Here are some scattered thoughts on my first Ironman experience this past weekend at Ironman Maryland 2015.
It’s fair to say that the planning and logistics in the two weeks leading up to the race caused me far more stress than the actual race itself. IM MD 2015 was originally scheduled for October 3. Because of massive rains and the threat of Hurricane Joaquin, the race was postponed by two weeks to October 17. That messed up the great hotel reservations I had for my family, because the Hyatt Chesapeake Bay (one of the tiny handful of hotels that is actually in Cambridge) was all booked up for weddings on the new race weekend. After days of making calls and doing Internet searches, I finally found a townhouse I could rent in Cambridge—ended up working out just fine.
With that stress behind me, I arrived in Cambridge this past Thursday with a great attitude. I spent Thursday afternoon at the expo area in IM village. I checked in, bought some cool gear at 40% off (all the IM MD gear had 10/3/15—the original race date—printed on the sleeves, so they discounted everything!), and then enjoyed an 800-meter swim in the Choptank River. I didn’t want to risk having my wetsuit soaking wet on a cold race day morning, so I swam only in my Speedo jammers. There was definitely some current, but the water temperature was only “cold,” not “shockingly cold.” That gave me some comfort heading into race day.
I had a good meal on Thursday night (steak, salad, and veggies) and plenty of sleep that night, followed by an excellent breakfast on Friday AM (eggs, pineapple, cantaloupe, oatmeal, chicken sausage, and juice). My parents arrived around noon on Friday, and hung around the townhouse as I finished stuffing my gear bags. I was a little stressed at the logistics of this. I spent at least a couple hours going over everything I’d put in my bags over and over again. As Ed recommended, I visualized what I’d need to do at each step of the race—that really did help me confirm I had all I needed in each bag. When I had my bike all set and my bags packed, I dropped everything off in transition and headed back to the townhouse to rest.
My wife, daughter, and step-mom arrived later on Friday afternoon, which gave me an extra boost knowing my whole family was now there and together.
All seemed to be going well until dinner on Friday. I ate at the same restaurant where I’d had my Thursday dinner and Friday breakfast. I still don’t know if it was the food, my nerves, or some combination, but I started feeling a little “off” during dinner. I had pasta, roasted pork, salmon and veggies, thinking this was a good pre-race meal. When I got back to the townhouse around 8:00 PM, things got worse—had a bit of a headache and just a funky feeling in my stomach. My family assured me it was just nerves, but at 9:00 PM, I found myself leaning over a toilet throwing up my entire dinner. Literally. And I hadn’t gotten sick to my stomach in at least five years (the last time was a 24-hour bug).
While I felt better, I then had the worry that I was going to be depleted on race day because I didn’t have enough calories/food in my stomach the night before. I ended up falling asleep at 10:00 PM but then woke up at 1:00 AM completely unable to sleep. I forced myself to stay in bed and had off-and-on cat naps until my alarm went off at 4:00 AM. I woke up feeling hungry and concerned about my lack of sleep.
I ate a whole grain bagel thin stuffed with peanut butter and also two bananas, some clementines, and a Power Bar. Started feeling a little better. I then headed to the local middle school, where they shuttled everyone over to the transition area.
I brought a bike pump to do a last-minute top-off, and I also brought a head-mounted flashlight so that I could see my bike pre-dawn. Both of these were good choices, because there weren’t enough bike pumps to go around (5 different people asked to borrow mine), and the transition area was pretty dark.
My family arrived a little while later, and I handed off my bike pump. About 5 mins after my wife helped me put my wetsuit on, the race announcer delivered some shocking news: “Due to 30+ MPH winds and a smallcraft advisory in effect, we are going to have to cut the swim down to 1.2 miles.” My reaction: NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I signed up to do an Ironman, not “almost an Ironman!”
My wife, Carly, consoled me, and then they announced 10 mins later that they were going to reconfigure the buoys so that it’d be a 1.9-mile swim. Better, I thought, but still frustrating. I didn’t want this race to go down with an asterisk next to it with all the training I’d put in. With Carly convincing me this wouldn’t really change anything, I finally got my chin up and decided to approach the race with the same gusto I’d had heading into it.
They delayed the swim start by about 30 mins because of the choppiness, and to allow the course reconfiguration. I ended up self-seeding myself about 5 mins from the starting group. Once in the water, I surprised myself by how quickly I felt comfortable. I don’t know if it was the excitement of the race, the drafting benefits of swimming behind other people, or just everything “clicking,” but the swim flew by for me. I focused on a “1-2” cadence, tried to get long strokes in, did lots of sighting, and tried not to get flustered when I found myself “scrunched” behind or between other swimmers…I just tweaked my direction ever so slightly and kept plowing forward. There was definitely some current and some chop, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before (I found the current and chop at the Patriot’s Half in Williamsburg to have been just as challenging).
