This journey really begins a few years ago. Not too many, and I promise to be brief and get to the race itself in a paragraph or three. In 2006 I was training to try to go sub-3:30 in the Austin Marathon when I got sick - seriously sick. It sidelined me for months, and when I tried to get back to running in 2007 I had a really hard time pushing myself without relapsing. I basically took the second half of the year off from working out, which was very frustrating.
In 2008 I decided, at the advice of my doctor and some of my friends, to try triathlons for a bit of a change of pace. On May 11th I lined up for the Rookie Tri, a super sprint: a 300 meter swim, an 11 mile bike, and a 2 mile run. Easy, right? Not so much. I panicked in the swim (I’d gone the distance in the pool, but this was my first open-water start) and breaststroked my way around in 10:43 (3:34/100M), spent over 4 minutes in T1 getting ready for the bike, rode for 43:31 (15.3 mph), took 2 minutes putting my running shoes on, and finally ended up at a decent 8:18 pace for the run.
Still, it got me hooked on the sport. I did the whole Texas Tri Series that year, culminating in the Longhorn half-ironman, which took 7:44:09 from start to finish (~2:45 pace on a short swim, 14mph on the bike, 12:57 per mile on the run). Slow, but I felt like I’d finally regained the fitness I’d lost over the last few years. Then the idea came that maybe, one day, I’d do a full…
Fast forward to May 1st, 2010, and I was standing on the shore of Sand Hollow Reservoir about to take the first few steps into the water for what would be a whole day of racing.
I’d signed up for Ironman St. George months before - that’s necessary, both to get in and to get the training that you need to complete one of these monsters. In fact, I’d signed up so early that (this being the first year it was held) they hadn’t even posted the courses. When they did so, I started a slow panic that lasted about six months. This race was not going to be easy.
Cycling is not my strong suit. I’d never biked much before 2008, and I hadn’t done much training until April of 2009 when I joined Austin T3. At first I could barely finish the spin classes, my single-legged drills were a struggle to survive, and holding a 95 cadence seemed like a really big deal. They got easier, of course, over the year, but I was always one of the back-of-the-pack riders. When they posted the IMStG course and I saw that it was over twice as hilly as any of the “standard” Austin rides, I began to doubt myself.
I became convinced that beating the bike cutoff was going to be my goal for the day. I knew I could swim 4000M in open water, and I was very (over?) confident that I could knock out a marathon in under 6 and a half hours, but the bike? I had to be done with all 112 miles by 5:30 in the afternoon. Not finishing was a definite possibility. I was doing long rides every weekend and spinning twice a week, and knew I was stronger than I’d ever been, but the fear was still there.
Race day actually started when my alarm went off at 3:30 in the morning. I got dressed in my race gear, added jeans and a sweatshirt, slipped on my sandals to give my feet as much breathing time as I could, choked down a raisin muffin and a banana, then hopped in the car with Carrie and Shawn to get a ride to the busses that were taking the athletes down to the course. Stephanie was staying with Audrey until she woke up, I’d see her when I got to the bike (which happened to run right past our rental house at the 25 and 70 mile points).
When I got to T1 I had planned to wheel my bike over to the bike techs to air up, but I couldn’t get it out of the transition racks - they were stacked tight, and I’d hooked the saddle over the post by tilting the bike to get it in there. Luckily I was able to borrow a pump from one of my neighbors and get everything ready to roll. I zeroed out my trip computer, filled the bottles with Gatorade, stood around for a few minutes gathering my thoughts, and headed off to find a bathroom. It was 6am.
The bathroom lines were im-press-ive. I was clutching the bag containing my wetsuit and swim caps and alternating between chatting with my fellow line-mates, and watching the time. It was almost 6:40 before finally making it to the front of the line, and I was relieved in more than one sense. I accomplished another first then, crapping in a porta-potty for the first time ever.
That gave me just enough time to dive into the changing tent and get my wetsuit on. Practice has been paying off and I pulled it on in just a couple of minutes. Checking: timing chip bulge, wristwatch, wristband, neoprene swim cap, goggles, race swim cap… all there. Showtime!
Walking out to the swim entrance was nerve-racking. I guess the pros had already headed out; I missed their cannon while I was getting dressed. We were an oddly muted bunch making our way down the ramp, everyone lost in their own thoughts. The water was just as cold as it had been the day before during our practice swim, about 58 degrees, but I was ready for it and stepped right in, ducking my head to try to get acclimatized as fast as possible. Before I knew it, we were off! I started my watch and started to swim.
