In 2002 I went to Wisconsin instead of Brian Fagan's wedding. I regret that decision to this day, not because Brian cares at all, but because it was symbolic of the fog I was in, I had fully drunk of the Ironman cool-aid and I couldn't comprehend putting life first. I got a cool finish line photo that year though.
I lost my job and found myself unemployed for the first time ever in 2003 so I started training every day. I went to noon masters consistently. I didn't ride enough but I rode more than I had before. And I worked my running consistently as well. Triathlon is about eliminating weaknesses as much as it is about executing on strengths, so this plan, a balanced plan, wound up paying off fairly well. I went to Canada in 2003 and wound up qualifying for the big dance. My good friend, The American Hero, missed his slot by a handful of seconds, a few hours of birth time, or one extra spare tube. Had he been born one day later, he'd have qualified. Had he carried 3 tubes or a patch kit and a pump, he'd have qualified. And had he run just one minute faster, even with all the misfortune he had that day. he'd have qualified. It was tragic for him but it was special for me and it was just generally a race to remember for all of those reasons.
Ironman Canada 2003
It all started for me with three friends from work, all of us a bit out of shape and overburdened, but each with different athletic victories from our past. We would go to the YMCA to swim in the evenings as a way of blowing off steam. Now, if you get any group of male friends together in an athletic environment, eventually testosterone-fueled competition will take center stage. We started with 500m sprints, then 1K, then 1500, the leader pushing the pace and the drafters attempting to appear as if they didn’t feel any pain at all. Since I was living in
San Francisco at the time, the swim from Alcatraz came up in our post-swim dinner-and-booze discussions as the next step in our escalating macho challenges. None of us owned a swimming wetsuit, all of us feared cold water, sharks, and of course the pain of the bike and run afterwards. We missed the Escape that year as the race was already full, but we signed up for the next one, and eventually 2 of us boarded the Hornblower and found our way to the finish line. It all just snowballed for me from there, a new bike, a heart rate monitor, my first Ironman race, a coach, new PR’s. Eventually I settled into the lifestyle just like everyone else who had looked so completely bizarre to me at those first few races. As I took my place on the results page and slowly attempted to trudge my way up the ranks of my age group, there was a constant admiration for those who had made it to the real Ironman in Kona. At least for me, qualifying for that race has always seemed the pinnacle of success for the everyman. While getting there seemed within the realm of almost-possible, it also always seemed one step ahead of me, far enough from reach that it might as well have been impossible. I stagnated for a couple of years, had my share of lousy races, and made it through my triathlon adolescence a bit wiser about my own personality, my limits, and my motivating factors. Again I settled back into the lifestyle, this time taking a long term view of the future, no longer determined to gain instant gratification and continual success, but simply happy to have the chance to attempt every few weekends and to conquer once or twice a year.
Then a crazy thing happened. The company I was working for told me to get lost. Which was something I secretly hoped for, yet at the same time held immense fear of. Being forced into unemployment is a mixed blessing for any athlete. It meant I had time to pursue my dreams as far as I was capable of taking them, but at the same time, a mixture of fear and financial stress replaced the usual day-to-day work grind. I channeled my initial burst of energy into a January marathon and pulled off a huge PR when I ran , something I hadn’t ever considered possible for a short fat dude like myself. Eventually the house sold and with the help of unemployment insurance, I easily slipped into the mode of a full time athlete. Triathlon season rolled around and I had some ok races, then some good races, then some great races. Along the way I threw my hat into the ring for another Ironman in August, which would be my third visit to
Penticton. I’m not a huge fan of the Ironman distance, it being so painfully long and all, but without a job and without any promising leads, I really needed something to pursue to keep myself sharp. I arrived in Penticton to the sight of fire and smoke, yet somehow it didn’t bother me one bit. I even enjoyed the short blackout, it seemed fun at the time, almost exciting. I was so happy just to be there, to have the chance to participate, despite the stress of such an expensive and self-absorbed trip. I was hoping that the experience would justify the last six months of unemployed training. I really wanted to have a race with minimal mistakes that I could look back on in the crux of middle age and smile about. When race day came around, I was nervous almost like it was my first one, and somewhat giddy and had no trouble getting out of bed, all extremely positive signs for a grumpy dude like myself who doesn’t ever get out the door before sunrise outside of race day. I knew my friends would be racing well given their performances in training so I made a few mental deals with myself while walking to the start that if I wasn’t passed until mile x I’d be happy. I hate racing from the front, but in Ironman if you swim well you have no real choice in the matter and I really wanted to start things off with a swim PR and set the ball in motion. I had worked pretty hard in the pool the last few weeks, swimming a lane up from where I had spent much of the winter and with people who are actually serious about their swimming. I wanted to capitalize on all that work, even if the bike and run blew up in my face.
