Saturday, October 4, 2014

Moments can matter more than minutes in an Ironman

I'll remember it forever, the moment I signed up for my first Ironman. It was noon on Sept. 4, 2013, and as soon as I clicked the "Submit Payment" button, I was overcome with a wave of both glee and anxiety.

Seven thousand and some odd miles away, my friend Doug was completing the same process during a business trip in Dubai, where it was 8 p.m.

A couple of minutes later? Ironman Chattanooga had sold out, and we traded texts expressing how lucky we were to have both gotten in. After all, he lived in California, and if, say, he'd gotten in and I hadn't, this whole story would have had a much different ending. (Or there might not even be an ending.)

Anyway, last Sunday -- one year and hundreds of training hours later -- we both found ourselves in a line of about 2,300 people standing near the banks of the Tennessee River, waiting to head out for 144.6 miles of swimming, biking and running. Here are the moments and other assorted things that stand out, having now had several days to decompress:

Most memorable pre-race moment: Literally just minutes before we got in the water, a Mexican fellow named Luis Alvarez Gonzalez appeared out of nowhere and began explaining/boasting that he had just flown by private jet from Mallorca, Spain, where THE PREVIOUS DAY he had done the inaugural Ironman event there. Apparently, he has done every Ironman race in the world, although this had to have been the first one he's done while swimming with a cycling jersey stuffed in the front of his tri shorts. When he realized he was wearing the wrong type of jersey for water usage, he slouched over and said, "Oh -- hahaha! What was I thinking??" We don't know either, Luis...

Most memorable moment during the swim: The 2.4-mile swim course is entirely with the current, and made for some incredibly fast times. The top swimmer, for instance -- Barrett Brandon of Texas -- did it in 38 minutes, 6 seconds. As a point of comparison, the fastest swim time at the World Championships in Kona last year was more than 10-1/2 minutes slower. At our athletes' meeting a couple of days earlier, we were informed that someone floated the entire course on their back in just 90 minutes. So, needless to say, everyone was going to be fast. The course is on a section of the Tennessee River that forms an "S" -- from the docks at the start, it banked left, then right, then left again. Since we just had to keep the sight buoys on our left, and since the sight buoys basically hugged pretty close to the riverbank on the left side, it was legal to "swim the tangents," and as a swimmer who is slow enough that floating bodies stand a fighting chance of outpacing me, I tried to swim those tangents to gain an advantage. OK, so, staying focused: The most memorable moment was when I was so far away from the pack that I passed just a few yards from a volunteer kayaker who was patrolling the perimeter of the course -- and that kayaker was a friend from Charlotte! I yelled her name while turning my head to breathe to my right, without breaking stroke. About 60 seconds later, I realized I had been sighting off the wrong landmark, and my heart sunk. Fortunately, I didn't (sink, that is), climbing out of the water in a slow but steady 1:01:19.

Speaking of floating bodies: In what would be arguably only the second-most-disturbing post-race revelation, Chattanooga authorities pulled the body of a 34-year-old man from the river during Sunday's race, just downstream from the finish. He was not a participant.

First mistake (minor): A friend had advised me a week before the race to make sure to hit the porta-potty in T1. I should have followed that advice.

Most frustrating thing about the bike leg: Stopped to use the porta-potty once around Mile 47, then had to use it again less than 20 miles later. The second time, there were only two guys in line, but for some reason, it took four minutes to get through it. All I could think was, "If I'd gone in T1, I wouldn't be here right now!"

Most surprising thing about the bike leg: I'd say, "The fact that it was 116 miles long instead of the standard 112," except we'd known for more than a month that race officials had been forced to lengthen our ride time -- due to a Georgia church that didn't want cyclists disrupting traffic trying to get to and from its Sunday-morning worship. No, what was surprising was how easy the course felt. I'd previewed it twice (once in the spring and once in the summer), and familiarity helped. So did relatively cool air, coupled with clouds that hid the sun. But I kept the intensity level right around Zone 2, maybe pushing up into Zone 3 once or twice for a minute or two at most, but never even sniffing Zone 4. Didn't truly mash the pedals at all; never gave in to the urge to go after someone I felt shouldn't be passing me; I'm not even sure I broke a sweat over the course of the 6 hours, 12 minutes and 41 seconds I was on the bike. The ultimate goal was to give up the great bike split in order to set the table for a great run split.

