The Wildflower 70.3 race was a race that I needed for several selfish reasons. I needed the pain, not in a masochistic way, but in an educational/consequential-suffering yet surprisingly not-defeated kind of way. I wanted this race to really hurt- exhaustion, heat, muscle aches, weak knees, stomach knots, questions of finishing or not, emptying the tank, changing strategies, adjusting goggles, adjusting shoes- I wanted all of it AND I wanted to end the race happy- is that too much to ask for?? I wanted the perfectly imperfect race, and somehow these sick wishes of mine came completely to fruition. I don’t know how it happened, but I suffered and was able to absorb (and am still absorbing) every minuscule lesson that I could out of it.
Truth of the matter is that I’ve never had a sh*t race- haha sorry, folks! I just haven’t. I’ve hard races, heat, cold weather, I’ve had flat tires, bike crashes, kicks in the face during the swim, anxiety, broken bones and long Ironman days. But there’s a difference between a tough race and a sh*t race- I’ve never had a race where I had to consciously engage in “survival mode”. I knew this going into Wildflower, and needed to end this “winning” streak before it ended me on a day that mattered more- after-all, Ironman France is about 6 weeks away.
The night before the race, I was talking with Renaud about goals and expectations. In 2011, I pulled a 6:38:11, and in 2012 I came in at 6:24:11, so my “goal” this year was to break 6 hours for the whole event. Our Ironman France training has been heavy on cycling, as that race is a beast of a bike ride, and I additionally sacrificed a lot of running to a longer recovery period following the Oceanside 70.3 triathlon. So, I knew all along that the run was going to HURT for this race, and when that pain would arrive, I would welcome it and GROW.
I had a lot of things to be excited about for the swim and bike, though! I love the WF swim start- super narrow chute, pure pandemonium in guys trying to see or trying to draft, trying to not get swam over- I love the whole bit of it. I locked in a strategy last year that worked well this year, too: toe the start line, front and just off to the left, GUN it out of the shoot until you clear the dock, and then pickup your drafting buddies on the inside. Find some good feet and hold on for the ride.
I additionally wanted to “muscle-up” a little more on this swim and be extra aggressive in trying to catch the faster/passing age groupers that started in waves after me- I’ve been feeling good with masters swimming this year and learning from Coach AB (John Abrami), and I didn’t want to think about red-lining or running out of gas. But as I learned after the race, my extra effort in failing to catch the faster guys didn’t equate to a better time. I ended up zigging and zagging a little more distance to try and hang with them, only to be dropped and then recover by finding someone only marginally faster than me. One more thing to focus on at Nite Moves and preparing for Nice.
I knew I was going to push it on the bike. What I didn’t know was how much fun I was going to have! The SB Tri Club had a meeting a couple of weeks ago with one of the USAT Race Official’s that was working the race who covered a lot of rules, but most importantly the rules of drafting, draft zones, and what’s legal and on the bike. This talk had a huge impact on how I was going to challenge myself on this course, and I had a blast. After detailing out the draft zone (10 meters x 2 meters), and recognizing that 15 seconds is a LONG time to utilize the zone, so long as you’re meaning to pass the person in-front of you, it appeared that the Wildflower bike course would become an ideal course to use this rule to your advantage. Now utilizing the draft zones for less than 15 seconds, does appear to have some inherent risks- it’s easy to think that if you pass someone too close while they’re distracted, they could swerve and hit you, or while being passed you might swerve into their path unknowingly.
I can’t say that by utilizing the draft zones, that I felt I was racing at my safest. But I knew before this race that this would be my final time doing the Wildflower Long Course, and I wanted to leave everything I had out on the bike course. And I did- jumped from zone-to-zone, head down, glutes on fire, muscled whenever I could muster, maintained a dominating mental attitude, and I owned it. Last year, my bike was a 3:41 with a 15.1 mph average, ended that course in 1,341/1,967 position. This year, my bike was 2:59:13 with an 18.7 mph average, ending in 305/2,087 position. BOOM. Couldn’t be happier about this improvement- Thank you, SBIT & Gibraltar Road.
And then there was the RUN. Pain- sometimes we expect it, sometimes it expects us. In this case, both expectations apply- definitely one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. It was hotter than previous years, but I have also been battling a non-threatening cough for the last two weeks. In addition, I started having some foot pain about week ago, and a sore back from moving tables for Stellar Nites about a month ago. I did what I could do to fix these; new in-soles from Santa Barbara Running Company coupled with the Brooks Pure Grits, a lightweight trail shoe, which really helped with the foot pain (until mile 9). I also see chiropractor and teammate, Jim Adams, who always has my back (get it?) for adjustments, though I didn’t get a chance to see him pre-race like usual.
I felt pretty good getting off the bike- solid 3 miles of running despite the heat. However, the cough started creeping in, agitated by the conditions or campfire smoke from the night before (maybe?). One throat clearing here, one little cough there, I hit the hill at mile 4 and I just couldn’t run this time around. No big deal, though, I’ll get to the top and start running again. While walking, I had to cough a couple more times, lost my breath, and unfortunately, with one hard cough my low back seized up, cramped my diaphragm, and that was the game changer moment for the run. Tons of pain- could barely stand straight, hands on the knees, some odd sharp pains in my armpit, and cursing the moment. I knew I would never be “in the zone” for the rest of the day, that my sub 6 hour goal was foolish, and it was about LEARNING from that point on.
Take it in.
After that, the spasms and pains got even worse and I had some ridiculous changes in my heart rate- caffeine kicking-in while blood redirecting from my legs to somewhere else, hopefully. Felt like my chest was sinking/dropping every other 30 seconds and I went through a couple dizzy spells while walking up the hill and walking some flats (couldn’t even run the flats for a bit).
