Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ironman Louisville: The Race

Well, I did it. It didn't go as well as I had hoped, but it didn't go nearly as badly as it could have. While the swim and bike went pretty much as I had expected, the run came down to just keeping putting one foot in front of the other. With an overall time of 15:30:16 and splits of 1:37:00, 6:16:23, and 7:11:07 (swim, bike, run), I hardly set the world on fire, but I did accomplish my main goal of finishing without seriously injuring myself. I had hoped to finish under 15 hours, and I thought sub-14 might have been possible. If I had been able to improve on my marathon PR (I walked the only full marathon I had done previously), my total time would have been under 15 hours. For my first full Ironman, I don't think it's that terrible of a time. Also, while this is by far the most epic one day I've ever had, I haven't quite decided if, overall, it's quite as epic as climbing Gannett Peak solo last July (summit day on that expedition has now been bumped down to second most epic day ever).

I posted earlier about my journey to Ironman, and also listed out my raceday gear. So, I'll start this post Sunday morning, waking up at about 3:30 am, after about 4 fitful hours of sleep. I got my clothes on, ate a Clif bar and some peanut butter, filled my water bottles, and headed toward transition. There was a pretty steady stream of people walking from their hotels to transition, and there was a fairly sizable line when I got there at 4:30, waiting for them to let people in at 4:45. I filled the reservoir on my bike, loaded bottles into the cages behind the seat, and borrowed a pump to fill my tires. After availing myself of the port-o-potties, I started the walk to the swim start. I had walked it on Thursday, but in the dark with lots of other people it seemed further. It was about 3/4 of a mile, and there were already a lot of people when I got there. I got body marked- just race number on the arms, and age on the calf, no number on the legs like a lot of races. I had forgotten about the "don't put sunscreen on before body marking" rule, but it seems it had been long enough before (in the hotel) that the sunscreen was sufficiently absorbed that the marker stayed on. I worked my way down to the end of the line, which seemed like another mile. I plopped down thinking I must be toward the back, but people kept streaming in for a long time. Later, one person near me surveyed the line and estimated that we were about 1/3 of the way from the start to the end. The initial spot I was sitting was right next to the water access, so there was a steady stream of kayaks and other watercraft going from volunteers' cars to the water. For no reason apparent from that vantage point, the line moved about 20 feet, and then another 10 feet 15 minutes later. This was an even less ideal location, right across from the port-o-potties. My stomach was already a little unsettled from some of the food I had eaten, and the smell was not helping. Eventually my stomach settled down as the clock ticked down to the race start. Somehow I had been feeling a zen-like calm all morning, and when the line was finally moving for real, there was no time left to feel nervous. The line moved quite quickly and efficiently. We went down the sidewalk, zigged past a crowd of cheering people on the embankment, zagged down the boat docks to the end, across the timing mats, and jumped into the water.