Before I realized it, the canon went off and the 2000 other wetsuit-clad bodies scampered off into the lake. I was in my usual position, far left, and since I breathe on the right toward the buoys, a start on the left meant I could keep an eye out for a good pack and squeeze in for a draft. I always start a bit too hard, but I’ve learned to back it off once I get out of breath so it doesn’t really hurt me much and it does tend to set me up well for some fast feet. I felt like it was a good clean start and I even swam over the 1-foot-deep sandbar instead of walking like some people. I found a pack that was moving faster than I could really handle and attempted to settle in at the back. I lost them and fell back, but managed to keep the gap small enough that I was able to accelerate and catch the tail of that same pack at the first turn boat. I had read about real swimmers doing just that and I was pretty proud of myself for the effort, usually I am a pretty simple start-fast-then-damage-control type of swimmer. On the second quarter I lost that group again and the gap became too big to attempt a repeat at the halfway turn. So, I was swimming on my own for a while, with a pair of feet popping up from behind every now and then, but surprisingly I found myself in no-man’s land. That was something I’m not really used to atIronman, usually there are just tons of people everywhere and I’m more worried about getting beaten up, especially on a 2 lap swim. I rounded the halfway buoy, grabbed a split but didn’t look at it, and started back out. I was getting really hot in my fullsuit in the 70 degree water, so I cursed myself for being a wimp and not taking the sleeveless suit that morning. It had been pretty cold when I left and since I’m not used to waking up before I immediately thought the temperature had dropped to freezing and that I needed the fullsuit. Or maybe I subconsciously read 20°C as 20°F, who knows. So, I flooded my suit with water and while that felt good for a minute or two, I quickly got hot again. And I didn’t really like swimming in a neoprene bag of water, so I decided to just suck it up, deal with the heat, and hope the water I had pulled in would somehow find its way out my legs and arms. I made it to the final turn, got dropped by quite a few swimmers on the final quarter, and generally assumed it was a decent but otherwise uneventful swim for me. I did enjoy the feel of my T1 wetsuit, it was really comfortable in the last half of the swim except for the heat, but that was really the water temp as I’d have been hot in any fullsuit. I crawled over the shallow rocks at the swim exit, struggled to get the top of the T1 off, and stole a peek at the clock. I was pretty amazed to see 57 and change since my previous best swim was a 60 and change. I was really hoping to break 60 this time, but I wouldn’t have been bummed out to see 61 or 62. I figured the swim could have easily been short since I didn’t get a great draft but it really didn’t matter one way or another, it was time to ride.
