Backyard Triathlons to Ironman Kona Qualifier - Preparation
By Nathan Rickman
Posted March 2014
I tend to be fairly verbose, but wanted to provide an account of what worked for me, many of the things that I have learned along the way and hopefully something that may help anyone who takes the time to read this.
Ironman by its nature is an individual sport. The rule books will continue to remind you of that by way of drafting, outside support, etc. That being said, in order to be successful, you will need a strong support team to include teammates, understanding family members, coaches, experience from other individuals and ultimately yourself.
Growing up around Deep Creek Lake, we used to have Wednesday afternoon triathlons in the summer months with local kids and those that were at the Yacht Club for the summer. This would consist of anywhere from 5 – 10 kids, all of different ages and abilities. Based on the abilities, the parents would handicap the individuals so that the fastest would have to go the farthest with the goal of having everyone finish at approximately the same time. I always loved competition and getting to do multiple sports back-to-back was even more exciting.
Very quickly, those Wednesday night tri’s gave way to more structured activities consisting of your typical sporting activities. It wasn’t until my brother-in-law suggested that we do the Nation’s Tri in 2011 that I gave triathlon much thought since those early years. My wife and I had recently had our third child and I had started working out again after a slow decline from wrestling in college.
We decided to each get road bikes and start training. I figured that I used to be a Division I athlete in college, so this triathlon thing wouldn’t be that hard (or so I thought). I just needed to get back in shape. Was I ever in for a rude awakening….
I remember my first ride out and doing just over 20 miles. I was dying when I finally climbed the hill back to my house and thought to myself that this might be a little harder than I originally imagined. Over the next 6 months, my workouts consisted of going out on the weekends as fast as I could for as long as I could and then walking around all week at work like I had a car accident the prior weekend. I had a friend who had recently gotten into marathons tell me that I needed to work out during the week and just not be a weekend warrior. I thought to myself, who has the time for that?
As my training slowly progressed, I became excited for the upcoming race and didn’t really know what I was getting into. I swam a few times and at least thought I was relatively good swimmer, but had never really done any swimming other than just for fun growing up. The swim ended up being cancelled that year due to the heavy rain storms prior to the race (looking back on it, this was probably a good thing because I certainly wasn’t prepared for that leg). Without the swim, the ride was very bunched together, but fast. When I started running, I realized I was in for a surprise as my legs felt like bricks and the motion of running was extremely labored. How could this be? I only biked 24 miles; surely I could easily run a 10K after that. Fortunately, I was able to pick things up and finish with what I thought was a really good time - 18th in my Age Group. I had given the race everything that I had and thought that I worked out as much as I possibly could leading up to the race. While I was happy with the result, I knew that I needed to improve – I just didn’t know how to do it. Over the course of the next 2 years, I had a number of pieces of advice and changes to what I did that made a significant difference for me.
Once again, triathlon is an individual sport and what works for one individual, may not work for others. Here are seven important lessons that were significant milestones in my journey.
Milestone #1: Becoming an Ironman is a team effort
As I was getting more into working out, I ended up meeting an individual at work who it turns out was all about triathlons and endurance events. He had recently completed a few half Ironman’s and was planning on doing a full Ironman in next 6 months. At the time, I could not picture myself running a marathon, let alone, swimming and biking for hours prior to that. Through numerous conversations and pieces of advice I began to learn some of the bigger picture items such as eating while riding (who knew?), heart rate monitoring (I thought this was only for guys in the Tour de France), bike fit (this really does make a difference) and Garmin watches (my Timex with a start / stop and lap button seemed just fine at the time). Ever since that time, John Schaller has been giving me advice that has unquestionably helped me along the way – I most certainly would not have become an Ironman without him or part of Team FeXY.
Through my conversations with John, I decided to sign up for the Savageman ½ Ironman Triathlon as it was in my hometown and I thought it would be great to go up and do a race where I was from. I remember seeing the faces of a few that were in the sport when I said that was going to be my first one. I love a challenge and I love when individuals say that something isn’t attainable (more on that later).
On a family vacation up to Deep Creek, I decided to ride the Savageman course. Equipped with aero bars on my road bike, a recent bike fit where everything was seemingly not adjusted for my body type, 2 bars in my back pocket, a few gels and four water bottles, I headed out. For anyone who has ridden the Savageman course, you know that the first 18 miles are truly awesome. But of course, what comes down, must go back up….slowly.
