Race Report: New York City Marathon 2016

On November 6, 2017 I ran the New York City Marathon. I finished in a time of 3:11:37, about a half hour slower than my best marathon. Here is the race report.

I debated writing this – I wasn’t sure it passed my litmus test of being a race – or of deserving a report. In my mind the goal of writing a race report is to document the ins and outs of an all out effort in order to learn from it and also to serve as way to remember a momentous event. I ultimately decided to write this because I think I have something to learn from it, and it was quite memorable.

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Finished
  • Was leading my heat for the first mile
  • Solid effort through the first 22 miles
  • Finished before 96% of runners
  • Was able to run well off of minimal training

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Lost to Chris
  • Did not take it easy enough the days leading up to the race
  • Did not get to the starting area early enough and missed my wave
  • Did not have a good read on my fitness
  • Went out way too fast
  • Ultimately did not have a sound strategy or unified goals
  • Didn’t stick to my fueling strategy

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • The random number generator that accepted me to the race
  • Amazing weather
  • The people of New York City
  • Volunteers with water every single mile
  • The New York City Mets
  • Getting to have a celebratory dinner with Chris, Gretchen & Rob
  • My wife for letting me leave her alone for two days to check an item off my bucket list

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Morning logistics
  • No one to pace off of for the first 19 miles
  • Having to weave to pass a LOT of people
  • Having to walk almost a mile after the race

Race Report

The following is a detailed account of my race. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.

Pre Race Day

Before the race I changed my mind a few times about what my goal was.

My original intent was to run the NYC Marathon as a celebration after doing well at Jack & Jill over the summer.

I missed my 2:37 goal there by 5 minutes though and so I thought I could use NYC as a second chance. After studying the course I realized that was going to be improbable due to the travel stress & race course difficulty. So I signed up for CIM, the fastest course on the west coast, in order to give myself the best shot at hitting 2:37. I planned to skip NYC since I qualified for next year.

My friends Chris & Gretchen were signed up for NYC, and beating Chris is one of my favorite pass times, so around October I decided to go and run it as a workout, one month before CIM. My high hopes were to run about 3:00 easy at NYC, which I knew would beat Chris, and then turn around to run a 2:37 a month later at CIM.

My training hit a few kinks, mainly due to my third child being born, and so by late October I realized a 2:37 at CIM wasn’t going to happen. I ran one tempo run that suggested I could hold 6:30 pace at NYC and finish around 2:50-2:55 though, which seemed like a great plan. Plugging some data into the NYC Marathon pace calculator tool, my plan seemed to line up with what they thought. I made the call to taper for the race rather than train through it and decided my goal was to have as much fun as possible while still beating Chris.

My strategy at that point was to go out slow, around 7:00 pace, drop to 6:45s for the bulk, catch up with him around mile 18-20, and then finish strong, leveraging a solid base from earlier in the year. (You will soon see that this is the exact opposite of what occurred.) I had another goal in mind of finishing with my average heart rate above 166 BPM, which is what I averaged during my fastest marathon. I knew I wasn’t as fast as I was then, but I figured if I was able to work that hard again or harder, that would be an accomplishment.

The day before the race I made a few big decisions – never a good idea. I decided that my goal was to have as much fun as possible and make this a memorable event. After all, I knew it wasn’t going to be fast (by my standards), so I might as well make it fun. I decided to wear a New York Mets hat to get the crowd support. I made the call to abandon a few of my pre race rest tendencies and go do a few NYC things. I opted to run with my phone so I could take photos & videos to remember it by.

I also decided that, since my qualifier time had me seeded with group 1A, I would go out fast & run the first miles with the professionals. I had this vision in my head of running out in front on across the bridge, side by side with runners I could never compare myself to. I could only hold their marathon pace for a mile or two, but perhaps I would even make it on TV during that time so my family could see me. After that I would likely need to take a breather, then get back in a fight through a tough and slow race. I was going to blow my race but enjoy the first 10 minutes of it.

What I hope is obvious is that I didn’t have a clear and locked goal. My plans were changing quite frequently based on the circumstances. Sometimes rolling with the punches is a good thing, but often it results in confusion and failure on all accounts.

Morning

I woke up at 6:00AM, caught an Uber with another runner and got to the ferry terminal plenty early for the 6:45 ferry to Staten Island. The race was scheduled to start at 9:45, which meant I had over three hours of waiting.

I did by best to stay warm and sit as not to burn energy. I stayed hydrated. I tried to be patient with the large crowds. I have never been to a race this big. In fact, very few people have since this year the NYC Marathon set a record for largest marathon – only a few other shorter races have ever been bigger.

I somehow bumped into Chris & Gretchen on the ferry and we acted like tourists the whole way over to Staten Island.

Once at the ferry terminal on the other side, we decided to stay inside for a bit rather than getting on the bus. A large part of that was spent waiting in line for the last nice bathroom we would see. The janitor there had a sense of humor about the crowd that remains a highlight of the day.

We eventually got in line to get on a bus, and made a mistake of getting on a full bus rather than waiting for the next one. We were standing in the isle and the bus was in traffic & not moving. We eventually sat down in the isle as best we could and watched our clocks as we realized we would likely miss our wave. We did hit another highlight though, a 70-something year old man who has run the race ~30 times telling us why he loved it so much and where the best bathrooms on the course are.

The bus pulled up and we ran to try and find our starting area. Hearing over the loudspeaker that we had missed our wave, I had to abandon my plan to go out in front and decided to go with Chris’ wave so we could run together. We got separated though and so I ran back over to my start area. After a bunch of shoving through crowds I found out I nearly missed the next wave too, but ended up making it to the front of 2A.

The Start

I asked around to find out what sort of paces heat 2A was set for and heard mostly 8:00-range. A fine pace for a marathon, but I had run a marathon at 6:11 a few months earlier. I was going to need to go out fast to avoid getting bottlenecked.

By turn of fate I would end up being in the perfect place to fulfill my vision of being in front on the bridge, without having to run 5:00 pace.

The cannon went off at 10:15 and I took off. I was in front. A quarter mile in I started to feel winded, and realized I was going sub six, uphill. Not a good idea. I slowed down a bit, but around then I spotted Chris’s wave.

The Bridge

I need to provide a bit of context. The way the NYC marathon start works is kind of complex. There are three color starting lines: blue, green & orange – each of which takes a different course through the first 8 miles before combining.

I was in Blue and Chris was in Orange. Both of those crossed the bridge on the top level, but were separated by a concrete barrier. Our paths would later split in Brooklyn, only to recombine at mile 8.

When I saw Chris up ahead I figured I would go catch him so we could run together. We said hi and ran side by side, like we have for hundreds of miles. (Except there was a concrete barrier between us – which, honestly, is probably a safe measure to implement on future runs). I was leading my wave and he had only a few people ahead of him in his. We essentially got to run on the narrows bridge with nothing else around – another highlight of the day.

My watch beeped after one mile, 6:25. 50 seconds faster than the plan. The, 20 second later I heard Chris’ watch beep. That is when I realized that our courses were parallel but not even – I had gone out faster, though we were now running the same pace.

You can see in this image a blue and orange line showing the different courses – notice blue starts further back but orange has to run a few extra blocks in Brooklyn.

Around then the bridge crested and started heading downhill.

We cruised down the hill and hit 6:03 for the second mile. Again, much faster than planned. At that point our courses split into Brooklyn, they would reconnect around mile 8.

Brooklyn

The miles through Brooklyn were my favorite of the race. The joke is that I loved the Brooklyn half-marathon – I did quite well too. The crowds had so much energy and that was the first time we got to experience them since there had been no spectators on the bridge.

