Saturday, August 9, 2014

IRONMAN Boulder 2014 (Race Report)

Another month, another Ironman challenge! After tackling Ironman Texas in May and Ironman Coeur d'Alene five weeks later, I entered July with an enormous base of fitness. I hadn't been running much, but the knee issue that had kept me sidelined was on the mend. As August approached, so did the date of my next big race: the inaugural Ironman Boulder in Boulder, Colorado.

 The lead-up

I managed to come down with a nasty cold just before the race in Boulder, which meant early, exhausted bed times leading up to the race. Much to my surprise, I actually slept pretty well the night before and woke up at 3:30 on race morning feeling relatively refreshed.

Bleary-eyed, Kristine, her parents and I left the house and headed for down town. We caught shuttles to the swim start from there. My parents, my grandmother, Uncle Sean, Aunt Kathryn, cousins Megan and Mathew, and my friend Bo followed suit shortly after. With so much support out there, I knew I’d have to ignore the cold I’d been dealing with and just give ‘em a great race.

My incredible support crew!

The swim

Second from the right!
I was at the front of a long line of athletes when the cannon fired and spearheaded our collective assault on the first third of the 2.4-mile swim course. Swimming toward a brightly rising sun made sighting the long line of triangular yellow buoys difficult, but I managed to guide an elite group of faster swimmers to the first turn-around without too much course-correction.

First out of the water!
Having done my part, I settled into second position for much of the final two thirds of the swim, cruising comfortable behind one swimmer until another came rocketing by in the final 600 meters. He was setting a blistering pace that I had no interest in trying to top, so I hopped into that swimmer’s wake and followed him almost all the way to the line.

Given the aggressive pace he was putting down, I was completely content to take second place… until he flipped over and started doing backstroke. I’m not sure if he was trying to enjoy the experience of leading 3,000 athletes into the first transition, choking on water, or simply showboating.

Whatever the reason, it was his mistake. I seized the opportunity and came around him at the last minute, darting under the finishing tent to claim “First Amateur out of the water” honors.

The ride

I had a fairly quick transition and found myself in the lead on the bike, not counting the pros, who started ten minutes before. Thinner air at 5,500 feet meant lower air resistance, and the light rollers of the first half of the course suited me very well. I maintained the lead position for forty miles, cruising strongly and pegging a 22.5 mile-per-hour average.

The bright Boulder sun and exposed roads eventually began to take their toll. There was no shade. I found myself drinking almost constantly, emptying my 40 oz. hydration tank several times. I started to flag a little during the course’s most difficult stretch -- southbound and trending uphill between miles 70 and 85 -- but managed to maintain a good position relative to other amateurs until disaster struck at mile 95.

I clipped something with my front wheel while climbing an overpass. Within seconds, my front tire was flat. With surprising calm, I hopped off my bike and set to work changing the tube. The process didn’t take long, but it did allow a number of other racers to pass me by -- and gave my legs a chance to realize just how tired they were.

Crankin' over false-flat and rolling hills.

After the flat, I wasn’t able to get back into the zone. I tackled the course’s final 17 miles, but couldn’t wait to be off my bike and into transition. I had been on pace for a blistering bike PR, somewhere around 5:05, but the flat and mental disruption cost me dearly. Even so, I hit transition with a 5:12 -- still a PR, and still quite competitive given the circumstances!

The run

I hopped off my bike, happy to be heading into transition… until I actually started into transition, that is. Race organizers had barefoot triathletes run about 400 meters on blazing-hot asphalt and tarmac. By the time I reached the shade of the changing tent, the soles of my feet were on fire. By the end of the evening, they were raw and blistered.

To make matters worse, the transition tent had no water! It was boiling hot in there, but none of the volunteers had anything they could offer. “Nearest water is at the first aid station, a mile into the run,” they told me. How the race organizers missed having water for sun-scorched cyclists entering the transition to an even sunnier, hotter run is beyond me.

