Lawson’s Ironman Race Report
30 June 2012
I have to start my report on June 23rd, 2012, the day before race day. Mirinda Carfrae, 2010 (and 2013!) Ironman World Champion, wasn’t competing, but was in town to do a panel, make appearances and generally be awesome. While I was out for an easy spin along the lake on Saturday, I passed her running the opposite direction toward Higgins Point. She was by herself, incognito in civilian running gear, visor, wrap-around sunglasses. By the time I got to where I’d parked, I was thinking, Higgins Point is a dead end. She’s got to come back this way. I loaded up the bike, headed back, and found her again. Now, she’s tiny (5’3″) and I’m a big guy, a little over 6’1″ and 220 pounds. I didn’t want to be this huge, star-struck goof, charging at her on the path. So, I pulled over, sat down on a rock with my phone and waited for her to run by. I said, “You’re the best,” as she ran by—I know that’s stupid. I told you I was star-struck, enough so that I flubbed the picture—and she smiled at me. So, my Ironman starts with a big smile from Mirinda Carfrae. How great it that?
In (mostly) chronological order, here’s a too-long race report for a too-long Triathlon:
It is not time to be up yet. Go back to sleep, idiot.
Now? Yes, now. One cup of coffee, some but not too much water and Gatorade G2, three packs of maple and brown sugar oatmeal. I had pre-packed all the various Transition and Special Needs bags at home on Monday using shopping bags covered with lists of contents, so I didn’t have to think about anything that morning other than remembering to bring my Garmin race computer. (It’s a watch-sized GPS unit that tracks speed, heart rate, pedaling cadence, et cetera.) Brief panic when I didn’t have my bike, then remembered checking that in with the T1 and T2 bags on Saturday. Phew. OK.
Left the hotel to be at Transition before it opened at 5:00. I get really anxious in my regular life, let alone race days. In particular, I hate to be late. We parked, then I waited about 5 minutes in line before they opened the gates. Just right.
Transition area opens. No crowd and plenty of time. Two bottles of G2 on the bike, Garmin quick-release wrist strap (for the run later) wrapped around one aero bar, Road ID around the other, one bike glove on each bar, Garmin clicked into its aero bar quick-release mount, on, reading satellites, check. Lay helmet over everything. Perfect.
I am profoundly introverted, but I’ve been forcing myself for a year to talk to anybody who’s done an Ironman, and I’ve collected some great advice. Following that, I didn’t bother bringing a bike pump. I pumped up both tires to 122 psi on Saturday right before checking the bike in. On Sunday morning, the front one felt fine. The back one—brand new tube in a brand new tire because I found a semi-questionable rock cut after the spin—that one felt a little soft, so I borrowed a pump from the guy next to me. Even better than not having to carry my own pump around, I was glad that I didn’t need to keep track of that thing as it got borrowed and re-borrowed. Good and good.
Got half in the wetsuit and my Morning Clothes bag was the 3rd or 4th one placed in that holding area. Joined my wife Judy at the spot she grabbed right next to the swim exit, had a couple of gels, and relaxed until the pros went off at 6:25.
More good advice was to get onto the beach early. I did get caught in a big jam up of 2,500 athletes trying to get to and through one set of stairs. But I had plenty of time, so I wasn’t stressed. Got down there, got water in my wetsuit, got my shoulders loose, and planted my butt on the sand to chill. Ah, “chill” might be a bad word before a sub-60° swim, but I was never cold. Remember the 220 pounds? It’s not without upside.
The swim is 2.4 miles, done in two anti-clockwise loops. I started on the left side of the beach, directly on the buoy line, about four rows back. That’s aggressive for my practiced pace, but my swim and my swim confidence have improved immensely in the last nine months thanks to some great coaching and I was ready to go for it. In for a penny, in for a pound. And I got pounded. They say the swim start is the only part of an Ironman you can’t simulate. And it’s definitely hard to describe. If you’ve ever seen footage of a commercial fishing net being hauled up full of fish, their quivering bodies sliding over one another, frantically swimming against the cinch of their shrinking universe, it feels like that kind of frenzy. I got whacked three or four times, but only once hard enough to have to roll over and fix my goggles. Soon it was all goodness.
I’d gotten the advice to look for pink caps and try to swim with women. Please forgive the generalization, but women tend to be steadier and aren’t operating under the stupid assumption that brawling is part of the sport. I don’t have that kind of energy to waste. And I’m not excellent at sighting, either. So, I swam next to women who I had judged had good form while sighting and let them sight for me. Worked great. I don’t think a single buoy I passed was farther than 10 feet away, usually less. And because I went out with the fast folks, I wasn’t delayed by having to pick my way through a bunch of blown-up clowns that I let walk off the beach before me. I did pass some folks, but for me with my “just finish” goal, it was definitely better to get passed. That didn’t even happen as much as I’d have thought. And once I was swimming with my gal pals, I wasn’t getting knocked around any more. Beatings ceased, morale improved, and I didn’t freak out until I was back on dry land.
What the what? I’d been warned not to flip out about my swim split. I don’t know if this is usually the case, or if there was a slow pro still in the water, but when my feet hit sand after my first lap the clock read 1:11 and change. Like I said, I hadn’t freaked out in the swim. I was actually pretty calm. But I didn’t have a real good feel for time and didn’t know that the 1:11 race time was 35 minutes ahead. (Or 34. They said they were going to start us at 6:59 so we could go off live on TV. Not sure if that happened or not.)
I didn’t think I was that slow, especially with so many people behind me. Then I thought that maybe it was some projected total time if we maintained the same pace—but then that didn’t make much sense either. They wouldn’t do something that vague and iffy, and I wouldn’t be that fast. Incon-CEIV-able. So… back in the water, still confused, still swimming, but still learning…
The water was cold enough to be bootie legal. That’s all fine and good. I didn’t want to wear them because I didn’t want to deal with them in transition. I was worried about cramping after the nerve inflammation trouble I’ve been having with my right foot, but I tested the temp in a light swim on Saturday and it was fine. (I did not see Mirinda Carfrae during my Saturday swim. Also didn’t see Chris Lieto in the water, but did pass him on his bike on Friday. Yes, I was in a car. Yes, he was still hard to pass. It took Lance Armstrong coming back to Triathlon to find someone who could beat Chris Lieto on the bike.) What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Booties…
The grippy stuff on the booties’ soles is great for not slipping on land, but sometimes it can abrade the waterlogged fingertips of a drafting swimmer. (As on the bike, following along in someone’s wake saves you about 30% effort.) Rubber strips, no problem. But there was one guy in particular with unique looking booties (like thin, black Uggs—they looked bulky.) that seemed to have sandpaper on the bottoms. I barrel-rolled that fool. Well, maybe I just backed off immediately and found some other feet. Anyway, everything else being equal, bare feet are better for drafting.
1:19:12 actual, accurate, for reals Age-Grouper race time
Done with the swim. Crushed it. For me. I was 1001st out of 2302 swim finishers. My pace was 1:53/100y (2:03/100m) which put me a full 10 minutes faster than my best-case projections. Happy. And lucky. I was out of the water before it got really windy and choppy. I heard some horror stories later. But at…
I took it easy along the beach and up to the grass into Transition. No booties saved me time, for sure. More so because, I’m pretty sure that instead of plopping down in front of a wetsuit stripper I flopped on my back and threw my feet up in front of someone who was supposed to guide people down the correct row of T1 bags. She seemed to have no idea how to do it. I’m not bad at it by myself, and it definitely would have been faster if I had just done it myself. Eventually, we got the wetsuit off. Real loss? Probably 15 seconds, so who cares?
Saved time and sanity by following the advice to put brightly-colored tape on my transition bags. Not sure if the volunteers were busy elsewhere stripping wetsuits they shouldn’t have been asked to strip, but I had zero help finding my T1 bag. Yellow and black stripes on the bag plus “third row, third tree” in my head made it easy. And then headed for the changing tent.
I was warned to take a deep breath before going into the changing tent. I have almost no sense of smell, and maybe it didn’t stink that bad because it wasn’t that hot yet, but I didn’t detect the promised Wall o’ Stench. But a deep breath of fresh air is always a good thing, especially after a long swim in a rubber squeeze bag.
The tent was darker than I expected. Might have been the cloud cover. It wasn’t so dark as to be a hindrance, but I was surprised. Had a good transition that went as planned with one exception: my forearms cramped when I tried to pull on my bike shorts. Clenched and seized. Only lasted about three seconds, but I guess I was being particularly ambidextrous at that moment because I got both at once, and I was a helpless T-Rex for a three-count of “ow, ow, ow.”
So, let me tell you about my dentist. He’s also a sponsored mountain bike racer who is so bad-ass that he breaks frames. (If you’re not impressed by that, he’s also so good looking, like Clooney good looking, that he’s known to many as Dr. Handsome. My wife calls him Dr. Handsome. I’m OK with that, but I call him Dr. Mike.) I was going to go with my regular bike helmet, until just a few weeks ago when Dr. Mike said, “Coeur d’Alene? All that wind? You have to get the aero helmet.” OK. I will get the aero helmet because you told me to. I’m still not going to floss. I buy the aero helmet—I’ve literally paid less for a car—and I dub it “Lightning Mike.” Race day will be the 4th time I’ve ridden with Lightning Mike. Lightning Mike is shiny and new and I do not want to ram Lightning Mike into a bag with my scratchy bike shoes and a zippered jersey. Lightning Mike should be in a velvet-lined box, draped in ermine in a humidity-controlled chamber… Or strapped to my aero bars, ready to rock, rain or shine. Yeah, that one.
I leave the tent, wobble-running in my cleats on the grass, and three different volunteers along the way call out, “You need your helmet.” Three times I say, “It’s on the bike. Thanks!” and I’m running toward the mount line with my unnamed Specialized Transition TT bike.
I finish an 11:31 T1, which is 91 seconds longer than planned, but after a great swim, I was on the bike half an hour ahead of schedule. Happy, happy.
Hit the bottom of Mica grade, which is a two-mile crawl up a 5 or 6% slope. Remember the 220 pounds? It’s not without downside. Three or four weeks earlier, I’d made the trip out to test the route on my road bike, thinking the triple chain ring up front and the giant granny gear in the back were the right call, more important than the TT bike’s aero position. That test ride, with 20 mph head winds, convinced me I needed both. I already had a “compact” 50/34t up front, so I had a new derailleur and cassette installed with a 36-tooth granny that gave me the same .94 gear ratio for climbing. Sooo glad to forego the grind and burn and instead spin my way up Mica at 85+ rpm. Hmm. I should have warned you that I was going to geek out on equipment. Next time. Deal? Deal.
Meanwhile, Back on the Plateau…
Mistake #1: Incomplete sunscreen. I had some in my transition bag, and it did make it into my jersey pocket. The volunteers got my face/neck/arms in T1—Ladies stand there with latex gloves they dip into casserole pans full of sunscreen—but I skipped the legs thinking I’d do it on the bike. I didn’t get to that until more than two hours later, sometime after the second turnaround up on the plateau. The self-application while moving worked for my quads and right lower leg, but I missed my left lower leg without realizing that fact. I ended up with a pretty bad sunburn on my left calf.
Mistake #2: Batteries? We don’t need no stinkin’ batteries. The heart rate monitor strap around my chest was dead before T1. Might have lost pairing/sync with the computer unit, but it’s probably the battery. It’s not supposed to lose its mind in the water, but I’ve had trouble with that before. Either way, it worked out fine because fortunately I’ve been training with a PowerTap.
Geek warning: If you don’t like numbers or technology, just know that the bike went very well and skip the rest of this paragraph. Still with me? Cool. Watts, just like for light bulbs, are a unit of power. Your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is how many Watts you can crank out steadily for an hour. On a local test ride with about the same amount of climbing, I held 187W for 60 minutes. Going at a lesser percentage of your FTP is the standard advice for endurance events. I went for 155W because this is aaall daaay and after I ride my bike for 112 miles, I do still have to go run a marathon. The good advice I got, beyond using the power meter and riding that constant wattage, was to have the bike computer report the overall average watts and watch that number too. That would tell me if I’m spacing out and going too hard or not hard enough. I went out a little too hard (which is better than the way too hard that I usually go out.) Shooting for about 155W, I averaged 177W for 3:22 on the first half. I was much lower on the second lap, somewhat by necessity but mostly by intent to make sure I didn’t burn myself out. I felt good about my time, so I cranked it back from pushing too hard to just pushing. The second lap took 3:55 for a total bike time of 7:17 and an overall average wattage of 158 Watts. Groovy.
Somewhere after the 4th turnaround, on a gradual downhill with a nice tailwind, I was resting my back, sitting up and riding with no hands while I applied ChapStick, took some pills, drank some Perform, ate some Tums, then nursed a gel I knew I needed to eat but had lost the taste for. A guy rode by who I guess had been watching me for a while as he caught up. He said, “That’s pretty impressive. I’m not gonna lie.” I delivered newspapers every day for 6 years as a kid, so I forget that not everybody could fall asleep on their bicycles. It was a nice little boost when I already felt pretty good.
After the self-supported test ride on the road bike took nine hours, I was worried about making the 5:30 bike cut-off. So, at 3:48 on race day, figuring I’ll be through T2 by 4:00, I’m 90 minutes ahead of schedule and super happy at this point.
Transition 2 went pretty well, but
Mistake #3: I hadn’t set my Garmin 310XT to multi-sport mode. What? I picked that model because it does multi-sport. I’ve practiced using multi-sport. OK. Whatever. I stopped and saved the Bike file, switched the mode over to Run and gave it a chance to try to reconnect with the Heart Rate monitor. Nope. So, I ditched the HR strap, and took off. Judy had found a spot along the exit chute, so I gave her a quick smooch and headed out on…
The “run.” I have nothing good to say about the run except that the sunset is beautiful over the lake and those speedy people don’t get to see that. I was worried about the inflamed nerve bundle in my foot. Even with physical therapy (PT), it kept me out of my run class and any Tri Team practices with running for six weeks before the big event. PT and PT and PT. Short tests. Ten-minute treadmill runs including warm-up. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. While I was supposed to be tapering from training runs of 22 miles with hills, I was building up to 25 minutes on a level treadmill. “If I feel good, can I do 30 minutes?” “No.” “If I feel OK with 12-minute miles, can I—” “No.”
In those practice runs, it had been taking up to 15 minutes for the foot to warm up, spread out, and stop being uncomfortable (who cares?) and a danger of causing damage (oh, I guess I care.) Those known issues ended up being no problem. I learned this Wednesday in PT that what I thought was my knee hobbling me in the marathon was actually the hamstring at the attachment point low on the right side below the knee. It’s not a major pull, probably something I did during the race, but a pull explains why my attempts to massage and stretch out what felt like a seizing cramp didn’t help. During the marathon, it didn’t matter what it was; it only mattered that I couldn’t run without a pretty severe amount of pain. Luckily I had just shy of eight hours to work with. I used seven and a half.
At the start, I did run through town, driven by the crowd’s relentless enthusiasm, my own pride, and a focus on the lack of pain in my foot. But I was walking before the first mile marker. From there it was a sequence of deals, negotiations and calculations. I tried running through it, and could have done that for a while, maybe a long while, but I thought it might break my spirit. And I had time to work with, so I didn’t have to do that to finish. So, I started running until my knee really hurt, then walking until it didn’t. Wash, rinse, repeat. The Garmin file says I did that 14 times. Each cycle took more time for the knee to stop hurting. I walked up the hills and I ran down. I did that until I couldn’t do that anymore either.
My running is slow anyway, between 5 and 6 mph for anything over 9 miles. I set the Garmin to show me my average speed and tried to maintain an overall average of 4.0 mph doing my walk/run thing. I kept that up through the first half. And then I had the confidence of someone who understands asymptotes. Three-and-a-half mph over 8 hours gets it done. Half at 4 mph, averaged against half at 3 gets it done. I still tried to walk above 3.5, building my buffer and shooting for 11 o’clock instead of midnight. What I didn’t know is that my hamstring would have me pumping my arms—haaard—just to try to maintain 3 mph on the pitch black walk back to town. My right knee was basically not bending, and my left IT band was really complaining about the work it had to do to compensate. March, march, march.
The second-hardest part was 9 miles from the end. A guy coming the other way was telling the person he was walking with that they had only 3 miles to go before they’d be back in town. The marathon course is an “out-and-back” you do twice. You go out a bit more than 6 miles, come back those 6+, go out again 6+, and come back the 6+. Where we were when those guys had 3 miles to get back to town, I had 3 to go away before I’d have to cover them again coming back to get right here where I was. The whole day, I’d been racing my own race, so I wasn’t comparing my position to theirs. But. At that moment we were in the same place, and I had three hours to go. I don’t remember this, but the data file says at that point I ran for all of thirty seconds. I didn’t try to run again until the very end. Trudge, trudge, trudge.
“You’re going to do it,” people said along the way. Everyone is so supportive. “You got this.” I knew the math and knew they were right. An hour later, after that last turn-around, when I was finally headed back to town, I started doing other people’s math, the folks who were still headed away. “You got it,” I said to the first dozen or so. Then I stopped saying it, because unless they were on a walking break and were still doing some running, they didn’t have plenty of time; they weren’t going to make it. And at some point, there just wasn’t anybody heading out the other direction. I don’t know if they ran the calculations themselves and quit, or if the officials clued them in, but suddenly there was no one to cheer on and no one to worry about but myself. And I was slowing down. But except once to stretch and a few bathroom breaks, I never stopped, and I never once thought of quitting. Time-wise, this marathon was not a spectacular athletic achievement, but I’m proud of the fact that I never wanted to quit.
The hardest part was the last half of a mile. I basically couldn’t walk. I was running through the dark, nearly-deserted neighborhood at less than walking speed, 2.7 mph according to the Garmin. I was pumping my arms, telling myself—out loud—to pump my arms, to keep going. I could hear Mike O’Reilly announcing people’s names. Someone close said, “You got it. Last turn.” I recognized the library and knew where I was.
And I remembered one last bit of advice I’d received from nearly everyone I’d talked to who had done an Ironman: prep for your picture. I made sure there wasn’t crud on my face, that my shirt was straight and my race belt wasn’t wonky. Glasses off, visor raised a bit off my face. I gritted my teeth to hide the pain and prepped to punch it and create the illusion that I was finishing strong. My wife Judy shot some video of me coming in, and it looks like a jog, but that’s my run, topping out at an excruciating 6.5 mph. I put on the game face, pretending there was nothing wrong with my knee and gunned it for the lights.
Those last blocks were great. A group of four was half a minute ahead of me and the road was open, filled only with the cheers of the crowd and Mike O’Reilly’s voice announcing names. I ran tall, soaked up the energy, and forgot about my knee. He announced my name while I was still in the dark, said I was a first timer from Kirkland, Washington as I strode into the light. He said, those words I’d been waiting to hear—working to hear—for a year. “You are an Ironman.” I slowed to shake his hand, and he gave me a big grin. I started with a smile from Mirinda Carfrae and ended with a smile from Mike O’Reilly.
I said, “Thanks, Mike,” and crossed the line at 16:30:14. Amazing.
My birthday is the second-to-last day of the year, so I’m almost certainly the youngest 44-year-old pulled by the USAT regulations into the 45-49 age group for this Ironman. But them’s the rules, so… I came in 224th out of 234 finishers. Ten guys in my age group quit or didn’t make the bike cut-off. Five more quit after the swim. There were quite a few who didn’t start, but I’m not ever going to tally up that number because I would have to include Jeff Tankersley, the man who was killed by a car two weeks before the event. Tankersley. I bet his friends called him “Tank.” Maybe “Tanker.” I thought I would cry when I finished, or at some point during the struggle. I didn’t. But I teared up on the beach during the moment of silence for Jeff Tankersley. And again, thinking about him now. Physically, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s amazing how strong we can be, but also how fragile we are. I’m so grateful to be (sore but) healthy, to have had this opportunity, and for all the support and encouragement from so many people. Nobody does this alone. Nobody ever really does anything alone.