2.4 Mile Swim
I think the time trial start is one of the reasons this race is popular with first-timers (and not just that it doesn't sell out). Nearly a third of the field were doing their first Ironman. A time trial start is so much more friendly than a mass start. I haven't done a 2000-person mass start like most Ironman races, but the ~150-person start of Buffalo Springs was bad enough. Somewhat ironically, I collided with fewer people in the narrow channel of the first third of the course than the wider middle section.
The swim course is in the Ohio river, starting out from a boat dock, going upstream behind Towhead Island, past a marina. Due to a lack of rain recently, the current was negligible, and it didn't feel to me as though I was fighting the flow. After passing the island is where it got kind of tricky. When I looked at the course, the buoys weren't out, so I couldn't tell where the turn was. The only maps I had seen of the course were quite schematic, and didn't tell me as much as seeing it had. Apparently, in past years, the course turned right after passing the island, but I guess people thought the whole course wound up being a little short. So this year, the swim continued upstream past the tip of the island. It seems as though they added too much however, as in the end my watch said I swam 2.6 miles instead of the prescribed 2.4 (others reported similar numbers later). I had no idea how far past the island the turn was, and I was looking into the sun at that point, so I could not see very far. I basically just followed what everyone else was doing. After two or three buoys, people were making a U-turn. To me, the buoy looked just like the others, the only indication that it was actually the turn point was that there were kayaks there. From there, the course went back downstream, to the exit by Joe's Crab Shack, where the practice swim had been the day before.
Sighting had been quite easy behind the island. Since I breathe to my left, I could see the island every breath, and knew I was going straight. I looked forward every so often to make sure I wasn't going to run into a dock or another swimmer, but it was very little effort. As I said, I was a little lost after passing the island. Going downstream, it was a little easier to see the buoys, with the sun behind me now. I didn't have a solid point in the distance to swim toward, so I was reliant on the buoys to keep going straight. I could see the first of two bridges we had to swim under (Big Four Bridge), and the exit was just before a third (the Second Street Bridge, which was part of the run course). That gave me a gauge of distance, but it wasn't until getting to that first bridge that I had a good reference on the shore to swim toward. At first it was the KFC Yum! Center, then as I got closer I could see the green roof of Joe's. Once I started sighting off the shore, I ignored the buoys or what anyone else was doing. Apparently, the buoys were closer to the shore than being a direct line, at least as far as I can tell. I'm fairly sure I swam as straight a line as possible, but eventually realized that I was way out on my own, and the main stream of swimmers were off to my left. I did see boats to my right, in the middle of the river, who made no attempt to steer me back toward the other swimmers. So I basically had the water to myself for about 1000 meters, until my line came back to the main line. That's when I started running into other people again. There was one guy in particular who seemed to be zig-zagging about, who must have hit me on both sides. There was one last buoy, and then it was on to the stairs and toward my gear bag and the changing tent.

First Transition (T1)
I had no plans on having great transition times. I figured my overall time (even if I hit my stretch goal) would be so long that an extra minute or two in transition would have little effect, and if I was more comfortable because of it, it would be a net gain. I walked from the water as some others jogged past. The whole of T1 wound up being a fair distance, going up, down, back, forth, before finally getting onto the bike course. The first step was to retrieve my gear bag, conveniently held aloft by a volunteer. Then it was into the changing tent, which was about 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity. I had peeked inside the tent the day before, and thought there was no way they needed as many chairs as they had lined up (probably nearly 100). So when I got in there on race day and it was packed, I was a bit surprised. I walked most of the way toward the exit before I found some space to change. I stripped off my swim trunks, then put on my bike shorts, calf sleeves, bike jersey, and sun sleeves. I was glad I had thought to bring a small towel to clean off my feet before putting on my socks and shoes. I grabbed my helmet and shoved everything else into the gear bag, and handed it to a volunteer. I got some sunscreen on my face and neck, made a quick pit stop, then strapped on my helmet and went for my bike. I turned on my computer as I was heading to the bike start. I also had a Gu before I left to get a little fuel in. Just after mounting, there was a major bump, and immediately one of the water bottles flew off the back. I had anticipated this happening (as it's happened numerous times before), so it wasn't a bottle I was particularly attached to, nor did it contain any vital fluids (I had it more as a backup). I waved it off and sped off past the cheering crowd.

