For many the swim is an intimidating and rough part of the race. At ironman, there are no age group waves, it is a mass start of 3000 people, all swimming toward the same point 800 yards off shore where the first turn – buoy is bobbing in the water like a giant orange balloon. Something that stood out to me on race morning is just how far offshore 800 yards is. The race course was two rectangular laps, 800 yards straight out, 200 yards down shore then 800 yards back to the shore. You are required to get out of the water for a short jog to run through the timing area and prove you actually swam the first lap before reentering the water for lab number two. Looking out that morning, over the rolling swells, the buoy that marked the first turn seemed like it was miles away.
Most tend to hang back and let the stronger swimmers battle it out as they wade in slowly to start their race. My approach has always been to get out front and to swim out of the congestion that can be a washing machine of swinging arms, kicking feet and the occasional over-aggressive swimmer that swims over top of you. In open-water racing, swimming strategy is as important as fitness. You have to sight buoys the whole time to ensure you are swimming in as straight a line as possible while keeping your head on a swivel to avoid to much contact with other swimmers. If you are really good at open water swimming you can tuck in behind a faster swimmer and draft off of them, similar to what you see in cycling.
The Pro men start 6 minutes before the rest of the field, followed by the pro women 3 minutes later. The 3 minutes before the cannon fires for the rest of the us seems to crawl by, the excitement is builds but I am surprisingly calm. Having swam a half mile or so to warm up, I am loose and ready to go. As the time draws near, those around me start creeping forward so I follow suit until the cannon fires and we are on our way. The first 800 yards for me is pretty uneventful. A few forearm head shots here and there, but getting out front was a good strategy. There are big rolling swells that don’t affect my stroke too much but if you pop your head up at the wrong time to sight a buoy, you are not able to see over it so I quickly learned to time my sightings while on top of a swell. The water is a brisk 68 degrees but I don’t even notice it once I am off and swimming. There are too many other things to pay attention to: trying to draft when possible, jockeying for position with the other swimmers around me, monitoring my body for too much exertion, and trying to stay on course as much as possible, and the occasional thought that flutters in and out of your mind of whether there are any hungry predators in the area.
In a day as long as ironman, conserving energy is key. Go out too fast and there is a good chance you don’t finish this race. I swim within myself for the first lap and as I am running along the beach after my first lap I hear the announcer say, “these swimmers you see coming out are on a sub one hour pace,” which is where I had hoped to be. Halfway through the second lap I am enjoying myself and in a rhythm and wishing the swim would last longer. I decide to push myself a little on the final half mile. I don’t see a clock coming out of the water but found out later that I finished the 2.4 mile swim in 1:01 which I was very happy with. I see my wife and son in the chute coming out of the water and give my son a kiss on the top of his head and a high five before having my swim suit stripped off by the volunteers that are there to help you get out of your suit as quickly as possible. Getting out of the water quickly sets you up for a faster transition as the large changing room is not congested and there are plenty of volunteers to help. You actually run into the hotel ball room that is sectioned off for men and women to change. As you come out of the water there is someone radioing ahead your race number so that a volunteer can get your bag of clothing that you will change into for the bike and have it ready for you when you get there. A volunteer followed me in to the changing room and helped me through the process, dumping my back on the floor and handing me what I needed and stuffing my wetsuit and swim gear back in the bag. Outside of the changing room, leading out to the bike racks there are more volunteers with plastic gloves on and tubs of sun block to slather on willing athletes. A man says to me, “come on over,” but I stop in front of some enthusiastic women and put my arms straight out while they cover me in sun block. I tell the male volunteer, “Sorry, I need the women to do this,” with a smile. The crowd behind the fence in this area gets a good laugh from this
The morning is overcast and foggy. The air temperature when we started the swim was 58 degrees so the heat will not be an issue till later in the day. As I begin the ride it is cool and still overcast and the road is not congested at all. I settle into a rhythm and prepare myself for the next 6 hours of the race. When you are a strong swimmer, you get out ahead of some really good athletes. Although I consider myself a decent cyclist there is always someone faster and throughout the day I get passed by a lot of these men and women that seem to fly by me on $6000.00 bikes. This continues for the entire 112 miles for me. There is a group of around 10 cyclist that seem to stay around the same speed through most of the day, sometimes getting a second wind and passing each other but mostly staying at the same pace. One of them has a prosthetic leg from the knee down that looks to be made of carbon fiber and has a cycling shoe cleat attached that clicks right into his pedal. Just one of the many inspiring things you see during an iron man. Drafting on the bike is prohibited at ironman but on a long flat course you do see it from time to time. There are penalty tents along the way that usually have a few cyclists serving a 4 minute penalty for being tagged by one of the many course officials for drafting. I want to yell out, “cheaters,” as I pass by but I contain myself.
