To Family, Friends & Clients:
Many of you have privately followed my developing interest in endurance events. You know, jogging half-marathons (13.1 miles), jogging full marathons (26.2 miles), and MS-150 cycling rides, which are really closer to 175 miles. How I came to start doing these events is a story in and of itself, and beyond the scope of today’s blog. Suffice it to say, however, that I never knew how much fun fitness could be, and so at the urging of several folks, I thought I would share two of my greatest and most recent endurance events — each of which was a major triathlon. The first is known as an Ironman (IM) 70.3, or sometimes called a Half-Ironman (70.3 miles). The second is known as a full IM (140.6 miles).
This is the first of a two part series. Today’s story shares the details of the Half IM held on April 7, in Galveston, Texas. This 70.3 event involved a 1.2 mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile (half-marathon) run. The 70.3 event was really a prep event for the full IM that would be held on May 18, in The Woodlands. Texas.
Part two of the series is Monday, in which I share my full IM (140.6) journey — 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile (full marathon) run.
For those who read my September 2012 report about the triathlon that turned into a duathon (triathlon minus the bike ride due to rain), I learned that controlled drowning is no way to complete the swim portion of an event. I also learned that, unless you are an elite swimmer, you do not want to be on the starting line, front and dead center of the group, and the reason (in hindsight) is simple. When the horn blows, you are going to get run over by everyone behind you.
This caused me to expend a lot of energy, such that I was fairly winded 100 yards into a .94-mile (1500 meter) event. As a result of that experience (getting run over, becoming quickly fatigued, and taking forever to finish a .94 mile course), I decided I needed a triathlon coach to teach me proper swim mechanics.
I also learned not to get into the water when told. Each wave of swimmers was released in 5-minute intervals. As one group left, the next group wades into the water. Before I even reached the water, I could hear my age group moaning about the cool water. Yet, like one among a herd of sheep, I waded in as well, without a wetsuit, and proceeded to tread water for 5 minutes until the horn blew for our group.
The coach I sought out to turned out to be a husband (Greg)/wife (Maureen) team, with a pro triathlete (Balazs) who is also part of the coaching program. Greg and Maureen are ER physicians by day (and night), and athletes in training the rest of the time. Maureen was also a former collegiate swimmer. Balazs is a full-time professional triathlete.
Another interesting fact is that after I joined the training program, I learned that Greg was the winner of the September 2012 duathon. I vividly remember waiting my turn to swim and watching him and two other swimmers glide effortlessly and quickly through the water. These were the folks for me.
Yet, rather than be my swim coaches, they suggested I join a group called U.S. Swim Masters, which is nationwide in its scope, and with locations all over the greater Houston area. As luck would have it, there was a USSM program about a mile from the office. This was perfect.
My joining the swim program did not eliminate the need for triathlon coaching. My coaches taught me a lot about hydration, nutrition, pacing, equipment, strategies, etc.
In addition, they tracked my food consumption, and provided advice regarding same, and tailored my training program around me, rather than shoving a one size fits all program on me (the way some of the other coaches do with their athletes).
I started the program in mid-November, only to be interrupted by the Thanksgiving and Xmas holidays. I got focused in January.
In fairly short order I recognized that I was not materially improving in the swim area, and approached the swim coach about it. When she learned my triathlon goals, she promptly modified my workout to get me where I would need to be. In this regard, I went from swimming 1,500 yards of various drills in an 1:15 workout session, and being totally winded by the end of the workout, to swimming as many as 2,800-3,000 yards in the same time frame and not being winded.
I am now up to 4,325 yards in just under two hours. I could swim further in a two-hour period, but specific drills are an integral part of the USSM training program, which limits the total distance that can be covered in the time available before work.
My overall workout program involved, when possible, swimming on M, W, and F mornings before work. I usually jogged 5 miles on Tuesday morning, usually cycled 13-15 miles on Thursday morning, and, if time permitted, I would jog 2-3 miles after the Thursday bike ride.
Saturdays were progressively increasing jogging distances of 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 miles. Greg usually increased the distance by 2 miles per week.
Sundays were cycling days. In the weeks before the Galveston event, I cycled 80, 80, 72, 75, and 60 miles.
As race weekend approached, I was regularly asked if I was ready, was I nervous, etc. The answer was always the same — yes I was ready, and no I was not nervous. I felt ready. I felt good.
