Ironman NYC Race Report: Joel Bell, 9:38, 5th AG, Kona!

150 150 Rich Strauss
Joel Bell at Ironman® New York City

Joel Bell at Ironman® New York City


This was my 3rd IM – Florida 2007 (9:34), IMCdA 2009 (10:05), IMNYC 2012 (9:38).  In Florida I was satisfied with my swim and bike but learned an important lesson on the run.  At CdA I screwed up my bike pacing and ended up leaving time out on the course but had a good run.  So coming into NY this year I was hoping that I could put it all together and maybe getmyself a trip to Kona.  The M35-39 age group is huge and typically very competitive at the top end.  I figured I’d need something around 9:45 to have a chance at Kona but my day was completely planned around simply executing my pacing and nutrition, no time split goals.  All I could do was the best I was capable of and that was either going to be good enough or not – can’t go faster than your abilities and can’t control who else shows up to race.


Traveled from Virginia Beach Wednesday morning and swung through NYC to grab my race packet but then headed out to spend the night with friends in Cold Spring Harbor away from the chaos of the city. Thursday was mostly relaxing – kicking back in Huntington late morning, an easy swim in Oyster Bay to loosen up and then a couple hours wasting time by the pool before loading up and making our way back to the city about 5pm. I wanted to make the athlete briefing because the logistics of this race are so different and there happened to be a couple million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the Hudson upstream of where we were supposed to be swimming in jut 2 days. I figured they might have some useful information for us but they basically said “we don’t know what’s going to happen – when we figure it out we’ll let you know.” Okay, so that was a waste of time. Not to mention I spent a hour sitting on the cement floor because they clearly weren’t prepared for so many people to attend the meeting but I didn’t want to stand and put the extra time on my feet. At least we were in the city, settled into our hotel, and got the car parked for the weekend after several attempts. Apparently 24hr parking doesn’t actually mean you can park your car for 24hrs, it means they are open 24hrs but many lots had a 12hr limit. The hotel wanted $55/night (welcome to NYC) but we found a place for $35/night only a couple blocks from pier 92/94 where my bike would be showing up Sunday morning after the race (2 thumbs up for TriBike Transport). We made a passing joke about hoping the car would still be there in a few days and promptly expunged it from our minds for the rest of the weekend. It’s my wife’s company car – if it disappears she gets a new one.

Friday morning we ventured out to find breakfast before hopping the ferry over to Ross Dock to check my bike and drop gear bags. By noon the weather turned against us. It was still warm but steadily raining and we were running out of time to wait it out so we decided to venture out and take care of business. I intentionally booked a hotel very close to the 39th St ferry terminal because that’s where I needed to gab the ferry both for bike check as well as race morning. It ended up being about 10min walking. The ferries were running continuously between the terminal and the Ross Dock transition area over on the NJ side of the river, just north of the GWB. The boat ride was uneventful and the rain actually knocked off but came back just in time for us to unload and trudge through the mud in transition. I racked my bike, dropped my swim-to-run bag and checked out the swim exit. There was a small barge anchored 2.4 miles up the river but we couldn’t see it. Then I did a walk-through from the swim exit to the changing tent, and back to my bike before dropping my bike-to-run bag and getting back on the ferry. I typically like to know exactly how the transition is going to work – swim in, bike out/in, run out – but they didn’t have things particularly well marked at this point, despite being only about 14hrs from race morning. Stressing over it now wasn’t going to help – hopefully looking at the transition area map online later in the evening will help but if not there should be plenty of time tomorrow morning.

3am was going to come way too soon but I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep no matter how early I tried to go to bed. I was in bed around 9:30 just relaxing with the Olympics. Turned the TV off around 10:30 and basically stared into the dark abyss for another 30min before finally nodding of for a few hours. 3am alarm – out of bed, race suit and morning clothes on, packed up my bottles and other morning race gear and headed for the ferries. I usually eat my “breakfast” around 3:30am and grab another couple hours of sleep but the extra logistics of the race had us scheduled to push-off on the ferry at 4am so no more sleep this time. I ate a bagel with a large pouch of Pocket Fuel and some coconut water while getting organized in the room and grabbed a banana for the ferry ride.