Fueling for an Ironman is like a fourth event. Regardless of your fitness level and experience, get it wrong and it can end your day, literally. I again stick with what I used during my long training rides using specific powders that I know my stomach will handle mixed with just enough caffeine that is in the gels I use. Luckily the gels I use are at the aid stations on the course which are spaced out around every 10 miles. I also tried the bars they were handing out at aid stations in training and knew I could handle them so I used a couple of those as well throughout the day. The large bottle I prepare for the bike contains around 1800 calories. My plan is to take in between 300 – 400 calories per hour. As the day wore on, the fog lifted and the sun began to beat down, and hydration became more important. My bike effort was vastly different compared to the swim in that I continually found myself pushing the pace too much and getting caught up in race going on around me. I frequently monitored my heart rate to contain my effort but at mile 70 began to pay for my efforts. I hit a wall around this point so I slowed down to my planned pace for the next few miles which allowed me to recover. I maintained pace for the next 25 miles before making the final turn, a five mile stretch along the beach with a good tail wind. I planned to hammer this final stretch but when I stood up on the pedals to accelerate, my hamstrings seized up in painful cramps, forcing me to sit back in the saddle at an easy pace. Uh Oh. After a couple more attempts I was resigned to staying in the saddle the rest of the way but finished in 5:34, 25 minutes faster than what I expected. So off the bike I am 6 hours and 48 minutes into my day with transition time added in which leaves me 10 hours and 12 minutes to finish the marathon. Barring any disasters, I think, I am going to finish Ironman today.
The bike to run transition is much like the swim – bike for me, it is not congested, and there are volunteers to take my bike, lead me to the changing room where my bag is waiting form me again. No clothing changes for this transition. Trade cycling shoes for running shoes and a fresh pair of socks, running hat in place of cycling helmet and a different pair of sunglasses, more sun block, again by the enthusiastic female volunteers and I am off. More high fives for my wife and son who are waiting for me again as I start the run.
I consider nutrition my specialty but I realize quickly that I have either miscalculated or gone too hard on the bike or both. In hindsight I believe it was a little of both. If your heart rate is consistently above a certain threshold, your digestion of nutrients slows down to compensate. When this happens you become bloated and your only choice is to slow down and let your body catch up. Since I planned to do a lot of walking this was OK for me and by mile three I was feeling good again. At this point in the race however, I am already feeling hot spots on my feet so I make a quick change of socks that I have packed in a bottle holder around my race to see if it helps.
At mile 10 I am feeling blisters forming on my feet. This is the kind of thing that worried me before race day. Fitness and a will to finish were not an issue in my mind. It is the stuff you can’t control that can keep you from finishing that scared me. Mechanical failures on the bike for instance, cramping and GI distress can happen to anyone regardless of how well prepared you are going in. In the back of my mind as those blisters started forming I worried that they might do me in. By mile 13 they were full blown and I found that if I walked in rhythm, they hurt but were manageable. If I tried to accelerate they became much worse so I just tried to maintain pace and focused on forward progress.
