Diagnostic: Sub preparation and poor execution.
I guess it's time I face it: I'm vain. And for endurance events, it's kind of useful. For instance, for the Houston marathon in 2012, I was planning on a 3h15. Entering the start coral I looked around and vanity kicked in: I'm fitter than these guys. So I moved up a bit. And that continued during the race, as I pushed the tempo just because the guy in front looked overweight. And it served me well, too: 2h57. But in the Woodlands last week, it was not meant to be.
I usually write race reports but I had a hard time getting to it this week. Vanity at work again, I guess: a DNF is not exactly something I want to think about, but it is what it is. Besides, in my line of work debriefs are always useful, even (especially?) those after failures. So it took me a while, but I finally came around to do it.
IMTX15 was my fifth Ironman. The first was in Brazil in 2009, with a gentleman's 11h52. Then IMTX11 in 11h22. For the next year, I hired FranĂ§ois to coach me, and it paid off: IMTX12 was 10h15. I slowed down a bit in 13 to 10h30 but, looking at the field, so did everyone else, so that was consistent. Right after IMTX13, I started experiencing lower back pain. By the time it went away, seven months later, registration was closed, so I sat out 14. Instead, I had a fantastic time in the Haute Route, a seven-day stage race in the Alps. It was great to ride on some of the most iconic cols in the world, meeting great people and rubbing shoulders with big-name athletes. By September, though, I was ready to get back to Ironman and see if I could go sub ten.
Building to it
Dad's sudden death in a motorcycle accident in October didn't help. I didn't do much training that month, nor the month after. Dad never took an interest into my running and biking, until last year where he spent a bit of time with me and became very supportive. So, in a way, his passing was also disheartening for my racing.
But FranĂ§ois helped, and I started regaining some consistency in training. Besides, when I hit a roadblock, it helped remembering dad looking over my shoulder was I was on the trainer and commenting on the numbers: 240W, you're pushing harder than yesterday. January was great! I was finally picking up some speed in the water, and I was recovering well. So did most of February. But one evening, commuting back home I completely botched a bunny hop over aâ€”in my defense, rather highâ€”side walk. That left me on my butt in a middle of a parking lot a mile away from home. My left arm was painful but moving, so I went home and willed the thing away. The next day at work my boss drove some sense into me and I got it x-rayed: fractured radial head. Fast forward a few weeks, between unusual stress and a heavy flu one month out, my prep was less than stellar. No worries, I thought, it will be good to get out there. So I went into the race trying to have no expectations. "Besides, I'll be racing for dad this year; he would have been proud. Whatever the result, I was thinking, just get it done. Yeah, right. If only I was that reasonable.
Being a weak swimmer and not having the volume I needed, I lined up in the 1h10 to 1h20 start group. It was my first time in an Ironman swim start by wave and, I must say, I liked it! I found there was a lot less contact than previous years. I tried to draft off of a few people but eventually settle in my own pace. At the entrance of the canal, on the left handside, I saw my bandmate Fred who had come to assist. How he found me in the 2,500 starters (Ok, I'll be the guy with a black speedsuit and a green cap!), I'lll never know, but here he was, for the better part of the canal, taking pictures and some videos. Now, I would post those but my inexistent technique was so far gone by now that I don't think my vanity would survive the inevitable critiques that such material would bring. Let's just say that if Fred ever feel like blackmailing me, he'll have no problems.
So I just focused on looking good for the camera and getting to the finish line priorities! Given that my PR on the course was 1h22 in 2012 and considering my poor training, I wasn't too displeased by my time. I felt that the day could seriously begin.
Under the severe rains of the previous days, the transition area had turned into mud pit, but my I had no trouble. However, on the way to the tent I felt I was better off walking than running. Clearly, the swim had taken something out of me and I needed to catch my breath. Bad sign, but I figured that was manageable. I stripped off my slowsuitâ€”I'm just not allowed to call it a speed suitâ€”got some sunscreen on, tried to avoid the worst mud puddles and off I went.
