So much focus goes into getting to the finish line of a race, but the real journey is usually getting to the start. IM Boulder was much earlier in the year than I’ve ever done an Ironman, but the support of my family and my teammates got me to that starting line. The years of accumulated training and experience kicked in for that final 140.6 mile stretch.
On an incredibly hot and at times downright miserable day, I was thrilled (and honestly, relieved) in a way that I’ve been for few other races to make it all the way to that finish line Adversity breeds achievement, and everyone who made it to the finish line that day should be proud of it.
I also managed to accomplish my main goal in doing an early season race: securing my Kona slot with an age group win and 2nd overall amateur finish.
IM Boulder wasn’t originally in my 2018 plan, but after I decided to take another shot at Kona I wanted to secure my slot early in the season and not have to deal with a do-or-die situation. This way, if something went wrong I could still take another shot in a later season race.
So the Kona slot was without a doubt at the top of my goal list, but I went in with a number of other things to shoot for:
- Kona slot
- Age group win
- Top 3 overall amateur
- Sub 9 hours
- Top overall amateur
I knew that last one would be really tough, if for no reason other than my teammates who would be at the race, but to me no set of goals is complete without at least one stretch goal in there.
Boulder also was pretty appealing to me from a travel / cost perspective. My aunt and uncle live in Broomfield about half an hour away, and my cousin actually has an apartment a block from the Ironman Village. Their support throughout the week was awesome, and I can’t imagine having done it without them.
After quite a bit of a research, I wasn’t really able to come to a definitive conclusion on when to arrive for a race at altitude. Some stuff says show up right before, but with check-in and bike check and other IM logistics, that wasn’t really feasible. One consensus is that 3+ weeks is best, but that also wasn’t feasible. There seemed to be a lot of suggestions that 2-3 days is the worst time period because that’s when the body starts adapting, so I decided to go with 5 days and flew out to Denver on Tuesday.
One great benefit of my job is the flexibility. It’s a lot of demanding hours, but I at least have some flex around when and where those hours are. So for most of the week I just worked out of my aunt and uncle’s basement (better than any Airbnb I’ve ever stayed at), but I did get the chance to connect with some of the Boulder-based companies I work with for ultrarunning. The UD team was awesome to finally meet in person, and they even let me bike to the office and hop over to the reservoir for a quick swim. The chat with Buzz below is completely unscripted, unedited, and on the first take!
And of course the best part of Team EMJ to me is the people, so it was great to get to see the other guys racing and the Boulder-based guys.
I’m also finally at the point where I have the ridiculous amount of race prep required for triathlons pretty dialed in, so everything leading up to the race went pretty smoothly. Early Sunday morning I arrived at the Boulder Reservoir, ready to go.
I had high hopes for the swim, and was shooting for something in the 1:00 – 1:02 range. Without Barkley completely dominating my training in the winter and spring, I had spent a lot more time in the pool than I had in any previous year. I joined a Masters group, and I had seen pretty significant gains. But, that’s in a pool. And this was open water without a convenient painted black line to follow.
I started off fairly well, even passing a few people instead of getting steamrolled, and fell into what I thought was a nice line with people going at what felt like a good pace. Then, there was suddenly nothing. No bubbles, no turbulence… I looked up to sight again and saw the train of swimmers going past me about 50 yards to my outside. “Come on John, seriously? Why can’t you just swim in a straight line?!?”
I moved back into the pack, but had already lost my rhythm and the group I was swimming with. During the remainder of the swim I somehow managed to go rather significantly off course again, failed to find anyone to draft off of, and in the end I came out of the water in a rather disappointing 1:07 (but with ~200 bonus yards!) – slower than I swam both at IM Lake Placid and at Kona the year before. In the male overall amateur field, I was in 129th place (Strava link).
I had never really thought of it before, but my endless issues with the swim must make for good theatrics for people tracking me. My aunt told me after the race that she thought I was in serious trouble, wondering how I could possibly still get a Kona slot. But for me this was a familiar position. I had climbed out of this hole before and I knew what I needed to do.
I had a smooth transition, settled down into my saddle, and took off to start making up ground. But then, as I started to accelerate I felt a familiar sharp pain in my backside. Butt daggers!
To me, there are 3 types of pain in sports:
- Mentally debilitating (AKA suck it up and deal with it)
- Physically debilitating (AKA no way no how)
- Type 1 that is likely to become type 2 if you try to suck it up and deal with it (AKA the pain of impending doom)
This issue has been type 2 for me before – no matter how much you try or how “tough” you are, there are some pains or injuries that simply will not allow your body to function in the way you’re asking it to. I’ve been fortunate to not have any extended bouts with these types of injuries over the past few years, which has enabled a consistency in training that has led to steadily improving results. And in this particular situation it was only on my right side, and I could still at least get in aero position and pedal. I have no doubt that my steady progression from unable to pedal to unable to sit down to this just really hurts has been in large part thanks to Terrel Hale‘s work (which I’ll admit I was skeptical of myself at first as far as the time / value tradeoff, but results speak for themselves).
