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Ironman St. George 2012 Race Report

Ironman St. GeorgeWe didn’t come across the plains, foothills and valleys, climb the mountains, and sail the oceans because we are made of sugar candy – Winston Churchill

Before I get to the actual race, I want to provide a few facts that will hopefully give a glimpse into how difficult IMSG 2012 truly was:

  • Ben Hoffman won, with a time of 9:07:04 – the slowest winning time in Ironman history at any Ironman event
  • St George is largely located on the sides of hills, leaving nearly zero flat streets
  • 1780 were registered, of that only 1,348 toed the line, (meaning they actually started the race; the rest getting a ‘“DNS” or Did Not Start) and of that 1,348, a whopping 404 did not finish the swim (a “DNF” or Did Not Finish)
  • Once the wind began, about 10-15 minutes after the swim start, it blew consistently for the remainder of the day at 25+ mph, with gusts up to 45 mph
  • On the two loop bike, the 25+ miles of constant climbing was straight into that merciless and relentless wind
  • On the 10 miles of descent on each loop, the 45 or so mph gusts were simply terrifying
  • For the first time in any race, I saw multiple instances of people walking their bikes up relatively minor hills as well as roving pick up vans reclaiming bikes who decided to call it a day.  Each time I reached another van, I would see one or two new riders stopping their race.
  • During my bike, I saw about 10 people literally just pulled to the side of the road, lying motionless next to the discarded bikes
  • I saw four people who had crashed being tended to by emergency medical personnel
  • I have surfed waves smaller than those I faced in the water

Yes, it was a gnarly, crazy day; certainly one of the toughest, if not the toughest, in Ironman history.

Now, back to the event…  For me, I had certain goals and plans on how to reach them and this is one of the two pieces of advice I’d give based upon my experiences of the day.  Regardless of the specifics of the race or unexpected “curve-balls” that always happen on race day, have your goals clearly defined along with an understanding of what it will take to reach them.  But, don’t rigidly adhere to them no matter what happens.  Some days, things go your way and you should enjoy those moments.  Others though, you need to be mentally flexible and shift your focus when the circumstances require it.

So, my goals were:

  • A sub-one hour swim
  • Ride aggressively, but not spend more energy than I should on the bike
  • A sub-four hour marathon
  • Oh, and of course, to get one these:Ironman St. George Medals

To accomplish these, I knew there were a few things I would have to do.  First, maintaining good form in the water.  2.4 miles of swimming is tough, for anyone.  Many people will simply deteriorate from fatigue and significantly slow, while maintaining or even increasing their effort level.  I was very determined to not only maintain a consistent effort level, but to do so with the best mechanics I could have.  The bike was a two-part effort: one was simply to race and not move along at what I could consider to be a relatively pedestrian pace and, two, to nail my nutrition.  If I wanted to get my first sub-four hour Ironman marathon, I had to set that stage on the bike.  If I failed to adequately eat and hydrate, the run would be over long before it actually began.  Additionally, on the run, I would have to be consistent.  I could not run the first ten miles at a 7 min/mile clip, thinking I was going to have the run of my life (that never happens, by the way).  I would have to control my initial effort and, once my fatigue became significant, focus on maintain speed and form.  And, doing all of that while continuing to ensure I was getting enough calories, water, and electrolytes to permit me to continue pursuing the last, but by FAR most important, goal of the day.  As ridiculous as it seems, getting distracted and thus not eating/drinking on the bike or run is actually quite easy.  You can, without realizing it, fail to consume anything for one to two hours, and easily ruin your day.

That, nicely enough, brings me to my second piece of advice: effective nutrition.  Regardless of the race or the day, effective nutrition matters just as much, if not more, than everything else.  You can have the best fitness of your life and still DNF if you fail with your nutrition.  How many calories, how much water, and how many electrolyte tablets do you need?  How will you get them?  But, once you have your nutrition plan, you also need to be able to modify it as the day progresses.  Each day is different and rigidly adhering to your nutrition plan when the conditions mandate a change quickly becomes a recipe for disaster.  Know what you need and anticipate what changes you will need to make before they are truly necessary.  So, onto the race!

