In May of 2001 I finished my first Ironman (California) in 12:55:03. I swam 1:20:34, biked 6:25:24, and barely broke five hours on the marathon running 4:59:58. In November of 2007 I finished Ironman Florida in 8:40:25. I swam 55:27, biked 4:41:12, and broke three hours on the marathon running 2:59:51. As I look back on the past seven years, I essentially think of my progression occurring in two separate blocks: the jump from 12:55 to 9:20 and the jump from 9:20 to 8:40. Both were considerably challenging, but the approaches were different. In this first installment I will cover what it took for me to make the first move.
I signed up for my first Ironman assuming it would be nothing more than an adventure to check off the list; but I finished it with a different perspective. When I was a sophomore at Texas A&M University I signed up for Ironman California (probably because of boredom). In those days you did not have to sign up years in advance, but I believe I still had a good six months notice to prepare. I had little direction or structure to any training that I did to prepare for the event. I mostly ran or rode spin bikes in the gym, and I occasionally jumped in the pool. I recall logging a handful of long rides (on a real bike) over 4 hours (maybe 4-5 total), but I did not run more than 90 minutes from February to May (race was in May) and I did not swim more than once or twice in the final month leading into the race. It was hardly anything a competent athlete would want to emulate, but it is never fun to learn things the easy way.
It is interesting to look back on my lackadaisical approach because it would be the last time I ever did such a thing (in triathlon; I still kick it otherwise). I suppose my mentality in those days was to do just enough to be good (e.g. do enough work to make a 90 on a test, not a 100). Granted, 12:55 may or may not be good depending on your criteria, but for me, “good” was associated with covering the distance in one day. As a result I did the least amount of work I felt was necessary to do just that. It was not until the start of the Ironman marathon that everything changed for me.
After cruising along in the swim on my surfboard (aka wetsuit), I hopped out and enjoyed a leisurely, albeit long, ride around beautiful Camp Pendleton. The weather was exceptionally pleasant that day (mid 60s, sunny inland, cloudy at the coast, and no wind) and as I finished the bike I thought, “so far so good.” I hit the first loop of the run and it was around this time that I saw the Deboom brothers en route to running 2:44 (Tim) and 2:47 (Tony) and placing 1st and 2nd respectively. Shortly afterwards, I saw a procession of professional triathletes running along the boardwalk over the course of 10-20 minutes. All I can remember thinking was, “Man they are running fast.” (I specifically remember seeing Michael Lovato running who is world-class-fast today.)
For whatever reason, prior to IM California I really did not comprehend the racing component to the professionals/elites in long course triathlons. All of a sudden I felt differently. I no longer felt like a hotshot on an adventure. Instead I felt like a foolish 20 year-old (which often happened, but for other reasons) that was at the wrong party. I was not disappointed in myself because I was not running 2:44 off the bike. I was disappointed in myself because I did not prepare to the best of my ability. It seemed as though everyone, from professional athletes to time-constrained age groupers, had done whatever they could to be their best on race day. There were plenty of times in the past when I wished I had put forth a better effort when I fell short, but now it actually seemed as though I might do something about it.
The next 20+ miles of the race were fairly typical of an Ironman. I felt ok through the halfway point and then it turned into a bit of a slugfest as I plodded along with a fair amount of discomfort. I actually recall that I refused to “walk” at any point, but I surely would have moved along at least at the same pace if I changed my gait to walking. I crossed the finish line and greeted my family. Everyone was proud, but I had a different perspective after all that self talk on the second loop of the run. There was a lot of irony in the pride that my family felt considering the shame (whoa… …that is way too dramatic… …how about ‘disappointment’) that I felt. Essentially, I had images in my head of the professional athletes running by me earlier in the day and I thought to myself, “I want to be like those guys.”
It would be 30 months before I raced another Ironman. It was only supposed to be 12, but a freak storm shattered Ironman Utah in June of 2002, which I had planned to be my next Ironman. It might have been nice to see how I would have faired in 12 months time, but my gut tells me I likely would have ridden too hard, so it was probably for the best. My next opportunity came in November 2003 where I went on to finish Ironman Florida in 9:20:31. In two and one half years I had knocked off three and one half hours of my Ironman finishing time.
How did I do it?
Basically, I trained as consistently as possible for those 30 months. I was in college so I had very little money to do much racing, but I had plenty of time and flexibility to train. So I did. During the first year I built up to tolerating as much as 20 hours of training, then up to 25+ hours the following year. For the final six months I focused on how to pace an Ironman and continued to train in the 25 hour range (median range; some more, some less at times).
