Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Panama City Beach

More race reports from the vault.  This one is my very first Ironman experience.  Laugh away, I was a total rookie.


I sat on the beach in my wetsuit with my goggles in my left hand and a flourescent green swim cap in my right hand.  I felt a little guilty about sitting down because it was Saturday, November 6th 1999 and I had planned this day to be a modern version of my rite of passage into adulthood.  I would turn 25 the day after, so I wanted one more accomplishment to mark the first segment of my existence.  I looked out at the calm waters of the gulf and contemplated my first attempt to complete an Ironman distance triathlon.


I played competitive tennis from age 10 to age 12, but was not ready for the pressure and quit tennis altogether by age 13.  My father encouraged me to excel in athletics and although I had rejected the sport that he thought was perfect for me (probably because he liked to play also) he was very encouraging of any athletic interests.  He was the one who signed me up for my first triathlon when I was very young, perhaps 15 or so.  It was a very short race, maybe a 300 meter swim, 12 mile bike, and a 3 mile run, and it was for kids only (I think 15 was the oldest you could be, if not then the cutoff was 16.)  I did reasonably well, but there weren’t many of us who were actually there to race it (I went in thinking I’d kill everyone easily and came out happy to be alive.)  I remember being confused as the eventual winner blew past me on the bike, thinking it was rather odd to be pushing so hard.  I hit the run and blew up, it was a struggle for me to make it to the finish line despite the fact that I had at least two seasons of track practices under my belt, I just didn’t have anything left to give.  It wasn’t a major decision to avoid doing future races, I just didn’t see myself as ready to compete with adults and I knew I needed to put a lot of training time in if I wanted to be reasonably confident during one of those triathlons.  I decided to focus my efforts on water polo in the fall, and track in the spring.  I often complained about how hard it was to switch between the two.  The concept of training in the off season did not enter my mind more than once or twice and I dismissed it as either “foolish” or “impossible”.  A friend from a rival high school who I admired pursued his triathlon training while still kicking my butt on the track and proving himself in the pool.  I remember seeing him with a bunch of road rash on his face when we were about 17 and wondering what drives a person to train so hard. I also remember watching the Hawaii Ironman one or two of those years, I might have seen Julie Moss’ finish, and I remember one winner puking after crossing the line.  All of this feedback strengthened my impression that triathlons were a bit too extreme even for a guy who loves excess.  I only put a medium effort into most of my track workouts, but I put on a decent game face and managed to pull a good race off every once in a while.  I made my high school goal of scoring a point in the state meet during my senior year, mostly because some of the other good runners were pulled for earlier events.  I have my best 3200 ever, something just under 10:30 in ideal conditions with some really fast guys pulling me in (I had nothing left after that.)  I was pretty proud of myself for coming through in the big meet, that is a joy that many of us can relate to and one that goes beyond any kind of congratulations from others or any relative comparisons of times.  It’s funny to think of how my friend Jess was running 4:30 miles before I was even born, the competition in Hawaii cannot compare to that of California.


