I realized early in the year of training that running was going to be a problem so I focused on swimming and biking. I cycle with a group that is more fanatical than I am and through those long grueling rides with them I became a better cyclist. Those 6 AM Saturday morning rides mostly became battles. Testing each others limits prepared us for race day and allowed us to get that moment of truth of being at our physical and mental limits and trying to pushing through them. Getting dropped during a 100 mile training ride with 30 miles to go can be demoralizing but it can also make you a better cyclist. Completing a solo 100 mile ride takes it to another level. I did my first around 5 weeks out from race day on a hot and muggy Saturday morning. At mile 75 I became dizzy and had to slow my pace for a couple of miles while trying to hydrate. The dizziness passed and I was able to finish the ride but it showed me the kind of effort it would take on race day without the luxury of drafting on the bike like you can do during group rides. It was a painful day but it gave me the confidence to know I could finish the bike segment at Ironman. The swim for me is the easy part. Truthfully, I probably missed a calling there. I did most of my training solo, needing only a couple of days a week and only a couple of months of ramping up before race day to come out of the water in the top 5% of the field. I continued to struggle with the run however and ended up having to do a lot of very long walk – run workouts that were more walk than run. It takes a long time to walk 13 miles but it was what I was able to do so that is what I focused on. I wasn’t convinced I would actually be able to finish the race until about 2 months out, mostly because I wasn’t sure if my knee would hold up during the run, but I finally decided that I was going to show up and give it my best shot. Hope and a strong swim and bike were on my side and I believed I could walk the entire marathon if I had to and still finish before the time cut-offs.
Tapering for an endurance race like Ironman is not a fun process. Part of the draw of what we do in endurance training is the addiction to endorphins from hours of heavy training. When you drastically reduce volume of training in order to allow your body to adapt to all of the training you have done, those endorphins wane. For me it seemed to go beyond just feeling flat as the week leading up to race day, I was nauseous, dizzy at times, and felt utterly exhausted. Not a good place to be leading up to the most grueling day of my life. I think most people doubt a little leading up to their first Ironman. The, “what have I gotten my self into,” begins to creep in and the butterflies start swarming. I trusted my plan however and after swimming in the 68 degree water a few days before the race my body began to wake up and I began to feel better about race day. If you hit your taper right, on race day you feel rested and strong, ready to get out there and battle. I’m not sure I got to that point, but my body and mind were ready to go on race morning.
One of the things I didn’t expect out of this journey was the butterflies. They began to flutter a couple of months before race day when the realization hit that yes, I was about to take a run at my dream and test myself like I never have before. When we are younger, we have more experiences that test us, get our juices flowing, and give our lives meaning. These are the, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” experiences. As adults we seem to have less of these and I found it refreshing to be attempting something that included failure as a possibility. Most of my life these days, fits into comfortable boxes. I know what my day will look like on most days. Wake up, train, work, eat, family time, sleep etc. Not much need for butterflies on most days and I’m OK with that. I am a creature of habit, I thrive on discipline and routine, but what Iron man brings me is a chance to step out of those boxes, test my limits, and be in a place where failure is a possibility and reach for a goal that will take an enormous effort.
Ironman branded races are a clinic in efficiency. You are required to check in three days before the race to check bikes in the day before the race, as well as any equipment and clothing that you will need during the day. All of this makes race morning a little easier for everyone so there is less to worry about when the alarm goes off around 4 am. I am awake 30 minutes before the alarm goes off and I know there is no chance of going back to sleep so I get up and go through a final checklist of the things I will need today that have not already been checked in. Getting fuel in early is important on a day that you will be on the course for a minimum of 9 hours. I tend to stick with what worked for me before 100 mile training rides and ate my typical Vans protein plus waffles smothered in organic peanut butter and coffee. Leading up to the race I sip on a sports drink and water and finally a sports gel containing caffeine 30 minutes before the cannon fires at the start of the swim.
My wife drops me off as close to the race venue as she can get me and I hop out and begin to walk the remaining half mile or so. It is a misty morning but the venue ahead of me is ablaze with flood lights and thousands of people who are either preparing to race or helping those that are preparing to race. There are many like me who are walking alone, gear in hand approaching the transition site. There are legions of volunteers with oversized sharpies that beckon athletes as they approach the transition area to mark their bodies with their age and race numbers. The mood is pretty low-key as participants make final preparations for the bike, filling water bottles with whatever secret concoction they are using today, applying lubrication to any part of the body that can cause friction and visualizing the transition from swim to bike. Long lines of athletes with nervous stomachs form at the port-o-lets. The butterflies are swarming now as the time draws near to make our way to the beach to warm up a little and join the nearly 3000 athletes that are corralled in the starting chute.
Stay tuned for my next installment of Achieving Ironman. Until then stay healthy and live well… Dr. Mike