Someone out there knows what I’m talking about — The Flow.
Tonight I did a 500 freestyle all out. There was no one next to me to pace off of or chase and I finished in 5:56. In another month or so I should check again to see what the cumulative stress of biking and running does to the time. My bet, 6:15.
Tonight I went to swim for the third time at a new pool. It is a little farther away from home and costs marginally more to use because it is just over the border in Arlington. But, it is well lit, deep, and has eight lanes. The past few years I’ve grown accustomed to 25 meter pools and though this one is yards, it doesn’t strike me as odd to reach the wall “so soon.”
I swam last night too. Last night I did 10×200 rest :15 and hung out right around a 1:15/100 pace. I followed it with 10×100 pull with :10 rest and stayed close by coming in with about a 1:16 average. Today’s main sets were 10×150 pull rest :10 followed by 5×75 rest :30. The second half of the 150s descended from the first without really trying and overall the 150s were at about a 1:15 or 1:16 pace. Perhaps I need to check the math because it just seems too fast given my workload and recent times. The final set of 75s were lung busters. I went :48, :49, :49, :49 and :50. Their pace was between a 1:04 and 1:07 which brings me to a pair of observations.
NB — At some point I need to get a post up about Ironman 70.3 Austin. I raced at the end of October. The swim was slow. I just felt a bit off and thick though I bettered my age group peers. The ride was great for 30 miles but then it wasn’t. The run was steady. The consistency paid dividends in the form of a run split personal record of about four minutes. Seventh in my age group and for the first time ever I moved up during the run (from ninth to seventh.)
Invariably, a funeral is focused on life. There is a remembrance of the deceased, a gathering of family and friends, and most certainly reflection by the living. For Christians there is the obvious liturgical narrative woven through the proceedings about life after death.
This week I reunited with some past team mates as our coach was laid to rest in a rural, historic and beautiful mountain cemetery outside of Lexington, Virginia.
There were moving tributes, including eulogies by Cal’s daughter Tina Prather and one-time CUA team captain Brian Larkin. There were stories told and old acquaintances reestablished as well. A bevy of family hugged, laughed and cried a little too.
Cal played many roles. He was a husband and father, grandfather, and coach, certainly. He never really stopped being a member of the fraternity that goes with his two decades of service in Maryland law enforcement. He was a parishioner, motivator, disciplinarian and to countless people on the cusp of adulthood, a role model.
In my life, he was the prime mover behind a move from a small town in Illinois to Washington, D.C. That move kept me in school. By the time I visited CUA as a recruit in April 1992, I had been in touch with Cal for approximately a year. While he was interested in me as a swimmer, I wasn’t interested at all in becoming a student. I had not applied to college — not to Catholic University and not to any other schools excepting James Madison University though my interest in the Virginia university had waned substantially.
Long story short, I visited campus over Easter break, met the swim team at a picnic hosted at Cal’s house, took part in various irresponsible activities both on and off campus and decided that going to college wouldn’t be all that bad and if done well could be tons of fun. In the subsequent two weeks Cal was able to both get my formal application to the right office of the university as well as have a generous package of financial aid communicated to me.
I distinctly remember taking a phone call from him after my application was accepted and the financial aid letter had been sent. Our telephone was affixed to the wall in the kitchen and it had a long, probably ten foot, cord that would allow you to walk around. I didn’t need the cord. The unhappy call was short. I had to explain how grateful I was for his efforts but that I wouldn’t be able to accept. He wanted to know where I was going instead. I had no plan and despite the generosity of the grants, the scholarships, low interest loans and the guarantee of a work-study position on campus, the difference between the price tag and what I was able to pay with funds from my parents’ savings, my own savings and additional loans was simply too great.
He didn’t miss a beat. He asked me to hold off for a few days and not to make any commitments about my future. True to form, he was optimistic, resourceful, focused on a goal and indefatigable. A new financial aid offer arrived within the week. There wasn’t a tremendous change — as I recall, it was about $2,500 and only guaranteed for the first two years if I maintained good grades — but it was enough. And I became a Cardinal.
