At the end of last season, I sat down as I do every year and began to set goals and lay out training objectives for the 2012 season. My primary early season goal was to qualify for the Ironman World Championships and punch my ticket back to Kona in October. However, because I wasn’t prepared to sign up for an Ironman qualifying race in spring or early summer 2011, I was left with one choice in North America..... 2012 Ironman St. George! St. George is known as one of the most difficult courses on the circuit; yet ultimately, if you're shooting for a Kona slot, you're not racing the course but rather the other athletes in your age group. I decided I was up for the challenge.
I arrived in St. George on the evening Wednesday, May 2nd. Thursday was my “rest day,” which would enable me to check-in, take care of the race logistics, and drive the bike and run courses. The majority of the bike leg consists of two 43 mile loops. Each loop contains a semi-gradual climb of about 2,000 feet over about 30 miles, followed by a fairly steep 13 mile descent. Not an easy course, but it seemed manageable. With regards to the run, the three-loop course in the heart of the city contains a decent elevation gain of 1,000 feet over the 26.2 mile course. There are not many flat sections either – you are either going slightly uphill or slightly down.
Friday morning I completed my Pre-Race 15min/20min/10min Brick-out at Sandy Hollow Reservoir (the swim site and transition 1), checked my bike into T1, and went back to my condo to kick my feet up and relax the rest of the day.
The morning of the race I awoke at 3:45 AM. I immediately headed for the kitchen with a plan of finishing my breakfast about 3 hours prior to the start. I typically take in around 1,000 calories of mainly carbohydrate to ensure my glycogen stores are topped off for the long day ahead! Regardless of the nerves and apprehension of what the day might bring, I try to remain as calm as possible while I go through my routine. I always tell myself (as well as all the athletes I coach) that it’s good to be nervous on race morning – it means that you care about your performance. This nervousness, however, is always followed by confidence. If you’ve trained correctly, put in the hard work and arrived at the start line healthy, there is no reason not to be confident. There is no such thing as a lucky Ironman!
I gave mom a hug, and Shannon one last big kiss as I headed out the door a bit before 5:00 AM. Due to the fact that they “trap in” spectators who attend the swim start until the last person has left transition, I wouldn’t see them again until I was on the bike leg. I met my fellow Tri Running Race Team members (Craig Spreadbury, Brian Smallwood, Leroy Thomas and Jim Avery) and we headed over to T2/Finish. From there, we hopped on a bus that took us to T1 and the swim start. It was a lot of fun to arrive at the start as a team. The small talk and jokes seemed to break the tension and help me relax a bit. When we arrived, the conditions looked pristine and I was envisioning a perfect day out on the course. Before I knew it, we were in our wetsuits and heading down to the swim start.
We entered the reservoir right after the pro-start, and the 64 degree water felt heavenly compared to the SB ocean! There was a slight texture on the surface but it looked like it was going to be a great day for a swim. The whole Tri Running Team, along with Taylor Heming (SB Tri), congregated at the far left buoy which had the most direct line. The plan was for us all to work together for as long as possible in the swim. A couple of minutes prior to the start, I felt a bit of a breeze kick-up across my face. I didn’t think much of it and ducked behind a large buoy for a bit of shelter so that I could stay warm.
As they counted down the swim start, it felt as though my heart was sitting in my throat but all the nerves were washed away with the sound of the gun and a rush of adrenaline. Having only 1,400 participants and a very long, open water start line, made for a comfortable start (at least for an Ironman). With the breeze at our back, the first section of the large rectangular course went by very quickly. There were a lot of feet to sit on so I just held on for the ride. About ¾ of a mile into the swim we made our first left turn and it immediately became obvious that the wind had picked up significantly. Unpredictable desert winds and a shallow lake can make conditions turn in the blink of an eye. It felt as though a motorboat was driving parallel to us and we were getting hit by the wake every few strokes. As we made the next turn about a mile into the swim, conditions turned from bad to surreal. We were heading straight into 3+ foot white caps.
