Sunday, November 3, 2013

Alex’s Ironman Lake Tahoe Report!

Behold! My long overdue, much anticipated, actual contribution to this blog! This has been a crazy, incredible, amazing year, and I would regret it deeply if I didn’t document it while it is relatively fresh in my brain. Also, Andrew would probably kill me. Lets do it!

Year One

This season marked my first real venture into the sport of triathlon, and more than anything 2013 was a learning experience. I’m going to write up a more detailed “year in review” post, that I hope will be useful to some of our friends who are thinking about moving up to the Ironman distance. But for now I will say that this year was more about perfecting form, and learning how to train at a high level, than it was about really pushing endurance. This was a very conscious choice, and one that I think netted me huge benefits this year and going into next season.

Also, I would be remiss if I did not thank Andrew for being my coach, mentor, and pretty much the best friend I could ask for this year. Thank you for organizing everything, keeping us excited, and basically being awesome all the time. I’m looking forward to lining up at a bunch more starts with you buddy! 

Race Week

I arrived in Kings Beach somewhat, kinda, totally freaked out. I was incredibly nervous, almost to the point of being nauseous. Not only had I been injured for a large portion of this season, but we had missed our planned altitude training week earlier in the month due to smoke from the Yosemite Rim fire. Looking out at the white caps covering the lake, I felt under-trained and simply not ready for the race.

Thankfully I was surrounded by some of my best friends and favorite people. Having Andrew, Bo, Kristine, Vitaly, Colin, Lauren and the Valkos there made all the difference in the world. I don’t know if I could have lined up for that start without them.

We knew all along that the altitude was going to be a major factor in IMLT, and acclimatizing is definitely a strange experience for me. I think I tend to adapt very well to the thinner air, but I go through a hellish 4-5 day process to get there. Much of race week for me was spent face down on the couch, exhausted and hungry, with a splitting headache. But luckily, by Wednesday I was feeling much better. I got in a full lap on the bike course, a short run with pro triathlete Jessica Jacobs (who was the nicest person ever!) and a 40 minute swim in the lake. All this had me feeling a lot more confident and actually looking forward to race day!

The Race

As Andrew mentioned in his post, the weather was a huge factor on race day. Thankfully, the high winds from earlier in the week had died down, but the air temperature plummeted to the low 30’s, with the water in the low 60’s. Following Andrew’s lead, I waited until that morning to bring my nutrition and hydration down to T1. Nothing would be worse than hopping on the bike and finding all of your bottles frozen solid! So, after some final bike prep, we got suited up, said goodbye our merry band of supporters, and headed down to the beach.


The Swim

With a final round of high-fives and ironw00ts, Andrew ventured off ahead to seed with the first wave of the swim. Bo and I decided we would hang back and start with the 1:40 swim wave, giving us about 20 minutes to chill on the beach. Chill being the operative word. The air wasn’t bad, but standing barefoot on the frozen sand was literally sucking the heat out of my body. We tried a few methods of warming up (like burying our feet in the sand) but after a few minutes I started to get concerned. Frantically looking around I saw two pairs of discarded thick woollen socks on the side of a dune. About 0.05 seconds later they were on my feet and I started jogging to the water and back to get the blood flowing. The difference was amazing, and I actually felt comfortable as Bo and I filed down towards the start.

It was incredible to walk towards the line, with the crowd cheering and the live speaker blasting, the sun just starting to crest the mountains. Oddly, the nervousness and butterflies melted away. It was go time, and I knew what I had to do. “I can run, and I can ride, so swim smart, manage your nutrition, and you’re an Ironman.” Bo and I crossed the start line (minus socks) around 7:00am. The race was on.

Sort of. Bo and I had a nice leisurely 100m walk out into the deeper water. We made our way to the outer edge of the group, not wanting to deal with the chaos of swimming in the main bunch, and with a final shout of “EXTREME!” we were in and racing. Based on my experience earlier in the week I had planned a few strategies for the swim, mostly around managing my breathing in the thinner air.

I usually breathe bi-laterally (meaning I breathe every 3rd stroke). This lets me get into a good rhythm and alternate which side I am breathing on. But with the thinner air, I knew I could not keep that up for the full 2.4 miles. I simply wasn’t getting enough oxygen per breath. To compensate, I came up with a plan:
  • Swim bilaterally for as long as possible, maintaining perfect form. 
  • When shortness of breath begins, switch to breathing every 2 strokes, still maintaining form. 
  • When form starts to suffer due to breathing, switch to breaststroke.
With breast stroke, I was able to swim with my head mostly out of the water and recover, taking in a huge amount of oxygen. After filling up the O2 tanks, I would switch back to bilateral breathing and start the cycle again.