Cal was THE catalyst to the path of my adult life. He also provided the guardrails as I started down that path. Until I met Cal I had never worked hard at anything in life except swimming. I was not entirely disengaged with life. I enjoyed family, friendships, other sports and extra-curricular activities. I had jobs. I read. But I didn’t commit and really work hard. When I came to Catholic University as an 18 year old I was an indifferent student for the first semester and the grades showed it. But by then his influence started to take hold. The practice of skating by with Bs turned to searching for the best professors, the most challenging seminars and much better grades. Eventually, I graduated early with honors and a double major.
Cal cared about his team — our times, our win-loss record, how we got along and as is undoubtedly the case at the majority of schools, whether we were putting in the effort in the classroom. He had an old-school, blue collar sentimentality about work, respect, and taking the long view about life.
He was in my life nearly every day during a critical period of development and maturation. He lived an example of living true to your talents, pursuing excellence, and sacrificing in order to contribute to others’ success. He could be hard. He was often crazy and frustrating. He was a throwback from another era who had no problem embracing New Age-ie language about how to marry the mind to the body and belief to performance.
Tom Calomeris leaves behind a wife and four children. Their lives have dramatically changed with his death and my prayers for peace are with them all. It is no small thing to live well and Cal did so; he did so by helping others do the same.
Sunday I flew to California, San Diego to be precise. My first obligation wasn’t until after the dinner hour so as soon as I found the hotel I set about locating The Bike Revolution. It was true that the shop was only about four blocks from the Hilton and it was true they rented bikes that could get me to the beach. However, it turned out that I didn’t have the time to get there, swim, get back and then return the bike the following morning before my 7.00 a.m. breakfast meeting.
Plan B went into effect. Back at the hotel I gathered my wetsuit, goggles and a towel and set off for Coronado Beach via taxi. Fifteen minutes later I was barefoot and walking toward the setting sun and the surf. Among the scores of people in the water, I only saw one person in neoprene so I set off immediately. I splashed through the break and a big mass of kelp and then northwest parallel to the shore about 50 meters out.
After I’d been swimming for about ten minutes, I thought I saw something. Not just something, I actually thought it was a cow. Why in the world would I see the big, broad head of a cow floating off of the shore in California? I guess you can take the boy out of the cornfields…
So I kept looking as I swam up to and past this big thing. After a thinking it was a cow and several more strokes and taking a really hard look, my imagination landed on a dog. I thought it must be the most gifted swimmer of a Great Dane ever.
But, it wasn’t really doglike. It was more like an agile body surfer with a massive non-human head.
Then it all clicked in my head. I was looking at a seal. It must be a seal. So I swam on, right past the marvelous elegant creature. Only, then my mind starting to really go into overdrive. I know about cows. They are big and dumb and can be stubborn and ornery. They are strong and usually predictable. I know about dogs too. Love those beasts. But a seal? How do seals interact with people? It was at this point that I pulled up and stopped swimming. Something flashed through my mind about sharks and thrashing, kicking human limbs that mimic the effect of a fish in distress — dinner. It was unambiguously an Oh Shit moment. As it turns out, I stopped swimming about five yards short of a group of kids who were waiting with their body boards for a good wave. They all turned and watched me watch the sea creature. Then one after another they all exclaimed, “Look a sea lion!”
In the moment, I knew about as much about the habits of sea lions as I did seals. I also knew that this massive wild animal was only about 15 meters away and though it looked nonchalant, I knew nothing about the signals for anxiety in carnivorous sea animals that grow to be two to three times my size. Was a baby sea lion nearby? Was I messing up his favorite fishing hole by swimming around? What did he do with the last guy that swam down the length of the beach? These kids all thought it was cool, but what did they know? Sure, they are locals but, kids do dumb stuff all the time.
And this was the moment I decided my ocean swim — though lovely in a thousand ways — was over. Later, after a run up and down the beach I found a lifeguard and asked a few questions. He affirmed that I was not crazy though in fairness to his diagnosis I failed to mention my early theories about the cow and the dog. He had been watching that sea lion all day. He thought it was “interesting” that he came up so close to shore and inside of the break. No, he had never seen anyone hurt by a sea lion in 25 years working at that beach. Yes, he had once seen a sick sea lion charge and go for the throat of some Sea World animal handlers who had come out to help. He didn’t have an idea about what would happen if sea lion pups were in the area and were separated from a parent or too close to swimmers.