Their energy kept me pumped up. ran a 6:21 & 6:36 for my next miles and took my first gel. Around that point I started to catch people from wave 1. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be running alone. I was foolish.

I took some video, a selfie and settled into a better pace. 6:47, 6:35, 6:41, 6:42.

During those miles I passed the stragglers of wave 1 and made my way towards the majority of the runners. I love passing people, which probably kept my pace a few seconds faster than it would have been if I had been running with people my own pace. I took my second gel around mile 8.

Around mile 8.5 I ran past my cousin Rob’s house. I’ve been out to see Rob in NYC a half dozen times over the past 15 years, so it was great to run through his neighborhood. He was out there cheering and we connected for a high five – another highlight of the day.

At this point in the race the three waves combined and the course got really crowded. I was catching runners from wave 1, which had started 24 minutes before mine. So the runners I was passing were running about 3 minutes per mile slower than I was (doing the algebra, I was at 6:45 pace and they were at 9:15). That meant I had to plot a course around them essentially like they were standing objects – it was much like running rapids. It was draining and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran an extra half mile weaving back and forth to either side of the road to pass people. This went from fun to frustrating.

Some rough math – I finished in 1,762 place and had started at the front of wave 2 of 4. So there were probably 12,500 people in wave 1. I passed most people between miles 5-15, of which 3 of those miles the course was still split in 3. I figure I passed around 10k people across 10 miles, roughly 1 person per 5 feet. I took a video that confirms those ballpark numbers.

Queens

I crossed the half at 1:27:31, right on schedule actually. I figured at that pace I could keep pace to hit a 2:55, go faster to get closer to 2:50 or slow down a tad and still break 3. This was a great place to be. I took my third gel somewhere around there – I can’t quite remember.

Around this point I was averaging a heart rate of 166, which was one of my goals, so I was feeling great about that.

Unfortunately I got bottlenecked on the Queensborough bridge and ran my first 7:00 split. There was just no way to pass people and I my early decisions were starting to catch up with me. I didn’t have the motivation to yell to pass them by a few seconds so I settled into pace.

Manhattan

Despite going slow, I couldn’t manage to pee, so I stopped right after the bridge hoping to put that all behind me.

As I turned down 1st avenue I decided to give it another go and put up a 6:48 & 6:52 and had my fourth gel. I had two more on my belt that I planned to take during the race but ultimately did not do that – it was a mistake that cost me.

Mile 20 I found a runner who was going a bit faster than me – likely someone who also had to start in the later wave – and I forced myself to stay with him until the mile marker. I figured if I grit it out and hold hold pace for a bit, I would get back in the groove. It was a 6:57 and that was my last sub 7 mile of the race. My hypothesis did not hold true.

Bronx

As we turned through the Bronx, which they let you run in for all of one mile, my pace was 7:20. This was now easy run territory but it didn’t feel easy. I started checking my phone to see where Chris was. As it updated I realized he was closing in on me. At one point I had a 2 minute gap on him but he had nearly caught me.

Manhattan Again

We turned back into Manhattan and just then I saw Chris pass me – we were right around the 22 mile mark. He didn’t see me so I called out to get his attention and we exchanged a few words. I thought he would run with me but he seemed pretty focused – I think he was trying to break 3:00. We were both clearly hurting. I regret that we didn’t just run the race together – that probably would have been more fun given the situation we were trying to deny we were both in.

At this point I knew it was going to be a rough finish. I decided to make a cut then and jog slowly to make sure I could finish. My next miles were 8:20 and 8:40 – that seemed like a deep enough cut in pace to enjoy the finish but was not.

I should have likely gone closer to 9:00 pace and focused on refueling. Unfortunately at mile 24 I thought my race was nearly over and that I could just push through it. It would ultimately be another ~30 minutes until I finished. I wish I had respected that time and taken in some calories.

Central Park

As I hit the park my body bonked. Full on “you don’t have the calories to move that fast” bonk. My heart rate dropped from 170 to 130 – I just didn’t have the energy to push harder. Even at that I had to take a few breathers.

The way to understand bonking is to think about fuel for a car. My body was dripping fuel into the engine at that point and if I tried to move faster than about a 9:00 mile it would burn through it and I would be forced to walk so a bit more energy could accumulate.

I walk/jogged the last two miles. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before in a race. My mile pace was about 11:30. In the race report I wrote for my fast marathon this summer I described how towards the end everything was breaking down and I had a tough time finishing my last miles. Looking back, my slowest mile that day was a 6:37. This time around it was quite shocking to be moving at nearly half that speed.

I’ll include this picture only because I think it captures how much I was trying to grit through the pain. Not having available glycogen isn’t something you can just grit through though.

One of my big miscalculations was thinking I could hit 166 BPM for this race. What I failed to realize is that energy use is a factor of time, not of distance. This is less obvious with short races and on the track, what I am used to. I had previously proven that my body could work at a level of 166 BPM for 2 hours and 42 minutes – not 26.2 miles. When I checked my watch throughout the race and saw 166, I felt good. In reality, all that would get me was 2 hours and 42 minutes of running before a crash. In order to run for a longer time, I would need to be running at a lower effort. In fact, checking my splits, I crossed the 2 hour 42 minute mark at mile 23.5. That is almost exactly when I crashed.

I ended up finishing with a 162 average. If I had thought about this more before the race, I would have aimed for that earlier, gone out a bit slower and likely finished much faster.

This was a hard lesson but will be important if I ever run on trails where distance is often a bad predictor of time, due to elevation climbing. In those cases it is important to think about energy as a function of time. I won’t forget that.

The Finish

I timed my walking so that I had a bit of energy to jog across the finish line. It wasn’t really a celebration other than the fact that I could stop moving and get on with enjoying New York and my friends.

I regret that I didn’t do something more fun at the end. I should have just stopped at a deli around mile 24, had something to eat and gotten back on the course. Then I could have jogged it in and maybe done some pushups at the finish line for good measure. That would have been fun and my time would have been in indistinguishable 3:25 – still a great marathon time. A fun poor performance is much better than a miserable one. Misery is fine if you’re setting a record for yourself though. I wish I could have realized sooner what was happening and made that call. If ever I end up in that situation, I’ll know what to do.

Post Race

The post finish experience was one the worst I’ve ever experienced. We essentially had to walk one mile (I mapped it below) to where we could meet our family and get on the subway. Thankfully they gave us calories right after the finish – I sat down to eat and eventually met up with Chris. We got pretty cold before the .75 mile mark where they finally gave us our ponchos.

That mile probably took close to 40 minutes. I guess that was my slowest mile of the day.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

I mentioned earlier that I went at a good pace and caught up with a lot of runners that started in an earlier wave, only to have many of them pass me again. Here is a nice chart that shows how it played out with one particular runner I found on Strava who ran a 3:24. Their splits were really even so the change in time between us is all due to my pace dropping. I started ~20 minutes behind them, meaning they were about 4 minutes back into wave 1. You can see that I steadily gained on them until the 23 mile mark. At that point they started gaining on me and ended up putting a good bit of distance on me in the last few miles.

Here is my pace (blue), heart rate (red) and foot turnover (pink) during the run. This is one of the charts I look at for every run. Here I see a nice build up at the start (perhaps too fast for the first half mile), then a solid steady run at a good cadence. The pace bumps around mile 15-17 are mostly due to GPS noise. You can see my bathroom stop at mile 16 where my cadence drops for a bit. At mile 22-24 things start to look a bit rough, mile 24 sees a major slow down and then you can see my alternating walking for the last few miles.

Heart rate is one of the metrics I pay a lot of attention to, so here is a look at just that.

You’ll notice a few spikes, the first one at mile 1 when I sped up to catch Chris, the spike at mile 2 when I started passing people, mile 8.5 when I saw Rob, mile 16.5 after I got out of the bottleneck of the bridge, mile 19 when I decided to push and hold onto another runner, mile 24 I made a big push to get over the last bit of the hill.

