My first Ironman was supposed to be my last. I signed up for it on a bit of a whim, out of curiosity in what I could do with a new type of challenge and to fill a gap after qualifying for the Boston Marathon and having to wait a year and a half to run it. I thought it would be fun to see what I could do in triathlon, so naturally I signed up for an Ironman.
After getting into the 2015 Barkley Marathons I decided to start training in May for my first Ironman, which would give me about 5 months. My plan was to see what I could do, but I had never done any real swimming and only a little bit of recreational biking, so I did not have high expectations.
Unfortunately the swim portion of my training was delayed even further by a broken hand. Despite my history of sports and physical risk I had actually never broken a bone before. I did it in a one-off activity that I never imagined I’d find myself doing: playing bubble soccer.
I ended up going about a month and a half after Barkley without any training. During that time, though, I got a triathlon bike off of Craigslist and started reading up on what I should do, once I actually started doing it. Apparently I needed a bike fit, so I got that taken care of, and was good to go!
It was early June before I was able to start swimming. That first trip to the pool was pretty comical. I couldn’t even manage a sub 3 minute pace for 100 m, probably didn’t swim further than a lap without stopping, and I think I took in more water than air trying to breath. It was simply avoiding drowning, and trying to do it continuously in the same direction.
Fortunately, there was no where to go but up. A few months later before the race I could put down a blistering sub 2 minute pace. For a while I thought I was even faster. Not knowing that pools could be different lengths, for about 2 weeks after switching pools near the end of the summer I actually had myself tricked into thinking I had taken a giant leap forward before learning that the pool was only 25 yards instead of 25 meters.
The bike, though, I found to be a lot of fun. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about running is the exploration, and hopping on a bike gave me a huge range of new places to explore. Spending hot summer days on a bike was also much more pleasant than running.
I was feeling pretty good about where I was a month out from the race, but I decided that I should sign up for the Nation’s Triathlon in DC to give myself some practice with transitions and just to get one under my belt before the big one. I got some necessary race gear, and even an aero helmet, and I was ready to tackle my first triathlon!
I found swimming in open water to be much less awful than the pool. I was also slightly better at it because my turns in pools are even worse than my actual swimming. I had no major problems in transition, and I put in a pretty solid bike and a great run. I actually managed to win my age group with a 2:13, which is still one of the bigger thrills I’ve experienced in racing just due to the enormous positive difference between the results and my expectations.
My expectations heading into Ironman Maryland then completely changed, though. Was it unreasonable to aim for an age group podium spot? I always do better at longer races. If things went right, could I even aim for the overall podium? I had no idea what kind of time I should shoot for or what kind of competition to expect, but it suddenly seemed reasonable to me.
The Perfect Storm
I headed out on the two hour drive to Cambridge on Wednesday, three days before the race. I was tapered and ready for race day to arrive. I got checked in, grabbed all my stuff, and was ready to head back home and beat rush hour traffic when they announced that we should stick around for an extremely important announcement.
So I waited. The rumors weren’t good. Forecasts had called for a scenario that only George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg would be prepared for.
An area of low pressure moving along a stalled out cold front will develop into a Nor Easter through the end of the week, kicking up the wind, and providing the potential for heavy rain & flooding Thursday & Friday. Unfortunately a blocking pattern may drive Hurricane Joaquin directly toward the Nor Easter (which may be parked on or near Delmarva), possibly merging the two storm systems directly on top of us. Although the forecast could possibly change, this could be a nightmare scenario for the Peninsula; and you should plan accordingly, as we are only days away from the worst of these potentially nasty storms.
But I had kept preparing as if the race would proceed. They couldn’t just cancel it could they? After all that time and preparation? I was never going to do another Ironman, had all my training been for nothing?
Then came the announcement. The race was postponed. They were trying to reschedule it for two weeks later, but could offer no guarantees. I headed home – angry and disappointed, but the right decision had been made. Trying to have it that weekend would have been a disaster and put lives at risk. I also realized how fortunate I was to only have a two hour drive home. Others would be traveling from across the world.
I quickly began formulating my plan for a quite unusual scenario: “un-tapering” and then re-tapering in a two and a half week time period. Soon enough the confirmation came that the race would take place two weeks later, and I continued on. There are things you just can’t control, and the focus needs to remain on the things you can.
OK for real this time, but without wheels
I headed back two weeks later to check myself back in. Once I got my packet I stopped by the Race Day Wheels tent to go ahead and get my wheels switched out with the aero wheels I had reserved with them 6 months earlier. They didn’t have them. They had forgotten my wheels.
I was furious. The “buying speed” element of triathlons was already ridiculous to me, with people out there with $20K+ of gear. I knew I couldn’t match the superbikes, but having rental aero wheels, an aero helmet, and an old triathlon bike I felt would have at least made me competitive.
I tried to find an alternative. Was there anyone, anywhere nearby with a set of aero wheels I could use? Unfortunately my bike had 650c wheels, which was apparently the cool thing to do back in 2004, but had lost favor recently and were difficult to come across. Suddenly, my recent hopes of a podium spot vanished. There was absolutely no way I could compete at the top on my out of true training wheels.
