Thursday, October 25, 2012

IMWC Part 4: The Run

          The Hawaii marathon course can be broken up into 2 primary sections; the Ali'i Drive out and back (10 miles) and the Queen K/Energy Lab section (16 miles).  Besides the rolling hills and the fact that both sections are in Kona Hawaii, the two sections are very different from one another.  While the Ali'i Drive portion winds along the pacific with intermittent shade provided by the trees, the Queen K and energy lab consist of complete and direct sun exposure.  Ali'i is lined with fans and spectators going crazy on both sides of the two lane road, the Queen K has very few spectators outside the volunteers at the aid stations, and is 4 lanes wide.  Ali'i is at the beginning so you are feeling pretty good, Queen K is the second half and the energy you have expended all day is finally catching up with you.  Ali'i may have a breeze coming off the water, while the Queen K has either hot stagnant air or hot wind blowing, neither are very enjoyable.  To say you go do a dark place once you reach a mile into the Queen K is an understatement.  You are on this hot, vacated, never ending road for 5 miles, then you turn into the energy lab where it gets hotter and more challenging.  Once you climb (yes it is an up hill exit from the energy lab) out you are back onto the Queen K for another 5 miles.  It is when you are in the middle of the Queen K stretch on your return to town that you realize what all the pros mean when you say you must pay your dues and respect the island gods.  It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the race early on and go too hard.  The winds may appear to push you through the bike, but after 7,8,9 + hours the conditions and your exertion catch up and this is where you pay for it.  But I am getting ahead of myself.
          I was pleased I was able to get my banana down in T2 and had all of my nutrition accounted for in my hands; a few gels and 2 sleeves of shot blocks.  The fuel belt bottles had concentrated perform and the little pocket on my fuel belt even had a bag of salt pills.  The run begins the same way the bike does, and thats with a climb right away up the bottom portion of Palani.  Think of this Palani as Hillside Rd in Westfield.  The start of the race is like running from the bottom of the climb and turning into Jim and Kelly's old driveway.  Not much warm up, pretty good pitch, but not too long.  I focus on keeping my stride short and my turnover rapid.  My plan was to run based on feel as well as aiming to hit an average heart rate about 10 beats above my bike average which ended up being 160.  I get through the first mile in 6:55 (oops I was a little excited) but then settle in around 7:30 or so.  In the back of my mind I wanted to break 10 hours for the race which meant running around a 3:20 marathon, something that I have done in my two previous attempts.  As I said, this was in the back of my mind and at the forefront was running on a balance of feel and heart rate.  Just over a mile into the race you pass the famed Lava Java, and shortly after that was the Salmon family.  Its amazing the difference a familiar face makes on a tough day.  It may not have been the crowds of the Econolodge, but man did it still do the trick!  Their position was perfect because right after you passed the Salmon gang you begin a short climb and now I had a little extra energy for this climb.  

          After going over the top of that pitch, then down the other side of it, the course levels out for a little while before climbing again to where I knew my family would be.  Jake was the first person I saw (obviously, did you see what he was wearing at LP, same thing only brighter!) and he was about half way up the pitch.  He ran with me and checked in as he always does.  Next came Kara and the rest of my fam at the entrance to the condo.  Tim was even rocking shorts and a sweet new rice-patty-esq hat to protect him from the sun (at least one of us was prepared).  I gave a smile and signature shaka (hang loose) and confirmed that I was feeling good, then continued on my way.  It helped knowing I would be back again to see them in a short time.  
          My legs were starting to come around after feeling surprisingly heavy to start.  I kept to my nutrition plan of attacking the aid stations (water on body, ice down shirt/pants, drink perform, put sponges in shirt) and taking down shot blocks in between aid stations.  It was working well and the more fuel I got in me, the more my legs came around.  I kept an eye on my pace with the goal of staying under 8:00/mile.  I figured this would be a reasonable pace even if it meant not breaking 10 hours.  About 1.5-2 miles from the first turn around I crossed paths with Matt Curbeau who was about 3-4 miles up the road from me.  He has been having a pretty stellar year so it was good to see him doing work on this course.  The next highlight for me was seeing Matt Musiak.  He appeared unexpectedly with a sign about the size of half a sheet of paper that read: Paulito.  He then pulled out another sign of the same size that he held directly below the first that read: UR SEXY.  Naturally this lightened my mood a bit and I kept on trucking.  
          The road back to town from the turn around is about 4-5 miles and it would be my next opportunity to see Jim, Andy, and Elena.  I was on the lookout for Andy first and foremost.  As I have said in the past, Andy and I are of very similar abilities overall, but very different within the race.  Whatever gap I create between the swim and occasionally the bike, Andy makes up for in the run.  Here is a quick example of our past 2 ironman races:

