March 2004 By Gordo Byrn
Ironman New Zealand was the first time that I’ve been in a major race when my pals were key factors on the day. Here’s one guys view of the front end of the race. In reading about the races, we rarely have the opportunity to find out what _really_ happens at the front of a race. I suppose that many of the guys simply don’t want to deal with the hassles that come when folks twist their words or criticize them. I know that’s the reason that a lot of my pro buddies prefer to simply lurk on forums rather than contribute. Here we go…
Race week was COLD! Baron and I were keen to wear our sleeveless wetsuits. As relatively new swimmers, we find that our stroke mechanics are far superior without sleeves. We did a trial swim on Friday morning without sleeves (and wore Ironman neoprene caps). I was able to swim but, after twenty two minutes, had purple lips and it took me three hours to warm up! Baron, at 4% body fat, took five hours to warm-up. We decided to trade a little swim speed to reduce the risk of hypothermia.
On race morning, I opted for a dryland warm-up and entered the water with only two minutes until the start. I lined up with the largest group of pros that I could find and we were off! I started moderately-hard, I’m still not fully convinced of the merits of a 500 meter max effort to start out a nine-hour day. However, I am starting to see the elite swim in a new light.
There was quite a bit of contact at the start and some very aggressive age-groupers came through. One of these guys clocked me on the head a few times, so I decided to let him go past and jumped on his feet. This turned out to be a fantastic move and he thrashed his way forward and dragged us onto the back of a large pack. The pace was my fastest survival pace. I was just hanging on the back of this large group at the fastest pace that I’d want to swim. They were three to four abreast in front of me. It was a bit like a bike race with a lot of pace changes and I was nearly dropped a few times. After the initial action, I had a few swimmers hassle me but I managed to deal with them through strategic use of other swimmers as well as course markers (whoops you swam into a buoy…). I dare not look behind me because I sensed that I was the last one hanging on this group of swimmers. There were a few times where I really had to commit to stay with them.
I exited the water in 52:28, a big PB for me and a solid result. We had a bit of a run to transition, where I jogged easy and relaxed. At IMNZ, there is a long flight of stairs that we have to climb in order to get up into the transition area, by the time I reached the base of these, my heart rate was settled and I was able to move quite steady up the climb. Later, I was surprised to learn that, despite going easy, I had one of the fastest transitions.
Out on the bike, a few people took off right away but I figured that I’d be seeing them again later. Scott rode up and congratulated me on my swim – this is the first time that I ever beat him onto the bike. I noted the watts that I was riding (as he passed me). Kind of a polite way to tell him that he might want to ease off. He appreciated my tact … kinda.
It was cold out and I was happy that I’d made the decision to wear leg warmers under my wetsuit and put on arm warmers in T1. As we rode out of town, it became foggy and a useful tailwind came up on the downhill patches. I was sitting on 50-65 km/h and watching the dew build up on my arms. Riding through clouds at 9C was a long way from balmy! I even considered speeding up to generate some additional heat. However, that idea was chucked fairly quickly.
Ever wonder why you see pro men waving for folks to pull through in Kona? It’s not that they are cheating, it’s that they are riding a legal pace line and the guy on the front is putting out about 10% more power than the folks behind. That’s the beauty of having a guy like Mister Andersson in the race. He doesn’t care about drafting, he doesn’t care about what’s happening behind. He’s going to roll along at his pace and you have to decide if you have what it takes to run him down. The presence of a few strong cyclists forces the chase group to think, otherwise, you get a race like the one we saw in Kona this past year. A large group of men arriving into T2 together. For what it’s worth, I believe that Mister A was riding a lot easier than I was. On a typical training ride of 180K he will put a lot more than 25 minutes into me. We’ve had days where that figure was over forty minutes!
What’s all this really mean? It means that for an elite male, the swim matters a lot more than we think. It is worth working hard (but not max) in the swim to be able to ride with a good group of guys. It’s taken me six years of IM racing to discover that there is an element of team tactics that folks rarely talk about. To put this in context, a further three minutes out of my swim time is the easiest way for me to add 10% to my bike power. Kind of ironic for a non-drafting event!
