I created an interesting situation last year when I qualified for Kona in Arizona because I felt like I had backed myself into a corner and my only option was to raise the bar.
That's all cool when you're seven months out, talking it up among your friends and family, but once the race started closing in on me, I began to wonder how it would all work out.
In the final weeks leading into the race, a voice in my head kept saying -- "What if you fail?"
It's inevitable. I will fail. In fact, I have failed. But my recent failures have been mild. No, my fear was a failure of epic proportions.
We've all seen it. The athlete that puts it all on the line, comes up short and ends up walking back to the finish.
That is my demon and we definitely wrestled through race week.
At some point, I thought about what I would say to an athlete I coach...
- You've been down this path a number of times.
- It's another day at the office.
- You're just going to work.
- Go to work!
On race morning, we rolled out of bed at 3:45 because I was nervous about the earlier swim start.
Kudos to WTC for listening! They cleared a congested area along the water and made it easy for athletes to move to the beach. I can't even begin to tell you how much stress was relieved when I didn't have to fight my way through a crowd of spectators to get to the water.
And while we're at it, the new swim format was a success in my opinion. I do have one complaint -- the slower pro women got absolutely crushed by the first wave of age groupers. I'm sure there's plenty to read about that somewhere so I won't go into detail but it looked pretty ugly from where I was swimming.
So yeah, I guess I'm in the water already.
But let's do a slight rewind.
I seeded myself in the '60 minutes and under group', near the back, and when the gun went off, I got into the water a few seconds after the clock had started.
The start reminded me of the swim start in Kona because I felt like I was being sucked out in a vacuum.
It wasn't the typical battle though. It was a bunch of guys and gals at my pace, playing well and forming draft packs.
I hit one bit of congestion, which was my fault, because I got a little too close to the turn buoy and got caught up in the chaos. I was through it soon enough and back to sitting on feet.
After completing my first loop, I made a slight error when I dove into the water a little too hard and let water get into my goggles but I quickly resolved that problem.
The second loop was lonely though, it was almost a solo effort. I expected to come upon a large group of slower age groupers but to my surprise the last leg was empty.
When I got back to shore, I got my suit off quick enough, ran into transition and had a minor snag when I donned my sunglasses and discovered they were completely fogged.
I ran out of transition half blind and ran past my bike rack. Oops. Not one of my finer moments but it happens. Maybe I'll spray them with anti fog next time.
Out on the bike, I really hammered the first 30 miles. With the improved swim format, there were a lot more athletes on the bike course and large packs were already forming.
The last thing I wanted to do was get caught up in a drafting or blocking situation and I definitely burned a few matches on the east side of the lake.
Once we got out on US-95, I knew it was only a matter of time before the adrenaline rush started wearing off for people and the pace of the masses would slow.
We went up and over the first hill but folks were still hanging on but once we started climbing the second hill, the steam started to escape and I finally had room to breathe.
Settling in on where I wanted to be, I let pace dictate the effort but I kept a watchful eye on watts and heart rate. I felt that in order to stay in the game, I had to ride 5:20.
After the first loop, I clocked an average of 21.3 MPH which put a big grin on my face but I wasn't about to celebrate because the second loop can get interesting. Not today though. The second loop was almost as good as the first and when I rolled back into transition, I wondered about the $64,000,000 -- "Can I run?"
I got off the bike, passed my ride to the bike handlers and I began my mad dash towards my run bag on some pretty wobbly legs underneath me.
Another mild transition snafu when I expected the volunteers to get my bag instead of going to my bag. My bad. I've learned this lesson previously and I really don't know where my head was at the time.
In the tent, out of the tent and I'm off for a quick marathon, I hope.
As I put one foot in front of the other, I immediately wondered how my unsteady legs would hold up.
This was not the situation I wanted to experience but after a couple of miles, I shook the damage from the bike and I started clocking some fast splits.
In any other Ironman event, I would exercise caution for the first 13 miles and then I'd try to lift the effort in the back end. But in this race, I knew there were fast guys on the course that would not allow for me to coast through the first 13 miles.
My goal was to open up as big a gap as possible and I wanted to be so far ahead that their goal was for third place.
I know that sounds strange but what you might not know is Tom Evans, ex-pro and 2008 overall winner, is in my age group and he was on the participant list.
At this point in the race, I didn't know my position but I had assumed it was not first.
While chipping away at the miles, I scanned the faces, numbers and names as I passed each athlete. I could not find Tom but I did spot the eventual 2nd and 4th place guys.
#4 was far enough back that I didn't consider him a threat but #2 was close.
When I came back into town, I heard my wife's voice but it was hard to understand what she was saying... "something, something, something, 90 seconds back".
I wasn't sure if I was 90 seconds back or if somebody else was 90 seconds back but I knew it was close.
Moments later, I ran past a friend who was spectating and he said I was winning and as long as I kept it up, it was mine.
Surely he was mistaken, I thought. Tom was in front of me somewhere and I just assumed he had such a large gap that we weren't crossing paths. What I didn't know -- Tom didn't start.
First or second place, it didn't really matter. This was the best race of my life and there was a guy 90 seconds back. That's all I needed to know. Not that I wasn't pushing hard already but I really thought about where I could make it hurt.
As I ran out on the east side of the lake for my final loop, I pushed hard going up the hill. I probably went a little too hard because on the descent, down the back, I had to ease up.
When I hit the turn around and made my way back up the hill, I spotted #2 which really scared me because of the lack of distance between the two of us.
I saw him but he didn't see me.
In a panic, I charged up the hill, got across the top and really hammered the descent which caused my muscles to send some warning shots in the form of cramps.
No, no. Not yet, I thought.
With six miles to go, I did NOT want to start cramping.
I eased up a little to let the cramps subside and then I started to push again.
There were a few more episodes on the way back into town and I kept thinking #2 was going to catch me on the final stretch, Sherman Ave.
Snaking my way back through the streets, I finally arrived at the turn for the home stretch. Off in the distance, there was one guy ahead and he kept looking back as if he thought I was going to catch him. Not a chance but he continued to look anyway.
I opted for a less obvious approach, I asked spectators if there was anyone behind me but my position was not being threatened.
With the street almost exclusively mine, I pushed hard into the chute, threw a fist in the air and crossed the finish with my first age group win.
Just to type that out caused me to stop for a moment because I can hardly believe it.
The experience reminds me of a story my friend once told me about his golden retriever puppy. He said as the dog began to mature, his instincts would kick in and he'd try to catch birds.
One day they were down at the beach and the dog, like on so many other occasions, attempted to catch a seagull. But this time, he did in fact catch the gull, was completely astonished and released the bird unharmed.
I'm pretty sure I know how the dog felt.
Wow. Just wow.