Introduction and Pre-race Information
First off, by way of introduction, here’s a little information about me. I’m married with 4 kids. The crazy part about that is that the 4th was born right in the middle of training (in July). But the great thing about the EN training plans is that I could still make sure I was taking care of the most important things while still getting some training in. I had to miss a few workouts but that was the right thing to do. For my job I’m an engineer at NASA where I work on parachutes. It can be a very busy job.
Originally I wasn’t an EN team member — I had just purchased a training plan but then took the opportunity to become a member when the opportunity presented itself. I love the Team EN methods and soaked up all the information I could — podcasts, forums, webinars, etc. I was on the 20-week beginner Ironman® plan. I had some previous experience with triathlons a long time ago but I hadn’t done anything recently — that’s the reason I picked the beginner plan. I had planned on doing a local Olympic distance triathlon during my training program, but one of our friends decided to get married on that day (after I had signed up for it) and so I decided he was more important than the race and so I skipped it. I do have quite a bit of experience with running — I’ve run quite a few marathons and also ran a 50-miler a few years ago. The great thing about Team EN is that you can glean lots of veteran knowledge without having to learn it all through experience.
I was really nervous about the swimming and I really suck at it. It was especially horrible when I started the training. But I eventually learned some things using pull buoys (that my legs were dragging) and changed some things to help make myself faster. I never got fast, but it got to be bearable. I only did a couple of open water swims before the race (in a lake), but got comfortable with being in the open water.
Listen to the Podcast interview with Brian at the bottom of this post!
The rest of the training went pretty well. I did make one global modification on my own (in retrospect I should have asked Coach P & R about it). For religious and other logistical reasons, I didn’t train on Sundays. At all. So there were some days where I doubled up and it made for some rough days during the week. But overall it went well. I never had any overuse related injuries, although I was stupid in the pool one time and smacked my hand into the wall at the end of the lane. I probably broke my pinkie but never went to the doctor. I just needed to take a couple weeks off before starting to swim again.
As far as pre-race goals go, I wasn’t too aggressive. I was going to be ecstatic if I broke 13 hours and I would have been somewhat disappointed if I didn’t break 15 hours. But the ultimate goal was just to finish and to run the marathon without a total meltdown.
My wife and I drove from the Houston area over to Panama City Beach. It was about a 10 hour drive and not too bad. We were grateful my Mother-in-Law came down to watch the kids while we were away. We left on Tuesday morning and got to the hotel on Tuesday night. We chose to stay at the Hampton Inn on Thomas Drive, not too far from the Thomas Drive bridge. If I go back to Florida again, I’ll probably stay closer to the start next time, although being far away did have it’s advantages. While we did spend time by the expo and saw lots of really fit people, I felt like I was able to focus on other things instead of just the race. But my wife also really loves the beach so it would have been better overall to be down closer to the start. We just spent a fair amount of time driving around.
Wednesday we spent the day getting checked in, went around the expo, attended the pre-race briefing, and bought some last-minute items. On the way back to the hotel we drove the running course just to get a feel for it.
On Thursday, we woke up early and went down to the beach for a practice swim. Before the swim I drank my planned pre-race nutrition: a Naked fruit smoothie. The practice swim was completely crazy. The waves were huge, most of them over my head. After getting out past some of the initial breakers, I swam (really just got thrown around all over the place) for a short time before I realized that I was feeling really sick. I got disoriented, probably because I took in a couple gulps of salt water and every time I tried to sight there was a big swell in the way and I couldn’t see anywhere. So after just a few minutes I turned around and swam back in. I was feeling pretty crappy. My plan was to give it another go after sitting for a minute, but after a little while I decided to throw in the towel for the day. We spent some more time on the beach where I walked around and just listened to people talking about their practice swims. It made me feel a little better that everyone else was feeling pretty similar.
We made a dash back to the hotel where I showered and cleaned up before heading back over to the Boardwalk for the 4-keys talk. Coach P did an awesome job and had my wife laughing about several things. The 4-keys talk was a good reminder, even though I’d listened to the podcasts over and over again. Even a couple of hours after the practice swim I was still feeling a little sick. Not sure if that was physical or mental. In any case, I asked Coach P about whether or not some kind of drugs were in order to help the motion sickness (something like Dramamine). He said definitely not and that I should just prepare in case I do get sick and lose my breakfast — that I should make sure to get lots and lots of fluids the first hour on the bike and possibly have something to drink in my transition bag that might settle my stomach. We got some Ginger Ale at the store just in case.
On Thursday afternoon we drove almost the whole bike course just to get my head in the right place. It’s a pretty straightforward course. The only spot I was somewhat worried about was the out-and-back about halfway that’s a rough surface. And it was rough. While it is a flat course, there are some hills here and there. It was more hilly than any of my rides in the Houston area. We spent Thursday night making sure all my transition and special needs bags were packed. We double bagged them since it was supposed to rain on Friday and the bags would be out in the rain.