My primary concern, however, was not to get run over at the swim start, and not to expend so much energy at the start of the swim that I felt winded in the first 100 yards. I reminded Greg and Maureen of my concern, and they gave me a plan to handle the situation.
The event was scheduled for a Sunday, but athlete check-in was required on Saturday. I dutifully checked in on Saturday afternoon. My wife was with me, and after the check-in, we walked the swim and transition areas, and double-checked where we would park the next morning. In short, I learned where all the key components were, committed it to memory, and left for the hotel feeling ready.
I also wrote out a race plan, setting forth the time to wake up, the time to leave for transition, etc., as well as what I would eat, drink, and how often. One of the key things I learned about these events is eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty, maintain good sodium levels, and perform the event I SHOULD perform, and not the event I COULD perform.
The following morning, I awakened at the anointed time, clothed and departed per the plan. Traffic was light for the first three miles to the event site. Traffic was heavier than expected for the last mile, but I was not worried, as we were ahead of schedule.
As we drove slowly through the event site, anxious to get to the parking lot that was the subject of the prior day’s reconnaissance mission, we encountered our first material challenge. We were forced to park what seemed like a mile from transition. This was not good. I had the bike, a 25 lb. back pack with food and gear, and a wife to get to the spectators area, and losing 15-20 minutes was not part of the plan. Since I was obviously not the only one suffering this inconvenience, I just gutted it up and moved to transition as quickly as possible.
Once in transition, I loaded the bike with hydration and food. I set out the towel to dry off from the swim, and laid out the helmet, shoes, and sun glasses. The goal was 5 minutes in transition from swim to bike. Having transitioned more quickly from bike to run at my home as part of my training, I was confident 5 minutes was a good figure.
I had a wetsuit because the water temperature was 66 degrees, and proceeded to put on the wetsuit. It was like crawling into another layer of skin, because it was really tight. I stopped when it got waist high. I would pull the remainder on about 10 minutes before the swim event started.
My wife positioned herself as close as she could get to the pier where the swim would start. She was about 150 yards away, but she did have binoculars. She was very concerned about me drowning or getting hurt, and was going to watch me the entire race.
I told her good luck. I said the swimmers would be released in waves according to a predetermined schedule based on age and sex. For example, male pros, then female pros, then male elites, females elites, and so on, until you reached my group, which were males 55+. Each wave of swimmers also had a colored cap. Mine was white. There were just over 100 male white-cap swimmers, all wearing black wetsuits, so how was she going to find me. Yet, she did.
The white caps (males age 55+) followed the orange caps, who were younger female swimmers. Shortly after the women took off, the swim official told the white caps to enter the water. I refused. There was no way I was going to tread water for 5 minutes. I had a plan, and I intended to follow it.
The plan called for entering the water 60 seconds before the horn blew. My wife could tell by the stance of the last person to enter the water, and that person’s absolute refusal to enter the water when prompted, that she was staring at her husband.
As I slid into the water, it was every bit the 66 degrees that was announced earlier. Yet, I was not cold. I was chilled, but not cold. Per Greg’s prior recommendation, I also moved to the right buoy, behind three other guys. We were a small group unto ourselves.
Everyone else was packed like a can of sardines along the left buoy, which was where the buoy line was. Their idea was to swim the shortest distance between two points, even if it was unbearably crowded.
Per Greg, my plan would be to swim in clean, open water, unencumbered by the crowd, sharing the wide open space with a mere three other guys. Yes, I added about 170 yards to the overall distance, and knew that the 170 yards would add about 3 minutes to the overall time, but I was not going to get run over again. After all, I had a plan.
We received a 10 second warning, and then the horn blew. My start was perfect. I visualized that I was in the pool, taking long, smooth, gliding strokes. The visualization allowed me to control my breathing, so as to avoid starting too fast.
The plan was perfect. 100 yards into the swim, my breathing was steady, my pace was on target. Even better, I was in clean, open water with three other guys with a torpedo bead on the red turn buoy. After about 300 yards, I reached a somewhat thinned out crowd of white caps. While there is no such thing as a lane in open water, I established the equivalent of a lane and refused to yield my position. I also re-sited the red turn buoy between every third to seventh stroke, so that I swam as straight a line as possible.
I was told to expect a crowd at the turn buoys (there would be two turn buoys), and that I would lose some time at the turns. As I approached the first turn buoy, there was hardly a crowd, which also meant little to no loss of time.
