Ben Greenfield: Ironman Triathlon Prelude—On the Road to Kona

By Ben Greenfield

I chose the Onion Man Olympic distance triathlon (which includes a 1.5K swim, a 40K bicycle ride and a 10K run) as my “tune-up” race for the big showdown at the Hawaii 70.3 in June. The Hawaii 70.3 is a qualifier for the Kona Ironman Triathlon championship race. (The 70.3 consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run.)

This was my first time racing on the new clincher-style Gray Wheels, so I was pretty excited to be trying out their equivalent of the high-end, aerodynamic Zipp 808 wheels, along with a new SRAM Red 11-23 cassette gearing. The one element that is always present at Onion Man is occasional big gusts of crosswind, so I knew this would be a great chance to see how these wheels performed in Hawaii-like conditions.

Onion Man has never been without its share of “hiccups” for me. The first year I raced, my water bottle and fuel bottle flew off my bike on the first speed bump coming out of transition, and spilled my nutrition all over the road. The next year, I fought pre-race diarrhea that left me standing in a porta-potty with a wetsuit around my ankles just a few minutes before the race start. That year, I just did not feel right, and came in seventh overall. Here were my splits for that year:

  • Swim: 0:21:36
  • T1: 1:03
  • Bike: 1:03:19
  • T2: 0:36
  • Run: 0:39:35
  • Time: 2:06:09

So this year, I was anxious to see what would be in store. And sure enough, just as the race announcer said, “Ten minutes to swim start, everybody down to the water!” I heard a loud sound, like a gunshot – BOOM. Somebody’s tire blew. Poor sucker, I thought to myself.

As I adjusted my wetsuit and headed down to the water, I happened to glance at my bike. The rear wheel visibly flat. MY tube had blown.

I sprinted to my bike and whipped out my flat change kit, and at the same time, a race official showed up and said, “Just go down and swim, man, I got it.”

Seriously? ROCK ON. I was a bit apprehensive about him getting adequate pressure and leaving my rear derailleur in the proper gear, but what could I do? You can’t pass up an offer like that. I didn’t see him again after the race, so I guess he was probably my heavenly triathlon angel, with huge feathered wings tucked under his bright orange official vest. 😉

The swim here was cold. Headache cold. And dirty. You should not open your mouth and swallow any water if you value the health of your gut flora. Incentive to swim fast! I wore my neoprene cap, but about 200 yards in, I felt like it was choking me, so I tore it off and kept swimming. So some fisherman is going to find himself a nice little $30 piece of floating headgear…

My swim split was a 21:35. One second faster than last year. I’ll take it.

I hopped on the bike in sixth place. Everything, including the tire, appeared to be set up perfectly. My only errors were

  1. I forgot my aero tube bottle, so I rode with my downtube Gatorade bottle full of tasty GU Brew;
  2. I forgot my sweet Zeal Optics sunglasses, so I had to use some old generic glasses that fogged a bit, but it wasn’t really a big deal.

Bike split on my Specialized Transition felt great. I hammered into the headwind going out, knowing it would be an easy ride coming back. I rode a 1:00:11, 3 minutes and 8 seconds faster than last year. For a 40K bike ride, that is a seriously sweet improvement. With an extra gear, I could have ridden under an hour.

With that bike split, I was in first place by the turnaround point.

Coming off the bike in first place, you feel like the rabbit— with all those hungry dogs chasing. I slipped into my Avia Bolts (running shoes) and took off for the 6.4-mile run, running scared. At mile 1, I looked back. Nobody.

At mile 2, I looked back. Nobody.

At mile 2.5, I checked again, and this time, saw Michael Gordon about 100 yards back. Knowing he could hammer out a 34-minute 10K, I knew I could be in trouble.

He passed me at the 5K mark, and I thought about trying to run with him, but I can’t move that fast—I was feeling pushed to the limit running 6:15s (6 minutes, 15 seconds per mile on average).

As Michael opened a big gap, my strategy moved toward holding off third place and finishing strong.

I managed to keep a large gap between myself and third place, and came across 38:42, about 45 seconds faster than last year, and good enough for a second place finish, and my own age group first place win, a little bit of cash, and a 2:02:09 overall, EXACTLY 4 minutes faster than last year, which I’m very happy with for an Olympic distance race!

Ultimately, it looks like (despite the last-minute tire blow!) those Gray Wheels turned out pretty well! Thanks to Synergy Sports, I’m looking forward to racing a great bike split in Hawaii, and feeling very good about my fitness.

With the Hawaii race so close, this will be the first time I’ve raced Onion Man without planning a stagger-fest of red wine tasting in downtown Walla Walla after the race. Somehow, I didn’t imagine a few barrels of ethanol to be conducive to recovery. But a Mexican restaurant stop at Caseula’s in good ol’ Ritzville, Washington was the next best thing.

I was recently asked: “Ben, do you honestly feel that long-distance triathlon (70.3 and Ironman) are healthy endeavors? I haven’t met a triathlete who isn’t either injured or just getting over an injury. Divorce rate and immune deficiency issues also are the tip of the iceberg.’

My reply is a definite “yes,” but only if you train smart. Junk miles = family problems, lots of time training, injuries and immune suppression. Probably 80% of people do this sport wrong, and it’s sad because I hear horror stories from spouses and kids. One of the things I recommend that helps support immune health is Natural Vitality’s magnesium products.  Magnesium is one of the most critical elements in the human body and the single most important mineral in sports nutrition. Sleep levels, hydration, metabolic efficiency, oxygen consumption, muscle function and heart rate, are all critically dependent on adequate magnesium levels.

Americans do not consume the recommended daily intake of magnesium, that’s a fact. Another fact is that athletes lose magnesium through sweating at a rate much faster than the average person. This gives them even a higher risk factor for magnesium deficiency. That’s why I recommend a liquid calcium magnesium sports product from Natural Vitality called Osteo Calm®. As a liquid product, it is easily absorbed, has the correct proportion of magnesium to calcium and includes vitamin D, which is critical to athletic performance. For those women athletes who are especially concerned with bone density and osteoporosis, I highly recommend it, and have introduced it to my wife, who is a runner.

The food you eat does not give you all of the nutrients you need. That’s why I now tell all of my coached athletes, including my wife, to supplement their diets with nutritional magnesium and antioxidant products.

One of the other Natural Vitality sports products I use is Natural Calm Bath, which is a magnesium bath salt formula. This product relaxes my muscles and is a natural detoxifier, eliminating toxins out of my body that have accumulated with intense training and competition. Toxins that accumulate in the body weaken your immune system. You need to get them out as fast as possible, and magnesium helps with that.

I also use liquid NutraRev® in the afternoon for a natural energy boost. This is a great antioxidant that further helps me slow down the oxidation process during my workouts and competition. Oxidation is yet another enemy of the immune system. Train smart, eat right, but always supplement.