Your Triathlon Source

The Wall

Dave Ciaverella - Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ironman Texas May 20, 2011

I can’t thank enough, the love of my life and training partner Ann, for being on the course with updates, and just being there for me. She was spot on where she needed to be and her encouragement as well as presence were invaluable.
Thanks Coach Olaf Sabatschus for your guidance and your >20 year knowledge in ironman racing and training that you have translated into successful coaching. You are a diamond in the rough my friend.
Thanks for the text’s and words of encouragement race week. Knowing some members of my family are watching via internet, as well as friends is always beneficial. My big brother Chuck and wife Wendy, niece Ashley, my parents, and life-long friends are there with me in spirit, and that’s important. Aleck Alleckson, who I trained with side by side for the past 6 months in preparation for this race…thanks for driving me to be the best I can be when it counts, on race day. He and I have now raced Cali 70.3 and IM Texas, both finishing within a minute or two despite having completely different individual strengths in the sport. This is not by chance…we’ve managed to increase each others weaknesses while maintaining our strengths, and I believe this translates into being on our “A” game on race day. Not in some random workout…but on race day.
My trash talk going into the race was purely out of gest and we have to have fun in this sport or it gets a bit old. I knew this race would be less competitive being the inaugural event (for amateurs…the quality pros of course showed due to this race giving the highest prize purse at 100k, of any ironman other than Kona). Regardless, I don’t look at race rosters going into races. It simply just doesn’t make a difference in my game-plan going in. I enjoy seeing how the race unfolds in “real-time” as I am in it, and making some decisions on the fly rather than with some pre-existing knowledge of whom is there racing with me. So, having some fun talking shit about my competition was purely off the cuff. I know how difficult these things are completing 15 now, and I know anything can go wrong that is out of my control on race day. However, I will say…don’t confuse confidence with cockiness. I am not cocky…but I am confident. I went in to win the division and I knew if I had a consistent race I would be competing closely with the leader(s).  I was never considering second, even though the leader was 30 seconds in front of me for 13 miles of the run, and I had no idea who was coming from behind. Of course I could have finished much worse, even began walking…but that is not part of my mind-set during the event.

The Course
Swim: Certainly not fast. No wet suit and the 700  meter length narrow 4 ft deep canal to the finish was similar to a washing machine. Strong swimmers such as Aleck excelled in this environment. Weaker swimmers such as myself have to struggle a bit.
T1 and T2: Fast and organized.
Bike: Course is more hilly than touted at 1600 ft ascent. My altimeter matched others I talked to in the race at just over 2300 ft ascent, in about a 50 mile segment of the course. Not significantly challenging, but not lightning fast either. The vast majority of hills are rolling and staying in aero position is required. The shifting of my gears was almost constant for most of the race due to the undulation. Wet black asphalt on sharp curves resulted in a few accidents. Rough chip seal and road repairs were as expected, but not that bad. The nasty headwinds touted at the pre race meeting were only for about 30 miles and only at 15 mph or so. The harsh headwind coming in the final 8 miles we had all week, 25 mph or so..calmed to maybe 10 quite normal conditions. Nothing extreme weather wise.
Run: The Achilles heel of many in the sport. You can ignore the race information that states, “shaded run on trails in the woodlands”. There is maybe a total of 30 minutes of actual shade, and 3 hours of open exposed direct sun. The course is technical with alot of turns, negotiation of several curbs and ledges, etc. The crowd however was spectacular for me and there were no real “dead areas” on the run course…there were spectators everywhere. The humidity and heat killed many people’s races here and you had to run smart to do well. I was passing hundreds walking in my third loop. I passed 6-8 pro’s walking, and moved from 10th amateur to 5th by passing 5 M30/M35 guys that were slogging at 10 minute pace the final lap. Had these guys had more normal races, my amateur placing would have been quite normal for me, as I’ve finished in the 10-15th amateur placing in several ironman races. This one was higher due to the luck of a few guys bonking ahead of me…which is unusual to have such a high percentage of guys toward the front slow down so much, but it is what it is.