After I graduated from college and found the first fool who would hire me, I began to actually care about my life and decided to move to San Francisco.  I didn’t know anything about San Francisco, but I had heard that it was better than New York and I hated living in New York, so I figured it was the way to go.  I also managed to realize (even with my limited geographical abilities) that San Francisco was in California, and I knew from watching Big Wednesday that California was the cool place to be.  OK, I also had a bunch of friends from both high school and college whom I expected to enjoy drinking lots of beer with, and I had no life in New York.  The only thing holding me back was a bunch of college friends who I enjoyed hanging out with once a month when we all collected from the surrounding states (usually in Stamford, CT or Manteloking, NJ).  I was lucky enough to exploit my father’s connections and find an outstanding group of consultants working on PG&E’s gas pipeline information systems.  The project was challenging (I logged almost 300 hours in February 1998) and the people were exceptional in every way.  To balance the intensity, I started swimming with two other co-workers, Jess and Vince.  Before I left New York I was in great running/lifting shape because I had nothing to do.  I had almost fallen prey to the tough guy New York ideals as I worked my way up to bench 300, but I knew I should balance that with some cardio training which just naturally defaulted to 5-6 miles of running every few days.  On my own, I wouldn’t have ever stepped foot in a pool, I hate swim practices.  I remember dreading the one season I swam in high school.  At least at water polo practice we got to toss the ball around and hit each other.  Who wants to swim laps back and forth in an indoor pool in San Francisco I thought?  Oh well, I was getting a decent beer gut and I really liked hanging out with my two new friends, plus I hated the idea of anyone being better than me at something so I started going to practice every now and then.  In retrospect, I probably missed more than I made before May 1999, but it was tolerable.  The masters swim coach asked us to start coming to her practices, and we all showed improvements in our times as well as our overall aerobic shape.  I love the feeling of walking away from the pool after a hard workout with my whole body tingling and I started to get addicted to exercise.  I was 24 and it was time for me to pursue any athletic dreams I might have because I had nothing to hold me back.  Together with Nicklas, another friend from work, Jess, Vince and myself decided to sign up for the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.  It was mostly Vince’s idea, he had run the San Francisco marathon before, and his brother was kind of the 100+ mile endurance runs, so he was no stranger to extreme pain.  Jess had a solid running and cycling background, but an injured foot, so he was more tentative and realistic but nonetheless willing to give it a shot and maybe walk the run.  I was scared of the swim (especially the cold) and the bike (all those hills) but reasonably confident about the run (hey, I made it through the Bay to Breakers didn’t I?)  Nick was a runner and with legs up to my ears he wasn’t going to have much trouble on the bike plus he was showing an interest and learning an aptitude for swimming the more he came to practice with us.  We signed our names in blood, wrote out the $150 dollar checks, and our fate was sealed.  At that point, it was not clear that we would all even finish the race, but we were willing to give it a shot.


I switched projects (and companies actually, but that’s not really important to this story) and started working with/for Brian, a guy who had completed the Wildflower half Ironman as well as many marathons.  On a scale of 1 to 10 of triathlon difficulty, with 10 being the hardest full Ironman race (IMUSA?) and 1 being the easiest olympic distance race (San Jose) the Wildflower half is well above a 5 while the Escape is well below a 5.  It is an order of magnitude harder to finish a half Ironman distance race because you have to deal with fatigue, nutrition, hydration, and pace.  An olympic distance race is actually a much simpler race, you just push as fast as you can as long as you can without sprinting.  So Brian eventually pushed me to come to Wildflower, watch the half, and race the olympic distance the following day (which was actually a very serious race because it was the NCAA finals.)  Brian and I did a couple of bike rides, the longest being a loop around Lake Tahoe which left me completely destroyed.  Through Brian, I met Lori who was doing Wildflower as her first triathlon along with a bunch of her friends.  Lori asked if I would take some of her friends down with me, so I met Kristyn and Kimberly as I took the scenic route to Lake San Antonio through Walnut Creek J  The weekend was a blast, I met some amazing athletes (John D, John K, and Leslie) and I watched the pros hammer the course (Cameron Brown, Heather Furh).  I managed to finish respectably, but the hills did kick my butt and make me wish I had trained harder.  I remember wondering why I felt so bad on the run because I had actually trained a little bit this time.  Still, I was happy to have found a sport that I enjoyed, and very excited about meeting such a wonderful group of new friends to train with and admire.  John Dougery placed 15th overall, the poor guy was going to be so sick of my annoying questions over the next few months after I realized how amazing he is.  I was still beaming when I showed up at work on Monday, even with my middle-of-the-pack finish.  I decided to push harder and do more bike/run bricks so I went on a training binge and did a proper taper for the Escape.  I couldn’t sleep for the whole week before the Escape, I had so many vivid dreams about the swim especially that I was overwhelmingly anxious and excited by Saturday morning, June 5th.  It turned out to be a beautiful day, I had a reasonable swim (but not as fast as I could have/should have gone) and a solid bike/run to leave me in 5th place in my age group.  I have this picture of me passing a guy in the chute, he looks like Mr. Triathlon and I look like stupid, dorky, surf wimp, but I’m passing him and he was the one who will have to live with 6th place until next year.  This sport was turning out to be more fun than I realized.  We had a great post party, my friend brewed some tasty beer, a friend I had met at Wildflower found his eventual bride, and we all basked in a sense of accomplishment because the Escape really is a great race.

