The Engineer’s Lament

Cyanide & Happiness © Dave McElfatrick
Ironman World Championships
Kailua-Kona, HI  2015.10.10
Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway. – John Wayne
No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle. – Winston Churchill
Before you read any further on this, there are two separate articles that serve as a sort of adjunct or prelude. The first is Malcolm Gladwell’s article in “The New Yorker,” from which I borrowed the title. It’s a good read without too much of Malcolm’s signature “Gotcha!” style, which I love but also hate. The main topic that it delves into is how engineers tend to see things. If you start with the joke about the priest, the doctor, and the engineer playing golf and read through the line about Toyota’s engineers saying, “play at night.” that’s probably enough. But the whole thing is a good read. 
The second read is a bit more philosophical, though I happen to think the engineering mentality is very philosophical. It’s Heather Wurtele’s post about her race, which unfortunately ended quite prematurely due to an unfixable (on-course anyway) technical issue. I had sort of made my peace with what happened on Saturday, but after reading Heather’s report, I felt more than just as sense of closure; I felt a much greater sense of accomplishment.
One of the most common questions for professional triathletes, one that I’m lucky to not be asked much anymore and which I am very lucky that my parents never asked me in the first place, is, “when are you going to get a real job?” A slight variation on this – the one that I often like to ask other pros – is, “what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t doing this?” I’ve been doing this long enough now that I find it hard to imagine doing anything else. But for a while, my answer was that I’d like to work for the NTSB. The NTSB is responsible for figuring out why things go wrong when big things go wrong in civilian transportation. Plane crashes are the big things it does, but it has other responsibilities. But at its core, the NTSB’s job is to figure out why when “shit happens” involving airplanes falling out of the sky. “Shit happens” is not an acceptable reason for an NTSB engineer. I’ve said before that there are two basic types of engineers. There are the creative types. And there are the debuggers. The creative types make stuff. And the debuggers figure out how that stuff will break. I’m a debugger. I’m a little bit creative, but mostly I’m a pessimist. I manage to travel with fewer spares and fewer tools to races now than I once did, but I still walk a fine line between paranoid and preparedness. I have had engineering-type shit happen at races and, rarely, during races, but I’ve never had it really affect the outcome of the race. At least not until Saturday.
During the swim, my primary goal was, “do not lose the race.” I continue to work on becoming a better swimmer, but once race day comes, my primary goal is simply to get out of the water with a manageable gap to the front of the race and without too much fatigue. I’m a relatively terrestrial triathlete. I win races on the bike and run. But I can definitely lose races on the swim, a la Kona 2012. My goal was to not do that. I wanted to exit the water within four minutes of the lead group, which I did. It wasn’t my best swim, the sort of swim that sets you up for a breakthrough performance, but it was good enough. My goal was to finish in the top-10, and I believed it was still possible. Boris Stein of Germany, who finished 10th, was the only person to not swim in the front pack or off-the-front who made the top-10, but so what. He did it. So it was doable.
I paced the early part of the bike fairly well, and I was starting to see the effects of the typically crazy early pacing, which I consciously avoided, when I felt my saddle shift underneath me. This was about 20mi (30km) into the ride, or about 45min. At first I thought my seat post clamp had slipped, which is odd because I epoxy it in place because I know that seat post clamps do slip when people hit bumps or potholes or anything else. But then I reached down under the saddle and felt around and felt a crack. My first thought was that the shell had cracked where the metal rail inserts into the plastic shell. This was odd because I was, quite literally, “just riding along” (known as “JRA;” there’s a joke in the bike industry that all catastrophic accidents happen while people are JRA. “I was just riding along when [insert catastrophe here]…”). The saddle was neither new nor what I would consider old. I had about two years and probably 8,000 miles on this saddle, which about eight months and 3,000 of those miles with this saddle clamped in this seat post. I had a new bike for the race, but I just moved my whole seat post assembly over from my old bike to the new one. 
