I will go right back to the beginning. After a very disappointing experience at 70.3 Worlds I was actually quite depressed for about two weeks. It was not due to a disappointment in myself, but more of a bitterness about how the race unfolded. I learned an interesting lesson here. Your body’s recovery mechanism is greatly influenced by your mind. Usually I am feeling a lot better after a race, about three days later, but after this one it took me nearly two weeks to feel any semblance of recovery. I tried to put in some quality training in the month after the race, but just about every workout was sub-par, and I just didn’t have it in me to do any decent level of volume.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and I should have pulled the plug on Kona. I just hadn’t put in the necessary work to race an Ironman. I thought though that because I was in such good top-end shape, having peaked for 70.3 Worlds, that I might be able to gut out a decent Ironman. I said many times to Erin and family members leading into the race, that Kona was either going to go really good or really bad. There would be no in between. Unfortunately, it went really bad. At 70.3 Worlds just one month prior, I had the fastest run split. At Kona, I walk-jogged the final 23 kilometers of the marathon, and had one of the slowest run splits among the pro men.
If you need motivation, walk-jog the final 23 kilometers of the Ironman World Championship. The embarrassment from this performance stung. I did an analysis after (which you can read HERE) and realized that I simply just had not done an adequate amount of volume to be able to RACE an Ironman from start to finish. In the six weeks leading into Ironman Arizona, the only thing I did was try and gradually build up my volume in both a long ride and run, as well as in my interval workouts. With about 8 days to go before Ironman Arizona, I was finally starting to feel some confidence that I could go the distance.
I will be completely honest. I had been swimming very well in practice the final two weeks leading into Arizona. I had very little lull in my 5 hour ride just 8 days prior to the race, and about 9 days prior to the race I was able to do 2x1hour at 325w with ease. On the run, I was able to run 40km with a lull only starting around 30km, and I was able to do 4x5km at 10.5mph and this felt pretty controlled as well. I reflected on these three attributes and knew that if I could put them all together it would produce a fast time. I am a student of the sport, and have been aware of Marino Vanhoenacker’s official Ironman World Record time of 7:45:58 for many years. I thought that maybe, just maybe, on the perfect day, I could take a stab at that time.
The gun went at 6:40am. My mantra for the swim was “8 out of 10”. One of the major things I have struggled with in swimming is relaxing. Having grown up running my mind and body is programmed that the more pain the better. For the most part, this is true for running, the more pain you feel, the faster you go, but this couldn’t be further from the truth for swimming. If I swam at 8 out of 10, in reality this would probably be closer to 9.5 out of 10, but that little bit of control would allow me to sustain the stroke better, and adopt better form.
I got out well and was on some feet. I noticed a gap opening up in front of the person I was drafting, so went by them and bridged the gap. A little while later I noticed another gap opening, and passed that person and bridged the gap again. I rounded the turn buoy with two swimmers in front and a few swimmers behind and beside me. A little while later I found myself in front of everyone. A few minutes went by like this and I started to think that perhaps I was going the wrong way. I did a half back stroke pull to see if there were people behind me, and it turned out there was. I was leading the pack that I am used to missing and then watching slowly pull away from me. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on them to show me the course! I then started to think that perhaps I was having a really bad swim, and was actually leading a pack that I am usually ahead of. I emerged from the water and noticed the person next to me was Pedro Gomes. He had to take a double take at me because we have never come out of the water together. He actually said to me as we were running to get our gear bags, “wow you had a good swim!” Pedro swam over 4 minutes faster than me in Kona, so this put me in a good mind set for the rest of the day.
Out onto the bike, I knew I needed to be patient. My new training advisor and mentor David Tilbury-Davis advised me to “be patient, be wise, be ruthless.” I repeated this probably several hundred times in my head throughout the ride, as well as “an Ironman’s a long way.” I was holding about 320w through the first hour. It felt so easy that I thought perhaps my power meter was malfunctioning. My target power for the ride was 310-320w though and I vowed to stick to the plan. Despite it feeling easy, I backed off a little bit and let the average come down to about 316w by the end of the first 60km loop. By the halfway point of the bike the average was back up to 318w.