The Hard Part

After the Escape, I had a great race at the San Jose International, and figured that my road a spot at the Ironman world championships in Kona was paved with gold so I gave in to greed and signed up for the Vineman half and Ironman Florida.  I did not yet realize how much harder a half was than an olympic.  I predicted my finishing time based on the previous year’s results and failed to realize that the bike and run courses were different.  I brought enough food but failed to eat any of it because I didn’t want to waste the time.  I missed my bike goal, blew up on the run and felt miserable.  I still don’t understand how my race photos came out so good when I felt the way I did.  I remember shouting to Brian that “this is really hard”.  Vineman opened my eyes and brought me back down to earth.  It was going to take a lot of work to compete in these endurance races, and also a lot of thinking during the race.  So after my disappointing finish at Vineman I really started the serious training.  I trained through two more great and one more good race, and ramped up to 20 hour weeks of 200-250 miles of cycling, 30-50 miles of running, and 5000-6500m of swimming.  I paid my dues up front because even though Ironman Florida was the flattest full Ironman course I could find, I wasn’t foolish enough to believe it wasn’t going to hurt.  I had a lot of drive to carry me through those long training weeks, but they were grueling.  I wasn’t fast enough to train with the two guys I knew who were going to Kona two weeks before my race, and all of my casual triathlon friends were ready to wax up their skis/surfboards and take some time away from triathlons.  It started getting darker earlier and I crashed my bike coming home one Friday night, so I figured it was time to start the rest and recovery phase of training.  I had done more than I ever thought possible during the last few months, and I was mentally exhausted by the end.  I was reasonably confident that I could physically finish a full Ironman distance race if I could avoid making any major mistakes.

Race Day


I waited until many of the other competitors had already splashed into the water to start my warmup.  I took a few strokes and realized I felt pretty loose.  There was no need to worry, and I knew I had a long day ahead of me, so my warmup was barely a 200m swim. The water was warm, but there were some colder spots as the depth and currents varied over the course.  I walked into what the announcer was calling the “corral”, a rectangular, fenced off area, open at the water’s end that would serve as the swim start.  I was pretty worried about the swim start because I had been pretty battered in my most recent swim start which had only 1/3 as many competitors.  So I lined up way off to the outside edge of the corral and eventually wandered out of the corral and down the beach until I had a clear path to the first buoy.  I talked for a while with some of the other competitors, working out a bit of the nervous tension.  The canon fired, I started my watch and did a bit of water running before I started to swim for the first buoy.  My plan worked pretty well as the most I had to deal with from other competitors during the swim was some feet tickling and water splashing.  The first lap took forever, I couldn’t believe how long it was.  I tried to go at a fast pace but I didn’t want to tire myself out either.  I finished the first lap just after 32 minutes and checked out my position.  I was further back than I’ve ever been in a swim before, and I confirmed my suspicions that there were some serious competitors out there.  I hopped back in the water, enjoyed the wonderful taste of diesel fuel at the halfway point, and finished my second lap a bit slower for a 1:07 swim.  I was hoping for a 1:05 swim, but I knew I took it a little easy on the second lap and I also knew that 2 minutes was not worth caring about in a race this distance.  I was alert and still very competitive after the swim start, so I ran to the racks, grabbed my bag, and ran into the changing tent.


To my dismay, the entire changing tent was full of semi-naked male bodies.  Yuk, definitely a low point in the race for me, but I found a chair, sat down, and put my socks/shoes, race belt, helmet, and sunglasses on.  I forgot to grab any of the food in my bag, shoved my wetsuit, goggles, and cap into the bag and ran out to my bike.  I made my first mistake of the day after I had grabbed my bike and tried to move it from my left side to my right side (which I was more comfortable mounting/dismounting from.)  I lifted the bike vertical by the handlebars and poured most of the contents of my front water bottle onto the ground.  The rest was either on my hands or on the bike.  My second water bottle had a mixture of Metabol, Cytomax, and ameno acids, it was my fuel for the next 56 miles and luckily it didn’t feel the need to get off the bike as quickly.  I figured it was ten miles to the first aid station, and I had slammed a gu and a cup of water before grabbing my transition bag so I didn’t bother to refill the front bottle.  The mistake had been made, it was time to just deal with it.  However, I knew I couldn’t stand sipping on the fuel bottle for too long without water.  I headed out on the bike and was surprised to pass a number of people in the first 5 miles.  I wasn’t pushing hard at all and I consider myself a relatively poor biker, so passing people was an unexpected source of nervousness for me.  Was 22-23 MPH too fast for the first few miles on the bike?  I chalked it up to a natural re-shuffling of swimmers and bikers and stuck to my pace where there wasn’t too much traffic to deal with.  I chuckled to myself thinking about the drafting rules as there were maybe 100 bikes visible ahead of me and nowhere to spread out to.  There were a few people cheering along the way, but fewer than I expected.  I guess the bike course at an Ironman is just not that exciting.  I felt good about my swim and transition, and I felt strong and ready for a long bike leg.  I was in an up state, but not euphoric, and I was definitely in control of my speed and turning the gears as softly as I could stand.


