My First Ironman

November 9, 2002 – I was incredibly blessed in everything revolving around doing the Florida Ironman in Panama City Beach. One of the most unusual blessings was the 3 massage therapists who stayed at the ocean front condo we stayed at for the week of the race. I trained with two friends, Anthony and Steph. Anthony is a massage therapist. His wife Melissa and a friend Aaron are also both massage therapists and they both came out for the race. I had a pre-race massage the night before. I had a post race massage about 2 hours after the race. I had a third massage the day after the race. Incredibly, my body feels pretty good after a 13:08:41 race. I wonder why they call it a race? For me, it was an event, not a race. The fast folks raced. The pros raced. I just tried to finish.

As a comparison, the winner’s time was 08:27:44. About 2300 people signed up. 1879 people started the race. I finished in 1175th place. 106 people did not finish the race at all. Some did not make it through the 2.4 mile swim. Some did not make it through the 112 mile bike. Most who dropped out, did so in the 26.2 mile run. To be an official finisher, you need to complete the race in 17 hours. The last person through finished at 16:55:54. She was a lady from North Carolina who was in the 55-59 age group. There were two men in the 70-74 age group. One of these men finished in 13:40:17, just 32 minutes after me.

Back to my blessings……. Kathy, my wife, and my boys Steven and David were very patient with me as I left almost every morning for the last 9 months between 4:30 and 5:00 to some type of workout. Having the backing of your family sure makes the training bearable.

I arrived in Florida on Tuesday for the Saturday race. Going that early gave me time to get prepared. There were many things to do or at least that was my perception as a rookie Ironman participant. I wanted to check out the surf and water temperature as I had never swam in the Gulf of Mexico. It is interesting how different swimming in the waters off of San Diego can be from swimming in the Gulf. The surf, current, temperature, color and even the taste of the water is different. I also wanted to ride my bike a few times before the race. Your bike was the one piece of equipment that needs to hold together for a successful race. One other blessing I had was that Dan the bike mechanic that I have used drove out a huge portable workshop for the race. Dan had worked on all three of our bikes and all of them worked perfectly during the race.

The race day started about 3:00AM staring at the ceiling of the room wondering if my alarm would go off. I made 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, packed two small coolers with ice, a can of Coke and a Snickers bar. The two coolers were put in what are called your Special Needs Bag for the bike and run. You drop them off before the race and when you get to the half way point of the bike and run, the volunteers hand them to you.

The race starts with the swim at 7:00AM. It was a pretty incredible site. Almost everyone was wearing a black wet suit with either a yellow or blue swim cap. Yellow was for the men and blue was for the women. The specially designed wet suits that everyone wears really make swimming easier as they keep you more buoyant without restricting your swim stroke. All 1879 racers start at once. The pros (about 60 of them) get out first since they are in the front of the pack. They are followed by the rest of lesser racers. As a side note of interest, the pros get $10,000 to win the Florida Ironman. The pros in the Hawaiian Ironman get $100,000 for winning. That is $100,000 for both the winning male and winning female. The swim consisted of swimming around a rectangle of buoys for 1.2 miles. That brought you back to shore. Then you ran up the beach about 30 yards through an area that checked for a Radio Frequency Identifier (RFID) chip that was strapped to your ankle. They use the RFID’s to the make sure nobody cheats and to get accurate timing results. Once you go through this RFID check area you go back in the water for a second loop. The really amazing thing about the swim was that it was more of and to hand combat than swimming. I was prepared for the swim to be a bit crowded at the start, but for the whole 2.4 miles, I barely got into a nice swim stroke. I was kicked, elbowed, grabbed and dunked for the whole swim. It is not that I was singled out; it was just the norm of the race. Going around the buoys was so crowded that I dog paddled so as to not take up too much space. I felt sorry for some of the racers who did all of their training in a pool. The somewhat rough surf combined with the mass of bodies was a too much for some swimmers.  I suspect that some of the folks who were pulled out of the water by the lifeguards did not have enough experience in ocean swimming.

I finished the swim in about 79 minutes. Again as a comparison, the fastest pro finished in 50 minutes. I pulled my wetsuit down off of my arms and shoulders as I ran up the beach, through an RFID check area and then through a shower area. Actually, I probably walked up the beach, but I really can’t remember. It sounds better if I say I ran up the beach. It would have felt nice to hang out under the shower a bit, but the volunteers keep moving you along. Then after the showers, you run (or walk) to an area where you lay down on your back and two volunteers yank your wet suit off your legs. This is where you want to make sure your swim suit is firmly attached to your body as public nudity is strictly forbidden in the Ironman rules.

