It is the Holy Grail for Triathletes: Ironman.
More than any other event in our sport finishing Ironman is the high bar in triathlon achievement. An age category win in the most competitive age groups is an even more significant achievement.
The Ironman experience is a journey of setting, preparing and realizing a goal. The year leading up to Ironman is filled with hard work, careful planning, setbacks and more hard work. There is a reason why the Ironman motto is “Anything is Possible” It’s a double edged moniker. Ironman is a journey of growth and accomplishment and an ordeal of derailed training plans, anxiety over inadequate preparation and a grueling race day with no guarantees of a strong performance or even finishing.
TriSports.com Founder Seton Claggett is an Ironman veteran. Ford Ironman Arizona in 2011 was his 8th Ironman Triathlon, including a race at the Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. He has completed other ultra-distance triathlons in addition to his World Triathlon Corporation dossier. This year he started out his season with the Leadman Epic Triathlon and also raced the ultra-distance Leadman mountain bike race. While Ironman is familiar territory to Claggett it was clear from the onset that Claggett’s goals for Tempe 2011 went beyond a strong finish. This year Claggett was intent on raising the bar.
In confirmation of the idea that “the way you do anything is the way you do everything” Claggett’s approach to Ford Ironman Arizona was extensively data-driven. His use and analysis of power meter data was central to his preparation along with an old-fashioned adherence to some key mega-workouts. One training ride took Claggett over 200 miles, multiple mountain passes (with over 14,500 feet of climbing) and lasted nearly 12 hours. This is the kind of mega-workout needed for solid performance at ultra-distance.
Several weeks before Ford Ironman Arizona I proposed to Seton that I would follow him on and off throughout the day to provide an insight on the Ironman experience. Ironman is much more than race day though. Ironman race day is like a long walk across a graduation stage following an extended course of preparation. By race day the work has either been done or it hasn’t. The quality of an athlete’s performance is reflective of that. In Claggett’s case, he apparently did his homework.
30 September, 2011. 11:36 Hr.s Local, Safford, Arizona:
On race day Seton shared a small hotel room with wife and TriSports.com co-founder Debbie Claggett and their two kids, Amity and Torin. Despite having two young children and the pressure of a tough day ahead of him Claggett showed no signs of nervousness on race morning. He finished his breakfast, rolled out his muscles using a MuscleTrac device and stepped outside his room to check the weather. For Claggett it had all the look and feel of any long day filled with a big workout, meetings and photo ops.
20 November, 2011. 04:51 Hr.s Local, Tempe, Arizona.
Having seven Ironmans under his belt no doubt helped during the early morning preparation. Athletes in the transition set up their last minute nutritional needs on their bikes. Claggett pulled on a new TYR Hurricane Freak of Nature wetsuit, a suit he tested in the days prior to race day. He reported swimming 1:22 repeats at 100 meters doing a “60% throttle” effort. Based on his testing the suit would give him an edge by helping him swim faster with less effort. It’s that kind of analytical approach in the weeks and months before Ironman that predisposes an athlete to a strong performance on race day.
20 November, 2011. 06:11 Hr.s Local, Tempe, Arizona, Ford Ironman Arizona venue, T1.
The swim start was, like most Ironmans, controlled chaos. Cannon sounding, people still pouring over the barriers to jump in the water. The Ford Ironman Arizona swim is unique since it is held in an inland waterway not affected by wind and waves. The swim course is a large, narrow, one lap triangle out and back. Claggett beached in 54:10 swimming a consistent pace of 1:25 per 100 meters, a comfortable effort for him given a strong swimming background.
20 November, 2011. 07:01 Hr.s Local, Tempe, Arizona, Ford Ironman Arizona venue, Swim Start.
Once in T1 Claggett took a moment to pull on a TriSports.com cycling jersey, don his Garneau aerodynamic helmet and because of the cool morning temperatures, pull on long finger gloves for the early miles. Claggett’s transition was quick and business like.
Weeks earlier Claggett built up a new Quintana Roo Illicito with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2. He made small improvements to his fit and position while continuing to log huge mileage prior to a short taper. His seat angle was moderately steeper by race day, opening the angle between the femur and torso to allow a more comfortable posture on the bike, good digestion while riding and taking in nutrition and eye-ball good aerodynamics.