Around three hours it was starting to become a lot harder to hold the power. I realized then that my power meter was functioning properly, and I was very glad that I had not deviated from the plan. At around 3.5 hours I was really starting to hurt, and instead of killing myself to hold the power, I decided to drop it and ride closer to 270w. This was hard, but not so hard that I felt like I was burning matches. In the end, I averaged 315w, for a bike time just under 4 hours and 5 minutes. Getting onto the bike I noticed my swim plus T1 time was a little over 55 minutes. I knew going out onto the run course that my composite time until that point was a little over 5 hours and 1 minute, and that in order to have a chance at getting under Marino’s mark I would need to run a sub 2:44 marathon.
My run legs felt pretty good. I didn’t look at my watch for the first 3km or so, but when I did I saw I was averaging around 3:45/km. I knew this was too hot, but I also knew that it was very unlikely that I would have the endurance to the go the full distance. I put in 5 quality weeks of training post-Kona, and I definitely improved my endurance significantly, but it was not going to be enough to run a steady pace from start to finish. I decided that I would try and build up some fat, so that when my endurance did start to wane, I might still have a shot at getting under the time.
Through the half-marathon the average pace according to my watch was 3:44/km. At this point I was definitely starting to hurt. I knew I needed to average about 3:54/km for the entire run, so I lapped my watch and then my goal became to keep the average pace for the second half of the run under 4:04/km. I was really starting to hurt by 15 miles. By 17 miles the wheels were starting to fall off. Another three miles passed and I was really starting to slow. By this point, the average pace for the second half of the run was about 3:58/km, and things were going downhill fast. It was at this point that I threw in the towel. I couldn’t imagine carrying on at the pace I was running for another 8 miles. I thought to myself “7:48 is a really good time. There’s no shame in that!”
I persevered onwards for the next 5 miles knowing that Marino’s mark would live to see another day. I kept the pace as honest as I could because I still wanted to produce a fast time, but I stopped looking at my watch. And then, right around the 23 mile marker, I had a great surprise. My fiancée Erin MacDonald had ran out to this point of the course and started yelling at me, “You’re still on pace! The record is yours if you want it but you’re going to have to pick up the pace!” This happened just before an aid station. As I was going through the aid station I grabbed a cup of ice cold water. I don’t know why but the moment the cold water hit the back of my throat I woke up. Erin’s words had penetrated my thick skull. I realized that if I did not pick up the pace, and give it everything I had for the final 3 miles, that I would regret it for the rest of my life. Almost instantaneously I was able to pick up the pace and get back down to 6 minute miles. It hurt so much that I actually had to start yelling at myself outloud in order to keep the pace. “Come on! Come on!” is what I was yelling through gritted teeth. Athlete’s going the opposite direction on the course very likely thought I was insane. And I probably was pretty close to insane at this point.
With about 100m to go I came around the final corner and could see the clock. It was still in the 7:44’s. I knew then that I would get under Marino’s mark. It was then that I started to get the tears down the cheeks and the shiver down the spine. The first image I encountered when I found out about this sport in 2009, was of Craig Alexander winning the Ironman World Championship that year. Here is the image (not sure who to credit for this image at this point as it has been widely circulated):
That image has been on my wall ever since then. You never know what is going to happen, and you never know which race will be your last. To pay homage to Craig for the inspiration he has been to me in my career, I did my best impersonation of his finish line crossing:
This is a moment I will never forget. This certainly isn’t the end of the journey, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. If there is anything I have set out to prove through my triathlon career it is that it doesn’t matter where you start. If you decide to make a positive change for yourself; if you surround yourself with good and positive people; and you work hard and persevere through the many struggles that you are bound to encounter; there is not a single doubt in my mind that you can do anything or go anywhere. I hope this performance adds a little more proof to that belief.
I think it is important to note that the distance has been covered faster two other times in the past: once by Andreas Raelert (2011) and once by Jan Frodeno (2016), both at an event called Challenge Roth. Ironman does not acknowledge these as official records though because they did not occur in official Ironman events. I think both Jan and Andreas are two of the greatest athletes to ever do the sport and deserve recognition for having produced faster times over the distance. To even be mentioned in the same paragraph as them is a true honour, and they have both been massive sources of inspiration for my career.
In my next post, I will do a final analysis of my training leading into the race and provide conclusions as to how to properly prepare for an Ironman.