Reaching the Westernport Wall, I was able to make it to the top and stopped to look at the Bricks in the Wall (also, I was practically hyperventilating). I thought to myself, I conquered the wall, how much harder could this ride be??? I quickly realized that the Wall at 31% incline was just a teaser for the hours of enjoyment that were to follow. For the next few hours, I rode up and down (mostly up) the hills of Garrett County – continuing to think to myself that the current hill had to be the last one, only to see another one stare you in the face. At one point, I yelled out a series of obscenities not believing that there could possibly be a race that follows this route. After completing the course, I called my parents to let them know that I was doing ok and I thought I could make it home (had another 10 miles to go). After resting for a while, I began the final trek home only to collapse in the house. While lying on the floor, my father looks down at me and says, ready to go run 13 miles? What had I gotten myself into?!
Milestone #2 & #3
As I continued to work out more, I was getting a confidence about myself that I could hang with the big boys, so I invited John and Rob Barlow up to Garrett County for a weekend of riding. Outside of John’s multiple mechanical mishaps, I learned two very important lessons on this trip.
- Not all bikes are created equal
- Sodium is necessary when doing endurance events
After watching John and Rob coast by me as I frantically pedaled down hills with sweat dripping off my face and always seeming to hit a wall around 2 ½ of riding, I made two important changes. A teammate just so happened to be selling his Specialized Transition Pro Tri Bike (John and Rob got an alert from the Team FeXY webpage on the way home). I emailed him on the way home and was at his house the next day picking up my new bike along with stopping to buy Salt Tablets on the way over.
With my new bike, I calculated that I was 10% - 15% faster just based on typical speeds I would ride before and after the new bike on similar sections. With salt pills added to my regime on the bike, I also found that I could go out for longer efforts. With all of these changes, I certainly felt that I was as prepared as I could be.
Savageman went as planned until roughly 3 miles into the run when my legs decided that they were no longer happy and were going to let me know about it for the next 9 miles. What started out as just over 7:00 / mile paces, quickly turned into just over 9:00 / miles paces. I was able to gut out the last 2 miles and finish 4th in my age group, but I looked at those that beat me (some by a very significant amount) and watched them walk around like they had just finished a 2 hour bike ride vs. a ½ Ironman. As a crawled back into my car and my wife, Heather drove me home I realized how much I still didn’t know and how far I had to go.
After the soreness went away, I began doing some running events and ended up running the Marine Corps Marathon. I started out with a comfortable pace not knowing what to expect having never run more than 18 miles in my life. I was able to push the last half of the race. I negative split the race by 7 minutes finishing with a 3:10 overall and was hooked. Never having been able to build in an endurance event before, it was truly exhilarating to be able to go faster in the 2nd half of the race. I called John after the race to share my excitement and also decided at that point I was going to do an Ironman. If I was going to do an Ironman, I was going to do it to qualify for Kona. In my mind, there wasn’t any reason to do one, if I wasn’t attempting to qualify to go to Hawaii.
Milestone #4: Cadence is very important in order to have a good run in a triathlon
After joining Team FeXY and many more conversations with John, I realized that I needed to get a Power Meter to take my training to the next level. After ordering one and having Reid Kiser install it for me (isn’t it nice that everything you need or any questions you have – you can get from someone or through Team FeXY?), I went home to try it out on my trainer. I was interested in all of the numbers and what they would mean. Of course, at the time, I was purely reliant on speed, but now I had power as well. The most important number that never occurred to me prior to looking at my data was cadence. I thought, hmm, what is a good riding cadence? Doing some reading, talking to individuals like Reid, I realized it varies from person to person, but to have a good run off the bike, you are much better off to have a higher cadence so you are not putting as much force with each pedal stroke. Some individuals ride as low as 85 and some as high as 100 – 105. It really is personal. Looking at my very first trainer ride with the power meter I realized I was doing something very wrong – my average cadence was 69! I immediately began working on higher cadence riding with various drills and easier gears. I was always under the mindset that harder gears meant you were going faster – not having any appreciation for the toll that this was taking on your legs for an endurance event. Over the course of the next 6 months I would realize that faster cadence also applied to running (of course not knowing this until after I got a foot pod). Shorter, quicker steps provide much more efficient running as well.
