Race Day, Endless Flow and the Snowplow
Thanks to the time change I had been able to fall asleep fairly soon after going to bed, and, for the first time prior to an IM, woke at 3:30 AM with a decent amount of sleep and feeling well rested. Race day was finally here and I felt great. I had a powerbar, some yogurt, a couple Ensures, and a couple salt tablets for breakfast. Having a condo only a few blocks from the pier afforded me some time to be leisurely in the morning and make sure there would be no need for the porti-john lines at the pier. After putting on my gear for the race and making sure my mom and sister were ready, at 6 I gathered all the gear I’d be taking with me for the race and we made our way down to the pier for body marking and last minute bike checks. I made sure to have a bottle of water on hand as well as a couple gels to keep my nutrition topped off as I waited for the start. The crowd at the pier was crazy, so I prepared to say my goodbyes to my mom and sister and head off to the start. It was then I realized I’d forgotten my watch and my sister was kind enough to run back to the condo to grab it. As we waited for her return we watched the 5 navy seals parachuting into the bay to kick off the day. Minor disaster averted, but now slightly pressed for time, on her return goodbyes were said quickly and I was off trying to make my way through the crowds towards the beach. It took a long time to make my way to the water as it was so crowded with athletes waiting until the last possible moment to get into the water. I saw none of the pros start, but wasn’t too put out as I’d had my own race to be concerned with.
After finally making it into the water I’d realized I didn’t have my timing chip strap on tight enough as it flapped about as I kicked. Having secured the strap with a safety pin as instructed by the race staff (a necessary precaution as we would not be wearing full wetsuits to protect our straps in the swim and there was a good possibility of the strap coming undone in the wrestling match the swim can become), once out in the water it was quite the task trying to tread water, unpin the strap, retighten the strap, and resecure the pin, all while more and more athletes swam their way in to the start line. It was tough to pick, and then keep, a good spot with all the later athletes still swimming in towards the floating start and I became a little disoriented. The practice swims had us swimming along the shore but the actual course went straight out into the bay and I was little anxious about my sight lines being thrown off. Should have realized this earlier, but before I could worry myself about this the cannon went off and we were on our way.
The mass swim starts of any IM are a spectacle like no other, and can be a violent mess at the beginning. This was no different in terms of banging around, but as all the swimmers here were relatively strong, there was little stretching out of the field and swim lanes remained congested throughout most of the race for me. I had taken to wearing my Forerunner305 under my swim cap to record my open water swims, and in practice I’d realized I could set the alarms of the watch to give me an idea of my pace and progress in the swim. I was shooting for a 1 hour even swim, so had a distance alert sound every 100 meters and a time alert sound every 3:06. As long as I heard two distance alerts before each time alert I knew I was right on track. On the way out, my pace was great and despite having to constantly fight for a good draft with other swimmers I was making good time. Suddenly, right at the boats marking the turn around, both legs seized up with cramps. You’ve got to be kidding me! I tried as best I could to make my way out from the throng of swimmers and get to an area where I could work the cramps out. A little backstroke and I was able to get my legs settled down, but I seriously needed to reign in my swim on the way back in to keep my legs from locking up again, and each time another swimmer caught my legs and put pressure on them, having to fight the downwards pressure was enough to trigger the cramps again. As my 305 signaled that I was falling further and further off pace, I did what I could to make it back in to shore as quickly as I was able under the circumstances. Although I’d managed to only be off my pace by about 3-4 minutes at this point, I became extremely nervous about the cramps and was already a little disappointed about my performance.
I struggled up the steps, and after missing my transition bag my first time through the racks (and having to fight against the flow of other athletes to go back and retrieve it), I made it into the change tent, pulled off my speedsuit, sat down to pull on some socks and both legs immediately seized up with cramps again. This was not looking good and I started to panic just a little. I worked the cramps out again with some simple stretches but knew that my margins were so tight (I was already several minutes off pace) that the 4 minutes I’d spent in transition felt way too long as it was. I grabbed my bike and hoped starting out easy on the bike would allow me to work out my leg issues. After heading out to do the short loop through town before hitting the highway, another major error on my part became apparent: I had not previewed this part of the bike course at all prior to race day. What I would have known if I’d studied the course map better and actually taken the tiny amount of time needed to preview this section was that there was a nice steady climb in the first part of the course and there would be no easy spinning to get my cramps worked out along this section. Still, progress was progress and even though I was being passed by tons of riders through this section, I knew if I could get my legs straight I’d be able to reel them back later, and besides, I was racing time and not these other athletes.
