The three athletes I helped to prepare for this race are Summer Ohlendorf, Zach Lammers and Jami Klagos, listed here in the order I began working with them. In this post I want to summarize and highlight each of their races, as well as give some insight into what each of them had to go through to get to this point and what different strategies were used for each one of them and why.
I've worked with Summer for the past 3 years. This Ironman was her 2nd, as she did one 2 years ago in 2010. That year was her second year as a triathlete, which meant second year as a cyclist/runner also as she had been a swimmer for a long time before that. That year she finished in 11:58. To many that would sound like a great time, but she felt that she underachieved, so she basically has had a chip on her shoulder for the past 2 years. I agreed that she had the ability to go faster, but that's no guarantee it would happen and this race isn't purely about fitness, it is just as much about race execution.
We figured that with two years of almost year round training, dropping somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 min would be pretty doable just with the increased fitness she would have. But that wasn't good enough, she was determined to cut a full hour off her time. As a grad student studying for a phD, she just doesn't have the time to train like a pro athlete and drastically increase fitness in relatively short periods. The fitness would be sure to build gradually but in order to accomplish her goal it was going to take more than that. When she toed the line yesterday she was not only a fitter athlete, but a smarter, wiser athlete with a better plan.
That plan was executed to a T on race day. I don't understand how it happened, but her swim was the exact same as in 2010, a 1:00:55. We were expecting a 58-59 but some chop and wind on the back stretch and going a bit off course derailed that. However, this time she was instructed not to look at her time coming out of the water, since the difference between a good and bad swim didn't really matter for her. It was only going to be a 3-4 min swing at the most. The only thing the swim could do was affect her mentally for the rest of the day, and it was key to put the swim behind her no matter what. Because the key to the bike ride was pacing and putting out very even power on the hilly course. This is something that is hard enough to do, but is made even harder if you are worried that you have time to make up after a slow swim. Training and racing with power and understanding how that effects not only your ride but also your run has been a huge part of Summer's preparation. Lots of practice keeping the wattage consistent over varying terrain helped her to nail it on race day. I won't say what her wattage was :) but I will say that her average power was the same for the last 56 miles as it was for the first 56. When she told me in a surprised way, "I still feel good" at mile 90 of the bike, I knew it was going to be a good day. 2 years ago she could barely acknowledge my presence at that point.
The thing about triathlon in general, but especially Ironman is that while having a good plan is important, what really makes the difference is being able to adapt, and to make the right decisions at key points in the day. Something will inevitably go differently from what you planned, no matter how meticulous you are ahead of time. How you react is what will determine the outcome of your day. One of the biggest problems with Summer's Ironman 2010 race was nutritional, which caused her to walk a fair amount of the marathon. One example of reacting to the situation was that during the run this year, her primary fuel source was Coke for much of the run (easy to digest sugars when blood to the stomach is lowest) and salt tablets for electrolytes. She was using more salt than expected and ran out with a ~10k to go, so made the decision to make the switch over to sports drink towards the end. Blindly sticking to the Coke plan would likely have resulted in the last 3-4 miles run at a considerably slower pace. In the end she hit all her goals. Although her swim was the same, she had faster transitions, her bike went from 6:10 to 5:49, she felt much better starting the run and dropped her run from 4:37 to a 3:53. Her final time was one hour and 6 minutes faster for a 10:52. I'm pretty sure that chip is gone.
Zach was the youngest competitor in the race. So they don't get sued out of their minds, WTC requires everyone who does the Ironman to be at least 18 so they can sign for themselves. I've worked with Zach (literally, I mean we are employed at the same store, Endurance House) for a few years, and I started working with him as a coach last season. Since he's been in high school, I'd work with him over the summer, then if he was in cross country or swim season we'd take a triathlon break. With Zach's training, a theme that seemed to come up again and again was injury management. Coming off of a cross country season there was a stress fracture, early in this season we had a long running race to train for and after the race there was another stress injury. As we built the run volume up again he was hit with a knee injury this time. After the initial stress fracture in cross country we looked at the shoes he was wearing and his running mechanics. This was around the time he started at Endurance House too, which was nice to have the equipment to look into this. There were some things to clean up with the mechanics, and he did a great job of making those changes. His form was better and he was running better without pain, but when you want to run an ultra marathon and you get a late start due to an earlier injury, you have to ramp mileage up faster than would be ideal to get through the race. We played it as conservatively as we could and he got to the finish line but was back to resting it afterwards. Not a full stress fracture, but another setback on the run.
Luckily he was very proactive and thinks outside the box. We brainstormed different ways to approach figuring out what was going on. After seeing massage therapists and chiropractors the consensus was that there were some significant muscle imbalances going on. Work was done to balance it out, and although it didn't become pain free until the end of this July to start running again, it has been better ever since. Because of all of this the longest run in Zach's Ironman build was only 13 miles. This is not usual but the primary goal was to get to the starting line injury free and rested.