I mentioned before that I had hoped to have my average heart rate over 166. I essentially hovered at an average of 166-167 from mile 3 to 21. At that point it slowly started to drop. Going into mile 25 I was still at 166 but those last two miles dropped the average to 162.

 

What is Next?

2017 is going to be a light year for me. I won’t be trying for any records. I am signed up for the Boston Marathon, might repeat Jack & Jill to pace a buddy and have my eyes on a few really cool races including the legendary Dipsea & Bloomsday races.

Race Report: Jack & Jill Marathon 2016

On July 31, 2016 I raced my first marathon. I finished in a time of 2:42:23, taking first place in the race. Here is the race report.

greg-after-marathon-stats

Compared to the Ironman I did in 2014, this race was relatively quick and not quite as grueling – but it was much more intense and there was far less margin for error. To put numbers to that – during my Ironman my average heart rate was 137 BMP or about 74% of my maximum. For this marathon it was 166 BPM or 90% of my maximum.

My goal, which I had set at the beginning of the year before I started my training regimen, was to break 2:37. I missed by about six minutes. If you don’t fail once in a while, you aren’t trying hard enough. This was an intentionally aggressive goal that was set without context months earlier. That said, I think I could have broken 2:40 if I had raced better – I had the fitness.

Nonetheless, my finish time of 2:42:23 was fast enough to lock up first place overall, putting me ahead of 568 other finishers. According to athlinks.com, that time puts me in the top 2.6% of marathon finishers – which itself represents only about 3-4% of people.

For a smaller marathon like this, a winning time in the 2:30s or 2:40s is pretty normal – but to give you something to compare that to:

  • Most big city marathons with >1,000 runners, like the San Diego Rock n’ Roll marathon, see a winner in the high 2:20s or 2:30s
  • Galen Rupp, the Olympian representing the USA in Rio this year raced a 2:11:12 in his first marathon (the recent Olympic Trials)
  • The world record for the marathon is 2:02:57

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Won – was in first place from gun to tape
  • Executed well on my planned nutrition & water strategy
  • Adjusted mentally to a bumpy start and got back into a rhythm
  • Solid pace & effort during miles 10-18

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Did not dig deep enough during the last six miles
  • Did not put new batteries in my head lamp before the race
  • Did not rest enough the week before & morning of the race

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • Good weather
  • No rocks got inside of my shoes
  • Volunteers with cold water at the aid stations

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • No one to run with
  • Morning logistics & bus schedule
  • Really busy week at the office proceeding the race (working until midnight multiple nights)

Race Report

The following is a detailed account of my race. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.

Pre Race Day

The day before the race I picked up my packet, did my warm up run on the course to check out the tunnel.

Though I should have it much earlier, I also used that day to test two new pieces of gear. The first was my foot pod – a device that goes on my shoe to track turnover & record distance in the case GPS goes out – which it would during the tunnel. The second was my flashlight – to make sure it was bright enough to run with. I brought two just in case.

As always, I laid everything out the night before to make sure I didn’t forget anything. It worked, I didn’t forget anything.

marathon-gear

Morning

I woke up at 1:30AM. I had planned to sleep until 4:30 – but I was nervous and after spending an hour trying to fall asleep again decided to just rest & read. I had breakfast at 4:30 and left the house at 5.

Race morning breakfast was, as always, peanut-butter & banana on a plain bagel. I have eaten that same meal for every race since high school and it has never failed me.

I drove 40 minutes to the parking lot, which was at the finish line and got on a school bus to go to the start line which was about 20 miles away (the course isn’t perfectly straight). Point to point races dictate this type bus drop off logistics but I feel it is generally stressful. In the future I’ll strongly consider loop courses where you can get yourself to the star/finish. That said, the bus ride was along I90 which is a beautiful mountain pass with trees, towering mountain peaks and flowing rivers every way you look.

We got to the start line a bit after 6:00am and had a while before the start time of 7:30.

I did a really light half mile warm up, a few stretches and a handful of leg exercises to wake everything up. Most marathon runners don’t warm up – it is a long enough race that there is plenty of time to get warm and saving energy is more important. Unfortunately I can’t go from cold to six minute pace without a bit of a warm up.

Sometimes a race is big enough that logistics necessitate bringing ‘throw-away’ clothes you can strip out of at the start & discard. This race was so low key that I ended up stripping down minutes before the start & tossing my bag into the back of a truck at the start line just in time to line up. With that in mind I was surprised to see a bunch of people shivering or wrapped up in garbage bags. Note to any future marathon runners, spend $15 on some cheap sweats or at least make use of your drop bag to keep you warm for 70 of the 90 minutes before the race. It isn’t worth it to burn that much energy being cold & shivering.

As I approached the start line I saw the pacers with their signs. The first corral was labelled ‘Sub 3:45’ and the fastest pacer was holding a ‘3:05’ sign. I asked if anyone was going sub 3 and a few people put their hands up. I said I was trying for 2:40 and they all said ‘good luck’. I had suspected I would be running solo but had hoped I would get lucky and have one or two other people around my time show up.

The Start

When the gun went off, I took off at something close to 5:45. I wanted to go slow, but race nerves kicked in. It took me a bit to settle in to my planned 6:15 pace.

I’ve run hundreds of races over the years and one thing that is consistent is that someone (or a few people) always goes out too hard. I love to watch the front runners and figure out who is going to drop. This didn’t happen in this race to the degree it normally does. There wasn’t anyone way out in front that couldn’t hold on. That was nice to see.

The Tunnel

Half a mile into the Jack and Jill marathon, the course enters a tunnel. It is a 2.3 mile long, pitch black, perfectly straight, damp & cold, former train tunnel that is about 25 ft high and 12 ft across with a crushed rock floor. I have never run in anything like it (minus the test the day before).

As I entered the tunnel I turned my headlamp on and then immediately, the light dimmed. My batteries were dead, but it took me a second to realize what was going on. Meanwhile I was moving at six minute pace in a pitch black tunnel. I stepped in a puddle and got one foot soaked.

The night before I had been talking to my wife about my practice run in the tunnel and which of my two head lamps I was going to bring. I commented that it was important my light worked, because unlike middle pack runners who would have light around them from other runners, there was a chance I would be in front. Just to be safe I decided to bring a second light.

I turned on the other light and put it on my head. This was my backup light because it wasn’t as bright, but it was enough to see the ground in front of me so I could avoid rocks. The trouble with a head lamp & running in a cold tunnel is that your breath fogs & rises, getting in the way of the light so that it reflects back at you. You essentially go blind every exhale. On account of that, the puddles and general creepiness, I remained pretty timid through the tunnel until I got closer to the other side.

Once we got to the other end the light from the other side started to make it possible to see again.

As I got closer to the exit I could see the outside and it seemed surreal. A low hanging fog was stark white and I could taste the pine drenched mountain air.

I was so relieved to be out of there.

greg-marathon-outside-tunnel
You can see a few lights behind me from the first pack of runners

I tossed my lights into a box they had set up (for the record I am really good and tossing things into boxes and trash cans at full speed) and tried to get into my rhythm.

Settling In

That 3rd mile was rough. My heart rate above my target (171 vs 165) and my pace was ten seconds slower than goal (6:09 vs 6:00). I had my first gel at the 3.5 mile mark. When I got to the first aid station I surprised the volunteers who weren’t ready for me and we botched a cup handoff. I was really worried it just wasn’t my day and my morale was pretty low.

Over the next two miles I really focused on turning things around mentally and getting into my groove. Calming down and settling in for the long haul. It was working – my heart rate dropped to 166 and my pace dropped to 5:58. Everything was back on track.

