Rule 11.1 says “Athletes must run, walk or crawl the entire [42.2 km] run course.” I don’t think that anything else can encapsulate the insanity which is an Ironman race. This is a long post, but as you can see from the photo below I did complete the race–without crawling–although my feet have seen better days.
I was up early and had breakfast at 04:30. There were a few others around and I chatted with Bob from Queensland. His daughter, Rebecca (Becky) Preston, was a professional and the favorite for the race. He lamented that a third rate golfer in a fourth rate golf tournament wins more than a triathlon pro gets in a year. How true, but this is a reflection that triathlons are an obsessive individual sport as opposed to one with mass popularity
About 05:15 I left the hotel for the walk to the transition area. There were a few other lonely souls wandering the street carrying their gear. Things were in full swing when I arrived, with music blaring and lots of people about. Seems like quite a few people had not checked their gear in the previous day.
I went to my bike which was racked near Sandy. I met another Australian, Paul, who was also trying for a Kona slot. We helped each other pump our tyres. I put my helmet and sun glasses on the bike, waterbottles in the cages, and did a final check that everything was set. This included my special set up for my Garmin 305 so it could record data for the entire race.
Descending to the beach, they separated those of us with wetsuits from without and we assembled on the beach. It did not look good with a lot of waves and some fair sized breakers. With just over 1000 swimmers with a mass start, it was not going to be pleasant. I positioned myself on the far left of the start area. Although this meant I had further to swim, I hoped that it would also give me a bit of clear space for the swim. Most people don’t appreciate just how violent it can be with a triathlon swim. If you want an idea of what it is like to be in a triathlon swim have a look at this link. The professionals started off in the water so had a slight head start on us. The siren went off and we all ran for the water.
As I expected, it was difficult. Firstly, there were arms, legs, bodies everywhere so it was hard to get into your swimming rhythm. To compound things, the waves were so large you often could not sight the buoys to see where you were swimming. Fortunately, I am never in the front so I generally follow the swimmers ahead of me, but every so often I like to check that I’m going in the right direction. I learned this after the Eagleman race where a group of us followed someone who was going in the wrong direction.
I was hit. I was pulled. In fact, at one point someone grabbed my swim trunks. I wondered what sort of penalty I would get were I to exit the swim minus my suit. It really seemed that people were not caring about where they were going and if someone was in front they just bashed you. One fellow kept on swimming up my back so often that in the end I gave him an injudicious kick. He didn’t do it again. Afterwards, one of the other foreigners mentioned that of his ten Ironman races, this was by far the most brutal swim. I’d believe it.
I exited the first lap and got washed off my feet by a wave. One Swedish athlete told me afterwards he got sea sick and was vomiting during the swim. That’s what the waves were like. It was around the timing stand, grabbing a cup of water, and then back in for the second round. Since we were spread out by now it was slightly better, but there was still a lot of contact. As I rounded the buoy towards the home stretch I was miffed to see several people pulling themselves along the ropes which tendered the buoys to the beach. Come on. Talk about real Ironman lite. But I’ll tell you one thing, they moved quickly!
As in every race, I was grateful to finish the swim and then it was a run up the steep hill to T1 where I donned by bike gear, drenching myself in suntan lotion. There was nary a cloud in the sky and although it was before 09:00, already it was pretty hot. I was pleased to see that there were quite a few bikes still in the transition area, which meant that I didn’t have a particularly bad swim.
I was on my bike which is by far my favorite part of any race. My strategy was to break the bike leg into quarters. I’d take the first one relatively easy, and use it to refuel myself. I’d then ramp it up a bit for the second quarter. The third quarter would be hills so I’d keep it moderate. And then flat out for the last quarter.
A key to any race is your nutrition plan and I had problems with mine on several previous races. For this one I decided to focus initially on liquids, before moving to more solid food. I made up a drink bottle with very concentrated drink which meant that at the aid stations I would take water and then add in some of my concentrate. Once I ran out of concentrate I had Zym capsules which I would drop into the open water bottles from the aid stations. My fallback plan was to use the Gatorade they were offering, but it was too concentrated so I decided to stay with Zym. I supplemented this with some energy chews and two Cliff Mojo bars (for protein). The goal is to have some 250-300 calories per hour while bicycling. I managed probably about 200, but it was enough.
The ride started off with the rolling terrain that I had rode earlier, in then moved down along the coast, before ascending inland. The figures below show the route around the island (courtesy of Google Earth) and the elevation profile (courtesy of my Garmin 305). You can see from the latter the substantial hills we had for the third quarter of the course. Although the elevation profile shows little net gain in elevation, I can tell you that the consensus of the competitors was that there was a lot more uphill than downhill. That last bit of uphill around mile 95 was particularly unexpected and unappreciated.