                          2010 IMFL: Paul: 52:19/5:15:28/3:19:50 = 9:34:03
                                              Andy: 1:06/5:04:32/3:24:06 = 9:43:32
                          2012 IMLP: Paul: 52:20/5:44:33/3:15:14 = 9:58:14   
                          2012 IMLV Andy: 1:09/5:24:28/3:12:19 = 9:52:58
                          2012 IMWC: Paul: 57:55/5:33:38/3:41:49 = 10:20:16
                                               Andy:1:09/5:46:34/3:21:33 = 10:25:22
I kept an eye out for Andy while also trying to gauge what the gap was.  At the time I saw him, I estimated it was around 4 miles.  This didn't change anything about my race, moreso gave me something else to think about and compare when I saw him next (hopefully after the energy lab).  Jim was up next, and when I saw him he was walking through an aid station so it was difficult to tell how he was doing.  Walking the aid stations is a great trick/approach with a multitude of benefits.  You slow down to ensure you get in the needed nutrition, if gives your legs and body a short recovery, and it is something that allows you to break down the race so you are essentially taking it one mile at a time.  This approach likely saved my day.  Many people feel it is tough to start running again once you have started walking, but by walking the aid stations only, it is as if the end of the aid station is like the end of the walking zone and it isn't as difficult to start running again.  
          In between Jim and Elena I was able to see my family one last time before the long Queen K stretch.  I decided to take off my fuel belt as it was bouncing around too much and starting to feel heavy.  I figured it was more of a burden so I tossed it to my mom.  I told them I was still feeling good (still under 8:00 min pace) and that I would see them again at the finish line.  The only person I didn't see there was Jake which meant I would hopefully see him unexpectedly when I needed him.  After seeing Elena and exchanging support for one another it was time to tackle Palani and the second half of the course.  The beginning of Palani is a sharp right hand turn and it goes up immediately.  It is steep and feels like it goes on forever.  Thankfully there is an aid station right in the middle of it.  Turns out, this is the same aid station where Macca broke Raelert in the 2010 version of this race as Raelert called for Coke and Macca hit the gas!  Just before I hit the aid station on the way up Palani I spotted Jake on the right.  He ran with me a bit and I told him to text Pat and let him know my legs are coming around and I am feeling better as the run goes on (not sure if he actually got the message, cause if he did the statement immediately became a lie).  It was certainly true at the time, as my pace up until the 10 mile marker was around 7:30-7:45 with a few faster miles in the mix.  

          I get to the top of Palani, hang a left onto the Queen K and am immediately rewarded with a sweet down hill (Mark and Dave hill at mile 25, a sweet descent at mile 10).  It is also at this point that I realize I no longer have my second sleeve of shot blocks....uh oh.  The good news is I wasn't carrying as much weight now.  The bad news is they don't have blocks at the aid stations and I am not a fan of GUs.  I still have my gels and will use them sparingly so they last the remaining 15 miles.  It was at the end of this downhill that the day caught up with me.  I began to have a few negative thoughts, but as soon as I did, I passed an elated runner.  He was interacting with the spectators, throwing his hands in the air, and expressing how much fun he was having, it was awesome!  As I passed him I asked if this was his first time racing here, to which he replied, "Nope, this is my 4th!"  I can't tell you how refreshing it was to hear that this guy had been through all of this already and was still loving every minute of it.  And just like that I was back in the game mentally.  
          As I struggled to keep my miles under 8:00, a guy came by me at a pretty good clip just before the next aid station.  He took a little longer than me at the aid station which allowed me to pass him and begin running again before him.  This time when he came by me I jumped right on his heels.  He was running about 7:30 pace and as I got up to that speed I watched my heart rate and it was right where it needed to be.  Turns out it wasn't my conditioning that was the problem, it was fatigue which I feel was due to my nutrition and most likely a slightly high bike effort  Either way this was the perfect kick in the ass that I needed.  We ran the next 2 miles together before I moved ahead as he began to take a bit longer in the aid stations.  
          Next up was the infamous energy lab.  There is an aid station just after the entrance to the lab and it reminds me of one of those signs that reads."last exit before toll."  Translation, once you pass this station, you will pay so you better stock up now.  This out and back is about 4 miles in total length and goes straight down a gradual hill, takes a 90 degree right turn, and after a little while you hit the turn around and come right back out.  There were 3 distinct memories from the energy lab for me.
1.  Thinking that the run special needs tent and volunteers were an aid station then becoming gravely disappointed.
2.  My skin feeling so hot and tight that I submerged my entire head as well as both full arms into a bucket of ice water that was storing bottled water.
3. Seeing Andy coming down hill as I was going up and saying to him, "just catch me so I walk already."

