Friday, September 21, 2012

The Gambler: Rev3 Cedar Point Ironman Race Report

If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.

-Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

"Know when to hold 'em"

Racing two ironman races, two weeks apart, after a 4 year hiatus from long course racing was a huge gamble. This was not some haphazard, macho, lookee-what-I-can-do endeavor, though.  Instead, it was a series of carefully calculated risks. The first gamble was that I felt I was in far better shape than my performance at the Michigan Titanium showed. Cedar Point was a slightly easier course and race conditions would almost surely be better than the heat I had to deal with in Grand Rapids. If things went right I thought I could race faster than 2 weeks earlier and potentially set a lifetime best (9:53 currently).  That was gamble #1. 

In discussing the race with my wife there was also a double-down on gamble #1. The double-down was this: if I managed to place in the top 3 amateurs at Cedar Point I would automatically qualify for my pro card.  This was somewhat of a revelation to me because I have never actively pursued a pro card.  For most of the last decade I have been content to fight my way up the amateur triathlete ranks.  As it now stands though, I have done most of the amateur races I wanted to do (Kona, 70.3 Worlds, ITU Off-Road Worlds).  Next May I will race in the Best of the US amateur race and that will be one the last big amateur races that I wanted to do.

I am under no misconceptions that I would be anything but at the very bottom of the current U.S. pro field.  It is actually more about finances than it is about real (or more likely imagined) prestige that might come with a pro card.  Financially, the only way I can really keep racing a lot -and in particular larger events- is if I can drastically reduce the costs of racing. Related breaking news story: kids are not cheap and librarians don't make big bucks- who knew?!  Going pro is about the only option I have for reducing racing costs since pros can do most races (except WTC races) for free.

So looking at past Cedar Point amateur results and assessing my fitness and recovery, I knew top three was not out of the question on a good day.  A gamble, yes, beyond my current abilities, no. The $500 I made at the Michigan race made that race nearly a wash financially, so I was willing to pull out the credit card again and gamble on another race.

Two other things helped finalize my decision.  My Evotri teammate and Rev3 media guru, Simply Stu, had a room that I could crash in for free.  I was also able to convince good friend and training partner Laura Wheatley to drive over with me and chauffeur my worn-out butt back home after the race.  So I actually didn't decide until Thursday morning before the race whether I was going or not.  This is nuts compared to signing up for a WTC Ironman a year in advance.  I'll admit that it felt rather luxurious to see what the weather would be like on race day and then decide whether I was going to race!  It was a whirlwind trip since both Laura and I had to work Friday and again Monday morning after the race.  We drove over (7 hours) on Saturday morning.  I raced Sunday and we jumped back in the car and got home after midnight.  Craziness.

Storms were brewing race morning, but mostly stayed away!

This race has gotten a lot bigger in the last year or two!


The Cedar Point swim is held in Lake Erie.  The days before saw the remnants of Hurricane Issac blow through the midwest and cause some good swells and currents in Lake Erie.  Race morning had a light breeze and some small rollers in the lake.  The race has grown to around 400 participants.  It was a shallow in-water start and I lined up near the front and inside (most aggressive position).  I got out hard (which involved lots of dolphin dives in the shallow water).  I settled into IM swim pace pretty quickly.  I had a decent draft for awhile, but keep getting stuck alone which is a problem in smaller events.  Having just raced two weeks ago I was really dialed into what I could do for a 2.4 mile swim and I wanted to try and know a few minutes off.  No issues in the swim.  I paced the race nicely and worked a bit harder than the previous race to overcome the waves in Lake Erie. My swim ended up being 1:00:28 (3 minutes faster than Michigan).  That was good for 12th overall and in-line with my previous IM swims which have all been around that 1 hour mark.


I had very clear goals in mind for the bike.  My last two long training rides prior to the MI Titanium were in the 190-200w range.  The Michigan race was super-solid at about 190w.  The temps were far better for Cedar Point (60s-70s most of the day) so I wanted to be right in that same range again.  I took off and was just reveling in the cool temps.  I immediately started racing my own race based off what the PowerTap was telling me and not worrying about anyone else.  The Cedar Point bike course is probably one of the fastest in the country behind Florida and Arizona.  There are no real hills to speak of and the little rollers aren't bad.  Being that close to Great Lake, though there is often wind.  More on that later.  Nutrition seemed spot on again since I had it dialed in two weeks earlier.  Sitting around 200w average felt very easy in terms of perceived exertion which should always trump all other measures.  I don't know exactly what place I was riding in, but somewhere around top 5 overall.  I hit 56 miles right around 200w and 2.5 hours (about 22.5 mph). Splits from the race tell me I was actually in 4th overall at the halfway point.  This was exactly the ride that I thought I could do and the kind of split I needed.  As it turned out I did not even come close to maintaining this power or speed.

