20 Things I’ve Learned about Flying in 2012

Flying to Kigali tonight on a last-minute trip, it struck me that I have learned a lot about flying this year.  Other than “too much of it really puts a damper on triathlon training”, what did I learn??  Glad you asked.  I give you my most recent spur-of-the-moment list, “20 Things I’ve learned about flying in 2012”:

  1. It’s easier to get the seat you want by chatting up the check-in lady about her day than going online to reserve 24 hours in advance
  2. Emirates is the world’s greatest airline.  Absolutely unequivocal.
  3. Turbulence is not a cause for alarm – even the bad stuff.  Clouds are bouncy. Just ask the Care Bears.
  4. The seatback entertainment system is a touch-screen, not a punch screen.  Somehow the one guy who doesn’t get this concept manages to sit behind me on 8 out of 10 flights.
  5. Airplane food is magic.  One of the greatest tragedies this life has to offer is when they give me a desert with an ingredient that I’m allergic to (i.e. mango).
  6. Crying babies.  Do not, I repeat do NOT, tell parents “ooh, he’s having a rough day, eh?  It must be the pressure on his ears…”  Not. Helpful. At All.  Better to help by making funny faces at the baby – team effort to make the kid laugh.
  7. If you are super nice to the stewardesses AND you’re not faking it, that treatment will come back to you 10-fold.
  8. The inverse of the above is also true, and it will come in the form of the world’s most passive, yet vengeful, aggression (and is much-deserved).
  9. Best Christmas shopping = Sky Mall and its international equivalents
  10. Carry-on only…unless traveling for 4+ weeks, moving to a new city, or carrying awesome, huge gifts.
  11. When hitting on the passenger next to you, timing is everything.  Start too early and you’ll run out of topics and seem boring or annoying.  Start too late and you’ll rush the close.
  12. Always think of who else is making the same trip, on the same day, for your same conference, and potentially sitting right behind you, BEFORE hitting on the passenger next to you.  Screwing this one up can make the first night’s conference dinner VERY awkward…
  13. Window on short trips, aisle on long.  Middle is simply not an option.
  14. At some point I’m going to need to ask for an exception to the airline rules.  My ability to score that exception is directly proportional to the number of times I can get the stewardess or check-in lady to laugh.
  15. Drinking on the plane is great for long-hauls, so long as 5x the amount consumed is matched with water, or if I have the next day off work.
  16. From observation (not practice!), the fabled “mile-high club” is not for the feint of heart.  I’m pretty sure it’s only feasible on 777s or A380s, and even then only on long-haul sleeper flights.  Your chance of getting caught in any other scenario has to be 95% given restroom traffic and flight crew rounds.
  17. Stressed-out flyers are awful.  No other thought on this – they’re just bad.
  18. Quality sleep in economy class is like playing the lottery – so hopeful going in, then asking yourself why you even try after your numbers don’t match.
  19. If you want to feel good about your day, just walk past the gate with flights to Sudan, Somalia or Afghanistan (assuming you’re not traveling to one of the three) – things will brighten quickly.
  20. You have not lived until you have vacationed in the Dubai airport.

Race Report: Tórshavn Marathon 2012 (Faroe Islands)

Wow

I’m going to have to edit my top six runs to include this one – the scenery of the Tórshavn Marathon places it in a class of its own.  Starting with 1.5 loops of the main town, from there the route travels up the coast and turns off onto a fiord across the bay, at which point it turns around and comes back to town.  The amazing thing about this route is that other than about 2km of the route through town, you’re never out of view of the water.  Being an island where it’s nearly impossible to go more than 2km “inland” without coming out on the opposite coast, any route that the race directors choose will be considered “coastal” by any other standards.  With a mix of cliffs, coastal grass and rocky shores, the scenery around make it impossible to feel anything but lucky, even when the legs are screaming.

The White Kenyan

The day prior to the race we stumbled upon a Faroese-language marathon seminar as part of the race weekend’s events, and were quickly greeted (in English) by the race director.  He was pretty surprised that a few Americans had come all the way over for a marathon in the middle of the North Sea with just 63-odd competitors, so we explained why we were there (I think we were still trying to figure it out, too…).  During registration, I had registered with my current address in Kenya, so on the competitor’s roster online it showed me as a Kenyan.  Imagine their shock that a Kenyan would be coming all the way up to Tórshavn to run a marathon with them!  The race director explained that I had incited quite the pre-race panic, as top runners in the local club who were gunning for the title started furiously searching my name and location on Google to scope out this Kenyan ringer, and apparently were quite relieved after finding my blog, reporting back with a smile to the race director, “don’t worry….he’s white!”  I reassured the director that I was not Kiprop’s training partner in the hills of Kenya, either, and that I wouldn’t be breaking any records this year…but to keep an eye out next year if I come back, as I’ll surely find a few good running buddies, and I hear that Kenyan running genetics are contagious (fingers crossed…).

The Run

My university buddy Scott, who in a moment of pure wisdom chose this race, and I got to the start area around 45 minutes before the race.  Plenty of time, as there were only about 200 competitors combined running races of 2.2km, 5.5km, and half and full marathons.  A rather cold and wet morning, we layered up and went outside a few minutes prior to the start.  After a wholly entertaining Nordic-style group warm-up routine in a language we didn’t even begin to understand, the gun went and we were off on a mad dash through town.

