Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The 3 P's


Ironman Texas
The Woodlands, TX ★ 2016.05.14
After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence—that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our lives. - Sheryl Sandberg speaking to UC Berkeley class of 2016
[N.B. unfortunately, I talk more about bodily functions than I'd like during my recap of my race in Texas. When the ultimate cause of a poor race was almost certainly some sort of stomach flu, that's probably inevitable. That said, I realize some people don't really want to hear about that. If that's you, totally understood, and I'll have no hard feelings if you just click the "X" to close this window. The TL;DR version is pretty simple: I prepared as well as I thought I could and wouldn't change anything. I had some bad luck just prior to the race with a bit of illness and didn't have my best race. That's racing. And life. Get used to it and get back to work.]

The race in Texas went about how I expected right up until the point when it didn't. I've been incredibly lucky over 21 Ironman starts to have generally had pretty good luck. I've DNF'ed three races, twice where it was clearly the right decision - IMTX '15 and IMAZ '11 - and once where I still wonder - Kona '13. In all those races where it's gone wrong (including Kona '13), it went wrong pretty early, and the struggle was really no surprise. The exception to that case was my lone mechanical, in Kona last year when my saddle broke. But on the body side, it's usually pretty obvious quite quickly whether it's gonna be a great day, a good day, or a bad day. When it's a great day - like I've had on any of my ultra-distance wins, you know that almost immediately. And that's nice, because it takes a great day where pretty much everything goes right to win an ultra (meaning a 6hr+ race, in my book anyway).

I thought, for most of the week, that I was lining up for a great day in Texas. Training had gone well. I seemed to make the transition to Central Time pretty easily. Sleeping well. Final preparations in all three sports were great. I felt a bit unsettled after dinner on Friday night, but I did have a huge race looming. And I always eat a bit more than I "want" to eat the day before a race, since the caloric requirements are so high. So it was atypical, but not super weird, when I had to use the bathroom the night before the race. 

On race morning, waking up at 3:30 is always a shock. And I'm as nervous now - maybe even more nervous - as I was before my first Ironman. So again, it was atypical, but not totally abnormal, when I had diarrhea on race morning. Looking back, the one thing that was quite strange was that I thought, after finishing most of my breakfast, that I might throw up. Then again, if keeping calories down wasn't so critical before an endurance race, I might be a lot more like James Hunt, who threw up before every race he did. 

I kept my breakfast down, though missed a bit of the calories I'd normally take. And that seemed to be it. I had another bout of diarrhea before the start, but I felt generally okay. As okay as you can with an Ironman looming. My stomach settled as I finished my final prep, and I didn't think anything more of it as I got in the water. My left hip locked up a bit as I started to warm up, but your body does all kinds of weird things when you're nervous and tapered and hypersensitive. I ended up swimming about as well as I expected given the number of strong swimmers that took the pace out fast. 

Out on the bike I felt like I had good legs. Not the best. But good enough. My hip loosened up from the swim, and I found a good pace. Watts were okay but hard to really gauge with 88 turns on the modified course. The flat and turn-y bike course definitely didn't suit me, and I did myself no favors by leading a train of almost 20 into T2, but I figured that the heat would expose guys for whom that ride was just that little bit too hard. The course was the same for everyone, and I'm incredibly thankful that we had a course at all. While 88 turns in 95 miles on paper read like a disaster, on race day, the course flowed really well, and while it certainly favored the runners, you also saw enough blow-ups (and, thank you officials, penalties) that it was as fair as it could be. The Texas heat certainly exposed a lot of folks.

Coming out of T2, I was stiffer than usual heading out onto the run, especially after only 3-1/2 hours on the bike. But everyone else was running way too crazy (except Patrick Lange, who ran crazy all day to go 2:40:01...), and I knew guys would come back. So I focused on staying cool, getting calories, and being steady. 

Right about where I thought guys would start coming back, they did. I had fallen to ninth, but midway through the second lap, I had moved back up to 4th. I was steady at 2:50 pace through 25km (about 15mi). But my hips were killing me. I felt like I was swinging two legs but they weren't connected. I was muscling the pace. Every so often, I'd seem to find a good stride. But it never lasted. However, the pace was what I wanted. I wasn't overheating. And it really felt like I was where I needed to be (in terms of getting to Kona) even if I wasn't quite where I wanted to be (winning). Great days are usually easy. But I didn't need a great day; I just needed a good one, and I thought I could muscle that out. Some days are just blue collar days that way. 

At certain points in the course, we had to make a hard U-turn, which was always a real struggle, and after making one around mile 15 or 16, it felt like an invisible wall dropped in front of me. My first instinct was calories. I started walking. First time ever in an Ironman. I grabbed two packs of blocs - my savior at IMAZ last year - and downed them. In started running again, at a slower pace, and shortly came to the RedBull aid station, where I asked for a whole can, again like at IMAZ when I bonked hard in the cold. I continued to slow jog, to try to let those calories clear, but I really just couldn't find my stride. And even with the walking, my stomach wouldn't clear. 

I walk/jogged a few miles and then I had to go to the bathroom. Badly. More diarrhea, which is totally normal during a race, but then when I wiped - a luxury when placing no longer matters - and saw blood. Quite a bit. I was scared. I thought I'd gone Julieanne White/Chris Legh. Except I actually felt pretty ok. Basically, i didn't feel like I'd just killed part of my intestines. And, as I found out post-race when I checked in at medical, blood in stool is "totally normal"... At least within the context of something abnormal like Ironman. The doctor wasn't worried. I knew hot weather can lead to intestinal permeability. It's never happened to me, but I thought maybe with the cooler El Niño induced weather, I wasn't as heat acclimatized as I thought.

So kept walk/jogging. I wanted to finish. I felt like I could finish. My hips hurt like crazy, but other than that, I felt ok. I would jog for a while. And then I needed to walk again. It was pretty low. I ran the first 25km in 1:40. And I made the last 17km in... 1:40. But I crossed the line. And I'm glad I did. When you can finish, you want to finish. The emptiness of a DNF is haunting...

At first, I thought I'd just messed up preparation. Maybe my new approach to training really wasn't any good. Maybe I need to stop writing about my "road to the woodlands." Maybe I'd overdone it with all the turns and had ridden way harder than I thought by punching it out of the corners. Lots of things. All my fault. 

But then my mother said, "I had some GI problems starting last night too. And this morning was quite bad." Dad? "Me too." Ever since my "experience" at IMAZ 2011, I try to cook all my own food. And when I can't, I try to eat as simply as possible. For this race, we had a VRBO  place close to start, and I was able to cook all my own food. I'm good about washing my hands. But bad luck still can happen. It was actually a huge relief to know that it probably* wasn't me. It was the sort of minor stomach flu that certainly wouldn't have kept me from training. It might have made me back off a bit. But I really think it was the sort of thing that only becomes a problem when you try to do (most of) an Ironman in Houston. In May. When it's really hot and humid.

*I say probably because it still could have been entirely my fault. I don't think so, but I won't discount that possibility.

The GI stuff made a lot more sense. My hip pain - and that feeling of being disconnected through my "core" (I hate that term) - made sense. The blood made sense. And that made thinking about "what next?" a lot easier too.

It also makes me appreciate how lucky I have been the nine times I've been able to win an ultra distance race. I was asked at a Q&A the next day what I had to overcome on race day during those wins. And the answer is, basically, nothing. I've had stuff to overcome in life and in training. I've talked a lot about that. But on race day? When it's good it's easy. And when it's not, it's almost impossible to overcome a meaningful setback of any kind. And small problems also stack. With 180km of biking or a hillier course or fewer turns, maybe the race would have broken up enough that I didn't feel I needed to run 2:50. On a cooler day, maybe the additional stress of hot weather on the gut would have allowed me to work through the GI stress of some stomach flu. In a less deep field, maybe I could have managed my output a bit better and finished okay. Or maybe not. Regardless,  on this day, on this course, in these conditions, with this field, it was just more than my body could manage.

And I think that's to be expected. The difference between 1st and 2nd in my biggest "blowout" was just over 3%. Most races I've won, it's about 1.5%. A "dominant" win might actually be only 0.5% - that's about 3min in an Ironman. Simply put, the margin of error is really small once you start talking about high performance sport. 

