When I signed up for Ironman Louisville (IMLou), my motivation was in some way geared toward redemption. While my second Ironman (IM) at Ironman Vineman in 2016 was a success in that I finished, I had struggled physically and mentally. I was not pleased with my performance and I wanted another chance. So I planned out my 2017 race calendar to include two half IM distance races, a few other multi-sport events, and culminating with IMLou.
Prior to the 2017 season, I had made a nutrition decision to switch my diet to a high fat low carbohydrate (HFLC) ketogenic diet. In addition to the reported health benefits, the diet has been used successfully by a number of endurance athletes. Given the digestive issues I had experienced in previous races, I thought I would give it a try. I previously wrote about my early experiences here. So I set out on an experiment to race on this diet, with the final test being the IM distance.
The other adjustment I made was to use a more aggressive training plan. After getting some good advice from Mike Ricci at D3 Multisport, I decided on a 20 week training plan. While I missed some workouts along the way, I stuck to the plan pretty closely. I felt like the plan had me well prepared.
I chose IMLou because it was a late season race that should provide cooler weather, and it looked like a pretty cool venue. Besides, I had never been to Kentucky and a needed to check it off my list. I arrived in Louisville on Wednesday night before the Sunday race. From previous experience, I knew I wanted to be there for a few days to relax, check out the course, and mentally prepare for the day. I also wanted to spend some time hanging out with some of my BASE Performance teammates. I had been invited to join the 2017 team, and I am so happy that I signed on. What a fun and inspirational group of people.
My daughter Brittany had flown in to be my race-day Sherpa and #1 supporter. We had a good time hanging out and catching up. She has been there supporting me in all three of my Ironman adventures.
I was surprisingly relaxed leading up to the race. I had planned to do a pre-race swim on Saturday but it was not meant to be. There was a big unrelated 5K run scheduled near the IM venue and most of the roads were blocked off. By the time we got through and found a place to park, we missed the time window for the pre-swim. In a previous race, I would have been totally freaked out. But for some reason I just shrugged it off and told myself that I was ready to race. We got my bike and gear bags checked in and then we spent the rest of Saturday taking it easy.
One thing that I have learned is that planning and preparation is everything when racing IM. I had meticulously thought out my race-day nutrition, clothing, and accessories. With my HFLC diet, I knew I would not need a lot of solid nutrition. I had a couple of bars to eat on the bike, but I would mainly rely on BASE salt, BASE amino, water, and UCAN superstarch for the entire day. I had been experimenting with nutrition throughout my training and I was confident that I had a good plan. So I strategically placed my nutrition in my various transition and special needs bags. In looking at the weather forecast, I knew the day would start out warm but get cool as a cold front came through during the day. And it was going to be windy. I put some arm sleeves in my race jersey pocket in case it got cold. I was mentally prepared for the wind. I was ready.
The IMLou swim takes place in the Ohio River. After the first portion of the route goes “upstream” the course then turns and goes “downstream” to the finish. People say it is a “fast” swim. What I knew is that the downstream portion was directly against the wind. Would that cancel out the current? The race had a rolling start, which means that participants enter the water individually rather than a mass start. Leading up to the entry I was amazingly calm. Maybe it was the fact that I had done this twice before, or perhaps it was that I knew I had put the work into my training. I was happy to be there and wanted to enjoy the day.
I jumped off the pier into the water glancing at my watch to note the time. 7:50 AM. I was off and looking to get to the outside of the “fray” to avoid the whack or kick in the head. I quickly found open water and got into my rhythm: stroke, stroke, breath. My mentality was to ease into the race and not go too hard too early. The swim upstream was longer than I expected as I kept looking for the red turn buoy. Finally making it to the turn, I swung around and headed down the long stretch. As I expected the river was quite choppy with the wind coming at us and small waves hitting us in face. I relaxed and tried to stay in rhythm. I was feeling pretty good.
The one concern I had during the swim was leg cramping. For some reason, even with my regiment of electrolytes, my calves and feet sometimes cramp during my swims. So far so good. But then I made a small error. I am a left-side breather when I swim. During swim practices I had been working on taking some breaths to the right just to even things out a bit. So I had the bright idea to give it a try during the race. Breathe to the right. I immediately get a cramp in my left calf. What the hell? Why would that happen? Slightly frustrated, I slowed down and stopped kicking while trying to get the cramp to go away. After about a minute I was back to normal. Lesson learned. Breathe to the left.