Toward the end of the swim, I remembered Mark Gilstrap’s advice: “Do your best to pee right before you get out of the water.” Fortunately, the last 100 meters or so was shallow enough for me to stand up and wade (and pee) on the way back to shore. Very glad I did that, because the lines for the porto-potties in transition looked long.
Because it was barely 50 degrees (and never made it out of the 50s for the whole race), I’d decided (1) not to put my tri-top on until T1 to avoid having a soaking wet, cold top on at the start of the windy bike course, and (2) to wear shoe toe covers and arm warmers. No regrets at all on any of these choices. I love having fast transitions in non-IM races (I feel like it’s “free time” to be had by anyone who focuses on being efficient), but this was different. I wanted to move efficiently, but carefully, so I wouldn’t skip any essential steps.
My T1 time was slower than I thought it’d be (10:00), partly because there wasn’t as much volunteer support due to the date change (for example, there were no bike handlers in transition, so you had to retrieve and re-rack your own bike). I had to get ready on my own outside of the changing tent because it was literally PACKED with guys and felt like an absolute sauna. Also, it added on a couple minutes having to dry off my torso before putting on my tri top, putting my arm warmers on, etc., but no regrets. I loaded up my tri-top pockets with an extra tube and extra nutrition that didn’t fit in my bike pouch (mounted near my stem), ran to the rack to get my bike, and was then off feeling dry and reasonably warm.
The bike course was beautiful. 85% of it was in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which is a combination of farm and marshland with creeks, water, and beautiful views. The first 25 miles of the ride went real well. Not too much wind, steady power around 215-20 watts, and an average speed of about 21.5 MPH. Flat, flat, flat.
Around mile 25, things changed. I encountered that infamous Eastern Shore wind. I never felt unstable on the bike, but there was about a 15-mile stretch of what seemed like non-stop headwind. My speed dipped by about 4 – 5 MPH, which was frustrating, but I knew everyone else was in the same boat. At first, I had the temptation to try to get my speed back up. But I just couldn’t get over 17.5 or 18 MPH, and in doing so, my wattage was creeping into the 250s or higher, which really alarmed me. I finally forced myself to just accept the effects of the wind, hunker down, maintain my power within a reasonable range, and “deal with it.” At mile 45 or 50, I did get some tailwind for a while, though it seemed like the headwind duration was much longer than the tailwind boost. I had the same headwind issues for the same stretches of the second loop, too.
Nutrition-wise, I stayed disciplined. Ed had emphasized the need to take in about 2400 calories on the bike. My nutrition consisted of (1) an aero-bottle of EFS (2.5 scoops), ~20 oz., (2) two ~20-ounce water bottles of EFS (2.5 scoops each), (3) three Power Bars, and then probably (4) six packs of Cliff Shotblocks, and (5) six packs of Accel Gel. I made a tactical decision at the outset not to pack a special needs bag. I decided that I could fit all my nutrition in my bike pouch and in my tri-top pockets, and that actually worked out well. I also took about 2 Saltstick tablets every hour.
Before the race, I considered adding a fourth water bottle to my bike, but then I realized I could just keep getting Gatorade Endurance and/or water bottles at the aid stations—that worked out well, though I did have to discard two of my water bottles during the race to make room for the Gatorade/new water bottles during the race. I ended up sailing through the special needs zone without an urge to stop. I had no idea Ed was going to be at special needs, but I heard an unmistakable “Go get em, Ryan!!!” holler from Ed as I rode through the high school parking lot, which gave me another huge energy boost.
At mile 65 or 70, I started losing some of my motivation to eat and drink. Those Power Bars just didn’t taste good anymore, and I worried that if I drank a lot, I’d have to pee. But I forced myself to continue my steady intake, and it worked. By the end of the bike, I had only a slight urge to pee, and my stomach felt fine.
A couple observations. First, don’t forget about the “drop zones” that end 50 meters after each aid station. I carelessly took on an extra water bottle at the end of an aid station, started leisurely sipping on it, and then didn’t realize that all my bottle holders were filled until I was about 100 meters past the drop zone! Littering is a big no-no (and heavily penalized). After holding the extra water bottle between my aero-bars for a couple mins, I finally decided to just squeeze out the water, crunch up the bottle, and wedge it into my tri-top behind my neck (against my upper-back). That worked fine, and I tossed it at the next aid station. Pay attention to your bottle storage capacity.
Also, I did see probably 5 or 6 bikers on the side with flats. There was a shoulder on the road about half the time. Naturally, the shoulder had a little more gravel and debris than the road itself. For that reason, I decided to stay on the actual road most of the time (I wasn’t aware of any prohibition), and I’m glad I did. If I’d flatted, it would’ve been a huge blow (changing a flat is something I definitely need to work on).
