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!

1 comment:

Pharmie said...

First of all, that song is on my iPod. I love it :) When I saw your AG results, I almost fell over. That is a deep field! I still can't believe you did them only two weeks apart. You are a stud!