I had some fun with the wetsuit strippers as I got rejected by the first pair and sent to a second pair behind them. I had dropped the top of my T1 with the first pair, so as I lay on my back getting the bottoms removed, I was handed the top from an upside-down volunteer. I rocked forward, grabbed the bottoms, snatched my bag mid-stride (lucky the plastic didn’t catch on the hook or I could have gone down and banged myself up pretty bad) and ran to a clear patch of grass next to a volunteer. It had been two years since my last trip to
Penticton and I had forgotten how great the volunteers are, they encourage you to just drop your stuff and go. In my haste I grabbed my helmet and forgot my glasses, so I had to take a few steps back to retrieve them. Buckling my helmet as I ran, then reaching for my bike from the aisle, I dodged through the other bikes (seemed like way too many of them) and out the gate, bike slung over my shoulder so I wouldn’t lose my shoes and maybe to keep the tires clean, I dunno, I just always carry my bike instead of pushing it like everyone else. A second or two fumbling with my feet on the shoes and I was off down main street. I got up to speed and into my shoes, took a sip of water and attempted to work on getting my heart rate down to the zone I hoped to keep it in for the rest of the day. I saw Gillian Baker ride past me and recognized her as a previous champion on this course. I knew my best case scenario lay in competing against the pro women, since there really wasn’t any hope of riding with any of the stronger males around me. I chuckled to myself when Garrett Macfadyen blew past me, and silently thanked Graham Fraser for the decision to put last names on the bib numbers. It made a big difference to know who was flying past me on the bike, and also to realize that the women I was attempting to ride with were exactly the ones I wanted to be near. I mean, everyone looks the same in a helmet and these weren’t close personal friends so I had no idea what jersey they would be wearing or what bike they ride. So I settled into pace a legal distance behind Gillian and pursued her up the first short climbs, past smokey lake, and out onto the highway, along with a bunch of other men who were surprisingly less spastic and aggro than I’m used to seeing early in an Ironman bike leg. I saw a friend pulled over on the side of the course fixing a flat and yelled a universal “dude?” at him as I blew past. He later chastised me for not throwing him a CO2 cartridge, but at the time that course of action had not even remotely crossed my mind. Gillian started to pull away as we approached and I felt the inevitable self doubt creep up because cycling is my clear weakness in any triathlon and my perpetual Achilles heel at the Ironman distance. During the climb I was passed by someone I recognized from the Degree team athlete pages, Andy Seitz of Richter Pass Poway, “The city in the country”. That last name on the bib number stuff was just way cool. I also saw John Litherland who is the IMC webmaster and while I recognized his name I didn’t chat with him. Our swim and bike splits ended up being within seconds of each other’s, so next time I know who to keep an eye out for. I tried to hang on to both of them on the rollers after Richter, but with every climb I would shuffle to the back and then I’d have to hold the intensity on the descent to try to catch up. I could really feel my weight working against me along those rollers, something I had finally come to terms with. I could pretty much dump anyone on anything flat to downhill but I quickly got popped on each and every climb no matter if I tried to take it steady or even if I tried to go hard. I finished my first food bottle, tossed it, and entered the out and back section in reasonable spirits, happy enough with my race but realizing that it was going to get tough very soon and the real racing would begin.
The out and back section is always a turning point for me. I fully expected it to be again this year, and to some degree I did begin to fade and stop challenging other riders, but at the same time it wasn’t as severe as in previous years. I had my eyes peeled for my friends, but I had trouble identifying Roger Martin and Kevin Purcell. I did see Joe Guenther and Mike Buchanan (who was now a good ways back after his 3 flats.) I was happy enough to be ahead of everyone I saw but I knew Roger was hunting for me and I really wanted some cushion, even a small one for the run so I wouldn’t have to be demoralized too early. Then, just at the end of the out and back Kevin rolled by, said hi and chatted for a few seconds. He proceeded to pull away and within 3 or 4 minutes of mile 85 he was well out of sight. The experience was humbling but I had expected it earlier if I even managed to beat him out of the water at all. He had told me that his swim was right on target, so I was even happier about beating him, Garrett, and others out of the water as well as having ridden well enough to hold him off until the latter part of the bike leg. From there, I struggled toward
, trying to keep Cherie Cooper in sight, one of the top 10 females wearing a Kalifornia Kool Stuff (my old team) jersey and riding as well as I could have ever hoped to. My small chainring saw a lot of use from the out and back to Yellow Lake , and plenty of that time was spent standing despite a noticeable headwind. But I expected to hurt in this section and again it wasn’t quite as bad as I had remembered from previous years as I never even thought about stopping and walking or resting. I was coherent enough to pick out Robin, a friend who had stayed with us in Yellow Lake San Diego before and say hi to him on one of the steeper legs of the climb. I lost a bunch of positions on the way up to the lake, but from the top I picked it up again and started to go back to work. I hadn’t really composed a race plan before, but one had evolved from my efforts to something along the lines of ride the flats and descents as hard as I can and go easy and take your licks on each and every climb. I didn’t really finish the last bit before highway 97 in a manner I would call strong, but I did make up some good time on the descents and a quick check of my watch seemed to indicate a bike split might not be out of reach. So I picked it up into town, something I’ve never been able to do before, usually I am completely cooked by that point. I worked hard on the slight uphill along Main street, into the headwind, spotting the race leaders, then Gordo Bryn running so well that I had to shout some encouragement at him. I had a momentary low point when I realized that the turnaround was at least 4 miles out and I was at or close to riding time so I was looking at a best case scenario of for my bike split. Which would still be a 5 minute PR and something to be happy about, but not good enough to be safe from Roger who I guessed was less than 5 minutes back by now and who was certainly capable of running as fast or faster than me over 26 miles. I didn’t really notice the smoke, I suppose I was just too consumed with everything else. I did notice the wind, the grade, and the sun though.
