Sunday, October 26, 2008

The End of an Era

Yesterday afternoon Amanda and I attended our friend Simon's retirement party. A couple of things occurred to me while we were there.

First off, this was probably the one and only time I'd attend a retirement party for a guy who is only 37 years old. It's not too common to be retiring from a long career that early in life. The reality is that his retirement from professional racing does not mean he isn't capable of continuing as a triathlete; it just means he's no longer got the drive to train and race at the high level of competitiveness that he has for the past 23 years. 23 years?!? Amazing.

The next thing that occurred to me is that I'm losing one of the best training partners I've ever had. Throughout my journey as a triathlete, I have trained with a lot of great guys, nearly all of whom are still my good friends. Early on in my days, I was schooled by guys named Ivy Koger and Jon Hill. Later on I linked up with the legendary Todd Gerlach, a dominant figure in Austin, Texas' early nineties tri scene. After that I made my way to Boulder where a fellow named Cam Widoff showed me the ins and outs of Boulder and its surrounding mountains.

At the start of 2003, I was invited to join Simon and Dave Scott for ride out to Carter Lake. I had been swimming with Simon for a few weeks, along with Dave, Matt Reed, and Monica Byrn (then Caplan). I was the low man on the totem pole in the pool (I've since overtaken Dave), and I was a bit desperate to prove myself out on the bike ride. We went out at an easy pace, with Simon in front, and Dave and I bringing up the rear. I did not know anything about Simon's personality and certainly not his sense of humor.

He gave Dave a hard time about the condition of his bike (it was squeaky and dirty). And he gave me a hard time about sitting in for the first hour or so. I figured he was about to get a rude awakening, when I, the long course, non-drafting athlete put the hammer down and made the swimmer/ runner suffer. I figured he was a better swimmer and a faster runner than I, but I could not conceive that he could hang with me on the bike.

I dropped the hammer, made my move, and powered up the switchbacks to Carter Lake. Dave was long gone, Simon was not much ahead of him, and I was victorious in dropping the five-time (and the six-time) world champ. I waited up for Simon, as I caught my breath. I was waiting for him to submit to my dominance; to acknowledge that I was the superior rider; to compliment my awesome climbing prowess. He did no such thing. When Simon caught up to me, he did not say much as he blew by me on the flats. I was off to chase him.

Descending from Carter Lake, Simon managed to put more time on me. I told myself he was just a better bike handler than me because he trained for ten years on the twisty mountain roads of Southern France. I would catch him on the flats. Dave was nowhere to be seen.

We hit the flats, and Simon waited up for me. I rode up, he asked me what the hell I was trying to pull on the previous climb, and I told him I was just riding moderately... no big deal. I mentioned that I thought he wanted me to take a pull. How was I to know that he would get dropped. Little did I know that while climbing those switchbacks, I had sealed my own fate. Simon applied the pressure. And I was in trouble.

The bonk had set in, and I was not even aware of how bad off I was. This early season three-hour ride was taking its toll on me. Maybe I should not have been so confident (but he did call me out!).

I got dropped again.

Then Dave caught me. Then Dave dropped me.

I was in big trouble. I started counting calories, and I realized I was way deficient. I started counting miles back to my house, and I realized I might not make it. So much for showing Simon how strong I was on the bike.

When Dave and Simon both had to wait for me to catch back up, I knew I was in serious trouble. I asked, pleaded, and finally TOLD them to leave me. I told them I was hungry, and that I did not want to slow them down. And leave me, they did.

After a somewhat unpleasant beginning, the training partnership we formed became very strong. It turned out we were very compatible riding partners that first year. Simon was racing only short course events, while I was doing Half and full Ironmans. We rode four of five times a week together, and along the way we helped one another get faster and fitter.

And we had a lot of laughs.

The next year, Simon decided to test himself at the long-distance events. We began doing our long runs together, and I ventured out with him on his first ride over three hours since the mid-nineties. Those rides and runs got me fitter than I had ever been, and they gave Simon the confidence he needed in order to tackle is first Ironman, which he did in record setting fashion.