There are things you just can’t control, and the focus needs to remain on the things you can, but this one got to me. I lay awake in bed that night, getting just a few hours of restless sleep.
One other valuable thing that Nation’s Triathlon had done for me was getting me experience with open water swimming, in my wetsuit, in the chaotic environment that is a triathlon swim. Unfortunately the weather once again showed up the morning of the race, and after a delay the swim ended up getting shortened to 3,000 m (~800 m short) due to the strong winds and high chop that it was causing. The start time temperature was also in the low 40s, and I found out after the race that the combination of those two factors forced a number of people to be pulled from the course for safety.
I managed a swim of 48:47, and honestly I think the course was probably a bit shorter even than 3,000 meters. That pace would have put me at about 63 minutes for a full 2.4 mile swim, and I would be absolutely deluded in thinking I could have swam that fast then. I’m not even sure if I could swim that fast now (I haven’t yet). In any case, I came out of the water in 154th place. I had a lot of catching up to do.
I honestly don’t remember much about the bike except for one thing: wind. We had avoided the perfect storm from two weeks earlier, but the wind still reached 30 mph. It seemed to somehow change direction against us along the course, but was worst on the second half of the two loop route. The end of the second loop in particular was a struggle, due to fatigue and the fact that winds generally pick up going into the afternoon.
Otherwise, it was a flat but still rather scenic course through a wildlife refuge. There was minimal crowd support, with really only a substantial number of people at the start of the second loop, but I was perfectly fine with that. I honestly kind of prefer to be locked into my own mind and isolated against my competitors.
Despite the wind and my lack of a power meter, cadence sensor, heart rate monitor, or anything other than my GPS, I felt I kept a pretty consistent effort and turned in a strong performance. My nutrition went well, I didn’t get any flats (at that point I wasn’t even confident in my ability to change a flat on the go if I needed to), and I seemed to be moving up consistently. I came in with a 5:11:59 split, moving me up to 48th place.
The run. The one thing I had actually done before at that distance. I felt pretty confident that I could move up quite a bit during this portion, but I was still a little unsure of how my legs would react to running a marathon coming off of the swim and bike. A few people had told me I should run roughly 20 minutes slower than my standalone marathon time, so I laid in what I thought to be a rather conservative pace to aim for that time.
The run was also pancake flat and was essentially two out and backs, allowing for pretty good crowd support. I was feeling pretty great and steadily moving up as I had hoped. With my fixation on the finish line, though, I let my nutrition slip a bit. My mind started to say “you’ve done fine for 8 hours, it’s only another 1.5 hours to the finish, what’s the worst that could happen?” Fortunately, I don’t think the worst did happen, but at mile 17 my pace slipped by about 30 seconds, then at mile 20 by about another minute. I lost significant time over those final 10 miles, but avoided a full blowup.
I came across the line with a 3:13:39 split, moving me up to 13th overall.
My overall time was 9:22:33. A lot of people said the rough weather conditions more than made up the time difference from the shortened swim, but to me it didn’t really matter. At one point during the long hours on the bike I told myself that I would just go to a pool that evening and finish the last 800 meters, but by the time I finished I was done, and I was glad to be done. My incredible wife, who had supported me throughout this new triathlon thing I had sprung on her, was there meet to meet me at the finish line. I just wanted to go back to my family for the rest of the evening.
I was happy with my finish and with my time. I enjoyed the moment, took pride in what I had accomplished, and looked forward to relaxing for a bit and eating everything in sight before turning my mind back to ultras.
For months before the race I had envisioned the monstrosity that I would eat afterwards: combining two of my favorite things by taking a cajun fillet from Bojangles’ and putting it between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I would call it, the KrispyBo. One of the most disappointing parts of the race being delayed by two weeks was that it also delayed the birth of the KrispyBo by two weeks. When the time finally came, I decided to have two to make up for lost time.
Of course after such a delicious breakfast I couldn’t just let it end there. I have no idea how many calories I consumed that day, and if anyone calculates it please don’t tell me (ok actually do tell me), but it was possibly the single greatest food day of my life. And I was still hungry at the end.
I had planned on this being my only Ironman, and was pretty dead set on it… kind of like I had planned on the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon being my only marathon. After the initial thrill of the finish passed, though, the wheels started churning in my head. Given my previous swim and bike experience, there’s no way I could be anything other than happy with my result. I never would have imagined I could do that, and it was another valuable lesson that you just never know what you can do until you try.
Still, though, I could do better. I knew I could. I was so close to the top 10, and just one spot off of the age group podium, and I had done it without even having aero wheels. Should I aim for a Kona slot? It would be an incredible experience and achievement, Hawaii was one of the two states I had never been to, and Jessi would be beyond excited about the prospect of a trip there. Well, for now I’d focus on my ultra training. I wasn’t going to touch a bike or a pool for 6 months for sure. But after that, who knows…. (if the suspense is killing you don’t worry, the sequel is already out: 2016 Ironman Maryland).