Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My $.02: The Bike & T2

So you're cruising down the helix, in a total state of surreal enlightenment due to the roaring crowds around you and the fact that YOU ARE AT IRONMAN!, and now, really, is when the race begins. For the next 5 to 7 hours (more or less), it's just you and your machine.

If you're drinking what's on-course - water and Gatorade Endurance formula - then the night before the race you'll want to have brought with you a gas-station bottle of water and of Gatorade; the 24 ounce kinds that fit into your bottle cages on your bike. You'll toss these bottles onto your bike when you check in on it race-day morning. You'll be tossing these aside to replenish at the next aid station, so you don't want to fill your your cages with brand new $30 carbon fiber aero water bottles. I'm not going to spend any time on your nutrition strategies, except to say you should absolutely have one. If you have questions about that, I'll be happy to discuss it further, just let me know.

Aid stations are plentiful, so don't ever worry about it. This is one of the biggest conerns I had approaching IM - maybe I should put rear cages on just in case? Maybe I'll run out before the next aid station? Maybe maybe maybe - no, it's okay. They take really good care of you. Trust in the race organizers, they do a great job, and you can just focus on what you came to do - race. You'll encounter at least one aid station an hour, sometimes more. Refresh whenever you can - nothing beats nice, cold fluids. Remember that there's a big buffet of options, and to generally avoid too much of anything you haven't been training on throughout your IM preparations.

If you can train on the Ironman bike course at all, you'll be doing yourself a huge service - there are so many twists and turns, and so many hills, that it's really to your advantage to get familiar with how and when you want to shift, and where this turn is in relation to that turn, etc. If you can't train on the course, at least try and drive it in the day or two before Ironman. If you can do none of those things, s'okay. It's clearly marked, and you'll be fine - but maybe hit up Stu's blog, as he has AWESOME complete video previews of the swim, bike, and run. I'm not, in the course of this thing, going to go in depth on every nuance of the IM bike course, because we'd be here until Friday with the way I just don't shut up. I'll hit on generalities a lot, specifics sometimes. And like I said, if there's something you want to talk about more, just let me know.

Something you do want to drill into your head is the Ironman is not won over the railroad tracks. Almost right away, as you hop onto John Nolen Drive in all of your Ironman glory, you'll pass over a bumpy bridge section and later some railroad tracks - and you'll visit railroad tracks at least once again on each lap. You'll see these coming up for the bottle graveyard they signal - people go flying over them and their bottles get happily launched from their machines. Just slow down a bit. In fact, just after John Nolen Drive you jump onto a little park path thingy that's really designed for walking or slow biking, and there are some pretty sharp turns in there. My advice - until you're off of that little trail, just relax. Sit up in the saddle if you want to. Don't worry about your speed or power - it's all of a mile or two, and your heart rate will still be jacked and needing to come down from the swim/T1 anyway.

You'll head out of the bike path onto Olin, and then into the parking lot behind the Alliance Center. Now, you're racing. Get aero, settle in, and prepare for a long and lovely afternoon in rural Wisconsin.

I'm sure you've heard about how IMWI is "one of the hardest" Ironman bike courses. I don't know anything about that first hand, because it's the only one I've done. But where Ironman Florida, for instance, is flat, it allows you the opportunity to get and stay aero and just pedal away. IMWI isn't like that. You'll experience a unique kind of mental fatigue when you're on the bike. First, because all of that adrenaline will inevitably cause you to come down, and you'll need to prepare for that. But secondly, because you never really get to just go on cruise control at IMWI. You never get to blank out and let the miles tick by. You're always turning somewhere, or gearing through a climb, or focusing on a steep descent. For me, the fatigue checked in right around mile 70ish, and it manifested itself in a really down time. I started beating myself up about not being better prepared for the weather, started getting upset about how much slower I was having to go than what I'd planned to - all stuff that I cannot change. It thankfully only lasted about 5 miles, but they were tough miles. You're going to experience something like that. You'll get down, or upset, or sad. Maybe it'll be because of something painful nagging you, maybe your machine will be acting a little weird when you didn't expect it, maybe the weather will suck, maybe that last hill was more than you bargained for - see, your brain will be looking, at some point, for something to wrap itself around and get miserable. I think it might be inevitable - maybe it's a weird chemical reaction or something with all the natural dope stewing around for umpteen hours in the body.

