Monday, March 21, 2016

A Beautiful Disaster (aka John's Ironman New Zealand Race Report)

I can't believe how terribly long it's been since I posted here! And now I'm posting on behalf of John, since he doesn't have a blog. But I figure it's relevant, since John's training is a big part of all our lives, and I've blogged about his running in the past. So, without further ado, here is John's Ironman New Zealand race report:

This was my third IM after Zurich and Cozumel. Course, atmosphere, and organization were on par or superior to Zurich, and all of the above thoroughly outclassed Cozumel. This was a competitive and honest race from start to finish. The mass-start swim is the real deal. Confidence in the water is a must. The bike course is challenging to the extent that it breaks up the packs and the officials were omnipresent and strict, and the run is a roller lined with cheering fans from start to finish.

Pre-race: clockwork. Very well organized and enhanced by the co-location of start/finish and transitions. This made logistics much simpler than in Cozumel.

Swim: mass start MMA style death match. Get your war face on. Per the race program, this is one of the last IM mass start swims in the world. From a safety perspective, that's understandable. If I'd been thrown into this environment two years ago I'd have been near panic. A wide catch and a comfort with contact are prerequisite to a solid showing. There's no doubt that this type of start is slower than starting in clean water. On the one hand you're in a massive current but on the other it's hugely inefficient. The course is and out-back and my only critique is that the buoys are marked 1-24 or some such, perhaps .1 mile segments, but with zero relation to 3800m. This wasn't made clear in race program.

T1: a healthy 1K run out of the lake and up a hill to standard IM changing tents and an orderly and compact series of bike racks. Volunteers were abundant and helpful with wetsuit stripping and bags. The mounting line was close to the bikes.

Bike: honest parcours. 2x out-and-backs with a short extra loop for distance-making in between. The one or two stiff grades coming out of the town center were small-chainring for sure. This was unexpected but not severe. The chip seal out on course was a factor but not something that would necessitate a swap from say 23c to 25c or more. 90 PSI was fine. The course marshals were thankfully out in force and it seems to me that at the pointy end of the age groupers drafting was much less a factor than in the other races I've competed in. Every penalty box I passed had 2-3+ riders biding their time. Refreshing. Winds were negligible, and the format made the K's click by. The countryside was beautiful. Quintessential NZ farmland. Mountains, sheep, cows, and green pasture in the mist.

T2: same spot as T1 and just as efficient. Volunteers were on top of things and my bag was handed to me as I stepped over the mat.

Run: 3x rolling laps along the lake. Aid stations seemed to be every K or two, and there wasn't a single stretch of lonely. The fans here were world-class! Interestingly there were a few sections off-piste and along jogging tracks so perhaps not the fastest possible, but very pleasing to have such varied terrain and scenery. Beautiful and right up next to the lake.

Finish: IM standard. That is, food options weren't so good, and once again no contrôlée dopage. Coming from an ultra background, I continue to feel that WTC can and should amp up the post-race chow a bit. Tomato soup, bananas, and cold pizza? Come on, guys. The entry fee demands better options. Vendors were selling some tasty looking food-truck fare but due to personal complications (below) I didn't have the chance to partake. The entry fee also demands at least a credible threat of drug testing. This is a non sequitur but I'd also love to see a T1 bike sweep with whatever "mechanical doping" detector UCI is using these days. The medal is Kiwi black and white cool, as is the finisher shirt.

John's IMNZ:

Build: A mitigated disaster. Yes it could always be worse, but really at every stage, more or less going back to early-January and the decision to leverage the Cozumel form and register for NZ, The Universe made this one nearly insurmountable. After a few unforced errors at IMCz and once again just missing Kona – this time due to my own error – I was inspired to give the distance another shot in short order.  I was very keen to get back on the program sooner rather than later so as to spare my family a full 12-16 week build of weekend bricks and a generally energy-robbed husband/father.

I'll spare you the bio details, but this otherwise textbook build - that I was fully committed to - with a personally epic amount of swim volume - was plagued by three plagues: shigella (bacterial infection), cyclospora (parasite), and last but not least e-coli (bacterial infection). My watts/kg saw a fairly sharp improvement over a 2-3 week period, but trust that it was NOT worth it. I had multiple sick-days off of work but stubbornly stuck to planned volume, if not intensity. Despite adversity (there will always be some) persistence and consistency can be trained into an athlete, and can become learned behaviors that shape our decisions come race day. The call of the bed is strong at 5am, but the fat black and the early am chlorine have their own allure. "Marching to the sound of the guns" I've found is critical to success in life and sport, and practiced enough, takes the guess work out of forks in the road. Despite not having a single training day in the last six weeks in complete health, I still very much enjoyed the process and took pride in both my consistency and positive approach towards this race.

