I’m sitting in a cabin in Lake Tahoe, days away from my first and what may be my only Ironman. I picked up my race number today. Despite the forest fire raging not too far from here and the smoke filled air, I’m trying to relax and stay focused.
As I sit here I’m thinking back to my first day of training and the two miles of running that had me winded. I’m thinking back to the first time I clipped into the bike pedals and how I fell four times on a three mile test ride of my new bike. I’m thinking back to my first trip to the pool and how I timidly got into the slow lane.
And day after day I did a little more. And now 100 miles on the bike isn’t intimidating, neither is the marathon or the 2.4 mile swim. For me the only question is how fast can I do it.
Some people race an Ironman to complete – they just want to finish. I decided early on that I’m here to compete. I want to get a top spot in my age group and qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
I’ve done the training, I’ve got the fitness, my gear is tuned up and ready to go. Now it all comes down to executing a solid race strategy.
Ironman Racing Strategy
There is nothing you can do to win an Ironman on race day – your ceiling is already set. There are, however, thousands of things you can do to lose an Ironman on race day.
How to Lose an Ironman in 1 Day
Even if you have spent months working hard, putting in the miles, toughing through the pain, there are decisions you can make, actions you can take and accidents that can all ruin your day. The race is so long that a mistake early can cost you hours. This isn’t a 5k where you can just jog it in – if you mess up, you’re either dropping out or spending a long painful day walk/jogging a marathon and seeping in your failure.
The ways you can fail include, but are not limited to:
- Forgetting your bike shoes
- Going out too fast on the bike
- Eating something for breakfast that doesn’t sit well
- Going out too slow on the bike
- Not eating enough
- Crashing your bike around a tight corner
- Getting disqualified for drafting >3 times
- Eating too much
In order to avoid those, I’m planning every detail. Lets look at a few facets of my strategy.
Determining A Race Pace
How do I know how fast to go? If I just wanted to finish I could just take it at a similar effort to my workouts and go with that.
But I want to race. I need to know how fast to go so I don’t start too fast and crash or start too slow and leave energy on the course.
And now for a brief glimpse into the mind of a maniacal competitor.
To find my pace, I scoured through the results of last year and searched for athletes who use Strava, a fitness tracking program. As a member of Strava, I can see the workout history of those athletes that share their training, which is most of them.
Using this method I was able to find a number of athletes across a four hour range of finish times and compare my workouts in the months leading up to the race with theirs. Based on that I was able to figure out times that were possible for me if I raced well.
You can see above that Timothy Mallen, who got 2nd place for my age group and qualified for Kona last year, biked a 5:29 split. Based on a practice loop of the course in August I can see compare some segments that we both rode over. This particular segment is about a half hour long, which is a good measure. You’ll see that I was about 10% slower than his race split and a bit slower than another split he had a month earlier on that same segment. 10% slower than 5:29 is 6:03.
After doing this with a number of athletes, I was able to triangulate into some splits for the bike and run.
Goal Finish Time
You can see above that I highlighted a time of 11:01:45. That is about what I think I could achieve if I raced perfectly.
That all of course depends on the day. If it rains or the wind picks up, things change. But now I at least have a target, and can adjust it if necessary.
I don’t think Kona qualification is realistic at this point – so I’m not going to ruin my day trying for it. If I feel good though…
My exact goal is going to be to break 11 hours. Oddly enough, if you look back to when I started training, that was the goal I was going to give myself 95% credit for. (100% was only achievable if I qualified for Kona.)
I plan on achieving that through splits of:
- Swim – 1:15
- Bike – 5:59
- Run – 3:30
- Transitions – 0:15
To achieve the above requires a swim pace of 31 minutes per mile, bike pace of 18.6 mph and a run pace of 8:00 per mile. All possible.
The Ironman is such a tough race that many things can go wrong which could all ruin my ability to hit my goal. If that happens, I don’t want the day to be a wash so I’m actually setting a few goals.
Goal #1 is to finish. I’ve never finished an Ironman before so I want to do that and won’t do anything that will dramatically decrease my chances of doing so. Even going out fast isn’t that much of a risk when it comes to finishing.
Lets say I bike too fast and at mile 10 on the run I am spent and can only walk from there out. If that where the case I’d be somewhere near the 8 hour mark, meaning I’d have 9 hours left to walk 16 miles. I’d have to walk less than 2 miles per hour. Easy.
Goal #2 is to finish under 14 hours. That is the median finish time for Ironman races. So be being under that, I am at least in the top 50%.
Goal #3 is just in case something goes wrong during one split. It is to hit my other splits. If, for example, my bike breaks and I need to wait an hour for a mechanic to fix it. There will be no way I can finish in 11 hours at that point, but I can still get back on my bike, go hard and try for my run split.