Having started a regimented training cycle and getting a membership to the Fairfax Recreation Center, I was making time to swim and bike throughout the week – either on the way to work, home from work, before kids events, etc. I signed up for the Blue Ridge Bike Camp for the adventure of riding a bunch of miles and getting to meet new people. At the time, I probably completed only 2 century rides prior to that, with both occurring the previous year with John. I remember feeling completely exhausted from those. Over the course of the BRBC, I rode 300 miles thanks to Tim Kelley and his inspirational singing. It was also at this event where the Team FeXY coaches talked about qualifying for Kona and how hard it is and almost impossible for someone doing their first Ironman – just the motivation I needed! I secretly wanted to prove everyone wrong.
Milestone #5: Supplementing your diet when your training kicks up
The week after BRBC, I was recovering and in my final preparations for the Kinetic ½ Ironman. Having completed Savageman and then the BRBC, I figured that this ½ Ironman would be easy. In the week leading up to the race, I realized I was not getting in enough calories as my metabolism was through the roof now and I needed to supplement my normal meals with various nutrient drinks (chocolate milk, ensure, muscle milk, Costco replenishment drink, etc.). Unfortunately, this realization came a little too late and I tried to overcompensate in the 24 hours leading up to the race. Needless to say, the 2nd half of my bike and run were not very much fun at Kinetic and I began questioning whether this sport was really for me. I finished fourth in my age group, but I knew that I had a long way to go to reach my goal. On top of that, the vast majority of the race was painful and not enjoyable.
Re-evaluating my training and nutrition, I realized that I needed to be much more consciousness of what I was eating and how much I was eating. Coming from a wrestling background, I was used to eating healthy and not eating to make weight. I needed to change my mindset and realize that as my volume of training continued to increase, post workout recovery drinks were mandatory and I needed to supplement my normal eating habits. I began getting supplemental drinks in bulk and would have 1 – 3 immediately after every workout even if I had 2 or 3 workouts in a day. I noticed my recovery improved and I had more energy throughout the day. I also decided to essentially cut out alcohol. Not that I was drinking much at the time, but I was going to do everything I could to achieve my goal so other than a few special occasions; I essentially cut out all alcohol until Ironman Arizona.
With my nutrition seemingly on the right track, I headed to the Eagleman 70.3 with new found confidence. I also found out what it was like to race at a big time Ironman event. This was not the small mom and pop triathlon events that I had participated in up until this point. $5,000 bikes were the norm, carbon fiber was everywhere and tried and true racers were telling stories from other events around the globe. The excitement was in the air and really brought out the best in everyone. Being overwhelmed, I quickly reset my expectations and raced within myself. Not racing anyone else, just working on what I was practicing. Although my swim felt good, my time was subpar, but I came out of the water ready to ride. After putting my socks and shoes on outside the transition area (huge mud pit) and going back to get my sunglasses, I had a negative bike split and a very good run. This was my first triathlon where I was able to feel good throughout the race and push it, rather than just survive. It was truly a great feeling. Although I finished 17th in my age group, I knew I left a few minutes in transition and a few on the swim course as well. Only 6 minutes separated me from the top 10 and I felt with a few small adjustments even without better fitness that was easily obtainable.
Milestone #6: Not just volume, but Intensity matters for endurance events
I came home from Cambridge re-energized although questioning my earlier goal of reaching Kona. I realized how much I would need to improve over the next five months in order to have any realistic shot at qualifying. We had an au pair move into our house and I suddenly had more time in the early mornings for additional workouts. I was able to hook up with the Inside the Beltway (ITB) crew and added Hains Point Intervals into my weekly routine. My mileage began drastically increasing and I had a new confidence about my upcoming race in Arizona. These intervals (along with Strava segments – thank you Tim Kelley) brought a new dimension to my riding. Even though Ironman is an endurance event, interval training and speed workouts are very important. If you want to compete, then you need to be fast and be able to sustain it as well. Recovery is also a key aspect of this. I was reading every article / magazine that I could. I was talking to other people about what worked for them and what didn’t. I knew that I could finish an Ironman, but I wanted to compete and be relevant in the standings.
I finally looked at the times from the previous years, and for a while, my confidence waned yet again. Looking at the times from the previous years, how could I possibly compete with the top guys in my age group? I continued to work hard, but also tried to have secondary goals.
100+ mile weekend rides became a norm as did 250+ mile weekly biking averages. My volume continued to increase and with it more confidence. I was averaging 3 – 4 swims a week, 4+ bike rides a week, and 5 runs a week along with various strength and core exercises.
