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from tri-curious to tri-crazy: my first 70.3 ironman

September 17, 2015
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In August of 2013 I decided that my goal for the proceeding year would be to complete a triathlon; specifically, I wanted to race the Boston Triathlon–a sprint distance tri (.5 mile swim, 9 mile ride, 4.4 mile run). There was only one problem–I couldn’t swim a complete lap in a pool without needing a significant pause. (Significant pause defined in the tri-world as the amount of time it would take to make a sandwich.)

With fall and winter ahead, I had a full year to prepare. My first order of business was to find a swim coach to help me swim more literal laps and make less figurative sandwiches. I spent the next winter months in the pool working on drills and form.

As Summer approached, and at the sage advice of my new-found fellow triathletes, it was time to experience my first taste of open water swimming. This was absolutely fucking terrifying. But I had a lot of help and in 2014 successfully completed three sprints and one olympic distance triathlon (.9 mile swim, 26.2 mile ride, 10k run). While at the time I wasn’t completely prepared for the .9 mile swim, I somehow managed to hang onto enough kayaks to get through it. As Summer waned and Autumn waxed, road races supplanted the tri season. I raced a few half marathons and ran the Philadelphia Marathon in November.

There was only one problem–I couldn’t swim a complete lap in a pool without needing a significant pause. (Significant pause defined in the tri-world as the amount of time it would take to make a sandwich.)

During the holiday season my running club, Forest Hills Runners, hosted an end of year party to celebrate our amazing contemporaries year of accomplishments. One of the activities at the get-together included a “goal board” with the sole purpose of having members concretize their New Year’s aspirations with a black felt-tip Sharpie. Many people wrote down PR times or other race-related hopes such as staying healthy, etc.. It was at this precise moment, and with very little forethought, that I decided my goal would be a 70.3 Ironman (or half-Ironman) — a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile ride followed by a half-marathon. Maybe it was the whisky-laced eggnog talking, but I figured if I wrote down my goal publicly there would be no backing out. So, on January 4th of 2015 I registered for Timberman and promptly started to train.

At this point I knew my bike and swim were both in need of major improvement–especially the bike considering I had done little to no riding the preceding year. I found a great tri-specific swim coach and also found a stationary bike-trainer on Craigslist (that I casually hauled onto a Southend bus during a blizzard). Actually, come to think of it… traipsing through several feet of snow with one of the most impossible-to-carry bike contraptions known to mankind is when I kind of knew that I was no longer tri-curious. I had definitely fallen onto the spectrum of tri-crazy.

I was swimming so much during the harsh Boston winter that I started getting together with other tri-newbies and I even organized some weekly group workouts. Not that I was personally very helpful to anyone, but it was fun to pass along some of the drills I had learned. I think my longest swim workout was 3,800 yards. Considering where I started the previous year this was kind of huge for me. Way fewer sandwiches.

As spring sprung and Boston’s 108.6 inch glacier melted, the frequency of track workouts, tempo runs and road races ramped up. I PR’ed my 5k and 10k times and made significant gains in speed with each warming day. I was regularly on my bike trainer and endured brick workouts several times a week. (Brick workout: riding (usually) immediately followed by running.) I was also making frequent early morning trips to Walden Pond.

Walden is a special place and the training grounds for many o’ triathlete. At 5:30 in the morning the pond is as still as a glass of milk. When I go there I often take my GoPro and snap photos of my experience. Some of the pictures turn out exceptionally well–there’s one photo in particular I took of myself where I appear to be towering fifty feet over Walden pond. In some ways I wanted to channel that photo into my race… I wanted to be this giant, swiftly swimming the choppy waters of Lake Winnipesaukee in just five strokes.

And this is when I started to get nervous about my 70.3. I still couldn’t shake the feeling of OWS anxiety (open water swimming anxiety). Despite the previous year’s successes and all of work I had done in the pool, I still wasn’t feeling confident in open water. My swims at Walden often became extended pond laps, closely hugging the shore. Yes, it was technically open water, but in some ways I felt like I was cheating. My Walden selfies were fraudulent.