As I watched (between breaths) swimmers stopping at the turn, I refocused my thoughts as to my freestyle form to minimize distractions through the turn.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I took a hard blow to my right calf from a swimmer behind me. My calf immediately cramped. I knew to immediately relax the leg so that the cramp would subside. To do so, I rolled over on my back and began a modified backstroke with no kicking.
After about three strokes, I decided I was not going to let a cramp ruin what was an otherwise perfect swim to the first turn buoy. I then rolled back over, and resumed a freestyle stroke without kicking for a couple of minutes. When the cramp subsided, I resumed my kicking.
The first turn buoy was about 650 yards from the start. The next one was about 1,100 yards. I knew I was going to be on the back side of the course for a little while, and I focused on long, smooth, gliding strokes.
I also knew that once I made the first turn, I was not going to swim wide thereafter. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and I had another torpedo bead on the buoys on the left side of the course. If it was going to get crowded at this point, then so be it.
At this point in the course, some of the stronger swimmers from the subsequent waves started catching me. Yet, just as some blue and silver caps caught me, I caught some orange and pink caps, and continued to pass white caps from my age group. I didn’t pass many orange or pink caps, but it was nevertheless a rush to catch some swimmers who had anywhere from a 5-10 minute head start on me.
At the 1,600 yard mark, I saw the next turn buoy, and felt great peace of mind. I was 500 (+/-) yards out, and now knew that this was no longer an event that I could finish, but that I was and would finish, and in good time, and I grew stronger at the thought.
As I made the second and last turn, I was 350 yards out. I would not be denied. Now was not the time to get sloppy. I reminded myself what the swim coaches would say when fatigue might be near — long, smooth, gliding strokes, making sure the arm had the proper amount of arc.
As I concentrated on each stroke, I came upon another orange cap. What great luck and motivation. I decided I had to pass this swimmer, and so I continued with the long, smooth, gliding strokes, with a slight increase in stroke frequency so as to create more speed.
After about 50 more yards, we were now head to head. Knowing that it was a mere matter of yards before I would pass this person, I felt a growing sense of energy, not only in myself, but in all those around me. With less than 200 yards to go, everyone was pushing towards the finish.
At this point, I began to think of the last part of the swim plan. Don’t stand up. Don’t stand up. Stand only when the sandy bottom forces me out of the water.
The idea is that those who stand early end up fighting the forces of the water to get out. If you wait, there is no friction or force to stop you. As we got within 15-20 yards of the finish, people began standing. Stay down I told myself. Stay down. Finally, my hand hit the sand, and I rose out of the water, exiting ahead of those who stood too early.
I hit my Garmin lap counter and saw 48:56. I couldn’t believe it. I finished 21 minutes faster than the allotted time of 1h, 10 min. A 48-minute swim was faster than I had hoped for a first time event like this. My wife knew the time must have been good, because she said I was beaming as I ran through the transition area. I was later told that I finished 18th in my age group, out of a group of 114 registrants.
The next stop were the strippers. No, not hot girls clinging to poles and hoping you are going to reward them with greenbacks. These were volunteers waiting for the swimmers to help strip off the wetsuits.
As I exited the water, I popped my goggles up on my head, and began to unzip the wetsuit, as I jogged through the transition chute. The goal was to have the wetsuit down to my waist by the time I got to the strippers.
When I reached the stripper area, I dropped to the ground. My very next thought was something Greg said. Before they pull off the wetsuit, be sure to grab your swim/biking shorts. Otherwise, someone might get an eyeful. I did as instructed, and exited the stripper area without getting stripped myself. With my wetsuit in hand, I jogged another 100 yards to my bike.
Despite the great swim, the bike transition was not going well. I lost probably 2 minutes with the strippers, and another minute or two to reach the bike. I immediately toweled off, put on socks, strapped on my bike shoes, put on my sunglasses and helmet, took a shot of a sports drink, and then grabbed my bike. My Garmin was not telling me how long the transition was, but I knew it was taking too long. I finally decided, just get out of here.
But wait. There’s a problem. No one is riding out. Everyone is jogging to the bike-out sign. Are you kidding me??? I’ve already jogged 250 yards from the bay. Now I have about 150 yards to jog to get out of transition. The downside was a 10 minute transition when the goal was 5 minutes.
