Ironman Brazil

In 2007 I did my first Ironman triathlon (swim 3.8 km, bike 180 km, run 42 km) and decided that I would complete DSC_0038one on every continent. As I often say, it seemed like a good idea at the time …  Each year I did one race (Korea, Switzerland, Kentucky USA, Australia, South Africa) which left Ironman Brazil to complete the set. But exactly one week before the race—actually, at the exact time where I expected to be about 10 km into the run—I was being put into a CAT scan machine in Toronto. I was thinking this is not an auspicious start to completing my goal.

As I commented in an earlier posting, my training for the race went much better than last year for South Africa. I dusted off my old Endurance Nation training plan from Kentucky and worked backwards for the 20 weeks before the race. I managed to arrange my work travel schedule so I had five solid weeks in New Zealand to work on my race fitness. Otherwise, it was do the best I could while juggling the life of a travelling World Banker.

I finished that block early May and then went to Washington D.C. for a training course and to spend some time at the World Bank Headquarters. Then all the hard work was done and it was time to start the taper. How I love the taper. My body felt good and psychologically I was ready to race.

I was at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Toronto buying some last minute gear to race the Tour Divide when I got floored by severe pain in my back area. I’ve had 4 x knee operations, cycled 400 km with a broken collar bone, but this was a whole new dimension. Came on out of nowhere. Had to sit down and collect myself for a while, thinking what should I do. It was clear that I needed to get to the hospital but I had my nice road bike with me and I’m not about to leave a friend unattended for what could be a long time. So being eminently sensible, I waited until the pain subsided from a 10/10 to about a 7 /10 and then hopped on my bike to find the nearest hospital. It was not a pleasant journey for not only was I in a fair bit of pain, but I kept on getting wrong directions to the hospital! I finally found it and was whisked into the Emergency Room with no waiting: the advantage of visiting on a public holiday and looking to be in bad shape.

Thanks to the wonders of modern IV drugs I felt fine after a short time and the diagnosis—since there was a bit of blood in my urine—was that I had a kidney stone. This was confirmed by the CAT scan. Bother. Being a very focused individual I asked the doctor a key question: can I still do an Ironman triathlon in a week’s time with a kidney stone? ‘Who knows?’ was his helpful response.  Hopefully the stone would pass before the race. But he did offer me what he said was a very effective pain killer called Oxycodone, with the caveat that it would make me a bit drowsy to so think twice about using it during the bike portion of my race. I wondered if they disqualified age groupers for using Oxycodone during the race.

My wife Lis was not pleased to hear about this development and wondered if I was going to use my colleague Jerry’s solution: coke and asparagus. I said no, as I recall the path he wore in the carpet outside his office on the way to the toilet during the ‘cure’. I would just drink as much as I could while taking ‘flowmax’ which, if nothing else, would at least ensure that I was well hydrated by the time of the race!  I wasn’t going to tell my 90 year old mother about it, since for some reason she worries at the drop of the hat, but big mouth Lis sent out an e-mail to her friends and included mum on it, so I in the dog house for wanting to race Ironman with a kidney stone.

I flew to Brazil on the Wednesday night flight: Toronto-Detroit-Sao Palo-Florianopolis with Delta. It was my first time flying with them and I must say that, except for the aged aircraft, I was impressed. Flights were on time, crew were friendly. Of course they forgot my special meal, but I’m used to that. I had decided to use Endurance Sports Travel for my travel arrangements, and they did a sterling job. I was collected at the airport and soon found myself at the hotel which was right on the beach. Great organization. Highly recommended.

I took it very easy when I arrived and for once I was very rested for a race. Quite the contrast to South Africa last year where I was completely fatigued even before I started.  It makes such a difference not to feel like all you want to do is to curl up and sleep—and that was during the marathon! The mistake that I make is that I don’t include the stress of my work/travel on top of my training stress: if I did, I’d usually be off the scale. Not this year!

Endurance Travel organized a course reconnaissance on Friday and it was absolutely pouring rain. What amazed me was that there were some people out there riding their bikes in the rain! Mate, if your fitness isn’t here yet then one more ride isn’t going to help and the rain will not only mess up your nice clean bike but also creates the potential for a crash.

I met some very nice people on the bus including Theo who was a 67 year old woman, trying to get a slot for the World Championship in Kona. Each race is divided into male and female age groups and the winner in the age group gets to race at Kona. She told me she was the only woman in her age group so she stood a good chance as long as she could finish. Problem was she had crashed her bike recently and her knee was acting up. I thought good on her. Rather than veging out in a home she’s out there training for an Ironman (and yes, she qualified with something like 16:15 for the race!).

