Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ironman Execution

Confessions of an Obsessive Compulsive Age Grouper :)

I don’t remember exactly where he said it or his exact words but I think Mark Allen’s message ( ) was something simple like… ‘Visualization is important and you can’t win Kona unless you can see yourself doing that.  But, in the end, if you have not done the work, it doesn’t matter how much you visualize your win, it is not going to happen.’

So with that…the first of 10 keys to ironman execution – DO WORK SON!!! (The best AC quote ever)

#1 Do work.  If you have not done the work then the rest really doesn’t matter.  I would guess that my personal number for work tolerance at 47 years old is much different than that of a 30-34 year old athlete, but my magic number is above 120 CTL to be in “the mix”.  If I want to be very confident then I need to be over 125 CTL and, for a PR attempt, I probably need to be north of 130 CTL.  Finding your own CTL magic number and establishing this as a baseline will allow you to set expectations.  Tracking this year to year will allow you to monitor performance with respect to this baseline.  The chart below is for my last 8 seasons and the corresponding results.  While wind, weather and nutrition can derail anyone, the concept is simple.  A pilot doesn’t take off if he doesn’t have enough “gas” already in the tank, (a high enough CTL done through training), to make it to his destination.  Takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory ☺

#2 Do specific work.  My coach is Alan Couzens and while most “work is good”, specific work as you get closer to race day is critical.  Multiple longer race simulations give me a lot of confidence and a great chance to practice my nutrition and pacing.  Two of his go to sessions are a 3 hour descending trainer ride done at 1 hour slightly below race pace, 1 hour at race pace and the final hour over race pace.  This is followed by various t-run distances and paces.  The second race simulation session is called Iron Day and it is more about mental fatigue and nutrition but when this session gets dialed in it is also a HUGE confidence booster.  It is a 6 mile pre-run at an easy pace then directly to a 5 hour or 100 mile ride whichever comes first.  This ride is done at a race pace effort while practicing nutrition and hydration.  After the session you go directly into t-run of 10 miles which is done as 6 miles at race pace then the final 4 at faster than race pace (race pace minus :20 per mile).  The final four miles should take you to a mental low place that is very similar to miles 16-24 of an Ironman marathon.  We will do 2-3 of these sessions during a specific build and the timing of these is usually just prior to recovery day as these are very hard efforts.  Once you get comfortable with the distance and the pacing on an Iron day and the 2nd t-run feels “easy” then you know you are race ready.

#3 Plan.  Create a plan for race day execution that includes goal times, transition times, power goals, and pacing for all 3 disciplines.  Breaking your race plan into key sections (1st lap of the swim, miles 20-60 of the bike, key hills for the run segments etc.) further helps define expectations.  Having this plan set in advance takes a lot of the emotion out of the day.  Putting this plan down on paper also commits you to it.  The back half of an Ironman Marathon is a full on Monte Hall “Let’s Make A Deal” discussion with myself.  Having the plan “out” in public makes Monte a little less persuasive ☺

#4 Have a plan to deviate to.  Race conditions do not often line up perfectly with expectations and, as a former military pilot, there is a saying, “Have a plan and then have a plan to deviate to.”  In Aviation we plan for “alternate airfields” if our destination is not reachable due to weather or fuel.  This is what you do and where you go when things go wrong or conditions just change.  Using the pro field to judge execution and adapt your race plan is an excellent way to see how you will be effected.  They will almost always start ahead of the age group field and I look to see how the pro field is riding coming back from a turn around to see what kind of energy they were using.  This is a good gauge for winds, how bad the heat is, and how I will feel in 20-30 minutes.  It is also a very good way to judge early run pacing.  At a brutally hot (90+) Ironman Louisville a few years ago, I began the run and observed multiple pro men walking with the “face of death” towards the end of their 1st lap of the run.  I immediately backed off my pace to allow for the heat as I knew if they were struggling this bad then it must be really hot, and I would be in the same spot or worse in another 8-10 miles – it worked.

