2016 Ironman Vineman Race Report: John Withrow, Lessons Learned When Things Don’t Go As Expected

Setting Expectations:

Racing Ironman is hard.  Not just the physical nature of the actual race and its associated training, but more so the strain it can and does put on a body and on a family.  This past winter, I had an episode where I had some light-headed spells and actually collapsed one night. My PCP thought I “might” have a heart condition.  Talk about scary…  For 3 months I had Heart Rate limitations and just did a lot of slow, easy miles as I tried to figure out what was going on while maintaining some semblance of fitness.  It was a very unsettling time for me and my family, and made me consider the deeper reasons of what I was doing with this so called “Ironman Career…” even though it is really just a hobby on the side…

I spent the better part of three months seeing a Cardiologist and getting every type of heart test and scan imaginable.  The grey-haired Cardiologist gave me his diagnosis:  “You have the healthiest heart I’ve ever seen.”  It was probably just some weird virus.   I’d been given the All Clear to start punishing my body again.  I did a weeklong bike camp at the end of May in Aspen with some awesome EN peeps, which included a one-day 208 mile jaunt (at altitude) from Aspen to Vail, and back to Aspen.  My legs were certainly starting to come back.  As I did with Ironman Wisconsin last year, I did much of my training around my commute again this year… but also picked up my Saturday long rides and generally did several hours very early on Sunday mornings as well.

The biggest discussions in my house around my training were less about me training for and doing another Ironman…  they were mostly about the fact that I was trying to qualify for Kona again.  From my perspective, Jess couldn’t seem to understand why I can’t just do an Ironman “like a normal person” and not take it so seriously.  Frankly, I enjoy the solitude of the training and pushing my limits…  I don’t necessarily love doing Ironman races, but what I do love is competing, and I really love a challenge.  Without the competition, I likely wouldn’t really want to put everything I had into training.  Personally, after crossing the finish line in 8 Ironman races, I wasn’t interested in just doing another Ironman. Hearing Mike Reilly or the announcer of the day say, “You Are an Ironman!” for the 9th time just didn’t have any allure to me.  But winning the Executive Challenge (XC) and qualifying for Kona again…   now that’s something I was willing to suffer for.  This is a game for me, but finishing isn’t the goal anymore…   My goal was to win (my chosen race against my small batch of competition), but anything less than winning would be a disappointment…

 

Pre-Race:

We arrived in San Francisco on Thursday mid-day for the Saturday race.  This is later than normal, but this was my 9th rodeo, and I didn’t feel like I needed/wanted any of the race “hoopla”.  I spent a couple of hours at the Golden Gate Bridge sight-seeing with my family on the way to Sonoma, which was also nice and relaxing.  I was racing in the Executive Challenge (XC) Division, so the logistical nightmare that is Ironman Vineman was completely made simple for me.   Within 15 minutes of arriving at my hotel, the awesome XC guys delivered my bike and my transition bag to my room (they got them from TBT for me).  They also brought me all of the registration formalities and did everything in my hotel room.  I cannot put into words how awesome that convenience was.  I got my bike and gear bags ready and followed my normal pre-race rest and nutrition routine on Friday (super hydrate and load up on Calcium, Magnesium, other electrolytes and Amino Acids).   (Note, the XC guys took my bike to bike checking and dropped my bags off, so I never had to actually set foot at any actual race site until the morning of the race!).

The morning of the race I fueled up my bike and got everything set up.  Easy peazy.  I donned my wetsuit and did a ~10 minute swim warmup in the Russian River (below the dam).

Swim: 

Stated goal time:  1:09-1:14

Actual Swim Time:  1:11:11

The swim was above the dam of the Russian River.  “River” is a loose interpretation of what it is this time of the year.  There is almost no water flowing over/through the dam, so it is basically a non-moving lake that has the shape of what a winding river might be.  I think it has a maximum depth of ~6 feet, with it only being 2 feet deep in a few places.  If you are in any way intimidated by the “swim” leg of an Ironman, this race is for you.  It was actually a very peaceful swim in really clean water.  You were never more than 10 yards from the shore and you could pretty much stand up anytime you wanted (many people walked parts of the swim leg, but that seemed slower than swimming, even if it meant your hand touched the pea gravel on the bottom).  There were a few times when I did several dolphin dives when the water got too shallow or pushed off the bottom with my feet.   On average, it was a perfect temperature swim with barely any contact in super clean water, and my swim time was almost exactly what I expected my swim time would/should be.

