Jun 9, 2009

Ironman World Championship 70.3

On a Sunday afternoon last April, while working at Second Sole, I watched the 70.3 world championship on TV. At that time, I had never raced a half Ironman. I had finished several short triathlons the summer prior, but no real notable times or placings. For a while, I really thought I could be good at triathlon. I just did not know if it was in the cards for me. That afternoon at Second Sole, I told everyone I was gonna race the world championships next year. Some of the guys working with me may have thought I was just saying that in the moment.... I was dead serious… And so began the next 8 months of my life.
Ever since the season started in May I had been working my ass off. Yeah, we had a ton of good times racing and training throughout the season. But, we worked hard and I stayed focused for a long time. I raced 9 times (7 triathlons) over the course of the summer, and each race went well for me. I was starting to really believe that I had the ability to perform well all of the time. I had went to Columbus in June, raced Deer Creek in 95 degree weather, suffered horribly on the run and somehow pulled away with a 6th place finish. I raced Wendy's International Triathlon the week after on tired legs, ran my way to a 2nd place overall... only to be DQ'd for wearing an unsanctioned helmet. I had felt like I was cheated… stolen from. That race gave me fire. Two weeks later, I suffered through my first half Ironman in West Virginia. The weather was out of this world, I was dealing with overuse injuries, and I was not prepared for the mental toughness it takes to "race" a half Ironman. That race broke me down, but it taught me many valuable lessons about pacing, nutrition, and how to stay mentally tough. That day in West Virginia, I learned that long course triathlon is a different beast, and it was the distance designed for me. After the Morgantown Half, I had different objectives. I wanted to go fast, but more importantly I wanted to be able to go long. In the weeks after the race, I destroyed the Miltonman Triathlon. I had new prospective and I was starting to realize my potential as an athlete. After about 14 months of racing triathlons, I had finally won one. That victory fueled my fire all the way up to the Steelhead 70.3. The only thing I wanted was to truly "race" that distance. Steelhead was a success. I had cycled faster than I thought was possible, averaging 24.8 mph for the 56 mile bike leg. Then, I ran a strong half marathon... finishing it in just over 1:25:00. That afternoon, I realized I had just qualified for the Ironman World Championships 70.3 in Florida. It was a dream come true... I had done what I said I would do 6 months prior. Every Friday night I spent sleeping, every Sunday morning long run, every sacrifice I had made in the last 6 months had paid off. I was on my way.
In the 12 weeks leading up to the World Championship, I was on a roller coaster ride. My body was fatigued and tired of abuse, but my mind get telling my to push. I needed to prove what I could do. In the weeks leading up to the World Championship, I was a ghost. My friends could not get a hold of me and I tried my best not to stray from my plans. About halfway through my lead up to Worlds, I started to get really depressed. I had been working so hard and I had not seen much reward in awhile. I had been waking up several times a week before 5:00 am to swim masters, I had suffered on countless long runs every Sunday morning, I rode long, I rode fast, I had ridden so much some weeks that it hurt to sit in the saddle. I kept pushing myself, but the more I did, the less happy I was. In the summer, the weather is great. Everyone is training and racing. It is easy to get out the door. But, when fall approaches, everything changes. All of a sudden, I felt like I was the only one training. I was the only one who had to freeze his ass off on long rides and runs. I felt like I was the only one suffering. For a week or so in late September / early October, I didn't think I was going to make it to the starting line.
I can thank Jim Lamastra, Rob Reddy, Ryan Marr, my roommate Brendan Barton and a few other individuals for keeping me alive during those weeks. I can especially thank Brendan because he was the one putting up with my shit for 12 weeks. I don't think a better roommate or friend exists. Jim and Rob took me under their wing and showed me what it is like to ride hard on Saturday mornings. They both kicked my ass on numerous occasions, but they both believed in my ability and that gave me new hope. Ryan was there for me every Sunday morning, no matter the weather, for months. One 17 mile run in September was so hot and humid, we were both on the verge of melt down before the half way point. Ryan had told me how shitty he was feeling at mile 3. But, he pushed on through the whole 17 miles without once stopping or complaining. He had earned my respect as a runner a long time before that, but this just solidified that. One of the last long runs we completed together was a low for me... I was so beat up from the weeks training I could not complete the run. I wanted to walk it in, I tried to. I told him to finish and I'd meet him there. He walked when I walked. He ran when I ran. It is what I true friend would have done. You know who your real friends are when you are in need of help and they willingly give it to you while compromising their own desires. In the good and bad weeks leading up to Clearwater, I was able to really see who my true friends were. Brendan, Ryan, Jim, Rob, Dave and several other people fell into that category. If it was not for their help, I would have never made it the starting line in Clearwater.
