Friday, September 14, 2007


“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

In 2002 I did my first-ever Ironman in Wisconsin. I was 23 and just a year out from my collegiate running and swimming endeavors. I had dabbled in sprint tris since grade school, but I had only done two Olympic distance races before tackling the Ironman. Furthermore, I had never swam a full 2.4 miles, biked more than 100 or run more than 18 miles! Still my goals were lofty. Even as a grade schooler I didn’t dream of playing in the World Series or even running in the Olympics. I wanted to go to Kona and do the Ironman! I wanted to contest the winds and brutal heat and find out how I measured up.

Me and my brother Andy after a kids tri.
(Circa early 90s!)

Call it cocky, youthful bravado, but I had put massive amounts of time and effort into competitive swimming and running over the years. I understood how to hurt and figured that would be enough to qualify. On race day, IT band issues forced me to walk more than I had planned and I ended up finishing in 10:55- about 30 minutes out from a slot. I realized this was going to be a hell of a lot harder than I had anticipated. I re-grouped, did some research (hey I'm a librarian!) and figured that if I could go under 10 hours then I would surely get a slot the next go around. I redoubled my training efforts and incorporated some ½ IM races into my schedule. I managed to go sub-10 in my next two races but narrowly missed slots both times. I was stronger than ever last spring before Lake Placid, but a broken collarbone put a kink in my training and I just missed another slot, finishing in 10:05.

Getting so close was frustrating, but that was just a minor aspect of Ironman racing. I loved long course racing! I've learned that I am never more aware of being alive than during an Ironman. You become acutely aware of your body and the world that surrounds it. Those races also gave me a tremendous amount of respect for my competitors and training partners. I knew how hard I trained so I could guess how hard these other guys worked to keep beating me. Racing –actually racing- Ironman will take everything you have. The race will look you square in the eye and say, “Is that all you got?” then kick you in the nuts like a schoolyard bully and walk away laughing! “Better luck next year, kid.” Triathletes- and in particular Ironman triathletes- inspire and motivate me. If Frank Farrar at age 78 can finish under 17 hours, I can sure as hell figure out how to get further under 10 hours. Sometimes the race beats us, but something deep inside, something incredibly strong makes people come back time and again to face down the distance. My hat is off to you all.

So, last fall I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin with redemption in mind. I was going to train like crazy and go back and smoke the course that broke me down 5 years ago. If any sport rewards discipline, determination and sheer bullheadedness it is long-course triathlon. I’ve had people ask me what kind of training you need to do for an Ironman or for a sub-10 Ironman. On one hand this is an easy question to answer. Anybody can go back and see the exact workouts I did to get ready THIS season. I’m a huge fan of training, but not training logs. In fact through my sponsorship with Team RaceAthlete my Training Peaks log was the first time I ever tracked my training over the course of a season. You can see my season totals and individual workouts here. What is not obvious is everything that came before. All those cold mornings on summer swim team. Growing up in the country and always being outside doing something or other. The cross-country state meet in 8th grade. Setting a collegiate record in a swim relay. How do you tally all this up? You don’t. You can’t. It’s not about adding up miles and watts and yards in some mystical equation that will yield a Kona slot, or a sub-3 olympic tri, finishing your first 5K, or a Boston qualifying time. Over the years it becomes an attitude. A lifestyle. It’s about being healthy and active. It’s about finding out what your amazing body is capable of. It’s about the journey.

A big part of the journey this year was Team RaceAthlete and our team sponsors. I am hugely indebted to Stu and Roman for all the time they sunk into making this team a reality. Putting together a team of fully-sponsored age group athletes was an idea whose time had come. From a marketing perspective, we all know that Faris Al-Sultan is going to be stupid fast on any bike costing more than $1500. But what can a top-of-the line BMC, Zipp wheels & Power Tap, 2XU wetsuit, professional coaching, testing at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a world-class bike fit do for the average age grouper? Quite a lot as it turns out. First off, eight out of eight members of Team Race Athlete finished Ironman Wisconsin- no small feat. I think seven of eight had what they would consider good or great races. Of those who had raced Ironman before, most set PRs on one of the toughest courses out there. As for myself? I finished 37th overall and finally nailed that Kona slot! I’M GOING TO HAWAII TO RACE THE BEST IN THE WORLD!!
Race Report

Goal: An hour or better.
Time: 59:48
Swim Place: 128
Age Group: 14

I really don’t swim much (seriously!). Swimming gets really neglected because I have traditionally been a weak biker in comparison. I’ve seen much better returns devoting my training time to riding. What this generally means is that I swim about 3000 yards no more than twice a week.

