Monday, March 3, 2014

Cameron Thornberry - Ironman New Zealand Race Report

Fellow rock stars and party enthusiasts,

It's done!!! Ironman New Zealand happened, and I am absolutely elated to be writing you this race report right now! To all of you aspiring Ironmen, or to those of you who want to become better and more knowledgeable triathletes, this report is for YOU! So hopefully you learn something from this :) And yes, I am definitely writing this on my post-IM high, so deal with it :P

To say I'm humbled to have raced IMNZ on its 30th anniversary is a serioussssss serious understatement. But the truth is, I really couldn't have gotten to the start line here in Taupo had it not been for you crazy bunch of fun-loving party animals (aka MIT Triathlon) helping to guide my path and keep me going -- so in all seriousness, THANK YOU for making Ironman New Zealand a real thing for me. The journey, with allll of its highs and lows, couldn't have been done without all of the support, help, tips and advice that you've offered me along the way!

Considering that my first triathlon was in May of last year (shoutout to Allie, Celena, and the MVL crew!), it's been an incredible journey to go from complete triathlon newbie to Ironman in less than a year, but if you shoot for the stars, be careful, because you just might get there :)

The work up:

So I got bit HARD by the tri bug after my first triathlon (an epic Half IM down in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center), and only a few weeks afterward Iknew I wanted to complete a full one. The issue was that after I graduate this June I head down to naval flight school for a few years where my schedule will be quite busy and unpredictable, and plus, by the time I get out of flight school I'll just start tacking on more "life responsibilities" (pshh), so it was either now or never (or wait a while haha). Hence, I committed to IMNZ on May 28th of last year!

After signing up I researched a variety of training plans and finally settled upon the Endurance Nation (EN) 20-week beginner IM training plan which began on October 14th of last year. I raced a few more triathlons over the summer (a sprint, olympic, and another half) and kept biking and swimming on the side. 

The highlights of my training include:
- Motivation, motivation, motivation. The most challenging part of training is the day-in and day-out motivation alongside revolving your entire life around training (from sleeping to eating to scheduling workouts to kissing your weekends goodbye haha) bad do you want it?!?!
- My right IT band, which by the end of summer I couldn't really run at all without it aching. Oh well, I figured I could at least do the swimming and biking while I took a few months off of running (September - October) before I planned to increase my running again. 
- Unfortunately, my right IT band never improved, and I mayyyybe ran/ellipticaled 5-10 miles per MONTH October through January as I tried everything (stretching, strengthening, rolling, etc) to improve it. February's running, biking, and swimming were nonexistent (save a few swims, mostly with pull buoys) in order to maximize the recovery of my IT band (credit to Steve Lyons).  Thankfully I was entering my taper so most of the work was done....I just had to not get fat as I faced this sudden vacuum in training :)
- Speaking of which, going from working out ~12-16 hours/week to ~0 hours/week for the last 3.5 weeks was hands down the lowest point of training. And not just in terms of eating haha, but I actually struggled a bit with depression because my main source of joy and happiness was violently removed. Who knew sitting on your ass could be so difficult??
- Getting hit by a car in week 4 of training which messed up my right knee. Had to take three weeks off (with limited swimming) as a result. Bollocks.
- MIT Cycling's kickass 10-day training camp in Temecula at the end of January. It was a much needed change of scenery from the trainer :)

Alright, enough chit chat, let's talk IMNZ :)

Below is the cliff notes version of my race plan, most of which was pulled directly from it.

The big picture:
- I'm going to be an Ironman even if it kills me.
- 100% race execution
- Save enough in the tank for the run and deal with the known unknowns of my IT band as they surface
- HAVE FUN and relish the finishing chute!
- Don't follow a static race plan. Be flexible, listen to your body, and race your race (Steve drove this home)
- No GI issues or cramps in the race

- I will never, ever quit.
Tackle any and all adversity with a cool, relaxed, and positive mind. There is always a path to victory. 
I will always maintain a positive and success-oriented attitude and winning spirit regardless of what gets thrown at me, and no negative thoughts or emotions will ever get in the way of that. 
- Expect something to go wrong. Improvise, adapt, and overcome :)
- As you near the end of the run, leave it ALL on the course. #YOLO
- Follow your nutrition plan and listen to your body

The swim plan:
- Clif Mocha gel 10m before start
- Swim only as fast as your ability to maintain form.
- Seed your start position to those who plan to swim 1:02-1:03 (I planned to swim around 1:05)
- Pay it forward to the swimmers around me and don't be an asshole.
- Draft when possible.

