Race Read: 2016 Ironman Boulder by Craig Stone

Today’s race read comes from Colorado transplant, Craig Stone. Craig just showed up to the NP5280 tribe shortly after moving from Boston earlier this summer. He is easily identified as the guy who is always wearing spandex and eager to chat about training, racing, and recovering. Craig just completed his first Ironman, and despite not having the seamless race he envisioned, he persevered through the challenges of the day, and became an Ironman with a smile on his face. Great job, Craig!

I don’t usually blog about my races or other athletic endeavors, but this one was too hard to resist. Ironman Boulder was my first official Ironman event after completing a half Ironman last year. Here is my story.

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Photo: Craig Stone

Pre-race

All of my gear was checked in the day before, so all I had to do was show up the morning of the race with my wetsuit and other essential gear. Unfortunately, that included my water bottles for the bike, which I had left on the kitchen counter in the place I was staying at the night before. Whoops! The only bottle I could get at the race was a flimsy 10 oz plastic bottle with screw off cap that “loosely” fit in my bike cage. However, I knew I could manage this since the first aid station was at mile 18, less than an hour into the bike portion of the race.

The line at the swim start was great. We were a sea of over a thousand athletes in wetsuits and caps. We self-seeded ourselves according to expected swim time. I lined up in the 1:30-1:45 hour group, given that I’m a slow swimmer. I was hoping to be on the faster end of that time, but was not sweating it given how long the total race was. Plus, this was the leg that I was most nervous about, given that the longest swim workout that I have done this season was 1 hour, and only a few short open water swims.

The weather was cool, cloudy, and even a bit foggy- perfect start for a long race.

 

 

Swim

When I hit the water and started swimming, my right eye piece in my goggles filled up with water immediately. I tried adjusting and tightening my goggles several times, but nothing worked. I paddled over to one of the volunteers on a paddleboard and asked for her help. She looked and saw that the plastic on the side of the eye piece had melted. I tried tightening them again but it did not work. She said she would try to find another pair of goggles for me, and for me to swim on the inside of the buoys so that she could see me. Result- I swam the entire 2.4 miles WITHOUT GOGGLES. That’s right folks.

At first, I just tried keeping my head above water, but this turned out to be quite inefficient and not sustainable if I wanted to swim in under 2 hours. I finally figured out a strategy where I swam in normal position but kept my eyes completely closed, and lifted my head out of the water and opened them every 5 or 6 strokes. It sucked at first with water running into my eyes while sighting, but eventually I made it work. I fell into a rhythm, and things gradually got better- except getting hit by other swimmers, both slower and faster than me. That particularly annoyed me since everyone was supposed to line up according to their projected swim time, something that all distance triathletes should have a good idea of.

When I finally got out of the water, my watch read 1:43. On the slower end of things, but given the whole goggle snafu I was perfectly happy with it. My shoulders were sore since I mainly used my arms for swimming, while my legs felt fresh and ready to go-perfect. I jogged to transition while most of the others around me walked. This was good.

 

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Photo: Craig Stone

 

Bike

On the bike, I spent the first 10 minutes fiddling with my nutrition bag and small water bottle. The bottle fell out of my cage and onto the street after just 2 sips! After shouting a couple of 4-letter words I decided to get on with it and just live for an hour without water.

The first 20 miles of the bike had the most elevation gain, but overall I felt pretty good. I consciously peddled as easy I could while maintaining high cadence. At the first water station I grabbed 2 bottles and guzzled one on the spot. I rode off with the other one knowing that there would be aid stations every 15 miles or so for the remainder of the bike leg. Shortly thereafter, I passed by a woman who apparently had a bad spill on a downhill section. She was already being helped by 2 people, and since I knew that I couldn’t do anything else to help I just decided to keep going. I later found out that she had passed away. Apparently, she had gone just outside of the designated bike lane and was hit by a truck. It’s scary to think what would have happened if I had proper working goggles during the swim, since that would have put at the scene right when the accident happened!

Around mile 30 or so, my lower back started to flare up in pain. At every aid station thereafter, I had volunteers shove ice down the back of my tri jersey. This both helped to numb my back and keep me from overheating. As far as heat regulation went, I was popping 2-3 Succeed electrolyte capsules per hour and having a full bottle of water between aid stations, and also wore arm coolers. This strategy appeared to work well when I biked the course 3 weeks earlier in training, at a solid 19 mph.

Now, the sun was high in the sky and blazing down. This is an issue since the course has absolutely no shade. It’s not the fault of the race organizers either. Colorado has a fairly arid climate, and therefore very few trees. Also, given its altitude and thinner atmosphere, the strength of the sun (ie, UV index) in early August is the same as areas much further south along the Gulf of Mexico! Pretty intense stuff. Granted, I love the sunshine here, and I think it’s one of the biggest advantages of living in Colorado versus the east coast and many other areas of the country, but in the middle of the day it can be rough on the body.

