Ironman Mont Tremblant Race Report: John Withrow, 10:21, 1st in XC Division

Swim: 

Goal 1:06-1:10, Actual Swim Time:  1:07:55  (1st out of 10 in the XC, 2:27 faster than 2nd best XC Swim split)

I put my wetsuit on as soon as I got to the lake and dropped my morning clothes bag off and made my way to the water.  I had about 15-20 minutes before the pros would start and I planned to use all of it.  I missed all Team pictures and meet-ups before the race.  I decided that now was “me” time and my teams (Team ReserveAid, EN, and the XC) would all have to just worry about themselves at this point.  This would be new for me for an IM, but I really wanted a good, hard swim warm-up.  I swam for about 8 minutes straight out and then turned and came back.  This was not an “easy” warm-up, but actually swam about race pace as I wanted to blow any residual carbon out of my arms.  I got out of the water just in time to watch the Pro start at 6:36AM for the Men and 6:39 for the Women.  The XC competitors would start in the first AG wave at 6:42AM.  All of the Males 34 and under were in the White Caps and the 10 old guys in the XC were in Red caps.  I saw 3 of my good friends right before the start (Ben Fenton, William Tian, and Colin Martin) which got me fired up.  I started in the very front row near the center and sprinted into the water the second the gun went off.  I did several jumping dolphin dives to allow me to get clear of many of the hesitant swimmers.  That’s me in the red cap in the front of the wave.

 

 

The first 200-300 yds was a real scrum and I swam as hard as I could while getting clobbered left and right in the tight pack of excited swimmers.  I just kept moving forward and followed the pack.  After the tight start, my swim was largely uneventful.  I followed other swimmers whenever possible.  I know following in someone’s swim draft is faster and uses less energy, but mostly I’m horrible at swimming straight.  Several times during this swim I found myself pretty far off to the left and then would correct and find myself of to the right instead.  Generally when I was following someone else, they were less bad at swimming straight than I was.  I’m sure I added at least 100-200yds to my swim leg by just not swimming straight enough.

The swim in IMMT is 3 sides of a long rectangle.  So you swim for a little over a mile straight out, then make a right turn and swim several hundred yds, then make another right turn to swim the return leg of a little over a mile back to shore. As we neared the last couple of bouys before first turn, the water started to get pretty choppy.  I thought this lake would be nice and smooth, but I guess the winds kicked up some decent chop.  Shortly after I made the second turn to head the whole length back I started to see some blue swim caps which I knew were the faster swimmers from the wave behind me.  Anytime someone with a blue cap overtook me I did my best to stay on their feet as long as I could. I knew they were swimming faster than me, and given that they were the fastest swimmers I figured they were also swimming straight.   This return leg seemed a lot faster than the way out, so I guess the wind was at my back here.

T1

Goal: 5:00

Actual:  6:23 (1st out of 10 in the XC, 0:04 faster than 2nd best XC T2)

I exited the water and headed straight to the wetsuit strippers.  They had a bit of trouble as my wetsuit was suctioned onto my left hand and both of my feet.  I probably lost 15-20 seconds here.  After having my wetsuit stripped I made the LONG barefoot run up the concrete to the changing tent.  My feet were raw by the time I got there.  Once I dumped my bag it was a bit of a comedy of small errors.  I first put my Wing57 helmet on and the little magnetic wing on the back fell off.  After struggling to put it back on behind my head, I took my helmet back off to reattach it.  I had swum with no shirt on and attempted to put my Castelli AeroRace5.0 bike jersey on while wet.  This jersey is super aero and therefore super tight and it took me forever to get it on.  Once I got it most of the way on I put my helmet back on and leaned down to grab the rest of my stuff, knocking the stupid magnetic wing back off.  I asked a volunteer to put it back on for me and he struggled with it for what seemed like an eternity as I was grabbing my arm warmers and shoes.  He finally got it and I took off running as he put my wetsuit and other gear back in my bag.  I put my glasses on as I ran and proceeded to drop one of my arm warmers.  I left it on the ground and just kept running.  My bike was right next to bike out, so as soon as I got to it, I put my bike shoes on, grabbed my bike and was at the bike line to start my day.  I know I left a full minute on the table in T1 which is something I will address for future races.

