Louisville 2012: Mark Thompson Races His First Like A Veteran

This was my first Ironman® distance race, which was a monumental decision to sign up (enlist?) by itself. What’s more, however, are the giants who stand before me with Ironman® comedy to detail in their race reports – THIS race reporting is a far more daunting task. The likes of Bart Stevens and Jess Withrow – coining phrases and drawing comedic parallels between multi-sport, female sunglasses and penicillin overdoses – make this is as much sport in the EN community as the actual Ironman® races we shirk professional and family responsibilities to age-group in.

 

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Louisville was my 2nd triathlon ever, the other being a 70.3® close to home in San Antonio back in March. My EN experience parallels my masochistic path toward carbon fiber, consumer-driven, self-actualization in three sports I’ve publicly declared hatred for at several times in my life. I connected with an EN’er from my hometown in New Jersey, Larry Friedman, through my sister. She emailed me his race report following Arizona last year and I opened it the following morning in church just after the offering plate had been passed around. As soon as the sermon began, I completely tuned the pastor out and read the report beginning to end. The level of detail in the preparation, training and execution sucked me in. I flew to South Africa the following week to visit my wife’s family and joined my brother in law as he trained for Ironman® SA 70.3® in Port Elizabeth. The timing of both encounters were catalytic – I was hooked and had one HUGE hurdle to overcome – I had a paralyzing fear of open water. Sharks… snakes… minnows… drowning… they were each mutually prohibitive in my quest for athletic supremacy.

Ultimately, however, there is one way I have found to push myself into anything (headfirst typically) – pay for it. I found a local 70.3® and paid in full immediately upon my return from South Africa. I poured myself into a training plan I found online, pulled my wife and daughter into our Saturday and Sunday runs (wife on bike, pulling baby chariot, with me running) to spend “family time” and went from there.

I clearly recall signing up for Louisville in early March when, after speaking to Larry on the phone and explaining that I would ultimately like to do an Ironman, I was planning on signing up for a few Olympic-distance events to ease myself into the full distance. He objected and said something to the effect of “there is no guarantee that you’ll have this time to train in the future – you might as well go for it.” I guess I’m easily manipulated… also, Louisville has sentimental value for my wife and myself – we lived there for 8 months before moving to San Antonio. We actually lived in the Galt House overlooking the Ohio and woke up every morning thinking out loud – “man that river is so gross – I bet there are so many dead bodies floating around in there – I hope whoever is playing that calliope is one of them.” I signed up before I had felt the pain of a 70.3® and was paid in full to Louisville and Ironman.

This Ironman, for me, was a race of unlikely encouragement – both preceding, during, and to this point, after as well.

Let me give you an example. I did not know Larry Friedman prior to receiving his race report after Arizona last year. I read it immediately, was enthralled, and sent him a message on LinkedIn sharing how inspiring his report had been for me. No response. No response. FINALLY a message appeared in my inbox with his full contact information. We struck up an Ironman® mentoring relationship and I mentioned my brother was getting married in July and I would be home where we might be able to train together. On July 13th the following training schedule appeared in my Gmail inbox:

TUE 7/17             Easy swim to shake off travel depending on your arrival time

WED 7/18            5:30 AM, 20 mile run

THU 7/19             5:30 AM, Open Water Swim, Beach 1 Medford (each lap is 1 mile)

7:45 AM, double spin class

FRI 7/20               5:30 AM, Open Water Swim, Beach 1 Medford (each lap is 1 mile)

SAT 7/21              6:00 AM, 10-14 mile run

SUN 7/22             6:30 AM, Open Water Swim, Centennial Lake Medford (each lap is 2 miles)

 

I looked at the schedule from my work laptop and would never had admitted this to Larry until after Louisville was completed, but my jaw dropped, eyeballs bulged, and tongue rolled to the floor ala Jim Carrey in The Mask – thinking to myself “no freaking way this is happening… “ True to his word, Larry showed up to my parents house before 5am each of the mornings we worked out together and showed singular commitment to both of our training schedules. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to him and to other EN’ers who showed me similar selflessness and discipline as I prepared for this event.

All of that background hopefully sets up the following:

I was incredibly apprehensive – swimming was the limiter from ever signing up previously

I was introduced to EN and became a member in early March of 2012

EN’ers became my Ironman® consultants – If I had a question and you wrote a funny race report – I emailed then called you

Swim

After making it through the Moorestown Iron-Boot Camp, I entered Louisville with an improved level of confidence swimming at the IM distance and in open water. Each training session had been 2 miles, and I had improved by 7 minutes from the first session to the second. As I stood in the long line at Louisville, I made conversation with another Ironman® rookie, more nervous than I, and visualized jumping into the Ohio and navigating the live and dead bodies all around me.

