Devil in the Details

1.5km + 40km + 10km = 51.5km = a world of hurt with no room for mistakes
Giant Eagle 5i50
Columbus, OH  2012.07.28
There are a lot of things to like about short course racing. From a purely physiological standpoint, there’s a tremendous benefit to working at the sorts of higher intensities required to do well at Olympic distance races. It’s especially beneficial, I think, to half-Ironman performance, since halves have become much more like a long short-course race as opposed to a short long-course race. But it’s also good for being able to take some of those risks to push the envelope a bit during an Ironman that can pay off in a big way. And, of course, there’s also the advantage that recovering from a 2-ish hour race is a lot easier than from a 4-ish hour race, meaning it’s easier to slot an Olympic distance race into the schedule without being as worried about needing to take a bunch of time to recharge, something that’s especially important as Kona draws closer. 
But I think the biggest benefit – at least to me – comes from the “experience” of racing short course. One of the very best parts is that, generally speaking, the baseline quality of swimming is pretty high – again, at least for me – in pretty much any short course race. There are just too many ex-swimmers who are giving it a go as a short-course triathlete – and those who aren’t ex-swimmers who want to have any prayer of being successful need to realize that the swim is a much bigger percentage of the overall race in an Olympic than in a half or full and train accordingly – for any Olympic distance race to have an “easy” swim. The swim is also both short enough and important enough that you typically don’t have the “settle” – once the swim groups inevitably form – that you do in long course racing. The whole 1500m is raced. And that’s a very good thing for me. One downside is that Olympic distance races very often tend to be beach starts, which half-Ironmans rarely are, and Ironmans pretty much never are (IM Melbourne sort of was, but not really…). And, as with all things, specificity counts for a lot. And since I don’t race beach starts, I don’t practice beach starts, which means I’m not very good at beach starts. It’s a worthwhile skill, but so are a lot of things. And time is time.
Transitions are also really key, and I definitely need work in transitions. While we’re on that topic, I think my T1 was slower than normal because it was not particularly warm in the morning, and my hands were cold, and I fumbled a bit more than normal with the buckle on my helmet. Certainly that’s something I could have practiced a bit more I guess, but sometimes “luck” (for lack of a better term) still plays a role. It wasn’t much colder than Vineman, where I got my helmet on no problem. But on this day, I had a bit of butterfingers working the clip. Probably karma of some sort of tweeting a picture of my helmet the day before. Though the clip-in in that caption was referring to my pedals…
In short, race execution is imperative during an Olympic distance race. It’s always critical in any race, but it’s easier to see how critical it is in a more clear way in short course races. In this race, 3rd through 6th – where I finished – was separated by a minute. 65 seconds to be exact. In every race where you don’t win, it’s inevitable to play the “where could I have found the time to have finished higher.” But in halves – and especially in Ironman races – the math is much fuzzier. Missing a swim group leads to missing a group on the bike (yeah, yeah, “non-drafting”) which leads to… There’s a lot more ripple-effect in long course. Seconds turn into minutes. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s just minutes of differences in preparedness. Though that works both ways. Sometimes small mistakes get glossed over by big differences in fitness when guys that gained a small advantage over you succumb to bigger mistakes in pacing and/or fitness. It’s easy to forget that some guy beat you out of transition when you run by him because he ran (or rode or both) foolishly. In an Olympic distance race, people don’t tend to blow up the way they do in Ironmans. Especially when the weather is good, like it was. LOTS of guys can run fast 10k’s after a hard(ish, depending) 40k bike. At least, fast in terms of Ironman-athlete speed even if not definitively (like ITU WTS) fast. 10 seconds is nothing in an Ironman. The differences in pace are just much bigger. But 10 seconds in an Olympic? That’s an eternity. You think you are closing, but then another mile – almost 20% of the run – has gone by. You don’t get second chances in Olympic distance racing. But there are plenty of second chances in Ironman, which makes it harder to realize that it actually was a second chance.
In general it’s harder in long course races to really pinpoint mistakes in the same way, especially when you are successful. And, in general, I’ve been successful at Ironman, and I think that’s probably led me to make more mistakes than I realize, because, “it all worked out in the end.” And because the whole race is a blur. And because little bad decisions ripple into much larger ones. But in an Olympic distance race, it’s much easier to say, I should have been faster in T1 because I was fumbled with my helmet. I should have ridden harder at the start of the bike course because the back half of the course was more downhill than it seemed when I drove it. I should have rolled the dice a bit more on the run. I should NOT have raced on the East Coast, because by the time my body really woke up and realized it was time to go #2, I was doing swim warm-up… Sorry about that last one, that was too much information.
That level of execution is what’s needed to do well in Kona. Crisp transitions. Not fumbling with a helmet strap. Not letting someone go that you shouldn’t. Not finding yourself in a bad position in the swim. Not finding yourself wishing you’d used the port-a-john… Again, too much information. I had a bad swim last year, and that was clearly the overwhelmingly dominant factor (along with how much racing I’d done prior) in my performance in Kona. But what if I hadn’t? What if I’d had a good swim? What mistakes did I make that I’ve overlooked because they didn’t make a difference because 12th or 13th doesn’t mean much, but would have been huge if it was that same 1-spot difference between 1st and 2nd, or even 2nd and 3rd, or 11th or 10th? I don’t know. But I was reminded of the focus that’s required to keep from making those mistakes. That as “silly” as it may seem, I need to also train packing a bag with run gear, sitting down in a chair, unpacking that bag, and putting on that run gear. Why? Because I’ll need to do it in October.
Nothing is a substitute for appropriate preparation. Certainly athletes can get overwhelmed focusing on the details and miss the big picture. There’s no substitute for being prepared physiologically. But attention to the “other” details isn’t a substitute. It’s part of what’s required to be truly excellent. And that’s what is required on October 12th. 

3 thoughts on “Devil in the Details

  1. I think it was a good point talking about the swim and run capabilities we are seeing at the Olympic distance. IF you didnt run/swim or both in college it's tough at this distance. I think it will have a ripple effect into longer distances in the next few years. Already seeing it with the ITU guys jumping into 70.3's. Good write up, and good luck.


  2. I dont do a lot of races big enough to have pros, so it's nice to read a race report from this perspective. I've only done a couple halfs, but I think this is dead on. In short course little things make big differences for people who can lay down good times in competitive divisions.


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