So it’s done. I did it. So much time spent training and dreaming, and yesterday it become a reality. I am an Ironman. What an experience! What a journey. Here’s what happened.
I woke up at 3am on Sunday. You read that right, 3am. Since I planned to start swimming at about 6:40am, I wanted to make sure I got an early breakfast in to keep myself topped up on carbs and to have time to let breakfast settle before I threw my body into the blender of an Ironman swim. A bagel at 3am is not appetizing in the least. After finishing it, however, I wasn’t able to get back to sleep, so I pretty much stared at the ceiling until my next alarm at 4:45am. I managed to eat a banana and drink some coffee and OJ, but at that point my stomach went ahead and told me that if I were to try eating anything else I would probably throw up all over everything.
So I loaded up my stuff and drove the 15 minutes to the race area. My parents and wife were my support crew for the day, and they did a terrific job. I got dropped off right outside transition (where you switch from swimming to biking, then later from biking to running). I did all of the pre-race necessities like my final bike check, bodymarking (where volunteers draw your number on your arms and legs with Sharpie markers), and a bathroom stop. Finally I met everyone out on the jetty to say my goodbyes, gave my wife a kiss, and headed for the beach.
The first part of an Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim. This course was rectangular, and consisted of two laps, each 1.2 miles long. It is tradition that the swim is mass start, meaning that all 2700 athletes pack on to the same stretch of beach and dive into the water at once. This makes for great YouTube videos, but most athletes aren’t big fans of being kicked repeatedly in the face and gonads, so we did something different.
What could possibly go wrong?
They shot the cannon, then everyone fed into the water over the course of about 15 minutes. This meant I had room to swim, and it worked out very well. From my first couple strokes I knew I was feeling good. Barring any acts of God or mechanical issues, I was sure I would finish the race. I am a strong swimmer in open water, but by no means am I fast. I can find a rhythm and comfortably cover a long distance in a mostly straight line, but on my best day I am middle of the pack. My first lap took me around 36 minutes to complete, and the second took about 39, for a total swim time of 1:15. I’m very happy with my swim performance, as I raced right on schedule and within my abilities. To put those numbers in perspective, that swim time ranked me about 900 out of 2700 athletes. I had a good day, so I was middle of the pack.
Running out of the water I was feeling great. The lake was about 62 degrees, so I was happy to get out and dry off. There were some excellent volunteers who would rip your wet suit off if you just flopped down on the grass in front of them, so I made sure to take advantage of their services. All of my bike gear was pre-packed into a bag that was handed to me as I ran into the changing tent. I spent about 8 minutes getting all of my biking gear put on, retrieving my bike, and heading out onto the roads. Thanks to the great volunteers, this transition was easy and smooth.
Generally, if I plan on riding my bike for 5+ hours, that’s pretty much all I will really do that day. This wasn’t a usual day, however, so I had to bike a lot then go for a run. My plan on the bike was to ride insanely easy for the first lap, then maybe add some effort on the second lap. Each lap was 56 miles long. It was also really hilly. How hilly? Here, let me show you.
To summarize, at one point you ride uphill for about 7 miles. All told, I gained 5000ft of elevation during the bike ride alone. That’s enough to get you from Kansas to Denver. Every time I got to a steep hill I dropped to my granny gear (the easiest possible gear setting on my bike) and spun my way to the top. This helped keep my legs fresh for the long day still ahead. I can usually keep an average of about 20mph on my bike for shorter rides (up to 60-70 miles or so), and I averaged 17.5mph during the race. That seemed like it was the best balance between getting off of my bike at a reasonable time and still having some energy reserves going into the marathon.
Total bike time came to about 6:24, which means I started the marathon at about 2:30pm. My bike rank was also about 900th, out of about 2700 racers. My only superpower in triathlon is my iron stomach. I can eat anything, at any point (especially biking), and it digests well. Allow me to list some of the things I ate during my six hour bike ride.
– Ten bottles of Perform (similar to Gatorade)
– 8 GU Energy Gels
– 4 Bananas
– 6 Bottles of Water (2 with electrolyte tabs dissolved)
– 4 Stinger Waffles
– 2 Packages of GU Chomps
– 3 Packages of Cliff Shot Blocks
– Subway Foot Long Black Forest Ham on Italian
Seriously. I bought the sandwich the night before the race and packed it in my “Special Needs” bag, which you have the opportunity to pick up at about mile 60 of the bike. I had half then and carried the other half in my cup holder for an hour, then ate it too. I probably got close to 3000 calories down during the bike, but I think I burned close to 6000 during the ride. Thankfully, the weather was gorgeous and the course was awesome. Great views, scenic mountain roads…it was a great time. Huge thanks to Mom for buying me compression sleeves on Saturday. They kept me warm during the first few hours and kept me from getting sunburned during the rest of the bike. What a terrific idea!
