Marine Corps Marathon race report

I ran my first marathon in 2013, the Rock ‘n Roll marathon in DC. I finished with a satisfying time of 3:52, but was left wondering how much faster I could have run had I had prior marathon racing experience.

I spectated the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) in 2013 and loved the ambiance. With an Ironman programmed for August 2014, I wanted to leverage my conditioning to improve my marathon time this Fall. Based on this year’s running gains, it seemed possible to shave 25-30 minutes off my 2013 marathon time.

I was unlucky getting into the MCM lottery, so I started contemplating marathons in the region. Luckily my plans changed when Gabi found a bib transfer for me, which I happily paid $120 total for (cheap relative to triathlon registration fees!). Gabi was also going to run MCM, as she got in through the Team in Training charity that she so wholeheartedly supports.

Training after Ironman Louisville was a little bit erratic, with a mix of Ragnar, sprint and olympic triathlons. Even on my peak long run weekend I had to cut my run short because of a sprint triathlon earlier that day. I was truly hoping my endurance conditioning held through Oct. 26th. The taper period came and I began to wonder whether I was feeling rested and really good or out of shape and improperly trained!

Unlike the Ironman marathon during which I executed a run/walk strategy, there would be no planned walking at MCM. However, I still needed to mentally break the race down into pieces. My strategy was to run 15 seconds above pace (8 min/mi) for the first 6 miles, then run a 7:45 min/mi through miles 18-20, and then give it all I had left for the last 6-8miles. I established 13.2 miles as additional mental milestone to further break the race into pieces and evaluate how I was feeling.

IMG_3633Race day came and my racing juices started flowing in the early morning. My goal was to run a 3:25 marathon. I stopped by the Pacers tent near the finish line around 7am. It was really nice to meet up with fellow runners from my Alexandria running group.
I was in my starting corral by ~7:30am, not before catching the paraplegic group start. What an amazing group of athletes and source of inspiration and motivation! I also enjoyed seeing the Marines holding country flags near the start line, and quickly found the Costa Rican flag to snap a photo. I met with my friend John W. as anticipated and enjoyed watching the skydivers descending with US  flags over the beautiful sunrise sky.IMG_3632                 IMG_3638

John and I ran together the first 10 miles. Having a running partner made those miles pass by quickly and helped to keep me from deviating too much from my pace strategy. I ended up averaging closer to a 7:45 min/mi pace over that section of the course, faster than my predicted pace. I was aware of this and made the conscious decision to go with that pace as I was feeling good. I parted ways with John at mile 10, which meant maintaining my pace would become more mentally challenging. It’s easy to slow down when you are alone. I managed to stick to my pace very consistently though, in part thanks to the awesome fan support along the Mall and the monuments. I was wearing a bracelet that I picked up at the expo that listed the necessary times per mile to finish in 3:25. I found myself 30-90 seconds under total time for most of the race, and I found the bracelet to be very helpful to stay on track towards my goal.

I was also executing my nutritional strategy just fine, one Gu and salt cap every six miles, one or two sips of water every mile, and an occasional sip of Gatorade from the aid stations on the course. I carried my own water so as to not slow myself down at the aid stations and in order to be able to hydrate any time I felt the need to.

The last major “block” of the race in my mind was the 14th street bridge, crystal city and the last couple of miles of the course. I struggled through these in part due to exhaustion and in part due to strong winds and various false flats that were really uphill sections, as is the case of the start and end of the 14th street bridge. I was pleasantly surprised to know afterwards that my average pace only slowed by about 15 secs per mile.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 4.20.53 PMIn the end, I finished in 3:25:05 and placed 92nd in my division (top 5%). I couldn’t be any more satisfied with my performance and my improvement from my 2013 marathon time. I loved every aspect of the race and was super happy to see so many friends — from the DC Tri Club, Yale and Pacers — along the course to keep me running strong and make MCM my favorite marathon experience!

IMG_3642After my run, I took pride in seeing Gabi finish her marathon. She struggled in the last few miles due to an injury, so I walked the course back to go meet her. We finished her race together, and it was really nice to share that time and experience with her.

