Thursday, September 03, 2009

Race Week: Ironman Wisconsin

Ladies and Gentleman we have landed, you may now use your cellular devices. Please remain seated with your seats in the upright position until we have arrived at the gate.

This week is seriously as close to Christmas-as-a-kid as I get. I love Ironman week around here. This is my 4th Ironman week - the 1st in 2006 when I came to town, the last 3 living here near Madison. This place gets triathlon drunk and it's awesome. You start noticing little things like the Ironman flags going up, the Ford fleet of vehicles moving into town, M-Dot hoopla dotting the edges of everything. By Thursday the Village will be set up, and all of downtown will be crawling with geeks in compression socks up to their knees. There's a buzz - it's electric, almost physical, like something you feel humming deep in your gut or vibrating in your teeth. Partly because it's, well, Ironman, and partly because its timing coincides with what is really the end of the triathlon season, it just feels like such a culmination. Like a big celebration of triathlon - which for me is what it is. I look forward to it each year.

Oh, but hey! There's a race! Let's get to it. Details provided for my benefit as much as anybody's, feel free to tune out when it gets into the minutiae.

Plans & Principles

The Swim
Something I've applied all season - to great results - and will apply across the board at Ironman, but nevermore-so than in the water, is that the swim will take care of itself. Training says I should expect to be in the water around 1:30. If I'm out any faster than that, I'll be surprised and exhilarated; provided I get out faster while still taking it easy. For some reason, likely because it's the "shortest" leg, and so time becomes more condensed (or something, I know what I mean anyway), three minutes or five minutes or hell, seven minutes gained or lost in the water becomes some big deal. If I finish the race in, say, 13:26 instead of 13:29 will anybody on earth, including me, care? If I get off the bike in 7:12 instead of 7:09, does that matter in the grand scheme? Unless you're pro of have Kona aspirations, no, so why people (or in this case, I) get hung up on oooh, that was 29 seconds faster than last time! in the water is a little weird. So the name of the game in the water on Sunday is to relax. Don't get taken in by the adrenaline rush, don't do stupid things (another truism to be screamed from the mountaintops regarding anything Ironman), and simply go as fast as solid technique allows me to. Get out of the water ready to get on the bike; not requiring a break, not needing to sit down because I worked too hard, not hungry because I burned too many calories. Chill out. If I'm out in 1:40, I'm out in 1:40. Who cares. In '06 (and by the way, from here to eternity it'll be only marginally useful to compare anything about this race to '06, because the weather on that day was, literally, a shitstorm. But, it's the only Ironman experience I have, so I will, if for only my own internal measurements, inevitably gauge some strategy, performance, and outcomes against '06. Okay, carrying on.) the water was choppy and rough - very tough swimming. Maybe it'll be choppy and rough again, posing its own unique issues and challenges. Go with the flow, literally, and I'll be okay.

Strategically, I'll start the same place I started in '06 - just next to the turn buoy. This puts me on the very edge of the field, and in fact I may again swim inside the lane buoys, like I did in '06. This removes me from achieving any kind of draft, but seriously I'm not a good enough drafter or swimmer where I can honestly say that comes into play. Mostly it'll be about staying out of the washing machine of humanity, getting into my rhythm early, fighting off the adrenaline, and settling in.

Well the first thing that'll happen is I'll actually be prepared with my Transition bags. Seriously, in '06 I was so taken by surprise by the weather, and I was NOT packed for it. This time around I'll have every possible go-to item of water/wind/weather gear in my wardrobe available to me as raceday approaches, and will be able to make smart decisions about what to pack in the bags and what to wear. Living in Madison is huge, as I can adapt on the fly and bring something in with me on race morning if necessary. So that's key number one.

Assuming, however, that a wholesale wardrobe change is not required, I really plan to get in and get out. The run to T1, going up the helix, etcetera is time consuming, and I have no real time goals for transitions except just to smoothly but quickly be ready to roll.

