Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Back to Ironman Part I: Gordo in Brazil

Back to Ironman Part I: Gordo in Brazil
By Gordo Byrn

Currently, I'm sitting on my flight out of Florianopolis at the start of a multi-day journey to Bermuda. With all my connections and layover, I figure that this is a good time to jot down a few ideas about the last fifteen months. What I'll do, with my editor's indulgence, is break it into two parts. The first bit will be about my race last weekend and the second bit will be about the lessons that I learned coming back from my fifteen month break from Ironman racing.

Monica and I chose Brazil because its position in the year enabled us to get six months of preparation. Typically I race IM New Zealand but, with nine months off my bike in 2005, I decided that an extra three months of training would be prudent.

What I'm going to do is let you inside my race so you can see how things played out strategically. In terms of results I had very close to a perfect day and finished fifth overall. There was only one other athlete that I could have caught on the run, my buddy Stephen Bayliss. He played his hand well and saved a bit for when it mattered.

Three weeks out from Brazil, Monica and I did an Olympic distance race in Miami. The race was a bit of a fiasco from a performance viewpoint but it was good training. In Miami, I had the opportunity to swim side-by-side with M until the swim turnaround (when I prudently started to draft as she accelerated around the buoy). Coming out of that race, M pointed out to me that my first 150 was waaay too fast. I was keying off the guys around us and they went absolutely crazy!

My first tip: keying off athletes on a suicide mission can lead to poor pace judgment. I spent the next three weeks telling everyone that I met how easy I was going to swim, hoping that spoken affirmations might settle me down.

Brazil is an ocean swim and during race week we noticed that a current was running each morning. On race morning it was flowing strongly from right to left, so we all lined up on the far right of the course. It was a downhill beach start and the elites had a 10 m gap over the age group field. I had a feeling that it was going to be a bit of a thrashfest, because a pack of rested, excited, stressed men will do strange things at times. As it turned out, their suffering was my gain. Here's how the swim played out…

After the three-minute warning, the gun went off without any countdown (I liked that because we had a clean start). We took off and I started at what felt like a very easy pace. However, with the amount of chemicals that were pouring into my bloodstream, ANY pace would feel easy at that stage.

About 300 m off the beach, the elite guys dropped me, just as eight age groupers started to power through. The age group guys pulled me along for another five minutes or so. As these guys started to fade, the pros were loading up. So I lifted my effort a touch and bridged back to within 5 m of the second pro group, as all but one of my lead-out men faded. The last AGer with me must have been an experienced swimmer, because he slowly reeled in the large group in front of us. There was another pace change at 1,200 m but we (mainly 'he') coped with that.

Soon we were behind a group of swimmers that were battling it out amongst themselves. It is an interesting sensation being relaxed enough to feel how other athletes are doing in the water. There was a lot of stress coming off the group ahead, which was (at times) swimming up to six abreast as they kicked the crap out of each other for the right to lead our group. My lead-out man and I stayed at the back right-hand corner of the group avoiding the thrashing and thoroughly enjoying the ride.

It was my easiest start in at least three years. I'll throw some props to the good people at Blue Seventy for setting me up with one of their new Helix suits, because two-thirds of the way through I looked over and Olaf was swimming beside me. That cheered me up immensely and I cruised to shore behind a wall of churning feet.

I always like to take it easy for a bit when I come out of the water, so I trotted to transition, grabbed my helmet and headed out on the bike. Once on the bike, I settled down and started riding. First Olaf freight-trained on by, then Oscar, then I saw Luke rolling the other direction heading out from an early turnaround. Early turnarounds are nice, because they even out the local advantage from the 'home team' shouting splits to their favourites. I very briefly thought about riding with Olaf and Oscar but I saw that I'd have to hold over 300 watts to play that game and knew that would have been a suicide mission.

In Brazil the draft zone is 10 m from back to front. In other words, you need to have 10 m between bikes. This is double the draft zone that is used in North American races. I hope that this rule will spread because, when combined with strict early enforcement, it means that you have to ride your own race. There were 1,200 athletes in Brazil, all starting at the same time, and the men's elite race was as fair as I've ever seen.

It's difficult for most of the field to understand the advantage that accrues to the men when they are sitting in a legal pace line, 5 m apart, riding at 38-44 km/h. My experience is that the advantage is a 7-9% reduction in power required to sit in.

With a 10 m gap, there are no material advantages unless you are riding straight into a gale. This is honest Ironman racing and easily enforced. Athletes want fair racing and this format would give the strongest triathlete the edge on the day.

Oscar, Luke and Olaf were far and away the strongest on the day. Further, each of them knows that their result was due to their own efforts and not a tactical decision to use other athletes on the bike.

The wind came up through the ride and there were sections that were tough. However, transition is at the far north end of the course and the winds were from the south. So we were all going to be pushed back to T2 over the last 40K of the ride. I made a deal with myself that if I worked to the 140K mark then I could back off with the wind pushing me home.

The choice to slow down was a strategic decision, because I was at least fifteen minutes down on third, but only eight minutes down on fourth. I figured that I might lose 3-4 min by backing off but that (on a good day) I could pull back up to 13 min on the marathon. I was counting on the average elite run outside of the top three being about 3:05 on a sunny, windy day. Most elite men will take it out around 1:27 for the first lap then fade to 1:38+ for the second lap. By 'resting', I was hoping to go 1:25/1:25 for the marathon.

Holding back is tough because for seven hours you have the sensation that you are getting beat. Often it's true because Oscar, Luke and Olaf were crushing me. However, there wasn't much that I could do about that so I focused on cracking the Top 5.

Another race tip is that the easiest place to pass an athlete is between 20K and 30K on the run. If you are going toe-to-toe with someone then there is just enough distance left that they will likely be scared to really load up at this stage. Off course, surge too hard and you might detonate yourself for later. What I try to do is pace the first half of the marathon so that I know (hope?) that I'll be able to pick it up on the second half.

On the day, my gamble paid off and I ran my way from tenth to fifth. I came within fifteen seconds of fourth, but Stephen picked it up and I didn't have enough to bridge to him. I smiled internally at the reasons that I came up with for not pushing harder… you've suffered enough; he needs the extra $1,000 more than you; fifth is good enough; you might blow and drop to sixth…

Truth is, I was stoked to be in fifth and had enough pain and suffering for one day. My K splits tailed off a bit and I rolled through to the finish line.

In the end I ran 2:51 (1:24/1:27) and finished in 8:36, which is a great result. What's interesting to me is how much 'easy' racing was included in that effort. I lacked both the physical and mental stamina to push myself for the entire event. I was fortunate that when I 'tapped out' there were only twenty-five minutes left to go and the guys behind me were fading at about the same speed.

My final tip is that it is tempting to think that the athletes up the road are supermen. Just remember that nearly all the people 'up the road' were once 'down the road'.

The biggest difference in ultra endurance performance is learning the humility and patience required to play your best hand. The best athletes race from where their fitness is, rather than where they'd like it to be.

See you at the races,