He wasn’t worried for me and encouraged me to get back in if I wanted. He also said that I made the right decision. When in doubt about wild animals it is always best to leave them alone.
No problem. I had all the excitement I needed for the day.
Dana told the tribe about the adventure the next morning before school. Evidentially it was a big hit with the carpool. Last night I took the redeye home. I’m looking forward to the questions and sharing this little adventure with my favorite naturalists.
Humans have a powerful ability to rationalize behavior. Some rationalizations create their own positive feedback loops. In this case, positive does not necessarily mean good. It refers to self-reinforcing situations — new data points are created from the initial mistake which reinforce the rationalization made for that mistaken behavior.
All of this is well and good and may even help you understand self-defeating behaviors or why it is hard for people to accept responsibility for bad decisions. More important for our discussion here, rationalization of mistakes is doubly, triply, super-duper more powerful in the middle of an endurance race.
My run at Ironman was not horrible. In fact, it was only 4 minutes and 12 seconds slower than my best. I didn’t have a total break that caused me to lose scores of minutes walking. Nor did I run myself into the arms of the medical personnel who hovered all afternoon like morbid angels of the dreaded DNF.
Mistakes were made.
I ran well, relatively steady and in the basic zone of my race plan for five miles. Then I stopped to pee. The all-knowing Garmin doesn’t lie. I was roadside for about 60-75 seconds at an aid station. My heart rate dropped and something got in my head. It was at this point that I thought I couldn’t run the plan, I thought it was too aggressive. For whatever reason, I had the idea firmly locked in mind that my run targets for heart rate and pace were too much just like on the bike. Suddenly, I was back running but my heart rate had dropped from a consistent 144-145 to 140-141. Within two miles I was running 30 seconds slower per mile and my heart rate dropped to where it would stay for the rest of the race in the 136-139 range.
Unwittingly — that is without conscious effort — I was creating the data points to reinforce my decision to lay off on the run. It is a hard lesson to learn — to know when to go for it, when to keep pressing and when to back off to avoid catastrophic results.
Going slower didn’t make it any easier. It was hot, largely unshaded and I’d already been out for more than six hours. I had twenty-odd miles to go. Going slower just made it take longer.
Reflecting on the charts and data, I can see that I definitely had at least seven to eight miles on track with my original plan and probably more like 15 available. The first mistake was thinking that a stop to pee would only cost 45 seconds. It robbed me of momentum, consistency of mind and confidence that I was on track as long as I focused on the mile in front of me. In that cramped, plastic, hothouse of human waste I had time to think of how much course I had left, of the hours in front of me. When that happens, it becomes game-over because the rationalizations are just around the corner.
The second mistake was what proved fatal to my goal of running a best time and staying competitive in my age-group on the run. I turned to my Plan B too early. A few hundred meters down the road from the toilet I was recalculating the afternoon. I was rationalizing that I would walk every aid station from this point forward. I gave credence to a low heart rate as okay because it meant I wouldn’t blow up. These valid but unhelpful mental gymnastics also meant that I would add 15-30 seconds to every mile and that while I wouldn’t blow up, I would fail to ever press the pace.
I didn’t run fearless. I didn’t run worried about my calf. I didn’t think about how I was heavier than last year. (Kent’s Ironman race weight history: 2012 — 183, 2013 — 175, 2014 — 184.) I wasn’t thinking about running in the red zone of mid to high 150s heart rate. I wasn’t worrying — but all of that was somewhere in the stew of subconscious and provided the compost necessary to fertilize passing thoughts into full grown rationalizations. To run an Ironman successfully, I imagine the mind must be sterilized of these shadowy reservations. Clinical, like an operating room, an athlete must be ready to demand the absurd from himself and to do it unselfconsciously. I must learn to run without fear.
