I heard rumblings of people in the old house getting up when, at 4:20 am, a jazzy cell phone alarm music was heard quietly coming from one of the other bed rooms. That was it. Pretty much everyone started to rustle and roll out of bed within minutes of that quiet music, even though their own alarms hadn't gone off. Nobody was sleeping hard enough to need a blasting loud alarm, plus the house was so creaky you could hear every footstep thruought the night and morning.
As we packed up to leave, people were not visibly nervous. It was just a house full of really fit people making jokes and walking around in weird clothing. Most of them were wearing the Chicago Triathlon Club jerseys, but not me, as I was a last-minute guest-bed-renter at the house. I hopped in the Jetta, in plain darkness of morning, where all my necessary gear was tightly and studiously packed in my transition bag, and I drove about a mile north, under the big bridge in St. Joseph, Michigan. A long line of red brake lights slowly snaked into a large parking lot. I was in the second of what would be 20 or so rows of cars, so I was confident that I hade left early enough (not typical if you know me well). I was wearing my sandals, and I walked about two minutes away to the bus pickup area with my tri bag on my back. (everything except my bike, which I had to rack the night before)
We packed in to short corporate-style busses that showed up within 5 miuntes. It started rolling after it was comfortably full athletes, parents and grandparents, boy/girlfriends, friends, and the occasional child or baby of the athletes. The mood was a bit excited but notably groggy as we drove through the darkness with few streetlights to illuminate exactly where we were going. I sat next to a guy who had invented a new sponge to fit the top of his aero water bottle because he said the provided net sponge always fell out of the bottle when you hit a bump. Perhaps this man will be a millionaire someday.
We pulled up in front of transition, still dark outside, and I walked in and started to set up my spot. I kept it simple but saw others with even more simple setups—what looked like two sets of shoes on top of a folded towel. I had backup gear and clothing in my protuberant tri bag, but my actual transition gear, which gets placed out on a towel by my hanging bike tire, was just the basics.
Over the PA system we kept hearing the 6:45 closing time, announcements about flat tires, found lost gear, open bar ends that had to be capped (the announcer suggested taping a nickle or bottle cap (as-if!) over the pipe to do this, or they couldn't race), and that men had to wear shirts in this race, and there was some cool vocabulary word for this that I didn't catch.
I noticed a pretty gusty wind as well, and the announcer kept saying that the lake was choppy but nobody paid any attention as the glow of the sun started to come up over the horizon and we started to filter out of transition. The lines for the toilets were very long this morning, at least 20 minutes long, so I forwent this until I could find another set of port-o-lets, and there were many.
I was finally set and exited transition barefoot (although many left with sandals, I didn't want to deal with potentially losing them, so maybe next time I'd bring cheap flip flops) but most people figured nobody would steal them off the beach.
Because the current was coming from the north to the south we had to walk about 1 mile north along the beach. It was solemn and exciting at the same time to watch an orderly group of several thousand athletes and spectators walking 2 or 3 abreast on the sand, right where the waves stopped because that’s where the sand was flattest and you could expend the least amount of energy to walk that far. The goal was to arrive in style with energy to spare. Once I got about 100 yards from the swim start inflatable, I walked up a small dune to use the 20-minute line port-a-potty (had to do it).
This is where I saw my friend D'arcy Lynch, who said she was trying to finish the race in sub 5 hours. INSANE! The girl is a madwoman when it comes to triathlon. What an inspiration. She was the one who said that I might just do the race as a training day when I asked her what I should do because I hadn't had enough time to prepare all three disciplines. We hugged and she went on her way. It was great to see her. She’s really the original inspiration I had for signing up for the Kona Lottery, and therefore the reason why I did this race in the first place (had to finish a 70.3 event to validate my spot at Kona, which I never got anyway)
Just minutes before I entered the bathroom, race officials called the swim because of high waves and wind. What occurred next was a full hour of collective sighing about how much that sucked, about whether the race could still be considered for clearwater 70.3 spots, about how much people's performance would be different because of this, about how much the race officials were wrong, and some defiant swimmers going for a ‘prove-it-to-you’ dip in the water. I was personally deeply disappointed because I had spent the majority of my thought in training lately on overcoming the difficulty of swimming 1.2 miles. I had achieved that goal, and had neglected long bike rides to train the swim. Oh well.
The swim was replaced by a 2 mile run (all of these announcements coming over the PA system). Race officials had to be on their toes with this one, what a logistical nightmare it would be to have to reroute bike and run in/outs because of this. But they did a stellar job and we were all impressed. However our starts were pushed back an hour! So my already last-wave start (wave 17 of 17) was pushed back another hour to 9:09am, as they reduced the intervals between the waves as they went. It was just kind of ridiculous to wait a full 6 minutes between waves, so they started squeezing it to 3 minute intervals at about wave 9.