I made my worst mistake of the race directly after the first aid station at mile 10.  We were packed very tight on the bike course, so I had to wait a while before one of the volunteers offered me a bottle.  I filled my empty front bottle, hoping to grab one more bottle for my second rear cage so that I would be prepared for the next 10 miles in case I was very thirsty.  I was going perhaps 12-15 MPH, and the empty bottle was in my left hand.  I attempted to throw the bottle as far off to the right as I could, so that it would not be in anyone else’s path as they exited the aid station.  The force of my left arm caused my right arm to counter balance and steer hard right which threw me to the ground on my right side.  I scraped my right knee, hip, shoulder and elbow and (unknowingly) cracked my helmet.  Even worse, my right foot was still clipped into my right pedal and I couldn’t get up.  I finally managed to work my foot free, crawl out from under the bike,  and pick it up.  I had to dodge other cyclists, and attempted to apologize for making a mess of myself.  I had poured the gatorade which I had just put into my front bottle all over myself during the fall, and my stem was now way off center.  I grabbed my handlebars, and straddled my front wheel, then twisted my bars into something approximating straight and managed to hop back on the bike.  I didn’t really think much from the moment I knew I would crash until a minute or two after I was back on the bike and headed toward the second aid station.  I knew I was now very thirsty and I hadn’t eaten enough, plus I was worried about my bleeding and I knew I had hit my head (although it didn’t hurt yet.)  I also felt like a total loser, what kind of dope crashes in an Ironman race at mile 10 on the bike completely from his own stupidity.  I already knew that I am not a fast biker, but how low was I going to stoop today?  I chuckled to myself about how anal I had been the day before, double-checking every little piece of my bike and making sure it was all adjusted perfectly.  Now the bars were pointed a bit to the right and (I would discover when I picked my bike up that night) the front brake was rubbing the front wheel rim.  Oh well, at least the crash had released much of my nervous tension, and I didn’t feel any joint or muscle pain yet (just a nice sting in four different patches of skin.)  By mile 15 I realized that there wasn’t anything I could do about the crash anymore other than fix my handlebars a bit better.  I didn’t want to stop yet and I actually found it kind of amusing that I was pointing at the centerline and riding straight along the sideline.  I really earned any and all dork awards for crashing on my bike at mile 10 in my first ironman race, I mean who else can do that?