A funny thing happened that year, as folks began referring to me as Simon Lessing's training partner. I had found my stock rising, by merely linking myself up with a highly respected athlete like him. I even found myself sitting for an interview in Germany, and having the reporter ask me what it was like to train with Simon. I was an Ironman champion, and the top American hopeful at that event, and all they wanted to know was what it was like to train with Simon.

In fact, I gained a healthy dose of respect from my competitors when a reporter at the press conference asked me if I was able to keep up with Simon. In true Lessing fashion, I quipped that he was only sometimes able to keep up with me.

In this day and age, where every athlete has a coach, a plan, a power meter, and a schedule, it's very rare to find someone who is willing and able to push you in your training. In this triathlon mecca of Boulder, Colorado, most folks are too unwilling to be flexible, and to change up their programs in order to train with his competitors.

With Simon I found that athlete. He was strong enough to swim, ride, and run in front of, next to, or behind me. We covered a lot of miles together, and we bettered ourselves by bettering one another.

I am happy that Simon has found comfort in moving on with his life. I know he'll still be involved in the sport, and I know he may still join me for swims and bikes and runs; however, I am also aware that with the retirement of the British South African American athlete, I am losing a highly compatible, very entertaining, and extremely punctual training partner.

And hopefully by posting these embarrassing photos, I won't be losing him as my friend.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ironman Hawaii Race Report

Post-Underpants Run, I was feeling relaxed and ready to rumble. I had confidence in my build-up, and I knew I was ready to improve upon my 2007 Ironman. I had decided to implement a few new nutritional tricks to my routine, based on my, um, evacuation problems in the last three Ironmans I have done. This time around, my goal was to minimize time lost to porto-stops and poopy pants.

My nerves woke me up at 10:30PM, 1:30AM, 2:30AM, and finally at 3:30AM. Other than those brief and expected interruptions, my sleep was sound and restful. There are certainly some advantages to being part bear.

The best way for me to start my Ironman day is by doing a light jog in the pre-dawn dark and calm of Ali'i Drive. I don't go far, and I don't go fast, but I love to get out there and soak up the final calm energy before a very energized day. I felt particularly spunky on this year's pre-race trot.

After the run, I positioned myself for a nice breakie: coffee, Justin's Almond Butter, some Monkey Brains, toast, and a banana. For those who are interested, I do not refrain from drinking coffee in the weeks leading up to the race. I don't believe the drastic shock of reintroducing caffeine to the system is a sound practice. Why shock the body on race day?

Amanda and I arrived at body marking at about 5:00AM. There really is not a lot to do race morning, but I like to have everything done by about 5:25 or 5:30. This gives me time to hang out in Kris' room (my massage therapist) for the hour or so before I jump in the water. It's a good way for me to save up all my energy, and to apply my Vaseline, Body Glide, and sunscreen.

During the swim warm up, I found Paula, who was to be leading the swimmers on her paddle board. She gave me a quick embrace or sorts, and told me to have my day. She refrains from the typical "good luck" or "have fun" well-wishing, as she feels that it's not really that fun out there.

My race began better than it has in each of my nine times racing Hawaii. I found open water immediately, and I swam very aggressively. In past years I have made the mistake of picking one guy to swim with; this has left me dropped from the main group each time. This time around I was taking control of my own destiny. I put myself in position to have a great swim.

200 or 300 meters into the race, I found myself in perfect spot: I was behind two swimmers who were side-by-side. The draft was huge, and I felt very comfortable with the pace. I knew (not sure how) I was in the front group this time.

All the way out to the boat, and making the turn back to the pier, I felt that the pace was very moderate. I was focused on not losing the feet in front of me, and I knew there was a swimmer or two behind me, which is a comforting feeling. Near the Coast Guard buoy (about a mile to go) the group made a surge. It was a noticeable change in pace, but I felt prepared to handle it; however, about 250 to 300 meters later, I lost contact with my group. The fellow behind me had already come through and displaced me to the position of caboose. I feel that every train needs a caboose, but I was gradually coming detached from my train. Damn. Double damn.