The Bike
Just as I wrote that, I took a huge breath because, really, it's all about the bike. Even where it's all about the run - which is what I'm hoping for this year, first it has to be all about the bike. I have got to ride the bike smart - not hard - to get off with fresh legs and be ready to run, and not just survive, the marathon. If you've followed along at all, you know I've had a couple 100+ race rehearsals, wherein I've both bombed the day entirely and had a fantastic race emulation. These have been invaluable experiences in learning how to ride this course. The great thing is, I haven't put it all together entirely. I know what to do, and how to get there, but I haven't gone 112 miles. I haven't had a special needs pickup. In short - I haven't had race day to take all the tinkering and apply it. So I feel like I'm 90% there with what to expect from training - which is right where I want to be. For me, having a touch of mystery creates a little extra something, and I generally perform well. So I don't feel like I go into the race feeling like I know all the answers. I feel like I know most of them. Which is perfect.

I'll take the first 45 miles or so stupid easy. Easy spinning at 90rpm or higher, sitting up in the saddle when it's convenient, never pedaling on descents. I'll do no work. I'll let my training take care of all of it. Relaxing, not tapping into any energy stores, chilling out. In T1, I'll down 2 gels to compensate for the effort in the water. I won't take in nutrition again until 30 minutes into the bike. Then it's a big gulp of Infinit every 15 minutes (2 gulps on the 45) followed by 3-4 big gulps of water. A gel at the top of every hour (no Infinit, then). Easy breezy nutrition strategy. If necessary - that is, something unexpected happens and I'm required further fortification, I'm good for some bananas at the aid station and some Gatorade. But I won't plan on those things. In fact, I won't use the aid stations at all except for water.

The most critical part of the day - especially in the first 40-45 miles - is no ego. If it's a bit windy, or the weather is sketchy, or it's hot, or even if everything is just plain awesome, I'll back off at the first inkling of effort in my legs. I want to feel nothing in my quads or calves. I want to feel like it's just the bike's momentum getting me down the road.

At around mile 45 - I'll take this by feel a bit, but as I write this my mental mile marker is just after the top of the 2nd Bitch Hill, on Midtown, where then you have that nice stretch of "flat" before the big descent and finally the 3rd Bitch - I'll get intentional about riding the bike. This does not mean killer effort, it does not mean Eat my Rubber! (Griswold, Clark). It means I'll tuck into aero for the remainder of the day unless climbing. It means I'll pedal a bit of some descents, and I'll treat descending a bit more for racing than strictly recovery. I'll push my pace just a bit. This is when the mental game really gets interesting, because I'll have to know where I am with my effort, and not be deceived by race day excitement, etc. But, this is a good place in the course, geographically, to turn it up; except for the 3rd Bitch before Old Sauk, there's a lot of flat and some descending all the way through Verona.

At Special Needs, I'll pick up a fresh bottle of Infinit (a 3 hour mix) and a new gel flask, loaded up for the second half. Strategy is mostly unchanged - take from Verona to Mt. Horeb very easy, knowing that's where time is lost on the bike, not really where it's gained. I'll still be pushing slightly, aero always, and descending with purpose. Climbing any hills, however, is still stupid easy - that stays true from the beginning of the bike to the end.

Contingencies? Covered. I'll have rain gear available to me. Knee warmers if it's chilly. Arm warmers too. Get a flat? Get off and fix it. Nothing to spend time on here except to say I'm not afraid of any of it. Part of the game.

If - and one tempts the Iron gods by beginning any statement with that word - there is no drama, no insane wind or precipitation that drenches the day - I think I have the training for somewhere around a 6:30 bike. Could be closer to 6:45, I'll be surprised if it's shorter than 6:30. But - those are just guidelines, and not goals; the bike leg is about execution for the run, period. So if something goes haywire nutritionally, for instance, you can bet I'll get off my bike at and aid station and eat for 10 minutes before I'll drive myself into a glorious bonk that would cost me an hour or more on the run later. So if it takes me 7 hours to get off my bike but I did those 7 hours smart and according to plan, then so be it.