By the time I started the race, I had been awake for 4:40 minutes, and walked the better part of 3 miles in the sand and on pavement, and sat on my ass in uncomfortable poison-ivy laced mosquito-town forestry. What could I do about this? Well I ran two 8-minute miles to start! That was great to see 16 minutes on my watch by the time I got to my bike in transition. I was pleased sprinting past a few people in my wave in the chute into transition. The race was on!
T1 was boosted by something I heard over the PA "We have only about 120 people still out on the run", and that gave me hope that I had finished in the top half of my wave on the run. Onto the bike my transition was pretty fast. I clubbed along in my bike shoes down a long 50-yard pre-mount chute, being encouraged by cowbell ringers and cheering crowds. I mounted at the line and off I went.
Unfortunately I was already winded, and my Quads non-responsive to additional effort output. It would be the first 10 miles of the bike before I started to get my groove back. And this is where a whole host of insanely annoying things started to happen. First of all my ASS hurt so bad. It was like my seat was just a bed of nails and some muscle in my butt was not happy with this. I had to stop and stand on the pedals to stretch my glutes like every minute or two. It was horrible but I saw other people doing this too. Then I began to realize, that my bike geometry, as far as the aero position, was a complete disaster. My knees were hitting my elbows, my hands were off the front of the tri bars, I kept having to push myself back on my seat post, my hamstrings were in pain because I guess my seat was too high. I actually considered making these adjustments in-flight, but then I heard my friend Jason Muelver's voice in my ear, calling me a dumbass for talking on my cell phone during our early training rides, and I just huffed it out.
After I passed through this horrible slow-mph wannabe biker phase I started to get my groove on. I was in a passing challenge with only about 2 people in my wave during this bike ride. I passed by only a few people in my wave, and I really didn't want to pay any attention to that but I couldn't help myself.
The ride was beautiful and the weather was too. The air was cool, the scenery was your typical Midwest summer farmland and bushy berry fields. The aid stations were frequent and incredibly well stocked. Traffic control was 100% rock solid county and city police presence. The pavement was both rough for some long stretches (but not unexpected as they made the announcements about this in the pre-race talks) and some of it was butter-smooth brand new blacktop. The hills were very moderate rollers with maybe 2 or 3 short grinders here and there.
I was hanging tough, but the last 20 miles, despite the gooing every 45-50 mintes, were very hard. I was very exhausted already, and weirded out by this fact. I would like to see what my MPH average was, because I really think I was incredibly more exhausted during these last 20 miles than I've ever been on the bike so I have to assume I was averaging a lot of wattage during the first 36. However I wasn't being passed by a lot of people. It was only 3 or 4 of us and we kept trading the passing. In the end I think most of them finished in front of me, but they weren't even in my wave, for the most part, so I was locked in the same effort that everyone else was making and I guess everyone was feeling the same thing I was.
The last 2 or 3 miles were a FAST descent, for either resting your legs, or passing that last person in your wave, whatever you could muster. Again here I rode it fast and tried to pass people, but nobody had that big “17” written on their right calf in front of me.
Into the transition I went. I had amazingly little to do here. Dump the bike, swap helmet for wildflower running hat, swap biking shoes for running shoes with elastic laces (no tying) and repack some goos. Off on the run. I think the smartest thing I did here was a) eat swedish fish for energy, b) eat goo for the same reason, and c) take three advil to slow the onset of the horrible hip and knee pain that I usually experience around mile 9.
There was no doubt about it. I was fucking cooked. The typical jelly legs you have after a long cycling lasted quite a while. This is where some superlative end-game scenarios started to happen.
I expected the course to be pretty flat, but I was nonetheless already walking, about 50 feet past the end of the chute. There was nothing left in my legs to put out. I really think this had a lot to do with the 2 mile run we had to start. I felt I was majorily handicapped by that decision, but I struggled on. By mile 1 I was already resigned to 1/2 walking and 1/2 running, alternating every minute or so, as a method to continue (but not necessarily complete) the race. Eventually this was reduced (I wasn’t checking my watch, but…) to walking for 30 seconds every 4 minutes (?) so it wasn't that bad.
By mile 2 I started to calculate that I would probably see D'arcy within a few minutes. Not a few minutes later there she was! She was already finishing her run, just two miles to go, and she totally was looking out for me and pointed to me and cheered me on, and I did the same. She said I looked great and I was happy that at this moment I had been in a run phase. The encouragement certainly gave me some extra oomph to keep going. I was so proud of her, and simultaneously proud of myself because, holy crap, I was actually running at that moment!