The ferry ride was uneventful although they packed way more people on than there were seats available so I ended up sitting on the floor leaning up against a railing post. Luckily the nasty weather from the previous day had cleared and it looked like we might have decent conditions for racing – overcast would be perfect and I was actually hoping for some light rain later in the day to help keep things cool. Transition was bustling as usual with everyone scurrying around making sure they had everything set to go. I grabbed my bike to get in line for the tire pumps but after about 20min I still had 20 people in front of me and the clock was ticking. I found someone that had a pump in the racks and topped of BOTH tires to ~100psi. That emphasis on “both” is intentional…read on. From there I dropped my Garmin watch in my bike-to-run bag and made my way out of transition to wait for the ferries to load for the start. My wife scored herself a volunteer shirt a couple days earlier at check-in and had mostly free roam of transition throughout the day which was cool because she got to hang with me right up to when I loaded the ferry. One unfortunate thing about such an early start to the morning is that my body didn’t have sufficient time to go through the usual biological processes. In other words, I made a port-o-poy visit but didn’t make a deposit. Hopefully that isn’t an issue later in the day.

Swim: 44:44, 25/330 AG, 155/2146 OA

The swim was wetsuit legal and the sewage from a couple days prior was more or less cleared out – at least to the point of baseline Hudson River poopy levels. The modified time trial start (continuous filing into the water) got everyone spread out enough to avoid congestion but still gave opportunities for drafting. We noticed while on the ferry waiting to unload that the buoys marking the course actually bowed out away from the shore significantly and came back at the swim exit. Looking toward the swim exit you could see that the west tower of the GWB was directly inline with transition so sighting directly at the tower instead of along the buoys was going to easily save 100m or more. I swam the direct route and just focused on maintaining a long smooth stroke. I grabbed a draft here and there but mostly avoided expending extra mental and physical energy of constantly trying to position myself. The only bumping I experienced through the entire swim was closing in on the exit where people were funneling back together. Otherwise I had a very uneventful swim. I pushed the effort a bit more than usual for this distance. I typically just cruise easy but was able to get into a steady groove and maintain a slightly stronger pull – more similar to what I would usually swim for 1/2 IM distance. We knew there would be tidal current down river but I had no idea how much help it would be and I didn’t wear a watch so I had no idea what my swim split was. I didn’t even look at the clock when I got out of the water. In fact I don’t even know if there was a clock. On top of not knowing how strong the current was I don’t know what time I jumped in the water after the 7am start so seeing a clock would only have me thinking about the swim and take my mind off rest of the race.

T1: 4:21

After climbing the ramp out of the river I got my wetsuit peeled off my arms and made my way through the chute with the wetsuit strippers. They made quick work of ripping the rubber off my legs and sent me on my way. I jogged through the swim-to-run bags and snatched mine up without a problem. The changing tent wasn’t terribly crowded and I pulled up on a chair near the exit. Bike shoes on, helmet on, shades on, number belt on, out the other side of the tent and down to row 11 and all the way to the end where my bike was patiently waiting for me. Smooth and focused but not rushed.