That last memory was partially a joke, but also pretty telling about how I was feeling at that point in the race. Eight miles to go.  The remaining 5 miles on the Queen K can be summarized by saying I continued to run (used loosely during these miles) in between aid stations, walk, drink coke, take ice, run again, wonder if each runner passing me was Andy catching me, and of course there were still a few pinch me (but please don't I'm sunburned) moments.  I did cross paths with both Jim and Elena and this time when I saw Jim I was able to talk for a short time.  It was good to see Kelly with him because that stretch is lonely even when you are running well, so with Jim being in the pain he was and having to slow down accordingly, I was happy that he at least had some company.  When I saw Elena she was still moving along well and whether she realized it or not, she absolutely raised my spirits when she went by.
          After what seemed like an eternity I finally made it to Mark and Dave Hill (remember how nice it was as a descent??) and can remember saying out loud  how much I despised uphills and wanted a down hill instead.  Lucky for me my wish came true because the climb ended at the mile 25 marker which was at the turn for Palani.  At this point in the race I knew there was nothing by down hills and it was just over a mile to the finish.  I proceeded to lean forward, pick up my turnover, and hit the gas simultaneously.  As soon as I did this I began passing people rapidly.  With each person I passed, I went a little faster.  The motivation and drive was building inside and all I wanted to do was get to that finish line and soak it all in.  Left on Kuakini, right on Hualalai, and finally a right on Ali'i.  It was at the last right turn that I repeated a profound quote that put in the entire day and experience into prospective...
"Anyone can sign up for and Ironman, but only the best in the world take that right turn onto Ali'i Drive"     - Pat Wheeler

 My goal was to make it to the start line of one of the most challenging Ironman courses with the most competitive and talented age group and professional fields in the world and see if I could survive.  After a long day in the sun that brought the highest of highs and quite a few lows, my final 1.2 miles was pure adrenaline.  After I crossed the finish line, my brother Jake informed me that only 3 people had a faster 1.2 mile finish than me: Raelert, Crowie, and Cait Snow.  While I am sure there were plenty others that were faster, it goes to show you just how strong your mind can be and how effectively it can get you moving.

I will never forget the stretch on Ali'i Drive.  It was a feeling unlike any other.  You see this stretch of road every year on the TV coverage of the race and it is usually from the viewpoint of a helicopter and the focal point is an athlete that epitomizes fitness with a flag of his/her nation held stretched out over their head.  There may have been a few hours time difference between the time the winners came through and when I came through, but I can tell you one thing that we shared; and that was the feeling of being on top of the world with nothing around to hold you down.

 As is the case with any Ironman finish line, you have to have your pose ready.  While some may go with the ZPF (zip, pull, flex) I chose to take a page out of Christian Vandevelde's book from when he won stage 4 of Paris-Nice in 2009; a quick kiss of the wedding band followed by rocking the baby in my arms.  With the arrival of my son due in March, and with his existence being such a significant part of the agreement Kara and I made, I felt it was the appropriate gesture for the most coveted finish line in triathlon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

IMWC Part 3: The Bike

          The bike begins with a little loop-dee-loop in down that is about 10 miles long.  The nice thing is that is creates the "hot corner" at the intersection of Palani and Kuakini brah - i mean Kuakini Dr (can't say Kuakini without adding brah after #fact).  Each rider goes through this intersection 3 times within the first 10 miles.  As a spectator, this is the spot to be.  My plan for the bike was again based on previous bike plans from Placid and Florida.  The primary difference was to be especially conservative in the opening half and get down a minimum of 4 bottles within the first hour.  There aren't any aide stations until around 17 miles so I began the bike with 3 bottles out of a possible 5 that fit on my bike.  My plan is to ride an average of 153 -bpm +/- 7 beats.  While staying focused on those numbers I also have a plan for each aid station - bottle of perform to the aero drink, bottle of perform to a cage, bottle of water to a cage, bottle of water to the body. Because it is so hot so early I have to be sure to keep my core as cool as possible.  Just as quickly as you dump a bottle of water on your body, it dries up.  The spare bottle of water was for in between aid stations.

          I manage to stick to the plan early on by bringing my heart rate down as much as I can.  By biting the bullet and going extremely slow at first my HR drops faster instead of going at a mediocre clip for much longer time and my HR never getting low enough.  By the time I get back to the top of Palani where the long stretch on the Queen K begins, my HR is essentially where it needs to be and I settle into a comfortable aero position and continue drinking.  Within the first hour I was able to get between 5 and 6 bottles down (and didn't have to pee yet).   Many people have told me that everyone crushes the bike early on and pays for it much later.  In fact, when I was in the expo a few days prior I saw the legendary Mark Allen (6 time Hawaii Champion!) and I had to approach him.  I asked him for advice as a first timer and his response was, "...the race doesn't start until about mile 80 of the bike.  If you go too hard early in the bike you will have a tough time getting home."  I remained ultra conservative (although the tailwinds still allowed for a pretty nasty pace) and focused on fluids.  This stretch on the Queen K is nothing more than rolling hills, lava rock all around, volcano to the right, ocean to the left, and drafting age groupers all around.  Don't believe me???

