CHESAPEAKE MAN 2012
I arrived at Chesapeake Man more relieved that the season was almost over than excited about running an Ironman. An oppressively hot summer, bike crashes, plantar fasciitis, and competing priorities made for a long training season that often left me lacking motivation. The timing for this race was also not ideal, with Jodie now 36 weeks pregnant. I picked this race in January because it was the race that best fit the logistical and scheduling hurdles of the 2 other people I had originally signed up to run this race with. But they withdrew months ago and I was pretty much on my own, save for one guy on the DC Tri Club (Jorlie) who did the AquaVelo.
I made the drive out to the race Thursday afternoon. Jodie waited for her parents to arrive from Michigan and arrived Friday morning. Given the circumstances and my outlook coming into the weekend, I was blessed to meet a group of fellow athletes and overall great people at the carb dinner on Thursday night. We hit it off and had a great weekend together. My weekend was better just by having these new “tri friends” to share the experience with. So thanks to John and Laura Backus, Fred Backhaus, Sharon Hobbs and Gene Garver for the laughs and camaraderie all weekend!
We met at Great Marsh Park Friday morning for a short swim to get comfortable with the water in Choptank River. Much to our surprise/delight, it was smooth as glass. And it was warm. Of course, that wouldn’t hold, as a storm passed through Friday night. While the rain ended before race start, the wind did not…. and Choptank River lived up to its name. The rest of Friday: carb brunch (for $3 a plate!!!) at the Cambridge Diner; bike check-in at the park; last minute race prep; and a seafood and pasta night-before dinner at Suicide Bridge Restaurant. The pasta was good, but the Peanut Butter pie was fantastic!
Saturday morning pre-race routine went without incident. Big pancake breakfast in our room at 4 am. Catch the race-morning shuttle by 4:45. In transition at 5. A couple visits to the port-a-potty and last minute race prep… a picture with our new group of friends at the race start… and in the water a few minutes before 7. The air was cool and the water was choppy, but hey at least the high for the day would be about 70 degrees and there would be no rain! AND… the water was a perfect 71 degrees. I was optimistic at that point… and then the race started…
I was comfortable in the water, and there was only about 400 of us, instead of the 2000+ I started with last year in Wisconsin. However, I felt like I fought just as hard for space when the gun went off... elbows to the head, hands slapping my rear end, etc. None of that was a big deal b/c you expect it from a mass swim start, so it was surprisingly easy for me to settle into a stroke and a breathing rhythm and just swim. And the first lap went VERY well, until I sprung a leak in my goggles towards the end of that first lap. I stopped halfway to drain the water, but the seal didn’t hold, and by the time I was on my last leg of the swim my right lens was filled with water again. To make matters worse, I’m pretty sure the water got choppier for the second lap. I swallowed more salt water than I care to admit. At one point on that last leg I realized I was alone, and not in a good way. There was nobody around me and I couldn’t see any buoys. I wasn’t even sure I was facing the right direction. By now the salt water had irritated my right eye so badly that I could barely see, and a kayaker had to come over to point me back on course. I had strayed into the middle of the trapezoidal course, so I probably added a couple hundred yards to my swim. All that aside, I managed a 1:18:52 swim split. My goal had been 1:10, but considering I couldn’t see for half the swim, my eye was in pain, and I swam way off course, I was happy to only be 2 mins slower than last year. A side note on the swim… does salt water make you have to pee more? Up until this race I had never had to go in my wet suit. Even during the Ironman last year. Laura said before the swim start that there were 2 types of triathletes, “those who have peed in their wet suit and those that lie about it.” But I could honestly say I never had… Until Saturday. Not just once… or twice, or even 3 times… but 6 times. Really?! I felt like I had Jodie’s pregnancy bladder on speed. It was obnoxious. And yes I don’t care and I’m putting it in my report.
My right eye was throbbing by the time I got into the T1 tent, and my vision was very blurry. Pouring fresh water into it just sent searing pain through my eye socket. I could barely make out my bike from the others in the transition area. And then, just for good measure, I had to pee yet again as I headed out on the bike. I was beginning to think I needed a medical bag or something, b/c if this were to continue, there wouldn’t be enough porta-potties in the world. Whatever… 7 minutes in T1.
Even the most avid bikers reach a point in an Ironman where they’re ready to get off the bike and start running. 80 miles… 90… 100… at some point you’d be OK if you never saw that bike again. For me that point was around mile 40. It wasn’t anything to do with my bike, though. Last year I was about 90 miles into the bike before I was ready to sell my bike to the highest bidder. It had everything to do with the course. Why?