You run a bit farther and grab a bag that you have pre-packed with all of your bike gear and a towel. They have huge changing tents where you can get naked and change. Some of more intense competitors wear their bike outfits under the wetsuit. I spent about 10 minutes getting changed, finding my bike and getting out to the bike course. This transition time called “T1” ranges in time from about 2 minutes to 15 minutes. 10 minutes is actually pretty dismal as most folks get out in about 5 to 6 minutes.

The bike segment of the race is a bit more civilized. Unless you are passing somebody, everyone is single file and the racers are fairly spread out by now. The weather was overcast for the first 4 hours of the bike. Then it rained, but not too bad, for the next hour. The last hour was just wet from all the puddles. My plan was to ride for 6 hours which required an 18.7 mph average. The winds where a bit too strong for me to keep up that pace for the whole 112 miles. I was a bit nauseated for the first 50 miles which was surprising to me. Many racers often have nausea, but I rarely did. I assumed it was from taking in too much salt water in the swim. The Coke and Snickers that I packed for my “Special Needs” really helped me recover at the half way point. My nausea went away and I picked up the pace a little. I did not want to go too fast since everyone tells you not to get too excited on the bike. You need to save something for the run afterward. I finished the bike in 6 hours and 13 minutes or an average of 18.0 mph. The fastest pro finished in 4 hours and 39 minutes or an average of 24.1 mph.

At the end of the bike, a volunteer takes your bike and racks it. It is sort of like your own personal valet. Then you grab your pre-packed bag of clothes for running in. I was considering running in my bike clothes. I normally do that in shorter triathlons, but I was looking for comfort in this race. I took my time in the second transition, called “T2”. I was a bit cold from the rain, especially my feet as they were soaking wet. I put on a dry running gear and headed out for the last part of the race. My “T2” took about 8 minutes. The pros do it in 2 to 3 minutes.

The first mile or so of the run is often a very tough part of the race. Your legs are pretty tired and getting them to change from a biking motion to a running motion is hard. This is one of the things I trained a lot in and surprisingly I felt very strong as I started the run. I had never run farther than 18 miles in my life so I was curious what 26.2 was going to feel like. The experts say that it is not necessary to run more than 18 or so miles to prepare for an Ironman. I was hoping they were right. My first 9 miles felt very good. I am a pretty slow runner so I was pleased that I was averaging less than a 10 minute mile. Sometime between mile 9 and 11, things changed. My feet started to hurt. My legs got very tired. I lost steam. It was starting to get dark and I was feeling a bit chilly. In my “Special Needs” bag for the run, I had another Coke and Snickers Bar. I also had a long sleeve shirt that was sounding real good. My bag was at mile 13 of the run. The run was two 13 mile loops. You actually run most of the way down the finishing chute on the first loop before turning around.

I knew I was not going to be able to run the whole 26.2 miles, so I started walking at mile 11. I ran/walked my way to the “Special Needs” bag area. Unfortunately, they had placed the bags in a low spot and my bag was sitting in 2 inches of rain water. My long sleeve shirt was more soaked than the short sleeve shirt that I was wearing.  The Coke tasted great though. I cracked it open and walked down the finish chute joking with the people who had lined the area. I turned around at the designated spot. The actual finish line was about 70 yards farther down the chute. To get down to that area, all I had to do was go on the second 13 mile loop.

As tired as I was, I knew I was going to finish. I met up with Steph, one of my training partners, at mile 14 and we ran/walked the rest of the way. We both had trained enough and felt confident that we could get to the finish line. In my training, on bad days when I was tired, I could often motivate myself by imagining crossing the finish line. I would get very emotional as I pictured that moment, sometimes even crying for a bit. 5 hours and 17 minutes after starting the run, I did cross the finish line. It was not as emotional as I had imagined it would be during my training. The moment seemed like the obvious end point to all of the training. Just to put the final piece in perspective, the fastest pro finished the 26.2 miles in 2 hours and 49 minutes.

I am not sure I know what I learned by doing this. There were dozens of points of potential failure in the event. Through training and luck, I was able to finish. My bike did not break. I did not get hypothermia. I did not get dehydrated. I was only slightly nauseated. The blisters were manageable. The list can go on and on.

Bottom line………I was blessed

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