Ironman Texas 2014 Race Report – It’s All About Execution

A year ago my wife (Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli, a.k.a. Dr. G) and I finished Ironman Texas. It was the first Ironman we trained for a raced together. We coached ourselves, something especially challenging for me, since I was coming off a broken foot and had to focus much of my early training on rehabilitation. It was insanely hot and featured one of the highest DNF rates in the history of Ironman (you can read all about it in my race report), but we each finished 15th in our respective divisions and loved the energy of the course. We couldn’t wait to go back and, with coaching, felt like we could do even better.

The Lead-Up

TRAINING

There were three big differences in our preparation this year. We were both healthy, whereas last year I started my Ironman training coming off a broken foot. We also had race experience to draw on and knew what to expect going it. Finally, and most important, we worked with coaches. We had discussed the possibility of coaching for some time, at least a year, finally approached Karel and Marni Sumbal at TriMarni Coaching and Nutrition. Gloria and Marni already knew each other. Gloria had provided Marni with sport psychology coaching for over a year and even accompanied Marni to the 2013 Ironman World Championship, so we already knew a lot about their philosophies for training, racing, and nutrition. Their “train smart” approach would be a good match for us, given our history of aches and pains and injuries. They also had a good understanding of both our strengths and weaknesses as athletes and of us as individuals.

Marni and Karel (and Campy) put together a great program for us. It was hard, especially the interval training, but they focused as much on our recovery as much as they did our work. Key sessions were always in the morning so we could get a good dinner and a good night’s sleep and Mondays were usually recovery days. Marni, who is a registered dietician, really hammered the importance of nutrition before, during, and after every training session. Our entire program and build, from January to race day, went smoothly, without incidents or injuries. We did our workouts, entered our data into Training Peaks daily (usually immediately after we finished our training sessions), regularly updated them with our schedules, and stuck to the plan. Again, it was hard, but compared to last year we were much less exhausted on Sunday nights.

I also incorporated a power meter into my training for the first time. In November I turned 40 and my wonderful wife, wanting to make it special, got me a set of Garmin Vector pedals that I had long been lusting after. I loved using wattage in training, especially on the bike trainer. I cannot recommend a power meter highly enough. Used properly, it makes training far more precise and efficient.

We prepared for the Texas heat as much as possible, spending our weekday cycling sessions on our bike trainers in front of a space heater and dressing a little bit warm for our running sessions. We also worked with Marni to develop hydration and nutrition strategies specifically for the Texas heat.

When we left for the airport we ready. We were strong, healthy, and confident that Ironman Texas 2014 would be our best Ironman performances yet. I had time goals in my mind and believed that based on 2013’s results I could place well if I met those goals. However, many of these factors are uncontrollable. Ranking is often more about who shows up and time on the Texas course can lengthen significantly due to heat and wind. I focused on controllable factors (i.e. process goals), such as riding at a goal wattage and consuming a certain amount of nutrition every hour. By focusing on the process (i.e. my race plan), rather than the outcome itself, I could only be pleased with the outcome so long as I executed my race plan.

Arrival

Although delayed a couple hours, we got into Houston without a hitch and picked up our rental car (rented from Budget at the discounted rate available to USAT members). As much as we had prepared, trained, visualized and even looked forward to racing in the heat and humidity that Ironman Texas is known for, rain, thunderstorms, and unusually cold weather came through in the week leading up to the race. Wednesday’s temperatures were only in the 70’s and the forecast for high for race was only mid-80’s. Still, I made a conscious effort to stay hydrated, carried a water bottle with me and kept it full, and drank water with at least one Nuun tablet or Herbalife 24 Hydrate daily.

We reached the Woodlands in about 30 minutes (with traffic). Check-in went quickly. Unlike last year, there was no line. I noticed a dozen or so fans in an adjoining tent in the back, all sitting unused. Presumably, these fans were on hand to keep the tent cool, but it was so cool they were unneeded.

CHECK-IN

After check-in we got our bikes from TriBike Transport, who once again delivered our bikes to the race expo without a hitch.

TBT

After we checked in and got our bikes we stopped by a nearby HEB supermarket for groceries. One of the great things about this race is that everything, including  the supermarket, is within walking distance of the host hotel. The local Lululemon even dedicated their storefront displays to Ironman Texas.

LULULEMON

After checking in we drove up to Spring, about a 15 minute drive, to the home our friends Ulysses and Maritza, where we were staying until the night before the race.

Pre-race

On Thursday we went for a short ride to loosen our legs and find a nearby bike path where we could do our pre-race warmup on Friday. I discovered my rear shifting needed adjustment. We left early enough to attend an athlete briefing, leave my bike with the mechanic, and looked around the expo. On the way out we ran into our Wattie Ink teammates Andy Kohl Travis Thomason, and Ron Schmidt.

