It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a full year now since I raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona. After coming away 1 minute and 42 seconds short of the podium I decided to come back and give it another shot, focusing much more of my year on triathlon-specific training. I arrived back on the big island this week, knowing that even if I come up short again that I took the shot and will never have to wonder “what if.” I owe a huge thank you to the team that supported me getting back here – my wife Jessi above all, and then all of our great Team EMJ sponsors. Gear matters a lot when seconds count, and I’m very fortunate that I’ll also never have to wonder “what if I’d had better support.”
How it came to this
When I started triathlon, it was honestly as a fun summer diversion when the weather in DC got too miserable to just run every day. It was also an appealing and novel challenge. I wanted to see what it was like and how I would fare. It wasn’t until some reflections after that first one I signed up for, 2015 Ironman Maryland, that I decided I wanted to see what I could truly do in the sport.
But even then, triathlon always took a backseat to ultrarunning and my ultimate goal: Barkley. Between 2015 Ironman Maryland and 2016 Barkley Marathons I don’t think I touched my bike or got in the pool a single time. Between 2016 Ironman Maryland and 2017 Barkley Marathons, I spent about an hour on my bike and half an hour in the pool per week as my “recovery day” during Barkley training.
Then two things happened in 2017: 1) I finished Barkley! The ultimate goal was finally conquered, leaving room for a new one. 2) I came up 1 minute and 42 seconds short of my age group podium at 2017 Kona Ironman World Championship. Had I finished 5 minutes faster, or 5 minutes slower, I likely would have been fully satisfied. But it was right there. Right within grasp. The carrot on the stick. I had to come back and give it another shot. And with Barkley out of the way I could actually put a full year of training towards it and try not to let my bike and swim fitness fall off a cliff over the winter.
The cold start
I did still have my “winter ultra season.” I love the mountains and the ultra community too much to skip it altogether. And I had a lot of fun and achieved some great goals in the process. Through all of that, though, I was focused on my biking and swimming. I maintained my run fitness mainly from the races and FKT attempts themselves.
I joined a masters swimming group and for the first time started regularly swimming with other people and getting some tips from people who knew what they were doing. There’s no better reminder of how important form and technique is in swimming than getting absolutely left in the dust by people who are twice your age and look horribly out of shape.
I continued bike commuting to work all through the winter. Any conditions, any day, I was on my bike there and back, wearing a rut into the same 20 mile route. I mostly saved my runs for days when I worked from home. The grand total number of days so far in 2018 that I’ve gone to work actually not via bike or foot? 10.
I got my first real taste of what my off-season work had produced when I went to our Team Every Man Jack training camp in March. It was awesome to reconnect with the guys on the team, but also great to see that my focus was producing results. I swam in not the slowest lane, or even the 2nd slowest, but the 4th slowest! (out of probably about 15). And on the bike I was putting out power that would have seemed completely unreasonable for me even at the end of the 2017 season. On one of the training rides I’m pretty sure I set a new FTP (functional threshold power… a common measure of cycling fitness in the same vein as VO2 max or lactate threshold). My goal had been to just not have to start back at square 1, but it seemed I had actually elevated my bike and swim fitness in the off-season. The single biggest change this year to my Kona training was the continued swim and bike volume during the winter.
After camp I did have a few more ultrarunning activities, with my ultra season officially concluding with crewing and serving as a random course checkpoint at the 2018 Barkley Marathons. A recap of my ultra season, team camp, and my goals going into my final triathlon season can be found in Triathlon – The Final Chapter.
The first task towards my Kona ambitions was to actually qualify to get back there. So I signed up for an early season race, IM Boulder on June 10, with the goal of qualifying and then being able to focus directly on Kona. After some early local racing to knock the rust off, I headed out to Colorado and was able to get my Kona slot. I set an Iron-distance bike PR, but came away pretty disappointed that all the off-season swim work and the gains that I had seen in the pool did not produce better results in my race. I couldn’t decide whether I should double down on the swim focus or put even more energy towards the bike where I could in theory still knock more time off than on the swim.
