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.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What exactly IS the point of running a marathon?

There are a million reasons why somebody might drop out of a marathon. OK, maybe not a million. But a lot.

Many are practical: a freak injury suffered mid-race; light-headedness that zaps your concentration; extreme cramps; extreme GI distress; hyponatremia; dehydration; heat exhaustion. A serious runner with a serious goal might bail -- upon realizing it's not going to be his or her day -- in order to preserve fitness for a backup race.

Poor judgment also can lead to a DNF: going out way too fast, or simply toeing the starting line without having properly trained for the distance.

And of course, some runners drop out simply because... well, because dropping out is easy.

Anyone who's run multiple marathons knows the feeling. A race starts to go badly. The body rebels. The mind swells with disappointment, frustration, disgust. "What am I doing out here?" "My finish time is going to suck. What's the point?" "I just want to be done." "Marathons are stupid."

The truth is, marathons ARE kind of stupid. One way to look at it is that we're paying $100-plus for the unique opportunity to run until our quads, hamstrings and calves twist themselves into pretzels, after which we walk around for the next two days like we're carrying a five-pound bag of ice between our legs.

But somewhere along the way Saturday -- as I struggled through the Kiawah Island Marathon and fended off my own very strong urge to quit -- I managed to find answers to the "What's the point?" question. Those answers helped me finish the race.

As most of you who follow me on Facebook know, I had headed for Kiawah feeling extraordinarily fit, highly motivated to pursue a second Boston Marathon qualifying time, having aced virtually every workout my coach (Kelly Fillnow) had thrown at me.

I also, however, felt trepidation. Sandwiched between two very good running days, weather-wise, Saturday's forecast looked to be an anomaly: unseasonably mild and humid all morning. My average finish time for the past five marathons I've raced in cool, dry air is 3:21. The last time I attempted 26.2 on a mild, humid day? I crossed the line in 4:05.

It turned out to be 57 degrees and 90 percent humidity at the start Saturday; 71 degrees when I finished. Ideal for a summer marathon, perhaps, but a shock to the system in December.

Now, I've decided not to bore people this time with a mile-by-mile recap, but I will point out some lowlights: Just over one-third of the way through the course, nine miles in, I was counting down backward from 100 -- a mind game I wasn't expecting to have to resort to until Mile 20 or 21.

When the half-marathoners split off at Mile 12, I wanted to cry. When the 3:15 pace group passed me between 14 and 15, I wanted to scream. Any second wind I'd been hoping to grab onto eased on down the road with the chatty guy wearing the orange T-shirt and carrying his little white flag.

The white flag. The white flag. Oh, how I wanted to wave one of my own, for an entirely different purpose.

What am I doing out here?, I thought. I could so easily drop out, just ask my friend who was cheering at Mile 16 if I could borrow her bike, pedal it back to the finish area. Or, hitch a ride with this volunteer passing by on the golf cart...

But I squelched those thoughts. And in my mind, therein lies the point.

Marathons things are supposed to be hard. They're supposed to pummel you to within an inch of your last bit of resolve. Beyond it, even. They want you to quit. They dangle a tantalizing carrot, and then three-quarters of the way through the race, they hide it behind their backs and are all like, "What do you mean? What carrot?"

According to Athlinks, I've run 93 races since the fall of 2008. I've dropped out of only two. Both were triathlons, and both were due to mechanical issues on the bike that made it impossible to continue.

The urge was pretty strong Saturday. Strong enough that my mind was rehearsing what I'd say to people in the hours and days ahead. "Oh, it just wasn't my day." "The humidity was killing me." "I wanted to save myself for Myrtle Beach." "I just didn't feel like running anymore."

But they were all excuses. Easy outs. Euphemisms for "I quit because I felt like quitting."

So at Mile 20 -- with 6.2 looong miles to go -- I stopped focusing on excuses and reminded myself the value of staying out there and continuing to struggle. "Kelly did the best she could to get me ready. She never gives up, and she doesn't expect her athletes to give up. I'm not giving up." "My wife and I have raised our daughter to understand that anything truly worth achieving or obtaining is difficult to achieve or obtain. What kind of example would I be setting by quitting simply because I felt like quitting?" And, "Will dropping out make me feel better or worse tomorrow/a week from now/a month from now?"

That last question is key. Ask yourself this, the next time you are in the darkest of places during a race, and strive for clarity as you answer it. I think you'll come to the conclusion I did.

Is there heartbreak involved? OF COURSE. While I recognize 3:28 is still a very respectable marathon time (landing me at 89th out of 897), missing a goal by so much does sting.

You all can surely relate, no matter where you fall on the board. A 2:20 is an out-of-this-world marathon time... unless you're an elite male trying to win Chicago. If 4:30 is your fastest time, and you're trying to go faster, 5:00 is going to be irritating no matter what your friend with the 5:30 PR says to try to cheer you up.

I finished the race, though, while 62 other runners who started the Kiawah Island Marathon did not, for one reason or another. I suspect that in time, I'll be as proud of this marathon as I am all of my others.

Revered running coach Pete Pfitzinger once wrote: "The marathon is a test of endurance. If you casually drop out of a marathon once, it will be all too easy to drop out again, as it legitimizes that option when things get tough."

I can't yet say I'm a 2015 Boston Marathon qualifier. But I can say that when things got tough on Saturday, so did I.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I DNF'd, and the reason why will surprise you

The story of my Santa Barbara Long Course Triathlon experience is a story that accentuates my stupidity, my ignorance, and my lack of attention to detail.

In Act 1, I make a reasonably big mistake. In Act 2, I make what appears to be a grave error in judgment. I am able to turn things around in Act 3. But stay on your toes: There's a twist ending in this one that rivals "The Sixth Sense."

Anyway, here goes.

