Category Archives: race

Ironman Canada 2017

In order to maintain an Ironman every 4 years, I was due to race again in 2017. After the horror show of the 2013 inaugural IM Lake Tahoe I wanted a fast and flat, overcast, and fun long course that played to my strengths. I can push high watts over long, flat distances but sun glare and heat trigger migraines. I don’t shed heat fast enough to prevent shutting down. We had talked about doing a big family trip and making the race a destination vacation. Having had a great time in Paris, we wanted to go back to France. Ironman Nice would have been a beautiful course but for the past five years they’ve had record highs above 105F with a very hilly bike course. Kalmar Sweden seemed to hit all the right notes: overcast, flat, and a country we want to visit. But our third pregnancy held fast and the due date was a week after Kalmar so I withdrew. Then we found out our friends Mike and Tom were training for Ironman Canada and they had an extra room in their rental house. I signed up for the race without even looking at the course profile.

Dummy.

Ironman Canada is known for its grueling, hilly bike course.

I committed to a training plan without a coach, but one that was built for IM Canada. I shut off my coaching brain and worked the plan. One of the things I love most about Ironman training is if I trust the plan I don’t have to think about it. I put in the work and trust my body will respond with adaptation. Though I’m a member of the LATriClub, I don’t really participate in group events other than the clinic I lead for ocean swimming. (And truthfully, I’m just using the Club to get people into the clinic so I can keep doing it.) For the 16 weeks of IM training I did a few group long rides but mostly Lone Wolfed my workouts, squeezing in my training blocks before my work day or late at night after getting my kid to bed. Those nights were the hardest – falling asleep next to a warm, snuggling child only to go sit on the bike trainer for an hour, or drive to the pool and swim and run for two hours.

As the race got closer Sofia got more pregnant. The gestational diabetes was an emotional hiccup and the fatigue that came with it meant I was doing a lot more of the household and care for Aviva while also training and working. I was definitely near my breaking point of doing too much, but knowing it was all self-imposed made it feel like I had nothing to complain about. I did my work, did my workouts, got productive and efficient, and tried to lean on my contractors more to handle my workload when I couldn’t be in two places at once. Sometimes this emotional strain would result in being cranky or more curt with both family and clients, but it also pushed me to reassert boundaries that should always be there. Bedtime is bedtime, work calls after hours are an interruption and should be billed.  When I’m not training I’m way more lax with letting my clients dictate my schedule. In training, it’s family and plan first, everything else after.

When I finally did look at the course map to train properly for the race I slapped myself for poor reconnaissance. The bike course has over 6000’ of climbing scattered along a non-repeating route that seemed cruel and unusual. Thankfully it was not at elevation, so altitude wouldn’t be an issue (unlike IM Lake Tahoe which started at 7,000’ and just went up up up). Nevertheless, IM Canada throws you up a long wall early in the ride and then staggers a slew of rollers until a long flat section, followed by a long climb at the end. The run course seemed forgiving, but that bike course meant I’d be heading back into the hills for long periods in the saddle on a tribike that’s not really meant to be a billy goat. My Specialized Shiv works best as a bullet train – straight line speed. I am also built for flat speed and mostly just want to die going up hills. Still, I committed and started climbing up the full stretch of Latigo, Mulholland Highway, Yerba Buena, and all the mountain passes I’d been avoiding for years in order to train my legs to enjoy the suffering. I did Palos Verdes a few times but eventually just shifted to northern routes for variety and the chance to climb all the roads I’d avoided for 10 years.

When the race day finally approached my wife was right at the point of being really done with being pregnant. Uncomfortable, slow, swollen, and unhappy. Weekly doctor appointments, four times a day blood testing for the gestational diabetes, and also trying to handle the emotional wellbeing of a five-year-old about to start kindergarten. A fine time to pack up and leave for five days on my first major race without familial support.

Having never been to Vancouver I booked an overnight stop there first, and then would drive up to Whistler to get settled into the Airbnb and start the pre-race prep. I timed it wrong and arrived in Vancouver after all the cultural locations were closed. I wound up walking several miles of the city at dusk, then got on the phone for two hours with a friend who, like many of my peers, was having a midlife crisis. (See “Be Deke”)

I wound up eating a 10pm dinner of lasagna and burned off the roof of my mouth. I was too tired and full to want to go find any single male debauchery. With a burned off soft palate and belly full of noodles I got an ice cream bar from 7-11 and called it quits for the night. I went back to my tiny, poorly air-conditioned Ramada room and slept.

The next day I packed up and stopped at the Capilano suspension bridge north of Vancouver. I walked around giant, old trees and missed my family. Being alone for long hours and feeling the creeping needles of pre-race doubts and anxiety have always been assuaged by my partner, or distracted by the needs of a small child. Having only my thoughts and questions whirling in my mind meant I could let doubt slide into my consciousness slowly. Hell, I even downloaded Headspace and tried meditation. Then, among the trees, I started getting supportive text messages from friends which really helped buoy my spirits and remind me that the days leading up to the race were the worst and once I started moving on race day that fear would go away.

The northbound drive to Whistler took about 90 minutes along a beautiful winding road bounded by mountains and water. Slowly lulled to sleep I pulled over and ate a revolting pasta dish. I rolled into Whistler early afternoon to find my friends hadn’t checked into the rental house yet. I made my way to Whistler Village and couldn’t find the Ironman village as the Olympic town was vast and meant to host ski tourists or a much bigger winter sports event. I parked and ran into Mike and Tom coming out of the parking lot. They gave me directions to the right area where I got checked in and received my packet, then was exited into the gift shop.

I’m not superstitious but I won’t buy the swag from a race unless I actually finish the damn race. There’s no guarantee I’m going to finish, even though I was confident in my ability. I still had serious concerns about the difficulty of the bike leg. I wasn’t going to spend hundreds of dollars on something I might not feel like wearing out of shame. Also, the clothing was all red and black and totally my taste except for the deal I’ve made with Sofia that I won’t wear kits that are the color of the road.

I went to Tri Bike transport and verified my bike was intact but only retrieved my gear bag. I took all my assorted crap and made it to the rental house to meet up with my friends, choose my room, and begin unpacking and staging all my stuff. I chose the bedroom off the front door with the large bunk beds but close proximity to a bathroom. The next level up was the kitchen and family room and then the bedrooms and shower on the third floor. I knew that after the race I’d want no part of those stairs, so I chose my room based solely on having less stairs to navigate for the few hours post-race before I left town Monday. I became the sullen teen off the garage with mom and dad upstairs.

I laid out all my stuff, hung my wetsuits and day clothes, and inventoried everything. Mike, Tom and I ate dinner in Whistler Village at a tourist trap and afterwards went grocery shopping to stock the kitchen with essentials. Having a house with a kitchen is the only way to travel for Ironman. Staying in a hotel gives you far less options to control your food, and dining out constantly is more expensive and rushes you through meals. People who stayed in Whistler were closer to the race village and events but we were less than a mile away and had quiet nights with control over our food.

The next day we drove back to the village, retrieved our bikes and got them to the house. Tom had the local bike techs replace his tires (more on that later) and Mike had them do a race check after transport in case anything got knocked around. We stayed lazy and restful doing very little. We met up with Mike and Tom’s friends in the TriFit group to run a small section of the beginning of the run course and keep our legs fresh. Then we sat in on the athlete briefing from 11-12 and learned that we would not be permitted to keep food overnight in our gear bags due to bears. This meant we’d have to visit our bags in T1 and T2 on race morning, adding more time to an already early wake up.  A small group of us decided to drive the bike course to see what was in store.

