Wednesday, May 11, 2011

IMSG 2011 Race Report

I got to the swim start well rested, uninjured and up for a good day's racing - you can't say fairer than that. Weather conditions were thankfully mild at this stage with about 18C water temp and little wind. On a few days leading up to the race, the temp was 12C with pumping winds and white capped waves on the reservoir so the conditions were on my side at this stage.

My goals this year were very different from last year. In 2010 I was only really concerned with qualification and, when I felt that my race was going south, my mind started to give up on me which meant for a very long and painful marathon. This year I just removed that stress - my main goals for the day were to race strong throughout and have a solid marathon at the end. By solid I meant my best effort with staying mentally strong, nothing to do with position, pace or time. If qualification happened, that would be a bonus.

My key lessons from last year were to improve mental form and nutrition (both day to day and race day specific). Without going into too much detail on the nutrition aspect, I can say I'm happy that my diet is now much healthier and supportive of physical fitness.

The Swim
Last year I made the mistake of placing myself centrally to the front, and so spent the first 1k of the swim battling the washing machine of other athletes. This year I seeded myself to the right of the starting line - in fact I had zero contact on the whole course. The water was calm and I had a very smooth and easy swim. For the most part I swam by myself, but caught a draft for the last 800m or so.

I had done a lot of swimming and my times had come down a good deal in the pool after a couple months of master's sessions in Jan & Feb. As such I was a little disappointed to come out of the water in 62:45, a full minute slower than last year and one of my slowest IM swim splits. 4 years of focused swim training and my swim times haven't budged an inch. Awesome.

Well I reckon part of it is I just took it too easy. It did feel like a low effort - perhaps a lack of recent race experience has made me lazy in the water. On the plus side, conserving energy early on with this course is a very strong strategy, because the real work comes much later in the day.

Transition was quick, almost exactly the same as 2010. The wetsuit strippers really help!

The Bike
I was mentally prepared for a brutal day on the bike, with pumping winds and cold conditions early on. As it happened, it was very mild to start with and in fact the wind was in the opposite direction to last year. This meant there was no headwind on the long ascent to Veyo, but a headwind on the downhill sections back to town. As such you are working for the whole day, but I'll take that wind direction any day. The bike times were about 10-15 mins faster than last year, and what can be a really tough course didn't feel too bad. One day the winds will be blowing at IMSG and I'm happy I won't be there to experience it.

My race strategy was to keep everything in check til the end of the first loop, and then if I was feeling good, pick it up. Also I planned to alternate PVM bars and gels every 30 mins. That worked OK for the first couple of hours, but then I couldn't eat the bars any more and so stuck with gels and water. I drank a fair amount of water as the temperatures gradually escalated through the day. I did start with energy drink, but like the bars, I couldn't stomach it after the half way point of the ride. Total food was 3 bars, 8 gels, 1 bottle energy drink and about 2.5 bottles water.

Around 40 miles in, a M45-49 AGer took me, and we swapped over a couple of times when he said "Looks like we're gonna be doing this most of the day". He wasn't wrong - we stayed pretty close and certainly it helped to pace off him, and when he slowed, go ahead and swap roles. No drafting mind! In fact that's one of the great things about a tough bike course - I didn't see any drafting out there.

I did the opening section to the first loop in about 1:05 and then the loop in about 2:05, I was on for a much quicker time than last year. One thing I didn't have though was power data. Last year I rented Zipps with Powertap, this year I had my own pair of Fast Forwards but no power meter. That's fine for me during the race, but it's a shame not to have it for post race analysis.

As I got on to the second loop, I felt OK, but not so good that I could open it up further, so I just decided to hold it together and save myself for the run. My second loop was about 2:10 with an additional few minutes down to T2 - excellent even pacing. In the final hour I did feel a little uncomfortable with some lower back pain and tiredness, but nothing like 2010. Last year I did 5:39, this year 5:25 - that's probably an equivalent performance given the easier cycle conditions this year. Average HR was 151 - that surprised me, obviously I was putting in the work out there.