The Good: Consistency. My 4th ironman race placing in the top 30 overall. My highest amateur finish at 5th. My second Division win in a WTC ironman event. My 7th consecutive Division Podium  finish (top 5) in ironman events other than world championships covering 3 age divisions. In fact, Ann reminded me yesterday that I have only missed a division podium in one non-Kona ironman…my first at CdA in 2004.

The Bad: Whoa…my swim at this race was about 90-120 seconds slower than I thought it would be. Lack of a wet suit hurts us non-swimmers a bit and definitely put me at a bit of a disadvantage. Swimming a 1:06 was my 5th slowest swim ever out of 15 ironman races, including Kona. Complete perfect races rarely occur.

The Ugly: My chronic right ankle instability (courtesy of IMAZ in 2010) haunted me for the second race. The chronic aching of my tibiotalar joint starting at mile 16 was not unlike my long runs this year, in which my joint would ache at about the 2 hour mark. However….rolling it off the edge of the sidewalk at about mile 23 and re-spraining it was completely unexpected and my error in judgement.

I had a vision a week after finishing California 70.3 with nearly an identical time as my athlete Aleck Alleckson. Our power on the bike in that race was nearly identical, and our heart rate on the run as well. In the workouts after that race,  it was uncanny how our bike wattage and run heart rate parameters were almost identical. It became almost a game to me, asking Aleck his power on the bike rides,  time trials,  and HR during runs, and nearly each and every time, we were within 5-8 watts on the bike and 3-5 heart beats on the runs. This was not that unusual to me in that we trained greater than 80% of all workouts together this year, specifically for the Texas event.
One morning during our final big week of training a month out, I woke up and thought…well, Aleck needs to get to Kona…I’m already there. So, I anticipate he will be at least 5 minutes ahead of me out of the water, and if I can bike smart I can push to catch him by transition, then pace him out on the run.
I told Ann this that week, then told Aleck a week later. To me, I was certainly willing to push the bike in the final hour if all was going well, catch Aleck, and run with him as long as I could to keep him on pace and controlled…”teaming up” so to speak against his competition in the M35.
This worked out for me as (who I thought was) the leader in the M45 caught me on the bike at about mile 70 during the long stretch in the headwinds. I was biking alone for about an hour when he passed in a group of 4 guys. This group I can’t complain about because they were, like the pro’s, biking legal distance apart with the exception of the small upgrades in which they would accordion together a bit closer for a couple of seconds then break off again. I mentioned something to two of them as I passed the group that they better be careful. Trouble was, that for an hour each time I would pass them, on any slight down grade they would pass me back because I was using each and every down grade to sit up on my seat and stretch my low back which was aching and very close to spasm. I decided I needed to sit up and use downhills as a few seconds to stretch in order to prevent an event to my back that could put me out of the race.
The 3rd M45 finisher at the awards Shawn Bonsell mentioned this to me. He told me he was thinking I was hurting because I was sitting up and stretching on all the downhills when he caught me.