After a few weeks of antibiotics I'd kick one bug only to host another, and really never got back to baseline. I am still sick. The training stress did not help, but ultimately this remains a vicious case of slow gringo adaptation to a developing country's biome probably made worse by chronically high cortisol levels. All told though by 8-10 days out, I somehow marked PB efforts in the pool for all distances 100m-400m, and on the bike bumped out the all-time power curve from 1 second to 1 hour. I was ready. Kristian Manietta was as intuitive as ever and wisely backed me off and pushed me as necessary. It occurred to me these last two months that coaching is an investment with compounding interest. KM is coach and therapist, and with each passing session, week, and phase he knows me and my whole-person response to training better and better. Proud to call you a friend, coach.

Regarding training, one thing that I need to improve (there are others): evening routine discipline. I find that in the only time I have to decompress after a day of work and training and getting the boys ready for bed, I am pretty much out of gas for foam rolling in favor of the couch or peeling myself away from a good book in favor of more sleep.  This is self-sabotage. It makes the morning sessions that much more difficult to initiate and likely lower quality overall. I was better in the last three weeks about body maintenance and getting in the rack before 10pm, and this helped me show up on race day uninjured, but there’s no telling what I left on the table.  For some reasons the morning routine – coffee – resets – meditation – all right there and easy to make habits out of.

Travel: Disaster. The airline lost my bike (brand new Scott Plasma 5, Di2, fully loaded) and suitcase. The details are boring and it's a common enough occurrence, but a cautionary tale. No matter how precisely you glue your tubulars or top of your electronic shifting battery or zero your power meter, a third party can wreak havoc and give exactly zero F's in the process. I arrived in NZ with no bike, wetsuit, helmet, bike shoes, running shoes, sunglasses, body lube, nutrition, electrolytes, socks, or goggles. I chose hope as my only option and pressed ahead. I was met at the airport by the kindest soul anyone could ever hope to meet. My second mom for the weekend. Christina gave so much of herself to this complete stranger; I am so humbled by your generosity. In retrospect no matter what result I came away with, I knew that the lasting value of this long weekend far from home was in the new friends made. My lasting memories of this place are of these truly special people who took me into their home. Thank you.

Pre-race: I arrived in Taupo at 9am on Thursday morning before a Saturday race day.  Christina took me directly to registration where I picked up a few necessary items to get through swim and run sessions the next 36 hours.  We enjoyed the wonderful café scene and hit the lake that afternoon.  I loosened the arms and hips up in fairly cool Great Lake Taupo for maybe 1500m, then ran back to Christina’s the 10k or so in my new shoes.  The evening and most of Friday were decidedly vacation like as I’d made a point of not stressing over what I couldn’t control, and enjoying the most of NZ.  We had some great wine and not a few laughs together.  Friday evening Christina’s daughter Seon and her boyfriend arrived to round out my support crew, and we had an easy evening.  Having a kitchen to prepare standard pre-race fare was a big win: salmon and simple fried rice in fresh local butter and eggs did the trick and also doubled as my race day breakfast.
By race morning I'd bummed a wetsuit off of X-Terra Australia, a bike off a local who wasn't racing, and purchased untold $100's worth of new tri-shite. Ugh. In any case I made it to the start line. The one remaining question mark was nutrition and electrolytes. I normally rely on a ketone salt mix for the bulk of my calories and all of my salts, but it was all still with my lost bags and not available in NZ. I decided to roll intuitively and stick to simple sugar and run a sort of Tim Noakes inspired zero-electrolyte supplementation experiment. That all went fine. I really could have gotten away with eating nothing but all told had two bags of Sport Beans on the bike, a few potato chips on the run (yes the salt craving started to dig), and maybe 12 oz of Coke also on the run plus ample water all along the way. And of course Vespa scored off a few very generous fellows (Pete and Brett I owe you both).

Swim: After a generous early morning ride to the start from Seon and thorough warm up, the swim went well. 1:01. I know I have sub-1 in me, especially in a rolling start, but the brawl that was the first K was a massive energy suck and I like many others was trapped by slower swimmers ahead and not a few faster swimmers behind. I felt incredible once I found open water: long, powerful, smooth, and in control of the water and my body. I finally love swimming. My biggest lesson here is that I probably could have pressed harder to get to the outside in the first 1K, and could have found faster feet to follow in the last 2K. I found myself in a pack that was too quick to break away from, but just a bit too comfortable to hang onto. Maybe that's the best to be hoped for.  I hit the beach fresh, so perhaps that’s another take-away.

