It was getting dark but we were at least nearly done. Thankfully I wouldn’t need a flashlight.
My walking companion was a man from Utah and we’d been talking about our race for two miles. It felt nice to process it while it was happening with someone in the same place. Eventually the topic had turned to food. I could happily never see another gel, block or sports drink cup again. I was not alone in that thought.
“He suggested boiled potatoes. You boil them. Cover them in Salt. Drizzle some olive oil on them and wrap them in foil…”
“That sounds SO GOOD!” joined in a woman who happened to hear us. We turned to her: “Really? You don’t feel like some more sticky sugar?” Now there was three of us walking together.
3 am and I was up.
In the final week, I’d canceled my hotel room. My plan for this race was only getting more complicated so I’d stripped it back to the simplest plan I thought would get me there. In fact, the only goal of any substance was to finish. So if there was something about the plan that didn’t serve that goal, it was rethought and removed if needed. If it was complicated, it needed to be complicated for a reason. If it was just about going a little faster, I stripped it away if it put finishing in danger. For example, the tires I rode were not the fastest tires, but the fastest tires for me and the ones that serve the goal are the ones that don’t puncture as easily. I went with the slow, puncture-resistant tires on this this rough course and saw dozens of flats.
I jumped in the shower for a minute and then got ready with all my gear on. I went with a tri top and tri shorts. Not a lot of padding down there for 112 miles on Sonoma County country roads, but it would have to do. Simplify. CEP blue compression socks for fun and comfort, and hopefully to hold my calves together during the run. I added white arm coolers too. One less part of my body to burn, and I hoped to pour water on them to keep cool.
I loaded my bike on the car and set about eating. I originally had some lofty goals for pre-race food, but decided to see how it felt instead. Overloading calories at 3 am wasn’t really something I’d tried out, so I decided to let me body decide. I ended up eating about 1000 calories before leaving the house:
- Half bagel toasted with cream cheese (500 cal)
- Bonk Breaker (260 cal)
- Yogurt (180 cal)
- Granola Bar (100 cal)
- and some coffee
In the car, loaded up with my daughter sleeping in the back seat, I started to work on a 200 calorie bottle of Carbopro / Nuun. We drove north an hour and a half. Dark freeways and then even darker backwoods highways. Finally the darkness and the trees gave way to Guerneville, filled with car lights and bikes and people like a clearing in the woods filled with a secret society. We parked and I ate another yogurt for a little more food and to settle my stomach. Approximately 1500 calories taken in total before I started to swim.
I took a Gu, had Kelly help me with my wetsuit (her official job), and then waded into the water and slipped my goggles over my eyes. The water was warm and steam clung to the surface. Thank goodness for a warm swim, for once. Down the river, the redwoods stood above the mist like tall guardians. Lots of triathlon dreams started here, later fulfilled in Windsor. Or perhaps lost somewhere on the long journey. But now it was my time. My Ironman time. For the first time in weeks, I was calm.
Our silver caps glided into the water while the previous wave began their journey. I swam a little bit to get my face in the water and then thunk! A hand hit my head! I looked up and someone apologized. Really? Body contact in the warm up. This was going to be fun.
I swam a moment more to get into place, looked up, and heard the go command. Really, we were starting? OK then.
I pressed start on my watch and started to swim. My position happened to be middle towards the back at the time of the start, but I swam straight into the middle of the pack. People crowded in around me, but I felt pretty comfortable with it this time. I let some of them go while holding onto the feet in front of me. Tap tap on my feet from behind me. Bodies on either side of me. It felt slow, but I assumed it wasn’t. The feet in front were part of the pack and the pack moves fast even when you feel like you’re hardly doing anything. At one point I was thinking how well I was dealing with the people around me when suddenly I was semi-dunked. I swallowed some water then put my head up again right into a wave and maybe someone’s arm and swallowed more water. OK, don’t panic. I slowed a bit and took a couple of breaststroke kicks, got my mind back into it, and then went back to freestyle and back onto some feet.
We passed under the bridges and that’s about where it became hard to stay on the feet of people in front of me as the pack broke up and the water was stirred up with silt. The depth became really shallow and people stood up. Why? I swam by them. And we were only a few hundred yards from the start.