T2 was pretty quick, but I needed to pee, so the time stretched out to 4 mins. That pee felt like it lasted forever, probably not surprising as that was actually my only loo break all race. People will probably say that means I was dehydrated, but my bladder just seems to shut down during a race - actually it's a pretty good time saver.

The Run
In T2 I handed my bike to a catcher and about 20s later I realised I left my Garmin on the bike. I thought for a split second about going back to get it and then thought forget it. I knew I didn't want any feedback in the race, but it would have been great for post race data. Oh well.

Coming out onto the course I started the gradual ascent to the first real climb. A M40-45 AGer asked if he could run with me on this section and I said sure. He started chatting away very hospitably and I chatted back, but all the time thinking, you know I really don't want to talk right now. I was feeling uncomfortable more or less right from the start of the run and I realised pretty quickly that actually what I needed to do was just slow down and collect myself. The AGer soon moved away - I hope he finished as strong as he started that run. At the new pace I started to feel better.

In training in SA with heat and wind and hills I practised what I call 'appropriate pace'. This is simple - it's just the pace that feels right and comfortable. It's not the pace you WANT to go, it's the pace you CAN go. The other key element is to be happy with that pace and not beat yourself up about it. BTW this doesn't work for shorter races - in those circumstances it's supposed to hurt!

Those first few miles felt slow and I thought to myself, damn this is not going to be easy, this is going to be a long ugly slog. The temperature had risen to 33C+ and out on the road with zero shade and the red rock reflecting the sun, I reckon the temps escalated higher than that. These are pretty much my nightmare conditions - at 35C my body starts to shut down and my pace falls off dramatically. Give me a cold drizzly day in the UK and I'm firing on all cylinders, but out in the desert it's a different story.

The godsend were the aid stations - they're every mile, very well manned and have all the key options: sponges, water, ice, coke, energy drink, gels and more besides. I played every trick in the book to keep cool. At every aid station I drank water, I took sponges and doused myself, I threw water on my head and body, I drank coke and then I took ice and put it either in my run cap, down my tri top or even on a couple occasions down my tri shorts. I did all this without needing to walk. I would try to have some ice to hold in my hand when leaving the aid station and would run with that, every so often taking a bit of ice and eating it, crunching down on the cooling refreshing goodness. I also ran with a small water bottle in my other hand, which I topped up every so often. Even with stations just 1 mile apart I really needed to sip water in between to keep me going. I know if those aid stations had been further apart or less well stocked, I would have been in real trouble.

I only managed 3 gels on the whole run. I planned to eat more but I had to make a big mental effort to take even them - I had zero appetite for them. I think it was enough - I did not feel light headed at any time, a clear indicator of depleted energy.

After the first hard climb up Red Hills Parkway, the course leveled off and I found I could pick up my pace to something that felt much more normal. I started to catch people and get into a rhythm. I realised that it's so important to just keep going, no matter how slow it seems, because sometimes it comes round and you do start to feel better. I found this was consistent in the race - on the flat and downhill I started to catch people, and then on the uphills my pace went way down and people started to come past me. There wasn't anything I could do about it, it wasn't a mental issue, it was physical. The only thing I can conclude is that I'm not a hill runner, especially not in an IM marathon. My strength as a runner seems to be nullified by the hills, even with all the hill training I did in Jan/Feb/Mar (I did a lot!).

I came through the half in 1:46, although I had no idea about that, having left my Garmin in T2. That's pretty respectable even if it did feel real slow. Unfortunately I couldn't maintain the pace and I slowed on the second lap. I don't think I messed up my pacing, I didn't go too hard on the bike, or the first lap of the run. My dad asked me afterward why I slowed on the second lap and the answer I gave then seems about right: "Dad, you know what? I was just plain tired". The attrition of the heat and hills just wore me down.

What I am most proud of is that I kept going, I never gave up and I was determined to give my best effort. On that second loop I did catch guys, and yes guys passed me too. Running down the final big climb before the turn around I looked over and saw Meredith Kessler, at that point the second placed female and with almost 40 IMs under her belt, walking up the hill. Wow, so it's not just me then I thought. I found out later that when she got to the top of that climb, 22 miles into the run and downhill all the way home, she collapsed and when she woke up she was in the med tent.

