What is fast?
Thoughts for age group ironman athletes.
I have entered Ironman Italy for September this year – While its looking very unlikely that it will go ahead I guess it’s a case of hoping for the best. Regardless of that I wanted to share my thoughts on what fast is. For me to be fast at this race I need to be looking at going about 9hours 30 minutes which is incredibly fast. While I am not sure its possible there is always the mindset of - how hard can it be?
As mentioned in my previous post I am calling this - Project 930
When I am looking at entering an ironman I always have a peak at the results for my age group. In this case my first reaction was gosh they are fast times. How the hell am I going to go that fast? That was my first response and the more I thought about it the more it led to this blog.
The key point here is I am talking about fast relative to age group athletes.
I am also putting the term fast into context of an Ironman. Being totally honest the times for each discipline if we were to compare them to each sport individually would be considered slow. A 3hr 30 marathon in running terms is not that fast however in an ironman that time is very respectable. In this article remember that we are talking about a race that is 9-16 hours long for recreational athletes.
It’s my blog so this will be all about me and what fast actually is for a 51 year old triathlete. It also means I do not need to share other peoples information. So let’s look at top 10 in my age group and focus on 3rd place (usually a World Championship qualifying slot) and 6th place where I have finished in my last two ironman branded races. These principals carry over so you can use them relative to you and your age group.
Hopefully this will give you an insight into what to think about and what to look at if you are trying to be a fast age grouper.
Ok so lets dive right in. Yes that's lame but I just wanted a nice picture . - Photo credit - Victoria Ellis
Fast is relative
Fast is relative to the course, the conditions, how old and what sex you are as well as things like your athletic background. If the times are fast or seem slow then often there is a reason and often it’s either the course or the conditions. The good athletes are fast relative to those.
I had a fascinating conversation with a golfer and what it came down to was that the number you write on the score card at the end of the day determined if you had a good day or not. When I asked about conditions he replied that they were just excuses for a poor number on the card. Wow that’s a pretty savage way to look at it. For our sport there are way too many variables to think like that.
Sometimes you need to allow for the conditions - open source pic from the world wide web.
I have picked three races to look at.
Two of them I have done and the other well it’s the reason for this blog and project 9:30. In context to this article there is over 1 hour difference in times between them and in what we would call a fast time. I think the key take home is that you need to be open minded to what fast might be at any given race. For example Ironman New Zealand 10 hours flat (normally a fast time for a 50 year would male) would have got you 4th in the age group. In Italy that same time would only be could for 28th in the age group and as for Malaysia you would have won your age group.
So as we go through this always remember that fast is relative and there are variables that will impact that. Year to year there can be a large swing in times based on the conditions on the day so always look at the old results to try and get a bigger picture of what fast is.
Let’s look at the three races in a little bit of detail. One thing is that regardless of historical times giving you an indicator they do not allow for a bunch of exceptional athletes or retired Pro's turning up and blitzing the field. Case in point when I did Ironman Australia the age group winner was a just retired Pro and an ex Ultraman world champion who finished 9th overall. Its kind of hard to even get close to those types of athletes but hey life is not fair so it comes down to hard luck. Harsh but true.
Ironman New Zealand 2019 a fast time for men 50 -54
Third place last year was 9hrs 58minutes and 6th place was 10 hours 7minutes. If you then go and look at historical results you can then find a trend. Some years will be slower some faster often with New Zealand that will be wind related. What it comes down to is that to be fast about 9hours 50 to 10 hours will put you near the front of your age group.
Just a little foot note - this year’s race 3rd place was 9hrs 53 and 10hrs was 5th place – it was good conditions and there were a few course records. The bike course was a tiny bit different and according to one of my athletes it was faster but that ball park of 9hrs 50 to 10 hours is still where you need to be
Ironman Malaysia 2019
On the other hand fast in this race is about 10 hours 30 to 11hours. 3rd place was 10 hours 37 and my 6th place with a meltdown on the marathon was 11 hours 6minutes. The key factors for that are the swim is a non-wetsuit swim which can add 5 – 10minutes to your time depending on how good a swimmer you are. The bike course is a little hillier than New Zealand 1600 meters of vertical compared to about 1000.