I realize as an athlete that it is equally important to maintain mental strength as it is to be physically fit. I apply this each time I compete, and because of this, I was able to recognize that regardless of the situation everyone was swimming the same course. I just kept reminding myself that I had a long day ahead of me so I should relax and get into a comfortable rhythm. I started the pattern of ducking under the white caps and breathing in the “troughs,” which seemed to work fairly well as I was actually making progress. As I made the last turn for home, the waves were once again at my side; which, was not ideal but much better than taking them head on! I exited the water and glanced at my watch only to realize that I swam a little over 1:02 Swim Exit Video. My swim time was about 7 minutes slower than I expected, but seemed very reasonable given the conditions. A quick jaunt through T1 and I spotted Taylor Heming right in front of me as I hopped on the bike!
The Bike: Data File
Once on the bike, it was immediately apparent why the swim had been so rough, the winds were howling at 40 mph! T2 is in a different location than T1 so the bike course consists of a 25 mile “out” section, followed by two 43 mile loops and then a short downhill into town. In each loop you have a relatively steady 30 mile climb with an elevation gain of about 2,200 feet followed by a very fast 13 mile downhill section. There were crossing winds on the “out” section that were not too bad, but as I made the turn to start the climb I knew we were in for a long day!
A 30-40 mph headwind made the 30 mile climb take much longer than I expected. I just held an intensity that I knew I could maintain, settled into the aerobars, and powered through. The final climb was a welcome site – I knew this would give me some time on the downhill to relax and make sure I was on top of my fueling and hydration. There was a tail wind on the 13 mile (25 min) descent, which probably did little to help us, yet surprisingly I felt refreshed as I started the second climb. Another 2 hours of buckling down into the headwind and I was once again at the top. I crested the final peak close to Taylor. We stayed pretty much within eyesight of each other for most of the ride, which didn’t surprise me given we’ve trained together and have always seemed very comparable on the bike. At that point, it was obvious that it would come down to the run.
The final descent proved to be a great time to top off on fuel, fluid and spin the legs out for the run. I took a glance at my watch and realize my bike split was going to be over 5:50. This was about 30 minutes slower than I was expecting but I knew I was in a relatively good position overall, and now was the time to focus on my run. I entered T2, and as always, it was a mad dash to ditch the helmet and get the running shoes on. As I stormed out of T2, I once again saw Taylor just ahead of me.
The Run: Data File
The first couple hundred meters was a gradual downhill and the legs were really feeling good, but there was one thing that was very apparent... I was going to have to hit up a porta-john! This was a new thing for me as I’ve never had to stop in a race before (yes, I’ve learned to pee while running)! At the half mile mark I spotted one and yet somehow still managed to run that first mile in under 7 minutes including the stop! I was feeling 10 pounds lighter and just worked on setting a solid pace.
The course consists of 3 loops in the heart of St. George and each loop has 5 out-and-back sections. This makes it very spectator friendly and also allows you to see your competition 14 times on the run. I could see that Taylor was slowly gaining on me every mile, but I also knew that if I pushed too hard in the early stages of the marathon it could prove to be very costly later in the race. I would stick to my race plan; execute what I was capable of on that day, and if Taylor was able to hold his pace then so be it!
As I started the second lap, I could hear the cowbells ringing (yes custom made by my dad). Shannon and the family were cheering and screaming as loudly as they could. This always gives me extra energy, and it was at that point I really was able to start pushing the pace. As I mentioned, there are not many flat sections so I was either going slightly uphill or slightly downhill the entire time. I worked on pushing the uphills to let my HR creep up, and then cruising the downhills to concentrate on a high turnover. This seemed to work well as I began to move up through the field.