When I got to that climb, my pace was so pitiful I tried 'power walking' but I had to concede that was even slower and so got back into my marginally faster than walking run. Getting to the top of that climb, I knew my legs would come back and my goal was just to give it everything for the 4 miles downhill to the finish. Everything hurt, my legs, my head, my core especially but I picked it up and started to catch people ahead of me. Way back at the beginning of the run, one guy in my AG came past and on his trisuit it said 'Powered by Christ'. Now I remember at the time thinking that was a bit unfair - surely that's some kind of doping, having the Son of God giving you a performance enhancer? Anyhow I ran past him walking, so maybe he hadn't been saying his prayers often enough.

I was so happy to come into the finish chute and I made sure to savour the experience too. I had no idea of my time and was frankly delighted to see 10:26 up on the timer. 34 minutes faster than last year. My second half had been 2:05 for a marathon time of 3:51. Not too great, but I knew I gave it everything and I couldn't have gone faster on the day. I also knew I hadn't qualified but this year I really didn't mind - I gave it my best race and on the day that fell short. Maybe that story's not over yet, time will tell.

Round Up
I achieved all my key goals out here on a tough day. I raced intelligently and I raced with a strong positive attitude. I think a very strong field turned up here which made my time look slow. I was 34 mins quicker and 5 places lower down M35-39 (from 17th in 2010 to 22nd this year). I actually came 81st overall, whereas last year I was 101st. I count this as my best ironman performance, even if I've gone faster or placed higher in others.

As an indicator check out these details: The M35-39 winner Fabrice Houzelle finished in 9:26. He came 2nd in AG in Kona with 9:05 last year. 4th place, Declan Doyle finished in 9:41 - he was 16th in AG in Kona with 9:21. The guy who came 21st in front of me, John Marinovich, who qualified at this race last year in 7th, did 9:48 at Kona. About 1 of every 5 who started this race did not finish (18% DNF).

10th place, who I think took the final slot, did 10:06, so I was 20 mins out. Last year 10:36 was good enough for a slot and 10:04 won M35-39.

If you want to test yourself and you didn't get a place at the last Lanza IM this year (and you're not crazy enough to take on Norseman), then consider a trip to St George. One thing though - don't ask me to join you!

Section Split AG Overall
Swim 1:02:45 26 148
T1 0:02:43 9 59
After T1 1:05:29 21 115
Bike 5:25:32 20 81
After Bike 6:31:01 19 66
T2 0:03:56 64 341
After T2 6:34:57 18 68
Run 3:51:25 32 136
Total 10:26:22 22 81

224 athletes in AG finished from 321 signed up
1310 athletes overall finished from 1926 signed up (around 1600 started)

Saturday, April 30, 2011

IMSG Course Recce

Today I did a loop of the bike course, plus a little of the section approaching the start of the 2 loops. Earlier in the week on Thu, I did a half marathon loop of the run course to cement it in my mind and see if there was anything I'd forgotten. More on those later.

I flew into Vegas on Tue on a flight full of Brits, stags and hens going to spend their hard earned cash on living the dream. I'm sure the casinos welcomed them with open arms. Once landed I got my hire car and got the hell out of Dodge. I don't like Vegas, but I know there's plenty of people who disagree.

By the time I got into St George I was pretty beat - it's a heck of a long journey door to door, plus once getting in I decided to shop for basics for dinner and breakfast. Virgin did not do a good job of feeding the beast that is a man coming off volume training. On the return leg I will take a LOT more food with me.

By the way, if you're traveling to a race this year, it is now officially not permitted to take your aero helmet on board. This is because you might put it on mid flight and the pilot would have a coronary laughing at you so hard and crash the plane. Either that or you'll head butt your way to control of the aircraft and then do all kinds of BAD things. Be warned. I had to put mine in my canvas travel bag - amazingly it did not break in transit.