I’d heard horror stories about the IM mass start. 2400 people all moving at different speeds, all trying to race. This wasn’t too bad, but I certainly got slapped and kicked a little. As I expected, I freaked out a bit and had to breaststroke a few times, but in 5-10 minutes I’d settled down to a nice steady pace and tried to relax. It actually worked! The water was cold but not as cold as I’d dreaded, and even when I got kicked in the face at the 1000M mark and my goggles got loose, I was able to shake them out and reattach them without worrying. Sighting was a challenge, as the orange and yellow swim caps perfectly matched the orange and yellow buoys, but there were tons of people to follow.
Everything was pretty uneventful, which was as good as I could have hoped for in the swim. I’d done a 2:20 pace swim a few weeks before in cold water, so that was my goal, but really I just wanted to survive and get on to the bike in good shape. My right calf threatened to cramp a couple of times, but it wasn’t a big hinderance, and finally I turned the corner and could see the finish line. That was a little frustrating as it was still about 700M away and it took me almost 20 minutes to get there, but when I did it was an amazing feeling. I’d done the swim. 1/3 over, right? The clock was reading about 1:45 (actual time 1:46:19) which was not where I’d hoped to be on a perfect day, but almost exactly where I’d guessed I’d be. I swam a 2:46 pace, 1740th out of a field of 2400 or so, and many people said they suffered a lot more than I did.
I walked up the slope, pulled my wetsuit down to my waist, and flopped on the ground to let the strippers do their thing - my volunteer had it off in 3 pulls, I think. Picked it up, grabbed my gear bag, and found a chair in the changing tent. I’d worn my bike shorts and tri top under the suit, so I just had to dry my feet and arms, throw on socks, arm warmers, and my vest, add helmet, shoes, sunglasses and gloves, and run out the door. Naturally it was harder to do than it sounds, especially being half-frozen, and it took me over 11 minutes from getting out of the lake to running my bike over the timing mats.
As we turned the corner to start riding, I felt myself tearing up. I was doing an Ironman! Seriously, this was a major accomplishment. Even if I didn’t finish, I was here. I kept telling myself that I’d trained, I’d tapered, and I was ready. Then we turned onto Highway 9 for the first of many climbs, the first significant one at least: about a mile and a half of 6% grade. It wasn’t that bad, but I was down in my lowest gear just spinning gently - my biggest concern was doing too much now and losing my legs at mile 90 instead.
About halfway up I felt something between the toes on my right foot. I got to the top and pulled my shoe off - nothing, just a phantom feeling as they warmed up. Cost me a couple of minutes, but saved me worrying and could have saved me a blister, so I didn’t begrudge the time. The next few miles were just a series of rollers, a little longer than I was used to back in Austin but not much steeper; the hard part was that there wasn’t a single piece of flat road to be found.
The first aid station was around mile 11, I grabbed another bottle of Gatorade and refilled my aero bottle - another first. In fact, this was the first time I’d ridden with it and I was quite happy. It made it easy to keep drinking; whenever I looked down the straw was there, inviting me to take another sip. At mile 17 I was able to do a quick dart into another porta-potty that had been set up for the run, then it was down some bumpy hills to the crossover point I’d see three more times during the ride. My official bike split was 1:33:49, or a little over 14mph, but that included a couple of stops. I had a post-it note in my bento box with “must be past this point” times to beat the cutoff and I knew that I had some time in the bank.
Stephanie and Audrey were waiting at the 24 mile point right by our house. It felt great to stop for a second and get a kiss from both of them before heading on with a big smile on my face; it didn’t hurt that going up the hill just before a spectator had commented that “With a cadence like that, you’ll do this course just fine.” Good to hear! The next few miles were hilly but uneventful - I was getting Gatorade at every aid station, eating my ProBar nuggets, and enjoying the gorgeous scenery.
The real climbing started about mile 32 and kept rolling gently upwards towards Gunlock. Very happy for my big gear on many of those hills - I was riding a road bike with a triple, 54/39/30 and a freshly installed 12/25: figure that gives me about an 11/28 equiv if I had a compact double, and I used all of that low 30/25 combo quite often while spinning up. At the Gunlock aid station they said that Veyo was 8 miles off and sure enough, at about 6 miles we came to the switchback.
This was *the* climb of the day. 3/4 of a mile long, averaging 11% grade the whole way. I’d say that 15% of the folk I saw were walking their bikes. I just stayed slow and steady, passing more than a few folk both walking and riding. The first pro I saw (not the leader as it turned out) had passed me around my mile 30 on his second loop, a few more went by at this point too, standing and hammering up. Whenever it got steep and my cadence dropped below 60 I’d stand for 3-4 pedal strokes, then sit and spin until I needed to stand again. This did the trick, and I made it up, only to be greeted by the sign, “You get 2 do it again!”
