Things You May Not Know: A Winning Strategy That Nearly Failed IRONMAN 1995
Every top professional athlete has their strategy of how they will end the day victorious. But the reality is this: only one strategy will be the winning one!
And at a race like the IRONMAN World Championship, being the lucky one to come up with that key winning strategy is extremely, extremely difficult. The race is complex to nail. More can go wrong than you could ever plan for. A little too fast early and you can explode later. A hotter day than normal and your race nutrition might be like swilling swamp water. A whole host of athletes coming up with breakthrough performances can upset your carefully thought out plan no matter how crafty it seemed before the start of the race.
Going into the IRONMAN World Championship in 1995 I had both momentum and a handicap.
I’d come up with the winning strategy in my previous five starts in Kona. That was an advantage.
Then I took a year away from IRONMAN in 1994. And I had seen that the race dynamic was changing dramatically. It was becoming more about radically varied speeds on the bike by the strong cyclists who knew they had to try to fatigue the legs of the better runners. That didn’t bother me. I’d figure out how to neutralize those types of attacks.
But what did keep me up at nights was that by race day I was going to be one old sucker. I’d be 37. That fact blocked me from getting any kind of vision of what a winning strategy was going to look like. You just don’t have the same raw power or deep reserves that athletes ten and fifteen years younger than you have.
I have a pretty good way of playing strategies out in my mind and seeing their likely outcome. None had me being the one giving the victory speech at the awards. All I saw were young guys who were like rabid dogs ready to chew me up and spit me out all over the lava.
Sometimes a winning strategy sprouts out of the most basic thoughts.
How do I have one more great IRONMAN? How do I run one more great marathon in Kona? Well, to do that I have to come off the bike fresh. How do I come off the bike fresh and in good enough position so that a great marathon will be effective? Well, I have to be so much stronger on the bike than I will ever need to ride in the race. Use strength to conserve strength. That meant lots of over-distance and strength work on the bike. I like that.
I also had to come out of the water fresh to have that kind of ride. How do I do that? Well, lots of over-distance work in the pool. That was not my favorite thing, but I’d do it anyway. I needed to come out of the water after 2.4-miles of swimming feeling like it was barely a warmup.
In the winter of 1995 I launched my training. I did most of my long rides with Jürgen Zäck. If you don’t know his name you should. He is one of the best cyclists in the sport’s history. He always rode faster than me in Kona.
Jürgen Zäck came to San Diego in the winters to escape the cold of his German homeland.
In January he arrived. He was already so much more fit than I was. Secret training I guess! By the end of February I was catching up. By the end of April. I’d actually started to pull away from Jürgen on some of our weekly long rides. Things were looking good! In May I headed off to Boulder, Colorado where I’d train until just before leaving for Kona.
The clincher in this part of my winning strategy happened at the end of the summer. I came back down to sea level before heading over to Kona. Jürgen and I met to do one last long ride together. I knew he was trying to size up my fitness. He pushed things from the start. I was controlled.
Around the midpoint I took the reins and dropped him…over and over and over. By the end of the ride he looked defeated. But we both knew that one training ride never sets anything in stone for the IRONMAN in Hawaii. Jürgen would show his strength on the bike on race day. No one would see mine. I’d use it to conserve energy for the marathon.
My winning strategy was simple.
Stay with the main pack on the swim. Ride at 150 beats per minute or less on the bike no matter what. Lock in on the marathon and pick off what would likely be a whole barrage of youngsters I hadn’t raced in two years who would start the run well ahead of me. Yes, conserve strength on the bike to have strength for the run. Race day would be the one time to let Jürgen go!
Indeed Jürgen and his countryman 24-year old Thomas Hellriegel blasted through what had been a fairly steadily moving group early in the ride. I tried to go them, but my heart rate said, “NO!”. Their pace was way too fast. I could stay with them, but that would have made it impossible to know if I could run. Use strength to conserve strength.
I dialed it back and settled in at just under 150 beats per minute. There was a big group of riders all in the same zip code. No one wanted to be the carrot out front setting the pace. Someone would eventually pull around and try to get away, but to no avail. So they’d give up and slow. My heart rate would drop to under 130. The pace was too slow. So I’d try to get away and hopefully only drag a few people with me. I’d peg things at 150 beats per minute. But it never worked. The entire giant pack seemed bungeed together. So I’d slow.
Everyone tried to get away. No one succeeded.
Perceived effort was well within my comfort zone. I watched my heart rate. 135, 130, 125. I tried again. All I could think of was Zäck and Hellriegel depositing huge chunks of pavement between us and them. The winds were the worst I’d ever seen and the German duo was taking advantage of them. They were also taking advantage of our “no one willing to go on the hunt” strategy.
I started the marathon 13:30 down on Hellriegel who finished the bike in first. His bike split was 17-minutes faster than mine that day (4:29:37 to my 4:46:35). Yes, it was a horrendous day with winds that seemed to turn against us no matter which direction we were riding. Even Zäck suffered. He limped in at 4:40:23, a time nearly 13-minutes slower than he rode two year earlier on a more favorable day.
My winning strategy was failing. No one had ever come from that far down to claim the crown. I had to make up 30-seconds a mile, every single mile, if I was going to catch Hellriegel at the finish line.
My commitment to myself was to just try to make up an inch or a second every single step. I normally ease into the run. But on this day, there was no easing into anything. A second lost anywhere could mean a victory lost also by a scant second.
There was so much questioning going on in my mind those first miles of the marathon. Had I done the right thing on the bike? Was it even a good decision to try coming back for one more? What if I totally blow up?
It took a few more miles to really lock in. And the full details of that story are for another day. But finally, I got myself to just shut up and run, one step at a time. Just count: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. Keep focused on the immediate moment. Don’t spend one second thinking about what was going on up the road where Hellriegel was running unseen and unchallenged mile after mile.
About halfway through the marathon I passed Zäck who was still in second. With 8-miles to go I was told Hellriegel was 4-minutes ahead. I was still only on pace to catch him at the finish line. I’d run 18-miles but our gap was relatively unchanged.
This was it. I needed to lock in one more time. Engage fully. Forget about Hellriegel. Ask the Island for help. Commit no matter what. This is it. There is nothing to save for another day. This day gets my all.
Twenty-three miles into the marathon I finally caught Hellriegel. He’d led the race for over six-hours. In one swift surge I passed him. He couldn’t respond.
It was the most difficult victory of all my IRONMAN World Championship wins. Like I said, the full story of this race is for another day. But indeed, I was the one who came up with the winning strategy. Use your strength to conserve your strength so that you have all the strength needed for victory.
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