Last weekend, I raced Ironman Los Cabos. It was a crazy race week, and just about every possible pre-race mishap that could have happened, did happen. I won’t recount it here, but my roommates Beth Shutt and Matt Curbeau did a good job covering the mishaps (Montezuma’s Revenge, a trip to the ER, a traffic accident, multiple mechanicals, etc…). Good times, haha!
I ended up in 13th place, in a time of 9:13. That, in and of itself, is not particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy, however, is how I got there. I took a much different path to the finish line in this race than I ever have before, and it reflects a big milestone on my path to reaching the top of the podium…
First of all, let me stress the importance of the swim in pro racing. It’s “only” the first 50-60 minutes of an 8-10 hour race day, and therefore, people who have never raced in the pro field often have a hard time truly understanding just how important that first 50-60 minutes of the race really are. You can get away with having a weak swim in the amateur field, because the people who swim really well will probably have a weakness on the bike or run, and you can easily track them down. There’s a reason they’re still racing as amateurs…
But in the pro field? Forget it. If someone is a great swimmer, then they’re probably also pretty damn good on the land, too. So if they get away from you in the water, it’s incredibly difficult to track them down again. Everyone who swims together, gets on their bikes together. Bike packs form, and riding in a bike pack is a tremendous advantage compared to riding solo. A gap of 1 minute between two otherwise equal cyclists at T1 can easily balloon to a gap of 15 minutes at T2, simply based on one athlete being in a paceline, and another athlete being forced to ride solo.
So now you say, “But I thought Ironman was ‘non-draft’ racing!!” Calling Ironman “non-draft” is one of the biggest lies in triathlon. There absolutely IS drafting, and it’s a vital part of a successful race-day strategy. Now, I’m not talking about cheating. The rule isn’t that “drafting isn’t allowed”. The rule is that you have to sit 12 meters back from the rider in front of you, and there most definitely is a drafting effect (both physical and mental) when sitting in a paceline spaced at 12 meters. It takes a truly exceptional rider to track down a paceline while riding solo (Matt Russell and Jessie Donavan come to mind as a couple of the only ones who can consistently pull that off).
I’ve always been one of the slower swimmers in the pro field. This means I usually ended up swimming alone, and therefore, I ended up biking alone. There was no way I could track down the pacelines, and so my general strategy was “Well, I’ll just go hard, and hope some people in front of me fall apart.” This was a moderately successful strategy, as I was occasionally able to run myself onto the podium, and collect a paycheck. But, it’s a strategy that will never result in a win against a strong field. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t give up on a PhD from Michigan so I could go finish in the middle of the pro field. I do this to win. I have no interest in collecting a string of 6th places for the rest of my career. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
I’ve “wanted” to swim faster for several years. I did all of my workouts, and I “tried hard” in the pool. But that wasn’t enough. A fundamental shift occurred about 4-5 months ago. I no longer “wanted” to be a faster swimmer. I finally needed to be a faster swimmer. It was no longer a “choice”, it simply had to be. I was no longer willing to accept getting dropped from swim packs. If it hurt in training, it no longer bothered me. I stopped caring about my own petty suffering, and only cared about what the clock said when I touched the wall at the end of a set. When I was swimming with a group, I no longer cared about possibly falling apart, I no longer cared how much it hurt. All I knew is that I was going to do whatever was necessary to get on the feet in front of me, and stay on the feet in front of me. (now… all of that is easy to say when you’re sitting around the lunch table… it’s a much different thing to live every single day. Pain hurts. But you have to truly believe, in the deepest reaches of your psyche, that Pain Don’t Hurt)
There were no “secrets” to my improvement in the water. I just busted my ass, and refused to accept anything other than improvement. If you want to become a better swimmer, there are certainly many technical aspects. But once you have those basics figured out in your mechanics, the best things you can do are get in the water every single day, swim longer, and swim harder. If you want to go spend a couple of weekends every month skiing, or go to the bars once per week, or half-ass it on a couple of workouts per week, then that’s fine. But don’t complain when your performances plateau. You haven’t earned the right to complain if you’re not willing to make the sacrifices. There is always someone out there who is willing to make more sacrifices than you in their daily life, and they will whip your butt on race day. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but their cumulative sacrifices over the long term will accumulate into meaningful race performance improvements.
So, fast forward to race day in Cabo… The starting siren went off, and we all ran into the water. I went bananas HAM, and sprinted out to the first turn buoy (it was about 300 meters out). I didn’t sight a single time. I just followed the bubbles in front of me. We made the turn at the buoy, and things spread out a bit. I went on a set of feet to my right, but he seemed to be taking a poor line, so I switched to the feet on my left (as it turns out, it was Petr Vabrousek). I didn’t care about anything except keeping those feet directly in front of me. If he went left, I went left. If he went right, I went right. I was on those feet like stink on shit, and I was willing to fight like a junkyard dog to stay on them. About 3000 meters into the swim, Ashley Clifford caught us. At that point, I said to myself, “Alright, let’s make this happen.” So, I bailed on Petr’s feet, and latched onto Ashley’s feet. She almost dropped me, but I committed 100% to sprint back on to her feet, and I was able to bridge the gap. I then swam in her draft all the way to the beach. When I got out of the water, and saw the clock say 52:34 (I crossed the timing mat at 53:08), I knew I had finally put together a truly competitive pro swim, and I was in the race… no longer someone hanging out near the back, just waiting for others to fall apart.
I then rode well for the first 60 miles, and was in a pack with Matt Russell, Mike Schifferle, and Petr Vabrousek. But then things fell apart a little bit (for a few reasons, which are not particularly relevant to this article). The mistakes I made 60 miles into the bike are easily correctable, and I believe I can avoid those same mistakes in the future.
This was the first time I was truly a “player” in a race with that strong of a field. If you want to win against a strong field, you need to be near the front, right from when the starting cannon sounds. You can’t win the race on the swim, but you sure as hell can lose it on the swim. I’ve had that lesson painfully, and repeatedly, pounded into my skull every time I’ve raced since turning pro in 2011. And I’m not saying I’m some amazing swimmer now, because I’m not. But I’ve put in the work and shifted my mental approach, so now I’m at least good enough to make a swim pack, and that can make all of the difference in the world. Next step: setting my sights on making the lead swim pack… just give me another year or two to get there ;-). Giddy up.
Until next time… Keep training hard, and resting harder, -Doug MacLean