The final kilometers of the run course.
Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship
Melbourne, AUS ✮ Mar 24, 2013
Ironman always takes a lot out of you, though one thing I did not expect to have taken out of me was my voice, which I lost with about 5km to go (I found myself unable to ask for anything at aid stations and just had to grab-n-go), and which did not return until about an hour and a half after I’d finished. I don’t know what caused it, and while it might have been a little scary for me and for those who are used to my being an incessant chatterbox at the finish, it also might have been a welcome reprieve for them as well. My words are now flowing freely once again, and I used the long flight back from Melbourne to put together some thoughts on the race.
Besides the obvious goal of racing and placing well, my other goal at the race was to learn. You generally learn something from every race – especially from an Ironman, but there are certainly races where there’s much more reliance on what you know works as opposed to being willing to take what are hopefully calculated risks. I went into this race prepared to risk on the swim and early in the bike in an effort to put myself “in the race” from the outset, rather than steadily pacing myself and racing largely in isolation, as I did to a large extent at both Texas and, especially, New York last year. My plan to be aggressive in terms of pacing on the swim was foiled by very rough conditions, the likes of which I have never before swam in. I lost four minutes in a shortened 1300ish meter swim, which I truly believe was less than what I would have lost in a 3.8km swim in the smooth conditions they had last year.
While my effort was certainly high, I would not say that I swam as hard – physically – as I could; I think I swam as hard – mechanically – as I could. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine running in shoes twice as big as what you normally wear. Your ability to actually run fast would be so limited by the shoes, that even running “as hard as possible,” you wouldn’t be able to run as hard as you were capable of. This race clearly favored those – like the large number of Aussies in the field, the majority of whom grow up on the ocean and swimming in the ocean – with extensive rough water experience. One of the most commonly repeated descriptions of the Melbourne swim course was that of a “protected bay” (Melbourne itself sits on a bay with virtually no tide) with generally excellent conditions. Not only did last year’s conditions not indicate that such a rough swim was possible, the general discussions about the course also did not mention the possibility. I don’t say this in an attempt to absolve myself from a lack of practice in rough seas (I live close enough to the Pacific that I could have sought out at least similar conditions), but simply as an explanation of why I didn’t think that was necessary. I will certainly make sure to include that in my preparation for next year; losing four minutes on the swim is unacceptable, and I only lost four minutes because the race organizers decided to shorten the swim.
It’s worth noting, however, that because Melbourne is a bay, unlike most ocean swims, where the waves are roughest at shore when they are breaking, there is no break in Melbourne. This chop was entirely from the wind, and the shore was the most protected part of the swim, meaning what you see there is actually the best conditions we had for the swim, not the worst. With that said, as I wrote on the Slowtwitch forum, I would have supported a decision to race the full 3.8km (say three loops of the 1300m course we did) *for pros.* I think the conditions did pose a risk for age-group, many of whom were first time Ironman competitors. Rough water swimming is a skill. And at the professional level, I don’t think we should mitigate the impact of a lack of skill.
I bring this up to differentiate it from a water temperature issue. Too cold – and even more too warm – water is a very real concern. I’m no more or less resistant to hypo/hyperthermia than anyone else, as evidenced by the tragic death of US swimmer Fran Crippen in overly warm water at an open water swim race in the Emirates. But rough seas? That is something I feel I should be expected to manage. I think logistics thwarted this – the day before, there was no indication that we wouldn’t be able to swim 3.8km on the modified course (two loops on the more sheltered southern side of the pier) to concentrate water safety personnel, and to decide on race morning to have two swims and to further delay the age-group athletes would not have been fair. But having seen what happened this year, I hope this race has a plan to execute the full 3.8km for pros if a similar situation arises again in the future. If a race encounters rough conditions for the first time, I understand being cautious. But I hope we can learn from that and make contingencies for the future that don’t involve shortening the race. There’s no reason that a great swimmer shouldn’t get the rare chance to actually capitalize on his/her ability at a race.
As a result of the rough conditions and my lack of experience, I started the bike in a relatively typical position – down a bunch to the leaders. The most effective way to have my best ride would have been to – steadily – pace my way towards the front over 180km. But I thought that same wind that whipped up the ocean might also allow me to bridge up to the front sooner with a strong effort on the first half of the first lap of the bike, where I knew we’d be fighting a headwind. Ultimately, the gap proved too great, and I wasn’t able to close the gap within one lap, and I pushed a bit hard in trying to do so and struggled to hold pace on the second lap and ended up losing time on the second outbound leg. Had I paced with the same steady and even output I used in New York or Texas, I expect I would have ridden 4:26-27 (instead of 4:30) and actually ended up essentially with the leaders by T2. But hindsight is always 20/20, and I know I can do that. I didn’t know if a riskier plan might get me into the group at the front, where I could experience the jockeying at the front that typifies championship racing and which is so valuable. I also didn’t know how I’d respond on the run to a more varied output – with a VI of 1.05, this was my most erratic Ironman ride ever (though a lot of that was the wind more than a hard first lap, since VI is calculated on a rolling 30s timeframe, and you can still have a low VI even with a ride that was “erratic” on a “macro-scale”). My failed bid meant I missed out on the chance to race the run with Crowie and Eneko, which also certainly would have been immensely valuable, but again, hindsight always makes things seem obvious.
The lack of being able to run at the front did not, however, diminish what I was fairly certain would happen regardless, which is that the depth of field in this race would make the whole marathon a race. There would always be someone to catch and always someone nipping at my heels, and that’s exactly how it played out. I came off the bike in seventh, and found myself chasing while also being chased, exactly the sort of situation you get in Kona. Steadily chipping away while also pushing the pace to keep a hard charging Chris Legh in my sites after he passed me at about 8km in made this one of the toughest runs I’ve ever had in an Ironman. Add in the constant headwind due to the point-to-point run, and it was the sort of run that teaches you a lot about what you can dig out of yourself, both mentally and physically.
My fourth place finish met my expectations of myself for the race. I think had I paced the bike more evenly, I would have finished closer to first/second/third as opposed to fifth/sixth/seventh, but I think fourth was as much as I had in me on the day. I knew that if Craig, Eneko, and Marino all performed to their level, which I think they did, that I’d need to have a best ever race in order to beat them; I’d need to reach a new level of performance. I think I’m certainly capable of that, but that was certainly less likely rather than more likely given the timing of the race. I was in the best shape of my life, but I also didn’t have the deep fitness that comes with a full season of preparation and which generally sets up those sort of breakthrough performances like I had at Ironman Texas last year. My goal was to win the race, and I think I am capable of that, but I just was not on the day.
My biggest frustration was that the swim conditions prevented me from showing the real improvements that I think I made in the pool this winter. However, they also exposed a clear deficiency. I knew I was not a great rough water swimmer, but I also didn’t not think I was that bad. And the value of a lesson like that is hard to overstate. I didn’t get as much as I’d hoped out of the race in Melbourne in terms of experience, but I do think it was a valuable learning experience, which was one of my major goals. I believe that I got enough out of the race that I will be a better athlete for having done it, even if I missed out on some of the challenges that I set for myself going in.
In addition to the piece I wrote on here before the race, I wrote a similar (though not entirely redundant) piece for Ironman.com which you can read here:
And there was great post-race analysis of my own power file from the bike (as well as that of Clayton Fettell and several of the female pros) on TrainingPeaks.com and then in a related piece on Slowtwitch.com. You can find those here:
Thanks again for the all the well wishes leading into the race and the post race congratulations. 2013 is underway. Onwards and upwards. As Simon Whitfield likes to say, the relentless pursuit continues.