However the killer in Malaysia is the heat and humidity on the marathon. That is where the times in this race blow out – and yes it got me. I came off the bike in second place and with the best intentions of just going easy it every quickly became a case of just survival. It is a great example of the times are not indicative of how tough the conditions are and if you just looked at the times then you would go those run times are soft. The reality is it’s probably one of the hardest marathons in any ironman. Still kind of fun though – it’s a John Approved race – you should do it. lol
Ironman Italy 2019
Well this race is my focus and it scares me how fast the times are. So here’s the thing fast for a 50 year old in this race means 9hours 30. Last year third place was 9hrs 22 and 6th pace was 9hrs 39. While I can appreciate the course is relatively flat, the road surfaces are significantly better than in New Zealand and that there is probably lots of bunches on the bike creating fast packs and consequently faster times.
However that is significantly faster and while it’s very easy to talk it you still have to ultimately do that time.
Before we go into a breakdown of the different disciplines of a race I want to introduce the concept of “fast enough”
When looking at an ironman and breaking it down into its relative components for racing there comes a point where there is fast and then there is fast enough. What I mean by that is that in some cases you only need to be fast relative to a point. For example I am a 55 minute to 1 hour swimmer. I am pretty confident that if I really wanted to I could swim 50 – 54 minutes for the swim. The point is that for my age group anything under 1 hour is often fast enough.
So for me rather than devoting time in the pool for an extra few minutes I know I can swim fast enough comfortably and free up time to train on my weakness and my swim training is all about being fit enough to swim steady and controlled and that will be at pace that I know will be err - fast enough.
A strong biker might be able to ride a 4 hours 50 minutes for the 180km but often backing off and riding 5hours flat would be fast enough. It would mean that they would be fresher for the run. Trying to get that concept across to the fast bikers is a challenge and often you will see them walking the marathon talking about how fast their bike ride was. Key point of interest is the WALKING the marathon bit.
In each section of the race you need to consider the whole event. It’s not just a 1 hour swim. The swim is part of a 9hour + race. We all only have a certain amount of energy to burn so it’s a case of choosing how you do it and where. The term is burning matches. You turn up to a race with so many matches in your tool box and you have to choose when you are going to burn them. And when they are gone it usually means you are too.
Realistically none of us are really supreme athletes across all three disciplines so you need to work out what sort of time is fast enough for any given section and also if you can achieve that sort of time.
So Ironman Italy, let’s look at the break down of what fast / fast enough is for this race.
For age group racing I am a great believer of any swim under 1 hour is fast enough. Case in point in Italy if we look at the top five in my age group overall their swim times range from 55minutes to 1hr 2. So the reality is if you can swim under 1 hour in this race then you are in contention.
The key to that is being mindful that there is still over 8hours of racing. So to be fast you need to swim sub 1 hour and it needs to be at a nice controlled effort so that you exit the water feeling fresh as opposed to staggering out and needing a nana nap before starting the ride.
For me my target will be a 55 minute swim. I know could go faster but it’s a case of I can be competitive and not burn too many matches. To put that into context it’s swimming at pace of about 1min 25 per 100meters. Try swimming 100m at your local pool and see how fast you go. Then think about swimming 38 of them at that pace. Bear in mind that a swimmer is looking at those times thinking they are slow as they would be swimming at 1min 10 or faster. Again fast is relative
It’s a longish transition at this race and the average looks like 4mins 30 to 5minutes.
Taking that into consideration my objective is to get onto the bike 1 hour into the race based on a 55 minute swim. And a 5 minute transition. That should be enough to put me at the front end of the field and in contention
Picture source - Quotesgram.
Golly batman it looks like they ride massively fast. Part of that is that it is only 700meters of elevation gain so a reasonably flat course and add to that the roads are smooth. I think this and the fact that it’s a massive race (over 3000 athletes) it creates big bunches on the ride that creates drafting and essentially fast times through cheating.
How avoidable that is I am not sure. I think what tends to happen is that the faster bikers come through the field and people latch on and suddenly there is this fast group barreling along creating a massive pack moving along the road so if you are sitting behind them then there is bit of a free ride. I think it boils down to this
Is it cheating? - Yes
Is it avoidable? – Probably not
How do you deal with it? – No idea other than trying to race fair. Maybe I race in an Italian logoed tri suit so that they think I am a local and that they pull the other guys over. As silly as that sound it may actually have merit.