As I neared the finish, I felt that I had been keeping a fairly good pace but I did not feel fatigued. Exiting the swim is always interesting. You have a lot of people funneling into a narrow exit. This is often where the kicks and whacks occur. I just tried to speed up and avoid contact. Suddenly I was at the steps with volunteers helping me out of the water. Another IM swim completed. I glanced at my watch as I ran across the timing mat. 9:01 AM. A 1 hr 11 min swim! By far a personal best for me. I pumped my fist and I was off to the wetsuit strippers and on my way to transition #1 (T1).
I spent a little more time in T1 than I would have liked. I had decided not to wear my bike jersey under my wetsuit so I had the challenge of putting a tight jersey onto a wet body. It took a while. I made sure to drink the bottle of UCAN that I had in my transition bag, get my nutrition bars into my pockets, and then I was out of the change tent. I also had to stop for a bio break before grabbing my bike. The bike mount area was quite a distance so I had a good run pushing my bike before getting on.
The first 20 miles was fairly flat with a tail wind. I made good time but was cautious not to go out too fast. I knew I would need my energy for the second half of the 112 mile bike ride. The bike course is fairly hilly with over 5,400 feet of elevation gain. Most of the climbing would occur during the two-loop middle section of the course. I also knew the wind was going to pick up and I would have a combination of head wind and cross wind for the last 30+ miles of the ride.
The really cool thing about the course was the organizers had shuttle buses for spectators to go out to the small town of LaGrange. The ride would come through the town twice. So as you approached the center of town the streets were lined on both sides with a rowdy crowd. It definitely provided a little energy boost. It also helped when I spotted Brittany who had come out to cheer me on. I gave her the “thumbs ups” and went on my way.
I was sticking with my hydration and nutrition plan. A “lick’ of BASE salt every 5 miles and regular sips of water. At the start of hour #2 I drank my “Rocket Fuel Lite” concoction (BASE Amino, BASE salt, and EmergenC Electromix all mixed with water). At about 2.5 hrs I ate my first bit of solid nutrition, a Kind bar. At this point I had plenty of energy, no digestive unrest, and feeling pretty good.
On the backside of the loop, the course turned directly into the wind. The good pace I had been setting began to suffer. I kept a positive attitude and just kept pedaling. Just get to mile 60, I told myself. There, I would pick up my special needs bag and take my bio break. This would be my only planned stop. I zipped in, hit the porta-pot, and grabbed my bag. In it, I had my second bottle of UCAN and another bottle of Rocket Fuel Lite. I slammed down the UCAN and I was on my way with a fresh burst of energy.
This section of the loop turned down wind. I decided it was time to try and make up some time so I pushed it a bit. As I came into LaGrange I was moving pretty good (for me), and flew through the downtown area and the crowd. Further around the loop there was another lively water station. You gotta love the dudes in the Speedos. An IM course wouldn’t be complete without that.
Throughout the second half of the ride, I kept trading positions with a female athlete. I was stronger on the hills but she would catch and pass me on the flats. I don’t mind getting “chicked.” I find it encouraging. So I just kept my pace but tried to keep up without getting “overcooked.”
Now came the hard part of the course: the turn for the ~35 mile home stretch back into Louisville. As predicted, the winds had picked up. First head wind and then cross wind. Leaves and branches were flying around as we all got tossed about. The only saving grace was that the stretch was mostly downhill. I just put my head down and kept pedaling.
I ate my second nutrition bar; this time an SFuels bar (a HFLC bar that I had discovered during training). It was my last solid food for the day. As I got closer to town and toward the end of the ride, I drank the second bottle of Rocket Fuel Lite to top myself off.
I came into transition feeling good, but I’m not going to lie, you are always fatigued and ready to be off that bike after 112 miles. I crossed the timing mat with a bike split of 6 hours 10 minutes. My best IM bike split by 15 minutes!
I took the long transition run to T2, grabbed my run bag and I was quickly into the change tent. I went a little faster than I did in T1. No clothes change. Just slip my shoes on, grab my run visor, put my number belt on, and throw my bike gear into the bag. I slammed down my third bottle of UCAN of the day as I exited the tent. Another bio break and then I was on my way to run a marathon.
I felt relaxed as I ran out the first couple of miles. I spotted Britt and she briefly ran along telling me I was doing great. I checked my heart rate and it was surprisingly low. I could have been running faster, but I knew I was doing well and I didn’t want to “blow up” later in the run. So I just set a comfortable pace and kept moving forward. Just like in my training runs.