 

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The marathon race route.

I immediately felt more comfortable running than I had at any point in training, and found a rhythm quickly, sitting somewhere around 8-minute miles for the first few.  I knew at some point I would fall apart, as I hadn’t run more than 13 miles since April, but I had no intention of letting that ruin my day.

 

Though the sun was peaking through when the gun went off, we quickly ran into a strong headwind leaving town as well as a brief wall of freezing rain that had us all a bit concerned.  The freezing rain would turn into a less-freezing drizzle, and would come down intermittently throughout the race.  The headwind on the way out of town reminded me of the winds on the bike at Ironman South Africa, and I quickly reverted to the same state…bare down into a constant effort, and no matter where the wind blows and what it slows your pace to, just keep that effort.  This got me up the first few climbs.  There were more people than I expected on the road until the turnaround for the half marathon, where it seemed like everyone else but me was turning around.  From about 15km and for the rest of the race, it was the most quiet and reflective race I’ve ever run.  Aid stations were only ever 5km and each one was just 1-2 people with a tiny table in the middle of nowhere, pouring sports drink and water into 5 or 6 cups and laying out 2 or 3 banana pieces.  As there were only 63 people on the marathon, there really was no reason to lay out any more at one time – I felt like each station was just a little lemonade stand on a run through my home town, which was a new and welcome feel for a long-distance race.

 

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Elevation profile of the marathon route.

Though I didn’t have a watch or a HRM, I could tell that I was holding my pace quite well until the turnaround at 25km.  At that point, though, the wheels started to come off.  I was passed by a group of local runners as we attacked the headwind on the way back around the fiord, and I could start to feel the mounting miles on my knees and hip flexors.  Scott said it well as we passed on the turnaround – “can’t we just swim back across?!”, referring to the freezing-cold 500m bay that separated us from the very visible next 15km of our race…a strange reality to be able to see exactly where you’ll be running in an hour’s time but can’t quite get there.

 

The next 5km was all mental, just pushing through, but at 30 km the hills started again, and I wasn’t going to hold up.  I tried to avoid it, but my legs were on fire and I walked a few times just to shed a bit of the joint fatigue taking over my legs.  My pace slowed notably even though my cardio was right in line, and I just plugged on into town with almost nobody around me, enjoying my first rather silent distance event.  I finally turned the corner into the finishing area and was smiling and waving to a small group of cheerleaders when I saw the clock was just 15 seconds to 4 hours.  I turned quick and put on the gas to cross just about 6 seconds under the 4 hour mark (30/63 overall).

With no real goal going into the race, I was completely fine with the finishing time.  My next marathon will not be that way – I’ll be gunning for under 3:30 – but as I hadn’t trained I was just happy to get through it and thoroughly enjoy the day.  Scott crossed the line a few minutes later, we got some food, went back for a rest, and then prepared for a great evening of drinks and steak with the other runners.

 

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The After-Party

 

We had met a few others from Ireland, the Isle of Man, Denmark, Germany, England and Scotland, and shared several hours of food and drinks with them after the run at a great after-party organized by the local Bragdid running club.

One highlight was spending time with Andy on the bus into town and then again after the race.  An American from New Jersey, we were joining him for his 653rd marathon – and 170th or so since he was read his last rights and nearly died in Russia in 2001.  At 73 years young, when we asked him what his next race would be (doctors having told him that he would never run again after his recovery in 2001), he answered “the hospital”.  Apparently his way of preparing for open-heart surgery was to run another marathon!!  An extremely humble and inspiring guy, and more than anything, just nice, Andy regaled us all night with great stories from around the world (he had plenty, having run races in 83 different countries!).

 

All thoughts and prayers for Andy’s speedy and painless recovery as he goes into surgery tomorrow morning.

 

 

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My Top 6 Runs of All Time

In honor of the upcoming Tórshavn Marathon this Sunday, I’ll share with you My Top 6 Run Routes of All Time (well, really just the last 3 years).  It’s both fun and stressful to move around a lot, but there’s nothing that makes me feel quite so comfortable than uncovering that amazing new running route.  Here are my top 6.

(6)  Magdalena Milpas Altas to San Miguel (Milpas Altas, Guatemala)

A good 20 minutes outside of Guatemala City and tucked in the farming hills a few miles off the main road to Antigua, all I had to do was step out the door of my temporary abode on the farm to hit the peaks and valleys of this epically painful run.  Starting with an ascent into the main town of Magdalena Milpas Altas and then dropping off to the river valley on the other side of town, the first mile of this run sees close to 100m change in elevation.  Climbing out of the river valley and hitting the rolling hills of San Miguel, the route would take me pass tiny family farms on the hillsides and screaming kids in and out of school for a few miles before dropping sharply back to the main road towards Antigua.  Doing this route in reverse, then, was the most painful of all, as the ascent from this road back up to San Miguel burns both legs and lungs, and reminds me once again that I’m running at an elevation of over 5,000 feet. Beautiful all the way through, and a nice challenge away from the smog of the rest of the country’s roads.