"Know when to fold 'em?"

Somewhere around 3 hours my average power started to decrease slowly.  I was expecting a little fall-off as that is common in IM racing.  Perceived exertion seemed a little harder but still similar to all my other IM races.  I kept the calories coming in since I didn't want to dig the impending hole any deeper than need be.  Around 4 hours I was just falling way off pace.  My legs were just wasted and I couldn't put any power behind the pedals.  I would stand briefly and spike the power back up, but I couldn't maintain it. I was surprised to be struggling this much on the bike. I had thought that if my two week turnaround was going to get me it would be on the second half of the run. Some nasty combination of low overall training volume, short recovery between big races and a pretty strong headwind the last hour or so just completely wasted my legs. This is not a dramatic exaggeration.  I later looked at my power file and the last hour was around 130 watts- I literally had nothing.  I had it in my head that my goal bike split was 5 flat.  The upper end of my range was 5:15.  I thought that if I didn't go 5:15 there wasn't any point in starting the run since gamble #1 (PR) and gamble #2 (top 3) would be pretty much out of the question.  It seemed like tons of people were passing me, but I later figured out that I had to have been higher overall than I realized.  Cedar Point is tough because you can see the amusement park from the bike course almost 10 miles out and damn if those weren't the longest 10 miles of my life!  I did the math and didn't think I could hit my 5:15 benchmark.  I saw 5:15 click by on my computer, but shortly after that point I hit the edge of the parking lot that T2 was in. Decision time.

"Know when to run" 

I have no idea what sort of incredibly deep, primal instinct got me out on that run.  My body was telling me that I was done and that absolutely no good could come out of attempting a marathon in that state of pain and fatigue. This logic was sound- if I fell apart that badly on the bike, then heading out for a marathon would surely be a recipe for disaster. In retrospect this was an incredible example of mind over body. I knew that fellow triathletes would probably understand a decision to bail and race again another day.  One thing I didn't want to do was try to explain to Jonah why I went away for a whole weekend and then quit in the middle of my race. A 4 year old's understanding of triathlon race strategies and time goals is pretty limited. There is also a quote from the great German triathlete Thomas Helreigel that goes something like: "Never drop out, because if you finish your legs will hurt for a week, but if you drop out your head will hurt for months." In more than 2 decades worth of competing in sports the only race I've dropped out of is the Desoto Triple-T when I broke my collarbone.  Even if it was the smart thing to do, I didn't really want to open that door. Lastly, I was kinda, sorta, a whiney bitch about the heat at my last race and here it was gorgeous race day conditions and I was thinking about dropping out.

Nut up.

Time to run.

I pulled on my now trusty retro red and white striped tube socks and sweatband and headed out onto the run. If I was going to go down in flames, at least I would look good/obnoxious doing it! Interesting side note: no blisters at all with the cotton tube socks: whodda thunk? Temps were around 70, but it was crystal clear with the sun beating down so it felt hotter than it was (see there I go again!).  I was immediately surprised at how, not exactly good.......but acceptable, my legs felt.  For someone who could barely turn the cranks over the last hour I headed out for a marathon doing mid-7 minute miles and feeling not all that bad. The Cedar Point run is almost completely flat, but terribly, horribly convoluted.  It just has way, way, too many turns and out and backs.  A big portion of the run course is running a mile down a city block, turning around running back, then going up a block and doing the same thing again and again.  It is flat, but all the turns will do a number on your knees during an Ironman marathon.

This is one loop, just try to add up the number of turns in two loops!

The first few miles I was still telling myself that I could bail at the halfway point if I needed to, but pretty soon I was in the groove and running sooo much better than I had two weeks ago. I knew I was in much better running shape than my 3:50 something death march in Michigan indicated.  I didn't try to push the pace at Cedar Point, but I tried to settle into a solid pace that would get me through the race and maybe still sneak me under 10 hours which became my revised on-the-fly goal.  At both of these races my stomach has done quite well on the run.  I did a great job of taking in some form of calories almost every mile which really helps keep things going in those last hours.

I saw Jeff Paul, my college xc and track teammate, and now professional triathlete twice during the run.  He was moving along at a far better clip than I.  It was looking like he'd end up somewhere around the 9 flat mark (he ended up at 9:17 and 15th in what turned out to be a surprisingly deep pro field).

