Racing Ironman is nearly as complex as the human immune system, and just like the body, sometimes it’s best not to overthink how it works.
My goal for this race was sub 12 hours and I was quietly confident it would be a reality. I was pretty sure I’d hit the run with about 4 1/2 hours to spare and that was true, but I was not prepared for furnace.
Everyone gathered at the Downtown Marriott at 5:30 and we walked to transition. I carried a couple of pre-sliced Power Bars, some pretzel bits, and two water bottles. I had a tech fill my tires to 108 psi then racked my bike.
The age-grouper across from me was getting assistance on how to fill his tires and the volunteer kept telling him to stop pumping. The racer insisted he rolled at 140 psi and I couldn’t help but think that was asking for trouble in the heat.
Robbie and I decided to start in the back of the swim and waited for the line to come to us. We watched the pros, then about 1,000 others jump in before going to the top and loosening up. I’d put in a lot of time on swim and felt pretty good, but starting last had me a little nervous. You never know with Ironman, you just never know.
My goal was to swim below 1:15 with much less effort than I put in at Wisconsin to get 1:20.
At about 7:30, the end of the line finally showed up and we climbed on the back. I had that eery pre-race calm again, but this time it felt like denial. A mere 5 minutes before an Ironman, it didn’t feel real. I didn’t believe I was actually doing it.
I took that as a good sign as Robbie and I walked down the pier completely calm. We exchanged a hand slap and jumped in the Ohio seconds apart.
I’d been working hard on my swim and my stroke was there from the beginning. I felt smooth, under control, and in no fear of panic. But, I had totally underestimated the congestion.
I’m not going to say the contact was like the mass start at Wisconsin, but it was close. Typically you feel the wake of someone as you approach and either sit in it or move around to pass them, but when they are breast stroking or treading water, it’s a different story.
I’d looked at the channel the day before by bike, so I knew it was longer than most thought, but despite many warnings I underestimated the distance to the turn buoy once you clear the island.
I’d heard stories about the Ohio River. The channel was just like any other body of water, but once I got out into the river, my under-water-visibility went from two feet to the other side of my goggle lens. There was about 50 yards when all I could see was brown silt. It was a little claustrophobic, but went away quick enough.
I’m guessing it’s around 400 yards from the end of the island to the turn buoy. Once I got around that, it was smooth sailing.
My swim strategy was to go easy to the end of the Island, go hard to the buoy, then find a nice-long-stroke-groove down stream. It worked nearly perfectly to the tune of 1:06.
I jogged up the ramp and into transition. A volunteer handed me my bag, I put on shoes, shades, and my helmet, then bolted out of transition for sunscreen. I was about to pull my bike off the rack when I realized I was still wearing my swim skin!
I just started laughing and asked the volunteer if they would throw it into my bag, and of course, they said yes.
I grabbed my Trek and started walking. Then jogging . . . then naturally hit another gear. I felt great as I ran through the Swim Out and mounted my bike for a mysterious 112 mile ride. My time goal was to be at about 6 hours with less energy than I used at Wisconsin for 6:03.
My plan was simple. Take the bike easy, stay in aero as much as possible, and occasionally push myself on the flats.
I was taking it by feel with an overall goal to ride easily through the first loop, work on the second, then cruise the final 25-30 easily back into transition.
I don’t wear a Garmin, heart monitor, or ride with a power meter. I totally go by feel and for the most part nailed this ride.
There were a lot of hills but none that made me notice or think about getting out of my saddle. Most of the time I found downhill momentum taking care of the next climb on the many rollers.
I’d talked with a lot of people about this course and by all indications the toughest section was the early out and back. It was two tough climbs with some fast and hairy downhills.
I didn’t find the climbs that difficult, but the hairiness was real.
Though not as narrow as I expected the road was jammed with people and on my first downhill (which I road in 1/2 aero with one hand on my back brake) I had a difficult time stopping before nearly slamming into a group at the bottom.
Once back onto the main road I thought to myself, if that was the worst of it, I may crush this ride. Well, it may have been the worst, but there was plenty of formidable challenges waiting.
In all, the hardest part for me was the mere distance. My longest ride of the year was 80 miles and that’s about the time my fatigue began to show.
It wasn’t so much my legs as it was my back and neck. It was getting very hard to look up from aero and hurt nearly as much to look down. It was a constant fight the last 30 miles.
I’d ridden mostly in aero during training, but after some reflecting I’ve decided the nature of my riding (which was mostly on a protected 1.2 mile loop) was with my head down. There was no traffic or danger of leaving the road so my neck didn’t get the training it needed.
I also swam mainly in a pool and wasn’t used to sighting as much so that awkward neck pain may have started with sighting the swim.
The ride was smooth, if not boring. Other than LaGrange and one little section right before it, there was virtually no crowd support. LaGrange helped, but the last 40 miles were barren and lonely.
They were also fast and it was hard to stick to my plan of taking it easy. Especially the last 15 miles when you’re so close and mainly downhill in the shade.
Speaking of which, the sun was behind clouds most of the bike, which was a huge break. I didn’t really notice it much at all, but did start thinking about it as I cruised home on River Road under the trees. I knew it was there, but didn’t want to acknowledge its presence.