The bike plan (2 laps for 112 mi):
- Bike my "should" bike split, not my "could" bike split. There's no such thing as a good bike followed by a poor run.
- Ride easy for the first 60', and then steadily for the rest of the 1st lap with an option to increase *a bit* on the 2nd lap. There's A LOTTTT more detail to this which I'll leave out, some of which revolved around my power meter, but this is essentially what I planned for. 
- Ride disciplined, steady, and deal with mechanicals with a positive, easy-day attitude. There is always a solution, NEVER QUIT.
- Consistent nutrition intake every 15m, but listen to stomach if too full. I planned to use almost all liquid calories (my personal concoction from Infinit nutrition, mostly slow burning carbs with some protein and plenty of electrolytes thrown in) with a caffeinated gel halfway through the bike and another coming into T2
- Taper water/nutrtion ~60' out from T2.

The run plan (3 laps for 26.2 mi):
- Keep best possible form.
- JOG 4-6 miles (~12-13min/mi), and then run comfortably and steadily until last lap. Let people pass you well out of T2.
- At that point, git 'er done! and burn up your fuel as you see fit, likely on the return leg :)
- Front sight focus to next micro-objective (i.e. aid station), harness positive thoughts and emotions, visualize finish line, positive self-talk
- Run between aid stations, walk for ~15s at each aid station after grabbing what you need.
- Sip either water and Horley's (NZ equivalent of Gatorade) or water and cola, and take in ~2 gels/hour in addition.
- Deal with the injury as it surfaces and modify your running form as necessary.


Race week:
- I ate clean, and moderately carbo loaded 2 days before the race. My plan was to enter the swim with a clear stomach, slightly hungry, but with my fuel tanks completely topped off.

- Consumed ~500 liquid calories a 1.30am (1 NZ equivalent of a Naked juice and some of my Infinit)
- Woke up at 4am, ate a PB and agave nectar sandwich on white bread for another 500 cals. Coffee. Cleared out the GI system.
- Hit transition around 5.20am, charged the bike, got ready for the swim start at 7.00am
- Lost my swim cap at 6.40am, I ran around in my sandals for a half mile or so to find another one. IDIOT! lol. What's an IM race without some pre-race stress? hehe. It was also interesting, because running around I felt the "presence" of my right IT band, and I could expect my injury to flare up not even a mile out of T2. Oh well, that's a problem for later in the day :)

The swim:
- I lined up smack-dab in the middle, nearer the front to the 1:00-1:05 swimmers. The mass swim start of 1700 athletes is going to be a washing machine either way, and I'd rather have people swim over and around me than the opposite. Plus you get the full mass swim start experience that way :P
- The swim went by in a blur, although it probably took my around 20 full minutes to finally find my groove as the swimmers spread out. If you do one of these mass swim starts in the future, expect people to violently kick, thrash, hit your head, pull you back, etc. Don't take it personally and don't waste your energy in getting frustrated -- just breathe and focus on form. I'd say the first 500-750m were at a relatively fast pace, and after that I was able to settle into my endurance pace comfortably. 
- My primary focus was my immediate swim stroke and form, and asking myself how I could improve the next stroke. Secondary was sighting and drafting.
- Before I knew it I was making the final turn to shore and thinking about breathing techniques to fight the adrenaline I could expect as I exited the water and faced the throngs of supporters.

Swim time: 1:01:15 (vs the ~1:05 I planned for)

- There was a good 400m run from the swim exit to T1 itself, but I was successful in keeping the pace easy and my HR in check.
- Otherwise, it wasn't interesting. I just grabbed my gear and went to my bike. Although unique to Ironman racing is having a T1 and a T2 bag, and changing in a big tent with TONS of helpful and friendly volunteers before you get to your bike or head out on the run.

T1 time: 5:34

The bike (2 laps for 112 mi):
- First hour I went pretty easy (normalized power of 181W), and was passed by a ton of people who were absolutely hammering the hills. 
- The rest of the first lap I went a bit harder per my plan, with a normalized power of 188W. 
- The second lap, however, I knew and I felt within that if I kept continuing at that pace that I would be sunk come the marathon, so I changed my plan and decided to tone it down, with a normalized power of 172W for the entire lap. 
- I struggled a bit on the second half of the second lap as I battled headwinds and an uphill into town, but I still continued to ride steady. 
- I peed crystal clear three times while on the bike (quite literally, and don't worry Aaron your kit was since been washed thoroughly haha), a good sign of hydration.
- I stopped once for special needs and once to pick up water and sunscreen.
- I took one Clif Mocha gel starting my second lap, another one on the second half of the 2nd lap, and then one Clif Turbo gel about 5-10min out of T2. Otherwise, my nutrition worked out as planned, and I consumed between 250-300 cals/hr of my Infinit liquid drink (I tapered the last 60' to clear my stomach for the run) if it didn't come from those gels. 