I went through the halfway point still feeling decent.  I wasn't tearing it up like some of my previous IM marathons, but all things considered I was running tolerably well.  Frustratingly, I wasn't making up very many places.  I actually got passed twice in the first mile of the run, which rarely happens to me.  I got one of those places back pretty quickly, but the other guy was long gone and turned in a nearly 3 flat marathon.  My marathon ended up being a 3:37 (8:16 pace).  Not one of my better times, but almost 20 minutes better than the 3:56 from two weeks prior. I'll take that.

Overall I went 10:02:54.  On paper that was 13 minutes faster than two weeks prior.  The Michigan race had a long bike, so my adjusted time would have been around 10:07.  A few observations here.  #1 the Cedar Point bike course was a little easier than the Michigan Titanium bike course.  I fell apart at Cedar Point, but still turned in a 5:19 split. #2 I was happy to mostly redeem myself on the run.  I knew that I was in pretty good run shape and shaving 20 minutes from my marathon only two weeks after the last race certainly proved that. #3 As for my ambitious goal of top 3 and potential pro card, this turned out to be a reasonable gamble for me.  I finished 8th overall in the amateur race, but only about 16 minutes from 3rd. If I had been able to maintain pace on the bike and have roughly the same run, I would have been there. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, right?  The point is 16 minutes faster is well within my abilities- particularly if I had targeted this race and done more IM-specific training.  Here's another fun fact.  I took 8th overall, but 7th in my age group!  So even after they pulled out the top 3 overall, I still didn't place in my age group with a 10:02!

That's not a happy face....  (Clock time was for the pro race)

I've always needed big, ambitious goals to keep me both motivated and improving in triathlon.  Targeting races in 2013 that might get me to that professional level could be the new kick in the butt that I need to take my triathlon game up another notch. The 2012 tri season started out great with my best-ever finish in an amateur world championship and ended with 2 good overall finishes in ironman races that I wasn't planning on doing.  Along the way I shared a podium with some big name pros, made a little money racing and qualified for the 2013 Best of the US amateur race. Not too shabby.

Now it is on to cyclocross season! I'm putting on a new hat as race promoter for a local cyclocross event: check out the new Miller Chill Cyclocross Race!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Michigan Titanium Ironman Race Report

Yeah, that's right I went there.  I had the audacity to call an iron-distance race an Ironman. The MI Titanium race organizers -like most race organizers- judiciously avoided use of the name Ironman in all media related to this inaugural race.  For those completely unfamiliar with the legal underpinnings here, the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) has trademarked the Ironman name and Ironman logo.  These trademarks are tightly controlled and policed.  For example, a few years ago a race director near me in Springfield, Illinois created a new race called IronAbe that was actually an olympic distance race.  Not long after advertising this race he received the inevitable cease and desist letter from WTC for trademark infringement (which is a stretch since he only used the word iron). Fortunately, he held his ground and the race is still called IronAbe. This policing of the Ironman name brings to mind a classic letter from Groucho Marx to Warner Brothers Studios in regards to the Marx Brother's film: "A Night in Casablanca."  It is well worth a read.

This background actually helps to provide some big-picture context for this race report. I want to contend that the term "Ironman" should be owned by the athletes- the one's that are out there putting their hearts and souls into 140.6 miles of racing. Anyone that covers the distance in a single day by rights is an Ironman no matter which corporation owns the race.  Let's face it, "Chris Sweet, you are an iron distance finisher" just doesn't have the same ring to it!

On to the race report. Astute readers of this blog will recall that there was absolutely no mention in my season preview post of my attempting an ironman race this season.  The general outline was the off-road tri world champs in the spring, a few sprints and olympics during the summer and then a fall cyclocross focus. So what strange string of events found me again at the start of an ironman after a four year hiatus from long course racing? (Kona 08 was my last Ironman).  Basically, I was having a better-than-anticipated triathlon season, then I saw and opportunity and seized it.  Two weeks prior to the MI Titanium I raced the new Rev 3 Wisconsin Dells Half Ironman (oops, there I go again!).  My teammate Michelle asked me why I thought I was racing better this summer than my last few years and my answer was immediate: I finally strung together a bunch of consistent months of training.  Consistency is huge in triathlon.  In recent years due to pressing family and work constraints, I just couldn't string together consistent weeks of training.  This is not to be confused with high-volume consistency which would have been even better.  Basically for about the last 6 months I was able to work out 5 or 6 days a week, but only for 1 or 2 hours a day on average.  Still, this consistency helped and I found myself sharing the podium at the Decatur Lakeside Triathlon with pros Daniel Bretscher and Bryan Rhodes.  At the great new Rev3 Dells course I turned in a solid 4:37 on a course that is on par with Wildflower in terms of difficulty.