No wait, THIS was the most surprising thing about the bike leg: On the way out of Chattanooga and over the first couple dozen miles of the bike course, I saw a smattering of athletes who were changing tires on the side of the road. By smattering, I mean two. Three maybe? I can't even remember, because it wasn't an epidemic. More curious were the two just kind of dirty-/sandy-looking patches of road between Miles 20 and 30 that were coned off, with cops diverting us over into the oncoming traffic lane. Didn't think much of those, either. Around Mile 32, though, we touched the southernmost point on the course and made a sharp left onto the notoriously forgiving Hog Jowl Road, which offers a five-mile rolling descent featuring pastoral views of forests, fields and mini-mountains to the east. Those sights were there, but the roadside in the foreground was littered with cyclists fumbling for quick-release levers on their wheels, digging tire levers into their rims, connecting "fix-a-flat" canisters to valve stems, pulling tubes from spare kits, examining Zipps for damage. I thought, "What in the world is going on here? This can't be that common for an Ironman..." I started to get pretty nervous, as someone riding tubulars with nothing more than a can of Pit Stop fastened by electrical tape to my rear bottle cages. This being a loop course, we traversed this section of downhill again from about Mile 79 to 84ish -- again, several cyclists were performing unexpected but necessary repairs. At one point, I had a waking nightmare that starred me running my bike in for the last 35 miles. Fortunately, I was spared from tire problems, extending my streak of no-flats-in-a-race to five full years. That night, I would learn that some jackass had poured oil on Cove Road in the hopes of causing bike wrecks, and had strewn tacks along it with the intent of wreaking havoc on our tires. I've thought multiple times since the race how much I wish I could be there if and when what comes around goes around.

Most challenging moment, mentally: Looking at my watch after running out of T2, seeing that I'd been doing physical activity nonstop for 7 hours and 22 minutes, and realizing that I was heading off to run a marathon.

Second mistake (more significant): I've run more than enough marathons now (17) to know well how unwise it is to go out too fast. My goal was a sub-4-hour marathon, and pretty much everyone knows 9:09 is 4-hour marathon pace. So I should have been focusing on probably 9:30 for the first mile, 9:15 for the second, then clicking 9:05s. That's about my ability, for someone who can consistently run marathons in the 3:20s and who on good days can deep into the three-teens. So what do I do? First mile, 8:13; second mile, 8:33; third mile, 8:38; fourth mile, 8:48; fifth was 8:57. Reverse that sequence and those, ideally, would have been my splits for Miles 22-26. Oh well. That wasn't my biggest problem...

Most challenging moment, physically: By the time I started the run, I had consumed about 15 gallons of Powerbar Perform, 40 gels, 17 Powerbars, 12 Honey Stinger waffles, and a carton of Uncrustables. Well, maybe my counting is a little off... OK... but it was definitely a lot. And I was done. But I knew that despite all those calories, I was running in a deficit and needed to keep fueling to have the energy to go for another four hours. So I took another GU -- and had to fight the urge to throw it back up. I mean, I wasn't by any means violently ill, and I don't want to give off the impression that, "Oh, I could have easily run sub-4 if it weren't for those stupid gels." But I was for sure, FOR SURE struggling with the thought of continuing to consume more fake food. I actually thought at one point that if I could make myself throw up, I could get back on track. In addition, there's no question: I'd gone out too fast. It was by no means hot -- not by any measure -- but it was humid, and that was sapping my strength a bit as well. Up to Mile 12, I hadn't walked--

QUICK ASIDE: Third mistake (somewhat significant): I should have walked through every aid station from the first one on.

