Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ironman Florida - the mental game

This past year of training and racing has been dedicated to my brother Jeff Griffis and his family. Sadly, Jeff passed away in April of 2015 after a 3 year battle with cancer. Please read THIS to learn more and help his children.


I debated writing up a race report for my day at Ironman Florida 2015, since another "swim/bike/run" post just didn't excite me much. I finally decided I would write something to capture the experience before my memory faded, especially given everything that had led up to that point. If I was going to write something, though; it was going to be something a little different. Instead of the normal race report perspective of "here's what happened", I decided to describe things more in terms of the thoughts and emotions that went through my mind. Capturing the mental/emotional aspect of the race seemed like something that might be a little more interesting. Maybe not so interesting for anyone else besides me, but then again I'm under no delusion that these long, boring race reports are truly interesting to many people anyway :)

(Along those lines; if you would like to skip the detailed race report and just read about the results, see the paragraph in bold text towards the bottom of this post)

Before jumping in to race day - I will backtrack just briefly to the day before the race (Friday). I found myself sitting in the living area of our rented condo with my wife Susie, my mom and her friend Fred, my two nephews David and Neal, and David's wife Johanita. Everything was all set in terms of race preparation, and everyone was just sitting around and talking; catching up on the new and reminiscing about the old. As I sat there, I found myself thinking that this was what really made this earthly life special - good, quality time with family and friends. That was not necessarily a new revelation to me, but it was truly making me wonder why I was going to spend the entire next day doing an Ironman triathlon instead of just enjoying the sun and beach with my family! That feeling was undoubtedly boosted by the thoughts of Jeff, and the emotions surrounding the Ironman Chattanooga race I had done just six weeks earlier. Ah well, too far down the road to turn back... For now, it was time to get some sleep and see what the next day would bring.

The next morning, I was still feeling a little lack of motivation. I was honestly having a hard time getting revved up to expend the 12 hours of intense physical and mental effort it was going to take to complete the Ironman. I had signed up for Ironman Florida as a secondary race; both to take advantage of the months of training I knew I had to go through to complete Chattanooga, and also as a backup plan in case I had not done very well (or not finished at all). And that part had worked out perfectly, as I felt like I was physically well recovered and prepared. What was not going so perfectly was my mental state.... I just had to hope it would pass, as I suspected it would once the race got going.

Since we were staying at a condo very close to the race start, I was able to break up the morning preparations into two parts. Part one was to take my bike pump and gear to the transition area and get my bike ready to go. That all went fairly uneventfully, and once I was satisfied that everything was set; I headed back to the condo to drop off the bike pump and extra gear. Everyone was awake at the condo when I returned, so I was able to say good morning and get a few words of encouragement. Then, as race time approached, it was time for the final preparations. I grabbed my swim gear and headed towards the starting area just down the beach. Seeing that the Gulf of Mexico had some good-sized waves and swells didn't do a lot to improve my sub-par motivation. I'm a decent swimmer, but that is my weakest discipline; and I wasn't really thrilled to have it be any more difficult than necessary. Not that the water looked rough or dangerous by any means, I just knew that it was going to take a little more work and be a little slower swim. And after the cramps I had during the swim at Chattanooga, I was still a little concerned that the same thing could happen here.

I didn't have much time to contemplate the waves, though. After just a few minutes I was standing in the swim corral, getting ready to head into the water. By now, I was surrounded by a sea of fellow triathletes, but just felt like keeping to myself. If you've ever been standing in the middle of hundreds of people, but felt like you were somehow in a different/isolated place; then you know where my head was at. When the starting horn sounded I just walked along with everybody else until I got through the Start Line arch and then made my way into the water to start navigating the waves. The biggest emotion I felt when I hit the water was relief to finally be underway! The mental journey leading here had started back in September of 2014 when I signed up for IM Chattanooga. The physical (training) journey had started within a couple months of that. And now, at last, it was time for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place.

