End-Wet 36 Mile Swim Race Report – Inspired by Dennis Rodman

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“I love pain, it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something”.  At mile 20 when the easy long strokes faded away and painful shoulders and rickety elbows took over, I thought about that quote a lot.  It’s one of my favorite quotes.  When the pain comes, you’re doing work.  You’re doing something that makes you want to quit. It starts now.  This is the opportunity. 

7 hours earlier I stood at the banks of the Red River in North Dakota at 5:30AM with one of the most low key starts I’ve been a part of.  We stood there 90% naked, in an array of colored suits made worse by smears of sunscreen and Desiten.  Then, (In a North Dakota/Canadian accent over a muted bullhorn) “well, eh, uh….I guess we have everyone here.  Uh, ay, I guess um, we’ll get started…..Oh-kay, uh, well then, here we goh…..3, 2, 1…uh, have a good race. “  And one by we slid down the boat ramp into the water.  The group was an eclectic mix of complete strangers to me 24 hours earlier, but in the small ultra-open water swimming community, of which I am a newbie, we quickly became fast friends.  I knew most people’s names now and genuinely hoped each one of them had a good race.

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Frightened by cold water and wanting to preserve the last few seconds of normalcy I would have on the day, I was one of the last to make it into the water. As my face hit the water the switch flipped. I was racing.  Yikes!!  However, everything was near perfect.  We had warm overcast skies for the day (less concern about sunburn and glare) and the river was flowing at least at average flows if not a little above.   The water was around 73 degrees which felt perfect.  I was good mentally and physically and felt confident with a healthy dose of reverence for the river and swimmers I was with.  I had no excuses. I just wanted a fair shot and I got it. Perfect.

The river was red (hence the name Red River) and cloudy, but the water felt fresh and tasteless to me.  I should know about taste because I swallowed most of the river over the course of the day.  I swam for nearly an hour before taking my first break to fuel.  I was clumsy and slow and decided to alter my plan to eat every 20 mins to instead eat twice as much every 40 minutes to incur less of a penalty for my siestas.  I alternated between Infinit sports drink, gels (2 at a time) and Ensure. I had packed some baked potatoes for solid food but never ate them. I took on close to 400 cals per hour which was based on my Ironman racing and training which seemed more than enough.

My kayaker, Joe, who I had met only 12 hours earlier had just graduated from NDU and was about as confident in his ability to kayak this race as I was to swim it.  We didn’t know!  But he proved to be a steady hand and what I call a “foxhole guy”….when stuff goes sideways and I have to dive in a foxhole, I’d be happy to see him in there with me.  7 of the 20 racers had distanced themselves from everyone else.  I was barely at the front of the “middle group” of about 6 people.  I had no intentions to race anyone, but you can’t help but notice that a good effort moves you 5 spots up the placing and a collapse moves 5 the other way.  Crap.  Now I felt some urgency.  I honestly wished Joe had never told me about the placings even though I’m pretty sure I asked him 😊

It’s Dennis Rodman who said “I love pain, it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.” back when he played for the Detroit Pistons in the early 90s.  The Piston’s were good and Sports Illustrated did a feature on their off-season training camp.  The quote was overlaid on a full-page picture of Rodman running up the steepest ramp I have ever seen.   It was sunny and hot. He was jacked.  He was sweating and judging by the mask of pain he wore on his face, he was accomplishing a lot.  I loved it.  I’ve always remembered it. That picture was my definition of hard work.

Mile 24 came with mixed feelings. I was 2/3rds of the way done.  “home stretch” territory.  But 12 miles of swimming, even at a peppy 3 mph represented 4 more hours!!  I couldn’t think of the race like that.  It was mentally demoralizing, so instead I just focused on the next mile marker. 12 becomes 11 which becomes 10 which becomes 9, etc.   I didn’t know if I could swim 12 more miles but I knew I could swim 1.  After that, I didn’t know if I could swim 11 more miles, but I knew I could swim 1.  And so it went down the line, one mile at a time.  One manageable chunk at a time.  The problem gets smaller as we go.

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As we approached the 6 mile marker there was a full on 5 alarm fire in my upper body. If I wasn’t explicitly paying attention, my left arm would drag across the water on my recovery because my deltoid was failing.   And my elbows…..I had no more elbows.  Those joints died and went to heaven hours ago.   I had an odd and debilitating pain on the top of my right forearm which I just learned from a doctor’s visit was tendinopathy.   I was fading. I started doing a little breaststroke here and there to ease the suffering.  There was a swimmer right beside me (we had been this way for about 6 hours) and 3-4 more a few hundred yards behind me.  I wasn’t here to race anyone. I just wanted to finish.  They were going to overtake me. I was hurting too bad to do anything about it.