I signed up for this race four months ago, and it was planned as part of a reunion with a college friend who lives in Southern California and has recently gotten very absorbed in triathlon. We chose Santa Barbara because of the anticipated beautiful setting and the unique distances -- 1-mile swim, 34-mile bike, 10-mile run. It was a race that would mark several firsts for me: First time doing a triathlon outside of North Carolina, first time doing a race with an ocean swim, and the first time traveling with my bike.

It took some time to figure out the bike situation. (Tri Bike Transport and similar services sadly were not an option for this race.) I originally had decided, after talking to Melissa Bell at Inside Out Sports, that I would pack and ship my P2. Renting was an early option, but we decided 34 miles was just long enough that it was worth the hassle of shipping.

Unfortunately, it was a slow option, and would require me to be without my bike for at least a week before and after the race. So after further waffling -- and further discussions with Kelly Fillnow (my coach) and Melissa Bell -- I decided to fly with my bike instead. Inside Out Sports would take apart and pack my Cervelo in a Trico Iron Case, and I'd pay United Airlines' fee for bikes: $100 each way. I'd be responsible for rebuilding it in California and then repacking it after the race.

So, the first error: The flight was booked through United, but the flight was operated by US Airways. But I didn't give that little detail a second thought for all those months and weeks before the race, didn't consider it as I loaded it onto the shuttle at the long-term parking lot at the Charlotte airport, didn't think about it as I wheeled it up to the check-in counter. So, imagine my surprise when the agent told me it would be a whopping $200 each way to travel with the bike case.

I asked if there was anything they could do, they said sorry, no. I wheeled the case down to United and asked them if there was anything they could do; they said sorry, no. The lesson here, of course, is read the fine print, think it through logically, then confirm, confirm, confirm.

All that planning, and a stupid assumption had tripped me up. Badly. I mean, $200 round trip for my bike seemed reasonable. $400 seemed laughable. $400 for 34 miles on my bike, plus putting it at risk of loss or damage, plus the hassle of having to play bike mechanic in California, especial given the fact that I'm a horrible bike mechanic. (More on that later.)

Needing some counsel/reassurance, I called James Haycraft at Inside Out Sports (my most trusted source for tri and bike advice); he recommended renting. So I hopped back onto a parking shuttle and stashed the case back in my trunk.

Meanwhile, my friend Doug -- the college friend I was doing the race with -- made some calls and reserved a Cannondale Slice for me at Nytro in Encinitas. $150 for two days. Done. I was off to Orange County.

Once there, I learned Doug had connected with a guy in his tri club who had a Felt S22 that he no longer used, and was offering it up as a loaner to me. Free to me sounded even better than $150, so we went for it. We met up with him, it looked decent, he was 5-6 and since I'm 5-7, I figured size-wise it would be easy to tweak. The frame was not carbon and the wheelset was not aero (the P2 back in my trunk in Charlotte had sweet Zipps on it courtesy of Inside Out Sports), but it appeared to be fine. The only thing that stood out to me was the fact that there was only one pair of holes to attach a bottle cage, and it was on the seat tube not the down tube -- high enough up that it was a little awkward to get a standard size bottle out of it while riding. The guy also said he'd had bad luck with flats on the tires, and gave us a set of Continentals to swap on.

I thanked him in the form of a $50 Amazon gift card, we stuck the bike on Doug's hitch rack, and took off.

When we got back to Doug's house, I went for a very short spin on it, and it was clear the seatpost was set too high for me. I was surprised, since the owner of it was a bit shorter. We lowered it. Still too high. Lowered it some more. Still too high. Bottomed it out to where the post starts widening to prevent it from being lowered any further. Still just a bit too high, I felt. But I'd survive.

The next morning, we swapped out those tires. Since I barely know how to change a tire, Doug did most of the work, though I helped with the back wheel and was able to get it both off and then back on the chain myself.

On the way out of The OC, we stopped by a bike shop, and an employee there confirmed that he could not get the saddle any lower and that I was indeed maybe 1 cm too high.

At this point, I was beginning to suspect the cosmic forces of the universe were trying to tell me something...

Fast-forward to that evening, when me, Doug, and another college buddy of ours, Ryan, went out to ride the 10-mile run course. From the get-go, the S22 just did not feel right. It felt heavy, it felt sluggish, it felt like I was working hard but not going as fast as I always do on my P2. The boys seemed to be easily gapping me, Doug on his P2 and Ryan on his P5. This coupled with the seatpost issue was discouraging me and making me miss my bike. We got back to the hotel and I told them the bike felt heavy, and told them I was changing my expectations, especially after the three of us having driven the at-points-very-hilly bike course earlier in the day.

I was starting to wish I had paid the $400.

OK, race morning. Swim was slow but solid for me, and I got through T1 fast. Jumped on the bike, and set out. And immediately, it did not feel right. I was pedaling hard, and it felt like I was pedaling through mud. People were passing me like I was standing still. I didn't pass a single person. In most tris, I find that on the bike, I pass about 3 people for every 2 that pass me. I knew this wasn't right. But here I was, wearing an aero helmet and getting mopped up in the first 3 miles. By the time my Garmin buzzed with the first 5-mile split, I had already started thinking DNF. But the statistic was beyond abhorrent. 20 minutes and change, which I'd later discover was a 14.7 mph average.

I pulled over to the side of the road, and didn't really know what to do. I pretended to look at my bike, but being a terrible bike mechanic, I didn't really know what to look for. I weighed my options. I could carry on and just get through it and then try to get something done on the run, but I was pretty sure that I'd have nothing left, as the pedaling I had done already was difficult. And major hills awaited me, some slightly technical. Finally, after about 5 minutes, I happened to look at the rear brake pad. It appeared to be flush on the rim.