The next few miles were rather uneventful.  I managed to successfully maneuver through the next four aid stations, although since we were still very packed I was offered more water than gatorade.  I had read that it’s good to drink water along part of the bike because you don’t want to throw your electrolytes too far out of balance.  But I did want some of those free calories, and I was worried about drinking too little gatorade and too much water.  I felt fine up until the halfway/special needs point.  I stopped to pee once at mile 45 or so, there was a nice shoulder that ended so I rode right up to the edge, peed on the grass, and pulled back into the flow of traffic.  Time lost was less than a minute, and I felt a little better, although I didn’t pee much because I hadn’t had enough to drink yet.  I hit the special needs and was surprised to find many of the people blowing through.  I thought I should at least stop and get my second bottle of fuel.  I had a frozen bottle of cytomax that I was dying for since I knew it would taste different than the gatorade/water mixture I would be stuck with in the second half of the bike.  I had stupidly thrown the last few sips of my fuel bottle away at the aid station at mile 50 thinking that 6 miles wasn’t that far.  I had also stupidly gulped down a bunch of fuel before tossing the bottle, which left my stomach a little confused, and I had two bottles of gatorade.  I sucked as much as I could from the front bottle, filled from the colder gatorade bottle, and tossed both bottles (I felt really bad about wasting a whole bottle of gatorade, but it was too late, I had already made the mistake.)   I grabbed the two bottles and skipped all of the other goodies including the Advil and Tums that I wanted to pick up but forgot to scrounge for.  I thanked the volunteers, was disgusted at all the trash on the next mile of road, and settled back down.  I had a full bottle of fuel, a full bottle of cytomax, and a full front bottle of gatorade, I was intact and feeling OK.  I wasn’t pushing it hard by any means, my average speed was between 20 and 21 MPH, and I was not getting too depressed with the steady stream of faster bikers who continued to pass me.  I was a little annoyed when cow-girl passed me and shouted at everyone to move to the right, so I just let that pack go and hung back a bit.  It was going to be a long ride and I was starting to get tired.


Everyone says that during an Ironman you go through peaks and valleys throughout the day.  Well I had started off at sea level during the swim J, had a bit of a shock early on in the bike, and was now starting to fade.  I felt weak and sore by mile 65, well before the imaginary wall waiting for me at mile 80.  By mile 75 I was starting to tear up a bit, I was tired, sore, crabby, and my average had dropped from 21 to just under 20.  Even worse, my odometer had me two miles ahead of the mile markers so I knew my actual speed was probably just over 19 MPH, a statistic that I wasn’t overly thrilled with.  I know I don’t have a lot of background on the bike, and I know that many of the others did, but watching cottage-cheese legs steadily pulling past me was not the Ironman experience I was hoping for.  Even worse, I was forced to get out of the saddle very frequently to ease the ache in my neck and back, which I knew was not helping my aerodynamics.  I had trouble eating and drinking during this period, but I did force a bit down and I found I was on pace with my fuel consumption when mile 100 finally hit.  It had been a very long bike ride, I was very tired, and I had lost all hopes of a qualifier spot at this race.  I still wanted to do well, but I was worried that another ½ hour on the bike would strip the rest of my strength from me and leave me doing a long, painful, slow, cold death march on the run course.  The bottom of my low came as this old guy with gray hair pulled past me on the bike just at the overpass.  After 115 miles on my odometer I finished the bike, and to my amazement ran to my bag and into the tent.  I went from depressed to elated in 5 minutes as I changed shoes, peed for the second and final time, and realized that all of the pain I had felt on the bike was gone now that I could run.  My feet had been really sore from pressing the pedals, my neck and back ached, and my quads were ready to throw in the towel.  But, I had pretty fresh hamstrings and calves, and my stomach was in better shape than I was expecting, maybe even better shape than I was even hoping for.  I knew I had consumed adequate fuel, so I went out at my goal pace.  I think I even smiled on my way out of the transition area, I was very happy to get away from that bicycle.

Lap 1

I threw down two advil, two tums, and my second gu of the day and hit the lap button as I passed the first mile marker.  I glanced briefly at my watch, a little nervous about what it might tell me, and found out I was right on target.  I had made it to a world that I felt comfortable in, even thought I had never been there before, it was time for my first marathon.  Just before mile 2 my back cramped significantly and my neck ache made itself known.  I was pretty sure that these two would go away, but it did make me a bit nervous. I waited it out, dropped 30 seconds off my pace and tried to relax.  By mile 6 I was over the pain, shoving down a gu every two miles and passing lots of people.  I wasn’t sure who was on their first lap and who was on their second lap, but as it turns out, I only saw a couple of people who were on their second lap and they stuck out like a sore thumb.  I saw Lothar, the eventual winner, looking calm and collected.  I saw Jayme Yon and gave him a cheer a couple of times.  I saw some old dude with a “Yo” on his back who puked right in front of me and then scampered away.  A French guy passed me in considerable pain, I paced off him for a while and attempted conversation but he told me in broken English to buzz off.  Nobody was going my pace, so I just assumed that everyone was doing their second lap and was feeling the effects of pushing the bike leg.  I didn’t realize that I was passing people on their first lap, I just didn’t think they would give up that fast (or maybe the ones who hadn’t given up were running and keeping ahead of me.) Still, there were a lot of people who just didn’t look good on that first lap, and I felt light and fast.  On the way back, at mile 12 I felt elated and had visions of my upcoming finish. Forgetting for a moment that I had a second lap, I ran a 7:40 mile and started smiling.  I hit the lap button at mile 13 and realized my mistake in time to drop the pace back down and avoid putting myself in further jeopardy.  I hit the turn around and told my father, the anxious spectator, that I was feeling OK.