I was breathing to the right and watching the bank of the river move along. Moments of peace came with only swimming to think of as we were more dispersed. I sighted forward too, but never really had to correct my course. Trees and mist and splashing swimmers. Looks about right. I was really just wondering how much further until the turn around. That section sort of dragged because there’s nothing very distinctive to indicate how far you have to swim, you just swim and swim and know that it’s still so early with a long way to go.
Peace was sometimes shattered by another wave coming by, the lead swimmers flying around and sort of through us. You knew they were coming because the water would start to boil before the new cap colors came by. Then it was back to the rhythm. Breathe, breathe, sight…
I imagined myself swimming past the turn around, swimming 100s of yards too far upstream, kayaks yelling at me to make the turn. But in reality the turn was easy to spot as it was a complete log jam. Lots of people were standing up because the water was only a couple of feet deep in places. My goggles were leaking a bit on the left side so I stopped and put my feet down and adjusted them, then headed back towards the start line through the mess of standing and swimming athletes.
The trip back was faster and made easier mentally by being able to sight on the bridges again. As I went under the bridges I looked up to see if I could see Patty and Kelly, but didn’t see anyone I knew up there. Towards the beach, the crowd noise picked up and it was kind of confusing as everyone tried to find their way around the buoys. For the most part it was hard to sight here because the scene was pretty chaotic. I followed someone else’s feet and let them deal with it and soon I was facing the other direction and back looking at the right hand bank and headed back up to the bridges.
Unlike Boise, I was never really far from other people the whole way so I kept sighting and actually got into a good routine where I could pick my way up the field. Others from back waves passed me, but I also swam by people in my wave and even from waves further ahead. Waves aren’t seeded by swim time, they are seeded by age group, so by the end of the swim, we were all pretty well mixed.
The trip back up to the turn around seemed to go pretty fast and the turn around itself was easier to deal with this time with generally less people. Again my goggles needed a little work and were fogging up, but on the home stretch, I ignored it and plowed on, passing more and more people. Strangely I didn’t even really feel tired when I arrived at the beach. Time out of the water was 1hr 24min. Perhaps a touch slower than I imagined I could do, but I wasn’t thinking I’d be dealing with a fairly congested space for the whole swim. Still, totally under my goal of 1hr 30min. Solid 2:00 /100yd pace in open water was a big improvement on Boise last year.
I made my way up the beach, used the wet suit stripper to get my suit off, and then onto my rack. To my surprise, it seemed like the majority of the bikes were still there in my age group. I dropped down to the group and put on my bike shoes, took a Gu, stood up and put on my helmet and sunglasses, grabbed my bike and headed for the exit. Many of the people there when I entered were still there when I left as there was a lot of cloth changing and chit chat going on.
I joined the single file traffic jam of bikes getting out of transition, handed my bag with T1 gear over the fence to Kelly so I wouldn’t have to go find it at the end of the race, Then I walked to the top of the hill before I mounted and was off on a very long bike ride.
We settled into a line headed up River Rd. My legs felt great and I could see how you could go out hard. Too hard. So I took easy. Plenty of people passed on the outside, but I also went by people. Lots of disk wheels out there. Whoop Whoop. For a little while I thought my Powertap was telling me we were doing 15.1 miles/hr which I would have believed with the perceived effort but then I remembered I’d changed the speed middle display to HR. 151 bpm. I looked at my watch and saw we were averaging over 18.9 miles/hr.
We made the turn down onto Westside Rd super-slow, under River Rd and then up a steep little hill on the other side. Then it was down to buisness and I did my best to settle in, start to eat, and work on my first aero bottle. The plan was 200 cal/hr in the bottle (with Nuun) and 100 cal from other sources. I started with Chomps. Then I’d move onto two halves of a Bonk Breaker. Then onto the Gu’s attached to my bike.
Westside Rd stayed basically congested for most of its length with people always passing. It was really hard not to draft as everyone kept getting bunched up. It’s hard to not overtake everyone in sight and trash the legs on the steep little rollers along there. Patience.
At some point AnneMarie, whom I’d ridden with during the practice on the course, came by “Can you believe we’re doing this??!” Not really. She took off, but I figured I’d see her again.
