It was a tough trip. Work was never really very far away from me from the time we left on Wednesday to the moment I got on the airplane to come home the following Monday night. I'd done the race last year and work had been a minor inconvenience, but this year it was a constant thorn in my side. We had major issues with one of our contractors whose inability to provide good service or delivery had caused disruptions in every area of our ID card operation. We also have been struggling with the data that is in our student information system. The result was a constant stream of emails. I'm a professional. I can't turn the phone off and pretend that issues don't exist, and leave things unresolved. Still, some of the requests that I were getting were, as they are at the start of the semester, mildly irrational.
I'm not going to blame work for my race though. I'm a firm believer that once you get on the line, that is your only job, to race and race well, and everything else except your family can be damned until you cross the line.
But to race well, you need to sleep. Last year, I did the pre-race swim on Saturday and it made me sick- high fever, congestion, delirium. This year I kept to the hotel pool, doing a few hundred meters each day. Despite the work emails and calls and whatnot, we'd had a bunch of good meals, good weather, great beer. It was a good trip, even if there was some stress. I like Louisville. I like the Galt House.
But in 2-3 years when I go and do the race again- and I want to do this race more right now than Florida or Arizona, we are staying on the other end of the Galt House, the city end, not the highway end.
I went to bed at 2030 and the family was watching some football movie with a little girl and the Rock. The little girl was not on steroids. I put headphones on and thought I was falling asleep, but I wasn't. Finally around 2130 the lights went out and I tried to sleep in earnest. Saturday nights is apparently motorcycle drags trip night on 75 or 64- the highway outside the hotel. The traffic noise was terrible. My mind was racing with a particularly troublesome work issue- one of my coworkers had deleted some files from a course by mistake.
I was sweating, I was thinking. I'd had one beer with dinner and hardly touched my food and just drank water after getting back around 1900. I was out of my routine.
My bad. I slept 2-3 hours before the biggest race I'd had since the Disney half-marathon back in January 2012. I would pay later.
I got up at 0400. You have to get up early at this race because it uses a time trial swim start off dual docks. The order you start in is the order you line up in. So you walk to the start, which is about 1.4 miles from transition, which is a mile or less from the Galt House. It cuts the edge of the nervousness but then it magnifies it as you trudge in the dark. I thought morning clothes bag was my last chance to catch some Evanescence but this year they let you drop your morning clothes bag just before getting in the water. That would have been awesome.
I spent some time talking to the two people in front of me in the line. I'm a tabula rasa kind of guy. I have no inherent desire to talk to other people in that hour before a race. But I'm happy to talk to people if they want, and having done the race last year, I had a few tips to offer. I did talk to the two people in front of me, and they had good positive energy, probably more than I did- I tend to be more of the 'let's get this thing started'. Excitement is rarely one of my emotions.
The amazing thing is that I ended up in exactly the same place I'd been in last year, and I got in the water at just about the same time, 0720.
I stuck close to the island on the way out. It was a little more crowded this year than last year, but not much and overall this is a good Ironman swim course. Definitely more people had the same idea as me- hug the island until you get out into the channel. Still it was a pretty simple swim until we hit the first bout past the island. The great thing about the ironman is the buoys are gigantic. This is also the sucky thing about the ironman. Getting too close to the buoys invariably is a bit like getting into the meat grinder. You have to avoid getting 'under' the buoys because you can't swim through them and the cluster of people makes it interesting.
I wasn't actually sighting. My theory on races that go counter-clockwise is that I don't need to sight very much. First, I absolutely can swim a straight line. I might suck, but I can put my head down and swim buoy to buoy on a good day. My plan is like this- I only breath on the left, so I watch the people on my left. If there are a few of them and when I peak right most of the field is on my right, I'm right on line.
I'm also where I want to be, which is in a dead zone between the people who are on a tight line and the bulk of the field, which- at my skill level anyway, seem to be wide for most of the race. I don't understand why so many people swim wide. I don't care either. Maybe I should be trying to be on someone's feet but that's just not a comfortable place to me.
It was a pretty calm swim. There was a lot of rough play at the terminal buoy out, after which you hook a 180 and swim back to transition. Somewhere around the halfway point I did have to shove one guy who seemed to be convinced the shortest distance back to his bike could be carved out of my head and shoulders.
