My preparation for the 2019 New Zealand Ironman was full of learning experiences, balancing acts and a few firsts. This Ironman marked the first time I had attempted to train for an Ironman while coaching collegiate swimming.. At the end of the previous swim season, when I decided to leave my full-time job at Dartmouth College and pursue my dream of becoming a professional triathlete, I had it in my mind that I would take a full year off from coaching and solely focus on training/racing. As with many things in life, reality often slaps you in the face whenever you think you have a plan. The reality checks in my case were that it was going to take more than just a year to reach the professional level and money does not grow on trees (dammit). Not long after moving to Pomona, CA I met and became friendly with the Head Coach at CMS college, Charlie Griffiths. Initially, I had no intention of working there, I just thought he was a nice guy and I liked using the pool. Then all three of his assistants took other positions and long story short, he asked me if I wanted to be one of his assistant coaches in a part-time capacity. At first I was very torn about making this decision; I really needed a break from being a coach, but at the same time I knew I would really enjoy working for him and coaching the student-athletes at CMS.
Training was still my main priority so even with this part-time role, I knew there was no excuse not to have perfect sessions and take full advantage of this unique opportunity. One of the most beneficial time management techniques I settled on through the course of the winter was planning every hour of every day, not only so I could prove to myself it would all fit but also so that I was not wasting mental energy rehashing how each day was going to go. I made the plan, stuck to it and got the work done. Secretly, I also hate downtime so being busy from sun up till sun down and often hours on either side makes me happy and makes me feel like I am getting the most out of life. Obviously, in my perfect world that would entail only training but one step at a time.
I did a few things to make my life slightly more difficult than one might desire in the two weeks leading up to the race. I started my two weeks of taper by crashing my bike on my last long ride 13 days before the race. I made a silly mistake on a white line in the rain during an IM effort and went for a nice long slide that resulted in a decent bit of road rash on my left hip. I almost could not believe I had done it, the waves of emotion were overwhelming at times, I had worked so hard for this, did I really just crash my bike two weeks before this race? Thankfully road rash was the worst of it and it has certainly been an uncomfortable two weeks but I got away with nothing broken. I did not hit my head and other than some general soreness I was mainly just cut up. Also, a bit of a blow to the ego when you crash completely on your own, good reminder to never lose focus, even for a moment. I managed to complete everything as planned despite the crash and although I raced with a bandage, I do not think it had any impact on my performance, but obviously I could have done without the lack of skin and added stress.
The second big hurdle was coaching the CMS season-ending conference meet. My commitment for most of the season was largely part time meaning I worked between 3-5 hours most days. This schedule certainly led to long days when you add the training, but it was definitely doable; many others have achieved big results with more commitments than that. The conference meet schedule was far less forgiving and meant I was on my feet a lot and mentally engaged in coaching the week prior to IMNZ. To be honest, I did not handle this well. I knew those four conference meet days were going to interfere with my training but instead of mentally preparing myself for it I was a bit all over the place and wasted mental energy wishing I was resting instead of coaching. The week before flying to New Zealand was certainly a learning experience; I could have been far more present and just accepted the reality of the situation when it came to both my crash and my work responsibilities. I finished the meet on Sunday feeling totally beat and rather defeated. Thinking back now this was irrational but it was hard, to get out of my own head in the moment. As soon as the meet was over, I drove straight to LAX and I can honestly say I have never been so happy to get on a plane! I proceeded to sleep for the entire 13 hour flight and landed in New Zealand feeling better than when I got on the plane. This race was also unique in that I had a new travel buddy, Cary Peele, my girlfriend Nyssa’s father and constant supporter of my Triathlon goals and efforts. I can safely say I do not know how I would have gotten through this race without his help. He not only calmed me down when I showed up to the airport in a distressed state, but he also helped me recharge my batteries the first few days in New Zealand and by Wednesday I felt like a completely different person. I cannot thank him enough. The last two days prior to race day were full of rest and positive vibes; I was confident in my preparation and ready to race hard.