112 Mile Bike
The bike course starts out flat for 10 miles, and the rest is rolling hills until you get back to that flat stretch at the end. About 5 miles after the flat stretch is the 'dogleg' section, ridden only once. This is the section I figured would be the worst, and was glad that it was early in the course. It consisted of a long descent to a bridge, a long climb out of the ravine, and then turning around and doing it again the other direction. Shortly after the dogleg, the 30-mile 'loop' section begins. The loop is ridden twice, and has another bridge crossing early on, the only real sustained descent and climb. The route goes through the town of La Grange, which was probably the best part, because it was lined with cheering spectators, and they had a guy calling out names as they rode through the middle of town. Shortly out of La Grange came the worst part, Ballard School Road. First, it was a hard left turn partway down a long, fast descent. The more challenging aspect was that, since it's a minor side road, they didn't bother to even out the hills at all like they do on highways, so the steepest sections were on Ballard. Also, the descents were tight and a little technical, so not conducive to speeding down as I normally like to do. After a second time around the loop, it's a gradual descent to the flat section.
Because my calves had been cramping in the last 500 meters of the swim, I took four salt tabs within the first fifteen minutes of the bike. I was worried I was going too fast on the flat section as I was passing people by the dozen. I checked my computer, and I was only pushing about 150 watts, which should be well below my threshold. I was going about 20 mph in the first stretch, and even managed a 19.34 mph average over the first 40 miles. It was somewhere around 60 miles, however, that things started to go south. My feet started hurting. I've had this happen before on long rides, but not usually until 80 miles or so. I was desperate to stop and give my feet a couple minutes out of the shoes, but I wanted to wait until I got to special needs. It was only a few miles further, but it was tortuous. Special needs was just before getting back to La Grange. I jumped off the bike, grabbed my bag, threw my bike against a tree, and sat down and took my shoes off. I massaged my feet while I ate a waffle and drank my flat, warm Dr Pepper that still tasted amazingly good. I also took the Tylenol I had in my bag. After about 5 minutes, I put my shoes back on, shoved about 2/3 of the baggie of gummi bears into my mouth and got back to it. I shoved some of the rest of the contents into my bento box and the back of my jersey, and left a couple things for trash.
The feet were okay, but certainly not great, for a while. Around mile 90 they were really hurting again. I gritted my teeth and pushed on, but I was so ready to be done. Everyone said the last 20 miles are downhill, and maybe on the profile map it is, as a general trend, but it didn't really feel like it at that point. It wasn't even a head wind or anything (the air was fairly still all day), it was just that, after so many miles, even a 0.5% incline felt like climbing a Colorado mountain pass. When I finally made the last turn onto River Road, it was such a relief. The road got much wider and smoother, and it was dead flat. I unfastened my shoes and pulled my feet partway out. It wasn't full relief, but it felt much better. I couldn't put much power to the pedals that way, but there were only 4 miles left, and I didn't care.
There were quite a few people on the sides of the roads with mechanical issues or punctures. I heard a rumor later that someone had put tacks out on the course. I was fortunate enough to not have any mechanical issues, but somehow when I retrieved my bike that night, the back tire was flat. I never found what caused it, maybe it was one of those wicked bumps near the end. On the first loop, on Ballard School Road, I saw some of the pros lap me. I never noticed the male race leaders, but I did see the top four women, being led by eventual race winner Bree Wee. There were probably a number of really fast age groupers who lapped me as well, but it was hard to tell for sure; a lot of people had expensive bikes and surges of speed, but weren't necessarily going that much faster than me overall.
Even though my computer showed a high of 93 degrees, I never really felt that hot. I swear I wasn't sweating as much as I often do on the monthly 8-mile time trial, even wearing my aero helmet which doesn't have great air flow. Still, I hydrated about as much as I could. My new secret weapon is a little flow meter, which has the capability to set a goal for drinking rate, and show how you're doing against that goal. This is the main reason I got the thing. I set a goal of 20 ounces per hour, not very scientifically, more based on a guess of how much I could actually absorb. The way I have it set up, it's a little hard to see the readout, but at least I remained conscious of it. When I would think about it, I would take a drink. I didn't necessarily keep the meter at 20 ounces/hour, but at least I kept drinking the whole time. I got at least one drink at every aid station, mostly water, but also 3 sports drinks (total). I probably didn't have as many gels or salt tabs as I should have on the bike, but the IM Perform helped make up for a little of that, at least. I can't say I got as much hydration/nutrition/electrolytes as would have been ideal, but at least I got enough to survive to the finish.
While my 17.85 mph overall average speed isn't quite what I hoped, it's faster than I usually average for a training ride, and it was my longest ride ever, so it was good just to be done with it. I looked at some stats later, and apparently my bike split was faster than average by about 20 minutes.

Second Transition (T2)
When I came back into the transition area, there was still a good cheering crowd. I dismounted and handed my bike off to a volunteer. At that moment, I didn't really care if I ever saw the bike again, I was so done with it. Again, I didn't really care what my transition times were, so I walked to my run bag and into the changing tent. There were not nearly as many people in the tent this time, but it was still hotter inside than outside. I sat down, stripped all my kit off, and put on my running shorts, t-shirt and compression socks. Volunteers were wandering around to help people and to shove water into their hands. In addition to hydration, I used some of the water to swallow three ibuprofen and three salt tabs. I shoved my helmet and the rest of the stuff into the bag, handed it off, and made my way toward the run course. I got some more sunscreen and gradually picked up my pace from a walk to a jog.