When I grabbed my race kit (numbers, swim cap, timing chap, etc.) it was very inDSC_0036teresting because so few people spoke any English. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that it is a requirement that everyone speaks English but you would think that at a race with some 2400 people entered that they would have a sizable number of registration staff who were comfortable with English. Nope. They went and got a young woman from Costa Rica to help. This was one of my lasting impressions of Brazil: the shortage of English speakers (even at our hotel, three of the four receptionists said “No speak English” and got the manager to help!). It didn’t worry me at all, as I don’t speak a word of Portuguese so it is up to me to roll with it. At least with my knowledge of French I could guess some of the written words.

As part of my final preparation for the race I watched the Endurance Nation ‘Four Keys to Triathlon Success’ DVD Saturday evening. I really like their focus that the race is not about fitness but about execution. We are all fit, but if we do something really stupid we will blow the race. I looked in the mirror and reminded myself that I was looking at the one person who could ruin my race day.

Race day started early with an 04:45 alarm. After a liquid meal I gathered my drinks, GPS and DSC_0042other gear and caught the shuttle from the hotel to the transition area. I relish the energy and enthusiasm which is in the air before the race.  The transition area was very well organized –in fact the whole race was one of the best I’ve been to for organization—with lots of volunteers ready to help.

After pumping my tyres, putting my nutrition on the bike, it was time to  don DSC_0044my wet suit and head over to the beach. I decided for my last Ironman that I would wear my New Zealand race top, but also a Canadian running hat. That way I figured I would be cheered on for two countries 🙂

The swim was a beach start. It was a perfect morning with the sun coming over the horizon at about 06:45. The temperature would be in the mid-20’s centigrade which does not get any better. Usually it is in the 30’s when we start the marathon and I just melt down. Some enthusiasts were in the water for a warm up, but I preferred to hang on the beach. It was very crowded, not only with the 2400 or so competitors, but also a huge number of supporters. At 07:00 the gun went off and we ran down to the water to start the race.

I am typically a 1:30-1:40 Ironman swimmer. The fact that I had swum a total of 16 times in four months (nine of which were in the last five weeks) also did not give me a lot of confidence that my swim would go well.   Since I am not very fast at the best of time, I always seed myself towards the rear of the swimmers which allows the fast swimmers a clear run. I soon realized that such race etiquette was absent here: people at the front were often much slower than me on an off day. Why they would do this is an enigma as what it means is that you just get beat up longer as the faster swimmers try and swim over you. I think this was one of the roughest swims that I have had and I got one good kick to the face which rattled my teeth. I recall my friend Taneen who fractured a couple of ribs here a few years ago. Easy to see how.

The swim course as very unusual. It was broadly shaped like an ‘M’, with a short 50 m beach run just over half way through. After about 500 m I found some open water and got into my rhythm. One-two-three breath; one-two-three breathe; check for buoy; one-two-three breathe, etc. I focused on trying to have the best form I could—and not swallowing any sea water! There was a huge bunch at the first buoy and we were doing the breast stroke to carefully get around the buoy, when this fellow comes steaming in at full bore pushing his way into the swimmers. Very bad form—and dangerous—so I grabbed his ankle and pulled him to a stop. This elicited a loud curse, but not speaking Portuguese I’m not certain exactly what he said, but the gist was pretty clear!

The swim continued and, except for some sighting problems, I managed to keep a pretty straight line, except for the last run into the beach were I could not see exactly where to head. I ended up aiming for the tents of the transition area but that was a bit too far to the left. Soon I was out on the beach and running to the wet suit area where the volunteers were ready to pull off my wet suit. I had managed a 1:22 which was amazing, not only given my lack of swim training, but also being an ocean swim with swells. Perhaps they are right that less is more when it comes to training.

I had a quick transition and was soon out on the bike. One of the things that is drilled into you if you are an Endurance Nation follower is that the main focus on the bike is to ride in such a way so that it sets you up for the best run possible. To that end, for the first hour you ride at about 5% lower power than your race pace to give your body time to adjust, then you ramp it up for the rest of the race. It is *so* hard for me not to push it on the bike that I have to constantly check myself, but as out of character as it is, I managed to keep things under control.