Very good podium company in Decautr!

So it was that no more than 2 months before the Michigan Titanium that I got a message from Amy Bowden, a college XC teammate, and one of my most recent triathlon recruits asking me what I knew about the Michigan Titanium.  I was very surprised that a new Midwest Ironman race had somehow gotten under my radar.  As I poked around the website, I liked what I saw and started forming the seeds of a rather crazy idea.  The race was only 4.5 hours away.  I had family in Grand Rapids. The race offered good prize money for top 3 overall. It was a chance to support a non-WTC event.  A thought in the back of my mind is that a huge item on my personal bucket list is to have an overall win at every triathlon distance- and Ironman was surely going to be the trickiest.  Still, I didn't see any pros on the start list and thought I would have a shot at the win.  It seemed ill-advised to do an Ironman crash course training block and then taper all within two months (not to mention a tough half two weeks before).  I talked it over with my wife and pointed out that all my IM training would be compressed into two months and would primarily consist of only six key long workouts: 3 long rides and 3 long runs.  The great thing about a small race like this was that I could wait until the week before to decide whether or not I wanted to race.  If my training block didn't go well, or if I developed an injury I could just decide not to race.

Long story short, my training block went quite well.  I did two of my 100 mile long rides completely solo and one of them was at the same power that I put out for Kona.  I kept my long runs around 2 hours and those went great as well.  So it was that I found myself toeing the line for the first-ever iron distance race in Michigan.

Nice, flat water for race morning!


The Michigan Titanium swim and transition area were located in Versluis Park which is a bit northeast of downtown Grand Rapids.  For the swim start I staged myself right at the front and got out hard which as a former 50yd freestyle specialist is not a problem.  I led probably the first quarter mile until a better distance swimmer caught me.  I held his feet for awhile, but knew it wasn't a pace I could sustain for 2.4 miles due to my usual 3000yds, once a week, swim training strategy!  A second swimmer also went around me, but I held onto third for the rest of the swim.  The lake was super clear and clean.  The organizers did an excellent job setting up the buoys in nice straight lines.  The course was two loops.  I felt awesome swimming alone without any interference and even thought I might turn in a time around an hour flat.  Turns out I saw just under 1:04 which is my worst IM swim buy a couple minutes, but that was probably due to not having people to draft off of.
Coming out of the swim!


My goal power range for the bike was 190-200 watts. I had hit this range in each of my training rides and it is similar to where I've raced in the past.  I took it out harder than that because I wanted to see how far up the road first place was.  Within the first two miles I had caught second place, but couldn't see first.  I was feeling very good on the bike and holding about 210 watts and just cruising the rolling hills without spiking my power.  Around 15 miles I finally saw first place.  I stayed steady and kept getting close to him, but he would put more effort into each uphill and pull away.  Somewhere around 20 miles I put in a hard effort and moved into the lead.  After that I led the next 90 miles!  Fortunately, there was a lead motorcycle which I was very thankful for.  Leading a race without anything or anyone up the road to look at is super-difficult.  Nutrition was right on- I started with a bottle of Infinit up front and had enough concentrate for 4 more.  I had about 5 espresso gels in a flask.  Bike aid stations were about every 20 miles and once the temps started climbing I wished they were every 15 or less.  Near the half-way point some jr. high kids forgot to direct us to an aid station and we blew by it until we hit a busy intersection and had to pull a U-turn.  I don't think it added or subtracted any distance, but I did have to go 40 miles without a water bottle refill.  I hit 56 right about 2.5 hours which is one of my best splits.  Lots of people have asked about the course.  The whole course is one big out-and-back.  It has rolling hills almost constantly, but none of them are very long and none of them are very steep.  The course profile listed 1500ft of climbing. My Joule said 4300ft!  I think the truth is somewhere between the two.  It is easier than Wisconsin or Couer D'lene, but not as flat and fast as a Florida or Arizona.  With the out and backs I could keep an eye on the rest of the field.  Just eyeballing it, I was putting time on everybody except for one rider who kept moving up.  We had moderate winds 10-15ish, but the temps just kept climbing. Somewhere around 3.5 to 4 hours my power started dropping off.  Some of it was intentional on my part because of the heat and how my quads felt.  The last hour was just plain awful.  Temps were near 90 and most of the last hour was headwind- fortunately there was also a net downhill.  Nutrition was still fine, but by the end of the ride my average power had dropped down to 191 watts (199 normalized).  According to my Powertap, the course was actually long: 113.8 miles.  This was actually good news to me because if I look at my time and ave speed at 112 miles, it would finally eclipse my 2003 Ironman Florida bike PR.  At 112 miles I was 5:07 and 21.9mph!  Just a great ride for me. Coming into transition, my pursuer finally caught up with me- which surely gave the spectators a good show.  He blitzed through transition while I took time to put on socks and sunscreen- a good decision for me based on past racing experiences!