T1:   4:09

The wetsuit strippers were a bit slow, but all I did in the change tent was grab my bike shoes and helmet and leave.  I put my helmet and glasses on as I ran, and carried my shoes until I got to my bike which was pretty close to the bike out (thanks again XC).  I put my shoes on at my bike, then ran the last 20 yds or so to the bike mount line.

Bike:

Stated goal time:  5:25-5:40

Actual Bike Time:  5:19:36

This bike course could have been designed for a guy like me…   There was enough elevation change to give your legs/body a bit of variation in cadence and position.  My Garmin showed ~3,500’ of gain in total. There were a couple of bigger climbs, but nothing that lasted longer than a handful of minutes.  I had ALL the aero bells and whistles you could imagine for this ride.   I was wearing my super-fast, super tight Castelli kit, which is even faster because it’s red and emblazoned with Endurance Nation (EN) logos and matching aero helmet.  I had removed my bottle from the downtube of my P5 and just kept the one between my arms and a spare behind my seat.  I had my Zipp FC808 in the front and a Zipp Super-9 Disc in the rear.  I had a perfectly clean drivetrain and even went as far as installing a brand new ceramic speed chain just for this race (which is basically lubricated with unicorn tears and supposedly saves between 5-10 Watts in drivetrain loss).

The constant miles of rolling vineyards just ticked by.  I passed a lot of people I the first couple of hours, but was mostly alone for vast majority of the second loop.  When I was almost to mile 100, John Ratzen from the XC group rode up to me and passed me.  Even though he’s one of the XC guys, I wasn’t racing him…   He’s a runner, and he already had a Kona slot for 2016 from his 9-handle XC race in Arizona last November.  We chatted briefly and I said, “You already have your Kona slot…   Do you want to pace me to a ~3:40 marathon so I can get mine”?  He smiled and said sure… but sadly today was not that day for me.

This scenario does show you a bit about where my mind was…  I was almost done with my bike leg and I knew from staring at my bike computer all day that I had ridden a super conservative bike leg.  If you’re not a data nerd, feel free to skip ahead to the run section, but I thought I’d put into perspective how easily I had actually ridden my bike.  I say this because many people thought that for me to have ridden my bike at ~21mph for over 5 hours, I would have had to have overcooked the bike.  I ride with a power meter on my bike, so my gauge for bike effort isn’t measured in mph, but in “Normalized Power” (NP), and “Training Stress Score” (TSS).  In training, you basically teach your body to put out the maximum amount of power over a given amount of time and still leave your legs fresh enough to run a solid marathon.

Many of you know that I raced Ironman Wisconsin last year on my Fat Bike.  In that race I put up 219W for 6:06:xx and a TSS of 308 (editor’s note: you generally want to stay below ~300 TSS points in an IM if you want to be able to run well).   In my final 112 mile Race Rehearsal this year, just a few weeks before Vineman, I put up 230W for 5:33:xx for a total TSS of 311.  During Ironman Vineman, I rode at 203W for 5:19:36 for a TSS of 232 (the lowest of any IM I have ever done).  My other metrics for you power nerds:  IF of 0.67, VI of 1.045, AVG HR 136.  My HR was about 10 bpm higher than my race rehearsal, but it was a bit higher than normal for the first ~30 mins, and it was also 86 degrees when I finished the bike.  My HR was down to 144bpm within 2 minutes of starting my bike and was below 140bpm within 8 minutes of my start.   After those first 8 minutes, my HR never went above 140bpm for the rest of the entire bike leg.  I have a LTHR of around 148 bpm, so even though my HR was a bit higher than normal, it was still well below my aerobic max at all points.

T2:   3:18

Uneventful.  I left my shoes on my bike and took my helmet off as I ran to the tent.  I sat down to put on my Injinji socks and slip on my shoes, then I grabbed my “go bag” and put on my race number belt and hat as I ran out of transition.

