Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ironman Chattanooga Full Recap – Warning Long

There will not be another first Ironman or one just like this, so before the crispness of these memories fade I want to get them down on paper.  
Me & my Mom

The Important Stuff: 
As I hope everyone knows I was doing this race in honor of Ray DePauw and to raise money for the ALS Guardian Angels Foundation, which assists families battling ALS.  It is not too late to donate but it soon will be.  Shortly I will be making my donation and ending this campaign.  We will surpass $7,000 and exceed my goal by 40%.  Thank you so much for everyone who has donated thus far.  Here is the link to the details to donate for anyone looking to get in at the last moment; every donation makes a difference:

The Numbers:
2.4 Mile* Swim:         48:15               1:14/100m pace*         16th in my age group
Transition 1                  5:21              
116 Mile Bike **     5:47:29               20.03 mph                   fell to 49th in my age group
Transition 2                  3:16
26.2 Mile Run          3:10:51               7:17 mins/mile ran myself up to 14th in AG

FINISH TIME         9:55:12               14 in AG 30-34           93rd Overall

*down river swim with significant current on race day
**4 miles longer than the traditional 112 IM bike

The Training:
I registered for IMChoo a year in advance after a solid performance in the Setup NC tri series, which was capped off by a 4:42 in the Carolina Half Iron distance triathlon.  I had a long time to get ready and for the most part my training went well.  The only issue was after running 2:43 at Boston I was stubborn and didn’t take enough time off and strained/tore muscle tissue in my calf.  It was one of the most frustrating injuries I have suffered because when it happened I was in great shape but I couldn’t run for the vast majority of my IM training plan.  I used that time to try and work on my swim and bike.  I was somewhat successful at that.  I made my own training plan and it got the job done. The hardest parts were staying consistent week to week, finding people to ride with and not running.  But my calf healed just in time to have a 5-week marathon-training plan with long runs of 8, 12, 16, 20 and 12 fast-ish. 

The Swim:
The logistics of an IM race are completely different from short/local tri’s. Thankfully I have had Danielle with me every step of the way to help get things organized and set up.  She was amazing in the months leading up to the race and even more so the morning of the race getting me to transition to do final tire inflate and put my bottles on my bike.  As it was a downriver swim there was a bus ride to the start.  The ride was longer than you would think and particularly anxious.  Then there was the wait from about 6am until the 7:30 start.  The swim start was just a long line of people jumping off a dock.  So once the pros went off I walked my way as close to the front as I felt I could get in order to have a decent starting position.  I had two simple strategies for the swim that went hand in hand.  One, protect my right shoulder and, two, get out toward the center of the river as much as possible in hopes of benefitting from the strongest current possible. 

Waiting patiently at the
swim star
            The swim start was glorious.  Shortly after the cannon sounded I jogged all the way out of the end of the dock and jumped in at the same time as maybe 5 others.  I immediately swam somewhat diagonally toward the middle of the channel while everyone else seemed to swim toward the first buoy.  I was pretty much alone on the right edge of the swim toward the center of the river.  Instead of sighting buoy to buoy I was looking as far down the river as possible and in so doing took some of the bend out of the swim course, essentially swimming the tangent.  The swim was long but I took it easy just trying to stay relaxed, long and smooth.  Only twice did I catch some feet to follow, and even then I wasn’t willing to leave my pace or line to follow them so the drafting was brief. 

            I was happy to swim under the bridges, along the boats and make my way to the stairs out of the water.  I had no idea at the time but the river current was strong and my swim strategy seemed to work as I had an incredible swim getting out of the water 14th in my age group.  I felt great. 

            As I ran along the water toward T1 the crowds were deep and loud but I spotted Danielle and my Mom, which was a great feeling; they were so excited!  There was a steep hill up to transition and I just took it easy and focused on being relaxed, deliberate and not making any mistakes.  All day long the volunteers were terrific, they found my bag of bike stuff, helped me transition and got me on my way efficiently.  I grabbed my bike and saw my family again before mounting my bike. 