Type 3 pains can be pretty dangerous in endurance sports – we’re so used to dealing with pain that we just ignore it and carry on until we have a stress fracture or other major injury that results in extended type 2 pain. The decision on what to do about type 3 pain also depends a lot on the circumstances. If it’s during a big race, some people might decide it’s worth it to risk the injury. But in my situation, it was tissue pain, I had dealt with it before, and nothing was torn, so I wasn’t concerned with it being type 3.
That left me with type 1. Time to suck it up. And like the bad swim, I had been here before. I knew it would eventually go away and I would only have to deal with it for an hour or so. Confidence grows not from succeeding when everything goes right, but from having dealt with all the what-if scenarios of things that can go wrong.
So I continued on, taking the opportunity on downhills to stretch my glutes as best as I could and gradually getting back to a normal feeling. In the meantime my teammate Jack Cartwright flew by me. Jack is a cyclist through and through, and an extremely talented one at that. I burnt a few matches and got back in front, but it was shortlived. He passed me again and I let him go. The effort required to keep him in range wasn’t worth it for me at that point, and honestly I had no desire to race that close to a teammate and give any sort of potential perception of drafting.
But he would be the last to go by. From that point forward I set to business working my way up through the field. I took advantage of the climbs and enjoyed the speedy descents provided by the lower air resistance at altitude. Possibly due to that effect, I was maintaining great speed but my power numbers were down. Like the swim, I had been seeing big improvements in training that weren’t really being reflected here (at least in terms of power). But, I kept going at what felt right.
The course was overall pretty good, with just a few sections that were congested with construction and/or traffic. On one of these, I was biding my time behind another person in a no-passing zone when someone else came flying by both of us. Not five seconds later I heard a loud pop and he quickly pulled to the side and stopped. He had completely blown his back tire. You never ever wish that sort of stuff on someone and I’m glad he didn’t wreck as a result of it, but man, karma.
I continued moving up, and decided to put everything I had into getting to the top of the final climb at around mile 96. From there, it was mostly downhill and I was hoping I could just survive to the finish. That last stretch ended up feeling pretty rough. The temperature had risen significantly and the usual cooling effect from the wind had just started feeling like a hair dryer in my face. I made it to the end without any serious problems, though, and was happy to turn in a 4:39 that moved me up to 10th overall amateur (Strava link).
When I left transition I was actually already in Kona qualifying position. I didn’t want to do anything to put that at risk, but I still had ambition towards my other goals as well. I decided to target the sub 9 hour time, which would require a 3:06 marathon, and see how the rest of the goals played out. I hadn’t run that slow since my very first Ironman, so I liked my chances.
I would shortly find out, though, that maybe even a 3:06 was a bit ambitious. As soon as I left transition I began to feel the heat. The “real feel” had risen to the triple digits, and the intense mountain sun was directly on us. Mile 1 felt like mile 18 normally does, and right out of the gate it was a delicate balancing act of trying to push a good pace without getting to the point of puking or passing out from heat exhaustion. I have honestly never had a run hurt that much all the way from start to finish.
But the great thing about bad conditions when you’re racing for place is that everyone else has to deal with them too. This was an opportunity to deal with them better than everyone else and move up. So I kept myself right at that threshold, managed my hydration and nutrition as best as I could, and steadily kept moving forward. I moved into first in my age group relatively early on and kept my sights ahead on the next goal. I was still on my 3:06 pace through the first half, but was starting to have serious doubts about my ability to maintain it.
The course was pretty nice except for the almost complete lack of shade that I had been told we would have. Running on the Boulder Creek Path was much better than being out on some long open road (sorry Queen K). Many of the hills were long and almost physically imperceptible, but definitely there – the kind where you don’t realize you’re on a hill until you look down at your watch and wonder why you’re going so slow. The course also allowed for many viewing spots for teammates, friends, and family, which was a huge boost in the tough conditions.
By the time I reached mile 20 I felt pretty confident in how my goals would play out: Kona slot, age group win, and top 3 overall amateur, but not sub 9 or 1st amateur. Rather than risk losing any of those “secured” goals I became a bit more cautious. I started walking through aid stations, dousing myself with every cup of water and ice I could. My biggest complaint for the course is actually how off the mile markers were. At “mile 25” there was actually 2 miles left. Besides wondering if I had missed a turn-around, my body started revolting a bit. The end of any of these races is often a bargain between mind and body for me: “alright body, get me to mile 26.2 and then you can do whatever you want.” Then when it’s a bit longer than expected it’s easy for the body to feel like the mind isn’t living up to its end of the bargain.
