I’ve written quite a bit about the Leadman race experience and my enthusiasm about the new race in Bend, OR on September 22, and over the course of the next month, I’ll be writing a three part series comparing Leadman and Ironman. In 2011, I followed almost exactly the same schedule only instead of racing Ironman Texas and Wildflower two weeks apart, I did Leadman Epic 250 Las Vegas and Wildflower two weeks apart. With the race in Texas still fresh in my mind and the 250 in Las Vegas indelibly imprinted on it, this first article will be a comparison of the two races. While I’m obviously less familiar with the core aspects of the 250 – as everyone is – having done the one and only (so far) Epic 250, I’ll do my best to try to work through what I see as some of the fundamentals of the racing a 5km/223km/22km race and what I see as unique to the Las Vegas race and, in particular, the Las Vegas race on it’s old date in mid-May, which is quite a bit hotter – though it was actually less windy – than the new date at the end of March.
Weather will almost inevitably always play a major role in the race in Las Vegas, regardless of date, whereas as I think we’re all hopeful that it will be less of a factor in Bend in September. But, as with any race, weather can obviously change things dramatically. The second article will focus on training for the two races, something where there is a lot of similarity given the overall duration, and the third and final article will focus on recovery from each since, despite the similarities in terms of duration, the format is quite different. Before I get into the meat of the subject, let me say that I enjoyed my one race at the 250 distance immensely. However, I also – I think obviously – enjoy the 226 (or 140.6 for us Americans) distance a great deal as well. I don’t think one is better (or worse) than the other. I think they present distinct and unique challenges while still having enough in common to appeal to a similar crowd. If you like racing Ironman, I think you’ll like Leadman. At some fundamental level, you need to be the right kind of crazy; swimming, biking, and running for pretty much the whole day has to sound like “fun” to you. If you’re weird enough to think that’s a good idea – I know I am – come on board.
Ultimately, when it comes to execution on race day, I think it’s best to start with how long you expect to be out there. No matter how you break up nine-plus hours of swimming, biking, and running, your intensity is going to be pretty much the same. Obviously there are a whole host of different metrics – FTP, CP, etc. – but basically, I’d say that you are going at about 75% for an Ironman, and I think it works out to about the same effort level at Leadman. Even though you are using different muscle groups when you change sports, your cardiovascular system is still under load the entire time. And, I think, that’s ultimately what limits you. That might change if someone creates a race with an absurdly long run, where you’ve got a relatively short bike and swim and then something like a 50mile run, but for something that has a reasonable proportion of swim, bike, run, I think this pacing guideline holds.
I’m always really nervous before the swim start of any race. And, in speaking with other athletes – except those weirdos who were/are “real swimmers” – I don’t seem to be alone in this regard. The one exception to this was the 250 last year. This because the swim itself is actually quite a bit longer at 5km than an Ironman at 3.8km, and the race is really defined largely by the bike and, to a lesser extent, the run. The fields at Leadman are, also, quite a bit smaller (at least for now), which makes the swim start a much more relaxed affair. It’s a long swim. A really long swim. But I also found it to be really enjoyable. I was able to just find a rhythm and hold it. Obviously this may change as the pro fields (and age-group fields) grow at these races, but I think that Ironman seems to be about as far as I’d want to go being outside of my comfort zone for any long period of time. I think that you can take a bit more of a laissez faire attitude to the swim in these races, and really swim within yourself.
I will say that if you feel that you are just barely prepared for a 3.8km swim, then 5km is going to seem like an eternity. More on that when I talk about training. But if you struggle with the swim portion of an Ironman from a fitness standpoint, that’s something to address before tackling a 250. However, if you struggle with the swim from the perspective of the crowds and the washing machine at the start, I think Leadman will offer a welcome change. The swim is the start of a long day. And while the advantage of a draft in the swim is massive, I think that the added distance on the swim means you have to be more careful about pushing the envelope to stay on someone’s feet. Of course, if you can find someone – or a group – to work well with, that’s going to make the swim a lot more enjoyable. If the water’s warm but still wetsuit legal, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to “lose” your cap to keep from overheating during your long stretch in the water – as I did in Las Vegas – but of course, I didn’t actually suggest that.
