Wednesday, May 9, 2012

2012 Ironman St. George Triathlon Race Report

Last year I signed up for Ironman St. George a few days before the race - the race turned out to be a disaster, but I finished.  This year I returned to St. George with some actual race specific fitness and I was hoping to parlay it into my first Ironman podium.

All week I kept checking the weather and it was looking like a banner forecast with temps in the low 80s, clear skies, and calm winds.  However, on this particular day the weatherman got it wrong, very wrong.  For those that didn't hear, an incredibly powerful wind kicked up just after the swim start and made for the most challenging day I have ever faced. There are no words, pictures, or videos that can accurately describe it, and only the participants on that day can truly understand how brutal the day was. Mike Reilly said- "I have called 110 Ironman Events, and never called in a champion at over 9 hours...". The DNF rate on the day was an astounding 29%.  With that being said I loved every minute of this race, I smiled almost the entire day, and raced myself up to my first Ironman podium.  It was a great day and here is a recap:

Out in the Washing Machine
Swim (59:19 / 9th) :  My goal of the swim was to grab Chris McDonald's feet and hold on like my race depended on it.  As the cannon went off I did just that and I was actually surprised how easy the effort was as I kept taping the back of his feet, but it wasn't meant to be. After about 300 yards or so I swallowed some water and had to take a few seconds to cough it up and regain myself. When I did regain myself the feet were gone.  Fortunately some new feet showed up just in time and I road them to first turn bouy.

Three of us reached the first buoy together and  we rounded it and continued on to the second. Now this is where things started to get interesting as I noticed there started to be some rolling waves that we were swimming parallel with. They were nothing crazy but nonetheless they were unexpected. As we rounded the second buoy I started to realize that this day was quickly changing. Big rolling swells started to pound away at us, and with ~1800 meters on this leg, I knew we were in for a challenge.

The three of us continued swimming but the man in the middle was having trouble maintaining contact with the lead swimmer.  At that instant I made a decision to forge ahead and got back on to the feet of the lead swimmer.  I got back on the swimmer's feet and let him dictate pace and direction.  At times it felt like we were not even moving.  As a "strong" swimmer who was having some difficulty I felt for all the other participants and I stated to wonder if the event was going to be cancelled.  I kept waiting for the sound of the horn but it never came.  Eventually I reached shore and I was surprised to see that my swim time was under an hour.


Bike (5:33:54 / 6th): As I headed out of transition towards my bike I couldn't help but notice the flags violently whipping back and forth.  I was all for winds and tough course, but I knew that riding an 80mm deep front wheel in the winds was downright suicidal.  Had I known the winds were going to be what they were then I would have never used such a deep wheel. Regardless, there was nothing I could do about it and I got on my bike and focused on moving through the field.

 On the Bike
As I headed out of the Sand Hallow Reservoir I couldn't help but notice that I was pushing 330 watts but only going 12mph on a flat section.  Then I reached the end of the reservoir and made the turn towards St George.  Despite being a significant climb I found myself going over 40mph with minimal effort with the help of an incredible tailwind.  This was pretty much how the entire day went - you were either going painstakingly slow, or rip-roaring fast.  Anyway, I worked on reeling back in a few competitors and I did so early on but unfortunately none of them were too keen on riding with me and popped off the back.  I forged ahead alone, pushing conservatively with tailwinds, aggressively into the headwinds, and I held on for dear life during the crosswinds.  For roughly an hour I saw no one and had no idea what place I was in.  Then I caught and passed Meredith Kessler and Heath Thurston on the way up to Gunlock.  On "The Wall" I got my first update that I was 22 minutes back.  22 minutes!!!  How in the heck am I 22 minutes down.  I started having visions of Ben Hoffman, Maik Twelsiak, Chris McDonald and Axel Zeebroek, all riding together and running away with the race.  I needed some help from the other great cyclists like Matt Russell, Kevin Taddino, and Mike Schifferle but they never came and I continued riding alone.

By mile 50 I had developed a blister on my hand from clutcthing the aerobars so tightly - it was a first.  I have never had so many close calls in a single race and and was blown off the road and forced to unclip at least three times during the first lap and scared out of the aerobars for a significant portion of lap one.  At one point sand whipped up so fast and so hard that it felt like 1000s of stinging bees hitting you all at once.  By mile 56 I was done and ready to get off my bike and I had no idea how I could do another 56 miles.  My only saving grace is that I knew the race was going to be a war of attrition and I can win wars of attrition.  Then in a blink of an eye I found myself at mile 65 and starting lap 2 of the ride.