You need to find motivation in these moments anywhere you can and while I didn’t want to race anyone, I felt I should at least try.  I hurt and  I’ve been swimming a long time, but so have they, and I thought, “if my arms hurt, their arms must hurt. If my shoulders hurt, their shoulders must hurt.   If I’m in pain, they must be in pain. Why should they catch me? Who can take the most pain?”  My outlook changed.

The picture of Rodman running up that ramp in absolute pain but with total focus hung over my bed for several summers back in the 90s.  I loved it.  I cut it out and taped it on the wall with other motivational quotes.  I can’t even recall the others, but I’ve never forgotten that one.  I saw it every night before I went to bed. When the pain comes you know you are accomplishing something. I knew this moment in the race would come.  This is what I wanted. This is why I was here.

I was a mess, but I told myself I was going to take all the pain I could.  I shifted my mindset to swim with a mindset of strength rather than weakness. Confidence, not doubt. The ending, not the beginning. This was hard.  The 10 hour malaise had ground me to a nub, but I wasn’t going to drift with the mental current.  I was going to throw an oar into the mental waters.  This really had nothing to do with any particular placing or actually beating anyone, but everything to do with finding out how to get the most out of myself.  And I did.  I was strong…….until I wasn’t :0  I pulled away from everyone by several minutes, but In the last half mile cracks formed.  I actually apologized to Joe for moaning so much the last 15 minutes. I pushed. I gave what I had.  I died trying. I saw the first of several bridges that marked the gateway to the finish.  I wrote 8 months ago that I didn’t believe yet (https://mikeguzek.com/2018/02/15/why-am-i-swimming-36-miles-down-the-red-river-its-just-time/)…..finally now, I believed I was going to do this.   And I as I touched the dock after 11 hours and 57 minutes of swimming with Melanie there cheering me on, I did!

I’ve done hundreds of races.  I’d put my lifetime of suffering while competing beside anyone elses.  I’ve experienced more lows than highs, but this race was a true high. This was a no regrets, no excuses, all in sort of thing. This race and that result is exactly what I am.

I was in a bit of pain that night trying to sleep.  My right forearm was swollen and in enough pain that I was concerned I had broken a bone.  Every time I moved I would wake up because of some sort of pain, but it didn’t bother me because each jolt of pain was just a whisper from Dennis Rodman that yes, I had accomplished something.

https://www.si.com/vault/issue/710907/103Capture

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Swimming for 12 hours makes you look a little weird. 

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Perhaps the hardest thing I did all day was to lift that sign!

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Why am I Swimming 36 Miles Down the Red River? It’s Just Time

Time to think.

I was curious to know how my bike was, but I couldn’t see it the way I was facing and I wasn’t able to move. All I could really do was moan softly to no one in particular. I knew I was alive and I knew I wasn’t going to die, but in the first minute or so I wasn’t sure how bad things were. I was lying in the road and I had just been hit by a pickup truck while riding my bike. The truck had pulled out from a side road in front of me and hit me head on.  Thank goodness he was coming off a stop, but he was looking backwards when he hit me while still accelerating. I hit the left front of his car and my entire left side went into his grill. My head hit the hood and then luckily slid down the side of the truck before hitting his rear view mirror (as opposed to supermaning into the windshield). Even at that moment I remembered the entire thing very clearly.  It was extremely quick, but at the same time it all seemed to happened in slow motion.

“Why is he pulling out.”
“Why is he still accelerating?”
“The driver is looking behind him!”
“He is going to hit me.”
“He is still accelerating!”
“Ouch, this collision really hurts.”

My bike

Wheels tacoed, fork snapped and cockpit got jacked.

I was 3 weeks out from what would have been my 20th Ironman. I was 95 miles into a 110 mile ride which was my last big ride before the race. 3 minutes earlier I made the decision to go straight instead of turning right towards home like I had planned because I needed extra miles and that decision led me to this spot. I lay on the pavement unable or at least unwilling to move waiting for the ambulance as several people kept an eye on me. I was still staring at the same patch of grass I saw when I first landed on the ground. I began to think.
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Is riding a bike worth this? I wasn’t scared and by this point I felt I’d be no worse than a few broken bones, but I knew acquaintances who had been killed and friends who had been seriously injured. Some had sworn off riding. Is my 20th Ironman worth this? Would I ride a bike again? Did I even want to ride a bike again?  I couldn’t shake those thoughts and they rattled around in my head all the way to the hospital.