Is Their Anybody Out There?
Every race I’ve done where I am racing the final 3 hours up toward the front of the field is extremely barren. I mean…there just aren’t any people to catch, and those that are there…are spread several minutes apart. Sometimes on the bike I am thinking, where the hell is everyone? I thought for a minute this past weekend I may have made a wrong turn on one long stretch because I rode about 10 minutes, nearly 4 miles and didn’t see one person…not even volunteers.
I passed maybe 10 total guys in the final 2.5 hours of the bike at Texas….so, just being able to pass  someone and say, “hey man nice day” as I pass…and as that person passes you awhile later and gives you a nod…its nice in a way. To stress the point, there is nothing wrong or illegal about coasting 5 seconds as you ride up on someone from behind, and enter their draft zone. You have 20 seconds to pass. I use this to my advantage and advise my athletes to do the same. Each and every time you can get a “free” 5 second coast from passing someone in a race will add to your strength at the end of the day. This is totally legal and a race strategy I’ve used since I raced my first race at CdA in 2004. In fact, everyone reading this should realize in my 15 IM and 40+ HIM races I have never received a penalty. Why? The answer is stupidly simple…because I don’t draft AND I don’t even put myself in a situation where there is even a question of a draft, or block or other penalty. This is so plainly simple and obvious to me…as well as Ann who has never once received a penalty in any of her races…ever. So those of you who see my 4:50 bike splits (3 times now) before you jump to a conclusion out of disbelief because of my age or whatever…forget my time…look at my wattage. I rode 260 watts at IMWA in 2007 in 35 miles of headwind, 226 watts at IM Brazil last year with at least 12 turn-arounds on the course and 2000 feet of climbs, and 223 watts this past weekend at IM Texas on 2300 ft of climbs and about a 30 mile stretch of headwinds. How did I bike the same time with less power at Brazil and TX compared to WA? It’s about power to weight ratio. My Scott Plasma is at least 2 lbs lighter than my Queen K that I was racing on at WA and my race weight was 3 lbs lighter. This translates to covering the same distance utilizing less wattage….I’m on a rant….sorry.
Regardless, it’s the wattage, not the speed that is the target for me. Although certainly looking at a race data set in retrospect, it’s fun to see the 23.1 mph speed that I maintained over a 112 mile distance.

Time To Go
So, as we entered the rough stretch of chip-seal, near mile 90, I began my push. The next long road off the first turn I could see maybe a mile up and the road, maybe 3 minutes or so. There was a guy about a minute up, then one more person way up in front of this guy who was barely discernible,  who looked like a vague orange and blue dot on a red bike. I was certain this was Aleck. I looked behind my back and saw Shawn (M45 2nd) about 30 seconds back. Time to go was the exact thought in my head as I pressed my lap split on my power meter module and rode off.  I didn’t really pay too much attention to power in that I capped myself at 235 watts, and was completely uncertain if I could hold this for an hour in my attempt to catch Aleck. It’s difficult to explain the intensity both mentally and physically when you begin pushing hard at the 90 mile mark of a 112 mile time trial. The fatigue in the legs, my heart rate moving from low zone 2 to zone 4, the rapid breathing…all of which are potential deadly signs in an ironman. Looking at my speed the final 54 minutes and a distance of 22.09 miles….24.1 mph. I passed one single person in this final hour, which turned out to be the actual leader in the M45 I think. My pass was decisive and brisk to the point that he didn’t attempt to hang in my sights.
The final push in the last 11 miles on my power profile analysis software and Garmin showed 24.6 mph….which I felt because my legs were burning to the point that I had to take short 3-5 second breaks from pedaling to clear the fatigue. This was beyond my push in Brazil and I have never in my 7 years as a triathlete pushed this hard on the bike at the end of an ironman bike segment. However, as I approached town, there was Aleck about 30 seconds ahead of me. As I dismounted the bike, I saw Aleck running ahead of me to his T2 bag. “Perfect” was my exact thought.

The Thin Ice
Think of final race preparation as creating a layer of razor-thin ice. You need to cross this with precision, foresight, and remain centered in thought. Athletes create cracks in the ice in their preparation leading up to the race, during race week, and in the race itself. Those with the least number of cracks in the ice will have the better chance of not falling through. I was smooth as silk going into this race, even though I actually peaked a couple of weeks back as stated in my blog then. However, a peak can be sustained for a few weeks for certain if you know you are peaking, and take measures to prevent over-stepping in the weeks leading into the key event. I created a few cracks in the ice upon initiating the plan of an attempt to catch Aleck in the final hour on the bike. Certainly this was a risk. However, I had no pre-existing cracks in the ice and I was able to remain stable despite the push at the end. My short taper, pre-race preparation, and high level of rest during race week left me in this state of confidence that I could take a few chances out on the course and get away with it. Athletes who create numerous cracks in the ice only set themselves up for difficulty and face a high risk of a terminating event occurring if only a minor set back ensues during the race. The more prepared you are, the more you can recognize which details are important and target them, the more likely you will be able to handle difficulty. This is one of the major differences in consistency in training and performance amongst most athletes.