Goal #4 is to not walk. I’m here to run. No matter how slow, even if a walk is faster. If everything goes wrong and I can at least keep running, I’ll be proud of myself. I’m ok with stopping if I need to throw up/massage a cramp/visit the port-a-john/etc., but no walking allowed in my race.
Splitting My Energy
Those times all seem possible, but the question in a triathlon is always whether it is worth it to borrow time from one segment to go faster in another.
For example I could try and bike 30 minutes faster, 5;29 which would buy me 30 minutes on the run so I’d only have to run a 9:09 miles.
In fact, if you look at my splits, compared to other finishers, you’ll notice that my run is a bit faster than others who will bike at the same pace. Most people have a ratio closer to 6:4 where as mine will be 12:7.
I come from a running background, so it makes sense that my run split will be a bit faster than some other athletes with similar overall times. They might be better swimmers or bikers. My reasoning actually goes one step farther than that though.
I did some research on energy output and what the ideal split was and found an article written by Alan Couzens about energy pacing. He argued that since the main inhibitor in an Ironman is a limited supply of stored energy, that the fastest time would come from using each bit of energy in the most efficient way.
As it turns out, this is different for everyone but one thing remains true. Energy is taxed less on the run than on the bike or swim. The reason is simple – wind & water resistance. Since wind resistance grows exponentially as you go faster, each bit of energy put into the bike is taxed. At 25mph you might only get .6 speed for every 1 energy – where as on the run you might be able to achieve a better 1-to-1 ratio.
I am bought into this theory and because of that I am making a few adjustment to my race strategy.
The first is that I am going to crank it on the uphills on the bike and rest the downhills. My reasoning is that when going up the big hill, I’ll be averaging 10mph, a speed at which wind resistance is negligible so my energy can get used efficiently. Going downhill on the other hand I’ll be hitting speeds of 40-45mph. Fast enough that my energy will be basically useless.
The second things I am going to do is take an overall approach of starting slow and finishing fast. I like this for a number of reasons.
- The swim is first and my weakest, so this gives me an excuse to not worry about it.
- The run is last and as we see above, the place where energy is least taxed so saving energy for it makes sense. It is probably also my most efficient sport from a physiological standpoint due to my history so my energy will go much farther here.
- I like passing people – if I am passing people at the end of a race I find new energy. If I am starting to slow down, it tends to magnify. I want to let people get ahead of me so I can have the benefit of passing them later and use that mental boost to dig even deeper and push even harder.
- If I can’t actually complete my goal pace, I won’t be too far in debt. I’ll just keep at the slow pace without accelerating.
- If I can actually handle that pace and more, I can always go even faster. Since I’m already accelerating there is nothing stopping me from finishing the last mile at 5:00 flat.
- Mentally it is a nice challenge. Running exactly even splits is really hard mentally – it just wears on you. Trying to but each mile by 5 seconds gives you something to think about, a game to play with yourself. It makes the time fly.
Breaking Up The Race
Technically the race is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run. I’m thinking of it in segments though. By doing this, I’ll know what I’m supposed to be doing at every point in the day so I can focus on that.
The mental aspect of an Ironman is one of the toughest parts. Though I’ve never completed an Ironman I’ve learned a lot about what race day is like by reading detailed post-race analyses by other triathletes – I especially love those of David Rowe. From that I’ve been able to come up with the below strategy.
Part 1 – The Swim
Slow & steady. Go out slow. Draft faster swimmers. Stay calm, don’t worry about anyone else. Maintain good form. Kick towards the finish to wake your legs up.
Part II – T1
Wetsuit off & towel dry. It’s going to be cold. Arm warmers & gloves on. Helmet & glasses on. Clean feet to avoid sand or rocks in shoes. Start the timer. Hop on bike & start spinning.
Part III – Bike Miles 0 – 25
Nice and easy. It is mostly flat. It will be cold & you will be wet. Try and think warm thoughts. Get your legs ready for 9 hours of work.
Part IV – Bike Miles 26 – 50
Get rid of arm warmers & gloves. Keep heart rate between 150 & 160. Attack the hill. Keep up your cadence and pass people like a mad man. Tuck and take the down hill fast. Crack 45 mph. Keep that momentum going down to Kings Beach and around.
Part V – Bike Miles 51 – 75
Check your nutrition, you should be more than half done. If you got a flat or dropped a bottle, get your special needs bag. Keep your pace but don’t overdo it. Enjoy the break through the no-pass zone.
Part VI – Bike Miles 76 – 100
Attack that hill. Go faster than the first time – I’m going to check afterwards on Strava. It is ok if your heart rate crosses 160 for a bit. Fight through the discomfort and gain time now. Finish any food you have and drink up.