I set about to trying to resolve my cramping issues thinking somehow I’d merely gotten my electrolytes thrown off (as I couldn’t have been fatigued so early in the day), so I started popping salt tablets like candy and drinking water. After finally making it out to the turn around, back in and through town, then struggling up Palani before finally making it to the Queen K, I finally realized there was another problem, the glue on my wheel had not set as I’d hoped. Now at race speeds, not only could I hear the crackling of the glue, the tire felt sluggish, like I was riding a mountain bike tire, and coupled with an increasing headwind I began picturing it as a snowplow I was struggling to power through foot deep snow. As my day progressed, that snow grew deeper. Even worse was the fact that on any hill that called for an out of the saddle effort, as I’d rise out of the saddle and pull on the handlebars for leverage, the tire would roll to the side just enough to rub the brakes. Still it was not full on panic mode yet, but the wheels were definitely coming off. Things go wrong in Ironman all the time, while you can’t predict what they will be, you can expect at least some issues and simply do the best you can to overcome those issues on the fly. How an athlete adapts to the situation often determines how that athlete ultimately does in the race. While I knew this well, between cramping legs and my bum front wheel, I had not expected to face such issues so soon. Rather than racing my plan as best I could, I started over-reacting to the race.
The cramps were limiting what effort I could put into the bike and my wheel made all my efforts to maintain speed more intense than they should be. I needed to get the situation resolved, at least the cramping, as soon as possible and hopefully before the climb up to Hawi started. It was terribly frustrating having to hold back on what is typically my strongest discipline, and I felt helpless as countless riders rolled past me and time slipped away, but I knew that the only way to solve these kinds of problems was to slow down and let the body recover. I kept trying to convince myself, it’s a long race, and there was still time to pull it out. I was popping an excessive amount of salt tablets now and grabbing for bottles of water at each aid station. I’d lost track of my hydration and my nutrition and before I knew it I’d created a new problem: I had to pee. Pardon this more graphic detail of this report, but it’s an important one. Having to pee itself is not a problem, it’s actually a good thing in such a long event and means you are well hydrated, but I didn’t just have to pee once. I was needing to slow down and pee often. At least five times on the bike I had to slow to heed nature’s call, and many more times even on the run. It was a day long issue made stranger by the fact that the temps were so high that I should have been getting more dehydrated as the day went on rather than the super-hydrated it seemed I had become. In thinking back on this later, I suspect that the nearly pure liquid diet I’d consumed for dinner the night before and for my race-day breakfast may have amped the hydration levels in my body well beyond what they were used to. This may have even lead to the early cramping issue. I was using an aerobar bottle on the bike to store my hydration which required refilling along the way, and this made it difficult to track how much liquid I had been consuming. I’d been grabbing a water bottle at every aid station, using part to douse my body to cool it off and then dumping the rest in the bottle up front. I have no idea how much water I would consume in total that day, but figuring a half bottle at every aid station, plus the two 24 oz. bottles I’d started out with (and considering I may have even started out the day over hydrated), it had obviously been way too much. The solution probably would have been to actually stop drinking for a bit. It’s likely even that had I stopped on the side of the road for just 5 minutes to let my legs recover from the cramps and settle that I could have possibly saved 20 minutes on the bike, maybe even my day, but as it was I had been convinced that somehow I needed to keep going, keep drinking even more and keep popping salt tablets if I was going to solve my cramping issue. But that’s jumping a little too far ahead.
At this point in the race, on the bike the wheels were really coming off. As the wind was constantly against us and increasing in strength, I could not let my legs spin along easy for any solid amount of time. I also couldn’t seem to get in enough electrolytes (or so I thought) as I was still cramping, and it was really getting hot out now so I was still downing water bottle after water bottle, but in so doing I’d created a seemingly endless flow of urine that continually demanded to get out. Nothing was going right, and then there was the climb to Hawi.
I hadn’t yet been able to resolve my issues, and now faced an ascent where I could not get out of the saddle to climb. I was absolutely dragging myself up the climb, but knew I’d still had an average speed of over 20 mph and with a strong descent (and finally a chance to really let my legs recover) I could still turn it on in the second half. With a tailwind and a little luck, I could finish the second half averaging 22 mph and still pull out a bike time strong enough that a solid run would get me across the finish line under 10 hours. I held on to that glimmer of hope until finally the turn around came and I did something I never do: I stopped for special needs.
At this point all semblance of a plan was out the window (and apparently so was much of my rational decision making skills), and I stopped simply to grab an extra packet of salt tablets (which I never used). Fortunately, the stop had not cost me too much time and before long I was back on the bike and absolutely howling down the descent. Sidewinds be damned today, I had some serious time to make up. I clamped down on my areobars, slipped my drivetrain into the biggest gear possible, dropped the hammer and screamed down the descent. I covered the next five mile in about eight minutes when, once again, my legs locked up. The cramps were not going to go away today. Seriously disappointed now, I pulled back the throttle. It was like my body had a speed governor that day and it was simply not going to allow anything beyond 20 mph. Even worse, the slight cloud cover that had happened everyday leading up to the race had not come and it was definitely beginning to get hot. I had been out of water since starting the descent and was dying for a bottle (partly to drink and partly to spray on my body) and when I arrived at the next aid station they had none ready to give out. I had to decide to continue on without water until the next aid station or stop now and wait for water. Once again, I stopped. Though back on the road rather quickly, I’d already started to throw in the towel mentally at this point and I really felt my race goals slipping away.