Bike time: 6:00:22 (I had estimated about 5:30). I made the right call in not chasing that 5:30 split, though, because while I could've bike 5:30, I'm positive I would've sunk my run. I trusted my instinct, thought about the marathon, and turned it down. 

Some interesting notes on the bike phase:
- What got frustrating were big groups of bunched cyclists on the first lap. Unless you wanted to surge your power for more than a few minutes to pass 'em, you had to pretty much ride in their wake and slowly work your way forward through the field and/or wait 'til the group spread out. I used this as an opportunity to stretch, take in nutrition, and enjoy the scenery for a few minutes :)
- Everyone LOVED hammering hills and riding hard in headwinds, but they despised putting any power on downhills, descents or with tailwinds. I rode steady for the entire race (hills, headwinds, flats, descents), and I made almost ALL of my passes going downhill or on flats without increasing my power at all. Finishing the first lap I was going back and forth with a few riders between hills and flats/downhills. I kept my power steady while they surged on the hills and relaxed on the downhills. I also noted that by the 2nd lap downhill section, I passed these people for good and never saw them again. What I'm arguing for here is to RIDE STEADY! Surging will cost you.
- Along those lines, the best advice I would have for an IM bike portion is to have the mental strength and discipline to shut out other competitors and strictly race your race. Would you be riding any differently if that cyclist who just passed you wasn't there? Hopefully that answer is no. 
- For all you power geeks, my overall power stats for the bike were a normalized power of 179W and an average power of 174W for a variability index of ~1.03 (My target was 1.02, but this was close enough!) My Functional Threshold Power (FTP) going into this race was a best-guess estimate because of my IT band injury, but I'd estimate I had a Training Stress Score (TSS) between 255 and 265 (My "actual" TSS was 252). For unsure runners, it's been shown through many race results analyzed by Endurance Nation that having a TSS below 270 is crucial for not "blowing up" on the run. So while I wish I negative splitted the bike, I'm fairly confident that I achieved one of my bike goals of having a TSS below 270 and having enough in reserve for the run.

** I will say, the last 20min or so of the bike was a bit demoralizing. I didn't make my expected bike time, and I was battling the headwinds and a protracted uphill. Not only that, but I felt somewhat drained. I also smelled some form of cooked meat coming into town and this primitive, carnivorous instinct took over and made me think about how delicious that food must taste. Those of you who've been on long, extended Z2 bike rides know exactly what I'm talking about. This was the beginning of the low point of my race. 

- Nothing fancy, but the volunteers were again so incredibly helpful in making this painless.
- To note: I also put on an IT band strap that went about 3 inches above my knee to hopefully reduce IT band pain on the run.
- Grabbed some vaseline and more sunscreen and went on my merry way (kind of), although my stomach was a tad bloated.

