||70.3 World Championships - A World of Fun!
||Half - Ironman
RACE REPORT – FORD IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS 70.3
NOVEMBER 10, 2007
By Brian Melekian
Sport is a reflection of life, whether in training or competition. While the time allocation reads 95% training and 5% racing, it is that 5% in which the athlete defines who he or she is in the context of the sport. Training time provides countless anecdotes and memories to draw from during tough competition, but racing is the meat. Racing defines why we train, when we train, where we train and how we train. This was the mindset that I carried as I prepared for this race.
This past weekend’s 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, FL had been the goal race for me this year. Florida is historically hot and humid, even after the clocks ‘fall back’ in late October/early November, so training in the heat of summer was ideal. When the heat left Manhattan Beach, so did I. I spent long, grueling weekends in the desert heat alone on the bike and pounding the pavement, each grueling step on the road taking me one step closer to my goal time of 5:00 for the 1.2 mile, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run. This was a fairly lofty goal considering my time in Oceanside, the only other 70.3 that I had completed was 5:21, which broke down to 37 min. swim, 2:53 bike and 1:44 run, more or less.
I focused primarily on my bike training for this race, for two reasons. First and foremost I believe that excessive run training leads to injuries, as I have experienced first hand and two, the bike takes up a disproportionate amount of overall race time. So I put in the miles. I bumped my weekly mileage from roughly 80 to over 180. This meant early, early mornings on a loop course around LAX. This meant double days and a lot of extra work that I had never put in before, culminating with a long desert weekend with 150 bike miles and 25 run miles in the heat that could only be defined as breakthrough workouts. Those are the types of workouts that your mind and your muscles remember on race day and that you can dig down and draw from when your legs feel like jello and your vision blurs from fatigue and sweat.
Clearwater Beach holds the self-proclaimed title of Best Beach in America. I say that because they made it up but plaster all over the tourist literature and maps. That said, they aren’t far off. The sand is white, the water is warm and everything that you could want is within walking distance. I got in late Wednesday night, settled in and Thursday morning swam 5 buoys out and 5 buoys back on the 9 buoy out/9 buoy in swim course set up at Pier 60. At least 4 locals had warned me about how cold the water was, so I was expecting a polar bear to swim with me or at least a penguin, but the water was a perfect 68. I also found that you could run almost out to the first buoy which cut a bit off the 1.2 mile swim and make for some faster swim times.
From there, I was privileged to take part in the official press conference as a special interest story, in other words a cancer survivor. That was great in itself, but to be seated next to Chris Legh and talk to him a bit about the new bike course was very memorable.
Friday was more of the same – a light run and ride, just to make sure the legs and the bike still worked and then a day of logistics and rest. Dinner that night was steak, potatoes, more potatoes, bread and yes, even ice cream for dessert. I think that anyone that says that there is a perfectly scientific dinner for the night before a race is crazy. There are certainly some foods to avoid, but outside of that, the rule of thumb should be eat early and eat a lot of good food. As long as it is healthy and will remain healthy when you wake up at 5am the next day, then go for it.
One race feature that is becoming more important to me is a hotel in close proximity to the start area. The hotel was 30 yards from transition, so this enabled me to sleep in until 5:15 and not feel rushed. By contrast, when I raced in Oceanside I was up at 3:45. This makes a huge difference.
Up at 5:15, one Ensure, one bottle of water and two peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and I am ready to go. The hotel only had one functioning elevator which was a real treat at 5:45 in the morning, but I learned a few tricks, such as taking the service elevator. That is not really a trick I guess, just good common sense, like carrying a water bottle on your bike. More on that later.
The race started at 7am with the Pro Women & Physically Challenged, but my wave didn’t begin until 7:45. Since transition closed at 6:45, this meant a lot of waiting. In fact, as a few of us in our confederacy of complaining talked about, if the transition stayed open, we could have actually slept in until 7. That part wasn’t so bad, the part that was bad was the fact that 16 porta-potties were inside transition and only two were outside which made for a long line. This was a great way to get to know people, though, and we all seemed to band together.