The bike is usually where I start to get a sense of joy on those Ironman things. In 2012, I think I passed something like 900 people, and after my slow swims the bike always seems to bring back a sense that, well, maybe I'm not too dreadful a triathlete after all. In my last two IMTX, I rode around 5h10 and, given my subpar prep this year, I would be content with 5h15, even though I secretly hoped I could pull off something closer to 5h.
I've had a great track record of back wheel punctures at IMTXâ€”3 miles into my first ride immediately after the race in 11, before the swim on race morning in 12, and 3 miles into the bike leg in 13â€”that I was a little apprehensive. Except that this year I changed my rim tape and that seemed to take care of it. Live and learn! This year was also my first year running latex tubes, so I was looking forward to free speed. The plan was to ride around 200W for the first half and pick it up a bit later on if I felt good.
So no, no puncture in the first few kilometers this year. Instead, I had another challenge: my Garmin was not reading any power output. Funny, I had calibrated it twice before the swim without any trouble, but now it was getting neither power nor HR. I might have let a few expletives, in French, on the bike as I was fiddling with the damn thing. I mean, it's my third 920 unit since November, the first two having had hardware failures. I purposely don't update the firmware for it until it's validated for a few weeks because it is notoriously buggy. I had used this unit for several weeks without troubles and checked it that morning. And now it was packing up on me! Now let's be honest, who wouldn't let out a few French expletives? I stopped the activity several times, started new ones, all while passing people and trying to get some hydration, until I finally gave up. I would have to go on feel. (That evening, browsing the Garmin website, I saw that people fix this issue by just powering the unit down and powering it back up. It just didn't occur to me then. To their credit, Garmin compensate their hopeless hardware with outstanding customer service and they are swapping my 920 for Fenix 3.)
Another problem came up right from the start of the bike: my cockpit felt uncomfortable as I felt I was constantly sliding forward. I hadn't noticed that in training, so perhaps it's because my elbow pads and bar tape got soaked the night before the race. After the race, FranĂ§ois offered some helpful ideas to fix this: angle the cockpit slightly up, wear gloves on super humid days.
I had bad stomach cramps for the first hour or so, so I couldn't take in calories. Maybe that was a combination of drinking some of that delicious Lake Woodlands water in the swim and wearing shorts that were seriously digging into my bloated stomach. The pain eventually subsided, as long as I stayed away from my gels and Cytomax. So I got my calories out of Gatorade. Yep, I know, not ideal.
But, apart from that, the bike was rather uneventful. Long, hot, windy, but uneventful.
I kept on picking up people as I went, and getting overtaken by the odd biker that was an even worse swimmer than I am. It was a brutal day but I had seen others, so I just concentrated on getting it done and eventually came back to the mud pit in 5h20.
Knowing that the place was a mess, I kept my shoes on to keep my feet dry. Pretty smart, huh? So I ran through the racking area and on the the concrete where I picked up my run bag. The concrete was dry, so I removed my shoes, ran another 100 m or so into the transition tent, only to realize that the tent was also a mud pit. I should have remembered, after all I had been there 5h and 22 minutes before. So, I found a seat, removed my soaked biking socks, removed my useless HR sensor, switched to a white top, and put on the fresh pair of socks I had put in there just in case. Put my right shoe on. Put my left shoe on. Take it off. Take the gel that I had strategically placed in my left shoe out, and put the shoe back on. I put my number belt on took a last look into the bag. Am I good? I'm good. Off I go. And off I am into the the blithering heat.
It only takes me a few second, maybe a minute, but then it hit me like the Texas sun on a May afternoon: I didn't take my cap! Merde ! I can picture it, my cap still in my transition bag. I can picture it just as easily as I picture the volunteer who, only seconds before took my bag and tossed it with the few dozens others just like it. There's just no way I can ever find that bag. Oh well, Jordan won in 2012 bareheaded, surely it's feasible to get through that day without a hat, right?
