I shared an unforgettable Ironman experience with my fiancee Laura Banks, also a Team Running Free athlete. Here are some of the details of the race:
Pre Race Routine:
I actually got up at 2:15 am and downed two high-calorie meal replacement shakes, and went back to sleep until 4:00 am. I didn’t exactly want to have any more food with less than 3 hours before the race, and risk hypoglycemia from eating too close to the race (I am extremely susceptible to hypoglycemia when eating within 3 hours to the race), and I figured that the likelihood of feeling sick from the chop/swells in the ocean wouldn’t be as high if I didn’t eat. Turns out I made the right choice!
Everything was packed and ready to go the night before. No amateur mistakes. I managed to go to the washroom in the hotel, which is good, as this is always a source of worry for me in the morning of any early-starting race. Laura and I made it down to transition area around 6 am, and had the bodymarking done, dropped off the special needs bags at the required locations (they were to be trucked-out to course), and then we had access to the bikes. So I pumped up the tires, put the nutrition on the bike, and also the bike computer.
Of course, there was the obligatory “OMG I need to use the washroom again” moment, so we lined up to use the host hotel’s washroom. With about 20 minutes to go, we were done with all this pre-race nonsense and headed down to the beach, wearing some old crew socks because the sand was REALLY COLD (air temperature was only about 13 degrees celsius).
Laura and I lined up wide on the west side of the beach to take advantage of the current flow (west to east). We also gave it 30-45 seconds when the gun went off before we started swimming, to ensure that we didn’t get caught up in the masses. Within the first few strokes, however, I lost Laura and I knew this was going to be a rough swim. Tough part about letting people go ahead first in the swim is that you’ll end up crashing into the weaker swimmers who overestimated their ability in lining up closer to the front. I ended up having to take the line on the inside, because of all the traffic, which made starting out wide completely useless.
Unfortunately, I had no idea where I was going in the first loop of the swim, due to two factors: i) lack of open water swim practice this year and ii) the crazy amount of swimmers (3,000 entrants on the day, all starting at the same time in the mass start of all mass starts). Everytime I sighted above the waterline to look ahead, I could only see more swimmers.
This was by far the roughest swim I had as well. I was kicked, punched, swatted all over my body and face. People swam on top of me sometimes, and some people grabbed onto my legs. At one point, I thought someone was drowning and were pulling my leg down with them. Anyway. I had no idea where I was going after being knocked silly in the face, but lo and behold, the big orange turn-buoy appeared in front of me and I figured I had to turn left. The first lap then proved to be uneventful after the first swim out towards the ocean and I was pleasantly surprised that my first lap was 37 minutes (as I was totally expecting a much worse swim when it started to happen). The remaining lap of the swim course turned out to be less violent, although the rising sun made it difficult to sight when going towards the east.
The way the swim course is structured, it is conducive to first-time Ironmen, despite what I described above. That’s because in between the two laps of the swim, there is a beach run. If you tuck a GU Gel (by the way, try the new Roctane Cherry-Lime!!!) in your wetsuit, you get to refuel between laps. They have a water table there so it’s easy to take the gel in without choking!
The second lap of the swim course wasn’t as quick, and I suspect that’s because the current intensified, slowing the initial portion of the swim.
The amount of jellyfish in the water was something I did not appreciate. I wore a sleeveless wetsuit, and I must have swam into some particles of a jellyfish because I ended up with some pretty bad stings.
I pulled on my arm warmers and my wind vest in T1. For some reason, my head must have grew in size (literally!), because my helmet felt smaller and my temples were actually being compressed in the helmet. So much so that I developed a nasty headache throughout all 6+ hours of the bike! I really had no time goal for the bike. I do have a Quarq power meter, so I really paced myself conservatively. The first 30 km passed by without much incident, until this gigantic (read: size of my palm) spider/beetle/insect flew from the trees and onto my right arm warmer. I started to PANIC, and I tried to blow it off my arm while still riding. It clawed onto the fabric pretty strongly so I had to pull over to rip (yes, rip) it off my arm warmer. Unbelievable! After that little incident, Laura whizzed by me on the bike!