The ER was wild. I tried to tell them I wasn’t feeling too bad, but they were cutting my clothes off and probing me in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. People were shouting over me using words I had no clue of understanding. I spent the day at the hospital and one by one things began to check out.  Eventually I limped out of there a little bloodied and bruised IMG_20170902_160926504 but with no major injuries. Mike 1, Car 0. But I knew that my Ironman plans had likely gone up in smoke.

After about 3 weeks I began something that resembled swimming, biking and running. My riding was all indoors, not yet ready to get back into traffic. I decided I would try to do the Great Floridian Triathlon Ironman distance race in 3 weeks. It would be a “just finish” sort of effort, but I still wanted Ironman #20. Training was OK enough that we booked the hotel and plane tickets. Then, 8 days before the race I developed an ear infection. The doctor said I couldn’t swim for 10 days. Ouch. My ear hurt really bad and was swollen shut and I developed a fever. I tried to go out for a 3 hour ride the weekend before the race and I made it about 10 minutes before turning back. I couldn’t hear out of the ear, had a low fever and my equilibrium was off making me unsteady on the bike. The next day I tried to run for 1:15. No. It didn’t happen and my GFT dreams as well as Ironman #20 joined my triathlon bike up in heaven. There would be no Ironman #20 this year. Would there ever be an Ironman #20?  I was having doubts.

Time to let go.

I’ve actually been hit once before on my bike. It was more scary in some ways, but the injuries were less serious, but it did send another triathon bike into heaven. I wasn’t necessarily scared to ride anymore but at some point (especially with a family) it felt irresponsible, especially if there is no burning passion to justify it.

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My bike after a car hit me in 2014

And after 17 years of riding bikes a lot and chasing Ironman dreams, I don’t think the passion was there to justify it. The sport wasn’t teaching me that much about myself anymore and what was left to learn I was realized I wasn’t that interested anymore in putting in all the work it took to figure it out. It was time to let go. The newness was gone and this accident reminded me there is a potential price to pay to play this game and I asked myself if the reward was still worth the risk. The answer was no. Those accidents weren’t the only reason I decided to give up Ironman and all the riding, but they ultimately extinguished the flame.  I do sill ride outside sometimes, but much less often and if I don’t feel like riding I just don’t ride without giving it a second thought.

Time to get high.

I was a bit adrift for a few weeks as I tried to figure out what was next. Taking away triathlon was like taking the drugs away from a druggie. I had been hooked on it for so long that I went through withdrawal. 10-20 hours a week of training for 17 years created, or at least enabled, my endurance addition and now I was looking for my next fix. But what? I had always enjoyed swimming and was pretty good at, but it was always the last priority – an afterthought to things I needed to work on that did not come so easy. Despite not growing up a swimmer or putting in serious work in the pool, being fairly good at it was actually pretty easy (unlike biking and especially running).  The answer was right there. An epic swim race was going to be my next high.

When I first came across this 36 mile Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test (END-WET) race down the Red River in North Dakota this June (the longest in North America) I immediately dismissed it.  That swim is way too long.  Way too crazy.  But it kept creeping back into my head. Initial thoughts of

“why would I do that?”

were slowly replaced with

“why wouldn’t I do that?”
“why CAN’T I do that?”

I began to swim more just see how my brain responded. Was this miserable or enjoyable? My swim friends saw my swimming extra after practice, but I didn’t dare tell them what I was thinking for fear of looking like a fraud….one of those people who always talks about what they are going to do but rarely ever does it. I didn’t believe yet. I know Crazy Town, USA exists and I feared I was its sole resident. I’d say I was just making up time for a missed workout or trying to work on my stroke. 12,000 yards per week became 20,000 became 30,000. The more I swam the more I wanted to swim. A month earlier a flame went out, but now a new one was raging. I wanted to do this.  I decided I wouldn’t commit to the race until I was consistently hitting 40,000+ yards (25 mile) per week with a weekly 15,000+ yard straight swim. The totals would go up from there, but that would be my launching pad to the really big weeks and give me the confidence I needed commit.  I pushed onward and started hitting those targets weekly.  Some say I’m still living in Crazy Town and if I am, I’m loving the place.

Time to freaking get after it!

