Ironman Chattanooga 2014: Breaking Chatt
“I have spent my whole life scared, frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen, 50-years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.” – Walter White
Most people who train for an ironman will resort to the trainer at some point for bike workouts. After a particularly harsh winter in the DC area this year, which included numerous winter vortexes, several of my long rides had to be completed indoors. Five hours on a trainer can become a mind-numbing activity; this is when I discovered my new best friend, Netflix. In the course of 3 months, I burned through 4 seasons of Dexter, 4 seasons of Battlestar Galactica, and the entire Breaking Bad series, all while feverishly spinning away on my Cervelo. Breaking Bad was a show that captivated me in a way that, when I first went through the series, I had to watch alone in complete silence. The show required too much focus. The reruns, however, were prime trainer material. Walter White’s use of science to outwit his enemies powered me past my aerobic threshold on many occasions.
“Sitting around, smoking marijuana, eating Cheetos and masturbating do not constitute ‘plans.’” – Walter White
All this work on the trainer was geared towards my A race of 2014, Ironman Chattanooga. My journey to Chattanooga began in September 2013 in Henderson, Nevada. In my hotel room the day before the 70.3 World Championships, I received an email from “chattanooga”. I had attempted to register for the race three days prior, only to be locked out of the website halfway through the registration process. The email informed me that if I still wanted to race, I was in.
“It adds up perfectly. Walt’s a scientist. Scientists love lasers!” – Saul Goodman
My decision to do Ironman Chattanooga boiled down to 3 reasons:
- I’ve always wanted to do an inaugural race, since it provides an element of “mystery” for a race distance I’ve covered five times before. No race reports would help with this one.
- The race was close to home. It was my backyard brawl. My dad and stepmom could attend without stepping on a plane; it was a manageable 5 hour drive from Roanoke.
- After having competed in Kona in 2012 and 2013, I needed a year off. Chattanooga would be my Kona this year.
“This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed…bitch!” – Jesse Pinkman
While the race logistics were easy, finding lodging proved to be difficult. All housing rentals seemed to go as fast as the registration. After extensive searches on VRBO and Airbnb, I lucked out with an unlisted property in downtown Chatt, less than 2 miles from the transition.
“I’m lying here like third base, living from bowel movement to bowel movement. I’m not even useful to myself.” – Hank Schrader
Race morning was pretty typical. Woke up at four, ate a ton of applesauce, and BM’ed thrice. I hitched a ride with dad to transition, then waited in an absurdly long line to board a shuttle to the swim start. Upon arriving, I walked 2 miles to get to the end of an even more absurdly long line to start the race. Just as Walter White used Gus’ vengeance for Hector Salamanca against him, I used the long line to work up and clear out one last BM. As Walter told Skyler, “I won.”
“You ever hear the expression a fart in the wind? Well, inside of an hour that’s going to be me, okay? I’m hittin’ the road. I’m gone. I’m out of here.” – Saul Goodman
A steady stream of swimskin-laden triathletes jumped into the Tennessee River for 30 minutes. I was towards the end of that stream, starting roughly 18 minutes behind the first age grouper. My fear that I would be constantly swimming over people was quickly abated by the width of the river and the spirited current ushering me towards T1. By virtue of the current, I was able to relax my kicking and focus on working with my upper body. The buoys flew by. Had I been able to draft off ANYONE, this would have been the perfect swim. Instead I plowed through the water alone, passing buoys and other swimmers at a surprising rate. Before you could say “Heisenberg”, I was out of the water. Seeing a split that began with the number “4” brought a dumb smile to my face.
Swim Time: 49:18 Rank after Swim: 25AG/192OA
“Well? Get back to work.” – Gus Fring
After giving my legs a nice vacation on the swim, they were rearing to go on the bike. I had a goal time in mind, but one of the QT2 mantras is to focus on objectives, not outcomes. My objective was to hit my HR target of 143 beats per minute consistently throughout the bike. Based on training, I knew this would get me in the neighborhood of 240-250W, which had been unthinkable in previous Ironman races. Right out of the gate, my HR and power were well above their targets. I had to slow down, which was a good sign. Whenever I feel like I am working early in the race, I know I am in for a long day. The bike course took us southbound from Chattanooga into the rolling country roads of northern Georgia. With overcast skies and little wind, I knew this would be a fast day. I kept passing folks, but amazingly, nobody passed me. By the end of the first loop, I was ahead of most of the age groupers. I burned a match to move past a peloton. I started passing women with “P” on their calves. Was I going too strong? My Garmin said no – HR and power numbers were holding steady, and my legs felt fantastic.
“There’s no honor among thieves… except for us of course.” – Saul Goodman to Walt
Halfway through the second loop, I noticed three dudes from the peloton I had passed decided to join me in my breakaway. A little too closely. My power started to creep too high, and so I dropped back. My cohorts might have taken this to mean “it’s your turn to pull”. When they slowed down, my power dropped way below target, and I was ready to pass again. This resulted in a pattern of yo-yoing that wasn’t conducive to smart, consistent biking. Having learned my lesson from the drafting penalty I received at Kona last year, I was careful to quickly drop out of the draft zone after being passed. This cautiousness paid off – a draft marshal came by and issued a penalty to the cheater rider in front of me. Evidently we had been “watched” for a while before the marshal took action.
“Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!” – Jesse Pinkman
In my previous 5 ironman races, I do not recall feeling this strong at the end of the bike segment. My riding was controlled and consistent, my nutrition consumption was spot on, and I was well hydrated, as I had marked plenty of territory throughout the 116 mile course. Rolling into T2, I knew I was well positioned to execute a strong run.