(View of swim start from balcony)

As the swim progressed, I fell into a nice rhythm, working to keep a steady pace and trying to avoid getting caught in the middle of any large packs (mainly by staying a little outside of the buoy line). Cramping was definitely on my mind, so I made a conscious effort to occasionally flex my foot and kick/shake my legs to keep things loose. I rounded the first turn buoy, and then it was a fairly short distance paralleling the beach to get to the second turn buoy and head back towards shore. At that point I felt pretty relaxed, no signs of cramping, just having a nice uneventful swim. That peaceful state was momentarily interrupted, however, as I closed in on the beach... I didn't realize I was close enough to be in the breakers, and was caught off guard when a good-sized wave picked me up and then pushed me down under the water as it crashed. It wasn't really traumatic or scary, but it did knock my goggles off kilter and disorient me for a few seconds. I used the next couple of breakers to my advantage, did a little body surfing and made it to the shoreline. As I got out of the water, I looked at my Garmin and saw that I was a little over 42 minutes for that first lap... yikes! Not exactly what I had hoped for... I guess the waves, swells, and currents had more of an impact than I had realized. That pace was going to put me at about 1 1/2 hours for the swim; after having gone 1:02 at Ironman Chattanooga (admittedly a very fast, downstream swim; but still...).

Being back on the beach between swim loops provided an opportunity to stretch out the legs a bit and grab some water to rinse out the dry salty taste from the Gulf. Then it was a short run/walk down the beach to the starting point for the second loop, making my way through the breakers again; and finally back into normal swimming mode. I'll admit that I was feeling somewhat discouraged at my swim time, and that probably caused me to take a little more time than I should have getting through the breakers and back into full swim mode. Never underestimate the mental aspect of an Ironman!

The second loop of the swim felt more comfortable, and I started coming out of my mental funk. I just kept cruising along keeping the arms churning... no cramping and no other issues. It did seem like the last section heading towards the beach was going slow, though (I think there may have been a fairly strong undercurrent pushing against us). Not much changed in terms of my overall pace, however; and I got out of the water at just over 1 1/2 hours. In addition to the effect of the waves and currents, I later found that the swim distance may have been a little bit long as well. My Garmin recorded the swim at an extra 500 yards longer than the expected 2.4 miles. Measuring distance is tricky in the water, but as a comparison, it only registered an extra 150 yards at Chattanooga. Just sayin'...

All excuses aside; Ironman is a long day, and you have to take each moment as it comes... you can't worry about what you've already done or mistakes you've already made. So, the swim was behind me and now it was time to focus on the bike! I wasn't going to beat myself up over the slow swim or deviate from my planned effort on the bike. And I did get another nice mental boost as I headed into transition and was able to see my family again : )

As I started switching to my bike gear in the changing tent, the main concern running through my head was that I would have some type of bike issue (mainly flats); especially after the bike gearing issues I had at Chattanooga. I tried to move quickly, but not in a panic; and after just a couple of minutes I was headed out of the tent to find my bike and get underway with the bike leg.

I had barely made it a mile into the bike ride when I started hearing a sound like air escaping from the front tire... ugh!!! I quickly pulled over to the side of the road to see what was going on. The tire still felt full, and I could no longer hear the hissing sound, nor could I feel anything wrong with the tire; so I got back on the road and started riding again. The sound came back immediately, which I tried to ignore for a few minutes. Finally, I pulled over a second time to do a quick tire check (rather than risk a blowout at 20+ mph) - still nothing wrong. OK, good... I think...  That sound ended up continuing for the next couple of hours, until I finally got a gleam in the sunlight that identified the culprit - a piece of scotch tape! I was able to grab it off the brakes while moving (kids, don't try this at home); and was relieved to have found and removed the source.

Other than my fun with the scotch tape, the bike ride went very smoothly. Ironman Florida has an revised one loop bike course with only one short (7-8 miles) section where you do an out and back; so I just stayed in aero position, cruising along at a steady pace and checking my HR every once in a while to make sure I was staying within my plan.

That short out and back section I referred to starts a little after mile 70 of the course. There was a little bit of a headwind and a slight uphill going out, so it was a great feeling when I hit the turnaround to head back the other way. I was down to the last 35 miles of the bike; and now I would have some downhill and wind at my back... Hooray! I felt like I was cruising pretty steady at that point, my legs felt strong and overall I was feeling very good (post-race check of my Garmin shows I was averaging around 21 to 22 miles per hour in that section, and still staying well within my target HR range).