Pre-Race

In the days leading up to the race, I focused on eating carbs and lean protein at every meal.  I also began drinking more and more water a few weeks in advance, switching to a half water and half gatorade mixture three days before the race.  I wanted to ensure that all my glucose levels were as high as possible.  The morning of, I ate two packets of oatmeal three hours before race start and continued sipping my water/gatorade drink.  My only other consumption was a gel pack twenty five minutes before race start.  Before the race, I felt very physically ready.

Swim

As I stated above, my swim goal was a sub-hour swim.  As you see from the picture, there was nothing to indicate this would quickly become unreachable.  I intended to start on the front line, as usual.  Unfortunately, I started ten people deep.  Why, you wonder?  Well, apparently hundreds upon hundreds of people believed they were very strong swimmers.

Look, I have no issue with people starting in front of me.  But, and I guess here’s a third piece of advice, the quickest way to start your day poorly is bad seeding at the start of an Ironman swim.  Start to close to the front and, unless you plan on going sub-hour, you will have HUNDREDS of people swimming over the top of you.  Start too far back and, unless you plan on going 1:30 or more, you will be swimming over the top of HUNDREDS of people.  So, let’s set some rules about swim seeding.  I’ll call it the Rule of Thirds.  If you plan on being 1:15 or less, start in the first third.  If you plan on being 1:45 or more, start in the last third.  Otherwise, start in the middle third.  Proper seeding just makes everyone happier and increases the probability that you will have a good day.  Poor seeding ensures a miserable swim; not how you want to start an Ironman.

As you can likely guess, no one explained these rules to the athletes at IMSG 2012.  Within moments of the gun, I was already swimming over  people.  This repeated itself dozens of times over the next ten to fifteen minutes.  I wasn’t trying to be a Type-A Jerk, but seriously people, don’t subject yourself to that.  Thankfully, I eventually passed all those that seeded poorly and found some open water.  I quickly settled into a steady rhythm and felt fast.  Almost… too fast.  Something odd was happening.

Ironman St. George Pre-Swim

Beautiful, calm, and tranquil

Quickly after finding that open water, I began to feel the first surges of swells.  Being in a lake, this seemed odd to me cuz, you know, its not the ocean.  But, I just focused on my form and enjoyed the additional speed.  However, after one one-quarter of the swim, I reached the first turn buoy and immediately knew the day was going to get rough.  For those familiar with surfing or ocean swimming, on windy days, the crest of each wave will create a rain-like effect as the wind rips water from the peak and sprays droplets in the direction the wind is blowing.  In the water, it is like being in a powerful thunderstorm with driving rain for about five seconds.  A very cool effect when surfing, but not so much during an Ironman swim.  To make matters worse, I could tell, based on the direction of the spray and waves, that the last 55-60% of the swim would be straight into the teeth of the wind.  And, upon reaching the second turn buoy and making my turn, my suspicions proved correct.  The conditions went immediately from challenging to horrific.

Ironman St. George Swim

Ummm, a little less tranquil than the start

There were swells with faces bigger than four feet.  There were white caps everywhere.  Sighting was nearly impossible as you had to time your spot at the crest of a wave and hope that the closest buoy just happened to be also on the crest.  In short, it was completely bedlam.  I could see practically nothing and was spotting mostly on the position of the sun.  I am certain that I swallowed more water during this race than during all my other races combined.  Each wave felt like I was getting punched on the left side of my head from the smack of the wave and then on the right from the concussive water enveloping my head.  I actually stopped and stretched my swim cap over both ears (something I hate when swimming) just to reduce the concussive “POP” with each breath.  Breast stroking to try spot actually was counterproductive as the waves moved you backwards so I resorted to side-stroking to line-up with the sun’s spot in the sky.  Freestyle was flat-out brutal.  Sometimes, your recovery arm would get stuck in a wave.  Others, you would hyper-extend your arm expecting water where there was none.  It was a crazy, out-of-control mosh pit of me and the water.

