Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ironman Florida Race Reivew - 140.6 miles of ... err 138.2 miles of fun

On November 1, 2014, approximately 3,000 people stood on the beach in Panama City Beach, Florida in anticipation of the start of Ironman Florida. The wind was blowing and the Gulf of Mexico did not look happy. Around 6:40 am, just 10 minutes before the professional men were set to start their race day the official announcement was made - due to unsafe conditions the swim was cancelled. The event would go off as a bike-run only with a time trial start beginning at 8 am.

And so my fifth try at the Ironman distance began, not with a swim, but with a walk back up to my rented condo. My 2014 triathlon year has been an interesting one, starting with a major injury, a DNS at Ironman Coeur d'Alene, a planned DNF at Eagleman 70.3, some solid racing over the Summer months, and now this. Really, I shouldn't be surprised. Nothing went as planned all year, so why should this be any different!!!

Ironman Florida was originally intended to be an experiment. I have never done more than one 140.6 distance race in a year and this would be #2 in 2014. I figured what the hell, give it a shot and see what happens. Honestly, this is not a race I would normally consider doing because the race course doesn't really fit me. Yes, the course is flat. Really, really flat. Which means that the course is "fast," or so the theory goes. But there are issues with as much undulation as you get on your bike trainer.

For a certain type of athlete - the big unit - this is an awesome course to be competitive on. I am not a big unit. Me likes me some hills. Lots and lots of hills. My previous four efforts were in Lake Placid (twice), Wisconsin, and Coeur d'Alene. What do all these races have in common? Climbing on the bike.

The other issue I have with flat terrain is what it does to the body. Specifically, sitting in the aero position for 112 miles and one gear is not fun and hard on the back. Yes, you can get up out of the saddle and stretch out, blah, blah blah, but not what I would consider ideal for Jon. Making matters worse, I know how I am and what could happen ... that moment of saying "eff-it" and laying down the hammer at mile 50 of the bike is much more likely when the road is flat than when I know there are hills down the road that need to be climbed.

The Complex Triathlete
This is what flat looks like.

Must. Fight. Inner. Urges. Must. Fight. Inner. Urges.

This race ended up on my schedule because a friend wanted to do it, and she wanted someone to do it with her. Obviously, the list of people most of us know who can and will do an Ironman is not the longest list. I made the decision to help her out and do it, which with the way my season worked out did give me the opportunity to race 140.6 miles this year ... or so I thought.

Anyway ... before I get into how the race day went I want to be perfectly clear about something: WTC and the local race officials absolutely made the correct decision in not proceeding forward with the swim. There was no way in hell it would have been safe to put us out there for the swim. There was a rip current that made it hard for the boats and nearly impossible for the kayaks to get in place. What do you think would have happened to the weak swimmers? How many DNFs would there have been if we ran into the ocean at 7 am?

The weather reports leading up to race day had been getting more sketchy by the day. We arrived on Wednesday, but The Queen and Shelly didn't come down until Thursday. This worked out well as I called The Queen before she left for the airport to have her retrieve some arm warmers I left behind because, really, who needs arm warmers for a race in Florida?

The picture below is what the ocean looked like on Friday morning, 24 hours before the start of the race. This is also what it looked like 24 hours after the race. Oh, what could have been.

On Saturday night a front came through the Panama City Beach area. By Saturday morning the temperature was 44 degrees, the wind was howling at 20-30 miles sustained with gusts, and race day started to look like an interesting little adventure.

This is what the ocean looked like on race morning:


So back up to the condo to take the wetsuit off and figure out what to wear for 44 degrees and windy conditions. Also, I started to consider how this changes the dynamics of the race. With a TT start and no swim, there would be a much different mix of people out on the course around. Being the 2696th person to start, there would be a lot to consider, as well as a lot of weaker cyclists to pass.

Swim  Pre-Race

Around 8 am Emily and I got back to transition. I had taken in a gel around 6:30 in prep for the swim that didn't happen. Back in transition I was unsure of exactly what to do from a nutritional standpoint. I drank water, a bit of EFS, and hit the port-o-john twice. After Emily went off around 8:40 I found a semi-wind-free area to sit. Not exactly warm, but not unreasonably cold. Around 9:45 I finally could jump on my bike and start my day.