Lap 2

I had hoped to hit the turn around before 9 hours, and I had made that goal, leaving me breathing room to break the 11 hour mark.  I knew 10:30 was out of the question, but I really wanted to break 11 hours and I still felt good.  I was mentally composed through the next few miles and concentrated on holding pace and shoving the gu down.  I missed on gu mile (I was doing every even mile until 12, but I think I missed one and switched to odds for a while, then I hit my blackout period.)  I chugged through the park, grabbing some coke at mile 18 and pushing through my fatigue.  I was a bit off pace, but not too far and I was happy trying to hold what I had.  It was not time to push the pace yet, it was time to avoid disaster.  I hit the turn around and found out to my dismay that there was no coke left at most of the aid stations.  I felt really sorry for the others, but at least I had gu to keep me going and there was still adequate water.  Gatorade was out of the question, and gu was hard enough to get down, I gagged every time I shoved another packet down, but I knew it had to be done.  I was ready to come home, and in a daze.  I was handed a light stick and grudgingly accepted.  The sunset in the park was beautiful, but I was ready for the show to come to an end.  I ran for a while with a guy who said he ran the first ½ lap in 48 minutes and was just trying to hold on to a sub-11 finish.  I figured we were in the clear, but then number 151 ran past me and I got pissed off at the idea of someone passing me.  By that point I realized that he was the first person to pass me on the run (I just didn’t know that I had passed him earlier).  So I took off trying to catch him.  While he wasn’t running too fast, he was pushing it more than I could, but I used the anger I got from the thought of someone running faster than me to drive me through some of those last miles.  It was dark, there was no coke, I was sick of gu, and I wanted to take a shower and most of all rest.  I had no kick left, but I wasn’t slowing down so I was happy. 


I passed the last group of spectators before the finish and someone said something that made me tear up.  It was something like “go Ironman”, something so simple that I wouldn’t have noticed except that I looked at her in the eyes and she said it so softly, kind of like she believed that I was an Ironman even though I had yet to prove myself.  I was happy to run that last mile to the finish line, but I was hurting big time and wasn’t this race over yet?  I was even happier to realize I could break 10:50, a rather unimportant barrier but still something worth being happy about.  I hit the finish line and had to slow down quite a bit as the woman in front of me got her moment of glory.  Usually I like to finish strong, but I realized that seconds didn’t matter and it would have been rude of me to pass her so I let her go and gave up my chance to break the tape.  She seemed to take forever to get her picture taken, I just wanted to get to the mat so the clock would stop (at least for me.)  Hey, I didn’t work this hard to waste 10 seconds at the end.  I realize now that these were some pretty absurd thoughts, but I was a little out of it.  I was ushered to the medical tent, had some of my road rash cleaned up, weighed out 10 lbs lighter than I had weighed in, and released.  I went straight to the shower, cleaned my smelly, bloody, salty, grimy self off, went to collect my bike and bags, and hobbled to the bar to down the world’s best cheeseburger.  The journey had been worthwhile, but I was ready for a long night’s sleep.

Lessons Learned

I should…

1.        always throw water bottles with my right hand.
2.        drink one bottle  every 10 miles on the bike.
3.        drink as much as possible on the run.
4.        squeeze those paper cups and pour them into my mouth.
5.        toss the cup only after drinking all of the fluid.
6.        toss bottles only after I can see a replacement.
7.        stay calm during the first 10-20 miles on the bike.
8.        never give up on the bike, I’ll have it on the run.
9.        get my body more used to the aero position and biking in general.

1 comment:

  1. $150 for Escape from Alcatraz omg lol wtf they were just giving it away back then! It feels like when my grandparents used to tell stories about what things costed during the depression.