I do these race reports for a number of reasons. First of all, I hope that it provides some value to those who are thinking of doing this race in the future. It may also prove useful to people doing another Ironman race, since many of the principles and lessons apply to any race. Secondly, I hope it provides some useful insight into my preparation and training. The real work in succeeding at this distance happens long before the race begins. I love the iron distance because of all the variables at play, that come together on race day to determine your success or failure; training, physiology, nutrition, gear, life balance, health, weight, body composition, mental outlook, stress, attitude.
Let me start this race report with some background as to why I entered Ironman Arizona in the first place.
- it’s relatively local (I live in California). When you have a family, this is a pretty important factor. It just makes things a lot more difficult if a lot of travel is involved.
- it’s a fast course. I’ve never raced a “fast” course so I was looking to do a good time
- The Triforce team had a whole contingent racing. We decided last year to do this as a “team race”, and we all volunteered at the race in 2013 to get our entries. It’s a lot of fun racing with friends.
- I’m tired of training hard over winter to do a spring Ironman, and wanted to KQ far in advance of Kona. This was a “one shot” race to KQ. If I didn’t qualify then I wasn’t going to try again for 2015.
With 5 weeks between Kona and IMAZ, I wasn’t really sure what the recovery situation would be like. The basic structure would be race kona, recover, build, short 1 week taper, IMAZ. The “recover” block would just be as long as it takes. I determine a recovered state by doing “low HR TTs” where I measure pace vs HR on the run and power vs HR on the bike. I need to see a run pace of around 7:00 – 7:15 @ 145 bpm on the run, and 260w @ 134bpm on the bike.
Based on past experience, I know that I recover much faster when I do light activity after a race vs complete rest. So the day after Kona I went for an easy 1.5 hour ride just to get the recovery process going. I also swam every day – swimming is such a great recovery tool; no weight bearing stress and full body activation especially if you include other strokes.
I managed to recover pretty quickly – it was about 10 days after kona when I resumed “real” training. We decided that I would do a 3 week block and 1 week taper. The purpose of this block would mainly be to maintain bike and swim fitness, and hopefully gain a bit more run fitness. I didn’t do much volume at all, no runs over 12 miles and most bike rides 2 hours or less (1 x 4 hour ride). Swims were also relatively short (for me) – not much over 4K per session but most of it was at high intensity.
Coming into the taper I felt really good. Swim form was pretty good; did a few open water swims in 57-58 mins and a few pool swims in about 55 mins (as 10 x 400m). Bike power was good, and run form seemed ok, but I would feel fatigue / soreness setting in at any distance over 10 miles. Despite that, I had faith that by race day, my run endurance would be ok again. So, I was feeling positive as race week rolled around, and ready to go! The one other element of pre-race prep is diet. For 7-10 days out, I eat a high fat diet with less than 150g carbohydrate per day. Based on my metabolic testing, this type of diet change has the biggest role to play in race-day fuel utilization (in terms of fat vs carb). I then eat about 400g of carbohydrate in the 24-30 hours before the race, which replenishes some glycogen without affecting fat burning very much. This type of diet prep results in a burn rate for me of about 650 carb calories per hour at 250 watts (and about 480 fat calories per hour, for a total of about 1100 calories per hour).
Let’s take a quick step back for a minute and talk about my race goals.
- Get a good time. I felt I would achieve this unless something went really wrong. I wanted to swim under an hour (a long term goal I’ve had), bike around 4:40 and run around 3:15 – finishing close to 9 hours which would be a PR (my fastest IM before this was 9:40 at Kona).
- Qualify for Kona. This would be tougher. The M35-39 field would be super stacked, with at least 10 kona regulars and 5-6 guys who are definitely capable of sub 9 on this course. As it turned out, 5 of the top 6 age groupers overall were in M35-39 and there were only 4 kona slots. With most other races, you will find one or two really fast guys turn up, then it drops off pretty fast, meaning that I could make a few mistakes and still possibly be in a position to KQ. However in this race, I would have to have a perfect race, plus some other guys would need to not have a great race. Before IMAZ, I decided that if I didn’t qualify, I would not try to KQ again for 2015. So it was a “one shot” chance to do it, which really focused my attention and motivation to succeed.
Looking at my age group contenders it dawned on me how tough this task would be:
Kevin Coady: also my coach! He’s gone sub 9 at Arizona before, and has gone low 9’s in many other races. Very capable of running 3 hours or less.
Adam Zucco: this guy is an animal swim-biker, with 70.3 as his forte, he’s no slouch when it comes to Ironman. He dominated Oceanside and St Croix 70.3 earlier in the year (and probably a few other races that I don’t know about). If this was a 70.3 race, Adam would probably beat all of us by a big margin! Like me, he had just come off kona 5 weeks before so I thought we might have similar fatigue issues on the run.