Milestone #7: Heart rate is just as important as wattage
I signed up for SkipJack with the thought process that the race would be similar conditions to Arizona – Flat, sunny and windy. SkipJack had a small field and I was surprised by how slow the bike times were in previous years. What I hadn’t realized is that the published distance for the course is 64 miles but the actual course distance is 66 miles making the times appear slower than they actually are.
I went out too hard on the bike, only paying attention to wattage and cadence and not to heart rate. I was riding the first 90 minutes of the ride way too hot in terms of heart rate. While I was doing well, the damage was being done. I was able to back off on the last hour of the ride, regain my composure and get a good first half of the run in. With the smaller field, I was in first place overall after 4 miles into the run and was able to back off the pace for the last 5 miles. Although, I had achieved the results that I was looking for, my execution was flawed and certainly not sustainable for an Ironman distance. Only because I was in shape for a longer race, was I able to get away with my mistake in this race. AND the Skipjack Overall #1....Course Record: 4:38:39.
I realized that the most important thing for the Ironman was to get my heart rate down to a sustainable level as quickly as possible on the bike. Don’t worry about your wattage numbers out of the gate. You will build into those. Get the heart rate down and get into your nutrition plan. I became too consumed with wattage and FTP numbers and lost the art of perceived effort and heart rate training.
Milestone #8: Practicing your nutrition strategy in race conditions is paramount
On many of my long brick workouts, I realized that I was hungry and not getting enough calories to sustain my run. Part of this was due to the fact that I was putting in 20 – 25 hours a week and 12 – 14 workouts a week. Being someone who sweats a lot and goes through a ton of calories, I thought the more calories the better and I needed to find a way to get in more calories during the bike. I tried a number of things and was turned onto Infinit to create my own drink. I figured this was a great way to supplement the gels and liquids I was already consuming and would give me the needed calories that my body needed for 140.6 miles. What I didn’t calculate is that through my taper, my body would be topped off prior to the race vs. starting in a depleted state. The other aspect was how my body would absorb this additional caloric intake at a racing heart rate. Even though I was able to consume these additional calories on my 100+ mile rides, my heart rate was about 15 beats slower during many of these rides than I was during Ironman Arizona. With more blood flow to the muscles, less goes to the stomach and those same amounts that were absorbed at 140 – 145 bpm might not be absorbed at 155 – 160 bpm. More on this in the run section of Ironman Arizona.
Leading up to Ironman Arizona, I was cautiously optimistic. My original goal of breaking 10 hours seemed very achievable. My new goal of 9:45 seemed reasonable with my stretch goal of 9:30 if everything went well. I knew that I would need to be sub 9:30 to have any realistic shot of qualifying for Kona. I thought that four individuals might go from my age group and the fourth place person in 2012 was 9:32:13.
Since Jan 1st leading up to Ironman Arizona, I had put in over 6750 miles on my bike with fifteen 100+ mile rides. Even though I didn’t start running until March due to tendinopathy in my foot, I logged 925 miles running, 225 miles swimming and over 50 hours of “other” activities including strength training and core workouts. I truly felt that I had done everything that I could to prepare myself to compete at my first Ironman. In the last few weeks leading up to the race, I became hypersensitive about everything I was eating, my sleep, my recovery, stretching, foam rolling and massage. I developed a cold a week prior to the race but that soon subsided and everything was falling into place. When I arrived, I scouted out the bike course, and tested out my bike. I shipped it via Tri Bike Transport so I didn’t have to worry about it on the way out there or back – very helpful when flying to an event. After making some last minute adjustments I was extremely excited about the bike. I was using John’s disc wheel set and after being inside on my trainer for the last 3 weeks, I felt alive being outside and screaming down the roads. I did a short brick workout on Friday to test out the running legs and see the first part of the course. Saturday, I jumped in the water and did a pre-race swim. 63 degrees seemed much warmer than I imagined it would be. After that, I got my bike in order in transition, and headed home to get my bags ready and all of the last minute items in place (i.e. drink bottles, laying out breakfast, clothes, etc.). I was glad that I went out early (I arrived late Wednesday night) as it allowed me time to methodically get everything in order. As much as you prepare and get things ready beforehand, there are always last minute preparations and frantic thoughts that raise your blood pressure.
Stay Tuned.....You will be hearing more from Nathan in Part 2 of his Article. Watch this space, in the upcoming weeks!