(5)  Saferoom Treadmill (Kabul, Afghanistan)

I know what you’re saying – how can a dreadmill make your top 6??  It’s crazy, yes, and there have been some truly terrible times on this machine, but it was also a beautiful escape at times from an otherwise rather stressful existence.  Some days when I would get on this thing I would hate every minute of it and wonder why I was even training for an Ironman, but other days…wow.  The long weekend runs, especially in combination with a long bike (the apparatus next to the treadmill…), would give me hours on end to space out, think about the world around me, and sometimes just stay quiet and stare at a wall of sandbags.  Although the treadmill is typically not a friend, the runs themselves were enough of an escape from the sometimes-not-so-fun world around to make the top 6.

(4)  Al Barsha Midnight Loop (Dubai, UAE)

The most peaceful run on the list, I have always done this run in the dead of night, usually starting somewhere between 11pm and 2am.  Dubai is peaceful at night, as traffic dies to only the occasional speed-racer on otherwise vast and empty 6-lane roads.  This loop, beginning across from the Mall of the Emirates and going back into the neighborhoods of Al Barsha 2 and 3, could easily be the scene of a running commercial.  Just me and my legs, the pounding of the pavement (and sometimes sand), and the distant lights of a city that seems miles away just five minutes from the start.  I’ve never felt quite so relaxed as after running this route, and seem to regularly come to a place of peace and quiet just before calling it a night.

(3)  Washington Heights to Tenafly (New York, USA)

From my old home in the north of Manhattan, it was just a 5 minute jog to the George Washington Bridge and an incredible view of downtown Manhattan and the Hudson River.  On one of my first runs over the bridge and off the island, I found that by turning left, there was a set of wooded trails on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River with no traffic or city noise – as if I were up in the hills hundreds of miles away.  These trails spit out after about 1.5-2 miles onto a feeder road, and after about another .5 miles I’d find myself in the heart of the nearby suburbs, meaning wide and quiet roads without much traffic, nice houses, and couples going on evening walks with the dog.  As a single guy in the city, and having grown up in the suburbs, there was a nice peace that came via running through the somewhat familiar and quiet territory.  And living in the concrete capital of the world, of course, any trail running feels like the running equivalent of floating on a cloud.

(2)  Lake Naivasha Southern Road (Naivasha, Kenya)

Giraffes, warthogs, and gazelles, oh my!  Easily the most wonderful recreational route I’ve ever come across, this half marathon out-and-back brings you past wild animals galore, including giraffes just a few feet off the road, the odd water buffalo lounging under a lone tree, and several troupes of baboons cheering you along from the brush just feet from the road’s shoulder.  Beginning at Camp Carnelly’s and turning around at a pond full of flamingos, the people are just as nice as the wildlife, as on at least two occasions I’ve had random company running alongside me in jeans and t-shirt for a quarter of the total distance.  At 6,500 feet of elevation and with some rather sizable hills at the start and finish, this one will take your breath away if you’re not prepared.  But train up, because this one is surely worth it.  Come visit me in Nairobi for a weekend, and this is the first place I’ll take you.

(1)  Al Barsha 2 Utility Field (Dubai, UAE)

Lest you forget amongst the air conditioned malls and 5-star resorts that Dubai is actually built in the middle of the desert, this run will quickly bring you back to reality.  A 15 minute run from the Mall of the Emirates, weaving through the neighborhoods of Al Barsha 2, brings you to a 15-foot wall of sand blocking your view from an expansive field of 30,000-watt electrical lines en route to the heart of Dubai from who-knows-where in the desert.  This open field of sand, blocked on all sides by giant sand dunes, sports 5 sets of high-voltage power lines buzzing overhead across a width of around 500 meters, and runs between two highways for a distance of about 4 km.  Hilly and rough utility truck tracks run between the monolithic power line structures, and only the tallest buildings remain visible over top the sandy sidewalls.  With only desert bush as the occasional vegetation, climbing the sandy wall to get into this sandpit instantly transports you from one of the most developed desert cities on the planet to one of the harshest environments I’ve ever seen – a reminder of the wonder that such a city ever sprouted up from an empty desert.  I have never conquered this run – only tried it on many occasions, each time leaving feeling physically shattered to varying degrees.  Typically running this route in the afternoon heat, this place acts as a very personal mental and physical testing ground for me.  At times I’ve come away broken after just 2 km, and other attempts have lasted as many as 25 km, forcing myself to prove that I could go farther and harder.  It is the challenge and the hurt of this run – and the beauty of a self-cleansing shatter-fest – that keep me coming back on each trip and brings this run to #1 on my list.

This Weekend: Tórshavn Marathon (Faroe Islands, Denmark)

With any luck, I’ll be editing this list after this wekeend’s sure-to-be sufferfest on the hills of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands with my buddy Scott.  Projected conditions are 50 degrees, pouring rain and 22-mph winds.  Not having trained much at all for the race, this is sure to hurt quite a bit, and to finally test my theory that “given a general level of fitness, I think I could probably complete a marathon whenever the need arises.”  I never thought it would be pretty, but we’ll surely test that thinking tomorrow (if I don’t post for a few weeks, please check the hills of Tórshavn…)

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Tórshavn Marathon (Faroe Islands) elevation profile.

Do you have a favorite run?  Let me know in the comments – I may have to come by and take it for a test drive myself when I’m in the neighborhood!