Friday we went and checked my bike in after having a fairly good size breakfast at the hotel. I know there are probably some better foods out there for me to eat, but I really like ‘regular’ food and so I just ate waffles and had some eggs. But that’s what I had done all through training. We drove down to the start and went through the bike check-in. It was pretty uneventful. The only thing I was concerned about were the high winds. There was a front that came through that morning and the winds were blustering. They had us hanging out bikes by the seats and mine was flopping all over the place in the wind. I used a grocery store plastic bag and tied it over my seat so it wouldn’t get wet.
I ate lunch (Subway sandwich) and also picked up some soup to eat for dinner back at the hotel. The rest of the afternoon we just hung around the hotel, took some light naps, and watched movies. It seemed like that afternoon lasted forever. I went to sleep about 9pm or so and actually slept fairly well. It was much better than I thought it would be. I woke up at 3:30am and drank my fruit smoothie. This was a little earlier than normal, but Patrick recommended that I ‘eat’ a little earlier if I was worried about getting sick on the swim to get more of the calories in. I tried to lay down and sleep for a bit longer but I mostly just laid there at that point.
The drive to the start was brutal. I was nervous, didn’t really want to talk, and felt pretty bad in the pit of my stomach. Race day jitters at their worst. We took the bus from the Walmart down to Alvin’s Island, dropped off my special needs bags, and then headed over to T1. I got body marked and then headed in to look at my bike. We got there about 5:10am or so and there weren’t a ton of people yet. I thought about using the port-a-potty but didn’t. Turns out I should have since they got super busy later. I lubed my bike, pumped up my tires, and strapped my Garmin watch on the handlebars. I also put two bottles of Perform in my frame cages for the first part of the bike. While I was in transition and doing something I actually felt a lot better about things. But when I was finished we still had about an hour before needing to head over to the beach. We found a bench and sat down where I put my head down and tried to sleep or just think about something other than the race. I went back over to T1 after awhile to try and use the port-a-potty but the line was super long. After standing in line for awhile I decided it was a lost cause and just headed over to the swim start. Put my ‘farmer John’ wetsuit on and lots of BodyGlide. Gave my wife a kiss and then walked down onto the beach through the archway.
I was very nervous before the start of the swim. I’m a slow swimmer so I lined up on the far right, far away from the buoy line since that’s where the slower swimmers were supposed to start with the new Swim Start Initiative. I didn’t get in the water to warm up, but did get my goggles wet before the cannon went off. The waves weren’t nearly as bad as they were during the swim practice but they were still pretty big. After the canon went off it was pretty surreal. I felt like a leming or something — everyone running into the water. I had to dive through the breakers since they were over my head.
As I got into the swim it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had played it out in my mind. This was my first mass start swim. I didn’t feel sick like in the practice swim. There was a fair amount of contact but it didn’t really bother me. I got hit in the arms, legs, face, etc but never very bad. I was surprised how hard some people were kicking.
The first lap, especially to the first turn buoy, was pretty awesome, actually. With everyone else swimming out that direction there was lots of drafting. The swells made it pretty awesome too. At one point I turned my head to breathe and there was a huge swell coming toward me. But in the swell there were like 100 people in their bright caps. I wish I could’ve taken a picture. It was totally cool. I didn’t have to do much sighting for the first lap.
After the first lap I walked on the beach, got a quick drink of water, and then headed out again. But I did take Coach P’s advice and walked down the beach to line up with the buoys. It was strange because all the spectators were there like they were blocking your way. But I just walked past them and found that several others had done the same.
During the swim I tried to focus on my form as much as I could, but really I was just swimming. I did count strokes at times. During the second lap there weren’t as many people and I didn’t do a good job of sighting. I probably swam more than 2.4 miles because I was fairly far away from the buoy line at times. But at the same time I also had lots of clean water to swim through.
I finished the swim in 1:48:08 (2:47/100m pace), which is pretty consistent with what I had done in training in the pool. I was satisfied with the result, but I know there’s lots of room for improvement.
The one thing I need to definitely change for the future (besides getting some actual swim technique down) is to use something else besides BodyGlide. I had some pretty major chafing under my arms. I could feel it starting on the start of the second lap and it was fairly painful. I’ve read online about some other products that may be better. Luckily the chafing only was super painful in the days following the race.
I was so stinking excited to get out of the water. I about did a happy dance right there. After getting out of the water I just walked instead of trying to run. I used the wetsuit strippers and that went well. I probably got lots of sand on me, but I spent a little more time in the showers (which seemed to work well) and got the sand off. I had heard people in the past talk about how they wouldn’t use the strippers because of the sand but I didn’t have any issues.
