Friday, September 11, 2009

Ironman Comeback

This is not my Ironman report. I'm no Ironman triathlete. I don't even like to swim competitively, but I do respect those who think 2.4 miles in open water is just the easy part of the three-fold day of working out. I might try some Duathlon (run-bike-run) this winter, but that's another story for another day. This report is written by my good friend Brett Rumble. Read it for an honest and not terribly optimistic stance on meeting some goals and falling short on others.

Brett wrote:
It’s been 6 years since my last Ironman. After a long series of injuries, I honestly never thought I would stand at the starting line of an Ironman again. Since the day I signed up nearly a year before, my primary goal was only to make it to the starting line. But on Sunday, there I found myself, knee deep (pun intended) in the waters of Okanagan Lake in Penticton, British Columbia for Ironman Canada 2009.

The day began routinely: up at 4 to eat and finalize packing, a short walk from the hotel down to the transition area around 5:30, body marking, pumping up bike tires, dropping off special needs bags, checking transition bags, putting on the wetsuit, and a warm up swim. Just another day at the office.

An Ironman swim start is a spectacle to watch. 2800 athletes plunging into the water at the same time. Thousands colored swim caps poke out of the water accented by black neoprene clad arms churning the calm, early morning water frothy. In the mix, however, it feels like trying to swim in a washing machine. As the starting gun went off, I started on the inside of the pack a few rows back. After 50 yards of stumbling over rocks in ankle deep water, I dove in and took my first strokes heading straight for the first buoy in relatively clear water. It was the only clear water I would see all day. After passing the first buoy, it felt like the entire field converged on me.

No Hitting, but Shoving Is Encouraged

As the field closed in on me from every direction, I tried to settle into a rhythm. However, it felt like I was the only person swimming in line with the course buoys and I had to keep looking up to check my line while repeatedly banging elbows, hands and shoulders with the other swimmers. After about 600 meters, I somehow managed to drift from the right side of the field into the middle. Boxed in by roughly 600 swimmers in a 10 square foot radius, I checked my heart rate and tried to be patient while glancing longingly with every breath at the clear water to my right. Eventually, I found my way back to the right of the field. Unfortunately, it was so far right there were no other swimmers around to draft. A woman settled in behind me, politely tapping my feet with her every stroke as she drafted me.

We converged on the first turn of the U-shaped course and things got crowded again. I was able to temporarily forget the traffic jam when I spotted 2 scuba divers floating calmly 10 feet below with ringside seats for the fight at the surface, ready to step in if something went awry. Despite the shepherding scuba eyes below, I shoved my way through the two turns and headed back towards shore.

I was hoping the field would thin out on the return trip, but to my dismay, I found myself continuing to fend off errant swimmers. At the same time, I found myself fighting my wetsuit. It felt too short in the torso and was compressing my back, which was starting to lock up. Moreover, I couldn’t find any fluidity in my stroke. So, I lumbered through my strokes, checked my heart rate which was hovering comfortably around 130, fought off a few more swimmers, and counted the minutes until I could get to shore and out of the wetsuit.

I hit shore around 1:08—a little slower than I wanted but still under the 1:10 goal I had set. And with an average heart rate of 131, I wasn’t feeling too bad. I dodged my way through the masses like a pinball, had my wetsuit stripped off by the volunteers, grabbed my transition bag (helmet, shoes, food), unracked my bike and was on my way.



The Long and Winding Road

The crowds lining the street in town were huge and loud. I settled in and forced myself to be patient and take the first 20 minutes of the ride comfortably as other riders sped past. I cruised out of town along the shores of Skaha Lake and I slowly found a rhythm. The golden rule on the bike at Canada is to not go too hard the first 40 miles, which are flat and fast and can lull unsuspecting riders into overexerting prior the serious hills that start around 45 miles. I sat in comfortably and cruised towards the impending 6 mile climb up Richter Pass. I passed the time drinking water, popping my requisite 5 salt tablets an hour, and ogling the expensive bikes of slower swimmers as they breezed by. I passed the 40 mile mark in 1:54 and waited for the boom to drop.

I made the right hand turn and began the climb up Richter, shifting immediately into my granny gear and starting to spin as I quickly found a good climbing rhythm. I spun easy for the first part of the climb. As I neared the top, the throngs of cheering spectators increased and so did my pace as I got caught up in the excitement. I careened past a cheering spectator clad in a Tigger outfit and I smiled as I breezed by other riders struggling up the climb.

I crested Richter a little winded but feeling pretty good, took two pedal strokes ,and immediately found myself going 35 miles an hour as I barreled down the harrowing 2 mile descent. Before long I was tearing down the hill at 40 miles an hour, clenching my teeth and the handlebars with a death grip too scared to notice the other riders plummeting by.