After another quick transition, I set out running. The course took us through some shaded parts of the Boulder Creek Trail, complete with little ups and downs. After a mile or two, we hit a long stretch of exposed concrete path to the east of the town and that’s when the afternoon sun really began bearing down on us.

I don't make running look easy, do I?

I ran at a slow pace (~9 minute miles, maybe a little slower) for the first nine or ten miles, walking through most of the aid stations and trying to drink as much water as possible. By the halfway mark, I was cooked. Despite all the water I had been drinking, I felt thirsty. My stomach, however, felt full -- too much fluid. What concerned me the most, however, was the fact that I had been drinking non-stop all day… and hadn’t had to pee a single time.

I made the conscious decision to ease back to a brisk walk, preferring an extra hour on the course now to several extra hours in a medical tent after the race. Walking gave me the freedom to take in more fluids at every aid station. I was constantly pouring ice water down my shirt and sleeves to keep cool. After what felt like an eternity, I found myself approaching the final miles.

The afternoon sun had started to back down slightly, and the final three or four miles of the race were somewhat protected by trees and shade. I tested a few running strides at mile 23… they felt good! And at mile 24, I kicked back into running gear, posting some of my best splits of the entire day over those final 2.2 miles.

The aftermath

I crossed the finish line at 11 hours and 20 minutes, hands high. Eight IRONMAN races in five years, three this year alone. I don’t often stop to think about how insane that sounds, but now that I’m writing it out… Wow!

Number 8!

I quickly reunited with friends and family after being handed my finisher’s medal, shirt and cap. It was great to finally be back amongst my loved ones after such a long, hot day. As the adrenaline rush of the finish line subsided, my condition quickly worsened. The heat and effort of the day caught up to me. My head was swimming; I felt like I was in a fog.

We made it home and enjoyed a few pizzas as a family, but I had a hard time eating as much as I probably should have. I’ll go so far to say I felt worse after this race than I felt during any of my previous finishes. I wasn’t sore, but I felt… almost ill. Looking back, I’m sure I was bordering on heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

What I liked:

  • Perfectly executed swim. w00t!
  • Surprisingly strong bike. Riding my TT bike was a good idea. That thing is fast!
  • After much hand-wringing, I decided to run this race in Hokas. No lost toenails, though I need to remember to tie them a little tighter next time.
  • Having so much family around to cheer for me at various points on the far ends of the run made such a difference. It so nice to see a familiar face!
  • My legs never really seized up on me during the run like they typically do. That’s progress!

What I didn’t like:

The best view my family could get of me finishing the swim first...
  • The swim course was terrible for spectators. Race organizers really need to think a bit more about spectator management.
  • Single-loop bike courses aren’t very spectator friendly either. Such a shame to bring so much family to down for this race, only to find that they’d only see me during the worst leg of my performance!
  • Forcing athletes to run on hot asphalt into T2… terrible! They’ll need to rethink this for next year. The soles of my feet were burnt, making every step of the marathon a painful one.
  • Not having water in T2 is nearly unforgivable, especially considering how hot and exposed we were on the bike course. 
  • After finishing, the finisher’s area featured chocolate milk and pizza… but there were only a handful of chairs! After swimming, cycling and running 140.6 miles, the first thing an athlete wants to do is sit down… and most of us couldn’t.
  • Finally, the schwag: as with other races, the gear they gave out was poorly designed and constructed. I don’t know if any of it will last more than a few uses. Such a shame.

The credits

No race report is complete without giving credit where credit is due. To everyone who supported me during this race, I cannot thank you enough. It was a long, tough day and having friends and family along the course (virtually or physically) means the world to me! I had a record number of family members along for the ride this time. I hope you enjoyed being there as much as I enjoyed having you there!

I may have tackled three Ironman races this year, but my wife's had to endure the biggest test of endurance. Her unflagging support through the many early nights and earlier mornings, through aches and pains and complaints... it's the stuff of legend. I really couldn't do any of this without her by my side. The finisher's medal at the end of an Ironman race is nice, but it's the hug from my beautiful wife that I look forward to most. I love you, sweetheart!