Me and Iron Wil heading out for a practice swim

Since the water on race day was mid-seventies I opted for my sleeveless 2XU wetsuit. Coming from a competitive swimming background (I was strictly a sprinter) I hate having full sleeves unless the water is below 65. Before the race I had the chance to talk with BMC and 2XU sponsored pro triathlete Wil Smith (left) and found out he does the exact same thing. For this race I decided to position myself a bit more aggressively. I made my way to the front and all the way to the inside where I encountered Simply Stu slacking off and hanging onto a kayak (manned by a Tri-Shark volunteer!) before the start! Traditionally I have started wide to stay out of the washing machine and just ate the extra distance. This race, I was in the hunt for any extra time I could get so I started inside and up front where I would get on faster feet and swim a straight line. I still don’t know if I like this strategy! I ended up swimming a touch faster than usual, but the first 400 meters was really brutal. I had to be very conscious of defending my space and swimming the proper pace. I never push the swim that hard. For me the difference between going really hard and fairly easy is only about two minutes. By taking it relatively easy I get those two minutes and much more back over the course of the day. The swim was mostly uneventful. Swam a poor line a couple of times and didn’t have a good draft the whole time, but I came in around my time goal. Out of the drink and ready to rock!

Goal Time: 5:20 (under perfect conditions)
Goal Watts: 195-205
Time: 5:28 (20.5mph)
Ave. watts: 193
Bike Place: 86
AG Place: 7

Funny thing about me and cycling. It is my favorite of the 3 sports, but it has also traditionally been my weak event. In fact, I’ve spent the last 5 years focusing primarily on riding with the single goal of bringing my cycling in line with my abilities in the other sports. It has been a long -and at times- frustratingly slow process. Sometimes I would only see small gains over the course of an entire year. With the guidance of Coach Mike Ricci from D3 Multisport, this was the year that things finally started to turn around. Of course, having a brand new BMC Time Machine tricked out with Zipp parts, wheels and a Powertap didn’t hurt. The biggest change I saw with the coaching was doing more intense intervals and riding progressively harder for long training rides. The Powertap helped to really focus my training and racing efforts.

I crossed paths with fellow Tri-Shark Eric Arndt in transition (he managed to swim about a minute quicker!). I started out very easy on the bike and my day nearly ended ½ mile into the ride as the athlete in front of me launched both rear bottles on the first bump on John Nolen Drive. It was very close- I actually weaved in between two bottles as they were rolling. Easy solution here tri peeps: Elite Ciussi Gel bottle cages. Bend them in and the gel tabs hold the bottles like vice grips. My plan was to take the first ten miles easy. My legs felt OK- but not great, which actually ended up being the theme for the entire day. Memphis in May turned out to be the only race this season where my legs felt really great during the bike. Coach Mike's recommendation for my goal wattage range was 195-205, which represents 68-72% of my FTP. After the first 10 miles I let the wattage go up to the low 200s. A few people were passing me, but I was making up places at the same time. The temps were outstanding! I started taking in nutrition after 10 miles. On the bike I use a custom formula from Infinit Nutrition that has 260 calories per bottle and all the electrolytes that I need. I supplemented this with a few gels, bananas and half a plain white bagel at mile 56. Nailing down my nutrition has been a huge boost to my racing. The biggest change I made as a result of racing with the Powertap was really backing off on the hills. I thought I rode the hills conservatively before, but in reality it was nowhere close to easy enough. Backing off on the hills made it easier to ride strong on the flats and to not trash my legs for the run. For Wisconsin I cobbled together an 11-27 cassette from an 11-23 and 12-27. This gave me a great gear range for this hilly course. Having the 27 was one of the smartest moves I made. I was able to stay seated and spin smoothly up almost all the hills. Unless I needed to stretch my back I tried to stay seated when climbing rather than standing and mashing. The Zipp 606s were a perfect set-up for this course- aero yet light.