I stayed on the Indiana side prior to Sunday’s race and executed my intended game plan perfectly. I woke for the first time at 2am to guzzle 700 cals of Ensure. Gross. Back to fitful sleep. 3:45am was official wake up, at which point I guzzled another 350 cals of Ensure, stumbled into my friend’s kitchen to marvel at his fancy coffee machine. I had two pieces of toast with PB and honey, Greek yogurt, 2 cups of coffee to complement the Ensure.  Two more gels before the race and I hit my target of about 1800 calories to top of my fuel for the race ahead.

We left at 4:30, arriving at the transition area right at 5am. Having opened at 4:45, transition was buzzing with nervous energy. Veteran riders were pumping their tires all the way back up, rookie non-EN’ers were finding their tires had exploded since racking the day prior, and I stood there somewhere between. I had a game plan that was totally dialed in… I just had no idea what it would look like in practice. Fortunately my tires (even now as I write) did not suffer and my bike was right where and just as I left it.

After final preparations, I left transition with my wife, daughter and father at 5:45. We walked approximately a mile to the Tumbleweed swim start, only to find a line that was about half a mile longer. I stood at the docks on the very end of Towhead Island, which is reportedly 800m from the swim start, waiting for the pro racers to begin at 6:50 and age-groupers to subsequently commence at 7:00am.

I made conversation with another participant in line, spoke briefly with a former college teammate of mine, Luke Bayer (who kicked my butt – 230 lbs and a sub-12hr IM – freaking impressive!), and took a few pictures with my wife to commemorate the occasion. I expect we’ll look back at our photos and all of the aforementioned details will come flooding back. Standing in line at an IM is far more than just another early morning. It’s such a landmark that I am still soaking in the magnitude of the emotions I felt next as I entered the water.

Louisville’s swim course is unique in that it is a time trial start. 4-6 age-groupers leap from the dock into the water at a time and begin swim upstream on the inside of Towhead Island. Approximately 800 meters later, the island ends and you follow the buoys another 500m meters upstream, entering the deeper waters of the Ohio River. At that point, you turn back , with the island on your left and swim the remainder of the discipline downstream toward the Louisville Waterfront.

I could never have fully anticipated the adrenalin rush that beginning my first Ironman® would provide, but as my walk-turned-jog-turned-leap into the river began my Ironman® officially, a wave of pure euphoria rushed over me that lasted well beyond mile 70 on the bike leg of the race. Months of preparation were being realized – there was acute symbolism in my water baptism ushering me into the Ironman® fraternity.

My swim plan had been 100 strokes of freestyle followed by 20 strokes of breaststroke. I trained with this method and found I was able to moderate my heart rate and conserve valuable energy I would need later in the race. In the rush of sighting in open water, passing people, and feeling so incredibly alive in this electric environment, I awoke from my daze at the end of the island (800m) and re-engaged my race plan. 100 freestyle strokes followed by 20 breaststrokes. Ultimately, I decided this was taking me too long. I had never tapered for a swim event before (and rarely shaved my entire body – only special occasions – athletically or otherwise) and frankly, felt phenomenal. I know I’m not a fast swimmer – I’d never swum a lap with intention prior to meeting my wife and failing to impress her in the pool – but I was positive I was on pace for a PR in the swim. My goal entering the race had been a 2-hour swim. Looking at my watch just before passing under the first bridge, I sensed a sub-1:30 was well within reach.

As an EN member, I had the 18-mile mark in the marathon tattooed on my brain. An Ironman® is about making choices that get us to mile 18. Of 2 choices, always pick the easier one – then at mile 18, assuming you chose well at each fork in the road, you empty the gas tank and check your time after crossing the tape.

I chose to view the swim as a confidence builder and engage the euphoria. I sighted to the left each time and smiled big as the sun cut through my mirrored goggles. I will never forget the stark contrast of what I feared heading into the swim and how I felt as I attacked it head on. I believe my Ironman® swim was a statement against each of the foolish fears that kept me from thinking IM was doable previously. My final time of 1:19:00 was a pleasant surprise, but the pleasure and relentless abandon I was free to pour into it were pure freedom.

T1

Heading into my first ever Ironman® transition I had expected to feel unprepared or at least a bit out of my element. Once my feet hit the steps and the volunteer pulled me across the timing mat, my game face was on and I was intent on speeding through the transition as efficiently as possible and recovering once I was safely clipped into my pedals on River Road. I called out my bib #1160 to the first volunteer I saw with a radio and ran through without a hitch. I dumped the contents of my bag (covered with Hello Kitty duct tape to make sure it was identifiable) and got dressed just outside of the changing tent. I could feel the heat coming out of it and I wasn’t taking anything off – I figured outside was cooler and faster.