Ben Horowitz wrote a book about his success at OpsWare. The title is the wonderful phrase, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. There was a lot that was management specific that is not really all that applicable to sport. But there's also a lot that was applicable. And one of the fundamental truths is that while you can make a lot of your own luck through preparation, meticulousness, dedication, etc, you also need some of the old fashioned kind of four-leaf-clover luck as well. 

I didn't have enough of that kind of luck on Saturday. But it makes me appreciate just how lucky I have been in order just to be able to be there racing. Sometimes you do pretty much everything right and things still don't work out. That's life. Get used to it. Time to get back to work.

In trying to put some closure on what was, certainly, a disappointing day,  I settled on the following question - "Would I change anything about how I prepared?" The answer is, "No." The outcome on race day wasn't personal. It's not permanent. And it's definitely not pervasive. It was an especially tough day out there for many athletes, a large portion of whom struggled with brutal heat and then punishing rain and cold. If you didn't have the day you expected, don't overthink it. Sometimes, shit really does just happen...

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Road To The Woodlands. Redux.

it's by no means perfect, but it helps tell the story...

I wrote a long post in 2015 about my preparation for IMTX. At the time, I think I was trying to reassure myself, since when I wrote it, I was at the beginning of what turned out to be a pretty bad downward spiral. I finished 9th (worst ever) at Wildflower. Then I DNF'ed IMTX about 40 miles into the bike. I struggled with insomnia, burnout, and whether or not I even wanted to train and race anymore. I managed to turn things around before IMMT, and 2015 finished as a year to remember instead of one to try to forget. I wasn't planning on re-upping this blog, but someone posted a comment on that old post asking what had changed. The answer is, simply, a lot. But I thought if someone was interested, I might as well try to answer the question. It's an honor that anyone cares. Truly.

To start off, we really need to back up. We can back all the way up to 2014, when I started working again with my first coach, Joel Filliol, after a disappointing 2013. I had some good results in 2014, but I'd say it was another disappointing year. 2015 started out with a lot of promise, but then quickly degraded to the point where I thought it might all be over for me as a pro. I had talked with Joel in 2014 about what it was going to take to be on the podium in Kona, and suddenly I was wondering whether or not I could even just race an Ironman - any Ironman - again.

Joel and I both felt like we were chasing continually moving goalposts. From being on the podium in Kona to simply racing well to back to being on the podium to simply not sucking. And pretty much everywhere in between. So leading into Tremblant, I made the decision to go back to what had worked before. I trained for Tremblant using a slightly modified template of my training plans with Michael Krueger. Basically, I wrote my schedule, Joel looked it over, and then I did it. And it worked. Sort of. I had a great result in Tremblant. But I found the whole process to be pretty unfulfilling. I was doing what I had done. And I was basically achieving the same results I had. But I wasn't learning very much. And I certainly didn't see how I was going to get any better. The outcome was good, such as it was. IMMT was a great race, but I also missed the feeling of really sharing that success with Joel. Kona was a missed opportunity due to bad luck. And IMAZ was a fair race, but three Ironmans in three months is a bit much... But the process was not. I didn't learn a lot during that period, except maybe that I still had ability to win. Important, certainly, but not revolutionary. And not a recipe for further success.

Joel and I talked a lot about this in the offseason. Was he resigned to simply rubber stamping the training I thought I could do? Was I resigned to simply doing the training I had done because as a father of three young kids, change was simply too hard? The easy answer in both cases would have been, simply, "yes." But that didn't hold much appeal. I had no desire to do the same training so I could win the same sorts of races in the same sort of fashion. I wanted to learn something. I wanted to try to be better. I wanted Joel to learn something. I wanted him to be the coach and for me to be the athlete. I got huge benefit from listening to Joel's "Real Coaching" podcast with Paulo Sousa. Especially the interview with Simon Whitfield, whom I trained with during what I think was the best process period of my career and certainly the time when I learned the most.

my worst quality as an athlete...

So we started over. Again. But I think we started over in the right place. We ignored the constantly moving goalposts. We started over with process. What was the right process for me? I didn't care about what I had done. I woke up, I looked at the training, and I did the best I could to do what Joel had planned. I tried not to think about it too much. I tried really hard not to overthink it. I let Joel be the coach. And I was the athlete. That doesn't mean I was mindless. I tried really hard to give good feedback. Especially about how I felt. We had some epic conversations on the phone. But Joel was the one steering the ship. My job was execution, moving the ship along the course that he had set. And to implement changes as needed. But decisions were made together. It was cooperative. And it was a process. And it was a revelation.

This year has been the most meaningful year of change in the way in which I have trained. But some stuff that I wrote in that prior post remain true. The lifestyle stuff. I still train alone. I still start my training day later in the day. We still have three kids. Mornings are still the busiest time of the day. I still try to make breakfast a lot. I still try to make dinner a lot. I still make most - if not all - of the coffees in our house. 

Anyway, onto some numbers. And, more importantly, what's behind them. This is really the first time I've gone in depth looking at the past. I've tried to avoid that, for a lot of the reasons I've covered above. What I find most valuable here is not the similarities to the past, but the real differences...

Unlike last year, I'm not going to post a "typical" or "best" week. For two reasons. The first is that weeks have been more different, in general, than in the past. And the second is that I don't think that the biggest week of training is necessarily the best. Or, more specifically, that every week had a role to play in where I'm at, and that the light weeks were as important as the heavy weeks. The easy sessions were as important as the big sessions. It was all part of the process. And I don't want to go over 100+ days of training in detail...

2016 YTD:

Swim: 286,815m [311,000m approximately in both 2014 & 2015. 388,000m approximately in 2012; I did a huge swim block in early 2012, but I also went through huge burnout as a result.]

Bike: 4068km (149:16:41) [4979km in 161hrs in 2015. 3755km in 123hrs in 2014. 4590 in 147hrs in 2012.]

Run: 1137km (89:26:51) [1488km in 112hrs in 2015. 1157 in 92hrs in 2014. 1458km in 2012.]

What's most noticeable to me here is that the distance discrepancy between 2015 & 2016 is much greater than the duration discrepancy. On the bike side, I biked 22hrs less but 911km less. To make up the difference in distance in the same amount of time, I'd need to ride at an average pace of almost 42kph (26mph). On the run side, I ran 22hrs less but 351km less. To make up the difference in the same amount of time, I'd need to run at an average pace of almost 16kph (10mph). So what's the obvious takeaway? I did a lot more easy training. On the run side, I thought it might have also been that I did a lot more trail running, but I actually - on average - gained about half as much elevation per week in 2016 as in 2015 (800vm/week in 2016 vs 1700vm/week in 2015). Nope, I just ran easier. And flatter. So a lot easier...

[Quick addendum. I realized after I wrote this that most of this differential likely comes from the fact that in 2015 I ran with a Garmin FR220 which uses not very accurate GPS for elevation. Now I run with a Fenix 3 which has a much more accurate barometric altimeter. GPS for elevation virtually always grossly overstates elevation change. So I may have in fact run more hilly routes this year. Or at least it's likely not nearly as disparate as I posted.]

And yet across the board I would say I'm in better shape than I was last year; key workouts in all three sports are as good or better than they've ever been. And I'm much, much happier. Now, this isn't to say that, "less is more" or anything like that. On the technical side, the training for sure has been more "polarized." The easiest way to see that is graphically:

time in bike power zones YTD 2016 vs 2015

time in run speed zones YTD 2016 vs 2015

On the run side, Z4 run speed work went up from about 3.5% in 2015 to about 4% in 2016. The biggest drop off? Z2 running, down to 20% in 2016 from 32% in 2015. On the bike, Z4 power work was down at 7% in 2016 from 10% in 2015. But the biggest drop off? Z3 cycling, down to 10% in 2016 from 22% in 2015. In both bike and run, the big gainer was Z1. Z1 running was up to 66% in 2016 from 46% in 2015. Z1 cycling was up to 51% in 2016 from 31%35% in 2015.

