Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ironman Texas

If you read my report from Ironman Louisville last August and asked "Why would anybody subject themselves that," I must admit I had a similar thought re-reading that recently in the build-up to Ironman Texas on May 18. To remind myself of how miserable it was while I was doing it, I had a bit of dread knowing something similar was in my future. I guess I was hoping the experience from having done one, as well as two more half-distance races, would somehow make it less miserable, and also take less time. While I missed my time goal of 14 hours, I did improve in every split, and I would say the misery was less. Greater than zero, but at least it was less than Louisville. One other thing to note at the top- somehow my swim rank was higher than my bike rank, the first time that's ever happened to me.

MY training for this race didn't go ideally. I had too many other things going on to get a good rhythm to my training, at least the long weekend sessions. I didn't maintain a regular Saturday ride/Sunday run schedule, there was often something to rearrange things. One of those distractions, a stair race, did provide me with a chance to preview the race course, so it wasn't necessarily detrimental. I still logged a lot of miles. Maybe a solid routine wouldn't have made a difference. Doing a marathon in March helped my running, but it delayed me getting a lot of miles on the bike. I did swim consistently, increasing from two sessions a week to three, roughly 3000 yards Tuesdays and Thursdays and 2000 on Wednesdays. Another part of my plan was to do a half-distance race in Corpus Christi five weeks before the full. Probably the biggest failure of my training, however, was that I wasn't able to train in any real heat. While it was nice to have a long, mild spring, it gave me no chance to acclimate to the heat faced on raceday. If the cooler temperatures had lasted just last a week longer, it would have been a very different race for me and everyone else.

I drove down to The Woodlands Wednesday morning and went straight to the Ironman village to register and check out the vendors. The rest of the day, and most of the two subsequent days, was occupied with eating, resting, and a bit of wandering around. I attempted to ride the first few miles of the bike course, that I hadn't previously checked out. After a couple turns, I was on a road with heavy, fast traffic, with little to no shoulder. I soon aborted the ride before getting run over. I went for a short run Thursday before the big dinner. It was pretty much my first hot run in months, and I was sweating for a good while after. Friday morning I met up with two friends from Austin for a little bike warmup. We were away from the race venue, and the road was much more hospitable. It was a short ride, out and back for 13 miles. I went straight from there to the swim start for the practice swim. I didn't go far or fast, just enough to get a feel for the water. In the evening, I had an early light dinner and went to my hotel room to relax, getting to sleep around 10.

Not surprisingly, I did not sleep as long as I hoped I might. I woke up at 1:30 and couldn't get back to sleep. I ate, got ready, and drove over to transition around 4. I wanted to park as close to transition as possible, thinking of gear recovery later, but was reluctant to park in the lot of the shopping area across the street. There weren't any other cars yet, and there hadn't been any attempt made to keep cars out. I wound up parking in the garage, which seemed like it was less obstructive to the merchants. Transition didn't open until almost 5 o'clock, so I had a bunch of time to kill. By the time it did open and I could get to my bike, the surface lot of the shopping center was packed with cars. In retrospect, I might have been better off parking closer to the finish, but it was already a good walk from transition to the swim start. In transition, I filled my water bottle, aired up my tires, and gave the bike a once-over. Once I was satisfied, I walked to the swim start, carrying my wetsuit and morning stuff in the backpack they had given out at registration. There were lots of volunteers but not many racers when I got to the swim start. I got body marked, and then mostly sat around until it was closer to start time.
As I had expected, the water temperature was in the "gray zone" for wetsuits, something like 77 degrees. This meant that they allowed people to wear a wetsuit, but it disqualified them from awards. Since I had no hope of placing, I decided to wear my wetsuit for the benefit of the buoyancy. At the practice swim, the water felt cool enough that I wouldn't overheat from wearing it. The gray zone also meant that people opting to wear a wetsuit would go in a separate wave, at 7:10 (after the pro start at 6:50 and non-wetsuit wave at 7:00). The official finish line cutoff was still midnight, but I wasn't really worried about having to finish within 16:50 instead of the full 17 hours. There were tons of people in the park by the time the pros went off, so many I couldn't really see anything. There were lots of bodies in the water for the non-wetsuit wave, so many not everybody was even in the water when the cannon went off. When I had first entered the corral for the wetsuit wave, there were only a dozen or so people. I thought maybe there was a chance we would be almost by ourselves, but people poured in when it got closer to go time. People were spread out quite a bit when I first got in the water, but there were still bunches of people on the shore waiting to get in. I actually ran into a guy I know from Austin out of the crowd. For some silly reason I moved closer to the start line after chatting with him. I was several bodies back, and it was still pretty crowded by the time the cannon went off again.