I fixed on one woman who was a meter to my left and tried to stay with her. She would lose ground when she sighted, then pick it back up. After we started back in, I had a little problem staying left- I was able to do it, but I had to make some adjustments. At about 1.6 miles I was done with the swim, ready to get out, but I was still calm. My longest open water swim of the year had been a mile, but I believed- and do believe now after doing it twice- that I am capable on any day, with any amount of swim training, to swim 2.4 miles. Those hundreds of times I've gotten panicky in the water? Silly. Just silly.
The water got a little less settled near the bridges. I did get a foot in the googles at one point but they didn't dislodge. I finally saw the swim exit, but it was still far away, like what I imagine the moon must have looked to Neil Armstrong on approach. Swimming is a cruel endeavor. When I sight something running or biking I am soon there, soon past it. There is no rearview mirror in swimming though. For me my goal hangs in front of me, tantalizing yet unreachable. Will I make it or will the water claim me?
No, no it won't. I know that now, as sure as my bike will carry me across 112 miles, or my feet will find a way to traverse that last 26.2.
Regardless of what else Ironman Louisville will ultimately be to me, it has given me the one gift I needed most as a triathlete. I have conquered the water.
I climbed out, sure my swim had been in the 1:20s. The time on the clock said 1:55. I started my watch (it had not started as intended when I went in the water) and did the match, which indicated a 1:35 swim. No way. I knew that was wrong. I had gotten in later or something else happened. I didn't care.
I went and grabbed my own gear back. When your number is 2500 your bag is easy to find. I did the swim with a bib over my speed suit (no neoprene, not a cheater's suit). I stood at the edge of transition, avoiding the tent. I peed while I out my cycling jersey on, just standing there in my bib. When I was done, I put my socks and shoes and helmet and gloves on and ran through the tent, yelling 'make a hole, make a hole, make a hole'. I got my bike and ran out of transition and then I ran up the little hill while people tried to mount their bikes while going up hill. I find a little alcove in the barriers past all the carnage and mounted the bike and I was off.
I headed out on the bike and as expected, the first 10-12 miles, that stretch out from the venue on River Road to 42, was kind of treacherous. Significant portions of the road, which is pretty narrow in places, is dug up with construction projects, general use wear and tear and so on. It was a lot rougher this year than last year. Then you add in the fact that it’s one of the most densely packed areas on the course and it’s just a tough start. Like all IM courses, it’s about patience and already in that first few miles you see the guys that want to race the entire course, battling everyone that tries to pass them, and generally making your pace their pace.
I’ve also found, and I hate to say this because it’s pretty negative but, over the course of the 12 Ironman races I’ve done the bike etiquette has declined dramatically. There’s always been drafting, and that’s more about cheating than etiquette but I feel like the majority of people in the Ironman used to know how to handle a bike, knew the rules, and worked hard to at least leave room for other athletes on the course.
That’s less and less the case. One of the most basic rules that’s been left behind is staying to the right. And probably nothing is more irritating. I hate being drafted, but I can turn around, look at you, and then drop you (probably). I cannot get people out of my way. After telling people to move right 2-3 times I simply snuck over the yellow line to make the pass, which is itself a violation of the rules but where there isn’t 2-way bike traffic, I think it’s venal nor a mortal sin.
Finally just before 42 I came up on three athletes. One was on the yellow line, one was in the middle of the lane and one was drafting the one in the middle of the lane. People were steadily passing in between the two, which is crazy dangerous, but I took my turn doing the same after ‘on your left’ got me nowhere and I didn’t want to be overtaken by more passers- not to mention you only get 15 seconds to make the pass.
As I went by I turned to the woman on the yellow line and said ‘Move to your right.’ She responded with a strong, twangy ‘I’ll move to the right when you-‘
I cut her off. ‘Move to the right and stop your bitching.’ It’s probably one of the harshest things I’ve ever said in a race, but she was just kind of hanging out there on the yellow line and now she was going to explain to me how it was my fault? I have to be honest and say I’m pretty much a stickler about the rules out there in an Ironman race because it’s about safety and fairness. I feel like a few athletes feel entitled to the entire road and to help from other cyclists getting through 112 miles.