For a last minute plan, it actually worked really well! I was able to keep my pace up and make consistent progress buoy to buoy. Sighting has been a problem for me in the past, and it was made more difficult by the dense layer of steam/fog coming off the warm water. I crossed a huge number of swimmers that were swimming 45 degrees away from the course, off to who knows where. But I stayed focused, and as I started onto the second lap, I realized I was really enjoying it! The swim was still very hard for me, but I had won the mental battle. With the sun rise filtering through the steam and lighting up the water, it was undoubtedly the most beautiful part of the race, and looking back, my favorite part of the day.

Transition 1

I came out of the water in 1:20, right where I wanted to be. I was so excited, I didn’t even feel the cold, but as I came into T1 I had my first surprise of the day. The changing tent was literally overflowing with people, some choosing to change outside in the cold. The tent needed to be at least twice as big to accommodate all the athletes coming out of the water. I opted to squeeze my way into the tent full of half naked/completely naked men so I could fully change out of my wet clothes into a dry cycling kit: base layer, jersey, vest, arm warmers, gloves and my beloved smartwool socks. Anyone foolish enough to bike in wet clothes was asking for hypothermia. All told, in the chaos, I had a ridiculous 25 minute T1, but I was in no rush and I got on the bike feeling great and ready to ride.

The Bike

The Bike course was daunting, with some calling it the hardest course in all of Ironman. With two laps and two massive, back to back climbs of Martis Camp and Brockway, it was not to be taken lightly. But at the same time, this was my type of course, and with my pre-race ride I knew exactly what to expect. The plan was simple: Lockdown my power output between 165 - 185 watts in the flats, and 200 - 225 in the climbs. Never break 250 watts.

Lap 1

The first lap on the bike was fantastic. After riding along the shore of the lake, filled with spectators, and climbing Dollar Hill, the course turned northward and became very, very fast. With a tailwind behind us, I was blazing through the rollers at 25 - 30 mph. I resisted the urge to chase some faster riders, saving that energy for the climbs. But as we came up to Truckee, and the crowds became larger, I may have broken my rules sprinted through the town. I blame the cow bells.

After a few small climbs and looping through a residential area, we descended down into the valley, and towards the main climbs. The Martis Camp climb was a mystery, since it was located in a obnoxiously snooty gated community that did not allow riders in to preview the course. It turned out to be a pretty tough series of climbs, full of switchbacks, technical descents, and terrifying wooden bridges. Again, I took it easy, mindful of my watts, especially on this first lap. I saw a lot of people who were clearly pushing too hard. I kept thinking, “Guys, we still have Brockway, and after that we have to do it all over again!” As if to prove my point, Martis Camp suddenly dumped us out on to North Shore Road and the Brockway climb.

Where Martis Camp was twisty, windy and up and down, Brockway was just one thing: Up. It has a few slow curves to it, but it’s the type of climb that lets you see just how far you’ve got to go. It’s a soul crusher, and I’m sure more than a few spirits broke looking up at that road. One of the main reasons I ride with a power meter is for climbs like this. Again, I locked my power into the right range, and just focused on turning the cranks.

Lap 2

After the Brockway summit came a screaming fast descent (40+ mph) into Kings Beach and the start of lap two. This was also the beginning of what I will call “a series of unfortunate events.”
  • My left aerobar suddenly became loose and wobbly. I pulled into the aid station before dollar hill, and got it fixed by a guy in a gorilla suit, and another guy in tutu. Turns out a bolt INSIDE my aerobar spacer had come loose. Luckily I was back on the road in 10 mins. 
  • Then on the road towards Truckee I hit some glass and double flatted. Gah! Cursing my ill luck, I started swapping out my tubes, only to discover my zip tie had punctured one of my spare tubes! Luckily there was a mechanic close by, but I had to wait while she fixed another rider’s chain. All in all it took about 30 minutes to get back on the road again. 
While the mechanicals were frustrating, the biggest problem was that my legs had cooled down significantly. I could feel my muscles stiffening up, and morale took a hit as I passed through Truckee. Unfortunately, I had one more surprise to go:
  • On a smaller decent in residential Truckee, I moved to pass a group of slower riders heading into a turn, I was going about 35 mph. A head, one of the riders suddenly dropped a comical amount of stuff: gloves, energy gels, water bottle, etc. The riders behind him swerved to avoid it, and I swerved to avoid them, and then swerved again to avoid a line of cones in the road. By this point I am too far to the outside, with too much speed, to have any hopes of making the turn. “You have got to be KIDDING ME!!” is all I have time to think as I hit the brakes and shoot straight off of the road. My front wheel catches in the soft soil, and I catapult over the bars, flipping the bike with me, landing on my back. 

