40 Year-Old IM Virgin
By Jason Davidson
Posted August 2013
In March 2009 I ran my first marathon in Rome. It did not go well. I had no prior running experience, very little fitness, and trained alone with only a Polar footpod to measure speed and distance. I followed a free training program I found online and thought I was ready. I made the further mistake of not running an organized half marathon in preparation. When I hit the first few mile markers on race day I passed through disbelief to realize that my Polar had been overestimating all my training distance and speed by at least 10%, so I was underprepared. Running the last fifteen miles of that marathon were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I finished in 4:18 and shortly after the race I vowed I’d never run a marathon again.
On July 28 2013, I stood in the corral of the swim start on Mirror Lake for my first Ironman hopeful things would go better than they had in Rome. 10:36:36 later I ran around the Lake Placid speed skating oval to become an Ironman. I ran a 3:33 marathon and enjoyed every single moment of the day. While I know my time wasn’t a really fast one—even for rookies (e.g., see Kory Jessen’s 2011 IMLP time)—I did improve dramatically from 2009 and there may be some useful lessons from my experience for other first timers.
Before you get too impressed by my progress I have to admit I have a background in endurance sport. At age sixteen I got my first USCF license. Before I stopped racing in 1992 I was a Category 2 road racer and a Category 1 track cyclist and had raced in five national championships, including the 1992 Olympic Trials. I was so burned out, however, when I quit cycling that I didn’t engage in any physical activity for the next seven years. I finally started going to the gym to relieve stress while I pursued my Ph.D but from that point until I was tenured in 2008 I never let myself workout more than three or four hours a week as I was convinced that doing so would signal a lack of my commitment to my career.
In the days after the Rome Marathon it dawned on me that the most important takeaway from that race was that I had fought through and finished. At that point I started to think seriously that I could accomplish a dream I have had since I was a ten-year old and saw the Ironman World Championship on TV: to become an Ironman.
After moving back to Northern Virginia after a sabbatical year abroad I began training for my first triathlon as an adult (I had done three or four as a fifteen year-old). My first race was the Giant Acorn Sprint in October 2009. About five minutes into the swim I had a terrible panic attack (I’ve since been diagnosed with sports-induced asthma) and thought I was going to drown. While I finished 128th overall, I again looked at it as a victory because I made it through the swim. After a four month bout of terrible shoulder tendinitis (turns out I didn’t know how to swim!), I finished the Giant Acorn Olympic in 2010 and started on a steady road of training and racing with Ironman in my sights.
The Three-Year Plan
At the end of 2010 I decided that if I wanted to start preparing for an Ironman I needed a coach. I am convinced that coaching was the single most important factor in my 2013 IMLP result. By that I don’t mean just coaching during 2013, though that was important. I am completely convinced that if I had first gotten a coach in 2013, I would not have finished anywhere near 10:36. Of course, it doesn’t help to be coached and not do the workouts and I believe I have a very high rate of workouts completed according to plan.
For the past three seasons I have worked with coach Reid Kiser and have seen a steady improvement in my swim, bike, and run. The numbers speak for themselves. In January 2011 I swam 2,950 yds. in my first US Masters one-hour postal. I swam 3,550 yds. in January 2012 and 3,750 in January 2013. I have seen a similar trend in my running. In March 2011 I ran the Suntrust National Half Marathon in 1:32:34 but ran 1:30:28 in March 2012 in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half (same course) and 1:27:54 in March 2013. I have also seen major improvement on the bike. In my first power test in January 2011 my functional threshold power (FTP) was 212 watts (3.3 watts/kilo). In an August 2012 test my FTP had risen to 234 watts (3.73 watts/kilo). As I towed the line for IMLP my FTP was 240 watts (3.88 watts/kilo). That improvement over time across all three disciplines comes from the sustained, supervised application of the state of the art in multisport coaching.
Racing Eagleman 70.3 in 2011 and 2012 was another factor in how I raced at IMLP. Having Eagleman as my A race allowed me to learn and reflect about racing at the 70.3 distance before making the leap to a full IM. Intense heat and humidity both years also contributed to my mental toughness reservoir.
2013 Training and Racing
Coach Reid’s plan for 2013 was to “make me into an Über cyclist.” I love riding, so that was fine by me (by the way, if you don’t enjoy riding your bike, Ironman is not for you!). Weekly interval workouts were designed to improve my threshold watts. As the season progressed I did more long rides: eight 100 milers in training. Those rides were great for building endurance and for mental toughness.
My greatest mental toughness gains came on the third day of this year’s Blue Ridge Bike Camp. Wanting to get on the road Brad Wedemeyer and I chose to start the ride ahead of our designated group (and our sag van). I was dressed in shorts, a short-sleeved jersey, arm warmers and a very light rain jacket based on the projected high in the mid-50s. I was on the warm side on the first climb of the day and then, an hour into the ride, the rain went from drizzle to torrential. The temperature began to drop precipitously as well. By the halfway point in the ride Brad and I were so cold we were going as hard as we could on the climbs and as fast as we could on the descents to get to the next climb. No matter what we did we couldn’t stop shivering. To top it all off, we hit dense fog with about two hours to go, which meant we had to take the descents easier to avoid barreling into a car or deer. Pressing on those last two hours is one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was also money in the mental toughness bank.
Two of the other long rides were race rehearsals: on two occasions I did the Mt. Weather/Marshall loop two times followed by a 10K brick run. Training on Mt. Weather (8,512 ft. gain total for the two loops) made the hilly course at Lake Placid seem easy, whereas the high heat and humidity on the run of the second race rehearsal was another mental toughness moment.