T2 time: 3:05

The run (3 laps for 26.2 mi):
- Running out of T2 I felt physically exhausted in every way. I started out super slow and let everyone pass me (I'm pretty sure I did NO passing whatsoever) as I waited for my GPS to come online. Once it did ~3 min later, I realized I was running wayyyyyy too fast. I was running ~8-9min/mi when I should be jogging between 11-13min/mi for the first 4-6mi. Even as this realization hit me, it was actually hard to slow down! What I thought was a surely a snail's pace was about 10:30-11min/mi. I had to WORK to slow down even more, to where I eventually got it down to around 11-11:30ish. 
- While I was figuring my run pace out, I hit the absolute lowest point in the race in terms of pure exhaustion. I have never been that exhausted in my entire life, and words do no justice in describing it. Even though the entire town was out there cheering me on, I didn't even have the energy reserves to look in their direction, give a thumbs up, smile, or even acknowledge their presence. In the words of a one Adam Jones, I had taken a journey deep within the "pain cave." I'm not even kidding, I saw a bus coming in my direction and the thought crossed my mind about how much better it would feel to just get hit by it than to continue running. 
- As I kept slogging through the first few miles, my big focus was to take it one lap at a time, and my immediate, front sight focus was asking myself:What do I need to do between now and the next aid station to continue running at this pace? I focused intently on my running form, pacing, energy levels, hydration status, stomach bloating/fullness, and my goal for the next aid station (i.e. exactly what I was going to get), and I honestly didn't think about too much else for that first half-lap. By about mile 4, I was in MUCH much better shape, and that pure exhaustion I'd felt earlier had largely evaporated. 
- Quick note: the only time I used the restroom was to pee on the run course halfway through the first lap.
- Nearing the end of my first lap, I felt SOOO much better, as my stomach was clear, my energy restored, and at the 10km (6mi) mark I made the transition from jogging to running as I felt no painful signs of injury. I was ready at any point, however, to change from running to limping with my injury as necessary.
- The second lap saw better pacing than the first, and I primarily went off perceived rate of exertion (PRE) and followed what my body told me it could handle for this lap and the next. Going out on the second lap I slowly worked my pace down from ~11min/mi to ~10min/mi by the end. The best feeling I had at that point was finishing the second lap, as my running legs were in full form and my pace was getting faster (down to ~9:50min/mi) with the same PRE. While my IT band injury was somewhat noticeable by this point, it never materialized into pain, and I knew that I would have a serious shot at completing the third lap unhindered!
- Nutrition-wise, I was following my nutrition plan perfectly. I went through every aid station and either drank Horley's/water or Coke/water, and picked up a gel if I needed it for ~2gels/hour. I also hit my special needs bag halfway through my second lap, and picked up three caffeinated Clif gels I'd use on the next lap to bring me home. Oh, and I had a small handful of pretzels on the 2nd and 3rd laps. They were without a doubt the best pretzels I've ever eaten :)
- Also to note: I walked for ~15 seconds at each aid station as planned, where I'd grab nutrition, walk, and pick a physical point ahead of me where I'd start running again. I'm happy to say that I never walked outside of the aid stations, even on the hills.
- The third lap only got better, and I ran the first half of this lap around ~9:55min/mi feeling on top of the world, armed with a smile and a positive attitude.
- I promised myself that I would go all out on the return leg of the third lap, and with a Clif Turbo gel in reserve I planned to run my fastest pace yet. Just after starting this leg an interesting shift happened in my legs. I wouldn't say I felt exhausted deep inside, but my legs felt heavier and heavier, and each step felt like I was squatting or something. As I went along, it became mentally harder and harder to move my legs, but I knew that if I could dig down deep and make it ~2.5mi out from the finisher's chute, the massive crowds of spectators would give me that final push to bring it home strong, and that's exactly what happened. I ended up running the return leg at the same pace of ~9:55min/mi.

Run time: 4:34:02

Some run notes:
- IMNZ was actually my first marathon, but I truly never let that fact bother me deep down. Personally, l treated the run as just a 3 lap running circuit with aid stations and hordes of phenomenal supporters within. I did the math on approximate times/paces, but with the unknowns of my injury and total lack of running experience I expected to finish anywhere between 12-17 hours for my overall IM time. Needless to say, given my IT band injury and serious lack of running in training, I consider negative splitting the marathon at 4:34 a smashing success.
- I experienced no GI distress (except a bit of bloating at the beginning), so I'll chalk that up as another win.
- You know how when I first left T2, I was passing no one but getting passed by everyone? Well on my 3rd lap, ~60% of the entire field was walking, and ~50% of those also on their third lap were walking. Pacing is everything
- My absolute best weapon in beating back the demons was a smile and happy, humorous, and positive thoughts. On the third lap when I was bringing it home, a couple phrases from the cycling team's training camp ran through my mind the entire time. Seriously. Those phrases were "I'm taking a journey deep inside the pain cave," and "Whoo whoo! The pain train's leaving!!" I had some rock star supporters on that course, and if you show them any amount of positivity or humor they will give you back 10 times that amount, I promise you that, and that's exactly what I needed. The other phrase I kept in my back pocket was "easy day," just to keep the mood light. Whenever I had the chance, I'd also look out onto the sunny lake with the mountains/volcanoes in the background and take it all in -- a scene that will forever be etched in my memory :)

Overall time: 11:44:18

Starting weight: ~68.5 kg or 151lb (taken two days before the race)
End weight: 67.4 kg or 148.6 lb (a ~2.4 lb loss)

Post race:
- I felt like all hell, no surprise there.
- I crossed the finish line at about 6.45pm, eventually made it home, cleaned up, and stayed up so I could be at the finish line at midnightBeing 100% honest: the absolute highlight of my day wasn't finishing, but was being at the finish line from 11.40pm - 12 midnightIf you ever want to see what the raw spirit of Ironman looks like in person, you need go no further than the finish line at midnight. There you'll find competitors who've been battling for damn near 17 hours and never quit. It's such a powerful and electric atmosphere -- I've never experienced anything like it in my entire life. With all of the emotions I experienced throughout the day I found it hard not to get choked up as I watched these true Ironmen bring it home to the roars of the crowd. That was an experience I will truly never forget, and I would HIGHLY encourage you to be there at the finish line at midnight if you ever get the chance, you will not be disappointed. 