During training and in preparations I didn’t spend much time with transition. I could definitely get a lot more organized and I know the coaches encourage us to minimize the moving parts but I actually ended up changing completely into cycling shorts and a jersey. I’ll definitely make improvements in the future. The volunteers were absolutely awesome. I couldn’t believe how helpful they were. They were asking if I wanted them to do things I hadn’t even thought of. I put lots of lubrication in the places that needed it before heading out. Since I was so slow on the swim there really weren’t any people on the bike mount line and so I didn’t have any issue there.
But all-in-all I spent a lot of time in transition. After looking at my time I was thinking I should have eaten some pizza or something while I was at it.
Bike [7:05:14, 15.8mph, Average HR: 142bpm]
I was really disappointed with my bike split. I was well over an hour faster in training. I don’t have a tri-bike. I have a Trek 5000 road bike that’s about 10 years old that I put some clip-on aerobars onto. I just have a regular helmet. I’m a heart-rate athlete. I’d love to get a power meter but that was well outside the budget for this first time. That’s definitely a future purchase though. I also didn’t have a speed fill hydration system — it was just bottles on the frame for me.
For whole bike my plan was to keep my heart rate somewhere between 135 and 145 and just take it really easy. I had done that in training and was still able to finish in 6 hours or under with plenty left in the tank.
I didn’t experience the pot holes going down Front Beach Road that people talk about, but perhaps that’s because I was going so slow. For the first 15-20 miles I was getting passed by EVERYONE. Including the old ladies in the all pink bikes and all-pink outfits. That was pretty rough on my psyche, but I just kept telling myself that I needed to ride my race and stay within my box and that people passing me was to be expected and that I’d see them later in the day. Having said that I was still going dog slow. There was a head wind as we headed north, but I was still really slow but my heart rate was on the high end (~145 bpm). At first I was thinking the swim had just really kicked my butt more than I thought it had. I was even to the point where I was wondering if I was going to make some of the intermediate time cutoffs. This was crazy to me because I felt like my bike was relatively strong in training. But then after about 90 minutes I started looking at my bike to see if there was something wrong there. That’s when I noticed my front brake was rubbing. Apparently missed that check at T1 in the morning! I stopped, adjusted it, and then felt much, much better. Heart rate went down, speed went up.
For about the first half my stomach felt pretty crummy. I’m still not sure all of what caused it, but it was probably a combination of salt water intake during the swim, not using the port-a-potty before the swim start, and eating a little too late on Friday. In retrospect I know my body takes longer to process food and so I probably should have had my last big meal on Friday morning instead of Friday afternoon. Just before the halfway point I stopped at one of the aide stations and went to the bathroom. I spent like 10 minutes in there. Afterwards I felt way, way better for the rest of the ride.
Nutrition wise on the bike my plan went well, I think. I drank lots of Peform. Including 2 bottles before the first aide station. For the day it was just under 2 bottles an hour. I also ate one PowerBar over the course of the entire bike because I found during training that my stomach needed something solid. But I was mostly just nibbling on that. In general I also ate 2 Gu’s every hour. But there were times, especially at the beginning of the bike, where I didn’t eat one because my stomach felt bad. One thing I was surprised about was how sticky my bike got from the Perform splashing all over the place. Sometimes the bottle caps weren’t on tight and so the stuff would fly out due to the bike vibrations before I saw it and tightened it.
The out-and-back road was brutal how rough it was. There were bike parts all over the road. I couldn’t wait to get off that road. I was really worried about getting a flat from the impacts and so I slowed down a bit and let my heart rate go down a bit. I stopped off at Special Needs quickly and got my bag. Took a salt tablet and got some Skittles, but that was about it. Unfortunately I lost most of the Skittles when they fell out of the bag on the rough road.
The road is slightly rolling coming back on Highway 20. I felt great. I passed lots and lots of people by simply riding steady. I rode the downhills and watched my heart rate like a hawk on the uphills. When we turned south on 79 with the tailwind I really started flying and felt great. But in retrospect I probably didn’t get enough nutrition towards the end because I was so focused on trying to get faster. I’m not sure it ended up hurting that bad during the rest of the day but I may have been on the edge. If the conditions had been worse I may have paid for the mistake more.
The last out-and-back off of 79 was pretty mentally draining, but I felt good after getting back onto 79. During the ride I went pee 3 times. Each time I stopped at the port-a-potty. I guess I’m not hard-core enough to pee in my shorts yet. Maybe that will be in my training plan for next time. I just won’t tell my wife that I do it.
Overall I was really disappointed with my bike, especially given the ideal conditions. The weather was beautiful and the winds were generally favorable. This is something I’ll focus on a lot in the future. Between riding with power, perhaps having a more aero bike setup, and working a little harder in training, I think I can knock huge time off my result.