Race Report: Ironman South Africa

Written in the 2 days following the race, but posted 2 months late…here’s the IRONMAN SOUTH AFRICA race report – enjoy!!

Prerace

I arrived to South Africa 10 days before the Ironman, landing in Cape Town and meeting up with my friend Meredith for a little pre-race adventure.  She was fantastic to understand the integration of my taper routine into our trip, and so I ended up feeling fantastic when arriving to Port Elizabeth (race city) on the Thursday before the race.  The last 2 nights were torrid affairs, however, as I kept mulling over in my head everything that could go right, vs. everything else that could go wrong.  The tumult, looking back, was the massive uncertainty that I still held around 2 major issues: (1) will my attempt at indoor training translate to the outdoors, and (2) not if, but when my stabilizers (primarily IT bands) would lock up on race day.

The evening before the race we were out to dinner and I ended up in a long chat with a German pro about training, and especially training indoors.  He shared how he and 2 other Germans had competed in the Abu Dhabi tri two months before, and how difficult it was given that they had to train 90% indoors leading up to the race.  He told me all about how long rides inside don’t translate to the outdoors, how the treadmill is a moot point when it comes to matching the strain of running on outdoor pavement after the bike leg, and how stabilizing muscles get murdered in the transition from the trainer and tread to outdoor running and biking.  Well damn, that didn’t help.

But despite the nerves of doubt, I remained resolute in a finish, no matter how painful or slow.  That allowed me to take the day in stride…albeit a rather slow stride.

For the last few pre-race workouts, I decided to take some extra rest and not push it.  As much as I wanted to calm the swim nerves around not having completed this distance for over a year, I decided that it would be smarter to “save it for race day”, knowing from past experience that my shoulders take a long time to recover from long swims and that 1 week prior to the event wasn’t really going to bring me any extra endurance – I’d have to swim, bike and run with what I had developed over the last few months.  Being outside, though, I just couldn’t fully resist, so I took 3 or 4 practice swims of around 20-30 minutes under the excuses of practicing technique and getting comfortable in the wetsuit – all systems go, and no shoulder issues.  On the bike, I took a 2-hour ride the weekend before the event with some nice climbing and felt great, so I let things go until arrival in Port Elizabeth and took just a few 30-60 minute ventures onto parts of the race course close to town.  The run was a bit different – my knees and ankles were bothering me to no end, and I just wasn’t accustomed to the outdoor pounding even though my volume was lower than any week of training prior.  After a 1-hour run out of the water the weekend before the race, my knees were on fire and my ankles were clicking for days – I just wasn’t accustomed to the pounding.  I invested in some compression for the joints and tested them a few days before the race on a 20-minute jump, and the soreness came back.  The IT bands were still locking up, and I was a bit concerned – rest, ice and more rest became my plan of action on the run, and I figured we’d just have to wait and see come race day.  I figured worst case scenario, I could walk the marathon in 7-8 hours and still make the cutoff if everything else went to my pretty non-existent plan.

Race Morning

Sunday morning started around 3 a.m.  I had planned to wake up at 4:30, but having gone to bed at 6 p.m. having not slept much the night before, my body just couldn’t take any more rest.  Around 4:30 I ate the normal breakfast and took off to the start – a 30 minute walk from my hotel because of road closures (something to keep in mind for the next race…).  The prediction was for major winds and rain – luckily, all we had at 5:30 a.m. when I started walking was a bit of rain and calm seas (pfew!).  Maybe we’ll at least make it through the swim without wind – the day before, there were very loud whispers about the race being turned into a duathlon should the predicted swells appear.   At 6:15 they announced that the swim would go off, so I meandered off to slip into my wetsuit and headed out for a practice swim.  I got about 150m in, and thought, “all systems go…save it” – I actually waded back to shore rather than swim not wanting to spend an extra ounce of shoulder strength.  Mental games would be the story of the day.

Swim

I waited until the last minute to join the corral of 1,700 for the swim start, stole some water from a fan to wash down a gel, and got to the beach the mandatory 15 minutes before the gun.  I found myself remarkably calm at the start, and just soaked in the emotion of the thousands of fans, the incredibly inspiring South African national anthem, and the beating of the African drums.  I bent down for a few moments of focus when someone tapped me on the shoulder 1 minute before the start – “you’re not going to hurl, are you?”.  Ha!  I guess my tactics are a bit foreign, but they worked…the gun went off, and I stood still.  I waited for the folks in front of me to clear the corral (I started on the left towards the back), and as I did, this overwhelming sense of gratitude kept me happy, relaxed, and in absolute amazement of my good fortune to be standing where I was.  Arms and legs flailing all over as 1,699 people were fighting for position, but I didn’t care – somehow it was just me, only me, and hits on the head and kicks in the stomach just didn’t phase me.  My HR stayed remarkably low when it would normally be skyrocketing, and I settled into whatever rhythm I could find for the first few buoys.  I was loving this.