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The sights and sounds of Ironman Louisville 2014

Ironman Louisville 2014 was one of the best days of our lives. Lucky for Gabi and I, our parents were present not only to see us race and support us, but also to capture the day in photos and videos. We’ve put together a video montage to share the experience with you, friends and family, who supported us along our 6-8 month training and racing journey. So set aside 15 mins of time, turn on the audio, sit back and enjoy!

If the video doesn’t load properly on this page, you can also view it here.

Waterman’s Sprint review and on becoming a smarter athlete

This past weekend I raced my last triathlon of the season, Waterman’s sprint, along with a few other DC Tri Club fellow athletes. What follows is a race review for those of you considering the race for next year, and a few insights I wanted to capture which we’ll make me a better and smarter athlete in future races (and maybe help you too).

The race took place on Rock Hall, MD. This is located about two hours from DC, which makes it convenient to drive to on race morning. This year the Waterman’s sprint course was the same as the Rock Hall sprint triathlon course, which takes place in the Spring. Waterman’s is put together by Setup Events. It drew together some 350 athletes, including top performers.

Race day conditions

A cold front blew through the night before the race, lowering the air temperatures to 50 degrees on race morning. Temperatures in previous mornings otherwise were around 60 degrees. This weather variability is something to be mindful of when registering for a race this late into the year. Conditions were also windy, which was to be expected of a coastal location. Water temperature was in the upper 60s. It had been in the lower 70s in days prior.

Preparing for the race

I spent my entire triathlon season training for Ironman Louisville, which took place around six weeks ago. I was on a “fitness and racing high” post Louisville, which I did not want to end. I wanted to take advantage of my conditioning to try to excel in a few events post-Ironman.  Since Louisville, I switched my training to short distance, high intensity workouts. I raced Nation’s, Ragnar, and the Battle of the Tri Clubs swim meet. I picked Waterman’s sprint with the goal of getting on the podium for my age group. I knew I was capable of swimming in ~12 mins, biking in the low 40s, and running a sub-20 5k, despite my limited fast-twitch muscle training this year.

IMG_5255My biggest concerns and doubts going into the race had to do with the cold weather and what to wear on the bike. It was a trade off between saving time in T1 and not freezing on the road. I borrowed arm warmers from a friend the day before, tried putting them on in the bathroom with wet arms, and decided it was too difficult and time consuming. I decided to race with a long sleeve shirt on the bike.

IMG_5273I ended up being cold on the bike, but not because of my choice of bike clothing. As it turned out, I was cold and “brain numb” by the time I came out of the water. I should have swam in my wetsuit. Instead, I swam in my speedsuit for two reasons: 1) because I feel restricted in my stroke movements when I wear a wetsuit, and 2) because I figured I could gain valuable seconds in T1 on those who would have to wrestle to take off their wetsuits.

I completely underestimated the primary purpose of wetsuits: to keep the body warm! Duh! By the time I came out of the water, my body temperature had dropped. I was unable to think clearly and function quickly, so much so that I momentarily grabbed my running shoes in T1. My T1 time was much too slow. Subsequently, I was unable to perform at my best on the bike. I was actually concerned for my safety, knowing I would be unable to quickly react to anything in front of me. As for the run, it went well (2nd fastest in age group), but there is only so much catching up one can do in a 5k.

IMG_5267Not only did I feel cold in the water, but I also had a poor swim. This is unusual for me given my teenage swimming background.  I had a bad swim in part because I was cut off to a halt 4-5 times by other swimmers unable to swim straight.  There was also quite a bit of chop in the water as a result of the wind and currents, which I did not expect for a harbor swim. Relative to most swimmers wearing wetsuits, I invested a greater effort staying high on the water line. Retrospectively, a wetsuit would have helped with buoyancy. Fellow DC Tri Club triathlete Glenn E. mentioned the idea of swimming with a speedsuit and a neoprene skull cap as an alternative to staying warm without wearing a wetsuit. While I had never heard or thought of this idea, it makes sense given that most body heat is lost through the head.