Perhaps due to indecisiveness, but I like to think also due to a conviction that my gains in the pool would eventually “click” in a race, I continued steadily with the same relative balance between the 3 disciplines in my training.
I had two remaining big races on the calendar before Kona. I wanted to perform well on those of course, but with my qualifier taken care of the focus was fixed squarely on Kona. First up was the ITU Long Course World Championship. I had had my sights set on that race for years, and I wanted to represent my country as best I could. But I also did not want to do so at the expense of Kona training. My approach for a race like that is typically to align it with my training schedule so that a normal recovery week occurs the week leading into the race. Then, the race itself kicks off my next training block (at least as soon as race recovery permits, but I’ve interestingly found that I often have some pretty great workouts 4-6 days after a race like that).
While I came away with an age group win at the race, I was disappointed in my swim and bike. The swim was particularly frustrating as I had still yet to see my training improvements translate to gains in a race. My casual / long distance pace when swimming laps was matching my high intensity / interval pace from 2017, but my race pace still seemed to be the same. On the bike, my training power had consistently been about 10% higher than in 2017, but that also seemingly failed to produce results at the long course world championship. I was forced to bail myself out with the run once again – a run that was actually better even than what I normally do in a triathlon.
So that left one more real gut check before Kona – 2018 Ironman Mont-Tremblant. I originally signed up for this race as a backup Kona qualifier. After Boulder my wife and I decided we would still do it, but as a family vacation that happened to have a race rather than the other way around. And I’m glad we did. Not only was it a highly enjoyable trip, I finally started to see some of those gains – a 3 minute PR on the swim and a bike power that was roughly 10% higher than what I had ever done before in an Ironman. It was just the shot of confidence I needed heading into my final training block before Kona.
Fire the afterburners
After Mont-Tremblant, I was confident, focused, and ready to get in a great few weeks of training before tapering for Kona. And I did. Three solid weeks of training that outmatched everything else I had done in the past year, before a taper that started with a gradual 2 week decline before a sharp drop off a cliff in volume over the final 2 weeks (while maintaining intensity).
My bike and swim improvements weren’t just noticeable in my times and my data, but I had really started to perceive a big difference as well. I could actually be aggressive in the water – able to accelerate and increase my effort without it counter-productively causing more drag than thrust. In the past, I basically had one speed. If I got dropped by a group in a race or swam a bit off course, I had no hope of regaining my spot. Now, I could close gaps and actually use my fitness rather than being forced to restrain it.
On the bike, I could attack with power outputs that last year would have seemed beyond even a maximal effort. My biggest problem on the bike has always been the inability of my legs to match my aerobic engine. I could push myself and end up with completely shot quads while my breathing and heart rate remained largely oblivious to the fact that I was putting forth any sort of effort. Now, I could actually hit and maintain my lactate threshold. My biking muscular strength was finally catching up to the aerobic / cardio fitness I had built from running.
Fueling the fire
Actual time spent running, biking, and swimming is only one aspect of training. For that time to be effective, a vast amount of support and lifestyle decisions are needed. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of a wife that I honestly cannot describe or express proper gratitude for in words. This past year has honestly been the most demanding of our lives – training aside I’ve had to work hours that put even grad school to shame, and then with 3 small kids at home on top of that. She has faced it with grace, patience, and fortitude, and the kind of forward-looking mindset that even most dedicated athletes would fall well short of. I do still plan on writing a post about fitting time for training in. Just as soon as I have time.
That load from work also placed a great deal of strain on training, as obviously unless you’re a pro there are much higher priorities in life (and even if you’re a pro there probably are, like in the picture above). Fortunately my work gives me a great deal of flexibility in when and where I do my work, allowing me to take off for mid-day training or go to races and work remotely while I’m there, but it got to the point this year where there nearly wasn’t any time left to flex. My biggest achilles heel in training has always been sleep and that was no exception this year – less than 6 hours a night most weeks and a bedtime / wake-up time rivaling the consistency of the DC Metro (if you don’t live in DC… that’s not good, it’s really not good). But as an engineer that’s part of the fun challenge to me of being an amateur athlete – it’s a difficult optimization problem with quite a few constraints. There are always tradeoffs.
