Ironman Japan - race report

Ironman Japan

Race Report

Stu Levy

Race date:  August 24, 2014

Location:  Lake Toya (Toyako), Hokkaido, Japan

Bib number:  708

Age group:  45-49

Start:  6:16 AM


Swim 1:15:54

T1 0:08:58

Bike 6:13:45

T2 0:07:17

Run 3:55:47

Age group rank:  36 (out of 2XX participants)

Overall rank:  171 (out of 1400 participants)


Early morning was a bit windy, but balmy.  The humidity was pretty high (it’s Japan, after all) but the climate was beginning to cool so the temperature felt good for early morning, not cold.  The sun was peeking through the clouds off and on.  Outside temperature was about 68-69 and water temperature in the lake clocked in around 71-72.  Throughout the day, the humidity went up and the bike was mainly overcast, with a few patches of light rain.  Temperatures felt like they rose a few degrees.  The wind was pretty strong and there were various locations of headwinds, even a few downhills that felt flat because of the headwinds.  Lots of crosswinds in particular.  By the run, the sun had peeked out more and it felt hot.  As the sun began to set, the temperatures cooled down (but by then everyone was hot and sweaty from the day and continued to have water poured or sponged on them).  I finished just around sundown.


This was my first race since I had lessons from Bryan Mineo and really worked on my form.  This was also my longest swim in a race (although I trained in Santa Monica for similar distance a few times in the ocean).  They had us in waves, and our 45-49 y/o age group was the biggest, with over 200 athletes, but the start had enough room for us to spread out and not get too packed up.  We started in waist-high water inside the lake, then swam out into an almost-immediate drop-off.  I focused on my lessons:  try not to power through the swim, just relax and keep my body rotating, breathing evenly and really only use muscle in my arms.  Previously, I had powered through my swim, using a lot more body muscle, and Bryan had taught me to relax the body’s muscles and just focus on arms for power.  This is still something I’m struggling with mastering, but I felt it made a difference and I was able to swim more efficiently then I had in the past.  I had patches of feeling tired, and overworking my breath but then would tell myself to relax and slow down my rhythm so my breath was more natural.  This worked well.  I could sight pretty well, and the first loop (this swim was a 2-loop swim) went smoothly, without too many other swimmers in the way.  I did veer right a lot and had to bring myself a bit to the left, but by the time I reached the first main buoy (1km out) there were a lot more swimmers and I had to claim my position.  It was a bit of a hassle, and there were a few “body checks” but more or less we all made it around the buoy safely.  At this point, I began to pass people from earlier age-group waves (I could tell because of the swim cap color) and felt good about that.  I kept my pace and began to really enjoy the lake, and take in the beauty and natural water.  By the second buoy, I felt solid and confident I could do the second loop without problem.  It took a while longer and we reached the end of the first loop, had to run under the arch and over the chip tracking mat, then wade back out and swim again.  I smiled and waved for a few photos and joked “let’s do it again” to a fellow swimmer, then started over.  The second loop felt more crowded, probably because the slower swimmers of the later waves were in there mixing it up.  The water was much choppier this time - possibly a combo of wind and number of swimmers.  But I focused on my swim form.  There was a guy to my right for a long time, swimming very close and it kind of annoyed me but there was also someone to my left so I just stayed my course.  I don’t like swimming in a crowded area, but I put up with it.  Then for some reason I had my own space and enjoyed the lake for awhile - but noticed I had drifted out left and had to work my way back a bit towards the buoy.  I probably lost a minute or two by drifting but in general not much - and it was more enjoyable.  Then, around the buoy again and the last push towards the “Goal” arch, which was set up where we turned during our first loop (one triangle loop for the first and 2/3 triangle loop for the second).  I felt others around me were working hard and my form kept me efficient.  But the goal seemed to take forever to reach (doesn’t it always?) - then I reached it and we had to actually climb onto a ramp and pull ourselves up, sort of weird.  Then running into T1, hitting my Garmin and beginning to undress the wetsuit.  Swim done!

T1:  Because there was tons of rain the few days before the race (and we were all worried it would be an ugly, rainy race day), the transition area was gross and muddy.  I mean, a total mess.  Everyone grabbed their bags and trampled through the mud barefoot into changing tents.  I grabbed a small space on a bench and off with my wetsuit.  Fortunately I had remembered to bring a towel so used that to dry my feet before putting on my socks and shoes.  Had a bitch getting my gloves out of the bag (too much stuff) and went with an additional bike shorts on top of my tri outfit (for extra padding - the LA Tri tri suit isn’t padded thick), and put on a short-sleeved UCLA bike jersey that was packed with my nutrition in the pockets.   Grabbed my sunglasses, helmet and headed out, handing my bag to the volunteer.  Things were really organized well - except for the mud.  Running to my bike, my poor white bike shoes got full of mud (as did everyone’s).  Then grabbed my and carried it out (way too much mud to wheel it).  My bike was in the first row after transition so I had to carry it the whole way but no big deal - finally got to the chip markers, reached the go sign, and started to ride.  I left transition at 1:20 total.