Lessons learned

Waterman’s sprint triathlon taught me a few things. First, I should consider racing in my wetsuit more often than I do. There is no point in putting myself at a disadvantage against other competitors. Second, I may have set an unrealistic goal to get on the podium, as a result of my “Ironman fitness high.”   As competitive as I am and as strong as I was feeling in weeks prior, the reality is I have not been training for short course racing this year. My fast twitch muscles were not prepared to fire with all cylinders. In addition, given my 11hr 19min time (top 10% finish) for my first Ironman in Louisville this past August, I may just be a slow twitch athlete. Lastly, I learned that as athletes we all have racing and training days when things don’t go as planned, and this is ok. The important part is learning from our experiences to become better, smarter athletes and improve upon in our future performances.

In the end, I finished 5th in my age group, which is not too bad after all.

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Ironman brain farts

My Ironman journey blog would not be complete if I didn’t share with you a few funny moments and pictures from IM training.

In the October 2014 issue of Triathlete magazine, Holly Benett shares her telltale signs of being ready for long-course racing.  Reading them made me laugh as I shared many of them, such as “On occasion, you struggle with forming a complete sentence. Or, any intelligible words whatsoever. A series of simple grunts and hand gestures replace your usually articulate speech.” Yep, that was pretty much me during the peak of Ironman training!

She says “Give me a big training block, and toward the end of it my life skills and mental acuity inevitably start slip.” So with this blog post I bring you my own set of brain farts.

You know you are in the peak of Ironman training when…

1) You write the same item twice on your grocery list and don’t even notice until someone else brings it to your attention. We are not even talking about a long list of items here…

2) You leave ice cream in the refrigerator instead of the freezer!

3) This one is definitely my favorite: you go to work with a mismatch of shoes and don’t even notice until well into the day! At least they looked alike…

Cheers!

Ironman Louisville 2014 race re-cap

It’s been almost two weeks since I raced my first Ironman in Louisville, KY. I am back at home, my parents have gone back to France, and it’s time to write up my post-race blog.

First things first: modifying the title of my blog! It is no longer “Pablo Torres, you are [going to be] an Ironman”! It is now “Pablo Torres, you are an Ironman.” That’s right! I’ve earned the title. Ironically, as much as I wanted to hear those words during my eight months of training, I didn’t actually hear them when I crossed the finish line. Between the exhilaration and excitement of the Fourth Street Live finishing chute and the never-before-experienced state of exhaustion, I simply did not register those words. At least I have the finish line video replay (race clock 11:32:45) to hear them as many times as I want!

I wondered what to write about in this blog post. I decided not to make this a race/course review. There’s plenty of them out there — videos included — for all those considering IM Louisville 2015 (here’s Gabi’s). I would, however, like to reflect on some of the thoughts and emotions I experienced during the race, how I performed, and how my views on racing Ironman have evolved having now finished my first.

Perhaps the time to start is the night before the race. I don’t know how many times I heard people say to get a good night sleep two nights before the race because the night before I wasn’t going to get any sleep. This didn’t prove to be the case for me. I slept well, about 6.5 hours. To me, having brushed the nerves and anxiety aside that night was an indication that I felt confident about my upcoming race. My nutrition that morning went down just fine, another sign that my stomach was not a knot of anxiety.

IMG_7386The next part of the day which I found to be one of the most emotionally-loaded moments of my Ironman journey was the single-file walk towards the swim start after the 7am cannon went off. [Note: IM Louisville has a unique swim start one-at-a-time off docks based on the order of arrival in line.] As the line started to move and the music electrifyied athletes and spectators, my heart and spirit were pumping with emotions. Without the race having even started, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment after eight months of arduous training. As my sister said to me, no matter what happens on race day, I was already an Ironman. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, I felt a sense of disbelief of the challenge I was about to take on, and uncertainty about what the day would bring. Above all, pride and excitement were sky high, and I could not wait to jump in that water and go become an Ironman.

IMG_4943The first third of the swim was in a narrow channel against a strong upstream current. Despite the single-file start, the channel got busy quickly and I found myself in a combat swimming situation. This raised my stress levels in a way I had not anticipated from looking at all the swim videos beforehand. Lucky for me, swimming is my forte and I managed to swim through the crowds (and unfortunately sometimes over the crowds it seemed) with strength and without hesitation.