What had actually happened was one of the saddle’s rails had snapped. I was able to manage it by sliding back a bit (as opposed to nose riding as I prefer to do) and sort of putting my weight more on the saddle as opposed to torquing it sitting on the front. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t terrible. But the more I rode, the worse it got, as without the support of a structurally sound rail assembly, the other rails kept snapping until I had broken the rails in four places. Each of the saddles two rails had snapped, both in front of and behind the clamping mechanism. By the time I was climbing to Hawi, my saddle shell was basically floating around on the top of the seat post, held on by a mix of gravity and concavity. I ended up essentially sitting on the side of the seat, which was now the top of the seat, and standing relatively regular to sort of shift the saddle back into place and also to stretch my legs since my saddle was also now quite a bit lower than it was supposed to be by virtue of no longer actually being attached to anything. I tried not to stand too much, worried that was going to recreate the dark humor of my all-time favorite Cy & H strip (see above), which is incredibly crude and irreverent but also very funny. At least if you ride your bike alone a lot and have weird thoughts occupy your brain for countless hours…
At that point, I thought I had three options. The first was the simple one. I stop. I call it a day. I go race Arizona. The second was that I keep riding, try to keep the saddle on as best as I can, and just essentially stand for most of the ride. This seemed like it would be doable, but there was probably no way I could run afterwards. The third was to try to get a new saddle. But how? Would neutral support have a spare saddle? I thought they’d probably at least be able to get one. Maybe.
It could have been worse…
As I neared the top of the Hawi climb, I finally saw the neutral support car (the motos have only wheels), and I flagged them down. I rolled through the turnaround and pulled over next to the car, where the SRAM NRS (Neutral Race Support) guys were waiting with a front wheel and a back wheel, certain that I had flatted. Because that’s the normal thing that happens during races. As I stopped and dismounted, I said, “I need a saddle.” I think I probably said this at least one more time, because this is not a normal thing to need, but once I did, the guys pulled a bike off the roof (I think it was the personal bike of one of the guys helping), pulled his saddle off, loosened my saddle clamp and pulled out the two rails that were still stuck in there without a shell attached, and got the saddle mounted. Unfortunately, because it’s a somewhat normal thing for seat posts and saddle hardware to slip, I have everything glued in place. It’s no big deal when traveling, because of how the Dimond breaks down. But what it means is that the saddle height and, critically, saddle pitch are fixed for the saddle that I ride. The height was not a big deal. Saddle height is relatively easy to work around and even a few centimeters of differences is manageable. Pitch, on the other hand is a big deal. I run my saddles at between 0.0 and -0.3 degrees of pitch. Essentially, my saddle is perfectly level. And I’m neurotic about this. The new saddle, measured post race, was pitched at +6.0 degrees. On the bright side, I could actually sit on it because it wasn’t broken. On the not so bright side, sitting on it meant either sitting on the very tip pointed up and driving into my prostate or sitting back on it with my pelvis posteriorly (rather than anteriorly) rotated in the way that you might ride a mountain bike to keep traction on the rear wheel and keep the front wheel light for rolling over obstacles. But neither of this is really how you should ride a TT bike. Certainly not a course like the one in Hawaii. 
Cyanide & Happiness © Rob DenBleyker
The worst part of this was the descent from Hawi. That typically requires high cadence riding because of the high speeds, and generally power is low. My forearms and shoulders and upper back were screaming because I basically had to put all my weight on them. When you ride, your weight is distributed between your arms (or hands on a road bike), your saddle, and your feet. The harder you ride, the more weight goes to your feet, because of Newton’s Third Law. This is why TT bikes are great when you are racing but are not so great for riding to the coffee shop at a leisurely pace. I was pretty sure I could finish the ride, and given that your arms aren’t too necessary for running, I thought I might be okay for the marathon, though the tension in my upper back and neck was a bit of an issue. Once I got down from Hawi and back onto the Queen K, I sort of found a manageable rhythm of sitting on the tip, sitting on the back, and then standing. I continued to focus mostly on nutrition and hydration, at least because it was something else to think about. I was pretty sure my plan for a top-10 was done. But I thought that I could still finish the race, and that was important to me. Really important. The feeling of not finishing in 2013 still haunts me. That emptiness from IMAZ 2011, Kona 2013, and IMTX 2015 – my three Ironman DNFs – was awful. Especially Kona. I knew I wanted to finish. In 2012, when I finished 13th, I so buried myself that I don’t really remembering anything from the race. I don’t remember Ali’i, or crossing the finish, or much of anything. At the very least, I wanted a happy memory of Ali’i, and simply finishing after all this was going to be something to celebrate.