The Bike:
            I was probably most concerned about the bike.  The bike is my weakness, this bike was 116 miles long and it was the one place where a mechanical issue could ruin or end my race.  Thankfully my bike had been thoroughly checked and tuned up by the good people at Inside-Out Sports (they even helped me with getting my rear wheel on and off, which was totally different from my road bike.  Without their [James’] help, a flat would have been devastating). 

My plan for the bike was also very simple: TAKE IT EASY.  I had previously ridden 3 laps of the two-lap course, I knew it wasn’t a hard course, but it was long.  If I was going to err, it was going to be on the side of taking it too easy on the bike.  When they changed the course one month before the race they actually made it easier/faster with more highway sections and better roads.  I had previously decided that based on my training rides on the course, 20 mph (in good conditions) was my upper limit and I wasn’t ever sure that would feel easy enough to maintain at my desired effort level.  This is all guesswork since I don’t ride with a power meter. 

            I left transition feeling good and taking it easy.  My only issue was dropping my flat kit as I went over a set of railroad tracks in the very first mile.  Picked it up and lost maybe a minute and I was on my way.  The bike was really uneventful; I took it very easy on the first lap, drank a lot, eat a good amount and was passed a ton.  I stopped at bike special needs at around mile 58 and swapped out two bottles and took a gel.  Danielle was there to cheer me on which was amazing.  I let her know that I felt good and that if anything I needed to slow down (as I was averaging slightly above 20 mph). 

Max & Otis cheering
me on from CLT.
            On the second loop there were bikes everywhere and intentionally or not many of the riders were in large packs, which were hard to avoid.  20 mph felt surprisingly good and I was content to stick to my plan.  After completing the largest climb on the course for the second time I made the turn on to the scenic rolling back section of the loop.  Here I was passed by a particularly large pack of riders, unfortunately they passed me just before going into one of the rolling hills and they promptly slowed down and I rode right into the back of them and had nowhere to go since they were riding 2 and 3 wide.  Ironically at this moment a course marshal came by and I was at the back of the pack.  He pulled up to me and gave me an overtaken penalty.  Thankfully it was a stop-and-go yellow card.  Technically it was correct and I took it in stride.  It was a long day, these things will happen.  I served my penalty around mile 100 and made my way toward the finish.  It is weird that with 15 miles to go (the distance of the bike in a sprint tri) mentally I felt like I was there and just focused on keeping it easy, eating, drinking and getting mentally and physically ready to run. 

            In the last 5 miles I was passed by a huge and constant mass of riders squeezing the last few seconds of advantage out of the bike course.  I was so excited to get off my bike, once on the run I knew that nothing could stop me from finishing and I felt shockingly good.  Dismount was awesome there was a huge crowd and I caught a glimpse of Danielle which was great.  I got off my bike and the next volunteer in a long line of bike catchers immediately took the bike from me; it was a rock star feeling. 

            Once again the volunteers were amazing.  After dropping my bike I ran through the T2 bags and the volunteers had mine in my hand before I got to it.  I wore my Castelli Body Paint tri suit throughout so a quick stop in the tent to take an e-gel, put on my Karhus, grab some water and my run belt with salt tabs attached and I was on my way.  It was a deliberate but efficient stop with no mistakes. 

The Run:
            I clicked my garmin into run mode and departed on the run.  The course took us back along the water by the swim finish.  Before going down the big hill I saw Danielle and my Mom.  Once again that gave me a big lift and I let them know that I was feeling great.  I felt like I was moving well and was cognizant that I needed to keep my pace reasonable starting out and not get too excited from the emotion.  I was shocked that a half-mile into the run someone smoothly started to pass by me.  I was relieved to see that it was pro triathlete, Patrick Evoe, starting his second loop.  I matched his pace as he slowed on the hill.  He gave me a look like “what is this guy doing?” so I asked him how he was doing, he responded to the effect of, ‘not great in 10th”.  He also accurately warned me of the difficulty of the run course and advised me to take it easy before picking his pace up and passing me.  I would later pass him back on the hills of the north side of the river. 