BIKE:  I had some sandwiches with me I had packed into my T1 bag, but no time to eat them during T1 so I still had them in my hand (in a brown bag) and began to stuff my face early on the ride while getting adjusted.  I think that was a good strategy since it fueled me up well for the ride early, but the bread was too thick and it made me thirsty and was hard to swallow.  This was my first race with my Cervelo P2 (although I had done lots of training rides, and participated in a couple of official rides in LA including the Grand Tour of California Double Metric).  My P2 has been a bit weird though, making noises if I stood out of my saddle - Tri Lab tweaked it for me a few times but it has never seemed 100% since I had a minor accident with a car during training.  But other than the sounds it rode great, and I built up my pace over the first 20 miles.  This race is notorious for lots of climbing - over 1800 m of total elevation gain supposedly - but I was ready for it after tons of climbs and hill training in Malibu.  I had really focused on that and reached my peak during the final Build 3 weekend with a 112 mile, 11,000 foot (3400 m) total gain ride.  Decker, Stunt, Encinal, Latigo, Piuma, Mulholland, Old Topanga, Tuna Canyon/Fernwood - these were my stomping grounds.  So, I felt ready for Japan’s hills!  Early on there were some climbs that required me to shift down into the small ring, but I still maintained a decent pace, rarely being passed.  Very early on, some faster riders passed me on the early flat, but I also passed a number of rides, and by the first major climb I was almost never passed, and passed a decent amount of riders.  I had a few casual conversations along the way, and I always try to say hi or make a comment to riders - unless I’m focused on something else or busy enjoying the scenery etc.  My fuel was mainly Clif Shots - I ate 2 of those every 30-45 minutes, then I had also brought one protein bar, which I ate early.  I had one more sandwich, as well as two onigiris (Japanese rice balls).  I had 3 bottles of Nuun-enhanced water, but didn’t need the 3rd since the aid stations gave out sports drink and I used that to refill my sipper-bottle between my aerobars (which was way easier to drink while riding).  All in all, I felt hydrated and fueled up well.  My biggest problem body-wise was I had to pee from T1 and never did it.  I held it in for almost all of the ride, which really annoyed me (I had done that once before during a long training ride in the canyons and that sucked too).  But I didn’t want to stop by an aid station and lose the 3-4 minutes so I held it until almost the very end.  No one was around me, I was definitely ready to explode, so I pulled the ol’ ride’n’leak - down my poor leg and P2.  Oh, well, I saved time and had some relief finally!   Back to the race, as we continued to the second half, I really was loving the downhills.  After scary technical downhills such as Westlake, these wide turns allowed me to stay in my aerobars the whole time and book it in the highest gear.  I was flying and it felt great!  And the uphills were manageable so I often stayed in the big ring, passing others along the way.  Towards the end, I’d say hi to people as I passed them and they all said the climbs were killing them, but I still felt good - which made me feel my training strategy worked.  One issue though was  my right knee - which I had injured during the last weekend of build training (yeah, I over-trained with that final Malibu climb and 26 miles of running aggravated a meniscus problem that flared up horribly for a miserable taper).  I was worried about my knee during the run, and debated about not giving the bike my all to “save my legs” but decided that the time I’d gain from riding at a strong pace was worth it - and it wasn’t like I was really hurting at this point.  I felt like no matter what I did my run was going to be tough because of this injury, so why not put as much time into my pocket as I could?  The last 20-30 miles of the bike included a final serious climb then an amazing long decline, then more or less flat along the lake coming home.  I clocked myself in at 7:40 total, around 6:15 for the bike - which was 45 minutes faster than my 7 hour time goal (for a course that was supposedly harder than most other IM’s).  

T2 - got off my bike for the transition and went back into the nasty mud.  The free rack was easy - just put my bike up and jogged over to get my T2 bag.  The changing tent was packed, and I had to take off my extra bike shorts and bike jersey which added time.  I also lubed myself up below the waist - too many runs where I had wished I had done that and regretted it later.  Then I made a decision I had been debating - I had packed a pair of toe-socks (ininjis) into my T2 bag and at this point decided to take the extra 2 minutes to put them on.  Yeah, it’s a hassle to do that but I knew that getting blisters half way into my run would really be misery so I gave back a few of the minutes I gained on the bike and changed my socks.  Put on my cap and hit the road!