At the first turn around I found myself keeping pace with another participant that had trained to walk the marathon portion. We walked stride for stride for 10 miles. I learned that leading up to the race he had gotten 6 cortisone injections, one in each knee and shoulder and a couple epidurals. I thought my body was beat up but this guy had endured multiple surgeries on knees as well as spinal surgery due to the pounding his body had taken over years of endurance training but still he was here. I also learned that the only reason he was here was to support a training partner and friend who has terminal cancer and wanted to finish an ironman before his time was done on this earth. I had forgotten that until I began writing this blog. Once in awhile I guess it is good to be punched in the gut to give you a little perspective.
The people of Panama CityBeach get up for this race like nothing I have ever seen. The first three miles of the two lap marathon course is straight down the beach on a two lane road in a sleepy residential beach area. The streets are lined with spectators and residents in full party mode. On my first lap I encounter a group of men in Speedos and bowties and not much else other than a cold beer which is clearly not their first. There is music everywhere and people cheering your name which is printed in block letters on your race bib. At one point while walking, a spectator in a cat women suit locked arms with me and walked with me for 20 yards or so while encouraging me to press on. Later there is a guy in a full ironman suit from the movie giving high fives to all of the participants. All of this makes the day a little easier.
At the final turn around of the marathon, I am 11 hours into my day with 6.2 miles to go. If you are still out on the course at this time you begin to see the carnage that occurs during ironman. I walk up on a guy that is in fetal position and vomiting uncontrollably. He is not the first person I have seen on this day throwing up, he is actually not the 6th or 7th. Those that have not take enough fluids or electrolytes start and stop abruptly as their bodies seize up with cramps. There are some very fit people whose bodies are failing them today. With 4 miles to go I see people walking in the other direction, many with far away looks and pained expressions. Those going in the opposite direction still have 8 miles to go and it is like the walking dead out there. You see urgency in their eyes and fear that they may not make the cut off. You can pretty much tell the ones who aren’t going to make it, they aren’t moving fast enough.
In the distance I see what looks like a fire fighter walking toward me. As I get closer I see that it is in fact a race participant, in full fire fighter gear, complete with a large air tank on her back. I doubt she is going to make it by the 17 hour cutoff but again it is pretty inspiring, whatever cause she is racing for. As I make my way down the final stretch, back through the sleepy neighborhood one last time, the party is still going and I get one last high five from IRONMAN.
It has been dark for a couple hours as I approached the finish line and once again the night is ablaze floodlights. As I draw closer I begin to hear the announcer as you get calling out participants names followed by, “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” My day is almost completed and the loud voices of pain are quieted as I pick up my pace over the last 200 yards and run through the chute that is lined with people cheering me on. “MIKE HEIM, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” I cross the finish line and am immediately grabbed by a volunteer that I can tell is assessing me as she asked if I am alright. I tell her I am good with a big smile on my face but inside I am broken and need to get off of my feet. I pose for a quick finish line picture, find my wife and son, and begin the painful process of gathering my equipment and make my way back to the car to load up. I need to eat but going into a restaurant is out of the question so my post race meal is a fried chicken sandwich, fries and a frosty from Wendy’s. If you know me, you know that eating fast food is a rarity for me but I have to tell you, that was one of the best meals of my life.
When you put in an effort like we did on this day, the body’s thermoregulation can get a little screwy. I shiver uncontrollably as I take quick shower before crawling into bed. Even under the covers, I continue to shiver but I am asleep within minutes.
As I reflect on the past year and accomplishing what for me was the only thing I really had on my bucket list, I realize that with many things in life, it is about the journey. I’ve lived enough to know that accomplishing a goal like completing an ironman isn’t the end of the journey. Although it is important to strive for great goals and maybe even realize a dream here and there, they don’t fulfill a life. After my race I went back to being who I am; husband, father, doctor, athlete, friend. The problem with achieving a goal of 25 years is, where do I go from there?
For now I am content in making up lost time with my family and tending to the parts of my life that were neglected over the past year of training. I’m OK letting this one marinate for awhile.
Until next time, Stay Healthy and Live Well… Dr. Mike