As a final measure outside of direct training, though, I decided to do something I had never truly done before – take aim at race weight. Yes, I realize this is a sensitive and even dangerous topic. People struggle with real eating disorders and things like “race weight” can be a big source of it. But let’s also not pretend like carrying around extra weight in a race doesn’t negatively affect performance (the “extra” can’t be emphasized enough – the danger is when people start to lose weight that isn’t extra). That affect on performance is rather small compared to the affect of proper training and many other factors, so I would absolutely say it’s not worth it unless everything else has already been optimized and someone is competing near the top where seconds can be crucial.
Personally, I’ve watched what I’ve eaten over the years and tried to trim some of the fat heading into a race before, but I’ve never really gone beyond just eliminating junk and doing what was still comfortable. I’m only willing to go so far in sacrificing quality of life in the name of training, and I love me some dessert. But this is it for me. There is no next year for Kona. And I came to the realization of how dumb it was to spend all those hours training when in reality I was at the point where other things were optimized and I could probably achieve similar gains by saying no to cheesecake and cutting calories for a couple of months (especially given the added effect of weight on heat dissipation – a critical factor at Kona).
I was quite careful going about it, though, losing it gradually and with careful assessment of my energy, fitness, and health as I did (including blood tests with InsideTracker that I’ll post more about later). Primarily, I just eliminated all the calorie-dense things I’m prone to snack on, like nuts and cheese, and replaced them with fruits and vegetables (apples and carrot sticks… lots of apples and carrot sticks). I don’t think that generalized restrictive diets are good, but for my case those are just items I happen to have a weakness for and for a short time window it was most effective to eliminate them altogether.
My greatest worry was that weight loss would result in lost power on the bike. Fortunately that was not the case, though, and I eventually reached an equilibrium where I found I could maintain my energy and fitness. I’m looking forward to see what effect it has on the race. It could provide a big boost on the run, it could be negligible, or it could backfire completely. But don’t worry, KrispyBos haven’t gone anywhere, and I already have wonderful post-race plans. I don’t think it’s healthy to maintain this sort of weight year round, much less enjoyable or worth it for an amateur.
How it’ll turn out
Overall, I like where I’m at… but who knows?! That’s what makes sports great. They give us the chance to find and test our limits, without being assured of any particular outcome. Of course I want the hard work to pay off with a podium spot, but if it doesn’t then what I’ve gained along the way will still outweigh the sting of failure. After all, it’s just a game.
Even the trip itself will outweigh any result. I’ve already gotten to spend most of the week here with my teammates and to meet with the great companies that have supported us throughout the year and helped make it possible for us to get here. I even had the great fortune of Terrel Hale being here, who held me together for most of the year, and getting in one last pre-race session with him.
If I’ll miss anything most about triathlon, it will be the guys on Team EMJ. They are great examples of the best that this sport can be, and I’ll look forward to keeping up with them as they continue in triathlon. Some of them here will also be my fiercest competition this weekend. I’ve roomed with them, eaten with them, and shared equipment with them all week. On Saturday we’ll be competitors. Competition is usually a requirement for achievement in sports to have any meaning, but being able to have that competition against quality people that you genuinely want to see succeed as well is a a fortunate bonus that is not always guaranteed.
Then after the race I’ll be here for a week with Jessi, something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time more than the race itself. The last time I was able to fully disconnect from work for a week and spend any amount of time with just her was, well, last year after Kona. Last year we explored the big island, and this year we’re headed over to Maui! I guess on the next trip we’ll have to make it to Oahu. I hear there’s a little trail race there. 😉