I signed up for a few sprint triathlons ahead of my race to get into race mode and to remember what triathlon race-day feels like, e.g. the pre-swim nerves, the peeing of self, the transitions. My last sprint of 2014 was so effortless and anxiety-free I couldn’t have imagined that these sprints would give me any problems–but unfortunately I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Three weeks out I raced my first sprint tri of the year and it was dreadful. Despite almost bailing on the swim and getting lost on a poorly marked run course I placed third in my age group. (My first Tri AG award.) I was so upset with myself for seemingly have gone backwards. Fuck! I’ve done this! What is my fucking problem!? My half Ironman was only three weeks away and I was severely starting to doubt my perspicacity for the swim. I didn’t doubt my physical ability, but the mental collapse of the swim left me extremely discouraged.

Two weeks out I responded to a list-serve email regarding previewing the full Timberman bike and run course hosted by a tri team based in Boston. I’m really, really glad I did this. I explained to the tri-team that I was interested, but that my bike average was in the 16-18mph range. I was assured this pace was perfectly fine–apparently, it was not. I was actually deserted in the middle of nowhere with only Siri as my guide. Seeing as it was an out-and-back course it wasn’t too difficult to find my way back, but the Boston-based tri team (who shall go nameless) didn’t even wait for me to return to run the course with them even though I was, at most, five minutes behind… what the hell! (I’ve since unsubscribed to said group’s list-serve.)

Words can not explain the frustration and disappointment I was feeling, not to mention the added discouragement I was projecting onto my big race. Throw in tapering… I was a huge, hot mess.

I went into the course preview thinking I would really struggle, but ultimately the long rides, hill repeats and brick work-outs paid off. Unlike the sprint, it was an encouraging day and despite the crazy elevation and abandonment I finished in 3:19 with enough gas in the tank to run one full loop of the course at a sub-8 pace.

With almost a week out I had begun the throes of tapering with exception to one last Sprint tri. If you’ve ever known anyone training for a big race, tapering is super scary. Going from constant training to very minimal training leaves the mind with plenty of free time to think about all sorts of crazy shit, mainly, “Did I train enough?! What if I fail? What if I can’t swim 1.2 miles? What if I panic and drown? Did I bike enough?” Anytime I thought about my upcoming race my heart rate would double, my stomach would crumple and I could almost summon a tear.

Exactly one week before the race I returned to the Boston Tri, the gateway drug race that got me hooked on triathadam triathazine triathadone. I was hoping to rebound from the sprint from a few weeks earlier but it went just as poorly. The swim was slower than the previous year, the bike was slightly faster and the run was a lot faster. And yet somehow I did not PR the course–that’s how bad the swim was. I still couldn’t get out of my own head. I couldn’t relax in the water. Words can not explain the frustration and disappointment I was feeling, not to mention the added discouragement I was projecting onto my big race. Throw in tapering… I was a huge, hot mess.

 

Lucky for me, I know some pretty swell people. My friend and tri-mentor, Gretchen, was also racing Timberman. We met for drinks several days before the race and commiserated about our mutual angst, specifically my swim and her nagging ankle. I extemporaneously told Gretchen that my new strategy was going to be to “just show up”. I had the power to race or not race. On race morning I could stand on the beach and say, “You know what? Fuck this.” Or, I could choose to get in the water. Once in the water I had the power to raise my hand and be pulled into a boat at any time. Or, I could choose to keep swimming.

“One buoy at a time, just get to the next buoy and then the next,” Gretchen Added.

Just get to the next buoy may be the best metaphor for life I have ever come across. Don’t look back at how far away the shore is. Don’t look at how far away the finish line is. Just focus on the next buoy ahead. When I started thinking about the race in this way, I think something in my brain clicked.

A few days before Timberman I started making lists and checking them twice. I am not of the OCD sort, but I probably checked my tri-bag 50 times. Trisuit? Check. Wetsuit? Check. Goggles? Check. I carefully monitored my hydration and nutrition. I prepared my pre-race evening meal (quinoa, chicken, sweet potato and avocados). I deep stretched on my sport club’s rooftop deck. I spent some time in the steam room. I did my best to stay loose, relaxed and rested.

Just get to the next buoy may be the best metaphor for life I have ever come across. Don’t look back at how far away the shore is. Don’t look at how far away the finish line is. Just focus on the next buoy ahead.

The day before my race we headed out to Gunstock Mountain Lodge to pick up my credentials (and swag). Hundreds of people were milling around under a blistering sun checking out the tri-booths, weird tri-food and various tri-wares. My wife overheard a small boy groan, “But I thought Ironman was going to be here.” It was hot, and with surprisingly little water to be had, we stuck around only long enough to hear the announcer plead for athletes to park at Gunstock Mountain Lodge and use the shuttle to the swim start in the morning. (Sage advice.)

