Leave or Learn? (Kona Thoughts)

Two weeks ago I had the incredible opportunity of lining up with the best in the business at the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. It was my 4th time to compete in this event, and it appeared everything was pointing toward a memorable performance. At the age of 50, it had been a pretty good year, with 2nd place AG finishes at big events like US Nationals & Oceanside 70.3 and even a couple of 2nd place Overall finishes at Toughman 70.3 and Harvest Moon 70.3. We’d made a few adjustments to previous Kona strategies – I was healthy and ready to go. This was going to be the year!

But it wasn’t. The outcome didn’t change. The course that has repeatedly humbled me did it once again. Halfway into the run, the body (and mind) gave up, and I walked most of the remaining miles to another mediocre performance on the big island.

This was my 10th Ironman. Three of those have gone reasonably well, and a 4th wasn’t all bad. The other six? Disasters. In baseball, batting .350 is solid. In triathlon? Not so much.

You’ve been there. You’ve poured your time, energy and focus into some pursuit – only to see it come crashing down. Then what? Do we walk away (leave)? or do we garner new lessons (learn) and give it another shot? During that long walk through the Energy Lab and along the Queen K Highway in Kona, I’d decided I’d had enough. 10 Ironman finishes was a nice round number. I’d had success at all other distances – why not cut my losses, focus on those – and eliminate the constant discouragement Ironman seems to bring?

Sometimes “leaving” is the right answer. Sometimes we need to evaluate priorities, examine outcomes, and turn our focus in a new direction. Frankly – that may be the route I eventually land upon in regards to this distance. But not yet. With plans to take next year off completely from triathlon to focus on running (my son wants to run a marathon before he heads off to college, so it’s a fun excuse to train with him), I’ve decided to give the Ironman one last go-around. Ironman Arizona sits 5 weeks after Kona, providing the perfect opportunity to take one last swing without having to devote another year to training.

Many adjustments are in store. Matt Dixon likes to say “Expect Mistakes… Respect Mistakes… Inspect Mistakes” and that’s a lesson worth remembering. Any number of things could have caused the meltdown on Kona, but here are the ones we’ll be adjusting heading into Ironman #11:

  • Strength – I broke my foot mid-season. When I came back from the injury, I continued to incorporate core work into my training, but dropped the classic strength training. I’m a smaller framed athlete to begin with, and when you’re out there trying to run a 3:10ish marathon after the 112 mile bike, it helps to have some additional muscle to draw upon. That’s been added back into the schedule the past 10 days and will continue until a week out from the race.
  • Weight – A lean frame is a big benefit in both running and most triathlon events. Every extra pound slows the run by 2 seconds/mile and costs wattage on the bike. However, respected coaches like Brett Sutton note that while beneficial in most events, being too lean doesn’t work for the Ironman distance. You simply need a little extra fat to draw upon when out there for 9+ hours. I went into Kona the leanest I’d been since my sophomore year… in high school! For Arizona, I’ll be carrying an additional 6 lbs, with some of that coming from the strength training noted above and some of it simply “extra.”
  • Training – I may have pushed the dial just a little too much leading into Kona, with the final tough session being a 15 mile run at just under race pace (6:54/mile) in the heat of the day from mile 9-24 of the Kona course. I felt fine at the time, and thought it would provide a little extra confidence for the race. But come race day, I felt flat and sluggish. This time around I’ll dial it back a good week+ in advance.
  • Mental Approach – Nobody likes to admit that their struggles involve being soft mentally, but that may have been the case in Kona. Oh – my training buddies will tell you this isn’t an issue for me, as I’m the guy who will spend 8 hours straight in my basement on the trainer and treadmill, sometimes without music or TV in order to push those mental barriers. But I do struggle with an internal on/off switch. When I’m racing well and hitting my expected targets, it drives me onward. However, when I’m falling short, sometimes I just stop caring, and that may have happened at Kona. I came in expecting to finish in 9:20-9:40, easily nailing a podium spot and potentially finishing top 2-3. Discovering that I came off the bike in 19th and had barely moved into the top 10 after a relatively strong first 9 miles on the run, I wonder if I mentally shut things down. At Ironman Arizona, I’m there to push the mental barriers, regardless of position. We’ll see if it has an impact…

Will it work? We’ll find out on November 20th. In the mean time, what’s that pursuit you’ve been (unsuccessfully) chasing? Is it time to leave for greener (or at least some other color) pastures? or is it time to garner new lessons and give it one more try?

There’s not a “right answer.” Both options require a conscious decision. Leave? or Learn? Let’s go!

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