Run Like Hell
This was perfect! I had to urinate in transition which held me up a few seconds, but as I ran out Aleck was there 5 seconds in front of me. I yelled, “dude I’m coming man!” I  Ran up to Aleck at 6:30 pace for a minute then we settled into our 7:40ish target. This was just a little too fast then I had planned by about 5 sec per mile, but I knew that this was Aleck’s goal pace at least to mile 16 as per his pre-race plan.
At mile 2 the M45 I passed toward the end of the bike ran by and greeted us, then ran up ahead. There was never an inclination to move ahead and challenge him this soon. This guy was running like hell at low 7′s in an ironman, and I firmly believe there are not many M45′s in the U.S. that can lay down a 3:05 marathon split off a sub 5 bike…in hot humid conditions such as these. I was betting this guy was not one of them,  and let him go. He got as far as 30 seconds in front of us, then remained there. After a mile or so, I could still see him ahead, and I was certain he had already slowed to our pace of 7:40′s, so it was then I knew it was only a matter of time.
is a statement I made on facebook a couple of days before the race. I thought of this while watching the M45 leader for 12 miles run up ahead of us. I wrote this statement on facebook, full well knowing only a few of my athletes would understand what I meant. In the marathon of an ironman, patience is the prime objective, and having the foresight to full well know a bonk is a high probability, it’s not wise to stress the patience here. I have said too many times to count in past blogs, that in training, it’s more difficult to remain behind someone than in front. It’s easy to hammer up the hills and hammer out of your zones in speed work in order to be out front. I mean, anyone can do that…just hammer. However, having the patience to exert a controlled effort in training..all the time, will train you eventually to acquire this strategy in racing. So, with the M45 leader ahead of me, and now running the same pace as me…I knew exactly where his limits were. However, with me behind him, he had no clue what my limits were, or how I felt.
Mile 8, Aleck and I kept running stride for stride, the M45 now 10 seconds ahead and a M35 in Aleck’s AG about 30 sec ahead. It was awesome to run through the crowds as teammates side by side and dozens of people yelling, “go shoes!” and “wow look at those guys’ shoes!”. Running in brilliant orange and blue shoes with matching uniforms and visors/sunglasses…and being up there toward the front of the field was one of the coolest things I’ve ever encountered in an ironman.
Mile 14, we come up on the M45 and pass. I won’t disclose my personal race strategy here, but suffice to say I was confident in this pass because we never picked up the pace and in fact were slowing. He came to us. Somewhere a few minutes later, Aleck’s M35 3rd place competitor came to us, and we passed.

