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!

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Ironman Boulder Race Report: Looking Back Down the Mountain

 

Looking down the mountain

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!

At this moment, I was first place in the male 35-39 Age Group.

At this moment, I was first place in the male 35-39 Age Group.

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.

Mile 105. Climbing the "Three Bitches"

Mile 105. Climbing the “Three Bitches”

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 seemed doable early on.

Things seemed doable early on.

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.”

Maxon  With His Sign

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 5sThe last few steps 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!

Joy With A Dash of Relief

Joy With A Dash of Relief

 

 

support crew

Support Crew!

run1

This isn’t so bad.

Family Strategy Session

run pain2

This is getting bad.

 

 

 

run pain1

Ouch. It’s starting to hurt.

MikenMaxon3

He is realizing the number on the sign matches the number I am wearing!

MelnMaxon1

My Crew!




run6

Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

 

Bracelet

I came into possession of a fun little bracelet a few months ago that has all sorts of positive things written on it.  I never meant to wear or even keep it, but I put it on playing with the kids and I’ve just kept it that way.  As I sat with 2000 other competitors on the boat that was ferrying us out to Alcatraz for the race start, I was reading over the bracelet.  “Positive Purpose”.  “Spread good vibes”.  “Do what you like.  Like what you do.”  “Enjoy the ride”. “Glass half full”.  “Life is good”.  I was back at a triathlon for the first time in 3 years.  I missed this feeling.  I missed the energy.  The anticipation.  The fear of the unknown (we are jumping of a boat into really cold water!). The awaiting sense of accomplishment.  We were all cooped up in this boat together for an hour.  The collective energy was crammed together and amplified in a way you don’t experience in most races.  I have been in this pre-race moment probably a 100 times before, but it had been so long and this one was different, but here I was back at it.  I just spun my little bracelet around rereading the various phrases over and over again and thought “yes, life is good.”

And that’s it!  There’s no need here to go into reviewing in detail the nuance of missed handoffs at aid stations or how I felt at mile 4.768 of the run.  The finish time wasn’t even really the point of this race.  I just wanted to feel again what it was like to get back into the racing game and I accomplished that mission before the gun even went off.  I will, however, share in bullet form some random thoughts:

  • A real race highlight was spending the boat ride chatting up 2 fellow competitors Brian Cowie and Meyrick Jone.  Turns out Brian is blind and Meyrick is a below the knee amputee.  They are racing together, the amputee leading the blind.  They ride a tandem bike and swim connected by a rope. Try to feel sorry for yourself because your goggles fogged up or you got a blister after hearing that. #perspective  http://www.sfgate.com/sports/ostler/article/Disabled-triathletes-show-pros-a-thing-or-2-about-5521282.php
  • This race lives up the hype.  Incredible ever changing scenery. Jumping off a boat and swimming in cold water from Alcatraz. Climbing up onto bluffs that overlook waves crashing ashore below, running along marinas and beaches…..running ON beaches and up sand ladders.  Running on trails winding their way through costal foliage and bombing down steep hills as cyclist climb up it.  There’s the Golden Gate thingy you run under too.
  • The course is in fact hard and fairly technical.  Being familiar with the course helps a ton (unfortunately I wasn’t!).
  • San Francisco is foggy as hell!
  • Running a half mile to T1 without shoes is painful, but NOT painful enough to justify changing into shoes for the run.
  • But it does make your feet hurt the next day (ouch!!).
  • People that go absolute max effort up every climb and then soft pedal and pant trying to recover make me smile. #cute
  • If you find yourself doing the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and you look up at some point during the swim and find yourself swimming TOWARDS Alcatraz, you are doing it wrong!  I had a few directional issues on the swim.
  • Other than having a horrible navigational swim, the swim was good.  I give myself 4 out 5 sourdoughs rolls for the effort.
  • This bike course is definitely not built for a guy like me (steep climbs with rutting curvy descents), but I was happy with my time and really thrilled with how I felt.    5 out of 5 sourdough rolls and an Anchor Steam chaser!
  • The run.  Oh the run.  I rarely have good things to say about my run, but I felt better as the run went on and finished stronger.  Given where I am at in my training progression and how long it’s been since I have run a race hard, I was ecstatic with how that went down.  And it was my most favorite triathlon run course ever!  I feel good about where my run is going!  I give it 5 out of 5 sourdough rolls and a full 6 pack of Anchor Steam…what the heck, throw in a few sea lions, a trolley car and a foggy day.

