Ironperson Canada 2012—Almost “Go Time”

As ready as I guess I’ll ever be to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112, and run 26.2 on Sunday, August 26th in Penticton, British Columbia.

I’m assigning myself an “A-” for my prep. I’m most proud of the fact that without being accountable to a coach, or anyone, I put the work in. I’m fit. There have been times in the last five to ten years that I’ve been faster in the water, faster on my bike, and I’ve ran faster, but I’ve never been as strong in all three disciplines. I am trained for a steady and solid all day effort. I’ve gone from doubting whether it’s possible to run a marathon off a long swim and bike, to dialing in the salt supplements, and thinking I can. When I get in trouble during the day, I’m confident I can pullback, regroup, and continue on. The half grade deduction is due to the record amounts of sugar I’ve consumed over the last few months. I’ve blown through pack after pack of Costco cookies and thoroughly tested a wide range of Dreyer’s ice-cream flavors. Someone asked Charles Barkley what he thought of my nutrition and his answer is below.

The four consecutive recent Tampa, FL runs were more important than meets the eye. It took me 15 of the 30 miles to learn to slow down and sustain anything through the heat and humidity. Mid-day Friday in Olympia I ran for an hour steadily and fairly hard in a long sleeve winter shirt. I couldn’t have done that before FL. I feel fairly acclimated to heat, an achilles heel of mine. Then again, it was 94 in Penticton yesterday. If it’s that warm on race day, all bets are off.

Recently, I met two people who couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to such extreme physical activity. I’ve wondered the same thing for years, but have made peace with my motivation which I’d describe as one part peer pressure and two parts the lure of trying to pace such an event correctly.

I am an ordinary age group athlete, but I am above average at pacing events correctly. I love the challenge of spreading out my effort as evenly and efficiently as possible. That’s part of my competitive advantage. I first learned to pace a 10k well, then a half marathon, then marathons, then half irons, then rides around Mount Rainier. This event intrigues me because it will be the ultimate test of that skill. The line between my “all day” pace and “too fast” is razor thin especially on the run. Even 10-15 seconds a mile too fast in the opening miles could very well cause me to blow up in the middle or late stages of the run.

The question is do I have sufficient self-understanding and body awareness? No power meter or heart rate meter for me, just g.p.s. and intense attention to my “perceived rate of exertion”. Put differently, for eleven hours I’ll be closely assessing whether I’m breathing too hard. I have a hard time living in the present for 11 minutes, here’s hoping I can do it for 11 hours.

My physical ordinariness is evident in the fact that true fish make me look silly in the water; I can’t hang with Cat 1, 2, and 3 cyclists; and the fifty year-old down the street would have to spot me at least 30 minutes in a marathon. But 90% of triathletes have a weakness. In contrast, I’m decent across the board. That’s another advantage. Being 50.5 in the 50-54 year old division is yet another.

Given my successful training and those advantages, what are some realistic goals? I’m conflicted. Half of me feels conventional, I want to start the run right around the seven hour mark and finish 10th in my age group (last year there were 245 in my 50-54 age group). The other half wants to have a spiritual experience and learn more about myself and life independent of the race clock. That’s vague because it’s not a goal as much as a tough to articulate feeling.

Recently, a friend and fellow long distance athlete had an epiphany. He realized that racing is about learning to set goals and persevere in attaining them and then applying those skills and discipline to his non-athletic life. For me, that’s too linear, or for lack of a better term, too Western. I want to experience something of the divine. Is that asking too much?

Post race I’ll share my more specific pre-race goals and my unconventional mental prep. Ultimately, finishing 10th in my age group will come down to one thing, being able to run steadily for the whole marathon leg. In training, salt tabs have been a godsend, keeping my chronic cramps at bay. I expect them to work on race day too. So then, only two things will determine my relative success, smart pacing, and mental toughness, or guts.

Do I have sufficient guts? I think so.

p.s. Noticed the dearth of pics lately? I gave my camera to 19 for her 20th b-day. I will buy a new one soon and jazz the place up. In the meantime, I will deputize 17 and 20 as race photogs.