At this point I could help but enjoy the scenery. The race was on a trail on the side of a mountain overlooking a big canyon with a highway and river running below. In the distance, tree covered mountains line as far as you can see and a few jagged, rocky peaks stick out periodically. There was a light cloud cover and some hovering low fog. Along the trail there were wildflowers in bloom and small creeks running down towards the river below, periodically stopping to fall over rocks. Truly a beautiful place to run.

Target pace at the 5 mile mark would put me at 30 minutes flat. Instead I was closer to 31. I was one minute in the hole from those rough first miles, but I had 21 miles to make up the difference. My plan was to have off a few seconds per mile while keeping my heart rate around 165-167 until mile 10 so that I didn’t burn too much energy. At mile 10 I would do the math to see how much more time I needed to cut per mile and shift to hitting splits, regardless of heart rate. My hope was to cross the 20 mile mark at exactly two hours – that way all I had to do was finish the final 6.2 miles on pace.

greg-marathon-on-bridge
Steady pace, form still holding up, but showing the first signs of marathon wear

Mile six I lost 20 seconds to stop and pee. Despite having peed while running before, something about race day nerves and moving at sub six pace made it too hard to do. It was the right call though, I felt much better and my next five miles averaged 5:56 with a 167 heart rate. I was making up time. I had gels at mile 7 and 10.5 – right on schedule.

As I hit aid stations I would refill my water bottle. I holds about 8oz and I believe I went through 5 or 6 of them during the race. The first times I stopped to pour cups into them but eventually realized I could refill with the water jug. I would stop to do this, wasting about 8 seconds, but my thought is that was worth it to have continual access to cold water.

The Half Way Mark

As I got closer to the half way mark I started to notice that my GPS was no longer in sync with the mile marker cones. At first they had been lined up almost perfectly. In fact a few times the GPS was late, meaning I was running faster than my watch said. But by mile 12 a gap was forming.

I crossed the half way timing mat at 1:20:19. But a few minutes earlier my watch had told me I was at the half way mark – closer to 1:19. Not a huge difference, but I realized things were a off.

In retrospect I can see that my GPS recorded extra distance by periodically recording my place as of the trail to one side or the other. That meant little bits of extra distance were added. It turns out GPS tracking doesn’t do great in heavy tree cover.

To hit my goal pace would require a 1:17 second half – an average of 5:50 per mile. Not impossible, but it would require staying under six minute pace and then finishing we a few low 5s. The contingency plan was a sub 2:40 finish which would only require me to hit a 1:19:40 – just a tad faster than my first half.

I had another gel at mile 14 and over the next 5 miles I thought I was doing great. My GPS had me averaging 5:54 on 169 BPM. By this point the mile marker cones were about 0.3 miles off my watch though. I wasn’t sure which was wrong at the time but in retrospect I now know I was running closer to 6:02 miles. Instead of making up time on my 6:00 pace goal, but in reality I was continuing to lose it.

The longest I had ever run at this effort was 15 miles in a workout a few weeks prior. Once I crossed that, I was in new territory – all pain would be new pain. I still had 11 miles to go though.

Mile 18

Around the time I hit the 18 mile mark and had another gel, I started really hurting. My heart rate had crossed over 170, which I was trying to stay under, so I backed off a bit and turned in a 6:02.

It was around the same time I passed the first half marathon runner. From this point on I was overtaking runners on an ongoing basis – more every mile. While it was nice to have some encouragement, getting around them on the trail was one more thing to think about.

Mile 19 was even worse, it was a 6:12 and my heart rate was now only 166. My body wasn’t working as hard as it had been, but at this point of exhaustion, it felt much harder.

This is the point at the race I feel I could have benefited the most from another runner or a group moving at the same pace. After about two hours of working at >90% of your maximum effort, little things take so much more energy.

Watching your footing for rocks, staying on the right course, turning over your stride fast enough, remembering to sip water, setting the right pace, breathing, keeping your form in check. The benefit of having someone to run with or behind is that you can just focus on staying close to them which takes a few things off of your mind. It lets you focus inward on one thing – form or breathing, which in turn helps the others.

Running fast solo is really hard – that is why runners going for records often try to go to races with others trying to break that same record – they want someone to run with. In this race, the second place winner was about six minutes behind me. I literally ‘beat them by a mile’. That feels nice, but isn’t ideal when you’re racing the clock – in that case, company is welcomed.

Miles 20 to 24 were more of the same 6:15ish pace and only 166 BMP. By this point I had given up on 2:37, which would have required 5:30 miles and shifted to trying to stay under 2:40. I thought I could just grit it out for a few miles and then finish strong. Somewhere in there I had a gel – my 8th and final of the race.

greg-marathon-final-mile
Hurting. Breaking down. Ready to be done.

My last two miles really painful and really hard emotionally. I was gritting it out, forcing myself to keep moving, uncomfortable everywhere, blisters on my feet, salt hardening on my body as my sweat dried in the sun. I had long given up on hitting my goal, and was just trying to minimize the damage to my finishing time by moving at whatever pace I could muster. I was sure the next runner was coming to pass me – I couldn’t yet see them over my shoulder, but two miles is a long way.

The Finish

It is hard to describe the feeling of winning a race while failing your goal.

On one hand I was winning. As I approached the finish line everyone was cheering. In an absolute sense – no one that day ran faster than I did. I was also finishing my first marathon and had successfully trained enough to get myself in the shape where that pace was possible. That is a big accomplishment.

On the other hand, I knew my 2:42 wasn’t a real 2:42. This course was downhill – it was faster than a flat course. How much of an advantage was that? 3 minutes? 4? I don’t know exactly, but it didn’t feel quite the same. It felt like I would need to run another one of a more normal course to get a real time. A victory is a victory, but a finishing time has a lot of context in it and this course had a lot more context than others.

Not to mention, I was moving nearly a minute slower per mile than I had been earlier that day. I had failed to achieve the goal I thought I was capable of that morning. I had failed to achieve the goal I thought I could hit 13 miles in. During the 8 months since I set my ridiculous goal, I had gotten close enough to it that I thought it was within reach and now I was missing it. It didn’t have the feeling of a good race, of finishing strong, of doing my best.

I think this picture perfectly captures it. There is a half excitement there. I will be more excited on the day I finish in 100th place but put up an effort that I know is my best. I have work left to do.

greg-marathon-finish

Post Race

I hung around for about an hour after the race. I cheered on the other top runners while trying to replenish calories & fluids. I was exhausted.

I couldn’t walk properly for the few days after the race. It took until Friday before I could walk down stairs without holding on with both hands. If accomplishments were measured in imobility the week after, this was a big one.

Lessons Learned While Being in First Place

This was the most significant race I have ever won and along the way I realized a few things. I offer this to anyone leading a race like this in the future.

Bring the Brightest Light

If you are running in a dark tunnel, and in first place, you need to have the brightest light. I didn’t predict this one. Essentially your body will cast a shadow from all of the lights behind you. Your light will be the only thing lighting up the area in that shadow and that area is where your feet will hit. If the area outside of your shadow is brighter than the area your light illuminates (as it was with me) you won’t be able to see your footing due to your eyes adjusting to the brighter light around your shadow. My solution was to run faster, which put me farther away from the other lights and thus evened out the difference.

The Aid Stations Might Not Be Ready

As I approached each aid station during the first 13.1 of the course, I was the first runner they had seen that day. They often had their tables set up but had not yet started manning them. Many of them, volunteering for the first time, didn’t yet have the system down. They would get it down with a few tries, but I was the first pancake. I realized this at station one and from there on started yelling notice as I approached and gave specific instructions – ‘I need two cups of water’.

