In Part One I discussed my 30-month progression from a 12:55 Ironman finishing time to a 9:20 finishing time. In this edition I will cover the move from 9:20 to 8:40 which took four years to accomplish.
Moving from 9:20 to 8:40 was clearly marked by two things in my opinion. The first, and probably the most important, was making sure I backed up one solid race with another. Knowing that I could do something once meant little if I could not do it again. The second piece to the puzzle was overcoming a mental weakness. Halfway along this journey I found myself in a thinking pattern that was 180 degrees from where I began. In order to make a physical breakthrough I had to breakthrough mentally as well.
Eleven months after finishing Ironman Florida 2003 in 9:20, I was set to race Ironman Hawaii for the first time in 2004. Fifteen minutes before the Kona 2004 start I remember consciously thinking back on the good fortune I had for toeing the line that day. Seven weeks prior to the race I was nearly convinced that I had wrecked my season, but thankfully I had not.
Those that read Part One will recall that my primary protocol in the early years consisted of “training with a 140-160 heart rate until a 140-160 heart rate was not slow anymore.” That still rang true for the bulk of my training in 2004, but in the final 12 weeks before Kona I was set to make a “push.” I had lofty goals of trying to win my Age Group in Kona and I felt that running as “close to 3 hours as possible” was what it was going to take for me to do it.
In order to do so, I put together two very challenging run sessions per week. One involved running the rolling asphalt service roads near Melissa, Texas as: steady in the flats, hard on the uphills, and a fast turnover on the downhills. I usually did these runs around noon when it was well over 90 degrees (poor decision of an otherwise clever session). The second key run workout involved a long run broken down as: 2 mile jog warm up followed by 2 x 15K (two laps of Whiterock Lake in Dallas) descending the pace throughout the session. The last half of the second 15K was to be run as hard as I could go.
My cycling and swimming did not change much. The only major change I can remember (also occurring in the final 12 weeks) is that one day a week near the end of a 3 hour ride I would stop outside of Howe, Texas and buy a couple cokes from the general store. Once I got back on the road it was about 20K to the Melissa City Limit sign and I would ride as hard as I could to that point. I called it the “whatever you have left” session. Sometimes I managed a good effort; other times it was nothing more than a little tempo. At any rate, I felt that doing this when fatigued would keep me from frying myself. (I actually think the opposite way now).
Everything was going well until seven weeks out from the race when I could not run.
To this day I am not sure what the actual injury was, but the best way I can describe it is as follows: sharp, acute pain below either side of my ankle and above the actual heel. It hurt so badly that I could not run whatsoever. I went to see a doctor at Baylor Sports Medicine in Houston and even he/they could not conclusively determine what was wrong with me unless I had an MRI. I might have gotten one, but the protocol for recovery would not have changed (according to the Doctor) whether it was a stress fracture or another overuse injury. Given that, I decided to wait it out and hope for the best.
Four weeks out from the race I was running again, but I was not pain free. My general rule of thumb was that I would allow myself to run so long as 1) I was not using any painkillers and 2) my technique was not altered by the pain. I kept the faith and three days out from the race I was pain free.
Seriously. Three days out. No pain.
I have never relied on luck, but I certainly don’t turn it down when it shows itself.
Back to 15 minutes before the race…
Ironman Hawaii 2004 went well for me. My swim was nothing to write home about (in fact it was poor), but I made good progress on the bike (on a very rough and windy day) and three miles into the run I was passed by Jose Jeuland: an 18-24 Age Grouper from France. As he slowly pulled ahead of me I had two thoughts run through my mind:
1) 99% of folks (Age Group) running that fast in the first 10K of the race will blow themselves up.
2) If he does not blow up he will beat me.
I came to Hawaii hoping to take a step forward in this sport and I felt that if I let him pull away I would fall short of that goal. I decided to hang in there so I settled in around 30 meters behind him and stayed there… …all the way through town, down the Queen K, in and out of the Energy Lab, and back onto the Queen K. Around mile 22 I pulled alongside him and we ran side by side only speaking when we called out desperately for Coke at each aid station. As we neared Palani hill he put on a monster (as I remember it) attack and I had no answer. From there he opened up a 5 second lead and I went bombing down Palani and Ali’i Drive in hopes of taking back those few seconds. The gap held all the way until the finish line and I lost by less than 20 meters.
While it hurt to “lose,” it felt great to fight. For nearly 23 miles I had raced someone head to head at the Ironman World Championship. Jose and I actually finished 2nd and 3rd in our Age Group, but we thought we were fighting for first (Michael Boehmer from Germany had already finished five minutes ahead of us which we didn’t know at the time; he is doing quite well for himself in the pro ranks these days). My race also earned me the honor of being the Top Overall American Age Grouper (by less than a minute, I believe). Additionally, I improved my marathon time to 3:07 (from 3:10) on a much more difficult course than Florida one year prior.
Hawaii was a big breakthrough for me in many ways. For one, it showed me that the race one year prior had not been a fluke. Secondly, it showed me that I could handle the mental challenges of racing someone directly over the distance (as opposed to just time trialing).