Iron-Distance Triathlon Training Update

Is it possible to write about triathlon training in ways that aren’t painfully narcissistic? To write about it as a means to more meaningful ends like greater self understanding, greater appreciation for health and nature, for self improvement more generally?

I’m a triathlete and I find most triathlon writing uninteresting. Too many triathlon writers assume others are as interested as them in the details of their training sessions, their equipment choices, what they had for breakfast at 4:30a.m. pre-race, who they happened to run into right before the swim, their frustration that everyone drafted on the bike, and “their amazing support crew.”

Maybe triathlon writing will never be of interest to people who would never think to string a swim, a bike ride, and a run together. I’m diving in based on the theoretical possibility that one can engage the non-triathlete world if the niche sport is a springboard for thinking more deeply about struggle, life purposes, and things social scientific. If this post gets more than average page views I’ll weave in occasional swimming, cycling, and running posts. If not, I won’t.

I’m four weeks into training for Ironperson Canada on August 26th, an athletic event consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles, but you knew that already). The four weeks in March called for increasing volume beginning with 51% of max, then 58%, 65%, and 72%. This week, hallelujah, I’m dropping back to 58%. In March I swam 29.6 kilometers; rode 392 miles inside, 150 outside; and ran 167 miles. I’m giving myself an “A-” for the month. I hit the swimming and running targets, maintained some core work, even lifted a bit, but fell a bit short of the cycling targets. I’m blaming La Niña for that. If we have many more colder and wetter than normal weeks, I may snap.

I’m not too worried about being behind on the bike. In May, I’m cycling up and down the Eastern Sierras and then I’m riding up, down, and around Southern and Central Oregon in late July. Eventually, I will return to summer 2011 form. Last weekend the weather broke for 48 hours and I got out for the first long group ride of 2012. I got dusted on the climbs by people I dusted last summer. Of course they hadn’t run 10 miles beforehand, but still, I realize I can’t replicate the intensity of group rides when I’m soft-pedaling indoors while watching Downton Abbey (that’ll intimidate my competition).

On the plus side of the ledger, I’m doing a better job of embracing a process I’ve long resisted. I’ve made peace with my decision to go long. I’ve always considered iron-distance training and racing a form of lunacy. Here’s why it’s taken me so bloody long to dip my toes in the long-distance waters:

1) Long-distance triathlon training and racing confounds one of my more important life goals—to maintain balance between sleep, work, family, friendship, citizenship.

2) Long-distance triathlon has become a big business and participating in it confounds another goal—resisting mindless consumerism. For me, the incessant in-your-face advertising that accompanies the increasing commercialization of the sport takes away from the beautiful settings and the purity of the activity. Go ahead and call me inconsistent, but I acknowledge the benefits of capitalism while simultaneously disliking the conspicuous advertising that is integral to it.

3) Long-distance triathlon is exceedingly expensive and I already play one country club sport—golf. And a person, if they’re a 99-percenter, should only be allowed one country club sport. I’ve benefitted greatly from capitalism, and I don’t begrudge any business legit profits, but I don’t like contributing to the supply that enables the World Triathlon Corporation to charge exorbitant entry prices. More triathletes need to say enough already, I’m seeking out less expensive races, or I’m sitting out the season altogether.

4) Long-distance triathlon is a poignant example of peer pressure something we should grow out of, by say, fifty years-old. I like to think of myself as individualist, but I have to admit I wouldn’t have committed to this race if it wasn’t for my brother and Lance who I will no doubt be cursing at my lowest moments on game day. I’ve never heard anyone of their own volition say, “Next weekend I think I’ll swim for an hour, then cycle for six more, and then run for four or more.” Hey, can I join you? And I have an idea, let’s wait until it’s the hottest day of the year.

5) Admittedly paradoxical, but I suspect long-distance triathlon has detrimental effects on one’ health. Especially for those who make it a lifestyle and repeatedly go long. If one trains seriously and then swims 2.4 miles, rides 112, runs a 10k, and then rests a lot, their body probably benefits. It’s the last 32k of the run where the health tipping point is most likely crossed. Apparently, studies of veteran long-distance triathletes are already showing the health costs of their mania.

