Last weekend, I raced Ironman Texas. I finished as the 15th pro, in 8:56:46. What this race experience has made me reflect on the most is the idea of “confidence”, and the utility/art of goal-setting. As such, I’ll use those topics as the centerpiece of my race report…
I was under a lot of self-imposed pressure going into Ironman Texas. After making a couple of costly mistakes at Ironman Los Cabos, and having the worst race of my career at the Ironman 70.3 US Championships, I desperately wanted to put up a performance at Texas that I could feel good about.
As such, I set the standard for “something I could feel good about” as finishing the race in under 9 hours, and running the marathon in under 3 hours. I’ve spent the last 2.5 years racing only on “slow” courses (Lake Placid, Los Cabos, Lake Tahoe), and so I’d just never gone under 9:00. I realized I could go 8:30-8:40 on a fast course like Florida or Arizona. But even though I had the “excuse” of racing on slow courses, I’d never actually gone under 9:00, so it felt like I had a bit of a monkey to get off my back.
On running sub-3: I’ve run almost every Ironman marathon between 3:01-3:09 since 2010. That’s 4 years! I know I’m a better runner than I was in 2010, but I’ve just been stuck on a race-day plateau. A lot of this is because by the time I got to the run, I was no longer in contention for the win, so I didn’t have the motivation/focus to hurt myself with a sub-3 effort on the run. Make no mistake about it – your performance on an IM marathon is just as much about your willingness to suffer as it is about your running ability. A deep, profound, soul-crushing, suffering… Jesse Kropelnicki refers to it as “going to some dark places”. It’s really difficult to describe, but if you’ve been there, you know it. It took me 4 years of racing Ironman before I even had the fitness, experience, and confidence, to push myself that hard. I’ve been there a couple of times, and “dark places” is probably the best description I’ve heard. Once you’ve been there, it changes you forever.
Now let’s back it up… In addition to the mental issues I was having related to skin cancer fears, I was also seriously doubting my ability to race at the pro level from 2011 – 2013. This was largely related to my swimming. It’s incredibly hard to stay engaged in a race when you’re getting dropped after 2 minutes, doing the entire swim solo, and just hoping you’ll be able to claw yourself back into the race on the bike or run. If it happens once or twice, it’s not a big deal. But if it happens every single race, then it really starts getting in your head. Every time I got dropped in the water, my first thought was “Here we go again…”. I’d re-engage in the race eventually, but the time I lost while feeling sorry for myself usually knocked me out of contention for a paycheck.
One of my best friends, Angela Naeth Duncan, used to tell me, “Just be confident!” And that worked, to a certain extent, but it was only a temporary fix. You can try to tell yourself to be confident, but if there’s no data to back up that confidence, then the mirage of confidence will slip away quickly (unless, of course, you’re supremely cocky, or supremely delusional). If you’re getting your ass whipped every time you race, trying to be confident on race day just feels like you’re lying to yourself, and then it becomes a downward, self-perpetuating, spiral of declining performance and declining confidence.
Things changed for me last summer, when, for lack of a better term, I finally got my mojo back. I was myself again. It’s not like I instantly improved, but I was finally back in a mental/physical state where I could go out and attack my training every day, and over the long term, that turned into real progress. The first indication of real improvement was at Ironman Los Cabos, where I set a huge PR, swimming 53 minutes for 2.4 miles. My pool times were also better, but I needed another strong swim performance on race day to confirm that my swimming really had come around… On to the race at Ironman Texas now…
I was fighting to hang with a pack for the first 1200 meters. Once we made the turn-around, I saw a couple people had broken off the front of the pack, and I decided to chase them down. It took about 1000 meters, but I eventually closed the 80 meter gap to them. That’s something I never would have done last year. But this year at training camp, Coach Tim
just harassed the hell out of me any time I let someone get away from me in the water. Now, it’s automatic – anytime I see a gap to a swimmer in front of me, I have a mental image of Tim yelling at me to get on their feet, and I have the confidence to do whatever is necessary to close down that gap.
I thought I had bridged the gap by myself, until I was swallowed up by 5-6 people when we hit the channel. Apparently, I had pulled an entire pack with me when I chased down the break. That made me feel pretty good. I wasn’t just “surviving” in the pack. I was driving the pack. I now feel comfortable saying that my swim is no longer a liability. I’m no longer losing races in the water, I’m getting on the bike still in contention, and it’s such a great feeling.
