Saturday, November 21, 2009
2 DAYS to RACE DAY
When the rising sun finally cast enough glow on the sand for me to see, I walked out onto our balcony. I looked toward the Gulf of Mexico and saw water as smooth glass. A gentle breeze stirred only the slightest rustle in the palms between our hotel and the beach. It was Thursday morning, and time for a practice swim.
We had already been up for a couple of hours. I could lie and say that it is because I am a dedicated triathlete, but the reality is more about life with a two year-old. I made some coffee in our french press before gathering my wetsuit, goggles and earplugs to head to the beach.
Alex was already enjoying his Ironman cowbell while I put on my wetsuit at the Gatorade practice swim area. I headed down and waded into the water to blend in with the other hundreds of triathletes making their way out along the big yellow and orange pyramid shaped buoys.
The water was incredibly smooth and crystal clear. The visibility was much better than my local pool. I swam about halfway out along the course and could see the bottom the entire time. As I would rotate and look to the side to breath I would catch a fantastical underwater view of herds of googled folks in wetsuits stroking in unison. Everyone looks the same out there.
I made it back in, rinsed off and went to check in. Time for play with Alex and Paige in the pool and waterpark.
1 DAY BEFORE RACE DAY
In the interests of time (and convenience) I decided to swim from the beach right behind our hotel. I headed out alone into the gulf. As I waded out I saw a stingray just in time to miss stepping on him as he flew along the sandy bottom. I started to swim instead of wade. A moment later I saw a second stingray. I realized how nice it is to swim in clear open water as opposed to other venues where the water is usually closed to swimmers. This was the first triathlon where I could easily see more than a few feet in any direction.
While swimming, I felt more like I was snorkeling. Watching clams hop along the ocean floor, noticing sand dollars resting peacefully, small fish darting about. Then I saw a jelly fish. I was glad I was wearing a wetsuit. Then I saw another, and another. Next thing I knew I was in a school of dozens of jelly fish. I figured I had gone far enough so I turned around and swam back in.
My wife was building sandcastles with Alex when I got back on shore. I rinsed off, put on my bike gear and headed out for a quick ride. It was slightly windier than the day before, but still perfect. I rode about 15 miles at an easy pace. As soon as I got back, I swapped my bike for a pair of running shoes and off I went on a short run.
After my final tune-up workout, I showered and we ate breakfast, I took my bike and transition bags down to the transition area. With everything turned in, nothing left to do but, eat sleep and wait.
The alarm only buzzed twice at 4:30 a.m. and I was wide awake. I made coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Shower, shave, bodyglide (in all the important places), band-aids on the nipples, dressed and I was ready.
I made a quick post on Facebook to let my friends know that I felt good and would go for a new PR. We got Alex in his stroller, handed him his cowbell and clapper and we were off the the start.
In the hotel lobby, athletes with bike pumps and goggles in hand were heading out into the dark. I saw several that had a familiar expression and look in their eyes. I had seen this expression before on the faces of climbers at the base of El Capitan. Its fear.
They were probably first timers. I bet I had that look when I showed up in Arizona to see if I could go 140.6 miles in one day. I do know that until my first Ironman was over, I wasn’t really sure.
We drove down in the dark predawn chill to the start. Paige went to find parking while I went in to air my tires and fill my Aerodrink bottle with fluid. With the bike ready, I went find to a porto-potty. Hint...its always at the end of the longest line. But I had plenty of time.
While I waited, I watched the palms waiving in the wind thanks to Tropical Storm Ida brewing way off in the Gulf. I knew that the winds would be out of the East at about 10 mph, but not too gusty. The flat water would be gone today.
With the sun finally up, I put on my wetsuit and gave all of morning clothes to Paige. I tucked my timing chip way up under my pant leg, to protect it from getting pulled off by thrashing swimmers. The professional’s start was my signal to head down and find a place to line up. I kissed Alex and Paige goodbye and headed onto the sand.
SWIM 2.4 MILES
The start of any Ironman is intimidating. But Florida is really spectacular. You get a running start from the sand in a crowd of 2,400 over-hyped type-A’s. And they are all aiming for the same line of buoys.
I knew that the best place to start would be to the left, directly in line with the buoys stretching out to sea. This would be the shortest distance. This of course, would also be the most crowded, and hence, most dangerous place to be. I was weighing this, recalling that a father of two young children was killed in the swim here a couple of years ago.
