Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ironman resolutions

What can an Ironman resolve for the New Year?

Get in shape? Done that.
Lose weight? Done that.
Swim, bike, and run 140.6 miles in less than 17 hours? Done that, baby!
Do something that no one else you know thinks they can do? Yes, I've even done that. (and by the way, most of those people are wrong - if I can do it, most of them can, too)

So here's what I'm thinking for 2009. Not resolutions, really, but goals.

1. Get religious about my training schedule. In 2008, knowing I had to work very hard to build the endurance to complete the Ironman distance, I signed up with Cadence Multisport Centers for individual coaching. I knew I needed some external accountability - someone keeping track of my training - to keep me on the plan. And it worked, mostly. But there's often a reason to cut a workout short, or to skip it. Family schedules, work, other activities - everything conspires to ask whether Ironman is more important. And for the age grouper (amateur) Ironman, training and racing are all about balance, as in, how to balance Ironman with the rest of your life. For me, when training loses the contest, it's usually not about balance, but about planning. So I'm going to do a better a job planning, this year, so I get the benefits of training and everything else, too.

2. Push harder in training. In 2008, I learned how to push myself in races - to keep a pace of eight minutes-per-mile in the 10K run of an Olympic distance race, for example. I learned how to push myself in training, also, and my coach's workout plans helped focus that. But with a major goal for 2009 to increase my speed in all three disciplines, I need to make sure I'm pushing hard in training, throughout the year, so I have more to push during races.

3. Bring more people into triathlon. In the four years I've been doing triathlon, I've enjoyed nearly all of it. Long, aerobic-paced runs with a friend. Early morning indoor cycling workouts at Cadence. Six-hour rides through Chester and Berks counties. Sharing brief conversations with other participants during races. Seeing my fitness and times improve in tangible return on my work.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I did an Ironman?

Seven weeks after Ironman Florida, it's getting hard to imagine how one does Ironman. Can I really swim 2.4 miles in open water, bike 112 miles, and run the 26.2 miles of a marathon, all in one day. And survive?

Thinking about 2009, right around the corner, and Ironman Louisville on August 30, it's hard to imagine what it will take to do another Ironman. With the past seven weeks of shorter, less intense swimming, biking, and running, my body has recovered from the long, hard work of the summer and early fall. Aches and pains are gone, and my body's ready to get back to work.

I've run two 5K races since Ironman. For those of us who discovered that the metric system died when we finished sixth grade, it lives on in race distances. And since it's been so long since most of us have had to do a conversion: 5 kilometers equals 3.1 miles.

Thanksgiving morning, Ben and I ran his first 5K, the "Gobble Wobble," at a local Y. Ben has owned most of the 1-mile "fun runs" in which he's participated in conjuction with at marathons and other events. He had yet to run longer than a mile, and he'd been wanting to go farther. He was pretty sure he could cover the distance, but had an unusual (for him) respect for the longer distance. He decided to take it easier than normal, and I ran with him. Ben finished in 26:58, at a pace of 8:42 per mile. Only three and a half weeks after Ironman, my goal was simply to run with Ben and have fun.

December 14, Ben and I ran the "Reindeer Romp 5K," in a nearby burb. This time, Ben thought he could run faster, now knowing that he could cover the distance. I also wanted to see how fast I could make the distance. So we each ran our own pace. I finished in an amazing-for-me 22:41, a pace of 7:17 per mile. That's 39 seconds per mile faster than I've ever run in an event. I came in only 1:38 behind the third place winner in the Male 40-44 age group, and 11th overall in that group. I also came in one second ahead of the second and third place women in the 40-44 group. Literally - they were running together and I finally cought and passed them about 20 yards before the finish line. And I have no problem being the second place woman!

We'll do a couple more 5Ks over the winter as I continue to work on my run speed. My new crazy goal for 2009 is to qualify, in fall 2009, for the 2010 Boston Marathon. For my mid-life crisis age group, that means running 3:30 or less in a qualifying marathon.

I'll run the SunTrust National Marathon, in Washington, March 21. That will give me a stand-alone marathon result to tell me how much time I'm going to have to shave off my pace between then and the fall. If I don't qualify for Boston, I'll still be a lot faster than now, which of course will help my Ironman Louisville marathon time.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What do you call the last person across the finish line?

In Ironman, what do you call the last person to cross the finish line before midnight? Ironman!

The folks at North America Sports, the organization that produces Ironman branded events throughout the continent, know one important fact: the athletes who push through the pain, exhaustion, and in some cases overwhelming feelings of defeat, still complete the 140.6 miles under their own power, in less than 17 hours. Each one is, by definition, an Ironman.