I had some mild-mannered chats with other people, both running and walking, as we made our way down country roads, helping me realize that I had energy left in this race. I was only passed by very fast people, and probably only two in my age group. There were a lot of us walking here. I couldn't believe how many had resigned to the walk/run method. This is where I kept thinking how hard this was for me, but doable, and how much everyone else must have been in the same boat as me. It was strange because everyone I saw had started earlier than I had, or were on a 2nd loop of the middle of the course, so I was so confused as to who I was supposed to be passing and who didn't matter and when they had left. Ugh! My walking became less frequent as I was moving through the course.
13.1 miles is by far the longest I've ever propelled myself on my feet without stopping. I had trained 11 miles and 9 miles a few times, but the last 3 or 4 miles of this run would definitely be unknown territory. The course included two loops through the Whirlpool campus of buildings and suburban streets to the south. The numerous aid stations had cold wet sponges, cups of ice, hoses and sprinklers, water, and gatorade. My entire afternoon was a combination of dousing myself with these various substances, or packing sponges into my singlet. I would frequently toss a cup of ice down my shirt and listen to it sloshing around and becoming a cocktail of sweat water in my tri top before I would dump it out. Delicious.
I was surviving. There was pain and walking here and there, but I was running and I was surviving. I hit a stride around mile 6 when I broke off from the finishing crowd into the 2nd loop, because there was nobody in front of me for hundreds of yards, and few behind me. I entered this awesome zone of running alone, and it reminded me more of my training and cleared my mind a bit. It was nice, also, to catch up to some other racers and gague myself again. It’s the duality of racing experiences, I guess. In triathlon you can draft people on the swim and the run, but not on the bike.
The eloquent thoughts about how this blog would be an award winning, adjective-laced description of my experience this day, raced through my head. Pun intended. I had come up with these gorgeous poetic sentences about the limits of effort and endurance and the beauty of the human body, the strength of my will to keep running, strides I had hit and lows I had felt... And I can't remember a single one of them. I assure you if you had been in my head at this moment they would have been glorious.
It was at some point during the first loop that I thought to myself "I could not imagine doubling this distance". And that's where I'm at with Ironman. It’s absolutely insane and outrageous to double this distance. Although anything is possible.... I couldn't imagine doing a 1/2 ironman in my first year of triathlon and here I am...
I was utterly amazed that no matter how many people I passed, I never saw anyone in my wave on the run. The gap of our age group must have been so spread out by the time the run started that we could barely pass one another. I kept passing people on the run but nobody was there from my wave. I was kind of bummed about this and also that the course was so barren of people by the time I was finishing, because I was in the last wave. I never got to experience the mass of people moving together. I have no doubt I’ll experience this at the Chicago Triathlon, though.
I continued to goo thruought the run, and I felt it’s swell of energy rise and fade throughout the run. The advil was definitely working too, and I was so grateful that I had taken it (I think I have to credit D’arcy for this idea). I saw lots of people on their second loop through the campus pulled off to the side, working on leg cramps. It is just a thing you see in these races. And pretty soon I was that guy too. My QUADS started to cramp up at some points too, every time I would reach maximum extension on my leg, and there's really nothing you can do about that, they were mini cramps that lasted just an instant as it was extended, but I changed my stride to prevent that. My hamstrings were again a problem here, but I think the bike really did that to me. I have to fix my bike. Luckily my knees were cooperating for the most part. Butt and calves were definitely needing some deep massage and I stopped a few times to thumb them into compliance.
The last few miles of the run, I had a shit eating grin on my face. I realized I was going to make it. I cheered myself on. I cheered others on. I was really ecstatic. I was passing people here more than ever--walkers from previous waves, older people, and I ran with a 70 year old woman for the better part of a minute, chatting with her, and I felt good. I was just amazed at what was happening.
Definition of “eternity”: the exact time it takes to run one mile after you have just run 12.1 miles, immediately following a two-mile sprint and a 56 mile bike ride.
I swear to anything that the last mile was much longer than that. The race officials should do their homework on this. It took forever, finishing in a long sand tunnel that had been dug out so we could finish on the beach. But I was nonetheless that nerdy guy pumping his fists in the air and so explosively elated that I had finished that the crowd was going crazy for me. I really felt so superbly proud of myself at this moment, and even the disappointment with the swim situation faded at that moment.
I had finished my first attempt at a half-ironman triathlon. 71.1 miles!
Turns out, on the car ride home I realized I was Hyper-hydrated. I had drank too much water and output too much salt as sweat and my salt balance was wacked out. I felt really sick but not nauseous, it was strange. I kept drinking water because I thought I was dehydrated, but since that wasn't working I went to McDonalds and ate like 4 salt packets and felt better within an hour, and peed like a racehorse. Awesome. At least now I know to take salt tablets on long events like this.