At the first aid station, 18 miles in, my first bottle was done. Average 17.8 miles/hr (156 HR). I stopped for a moment to fill it up then headed back out and kind of wished the port-a-potty line wasn’t so long.
Only 10 miles to the next aid station: up Dry Creek Rd, past the store where we stop all of the time. Woosh by that. No time for a sandwich or Flying Goat. Then the turn into Canyon where I got off my aerobars to make the climb and went by a bunch of people. Do they never climb, or are they just being more careful than me? A screaming descent down the other side to the freeway and into the aid station. About 16.8 miles/hr average with the climb, though I was backing off a little and my HR was down to 150 average which was a good place to be before the sun came out. I stopped at the aid station and stood in line at the Port-a-potty behind four other people. Waited three minutes and nobody came out. Great. Got on my bike and left.
From Geyserville, near the aid station, down to Chalk Hill the road is Hwy 128 which had some cars on it, but is a beautiful road through the vineyards. I tried to stay aero and push through this section that only has a few hundred feet worth of relatively gentle rollers on it, taking advantage of the marine layer still being out, it not yet being hot, and not yet being windy. All things that were likely to change by the second loop. In the end, it wasn’t really as fast as I’d hoped: around 17.5 miles/hr with HR steady at 150. I could probably have gone faster here safely, but at the time, it felt like the right steady effort.
Now at mile 39 or so, 2:15 into the bike leg. Still felt good and finally found a Port-a-potty that was easy in and easy out.
Now for the toughest section, the area through Chalk Hill. I wasn’t afraid of the hill itself which I’ve ridden over lots of time, but the area leading up to it has some nasty hills and there are some bad spots on the road. But I knew the spots to look out for, including the bridge with the nasty lip on it that sent someone over the side after they hit an ejected bike bottle. They needed to be airlifted out, apparently. There were bottles everywhere there (and elsewhere). Probably hundreds of bottles out on the course. In fact I saw all sorts of stuff on the roads: a whole saddle bag, many CO2 cartridges, bike numbers stuck to the road, a bottle still in a carbon fiber bottle holder, tires, tubes etc.
For Chalk Hill itself, I used my granny gear to keep my legs, spinning up in a 28. Average speed of course dropped a lot though here, but picked up again with the descent and the trip back into town. 16.4 miles/hr to get to the aid station right after the High School, mile 57 (17.6 miles/hr from the top of Chalk Hill).
Time for another loop.
Second time along Westside Rd was slower as the sun was now out and it was time to save the legs and make sure I stayed drinking and eating. 17min to the aid station at mile 75 was 16.7 miles/hr with my HR averaging 149. The 75 miles on the legs were also beginning to be noticed with my legs certainly less than fresh and more concentration being required to keep steadily pushing forward. At the aid station, I ran into AnneMarie again while I waited in the Port-a-potty line again. She said she was going to take this loop easier and save the legs. Sounded like a good plan. I ended up at this aid station for over 3 minutes and then headed off with a plan: I’d take the trip over Canyon Rd hill easy, give a last push along the Geyserville to Chalk Hill section, take it very easy through the Chalk Hill area, and then give a last steady push to T1.
Around mile 85, I was cruising along and actually thinking how this was going fairly well for being 85 miles in. Speed was good enough. Legs still had something left. Heart rate in check. Food and hydration were on plan. Then suddenly, a bee of all things flew into my neck and lodged between my skin and the chin strap of my helmet!! I could feel it buzzing for a moment, stuck there while I was flying along at 17 miles an hour. I reached up to try and get it out, which was of course when it stung me. Ouch!! I saw the bee drop away, so eating it (a la Jens Voigt) was not an option. Sigh… all I could do was hope my throat didn’t swell up or something and kept riding. Interestingly, a few miles later I couldn’t really feel much of a sting. I suppose I was metabolizing stuff out pretty fast.
With that wildlife encounter behind me, I made my way over the Canyon Rd hill again, down the other side. Grabbed water at the Geyserville aid station without stopping. 17.1 miles/hr between these 10 miles apart aid stations, actually faster than the first time through, including the bee sting. Who needs honey stinger waffles? I might be onto something. They’ll be called “Bee stings”. You grab one, put it up to your neck and it fires calories directly into your bloodstream. Of course it’ll hurt like hell, but the performance benefits will be unmistakable.
