This was my first IM attempt. I made several mistakes which nearly prevented me from crossing the finish line. But with help, I managed to pull through and cross the finish line at 16:49, on my own two feet, if not exactly upright. I learned several lessons which will come in handy next year when I do IM MOO. I have not included splits below because I’m not ready to look at how awful they are. For now, I just want to focus on the fact that I finished the race.
Swim. This is my strength, so during training, I skipped my swim workouts and chose to focus on the scary bike. I knew this would give me a ‘bad’ swim time by my standards, but still leave me with a decent swim time by IM standards. For the start, I lined up near the front of the pack (only two men in front of me) and to the left. Once the gun went off, the abuse started. I was punched, kicked and molested every few seconds. I’d done mass swim starts before at the Bay Bridge Swim, but that race was only 600 people starting at once, not 2600, and all 600 were swimmers who knew the rules and etiquette of open water swimming. Not so at an Ironman. I was surrounded by swimmers and a$$holes who thought they knew how to swim. The a-hole strategy seemed to be go out too fast and kill, maim, or drown everyone on the first loop. Before the first turn buoy, I had been hit or kicked in the head no less than 4 times. I learned just how dangerous the crowded turn buoys can be when I got punched in the mouth and felt my lip split open. Great. I knew I could compete with a split lip, but a broken jaw would put me out of the race. So I backed off, changed my stroke to better protect my head, and began swimming defensively. [Lesson #1: Go on the offensive – never allow self to be backed into swimming defensively again!]
The water opened up a bit on the second loop but the water got choppier and the waves larger, making sighting a tad more difficult. I had to wait until I was at the top of a wave to spot a buoy before sinking back down into the trough and unable to see anything. Again, I was kicked and hit but not as much as I was during the first few hundred meters of the swim.
As I exited the water, I heard the announcer call my name. I took a quick shower, got my wetsuit stripped, and started up the chute. I saw a red ‘Team Wombat’ shirt waving and looked up to spot my parents and Glenn. A quick smile for the camera, then I was off to transition.
T1. Due to the cold weather (42 degrees), I decided to swap my wet sports bra for a dry one, hoping it would keep me a bit warmer on the bike. Trying to wrestle a sports bra onto a wet body is a gymnastic feat itself, but I managed to get it, my jersey (number already pinned on and pockets full of gu and food), arm warmers, biking shorts, socks, shoes, chamois butt’r, helmet and sunglass on without further incident. As I exited the change tent I again saw my parents with their ‘Team Wombat’ gear. A volunteer handed me my bike and I was off for 112 miles of fun.
Bike. The first few miles of the bike were windy and generally miserable. I didn’t fret too much about going 15 mph, because my plan was to simply regain my legs and warm them up the first 10 or so miles, before increasing my pace to my normal 17-18 mph. But at mile 10 things started to go terribly wrong. I vomited, but choked it back. Norman Stadler may be able to puke and ride, but I didn’t think I could. Besides, I didn’t want to let it loose and risk dehydrating myself. I was dizzy and had a headache. My right eye ached and I knew it was bruised from the swim. I tried to shake it off and just stay in the moment. Karen asked me to dedicate mile 26 to her, so I did. It was one of the most pleasant miles of the bike - little wind, I didn’t vomit, and the aid station across the street had an entertaining superhero theme. I made friends with Winston, an African American clydesdale decked out in neon yellow riding a purple bike. We leapfrogged each other during the first 40 miles of the bike until I took off and left him behind.
But Karen’s Mile too quickly came to an end and I was a mess. Every 10-15 miles I was forced to choke back more vomit. My headache intensified and so did the dizziness. I racked my brain for a cause – it started too early in the race for me to be sunburned or dehydrated. Besides, I was sticking to my plan and consuming one bottle of sports drink every 18-20 miles like I had on training rides. And I had stopped at mile 34 to pee. (Vietnamese Royalty may pee on the bike, but we descendants of Finnish kings are more civilized and prefer to use the provided porta-johns.) I had taken 4 or 5 really good shots to my head and a dozen minor ones during the swim – could I have gotten a minor concussion?
At the bike special needs I took the time to get off my bike and sit down for several minutes. I slowly ate wheat thins, hoping they would settle my stomach, and tried to evaluate just how dizzy I was. I replaced the three empty bottles on my bike with three full bottles, used the porta-john, and finally took off.
After that, I descended even deeper into hell. I was afraid to drink, that the fluid would slosh around in my stomach and make me more nauseous. During the remaining 56 miles of the bike, I only consumed half of a bottle of fluid. [Lesson #2 – NEVER do that. Drink, even when you don’t feel like it.]