I got into my wave group and we were led closer to the start every 5 minutes. Finally we were next. There I was, staring at the course, noting the colors of the 2 groups ahead of me and the 2 groups behind so I could gauge who was catching up to me – and who I was catching. And as everyone was pacing and slapping and talking, I felt very calm. I struck a dramatic tree pose (for all the Yogiis out there) and just pictured my smooth stroke, sighting and making a good transition. It was very Zen.
Unlike prior races, this gun I heard. And we were off. For the first time in any race I have competed in, I wore my watch the whole time to keep track. This 5 hour thing had become very important, probably too important. But I beeped the watch and took off in the water. I didn’t seed myself to the back as I usually do, feeling froggy and competitive, I decided to just go for it. That wasn’t a great idea. I was almost immediately donkey kicked in the face, sending my goggle into my eye and filling both goggles with water. Now there’s a choice – stop to fix the goggles and get run over while losing any position in the water or don’t stop and just deal with being blind. I chose the latter, the lesser of two evils. I made my way to the turn which came amazingly quickly and felt great, after I made the turn, though, the salt water really started to sting and I just chucked the goggles. I had been swimming side by side with a guy on my left and decided to just hammer as hard as I could and follow him in. Basically I trusted him to sight for both of us. When I heard the guy on the kayak say “You’re swerving way too wide”, I realized that had been a mistake. By this time my eyes were throbbing and when I turned my head to the right I was staring into a very bright, angry sun which would render me blind for a moment. So, I just breathed left and used the Pier to sight me back in. Finally the shore came into focus and I charged out of the water, fairly blind but feeling fresh.
Goal Time: 35:00
Actual: 34:59 (no joke)
WTF? This was well organized but man is the level of competition higher and much more aggressive at this level. Guys yelling and pushing…and that was just the volunteers. I’ll be here all week, try the veal. Seriously, there just weren’t enough volunteers to go around and I found myself shouting along with everyone else.
I had hung my hat on this leg of the race and it is no exaggeration to say I felt great from the first pedal stroke. I clipped in effortlessly and took off up the bridge, the only hill of substance on the course. The first 20 miles are slightly uphill with some turns and a bit of bottlenecking, the middle 20 were downhill and scary fast and the final 16 were again some bottlenecking as we made a slight uphill turn and riders began to eat, drink and prepare for the run.
I had intentionally not carried any water on my bike, truly trying to keep my bike as light as humanly possible. Some may disagree, but I just felt like it would be silly to go to such lengths to shave ounces (I use the word shave intentionally) and then load my bike up with pounds of water.
I can easily say that this bike ride was one of the most amazing athletic experiences of my life. There was the Annual Gravy Bowl with my family in 1990 where I passed for 12 touchdown passes and ran for another 5, there was the perfect cross I sent from my defense position on a rainy Saturday morning that the forward headed in for a goal when I played club soccer, but this took the cake.
Somewhere around mile 3 I passed Dick Hoyt and his son Rick. That was an amazing experience as he is an amazing man. I felt so inspired just to be on the same course with him that if I lacked any motivation I found it.
Everything clicked. I ran my hardest gearing throughout the entire ride. My goal pace was 22.2 mph and I maintained that for the first 20 miles. Then something changed. I was no longer passing anyone. I was alone. We made a U Turn and headed south for 15 miles on a shut down freeway. I was alone. I cranked my pedals. I went faster. It didn’t hurt, so I went faster. I look down and I was hitting 31,32 on the flats it felt great. I literally felt as though all of those early morning rides, all of those hill workouts and heat workouts had changed the composition of my legs. I flew. We hit a long bridge that still slanted down and a peloton formed. There had been a bad accident. No one slowed, this truly felt like a Championship race. People yelled in German, Spanish and French but we pushed on. Speed increased – 35 mph. This lasted for a minute or two before marshals on motor bikes rolled up and told everyone to break apart. I had seen them in my periphery and pulled off to the right. I was alone again. We turned for the final 16 miles and it became clear I was going to beat my goal time of 2:35, the only question was by how much. And then everyone slowed again. We were turning uphill and everyone was hungry. This was a great excuse to eat. I slowed to 20, sat up, stretched my back and ate. I had picked up a water bottle at mile 10 but dropped it, so I took on 2 water bottles at mile 35 and was guzzling them. Not ideal, but it worked. I didn’t mind being heavy on the uphill as I had banked so much time on the downhill. So I ate and stretched but quickly got antsy. And this is where I made my one bad move of the day.
