This was the mantra written on my hand when I started the 2017 IRONMAN Florida race in November. Although the black Sharpie ink faded as the miles passed by, the message was embedded in my mind. These three words represented a very simple but important race strategy for me. Why did I choose this mantra? Let me offer a closer look at my Ironman journey and the parallels to my role here at Lenbrook.
My Race Mantra
A full Ironman race starts with a 2.4-mile swim, then a 112-mile bike ride, and finishes with a 26.2-mile run -- with limited stops along the way. The average finisher time for my age group is about 13 hours and 30 minutes with a final cut-off at 17 hours.
Here's what prompted my three-word strategy:
Eat – Through hundreds of hours of training over the past year, I discovered one of my performance limiters was a lack of calorie intake. I noticed my training buddies were eating a lot more during training sessions. Particularly on the run portion, they were consuming a "gel pack" every three miles. After having my caloric burn tested, I talked with my Tri Coach Georgia coach, Harvey Gayer, about nutrition and took note of how much of a caloric deficit I was in for a Half Ironman and even greater deficit for a Full Ironman. I knew I needed to eat more during the race.
Breathe – Throughout my race training, I often heard, "Chris, it’s OK to breathe." So when I ramped up my training in July, getting ready for the November race, I decided to add yoga. And guess what my "Yoga for Athletes" instructor said to me: "Chris, breathe." In fact, every class started with an exercise that allows us to feel where our bodies hurt by breathing and sensing any tight or injured areas. Breathing deeply and consistently helps regulate my pace and keep me consistently moving on. I wanted breathing to be the catalyst to get myself moving again. Several times on the run, when I stopped in the aid stations, the only way I got moving again was to use my breathing to lead my feet into action. Hence the second word in my mantra.
Smile – One thing I remembered distinctly from my Top 15th finish last September at the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships is how much I smiled as I went around the course. Not only was I so thrilled to be there, but the crowd support seemed to lift me up and make me forget about the pain coursing through my legs. So, I committed that from the time I lined up for the Ironman Florida swim until I crossed the finish line, I was going to smile. My third word.
My three-word mantra kept me focused and gave me something to reflect on every step of the journey. And I expect them to guide me in the future too.
Lenbrook's "mantra," -- we call it "The Lenbrook Way" -- consists of five words:
For our Associates:
For our Facilities:
It's a way for us to focus on the specific performance behaviors and campus attributes that enable us to deliver outstanding resident experiences at Lenbrook. Our associates helped develop this "mantra" about two and a half years ago and it's alive and well today because it works.
The Training Journey
This Ironman journey started 12 months before when I announced to my wife that I wanted to race another Ironman and asked for her support. (It's a huge time commitment.) During this training, I logged more hours per week than any other time in my athletic life.
There were peaks and valleys. There were several times when I came close to injury, was too tired to do that “short” run or I just wanted to live a normal life. But, week after week, I kept going and I'm thankful to my training partners and coach for keeping me motivated. By race time, I had lost almost 20 pounds (can you say high school weight), increased my power on the bike, decreased the pace on the run and increased my endurance capacity.
Just a couple weeks before race day, I became concerned about a recurring pain in my Achilles and calf. I slowed down my run pace and even bike pace, and reached out to some experts. After some tests and sessions with these experts, I adjusted my sitting stance and bike fit, and was ready to race. Just like improving my skill of breathing, I knew when I needed outside help.
With Lenbrook's nearly 300 associates, we reach out to experts several times a year to conduct training to keep our skills sharp and strengthen our culture of excellence. Personal and professional improvement, whether for an athlete or an employee, requires being able to listen and accept outside advice.
At Lenbrook, we've also launched an associate recognition program to spur and maintain motivation for delivering outstanding service. To maintain top performance, it takes sustained practice and coaching. Race events offer medals; our new program offers recognition pins, points and monetary awards. And individual feedback and coaching is provided by supervisors and managers
Swimming and Breathing
If you've never had the opportunity to witness the swim start of a major triathlon, it's simply something you'll never forget. When the thousands of athletes become quiet and turn to watch the national anthem, the anticipation rises until the canon goes off and the swimmers enter the water.
Thousands of swimmer’s arms and feet create wake through the gulf as the sun rises. When you're in the middle of those arms and feet it's a feeling of chaos, until you start to absorb the beauty around you. Although I had a great swim, I could have done a couple things differently:
1. Follow the advice of a professional triathlete and uber swimmer I heard recommend that you drink a coke before the race to help avoid swallowing so much salt water. I didn't, but will consider it more closely next time.
2. I have a favored side to breathe but I can breathe to both sides when I swim. I currently breathe on every other stroke, but when drafting on another swimmer, it can create the need to switch sides. I could use some more lessons to even out my breathing.
Biking, Eating and Smiling
Sandwiched in among 3,000 bikers all the way around a 112-mile course, I maintained my goal power level throughout despite a broken strap on my chest heart rate monitor, an iffy wrist heart rate monitor, and some wind.
My plan was to eat and drink more during the bike segment so you'd think it would be a rolling smorgasbord. Well, not really. It was just energy bars, waffles and gels for 112 miles. My target was to eat 400 calories per hour or about 2,000 calories for the bike segment. I ended up short of that goal, but compared to previous rides, I was pleased.
I finished the bike in a little over five hours -- a dream ride. I think I got a few strange looks riding my bike, smiling and singing my way through 112 miles. Now I just had to go run a marathon.
The Real-Time Run
The thing about Ironman racing is that you can train long and hard, but you can’t train the actual distance. I don’t know anyone that rides 112 miles and then goes out and runs a marathon (26.2 miles) during training. You must have trust and faith that you are ready, but there are no sure bets when your feet hit the ground for 26.2 long miles.
I ate a gel every three miles right up until mile 18 and then I switched to flat Coca-Cola and oranges for the last 6 miles. Also, I drank a "Hot Shot" to prevent muscle cramps. Although my legs were completely torched by mile 20, I kept moving through pure will and breathing.
Connecting With the Feet in Front
A funny thing happened at this year's race compared to my first Ironman two years ago. In Ironman UK in 2015, at about mile 20, I walked up a steep hill and I started thinking I would walk the last six miles. I felt like I couldn’t run another step and would be lucky to walk the next two hours to complete the marathon.
Then I noticed someone in my age group next to me who had started running again. Something told me I needed to go with him and so for the next two miles I stayed with him and my eyes never left his feet. His feet were the only thought I had in my mind for 17 minutes.
At the next aid station, I introduced myself. His name was Carl and he was so pleased to have helped someone else toward the goal of finishing their first Ironman. Carl was a true godsend and helped me finish the race. In fact, we finished together after 140.6 miles.
In Ironman Florida, at about mile 18, I noticed someone had been on my heels for about a half a mile. We continued like that for a while and finally I started a conversation with him. As we talked he said he just needed to find a pair of heels to follow because his pace was starting to fade.
The Ironman tends to be a sport where connections are made in hard times and those connections become your fondest memories.
Our associates at Lenbrook forge connections with their colleagues and our residents, too, because we are a community that cares for each other.
In Florida, I cut 2 hours and 20 minutes off my 1st Ironman time (UK in 2015). I finished just under 10 hours (9:59:09) and placed 9th in my age group. But the memories and feelings are what will last the longest for me.
It's hard to think about doing another Ironman. How would I cut an additional 10 minutes off to qualify for the infamous Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii?
It's something I'm pondering this winter. I'll let you and my wife know (but not in that order) when I decide what's next in my Ironman journey.