         The wind and the heat aren't really bothering me as I clip off mile by mile on the Queen K (most likely because I can't feel the heat because the wind is pushing me around at 25mph).  The aid stations come fast and frequently and as a result my nutrition intake is following suit.  As I continue riding I hear someone passing me that shouts, "Paul? From Massachusetts?" Its Eric Hodska.  Eric is a former pro from CT that I have raced numerous times.  Had he not yelled my name I never would have known it was him; what can I say, our kits are just that much more noticeable!  We exchange a few more words but I know I can't stick with him on the bike and I let him go.  As the Queen K continues to meander I go back and forth between being focused on the race and experiencing these "pinch me" moments.
          The race course approaches a sharp left turn at the end of the Queen K as you near the village of Kawaihae and I remembered another bit of advice from Pat...
"When you make the turn at Kawaihae and climb, if you can see white caps on the ocean, get ready for a crazy descent."
After taking full advantage of the new found tailwind I continually looked to the ocean to my left.  No white caps, still no white caps....nooooo white caps, this descent may not be so more chec....welp, there they are, those are definitely white caps...looks like the descent will be fun after all!  One more right turn and it was up to Hawi.  Hawi is at the top of a 7 mile climb that just keeps turning and turning.  The more you turn the more the winds change.  As I was making my way to Hawi I began to wonder about the pro race as I figured (hoping) I would be seeing them soon.  Shortly after that thought I saw the lead vehicles along with the lead riders.  For those of you that don't know, I am mildly obsessed with the pro races.  I tend to identify them pretty easily whether they are in their race kits or street clothes.  I usually know what type of bikes they ride and shoes they run in.  As the mens' race came by I began to pick them out one by and bone and almost commentate the race and predict how it was going to play out.  There were 2 things that stuck out in a very big way: the first was the absence of Macca, and the second was seeing Crowie in no man's land just like in 2010.
          As the climb neared the top I summarized my observations of the riders that were ahead of me and descending in the winds; it went something like this... Well it was definitely windy, the heavier riders seemed to have more control, that one dude practically go blown across the street... Just as I was figuring out how to approach it, I remembered another bit of info..."Just commit to the descent.  It may be kinda crazy for a few minutes but you will survive..." or something to that effect.  I skipped special needs as everything was already out on course (and as such I kept my streak alive of never packing a special needs bag for the bike).  Just over the tiny climb after the turn around I began the slight descend.   As I was doing so I saw Jim coming up the climb, followed shortly thereafter by Andy, and a little while later by Elena.  When I saw Jim I became even more motivated to descend like a bat outta hell.  You see, Jim has caught me on the bike of every single ironman race we have done together (which is every one of mine).  In LP '08 it was expected, in FL '10 he was surprised and just as he had suspected something was wrong (couldn't get my HR down due to a constantly full bladder), and at LP this year nothing was wrong and while I expected it, he still didn't.  Side note - following our last 3 hour ride together before leaving for Hawaii, Jim said the Kona course would suit me better and he likely wouldn't catch me.  I figured every course is Jim's kind (some more than others) and he would definitely catch me.  I decided to put in a little extra push on the descent and use my weight and my gearing to my advantage.  I passed a lot of people during this time.  Some would eventually pass me back while others never did.

          At the end of the descent we went back through Kawaihae and despite my hoping and praying, the winds had not changed and that climb out of town back to the Queen K also had a nasty headwind.  Once that was over and I was back on the Queen K I got more and more excited to get off the bike and start the marathon.  My average HR was hovering around 159-160 (which is much higher than planned, but I still felt like I was well in control) and the miles were still clicking off.  With about 30 miles to go the winds became more noticeable and my pace began to decline.  The good news was that Jim still hadn't caught me, the bad news is I was slowly down pretty significantly.  At one point my average speed was 22.1, at this point in the race it was down to 20.6.  I tried to stay positive and look for landmarks that told me I was close (these two giant mounds to the right between the Queen K and the ocean, the airport, and the energy lab).  Eventually I saw all of those landmarks and my attitude never drifted anywhere close to where it did the second lap of LP.  At this point however, I was feeling the heat more and more and trying to get as much water on myself as possible.  To put it in perspective, I had consumed around 15-17 bottles at this point and still didn't have the urge to pee.

           I guess when you hear the war stories and how brutal a race this is and watch the coverage on tv, you put together this picture in your mind that is the most challenging course you can think of.  When you prepare yourself mentally for the worst of the worst, the actual conditions may not even compare.  The addition of first timer's awe certainly played a huge part.  Remember those pinch-me moments I spoke about earlier, this entire bike course was one of them.  Nearing the end of the bike made my mind change gears and that was to prepare for the run.  I remember reading in Macca's book how you have key workouts during your training and you remember them and file them away in order to draw strength from them later.  For me, my marathon PR at Lake Placid following my worst IM bike split ever (including my first) was one of those moments.  I thought about how my legs were feeling at the end of the Queen K and thought, "They don't feel nearly as bad as they did at LP, maybe I can run even faster..."
          A right turn onto Makala boulevard, a left turn onto Kuakini Brah Highway and one final turn down Palani and I was home.  And by home I mean a sauna filled with tens of thousands of people, with a small percentage ready to run a marathon.  I got to T2 with my feet on top of my shoes, dismounted rapidly and had my helmet off and in my hands before entering transition.  It was another long run through transition and into the changing tent.  I opted for a hat instead of a visor or buff so that my face was covered and I could put ice in my hat.  I tried utilizing a 2 bottle fuel belt for hydration in between aid stations and grabbed a fresh pair of sunnies.  This time I was wise enough to ask the kind volunteer for some sunscreen which he retrieved right away.  A little slower than T1, but I was off and running...literally