Ok, so that was easy enough, but what was the protocol?
I had some slight variations in my basic week because of school schedules, but the same standard workouts always presented themselves.
I had three key rides a week. This usually involved two rides lasting 3-3.5 hours and one ride of 4-7+ hours (typically 5-6). All of them basically had the same structure. I warmed up as needed, then when the heart rate hit 140 the “training” began. From there I would keep my heart rate in the 140-160 range in mostly flat terrain (some rolling) with few extended breaks and nearly every ride had me sitting on 160 for the last hour in the flats. (For reference, I can race an IM bike leg with a HR of 155-160). If you think that sounds boring then you would really think it was boring when you found out it involved about three routes. Three routes over and over and over again for nearly three years. The remainder of my riding was commuting to all my classes on a bike which likely amounted to 20-60 (mostly 20) minutes per day of very easy riding 3-5 days/week.
My swimming was a little more balanced in terms of intensity and it consisted of 3-4 sessions lasting 3-5000 yards. I never really gave a lot of thought to my swimming in this time period, but I was consistent if nothing else. In actuality it was not until I spent a summer internship in Boulder in 2002 (for Inside Triathlon) that I realized that I was going to have to swim more if I was ever going to make any real progression in the sport. It was simply not enough to ride well (I was not that great of a runner at the time either). Considering that, my swim had only received about 18 months of focus leading into IMFL 2003 as opposed to 30 months for cycling and running.
My running was also fairly simple. I had a long run once a week, I ran about 30 (sometimes up to 60) minutes after every bike ride, and I ran two additional runs per week which usually averaged out to one hour each. During these sessions, I would run with a heart rate of 140-160 and I often ran all the backside of the short rolling terrain in College Station, Texas as fast I could. In other words, I tried to keep my heart rate up any time I ran downhill. That was essentially what I considered to be my speed work.
Did I ever go hard?
Yes, but it was never a staple. My swims often had some faster 100s, my rides often had short rollers which clearly spiked my power, and I went to the track from time to time (mostly whenever I felt flat). Nevertheless I can honestly say that the training protocol as a whole was difficult enough simply because of how much zone 2-3 (steady to moderately hard) type of work I did. I really never went easy. I just set out to ride, run, and swim at the fastest pace that I could back up day after day after day.
Would I change anything during this time period?
I don’t know. I basically took a Maffetone/Allen protocol to the extreme. I trained with a 140-160 heart rate until a 140-160 heart rate was not ‘slow’ any more. And believe me, it was slow. My first 3 mile MAP run test using a heart rate zone of 160-163 yielded 11:30/mile and I couldn’t even ride without using the little ring in the flats (while keeping my HR under 160).
At any rate, it does not matter whether or not my approach was the best choice. All I can say is that it worked enough for what I needed at the time. Given what I now know about physiology I cannot say that it’s a logical approach, but if you have lots of time and you like to ride your bike then it is worth a shot at some point in your career.
Now it was time to put it all together.
The final component to my jump from 12:55 to 9:20 came through an understanding of race execution, particularly on the bike. In the final 10-12 weeks before Ironman Florida 2003 I tested a variety of ways to ride 112 miles. I did some rides where I rode easy for 60 miles, then picked it up; easy for 30 miles then picked it up; steady the entire way; early surging, then steady; drilling it, etc. What I found was that I could ride quite easily for 30-50 miles without sacrificing too much time and it would still result in a good (enough) bike split (while also allowing me to run well). I also realized (from enough ride data) that I would ride slightly below, or slightly above, five hours on a flat IM course depending on the conditions.
Toeing the line at IMFL 2003 I had a very straight forward race plan:
Swim easy; ride 30 miles easy; ride 82 miles steady; run steady. The following is what resulted:
I swam 61 minutes very comfortably. I rode the first 30 miles in 1:31 (less than 20 mph), but still rode 5:02 (22+ mph) with a flat tire at mile 90. I felt fantastic starting the run and went on to run a 3:10 marathon (I ran an open marathon in 3:38 in January 2002). I had focused on a 9:17 finishing time in my head over and over again and I nearly got it considering the flat on the bike. Given my lack of experience in Ironman racing at the time I seriously doubt anyone would have believed what I thought I was capable of achieving. I figured the only way to be right was to do it.
No speculations; only what is.
I still abide by that.