Lap 2 of the ride was much more pleasant.  The winds had greatly died down and I found myself going faster on fewer watts.  I had tons of rabbits ahead of me and they were being caught at a rapid pace.  Each time I passed one I kept thinking that they had no idea what these winds were like just 2 hours earlier.  Despite the decrease in wind speed I found myself running out of fuel even though I packed 2400 calories for the ride.  As a result I switched from water to Powerbar Perform to increase the calories and save what was left of my concentrated gel bottle. Surprisingly, despite consuming roughly 3000 calories my stomach felt fine.  When I reached "The Wall" the second time I was relieved to learn that the 22 minute lead had only grown to 28 minutes and I soldiered on down the back side of the course in record time.

Finally, in the last few miles I got a glimpse of a few competitors ahead of me.  I could tell they were Chris McDonald and Kirk Nelson, and I was stoked to have been able to reel back in Chris.

Tracking Down Kirk Nelson in the Distance
Run (3:12:14 / 4th):  My run started out great and I found myself feeling fresh and running strong.  When I exited transition I found myself running in 6th place at a smooth 6:30 pace.  Early time checks suggested I was running the same pace as Chris McDonald (4th) and just a tiny bit slower than Kirk Nelson (5th).  7th place was nearly 10 minutes down. I soldiered on and focused on getting in calories taking a gel ever two miles and supplementing it with cola and Powerbar Perform.  Additional time checks showed that Nelson was still gaining time on me but the gap to McDonald was falling.

I continued on at my own pace knowing that I would pass McDonald naturally, but then the unthinkable happened.  The juggernaut of Ironman, Chris "Big Sexy" McDonald, pulled the plug on the race at mile 6 and I found myself in 5th place with a lead biker at my side. It was at this point I saw Jayme from 2XU and all I could do was smile and reflect on how far I have come as an athlete.  When I first got into the sport "Big Sexy" was one of those guys that I looked up to and just this winter I found myself picking his brain at a Christmas party, now I was passing him for a podium spot.  I knew I had a long way to go and had to focus on finishing the race but I was stoked and set my sights on Nelson.

As I started the second lap I saw fellow pro triathlete Kevin Taddino on the sidelines and he was giving me some words of encouragement and told me that Maik Twelsiak in (2nd) and Axel Zoebroeck (3rd) were looking terrible and I could run them down.  I was still feeling great and picked up the pace.  At the next time check I was only 2:26 down from Kirk Nelson, and then 2 miles later the time had dwindled to 1:46. 2 more miles rolled by and I had dwindled the time to zero and made the pass and moved into 4th.

From that point on I went into damage control mode.  There was little chance that I could catch Axel and Matt Sheeks was 10 minutes back in 5th place with 8 miles to go.  At mile 21 me form finally started to falter a little bit, and the signature smile faded as I returned to my old janky running style that you can spot from a mile away.  The time gaps with Sheeks were coming down fast but in the end he would run out of real estate as I smacked hands with anyone I could en route to my first Ironman Pro Podium.

Overall (9:49:00 / 4th Place):  Overall I couldn't be happier with my race.  Obviously the importance of a good swim can never be discounted and who knows what would have happened if I could have gotten out with Chris McDonald on the swim.  It is certainly something I have to continue to work on, but any day you can finish 4th on the podium behind two guys that have multiple Ironman victories on their resumes, and another guy who had the fastest bike split and finished 13th in the Beijing Olympic, is a good day.

Looking forward I plan to race at Ironman Texas in less than 10 days.  Realistically my body won't be recovered, but I want to explore the capabilities of my swim/bike fitness.  I need to have a day where I blow up to see exactly what my body can and cannot handle and I can't remember the last time I blew up.  As a result I'm using Texas as a learning experience, both of my own body and of the course.  Then it is back to Wisconsin as I set my sails for an Ironman win at Ironman Wisconsin.



Top 5 Male Pros Finishing

As always I want to thank the people and companies that make this happen including:

Carol and Locke Ettinger - for an awesome homestay filled with lots of fun, food, and memories.
WTC - for putting on a great race.
Trisports - for all the great tri gear you carry and for providing it in the most earth sustainable way.
2XU - for the wetsuit, compression gear, and everyday training gear that rocks!!
Powerbar - for getting me to and thru races with your fantastic nutrition products!!
Drip Drop - for making sure I stay properly hydrated.
A to Z Cares - for your continued support of my training, racing, and overall well-being.

4 comments:

  1. Awesome race Tom. All the best for the remainder of the year.

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  2. Congrats for your place!! . Good luck for the next.

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  3. Class of '99: 1; Class of ''00: 0. The year is young. I guess tennis/soccer turned out not to be our sports. Congrats!!

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