My approach to cycling is to keep my heart rate around 145-150 beats/min which is towards my lactate threshold level. This is where the aerobic and anaerobic systems are working together in balance to provide energy for exercise. Within that constraint, I focus on riders ahead of me and gradually catch up and pass them. I think I was passed by less than 10 riders, while I passed quite a few.
The ride along the coast was beautiful, with the ocean just to our right. One of the rules of triathlon is that we do not allow any drafting which means that we are supposed to be 7 m behind the bike in front, and 3 m to the side. This rule was broken quite regularly but fortunately there were marshals along the course riding on motorcycles who would pull you off and put a big letter ‘P’ on your bib number. Later, you would be given a time penalty.
It was very hot out there, especially when we moved inland away from the coast. However, we now had a combination of headwind and hills which were challenging. I gradually had less and less people in front of me since I had passed all the duffers like myself who were at least good swimmers and it was getting to the people who were good swimmers and good cyclists. At the 90 mile point I saw a few people off their bicycles having noodles to replenish themselves! The organizers had warned us that some people took a picnic break here, but I didn’t believe them. At least I didn’t think it would be people with good biking times.
I was pleased to crest the hill and flew down the other side, hitting over 35 mph on my bike. The road was under construction in places so it was bit scary, but I’d earned this. Digression. One disconcerting thing about the ride was speed humps. They were regularly placed along the road, but there were two types—both painted identically. One of which was a proper speed hump which you had to slow down for , the other was just paint on the road which you could zoom over without slowing. The challenge, with sweat laden sunglasses, was to estimate correctly in advance whether or not you needed to slow down. I didn’t always get it right.
Around mile 95 I saw Becky, the Australian pro, off on the side of the road in the shade. I found out the next morning that she had overheated on the ride and with the Kona championships six weeks off she didn’t want to do herself damage. The thing was she didn’t remember being off on the side of the road! Just that she had slowed down having decided to just finish the bike. That’s how hot it was. There were several others I saw by the side of road lying in the shade. I didn’t mind it too much, because every aid station I took 1-2 bottles of water and drenched myself to keep cool. I was also taking my endurolytes.
Finally the stadium was in sight and I entered T2. I grabbed my run bag and went into the changing tent. It was like a sauna – a very smelly one at that. I stripped down and lathered on suntan lotion all over. I had dropped the small bottle I had on the ride (which I had used to reapply while riding—not an easy thing to do!) but fortunately they had lots available. My feet were a bit of a mess from being soggy with all the water I drenched myself in which also meant that I was not able to apply the bunion patch to the sore spot on my external tendon as I had planned. I did the best I could and put on my sock and shoe, hoping it would stay in place. As always, I fumbled around a bit in the transition—it is an area that I need to work on. Anyway, I was out the tent eventually and handed by bag with the bike gear to the attendant and was off for the run. I even could smile at the camera.
By now it was around 14:45 and the heat was oppressive. The run course was three loops along the main three lane road by the stadium. This unfortunately meant that there was no shade, and the absence of clouds was inauspicious. As I was cycling in I passed the pros, and was pleased to see that Chrissie appeared to be leading. Sandy was also up there.
When I rounded the first timing mat I didn’t hear the beep – I then noticed that I’d somehow dropped off my timing chip in the change tent. Bother. I ran back to the transition area and looked in the tent but it wasn’t there. They ran over and grabbed my bike bag but I didn’t find it there either. This meant I’d have to do the run without the timing chip so I ran the risk of being disqualified for ‘cutting the course’. Fortunately, I had my Garmin 305 which showed the distance traveled so I’d sort it out with the organizers later. I also made sure that at every turn I told the marshal that I didn’t have my timing chip.
How to describe the run? Hot does not suffice. In Washington D.C. it can be in the 90’s and it wasn’t as bad. It was the intense, baking sun coupled with a complete lack of shade which just killed us. It was like being baked in an oven with no way of escaping from it. When I changed flights in Shanghai the next day I met Mark from England who had also found it unbearable. In fact he collapsed and was picked up by an ambulance to be taken to the first aid tent. After and IV drip and an injection of some drug he felt better and went out to walk the course to finish. His wife accompanied him in her flip-flops just to make sure he made it. Triathletes are definitely compulsive individuals.
Fortunately, they had aid stations every few km along the road, and each time I stopped and got some Gatorade as well as drenching myself with cold water. They had sponges so two went on my shoulders and two down my back. They would keep you cool for a short distance but then it was as if you didn’t have them. Sandy told me afterwards that he grabbed two x 2 litre bottles of cold water at each aid station and poured them over himself as he went to the next one. He said that he had pangs of guilt in case there was none left for later in the day – I told him there was more than enough so he felt better. I eventually got smart: I grabbed ice and put it down the front and back of my shirt. The race photographer got the picture of me below with the remnants of a block of ice in my hand. It had been much larger not too long before!