Be Prepared For Some Chatter

You represent something very specific to the half marathon runners. On courses where the marathon overtakes the half marathon, the first marathon runner becomes a symbol of sorts to the slower runners in the half marathon. Some of them hope to finish the race before they are caught, others use it as a marker for how they are doing, some are just excited and inspired. Either way, you will get a lot of questions, verbal realizations, cheers, etc. In total I passed 1/3 of the half marathon runners on the course and the breadth of reactions was a unique experience I am glad to have shared.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

One of my favorite charts is breaking down the finishing times to see where I stack up on the curve. Here I split things into 15 minute increments and you can see my bar in red on the left. Count of one.

jack-jill-marathon-finishing-time-breakdown

Really interesting to see that spike around 6.5 hours – I believe that was the cutoff, but it appears a few people snuck in afterwards. There is also a noticeable dip around 4 hours – perhaps a number pushed to get under the 4 hour mark.

I mentioned earlier that no one went out way too fast at the start. That being said, very few people had a faster second half. This chart shows the first half split vs second half split. The gray line represents even splits. It turns out almost everyone was slower during the second half, with a few runners that were just slightly faster and a few outliers that really hit the wall hard.

I’m the red dot below, my splits were 1:20:19 and 1:22:04. Pretty even – only 2% different.

jack-jill-marathon-half-comparison

Here is my pace (blue), heart rate (red) and foot turnover (pink) during the run. You’ll notice it looks pretty steady. As we zoom in you’ll notice a few distinct sections – the ramp up & tunnel (1-3), steady work (4-18), crashing (19-25) and the finish (26).

jack-jill-marathon-all-lines

Ignoring a few of the larger spikes that are likely caused by GPS errors, the general trend is a curve that increases until half way and then decreases. My perfect race would have slowly gotten faster until the end.


jack-jill-marathon-pace

My goal in terms of heart rate was to stay under 165 until mile 10 to save energy. After that, stay on pace but allow up to 170. At some point I would make the call to go all out and do whatever it took to finish – likely putting me in the 170s until the last mile where it would have been 180s.

Early in the race I was working hard to keep my heart rate down, but you can see it popped up a few times – like mile 3 and 6. Around mile 17 the opposite problem starts to happen. I should have been pushing harder there to keep at pace, which would have been around 170, but I slowed down and it dropped. I did push it in to the finish though.

jack-jill-marathon-heart-rateThis is my foot turnover, or cadence, the steps per minute I was taking. A normal trained runner will be around 180. I usually run closer to 175 – longer legs, slower turnover. The goal is to keep it pretty steady, regardless of pace.

Because this race was downhill, I actually wanted to keep it around 190 because more steps means less impact on each step. The slower start is me not yet getting into my groove. The dips are me stopping to fill up my water bottle or pee. The slow decrease in cadence from mile 10 onwards is me becoming fatigued. I should have kept a better eye on that, focusing on keeping that higher might have shaved some time off my race.

jack-jill-marathon-cadence

This next chart is one of my favorite data points. For all of the words I’ve written, marathons are really simple. You run as fast as you can without running out of energy before the finish. The faster you go, the harder you work (reflected in heart rate) and thus the more energy you burn, so you have to time it just right so you crash at the finish line and no sooner.

Here I charted my pace and heart rate from mile 2 to 26 and what we can see is a nice linear chart. Regardless of while mile, my heart rate on any given mile correlates really closely with my pace.

You can see that in order to hit 6:00 pace for the race, I would have needed to be at 168-169BPM on average. I actually averaged 166, which put me at 6:11 pace. In order to do that I would have needed to have my heart rate be 6 BPM higher on each mile over the last eight miles. Easy to write – much harder to do.

jack-jill-marathon-pace-v-heart-rate

So to go faster, there are basically two things to do.

The first is to be able to run at a faster pace on the same heart rate. This happens by training more. It happens in the months leading up to the race.

The second is to be able to sustain a higher heart rate for longer. This happens by storing more energy and digging deeper. Those happen the week before the race and during the race respectively.

That best fit line is a great predictor of race results. Based on my fitness any year, I can make this chart and use it to calculate my pace for any distance race with relative accuracy. The one thing I need to know is how long I can sustain a certain maximum. For 2.6 hours I figured I could hit 170 but was shy of that. For my 11 hour marathon I was aiming for 140.

What is Next?

Will I try to break 2:37 again this year? I’m really not sure at this point.

I still have five months until the end of the year and as of now I am signed up for the NYC Marathon in November. It would seem I could just train a bit more and then hope for a better race.

The trouble is my third child is due in a month and I’m not sure that I will be able to train (or even just sleep) for the months following that.

On top of that NYC is a slower course with more crowd and logistics issues. I would have to be a good bit faster to even hit the same time, let alone go six minutes faster.

For now I’m going to take a few weeks to rest and then take it week by week.

Thanks for reading.

Complete an Ironman: Finished – Race Report

I did it. I can now call myself an Ironman.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_celebration

What did the right to that title cost me? $6,000, 4,000 miles over 450 hours of training, 25 lbs, one toenail & 100+ hours of research. All of that and a grueling day that tested every fiber of my body & mind.

My finish time of 11:01:10 put me in 277th out of 2,390 total finishers (not counting 248 DNFs). I was also 15th out of 112 in my division (excluding 5 DNFs). All & all I was faster than about 90% of people out there on race day.

My goal was to win my age group and I missed that by a significant margin. To be honest though, I set that as a goal knowing it would be near impossible to accomplish. I fell short but still ended up doing great. Most athletes build up to an Ironman distance race over a few years of competing at shorter triathlons first. I went straight for the big one and ended up doing pretty well.

Could I have done better? Of course. I probably had the fitness on race day to do a good bit better if I had raced smarter. There will be other races.

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Finished
  • Did not walk during the marathon
  • Peed while moving in each of the events
  • Final 19 miles on the bike was my fastest of the day
  • Quick transitions without forgetting anything

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Lost my composure during the swim
  • Did not eat for 20 miles of the bike & bonked
  • Forgot to turn off auto-pause on my GPS watch
  • Was out of aero position a lot on the bike

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • Volunteers handing out water so I could grab it at full speed on the bike
  • No flat tire on the bike
  • No forest fires or cancelations
  • Bacon
  • No one crashed into me on the bike
  • Volunteers at transitions helping get my wetsuit off, grabbing my bags, taking my bike, bagging my gear, putting sunscreen on me, etc.
  • Spectators cheering & keeping me motivated

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • 15 mph headwind
  • crowded swim start
  • late swim start

Race Report

The following is a detailed account of my race. It is long. While training for my race I read a number of similar race reports from other athletes and it helped me better understand what I was getting into. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes, shining light on the experience for those that will never attempt an Ironman & documenting it so I can remember later on.

One note. During this recap I’ll mention my race position at various points in the race. Keep in mind that I did not know any of that during the race. I knew my approximate time because I had a watch on, I knew I was passing people, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I was able to do most of the analysis you’ll see below.

Morning

I woke up at 4AM. I had planned to sleep until 4:30 – but I was nervous and tossed a bit all night.

Race morning breakfast – peanut-butter & banana on a plain bagel. A quick shower to feel refreshed and then I drove to the race with my wife.

Getting ready for an Ironman is a lot of work. You go two days before the race to check in. The day before to rack your bike & drop off your run bag. Then the morning of you have to pump up your tires, put your nutrition on the bike & drop off your special needs bags. There is just a whole bunch of stuff to keep track of. I arrived at 5:30 so that I’d have plenty of time.

Once that is all taken care of, you can get suited up in your wetsuit and head to towards the start line. I was ready to go at about 6:30.

