I spent about two years recently in the world of ultra-trail running. Running long is certainly a big part of it, but running up is an inescapable aspect as well. I would traverse across multiple mountain summits on my longs runs, climbing several thousand feet at a time. When I was feeling tired I would try to convince myself that the summit was just around the next turn, but when I got there I would often see that the mountain would rise yet again. More work to do. It was a little discouraging at times to put in the work and see the end goal still out of reach with more work to do.
On one of these runs when I was still short of the top, I came to overlook and I could see all the way back to Boulder and where I had started my run. I was so high the buzz of the city was long gone. I was high enough to see the buildings of Denver and all the way to Kansas. I realized there that I had been spending too much time looking up the mountain…..looking at where I wasn’t. I was only focused on what I hadn’t done and never stopped to think about what had already been done. I looked back down the mountain and had a completely new perspective about where I was. Yes, there was work still to be done, but I had already accomplished so much and come so far. There was a lesson for me there that I would rely on later.
The first of several alarms came to life at 4:05. Why 4:05? Because getting up at 4 would be stupid! It was race morning! Time to tackle my 15th Ironman and my first in just over 3 years. The standard oatmeal + hemp seeds + chia seeds breakfast was in order and I was out the door by 5 to catch a shuttle from Boulder High School with a peanut butter and honey sandwich dripping all over me. I have my gripes about Ironman, but they know how to execute a race. There were 3,000 people signed up for this race, yet bag drop off was orderly and intuitive. The “line” to catch the shuttle to the Rez was more a shuffling line in constant motion. There were at least 20 busses queued up and the only thing that slowed the process down was the time it took for people to physically get on the bus. I was very impressed. We took the quick ride to the Rez and after a few admin tasks in the transition area, I was ready to rock!
I had moderate expectations for the race. I was trained as well I could be. I described my thoughts of the race by saying I felt I could do “good” but probably not “great”. I needed to get a little more work done before I really felt truly strong. Having said that, I was fit and expected to post one of my faster IM times. I was prepared.
Folks seeded themselves for the swim start in an incredibly organized way. It was by far the most relaxed atmosphere at an Ironman swim start I have ever experienced. There was some idiot behind me hollering up a storm and I realized that idiot was my friend, Billy! I would have expected nothing less from him after listening to him whoop and yell on many long rides. The gun went off and I celebrated my return to Ironman by getting punch in the head and back by neighboring swimmers. Awww, thanks guys!
The Rez is a great place to swim and the course was laid out perfectly. The sun was low in the sky, but was never in our faces. The water was calm and no more than a degree or two warmer than optimal. I got jammed up behind a couple slower swimmers and watched a group I thought I should be swimming with pull away which was a tad disappointing. After about 10 minutes though I found a new group of friends to swim with. I just parked myself on some feet and put it on auto-pilot. Every so often a faster swimmer would come by and I’d hitch my wagon up to the faster horse and be on my way. It was almost perfect the way it worked out. I avoid breaking my own water in a race at all cost and it was largely avoided this race. The last guy I hopped on turned out to be a guy I swim with at my masters group some times. Thanks, Andy for bringing me home that last 500 meters!
I also need to share that at one point I swam by someone pulling a kid in a raft. Think about that. If I thought I had something to complain about, I erased it from my mind with the quickness after seeing that.
I was out in 55+ minutes and feeling good. I changed into bike shorts, headed out of the changing tent, then realized my bike shorts were on backwards. Back to the tent where I managed to spin the shorts around a full 360 degrees and I once again exited the tent with my shorts on backwards. JEEZ, Mike!! Get it together! Back in the tent and finally wearing my shorts properly, I was off on the bike and remembered that in an IM the hard things are often easy and the easy things hard.
I have ridden the bike course in its entirety 3 times and parts of the course I have ridden thousands of time. I knew what to expect and had a solid expectation of the watts I should (and should NOT) ride. I felt good (not quite great, but good) at the start of the ride and really that’s all you can ask for. I was fit and ready for a fight.
What I did not expect was the support way out on the course. In training, when I got way out there, I saw only lonely dusty corners. Honestly, I was convinced us cyclists were an outright nuance to ALL the folks that lived out there and I didn’t expect to see them on race day. More times than I can count in training I was buzzed by cars, yelled at or cut off. But on race day there they were, the good folks east of here, sitting at those dusty corners, shaking the heck out of their cowbells and offering incredible words of support. I still remember one guy looking me directly in the eye, clapping, tilting his head saying “you are doing great man…..really great.” And I honestly think he really thought I was doing great. How long he stood there and how many people he spoke to I’ll never know, but I can say he was making a difference.
Salt tabs. I forgot my salt on the bike. I hadn’t need them in training and didn’t think they would be critical on the bike, but I began to be regret being so careless as the temperatures picked up. I had them in my run bag, so I was covered there, but not here. It wasn’t so significant that it could single-handedly derail my race, but it was certainly a mistake, and some light cramping in the later stages of the bike was a reminder of that.
