Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Ironman Chattanooga Race Report - David Fernandez

I planned the season to peak for this race. We are expecting our first child at the end of October and I am not sure whether I will be able to or if I would want to commit the time to train for a Full Distance triathlon next year with a newborn in town. Therefore, I wanted to end the season with a good performance in one of the most grueling and challenging races that it is an Ironman.

After starting the year with a knee injury that kept me off running for 3 months, this year it’s been a breakthrough year for me. I didn’t race much; I trained a lot less than in previous years, but I trained better. As a result, I PR’ed in all races I participated, always finishing towards the top of my AG or even Overall, qualifying for the 70.3 Worlds in Zell Am See, Austria, and improving my times and fitness in all three sports.

I did 70.3 Chattanooga back in May and I enjoyed the people, the city, and the race a lot. I was excited to return for the full. IM Chattanooga features a swim in the Tennessee River (with the current – more on this later), a 116 mile beautiful bike course with plenty of rolling hills, and a challenging hilly run course. Despite these course conditions, I felt like I had the fitness to PR (current PR is 10:08 at IM Barcelona) and, maybe, even go sub 10 hours. I never felt so confident going into a race. I knew I had done the job and I was sure I could have a good race if nothing abnormal happened.

I had a great training block before 70.3 Worlds (August 30th) followed by a 1 week taper for that race. I didn’t push too hard during the Worlds, so I was able to go back at training right after the race without fatigue. IM Chattanooga was 4 weeks after 70.3 Worlds and I decided to go with a 2 week training block + 2 week taper. I tweaked my knee right before the taper started, so my taper was more significant that what I wanted, but I think I managed to get to the start line healed up.

Race Week

Thursday: I arrived to Chattanooga on Thursday night and went to the house in the North Shore (~1 mile from the Ironman Village) I was renting with AirBnb. Chattanooga is a great city, plenty of food options and things to do, plus it is very easy to navigate; I feel like everything is within a 10 minute drive, at the most.

If you are doing this race (or any other race in Chattanooga) in the future, there is no need to pay the high hotel prices to stay downtown. You can stay a little further away and either bike (great bike city system) or drive to where all the action happens (plenty of cheap parking options by the IM Village).

Friday: I checked in early in the morning and attended an Athlete briefing session. It looked, despite the cold and rainy weather, that I wouldn’t be wetsuit legal, so I spent some time at our sponsor tent and got a ROKA swim skin. You always have to try something new on race day!

I had lunch and I wanted to go for a 1h easy spin on the bike. It was still cold and rainy, so I decided to not pick up my bike from Tribike Transport and I went to the local YMCA instead that was offering free admission during the IM week to athletes! I spun my legs for about 1 hour and then went home where I laid on the bed reading before heading out for dinner. I always attend all the IM events, but this time they gave us a coupon to use in a local restaurant. I visited Il Primo and drove the hillier part of the run course (intimidating!). I went back home afterwards and I was probably in bed by 9.30 pm. It was a truly uneventful day, which is good.

Saturday: It was still raining, so I went for a 15 minute swim to the local YMCA. Then picked up my bike and rode for 15 min made sure everything was working well before checking it in together my run and bike bags. I run for 15 minutes, had lunch, and spent the rest of the afternoon lying in bed reading until I had dinner and went to bed at ~ 9 pm.

It felt weird at some points how relaxed I was. It seemed like I wasn’t going to do an IM the next day. I had no trouble sleeping, I was confident in myself and I had no worries about the race. 

Race Day

I woke up at 4.20 am and had my race day morning breakfast (120g of cereal with milk). I applied my tattoos and left quickly afterwards. It took me less than 10 minutes to drive, park, and walk in transition. I pumped my tires, checked my bike, and put the shoes and helmet on it. I checked my gear bags to make sure my running shoes and socks were dry since it rain during the night. They announced that the race would not be wetsuit legal, so I went back to the car to drop off all my stuff and get my swim skin before catching a bus that will take us to the swim start.

The drive was short, but I took advantage to close my eyes and visualize the race. The swim, how I wanted to do my swim to bike transition, what to expect of the bike, my bike to run transition, how much it will hurt to run the marathon, but how great it will feel when I cross the finish line. The entire day went through my head.

