“Don’t call it a comeback…”
- modern day philosopher LL Cool J
It doesn’t feel as though I took four years off from racing, although time has been traveling rather quickly since my kids have been in high school. And even though I have kept fit, at my age, it’s easy to question if you still have the ability to race at the pointy end of your age group. I view staying very fit and “practicing what I preach” as a responsibility towards my occupation. But staying fit and being competitive are two totally different things - two things that can certainly be intertwined, and even have an overlapping consequence, yet do not go hand in hand.
I have been thinking about racing, no, I actually feel a need to race the Hawaii Ironman one more time, as it would be my tenth time, and I have unfinished business based on the result of my last time there in 2012 (broken toes - long story). In my busy life, like most people my age, I have yet to find the optimal time to fit in an IM - I don’t really know if this exists. So instead you find a time where your time constraints will be a bit less hectic. This seemed to be the year. The problem is that in order to qualify for Kona nowadays, you need to do a full Ironman qualifier. I don’t have the time or desire to do two Ironmans in one year now, so my option was to race a late season IM this year that would qualify me for next years (2019) IM. That was going to be the plan, however, In January, my good friend Jeff Molson informed me that the Honu 70.3 (half Ironman, on the Big island of Hawaii) would be the only half to offer Kona slots for this year’s IM. This is a race that both Jeff and I had always wanted to do anyways as it’s another opportunity to race on part of the World Championship course, yet you’re only doing half the distance! I surprised Jeff when I informed him that I actually signed up - what was just a possibility and idea was now a harsh reality to him. I knew he’d follow suit though and sign up as well.
My idea was to join Jeff and bring my son Ryan out with me for a fun boy’s trip before he heads off to college; however, he had his track states meet the same week as well as CT Cup soccer games, so it was just Jeff and I.
I had great support from my family and friends back home. When I sign up for a personal endeavor like this, I try my best to keep it to myself as to not bore others with my focus. My family and close friends at home though seemed genuinely interested in this goal of mine and how things were progressing - and if they actually weren’t, I really couldn't tell so it was all good.
My mantra going into my training for this race was “leave no stone unturned”. In fact, as corny as it sounds, I’d actually say that to myself each morning in the mirror. I know, but this worked for me as it made the focus and relevance more real each day. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time so I focused on quality over quantity. I’m a firm believer anyways in that if we have been involved in endurance sports for some time, we build up what I call cumulative aerobic base, meaning we can go for a long period of time. Yet doing so at an aggressive pace is another story. All my weekday rides were done on a computrainer indoors as this was safer and more efficient. I’m old school. I had a Wahoo Kickr, which I do think is great and will probably go back to at some point, but prefer the simple erg mode of a computrainer. No swift, strava, or other flashy software for me, just putting together quality wattage based sessions in ergo mode on my computrainer. Every ride had a focus whether it was big gear strength efforts, time trials, VO2 max efforts or simple recovery spins, and just about every ride was followed by a brick run, typically on my treadmill as the weather this winter and spring was a bitch more or less, but also because I could set a speed and I had to run that speed. Again, quality over quantity. Most rides were in the one hour to 90 minute time frame, and if I was short on time, I’d cut the ride a bit short to squeeze in a 10 to 15 min brick run. I’ve been coaching for a long time now, and one of the things I can certainly attest to is the fact that a good portion of triathletes blow off their brick runs. After doing a hard bike session, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve done enough. I can also testify that this is a huge mistake and that most don’t run well in triathlons because of this. Anyways, I also kept in three strength sessions each week as I also feel these are incredibly important. Actually, I know, not feel, that these are important. I started swimming a couple of times a week in mid April. As my build for this race progressed, so did my confidence. I was putting forth some really solid efforts in training and also recovering very well from them. Yet until you are actually in the competition, after taking a lot of downtime, it’s still easy to have doubts.
I never take for granted what it takes to qualify for the Hawaii Ironman. It’s probably harder than the race itself as there are so many great athletes with that same singular goal as you shooting for the few coveted slots awarded at the qualifiers. This Honu 70.3 race had one slot per age group - win the group or no deal. With 200 people in my age group, from many different countries, all vying for that one slot, there was no room at all for error. I have to say that I was a bit concerned about the southern hemisphere countries as they were coming off their summer and would be much more acclimated. Kona is not that far a flight from Australia and South America, two countries that have some really solid triathletes. I never go through the participant list though. I feel this can only get in your head. My philosophy is take care of yourself, and race your race, and the chips will fall where they are supposed to. I was nervous though during the week leading into the race. It never feels good to be nervous. But it’s been awhile since I was nervous prior to a race. The value and importance of doing well was back!