Claggett used “J” bend style Profile aerobars and a Fizik Arione Tri saddle above his favorite Time pedals. His race wheels were a Zipp disk rear with Powertap hub and a Zipp 808 Firecrest front rolling on Zipp Tangent tubular tires.
20 November, 2011. 07:57:43 Hr.s Local, Tempe, Arizona, Ford Ironman Arizona venue, T1.
The bike course at Ford Ironman Arizona is three loops on an out and back course for 112 miles. As with most Ironman bike courses the wind tends to build as the day goes on. Getting on the bike course early is an advantage since it is less crowded on the first loop and the wind is not as strong. Claggett had the bike course almost to himself as one of the early athletes out of the water.
20 November, 2011. 08:03:19 Hr.s Local, Tempe, Arizona, Ford Ironman Arizona venue, T1 exit.
Claggett’s bike splits showed the effects of the building wind- and change of wind direction- throughout the day. His first loop of three, completed in light wind and low bike traffic was done in 1:35:25 at an average of 23.52 MPH. As the atmospheric data shows for the day, the wind not only built slightly but changed direction, moving from a cross wind on most of the course to a difficult headwind on the return part of the course, effectively negating any benefit from the net elevation loss on the return trip of the bike. Athletes who got on the bike early were rewarded. Athletes who were stuck on the bike course by slow swim splits and slow average bike speeds got hammered by the change in wind direction and speed. As the wind speed chart below shows, anyone on the bike course after 2:00 PM local got hammered.
Claggett’s bike preparation served him well as he maintained a strong 23.21 MPH average on the second loop, completing it in 1:36:09, only 44 seconds slower on his second lap than his first. From his first lap of the course to his third Claggett surrendered 3:30 to the increasing wind. Most athletes lost significant amounts of time from their first lap to their third. Using data from his power meter Claggett’s pace remained effectively similar.
Claggett has trained extensively with power, using it as his primary metric for maintaining pace and workload. A survey of his power output on the course reveals an uncanny adherence to his desired power output. If you look carefully at the change in average speed expressed in miles per hour it reveals interesting insights about his pacing, the wind direction and Claggett’s discipline in maintaining his power numbers.
The outbound leg of lap 1 is done at 23.1 MPH while the return leg is 21.1 MPH average, a 9.1% change in speed. His power output varied 9.7%, 214 watts average going out, 220 watts average returning. Over the entire 112 miles Claggett’s average cadence only varied 5 RPMs average from one recorded lap of 6 laps to the next, an extremely precise adherence to his race plan. His average cadence over the entire ride was 87.1 RPMs. This closely mimmicks his run pace cadence, facilitating an easy transition from bike to run and keeping the frequency of effort relatively constant.
Ford Ironman Arizona’s multi-lap bike course on an out and back circuit mean the latter laps get crowded. As wind speed and direction changes the day becomes more difficult, punishing athletes who are late to get on the course. This leaves faster athletes with a crowded bike course on their third and final lap. Maneuvering around other athletes and staying within drafting rules means faster athletes are forced to the middle of the road near the white line. Corners are crowded and aid stations can be tricky to get through on the final lap, especially if you need a bottle.
Despite increasing numbers of athletes on the bike course, fatigue and rising winds Claggett’s 4th lap back into Tempe was his second fastest. He rode 17.8 miles at an average speed of 25.8 MPH from mile 57 to mile 75 on the bike course, a crucial segment in an Ironman where many athletes become complacent and give up time.
On his final circuit he gave up a small amount of time and speed but maintained consistent power numbers until hs last segment back into T2 where he finally went below 200 watts average power output for 18.9 miles averaged 196 watts.
Claggett’s crucial power metric for the entire ride, 3.18 watts per kilogram of body weight, proved to be an economical relationship between power output, speed and workload. He backed off significantly in the final miles before the bike to run transition to begin the run on fresh(er) legs.
Claggett’s approach on the bike was an assertive one. His average speeds on each leg were high. Using his power meter metrics to determine a sustainable pace netted imposing speed numbers. Some observers may suggest the bike ride was exceptionally ambitious. The outcome of the run would decide if it was a solid strategy.