WATTIE LUNCH

The evening’s welcome dinner was great. We figured we paid for it, so we might as well go. We ended up sitting at a table with four other athletes. The awkwardness broke after we introduced ourselves and one of them realized he had read my blog. All four athletes at our table were competing in their first Ironman and they were all eager to pick our brains about the race. It was a great dinner and, since this was supposed to be our main carbohydrate loading pre-race meal, we really attacked the pasta.

We attended the practice swim the next morning. My goal was just to loosen up. I swam one loop of the course and got out. I had not swam in my wetsuit in a year, so I was happy we went. The water, at 70 degrees, was perfectly comfortable with a wetsuit. After our swim, we drove back up to Spring, finished our warmup, a short bike/run brick, then showered, changed, ate a big lunch, which would be our major meal of the day. After lunch we finished getting our transition bags together and went back to the Woodlands for bike check.

BAG CHECK

After dropping off our bikes and transition bags we checked into the hotel, put our feet up, laid out our race kits and nutrition, ate, and turned in early. As calm as I had been in the days before I had a hard time sleeping due to pre-race nerves.

Changing the Plan

For raceway a wetsuit-legal swim looked likely. A non-wetsuit swim was an aspect of the race I had looked forward to. Swimming is my strongest leg and a part where I always lead my division. Like everyone, I could expect a faster swim split with a wetsuit. However, since conventional wisdom holds that wetsuits help slower swimmers more than faster swimmers the wetsuit would help me less than it would other slower swimmers.

Winds on the bike course were the other factor. In the Houston/Woodlands area, lower temperatures mean more wind. More wind generally translates to a longer bike split and, as a result, necessitates riding a lower wattage in order to finish the bike leg with the same relative physical stress (more explanation on that here). The winds could also hurt me competitively. The bike course is mostly flat and rolling which, in addition to the winds, would generally favor larger athletes with higher overall wattage. In past years these larger, more powerful athletes’ performances were blunted by the heat, but that would not be the case this year.

Race conditions and how they could impact my competitiveness only reminded me that I needed to focus on process, rather than outcome. I needed to visualize my transition with a wetsuit. More wind and time on the bike course meant I needed remain all the more cognizant of my perceived exertion, rather than just riding to my power meter, and a little extra nutrition (even though my nutrition planning already erred on the side of carrying extra nutrition).

Race Day

Since we were staying at the Marriott we had only a short walk to the transition area, where we would pump up our tires and drop off our nutrition and special needs bags then head over the the swim start. I was concerned about getting a pump, but so  many athletes brought their own it was not problem. We got to the swim start with plenty of time to get into our wetsuits and use the porta-potties. It was, unfortunately, almost too much time. We made the mistake into the ports-potty line a second time, instead of getting ready to get in the water and warmup.

Swim

I pushed and squeezed my way through athletes to get into the water and then swam to the right buoy, setting myself up in the second or third line. Since the swim course curves a bit, you get the straightest line by starting to the right. I only had a couple minutes before the cannon shot.

With everyone in wetsuits and everyone starting together the swim start was much more physical and congested than last year. It soon cleared out and I found myself wondering if I started too far right, because I was way off on my own. I also realized, after about 10 minutes, that I pushed the wrong button on my Garmin and failed to correctly start it. I pushed start and focused on swimming. Even after the turn-around I found myself on my own to the right of the line. I took the sweeping right turn into the channel and finally found some feet. I also finally found my stroke. Until then I had been windmilling my arms and hadn’t really thought about it, but once I returned to my typically smooth-high elbow stroke I felt faster, stronger, and more efficient. I was likely too late, as I exited the water in 56 minutes. Based on previous experience with a swim skin and last year’s swim split (57 minutes) I anticipated swimming about 5 minutes faster. I felt like I had zigzagged a lot, although since I had started my Garmin late I couldn’t be sure based on my swim distance.

SWIM EXIT

While my swim split was good enough for 3rd in my age group I feel like I could have done better. I wanted to focus on execution, but I don’t feel like I executed the swim well. My stroke was off, I never got a draft, and I really zig-zagged. Still, I finished the swim and got on the bike course in an hour (and a look at the big clock told me my watch was about 10 minutes off). I put the swim out of my mind so I could focus on the bike.