Don’t die, Zack- if you die, you can’t do Ironman France with the team.
I was having an interesting time breathing and actually ended up taking off my heart rate monitor strap altogether. One, because I didn’t want to look at my heart rate- one less puzzle to figure out. And two, because the strap felt tighter than usual, and I didn’t feel like I could breathe easily. I could have loosened it, but mentally I wanted/needed to “check-out” on thinking about heart rate.
What was that, Zack, about wanting to feel pain for this race? How’s that working out for you, now?
With the heat, the cough, and my back condition, I was only able to run for about 60 seconds at a time. I run/walked miles 4-7, pathetically by last year’s comparisons, and in agony, and ended up adding a minute per mile vs last year’s times overall. Just get to mile 7 where the trail turns to road, and then you can figure out if you’re going to run anymore. In my years of triathlon, the walk to mile 7 was the first time I’ve ever questioned if I would finish a race. I thought about how it would feel to abandon the race, and I put myself in a position that probably isn’t healthy for most- determining if my teammates would be disappointed in me, or if I would be disappointed. I cursed my selfishness.
I tried a Steve Smith/SPaRC Robot mantra, I tried some of my own mantras, I tried singing Lynyrd Skynyrd, I tried thinking about good times from training days, and good times from non-training days, and any other trick that has helped me in the past. Nothing worked. I tried to think of something to make my feelings change, and I thought of NOTHING.
The phrase “time heals all wounds” comes to mind. Pain doesn’t necessarily need a fix or something for it to stop. Sometimes Pain ceases because a time or moment occurs that signals to your brain that it doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t need to matter that you hurt, because you are what you are at that exact instant.
But perhaps, to be completely honest, SPaRC’s other mantra didn’t really pop into my head until I started writing this blog:
“YOUR FEELINGS DON’T MATTER”
To be honest, when I first heard this mantra, I was somewhat offended (Sorry, Steve!). When you presented for the SB Iron Team and you said this, I jealously thought, Steve, you cocky cyclist animal you- of course our feelings matter. We wouldn’t have asked for your help if we didn’t want to feel stronger and mentally tougher. We want to learn how to be tough through feelings, not incognisant of them.
But Steve is dead-on right, here, and I get his point…now (better late than never, right, Steve? Hah). Your feelings don’t matter when they’re not working for you and when you hurt. Forward motion and breathing are the ONLY two things you might need to get closer to being done with a race, not feelings. Use feelings to help you remain strong, but don’t worry about them when negative feelings disrupt your energy.
When I finally got to mile 7, I thought, Distance & Pain is only temporary if you’re moving.
It helped that miles 7-9 are through the campgrounds, where I knew I would run into the SB Tri Clubmates, as well as tons of other supporters and people cheering along the course. I also knew that getting off trail and onto paved road would make it easier for my back to stabilize, and that I might be able to get into some running groove, albeit a slow one, at that time. Seeing the club around mile 8 brought back feelings that I knew would work for me, and I loved it. I loved seeing them, the crowds, the naked people, the aid station with Bourbon and Bacon- THIS would be part of the race that I enjoy, and one of the few parts that ever really matter in life’s grand scheme.
At mile 9, my foot really starts hurting- but it’s muscle/fascia pain that I was worried about for the last week, and was prepared to embrace when it truly acted up. I knew it would remain for the rest of the race, but I was back on the road terrain, and decided to ignore it as best as I could. I found a running groove again, and muscled heartbreak hill out-and-back before looking at my watch at mile 10.8, expecting to see the clock read 2:30-something, providing confirmation that I was beyond the 6 hour goal/mark.
Holy sh*t it’s only 2:07 pm- I still have 18 minutes before my 6 hour goal!…What did you really do on that bike? Haha. I could still make it, I think….maybe?…Alright- new plan. You got 18 minutes to break a 6 hour race. SUCK IT UP and BUST A MOVE. This 6 Hour race is for YOU- everything else is just noise.
I don’t know my splits yet for that 11th mile, but with mile 12 to the finish being downhill, I knew I had a shot at getting back to my original goal. The last two miles were TOUGH, but I owned those miles. Wincing in pain for every left step, striving to breath, unable to talk, unable to think or strategize, unable to love the moment, unable to grow, unable to care. More importantly I was unable to NOT leave it out on the course. This was the pain I truly wanted- ravaging the pavement beneath my feet and the pain in my body, for pure personal drive.
Two never-ending miles later, I finished the race with 2 minutes left to spare of the 6 hour mark, and although I was completely alone in the chute, and in intense pain, it was one of the happiest finishes I’ve ever had for a race. It was imperfectly perfect, and exactly what I had wanted out of this race.
2011 – Ranked 922 – 6:38:11 Swim: 37:22, T1: 9:15 Bike: 3:42:29, avg. 15.1 mph, T2: 4:06 Run: 2:04:59
2012 – Ranked 861 – 6:24:40 Swim: 33:30, T1: 4:32 Bike: 3:41:19, avg. 15.1 mph, T2: 3:28 Run: 2:01:51
2013 – Ranked 416 – 5:57:47 Swim: 35:35, T1: 1:50 Bike: 2:59:13, avg. 18.7 mph, T2: 2:30 Run: 2:16:30
The great thing about writing a blog is that you can absorb what you need to by writing it down, and then move on. Despite the pain, I did what I needed to do for my own headspace, and am completely excited to move further into Ironman France training. Thank you to all of the fans and Tri Clubbers for your support during the race and for being awesome in general! It was a great weekend of racing.
Stay tuned for my Coaches Report from Dave Gonzales, Doug Lynch, and Renaud Gonthier’s race day at Wildflower.
Stay beastly, my friends.