In the two weeks leading up to Clearwater (during my taper), I thought I was really going to lose it. One day I felt on top of the world and the next day I felt like a scared child. Six days before the race, I didn't get out of bed all day because I was so nauseated. My nerves had made me sick for days. There were times I did not think I would be able to race. On Wednesday, as I sat in the terminal waiting for the plane, I thought I was going to pass out. My nerves were so strong, I was dizzy and disoriented (and I'm not afraid to fly. I was afraid of letting myself down in Clearwater). When the plan touched down in Florida, I felt alive. Right when I arrived at my hotel, a tossed my running shoes on and headed out the door. As I ran down Gulfview Blvd staring out at the ocean, I felt really alive. More alive then I had ever felt in my life. Sometimes people ask me why I started racing triathlons, what makes me put myself through all of the bullshit, why kill myself all the time for sport. As I ran down the street under the Florida sun in November, feeling so fucking alive it was like I was on some kind of drug, I knew exactly why I raced triathlons. You don't get this feeling from anything else.
The days leading up to the race came and went. Jim Lamastra, his father Sal, and Rob Reddy got down on Thursday, and then my family got down on Friday. I had swum the course, rode the causeway, and made all the last minute preparations. It was finally time to race.
I awoke suddenly at 4:42 am. It wasn’t my brother’s snoring this time. I was ready to go. This was the day I had been preparing for all year. I got out of bed, got dressed, grabbed my coffee and gear and headed to transition. A few minutes after 5:00, I stood in line to get my body marked. It was dark and cool outside, but the stadium lights hovering over transition made it seem much later. Everyone around could feel the energy. TV cameras where everywhere. Reporters scurried around chasing certain athletes worthy of the exposure. I saw Dick and Rick Hoyt setting up their raft. Dick is one of those men worthy of exposure. That day he would pull, carry, and push his handicapped son 70.3 miles. Dick and Rick make my journey seem trivial. They are truly inspiring. After pumping up my tires and setting my days nutrition (1200 calories in one bottle of Carbo Pro), I returned to my dark hotel room. I still had two hours before I would be tossing around in the ocean.
Before starting my race, I ran into my family and got the comfort I needed. My nerves were strong. I was just as excited as I was scared. I still felt alive. Ten minutes before my wave went off, we all were corralled behind the starting line, a makeshift line in the sand. This was the first time I got to really look at all of my competitors. They were all fit as can be. This was not a normal triathlon. I was lined up with 169 of the fittest, fastest 18-29 year olds in the world. I was delighted to be considered one of them. I lined up in the second row of people 15 feet from the waters edge. “Runners, on your marks!” BOOM. The cannon sounded and all 169 of us charged into the salt water. The first 300 meters were like a riot in the water. There was no open water to swim in. I swam on top of other guys and they swam on top of me. I swallowed water, got kicked in the face, and got pushed under water. There was nothing friendly about the swim… it was pure survival. The first 13 minutes of the swim felt like 13 seconds. We rounded the red buoy in a large of pack 0.6 miles away from the shore. The water was rough out there. I bet some people felt seasick. As we made our turn and headed back towards the shore, the sun was rising over transition. I could not see anything except my hands in the water and the competitors to my right and left. I was swimming in the middle of a pack of about 30 swimmers. There was nowhere to go except straight back to shore… no need to sight. After 28 minutes of swimming, my hands struck the ocean floor. I stood up and did a few dolphins dives before running onto the beach. Hundreds of spectators lined the beach. It was exhilarating. During the entire swim, I felt phenomenal. My breathing was controlled and I swam well. I could have pushed harder, but there was no need. I knew I had swum a good leg because I had the energy to spring towards transition. Transition was chaos. I had been the last wave, so the changing tent was filled with people. I couldn’t even find an open seat. I sat on the ground and tried to untie my bike bag. A volunteer had double knotted it. I just ripped it open. After struggling to put my shoes and helmet on, I grabbed my bike. I still had my salt pills (all the electrolytes I would need for the day) in my hand. Instead of stopping to put them in my back pocket, I shoved them into my shorts and ran towards the bike mount. Upon exiting transition, I jumped onto my bike and began pedaling. In the first 500 yards, I bent over to fix my shoe strap. The container the carried all of the salt pills fell from my shorts onto the course. I panicked and made the decision to keep riding. It would be the worst decision I made this entire year.