Part VII – Bike Miles 101 – 112
Spin. Crank up the cadence and get your legs feeling good. Now isn’t the time to race, you need to prepare for the run. Pee now – it is easier than while running. Take your watch off the bike mount and put it in your back pocket so you don’t forget it.
Part VIII – T2
Bike shoes off on the dismount. Grab your bag – socks & racing flats on. Race belt on. Watch strap on and clip in the watch.
Part IX – Run Miles 1 – 2
Easy. So easy. Get your groove. No faster than 8:00 miles.
Part X – Run Miles 2 – 13
Hold your pace. 8:00 per mile. Keep your heart rate in the 150 – 160 zone. Don’t chase anyone – you’ll catch them later.
Part XI – Run Miles 14 – 23
Take measure. If you feel good, start dropping the pace by 5 seconds per mile. Keep your heart rate under 160. Drink and eat something. The pain is coming. Pass people strong and feel encouraged.
Part XII – Run Miles 24 – 26.2
5k. Leave everything on the course. If you feel good run faster. If you feel bad run faster. Don’t walk – run until you can’t & then crawl. Your heart rate should be maxing out. You should be in pain and locking up. This is where we find out what you’re made of.
Wow, that was a lot of stuff. If you got tired reading it, just imagine how tiring racing it will be.
Keeping My Pace and Effort In Check
I usually train off of feel. If I’m supposed to do a tempo day on the bike, I sort of know what that feels like and try to push that hard. I usually check afterwards to make sure my pace reflected that sort of effort and correct next time if needed. For running I do use pace for hard workouts, my iPhone calls them out to me.
I’ll usually check my pulse periodically while running or biking as well just to make sure I’m not working too hard or too easy. I do that the old fashion way – finger to neck and eyes on watch.
For the Ironman you can’t use an iPhone, so last week I got a Garmin Forerunner 310 watch. This watch uses GPS to keep track of my pace and distance and hooks up to a heart rate monitor to keep track of my effort.
I’ve configured my watch to tell me what I need to know in order to maintain the appropriate effort.
The first thing I did was set up auto-laps of 5 miles for the bike and 1 mile for the run. Each time I’ve got that far, the watch will tell me my pace and average heart rate.
I then set the watch to rotate through two screens. The first is a lap info screen that shows me my current lap pace & current lap’s average heart rate. This will basically tell me if I’m working too hard so I can immediately make adjustments.
The second screen shows my total distance for that sport – run or bike along with some overall stats such as pace, time and average heart rate. This lets me look at my performance overall to see how I’m doing. I might look at this and decide to adjust my expectations – and that could mean either setting them lower, or higher.
I like having the information split by total and laps. As the day goes on, it is harder to move the average for the total, but important to know if you start slacking – that is where the laps help. Periodically though, you’ll want to know how you’re doing for the full day and it is easier to look than to try and remember how much over or under you were in every segment.
As I described in an earlier post about nutrition, I’m going with Hammer Perpetuem. This is in my opinion the most calorie dense and easy to consume method of getting calories. I don’t have to deal with unwrapping things or storing trash. I don’t have to grab stuff at the aid stations, which lets me focus on water. I don’t have to unzip or reach for food, I’ll have it right in front of me.
I actually made a change in the past week. I am now going to use the second compartment of my aero bar water bottle for the Perpetuem. That way I can take sips without moving, which will help me maintain my aerodynamic form. It also reduces the chance of dropping the bottle while grabbing it or putting it back.
To do this, I need to mix it a little less dense than I’ve been doing. I can usually get 2,000k calories into a 21oz bottle, but I found that was too thick for the straw of the front bottle.
So instead I’ll be mixing about 1,200 calories into a 24oz bottle that I put in a cage and starting with the front bottle filled with 8oz that has 600 calories. To make up for the missing 200 calories, I’ll use a few gels and grab a banana at some point during the day.
This will mean that I’ll have to fill up the front compartment twice. I’ll likely try to do that during a flat spot.
How will I remember to take sips? My watch is set to beep every 5 miles, so I’ll use that as a reminder to take in some.
I plan on front loading and finishing everything by mile 90 so I have a bit to let my stomach process it before I start running.
During the run I’ll have two Hammer Gels on my race belt. After I use those I might grab a banana or GU. I’m really just going to go on feel for the run.
I typically go through about 24-30oz water per hour while biking. That means during the course of the day I’ll drink 130-180oz, or about 1.5 gallons of water.
Water weights ~8lbs per gallon so 1.5 gallons is about 12lbs. Not something I want to cary around with me all day.
My strategy is to operate like Walmart: just in time. I want to run out of water right as I get to the next water station so that my total average cary is as low as possible.
There are four water stations on the course where volunteers will hand out bottles. I’ve highlighted them in orange below.