Next up, the run

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

IMWC Part 2: The Swim

“When you get into the water and you are just treading, make sure you take a moment to turn around and take it all in.” – Pat Wheeler

            Just as my goal in collegiate swimming was to qualify for nationals, my goal in triathlon was to qualify for Kona.  Because each of these events was their respective apexes of competition I knew I wasn’t going to be the champion and as a result they were both treated as a bonus event.  The hard work, the sacrifices, and the pressure was all for the qualifier, because if my conference championship and Ironman Lake Placid didn’t go well then there wouldn’t be a nationals or a Kona.  Thankfully for me, both events went well and I was able to get on the blocks and in the water with the best competition there was.  Whether the race was a bonus or not it still requires preparation and planning.  The plan for Kona was similar to my two previous ironman races with some modifications to meet the changes in terrain, conditions, etc. 

The Swim:
The approach for the swim was to once again get on the very front line, in the best position possible and fight from the get go.  At about 6:45 I made my way into the water with Jim, Andy, and Elena.  The four of us stuck together until we were all standing on dig me beach with less than 15 minutes to go.  We exchanged one last encouraging moment and went to our various start locations.  To my surprise there weren’t many people already lined up and I was able to get to the front line about 15-20 yards from the pier.  For the next 10-15 minutes I focused on holding my position and not getting bullied out of it.  I was sure to follow the advice and on more than one occasion, did a slow motion 360 and took in every bit of excitement that the atmosphere provided.  I would say its very similar to Placid in that you are in the water for the start, however this time the dock isn’t obstructing your view and there are twice as many people.  Add to that the mystique and aura of the location.  Every great Ironman Hawaii has started here.  Just 30 minutes ago the likes of Craig Alexander, Chris McCormack, Faris Al Sultan, Andy Potts and many many other great champions were treading water in this exact spot.
“As the competitors congregate behind the start line, time seems to stand still.  It can feel like the loneliest place in the world before the start, but you begin to remember your family and friends, all of the people who have pitched in to help you get to that point, all of the people who are going to be watching.  And then the cannon goes off and suddenly frees you from all the nervousness and apprehension.  It’s time to put thoughts and plans into action.  It’s a nice feeling to finally be underway … until you get kicked in the head for the first time.”  -- Craig Alexander (As the Crow Flies)
The main difference on this day was that there was no cannon.  Instead it was Mike Relly saying “GO” over and over again.  Once again without skipping a beat, an otherwise calm surface transformed into a washing machine like furry of arms thrashing and legs kicking.  In LP and FL I was able to be one of the first age groupers to the first buoy.   This all changes when the level of competition grows exponentially.  Instead of having clear water after a 50 meter sprint, I was closely surrounded on all sides for the first third of a mile.  To make matters even more interesting, in addition to the school of humans, there were fish jumping out of the water!  I am just glad it was the fish that hit me in the head and not my fellow age groupers.  All I could think of was the NBC coverage of this race when Al Michael’s commented on the swim start by describing it as a school above, and a school below.  As both schools headed away from the pier there were volunteers and race officials lined up along the right side keeping everyone on line.  With the swells being what they were it became difficult to sight the buoys at times so having the volunteers in kayaks and on surfboards was very helpful. 

In an attempt to keep the gas on, I tried to be as aware as possible of the swimmers around me and notice who was roughly my same ability or slightly faster than me so I could swim in their draft line.  This worked fairly well for the first 1.2 miles except for 2 occasions when I wasn’t able to keep up despite 20-25 stroke surges to prevent getting dropped.  The turnaround for the swim is marked with buoys, however there is still a boat full of spectators just to the inside of the buoy which adds to the excitement.  This is a good feeling because most Ironman swims are 2 loops and you get to see and hear the people cheering half way through.  After making the turn for home (still over a mile to go) I found myself at the front of a fairly large pack.  It wasn’t ideal as I would have rather been getting a ride than giving one, but at the same time it made me keep my speed up to avoid getting swallowed up by the group.
With the currents/waves moving they way they were, the swim back to the pier seemed to go much faster than the way out.  Before long I was approaching the pier and looking to take the most direct line to the stairs.  My other objective was distancing myself enough so I wouldn't get stuck getting out of the water or in transition.  I achieved my goal, made sure I rinsed the salt off with the hanging hoses, and ran over to the changing tent.  There were still a decent amount of chairs available and just as quickly as I sat down, I was off to grab my bike.  I guess I had assumed there would be a volunteer somewhere with sunscreen but apparently (as I will find out in T2) you have to ask for sunscreen.  That said, off I went on my bike without having applied sunscreen with the exception of SPF 50 at 4:00am.

Next up, the bike...