Bike: 5:20:22, 28/330 AG, 113/2146 OA

Garmin 500 power file

Two pedal revs from the mount line I had a terrible realization – my back tire was flat. OH HELL NO, this isn’t happening…not now, not today. Yep – that just happened. I have no idea how but my rear tire was down to maybe 50psi. Que up panic and anxiety. After fumbling for about 30sec trying to use my can of Pit Stop in hopes that I’d be able to make this a 60sec ordeal and get right back to business I tossed the can and busted out the spare tube and C02. Next issue – there was too much pressure left in the tire to get the bead off the rim and I couldn’t get to the valve to release the pressure. By this time one of the bike tech guys was trying to help but I was pretty zoned in. Even with a tire lever and extra set of hands (there was actually a volunteer trying to help too) it took a couple min just to get the tube ripped out of the tire. From there things went smooth but the damage was already done. As I started to make the climb out of transition I checked my Garmin and saw that it took over 6min to make the change. That’s 6min I definitely didn’t have to spare if I wanted to be in the hunt for a Kona slot. Still, all I could do was get back on track and stick with my pacing plan. Trying to make up lost time is a recipe for disaster and would just make a bad situation worse.

I estimated I’d ride roughly 5:15-5:20 and targeted .74-.75 IF (268W FTP). After the initial climb out of transition where you mostly have to ignore your power and just use whatever gears you have to get out of the hole, I rode very steady (VI = 1.05) and nailed my pacing plan finishing with .747 IF and a 5:20 split including the 6min I spent struggling with the flat outside of transition. So I actually rode the course in 5:14ish. My legs felt slightly fatigued through first couple hours. Maybe it was the residual anxiety from the flat tire incident or I could have simply been a little flat from the taper. Things came around and I was very comfortable remainder of ride. Despite plenty of people powering past me on climbs I just stuck with my plan and kept the power output in check then continued to stay on the gas over the tops and down the back sides. Power output was coming easy on the descents so I let it rip a bit but tended to resort to a tight aero position and coasted above about 35mph. I had a definite aero advantage out there – coasted past most everyone on the long descents, even after I started coasting and others kept pedaling. That time in the wind tunnel at FASTER was definitely paying off and I knew it was paying dividends on the flats as well as long as I kept my head low. The entire ride was fairly uneventful. I rolled through special needs and swapped out my primary nutrition bottle and headed out for another lap. The road surface was mostly good but there were some rough spots on the concrete and definitely some abrupt seams and joints that were claiming bottles and other various pieces of gear people had hanging off their saddles. I also saw plenty of people on the side of the road working on flats but luckily I didn’t have any issues beyond the initial difficulties coming out of transition.

My nutrition was approximately 2800 calories from Perpetuem, Ironman® Perform, and Clif Shot Blocks. I mixed 3 scoops of Perpetuem with pineapple coconut water (big potassium boost) for my primary nutrition in an aero bottle on the seat tube (with a replacement in my special needs bag that included 200mg of caffeine). Then I grabbed a full bottle of Ironman® Perform at every aid station. On the second loop I was only drinking 2/3 of the bottle or so before it was time to swap out. Overall I’d estimate I drank 6-7 full bottles of Perform. On the second loop I had a small packet of Justin’s chocolate hazelnut butter for some fat plus 12 Clif Shot Bloks with caffeine spread out 3 at a time. I grabbed a few bottles of water but mostly used them to squirt down my arms and back, not so much for hydration. On the return of loop #2 I got confirmation that I was sufficiently hydrated and proceeded to piss myself like a toddler.

The last few miles of the bike course drop back down through town and into the park. The spectators are definitely more concentrated through Fort Lee except for the last 2 miles down the park access road to transition. The mount line is directly at the bottom of the hill with no run-out so I decided to leave my feet in the shoes and play it safe with the dismount – better to give up a few seconds then to leave a bunch of skin on the asphalt. I have no idea what my split is at this point but it doesn’t matter – I hit my planned intensity factor spot on and and I knew that I was in a good place to hit the run course.

I more or less nailed my pacing and nutrition plans so aside from the flat tire and long change there isn’t much I could have done to improve on the day given the fitness I showed up with. There is always room to be a stronger athlete but once you are 2-3 weeks out from race day your fitness is in the bag and it’s all about execution.