Arizona is a mass start from the water. That means 3,000 people have to get into the water via the temporary stairway that was about 12 feet wide. We then swam a few hundred yards to the start line where we treaded water as the pros started, the announcements happened, the national anthem was sung and some other delay took place. About 25 minutes of treading water, packed in with a few thousand of your newest friends. We were so close together than you were kicking each others ankles as your treaded and all drifting into each other like rubber duckies in a toy pool.

Swim

The cannon goes off and everyone starts swimming in a neat an organized fashion. Just kidding, you can’t go anywhere on account of how close you are packed, but despite that you are simultaneously kicked in the stomach and punched in the head. Eventually you can actually swim, which takes you mind slightly off the fact that you are still getting punched periodically.

I hated the swim.

IMAZ12-1006

I am already not a good swimmer. I know that and I have worked on it. I signed up for a few open water swim races this year just to get comfortable in that situation and my efforts were not in vain. I am now fine swimming in open water with a few hundred people. But this was just crazy.

My problem started here. I was so frustrated with all of the people around me swimming every which way that I wasn’t focusing on the swim. Instead of keeping my head down so that my form was proper, I kept looking around, trying to avoid crashing. The result was that I went much slower than anticipated.

Since I am an average swimmer, I was swimming alongside the lions share of the athletes. If I were faster, I might have been able to be up ahead where there were fewer people and more room to swim. As I lost my focus and tired out I started to get passed by even more people, which meant more collisions and even less focus. I don’t have splits but from what I can pick up, I moved from being ahead of 70% of people to being behind 70% of people. As I slid back I’m pretty sure every one of the 800 people that passed me found a way to bump, punch or kick me.

Two weeks prior I had done an easy practice swim and finished 2.4 miles in 1:15. I figured on race day with some drafting and the race edge I could easily get under 1:10. I finished in 1:24.

While that isn’t great, 15-20 minutes isn’t really that much time in the context of an Ironman. What got me was that I actually worked harder for that 1:24 than I had for my previous 1:15 in practice. Rather than being calm and collected, thus allowing an easy swim, I was frustrated and forcing the swim with bad technique. I burned a lot more energy than I wanted to.

ironman_arizona_swim_finish

But, I finally finished with a time of 1:24:43. I was in 1,392nd place overall & 78th place for my age group, meaning I was in the back half. Actually the back third.

ironman_arizona_swim_split

T1

One thing I love about Ironman races is the volunteers. At most triathlons you have a sort of station where you go to change. At Ironman events you are helped by a few personal assistants that do everything from take your wetsuit off to lather you with sunscreen. They then bag up all of your stuff for you so that you don’t have to worry about it.

I got through nice & easy. I had to do about 10 things during that transition and had practiced mentally a number of times so that I wouldn’t forget. It worked out great. The last thing you want to do is start the bike only to realize you forgot your sunglasses or bike GPS watch back at T1.

My transition was in the top 20% at 5:28. I was fast enough that I moved up to 1,047th overall & 63rd in my age group. Not bad progress for getting changed.

Bike

1:30:11 into the day.

As we hopped on the bike I was behind a guy that was clearly a Marine. The person in from of him somehow missed his mount and came crashing back towards the Marine who just gave an ‘Oorah’ and kept on going. It was pretty surreal and made me smile.

The next 20 miles on the bike were pretty much just me passing people. In 18.8 miles I moved from 1,027rd place to 876th overall. That is over 151 people I passed.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bike_early

From mile 1 onwards there were people on the side of the road fixing flats. I had ridden 20 miles of the course on Friday and gotten a flat – a woman that passed me that day said she had too. This road just liked to eat tubes. I was hoping to avoid that.

You aren’t supposed to draft in Ironman races – there are penalties if you get caught doing it. That said, I don’t think it was physically possible to race middle of the pack in Ironman Arizona without drafting. The bike is an out and back on a two lane road. So you have to stay on one side. There are only so many people that can fit on a road at a time. According to the rules, once you enter the zone 23ft behind a biker, you have 20 seconds to overtake them. That seems fine except for the fact that there were 15 bikers within 23ft of me and after I passed each one another would enter that zone. There was no place I could go where I had 23ft of open road in front of me.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bike_front_early

The first lap was exactly what I expected. I grabbed water bottles at the aid stations to refill my aero-bar bottle & tossed the empties without slowing down. I was able to execute my just-in-time water strategy perfectly which allowed me to travel light, only carrying about 24oz of water weight at the max. I kept my heart rate down under 140bpm, despite the urge to go faster and make up for lost time on the swim. I would sip water periodically, take a sip of my nutrition shake every 5th mile when my watch beeped and pop a few salt pills before the turn around. Thing were going according to plan – though a bit slower than I had hoped.

The turnaround at mile 18.8 puts you on a slight downhill as you head back to the city. To give you an idea, the 10 miles into the turnaround vs the 10 miles out of it were at 16.79 & 26.83 mph for me. So not a huge hill, but enough that you pick up some speed. I actually had so much speed that my heart rate was lower than I wanted it to be. I didn’t have a gear high enough to keep spinning at my target effort level for the steepest parts. I did take advantage of the downhill to pee – doing so while biking is actually pretty tough – I have to stand up do so which causes me to slow down a bit.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bike_in_town

At mile 37.4, as I finished the first of three bike laps, my time was 3:20:15 and I was now in 834th place overall and 50th place for my division. I did some quick math and figured that if I held that pace on the bike, I would start the run around 7 hours. That meant that breaking 11:00 would be possible with a sub 4 marathon. That became my goal.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bike_hurting

I headed back out to the turnaround, continuing to pass people. The wind was much stronger now and as we approached the half way point, some people started to break down. I held my pace and crossed the half way mark of the bike at 4:27:54, now in 40th for my division and 654th overall.

It was around mile 65 that things started to break down. I had to pee again but couldn’t get myself to go. I had been doing it all day, but for some reason was just not able to. It was uncomfortable to sit, but I didn’t want to stop. As we approached the mile 74 turn around, we entered the city where the streets were lined with spectators. Nowhere to stop on the side to pee and not a place that would make it any easier to ride-pee.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bike_corner

At the first rest stop after the turn around, mile 77 or so, I decided to hop off the bike for the first time to use a portapotty. There was a line, but it turned out to be moot. I hopped off the bike, handed it to a volunteer and immediately peed my pants. I then grabbed the bike and rode off. I’m sure people were confused. I was. But goal accomplished.

Around mile 80 I started to feel bad. I was getting passed by a handfull of people for the first time. When was the last time I ate? Shoot! I had completely forgotten to sip on my nutrition since mile 65. I was bonking.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bonking

A quick pull on my gel flask, an energy bar as I rode past the next aid station and a few sips of my Perpetuem and I was feeling a bit better.

I was still heading directly into the wind and slightly uphill though. One guy that passed me said “as far as I’m concerned, once we hit the turn around, the bike is done”. That lifted my spirits. I just had to make it to mile 93 then it was all downhill to the finish line.

I was sort of in a daze as I rode. By this time I had given up on staying in aero tuck and was riding my drop handlebars periodically to give my arms a break. I did not even wan to entertain the thought of having to run a marathon after finishing the bike. It was around this time I started to regret my decision to sign up for an Ironman.

Just then I heard the pop-sssssss of a flat tire. SHOOT!

I hopped off my bike to look. The tire wasn’t flat, but maybe it had a slow leak. My flat from Friday was such a slow leak that I was able to put CO2 in it and ride the final mile to the car without changing the tube. This was probably like that. I figured I’d go on a little further and see if it got lower before making a call if I should CO2, change it or just finish as is.

That is when I saw the tall grass in the median. It hadn’t been there back a few hundred feet before where the median was all sand. I’m not sure what the pop was, but the sssssss was just the grass blowing in the wind. I felt kind of dumb at first but then just relieved that I could keep riding.