Scott Iott: This guy’s forte is the iron distance. He’s gone sub 9 before and low 9’s in many other races. His strength is the run, capable of 3 hours or less in an IM for sure.
Steve Johnson: another runner and “9 hour guy”. Steve and Kevin have faced off in a number of races so I was familiar with his name. Like Kevin, to have a chance against him I’d need to start the run at least 10-15 mins ahead of him off the bike (or he would need to have a bad day!)
Trevor Glavin: He’s a friend of Adam and Scott – a great swimmer and a solid all rounder being a long-time xterra guy (but the swim is for sure his strength). He has multiple low 9 IM finishes to his name and seems to be super consistent in his execution – pretty much every IM he’s run about 3:15. He finished Kona 2013 almost 30 mins faster than me and 2014 13 mins faster. I felt I would be able to make up the swim difference on the bike, and for me a 3:15 is realistic on a good day.
Adrian Lawson: this guy was not on my radar before, but it turns out he has some pretty solid results with some regular finishes in the 9:30ish range (including kona).
Ivan O’Gorman: I’ve raced Ivan a few times although I’ve never met him. He’s a very good runner (like 3 hours and under) but I thought he’d have too much of a gap to make up on his swim (he’s in the 1:15-1:20 range). Still, his swim deficit on me is about equal to my run deficit on him, so he could very well be a “last mile threat”.
Li Moore: my teammate who has beat me twice this year over the 70.3 distance. IMAZ would be his iron distance debut, so that was in my favor. I’m a faster biker than him but this guy can run 6:30s all day, so even with a big deficit off the bike he could run me down no problem (and he did just that in both of those races this year). I tried to get him to eat a lot of McDonalds in the weeks leading up to race day.
So, usually there will be one guy like this that turns up, not nine! I honestly didn’t feel my chances were very good, that I would need to have a perfectly executed race, even to be in contention for one of the four kona slots. Thus, my main goal was to get a PR, and if I happened to be in a position to KQ I’d consider myself lucky.
I flew down with the family on Friday (the last day to register). We stayed in a house (a must if you have a family!) so after dropping all our stuff there, I headed down to register and collect my bike. By the time I arrived there was no line (registration closed at 5pm, I arrived at 4:40) so everything went pretty fast. At 4:55 I collected my bike from TriBike (they closed at 5pm too!) and took it over to the guys at Dimond to have some bosses installed for my Torhans Aerobento. Those guys are awesome – so much support for me at both Kona and IMAZ. I saw pro Thomas Gerlach there and we chatted for a while about my bike, aero stuff and tires – I know him from slowtwitch but I’ve never met him in person – great guy with some good advice and perspectives! I then dropped my disc wheel with the mechanic to have new ceramic bearings installed, after which I quickly checked out the swim course from the bridges with my teammates (Kevin, Li, Snickers and Andrew) and then headed back home to relax in the hot tub.
On Saturday, I spent far too much time on getting my bike ready. I put new tires on, did all the race numbers and spent some time adjusting shifting etc. before doing a quick test ride. It should have taken 45 min max, but for some reason it took me 3 hours to do all of that. Probably because I spent about half of that time tracking down my 3 year old son who was chasing pigeons around Tempe Beach Park (and unlike his dad he is the FASTEST runner in his age group!). I got back to the house around 4pm and then settled in for some extreme relaxation and eating! Most of the evening was spent in the hot tub. Dinner was pretty simple – some home made fish tacos, veggie pizza, some sweet potato and a single IPA. About 400g carbohydrate throughout the day, with a fair amount of fat and protein too. I’m very conscious to make sure that I’m at a calorie surplus before a race – the last thing you want is to enter a catabolic state on race day. Well, that’s my excuse anyway!
That night, as always, I slept terribly. It always happens and I’m used to it. It feels like I don’t sleep all night, and then plunge into a deep sleep just before my alarm goes off!
I got up at 4am, and went directly to the kitchen to eat my meal. My big change for this race was to eat a relatively high fat breakfast with very slow release carbs. I had 50g IsoPure Colombian Coffee whey protein, 300ml coconut milk (the one you buy in a milk carton) and 3 servings of plain UCAN superstarch. In addition, 3 x gluten free pancakes with a lot of butter and peanut butter spread on them. About 800 calories.
At 5am my taxi arrived, and I was in Tempe about 20 mins later. The roads were closed so he had to drop me on the north side of the Mill St bridge, which actually turned out to be a good thing because there were 5 port-a-potties on that side (for the run course) with absolutely nobody around, so I got to use one without standing in line like everyone else in transition.