I’m a big believer that even the seemingly worst things that happen when given the benefit of time are the basis for something beneficial. I’ve written about that experience several times while racing and experienced in life. No one in their right mind would ask to be hit by a car. I still have pain in my left ribs and foot and some scars on my knee, but that mishap did more than knock me off my bike, it knocked me off my hamster wheel and I’m thankful for that. I re-found my passion for the pursuit of what’s possible. People have asked me if it’s boring to swim so much and for so long. It’s not to me and it’s because I’m passionate about it and if you have a passion for something you will love to do it. I look forward to my weekly 15,000+ yard swims. I can’t wait for 60,000 yard weeks and 25K training swims. I see myself in the race when I close my eyes go to bed and again when I wake up. I’m anxious to get to the painful parts of the race and feel the hurt. Is that crazy? Yes, it probably is, but what can I say, I’m high again.

The Great Floridian Ironman Distance Tri – Feeling Grateful

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I wasn’t entirely sure what to think when I finished this race.  Some things went well.  Some things could have been a bit better.  I was by myself, just a minute or two after finishing with my head in my hands, waiting for my brain to unscramble.  I’m sure I had written parts of my race report in my head during the race, but I couldn’t remember how it went.  Will I be happy when I tell someone how my race went or go right into sharing regrets?  When my brain cleared enough to lift my head up, I knew exactly how I felt.  Grateful.

*I felt Grateful to be in Florida having just raced an Ironman distance race.

*Grateful to have the physical ability to complete one of these.

*Grateful to have a family that supports me and allows me to do this.

*Grateful to have friends who share in this sort of lifestyle and push and support each other.

*Grateful to experience the comradery of strangers who share a single common goal on race day.

*Grateful that my hobby is healthy, social, inspiring and challenging.

*Grateful that despite moving my family cross country from Boulder to Charlotte 10 weeks earlier, I was able to scramble and find new swim, bike and run options and patch together enough work to show up prepared.

*Grateful that I chose to sign up for this race on Wednesday and set out on the 8.5 hour drive the next day to come down solo and do this race after my Ironman North Carolina race fell through.

*Grateful that when I get I got a flat tire, I’ve grown enough to know that being angry, complaining or posting on Facebook doesn’t solve problems, actions do and I was able to fix it and get on with my life with hardly a complaint.

*And perhaps most of all, grateful that in the little gray thing between my ears there is something that makes me want to challenge myself by doing hard things, just to see how I will respond.

And at that moment I wasn’t worried about how I did.  I just felt grateful to have had the opportunity to once again challenge myself just to see how’d I respond.

***

In pictures where I have them (and drawings where I don’t) this is how it went.

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I had a great swim! Other than burping up the big time array of things I decided to eat race morning (from memory – water, orange juice, beet juice, coffee, Ensure, Perform, sports gel, bagel, banana, peanut butter, coconut water, Power Bar, pretzels). I was long and strong and lead the entirety of the 3 loop swim and was first out of the water.

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The bike course was 3 loops, each of which contained 4-5 nasty little buggers of a climb. My plan was to go easy on the first loop and then even or negative split the remaining loops, which I did. The is the biggest climb of all, Sugerloaf tops out at about a 14% grade. The young lady behind me was having a bit more of a struggle with the grade. Other than having the wrong gearing (I brought the setup configured for a pancake flat Ironman in North Carolina) and the flat, it all went well and by feel was as good as any ironman distance ride I’ve had.

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At mile 100 I had a scare when descending at about 30 miles an hour I hit a pothole. My front aero bottle spray my glasses with water so I briefly couldn’t see. Both of my water bottles flew out and my front carbon fire wheel made a loud CRACK as it hit the hole. It was a brief scary moment. I didn’t die, but I did get a flat tire for my trouble.

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I got in from the bike in 6th place. I felt very good at the start and ran between 8:xx and 9:xx miles through mile 20, then some miles began to tip over 10 mins. I never walked except for the aid stations and avoided crashing and burning at any point which is a an improvement over recent IM runs. This is the only run I can recall where I felt like I actually could have run faster when I was done, which for someone who doesn’t have a ton of a confidence on the run, was a big win.

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I finished with a 4:08 run and an 11:17 finishing time and 11th place overall (first AG). It was a little slower than I expected, but it was a complete race and the first one in a while where I felt strong enough to compete over the entire day. People have overcome more, but I was happy that I managed the cross country move and the very last minute switch of race venues to arrive at that very spot.

