Ironman Louisville – Happy 50th Birthday

I decided that the best way to celebrate turning 50ironman 010 on September 3rd would be to do something out of the ordinary—and with Ironman Louisville the weekend before that qualified.

I had an excellent race, in spite of the challenges that any IM race presents, with ideal weather conditions. During the race I said to myself that if I don’t set a new personal record for the IM distance I never will, and the stars aligned themselves to give me a 12:18 time—and a well earned finisher’s medal.

The Swim 2.4 miles—1:33:19

Ironman Louisville KY 075 The IM Louisville swim is like no other race. Rather than a mass start, it is a ‘time trial’ start where you cross the timing mat, jump in the Ohio River, and start swimming. The order of entry is based on where you are in the line, so people went there very, very early to queue up. Lis and I were at transition at 05:00 for me to set up my bike, and by the time we got to the swim area at 05:30 for body marking, the queue was already very long.

I was thankful for my visit to Goodwill aIronman Louisville KY 078nd the warmup jacket and trousers that I had as it was chilly sitting around. Lis returned my pump to the hotel while I guarded my spot, and felt sorry for all the people who arrived later. At the front of the line there were people with air beds who had probably spent much of the night. I felt sorry for them as well!

The professionals started at 06:50 and the rest of us at 07:00. The line snaked forward surprisingly quickly after the canon wentIronman Louisville KY 082 off.  On the way I noticed that the portable toilets were empty so used the opportunity for one last quick visit. This was actually quite a treat as 30 minutes earlier one of the fellows I was sitting with had gone off and had yet to return! Lis gave me a goodbye kiss and then I ran through the chute and down towards the water. I’m third in the photo she got. Digression: The first guy in the photo was called on stage at the Friday dinner because the race was part of his weight loss program. He had lost 71 pounds. That was nothing. A woman had lost 120 and the ‘Biggest Loser’ had lost 201 pounds.

The swim started in a marina with an island to our left. After swimming upstream we entered the main channel of the Ohio where we had to pass three buoys and from there it was a turnaround to head back to the transition area. We ran along the dock, crossed the timing mat and jumped in. I made the mistake of staying to the left which meant that I had another 10 m or so to swim. Hey, it all counts.

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As anyone who has done a triathlon knows, the mass swim start is challenging because it is a full body contact sport. I had visions of the the time trial start being better, but these were soon dispelled. Yes, we did not have the initial feeding frenzy of hundreds of athletes battling for the same part of the water, but at least as a slower swimmer eventually I’m left behind by the fast swimmers so I have clear water. Not here. I was swum over for the entire swim as the faster swimmers who were further back in the queue caught up. So for 2.4 miles I was regularly bashed. Digression #2: Triathletes should trim their toe nails, or if you don’t, at least refrain from the breast stroke as the combination can be lethal. I had to explain to my wife this long scratch on my side—but at least I didn’t get a cracked rib like my friend Taneen did in IM Brazil.

It would have been interesting to have a GPS as I followed my normal swim pattern: very erratic. Too close to the left; overcompensated so too close to the right; etc. But I just kept on going focusing on my form and counting strokes. As I approached the top most buoy I was surprised to see what looked to be people standing. Then a kayaker warned me that it was shallow and sure enough I hit mud. It was strange to stand up and take a few steps in the middle of an IM swim, but that was the only way as the water was 2-3 feet deep and it was not a place to try and swim. 

Eventually I reached the turnaround buoy where there was the usual scramble—someone kicked off my goggles—but then it was the start of the downward leg which I had been looking forward to because of the current, which unfortunately was not as strong as I had hoped, in fact it seemed negligible. As I went downstream towards the bridges that marked the end of the swim I was constantly being swum over which was very scary at times. You are in the zone and suddenly you feel someone on top of you, or right next to you. I usually bi-lateral breath but when this happens I try to breathe to the side away from my neighbour—don’t want a broken nose or a missing tooth.

