Five years ago, standing on top of the spiral parking ramp by the Madison Hilton, I watched the start of the Wisconsin Ironman race in which my wife Sue was competing. She had a decent go of it that first time on the long course. Greeting her a half-mile from the finish, she turned to me and said, “It wasn’t the day I wanted, but I’m gonna be an Ironman.”
That brought tears to my eyes. She’d put in a ton of work, yet life conspired to make it really tough to get to the starting line. A month before the race, a driver in a huge white Escalade pulled in front of her at the entrance to a park, then stopped suddenly in her lane of traffic. Sue ditched the bike and came sliding to a stop. But the bike frame was broken, necessitating borrowed bikes and ultimately, the purchase of a new one. That and other stresses, including a bit of congestive asthma brought on by cold water conditions that day, conspired to make it a tough mental challenge for her to complete the race. Yet she did it, just as she’s done two other Ironman races and multiple half Ironmans.
Meanwhile, I’ve been working my way up from Sprint distance to Olympic and finally, yesterday morning, I started and finished a Half-Ironman “race” held in Madison the same day that the official Wisconsin race was supposed to take place.
We were not alone out there. Several dozen athletes working with their local tri-clubs showed up to do a Covid-Cautious event. So few people were in town there was plenty of room at the Madison Hilton, normally a packed hotel with $300 a night fees on a typical Ironman race weekend.
That made it low-pressure to walk our bikes down through the lobby and out to the small group of racks by lakeside. We set out our stuff, crawled into our wetsuits and at 7:00 a.m. walked into the freezing cold water.
I nearly walked back out again when that cold hit me. I only own a sleeveless wetsuit. My fear was that my arms might cramp up along the way. But despite that anxiety, I paddled in place and let the group go ahead of my so that I could warm up sufficiently.
1st Takeaway: Sane Swimming
The first lesson of every triathlon effort is to find your comfort zone in every situation. Swimming is not my strong suit and I require a wetsuit to swim a mile. Add in the cold water conditions and it might have been easy to panic a bit. The strongest swimmers might not have such worries, but the rest of us have our trigger points.
It didn’t take that long to get comfortable in the water despite the chill. My stroke is still a bit loosey-goosey, but I averaged 2:04 per hundred. That’s ten seconds slower than I typically swim intervals in the pool, so it was sane pacing. I didn’t pass anyone, but no one passed me either. Takeaway: it’s often best to “hold your own” and pace yourself smartly than letting competitive perceptions drive your response.
I swam relatively straight. That is, I followed the buoys decently. Yet I still swam 2,216 yards for the 1.2 mile course. No one’s perfect. During the swim I had the chance to reflect on all those times I watched others out there in the water. Now it was me. About that point in time, a small swell started up in the lake and I enjoyed the feeling and timed my stroke to rock and roll with the feeling of the waves. That’s a cool experience. That’s why I do these things.
2nd Takeaway: Crashless Cycling
Last week I wrote about a terrifying trip down an embankment during The Wright Stuff Century eight years ago. Heading back to Madison for this semi-competitive cycling event had me thinking about being safe and smart on the roads. The trip out to Mt. Horeb and back involved 3000 feet of climbing. That means there was an equal amount of descending. Some of those hills are long. Others are steep.
So rather than risk bike wobble I used the downhills as recovery time. Clenching my knees on the center bar was a security tactic in the event that road conditions changed to set up a vibration in the frame. The relative speed gains between going 35 mph and 45 mph are so small for a cyclist of my ability that it was far smarter to maintain control on the downhills and use that momentum going forward on the flats to pedal strong and smooth, then climb the next hill with consistency rather than mashing my way up in some sort of damaging panic mode.
3rd Takeaway: Curing Cramps
Several times during my 5-year duathlon/triathlon career, I’ve experienced devastating camps in the upper side of my hamstrings, even into the butt muscle. Last July in Springfield during an Olympic race, I could not run for ten full minutes because the pain was so bad.
I’ve figured out that it is a combination of poor pedaling technique, hydration needs coming off the swim, and position on the bike. My thighs are strangely tired coming out of the swim, a strange deal considering I don’t kick at all (still working on that) but it is what it is.