I finally reached mile 93 and the turn around. 6:28:43. Now in 568th place overall and 30th place in my age group. I grabbed one last water bottle which I poured half of on myself and decided to take the downhill at full force. Now this is a very slight downhill, but it is just enough that you can get some momentum going if you kept a high cadence in your highest gear. I actually wish I had a higher gear for this one, I was maxed out and still only at 125bpm.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_bike_bridge

The split of my sixth and final length of the course was my fastest of the day. I made a point to shift down a bit towards the end to let my legs spin out. I was not looking forward to running.

ironman-arizona-bike-split

I finished the bike with a split of 5:42:19. That put me at 7:12:30 overall. This was now the longest I had ever exercised for in a single stretch – I was forging new grounds from here on.

While biking I had finished 1 bottle of my nutrition shake which is ~1,350 calories, also one energy bar ~100 calories and 3 shots of gel for another 270. Overall 1,720 calories over 5.75 hours which is exactly 300/hour. Right on target.

T2

I had already undone my shoes and pulled my feet out as I finished the bike – I kept the shoes attached to the pedals and my feet on top of them so I could just hop off the bike as I got to the racking spot.

This transition was extremely smooth thanks to the volunteers.

The one crucial thing I needed to remember was to grab my GPS watch off the of the bike mount before I racked the bike – I did that as soon as I hit the transition area and put it in my back pocket.

A volunteer grabbed my bike and another handed me my run gear bag. I had biked without socks but put them on here. I switched my helmet for a hat, left my sunglasses as is and put my GPS watch on my wrist.

Quick stop in the portapotty (a minute I now regret wasting) and a few volunteers tossed sunscreen on me as I ran out.

My time was 3:29, which was in the top 25% of people but not the fastest ever.

I entered the run with a time of 7:15:59. I was in 518th overall, I had passed another 20 people while changing, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Run

My whole goal on the run was to go fast enough to break 11 hours. I knew from memory that the splits I needed to hit were 8:30 per mile. I could do that.

The easiest way to achieve that is to hit the pace exactly every time. I figured I’d need to build in a little buffer incase I needed to stop later to take care of a blister, visit a portapotty or whatever else came up. I figured the safe bet would be to average 8:00 for the first 13 miles. That would give me plenty of buffer.

greg_kroleski_ironman_run_start

It was hot & windy out. At each aid station, which was about every 2 miles, I’d grab a cup of water to toss in my mouth and another to dump on my head. I was running with a little water bottle, the same one I always train with. I figured it could refill it periodically, but it was so hot that I was consuming much more water than made it worth it to try & pour water into the tiny neck of the bottle. I decided to scrap the bottle and stick with cups.

After mile 3 I found myself running with a guy about my age who was holding 8:00 pace. It was great. I kept an eye on my heart rate which was hovering just above 140 – I just wanted to make sure it didn’t cross 145.

My stomach wasn’t feeling great, but I knew I needed to eat something else eventually or I wouldn’t be able to finish. My plan had been to use the course nutrition, but I was pretty nervous. I grabbed some pretzels & a cup of Perform (like Gatorade) at an aid station and that seemed to go ok.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_run_tempe_town_lake

Mike 8 with a split of 1:05:05, a pace of 8:08. Good so far. I was now in 28th in my division and 430th overall. I had passed 90 people while running so far and since I love passing people, that was continuing to motivate me.

The 10th mile was my first real test. That is where the hill is. It isn’t that big of a hill, maybe 60 feet of climbing, but that is enough to mess with your pace when you’re 8 hours into an Ironman. I wanted to avoid walking during the race – my goal was to run until my legs would not and then crawl. This hill would test me.

I was about 40 seconds slow that mile, but I had kept running. As I crested the hill I saw an aid station below.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_run_hill

They were set up under a bridge where it was shady and they had cold water and music playing. On top of that I had to pee and they had portapotties. The temptation was overwhelming to stop there for a bit and recharge. Heck, I was almost half way done with the marathon, I could use a break. But if I stopped I wouldn’t have been able to hit my goal of breaking 11 hours.

So as I ran down the hill I did something I had never done before up to this point in my life. I peed while running full speed. It was my act of defiance. I would not stop, no matter what.

Though I’ve been a runner since elementary school, peeing while running had never been necessary for me. My races were always short enough that it wasn’t an issue – 15-30 minutes at most. Even on long training runs, I’m often out in nature running on trails, close to some bushes I can duck behind or a park bathroom. I hadn’t even really ever considered that it would be something I would need to do. Even after spending a year training for an Ironman and intentionally practicing peeing while biking. I figured the cost to stop a bike moving 20mph and then getting back up to speed was not worth it, but running doesn’t have those same momentum costs.

Nonetheless, I was all in now.

As I passed through the shade & dumped water on my head I got another surge of energy. That next mile was an 8:05. I was back on pace.

The run course at Ironman Arizona is two laps of a very strangely shaped loop. I was now heading back towards the start (and what would eventually be the finish).

As I approached mile 13 I heard a familiar voice. My wife was there by the side of the road with our son, cheering me on. I was so happy to see her.

I crossed the half way point with a split of 1:49:12, which is 8:20 pace. Behind what I had hoped for, but still ahead of pace to break 11 hours. I had now been racing for over 9 hours.

Before the half way point I had been passing ~10-15 people per mile. Now that I was on my second lap, I was lapping people who had just started to run and so I was passing a lot more people, though it wasn’t always clear who was who.

The first few miles of the lap were into the wind. I averaged 9:14. That cost me precious time of the little buffer I had left.

greg_kroleskI_ironman_arizona_run_early

At this point sips of Perform weren’t doing it for me, I was starting to fade and needed to eat something – despite my fears that my stomach would implode as it had towards the end of some of my longest workouts. I grabbed a packet of Chomps and half of a banana at the next aid station and scarfed them down. I figured they would be better than GU since they were a little bit more solid.

It worked, I started to get some more energy over the next mile. I was moving at about 8:45 pace now, which was really the best I could do.

That stretch leading up to mile 17 passes back past the main village & is where most of the spectators are. It is close to the finish so it is a great spot to cheer from as you wait for your athlete to get close to the end, at which point you can head over to the bleachers and finish line.

I love people cheering while I run so this stretch was great. Spectators had signs, wore costume, were handing out cookies and words of encouragement. It is really a great vibe. One group took the cake though. As I passed a man holding a platter, he said one magical word that actually made me break my stride and stop.

‘BACON’

The dude had a full platter of bacon and was handing it out to athletes. I grabbed a 1″ segment and tossed it in my mouth despite the fact that I knew it was probably a bad idea. I love bacon. I’m sure you love bacon too. But I will tell you this, you have not experienced the fullness of bacon until you have done so at mile 130 of an Ironman. I didn’t even chew, I just let it sit on my tongue and dissolve.

When you’re nearing the last miles of an Ironman, you just need things to push you through one mile at a time. Bacon kept me going for a bit.

A little further down the road I saw my wife again. She wondered why I was smiling. Because bacon.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_run_smiling

The sun was now setting and it was starting to get cooler. 8:37, 8:31, 8:20. I was picking up some speed again. I did some in my head math and figured I needed to hit 8:50s in order to break 11 hours. I could do this. The biggest challenge would be that hill. But the miles after it would be great, I had done well last time after the hill.

Around mile 20 I passed a runner wearing Newton gear who was clearly in pain. One of his friends on the side was cheering him on. As I passed he saw my name on my bib and yelled,

“You’re looking fresh Greg, push harder”

My form was remarkably intact despite my body shutting down from the inside. I had worked at that – running bold deep into long runs. I’m sure it helped as efficient form allows you to go fast with less energy. My limiter was my cardio though. I just couldn’t get my body to work harder. When the run started I was forcing myself to stay in the 140bpm range, figuring it would drift up over time. Now I was barely able to keep low 130’s. I could probably have gone faster if I really pushed, but I was worried that would result in a shutdown that required me to walk, or worse, not be able to finish.