(Visual Approximation)

Lying there, slightly dazed, I do a damage check: ribs, clavicles, arms and …. everything is fine! I jump up to find a spectator holding my bike, which… also looks fine! Well, my speedfil bottle has exploded, but, it was kind of a pain anyway. The bike still shifts, no cracks in the frame, wheels are true ….. and I’m off! Half covered in dirt and pine needles, but otherwise no worse for wear. The triathlon gods were watching out for me on that one!

Needless to say, I was pretty cautious on the remaining descents. But I was actually feeling somewhat badass after the sheer ridiculousness of the crash. Almost every rider I passed exclaimed, “Holy crap are you ok!?” after seeing my dirt covered helmet and kit. One guy even took a photo. Unfortunately the feeling didn't last long. The multiple stops and the adrenaline spike from the crash started to take their toll. My legs were heavy, I was saddle sore, I was cold, and mental exhaustion started to set in. The last 20 miles to Squaw Valley were the hardest of the race. 

Transition 2

Pulling into T2 a volunteer helped me dismount and asked, “Do you need anything off your bike?” I felt like saying, “No! Keep it! I never want to see it again!” but instead went with, “No thanks, I’m good.” A huge thank you to the volunteers, you guys were awesome.

I made my way into the much less crowded T2 tent, and got changed into a new, dry trisuit, but kept my base layer, jacket and gloves. Grabbing my hat and headlamp, I made my way out of the tent in a much more respectable time. After an awkward encounter with girls applying sunblock, it was time to run!

The Run

Starting out on the run course was exactly the mental boost I needed. The whole transition/finish/expo area was set up amongst the Squaw Valley Ski resort, and the small, shop lined streets were packed with spectators. It’s hard to feel defeated when you have hundreds of people cheering you on. Rounding the first turn the course split, with the left lane continuing on course, and the right lane veering towards the finish line.

Taking the left lane, I spotted a particularly enthusiastic group of spectators. Kristine, Vitaly, Mohit, Falguni, and the Valkos were a final boost of morale as I started out on the first of two laps: a 17 mile loop out on Squaw Valley road, and along a bike path following the river.

My plan for the run was to play it safe and use a 8:1 run/walk approach where for every mile run, I would walk 1 minute. This was an effort to pace myself, and also to protect my right knee, which I injured earlier in the season. One risk I was taking was wearing my Newton Distance S running shoes. They helped with my knee pain, but put a new kind of strain on my metatarsals. It was definitely a gamble, but based on my training runs I felt like it was the best choice.

But regardless of the shoes, regardless of my plans, the first miles of the marathon were hell. I was suffering. Still exhausted from the bike I found it hard to maintain my 8 minute pace and my running form was terrible. My feet started to hurt, and quickly I found myself walking for 2 - 3 minutes every mile. Crossing mile 6 in this beleaguered state, and realizing that I still had 20 miles to go, was the hardest mental blow I took all day. Did I mention this was my first marathon? Thankfully sheer stubbornness kicked in and I kept moving.

By mile 10 the sun was almost fully set, and with the onset of evening the temperature began to plummet, quickly dropping into the low 40s. Coming up to an aid station, I slowed down and accepted my first cup of hot chicken broth and …. SWEET NECTAR OF HEAVEN! It was like it poured directly into my muscles! I cannot express how incredible that first cup of broth was. It was magical.

However, it also made me realize that I was probably slipping into calorie deficit. I had eaten a lot on the bike, but I clearly needed more, especially sodium. To fight the dreaded “bonk” I started taking chips, gels, and broth at almost every aid station, and with each mile, I started to feel better. Oh, I was still hurting, but my feet weren't getting any worse, and my knee felt rock solid. I was back in the race, and as I neared the end of the first lap, my pace was down to 7 minutes.

Coming back into the resort, I blew through the expo area, probably running a bit too fast and waving to our supporters. Andrew was there too, having finished in a blazing 11:19:44! I set back out for the final lap feeling absolutely fantastic. I knew I could finish. “Only 8 miles to go, 8 miles is cake.” I thought. And I was right, for the most part, but Tahoe had one last surprise for me.