Lap one I rotated between following toes and finding open water – with so many swimmers all shooting for the same buoys, the reality of open water just wasn’t there much on the first lap.  So I settled into the reality of a peloton swim and tried to take advantage, deciding to split the middle between conserving energy and making sure I swim fast enough to make the cutoff.  Coming to the end of the first of two 1.9k laps, I thought through possible times: 35-40 mins, take it easier and drop my HR even more to conserve for later, 45-55 mins, keep at it but try not to slip on lap 2, 56+, you’re gonna have to bust ass to be safe.  Out of the water I found someone with a watch and saw 40:15…no worries.  Lap 2 started, and so did the massive chop.  Getting to buoy 1 was easy and I was even more relaxed than before, but between buoys 1 and 2, something went wrong.  700m turned into what felt like 2,000, and I couldn’t figure it out until I looked up and found myself 150m from the shortest line between the two buoys only about 1/3 of the way into that leg.  This current was powerful, and the whole lot of us were being washed out to sea.  I fought as much as I could, but that buoy didn’t seem to get any closer.  A few of us silently teamed up to get a bit of a wake going as the field had disbursed, and we eventually fought our way back to the bouy.  I was sure I had lost hours of time out there, but I couldn’t worry about it – I was still in a safe spot in the field, so I figured either 50% of the race would be cut off at the exit or we’d all make it, and I settled in again.  Rounding the next buoy, one of the guys next to me popped up his head and shouted “holy s**t, are you kidding me?!  What the f**k was that?!”…my thoughts exactly, and pretty much everyone around just grunted in agreement.  The way back to shore was a bit easier, and mentally I spent the time preparing for the transition.  I couldn’t wait to eat, as I was getting pretty hungry.  Out of the water in around 1:27, so though slower, the last lap wasn’t as bad as expected.

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T1

I took some deep breaths, and couldn’t believe that the swim didn’t completely drain me – I actually felt strong out of the water.  Swig of fresh water, changed into gear, took time to apply sun block now that the clouds were starting to clear, and broke into a PB&J sandwich.  Next time I’m packing 2 or 3 of them – I swear to you it was the best thing I’d ever tasted, and I wanted to steal some school kid’s lunch on the way out of T1 to sink into another one.  I was eating like a champ early on the bike, as well, and my body loved it – counter to some conventional wisdom about waiting until 15 mins into the bike.

Bike

HOLY HEADWIND!!  Seriously, from transition until 30 km, it was ALL headwind.  And this was no gentle breeze – it was a 50-60 kph burner that wasn’t even gusty – it was a wind tunnel that wouldn’t stop.  I quickly realized that this bike leg could be  the death of me if I didn’t take it in stride, especially for the first 14km which is all uphill, so I promptly jumped to a low gear and got aero when I didn’t need the extra breath.  I did manage to keep my HR in the low 140s and dipping occasionally into the 138-9 territory – right where I want to be despite the wind.  My speed was suffering greatly, but I figured I’d make it up on the back 9.  I reached the turnaround in 1:04, and all of a sudden the world brightened up…I now had a tail wind that allowed me to sit up and sail in the saddle, and I was averaging 25 mph on a gradual uphill without overexerting.  I could get used to this!  There were a few twists and turns heading back to town that put me back head-on into the wind, but I got through those and was feeling relatively decent and very well hydrated at the end of lap 1.

On a sidenote, one cool thing about the week was the story that Ironman did about my training in Afghanistan.  It ended up making it to the international Ironman website and they put it in the Port Elizabeth paper on the 4th page of the Ironman edition, so a bunch of people had read the story and talked to me about it before and after the race.  This also got me some camera coverage on the bike, so for about 15km on the first lap of the bike, a camera crew on a motorcycle followed me.  Next race I’m going to hire a camera crew to follow me around…the wide-angle lens forced my form and speed into tip-top shape in no time!  I also realized that once you’re on tape during a race, you just don’t want to become that guy in the video coverage with extensive coverage, and then a DNF, so a huge motivator to take the day in stride!

So lap 2 gets started and the headwind crashes me back down to earth.  I can’t imagine another hour-plus in these winds, and before I get to despair, I consciously decide to just shut my mind down.  The beep of the watch reminds me to eat and drink, but I just didn’t allow myself to think about anything beyond gearing and energy conservation in the most logic-driven way.  Literally, laps 2 and 3 I remember no negative thinking on the out portion of the bike – a time when I would normally be cursing the wind and wondering about its impact on my race.  Instead, this time I quickly got into “this is reality – deal with it” mode, and it paid off.  At the turnaround on the 2nd and 3rd laps, which came a bit slower each time, I switched my mind back on and reminded myself of what had become the promise to myself for the day: “you don’t have to win the race – you only have to finish it.”  Inspired by Real Madrid’s head coach Jose Mourinho who tells his players “I’m not going to ask you to win every game – that would be too much pressure…but we DO NOT LOSE”, I saw every minute gained as a cushion that would help ensure a finish rather than every minute lost as a stat that would make my time worse.  Life was good so long as I gave myself time to finish the marathon, and so I kept reminding myself.

Hydration went remarkably well – almost too well.  I had invested in an aero drink to remind myself to drink, and it worked like a charm…so much so that on laps 2 and 3 I stopped no fewer than 7 times to pee (bushes, not port-o-jon).  I knew I would crash hard on the last lap of the bike and the whole run if I couldn’t keep hydrated, so I probably overcompensated and drank pretty constantly.  I was happy with that, though – much better than the other alternative!  This also kept my nutrition pretty well on track, though come lap 3 of the bike, I started hating gels.  Bananas became a sport, as did sampling a few other little items, but guy handing out Cajun peanuts, if you’re out there reading this, you are a bad, bad man for not telling us they were Cajun.  I just about lost my bananas after unsuspectingly throwing a handful of those over-spiced monsters in my mouth.

