In a nutshell…
Signing up for my first full ironman distance triathlon wasn’t an easy or quick decision. In fact it took me five years of triathlon racing to decide to take the plunge. It was also a family decision. I wanted to find the right race, the right destination and one that fit into a good timing schedule. After a good three months of consideration, I finally decided on Ironman Los Cabos, where the 2014 race would be its 2nd and apparently “flatter” than the previous year. What transpired over the coming months wasn’t anything that resembled a miracle but a well thought out plan with the help of many people who would help me tackle my first full ironman distance triathlon in spectacular fashion. This race offered me an opportunity to overcome obstacles and fears, and break through barriers both mental and physical. I raced hungry, but smart and most importantly, I raced happy. This race was about looking fear in the face and saying “Not me. Not today.” Goals and Objectives: CRUSHED.
A 2.4 mile swim in the blue, calms waters of the Sea of Cortez kicked off a hot, challenging, beautiful, but most importantly FUN day in the Baja Peninsula’s most southern tip. With mountains on one side and the Sea of Cortez on the other, three loops between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas offered speeds of almost 40 MPH after climbing over 5300 feet. Also offering three loops, the extremely hot run started in Downtown San Jose del Cabo and did not offer much quiet time to athletes as spectators had many options to cheer on their favorite athletes as they ran through the hotel zone, the Port, and the aforementioned downtown area.
At the base of Palmilla Beach, we took off in a mass, one-loop start that went counter-clockwise in a protected area of the Sea of Cortez. While ocean waves crashed the days prior to the race (and even more so the day we left to head home), the morning couldn’t have been more flat. I started 3rd deep on the far left side in anticipation that I wasn’t going to be first in my age group but there was no reason that a mass start should detract me from swimming well and without having to climb over people. My fears going into the swim revolved around the “washing machine” that everyone speaks of, and that I might get elbowed in the ear knocking me unconscious. I overcame that fear by strategizing my swim start, repeating to myself throughout training and going into the race to “just swim.” I reminded myself that if I get elbowed, pushed, or pulled, that I would need to let it go and not waste energy on the unimportant. What was important was a safe swim. It wasn’t very crowded fortunately, but thankfully for a couple of reasons. The race wasn’t sold out. I also had a good start position. Once we made the first turn, it didn’t thin out as much as I thought it would, but it was impossible not to enjoy the warm, clear blue waters with the sunrise and mountains in the distance. I reached the second turning buoy which was more than half way in just over 28 minutes and I knew it was going to be a sub 1:00 swim. Swim split: 56:20. After exiting the water we raced up to T1 which was a good 200 meters from the swim exit, grabbed our bike bag and began the stripping process. I laid out everything, lathered up some sunscreen and was eventually on my way to grab my bike. Transitions in full Ironman races are different from all other distances. You don’t bring a transition bag and lay everything out next to your bike. In Ironman, you’re not even allowed to have anything on the ground next to your bike. You get a lot of bags. You get a pre-race bag (for morning and post-race clothes), a bike bag and a run bag, and a special needs bike bag and a special needs run bag, the latter two placed on the course.
The first 1.5-2 miles of the bike course include going uphill out of Palmilla Beach and southwest towards Cabo San Lucas. I neglected to start my Garmin 510 once I got on my bike so I didn’t even capture that first 1.5-2 miles, so I’ll have to wait until I get home to map out that first portion to capture my total incline. Right now it captured 5137 feet. There was one flat section that was maybe 1 km long. The entire bike course was up or down. And it got HOT fast. Fortunately my life in South Florida has similar conditions – sans the hills. I heard the winds were at 16 mph too, but I’m not sure if they were really 16 kph. It didn’t matter, while tough, I loved every second of the bike course. The views were second to none. I’m not used to going 40 mph downhill but man that was exciting! It’s a good thing I rode a decent part of the course the days before the race to acclimate to the road conditions and the descents which be helpful on race day. But it also gave me an opportunity to stop at one of the cliffs to snap a few pictures which hopefully give a better understanding of just how fricking gorgeous the views truly are. And I digress. The bike course was three loops which went down to Cabo San Lucas and back up to San Jose del Cabo, with the last loop finishing up in Downtown San Jose del Cabo. Unlike most other races, we had aid stations every 10 km. This equates to somewhere in the neighborhood of twice as many aid stations as typical. But, it was necessary. Tons of volunteers supported each aid station with cold water, Gatorade and at some, pretzels, bananas and energy gels. I made it a point to take a bottle of water at each station which helped to keep my body core temperature cooled and refreshed. I stopped at the halfway point for my special needs bag though I truly didn’t need it with the exception that I had two extra concoctions of CarboPro, Gatorade EF powder and Gatorlytes. I started the bike with four bottles of the previously mentioned. I’ll talk about Nutrition and my nutrition plan in a bit, but I didn’t consume all that I intended, but I was prepared and it worked. I set up my Garmin 510 previous to the race to show Net Power (NP), current power, MPH, Distance and Time. What I should have done however was show Average Power instead of NP. This would be the only thing I would do differently. My NP ended up being 190 while my average power goal was 180. Looking back, my average power was 165 which seemed low at first but thinking back to how my legs felt getting off the bike, I’m satisfied. Between the heat and the effort, a little less power would pay back double during the run. For those who know me, they know the bike is my weakest of the three disciplines. Knowing this and knowing that the bike leg takes more than 50% of the total time of the race, in a race with 5000-6000 feet of climbing doesn’t initially sit well. Or rather, it didn’t. Producing a respectful bike split was one of my fears going into the race. Climbing 6000’ when I live in South Florida was a fear. As it turned out, getting two flats during the race became a real fear. I had one can of Pitstop for a possible flat on my tubular tires, but Pitstop wasn’t available at the expo or the local bike shop. So, some prayers and an extra watchful eye on the road kept me safe. I also picked up some CO2 so I could ration the one can I had, just in case. I’d worked too hard to accept a technical DNF but if that’s what God wanted for me, I would have a tough pill to swallow. Honestly, it would have felt like a letdown to everyone cheering me on though. Back to the first fear, the hills. That’s something I could control and I handled that by taking to UltraBikeX Studio and riding the IM Wisconsin course. I also hit up Clermont for a 200 mile weekend of hills. Both weekends/rides were integral to learning to ride hills. I’d love to get back to Clermont soon, but that’s a future post. Goal for ride: sub 6:00 but more importantly, get off bike with as fresh of legs as possible (there’s still a marathon to run). Bike split: 5:58.