From the car, we barely noticed the rollers heading south from Whistler to Callaghan Road. Turning right onto Callaghan begins a long, steady climb up 15 miles. It felt much like Latigo Canyon or Yerba Buena with several long stretches of climbing and some banked turns with higher degrees of ascent. It felt very challenging but not surprising. I had watched some videos discussing the bike course and every one said it was a challenge, but I also discounted these as 25% bullshit since everyone likes to say something is harder than it is for bragging rights. (All advice is 25% bullshit, 50% subjective, and 25% mildly useful.) We finally made it to the top of Callaghan and turned around at the park entrance so we wouldn’t have to pay the entry fee. We assumed there was not much more until the turnaround. (Wrong.) The descent of Callaghan would be fast and technical, then back onto the 99 Sea to Sky highway to go north, past Whistler, up to Pemberton. I noted that some sections felt like long rollers, and there were one or two hills that stood out as more than just a roller but since it was mostly straight with long bending curves it was hard to judge from the car. Pemberton is a farm town, after which is a long flat section. We looked in the sky at the mountains on either side of us and watched dozens of parachuting daredevils riding the thermals high above us. We hit the turnaround where the road literally ended in gravel, then drove back. Some of the guys fell asleep. We rounded through Pemberton and noted this was the section we were warned about. At this point we’d been driving 90 miles and were tired so we noticed it was a long drive out but had become distracted in talking or joking or just being done with driving. We got back to the house and laid low until dinner.

Saturday we rode our bikes to the village, met up with the TriFit folks again, then rode from the lake and some of the main route 99 before the big rollers. We went back to the house, packed our bike and run transition bags, stuffed them into backpacks with our wetsuits, and rode to the lake. We dropped off our bikes in transition, checked our gear bags, and then suited up for a short practice dip in the lake. At this point we noticed the warnings about “swimmer’s itch” which is a parasite in the lake that can cause a skin rash or intestinal inflammation. Everyone swore this wasn’t a big deal, but it set off our heebie jeebies. The lake swim was relaxing, even with the idea of parasites, and it was good to feel the warm lake water, 68F, and be surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Visibility was clear, though there was quite a bit of chop in the water by this point in the afternoon.

We got rinsed off, cleaned up, and took a shuttle back to the village. Then back to the house for resting and trying not to jump out of our skins. I had checked in with my family over FaceTime and text messaging but was mostly left to my own thoughts and quiet for long periods. This was a first since every major race prior I’d been with my own support squad. Still, Mike and Tom were exceptional friends and race mates and they were excited and nervous and helpful and giddy all at once. We kept each other entertained, distracted, or uplifted for what we were about to do. We had another housemate, a dietician doing his first Ironman and his delightful, pregnant wife. She cooked meals for everyone and was a giving, kind person in a house of jittery A-types (she is also an athlete and clearly knew the drill). Jeff was very focused on his race, checking in with clients racing elsewhere, and remaining pretty cool while eating his various concoctions and recipes. Meanwhile I was essentially winging my nutrition plan this time having had major gas and diarrhea issues from my thrown together food plan of stroopwaffles, Uncrustables, and Skratch labs electrolytes. My friend Eve, a dietician, correctly assessed that I was already getting a whopping dose of magnesium from my migraine prophylactics and the pectin in the jelly and magnesium in the Skratch labs were wrecking my gut. I switched to Bonk Breakers and Right Stuff and my issues went away. Still, I was eating whatever I wanted otherwise and had just eliminated roughage in the week before the race. Jeff and I were contrasts in Ironman food – him religiously disciplined and working his plan and me, yes sure I’ll eat that ice cream and brownie because oh ho ho Ironman dad bod.

Truthfully, since Vancouver I hadn’t had much of an appetite. I had cold adrenaline leaking into my system steadily as concern over my readiness and doubts of my ability seeped into my veins and conscious. I was actually eating by the clock and by force of will without tasting or enjoying much. We mostly ate chicken and mashed potatoes, or cold cut sandwiches. The night before the race we had chicken and rice cooked by the TriFit group. Protein and starch, avoiding all roughage. The twitchiness in my belly wouldn’t go away but I knew if I didn’t eat I’d be doomed so I ate as much as I could when I could. I have come to understand I really don’t like the feeling of anticipation mixed with doubt. I’m writing this race report as my wife has intermittent contractions that aren’t close enough together to mark active labor, just enough to keep us on edge. It’s the same feeling I had before racing – I’ve done this before, I know it’s going to be hard, but sitting in the limbic space between preparation and the big show itself sucks.

I got a good night’s sleep Thursday and Friday night knowing that Saturday night would be a mess. It was. Waking every hour until 3:40am when I finally just started moving to get the day going. Breakfast (oatmeal, coffee), get dressed, grab the assortment of bags with food, clothes, special needs, morning warmup clothes etc. etc. etc. and load into the car. We crammed our T2 bags with food, got body marked, and were in the shuttle by 5:20AM. Made it to the lake with plenty of time to get the bikes prepped, use the porta johns, and hydrate.

And then I’m standing in a race chute wearing a wetsuit about to do another Ironman.

I seeded myself in the 90-100 minute swim times. I figured that was what I was doing in training so that was likely where I’d be for racing. I didn’t do much speed work in the pool and never touched a track workout, so speed wasn’t going to be a factor at all in this race. I estimated my times as 90 minutes to 2 hours for the swim, 8 hours on the bike, and 5 hours for the marathon. As the sun rose and lit our surroundings I hung out with Mike and Tom, peed my wetsuit twice, and enjoyed the warm feeling on a cold morning surrounded by snowcapped mountains made for skiing. When the race played “Oh, Canada” instead of the Star-Spangled Banner many of us laughed, reminded we weren’t on home turf. A cheer, the blast of music, and then the slow shuffle of 1,000 penguins into the water. The 70.3 distance had sold out, with two thousand bikes racked in place. The full distance was less than half that. I would find out later that people are apparently intimidated by the aggressive bike course.

The swim is two loops around a big lake with vacation houses sprinkled around a bowl made of mountains. Green on all sides and white snow peaks. The wind was low, the chop would hit the 70.3 swimmers an hour later. Breathing and sighting were routine. Mostly it was the steady repetition of stroke and breath and finally, at long last, the settling of the heart and stomach when the action finally begins. A friend had texted me a few days back in Vancouver, “the confidence will return after the 3rd of 4th swim stroke.” He was right. Nothing settles the mind like movement – action is a cure-all. Consciousness is a curse.

I recalled that at IM Lake Tahoe I had checked my watch at the first lap and was surprised I was faster than expected. Sure enough, checked the watch at the first turn and was at 40 minutes, ahead of where I figured. The second lap I only checked my watch twice and confirmed my speed stayed consistent. It’s not fast or pretty but it gets the job done. I exited the water and checked my watch, 1:28:15 by my Garmin 1:28:16 by the timing chip. The wetsuit strippers were great, as always, and it’s one of the perks of the big races.

I admit I took some time in T1, eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich I made the day before to fuel my system while I dried off, applied sunscreen and lubricant, put on arm sleeves, calf compression, and the rest of my bike gear. I also had to load my pockets with food and I stopped again at the sunscreen table to make sure I got applied again just in case I missed a spot.

Found my bike, trotted up the hill, and mounted. My nerves had settled by this point and I had resigned myself to whatever would happen on the bike. The cutoff was 5:30PM and I had more than 8 hours to finish it, plenty of time to go slowly up those hills if I needed. More importantly, I could heed the course advice and conserve energy for the last 15 miles when I’d need it most.

