I did a race a couple of times in the late 80’s with Chris Toriggino in Lake Tahoe called “The World’s Toughest Triathlon.” It was the National Ultra Distance Championship; a 2 mile swim in Lake Tahoe, a 100 mile bike ride over three mountain passes, and an 18.6 mile trail run around Fallen Leaf Lake. One year the water temperature was 53°F. Rip Esselstyn loaned me a small long sleeve wetsuit (appropriate for me but I can’t believe he ever got it on - he said a wetsuit was supposed to fit tight) and I wore a neoprene beanie under my latex swim cap. I remember plunging my head and torso into the water and swimming furiously, turning my head to the side to breathe, but not being able to inhale because the shock of the cold was so intense. I was in my early 20’s at the time, so I just kept swimming and somehow got enough oxygen into my lungs to finish the 2 mile course. When I exited the water, I was delirious with hypothermia. I ran straight into the spectators that lined either side of the runway to the transition area. I was like a pinball – the spectators kept pushing me onto the runway and I kept running back into them. I was so cold, a race official had to help me get my wetsuit off. As I left the transition area on my bike, I thought I would be warm by the time I crested the first mountain, but as it turned out, I never warmed up on the bike. My feet were still cold when I finished the bike ride.
Powerbar had just been introduced to the market and about 70 miles into the bike ride I bit off a mouthful. In the cool mountain temperature, the Powerbar was a stiff and sticky solid. I took one chew and my jaw and face muscles seized up with lactic acid. I rode several miles with that big plug of Powerbar filling my open mouth, my muscles unable to chew it, my body too cold to soften it. When sugary-sticky peanut drool started dribbling down my chin, I finally spit it out.
By the end of the bike ride, my blood sugar was a mess. I had to walk the 18.6 miles around fallen leaf lake, eating the whole way. I think my feet finally warmed up somewhere on the run.
I did Ironman Arizona in April of 2007. I had a great swim, but the bike course was quite difficult because the winds were howling. The winds made the race so difficult, the race organizers decided to move the race to November. Springtime in Arizona is always windy. The first 16 miles of the run in 2007 were great – I held 9 minute miles – but I was so tired after mile 16 that I had to run/walk the rest of the course. My times in 2007 were:
Swim Time 56:24
Bike Time 6:16:30
Run Time 5:07:56
Overall Time 12:33:10
Someday I hope to complete an Ironman in close to 10 hours, something like a 1 hour swim, a 5 hour bike, and a 4 hour run. I was hoping for a 12 hour finish in 2010, but my run training suffered a serious setback in August when my IT band in my right knee started bothering me. I think two things contributed to the injury; a week of hard core water skiing and the transition from training on my road bike to training on my tri bike, with the seat on my tri bike set an inch too high. I was able to continue riding through September and October, but I could not run, so I went into Ironman Arizona 2010 with the plan to simply walk the marathon. In a way, it was a relief to not be able to “race.” When you race, it is tricky to manage your energy, hydration, and blood sugar. If you go out too hard, or don’t eat or drink enough, or eat or drink the wrong stuff at the wrong time, an Ironman can turn into a miserable, even dangerous, endeavor. Not being able to run, I could have a fast swim and bike and then just do a very long walk. It is easy to eat and drink while walking and the aerobic effort to walk 15 minute miles is much less than the effort required to run 10 minute miles.
Ironman Arizona 2010
I got up at 4AM and ate a huge breakfast, something called “Rip’s Big Bowl,” and I drank 64 ounces of hot tea – Celestial Seasonings Roastaroma spiked with soy milk. This gluttonous meal did several things for me:
· It made me poop. Filling my belly got my intestines moving. You want to start an Ironman with empty intestines.
· It got me super hydrated. 64 ounces is a lot of fluid. No caffeine in Roastaroma.
· It started a long, slow release of blood sugar that would power me for many hours. Rip’s Big Bowl is complex carbohydrates and lots of fiber.
At 5:30AM, my support crew, Mom and Dad, drove me to the race. Lots of details to attend to: pump up bike tires, drop off clothing and food for the bike and run course, pee every ten minutes, etc. I choked up several times, almost crying, as I ran around the transition area, surrounded by athletes and the amazing positive energy of the event. It’s not like a competition where you want to beat your opponent. Complete strangers tell you that “You’re going to be an IRONMAN today.” It is a celebration of life and health and everybody is cheering for everybody else.
At 6:50AM the professional triathletes started their race. 3000 age group athletes had 10 minutes to jump in the water and swim to the start line. I was wearing a sleeveless wetsuit, a neoprene beanie, a latex swim cap, and goggles. The water temperature was 61°F. I wanted to minimize my exposure the cold water, so I waited until 6:55 to jump in. The water was cold, but I was so excited to be doing an Ironman, it didn’t seem like it was going to be an issue. I casually treaded water up to the front of the crowd and tried to scope out the buoys down the lake. Sunrise was still a few minutes away and we would be swimming straight into the sun. There was a huge PA system on shore and they had been playing peppy rock and roll music to set the mood. As we treaded water, we heard the first guitar chord of Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” blast out of the speakers. A huge cheer roared up from the athletes and the spectators and I got goose bumps, not from the cold, but from the spiritual excitement. A fellow next to me said, “This is AWESOME” and another fellow said, “It’s good to be alive.” Someone sang the Star Spangled Banner and they shot off the cannon blast that signaled our start.