What was particularly disconcerting was the almost complete absence of any kayakers or support boats for much of the downstream swim. Had anyone got into trouble they would have drowned since we did not have the luxury of a wet suit to keep us floating.  That didn’t help a 66 year old man racing IM Canada the same day who drowned.  In fact, there were several drownings in triathlons this summer causing some to wonder if Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema (S.I.P.E.) is the cause.

Anyway, the swim didn’t end for me soon enough and I found myself at the exit to transition. My time was as spectacular as always—giving me 1730/2435. Must do some work on my swimming!

Transition 1—5:52

Ironman is very well organized when it comes to transitions. You run into the transition area and call out your number, a volunteer hands you your bag and you enter the change tent. I kept up my mantra ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ as I towelled off and put on my cycling gear: heart rate strap, shirt, sun tan lotion, race belt with number. Then it was out to the bike.

The Bike 112 miles—5:59:46

My race plan was to do the first 1 hour at 165 watts and then maintain 175 watts afterwards. Once I was on the bike and out on the road I took two shots of my asthma inhaler and then settled down into the aero bars for the ride. I usually forget to use the inhaler so I’ve taken to putting it on my areo bars as a reminder.

It is exceptionally hard to go slow when you are starting the ride. There are all these people in front who you want to pass, but the key to a successful race it to stick to your plan. It especially hurts when you are going up a hill and slowing to 5 mph when you could easily take it much faster. However, I almost invariably passed them on the downhill while they coasted.

The ride took us along River Road next to the Ohio River, and from there inland. It was a surprisingly hilly course, there were few really steep ones, but lots of rollers. The challenge was not to draft behind a cyclist ahead of you—it was necessary to have 7 metres between riders. Some times you came upon a pack of riders who were happily riding together, but most people seemed to take the no drafting rule seriously.

My fuelling strategy was to take in 270 calories an hour, a mixture of ‘Cliff Mojo Bars’ and ‘Motor Tabs’, the latter an electrolyte energy drink tablet. I had dissolved six of them in my bottle—representing six hours of cycling—so at the aid stations all I had to do was to get a bottle of water and pour it into my handlebar bottle and then add in the concentrate. Much easier than carrying multiple bottles which some riders were doing.

There was a lack of discipline among the riders and many were cycling over towards the centreline. This was particularly frustrating on the downhill sections when they would be coasting while I was pedalling—often I had to call out for them to move over. This was especially challenging at when travelling 40+ mph.  More than once I had a fright from them moving over towards the centre as I was passing.

Part of the course was two loops through La Grange and the first time through town I saw Lis and she grabbed the photo of me—I’m the second cyclist.Ironman Louisville KY 087 It was such a buzz going through the town with both sides of the street lined with cheering supporters. They had organized buses to take people the 35 miles from Louisville to La Grange, and Lis told me how the town was very well set up for the event: all the stores were open early and they were selling an array of goods to the spectators as they waited for the athletes to arrive. Lis bought an excellent cow bell for ringing, and as consolation for the wait a pair of shoes, a sweater and a peanut butter triple chocolate cookie. Fair enough.

After La Grange I had to relieve a very full bladder which again reminded me that God is a man as there were several other men doing the same thing behind some trees. The race organizers had told us about immediate disqualification should we behave in such an uncivilized manner, but they didn’t have enough portable toilets available at regular enough intervals so what is a guy to do? And the ladies … good question.

About mile 50 I started seeing riders with flat tyres. About every 500 metres there was someone fixing a tyre. I said a prayer that I would not be one of them. It seems that someone opposed to the race had sprinkled tacks along the road that morning! Given the traffic jams I could understand why, but why not just leave it to painting a ‘No Ironman’ symbol on the pavement as someone did elsewhere?

It was around here that I was passed by the lead professional male so he was over 3 hours ahead of me. Later I was passed by another male professional who was turning his large crank while motoring up a hill—must have been putting out 500+ watts. Amazing. Triathlon is the only sport where professionals and age groupers interact in the race, and this of course can have problems.