Bike

Bike Goal:  230-235W (starting lower and building) and hoped for a 5:10-5:15 split

Actual:  218W for 5:21:26  (avg speed of 20.9 mph, max speed of 50.1mph)

1st out of 10 in the XC, 4:06 faster than 2nd best XC Bike split

IF: 0.71      VI: 1.04    Avg HR: 136

1st lap was 2:39:15, 2nd lap was 2:42:11

Garmin File: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/567787009

It was a cool ~53 degrees or so to start the bike which was just perfect for me.  I had an old pair of baseball batting gloves velcroed onto my aerobars which I put on right away while I was riding to cut the chill on my fingers.  I had put neoprene toe covers on my shoes before the race and was riding barefoot. I had lost my arm warmers in transition, but this was a blessing in disguise because I definitely did not need them at these temps.

I started the ride super easy for the first 15 minutes to get myself settled in.  It seemed like I had blinked and was already at mile 7 to make the turn onto the highway 117.  I had a 1.25 hr bottle of Infinit in my Speefdil A2 on my bars and another 1.25 hrs of Infinit in the bottle behind my seat.  I had taken my down tube bottle cage off of my bike for the race to be more aero.  I had 5 bars in my Jersey pocket which I would eat roughly every hour and I would supplement all of this with on course Perform (drink) and water.  I ate an Accel Recover bar at ~50 minutes, a Blueberry Larabar at ~1:50, a Quest bar at ~3:15 and another Accel bar at 4:30 hours.  In reality it took me almost 30 mins to eat each of these as I would take about a third of the bar every 15 mins or so.  I probably drank a ½ a bottle of perform as I rode through each of the first 4 aid stations.  Also, every hour or so I supplemented with 1 salt stick, 1 Ca/Mg pill, and 3 MAP Amino Acid pills to keep everything topped off.

About 45 mins into the ride I looked over and Coach P came riding by with 5 guys just inches from his wheel.  It seriously looked like those guys were trying to ride in a peleton blatantly drafting off of him.  Once all 6 of them passed me, I was in their draft and my power dropped way down so I passed the whole row.  As I came up beside Coach P I yelled, “Wow, have you been dragging all these guys on your wheel the whole time”?  He smiled, and said “yup”.  As I passed to go ahead, he said to me “These guys have not been in front once the whole time.  But don’t worry about them, just ride steady and worry about your race”.  I think they must have heard us talking, because shortly after that, they all blasted ahead and pulled away in their new little pack of 5.  As luck would have it, I saw all 5 of them pulled over in a penalty tent about an hour later so I guess the kharma came back to them. 

Every part of my ego and bravado wanted to stay a legal distance back from Coach P but to stay with him…  He was just stronger than me so I let him go as to not blow myself up.  I would worry about riding smart and not worry so much about a PR bike split.  Temperatures were cool for most of the ride, but I wanted to stay hydrated so I drank A LOT.  I was getting calories and fluids in at the same time.  It seemed like every single time I took a drink I would pee.  This “cueing system” lasted the entire ride.  In an Ironman, especially one where you are racing for a Kona slot, you do not stop to pee, but simply let it float off into the abyss behind you.  I slow a bit to get the process started, but generally just lift my butt an inch or so off the seat and keep right on pedalling.    During one of these slightly slower “breaks” around mile 38 or so I was passed by Matthew Gentile (from the XC).  He had a very serious look on his face and did not acknowledge if he recognized me, but I recognized him.  It was almost like he had pushed really hard to catch me, but as soon as he did, I passed him and started to pull away again.  I didn’t do this consciously as I was just riding to my numbers, but he looked determined.

I actually had fun going up the hills to Lac Superior.  This section seemed to crush a lot of people on this course, but it was child’s play compared to many of my training rides.  I got out of the saddle, but kept my power steady, which really helped me to stretch and loosen up.  I passed the half-way point to start the 2nd lap right at 2:38.  I was within a minute or so of my expected pace but was riding a little low on my power.  I had not touched my rear bottle so I decided not to fill up my A2 at aid stations until it was gone and I could ditch the rear bottle and extra weight.   

