Gord Henderson's IM Brazil Race Report

Ironman Brazil - May 28, 2006
As a note Gord finished 13th overall

Nobody ever gets the 'perfect' build to an Ironman - something always goes wrong, and there can't be many people standing at the start line thinking that they've done everything possible to maximize their potential on the day. In my case, running and riding had fallen off the calendar after an ankle injury 6 weeks out necessitated a 2 week break from training, and Nigel Gray had had to demonstrate his flexible approach to coaching at pretty short notice when I told him that I was going to be throwing our existing plan out of the window! Fortunately he did exactly that, changed my entire program around, and got me to the line feeling more confident than I had any right to have expected a month before.

Brandon, Fiona and I had arrived in Brazil on the Tuesday before the race; although the 24 hr journey had its share of excitement, we arrived safely with our luggage intact, and spent the next few days doing as little as possible after the couple of hours training each morning that we needed to stay loose. The race is held in a small resort town on the island of Florianopolis, and our hotel was about 3kms up the beach from the start of the swim. Reacquainting ourselves with open (sea) water swimming proved to be entertaining, as on 2 of the 4 days that we had to practice the combination of a side shore wind and current made themselves felt: swimming in a straight line at the right buoy was reasonably challenging, but the practice did give us a good indication of how we'd need to swim and sight to allow for some drift during the race.

Ironman Brazil features an 'M' shaped swim course, starting off the beach with a slightly longer first leg and a turnaround on the sand just after halfway. We all lined up as far to the right of the start line as we could manage to allow for the current, and when the gun went off a second after the announcer had called '3 minutes to go!' everyone hit the water at once. The opening few minutes of the swim were chaotic, and I promptly got swum over by about 400 people as I demonstrated the reason that I prefer long distance events to sprints. Things opened up slightly as the swim went on; I hit the beach at 2,000m exactly level with Brandon in 27:30, and then managed to pick things up a little as we found some clearer water. The clock at the entrance to transition is about 50m up the beach from the shoreline at the end of the swim, and I couldn't clearly read the time when I stood up - I could see that the time started with '5' and ended in ':30', but couldn't tell whether the second digit was a '1' or a '7' until I was pretty much under it. That meant I had about 30 seconds to wonder whether I had been slightly faster or dramatically slower over the second half; either way, there seemed to be a lot of people in front of me - a number that increased after some difficulty with my wetsuit removal - and it didn't look as though I was going to have to deal with loneliness on the ride for some time to come.

The bike course begins with a couple of short out-and-backs in the in the first few kms, and then takes riders out of town and onto a highway where the bulk of the cycling leg takes place. The inside lane of the highway in each direction is cordoned off for riders, and apart from a couple more turnarounds, the course is extremely straightforward with no technical sections at all. Given my limited bike-handling skills, this was probably a positive, and I was able to focus on the power numbers and heart-rate data that Nigel had built into my race plan. Essentially the idea was to take the first 30 minutes of the ride relatively easy, and then start riding a little bit steadier after that - but, given my limited running mileage over the past month - ride fairly conservatively the whole way. I was certainly planning on riding easier than I'd had to when I was trying to keep up with Jodi and Co. on our last few rides around Toronto, but I wasn't sure how that effort was going to translate into speed.

The Power-Tap that Endurosport had built into my race wheel at very short notice worked perfectly on the day, and it was encouraging to see that my heart-rate and power numbers were in line with one another. The first of two laps went by in 2:23, but the wind that came up on the second lap persuaded me that attempting a negative split might provide greater challenge than reward. By the time we got back onto the highway, I found myself riding at 30 kph along a stretch of road that I'd covered at 43 kph a couple of hours before - but using more power to ride at the slower speed. I did seem to be catching a few people, so it was nice to know that I wasn't the only person suffering in the wind. It's easy to get a relatively low riding position on Cervelo's P3 Carbon; in fact, it's probably provides the most aerodynamic bike set-up available off the shelf, as well as being light and very efficient, so it was reasonable to think that if I was noticing the headwind, a lot of other people would be feeling it much more. It was also great to see Fiona and Brandon flying along different parts of the course - also riding P3C's - and from what I could tell we were all going better as the race went on.

As the last few kms of the bike came up I started to feel some cramps in my legs; it wasn't a huge surprise, since the day was nice and warm and I hadn't been able to keep down much solid food while riding. I tried to stretch out a little bit before the end of the ride, but recognized that I was going to have to be fairly religious about salt and liquids during the run if I was going to finish in a reasonable time. Although they were never really bad, I did have to stop and stretch out my legs a couple of times in the first 4 kms off the bike, and got passed by a couple of guys while doing so. Nigel's plan had a fixed ceiling on pace at the start of the run, which I wasn't really threatening anyway, so I watched one of them disappear over the horizon while the other seemed to ease off a little and stayed about 50m in front of me for a while.

Brazil has a 3 loop run course - the second and third laps are identical, but the first lap has an additional out-and-back which effectively doubles its length. The extra stretch also features some short but very steep hills, which runners have to climb and descend in each direction, and riding over them with Brandon and Fiona before the race had persuaded me that heroics on this part of the course would probably have to be paid for later on. I actually walked down 2 of the hills - a tactic which fell into the 'sad but probably necessary' category, but was encouraged when I caught my '50 meter guy' at around 18kms. I was still walking part of every aid station to make sure that I actually managed to drink all the liquids that I was given, and thought that I was approximately on track relative to what Nigel and I had discussed before the race.

Fortunately the cramping had stopped reasonably quickly, but it was difficult to ignore the fact that my legs were getting increasingly sore as the run progressed. The good news was that they didn't get any worse after half-way - although the bad news was that I was hurting a lot by then - but after a slightly shaky spell between 21 and 31 kms things started to improve on the last lap. I managed to catch a couple more people on this stretch, including the other runner who'd passed me at the start of the marathon, but there was a long gap between me and the next guy ahead and I ran the last couple of kilometres on my own. The last three kms of the run were my quickest (relative term) of the day, and crossing the line for a PB (9:10) was incredibly satisfying. Brandon and Fiona each crossed the line a few minutes later, each beating their best times over the distance - a great group effort! At times the race actually felt like something of a team event - the route for the bike and run features enough doubling up that we saw each other several times during the race and each time we did was a bit of a boost to morale.

It's always a relief when the limiting factor in a race is your own ability, and I had no mechanical or equipment issues to deal with on the day at all - my Cervelo, as well as the wetsuit, wheels, shoes, nutrition and other equipment that Endurosport had supplied and prepped for the race, worked flawlessly - and looking back a little further, Endurosport had also measured and fit me on my bike in the first place; their expertise and experience in the sport is really unmatched. And in terms of my physical preparation, Nigel's experience (transmitted in part through Fiona during the week before the race) was a huge benefit to me; not having to second-guess any part of my preparation left me feeling as relaxed as I can remember being on a start line, and having confidence in the plan that Nigel set out for the race allowed me to ride within myself without worrying about losing time to others at the start of the day. There's a Power-Bar ad which talks about the physical difficulty of Ironman making mental strength more important, and it's much easier to stay strong and positive when the people who have got you ready for the race and the people you're with on the day make what could be a hard day so much fun.