[Another addendum/edit: Andrew Coggan, on the Slowtwitch forums, pointed out that there was a discrepancy in the number of zones between 2016 and 2015, with six power zones in 2016 and eight zones in 2015. This seems to be a bug with TP, where it seems to be using whatever zones were set in the user settings (I'm guessing it was the 8-zone Durata setup; I must not have changed it) at the time rather than updating it based on what's currently there. Anyway, I was able to re-make the graphs using WKO4, and it reveals a slightly different breakdown. The big drop off is more in Z2 cycling than Z3. 2015 Z2 cycling was 43%; 2016 Z2 was 29%. 2015 Z3 cycling was 15% down to 9% in 2016.]

But I think the physiological aspect is only part of the story. The bigger impact has been the mental side. Rather than focusing on PMC-type metrics and data, Joel and I focused on simpler "metrics" like that flow chart. Am I having fun? Am I making gains? As long as the answer to both of those was yes, things were good. And that's really the process of improving as an athlete. Process has become a bit of a corrupted word/phrase, just like "high performance," so I'm trying to use it less as it becomes more buzz-y and less genuine. But to me, this is what process looks like. This is what it's all about.

I still don't understand it - what has changed - entirely. I asked Joel about that this morning. His answer was, "self-acceptance." We both accepted who I am, both as an athlete (physiologically and mentally) and as a person (husband, father, person-with-other-commitments). And that allowed for optimization. It allowed him to make the right training plan for me. And it made me comfortable doing that training. 

My favorite mantra of Joel's is, "Hope is not a strategy." And this year I don't hope I will have a great race in Texas; I have confidence that I will. Of course, I don't know what all this will get me in The Woodlands on May 14. But I know this is the best way - the right way - to achieve the success that I want. Success in sport is never guaranteed. That's a big part of what makes it great. I've got a whole lot of other thoughts on the value of pursuing something uncertainty for another time. 

All you have is the process. Success may not follow from that. But when success does come, it only comes that way. And I've changed. And I've learned. And that is a victory in its own right. Though you better believe I still will be racing to cross the finish line in first place.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Family Affair. And Lessons Learned Over 7 Years.

© 2016 Brian Comiskey

Ironman 70.3 California
Oceanside, CA  2016.04.02


I've struggled for the past two weeks to find anything of substance to say about my season opener in Oceanside. The race unfolded pretty much the way I expected. I swam about where I usually do; the swim in Oceanside has never really suited me as you get a really short warm-up and the starting area is really tight, neither of which tends to lead to great swims. I've swum better (but not here). And I've swum worse. The one bright note is that I seem to have started 2016 where I spent most of 2015 - roughly able to control my own destiny in the swim; I'm no longer in real danger of losing a race on the swim. Things need to break my way a bit for me to end up closer to the front, but I think the hard work I've done in the pool has alleviated at least some of the worry I've had at the start of races about, "okay, you cannot mess this up..." I don't know if I'll ever make the leap to being a true front pack swimmer, but I'll continue to work towards that. But relaxing the focus I had on 2013 of needing to become a swimmer has, unsurprisingly, actually made me a better swimmer. My top end is better, but really, it's my base level of performance that has risen the most. Overall, I'm a more consistent swimmer, and I'll take that. For now.

On the bike, I came out of the water with a lot of strong riders, and I went with them. The topography of the Oceanside course is roughly opposite of what I'd like as someone who's a bit on the lighter side - with the flat stuff early and the hills late - but ultimately, I rolled the dice to ride with some of the strongest riders at the half-distance in this race, and I just didn't yet have the fitness to do so for 56 miles. This is probably a good thing. My best race in Oceanside came in 2011, after I raced the Abu Dhabi long course tri, then with a 200km (124mi) bike portion, and had really deep fitness on the bike. Fitness that I really struggled to hold through to Wildflower that year. Part of the goal this year was not to be in peak shape too early, since that pattern of getting there and not being able to hang on has been one I've repeated on multiple occasions with poor results. The years that I've been a bit short on fitness on the bike at the first race of the season has generally been a year where things have worked out well - 2009, where I struggled at Oceanside before a breakout performance at Wildflower; and 2012 where I struggled at Leadman 125 (roughly the same date as Oceanside) before maybe my two best ever races at Wildflower and IMTX. I feel like I came into - and came out of - this race with somewhere to go, fitness wise. And that's important. Because six weeks is too long to simply try to "hang on" to peak fitness.

On the run, I ran almost exactly what I thought I could, including a good negative split, and it was my fastest half marathon in probably two plus years. It was a good run, reflective of a solid base of run fitness - lots of long runs, but not too much speed work. And I crossed the line in 10th, competitive in the field, though again just shy of the 4:00 mark, though this was my fastest time on here on what is arguably a slower course (slightly) than in 2011, when they didn't route you up the short-and-steep climb up to the boardwalk. In hindsight, a perfect race might have netted me 8th, a few minutes faster with better pacing on the bike and a bit more aggressive running on the first lap of the run. Oh, and I could have been quicker in transition. I'm definitely stuck in the steady-and-deliberate (but also relatively slow) routine of Ironman transitions. And I'm also for sure showing a bit of rust after not racing something short (how did I come to think of a 70.3 as short when I came to endurance sport as a 6min racer on the water...) since June of last year. 

None of this is particularly insightful. Or particularly useful to anyone. But I felt I needed a preamble (shockingly wordy, too) to the two things I wanted to actually talk about. Even if the race part of the "race report" is really super boring. The first was talking about the joys - and challenges - of having my family there. When Jill and I had one kid, Quentin came to a lot of my races. I'd actually say for 2011 and 2012, he probably came to most of my races. At the very least, it was as normal for him to be at a race as not. Since having our twins, the kids have been at almost none of my races. I can name them all - Oceanside 2014, Princeton 2014, IMAZ 2015, and Oceanside 2016. That's it. My parents come to a lot of races, but there's something special about having your wife and kid(s) there. It's a reminder of what I'm racing for. This is my job. It's how I support my family. And seeing them is a powerful reminder of that.

But it's also a challenge. Not in terms of logistics. We were able to get a great rate on a two bedroom condo walking distance from the race. Jill and the kids slept in one room. I slept in the other. The kids are all good sleepers. My sleep wasn't compromised. My pre-race routine was pretty much identical to any other race. But it was a challenge to not be able to turn off the "parent" part of my brain before the race. One of the hardest parts about being a professional athlete is the same thing that makes it so rewarding - it's all consuming. You can never really turn it off. Even when you're not training, you need to be mindful of nutrition, sleep, recovery, etc. Sort of like being a parent. And one of the things I enjoy about races is that I can, briefly, turn off at least one of those "always on" parts of my brain. When I'm at a race by myself, I don't have to be a parent. I don't have to be available, mentally, to anyone else. 

I don't think that having my family there, on balance, affected my race either way. There were some huge positives seeing them on the course and, mostly, being able to spend time with them in the period after the race when I can, briefly, turn off the "athlete" part of my brain for a couple days. But I noticed that in the week after the race, when the fatigue from the race settled in, I felt more overwhelmed by the "parent" part of my brain. On Wednesday post-race, I found that I just needed to go for a walk around the neighborhood to have some quiet time with no one around. That's time that I would normally get at a race, and I found I missed having it. It's hard to be a parent all the time. It's hard to be an athlete all the time. I realized last year the importance of needing to turn off the athlete part of myself every so often. But I don't think I necessarily realized in as concrete a way the need to turn off the parent part of my brain as well. Jill and I took our first vacation together in almost five years this spring for a few days. (We could have used a few weeks...) I found myself moving from my office (which has no doors), to the garage, to outside, and then back to my office to write this because of the inevitable madness that ensues with three young kids in the house. 

None of which is meant to imply that I have it any harder (or easier) than anyone else. We all have our challenges. And, I think, based off what I've seen from the typical triathlete, it's challenges that motivate us. I suppose my takeaway is just that the same things that make this sport worthwhile are also the things that can make it overwhelming. Just like being a parent...