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Ironman Maryland 2015

We choose to do things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win
John F. Kennedy’s  “We choose to go to the moon” speech Sept 12, 1962

 

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I tried not to be upset.  Dealing with negative energy is no way to start a race. But when I heard the announcement just 30 minutes before the race that the swim would be shorten because of wind, I felt an anger swell inside me.  The weather was uh….pretty regular (see the photo).  And we are swimming in the “Choptank” River, not the SmoothAsGlass River, so I’m not sure what the race organizers were expecting.  It’s never very calm.  Worse, just 2 weeks earlier I had flown to Baltimore and upon landing found out the race had been delayed for 2 weeks because of a hurricane (no complaints about that decision), so I flew home and then flew back again for this race.  And now just minutes before the race I found out we would not be doing a full Ironman after all.  I felt like I had stuck with this race and the organizes made a rash decision when the eyeball test clearly showed they didn’t need to.  Whatever squall sprang up disappeared quickly.   You can’t mess with the distances because everyone is left of wonder if they actually did an Ironman.  I couldn’t help but think “I flew out here twice to NOT do an Ironman?”  And now I was thinking “how do I stopped feeling negative?!”

 

” I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be.”
~ Groucho Marxv

 

Eventually after about a 30 minute delay, the race got underway on an altered course that stayed in the more protected areas of the river and the conditions were very pleasant. I swam hard for the first 50 meters to avoid any traffic clearing the starting “chute” which consisted of wooden piers on either side of the boat ramp which is probably about 50 feet wide and made getting shoved into a piling at a full sprint 10 yards into the race a real possibility.  It also makes a run on sentence a real possibility when describing it.  I made it out with my pride and my head intact. I chilled for a 100 meters or so sizing things up once we were out in open water.  A guy had already distanced himself from everyone else and I gave chase but pretty quickly gave it up.  A little too much heat on that fastball for me.  Still, I was sitting there in second which isn’t bad. I hung there with guy on my feet for about 500 meters.  I really don’t like breaking my own water so I eventually slowed up a bit and he went by and I caught a ride on his feet for the duration on the first lap. I feel like if I spend more than about 25% of my swim breaking my own water, I’m screwing myself. The pace was very very relaxed, but there was little to be gained by giving up my draft, so I enjoyed the leisurely start to the race.  Despite the delayed start and rough water warnings, the water was calm. I was now calm.  Post-race I heard other people say the water was rough, but that was not my experience. While swimming, I began losing myself for a bit watching the sunrise over the rippling waves.  I could hear the sounds of water through my swim cap covered ears.  I could feel the breath in my chest. I could see an orange sky.  I was a small person in a big place.  You can find some powerful moments out there in an Ironman and the negative energy and anxiety began to fade.

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The swim course when they announced the course adjustment. Threatening?

Very quickly into the second loop me and my swim buddy split up and things turned chaotic.  There were lots of quick accelerations and decelerations trying to avoid the slower swimmers still on their first loop. The performance was respectable not just in terms of pace, but in terms of NOT swimming over anyone which always makes me feel bad (except when I did that to Billy at Tri the Boat earlier this year :).  I exited the water in probably my best swim ever.  I’ve never felt so good, placed so well and swam so fast.  Whatever anger and frustration I had at the start of the race was thankfully left behind somewhere in the Choptank River.

 

“I learned there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead, others come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see. Now my troubles are going to have trouble with me.”
– Dr. Seuss

 

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Mostly sunny but chilly temps called for long sleeves and arm warmers.

Unlike a few of my last races, the first pedal strokes on the bike were effortless.  My perceived IM effort yielded well above IM watts on the bike.  It’s exactly what one wants, so I had positive feedback early on.  There’s not much to say about the bike.  It’s completely flat, but there was some wind though.  For the first loop it was about “average” I’d say having done about 10 races on this course.  I went through the halfway point in 2:28 just barely in the top 10 overall.  I felt as good as I’ve ever felt at this point in an IM and was already thinking about how nice it would feel to have a sub 5 hour bike split under my belt so I could try to impress my friends.  I guess 17 Ironmans have taught me NOTHING, because fatigue made the watts a bit harder to hold on the second loop, but the wind is what really did things in.  Wind is part of the race just like heat, rain, cold and even the miles themselves.  No complaints about the wind, it’s just that I kept thinking it would be gone after the next turn and it never was gone. It was always there, nagging, bothering and generally just trying to piss people off and judging by the people I passed, it was succeeding!

 

“Apply yourself. Get all the education you can, but then, by God, do something. Don’t just stand there, make something happen.” 
-Lee Iacocca 

 

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Winds picking up late in the ride.

The last miles of the bike were a total grind.  Up until about mile 100 I was really just cruising and in complete control, but towards the end the miles and wind caused me to lose some focus. I relied on thoughts of all the crazy training adventures I had endured to give me strength. And as always, thoughts of family surfaced and created a few emotional moments as the loneliness of an Ironman bike ride can turn you into an emotion sponge…..sucking up emotions and sending them full strength straight to the brain.   It MAY have gotten dusty out there once or twice.  I finished with a 5:06 bike and just inside the top 20 overall.  Even with the wind, by nearly every measure I was having one of my best IMs off the bike.