We started having a conversation and we decided to work together (legally) on the bike. We were rarely in each other’s draft zone and we did not commit any blocking offences. And that’s why I was surprised when she had to stop at the next penalty tent! Turns out she was carded when a bunch of older AG men whizzed by on the bike, and she was caught up in the passing pack. Not sure why the marshall felt the need to punish her – but he did anyway. The most ridiculous thing is that we have NEVER ridden in a group before, and riding in a group frightens us as we are poor bike handlers. We would never attempt to draft off a pack because we don’t have the skill to! Whatever, so she got a penalty around 70km or so. I waited for her at the aid station ahead, making full use of the 4 minute penalty she incurred to refuel and use the bathroom.
We also stopped around 90km at Special Needs during a stretch of broken road (the worst road in the history of all Ironman competitions). The cracks in the road were so bad that every jolt sent the strap of my plastic identification wristband (mandatory for the IM athletes) into my skin, causing a small lesion in the skin. Ouch.
On the way back, we were aided by some nice tail wind, which allowed us to pick up a bit of speed on the way back. The rollers were nice because the long gradual descents allowed us to get up to 32-34 kph. This section of the course passed by quite uneventfully, and around 120 km, my lower back started to hurt significantly. I wasn’t able to put out the power I wanted, and while our speed still remained higher due to the tail wind, our overall expectations of coming in around 6:30 dissipated. My nutrition plan was working well – one Powerbar, two GU Gels, and sipping on CarboPro per hour – around 500 calories per hour! All of which are available here at Running Free!
The last stretch of the bike course on Front Beach Road was windswept. Both Laura and I had troubles staying upright due to the crosswinds, which sometimes would blow us onto the path of the passing traffic. We were glad to have completed the bike without any significant issues. Compared to last time, I had already built myself a 22 minute cushion, so I felt that the PB was definitely within reach. Sub-13 hours, maybe a 12:30 time, was in reach! We needed to run around a 4:30 after T2 … this is more than possible given our run training and abilities (I ran a 4:20 the last time I was here in 2007).
Immediately, as we started the run, we felt the ill-effects of the copious amounts of sports nutrition we had consumed during the bike. BOTH our stomachs were cramping and we walked by someone who looked like 6-time Ironman Hawaii champion, Dave Scott, who told us to keep it up and don’t give in! My stomach soon got better, but unfortunately for Laura, it only got worse. Because I made a promise to her that I would stick by her, I jogged/walked with her for the first 40 minutes of the run. So, I waved goodbye to a 12:30 time.
She started to recover, and I realized that sub 13 was still within reach. We were running a pretty decent pace from miles 6 onwards – around 5:30 per km, and walking thru the aid stations. Despite the amount of walking we did, we still completed the first half of the marathon in 2:23. So, all we needed to do was 2:07 in the second loop to ensure that we came under 13 hours. We really picked up the pace in the second half. With 9 miles to go, all we had to do was a ten minute mile, which we had been doing easily since the jog/walk from earlier. The nutrition plan was working great… this plan consisted of coke, chicken broth, and pretzels at aid stations. I was so sick of sports nutrition by this time that I had to resort to real food.
Anyway, our HR and breathing was well under control, leading me to believe that I wasn’t burning unnecessary glycogen and instead relied on mostly fatty acids to fuel the run. But my IT band (ITB) started to seize up on me, causing this massive pain in my knee. I hadn’t had ITB issues in 5 years, why now!!! In the last 10k, I was forced into a shuffle, with an occasional stretch of the glutes, which Laura helped me with. She actually grew stronger in the run, but now I was the weakest link and I was slowing us down.
With about 3k to go, I broke down completely and needed to walk due to the pain in the knee caused by the ITB. I pretty much waved goodbye to the Sub 13, but that was OK. Being able to share this journey with Laura gave me a deep sense of satisfaction. The next target was 13:08:51, which was my previous PB. Combining a shuffle and a stretch every 2 minutes, we made our way to the finish line. We had it in the bag when the clock turned 13:06 and we had 2 minutes to spare. Hand in hand, we crossed the finish line. I got my PB, and Laura got her first Ironman finish!
Looking back at it, I couldn’t have wished for a different way for the race to unfold. The sub 13 would have been nice, but I couldn’t have done that on a clear conscience by leaving Laura behind. We trained together for the whole year, and she’s done a lot for me at home by taking care of doing my laundry, making my meals, etc when I was too tired to do so from work and training. Least I could do was to be there for her when she wasn’t feeling great!