By now, the winds had begun to shift and we once again faced a headwind. I was using every downhill as a chance to recover (and still very often, to pee) with the hopes that if I somehow limped in I might still save my race with a stellar run. With each mile and tick of the clock though, the effort I’d need to put out in the run moved slowly beyond the realistic realm of my abilities, and hobbled with leg cramps I had doubts a stellar run was in the cards. When the turn off the Queen K finally came and I entered T2 I was all but crushed mentally. I’d averaged just over 20 mph on the bike, which in and of itself wasn’t bad, it just didn’t tell the whole story. Shooting for a 5-5:15 bike time coming into the race, but having finished with a 5:30+ bike time, I would have expected to feel fresh coming off the bike, but it took all my effort just to turn in a time that slow and my legs were trashed. I’d now need to turn around and run a 3:20 to go sub-10, 10 minutes faster than I’d projected as my fastest possible time, on dead legs. Still, I’d had some long brick days where I’d pulled this pace off on dead legs, so I’d do what I could.
Heading out of T2 I set about to trying to save my race. It wasn’t long before I saw my mom and sister on the side of the road. They’d actually organized a whole group of spectators all the way from Kuakini down Hualalai leading to Ali’i Drive to cheer for me, and I had a little laugh and boost in spirit. My legs were tight, but for the first mile I was so happy to be off the bike that I held the pace I needed to, but this didn’t last. By the second aid station I was walking, so I started to make bargains with myself: if you hold it together by running between the aid stations, walking through them you can take a break. This kind of compromise never works for long though and I quickly gave up on it. At mile 4 I latched onto two runners in my age group keeping a decent pace but couldn’t hold it together to stay with them. By mile 6 I dropped out of the race. Technically, I’d go on to finish, but I just didn’t have the heart to go on at any kind of speed. My goal of a sub-10 was lost, and even though I could have still gone on to finish with a personal best (a near four hour marathon alone would have done it) I did not have the motivation to suffer through the pain that would have been necessary to do so. The rest of the marathon would be a shuffle more walk than jog, and I would be forced to reflect on my disappointment the entire way. By the time I made it out onto the Queen K I was actually grateful for the chance to suffer through the rest of my day less publicly.
What I learned on the Queen K though, as I watched to top competitors making their way back into town, was that I had quit too early. Everyone was suffering out here and I had never been that far out of the race. And therein lies the danger of having too narrow a goal entering an IM. I thought it important to only have one goal to shoot for and I pictured an all or nothing effort to make it–either I’d meet my goal or blow up spectacularly trying–but I never expected setbacks so early in the day, for my goal to be blown so early that an all or nothing effort would not even be in the mix. I never expected my legs to cramp so badly–in the swim no less–that I’d never even be able to build into an all or nothing effort. I’d never thought of the possibility that I would just plain have a bad day and that a different goal might be more appropriate on race day. If I’d come into the race with a wider set of goals like I typically do, I might have still summoned up the tenacity to gut it out on the run. As it was, my goal had been a perfect race, it was what I had trained for all summer and I would not have been satisfied with anything less than a sub-10. Not 10:05, not 10:15, not 10:30 would have done it.
So I watched the top competitors roll by, and when they were gone I watched the top age-groupers roll by, and finally, when they too were gone, I watched the sun set. I took the time to thank the volunteers as they still enthusiastically handed out aid, tried to get me to run. I cheered on the other athletes still making their way out onto the Queen K, their days most assuredly looking to be longer than mine. And I tried to conjure up some emotion other than disappointment about my race, conjure up something to feel that made all the training I did to get here worth it, tried to latch onto some greater sense of what made this race, this place, so special. I struggled with that effort the remainder of the distance back into town, struggled with that effort across the finish line, and in the end, there wasâ€¦nothing. Nothing to take away the disappointment. If this was the Superbowl of triathlons then I finally had some sense of what it was like to lose the big game. To work a whole season, even several seasons, with one goal in mind only to fall short at the very end, maybe even choke. It was crushing. Except the Superbowl ends in a couple hours, I got to feel this way for almost 12 hours. There was a smile across the finish line, because I was proud to have finished another Ironman, to have gone through the training and sacrifices necessary to cross the finish line, but it was a bittersweet moment for me to be sure.