I'd basically been riding with the brakes on the entire time! I tried to tweak them without tools by re-centering them, and I also flipped up the lever normally used to open up the brakes to get the wheel off. That seemed to help. Hopped back on, started moving forward again. We turned right and headed up the first big climb of the day, and I passed about eight or 10 people without being passed. Got to the top and flew down. But as soon as I had to tap the brakes, they started rubbing again. 7-1/2 miles in, I hopped off again and got the bike tool out to try to make some adjustments. The critical Allen wrench screw I needed to loosen to open up the brakes more? Stripped.

I was done.

On the way back, the gears started skipping, too.

I should have rented that Slice, I thought. Or should have just sucked it up and paid the $400. Both of those things were easy to say now.

But I also was already thinking about how to make the day good, how to turn things around and get something positive out of all this. My race was over, but I knew I had an opportunity to help make my friends' better. I looked at my watch and realized I'd need to hustle to make sure I caught speedy Ryan coming into T2. Got there about 10-15 minutes before him. He was bewildered when I greeted him coming out of the run exit, but I filled him in quickly then worked on helping him keep pace around 7:15-7:20.

It was an out-and-back course, so at about Mile 6, we ran into Doug (who was at about Mile 4). Doug looked even more confused than Ryan had. I told him I was going to run him in, and yelled good luck to Ryan.

Everything about the run experience was fantastic. The weather was perfect, the ocean views were spectacular, the company was awesome. I played the rabbit role as well as I could for Ryan, and I prodded Doug as he felt a fade coming on in the final miles. Ryan, who'd done Santa Barbara the previous two years, wound up PRing the run course by 3 minutes; Doug said afterward that he never would have finished so fast without me. Both of these things made me feel great, and I sensed that the whole bike mess was a blessing: If I hadn't had so many problems, if I hadn't dropped out of the race, I never would have gotten the opportunity to run with these friends I hadn't seen in so long. Being able to help motivate others and help friends reach their goals is super-satisfying to me, and despite the day's frustrations, I loved every step of the run.

After I crossed the line with Doug, I declined the medal. (In hindsight, I should have taken it and given it to the nearest small child.)

Back in the transition area, I showed them the bike and upon spinning the rear wheel to prove it, realized that the tire actually had been rubbing against the frame itself, not the brake pad. The wheel was lopsided!

Oh well. Obviously -- OBVIOUSLY -- I was not meant to ride that race. It felt a little "Final Destination"-ish.

That afternoon, driving back to Orange County, we joked about asking for the Amazon gift card back, but also I wondered how he'd missed these issues with his bike.

That night, while removing the bottle cage I'd mounted on his aero bars, I spun the wheel one more time. It barely spun at all. Then Doug noticed something: The wheel itself had been mounted incorrectly.

It was like the moment when you realized Kevin Spacey was Keyser Soze. It all became clear. Everything.

After we'd changed the back tire, somehow, someway -- even though I've changed back tires before on my own bike -- I hadn't gotten it so the skewer was sitting flush in the frame, and had tightened it so the wheel was slightly off-center. As the problem seemed to worsen from the night of our test ride to race morning, and also over the course of the 14 miles I did ride that day, it apparently had gotten more lopsided over time, increasing the resistance when pedaling.

Thinking back on it as I fly home to Charlotte, I believe it might have been the universe telling me that I had bitten off more than I could chew by planning to try to rebuild my Cervelo on my own for the race. Even with Doug's help, what if I'd missed something critical that caused a wreck?

After we realized the cause of the problem, Doug looked at me, grinned, and said, "We won't tell anyone about this."

He's a good man for saying that, but the fact is, it's a great lesson. I know it's a moronic mistake and I understand that it's worth a laugh at my expense. I'm OK with that. I think bonehead moves make great stories.

The lesson, though, is this: Be careful. Pay attention to detail. Check your own work. Then have someone else check your work for you. (I should have used the free bike check at the race expo.)

Oh, and do not fly US Airways if you want to fly with your bike.

Monday, April 22, 2013

From tragedy, runner emerges with new resolve

Demi Clark, 1/4-mile from the finish last Monday
The following column was written by Demi Clark, 36, of Fort Mill. According to at least one photograph, the timing clock read 4 hours, 9 minutes and 44 seconds when the first bomb was detonated at the Boston Marathon last Monday. Clark's official gun time for the race: 4 hours, 9 minutes and 46 seconds.

It's Sunday night. I just tucked my kids into bed, almost identically to the way I have every night of their short first- and third-grade lives. Kisses, plus a hug, and an "I love you." The only addition -- which has been part of the routine since Monday, April 15 -- "Do you all feel safe tonight? Mommy and Daddy are here if you need us."

My husband and I not only consider ourselves lucky to ask that question every night, we are downright grateful and blessed to do so. The parents of precious 8-year-old Martin Richard can't do that anymore. The parents of Krystle Campbell and Lü Lingzi can no longer call their children and ask, "Do you feel safe tonight?" And countless families are still in the hospital, supporting loved who are in critical condition, or without limbs, who face long, long roads ahead. That's thanks to two terrorists, who have changed the world as all of us know it.

I happened to be "that girl with the pigtails" who was 10 feet from the finish line of the Boston Marathon as the first bomb exploded and we found ourselves in a war. I say "war," because I'm also a health coach. I have clients who are soldiers currently downrange in Afghanistan; they called me later, saying we all earned our "combat stress" badge that day. The sights, sounds, smells, and horror are all still very fresh in my memory. Yet I NEVER want to forget. If we forget, we can't change the future for the better.

I also coach Girls on the Run, and nothing is more rewarding than seeing those 9- to 11-year-olds happy, healthy, active. Their actions and their attitudes inspire others to get off their iPads and move. They help make the world a happier, healthier place.

Happy, healthy people don't place handmade bombs next to 8-year-old children, knowing the immense destruction that will follow. Happy, healthy people do things like participate in the Boston Marathon; happy, healthy people have raised $127.9 million since the Boston Marathon Charity Program started in 1989.