Everyone else at the race knows it, too. Although the crowd is big, and loud, when the pro winners come through after eight and nine hours (I know this because I started my run as Bella Comeford, came in for yet another first place at Ironman Florida), they get louder and more excited in the waning hours of the race. Many people who finish the race earlier in the evening come back to the finish line to cheer on the people who finish in the literal, physical, and emotional dark as the clock races toward midnight. They know what it takes to get wary bodies through those last few miles and yards, and they give it with gusto.

Eighty-seven people did not finish Ironman Florida. Some pro's abandon the race for various reasons, but most of the the DNFs (did not finish) are age groupers, amatures, who get injured, suffer exhaustion or dehydration, or just don't have the speed on race day to make it to the finish before midnight. I've been out there with those people - I was on the run course with many of them, although at least three hours ahead of them. I can tell you that many of those people, knowing it was physically and mathematically impossible to finish before midnight, kept pushing as long as they could.

An Ironman event is about completing the 140.6 miles in under 17 hours and claiming the title, Ironman. But it's also about not giving up when every part of your body is telling you to roll into the gutter for a nice, ten-hour nap. So although Mike Reilly won't give you a title after midnight, everyone who finishes the course has something amazing inside themselves.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Race report: Ironman Florida

I arrived in Panama City Beach two days before Ironman Florida. It was cool there. A little too cool. Like “I hope I brought warm enough clothes for the race.” The warm sun helped, but low 70’s and a stiff breeze made it seem like November.

I went down to the beach to look at the Gulf of Mexico. The swim was my only real concern about the race. I’m not a fast swimmer, and although the cut-off time at IMFL is a generous 2 hours, 20 minutes, I kept reminding myself that there’s a reason they allow an extra 20 minutes for this open water swim. (All other Ironman events in North America have a 2 hour cut-off, after which an athlete is not allowed to continue the race.)

The water was calm, even with the wind: only mild swells of a foot or so. Suddenly, the tape in my mind switched from “I hope I can” to “I can do this!”

Swim: 2.4 miles, 1:36
The cannon fired at 7:00 a.m., as the sun was still trying to force itself into the chilly morning. Then the mob of 2,200 triathletes, looking like penguins in our wetsuits, waded into the water. If you’ve never stuck your head under water to study the agitator in your washing machine, it might be hard to understand what a mass swim start is like. But try to picture roughly 4,400 legs and 4,400 arms churning the water into a roiling pot, and they’re all aiming right at your face!

The swim is the only portion of an Ironman where drafting (taking advantage of the person in front of you creating a slipstream so you use less energy to go the same speed) is legal. Ideally, you find someone else who’s just slightly faster than you, tuck in behind them, and swim in their wake. In a mass start, this is tough for all but the most aggressive swimmers. Everyone else gets caught in a start-stop, speed up/slow down traffic jam where it’s hard to get into a consistent stroke rhythm. That lasted through the first two turns, and then people spread out a bit in the stretch to complete the first loop of the swim.

IMFL is unique in having a two loop swim where the athletes exit the water, run on the beach for a couple hundred yards, and then go back into the water for the second loop. I checked my watch on the beach and was pleasantly surprised to see that I had completed the first 1.2 mile loop in 43 minutes – a bit behind my best time for that distance during a half-Ironman event. I knew it was going to be a good day. During the second loop, swimmers were more spread out, and I could occasionally catch someone’s wake a draft a bit. Proof that drafting helps: my second 1.2 mile loop took eight minutes longer than the first, even with the start-stop traffic jam in the first loop.

Later, I heard someone say they saw schools of fish during the swim. Either they were fast enough to be ahead of the masses, or they were swimming way out to the side away from everyone else, or they were hallucinating. I saw one fish, and I tend to notice critters during my swims, bikes, and runs.

T1: 8 minutes
Triathlon has two transitions: T1 is the change from the swim to the bike, and T2 is from bike to run.

I emerged from the Gulf into a chute lined with hundreds of spectators, cheering on the athletes. On the beach, a group of strippers was there to greet me. No, not that kind of stripper – these volunteers quickly remove athletes’ wet suits so the athlete can move on to the changing tent. Running under a fresh water shower and onto the boardwalk, I came to another group of volunteers who handed me my bike gear bag. I ran into the changing tent, pulled my bike shorts on over my tri-shorts, grabbed my helmet and bike shoes, put on my race number, and moved on to get my bike. Seems like one could do that in less than eight minutes.

Bike: 112 miles, 6:59
Once out of the changing tent, a volunteer had my bike off the rack and ready to roll. I took the bike, ran to the “mount” line, and got on my way. I was still wet, and the air temperature was in the 50’s, but the adrenaline and exertion kept me warm.

The bike segment of Ironman Florida is flat. Not quite Kansas flat, but only a few gentle hills along the route. The good news here is that there are no major climbs to push you into the red zone and pump lactic acid into your legs. The bad news is that there are no descents, no coasting – you have to earn every bit of the distance. The first 1,000 miles or so was into a steady head wind – not a strong wind, but aggravatingly steady. After that (maybe it was really about 50 miles before turning out of the wind), the tail wind and side winds gave me a bike speed I had been planning for the entire ride. So my bike segment was slower than I had expected, but I’ll take it.

