Thursday, May 22, 2014

IRONMAN Texas 2014 (Race Report)

(Note: the official name for this race is The Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas Presented By Waste Management, but wow, that's a mouthful! Also, I find it slightly ironic that Waste Management is the presenting sponsor, but looking back, I guess those porta-potties were nicer than average!)

My first race of this all-too-aggressive triathlon season took place on Saturday, May 17. It went really, really well. Let’s review!

I packed lightly for this trip. I left my wetsuit at home, and instead of bringing my time-trial bike, I packed my travel-optimized Ritchey Break-Away road bike. I didn’t intend for the race to be anything more than a tune-up, so I wasn’t too concerned about those minor handicaps.

Not having to squeeze into (or out of) a wetsuit made for a relatively relaxed start to the day. Kristine and I were sitting and chatting on the pavement at the North Shore parking lot, a few hundred feet from the swim start, up until T-10 minutes. When they started to herd wetsuit-clad bodies into the water, I put on my cap and goggles, kissed Kristine goodbye and ventured out.

Swimming (52 minutes, 30 seconds)

It was a mass start in the water and a point-to-point swim in a man-made lake. The water was about 70° — totally comfortable. A brownish hue meant poor visibility. There seemed to be an abnormal number of fast, eager swimmers inching up to the line. When the cannon fired, we were off and the usual chaos ensued.

Things quickly sorted themselves out and I found myself swimming behind/alongside what was probably the first or second group in the water. Everyone around me was wearing a wetsuit. I cruised with them for a while, but either it wasn’t easy to sight the buoys, I was having trouble swimming in a straight line, or a combination of the two. Frustrating!

The final third of the swim turned down a narrow channel lined with cheering supporters, and I used the extra motivation they provided to leapfrog past a few flagging swimmers to come out of the water in fairly good position. The day’s highlight came next: Mike Reilly (the voice of Ironman!) announced me in his trademark way: “Andrew Valko from San Francisco, California! No wetsuit... this guy is hard core!”

I took my time in transition, eventually emerging to hop onto my bike (fitted with aerobars for the occasion!) and settle in for a good, long couple of hours.

Cycling (5 hours, 13 minutes)

I knew a few things about the course going into this race.

  1. — It was going to be flat. Not super, pancake flat, but flatter than I’m used to. 112 miles of very lightly rolling hills. 
  2. — It was going to be windy. There was a strong breeze coming from the west. The course could be considered a rectangle, first heading north, then west, then south, then east. 
  3. — It would be fast. Wind or no wind, things seemed to be clicking for me on the bike. I credit those great wheels! 
  4. — It would be boring. It was a one-loop course through mostly long, straight, farm roads in southeast Texas. There were a smattering of supporters at the aid stations, but otherwise, we triathletes were out there alone.

To be completely honest, I think the wind was more help than hindrance. The crosswinds were not bad, and the westward portion of the race traveled through a national forest. The trees seemed to block some of the wind. I was cruising at a cool, consistent clip and paced well for by best-ever bike split in an Ironman race by over seven minutes. (w00t!)

On the whole, the bike portion of this race didn't feel as mind-numbingly boring or agonizingly long as it has in previous races; the time seemed to pass rather quickly. I'm not sure how I kept myself entertained and on task, but I don't think my mind wandered much during what should've been a very dull and uneventful ride.

Running (4 hours, 11 minutes)

At some point during the ride, I became enamored with the idea of breaking ten hours on the day, which probably led me to push the tail end of the bike a little harder than I had planned. I started the marathon off pretty quickly, psyched at the thought of having a full 3h45 to run 26.2 miles. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong. Though the first nine-mile lap on the run course went smoothly, things started to go down hill (figuratively, anyway) from there. I kept on cruising through the second lap, slowing ever so slightly with each passing mile. I was negotiating with myself: “Just make it to mile 18, then you can walk a little. Just get to mile 18.”

So I struggled to that 18th mile and started to walk — well, more like limp. I probably shouldn’t have, because that’s when I realized just how much my legs were hurting. It was a long while before I was able to muster up the ability to run again, and when I did, it probably looked more like a sad-looking stumble-walk.

