The last two years have been a little rough. First, in 2014, I had chronic back pain for eight months. By the time I got over it, registrations for Ironman Texas—my local race—were closed, and I didn’t get in. Then, in 2015, I did get in but had a terrible day and dropped out of the race halfway through the marathon. That was especially hard since dad passed away a few months before, and I wanted to do well.
So I had big plans for 2016: go under 10h, from a personal best of 10h15 in 2012. To do that, I’d do two Ironman-distance races within six weeks: HITS Ocala in early April, as a dress rehearsal, and Texas in mid May as my A race.
I drove up from Houston to Gainesville, where my coach, François, lives and used his place as a base camp, Ocala being just one hour away. HITS is a much smaller operation than the Ironman circus, and I liked it from the start. For instance, in transition, bikes are more spaced out, we have a wooden enclosure to put our stuff next to the bike, and we even have a stool each. Actually, forget the stool. The really nice touch is that they had a coffee truck parked right outside of transition! The whole experience felt like flying business when you’re used to coach on WTC Airlines.
I had a good training block over the past three months, but the final run up to the race was a little rough: I missed a couple hard sessions, felt tired on others, and, to top it out, there was a 100% chance of thunderstorms on race day. So François floated the idea that I bypass the race altogether. An alternative was that I use it as a training session, for instance by pushing the swim, bike, and half the run, and pull out halfway through the run to avoid the extra stress of running a full marathon off the bike six weeks before Texas. None of these ideas appealed to me. I was set on slaying my demons. That meant finishing, even if it meant taking the whole day at low intensity. Besides, HITS races are smaller and some are not that competitive. So, if I performed half decently, we knew I had a fighting chance at being in the lead. So, to hell with François’s opinion, even if I knew he was the voice of reason, I know better. I mean, not listening to your coach; what can possibly go wrong?
The plan called for a 7 am send off. But the course was still quasi invisible and there were a few thunders, so it got pushed back to 7:15. And then, when the thunder subsided, 7:30 and 7:40. By then, the race director called it quits, cancelling the swim. We’d have short run instead.
First Run. 1.6km. 7min11. 4:16min/km
The nice part is that I’m not a good swimmer, so while I was disappointed to lose my opportunity to try to go sub 10, my chances to spend some time in the lead instantly got better. The other nice part is that I got a closer look at the competition. Since competitors for both the half distance and the full distance started at the same time, on the beach we couldn’t identify who was who. But now the race organization corralled us at the front line, full distance people in the front, half distance a couple of meters behind. A quick look around showed that there were only a few of us left, maybe a dozen or so. I knew it was a small race, but not that small. Okay, no matter, no swim and a small field: now it really felt that I could lead at some point in the day.
But that, of course, comes down to the quintessential rule of racing, once you stop racing yourself and start racing the pack: success depends on who shows up. Not knowing these guys, I only had that one minute before the gun went off to look around the corral and try to evaluate who was a threat. There was this one guy with tattoos who looked fit. This guy, I felt, I needed to mark. The others seemed less threatening.
The gun goes and we’re on our way. So are the halfs, and quickly a dozen or so overtake me on the out-and-back course. No matter. I’m using this as a warm up, I’m marking Tats and just getting on with my day. Soon enough we pass the turn around. Tats falls a little behind and before I know it, I’m back in transition. Run gear off, bike gear on, and off I go.
Bike. 183km. 5h05min. 36 km/h average 217W NP 213W AP
The course is out and back, 45km each way. The halfs do it once. Lucky us get two loops. The early miles are the regular story: we all get sorted out—pass a few people, get passed, shout a couple “on your left,” stay out of the drafting envelop… With such a small field (maybe 80 people between the two distances) things get ordered quicker than usual. And then it starts raining.
The good news is that it’s not cold. In fact, the temperature is ideal, but it’s serious water coming down now, and some of the course’s sweeping curves seem coated in water-resistant asphalt that looks as slippery as ice. As a result, there were a couple descents from cat 4 climbs where I felt that I needed to be concentrated. But I remember going down the col de la Madeleine in similarly wet conditions and with shot brake pads. If I could do that, surely, I can do this. And, luckily, all went well. We pass the first aid station, around mile 13 and continue our way north towards the first turn around. And then I start coming across riders coming back. This is my chance to gauge how much ground I’ve given to the front riders. One goes by, another. 3, 4… and then the turn around appears. So, altogether I’m in 9th or so. What’s more important, I am pretty confident that I am among the first riders for the full, and that those were just the halfs hammering. So I keep going at my target power—somewhere between 210 and 220 Watts—make the turn around and head back south.
The end of the first lap is uneventful except that it stops raining and, towards the end of the lap, as I approach the second turn around, I don’t come across any rider. So I make my U-turn at the end of the first loop, and I start my second lap, now officially—and for the first time ever—in the lead of a race! How cool is that?
Well, I’d like to report that I acted cool, that it was not a big deal. But it was, and I didn’t. I had a large grin on my face the entire time; “I’m in the lead!” I remember Faris saying how he likes to ride in the front because that’s where the helicopter is. I look around, no helicopter. Oh well, that’s ok. What matters is that I’m leading this thing! I’m grinning and, at the same time, I can’t stop thinking how pissed François will be that I’m pushing maybe a little too much. Oh well, I’m doing this for fun. And I haven’t had this much fun in a long, long time!
The second lap is uneventful except that the wind seriously picks up. On the out leg it’s no problem, since it’s coming from the south, it’s a tail wind. But I know I’m going to pay for it on the way back. No matter, I keep on riding, one eye on the road, the other on the power meter, trying to keep the numbers in check.