I went out hard, and rode the first 70 miles in low/mid-Z3, which is about 7-8 bpm below my lactate threshold heart rate. I don’t have a power meter on my racing set-up, but based on data from training and previous races, that HR corresponds to roughly 290 watts. It felt pretty easy, almost like a conversational pace. I had a little bit of company, as I rode with Robbie Wade for a bit in the middle of the course, but he faded, and so I was solo for 90% of the ride. Late in the bike, the constant headwind and loneliness of that bike course started messing with my head, and I lost focus. I did not ride particularly well for the last 30-ish miles of the bike. It wasn’t a meltdown or anything like that, just slowed down a bit. Not a disaster, but not ideal either. One of my tasks in my September racing block (Ironman Wisconsin & Ironman Chattanooga) will be to stay laser-focused for the entire 112 miles of biking. Also, I wasn’t producing a lot of speed given that power output, which suggests I need may need to look for some aero improvements in my bike position.
(any suggestions? This photo is from Cabo, but I had the same position at Texas. Only change was that I rode mechanical shifting at Cabo, and rode Shimano Di2 at Texas… Di2 is goddamn awesome, btw)
The task from Coach Tim was to take out the first two miles at 6:50 pace, and then build from there. I hit the first mile in 6:52 with low perceived exertion, but then had to take a bathroom stop at the beginning of mile 2. This cost me 90 seconds, and for some reason, seeing how the bathroom stop changed the “average pace” number on my watch really messed with my head. I instantly gave up on running sub-3, and didn’t get my head back on straight until mile 17. The heart rate file below pretty much says it all…
That shift in pace was 100% mental. For the first 17 miles, I didn’t have the confidence or the motivation to run any harder. But when I hit mile 17, I realized that I needed to make something happen to get under 9 hours, so… I just went for it. It worked out, and next time I race, I’ll have the confidence of that last 9 miles in my head, and I’ll hit the gas pedal earlier in the run.
This was one of those situations where you find out what you really want, and what’s really important to you. I was willing to suffer enough to go under 9 hours, but wasn’t willing to suffer enough to have a sub-3 run split. Next time, I will be willing to suffer enough for that sub-3…
This race really represented a shift in mindset for me. For my first few years of Ironman racing, I only focused on myself, and didn’t care about anyone else on the course. Ironman essentially was just an individual time trial. Then, for a couple of years, all I did was focus on other people, and my pacing was entirely determined by what the people around me were doing. Ironman Texas 2014 was the first race where I truly combined those two approaches into a productive result. My general mindset was, “I’m going out there to do my own thing. If there happen to be a few people around me, then that’s just a bonus, and I’ll pace off them to my advantage. But I need to make this race about ME doing MY best, not about how I compare to others.” It represents that I’m back to being comfortable in my own skin, and confident in my own abilities. I think it’s a very productive and strong mindset, and I plan on using it again for my races in the second half of 2014.
So now this race has boosted my confidence a bit. I’ll use that confidence to further improve my approach to training and racing, which will lead to improved times, which will lead to further confidence improvements, which… well, you can see where this is going. It’s all about establishing positive, self-perpetuating, feedback spirals. Onward and upward!
Equipment/Fuel/Support at Ironman Texas:
Wetsuit: Sleeveless blueseventy Helix
Goggles: blueseventy HydraVision
Sunblock: Goddess Garden
Race Kit: Skins Tri400, and Skins arm compression sleeves
Bike Frame: Quintana Roo CD 0.1
Components: Shimano Di2, 11-speed
Helmet: Giro Air Attack
Sunglasses: Rudy Project Genetyk
Tires: Schwalbe Ironman
Wheels: Reynolds Element Disc, and Reynolds Aero 72
Bike shoes: Louis Garneau Tri-Lite
Running shoes: Nike Lunaracer 3
Food: Clif Shot Gels, and Clif Shot Bloks
Hydration: Ironman Perform, Cola, and Red Bull
Coach: Tim Snow, of QT2 Systems
Homestay: Scot and Karen Robertson
Sanity checks: Lisa Holt, Jesse Kropelnicki, Haley Chura, Angela Duncan