A few words on the course itself. It is flat. It is more flat than anywhere I’ve run excepting a track. It is however somewhat “technical” in that there are many 90 degree turns and two 180 turnaround which each must be navigated multiple times. The organizers took the course up and down High Street in Cambridge which is brick instead of asphalt. High Street provided the only “hill” worth mentioning and it wasn’t hard so much as it surprised my dulled senses each time I came to it. The hill is probably 800-1200 meters long with an aid station about 85 percent of the way to the top. Upon reaching the top of the hill, the course turns left down a street lined with shops and restaurants for a few hundred meters. This was the loudest, most boisterous and lively section of the course. There was room on the sidewalks for spectators to line up near the course fences. There was at least one if not more restaurants open with patio seating and it was near where the shuttle buses were running and made access easy for the fan base. On the third lap, at the very end of this street is where athletes turn left for the final mile to the finish line instead of turning right and heading down the length of the entire course again.
Somewhere around the 9:50 mark I figured out that I wouldn’t break 10 hours. I had not been aiming for it, nor had I been thinking about it during the race. But when the realization hit me, it was a bit of a letdown. The minute it takes to go 9:59 versus 10:00:00 is no longer nor is it harder earned than the one that moves you from 10:04 to 10:03. Still, there is a huge psychological effect and if this post is about anything, it is about the power of the mind to control the body.
I had a very good day. I had a solid, respectable run. If I were to rationalize today, I’d say that the run was strong considering the training leading up to it. Enough with the rationalizations though, I know that I’ve run about a third less than last year and didn’t start running until Memorial Day. I was physically strong enough to handle the distance and that is the only fact of import. Arguably my legs didn’t have enough miles in them to show the resilience necessary to fight through the really hard miles of 15-20. But we won’t know, because I didn’t go there.
Most importantly, my mind didn’t have the miles in it to be unbreakable, strong and focused in the face of distraction, discomfort and false signals telling it that I ought to slow down. That is the mistake, the failing, of the day.
Finish line photos often capture joy, triumph, elation. On the spectrum of emotion, each has its counterpart in full measure. There is disbelief that the whole escapade is ending. Triumph in the heart is but a thin patina for the hurt way down deep in your bones, joints and muscles. My experience, n=3, is of a profound exhaustion that nearly transforms elation into a jellylike collapse the moment I cross the line. Yin and yang — paired, balanced and available only after having overcome the obstacles presented by the day.
This is my favorite photo of the day. It includes subtle virtues — it is rare for anyone to get a shot of the finish arch with the time matching their actual time but I started within seconds of the gun and there was no pro field. It has a solitary protagonist and as much as it is true — so very, very true — that no one does one of these races alone but always through the sacrifice of family, friends, co-workers, volunteers, organizers, first responders, law enforcement, deep down I think we all like to be a little bit of our own hero. Ironman lets you play hero for the day. It has interesting light, colors and shapes.
Most of all, after a day of keeping my head up when my swim split was far slower than I expected, when I could not reliably come close to my targets on the bike, when I had taken the easy path and rationalized my way through Plan B on the run, I still got through it. I made it. The race was not won, but it was done. I finished and though weary, I was worthy.
The bike course is fairly straightforward. After riding through Cambridge and the surrounding countryside we passed the local high school which began a 40-45 mile loop. After completing the loop nearly twice, we turned off and finished the course with about ten miles of empty countryside and then a final mile through town.
The temperature rose steadily from 66 to 82 degrees. After ten minutes of keeping my heart rate and watts down, I began to work. My plan had been to ride the first half of the race between 200-205 watts and then to “negative split” by riding the second half at 205-210 watts. The plan did not materialize.
For nearly 30 minutes I rode too hard. My normalized power was around 210. Then I balanced out and found myself having trouble holding 195. After about an hour, I hit a bad patch. From the look of the chart below, it lasted about 20 minutes before it finally passed.
On the first lap my NP was 192 and the average speed of 22.4 mph. The second lap NP was 191 and the average speed was 21.8 mph. I got up to 27.2 mph for a maximum speed. I’m not sure what was going on there unless I was trying to regain a group after slowing to pee. The cadence dropped from the first half too, from 92 to 87 on the second half.
I saw a beautiful bald eagle. It was soaring in a arcing pattern and was close enough that I could see between its feathers at the tips of its wings. Shortly after the one time that I rode through water — less than an inch for no more than two seconds — I heard a squeaking. I thought it ridiculous that my bike would develop something so annoying after such a short splash. After looking all around I could not identify any rubbing or reason for the squeak. It was getting more obnoxious when I spied, off to my left, a small bird about two stories up in the air. It looked like a small seagull and for about 30 seconds it flew with me and kept its head turned to look my direction while I watched it.