Following Hawaii, my friend, Tom Rodgers, put me in contact with triathlon coach, Joe Friel (www.trainingbible.com). After some discussions, Joe and I decided to work together with the long term plan of racing successfully in Hawaii one day. One of my primary concerns that I voiced to him in the beginning was that I had zero inhibitions when it came to training volume, but intensity was something that I did not know how to balance (hence the running injury from the previous season).
Many people have read Joe’s books and many base their training around his philosophy and coaching style. While Joe’s philosophies are encompassing on a wide range, his application is very specific and unique to each athlete he deals with.
If I had to describe the major change in my training that continues to hold true today, it would be that my harder days (and weeks) became harder and my easier days became easier. After years of constant steady-state training I had to get accustomed to working harder (or easier) given the days’ demands. This was challenging at first, but understanding the challenges of one day made it more appealing to go easier on the preceding one. I no longer showed up on harder days with my ‘B’ game and my volume no longer compensated for any lack of quality in my training (in other words, it was not ok to go ‘longer’ in place of going ‘harder”).
One year after Kona I raced Ironman Florida 2005 and I broke nine hours for the first time finishing in 8:57; good enough for 8th Overall, and 1st Overall Amateur. Everything seemed to be happening as it should. If I continued to work hard, I would continue to improve. The two components seem to work in a linear fashion. After this race I made a decision to turn professional with my sights set on Ironman Florida 2006 where I hoped to qualify for Kona 2007.
My first year as a professional proved to be a difficult one. Apparently professional triathletes are quite fit and I got it handed to me all season long. As an age grouper, I rarely made mistakes when it came to race execution, but as a professional I continuously blew myself up and often came limping home in races. I often considered ‘my head’ to be ‘my strength,’ but all of a sudden it was becoming my weakness. I feared losing to my competitors. For years I had focused on my own progression, but suddenly all my success became centered on how I performed compared to others.
Therefore it was no surprise when I finished Ironman Florida 2006 in 9:05 (8 minutes slower than the previous year and 8 places lower as well). In 12 months time I had trained over 1100 hours and finished eight minutes slower than one year prior. After this race I sat around for several weeks with a blank stare on my face. Disappointment certainly filled my thoughts, but I was mostly focused on how to take it to the next level. Did I need harder rides? More running? More swimming? What should I do?
In my mind, it seemed like the appealing thing to do after a bad race was to get right back out there and race again, but I opted not to. Instead I decided to get a job in Houston, and for several months I rarely trained above 12 hours per week as I plugged away behind a computer.
I suppose it took me (at least) that long to shake the race emotions from my thinking. I saw countless athletes go on downward spirals because of ‘redemption racing’ and I wanted to avoid going down that path. My goals were/are long term so I was not overly concerned with cutting way back on my training for the short term. I was more concerned with breaking through a mental and physical plateau that appeared before me.
In 2007 I set my sights on Ironman Coeur d’Alene in June, but in May I had a family emergency that took me overseas for two weeks so I scratched the race. After returning I made the decision to race Ironman Canada in August instead. All was well until I found myself with a chronic stomach ailment. After being sick sporadically for two weeks I went into the Urgent Care Unit in Boulder and came to find out I had contracted Giardia (a parasite most likely from open water swimming).
It seemed as though 2007 might not really be a breakthrough year for me after all and I went into Canada with less than ideal preparations. My recovery from Giardia did not seem to affect my swimming or running too dramatically, but my power on the bike seemed so far behind. Nevertheless, I raced Canada to my best ability and finished in 9:00 flat with a 3:02 marathon (a two minute PR). I felt fairly indifferent about the race given everything that had happened over the year.
Even though the 2007 season was coming to a close, I felt I could pull it together for one last race. I had ten weeks until Ironman Florida and I felt that I could finally breakthrough by cranking up my bike fitness; while maintaining my swim and run fitness I had built for IMC. (I wrote an article on Xtri that goes into more detail about the specific bike sessions during this time period so please check that as I will not go into detail about it here.)
After ten hard weeks all that was left was the actual race.
Ironman Florida 2007 had a solid, deep pro field. For whatever reason, it seemed to fit the schedule of (too) many fast athletes.
And this is probably the reason that I finally broke through my racing plateau.
When I first considered myself a competitor in triathlon I always considered myself to be improving, but my mind drifted away from that thinking when I got my pro card. It is a long way from being a fast Age Grouper to being a fast Professional and it took some time to get used to that feeling. Success was not a season away. As I looked at the start list, I knew that the only way to get beyond the list was to take the next step of becoming a part of that list.
When I showed up in Florida I had a simple race plan: I was going to PR everything: my swim split, my bike split, my run split and therefore, my finishing time. I no longer hoped to finish before this person or that person; I simply wanted to be faster than I had ever been before.
Throughout the entire race I remember thinking “if you don’t want to be a nine hour guy any longer, then you better prove it.” For two years I had been relatively the same speed (when racing) and I knew that the only person that could change that was me.
I swam 55 minutes (PR), I biked 4:41 (PR) and I broke the barrier (the biggest one in my mind) of the three hour marathon, running 2:59:51 (PR). Two years prior I finished IMFL in 8:57 which resulted in 8th Overall. In 2007 I finished in 8:40 and it resulted in 10th overall.
That 10th place finish will far outweigh my 2005 result in the years to come. It marks the beginning of the third stage of racing in my mind.