Between mile 80 and 90 is where the head games started to kick in. I was still feeling good, but getting slightly frustrated at the perceived rate at which the miles were ticking away... "Where is the mile 90 marker, I should be there by now!". I was moving plenty fast - it's just a mind game where it feels like things are moving slower and it will take forever to finish. That had really built up by the time I got into the last 5 or 6 miles and was winding my way through the beachfront roads... I was looking ahead after every turn thinking that surely this was the final stretch into the bike finish! Impatience aside, I still felt strong coming into the last couple of miles, and I knew that I should still be able to have a strong run. I ended up finishing with the fastest Ironman bike split I'd ever had (5:38), and slightly under my HR target. Nice!

My transition from bike to run provides some insight into the confusion that is created after many hours of hard physical exertion. First of all, I just didn't have the mental energy or focus to look at my Garmin to see what my exact bike split was. I simply hit the lap button to start the transition time and kept moving. I knew I had done fairly well, but all my brain could handle was to switch out of bike mode and start preparing for the run. The second and more telling sign of confusion came after I had exited the changing tent. My brain was signaling me that something was not right; and I finally realized I did not have my visor. And worse yet, it was only *after* I ran back into the tent and found my visor (on the chair where I left it) that I realized I had also left behind my race belt/number bib! I thought I was perfectly fine (relatively speaking), so I was a bit shocked that I had taken off and left those items behind. The visor I could live without, but the race belt and number was pretty important! Just another hiccup in a long day, so I grabbed the visor and belt and headed out for the run (a second time)...

Foremost on my mind as I started the run was the knowledge that my wife and family would be waiting just down the road in front of our condo. By that point in the race, it is a HUGE boost of motivation and emotional lift to see your loved ones. As I ran up to them, I took a few moments to get some encouragement and high fives and a kiss from my wife, and then I was off to run the remaining 25+ miles.

The first section of the run course goes down one of the beach side roads lined with a number of smaller condos, and there are a number of people that come out to cheer all the competitors. After that, the run course winds its way through some neighborhood streets, as you head towards St Andrews State Park. There are a a few official aid stations in that section, as well as some "unofficial" aid stations set up by people camped out in front of their homes. The volunteers and spectators were fantastic; they line up down the roads yelling and cheering to provide encouragement and motivation. I didn't know any of them, and they didn't know me; but it still provided a nice emotional boost. A big thank you to all of the people that make that effort!

St Andrews Park is the last part of the run course before you turnaround to complete the first loop. I was feeling good and enjoying the scenic views in the park, with the only downside being the lack of crowd support. The quietness wasn't all bad, though; as it allowed me to just focus on my running and take stock of how I was feeling.

Coming out of the park, I headed back through the neighborhoods and beach roads to complete the first 13.1 mile loop. Through that first half of the run, things were going very smoothly; and I was running a nice, steady pace - averaging around 8:30/mile. I could feel some fatigue setting in, but pace and HR were holding steady and there was no cramping. Since my wife and family were positioned near the turnaround point, I had two opportunities to see them; once as I finished the first loop, and then again as I headed out for the second. That was a definite highlight and emotional boost; but I still had a little over 12 miles of running to go, and from that point on it going to be a solitary effort until the finish.

I made my way back through the neighborhoods and then the beachfront condo section, still feeling relatively strong and running at a good pace and HR. But I could tell that my fatigue level was reaching critical mass, and my stomach had started feeling upset and was cramping. I slowed down a little to try and hold it off, but by mile 19 the body was winning the battle with my mind. They say it's "mind over matter", but sometimes matter can really kick your @##... I was forced to do a little walking at that point, which I would do until I felt good enough to run for a bit. Walk some, run some...Lather, rinse, repeat. Looking back at my actual run splits; the walking wasn't as bad, or as long, as it felt at the time. My pace was around 11:00/mile for miles 19 and 20; back to 8:39 for mile 21; and continued back and forth like that until the last couple of miles, which I ran at just under a 9:00/mile pace. Perhaps if I did not have any stomach issues or fatigue I might have been 5-10 minutes faster on the run overall, but everyone has their limits - and I had reached mine.

