Ironman Maryland: The Mistakes Were Made Edition
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.