My bike computer wasn’t working. This is my backup bike, and I’d grabbed a computer from the pile and some magnets but I wasn’t able to get it working and to be honest I didn’t expect it to. However 14 miles or so in, I got the cadence up on the fly and that was awesome. I’ve done a couple of ironman races without a bike computer, once when it failed in heavy rain at IMLP and at least once at IMFL. My goal was to ride as close to 20 mph as possible and I had time on my watch. I knew my transition has been 7:30 and it was easy to keep track. At 20 miles I was averaging 21 mph or so, which was OK because the first 20 mph are fast.
Pretty soon I was on the out and back. I’d ridden the out and back Thursday with a friend, Scott Casper and was reminded of how much work it was, how you had to be patient on that part of the course. I drained my first bottle of infinit at about 1 hour. The plan was to drink a bottle an hour for 3 hours, switch to water for an hour and then get another (4th) out of special needs. This was a change because I hadn’t used any special needs in the last 4 races. I should have put two bottles in special needs. But the point was I knew I’d be out of bottles an hour or so before I got my special needs.
Back to the out and back. Two of the steepest hills on the course are on the out and back, with a giant roller in each direction. It's really important here just to stay relaxed. They had signs and paint on the road that said 'Caution, slow' but the truth is there is nothing technical about these rollers and you really should get as much speed as you can because that's free time, unless the conditions become unsafe. The middle of the road does sometimes get clogged with people going up and people going down but to me it's not that hard to work it out.
I got a great head of steam going down the hill and passed a lot of people. I passed a lot more climbing up towards the turn around. On the way back, I started down the hill, again getting up a huge head of steam, and then in the middle of the downhill there was an ambulance and an athlete on a back board. That's always a scary moment. I hit the bottom and started back up and about halfway I ran into a woman that was close to the yellow line. Bikes were streaming down the other side and I had the oddest thought as I called for a pass on the left, which was that it sounded like a battle scene from Battlestar Galactica, that high-pitched wheel whine, the buzz of the rubber on the road, and the incredible speed of it all, dozens of bikes caught in this potentially deadly dance.
She acknowledged that she was going to move, but then immediately lost control of her slow-moving bike and swerved left to the yellow line. Bikes were coming at us at I know I just had to avoid hitting her and going down. I stood up and slowed down, waited for her to right herself and went on.
The course has a lot of rollers, and I was amazed at how many people I saw throw chains, off their bikes going up hills. They would roll into the downhill in a big gear and not shift quickly enough.
The next big landmark on the ride after the out and back is the double loop. It was there I really started to see people blowing up derailleurs and standing on the roadside trying to fix tangled chains. The double loop is hard in that it starts out with a set of stair-steps, definite climbing and I think the aid station I look forward to the most is the one there. You're hot, sweaty tired, and there's water to pour on yourself.
The two loops are the best part of the course. You still have your energy, you feel pretty good, the roads are prettier, and hey, two loops, so you kind of know what you're doing by the second time round.
The two times I went through La Grange I threw up my hands, yelled to the crowd, really tried to get them pumped up to get us pumped up. They responded. La Grange is nice because you get some energy and a bit of downhill after battling with the rollers and it's kind of the spirit of the Ironman- music, people dancing and making noise, racing through an area with barriers so it looks like those bike races you see on TV. Good stuff.
The only problem I had during the bike ride occurred on the second loop. It was on 153, at a water stop near that steep little hill- which I saw someone get off their bike and walk up. I went through the aid station and grabbed a pair of waters- one to dump on my head and one to dump on my crotch. (I wanted to pee, but I never really needed to). I'd gathered my supplies and was about to speed up again when the guy on my left decided to take a nature break and started to veer to the right. I'm not sure what he was thinking or if he was thinking.
He rode me off the road and my options were hit him or go into a ditch and I used pilot logic- it's not a crash until you hit the ground. So I went into the ditch. And somehow or other I came out of the ditch. A volunteer helped my by moving people out of the way and I was was back in the traffic flow without even getting off my bike. I didn't yell at the guy- he just spaced, I'm sure. But it was a little nerve-jangling.
And then I was back on 42- rollers. Yes, rollers. They just keep coming. You keep thinking it's the last one, or at least the last one for a while and it just never is. To me, this is also the worst area for drafting, and there were two people on my short list. I mean, I was kind of back and forth with a few groups that would pass me, then slow down, then I would pass them, etc. But two people stood out.