A lot of other people must have been thinking about this too, because they were very spread out. It seemed like some people were so intent of staying out of the crowd that they were going to start from the Alabama state line. I just figured I would start on the left, but start slow enough to let the speed demons get ahead and not clobber me.
The cannon fired and... run, paddle, dog-paddle, bump, gasp, swim, swim, bump, swim. It was a lot like swimming with drunk hockey players. But I was ready. I learned my lesson in Louisville where I got hit in the head, sending my ear plug to the deep recesses of my ear canal. I felt safe and secure in the malay, having tied dental floss around them as insurance this time.
The whole first lap was just plain chaos. I never went more than a few strokes without either hitting or getting hit by someone. At the first turn buoy I swam right over someone as someone else swam right over me.
I then saw something waving in the water and flapping on my wrist. I realized that in the tussle someone had caught my ID band and pulled it apart. This was not good. You are required to keep it on until the event is over. I wadded it up and stuffed it up my wetsuit sleeve, so I could try to get it back together once I got out of the water.
After rounding the second turn buoy, I saw some jelly fish. Most were comb jellys like the ones I had seen the day before (that don’t sting as I found out with a little internet research). However there were a bunch of moon jelly fish too. It seemed like they stayed about 10 feet down under us, which was just fine with me.
With 1.2 miles down we all ran up on shore like a bunch of seals escaping a trolling great white in some National Geographic special. Aim for the timing mat and back into the water for the second lap. The second lap was much calmer than the first. In no time I was back on shore, wiggling out of my wetsuit. 1 hour 17 minutes… 3 minutes ahead of schedule!
T1 - SWIM to BIKE TRANSITION
I had some trouble with locating my transition bag, but found it pretty quickly. The volunteers really do a great job helping all of the frantic athletes. Knowing the changing tent would be packed, I started to get dressed outside. I also got my wristband back on. Luckily it had just come unsnapped and wasn’t broken. I tried to get my Garmin started and began putting on my heart rate monitor, sock, etc, while the GPS searched for beacons in the sky.
By the time the Garmin was online, I was ready to go. But I still had to make the required hike through the change tent. It was like getting through the Bay Bridge Toll Both at rush hour. It took minutes that seemed like hours to wade through the jammed crowd.
Clip-ity-clop, clip-ity-clop, out of the change tent through transition and onto the bike. I grabbed my bike and jogged to the mount line. A painfully long 11 minute transition. On the bike and away I go.
BIKE 112 MILES
I was really ready to go. I was moving at 22-23 mph, eating my first pack of powergel and taking in some fluid. I was still wet and felt a little chilled moving through the 50 degree air but knew it would warm up soon. Realizing I had a slight tailwind out of transition, I picked up the pace.
The ride was mostly flat with some long half-mile hills that are just enough reason to stand up and get out of the torturous saddle, but not enough to wear you out. There was some wind, but not too bad. There was however a huge crowd.
For almost the whole first half of the bike leg I was passing people, continuously. The crowds would get clogged up at the aid stations and it was distracting. I did see some people who were obviously deliberately drafting, but not too many. More than anything else, it was just congested. Often it was hard to get through these packs. A couple of times I was over the center-line as I passed some 3 or 4 rider wide packs.
Somewhere around mile 20 or 30 I was getting ready for my aid station routine. I popped a salt cap in my mouth and took a sip of water. Next I sat up, pulled the cap of my the aero water bottle nestled in my aerobars and got ready to grab water, gatorade and powergel as I cruised by.
I slowed down to about 18 or 19 mph and snathced a water bottle from a jogging volunteer. I immediately squeezed about 16oz. into my bottle and tossed it aside just in time to grab some gatorade and pour it in. Then I yelled “gel” and a kid started running down the course ready to hand it off. As I flew by I clenched the foil packet tight and reached for aerobar to upshift and start accelerating again.
It was then that I felt a thick sticky ooze running through my fingers and down the back of my hand. The kid had even gone the extra mile and opened the packet for me. By the time I realized this, my shifter was coated in thick sugary goo and my hand was basically glued to the aerobar.
At the next aid station I grabbed two bottles of water. After thirty minutes of dribbling water on my hand, bar, and shifter, I was free from the energy-gel-fly-trap.
About this same time time, I realized my right pedal cleat was loose and shifting about. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked them in months. I just hoped it was hold up through the final 50 or 60 miles.