Getting dropped was not fun, but for the first time that I can remember, I managed to keep swimming strong on my own. I did not ever blow up, I just lost contact. I gradually lost a bit of time over the final kilometer or so. Fortunately for me, I was not swallowed up by the chase pack, and I exited the water in my best ever position or time for Kona.

Onto the bike I was about a minute back of the group, and in around twenty-fifth place. I made a gradual push to catch the leaders, not knowing they were out of my reach. Seeing them on the first out-and-back gave me good feedback: many of the main players were in the group, but I was close.

Behind me I saw stormin' Normann coming on strong. I figured I would use him to tow me up a bit further. I gave him about twenty meters, as I was not about to risk a drafting penalty. He pulled away, and I fell back... no, I did not "let him go." He went.

Looking behind me, I saw a small group of four coming up on me. Within the group were my back-up plan riders, Rutger Beke and Marino Van Hoenacker, as well as Maik Tweselik (the young German who won IM Wisconsin last year). I integrated myself into the group, and proceeded to watch the dynamics of a group of strong cyclists.

I should note that my cycling has come up a notch this year (over the past three months), and I was confident that my ride would put me in position to use my run weapon, as I have grown accustomed to doing in past races. I was riding strong, and I was prepared to notch my best ride to date. And I truly believed I was capable of coming off the bike within striking distance of the top five.

I rode along as the middle part of a Belgian Waffle (with Rutger and Marino). The German was hanging on the back, and we picked up the Swiss athlete who finished fourth. Nearing the forty-mile marker, Rutger stopped for a penalty, and we picked up Andy Potts and Luke McKenzie, both of whom had just finished serving their penalties. This meant we were four minutes back to the lead group, and it meant our group was picking up its casualties. We were growing in size, so I made a move for the front. I figured it was time for me to lead the charge for a spell, and I did not want to risk being in the middle of a larger group.

From mile 37 to 42, we had some tough headwinds, a welcome blast-from-the-past, in my mind. My speed dropped from 26-28mph to 19mph in a matter of seconds. My normal tendencies are to thrive in headwinds, as others suffer more than I on the mental side. I enjoyed this section of feeling controlled and in control. However, feeling strong for these first two hours somehow caused me to lose track of my nutritional plans.

Climbing up to Hawi was when I first started to notice something was not right. I got passed by one guy in the group... then another... then another. I was steadily moving backwards, but I attributed it to the fact that I typically allow more room between myself and the rider in front of me, while many others like to keep it a bit tighter. I figured it just meant that the others were not comfortable giving that much space; that they wanted closer contact.

The 17 miles of climbing from Kawaihae to Hawi are normally one of my best stretches. I tend to pass those around me, and drop those behind me. It's early in the ride (mile 43 to mile 60), and it's when I make a bit of a move. This year was completely different. I was getting dropped, and my legs would not respond. They felt weak and powerless. I pushed and pushed, but did not gain ground.

Facing the final 7-mile stretch of up hill headwind is normally a highlight of the race for me. This year I found myself down shifting and slowing down: not good!

I took inventory of my situation: I calculated what I had consumed; I looked at my pace; and I assessed how to get myself back on track. But I came up with no clear answers.

Making the turn and beginning my decent, I got one final slap-in-the-face reminder that I was off my game: Rutger and Ain-Alar Johannsen went screaming by me, and I had ZERO ability to latch on to their momentum. I was dropped faster than they had caught me.

During the descent, I finally determined what I was lacking. I had shoveled in a bit more food on the climb, and it did not seem to kick in. Like a light bulb clicking on, I realized I was getting dehydrated. More appropriately: I was dehydrated! I looked like a margarita; I was hot; and I was, very prematurely, out of steam.

As my emotional side began to wonder how long it would take me to walk the marathon, I formed a bail-out plan. I would cut back on calories (knowing gastric emptying slows with dehydration, and not wanting a bloated belly to boot); I would suck down as much water as I could; and I would dig myself out the best I could.