On a totally unrelated note, I also spent some time thinking after this race about those things that I've changed and those things that have remained the same since my first race in Oceanside, in 2009, to this most recent race, seven years later. Some things have remained the same. Some of have changed. But I remember many of the decisions that I made then were just sort of incidental. Not to say that I hadn't thought about them. But it was more that I was doing something because, as of then, it hadn't "not worked." In some cases, I have come back to doing things the same way as I did then, though it's now because I've tried alternatives and think, "okay, this isn't just 'good enough.' I actually think it's the best way to do this." And, in other cases, I do things differently because I realize now that how I did things back then wasn't actually the best way to do them. So here's some of what I do now, with some comparison to what I did then...

Nutrition

For most of my career, this has been a strong suit. For 2013 and especially 2014, I thought I let it slip a bit. And now I think it's back to being a strength. One big difference now from then is that I race with two bottles on my bike. I have a permanent bottle cage behind my saddle. I really like that I can mix the new EFS Pro very strong and still digest it easier. I always struggled to digest gels, especially in halfs; they were just to strong. But I struggled to get enough calories in with drinks. Now, I can mix my drinks strong enough that it's a non issue. I mixed two 26oz bottles with 9 scoops each for a total of 360cals per bottle (720cals total during 2:11 bike). I do think I could have drank more early - the hardest part of the flat part of the Oceanside course being early is that on flat roads when it's also very cool, you don't think about eating/drinking. But overall, I was able to get the calories I needed without issue, which helped me be strong across the day. My race breakfast is virtually unchanged after seven years, and you can find it here. I used to take supplemental salt religiously during the race, but now I do a sodium pre-load before the race and find I don't need any extra salt. I continue to think that a good breakfast is the foundation of a solid race day nutrition, but I also appreciate the ability to easily digest even more calories on course, something which EFS Pro clearly makes easier for me. So I'm back to basically eating as much - on-course - as I did before; but I have an easier and more reliable method of doing it now.

Swim

2009 was actually one of my best years from a swim standpoint; I was finally able to absorb a lot of the (excessive) work that I did swimming with an ITU-focused squad as I transitioned to training on my own. I lost a lot of that due to my crash in 2010, and I still think that the permanent damage to my left arm/shoulder is somewhat of a limiter. But I swam faster, relatively, than I did in 2009 or 2011. Some of the credit here for sure goes to ROKA. I swam in the new Maverick X - one of the first 10 production prototypes, and it is without question the best suit I've ever used. I also think I'm a smarter swimmer, knowing that I need a bit of clean water at the start, being better about managing energy, etc. And I think overall, I'm just a better swimmer; not surprisingly, consistency in the water pays off. Mostly, I'd say this is the result of focusing on day-to-day execution rather than worrying about the larger issue of how good (or not) I am as a swimmer. I don't worry about swimming in the front pack or not; I worry about this. That said, a great wetsuit makes a real difference. I've swum the best in suits where I've been the happiest. I've swum in some good suits. And I've swum in some great suits. If you don't love your current wetsuit, try a different one. There are more good options than there used to be.

Bike

The base level of cycling in 70.3 racing has dramatically increased in the time that I've been a pro. Much more so than Ironman cycling. The same power output that would have given you a huge gap on the field is now required just to stay in the field. Some of this is better equipment choices and positioning across the board. People waste less watts, in general, than they did. So the racing is tighter. But it's also just harder. 70.3 used to be the short long-course race. Now it's the long short-course race. 70.3 is raced much more like Olympic distance used to be raced. Ironman is trending this way, but you still can generally bet on people blowing up as a result. Not so in 70.3 races. You need to be prepared to race the whole bike from the gun. 

On the equipment side, I continue to be impressed by the utility of a 1X drivetrain. There are some really challenging climbs on the Oceanside course. But it's also a course where most of the race is flat-to-rolling. I never felt limited by having only 11 - as opposed to 20 or 22 - speeds. I ran 54-11/30, which is my "most often" configuration (I'll run 54-11/26 at Ironman Texas), and it was great. I could have run 54-11/28 and been fine. I never really needed the 30, even on the big climbs. I used it, but I could have done without it. 

The aerodynamics of the Dimond are really awesome. Looking at total bike+rider aerodynamics, some of that is the 1X. Some of that is clothing - I am back racing an ITU-style (back-zip, minimalist) race kit from Kiwami, but I've added a textured short-sleeve "jersey" for the bike, which gives a big aero advantage but still allows me to run in a "free-er" fitting kit. I rode quite a bit faster in 2016 than in 2011 (2min) on quite a bit less power (about 10w less average and normalized). Chalk that all up to better equipment selection. It does matter. But, as I said at the outset, even that same power wouldn't have made up for the difference to the fastest riders. The same power as 2011 would have had me at maybe 90sec faster (depending on how I distributed it), when I was about 90sec slower than the faster rider. This year, I was four minutes slower than the fastest guys. So aerodynamics matter. But it's more than just the aero differences that are contributing to the fast bike times. You can't ignore any of it.

Run

I like to train in shoes with relatively low offset. Anything from 3mm to 6mm is fine. But I think 6mm of offset is my "preferred" offset. But for racing - meaning when I have to run fast on tired legs, I think more offset is beneficial. All of my best runs in races have come in shoes with 10mm of offset. For training, I'd say that 6mm of offset is the most I'd want. But for racing, I'd say 6mm of offset is the least I want. I ran in the NB1400v3, which has 10mm of offset. It's a racing flat - with probably too narrow a toebox for Ironman, but for 70.3 racing, I think it's the perfect shoe for me. I also think it's a shoe I can - should - run sockless in. It's a snug fit, so socks don't add much. And it's pretty seamless inside. But, having done some training workouts in it, I do think that the increased offset makes it just a bit better for running off the bike. Especially for running fast (relatively) off the bike. I always thought that I'd like the same shoes for training and for racing, and I've always tended to enjoy running in training in lower offset shoes. So I thought I'd naturally enjoy racing in them as well. But after a lot of experimentation, I've decided two things: 
  • Wanting less offset is not the same as wanting the least offset. I have some zero-offset shoes (the NB Minimus road and trail) that I like running in. But I really don't like running fast in them. For me, the faster I have to run, the more offset I want.
  • I want more offset in transition (meaning running off the bike) than not. 6mm seems to be my sweet spot for all-purpose running. I'd say 10mm is more of a sweet spot for running off the bike. 
There has been an increasing trend towards lower-offset shoes. Some of this came during the simultaneous shift towards minimalist shoes. Minimalist shoes are, somewhat necessarily, also low offset. But you can make low offset shoes that are not minimalist. Hoka One One being the prime example. Typically, minimalist shoes are shoes with low overall stack heights. Say, 10-15mm or less. Low-offset - sometimes called "natural" (though that term is also applied to minimalist shoes) - shoes are typically shoes with 4mm or less of differential between the heel and the toe. I think lower offset shoes - which to me means less than the 10-12mm differential that has been industry standard for a long time - are great. I think they are especially good for training. I think most people should run most of their miles in shoes with less - rather than more - offset. But I also now think that shoes with more offset make it easier to run off the bike. For whatever that is - and isn't - worth...

Transition

I used to be faster in transition... This year, I lost about a minute to Andy Potts in transition - 30s at each transition. In 2011, I was about 20s slower in T1 (I've never been super speedy getting out of a wetsuit), but I actually had a faster T2 than Andy. I used to race without socks, which helped, and I was very close to racing without socks again having found new shoes to run in. (I would have gone sockless if I had it to do over again.) But I think I just was sharper. And quicker. I raced transitions back then in a way I don't do as much anymore. Some of this is that, overall, I race less than I did. But I think I've also just tried to avoid urgency in transition - because I think it can be a bad thing in Ironman, where you tend to fastest by being deliberate. I could spend some time practicing this though. It's time I don't need to lose. I could have easily - and finally - broken four hours here if I had just done T1 and T2 better. I didn't lose any prize money, but I could have... 

Overall

Overall, I'm older. I'm faster (except in transition). And I'm a little bit wiser. In some ways, I feel like I've made surprisingly little progress. In other ways, I feel like I've made a lot. The race itself was non-remarkable. But there were still lessons in that for me. And hopefully for some of you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rappstar's 2015 Holiday Gift Guide

There will be far fewer grievances with some of these gifts wrapped up at the base of your festivus pole...