Race morning was calm and everything went to plan. As with many race mornings, the day started at 4:00 am with a warm shower and continued race specific fueling. The weather in Taupo started at a cool 47 degrees which is about as ideal as it is going to get for me, especially having traveled from winter to the end of the New Zealand summer. Having found a sneaky parking spot, I headed to transition to dry the dew off my bike, check the tires, place my helmet, check the gears one last time (these things are never actually perfect), add my nutrition to my bike and in general just get myself ready for the effort. Having accomplished all my pre-race tasks with time to spare, I headed back to the car to warm up for a bit and relax with Cary. I can confidently say this is the calmest I have ever been before a race, I knew I had trained better than ever before, I was with great company, I was in a beautiful country and I was living my dream, what could be better. With less than an hour before the start, the butterflies were certainly flying. I attempted to stay loose and focus on the process and disregard the rest. In this case that meant adding Vaseline, Trislide and sunscreen to all the important parts of my body and slipping into my wetsuit. For the last few races I have been wearing my wetsuit with my tri kit halfway rolled down; it has been a big improvement in comfort while swimming. I likely would not waste the time in transition to doing this on races shorter than a half but in terms of comfort and swimming with a more natural stroke, I think this will be my game plan for the longer course races. At this point, nothing left to do other than that whole Ironman thing; time to race.
Entering the water was a strangely calm experience, everyone just calmly filed into the water, people actually stayed behind the start buoys and I had enough space to get a few minutes of light swimming in pre-start; strange, but I will take this setup any day. The gun went off, I remembered to start my watch and I was off. I swam hard for about 30 seconds before settling into my desired effort and breathing pattern. Lake Taupo was about as ideal as swimming gets, clear water with a view of the bottom, a simple out and back course and some decent chop as the wind picked up to weed out the weaker swimmers. My goals for the swim were to stay relaxed, keep a high tempo, take nothing out of my legs and find a comfortable breathing rhythm. I can happily report that all these things happened. I quickly found clear water and swam by myself for more or less the entire effort. I got a solid spooking when we swam over one of the inlet pipes that takes drinking water from the lake, big time fear of mine, but I managed not to lose it and considered the situation rationally. My breathing has never felt as relaxed as it did in this Ironman swim, I really enjoyed myself out there. For the majority of the swim there were two other athletes swimming more or less my pace but for whatever reason they were swimming way off the buoys so I just let them do their own thing. The chop in the water made arm speed essential as some strokes felt great, other felt like I went nowhere but I did my best to stay calm and just keep constant pressure backwards. As we reached the end of the swim a group of about five of us converged and I was able to find some feet and cruise the last minute or so into transition. Swim split was a 51:18. I headed out of the water feeling like I got things off on the right foot.
The exit of the swim led directly into a long run across a parking lot, up a steep set of stairs and eventually into the changing tent. As always, the volunteers were amazing, helping me open my bag, get my sleeves on and keeping me on track and positive. I got to my bike, took it off the rack and immediately had two people yelling at me and running in my direction. I had touched my bike before putting my helmet on, noob mistake, so I got a minute penalty, they seemed quite satisfied to have caught someone; I stayed calm, took a few deep breaths, smiled at the two officials and before I knew it I was on my way.
My plan on the bike was to normalize 250 watts for the first lap and then try and add about 5 watts to the back half as others would hopefully be fading. The effort felt pedestrian for most of the first 30 minutes which is exactly what I wanted. I immediately started fueling and letting my body adjust to being on the bike. The cool temperatures on the first lap of the bike were ideal for keeping my core temp down but meant my heart rate monitor was reluctant to work and the biggest issue ended up being numb hands. I came oh so close to dropping my main bottle of nutrition which contained about 1000 calories of carbo pro and scratch which would have been difficult to replace on course. I fumbled big time getting it back into the cage and ended up pressing the bottle against the side of my downtube for what felt like for an eternity but in reality was probably only seconds; dodged a bullet there. Numb hands also made holding onto the bars over the chip seal even more difficult than on a warm day. I spent most of the first lap biking with one other athlete and we quickly distanced ourselves from the other few who had been with us on the swim. At each aid station I either took a bottle of water to replenish my reservoir up front or took a bottle of sport drink that I kept in my open cage. I dropped one gel early so grabbed an on-course gel to supplement but other than that everything went exactly to plan from a nutritional point of view. As we headed back into town to complete the first lap, the wind really started to kick up. From what I could judge, it seemed to almost always be coming from about 45 degrees of yaw, nice tailwind on the way out and a brutal headwind on the way back to town, always leaning. I knew this would be the case and I constantly reminded myself to stick to the numbers, disregard the chip seal and the wind, just stick to the numbers. The second lap was certainly not as “perfect” as the first in terms of flat power output, but I was happy with how I managed everything that was thrown my way. The athlete I rode with for most of the first lap was no longer holding power as consistently and as opposed to taking long turns in front like we were for the majority of the first loop, now when I passed him, he annoyingly and consistently say within a couple bike lengths of by back wheel. I did my best to not let this derail my plan; but it really blows my mind the way people will cheat. I love Ironman racing because it is a solo effort; some people just do not get it. After attempting to pass him at least six times, seeing him on my wheel, sitting up allowing him to go by I eventually had enough of it and with about 30 miles left I put in a slight surge which he had no response for and rode the end of the race on my own. I was happy with the way I finished my race and the consistent effort felt miles better than surging and playing games with him from the beginning of the second lap. In the end I normalized 249 watts which led to a 4:53:17 bike split.