I made it down safely and began the section of course affectionately referred to as the “7 rollers.” As I coursed through the rollers, two things became abundantly clear: I climb better than I do descend. Up the climbs, I would cruise past packs of riders, only to have them pass me as I white-knuckled the descents. Getting passed going downhill was a little disheartening and I drifted into a bit of complacency as the middle miles of the bike ticked by. But, I checked my progress after three and half hours and pleasantly found I had 70 miles down, an average of 20 mph. Spirits renewed, I floated through the out and back section and headed towards the final climb up Yellow Lake.

While Richter is the steeper climb of the two, Yellow Lake is harder as it comes 90 miles into the bike. I, however, felt effortless up the climb. The climb was littered with spectators and I caught a glimpse of Erin early on the climb. We exchanged a few words and I cruised on up the climb past Superman and two women dressed as Wonder Woman. I summited Yellow Lake and started the 10 mile descent back into town clinging to my bike at 40 miles an hour. Back in town, I finished off the 112 mile ride with a total bike split of 5:59, an average pace of 18.7 mph, and an average heart rate of 128. I handed my bike off to a willing volunteer and meandered into the changing tent.

What Is Called Resignation Is Confirmed Desperation

As I was putting on my running shoes, I found I wasn’t in any particular hurry to head out onto the run course. Nonetheless, gel in hand, I headed out on course. I ran through the first mile and checked my pace: 9:27. Not bad, but I could already feel something wasn’t right. I managed to get out of town and away from the crowds before I sheepishly stopped to walk. My legs felt fine, but nausea was setting in and I was feeling a little light headed. I collected my thoughts and started the all too familiar tug of war between my stomach and my pace. I was able to run the majority of the first 10 miles, walking the aid stations while taking in just enough water and salt tablets to stave off any gastrointestinal fireworks.

Around 10 miles, I knew the wheels were going to come off—it was just a matter of time. The thought of ingesting anything was repulsive and I was starting to get chills, despite the 85 degree temperature—a classic sign of dehydration. On top of it all, the smoke from the forest fires in the area had settled into a dull haze over the course and that, combined with the dry air, caused my nose to start bleeding slowly. I watched an ambulance roar by with siren blaring on its way to pull an unfortunate athlete off the course. I sniffled back blood, trying to avoid any attention that might resign me to a similar fate and counted the miles until the turn around. I hit the turn at 2:24 and managed to run/walk to 15 miles, with more walking than running unfortunately. From 15 to 20, running (and that term is used very loosely here) became the exception rather than the rule as I stared at the ground in solemn misery.

The run course of an Ironman can be a lonely place at times like that. The silence is deafening. All conversation among athletes has dissipated. The only sound to be heard was the scraping of my shoes on pavement over the tapping of other athletes’ running shoes. The lonely clapping of the smattering of spectators left on the course mixes with the occasional calls of aid station volunteers offering water. Amidst the silence, I clumped along with resignation while the clock slipped away with the daylight.

Coming Home

Whether I was smelling the barn or feeling a little better, I think my pace lifted a little the last 4 miles. Although I had resigned myself to finishing outside my goal, I felt obligated to do as little walking in town where there were more spectators. Around 2 miles to go, I finally gave in to my stomach and gave up any hope of taking any more gel, throwing away the food and salt pills I was unable to eat. I shuffled to the last mile marker, took a walk break and prepared myself for to try to run the last mile. Over the last mile, the streets were line two and three people deep with spectators cheering wildly. Nonetheless, I managed to pick Erin out of the crowd as I trudged my way towards the finish.

Perhaps in a show of embarrassed defiance, I managed to catch the runner in front of me just before the line. But at that point, it mattered little to me. I had such high hopes for this race and to succumb to a nutritional issue (again) was disappointing—and it showed as I crossed the finish line. No raised arms. No smile. No sore legs. Just a flick of the wrist to stop my watch and to end my day.

When the smoke cleared from my 5:17 run (again, using that term loosely), my final time was 12:39. My average heart rate on the run was 110 and for the whole race, 120. I burned 6721 calories.

I have to admit that for most of the year prior to the race, in the back of my mind I kept waiting for an injury to prevent me from doing the race as it had over the past 6 years. But it didn’t. In fact, my training went very well. In that sense, I did achieve my original goal: making to the starting line. I do take some solace in that fact. And I don’t completely overlook the fact that I finished. But at some point, the races become more than just finishing. In that sense, as I walked away from the finish line, my resignation resonates louder than my accomplishment.
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