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.