Run:

Stated goal time:  3:55-4:15

Actual Bike Time:  4:55:12

 

The run started great.  Within the first half a mile I saw Jess and the boys for the first time!  They were standing at the Vineman version of “Hot Corner,” and I felt great.  I gave them two thumbs up and a big smile.  Those that know me well know that I don’t dole out racing smiles very often.  But I really did feel good.  My legs felt good, I wasn’t melting yet, and I was mentally ready to run my way to an XC Kona slot…   My best Ironman Marathon to date was a 3:43.  I figured it was probably too hot on this day to do that.  But a ~4:00 run was certainly in the cards for me. Especially if I could keep my core temperature down. Because it was hot, I started out at a ~9:00-9:30 pace instead of the ~8:15’s I was expecting to run.   I had a few tricks up my sleeve to stay cool.  The first was Coach P’s RunSaver bag.  It’s a small bag made out of the material that is like what a nice stunt kite is made out of.  It has an elastic strap to put it around your wrist.  At an aid station, you can fill it with ice, then hold it in either hand or put it inside your kit to help stay cool.  At any time, you could chomp on the ice or drink the cold water.  I was certainly glad I had this many times throughout the day.  My other trick was a cheap mesh bag that I bought on Amazon that was about 4” x 8”. I had it looped on the back of my hat and also filled it with ice at the aid stations.  Then I set it on my head and put my hat down over it.  The mesh bag kept the ice from falling out, but kept my head nice and wet and cold the whole day.  I only had to replace that ice every 3-4 miles…

If the bike course had been designed for me, the run course couldn’t have possibly been worse.  It was 3 laps of an out-and-back course that started with rollers, then a long ~0.7 mile steep-ish downhill, followed by more rollers, flip it to come back the rollers, then up the big ~0.7 mile uphill, then more rollers to finish the loop.  I’m a bigger dude, and my body type would certainly not be confused with that of a runner, but over the years I have certainly gotten “less bad” at running.  My training runs had been a bit slower this year, but after running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, I knew I had logged a ton of hard miles since last year and I thought I was ready for this.

The first lap was hot and slower than I had planned, but I was still moving forward at a somewhat decent pace given the course and conditions. I actually “ran” up the big hill, albeit at a slow-ish pace.   I had long since given up any thoughts of a 3-handle marathon, but I still thought I could/should come in not far from the 4-hour mark.  After a quick high-5 for my boys at the turn around, I was back out to start lap 2.  After the rollers on lap 2, things started to go downhill quick.  Literally.  As I headed down the big ~0.7mile hill, I started to get a twinge of cramping in my calves with almost every step.  I was still running, but these twinges caused my gait to get screwy in order to compensate for it.  In hindsight, I think this is where my core started to get sloppy as my hips wagged and tried to make my calves actually work.  Within the next mile or so on the rollers, my quads also started to cramp.   W.T.F.???   I KNEW I was hydrated at the end of the bike.  I had taken plenty of salt.  I continued the salt and fluids for this first 10 miles of the run and was taking in nutrition normally.  After the race, I have had dozens of people ask me what went wrong or how it happened, and I simply don’t know.  I was well trained.  I swam within myself.  I DEFINITELY did not overcook the bike.  I was hydrated.  I was fueled, and I had taken what I thought was an appropriate amount of salt/electrolytes and Amino Acids.  But here I was at mile 10 of an Ironman marathon with nearly every step in agony from cramps.

Since I couldn’t shake the leg twinges/cramps, I vowed to just keep moving forward.  I was still in a decent place and I figured that if I was suffering then so was everyone else…   Because the run was a bunch of “out and backs”, I knew that one of the other XC competitors, Jamie, was right on my tail.  A friend of mine (I call her Terminator because of her machine-like racing style) who was on the course spectating rode up to me on her bike and lied to me and said I looked great…   I asked her to confirm what age group Jamie was in because I knew he was gaining on me and I knew I was not moving very quickly… The XC Kona slot is awarded to the person racing in the XC that has the highest finishing percentage in his/her respective IM age group.  I knew that my age group (M40-44) was likely much larger than his (M35-39), so if I could just hang with him and keep it close, I still had a shot at the slot…

Within a few more sufferfest miles, survival became the only goal.  The long/steep climb up the big hill the second time around was much, much harder and I was doing as much walking as Ironman shuffling.  My legs now hurt, bad.  I usually pride myself on turning off negative thoughts and disconnecting my mind from the pain, but this was just something different.  I wasn’t trying to run “faster” or simply “not slow down” as the marathon progressed.  This is the EN way of having a successful IM marathon.  I was simply trying to get my legs to work at all through the cramping and pains.   This is the first time in any race that I was honestly considering why I was still doing this and if I would even finish.