I got to my bike, checked my tires (105 PSI rear, 95 PSI front), put my bottles on and checked the brakes for rubbing. Everything was ok so I put my wetsuit on, put my run bottle in my run bag and then found Kevin in T1 (his bike space was next to mine). Usually both of us are still doing stuff as the swim is about to start, but this time we were both ready well in time, and headed down to the swim start early enough to see the pro start.
We then got in the water and swam to the front right where we lined up. Soon we were joined by some teammates and others that I knew (Li, Snickers, Andrew and my work colleague Derk). The start was delayed for some reason, but soon we were on the cusp of starting so we secured our positions and braced ourselves for the start. I was lined up about 30m from the right hand side, right in front, directly behind 3 guys who “looked fast”. In the photo below, I’m one of the white AWA caps on the right of the green kayak.
Now, before I get into the details of the swim, it’s time for a short intermission while we talk about the swim course. The buoys are lined up to follow the contour of the lake, which is not the fastest line. You basically want to imagine that the only thing that matters is the far turnaround buoy, even though you cannot see it from where you are. So my plan was to start right, swim a tangent to the middle of the Rural bridge, turn around, keep right and then aim for the 3rd column on the mill st bridge. I didn’t wear a garmin, but this is the line I think I took. The yellow dots are sort of where I think the outward markers were, the orange dots where the return markers were (the orange ones are probably different – I wasn’t even looking at them, but you get the general idea)
Swim (0:59) goal sub 1 hour. I’ve been working on that goal for over a year and this was my final test to see if all that work has paid off.
As the canon fired, I started fast but not too fast, just keeping a steady tempo effort. I was immediately clear of any crowds and had zero contact. There were 3 swimmers in front of me and I kept on their feet. After a few hundred meters, just past a boat ramp, the lake curves to the right. The 3 guys (and one girl) in front of me started following the contour (longer) so I left them and started the tangent on my own. I kept on waiting for the crazy fist fight that is typical of an IM swim but nothing came! I was totally alone until the turnaround, and even there I had zero contact. After the turn I kept right, despite everyone else going left. 3 other swimmers joined me in going right, and I recognized one of them as my teammate, Snickers (John Nickerson). He was easy to spot in his helix wetsuit and AWA white cap. I jumped on his feet for a bit, but at the next curve in the lake I swam left while he kept more to the right. The rest of the swim was pretty uneventful (that’s a good thing!) and I came out of the water about 10 seconds ahead of Snickers. T1 was a quick transition – I tried to waste minimal time by putting on my helmet while running into the change tent, and then running with my shoes to the bike and only putting them on when I got there. My bike was racked next to 2 of the great guys in my age group: Kevin Coady (who is also my coach) and Scott Iott. Kevin’s bike was still there and Scott’s was gone (I just hoped it hadn’t been gone for that long!)
Time: 59 min – mission accomplished!
I got to the mount line, got on my bike and turned the pedals. I heard a strange grinding sound then snap! my chain broke… I looked down and saw my chain lying on the ground. I had no spare chain, no way to fix it, I thought my day was over. It’s hard to describe the feeling when that happens. I started trying to figure out what I could do, when a security volunteer (thank you Rocky – you saved my race!) ran up to me and told me that the Tribe Multisport mechanic was just up the road. So I ran with my bike for a few hundred yards until I found him. He had a bunch of tools and a master link for my chain, and he set to work fixing it straight away. I decided to eat a gel while I was standing there doing nothing, watching everyone come by. Snickers was already past me, Andrew came next, then I saw Kevin. Not only was I losing any advantage I had gained on the swim, but the guys at the front of the field were getting away from me. Since there was nothing else I could do about it, I didn’t really stress much about what was happening. Ironman is a long day, and anything can happen. I decided that I would just do my best with what I could control, and that a few minutes lost here would not mean the end of my day.