I made Veyo proper with about 30 minutes of padding before my “worry” time, and was very happy to head back downhill towards town. There were a few uphills but after that climb they didn’t seem too bad. Then the winds started to pick up… a tailwind, at this point. Wow. 18-22 mph on moderate uphill climbs was easy, and I hit a new personal speed record on one of the downhills: over 45 mph, and that was out of aero and feathering my brakes. Yeah, I’m a total wuss going fast, and more than a few bikes whizzed past me.
That took care of the first loop faster than I’d have predicted. I checked my average speed - my trip computer (only counting forward motion time) read a little under 15mph. I needed 13 to beat the cutoff. Headed ’round again, and saw Carrie on the right side of the road, Audrey and Stephanie on the left, then stopped to shed my vest and kiss my family for luck! I followed the same plan for the second loop, just a bit slower since the winds were really picking up.
At about mile 80, when we started getting into the long serious climbs, I was passed by a very confident woman who declared, “Well, we’ll all beat the cutoff from here.” That was music to my ears. There were tons more people walking their bikes - including some fancy disc wheeled works of art - up the two biggest hills, but I never got off mine and just got the climbs done the way I had before: occasionally standing for a few strokes and just moving my way up back to 4700 feet. Phew!
Heading South into town I knew I had plenty of time, and the tailwind had turned into a gusty head/side wind, so I was a lot more cautious. Probably didn’t get above 35 at all, and spent most of the time down in the high 20s. Making the turn to the crossroads for the last time felt wonderful, with one more surprise uphill climb at about the 110 mile point before a nice fast downhill spin to T2. I’d done it - I’d beaten the cutoff by 30 minutes. Total bike time was 8:01 riding, 8:10 overall, 13.7mph. At this point I started tearing up (notice an ongoing theme here?). All that I had left was the run, and even if everyone else was dreading it, that was the one thing I knew how to do. I was going to make it!
Probably overconfident, I know. But that’s how I felt.
I dropped my bike with a wonderful volunteer, took a last sip of Gatorade, waved to Carrie and Shawn who were yelling encouraging things to me, and trotted off to get my bag and head into the changing tent. Dumped all my stuff out, peeled my arm warmers and bike shorts off and put some run shorts on, asked the volunteer “Does it look like I have everything?” Remembered to put my sunglasses back on, and headed out again.
After heading outside I saw the Barretts again. Carrie has a video, I was amazed at how relaxed I looked. For months I’d been telling myself that if I made the bike cutoff, I was going to finish. Well, I had. Yay! I actually mentioned to Carrie, “I guess I should have had a plan for the marathon.” No exaggeration - I’d been that focussed on the bike. She mentioned something about drinking Gatorade every other station and having a Gu every 40 minutes, which sounded reasonable enough. Heading out Shawn told me to look good for the camera so I raised my arms as I ran through the “Run Out” arch and over the timing mats.
Took just under 10 minutes total, including the chat.
It probably sounds like false bravado, but I never felt concerned about the run. It also never felt like a marathon to me. I’ve done five, each with a certain amount of preparation and concern, but after that bike course I figured I could do anything. That, and I just thought of it as an out, and back, and out, and back, running from aid station to aid station. I knew I’d get it done.
The course was amazing. Beautiful, covered in fantastic volunteers, and I shit you not, the hardest half marathon I’ve ever run (and that specifically includes the old Motive course in North Austin). Yes, I said half marathon - so doing it twice was all sorts of crazy. Just like the bike course there was about 50 feet of climb per mile on average; also like the bike course there wasn’t a single flat stretch of pavement. The first two miles - literally - were all uphill (sometimes gradual, sometimes steep, but climbing all the way). It was basically uphill until mile 5, then a mile and a half of mostly downhill, then almost all the way back again. And then another loop.
I ran nice and easy, checking my watch every now and then, and realized when I got to the turnaround at the end of the first stretch (right at 7 miles) that I’d averaged about a 10 minute pace so far. That got me concerned that I’d blow up at some point so I made a real effort to back down and started walking some of the steeper uphills. I’d seen Ralph, Laurie, and Mercedes along the way, also cheered on every Jack & Adams and Texas Iron jersey I found - Austin was well represented out there.
By the end of the first loop I’d pulled off my glasses and was ready to shed my visor - the sun was setting and I always prefer running without anything on my head. I pulled the $5 long sleeve tech shirt out of my special needs bag and tied it around my waist, just in case it got cold, then saw my family and friends waiting just past the turnaround. Ran over and gave kisses, dropped my visor, and promised, “The next lap will be slower!” The second leg had been a more reasonable 11:25/mile, and my legs were definitely getting tired.