I probably got to the swim start around 6.30-6.40 and walked to where my friends were, really close to the beginning of the line. The pros went and soon it will be our turn. Still, I wasn’t nervous, I felt calmed and ready for this.


The Course

Point-to-point downstream swim in the Tennessee River. Last year the swim was very fast due to strong current. This year the Race Director mentioned that the current won’t be as strong as it was last year and that it will be more similar to the 70.3 in May, so expectations shall be downgraded a little.

Goal: 20% AG

I never put a time goal on the swim, because there are many variables that can affect it (current, course accuracy, water conditions, etc.). I put significant time in the water this year to be able to swim around 1:05-1:07, but I knew that I should swim faster than this as this swim is with the current. However, since it is a variable that I can’t control, I didn’t want to think about a time goal and be discouraged or overly optimistic when getting out of the water. I always judge my swim after I can compare it with the rest of the field and my AG.

My main goal is to feel good after the swim and be ready to perform my best bike and run splits. Also, getting out of the around the top 20% of my AG will put me in a great position to compete in my AG, since I know I can bike and run well.



I thought about what time to start the swim would be better for the overall performance and I thought that the earlier the better. I would have a less congested swim, transition, and bike start (the first 4 miles can get crowded with narrow streets) vs. starting later and taking advantage of the slingshot effect on the bike.

I probably started 2-3 min after the first AGer got in the water (the line moved very fast. I think all athletes got in the water within 20 minutes). I got into my pace within seconds of getting in the water; definitively, this was one of the swims with less contact I ever had. My goal was to swim towards the islands and, from there, follow the buoys (it seemed like the shortest distance to the swim exit); however, I had some issues sighting as this was my first OWS in a while and also my goggles fogged, so I ended up swimming back to the buoys and following them as it was easier for sighting purposes.

I felt pretty good during the swim, definitively with current and minimal contact, this is not a swim that athletes should fear. Before I realized, I was turning left at the last buoy and aiming for the swim out. I increased my kicking o get my legs ready and looked for help from a volunteer to get out of the water as soon as I got to the stairs.

I got out of the water feeling great. I glanced at my watch and saw I swam in 58:XX. My first thought was that the current must have not been as strong as last year, but that it was a time that put me in a position to break 10 hours and PR. I ran up the ramp from the swim out to transition and grabbed my Bike Gear bag on the way from a volunteer that was holding it (another perk of starting the swim early!)


After disastrous transitions in the past 70.3 WC, one of my goals was to be fast here by simplifying the list of things to do.

I took off my goggles and swim cap while running and pulled my swim skin at my waist. I entered the changing tent, took my swim skin out, and put all my swim gear in the bike bag right after grabbing my bike socks and gel. I quickly put my socks and put my gloves and took my gel while running towards my bike. Two volunteers were waiting with my bike out of the racks (another perk of starting the race early!), put my helmet on, grabbed my bike and run towards the bike out where I did a fly mount after the mount line. All went smooth, very happy with the execution!

T1 Time: 4 minutes 36 seconds

Total Race Time: 1:02:41


The Course

116 miles of rolling hills through Tennessee and Georgia. You will go out about 11 miles south of Chattanooga to start a two loop (~ 47 miles) before heading back to Chattanooga riding the same 11 miles that took you out of town at the start of the ride.

You are ascending for the first half of the course, but you will have the wind in your back. The second half of the course tends to descend, but there will be a slight headwind. The winds are not significant to have a major impact in your race, but you will appreciate the tailwind when ascending and won’t mind the headwind while descending.

There are plenty of spectators along the way and many well stocked aid stations with awesome volunteers. It is a fair course and you need to ride smart. You can definitively blow your legs if you push too hard on the hills (you won’t find a major hill, but there is a continuous ascend at the back end of the loop). You definitively should take advantage of the rolling hills by going fast downhill (do not coast) to get with good inertia to the next hill.


NP: 193
Time: 5h 15 min
Don’t smash the pedals, save the legs for the run

I think I can do a sub 5 hour bike in an IM and still be able to run effectively; however, the IM Chattanooga run course is quite hilly, so I decided to take it a little easier on the bike. Finishing 116 miles in 5h 15 min will be equivalent to finish a 112 mile bike course in about 5:03 – 5:04.