Okay, enough of the boring stuff, let’s get to race week. The race was on Saturday, June 2nd, and I flew out the Tuesday prior. Jeff had arrived at the Island earlier and came to the airport to pick me up. he mentioned how bad the vog (volcanic smog) was that day from the active volcano and the lack of winds. Now for those who don’t know the Big Island of Hawaii, it’s a big island! The volcano was 100 miles away from the race venue and over two 14000 foot mountains. The media really blow things out of proportion. Listen, if you happen to live close to the erupting volcano, it’s an incredibly serious and tragic issue. But over 7/8ths of the island is fine, and the fact that their economy relies heavily on tourism, the news isn’t also stating how the resorts on the Kona coast and north of there are fine and open for business.
Jeff also informed me that the trade winds were to pick up again on Wednesday and blow the vog out and boy was he right! We started Wednesday morning with an easy shake out run along the coastline - this is my happy place. I have spent a lot of time in Hawaii and the big island is by far my favorite. I ran along a volcanic path and the stark contrast of the black path next to the white sand that flows into the bluefish green ocean just relaxes me. The palm trees, and the breeze coming off the mountains also helps. After breakfast, we rode our bike for 36 miles, from Kawaihai up to Havi and back - this was part of the course and included a lot of gradual climbing on the way up, which meant a nice long downhill on the return trip. Now I have raced out here nine times and also put on training camps on the island. One thing you can guarantee on the climb up to Havi is that there will be some wind. It varies all the time from light to holy shit!! If the trade winds are really blowing, you end up with a severe cross/head wind combo on the way up, meaning a severe cross/tailwind combo on the return. This Wednesday, wind wise, was a holy shit and then some day. I honestly have never felt the trade winds so severe. For seven to eight miles, it was hard to stay upright. The gusts would jolt your bike laterally two to three feet. It was nuts, but I also have ridden here enough to know that this was definitely at the higher end of what we would get and would change day to day. The goods news was that it took all the vog out to sea and we had beautiful sunny weather. We ended Wednesday’s training with a swim at Hapuna beach. Hapuna is one of the top beaches in the world and the swim is nothing short of spectacular, with crystal clear visibility through the water for ever and a white sandy floor. On this day, because of the winds, the chop made things not so smooth. It didn’t matter though as it still felt great to swim in this ocean.
Thursday, the winds died down and we started the day with a swim, followed by an easy spin. Jeff and I ate really well on this trip. In fact, we managed all our time on this trip quite well. Things were just moving along very easily and efficiently. Back to the food though; we ate fresh fish every day for lunch and dinner, and dinner was also accompanied with a beer or glass of wine or two. Mainly two.
I felt really good in the easy training sessions which continued to boost my confidence. I wasn't sleeping great, but I never really do, and I felt fine upon awakening.
Friday started with a swim again and Hapuna Beach was so smooth. The winds were lighter, and swimming was more of a treat than an effort. The water is so buoyant that you feel as though you are swimming with a wetsuit without the restriction of one. I then did a very easy brick just to keep things loose and keep the legs moving a bit. After checking in our bikes to T1 and run bags to T2, it was just nervous time and trying to relax until race start.
Boring details for the trigeeks; I awoke at 4am, ate a plain bagel with peanut butter and a had a cup of coffee. Then showered to loosen up, gathered all my other race gear, ate 3/4’s of a banana and drank 16 ounces of Gatorade, and at 5:30am, Jeff and I headed over to the start. I put my nutrition on my bike which consisted of a large bottle of gatorade behind my saddle and a smaller bottle that consisted of 600 calories of EFS liquid shot mixed with water that was between my aerobars. Anything else I’d grab on course. Filled my tires up with air and headed down to the swim start.
The race started at 6:30am. My wave went off at 6:55am, four minutes behind Jeff’s 55-59 wave. This was my first time participating in a rolling start and even though I had been strategizing all week about where I’d seed myself and how I’d start, I still was unsure right up until our wave began. A rolling start means that when they start your wave, they send you off in a line of four people every three seconds. You seed yourself and your time doesn't begin until you run under the starting banner. The problem for me with this set up is that you may not be racing head to head with your competition. You may start right up front and never see someone all day who started three minutes behind you, and yet they may make up a minute on the course and beat you. Two days prior, one of my biggest supporters - my father, sent me an email stating “I’ve been thinking a lot about your swim start and here’s my take; why don’t you seed yourself more towards the back of your wave. This way, you are hunting down your competition and there are no surprises. The really fast swimmers are going to take off anyways so don’t get caught up in that.” I thought great advice, sounds like a plan. Then, five minutes before our wave went off, I said f’ it and moved to the front. My thinking was that the guys that were really confident that they had a shot at that one Kona slot were going to start up front, and that’s where I needed and wanted to be. As we waited for the final few minutes before our wave started, there was one guy in my group who cut in front of everyone and peacocked around, sizing everyone up. There was no way I was letting this guy beat me.