One other thing to consider is that you’ll be without nutrition or hydration for 20-30 (or more, depending on your speed) minutes than in an Ironman. That can be a big deal. This is a good place to segue into discussion of the bike, because that means you want to make sure you take in some calories right away on the bike or even in T2. But it’s also important because I think this race, perhaps even more than an Ironman, highlights the importance of a good breakfast. Figuring out how to eat a good breakfast – and committing to doing so in spite of any nervousness – is of paramount importance with a longer swim. For those folks who are going to push the envelope on the swim cutoff especially, you will have gone a very long time without calories. Making sure you are well fueled before the swim start is going to set you up for success in a big way.
The first thing you need to do when you get on your bike is eat. Normally, I make sure to eat within 20min or so of getting on my bike during an Ironman, but in a Leadman 250, I’ve spent that time in the water. So I need to get on the calorie train right away. In any long course event, calorie management is huge. But with T1 and T2 being further apart, both from the start and from each other than in an Ironman, you can’t take the same opportunities to “reset” that you might in the shade of a change tent. However, as with any long course race, it’s never worth “pushing” through stomach problems. If your gut shuts down, just pull over at an aid station, get off your bike, and recover. Do this early on – take 10-15min to sort yourself – and your day will be a lot better than if you try to push on through. Even if you somehow managed to finish in the same time – which is unlikely; consider that if you walk two (only TWO!) miles, that’s your 10-15min rest at the side of the road – you’ll probably be a lot happier if you get yourself settled early. Just as with an Ironman, there’s a lot of time for things to go wrong, AND there’s a lot of time to fix things and turn your day around and make things go right as well. And getting started off on the right track by eating ASAP after swimming is the first step. From there, the bike portion is just like an Ironman, only magnified. Your mistakes with pacing with be magnified.
Do not underestimate how much further 43km is. Your mistakes in training – again, we’ll get to that – will be magnified. If you were barely prepared for 180km, 223km is going to seem endless. But if you are prepared, you’re going to enjoy yourself since the bike portion is such a massive percentage of the race – close to 70%. The guideline that it’s best to start easy in an Ironman is a concrete law with a bike this long. You will most certainly be ready to get off your bike at the end of the ride – it’s just far – but you will enjoy yourself a great deal more if you aren’t ready to get off your bike after two or three hours. I’d say it’s virtually impossible to ride too easy in the first hour. And, overall, if you want to wait until the halfway point to open it up, I think you’ll be well served. The Leadman bike motto is like the real estate agent’s motto – “patience, patience, patience.”
Pacewise, I approached it pretty much the same as an Ironman. I figured that I could go slower because it was longer, but I basically took the approach that the run was shorter, so going harder was okay. This ties in to my theory that there’s a general way to approach a triathlon of this duration that’s correct, and variances in the distances of each leg don’t affect pacing too much. So, could I have paced the bike slower and the run faster? Yes, I think so. But would that have netted me a faster overall time? I’m not sure. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about a big variance. I’m saying should I have gone 2-3% easier on the bike. I sort of feel like once you get into something as long as an Ironman, that’s sort of all day pace. Or, in my case, 8-10 hour pace. I think if you are honest about the way you approach the Ironman bike, you can approach the Leadman bike the same way. That extra 43km is going to be tough, for sure. It’s quite different when you hit 100 miles and realize that you have 39 miles to go instead of 12, but I think that’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one. And I think you can offset it by realizing you only have 14 miles to run, not 26.