Bike - 112 miles 5:23:17 20.7 mph

The original game plan for the bike was simple: ride steady, stay within my abilities, stick with my nutrition plan through the entire ride, and get off the bike ready to run. With the change in the race I contemplated what to do. During the almost 2 hour wait in transition I decided to take things out a bit harder than the original plan. Without the energy burn of the swim and the expected headwind during the first hour plus, I felt the extra effort would be OK.

So after sitting around for almost two hours I took the initial minutes of the bike to get clear of the people immediately around me and get some blood into my legs. Without a 2.4 mile swim as a warmup the start felt more like the beginning miles of a long training ride than an Ironman ... except for the log jam of cyclists out in front of me. With conditions being less than ideal, I made sure to swing wide when passing, worried about swirling winds causing a crash.

The first 7 miles of the bike took us west along the coastline before making a right hand turn due north, almost directly into the NNW winds for the next 16 miles. These miles were harder than ideal conditions would have handed us. While fighting the winds I kept reminding myself that we would be coming back this way with the wind in our favor.

Then it happened. Just before making the turn to the east, somewhere between mile 21 and 22 it happened ... the train came rolling through. Not two. Not three. But four guys in my age group came riding by, sucking wheel, blatantly cheating.

I nearly lost my $hit.

I picked it up, passed by with a few choice words for the three wheel suckers before informing the dude up front that he was escorting a group of douches. Felt bad for the guy as he was working hard. Well, not too bad as he knew what was happening and he did nothing about it. They passed me back and I let them go. Then I made the decision to let it go, worry about my race, and make sure I had legs for the run.

F'em. Let the cheaters cheat. Get your head back in the game.

The pace picked up when the wind was at my back but, honestly, I really didn't feel good. The downtime in transition had me feeling a bit tight. Didn't feel bad, but didn't feel good. Around mile 30 this all changed, suddenly feeling like my legs were finally ready to ride.

Jon Soden - Ironman Florida

The ride here is nothing special. The roads are flat, there isn't a whole lot to see, and the biggest worry is the traffic on some of the roads and the rough road on the out-and-back from miles 53 to 58. I continued to ride along just staying in my zone thinking about running well off the bike.

Around mile 47 I did something I have never done during an Ironman, then again around mile 72 - I got off the bike to pee. I saw this as a great sign that I was doing what was necessary to set up a good run. And yes, I know that you don't necessarily need to stop to take care of business, but it was windy and cold. Better to "lose" a minute for the stop than freezing up the junk. Just sayin'.

Bike Data via Garmin Connect

Other than the woman who crashed at mile 58, I had no real drama on the bike. After my mile 72 pee break I felt good and pushed a bit into the wind before making the turn south around mile 83. By mile 100 I finally had little company as I passed most of the riders I would pass for the day while the faster riders were up the road. For a good 40 minutes or so it felt like it was just me and my bike.

T2 - 6:11

Coming off the bike I felt better than I did at my first 4 attempts at the Ironman distance. I was hydrated, fueled up and ready to run. I had my own volunteer in the tent who helped me prepare for 26.2 miles of running. I could have been faster, but wanted to make sure I took care of two important things before starting the run - get a new layer of suntan lotion applied, and pee.

Run - 26.2 miles 4:07:53 9:27/mile

How the legs will react in the first few miles of the run is always the great unknown. More so this time around as my run training had been limited all year. Heading into the race my longest run logged all year had been just under 17 miles. With the low run volume heading into the race I had a simple plan: head out easy, take a walk break through every other aide station (approx. every 2 miles), and stay on top of nutrition by taking in some EFS gel and water at every aide station.

Heading out of transition all was good. After getting my nutrition right on the bike, I felt energized, hydrated, and ready to run with a smile on my face. As I headed out I was greeted by cheers from family and friends. The first mile had a supportive crowd, a group of Captain Americas, 10 people dressed as Chiquita Bananas, and a crew of young ladies dressed for Halloween. All were nice distractions as I settled in.

During the first loop I found a sustainable pace between 8:00 and 8:30 per mile early on. All was going to plan and by mile 10 my pace had slowly moved up to a steady 7:50ish pace. Unlike previous efforts at this distance I made it to the halfway point without an unplanned walk break.