So, today is not the day to scream at the guy who cuts you off in traffic. It's not the day to eat a can of frosting because you can start eating healthy tomorrow. (I had an eating disorder for two decades -- trust me, it won't make you feel better.) It's not the day to ignore your mom. Or your children. It's not the day to work late -- for the 100th day in a row.

It IS the day to pay it forward. Take your dog for an extra-long walk. Buy your neighbor a Starbucks. Lace up your shoes for the first (or one-thousand and fifty-first) time. Our lives have a true purpose. Honor yours by being good to yourself, taking care of your body, and being HAPPY and HEALTHY. Runners have a "runner's high" for a reason -- those endorphins are scientifically proven to make us happier. Runners truly love what they do. I haven't met too many angry ones. Runners wanting to be faster? Yes. Angry? No.

In coaching, we have a saying: "So what? Now what?" I've asked myself that a million times in the past week. What are the odds of me being right there at that horrific moment (with my family right there in the finish-line bleachers), with 26,999 other runners ahead of or behind me? Why was I spared, without so much as a scratch on my body? I will never know the answer. But what I do know is that I'm still here -- and now, I feel this overwhelming need to inspire people.

My goal then, from here on out, is to motivate as many people as possible to get off the couch. I want to urge everyone to draw up a vision board, to decide on a goal, then to make it happen. I have a quote from Homer on my home-office desk that says, "Go forth confidently in the direction of your dreams!" It has served as my internal compass for  years. Find yours. Faith over fear, life worth not net worth -- whatever your quote, pick something that puts the fire in your belly to be better, and go do it. Let's get each other off the couch. It's OUR time to win.

Demi Clark's daughters, waiting for mom at the finish line

Friday, February 22, 2013

How I qualified for the Boston Marathon

So there I was, at Mile 22 of the Myrtle Beach Marathon. I'm passing the timing clock that's set up next to the mile marker, and I'm doing math. Generally, I'm horrible at math -- flunked out of it in college -- but I've done enough time-based calculations as a Garmin-obsessed runner that this much is clear: If I don't push through, if I start falling off the pace too much, it ain't happenin' today.

If you've run a marathon (and have had a time goal in that marathon), you've been here. It's decision time. It's make-or-break time. It's the time to ask, "Do I feel like suffering today, or not?"

I've certainly run marathons where the answer has been "HAHAHAHAHAHA! No." But today? Today, I wasn't taking no for an answer. I'd come too far. It wasn't so much the 22 miles I'd covered in the previous 160+ minutes. Rather, it was the long, hard months of training. The early mornings. The "Honey, I'll be late for dinners." The two- and three-shower days. The screaming legs. The burning lungs. All of it.

I haven't come this far or worked this hard, I told myself, to miss my goal by 30 seconds and endure all the "Oh, man, you were so close! Great try" pats on the back for the next two weeks.

Down went my head, narrow went my eyes. This was happenin' today.


We talk about goal-setting all the time as runners, and how goals provide motivation during training, how they act as a metaphorical carrot on the end of a metaphorical stick.

What separates Boston from other goals -- from breaking 30 minutes in a 5K to running 100 miles in a 24-hour race -- is that it leads somewhere. To a place. Break 30 minutes in a 5K and your husband might bake you a cake. Qualify for the Boston Marathon, and you have a plane ticket to buy and a hotel room to book.

But Boston means different things to different runners. Plenty of slower runners will never qualify, and might be jealous of people who do. (At the same time, many of those folks who will never qualify also couldn't care less.) On the other end of the spectrum are the fastest among us, gazelles who could run a qualifying time while pushing a shopping cart; for them, fretting about Boston would be like a millionaire coveting his buddy's new Toyota.

Then there are runners on the cusp. Fit, but not phenomenally so. Fast, but not freakish. Runners like me. In 2011, I gave it a shot, needing a sub-3:10 and falling more than three minutes short. I waited almost 16 months to try again.

Both in 2011 and this time around, while preparing for Myrtle Beach, I was coached by Kelly Fillnow -- a friend who also happens to be a professional triathlete sponsored by Timex. Her marathon training plans focus on quality miles instead of large quantities of miles, fierce intensity on hard days and true recovery on easy ones, as well as a significant amount of strength work -- core, legs, and upper body, too. Lot of workout variety, lot of goal-pace miles, some cross-training added to further mix things up.

This time around, since I turn 40 in September and would be 40 at Boston 2014, I had an extra five minutes to work with. But instead of training for a sub-3:15, I trained for a sub-3:10; doing so was, without a doubt, a huge key to my success. Hang on, and I'll explain.


Once you make it through a successful training cycle and you've reached the taper feeling healthy and strong, the last remaining unknown (excuse?) is always the weather. Watching the forecast over the two weeks leading up to this one was like watching "The Walking Dead" -- full of suspense, and sometimes you were afraid to even look. The night before, the AccuWeather app for my iPhone was even showing possible scattered showers in the morning.

So it was a surprise to be able to see stars in the sky while walking to the start on Saturday morning,  a surprise to see the sun come up during the first few miles of the race, and a truly great surprise that -- despite concerns the sun's presence might sap energy -- there wasn't a single moment in the race where I felt too warm. Or too cold. It was perfect. Weather-wise.

Legs-wise, it took me a long time to get comfortable. When I run marathons, I often do battle with shin splints during the first few miles. This almost never happens during training runs or workouts, and generally -- using my wisdom as an armchair exercise and sports scientist -- I attribute it to the fact that do no warmup before marathon. But this time, I had more trouble shaking the pain than usual.

My goal going in was to start slow: 7:40 the first mile, 7:30 the second, 7:20 the third, then get to 7:15 (goal pace). My actual was: 7:39, 7:29, 7:27, 7:27. I couldn't get comfortable. My shins were hurting. On top of that, my calves, hamstrings and quads -- OK, my entire legs -- just felt tight and generally crappy. Miles 5 and 6 were both 7:29, and at that point, I made a clear and conscious decision to adjust my game plan. 7:15 splits were out the window, at least the time being. Let's work through this stuff with your legs, I told myself. Let's stay relaxed. 7:26 pace will get you under 3:15; we can work with this. It was way early to be starting to lean on mantras, but I did it anyway. "Trust your training. Trust your training. Trust your training. Trust your training." I must have said it 300 times between Miles 7 and 10 ... and somewhere in there, my legs (shins included) started behaving.