T2: 2:16

Smooth T2. Because of the descent ending directly at the dismount line I decided to stay in my shoes and simply stop and unclip at the line. IM is nice because they grab your bike from you as you enter transition. I shot through the bike-to-run bag area and snatched up my gear bag without breaking stride. Back into the changing tent I sat on the ground, dumped my bag, swapped shoes (added socks), pulled my hat on and headed for the door with my watch in hand. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that transition was mostly empty – a few bikes here and there – but there must have been at least a hundred people out on the course ahead of me.

Run: 3:26:38

Garmin 405 file

The run was much hillier than I anticipated. Starting immediately from T2 you climb up the access road and hang a right onto Henry Hudson Dr. and take a long descent into the park. From there the route was constantly going up or down – not much flat to speak of. That made it particularly tough to pace the effort properly. I was expecting I could average 7:20-7:30 but wanted to take the first 5-6 miles closer to 8min/mile pace. With the hills I was swinging from 5:45-9:30/mile at any given moment at what felt like an easy enough effort. I like running downhills because I can release the brakes and let my legs freewheel – it’s fast and minimal energy required. Then on the ups I keep the effort relatively light with short light steps similar to spinning up a hill on the bike. I was more or less ignoring my GPS (even the mile splits) because I didn’t have any place to get an honest assessment of my actual pace on average. Turns out after looking over my data a bit more that I was probably putting out a bit too much on the front side of the marathon, which is why things went bad sooner than I expected.

I was cruising comfortably through the first lap in the park, walking every aid station to take in fluids and get ice in my arm coolers and water on my head. All seemed under control except for one little issue. Remember the one thing I didn’t manage to take care of pre-race? Yep, about 4 miles in I started getting the urge. I pressed on another mile considering if I thought it could wait another 2+ hours. Near the end of the first loop I decided there was no choice but to take a pit stop. I peeled my race suit off my shoulders as I approached the port-o-pot, saw the green indicator that it was available and ducked in. I bet I wasn’t in there more than 30sec but what a difference it made. I shot out the door and about my merry way on lap 2.

I had no idea where I stood in the race or who was on which lap – there were just a lot of people going both directions by now. Even though there was a decent amount of shade in the park the day was still starting to warm up and the air was getting thicker. I continued to walk the aid stations and get all the fluids and ice I could. I alternated between drinking water, Perform, and cola but at some point needed to back off putting more in my stomach and just focus on trying to stay cool. It wasn’t until I finished the 2nd loop and started climbing out of the park that I had any indication of where I was in the race. There was a single guy way up the road and not a soul coming up behind me. As if the long climb out of the park was bad enough it continued through Fort Lee and up to the GWB but at least there were spectators on this part of the course giving encouragement. I passed the one guy ahead of me but just before starting up the steps to the pedestrian path a female pro bolted past me.

Once I got on the bridge things start to get a little cloudy but I remember being relieved that the hardest part of the run was over and it was going to be flat and steady from her on in…or not. On the GWB I saw another female pro ahead but didn’t catch her until we were back down on the Greenway path. This is where the wheels started to fall of. I now realize it was likely due to screwing up the opening miles of the run but I can’t blame myself 100% because the conditions got more difficult too. The shade of Palisades Park was gone and the wind had kicked up directly in our face hammering up the river. It was relentless and I was starting to slide into a tough place mentally that I’ve never visited in my previous IM races. I’ve had a few challenging miles but this was more mental than physical. My pace was crashing, I couldn’t get enough fluids in me or on me and I really just wanted to sit down and take a break. Still, there was nobody around me in either direction which should have been a good sign but I wasn’t reasoning well enough to get any encouragement out of that. It was everything I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter how slow I felt like I was running – I knew walking would be way slower but it was so hard not to take a little break. After almost 5 miles of struggling I reached Riverside Park – I was close but still had 5 more miles. Little did I know they found a way to toss a few more angry little hills in along the way. The course does a series of long back and forth segments in the park before releasing us back onto the Greenway path and to the finish line. As I made the first u-turn in the park a guy caught me and looked like he was finishing strong as he pulled ahead. He had a lot of people cheering for him and I had no response. I rarely get passed on the run but today there was noting I could do except stay focused on making it to the finish line as best I could. At some point still in the zig-zags he started to cramp up and I passed him. I never saw him again and for the last ~2 miles I only saw 2 more people – a couple guys running together that were also struggling – and also passed them.

