend training and am feeling golden for this Sunday. Looking forward to my mini "taper" and uppin the carbs this week...mmm!

Rudi said...

A tip for keeping your chain from being thrown: get a chain-guide device (some examples: 3rd Eye Chaing Watcher, Deda Dog Tooth). They weigh next-to-nothing, don't affect the aerodynamics of the bike, and keep the chain in its place. It's the best thing you can do to keep the chain from dropping on you.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on a great ride this weekend. Can't wait till I can get out there and check out the course myself!


xt4 said...

Wil - just shot you something at throughth3wall, looks like I'm in for July 8, and will be sure to bring my tough ass sneer along with the wetsuit... :) Your post today kicks ass, btw -

'zilla - sweet! Your first tri! Looks like it might be warm this weekend again, so fo' sho' be on the Gatorade on Friday - oh, and the road bike is in the garage, I'll email you -

Rudi - thanks! I'll totally be looking into that. Does it actually prevent the chain from falling off? That would be cool.

SLS - how are you doing? How's your training coming? What's your race schedule like this summer? Feeling on pace? 20 questions, that sort of thing...

Anonymous said...

I'm on pace according to my training program, but somehow I still feel like I'm a little behind as far as bike distances go. My swim could use a little more speed too. I went through the Total Immersion program this winter, and although I think my stroke has improved a lot, the speed isn't there. I'm hoping with a little more practice... As far as the race schedule this summer, I just did the Apple Duathlon this past weekend. It was fun, but I'm NOT a sprinter, so my time wasn't spectacular. I ended up pacing two different people on my two different runs, though, and both of them commented on this "gift". The highlight of the day was that my husband won the grand prize at the drawing afterward, and he's giving it to me... A Quintana Roo kilo tri bike! I'm pretty stoked because I was anticipating doing IM WI on my road bike and aero bars. It has suited me well the last couple of years, but there's a 10-15 pound difference between the two bikes. Hopefully the lighter bike will result in a faster me. I'm also doing the Chisago Lakes half IM July 30. I've done Lifetime the last two years, but my husband claimed it this year as his first tri. Since he's supported me for the last couple of years, I figure it's my turn. I also signed up for this year's TCM. I don't know how great of an idea that is only 3 weeks after IM WI, but I've done it the last 6 years in a row, and since it's the 25th anniversary this year, I couldn't resist signing up. Other than that, I may throw in another race just for practice, but I don't have much else planned. Sorry for the long reply. I guess 20 questions leads to about 40 answers. Keep the great posts coming!