Killing it on the QR!  Loving this bike.

Leading the bike into transition, but second place caught up right after this pic.


First place came blazing out of T2.  If I had to guess, he looked to be running sub-7s (and yes that is blazing for an IM).  I on the other hand, was struggling and not at all in a chasing mood.  The first three miles of that run were the worst in my Ironman racing career.  The heat was the main thing that was getting to me, but my quads were also aching horribly.  If I hadn't been in second overall it probably would have been easy to drop- and if things didn't turn around I would have dropped.  After the first 3 miles I just maintained a slow, shuffle-pace that I was pretty sure I could maintain for 26 miles.  For the first time in my life (in training or racing) I wore a GPS watch (my wife's).  Going in I thought under good conditions that I could run 3:15-3:20 (I was 3:18 in Wisconsin, so within my abilities).  The stupid watch showed me mile times in the 8 minute range which was hugely depressing so I never looked at the thing again!  The run course was a double out-and-back loop.  Like the bike it has lots of rolling hills, but again nothing steep and nothing very long.  It was partially shaded, but with temps in the low 90's I just couldn't bring my core temp down with any amount of ice and water.  I could see first putting a bunch of time on me, but I held out hope that since he had to ride harder than I did and was running the first half so quickly that he could implode and I could still pull off a win (not that hard to delude yourself 7 hours into a hot race!).  Nutrition continued to go well. I listened to my body and took some sort of calories at almost every aid station along with what had to be gallons of fluid over the course of the day.  Consistently taking in calories eventually helped me to run a decent second half- probably a negative split.  In fact it started to cloud over on my second lap.  The last 6 miles actually felt pretty good and I started to pull back some time, but it wasn't nearly enough. Just to spite me it finally started sprinkling during my final mile (after that it actually rained pretty hard and got relatively cold).  Jonah was waiting for me about 100 yards from the finish line and was able to run in with me (Cara handed Lorien off, right before the finish line).  One of the great things about non-WTC events is that they encourage family participation at the finish line unlike WTC who have banned the practice at their races (to be fair this was in response to type A triathletes bitching about people's families ruining their precious finisher photos).  So the run ended up my slowest by a long shot: 3:56.

My overall time was 10:16 (only my first ever IM was slower).  I'm mentally subtracting about 7 minutes for the extra two miles on the bike which puts me closer to 10 flat.  Lee Sauegling maintained a good run pace to take the win in 9:57 (all that difference occurred during the run).  Strange to have my run be my weakness when usually it is my best event.  I ran a 1:26 two weeks prior on a tough course at Rev3 Dells, so my running was where it should be.  What happened I think can be attributed to two things: #1 I hate the heat and never race very well when the temps climb over 85. #2 my overall lack of volume most impacted my run.


At the end of the day, I'm glad I took this risk and raced an Ironman under-prepared.  The frustrating thing is that I am in 9:45 shape, on the right day.  Second place yielded my biggest payday in the sport so far at $500.  The cost of ironman racing is one thing that has kept me away from doing more races.  There is almost never an extra $500 just sitting in our checking account.  For this race I put the entry fee on my credit card about a week before the race then paid it off right after with the race winnings.  I applaud the organizers for providing prize money for a smaller race- it really helps racers like me who are struggling with ever-increasing entry fees (see failed $1200 per athlete entry fee for WTC's cancelled NYC event).

I would definitely recommend this race to someone looking to do an ironman.  On paper the course should be pretty quick.  I'd love to see it moved back a few weeks to avoid the chance of more crazy-hot temperatures. It was well-organized for a first-year event with only a few small hiccups. Volunteers were awesome as always!  If you register early for next year's race (August 25, 2013) you'll pay far less than some of the other big name races out there and the experience will still be very good.  As for me, I'm glad to know I can still turn in a quick Ironman time.  Where I go next -particularly next season- is completely up in the air.