The first was a guy with 51 on one calf and a big smiley face on the other. And this is how my mind works- all I could think was 'When you asked for that smiley face where you planning to come out and draft people the entire bike ride and if so, how could you have that smiley face put there?' Yes, my mind actually works like that. There was also a woman in black with a pink helmet. In both cases they were not just drafting me, they we drafting everyone.
I treated both of them to 'the look' followed by a sprint away from them. Just to say 'Please stop.' As always, it had no effect but to stroke my sometimes infantile ego. Yes, I proved to them that I could a) get mad and b) waste energy.
Again, you spend miles and miles thinking you are finally going to get to the end of the rollers and hit that long downhill before River Road. And you don't. You finally get past the loop and even then it's more rollers. I did finally hit that downhill and I decided that I would take it easy on River road for the last 112 miles or so.
And I did. With a few miles left the the guy with the 51 on his calf went by me one more time. Then the woman with the pink helmet. And a bunch of other people. I didn't care, I had my plan. Ride the course at around 20 mph.
I averaged 20.2. With no computer. That to me is pretty good.
I came into transition and I didn't make the mistake I made last year. I took my time. I took the bib off and put on tri shorts with no pad in them and a singlet. I changed one sock because I was getting a blister. I went to the bathroom. I mixed a bottle of fluid.
And when I started running I felt really good. And if it hadn't been for one mistake, I might have had a great ironman.
My bottle was full of Infinite, which is calories + electrolytes. I ran 5 miles in the 7:30 range, although the first two were 7:15. That's greedy and I know it, I should have started out at 8:00. Because I was being greedy and trying to run faster than I should have, I thought I better take some endurolytes around mile 5. I got a few of them and maybe a race cap, washed them down with the Infinite and about 30 seconds later I threw up.
In my nose.
This is not a place you want to throw up into.
I ran for as long as I could after that, but it was kind of like I'd been punched in that place where all you energy flows from. I didn't want to stop running. But what my body wanted to do was stop entirely. Not walk, just sit on the damn side of the road.
I walked. Then I ran for a while. Then I walked again. I tried drinking more infinite but it was making me sick now because it was reacting with the electrolytes. I tossed the bottle. I was taking water at the aid stations drinking a little, pouring the rest on my body. Somehow I made it to the turn around and started back towards town. At ten miles I was walking again and I saw John Hirsch sitting there cheering people on. I traded a few words and not long after got some running going for a while.
The worst part of the race was the turn around back out to the second loop. I couldn't run through here. I expected to see my family and I was worried my wife would tell me to just stop before I really hurt myself. There's a point where you can see people headed to the finish. I went past that and kept wondering where the family was but I didn't see them.
Then I started running again and by running I mean an 8 minute shuffle and man, it shows something. I am the planet's slowest walker. But even a half-assed run is 8 minute style. Then it clicked. I started talking coca-cola. And with that I could just keep running and now I know, when I do Placid next year my plan will be to just use coca-cola on the run. Keep it simple.
I missed it at one station and within a minute I crashed and I was walking again. So at the next rest, er, aid station, I took twice as much. This made me gag and I nearly threw up three times. And then I started running again anyway because I keep the soda down.
I looked at my watch and it was 1821. I knew that I had to finish- to be safe, by 1915 to break 12 hours. I had 6.2 miles to go and I ran all of them. I did around 8s for most of them and I think I crossed the finish line at around 1914. I had my cushion and I finished in 11:54. I even beat several other people I'd been back and forth with the entire run.
I was disappointed. I was also done, and somehow, I'd looked inside and found something inside myself, dug deeper than I'd dug, and adjusted within the race to find a new goal, and achieve it.
It wasn't a good race for me, but in the end, I crossed the line, I doubled over and almost threw up some more. That tells me I gave everything I had. That's all I can ask.
Thanks to everyone that sent me emails or tweets or checked in on Facebook- it means a lot to know you're out there. Most of all, thanks to my family for putting up with me and not be as honest as they could have been on a day that was way off perfect but still had a lot of great moments.
Number 12 is in the books. Now let's get #13 right.