Again, I think there’s probably room for refinement in pacing here, and if you want to back off your Ironman pace by as much as 5%, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But if you want to shoot for your 112mi pace, I think you can have confidence in that approach as well. But remember, it’s a long way to T2, so it’s imperative that you stick to your nutrition. Nutrition is really the fourth discipline of long course (as opposed to transitions, which are the fourth discipline of short course), and I think this is especially true for Leadman because the first two legs are so long. This was the first race I can remember where I actually fully stopped at aid stations and unclipped to make sure I got the nutrition I needed. You’re going to be most of the way done by the time you hit the run, so it’s important to fuel yourself well because while 14 miles isn’t that far, it’s far enough.
This is the one area where I think I have the most to learn about how to pace these races. This for two reasons. The first is that because the bike ride is so long, it’s generally likely that things will be reasonably well sorted out by the end of the bike and that the gaps between athletes – at least at the pro level – will probably be quite large. And the run is not long enough to really allow you to mow someone down unless they absolutely blow to pieces, which is certainly possible in 22km (14mi), but less likely. While this isn’t really a concern for age-group athletes, I do think that when pro athletes start to push each other, that can reveal a lot of what is truly possible in a race like this. You look at a race like the Ironwar between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, and I think that showed a lot about just how hard you could race an Ironman. And while I’m thankful to have not been neck-and-neck with another athlete in T2 last year, I expect that might reveal a lot about how you really can run 14miles after a long bike. The Abu Dhabi Triathlon seems like it might have been a good reference, because that certainly comes down to a foot race, but with 2km less on the swim and a 20km shorter bike over much faster terrain, I think it’s much less comparable than the numbers might seem to indicate.
The second reason that I think there’s still a lot to learn about pacing the run is that the Bend run course is very different than the Las Vegas run course. The Vegas run course from Boulder Beach to Boulder City is unlike any course I’ve ever done. It’s all uphill. And not just a little bit uphill. It’s a big hill. Really big. And did I mention that it’s all – 100% uphill. No downhill. None. So that’s odd. And I’m very interested to see how the Bend race unfolds on a more “normal” run course. That being said, I’m certainly going to go in with the expectation of pacing it more along the lines of an Ironman run than a half. Pretty much everyone fades in the latter half of an Ironman, but with this run, my goal will be to simply hang on to that faster average pace, knowing that it’ll all be over right about the time – or distance – that an Ironman starts to get really hard.
As I mentioned in the bike portion, nutrition is really the fourth discipline of ultra distance racing. And Leadman is no different. While the weather in Las Vegas last May obviously highlighted that fact, that’s always going to be the case in races this long. I think the nutritional approach is basically the same as for an Ironman. But I think that Leadman exposes problems in a more immediate way than in an Ironman. With Ironman, I think pacing problems on the bike usually manifest themselves in walking on the marathon, especially in the latter half. And while you might look at the race and say, “there is no latter half,” which is true, I think pacing problems can show up at the end of the bike and almost immediately on the run. The 14 mile run – from a pacing perspective – likely has more in common with the last – rather than first – 14 miles of an Ironman marathon. With such a long swim, deficiencies in your breakfast are going to be magnified. And with such a long bike, deficiencies in nutrition and pacing can hit you hard on the bike, and the equivalent of walking instead of running while cycling is – in my opinion – much more unpleasant. So when you approach this race, nutrition (and pacing, which are inextricably linked in any endurance event) are paramount.
In the next piece, I’ll cover some of what I think is important to focus on in training – beyond just the obvious advice that you should swim more, bike more, and run less than for an Ironman. And, after that, I’ll go over some of the recovery aspects, which I can say after looking back over my Ironman recoveries are quite different, with each presenting it’s own challenges, though with pretty different timeframes in each case. At some point, I’ll also be doing some talks about the new course in Bend, though I think it’s a more “normal” course with less of the “drama” of the Las Vegas course. At the very least, the run isn’t a mountain climb!
If I haven’t scared you off, you can register for either the Epic 250 (what I’ll be doing) or the 125 in Bend, OR on Sept. 22 for only $125.00 (that’s only $0.50/km for the 250!) using the code LEADMANRAPP here: http://www.leadmantri.com/
Hope to see you there. Feel free to fire off any questions using the form at the right or using the comments section of this post.