The Run
So now I will break every one of my own rules and say something out loud that I would ordinarily keep quiet. It is, according to popular conventional wisdom, the status quo for many, and even a little bit still for myself, crazy talk. The kind of thing that makes people roll their eyes, shake their heads, and privately wonder what the hell is wrong with me. But in telling you, I guess it's so we all have something to cheer for. Something while you're at home watching your computers or however you might be aware of me on race day, that you can mentally keep track of. For the Team, on course, something for you to know and push for as well.

I've been training for a sub 4:00 marathon.

Crazy! you say. I know! I say. Thing is, I ran the Twin Cities marathon last October in 4:03:xx. I had 4:00 or sub 4 in my grasp, and a weird IT band issue that I'd never come across before or since suddenly showed up around mile 21 and sabotaged the effort. But I knew I had it in me. So what makes me think I can go sub 4 after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 miles on the bike? I'm not sure. But it's not some pie-in-the-sky daydream of an idea. It's not some crazy goal that I've invented that has no basis in reality at all. I did strength training all winter. I did speed work in the spring and early summer. I trained my long mileage "fast" in the 8:30's or lower until early June. All as a strategy to run sub 4 at Ironman. Everything says, everybody says, that the run at Ironman is really a "shuffle". Or that it's all about how fast you go on the bike, and the run takes care of itself. Or even, don't think about the run until you get to it. And that's cool, whoever's subscribing to those philosophies I think you're often right, and if it works for you, awesome. For me, getting to the marathon with fresh legs is entirely my point. I don't necessarily need to feel like I road the bike race of my life. But I'm saying out loud right now that I have trained, and intend, to run the marathon of my life.

At an Ironman.

A tall order, I know. Believe it, though, because I do. And, I've underestimated myself a little bit. I had a goal last year of a sub 2 hour half marathon. I spent all my energy focused around a strategy that got me eeking across the line just under 2 hours. When race day came, I was perfectly prepared and ran it 15 minutes faster than that. Same with my half Ironman that was my A race last season - all these plans to scratch out a sub 6 race, and instead I had it in me to go 5:35. This season I had a run strategy planned for the Lifetime Fitness Olympic distance triathlon that would, if all went as I expected it to that day, get me across around 2:50. Instead I cruised, easily, to 2:34. I mentioned these times in an earlier post, and again, I don't do it to be self congratulatory. It's just information; it's like how every year Apple projects a revenue of $x.xx, and every year they crush that because they're being conservative. Conservative has it's place, I guess, but I'm going out on a limb and choosing outlandish instead.

So the plan is; first, get to the marathon healthy and ready to run. It's important to note, however, that this does not mean mailing in (would that be possible at an Ironman race?) the bike race - as you know, I have a plan there, and haven't put in all this time just to joyride the thing. It's about that balance of just hard enough, but not too hard.

So, ass-u-me-ing I get to the marathon ready to rock, I'll run 10:00/mi for the first 3 miles, and 9:30/mi the next 3. I'll take in nutrition - solid and Gatorade - every 2 or 3 miles. Hopefully, I'll have to hold back to maintain these paces.

At mile 6, I'll settle into a 9:00/mi pace. I'll take in Gatorade every 2-3 miles. A gel every hour. I won't revert back to solid foods, or cola, or broth, or any of that stuff unless/until I am required to (in '06, for instance, my system immediately revolted Gatorade, so I was left to improvise). I'll allow that 9:00/mi pace to err on the side of caution - if it turns out to be around 9:10/mi or so, as long as I'm not having to push to achieve that, then that's fine. But if I've done it right, I should arrive at mile 16 somewhere around 2:30 into the marathon.

