I went into this race with guarded optimism. Training was going well, and I was especially excited to get to the run. I honestly thought I could lay down a 1:45 for the half marathon, but New Orleans was about to beat me like a rusty timpani drum.
My biggest fear was the effect a ton of driving would have on me (well, that and the wind and the sun and the humidity and the street swindlers). The Final Four in Dallas was a welcome surprise the weekend before, and I have zero regrets about going, but the travel shanked my mental mojo.
CHECK IN –
As usual I forgot my USAT card, so I had to pull it up on my phone, which pissed off about 10 people in line behind me. Then, after some wickedly lame small-talk with volunteers, I bought my third “name t-shirt” — which officially put me over one million dollars spent on the Ironman brand.
I ran into an nice old man (older than me) wearing a Wisconsin logo, so we talked Badgers for a while before he dragged me onto the veranda and pointed with joy at paddle boat he was spending the next week aboard. “There’s no gambling, or kids, which is nice,” he said.
I also spent a lot of time in here.
Then it was time for the Athlete’s Meeting where I sat next to Wells, who was doing his first half. He was all of 24-years-old and excited to get my expert advice — which he promptly used to kick my ass in the race. I was happy for him and it made me wonder how often that kind of thing happens. Some guy in a gangster TYR hat, who’s been around the block a couple times, starts talking about how great he is then gets dusted dusted by the student.
My immediate concern after the meeting was to figure out how I could get a practice swim. Luckily I ran into a woman who heard about an open-water-deal hosted by a local tri club. I got directions and drove about 20 minutes to jump in the cold and murky water of Lake Ponchartrain.
I was “wetsuit rusty” but felt great until I climbed the concrete stairs and had a bout with dizziness. I sat on the ledge collecting my bearings and this incident quickly turned into my number one fear for the next morning.
As I was stripped my wetsuit I noticed a gash in my big toe and it quickly proved my blood was red, just like yours. The guys supervising, Coach Kevin, said it was probably from “those damn barnacles,” and the funny part of this story happened the next morning in the swim line with Rick, from Nashville, who I just met. We talked for a while, then he looked at my toe and said, “Did you cut your toe at that open water swim yesterday?” I was like, “Yeah, how the hell did you know?” He said, “Me too.” I took an awkward gaze at his bare big toe and it was sliced in exactly the same spot.
That night, I slept like a man expecting an earthquake, and netted about four hours sleep. I woke at 4:30, grabbed my gear and walked 8 blocks to the shuttle bus. The streets of New Orleans are quite the sight at 5 am. Drunks stagger by and look at you funny as you walk past them carrying a wetsuit. A very small part of me wished I was staggering back to bed, too, but I convinced myself to pursue the torture.
I do love the morning of an Ironman race. The energy is awesome and palpable. This race had a real international flavor and I salsa’d my way to transition-bike-rack number 1266 (the one near the milk jug, which wasn’t put on by me, but was easy to spot).
For the second day in a row I debated wheeling my bike to the tech so he could check the brakes. I had a small issue with my wider race wheels but convinced myself it would be cool. That said, I should note that I am likely the worst bike mechanic on the planet, so neither you, or me, should trust my opinion on bike health.
THE SWIM –
In the spirit of our “going out of the way to do a race” theme, the Swim Entrance was about a ½ mile away from my bike. Thankfully they had a gear-bag-shuttle to the finish line, so I wore sweats, and shoes over to the swim, then dropped them in the bag and put on wet suit.
The swim was an age group time-trial start. Fifteen age groups went off in order (6 at a time) starting with the Pros at 7am. I guessed I might jump in at 7:45, but it was more like 8:10. I was literally one of the last men to get into the water.
My plan was to take a leisurely glide. Start slow, stay slow, then speed up at the end. I swam it to perfection. But, as I neared the exit, I started thinking about my dizzy spell from the day before. Surely I would feel it again, so I came up with a strategy to stop about 10 yards from the staircase and tread water for 30 seconds so my body had a vertical head start. I think it helped.
Swim Time: 39:17 (1:52/100yds)
THE BIKE –
All of my bike workouts for this race had been inside on a trainer. I had a few opportunities to ride outside, but this is the time of year when my allergies can be brutal and nothing ignites an itchy nasal cavity like a free-wheeling jaunt through the pollen farm called Nashville, TN.
More than anything I was concerned about the wind in New Orleans and riding 56 miles in fresh air for the first time. As it turned out, my fears were well founded.
If you enjoy being in aero and riding directly into gusting winds, New Orleans is your race. I must have heard 20 people say, “Take it easy on the bike, or you’ll be screwed on the run.” And, for once, I listened . . . sorta.
The first ten miles weren’t too bad, but the combination of not riding outside along with lake got my attention. So did a guy trying to tame a horse.
I’m riding up on this scene in disbelief. The horse looked like a wild black stallion and this guy is holding onto it with a rope. The horse is bucking and shaking its mane and I’m literally riding right at it. I honestly thought I might get kicked in the face, but swerved just out of his range. It was probably the coolest part of the bike.