The effects of riding in the exact same position were radically underestimated. It is damn hard to ride without many turns and with absolutely no change in elevation. On the second loop I developed the tactic of coming up out of the saddle every time I changed from one road to the next. By the second lap I was developing bad habits. For example, every time I reached for a bottle to drink I stopped pedaling. I also must have tried to pee at least five times on the second loop before succeeding around mile 95.
I was able to count the guys going past me in my age group but was unable to do anything about it. For much of the ride, maintaining 190 watts was quite difficult and anything beyond would result in a real let down after about four or five minutes. In all, it was a good solid ride but not a blockbuster. I was very conscious as I started about not riding too hard because I didn’t want to ruin the potential for a really strong marathon. As it turned out, I rode as hard as I could and just didn’t have more.
I didn’t have any trouble with food or drink. My nutrition plan is pretty ironclad now. During the first hour I drank a bottle than contained 20 ounces of Ensure. Starting at the beginning of the ride, on the bottom of the hour I would eat a Bonk Breaker and at the top of the hour I would take a Gu gel — repeat four times. During the fifth hour I did not have solid food but relied on the gels. The first two bottle handoffs I messed up because I was going too fast.
Probably the best part of the ride for me was the last 30-40 minutes. I was alone. After being caught by a group of three guys during a pee break, I rode up to them and kept rolling straight on by. At that point, I began to focus on the next person or group to catch until I turned off toward Cambridge. The final miles are through the countryside and past farms. I had the roads to myself and you can see below around mile 97 that my speed increased.
A lot can be said about the distance, or the accomplishment, the tactics or gear of triathlon. The final word should be that it is fun. It is plain old fun to ride fast. At Ironman Maryland, I had fun on my bike.
This weekend I’ll try to get a short synopsis of the recent bike ride up here. In the meantime, a short anecdote and a set of photos follow.
As I mentioned below in a previous post, during the last segment of the ride I passed a large number of people. After a while, I decided to say something to each person. Maybe I could lift their spirits or bring a smile. The time between each pass became focused on what I would say to the next person. After I told a guy in an Army kit to Beat Navy, I rolled passed a woman with a Naval Academy jersey and told her, “Go Navy, Beat Army.” The most common phrase employed was some version of “keep rolling.” I don’t know why, I don’t know where it came from. A few times it stood on its own like an Ironman koan. Usually it was combined with some reference to the person’s kit, a song lyric or a remark about the weather and scenery which were both fantastic for riding. Roll on…
As was the case with previous big races, I woke up hours before we left for the site to eat a first breakfast. From 3:10 to 3:30 I put down four eggs, a Bonk Breaker and an Ensure. At 4:15 I was back up to pack up the hotel room, shave and prepare a second breakfast that consisted of two cups of tea, 20 ounces of Nuun, three quarters of a banana and half a bottle of Ensure. Patrick was a little stressed about his organization and packing, but we got off without incident and plenty of time to spare. He managed an oatmeal-based breakfast from the hotel. The staff came in three hours early to open their complimentary breakfast in the middle of the night for the guests. After Patrick did a masterful job parking within three blocks of the start and transition area, the nerves surfaced again. It took us ten minutes or more to gather everything from the car because of this or that little bit that had to be doublechecked. We even walked a few feet away and had to turn back because we forgot the wetsuits.
The swim start was scheduled for 6:50 a.m. just minutes ahead of sunrise. The air was crisp with overnight dew and with 1,500 athletes and their supporters as well as hundreds of volunteers and race officials there was definitely a lot of activity and energy. We went straight to our bikes. I pumped tires, set the Garmin, put on a bottle filled with Ensure for the first hour of the ride and another that was a superconcentrate of four scoops of lemon-lime Perform with a caffeinated cherry Nuun tablet for anytime on the course I wanted something other than what the aid stations were offering. I filled the Bento box and headed straight for the bag drop off so that I could get in line early for the bathroom. It was my fourth trip to the toilet in three hours but I knew from experience it would be necessary.