My lull lasted from mile 51 until mile 88 or 89. During that time I was slow (for me), I was weak, and I could not stay with anyone who passed me.... and believe me, I tried!

Somehow I managed to get enough fluids in me, and I began to regain my power. I picked up a few athletes who were spit out of the group. And I began to think I might be able to run the marathon after all. The six-hour walk was not appealing to me one bit.

I entered T2 feeling rough, but by the time I got up from the change tent, my legs were there. I climbed the mini hill on Palani 10:30 down from tenth place. I have faced worse deficits, but this ranks right up there with the worst of them!

My first mile felt smooth, but my goal was to shorten the stride, to minimize energy output, and to save up for the Queen K. The temptation was there to blow through the first ten miles in an hour, eating up the time immediately, and placing myself closer to the contenders. However, I have seen the carnage that results from giving too much too soon, and I stuck to my conservative run plan. I wanted to run a strong marathon, and I could not afford to blow up.

By mile six I was still well back of tenth. I felt a bit of pressure building, but was able to immediately duck into a porto-potty. The mile split was 6:50 with the stop--a bit off pace--but I was feeling clean and empty and ready to roll. Marino Vanhoenacker passed me while delivering the quote of the day: "Michael, did you have a nice poop?" (Read with a strong Belgian accent.) Hilarious. Naturally, I let him know that I did, and that I felt much better.

My gradual pace continued along Ali'i and up Palani. They call it Pay and Save hill, as there used to be a store there with that name. Pay now or Save for later is the current meaning of the name.

I chose to save, and I followed my pre-race plan to open it up at mile 11. Mile 11 comes just at the base of the Dave and Mark hill (later on that is mile 24). It signifies to me that it's time to race. With a conservative opening stretch, I allowed my stride to open up and go. I went for it, and I went hard. The splits were changing in my favor, as I was catching tenth.

Into the Energy Lab I really began to open it up. I could now see the leaders, and I could now begin to see the ones I had in my reach: Marino, Normann, Faris, Andy, and Matias. They were the ones I could see fading before my eyes. I pushed hard.

Back on the highway with seven miles to go, I really began to dig. I was gaining on the temporary duo of Faris and Normann. Passing them would give me tenth. At some point, Faris dropped Normann, and I was left to pass them both individually, which was actually quite satisfying. I knew they had both really gone for it on the bike, and early in the run. They were in damage control mode, a place I had been for quite some time during my ride. Hawaii was doing its thing.

Once in tenth, I took a deep breath, and sighed with relief. I had overcome a large deficit, and was in the safe zone. But I wanted more.

Up ahead was the duo of Potts and Switzerland's Hecht. I wanted badly to catch them both, and the encouragement I was receiving from Amanda, Stephanie, Cassie, and Robin Ficker (aka Mr Fuzzy Duds) was amazing. I was going to catch them.

Taking the turn at the top of Palani, I made my push for the catch. I bombed the down hill like I have never done, and I was grimacing in pain. Breathing hard and grunting, I passed the throngs of screaming spectators, and only one face did I recognize: that of Simon Lessing. He yelled for me to go for it, and so I added to my list of motivating reasons the idea of gaining redemption for the whipping that Potts had given me and Simon at Timberman in August. I would catch them.

Rounding the turn onto Kuakini, I could see that Potts had dropped Hecht. They were only about twenty and twenty two seconds ahead of me. I was gaining, and I was the stronger athlete (I told myself this over and over).

With barely a mile to go, I had the stride opened up to rival that of Carl Lewis. I was in a big-time sprint for the finish. And then my left hamstring cramped up so bad I had to limp to a quick stop.

Not now! Not now!

I chuckled to the crowd my rhetorical question: "how can I cramp now, after all these miles? Why now?!" Touching the toes once seemed to work... briefly, and I cramped again. I touched them again, stretched those hamstrings out, and began my jog to the finish.