Bike

My goal on the bike was to keep my power around 170 watts, drink a bottle of Infinit (300 kcal with extra sodium) every hour, take one SaltStick tablet every hour, and sip my two flasks of PowerBar gel as needed for any quick, extra energy. I had a PowerBar Performance Bar in case I needed solid food as a stomach satisfier. I needed it in training, but I never noticed the need during the bike leg. I set a 15-minute nutrition timer on my Garmin to help me pace my nutrition.

BIKE

This year was clearly windier that last year, whereas last year predominantly had a tailwind, a bit of a crosswind, and then a headwind, this year the wind blew nonstop and changed constantly. At special needs (around mile 60) I picked up my special needs bag with two more bottles of Infinit. Sometime in the fourth hour the wind stopped for a moment, just long enough for me to notice that it was really hot. At every aid station I topped off my Speedfil A2 and doused myself with any remaining water.

I backed off my wattage after about 3 hours. To hit my goal wattage I would have had to ride at a higher perceived exertion than I wanted and too high to leave enough gas in the tank for a marathon. I finished with a normalized power of 161 watts. I got off the bike in 5:24. Last year I rode 5:33. Considering the greater wind on the course this year, I consider that a good improvement and validation for all the time and effort on the bike trainer this winter. The bike portion also felt shorter an less exhausting than last year, something I attribute to both fitness and nutrition. I also had zero chafing, likely a result of a slightly different position, my great new Wattie Ink kit, and a very healthy dose of Morgan Blue Solid Chamois Cream, which is a lot like a thick vaseline and stays on really well after a swim or long trainer session.

Run

When I got off the bike I certainly didn’t feel fresh. I didn’t expect to. After all, I had just ridden 112 miles. All I had to do was keep moving. I passed by Ron Schmidt and the Moxie crew around mile 1 or 2. Claudia Schnetzinger Spooner joined them the second time around. Once again Moxie had the best cheer station!

W CHEER

I loosened up after a couple miles and found myself moving at a surprisingly good pace. If anything I had to watch my Garmin to avoid going too fast. Like last year the energy on the course was incredible, with cheer groups, aid stations, and spectators everywhere. Like last year I walked the aid stations so I could effectively get water and nutrition. I took a gel every 3 miles or so and also kept up with my SaltStick tablets.

On my first loop I saw Julia Gajer run by, followed a couple minutes later by Kelly Williamson, who was flying. On the second loop I started breaking down and the third loop I really broke down. I struggled to continue running, but I nonetheless kept running. My stomach also stated getting grumpy after the aid stations, so I switched to Coke. I had a few Tums with me and my stomach settled every time I used one. They worked like magic and if I ever do another Ironman I will carry more.

RUN

I eventually finished with a 4:07 run split, 7 minutes better than last year. I had certainly hoped for better, but the entire time I at least felt like I could run the entire marathon.

Finish!

I finished with a 10:36, almost 20 minutes better than last year’s 10:54. It was not the race I had wanted and I had hoped for better times on my swim, bike, and run. Whether those goals were realistic is another matter.  Strangely, the race just didn’t feel as long as last year and went by quickly. After all the training the race itself was almost a non-event. Whereas last year I finished 15th in my age group, this year, even with a faster time, I finished 38th. As I said above, placing and ranking is really outside your control, because so much of it depends on who shows up and how others execute their race. It again shows you need to focus on your own race and your own execution. The field this year was significantly faster. If you made the 40-44 age group podium last year, you may not have even cracked top 20 this year.

FINISH

Gloria came in a half hour later with an incredible 48-minute PR. I wrapped my arms around her and told her I loved her and was proud of her. She not only PR’d, she also finished 5th in her division! She had worked extremely hard and wrapped her brain around a different style of training and racing. It was incredible.

GLORIA PODIUM

MEDALS

Our Ironman journey will continue. We learned a lot in these months and so did our coaches. There are too many to thank, but just a few –

  • The love and support of my wife Gloria
  • Our incredible coaches at TriMarni Coaching and nutrition, Marni and Karel. The plan worked!
  • Wattie Ink and everyone on the team, especially Ron and Claudia for spending the day in the sun cheering for everyone
  • The Wattie Ink Elite Team’s sponsors, especially PowerBar for fueling our training, recovery, and racing, ISM for the most comfortable saddle ever (the Time Trial), Speedfil for its A2/Z4 combination,  TriBike Transport for its flawless and timely delivery, and Blue Seventy for the Helix, the best wetsuit ever made.
  • The whole crew at Davis Wheelworks, especially Joe Santos and Tim “Sherpa” Mualchin. They spent hours getting our bikes and our fits dialed in.
  • All of the volunteers at Ironman Texas. You people were incredible.
  • Ulysses and Maritza (and Austin and Mackie) for welcoming us into your home

DINNER

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