I pressed start on my bike computer and it paused. Shit. Did it again, autopause. Again. Again. I’m trying to ride, focus on the course and hydration, and the goddamn thing won’t start the timer or show speed. Only watts. I reboot it, same issue. Fuck. I flip my Garmin watch around and check the time. 8:54. I give it six minutes and press start on the Garmin watch at 9AM precisely, not knowing how far I’ve gone, but only getting watts on the bike computer. Something(s) always goes wrong on an Ironman day you just have to roll with it.

Callaghan Road was just as tough as it looked on paper and from the drive. It also went on quite a while past the point where we turned off with a few more climbs until the turnaround point. Then a very fast curving descent picking up a huge amount of speed. I was still seeing other riders coming up the hill and felt ok with my pack position but was aware the strongest riders had already gone up and down while I was still climbing. They were doing their own race, I was doing my own.

Funny thing about Canada. They’re metric. Which means all the mile markers are in kilometers. My watch was showing me speed and time, and the bike computer showed watts, but I couldn’t remember if the bike was 180km or 160km. Ahhh, American exceptionalism.

I ate a Bonk Breaker on the hour and a Stroopwaffle on the half. I drank Right Stuff electrolytes in my bottles and tried to hit a bottle an hour, but it was more like a bottle every 90 minutes. Right Stuff is very, very salty and after a while it can taste harsh so I would occasionally grab a water bottle at an aid station and chug it just to get the taste of neutral water in my mouth.

The way north on 99 from Callaghan to Whistler I got merged into the 70.3 riders who had done their shorter swim and were on the course with a very short section on Callaghan Road. I ignored them as we huffed over one long roller after another. Some sections reminded me of the hills from the Alcatraz race, long hills with distant crests. These will sap your energy if you’re not careful. Finally passing Whistler, my best guess at mileage said we weren’t even halfway! And it felt like I had been in the saddle forever. I eased back a bit as we approached some aggressive “rollers” that were genuinely uphill climbs. Finally reaching Pemberton I got my special needs bag. The race announcer had suggested going to the grocery store and buying “a ton of garbage” to lift spirits. Uhh, “nothing new on race day”, buddy. I had searched for a Payday bar but they didn’t exist in Whistler, so I got a Sweet N’ Salty granola bar and a bag of beef jerky. This, along with another peanut butter and honey sandwich, a tube of chamois lube (and rubber glove to apply) and a couple Advil were in my bag. I took one bite of jerky and regretted it. I took the Advil, put on the glove and applied chamois cream as privately as possible. The granola bar had melted and was gross. I ate the sandwich as I rode away from the special needs area.

The upcoming section was where the bike leg is made or broken. It’s 30 miles out and back along a totally flat section, surrounded by farms and mountains. It feels easy going out, and if you pushed too hard to make up time for all those hills and rollers earlier, you’d be quite surprised by the headwind facing you after the turn. Earlier I had seen Manny from TriFit coming back, riding strong. After the turnaround I saw my friend Mike, about 7 miles behind me. Then a sparse number of others, and then one last guy just ahead of the LAST CAR truck slowly following. No Tom. I hoped he was OK, or maybe I had missed him. Couldn’t think about that and nothing I could do anyway.

The ride against the headwinds was showing itself in my average speed but I remember the advice – go easy on the flats because the climb back sucks.

I zipped through Pemberton, made the turn back onto 99, and then holy shit they were right.

It’s not that is just a huge, long climb. It’s not just that it was hot. It’s not just that it is 15 miles of constant uphill. Or that it happens at mile 90 after already doing a lot of climbing. It’s all of it cumulatively, everything wrapped up together. These 15 miles are what makes IM Canada cruel. It is a bike course that lays a trap for immature athletes. If you hauled ass on those flats, you will pay for it on this climb because it never, ever ends. Mentally I had to carve it up into individual sections, which I named as I climbed them, beginning with normal names like Frederick and Alexander but then rapidly devolving into “Fuck You, Billy”, “Assface McGee”, or simply, at climb 14, “COCK!”

Riders were unclipped and walking. One guy was on his back in front of a toilet. I asked if he was ok and knew his name as I slowly cruised by. He did. Still, I flagged down a race official and said, “hey, there’s a guy on his back a half mile behind me – worth checking out”. Days later I heard about a doctor doing Ironman Santa Rosa who did CPR on a dude who had a heart attack on the course and she still finished in under 16 hours. Maybe I should have stopped.

At a certain point my body didn’t want to accept solid food. I fought it as best I could but with a few miles left I also didn’t want to puke. I needed what I had to survive the run and throwing up would have serious consequences later. I kept it down but after 7.5 hours I was done eating.

The hills finally ended and I rolled into Whistler to the dismount line. I handed my bike to a kind volunteer and said “I never want to see this thing again”.

He said, “we get that a lot.”

Bike time 7:52:54.

I made it into the tent, tried to eat the peanut butter and honey sandwich from my T2 bag and realized there was nothing going in. I spit it out, got changed and put on my race kit with bottle and Bonk Breakers in the pouch, then ran out of the tent. They ran out of sunscreen. It was still bright out at nearly 5PM and would remain sunny for many more hours. Big race course fail.

My watch had been chirping LOW BATTERY the last 10 miles of the bike so I knew that if I used the GPS function I’d lose the watch. I noted that I left the tent at 4:44 and would hope to use clocks.

Except the damn course is all metric. I remembered that a marathon is 42km and change. I’d just have to get the feel for it the hard way.

I felt surprisingly good for the first few km and even caught up with Manny, who I thought was far ahead of me on the bike. He was having a hard time on the run and I slowed my race to run with him for a while. We got his heart rate down and he told me that he was doing great on the bike until he got murdered on the final 15. Wound up sitting in the T2 tent to recover and was having a hard time just moving on the run. I felt badly for him, he got sucked in by the course trap and was paying for it heavily. After some time I gradually pulled ahead and eventually saw that I was putting a lot more distance on him than I could recover without time consequences so I pushed on. When I got to an aid station I asked for broth but they told me it wasn’t coming out until 7PM. Was that a good thing? Knowing it was 5PM meant I had 7 hours to complete the marathon. Plenty of time and I was moving at a good pace. Oh, but there is a world of difference between feeling good at mile 2 or even 4 and later on at mile 18 or 22.

Still, I kept a decent pace and at aid stations I drank water, Gatorade, and stuck to liquids since my stomach was still protesting any solid food. Evidently, I had crammed enough calories in during the bike to hold me pretty well.

The run course starts in Whistler Village through a rough trail, then onto pavement jogging path, winding through a golf community and wooded lakeside cabins. It stays pretty well shaded until the big high-end golf course, and then alongside a green lake with sea planes taking off. A long stretch alongside highway 99 on one side and a lake on the other is scenic, and then a turnaround significantly further along than the 70.3 turnaround, just to give an extra kick in the pants.

I passed some people going the opposite direction, putting them around 8-10 miles ahead of me. They were hurting. A lot of walking. They were being punished for going hard on that bike course. I finally hit the first turnaround and felt like I was going to be OK. I passed Mike and gave him a hug, neither of us knew where Tom was. I passed Manny, who was still in it and fighting. His 21 year old son was doing his first Ironman and seeing him succeed, even hurting, was helping Manny push on.

IM courses that loop on themselves are a little cruel because you can just make out Mike Reilly saying “{random person’s name and city} YOU are an Ironman!” Or the variant, “you ARE an Ironman!” Or the “you are an IRON man!” You have to give Mike credit. He does a few dozen of these a year and he says his catchphrase a thousand or more times in a day. There’s only so many ways you can cook that egg. That far into a race you’re ready to be done but if it’s just your first loop you have to turn away from the sounds of cheering and raucous celebration and head back out to whatever punishment you signed up for. I mentally mapped out my landmarks and eyeballed the kilometer markers still not putting the math together. Distances stretched out. I ran for a while with a guy named Simon who was on his own fat to fit quest and after a couple miles he had just a bit more gas in the tank than I did and he moved on. I battled the war of attrition on the run until finally I was walking a lot more than I wanted. I didn’t want anything in my special needs bag and just kept going from aid station to aid station drinking water, then broth, then Gatorade, then water again.