I managed to keep my power reasonably high – which helped with the discomfort by shifting weight to my feet – but I had to sit up and stand a lot. And on the Queen K that’s a killer. I lost virtually all the time I lost from Hawi back to Kona. I basically stayed even, pace-wise, with the leaders to Hawi. On the way back, I lost 12 or so minutes just on the return trip. Most of that was fighting the bike. I was stopped for less than three minutes swapping on the new saddle. The major time losses were when I was riding. I got some relief around the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, when the headwind picked up. With the wind pushing into me and giving me steady resistance, I was able to actually push decent power which made things much more tolerable as way more weight was on my feet. I passed quite a few people struggling – a reminder as to the penalty of mis-pacing – on the way in, and I started to be a bit optimistic. I thought maybe riding easier than I had expected would mean fresh legs and a ripping fast run. I know I can run sub-2:50, and that would have been a great way to finish. 
Getting off the bike, I came into T2 with Matt Trautman and Lionel Sanders, both of whom are among the best runners in the sport. It was good company to be in if I wanted to run fast. But unfortunately, the reality of riding 150 of 180km with either a broken seat or a wonky seat had pretty well wrecked my legs. I had a lot of pain my left achilles and both of my glutes were seriously angry after doing extra work in the my big-slam-esque position and both of my hamstrings were unhappy about the extra work they had to do when I was sitting in my on-the-point-of-the-needle position. Sub-2:50 quickly changed to 2:55 quickly changed to sub-3 quickly changed to just-keep-running-and-don’t-injure-yourself-and-leave-something-in-the-tank-for-IMAZ. And that’s pretty much what I did. I never walked. I just ran the pace that was comfortable, whatever that was. I was diligent about fueling and hydrating at the aid stations. And I mostly just treated it like a longest ever training day. I mean, if Jens Voigt could ride a kid’s bike to a stage finish in the TdF, I could do this.
If Jens can ride a kid’s bike in the TdF, I could ride a broken saddle…
For most of the run, I tried to just focus on other things. I tried to be extra thankful to the volunteers, as opposed to just grunting appreciation. I cheered on other competitors. I high-fived. I enjoyed myself. And when I got to Ali’i Drive, I soaked it all in. I wanted a great memory, and I have one. Looking back on the race, I figure that if I had been able to execute according to how I felt early in the bike, based on what I’ve done before, based on the speed guys rode at given wattages, I think that I lost between 20 and 25 minutes in total. That’s a lot. 25 minutes has me fighting for 6th place with Cyril Viennot. And 20 minutes has me fighting for 10th with Boris Stein. I feel like that was the day I could have had. Of course, I could have blown up and ridden slower. Or run slower. Or both. Or DNFed. Ultimately, I finished 21st, salvaging some pride by not getting chicked the phenomenal Daniela Ryf and also justifying all those hours spent training by also beating all the age-groupers. Barely. And I had an awesome time. And I’m way, way, way, way less sore than if I had to race 140.6 miles. And while I’m obviously disappointed, I’m trying not to dwell on it. I’m trying to use it as motivation for what seems like my inevitable race at IMAZ on November 15th. I hadn’t planned on it, but it seemed to have planned on me. This is my 8th time at that race.
The biggest takeaway for me, and I hope for all of you, is that while 25 minutes is a lot, it’s also not a lot. I mean, I still would have been in contention for the win and certainly for a paycheck at most other Ironman races. Ironman is a long day, and you have a lot of time to fix problems. I’m proud of the way that I kept my cool and focused on the really important stuff – hydration and fueling and pacing. Not to say that a working bike isn’t important. But a mostly working bike is pretty good. It’s hard to have a great race in Kona. But if you are reasonably disciplined, I don’t think it’s hard to have a good race. And I think I had a good race. And I hope I can use that in the future when some other thing doesn’t go my way, because it’s certainly going to happen again. Hopefully not this, but something will.
And that brings me to the conclusion of this whole thing. The NTSB part of it. How hopeful can I be that this sort of thing won’t happen again? What’s noteworthy is that I talked on Slowtwitch Forums about this failure, and some other folks chimed in with their own experiences. A friend of mine also wrote to tell me that he had experienced the same failures twice. And John Cobb now makes my preferred saddle, the SHC170, with hollow cro-moly steel rails instead of the solid titanium rails that were present on my saddle. My initial reaction to this was anger. It was the emotional response. The typical public response. 