So I decided to follow my good friend Herbert Krabel's lead and make a holiday gift guide. These are all of my favorite products from my sponsors. When I had a mental tie on a favorite, I've tried to pick something that is on the cheaper end of things or at least is not a major investment. In some cases, that just wasn't possible, and for that I apologize; sometimes, there just wasn't a budget option. So if you're stuck on a gift for someone else or for yourself, hopefully this might give some inspiration. These companies all enable me to do what I do, and it means a lot to me when folks support them. I believe in their products, and I know that you'll enjoy them too.

First Endurance Multi-V PRO ($90). Simply THE best athlete's multivitamin. The biggest benefits in my mind are the iron in amino acid chelate form for superior absorption and the WELLMUNE® BetaGlucan prebiotic complex to support immune function. I feel lucky to be pretty healthy, but with three young kids, I'm truly amazed at the impact this product has had. I was never someone who got sick often, but since First Endurance released this update to their already great Multi-V, I've noticed that my immune system is even more robust. I'm doing an article on beta-glucans for an upcoming article for LAVA magazine, and I'll get more into the science of these amazing compounds. But the short answer is that they help your immune system just work better. Nothing else matters if you can't get to the start line healthy, and Multi-V PRO is one of the best things you can do to help that. Sleep and good nutrition are still the most important things to take care of, but Multi-V PRO helps fill in the gaps that life inevitably introduces.



NormaTec PULSE ($1495 with RAPP2015 discount). Recover faster. Recover better. Recover anywhere. The NormaTec PULSE takes everything I loved about NormaTec and shrank it down into a 3lb unit (11lbs total weight including everything shown) that includes a built-in battery allowing for ultimate portability. I've been working with NormaTec since 2009, and it's been a real privilege to see the evolution of the product and the company first hand. The original NormaTec system was like a monster lunchbox, but it was so impactful, I figured out ways to get it to my races. Since then, NormaTec has constantly been by my side. The new unit means I no longer have to compromise in order to bring my NormaTec to races with me. It packs so small - and is perfectly acceptable in your carry-on luggage - that you can't not bring it. The NormaTec is also a great "warm-up" tool, and I think it's power as a pre-workout device is maybe even greater than its role as a recovery tool. 



Rüster Sports Armored Hen House ($625). This one pays for itself. Seriously. Pack your bike and your gear into these two bags, both of which are under the 62-linear-inch airline oversize requirement and easily can hold a lot while still coming in under the 50lb overweight limit. I pack my frame and typically shoes and bulky-but-light items in the trapezoidal frame bag. And then I pack my clothes and wheels and heavier items in the round wheel bag. Both bags are reinforced with strong internal foam to protect carbon frames from baggage handlers. With bike box fees running $150 and up, it doesn't take long to pay for itself. I was a skeptic, but having spent a year traveling with it, I now can't imagine traveling any other way. I spent two weeks in Mallorca at the beginning of the year and managed to bring everything I needed for that trip - which meant winter riding gear - in these two bags and a moderate-sized backpack. The other big benefit is that they fit much more easily into rental cars of any size, meaning you can save money once you are at your destination as well.



Honeymoon Ice Cream Almond Toffee ($12). Every Honeymoon ice cream flavor is great, but this is my personal favorite. Honeymoon describes this, "Spring variety features California grown almonds and bits of handmade toffee. Almond bits layer every bite of our distinct Jersey Cow creamy texture." Featuring Jersey cow milk, which tends to work better with people who have lactose issues due to a higher prevalence of A2 protein. Jersey milk also has a great creamy texture that is truly distinctive from the more prevalent Holstein variety. The milk comes from grass-fed cows and all ingredients are certified-organic. Small batch ice cream from the California's Mill Valley, it just doesn't get any better than this. 



Zipp Vuka Alumina BTA mount ($65). This part was the result of a roughly year long collaboration between Zipp's bar and extensions engineer Ben Waite and myself. The first version of this part was specific to the now-discontinued original VukaAero aerobar. After many iterations - and broken parts - the end result is a simple and elegant solution that actually improves your aerodynamics while also making a water bottle accessible and any Garmin 1/4-turn mount computer more easily visible. Pair it with Zipp's BTA-specific carbon cage for the ultimate package, but the mounting holes allow you to mount any standard water bottle cage. The extremely adjustable clamps fit on virtually any pair of extensions, carbon or aluminum. 



SRAM Force1 groupset (approximately $700). I was pretty skeptical of a single chainring solution when the SRAM folks asked me to test Force1 on my race bike to start the year. But after a few rides, I knew it wasn't just as good, it was better. For me, anyway. I now ride 1X on both my road bike and my race bike, and I can't imagine ever going away from a single front chainring. What was truly amazing was how much the simplicity of the system made riding more enjoyable. I had to think about my shifting less, which freed me up to think about more important things or nothing at all. With a wide - and growing - range of front chainrings and the breadth of 11 speed cassettes in the back, there's enough gearing to tackle even the hilliest of courses. I raced Wildflower with a 54-11/30 combination (the same as what I would use to set the bike course record at Ironman Mont Tremblant). Ben Collins raced Ironman 70.3 St. George with a 54-11/36. And numerous athletes used 1X setups at the Ironman World Championships in Kona as well. And I'm going to put it on my mother's bike this winter. Simplify your riding and have more fun. 1X really is that... simple. 



Quarq Qalvin (FREE!). Quarq's Qalvin software works on iOS and Android phones and on OS X and Windows computers. It allows for debugging, calibration checks, and firmware updates to the most reliable and user-friendly powermeters on the market. I've been a Quarq user since 2010, and they've kept the data flowing through it all. Sun, rain, and even the occasional snow. If you ride a Quarq, you need to have Qalvin. Best of all, it's free.



Louis Garneau COURSE Wind PRO® LS jersey ($220). I had never found a long sleeve jersey I liked until I tried this one. I always found they were either too warm when it got cold or too cold when it got warm. This breathable-but-wind-resistant top was warm enough even riding easy with temps in the 40s, and yet it wasn't too hot when I was climbing with temps in the high 50s. For my metric brethren, it was plenty warm in windy and dark 10C and not too hot riding uphill at 15C. I paired it with a basic short-sleeve base layer underneath, and it was perfect. It fits snug (size medium works for me) like the rest of the COURSE line, but it's also plenty stretchy for those folks who add some girth in the winter. It's no surprise that a company based in Montreal knows something about making stuff that's great for winter riding, but this top really sets a new bar for winter riding gear. I don't need great winter riding gear nearly as much as I did when I live in NY, but it still gets cold enough in December and January where I live in the mornings and evenings that good stuff is appreciated. And the biggest challenge is the change in temperature. I can start a ride in the 60s and finish in the 40s. So a versatile top is a huge asset. And this top fills that role perfectly. 




ROKA Sports S1 goggle ($12). I realize that you either like Swedish goggles or you don't. And if you don't, not much will convince you otherwise. For me, the simplicity of the gasket-less design (though the S1 has a rubberized coating so they are a bit softer than classic hard-plastic Swedes on the eyes) just works better. The string nose-strap is perfect for getting fit just right. And they also offer unparalleled visibility, not that you need that when you're staring at a black line (I only use these for training, because a gasket-less design is not a great idea for mass start swims), but it's always nice to be able to see the world around you. I use all the colors offered for early morning swims in the dark and sunny swims in the middle of the day (pretty much EVERY pool in California is outside). And at $12, they are possibly the cheapest tool you can buy given that they are also virtually indestructible. All the ROKA goggles are good, but it's the S1s that get me through the majority of my training.



Silca Hiro V2 ($110). You can inflate a disc wheel to race pressure with both hands on the pump. Enough said. Well, it's also made in the USA; is beautiful enough to be artwork; and features easily replaceable gaskets for years of trouble free use. If you have a disc, you need one of these.



Oakley Radar EV PRIZM Road ($190). The PRIZM lenses do a great job of helping cut down glare while still allowing you to pick out subtle-but-important details. The EV lens profile offers more coverage with feeling obnoxious. And the rest of this is classic Oakley functionality in the tried-and-true Radar design. Great optics for riding, running, and whatever else you might do out of doors.