I passed the TriFit coaches who told me Tom didn’t make the bike cutoff. I was saddened for him but needed to focus on my own race at that point. Just shutting down feelings I couldn’t use.

Eventually I was running in the dark. At one point a pair of runners took off at a bolt, and I remarked they had a lot of gas in the tank. They shouted back that they were just spectators and didn’t mean to be demoralizing. One guy yelled “soorie!” and I remarked that was my first Canadian “soorie” in 4 days. I kept up my run/walk and pushed myself as much as I could.

At some point I passed km marker 30 and realized I had about a 10K to go (and a little more). I slapped my head. A marathon is 42km. I know what a 10K feels like. I could have broken down the distance into four 10Ks and a sprint. Oh well. Math. Not something I am good at during a race. (I can edit that last sentence in half and still be right.)

I trailed a Japanese lady going into the dark final curves of the final 2 km, ignoring the “you’re almost there” yellers who really have no idea that it doesn’t help to scream that since they don’t actually tell you the distance. Someone yelled “ten more minutes!” back at km 39, and that just made no sense.

I zigged, I zagged, I saw the lights of the finish chute and a crowd of hyped people screaming – I turned on the gas and sprinted the final distance to leave every last bit of myself out there. Crossed, bent over, cried my eyes out, and was done.

Run time, 6:00:11. Six hours and eleven seconds. Eleven. Fucking. Seconds. Hugging Mike? 12 seconds. Checking on Tom’s status? Twelve seconds. Making that wrong turn in the dark? Twelve seconds. Did you know that shaving your legs can add up to FIVE WHOLE MINUTES off an Ironman bike split?!?!

So there’s that.

Total race time 15:44:23

A friend up from LA who had done the 70.3 found me and let me use her cell to call Sofia who stayed up to watch the live feed and had been tracking me obsessively all day. Talia walked me to the food table and got me hobbling towards functional. I went back to the finish line to see Mike make it in, hugging the shit out of his husband Tom, who had DNF’d.

Tom had been pulled off the course at one of the time cutoffs. He made it back to the finish line, put all of our bikes into the transport tent, retrieved all of ours transition bags, and had them tied up ready to go. Then cheered people for hours while he waited for us to finish in the dark. And he was ecstatic for us. I’ve never in my life seen someone get dealt a crushing defeat and rebound so quickly to then support others. After battling several illnesses both chronic and acute he’d had both hips replaced, gone on to do a 70.3 and had set his sights on a full. He trained his ass off for months in prep for this race. The mechanical issue was due to having the local bike mechanic replace his tires and not calibrate the brakes properly (his tires locked up on him, which has happened to me for the same reasons when I went to a Mystery Bike Shop). That’s just a reminder to never do anything new or trust a local bike shop with a mod the day before you race. But Tom acknowledged that the DNF was also because the course kicked his ass. It kicked everyone’s ass. Lots of people were walking sections of the marathon.

The key to Ironman Canada is not to underestimate the difficulty of the bike section. This was my third time at this distance. It never gets easier. However, I’ve got a much deeper understanding of the thousands of things that can happen during the race. Something will always go wrong. Something will always surprise you. Something is going to be hard you didn’t expect and something will be easy that you didn’t expect. You’ll meet incredible people all day long and everyone has an amazing story. Intentional suffering is a First World Problem and even the worst day of racing an Ironman is an opportunity to be grateful for the life and privilege you enjoy. As for that percentage breakdown of advice: YMMV (with the exception of 140.6 which I now know is 226.27377 KM).

Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013

The unofficial slogan of roller coaster designers is “fear minus death equals fun”. I have that printed on my Road ID around my wrist so I can see it every day. Seeing it and living it are often two different things, which is why I was curled into a fetal position shaking in terror the night before the hardest race of my life.

I had known I wanted to train and race for another Ironman soon after finishing Ironman Arizona in 2009. The years following that race were filled with a lot of major life milestones including the death of my father shortly after the race, the year of grief that followed where workouts were simply ways of getting out of my head for a spell. I was signed up for Ironman Arizona 2011 but when we discovered my wife was pregnant and due for the same weekend I withdrew, and our daughter’s birth and first year became all consuming. When Ironman Lake Tahoe was announced for September 2013 and our daughter was clearly thriving in her growth my wife encouraged me to take the leap and register. All I knew of the race was it would be at altitude, offered a “challenging” bike course, and most importantly was equidistant to Arizona for travel and planning purposes. What I didn’t know was that this race would become known as the toughest Ironman course in North America, if not the world.

I have never thought of myself as a good climber on the bike. I always get passed on ascents. Lake Tahoe is not only at altitude but the course was designed with several difficult ascents including a 1,000 foot climb straight up 3 miles to crest Brockway summit at 7200’ above sea level. I embraced this challenge as motivation to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to climb. I searched for coaches and chose Justin Trolle, one of 19 level 3 USAT coaches in America. He coaches elite triathletes and age group athletes out of Boulder, Colorado. I met him when I got my level 1 certification, he taught the class on periodization and planning and it is his template that many coaches use to create Yearly Training Plans. I wanted to be serious about my training since there were so many variables I did not know how to approach: altitude, elevation gain, and my time crunched schedule as husband, co-parent, and small business owner. When we spoke and talked about my goals and approach to training and racing I discovered that Justin was absolutely the right coach for me. We dovetailed in our social views and opinions and I trusted him implicitly for his depth and breadth of knowledge.

I began my training in May 2013, raced Boise 70.3 recovering from being sick and on antibiotics, on a brand new bike with less than 100 miles on it. Not having raced a half Ironman in more than two years my performance was underwhelming but it was still good to race a course that had been made harder with an increase in climbing and unexpected heat that cooked everyone. A month after Boise I was hit by a car doing hill repeats on the bike and lost another month of aero riding while I sorted out the insurance claim. I finally got my second new bike, a Specialized Shiv Pro, and had it built with Shimano di2 electronic shifting. I fell madly in love with my new ride and attacked my bike training with renewed enthusiasm. The Specialized Shiv is not a bike made to climb. It is a torpedo missile, launched in one direction and not very nimble. It was the right bike for my body and position so I willed it to work for me as I gutted it out going through Rancho Palos Verdes over and over again up and down hills. On the recommendation of my fitter, Steve at Bike Effect in Santa Monica, I had my trusted mechanic, Scott Eisiminger, build the bike with shorter crank arms (165’s), a compact crank set, and an 11/32 cassette to get any advantage I could in the gearing.

My main long ride was a 64 mile route with about 3400’ of overall climbing, including two ascents of about 1,000’ each. The first ascent were navigable switchbacks going up to Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, and then the upper residential area ending at the weather station, then back down the mountain and a climb over Hawthorne Blvd. One more technical descent and then a short climb through the PV golf course. While I didn’t get a lot faster on this route, it usually took me 4.5 hours, I was able to endure it more easily over time. About a month before the race I took a trip to Frazier Park and rode 54 miles with 6500’ of climbing, including a 20 mile beginning ascent up Mt Pinos topping off at 8,000’ elevation. On the way up Mt Abel the sky opened up with flash flooding and lightning and I turned around early (it was supposed to be an 80 mile ride), but I did suffer through a number of 12% grades and sustained 8% grades to know how my legs would feel after long punishment. I considered myself lucky to survive that training day, which added some confidence. My final long ride was an 80 mile shot up the coast with detours up Latigo to add some gain to my pain. Over the course of the summer I went from not being a very good climber to someone who could gut it out over distance without having to stop. This would be key to my success at IMLT.