 

12.5 Mile Swim Around Key West

On June 22nd, I did a 12.5 mile swim race around the island of Key West in 5 hours and 5 minutes.  It was long and hard (which is pretty normal for a man like me), but in the end it wasn’t too bad.  The water temps were 90 degrees which made me pretty nervous, but it never seemed to bother me.  There wasn’t much interesting to look at in the water and with a personal kayak escort, what I saw on the day mainly went like this: water, kayak, water, kayak, water, kayak, water, kayak, water, kayak [repeat for 5 hours and 5 minutes]…..[bonk] Red buoy!!

My swim training built up to a handful of 12-15K swims with lots of frequency and total yards on my biggest weeks between 40-50K.  I found that once I got to around 40K for a week, I turned into complete idiot in the pool.  How marathon swimmers can get to 80-100K per week is beyond me.  I’m happy to be taking a break from a swim session that involves 600 flip turns!

post swim around key west

Post race back where I started on Smather’s Beach

award

Got a nice conch shell and mug for my age group award

Bridge to Bridge 10K Swim: The evolution of an endurance athlete

Evolution

In 2011 I finished my 14th Ironman at Ironman Louisville and haven’t done a triathlon since.  With the coming birth of kiddo number 2, I needed to simplify my life for a while.  I did less training and more exercising in the early months after Cooper was born, but eventually found myself doing more and more trail running.  What had been an interest grew to a borderline obsession and eventually I was training to race again.  I completed a challenging 50K run and finished off the 2012 season with the 50 mile Bear Chase run in Lakewood.  Even in the offseason I was still doing a 20-30 mile run every weekend and looking forward to an even bigger year in 2013. I was evolving from an Ironman distance triathlete to an ultra runner. Well, all that running caught up to me and in early January I developed a stress fracture in my upper femoral neck (the part of the bone that sits in the hip socket). It was painful.  I absolutely couldn’t run.  I walked funny.  I couldn’t swing the kids around. I was stuck.  What to do?

I could swim with no pain and so I did that.  In early January I had been swimming once per week bagging an uninspired 2000 yards or so per swim.  It took a few months just to be able to swim hard on consecutive days, but the yards started adding up and I began to feel I should get something for all the effort besides dry skin.  I delved into a new world…the world of open water swimming.  I had only ever been a swimmer as part of being a triathlete.  To be honest, I had always been a pretty capable and confident triathlete swimmer, but I had never considered myself to be a true “swimmer”.  If you are a triathlete, you always have a built in excuse if you don’t swim well….you’re training for 2 other sports!  As soon as I start signing up for swim races, I need to step up my game. Searching open water race calendars and forums was a little weird at first.  I settled on the Bridge to Bridge race as my first race because the distance would be new to me and I knew the San Francisco area. The swim was 10 kilometers long and started at the Golden Gate Bridge and finished at the Bay Bridge.  It would be cold and there would be currents.  My training added up and my weekly long swims got to, and then beyond, 10K.  This was all a little different.

Map. First we had to swim towards Alcatraz. Then we hug the coast.

Map. First we had to swim towards Alcatraz. Then we hug the coast.

I was nervous about the water temperature, the currents, the distance and even a little about sharks and seals.  I dropped by a Swimming and Boating club near Aquatic Park for a practice swim the day before.  The gentleman who checked me in asked what the race’s “warming strategy” was for after the swim.  I just shook my head and fumbled through a confused response telling him we were just told to bring warm clothes.  He gave me a disappointing look that instantly made me feel unprepared.  Warming strategy?  What is that??  Oh my goodness.  I am in trouble!  I got in the water and was briefly overcome with panic when my face first hit the cold water.  Much of the panic was driven by nervousness, but I really was concerned I might not make it long in the water on race day.

Exiting the boat and swimming to the start line.

Exiting the boat and swimming to the start line.

