Monday, January 04, 2016

Completing an Ironman (in far more detail than you ever wanted to read)

Thursday, October 8, three days before the race.
I thought it might be a good idea to start hydrating. I stopped consuming Diet Coke at the alarming rate I had become accustomed to and drank electrolyte solution (GU Brew) all day. I drank about a gallon of liquid on Thursday, but my body absorbed most of it.
Friday, October 9, two days before the race.
I continued drinking the GU Brew and my wife and I began the drive to Louisville. It was a lot of fun seeing other cars with tri bikes on the highway. I got checked in for the race, found the hotel we were staying at, went on a crazy shopping spree with my wife, and rented a Redbox movie for that night. We ate dinner at Logan’s Roadhouse and I had the 9 ounce sirloin. I wasn’t anywhere near race ready, but I was enjoying the time with my wife.
Saturday, October 10, day before the race…into Sunday, October 11, RACE DAY.
I was uncertain about the river and the toxic algae warning, even though the advisory had been lifted.[1] I also did not want to try and put a wet wetsuit on for the race on Sunday, so I thought I’d skip the practice swim. We drove some of the bike course, the infamous RT 1694 and half of the lollipop loop into La Grange that morning. We grabbed the bike and the transition bags from the hotel at about 1:00 and headed in to town to mandatory bike and gear check as well as the 2:00 athlete meeting. After that, we drove up to the swim start, then walked up to the swim turn around, back down the river, across the Big Four Bridge into Indiana, down to Fourth Street Live, and back up to the car. Both my wife and I were exhausted as we headed back to the hotel, stopping at a Subway sandwich shop for dinner. I showered and fell asleep at about 8:30, only to be woken by my watch at 9:30 because I had set the alarm for the race cut-offs the next day. My wife was still watching TV, so I struggled to go to sleep for another 45 minutes to an hour. I woke up again at 3:00 A.M. and tried to not toss and turn until 4:00 when I was supposed to wake up. I didn’t sleep again, but tried to at least rest my body.
We left for the race at about 4:40 and found a place to park about a block from the Ironman Village. We were still early arriving and transition didn’t open until 5:15 (like it said in the athlete guide,) so we queued until they opened transition. As athletes only are allowed into transition, I kissed my wife goodbye and went to my bike, pumped up the tires (forgot to carry the chain lube in with me, so that didn’t happen at all) and prayed that everything was set with my bike. I didn’t want to hassle with last minute gear adjustments that would have me waiting in line for the bike techs for who knows how long. I was more concerned about getting up to the swim start to queue there and hopefully be in the water before 8:00 A.M. I dropped off my special needs bags, found my wife and headed to the swim start via a 1-block detour to put my pump back in the car.
Body marking was at the swim start, and the lines for the port-a-johns were consistent with lines before any race: long. Louisville has several public parking lots on the river side of River Road, all with different color names. The swim start was between the Tan lot and the Turquoise lot. Body marking was at the entrance to the Tan lot, so I stopped and allowed my arms and legs to be marked (I should have bought the tri-tats, they are just so much cleaner!) With hundreds of people filing into the Tan lot, I thought I’d skip some of the crowd and walk a few hundred more feet and go in via the Turquoise lot. This was a good decision. There was a port-a-john right on the road that had no wait. I used it then found a dozen people waiting in line for the facilities further into the parking lot. It was about 6:00 when we got to the swim start, but the queue was already more than ¼ of a mile long. Athletes and support crews were all sitting together in one long, chaotic line. I knew the line would tighten up significantly once the officials (volunteers) began separating the support crews out of the line, but even so, by the time the starting cannon fired, the line of athletes was easily half a mile long.
It always gets coldest right before dawn, and the temperature dipped into the 40s before the sun started showing over the eastern horizon. I wrestled my wetsuit on at about 7:00, while the line was still tightening up, so I made quite the spectacle hopping down the sidewalk with my feet in the wetsuit and trying to hold it all together. I was grateful for the wetsuit because it did keep me considerably warmer once I had it on. At 7:30 we heard the starting cannon. Apparently there was a bugler who played just before the cannon, but we were too far away to hear any of that. I did notice that although it hadn’t rained that night and the dew was not heavy, the sidewalk was quite wet where the athletes were lined up. Was that pee from people peeing in their wetsuits? I shudder at the thought…
The line moved quickly and despite the fact that I was about halfway back, I jumped into the water at about 7:50. I had been warned that my goggles would fill with tears as I waited to start the swim. It didn’t happen, but my emotions were high and I could have easily given in and allowed the tears to come. Instead, I took a few deep breaths and focused on the task ahead of me.