As the date grew closer the chatter on the unofficial IMLT Facebook page grew as more people were posting their experience riding the course and noting that the closed section preceding the major ascent was still a big mystery. The fear was spreading, and as athletes entered their taper that displaced energy fed into the paranoia. I got sucked in.

The Ironman Lake Tahoe course is two loops at King’s Beach at 6200’ elevation in beautiful surroundings. Mile high peaks ring the lake and water temperatures are balmy low 60’s. The bike course heads west along the lakeshore, going over a short climb called Dollar Hill, then a long, relatively downhill roller route heading past Squaw Valley ski resort, and into the town of Truckee. Another short zig zag ascent to a narrow no-pass bike path, and then across the local highway to get to Maris Camp. This part of the course is closed to the public because it is a community of luxury homes in a private ski resort. On the bike course it was noted there would be a main ascent of nearly 1,000’ in there. That section culminates at the Ritz Carlton before a sharp, technical descent dumping out on the highway again only to climb 3 miles straight up to Brockway summit. After cresting the 7200’ peak it’s a screaming fast downhill back to King’s beach. Then you do that whole course a second time, and on the third loop after Dollar Hill (climb #7 if you’re counting), it’s a turn into Squaw Valley for two miles to get to the Olympic village and T2. The run heads back out the highway along a bike path and the Truckee river, and once the sun goes down you are in the pitch black for this distinctly not flat (but not hilly) run course. The first loop is about 17 miles and the second is shorter along the same route.

I was able to hit nearly every one of my workouts even as my workload increased and client demands took more and more time. My fear of not making it through the bike course grew. The course also featured rolling cutoff times within T1, throughout the bike, and the run, so a minimum pace was necessary. Suddenly, doing 54 miles at 6500’ in 5 hours looked like not fast enough. The Facebook group all agreed that a compact crankset and climbing cassette would be required for this course and I was already there. I worried that I hadn’t put in enough work, hadn’t gone long enough, hadn’t put in the monster workouts that defined my first Ironman race. The doubt and fear crept up my neck as the date grew near, and I chose to trust my coach and his plan. Dead Fucking Last is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start.

There is a lot of conflicting information about how to race at altitude if you live low. I heard everything from get there the day before the race and just suffer, that anything less than 3 weeks would be useless so don’t even bother, to the most likely which is everyone is different and reacts their own way. I got into south Lake Tahoe Tuesday before the race and stayed at a friend’s place at 7500’ elevation. My amazing planning wife rented us a condo near Kings Beach, just up the road from T1 and I checked in Wednesday to start running and swimming in short amounts during the taper. I hadn’t felt the effects of elevation on my Frazier Park ride that took me to 8,000’ and in those short workouts I didn’t experience the tightness of chest or gasping for air that some reported. In fact, I don’t recall feeling any of the effects of altitude – no headaches, shortness of breath, or power drop. I would go out for my run and see similar paces and heart rate to my sea level training. It was only going up the stairs of the condo I felt winded! My practice swim in the lake took 18 minutes to hit the furthest buoy, but those weren’t race buoys so it felt arbitrary.

My wife and her family (and thus my family) are spectacular race supporters. They cooked meals, cleaned up the condo, and created a space for me to focus my attention on the race. Lake Tahoe is mostly mediocre bar and grill food so we decided it was easier to just make meals at the condo. My in-laws had come out for Ironman Arizona and were wonderful supporters, chasing me around the course just to scream for six seconds of me as I whizzed by. Now that I have a daughter, they helped take care of her and my wife as I basically mentally checked out completely and either focused on my race, or neglected my basic responsibilities. Their love and support is incredible, and I’m privileged to have them.

I drove the bike course when I first got to town and several times after just because the location only has one main road, and getting to the race expo and such required traversing the bike course. I was concerned about Dollar Hill and Brockway and hadn’t thought much about Maris Camp. It wasn’t until Saturday when we had the chance to drive into Maris that I realized with horror that Dollar Hill barely even registered on the hill profile in the athlete’s guide. The massive two peaks on the profile were Maris and Brockway. I no longer had any confidence I would finish this course.

Friday’s mandatory athlete meeting brought the news that a large storm was expected on Saturday bringing even colder weather and athletes were strongly and repeatedly encouraged to dry off completely in T1 and change into dry, warm clothes in layers. It would be very cold and quite possibly under cloud cover all day. The storm arrived Saturday midday and both the rain and wind were furious. I dropped my bike off in T1 as bikes literally were falling off the racks in the wind, debris was blowing everywhere, and people were looking at each other in shock and awe. Those of us who listened to the warnings double bagged our gear to prevent soaking. I think I’ll do this from now on, no matter what. Just assume the worst.

Earlier in the day my wife had worked out my best and worst-case timing scenarios and I was starting to feel better. Based on my training, even under worst-case situations, I should be able to make the rolling cutoffs with time to spare. Saturday afternoon I drove the course again (bike drop in T1, follow the bike course to Squaw Village and the T2 bag drop), and continued around to Maris Camp with my mother-in-law along for the ride.

Maris Camp looked totally fucking insane. It is a relentless series of switchbacks going up forever. We weren’t allowed to see the entire course, either, and were told by a gatekeeper it was “nothing much, another ¾ of a mile, then done”. He was lying or uninformed. That last section kicked up in intensity, grade, and with less recovery periods. I was so distracted by the sheer amount of climbing in there I failed to see the series of wooden bridges that could kill a set of wheels. We got back to the condo and I curled into a fetal position, absolutely convinced I was going to die or fail the next day. My mother in law had wide eyes, shocked at what I was about to do the next day.

I did not sleep well that night. I obsessed over the bike map, terrified of what lay out there. I rose before the 4am alarm, got cleaned up and had my regular breakfast, and my wife gathered my bags and me and delivered me to T1. It took 10 minutes to thaw the car windshield of frost. It wasn’t just cold, it was frigid. 27 degrees on the beach. There was ice on the bike seats in T1. The mood in transition was friendly – with so many unknowns for this course it felt like we were all on an adventure together. “Did you see Maris? No? Uh oh.” Many people were dressed in neoprene caps and booties, but I knew I’d be ok once I got in the water. Upper 50’s or low 60’s was what I’d been swimming in all summer in the Pacific. But standing in T1 in freezing cold was painful. I got into my wetsuit quickly for warmth, put my socks on my hands, and decided to keep my shoes on until the last possible second. I could always get new shoes, new feet were harder to come by and I wasn’t ready to race in the challenged division yet. Finally, standing in the queue waiting to start I just peed the wetsuit to warm up.

IMLT featured a rolling start with athletes self-seeding themselves based on expected finish time. This avoids some of the close contact of the mass start that can cause problems for some people. Many Ironman athletes feel like the mass start is part of the tradition and shouldn’t be changed. My feeling is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong in a race and having someone punch you in the face or rip off your goggles by accident can ruin your race in the first 0.1 miles of a 140.6 mile race. If the rolling start gives people a better race, great, and leave the mass start for the Kona championships. Let those who are front of the pack and earned their slot fight it out.  I seeded myself in the 90 minute to 1:45 group as I expected my swim to take about 90 minutes based on training time trials. We started rolling in shortly after the pros and were in the water before 7am.