Turning left onto Route 20, the rollers and winds kicked off 20-25 miles of torture down a straight, boring course. I was on the verge of crying the entire time. I wanted to quit – I was dizzy and still vomiting and I knew I wasn’t taking in enough fluids. I nearly stopped at the aide station at mile 68 for a medical evaluation, but I kept going and listed all the reasons not to quit: I’d have to tell Joe to cancel my “I Went The Distance” glass. I’d already bought an IM Florida bike jersey and I’d never be able to wear it. My parents had spent a lot of time and money to be at the race. I didn’t want to leave Florida with only a fat lip and black eye to show for it. Good reasons, maybe not. But they kept me going. I mentally broke the remaining distance down into roughly 3 x 15 mile segments. I would be done in less than 3 hours so I choked back tears and vomit and kept cycling.
T2. Finally, I got off the bike, 60-90 minutes after my estimated time. In the tent I changed and then took off power walking. I mentally calculated that if I maintained a 15 minute per mile pace, I could still be an Ironman.
Run. I was surprised I didn’t see my parents at transition and wondered where they were. Half-mile into the run, in front of the hotel, I spotted them. I saw Glenn and grabbed him so I could explain what happened on the bike. He stayed with me until mile 2, then returned to the hotel to relate my woes to my parents. At aide stations I tried taking water, sports drink (yuck- they were serving mango and berry flavors, not the lemon-lime) and chicken broth. I knew I need the calories, salt and hydration, but the broth and sports drink were too disgusting to manage. I tried to stick to oranges, water, pretzels, and the occasional cookie. But even then I could only manage a sip or two every mile. I checked my Garmin to make sure I was staying under or at 15 minute per mile pace. [Lesson #3: Take the chicken broth and coke. They will probably make you feel better, not worse. And if you puke, so what, the day is almost over.]
At mile 9 my IT bands stiffened and I began limping. The woman with whom I had been walking the past few miles asked if I want to stop and stretch. Absolutely not. My plan for the run was to keep moving forward, never stopping. If I stopped it would be too tempting to never start again. At mile ten I almost did a double take as I spotted Glenn. He had come out on the course to see how I was doing and stayed with me for three miles. He peeled off while I went to special needs and got more wheat thins and reflective gear. [Lesson #4: Put reflective gear in your T2 bag as you may finish bike much later than anticipated and need it sooner.]
I was still nauseous and dizzy, not taking in enough fluids or food. Glenn re-joined me at mile 13.5 and began forcing me to eat and drink at aide stations. I knew I needed to, but I still fought him before grudging giving in. Chewing a single pretzel took an extraordinary effort and took (seemingly) minutes. I kept plodding ahead, knowing I had to keep moving forward. I couldn’t stop or I would miss the time cut-off. As it was, I would be cutting it dangerously close. [Lesson #5: Always keep moving forward, no matter what.]
At mile 24 I could hear the finish line and knew I could make it. Glenn was still yelling/encouraging me on. If I maintained a 15 minute mile pace, this would all be over in less than 45 minutes. I had to do it.
Then disaster struck. At mile 24.5, my legs turned to lead. I cried out and tried to reach down and pull forward with my arms. I was mumbling “I can’t” which Glenn mistook as “I can’t go on.” (What I was mumbling was my mantra “I can’t stop”.) He yelled at me that he did not come all this way for me to give up so close to the finish line. I didn’t bother trying to explain what I was really saying, it was too much effort.
Mile 25 nearly ended my race. Without warning, I felt my eyes go out of focus and my legs buckled. I went halfway down before catching myself, regaining my balance, and moving forward again. Sherpa extraordinaire Glenn proclaimed “Screw it! I’m escorting you as far the officials will let me.” I made the left turn and the finish line loomed one mile in the distance. I stumbled forward, legs buckling twice more before I entered the finishers’ chute and my feet touched the blue carpet. I was in visible distress and a race official appeared at my left side, encouraging me and stating the finish line was less than 200 steps away. He looked at Glenn and told him he could escort down the chute, but had to peel off and could not cross the finish line with me. I heard Glenn thank the official and they both flanked me as I stumbled down the chute. The crowd really began cheering, calling my name and clapping. I tried to stand fully upright as I crossed the line but was unsuccessful. I was bent over at the waist but I was still an Ironman!
Unfortunately I don’t remember hearing those magical four words and I couldn’t focus my eyes enough to find my parents. The volunteers immediately wrapped me in a blanket, offered me a wheelchair (which I declined), propped me up for a finisher photo, then swept me into the medical tent. There I was wrapped in another blanket and force fed a couple cups of coke. As my blood sugars and senses returned to normal, I looked around. Sitting next to me was an African American clydesdale, his neon yellow shirt hidden by a blanket. My bike buddy, Winston. We looked at each other, laughed, and congratulated one another on becoming Ironmen.
Congrats Wombat - way to give it your all. I look forward to seeing you claim your I Went the Distance glass at the Club Annual Party!
I am very impressed! Racing is easy when everything goes right but how we handle adversity and battle through our problems are a true measure of an Ironman. Congrats on hanging tough. IM Moo will be much better.
There is something very special that happens during these events. It really brings out the best in us. To win is to finish. Big Congrats for embracing this amazing journey!
thank you for sharing your incredible battle against adversity. You have well earned your mantle IRONMAN.