The second segment of the race -- Miles 10 through 20 -- definitely were my most confident. My splits started trending down into the 7-teens, my breathing became less labored, there was more fluidity in my leg muscles, and my headspace was just cooler and calmer.

I hit the halfway point at 1:37:52, and took a gut check. Yeah, I was feeling good. Not great, but certainly way better than I'd been feeling half an hour earlier. Yet I couldn't see the end of the race, and it was frustrating. What I mean by that is ... well, let's put it this way: I worked so hard to visualize a positive outcome, and to think positive thoughts, and to stay in a positive frame of mind. But unless you're a machine, it's very hard to push ALL negative thoughts out of your head. And during the first 20 miles at Myrtle, every time I tried to visualize how I'd feel or where I'd be in the last 6.2, I was getting the equivalent of bad radio reception. It was just fuzz. Inky-black. Instead of a blank spot in my past, I had like this blank spot in my future.

So I started with another mantra, mixed in with the first one. This time, it was "Embrace the pain. Embrace the pain. Embrace the pain." Kelly had told me before the race, "Each mile, just keep believing in yourself, and know that the pain is going to be there. Your body can endure so much more than you think it can. When it gets tough, just tell yourself, 'Pain is my friend.' Make friends with pain, admit he is there, and then know that you can overcome the pain. Pain is a temporary state." I know, I know. It sounds like a line. But I was buying it. Mile 16, I was like, BRING IT. My split for Mile 16 was 7:15. It would turn out to be my fastest mile of the day, the only mile I hit what is the goal pace for a 3:10 marathon. It was the most familiar mile I ran all morning. (More on this soon, I promise.)

7:21, 7:22, 7:20, 7:18, 7:18, 7:24, and suddenly, here I am at Mile 22 of the Myrtle Beach Marathon. There's that timing clock next to the mile marker. There's me doing math, and I suck at math. It's decision time. That fuzzy, inky-black blank spot is starting to come into focus, and I'm all of a sudden, I just said "F--- this." Those two words would become the mantra that got me to a Boston qualifying time. It's crude, I know. It's a crutch to use profanity, I know. But I also know that sometimes I need to get mad to get motivated. I was just ready to be done. To get this done. To reap the rewards of all those long, hard training runs. Literally, the next 31-32 minutes would validate (or not) months of training, and serve as the difference between "Congratulations, you did it!" and "Aww... well, congratulations, that's still a great time!" I kept hearing the latter statement over and over and over and over again in my head. And once again, I was like "F--- this." Ain't nobody got time for that.


The last mile was a victory lap. On the corner before turning into the long chute near Pelicans Ballpark, where the finish line is, I spotted my wife and daughter. They raced along with me, on the other side of the netting, until I made the final turn and could make out the clock. That was my favorite part of the whole race. I crossed the timing mat and hit my watch right at 3:14:13 (which would match precisely my official chip time), pumping my fist a couple times.

I haven't cried in years, and there's really no good reason to cry over a silly running race, but I can't deny I got a little choked up after this one. It wasn't elation, I don't think. I hadn't fulfilled a lifelong dream. I merely set a tough (for me) goal, worked hard to put myself in a position to achieve it, then went out and got it done. So I don't know. I think it was a mixture of pride and relief. Pride because not everybody can do what I did; relief because now that I've done it, it's a badge I can always wear even if I never want to pursue that goal again. I didn't weep, but in an emotional sense it was really very overwhelming. I wasn't expecting it.


I really have no doubt that the quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon has turned many otherwise average runners into very good runners, because they become so driven to achieve a goal that -- for better or worse -- says something significant about a runner's prowess. The mere existence of the Boston Marathon makes the running community faster than it might otherwise be.

With that in mind, I leave you with this: Set big goals. Huge ones. Test your limits. You're thinking, Ugh, what a cliche, right? But as Kelly said, your body can endure so much more than you think it can. For example, say someone's got a marathon PR of 4:10, and they decide they want to break four hours. What do most people do? They train to run a 3:59. Right? So they get out there, and they run a 3:58, and they're ecstatic. Wait a second, though. What if that same runner had instead trained for a 3:50? Maybe they're not a 3:50 marathoner, but maybe the extra push puts them in such good shape that they go out and run a 3:54. I'm admittedly bad at math, but even I know 3:54 is four minutes faster than a 3:58. And they've found what, for now, is their limit, instead of doing "just enough" to hit their goal.

Now, I realize this is just a theory. But I've tested it. In 2011, my other BQ attempt, I trained for sub-3:10 and ran a 3:13. This time around, my qualifying mark was 3:15, but I again decided to train for sub-3:10. All my goal pace work was at 7:15/mile, and I went into race day planning on getting after a sub-3:10. So the truth of the matter here is that I missed my goal of sub-3:10, but still ran as fast as I possibly could, on as flat a course as there is, in as perfect weather as I could have asked for. I believe the limits of my ability today are a 3:14 marathon.

If I had trained to run 3:15, if my goal pace work had all been at 7:26/mile, then I'd gone in feeling "off" and was slower than that by 10-15 seconds per mile for the first 10 miles ... all I can say is that conversation I had with myself out there at Mile 22 on Saturday would have gone a bit differently.

Monday, October 29, 2012

R2B, easy as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 ... 22-23-24-25-26-.2

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “easy” races versus “hard” races, and I’ve come to a conclusion: “Easy” is a relative term.