The same weekend there was the Chicago triathlon and it was not good for some of the professionals. Julie Dibens found herself among novice riders while navigating the first bike turnaround. In the second it took to reach for a water bottle, she said, a couple of riders cut in front of her, leaving Dibens with the choice between crashing into a race cone or veering toward vehicle traffic in an attempt to avoid the crash. She was treated for minor injuries. Andy Potts was not so lucky at the same race. Travelling over 30 mph he collided with an age grouper with enough force to snap his frame.  So much for his excellent year and preparations for the World Championships in Kona in six weeks.

Ironman Louisville KY 086 During my second lap through La Grange I saw Lis so I stopped. Our friend Mary Pickering was there as well so they each got a sweaty kiss before I was off again. This is Mary in the blue shirt with the hat on. Apparently a local reporter got a photo of the event and has promised to send it. I guess that not too many people stopped.

I began to have a few problems about 4 hours into the ride. Even though it was not hot, I felt a bit light headed. My stomach also sent me the message that it didn’t want any more food. Too bad. I had another 6+ hours to go. I forced myself to have another Clif Bar and some more drink, but I began to be a bit concerned for what might be in store for me later in the race.

However, I continued to ride strong and averaged 21 mph for the last hour of the ride. When I checked my data after the ride I had almost succeeded with my race plan. I did 170 watts for the first hour rather than my target 165, but then averaged 175 watts for the next five hours which was exactly my target. My variability index (the amount of variation of my power) for the race was 4%, but the last hour without major hills it was only 2% so for me that was exceptionally consistent.

Soon I was back into town to transition to the run. A definite improvement on my swim, I placed 973/2435.

Transition 2—7:09

I handed my bike off to a volunteer and ran down to the gear bags. From there it  was into the change tent to swap to the run gear. Again the mantra—slow is smooth; smooth is fast—and I was soon out. As I exited Lis was there so I stopped for the mandatory photo. I had decided to be a ‘New Zealander’ for the day, and my running shirt got me a number of cheers. Several runners were disappointed when I said that I had only come from Washington D.C. for the race and not all the way from New Zealand.

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The Run 26.2 miles—4:32:41

The Endurance Nation coaches have a straight forward philosophy: there is no such thing in an Ironman race as a good bike ride followed by a bad run. If you have a bad run then it is because you worked too hard on the bike. With my having followed my race plan meticulously it was now time to see whether or not their philosophy was correct.

The other issue they say is that runners go out too fast on the run. For that reason, they recommend that your initial pace be 0:30 slower per mile than your goal pace for the first six miles. Having run the Boston Marathon a few months ago at 7:56 pace, my target pace was on the order of 9:30 for the marathon, so I worked hard for the first six miles at keeping to a 10:00 pace. It really wasn’t easy as I was so pleased to be off the bike I just wanted to run like mad.

The race took us through downtown Louisville. At around mile 2 someone ran up and it was Chas Ryan from my triathlon club in D.C.! He was there supporting his girlfriend who was doing the race so he kept me company for a few minutes before peeling off and wishing me a good race.

I felt excellent for the first six miles and rewarded myself at every aid station by taking 30 steps. I made sure to get some oranges and water as I was a bit concerned about my fuelling for the run. Unfortunately, things began to deteriorate about mile eight and by mile 10 I had very serious stomach pains, to the point where I wondered if I would even manage to finish. This called for serious action so I went behind a telephone pole and put my finger down my throat. I repeated this a few times over the next 100 metres—one doesn’t stop running for an extended period of time—until there was nothing left.

I kept on going and by about mile 14 I began to feel better again, especially after Chas had met up with me again and cheered me on. This was near the turn around where the finishing runners went to the left and those doing a second loop to the right. I must confess that I was tempted to fake it by finishing early, but I dutifully turned to the right, disappointed that I still had some 12+ miles to run. Even more disappointing was that I did not see Lis to inspire me to greater heights. She couldn’t figure out where it was …

As time went on I paradoxically felt much better and began to pick up my pace. The ‘wall’ that we normally hit around mile 18 was the one I crossed at miles 10 – 12 as these were by far my slowest on the run. At mile 18 I saw the Endurance Nation coaches Rich and Patrick and called out to them that now I would find out if their program really works and they said to be confident and go for it.