To make matters even more frustrating, those on the course to help in-need athletes were in trouble.  I saw multiple capsized kayaks.  I saw a free floating paddle board, meaning it was now a weapon of mass injury waiting to attack unsuspecting swimmers.  I saw another girl struggling to keep her paddle board parallel to the path of swimmers.  I actually felt bad for them as I am sure they felt terrible but were trapped by the conditions worse than we were.  (For a great account from a volunteer on a spotter boat that quickly became a life raft, check out the May 7, 2012 entry HERE.  Plus, the brief videos give a snapshot into the developing wind storm.)

Ironman St. George Swim

Just like "Where's Waldo?" but "Where's Swimmers?"

While the conditions were tough for me, I knew they would be terrifying for others.  The height of the swells and pandemonium on the water meant that a swimmer in need would likely go unnoticed and, thus, be in serious trouble.  I actually spoke with a guy during the run who said he started to develop a leg cramp and tried to find a boat/kayak to signal but could not find one.  He said that was the first time during a race he was scared for his life.  I think that pretty much sums up the insanity of the swim.  For some, it was just a crazy swim.  For others, it became a possible life-or-death situation.  Thankfully, as I write this, I have yet to hear of anything serious befalling any of the swimmers.

Here are just some comments I have seen from various posts about the race:

“This was my first ever triathlon and I have never been that scared in my life. At one point I looked around and couldn’t see another person, boat, buoys, etc. It turned into survival mode for me. Finally I swam to a buoy and clung for dear life. Just then a boat came by and told me that I had gotten incredibly off course and that I probably couldn’t make the time cut off. I swam anyway and by a true miracle barely made it in time. I saw grown men sobbing in the T1 tent. It looked like a medic tent in a war zone.”

“At one point I felt like I was in National Guard Training! Last year I swam the same course in a 1:13, this year at the one hour mark I was less than a mile in and disoriented and panicked. It was time to get out. When the kayaks are capsizing and athletes are clinging to race buoys? I think it is safe to say it was crazy.”

“I was one of the volunteers on a kayak, and I could barely paddle against the wind and waves, I couldn’t imagine swimming in that water. I saw people being pushed off their stand up paddle boards from the wind. We all just kept thinking, “I hope the swimmers that are still out there are ok” We were told that only about 6 life boats and kayaks were still out there helping.”

Yeah, it was as bad as you can imagine.

In spite of the conditions, I actually was very pleased with my time, 1:08.  While my slowest Ironman swim ever, I was faster than two of the male pros and exited the water within reach of the top age-groupers.  Upon exiting the water, I ran to the wet-suit strippers, grabbed my gear bag, and was on my way to T1.  (One small note in the pic above… all the swimmers you can barely see are WAY off course, cutting the corner, unintentionally I am sure…)

Transition 1

Pretty uneventful here.  My time, barely over four minutes, was respectable in comparison to the top athletes.  I will admit that I didn’t push as quickly as possible as I wanted a bit of a break from the wind.  I knew the 112 mile bike would be horrendous and an extra minute of freedom from the wind was great.

Bike

As bad as the swim was, the bike took “tough” to a whole new level.  As you can see from the graph, it is a pretty hilly course.  The two loops contain nearly all the climbing, including a section of 25+ miles of nearly non-stop climbing that we got to enjoy.  Twice.  Driving the course before the race, I was actually excited for the bike.  It looked challenging for sure, but it also looked like a fun challenge.  With the wind, those thoughts were gone.  25 miles of climbing is tough, but with 25+ mph headwinds, it becomes brutal.  Frankly, it was terrible and is the only time I have pondered pulling the plug during a race.  There was just nothing fun about it at all.

