4:00 A.M. November 4, 2017. I am sitting up in bed after a relatively sleepless night drinking a cup of coffee. I look at my wife, Lee, and say, “I am a little bit frightened about today.” She asked me if it was about the whole day or just the swim. “Mostly the swim but the whole day as well. I know what I am capable of doing, but after Texas I wonder if I will.”
This nagging doubt has not been something I have really dealt with since I began racing IM races. Sure there has been uncertainty from time to time, and certainly you never know what the race is really going to be like until you race your first 70.3 and 140.6. But this was different. It was born in April during a bad swim at IMTX that ended up costing me my best time performance in a 140.6. It also led to a struggle in the swim at Buffalo Springs 70.3 that I have never had in the past. Confidence can be a tenuous and fickle friend. Mine took a hit at Texas. When I DNFed Texas, I had to reset my race calendar for the year and re-prepare for a race at the end of the year in Florida. I had raced there in 2014 when the swim was canceled due to rough surf conditions. I froze on the bike and the run and returned to Houston with a nagging injury that would take all of 2015 to rehab. I swore I would never race Florida again. But now it was the only best option from a timing and financial standpoint to have a chance at a good race day in 2017. So after talking it over with my coach, Mark Sortino, I registered and reset the calendar for 2017.
Travel for coaching and officiating filled our calendar and so training days became precious and often led to shortened or missed workouts. Swimming was an emphasis. I knew I needed to improve my swim enough so that if an incident like the one at Texas happened again I could recover and still make the swim cutoff with time to spare. In all my training leading up to Texas there was every indication that even in a non-wetsuit swim I should have been around a 1:40:00 swim. But that did not happen. So there I sat on the bed after spending so many hours in the pool and the OW since April trying to hone the skills and comfort level I needed to have a good day, wondering if this would be my day or not. In fact just two weeks before I had been swimming in OW at Wrightsville Beach in significant surf and had been swimming very strong. I had come into Panama City Beach in time to get in three decent OW swims on the course before the race. In September I had helped coach a camp for IMFL and had two good days of swimming during the camp. But still that Texas swim haunted me.
Now it was race morning at IMFL. I woke up frightened. But then something began to change. I started following my plan. I had reviewed every detail of what had gone wrong at Texas and, more importantly, why. I had built a conservative race plan for all three legs and transitions around those reflections. I had gone over the plan over and over. And as I began to implement the plan, getting ready to swim, the process of putting on the wetsuit, walking down to the swim start, seeding myself very conservatively, and all the other little details... the fears went away. I was totally in the moment. I planned in detail and projected nothing. I focused solely on what I could control and that was the single moment in time where I was right then. Each piece fell into place.
When I was preparing to race my first 70.3 I met pro Triathlete, and now friend, Kelly Williamson and asked her advice for a first timer. She replied, “Pacing and nutrition.” After Texas I returned to that touchstone moment in my triathlon life and broadened the scope of its meaning. “Have a plan, focus on the plan, race the plan, and prepare for the unexpected, but don't focus on your fears. Focus on your pace, your plan, and nutrition.”
I walked down to the beach feeling somewhat “out of body” calm. Instead of the nerves ratcheting up, I felt increasingly calm and centered. The Japanese mystics call it “shibumi”. The closer it grew to the gun going off, the better I felt. I watched as the sun began to peak on the horizon.
As I gazed out at the water it seemed like a deep blue mirror, but then I realized it was still too dark to see that so I knew the vision came from within, that calm place I had found again. I jumped in the water and it felt great! After then practice, I positioned myself in the corral far at the back where I knew I was one of the fastest swimmers. The gun went off and I with all of my IMFL friends moved up to and into the starting chute. I hit the water and started swimming; it felt perfect.
As I made the turn to shore for the end of the first lap of the swim, the fastest swimmers caught up to me but they are so good and at that point so spread out they had no impact on my swim or sighting line. The swimmers who went out too early for their ability were another story. At this point I found myself having to navigate around and sometimes over them as they struggled to hold a straight line. But they were also pretty spread out so it was few and far between. I came out of the water at the end of the lap and looked at my watch: 42! Boom. I had my best swim within reach. Just hold steady. (This was my mantra all day.) I hit the second lap brimming with a confidence I have never felt before. I came out of the water at the swim finish knowing that I had my best IM swim time but not knowing for sure if I went under 1.5 hours which had been my goal. “Stay on the plan focus on T1.”
T1, AKA, “I forgot my salt!”: I had it all together in T1. Battery charged, fluid loaded on the bike, nutrition in the bike gear bag. Check. I came out of the swim steady and ready. Hit T1 and prepped for the the ride.
I was at mile 2 when I realized I had forgotten to put salt on the bike and had left the rest in the bike gear (now post swim gear bag) in T1. No problem. Nice day, adjust to the plan. Keep drinking and stay on the Salted Watermelon blocks. So far so good. Not too hot on the bike. Mile 8ish. I was closing on a cyclist in front of me on a short straightaway. As I made that pass I was passed by another cyclist. I tucked in, quickly made the pass, and then dropped back to maintain the right distance. Just as I hit that distance the cyclist went down in front of me. HARD. In retrospect it was probably a front fork failure which led to a hard landing and what looked like a bike disintegration right in front of me. 5 bike lengths and I would have been in the hospital. 6, and still in aero, I went off the road into the sand and bunny hopped back onto the road in front of the wreck. I didn't think about it. It just happened. All the bike skills training paid off. The only thoughts I had were 1: “I am about to have a really bad day.” 2: “Wow! How did I avoid that. The rest of the day is gravy!”
I was at about mile 30 or so when I started thinking, “Something feels wrong with my fit.” I had to hit the porta-john, so I stopped at the next aid station only to discover that my seat post had worked loose and my 54 bike fit was now a 48. That explained the loss of power in the rollers. I held steady after that and put the seat post issue in perspective and stayed on course for the completion of the plan. I rolled back to T2 feeling good but knowing there was more out there for next year.
T2: Decent transition to the run. Got into my shoes and made the switch of gear into the right bags and out I went onto the run.
I had about 1 hour of serious sunlight when the temps would still be up. I figured that if I could set a pace at that level of freshness off the bike when it was hot and then hold that approximate pace in the next few hours, I had a shot to go sub 14. I started doing the math and realized that I had a sub 13:30 in reach. Could I hold steady for the third leg?
At this point I only had one serious thought... “OMG I want to walk!” I did the math. I could walk and still do a 14:30 finish. That's not too bad. But the math was really there: If I held steady (which had been the plan from go) I had 13:30ish within reach. I could show that the IMTX finish time (though an official DNF) was not a fluke. But could I hold steady? And so started the next 25 remaining miles to “hold it together,” “hold steady,” “finish strong.” I would be lying if I didn't admit all I wanted to do was quit and start walking. But there was something. Something inside that said, “You can do this. Just keep going. One more step... and one more.” And so I did. As I closed in on the last 4 miles I knew with increasing confidence that 13:30 was within reach. I crossed the line as my friend Dave Downey called out my name and raised my fists in the air.
My redemption race had happened. I had my best time ever. I felt like I had been run over by a truck and it was the best I have ever felt. The not so perfect race day had ended perfectly. So bring on 2018!