I hit the hill again in mile 23. That is basically the most cruel place in an Ironman to put a hill. Any closer to the end and you know you’re there, you just have to get over the hill. Any earlier and you might have some energy left or fresh legs. Mile 23 you are completely depleted, running on legs that feel like bricks, but you know you still have about half an hour left so you don’t want to push up the hill.

That was my slowest mile of the day. 9:51. But I didn’t walk. Small victories.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_run_dark

It was getting dark as I ran down the hill again and into the final three miles. I didn’t know it but I was now top 20 in my division and top 300 overall. I had come a long way.

When you’ve depleted almost everything you have in your body, you enter an emotionally fragile state. As I passed the aid station, the EDM they had blasting touched me in a strange way. I was almost in tears as Calvin Harris’ hit dropped the line ‘There’s no stopping us right now’. I felt like the song was about me. Everything in my body wanted to quit but I was going to give everything I had to break 11 hours.

In the final miles I was checking my watch frequently. As I passed people they pushed to stay with me and worked with them to keep a solid pace going. I’m sure everyone was trying for the same milestone.

The final mile I used everything I had left. It was coming down to the wire. I hadn’t previewed the finish so I didn’t know what the chute was like or the turns but once I crossed the mile 26 marker I knew I only had a few hundred yards left. I dug deep.

I checked my watch and had one minute left. I started full on sprinting. Well at least in comparison to what I had been running – it was still only 7:00 pace. I could see the glow from the lights around the corner, I could hear the sound of the crowd and the muffled sound of the announcer over the loud speakers.

I turned the final corned and looked at the clock ready to see 10:59:20. I was going to sprint in and just break 11 hours.

But it read 11:00:45.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_finally

I nearly stopped running. I realized I had been basing everything off of my watch and never calibrated it. Somehow it had gotten off course with the race clock and I had missed my goal. It was a bit defeating. At the same time, I was still about to finish and I was happy about that.

As I approached the line I heard the words of Mike Reilly over the loud speaker

‘Greg Kroleski, you are an Ironman’

Those are the words we train to hear. Those words are one of the reasons why Ironman races stand in a league of their own and why thousands of people go back year after year.

I had finished.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_finish

ironman-arizona-run-split

ironman-arizona-run-pace

Afterwards

As I crossed the finish line I was met by volunteers who put a space blanket on me & gave me my medal. Two ladies walked on either side of me supporting me with my arms over their shoulders. They were there to escort me towards the finisher area where there were medical tents, food, pictures and such. I was having enough trouble walking at that point that they didn’t let me go off on my own. I could barely stand. I was done.

I eventually caught my breath enough to walk to the food tend, grab a plate of pizza and sit down. I did to the food what dragons do to cattle when attacking a village and scarfed down and much as I could with little regard for how much actually made it in my mouth.

ironman_arizona_celebratory_pizza

It was now night and actually pretty cold. My wife found me and we headed back to the car to change. I still had to go get all of my bags and bike. There is really a lot to do and you don’t really feel like doing any of it.

We eventually packed everything up and headed home. As we drove away we passed a section of the course and saw people running. It was 7pm and some still had 20 miles left to go – though it is the same distance, that is a really long day.

I didn’t take my shoes off until I got back to the place we were staying. I had to hop straight in the shower as I was covered in a thin film that was a combination of sweat, sunscreen, nutrition shake, Perform, pee & who knows what else. I took off my shoes & was surprised to see a pretty gnarly blister – how had I not noticed that? I am also now no longer the proud owner of one toenail on my left foot.

ironman_arizona_blister

I later looked at my watch to figure out what had happened. You can see here I stopped it after crossing the finish and was still under 11 hours.

ironman_arizona_watch_split

I later found the culprit. I had forgotten to turn of the auto-pause feature. That is a great feature when you’re training because it pauses when you are at a stop light or such so that your average pace doesn’t drop. During a race though, the clock doesn’t stop.

I mentioned that I had stopped to check a flat tire while biking and also hopped off once in hopes of peeing at a portapotty. Well the two of those stops added up to just over a minute. You can see below my moving time is less than my elapsed time. Moving time being what my watch displayed and elapsed time being what the race clock showed.

Rookie move.

how_my_watch_got_off_calibration

Breakdown

I love analyzing race data. My high school cross country coach got me hooked on it. After each race he’d print up a sheet of the results of our three mile race including splits at each mile.

Now, years later, instead of three data points I have dozens. The intricacies of having multiple events makes this even more fun. Tearing through the race data for the past few days has been a pleasure. Here is what I learned.

First, I did pretty well at everything but the swim. The run was clearly my best.

greg_kroleski_ironman_arizona_percentiles

One of my hopes in doing triathlons is that my overall result would be better than any of my individual results. Sometimes based on the way the race breaks down you’ll be #20-25 in each event but #15 overall. That didn’t happen for me here. My run result was better than my overall result. Maybe I should just stick with running.

I love this next chart because it shows how out of place my swim was. I’m the red dot towards the bottom middle. You can see that there were only a few people that swam slower than me but ran faster. For me to have swam alongside the athletes that I ran with I would have had to swim under one hour.

Lots of work left to do.

ironman_arizona_swim_vs_run

Looking at the swim vs the sum of the run and bike you can see that it isn’t much of a predictor. This was the noisiest chart. Though the fastest athletes were also the fastest swimmers, there were plenty of competitors that swam great and then didn’t do as well from there on.

ironman_arizona_swim_s_bike_plus_run

The run and the bike on the other hand are extremely correlated. There is more drift as you get farther back, but that is likely because anyone who didn’t pace themselves properly would end up on the far right side.

 

ironman_arizona_run_vs_bike

Playing Catch Up

I got off the a bad start in the swim, but the bright side of that is that I spent the rest of the day passing people. I love passing people in races.

The place I passed the most people was actually T1. For some reason a lot of people that swim slow like me also spend a lot of time changing. I was quick and got out of there before hundreds of them.

ironman_arizona_overall_position_by_mile

In my division things look roughly the same except for the start of the run. Us young guys apparently start out running strong. It was around mile 16 though when others started to break down and I passed about 10 before finishing.

ironman_arizona_division_position_by_mile

What is Next?

In most sports, athletes approaching their 30s are past their prime. The cool thing about Ironman events is that I’m still early in the field. You can see in the chart below that the most populous age group is actually 40-44 and 40-49 for women. I’ve got years ahead of me.

ironman_arizona_division_breakdown

Now you might think that even though a lot of people still compete at that age, they aren’t as competitive. The data suggest otherwise.

For men, the winning times actually continue to improve for another decade and don’t rise above 10 hours until the 55-59 division.

ironman_arizona_best_time_by_division

But that isn’t only the winners. The averages improve also. There is even a suggestion that biking continues to improve beyond that.

ironman_arizona_average_time_by_division

Endurance sports are really one where time isn’t as much of a hinderance as you might think. That is likely because the whole race is done at a moderate effort, sustained over a long time. As you get older your max heart rate diminishes, but I was racing over 40bpm away from my max.

With that said, qualifying for Kona is going to stay on my bucket list. Spot allocation in the races is based on the number of athletes in the division, so for the next 15 years I’ll have increasing chances at qualifying. I don’t think I’ll be training like I did this year again. Certainly not for a while. But I learned so much this year that I have plenty to lean on in the future. If I spend the next few years working on specific weaknesses, I might be able to give it another shot one day.

Kona – I’m still coming for you.