RUN - started running and realized my entire body was in pain!  My quads were pretty spent, and the long day so far was catching up to me quickly.  My main sport is running so I thought my instinct would kick in, which it did, but it wasn’t pretty.  This course was a bit of a bummer too - starts with a run past the Finish then Turn-around to 2 full loops - meaning you have to go through the first Turn-around point 3 times, and in front of lots of people.  And I had loops on runs since I get frustrated in my head seeing those distance signs for the second loop while I’m still on the first loop.  I also hate not knowing if people on the other side are on their first or second loop (or people passing me or passed by me).  It’s just generally annoying, particularly as a marathon runner since I have never had to run a marathon with loops.  Anyways, watching my Garmin as I run, I realized I was doing a classic positive split - each mile was a few seconds slower.  And that’s not good.  I started with 7:35 for my first mile, quickly dropping to 7:50 and was out of the 7’s by the 4th or 5th mile.  Well, there goes cutting below 3:30!  I had given myself a time goal of 4 hours, but somewhere in my head I would have loved to have hit 3:30 since I’m a 3:18-ish runner for marathons.  But I also knew that would be pretty tough, especially with my knee injury.  What I didn’t anticipated was how thoroughly exhausted I’d be.  I felt like I was bonking - or hit the 20-mile wall of a marathon - even though I was only on mile 4.  I grabbed liquid at the aid stations, took in my gels, did everything I could but realized that this was going to be an ugly run.  I also didn’t have enough gels and figured I’d use the aid station nutrition but that was a mistake since I prefer Gu or Clif and they had a Japanese concoction that using the Wieder brand and doesn’t feel as powerful.  But at this point no nutrition was going to save me - I had to just fight it out with will-power.  My main goal was to not walk until I made it to at least the half-marathon point.  My pace kept dropping but I never went below 8:45 during the first half.   Then I had to run by all the people in the turnaround so hung in there until about mile 14 or 15 then finally took a walk.  From that point on, it was giving back my bike time in the form of 10-minute miles of walk-runs.  But I noticed when I walked for 1-2 minutes people would pass me, then when I started running again I’d pass them back.  My run pace was still clocking around 8:30 - 8:40 when I ran, but just couldn’t keep it up without walking for 1-2 minutes each mile in the last 10.  So, that’s what I did.  I just did a walk-run - and I actually started to get a bit comfortable with it, sucking up all the pain, which was really really bad at times.  The knee was actually okay - it hung in there - but the quads, the calves, and my overall body was baked.  In the last 1+ mile, I bumped into an athlete Kat from Germany who was pacing with me for awhile on the bike, then again early on the run.  She’s a tough athlete - and an experienced Ironman-distance finisher (she told me she had done a Challenge Roth 5 weeks before this race - wow!!).  I told her this was my first IM and she was impressed by my time, so we paced each other in for the last mile, and she even suggested we cross the finish line together in camaraderie.  We ran it in strong, and it was an AMAZING feeling to have the 20 weeks of training, many days of stress and nervousness and insecurity, months of mental suffering, worries from family, and late deadlines for work all pay off in the end.  

OVERALL:  I had been so worried that if I had a lousy time (my stated goal was to break 13 hours, but in my head I was hoping for 12:30) then I knew I’d need to do another IM sooner rather than later, but I really can’t afford the schedule challenges.  And I’d like to move on to some other goals like a Double Century bike ride, 10k ocean swim, etc.  So, it was great to finish 50 solid minutes faster than my goal.  And in a race where the elite winner barely cut 9 hours, and the top 20 hit the 10-hour mark.  In other words, I could be proud of my results - and while my race wasn’t perfect (if I hadn’t over-trained and re-injured my knee I could have kept running during my taper and had a better run time), I think it was realistically 80-90% of my current potential, maybe more.  When I first started racing with a spring tri at the age of 41 (6 months after coming off the couch, then walking at first, then running), I had met an impressive guy Terence who was a friend of a friend (and old-school LA Tri member I believe).  He had run Boston and was an Ironman, and it just overwhelmed me to think about being at that level.  I had no idea that eventually I would get there myself - it wasn’t even a possibility in my mind.  6 years later, to have done it (and also in the same year of my first Boston), I really am thankful for such an encouraging athletic community we have out in LA (and with LA Tri people) and supportive family, friends, and career.  I’ve learned a lot about not only my body and mind, but about life, and what it means to challenge oneself and not for money or material goods but for the sheer satisfaction of pushing yourself beyond your own limits, and accomplishing that feat.  It’s addictive, which can have a negative side, but the positive effect of being an amateur athlete and achieving a mind-body balance (or at least striving for it) is far beyond the negative side.  As an official Ironman, I’m proud to have gone through this struggle - and the years of struggle of improving.  I don’t know if I’ll ever do another Ironman - I feel satisfied with going back to marathons and trying these different goals - but I’m honored to be amongst the elite ranks of other incredible athletes who have pushed themselves this far and conquered their own fears and insecurities.  While my knee is in livid pain, and my body is totally exhausted (and who knows how long it will take to recover), I feel vindicated - this was so worth doing!!  And to anyone who may be reading this, considering their first step into the world of endurance sports, or considering their first Ironman - more power to you!  Don’t hesitate for a moment!  If I can do it, you can do it!!!!

Note:  I didn’t train with a group, or have a coach for this.  I did “borrow” a coach-created 20-week plan and followed that more or less to a T.  Honestly, I needed to save some money, and I travel a lot for work so didn’t think a coach was practical for me.  I’m also unique in that I’m very self-motivated and can train alone without giving up.  But I do believe group training, and having a coach, is ideal - and of course wonder how I would have done if I had one.