One weird thing about those periods where you are forced to slow down is that in some ways, it is actually more enjoyable. For one thing, as you slow down there ends up being more interaction with other racers and spectators. Just simple quick chats about how things are going, what a crazy thing this is to do, etc.; but definitely more camaraderie than you have when you're full steam ahead. Also, you are able to soak in the experience and reflect on things a little more. I spent a lot of that reflection time thinking about Jeff, and other family and friends that had been impacted by cancer and other catastrophic events. There were two trains of thought that were running through my mind. First, given the very real trials and suffering that Jeff and others had gone through; I was not about to feel sorry for myself or quit over any short term pain and discomfort that I was feeling. It's hard to explain, but I felt it like I owed it to Jeff and the others to push through and conquer the physical battle. I felt like anything short of my best effort would somehow dishonor what they had gone through. And second, it really hit me what a blessing it was to be alive and healthy, and have the ability to participate in an event like this. I hope I never take that for granted.

The last couple of miles I had worked through my physical issues and was cruising along steadily and closing in on the finish line. In that final stage, the physical and mental fatigue starts giving way to a combination of joy and relief and anticipation that can be somewhat overwhelming. All of the emotion of the day (really the whole year) started to hit home, as I realized that the end of the long journey was in sight... I am about to complete my 6th Ironman! No more training and racing (for now)! I can stop running and relax and enjoy my wife and family! I can sit and eat and drink! I can take a nice, hot shower!!!

And suddenly... there I was; cruising through the finisher chute! I stopped briefly when I saw my family for a quick celebration and kiss from my wife; and then ran the last few steps to cross the finish line. I had completed the marathon run in just over 4 hours (4:02), and had an official finisher's time of 11:28:22. That was a great result for me, and I was overall very pleased (although I have to be honest that I was still wishing I could have gotten a few minutes back on the swim). I had my fastest times ever on both the bike and the run, and came within 5 minutes of matching by best overall Ironman time. I can't complain about results like that coming just after turning 53 years old :)

Post-race is a bit of a blur, as my mind and body immediately went into shutdown/recovery mode. I'd have to say that the strongest emotion I felt in that first hour was simply relief at being done! After getting through the finish area and collecting my hat, t shirt, and medal; my family found me and we sat for a few minutes while I drank some water and tried to recover a bit. I was very chilly, it was dark by then and the body doesn't do a good job of heating itself when it is that fatigued (plus my trisuit was soaking wet). Then I went and tried to down a couple of pieces of pizza and a soda, after which we all walked back to the condo and I had a nice long shower. My plan was to go back to the finish line and watch/cheer for the racers still on the course, but it was raining pretty hard by then and I just wasn't up for standing in the rain. So, I went ahead and took an ice bath and headed to bed for some much-needed sleep.

Since the theme of this post is the mental side of things, I'll end with some thoughts on how I feel now that both Ironman races are done. I set out to complete the first Ironman (IM Chattanooga) on behalf of my brother, with a goal of raising awareness and funds for the trust to benefit his children. I certainly wish he was still around to have been there, but I was honored to do the race in his memory; and there are absolutely no doubts or second thoughts in that regard. I would do it all over with no hesitation. This second Ironman (IM Florida) was added to the mix in case something went awry in Chattanooga, and also to get a little more benefit out of the significant cost and toll that it takes to train for an Ironman. I am pleased that I did well, and appreciate the blessing of having the circumstances, ability, and health that allowed me to complete both races. If I had the ability to see the future and know that Chattanooga would go as it did, perhaps I would have foregone Florida. But then again, it did give me the ability to spend some time with my mom and two nephews; and my wife and I had a great time in Florida in the following days visiting the Two Tails Elephant Ranch and visiting some of her family. Plus, I was able to return to the scene of the original crime (my first Ironman in 2007 was Ironman Florida), which felt like an appropriate way to end the year.