Chipotle Burrito Gift Card (any amount). Nothing says offseason like a full belly. Appreciated now. Appreciated even more after a long ride in a few months. Buy it now. Keep it until then. It lasts longer than trying to save a burrito until race season.



Swiftwick Aspire ($13-$36). THE best performance socks you can buy. In heights from no-show zero (what I like for racing) all the way up to twelve inches (what I like for travel), Swiftwick's Aspire sock is the do-it-all single best sock I've found. The tall socks offer heavy compression for travel and post-race/workout recovery. The short versions fit snug to keep your feet happy and dry on the road, on the trails, and everything in between. All made in USA of premium fabrics, you won't find a better sock. Now in even more awesome colors. If you want a wool sock, check out their awesome Pursuit. But the Aspire is my go-to training and racing sock. There's nothing like a great pair of socks. And Swiftwick are the best.




World Bicycle Relief Buffalo Bike ($147). There is no greater gift that you can give than the gift of mobility. To date, I've raised over $400,000 for World Bicycle Relief through my annual Charity Challenge, now in it's 7th year. Buy a bike for someone in Africa. The power of bicycles is the power to change the world.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Like The Rain

All photos © Eric Wynn 2015

Ironman Arizona
Tempe, AZ ★ 2015.11.15

The highs and lows aren't part of the process; they are the process. - Joe Maloy

Every thunder cloud that came was one more I might not get through
On the darkest day there's always light and now I see it too
But I never liked the rain until I walked through it with you - Clint Black

I don't really have a ton to offer about the race in Tempe. I know I'm faster than 8:08 on that course. But I am not sure I could have been much faster at my third Ironman in 13 weeks. 8:08 and 5th place in the best field that race has ever seen is not something I'm thrilled with, but it is something I'm proud of, and there were some really positive takeaways. It was both a better and worse way to finish the season than the race in Kona. Trying to back up another Ironman was always going to be a bit of a crapshoot with IMMT - 8 weeks - Kona - 5 weeks - IMAZ. That's just a lot of long racing. And it showed up in the back half of each discipline. 


I was in the lead group during the swim for probably 1000-1500m, typically the hardest section of the race when it comes to making the lead group for me. If I'm in the group after 500m, I typically stay in. The hard part is staying in that first 500m. But it seems like things are starting to come together on my swim, and here it was just the accumulated fatigue that saw me get popped out of that group. Swimming solo for 3/5 or so of the swim, and really solo without even a group to chase for half of it, I had some real low thoughts ranging from, "I should have DNF'ed Kona." to "I should never have raced Kona." to "I should never have raced Arizona." The only thing keeping me from expecting to see 1:00:00+ on the clock was that I wasn't getting run over by the lead women who started five minutes behind... 


Getting popped in the swim made me very aware that it probably wasn't going to be a magical day and that I had almost certainly gone harder than I thought I had in Kona. In some ways, this was good as I knew I was going to have to be more conservative on the bike than normal. I had already planned to try to save something more for the last lap than I had in year's past, and while I didn't really achieve my goal of a negative split, I also didn't blow up that way I did last year. The rain that came pouring down with about 10mi/15km remaining did make me extra cautious near the end, but I doubt it affected my time much. Of all the races where I didn't expect to face a downpour, I would have put IMAZ at the top of the list. 


The rain then kept on coming, which was even more unexpected. It rarely rains all day in the desert. My heart really goes out to those late night finishers who had most of their day in the rain as opposed to just part of it. The concrete on the IMAZ run course, which gets a bad rap for being "too hard" (it's been proven that asphalt is not meaningfully softer than concrete for runners), was actually a real issue as it was slick as ice, especially early in the run. Thankfully, the grass and dirt next to the walking path was still pretty dry, and I was able to find some traction there during the first lap. On the second lap, the grass especially was too soaked to be much good, but thankfully the initial slickness of the concrete had also faded a bit as the rain continued to fall.



In training, my running had been going really well, and I felt great for the first 12 or so miles. I've done the "this is way too fast" start at Ironmans, and this didn't feel like that. But I still knew the tank was likely filled only with fumes at this point. And sure enough, my pace fell off pretty quickly in the back half. I went through a very dark patch for about four miles on the second lap before I made it to the RedBull aid station and pounded a whole can in about 15 seconds. I also started taking in some solid calories via some of Gu blocks, which worked well. Most of my nutritional strategy has been geared around my preferred racing conditions - hot and humid - and in my experience solid food is not great there. But in colder weather, solid food is a much better idea. I had shifted my nutritional strategy somewhat, mixing my EFS Pro in a more concentrated mix in order to not take in to much fluid (c.f. cold-weather diuresis), but I think I didn't properly account for the extra caloric needs of keeping warm in cold and wet conditions nor the extra caloric needs of a body that wasn't ideally primed via a solid build and taper. 


I did have both a bottle of EFS Pro with 400cal and a RedBull in my run special needs that I did not take. Looking back - and I had forgotten this until I actually sat down to write this report - that was my biggest mistake. I should have hit both those calories, but as I ran through special needs, I just felt like I had more muscular fatigue than caloric "fatigue." Even after 20 Ironmans, I'm still learning. I made the right decision before the race, but then I failed to follow through on race day. That might have been the difference between 5th and 4th, though of course it also might not have been. In my own defense, I think I didn't realize the impact of the cold on caloric needs, as this was by far the coldest Ironman I've ever done.


Those four miles - from about 16mi (two miles AFTER special needs) to 20mi - were pretty close to the darkest I've had during an Ironman. I wanted to walk. I wanted to stop. I wanted to drop out. But somehow thanks to the magic of caffeine and sugar and some willpower, I was able to come good and finished with a very strong last 5k. It was a day where there were countless times when I wanted to just shut it down, but after struggling for a few years mentally, I did not. Just like in Kona. After losing at the mental game more often than not in 2013 and 2014, I feel like I strung together three races where my mental game was the strongest part of my racing to close out 2015. The timing of the races was certainly not ideal and there were some circumstances out of my control, but I felt like I had more answers than questions, especially in training as I prepared for each race, a big change from the past two years. Mental fortitude always was a strength of mine in the past, and I feel like it is again, both on and off the race course.


Looking ahead to next year, I feel some real confidence. As is typical after an Ironman and especially the last race of the season, I had been feeling a bit lost. But today I listened to the latest episode of Joel Filliol's (my coach) new podcast, "Real Coaching." He interviews Dan Lorang, who has been Jan Frodeno's coach since 2013. It's a phenomenal interview, with a lot of practical takeaways for anyone interested in excellence. The two biggest things for me were the emphasis on goal setting and also on self-confidence. In Tremblant, I showed I could still win - and win fast - as a father of three. In Kona, I showed I could still overcome adversity, once a hallmark of mine, especially in 2011. And at IMAZ, I showed I could still perform with less than ideal preparation. A perfect race in AZ, I think, would have been about 5min faster. That's a lot. But it's also not. If I could have been within 5min of my perfect race in Kona, I would have been very happy.


When I think about what I need to perform well in Kona, I finally feel like the answer is, once again, simple repetition. I just need more of the same. Well, maybe not quite so many Ironmans; I've tried that... But in terms of preparation and approach, I think I have my rhythm again. I have some mojo. For now, it's time for some real downtime. For family time. For long put-off projects around the house. And for some overdue writing assignments. But I'm looking forward to picking up in 2016 how I closed out this year. I believe it's going to be an amazing year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Engineer's Lament

Cyanide & Happiness © Dave McElfatrick

Ironman World Championships
Kailua-Kona, HI  2015.10.10

Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway. - John Wayne

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle. - Winston Churchill

Before you read any further on this, there are two separate articles that serve as a sort of adjunct or prelude. The first is Malcolm Gladwell's article in "The New Yorker," from which I borrowed the title. It's a good read without too much of Malcolm's signature "Gotcha!" style, which I love but also hate. The main topic that it delves into is how engineers tend to see things. If you start with the joke about the priest, the doctor, and the engineer playing golf and read through the line about Toyota's engineers saying, "play at night." that's probably enough. But the whole thing is a good read. 