Ironman St. George Bike Profile

My choice of wheels also did me no favors.  Opting for my aero wheels (Mad Fibers), I was being blown all over the place.  At times, the wind was so ferocious, I was scared to stay aero.  The cross winds were just too strong and unpredictable.  (By way of example, the winner got blown off his bike.  It was not a day for the faint of heart.)

As you can see above, the real test on the bike was the two long sections of climbing.  Each one contained multiple long stretches of minor inclines and many steeper sections thrown in for entertainment.  Or pain.  On my second loop, I saw many riders dismount and walk their bikes up hills.  Without the wind, it would have been tough but still attackable.  With the wind, it just sucked.  I became more and more concerned that I might get to the run with nothing left in my legs.

Ultimately, I reached the top of the second climb and got to enjoy the last twelve miles of the bike, almost entirely downhill.  One fun (and slightly terrifying) note, I did get to set a new land-speed record for this bike.  (To my wife, please don’t read the remainder of this paragraph!!!)  With the wind now at my back, thus providing a huge tailwind, I greatly anticipated the decline and most of it was on a closed section of freeway.  This meant big lanes, mostly straight stretches, and no sharp or blind turns.  I intended to take full advantage of this and go as fast as possible.  On the one very steep section, I hit 50.2 mph!  It was awesome, scary, and exhilarating!

Mercifully, the bike ended for me.  I had a final time of 6:49:56.  Not great, but on this day, not too bad.

Transition 2

Two minutes to grab my bag, get in the tent, change into running shoes, and have sunscreen applied and I was running.  (A bit of comedy, St. George has AMAZING volunteer support.  Sometimes, almost too amazing as there were about 10,000,000 sunscreen volunteers, all standing around in blue surgical gloves with gobs of sunscreen to apply but no runners to slather.  When I exited, one asked if I wanted sunscreen, I said yes, and watched a CROWD descend upon me.  It was interesting to say the least having seven people simultaneously apply sunscreen to you.  Pretty sure that will never happen again… and pretty sure I don’t want it to!)

Run

Ironman Run Start

Chatting with friends at the run start

As always, now the fun begins.  In any triathlon, the run is where you learn how bad you want it.  But, at an Ironman, the stage is just that much bigger.  26.2 miles of running is a LONG distance by itself.  Do that after swimming 2.4 AND biking 112 and, well, you get the picture.

The run was a three-loop course, somewhat in the shape of a three-pronged fork.  Out of the approx 8.7 miles per loop, only two blocks were flat.  Not an easy route…  Lucky for me though, I had great support with some family and friends attending the race to cheer for me.  I am extremely fortunate to have the support that I do as knowing there are people there to see me always inspires me to not disappoint!  Also, two of my friends who were supposed to be racing with me but unfortunately did not make the swim cut-off were on the course too, adding just more incentive.

My initial plan was to run 8:00 min/miles on the “flat” or downhill sections and 8:30 min/miles on the uphill sections; all with no walking.  Because of the bike, I had long since discarded that plan and created a new one.  Instead, I would attempt to hold the same pace, but would also walk each of the aid stations as well as a few of the steeper uphill sections.  For the aid stations, I would only allow myself to walk when I reached the person who had what I wanted (i.e., I didn’t start walking at the beginning of the aid station.  Rather, I started when I reached the water, cola, or perform table.)  I would also resume running either upon finishing my snack or at the end of the aid station.  During the few uphill walking parts, I would start and stop at specific landmarks (e.g., a tree, barricade, etc.)  I wanted to avoid getting sucked into the vortex of perpetual walking, which is easy to do without clear start and stop points.