After the race my wife said to me, "I've never seen you smile that much during a race." It's true. Sometimes people mistake my grimace for a smile, but I often race pretty deadpan. I thought alot about how Natasha Badmann is always smiling even on her bad days. Staying positive is one of the best race day strategies. As it turns out a couple of my bike pictures have me with a silly grin!

At mile 56 I checked my average watts and I was a touch high (219 zeroes excluded). This was kind of nice though, because I knew that I could back off and easily maintain pace. Having lots of support from the Tri-Shark club scattered over the big climbs really helped. It’s always great to see someone you know on the course to break up the monotony. Of course the Alp d’Huez like crowds in Verona certainly helped out as well. It was funny to notice how when I hit the crowds my wattage shot up! Felt pretty solid on the second loop. I hit mile 100 and was continuing on the theme of feeling good, but not great. I think my nutrition was pretty close to spot on, but I definitely struggled during the last 12 miles. There are still a few hills in the section back to Madison. Add in a stiff headwind and 100 miles of riding and this section was wicked hard. I actually started taking in more calories because I was worried I was running low. Thinking back though I just think it was damn hard- nothing more.

Goal: 3:15-3:20
Time: 3:18
Run Place: 32
AG: 5

For most of my Ironman races I’ve come off the bike to pretty severe stomach cramps. This time the stomach was feeling great. I almost didn’t want to think about it in case I would jinx myself. I don’t like having a heart rate monitor strap on all day, so I just put it on for the run. My run plan was to keep the heart rate around 150. I wanted to run relatively conservatively until mile 18 where I would lay it on the line. Early on I hooked up with Brian Fort who I swam against in high school. He was having an amazing debut race and we ended up running miles 3-8 stride for stride. It was great having someone to work with. We were making up places like crazy and even reeled in a few pros who were having a bad day. We sort of added Heather Haviland to our steady little group for a couple miles. I was hitting my heart rate ranges, but not watching mile splits. At mile 7 I realized that we were running almost 7 flat miles! (including walking most aid stations)! No matter what the HR said, I knew I couldn’t hold 7 flats for an IM marathon, so I dialed it back a couple notches. For nutrition on the run I really tune in to my body. If I start craving pretzels I probably need salt. If my stomach gets queasy I just take water for a mile or two. I did carry some Espresso Hammer gels and took two of these over the course of the marathon. Coke saved my race in Coeur D’Alene so I was looking forward to that magic again. Since I was feeling good I held off on the sugar rush until mile 13.

I knew that a few guys from my age group had gone around me on the bike and I figured a few more were probably ahead of me all day. I was doing my damndest to pick up places while still maintaining a pace I could hold onto for 26 miles. My first half was about right on: 1:35. I knew from experience that I probably would not be able to negative (or even) split an IM marathon. 1:35 gave me a bit of a cushion. I never felt really terrible during the run. I never felt super-strong like I did at Steelhead. Again having lots of support on the course helped keep me out of death-march mode. When I hit mile 18 I didn’t have the reserves to really pick it up like I had hoped. My goal of “laying it on the line” ended up translating to just maintaining pace. The latter stages of an IM marathon are very tricky. I always position myself right on the brink of blowing up. I’m so precariously balanced on this edge that I felt I needed to walk through the mile 24 aid station just to make sure I had calories for the next two miles. Rounding the final homestretch I checked over my shoulder to make sure I wouldn’t have to kick it in. Seeing that the coast was clear I slowed down and enjoyed the last two hundred meters. I gave some high-fives and crossed the line in 9:55:11. I was three minutes slower than Florida (much faster course) but it was my best placing ever! I ended up 37th overall! That improves to 18th when you take out the pro field!