The morning of the race I hopped on a boat that drove us out the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. I pulled on my wetsuit, neoprene cap and my goggles.  At the very last minute I jammed in some earplugs that they passed out which were supposed to keep the cold water out of your ears and prevent any headaches.  I didn’t really like trying something new on race day but I figured it would be easy to pull them out if they bothered me. I was one of the last few people to jump in the water.  The initial blast of cold water was certainly an attention getter, but the wetsuit took the edge of a real painful entry. I slowly made my way to the start line….a little too slowly I guess because the starting gun went off before I could get there!  From about 20 yards behind, I starting playing catch up. There were definitely some swimmers easing into the race.  I saw lots of backstroke and breaststroke as folks adjusted to the water temperature.  My plan was to start out pretty hard mainly so I could quickly warm up and to keep my mind distracted from feeling cold.  Pretty quickly I was towards the front, but it was very foggy so I couldn’t tell for sure who was ahead of me or where I was going quite frankly.

The race started during a slack tide so there wasn’t much current, but eventually it would start to push us forward. We had been advised to spend 20 minute swimming left (seemingly off course) towards Alcatraz Island to avoid getting caught in an ebb tide near the shore off to our right.  Swimmers stuck there would need to be “repositioned”. I followed a goateed fellow swimmer out towards Alcatraz until a kayaker advised us it was time to start headed back towards the shore.  I had seen one swimmer just ahead of us off to our right, but I lost them.  I figured we were either 1st and 2nd or 2nd and 3rd.  I don’t know what typical conditions in the Bay are, but on this swim it didn’t seem any worse than I had been prepared for.  There weren’t really any winds and other than the low thick fog the conditions seemed pretty good.  There was a chill in the water but it didn’t bother me in the least while swimming.  At one point I was even wishing I didn’t have the neoprene cap on because I felt warm.

Someone (not me) swimming by Alcatraz.

Someone (not me) swimming by Alcatraz.

The pace of the guy I was following seemed slow so I tried a few times to pass and realized it wasn’t as slow as I thought! I settled back in behind him.  For reason known only to God, I kept slipping back and not taking full advantage of the drafting opportunity, so I was probably working almost as hard as he was.  It all started to catch up to me about 45 minutes into the race when it became increasingly difficult to stay with him.    I started to feel better around the 75 minute mark and was thinking of trying to pass him when we hit some serious chop.  Swells lifted us up and dropped us just as quickly.  My long even strokes became disorganized and I got separated from my companion swimmer.  After 5 minutes or so the water calmed down and my swimming mate was about 20 yards to my left.  As we rounded a corner and came back on the same line he was now about 100 yards ahead of me.  He may have swam faster or got a better boost from the current.  It didn’t really matter why, the end result was that he was ahead of me.

After we made that turn the Bay Bridge came into view and it was quite a sight.  Being at water level the bridge seemed oversized and spanned the entire horizon.   The fog had finally lifted and the sun peaked her head out to light up the city and the bridge.  I actually took a brief moment to take it in.  Over the last 30 minutes I tried to catch up to the guy ahead of me and I’d make a little progress here and there, but never got close enough to feel I had a chance.  The current started to pick up a bit as I neared the finish at the bridge and between that and kicking hard for home, I was moving!!  I swam 20-30 feet away from a huge docked cruise ship which was awesome and terrifying at the same time.  I had thoughts of the huge propellers firing up and blowing me away! The final push to the finish buoy seemed to take forever.  The bridge is huge so even from far away it feels like you are pretty close.   I probably had 4-5 all out efforts to get home only to realize I started too soon and was crushed.  I’d recover and make the same mistake all over again.   I finally reach the buoy for a 1:48 swim time and swam over to the finish boat to a hearty round of applause from the spectators.

Finished!

Finished!

I was 3rd overall and completely ecstatic about it.  It’s easy to look back and say “of course I could finish”, “of course the cold water wouldn’t bother me”, “of course the currents wouldn’t shoot me off course”, “of course I’d finish well”, but going into it I really feared the opposite of all of those things, so there was a genuine satisfaction there.  Outside of some serious chaffing from my wetsuit around my neck I came out feeling great and ready for the next challenge.  I have just begun to run very very short distances again, but I’m still a ways from off from feeling like a “runner” again, so for the near future I will continue to masquerade as an open water swimmer.  Next stop is a 12 mile swim around Key West in June which will be a 35 degree difference in water temperature   Out of the icebox and into the firebox!  Onward, the next challenge awaits.

Mike