The next 10 miles were pretty similar. I ran every downhill and every easy uphill, and ran some of the moderate ups as well. Chatted a lot. It never felt like I was doing a marathon, I just knew that I had to keep running until I finished. Averaged 12 minute miles for the first 7 and went a bit slower for the next 3, just like on the bike once I knew it was going to happen I was somewhat paranoid about screwing it up.
Then with about 3.5 miles to go I started to run. After all, it was basically downhill from there. I’d been passing people all along and I don’t think I was passed by more than 10 people the entire marathon (probably closer to 5 or 6), but so many folk were walking at that point I couldn’t even keep count. Started picking off a few runners, too, and I felt fantastic.
And why wouldn’t I? I was going to be an Ironman! I mean, damn!
At mile 24 I got passed by another runner as I slowed down to walk the last little steep uphill stretch - just let him go. Then I got Stephanie’s message from Audrey on the big board, got a little teary again, and decided to run the rest of the way. I’d worked out that I could go sub 5:00 on the run if I stayed around a 10 minute pace which seemed reasonable…
I kept accelerating because I felt great, and settled into a pace I was confident I could keep up for the rest of the race. Tossed my shirt (never worn) to a spectator who wanted a souvenir so it wouldn’t show up in my finish line picture, thanked every volunteer I could find, and just kept running and grinning.
With about a mile to go I was passing a few more folk who were actually running (and quite a few walkers). Then I saw the guy who passed me earlier. I tried to reel him in, but couldn’t quite catch up to him in time so I let him go so I’d have the chute to myself. High-fived a bunch of little kids who were cheering me on, saying, “You’re going to be an Ironman!” Cried a little more. Smiled a lot more.
Then I was there. Rounded the final turn and saw the Ford Edge in the middle of the street. Beyond it was the chute, and beyond that was the finish line. I looked to see if I could see anyone I knew but everyone was cheering wildly. The announcer was welcoming in Mark as he crossed the line 15 seconds or so ahead of me; I just kept running, smiling, and raised my arms as I heard my name announced. The crowd was electric and I felt great - I couldn’t have asked for a better high as I passed under the archway. 15:16:17. I was now an Ironman.
Ended up at position 1265 as well, which was my bib number. Two cool numerical coincidences I’d never have guessed and couldn’t have planned for. But who cares? I’m an Ironman! And that run split? 4:58:59. Nice. That was about 15 minutes faster than my first marathon which was on an easy downhill course :)
A volunteer gave me a heat blanket and a bottle of water, then walked me a few feet down the line where I got my t-shirt, hat, and finishers medal. Wow. He stayed with me all the way to the food, made sure that I didn’t need medical, then went to gather the next finisher. I’d had the chute to myself which was amazing - 15 seconds behind Mark and 35 seconds in front of Ty. The crowd had been all mine, and I was still glowing.
It was an amazing journey. In retrospect, could I have run harder? Probably, but I was far more interested in finishing strong than in going double-or-nothing and getting sub-15 hours. Could I have biked harder? Not much… I need to work on my speed and my downhill confidence. Swam harder? Probably, but by just getting the swim out of the way rather than trying to race it, I saved untold hours of training time and stress. Was I satisfied? Am I still satisfied?
Will I get a tattoo of the M-Dot to commemorate it?
When’s my next race?
I’ll be at the Rookie Tri again this weekend. Just as this was my first Ironman, it was my first tri, and I’ll always have a soft spot for it. I won’t be racing it, just like I wasn’t really racing this one, but I’ll be able to see many of my teammates again and celebrate just a little more. Then I’m going to concentrate on other things for a while. I’ll keep doing shorter tris, but no IM training in the foreseeable future. It just takes too much time at this point in my life.
Will I do another one?
I’ll have to wait and see. I’d like to, though. There was never a point during the race where I wanted to quit, and I never felt like I didn’t want to do this again. It was such an amazing, enlightening experience. I’d recommend it to anyone with a couple of years to train for it, in fact. Its hard. Its fairly insane. Its worth every drop of sweat.
I really couldn’t have done this without the support and understanding of my lovely wife, and the patience and trust of our wonderful daughter. My friends kept me going when I had to duck out of one late-night gathering after another because I was getting up at 4am to train. And everyone in Austin T3, from the coaches (Chrissie, Mo, Logan and Charles) who taught me that single legged bike drills at 120 cadence were more than reasonable and that running uphill was fun, to the teammates who assured me time and time again that I could do this, even when I wasn’t so sure myself.
You’re all the greatest.
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