When I jumped into the water, I expected to touch the bottom of the river and then push off and start swimming. I should have realized that this was a marina and the bottom was probably 10-15 feet or more down. As I slowly surfaced, the person behind me jumped right in on top of me. That wasn’t quite the start I was hoping for, but I wasn’t injured so I began moving forward. There were a total of 18 sighting buoys in the swim, six yellow buoys along the length of Towhead Island and up the river to the red turnaround buoy, then three more yellows as the course proceeded downriver. The last nine buoys were orange, with the last orange buoy only a few meters from the red exit buoy. I cleared Towhead Island in 18 minutes and rounded the turn in 28 minutes. I had read that the current was significant enough in previous years for people to swim twice as fast after the turn around. Once I saw that I was making the turn in less than half an hour, I began to develop delusions of a sub-one hour swim time. I began celebrating my record accomplishment in my mind and realized after a few minutes that there was minimal current to assist me and not only was I not being swept downriver by the great current, I wasn’t really swimming well anymore either. I refocused on concentrating on long, steady strokes and once again began making good progress. I was pleased to see how quickly I was moving as I sighted along the bank of the river. Things managed to stay fairly open and contact-free until we neared the sighting buoys, where the kayaks and safety volunteers corralled the swimmers into a much narrower section. Invariably, as I approached the buoys, I began getting hit and hitting other swimmers. I tried to get out of their way and leave everyone alone without getting angry about anything that I couldn’t control.
At orange buoy #6, my left calf seized in a paralyzing cramp and I thought I was going to sink to the bottom of the river. This was one of those cramps that when they happen, you immediately collapse, struggling to catch your breath because the pain is so severe that it takes the breath right out of you. Knowing that there wasn’t much I could do about it, I allowed my left leg to go completely limp and hope for the best. I didn’t want to pull my head up and tread water to look for a kayak because my leg wasn’t going to cooperate, so I kept swimming, kicking occasionally with my right leg to keep myself prone in the water and began thinking of exit strategies. I didn’t want this to end my day so soon, but if it was still crippling me when I got out of the water, I had no idea how I was going to continue. Fortunately, over the next couple of minutes the cramp subsided and I was able to flex my calf a little as I swam. By the time I reached the swim exit, the cramp was completely over, although the muscle continues to complain to me even three days after the race.
I made eye contact with a volunteer on the far side of the stairs and made my way over to his outstretched arm. He grabbed hold of me and pulled me onto the stairs and I headed for the wetsuit strippers. As I tried to get my upper body out of the wetsuit, my Ironman wristband got hung up in my wetsuit sleeve and I didn’t have the dexterity or strength left in my hands to try and work it free. I found my stripper and yelled to her that my arm was stuck in the sleeve. She reassured me that we’d get it out and in a few seconds (which seemed like minutes) she had my right hand free and was going for the left arm. I realized that there was no way I’d get the wetsuit off over my wristwatch, so I told her to wait while I took off my watch and she had my left arm out seconds later. Then she yelled at me to lie down on my back and put my feet up in the air. I needed to pull my timing chip off my ankle for the same reason as the watch, but once I had that off, she grabbed my wetsuit and yanked it off. I was astonished at how easily that happened. I reattached my timing chip, grabbed my wristwatch from another stripper who was trying to give it to her athlete, put it on, then took my wetsuit and began the wobbly run into T1.
Swim time: 1:17:46 (a P.R. time for me)
T1 was crowded, hot, and humid, with most of the bodies jammed right into the entrance of the tent. I wormed my way through the crush of bodies and found some open space and a chair. I sat down and pulled my Ziploc bag with my biking equipment out of the transition bag. I wanted to be calm and relax as much as possible during the transition so I could recover a bit from the swim, but also be sure I wasn’t going to skip any important steps in my transition. I made the change, repacked my T1 bag with my swimming gear, handed it off to the closest volunteer and made my way to the exit. I grabbed a sip of water as I left the tent and made my way to the bike racks. I was shocked at how far I had to walk my bike to get to the mount line, but I eventually got there, got mounted, and got underway on the second leg.
T1 time: 15:50
It was still brisk when I got underway on the bike and I was grateful I had thought to bring arm warmers and to change from swimming trunks into a dry tri kit. I can’t imagine how cold I would have been for the first several miles if I were still in wet clothes or had bare arms.
