TL;DR: Kona or hospital
I was extremely fortunate to qualify for Kona after my first Ironman in 2013. It was an incredible experience, but with only 7 weeks to recover (and a bad injury right in that recovery window), it wasn’t my best performance.
This season, it was time to go back and race. Following injury disruptions last fall/winter (like ripping my shoulder out of its socket), coach Ben and I decided on Chattanooga.
- Course (especially with a tough run) fit my strengths
- Highly recommended by teammates
- Kona 2017 qualifier
I knew going in to it there would likely be only one Kona slot for my age group, so it would take a AG win to get there.
TL;DR: I was ready to go fast
The season opened with Boulder 70.3 in June; that was a tough day, peaking at around 90° and no shade for the run (the first heatwave of the summer meant no heat training). I suffered some stomach cramps and ran around 10 minutes slower than goal pace, but still managed to podium in my AG.
Vineman 70.3 was up next in July. Warm (low-mid 80s) and I unexpectedly crushed the run. No podium (great competition) but a solid PR and really fun trip with VO2 Multisport teammates.
This was without doubt my toughest training season, but it paid off; I was in fantastic shape (“Deep fitness” coach Ben calls it – you need to say it in a British accent for full effect). In the 11 weeks leading up to taper, I had nearly 2600mi biking and 400mi running in my legs. Not only that, training at 5,400ft meant a big performance boost at sea level on race day.
The average high in Chattanooga for the race is 79-80°. The 10-day forecast was for 85° (and like any tapering triathlete, I checked the forecast compulsively). It seemed to go up every time I looked. With mixed results in the heat this year, I didn’t know what to expect.
My wonderful and dedicated parents joined me (straight from their vacation in California) to make sure I didn’t die and stuff (more on that later).
Up at 3:30am for some coffee, hydration, and a bagel. Bike and gear bags were checked in the day before, so I just pumped the tires and jumped on the shuttle to the swim start.
A boring race morning is a good race morning.
Swim (42:55, 1st amateur & 2nd overall)
TL;DR: I can still swim pretty fast
Swim starts fall into 4 categories:
- Mass start: everyone at once
- My favorite! A lot of adrenaline and I’m often at the front which is always a mental boost
- Understandably not safe in a lot of narrow swims.
- Age group: each AG gets a start time (e.g. M25-29 @ 7:25am).
- Starting with your AG means you’re racing to the finish!
- It’s OK except they often put my AG towards the end so I have to swim through thousands of bodies.
- Self-seed: Fastest in front, slowest in back.
- Don’t need to run over too many people
- But don’t get to “race” your AG to the finish.
- Chattanooga Rolling: “First come first served” (AKA s**t-show)
- Line up at ass-o-clock in the morning.
- Slower athletes incentivized to go in the front so they have longer for the course cut-offs which were by time of day – e.g. bike course closed at 5pm.
- Unsafe, not smart, WTF?!
So I lined up around 5:45am and was probably in the first 25% of people. Pros went at 7:20am, front of the AGer line started at 7:25am and I was in by 7:33am. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I swam a little wide to avoid the masses (may have gone a few extra yards) and by halfway through the swim there were very few people around.
The swim is with the current, and while it was less a bit from years past (for comparison, first pro out of the water swam 3mins slower than he did in 2014), it was still fast. In a swimskin (no wetsuits allowed as the water was 83°) I should swim 51-52 minutes, so 15 – 20% faster today.
Swimming down the river was very nice. Easy to follow course and you could even catch the sunrise out of the corner of your eye! I swam the first 5-7 minutes strong, then cruised to the finish. I even walked to ramp to T1 to save energy. Long day ahead.
Bike (5:20:43, 2nd AG)
TL;DR: 116 > 112
The course is rolling, a few climbs slow you down but nothing major. Described as a “lollypop”, you bike out 11mi, do two 47mi loops, then go back the original 11mi; those of you with your calculators at the ready will note that’s 116 miles, not 112 (hence 144.6 instead of 140.6).