As I rounded the buoy out of the channel and onto the downstream section of the swim, I knew the first leg of Ironman was in the bag. Swimmers spaced out and I was blazing by the buoys thanks to the strong river current. I decided to enjoy myself, take it all in, relax my body with smooth and long swim strokes, and I had another “I am doing an Ironman!!!” moment. I came out of the water, looked at my watch and clocked 56 mins for a 2.4mi swim. The current had a lot to do with that, but I’ll take it any day as motivation for what was to come.

Off I went onto the bike leg. I knew that if I stuck to my training pace, the 112mi course profile would actually be easier than some of my training rides. I also kept telling myself that I wouldn’t actually start racing until the later half of the marathon. The bike was just a long steady-pace bike ride I need to get done. I was never concerned about my fitness, and I never got overly focused on speed nor time. I did have two concerns to keep my head in the moment during the bike leg. The first one was safety. Being a two-loop bike course, other cyclists were always near me and the thought of a careless accident putting a sad ending to my Ironman journey kept me alert. This was particularly true for an out-and-back road in the early section of the course, which included a big downhill notorious as an accident-prone area. My second concern was having a major mechanical failure with my bike (broken chain, etc.) which would sideline me from the course for an unknown period of time until bike support passed through. At one point in the last 20 miles of the bike, I stopped to give a fellow athlete fixing a flat one of my CO2 cartridges. I figured this would earn me some road karma for the rest of the bike leg. Not so however, as I dropped my chain soon after and experienced some difficulties with sticky brakes, though I was able to resolve the situation promptly.

As all my training rides, the last hour of the bike was downright painful, not from fatigue, but from the discomfort of being on the saddle for so long. Part of me really wanted to dump my bike in the Ohio river once I reached the transition area! By this point in the race I felt I had been executing my race strategy flawlessly, sticking to my predicted pace and nailing my nutrition. I didn’t spend too much time celebrating my accomplishment on the bike however. Any excitement was quickly overridden by the overwhelming grandiosity of the run challenge that lied ahead.

It was about 2:30pm, the sun was high in the sky, and the afternoon heat index was 98-100 degrees. My marathon strategy was to “jog” the first six miles at 30 seconds/mile slower than race pace, then run a steady race pace through mile 20 or so, and then giving it all I had left in the tank for the last six miles. The first six miles seemed laborious considering they were the easiest part of the run. I did manage however to pick up my pace after mile six, and this gave me a boost in confidence. My hopes of holding a steady pace eventually faded though, as my pace climbed above what I was used to in training. I sorted my thoughts and accepted this fact. I felt some disappointment, but overcame it with another “I am going to be an Ironman, who cares that the pace is slower than expected!” moment.

In miles 17ish-23ish I encountered some of the greatest mind-over-body challenges I have ever confronted. They were a test of will like no other. Arriving at each aid station, I walked 30-45 seconds to take in my nutrition and shower myself in ice cold water, as planned. Then came the challenge of starting to run again to the next aid station. However, my body wanted me to walk a little longer at the end of each aid station. I had to find the mental toughness to overcome these signals and start running again despite a level of fatigue never before experienced. I had to find the right message in my brain to override the fatigue and the achiness. I am not sure one can practice for this moment, seeing how the level of fatigue is non-replicable in training. It seems only racing experience prepares an athlete for these moments of the race. Lucky for me, I found a convincing message in my head that got me going after each aid station. I told myself “the sooner you start running and the faster you run, the sooner the hurt will end and the sooner you will be an Ironman.” I don’t know where this message came from, but it worked. I kept running when I had to, and I passed 133 runners during the marathon. Not only did I find the will to get going at the end of those aid stations between miles 17-23, but I also found the strength to pick up my pace in the last 2-3 miles of the race, running past the last aid station or two.

Running down the finishing chute was one of the most glorious and satisfying moments of my life. I felt enormous pride, a tremendous sense of accomplishment, of being at the top of the world, all eyes on me, my moment. I double-handed high fived  the spectators on one side and raised my arms in victory crossing the finish line. No more than a few steps after I found it necessary to support myself on volunteers to prevent me from collapsing to the ground. I was overwhelmed by the realization of what I had just accomplished. Moments later I regained my strength, only to succumb to my emotions. Tears came pouring down my eyes, in great part from the happiness of having my parents and in-laws present at the finish line,  and my sister on the phone in the middle of the night Berlin time.