The last 40 miles of the bike were hot and I felt it, but pushed on without too much problem. I figured I should be able to ride comfortably around 5:15-5:20 (sorry for MVA for even thinking about the TIME but I can’t help it and most people can’t put watts in any sort of perspective so it’s no good in a RR!) for the bike and I came in 5:25. It was a little disappointing but not overly so, and if I could just run in line with my expectations, my overall goals would be met.
I had my first “what the heck am I doing out here?!?!” moment when I put my running shoes on in T-2. The reality of what lay ahead was sinking in. 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 biking, 6.5 hours and now I have a marathon left?! I think my brain chose to block this part out from prior experiences. The tent was so hot and uncomfortable, but I knew it was WAY more comfortable that what waited outside the tent. I was up for the challenge though and headed out.
The first few steps felt like I was running with someone else’s legs (and not someone who is a fast runner unfortunately!), but I had to fake it because there were lots of people watching! Melanie jumped out the crowd and seeing her for the first time in the race gave me strength.
Things started to come around and I began to feel optimistic. I reached the Millennium Hotel where the spectators had flocked together in a mash of cowbells, clapping and screaming under a canopy of white balloons someone had strung up for the race. This place was alive and the energy flowed into every competitor, including myself…..maybe too much. Without thinking, I picked up the pace then seized up in a wicked hamstring cramp. Hundreds of people were watching me stand there like a statue broken at the waist. Lots of advice was being yelled my way from every part of the crowd: “Walk it out!!” “Salt tabs!” “Stretch!” “Beer!” I managed to fish out some salt tabs from my jersey and jam a few in my mouth. I struggled with them for a moment and I think everyone realized the same thing I did – I had no chance of swallowing these without water. Then the voices came “Water!!” “Get him water!” “Who has water!??!” This group was going to get me going again no matter what it would take! Two ladies whipped out a water bottle in a half panic and were nearly ripping the lid off and shoving it in my chest yelling “Take it! Take it!! Just take the whole thing! Go!! Go!!”. The group wasn’t just idly cheering folks on, they were actively engage and it was awesome.
I got moving again and managed to keep up a good fight but the heat of the day was really taking its toll. As I made my way through the first loop I began to see my expectations for the run fall away. It was slow at first, but eventually began a full on free fall. The desire to finish remained strong, but the strength to get there was fading. I was so very appreciative of the supportive words of friends and perhaps more overwhelmed by the support of strangers. The second loop involved a lot of walking. It was all I could do really. I had some doubts along the way about finishing at all. I would never wish ill on any other racers, but I must confess that I took comfort in seeing athletes that look considerably more fit than me, behind me and moving slower than I. I would see them struggle and a voice in my head would say “yes Mike, you are not the only one.”
At the midway point which just so happened to be a few dozen meters from my house, I found my family! This the first time my kids have seen me do an Ironman (at least old enough to know what was going on). There is a magic that happens when you come across you family in a moment like that. For that brief moment in time, the pain of the race was gone.
I ran when I could, which was progressively less as the race went on. I can’t say I was upset really. The run time was so incredibly off my expectation there was no need to parse out what small detail was the root cause. It just “was”. That’s not to say I was happy with it. Not at all. I just reached a point where I didn’t have any options and I accepted it. There were no more levers to pull.
Regardless of how an Ironman race goes, there is a place where a switch flips. A place where you leave the race behind and move to a better place. It’s the place where the course splits and you follow the arrow that says “To Finish –>”. I had two tenths of a mile left and it wasn’t until that split that I finally let myself believe in the finish. Regardless of how parts of the race went, I got to the arrow that would send me home. I left my troubles behind me and took the turn.
I found my kids just outside the finishing chute. I gave Maxon a big high 5. He looked at his old man all sweaty and salty, wearing the face of a man has been beaten down but who has met the challenge head on and he said “Daddy, why did you take so long?”. It was a touching moment.
I gave 5s to strangers down the chute and finished with a smile. I had conquered my 15th Ironman. I finished it in just over 12 hours which I believe is my slowest EVER. I’m a little amazed at how I can do something slower than I ever have before and still feel pretty positive about the experience. Ironman is a weird thing.
When I signed up for Ironman Boulder nearly 1 year ago, I had not ridden my bike in any real way in almost 2 years. I was coming off a stress fracture in my hip and had not run in 6 months. It wasn’t until March that I got in my first 3 hour bike ride. I got hit by a car for the first time in my life and ended up racing my 9 year old “back up” bike. I was starting at ground zero. There was much anxiety and uncertainly about if I could really get “it” back. I was certainly disappointed to run over 5 hours in the marathon and I’m embarrassed about it to be honest. That will be my fuel to get better. These aren’t meant to be excuses. I own the race, I own that crappy run time. I’ve tried to write this without casting blame beyond the handsome man who pecked out these words. I started in a place very different from where I am now and I’m on a path to somewhere better. And I realized during that race, I simply need more time, more work. I am not strong enough yet. But for this one race, this first time back to Ironman when I had left the sport completely, to have experienced the journey once again warts and all, I need to look back down the mountain and understand that yes, there is work still be done, but I have already accomplished so much and come so far.
Thank you to my friends, supporters, training partners and most importantly Melanie who allows me to attempt things like this by shouldering so much work at home! I don’t think a gift card to Target will cut it this time. I’ll come up with something to pay you back!