The first loop was pleasant; the course was empty (I was probably in the first 30 athletes to leave T1), the day was still not satanically hot, and there was very little wind.
Despite hydrating at the max my body would absorb (~35oz/hour), the heat hit with 2 hours to go. I had to back off power to keep my heart rate down. Overall, I consumed over 200oz of fluid and 12 GUs, managing to pee (celebrate hydration) twice.
The most bizarre interaction of the day was a fellow in my age group who came flying by me a few miles into the bike, saw arrows on the road intended for riders coming the opposite direction (telling them to keep right), then decided to follow those arrows and bike on the left side of the road into oncoming traffic. I passed him (on the correct side of the road, because I understand basic traffic flow) and didn’t see him again until mile 30, when he blew by me again going up a hill. Not sure what became of him, glad he finally figured it out though.
Winds were all over the place, but a stiff headwind the last 2 miles was just cruel. I was fried enough by the finish I forgot to pull my feet out of my shoes coming into T2 for a flying dismount.
- Aid stations were poorly placed (usually they’re at the top of hills so riders are going slow. Some of these were just on flats or at the bottom of the hill). At the first, the volunteers just held out the bottles – a static handoff doesn’t work at 15-20mph. I was zero for three on handoffs at that station and dangerously low on water by the time I rolled into the next station at mile 27. At subsequent stations, I yelled “run with me” and got great handoffs. No fault of the volunteers here, Ironman needs to make sure their volunteers are trained appropriately (seriously, it’s a 2 minute conversation). You can’t afford ill-prepared volunteers on a hot day like this.
- The course was open the traffic, which became an issue on the second loop. Cars would get stuck behind first-loop (i.e. slow) riders, which meant everyone behind them is now limited to the speed of the slowest cyclist on the road. Dangerous. Frustrating. I would not do the race again if the course was open to two-way traffic.
Run (3:56:22, 2nd AG)
TL;DR: Don’t run marathons when it’s this hot out or bad things will happen
Coach Ben and I had spent hours devising a perfect run plan (heart rate based) leading up to the race. Upon leaving transition, I quickly discarded it, as it was already 95° with high humidity. No way I’d see a normal heart rate again.
The run is two loops; the loop starts in the south side of the Tennessee river and (appears) flat. Around the half-way point, runners cross the river and hammer out a few nasty hills before crossing back for the start of the second loop (or the finish). The first 3mi look easy on paper – a small bump then flat. In reality, it was straight up hill out of T2, then was a slow grind upward with zero shade.
Coming up to each new aid station was like Christmas morning (I’d like to think the volunteers were happy to see me too – the run course was pretty empty at this point). I got water. I got cold sponges. I got ice. I put a lot of ice down my pants.
By mile 4, I was genuinely feeling better. Heart rate had come down (not to normal levels, but enough it was sustainable), I was running “fast” (1:00/mi slower than ideal conditions, but these were not ideal conditions), and I was all smiles. I knew if I didn’t blow up and could just keep running, I had a real shot at winning my age group. A spectator told me I was the first runner she had seen smiling. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was only smiling because I was peeing myself at that very moment. Yay hydration!)
At the top of the last big hill on my first loop, I hear cheers as the lead pro Marino came up behind me. It took him about 1.5mi to close a 10-15s gap. He was not in good spirits and only mumbled something as he passed when I attempted to high-five him. At the awards banquet, he apologized to any volunteer he cursed out. A great reminder that it was a rough day for everyone out there. He still ran a 2:55 marathon though. Insane.
My split at 13.1mi was just under 1:47.
The second loop started a little more slowly, but I was surviving those terrible shadeless 3 miles. I could feel legs fading going into mile 16 and asked myself “can I fake my way through the next 10 miles? Of course!”. Then reality struck at mile 18.5; it was like someone had thrust a knife into my stomach and twisted, hard. I kept running until I literally could not contract my diaphragm to breathe, then did something I had never done in a race before: I walked. As soon as it subsided, I ran again. It came back. Rinse & repeat. At mile 20, I saw my mother, who tried her best to encourage me. It helped a little bit.
