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.

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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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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.