Getting back onto the Greenway path is where the last few little hills come int play. They are short but at this point in the day it’s damn near enough to break you…just when you think you’re home free. I vaguely remember walking a few steps up a steep little section before kicking myself back into gear, down a little hill around a corner and under the Henry Hudson parkway. One last left-right back under the Parkway and it was a straight shot to the finish. I could see the end and gave one last push with what I had left. After stringing together a bunch of 8-9min miles I ran the last mile in 6:30 on auto pilot. It was like I had tunnel vision – I could see the people along the course and the volunteers directing me through those last turns but didn’t really hear anything – it was all background noise. I remember seeing my wife and some friends at the start of the finish chute and I was able to get my arms up as I crossed the line – gotta try for a good finisher pic The clock said 9:58:xx and I knew my time was at least 15min faster because of the pro and time trial start but at that moment I didn’t really care. I made it and I wanted to sit the hell down.

Aftermath: 9:38:19, 5th M35-39, 45th OA

I typically make a visit to the med tent just for good measure but after a couple minutes with some volunteers helping me stay on my feet I thought I would be able to manage on my own. I stagger over to a chair and grabbed a cold chocolate milk – it was glorious. I finally got my self together enough to walk around and find my wife. I knew the clock said 9:58:xx when I finished but I didn’t know what the offset was when I actually crossed the timing mat and jumped into the water. She told me I was 4th in my AG and I was blown away. Then she said I swan 44min – insane. I knew the placings wouldn’t be final for another 20min or so once everyone that started behind me had a chance to beat me on the clock but I was feeling pretty confident that it wouldn’t change by more than a couple places. We hung out with some friends who were waiting for a friend of mine also racing then grabbed a taxi back to the hotel so I could clean myself up and get back to the finish to see Shawn finish.

Despite the fast swim this was a tough course, particularly the run. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to finish at least holding steady but glad that I managed to push through the tough times. I didn’t experience any of the mental challenges in my previous IM races so this was definitely new and I fought the desire to walk (or just sit down and take a nap) several times on the run course heading down the Hudson Greenway. Lesson learned – no matter how tough things get just remember that everyone else could be suffering just as much if not more and it comes down to a battle of wills to just keep moving forward. Even though I felt like my run was mostly a disaster it ended up being the 33rd fastest on the day, pros included.  So while it sucked, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed at the time.

Jordon Rapp has posted some comments about this course that makes me feel a little better about my run and the tough day overall:

“Hardest run course I’ve done by a long shot.” and “The wind running South on the river path was brutal after crossing the GWB”

Now he admits he only has IMAZ, IMTX, and Canada to compare but still the bike course was “harder than he expected” and “the run course was just hard. No way around that.” So yeah – it was tough for everyone, even the professional overall champion. When the results finally settled out I ended up 5th out of 330 in my AG, 45 out of 2146 OA and 18th amateur. The M35-39 age group got 10 of the available Kona qualification slots and I was solidly on the podium and grabbed my first trip to the World Championships.

Now my next challenge is simply forcing myself back into training for Kona. I’ve always told myself that qualifying is the accomplishment and actually going to Kona is the reward. I have no desire to “race” at Kona. I’m planning to take in the whole experience of race week on the Big Island – staying on Ali’i a few blocks from transition, enjoy some beverages at Kona Brewing Company, visit the Kona Coffee bar out in the bay, model my banana hammock at the underwear run, and settle in for a long slow  day in the lava – I’ve got nothing to prove.

Go here to listen to Joel’s race report interview with Coach Rich

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