Now though, I’m viewing it as a one-off project. And its part and parcel of the interest and identity tweaking I alluded to in the previous post. I told the GalPal, unless I don’t perform to 90% of my (perceived) ability, it’s one and done. If I don’t race smartly and thereby am not able to capitalize on my training, I reserve the right to a do-over in Santa Cruz in fall 2013 or 2014.

Also, in reading a bit about aging, I’m learning it’s important to mix things up on occasion, to break out of one’s normal routines. It’s easy to get in a rut—at work, while working out, in the sack, in one’s relationships. It’s important to travel to new places on occasion, meet new people, experience new things. This is about experiencing a few related things—getting in the best physical shape of my life and discovering my mental and physical limits. And I’m curious about how well I can spread my effort out throughout the day and how long I can force myself to run. Six months of lunacy to learn more about my mind and body.

Correction. Only five more months of long-distance lunacy.

Week that Was—12/21-12/27

12/21 M T W R F SA SU Total
S 2,000

16:31 1k

2,000

16:28 1k

700

famrelays

4,700
C 16 14

fam

30
R 6 6

mid 4-:29

6

marathon

pace

5-38:49

18

S: Outdoors in Flo-rida. SCM. Busted a knuckle up pretty good during family relays. It was all worth it though because I smoked 17 during that 50 back/breast race segment. My sissy shared an interesting thought last week, “It’s not all about me.” Oh, I beg to differ. As I pulled away with 14 cheering wildly, it was all about me. Seventeen never should have said “YOUR doing breaststroke?” Although, fourteen and forty seven were victorious, everyone smoked me in the back/butter/breast.

C: W indoors, Su outdoors. Sunday’s ride was done at 10mph with my better half on a hybrid way too small for me. Our mission, find Derek Jeter’s new house. We were unsuccessful. I should have done the research beforehand. We actually saw it near the end of our ride from across the (Tampa) Bay. Once built it will be 30,000 square feet. Seems kinda silly for a single dude. Actually seems kinda silly for a polygamist with double digit children. Had a thought during the ride Lance. If I rode an Ironperson at that pace, I probably could tag on a marathon. 1:05 swim, 11:40 bike, 4:00 run, :14 transitions. Oh wait, they have a cut off after the bike, nevermind.

R: I was running T and the temp was in the high 60’s. Yes, I took my shirt off and yes runners going the opposite direction were shielding their eyes. Call me the Solar Eclipse. A cyclist passed me wearing arm and leg warmers. So nice to run in warm sunlight. Which brings us to Christmas eve service. The offertory? “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”. I’d like to trade mid-winters for just one more week to help the people of TB truly understand the meaning of “bleak.”

Five Keys to Long Distance Success

In this long post I explain five keys to running, swimming, and cycling long distances successfully.

First, everything is relative. I’m an endurance athlete in the context of a relatively sedentary populace. Ultra runners, swimmers, and cyclists would laugh at my training log and chuckle at my definition of going long—a marathon, a 4k swim, 100+ miles on the bike, a half ironman.

Ultra athletes are a different breed. I don’t aspire to run 50 or 100 kilometers or miles, swim 10k, ride my mountain bike for 24 hours, or complete an ironperson. I won’t rule anything out, but at present, all my synapses are firing just fine.

Second, I’m no spring chicken, more a fall fowl, and not physically gifted, so I don’t think of success like an elite athlete who asks, “Did I win, was as I top three, did I set a personal record?” I’ve plateaued as a runner and swimmer and almost as a cyclist so I don’t expect to set many more personal records.

I define success as: 1) finishing the long distance event feeling as if my training paid off and I couldn’t have gone any faster. 2) Finishing feeling like I raced intelligently and spread my effort out evenly. 3) Finishing having left darn near everything on the course, but not being so depleted I feel weighted down with negative associations about the event. And 4) finishing with an even deeper appreciation for my health, my friends, and nature. 