Anyways, after six-ish hours I was ready to get off my bike. I ran into the tent again and changed completely into my running clothes. This was a good idea. Many people wore the same thing all day. I am glad I was able to refresh for each event. I have only run one marathon, so my experience with this event is sort of minimal. I have run about 12 half marathons, however, and the course was 2 out and backs, each a half marathon. So basically you ran 5 miles out, up a huge hill, down the other side, then turn around to run back up and down the hill and back into town. Then you had to do it all again. This was rough. I managed a fairly decent first half (2:15 or so), but 14 miles in the wheels started coming off. I started doing a lot of walking, and needed more fluids from the aid stations each mile. Speaking of aid stations, they were terrific. Spaced only a mile apart, these little oases were stocked with Perform, Coke, pretzels, fruit, cookies, water, chips, and a variety of other necessities. Coke is especially important to me this late in a race, since it metabolizes quickly and doesn’t taste like Powerade. When combined with salt, it works wonders for cramps and sore legs. I walked most of miles 14-18, spending a few seconds stocking up at each aid station.
This continued through mile 19, where the giant hill was. People were cursing loudly while walking up it at this point. On the way back I managed to pick it up a little. The mile markers were getting closer to 26, all of the Coke I drank was starting to help, and I found a running buddy from Texas. Together we managed about a 10:30 mile pace for that last 5-6 miles in to town. It was getting colder and starting to rain a little bit at this point, but nothing could have stopped me at this point. I was so close I could taste it. At mile 25 I left my little group (a few more guys had tacked on and were using me as a pacer) and started a push toward the finish.
Then I ran through a library parking lot, made a quick right, and then a left onto Sherman Ave. I could see the whole last quarter mile, with the finish line at the end of the downhill. People were packed on either side, music was blaring, and I had done it. This wasn’t a dream anymore. I was on the last quarter of an Ironman! How many treadmill runs I had dreamed about crossing this finish line? How many times had I watched this video on YouTube and imagined myself coming down that finish chute. What a feeling! I crossed the line and head Mike Reilly call out, as he did in all of the videos, “______, from Somewhere, America…..You…Are….an IRONMAN!”
What a rush. What a long day. What a journey. All totally worth it. Of course, as I write this the day after the event, I’m a pretty big fan of sitting down. I also can’t seem to regulate my body temperature. Who cares! I’m an Ironman.
I can’t say enough for the volunteers and spectators on the course. If you haven’t been to an Ironman event, you need to go and watch. Even better, volunteer. There is so much positive energy at an event like that, it can’t help but rub off on you. Be careful though, you may get hooked and find yourself signing up for one. My parents and wife were a fantastic support crew. I wouldn’t have even made it to the start line without their support, and they were a huge help afterwards, when I was only somewhat lucid. Nobody crossed the finish line alone. It took dozens of others in their lives who encouraged them and helped them get there.
So what’s the lesson to be learned here? What did I take away from this crazy, stupid adventure? I’m not sure yet. Maybe I discovered that Ironman aren’t made in one ridiculous day of exercise, maybe it’s the months and years of training that make the difference. I certainly learned more about my limits, strengths, and weaknesses. If triathlon taught me anything, it’s focus. It’s so easy to distract ourselves these days with….well…I guess whatever we want. Even while running you can listen to music the whole time. It’s unusual to really truly unplug these days, but if you can do it I think it ends up being really refreshing.
Besides that, the biggest lesson to learn in Ironman is “YOU can”. Contrary to my expectations, the course wasn’t filled with 2700 perfectly toned super-athletes out trying to win awards and wear as little clothing as possible. In fact, the course was mostly full of husbands, mothers, and normal people with jobs and families. We came from all over America and the world, and the only common factor was that at some point in the past we decided to try this crazy sport, and our lives were never the same after. I spoke with a man who candidly told me that since he began training for this race over 16 months ago, he had lost over 120 pounds, but he sometimes felt embarrassed to admit it was that much and just told people he lost 80lbs. Two years ago he couldn’t touch his toes, or even see them, he told me as he jogged through mile 9 of an Ironman. That’s the real power of this crazy sport. It isn’t just running and stuff (although @runningandstuff would make a terrific Twitter handle), it’s about getting better, and that makes triathlon a pretty cool sport.