One of the messages I try and convey during coaching is that a triathlon is a long day, no matter what the distance. During swim training you don’t jump into the pool and hammer out 1000 meters at full speed. Don’t race that way. Do a warm-up on land or in the water if you can, and if you can’t, use the first few hundred meters to ease into the swim and increase pace. The seeded start allowed this to work well. It was too cold to go into the water and get out again so I mentally reminded myself of my own coaching advice. After crossing the mat I slipped into the lake and spent the first hundred meters gradually reaching out with my arms and opening my rotation. By the first buoy I was feeling good, not out of breath, and comfortable in my stroke. I hit the first turn at the far buoy and checked my watch – 18 minutes. That was interesting. Second turn was seven minutes later. Third turn at 41 minutes. Could I actually be doing better than expected? Second lap was nearly exactly the same. As I came in for the final leg I looked at my watch – 1:18 a hundred meters before the exit. I crossed the mat and checked my watch, I had just turned in a 1:20 swim, my fastest yet.

Transition was a total logistical disaster. Everyone else had apparently done a 1:20 swim and the changing tent was like a Roman spa. It was nearly impossible to get inside, and the flap for the women’s tent was wide open giving them no privacy. Once inside, the tent was too small by half for as many men were trying to do the full dry and outfit change required for the freezing cold outside. Some were just changing outside, if their shaking hands could do it. The rest of us tried to find a patch of space to work, get completely naked, dry, dressed in spandex, and a little warm. I managed to find a chair and do my thing, dropping my pants in front of a guy who was hunched over and eating a sandwich. I said, “sorry dude, you’re about to get some meat in your breakfast” and dropped pants. The guy in front of me had chipped a tooth and was wondering about his nutrition plan for the next few hours. Later we would find out the pro field took nearly 4 minutes for T1 while age group men typically took more than 20 minutes. It was nothing but cold cocks and wet socks in there.

My original plan was to wear a sleeveless tri top, CW-X compression tri shorts, SLS3 calf compression, and maybe arm warmers. I go sockless on the bike now, easier than trying to pull on socks over wet feet. For this race I purchased a black and red riding jacket with magnetic detachable sleeves. I tested it on a ride Friday and while it wasn’t perfect I felt it would be a good barrier against wind. Once I was riding my body heat would warm up the interior. I’ve never ridden with toe socks before, or any shoe covers for that matter. In T1 I put on my kit and arm warmers, gloves, as well as the “something new on race day” violating jacket. My legs were mostly bare and my feet naked. My feet were numb from the cold air after exiting the water. I wouldn’t regain feeling in my feet until mile 50 of the bike.

I grabbed my bike out of transition and immediately began drinking and eating. By that point I was 2 hours past my oatmeal, whey protein, and applesauce breakfast and an hour and a half into aerobic activity. At altitude I had been warned to drink significantly more than usual to adjust for the dehydration that comes with elevation above 5,000 feet. My nutrition plan was to drink at least one 24oz bottle of water with 2 Nuun tabs every hour, eat a Honey Stinger energy bar throughout the hour, and a Cliff bar every two hours to keep something solid and fatty in my gut. I also had a few Honey Stinger waffles on me in case I needed to bolster the intake if my gut could take it.

The ride through Kings Beach and Carnelian Bay is a series of easy rollers, relatively quick. There is a short hop into Carnelian Bay to the first aid station, then a U-turn and back onto the main lake roadway. I set myself at about 15% lower output than usual to be as conservative as possible on the first loop. All I could think about were the hills awaiting at Maris, and that I needed everything in my tank for the second time through. That first time through felt very long, but the first time going through a route always feels longer since it’s unexplored. Riding the course for the first time is very different from driving. It’s learning in Braille where every bump and shift in terrain is a physical experience. What takes a half second in a car, smoothed over by shocks and speed, is radically different when your legs have to do the work.

The first time up Dollar Hill took five minutes. I was pleasantly surprised! I used the downhill momentum to my advantage and spun a low gear. I drank and ate by the clock and appreciated the route as we passed Squaw Valley, mentally reminding myself I’d have to do that entire stretch twice more. Before long I had made the turn towards Truckee, and then a left turn to the bike path. This little ascent is brief but steep, and a turn onto a single file path where riders cannot pass. There is an aid station in a small parking lot, well stocked with dancing volunteers and portable bathrooms. I took this stop to relieve myself and also ate a banana. Back on the bike to arc around to the main highway again and mentally prepare for Maris.

People are arguing which is worse, Maris Camp or Brockway summit. I say that Maris the first time is the worst, followed by Brockway summit the second time around. With Maris, no one knew how far we’d be stuck in there or when the constant series of turns and climbs would end. The grades would vary from 4% in many places, easy, to a crushing 12% or 14% at times. Just when you think you’re at the top, the road turns to a roundabout and nope, up you go again. It just goes on and on and on. This is where having a compact front and proper gearing split the field. I spun as best I could, having been coached by Justin that cardiovascular output is easier to recover from than muscular strength output. That is, spinning a higher RPM up a hill is hard but easier to recover from than popping into a harder gear and muscling your way up out of the saddle. “GET DOWN AND STAY DOWN” was in my head, my first coach’s words to me when it came to climbing. I watched others struggle with their gears and I stayed as upbeat as possible while spinning as much as I could. I had no interest in being first up the hill, I had nothing to prove and just wanted to feel fresh, but I still found myself moving up past folks.

I had been exceedingly frightened and doubtful in the days leading up to this race. The negative self talk was very hard to shut out. In large part this is because in a taper workouts are reduced in duration but with high intensity, so the body is stimulated without being able to climax. There is plenty of energy to put into negativity. Coach Gerry Rodriguez, a champion open water athlete and creator of the Tower 26 swim group, says not to let a negative thought live for more than 3 seconds. Any more than that and the wolf is in the door. For years I’ve worked on a positive mental attitude during racing. Usually it involves flipping the script. When I feel like I’m not a good climber I say to myself, “you are strong, you can climb hills all day. All day.” If you hear me saying “all day” it’s not a negative feeling of complaining. I’m telling myself to be present with where I am and imagine I can do what I am doing all day long.

My Ironman playlist is about 4GB in size, several hundred songs I have accumulated over the years that I enjoy. I had a real fear that all that programming would be erased by the earworms that are my daughter’s favorite music she insists on hearing every morning. We’ve worked hard to avoid kid music and she’s been raised on daddy’s Ironmax playlist. And yet, her requested favorites are cute singalong treacle.

Many times going up Maris I heard her favorite song, “Clean it up. Clean it up. No matter what you do, the cleanup’s up to you. Put it away, put it away, put your things away.” So I changed it. “Clean it up. Clean it up. No matter what you do, the cleanup’s up to you. Put it away, put it away, put this hill away.” And I did, one after another. I watched my heart rate, kept it under threshold, drank constantly, ate regularly, and when I was hurting so much I couldn’t focus I cheered on everyone around me. I would say, “don’t forget to drink!” as much to my fellow athletes as to myself. “Perfect circles!” Near the top I said, “I can see my house from here. And I live in LA!” If I could get a laugh I could feel better. We were all suffering, regardless of who was first. A good thing to remember when you’re passed by a pro, or anyone for that matter: they are suffering as hard as you are; they’re just going faster. No one had an easy time in Maris. This was the highest percentage of women at any Ironman, 28% of the field, and perhaps it’s because women tend to be better at climbing than men they signed up for a climbing intensive course. Women tend to be lighter, and since climbing is all about power output relative to weight, a light woman who can output good wattage is going to zip past a beefy dude who has to generate a lot more wattage to move his ass up that hill. However, women tend to be fearful on the descents and will lose their time advantage due to hesitation. When a woman passes you, know that she is cranking major watts and working hard. I am fine with being “chicked”, I have no ego in the moment, just a ton of respect for how committed they are and that they are working as hard, if not harder than I am. The riders from the San Francisco tri clubs were definitely passing the flatlanders, but not a single person seemed to be happy about mapping Maris.