I could not switch off my competitive drive, and my desire to be top American made me sprint again. This time I was rewarded with a calf cramp on my right leg. OK, I got it. I chose to hold my tenth spot, and to stop risking the kind of continued cramps that would leave me walking (and getting caught by my pursuers!).

I soaked up my finish, waved my American flag, and cramped one final time as I walked across the line. I was ecstatic.

What a day I had, and what a battle I fought! I was very proud of my efforts; I was happy to notch another top-ten finish; and was pleased to learn, once again, a new lesson in racing Ironman Hawaii.

Not long after the race, the fifth-place finisher was disqualified for not serving a penalty, and I was moved to ninth place. I have now notched three ninth places in Hawaii.... and I'm ready to cut that number in half next year... or maybe even in thirds!

**Photo courtesy of Dirk Friel

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Underpants Run

Why the Underpants Run? Why a report on the Underpants Run? Why not talk about the race first? Well, to me, the race really starts to place its pressure on folks 'round about Thursday of race week. It's an impressive phenomenon, the Hawaii Ironman pressure cooker.

Different folks face, and therefore handle, the pressure in different ways. Some take a running leap-off-the-cliff start, by preparing, preparing, and over-preparing in the several weeks pre-race. They tackle more than they think their competitors are tackling, and they flog, flog, and flog themselves until they are injured or sick, and cannot even get to the line ready to rumble.

Others will prepare their best, only to arrive in Hawaii and succumb to the internal or external expectations they see as the latest obstacle. They make silly mistakes, often based on irrational judgment. Perhaps they train too hard race week; perhaps they eat rotten food; or maybe they tell others they are only there to "participate" or "have fun". Either way, it's self sabotage at its finest.

And still others will nervously avoid any and all contact with humans, dogs, fish, turtles and other germ vehicles. They feel they are too vulnerable to risk it.

And naturally, there are those who see the other athletes doing sprints on Ali'i Drive, power sets in the pool, and motor pacing on the Queen K. They second guess and question everything in their personal routine. They doubt, and consequently, they modify.

Then there are the dreaded taper doldrums. The finely tuned, finely trained power pistons we have for legs start to ache and throb. They go numb while climbing stairs (so we take elevators). They hurt on inclines in the road, mistaking them for long, above-category climbs. They trick us into thinking we are unfit. They do their best to steer us off course, and to tamper with our sensitive emotions. "What if I feel this way on race day?!"

Not entirely immune to each of the above pitfalls, challenges, and quirks, there have been times in the past where I have wandered astray, wondering if I would win or walk on race day. Normally I consider it a strength of mine to stay calm and focused. I tend toward the mellow side of the stress-out scale, and I am generally good at keeping it real in my lead-up.

A big part of how I try to keep control of my perspective is to jump into the World Renowned Kona Underpants Run. Strategically scheduled two days before the Big Day, it falls on what is typically a day off for me. And by day off, I mean that I only swim easy for 10-15 minutes. My day is spent conserving energy, and saving up strength for the Ironman. This holds true for pretty much any IM I race.

However, in Kona it's different.

We all assembled at Pacific Vibrations for our little race. I was there with my tube socks, my flashy Splish, and my hot wife (in her tube socks with flashy Splish). Here is my twist on the popular adage: the couple that Underpantses together, stays together.

Before I run the risk of writing more on the UP Run than my Ironman, I had better get to wrapping this up. After my 12-minute swim (in my super fast blueseventy pointzero3 and Aquaman-themed Splish), I ambled down to the race start. Amanda and I posed for photos, we snapped some photos, and we lined up next to my sister and brother-in-law for our favorite event. And we ran SLOW!

In conclusion (learned that one in sixth grade grammar class), my participation of the Underpants Run is my way of reminding myself that germaphobic turtles in compression socks, sprinting down Alii behind motorized scooters--with aching legs and a slight tickle in the throat--are not something I do not allow to affect my experience at the Hawaii Ironman.

Anyone looking for a little fun, a lot of self-expression, and a good fund raiser, head on down to your next neighborhood Underpants Run.