T2 was a little trickier than normal.  This was a late season race made even later because of the hurricane.  The sun was setting pretty early and would be close to setting or possibly setting during my run at which time temps would fall quickly.  Mix in the wind and I wasn’t sure if I needed more sunscreen or an extra sweatshirt.  I kept on my arm warmers and ran out of the tent carrying the shirt I had biked in. “Why am carrying a shirt?”  I wondered.  I gave it to a young girl at the aid station leaving the transition area and asked her to hold it for me in case I needed it later.  She yelled “OK!!” as I ran off.  I never saw her or my shirt again.  I owned that Walmart shirt less than 24 hours before we parted forever.  I need a moment.

I guess I’ll see that shirt again at the Crossroads.

 

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
-John Wooden

 

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Lap 1 – The body is still in one piece.

I have hard time running, but running is part of this race, so I have to do it and by God, I’ll do the best I can no matter how ugly.  The goal for the race was to break 10 hours, but the real goal of the day was to break 4 hours on the run.  I reset the watch completely when I started the run.  I had a vague idea of what the race clock was, but keep in mind the race started late and then had a slightly shortened swim, so deducing the race clock or a “good time” wasn’t so simple. But I knew if I went under 4, the race clock would take care of itself.

At this point there were no signs of anything physically wrong so I had every reason to believe I could do this.  So I took a big swig of harden up and then headed towards victory.  I set out at a 6 min per mile pace feeling tall and strong….at least that’s how I saw it in my head.  The reality was just a liiiittle bit different.

 

“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”
– Mohandas Gandhi

 

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Lap 2 – Nearing  the halfway point. Pain is making itself known now.

You know when someone wearing slippers and a robe let’s a dog out of the house on a cold morning and the dog sniffs around the yard for a while looking and looking and then it finds a suitable spot and gets situated with more sniffing and then squats and leaves a stinky little pile of crap?  Well, in the first mile or so I felt like that stinky little pile.  Something was off on the right side of my body. I’m not entirely sure what, but I ran with a bit of a limp that somehow had both a hitch and a hop in it.  There might have been an audible sound that went with it, but I couldn’t be sure because of all the grunting and whimpering.  My legs were slow to come around.  I told myself it was 4 hours or bust, so I forced myself to run through it and hold around an 8:30 pace (insert the obligatory “don’t laugh” to all my fast running friends that accompanies any descriptions of my runs….I mean [air quotes] “runs”). If I was going to miss 4 hours, I was not going to do it in the first few miles walking and stretching and generally being a big baby about it.  You see those people.  You can see their race essentially ending in the few seconds it takes to pass them.  The shuffle, the grimace, the stretch.  Sometimes it ends with a seat at an aid station.  You might not be witnessing the start of a DNF, but you know you are witnessing the beginning of the end of the aspirations on the day.  That might be the end game that awaited me, but it wasn’t going to be now, so I just kept on pushing.  2 miles became 4 and then 6.  I eased out of the stinky pile thing and briefly felt good.  Then I eased into the IM malaise. 8 miles, 10 miles.  I was banking time each mile.  Not much time, but still banking time.  12 miles, halfway.  I crossed halfway in something like 1:55.  I was feeling extremely vulnerable, but still banking a few seconds per mile and so I had hope and the hope gave me fight.  By this point many other folks were on the multi-looped course and some starting their first loop were passing me while I ran my second which took some nibbles out of the few morsels of confidence I had taken with me out on the run.  I kept chipping away.  Like woodchipper….but without any wood.

 

“We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.”
-Albert Einstein

 

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Late in the run.

Somewhere around miles 16-17 I stopped banking time.  And just held the line.  By mile 20 I started losing time and pretty quickly.  I was breaking down. Everything hurt, but my quads were making a point to remind me of the effort they had put in so far today. I remember checking with myself around this time: “Self, is this the best you can do?”.  I know from previous Ironmans it’s easy to look back after the pain of the effort is gone and think “oh, I could have gone faster.”  It can be a way to convince yourself you have easy gains for next time or worse, be a major source of regret, even if untrue.  I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I asked myself “is this the VERY best you can do right now.”   And it was.  It was disappointing, no doubt about that because my 10 hour race goal was likely gone, but what more can you do besides the best you can do at the very moment?  Dissecting the race or aspects of training are topics for discussion later, but not now.  I carried that question in my mind and repeated it over and over to make sure no part of me tossed in the towel once my primary goal was gone.  I still had one of my best races in the crosshairs as long as I didn’t go all mental fetal position on myself.  There are a million good reasons to quit or slow down and really just one good reason to keep going, but it’s a damn good reason – the finish line.