The most difficult times are on hills. I shifted down to my lowest gears (I had a triple chainring) and just slowly spun up the hill, as I was passed by all and sundry. There were a few fairly steep hills and I was surprised how many riders were going up on their largest chain ring, i.e. in a much harder gear than they needed to.  What was ironic was that more often than not I would catch up to them on the downhill section, or a short time later.  I managed to keep my power at 162 watts for the first hour—which was very close to my target of 164, and then 171 watts for the rest of the ride, just lower than my target of 175. They key was that my total training stress score (TSS) was 262 for the ride, which meant that I had not left everything on the bike course.

The bike course itself, the few hills notwithstanding, was a very fast one. Fir the first five hours there was relatively little wind. I regretted not having my time trial bike and race wheels with me: I was using a road bike with my regular/training wheels. I have a special road bike with an S&S coupling system which allows the bike to fit in a regular sized suit case. Given I was travelling for 3 months I couldn’t face lugging my time trial bike with everywhere (let alone the major charges that would be incurred by airlines). As it was I managed just under 30 km/h and did the ride in 6:02, so I would have been at least 5-10 minutes faster with my time trial bike. I when I realized my time I had this big debate with myself: should I try and go under 6 h for the ride. But in the end I saw the face staring back at me in the mirror, the face of the one person who could ruin the day by doing something dumb. So I backed off and kept it steady

The ride reinforced my impressions of a lack of etiquette. In all my other triathlons the cyclists have tended to stay on the kerb side of the road which makes it easy to pass. Not here. They were all over the place, even when there were several lanes of traffic. I almost got knocked off several times, as well as having one idiot decide to pass on the inside (where there was no room) at a ‘U’ turn over the timing mat. Why risk a crash for 2 seconds of time? Perhaps this is a reflection of how they drive their cars? Who knows, but it was scary nonetheless.

At the end of the ride I was feeling good. My one concern was nutrition for even though I had tried to keep it up on the bike, I was slightly hungry when I finished the ride. Not auspicious as I’ve always had problem with nutrition on the runs so I want to take in as much as is reasonably possible on the bike.

I quickly transitioned to the run. My goal pace was to run 6:30 min/km for the first 10 km or so, but I had trouble keeping it down to 6:00 min/km: it is so nice to be off the bike that you want to run fast! The course had one long loop, with a few steep hills, then 2 x 10.5 km loops. My goal was to not walk any of the run. That may sound like an easy goal if you haven’t done an Ironman, but it is very hard to achieve.

I was amazed (well, not really) how many of the cyclists who had zoomed past me earlier were walking within the first few kilometres.  Let’s hear it for spinning in an easy gear and avoiding spiking your power. When I came to the hills I didn’t find them too hard at all, and managed to run all of them. 

The first 21 km went well and I managed it in 2:05. Unfortunately by km 24 my bladder was really bothering me. I had tried to ignore it because I really didn’t want to know what was happening given my kidney stone issue, but mother nature wouldn’t wait any longer and the news was not good. I had never urinated dark red before. After 207 km of swimming, biking and running the stone must have jiggled loose, but the good news was that there was no pain or I would have had to take it more seriously. Or at least used the Oxycodone.

Digression: My wife Lis sent out an e-mail to her friends noting that for me, pain and pleasure are two different sides of the same coin. In her book ‘A Life Without Limits’ the Ironman woman’s champion Chrissie Wellington puts it far better (pg 133): “The brain is constantly trying to impose limits on what it thinks we can achieve. We should constantly question it, fight it. That means enduring pain. Successful ironman athletes relish their relationship with pain. Not the mechanical kind, necessarily, which warns us that something has broken down … What the good triathlete should relish is the pain that is our brain’s way of telling us that it doesn’t like how hard we are working… This is not gratuitous masochism.  There is a very real process of refinement going on. You are not just working your muscles and lungs, you are working your brain to learn to accept each new level of exertion as something that can be endured safety.”

Yes, there were some aches and pains, but nothing mechanical, so no need to recalibrate my race plan.  However, things began to breakdown on my run on the second half. I kept on running, but at a 7:00 pace rather than my 6:00 target. At km 28 I engaged in my Ironman run ritual of throwing up. So much for my attempts at hydrating by taking Gatorade at every aid station.  As always I felt a lot better afterwards but I definitely was running out of steam.  After a few kilometres I was able to take some sips of Pepsi at the aid stations. Not that I *ever* drink it, but Coke/Pepsi are the drink of choice when you are melting down at the end of an Ironman.