After a great swim and T1, I was excited to get on the bike. I love the bike portion of a triathlon since it is where I feel more confident about my abilities and where I usually recover quite a few positions after my average swims. However, I never felt quite comfortable this time. I felt soreness while on the saddle, my left knee (the one I tweaked right before taper) was bothering me and I tried to compensate it which ended up resulting in right ankle pain, I had urinary incontinency, and I lost my nutrition right after leaving T1.

I am very happy how my bike split turned out after all the race decisions I had to make. You can have an awesome race plan going into an IM, but in this case, I was successful because I was flexible to adjust to the race conditions and how I was feeling at every moment.

I just finished clipping my pedals and both my nutrition (2.5 hours worth of nutrition!) and water bottles flew out off my bike. I only had one gel with me and I knew I will have to make it to the first aid station with that and then live off the course until the Special Need Bags station at mile 56 (they ended up not finding my bag, so I lived off the course for the entire bike portion). I adjusted my power a little bit until the first aid station where I was able to grab a Cliff Bar, 1 gel, and 1 bottle of Gatorade Endurance. I ate the bar and read the nutrition label from the gel and the sports drink to define my nutrition plan for the rest of the bike course. I decided that I will take 1 gel every 40 minutes + ½ to ¾ of the sports drink bottle per hour, which will put me at roughly 250 Kcal/hour with the mix of carbs and sodium I am used to take during training.

Once I adjusted my nutrition plan I went back to ride at my goal power. I was alone in the bike course. I had no idea what position I was on the race (OA or AG); I knew I started the swim at the front of the line and I passed a some people during the first 10 miles, but after that, I passed 8-9 female pros, two groups of 4-6 guys that were “working together” passed me, and a few athletes during the second loop that I was lapping. That’s it. It didn’t feel like a race, it felt more like a long solo training ride. This was probably a good thing, because I didn’t have to worry about wanting to chase people or staying with people that are out of my abilities. It was mentally tough to be alone and focused for such long time, but I was able to keep a steady power through the entire bike leg as well as to keep checking on myself.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the ride wasn’t uneventful though. I had to pee 3 times, which slowed me down a little bit. I was able to finally feel comfortable in the saddle, although I ended up with severe ankle pain after mile 80 that forced me to unclip my right foot several times to stretch it. However, I was able to stay focus and before I realized I finished my second loop and was heading back to downtown Chattanooga.

Despite all these additional challenges, I was on target to meet my power and time goals. The last miles were a little tough mentally, especially when you go over the 112 mile mark. Your mind tricks you by wanting you to think that you should be done by now, but you have 4 extra miles to go. I kept going and took it easier for the last mile. I reduce my gears, started to rehearse my transition, and spun my legs faster to loosen them up for the run. I still had major ankle pain, but I was hoping it will go away the moment I will stop peddling as I assumed it was related to my peddling motion.

I did a flying dismount right before the dismount line, handed my bike to a volunteer, and was ready to execute a smooth transition.


My ankle was in a lot of pain when I started running towards my Run Gear bag, but it felt better after a few yards (actually, it didn’t bother me anymore after the first 100 yards of the run, I guess the pain was due to poor cleat position on my bike). While I was running, I took my gloves off and grabbed my bag from a volunteer that was holding it and went in the changing tent.

Helmet and bike socks off. Running socks and running shoes on and grabbed my bib number and zip lock bag with gels and visor. I had to pee again so I stopped at a porta potty for 1 minute and 5 seconds, (yes, I timed it…). Exited the porta potty, took a gel and off to the run.

All went very well. I didn’t go fast, but I executed everything smoothly, which was my goal. Definitively, my T2 was a lot better than usual.

T2 Time: 3 minutes 27 seconds (2:22 without the pee stop, which is in par with the 4-5 guys before and after me)

Total Race Time: 6:21:27 – At this point I knew I had a PR and a sub 10h finish up for grabs if I executed a good run


The Course

I believe when people talk about IM Chattanooga, they either talk about the swim (current aid, etc.) or the bike (4 miles extra, hilly, etc.). The run barely gets mentioned and I think it is what people should focus on to have their best race here.