Next we were off to the Timberman transition area at Ellacoya State Park in Gilford, New Hampshire for the mandatory bike check. By the way, checking one’s bike the day before a race is simply luxurious. The designated space was tight, but with thousands of triathletes it’s bound to be close quarters. I racked my bike (a.k.a. Pegasus, or Pegs for short) and reveled in the fact that in just 24 hours I would hopefully be an Ironman, er… half an Ironman. Demi-man? That sounds about right.

 

It is worth noting that three out of four weekends in a row I was able to stay at my cousin’s lake house in Belmont, New Hampshire, for which I am forever grateful. Having one less set of logistics to manage made training and racing much less stressful. We spent the afternoon on my cousin’s boat and relaxed a little in the sun just before a massive thunderstorm approached. Ominous clouds came in and I couldn’t help feel it was somewhat of an omen. But then again, my nom de plume is David the Tornado… so… maybe it was good luck. Once back on terra firma I heated up my weird runner food, set my alarm for 5:00AM and was in bed by 8:30PM.

The morning of the race I woke up a solid ten minutes before my alarm sounded and hopped out of bed. Oddly, I slept well and felt relaxed and well-rested. I made coffee and standard pre-race breakfast food (peanut butter on a gluten free bagel) followed by my ritual of mixing Skratch (hydration supplement) and filling my water bottles. In the early darkness of morning we were off to Gilford.

We parked at Gunstock Mountain Lodge where busses were idling and ready to drive athletes to the transition area. (Between this year’s weddings and triathlons, I can’t remember a Summer where I have been on so many busses. Ever.) Our school bus driver was perky and friendly; however, the ride was brutal. Bumpy, twisting roads exacerbated every bit of nervousness that was beginning to fester in my bladder.

One moment I was staring at my pink painted toenails, toes clutching the chilled doughy sand of Lake Winnipesaukee, and the next the horn went off and my face was in the water.

I hauled my tri-bag to the body marking area and then proceeded to transition where I set up for my day ahead. Out of all the races I’ve had in my short tenure as an amateur athlete–this is one race where I did not shit my guts out for extended periods of time. I’m not saying I didn’t poop. I did. But it was just normal morning poop. I know this sounds gross and weird, but poop and pee is a natural ordeal that’s just part of the race and so in my estimation it’s worth mentioning. Nutrition is such a huge part of racing long distances, making sure all “things” are working is just another cog in the triathlon-wheel that needs attention.

The time came to exit transition and head towards the beach start. I met up with my wife amongst the crowds of athletes and spectators. The first thing my spouse said to me was, “Have you seen the swim course?,” to which I replied, “No, why?” Oh boy… I had to severely squint to see some semblance of a swim marker off in the distance. “Just get to the next buoy,” I reminded myself.

One thing I appreciated about Timberman was that they sequestered a practice/warm-up area in the water that athletes could hang out in until their wave was ready to commence. (I always like to take advantage of getting into the water pre-race as it gets me acclimated to the water temperature so there are no surprises.)

Eventually it was my time to line up with my fellow white domed brethren.

I have no recollection of what I was thinking about at this point. I almost feel like my mind just went completely blank. One moment I was staring at my pink painted toenails, toes massaging the chilled doughy sand of Lake Winnipesaukee, and the next the horn went off and my face was in the water.

Despite taking one kick to the face, all of the fears and anxiety I thought I would experience didn’t even enter my mind. It was the most peaceful, tranquil, relaxed, transcendent moment of my life. I’m wondering if I only burned 40 calories because the swim was effortless, albeit slow and pokey. I almost felt like I was dreaming or taking a little nap before heading to the bike portion of the race. I just dreamily swam to the next buoy. And then the next. The water was at times choppy and cause for a bit of water intake… but it was honestly fucking magical. Isn’t that crazy? Trust me, it’s crazy.

My 1.2 mile swim took 45 minutes, but the photo of me coming out of the water is priceless. (Compared to the photo of me coming out of the water at my very first OD last year.) I feel like I’ve officially earned my Walden selfies.