**Thanks to Karen Frank for providing the fun photo.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Death of an iPhone

This is not the update I was planning to post on Monday morning, but has to be done. Last night, while experiencing the strangest, and possibly most memorable, awards banquet in the RAIN, my phone drowned. I say this so that all my friends know that I am not ignoring your calls. I can answer the phone... sometimes, but cannot hear voicemail, and cannot even text. Bummer. I am planning to replace/ repair the phone tomorrow, so it will be game on soon.

In the meantime, to all my callers, to all my blog comment-makers, and to all the e-mailers I've not replied to yet: thanks so much for all your support, love and encouragement.

More news at 11:00.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


In an unprecedented move, I thought I'd post a super-quick race report, only... 28 hours after the fact.  My intent is to post the full blow-by-blow in a day or two, after letting all the ins and outs sort themselves out in my post-race brain.

Yesterday was my ninth Hawaii Ironman, I started with race number nine, and holding with the theme, I finished ninth.  For those of you who followed online, you may have noticed that I crossed the line in tenth place, but due to a disqualification of one of the fellows ahead of me, I got bumped up a notch to hold my niners intact.  

Later on, I'll let my gory ups and downs more thoroughly paint the picture, but in the meantime allow me to summarize as follows:

My swim was the best I've ever done in Hawaii.  I swam aggressively enough to be in the group for about a mile and a half at which time I was dumped off, and left to swim the final mile alone.  

For fifty miles of the bike, I was in position to run my way to a top five finish.  My legs were very strong, very fresh, and very patient (due to my brain convincing them to bide their time). From mile 51 to approximately 85, I suffered more than I've ever suffered here.  My goal became finishing the race at (hopefully) a jogging/ walking pace.   

Finishing the ride strong (for the final 22 miles), I regained the confidence that I could still pull off a strong marathon.

My run was better executed than any previous IM marathon.  I patiently ran my way back into contention, with only a set of gnarly cramps slowing my charge to gain the top American slot.   

I am very satisfied with my placing, my effort, and my determination to turn things around.   

And I thank each and every one of my family members, friends, and fans, for cheering and supporting me every step of the way.

Please tune in for a three-day crescendo of a race report... where I'll share the whole nitty and the gritty.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Kona Update #2

I almost let an entire week go by without an update... almost!

This time around I'm going to blame my lack of updates on the fact that Amanda and I have unreliable internet access.  Never mind that I am a lazy blogger, or that Amanda has that same patchy internet access, and she has managed to post.  Hmm.   Maybe I just lack things to say.

This past week has been really fun.  We are very well settled into our routines here, and we've been really enjoying our days and nights.  The training has been going very well, and just about each session has felt very good.  

My sister, Stephanie, and brother-in-law, Huggy Bear Hays, arrived last night.  We all four gathered down at Lava Java for a really nice dinner.  Three out of four of us had the fish tacos, and the fourth person at a grilled fish salad.  Whoa.  They have some seriously fresh and delicious fish over here.  I love it.

Tonight I'm laying low in the condo, as Amanda is out enjoying a VIP booze cruise on the Body Glove boat.  I wish I had gone with her, but at the scheduled departure time I was feeling more like lounging around on the couch, so here I sit, conserving energy... and blogging away.   

It's becoming more and more evident that my lack of posting is more likely due to my lack of interesting topics of discussion.  So on that note, I'm signing off until I find something really juicy to share.

Thanks for checking in!    

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

October in Kona!

Today marks the first day of October, and it marks the tenth consecutive year that Amanda and I have spent much of the month in Kona, Hawaii. We just arrived, and we are very excited to be here. Driving into town we both imagined how great it would be to have a second home here. What a great place!

We're settled into our condo; we've unpacked the clothes and built the bikes (no forgotten wheels this time!); and we're now at Lava Java awaiting a delicious early dinner.

There is no wireless in the condo, unfortunately, but we'll do our best to keep the updates coming. I have very little doubt that Amanda will have the more timely and frequent reports, so tune in!

And aloha from the great state of Hawaii!