Back On Solid Ground

© 2014 Eric Wynn
Ironman Arizona
Tempe, AZ  2014.11.16

Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
My biggest challenge in talking about the race in Arizona will be in focusing on the race itself rather than on the conclusion of this season. I’m simultaneously writing a post about 2014, and I’ll probably do a bunch of cut-and-paste back and forth between the two. While a lot – almost all – of how I feel about the race is within the context of this year, I also have thoughts that basically start August 1st, when I decided I was not going to try to get to Kona and was going to instead going to focus on delivering a world class performance at Ironman Arizona. I set a goal of breaking eight hours, something that was clearly doable on the day as Brent McMahon decimated both the course record and the eight hour barrier to claim the win. And the way he ran (and swam and biked), that win was inevitable. I don’t think there’s anything I could have done differently with the fitness I had to change that. 
I think a perfectly executed race for me would have been four – maybe five – minutes faster. I think had I known just how strong the wind was going to be as it built up, I might have tried to conserve a bit more on the first lap in the hopes of delivering a stronger last lap. That strategy is a bit of a crapshoot in Arizona, because the second and third laps have increasingly heavy traffic, and so even if you have good legs, you may not be in a position to use them. There were plenty of times in both this race and in past trips (this is my seventh time doing this race) where I slowed way down because of congestion, not because of my legs. I think a 4:12 was doable, but could I have actually realized that time with a different strategy? Maybe not. I do think a bit more even pacing might have left me less punished by the wind and able to run a bit stronger, especially since the brutal wind was a factor on the run as well. My goal was to run a 2:51 – 1:24/1:27 splits, the first of which I did achieve, and I think I had the fitness for that. Could I have ridden 4:12 and run 2:51? The obvious answer is, “No.” Because if I could have, I would have. But there were some tactical decisions – risks – that I took that didn’t pay off. For example, when Brent passed me, I did my best to stay in contact. It was Brent’s first Ironman, and as someone with only a couple years of 70.3 experience, I thought that perhaps he had started the run a bit fast and would crack if I was able to keep some pressure on him. 
Did that decision ultimately cost me second place? Perhaps. I feel like I cost myself second with a lot of small decisions just like that one, though I’m sure that Clemente Alonso-McKernan feels similarly about his own race with regards to the win. Where could he have found some more time on the bike to hold Brent off for longer? Where could he have found some of the speed he showed on the second lap earlier in the day to hang with Brent and stay in the race? As a two-time Ironman winner, I don’t think that he finished second because that’s what he was targeting while letting Brent and I duke it out for the win. Everyone in the top-6 (I don’t know the guys who finished 7th or 8th well enough to comment there) is a veteran racer who I am sure showed up gunning to take the win. I suppose all I really mean by “how could I have held on to second?” is to simply ask, “how could I have had a better race?” given that nothing I could have done would have made a better race a winning performance on that day.
I thought I had a solid start to the day. I started near Paul Matthews and Maik Twielsek, with the intention of getting on Maik’s feet as he got on Paul’s feet, and that was pretty much exactly how it happened, right until I’d guess about 700 or 800m in when that small group at the front gapped Maik. I was pretty much on the rivet just holding Maik’s feet, so there was nothing I was going to do to be able to help there. A sign of good progress, but also of work to be done. At 51:13, it was my fastest swim since 2009, and I think we certainly could have swam faster on the way back in. The course is also not necessarily exactly the same year to year, but overall, to come out three-ish minutes down on those guys in the front was a good swim. I lost four minutes to super-swimmer David Kahn, to whom I lost 1:45 at the Princeton 70.3 (though I did lead the group there), so I feel like it was a strong swim over double the distance (where often you see much bigger gaps in the second half), and I exited the water ready to start the day, which is the best thing besides making that front group. Training the swim serves two purposes. One is obviously to get faster, but the second – perhaps more important one for age-group athletes – is to make the swim less tiring. The less the swim takes out of you, the better. Preparation for the race was remarkably consistent, pretty much since the beginning of August. Two easy swims – Monday & Saturday – of 3km, two technical-pulling sets (lots of band-only) on Tuesday & Thursday of 4km with 3km mains sets, and two hard sets –  one with a mix of pull and swim and one just swim – on Wednesday & Friday of 5-6km with main sets of 4-4.5km. Overall, the quality was very high throughout the build, and even the “not good” workouts were still “not bad” workouts, something which has been a consistent struggle for me in the swim. Having established this routine with Joel over the summer/fall, I’m excited to see what a full year of continued work along these lines will lead to. At the very least, as I’ve written before, I now know what I need to do to not have a bad swim, even as I continue to work towards the goal of putting myself in the front pack. Doing these races, you realize just how much work it takes to undo losses in the water by cycling; you spend half the bike ride just getting back to zero. And then you can start to really do some damage. Assuming you paced that “getting back to zero” part correctly.