All in all, though, my pace over the last few miles didn’t slow down too terribly and I finished with a 3:15 marathon for a 9:08 overall (Strava link).
It wasn’t until about an hour after finishing that someone told me I was actually 2nd overall amateur. With the rolling swim start my chip time had beat out my teammate Greg Lindquist by a whopping 4 seconds… and he had stopped to kiss his kid just before crossing the finish line. If we were in the same age group or if the difference between 2nd and 3rd mattered for anything I would feel bad, but as it is I find it pretty hilarious and he’ll probably never hear the end of it from me. Our average time difference racing against each other in Ironmans is now 1:25. That’s minutes and seconds.
Nick Noone was the top overall amateur, giving Team EMJ a sweep of the top 3 amateurs. Conrad Sanders was also top 10 amateur and 2nd in his age group behind Nick. How that doesn’t earn him a Kona slot is baffling, but maybe more on that another time.
Unfortunately, the heat left me unable to go immediately for my usual post-race indulgences. We tried for pizza that night, but my stomach still wasn’t feeling quite up for it. I figured I’d probably be up that night looking for a 2 AM burrito like at Bandera, but it was actually a couple of days before my usual post-race appetite kicked in. By that time, though, I was back on the east coast and happy to share with Jessi and the kids.
There are a lot of things I can take away from IM Boulder to improve on. The most obvious is swimming in a straight line. That should shave a few minutes off my time by itself. I also just need to get my improved pool fitness translated to the open water. I think a large issue for me is that I’m unable to pace myself by effort on the swim the same way I can on the bike or run. And without any real cues as to my pace (I can’t look at my watch, or lock onto another person and keep pace with them) I think I just end up going slower than I think I’m going. So really I think a big part of the solution here might just be: try harder.
I’m also a bit confused by my power numbers on the bike. The same thing happened to me at Kona last year: good speed but lower power. Some of that can be accounted for by the conditions – heat and altitude both make for less resistance but decreased capacity for physical output. But I don’t think that’s the only thing. Maybe the swim affects the bike more than I think it does, making my power output less than it is on a long training ride. In training rides I’m also not in my full aero setup and I’m having to deal with traffic, helping to explain the higher speed in races. The only other explanation I’ve been able to think of is that I normally drop a few pounds going into key races, which could explain both lower power and higher speed. If the lost weight is a zero-sum game on the bike, though, I think it does at least definitely help on the run.
Speaking of the run, I’m pretty happy with the result given the course and the conditions. That is the slowest IM marathon I’ve ever run, though. Maybe I didn’t leave enough gas in the tank on the bike, and maybe my increased focus on biking in training has shifted my body a bit more towards a cyclist’s build than a pure runner’s build. The heat was definitely a factor as well, and it struck me how important acclimation is for that. If this had been later in the summer or a race like Kona where everyone knows it will be hot and can prepare for it, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. Triple digit heat index in Boulder in early June kind of blindsided everyone, though. In any case, I’ll definitely be looking to drop my IM marathon time back down to 3 hours or below.
That is one fun part about triathlon: there are a bunch of tradeoffs between the disciplines (especially when you can’t train 30-40 hours a week like a pro) and it’s a cool optimization problem to try to find where that ideal spot is for each individual. I have about 4 months left to do that, with my sights set squarely on Kona now. I also have the ITU Long Course World Championship, and Jessi and I decided that I am going to stick with Ironman Mont-Tremblant as well. It was originally my Kona qualifier backup, but now we’re going to just make it a fun family trip that happens to have a race rather than vice versa. And finally, the top 3 amateur finish at Boulder re-qualified me for my pro card, so I do plan on grabbing that after Kona to get crushed in one race as a pro (maybe IM Arizona?).
I typically take a lot fewer calories than other people, and this race was no exception. The heat even forced me a bit lower than normal, as the body needs water for digestion and it’s hard to get that when all the water is focused on the cooling systems. I kept going with as much as a I could without nausea getting the best of me, but in the end my goal is to take the minimum amount that I need to not bonk rather than the maximum amount that I can without puking. Sometimes in a hot race those two things are just fairly close to the same amount.
I started the bike with two servings of Perpeteum, and after that I went to Hammer gels and halves of bars. In total, I had 5 gels and one bar, for a total of about 900 calories on the bike. I also had a serving of Fully Charged near the end of the bike and added 3 Endurolytes about every 1-1.5 hours. On the run I had 2 gels over the first 16 miles or so, and then after that I survived from just sipping on Coke at aid stations (sometimes even just rinsing). Over the course of the entire 9 hour race, that’s about 1,200 calories (~130 / hr). That’s a bit low for even me, as I normally aim just north of 150, but given the conditions I feel it was about right and I never felt like I had an issue due to lack of energy / calories (just lots of issues due to heat, fatigue, general exhaustion, and possibly altitude).