            Not surprisingly the run was my favorite part of the race.  The volunteers and spectators were incredible.  I don’t know that I have ever raced with my name on my bib so I was shocked initially to hear my name over and over again, but it was great.  The course was a loop on the south side of the river going out on a greenway along the river and coming back along the side of a highway.  The highway crossed over the north side of the river for a very hilly loop before coming back over the pedestrian bridge to do it again.  Starting the run I did some quick math and it seemed a 3:15ish marathon would have me finishing just after 5:30, which was 10 hours after the 7:30 am start.  I knew that if I finished by (or just after) 5:30 I would break 10 hours.  At this point I didn’t know how lightning fast the swim was so I just kept doing the math trying to figure out my mistake or why I was so far ahead of schedule. 

Real life or time for
a salt tablet?
            Around mile 2 I caught up with Charlotte triathlete Michael Greene.  I chatted with him for a minute before pulling off for a quick porta-pottie stop.  I was back running in under a minute and kept a steady pace around 7:15, which felt good and easy.  Much of the run is a blur.  I knew if I kept it easy I would break 10 hours (thanks to the swim).  So my mantra on the run was “easy, easy, easy.” The long stretches of calm and concentrating on staying smooth and easy were punctuated by the moments of seeing familiar faces cheering me on.  I saw Danielle and Heath multiple times and the Ice Racing crew was out in full force winning the spectating battle as usual.  The first time I saw Tim in his unicorn getup I figured I was losing it and needed a salt tablet. 

            The course on the north side of the river did not disappoint as the hills were ridiculous and it was nearly constant climbing or descending.  On my first lap I saw Frank on his way in and we exchanged high 5’s as I wondered how far the loop was and how far ahead of me he was.  I did my best to stay easy up the hills and claw a little time back on the declines knowing that next time they would hurt a whole lot more.  I crossed over the pedestrian bridge and looked down into the water thinking it was an eternity since I was down there swimming.   Thankfully we didn’t have to go right by the finish before starting the second loop.
Heath captured this great shot.

           I had been waiting a year for this second loop and I was feeling good.  I was 100% under control all day to have something left here.  I felt good; my only concern was the occasional shooting pre-cramp.  To fight off the possibility of cramping I was taking a sip of water and perform at pretty much every aid station.  I was also taking a salt tablet every 40 minutes or so.  I had no nutrition plan for the run and just began grabbing a gu at about every other aid station and either taking it or carrying it a bit depending on how I was feeling.  By the second loop there were people everywhere and I was flying by them.  Off the bike I was in 411th place, I passed over 300 people to finish in 93rd overall.

            My confidence on the run increased with each mile.  I was tiring but I was holding pace very well.  I have tracked a lot of ironman’s and almost everyone comes apart in the last 6-10 miles, I wanted to avoid that.  Crossing back over the river I knew that I just had to survive the last 6 or so miles in 7:30 pace and I would definitely finish under 10.  The hills of the north side definitely hurt and took their toll the second time around.  I passed Frank as he was stretching and patted him on the backside and told him to get moving. Once he realized who it was he shouted encouragement to me and I returned the support. 

            I gutted out the last of the miles and hills and made my way to the pedestrian bridge where I could see and hear the finish.  By this point I was starring at calves as I passed people looking to move up in my age group.  I still didn’t understand just how fast everyone’s swims were so all I could think to myself was sub 10 with a bike that was 4 miles too long maybe that gives me a chance…  My goals coming in were:  (1) finish, (2) have fun, (3) Sub 11.  I had previously said publically that I thought sub 10 was possible but after the bike course became 116 miles I figured that dream was dead.  Also, I wanted this to be as great an experience as possible so I didn’t want to blow up chasing a relatively arbitrary goal.  But now I wanted to pass everyone I could. 