The second read is a bit more philosophical, though I happen to think the engineering mentality is very philosophical. It's Heather Wurtele's post about her race, which unfortunately ended quite prematurely due to an unfixable (on-course anyway) technical issue. I had sort of made my peace with what happened on Saturday, but after reading Heather's report, I felt more than just as sense of closure; I felt a much greater sense of accomplishment.

One of the most common questions for professional triathletes, one that I'm lucky to not be asked much anymore and which I am very lucky that my parents never asked me in the first place, is, "when are you going to get a real job?" A slight variation on this - the one that I often like to ask other pros - is, "what do you think you'd be doing if you weren't doing this?" I've been doing this long enough now that I find it hard to imagine doing anything else. But for a while, my answer was that I'd like to work for the NTSB. The NTSB is responsible for figuring out why things go wrong when big things go wrong in civilian transportation. Plane crashes are the big things it does, but it has other responsibilities. But at its core, the NTSB's job is to figure out why when "shit happens" involving airplanes falling out of the sky. "Shit happens" is not an acceptable reason for an NTSB engineer. I've said before that there are two basic types of engineers. There are the creative types. And there are the debuggers. The creative types make stuff. And the debuggers figure out how that stuff will break. I'm a debugger. I'm a little bit creative, but mostly I'm a pessimist. I manage to travel with fewer spares and fewer tools to races now than I once did, but I still walk a fine line between paranoid and preparedness. I have had engineering-type shit happen at races and, rarely, during races, but I've never had it really affect the outcome of the race. At least not until Saturday.

During the swim, my primary goal was, "do not lose the race." I continue to work on becoming a better swimmer, but once race day comes, my primary goal is simply to get out of the water with a manageable gap to the front of the race and without too much fatigue. I'm a relatively terrestrial triathlete. I win races on the bike and run. But I can definitely lose races on the swim, a la Kona 2012. My goal was to not do that. I wanted to exit the water within four minutes of the lead group, which I did. It wasn't my best swim, the sort of swim that sets you up for a breakthrough performance, but it was good enough. My goal was to finish in the top-10, and I believed it was still possible. Boris Stein of Germany, who finished 10th, was the only person to not swim in the front pack or off-the-front who made the top-10, but so what. He did it. So it was doable.

I paced the early part of the bike fairly well, and I was starting to see the effects of the typically crazy early pacing, which I consciously avoided, when I felt my saddle shift underneath me. This was about 20mi (30km) into the ride, or about 45min. At first I thought my seat post clamp had slipped, which is odd because I epoxy it in place because I know that seat post clamps do slip when people hit bumps or potholes or anything else. But then I reached down under the saddle and felt around and felt a crack. My first thought was that the shell had cracked where the metal rail inserts into the plastic shell. This was odd because I was, quite literally, "just riding along" (known as "JRA;" there's a joke in the bike industry that all catastrophic accidents happen while people are JRA. "I was just riding along when [insert catastrophe here]..."). The saddle was neither new nor what I would consider old. I had about two years and probably 8,000 miles on this saddle, which about eight months and 3,000 of those miles with this saddle clamped in this seat post. I had a new bike for the race, but I just moved my whole seat post assembly over from my old bike to the new one. 

What had actually happened was one of the saddle's rails had snapped. I was able to manage it by sliding back a bit (as opposed to nose riding as I prefer to do) and sort of putting my weight more on the saddle as opposed to torquing it sitting on the front. It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't terrible. But the more I rode, the worse it got, as without the support of a structurally sound rail assembly, the other rails kept snapping until I had broken the rails in four places. Each of the saddles two rails had snapped, both in front of and behind the clamping mechanism. By the time I was climbing to Hawi, my saddle shell was basically floating around on the top of the seat post, held on by a mix of gravity and concavity. I ended up essentially sitting on the side of the seat, which was now the top of the seat, and standing relatively regular to sort of shift the saddle back into place and also to stretch my legs since my saddle was also now quite a bit lower than it was supposed to be by virtue of no longer actually being attached to anything. I tried not to stand too much, worried that was going to recreate the dark humor of my all-time favorite Cy & H strip (see above), which is incredibly crude and irreverent but also very funny. At least if you ride your bike alone a lot and have weird thoughts occupy your brain for countless hours...

At that point, I thought I had three options. The first was the simple one. I stop. I call it a day. I go race Arizona. The second was that I keep riding, try to keep the saddle on as best as I can, and just essentially stand for most of the ride. This seemed like it would be doable, but there was probably no way I could run afterwards. The third was to try to get a new saddle. But how? Would neutral support have a spare saddle? I thought they'd probably at least be able to get one. Maybe.

It could have been worse...

As I neared the top of the Hawi climb, I finally saw the neutral support car (the motos have only wheels), and I flagged them down. I rolled through the turnaround and pulled over next to the car, where the SRAM NRS (Neutral Race Support) guys were waiting with a front wheel and a back wheel, certain that I had flatted. Because that's the normal thing that happens during races. As I stopped and dismounted, I said, "I need a saddle." I think I probably said this at least one more time, because this is not a normal thing to need, but once I did, the guys pulled a bike off the roof (I think it was the personal bike of one of the guys helping), pulled his saddle off, loosened my saddle clamp and pulled out the two rails that were still stuck in there without a shell attached, and got the saddle mounted. Unfortunately, because it's a somewhat normal thing for seat posts and saddle hardware to slip, I have everything glued in place. It's no big deal when traveling, because of how the Dimond breaks down. But what it means is that the saddle height and, critically, saddle pitch are fixed for the saddle that I ride. The height was not a big deal. Saddle height is relatively easy to work around and even a few centimeters of differences is manageable. Pitch, on the other hand is a big deal. I run my saddles at between 0.0 and -0.3 degrees of pitch. Essentially, my saddle is perfectly level. And I'm neurotic about this. The new saddle, measured post race, was pitched at +6.0 degrees. On the bright side, I could actually sit on it because it wasn't broken. On the not so bright side, sitting on it meant either sitting on the very tip pointed up and driving into my prostate or sitting back on it with my pelvis posteriorly (rather than anteriorly) rotated in the way that you might ride a mountain bike to keep traction on the rear wheel and keep the front wheel light for rolling over obstacles. But neither of this is really how you should ride a TT bike. Certainly not a course like the one in Hawaii. 

Cyanide & Happiness © Rob DenBleyker

The worst part of this was the descent from Hawi. That typically requires high cadence riding because of the high speeds, and generally power is low. My forearms and shoulders and upper back were screaming because I basically had to put all my weight on them. When you ride, your weight is distributed between your arms (or hands on a road bike), your saddle, and your feet. The harder you ride, the more weight goes to your feet, because of Newton's Third Law. This is why TT bikes are great when you are racing but are not so great for riding to the coffee shop at a leisurely pace. I was pretty sure I could finish the ride, and given that your arms aren't too necessary for running, I thought I might be okay for the marathon, though the tension in my upper back and neck was a bit of an issue. Once I got down from Hawi and back onto the Queen K, I sort of found a manageable rhythm of sitting on the tip, sitting on the back, and then standing. I continued to focus mostly on nutrition and hydration, at least because it was something else to think about. I was pretty sure my plan for a top-10 was done. But I thought that I could still finish the race, and that was important to me. Really important. The feeling of not finishing in 2013 still haunts me. That emptiness from IMAZ 2011, Kona 2013, and IMTX 2015 - my three Ironman DNFs - was awful. Especially Kona. I knew I wanted to finish. In 2012, when I finished 13th, I so buried myself that I don't really remembering anything from the race. I don't remember Ali'i, or crossing the finish, or much of anything. At the very least, I wanted a happy memory of Ali'i, and simply finishing after all this was going to be something to celebrate.