My whole day, and (not) incidentally all my visualizing on the bike and run, all my training objectives on the bike and run, since friggin' January, is about getting to mile 16 ready to rock. At this point, I should be ready to turn it up to 8:30/mi for the next 4 miles. At this point, it may begin to hurt, and I may have to push, and I expect that. At mile 20, all bets are off. No plans. Do I stay at 8:30/mi? Do I have something left to push even harder? Will I find myself in a slow decline that has me in a survival shuffle suddenly at mile 23? I don't know, and that's Ironman. At mile 20, I'll be doing my best - whatever that is. But if I've executed right, if I've stayed on point nutritionally, if I have encountered anything so unexpected as to have to rewrite my agenda for the day, and if I've stayed healthy, then I should be running, running, running.

And I suppose it's not at all irrelevant that I've never felt in better shape. I think I'm peaking at the right time. I've had a great taper and I don't think I've ever felt more ready for a race, any race. When people lately ask me, "Are you ready?" I forgo the usual self deprecation and just answer truthfully, "yes." I am ready for this.

So that's the plan - cheer me on, peeps, I need the love. Finishing time? Who knows. If you do the math and everything goes "according to plan" (ha!), then I'm in somewhere around 12:00, 12:15 or so with transitions. Mostly I just want to finish the race. I want, obviously, for all these grand schemes to go brilliantly well, but if they don't, I'm not going to be crushed or anything. I suppose that's a good seque into goals of the day; you've seen the performance goals of the day - and those are crucial, really, let's not pretend it doesn't matter to me how fast I go because it goes dammit, but ~

Know how fast I ran the marathon in '06? I don't. 5 something. It was cold and lonely sometimes. Know how fast I rode the bike? Me neither. 7 something. I had to go super slow because of the forsaken rain. I think the best, most important parts of Ironman happen away from "times" and "distances". And it's weird, because a lot of my memories of '06 are artificial memories; they come from reading my race report, or seeing the video, or hearing the stories. But actual, tangible memories that I have of the day - it's weird, and a little sad - how blurry they are to me. Maybe to be expected, it being my first one, and the weather being so crazy and all - maybe it's normal that I wouldn't really have a grasp on a lot of details.

Two things I remember: Feeling really low on the bike for awhile, a few miles into the second loop really until Cross Plains. And, being mildly hypothermic, exhausted (from the day and also I only got 2 hours of sleep the night before for nerves), and nutritionally in a funk, actually trying to justify to myself closing my eyes a little bit on the run and catching a nap while running. Like, I was in some kind of drunken haze where that idea was worth honest consideration. Race objective: none of that. Manage the physical exertion, and demonstrate the mental toughness, don't go to dark places like that.

Other things I remember; deciding on a whim to stop and hug my team early on on the run. I remember Amy's mother shouting something to me in the rain about how I can do this; this was after it was clear to everybody that I was having a tough time, later in the run. I remember Amy, in full hooded raingear and a mish-mash of winter clothing, asking how I was doing, and I not having it in me to respond, and she saying, "it's all will from here". The sound of my cousin Erin's voice. These things are crystalline. Race objective: Enjoy, truly and tangibly, every. single. second. of being surrounded by so many friends, people I cannot in any way feel adequately deserving of, who are coming out here to represent the Team Bintliff contingency and support me in this race. Whatever the reason they come all this way to follow me around Wisconsin all damn day, it means the absolute universe to me, and there's no better way I can pay tribute to that than to actively appreciate it all day and so my best for them.

Race Objective: Have fun. I love this game. I love Ironman. I love this distance race, and everything required of it, and everything one has to do to get there, so much. If there is no other truism for me in all of this raceday, it is this; use this Ironman race simply to celebrate the game, life, the opportunity to even be out here doing this. The friendships I've made, the experiences I've had, the lessons I've learned, the ways that it has, literally and metaphorically, changed my life. I'm not out there for my dinner, my daughter will still want me to go running running running if I have a 4 hour marathon or a 5 hour marathon, my mother will still cheer me on if I don't have the best "race", my wife will still love me the next day. So there is no pressure here, except upon myself to do my best - and that is how I give back to this opportunity, how I celebrate this game and all that's involved in it - to do my best at Ironman. This all sounds so corny and hokey I know, but there it is. I am, on this day, in the midst of and surrounded by something greater than myself. I intend to act like it, and do it justice the only way I can.