I packed a muscle relief cream in my run bag (among the other pertinent equipment) and applied that in T2. Man, that helped! My legs felt so fresh! After a quick bio break, I was off to hit the pavement for a few hours. I’m a decent runner, I’ll admit it. I’m fortunate. I’ve learned to run better and faster and I’ve come to truly love running. While I was 19th in my age group out of the water, I started the run in 36th place in my age group. Running off the bike during training at least twice/week has truly helped make me a stronger triathlon runner. The three-loop course started in downtown San Jose del Cabo, venturing south to the Hotel Zone, up to The Estero, then Puerto Los Cabos, and back to downtown. For much of the course, there are many spectators cheering on the athletes. I went into the run with the strategy to run 7:45 pace AND NO FASTER! I sometimes had a problem with running too fast during training runs or long runs, knowing that in an Ironman marathon, it can only hurt not help. My legs wouldn’t slow down during the first two miles out of the gate. I ran a 7:21, a 7:22, a 7:30 then a 7:38 before I started to settle down. My legs felt fresh but I still had 22 to go and I knew that. The first two loops were 9 miles while the last one only 8.2. Finishing up mile 9 as I got back into downtown where all the spectators were didn’t help slow me down, nor did it help that I ran with #2 (Daniel Fontana) who would finish 1st overall with a time of 8:26:15. We both ran for a good half mile together at 7:30 pace and little did I know I was running with the race winner (except he started 20 minutes before me and I still had two more loops to run)! I made the u-turn to begin my second loop at 8:00 pace but the damage was done. Maybe not so much from running 7:30’s for a few miles but having climbed over 5500’ on the bike for 112 miles didn’t help. I walked a few aid stations during the latter half of the second loop, and the third wasn’t a disaster but it hurt. For as much pain as my legs were in though, I was still passing people quite often. And I only had 8 miles to go before I was an Ironman! I had a moment crossing the bridge going into Mile 21, I said to myself, “Okay Rob…Don’t stop. No more walking. Only a few miles left. You can do this! Just DON’T STOP!” And I didn’t. Except for the very last aid station before turning back into downtown for the finish chute. I needed to prep myself with my water bottle, hat and shades – this was the moment I’d worked towards the past six months! By the way, that run was NOT flat! Lies! My Garmin registered 470 feet of climbing. But that’s cool. I’m still an Ironman and I still finished in less than 11 hours. Run Goal: 3:30. Run split: 3:41:40
In efforts to get this blog posted, I’ll say just a few words about my nutrition plan. Being my first Ironman distance race, I was nervous about what type of nutrition I should consider for this race. I was probably most nervous because I know how much I eat and how I’m always hungry. With some consultation between a few esteemed friends I finalized my nutrition for Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday morning pre-race and race. I ate well Friday night and Saturday afternoon, then toned down my eating to “light” but not hungry or too full. I snacked on some crunchy wheat based cereal Saturday night before getting a good rest (much better than Friday actually), and woke up to crackers and nutella, two Ensure shakes and a banana (about 1500 calories in total), and I was on my way to the start. I had 20 oz of Gatorade EF and some chews about 30 minutes before the race started. I loaded up four bottles of Gatorade EF (powder) mixed with two scoops each of CarboPro, Gatorlytes, and instead of water, Aqua Joe. I had two additional bags of CarboPro/Gatorlytes ready in my Bike Special Needs bag but I wouldn’t go through all six bottles worth; probably 4+. I also had 6 sleeves of Gatorade Chews throughout the bike course. All this was more than enough to keep my stomach full and my body hydrated. While my stomach felt slightly uneasy about halfway through, I was more than good to go by the time the run started. Throughout the run I had two sleeves of the chews and LOTS of water, ice and Gatorade as I went through each aid station. I learned that I like peanuts; not pretzels so much. Good stuff! Nutrition Plan: Be Prepared.
My race number and age category weren’t the only things that tattooed my body on race morning. Aside from my goal splits, three words also found their way to my skin: HUNGRY, SMART and SMILE. HUNGRY reminded me to race hungry and take each competitor on, one at a time. SMART to race smart, swim smart, bike smart, run smart. And most importantly, SMILE reminded me that this was a celebration of hard work and dedication over the past six months, and to relish this moment – because you’ll never forget your first!
For the Number Crunchers
Without God, nothing would have been possible. I thank him for giving me the physical and mental stamina to train and compete; and for the courage to inspire.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” -Proverbs 3:5-6
I wasn’t out there by myself on Sunday March 30th. I got there thanks to help, faith, encouragement, advice, strategy and love, all thanks to MANY friends, family and supporters. Thank you for being a part of my life and for being with me throughout this celebration!
Editorial Note: “Lessons Learned” is yet to come.