My plan was to stay in the small ring for the first hour and just spin. It was going pretty well and I was hovering around 18 miles an hour. Not ideal, but I was waiting for some wind assistance and thought I could jack that average closer to 20 mph. But, those moments were few and far between.
It felt like two-thirds of the race was either directly into the wind or hampered by a strong crosswind. I was a little frustrated, but feeling pretty good up until mile 30.
I made a mental note of the look on some of the pro’s faces as they passed by me going the other way. I’m pretty sure Andy Potts was puking and Ben Hoffman was falling asleep in aero, or . . . I may have been projecting.
My goal-pace was a greasy watermelon and a pinching brake pad was not helping my mood. Ever so slightly the right brake rubber would slide in against the wheel. I stopped a few times, but as I mentioned, I am a joke when it comes to bike maintenance. At one point I was in a panic because I tightened it so both sides were locked on my wheel. If I a had a wire cutter I would have sliced the cable. It was pretty ridiculous and I bet I spent 15-20% of the ride with my brake pad rubbing. This probably wasn’t good for my speed . . . or legs.
Around mile 35 there was a nice tail wind and I was solid at 26 mph for 3-4 miles. Then . . . there was a turnaround. For those same 3-4 miles on the way back I hovered around 13 mph. It was brutal and this was a common theme . . .
People always tell me they could never do an Ironman, but could do the bike, and to those people, I say, “You have no clue.” Racing a bike 56 or 112 miles is no joke. The strategy is immense and one bad section, or over zealousness, can screw up your race.
I was hell bent on taking it easy, but my average speed was dropping like Black Friday. I started pushing, and from mile 40-50 I was out of my comfort zone and bonked the last 6. It was just a brutal day . . . and far from over.
Bike Time – 3:12:39 (17.4 mph)
THE RUN –
The minute I got off the bike, I knew I was in trouble. I always have a little trouble walking, but this time my back was fried. I couldn’t run my bike into transition and my mental state plummeted.
I kept the faith and trusted that it was just a “feeling,” then followed the advice I gave Wells the day before, “Just start running and your legs will figure it out.” Eventually they may have, but my head wasn’t on board.
The course started flat, then climbed a substantial bridge at mile one. Everyone was walking, but if you’ve read my blog, you know I refuse to walk.
I slugged up the hill and was absolutely cooked. I kept the feet moving down the backside and at the aid station realized my initial mile was just under a 10 minute pace. That’s no way to run a 1:45.
Shortly after, we ran up our second hill which happened to be a draw bridge. By the time I got to the top I was really hoping it would just open and drop me into the river. I was in a bad place and soon thereafter . . . I was . . . walking.
I promised myself it was a re-charge and would pick it back up, but my feet were already burning and my body was crumbling. I started concocting walk/run strategies but my race was slipping away. The day before in the athlete’s meeting, the guy asked the room if anyone was trying to qualify for Ironman 70.3 World in Canada. I was “this close” to raising my hand. Now I was happy I didn’t. I felt like a fool, a sham, a fake.
The run continued along the shore of Lake Ponchartrain for . . . ever. When I hit mile five, I did my best to put the hammer down and may have lasted 2 minutes before I was walking again. I kept looking at the water thinking it would be a far better place to be and almost . . . quit.
I have really come to love running, but this day made me hate it. Hot black top, no shade, no scenery, no spectators, and serious doubt.
I knew my run was shot, but the clock would not stop ticking. At mile 9, after a haphazard slew of run/walk attempts, I spotted a guy dumping multiple cups of ice into his shorts. We seemed to be in the same boat. I looked at him and said, “What ya think man, you ready to run this home?” He said, “Let’s do it.”
His name is David and turns out he did IMWI the year before me. He also lives in Wisconsin, so I suppose we were destined to meet.
Somehow, someway, we trudged next to each other for four miles and ran it home without stopping (aside from the occasional ice dump). I’m typically not the guy who runs with anyone, but this opened my mind . . . and maybe even my heart. We enter these races with our optimal goal in mind, but truthfully, doing Ironman or Half Ironman’s are incredibly difficult feats and things often go wrong.
But I still believe this stuff is mostly mental. And that’s exactly what I was thinking about during those difficult moments. I was beaten. I didn’t see the need to push once my race goal had left reality. I couldn’t find the reason. It didn’t matter. I had “failed” and I could either wallow in it or accept it and bring it back another day.
So often endurance is about managing pain. Can you create a reason more powerful than the ache to push on? Can you justify the spears in your hip and daggers in your feet? Today, David and I both felt unified in our agony and leaned on each other to complete what we started. Neither of us were overly happy with our times, but I’m pretty sure we will reflect with pride as we understand what it took to cross under that white arch.
I guess that’s what they mean by Finisher.
Run time: 2:23:40