Ironman Texas 2017 Race Report

Often you hear people say “I didn’t quite have the day I expected” – and usually it means that they had a bad day. Well, I had a day that I didn’t expect to have, but for the reason that it actually went better than I expected it to. On the face of it, it looks like I had a great result on very little training. But there is a bit more to it than that, and is a good illustration of what I call a “high priority focus strategy”. Basically, in a nutshell that means I only do the most important things, and pretty much ignore everything else. In this case, that meant highly focused bike training, race-specific run training, and no swimming. Why did I decide these things?

  1. The bike is my strength, and after taking the whole of December off, my FTP was very low and I was not in good biking shape. This would mean that unless I fixed it, my bike would become a liability instead of a strength. So regardless of my race schedule, I focused on getting back into biking shape, initially just by starting to bike regularly.
  2. This year I’m taking a different approach to my run training. Instead of building up a base of high volume easy running, I’d be doing two race pace workouts a week and the rest easy. Race pace being Ironman and 70.3 race pace. I figured that with 2 x Ultramans under my belt in 2016, I already had a solid foundation of slow running in place and I would be better served by focusing on “weekly miles at race pace” instead of just “weekly miles”.
  3. As for the swim, I didn’t see any value in spending many hours in the pool, only to gain 3-5 minutes in an Ironman. So I basically did no swimming (until I decided to enter IMTX, more about that below).

I entered Ironman Texas with 10 days to go, with the goal of doing it as a big supported training day. I’d been considering the event as a part of my schedule but hadn’t actually pulled the trigger. I was focusing the first part of the year on the race weight experiment, where the goal was weight loss and NOT performance. I was almost certainly NOT going to race IMTX. However, during the final 3 weeks of that project (the cake phase), I saw some surprising performance improvements (even though I was not losing weight). My FTP jumped from 281w to 313w, which is a much bigger increase than usual. Granted, 281w is a much lower starting point than usual, but it had been sitting around that level since January with no improvements (which is to be expected when you’re at a constant calorie deficit). That performance gain was a signal that I would at least be able to perform on the bike at IMTX at a reasonable level. With a few long training rides, I could get into shape relatively quickly.  My run shape was ok, but I’d done no long runs. Everything was shorter stuff like 8 x 1 mile repeats @ around 6:45 pace. Certainly not my typical “Ironman training”. I hadn’t run longer than 14 miles between January and April, with a low (but consistent) weekly mileage of around 22 mpw. The main difference with my run training this year is that I have fewer long slow runs, and more medium length runs done at race pace. And a few runs with long slow warm ups, a middle part faster than race pace, and a slow cool down. 

As for swimming, there was pretty much zero. I averaged 1500m of swimming per week, way off the usual 15-20k per week that I do when training properly for an IM. So with 2 weeks to go until race day, my biggest concern was the swim. My swim shape was terrible – on Monday 10th April my 100s were at least 15 seconds slower than what I would consider “race ready” (on some I was struggling to come in on 1:40 which is slow for me) and my 200s were coming in at about 3:25 instead of the 2:55 that I would expect when in good shape. The positive side was that my swim form usually returns quite fast, so my theory was that with 10 days of solid swimming I would be in good enough shape to get through the swim without totally falling apart. I aimed for 4k of swimming per day, every day until the race. On some days I only had time for 2.5k, but on those days I would focus on short, hard reps (like 25s, 50s and 100s), making best use of the time I had available. By Friday 14th April, I felt in good enough shape to join the masters group at CAC Boulder, but I downgraded myself from my usual 1:30 lane to the 1:40 lane because I was not fast enough. I managed to make it through that workout to the end (which was an accomplishment) and then I did 2 big swims over the weekend. On Monday 17th I joined the masters group again, but this time in my normal 1:30 lane. My form suddenly returned and I was hitting 2:45 for my 200s and 1:22 for my 100s. This was very reassuring for race day and I knew that I would be ok on the swim. 

So my *best case* expected times for the race was around 1:05 swim, 4:40 bike and 3:30 run, purely based on how I had been feeling in training. I posted this on our Triforce community group, and one of my athletes (Fred) said he’d send a nice bottle of Brunello if I broke 1:05 on the swim! I’d be thinking about that a lot in the Woodlands Lake!

Here are some of my TP charts Jan-April

 

I did not taper at all. I just didn’t have the fitness base to justify it. I knew there would be 2 light days before the race due to travel, and I accepted that I could be fresh enough with that short break. I would have lost too much fitness had I tapered for longer, and I think it was the right decision. 

Diet wise, I aimed to be at a calorie surplus, and with carb heavy distribution, in the final 2 days before the race. During those days I also do a few short but hard workouts that help to accelerate the glycogen storage. I’m not going to lie, there is nothing I love more than eating a ton of carbs! Not something I get to do very often, and is probably part of the reason I love racing!

This race was also a chance to test out some new gear (literally new gears). I’ve been experimenting with a 1X chainring setup and it worked fantastically. I used a 56t front chainring, with an 11-40 cassette. However I didn’t need all those gears and never went higher than the 21t on the back. But, I will most likely need all those gears for IM Boulder, so I was really just testing that whole setup, and I was pleased with the outcome.

