Ironman Ponderings, Plans and Progress

As a Wellness Coach, you work with clients who may be ready to throw in the towel and give up.  Our Co-founder, Brad Cooper, recently qualified to return to the Hawaii Ironman World Championship after several extremely disappointing race results that had him ready to do the same. The following provides a synopsis of the ponderings, the plans and the progress that ensued. We hope it provides you with encouragement – and maybe some ideas – as you continue to impact the lives of so many.

The Ponderings

7 weeks ago, I posted these words for all to see, after yet another failed attempt at the Ironman distance…

Extremely discouraging outcome yesterday. Best swim ever (56:55)…Solid but controlled bike that surprisingly put me in 22nd overall… Eased into the run smoothly, knowing a Kona slot was in the bag w/ even an average run. Felt great and moved up to the 17th spot, w/ top 10 OVERALL within view. Then the body just shut down completely. I laid down at aid station for an hour… then walked (barely) for another 90 minutes… eventually got across finish line (12:16). Starting to think this body just wasn’t designed for the IM distance. No excuses – I felt good coming in. Maybe it’s time for a new path…

While this was “just a race” it was actually intended to be the springboard for a HUGE (but not yet verbalized – to anyone!) stretch goal for the coming year as birthday #50 was just around the corner. Then, in spite of being in likely the best shape of my life, it (I) fell flat.

The day after the discouraging race, I shared the crazy/cool stretch goal with Suzanna for the first time, couched as “obviously that’s not going to happen now.” Yet, instead of agreeing with me – as any logical person would have nicely done – she asked a question: “Why not still pursue it?”

I initially brushed off her question. But then – as her questions usually do – it got me thinking.  Did I really have a chance at this? Or was it time to pursue a different path? Then another dose of reality entered the equation, as 4 close friends (all 50-54 years old) who are outstanding athletes had their seasons cut short due to injuries. Suddenly the reality of the question shifted from “Could I do this now?” to “Do I really want to do this EVER?” My Grandfather died at 49 and my Father-in-Law at 55. Health – and especially the level of health required to pursue this is an absolute gift from God – and one that could very well be gone tomorrow. Was I going to open that gift now? Or let it sit under the tree and hope that it was available later?

The Plans

In the process of considering options, I reviewed my Ironman race history over and over in my head. I’ve struggled and fallen well short of expectations every time except once.  Wait… “except once”? Yes –  IMAZ 2012, where a 3:18 marathon capped an encouraging 9:34 finish time. But the details are the intriguing part. I actually bonked on the bike for the first time ever (long story) and pulled over at mile 90 to down 2 straight bottles of the race drink. Eventually the body recovered for a solid outcome.

That clue never registered until after 2 more meltdowns tied to fueling errors on both ends of the spectrum. You would think that a guy who works in the wellness industry, has raced for 12 years, read every book and article available, and is somewhat regimented in regards to daily nutrition choices wouldn’t make major mistakes like this. But in my case, you would think wrong. As we’ve learned in the wellness arena, EVERYONE benefits from working with a coach in life, and I was no exception. Dina Griffin did some testing and tweaking (note – subtle changes were implemented – not an overhaul – another good lesson for many aspects of life), and we were ready to test the new plan.

At this point, I clearly (but purposefully) overdid the training, putting in 5 consecutive weeks of solid volume, and most importantly, long fuel testing bricks every weekend that each included at least 100+ miles on the bike at race effort, followed by 12-18 mile runs at 6:50-7:15/mile pace off the bike (and twice with a swim prior to see how body responded to an 8-9 hour session).  Normally I lighten the training schedule every 2-3 weeks, so I knew in advance that I was overtraining physically with this strategy. However, I was content to go into the race at less than 100% physically if I knew the fueling aspect was working. The only way to find out with only 6 weeks between events was to test it through these race-like sessions.

The Progress

The unseasonably warm temperatures turned Ironman Florida into the first non-wetsuit race in the history of the event. Between that and the huge waves that greeted us on the two-loop swim course, we knew the swim times would be slow, and we were right. In spite of being in solid swim condition (several long swim time trials showed pacing was under an hour for the 2.4 mi distance), I had by far my slowest swim time ever (1:09). But that didn’t bother me – I don’t even turn on my watch for the swim – too many variables involved. If I get the pre-race training in, the swim result will turn out just fine, regardless of what the clock says as I’m running into T1.