 

“Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
Anonymous

 

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“Well, that hurt!”

The end wasn’t pretty.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty darn good. A long straight away delivered me to the finishing chute.  It never gets old.  The journey of the day, the season and a two year return to triathlon was coming to a glorious end.  Until you hit that chute, the finish time, the finish place, the finish itself is all an uncertainty. You fight mini battles all day long.  One swim stroke, one pedal strode, one running stride at a time.  You hope each one of those mini victories brings you to this spot and that when you arrive, it’s what you wanted.  I passed through the chute and across the finish  line in 10:15, 84th overall.  I’m happy. I’ve only gone faster once in 18 tries at an Ironman.  I had a great swim and great bike.  I felt like I did best I possibly could have on the run and still managed a pretty good time for me. I was close, but still didn’t quite get the run and race I was truly was after.  The run is hard.  Getting what I want from it is hard, but JFK summed up my thoughts on it better that I me….

 

“We choose to do things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

 

 

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Moments before crumpling into a 6’5″ sweaty pile of tired.

 

 

 

 

Ironman Maryland 2014 Race Report

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald

I need a W today. That is what I texted Brady just before heading down to the swim start and it was frankly an understatement. Not an overall win of course, but a personal victory. Just 7 weeks earlier I posted an abysmal finishing time at Ironman Boulder. I felt like I was pretty fit, but until I could post the numbers at a race to back it up, it was all just talk. The training, the fitness, it means nothing until you back it up at a race. Another bad race would really make me wonder what all the work and sacrifice had been for this year and I did not want to dwell on that all winter long.

The race got off on the wrong foot when at 6:30 AM while reviewing my travel info as I headed out the door to catch my flight, I realized my hotel for Ironman MARYLAND was in Easton (that’s good. Easton is one town over in Maryland) but this was Easton PENNSYLVANIA (That is definitely not good). I had no time to fix it before heading out, so my plane landed and I literally had no place to stay and all of metro-Cambridge was sold out. Melanie made some calls and found a very small room at the America’s Best Value Inn that they “don’t normally rent”. No fridge. No microwave. Hey, no problem! I had a room!

Swim Start

Swim Start

Next on the panic list was when I couldn’t find the clamp that holds my seat post in place. For an hour the day before the race I freaked and had visions of not being able to race or at best racing on a borrowed bike….and Cambridge doesn’t have any tri shops renting high performance bikes. I finally found the clamp in my frame itself where it had fallen during transport. I was filled with joy once again. However, I went right from that to noticing several teeth on my front chain ring had bent over, like a wilted flower, likely from some friendly TSA agents inspecting my rig. The bike wasn’t ridable like this. Tick tock!! The race was in 16 hours and bike check-in closed in 2! A quick trip to Ace hardware and a metal file allowed me to file down the affected teeth so I could ride the bike. Another crisis averted. I was starting to feel like this race just wasn’t meant to be which is never how you want to feel 12 hours before the race!

But fortunately, that was the last thing that would go wrong.

Ladies and gentleman, your 8th place competitor out of the water, Mr. Electricity!

Ladies and gentleman, your 8th place competitor out of the water, Mr. Electricity!

Race morning was super smooth. I exchanged fist bumps with Wylie and made my way to the start. There had been few bumps in the road, but at that moment there were no excuses.  It was just me vs. 140.6 miles.. The horn sounded and the human washing machine commenced. I generally don’t mind the initial sorting out of the swim and I stayed relaxed and let the current of a wave of swimmers pull me along initially. I have done many races in this river and know it’s generally choppy with currents and ultimately a slow swim and there is no sense to fight it.  I stayed conservative on the first loop so I would have some gas on the second. I had “let” a couple swimmers go which was hard, but it ultimately paid off as some of them came back to me on the second loop. Got to give props to white cap guy who pulled me on the second loop and navigated a masterful course through the sea of first lappers. The swim time was slower than normal, but it was a top 10 swim which I am pretty sure is a first for me at an Ironman race. Full disclosure, there was no pro field, but we don’t have to dwell on that.  Let me have my moment!