When the final lap approached, I began to feel the fatigue of the day set in. In my experience, the last hour or an ironman race is where it is won or lost. Every ounce of your body wants you to stop moving, but deep down you know you have it in you to push hard for one more hour. This is the point, when times get tough, that I remind myself why I’m here. I recall the countless hours I’ve spent training and weeks of regimented hard work; but, most importantly I think about the sacrifices that my loved ones have made to allow me to be in the position that I am currently in. When I can clearly put everything into perspective, one hour of intense suffering seem like a blip on the radar! This rationalization allowed me to put my head down and push! My brother was giving me live updates and he thought I was likely 3rd or 4th in my AG and in the top 10 of the amateur race. Knowing this helped me dig down as deeply as I could the last 2-3 miles, and was happy I was able to reel in a few more competitors. Words cannot explain the feeling of relief I felt as I ran down the finish shoot and saw all my family and friends cheering me on. I had been out there almost an hour longer than I anticipated, but I still felt I had executed a great race!
Once the dust had settled, I reunited with my family and I was never so thankful to give Shannon a great big hug! Nothing like a hard fought day to remind you what’s most important in this world! After recapping the surreal day, I found out I had placed 4th in the 25-29 age group; I was the 6th amateur to cross the line and ended up 12th overall, including the professional field. I reunited with Taylor and discover he had won our age group with a stellar 3:04 marathon almost 5 minutes faster than me! This meant that the top 4 in our age group had finished within 5 minutes of each other (less that 1% of the total time)! I had run the numbers for projected slots to the Ironman World Championships in Kona and it looked as though there would be 4 slots allocated to my age group. I wouldn’t know for certain until I re-ran the numbers again since the slots are based on the percentage of starters and not the percentage of people who signed up. Later that night, I did the calculation again once the results were posted. There were in fact going to be 4 slots in my age group. Mission accomplished... I had gotten my invitation back to the big island of Hawaii!
Kona Slot Allocation and the Awards Ceremony
After finally falling asleep, I awoke Sunday morning at around 5:00am. For whatever reason (maybe my body is just mad at me) I have never been able to sleep well after an ironman. I made some coffee, milled around the house and we all headed down to the awards brunch banquet at about 8:00am. I made my way over to the Kona registration table and noticed that there were only 3 slots allocated to my age group. After looking over the distribution sheet, I realized that there was no rhyme or reason to the way the slots were awarded. For instance, the age group below me had a third the amount of people yet they were given 2 slots to our 3. The women's 35-39 age group with half the people was given 4. I spoke with the head timing official who informed me that the slots were based on a “formula” that the World Triathlon Corporation (or “WTC” who owns the Ironman brand) had provided, yet he did not know what the formula was or who applied the formula to the race results. I then asked to speak to the head person from the WTC. He listened to what I had to say, studied the allocation sheet and then looked at me and said, “This is the way the new timing company distributed the slots and since most people have already signed up we will stick with what we have for the time being. Don’t worry though if it was done incorrectly, we will make it right.” At the time I really didn’t know what to think. He had basically told me that they screwed up without stating it outright. I guess now I was at the mercy of the WTC.
I was frustrated but decided that I still wanted to enjoy the brunch and my time on the podium. It’s always fun when you get to be on stage, especially in a large event. I made the most of it, congratulated the other finishers and remained proud of what I achieved regardless of the outcome! Monday morning I received an email from the Senior Director of Event Analytics at Ironman (yes that is someone’s actual title) informing me that they are aware of the situation at hand and they would contact me within 48 hours. I was hoping not to have to wait another 48 hours, but at least I knew they were taking the matter seriously. Finally, on Wednesday I received a call from m the WTC. They explained that they had hired a new timing company for 2012 and the timing company had in fact not followed the proper procedure when allocating slots. Best of all, they informed me that I had in fact earned a slot to compete in the Ironman World Championships! After 3 days of waiting this was music to my ears! I had achieved the goal I set for myself, and I am happy to say that Taylor and I will be going to Kona come October!