But then I started thinking like an engineer. On the flipside of this is that I’ve ridden this saddle for many miles without a problem. And more than that, I’ve ridden some variation of this saddle for a lot of miles.  I’ve ridden an HC or SHC 170 saddle from 2009-2015 (except for 2014) without an issue. Probably 50-60,000 miles. And I would typically ride a saddle for two years or more. In that time, I had three different types of clamping hardware: Thomson and Specialized and, for 2015 only, Dimond. This was my first issue. 
The problem clearly happens, but it’s not overwhelming. I described it as unlikely, but definitely not impossible or even improbable. And it seems, at first glance anyway, to be a function of more than just the saddle. John has seen it with the Cervelo most often, but I haven’t asked what other bikes are on the list. I have now seen it with a Dimond. My friend Jay saw it twice on a SpeedConcept, but using the old-style clamp that was identical to the Specialized clamp that I never had an issue with. So, basically, there is no clear conclusion. It was enough a problem that John switched to cro-mo, but not enough of a problem that I couldn’t log countless miles without an issue until Saturday. 
I do note that Kraig Willet’s (of BikeTechReview) broken Fizik also had solid Ti rails. And that Fizik no longer uses solid Ti but instead carbon, cro-mo, or a their own proprietary k:ium alloy. Hollow metal rails seems like a better idea to me than solid, as they should be more likely to buckle than fracture. And steel is usually tougher than titanium. But was solid titanium a bad choice? Or just not the best choice? It’s lighter, but not by much. Of course, “not by much” can add up if everyone takes that approach to every part. It’s all about balance. And for the better part of my career, that balance seemed just fine. Was ignorance bliss? Or am I just responding emotionally because it was my race and not someone else’s?
Would Denny Gioia have issued a recall on saddles with these rails? Would I? I doubt it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t have. Apple changed the design of the new iPhone 6S to make it more structurally rigid. Is that an acknowledgement that the iPhone 6 has a problem with bending? Or is it just an improvement? It seems clear that there is a better way to do things – make the saddle with hollow steel rails as opposed to solid titanium rails – but does that mean that the old way was bad? I don’t think so. I had no reason to be anything but confident in my equipment. And I still don’t. 
Racing is about tradeoffs in all aspects. This is true of bicycle frames, clothing, tires, running shoes, etc. As Gladwell says, there are specifications and there are tolerances. It’s the engineers job to manage those balances. And for two years, the engineer that decided on solid titanium alloy rails was right. If I had ridden four less hours in the past year, would the seat have broken on my next ride instead of race day? Or I had ridden one more hour in the past year, would I have broken it the day before the race instead of the day of? These are the sorts of questions that can haunt you. And this is where Heather’s post gave me so much. By default, I tend to care about numbers. And the numbers justified my riding this saddle without worry. And not only riding it on race day, but continuing to ride it. But emotion, because I had invested so much in the race, made me angry. At first, I was frustrated. By “bad luck” or “fate” or, since it’s Hawaii, “Madame Pele.” Then when I found out that Cobb had changed the rail material, I was angry. Why wasn’t there a recall? But then I started thinking like an engineer again. 60,000 miles without a problem. Thousands of saddles sold and ridden without problems. The problem was unlikely, but not impossible and not improbable. So what do you do? What if I had switched saddles right before the race because of finding out the day before that the saddles now had steel rails instead of titanium? Would that have been smart? I had 8,000 miles telling me not to worry. And, imagine I got some saddle sore, or the saddle slipped, or some other possible though unlikely problem had happened. I’d be sitting here kicking myself for making a change so close to race day.
Heather summarized the value in the process extraordinarily well. And I think I got the process right, finally. I did too much in 2012 and not enough in 2013 and this time I feel like I split the difference. This time I got it right. At least, I think so. And while it’s frustrating, especially at 35 where I don’t have unlimited chances left, the journey was still worth it. Even without the chance for IMAZ in five weeks. And even more so with it. Teddy Roosevelt’s “…in the arena” quote is so overused and cliched that I’m a bit loathe to include it. But it really is such a great quote. And since Heather didn’t include it, I feel okay ending on that note. On knowing that I not only was in the arena, I was in the arena and having prepared to be there. And that’s worth a whole lot. Even for an engineer…
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt

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