Breakaway Athlete Derek Owens IRONMAN Arizona 2018

Derek had an exceptional race at IRONMAN Arizona,  breaking the 11 hour barrier on his first attempt at the distance, a great finish to his first year of triathlon racing. He shares his big day here.

Race Morning

I had a pretty hard time sleeping, and woke up at 2:45 am to my alarm having slept probably 4-5 hours. I had coffee and the race breakfast I had been preparing for, 2 blocks of chicken ramen noodles (760 calories, 3320mg of sodium, 104g of carbs). I also had a banana right before we left for Tempe Beach Park. I got to transition, put my nutrition into the corresponding bags and on my bike, got body marked, got into my wetsuit, and headed to the swim start. It was cold, and I forgot to bring some throwaway shoes, so my feet were freezing as we waited. I lined up in the 1:00-1:10 corral and stood in other people’s pee while waiting to get started. I saw and shook Mike Reilly’s hand right before getting into the water, which was super cool!

Race Strategy

Swim – find fast feet, swim smooth and relaxed, come out of the water fresh

Bike – Keep HR at around 145, try not to let it spike

Run – 9 min/mile pace for the first 10 miles or so, slowly cranking up if I feel good, let loose on the last 10k if I have anything left

Nutrition – 60g of carbs per hour on the bike; water, base salt, and coke on the run at every aid station

Swim – 1:14:21

I lined up in the 1:00-1:10 corral, hoping to find some fast feet to hang on to and to avoid any of the weak swimmers who may overestimate their ability and hop into the 1:15ish group. I was hoping to finish the swim in under 1:10, but it had been a while since I had swum in open water and I wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be the toughest part of the race for me.

I felt good for the first 500 yards, averaging 1:30 per 100yd (around what my goal was for the duration), but my form very quickly deteriorated and I found myself stopping completely trying to sight the next buoy every few minutes. There were small buoys and larger ones, and that actually made sighting *really* difficult because it sort of threw off my depth perception. I couldn’t tell which buoy was in front of the other because they both looked the same size, but in reality, one was smaller and much closer to me. I found myself pausing and stopping way more frequently than I’d hoped, and every time my watch buzzed to indicate that I’d completed another 500yd I was doing math in my head to figure out how much distance was left. 30 minutes in and not even half way was tough, and I hated how I was feeling. Every time I got onto some feet I’d hang on for a bit, but always wanted to stop swimming after 3-400 yards.

I ended up averaging 1:41 per 100 yd for the swim, which was kind of disappointing for me, but I was happy to get out of the water. Swimming non-stop for an hour and 15 minutes was not something I did at all during training and I was feeling miserable by the end of the swim. It honestly felt never-ending. Overall though, and looking back, 1:14 for my first Ironman swim is something that I’m proud of, and I only have room to improve from there. Goal for next full distance race – break that 1:10 mark!

T1 – 7:08

I got out of the water, and while I wasn’t stoked about my time, I wasn’t upset either (plus I was so happy to get out of the water). I jogged to transition, got my bag, and got all situated outside the changing tent. I didn’t realize the tent was heated inside, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t change inside because I wouldn’t have wanted to leave the warm air. It took a really long time to get my arm warmers and gloves on because I was wet and had sunscreen on, but I’m really glad I took the time to do it. I didn’t end up tossing them until 2/3s the way through the bike.

Bike – 5:46:14

The bike at IMAZ is 3 loops of about 37 miles each. The out section of the loop is a slow steady climb, making the way back mostly downhill. I wanted to make sure not to kill myself on the first two loops and end up sitting up into the wind on the third loop. I was a little worried that doing the same loop 3 times would get boring, but I actually enjoyed it because I always knew where the next aid station was and it allowed me to mentally break the ride section into thirds in my head. Plus, my support crew was waiting at the bottom each time, which gave me a huge emotional boost after each loop.

I did a fairly good job of executing my nutrition plan, but around the start of the 3rd loop, I could feel my stomach was a little tied up in knots. At that point I stopped eating and drinking anything but water, hoping to dilute whatever was giving me GI issues. This turned out to be a good plan because I felt much better by the end of the bike. 