With my beautiful wife
in the finishing chute.
      I ended up not being close to anyone in my age group at the end and was able to savor the finish just a little bit.  I heard Mike Reilly declare me an Ironman and glanced down at the word “Ray” written on my left forearm as I crossed the finish line.  There was a quick fist pump and then the emotion of a year’s worth of training and 10 hours worth of racing hit me all at once.  I did it, I demolished my goals, I broke 10 hours.  Some glorious volunteer wrapped me in a space blanket while another took my chip and strap off my ankle (pro tip:  not the job you want).  The first volunteer walked me through the chute asking what I wanted or needed.  I just wanted Danielle.  She was there immediately and was going nuts; she is the best Ironmate ever!  Then I wanted to know my time and place.  First the good news:  9:55:12!!  Thanks to the swim I was still able to bust under 10 hours even with the long bike, which ended up being a much easier/faster course than expected. 

Then Danielle told me I was 14th in my age group, 93rd overall, and I was shocked, I was too happy and relieved to be disappointed, but I was shocked.  Pretty much at that moment I knew I was doing another one.   The shock quickly faded away and I enjoyed what I had done.  It never really felt like a long day and with all the things that could go wrong I definitely felt like I had someone looking out for me that day. 

Post Race:
Don't I look happy?
Danielle helped me back to the hotel when I took one of the happiest showers of my life.  After that we celebrated over pizza and beers together, just sitting with Danielle was one of the greatest feelings in the world.  I couldn’t have done any of this without her and she deservingly shared in the celebration and accomplishment.  After the shower and food I was feeling almost human and we packed up all my stuff and took it back to the hotel so we could get back to the finish to watch the evening finishers. 

A little after 11pm we were back at the finish enjoying cheering in finishers.  I then hobbled back up to the pedestrian bridge to look for Herb Brown, the oldest competitor (78) in the race.  Herb was right on schedule with under a mile to go and over a half hour to get there.  I think I was more excited about his finish than I was my own.  He ran down the final hill, into the chute and across the finish line as the late night crowd went wild. I was concerned about the late start and long bike course jeopardizing his finish but he confidently strode across the finish line with time to spare.  His finished earned him his second Kona slot of the year (Lake Placid), which he passed on once again.  He says he will go back when he is in the 80-84 age group, what a boss. 
Herb finishing strong.

Thank Yous:
            There are so many people to thank for making this dream come true.  Clearly, first and foremost is my beautiful, wonderful, caring, compassionate, patient, supportive wife.  There is absolutely no way I could have done this without her help and support.  She tolerated me when I couldn’t run, she rode with me when she didn’t want to or have to, she handled all of the logistics and details that would have derailed me.  She made this possible and I am very grateful to have her as my teammate. 

            I also have to thank Ray and Nancy DePauw for inspiring me and giving me strength on the days my strength alone wasn’t enough.  In the same vein, I also have to thank each and every one of the individuals and families who supported me and donated to the ALS Guardian Angels in Ray’s honor.  Your generosity is overwhelming.  Special thanks to my Mom and Jim for coming down to see me and my sister for understanding my absence this summer- I can’t wait to get home for Thanksgiving.  Thank you to all the people who trained with me and made the hard days easier.  Thanks to Inside-Out Sports for making me feel like a pro and setting me up just as well (in spite of my bike ignorance, and making me a little less ignorant along the way).  Finally special thanks to Max and Otis for always being willing to nap after a long morning bike. 

Epilogue (yeah this recap it so long it has an epilogue):
Beer tastes extra good.
            I said throughout that I would be one and done at the Ironman distance.  No one believed me, but I insisted.  I was wrong, they were right.  I could “retire” my sports career today and this year alone would be enough of a success (2:43 Boston Marathon, 9:55 Ironman).  But I am left with the overwhelming sense that if I could figure out the bike I could go to Hawaii.  Although relatively satisfied I am left with more questions than answer:  How is my bike so much worse than my run?  Can I get 1mph faster on the bike?  2mph?  Do I want to do another Ironman? [Yes] Do I want to train for another Ironman?  Can I find a half an hour?  Placid or Mont-Tremblant?  Try to steal a slot at Lake Tahoe?  Power meter or trainer?  Kickr or Computrainer?  All I know is Danielle is spending more time on the Ironman website than I am and she sent me a text today that read:  “Mont Tremblant is only $640 registration fee, $715 Canadian!”  Looks like I am gonna take a swing at Kona, either way I owe Danielle a Hawaiian vacation.   

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