26.2 Mile Run
If you've never run a marathon, I wouldn't suggest starting one at 3:30 in the afternoon when it's 90 degrees. Doing so after a 112 mile bike and 2.4 mile swim is just ridiculous.
The course starts with a 2.2 mile section that is done once, then six miles south, six miles back north, and then do that again. The first section, which went most of the way over the second street bridge to Indiana, went pretty well for me. I jogged most of it, and walked through the water stops. I was still going okay to the first turnaround, although I was doing more walking than jogging. Basically, if I had a cup of water in my hand I was walking, otherwise I was jogging, and I was drinking slowly. After that first turnaround, there was not much jogging going on. I was hurting, and I tried to tell myself that if I was moving faster, it would hurt for a shorter period of time. However, it hurt more when I was going faster, seemingly exponentially. After the first loop I gave up pretty much any pretense of jogging.
At the end of that first loop was the point that I thought would be the worst: Being just a block from the finish line, but still having 12 miles to go. Because the sun was still up, it didn't feel too bad to have to turn and continue on the course. A bonus was that, because I was kind of fixated on the finish area, I forgot that I was also at special needs. A volunteer held my bag open for me. I grabbed the gummi bears and Dr Pepper, and left the rest. The soda was pretty good, but it wasn't the magical elixir I was hoping it would be. I ate some of the gummi bears, but had so little appetite at that point that I still had half the bag when I finished.
My pace got slower and slower. When my watch showed 20:28 at the end of mile 21, I just had to laugh. That was (to that point) by far my slowest mile in any sort of competition. My pace didn't change much from there to very near the end. While I had tried to at least seem appreciative of the cheers from the spectators for the first loop and a half (particularly anyone who called my name or bib number), the last few miles, in the dark, I was just done with everything. I felt like death warmed over, so anytime someone said something like "you're doing great," it felt patronizing. Every comment seemed like hollow platitudes. Everything below the waist hurt, and the rest of my body wasn't feeling that good either. I felt nauseous. I kind of hoped I would just throw up in hopes that I would feel better afterward. It was an absolute grind, I felt more like an automaton than I ever have (and I often feel like I'm a robot). I had come so far already, I couldn't stop. I almost envied the woman who passed me in a wheelchair, just because my feet hurt so bad I wanted to be off of them more than anything. I kept trying to believe the mantra "Pain is temporary; wounds heal; glory is forever," but I don't think it really helped. In the last couple of miles I saw sag wagons sweeping up runners just starting their second loop. While I felt glad not to be them, to still be well inside the cutoff, I was so ready to be done I almost wanted to join them. Something drove me on, to get to the finish line under my own power.
Finally, around 10:30 pm, I was about four blocks away. The spectators were more numerous and more vocal. I picked up the pace. Left turn. One block. Right turn. Finish is two blocks dead ahead. Whereas the noise of the finish area had seemed overly loud and harsh when I passed earlier, I barely even heard it as I strode to the line. I heard the announcer call my name, but I can't honestly say I heard him say "you are an Ironman." I had made it. I was done. I could finally sit down.