It feels good to be back here - not because I love SG - the place is actually pretty sleepy, but I think mainly because it's familiar and I've been thinking about it for ages. I was truly excited about getting out on the run course which beat me up so bad last year.

Run Course
When I analyzed a Garmin capture of the course, it struck me that my memory of the course didn't seem to tally with what the profile was showing. Probably not surprising as at that stage of the race I was just hurting and wanted it to be over - I wasn't taking course notes.

The start of the run is a gradual uphill for a couple miles - it's nothing to be scared of, a gentle gradient which ends in a short off course loop with a couple of short sharp kickers. These can be vicious on shattered legs, but today seemed pretty innocuous. Then the gradient ramps up a bit until you get to Red Hills Parkway, an 8% climb for maybe 500m.

I made a lot of this climb last year and I thought this was the hardest section of the course. Actually it's not at all - the real beast is the climb after the turnaround. Going steadily up RHP I was pleasantly surprised that it was nothing harder than what I had practiced on in Cape Town (Camps Bay Drive to Signal Hill) - in fact my runs in CT were all harder in profile than the run here and there is nothing like the ramps up to Lion's Head car park or the Cable Car if you're familiar with those routes.

Coming off RHP there's a plateau and then a further gradual climb up to the high point of the course. From there you come down sharp and then there's the loop round Pioneer Park with a number of testing little rollers - again trouble for tired legs but seemingly simple when you're running from fresh. A further descent to the turnaround, then back up to Pioneer Park for a second look.

Coming out of Pioneer Park you have what I will now call The Beast. This is a pretty serious climb up to the high point of the course. The Beast demands respect. This will be hard come race day, and my strategy is just to go steady and not stress about pace or HR too much. The HR will go up, the pace will go down, just stick with it and it'll be over soon enough. I know what the right effort level feels like - just dial into that and that's the best I can do.

The bonus is that now you are at the high point, you are pretty much downhill most of the way to the end of the loop. There is a slight gradual to get you over RHP, but it's not much, and of course there's the 2 kickers I mentioned earlier. I will need to take care not to push the pace too much here - it's damn tempting, but it's too early with what you have to come (another loop that is). These downhills should be relaxed efforts, resting a little for the hard work ahead.

My marathon strategy is take the first loop at a relaxed pace, and continue like this until I'm over RHP for the second time. At this point there are 10 miles to go. If I feel good open it up, if not just keep it going. Simple. Well we'll see how that works out for me.

Bike Course
I just got back from doing the loop today. There's a section from the swim to the start of the loop, then 2 loops before T2. When I got back off this ride it was with a deep sense of relief. Relief because the course is easy? No, relief because I am still alive. More about that later.

The early sections have plenty of small and moderate climbs - with all the adrenaline and energy pent up it's tempting to smash these. My strategy is to take it easy - there's plenty to get your teeth stuck into later. I've found on a number of my rides that I can hit it for about 4 hours and then I start to drop off quite a bit. I certainly do not want that happening on Saturday - I want to be able to finish the second loop strong, which will mean easy efforts early on - efforts that will make me worried I'm going way too slow.

The sections in town are all pretty good - relatively smooth roads, low wind, nice and fast. Then you get out on to Highway 91 and the wind picks up. Today I cycled in wind conditions much harder than last year - I'm glad I got this now so I know what race day can be like. Essentially what you have now is ascent, from gradual to moderate, to short and sharp and for a long long way. And head wind - from harsh to brutal at times. This was the Cape Town wind I've been training in, so I'm used to it, but that doesn't mean I want it on race day. It was pumping and if it blows like this on race day, it's going to be carnage.

Actually a big problem I had was that often I didn't want to take one hand off the bars to get my water bottle or to take nutrition - seriously the wind and side gusts were that strong. I'll have to make more of an effort to force myself to take nutrition, not only when I feel good, but also on the sections where the wind drops off a bit (rare). One of the towns just down the road is called Hurricane. Go figure. The image is not SG by the way!

Finally after what seems an age I got to The Wall, the climb that is billed as the tough section of the course. Actually it's not too bad - it was the first time when I had the wind at my back for a long time. Getting to the top of the climb is far from the end of the challenge though - cresting the climb you swing round into a brutal headwind and gradual incline - I actually had to gear down here - this bit was harder than The Wall.