Back out of Geyserville and onto the part where I’d hoped I would go fast. That’s when I figured out the real reason I was going faster headed north, it seemed we’d developed a solid head wind coming from the south. I put my head down and certainly put in the same or more energy as the first time through (HR 10 bpm higher, though it was now much hotter too), but it got me just over 16 miles/hr average. My slowest section was, in fact, the section I was hoping to go the fastest. Oh well, the conditions were what they were. It was now officially hot and windy. But at least I just needed to get through Chalk Hill area for the second time, and then it was the home stretch into Windsor.
The second time was, in fact, fine, but my shoulders and neck were in pain, and getting off the aerobars meant using my now very tired arms. It surprised me a little to discover that the first thing to totally give out was my arms, followed by my shoulders and back. In general, by mile 95 or so, I was really ready to be off the bike. But the deal is if you get off the bike you have to run a marathon. By mile 95, I’d take that deal.
It amused me that exactly mile 100 was Chalk Hill itself. That’s some nice planning. Passed through the century mark in 6 hrs 8 min. Not too bad! The hill was okay, 7.8 miles/hr (HR 171) vs 8.5 miles/hr the first time through (HR 165). Heat had bumped up my HR quite a bit, apparently. I just imagined it to be the end of a mountain stage as I pulled myself up and spectators cheered. At least a slightly amusing set of superhero-costumed volunteers yelled. I’m not sure I respond too well to spectator yelling. I really just want to be left alone when the suffering comes. I suppose the red Speedo was at least distracting.
I mostly had the same people around me by the second lap. Each aid station would play a little shuffle game, but pretty soon the guy with the one compression sock higher than the other would appear, or the guy with the expensive wheels who I didn’t see once use his aerobars. Also, increasingly it became obvious that more and more people around me were doing the aquabike. That hardly seems fair, there’s a big difference climbing a hill like Chalk Hill at mile 100 if you think you have to run a marathon in 12 miles instead of sit on the grass in Windsor and have a beer. I wish those people were better marked.
The trip into town from the top of the hill was pretty much uneventful other than being sore all over. I passed one guy walking his bike from 6 miles out with a broken spoke, and he seemed annoyed when I asked if I could help. I suppose he’d been asked a hundred times. At any rate, that’s a long walk.
I crossed back across the freeway and sped through all the streets around Windsor. It’s fun to go through lights under police direction, right? And we were almost done here. Past the cemetery, the goats, airport and back to the High School. Average 17.1 miles/hr from the top of the hill, so I could still move. Finally the High School came up and we cruised into the dismount line. Done with the bike leg and walking into T2, the heat was beating down.
Bike summary: 112 miles in 6 hrs 48 mins (16.4 miles/hr average with 8 mins spent stopped at aid stations, etc.) Average HR was 153. Temperature at the end of the bike: 87 degrees. Drank about 8 bottles. Calories: 1400 calories of Carbo Pro in the bottles and about 750 calories of extra solid and semi-solid ‘food’. So over 2100 calories.
In general, I think the bike went really well. I didn’t crash. My bike didn’t break. I drank. I ate. And I basically executed my strategy keeping my HR under 160, nearer 150. I kept it super easy on the hills and tried to keep the pace up on the straights. Without a power meter, it’s hard to know how well I did at that, but Strava says 150 watts average, though it’s probably a little higher with the head wind on the second loop. Either way, that’s about what I imagined an IM paced ride would look like with my current fitness.
Into transition and nobody was in any hurry. The long single file pathway into the main courtyard T2 area was clogged up, possibly with aqua bikers who were done for the day. I’m not sure. Anyway, my legs weren’t exactly excited to be on solid ground so I made my way pretty slowly to my rack. Unlike T1 where I was happy to see a rack full of bikes, I was not as happy to also see a rack full of bikes in T2. That meant most of my age group rode by me at some point, and one suspects that was mostly in the first 20 minutes of the bike leg.