The first ten miles or so of the bike course are quite flat and it’s a good time to just spin and loosen the legs while settling into a rhythm. Unfortunately, the first ten miles of the course are still quite crowded with athletes, so there’s little rhythm to be found. It was confusing to try and stay to the right, avoid a drafting penalty, not block other riders, and often pass two or three riders who were riding abreast. The road leading out of town was also open to traffic, and where the small rollers caused riders to slow significantly, cars were right there blocking the athletes. At one point, a rider in front of me bumped his front wheel into the back of the rider in front of him and he had to unclip and get off the bike. I narrowly avoided the same fate by veering around him right behind a car and up over the crest of the hill.
At mile 17 or so, the infamous out and back section of RT 1694 began. There are a couple of good hills, and again, it’s still early enough in the race that the course is crowded with bikes going both ways. Although I am sure there were others in different places, this is where I saw all of the accidents. Several people’s races ended on that stretch of road. Fortunately, I was able to make it clear of the carnage and the chaos and continue on my ride.
It was still cool and I had to remind myself to eat and drink, even though I didn’t feel any desire to. This was my biggest challenge all through the bike ride, and has been my challenge as long as I have been riding. I knew the only way I was going to survive the day was to be properly hydrated and stay on top of my nutrition, so I focused on that. My plan was to eat two Gatorade chews every 20 minutes and drink 6-8 ounces of water at that time. During the first hour I forgot my second feeding time and was ten minutes late, but payed closer attention to that for the rest of the morning and did pretty well. I forced myself to drink more water than I wanted, but doing so kept me hydrated throughout the day. I actually stopped to pee three times during the bike ride, which some might have thought was high, but I found that the brief stops were actually quite beneficial as I was able to stretch out my legs and flex them a bit.
By special needs at mile 60, I was eagerly anticipating the goodies I had packed in my bag. I enjoyed a chocolate granola bar and a pomegranate 5-hour energy. That little break was a great respite for me and the caffeine and vitamins from the 5-hour energy and the granola bar perked me right up. I headed through the second loop with all kinds of energy, and as I progressed, I realized that it would be better for me to stop at each aid station from that point on and use the bathroom and stretch. My legs recovered well at each 2-3 minute break and I felt fresh each time I got back on the bike. The last 33 miles into Louisville are essentially downhill, but much of the respite we were hoping to feel on the ride back into town was denied us because of a headwind. I didn’t end up going as fast as I would have liked, but the headwind reminded me to stay in the aero position and my last splits were consistent, if not slightly faster than my first splits on the bike. Mile 90 was a wonderful sight to see, although the last 15 miles or so in on River Road were terrible because of how rough the road is. It literally kicked my backside all the way in as my tires hit the cracks and bumps and drove my saddle upwards. Despite the agony of the last several miles, I managed to make it back to T2 without incident and still feeling quite energetic. I dismounted my bike a few feet ahead of the line and began the long walk into T2. I handed my bike off to a volunteer and along the way I saw my wife and stopped to give her a quick kiss. I decided it would be easier to take off my cycling shoes and run in in my socks, despite the wet and muddy grass. Fortunately I had packed an extra pair of socks in my T2 bag.
Bike time: 6:48:41
T2 was less crowded and I focused on drying my feet and getting the sand off of them before heading off on the run. I loaded up my pockets with additional Gatorade Chews (that I never once considered using on the run,) handed my T2 bag to a volunteer, stopped for additional sunscreen, then made my way to the run.
T2 time: 10:12
Now I was out on the run. My average run pace for the 6-mile loop I regularly run is about 9:15/mile. My 14-mile run took me about 2:15, but I knew there was no way I was going to survive a 10:00/mile pace on the run. I wanted to slow down to 12:30-13:00 for the first 10K and then hold it or gradually pick up the pace if I felt I could. In the chaos of the opening mile of the run, I never saw the first mile marker, but my pace was an 11:08. I felt okay with that pace, slowing to walk through the aid stations and running again. This went well enough for the first hour and a half, but then my body and brain started fading. I found that although my body wasn’t screaming at me to stop, my legs were growing extremely fatigued and my brain was getting very cloudy. I remember feeling as if everything was getting soft around the edges as I looked at it. It seemed prudent to me to slow down and walk for a while, so I did. I may have walked a quarter of a mile and things came back into focus. I tried to keep my walk at a brisk pace, and eventually I was able to start running again. My new plan was to run to a specific landmark and then walk to the next one. I found that electrical poles worked well for me. The largest poles were 100-200 yards apart, so I would run to the next one and then walk to the one after that. It meant walking for more time than I was running, but each time I began running, I found that I could start running without any complaint from my body or rationalization from my brain as to why I shouldn’t start running.