Soon enough I got into Veyo and now you come round and the wind is behind you pretty much all the way back into town. But there's more - a pretty decent climb out of Veyo which is work even with the wind helping. In fact the whole section back to town takes some care, because the winds are often side on or gusting. Much of the time I felt nervous in aero and came up on the drops. Which brings us to the point where I got a very real scare.

There's this one bit which is a sharp descent but I think the canyon funnels the tailwind down it, because it sends you flying through there. And there are side gusts too. It didn't help that the traffic was quite close, but even without them I could feel my bike going into a speed wobble. There are only 2 things to do in this situation and neither of them seems the rational choice. One is come off the brakes - trying to brake even lightly is more likely to increase the wobble to a point where you're out of control. And the second is to relax. If you tense up, then the tension in your arms will increase that wobble, and it's only going to get worse. So there I am kicking along at 70kph, a cyclist who wishes he had better handling skills, on a twitchy TT bike with deep section wheels and gusting winds, traffic overtaking about 1 metre away from me, holding off the brakes and shouting to myself "It's OK, it's OK". It was very goddamn un-OK is what it was, but what can you do?

To cut to the chase, I didn't fall off and die, but I was seriously rattled and still am (can you tell?). If the wind blows like it did today, I can't see how there won't be some accidents on that section of course - I'm just praying it isn't me because any accidents there will not be pretty.

Oh one other thing I didn't really mention, is it's cold here first thing. I'm going to be cold coming out of the water, and I'm going to be cold for probably the first couple of hours of the bike. Thankfully I handle it quite well, but I'm thinking I could do with some additional clothing in T1. I didn't have any last year. Food for thought.

In summary, it's going to be tough - well I knew that already. If the wind blows then it'll be exceptionally tough. At least it's the same for everyone.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mind Games Pt 4: Quiet The Mind

I've been a long time away from this blog, and have been intending to write this final part of my mental preparation strategy for several months. I'm actually happy I held off so long, as several books I have read tie in nicely with my thoughts, and also I've had plenty of time to put these ideas into practice.

Previous posts in this sequence are:
  1. Own The Mat
  2. Visualization
  3. Self Talk

But first a little recent history. I've been in Cape Town on an 11 week visit (soon to end to my great dismay!), and have gradually regained the mojo I lost at the end of last year. I have rekindled a love for swim/bike/run and a strong desire to race, although I should also mention that currently after 2011 I intend to take a break from Ironman. There's too much else that I'm not doing in my life because of being a slave to the schedule. It's not me that has the hobby, it's the hobby that has me.

Quiet The Mind
The message of this post is very simple, but I personally believe the most powerful of all the mind game techniques out there. It's also a difficult one to master, but thankfully you can practice it at any time in any place. Essentially what you need to do is stop the internal conversation in your mind. Just that.

Stop the constant stream of thoughts in your mind, whether they are positive, negative or just neutral. Instead come totally into the present and focus on the current moment. Focus on the sun on your skin, the wind against your face, the 10 metres of asphalt in front of you that you are about to cover. Hear the sounds of life around you, feel the sensations of your body.

Forget about the past, forget about the future. Forget about your 'problems' - in this single moment of time you have no problems, only the immediate task in hand and what you are going to do right now.

That's easy you say! Well try that and see if you can do it for 10 seconds. If you have not practised this, then your mind will come diving in and there will be thoughts crowding around the moment, clamouring to be heard. When that happens, disassociate yourself and watch your mind trying to get these thoughts into your consciousness. Don't judge, just watch and then quietly come back to focusing just on the moment and entering a space of no mind. A space where there are no thoughts.

I'm sure if you have read Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, you will recognise several concepts from that book. It is a much more in depth and fascinating study of this simplest of concepts. I think there are sections which are a bit 'out there' for my liking but the overall message I find very persuasive.