Right after crossing the finish line, I was "caught" by a volunteer. He steered me through the chute to pick up my finisher swag: A medal, a cap, and a t-shirt. He propped me up in front of a big Ironman banner for a photo, which I somehow managed to smile and give a thumbs up for, and then to a chair with a water and chocolate milk. I was sitting there for a couple minutes, kind of chatting with another guy who had just finished, when I started to feel particularly nauseous. I made my way, about as quickly as I could at that point, the ten feet to a port-o-potty. I was sure something would come out of one end or the other, but nothing did. I stepped out and staggered back across toward the chairs. I was in a complete daze. The world went topsy-turvy. Instead of sitting down, I leaned over a railing. My mind went somewhere else entirely, probably what could be classified as a black out. I have no recollection of where I was in my head, but I was rather confused in the first seconds when I came back. When a volunteer came up and offered a wheelchair, I readily accepted. I hadn't wanted to go to the medical tent (actually a giant room in the convention center), and up to that moment I had pretty much been fighting myself to not go, but at the point when I was offered a ride, it seemed foolish to do anything else. It was about a block away, and by the time they got a chair and wheeled me over, I was feeling okay. I wound up just getting ibuprofen and a sports drink; most everyone else there (at least two dozen) was on an IV. Contrary to many other races I've done, I had almost no blisters on my feet, so other than momentary dizziness and nausea I was fine. I checked out of medical and headed toward recovering my morning drop bag. The food area was on the way, however, and I was actually feeling like I had an appetite at that point. Having eaten nothing other than gels and bars all day, pepperoni pizza and cookies sounded like a good idea. After I scarfed it down, I did kind of regret it, but at least nothing came back up. I got my morning bag and then went out front of the building to get a bus back to transition to get the rest of my gear. While the bus was convenient, there was no transportation back, and I realized I would have been better driving from my hotel. While on Saturday the roughly quarter mile between my hotel and transition was no big deal, at midnight Sunday it felt nearly Sisyphean. It was slow, but I did finally make it back to my hotel, and fortunately the elevators weren't as problematic as they had been the previous days. I made a post on Facebook, and very soon after was dead asleep at 1:30am.

Post Race
I woke up a couple hours later, feeling like I hadn't moved an inch. I fell back to sleep and woke up a couple more times before actually getting out of bed at 7:30. I showered, even though I had done so before going to bed. I went down to the post-race reception. There was a big line when I got there, but when I found out it was for merchandise, I got out of line to get food. After I ate, I got back in line to get some finisher gear. Not that WTC needed any more of my money, but I wanted to make sure everyone who ever saw me would know that I had finished an Ironman. I grabbed some more food on my way back to my room. I packed up and vacated my room by 11 before going back to the reception to see the pros get their awards. After that I headed out of town. Almost before I even left the parking garage, however, I regretted not requesting a late checkout to get a little more sleep. The buzz was fading, and I was very tired.
With a caffeine infusion, I drove about 2 hours south to Mammoth Cave National Park. Being a parks junkie, I couldn't just pass within 15 miles of one and not stop. I bought a ticket for a tour and only later realized I had passed back into Central Time and I had an extra hour to wait. No big deal, I sat down and had a big bacon cheeseburger and fries. Exactly what possessed me to take a 2-hour walking tour with 400+ steps the day after an Ironman, I'm not sure, but it went okay. It was a really nice tour, a great cave, and I kept up with the group no problem. The tour I did had almost no speleothem, but it was a really neat tunnel, I think. I thought it would make an awesome entrance to an underground lair. I didn't make it too much farther Monday, I stopped in Jackson, TN a little after sundown. I treated myself to a delicious filet mignon and a good night's sleep.
I was still tired Tuesday, particularly in the afternoon after driving all day. I made it back home safe and sound in the evening. Unfortunately it was almost right back into the everyday grind. I was back at work on Wednesday, and back in the gym swimming on Thursday. I had a decent 2-mile run Friday evening, and have since pretty much picked up my pre-Ironman routine. Not nearly the volume I was putting in in July, but similar frequency.
Yesterday, not even two weeks after finishing, like so many before me, I got the Ironman logo permanently etched into my skin. It's directly above my right ankle, a fairly sensitive spot to get a tattoo, with bone and tendons being so close to the skin. I kind of wanted the tattoo to hurt a little, so if anyone asks whether it hurt (getting the tattoo), I could say "not nearly as much as the race." It only took 15 minutes to do, so the pain was entirely bearable.

What's Next?
I've been asked, possibly in jest, what I'm going to do after the Ironman. In the near term, I want to get my running speed up. I have a goal of running a 5k in under 20 minutes this fall/winter. I plan to do at least one 10k and half marathon, most likely some other running races as well, but haven't set any target times yet. I am already signed up for another half Ironman at the end of September. I have half a thought to do another full marathon this winter/spring, but haven't committed yet.
A little further out, I did already register for Ironman Texas in May (eight and a half months, oh my!). I have also signed up to climb Denali/Mt. McKinley in June with the same guide company I climbed Rainer with in 2009.

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