My personal rules always are: 1., Don't worry about anything outside of my control, and on the bike that extends from my rear tire to whatever I can see in front of me that might affect how I manage the machine. It doesn't include the weather, or other racers, or the flat tire 5 miles ago, or the lost water bottle, or anything in the past whatsoever. If you start worrying about anything other than what you can influence, you'll never stop worry about anything at Ironman. 2., I pictured a dashboard on my bike with two gauges - one was head, and one was heart. Head was the most useful fuel, and the most efficient fuel, and so I used that at all possibile opportunities. But when you start getting miserable out there, and especially "like you can't go on", then that means your head fuel is vapor and is in need of a recharge. This is when you tap into your heart fuel. The thing about racing with your heart is that it expends more energy, so you want to only draw from it when you need to. But when you get low, when you get angry or upset or everything's going wrong, now you take out that picture of your kid you stashed in your jersey, or you think about your spouse or buddies 10 miles down the road waiting for a glimpse of you, or you think about all those countless winter hours away from the people you love, just for this one, single moment. You think about the fatso you used to be, or the boyfriend that said you were lazy, or the coach who cut you from the team, or whatever personal scenario you have that has driven your becoming Ironman all this time. Whatever that is. To make your wife proud, to make yourself proud, to prove whatever you're there to prove, whatever. When you get miserable, you grab that thing - and usually it's pretty personal, only you really know (and need to know) just what it is, and you focus on it like a laser beam. You stare at it there, 5 feet in front of you, and you just turn the pedals. When you're using the heart fuel, the head fuel quickly restores. You might also look for physical distractions - one of the easiest is to stash away a special food with you only to be used "in emergencies", or to grab something unexpected that you don't normally eat at the next aid station. Having a quick surprise banana can do wonders for your state of mind. Like I said in an earlier post, the simplest things become luxuries at Ironman.

Before you know it, you're feeling better and refreshed, and the trauma has passed. Great! Now get out of your heart fuel and back into your head. The thing about that heart fuel is that it's driven by emotion, and emotion is a great waster of energy. That's why it's not just pointless, but contrary to your purposes out there to get angry about anything, or not take anything in stride. So only use it as fuel when absolutely necessary, and then when it's no longer necessary, stash it away again. It's an expensive supply, and you'll need it again later in the day, for sure.

My other rule (I have lots of rules, actually. I'm sure, knowing how obsessive I am, that you can imagine) is that the only thing I could certainly provide for myself on the bike was comfort. I was determined to be as comfortable as possible. Riding with a sliding heel, or an uncomfortable saddle, you can manage that for an hour on the bike. But 5, 6, 7 hours? You'll find the slightest irritation will become major obstacles. Make sure you've trained with your race day attire, and that you've ridden a long run in it - all of it, the whole ensemble, down to the socks, gloves, everything. You want to know just where the back pockets are when you reach back to get a gel. You want to know just how the zipper handles so you can cool off and tighten up for descents if you want. Case in point: On one of my "rehearsal" 112 mile rides, I wore the comfiest pair of cycling shorts I had. These were great. Really cushy in all the right places, and I frequently wore them for my shorter rides, even 3 hours. But the strangest thing happened on the longer 112 mile ride - I couldn't pee. Or, I could, but it was really weak. Nothing hurt, it just took forever. At first I didn't know what to attribute it to, but by the end of the ride I'd deduced that something important was being squenched in the plumbing, and this was not good. So, for the next ride, I changed up into a pair of Assos cycling shorts, which have a really high tech channeled chamois in it. Comfortable, sure, but maybe not quite as cushy. But - problem averted. The waters ran freely from then on. If you need to spend a few more dollars on something to ride in comfort at Ironman, I think you'll find it's worth it.