I was pleased with my HR—very little, if any, drift. In fact, my HR steadily decreased after the initial excitement of the swim/T1. I ended up averaging a HR of 137 for the whole ride, with an average wattage of 218. That was about 10 watts higher than I’d planned, but I never felt like I was pushing myself over any reasonable limit. Maybe it was the adrenaline. I also think I can point to the cooler weather for keeping my HR in a decent range.
I dismounted at the start of T2, got another boost from my awesome family cheering for me, and then had a 7:00 transition to the run.
I did two things that added on some T2 transition time. One was good, the other I regret. The good thing was that I changed my socks (wanted to be dry to start the run). The bad thing was that I’d decided not to do a special needs bag for the run either, in favor of cramming all my food nutrition into the three back pockets on my tri-top. That was a mistake, because as soon as I started running out of transition, what felt like more than a pound of food kept making the back/bottom part of my tri-top bounce up and down annoyingly with every stride. I thought about discarding some of my food, but I opted in favor of just carrying some of it in my hands until I gradually decreased my supply by eating it.
If I had it to do over again, I would’ve done a special needs bag for the run. I do think it’s important to race with what you train with (in terms of gels and other foods) for the most part, which is why I wanted to bring some of my own food with me. But it was a mistake to carry it all with me from the get-go for the reason explained above. Instead, I would’ve taken half of it with me to start and picked up the other half during special needs. The way they had it set up at IM MD, you ran just feet away from all the special needs gear bags and had your bag within about 10 seconds of calling for it. That would’ve been easy as cake if I’d done it.
Heading into IM MD, the run was, by far, the biggest wildcard in my mind. In previous years, after not training properly for half-Ironman races, my left hamstring would often cramp up during the run—totally debilitating and very painful. I worried that would happen at IM MD. I also worried that my energy level (or leg mobility) would take a big drop at some point, giving me no choice but to walk for huge chunks. Again, I dodged the bullet during the race. No cramping, and while my pace did slow (from the mid-9:00s to start to mid-11:00s toward the end, for an average or 10:37), I was able to keep running the whole time. I’d practiced some run/walk during longer training sessions and was fully prepared to do that (I’m sure it would’ve worked just as well). But at some point during the race, I decided I wouldn’t walk unless I felt it was really necessary. I never got to the point. My HR for the marathon ended up averaging out to be 142, which was about where I wanted to be. There was a little cardiac drift, but not too much until the last couple miles, when I really started to push it with my remaining energy.
I attribute my decent HR to the cooler weather, but also to Ed’s reminders to train based on HR and to “stay in the box.” In the months leading up to IM MD, I got used to running at a marathon pace (before I started this process, I’d always run as fast as I reasonably could unless and until I was forced to slow down due to lack of energy). You can’t really do that when training for an IM. You’d never develop a true baseline.
The plan worked. I was able to start speeding up for the last two miles, cranking out a 7:48 pace for the last 0.5-mile stretch (helped that it was a slight downhill through town, with the announcer’s voice booming in good proximity and a lot more fan support as you approached the finish line). All of my family was right at the finish line to cheer me as I ran in. I made eye contact with them about 50 feet before I crossed the finish—awesome feeling. I also attribute my ability to finish the marathon actually running to having focused on nutrition for the entire run. When the gels and Shotblocks got too old, I switched to bananas, the occasional small Cliffbar, chicken broth, and Gatorade washed down by water at almost every aid station. I also continued to take Saltstick tabs. No cramps or GI issues. The worst that happened was about 10 mins of discomfort and minor choking when I accidentally swallowed whole an unchewed Shotblock (was finally able to wash it down my throat forcefully by gulping water).
One of the coolest aspects of the race was hearing my family’s reaction to all they saw. Carly had been to several of my races before, but my parents (and mother-in-law) had never been to a triathlon. They were all really inspired by how family-oriented everything was—tons of families, kids cheering on their parents, people dressed up in costumes, enthusiastic bystanders waiving posters and yelling your name as you passed, etc. I feel like they finally understood why an Ironman is such a huge undertaking, and they seemed to “get” why and how the feeling of accomplishment makes all the months of sacrifice worth it. I also saw a lot of inspiring moments, the most memorable of which was watching a mother/daughter team (probably 60 years old and 30 years old) running in tandem connected by a wristband. The twist? The mother was blind, being guided throughout an entire Ironman by her daughter. How’s that for a motivational story? I later saw a tandem bike in transition—presumably theirs.
I’m really pleased with how the race went. I beat my “best day” goal and didn’t hurt myself in the process. I’m sure I’ll stay sore for a few days, but I feel truly content and relieved to have had such a positive experience.