My journey to Ironman Florida started at mile 13 on the run of Ironman Lake Placid. I had to make a hard decision about whether to continue in the race and I decided to stop. I DNF’d for the first time in five Ironman races. As I processed my next race, I had to start asking the question, what happens the next time things get really bad?
Even when it's raining, you have to love that bright bike and solid fit.
Training and prepping for an Ironman includes many decision points or tests along the way. The first was just getting back into a training mindset and then there was the “test” race at Ironman 70.3 Memphis. I needed to address some of the issues I had in Placid and get my head back together. I had a few goals for Memphis including a pacing goal on the bike and a goal to have the run be my best segment. With the right nutrition and attitude, I had a great Memphis, enjoying the entire race, smiling the whole way around. I was able to have the 2nd fastest run in my age group even after a 3rd place bike split. Even with a horrible swim I was able to move up to a 3rd place age group finish and qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2022. However good the result of the race was, it exposed my biggest weakness…the swim.
I ramped up my training after Memphis capping off a full summer of solid training. Everything seemed like it was in a good place to race with a good span of training through the summer, good tests and I arrived injury free. I remember a training day with my friend Michael Stainback, where he was kidding that “at least if it’s windy at Florida we will be ready!” My training was done and I needed to trust it.
We arrived in Panama City on Thursday. I checked in for the race, went for a run and then got some good seafood with my girlfriend (soon to be Sherpa) Dana Bracken. Friday, Dana and I went for a swim (realized there were jelly fish!) and welcomed our close friends Tom and Denise Pecht who flew “Baron” their plane through 20+ mph winds and rain to join us! We had an incredible dinner of Chicken Piccata from Dana’s family recipe. What do you notice about these two days? Quiet and no risks. No “practice” bike in the Panama City traffic with wind and a home cooked meal in a city known for spring break not dining safety.
As I settled into the start all the familiar rituals provided a calmness in me. The national anthem, the cannon as the pros started, the cheers as the challenged athletes start their heroic journeys. My hands came together many times as we slowly moved through the coral and the mood changed from tranquil to one of anticipation, but never anxiety. Listening to the chants of “speedo, speedo, speedo” as some crazy person started with only a speedo to protect him from the cold and Jellies.
For the first 10 minutes we swam out to the first turn buoy in near perfect conditions. As I turned the first turn buoy everything changed. The waves rose-up in confusion and the swimmers started to struggle as we headed to the second buoy. The course became a test of confused seas, rip currents and jelly fish all trying to take swimmers and buoys off course. My extended swim of 5,200 yards took 1 hour and 45 minutes, a full 35 minutes slower than Lake Placid. But worse, my time put me in 52nd place after the swim!!!
One thing I learned after Memphis was that no matter how you leave the water, get your head in the right place, and enjoy the ride. As I got on my bike Dana, told me that I looked happy. And I was! Which is surprising because I was cold and about to battle a head/cross wind for 70 miles. As the miles ticked by I was passing a lot of people but didn’t know who is in my age group. A little over 40 miles in I was told I was in 15th and then after 70 that I was in 8th place. Honestly that brought a renewed happiness for me. Well that and a 20 mph tail wind!
My Cervelo might be specifically designed to complement the All3 kit and the Florida flora!
Reflecting on the bike segment there were several things I would note. First, the bike felt great. Totally dialed in and stable. I was running the high profile Enve 7.8s but they hardly flinched in the wind. Second, the bike fit was perfect. Normally when you are riding with a lot of wind you can become very tense from the wind whipping you around. I felt a little sore at mile 70, but as I turned with the wind on my back, I felt really good and ready to ride. That is the sign of a great fit. Matt and Robert at All3 are truly artists and scientists at the same time. And lastly, I had committed to keep my power down to about 72-74% of my Functional Power. I maintained that power, burning very few matches and I felt as strong at the end of the bike as I did at the beginning. In fact, I felt better starting the run than any previous Ironman.
I pulled into transition with my buddy Michael Stainback and Dana said I was in 5th place with a 1st best bike time (short lived as two faster guys rolled in later). Shocking!
When I started running, I was in a good place but felt choppy and I might have topped off my hydration too much. My first half of the run seemed to consist of getting from aid station to aid station to use the port o lets three times. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had already been passed virtually maybe even physically on the course (we all start at different times). I couldn’t let that bother me and knew I just needed to keep doing the pace I could do.
Even in the harder stages of the race I kept running because of the support on the course. The support included All3 teammates TriJoe (in his crazy wig) and Izumi Yamashita (in her party golf cart); long-time training buddies Patti Lawrence and Libby Whelan; Atlanta triathlon ambassador Reiko Donato; cheering squads from Kyle Pease Foundation, SlayRX, and Tri Coach Georgia, trading laps with fellow racers Michael Stainback, Chris Kennel, Chris Ellington and Stacy Sims; my coach Harvey and his cheering wife Julie; and, of course my own Sherpa team Dana, Tom and Denise - they all kept me running happy. Where else can someone from Atlanta have so much support?
At mile 16 two important things of note. I took an Advil and I passed my coach, Harvey Gayer and his wife on the course. It was inspiring to see Julie as she cheered for me, but Harvey had his own kind of inspiration. He told me what I needed to do in no uncertain terms. But I didn’t know if I could do it. My pace was my pace. So I simply resolved that I was just going to keep my current pace, not stop in aid stations anymore, and hope my wheels didn’t fall off at mile 20.
At mile 18 I told myself, all I have to do is get to mile 20. At mile 20, I said every mile I run is better than I expected. At mile 20.5, I saw Harvey again and he told me I was back in 5th, but of course I should run faster. So then I started clicking off the miles until I reached 23. I engaged more than ever with supporters, my teammates…anyone. Mile 21, 22, 23! At mile 23 I was about 5K away. Anyone can run a 5k, right? And run I did! I let everything I had go, I talked to everyone and I dropped about a minute a mile off my average pace.
For fear of losing the podium at the last minute I kept running all out into the finishing chute. I missed seeing Dana, Tom and Denise at the finish, but they found me and Tom took this picture capturing one of the happiest moments of the day!
At the end of the day, the race was over an hour off my personal best ten-hour Ironman four years earlier on this course. However, as a survivor of the day I was really happy to be on my first Ironman distance podium in 5th place and the next day I found out that I received a coveted World Championship Ironman slot for KONA 2022. Ten years of goals met in one 24 hour period.
So what did I learn from this Ironman race?
- Never quit. Don’t quit after a DNF, don’t quit after a horrible swim, and don’t quit before mile 20. This means getting your head in the right place no matter what happens and then keeping it focused. Enjoy the day that many people will never enjoy.
- Get the right equipment fitted the right way. I have worked with Matt Cole for over 10 years and my fit just gets better every year. This year talking to Robert Swan about fit continued to dial it in. I felt great on the bike leading to a better run. Find your team and invest the time with them.
- Pick the race that is right for you. For me Florida has a few characteristics that suit me well. But I think the most important aspect is the support. During the hard sections it was the support that kept me going.
- Live to fight another day. My swim was bad. Yes, everyone’s swim was bad with a high DNF rate on the swim. But the reality is my swim seriously limited my chances on the day. I couldn’t let that bother me during the race, but I must return next year with a better swim. That is why we have an off-season…and I have a plan.