The Louisville run course is perfect for me, a double out-and-back, with each leg approximately 6.5 miles. Breaking the marathon into four digestible chunks allowed me to focus on getting to the next turnaround without trying to mentally run the entire marathon all at once. Of course, getting to the start of the second loop only ONE BLOCK from the finish line seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me as you have to veer to the right and start the last half marathon when the finish line and the thousands of spectators are there urging you on but not realizing you still have half the run to complete.
The run course is well-stocked and supported with aid stations roughly every mile. I had all of my pockets full of Gatorade Chews and other food that I had brought, but after the bike leg wanted none of it. I took water at almost every aid station, had Gatorade at about every other one, had grapes a couple of times, took 3-7 potato chips at most stations, took cold sponges 3 or 4 times and once had a volunteer fill my cap with ice. At about 6:30, someone offered me the first chicken broth. It was warm and wonderful! I began looking for that at every aid station while alternating through whatever it was that felt somewhat appetizing at the time. At special needs, I drank another 5-hour energy, but it didn’t have the effect that the first one had on the bike. I was disappointed, but was still able to continue with my run-walk pattern for the rest of the race.
Several times during the run I started to get into my own head, thinking about slowing to walk the rest of the way, (with 7:30 to finish the marathon, I could walk the whole way! Why not give it a shot?) I also thought about the times, but my brain doesn’t do math all that well under such a strain, so thinking I might be able to finish the marathon in 4 hours and end before sundown (at 7:30) just didn’t make sense, but above everything else it was distracting me from moving forward, so as that would happen, I would find someone running beside me and begin a conversation. I told them I needed to talk to them for a bit to get out of my head. This happened five or six times, and each time it worked. By the last leg in to the finish line, I was too tired to want to talk to people and I was beginning to race with a few of them who I had kept pace with for the second loop, so I didn’t talk to anyone other than volunteers and police officers, and even then it was only to thank them for being out there all day.
About two miles from the finish, my brain cleared up enough to realize that I could finish in 14 hours, but to do so I’d have to run more than walk, so I changed my pattern to running for three street lights and walking for one. I opened a gap on the other athletes I had been leapfrogging with for several miles and started gaining on the others who had dropped me some time earlier.
One quarter of a mile from the finish, you are still on 3rd Street. Fan support at 9:45 was all but gone from there, with everyone having moved to the finish line at 4th Street Live! There was one fan/volunteer standing at the turn off of 3rd Street who encouraged me to run hard and finish strong. It felt like he was telling me to reel in a few of the athletes (I could see two or three on the block ahead of me) and pass them, so I decided to run hard the rest of the way.
Turning the corner onto 4th Street was amazing. Three blocks ahead I could see the finish line and the crowd of spectators was pressing in hard against the barriers. The noise, the lights, the music was everything I needed. I took particular delight in going to the left side of the divider that directed me to the finish line, almost reading the “2nd Loop Right” sign with disdain. I passed one athlete who seemed to be tying his shoes or visiting with friends or family at the start of the long finishers’ chute and focused on the finish arch. I had thought for several hours what I might do as I crossed the finish line, but as my legs carried me down the chute, I held out my hands on both sides to high five the fans who had their hands out, and when I crossed over the line, all I could do was throw my arms up in a V. Nobody else in the world existed at that moment. My finish line video shows I gave a high five to the athlete who crossed the line ten seconds ahead of me, but I don’t remember it. I didn’t hear my name announced, (it was,) and then my catcher locked eyes with me and opened her arms to receive me. In the next few minutes I had a medal placed over my head, was handed a finisher’s shirt and cap, had my picture taken, was given a Mylar blanket, had my timing chip removed, then was congratulated again by my catcher and ushered out the back side of the finisher’s chute where my wife was waiting. It was over, and I had finished without the pain and agony that so many people recall when they talk about their experience.
Run time: 5:25:25


[1] Unseasonably warm temperatures and other environmental factors resulted in a massive toxic, blue-green algae bloom all across the Ohio River. City and state officials were warning recreationists to stay out of and avoid contact with the water. There was serious talk about cancelling the swim portion of the race. Race officials tested the water every day during the week prior to the race and finally pronounced it safe to swim in on Saturday morning, 24 hours before the starting gun.

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