I'd like to digress here for a second to say that the spectator support on the run was absolutely fantastic, if not the best I've experienced on an Ironman course. There were big, energetic groups scattered throughout, and the final two miles of every lap (alongside the Woodlands canal) were lined with spectators, fans, triathlon clubs and more. Running in my Strava top for the first time earned me more than a few "Go Strava!" or "You're gonna be the KOM!" cheers!

Anyway, I walked and shuffled and walked some more, and eventually made it through the end of the last lap and into the final mile(s). I forced myself to run a bit more, down the final bend and then up the finishing chute. I had missed that 10-hour mark by a wide margin, but I crossed the line in just 10 hours and 26 minutes — my second-fastest Ironman performance to date!


I was coherent and walking after the finish. My awesome spectator friends found me and we chatted for a little while before picking my bike and discarded gear up from the transition area, loading up the car and hitting the road for Houston. We had big dinner plans that evening at one of Houston's finest restaurants: Tony's!

Exhaustion started to settle in, but I pushed through thanks to a critically-timed espresso. My stomach wasn't quite ready for such a rich and delicious meal, but I made the best of it and generally enjoyed the company of good friends. The food was fantastic; we were bowled over by just how amazing an experience we had eating there. I'm fairly certain this was a post-Ironman victory meal for the record books!

Things I learned

Swimming without a wetsuit isn't so bad, but I wish other people had been swimming without wetsuits, too!

It was warm and sunny, but not nearly as warm as I had expected it to be! Mid to low 80's and breezy. Couldn't have asked for better weather in Houston in May.

If you add aero wheels and aerobars to my road bike, it can be pretty darn fast.

Carrying salt and lactic acid buffer tablets in a repurposed Nuun bottle is not a good idea. I was trying to take a few around the mid-point of the ride, hit a bump and they went flying. Need to figure out a new solution.

My TT helmet is nearing the end of it's life. (The end of an era!)

I should learn to start out my runs slowly. I definitely think I started this run a bit too fast, which contributed to my eventual implosion.

Dumping cups of ice water over your head at every aid station = soggy shoes.

Changing socks between the ride and run: awesome.

Related: I am not very good at speedy transitions. Oh wells.

One-lap bike courses are interesting for competitors but terrible for spectactors. Fortunately, the Woodlands was well-equipped to handle droves of time-killing supporters, friends included.

I wish I could do one of these races while wearing Google Glass (or something similar) so I could fill these race reports with the images I'm seeing. It's hard to capture in words just how awesome it is to spot your wife and friends cheering for you from a few hundred yards down the road, or what it's like to be toward the head of the pack in the middle of a swim as the sun is rising over the lake.

I enjoy doing these races.


Breakfast consisted of Greek yogurt with granola and a Bonk Breaker protein bar. Just before the race, I ate another granola bar and a banana, had a few Gatorade chews and one small Gatorade prime pouch. Definitely on the smaller side.

On the bike, I ate four sleeves of Clif Shot Bloks and one Picky Bar. I drank a LOT of water, at least by my standards.

On the run: two gels (Gu Roctane) and a lot of water/sports drink. Toward the end, I had some cola and part of another Bonk Breaker.

Because I was drinking so much, I wasn't feeling hungry... Looking back, I probably should have been eating more!


Big kudos to Nick, the old dude who handed me 800mg of ibuprofen around mile 19. He was on mile 1 of the run and had a long evening ahead of him!

Huge anti-kudos to Swim Shops of the Southwest for the worst, most offensive course signage. "Puke and rally!" or "If this race was easy, it'd be called your mom!" These are not things I want to be reading. I will never shop at your stores.

Massive, super mega kudos to Kristine, Jenny and Kevin who flew all the way to Houston to cheer me on through a long, hot day! Equally massive kudos to Jenny's family, who housed and fed us all through the weekend!

What's next

My legs have been SO sore, so I'm going to have to stay off of them for a few days. My knees are especially angry with me and they seem to be recovering much more slowly than my quads or hamstrings. I think I put a lot of undue stress on my IT bands this past weekend, so it might be a little while before I can run again.

In the meantime, I'm going to ride and swim as much as my body will allow and otherwise recover for June's big race: Ironman Coeur d'Alene on the 29th. Buckle up!

Between then and now, Kristine will be embarking on her big AIDS/LifeCycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The peloton will depart on Sunday, June 1 and they'll arrive in SoCal seven days later. The next ten days'll be all about making sure she's all set for the adventure. Epic!