At 22 miles, I stopped for 1 -2 minutes at the aid station to use the restroom. I felt fine, but as I exited the porta-potty, the cold night air hit me like an avalanche. I actually gasped it was such a shock. It was now 32 degrees and I struggled to get moving again, trying to build my body heat back up. I forced myself to run faster and faster, even posting some of my best run splits, just to get warm again. Even so, I could feel that cold seeping deeper into by body, my core temperature dropping. As I passed the final turn-around, headed for home, I can honestly say I was the coldest I have ever been.

I wasn't the only one suffering though. The spectators were still cheering, but the athletes were quiet. The smiles and congratulations were gone. People retreated inward, just focused on surviving. I passed so many people wrapped up in thermal blankets, just now starting on their first lap of the run.The battle ahead of them was staggering, but for me it was over.

As I jogged through the final aid station, with the lights of Squaw Valley in front of me I could hear the cheers of the crowd and the loud speakers from the finish. I dropped my thermal blankets and started to run. By the time I hit the small streets of the resort I was flat out sprinting. Shouts of “Good pace! Good pace!” followed me as I passed runners and spectators alike. The cheers, people banging on the barriers, it was simply amazing.

I was so excited, I almost missed the turn for the finish, but there was no way I could slow down now. Rounding the final turn, I found myself alone on the finishing stretch. It was everything I had hope it it would be. Everything I had dreamed about for the past year. It was perfect right down to the line. “You are an Ironman!”


Post Race Blur

I got my finishing medal, shook hands with Mike Reilly, and was shuffled off by a volunteer who guided me towards the recovery/massage tent. It was wonderfully warm inside, but all the seating was taken, and more than anything, I just wanted to see my friends.

Andrew, Bo, Kristine and everyone were outside the finish with hugs and high-fives, and I can’t express what it meant to have them there. Bo had such a good race! He came in at 14:01:35, about 7 minutes ahead of me at 14:08:15! We got some food and soaked up the finish before stumbling off to pick up our equipment. I would have loved to stay longer and watch the final finishers, but I was getting seriously concerned about hypothermia. With one last look at the finish, we loaded up the cars and made our way back to Kings Beach.

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. There were hot baths and plenty of muscle milk, but mostly I remember the pure enjoyment of spending time with my best friends.


IMLT was hard, one of the toughest days of my life, but I was never racing alone. For the past year I’ve had the most amazing support from my friends and family, and I couldn't have made it without them.

Andrew - I can’t ever really tell you how much your friendship means to me. I had some rough patches this year, but you've had my back through thick and thin, through break-ups and injuries, and everything else. I wouldn't have signed up for this race without you, and I certainly wouldn't have made it to the finish. I couldn't ask for more in a best friend, and I can’t wait for the next adventure. Bring on Boulder 2014!

Bo - EXTREME! Seriously Bo, it was so much fun having you as a training partner. We didn't know each other that well at the start of all this, but I came out of it with a really great friend. And a sick Muscle Milk song. See you soon! (ps. Don’t retire damn it!)

Kristine - You are pretty much the sweetest, most supportive person I know. Thank you for putting up with all this Ironman ridiculousness, for organizing SO much of the logistics, for cooking us delicious meals, and for just being wonderful all the time.

The Valkos - Will, Debbie, Lauren, you guys have pretty much been a second family to me ever since Lehigh. Thank you so much for travelling across the country to support us and for helping us get such an amazing cabin! It was such a fun week leading up to the race, and it wouldn’t have been the same without you! We all need to do a race together in PA asap!

The Boghosians - It was so great to meet all of you! Thanks for coming out west to support us!

Vitaly - Dude! Thank you so much for coming out to support us! It was awesome to see you again, and I SERIOUSLY owe you a beer for helping me get the Felt. Next time I’m up in SF, I’m buying.

Colin - Thanks so much for enduring the Odyssey like journey to come see us! I wish we could have hung out more, but it was so great to see you at the top of Martis Camp! And even though things didn’t work out this fall, I am determined to make a certain trip to Emeryville. See you soon buddy!

And last, but certainly not least. Thanks Mom. You didn't always understand why I was doing this to myself, but you were always there, always supportive. Thank you for helping me through a stressful year, even when you had a lot to deal with yourself. I love you, and I miss you.

And thank you to all my friends, and everyone else who supported me in any way. A word of encouragement on a hard training day goes a long, long way. You helped me more than you know.

What’s Next?

Well I pretty much spent the month of October lying on my couch. It’s been spectacular. But I guess its time to dust off the bike and start some off season training. I’m going to focus on physical therapy, yoga, and swimming in the next few months to make sure this next season is injury free. Ironman Boulder here we come!