Bike: so, so awful. I was remarkably fresh and happy and having a good time for the first 30 miles considering I was on an old borrowed Shiv with crap training wheels, someone else's saddle, position, and downright pedestrian aerobar configuration. Happy with my Z2 heart rate and moderate perceived exertion, I was hanging with the Cervelo P6 crowd until pop went one spoke, and then another 40 miles later, both on the front wheel. Pulling over to the side of the road I managed to remove both spokes but could not open the brake caliper enough to get the now severely out-of-true wheel to stop rubbing the pads. At this point I knew that any hope of Kona was out the window, but despite everything, I still thought just maybe... What to do with my effort level given the state of the bike was a question mark for about five minutes after getting back in the saddle when an aid station volunteer solved it all for me. A kid of about 11 or 12 got way out in front of me in his eager attempt to pass me a bottle, but somehow his shirt connected with the edge of my handlebar closest to him and I was instantly over the top and cheese grating my shoulder, back and forearm down the chipseal. And done… Or not.  I sat bleeding in the aid station for 30 minutes waiting for clearance from the paramedics to press ahead. The decision was easy. If I could press ahead without doing long-term damage to my body, I would. Yes it hurt, but why else had I come to NZ if not to race? There was no other near-term race to save my legs for, and I’d been hurt much worse in a race before and managed to press on for much longer than I had left in this IM (at Western States in 2013 I fell at mile 17, fracturing my left patella, but ran on until mile 78 where my leg simply stopped responding to inputs).  In some strange way getting back on the bike felt the same as getting out of bed at 5am for a long swim set: it was uncomfortable but really there was no actual decision point; it just was.  The road rash was quite severe, but I could tell that I wasn’t dealing with any major joint issues.  I cruised the last 30 miles not really eating much and trying to remain positive. Truth be told though I spent much of that time contemplating the sale of my still-un-raced Scott Plasma, power meter, Mavics, etc… I think I’m over that, but suffice to say I wasn’t in such a good spot mentally.  As one friend put it after the fact, my splits made it clear that I’d more or less thrown in the towel.

T2: more of the same.  Seeing my back and leg, a doc in T2 was very reluctant to let me out of the tent until I convinced him I’d do myself no permanent harm.  Another 10 minutes wasted and I was on my way.

The only photos we got, courtesy of Seon Venville.

Run: it stung, but it was the easiest marathon I’ve ever run.  I was on form for this race, and just cruised effortless 4:50km’s at 190 steps-per-minute sipping a bit of coke here and there.  In a sense I missed that late IM opportunity to celebrate months’ of preparation with a good trip to the well, but reasoned with myself that there was no sense prolonging recovery. With about 7k to go however I started skipping aid and pushing just a bit harder to ensure a 10:XX on the clock.  It was meaningless at this point but I needed a goal.  In the end, coming down the finish chute never gets old.

Post-race: prolonging the suffering.  The catchers took me immediately to medical where I spent about 4 hours between debriding, x-rays, and a few stitches.  One upside here is that the Kiwi Army medics had a catered steak and salad buffet that blew the WTC fare away.  This was small consolation for the day and the fact that I wanted nothing more than to be back at Christina’s, showered, and enjoying an IPA or two.  My gracious hosts Seon Venville came back to the finish to collect me and very graciously took me directly to an even better IPA option.  Not the best idea when I’d hardly rehydrated and was hopped up on Kiwi army narcotics, but I wasn’t complaining…

This was a beautiful disaster.  It’s cliché to say that it’s the tough ones that teach you, but it’s true.  If nothing else, I’ve gained perspective and hopefully burned through most of the bad racing luck the universe has in store for me.  I’m not sure what’s next.  I am hungry to race and far from burned out, but at the same time also feeling a bit burned by the experience. I’ll be back at an IM soon, but how soon is TBD.  There’s always the argument to leverage the existing base fitness to turn it around and hit another soon, but I also want to recapitalize some relationships both personal and professional that have unfortunately suffered some neglect due to IM prep and illness.  This race did not turn out anywhere close to how I imagined it, but it has helped me to recapture a healthier perspective on the place of triathlon and sport in the life of John.

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