I like it when I see the 3 hr mark on my bike rides.  I know this is when others start to suffer and my legs finally come into their own.  I felt really good even when I hit the strong headwinds going out on Rte 117.  After the turn these became tailwinds and I was just flying as I kept my power steady.  About the 4 hour mark I had a decision to make.  My power was much lower than my goal, and I knew I “could” pick it up and ride a little harder.  However, I was getting the hints of tiny “twinges” in my quads.  I knew from the many many long rides I had done this yr that I was close to that fine line.  If I rode much harder I risked quad cramping that would likely stay with me for my run.  I recalled a conversation I had with Coach P before the race when he said at IMTX he was below his goal effort, but he knew it was “good enough” so he wasn’t afraid to just dial it back a bit.  So that’s exactly what I did.  I accepted that my power was a little lower than I was capable of and lower than plan, but it just felt “right” so I stuck with it.  I made the turn at Monte Ryan and flew back on the rollers.  I turned on my Garmin 910XT run watch here so it would have plenty of time to locate the GPS signal. Then I turned on Lac Superior and thoroughly enjoyed climbing the hills because I knew that I was gaining time and that all of my competitors would be suffering here.  Then I flew back down the hill, pulled my feet out of my shoes and dismounted barefooted at the line and was off and running through T2.

T2

Goal time:  2:30

Actual Time: 2:25   (1st in the XC making up 2:41 on the eventual 2nd place guy)

 

After handing my bike off to the bike catcher, it was a barefoot run to the changing tent.  During this run, I took off my jersey and my helmet and glasses.  I also used this run as an opportunity to get fully upright and loosen my hip flexors and quads, etc.  Once in the tent, I dumped my bag, threw on my socks and shoes and was off in a flash as I asked a volunteer to get my pile of stuff back into my bag.  I ran out carrying a zip-lock bag that held my fuel belt with race number and my visor.  I put both of these on as I ran out of T2 and onto the run course.

Run

Goal time:  Super Stretch Goal time was 3:45:00

Actual time:  3:43:01   (2nd in the XC, 9:21 behind the fastest guy)

Average HR 142, Max HR 148

Pre-race 5k Vdot : 47   (Long Run Pace predicted best case IM marathon would be 3:54:56)

Garmin File: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/567806021

 

I ran down the chute out of T2 with a big smile on my face.  Just as I was getting to the first main road on the run I saw Tovah (my #2 Iron Sherpa) standing on the barricade in the middle of the road.  She was cheering and taking video.  She yelled that Jess was right up ahead.  Jess (my #1 Iron Sherpa) was at this strategic location not for cheering and support but to communicate information to me.  I had a group of really great friends back in the States updating my custom made race day Google Doc tracker spreadsheet for me.  Thank you SO MUCH to Eric B., Joe M., Paco and Alex for doing all of this data crunching for me.  Tovah, Jess and Eric R. were on the run course to receive and transmit these morsels of info to me in real time.  So about two minutes into my run Jess told me “at Mile 101 of the bike, you were ahead of Matt by 6:26 and Jerome by 14:20”.  That’s all I got, but it was exactly what I needed.  For the next several minutes I could “just run” as I thought about what this info meant.  I knew Jerome’s run PR was a 3:31:xx.  So if I was ahead of him by 14:20, then a 3:45 marathon by me would make for a super tight finish.  Matt was only 6:26 back, but for some reason I thought Jerome was the bigger threat.  My watch buzzed as I passed the first mile in 8:21, “right on schedule” I thought… I ticked off the first 3 miles in 8:21, 8:34, and 7:53.  These were supposed to be the hardest miles of the course and I was intentionally taking it easy.  After the first hilly miles, the run course goes on a flat-ish paved bike trail to a turn-around at mile ~6.  I was about 1.5 miles before this turn-around when I saw Colin Martin running towards me like a big smiling puppy dog.  There were only a few Pro’s ahead of him so I knew he was having a great race.  Not long after Colin was Coach P so I knew I was having a great race because I was almost to the turn-around and I wasn’t all that far behind those speed demons.

 

I looked at my watch at the turn-around so I could take a split on how much time my competitors had made up on me.  It was 4:00 before I saw Matt, and 6:20 before I saw Jerome, so I knew they were roughly 8:00 mins and 12:30 behind me, respectively.  More math now to realize that they hadn’t made up all that much time…  

More important than what the other guys in the XC were doing was how I was doing.  And I felt GREAT.  I was ~7 miles into my IM marathon and it literally felt like I just started my afternoon jog on fresh legs.  Seriously!  There was no pain cave for me yet.  I was just running at an easy pace (the same pace at which I had logged ~1,500 running miles in the previous 12 months) and it felt like I was just floating along.  I had taken a Honey Stinger gel at 20 mins and another one at ~45 mins.  I would take a drink of Perform and a drink of water at every aid station, but I never even broke stride.  In every previous IM, I walked all of the aid stations, but not this race, I just ran through them and kept going.  Man I felt great!  At the end of each hour I took a Salt stick, a Ca/Mg, and a couple of MAP pills.