Bike Time: 5:03:47 Rank after bike: 3AG/26OA
“This kicks like a mule with its balls wrapped in duct tape!” – Tuco Salamanca
My kick was high from the start. My HR, on the other hand, was having trouble reaching the target. Rather than sweat it, I had to go on feel and race my race. After an initial ass-kicking hill out of T2, my pace went into the 6:30s as the run course hugged the riverside. Tim of QT2 passed me on the bike, shouting words of encouragement. Val , who was volunteering at the special needs station, informed me I was 2nd off the bike in my division. Things were looking pretty good. And then…
Walter: “How did everything get so screwed up?” Saul: “Yeah, you do seem to have a little ‘shit creek’ action going.”
At mile 7, the insole of my left shoe began to slide up my foot, bunching up around my toes. While annoying-yet-tolerable at first, it quickly became painful. I stopped, took off my shoe, adjusted the insole, put my shoe back on, laced up, and resumed my pace. 10 steps in, more bunching. I decided to run the remainder of my race with one shoe cushioned, the other raw dog. Stop, shoe off, insole out, shoe on, run again. It felt weird at first, but over time, the fatigue of running a marathon quickly overshadowed my imbalanced running.
“Yo, Gatorade me, bitch” – Jesse Pinkman
With some reluctance, I decided to walk every aid station in the run, under the insistence of coach V. This proved beneficial from two standpoints; it gave my legs a much needed break, and it allowed me to down every last drop of Perform and water I was handed. Though frustrating at first, by the second loop of the run, I “got it”. Though my muscles were screaming, my energy level was still pretty high, thanks to all the calories I was consuming. I just had to overcome the wariness in my calves, glutes, and core. So I focused on maintaining my HR in the upper 140s and kicking strong. Both tactics worked. My pace was only ~20 seconds per mile slower on lap 2.
With one mile to go, it began raining. At this point in the marathon, I was doing anything I could to maintain pace. The weather became instant incentive to pick up speed. Your family is waiting for you in the rain, hurry up… bitch! Hustling over the pedestrian bridge and meandering through downtown, I quickly found myself back at the transition area. Which lead to the finisher’s chute. Which lead to Mike Reilly screaming his famous words. I am now a six-time Ironman! And evidently a flight attendant!
Run time: 3:07:36 Total time: 9:08:18 Final Place: 1st AG/22 OA/2nd amateur
Walt: “Hank, you want another beer?” Hank: “Does the Pope shit in his hat?”
In the finisher’s tent, I caught up with fellow Igniter Matt, who rocked his first pro race, and Katie who had a breakthrough race, finishing 8th overall among the pros. I was greeted by my parents and Alexis outside the gate. Beer and food were calling. I walked through the door of The Blue Plate, still decked out in my tri gear, finisher’s medal, and foil cover, and received a rousing ovation from the packed restaurant. It was… surreal. I felt like a celebrity. Walking past the tables, I shook hands, gave high-fives, and thanked people for supporting the race. Gotta say, Chattanooga has raised the bar in terms of volunteer and crowd support. It makes for an atmosphere few other Ironman venues can match.
“Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” – Hank Schrader
In a brief post-mortem, here are some of the things that contributed to my breakthrough race:
- Increasing bike volume. I commute to work three times a week (20 miles each way), and ride twice on the weekends. A good percentage of my volume is above aerobic threshold.
- Improving swim balance. This swimming thing doesn’t come naturally to me. With the help of coach V, I’ve been able to address the major kinks in my form, particularly balance. Swimming a LOT with ankle bands helped me engage my core to keep from swimming vertically.
- Switching to a vegetarian-based version of the Core Diet. This helped me lean down from 183lbs (my Kona 2013 race weight) to 169lbs (my Choo 2014 race weight)
- Sleeping more. 6 hours minimum, but 8 hours most nights. This means no more fooling around on the ‘net at 9pm when I need to be winding down.
- Foam rolling. Like, every freakin’ night. If you aren’t already doing it, do it.
“You know Walter, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to have someone watching your back.” – Mike Ehrmantraut
No Ironman finisher completes the journey on their own. It takes supportive family and friends, fellow athletes to push you in training, and a racing infrastructure to set up the stage for an awesome event. I owe a debt of gratitude to each of these groups. A few notable folks in particular:
- My dad, stepmom Abby, cousin David, Aubrey, Sophie, and Hannah, for joining me on race day and becoming the second edition of “Team Andy”. Although I only saw David during the race, everyone, including the extended “Team Andy” (Mom, Hunter, Keri, Journey, and Jonah), was with me the entire 9:08 I was on the course.
- The Chattanooga community and particularly the volunteers, for making this race an instant favorite. The support and energy they brought to the event was remarkable. Evidently there was a waiting list just to volunteer, which speaks volumes about the giving spirit of Chattanooga.
- My Ignite Endurance crew, who reminds me how lucky I am to have a fun and supportive group to train with, and eat copious amounts of guacamole with during our training table nights.
- Tri360, the best triathlon shop and bike store in DC, for getting my bike in race-ready condition and helping me with all my equipment needs.
- Team FeXY for all the love you threw out on the course; I felt like an adopted FeXY out there.
- Coach Vinny… where do I start… the constant feedback, attention to detail, challenging me when I need to be challenged, turning my self-doubt into optimism, educating me on every step of the training process, and most of all believing in me. I would not have achieved this result without your guidance. Over a decade into triathlon and never have I been more excited about what the future holds.
- My other amazing sponsors – Zoca for comfy and durable race threads, Skratch for the best hydration mix available, Gu for keeping the engine purring through 144.6 miles, and CycleOps for powering me through a winter’s worth of Breaking Bad in my basement.
Jesse: “What’s the point of being an outlaw when you got responsibilities?” Badger: “Darth Vader had responsibilities. He was responsible for the Death Star.” Skinny Pete: “True that. Two of them bitches.”
My final responsibility… delivering the numbers.