Comfortably Numb
I have never raced an ironman without the knowledge of what is inevitable. Running 7:40-7:50ish was so deceptively easy the first 16 miles, until the open exposure in the sun begins to take its toll. The insidious dehydration, basically losing more fluids on the run than you can absorb from replenishment leads to the eventual weight loss beyond 3% of body weight, in which every percent thereafter can lead to a 10% drop in performance. The low vascular volume leads to increase in core temperature, which leads to even more rapid loss of plasma water, exacerbating the condition. It is critical to keep the glucose flowing in its simple most rapidly absorbable form. It is critical to keep the low dose sodium going as well, just enough to prevent the rare event of hyponatremia, but to enhance the absorption of glucose and increase water retention. Knowing all this, yet still the bonk ensues.
I passed Ann somewhere, I don’t know where but somewhere around mile 17….as I was running alone about 30sec up on Aleck as he fell back a bit. I tried to tell her I was bonking, but a barely discernible whisper came out. I felt weak, tired, and depleted within a short span of 2 miles. I recognized this and again told myself to maintain the nutrition plan, do not deviate, and to keep the losses to a minimum. My mind is blank and only focused on moving forward.
But regardless, there is was, the proverbial wall. This conscious haunting barrier that remains present and unrelenting. Mile 18. “Hang on…keep the stride short…ignore the aching in your ankle”. I remember this but the rest is blank.
Mile 19. Somewhere Aleck passed me as I realized my shoe was untied and slipping off because it was saturated with water and urine. I quickly tied the other shoe of course while I was stopped…to prevent a second stop in case the other shoe string was loose as well.
Mile 20. “Aleck is right there…gotta be 20 seconds..just run 1 mile and get up there, then it will be easy”. Mile 21, I look down, my HR is now in high zone 4, my stride feels better, and I feel myself breathing. Deep breaths are beginning to predominate over my shallow struggling breaths. Aleck is 10 seconds, as I stared at his back. I look down and I am at Z 4/5 jct and starting to roll.
Mile 22…running directly behind Aleck and as I come up on him, “dude I’m here man…let’s go, its only 30 minutes…”…”man if I see that clock ONE SECOND over 9:30 then I’m waiting for you so we can finish this thing together…”
I look down, 7:20 pace as I awaken and begin to race. Zig-zagging through 3 a -breast walkers on narrow winding course. “on your right”…”on your left”…”coming through the middle!” were three variations of what I was yelling depending on the opening I saw as I approached other racers.
Mile 23…racing down a hill toward the canal I yell “on left” as I approach 3 from the Mexico Triathlon team, all walking on the right side of the course. As I approach the furthest on the left hears me running up and steps to his left right in front of me. I braise his shoulder as I step left and off the ledge of the sidewalk. I find myself yelling “FU**” as I fall to the ground and the pain shoots from my right ankle right up my shin. Are you kidding me? I pop up and walk with the help of one of the team Mexico guys and they ask if I’m ok..I don’t reply I just start hobbling forward. 5 steps…10 steps…sore to take off and land on the mid foot so I go to my toes and this is relieving. Within a minute I am racing again and feel nothing as I pass mile 24.
I see Aleck approaching from the other direction as we turn the last turn-around and I felt so relieved because even though a while ago he looked like he was ready to crumble. Yet, now….he was running hard! My thought was, “Aleck is in his zone…excellent!”
As I pass a large crowd along the canal, everything was a blur as I looked left to the canal, dizzy…then forward. I hear, “go shoes!” from someone who sounded like they were yelling from a tunnel. I feel no pain. I feel no weakness….I feel nothing except forward motion. I look down…heart rate top of zone 5…6:52 pace….comfortably numb.

The Wall
I can’t explain these things on a physiologic level. Sometimes racing is from the subconsciousness, and we draw from strengths we didn’t know we had. I have smacked into the wall in each and every ironman from the beginning in 2004 though. The height and thickness of that wall has varied depending on too many variables to count. Brazil the wall was extreme as I ran 9 minute mile pace for 8 miles. Kona 2004 the wall was 10 min pace for 10 miles. In Texas the wall was 8:40ish pace for 4 miles. You can’t predict the severity or duration. However, you can prepare yourself and keep losses to a minimum.
I was in the gym at All-Star fitness center last year and met a guy who was discussing “Cross-Fit” training with me. He told me, “man…I’d love to see some of you triathletes workout with us…I don’t think you could make it over our wall.” My reply to him was, “dude…you want to climb a wall? Do an ironman…that’s a wall”. He chuckled, and I laughed as well.
Climbing the wall? It’s not impossible, and not improbable. Just finishing…you’ve made it over your wall.
However, I didn’t climb any wall on Saturday. I tore down my wall. This, no matter how old you are, and no matter what your level of competition…
is racing.

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