There’s another short out-and-back as you approach mile 10 and here I saw Matt again but I had put a couple more minutes into him by now.  At about mile 12.5, I saw Troy and Frankie who head up the XC.  I gave Troy a High-Five and in my mind I was happy and spritely.  The picture that Frankie took tells a different story as Troy said I looked like I was in “the zone” and it appears that I only had the energy for a mid-five instead of a high-five. 



This was a common theme after the race, I kept telling everyone how good I “felt” the whole run and they kept telling me how bad I “looked” on the course.  When I race, most of the color drains out of my face and I get very “focused”.  I get energy from others on the course and there were plenty of teammates passing it out.  Almost everyone I passed with a Team ReserveAid kit or an EN kit shouted words of encouragement or tried to give me a high five.  So let me use this part of RR as an apology to all of you if I took your energy and good will without reciprocating the same.  I simply had no extra energy or motion to spare because I was on a mission and when I get locked in, it requires near 100% focus for me.

Before I knew it I was running down the awesome cobblestone pathway towards the finish line to end my first loop.  Others say there was a hill to climb before coming down these cobblestones but I honestly never noticed it on either lap.  This part of the course is just awesome as it is lined 5 deep with screaming spectators.  As I turned onto the main street to start the second lap of the course I spotted Jess again.  “As of mile 10, you were 11:46 ahead of Jerome who already passed Matt.  Jerome is running 7:56 miles.”    Math, math, and more math.  I enjoy doing math while I race.  It keeps my nerd brain focused on something other than how my body feels.  Honestly the only things I thought about for the 3:43 of the marathon was “How’s my form, how’s my nutrition and hydration, do I need salt, and what math can I do”.  The math from this point on was mostly keeping track of how far ahead of Jerome I was.  I made the assumption that if he was currently running 7:56 miles that he was not going to speed up for the last half of the marathon, since nobody ever does.  But I also assumed that he would not slow down either.  So with 16 miles to go (after the last known checkpoint) and an 11+ minute lead, he could not catch me if I kept running 8:30 miles.  The good news was that I was still comfortably running ~8:30 miles.  So, every time I saw my Garmin watch lap, I subtracted 8:00 from my last mile to calculate how much time Jerome “theoretically” made up on me and subtracted that from my previous lead.  The more 8:30 or better miles I ticked off the closer I got to the finish line and the bigger my “minutes per remaining mile” lead became.  That math sounds simple, but to keep track of all that ~9 hours into a hard day was just about enough brainwork to carry me halfway to the next aid station each mile or so.

The hills on the way out seemed a little harder the 2nd time around, but still not too bad.  I got to the bike path again and saw Colin practically leading the race on the way back in.  Another mile later was a very serious looking Coach P coming at me in his ridiculous trucker hat.  And then I was at the mile 19.6 turn-around already.  My average pace for the 6 miles from 14 to 20 was 8:25/mi.  I looked at my watch again to get a good bead on where Jerome was.  According to my math, I should see him at around the 3:30 mark as I thought my lead was around 7 minutes.  3:30 came and went.  It was almost 4:20 before I saw Jerome who actually gave me a big smile and waved and told me I looked great.  In my head, this assassin was chasing me down with a big knife and a spear, but in reality, he was just a friendly skinny French guy out for a run.  The good news was that I was past mile 20 and my lead was over 8 minutes.  So 9 minute miles would get me to Kona.  But I was still rattling off more 8:45 miles at this point.  So every mile I felt like I was banking another 15-30 seconds or so.  It was in these last 6 miles that my legs finally started to hurt.  I could feel twinges in my hammies, calves, and quads.  As long as I kept good form and ignored them I was fine, so that’s exactly what I did.  These twinges never turned to unbearable pain, but they were constant reminders that I was running on the very edge of the cliff.