#5 Control whatever is controllable. Ride and run the race pace that you have practiced in training and planned to do.  Using a power meter on the bike or a GPS pace watch on the run provides a non-emotional metric for execution.   Tapered racing can give you false highs and even false lows and having something non-emotional to reference is often very helpful.  If you are racing for places, podiums or Kona spots, build in some “band width” between your planned race pace and your maximum sustainable race pace in case the tactics of the day require you to adapt.  Say you “could” ride an IM bike at 77% of FT and have a good run, but instead you plan on riding only 74% and only going harder if the lead pack dictates that tactic. Keeping a few % in reserve for course conditions and tactics allows you to adapt to the dynamics of the race.  If you are already at 100%, there is no band width available to respond to conditions.

#6 Train for power but race for speed.  I have to constantly remind myself that a good power file is a training goal but THE race goal is to go faster and do less work.  There is NO DOUBT that at the front of the field lead packs or non-drafting pace lines are a huge advantage.  Just look at Kona and you can see how hard the guys who are behind in the swim work to catch the lead group. It is that important to ride with the pack.  I always look for the biggest guys in the field to ride with.  In Ironman they have your name on your bib and I always look for the Erik, Lars, Jens or Torsten or any European “buy a vowel” name as those guys typically bike really hard and are much bigger and give off a bigger “wake”.  There is no doubt that you can ride and run much faster at 7M (4 bike lengths) off the back of an 80KG guy than putting your nose in the wind for 112 miles at 10-15 more watts.  I also find it MUCH easier mentally to ride at someone else's pace versus having to press my own race pace for 5 hours.

#7 Buy speed and efficiency.  Optimize all your equipment for the fastest possible race day setup.  This is critical as it saves you from having to do more work. Better wetsuits, speedsuits, aerohelmets and racing flats are all “givens”, meaning that everyone is doing that.  The key to executing ahead of everyone else is to find an advantage.  Experiment with what works for you but I look for advantages that most people would not pay attention to.  For the bike, using ceramic bearings in the bottom bracket and rear rerailuer pulleys is “standard” in the Tour de France but this is not common for most age group triathletes.  These bearings help reduce the amount of power needed to turn over the gear at a given speed.  More speed – less power – better run off the bike.  The company Ceramic Speed ( offers this for most bike frames and wheel sets and this an excellent option to consider.  Choose a wheel set that is best for the course and the conditions.  Zipp wheels ( offers great choices for almost all courses and they also offer a course selection guide for their wheel sets.  Deeper is NOT always better so look at the course and the winds or look at what the pros are using and don’t just grab the disk and roll.  Tire selection and tubes are much more important than I ever thought.  If you need a reference check out this article from Slow Twitch  Using latex tubes inside of clincher tires really improves the ride quality and it feels almost like a tubular – I can’t explain why but the difference is noticeable and positive.

#8 Plan for problems. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of poor planning even at the very top of the sport.  Look at Norman Stadler “How much glue did you put on this tire?”, Chrissy Wellington “CO2 anyone anyone?”, and this year Sebastian Keinle, all sidelined by flat tires.  If you have a flat on a tubular then you have to get the tire off first to fix it.  This is what cost Norman and Sebastian the most time.  If you carry a small razor knife in your flat kit this will allow you to cut the tubular across the bead.  The tire is trashed already so it doesn’t matter if you cut it more.  This will allow you to grab inside the tube and pull it off the rim versus trying to roll it off the rim.  Preventing flats to begin with is best and Café Latex makes a product that can help prevent punctures.  If you use this and then you still puncture you can use Café Latex Espresso which is basically “fix a flat”.  This is a good first option but carrying a spare tube or tubular and CO2 is still necessary.   Besides flat tires, the body can give you problems throughout the day.  Using the T1, T2 and special needs bags to pre-position any products you might need is helpful.  I make up 4 “baggies” and put one baggie in each spot I can access it on the course.  In the baggie there is Salt Stick, Pepto Bismol, Tums, Gas X strips, Vivarin caffeine (I am a BIG coffee drinker and I get headaches unless I have coffee)  and small 9ml packet of chamois cream for chaffing This works REALLY well even on the run as it is easy to apply and not nearly as gross as the 13 oz. community jar of Vaseline – that is just simply disgusting ☺