So the takeway was to go smooth, not hard. Allow the legs to warm to the task during the 56-mile ride, and don’t overreach with pedaling on bad roads. I had no cramps and rode the hilly course in 3:30, or 3:25 if you take away the five minutes spent going back to get water bottles that flew off my bike as the rear cage screw slowly came undone. That was frustrating.
4th Takeaway: Unrattled Running
Once I figured out how to transfer the course map into my Garmin Fenix watch, I knew it would be fine to follow the course and see what the run gave me after 56 miles on the bike. I already knew from a series of 50-70 mile rides that I was fit enough to ride hard and not have the legs feel trashed. So I was not afraid of endurance issues.
This year I’ve also increased the overall length of my longest runs, even doing the full 13.1 mile distance once. Most other runs are between 10-11 miles. You don’t have to go nuts preparing for a half-marathon by doing 20-milers and such. But I did run the ten-milers hard, averaging 8:10-8:30 per mile, with some sub-8:00 miles thrown in during training. Speed conquers all, you see.
I don’t even feel the need to run “bricks” in order to get into the groove in triathlons. I think they’re overrated. My long runs do take place the day after a 50-70 mile bike ride each week. So it’s a virtual brick.
At sixty-plus years old, it takes two full miles for my body to warm up on any run these days. So mulching along with scruffy feet for a mile or two coming off the bike in a half-marathon/Half-Ironman is not a new sensation. The trick to steady running is being unrattled. Don’t panic and think “I’m going too slow!”Even if you are, there’s typically nothing you can do about it. Play the long game.
Takeaway Five: Finishing “fast”
All summer I’ve been doing negative split distance runs in anticipation of doing longer races. Typically I’ll start at 9:50 per mile and drop by twenty seconds per mile for ten miles. Most of this is done by “feel” rather than obsession with the watch. That admittedly comes from 40+ years of running experience. I know pace well.
But when you’re heading into new territory as I was yesterday, the fact of the matter is that so-called “negative splits” often turn out to be holding the pace you achieve at two miles, then proceeding as steady as you can. I walked on a hill or two, sipping water and stretching. No sin in that.
Early in the run stage, I snagged a package of Clif shot blocks and downed one cube every two miles. That kept my energy up, a sensation actually learned earlier that day by using the same tactic on the bike along with chomping Power Bars and drinking a bottle an hour.
But I’m Old School in some respects. The only thing I carried with me for water on the run was a squinched up plastic bottle that I refilled at every aid station. It was tucked into the front of my tri-shorts for easy access (see photo above.) I stopped and walked to drink rather than slopping it all over myself. It wasn’t hot outside. Temps were actually ideal for running. So a hot weather race would require far more planning. But I know my hydration needs pretty well and had zero cramps and just one dizzy moment climbing a steep hill.
Takeaway Six: It’s All For the Fun Of It
While the last six miles were not easy running, I was still having fun if you define having a really sore toenail on the second toe as fun. I happen to think that’s a joy compared to any number of other ailments that might crop up. My left knee hurt a little too.
I will say that my choice of running shoes was marginal at best. I wore a well-worn set of New Balance 880s that I trusted for weight and cushioning. But they were a bit too compromised in terms of age and mileage on them for optimal performance. The best shoe for long-distance racing is a pair of shoes at about their half-life in usage. Some shoes get between 400-500 miles, so timing your shoe wear to your race plans is important.
It was gratifying to finish a 70.3 and realize that after all these years of watching others “win the day” I could accomplish that distance. In fact it was exactly to my taste to trot in those last 200 meters and clearly hear my wife cheering me home along with a few hoorays from other people as well. She’s had some great races the last two years and we could both revel in my newfound distance achievement.
Takeaway Seven: Massage Is Magic
Post-race, I took at quick shower in the hotel room before the 2:00 p.m. checkout time. Then we walked back down to collect my stuff. At the race tent there were two massage therapists working and Sue said, “Honey, you should get a massage.”
That therapist found all the knots in my calves and loosened up my IT bands. Then she reached up to my upper back and said, “Do you keep much tension in your shoulders?” She laughed. My wife chimed in: “Oh…yeah…”
I surely do. Life’s anxieties, and there are many these days, seem to gather between my shoulder blades all the way up to my neck. So it was wonderful to “takeaway” the benefits of her skilled massage therapy.
The drive home after a Coke and a sandwich went swell. We listened to Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie’s podcast on the Tour de France and it felt like July in September. Life is strange these days. We have to make the most of it.