Claggett pulled on his running shoes at 12:44 PM (12:44 Hr.s) Local zone time. Once on the run he set an ambitious pace despite a minor nutritional mistake. Claggett used Infinit Ride Formula on the bike, a fluid replacement and energy drink with a small amount of protein. The 4 grams of protein per 2 scoops, 280 calories per serving in the form of ultra-pure whey isolate helps to resist the onset of a hungry sensation according to Infinit Nutrition. Claggett tested the formulation extensively in training before race day. No problems on the bike. His minor mistake was trying to use it on the run.
On the run the drink frothed up and became difficult to drink. The minor mistake was quickly corrected by switching to aid station nutrition. His first 2.5 miles on the run were done at a 6:50 pace. By mile 11 on the run he had maintained a 7:01 pace per mile. Over the next 8.5 miles the fatigue of the race began to accumulate as Claggett slowed to 7:59 per mile, a 12.5% reduction in run pace over 8.5 miles.
After the ambitious tempo on the bike and a very strong set of opening miles on the run Claggett moderated his effort over the final 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to an 8:33 mile pace. At 2:54 PM local time overall race winner, top professional Eneko Llanos stopped the clock at the finish line in downtown Tempe Arizona at 7:59:38 setting a new North American Ironman record.
When Llanos hit the tape at Ford Ironman Arizona Claggett was entering his own finale in the closing miles of the run with about 74 minutes remaining in his race.
A steady stream of pros including overall women’s winner, TriSports.com’s Leanda Cave, hit the tape at 3:44 PM Local in 8:49:00. Claggett was about 3 miles from the finish line.
While conditions in Tempe for Ford Ironman Arizona were good early in the day the wind speed was taunting the back half of the field on the bike and early in the run. At 2:00 PM local the temperature had moderated at the high for the day, 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The mercury stayed there for the next three hours under a high overcast. Wind speed moderated at 8 M.P.H. blowing dead north. Most runners had a pleasantly cooling crosswind. Cyclists at the back of field coming into town faced this as an annoying headwind.
Claggett reported that he felt uncomfortable in the closing miles, leg pain and fatigue taking its toll following his aggressive pace. He was very much in a race as 37 year-old Warren McAndrew of Edmonds, Washington was less than a minute behind him. McAndrew was a threat to Claggett since he is a run specialist, having run a 3:32:32 marathon (8:06 pace) at the 2010 Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene. McAndrew also had two marathons under his belt for the year in Vancouver, British Columbia and Napa Valley, California. At Claggett’s closing pace of 8:33 per mile on the run McAndrew could have been as fast as 27 seconds quicker per mile.
Entering the closing miles it was possible McAndrew could overhaul Claggett by over 30 seconds. One of the biggest age group pursuits of the day- and possibly of the entire Ironman season- was playing out in the final three miles of Ford Ironman Arizona. It was Claggett versus McAndrew.
Claggett’s ambitious strategy using the power meter on the bike and an aggressive opening salvo in the run had broken McAndrew’s pursuit. He hit the tape at 9:14:56 as the Ford Ironman Arizona age category winner. Entering the finish chute Claggett was a little more than a city block in front of 2nd place age category contender Warren McAndrew after 140.6 miles. It was a hard fought age category win for Claggett. The battle started months earlier as Claggett accumulated huge miles on the bike, establishing his base, while McAndrew apparently focused more on his run. Claggett’s strategy won the day.
Over a nine-hour race Claggett had won by one-tenth of one percent of the total race time, a mere 45 seconds. An extra bathroom stop would have obliterated his lead. On that day his race was perfectly engineered, an opus of preparation and execution.
Claggett’s age category win earned him a coveted Ford Ironman World Championship slot for 2012, a spot he passed over to focus on business expansion at TriSports.com in the upcoming year, including the opening of a new TriSports.com Retail store in downtown Tempe, Arizona.
Following his race Claggett was pleased his training and plan had come together. The normally reserved Claggett was excited by his performance, thanking employees and other competitors for being at the event to share the day and witness his performance along with Steve Acuna, Alison Kablack, Shelley Daniel, Leanda Cave, Billy Oliver, Jarreau Jones, Thomas Gerlach and other athletes affiliated with TriSports.com including an army of volunteers staffing the TriSports.com aid station on the run course.
Claggett’s race was confirmation that much of Ironman success is built in the months before race day and the engineering and execution of a careful race plan on race day. The remainder of a great race is crafted from experience in other Ironman triathlons and the intangible ingredient that makes one athlete want to win more than another- the thing that truly makes anything possible.