Around mile 13 the runners return to town where you get some love from the crowds and a chance to get your run special needs bag. Which leads me to kudos to the volunteer who not only had my bag ready for me when I reached the bag area, but he ran in stride with me, handing off my gel flask on the move. Thanks for taking the extra effort.

Jon Soden - Ironman Florida

Heading out onto the second loop I remained steady ... and then ... it happened. My first (and only major) mistake on the day. Stomach problems.

Somewhere along the line I started burping. Nothing unusual, but it is a sign that you aren't processing the nutrition you are taking in. Solving it is simple - stop taking in calories while taking in water until it passes. The sugar isn't getting into you so there is no reason to take in anything but water. Once the burping stops you are good to resume calorie intake. Where I got into trouble was ignoring the blatant sign.

For the next 45 minutes or so I ran when I could, walked when I had to, while drinking as much water as I could manage, hoping this would eventually pass ... which it did ... in the way that it always does ... with a few huge farts. Suddenly my gut felt much relief and running could proceed. Shortly after I began running I could take in nutrition once again.

And for those of you who may be wondering, yes, this is a thing. This whole process is eloquently referred to as the burp-fart method.

Back to the race: at this point the sun had gone down and it was getting pretty darn cold. The second mistake I made on the day was leaving my gloves in T2, figuring I wouldn't need them. My hands were freezing. Completely forgetting the early sundown time in early-November and that I started running around 3:30 and not 1:30, running in the dark and cooler temperatures weren't the consideration they should have been.

From mile 20 on in I ran slow, walking in spots, enjoying my best marathon off the bike. It became clear that the inability to put more run miles in were an issue. Nothing I could do except keep on moving forward to the best of my ability. Yes, a 4:07 isn't a super fast time, but a 59 minute PR. This represents not only how well I held it together on the day, but how piss poor I have done in the past.

Overall: 9:37:27 43rd in AG 45-49, 286th overall male, 320th overall finisher

When it comes to Ironman racing the race you imagine is never the race you get. Something always happens, even for the best. There is never that perfect day. But my day here turned out to be pretty good. My bike split was 13+ minutes than my best effort (a 5:36 at IM Wisconsin, 2007) and my run split 59 minutes faster than the 5:06 I ran in Lake Placid in 2011. While you can't just throw a best-guess swim time in front these results and say I would have gone XX:XX:XX, I think it is safe to say this effort turned out to be my best one to date. Still, there is an asterisk next to these results, because without a swim ...

The Complex Triathlete - Jon Soden

Overall Impressions and Final Thoughts

As I stated previously, IMFL is not a race I would have chosen to do on my own. I prefer to race a hillier course and am physically more suited to that type of terrain. I signed up to help a friend out, get another Ironman under my belt, and try and get a PR. Due to the cancelled swim, the PR will have to wait. I did help out a friend and I do have race #5 under my belt. With the highly competitive nature of my age group and my lack of physical gifts, my best bet to getting to Kona is likely to come from either the mother of all days or, more likely, a legacy spot after 12 finishes.

Would I come back to Panama City Beach to race again? Maybe, but not because I disliked the race. The area is nice, the race venue is very user friendly, and the host hotel condo we stayed in worked out nicely for the two of us racing as well as our support crew. (Please note: if you are going to stay at the host hotel, pay up for one of the condos, which is a much better experience IMHO than the basic hotel rooms). For the big unit or the person who doesn't want to deal with hills, I would most definitely recommend this race.

For the 1000+ first timers I feel a bit sad. After months of training to have the swim cancelled is a hard thing to deal with. Yes, you crossed the finish line. Yes, you have your finishers medal, t-shirt and hat. Not sure if you really can say you checked that box off without the first 2.4 of the 140.6. It's tough, for sure, but with the conditions being what they were, better to not get the swim in than to see 100s of people DNF on the swim, or something so much worse. Safety first. WTC made the correct decision.

As for me, I am deep into my off-season doing very little in the way of swim/bike/run. Last week I started back up with the strength training, looking to build my strength back up. I will be at a few local running races in the coming weeks in participant-only mode. There's a time to stress the body. November is not that time.

Will there be another Ironman on tap for 2015? Maybe. I don't know. At some point I will contemplate what I would like to do next year. Now is not that time. The Ironman experience is too fresh to think clearly about next year.

Thanks for reading.

Train hard. Stay focused.

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