It’s easy, for instance, to say that the Chicago Marathon is “easier” than the San Francisco Marathon, since Chicago is so flat and San Francisco is so hilly. It’s also easy to say the Ridge to Bridge Marathon – which I ran on Saturday, for the third time in as many years – is “easier” than Chicago, since there’s a big drop in elevation at R2B and Chicago is merely flat.

What’s not easy, pretty much any way you slice it, is running a marathon.

I’ve now run 12. I’ve run them up and down mountains (R2B, New River), I’ve run them next to oceans (Virginia Beach, San Diego), I’ve run them in cities (NYC, Charlotte’s Thunder Road), I’ve run them in the woods (Tobacco Road). None of them has been easy. All of them have been run under different circumstances.

The circumstances I faced on Saturday were … let’s see … covering an event for the newspaper Friday night, not going to bed till 12:30 a.m., not getting to sleep till 1:30 a.m., waking up at 4:30 a.m., driving 100 miles to get to the start. And there was a bigger issue, too. I’d spent more than five months training for a half iron triathlon, then less than five weeks trying to get ready for Ridge to Bridge.

Here’s the thing, though, and there’s no way around this one: Marathons don’t care about your excuses. They don’t care if you slept badly, or had the wrong meal, or didn’t get in enough good long runs, or that it’s too windy or too sunny or too rainy.

They just don’t. When I got to the starting line last weekend, it was just me and whatever fitness I had. Nothing more, nothing less.

I’d run 3:26 here in 2010, 3:13 here in 2011. I knew sub-3:13 was a fantasy, so the goal simply was to fall somewhere in between those two marks. I honest to goodness had no pacing plan whatsoever. I would basically run on feel.

Ridge to Bridge is billed as a downhill marathon, but as I’ve said in previous reports about this race, the course is more challenging than it sounds. You start on an asphalt road about a pitching wedge away from an appropriately named Marathon gas station in Jonas Ridge, N.C. (elevation: 3,800 feet, give or take), with the first 5.5 miles described as rolling at best and frustratingly hilly at worst.

“Isn’t this supposed to be a downhill marathon?” is a commonly overheard refrain during this leg of the race.

My first six splits were 7:52, 7:38, 7:34, 7:39, 7:45 and 7:44. I still was trying to get settled. I knew the downhill miles would be fast, but I also knew I had only run 20 miles once since March, and I believe I stopped to rest three times during that particular long run earlier this month. So every time I tried to visualize Miles 20 through 26.2 in my head, I just saw fog and a giant question mark.

The downhill miles were about what I expected, I guess – 7:13, 7:16, 7:09, 7:19, 7:06, 7:12, 7:21, 7:12 – and here I would just like to note once again for the record that there are three uphill portions of the “downhill” section – and one is particularly lengthy (this has unpleasantly surprised many a first-timer). Because I had been somewhat conservative up top, I managed to pass a bunch of people going down, which always feels good.

Shortly after Mile 14, you reach the end of the forest service road and the course flattens out. This is the point at which this marathon stops being a downhill marathon and starts to exploit any of your weaknesses, starts to toy with any of your insecurities, starts to present itself as a potential dream-crusher.

Immediately after coming off the forest service road, you do a roughly one-mile out-and-back (turnaround is at about 15.5 miles in), during which you get a chance to see where you are in relation to others in your wheelhouse.

I went 7:26 then 7:26 in this section. I saw my friends Chuck Player and Rob Ducsay were a fair bit ahead of me, cruising to what they hoped would be about a 3:10; I saw my friends Ed Morse and Joel Thomas – both of whom have run sub-3:20 here – a little ways behind me, Ed maybe on 3:25 pace and Joel maybe around 3:30; I saw my friends Wen Norvell and Erin Osetek, also probably in the 3:30 range.

Faces tell you almost nothing at this point. It’s Mile 15, Mile 16. You’re not typically going to see many cracks in the foundation yet.

If you’re the foundation, though, you can certainly feel them forming. And for me, they were coming on in the form of calf cramps. I was able to stave them off for several progressively slower miles (7:31 for Mile 17, 7:44, 7:43, 8:02, 7:56 for Mile 21). I struggled past Chuck, who was walking. I struggled past Rob, who was walking.

In the 22nd mile, it became less of a cramping issue for me and more of a I-wasn’t-totally-ready-for-this-was-I? issue. 8:19. 8:29 for Mile 23. By 24, I was the one walking, as a few others struggled past me.

Anyway, I’ve done a lot of marathons in a relatively short period of time, and I do realize that even if you’re done, physically, you can convince your mind to tell your body to run. It’s basic math. Even a fast walk is 16 or so minutes a mile … while a slow run (in my case) is 9:00ish. A full bottle of water is worth running for. A Mountain is worth running for. Pizza? Worth running for.

I did what I could to stay moving: I walked for about 2 minutes after passing the Mile 23 marker, then jogged. 9:38. Walked for about 2 minutes after passing the Mile 25 marker, then jogged. 9:27. Walked for maybe just a minute in the final mile. 9:09.

Unfortunately, the calf cramps came back with a vengeance in the final 500 yards or so, making for an ugly finish. It’s always fun when you stop dead in your tracks in front of a crowd of people 100 feet from the finish line of a marathon, and one of them shouts, “Come on, don’t stop, you are almost there!” … as an unseen force twists your muscle fibers into a painful pretzel. “I’m cramping, guys – I’d run if I could.” At the same time, I’m reminding myself that marathons don’t care about my excuses, and neither do these people.

Anyway, keep an eye out for my finish-line photos sometime in the near future. They will probably look like they belong in some sort of anti-marathon PSA.

Finish time: 3:23:32. I’ll take it! Within the range of what I wanted to do. Third-best marathon time ever, despite the fade in the last 10K. Satisfactory, time-wise. Hard-fought, mostly.

Which brings us back to “easy” races versus “hard” races.