I sprang from treading water to a full freestyle sprint, planning to pull away from the school of elbows and kicking feet, but after only a few seconds of swimming, I was in trouble. The shock of the cold water on my face, the tightness of my wetsuit on my chest, my belly swollen with my giant breakfast, my bare arms stiff with cold; somehow it all added up that I couldn’t breathe and I felt nauseas. I got light headed. I thought I was going to throw up. I tried rolling over on my back and doing backstroke, but I still felt ill. I felt something like an anxiety attack coming on and I knew I was in serious trouble. I am a really good swimmer and I am always very comfortable in the water. I swim with sharks and dolphin in the deep ocean and here I was about to drown in 15 feet of lake water. I did breaststroke for a few minutes, keeping my head out of the water so I could breathe. My blood-oxygen levels recovered and I put my face in the water again and started swimming a very moderate freestyle. I maintained a modest effort and I felt OK, but all the elbows and kicking feet were stressing me out, so I swam to the outside of the school where I could swim alone. There is an advantage to drafting off the swimmer in front of you, but I was still feeling stressed, so I stayed to the outside the other swimmers for the entire course. As I rounded the turnaround buoy at the halfway, breathing was no longer an issue and the nausea was gone, but my bare arms were still quite stiff from the cold. I maintained a good aerobic pace on the second half of the swim, going about as hard as I could while breathing every three strokes. I noticed that I couldn’t feel my feet anymore and my core was starting to chill. Fortunately the final turn buoy came quickly and I swam up to the exit stairs.
The south winds were much stronger than I had realized. It was downhill and southwest back to the transition area and I had to drop to my small chain-ring to maintain a reasonable cadence. The headwind was so strong, at times I could only maintain 8-10 mph. I tucked into the aero position and tried to be as streamlined as possible. It was much cooler riding into the headwind and I was grateful I had my sweater. I noticed several riders that urinated in their shorts while still on their bikes, a reasonable strategy for a top competitor, but by this stage of the race, everyone around me was in the middle of the pack. Quite a few fellows simply pulled their bikes off on the shoulder, unclipped one foot, and hung their dongle over the top of their shorts or out one of the leg openings. I chose to stop at an aid station about 30 miles into the ride and pee in the portapotty. It gave me a chance to stand still for a moment and gauge how I felt. I was still shivering.
Knowing that the outbound rides were downwind, I rode the second and third outbound legs sitting up in the saddle, using my back like a sail. Sitting up I was able to eat solid food – two raw food bars, about 560 calories - and reduce the strain on my lower back. The winds increased as the day wore on, so the outbound legs became easier and the inbound legs became much harder. I was tucked over in the aero position for the inbound legs. I stopped at aid stations to pee at 60 miles, 80 miles, and 100 miles. I was well hydrated. I think I drank 180 fluid ounces of sugar water, about 1575 calories. It rained on us for a few minutes several times and there were even some little pebbles of hail. I started to feel my toes about 70 miles into the ride. The drafting was atrocious. I noticed that I am a relatively good climber. People passed me throughout the ride, except on the uphill climbs. I consistently passed people on the hills – take that one-legged-fat-old-lady! The pro athletes started lapping me about 60 miles into the ride. It was impressive how fast they were riding into that headwind.
Mom and Dad were cheering as I exited the transition area so I jogged by them for the photo-op but returned to a brisk walk as soon as I passed them. I felt good running, so I formulated the plan to walk the first 18 miles and then, if I felt good, to try running the last 8 miles. The spectators were cheering, and it was difficult to walk past all the encouragement. I was super hydrated, so I had to stop to pee at every aid station. I soon had an aid station rhythm; pee, grab a handful of grapes, drink a gulp of water, and move on. I ate a few pretzels for the salt, a few potato chips for the grease and the salt, a few bananas for potassium, but mostly it was grapes and water. I was averaging 15 minute miles and felt quite good. There was the temptation to try and run, but I stuck to the plan and walked through 18 miles. The Phoenix Triathlon Club had a fantastic aid station and I couldn’t help but laugh every time I went through. They were having a good time.
I saw Mom and Dad over the fence and hobbled to the gate to meet them. They supported me as I limped to a picnic table and lay down. They took my shoes off and we all stared at the blisters on the bottom of my feet. Dad collected my bike and clothing and went to get the truck. Mom held me up and we shuffled a few blocks away to meet Dad in the truck.
Back at the hotel, a hot shower did wonders for me and I ate a little bit of baba ganouj, brown rice, tofu and vegetables. I was asleep at midnight and I didn’t move until 5 AM when I had to get up and pee. I was still very well hydrated.
Swim Time 1:00:06
Bike Time 6:43:15
Run Time 7:16:45
Overall Time 15:14:38
I used to tell people that doing an Ironman was all about managing your energy, hydration, and blood sugar. I will now add one more thing to the list: exposure. You have to manage your exposure to the heat/cold/sun/wind, the time your ass is in the saddle, the time you’re standing on your feet.
I love the Ironman lifestyle and I am fantastically motivated to begin training again. Someday soon I hope to run a 3 hour marathon and get close to a 10 hour Ironman.
Having reflected on my experience, I’d like to revise my opening statement. My favorite part of the race was just before it began – the roar of the crowd at the first chord of Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” – and those few seconds running down the finish chute – the roar of the crowd when I started running. I’ve never felt such unconditional encouragement and support from everyone for everyone, and I’ve never experienced such a collective joie de vivre. It is a shame that I felt so miserable after the race. Had I felt better, I would have liked to stay at the finish line and cheer the last athletes across the finish line.