And so I start. The run is usually where I do comparatively better. I say comparatively because I've never managed to make one of those Ironman run stick fully but, in Texas, even a 3h45 gets you close to the top of your age group. However, the under training and mishaps both started to add up. And I could tell, because the first couple of kms into the run, I usually get carried away. Not this time. This year, it felt like all I could manage was a shuffle. And that was just fine with me.
And so the kms slowly ticked. I walked all aid stations from the start and felt miserable. It was the first time that I felt from the get go that I might not make it. At least everyone seemed to feel just as miserable. So I continued my shuffle, and then, out of nowhere, came the highlight of my day.
Here I am, running as slow as I ever was when I see the green monster, Lionel Sanders, right in front of me who seemed to be struggling just as bad as I was. Now Lionel was in his third lap and I was on my first but that's not important. What's important is that he was right in front of me and I was keeping up. Better still, I was gaining!
This went on for some time and, if I was hurting, Lionel was hurting more because before long I was right behind him. And then right in front of him. That's embarrassing because I'm now between him and his lead bike (he was 3rd in the race, then) and the two fellas on a motorcycle filming the whole thing. So I eventually got out of that sandwich and reached the next aid station, which I walked. Again. As I did, the green monster passed by, never to be seen again.
A colleague of mine is an epidemiologist at UH and we got into a conversation the other day about soft drinks where she said there was not a situation on earth where a Coke was helpful. Well, I disagree. Coke in a marathon is the nectar of gods! And it works for me. Aid station after aid station, I was regaining a little momentum. Water. Ice in my shorts. Ice in my jersey. Coke. More Coke. Red Bull. Red Bull? Do we have those now? Cool! Sure, I'll have one. Can you make it to go?
The forecast was for thunderstorms and cloudy skies. Well, the forecast was wrong. Again. There was a bright sun and not a cloud in that Texas sky that afternoon. And that sun really took its toll.
Another issue that developed was that my diaphragm seemed completely paralyzed. I could only breath shallowly. That also happened in 2013 when I had full-fledged side stitches. The stitches were so bad then that they killed my run. This year, I concentrated on relaxing my diaphragm. My breathing was still shallow, but at least I had no stitches. Not ideal. Far from it, in fact, but manageable.
I don't know about you, but I can tell I'm really cooked on the run when none of the signs are funny. I mean, the support is fantastic along the IMTX run course with lots and lots of people cheering you upâ€”and some spanking you, too!â€”but those signs. "Pain is temporary but Internet results are forever." And what's more, you know you are going to have to see them three times!
So I completed my first lap. More or less. Then I passed the halfway mark. Just 21km to go. Then 20. Then 19. No problem, I thought, I can run 19km in my sleep. I ran 19km three times last week! Then 18km. And at 18km, it hit me. Why bother? I mean, by now I'm going to be 10h40 at best, probably 11h. I'm getting hammered by the sun, my neck and shoulders are killing me, my wet feet are blistering, I have bad chaffing down there (2XU shorts are not for me), and I can hardly breathe. All this to come 30-60 minutes slower than before? Don't get me wrong, the feeling had been building up for a while, but all of a sudden, it was crystal clear to me: I don't want to do this anymore.
My friend Fred was still there and he did his best to convince me to stay in the game. For maybe 20 minutes, he argued for me to move forward, but my heart just wasn't in it.
Ever since that evening up until now, a week after, I've been kicking myself for it. I should have finished. Running, walking or crawling, in 10h40 or 16h59, it doesn't matter. I should have finished. For the first time, vanity actually was counterproductive, and I've hated myself for it. Well, at least now I know how it feels to DNF. And I know I don't want that feeling ever again.
So, dad, I'll make you proud, but you'll have to wait. No worries, I'm already signed up for next year.