It’s easy to look at someone like my friend Mike Schreder – who ran a 3:47 at Myrtle Beach last February and then PR’d by 16 minutes Saturday – and say, Well of course he PR’d by 16 minutes. He ran downhill for 9 miles! Or Erin Osetek and Wen Norvell, who both BQ’d by several minutes Saturday after coming up short in several other attempts.

Then you look at Ed Morse, a four-time Boston Marathoner, who finished in 3:31 after running 3:17 here last year. Or Joel Thomas, who ran a 3:17 at R2B in 2010 but dropped out at Mile 20 Saturday. You could argue that they were both undertrained – and in fact, both had admitted to being just that going in.

But how about Chuck Player? 3:23 here last year. In better shape this year. 3:42 Saturday.

Rob Ducsay: 3:19 last fall at Savannah. Very tough hombre, fearless runner. 3:42 Saturday.

I’m not trying to pick on these guys. I’m just trying to underscore the fact that “easy” is relative. In fact, I’d like to think that all four of them – and pretty much anyone else who ran it this weekend, fast or slow – would join me in saying, “If you think Ridge to Bridge is so easy, you’re welcome to give it a shot and let me know how easy you think it is.”

All this is not to say there aren’t races that are clearly more difficult than others. Times are inevitably going to be much slower at, say, the Pike’s Peak Marathon than they are at something like Ridge to Bridge. And yes, if you run Ridge to Bridge exactly right, you can bring home a substantial PR.

But in almost every other way, Ridge to Bridge like any other 26.2-mile race. You have to be in peak physical shape. You can’t go out too fast. You need to fuel and hydrate consistently and properly. You must to find a way to dig deep starting at Mile 18, even deeper at 20, then all the way into your soul at Mile 23.

And really, the way I see it is this: If a marathon were truly easy, would any of us who call ourselves marathoners truly be interested in running it?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Do 70.3 candles fit on a cake?

When I first decided to tackle the half iron distance, last winter, I was pretty set on Ironman 70.3 Augusta.

For a few reasons. 1. It was an official Ironman event, and there's of course an element of cachet (or at least the perception of one) that goes along with competing in WTC events. 2. Several friends have done it, so plenty of intel on the course was readily available. 3. Several friends were doing it again this year. 4. The swim is aided by a current that has become legendary. ("You can drop an empty potato chip bag into the water at the start and it will cross the finish line in 30 minutes" is one of the whoppers I'd heard.)

But I kept balking at the $275 price tag; plus, the race was eight months away, and ... oh, come on, I know I'm not the only commitment-phobe out there.

Anyway, as I waffled, FS Series -- the company behind the great Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary -- announced in the spring that it would host a brand-new half iron distance race, set for Sept. 23. After a bit of back and forth with myself and some advice from knowledgeable triathlete friends, I took the gamble, opting for a race that would be lucky to draw 250 participants (whereas Augusta brings in 2,500).

For a few reasons. 1. The FS race was cheaper. Way cheaper. Entry fee was announced as $100 (which was only $20 more than the last sprint I did). 2. It was at Jordan Lake, west of Cary, so it'd be a shorter drive from Charlotte. 3. It happened to fall on my birthday.

No. 3 sealed the deal.

Training started in April. As many of you know, my coach is Kelly Fillnow, who -- as many of you know -- I think is one of the most amazing friends, mentors and role models anyone could possibly hope to have. I won't spend more time trying to convince you of that; I'll just say she laid out a six-month training plan that inspired me, pushed me to (and beyond) my physical limits, and ultimately got me to race day feeling wonderfully fit and injury-free. It's a gift to have her in my corner.

Speaking of gifts, I received them in many forms on my 39th birthday this past Sunday, during the inaugural Finish Strong Half Iron Triathlon at Jordan Lake.

Gift No. 1: A new tri kit from the boys at {re}vici, virtually hot off the presses (as we in the newspaper biz like to say). I know the rule is "nothing new on race day," but I took a risk and had zero issues with the suit, which fit perfectly and felt more comfortable than the Sugoi top and shorts I normally wear. The {re}vici kit's bright-red color and striking graphics make a bold statement -- perhaps too bold for some -- but I love it.

Gift No. 2: On race morning, organizers announced the swim would be wetsuit-legal. I'm a weak swimmer, so I reacted to the news as if -- well, as if it were my birthday. Which it was. I suspect a little creative thermometer-ing was going on out there on the lake that morning. A few days earlier, the water temp had been hovering around 81. Sunday morning, it checked in at 75. I was always taught, though, that when you receive a gift, you don't ask questions -- you just say "Thank you."

Gift No. 3: The swim was short. Very short. Like "Are-we-doing-a-half-iron-here-or-are-we-doing-an-Olympic??" short. Like 0.88 miles (per my Garmin) instead of the advertised 1.2. I came out of the water in under 30 minutes, which is much faster than I swam at Over the Mountain and Stumpy Creek (both international-distance races) earlier this year. I think this may have bothered some people. Not me. I mean, if you bust up your 5K PR, then notice everybody's watch is reading "3.01," is it really a PR? I say no. But I also say you ran the same race as everyone else; everyone had the same "advantage," just has everyone has the same "disadvantage" when a course is long, or hilly, or muddy, or whatever. In this case, frankly, I was more than happy to save myself 8 to 9 extra minutes swallowing lake water.

Gift No. 4: A Zipp wheelset, on loan from Inside Out Sports' Charlotte location. Not only do the Zipps make my Cervelo P2 look about five times cooler than it does with the stock wheels, I honestly felt like they helped me stay locked in during the flat, fast early miles. On Highway 64 around Mile 5, I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was holding a 30+ mph pace. Average pace for Miles 5-20: 21 mph. At the Jetton Park sprint last spring, I averaged 21.3 mph for 12 miles. Even if it was merely a psychological edge I got out of the borrowed wheels, I'll take it. I owe a debt of gratitude to the good folks at Inside Out Sports.

