Ironman Texas Race Report – Sometimes Patience is the Key

On Saturday I got to hear six of the most exciting words I could imagine – “GLORIA PETRUZZELLI, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

RACE PREP

Ironman Texas was my third Ironman distance triathlon. The first two were the Full Vineman, a non-WTC triathlon which is basically two loops of the Vineman 70.3 course, albeit with some differences in the run course. More significantly, this was the first Ironman Gloria and I did together. It was about more than just Saturday. It was about the last 2 1/2 years, when we signed up for Ironman Louisville. Unfortunately, life got in the way and we had to cancel. We were finally able to sign up for this year’s Ironman Texas. It was also about the last 5 1/2 months that we spent training together. We had slightly different training plans, but we still trained together a lot. Sometimes, in communicating to each other what our workouts for the day would be, I sometimes decided to switch-up my workout and do Gloria’s workout, while she sometimes decided to switch-up her workout and do mine. We took mornings and evenings off when we felt like we needed extra sleep or when we were tired, but, we nonetheless stayed pretty consistent.

The other major element for my Ironman Texas preparation was coming off a major injury. At Austin 70.3 I broke my foot and spent almost two months in a cast. While I was able to swim with a cast cover (you can read about it in my blog, “Injury Update and Swimming With a Cast“), it was not until December 28 that the doctor finally ok’d me to return to regular activity. Swimming came back fairly quickly, with better than 4800 yards in the USMS One-Hour Postal Swim on New Year’s Eve. I also progressed to three-hour rides by mid-January. Running was the x-factor. I figured I could get back to running for an hour within 6-8 weeks, but I was unsure as to how well or how fast I could predict further. I decided I would plan for the 10 percent rule, but err on the conservative side. By mid-February I could run up to 10 miles, but I was nonetheless pretty careful and limited my weekly long run and long ride progression to about 10 percent. My longest ride was 100 miles and my longest run was 20 miles and I did each of these only once. Although limited in volume, I still emphasized quality. Since Ironman Texas is known for heat and humidity, we spent a lot of time on our bike trainers with the windows closed, essentially riding in a  sauna, or running in the afternoon at the hottest part of the day. By the time race day came I wasn’t sure what I could expect from myself, but I knew I had prepared to the limits of my abilities given the circumstances.

ARRIVAL

We flew out to Houston on Wednesday and, late that evening, arrived at the home of Maritza, who is one of Gloria’s old friends from graduate school, and her husband Ulysses. One of the great things about this race would be seeing old friends and the hospitality of a home stay. It was wonderful and relaxing. Thursday we checked in and picked up our bikes from TriBike Transport. To our surprise, the El Salvadorian athletes behind us recognized our Wattie Ink. gear and even knew our teammate Steve Houston. Small world. We also got to check in and chat with the guys from Blue Seventy. We knew they were great sponsors, but they were also a great group of people. After picking up our bikes we went for about a 30 minute ride, just spin our legs and make sure everything was working properly, and then a 10-15 minute run. I was still pretty stiff from our Wildflower Olympic race a couple weeks before and hopefully I could loosen up by race day.

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We drove out for the practice swim Friday, but had to sit and watch, because I forgot my timing chip. I had hoped to swim some to loosen up, but couldn’t let myself panic. We got our bikes and gear bags, checked them into transition, prepped our nutrition, and then put our feet up for race day. As we went about our pre-race activities, my strategy for the day crystallized.

In my last two Ironman distance triathlons, I blew up on the run. Since this usually occurs when athletes go too hard on the bike, I knew I would have to take the bike easier. I would also need to hydrate, supplement with electrolytes, and, when I got out to the run, keep my effort at a level where I could tolerate the heat. I had studied this race carefully, and with headwinds expected on the back half of the bike course and brutally hot temperature and humidity on the run, “patience” would be the game for the day. Patience on the bike; patience on the run.

Race morning I got up at 3:30, ate my oatmeal and banana and drank a water bottle with a Hammer Fizz. On the way to the race I had a PowerBar and drank a bottle of Perform. In the days leading up, it looked like the water would barely exceed 76 degrees, at which point wetsuits are still permitted, but not if you want an award or a Kona spot. When we arrived at transition we learned the water would be 78. Perfect for a long swim. Instead of my wetsuit I would wear my swim skin.

As we checked in our morning clothes bags we met some of our teammates, Susan Marston, Travis Thomason, and Don Packard. After nearly six months it was go time.

THE SWIM

At athletes started entering the water I kissed Gloria and told her I loved her and to stay safe. Then I walked down the ramp into the water, which was a perfect temperature. The swim at Ironman Texas is in Lake Woodlands.