Once we were back in town, Macca (Chris McDonald) and Baron rode up to me. I didn’t know it but they had hammered the first 80K of the bike to bridge up. Again, that’s not supposed to make sense strategically, but they both had fantastic races. I get a kick out of Baron, he was sitting 10 to 12 meters back from me to be extra legal. Nobody was going to be able to accuse him of sitting in.
Well before the final turnaround, we saw Mister A coming back and calculated that we were 15K (!) down. Phew, that’s a gap. Fortunately, it turned out that we were only four minutes down on third place.
The pace was pretty reasonable, no worse than a focused training ride. In training, Baron and Macca can punish me but perhaps the efforts of the first 90K as well as the coming marathon had them being a bit conservative. Macca did most of the work on the way out of town and we shared the effort on the way back. Along the way, we collected a series of tiring athletes who hopped on the back of the Epic Train. It looked pretty legal to me – and that’s my point. Under the current rules, a tired athlete can easily hang on the back of a bunch on the flats, especially where there’s a headwind.
I didn’t mind the big group and I imagine that Baron was OK with it as well. As the two best runners in the bunch, I figured that we’d leave the guys behind at T2. Baron was also feeling confident and at the 178K mark rolled past me, smiled and said, “OK, now we run!” No kidding, the guy ripped a 2:42 on a course where a lot of highly talented runners max out in the high-2:40s.
This run was a strange one for me. After 8K, I found myself in fourth place with only Mister A, Cam and Baron out in front of me. Given Cam/Baron’s run prowess and that the gap was about twenty five minutes to Mister A, the only way that I was going to improve my position was if one of my pals had a spectacular collapse. The idea of benefiting from a friend’s misfortune was unappealing (or at least seemed a good rationalization for easing off!).
I made a decision to relax and run for position. Running for position worked great until the 20K mark, when Pete Jacobs nearly ran up to my shoulder. A little hope is a dangerous thing, so I got back to work and starting clicking out sub-4 minute Ks. My gap was up to 2:20 at the final turnaround but I didn’t ease off and kept pushing right to the end. Once again, I had a fast closing 10K and managed to hold off Pete.
Just like at IMC, I missed the press conference! This time because I was fourth. I’ll have to make it to a press conference one of these years. Let’s hope that I’ll do it in 2005 when I return to IMC and try to win the race where it all started for me. While I live in (and race for) New Zealand, winning my home country Ironman would be special. Peter if you are reading this then please focus on Kona next year (you’ve already won IMC, anyhow). Baron and Mister A have already agreed to stay away – one House of Pain Team Ironman per year is enough. Tom and Raynard, you guys are welcome. I can’t have it all my way!
At the awards dinner, I recommended that Baron and Mister A have a good look at the trophy. Baron pointed out that “it’s not about trophies”. I agreed but said that it’s nice to have a visual image of what we are aiming for. Two years ago we were just a couple of guys dreaming of cracking nine-hours. Now we can seriously consider winning an international Ironman race. What a change in such a short period of time! Before the race, Baron noted that if he hadn’t made the decision to come to New Zealand a couple of years ago then he’d probably be riding snowmobiles and drinking beer. Instead, he’s one of the most exciting runners in our sport. Amazing how one small decision can change our lives.
I hope the lads come back next year. Imagine what it would be like to have Mister A rolling fifteen minutes up the road and the Baron five minutes behind the main pack. If you let the Baron catch you then it’s over. If you let Mister A get more than twenty minutes then it’s over. Damn! That would be a fun race to watch play out. Over the years, I expect that the Swedish Sandwich will make for some exciting Ironman races.
So now you know the real reason why I decided to invite these guys into the House of Pain. It’s tough not to lift my game when I am flanked by two of the best cyclists and runners in our sport. It can be a little depressing at times, but last Saturday helped me put everything in perspective.
Live your dreams,