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Race of a Lifetime - Part 1

          As I have mentioned in previous blogs, racing in Kona was a lifetime dream and goal and one that I am thrilled to have achieved this past weekend.  There were many variables that added to the greatness of this race, a few of which included the presence of my family on the sidelines as well as the friends and teammates I had on course with me.  Jim is somebody that I credit with teaching me many of the skills pertinent to successful triathlon training and racing since I joined the Cyclonauts back in 2005.  Since then he has been a tremendous role model and training partner on a very frequent basis.  Andy has been a consistent competitor over that last few years and unfortunately due to our differing home bases, somebody that I haven't had the pleasure of training with as much as I would have liked.  Andy pushes me in any race we are in together because I know that any lead I may have on him leading into the run will likely be short lived as he is a very strong and very fast runner.  Racing with Elena was excellent because she is always such a positive person.  She was easy to spot during the race thanks to her pink and black kit, helmet, bike, etc.  Even though she expressed her nervousness more than anyone else before the canon blasted, she was also one of the most exuberant when it was all over.
          I arrived on the big island the Monday before race day (Saturday).  I had flown down with Jake and his girlfriend Laura which made the trip easier.  We opted for an 11 hour flight from JFK to Oahu, then a 45 minute flight from Oahu to Kona.  The good news is there is less chance of a missed connection when your first flight ends in Hawaii, the downside is 11 hours is a very long time on a plane.  Hawaiin Air was exceptional as each seat had its own tv, and the flight included 2 meals (that you didn't have to pay for).  The service was great and the travel went very smoothly.  We stayed at the Wyndham Kona Hawaiin Village leading up to race day.  When Jim and Kelly arrived on Wednesday they joined us for a few nights before my family arrived the night before race day.
          From a tourist perspective the first week pretty mellow since the focus was on getting in the workouts, staying hydrated, and resting whenever possible.  Because I am not a perennial qualifier, I took this focus with a grain of salt.  I was going to be treating Kona as a bonus race which meant I wasn't going to be as strict in the days leading up to the race.  Tuesday I went for a swim at the Kona Community Aquatic Center.  I am very much a pool person, so it was wonderful to be able to swim outside while still having the structure of the time clock and black line on the bottom.  This pool is on Kuakini Highway and is free leading up to race day.  Wednesday I met up with Andy for our ride and run at Z1/Z2 intensity.  We got an early start to the morning in order to limit our exposure to the heat and sun which meant rolling at 6:15, just as there was enough light.  We rode out on the Queen K to meet his brother Matt who would be riding down from Waikaloa.  While the intensity was pretty much where it needed to be, Andy and I were sure to take in the sights around us.  We agreed that it was a pinch me sort of moment.  Nothing but desolate black lava rock all around.  The mountains to the right, the pacific to the left, and rolling pavement for miles.
          After about 2 or so hours we hopped off the bikes for our transition run.  We decided to avoid the crowds of downtown Kona and headed south on Ali'i Drive towards the first out and back on the run.  Andy was setting the pace, and since he is a stronger runner than I, we were moving along pretty well and starting to feel the heat.  Just to give you an idea, the sun gets hot so early in the day that I was starting to sweat just standing still, even on mornings that I wasn't working out.  Sunscreen and a hat/visor are an absolute must.  Another cool thing about this run was the fact that there were aid stations out in a few different places in the days leading up to the race.  On the bike there was a GU stop, and on the run there was a powerbar, cytomax, and muscle milk aid station.  Once the run was finished, we wrapped up our morning with a swim at dig me beach.  Dig Me Beach is the small beach on the south side of the Kona Pier and the starting point for the Ironman swim.  Andy and I swam out to the second buoy and came back as the swim was just to keep loose and get an idea of what the water would be like on race day.  I should inform everyone that this water is beyond clear.  I am not one to open my eyes when my head is down (yes even with goggles) for fear of seeing something I won't like beneath me.  Every time I swam in Kona my eyes were never closed!  It was like swimming in an aquarium.  There were neon fish everywhere!  The water is also much saltier than the Atlantic which means use plenty of body glide and try not to swallow too much of it.  Workouts were done upon setting foot back on Dig Me and it was off to enjoy the rest of the day (relax).
          Jim and Kelly arrived Wednesday night which meant Jim would build his bike and we could do a quick spin on Thursday, but not before a rather unusal run....the Kona Underpants Run!!  Jim had designed some custom Cyclonaut Speedos so that he, Kelly, Matt, Elena, and I could all match.  As a result we got some serious coverage on slowtwitch and!  We also were luck enough to snag a pic with the Wattie Ink ladies.


After the run, we all went for a swim at Dig Me Beach.  This time, instead of swimming out to the buoys, we ended up swimming out to the Kini Kini, a boat that offers coffee during the week leading up to race day.  The captain was nice enough to take a photo for us.  This is truly a unique experience and one that you have to do if in Kona during race week...along with the underpants run.