The last lap of the bike was painful.  The wind sucked and I was tired, though the worst part was the state of my stabilizer muscles…just not the ones I expected.  My IT bands were doing well under the compression, but my back, my neck, my shoulders and my arms were on fire and aching like I had the flu.  My upper body was not used to stabilizing a bike for 7 hours in major head and cross winds – the swim turned out to be just a fraction of the day’s upper-body workout, as holding the bike steady became harder than pedaling at several stages of the course.  Each of the 3 laps became progressively slower as a combination of fatigue and a decision to slow down my HR for swaths of the bike in order save something for the run.   This decision proved healthy, as I was still able to consume off the bike.  To my surprise, my legs felt pretty decent coming down the home stretch – but it was my upper body that had been screaming for the last 3 hours to get off the bike.  I learned a lot about the real challenges of converting indoor training to outdoor competition in those last few hours, and I could have drawn you a map of every part of every muscle that I promised to work out the next time I made an attempt at indoor training.  On the run, though, I deleted that mental map and replaced it with the one-liner “YOU’RE AN IDIOT!  THIS SUCKS – TRAIN OUTSIDE NEXT TIME!”

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T2

I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleased to finish 112 miles on the bike than I was entering T2, though that feeling didn’t last long as I realized the enormity of the marathon ahead.  I’ve never run a marathon in an official race, so this was new territory on several levels.  As I sat down to changed and came down briefly from the constant motion of the last 7.5 hours on the bike, I had trouble picturing the next few hours.  A quick inventory revealed sore joints but strong legs, a general fatigue of about what I expected, an upper body that was still crying, and a mind that was still resolute.  I knew it wouldn’t be for another 20 minutes though that I could take a true inventory.

Run

The final leg started on a positive note, as I thought to myself for the first 2km “well this isn’t so hard…just hold this pace for a bit, and it’ll be over before you know it…”  WRONG!  I held that pace for about 6 km, but the finish line sure as hell didn’t get much closer!  The next few km were more of a challenge – processing aid station fluids took progressively longer to prevent it from coming back up, and though I squeezed down 2 gels on lap one of 3, I started throwing unused gels away because I knew I wouldn’t be able to take them.  My decision was to move to PowerAde, which I had been getting used to over the last 10 days while I had access to it in South Africa.  I was glad to have done that, as it was the only thing my body seemed to want to consume.

In the last few km of lap one, the wheels started to come off.  My ankles felt like they were about to break, the inside tendons on my knees started stabbing with every stride, and my GI track seemed pretty ready to shut its doors for the day.  This was a weird place for me…I’d never really been here in a race.  Sure, I felt awful on the run midway through the 13.1 of a 70.3, but that’s different than having 18 miles ahead of you when the wheels come off!  My next decision kind of shocked me a bit at the time – I really never thought I would do it, but it was the only thing that made sense at the time…I made a plan to walk-jog in planned intervals.  Then, rounding the 4km marker on lap 2, I decided to walk-walk.  I really never thought it would come to that, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice any longer.  With 24 km left, there was no way I would finish if I didn’t let my system come down.  So after doing some quick math in my head, I reminded myself “You don’t have to win the race – you only have to finish it”, and slowed down to ensure a finish.  Then the sun went down, and it started raining.  The wind had not gone away all day, and with the sun now gone, it got really cold really fast.  The temp down into the low 50s with a cold rain and constant wind – not to mention that I was now walking – I froze like a popsicle in just a few minutes. If I started running again I would burn the last gas in the tank, and if I didn’t I would freeze…well shit.  Thinking through the options and not coming up with a good one other than using my special needs bag as an arm warmer, I ran into a friendly face – that of the owner of a bike shop between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth who I had met the week before in her shop.  She was wrapped in a space blanket and walking, as well, so we started talking.  3 km later she saved my life – a friend brought over a fleece and a jacket for her, and she gave me her space blanket.  20 minutes later, and I was cooking – well, at least not freezing – and I had gained a walking partner.

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We paced things out and walked as fast as possible.  Water and PowerAde were running through me at every aid station, so my walk-walk combo became a walk-jog combo as I kept up with her racewalking pace between pee breaks in the bushes.  A few times I thought about picking up and running again, but again made a decision that I never thought I would – I opted to keep walking to make sure that I finished, as my body wasn’t taking any real nutrition and there was still a lot of ground to cover.  Being completely unfamiliar with the distance, I didn’t feel like I could risk a full-on blow up 10k from the end.  So we kept walking together as fast as we could, continually time checking to make sure we were ok.  Finally, with 6 km to go, both our legs were beaten to hell even after walking 1.5 laps.  Deciding I really couldn’t stand walking anymore, I decided to give it a go.  After about 1.5 km of running through leg and stomach pain, I caught a glimse of the glow of the finishing area in the distant sky and a boost of energy shot through me.  I felt ok, and when I didn’t I figured it would all be over soon if I kept running, so I just ignored it.  I got closer, and the rain started hard again.  The crowd got closer, but I didn’t really care – I was shooting for the finish line.  Those last 6 km clicked away faster than any others through the entire race, and my screaming legs carried me past a group of folks who had been steadily passing me for the last 2 hours or so.  I got to town and for the first time knew that I was going to finish.  All I could think as I rounded the last bend into the finishing chute was “finally” – not only that the day would finally be over, but that I would finally complete the Ironman distance, that I was finally outside, that I would finally end this rather arduous journey, and that, finally, I would be an Ironman.