I also executed my race plan pretty well, keeping my HR below 145 for the majority of the ride. There were a couple times when it spiked, but I was always able to calm it back down after a short surge to pass a group of slower riders. My overall HR average for the bike leg was 142, and I averaged 19.4 mph (17.5ish going up the hill, 23ish coming back down). There was a headwind going out for the first two loops, but then the wind turned and the headwind was coming down. I was happy to be able to stay in the TT position throughout the bike leg and found myself passing quite a few people on the last loop. It felt good not to blow up on the third loop, which I saw happen to so many people. It was annoying to have to constantly go around them the whole time though. I think it might be nicer to have a point to point or one loop bike because there would be way less traffic. I really did like having the loops as checkpoints though.

T2 – 2:59

T2 went really well – I basically just changed my socks and shoes and took a quick pee break hoping to not have to pee on the run. I grabbed my base salt, two emergency gels, my hat and sunglasses, and took off.

Run 3:45:19

I did most of my brick runs throughout training at a much faster pace than 9 min/mile, so it was a little tough to slow my legs down right at the start of the run. I settled into my planned race pace though and knocked off 8:57 min/miles like clockwork for the first 18 miles. The run course was also really spectator friendly, and I saw my support crew what felt like 10 times throughout the run – a huge motivational boost. When I hit mile 18 I felt too good – I started to say to myself, “you’ve trained for 11 months to hurt during this race, and you aren’t hurting enough.” I decided to go for broke and start kicking towards the finish line. I started running faster and committed to going as hard as I could until the end of the race. It was also around this time that I did the math and realized that if I kicked hard enough I could break 11 hours, so I went for it. I did my last 3 miles in 7:12, 7:10, and 6:58. I felt so proud to have broken 11 and run a 3:45 marathon. It was an amazing feeling to finally cross the finish line.

My HR sat right around 150 for the majority of the run, but once I picked it up my HR obviously increased. Nutrition on the run went well also, didn’t need to eat anything besides coke.

What’s Next?

I need a little break from big Ironman training blocks – I’m running the Big Sur International Marathon in April, and I’d like to do one of those SwimRun events at some point in the 2019 season. I’m also thinking about doing the Leadville Trail Marathon, possibly building up to a 50k or even 50 Miler in 2020. I want to race a 70.3 in 2019 as well, but I’m not sure which one. I’m not sure where I’ll be living for the entire year, and could end up moving around June. Maybe 70.3 Superfrog or 70.3 Boulder. I will return to Ironman, but maybe not until 2020, or possibly even 2021. I feel like I could bike MUCH harder and run a little more consistently throughout the marathon instead of going so slow most of the time and fast at the end. I plan to join the Tower 26 swim program to improve my swim and be more prepared for open water. I’d also like to get a power meter to help me train and race to a higher target on the bike. Overall I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish in my first season as a triathlete. I see lots of room to improve, and I’m excited to continue with the sport in 2019.


   You’ve done the training. You’re tapered and ready to go. Now what? The alarm goes off and you are up and moving, so let’s keep organized and let it all flow. Let’s break it all down. Note: this guide is NOT for full IRONMAN events, which have a distinctively different transition process.

   First, we’ll step back a couple days. Depending on whether the race is your local tri or a race that you have traveled to, let’s assume that you know the course. You have been to the swim start and looked for siting landmarks, noting whether or not you will be swimming into the bright morning sun at any time. You have driven or ridden the bike course and made notes of any key areas and possible challenges. You have studied and maybe run or ridden on the run course. You are prepared for this event and can’t wait to start, even though the butterflies are active in your stomach and you might not have slept well in anticipation. But the day has come and let’s get moving!

   Start the day with a light breakfast a couple hours before the start time; coffee, juice, a bagel, maybe some toast and jam. Go with something that you have used before a solid training session so you know how your system will react. I like to avoid cereal or oatmeal because we don’t really want to deal with fiber moving through our system halfway through the bike ride. Speaking of our “system”….allow plenty of time to clear things out as much as possible. You will likely still need to visit the portables at the race site, but do what you can as early as you can. The lines will be long, for sure, at transition.

   The car is packed and it’s off to the races. Get parked and join the masses marching silently toward the transition area with bikes and gear bags in tow. I like to pump my bike tires at the car instead of dealing with a pump (or having to borrow one) in the crowded transition area. Once at transition, the first task is usually body marking before entering. This is where volunteers with markers will write your race number and sometimes your age on your arms and legs, while you try to balance your bike and all of your gear as you roll up your sleeves and pant legs in the predawn darkness.