Zombie with boys

I came up to Hot Corner to finish my 2nd lap and I saw Jess and the boys.  They had spent the entire day outside and this was only the second brief time when they actually saw me.  My boys were excited and awesomely trying to cheer me up/on, but I was in a bad place.  I remember JT (my 10yr old) saying “Hey dad, this is great training for when the Zombies come…”.  And when he got nothing but a blank stare at the ground as my head was slumped and my hands were on my knees he tried again.  “C’mon dad!  You’ve finished 8 of these things, you can do the 9th”!” All I remember was telling Jess how bad it hurt and how bad this sucked.  I don’t normally stop for anything in races, but I didn’t care about the 30 extra seconds at this point. That’s when Jess told me to “shut up and start moving again”.  Then she literally gave me a push, smacked my butt (pretty hard) and I was off again to continue my death march.

The third time down the hill was the hardest.  I had to walk parts of the downhill for fear of falling over from an ill-timed quad cramp.  I can’t remember if it was on the downhill or the following rollers, but I saw Terminator again on her bike.  She was saying all of the right things.  She tried lying to me again about how I still looked okay and that she has seen me in worse shape before.  She made a joke about how ripped I was and how fit my calves looked…  My only response was, “Please go away”.  This is a good friend of mine and she was only trying to help.  She has reminded me that I am the most positive person she has ever known.  Frankly, I am ashamed that I let myself be that negative no matter how bad my legs hurt, but I just needed to be alone in my misery.  I let that anger and bitterness and negativity stay with me for more than a week after the race and for that I am not proud.  My wife noticed it, my kids noticed it and a lot of my friends noticed it.  This was rough.  I only write it here now to try and be as honest with myself as I can and try to be better for this experience in the future.

At least I kept moving forward.  I kept up with the ice and fluids and salt and nutrition.  But the walking breaks became much more frequent. There were a lot of people walking at this point.  I started making little mini goals to try and do the best I could with the hand I was dealt.  If somebody was walking near me, I wouldn’t let them walk faster than me…   If I saw someone who looked like they were moving slower than I was up ahead, I tried to run the 15 or 30 steps to catch them before I walked again.  But I never kept trying to run…  I started walking anywhere there was shade.  I walked when I could see an aid station…   Then I would run again and walk once I got to the aid station.  I had numerous people ask me if I was okay or if I needed help.  Some were aid station workers, others were people racing.  One lady on the side of the road said “C’mon, you have to try and use your core”.  I can only imagine what my gait looked like trying to run.  My guess is that it was something like an overly muscular, three legged newborn baby giraffe trying to run across a half-frozen pond…

I don’t remember much about the last couple of miles.  I know I tried to run part of the top of the big hill and on most of the rollers.  I ran past the Hot Corner and cursed the fact that it was at least another half a mile to the actual finish line…

When I got to the finish, I saw Jess and the boys there waiting for me.  It was actually really cool to have JT and Luke both reach up to put the medal around my neck.  I was crushed that I had not met any of my goals.  I knew I had “lost” my race.  I thought that if I brought my “A-game” that I had a decent shot at qualifying for Kona.  It turns out that I was still only ~20 minutes away from that feat.  My “C-game” would have been good enough today, but my “D-game” is what I delivered…

When I look back, I know with 100% certainty that I am not a quitter.  I didn’t need to hear them tell me I am an Ironman.  I knew that no amount of pain or self-pity would cause me to quit anything…   And I’m glad that my boys got to witness that.  For what it’s worth, I could see the pride in their smiles when they congratulated me on what they thought was a super cool and awesome achievement.