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Post Race

Having run the race rather conservatively and hydrating well along the way, within 45 minutes after the race I was eating soup, a chicken burger and pizza – much different than my past post-races.  There would be no IVs this time, and instead popped a few celebratory beers with a friend from Ireland and his wife along with my awesome support crew that flew all the way over from the US.

The day after the race, people went crazy about the conditions.  This guy who was doing IMSA as his 30th IM told us it was his hardest ever because of the wind, and several guys from Argentina and Spain with an average of around 12 IMs each echoed the sentiment over breakfast.  Later in the week, we got the official results, with an unofficial DNF rate of 21%.  Seems high – I’m just happy that I didn’t make it 21.01%!!

Life is good, Ironman is over, and time to get lazy for a month or so.

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Dear Triathlon Gods

Dear Triathlon Gods,

Welp, the time has come.  Tomorrow is the day I’m going to shoot for my first Ironman here in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  You’ll note, as I’m sure you’re of the omnipotent variety, that I’ve been thinking a lot about this race for months now.  The thought of it got me through some tough training days in Kabul, and the preparation for it had me hating the sight of 4 walls for hours and days on end.

You’ll also note that my mind has been preoccupied as of late over my preparation – namely, whether or not the indoor training would translate to outdoors, and how I might fare in what will certainly prove to be one hell of a swim with a crazy start, 35 mph winds, big swells, and a distance that I haven’t completed in full for some months now.  I’m sure you know of my concern for the bike distance and nutrition, and my lack of concern for the run…surely when I make it that far, I’m home free – run, walk or crawl.

Finally, you will have noted some passing concerns about knees, ankles and shoulders, including the implementation of compression bandages for knees on the bike and ankles on the run.  But make no mistake, that is NOT a weakness.

No…that is preparation.  As was staring at a wall for hours on end in preparation for this race.  As was last year’s training that ended just before IM Louisville.  As was the very conscious decision to take on the challenge of training for this race when I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  As has been the mental prep while staring at those walls, picturing the day, the night and the finish line where it would all be worth it.

So take heed, gods of triathlon, I am prepared for this race.  Rain, sleet, snow, wind, pain, whatever…I am prepared.  This is not a game – this is a mission.  No matter how the day ends, no matter what happens tomorrow, flounder or finish, you have a decision to make, and that’s just how hard you would like to make it on me – frankly, I don’t really care what you decide.

See, I’ve already made up my mind, and I’m going to do this.  Your reaction to that…well that’s your business. 

I’m going to do whatever it takes.  You’re going to have to knock me out in order to hold me back.  I didn’t do all of this to let you take it away easily.  So long as I’m conscious, so long as I have legs underneath me, I’m doing this.  This isn’t a warning, or even a threat – I just want to give you notice.

I would much rather live one life firmly planted on my feet, than live 1,000 lives relegated to my knees.  You may cut me off at my knees – it’s up to you – but I won’t take a knee to Ironman so long as I have the choice.

That’s it – that’s all I’ve got for you.  See you tomorrow bright and early.

Nathan

 

To follow me tomorrow (starting 7 a.m. South Africa time), go to www.ironmanlive.com, click on Ironman South Africa, and enter my last name (Byrd) or race number (92).

Ironman Training Update…t-minus 6 weeks

6 weeks to go, and I’m ready.  I’m not sure if I’m ready for the race, but I’m surely ready for the weeks AFTER the race!  Training in Afghanistan has been hard…I mean realllllly hard.  Staring at sandbags in a freezing cold room for 6 hours at a time on the trainer has taken its toll on me, as has running nearly every mile of training on the treadmill (minus 2 long runs in Dubai) and having no access to a swimming pool.  Nevertheless, I’m determined to toe the line come 22 April, but man am I mentally exhausted from this.

Today was one of those rare days, having escaped briefly to Dubai, where I rediscovered for a moment the joy of running.  I found this really great, peaceful, and unmercifully hot place about an hour running from the Dubai coastline, and it made me feel like I was in an extreme training video.  Away from the big buildings but still surrounded by city, there’s a massive lot of sand dunes with parallel hardened utility truck tracks which makes way for 5 massive 400,000 watt strings of power lines – probably 300 meters across and around 5 km long with walls of sand blocking 90% of the views.  For the first time in almost a year now, it was just me, the ground (not the belt of a treadmill) and the elements.  All I could hear was the pounding of my feet, the wind whipping sand by my face, and the hum of high-voltage power lines overhead.  Man I’ve missed this…I mean I’ve never been there before today, but that solitude, confronting the elements, and feeling out the earth with my toes – awesome.