After about 80 miles I noticed that things had started to change- for the worse. My legs were starting to feel tired, so I backed off on my cycling pace and intensity. I certainly didn’t want to be overly tired for the run. I was puzzled why this was happening though since I biked with the least resistance possible on the pedals for the entire race. My lower back was also starting to spasm pretty bad, even with ice. I had to get out of aero position for most of the last 25 miles on the bike to make it bearable. The most serious of issue of all by far, however, was that my digestive system felt like it was shutting down. I could still take in water, but my stomach had no desire to handle energy gels or clif bars that I had took throughout the race thus far. I started to feel sick to my stomach. I didn’t throw up, but I certainly thought about it. Thankfully, the last couple of miles of the bike leg were downhill into downtown Boulder, and I was able to gain some good speed then.

My final bike time was 6:12. I was hoping to be in the 5:40 range to maybe 6 hours most, but my time wasn’t that much off so I wasn’t too bummed about it.

Looking back on this portion of the race, I honestly don’t know what I could have done differently. I stretched and foam rolled every day for the week prior to the race, so the back pain took me by surprise. Also, my hydration and nutrition strategy worked on previous long rides ( 70, 85, 105, and 110 milers) without any major issues. On top of it, I was surprised how easily my legs got tired despite a proper taper.

Run

Off the bike, I was soon able to jog to the transition area. My back immediately felt better, and I was optimistic that I could bang out a decent marathon. Once I started beyond the transition area, however, I knew immediately that something was wrong. My stomach felt bloated, heavy, and immediately cramped up. My heart rate also shot through the roof. This continued throughout most of the run. I knew that I had to be really conservative and pace carefully. Dealing with cramps, aches, and pains is one thing, but internal organ issues are another. I certainly didn’t want to land in the hospital or worse.

There was a vicious cycle that continued for most of the race: I wanted to take in as much fluid and food as possible, but whenever I did my stomach felt worse. At the same time, I knew that I was getting dehydrated and that I needed the liquid. Several miles into the race, another guy who passed me while jogging/walking told me that he threw up at the start of the run. At that point, I kind of wished I did so myself. At mile 16 though, things began to change. I knew that I only had 8 miles left, so psychologically that was a good thing. Also, I found that a strategy of taking in a lot of nutrition at the aid stations, walking until my until stomach felt settled, and then jogging really helped. By mile 22-23, things looked up. I passed a few friends who were cheering me on, and I started moving less conservatively and just running again! With a mile left in the race, it was all downhill, and I felt great. In fact, my pace was 7:50 for the last mile! Wish I could have done most of the marathon at that pace. I crossed the finish line with the generic announcement “Craig Stone, you are an Ironman”, knowing that I could have ran another 5-10 miles at my current pace.

Final run time was 4:56. I think my poor race time motivated me to run even faster the last few miles of the race, in order to avoid a “5-hour marathon”! This was by far the slowest run time I have ever had in a distance event, including a 50K ultra trail marathon in May! Oddly enough, I had even splits of 2:28 for the first and second half. The way the race unfolded was especially disappointing to me since I am noticably better at running compared to cycling and swimming, but my body was too messed up by the run leg to perform well in it.

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Marathon mile-23. Photo: Richard Kluender

Post-race

My overall time was 13:07. I was not happy with this at all but it is what it is. Even with the altitude factored in I knew that I could have finished in under 12 hours based on my ability. In my mind, I barely finished this race. Sure, I could have walked the entire run and still finished in well under the 17-hour cutoff time, but to me the whole point of doing a marathon is to run it and not walk it. If I had done any worse in the run than I already did, I would have seriously considered dropping out. All in all, I accepted my finishing medal- not with a sense of pride but relief that the whole thing was over.

As I finish this blog nearly 5 weeks post-race, I still feel the same way about it. I’m glad it’s behind me. I felt a pull in my upper right calf after the race, which turned to be a moderate strain. I can finally run again now, but for limited distances and no racing just yet. I was surprised this injury happened to me since I had been doing full body strength/cross training a couple of times per week for months. I think the strain came from being in aero position on my triathlon bike for so long, which pulled the muscles in back of my legs. I spoke with one physical therapist about it, and she thought that it may be related to a bad left ankle sprain that I had had last year, with my right leg compensating for the slight relative weakness on my left side over the long race.

I’ve been asked the question multiple times: “Would you do another ironman?” My answer is not anytime soon. I’m glad that I did the race- it elevated me to a new level of fitness and gave me consistency in a time when everything else around me was changing. However, now is a new time to pursue other interests here in Colorado, including but not limited to- stand-up paddleboarding, rock climbing, snowboarding, and trail running. Looking back, I’m still not sure what went wrong, although it was likely an error in my nutrition or hydration strategy. It’s something I’ll have to experiment with in the future.

~ Craig

 

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