At about mile 75 a yellow jacket flew straight into the front vent on my aero-helmet and stung me on my poor defenseless bald head. I was frantically trying to get my hand under the helmet to squash him, but didn’t want to risk a DQ from a chinstrap violation. So we buzzed along together for about 7 miles. Twenty minutes of a bee-in-my-bonnet-later, I pulled over at an aid station, dismounted, took of my helmet, and the assailant flew away into the pines.
As I pedaled back toward town, it felt great riding with a tailwind at 26-30 mph. But then the last 10 miles are right into the wind. I tried to relax and slow down on this stretch to make sure I could run off the bike.
Once I slowed, a guy pulled up along side of me and said he noticed I was shifting a lot. I was trying to explain that I was just trying to find a rhythm, but was having trouble with my cleat. Then a woman screamed and we both turned our attention back to the road. The two of us swerved away as she turned sideways, went skinny, and squealed as we narrowly missed her. Hard to imagine walking in the bike lane as a couple of thousand triathletes head your way.
T2 - BIKE to RUN TRANSITION
When I dismounted, I checked the time. 5 hours and 18 minutes. Pretty close to the 5:15 I had planned. My second transition went smoothly. Start the other Garmin, helmet off, hat and Newtons on. Out on the run course in just over three minutes.
RUN 26.2 MILES
I set off on the two-loop run course at an easy pace. I did the math and realized that to finish under 11 hours I needed pretty close to a 4 hour marathon. I aimed to hold a 9:00 per mile pace for the first 10 mile warm-up. I had the idea that I should also shoot for a sub-4 hour marathon, but didn’t want to risk overdoing it and missing my goal finish time.
Several times during the run I would suddenly hear a high-pitched “CHRIS!!!!” and see Paige and Alex waiting and waiving on the side of the road. I paused just long enough to kiss Alex on the forehead. As I ran off, I could hear the drifting away of his clanging cowbell and “godaddygo…”
The second 10 miles were a little harder and somewhere I lost some minutes. Overindulging on the pretzels at the aid station, I guess. With only about 10K to go, I realized my 11 hour goal was within reach, as long as I didn’t waste any time.
As I rounded the turn at the park to head back on my second and final lap, I walked through an aid station to drink some gatorade and water. A guy started talking to me, saying he was just on his first lap.
He had been rear-ended on the bike. He had some dizziness and they almost didn’t let him continue. He started telling me the whole story. While I was interested, I really didn’t have time to listen. But I felt bad for him and didn’t want to be rude and add to an already tough day for him.
But the second he came to stopping point, I said, “Well... good luck buddy... you’ll do great!” and launched into a run. Three miles to go I came to the sobering realization that I was in trouble. These would have to be my fastest miles of the entire day if my 11 hour goal was going to materialize.
I saw an aid station just a couple of blocks ahead. I figured that when I got there I would sip some chicken broth, do some more math and re-assess. My body was aching, my neck was stiff, my back hurt and my quads were vibrating. I realized that even if I finished in 11 hours and 5 minutes, that would be respectable. It would still be a personal record by almost an hour. I also knew no one would really care.
But then I thought about about looking at the time of 10:59:59 I had posted on my refrigerator and as a bookmark in whatever book I was currently reading. I thought about the “21.33” taped on my bike stem to remind (every time I rode) of exactly how many miles per hour I needed to ride to reach my goal. I suddenly remembered that on 7 different days in past 9 weeks I had run mile repeats on the track in the rain and thunder so I would be able to RUN today. And suddenly 11:anything just wouldn’t do.
And so I RAN.
I ran right past the aid station and said “hold chicken broth.”
I ran that mile. And the next, staying wide of the aid stations to fly by the crowds reaching for water and bananas. And when I saw the lights of the finish chute and began to hear the finish line announcer, I ran like hell.
Every muscle fiber in my legs were screaming in pain. Most of the last mile my eyes were closed. I kept them clinched shut and told myself it was just the final lap of my last mile repeat on a track day. And it ended up being my fastest mile of the day.
When I rounded the last corner, out of the dark and into the bright lights, the clamor of cow bells and the screaming crowd lining the finish chute drowned out the noise from my quads, and I ran.
Just before I hit the timing mat, I opened my eyes and looked up at the clock.
Some guy grabbed me, wrapped a mylar blanket around my shoulders and a voice boomed over the loudspeakers…
“CHRISTOPHER SEGLER……...YOU... ARE…...AN IROMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
What a way to end the day!