Know how to change a tire, put your chain back on if it falls off, basic stuff like this. I kind of got an unhealthy obsession with the technical parts of my bike - I suddenly had these nightmares of a chain breaking or something I wasn't prepared for, so that I bought a tiny tool and learned how to replace links on my chain and carried that with me at Ironman. I went a little overboard. On the other hand, the peace of mind it created for me was the main thing. I tried to imagine what had ever happened to me on training rides, and to be prepared for it at the race. This meant that on my bike I had an extra tire and extra tubes and CO2, and I also had another extra tire and tubes and CO2 in my special needs bag. Should you think the same way? Ugh, I don't know. I think, prepare for whatever you need to feel prepared for. There is a SAG wagon that roams the course to help out, but it could be 30 miles the other direction and be hours before it gets to you. Be prepared, I guess, is the moral of the story.

I won't discuss race strategy at all, because I assume you have one already. Do just keep in mind that the "Verona loop" is something you'll ride twice - so don't blow up on the first time around. Pace yourself, especially in the climbs, so that you can do them at least as strong or hopefully stronger the second time around. Always, remember that the whole purpose of your day is to get to mile 18 of the marathon with something left in the tank. I passed a lot of guys walking on the marathon who were really proud of their 5 and a half hour bike legs, especially in this weather. Well...great. But now you're walking on the marathon and I was an hour and half behind you on the bike and now here we are. Have some perspective. Remember that it's a long, long day. If you blow a tire - relax. Take 10 minutes and fix it, and see it as an opportunity to rest. If you start to feel sick on the bike - pull over. 5 minutes of rest might save you 50 minutes down the road, or even a DNF.

Ride within yourself. I had practiced all of these 40mph desecents on the course - and come race day, the roads were wet and slick. So, I stood up and rode the brakes on every single descent. Meanwhile, other racers would sometimes go screaming by me, and I couldn't believe how many people finished with 20, 21, 22mph averages on the bike leg. Those guys were more capable than I, or more confident, and didn't let the rain slow them down. Awesome, good for them. But for every one of them, there was somebody else I'd pass on the bike who's skin was shredded from road rash, or who'd trashed their bike in a magnificent wreck because they slid through a wet turn. I knew my limits, and I didn't choose to push them on the most important race of my life in the midst of cold and wet. I finished slower than I might have, but I finished.

You have to find a balance, too, between actively pursuing the swim, bike, and run as one event, and not focusing too much on anything you're not presently doing. When I was on the bike, I focused on the bike. I didn't try to race to the marathon, I just rode my bike like I'd trained, strong and consistent, and had confidence that if I did that, I've get into T2 with comfortable time to work my marathon. I didn't worry about it, I just did it. If you start worrying about the marathon when you're on the bike, you'll sacrifice your best work on your bike, expend a lot of needless energy worrying, and probably work too hard so that you'll have shredded legs for the marathon. If you've trained for the distance, then go into the race with confidence in that training. Leave no room for second guessing and doubt - those things get left behind with the first swim buoy.

When you finally come back into Madison, it's a great feeling. For some those last 12 miles seem to drag on and on - for me, they flew by. You did it! You overcame whatever the course threw in your face. You didn't fall off your bike, you didn't break your rims or have your tires suddenly burst into flames. You didn't pass out, didn't vomit your guts out, didn't collapse in a heap from exhaustion. All of the myriad scenarios you've imagined all these months or years about the bike leg have taken care of themselves, and now you're back into Madison! If you like, back on John Nolen Drive, kick your feet out of your pedals and shake them around a little bit, or stand up and stretch a bit to get the blood back into your running legs. Start to envision your T2 going smoothly and quickly. As you approach the helix to go back up, you'll want to get back into an easy gear to climb. The crowds will have thinned, now, as lots of people are on the marathon course. This is still exciting, though - Ironman central is a hub of buzzing activity, and you're about to step into the next great phase, where they're all waiting for you.

At the top of the helix, volunteers will be waiting for your dismount, and they'll take your machine away from you and back into your transition rack - you won't see it again until you are Ironman. Give it a bit of thanks and love before they take it away. It's worked hard for you today. You'll go straight from the dismount back inside the Terrace.

As you step into transition, your legs will probably feel a little wobbly, but it shouldn't be anything you haven't experienced before after your long rides. You might see some carnage around you - volunteers hovering over people who can barely walk or stand, or people doubled over in pain or nausea. You might have seen some of this on the course, too. You have to mentally toughen up for this, because it can rattle your brains a little bit. For me, I came to this conclusion before the race: There are, of course, extraordinary circumstances that make a person physically incapable. An unexpected crash, or an appendecitis attack, or a kidney just up and falls out. Nothing I can do about that kind of stuff, so no sense worrying about it. But most, I bet 99% of debilitating events at Ironman, are preventable. They come from poor nutrition most of the time, or poor hydration, or poor attention to detail. Now last year was exceptional, because nearly all of us had varying degrees of hypothermia all day long (most of us low-grade), and that did throw a wrench into the system. And that cold was the one thing that was a little hard to have trained for - it hadn't been 50 degrees since April, and not many of us were riding 112 miles in April. But hey, that's life sometimes. The year before that, in 2005, was mad, insane heat. I didn't race it, I wasn't there, and I don't speak with any kind of assumed perspective on that particular race day (I did race a 70.3 in the same conditions, however), but in general: Heat, you should be prepared for. You should know hydration strategies and ways to cool your body off. You should understand and expect how your body will perform in heat. You've had all summer to prepare for riding Ironman in crazy heat. Rain, you should be prepared for. Win, you should be prepared for. You should train in every scenario you can think of, just so you have it in your banks for withdrawal in case it comes up at Ironman. You should have a nutrition strategy that is tested and proven for you, so that you don't bonk, or get sick, or find you're violently allergic to Gatorade. In short - come prepared, and stick to your plan. I believe that if you do this, you can avert most major crises. The small crises that happen along the way, then, you can manage. So when I'd see these sprawling bodies all around me, I could either be intimidated by them, or use them to my advantage. I chose the latter, and would think - that I'm on my feet is further comfirmation that I belong here. That I did the work. That I did it right.

Now - that's not to say those that have major problems somehow don't deserve to be there. I just mean to say that's the mental place I put it in from the perspective I had. What if you are that person? What if it all goes wrong? Well...then I guess you do what you have to do. Remember that you have 17 hours. I finished in 14:53 - I could have realistically taken a 2 hour nap and still finished. If you need to stop and puke your guts out, or work through a headache, or deal with a major medical issue, then do it and deal with it. The medical team out there, their first objective is your safety. After that, it's to get you back out there. They won't nancy you about. If they can tell you to rub dirt on it and get back in the game, they will. If you need to cool down, or hydrate, or warm up, or whatever, and it gets to the point where you can't safely continue without doing those things, then stop and do those things. Don't worry about what's left ahead of you - just get healthy first. After that, when you're back on your legs, then choose to assess the reality of what you need to do to cross the finish line. But you can't do anything unless you're capable of being out there.

But - you're healthy and feeling awesome, though maybe a little road weary, and you head into T2. One difference between Ironman and other races is that you might not want to take your feet out of your shoes, which remain attached to the bike, like you do at shorter races. The volunteers are dealing with thousands of bikes, and your shoes just might fall off your bike between now and its re-racking (by the way, remember to label both shoes with your name and race number). Also, you're not necessarily sprinting into transition, looking to shave 3 seconds here and there. It may be required, I'm not sure, but most cyclists remove their feet and shoes from the bike as they dismount. This means, then, that one of the first things you'll do off the bike is take off your shoes and carry them in so you can run to T2.

By now you're familiar with the routine - you run through and grab your bag and head into the changing room. For some reason, T2 took me 17 minutes. SEVENTEEN! That's crazy, and I have no idea what I was doing in there. I know dexterity was for shit because it was so cold, and I think that made everything take a bit longer, but I can't think of what was happening for 17 minutes - that's at least two miles or so on the marathon. But - I had no idea it was taking me that long. I had zero awareness of time in T2. So take heed - be relaxed but efficient, and don't be a lolligagger in there like I was. Get in, get changed, and get out. Besides, you don't want to spend any more time than necessary away from the show - the most amazing things await you on the other side of T2!

Next time: The Run, The Finish, and Post Race!


JekuL said...

Super informational! Thanks for taking the time to write this all down. It will come in useful in a couple of weeks.

xt4 said...

My pleasure! "Giving back", as they say. Or something. Glad you find it useful, and hope it helps. Have a GREAT race!

bbieberitz said...

That f'ing Helix sucks. Last time I swent down that I hit it a bit too fast and flatted my disc wheel. Take it slow down the helix after the big bump at the end, then hit your stride up the road. Great info though!