Race Objective: My sister has a friend, and she and her husband had a baby with a heart condition. The baby, Sophia, lived a day, even after having a pacemaker put in, before she passed away. I don't know these people at all, I've never met them, but my sister made a contribution to Team Lionhearted in her memory and honor. This is, of course, such a sadness; but having Dakota in my life for coming up on 2 years now, anything involving somebody's children just takes on a whole other resonance, and just breaks my heart. My friend Sarah, her Grandmother Aggie passed away several years ago, and she and her husband Steve donated to Team Lionhearted in her memory. These are just two instances - and I'll have more to say about Team Lionhearted, much more, in a later post - but I take these things personally. The stories, whatever they are, that are behind the people who have so generously donated to the American Heart Association as part of Team Lionhearted are sacred to each of them, and I feel like in some very small way I've been entrusted to represent those things through this effort. That has nothing to do with how fast I race, or how awesome I do, or anything like that. It is something that most sufficiently brings to mind for me this scripture from Hebrews 12:1, important words in my Ironman legacy: As we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and run with endurance the race that is set before us. My wife has just finished creating the most excellent necklace that I'll wear for Team Lionhearted on race day, and there is on it a garnet for each donor. Each story represented. And the lion pendant that hangs from it, it'll peacefully thump against my chest with each stride I take on race day, and I'll take that pulse to remind me, every step of the way, that there are bigger things than Ironman and he who does it, and so I bear responsibility to that. That there are many stars in these constellations.

Race Objective: Soak it in. If all these things I've said are assumed true, then I want to remember everything. Just soak in the cheers, the sound of cranks turning, the rush of water, the help of volunteering good people, the shouts and joy of and among friends. The emotions, the mysteries, the curiosities, the wonderments. The shining lights, the booming sounds, the enthusiastic voices. Being surrounded by so many like minds and energies. Being on a bike. Putting one foot in front of the other. Cold water on my face and the spectral image of the Terrace, alive with excitement, through my goggles as I slide by in the lake before it. See and appreciate each thing for what it is, in context of race day and on its own. Pick up my head and actually have a look around at this amazing countryside. Shout to bewildered cows and horses, like I do in training. Collapse at the end of the day not just for having physically exhausted myself, but for having just experienced so much.

So there it is; the race that is set before us. Much more to come this week here and via twitter as race day approaches, the Expo and registration and the village get underway, and all things Ironman come to pass, so stay tuned. We've come this far, only a little more to go.


Alili said...

Quick making the pregnant lady cry! After I compose myself I'll have more to say. :)

bigmike600 said...

Though I have not known you for very long, I find myself reading your posts and getting a sense that you are one very compassionate and driven person.
I appreciate the way that you have befriended my wife and I and I also think that it is great that you look at us as athletes and not just fat slow people.
It will be awesome to undertake this journey with you.

Thanks for all the advice and for taking the time to help us first timers out.

The mind can make the body do things it doesn't want to do and once we learn that, the rest is easy.

J-Wim said...

Very cool post. As always, there is a lot I can apply to my own day and race planning.
Looking forward to being on the course with you and a couple thousand of our closest friends.

marathon2tri said...

We have ben with you for the last two years and will be with you for another 140.6 miles. Regardless of the result, know that you have already won. Race with a lionheart; all of us in New England are members of your team.

Pharmie said...

GAHHH!!! I'm SO FREAKING EXCITED to come out and watch you rock this course. You're so ready, and it's been tons of fun watching your journey this time around. Rest up. We'll see you in a week!