The thing is a fast time on this course is 4hrs 45 to 5 hours. In context that’s over 36km/hr for 180km. I am not sure I am that good. I reckon on a great day maybe 5hours 10 would be great for me but it will be a case of trying to get in great bike shape and hoping that I can be in shape to ride as close to 5hours as possible and hopefully still be in contention.
I think fast enough maybe 5 hours to 5hours 5minutes based on the fact that my swim time is potentially going to be faster than the guys who are riding sub 5 hours. I am not being negative here but more I am being realistic when I say I am not sure I am capable of this sort of time. I believe I can be close but the question is will it be fast enough? I am not sure but part of the challenge and indeed fun for me will be to see if I can achieve that. That is also taking into consideration that there is a marathon coming up.
Again it’s a longish transition area so it’s about being mindful of not leeching time here. It looks to be about 5 minutes to be fast enough.
Ideally I need to be heading out onto the run about 6 hours to 6 hours 10minutes into the race. That’s about 20minutes faster than I have ever been before so how realistic it is I am not sure but I will be trying to be in that shape come race day.
So I thought the bike times were fast but these guys are running sub 3hours 30 off those bike rides.
That’s the impressive bit. Often you will see fast bike rides followed up by very slow run times – it comes back to only having so many matches and burning them all on the bike. I do think that part of those fast run times are also linked to the drafting on the bike. There is a massive amount of energy savings to he had if you are sitting at the back of a group of fast riders.
While I have run a 3hrs 33 before it was a few years ago. If I have a great day and run 3hours 30 then that puts me at about 9hrs 40 in total. That’s still fast and funnily enough It would put me in about dare I say it 6th place.
So that is an idea of what fast will need to be relative for this race. Fark!!
I think the key thing is being fast enough in all three disciplines and also being mindful of the transitions as they matter as well.
I am a great believer that if you want to race an Ironman then get to 32km into the marathon and race to your hearts content. The challenge is getting to that point still in contention and then being in a position to push as opposed to hanging for dear life.
And I think this leads on nicely to the next term.
Yep trying to go fast hurts - The term here is - the hurt box.
Yep – I have let the cat out of the bag. Who knew! I have always said that if you ever watch an Ironman it comes down to this – everyone finishing under 11 hours looks like they are miserable and everyone finishing over 12 hours look like they are having a great time. The funny thing is that while that’s a generalization it stacks up. Be under no illusion an Ironman is hard but if you go easy while it will be tough you will have a blast.
However if you want to go fast it’s going to hurt. How much will depend on your training and how you execute your race but regardless 30km into the marathon if you are racing hard there will be a significant amount of pain. I have had it described as – every single muscle in your legs screaming at you.
So how do you deal with it?
Well partly mind-set in that you need to be prepared for it and have the mental resilience to go Ok this is the price, its only pain and what can I do to manage everything. It maybe food, fluids or just going I can deal with this it’s not far to go. I cannot stress the importance of mindset enough when it comes to this sport. Its is possibly one of the most critical parts of the race.
Secondly – in training you need to get into difficulty. Those sessions that put you in the hurt box. Those long rides where you are completely blown to pieces and you are pedaling squares for an hour just to get home. Wanting to call for a pick up but instead just stopping at a gas station to buy coke just to get you the last few kilometers to home. Those are the days that really prepare you for an ironman. If you are not getting into difficulty in training then you will not be prepared for the brutal parts of the race.
It’s the difference between doing a 5 hour training ride with a 30 minute run of the bike versus doing a 5 hour bike ride with a solid 1hr run of the bike. The key differences is in the thirty minute run you start out stiff from the ride then you loosen up and are all good and then to be honest you are done. Where as in the 1 hour run off the bike you start out stiff then loosen up and then at 45 minutes in you start feeling the hurt and realize that it’s going to be tough. It’s those sessions where it gets a bit ugly that start to get you ready both physically and mentally.
So too sum up.
Fast is relative, fast enough across the whole race is the key and finally going fast hurts.
Next blog will be about the plan and how I hope to get fast.
But remember regardless its all bout getting to the finish line and still being able to smile
Finish line Challenge Wanaka 2016 on what was a very tough day - Nuked but still smiling
I have to say that picture does not do justice to how destroyed my legs were. I think the only reason I did not end up in the medical tent with an IV line is that while i was being questioned by the medic i had a beer in my hand. :)
Husband, father, athlete coach and either really busy or really tired :)