This is essentially active meditation, but forget about monks, and preconceived ideas of what mediation entails (usually someone sitting in the lotus position all in white, in an empty white room, gently intoning OOMMMMMM or some such to themselves). Active meditation is simply being right here, right now and without the mind with its incessant stream of thoughts.

So where is the power in this?

I recently went to a talk at the Sports Science Institute here in Cape Town and had the honour of listening to Tim Noakes (of The Lore of Running fame), talking about limiters in sport, and whether it was the body or the mind limiting us. The rather controversial point was that fatigue is not so much created by our over taxed muscles, but is actually generated by the brain in order to slow us down. The brain has the key function of maintaining homeostasis in the body, and excessive exercise is going to throw that homeostasis out of acceptable boundaries, and so the brain introduces fatigue. We start to feel pain, and when we feel that we react by slowing down.

That's why amphetamines are so powerful (and so dangerous), because they deaden the feelings of fatigue. Of course on them you can push yourself way beyond yourself, but you will also put your body into a highly stressed state that can ultimately be fatal.

It gets interesting when you start to look at legal factors which have a positive influence on performance, i.e. that are able to reduce the brakes of fatigue the mind is trying to push upon you. Music is one, placebo effects are another. If you truly believe a certain brand of energy drink is going to give you a boost over and above any other drink on race day, then yes it probably will. The competition of the race also dulls that feeling of fatigue and is why we can seem to go so much faster on race day than we ever achieved in training.

Another interesting conclusion is that perhaps training is just as much about accustomising the brain to the level of required exercise, as it is improving physical capability. The more we train, the more the brain becomes accustomed to the disruption to the internal homeostasis, and the more it will let you do before it starts to say OK buddy I think we should back off here.

So to come back to quietening the mind. I think that focusing wholly on the moment, and stopping the internal mental dialogue of the brain, dulls those feelings of fatigue. At its most effective, it can induce a state of flow - that glorious, seemingly elusive state of racing we all experience from time to time, when everything is aligned and we just float along, right at the edge of our ability but curiously untroubled by the huge efforts we are putting out. I believe this state of flow can be induced by focusing on the Now, although I must admit I still need plenty of practise!

How can you practise this yourself? Well you can actually do it anytime and anywhere, but workouts are a good place to start. On those long rides, long runs, hard swims, TT sessions, whatever, just shut off internal talk and focus on what's around you in this moment. I find counting breaths is useful - it's hard to keep a stream of thoughts together when you're counting 60 breaths. Do that then repeat. See how long you can have no thoughts for. When the thoughts come, don't worry, just watch the thoughts, don't judge them and then quietly come back to no mind and the present. The periods of no mind will increase.

I find this technique much more effective than the school of HTFU and MTFU, forcing yourself to be positive and say you can do it, struggling against the signals you are getting from your brain. It is too easy when it gets hard to fall into the opposite, and start thinking you're rubbish, you can't do it. Instead just accept the sensations of your body, don't judge and carry on. Are you going at an appropriate level of effort, are you doing everything you can do at this one moment, is your nutrition and your hydration OK? Well then good. Carry On. Cover the next 10 metres of asphalt. And then the next. And then the next.

This has other implications for my race on May 7. Firstly I have detached myself from outcome. Time, place, qualification - none of these are goals for my race and how I'm doing against these parameters are not important for race day. What I want to do is what is appropriate and right at each stage of the race. I want to be happy that I'm giving it my best effort and enjoying the experience.

I will be racing with my Garmin on the day, but not my Powertap (0.5kgs I don't want to lug around!). The only information I will look at is time (is it time for another gel?), and HR. HR too high? OK back off a bit. I'm debating if I need the HR bit: I can usually feel if the effort level is OK. The reason for the Garmin is post race analysis, and not for checking what's happening during the race. Invariably I find this is information you don't want to know.

I actually don't care too much how it goes, I have loved the journey and that is 80% of the experience. But it is important I enjoy myself - if I have spent all this money, effort and time and I don't enjoy myself, then that would be a sad statement. If things go well - all well and good, but I know that will make no difference in my life. I will be the same person and a fast time, a high place, a medal from the big island will not change that.