The bike. Oh, the bike. Sea level and flatness is a glorious thing to a 200lb mile high living guy. It has been a while since I have mounted my steed and felt that good at the first pedal stroke. The miles just flew by initially. It was fun being up at the front of the race for 40 miles or so. I even made it into the ironman.com leaderboard at mile 40 of the bike, another first! But eventually a power train of cyclists came rumbling by. I thought I’d give it a go to pace off them, saw what the power numbers said and went right back to what I had been doing. Those guys were several clicks better than I was. By the midway point fatigue was setting in and I was trying to sort out in my head whether I was fading or I just need a caffeinated gel and a big swig of hardenthefuckup. leaderboardI rode alone for about 20 miles and watts tailed off. A few guys came by and I saw the most blatant unabashed drafting I have ever seen in 14 years of racing triathlon. I watched a guy 12 inches off the wheel in front of him looking back every 15 or 20 seconds to see if a marshal was coming. After about 5 minutes I just had to say something. I usually ignore the drafting I see because I just don’t need the negative energy, but for the integrity of the sport I just had to confront this guy. It went like this:

Me: [pull alongside him] Dude, what are you doing?
Him: I’m just resting my legs.
Me: No you’re not. Your f%!&*ing cheating.
Him: I just needed a break.
Me: Well, get the heck off his wheel and doing it legal like everyone else!

He blew up and went on to post a slower marathon time than his bike time. So yeah, karma is a bitch, bro.

0890_009700But all of that in the end got me motivated again and I was able to lift the watts back up and finish feeling really good, only dropping a few couple minutes between loops 1 and 2. I narrowly missed breaking 5 hours for first time which would have been a nice mental trophy, but as they say…bike for show, run for the dough, so I can’t be trying to shoot for meaningless race stats….even though I sort of did :/

In T-2 I swapped my tri jersey for a running singlet and a “2001 Reston Triathlon” headband. Why? I’m not sure, but I did look pretty sweet with my budding mustache. Think 80s John McEnroe with a dash of Brad Pitt.
I walked through the aid station right of transition to make sure I got everything I needed so I could start the run as prepared as possible. As I eased into my first few steps of the run, I was getting positive feedback that there was life in the legs. I cruised through the first few miles in an 8:20-30 pace which for me is good.0890_025969 I was actually having fun as I approach mile 8 and the end of loop 1 of the 3 loop course. It was hot so I popped 2 salt tabs about every 45 minutes and enjoyed the Perform and coke on the course in between. Everything checked out and I felt great.

At mile 10 things started to hurt. I still thought breaking 4 hours was a given and 3:45 was in reach. I crossed the midway point in about 1:55 and I could feel the struggle starting to set in. Up to this point, I had had one of my best Ironman races, but the real test lay (or is that supposed to be “laid”?? Not sure on that one) ahead. I still ran everything except the aid stations, but the definition of where the aid station actually ended expanded greatly. If I could look back and still see the aid station, I was technically still at the aid station. The duration of the walk increased and the pace of the run slowed. I was still holding it together, but my 8:30 had become 10s.

I chipped away at the miles and saw my 4 hour goal come and go. While that bothered me a bit, I still understood that I was going from a great race to a good one and not going from a good one to a bad one, and there was some comfort in that. There were still good things in play. There is a quarter mile slight downhill grade to the finish. They should make all finishes this way. I was pumped. It wasn’t a perfect race but more than anything I finally got to spit that horrible taste out of my mouth that had been there since IM Boulder.

finishI finished in 10:35 and up until the midway point of the run, I thought I would be close to if not under 10 hours. After a 3 year break from triathlon I was just 13.1 miles from perhaps my best Ironman. That’s a HARD 13.1, but at least I could quantify what was left to overcome. I’m getting closer.

POST RACE QUOTEDoing an Ironman without family tagging along has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that I could take my time recovering at the race because nobody was waiting for me. I laid (or is it “lay”?)  in the grass for a good 45 minutes and downed 4 bottles of chocolate milk.  I made my way to the chow tent and spent another 45 minutes chatting with other finishes.

Along the way I ended up buying an electrical muscle stimulator at the expo because it seemed like I could use one of those at that moment. On my way to collect my gear I chatted with spectators and miraculously fought off an offer for a chair a Corona. I was clearly not myself!! I was certain I would never leave that chair if I sat down! I collected my gear, hit up McDonald’s on the way home for a few cheeseburgers and the Wawa for some Aleve. I went back to my tiny room and put the feet up, plugging in the muscle stimulator, popped on some headphones and drifted off.  Actually, I’m lying.  I drank two beers, cramped up repeatedly and ate cheeseburgers from a lying (laying?) down position like a fat slob. But you can sort of do whatever you want after an Ironman, so don’t hate!