T2: 5 minutes
I felt fine coming off the bike. That’s not always the case, as I have a habit of pushing myself on the bike and finding my legs tired when the run starts. After handing my bike to a volunteer, and taking my run gear bag from another, I went into the changing tent for a quick change. Bike shorts off, leaving my tri-shorts for the run. Bike shoes switched for running shoes. Helmet became cap. Race number rotated from back to front. Ready to go.

Run: 26.2 miles, 5:03
I was able to run out of transition – plenty of “brick” workouts during training, going from a long ride straight to a run, had my legs ready to go. The first few minutes I ran a pace of about 9 minutes, 30 seconds per mile, but my heart rate was higher than my target, so I slowed down.

The IMFL marathon is two loops on an out-and-back course: 6.55 miles out, then back, twice. The course takes you along part of Panama City Beach’s hotel and shopping corridor, through neighborhoods, and out to a wooded state park. Several parties along the course keep runners entertained, although it’s not clear who’s more entertaining to whom: the runners or the partiers.

They talk about marathoners hitting “the wall” around the twentieth mile of the run. The wall is a mental and physical hurdle when the glycogen is gone, the pounding pavement is taking its toll on feet and legs, and the mind is ready to be done, leaving little but determination and fear of failure to keep you going. I hit that wall at mile two. From there on, I kept telling myself, “I’ll walk when I have to, but I’m not there yet.” I did walk through the aid stations so I could drink a full cup of Gatorade. The aid stations were positioned every mile, so I walked about a minute each mile. Otherwise, I ran.

When I made the final turn and saw the twenty mile marker, I started counting down the miles. “I can run six more miles…five more miles…four more miles.” By the time I got to “three more miles,” I could hear the finish line. The voice of Mike Reilly announcing each name as the triathlete crossed the line and became an Ironman. The roar of the crowd, cheering wary runners to a strong finish. From that point on, my legs did not hurt as they kept turning over, one stride at a time. When I hit the last mile, I met the first concentration of the finish line crowd. Hands stretched out for high-fives. Banners. Smiles. Everyone yelling, whooping, singing. Not for me, but for everyone, for the achievement, the commitment, the will to do it. For the idea of Ironman.

And then I hit the finish chute, with 100 yards to go. I crossed the timing mat and heard the words, “Kevin Peter from Philadelphia, for the first time in your life, You Are An IRONMAN!”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How far is 140.6 miles?

From Philadelphia...

Cape May, NJ: 92.7 miles
New York, NY: 98.6 miles
Harrisburg, PA: 104.3 miles
Baltimore, MD: 109.7 miles
Stamford, CT: 136.8 miles
Gettysburg, PA: 137.4 miles
Washington, DC: 141.9 miles
Frederick, MD: 146.6 miles

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

You are an IRONMAN!

With those words, Mike Reilly punctuated the end of my first Ironman. November 1, 2008: 13 hours, 52 minutes, 40 seconds after the cannon's fire sent me into the Gulf of Mexico at the 10th annual Ironman Florida.

Why Ironman? Because four days before, the voice in my head still asked, "can you?" Because a year ago, I committed to shoot for a goal that seemed incredibly high, and that voice started asking, "you think you can?" Because three years ago, after my first season of triathlon, Ironman seemed out of reach. Because five years ago, after biking myself into shape and losing 25 pounds, I couldn't imagine running, let alone attempting a marathon, and that voice gave a convincing, "no way." Because eight years ago, as an overweight, out of shape couch potato, I couldn't spend 20 minutes playing with my toddler before needing a break, and that voice didn't even have to say, "don't even think about it." Because 35 years ago, the kids who were good at sports convinced me that not only did I suck, I would never be any good at any sports. And because most of those kids who were so athletic 35 years ago are overweight, out of shape, and begging for heart attacks - and I refuse to go to that party.

What is Ironman? It's way more than swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles. That's just one day: the show. Ironman is a commitment. No one get's there without the commitment to put in the time, the miles, and the mental and emotional work to move their body 140.6 miles. Ironman is months and years of early morning runs, long weekend rides, swimming through the winter when even the indoor pool seems better suited to narwhals.

Ironman is more than commitment. It's a journey. It's a journey to that place in yourself where you could just stop, but you don't. It's a journey to find your physical and emotional limits, and finding them much farther away than you imagined. It's a journey to find out what you're really made of. And just when you think you're there, you learn there is no there. What you're really made of is just the drive to get to the next bouy, the next turn, the next mile.

That's Ironman: just pushing to the buoy, the next turn, the next mile, until you reach the end. Some people make it to the end in eight or nine hours, and some in 17. They all push right to the end, and they're all Ironmen.