Six and a half minutes later I was back on the bike. There was still a strange rubbing sound coming from my front derailleur, and it looked like it was skew. However, I could ride and I could shift gears, which was the most important thing. I tried not to tell myself that the friction loss from the metal rubbing on the chain would not make a huge difference, but I think at the back of my mind I doubted that. However my speed vs effort was pretty good. Most of the time I was over 25mph between 250 and 260 watts, which was pretty good. That helped put any fears of “lost watts” to rest and I just got on with the race. Mentally I was now riding pretty hard, trying to catch up the lost time (even though I didn’t want to “burn matches” doing that). So I kept a steady but high effort all the way up to the top of the Beeline, in the process catching my teammates again. I kept a solid effort on the descent too, without much coasting at all. At this stage my mouth was very dry, I felt dehydrated despite taking in a lot of water. In fact I had been sacrificing my calories a bit in favor of drinking water, but no matter how much I drank I still felt dry. Coming down the Beeline was pretty nice on lap 1. It was fast and there was very little bike traffic. It was getting windy out there (to me the wind felt very similar to Kona) but as per usual my Dimond bike was super stable in the wind, even with a Zipp 808 up front and a disc on the rear I felt no sketchy moments at all. The reason I went with the Dimond in the first place is because of the clean lines and great aerodynamics (and because chicks dig it), but the biggest unexpected difference has been in the handling on long fast descents in the wind. I don’t consider myself a great descender, yet here I am on the leaderboard of this strava segment for the descent.
As I hit the turnaround for lap 2, I focused on taking in the calories. I knew that I needed to get in around 500 calories per hour at 250 watts (I was at 247 watts at that point), but I had prioritized taking in water, so I decided to dial back the effort a bit and focus on finishing my first bottle (1000 calories) by the top of the beeline. I was quite diligent about doing that, without neglecting the water intake. Lap 2 was pretty tough. The slow riders were out, the wind picked up and it felt hot even though it wasn’t. I really had to stay focused in order to avoid the slower bike traffic, and in a few cases I was forced to do “bad” things, but that were better than crashing. At one point I was making a pass, and the slower cyclist moved over to the left. There was a pothole directly in front of me, with oncoming cyclists the other way, so I had to swerve to his inside and pass him on the right. It all happened in a few seconds and I feel that was the right course of action to take, even though I shouldn’t have done that. The second time, I was making a pass coming down the beeline, and a slower rider just pulled out in front of me to make a pass too. I had no option but to briefly swerve onto the yellow line and then back again. This was dangerous since I was between the reflectors, which if I hit them could have had bad consequences, but it was the only place I had to go. I’m really not surprised that there were a lot of crashes out there. The gusts of wind also didn’t help – pushing riders all over the place.
Most of the day I was passing riders, but as I made the far beeline turn on lap 2, a super fast guy came past me on a Cervelo P5. I stayed a bit further than legal draft behind him (about 10 meters) down the hill and back into town. It was kind of nice, using him as a human shield. I stayed very aero and only paid attention to him – he seemed to be very in control of his bike and he was riding sensibly, so I left him with all the mental stress of riding past the slower riders, I just had to shout a bit to let them know I was there too. Later I would find out this was actually a guy in my age group named Adrian Lawson, a very solid athlete that I didn’t even know about until race week. I think he actually had the fastest age grouper bike split of the day, but he ended up with a DNF (it looks like he stopped after the bike). Needless to say, I was not able to stay with him on lap 3. At one point I was riding 300 watts and not able to keep up, so I just let him go.
As I came back into town for lap 3, Kevin’s wife Caroline shouted to me that I was 8 mins back on the leaders. That was encouraging for me, since I knew that both Adam Zucco and Trevor Glavin would have outswum me, and I expected Adam to outbike me by a fair amount too. Add to that the time lost with the chain problem and I thought I’d be 15 mins down or so. I kept things steady until the beeline hill and then started cranking it. However, it just FELT like I was cranking it, in reality, the super strong wind was making for tough conditions that made me feel like I was working a lot harder than I actually was. It turns out that I steadily lost power on each lap (247w, 237w, 230w), with perceived exertion going up.
I counted down the minutes getting to the top of the beeline turnaround. It was such a sufferfest, but I knew once I turned it was basically downhill all the way back. Not quite but that’s what it feels like. I used the hill to finish as much of my nutrition as possible, but I didn’t get through it all. I still had about 700 calories left on my bike once I was done. Once I hit the final Beeline turn and started my descent, it felt a surge of renewed energy, like a horse on the home straight. It was even windier now, and more congested too so passing was very difficult and quite dangerous, but I managed to make it back unscathed. The return trip back to T2 felt super fast. I saw Scott Iott in front of me at some point and made the pass with several miles still to go. Being such a good runner, I knew he would catch me, but any minutes I could put into him would help for sure.
It’s a very good sign when you arrive in T2 and there is almost nobody there. I think there were 2 other guys in the tent. The great thing is that there are a lot of bored volunteers who all jump in to help. So I had 5 guys helping me get ready for the run. One guy on each shoe, another guy sorting out my run bottle and another guy getting my number belt and sunglasses ready. Thanks – you guys were awesome!