We were confined to one side of the road and the other side was open to vehicle traffic. Having had enough of this 30 bike back up and not feeling particularly comfortable in a peloton of tired triathletes, I made a pass into traffic. Inherently this was not particularly unsafe as there were no cars, but what was unsafe was how angry it made the 30 people I passed. I flew up alone about 50 meters but didn’t stay alone for long. This was just the motivation they needed to catch up and overtake me, drawing some angry comments. The joke was on them, though, as we hit the bridge one last time before T2 and a few of us passed everyone and rolled our bikes into T2 to get ready for what was now a very hot run.
Goal Time: 2:35
Too tired to yell, I just gulped a Gatorade and water, pulled up my socks and twisted my visor and I was out for a nice, long run. My buddy Anthony screamed his fool head off and I felt like the King of Siam with the amount of time I had in the bank.
Armed with plenty of time in the bank for my 5:00 pace, I was able to pull up just a hair and ease into the run. This run was the good, the bad and the ugly. The Ugly was my form – I walked the first three aid stations and just did whatever I could to make it. The course is difficult because you run out and over the bridge, through the neighborhoods on hot asphalt and back over the bridge before turning around to do it all over again. The Bad was how my legs felt. After blowing out the bike and leaving little in the tank, my legs didn’t feel weak, they felt paralyzed. It took 6 miles to get them back. The Good was my spirit. Back to the sport as a metaphor for life thing, I found something in myself that I did not know existed. This was the second race where I have seriously considered quitting, Ironman CDA being the first. That race depression had been due to just sheer quantity, but this was different. I had not just swam and biked, I had RACED. I had really given 100% and my legs were done. I could barely feel them. I didn’t just consider quitting, I went through the logistics. Who I would call, what stories I would tell what people, who would I be letting down, all of it. But I also did some math – all I had to do was run a sub 2 hour half marathon to finish in 5 hours. Had I really put in all this work to quit? Because the thing was, if I quit, if I stopped, if the pain went away in my legs, I would have been immediately ready to run again, so why not just keep running and not give birth to some sort of demon inside me that would remind me all the time that I quit, I quit, I quit? So while I did all this back and forth in my head, the miles ticked away. I made the U turn and had finished the first lap in 53 minutes somehow. So now here I was – 6 miles to go, only needing to be 10 minute miles each, my friend Anthony screaming from the sideline, totally excited at the pace I was on and now I couldn’t quit. It was too late. And so I ran. It hurt and it was hot, but I ran. I ran over the bridge, through the neighborhood, back over the bridge and began the sprint for home. And I do mean sprint – when I hit the carpet, I was virtually blind, a leftover gift from the salt water, I was nauseous and I fell over at the finish. But I had done it.
Goal Time: 1:40
So I was sky high. I had dug down deeper inside my gut then ever before and I had beaten the course. One of my biggest fears on the bike became this notion that the course would beat me, or my bike would beat me or circumstance itself would beat me. I was afraid of a flat or a crash or something else outside my control. But it didn’t happen – I raced my race and have never felt better before. And I couldn’t help but reflect on how much easier this was the second time around, especially after having done an Ironman. Sure, it was physically harder because we constantly push ourselves harder and faster, never letting ourselves get complacent or hit a plateau, but MENTALLY this was so much easier. Toeing the line at 7:45 I had not one doubt about my ability to finish this race. And so when the race was over and I went out with friends or on to the airport or back to work, I carried with me a little tiny new swagger – a swagger that came not from cockiness or self delusion, but from a feeling in my gut that I had set a goal, created a plan, executed it perfectly, adapted to circumstance where needed, and nailed it. And as I commented many times during the last week, the victory comes not from finishing the race in a certain time or in a certain light, it comes from STARTING the race and owning it from start to finish, whatever that means to you.
Goal Time: 5:00