            Once we were through with the swim it was time to get off the feet.  I headed back to the condo and the rest of the day was pretty quiet with the exception of Kara's arrival Thursday night.  Knowing she had a long day of travel I made tentative plans with Jim, Kelly, Jake, and Laura to meet them at Boston Basil's for some pasta on the way home from the airport.  Upon picking up Kara, she confirmed my suspicion of being exhausted was still agreed to get a quick bit with everyone before hitting the hay.  Boston Basil's was pretty good food, but apparently they change their menu during race week.
          Friday arrived and with it came a huge breakfast at Denny's followed by lots of eating, drinking, and resting.  I was even able to spend some time in the NormaTec boots thanks to Gilad making a special trip to the condo for me.  Gilad is the CEO of NormaTec and we had crossed paths the Wednesday evening while awaiting Crowie's arrival at the Newton booth.  He approached me asking if I was Andy's brother (since I was wearing my new Salmon Health and retirement mesh back hat) and we continued talking about the boots as well as Crowie for the next few minutes.  Friday evening brought the arrival of my parents and brothers Tim and Brian.  I stayed up long enough to say hello then it was off to bed (still by 9:00 pm).  Next up was the big day itself...

Friday, October 12, 2012

IMLP Race Report

2012 Ironman Lake Placid Race Report:

My first ironman I did was in Lake Placid in 2008.  I had just finished grad school and was preparing to take the national licensure exam for physical therapy.  I was dating Kara and living at her parents house in Westfield while working nights at Uno's in Springfield.  I was an iron virgin and weighed in around 205 pounds.  The goal then was to finish the race and have fun.  I managed to meet both of those goals by finishing the 140.6 mile course in 10:39 with a smile on my face despite having been in the rain all day long.

Two years later I completed my second ironman and the first one that I truly raced and prepared for.  The goal was to qualify for Kona.  I missed that goal by 9 minutes however I left panama city beach with a new IM PR of 9:34 including a 3:19 marathon.  I was more than happy with the race as a whole however I still hadn't achieved the main purpose of grabbing a slot to the world championships.

Thursday July 19, 2012 we arrived in Lake Placid just before 5:00pm.  Enough time to check in and head over to Mirror Lake for one lap of the swim course with Ryan, Jimmy and a few others.  Mirror Lake is one of the beautiful lakes I have ever swam in and the amazing feeling you get while swimming there is only made better by the fact that you are in the center of downtown all the while.

Friday brought a short swim, bike, and run as well as the arrival of my little brother Jake and his girlfriend Laura.  If your haven't read my previous IM race reports, Jake is my biggest supporter around.  He is up when I am up and has as detailed a plan for the day as I do.  This year he would be dressed in orange shoes, orange socks, orange shorts, yellow shirt, and a neon yellow buff on his head in order to make it easy to spot him throughout the race.  Even though he got in late he would be joining us for the big breakfast on Saturday morning at 7:00am

This year we had breakfast at the Crowne Plaza on top of the hill in town.  It had a great view and an awesome all you can eat option.  This allowed me to get a huge jump start on the day's carbo loading.  After breakfast the remainder of the day was spent eating, resting, and going over the ever important race plan.

With race morning came an exceptional feeling of preparedness and confidence with an always present side of genuine nerves.  The weather looked great for the day as I went over my plan again and again.   It is amazing how much of a difference it makes to be ready to race with plenty of time to spare.  A small group of Nauts had congregated at the playground near the run to transition.  We all exchanged our thoughts on the day and then made our way to the water's edge.

My plan this year was to get to the very front of the start line, as close as possible to the dock.  This would allow me to have the most direct line to the yellow cord that follows the shortest distance around the swim course.  While this sounds great, however i wasn't sure how aggressive it would get.  I held my own from the time the pros started until the canon went of for the rest of us.  With the blast of the canon came a fury of arms around me.  I used the same approach I had inFlorida two years ago,get to the first buoy ASAP and get clear of the masses.  I was able to do this successfully and get a clear line as planned.  A few guys took off ahead of me and I wasn't able to hold their pace.  Soon after, 2 other guys came up along side me, one of which completed the pass and this time I was able to stay with him.  The rest of the swim consisted of me putting in surges to stay with the one guy while battling ate other guy for the best line.  The result was a 52 minute swim split that allowed me to catch all the female pros and put me on the heels of the pro men (both groups had the 10 minute head start).

I tore out of the water after utilizing the wetsuit strippers on the beach, waved and smiled to my family and continued the longer run to T1.  I got through T1 smoothly thanks to the awesome volunteers. As I headed for my bike I heard some bonus encouragement over the loudspeaker fromTater which gave me an extra boost.

As I started the immediate down hills through town I kept repeating my plan to myself and trying to bring my heart rate down.  This became a lot tougher as I started the climb and I realized I wasn't even close to my prescribed HR of 148.  Instead it was in the high 150s and low 160s.  I kept trying to take it easy on the climbs while getting ahead on my nutrition.  Overall I was feeling good on the bike and not getting passed nearly as much as I thought would...for the time being anyway.

On the first out and back I was able to see Jim and Paul were not far behind me.  Through the rest of the first lap I continued to ride steadily while keeping and eye on the gap I had over Jim and Paul.  They were both riding well and Jim was making up time on me while Paul's gap remained pretty consistent.   As the second lap went on my legs began to feel a little more fatigued.  Jim caught me on the first out and back of the second lap.  I managed to pass him back before he passed me once and for all shortly before the climb up to Wilmington.