Resources used:
MIT Triathlon: I've learned sooo so much since I joined last year, and there's no doubt that y'all have been incredibly helpful and supportive since I joined the team last year -- I'm very honored to be part of the MIT Triathlon legacy. Oh, and a shoutout to Aaron for letting me borrow his MIT kit!

Coach Bill: You've helped out a lot since I joined last year, from setting up IM Q&A sessions to making sure I no longer sink like a rock in the pool or in the open water :) Your dedicated support is truly appreciated.

Steve Lyons: I've only had the pleasure of knowing you for about a month, but your professional insight and advice really made a difference and was instrumental in helping me run the entirety of the marathon. And just as you said, as I was running my third lap I thought "Oh golly, Steve was right!!" I can't thank you enough for that.

There is also this group of triathletes that solely focus on the bike portion (they go by the name of "MIT Cycling") that showed me that no matter how many watts you think you can throw down, you can always get your ass kicked; the pain train stops for no one so you better HTFU and train to ride faster! They also taught me lotsa nifty stuff about bikes themselves, and hell, they'll even help you build a bike from the frame up if you supply the goods ;) Oh, and did I mention? They're a ton of fun to be around, too!

Endurance Nation (EN): EN didn't just hand me a flexible training plan (~12-16 hrs/wk), but they offered plenty of goodies on the side, from swimming technique to bike pacing to racing with power to (most importantly) IM race-day execution. Their philosophy of training is "fast before far" (which is 180 degrees apart from almost every other IM training plan out there), and through my experience their plan worked wonders for me -- I have nothing but great things to say about EN. 

Mental toughness lit: So much of what we triathletes do revolves around the mental game, yet it's surprising how little of our training is actually devoted to conquering it. I'm willing to bet that for an Ironman, the mental game poses more of a challenge to master than the physical one, from the daily grind of training to pushing past the lowest point in your race. So if you want to learn and build your mental toolbox, why not learn from the best? The Navy SEALs are hands-down some of the best modern-day practitioners of all things mental (they are, quite literally, "mental"), so I picked out a gem called  "The Way of The Seal: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed" that was just released in December. It has a somewhat cheesy title, granted, but this book is unequivocally the best I've ever read on sharpening the mind to achieve your goals and push past any obstacles (just look at the Amazon reviews if you remain skeptical). From this book, I've learned mental toughness, emotional resilience, mindfulness, and a handful of other mental skills that have already helped me in everything from attuning to each individual swim stroke in the pool to successfully working around the complete self-destruction of my road bike at MIT Cycling's training camp. I'm not any type of guru, nor am I anything close to a Navy SEAL, but I can definitely tell you that this book has made me intimately aware of my own mental and emotional skills, techniques, and practices that need polishing if I ever earnestly want to master myself and consistently house a warrior attitude and spirit -- a type of mental edge that has already proven crucial in my Ironman experience. 

The second powerful book I read was titled "The Trident: The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader," which is actually a very grounded autobiographical account about one of these infamous frogmen, Jason Redman, and the challenges he overcame both in and out of uniform. If you want to see what the warrior spirit looks like embodied in the flesh of man, Jason is one of those people -- just check out the sign he posted to his hospital door in Bethesda after getting shot in the arm and face while deployed overseas ( If that's not a warrior spirit, I don't know what is. If nothing else, this book gave me the right outlook to put any apparent hardship into humble perspective along with a straw to suck it the f*** up.

And nooo, you don't have to start out reading Navy SEAL books, but if you're interested in improving your mental toughness I would strongly encourage you to check out any literature that appeals to you on forging a stronger and more emotionally resilient mind. The benefits are substantial not just in triathlons, but in all aspects of life.

Jeeez, alright, I've droned on long enough. I hope I've done an alright job in teaching you about my Ironman experience and approach, and as long as you walk away from this even just a tad more knowledgeable, I'm happy :) I'm neither a professional nor an expert, but if I didn't cover something or explain anything as thoroughly as you would've liked (e.g. race week, more specifics of my training plan, etc), or maybe you just have some general questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me however and whenever you'd like, whether it's tomorrow or fifty years down the road. 

If triathlons have taught me one thing: it's that character matters -- and it's been an absolute privilege to be on a team with such positive and outstanding characters as you all. I wish only the greatest things for all of you. 


I'll see you at the start line,

P.S. The pics and videos may come later, I wanted to shoot this off while the race was fresh in my head :)