I was riding tri spoke carbon race wheels on tubular tires. I had been warned not to ride the brakes because the carbon can heat up enough to explode the tubular. When I was shooting the downhill of Maris I pumped the brakes to avoid dying in a blowout, but also knew to use the time as recovery. There is a surprise right turn off Northstar Drive to go up Brockway summit, so it never feels like you’ve recovered fully from Maris. Maris to Brockway feels like one giant suffering, even though it is two 1,000’ ascents back to back. Brockway summit is 3 miles straight up, mostly at 8% and then ticking up to 12% at the very last stretch. I came over the crest and got into my aero position. We were warned not to “set any land speed records” on the downhill, but I have little fear on descents. Also, I was fucking tired of going slowly. I got into my tuck, pulled in my knees and let the Specialized Shiv do its job. I hit 41 mph easily without pedaling. No wobble, smooth, new pavement, light wind, and speed. It was glorious. I covered the brakes as I passed our condo’s street near King’s Beach, knowing I had less than a mile before the right turn. One of the benefits of electronic shifting is that you can change gears on the brake hoods, whereas traditionally time trial bikes only have gear shifters at the end of the aero bars. It’s dangerous to pop back and forth from the aero bars to the brakes since your center of gravity is pushed forward over the forks. TT bikes are not nimble dancers. They are meant to keep the rider in an aerodynamic position, preserving the legs for the run, and generally pointed in a straight line. With the di2 I could cover the brakes and change my gearing where I needed it to be for after the turn. The down side of the setup I was riding is that going 50 mph I couldn’t engage the pedals. There was no upper gear to use. At Ironman Arizona I was running an 11/27 cassette so on the flats I could really engage power at high speed. The trade in running a compact front and climbing gearing is that when you’re going fast downhill you just have to enjoy the coasting. There is no point in spinning 120 RPM on a downhill when you’re supposed to be recovering.

I regained feeling in my toes around mile 50. Dollar Hill took about 7 minutes the second time. The stretch from Dollar Hill to Truckee was perhaps my favorite section with a cool but not cold temperature and the topography mysteries had been revealed. I settled into aero and focused on spinning 85-90 RPM in a comfortable gear, drinking and eating, and preparing myself for the climbing ahead. When I found myself going 24 mph comfortably – because I could – I pulled myself back to conserve energy for Maris/Brockway. Another bit of advice I tell athletes is they have a limited number of matches in their matchbook on race day. They have to choose wisely when to burn them. Doing it in the first 100 meters of the swim is stupid. That’s a run sprint they won’t have later. For me, cranking 24 mph on the flat section of a notoriously hilly bike course is also stupid, especially in that I didn’t have a shot at winning. I needed every match in the book, so I dialed it back and stayed in my heart rate zone, drank, and ate.

Going back up to the bike path outside of Truckee the muscle on the inner line of my left leg began to twitch in the early signs of cramping. Not good. For the last year I had taken my own advice and finally did strength and conditioning in a TRX class twice a week. It’s not the major muscle groups that fail a triathlete, it’s the small, under developed complimentary muscles that give out. Neck muscles fatigue and the head collapses. The lower back, the inside thighs, the diaphragm. When these give out, it doesn’t matter if your quads can get you up that hill. You’re brought down by the agony of a thin strip of tissue cramping. I stopped at the aid station, guzzled an entire bottle of water and Nuun, reloaded all my water bottles, ate a banana (potassium!) and a handful of pretzels. I got back on the bike and increased my spin to 95 rpm to work out the kinks and took it easy heading back out to Maris. To my surprise, the second time through Maris felt fine. It was long, it was hard, but I didn’t cramp and just settled into a groove. At the aid station inside I stopped to use the bathroom (I still cannot pee on the bike) and saw a friend from the LA Tri Club. I gave him some encouraging words and also reminded him of the rolling cutoff times. After the first loop I was an hour ahead of the cutoff. By this time through Maris I had lost that lead and was only about 30 minutes ahead. This seemed to be a kick in the pants to my friend, and I took off quickly so as not to lose more time. I recovered on the downhills and turned onto the Brockway ascent. My leg began to cramp again and I was forced to pull over, massage the leg, drink as much as I could, then back on and up the hill. I began to cramp in my right popliteal muscle, the little bastard behind the knee. I’ve gotten this before and it’s very hard to get rid of, so I willed myself to spin easily and kept drinking. I needed more electrolytes but didn’t have any salt pills to take. I kept up the encouraging words to other riders, while we passed by traffic crawling in the other direction. No less than 10 people had “Eye of the Tiger” blasting from their cars. It was comical.

I bombed the downhill again, shot through Kings Beach, and prepped for Dollar. It was a struggle and I stopped once more to avoid a cramp, but I made it. I had stopped on the second loop for my special needs bag, which had chamois cream and some more food in it, but I skipped it the third time around. I just wanted to be done. At more than 7 hours on the bike I was nearing the cutoff and also was going to start sabotaging my run and thus my chances of finishing. I had to be on my feet before 5:30 to give myself time to finish the marathon. By mile 100 I was nauseated by all the sugar in the energy bars, Cliff bars, and waffles. If I had one more sugary thing I was going to lose it. Thankfully the Nuun tabs aren’t sweetened and I could still drink, but I knew that I was in trouble with my nutrition if I stopped eating. I put my head down and got to work pushing out the final dozen miles. I tried to drink, but my lips were dry and I felt gross. I came into Squaw Valley after over 8 hours on the bike on a steady diet of bar food. I was done eating my existing nutrition and needed a new strategy.

T2 went smoothly, I was able to get changed quickly and my legs felt pretty good. Finally off the bike all of the little aches and pains subsided. My lower back that had been aching on Brockway was fine, the inner leg was good. My body was relieved to be off the bike and running was a welcome change. I forced myself to eat a Honey Stinger gel and grabbed my water bottle. I ran out of T2 happy and thinking, for the first time, that I was going to finish this thing. I allowed myself to be happy for a moment, then closed it off and used the energy to push me into my run.

An Ironman run is a war of attrition. I have said many times I’d rather do an Ironman marathon than a standalone marathon any day. Ironman finishers understand this. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. But an Ironman run is more forgiving than a standalone. If you run a 4:30 marathon over and over again you’re just punishing yourself for nearly five hours. But if you can run a 4:30 off the bike in Ironman what you’ve done is run the marathon. A huge number of people walk the marathon in Ironman because they’ve cooked themselves on the bike. If you can run even a 9 minute pace you will pass hundreds of people. This is not an exaggeration. If you run a 9 minute pace in a standalone marathon you will be passed by people who have trained harder than you. My last marathon was two years prior when I wanted to go 3:30. I ran a 3:59 so I could say “I run a 3 and change marathon”. It was raining that day but the truth is I couldn’t maintain the pace I wanted on the back half. I am a 4 hour marathon runner and I hate running. But an Ironman run is a completely different animal for the age group athlete.

Everything about my coach’s plan worked. When we talked earlier in the week he said I’d be surprised how it came together on race day. I was concerned my longest run had been 2.5 hours and only fifteen or so miles. I hadn’t done the 100 mile ride and 10 mile runs off the bike from my past. I didn’t know if I could do the distance again. Justin’s plan, which worked flawlessly, was to build my ability to hold race pace for longer periods. When I hit the run I found I was able to hold a 9:30 pace without tripping over into breathlessness or a shutdown. I could feel the wolf was close, but it was up to me not to let it in. If I pushed the pace even a little I could feel its hot breath, the discomfort in the stomach, and the mental pressure to slow down. At mile 5 I was actually happy. I found another runner, Andrew, who was doing my same pace and we just kind of fell into chatting. Talking is a good way of not blowing up. If you can talk you’re probably aerobic. This was Andrew’s first Ironman, and though he had done some ultra marathons in the past, he was trying not to injure himself and just finish the run.

