Saturday, September 5, 2009

Iron Dreams, Tin Realities

Don't let the title of this post get you down or wrong—I did finish IM Canada, and I'm more than pleased with my 9:31 finish, but I've got that Unfinished Business kinda feeling when I think about the race in Penticton.

I'm getting ahead of myself, mostly because there's just too much to talk about. So here's a short blow-by-blow of the race, and then I'll post-the-mortem.

The Swim: I can't believe I'm about to write this, but I really enjoyed the swim. The water is comfortable (just under 70 degrees) and cleaner than anything in which I've ever swam. The race organizers do a great job of never having you swim directly into the sun. I swam next to the pack for a little while and then got brave and joined the second pack. Ironman swimming differs greatly from the HIM distance, where you've still got to go pretty hard. In this race I was able to find feet and even jump from group to group. I never felt buried or even as if I was working hard. I could have gone faster, though, than my 54:08. Don't get me wrong—I'm perfectly pleased with that time, and I'm happy to know that I could go even faster.

The Bike: I came out of the water in 23rd, 8 minutes back (Amy did some great split reporting for me). IM cycling is interesting—you've got to push enough to catch people, but you really can't bury yourself. Remember, there's a marathon lurking after all this. I did start moving through the pack, and had moved up several spots by the time I got to the other side of Richter Pass, the second climb on the course (the first climb is little more than a long hill—don't worry too much about it). I went into a little valley after the halfway point due to some long rollers and a headwind. Eventually a guy whose number belt read "Mathias" passed me and I wondered what I was doing. He and I rode together for the next two hours, almost, as we passed and re-passed each other, working hard to keep the requisite seven bike lengths between us. A small group began to form as we headed up the second climb, to Yellow Lake. At this point I started to feel tired, and decided to let the group go so I could spin my legs on the way into town. This is also where my brain started to get a bit fuzzy. I followed my nutrition plan on the bike perfectly: a gel every 25 minutes, a PowerBar at 2:30, and water with Nuun every five minutes. Five minutes may seem excessive, but I'm a big guy and it was a hot day. Still, as I rolled back into Penticton I was seeing things: I imagined a man without his shirt on, wearing blue and white camoflaged cargo shorts, standing next to TriDamian. It tured out to be CompuTrainer Kurt, but he certainly wasn't wearing those shorts—lesson: your brain does funny things during an Ironman.

The Run: Everybody told me, before the race "It's all about the run, Chris." Well, as I started to run, feeling invincible, I thought "It's all about the run, and I'm about to run down almost every one in this race!" I can't explain enough how good my legs felt. Good enough to only eat two gels in the first hour of the run. I can already hear your sharp intakes of breath. No, that wasn't enough food. After passing a bunch of people on my way south, away from Okanagan Lake, I hit the hils at mile eleven and things started to come apart a bit. I'd run 6:40s since the start of the run, and looked and felt great:

This is probably the last place where I look good. Soon, taken apart by bad nutritional decisions, hills, heat, and wind, I was walking the aid stations. I started giving up the places I'd taken. Mathias, my partner on the bike (I'd passed him two miles out of town on the run) passed me back at mile seventeen and went on to 14th place. Coming into town I pulled things back up to 8:00/miles, but the damage was done. After running 7:00s for the first half, I ran 9:00s for the second, and my marathon time was 3:30, well off my hoped for pace.

9:31 for a first IM is better than fine, of course, but what gets me is the standard "What could have been" thoughts. If I had kept running the way I felt (Was I really just 200 calories away from a much faster run? Is it really that little?) I would have charged into the top ten.

Still, put the Shoulda Woulda aside, right? Let's talk about the why.

Jordan Rapp won with a convincing victory, tearing away from the field and winning by more than 20 minutes. Jordan can be a prickly guy, a little hard to talk to sometime, but you have to respect him, and I believe that he is, at heart, a more than alright guy. Within hours of his win, he was offering advice and help to age groupers on Slowtwitch. I've always loved athletes who make themselves available to their fans, and Jordan deserves praise. He also deserves praise for his attention to detail. Anyone who knows Jordan knows that he is a details guy. He is obsessive about his preparation, and instead of slagging him, people should respect him for that. IM requires obsessiveness, I think I see now. There's so much that can go wrong, so much time for things to unravel. If you're not careful, more than careful, your times will suffer. As someone a lot smarter than me said, "Failing to plan is planning to fail." I had a great plan for the swim and the bike, and then foolishly believed that the run was just a double-HIM run. 26.2 is very different from 13.1 (as any 6th grade mathematician will tell you) and you just can't think of them the same way. I'd like to think that not too much separates me from Jordan; we turned pro about the same time, have similar strengths and weaknesses, and have had some similar results (he, of course, has dedicated himself to the sport more than I have—another good lesson). So I'm turning my eyes towards my next full Ironman eagerly, looking forward to the chance to put everything in order.

For a while, on that run, I really did feel unstoppable...

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