Here are some bike numbers for the power geeks
Lap 1: 247 watts 1:31 (only started this lap time after the chain was fixed)
Lap 2: 237 watts 1:34
Lap 3: 230 watts 1:36
Total time 4:49 (4:42 riding time – excluding the chain “stoppage”)
I started the run just a short way in front of Scott. I felt super comfy but my garmin was showing 6:30 pace. I deliberately slowed down, since I was aiming to pace it out at 7:30. Despite my best efforts at slowing down I still went through mile 1 in 7:07. I saw Caroline and she told me that Trevor was leading and was 8 minutes ahead. I figured he must have biked in with Zucco and that Adam was still with him.
The first 4 miles is an out-and-back, and I saw Adam as I was somewhere between mile 1 and 2. I figured he was at least 1 mile ahead. Scott ran past me at the 2 mile mark. He was running quite a bit faster than me, and I was running 7:15 pace. I thought that he was running a little bit fast but he looked very comfortable. I was feeling good enough to run with him, but I just let him go. I knew that a 3:15 was about as good as I was going to run, so running faster than that would just be a very poor pacing decision for me. I saw Kevin coming the opposite way when I was somewhere near to the 4 mile mark. I figured he was about 10 mins behind me. I didn’t see anyone else, it felt like a ghost town out there, literally with tumbleweed rolling across the dust!
From that point onward I just got everyone else out of my mind. This was my race to execute as well as I could, without being concerned about anyone else. I just focused on keeping the pace steady, holding it back and maintaining 7:30 as best I could. Even though it felt easy now, I knew it would feel a lot tougher on lap 2. I started the run with a bottle of frozen fluid (2 servings of UCAN) that I planned on finishing between 30 and 45 minutes. It lasted me an hour and then I switched to coke. I would just stop at every 4th/5th aid station for about 10 seconds filling up the bottle, then run a bit faster to make up my average pace. That worked a lot better than Kona where I stopped more frequently (no bottle). I saw Kevin again somewhere on the north side loop, and he was still about 10 mins behind. I knew then that if I didn’t fade at all, I may have a chance at 5th/6th place. As I finished lap 1, the crowd support was amazing. It really pumps you up as you run through that whole beach park area, with so much support and encouragement. I saw Scott as I started the out-and-back section, and he had made really good progress. He must have been about 11 minutes ahead of me (or more) at that point. A few minutes later I saw Adam and he was only about 4 minutes ahead of me. That really fired me up to keep going. 7:30 was now a lot harder to maintain. It required a lot of focus and digging deep, just to maintain the same pace that felt so slow to me an hour earlier. I just kept on plugging away but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see Adam in front of me. At mile 20 I saw Caroline again and she said that Adam was 4 minutes ahead of me. Dammit, he must have made a recovery! I then tried to push the pace a bit more. If I could cut 15-30 seconds per mile then I might have a chance of catching him. I gave it everything I had. Aid stations whirled by. I rationed my coke so I wouldn’t have to stop again to refill. With 3 miles to go I tried to up the pace again. I managed a sub 7 mile somewhere in there but it hurt quite a bit so I backed off a little. I pushed and pushed, chasing this mythical Zucco creature that loomed ahead of me somewhere. With a mile to go, my legs were crying out for me to stop. I just ignored them and told myself that I could rest my legs the whole winter. It was just 7 minutes of pain to potentially make up a single place – a place that could make the difference between a KQ or not. It felt like I was at my limit now, but I was only at 7:20 pace with my legs crying out. I still didn’t see Adam but I was determined not to give up. I ran up the finishing chute knowing I had given it my all for a finishing time of 9 hours 11 minutes. I high fived Kevin who was standing in the grandstand (he pulled out half way on the run). I was elated.
This year I’ve not had a single PR, but I made up for that today with a 29 minute Ironman PR, a 4 minute swim PR, 6 minute bike PR and a 1 minute run PR. I got my medal and made my way to the massage tent, which was populated with pros and M35-39 athletes! I saw Trevor, Scott and Steve but no Adam. I then found out that Adam was actually behind me – I had passed him at some point in the last 10K without seeing him. Steve Johnson won, Scott was a very close second (with a sub 3 marathon), Trevor was 3rd and I was 4th. Adam was 5th but he got an early Christmas gift from Santa Steve who declined his kons slot. So I’m really looking forward to racing with these guys in Kona again. It was honestly a real honor to be on a podium with guys of this calibre. Casting my mind back to that moment when my chain broke… remember an IM is a long day, anything can happen so keep going and never give up!
I’m super motivated to work on my run during the winter. Gaining 15 minutes on the run will get me sub 9, which now feels like a realistic goal. I think with the right work it is within reach.