Bike

Heading into race day, I had set a conservative expectation of finishing the bike portion in 7 hours. I knew that I was capable of faster, but I had no benchmark against which to gauge my progress in a tri of this distance or the impact my recently Craigslisted Cervelo P2C would have on my overall time come race day. Additionally, in the absence of a power meter, HR was the closest I had to an objective measure of how my body truly felt. I aimed for a range of 128-135 bpm on the course, with the exception of a few spikes on the steepest ascents. Overall, I was very pleased with my ability to maintain this general range over the entire 6+ hour ride.

Two other variables that I sought to control were cadence and hydration. I had a very precise plan for both headed into race day. As far as cadence is concerned, I had trained on long rides between 85 and 95 rpm’s. Due to a last minute adjustment at the local tri shop, however, my magnet became dislodged and did not make the trip to Louisville. I am sure that I could have tracked down a new magnet in time for the race, and was aware of the missing magnet as early at Friday morning (two days pre-race). I made a decision to proceed without one, however, in an effort to actively and explicitly trust all of the training that had already been put in.

During training, I worked with Infinit to create several iterations of my custom bike blend before settling on the mix I used on race day. After taking a hydration test sometime in late June, I dialed in the need to consume approx 50 oz of fluid per hour. This pushed me to include Infinit’s maximum allowance of sodium in their formulas as well as supplementing with salts. I sampled various products and ultimately settled on John Withrow’s recommendation, Salt Stick. I had asked him, “so are Endurolytes, Salt Stick, etc. pretty much the same?” With no hesitation he endorsed Salt Stick – which I carried with me throughout the bike and the run with no cramping whatsoever.

In addition to consultation from Withrow, I also sought out Bart Stevens, whom I had met previously at an EN lunch one weekend, coordinated by Joe Hallatschek, and Larry Friedman again. On the phone when speaking to Bart, he went into great detail regarding the custom preparation of his dime-bags and how he carries and dispenses zip-locked bags attached to his Fuel Belt. This, if nothing else, gave me permission to experiment with how I was taking in my nutrition, knowing that I didn’t have to fit the perfect IM or EN mold – or worse yet – purchase every single single-purpose item in any given tri store.

During our July training together, Larry Friedman and I sat down to plan out my nutrition. We settled that somewhere around 270-290 calories per hour were the right amount for someone of my size. While listening to Chris McCormack’s autobiography during one particular 90 mile midday training ride in the 105 degree Texas heat, I experienced first-hand the need to attend to the 4th discipline of Ironman® as diligently as I was training for the other 3. Right around the chapter where he discusses his evolved race day nutrition strategy for Kona, I felt a sharp warning cramp on the inside of my thigh. I’ve experience enough cramps to know that once I’m there, I don’t come back. I treat cramps by avoiding them. This involves not beginning a long training ride in a nutritional deficit during the midday Texas heat…

Thirty minutes later, my entire left leg locked up while clipped in to my bike. 95% of me panicked. Fortunately, the other 5% unclipped my (temporarily) functioning right leg from the other pedal. Just as I unclipped the right side, I locked up completely on both legs from hips to toes. It was a surreal lesson to learn on the access road of I-35 between San Antonio and Austin. I made a fist with my right hand and literally punched myself as hard as I could behind my right knee. I swung my leg over just in time for my leg to lock up again. I repeated this activity on both legs until I could stagger under a tree on the side of the road. I thrust my bike against a tree and began puking up all of the liquid that I had been pumping into my system since I felt the first twinge 30 minutes prior. I fished my cell phone out of my bike jersey, phoned my wife and between heaves told her my location, begging her to get there quickly.

If I could have been watching this scene from another pair of eyes, it would have been completely pathetic and I totally would have judged myself cramping and heaving with alternating convulsions. As a direct reaction to that experience, however, I hydrated like a fiend on the IM Lou bike course.

As I ran through T1, I guzzled another Ensure and engaged my bike nutrition plan. The first hour I consumed approx 550 calories and 500 for hours 2 and 3 from various predetermined energy sources. The fluid plan was to sip constantly from my aero bottle, adding an electrolyte tab with each refill. Whenever I thought about waterfalls, rain, an aid station or saw another rider sip, I would sip. It was that simple. And sip I did.

I listened to Withrow’s IM Lou podcast from last year’s race where he and Coach P discussed the minimum race requirement of peeing 2 times on the bike course. Either stop and pee at a port a potty or pee your pants. Withrow claimed to blow that minimum requirement away by peeing 10 times along the road to La Grange and back. And as Coach P said in the 4 Keys Talk on Saturday – “if you plan to pee yourself on the bike, don’t wear socks, because you don’t want pee socks.” Let’s just say that I didn’t wear socks and was courteous enough to look behind me and at least aim each of the 16 times I proved my superior hydration.

The ride felt wonderful, much like the swim had. I felt my neck grow tired around mile 90, but my legs felt strong and I was able to maintain reasonably even splits for the course. On the road back to town, I intentionally backed off and made sure to spin relatively easily as I prepared mentally for my biggest question mark of the day – the marathon. All things told, I completed the bike portion in just over 6 hours 11 minutes.