The wind: It was one of those constant, soul-sucking winds. Normally wind is a mental obstacle. On Saturday it was physically agonizing because it irritated my already-inflamed right eye and sent steady pain through my eye socket and into my skull. I couldn’t see much of anything for 112 miles, and spent the entire ride trying to turn my head away from the worst of the wind. When I reached the Special Needs station at the end of the first loop (mile 66) and again approaching T2, I couldn’t read the signs telling me what direction to go. I had to almost come to a stop and ask the volunteers where I was supposed to go. And then, of course, there’s the effect the wind has on your speed and your mindset, but at least everyone had to deal with that.
Crappy Roads: There is about a 4-5 mile stretch of road 2/3 of the way around the loop that feels like a constant rumble strip. Cracked, uneven pavement… I felt like my bike was going to fall apart. Would it be so hard to refinish a few miles of pavement for the area’s only out-of-towner attraction? When the rough patch ends, the road opens up into a long, boring stretch of marsh land where the wind was at its worst. This made up about the last 12-15 miles of the loop before pulling into the parking lot at the end of each lap.
Is this a race, or a training day?: Lastly, we were spoiled by the spectator support at Ironman Wisconsin. No matter how you felt on that course, there was always more spectators cheering you on. They provided motivation when your own had expired. That doesn’t exist at Chesapeake Man. I saw more hunters than spectators on the bike course… and that’s not an exaggeration when you count the ones that drove by in their redneck pickups yelling out their windows at athletes. The only things missing were open cans of beer and rebel flags in the rear windows.
Volunteers: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to complain about volunteers. I appreciate what they did by standing out there all day. But I think there is a difference between volunteers at an M-Dot event and those at smaller events. The M-Dot events are in such high demand, they get hundreds of volunteers who are there because they know it’s the best chance of actually getting into the next year’s race. And since they’re going to be racing the following year, they know what the athletes need. So when you get a bottle of water or Gatorade on an M-Dot course, the seal is broken and usually the cap is open. Maybe I just got unlucky, but of the half-dozen bottles I took from aid stations, on only one was the seal broken. When I’m holding the bike steady with one hand, holding the cap of my aero bottle in my teeth, my 2 bottle cages already have bottles in them, and I’m taking the bottle with my one free hand, I have nothing left to break the seal of the bottle with and nowhere to put it while I shift things around. I tossed a couple of full bottles away b/c I still had enough fluid to get me to the next aid station and I didn’t dare risk the “no hands” routine in 15-20 mph winds.
Races like this, however, are when you lean on your training and you control what you can. I just finished my second season of Ironman training. Not a “vet” by any means, but enough experience to be able to fall back on my training. Eat every 20 minutes, hungry or not. Keep my legs moving at a high RPM, despite the temptation to go big gear to hold speed in the wind. Keep downing the fluids, even with the wind and cool air making me feel like I’ve had enough to drink. I know what a long painful ride feels like, having done a couple centuries in the oppressive heat this summer. On the 18 mile out-and back “finger” before starting around the loop, I counted the number of riders ahead of me to occupy some time. I hit the turnaround somewhere around 120th overall (Ultra and AV competitors combined). Then I concentrated on picking people off, one at a time. I counted down to about 63rd by the time I hit the special needs station, but then my eye was too painful and I lost track of how many people went by me while I gathered myself. But I maintained discipline… eat, drink, high RPM, conserve energy. The ride mercifully came to an end in 5:37:03. 8 minutes better than last year and just a hair shy of a 20 mph average. Not bad given the circumstances.
In T2 I again tried to flush out my eye, to no avail. I also wrapped a couple toes on my left foot with band-aids, having had blistering problems there through most of the summer. I also begged a couple volunteers for saline drops. No dice. A pretty miserable 5 mins in T2, but I needed a couple extra minutes to center myself after that bike leg.
Because I came into this race lacking the same motivation I had last year, I only had one real goal for this race: a 4 hour marathon - 9 minute miles. I knew what I needed to do. I also know from prior experience that I can’t eat anything on runs. Not even gels. Water and Gatorade is all my stomach can handle while running. So in any triathlon, I’ve always depended on getting enough calories on the bike to take me through the run. The beginning of the run was also where I took a few moments to be thankful for the things that DID go right. The weather was perfect for a marathon - partly cloudy with a high of 70 degrees. I also got through 112 miles on the bike with no mechanical issues, no flats, etc. (Thanks to Carla for pointing all of that out to me after the race. It helped put everything in perspective!) And, despite all that had frustrated me on the day, I was out on the run at just over the 7 hour mark… so a 4 hour marathon would get me close to 11 hours overall, a half-hour better than last year (when everything went right).