   Now that we have been “branded” the next step is to find our spot on the bike racks. Some races have rack spaces assigned by number, others have racks assigned by a range of numbers, and some are “first come, first served”. Whatever the case, get the bike on the rack and get things unpacked. A previous post contained a list of items that should be in your bag. Space is limited, so we need to be efficient in setting things up.

   Usually the first people to arrive have set the precedent on whether our transition towel will go on the ground to the right or the left of our bike. I prefer the left, but it is what it is. On the ground we put our towel and then the key is to be as efficient and as minimal as possible. KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Facing the rack, your bike shoes go on the towel closest to you, velcro straps open and ready to pull on. On top of the shoes will be your helmet, upside down and straps out to each side, ready to pick up and pull on your head and buckle the strap. If you are wearing sunglasses to ride, these should be opened up and inside your helmet so you can grab them and put them right on before picking up your helmet. So, the order after the swim is 1)sunglasses 2)helmet 3)shoes 4) grab bike from rack and go. More on this later. Directly behind your bike gear will be your run gear, also set up to flow efficiently after the bike is back on the rack. Shoes with laces open or elastic laces, ready to pull on. On top of the shoes will be your cap or visor and number belt. If you use an aero helmet with a visor instead of sunglasses on the bike, your sunglasses for the run will go on top of your cap/visor.

   Once your transition spot is set up, your wetsuit, cap, and goggles can be hung over your bike for a moment while you do your recon. Taking 5 minutes here to take in the big picture is vital to a smooth transition and can save you minutes on your overall race time. Look around for landmarks to spot your transition area…trees, bushes, light poles, etc. Count the aisles and know which one is yours and about how far down your rack is is, as well as where your bike is on the rack. Now find the entrance to transition from the swim. Plan your route to your bike. Walk that route. From your bike, look to where the bike exit is. Plan the most direct route to get there and to the bike mount line which should be somewhere right outside the transition area. Next, find where you will return to transition at the end of the ride. Note where the dismount line is outside of transition and plan the best route back to your transition spot. IMPORTANT! Your helmet MUST be buckled whenever your bike is in your possession and not on the rack, so develop the habit of buckling your helmet BEFORE taking your bike from the rack and not unbuckling it until AFTER your bike is back on the rack. The final part of our transition recon is locating the run start and, again, planning our route from our rack to the run exit. Having this whole traffic pattern planned in advance can avoid wandering aimlessly, looking for our transition spot or trying to find our way out to the race course. Okay, race time is approaching and we’ve got to keep moving.

   If you’ve allowed enough time, a short run is a nice shakeout at this time. I like to run an easy half mile or so out and pick it up a bit coming back. Put the shoes back in place, stash your bag out of the way, and grab your swim gear and head to the beach. Body Glide or something similar on the neck, ankles, and wrists can make the wetsuit come off easier later (but try not to get any on your goggles).

   Wetsuit on, swim cap on, goggles on, timing chip on (if the race is using them), and get in the water for a brief warmup. This is especially good to do if the water is cold. Get your face in the water and get some water in your suit to avoid shock at the swim start. Swim a little bit and mix it up. Do some long easy strokes and some hard accelerations. It might have been a while since you swam in your wetsuit, so get a feel for things. Once you feel comfortable, get out and find your starting group if they are lining up. Take a last look at the course, the spacing of the buoys, and note if the turn buoys are a different color than the others. Take a last look for siting landmarks and you are ready to go. Noting the size of your starting wave, decide where to seed yourself based on your swim speed and confidence. Don’t put yourself in the front row if you are a slow swimmer and are uncomfortable in a crowd.

   As you find yourself approaching the end of the swim, visualize what comes next. Remember just how you will get to your bike and picture yourself going through the motions. When you stand up, unzip your wetsuit and pull it off your arms and down to your waist, keeping moving all the time. Pull off your goggles and cap as you run to transition. When you get there, pull your wetsuit completely off, toss it under the rack just beyond your run gear, and everything is ready for the bike ride. Since you have prepared your area, planned your way in and out, and visualized yourself doing it, there is nothing left but to execute your plan. Just like with the end of the swim, when you are nearing the end of the bike ride you should start to visualize yourself transforming from cyclist to runner. Your gear is ready and the plan has been laid out. Again, just execute. Next stop is the finish line!