When the cannon did fire, it was a brawl, and I was right in the middle of it. I was going over top of people, people were swimming over top of me. I was going pretty hard to try and find some room for myself. Eventually, maybe 200 meters in, the crowd thinned and I was able to just do my thing for the most part. I tried to stick to a rhythm and remember the things my coach is always telling me to watch for in terms of my form. The landscape was pretty indistinct in terms of finding a target to swim toward. From the shore, you can make out houses along the lake, a road in the distance, but for me at least, from the water it was just heads, shore, and the occasional buoy. I mostly followed the heads and hoped they were going the right direction. When I finally got to the first turn buoy, the bodies piled up again. It wasn't the same level of brawl as the start, but it was still a fight to get through the short section at the far end of the course between the first two turn buoys.
Coming back toward the start, I almost stopped kicking my legs. That, of course, is a major benefit of wearing a wetsuit. In the pool I'm just as fast with a float and not kicking as I am full-on swimming; sometimes I'm faster without kicking. So I was mostly pulling, with an occasional kick to keep my legs streamlined behind me. I stuck to the shore for that stretch, to the point that I had to keep from running into the kayaks that were keeping people from getting to close to the shore, which looked to be strewn with branches and junk. When we got to the point, basically even with the start, but the opposite shore, we turned and headed into a channel. The channel is shallow, narrow, with vertical concrete walls. Add in hundreds of thrashing bodies, and it becomes rather choppy, sometimes described as the "washing machine." the nice thing about this section, though, is that it allows for spectators to come up close and cheer everybody on. I was swimming to the right side of the channel, and it was a bit of a fight to keep from being pushed into the wall by the churning water. I finally got far enough that I could see the swim exit. Hooray! I didn't drown. Just before getting to the stairs for the exit, I unzipped my wetsuit a little to let some water in. When I crossed the mat and hit the button on my watch to end the swim segment, I was amazed at the time: 1:22:47, way quicker than I was expecting.
I got my wetsuit peeled off, grabbed my T1 bag and went to the changing tent. Because I wasn't changing my clothes, I didn't go inside to dry my feet off and put on my socks and shoes. I got some sunscreen applied, particularly my face and shoulders, put on my helmet and grabbed my bike.

There were so many bikes out on the course. There wasn't any point that I felt like I was out there on my own. It was about 20 miles before it thinned out much at all, and I wasn't passing people all the time. One of my main pre-race goals for the bike was to not exceed 250 Watts at any point. I mostly stuck to that, except for one point early on, I got frustrated behind a bunch of riders; I poured on the gas to get past, exceeding 400 Watts. Things went pretty well for the first 50-odd miles; I averaged right about 20 mph. However, that was the northbound stretch, and the wind was from the south. Also, I didn't really realize how hot it was getting. According to my computer, the temperature spiked 10 degrees between 11:30 and noon. When I got to the special needs station, 58 miles in, my feet were starting to hurt. I came to a full stop, unclipped, and filtered through my bag as the volunteer held it out for me. I ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (and tossed the rest), a bunch of gummy bears (stuck the rest in my pocket), and most of a Dr Pepper. At the next several aid stations (every 10 miles), I came to a complete stop to give my feet a little rest while I grabbed a water.
At mile 90 we were finally back to FM1488, which felt like it was near the end, even if there was still 22 miles to go. While it felt like I was back to town after being out in the woods, the major downside to this road was that it's concrete, which was blindingly bright in the afternoon sun. The route got a little weird once we turned off of 1488. It went into a neighborhood, and had a bunch of turns. The upside was that there were a lot more spectators in that section than anywhere else outside of The Woodlands.
Other than the food at the aid station, I ate a bar and some gels. I picked up a bottle of sports drink about every other aid station for some more calories and fluids. I took the six salt tablets in my little tube, plus some more from a baggy. It seemed like I was drinking a lot of water; I took a bottle of water every station, but I never got the whole thing in my water bottle. There was always a little left once my bottle was full, which I squirted on myself. At the last couple stations, the hand-up bottle was still half full when my bottle was full, so clearly I wasn't drinking enough.

Back at transition, I handed off my bike and made my way to my run bag. The concrete where all the bags were sitting was burning hot. If I had had any idea how bad it was, I would have left my bike shoes my feet instead of the bike. Somehow I read the numbers wrong (and didn't remember the location from when I dropped the bag off) and walked by my run bag. I really didn't want to go back on the searing concrete; fortunately there was a volunteer there to run back while I stood off to the side on a patch of grass. This time I went into the tent and sat down to put on my run shoes. I got some more sunscreen, used a port-o-john, and started my run.