As I reached the bike-out sign, I immediately mounted my bike and took off. Several riders were in stocking feet because they clipped their shoes to their pedals, with the idea of slipping into their shoes while they were on the bike. Unless you are a pro who practices that sort of thing, you are wasting time as evidenced by the fact that I was passing those same riders.
I am not sure how far it was to the Galveston seawall, but it was probably a couple of miles. It was a little slow because I was heading east into a 15 mph headwind, and going slightly uphill. When I got to the seawall, I hung an immediate right, and got down in the aero position for a 26 mile ride out, for a total of 28 miles out.
When you are doing the bike and run portion of a triathlon, nutrition and hydration are key to finishing. The plan for the bike was to consume 60 calories every 10 minutes, and 23 oz of fluids every hour. This would result in roughly a 50% replenishment of calories burned and prevent a sodium deficiency.
If I was worried about anything, it was the bike ride. All I heard was that you had to maintain 4 bicycle lengths between you and the next rider, and the repeated failure to do so could result in disqualification.
In the nontriathlon cycling rides I have done to date, drafting is as natural as what the Nascar drivers do. It’s understood. It’s expected. But not in triathlon. If you enter a 4 bicycle length zone, then you are committed to pass the rider in 20 seconds or less, and two failures to do so could result in disqualification. Needless to say, I intended to fully mind my P’s and Q’s on the bike ride. Fortunately, any worries I had about drafting violations quickly dissipated.
As I dropped down into the aero position, with an ever so slight tail wind, I settled in for a 17-18 mph pace. I might as well been stopped in comparison to the other riders. Most riders passed me at a 20+ mph pace, and a few had to be pushing 30 mph. It was absolutely amazing how fast the riders were. Nevertheless, I settled in and proceeded with my plan, giving thought to the aid stations up ahead.
One of the neat things about the aid stations for the bike portion of the event was that there was no need to stop for hydration or food. Sports drinks, water, and food would be handed to us the way a baton is exchanged between relay runners.
I took no water or food at the first aid station. As I approached the second station, I yelled for water and food. The water guy balanced the water bottle on his hand and started running away from me, like a relay hand-off. The hand-off was so smooth that you would have thought we had practiced. The same thing happened when I called for some GU, which was an energy gel.
I was excited about the GU handoff. The flavor was strawberry banana – mmmmm. I quickly gobbled down one of the packages. I would consume the next one in 10 minutes, per the plan.
Riding down the seawall and seeing the tourists was nice. I also enjoyed the beach area, where there was beautiful beach home after beach home. Once you passed the beach homes, however, the ride became somewhat uneventful in terms of not much to look at.
However, somewhere around mile 12, I suddenly realized that a Harley Davidson motorcycle was sneaking up on me. I then had a flash back to Thursday evening’s athlete meeting where Greg said if you hear a motorcycle, it is probably a bike official looking for drafting violations.
An alarm not unlike “Danger Will Robinson, Danger” (from Lost in Space) sounded in my head. I immediately stopped pedaling while the brain determined if I had the requisite distance between myself and the rider in front of me. When I realized that I was safe from receiving a yellow card violation, I resumed pedaling and settled back in for a long ride.
If portions of the bike ride became uneventful on the ride out, then you could count on portions of the return ride to be the same. The only highlights for the return ride were another round of successful handoffs at an aid station, and then the final leg home.
Finally, with about three miles to go, we make the turn to head back to transition. At this point, I went from a slight ENE head wind to a pure tail wind, and quickly increased my speed to the low 20’s. I maintained the pace until I reached the dismount area. To say it was fun would be an understatement. There is nothing nicer (on a bike) than going fast.
Once I was back at transition, I had to jog or walk the bike back to my assigned spot. While I recognize the need for the safety of all concerned, I was losing valuable time. Nevertheless, when I got to my designated bike rack, I immediately put on my running shoes, grabbed my water bottle and hat, and took off for a half-marathon. Total time in transition was 6:42, which was far better than the swim to bike transition, but still unacceptable.
As I was about to exit the transition area, there were a group of volunteers who looked like they had paste on their hands. They yelled out if any of the runners wanted sunscreen. I stopped and took some. In hindsight, I should have put on my own sunscreen.
For reasons unknown, the sunscreen volunteers missed portions of my arms and shoulders, and all of my quads, as would be evidenced later that evening by the growing signs of a sunburn. While the pain was tolerable, it did hurt. Nevertheless, ignorant of my lack of sunscreen, I quickly exited the transition area and started on my 13.1 mile journey.