Most challenging moment, physically (continued): --as I was saying, I hadn't walked. Well, somewhere in Mile 12, I walked. It was my slowest mile of the day: 10:46. I was fighting acid reflux, and as I walked, I actually experienced some light-headedness that was strange enough that I wondered quite seriously whether I needed intravenous fluids. It passed. I stopped at Special Needs near the start of the second loop, grabbed a couple slices of beef jerky, hoping the salty-not-sweet taste would be what I was looking for -- it wasn't (it actually tasted worse than the GUs). It started raining. I could tell that both my feet and the insoles of my Sauconys were swelling. I worried about blisters. Oddly, though, I never worried about not finishing, never got that defeated feeling I've gotten in marathons when I've bonked and considered dropping out. I was advancing slowly, and needing walk breaks; but the walk breaks were short, and somewhere around Mile 14 I found a feeding formula that felt fresh and satisfying: a handful of red grapes at every aid station provided a natural sweetness that I just wasn't getting from the GUs, and I also started grabbing a cup of Coke at every aid station and pouring it over ice. I can't explain how soda (which I almost never drink) tasted so much like nectar of the gods in those moments, but it did. Around Mile 23, as we turned onto Riverview Road with its spectacular homes and golf course views, I was feeling human again. I looked at my watch and realized that -- if I hustled -- I could still get in under 11 hours and 30 minutes, still a respectable time.

And then: As we neared the end of Riverview Road and the last long climb up Barton before the stretch run, I spotted my friend Doug up ahead. This is the old college roommate and fraternity brother who had signed up for Chattanooga with me more than a year ago. We've tried to make it a tradition to do a race together every year, but for both of us, it was our first full Ironman. So, I'm approaching quickly, and I'm sizing up the situation. There's a part of me that wanted to finish with him, but also a part of me that wanted a time that reflected my absolute best effort in the race, which would have meant saying "Hey, good job!" to him, and then "See you at the finish!" I was about 5 yards behind him at this point. "Hey dude," I called out, and he looked over his shoulder with a smile. "I was wondering when you'd catch me," he said. I may have said something that suggested I might push on ahead, but Doug made it clear he was interested in finishing together. Honestly, in the moment, I was wishing he had said, "Do what you need to do, then cheer me in." But for the last two miles, I got him to run as hard as he could, and he got me to slow up as much as I could -- though he was still probably 20 feet back for much of those two miles. I really wanted those minutes, those seconds.

As we came down the last little hill and around the last little bend before the long finish chute, Doug found his kick. I matched his stride and was overwhelmed by the sight of the finish line, the thunderous crowd, the thumping music, the booming voice of announcer Mike Reilly, all of my training flashing before my eyes, what my family has meant through this process, what my coach has meant through this process, all the great training partners, my friendship with Doug. We both pumped our fists ecstatically, he raised his arms in triumph, we crossed, I turned to him, swung my hand up to crash into his, and he grabbed me in a powerful bear hug. It was an unbelievably special moment: I started this journey with him, we didn't train together, we were similarly skilled in none of the disciplines, and yet here we had run into each other 20 minutes from the finish line and had put a completely unexpected exclamation point on what to date has been the most significant accomplishment in our respective careers as triathletes. Which leads me to...

Fourth mistake (major): If I could go back to that moment on Riverview Road again, to right before Mile 24, to the point where I closed in on Doug, I'd have declared my desire to finish together immediately. I'd have run beside him instead of ahead of him. I'd have completely pushed any thoughts of finishing an extra two or three minutes faster out of my head. At my ability level -- at MOST ability levels -- it's not the minutes that matter, it's the moments. The memorable ones, the frustrating ones, the surprising ones and the challenging ones. It's those moments, and how you respond to them, that matter. The final minute of that race? The way Doug and I crossed that finish line? Without a doubt, my happiest moment ever as an athlete of any kind. I'll remember it forever.


Brad Fountain said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I will be participating in my first Ironman Nov 1st in FL and am very interested in others experiences.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post race write up!! I'm a team mate of Doug's and reading this story makes me so happy for you both! Congrats and good luck on your next race together!

spinelabel said...

I'm glad you and your buddy were able to overcome the physical challenge (and the sabotage!) to finish together. Congratulations! Your race reports always want to make me lace up my sneakers.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Theoden! I remember when you were first experimenting with running and finding out that you loved it. It's really cool to see where this fitness adventure has taken you and I look forward to seeing what comes next! Thanks for always being an encouragement and inspiration!