At this stage of the race, the biggest part of any Ironman is the mental challenge and the key is to overcome the voice in your head saying ‘walk’.  I had decided earlier that the best way of handling things was to break down the last 21 km into 4 x 5 km road races. After all, anyone can run a 5 km road race (especially at 7:00 pace!).  My goal was to at least knock of two of these 5 km road races before having to seriously consider walking—which would conveniently come just after the 30 km ‘wall’ that most of us hit in the marathon. Of course when I got to my second pair of 5 km road races, I told myself it’s only 5 km … and with that I eventually knew I would achieve my goal of not walking on the run. Heck, I even managed to pass 50 people on that last lap who were walking.

About 2 km from the finish I realized that I stood a chance for a Personal Record (PR) at the Ironman distance so I managed to do the last 2.5 km at 6:28 pace which brought me home at 12:17—a PR by 1:20 over my time at Ironman Louisville!

Official results:

  • Swim: 1:22 (49/88 in my age group)
  • T1: 8:00
  • Bike: 6:03 (42/88)
  • T2: 5:29
  • Run: 4:38 (27/88)
  • Total: 12:17:17
  • 29/88; 883/1593 finishers overall

The run time really pulled me up with my results—which is what one can expect if you stick to the Endurance Nation race strategy. Thanks coaches Rich and Pat!

The finish was very unusual. As we approached the final kilometre there were people on the road, standing around, chatting—often athletes or their supporters who had finished earlier. The fact that people were having to run around/through these groups, often standing with bicycles, was something they were oblivious to. As you approached the final 200 metres it was a lot like the Tour de France with a narrow path between families and supporters of the athletes. The two runners in front of me were joined by their family to share the experience of finishing, the one directly in front with four people. Of course they stopped as soon as they crossed the line without considering that there were many others trying to finish and get by them. At least in my finish photo I will not be alone!

DSC_0045I went over and had a massage. My legs were pretty cramped, no doubt due to the hydration challenges I had faced. My calf muscles were firing off like there was no tomorrow and the masseuses actually took a video of it! After the massage I got rid of all the Pepsi I had taken, then grabbed my gear to head back to the hotel. One of the fellows in the changing room took this photo. I was able to smile, even if walking presented a modest problem.

I was met at the bike exit by a fellow from Endurance Sports Travel who escorted me to the van to take me to the hotel. I declined the offer to go to their hospitality house for something to eat as I had just what I needed at the hotel room: a tub of chocolate ice cream and some drinking yoghurt. I was pleased to meet up with Leslie in the van. She had come down from Maryland and was hoping for a Kona spot – and she won her age group so was on top of the world. Considering she trains where there are no hills (near the Eagleman race) it was quite the feat.

It was great to get back to the hotel and have a long hot bath.  Except for some very cramped leg muscles, a couple of moderate blisters on my right big toe, the likely loss of four toe nails, and urinating blood, I had got off the day quite lightly. The next morning there was no sign of blood in my urine and the legs felt a lot better—especially after I got a massage. Probably didn’t hurt that I slept in my 2XU compression gear.


As a postscript to the race, I helped someone get a slot to the World Championships in Kona! While I was queuing to get a t-shirt the day after the race a fellow approached me desperate to exchange Brazilian Real to US$. A friend had won his age group and was trying to get together US$750 in cash to pay for the slot, or he would lose it. I was pleased to be able to get him up to the magic $750!

It was nice to end my Ironman career—at least for now—with a PR. I say at least for now since while I still find the races very enticing, it is just too difficult to do up to 170 days of business travel a year and train properly for an Ironman. I’ll stick to shorter races like half-Ironman as 70.3 miles was a short training day for me during Ironman season.

My thanks to Endurance Nation for your great training programs and racing philosophy. The two times that I followed your approach to training and racing I did PRs. And of course to my long suffering wife Lis! Now time to spend the next week recalibrating my body to ride a mountain bike so I can do the Tour Divide race starting in ten days. Looking forward to July when I can have a nice break from all this work—sorry, pleasure!

2 responses to “Ironman Brazil

  1. Well done Chris! This is an inspiration for me as I am about to do my first Comrades marathon on Sunday! I am Sharon’s sister Alison friends of your folks.

    • Thanks Alison! I ‘know you’ from my chats with Sharon when riding in Toronto.

      All the best for the Comrades. I have a friend from NZ doing it and she invited me to join her, but the Tour Divide was more enticing. Perhaps I’ll add it to my bucket list one day … although with 4 x knee operations I’m probably already pushing the boundary with my marathons let alone trying some 90 km.

      Happy racing – and I quick recovery. I’m off for a mountain bike ride 🙂

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