56t 1X setup

My workouts on Thursday and Friday before the race were ok but I didn’t feel on top form. I felt a bit heavy and lethargic, like I do when I’m adapting to a big training block. My hope was that I would come around just in time for race day, so I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, my goal was to just have a big, fully supported training day out there, so I wasn’t overly concerned about being totally tip-top-race-ready.

For once I got a really good sleep the night before, and I woke up fresh and ready to go.  I drove down and found a parking spot at 4:55am, thinking that most people would aim to arrive at 5am. It was a good call – I got a parking spot really easily, and then 5 minutes later all these cars turned up at the same time, all looking for parking while I chilled out listening to some pre-race tunes.

I headed over to T1 and set up my nutrition, pumped my tires and then started the rather long walk to the swim start. This distance should not be underestimated. I thought it was about a mile, but it seemed to take forever to get there. I left transition just after 6am and only got to the start about 3 minutes before the pro men cannon went off (I’m guessing around 6:30?). 

I quickly dropped of my bags and then went through to the front of the swim start group, about 4 rows back. It was non-wetsuit, and I felt I would swim about 60 minutes, based on my rapid improvement over the previous weekend. A few minutes later the cannon sounded, and we started moving into the water. The weird thing is that I didn’t see a timing mat on the water’s edge. Usually with these rolling starts, they have a timing mat there, so your time only starts once you get into the water. They seem to have counted the gun time, not the chip time, which explains why my official swim time was about 15 seconds slower than my garmin swim time. I’m not sure if this is actually what happened, and I hope it is not, because that would mean that the people at the back of the line would be getting falsely slower swim times than they should.

I felt quite good during the swim, and everyone around me looked like good swimmers, which is usually a good sign that I’m having a good swim. I went through 2km in 30 min flat, so I thought I was well on track for my 60 min time and securing that bottle of Brunello. However we then turned into the canal, on the way to the finish line, and that just seemed to take forever. I exited the water in 1:04:45, plus about 10 seconds to get to the timing mat, and I crossed the line with a garmin time of 1:04:58 – 2 seconds to spare for Brunello time! Of course due to the whole gun-time vs chip-time thing, I was actually 2 seconds slower than Fred’s Brunello Benchmark, but I’d only found that out after I finished.

T1 was super smooth. I pulled on my sleeves and put on my helmet as I ran to the change tent, so the only thing I had to do once in there was take off the bottom part of my swimskin, and grab some nutrition out of the bag. I took one Glukos gel (they are nice and liquid so no need to wash down with water) and I put a pouch of Powerbar energy blasts (200 calories) down the front of my top. I saw Derk (one of my athletes) right behind me. He usually swims 58/59 minutes, so I felt better about my 1:05 swim. Little did I know he was thinking the same thing about me. So basically we were both feeling reassured by our mutual poor swim performance! Derk ended up going sub 9, so his swim didn’t matter much after all. Anyway so I got my bike, ran down the muddy field, and hopped on at the mount line with no issues. I rode easy for the first 5 minutes while eating the bag of cola blasts, adjusting my sleeves and various other housekeeping tasks, and then got down to the business of riding!

As per usual, I attracted  “Kona guy” – that’s one of those riders that muscles past you with a grimace on his face (sometimes out of the saddle sprinting) and then slows down in front of you. You then pass him, and he doesn’t want to be passed, so he passes you again and then slows down. And so on and so forth – those of you who’ve raced Kona know that guy. Eventually I just let him go past and I sat 12m behind him until the 50 mile mark. The effort felt too easy for me, but it was less taxing than playing a ridiculous cat and mouse game for a few hours! Once we got to the far turnaround, I put down the gas a bit and dropped him, and then I was alone for the rest of the bike.

photo credit Aaron Palaian

I knew I was doing ok when I was only seeing FPRO and the occasional struggling MPRO (like fellow Ultraman Peter Kotland). After I got off the highway for the final 7 miles, I could see a group of riders ahead of me. At first I thought it was the front of the AG race, but when I finally passed them it was actually the front group of female pros. To avoid a drafting penalty I had to take the whole group in one shot, which was a pretty hard 40 second effort. A bit further up the road I passed eventual female winner Jodi Robertson, who was riding quite hard and seemed extremely comfortable. 

With the course being a bit short (110 miles), T2 snuck up on me unexpectedly – I went around a corner and suddenly it was there. Since I hadn’t looked at the course at all, I had no idea it was there, so I hadn’t unclipped my feet yet. That made for a slightly awkward dismount, but I sorted it out quickly and made my way to the empty change tent.

I’m really happy with the pacing and power distribution of my ride:
Total: 4:31, 240w NP, 233w AP, VI 1.03, 265 TSS, .77 IF
1st 90 minutes: 233w NP (goal was to start at 234w and take it from there)
2nd 90 minutes: 241w NP (feeling good)
3rd 90 minutes: 247w NP (finished nice and strong)

I got my run stuff on quickly and headed out the tent.  Jodie blitzed transition, and exited about 20 seconds ahead of me. I was aiming to start at 7:45-8:00 pace, but went through mile 1 in 6:50. It felt super easy so I just stuck with it and continued to run by feel. One by one the female pros ran past me – it was fun to watch their race unfolding in front of me and I could see right away which ones were going to run well. 