For me, the keys to that type of success are five-fold: 1) train consistently, and for a length of time, and with a degree of seriousness, that parallels the length and difficulty of the event; 2) shortly before the event, assess my fitness in as objective a manner as possible; 3) based upon that self-assessment, devise a plan that will enable me to race evenly and maximize the fitness I’ve achieved through training; 4) right before the event, adjust that plan based upon atmospheric conditions; and 5) be disciplined in executing the plan.

To make this less abstract, let me illustrate each of these keys using last week’s RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day, 146 miles, skipped the Crystal Mountain climb, 6,720’ of climbing, 18.1 mph) as a frame of reference.

A quick tangent first though. There’s a breed of long distance athlete that I marvel at every year during RAMROD. These are people of widely differing body types that don’t think the ride is hard enough as designed so they ride it in wools socks up to their knees, with mountain bike shorts flapping in the wind, while simultaneously loading their bikes down with every accessory known to humankind—racks, lights, bags, flowers, kitchen sinks. Most amazingly, these hardcore athletes choose to ride it alone, foregoing the considerable savings drafting provides. Wonder if they bother inflating their tires to maximum pressure? Where does this line of thinking lead, “I know, maybe this ride will be even more difficult if my break pads are rubbing.”

I appreciate different body types and personal idiosyncrasies, but my assumption is the event is damn difficult enough and even if I go in lean and mean, ride as light and aerodynamic a bike as possible, and shamelessly draft on the flats, I’m still going to be completely shelled at the end.

Back to regular programming. Key to success number one: train consistently for a length of time and with a degree of seriousness that parallels the length and degree of difficulty of the event. While this seems obvious, lots of people, maybe inspired by the 44th president of the U.S., approach long distance events with the audacity of hope. There is some truth to the notion of good and bad days, but you can’t finesse a ride around Mount Rainier. All the hope (and change) won’t help you a lick if you hit the base of Cayuse without a sufficient training base.

What’s a sufficient training base? At minimum, strive to exceed the event’s total distance in as many of the 10-12 weeks leading up to the event as possible. Also pay closer than normal attention to eating healthily, getting adequate sleep, and incorporating rest days after especially hard efforts.

Key two: pre-event objectively assess your fitness level. Granted, the term “objective self assessment” may be an oxymoron. How exactly does one objectively assess their level of fitness? By keeping a training log and studying workout data in a historical context. The keys are monthly/seasonal volume (total miles) combined with times for selected workouts whether mile repeats on the track, a standard run or bike course, a 10 mile or 40k bike time trial.

Going into RAMROD, I had to decide whether my fitness level was worse, the same as previous years, or better. Obviously, if the same, I could adopt the same type of plan, if worse, I’d have to craft a more conservative game plan, if better, I could plan to ride a tad more aggressively.

Given my off and on summer teaching schedule, I didn’t have the consistency between weeks I would have liked. I also only had one hard effort of climbing way back in late-May on Mount St. Helens and only one 100-mile effort in mid-June. On the other hand, my May/June totals were solid, I had been going very hard on race team training rides twice a week, and Monday night my Garmin confirmed that I was strong in a short, solo, very hot tune-up. In the end, I decided I was in average mid-summer RAMROD fitness, which means probably as fit as I’ll be all year. As a result, I planned on approaching the ride the same way as the last few years.

Key three: based upon the fitness self-assessment, devise a plan that will enable me to race evenly and maximize the fitness I’ve achieved through training. Related to this, knowing the course is probably deserving of “key” status itself.

For example, there are three distinct segments within RAMROD. The first is miles 0-60 from Enumclaw High School to the Nisqually Gate of Mount Rainier. The air is cool, the terrain is forgiving, and everything is right in the world. You have to get to the gate looking and feeling like you could ride a hella hilly century with absolutely no problem. The second is miles 60 and somewhere between 105 and 110. This segment mostly involves about 7,000 feet of very beautiful, unrelenting climbing. This one-third of the course requires about two-thirds of the total effort expended. The final 45 miles are all downhill, the first 10 wonderfully severe. The gently downhill final 35 are almost always into a headwind.