The nice thing about triathlon is when you have an injury in one sport, you're not reduced to sitting on the couch thinking about how screwed your season is. There are two other sports to train and while his run was resting we were hammering the swim and bike. Particularly the bike. Zach had a good amount of time to train once school got out for the summer and is very motivated. He'll consistently get up at 5am to get his long workouts in if he has to be at work later. We made huge fitness gains on the bike, and it showed as his races improved significantly throughout the season. The gains on the bike translated well to the run. I wasn't actually too worried about his running ability because that is his primary background.
Race day came and he was calm, ready and had a good plan. I always try to steer first time Ironman participants away from getting caught up in race times. Until you've done it, you really have no idea how your body will react and what you are capable of. I had ideas of course, based on training, but if you're wrong and overestimate your ability you will pay dearly in this race. Best to play it conservatively. Zach's strong and steady approach paid off and he blew away all expectations. I was thinking in my head 10:30 on a good day, 10:50 on an average day, and who knows on a bad day if his knee gave out (although I didn't tell him this). He told everyone he would be happy with an 11hr time at the banquet when they called him on stage as the youngest competitor. He ended up going a 10:13. Even the announcer said something about it at the finish line. His lack of run volume showed in the second half of the run when his form started falling apart, but his mental toughness and overall high fitness level kept him going. Most importantly of all, he is feeling no pain after the race, which based on past experience likely means the injury problem is solved. An Ironman marathon would have surely set it off earlier in the year.
Zach at the finish line
Jami contacted me at the end of May. I had never met her before, and she was referred by my friend Jess who works for Jami's dad. I think Jami's dad was looking for a coach so she would stop asking him what to do, haha. I met up with Jami to talk about potentially coaching her at the beginning of June. I knew she was signed up for the Ironman, and it would be her first one and that's about all I knew. One of my first questions was what kind of experience did she have in the sport. The answer was a little surprising... "I'm doing my first one this Sunday". Under most circumstances if someone came to me 3 months before an Ironman and had never even done a triathlon of any distance before I don't think I could take them on. It's just not enough time to put together a good training plan for a race of this distance and I don't like to do things half-assed if at all possible. I know that every situation is different though, so I was interested to hear what her background was. While not a competitive runner, she had trained for and run a marathon last year and had been on a swim team when she was younger but it had been years. Normally I don't consider running a marathon to be a prerequisite for doing the Ironman but in this case it was a huge plus. Her swimming experience at least meant that we could start right away with building fitness rather than swimming lessons. She was an athlete in non endurance sports, so she came in with some good strength. She had been putting in pretty consistent training, although without a clear direction and no where near enough volume. But what really swayed me was her clear excitement about the whole thing and willingness to work hard. Well, maybe this could work...
The summer was a crash course in triathlon, both in terms of training and education. She got her sprint out of the way right away which gave us benchmarks. An olympic distance race the following week gave a good opportunity to put the lessons learned from race #1 to the test. Gaining as much race experience as possible was key, so she raced a half Ironman in July and another olympic in August. Total training volume couldn't get too high at any point in the season as she didn't have the base for it and there was nothing we could do about that. Instead we focused on weekly key long workouts on the weekend that progressed throughout the summer with very focused, intensity-based training during the week to help improve strength and O2 capacity. These workouts were for fitness but also for learning what it would feel like during the Ironman. There were a few rough ones but overall things progressed very well.
Jami with her dad on one of the hills
As such a rookie triathlete we were not focused on race times. Jami's only goal as far as that was concerned was to not have to worry about making the 17hr cutoff. At first I was concerned she would have to worry about it, but after her half Ironman in July I knew things were going in a good direction and that wouldn't be a concern unless something very bad happened on race day. She ended up finishing in 13:09, no where near the cutoff and actually fast enough to finish 5th of 17 in the 18-24 age group.
I totally didn't expect all 3 of them to finish in the top 5 of their age groups and get called up at the awards, although I think it's pretty awesome that it played out that way. This is a testament to each of their individual work ethics and attention to detail. These are two of the most important qualities I like to see in athletes and it always makes a coach look better when they get to work with those types of athletes.
I started coaching awhile ago and have always enjoyed it. At first it was easy, I had no other commitments and could put my full attention to it. I love working with driven athletes, those wanting to work towards a goal and willing to put in the work to do it. However, motivation and enthusiasm can fade when you start dealing with time strains, other commitments, politics of sport, athletes who don't want to be there and other stresses. I've continued coaching in smaller capacities over the past year or two so that I could give those I do work with the attention they deserve. My love of coaching has slowly started to return, and after spending the day darting around the course following my athletes at Ironman, I feel like I have sparked a renewed passion for it. I got a message after the race that said "That was the best day of my life". I won't say which one sent it but it's that kind of thing that really makes it all worth it. What this all means for the future, I'm not sure yet but I know that I want to make coaching a larger part of my life again.