Having to stop every couple of kilometers to cool down and hydrate meant that my goal time for the marathon of 4.5 h or better was out the window. All you can do is race the best race you can on the day so I set myself a goal of 5.5 h. This would give me a time of about 13.5 h for the whole race which I would be quite pleased with given the conditions. To show you the frequency of the stops, the graph below shows my pace. The spikes are the aid stations.
A few years ago Lis and I went to a lecture at National Geographic by a fellow who had researched people what had accidents in the wilderness where they should have died but managed to survive. One of the common mechanisms they used to survive was to break down a seemingly insurmountable problem into smaller chunks that were manageable. They also counted. That was the strategy that I used to do the run. I take about 1000 pairs of steps (left/right foot forward = 1) to do a mile. So I had to take about 26,000 pairs to complete the race. So what I did was count to 100 and every ten of those was a mile. I would take breaks at aid stations and, when the heat got too much, between as required – usually on a hill. These I would walk for 100 pairs and then run again. You can see these from the chart above as smaller spikes.
So that is what I did. At every turn around I identified myself to the marshals so they knew I didn’t cut the course. I went through ice, ice and more ice, as it went on. When I got to 15,000 I was pleased. 10,000 happy. 5,000 euphoric. In fact, by then the sun had gone down which meant that it was quite bearable. I was able to go a couple of miles without having my 0.1 mile break, and in fact my pace for the last 4 miles was 10-12 minutes/mile. Much faster than earlier in the race.
It was dark when I approached the finish. I could see the stadium lights in the distance and as always this gave me a shot of energy. There were a lot of people around the entrance to the chute leading to the finish line and it was fun to have them all cheering me on. I slowed down to savor the moment as I ran down towards the finish line. A fellow shot past me but that was fine by me. I had run my race and finished. I had set myself three goals: (i) to finish; (ii) not to injure myself and (iii) to do it in a respectable time. My13:38:05 was very acceptable in my books considering that I had cooked myself.
The following morning I was chatting with Chrissie, Sandy and a couple of other pros and they all agreed that it was by far the most difficult races any of them had done. In fact, I apparently beat one of the pros. They said that I should try another one and I should be able to easily knock 1+ hours off my time. I’d believe it.
I immediately checked myself into the first aid area so I could get an IV saline drip. That is by far the best pick me up when dehydrated in a race. They were concerned about my temperature – it was 102 degrees F – so they packed me in ice and it was down to just above normal after an hour. There were so many people on IV drips that they had to use an overflow area. One person commented that it looked like a hospital room in a war zone.
I then went and had a massage. He was very good, so it was very painful. Especially my calf muscles. I was very pleased that my IT bands were not giving me any problems – my yoga has obviously helped.
I then tried to get my times sorted out which was not easy. Fortunately, my watch showed my run time as 5:35:56. I told them that I finished around 13:40 so they gave me that as my official time and then worked out my T2 time by going backwards. I was officially shown as disqualified, but I got my medal and finisher’s certificate. My 13:38:05 finish would have put me 264 out of the 794 who finished the race. I always knew it was bad form to lose a timing chip but didn’t fully appreciate the hassle involved.
I grabbed my bike and rode the 6+ miles back to the hotel. It was by now 22:30 and there were still quite a few people running/walking along. They were supposed to have lights but only a few did: I almost knocked one over. I saw Kara sitting by the side of the road so I asked her how she did. She overheated on the bike and at T2 she was too unsteady on her feet to continue. Had a visit to the IV drip station and then quit. Dan was still out there and shortly afterwards he came by walking so she joined him.
It was an eerie sight all these people running/walking in the dark, trying to finish the race before the cutoff time of midnight. But it’s a sign of the drive and determination that one has to have to do an Ironman race. All the hours and hours of training comes down to one day. After having put so much getting ready to do it, it is no surprise that people just don’t want to give up. In the end, of the 1145 who started the race, some 794 (70%) finished which was impressive given the conditions.
So I’ve done my first Ironman. The final times (with correct T2) were:
- Swim 1:30:10 (511/1145)
- T1 00:11:35
- Bike 6:09:00 (135/1145)
- T2 00:11:24
- Run 5:35:56 (462/1145)
- Total: 13:38:05
Will I do another one? Possibly. But in a more civilized climate. Perhaps China next April? I’ve decided that if you are well trained physically they are not that demanding. Heck, I could walk the following day, although stairs were difficult. It is more a mental game. You need have the inner strength to keep on going; to be able to stop when you need to stop; walk when you need to walk; and quit when you need to quit.
I’m looking forward to a break from training. No more races planned this year … for now.