Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Own Private Ironman: Coeur d'Alene '08
Before the race I wrestled my hopes, worries, assessments and expectations into a forecast for Ironman.

Swim: 1:25 – 1:40
T1: 5 – 10 minutes
Bike: 5:53 – 6:50
T2: 4 – 8 minutes
Run: 3:55 – 4:50
Total: 11:22 – 13:38

As chronicled earlier, a good deal of silly, unspecific worry crept into my mind in the weeks leading up to I-Day, but some of my fear, while not exactly productive, had a rational basis. I feared that the tumultuous waters of the mass swim start would freak me out, and that I'd be vulnerable to foot cramping in the final 1000 meters of the swim; and though a good runner, I thought my less-than-adequate training on the bike could set me up for a staggering, drooling run finish that would embarrass Julie Moss. So I added the caveat that times toward the slower end were more likely than times toward the quicker end. Just to be safe.

* * *

In Boston, the night before the marathon, I did the toss-and-turn thing for three or four hours and ended up sleeping maybe two, two and a half hours. It was hell. But things went better this time around. I was out within a half-hour, had only one brief wakeup, and probably totaled five hours of shuteye. Being at a peaceful cabin in the woods helped, I'm sure, but more importantly, I didn't stress about falling asleep. My PR at Boston after virtually no sleep taught me it didn't really matter whether I got three, six or eight hours before Ironman.

I was up at 3:30 a.m. and got the coffee going, which woke my main man Dan, who was squeezed onto the living room couch. I had coffee, muffin with cream cheese, and a banana, used the bathroom and did some last-minute packing. We were on the road by 4:10, with the sky already showing some light.

The scene at the race epicenter was wild. There it was, not even 6 a.m., and tons of people were wandering around. Out on the lake, the FORD sign was being towed into place. Music was thumping. An announcer was delivering updates and instructions, most of which I didn't catch. I dropped off more stuff—special needs bags, which would be available at 62 miles on the bike and halfway through the run—and got body marked: 1329 on each upper arm, and my age, 45, on a calf. My marker did a very elegant, artistic job, but by Mile 70 on the bike a fellow competitor passed me and told me I didn't look like I was "95." Even if I felt like it.

* * *

Two thousand people in the water, headed in the same direction at the same time.

I was kicked and whacked and I gave out some kicks and whacks. And I had to pause and veer to avoid people from time to time. And there was a decent chop to the lake that belted me a few times. But I remained calm. I can honestly say I enjoyed the swim. The water was fresh and clean and it was wild and wonderful to be a half-mile out in the beautiful lake with a couple thousand other folks, getting the big day going. So I just kept doing my thing, moving along, getting it done. After the first loop, my watch showed 42-something, so I figured I was on the way to a 1:25 or so. That, I could live with.

The second loop was pretty uneventful. I stayed calm and just kept stroking. I exited the water and saw 1:26 and change on my watch. Officially my split was 1:27, putting me 1432nd in the field. Not great. Not even good. But then again, nearly 600 more people came after me, and that doesn't count the dozens who dropped out!

On the way to the transition, I unzipped my wetsuit top. At Ironman, they have crews who help you take the thing off, so once I was in T1 proper, they finished the job on the top, and after I pulled my bib straps down over my butt, they ordered me on my back and ripped the rest of the suit off my legs and feet. I ran to get my swim-to-bike bag and headed into the changing tent. A volunteer met me there and began removing my stuff and asking me what I needed. It was cool—until I said, "I need my white tri shirt" and he said, "What white tri shirt?"

I had forgotten to put it in the bag.

OK, so the problem was that the shirt I had on—the one I had worn under my wetsuit—had no pockets. That meant I wouldn't be able to carry food to nibble on during the ride, nor would I have a place to stash my spare tube.

I ran to my bike, holding my Mojo bar and the tube, wondering how I would manage this situation.

First thing I did was, I ate the Mojo. No bites, really, just kind of swallowed the thing.

After mounting the bike, I tried stuffing the tube under my shorts, on my right thigh. I didn't like that. Then, making my way through the streets of downtown Coeur d'Alene, I noticed the rolled-up tube was bound by a sturdy blue rubber band. Aha! I used the rubber band to hook it to my aerobars, positioning it just inside my right forearm.

One hundred twelve miles and six-plus hours, with a marathon to follow—that's daunting, but I mostly managed not to think in those terms. I took a moment to appreciate what a great day it was for a long race: partly cloudy, breezy, fresh, and heading only to the low 70s. Then I got back to thinking about what I was doing, and there I stayed, pretty much: present. It wasn't that hard, actually. There were so many immediate concerns to occupy the mind. This was the most crowded triathlon I'd ever done, so it was no easy challenge to stay the required four lengths behind the cyclist in front of me, and to make sure the passing zone on the left was open when I entered it, and that I got back over to the right safely after completing the pass.

And there was a lot of passing (and being passed). Sometimes I found myself passing someone, and then being passed by the same person, then passing him or her again, and so on and so forth. Niki—our names were on our race numbers on our backs, that's how I knew her—and I went back and forth and there were a few others (less attractive, I guess) whose names I've forgotten.