By mile 10 my average pace was 7:24 – and I was momentarily tempted to shoot for a sub 9. With a rough mental calculation I figured that 7:30 pace average would get me done around 3:15 and sneak under the 9 hour mark. But somehow my special needs stop slowed me down a bit and by 11 miles my average was around 7:40. So I just resumed my goal of treating it as a big training day and continued running by feel. By the way, the special needs was worth it, with a Starbucks Frappucino waiting for me there (it’s good cold, it’s good hot too, so a win-win no matter what the weather!).

Derk passed me at around mile 11 and he was looking great! He ended up running 3:01 – the slacker couldn’t find another 90 seconds somewhere!??? Although he might say the same about my 4:31 bike split… but on a serious note, it’s so rewarding having an athlete that you coach outperform you on race day, in fact so much more than performing well yourself.

For the rest of the run I just hung in there and tried to keep moving forward at a relatively slow run pace. I was just happy to not be walking, especially given my lack of long runs. 

The Woodlands run course is now one of my favorites. Ok it’s on concrete path for most of the time, but the route varies a lot between running through shaded woods and along the crowd-dense canal path, and there is so much support! One of my Ultraman athletes (Amy) was out volunteering so I got to see her multiple times which was fantastic. I also saw her hubby John a few times – he was at this area called catapult corner which is just an insane part of the course – so much crowd atmosphere you can’t help but the “catapulted” through there. 

Just before the finish, I saw Brian, another of my athletes who was on his second lap. I was happy to see him looking strong and I knew he was going to make it. There was a little doubt a few weeks back when we was struck with illness for 3 weeks, but he pulled through on the day and made it in for a strong finish. 

They say a bit part of endurance racing is the mental aspect, and I have to say that racing Ultraman set me up to be able to finish this race on much less training than I should have done. My total quad failure at Ultraman Worlds was still fresh in my mind, so any discomfort I experienced during the IMTX was inconsequential compared to that. By comparing the pain in my mind, IMTX seemed really comfortable, whereas before I think I would have experience it as a much higher level of discomfort/pain. 

Crossing the finish line, I had no idea what place I was or what my time was, but I thought I was somewhere in the top 7 or 8. It was therefore with huge surprise that I discovered that I’d finished 3rd. With 10 slots in M40-44 (which ended up being 11 with a re-allocation) I had made my 5th year consecutive KQ with a surprisingly low degree of preparation on the face of it. However, as I said if you dig a little deeper, you can see the benefit of FOCUS. From January through April, my focus was heavily on regaining bike fitness, and focusing run training almost exclusively on race pace. Pretty much zero swimming, because for me the difference between swimming and not swimming is about 5 minutes. But with the bike focus, I was able to comfortably lay down a great bike split and set myself up for a comfortable KQ with a relatively average run (I’d say to KQ in 40-44 you should at least be able to run a 3:30). In fact everyone in the top 10 of the AG (except me) ran under 3:25.

I was obviously very happy with this result. I felt I executed very well and on top of that it was a great training day. Next IM will be Boulder in June, which will be a chance to experiment with a few more things. Right now, I’m thinking of doing a focused run block and seeing where that gets me for Boulder. Plus, of course, my swim has now come back (even though the IMTX result doesn’t reflect that) so I will maintain it by swimming almost every day.

Ultraman Worlds is still my A race, so Kona will be a big training day for that. You can expect me to be in good swim shape, very good bike shape, and I hope to be in Ultraman run shape by October. That will mean a fast swim/bike and a steady but somewhat slow run (but hopefully better than my very consistent 3:30 Kona run split – I’ll be happy with 3:15)

Finally, everyone expects to see a nutrition report in my race reports. I will actually do a dedicated post on that, but here is the summary:

Race week: no low carb like I usually do, mainly because I didn’t taper, and I needed to support my training load right up to the end. So high carb and pretty healthy food. Big carb load Thursday and Friday, with a decent proportion of my newfound carb load food “Angel Food Cake”. Day before race day, I had the traditional burger and fries but no beer this time (didn’t feel like it).

Race day: Oatmeal (pre soaked night before). Bagel with almond butter and honey. 4 x Ensure shake (not all at once). No food after 4:30am up to race start at 6:40am.

T1: 1 x Glukos gel sachet (they are great, no need for water).

Bike: 2600 calories (4.5 hours). About 570 per hour (probably 550 once you account for spillage). Glukos energy drink, Powerbar cola blasts, 2 packets black forest organic gummy worms (in Boulder it is well known that organic gummy worms are much faster than regular ones), and then my big calorie mix of maltodextrin, fructose a50 nd ginger beer. All liquids in Torpedo and CX Chrono bottle on the downtube.

Run: 650 calories so 185 per hour. I’m not really able to take in much more than that while running. Glukos energy shots, Glukos energy tabs, Glukos energy gels, and a Starbucks Double Shot Mocha drink (in a can from special needs bag).

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