As I headed for the causeway, I slowly picked up the pace. I knew this bike leg was going to be brutally fast. After clearly the causeway (the only hill on the course), the hammer was dropped. I sped along pacing off of about 15 other riders in my age group. We were hammering down the street at 27 mph for the first few miles. I felt great at mile 25. I passed that sign in 56:00, averaging nearly 27 mph for the first 25 miles. My speed scared me, and didn’t know I was capable of riding that fast. The next 25 miles were nearly just was fast, but I was starting to feel the fatigue. We passed the 50-mile mark in 1:56:00; I had been averaging nearly 26 miles per hour for the first 50 miles. With only 6 miles to go, I started to feel the sun. We made the turn and headed back towards the causeway, but I lost touch with the group. I had been trying to escape the drafting for the last 50 miles, but every time I surged ahead of the group, they would catch me. I finally dropped back a little bit, but I slowly fell away from the group. I slowed considerably those last 6 miles. Maybe I had pushed a little to hard in the heat. As I approached transition again, I wondered how I would feel on the run course. I was already feeling shitty from the bike leg and I knew my sodium levels were dangerously low. On the bike course, I tried to supplement my sodium intake with a couple bottles of Gatorade. That got me through the bike course, but it was not enough to get me through a half marathon. I finished the bike leg in 2:14:00, averaging a little over 25 mph. It was a personal best. But, I did not feel ready to run hard. I started the run a little over 2:45:00 into the race. I was right on pace to finish around 4:07:00 if I could just run the half marathon I knew I could. I ran the first mile in 5:45. It was a little fast, but I felt okay. After running up and over the causeway, my pace slowed, but I was finding a rhythm. I was running about 6:15 pace for the first 3.5 miles. Then, my stomach started to cramp. It was tightly knotted and extremely painful. I was desperately searching for salt pills on the run course, but no one would help me. These triathletes were serious. They did not want to help some one in need. As I started to approach the halfway point, my stomach, chest, and back were so cramped I thought I was going to pass out from the pain. However, I refused to slow down. At every aid station, I drank as much Gatorade as possible. It was the only thing, besides my salt pills that would get rid of my cramping. Then, at mile 7, my stomach went south. This was the only problem I could not run through. My pace had slowed until mile 8 when I found a bathroom. I lost 3 minutes, but I was on my way. At mile 9, the cramping spread to my legs. I was in dire need of sodium. My pace slowed… It slowed a lot. I was no longer racing. I was surviving. At the point with about 4 miles to go, I just wanted to finish. I was suffering more than I ever had in a race. A few miles back, I had given up on trying to finish under 4:10, my goal. Now, I just wanted to cross that line and be done. I figured if I could just run 7 min miles I could make it back around 4:15, which was not a bad time. At mile 11 the cramping got so bad, I started walking. It was the only relief I could find. I walked and ran the last two miles. At mile 12, I passed Sister Madonna, the legendary 70 something year old Ironman athlete. She was walking. I thought I felt her pain. I didn’t. What she had been through during the day was far harder than what I had done. I felt like a fucking coward. I finished the race. I only walked the aid stations a little bit during the last 3 miles. I had wanted to quit at mile 3. I knew I was not having my day. I really thought about quitting at mile 8 when I started going in and out of bathrooms. I just wanted to walk to rest of the way. But I didn’t. I ran. I ran slowly at times. But I ran. My race was not the dream race I was hoping for. It was a hard slap of reality. Long course triathlon is hard. If it weren’t many people would not compete. People wouldn’t have to make sacrifices to obtain their goals and live their dreams. I ran through the crowds, passed transition and into the finishers chute. I had not obtained my goal. I hadn’t had the race of my dreams. I felt pain and heartbreak. I wanted to cry…I wanted to crawl into a hole and escape that reality. In the months leading up to this race, I imagined myself running through the finishing chute. In those dreams, I had just had the race of my life. I was floating through the air without pain and fatigue. Everyone was screaming for me, and I crossed the line with my arms stretched into the sky. I didn’t finish that way… but I should have. No matter how shitty I felt during the run, I just finished the world championships. I should have felt like a world champion. I finished right around 4:23:00. It was about 15 minutes slower than my goal. I want to be disappointed. I want to explain to every person that tracked me why I didn’t race faster. But whom am I trying to convince? Those people tracked my race only because they care about me? Those people, the people that may even be reading this, don’t care if I went 4 hours or 5 hours. They care that I finished and that I am happy. I sit hear typing with the realization that I am merely trying to convince myself. My justification means too much to me. I just spent 5 days at the world championship after only 18 months of racing triathlons. If I am lucky, I will have many, many more years of racing. I don’t need to justify my race anymore. This year was the best year of my life, and I will never forget that. During this winter, it will be cold and dark. But it will end like it always does and next season will come. I will be ready then. What is life without progression? I can tell you this… You will never feel alive until you go after your dreams. And in failure, comes another chance to succeed. If I would have had the race of my dreams, would I have been satisfied? My experiences from this year have given me the fuel for next year. And so I will progress…
At the end of the day, triathlon makes me happy…no matter the outcome. We race because it is the only thing that makes us feel alive.

Hears to next year.

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