The only problem was that my neck was beginning to ache like hell. It actually started soon after the ride began. I must have tweaked it while swimming. Now, in the aero position, which hunches you over and requires you to lift your head up severely to see the road ahead, it was becoming sore and tired. Riding upright was scant relief, and was slower to boot. So what I did was, on the non-technical stretches, I kept one hand out on the aero extenders, and put the elbow of the other arm on one of the rest pads, with my hand under my chin, holding my head up. You know the mug shots they have for a newspaper columnist when he's got his chin on his hand and he's looking all thoughtful? That's how I rode a good deal of Ironman.

When all was said and done, I had traveled the 112 miles in 6:11:54, passing 514 people and moving up to 918th place.

* * *

I struggled to understand the run as it unfolded. I felt great out of T2, shockingly great. And I felt good for up through six miles, rolling along at a 9-minute/mile pace, which, if I could have maintained it, would have brought me home in around 11 hours and 50 minutes -- and 12 hours is the (unofficial) cut-off for being a damn strong 45-year-old male Ironman. In my mind, at least. I wasn't buying at all that I'd be able to maintain that pace, but I did allow myself to entertain the fantasy that I might squeeze in under 12 hours. By, like, one second. Maybe.

But there's a big hill right before the Mile 7 marker and that hill did something to me; it didn't feel that god-awful, but I was not the same afterward. I kept running, but gradually slowed, eventually down to 11, 11-1/2 minute miles. Thus the marathon time of 4:34:11. Maybe if I'd held back a little bit on the bike—in particular, in the final 10 or 15 miles into town, when I passed dozens and dozens of people and posted my fastest split at 18.4 mph average speed—I would have had more left for the run. Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, I did pick up the pace down the home stretch, the long straight shot down Sherman. There was a guy just in front of me, a 55-year-old, and I didn't want to pass him—there wasn't any point to doing so—but I wanted to run strong. Luckily, he ran strong, too, and remained a few yards ahead of me. Two or three blocks from the finish, with the crowd cheering, I felt a surge of emotion and almost cried. I didn't try to stop tears. The moment evolved on its own, and I just smiled all the way through the finish chute. It was good to stop.

Despite running out of gas on the run, I actually moved up from 918th to 769th place in the process. My cumulative time was 12 hours, 26 minutes and 7 seconds. In my age group, I finished 73rd out of 205.

I couldn't have done it without Dan. It was great to see him several times, both on the bike and on the run. His words of encouragement were tremendous. His help in carrying gear was great. And his confidence in me in the hours leading up to the race was huge, too. I could tell that he believed in me, and that meant a lot. When it was over, we hooked up just beyond the finish line, and then sat on the lawn outside the athletes feed zone, where I had grabbed pizza for the two of us. I don't remember what we talked about. I think Dan said "great job," and I smiled stupidly.

* * *

The really weird thing was how sore I wasn't the day after Ironman. Back in Coeur d'Alene, those blessed volunteers were no doubt still scouring the roadsides for crumpled green paper cups, golden shreds of gel wrapper and the rest of the mess we left behind in our single-minded pursuit. And here I was, with Dan, enjoying the long Portland evening strolling around and about Mount Tabor. "Dude," Dan said, "I thought you'd be a mess!"

I did, too—and since I wasn't, I began to wonder if I had raced too cautiously. Maybe I was Spry Guy on Monday because I'd played it safe on Sunday? It's been a real struggle to sort out this aspect of my Ironman. I do feel proud of my achievement and not at all embarassed about my effort. But I also know that what happened with me on June 22, 2008, was just one way of doing Ironman. Being steady and careful, I got through the 140.6 miles and earned the Ironman title, and along the way I gained insight into what it might take to do my best Ironman.

So it's all good. It's all very good. And now that I've done Ironman, it's time to race Ironman. See you in Coeur d'Alene on June 21, 2009.

The result:
Swim: 1:27:00
T1: 7:36
Bike: 6:11:54
T2: 5:28
Run: 4:34:11
Total: 12:26:07
769/2060 overall
73/205 M45-49

6 comments:

Dan Brekke said...

It was a thrill to be there, Pete, and it reminds me of earlier races I've seen you do, and of your showing up -- one, two three times! -- to help me through that first 600-kilometer brevet I did in '03. I still remember you appearing with a nice little roadside dinner when I was in Calistoga, 10 p.m. on a Sunday night and 75 miles to go. One of my all-time top cycling moments.

Marie said...

Pete, I said it on Dan's blog already, but I want to tell you personally, congratulations. Great accounting of your experience. I especially liked the part where you were riding with your chin on your hand. Excellent! Good luck next year.

The Grand Master Crackhead said...

Again, great job! Sometimes when you finish and feel fine, it means you did exactly what you were supposed to do. You don't have to feel like shit to know you raced well! And yeah, you probably could have gone a bit slower on the bike to get back :15 or so on the run.

But the only way you really know is to do it again, and realize that it's as much about the journey and what you get out of it mentally as it is about crossing the finish line.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you're going to do it again! Wow! Glad Dan was there to support and help you. What an awesome friend. Maybe we'll be able to go up next summer and cheer you on.

Liz said...

Okay the last message was from me, Liz. I thought it would show my name.

Pete said...

Thanks, Liz!