The swim is essentially a 3000 meter out and back course followed by a right turn and an 800 meter bonus.  There was a huge crowd along the shore and lining the bridge. Tons of energy. Although Ironman is experimenting with alternative open water starting formats, Ironman Texas remains a mass start. Taking the advice of our teammate Robert Flannigan, I lined up slightly to the right of the right-hand buoy, which would make for the most direct swim. I checked with some other athletes lining up in the water so I could self-seed. At the Full Vineman I swam a 54-55 minute 2.4 mile, but those swims were with wetsuits and the Russian River is a fast open water swimming venue. Based on prior experience with a swim skin, I figured I would finish the swim in the range of 1:00 to 1:05. I lined up maybe two people back.

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When the cannon shot, I took off with the pack. I swam with my head up for about 10 meters, until I had enough space to put my head down without getting kicked. There was a fair amount of pushing off of people, but I never got punched or kicked and for the most part the water felt about as close to a swimming pool as you could get in open water. The packs gradually cleared out, but I had plenty of feet to draft on, which was nice for a change. I kept my effort hard, but comfortably hard, not wanting to burn out my legs. The turn-around came faster than I thought it would and so did the right turn into the channel. I didn’t see a whole lot of caps in front of me. I could see people lining the channel. They had signs and they were cheering. Tons of energy. At the last buoy I turned left to the stairs leading up from the water to transition. I was out in 57 minutes! This was the second best swim split for my age group.

T1

T1 went smoothly. I snatched up my gear bag, which was exactly where it was supposed to be and easy to spot thanks to a colored rubber band (next time I will use colored tape or a ribbon). I ran into the changing tent, stripped out of my swim skin, sat down, put on my shoes and helmet (IMTX does not allow age groupers to start with their shoes attached to their pedals), and stashed my nutrition in my jersey pockets. The format doesn’t make for fast transition times, but everyone has to follow the same rules.

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BIKE

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The Ironman Texas bike course passes north through Sam Houston National Park and then loops back through farmland. Susan Marston was right and I had a tailwind heading out. I reminded myself to stay patient, even as other cyclists passed. One thing about Ironman, and especially Ironman Texas, is that those athletes who pass you could easily blow up later. I had to trust my fitness and my plan if I wanted to have my best race. Most of the course is about as flat as a course can possibly get, which makes it easy to maintain a steady effort. Unfortunately, it also facilitates drafting (i.e. cheating). On at least three or four occasions I found myself wondering where the draft marshall was as a group went by. Gloria saw even more drafting and had a line of men riding her wheel for a good number miles. Even one of the women’s podium finishers passed by her, smiling proudly while drafting off a line of riders (I was really tempted to yell “cheater” at the awards, but Gloria wouldn’t let me). At around mile 40 I started to hit some rollers, headwinds, and crosswinds. The shade disappeared and by noon the temperature hit 100.

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I used my nutrition timer to remind myself to sip my PowerBar gel every 20 minutes, but after about 2 1/2.  At aid stations I either grabbed a bottle of Perform or water. The Speedfil A2 was easy to refill and easy to drink from while riding aero. I started feeling a little drained and ate a PowerBar, but really had to fumble with the wrapper. Next time I decide to eat food in a race I will need to cut the wrapper first so it is easier to open. Regardless, I need an Ironman nutrition strategy that will keep my energy levels more even. By mile 80 or so the side of my foot started hurting. By the time I finished the bike I was pretty uncomfortable and happy to get off. I finished in 5:35. Pretty good for me. Still, it was 36th for my age group and where I still lose the most time to my competitors.

T2

I executed my flying dismount and ran through the transition area to get my gear bag. The concrete was hot, but fortunately I did not burn or blister my feet. I grabbed my gear bag and saw one of my teammates enter the change tent just ahead of me. I introduced myself. It was Andy Kohl! I sat down as the volunteer laid out my shoes. I put on my socks and slid my feet into by K-Swiss Blade Light Run 2.0 and ran out of the tent as I put on my race belt and downed a PowerBar gel.

RUN

The run at Ironman Texas is three loops through the Woodlands Waterpark Square, with aid stations about every mile.

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There are tons of people along most of the course, including the “cheer squads.” I heard a lot of “Go Wattie!” and, because our kits look a lot like those of Moxie Multisport, an Austin-based team that is also sponsored by Wattie Ink., a lot of “Go Moxie!” Moxie had a group under one of the bridges, dressed in wigs and Wattie speedos. Despite my suffering it was impossible not to smile as I passed by them.