The only races two races I did in preparation for IMLP were the Monticello Man Half near Charlottesville, VA and the Mighty Moss Half in Norwalk CT. I raced to an age-group podium finish on both races, which was an excellent confidence builder going into IMLP. The other thing that struck me in both races was how the enduring training for Ironman made the 70.3 distance seem easier than it had the previous two years.
Yoga, Massage, Chiropractor, Sleep
I am also convinced that another important factor that contributed to my IMLP performance was a consistent focus on a series of activities outside of regular training. First, I have been practicing yoga twice a week for the past three years. I almost never miss a session and as my training progressed I spent once a week doing athlete-specific poses and stretching at home. Yoga contributed to my flexibility and I believe it helped me recover as well. Second, I visited a massage therapist for deep-tissue work at least once every two weeks and a chiropractor once a month. Those visits also aided my recovery and helped me avoid injury. Finally, I averaged between seven and eight hours of sleep a night. While this meant I went to bed most nights only slightly after my 11 and 9 year-old daughters, it was worth it in recovery and immune system strength.
If you’ve got a significant other and/or kids, Ironman training comes as quite a shock—especially if your significant other is not a triathlete. Managing the family side of things has been a significant challenge for me. While my wife was ultimately supportive, she was not enthusiastic about Ironman, so I knew I needed her “buy in” up front. She agreed to let me train and race in 2013—the year of my fortieth birthday—and I gave her veto over the race venue. I made a point of doing as many as possible family activities in the winter months, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do as much later. I also decided very early on to avoid almost all of the social things that go along with training (happy hours or post-ride lunches, etc.) in order to maximize the time with family. Finally, I worked with Coach Reid to carve out a day every week for family time. All things considered, it wasn’t easy and I definitely won’t be doing an Ironman every year, but we made it work.
My nutrition philosophy is to eat as much real food as I can early on and restrict drinking to water and electrolytes (i.e., not to try to drink my calories). For the first three hours on the bike I ate two rice cakes (recipes from the Feed Zone Portables cookbook), a PowerBar Performance Energy Blend Pouch (crushed fruit), and a Bonk Breaker Bar. With two hours to go I switched to GU Roctane gels so my stomach was ready for the run. I would drink five to six bottles, two with water and four with Hammer Fizz electrolyte tabs. When it was hotter and humid I’d also take in Salt Stick capsules throughout the day. I’d often take in a Coke at the half way point (which aids in digestion). On long runs I drink water/Hammer tabs and Powerbar gels with caffeine every twenty-five minutes. I practiced and repeated essentially the same nutrition plan for every one of the eight 100 milers I did.
Race Day: Getting Lucky
Coach Reid had told me repeatedly that race day would be one of the easiest days of the year (with the exception of the last 10K of the run). I thought he was crazy but he was right.
I had been worried that the lineup for the new rolling swim start would be chaotic and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get into the right corral, so I waited just outside the entry area. When the gates opened I was able to walk casually to the 1:10 corral and lineup at the very front left of the corral. When the gun went off I stayed to the left and had very little contact (the contact was much worse in the Mighty Moss Half). In fact, the worst part of the swim was the last half of the second loop when we started lapping struggling swimmers on their first lap.
Ironman bike is all about the discipline of staying within your target watts/HR (mine was 73% of FTP as measured by Normalized Power). The idea is to go as easy as you can up the hills and to just maintain your watts on the flats and descents. The one place my cycling background might have helped was on the long descent into Keene. On the first lap it was raining, so I had to take it easy (and still lost two water bottles!). On the second lap I really let it rip, pedaling most of the way down and hitting 47.8 mph. While it is tough to let people pass you on the first lap of the bike it is definitely worth it. The first payoff comes on the second lap when you start passing some of the same people who originally passed you. The second payoff comes on the run.
Coach Reid told me to take it REALLY easy for the first 5-10K of the run. At IMLP the first 5K is downhill, so I ran at perceived E pace, which ended up being 7:36—about thirty seconds per mile faster than I planned to run the race—oops! I knew that pace was unsustainable, however, and settled into a rhythm on the first flat section. When I got to the hills on the first loop I slowed down to run them at perceived E pace. I had my Mom waiting on the steep hill on Main St. and the rest of my family cheering enthusiastically at the halfway point, which was a huge motivator. Throughout the run I focused on running tall, cadence, and focus on the E pace effort. I also was very fortunate to have cool and overcast conditions on the run.
Everyone had warned me about the last 10K of the run and it was my biggest pre-race fear. I had only run 10K after a 111 mi. bike in rehearsal. How would my body react? Because I stuck to my nutrition and hydration plan, by the time I hit the 10K to go mark I still had energy and focus. Little by little my legs started to lock up, feeling more and more like lead. As that happened I tried to stay relaxed and fight the lead with good form. When I hit the steep hill the second time I was the only one running up it—I passed at least two dozen people (I went from 237 to 155 overall on the run). I only stopped twice during the run: I’m not yet capable of peeing on myself! I’m willing to bet good money that a lot of the people I passed on the run are faster runners than I am. I passed them because I had paced the bike better than they had.
With a mile to go I passed a DJ playing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” I smiled, knew it was all over, and picked up the pace. When I hit the wall of sound in the speed-skating oval it was one of the most magical moments in my life. At forty I was an Ironman.