Feeling pretty insecure about whether or not my indoor training is going to be enough – no water to test myself in, no elements to master nutrition, no real road resistance to tell if I’m really on track – I discovered today that there’s one thing that is the unquestionable positive result of training indoors: mental toughness.  Spending hours on a bike and treadmill staring at nothing, not going anywhere, nothing to really distract me or allow me to get out of my own head, has had this strange way of forcing me to confront personal demons.  Biking or running in a 3m x 3m room for hours on end is not a physical challenge nearly as much as it is a mental challenge, and today showed me that I’m seeing some positive results.  Absolutely wrecked from a tough ride yesterday, being able to go outside I found that there was NO mental game – that game is over for now.  I think months of struggling to keep up with this training regime indoors, and listening to nothing but the thoughts in my head, makes the prospect of a big workout outdoors infinitely easier – and finally FUN – to swallow than even half of it indoors.

That being said, I’ve got another 5 weeks of training indoors to swallow, and I’m right on edge of wit’s end.  I’d be lying if I said “6 weeks to go, I’m basically there”…in fact, I feel quite the opposite feeling right now.  After getting rocked yesterday on my first outdoor ride in months, I’m questioning my trainer sessions.  A recent shoulder injury from overuse of the rubber bands has me worried about the swim.  And, well, the run comes after all of that, so naturally that leg is of equal concern.  My feeling at this point is that I’ve got a lot of work to do just to finish.

But as they say, these are merely the problems of a rich man.  I guess the one point of solace in all of this is that it doesn’t really matter what happens, finish or not.  I’m happy, I’m healthy (thanks to this crazy training), and I’m enjoying life.  Ironman is supposed to be crazy hard, and these are just musings on my personal struggle to reach the finish line.  Crazy hard it is, ready to toe the line I am, and most of all thrilled that this update says SIX weeks to race day and not TWELVE!!

 

Ironman South Africa Training Update

Man, this is tough!  In my head when I was planning this, training for an Ironman 100% indoors wasn’t this difficult – and I certainly hadn’t dreamed up the types of complications that have come up.  But that’s triathlon, I guess.  It’s not just a sport that we train for, I suppose; it’s a sport that we have to find a way to fit into our lifestyle just to survive on race day.  Endurance, training and race-day nutrition, injury prevention, hydration, proper equipment, mental toughness, race strategy (some to win, some to last)….all of these are things that take time to develop and understand, and that’s been REALLY hard to do with just 1 small grocery store, a handful of restaurants, the closest bike shop 3.5 hours away by airplane, no access to the outdoors, limited heat during a ridiculously cold and snowy winter, and the world’s worst cabin fever that ebbs and flows with security incidents, work life, and my mental state.

Recently I’ve added to this a lower back injury that landed me in the clinic – turns out I pulled the 2 muscles that connect my pelvis to my spine while adapting to new swim-replacement exercises – and (**gross alert**) a rogue stomach bacteria from bad water that earned me a few down-and-out weeks and a nice round of antibiotics.

But to me, this is pure triathlon.  I’m not Chris McCormack or Andy Potts, so for me and presumably the rest of us (minus one…I’m certain that Macca is a regular reader of this blog 🙂 ), triathlon isn’t so much about swimming, biking and running – it’s a challenge that goes far beyond that and asks us to commit to toeing the line on race day no matter what else is going on.  The old bumper sticker “triathlon is life” may be what I’m getting at – it really is!  As amateur triathletes we don’t have to be dedicated to triathlon to the point where it takes over our lives, but we DO have to find a way to make it a significant contributor without it becoming THE significant part of our life.

So I got sidetracked – my training update…

I’ve  been  training as much as possible over the last month, and I can’t help but feel like I’m training around the challenges.  Lower back is tricky, as is the stomach thing, but I’m happy with the balance.  Right now I’m taking 3 rest days per week – MUCH more than I had planned in my schedule, but to allow for recovery, this has been the only way to swing it.

On Tuesdays I’m hitting a high-intensity trainer workout on the Computrainer, on Wednesdays it’s to the treadmill for a 45-95 minute Fartlek run depending on what my back will tolerate, and then a long bike and run on Saturday & Sunday (on the trainer and treadmill, respectively) that bike before or run after if possible.  So that’s it for now, but my base is carrying me through nicely.  I’m feeling strong when I can get on the equipment, and when I can’t, I’ve had to stop beating myself up over it and accept it and work with it.  That’s been a nice revelation, and I’m still confident in knocking IMSA out of the park – who knows, this may be a blessing in disguise that will allow me to peak right at the proper time!

And last weekend was EPIC for the trainer.  At five straight hours on the trainer (read: didn’t stop pedaling for five hours), I hit my all-time record for indoor training…and it felt freaking fantastic.  I was so engrossed in “getting back on the horse” that I considered shooting for six, but I was able to convince myself that another hour in the aero position probably wouldn’t be so great.  Next weekend we’re going to push the envelope…shooting for 6 – 6.5 hours, and a 112+ mile read on the Computrainer.

So for now, LIFE is good and TRIATHLON is meshing nicely.  I’m thinking that both mentally and physically, I’m in a much better space than reporting that I’m killing it 6-7 days/week and am miserable trying to fight injury, illness and cabin fever.  Though Ironman South Africa is the next goal, triathlon for life is the goal.

Life is good.

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