By 6:30 I was free of responsibility and I started stretching by myself and really trying to imagine the swim. It was still dark. At 6:45 when the physically challenged athletes started the sky was showing light but the sun had not appeared. I made my way to the front of the line looking for the 50-55 minute group only to find that there was one big group for “60 Minutes and Under.” I took a spot on the left edge, three deep into the field. I wasn’t on the front and we were going to make a right turn after only about 70-80 meters so I was also on the longest line to the buoy. I wasn’t in the mood for shoving and exchanging words, so I just took my place, started my breathing and visited with the tiny woman on my right. She told me not to worry because she is not a bad swimmer. I told her not to worry because I was too old to have an ego get in the way of drafting off of someone in a pink cap. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure she came out of the water seconds behind me. She definitely got the better of that exchange and surely drafted off of my fat wake. Good for her. It serves me right for trying to be witty so early in the day.
I had expected the first 200 meters to be extra bunched and for there to be some argy bargy. I didn’t realize that the shoving and aggression would start before the cannon fired. The last two minutes on the boat ramp were a pressure cooker as more people tried to rush the front of the line and those of us in line tried to maintain some space. You can see below that the short, straight sprint to the first turn also included a significant narrowing — probably of at least 10-15 feet — of the path due to the shape of the boat launch.
My split for the day was 58:12. Dana told me later that someone on the “Leaderboard” webpage beat me by one second. As a result, I was first in my age group and seventh overall but the sixth person out of the water. I came out of the water with a group of five people on my heels the last of whom was the first woman out of the swim. It looks like six people came through in about 11 seconds which means we either swam as a group with me on the front or I faded horribly and they nearly caught me. I think it was the former. According to Garmin and Training Peaks, my sTSS was 115.5.
After three Ironman starts, my swim splits have been consistently at the front of my age group and the field. In 2012 at Lake Placid I was 1/13/13, in 2013 at the same venue I was 3/11/14 and in Maryland I was 1/7/7 (Age Group/Gender/Overall). However, this time I tried a new strategy and it required a change even before I got wet. Instead of blasting off the line for the first 200 meters to try to clear the field and then easing into a steady pace by the end of the first quarter of the swim to balance my heartrate, I decided to build through the first quarter of the swim. For 800-1000 meters I was not going to spike my heartrate or chase anyone. In the past I started on the front line and in the third row. This year I ended up starting in the fifth row and instead of worrying — especially with the chute effect all the way to the first turn — I simply sat in, went wide of the buoy and passed about a dozen people after four or five minutes.
I think it worked better for me. I probably don’t have the all out speed to get out of the water first or win an open water race with that strategy, but it is probably better for an Ironman start. Next year at Coeur d’ Alene I’d like to swim with the lead pack. My position in the rankings may be the same or worse, but it would be a clear step up in my swimming to get into that group. Last weekend I was essentially the leader of the chase group although I didn’t know it at the time. One guy was all alone and put more than five minutes into the next competitor. Then there was a small cluster of four swimmers and a couple minutes behind them I led the second group out of the water.
On the way home, I sent the following description to Dana.
Swim was nice…but slow. I think it was a tad long. And the current tide and general roll of the water was fun, but slowing me down. It was a sunrise swim…pink and soft and welcoming. I could see it changing through the course of the swim…sun went orange. Brilliant. The start was madness so I just shrugged, waited and passed bunches after the first five minutes
In sum, it was a wonderful swim on a lovely course. I did not have one of those woo-woo experiences that I’ve written about in the past — all magical and effortless and full of unicorn sparkles. But it was electric, competitive and fun. The air was crisp and the rising sun bathed everyone with its energy. The light was low and moments later everything was brilliant and alive. The river exerted its presence, enlivened the senses especially taste, smell and imagination but didn’t overwhelm or show off. It reminded me of my place in nature — I’m but a small bit compared to the power of tides, the ancient effortless flow of water and the consistency of a beautiful sunrise.
I wish more people could have a experience like that in open water. It is how I imagine heaven — neither weightless nor heavy, without fear and full of natural wonder, surrounded by multitudes at their very best and yet alone with your own thoughts, musical, elemental and uncomplicated, in touch with your own essence and simultaneously something universal.
There is a difference between swimming fast and swimming well. The two are not mutually exclusive but don’t always overlap. I swam fairly fast but, more importantly, I swam well. It was enlivening; it is poetry of the soul.