As I ran out of T2 my legs felt like rubber, but I reminded myself that all I had to do was keep moving. I knew that this time I would run the whole marathon and stay strong. This would be the Ironman I had hoped for. I saw a lot of people walking at the start of the bike. They had been impatient and now they were paying for it.

It was hot so I ran through any bit of shade that came along.  Mercifully, a light breeze came through some parts of the course to cool me down. I focused on keeping my stride short and my arms swinging quickly, so as to maintain a quick cadence. I caught up to Andy Kohl, who had blistered his feet badly and doubted he could run much. I told him to just keep moving. I saw him on and off throughout the marathon, mostly running. He really stuck with it. I walked most of the aid stations so I could effectively hydrate with water and Perform, as well as grab a gel every 20-25 minutes. I also grabbed cold wet sponges and put ice down my shorts whenever I could. The latter helped a lot. At around mile 11 I had to take the first of what ended up being the first of four or five porta-potty stops. Between these stops and peeing at least as many times on the first half of the bike I had probably over-hydrated during the race and in the days leading up to it. I held it together until about mile 18 when my heart rate shot up from 132 to 165. Usually this happens if I haven’t slept well (which I had not), have too much caffeine, or when it is really hot. I walked the next 13 minutes, about 3/4 of a mile, until my heart rate came down, backed off a bit on hydrating, got more electrolytes, and started running again. Walking probably cost be about 6-7 minutes. Of course the porta-potty stops added up to.

With about 2 1/2 to 3 miles to go I passed someone in my age group and, through the corner of my eye, saw him try to match me. I told myself “I’m going for it” and kicked it in, immediately picking up my pace and passing another person in my age group. I kept thinking the finish was no farther than the tempo run I had been doing almost every week for the past two months. I crossed the finish line in 10:54, nearly 11 hours after starting, for a 4:14 marathon, 15th for my age group. The person I had passed in my age group finished a mere 5 seconds behind me and the second person I had passed finished less than 30 seconds behind him. Even in an Ironman, every second counted.

The K-Swiss Blade Light Run 2.0 was an excellent shoe for this race. While heavier than the K-Ruuz that I would normally race in 70.3, half-marathon, and shorter races, it is still pretty light at around 9.0 oz. It also has good flexibility, an 8mm drop, and, compared to the K-Ruuz, a little more cushioned ride when pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles. My feet never got sore and I finished with zero blisters.

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My total time was good enough for 15th in my age group. With nearly 400 starters this easily put me in the top 5%. This was easily my best Ironman ever. It showed me that, while I certainly have room to improve, that I have the ability to do well and, with a better nutrition and hydration strategy  and some coaching, I think I can improve substantially.

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GLORIA’S FINISH

Gloria crossed the finish about an hour later. I yelled like crazy when I heard Mike Reilly call “GLORIA PETRUZZELLI, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” I wrapped my arms around her once she passed through the wall of volunteers. I was so proud of her. She finished in 11:58, for a 14th place finish in her age group. She had even knocked out a 1:17 swim and had the 17th and 14th best bike and runs splits of her age group. We stayed at the finish until 10, watching people come in. It was incredible and Mike Reilly kept the crowd going the whole time.

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The headwinds on the bike course, combined with the brutal heat and humidity made it a tough day for pretty much everyone. In general, it seemed like times were on the slow side of what people expected and what would have been more typical. According to Mike Reilly at the awards banquet, the DNF rate was around 15%. According to Runtri.com, a website that collects statistics on Ironman races, the DNF rate was slightly higher, at 17%. This is double the DNF rate from 2011 (which was 8%) and easily exceeds the 11% DNF rate from 2012. Compared to other Ironman races (at least those that runtri.com has DNF statistics for), this year’s DNF rate at Ironman Texas exceeded even that of 2011’s Ironman St. George, whose 16.5% DNF rate far exceeded that of every other Ironman triathlon that year. Ironman is supposed to be hard, but clearly this year’s Ironman Texas was really hard.

POST-RACE

The next day we went to the roll down, but the six Kona spots in my age group went to the first six finishers. We went to the awards banquet after, where my teammates Emily Kratz won the women’s 35-39 age group and finished first among amateur women, Kevin Dessard finished first for men 45-49, and Don Packard finished just off the podium in the same age group at 6th. I am privileged to be a part of a team of such great athletes.

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We met with Ulysses and Maritza later for dinner. We were both sore and I had some pretty major sunburns, but we were both ecstatic.

We had spent almost 6 months training for this race. We haven’t decided what to do next, except to enjoy some time off and doing things together as a couple that do not involve swimming, biking, and running.

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