It was a running start into the water and I found empty space right away which is so rare! I was loving it and felt smooth. Around the first turn buoy, maybe 1/8th of the swim leg, a guy came up on my side and I jumped into his draft line and stayed there for most of the swim. He was moving well and the few times I tried to come around him, I realized he was swimming a faster pace than I was capable of, so I stayed in his slip stream. We passed tons of swimmers from the earlier waves but had free water most of the time. Exiting the water, I felt as though I swam solidly, yet comfortably. T1 was chaos now as many waves were exiting the swim and getting on their bikes, and I had no clue what place I was in out of the water, learning later that I was sixth in my age group.
I felt solid on the bike right away. I kept my cadence a bit higher and settled into a rhythm. My philosophy for this race was to go somewhat conservative, at about 80% of my FTP. I was concerned about the heat on the run which is why I was being conservative. Around 20 miles into the bike I moved into the lead. I didn't know this however while racing. Ages were not listed on calves and because of our late wave start, I was moving past a lot of athletes from the earlier waves. The winds were lighter than the previous few days. As we got closer to the turnaround in Havi, it was raining. Even though the showers felt good, I was concerned –when the showers end, the heat and humidity comes. And that it did.
I rode strong to T2, and heading out onto the run course, my legs felt surprisingly bouncy. It was hot and humid though and the sun was blazing now. The run course is a new one for this race and consisted of two loops on a golf course and roads. It was undulating, with lots of turns, segments of pavement from golf cart paths, segments of grass, and segments of road, and I loved it. It was a slow course and I ran very conservatively again for the first loop as I was worried about the heat. I felt as though I was running slow and yet no one was passing me. Not only was no one passing, but I was actually passing quite a few younger athletes still from early waves. There were aid stations at every mile and they were well stocked. At every one, I’d first dump a cup or two of water over my head. Then I’d take a swig of Gatorade, then I’d grab ice and munch on some and dump the rest down my trisuit, then I’d grab some cold sponges. I did this at every single aid station, never slowing to walk though. At a few I’d also take a swig of some coke.
There’s an out and back at mile 10 and as I was coming out of it, I saw a guy charging hard behind me. I had no clue what age he was but didn't want him to catch me so it was no longer conservative Eric. I pushed hard. It felt hard. I counted my steps - this is a mind game I play to divert the pain. I count 140 steps with just my left foot striking the ground and this equates to roughly a quarter of a mile. I then do 140 steps counting my right foot, … The counting dulls the mind and keeps me moving forward. There were many times in the final three miles that I felt like slowing. Even walking. But instead I’d try to push harder. I had worked way to hard the previous months not to be totally honest with myself and place it all out there. My last three miles were my fastest. Soon after crossing the finish line, the fast running guy from mile 10 came across and asked me if I won his age group. Now I could see him closely and realized he was much younger than me. I said “Son, I could be your father!” Honestly, I think he was more delirious from the effort rather than being complimentary towards me.
Here’s the interesting part; Because there were no age numbers written on our calves, and because the race numbers were randomly assessed, I still had no clue if I had won my age group. I had a good feeling about it, but was still unsure. I raced back to our condo to shower and get back to the race before Jeff finished. I also wanted to get my phone which I had left at the condo. As soon as I got there, I called Lisa who had been tracking me all day with some friends. When she answered, the first thing I said was “did I win?” Lisa was choked up and said “oh my god, yes, you won!!!” People tracking me at home knew how I did overall before I did. Second place was a guy from France approximately eight minutes back, and third a Canadian around 15 minutes behind.
I found Jeff a bit later at where else? – the beer tent. We waited for awards and the Kona slot allocation, and then celebrated at the best restaurant on the Big Island. It was a great day, and it felt terrific to be back. I felt quite alive, and it felt awesome.
The next day was a lazy day at Hapuna beach and the morning before I flew out, I got in one last run along the coast on my favorite winding lava trail, a reflection run where I absorbed the past few days, past few years, and breathed easily feeling very satisfied and content. I’m looking forward to doing the same a few days after the IM in October..