So my default RAMROD plan is to stay completely within myself for the first three hours to the gate. This is the non-negotiable foundation on which the rest of the day hinges. The secret to implementing this part of the plan is knowing my “all day” pace that I can maintain solo and in a group for long periods of time. My RAMROD numbers were 18 and 20-21. I spend the first three hours mostly riding past slower cyclists, but importantly, letting faster ones go. Other elements of the segment one plan include drinking early and often, skipping the 33-mile food break, and being careful to stay within my “steady” zone up the gentle climb to Ashford and the real start at the Nisqually gate.

What’s most essential in segment two is settling into a sustainable rhythm. This is where I take what my body gives me based upon my “perceived rate of exertion.” Other riders’ pacing is totally irrelevant. Related to this concept, Gordo Byrn (if a triathlete, see his co-authored book, Going Long) employs a wonderfully simple and effective four-part “easy, steady, mod-hard, hard” framework. I do long climbs in what might be referred to as upper-mod-hard zone. The toughest RAMROD climb last Thursday, Cayuse, was especially tough because of above average heat. Often I flirted with tipping into “hard” and backed off by sitting on the wheel of slower climbers for a minute or so when I’d come up on them.

The essence of RAMROD is climbing. I really enjoy the challenge of sustaining a mod-hard effort for an hour. Totally in the present, and when all is going well, slowly bridging from rider to rider, exploring what exactly is sustainable on this day on this mountain at this hour and this minute and this second.  

The litmus test of whether I’ve settled into a mod-hard, but sustainable rhythm is whether I can finish the climb without stopping (or falling over). My guess is I was one of the few people who rode from Packwood at mile 78 to the top of Cayuse at 102 (where I was shaking, nauseous, and in pretty bad shape). That was one advantage of being a bandit, I didn’t want to stop in part because I didn’t want to tap the event’s resources.

The segment three plan is to once again work together with other cyclists of similar ability to negate the headwind. Notice the symmetry. This year, Lance and I left the Crystal Mountain deli stop as the same time as a group of four. I said to Lance, “Let’s see if they’re a decent match.” Turned out, they were perfect. We were averaging 22-23 and they were taking 2-3 mile turns at the front. After my first two-mile turn at the front, I waited for Lance to pull through, waited, waited, he had fallen off the back and I hadn’t realized it.

Why did Lance fall off when he’s as strong or stronger than me? Because somewhere around mile 35, our third friend, Alberto, whose “all day” numbers are probably 20 and 22-23mph, went off the front of a solid group of about 20-25 riders that were humming along at 20-21mph. Because Lance is a young thoroughbred who can’t help himself, he decided to bridge up to him. If we were early in a race team training ride, I would have applauded the bold move, but since we were riding around Mount Rainier in above average heat, I had a sinking feeling, thinking it would make for a much more difficult afternoon. Unfortunately, I was right.

It’s understandable to think that 2mph is relatively inconsequential but it represents a world of difference when on the course all day. It’s like 30 seconds per mile in a marathon. Doesn’t seem like much, but multiplied by 26, it adds up to a sizeable difference. In a marathon, going  even 10 seconds a mile too fast over the first half or three-quarters, inevitably leads to a slower finishing time. In a day-long cycling event, going a few mph too fast over the first half inevitably leads to a slower finishing time.

Key four: right before the event, adjust that plan based upon atmospheric conditions. Enough said. I failed to do this in the Boston Massacre Marathon in 2005 and ran my slowest marathon ever. We knew Thursday afternoon was going to be hotter than normal. The adjustments I had wanted to make included starting earlier, minimize time spent off the bike, get over Cayuse in the a.m., ride even more conservatively over the first three hours. My mental cues included: Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly. Meanwhile, Lance’s mental cues appeared to be Bill Ayers, Al Franken, and Keith Olberman. The adjustments didn’t go exactly as planned and I crested the top of Cayuse at 12:11p.m. 

Key five: be disciplined in executing the plan. This takes practice. Experience is the best teacher.

My hope is something in this description of my mental approach supplements what you’re learning from experience and contributes in some small way to even more success in long distance events.

Not tan, but rested and ready

Not tan, but rested and ready