I felt strong cruising in at 5:56 and, other than my neck, thought I was ready to finish Ironman Louisville with a bang.
I didn’t hear the part about Bike Dismount being moved to the edge of the road instead of right before the “Bike In” and it cost me. Instead of leaving my shoes on the pedals 15 yards away from handing off my bike I was now running 100 yards down a concrete path in my bike shoes.
It was not going well and I actually stopped early to take them off and run the rest barefoot. This, didn’t go very well either, but I made it into transition, grabbed my bag and headed to the tent for round two.
I was rolling the dice with this run. Nothing was pointing to a good time. My achilles forced me to more or less take the last two months off. My longest run in that time was 5 miles. I upped my bike and swim frequency, did a lot of strength and balance exercises, but not much running at all. Still, I believed I could pull off a miracle and as I ran out of transition, I thought it would come true.
My support crew was waiting right outside transition and gave me a huge boost. Jim ran along with me for a couple hundred yards checking my vitals and I assured him “I felt great.” We slapped hands and I was off on a journey I will not soon forget.
I really did feel good. I had no foot pain and my bruised rib hadn’t bothered me all day. Could I pull this thing off with virtually no run training? I would soon have my answer.
By the time I reached the first Aid Station, my fortunes had taken a dramatic turn. I suddenly felt like I was in a sauna for the last 9:38 (Despite my effort to go slow, my first mile was much too fast). I couldn’t get enough ice water in or on me.
I was so hot that a mere ten minutes into my run I was concerned about my health. If I couldn’t get my core temperature under control, there would be no finish line.
This would be my ultimate test of patience.
I held ice in my hands, dumped more in my shorts, and tied a bandana full of it to secure on my head. I was a moving melt down.
My Garmin band broke in T2 so I was resetting my chrono watch at every mile marker. My vision was playing tricks in the heat, but I was becoming more disappointed by the moment as I kept seeing 11+ minutes for my pace.
I’m sure a minute of that time was being spent walking through Aid Stations. I mean, I was loading up with ice. I couldn’t get enough. I was walking through all the sprinklers and even crossed the road to have a guy to hose me down front, back, and sideways. It was desperation mode and I had no answer.
Adding to the discomfort was a stomach cramp for which I had no solution. This was all new territory for me. I was digging into my gut trying to release that pressure. I tried yelling it away, drinking chicken broth, Coke, downing salt, all to no avail. It was fruitless, and on top of it all I felt like there was not enough water in the world to quench my thirst. I pounded water, which I’m guessing only fueled the cramps.
My first 13.1 miles were around 2:15 and if I could have repeated that feat, I would have hit my goal of sub 12 hours. But as I limped halfway into the Finisher’s Chute, I could think of nothing in the world I wanted to do less than run that loop again. I was an emotional wreck as volunteers held out my Special Needs bag, which I regretfully declined.
In reflection, I cannot believe I did not change my socks at that point. In fact, in the future I will have a spare pare of insoles waiting too.
My feet were soaked and dry socks may have been a huge relief, but I was still in cooling mode and knew I would pour water on them at the next Aid Station. It all seemed hopeless as I headed out to another “turnaround” that seemed like it would never come.
Everyone I asked about this run course said there was “zero shade,” and I was finally starting to believe them. It got to the point where I would see a 10 foot patch of shade from an overhanging tree and get an erection.
I ran the entire way (other than Aid Stations) to mile marker 16 but there was something about that number, and more specifically the fact that I had 10 miles left (and had to run them all at 10 minutes or less to hit my goal) that ruined me. I started to run/walk.
I honestly didn’t know if I could make it. Ten more miles seemed unreasonable and frankly not worth it. My core was still hot, but now it was the blisters.
I was highly disappointed in myself for walking. I have never understood or been a fan of walking the marathon at the end of an Ironman. In some ways it seems like a failure to me, like you don’t deserve to be called an Ironman.
But even walking was hard.
My walk/run plan was 2:00 of walking followed by 4:00 of running. It was holding up fairly well, but somewhere around mile 22.5 a guy in my age group walked next to me and said, “I want to run right now, but can’t really think of any good reason to do it.” I agreed with him and that was my longest walk section of the day, probably a half mile.
He was right. It didn’t seem worth it.
It is very cruel to watch your dream dwindle away while the clock is still ticking. I knew 12 hours was long gone and even 12:30, but I did not want to flirt with 13. So with roughly 3 miles to go, I wished him luck and decided I was done with Aid Stations and walking. I would run this home.
Shortly thereafter, I surmised that it was now less painful to run than walk. I focused everything I had on consistent, short strides and barreled ahead. That is what I wanted to do for the entire race, but for some reason, I couldn’t get it straight in my mind. I didn’t want it bad enough.
Now, I just wanted it to be over.
I was nearly 140 miles into my journey and I was running. This sport is so mental.
The finish line tugged at me and I no longer needed water or ice. I just needed to be done.
When I turned the final corner and saw the majestic Louisville finish line, I was temporarily ready to do it again. I zipped up my jersey, straightened my visor and floated down the chute. Where was this energy 10 miles ago?
I was all alone as I ran down the carpet, scanning the crowd for my team. And right before I crossed under the arch, I saw them on the left and veered off for a quick hug. It was perfect, and I stood on the finish line 12 hours and 42 minutes after I started.