The final stretch back to town is about 10 miles of gradual uphill and was especially windy this year.  The head wind slowed me to a crawl and for the first time that day a tiny bit of doubt began to creep in.  Thankfully I was far enough along that it couldn't really have an impact.  I began to think about my run and what Jim had said to me when he passed me on the bike, "you better run a fast marathon" - or something to that effect.  My plan was to run a smart but fast marathon.  Based on how my legs were feeling on the bike I was definitely concerned that they wouldn't feel as good as I had hoped when the run started.  

I popped through T2, quick stop at the trough and hit the ground running...literally.  The tricky thing about Lake Placid run course is that the first 3-4 miles are down hill and VERY fast.  The key to a good run split on this course is to hold back on the first 6 miles, run smart on the second 6 miles, maintain a strong pace on the second way out of town, and bring it home with everything you got.  All the while, not putting in too many surges or spikes in heart rate.  The pace in the back of my head was 7:25 to start the run.  I noticed my pace was closer to 6:40 however, my HR was only slightly (2-3 beats) above what I averaged on the bike.  Knowing that I could afford up to a 10+ beat window, I held this effort and allowed it to dictate my pace.  I noticed I was going through the field steadily, however instead of worrying about exploding later, I was gaining confidence based on how my HR was responding.  

As anyone Naut that has raced LP can attest to, I got a huge lift from the club members at the Econolodge followed shortly there after by some helpful wisdom from Pat -- "Perform, ice, water, sponges."  As I reached river road my momentum slowed but only slightly.  I kept a quick turnover, focused on my arm swing, and nailing nutrition through the aid stations.  After the turn around at the end of River Rd, I had almost closed the gap completely to Jim (remember he dropped me like 2nd period french on the climb up to Wilmington).  As always, we exchanged a few positive words and each kept to our respective plan.  Knowing Jim and having raced with/against him many times, I knew he would elevate his pace and hang with me as long as posssible (as I would do on the bike).  When I was approaching the end of River Rd I caught and passed a fellow age grouper named Matt Bach.  Matt was an iron virgin with serious talent.  I had raced him at Rev 3 Quassy half, Prov 70.3 and a CT sprint in 2011, and we had spoken about this race.  I knew he was a force on the run so I had to be smart.  Matt ended up lifting his pace as well and we ran together for the next few miles up to the second turn around along Mirror Lake Drive.  As we made our way on to the second lap we exchanged a few words about our placement and how we were both aiming for Kona.  I thought we were running in second and third so we agreed to work together and catch #1.

We again hit the down hills leaving town and I felt as though I was putting some time into him.  I tend to work the down hills as my heavier frame (thats what all the chubby kids say) allows me to pick up speed without working the effort level.  I refused to look over my shoulder but rather kept on pushing as though he was right next to me.  Again my spirits were raised through Cyclonaut Central, and again I received wisdom shortly there after..."head up, lean forward, perform, water, ice, sponges!"  By the time I hit the River Rd turn around I was able to see the gap I put into Matt and it was over a minute.  Not taking anything for granted, my drive continued as I thought I was in first in age group and man did that get my adrenaline pumping!  

One last time through C-Naut central and onward to the final out and back.  I saw George  Herrick on the aid station and his encouragement lifted me even further.  One last turn around, saw I still had a gap, but pushed harder for security.  I had a feeling there were only 2 spots in my age group and I didn't want to take the chance and get passed in the last mile.  Down the hill, through the S turn and into the oval.  I finally looked over my shoulder 3 times in a row to make sure nobody was going to pass me.  This was my moment.  All the hours in the basement throughout the winter, late evenings biking and running through the spring and summer and most importantly all of the sacrifices that were made on my behalf by others...all of these things came down to this one moment and I was going to enjoy it.  I slowed to a walk just before the finish line and raised my arms as I crossed the finish.  You would have thought I had just won Ironman Hawaii, not qualified for it.  I found out later I came in second place by 6 minutes, and held off 3rd place by 90 seconds.  Kona was mine.  What started as a proposition on a beach on the 4th of July the year prior, was now becoming real.  My lifetime goal and dream was coming true and I couldn't believe it.

This goal, this dream, would never have happened if not for the push, encouragement, sacrifice, and belief in me by others.  Kara has been the most amazing wife I could have asked for.  I realize everyone feels this way and says this when looking back on their Ironman preparations, but it has never been more true.  The many evenings of eating dinner by herself, doing all the chores around the house both during the week and on weekends, while I was out training, but most importantly the sacrifice to put off starting our family so that I could pursue MY dreams and MY goals.  She is the most selfless person I have ever met and I can't wait to return the favor between now and March 20th and for a long time beyond that after we have welcomed our new addition to the family.  

To this club, the best on the planet; for your words of support and experience as well as your company on many training rides, runs, and swims.  Special thanks to Jim, Ryan, Brian, and Mik for the frequent company on the trainer, the roads, and in the water.  Tremendous thank you to Pat for keeping me focused and reminding me what it takes to get to the level required to reach the big island as well as the additional tips and wisdom since qualifying.  Obviously I can't forget my family, for making the trip to LP and their unrelenting support.  I can't wait to do it all over again in Hawaii with surrounded by family once again!!