Two things about the marathon course sucked. 1) it’s a ~4.2 mile stretch of road that you run 6 times… 3 down-and-backs. Booooooring. 2) I figured that with only 400-500 athletes, there would of course be less support than an Ironman race with 2,400 competitors. But with no support on the bike course, I also figured that whatever spectators there were would be focused on the run course, since people could see their athletes in T2 and then 6 times on the run. My assumptions were overly optimistic, though, as there was only one small group of spectators at the turn-around in addition to the small crowd at the finish line. So we’d run that 4 mile stretch of road 6 times with no crowd between the aid stations. Oh well…
The silver lining of a back-and-forth route? It made for ready-made segments to break the marathon into. Six sections, 40 minutes each. That would be my 4-hour marathon. I felt great through lap one. My pace reflected as much, as I was between 8:30 and 8:45, and even did one mile in 8:20 before making myself back off to save energy. I was even walking through the aid stations, taking a small amount of water and Gatorade every mile. So a sub-9 pace didn’t seem difficult, but I knew I had a long way to go. At the end of lap 1 I was 6 minutes ahead of 4-hour pace.
Lap 2 was mostly OK, although I realized my left toes were blistering around the band-aids I had applied. I slowed down a little, but still finished the second lap 7 minutes ahead of 4-hour pace. By the end of the second lap I had to press my toes together and against the bottom of my shoe to minimize the pain from the blisters. This is the only other time I will come close to complaining about the volunteers. There were 3 high school girls at the run special needs tent. I had just finished 2/3 of a marathon and knew I’d need every second to get under my goal run time. So when I approached the tent, I expected them to do what they did on my first pass by the tent – one person calls out my number as I approach while someone else has my bag ready for me. Instead, I got all the way to the tent and stopped. For about 5 seconds I tried to get their attention while they were engrossed in high-school-girl conversation. When one of them noticed me standing there, her first reaction was one of those “can I help you” looks before she remembered where she was and what she was supposed to be doing. At that point one of her friends started looking for my bag. Of course, I could already see it, having had 15-20 seconds by this time to look for it. So I had to tell her where my bag was.
The one good thing that came out of that second pass through the parking lot was that Jodie had gone over to the med tent and had a couple tubes of saline drops for me. After 8.5-9 hours of dry, painful eyes, I finally got some relief. That didn’t, however, translate into a soaring last lap. In fact, I went the other way. 8+ miles to go and about 7 minutes ahead of pace, I finally started to break down. I continued walking through aid stations and running between them, but my pace slowed… probably 9:30-ish for the next 4 miles. When I made the turn for the last 4 miles, I hit “The WALL”. I’ve had runs where I THOUGHT I hit The Wall. But I never hit it like I did over the last 4 miles of this Ironman. I was practically doubling over with cramps and felt like I was going to puke the entire way. Every step brought the sensation that my legs were crumbling under me. I had to walk more frequently than just through the aid stations, and those walks got longer… .15 miles, .25 miles… With 2 aid stations and the last stretch to go, I started playing mind games. “Run to that aid tent and then walk as far as you need!” I made it for the first tent, almost puked, walked about a quarter mile, then tried to do the same to the next tent. But I only got about halfway to the next tent, then more walking before finally running to the last aid station. One mile to go… I ran, but only about 4/10 of a mile. The last turn was about a quarter mile ahead and marked about .3 miles to the finish, but I had nothing left and had to walk to the turn before finally running the rest of the way to the finish line.
I vaguely remember the announcer calling my name and telling me to put my arms up. I think I managed to get them up as far as my chest before they got too heavy and I let them fall as I fell into a chair. My one goal was a 4 hour marathon. And thank God for the buffer I built in the first 18 miles, b/c I needed every second of it. My final run time was 4:00:31. I’m going to call that 4 hours even and consider it a success, because I’m sure I spent 31 seconds getting my special needs bag while those girls were talking about their homecoming dates. Final time: 11:07:29; 5th out of 18 in my age group. For a few minutes I wondered if I could have gotten into the top 3 and gotten an award had I NOT swum off-course or had I NOT broken down over the last 4 miles of the run. But 3rd place was around 10:39 and 4th was 10:49. So… yeah, that wasn’t happening.
Special thanks also to my in-laws who drove 12+ hours from Michigan to VA on Thu and then 2 more with Jodie on Fri to be there for my race. Granted, that was as much for Jodie as for me. But even after Jodie’s brother withdrew from the race a few months ago they never hesitated. I couldn’t imagine if 36-week-pregnant Jodie would have had to get up pre-4 am, lug gear around the course by herself all day, take care of me in my delirium for an hour after the race, and then, ohbytheway, have to drive 2 hrs home that night because one of our dogs was in the vet ER after an hour-long seizure.
However, if it had come to that, I’m sure Jodie would have figured out how to do it on her own. She’s that kind of wife. I can credit some of my resiliency on the day to my training… but I think most of it I got from her. Watching her do some of the things she does, the conditions I overcame in this race were nothing. Can’t wait until she can get back into racing next year! And so the book is closed on 2012, and not a moment too soon, with the family’s next Ironman on the way in less than a month!
Congrats on the race, Nick. Sounded like a tough day out there, way to stick it out and dominate. Tell the course to suck it!