I managed to keep my power reasonably high - which helped with the discomfort by shifting weight to my feet - but I had to sit up and stand a lot. And on the Queen K that's a killer. I lost virtually all the time I lost from Hawi back to Kona. I basically stayed even, pace-wise, with the leaders to Hawi. On the way back, I lost 12 or so minutes just on the return trip. Most of that was fighting the bike. I was stopped for less than three minutes swapping on the new saddle. The major time losses were when I was riding. I got some relief around the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, when the headwind picked up. With the wind pushing into me and giving me steady resistance, I was able to actually push decent power which made things much more tolerable as way more weight was on my feet. I passed quite a few people struggling - a reminder as to the penalty of mis-pacing - on the way in, and I started to be a bit optimistic. I thought maybe riding easier than I had expected would mean fresh legs and a ripping fast run. I know I can run sub-2:50, and that would have been a great way to finish. 

Getting off the bike, I came into T2 with Matt Trautman and Lionel Sanders, both of whom are among the best runners in the sport. It was good company to be in if I wanted to run fast. But unfortunately, the reality of riding 150 of 180km with either a broken seat or a wonky seat had pretty well wrecked my legs. I had a lot of pain my left achilles and both of my glutes were seriously angry after doing extra work in the my big-slam-esque position and both of my hamstrings were unhappy about the extra work they had to do when I was sitting in my on-the-point-of-the-needle position. Sub-2:50 quickly changed to 2:55 quickly changed to sub-3 quickly changed to just-keep-running-and-don't-injure-yourself-and-leave-something-in-the-tank-for-IMAZ. And that's pretty much what I did. I never walked. I just ran the pace that was comfortable, whatever that was. I was diligent about fueling and hydrating at the aid stations. And I mostly just treated it like a longest ever training day. I mean, if Jens Voigt could ride a kid's bike to a stage finish in the TdF, I could do this.

If Jens can ride a kid's bike in the TdF, I could ride a broken saddle...

For most of the run, I tried to just focus on other things. I tried to be extra thankful to the volunteers, as opposed to just grunting appreciation. I cheered on other competitors. I high-fived. I enjoyed myself. And when I got to Ali'i Drive, I soaked it all in. I wanted a great memory, and I have one. Looking back on the race, I figure that if I had been able to execute according to how I felt early in the bike, based on what I've done before, based on the speed guys rode at given wattages, I think that I lost between 20 and 25 minutes in total. That's a lot. 25 minutes has me fighting for 6th place with Cyril Viennot. And 20 minutes has me fighting for 10th with Boris Stein. I feel like that was the day I could have had. Of course, I could have blown up and ridden slower. Or run slower. Or both. Or DNFed. Ultimately, I finished 21st, salvaging some pride by not getting chicked the phenomenal Daniela Ryf and also justifying all those hours spent training by also beating all the age-groupers. Barely. And I had an awesome time. And I'm way, way, way, way less sore than if I had to race 140.6 miles. And while I'm obviously disappointed, I'm trying not to dwell on it. I'm trying to use it as motivation for what seems like my inevitable race at IMAZ on November 15th. I hadn't planned on it, but it seemed to have planned on me. This is my 8th time at that race.

The biggest takeaway for me, and I hope for all of you, is that while 25 minutes is a lot, it's also not a lot. I mean, I still would have been in contention for the win and certainly for a paycheck at most other Ironman races. Ironman is a long day, and you have a lot of time to fix problems. I'm proud of the way that I kept my cool and focused on the really important stuff - hydration and fueling and pacing. Not to say that a working bike isn't important. But a mostly working bike is pretty good. It's hard to have a great race in Kona. But if you are reasonably disciplined, I don't think it's hard to have a good race. And I think I had a good race. And I hope I can use that in the future when some other thing doesn't go my way, because it's certainly going to happen again. Hopefully not this, but something will.

And that brings me to the conclusion of this whole thing. The NTSB part of it. How hopeful can I be that this sort of thing won't happen again? What's noteworthy is that I talked on Slowtwitch Forums about this failure, and some other folks chimed in with their own experiences. A friend of mine also wrote to tell me that he had experienced the same failures twice. And John Cobb now makes my preferred saddle, the SHC170, with hollow cro-moly steel rails instead of the solid titanium rails that were present on my saddle. My initial reaction to this was anger. It was the emotional response. The typical public response. 

But then I started thinking like an engineer. On the flipside of this is that I've ridden this saddle for many miles without a problem. And more than that, I've ridden some variation of this saddle for a lot of miles.  I've ridden an HC or SHC 170 saddle from 2009-2015 (except for 2014) without an issue. Probably 50-60,000 miles. And I would typically ride a saddle for two years or more. In that time, I had three different types of clamping hardware: Thomson and Specialized and, for 2015 only, Dimond. This was my first issue. 

The problem clearly happens, but it's not overwhelming. I described it as unlikely, but definitely not impossible or even improbable. And it seems, at first glance anyway, to be a function of more than just the saddle. John has seen it with the Cervelo most often, but I haven't asked what other bikes are on the list. I have now seen it with a Dimond. My friend Jay saw it twice on a SpeedConcept, but using the old-style clamp that was identical to the Specialized clamp that I never had an issue with. So, basically, there is no clear conclusion. It was enough a problem that John switched to cro-mo, but not enough of a problem that I couldn't log countless miles without an issue until Saturday. 

I do note that Kraig Willet's (of BikeTechReview) broken Fizik also had solid Ti rails. And that Fizik no longer uses solid Ti but instead carbon, cro-mo, or a their own proprietary k:ium alloy. Hollow metal rails seems like a better idea to me than solid, as they should be more likely to buckle than fracture. And steel is usually tougher than titanium. But was solid titanium a bad choice? Or just not the best choice? It's lighter, but not by much. Of course, "not by much" can add up if everyone takes that approach to every part. It's all about balance. And for the better part of my career, that balance seemed just fine. Was ignorance bliss? Or am I just responding emotionally because it was my race and not someone else's?

Would Denny Gioia have issued a recall on saddles with these rails? Would I? I doubt it. In fact, I know I wouldn't have. Apple changed the design of the new iPhone 6S to make it more structurally rigid. Is that an acknowledgement that the iPhone 6 has a problem with bending? Or is it just an improvement? It seems clear that there is a better way to do things - make the saddle with hollow steel rails as opposed to solid titanium rails - but does that mean that the old way was bad? I don't think so. I had no reason to be anything but confident in my equipment. And I still don't. 

Racing is about tradeoffs in all aspects. This is true of bicycle frames, clothing, tires, running shoes, etc. As Gladwell says, there are specifications and there are tolerances. It's the engineers job to manage those balances. And for two years, the engineer that decided on solid titanium alloy rails was right. If I had ridden four less hours in the past year, would the seat have broken on my next ride instead of race day? Or I had ridden one more hour in the past year, would I have broken it the day before the race instead of the day of? These are the sorts of questions that can haunt you. And this is where Heather's post gave me so much. By default, I tend to care about numbers. And the numbers justified my riding this saddle without worry. And not only riding it on race day, but continuing to ride it. But emotion, because I had invested so much in the race, made me angry. At first, I was frustrated. By "bad luck" or "fate" or, since it's Hawaii, "Madame Pele." Then when I found out that Cobb had changed the rail material, I was angry. Why wasn't there a recall? But then I started thinking like an engineer again. 60,000 miles without a problem. Thousands of saddles sold and ridden without problems. The problem was unlikely, but not impossible and not improbable. So what do you do? What if I had switched saddles right before the race because of finding out the day before that the saddles now had steel rails instead of titanium? Would that have been smart? I had 8,000 miles telling me not to worry. And, imagine I got some saddle sore, or the saddle slipped, or some other possible though unlikely problem had happened. I'd be sitting here kicking myself for making a change so close to race day.

Heather summarized the value in the process extraordinarily well. And I think I got the process right, finally. I did too much in 2012 and not enough in 2013 and this time I feel like I split the difference. This time I got it right. At least, I think so. And while it's frustrating, especially at 35 where I don't have unlimited chances left, the journey was still worth it. Even without the chance for IMAZ in five weeks. And even more so with it. Teddy Roosevelt's "...in the arena" quote is so overused and cliched that I'm a bit loathe to include it. But it really is such a great quote. And since Heather didn't include it, I feel okay ending on that note. On knowing that I not only was in the arena, I was in the arena and having prepared to be there. And that's worth a whole lot. Even for an engineer...

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt