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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ironman St. George 2012 Race Report

Since the Houston Marathon a couple of months ago, my sports medicine practice has been too busy to keep up with the training. Overworked and moderately trained, I even had to skip Ironman 70.3 Oceanside due to a sinus infection. That particular illness left me with a period of about two weeks with zero exercise.

Since that time I had been ramping back up on the run training and putting in about 150 to 200 miles per week on the bike. However, I have only been swimming one time since last October. That short swim in San Francisco Bay at least let me remember that I did know how to swim, while pointing out my lack of fitness.

Yet in spite of my significant lack of condition, I decided to show up for Ironman St. George and take my beating like a man.

On race morning my alarm went off at 3:45 AM. I had my coffee, banana and peanut butter jelly sandwich. I grabbed my things and headed off to transition.

While walking through transition, I saw Meredith Kessler. “Hey Doctor Chris!” she said. I stopped and said, “OK Meredith, I can feel it, it’s going to be just like Ironman Canada. I will be just heading out on the marathon and you will be coming in for the win. So when you hear me screaming Go Meredith Go you will know you have another championship under your belt.

I checked my run gear bag in T2, dropped off the special needs bags and waited in line to board a school bus.

After about a 20 minute bus ride from T2 to the swim start, a engaged in the standard routine of finding some friends to talk to while waiting around for the start, trying not to feel anxious.

Swim 2.4 miles

Because I had only been swimming one time in the last 6 months my strategy was simple: get in the very back of the pack, find some clear water, and stay out of the way. I was actually looking forward to the swim, because I knew that it would be a real adventure. I was confident that I would complete the swim however was unsure how long it would take even my poor physical condition. I decided that I would relax and enjoy the day instead of worrying about time specific goals.

I treaded water amongst a group of athletes who looked far more nervous than I was. The cannon went off and away we went.

The swim went relatively well until I made the first turn. Only moments after I rounded the red buoy, I felt as if a large barge had floated by, bumping us in its wake. A few moments later and I encountered the same sensation again. It was then that I realized these were actually swells, not rescue boats causing wake. At that point, I still enjoyed it, thinking that it would make it more of an adventure.

But as I rounded the next red buoy things changed. The buoy, which normally looks like a floating pyramid, was being blown so hard in the wind that it appeared to be upside down, tugging at its mooring. Just as I was making the corner, I watched a rescue kayak flipped over on top of a group of swimmers. A large rescue boat was bobbing precariously and drifting out of control toward the athletes.

Rounding the second red turn buoy sent us heading down a one mile mile straightaway, directly into 3-5 foot swells. This was more adventure than I had bargained for. It seemed like about half the time I would swing my arm over my head I would drop off the side of a wave swinging into empty air. The waves were so big that I couldn’t even see the course.

At one point I started to tread water in order to wait until I was on top of a wave to see the course. I spotted a yellow buoy and took off after it. I would later learn that some of the course buoys had been ripped from their moorings and were blown off course. This made sense since I felt like it one point I was swimming 90° to the proper direction.

Further down the reservoir I noticed that there were about 30 or 40 athletes standing on a tiny sandstone island. I assumed that they were all standing there in order to get a visual and figure out where the course was going. But as I approached them I realize no one was jumping back in. They were all waiting for a rescue.

It was about this time that I heard another athlete screaming. I looked up and there was this guy treading water with a look of terror on his face. He looked at me and said, “how do I get a rescue boat?”

“Waive your arms above your head!” I said.

He responded with, “I can’t I have to tread water.”

I tried to reassure him, “Well you are wearing a wetsuit so you couldn’t possibly sink even if you wanted to. It will be okay. Now I’m sorry but I have to go.”

He was waving one hand over his head as I swam away.

A little bit later I started floating the try to get on top of a wave and get a visual on the end of the straightaway. I saw 4 or 5 yellow buoys stretching way down the reservoir. I couldn’t believe that I had that far to go before I made the last turn. I had already been swimming for an hour and a half. I am usually out of T1 at this point. Did I get lost?

Eventually I made the last turn and headed toward the swim exit. I crawled out of the water it one hour and 58 min. My slowest time by a long shot.

As soon as the wetsuit strippers pulled off my wet suit, I was freezing in the breeze. Not wanting to re-visit my hypothermia episode of Ironman Canada, I elected to sit in the sun and out of the wind for about 10 minutes in order to dry off before I got on the bike.

Bike 112 miles

For the first 40 miles or so we seem to be heading either uphill or directly into a headwind. Every time I looked down, I was going either 6 or 7 mph. I’m normally going about 20.

Another athlete pulled up next to me and said, “Do you realize that we might not make the bike cut-off?”

Given that I am usually in the top 20% on the bike leg, that was a thought that simply never would have never occurred to me.

I looked at him and said, “Well, when we hit that downhill I plan on making up some time.”

He expressed his concern about the wind and getting blasted in the crosswinds on a speedy descent with deep dish wheels. We were both riding 80mm rims. He explained that he had not been riding much in windy conditions with those wheels.

“Well today is your lucky day,” I said, “I ride in the wind all the time. The gusts are terrain dependent. All you have to do is stay about 100 feet behind me and watch for when I get blasted across the road. It will help to be ready for the coming gust. You probably won’t crash, even if it feels like you will. You just have to be prepared. Watch me and you’ll be ready.”

Up over “The Wall” and away we went! At one point I looked down and I was going 50.5 mph. We were making up time indeed. The downhill must’ve gone for 10 or 15 miles. Suddenly I wasn’t so worried about the cutoff anymore.

Unfortunately we had to do another loop that included the brutal uphill. The wind was better on the 2nd lap but still a serious speed killer. As we got to the long climb that included “The Wall” I made the mistake of looking up. And there ahead of me, to my dismay, a full 50% of all the athletes had dismounted and WALKING their bikes up the hill.

I decided I just wouldn’t walk. I figured it would be easier to survive the lactate thrashing of grinding much easier than the ego bashing of walking. Man did it hurt.

But then we had the long downhill and flat section heading back to transition. Plenty of time to spin the spent legs out.

Back at T2, I hopped off the bike and realized I had been pedaling for 7 hours and 42 minutes. More than two hours longer than my typical Ironman pace.

The only good news was that I had been carefully monitoring my power meter and had been staying well within my limits, so my legs felt relatively fresh. While in transition, I did the math and realized that one benefit of a bike split that was 7 hours 42 minutes long is that it makes it mathematically impossible to have a run split that is longer than your bike split.

Run 26.2 miles

Knowing that the run would have some uphill and downhill section my plan was to run the flats, run the down hills and walk the uphills. Within minutes of heading onto the run course, I was passed by Meredith Kessler. “GOOOOOO MEREDITH GOOOO!” She waived and shot around the corner toward the finish chute. I could hear Mike Riley announcing her win.

Soon I was caught by Faith Bolliger from the SF Tri Club. “Can you run Segler?” I had the pleasure of riding with her for several miles. It was great to have a familiar face and someone to talk to. But then I had a long uphill in my run slowed to a walk. And away she went…

My plan was all going well until 11 miles into the run. I was craving salt and had been eating handfuls of pretzels. But then I started to eat handfuls of potato chips as well. I could tell that this was a bad idea so I decided to back off, before my stomach revolted.

Right about that time, I was walking through an aid station when a little girl who was about age 6 or 7 said, “ would you like a cookie?”

“Nooooo, none for me thanks.”

She batted her big blue eyes and looked up at me with her head tilted sideways, disappointment verging on tearfulness, and said, “But they’re home-made. They’re really good...I promise!”

And I caved under the pressure.

“You you know what, on second thought.. thank you so much for making these cookies it’s really nice of you to be out here today. I will have one. And thank you very much!”

With every bite, it was like a swirling mental conflict. It tasted so good, and yet I knew it was such a bad idea. But down it went.

Within about 5 minutes, it felt as though someone had thrown a hand grenade in my stomach.

For the next 15 miles, I walked. And every time I tried to run, I was doubled over on the side of the road heaving.

In case you haven’t tried it, it takes an incredibly long time to go 15 miles if you’re walking. But I kept up my pace enough to ensure that I would get in before midnight, lest I turn into a pumpkin.

And with less than half an hour to go I dug out the strength to run while fought back the cookie. I ran down the final stretch, into the finish chute, and heard crowds cheering louder than I could’ve thought possible. So it is true, they do cheer loudest for those that finished latest.

At 16 hours and 38 minutes I crossed the finished. And there was Meredith, the 2012 Ironman St. George Champion, who finished about 6 hours earlier. “Hey Doc!” she said smiling as she hung my finisher medal around my neck.

I started to laugh out loud. A great end to a very long day. It had been a grand adventure indeed.

Postlude

Once it was all over, I would learn of the carnage. The final episode of Ironman St. George had a 29% DNF rate...the worst ever. 80 athletes were rescued during the swim. 40mph wind gusts caused 269 fail to finish the bike. Another 61 would drop out of the run. Postings all over the web were calling it the “hardest Ironman in history.”

I’m not sure if that label is really true, but it was certainly the hardest for me. It was the slowest time for me in every single leg. Even slower than my very first Ironman.

But there is always tomorrow. So I got home and signed up for Ironman Texas...seeking redemption in less than two weeks. And this time, I think I’ll pass on the cookie.


Dr. Christopher Segler is a 7-time Ironman triathlon finisher. He is also a San Francisco based sports medicine specialist and foot surgeon. His practice focuses exclusively on providing the best treatments available for the rapid treatment of running injuries. His goal is to help runners and triathletes stay fit while recovering from injury as fast as possible. He makes house calls for busy athletes in San Francisco, Mill Valley, Tiburon, Berkeley, and Oakland. You can learn about running injuries at AnkleCenter.com and DocOnTheRun.com

2 comments:

  1. Hi My Running Dog, I just found this post - it is a great story. My son promised that he would not go into the medical tent, so he bailed at 10 miles into the run, but we'll be doing Lake Placid together in July, which pleases me. He did the swim in 1:07, 10 minutes slower than usual, which told me something was up, and when he described the bike loop after the race (he is a very strong cyclist),I knew that it was one hell of a race. The runners that made it seemed to be doing fine. You did well to finish that one. CONGRATULATIONS, SIR! -k (FitOldDog)

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  2. Sorry I wrote dog instead of doc, my mistake. -k

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