The IM Chattanooga run is hard. There is a steep climb half a mile from transition and then it gets mostly flat for the next 7-8 mile. You are in the south part of Chattanooga. You run the first 4 miles in what seems like a highway and there is no shade, so it can get hot if it is a sunny day.

The next 3-4 miles go through a shaded path by the river. Then the last 5 miles (600 - 700 ft elevation gain) is where the meat of the run course is. You will find your first significant climb still in the south side before crossing the bridge that takes you to the north side. Once on the north side, you will find 3 significant climbs: Barton Ave, Hixon Pike, and Barton Ave again. They are all between .25 and .4 miles long, but they will test your legs and core strength. Also, be careful going downhill or you will damage your quads.

Once you are done in the north side, you cross another bridge and go back to downtown Chattanooga to start your second loop or finish. Run smart the first loop and save some legs for the second half of the second loop!

Pace: 7:30 – 8:00 min/mile
Time: 3:30
Negative split
Run by feel, but checking the first few miles to avoid going too fast too son
Controlled run for the first 18-20 miles. Permission to race during the last 6 miles
Take in something in all aid stations either water + gel or sports drink

My previous IM run PR is 3:42 in a flat and fast course. Running 3:30 in Chattanooga is a very challenging goal, but I feel like I made great improvements in my bike fitness this year that allow me to be in a better OTB run shape. 3:30 is probably a little optimistic though.



I think having experience racing IMs is critical for the run portion of the race. Experience makes me feel more relaxed about the swim, it also makes me not want to push harder on the bike. But, above all, I know for experience that running a marathon in an IM is going to be painful, it is going to hurt, my body will want to stop, but my mind needs to be stronger and learn to run coping with the pain. The fastest way to stop the pain is to make it to finish line as soon as possible, not stopping or walking.

I started the run and my goal was to get into a comfortable pace. I went through the first hill half a mile from transition and I knew I will have about 7 miles of almost flat terrain to settle into an easy pace. I past the first station without grabbing anything since I took a gel in T2. I grabbed sports drink at the second aid station and glanced at my watch to realize that I was going a little faster than what I wanted, so I adjusted my pace according to my goals.

After this point, I was feeling “good”. My legs were hurting a little bit, but no knee pain. I also realized that I was more focused than I’ve ever been before during a run portion of a race. I was tuned in with my body and running by feeling. I wasn’t thinking about pain, times, pace, PR, etc. I was thinking about keeping good cadence (usually in the low 80s for me), have good running form, mid-foot landing, powering from the hips, good arm positioning, etc. 

Around mile 8, right before crossing to the north side, my legs were starting to be in more pain than before. It was starting to get on my head when a person from the crowd told me that I was in third position in my AG, 4 minutes ahead of 4th place - after looking at the results, I don’t think that was possible - and that gave me the mental boost I needed for the next 10 miles. I had no idea where I really was in the race, but I knew I was doing well. The run course was pretty empty during my first loop. There were some female pros, the male pros were on their second loop, and a handful of fast AGers; I assumed I was in the pointy end of my AG as well, I just didn’t know where. Thinking that I was 3rd and that I not only had a PR up for grabs, but also a Kona slot, made me focus even more on my run and forget about the pain.
I crossed to the north side and run up and down the hills. When I was going downhill, I felt some pain in the knee I tweaked a couple of weeks ago, so I took it easy. The hills were hard on the body and definitively leave a scar in your body for the second loop. Before I realized, I was crossing to the south side again to start the second loop. I think I did the first loop around 1:45, which was right on target to meet my goal of 3:30. I knew it won’t be easy, but I felt strong still.

I started the second loop knowing what I had ahead of me. My body was in a lot of pain, but I never stopped running other than walking 6-10 steps at each aid station to grab something to drink and to throw some water over my head.

The sun came out as I was less than half mile into the second loop. Coming from Miami, I actually welcomed it. Some people complain that it got too hot, but I rather race in the heat than in the cold (aka below 78 degrees for me).

I was running strong and I was going mile by mile without much thought; I stayed focused on running well. I did not care it was mile 14, 16, or 18, I was focused on running form, determined on keeping forward movement, and on eliminating negative thoughts about how much it was hurting.