The bike was the bike. The first lap was clear roads and low wind, and I felt awesome. The second lap was not such clear roads, some strong winds that really drained you and made you feel like for every bottle you drank you wished you’d drank two, but still with really good legs. Coming through the second turnaround on pace to ride sub-4:10, I felt like I was right where I had hoped to be. But the wind and – perhaps – the pace given the strong winds, which means your body has to work not only to drive the bike forwards but also to keep it steady, had taken their toll. For laps, I averaged 300/280/250 for normalized watts, and I think I could have done something closer to 290/280/270. In my experience, on this course, it’s impossible not to positive split the power, but I think that something like what I laid out would have gotten me those extra two minutes and probably been less costly to the body as well. In theory anyway… Based on the way I performed in training, I don’t think I was unreasonable in thinking that 300/290/280 was doable. And I still think that is, just need more quality miles in the legs. 
I knew that the conditions had punished me more than I had anticipated when I never found quite the same rhythm starting the run as I did in training. I fell into a much faster – and easier – rhythm off similarly powered rides (I did 4:30 on my TT bike at almost identical watts in training – albeit in easier conditions and with the typical stop and go of training and also 4:45 at bigger watts on my road bike at altitude with very little stoppage) and ran off much more crisply than I did in the race. Should I have drank more? I drank six bottles in just over four hours, which I think is pretty good. So could I have drank more? Maybe. Probably. I tend to think the biggest limiter was that I just need months of the sort of really good training that I had before this race, rather than just weeks. I found a good – really good – groove, and I think I’ve laid a solid foundation that Joel can put both more volume and more intensity on top of for 2015, and that I’ll be able to back up the sort of power I showed in training even in tough race conditions like we had on Sunday.
As far as the run, my running in training was really in a good place. Much like the swimming, I feel like my running was making a lot of forward progress. I think that I didn’t get to show it because of a lack of bike/overall depth of fitness. For both swimming and running, I really was able to prepare the way I wanted to prepare for this race. On the bike, it’s tougher because bike training really serves – at least for me – more of double duty. I use – and I think most triathletes do as well – my biking not only to develop bike-specific fitness, but also the deep general fitness I need for racing. Biking is really the only way for me to get in workouts that – by duration/load – mimic a race. Some longer rides and some higher intensity rides will, I think, round out what I need for racing, and I don’t expect to ride too much faster – just hopefully more evenly, but I expect to run a lot faster. 
Nothing really too surprising. I knew the weaknesses I had coming into the race, and the wind on the bike exposed them a bit more than I expected given what the weather is typically like at this race. Not that I would have necessarily prepared any differently this year; I’m still at a point where Joel is taking the long view, and putting a solid foundation in place for 2015 trumped doing specific work that might have paid off short term but also might not have had the same long term benefits. It’s somewhat strange to think that I’d have done better in milder conditions given that – in the past – I’ve tended to thrive in tough conditions. But much of that comes from how I trained, and I’m not quite yet fully back there – at least with regards to bike training and “overall” training. But I feel like I’m in a good place. After taking second place last year, I felt like I needed a huge break, and I took almost two months off. After this race, I feel a lot like I did in 2008 and 2010, when I came 3rd and 4th respectively – satisfied with what I got out of myself, but eager to get back into training and to build on what was clearly a robust foundation. When I think of how 2009 and 2011 turned out, I feel like that’s a good place to be. The bar has certainly been raised, but I feel like even if I am not yet at the level I need to be at, I’m at least not falling behind. 2008, I was third in 8:19. 2010, I was 4th in 8:16. This year, 3rd in 8:03. After a lot of slipping and sliding, it feels good to be back on solid ground.
Sorry for the rather boring, “so this is how I swam, biked, and ran…” race report. I’ve got some more thoughts coming, on 2014 as a whole and one other big change, that will hopefully be more interesting reads.

5 thoughts on “Back On Solid Ground

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