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.

1 comment:

Triathlon Training said...

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