Since we do 2 1/3 laps, that means I’ll get to grab water up to 10 times. Since I can also start with my water full, that will mean I’ll need to grab on average, 15oz at each stop. Since they’ll likely be handing out either 16oz or 20oz bottles, that is perfect.
My plan is to grab a bottle, dump it into the bottle attached to my handle bars and toss the empty.
Now in practice, the first stop is only 5 miles in, so I’ll still have my starting water. Finally, the last stop is about 2 miles from the finish, so I’ll probably not be grabbing much there. That means that in reality I’ll 0nly grab water 8 times. Two of the times are right before the hill so I’ll go light there and to make up for it I’ll probably need to grab double at the stop near Squaw valley, which is right before a long downhill.
To make sure I’m drinking, my watch will beep at me every 5 miles. I’ll use that as a note to take a sip and probably be taking sips other times as well.
On the run I don’t have to be as careful. There are aid stations every mile and the cost of slowing is much less than when I’m on the bike. I plan to use cups to fill up my hand-bottle and sip from that periodically.
Drafting & Passing
Drafting is not allowed on the bike. Sort of. As a draft illegal race, during an Ironman you’re not allowed to stay behind another biker to get an advantage.
The actual rules are basically such that you have to say 23ft behind them unless you’re initiating a pass. A pass is a specific move where you catch them, pass to their left and then go in front of them. You have 20 seconds to do that or you get a penalty.
I plan on passing a lot of people, and as such I’m going to use my 20 seconds. I could easily just stay to the left and power through quickly, but I wouldn’t gain much in doing so.
Instead as I start the pass I’ll come into their draft zone and stay for about 10 seconds. That will give me a nice chance to lower my effort by about 5% for a bit before pushing it back up to pass them. I plan to stay right behind them until the last second and then pass to the left.
That seems minor, but as a slower swimmer, I’ll probably pass between 100-200 people throughout the day. At 10 seconds a pop, that is 15-30 minutes of drafting. So 15-30 minutes of not having to push quite as hard. I’ll take it.
In the swim, drafting is legal. I plan on following close to someone at all times. The best ways to do this are either right behind them so your hand just nearly touches their foot as your take a stroke, or right on their hip. I used to be horrible at this, but a few open water swim races and I’m decent now. I’m going to leverage that. With the flotation of the wetsuit and the advantages of drafting, I can easily swim my target pace with 10-20% less effort than I would use swimming solo in jammers.
What to Wear
This is one decision that I have been debating over and over throughout the past few days. My strategy will likely affect some of the above, but not too much.
When I hop on my bike in the morning, it will be 8AM, 30* and I’ll be soaking wet after swimming in a 60* lake. By the time I hop off of my bike it will be somewhere in the 1-3PM vicinity and likely 80-90*. I don’t have time to stop and change during the ride. So what am I to do?
One thing I am doing for sure is leveraging arm warmers and gloves that I’ll have in my bike gear bag to put on after the swim. I plan to toss them away part way through the race. The first 25 miles are going to be the coldest – they will be the earliest in the day, they are in a shaded part of the course and they are slightly downhill which means I’ll be moving fast and feeling a lot of wind hit me. I’ll likely toss them to my family where they’ll be cheering for me at a certain point. But worst case scenario I just throw them away.
I debated a number of strategies for what to wear but am going with the tried and true tri suit. It is going to be really cold, so to help, I’ll be filling two bottles with hot water in the morning. One to rinse off with and one to drink from. I’ll just have to tough it out until the sun comes up over the mountain.
I mentioned earlier that at last year’s Lake Tahoe Ironman, 20% of those people that started the race weren’t able to finish. 20%!!!
Stuff can go wrong – that is what makes it an Ironman.
Here are some of my contingency plans.
- Flat tire – spare on bike & extra in special needs bag in case I need to use the first one. Also tools and CO2
- Fumble with CO2 – these things are small and your hands are cold, the have just enough air for the tire so if you lose any you’re going to be on a low tire. I carry two and have two more in my special needs bag.
- Dropped nutrition bottle – extra in special needs bag, can depend on course nutrition until then if needed
- Mechanical trouble – multi-tool, tape & a few replacement parts. If that can’t fix it, wait for the repair truck.
- Getting lost – biked & ran the course ahead of time
- Watch malfunction – I’ll just bike by feel and I have an extra watch in my run bag so I can at least time my miles. It isn’t a GPS watch though.
Speaking of special needs bags – these are bags you get to put things in and can pick up half way through the bike and run. I’ve got some extra things in my bike bag but couldn’t think of anything to put in my run bag. So just for good measure I did this.
Did I cover everything? I hope so.
At this point there is nothing left to do but relax, visualize a strong performance and then get out there and do it.
Time to find out what my breaking point is.
See you afterwards for a race recap!