I was running, feeling pretty okay- for maybe 100 meters. The pain, mainly in the gut, started very soon. I thought I'd try to tough it out and at least have a good first mile time, but I was walking within a half mile. I was starting to realize that I was overheated and dehydrated. Once I felt a chill, and it was 95 degrees out, I knew I was in pretty bad shape and needed to get as much liquid and ice as possible. I walked the first four miles, getting drinks and ice from every station (every mile). I started to feel a lot better after four miles, and actually jogged between aid stations. It wasn't long before the pounding of the day came to the fore, and it just hurt too much to run. I was feeling some tendinitis, and just did not want to run after finishing the first 8-mile loop. I was actually kind of okay with it at that point. Even though I walked all of the second lap, I was in much higher spirits than the first. Whereas the first lap I was kind of annoyed by the spectators, the second lap I was more into it, and slapped some kids' hands. The third lap was more drudgery. I didn't feel too bad mentally, but after the sun went down a lot of the energy went out of the course. All the fast people had already finished; a lot of spectators had left. We all pretty much looked like zombies. At least it was a lot cooler without the sun. Throughout the day there had been occasional sirens; on the last lap it seemed like you couldn't go 100 meters without seeing someone on the ground with medics around them.
When the finish line was finally in sight (metaphoically speaking, I had passed right by it twice already) I almost had a little spring in my step. After crossing the bridge for the last time, I jogged down the little hill to the water level, and carried the momentum a little ways before slowing back to a walk. After crossing the u-turn timing mat, I picked the pace back up a little bit, to average just under a 13-minute mile pace for the final 0.6 miles. Under normal conditions, that would be terribly slow, but after doing 16-18 minute miles for hours, it felt quick. I hadn't seen the actual finish line before I got to it; I thought it was a block closer, so I was a little bit confused, and thinking I had started my "final kick" too soon. When I did finally get to the finish chute, I felt awesome. Never mind my tired legs and aching, blistered feet, I sprinted to that finish line. It felt like I could have taken Usain Bolt in those last 20 meters, but if you watch the video embedded below I was not actually going super fast. Mike "Voice of Ironman" Reilly wasn't at Louisville last year, so when he called my name out and said I was an Ironman, that made it totally official.

A volunteer "caught" me after I crossed the line. I felt fine, pretty good actually. I got my finisher's t-shirt, medal, and cap, plus a bottle of water. I got my picture taken in front of the banner, and then went straight to medical to get my blisters looked at. At that point, my right foot hurt a lot more than my left; the next day the left one hurt the most. There was a station in the medical tent that was basically just for blisters on people's feet. I had a little wait before I could be treated. I was pretty much done getting my feet bandaged when suddenly I felt flushed. I think I managed to say "I feel faint" before I passed out. I woke up just seconds later and there were a bunch of people putting me on a gurney. The wheeled me into a back section and got me on an IV. They took a blood sample while they were at it for some testing. When that came back showing signs of major dehydration, they hooked a second IV of saline to my right arm. They told me I couldn't leave until I felt like I had to pee, and drank some water. I felt some level of nauseousness the whole time and didn't really want to eat or drink anything. I was so cold while I was getting the fluids, apparently it's a common reaction. They wound up giving me five bags of saline before I had any feeling of needing to pee. They checked my blood again and it was back to an acceptable range. I had wanted to witness the "midnight madness" of the final finishers coming across the line, but I was sitting in Ironman village at the time, gathering strength to walk to transition and get my gear. When I did finally get my gear to my car and drive back to the hotel, I was so exhausted. I couldn't even be bothered to take a shower before getting into bed. I managed to make a Facebook post before falling dead asleep.
After I did take a shower the next morning, I put on my compression socks. That might have been a bad idea in terms of my blisters; the socks restricted the swelling of the blisters and made them more painful. I ate some breakfast and drove over to the Ironman village to pick up a bunch of finisher's gear. I went back to the hotel for my new favorite post-race activity- taking a nap, then having a second breakfast. I checked out of the hotel and went over to the awards luncheon. The food was good but there weren't anywhere near as many people as there had been at the Thursday dinner. By chance I sat at a table with the fastest age group swimmer and the head referee, so it was interesting conversation.
My feet hurt so bad that Sunday. I was walking like I was crippled, but at least I wasn't the only one among the Ironman racers. I had planned to go back to work on Monday, but my feet still hurt so much, and I was still so tired, I took the day off. I started my "active recovery" with a really easy, short swim. I did easy workouts the next few days before completely shifting my routine to prepare for my next adventure, climbing Denali. Three weeks later my legs still didn't feel recovered. They came around, for the most part, in time for a decent showing at the Pflugerville Tri, four weeks after Ironman Texas.

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