T2

The first thing I noticed as I ran through T2 was an increased attentiveness from the volunteers. They were constantly making sure that competitors were doing ok and undoubtedly looking for any red flags that might indicate someone should seek medical treatment or even drop out completely. I was prepared to lie regardless of my apparent state, but seemed to convince my volunteer and he was able to assist gathering my things and slap me on the back as I kept moving along toward the final stage.

Run

Louisville boasts an exciting run course, complete with bridge crossing and downtown finish. The in between, all of 22 miles, is still somewhat historic, but also a touch frightening. The run course tracks down 3rd Street in downtown Louisville, which among taking you through UofL’s campus and past Churchill Downs, also takes you past “The Bad Kroger.” Anyone from Louisville or that has been to a grocery store in the less-than-desirable part of town knows what going to the bad version of an otherwise respectable grocery chain means – increased likelihood of boarded up windows, sirens, domestic disputes – broken glass and malt liquor. What it provided for me was a heightened sense of urgency to finish under 13 hours – and more importantly – BEFORE dark.

Looking back at my training, I focused on the object of my fear (the swim) and the need for volume (the bike), but realize that most of my runs (with a few notable exceptions) came as a part of brick workouts with the bike and were less than 7 miles in length. The run, especially beginning around mile 15, was a total grind.

Three things kept me on track to meet my goal of running the entire marathon. Firstly, I felt like it was Christmas at each and every aid station. I had been given so much council on what to take to stay cool (sponges, cups of ice in the shirt, down the back, in the pants, water over the head, etc), how to plan nutrition (nearly unlimited options – pretzels, cookies, chips, Perform, water, chicken broth, flat Coke, oranges, bananas, GU Roctane, Chomps, etc) and how many steps to take (goal was 30 at each aid station). The problem I found, however, is that as the desperate savage that I was at the completion of each mile, I wanted a little of everything. Refer back to my bike cramping story for the underpinnings of my race day nutrition strategy – at no point would I have too LITTLE to drink or eat. That was for CERTAIN.

As my year’s supply of adrenalin waned between miles 8 and 23, I relied on the 2nd area of encouragement. It felt incredibly cheesy before I was completely tired and grasping for something to pick me up, but I made sure to flash the EN gang sign every time I saw the team jersey on the course. At first I flashed the team NE symbol, much to someone’s confusion. Then I flashed the E3 symbol. After working my way through flashing Lil John’s A-Town/Down, spelling BLOOD with my fingers and just randomly waving at fellow ENers, I finally put E and N together in the right order and identified myself as part of the brotherhood (despite my green and orange corporate leprechaun suit). And for those of you who saw me several times on the course, the gang sign was as much for you as it was for me. Your acknowledgement of what I was trying to say was enough encouragement to get me to the next aid station or arbitrary landmark I had put before myself to move towards. If I ever compete in Louisville again, given the terrain of the run course, maybe we can think of a more innocuous and less potentially misunderstood symbol – I’d hate to start a turf war or add bullet dodging to the course of events. This is an Ironman® – not a ToughMudder after all.

Finally, I had the privilege of being escorted along the entire course by an entourage. My father flew in from Philadelphia, my wife and daughter from San Antonio, and Mark and Ashley Giles from Abilene, TX. I was surrounded by friends and family along the entire course. In addition, Larry Friedman came through once again. This time, he parked himself behind his desktop in New Jersey and sent out periodic text messages to my fan base, helping to position them for maximum cheering, high fiving and overall excitement going both ways. As a result, I got such a rush out of seeing and hearing my friends and family – adding to the overall electricity of the event.
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By the time I made the final turn toward Mike Reilly’s booming pronouncements on 4th Street, I was filled with such a strong tangible picture of the sacrifice and support required by me, my entire family and my friends and supporters to cross that finish line. My final time for the run was just under 5 hours, giving me a 12:43:40 finish overall on the day.

Final Thoughts

From the ENers who have been called upon by name in this report, to those whose IP I pirated while searching the team wiki endlessly and obsessively – I owe a huge debt of gratitude. I came to EN looking for a training plan and have been amazed at the enclave of intelligent, thoughtful and humble insight provided by any and all that I approached throughout the entire lead up to 8.26.12.

I am a big believer in the importance of focusing on process rather than purely on outcome. IMLou was my first taste in the self-coached athletic pursuit where you begin on one side and walk out the other largely transformed. I got to do the training, but saw my family selflessly support that training. Through this first IM, I now have received a gift to pass on to someone else who might have a debilitating fear, physical ailment, or general lack of confidence. I also have about an hour to shave off of this time in my next attempt

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Coach P

All stories by: Coach P

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