For some strange reason, the end of an Ironman bike course is always a busy time for my brain. I’m not sure if there is an actual physical reason for this, perhaps it is a reaction to a day of liquid calories, sun exposure, and wind burn. Or maybe it has more to do with fatigue and exhaustion which are usually creeping into full view by then. Regardless of why, I usually find myself thinking about way too much during those critical moments. As I attempted to pedal my bike up the false flat of
Main street, struggling against what felt like a substantial headwind but must have been a barely noticeable breeze, my thoughts turned off the autopilot and grabbed the controls. One loop of my consciousness was busy spinning through the math trying to estimate my bike split based on my watch and the run course markers, a task that is pretty much impossible even if you aren’t tired and the course isn’t 3 laps. Another loop was keeping an eye out for Kevin who had passed me over an hour ago. A third played spectator, watching the first few runners make their way to the first turnaround. And a very quiet fourth thought was simply repeating, “what if”. What if today was my day? If you spend enough time racing Ironman events, you probably have heard about other people having that elusive “perfect” day. Of course nothing is perfect about 141 miles of muscle pain, dehydration, body fluids, and cramps. Still on any given day there is always someone you know who races as fast as they are capable of all the way to the finish. When you hear them talk about it, you can’t help but wish you had done the same. The perfect Ironman race is usually a lot more about zero mistakes than it is about anything spectacular along the way.
The bike to run transition area of an Ironman is often a moment of truth. There simply isn’t any good way to fake 26.2 miles on foot, you have to do the work no matter if you are leading the race or fighting the 17 hour cutoff. I honestly didn’t know what to expect of myself this time. In previous events I’ve run the gambit of emotional states from humble to overconfident to defeated as I switched from bike to run. This time I was able to keep myself busy putting my socks and shoes on, grabbing my hat and gels, and visiting the barrel urinal, but that fourth loop of consciousness was still alive, still wondering, still asking the question, “what if?” I checked my watch, calculating that I’d have to run or better to beat 10 hours. That wasn’t out of the question, but it also wouldn’t be easy or even straightforward. I jumped off the platform, made the sharp left, skipped the aid station and squeezed out the gate to start the race-within-the-race. Even though Ironman consists of 3 events, the run is really a unique challenge of its own. You can’t compare an Ironman run to a marathon, it’s just a totally different running experience. And you also can’t compare a half ironman run to the real deal, they are about as similar as an infant is to an adult. Tackling an Ironman run is as brutal and simultaneously rewarding as anything I’ve ever done in my life. All I was capable of at that moment was to take stock of my race and my body. My back was a bit sore, which is pretty normal for just about any triathlon. My legs were tired, but again that was normal for 6 ½ hours of aerobic effort. So far, I had managed a PR swim by 3 minutes and a PR bike by 5 minutes and I hadn’t really messed up in my transitions either. There really wasn’t anything left to do but run and wonder. Mile 1 passed by in a comfortable . And I don’t mean comfortable like sitting on a couch drinking a beer, but comfortable as loose as that term can be when applied to Ironman. Mile 2 came by in with my HR stabilizing around 152, right about where I wanted it. At that point I started to tear up a little bit. I knew the answer to “what if?” was “why not”. I knew today could very well be the day. And it was only a matter of how much I was going to mess things up for myself along the way. I was excited and emotional because I finally had the opportunity to race at a level I had previously considered out of my reach. But just as quickly as the realization came, it left and I was back to work trying to hold pace.