Similar to T1, I wasn’t in any kind of hurry here. I walked everywhere again to try and keep my heart rate down. There was a really helpful volunteer again. Changed into running shorts, shoes, and shirt. I took a salt tablet and a pain killer and drank some water. I was REALLY excited to start the run and told everyone that I was excited about it. Again, I think there’s definitely some time to pull back in transition.
Run [4:46:13, 10:55/mile, Average HR: 140bpm]
I was very excited about the run. My LRP was 9:37 (I think it’s a vdot of 42 or something). So I went around 10:00/mile for the first 6 miles. I didn’t have any trouble with this. At mile 6 I didn’t really feel like I could pick it up, so I just kept the same level of exertion. Over the course of the run I slowed a little bit, but never got slower than 12:00/mile and actually sped up during the second half.
I didn’t think very much during the run. I just kept running and tried to keep good form. The spectators were awesome, especially where all the tri-clubs were. It was about like being in the Tour de France, I’d imagine, with people jumping in front of you and yelling. That road was electric.
Nutrition-wise I had planned on just drinking Perform with the occasional Gu. I stuck to that for the most part, although towards the end I wasn’t really interested in any Gu. By then I was alternating between Perform, chicken broth, and coke. I didn’t really take any solids in. I tried grapes, potato chips, and cookies, but didn’t really want to eat them and ended up spitting them out.
I walked each aid station to get the nutrition into me. Sometimes it was more than 30 steps, but it wasn’t ever any longer than the last garbage can. I was pretty motivated to keep going and I really wanted to finish strong. I stopped 3 times to use the port-a-potty.
Probably the lowest point during the run (although it really wasn’t all that low) was the halfway point where you have to go left for the second loop instead of going right to the finish line. But the tri-club street was right there and that got my motivation and spirits up again quick. I did stop by special needs and got some Skittles out that I ate a few of.
I really felt great on the second loop in the park. I knew that was the furthest I’d be away from the finish line and I was still running steady. I was passing lots and lots and lots of people. It felt really good. There were a couple guys who tried to start a conversation. I answered them briefly but had the thought “No Friends” from Coach Rich in my mind so I just kept trucking. During the harder parts I heard all the voices from my past telling me that I was too fat, that I was a whimp, etc and that really motivated me. Of course, that was after mile 18 where the coaches say it’s okay to get pissed. I never really did hit a line, but I wasn’t trying to crush it either — I was just trying to go steady.
The last mile was amazing. The feeling was electric and I picked up the pace and ran my fastest split. The spectators were awesome. I was somewhat disappointed that there weren’t more people in the finishing chute cheering the finishers on, but that’s okay — I didn’t do it the race for the cheers.
Overall I was pleased with how the run went. I may have left some speed out there, but it was really fulfilling to finish and feel strong. My time was about 30 minutes slower than my fastest marathon pace (from years ago), but that’s not that impressive given that that was pretty slow. I think I could run lots faster now.
Overall, my first Ironman® was an awesome experience. I have definitely caught the bug and want to do this over and over again. Chances are that I won’t do it again for awhile, though, because with 4 kids, a busy job, and some heavy church responsibilities there just isn’t enough time to do it, even with the great plans EN has. Within 2 hours of finishing the race I was already thinking of ways I could do better next time and was excited about it.
The Team EN race execution strategy saved my race. In my pre-EN days, I probably would have pushed myself really hard at the beginning of the bike since I thought I could go faster and was getting passed by everyone. With the combination of the headwind and the rubbing brake that would have cooked my legs and I would have paid for it. But I stayed within the box (and eventually fixed the box to some degree) and while it was slower than I wanted, I was able to keep enough gas in my tank to have a steady run.
For my next race, here’s what I’d like to do:
- Train and race with power. I think this will give me some HUGE time savings.
- Get a more aero bike setup. This may mean buying a different bike or getting some different equipment, but I think this will add to the time savings that will come with training with power. This would include the bike itself, an aero helmet, and probably race wheels.
- I need to find a coach who will help me work on my swim technique. I think I could probably shave 20-30 minutes off my time with this alone without expending any more effort than I did this race.
- I need to buy some Team EN race gear. I didn’t really see many EN people on the course spectating, but I know they were out there. But they didn’t know that I was a team EN guy because I just wore my regular training clothes.
- I need to work on my transitions and simplify them. This would include swimming in my bike clothes and considering running in them as well. But I can definitely simplify the moving parts and save a lot of time in transitions.
It was a fantastic experience. I can’t wait to do it again. I have no doubt that the great experience I had was a direct result of the wonderful info, training plans, and guidance provided by Coach Patrick, Rich, and all of Team EN.