All I can say is that the proof to the Endurance Nation training and racing approach happened after mile 18. I ran continuously, and passed 183 people.  I even reduced the number of steps I took at the aid stations as I didn’t need the break. As I approached the end the usual surge of adrenalin kicked in and I managed to do the last mile in 9:51.

There is no experience like running down the street towards the Ironman finish. The spectators are cheering you on and you know that you’ve conquered the 140.6 miles (226.3 km).

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Of course the time is not what you hoped for, but I was pleased to come away with a 4:32 marathon giving me 12:18:37 for 881/2388 finishers (the time is different on the clock since it took some 23 minutes for me to enter the water). I was 44/167 in my 50-55 age group.

Chris Finish - Small

Postscript—After the Race

You cross the finish line into an army of volunteers. One takes the timing chip off your leg, another gives you a medal and a third a space blanket. Due to my stomach problems I had not properly hydrated for most, if not all, the marathon so I decided to go to the first aid clinic and get an IV drip. This is the best way to recover from any race—I call the IV the breakfast of champions 🙂

On the way we met my friend Mary in her blue volunteer shirt who said “that’s ironman 006 my mate” and took over, wheeling me to the first aid clinic with Lis tagging along. They were great and I felt better very quickly, and even showed off my medal for the requisite photograph. The only problem was that after 2 litres of fluids I was very cold. I didn’t notice this when I had an IV after Ironman Korea, but at that race they had packed me in ice to help cool me down so the effect would have been welcome!

Unfortunately I stiffened up quite a bit after lying down so I walked back to the hotel like an invalid—or someone who had just done an Ironman. Rather than hop into an ice bath as was the plan I instead took a hot bath to warm up, consoled with a pint of vanilla ice cream to get a few calories. I then donned my Sugo compression socks and Skins recovery trousers before crashing to the sleep of the dead.

The next morning I was sore and after a hearty breakfast walked over to the race expo where I had booked a massage. Then Lis and I drove 10 hours to Toronto. On the way we passed, and were passed by, a few cars with triathlon bikes on top, and one even had written on the windows in huge letters ‘Ironaman’. Now it’s time for a few weeks of recovery with very light training before getting ready to start training for my next big race: hopefully Ironman Australia in March.

Advice for Future Racers

  • Stay at the Marriott Residence Inn if you can. It is 10 minutes from the transition area. It also has an excellent breakfast.
  • Be prepared for very poor race swag. In fact, I was told the first year there was not even a finisher’s shirt! This seems to be a strategy since you will then go on Monday morning and buy lots of very pricy finisher’s shirts/jackets, etc.
  • There is no free bike mechanic. You will need to take your bike to the race expo and have them fix anything that goes wrong in transport.
  • Have your support crew catch the bus to La Grange. It will be a nice break for them.
  • Book a massage Monday morning, with Laura if you can. She’s magic!

6 responses to “Ironman Louisville – Happy 50th Birthday

  1. Congratulations on a great race. Fantastic write up too!

  2. Nice race and race report. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is a great writeup! I recently registered for my first IronMan in Louisville on 8.29.2010 and the information that you wrote about is HUGELY helpful.

    This is my first IM and any more information / suggestions you can provide will be greatly appreciated!

    • Ryan,

      The best of luck next year for IM Louisville. It’s a great race. The best advice I can give is to follow the Endurance Nation program (I don’t get a commission!) as that was instrumental in my PR. Their race course preview is also worth listening to. Unfortunately, you will probably have a hot day – I was spoiled 🙂

  4. Thanks for the in-depth review of your race experience at Louisville. I completed IMAZ a week ago and now am on the hunt for my next race. Louisville still has slots open and I am interested in learning about it as a venue. My big concern is the weather. It must be brutal there in late August, huh?

    • Congratulations on finishing IMAZ. If you want a real treat you can always do IM Australia in Port Macquarie. They allow registrations for overseas competitors until January :-). Yes, the weather can be very, very hot and humid in Louisville in August. I was psychologically prepared for that so we were very fortunate when we had a cold spell and such ideal conditions. So if you are going to go for it, then plan through carefully how you will cope with the heat. It’s a great race – you won’t regret doing it.

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