A bike was parked in my spot, so I figured out somewhere else to put my bike, then sat down on the ground and changed into new socks and running shoes. Took off my helmet and swapped sunglasses with another clean pair. Added a running hat and grabbed my Chomps and Gu packets and then was off. Wait, best to hit a Port-a-potty now. Ok, now I’m off. 11 minutes later… As I left a guy running out with was apparently excited: “Hey, I can still run. Not fast, but I can run!”. That’s pretty much where I was. It was post-ride heaviness. But there was also a lot more tiredness than I’ve ever had trying to run off the bike. After all, it had already been a long day. But at least I could run. For now.
I stopped at the mile 0 aid station to fill my hand bottle and have the nice volunteer apply some more sunscreen to my burning shoulders. I’m not really sure why I got burnt, I guess 7 hours out in the sun was just too much for the sunscreen.
We run out onto Windsor Rd and away from the High School for the first lap. Initially shuffling along at 10:30ish pace behind a couple of other guys seemed pretty doable, though I was deeply tired. At the first aid station, I ran into AnneMarie whom I’d apparently gotten in front of during transition. It’s hard to imagine overtaking anyone with my T2 speediness, but she’d changed out of bike shorts into matching pink lined running shorts and pink compression socks.
The two of us ran and walked most of the first outward leg of the run together, but I could feel my reserves fading fast and I was going to need to walk more than she wanted to if I was going to survive. She looked like she was going to destroy this run course. I felt like the run course was going to destroy me. Just needed to slow down and play survival for a while.
For the first half of the run I tried to stay on plan with food, but it was a losing battle. It was hard to get Chomps down with the heat beating down and aid station stops concerned themselves more with ice and water for cooling and hydration and less with food. Taking in solid food was kind of out of the question anyway. Getting my arm coolers wet helped. Taking a filled cup of ice and holding it until the next aid station worked. But the best strategy was probably simply to fill my water bottle half with ice, half with water. The ice cooled my hand and the water stayed cool to drink.
Pace slowed to where I probably could have power walked better. I shuffled along at some kind of slow running pace when it was flat or downhill, then walked the uphills. The uphills were really the death blow to my running and this course was very not flat! With the heat and the gradients the hills hit me where it hurt and my body told me that unless I walked them, I was very unlikely to see the end of this race. It seemed reasonable that, if I could do that, I’d be looking at between 5 and 6 hours, rather than walking the whole thing. That would be fine with me.
I was not alone either. Almost nobody still on the course (and the leaders were still out there until my second lap) was running up the hills. A whole field of very fit, slow-moving people. The Windsor shuffle was in full swing. Looking at the results, the majority of people went over 5 hours on the marathon, many took 7. Only 3 people total went under 10 hours for the race.
At the end of the first lap I got my bracelet to show one lap completed and headed out again. The finish seemed a long way away at this point. I felt like there was no energy left and I’d only run a little over 8 miles. Still, focus on a more short term goal: a couple of aid stations would make it 10 miles. Make it to the run loop turn around and that would be half way. I could do those things.
The second lap was clearly the most grueling two hours of the race. Not close to being done. The heat still as hot as it had been all day. I can’t even remember now, a few days later, anything much that happened, just forward movement. Aid stations came and went as a blur. I put in water. Tried a piece of peach and it made my stomach hurt. Worked through a packet of chomps. Drank some Nuun, which I was beyond sick of. Looked at my watch for the first time in hours. 3 hr 20 min into the run. Abstract number. I wondered how large a number would be there by the end. I couldn’t calculate what it could be, except that I was running each of the 6 legs in an hour each. Man, that’s a long time to be out here. Keep running. Walking. Drinking.
At the turn around and half way mark, 13.1 miles, I decided to start on the Coke. And wow, that worked! My energy supply become pretty much linked to how much Coke I’d drunk and how long ago. I mixed it with a cup of ice, and that was what would get me through to the last lap. The triathlon lifestyle is supposed to be healthy, right? Now I was surviving on Coke, of all things.
Finally done with the second loop. I run up Windsor Rd towards the school and there’s hundreds of people cheering there. I scan the crowd looking for Patty and Kelly. I assume by now they should be back up here somewhere. Nowhere to be seen. My spirits drop, I was looking forward to seeing them the whole way back.
I round the corner and head into the school, heading for the turn around and my second bracelet and there they are alone at one of the barricades. I stop and chat for a little while and dump off most of my remaining food (I might as well give them the food rather than throw it in the trash). I leave two Gu’s in my pocket in case I’m inspired for that, but I doubt it.
