Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ironman Training Race: Mental Focus

After 9 months of serious training, I identified three things that I still really needed to work on: swimming, pacing and nutrition. I know that the second and third ones are inversely related (e.g., the faster I go, the less calories my body can absorb) so I decided to use a local Olympic distance tri to focus on my ironman pacing strategies. The race would also give me more open water swim experience, which is very much needed. Since finishing would not be much of an issue for me, I knew I was in for a truly different workout. This would not at all be about keeping myself going, which I have a lot of practice doing, but rather holding myself back. To get the most out of it, I decided to go ahead and equip myself for an IM as well. At the race start, my transition backpack was easily the biggest one there. Those who saw how much stuff I brought undoubtedly thought I was either nuts or a newbie. Truth be told, this was only my third triathlon so they were right on both counts.

I only really have one swim speed, slow, so I swam my normal speed and finished in 47:16, not far from the 2 hour pace I expect to finish my IM swim. It was my first swim in saltwater, but I didn’t notice anything different except for the taste (no wetsuits were allowed). Upon exiting the water, I happily started jogging towards the transition area but then realized I should be walking, so I walked. Since I’m such a slow swimmer, it’s always easy for me to find my bike. I was, however, very surprised to see a fit-looking guy in T1. I heard him say “anything can happen in a race” to one of the volunteers so I guess something did. I headed onto the bike course with 72 oz of water in my Camelbak, a bike bottle containing my high-cal sports drink concoction, and a Clif Bar. With the exception of all the water, I’d try to consume everything else, just as I would during the first 1-2 hours of my IM bike segment.

Several times in the first few miles I caught myself going 18-20 mph with seemingly little effort. I had to slow down to 16-17 mph, which would put me at my target of 7 hours on the IM bike segment. I realized that I’m a very poor judge of bike effort when I’m fresh so I had to stay quite focused on my speed. A HR monitor would have been useful but I’d lent mine to a friend recently. Eating and drinking regularly helped me go slower but when the Olympic bike course split from the sprint tri bike course, I found I was able to maintain my slow pace easier (headwind and fewer cyclists). Later, I noticed a motorcycle behind me and waited for him to pass but he never did. After a while, I realized he was the guy that is supposed to follow the last person on the course. OMG, that was me! At that point, it occurred to me that perhaps I might not make the race cut-off, whatever it was. I hadn’t read about any cut-offs in the race instructions but did some quick calculations and figured that I’d be finishing in around 3:30. That was faster than some race times I’d seen from last year’s results so I stayed slow, which caused the competitive side of me to throw up her hands in defeat, a good thing.

When the Olympic tri bike course rejoined the sprint tri bike course, I actually passed two slower sprint tri participants who had gotten flats and could not fix them (note to self: practice fixing flats more). The last part of the bike course was up and over a causeway, just like the IMFL bike course, which was a nice touch. My speedometer said I’d averaged 17.1 mph but the distance traveled said just over 27 miles so perhaps the course was little long. The important thing was that I stuck to my IM race plan well. I'll check the accuracy of the bike computer later for I know I zeroed it in T1. In T2, I switched shoes AND socks, and also my sunglasses for a clean pair. I slurped down a gel with some water, put on my 4-bottle Fuel Belt, headed onto the run course and then straight for the porta-potties. Yup, I had hydrated well on the bike.

Being a marathoner, I was so psyched to be finally doing my favorite triathlon segment. I’ve run many marathons every step of the way but never after having swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles. To better my chances of finishing, my IM plan is to break up the distance into 25 one-mile jogs with a 1 minute walk break during which I will eat and drink. If everything goes right, I hope to run a 4 to 5 hour marathon, so I set out to run at about a10 min/mile pace. After a couple miles, I actually began to pass some folks. which caused a whole lot of whooping and hollering inside me but I resisted the temptation to pick up the pace. I ate a gel while walking at mile 3 but somehow missed seeing mile markers 4 and 5 so I used my watch to schedule my walk breaks. Around mile 5, a guy said “you’re almost there!” as if to encourage me to keep running instead of taking a walk break. I smiled and said “I’m sticking to my ironman plan” and he looked at me weird. At mile 6, I finally let myself go and ran hard to the finish. As I flew past one guy on the final stretch, I sort of felt like I had cheated by holding back so much earlier. My 10K time was 1:00:29, a 9:45 min/mile average pace, acceptably close to my 10:00 goal pace. My net race time was 3:30:59.

What I learned is that it took a LOT of mental strength to hold myself back during this race. In the past, I've tried to “make up” for my slow swimming by pushing hard on the bike and run segments. But in an ironman, I know that will lead to failure. In hindsight, I realize going too fast on the bike segment and not having a good nutrition plan are largely why I “hit the wall” during my half ironman run segment (I was also ill on race day). At IMFL, I've got to stay focused on going slow and steady, just like I did at this race. In fact, I’m going to make it my IM mantra. Slow and steady, Slow and steady, Slow and steady ...

Whatever happens, I’m ecstatic about my progress to date. So, again, if there were a belt ranking system in triathlons, I would say I'm now an Orange Belt.

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