My first half-marathon was in January 2011, and I took a very long 3:15 to finish it. My best half-marathon was 2:37. After a 56-mile bike ride, I figured anything less than 3:15 would be good, but a sub 3 hours was my real goal.
The nutrition plan for the half-marathon was slightly different than the bike ride. Instead of eating every 10 minutes, I ate every 15 minutes. Hydration remained 23 oz per hour. I followed the nutrition/hydration plan with an almost religious adherence, as I had no intention of letting fatigue or a sodium deficiency become my foe.
Life was good for the first 5.5 miles of this 3-loop course, but then I came to realize that the run course lacked a key benefit of the bike course, which was a breeze. The temperature was only 75 degrees, but the total absence of a breeze on a course traversing through streets surrounded by buildings, made the ambient temperature seem hotter than it really was. I would later hear other athletes make the same comment.
Starting at mile 6, I started dousing myself with water at every aid station. While the dousing was helpful, I found myself walking more than jogging, a process that continued until about mile 10, when I got somewhat of a second wind, and began to regain some reasonable time splits.
I also found myself drifting off into the thought of the one-mile walk back to the car, walking a bike and lugging a 25-lb. backpack that would likely feel heavier when I finished than when I started. The thought was too negative to bear, so I tried to focus on what was going on around me — my newfound friends on the course.
The last couple of miles were interesting. I was passing people younger than I, and who were clearly suffering. Heavy labored breathing was the norm for these folks. One guy, in his late 20’s, was badly rotating (supinating) his foot. His poor form had to be hurting his hips. Another guy was cramping due to sodium depletion. A female runner was clearly laboring just to put one foot in front of another. Her struggle pained me.
While I was pleased at how well I was doing, there was no joy in passing these folks. I felt bad for them. I was at mile 68 of a 70.3 mile journey, and I knew I would finish 40 minutes ahead of the allotted time. I wondered, however, if some of these folks would do the same. The answer would be no.
For me, however, from mile 10 on, I maintained a steady pace until I crossed the finish line, and was immediately greeted with my finisher’s medal, and a congratulatory kiss from my wife, who was my cheerleader through-out the day. When she asked me what I wanted, the answer was simple and delivered without hesitation — food.
Just give me 15 minutes, I asked, to consume something other than energy bars and GU shots. If necessary, I will track down a small animal, kill it and skin it, but please give me something solid. She graciously agreed, whereupon I entered a post-race tent for the athletes and began to consume some wonderful pepperoni pizza. While wolfing down my food, I saw two of my three tri-coaches (Greg and Balazs), and received some nice feedback.
As I left the post-race tent, I moved towards the transition area to get my bike and leave. As I attempted to cross the jogging path, the female runner whom I had passed a couple of miles back, and whose every step was a step of labor, also turned into transition. I immediately stopped her. I said wait, the finish line was up ahead. You haven’t crossed the finish line. The finisher medals are up ahead. With a look of agony in her face, she said I can’t finish. This is only my second loop (of a 3-loop course).
To say I was disappointed for her would be an understatement. I wanted everyone to experience the joy I felt. The joy of completing a challenging event on a beautiful day, with so many nice athletes and volunteers.
Yet, my day was not done. I had to get my bike and backpack and mentally prepare myself for the mile walk to the car. Haven’t I done enough, I thought? Don’t I deserve a short walk after everything I had just done? The answer was obviously yes.
You learn quickly that triathlons are technically an individual sport, but even an individual sport requires support. I would be no different. Enter Team Mendel – my wife.
Your support Team provides friendly reminders about did you pack this or that, it’s time to go, etc., and that friendly face and cheer we all crave when we are exiting the water, returning from the bike ride, or finishing the event itself. Yet, a huge benefit is post-race.
When Team Mendel saw me make the turn to start the third and final loop of the run course, she leaped to action to move the car closer. It obviously helped to be cute, because she was able to get past some traffic control personnel who let her pass but who also denied others.
On this issue I was so thankful, because she got the car within 200 yards of the transition area. The smile on my face had to match the smile I had when I finished the swim. Within minutes I was resting comfortably in an air conditioned car. While it is rare for me to be a passenger, as opposed to being the driver, I was more than pleased to let Team Mendel handle the drive home. It made for a great conclusion to a great day.
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