IMG_3409Conversations soon followed about how I felt, my time splits, the opportunities we got to see each other along the course, and how my parents and in-laws survived a long day of spectating in the Kentucky summer heat. Amazingly, I found the energy to retrieve my gear from transition and walk a mile back to the condo we were renting. I showered and came right back out to the finish line, awaiting for Gabi’s arrival. She finished around 10:30pm and we hung out at the Fourth Street Live finish line to wait for the midnight finishers. I knew my body was exhausted, but the energy of the Lousville Ironman finish line made me put aside my aches and pains. The moment belonged to those crossing the finish line, and it was time to give them all my support, including and especially to those who didn’t make the midnight cutoff.

I couldn’t be any more pleased with my race performance. I executed my race plan almost flawlessly, finishing within four minutes of my estimated time in 11 hours and 19 minutes. To my pleasant surprise, I placed 198 overall out of 2300+ participants, or within the top 10%. I placed 35th in my age group. The swim, bike, and first half of the marathon were relatively easy — I just had to “get them done.” The race didn’t really start until the second half of the marathon. Even then, I didn’t see it as a race against other athletes as much as a race against myself, a mental battle like no other. I managed to find the mental toughness to run when I had to, and this translated into rewarding race results.

Will I do it again? Most likely. I don’t want to think I will never be as fit in my life again. Next year? Definitely not. Triathlons are a lifestyle and competing in an Ironman is the greatest journey and feeling in the world!

This blog post would not be complete without a big thank you to all my family members and friends who supported me and kept me motivated throughout the long months of training and on race day. I am enormously grateful to my parents for coming all the way from France to support me on race day. I feel very lucky to have had them there. The same goes for my sister, who couldn’t make it in person but who was present throughout the day through her pre-race video, letters and skype calls. Thank you to everyone who followed me online on race day. I knew you were watching and I tried to put up the best performance for ya! Thank you to all those DC Tri friends I trained with, including a special shout out to Mauricio B. for the several long rides, Adam S. for keeping me company on my first 100K AND 100mile rides, and John W. for “coming along” for 110miles on my peak training weekend. Those were tough training days and I couldn’t have done it alone. As for all my other non-triathlete friends whom I have neglected this year, I promise to catch up now that I am getting my social life back!

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Anything is possible if you set your mind to it — Pablo.

 

I owe it to Kyle to perform on IM race day

IMG_2184This past weekend I lost my dog Kyle to the heavens. I had him by my side for 11 years of my life, giving me his unconditional love through the good times and the bad. His health had been deteriorating for the past 6-8 months, and we figured he might not make it to the end of the year. However, his rapid decline in his last few days still made me feel unprepared to make the decision to end his suffering.

Kyle is in doggy heaven now. As for me, these have been some of the most difficult days of my life (and Gabi‘s). So much so that after 8 months of hard triathlon training, I lost all interest and motivation in racing my first Ironman less that two weeks from now. Kyle passed on Saturday. My weekend workouts were dreadful and I couldn’t muster the desire to work out on Monday. I was finally able to feel better about training on Tuesday evening (not that I had much of choice to deviate from my training regimen for days on). Coincidentally, Tuesday’s workouts were up-tempo and meant to “lift me up” rather than wear me down. I focused on lifting up my physical and mental energy. This morning I also managed to wake up early for a pre-work swim.

I am coming around to higher levels of race day strength and motivation. Obviously, I have not forgotten Kyle. Everything around the house and my daily routine makes me think of him. But I have to get my head back into the upcoming race. I owe it to Kyle to perform on race day. Too many days and hours I was gone during Ironman training that I could have spent with him. I cannot allow that time apart to be in vain.

IMG_2733I am thinking about putting a picture of Kyle in my run special needs bag to give me the strength to carry on and finish strong on race day. I will certainly carry him in my thoughts every moment of the race, especially when I need to find the inner strength to pull me out of the rough patches during the race.