I caught Kevin, about where I expected to see him. I caught Cherie Cooper as well and I was really enjoying the slow stream of victims to string me along. Then I hit the first turnaround, and was forced to remember that the majority of the way back to town was slightly uphill. Which isn’t a huge problem, but I do run comparably faster on slight descents, so I knew I had to put in the effort if I didn’t want to blow my chances at sub 10. I slowly pulled myself ahead to each runner in front of me, using their energy to work for me. I caught a group that was running well and thought to myself that those 4 or 5 might have made a sub 10 pact at that point. But quickly they parted ways and I left to chase down the ones who moved off the front. If there is any time for autopilot on anIronman run, it occurs between mile 5 and mile 10. By that point you’ve loosened up from the stiffness of riding 112 miles with your knees almost hitting your chest, and yet you’re still not quite as exhausted as you know you’re going to get. I managed to almost enjoy my footsteps as I rounded the turn marking the start of lap 2. Early in lap 2 I started to hear the lead male motorcycle behind me. The cheers gradually increased as Tom Evans, the current race leader ran past. I settled back into my pace but right behind Tom was Raynard Tissink, in second place and preparing for what was obviously the final dramatic pass of the day as they were both on lap 3. It took me about 45 seconds to realize this, at which point Raynard had opened a 30 meter gap on me. I suppose I must have spent those 45 seconds justifying my lack of interest in pursuing the two at their pace even though it wasn’t more than a minute faster than mine at that point. But, once I realized the big moment was about to happen, I zipped up my jersey and sprinted toRaynard’s shoulder. He didn’t appear to be annoyed at the distraction, and I got a charge from my front row seat to the pivotal moment. I probably spent about 3 minutes running at pace, possibly a bit faster. I was a little worried about blowing my run, but I wanted to maximize my absorption of the pass and any media exposure it might possibly bring.
|Tissink about to pass Evans for the W|
I reached the end of the 2nd lap pretty exhausted. But at the same time, part of my fear and fatigue was based on the knowledge that I had a third loop to run, so without the burden of another loop I was almost relieved. Most of that third loop was spent on damage control. I had begged Mike at the end of lap 2 to catch me and pull me home. But at the same time I really didn’t want to see him, I just wanted to get this thing over with, get my 9-something finish photo, and retire from the distance on a positive note. Maybe spend the next year sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching football. Anything but run 26 miles after 112 on the bike. It took forever to get to the turnaround, and on the way back I knew I was cooked on that slight ascent back into town. I struggled to keep my pace under 9 minutes per mile, laughing at the one mile I was unsuccessful and laughing even more as my biceps cramped my elbows tight at 90 degrees. I passed someone in my age group who looked as wasted as I felt. He was walking, then running, then walking. When he ran he was too fast for me to consider keeping up. When he walked, I caught back up to him. Eventually he must have melted down a bit more and I managed to get away from him. I suspect he must have been 5th place but I can’t honestly say that I consciously made that connection at the time and I was too out of it to remember his name. I was happy to get away from him, but I wouldn’t have been able to hang if he had been able to run. I struggled through the middle of the third lap, remembering the pain of previous races on the old run course and realizing that this time I had even farther to run before the final turnaround. I suffered along Lakeshore drive, agonizing minutes of slow motion before passing the hotels, finally a little downhill and cooler on the approach to the final turn of the day. I had picked up the pace a bit even though it hurt more than I could really bear, and by that last turn I was ready to finish the day off. I thought I had 2 or 3 minutes of cushion to crack 10 hours should I need it, but I wasn’t too sure in my debilitated state of mind.