We ended up running nearly the entirety of the race together. We shared advice, talked about the course, how it compared to other races, but mostly it took our heads out of the suffering and kept us running with good form, in good heart rate zones, and prevented us from blowing up. We walked the aid stations and the bigger hills. At mile 18 we picked up another guy, Adam, who had done a few Ironmans, and he was grateful to have us to help pace him. Could I have gone faster? Perhaps. But I knew that I had the race in my hand and it was mine to lose. I got to see my family several times on the course and could smile at them as I passed. I got to see my friend who lived in the area twice, and he seemed like he enjoyed witnessing this crazy event. Andrew, Adam, and I were running in the dark with our headlamps on, passing dozens of people who were walking, hobbling, having miserable days. We would yell our thanks to the volunteers and encouragement to people who were having trouble. I knew it was going to be a 15+ hour finish but I didn’t care. I had more love for that course and everyone on it because we had all gone through the same crucible. Everyone was letting go of their time goals and just trying to cross that line.

I had to come up with an entirely different nutrition strategy. My pockets were filled with gels and bars I had no interest in eating. I switched to chicken broth and pretzels while drinking the Nuun water from my bottle. I was surprised to find it worked really well. I had a few moments of side stitch cramps but they appeared near aid stations and the reload of broth and salty pretzels seemed to work. Perhaps slowing the pace again was also key. Nevertheless, I wasn’t taken down by a side cramp as I’ve had happen in the past.

As we neared the finish I told Andrew he needed to go first, and he wanted to savor the finish chute. I was holding back because I wanted to run at full tilt, as I had done at Ironman Arizona. “Leave everything on that course” my first coach would say. Adam peeled off to see his wife before his finish, Andrew accelerated and I pulled back a bit to give him space in the chute. As I saw the lights from the village welcome me in, I pulled off the headlamp, dumped the unused nutrition from my pockets, and increased my pace.

I allowed all of the emotions I’d held back during the day to open up inside me. All the doubts and the fears, the leaps of faith, the deep appreciation for what everyone had done for me for in the building months, days, and hours It filled my heart and erased all the aches and pain. I was excited to see my wife, daughter, and her parents, who are truly also my parents. I knew my mom and friends all over were watching me online and I carried every bit of their hope for me to finish with me as I flew through the chute with the blinding lights on. I never heard Mike Reilly say my name and the words, “MAX MILLER YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

Because my heart already knew I was one.

In the following hours it would come out that this is now known as the toughest Ironman (WTC specific) in North America, if not the world. The elevation, the cold, the sheer insanity of the bike course, and the not-flat run course has put all others to shame. It had a DNF rate of 25% and a 10% DNS rate, as well as the slowest average time at more than 14 hours. My finish time of 15 hours and 40 minutes may have been “slow” but this race became much more about finishing at any cost. Anyone who raced Ironman Lake Tahoe 2013, finisher or not, knows just how hard it was. Going in blind to certain sections, freezing our asses off, and battling every mile, it was an epic day.

Now that it is over the GPS data is streaming in and the race reports are going up. It appears to be around 7500’ of climbing overall, and this data is going to be loaded into Computrainers and ride simulators around the world. Three days after the race it is still not sold out, which is unheard of for a California endurance race. The huge number of triathletes from San Diego to Northern California means the big M-dot races sell out in minutes. Arizona had been the closest Ironman to date and it sells out the very next morning after the race. The line snakes around the tent for people to register on site. Not so with IMLT. I will not be racing again next year because I want to focus on my family and my business. I will race shorter events to maintain fitness, but to do this race again would require as much if not more training than I did this year.

When I finished Ironman Arizona I felt incredible, I had unlocked a life achievement I never thought possible. But in the dark corner of my heart a tiny voice said, “yeah, but you did the easy one”. Ironman Lake Tahoe is by any objective measure NOT THE EASY ONE. The achievement feels genuine and I feel like an athlete, perhaps for the first time, without any modifiers. It took everything I have learned over the years to finish that course. Every motto, slogan, tip, trick, plan, experience, and ounce of energy. Everything I’ve learned from coaches and coaching, reading and doing, had to be used on that course.

I raced Ironman Arizona thinking of my father, with him spectating, with the underlying theme of lifestyle change. Ironically he died a few months after that race. Perhaps I raced Ironman Arizona to prove to everyone I was an athlete. I trained in a group, built a community, blogged about every moment, and it was a huge, public experience. For this race, I mostly worked alone, did my long rides by myself, clocked thousands of laps in the pool solo, and ran at night after my wife put the baby to bed, logging miles in the cool dark of the city.

Ironman Lake Tahoe proved to myself that I am an athlete.

Vineman 70.3 2011

My father would have been 67 years old on the day I finished Vineman. If he were alive he would have spent the weekend with friends and family enjoying wine country, food and drink, and celebrating. He would be beaming with pride and excitement not just for seeing me race, but because he’d know his son was going to become a father and he would soon be a grandfather.

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Ironman Arizona 2010

The sun rose just past six am over the east of Tempe Town lake. The man-made recreational body runs several miles long surrounded on both sides by manicured parks, a running path, with arcing bridges crisscrossing the water. I was positioned at the second to last buoy before the left turn turnaround for the 2010 Ironman Arizona race. As the desert sun’s not quite warming rays pierced through the chilly morning air I had time to reflect on the past year and what had brought me to sitting in a cold puddle of water in a kayak, hovering near a giant yellow buoy, with tears in my eyes.

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Long Beach Urban Fitness Challenge

My cousin Chris invited me to join him in the Long Beach Urban Fitness Challenge. For several months he’d been doing plyometrics workouts on the beach with a coach who is very good at destroying people. Chris had recently been upgraded to push-ups with a handclap behind the back, working towards pushups with a backwards, then forwards handclap on reach rep as part of his routine. Stomach crunches until puking, wind sprints, “muscle confusion”, that sort of thing. It really worked for him and he was part of my motivation to include weights and resistance training into my weekly plan. When Chris signed me up as his “Ironman friend”, I felt the implied challenge and immediately fretted about what I had just signed up for.

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A letter to the new triathlete.

You wake up at 4am. Yes, 4am. But that’s OK because you haven’t slept much the night before. Pre-race jitters happens to everyone. After eating a good breakfast (it is the most important meal after all) you’ll load the gear you packed the night before into your car and you and your friends and family will drive out to the race area well before the sun comes up. There’s a long wait for parking and it will seem like you’ll never get in, but eventually you do and wind up parking very far away from where you want to be. There will be a lot of really lean people walking their bikes by holding the seat (how do they do that?) and wearing lamps on their foreheads. They will wear the biggest backpacks you’ve ever seen.

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Something is wrong with me, aka 5:27 at Soma 70.3

There is something wrong with me and I cannot figure out what it is. I’ve been in a migraine cycle for over a week. It came on last Friday night at dinner with my wife and father-in-law, one day after having three hours of dental work done. That migraine was classic – visual precursors of strobing, tunnel vision, then a brief calm before the crushing right side pain. Did a full 4 hour treatment of medication, yard sale Saturday, bike time trial, then felt like crap again and had to cancel going to a friend’s birthday party. Sunday killed the final milestone run with a 1:35 ½ marathon, then I had another migraine two hours later. Monday was off, Tuesday I swam and then had bodywork that helped a bit, then Wednesday I was supposed to run but had another migraine and a cycle of medicine instead. Thursday a long swim, and Friday drove to Tempe, Arizona for the Soma weekend. I drove to Arizona feeling like boiled crap and had no clue what to expect from a weekend that was kicking off my “Helloween” week of epic volume training.

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