T2 was thankfully less eventful than my first transition, I swapped for a fresh pair of socks, added my favorite red hat (for the record this was my favorite hat for years prior to 2016…), a pair of shades, some running shoes, replenished my nutrition and I was off.
The marathon course was a three loop, constantly undulating route that followed the main drag along the shore of Lake Taupo and through some of the small neighborhoods on the shoe. My plan was to use the loops as a means of pacing, I stuck to a hard 150 heart rate cap for the first loop to allow my body to adjust, hopefully absorb more nutrition and prioritize being able to run hard towards the end of the marathon. Spoiler alert, it did not work, but I really thought I was right on plan though the whole first lap. I took nutrition at every other aid station in the form of a roctane gel or stinger chews as well as water at every aid station. Despite it not actually being that hot, it was still a change from winter to summer for me and I had a history of struggling in the heat so I knew keeping my core temp down would definitely be a good thing. With that in mind, when I didn’t take nutrition at an aid station, I made sure to grab ice and soak my hat whenever possible. The first lap went exactly how I imagined, I stuck to the 150 cap and that effort was yielding a mid-7:00 pace which would have easily been a personal best and had me on course to be right around 9:00 for the whole race. As I started the second loop, I allowed my heart rate to rise towards 155 and was happy to see that my pace responded in line with the added effort; I was feeling good about things. Then the wheels started to come off, I was passed for the lead in the age group at about mile 15 but I knew I had to stick to my plan as opposed to chasing, despite wanting nothing more than match his pace. My stomach started to be a real issue towards the upper teen miles, and I was no longer able to sustain my desired heart rate or pace. I felt full, I was clearly not processing food at a fast-enough rate and things were starting to build up in my stomach. Desperate to avoid the total shut down of the prior world championships in Hawaii, I knew I had to manage the situation. After all, I still had 90 minutes of running to complete. It was very difficult to not be negative at this point. But, I knew, getting mad at myself or wishing I was having a better day was not going to help my situation. Little moments of encouragement from Cary on his bike made all the difference, he told me I could do it, I was tough and just keep forcing the cadence. It is amazing how much one little comment or mantra can get you through the darkest moments in a race. I made the decision to stop taking nutrition and allow my stomach to settle. This process took about three miles and by mile 20 things had started to come back around. I was able to resume a decent heart rate and although still not at a great pace, I was able to at least feel like I was running and holding my overall position. All things considered, miles 20 – 23 were much better; I was out of the dark place of the previous miles. I would love to tell you I enjoyed the last three miles, but I would be lying; they were purgatory. The upside of letting my stomach settle was starting to be overwhelmed by the downside of stopping nutrition intake. All systems were heading to shut down mode the last 20 minutes. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to stop, I tried every mental trick I had to keep myself moving. I thought about random things to distract myself, I focused on my form, I tried to make myself laugh at the funny signs, I thought about all those people watching back home probably yelling at their computers and I also knew that despite a very poor end to my effort I was still in line to go a personal best and I did not want to throw away what had otherwise been a strong effort. I did eventually make it over the line in 3:29 for an overall time of 9:21. While this was not the race I had imagined and finishing poorly leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth I am proud of how I fought the last 90 minutes. There were some dark moments and at times finishing that marathon did not seem possible. It is amazing that even in a time of total duress the body can still find little ways to recover and no matter what you think you always have more left.
This Ironman is the start of my season and easily the fittest I have ever been in March. I cannot wait to see what this sort of winter fitness leads to for the rest of the season. I am also aware that it is unrealistic to expect to get everything right all at once. When one day I do eventually have my best Ironman, nothing should be a surprise. I will need the toughness I showed while falling apart and running way off my desired pace when I am running a sub 3:00 marathon and holding off athletes for the lead of one of these Ironman. Every race is an opportunity to improve and if you stick with it, every step gets you closer to your ultimate goal. I leave New Zealand feeling fit, lucky to do what I do and above all more motivated than ever to become a professional Triathlete. Onwards.