I hit mile 20, which was the mile I gave myself permission to race if I felt good at that point. I checked how I was doing to see what to do: increase, maintain, or decrease pace. At this point, I was racing for about 9 hours, my body was hurting from toe to head, and I knew I had still the north shore ahead of me. So I decided to keep the pace I was running at.

I crossed to the north side and I went up the first hill; however, I couldn’t run downhill. My knee was hurting really bad at this point, so I decided to fast-walk downhill. I followed this strategy for the 3 hills on the north side and I got back to my pace for the last 2 miles after the last downhill.

Only 2 miles left, so close and so far at the same time. At this point all I wanted to do was to stop running to stop the pain, but I knew I had to make it to the finish line. I crossed the bridge that took me back to downtown and approached the intersection that signaled “Right to 2 loop” or “Left to Finish Line”. I went left and, from there it is less than half a mile to the finish line. During that stretch, I guy on my AG passed me and I tried to stay with him (I am not sure why, because we most likely started at a different time), but as soon as I increased the pace, my legs cramped up. I felt a terrible cramp in my hamstrings and quads. I kept running working on my cramping issues for the last 200 yards and finally crossed the finish line.

I gave it all. This was my best run in an IM. When I crossed the finish line, I knew I couldn’t have run faster or better given my current run abilities, actually, I probably run a little over my current run fitness.

Two volunteers grabbed me, put me a medal, and sat me in a wheelchair as I could barely stand by myself. They handed me some drinks to hydrate me and I got up the chair; I got dizzy and almost fell, which prompted them to call Medical Services. They checked me up and they decided to give me an IV. I ended up needing two IVs. This was the first time I needed these types of services after an IM and I am really appreciative for all the volunteers. Had I not have them there, I am not sure how I would have recovered from this effort.

While in the medical tent, I learnt I placed 5th in my AG with a time of 9:53. Although that won’t make it to go to Kona, I was ecstatic with the result. Big PR for me and top 5 in my AG!!! I trained hard this year and I’ve been very consistent, I gave it all on race day, and I was rewarded with an amazing performance. I couldn’t ask for more.

with Kirill Kotsegarov – IM Chattanooga winner (won by 2 seconds in a finish line sprint)


I gave myself some time to recover well and then I called my wife to tell her I was ok. She was incredibly happy for my result and relieved that I was ok. After our talk, I went back to the finish line to meet Triple Threat Triathlon teammate Chad that was also racing and crushed this race finishing 6th on his AG (25-29).

I went to have my preferred post-race dinner (burger, well, it is my preferred meal at any time) and I still had energy to go back to see the midnight finishers. I recommend this experience to anybody. I got to hang out with the male Overall winner and got inspired by all the people crossing the finish line within minutes of the deadline. The last person crossed the finished line sprinting and made it by ½ a second!!!

with Chad – hoping for a Kona Slot! 
I only slept a couple of hours the night after the race, so many things going through my head: rehearsing the race, living again the emotions, remembering the pain, being amazed by how much our body can endure, and also, dreaming about Kona…

The next morning, I met Chad to attend the Award Ceremony and Kona Slot allocation ceremony. Since the podium at IM goes 5 deep, I got a little plaque to remember this result. Once the Award Ceremony is over, the Kona Slot allocation starts. We both were nervous. I think Chad was more optimistic than me. I attended a Kona slot allocation ceremony before and I knew my chances were almost non-existing: There were only 3 Kona slots for my AG and this was an early qualifying race for Kona. As expected the top 2 guys on Chad’s AG took the 2 spots on his AG and the top 3 on my AG took the slots.

I am a very optimistic person and not getting a Kona slot didn’t put a dent on this race experience. I was incredibly happy with my result. I did my first IM last year and I am already a sub 10 hour IM and placed top 5 in the 30-34 AG!

the top 5 guys in my AG (30-34)

I am not sure when I will be doing another IM, but I will have great memories from this race for a long time. Now, the offseason starts for me, but this year is going to be a little different… This year the best thing is yet to come: we are expecting our first child by the end of October!!

breakfast of champions!!

1 comment:

  1. Good job - good report! You gotta love it when a plan comes together (and hate it when it doesn't).