On the first loop, I executed my plan flawlessly, finishing that first loop in 1:15.  I was extremely pleased with that as it put me very much on course to meet my run goal, and likely gave me some time in the back for later when I would need it.  I stuck entirely with water or IM Perform at the aid stations.  I also put cold sponges under the top of my race kit and a cool towel over my head.  I wasn’t getting hot, but I wanted to do anything I could to stay cool.  The towel proved amazing as I could reuse it at each aid station with a new splash of cold water.

Ironman St. George

Still feeling good on Lap 2

At the start of my second loop, I happened to start chatting with a cool guy who was starting his first loop.  We ended up running and pacing each other the entire loop.  Running with another person and having that natural give-and-take conversation greatly takes my mind away from the run.  That loop seemed quick and easy but still took me about 1:20, a slight slowing of my pace but still on target for my goal.  I knew, at that point, that my sub-4 objective was well within reach.

At the start of my third loop, I told my running partner that I was going to push it, said many thanks for his part in my day, and trudged off.  In my mind, I broke that last loop into four uphill sections, each around a mile in length.  I was going to run the downhill sections at a normal pace, run the first two uphill sections conservatively, but then start to push it on the last two uphills (as they would be part of the last four miles of my day).  No surprise, but this plan was easier created than effected.

Ironman Lap 3

Start of third loop; Form still good!

The first half of my last loop passed uneventfully.  I saw friends the last time and they cheered.  I constantly was popping ice into my mouth and savoring the cool feeling.  I clutched a paper cup filled with ice and loved the sweet, frigid sip it would yield every minute or so.  Somehow, just those few drops seemed to recharge me.  I also switched entirely to cola at the aid stations, keeping to “walk the aid stations” strategy as well.

When I made the final turn for the last uphill, I just stared at the turn-around point at end of the street.  I wanted to reach it so badly that my mind completely fixated upon it.  It is tough to describe what happens in your mind during those dark times of endurance racing.  I am certain a squadron of pink elephants, wearing polka-dot tutus could come skate boarding by me, playing vuvuzelas and I would not notice.  It is truly like sleep-running, you are so much on auto-pilot.

Mercifully, the turn-around finally arrived, after taking its sweet time in greeting me.  Our last pass was brief as I had a rapidly approaching appointment with a clicking clock about mile and a half away.  Making that turn and knowing that nearly the entire remainder of the race was downhill felt so good.  I tried to drop my pace as best as I could, getting into the high 7s and low 8s; a pretty big accomplishment for me at that stage.

As is always the case, the pain and agony of the day melts away as the finish line nears.  All the sweat and anguish seems minuscule crossing the finish line to the phrase: Redfield Baum… YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!  St. George was a true beast in 2012 but I am extremely happy I was there to share that day and extremely happy with my performance.

To me, given how the day unfolded, my biggest take-away is to always be able and ready to assess when changes are needed in your race plan.  I knew the day would require some adjustments before reaching the first turn buoy in the swim.  The wind and hell on the bike only confirmed my suspicions.  Had I stuck to my original plan, only certain disaster (and likely DNF) would have awaited me.  Instead, I tweaked my plan mid-race, changing my nutrition and pacing strategy to account for the unexpected conditions.

In any long-course event, each participant, from the fastest to the slowest, will encounter dark places and unforeseen events.  For some, it may be minor, like dropping a gel pack.  For others, it might be a broken chain.  Regardless, being adaptable and rolling with those punches enables you to continue fighting and pursuing your objectives.  Never lose sight of your goals and understand what is needed to reach them.  With the increased exertion on the bike, I knew I would need more glucose as my burn rate would be higher.  But, I also knew that meant more water to dilute my sugar sources (to enable my body to absorb the sugar without taking needed water away from working muscles and, more importantly, to avoid a possible shutdown of my GI system) and additional electrolytes (to enable my body to process that sugar into usable glycogen).  So, be ready to be flexible and adapt to what the race gives you!

As always, thanks for reading!  Except for you Lady, in the photo below, who can’t even smile when I finish!

Ironman St. George Finish

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