Gift No. 5: A natural ability when it comes to transitions. My chip time for T1 was 2:15, but my actual T1 time was 1:15. (I checked with others and indeed there was a discrepancy with the clocks that resulted in the official results subtracting 1 minute from our swim time and adding 1 minute to our T1 time.) That's 1:15 to strip out of the wetsuit, get ready to ride, and get out of transition. The transistion area was small, granted -- but that's still fast. T2? 38 seconds. I don't practice these things. Ever. I think it's just a matter of a smart layout, my brain working very well very quickly, and Pam cooking spray.

Gift No. 6: Coke. Kelly told me to look for it on the run course. I found it. I took a sip of it at three aid stations, and it was like drinking liquid nirvana.

Gift No. 7: Seeing my family at the halfway point of the run. My wife Amanda and my 11-year-old daughter Joie have been so massively supportive throughout all of my silly athletic pursuits over the past few years, and seeing them as I completed the first of the two out-and-backs was a big boost. I had to wave off a volunteer who shouted that I was going the wrong way so I could give Joie a low-five as Amanda snapped this great pic.

Gift No. 8: A downhill finish. The benefit of a double out-and-back run course is that after one pass, you know where every up and down is. That's the disadvantage, though, as well, since psychologically you have to ward off bad thoughts about the ups. And there were lots of rolls. As a result, there were a lot of people walking, especially on their second lap. I was determined not to be one of them. One of the main things that kept me going was I knew the last mile and a half was on a decline; all I had to do was get back to the top of that last hill, and -- as the sweetest cliche in endurance racing goes -- "it's all downhill from here." In the end, my last two miles were basically run at the same pace as my first two. Not sure I could have pulled that off without the gift of gravity.

Gift No. 9: A birthday balloon. About 150 yards from the finish line, former Charlotte resident and all-around good guy Thomas Eggar (who led a great cheerleading squad that also included girlfriend Michelle Hazelton and his daughter) handed me a birthday balloon that I grabbed without really thinking. Check it out in my finish photo:

(Note: Thomas and Michelle were there to support Charlotte's Carolyn Maye, who also completed the race and also celebrated her birthday Sunday! She's just a liitttle bit younger than me, though...)

Gift No. 10: A good friend to share a beer with post-race. Shawn Matthews did his first triathlon in May. He completed his first half iron triathlon just over four months later, finishing only a short time after me. Though our schedules don't allow us to train together very often, he's been a great motivator and someone who's brought a terrific sense of humor to a sport that often takes itself way too seriously. We didn't have a bottle opener on the trip so I bought a six-pack of (twist-off capped) Yuengling at Harris Teeter the night before. It's the best-tasting beer I've had in months, and must have looked pretty darn good to others: A woman waiting in line at the food truck who saw it in my hand offered me $20 to go get another one out of our cooler.

There are some other gifts worth mentioning. The volunteers were amazing, and if I had the money and resources to track them all down and give them all a beer, $20, plus a free pair of running shoes, I would. Eight to 10 hours of donated time, with very little thanks expected? Amazing. They're humongously selfless people who did a great job. FS Series also deserves big kudos. The staff was friendly, efficient, organized, conscientious and seemed to offer goodies you might not expect even from a more-expensive event -- shirt, medal, visor (cool), socks (nice), free lunch (burgers, fries, etc.), plus all the other amenities that come standard at a professionally run triathlon. Yeah, the swim was short. When everything else goes so right, though, it's easy to overlook 515 meters of lake.

Of course, the greatest gift is being able to do this at all. In a note to Kelly last week, I included this as a key goal:

"Have fun. It's my first 70.3. Whether I do dozens more or never do another one in my life, I'll always remember it. I want those memories to be good! "Great" would be even better! I asked Meghan [training partner Meghan Fillnow, Kelly's sister] while we were riding the other day for some tips, and one of the things she said was to take the ability to do this as a gift. I think that's great advice. That's why we do this! I'm not doing this for fame or fortune, so I hope I can enjoy every moment tomorrow. Or at least most of them!"

I figured I'd be claiming this race as the hardest thing I've ever done to this point ... but looking back ... I'm not sure it was. I think part of it is the fact that Kelly had me so well-prepared. Equally important, though, was my attitude: Have fun. Create great memories. Enjoy every moment. View the ability to do this is a gift.

Done, done, done and done. I had a very happy birthday.


Rank: 42nd out of 151, 40th out of 110 men, 12th in the 35-39M age group.

Garmin: 29:42.
Chip: 28:42.
Place: 87th overall (out of 151), 61st male (out of 110), 15th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 0.88 miles.

Garmin: 1:15
Chip: 2:15.
Place: 23rd overall (out of 151), 18th male (out of 110), 6th age group (out of 23).

Garmin: 3:00:12.
Chip: 3:00:13.
Place: 50th overall (out of 151), 47th male (out of 110), 13th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 56.07 miles.
Average speed (per Garmin): 18.7 mph.
Average speed (per chip): 18.6 mph.
0-5: 18.2
5-10: 21.4
10-15: 21.0
15-20: 20.6
20-25: 19.3
25-30: 17.7
30-35: 18.6
35-40: 18.5
40-45: 15.9
45-50: 17.4
50-55: 18.0
55-56: 19.5

Garmin: 0:38.
Chip: 0:38.
Place: 14th overall (out of 151), 13th male (out of 110), 6th age group (out of 23).

Garmin: 1:52:32.
Chip: 1:52:32.
Place: 42nd overall (out of 151), 40th male (out of 110), 12th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 13.09.
Average pace (per Garmin): 8:35/mile.
Average pace (per chip): 8:35/mile.
1: 8:35
2: 8:37
3: 8:21
4: 8:39
5: 8:36
6: 8:09
7: 8:39
8: 8:41
9: 8:42
10: 8:32
11: 9:01
12: 8:41
13: 8:25
.1: 8:29