Oddly enough, I could run uphill (not fast, 12-13 minute mile pace, but better than walking). It was the downhills that got me, bringing back searing pain and spasms back to my abdomen. At one point, I was asked by a volunteer if there was anything they could get me. My only response was “a wheelchair” (she did not oblige, so much for helpful volunteers…). Completely different experience from my first loop.
Eminem has a lyric “I’m the nightmare you fell asleep in and woke up still in”. Miles 21 through 25 were a lot like that. Physical pain aside, I knew at that point I had lost my AG win and Kona slot. Here I was with 5 excruciating miles to go, and for what? Thankfully (?!), I was delirious enough that logic and common sense did not prevail and I kept running as best I could.
Just before the final bridge (mile 25), my mother found me again. I remember her being there but not the conversation. Something about just make it to the top. But mom, running down is harder than up right now! (I didn’t have the energy to say that at the time though).
I finished in a “sprint” to the line where I was caught by volunteers (including my father, who steered me right to medical).
10:06:55, 2nd AG, 14th amateur.
11 minute Ironman PR.
All things considered… not too bad. Just not what I wanted.
TL;DR: First trip to medical! I did say “Kona or hospital”…
I sat in medical for a bit feeling better as my resting HR slowly came down from 130 to 110bpm (it’s normally 40-50bpm). Then my legs cramped and I nearly threw up. Off to the tent I was carted for 2L of saline via IV. The medical staff was great.
An hour later, I was well enough to limp/waddle to finishers food, where I met my parents and choked down a slice of pizza and some Little Debbie treats. A beer & ice cream was consumed later in the evening.
We attended awards and roll down the following day. I did not get a slot to Kona.
Hats off to the M25-29 age group winner Matt – he survived a brutal day and will surely crush Kona next year.
Special thanks to coach Ben for getting me through the day, my parents for sherpa-ing me along at every step, and the thousands of volunteers who suffered all day in the heat with a positive attitude the whole time.
I have no idea what’s next. It’s kind of an empty feeling, there are no goals right now. I know I gave everything I had, but couldn’t realize the full potential of my fitness because of the heat. That’s frustrating. The kind of fury that boils in your stomach and makes you do stupid things like get drunk on one beer and try to sign up for Ironman Louisville in 2 weeks.
Maybe I’ll give Kona Qualifying another shot. Maybe I’ll move to Alaska. Let’s not rush any decisions.
(Note from 8 months later – immediately after the race, it’s so easy to look back and focus on the negatives. Most frustrating, after all the hard work training, factors outside of my control prevented me from exercising my full fitness potential. But that’s the nature of the sport. Triathlon is never about just the one day race, it’s about the journey and experience along the way. Happy to report I’m back training hard and planning on going back to where my Ironman journey began 4 years ago for Ironman Whistler. But you better believe I turned down a slot to the 2017 70.3 Worlds in Choo after St. George… Still too soon.)
TL;DR: Pick your favorite four letter word
My favorite quote about the day comes from Pro Colin Laughery (12th overall):
“Im not one to jump on the ‘It was so hot/brutal/worst conditions ever/crazy’ bandwagon, but in this case, it was hands down the hardest and hottest race of my life. I will never do something like that again.
Kona x 3 and Louisville x 2 in August have nothing on what went down yesterday. That was f-king insane.”
Here’s some highlights:
- Reports of the heat index ranged from 100° – 115°.
- 2716 registered, 2213 started, 1651 finished. That’s a 25.6% DNF and 39.2% DNF/DNS, one of the highest ever in Ironman history
- Over 600 participants treated by medical
- The average finish time was over an hour slower than last year
- My age group required the fastest time to go to Kona (9:51:48)
- Russell Cox has some great analysis: http://www.coachcox.co.uk/2016/09/26/ironman-chattanooga-2016-results-kona-qualification-analysis/
- Here’s my favorite chart – M35-39 is a large, competitive AG so great for comparison year to year.
Stay tuned for the next exciting edition of “Will Bruce get Heat Stroke?” in the 2017 St. George 70.3 race report.