Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ironman Texas: Lessons Learned

The only true mistake David Fernandez made at Ironman Texas was thinking that his job was done when he crossed the finish line. On the contrary! Following his stellar race report, I asked if he'd complete the IMTX trilogy by sharing his lessons learned in preparing for and finishing his first Ironman.

What Did I Learn / Things to Improve

1) Ironman is a long race!

Any race, no matter the distance, presents its difficulties. Ironman is a long race. I always kept a broad picture of the race in my mind, but I set short term goals to keep myself motivated and moving forward. I shook off my terrible swim and leg cramps as soon as I got out of the water... there was no benefit in carrying that over (what does 5, 7, 9, or 15 minutes mean at the end of the day?). I focused immediately on the bike. When I got off the bike, I forgot about it and I focused on completing each mile of the run.

2) Know the course

I wasn’t sure what to expect for my first Ironman. I didn’t know how it would feel to be racing for 11 or 12 hours (maybe more?), I didn’t know what running a marathon felt like, I didn’t know many things.

However, I studied the race course and despite having never swum in the lake before, ridden the race course, or run through The Woodlands, I knew where I was and what was ahead of me at all times. I watched multiple times the videos of the swim, bike, and run course posted by Outrival Racing Team, I read race reports from previous years, and I memorized the course maps. This helped me reduce my anxiety before and during the race. Despite not being able to see anything during the swim, I knew how much left I had to swim based on landmarks I had previously identified as well as the distance between the turning buoys. On the bike, I knew how to pace myself at each mile as I knew where the hills were, what road conditions I’d be facing, when I’d have tail or headwind as well as where all the aid stations were. Same goes for the run.

No matter the race, big or small, long or short, make sure you know all the details of the course and you will have a big advantage over your competitors.

3) Have a strategy

Usually, I don’t write it down, but I always think about how I want to approach the race. I visualize the entire day from waking up to the finish line and prepare myself mentally to execute the race the way my head wants. I also think about plan “B”, “C”, “D”, etc. One of the things I like the most about triathlon is that you can’t plan it all, many things can happen during the race and, in most cases, success or failure is dictated by how well you adapt your race strategy to the way the race unfolds.

For this race, Collin asked me to write a brief post about how I was getting ready for the race and I decided to write about my strategy going into it too. I can’t tell you how many times during the race I found myself thinking about what I wrote a few days ago. It helped me tremendously to execute my race the way I wanted. From now on, I will always write down my thoughts before a race.

4) Pace is key

I had no idea how I would feel during the race, but I trained for months to be able to complete this race. I knew what type of effort I was capable of. One key part of writing down my race strategy was to set my goal paces for the swim, bike, and run that I know I should be able to hold to have a good race.
Comparing my goal paces for the three disciplines to my actual race paces, I realized that I was off in all 3 of them… Don’t be a slave of your goal paces, but use them to your benefit. If you are struggling to keep up with them, reset your goal pace to a more conservative one. If you feel strong, go a little faster, but make sure you don’t burn all your matches if there is still a long way until the finish line.

In my case, I went a little too hard from miles 6-12, and my average HR was too high. This was in part due to my watch being busted on the swim, but caused me to suffer during the last 10 miles of the run. Too fast, too early. I should’ve settled into an easier pace. Would I have paced better had I been able to check my HR? Probably. But this is no excuse; I should’ve trained by RPE too. Now I know what people mean by “you need to know your body, you never know when your gadgets will fail you!”

5) Nutrition is key

I can’t repeat this enough. I saw many people bonking and/or with GI issues on the run (even on the bike too!) due to improper nutrition and their race was derailed. I talked to quite a few athletes after the race and they told me their body couldn’t handle the heat (high 80s) and that they either ate/drank too much or too little.

I guess that people that have done many Ironmans already know how to fuel their body properly, but if you are a first, second, or even third timer, make sure you always train with what you are going to eat/drink during the race and, at least, quite a few times at race intensity too. 
Proper nutrition not only can save your day, but it can also help you have a great performance. Although the longer you go the more relevant nutrition is, this advice applies to any distance.

I executed my nutrition plan perfectly. I took in a total of 3,620 calories for the race (870 pre-race, 110 at T1, and 1,800 and 840 during the bike and the run, respectively). I had no issues with dehydration or over hydration. I didn’t feel I was lacking energy nor did I have any GI issue. No signs of bonking either. I felt very strong during the entire race.

Race day nutrition is very particular to each person. Not only finding what to eat/drink that replenishes what your body needs without causing any GI issues is critical, but also how often you need to intake fluids or food will play a key role on your performance.

I was lucky enough to have my sister helping me to figure all this out. We tried to work mostly with products that were going to be available during the race and I tried them all during training to make sure my body accepted them. Definitively, another critical factor for race day nutrition success.

proper post-race nutrition

6) Train specifically for your race

I tried to train in conditions similar to what I will face during race day. I was expecting a hot and humid race, so I made sure to train in the heat (easy living in Miami). I knew it would be an open water swim so I swam in the ocean at least every other week.

Obviously, unless you live where the race is held, you can’t replicate everything. In my case, I was only able to ride my bike through hills once in 6 months, taking advantage of a trip to Austin, where I rented a bike. Other than that, I rode mostly on flat and windy conditions.

The point is, the more you're used to the conditions you will face and the equipment that you will use, the easier the race will feel. As a result of my training, the heat or the wind didn’t bother me at all and most people were complaining about one or the other, if not about both. Luckily, I did ok on the rolling hills, so not being able to train on hills didn’t affect me too much. The only negative point was the wetsuit; I didn’t wear it in more than 2 months and I wasn’t used to swimming with it, which was one of the reasons I got cramps on my legs (I kick differently with than without a wetsuit).

7) Enjoy the experience

No matter what your goal is, qualifying for Kona or making it to the finish line, remember to enjoy the experience. I sure did.

I am the type of person who wants to participate in all events/activities, and IMTX was no exception. Since I got there on Thursday morning until I left on Sunday night I participated in all possible events, I met and talked to people from everywhere, and I had time to explore the city and talk to the locals.

But above all, I enjoyed every single minute of the race. I thanked all volunteers (I think I said thank you to all of them, or at least I tried) and police officers, I admired the landscape, I gave a “thumbs up” to all spectators that were on the bike course. For as long as I was able to, I gave high fives and returned the energy to the crowd that gathered to cheer us on the running course, and I encouraged fellow athletes to keep moving, even though I didn’t have much more strength than them.

Forget about the time, your time will be the consequence of your training and race execution. Enjoy the race while you are in it. That’s what I did, that’s why I loved it, and that’s why I can’t wait to race another Ironman!

Thanks David!

PS. totally random, but the title of this post reminded me of a lesson I personally learned a while back... 

1 comment:

  1. These points are excellent. I followed them for my first Ironman too and had such a great experience (Ironman Coeur d'Alene) that I can't stop going long. One of the most important points that David reminded me about is the race strategy. I wrote it down and memorized it and when my thought drifted during the long bike ride, I would force myself to remember: eat, drink, stand, wiggle toes, and my mantra: I can do this. I've trained for this.
    Nice writing.