 

Emerging from the Timberman swim I was ecstatic. Oh, and wetsuit strippers, another huge luxury at Ironman. I had never been stripped out of my wetsuit before, but did as others were doing and laid down on my back. I swear, my wetsuit came off Magic Mike style as a volunteer had me down to my trisuit in seconds. I carried my wetsuit to my bike and decided to take some time to fuel up and ready for my long bike trek ahead.

The first half of my bike went well with solid momentum conquering the initial climbs. Having ridden the course I knew what to expect which was a really huge advantage. I was prepared, but I now know there’s just a ton I have yet to learn. I need to trust my bike more. (Sorry Pegs.) I’m continually passing athletes on flats and ascents, but get routinely blazed on the downhills because I guess am a wuss. 31mph is kind of my max comfort zone.

This is where things got weird on the ride: at miles 42-43 I could start to feel my legs cramp. Specifically, my quads just above my knees were pulsing on the upstroke. I only took one salt tab before heading out and probably needed more on hand. It was near 92°F and the ride was almost exclusively under the beat-down of the sun. At mile 45 my right leg was freezing up. I pulled to the side and clicked out of my pedal. My entire right leg involuntarily kicked straight out as if I was flexing every muscle possible in my lower extremities. I let out a scream as a woman passed by, “Are you okkkkkkaaaaaayyy,” her voice fading as her concern was in complete contradiction with her velocity.

I clicked out of my other pedal, and not knowing what to do, I started to punch my leg to get the muscle to release. Maybe not the smartest thing to do? I have no idea, but it actually worked. I was at least 11 miles out and I didn’t know if I would even be able to finish the race. I chugged what little gatorade I had left from one of the bottle exchanges and decided to power through. Honestly, what choice did I have? I clicked back into Pegs and headed back to T2. This was by far the most challenging part of the race–long, steep unyielding inclines for the last six miles. Somehow, I managed. It’s funny to look back now because I was actually afraid to click out of my bike at transition for fear my legs would seize up a second time. (They didn’t.)

My T2 was much swifter. I downed plenty of salt tabs, hydrated and within a few minutes was on the run course. Ah, my strong suit. I want to say half the field was walking or sporting a slow jog/shuffle. Even after the swim and bike the run felt effortless. I crushed the half-marathon portion. (Relatively speaking.) Maybe it sounds shitty, but there’s something richly rewarding about passing people on the run that for three hours on the bike barked, “on your left!”

The run course was amazing. First of all, the views of lake Winnipesaukee are gorgeous. Secondly, the local crowd support was ridiculous. I’ve never seen so much run course support, sanctioned or otherwise. Locals had hoses, beer stops and in one case a full breakfast bar replete with pancakes and breakfast sausage. Obviously I didn’t stop–but by my second loop it was obvious someone was indulging as the pancake stack was significantly shorter.

At the finish line I had plenty of gas left to sprint it out… apt punctuation to the story I had written over the past eight months. And that my friends was my first 70.3.

My swim was 45 minutes, my bike was 3:25… throw in some transitions, and a 1:45 half marathon and I ended up with a 6:07 finish for my very first half Ironman. I really think if I can learn to ride a bike and speed up my swim I should be able to get my time shaved down considerably. And hey, I’m also brand new to the sport.

 

While it’s incontrovertible that triathlon is a solo endurance sport, there is no possible way it can be done alone. So many times I have wanted to give up, or felt utterly hopeless only to be picked up by my spouse, my friends, my family and fellow athletes. So many times I’ve doubted my training and abilities only to be encouraged and brought back down to Earth. I feel eternally thankful for my family and friends that helped make this race possible.

I also feel extremely blessed and lucky to have been able to train and stay 100% healthy during my entire tri season. This was without a doubt one of my life’s biggest achievements–so maybe I earned that selfie after all.

And yes, I’ve registered for my next race. And yes, it’s a full Ironman. KMD Copenhagen IM — August 2016. I guess to put this all into perspective my first 5k was just three years ago.

In the words of Troy McClure — “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

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2 Comments

  • Reply Tracy September 18, 2015 at 12:44 am

    Getting onto a bus with a bike trainer in a snow storm!!! Love it!!!!

  • Reply the races of 2015: part 2, triathlon edition - david the tornado November 6, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    […] up being completely amazing; albeit a little pokey. The bike was a slog-fest but I aced the run. (You can read my full race report here.) Timberman was is one of my life’s biggest achievements. The race felt so amazing that I […]

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