Out of nowhere, Lance Graham appeared. Of course I didn’t know who he was as we had never met, but I swear I saw a 29 written on his right calf and since his bib number was within 292 and mine was 222, I was certain he must be in my age group and that he was poised to steal what could be 5th place and if so, the last guaranteed Kona slot. I panicked, realizing that all of the pain I had felt up to that point was nothing compared to what I had to do next. I picked it up as best as I could, hoping to put enough distance that he wouldn’t care to follow, maybe he was actually 4th and had just stepped out of a port-o-potty or something, who cares, I just hoped he’d stay behind me. We had roughly a half mile left to go, and although it did get quiet for a while, he soon appeared on my shoulder, ready to attack. I didn’t realize at the time that he was in the process of running a , almost 10 minutes faster than me which is 22 seconds faster per mile and also would be the fastest run in his age group and more than 3 minutes faster than anyone in my age group. I honestly didn’t know that he was in a different age group and therefore represented no real threat at all to my age group placing and chances of a Kona slot. But I simply couldn’t take the chance. I couldn’t risk a Kona slot to avoid a half mile of pain. I had to try to beat him. He attacked again, putting a couple of meters on me and I picked it up to what felt like six minute pace, much faster than I would have ever considered running at that point in the game and faster than I thought my legs could go by then. Lance decided to surge again, gaining another 2 meters by the time we hit the carpet. I saw the 4th place pro woman finishing ahead of us, and with wild abandoned I dumped the tank. I am notorious for passing people in the chute, I suspect it may have something to do with losing many sprint finishes during my days of high school track. It felt like 4 minute per mile pace for that last 100m, which is basically my fastest 200 meter pace. I must have flailed my arms a bit, possibly I scared Lance into submission or maybe he realized what I didn’t, that he was older than me and didn’t need to beat me for any reason other than the thrill of doing so. I hit the tape, jammed on the brakes as hard as I could, not really thinking or caring about how much damage I might do to myself, and narrowly avoided crashing into a weary Deanna Frank. I leaned on Wyanne who was volunteering at the finish line and gasped for about 60 seconds before I could feel any oxygen going through my lungs to my brain. It was an entirely new dimension of pain, one that I had taken baby steps toward in the past in shorter races or with less extreme Ironman finish line antics, but this time the throttle had been pushed to its absolute limit and my body wasn’t really sure if it was safe to keep up its pathetic attempt to keep going. I shook Lance’s hand, and retired to the transition area, completely cooked. I struggled to eat a slice of pizza and drink a Gatorade, found a great therapist in the massage tent, and packed up my things to head home. An hour after the most difficult, extreme, and outstanding Ironman race of my life and it was back to the real world, albeit on sore muscles with a bit of a limp. But something was just a little different this time.
The rest of the evening and the next morning was spent as a spectator watching the final finishers, as a consumer ordering one of the cool blue bike jerseys, and as a friend signing up others for their round of torture in 2004. Midway through that next morning I snuck away for the post-race moment of truth. I had seen the papers posted before, enough times to know exactly where they would be and how to read them. A single black line, drawn in pen with a ruler, on each age group page separates the haves from the havenots. If your name sits above the line, you walk through the door, fill out an application, pay the obscene entry fee, and walk away with an even greater fear in your heart and a lump in your throat in the midst of your lowest point of the post-race recovery cycle. If your name is below the line you wait for rolldown and then sit in a crowded room and hope that luck is on your side this time. For the first time ever, my name was above the line. It wasn’t well above the line, or substantially above the line, but it was just barely above the line. I had qualified, along with all of the other trim, shaved, Ironman™ fleece-bundled, Starbucks-coffee-drinking, Rudy-Project-sunglass-wearing triathletes, most of whom take the Kona qualification process for granted, simply a logistical hurdle on their road to complete self flagellation in October on the
. For me it was different. I had spent the last 5 years working toward that goal, watching it from a considerable distance many times, and never coming close enough to be confident that next time it would go my way. I had spent the last 9 months unemployed, training as much as I could handle, Trying to fine tune as much as I could to avoid throwing away any extra seconds. I hadn’t made any drastic improvements that really warranted my spot above the line. But I had tried as hard as I knew how to given what I had to work with. I hadn’t reworked the raw materials much, but I got each piece as efficient as I could to keep it from jeopardizing the whole. And it had finally gone my way. Big Island
The satisfaction of achieving a long term goal was just as I imagined. Qualifying for Kona isn’t a life-changing event, but reaching a goal that you have worked toward for many years is extremely rewarding. I would say that my accomplishment at Ironman Canada 2003 was even more rewarding than my college graduation because as I took classes I made steady progress toward an eventual reality. With graduation there are minor potholes but with each step you make progress that cannot be undone. When it comes to aKona slot, everything has to go right on the same day and unless you are consistently improving year after year, there is no straightforward way to chip away at the task. I had to put together a race that had no mistakes or wait for my next chance and try again. A big part of the satisfaction I feel right now comes from simply having put that caliber of a race together. Receiving my first ticket to the big show does augment that satisfaction, and it does give some element of extra excitement and reference to the accomplishment. But if I hadn’t managed to push my name above the line, I’d still have a really big grin on my face right now.
1 27:47 163
2 29:40 165
3-5 153 ()
6-8 151 ()
26.2 156 ()