#9 Get ahead of problems.  I think it was Crowie who said ‘I keep asking myself – what can I do to make my job easier right now?’  Closing the feedback loop between brain and body and action is probably one of the hardest parts of racing long distances.  9+ hours of “How am I feeling?” and “What do I need?” can be mentally exhausting but, I would say, it is completely necessary if you want to prevent bigger problems down the road.  Asking yourself if you are at the right pace, if you are on track for nutrition, for hydration, for salt, for cooling on a regular basis can trigger an alarm that can be dealt with early and help prevent a major issue later.  Keith Brantley is an Olympic Marathoner who lives in our town and spoke about his “top down” check list which he did at every KM on the run.  Is my head ok? Mentally am I good? Can I focus on the positive or just try to be neutral?  Relax the neck, relax the shoulders, swing the arms.  Is my HR ok? Do I need to speed up or slow down? Is my stomach ok? Do I need more food, more water, less food, less water, salt?  Hips should be rotated forward and legs turning over at a high cadance. This systematic approach of “polling” the body helps to detect a problem and treat it at the earliest / easiest point.  Running form reminders late in the race can trigger better speed with less effort rather than just muscling through.

#10  Keep your focus.  A good friend and top AG Kona qualifier once screamed at me “Wake up…don’t go to sleep”.  I have to say that is the BEST advice for the back half of the marathon.  I use a lot of caffiene and sugar to help maintain mental focus during the last 2 hours.  Red Bull is always in my run special needs bag as it helps me “wake up” and it also tastes completely different than most of the sugary liguids and gels that are taken all day.  It also looks and feels pretty cool if you throw it up and the bubbles come out your nose – you’ll look like a running pink foaming volcano ☺  Coke is almost always on the course and it is there because it works.  I worked an aide station at Mile 18 of the run last year and EVERY pro who came through was yelling “Coke…Water”  I try to wait until mile 16 to start drinking it but once you make the switch to Coke, stick with it every mile.  As for the true mental game, there will undoubtedly be low points throughout the day.  They happen for everyone.  Trying to get through a race without having to deal with a single low point is futile and just sets you up for failure.  I really prefer to acknowledge that bad moments ARE going to happen and by acknowledging that they will occur it lessons the anxiety “when” they happen.  I also like to keep track of them.  If it is a really low point, I will look at my watch, note the time, and then try to go into a neutral state mentally.  Most people will say, “stay positive”, and if you can do that good for you.  For me, I am not that lucky so I try to stay neutral; if I just don’t “go negative” then I am really happy.  Also, by looking at your watch you can see how long that low point really is.  Most of these true low points last no more than 5 minutes in most cases.  I also find I typically have around 5 of them.  When I have one, I will say (out loud most times) “Ok, there is #1 – 4 more to go”.  If I end up with 6 or more, it is not such a great day but if I have only 4, that is pretty good ☺

That’s it…that’s a wrap.

I don’t consider myself an expert at anything except for baking Bread Pudding and mine is the 3rd best in the world.  In case you were wondering, the best in the world is Palm Valley Fish Camp in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, 2nd best is at Red Fish on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and I am third ☺.

So, with that disclaimer, I am 100% sure I missed some really key points as there are probably 90 more ideas which are equally if not more important, but I hope these 10 will give you a few thoughts and/or solutions that you might not have considered.

I am sharing this with hope that it helps a hard race become a little easier and you can hit your goals - whatever they may be.

And no, before you ask, I will not share my Bread Pudding Recipe – that is a secret ☺

(Thanks to VMS #1 for the proof reading and editorial corrections – my ClemPson education strikes again J)


Bertrand said...

Great stuff! Thank you so much for sharing, and nice job being modest, despite being an absolute beast of an amateur athlete. Generous of you to share so many of your keys to success.

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