Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My $.02: Race Morning, The Swim, & T1

Race day morning, the whole world feels electric. You can't believe the air you're breathing. After all, after everything, it's finally arrived.

I think it's important to do everything - everything - race day morning with a sense of purposeful expedience. By that I mean, don't lolligag, and don't be in a hurry. This starts the minute you get out of bed, to the shower, to your breakfast. Do everything smoothly - set the tone for your heart, mind, and body right away.

There are lots of options for getting to Monona Terrace, where the swim begins and which is, as you know by now, the epicenter of all things Ironman. Depending on your situation, you maybe have family to drop you off, or a hotel room nearby. I drove in myself so that I was there when the Terrace opened - this, in keeping with my personal philosophy to not feel crunched with time, to relax and be proactive. I parked at the Alliance Energy Center and from there jumped on a waiting school bus, which shuttled me to the Terrace. To be honest, that part is all a blur for me. Remember, though, that besides whatever you'll be wearing to the race, you'll have your wetsuit, too. This stuff all needs to come home with you, so the value of that duffle bag I mentioned in the previous post will be pretty evident by the following midnight. You'll probably want to pass on the iPod unless you have family to hand your gear off to, just in case. Have a bottle of water or Gatorade to sip throughout the morning.

Just outside the Terrace there will be huge boxes organized by number for you to toss your special needs bags into. This is your first "no looking back" point - you won't see those things again until you're on-course. Since you were so thorough the night before, you'll have no problem tossing your bags in and not looking back - one more thing off your list, that you don't need to deal with anymore.

When you get to the Terrace, you can check in on your transition bags to make sure everything is as you expected it, and maybe retrieve anything you maybe packed and will want this morning, like Bodyglide. You'll also go out and check on your bike, and to make sure of your tires' air pressures. There will be techies in transition with pumps, so you can just hop in line and fill up your tires. The techies like to do it for you, but I asked that I do it myself - at this point in the game, nothing that critical will happen outside of my total control.

At any race, I like to be in transition early enough to walk the routes to and from the water, to and from the bike and run ins and outs. Do the same here - though you don't need to walk down the helix before it's time, at least get a general familiarity for where things are. Volunteers will be guiding you along all day, but the more you know, the better prepared you'll be.

You'll also get your body marking taken care of, and as the sky turns from black to gray to (hopefully) shades of blue, you'll hear the loud music pulsing and the bright jumbotrons flickering. This is it. This is race day.

Once your chores are done...nothing more to do but wait.

Inside the terrace, the hallways will soon line with athletes as they collect their thoughts, stretch, and put on wetsuits. This is your last opportunity for visualization, and I really encourage you to do it. Give yourself enough time to be still, close your eyes, and picture your race in its entirety. Don't ponder the unknowns during this time - picture yourself smoothly and easily starting the race. Picture your stroke, which you've done a million times before, as you propel through the water. Imagine getting out and coming up into T1, smoothly, calmly, just as you've imagined it might go. Then you're on your bike, and you're eating and drinking like clockwork, as you've rehearsed a thousand times. Then to the run, and finally imagine your thrilling finish. Work it all through in your mind, always with positivity, always with confidence. The things you don't know at this point, you can't do anything about - so don't dwell on them. The things you do know, those things that live in you that brought you here, to the starting line, that's the important stuff. That's the stuff to hitch your load onto and go.

Finally, there will be nothing more to do but to get on with the thing at last. You'll join the masses, all in your wetsuits, and start heading down to the water. Everything moves very quickly now.

As usual, I was one of the first people in the water. I didn't want to deal with the crowds of athletes on the beach, and I wanted to get really acclimated to the water, since it was such a cold day. It was no waste of energy - your wetsuit will hold you mostly afloat, and there are enough kayaks out there for you to hang onto before the gun that it was actually really nice. This also meant, being out there so early, that I could kind of discern the right position for me. You may choose to stay on shore until the water starts filling up - but then just know that you'll be amplifying the nervous energy a thousand fold. Whatever your plan, whatever works for you, try to stay inside your own head, and don't get caught up in the anxiety.

You'll hear lots of strategies about where and how to swim the Ironman, and where to position yourself. Some will say to get out on the ski ramp early so you can sit there and not waste energy, others will say stay close to shore, others will say go wide. You'll have to do what's right for you, and according to what kind of swimmer you are. Will you be leading the pack? Are you a draft Jedi? Are you just hoping to survive?. I'm a middle-of-the-packer, and I didn't want to deal with a bunch of people beating the hell out of me. I went as far out as I could get from shore, until I was literally on the edge of the course buoys. My biggest reason for this was to avoid the crowds - the major masses will all be in the middle of the course. On the one hand, this took me out of the major drafting lanes. On the other - have you seen the swim start? It's friggin' boiling water. The whole lake is a drafting lane. l wasn't going to worry about things like drafting - I had my plan, and I was sticking to it. You stick to your plan, whatever it is. As it was, my plan worked great - I didn't get punched in the face, I didn't take a knee to the gut. I was able to find my stroke, get into my rhythm, and stay consistent.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. As the cannon draws ever closer, the lake will fill up with athletes until it's just a sea of bobbing swimcaps. Mike Reilly will be shouting over the loudspeakers, and big booming anthem music will be playing all around you. And before you know it, the Terrace is FILLED with people. It is an amazing, amazing sight. A wall of humanity, and excitement is everywhere and here's the thing about it - IT'S ALL FOR YOU. They've come because you came. Keep your adrenaline in check, but now is the time to get excited. Get fired up. It's here. it's now. It's about to go...right...NOW!

And the cannon fires, and are you kidding me, you're in the Ironman. The first thing you do is laugh like a child, and then it's time to get to work. Remember in Hoosiers, when they get to the state tournament and he has the kids measure the floor to see that it's exactly what they've always played on? It's like that - you need to remember, in those first few moments, that take away all the people, the lights and sound and music, and this is just you, doing what you've done a thousand times in lonely swimming lanes. No different. Count your strokes, concentrate on form, pay attention to breathing. You'll feel a body brush by, or a foot hit your hand, or you'll kick something unknown behind you. No worries, just keep going. There's nothing to be anxious about, or upset by, or afraid of. It's just swimming. You've done it a million times. You have more than two hours to do it, and that's plenty of time. You've trained for this, you've prepared for this, you've visualized this. This is what you've been waiting for. Now, you start cashing in all those deposits you made in countless hours of training. If you start to freak out because there's too many people - no big deal, sit up and hang back a minute. Need to catch your breath on a kayak? Go right ahead, you're okay. It's YOUR race. You control what's happening from your toes to your fingertips, and nothing else. Do your best in that box. Easy breezy.

As you start to get situated, make a note of the Terrace on your right side when you breathe. The swim length is a bit longer than the Terrace is, so each time you breathe you can get a sense for how far along you are. Don't worry about how far you've gone - it's a long time to get there. Just swim. When you see the end of the Terrace start sighting, and give a thoughtful look to the upcoming turn buoy, and start to make plans.

There are three ways to approach the turn buoys. The first way is, people skip them altogether. People see everybody trying to get around them, so others think - bah, I'll just cut quickly inside. THIS ISN'T YOU. The rules are, turn outside the buoys. You didn't come all this way to skip the hard parts. You didn't come all this way to skip the rules that are inconvenient. To (literally) skip corners. So that way doesn't work for you. The second way is, get as close the buoy as possible, and cut it in as much of a right angle as you can, so that maybe you're even touching the buoy. This will probably mean slowing down and breast stroking your way around, as you'll find yourself in a major traffic jam. The third way is, swim a bit wide, keep the buoy in your vision on your left as you breathe, and try not to break momentum as you make the turn in strike. That's the way I took, and it worked for me. One way, you maybe get a breather to rest. The other, you keep your momentum. Whatever works for you.

The short straight away after the turn leads to another turn-buoy in no time, and pretty soon you're headed back the way you came.

On your way back, now, the Terrace is on your left and immediately after the turn you notice how much the crowd has thinned. Now you can seriously get into your flow - but now you also pay for the adrenaline you shot in the first 300 yards. That's okay. Regroup, get organized, and just swim. Let your mind wander if you want to. Toss your head up to sight as you've practiced. As you see the Terrace slide by on your left , you'll get closer and closer to the starting buoys, and you'll hear the music and the crowd getting louder and loader as you finally reach the turn buoys for your second lap. Now the crowd has really thinned, and you can swim how you want to. Maybe you're thinking about time - about how your best swim in the pool was this long, and how you'd planned to swim this leg in that long. My advice - don't. There are so many variables at Ironman that whatever time you trained for (again, I'm talking about us amateurs here, and most specifically the first timers) just doesn't have context. My pool and even open water training didn't prepare me for the cold and choppiness that morning. And unless you regularly swim with 2300 other people, you just don't know what adjustments you're making on the fly. You don't want to see that you're 5 minutes behind your pace and start tying to make it all up at once. Be serious about your effort, but don't lose perspective - absolutely nobody ever won Ironman with a good swim. You have many, many more hours and opportunities to make up any time, so just relax. So like everything else - let those times be guidelines for you, but prepare most to live in the moment. Your best barometer - are you doing your best? Really consider that as you start down for your second lap. Have you gotten sloppy with your form? Are your elbows nice and high, your body nice and lean? Are you lifting your head too much? Go back to your basics - how's your form? - and let that guide you. This will also ground you, and bring you back to familiar territory in your head, which will counter some of the natural craziness that is swimming the Ironman. Do your very best. This is the time to put it all into place, and whatever time you come out in, you want to feel like you put all that training to the very best use.

Before you know it you're out and on your way back again, and now, on your last straight away, start to think ahead to T1 and the bike. Give your legs a little extra kick to get the blood moving. Visualize getting out of the water, getting in and out of T1, getting on your bike and going. When will you drink? When will you eat? Start transitioning your head to the mental space required for the bike. When you finally reach the last turn buoy, you'll realize that this whole thing was over before you knew it. And you'll know you've done it. You've managed the Ironman swim. You're on your way. Take the confidence with you as you swim finally towards the shore, in a final stretch that somehow seems to take forever. One down, two to go.

Don't be in a hurry to get out of the water. The ramp is only so wide, and lots of athetes will be getting out at once. Get your body vertical slowly, so that you don't headrush yourself into a situation. They'll have covered the rocks around the ramp with rugs, so just take your time, moving fluidly and efficiently out of the water. On the ramp, strip your goggles, swimcap, and earplugs if you have them, and be blown away. When you went into the water the sun was just coming up. Now, it's daylight, and you can clearly see the massive crowds all around you. The music is insanely loud. Mike Reilly is shouting. THIS IS IRONMAN BABY! Trot out along the path they've laid for you until you reach the first strippers. No, not seductive women in skimpy attire, but wetsuit strippers - volunteers lining the road to the Terrace that will do the hard part for you. You want to, on your way to the strippers, get your upper body out of your wetsuit. Then, as you approach the volunteers you'll quickly lie on your back, they'll grab your suit at the waist and peel it off of you, and 3 seconds later you're back on your feet, wetsuit in hand, and running towards the terrace.

The terrace looks steep, but you won't feel a thing as you run up it from the water. You'll be so amped up that you'll fly right up. If possible, have some of your supporters on that terrace - my Team was unexpectadly there, and it was so very amazing to see them after the swim, to cheer with them as I rounded the helix. Really amazing. Volunteers will direct you and escort you, and pretty soon you'll be corralled into a room inside the Terrace where they'll shout your race number as you approach, then direct you towards your transition bag, then towards your changing room. The whole thing happens so efficiently, so quickly and smoothly, that before you know it you're sitting down for the first time in hours.

When you get to transition, dump your whole bag out on the ground - don't sit and pick through what you need, that'll take too long. Grab your gear and start getting dressed. Another tip - I went to Target and got 2 travel size squeeze bottles for ($1.00 each or something) and filled each with some chafing cream, then tossed them into my transition bags.

Time seems to pass strangely at Ironman transition. I don't know if it's being indoors, or on a comfy chair, or what, but bring back to mind that this is a race! Get in and out! Volunteers will be all around to assist you (and, God bless them, unafraid of all kind of nakedness), and they'll help pull your shirt over your head, get your other shoe that's over there, whatever. Whatever you have from the swim, pack quickly into the bag you just emptied (and a volunteer may help you do that), and you're on your way - your bag will be taken care of and waiting for you after the race in the same room and place where you left it the day before, and retrieved it on your way to the changing room. (Another note - make sure you put your name, race number, and if you can, phone number on everything you bring with you to race day).

And you're off to get your bike! The question now - to wear shoes out of transition, or not to wear shoes. You'll be running for quite a ways - from the Terrace building to wherever your bike is stationed. Last year it was raining, so I wore my shoes the whole way. But of course, running with cleats isn't terribly fast or safe, so if it's not raining, you might plan to carry them with you and just run in socks/barefeet until you get to your bike.

Volunteers will yell your number all the way down - "531! 531! 531!" - and by the time you reach the rack that your bike is on, a volunteer will have it ready for you at the end. You just grab it, run to the bike mount mat, and cruise down the helix in to 112 miles of fun. You'll be stunned that you're already here, already getting your bike, a leg of Ironman, after all that training and work and effort, already behind you. People will be screaming, athletes will be running everywhere, and somehow the chaos will make perfect sense.

Next time - the bike and T2!


bbieberitz said...

I can't wait to do this for myself. Just the experince alone is something I will never forget.....next year!

This year I want to see my buddy JWM finish and catch him at 16:59

Erin said...

These race reports are fantastic -- everything I could hope for out of a briefing and more. Thanks!