At around mile 3 I caught up with the girl that kept “chicking” me on the bike. I slowed and had a nice conversation with her telling her how well she did on the bike. She said she would not be passing me again, but I said “we’ll see.” (She actually did catch and pass me around mile 18, but she must have fatigued because I went by her a little later and she seemed to be cooked).
The run course was set up as two flat out-and-back loops. The layout was good in that there was great crowd support all along the way. In my mind, I broke the course up into several segments and then I would just focus on making it to the end of each segment.
The end of my first segment would be the BASE Performance “salt station.” BASE is an official sponsor of Ironman and they are out on the course passing out salt tubes to the athletes. We are known for our enthusiastic volunteers and lively music. I got lots of encouragement as I passed through the station. Very much appreciated. I was also able to spot a bunch of my BASE teammates on course, some ahead of me and some behind me. We all encouraged each other as we passed. It was extremely motivating.
As I worked my way through my segments, I just tried to stay consistent and keep a comfortable pace. I stuck with my routine of taking a “lick” of BASE salt as I approached each aid station and then grabbing a cup of water to wash it down. I did not walk the aid stations. I just slowed, took my water, and kept moving. The strategy seemed to be working.
I was able to pick up my special needs bag just after the halfway point of the run. I had two bottles of UCAN stashed in it. Britt was there and I slowed to a walk so that I could drink a bottle of UCAN. She said I was killing it. I told her I felt pretty good and we would see how the second half of the run would go. I decided to just ditch the second bottle of UCAN. I felt like the one I just took would carry me to the finish. So that would be it for taking on nutrition. From then on, I would rely on salt and water.
As the afternoon shifted to early evening, the temperature started to drop. It actually made for a comfortable run and I never really got cold. I just kept knocking off the miles and the segments. With a race this long, you are going to get tired. And I did. But I never lost confidence or let doubt drift into my mind. I knew I would finish. Now, it was a matter of how fast. I took one last quick bio break at around mile 16 and then focused on the finish.
The last couple of miles of the race were hard. I was obviously physically tired but also mentally fatigued. You have to keep your mind strong or your body shuts down. But the crowds along the course that last mile were incredible. The final stretch came up 4th street. By this time it was dark and the street was lit up with neon. There were barriers on each side of the road that were lined with spectators. As we came into the finishing shoot, people were yelling and banging their hands on the paneled barriers. It was pretty spectacular.
I crossed the line and I was done with my third Ironman. Glancing up at the timing clock, I knew I had crushed my previous best time of 12:47 at IM Arizona. Britt was waiting at the finish. I yelled over to her and said: “I think I went under 12 hours.” She said: “you definitely did.” My official time was 11:53:34 with a ~4:12 marathon split. My time was good enough for a 16th place finish in my age group out of 109 finishers. I couldn’t have been happier.
Each of my three Ironman experiences has been different. The first was about finishing. It was very emotional from the perspective of the accomplishment. The second IM was different in that I don’t think I was ever fully committed from a mental perspective. I had doubts leading up to the event and during. I paid dearly for it with a lot of suffering. Ironman Louisville was about proving to myself that IM #1 wasn’t a fluke. I trained hard. I was mentally “all in.” I approached the race with a level of calm and confidence.
If I wasn’t a believer in the HFLC ketogenic diet before, I am now. I am still amazed at how well the nutrition plan worked. I have never gone through a long race without some type of digestive issue until this race. I am not promoting this approach for everyone because I totally understand that each individual is unique and “one size does not fit all.” But I do believe it was the answer for me.
Brittany had posted some pictures of me during the race, and in each one of them I was smiling. She even commented that I was smiling all day. That was it. I was enjoying the day and allowing the physical training to take care of the performance.
From a competitive perspective, I have some work to do. My swim is coming along and my run is getting pretty competitive. But as I compare my bike split to those guys ahead of me, I have to improve if I want to compete with them. Something to work on as I approach the 2018 season.
All-in-all I consider IM #3 a resounding success. I finished and got the t-shirt. I enjoyed the day. I had a personal best performance. I had great support and camaraderie from my BASE Performance family. Brittany continues to be my rock on race day. And while my daughter Bailey and wife Beth couldn’t be there, I felt their love and support all the while.
I couldn’t be more excited about planning my 2018 season of adventures.