The first couple of miles of the final lap went well and I soon hit the 20 mile mark. I guess that’s the point in a marathon where you feel tired. Ha. But I think I did hit a point where I realized I needed some more food than Coke. I made a decision that at the next aid station, it was all about eating. Eating and Coke. I ate a whole Oreo Cookie and a half a banana. Now that’s food. Actually, it’s possible I only ate half of the Oreo Cookie and threw the rest of it in the trash. Pleased with myself for such eating, I headed off down the road completely energized. Until I realized I didn’t have any Coke. Just to be safe I ran back and got some Coke and then took off. As little as that sounds like I ate, it was actually a real turn around, and I knew soon I’d be done.
Two miles later I made the final turnaround, still walk-running, but feeling relatively good. Now the home stretch. 4 miles. I can run 4 miles, that’s nothing. Someone turned around ahead of me that was on their second lap. They didn’t think they’d make it back in time for the cut off at 9pm. They’d be close though, I figured, since I got back within minutes of the cutoff. They were resigned though. Another man was walking with his wife. She was telling him there would be another try. He was crying. People’s dreams vanishing with the sunlight. I was thankful for where I was in the race and that in an hour I’d be done.
On the way back, I realized that my walk/run and elongated stops at the aid stations were moving me along about the same speed as a man walking with a spectator woman. They were power walking machines. Eventually I started to chat with him. It turned out he had bad knees so he’d trained to walk the entire marathon.
We talked about how you’d see people in the Ironman walking and wonder why don’t they just run. Yet here we were walking. It seemed obvious at the time why they were walking. Why we were walking. But now, even a couple of days later, I’m not sure. Couldn’t I have just run more?
We talked about lots of things. And eventually the conversation turned to boiled potatoes, drizzled in olive oil and salt. And soon we were almost there…
Turning into Windsor High School the shoot of barricades leading to the finish were dark in the evening twilight, though you could hear the announcer up ahead and see the lights. The two of us decided to make a run for it, him no longer worrying about his knees, me unconcerned with 14 hours of fatigue. Now was the time to run. It’s an amazing thing that even after all that you can sprint for the finishing line. Couldn’t I have just run more?
The man I’d walked the past two miles with reached over and shook my hand, like Macca and Raelert, except at 8:40 pace. I heard my name called out. Then both of us crossed the line under the floodlights together. 14 hours and 28 minutes after starting to swim in the river as the sun had just risen. A world away.
And so I, with another finish line that wasn’t so different from others, became an Ironman.
I’ve heard people say that finishing an Ironman changed their life. Somehow though I didn’t see that side of it. Perhaps I’ve just had a long enough endurance sports background at this point that I know what can be achieved over months of training. Similarly, I know what can be achieved by stubborn determination on race day when one must overcome what is hard, for a very long period of time, and get the job finished.
Would I do another one? I’ve been pondering that question all week. Yes. I would if it wasn’t an expensive and time consuming exercise to sign-up for and train for one of these. I’m fascinated with the impenetrable nature of racing so long and feel like I’d certainly like to give it another shot with more of a bike history. The reality of the event is that most of the achievement is in the work leading up to the race and it’s actually that part that I enjoyed the most. The race just capped it off.
It’s been a long road from, yes, watching the Wide World of Sports Ironman race on TV as a kid (the craziest thing I ever saw), to running my first races, first marathon, to first Ironman. From not being able to swim a single lap at the YMCA pool to swimming 2.4 miles in open water. From my first sprint tri with a 400 yard swim and 11 mile bike to 140.6 miles in a single day. From having a pro triathlete and former Olympian embarrassingly stop during his run leg to change my road bike tire in my first Olympic tri. From a road bike I was riding with sneakers on flat pedals during that same race, if I remember correctly, to actually loving being on the bike and yes, being able to change a tire, even if I still don’t love that. In that Olympic Tri I was second to last in my age group. The speed of others, especially in my age group of over-competitive 40 year old men, still baffles me. It’s been my one constant as I’ve got better at this triathlon thing. I’m still in the bottom half of my age group (73/110), though top half of the field. All I can hope is that I’m getting better and stronger, and I’d love to see how it develops.
So that’s it. My first Ironman.