Not too long after finishing I got a call from relatives who were monitoring the race on Ironmanlive. They said I was 4th in my age group. I couldn’t believe it! I wasn’t ready to start celebrating because I didn’t know how many slots my age group was going to get. I was hoping that 4th just might do it. Because many racers in the 25-29 age group eventually become pros, it is almost always the hardest age group to qualify out of. As it turns out my age group did only get 4 slots! Two of those rolled, but again if I was even 5 minutes slower over the course of the whole day, I would have been shut out again. Everything finally became real the next morning at Kona registration. I sat down next to Paula Newby Fraser and wrote a painfully large check to at last secure my trip to Kona. To top off the day I found out that my fellow Tri-Shark club member and long-time training partner Chris Daniels had also gotten the last slot in his age group. Yeah Baby! Another year of the Chris & Chris training team!!

I got to go up on stage and get my award from Mike Reilly- a pretty damn cool experience. Even better than that was going up on stage later for a picture with my family! Everybody that is not pregnant in the above photo did the race (Cara's already notched a Wisconsin finish). This was Heather's (Andy fiancee) first and Andy's 4th. It was the first time we've raced the same race and I loved all the training and racing I got to do with my brother this year! I could never race as well as I do without my families. My families include my relatives, the Tri-Shark Club and my new RaceAthlete family. Thanks to you all.

Now almost a week later, I’ve already completely shifted my focus. After so many months of intense training it feels good to be doing something else. Cara is teaching, coaching high school cross country, taking a Master’s class and –oh yeah- she’s 7 ½ months pregnant. She was extremely patient and accommodating during all my training and racing. I think she was as relieved as I was that I finally got my slot. Now I’ve got a kitchen remodel to finish, some lights to wire and some beers to drink! There is the wedding in October then some big changes in the Sweet household come November.

Thanks for sharing the ride!!


Anonymous said...

Congratulations Chris!! You are awesome!!

Texafornia said...

you rocked that race! as a fellow raceAthlete, we really owe mike ricci's coaching and the sponsors' gear for improving ourselves so much. the powertap is the most amazing training piece I've ever seen. I dropped 2.5 HOURS off my last IM PR.

now it's time for us to kick off our racing shoes and get back to our families. I've been doing so for the past week and it is so much fun!

Julia said...

WHAT an accomplishment! Congratulations - but now don't you have to train for Kona?

Bolder said...

congrats Chris!

i only saw you on the course once, but you were smiling then too!

you SHOULD be smiling all the way to, during, and through Kona.

you are now one of the chosen few.


Laurie said...

Congratulations Chris! I am so happy for you that your dream has come true. You deserve this, enjoy it!

Michelle said...

Once again, I am soooooo happy for you! You are awesome. Good things are happening.

Thanks for the pics of you as a kid. I love that stuff.

Tracy said...

Man you were all quads and delts as a kid too, geez!

It was really great to see you flying up those hills, I'm so excited to watch you get even stronger and faster on the way to Kona!

PS: OMG Cara's shirt is one of the cutest things I've ever seen!

21stCenturyMom said...

What a fantabulous race report - loved it.

It reminded me of a little story Chris Lieto told at this event my race club held. Turns out he started out doing the Wednesday night runs with the club. At some point he told a couple of the guys he wanted to do an Ironman and qualify to go race in Kona. They laughed at him and said, "Dude! with those skinny legs?? - No way!"

So - as they say in the world of Iroman, Anything is Possible.

Congratulations on making your dream come true.

Anonymous said...

Nice RR Chris, perfectly executed Race.

You planning on doing the Triple-T next year?

TriBoomer a.k.a. Brian said...

Fantastic race report fitting of a fantastic Ironman.

It was good to see you again and I look forward to following you in Kona.

Stay tuned...

OkiMike said...

A belated congrats. This kind of nicely detailed report is inspiring for someone like myself who is interested in beginning training for his first IM.