I am looking forward to the arrival of my parents from France, who are coming to support us for the race. Gabi’s parents are coming as well. They will also be a huge motivational element on race day. I know this from experience. For Ironman 70.3 Raleigh, knowing that our friends were supporting us along the course and their presence at the finish line gave me the energy to push hard. Having my parents come from France for Ironman will give me the same motivation x 2 (or a million).

Life after Ironman without Kyle will continue to be hard, but at least we have several things to see us through. We’ll be spending a few days after the race sightseeing around Kentucky and Nashville. Upon returning to DC, I’ll be participating in the Nation’s Triathlon (taking it easy, just for the fun and sights), and soon after in the Ragnar relay team that Gabi put together (I was  going to be their driver to give my legs a rest, but they lost a team member so I am filling in). Later this Fall I have a marathon to look forward to and a fishing trip to the NC Outer Banks.

I want to finish by expressing my gratitude to my friends and family who have supported Gabi and I during months of training and the loss of Kyle. Thank you thank you thank you. And now on to execute on race day!

Maryland Swim for Life

pablo and gabi before raceThis past weekend Gabi and I took part in the 23rd annual Maryland Swim for Life, along with several other athletes from the DC Tri Club. The event was hosted by the DC Aquatics Club and was attended by approximately 250 participants. For a $20 registration fee (plus USMS event fee), we got an open water swim (OWS), a t-shirt and a delicious lunch! I would strongly recommend this event to anyone considering it next year.

This was a great open water swimming opportunity in preparation for Ironman Louisville on August 24th. As it turns out, this is the first year the event offers a 2.4 miles distance swim, which attracted a wave of ~50 triathletes. Up until this event I felt confident with my biking and running fitness, but less so with my swim conditioning. While I have recently biked and ran close to the Ironman distance, the most I had swam in open water, continuously, was 1.2 miles. I felt uncertain as to how I would perform in a 2.4mi OWS. I saw Swim for Life as an opportunity to evaluate my swimming fitness, get a sense for my time over 2.4 miles, hopefully get a major confidence boost, and identify any weaknesses or issues to address in the remaining weeks before IM Louisville.

photo(60)The event took place in the Chester River off of the Chesapeake Bay, which meant tidal swimming conditions. The participants were grouped into waves according to the 1, 2, 2.4, 3, 4, and 5 mile distances. One thing I wanted to practice at this event was drafting. I was able to do this for the first mile of the swim. There came a point when the person I was trying to draft behind of seemed to be zig-zagging too much, which was causing me more difficulties than good, so I decided to quit drafting and swim my own line. The other skill I wanted to practice was sighting off of landmarks. As it turns out, this event had buoys only every half mile (as opposed to the more frequent buoys in triathlon swims), which made them hard to see, so I found it very helpful to sight in line with landmarks.

The first 1.2 miles was an upstream swim against a strong current. I felt confident however knowing that only a handful of athletes were ahead of me. I was aiming for a total time of 1hr and 10 minutes, or about 35 minutes per 1.2 miles. At the 1.2 mile turnaround buoy, I checked my watch and was shocked to read a time of 45 minutes! Either I was swimming slow or the current was much stronger than it felt. Luckily, the return was a speedy swim. It did require more frequent sighting however due to the incoming swimmers. I finished with a return split time of 25 minutes and a total time of 1hr 11mins. One minute off from my goal time!

beerHaving finished my swim I noticed pain in my lower back which I had never experienced before. This concerned me, as I would not have wanted to get on a bike for 112 miles with such discomfort. At this point I attribute this pain to the frequency of sighting, which required some arching and engaging of the lower back. Since I don’t practice sighting at the pool much, it makes sense for this to have been the root of the pain. For the next several weeks, I plan to add lower back exercises to my strength-training routine, and hopefully this will solve the problem come IM Louisville.

I was very pleased with my ability to swim the distance in open water for the first time, meet my goal time, and practice drafting and sighting. My swim was promptly followed by a cold beer from the awesome sand-bar on the beach, and later by a lunch feast to replenish energy. The day finished with a pleasant surprise as I checked the results and discovered that I finished 1st place in the 44 and under age group. Woohoo!

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