The day was built around a power-based pacing plan on the bike. I always use a power meter – not to push the intensity – but rather to hold back and keep from pushing too hard. The plan was to sit right on a specific normalized power on the flat course and then get out on the run with plenty in the tank. Great plan – except my power meter – for the first time ever in an event – didn’t work. I tried (as I was riding along at 23 MPH) to turn it off/on… re-calibrate… change the settings… nothing.  Hmmm – ok. Now what? Channel my inner Obi Wan Kenobi? Wait – I remembered from the data that the targeted power level would produce a finish time on this course right around 4:54. So I worked the math backward in my head the best I could and calculated that an average speed of just under 23 MPH would equal that same power. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave me something on which to base the effort over the 112 miles.  In the end, that worked out pretty well, as I averaged 22.9 MPH on the day and came in at 4:52:20, just a touch faster than the targeted pace.

The bike course is one big loop, providing just one spot to see the leaders. Fortunately, it came at a good time for a little extra motivation, as I was able to count the number of people in front of me and came in at #40 overall in the race. Over the next 25 miles, I enjoyed the mind game of initially thinking through my favorite athletes with each number as I gradually moved up (starting with Larry Csonka #39 for any old-school Dolphin fans!). Pretty quickly I realized I don’t pay enough attention to athlete’s numbers to play that game so I quickly shifted to thinking about what was happening in our lives at each age (38… 37… 36… etc), which offered a nice distraction – and one I continued to use on the run. I hit T2 in 32nd place overall and felt reasonably good. Interestingly, this was statistically almost EXACTLY the position in which I came off the bike at Tahoe (22nd of 1700 athletes there vs. 32nd out of 2800 athletes here). Intriguing – so now we’d see if the fueling plan really would make a difference on the run!

For the run, Joshua (our 16 year old son) and I had made a deal. He was planning to run 13.1 miles back home in Colorado that morning as he was training for a half marathon. So we planned to compare his 13.1 mile training run time to the last half of my Ironman marathon. My hope was that this extra incentive would cause me to save a little extra for the last 13 miles (note – he beat me – handily).  Heading out on the run, I knew I was in a good spot overall, but had no idea where I was within the 45-49 age group (I’d be racing in the 50-54’s next year, but for now I was stuck at the top of the younger group). We had the largest age group, so expected a minimum of 4 qualifying spots in our group for Kona (the Ironman World Championship), and possibly 5 or even 6. Weather-wise, we were protected by cloud cover on the bike, but on the run, the heat index climbed quickly. Around mile 5, a sweet, well-intentioned volunteer shouted “You’re all doing so well considering it’s 90 degrees and 85% humidity!” I smiled and said “You probably shouldn’t tell us that,” at which point she covered her mouth with her hand, realizing the context wasn’t good 🙂

My original plan was to run the first 13 miles at around 7:05/mile pace and then see how I was feeling for the 2nd loop.  But I knew that strategy wasn’t going to work at this heat index, so I brought it down a bit, averaging 7:30/mile through that first 13 miles and taking great care to follow the fueling strategy we’d laid out. As I started the 2nd loop, our daughter Ashley flashed her big smile and told me I was sitting in 3rd place in the 45-49’s, which was critical knowledge because my right VMO (quadriceps) felt like I’d pulled something, causing pain with every step that I’d never felt before. Thankfully I’d come into the race with no injury battles, which was a HUGE blessing when training that much. Between the quad and the heat, I went into defense mode to protect that 3rd spot, just trying to conserve what little energy was left while continuing to move forward.

While I’d love to blame the quad on my deteriorating pace, I was just plain cooked by mile 15. The 7:30’s became 8:00 pace and then 8:30’s and slower. The head games expanded to making a deal with myself:  as much as I wanted to walk, if I would just run to the next aid station, then I could walk 10-15 seconds while taking in fluid. Rinse and repeat – mile after mile after mile.

It’s a little known secret that Ironmans actually only involve 25.2 miles of running, as the last mile has such outstanding crowd support and encouragement that you almost float that last mile. Thanks to their help, I was eventually able to pick up the pace and get across the finish line in a final time of 9:41 (3:30 run) to finish 18th overall, an encouraging finish for a 49 year old guy who was ready to give up on the distance just 7 weeks ago.

Was it a perfect race? Absolutely not. Plenty of room for continued progress across all 3 disciplines, especially the swim and run. However, I’d be hard-pressed to identify a more encouraging race after spending more time walking than running in 6 of the last 7 Ironman events. The outcome – especially the opportunity to earn a trip back to the Hawaii Ironman World Championship in 2016 – provided immense thanksgiving and hope after so many struggles and disappointments.  It was progress – and that’s really what matters. While I have no idea what the future holds (Proverbs 19:21), it did indeed provide a spark of hope and opened the door for a potentially fun year of competition in 2016. Thanks so much to everyone for the kind words and encouragement!

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