Ironman Vineman Finishing time:  11:33:26,        43rd in M40-44,      263 Overall out of ~1,850 starters

Post Race:

After Jess and Troy from the XC practically carried me to get my Finisher’s picture and got me out of the chute, I made my way to the VIP tent near the finish line to sit down and try to eat something.  After the race, Troy gave me the nickname “White Zombie” as he said it’s the best way to describe how I look during the run, and sadly, I think he’s probably correct…   Jess was the best Sherpa ever and got me food and beverages and sat there in support.  I had my legs up on another chair when she looked down at my calves.  They had moving bumps and striations as if there were aliens trying to escape from them.  The severe cramping came back!  There was what looked like a valley running down the center of the back of my calf as the ligaments and muscles went into convulsive spasms.  I was actually screaming in pain and Jess later said that she feared that my muscle might actually rip off of the bone.   I simply said “imagine running 16 miles like that…”  Within ~10-15 minutes, the cramping stopped, and I was able to get down a couple of slices of pizza and some cookies.  We walked to the car and made our way back to the hotel.   Once there, I went straight into the outdoor hot tub where I sat for a full hour before dipping into the cold swimming pool, then back into the hot tub.

The next afternoon, our whole family went to walk around the local Redwood forest, which was very cool and was also the beginning of my active recovery which continued through a several day trip to see all of San Francisco’s tourist attractions.

Reflections:

In the days following Ironman Vineman, I felt like I had completely failed.  I set a big goal and spent many, many months training to achieve it.  I felt as though I had “wasted” a whole year of training and family stress all for nothing.  I don’t race Ironman because I enjoy swimming, biking and running long distances.  I really just enjoy competing against myself and against others.  I enjoy setting big audacious goals and then taking an engineering approach trying to figure out how to achieve them.  I’m certainly not “built” for Ironman, but I am wired to compete. I felt like my “racing self” didn’t honor all of the work and preparation that my “training self” had put into this.  But, I still wouldn’t have done anything differently to setup the conditions to have a good run (nutrition, swim effort, bike effort, etc.) had I to do it all over again.  And I felt like something just “happened” that didn’t let me compete to the level anywhere close to my abilities (but I’m sure there’s something I should have or could have done better/differently).  As I sit here typing this I’m watching Olympic athletes chase the dreams that they have spent years and years training and preparing for, literally the best in the world in every sport.  The other day I saw a news story and YouTube video of French Olympic male gymnast, Samir Ait, who did a normal vault…. and as he landed his tibia and fibula snapped in a stomach-turning compound fracture.  This poor guy had trained for years to become one of the best in the world.  He didn’t get to showcase his skill or preparation or abilities.  I’m sure he would have rather given his best effort, win or lose, and know that he left his best out there.  His leg had other plans, and he now has to live with the questions in his head regarding whether or not his “best” would have been good enough to put him up on that podium against the rest of the world’s best.

To be clear, I know my goals and my abilities are nowhere close to Samir’s in his chosen sport, but I think I understand what he’s feeling right now (other than the whole I-can-actually-still-walk-without-crutches thing).

Something else that I have reflected on is “perspective…”  I watched the official Ironman video for the Vineman race.  It was well made and there were a ton of excited people featured throughout all phases of the day.  There were a few people on the video finishing in the dark, several hours after I had finished, who sprinted down the chute and/or jumped with joy, arms held high, smiles from ear to ear being so excited to finish their Ironman.  And I was sulking with my 11:33 time, top 14.6% in the entire race.  And any Ironman race is already basically made up of the fittest 1% of people in the world.  I’ve had dozens of people look at my finishing time and be utterly amazed at my awesome performance.  But those who know me well asked me, “what the heck happened on your run?”  I guess both groups had appropriate observations and gut reactions to my race, but it all just depends on their particular perspective.

Conclusions:

I failed to reach my goals, but I did not fail.  I did not win the XC race and I did not qualify for Kona… I gutted out a very tough finish.  I did not quit.  I will never quit and am still not happy with the final result, but I’m sure I will look back on this performance and be proud of what I actually did. I’m disappointed in myself for letting negativity creep into my head.  And just as disappointed in myself for letting that negativity keep its tainted claws into me for as long as it did. It’s very hard to crack the Ironman nut and even having experience (8 finishes before this race with lots of mistakes and lessons learned) and preparation doesn’t guarantee that you will have the race you wanted.  I still don’t know what went wrong, and frankly, I’m done trying to analyze it…   I don’t know what’s next for me.  I’m sure I’ll find some new challenge, but it’s still too early to think about it…

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