At the turn around, I know that this will be my only chance to see how far the competition is, so I glance at the time – 3h42 of riding so far—and I head home. 1 min passes, I see nobody. 2 min, still no one. 5 min, still no one. The time keeps going, and I keep screening the road, and no one is in sight. With each minute, I feel a little more relaxed: I have a comfortable lead. 9 min, 10 min, 11 min and here I see Tats. Okay, so I know that I probably have a 20-min lead over the second place. Good deal!
Coming home, I start getting tired, and my power drops ever so slightly. (François will help me figure it out after the race: I didn’t take enough calories on the bike.) I also have a couple close calls with some of the locals driving large trucks who, as some Texans also do, seem to make a point that the road is theirs by brushing you with their rear-view mirrors. That gives me a chance to shout a few French expletives, and I get anxious to get to the run as it’s now past noon and the road gets more and more crowded.
As I’m riding my way home, I think about race reports of people who actually win races when they describe the challenges associated with being in the lead (“I take all the nutrition I need on the bike with me, because when I get to aid stations, the boy scouts usually aren’t ready, they’re still setting up”). I’m now in a similar situation: because we are so few on the course, and I’m the first cyclist they have seen in a long while, some of the cops manning the intersections aren’t ready. In fact, a couple of times they are still sitting in their car rather than blocking the intersection. Oh well, I guess that comes with the job.
I’m finally getting back to transition. Drop the bike. Change my soaked socks for dry ones, running shoes on, number belt, cap. A quick chat with the race director, and off I go on the run.
Marathon. 41.7km. 3h45min (3h35min moving time). 5:10 min/km
The first couple of kilometers feel really easy. I’m running in the 4:30s/km even though I try to take it easy and slow down. But that’s also typical with my runs. I pass the first aid station, “do you need anything?”, “no, I’m good, thanks.” And then, with each kilometer, my pace drops. I’m still grinning (I’m in the front!, etc.), I’m still smiling (François is going to be pissed), but I’m also starting to hurt. My shoulders and neck get really stiff when I run long distances and today they start early. Most of all, though, my thinking slowly shifts from “there’s a decent chance I can win this thing” to “do not blow up.” I don’t think I’ve ever done a IM marathon without walking part of the course, and I’d like to change that today. Soon enough, I complete the first of four laps. I haven’t seen other fulls on the course yet, but that doesn’t mean anything because we might have crossed each other at places where we can’t see each other.
I come back to the first aid station on my second lap, “and now, do you need anything?”, “yep, now I’m ready. What do you have?” Amazing how much of a difference 55 minutes make! Those two volunteers at the first aid station are great. “How far is the second guy behind?”, “Oh, you’re fine, you probably have 15 minutes.” Wow, 15 minutes. That’s still comfortable, but closer than I thought. By now, I’m running 5:15min/km or 5:30 min/km. I’m trying to do the maths. If he’s running 4:40s, he can still catch up.
On the third second lap, I come across Tats. He is somewhere in the second half of his first lap. I’m trying to do the maths, but I can’t figure out how far back he is. All I know is that he looks like he’s moving at a decent pace. This things isn’t over. So I concentrate on shuffling along. There are a couple of times where I start cramping up. A couple more where I feel really light headed. So I concentrate on fueling well at each aid station, taking as much calories and electrolytes as I can.
At the beginning of the third lap, I ask the two fellows at the first aid station to start their timer to get a split. Later on in the lap, I come across Tats, pretty much at the same point where I had seen him the lap before. That was good news, he is not gaining. I relax a bit. Now, all I have to do is bring this home. No need to run seriously, a shuffle will get me there.
Between my shoulders cramping up and trying to recover some energy through hitting each aid station hard (coke, primarily, but also water, Heed, and the occasional banana and orange), the run was physically uncomfortable. But I guess this is how these things always go. At least it was all in the shade under a canopy of trees and the temperature and humidity are nowhere as bad as they’ll be in Texas.
On my fourth lap, the guys at the first aid station assure me that I’m gaining time on Tats. A few minutes later, I come across where I had seen him the two laps before, but he isn’t there. Has he passed by already or is he falling behind? I’m trying to do the maths. By now, I’m in a 5:30 pace. I can’t quite put things together but I think he is going to run out of real estate. This should be mine. A couple minutes later I do come across him. So I did extend my lead. Yep, this thing is mine. Big smile. I’m now just a few kilometers short of the finish line. I relax, enjoy the experience and take it easy.
Soon, I finish my fourth lap and heads to the finish chute where—would you believe it?—there is still a banner across. Picking it up is quite the experience!
Although my run ended up slower than I wanted it to be (and slower than some of my previous IM runs), I think it was the most consistent of my IM runs as I managed not to walk at all, running/shuffling on the course and taking a minute at each aid station to fuel properly.
I had, and still have several goals for the year: first, finishing an Ironman after my DNF last year. Second, shooting for a sub-10h finish. This race would probably have been in the 10h15 region, assuming a 1h20 swim, had that not been canceled. So I’m in the neighborhood, but not there yet. I still have five weeks before Texas. Hopefully that’s enough to continue working on the swim and, most importantly, find a better fueling strategy. And, although I still haven’t achieved yet a sub-10h finish, taking first place at Ocala was a very nice experience. Writing this five days later, I’m still grinning stupidly. Luckily, no one can tell. Dad would have been proud. Well, there you go, dad. This one is for you.