Coming through town around mile 22 I saw Eric Retzbach riding around on a borrowed road bike.  He lied and told me I looked great.  He also confirmed that I was 9:26 ahead at mile 20.  So if Jerome was in fact still running 8:00 miles, I was at least ~6:30 ahead with only 3 miles to go.  Mile 23 is where I melted down at IMNYC in 2012 and spent over 15 minutes completely stopped at an aid station.  This thought was not lost on me and the race was not over until the finish line.  But unlike previous races, I did NOT care what my final time was.  The only thing I cared about was winning the XC division and going to Kona!   This was new territory for me.  In all of my past races, the last 3 miles is where I go to the really dark place.  I turn off my head and ignore all senses.  Some people use the term “dig deep” or “leave it all out there”.  But on this day, I would make the conscious decision to do the opposite.  I had already slowed my pace a bit to be a little more conservative.  From this point on, I knew the only way I would lose this race was if I had a meltdown and stopped.  10:30 miles would take me to Kona.  So I intentionally slowed my pace a bit more.  I actually stopped and walked through the last 2 aid stations (the only ones I had walked all day).  I made sure to take in a gel and a whole cup of perform and a cup of water at each.

The last couple of hills before town seemed to have grown a bit since the first lap, so I slowed going up them but never walked and I flew down the other side.  Even though I knew I was still many minutes ahead of Jerome, I looked over my shoulder in the last half a mile a couple times (you never can be too sure).  The finishing chute in Mt Tremblant is just awesome.  The narrow corridor that zig-zags down the cobblestones seemed like it was lined several people deep and they were all screaming and cheering.   This is my first Ironman finishing chute that I actually enjoyed myself and took it all in.  I’m pretty sure I even got a high-five from Tim Cronk and Heather just a hundred yd or so from the finish line.  As I crossed the line, my emotions welled up and I smiled, yelled, and threw my arms up with joy. 


Another of the many benefits of racing with the XC is that Jess was able to be standing immediately behind the finish line to give me my Finisher’s Medal.  She hugged me and said I had done it!  I had qualified for Kona!  When I heard the word Kona, all of my emotions let loose.  I started crying uncontrollably like a little school girl. Literally tears rolling down my face.

One of the things I have learned over the yrs is that I cannot stop immediately after the finish line or my blood pressure drops and it’s off to the medical tent.  So Jess and I bypassed the whole Finisher’s area and just kept walking (no official Finisher’s picture for me).  They tossed me a Finisher’s hat and t-shirt as we by strolled by.  I kept walking past the food and past the transition are and didn’t stop until I was back in my hotel room.  It must have been 5-6 times in that 10 minute walk that someone said the word Kona and I would start bawling my eyes out again.  I couldn’t believe that I had actually done it.  I actually did it, and on the run of all places. 

Final Thoughts

This might sound weird, but even though I had set over a 27 minute IM Run PR, it was the easiest Ironman race I have ever done.  Not to say it was easy, but I never had to “dig deep” or “turn myself inside-out”.  I just swam at the fastest pace I could swim while keeping my form.  I biked easier than I knew I “could”, and ran many, many comfortable miles and a half-dozen uncomfortable ones…

I trained a LOT harder for this race than for any other of my life.  My wife Jess was about as supportive as I could have ever imagined.  It was never rainbows and unicorns, but she was always pushing me and supporting me along the way, even when I also added my own form of extra stupidity to the long list of training time commitments.  I race for a wonderful charity alongside a ton of amazing Team ReserveAid athletes.  If you have donated to my cause, I thank you.  If you haven’t donated yet, here’s one last chance by clicking here:  http://reserveaid.org/get-involved/…tremblant/  I also got enumerable support from all of the EN athletes on the course (and surrounding it).  I got training and tri geekery support and advice from too many people to name and so much support along the way, but a special thanks goes to Jess, Coach P, Tim Cronk, Al Truscott, William Jenks, JT Thompson, Brenda and Steve, Kori and Eric Retzbach, and Joe Machette. 

Take aways:

  1. Listen to your coach, no matter how counter-intuitive his ideas may be.
  2. Even a big dumb wrestler can become a runner
  3. It’s all about the bike (to setup the run)
  4. Experiment on yourself (nutrition, training, recovery, etc)
  5. Dream big dreams, commit to them and go get them
  6. Race for a cause (any cause) that you believe in


Listen to John’s race report interview with Coach Rich here.
TONS of great race execution lessons!

 

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