So, what's next and will I do any more IM's? I'm not really sure... although I will certainly keep doing triathlons and running. It is something that I enjoy, and it gives me goals that help keep me healthy; something all the more important as I get older. Speaking of age, that can mess with one's mind a bit... On the one hand, I sometimes think that I'm getting too old for this and I should back off; do less training and stick with the occasional sprint or olympic distance triathlon. On the other hand, the thought of losing the fitness and endurance, and never being able to get it back, is pretty scary. I really do not want to become the out of shape old man telling stories of how I used to be a triathlete. There are no more IM's for the foreseeable future, though, that much I am fairly certain of. As much as I enjoy triathlon training and racing, there are so many things in life that are far more important - and I need to get back some life balance (right, Susie?). Ironman training takes an incredible amount of time, and in the end you are banking on everything working out on that one particular day. One minor injury or illness, a bike malfunction, issues with the weather... and all that training can end up being for naught (both IM Chattanooga and IM FL would likely have been canceled if they had been held the next day; as both times the next day had monsoon-like rain). For now, I will take some time and enjoy the memories of the journey over the last year, and the successful completion of the goals that I had set out achieve. And given the reason that the journey started in the first place, I will make sure that my wife, children, family, and friends all know how much I love and appreciate them.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Ironman Chattanooga 2015: Not about me...

Before I start with the actual race report, the most important thing about this Ironman is that it was planned and raced in honor and memory of my brother, Jeff Griffis; who passed away in April after a 3 year battle with colon cancer. Please take a moment to read the information in the linked YouCaring page below - and consider for a moment if you would be willing to help his children:

Jeffrey Griffis Memorial Trust

For those of you who want the "cut to the chase" version:
I participated in Ironman Chattanooga on September 27th, and finished with an overall time of 11:38. It was quite an adventure; including a sinus/bronchitis/asthma issue that had me coughing and hacking through the entire day, leg cramps during the swim (yes, really...), bike gear shifting issues that nearly ended the day just a few miles into the bike, and a rough patch on the run between miles 17 and 23. I was determined to honor Jeff with my full 100% effort, though; and I managed to stay fairly steady and finish right around the time that I had expected/hoped for. In retrospect - perhaps the hurdles and difficulties were meant to be; as I know that Jeff fought much bigger, harder, and more important issues... so why should my day have been smooth or easy?!?

Now for the longer version:
I was more nervous and anxious leading up to this Ironman than any of the four that I had done prior. The main and overriding reason for the anxiety was that this time I was racing to honor the memory of my brother; and there were a number of our family members there to show their support - my wife Susie, Jeff's wife Julie and her two boys DJ and Garrett, my dad and stepmom (Jeff's mom), and my sister Heather and her husband Will. This was quite simply a day that I COULD NOT fail. Adding to the anxiety, I got sick in early September and was still dealing with significant sinus/bronchitis/asthma issues. It's not great for your confidence when any type of exertion results in a nice little coughing and hacking session. I did everything I could do to clear out the sinuses and lungs (including many self-steam treatments), and although clearly not 100%; felt like I was OK to go by race morning. In reality, not much was going to stop me from giving it my best shot...

(Side note: took about 2 1/2 weeks after the race before I felt like my lungs were finally clear and I could exercise without a lot of coughing - looking back I think I was fooling myself a little as to what type of shape I was in).

In addition to the family support, I also had 3 of my Central Texas friends that had joined me for the race; Chad, Jamie, and Christine. Sunday morning found the four of us standing in the dark waiting for the race to start, with my wife and Chad's dad there helping us out; and the rest of my family positioning themselves to see things get underway. Everyone started lining up for the rolling swim start (they get us all in one big long line and quickly march us down to a small dock where we jump in and start swimming), and before long we heard things get underway with the pro men leaving at 7:20. Let's get it started!

The race was wetsuit optional, which means participants could wear a wetsuit but they would not be eligible for age group awards. In large part due to the bronchitis issues, and in some part due to the fact that the swim is just not my favorite event; I chose to wear a wetsuit for the race. Besides, who was I kidding... I am a good 1 to 1 1/2 hours away from competing for the top spots in my age group (there were 281 people in my age group!). Chad and Jamie also chose wetsuits, so we patiently waited towards the end of the line and finally got our turn to jump in and start swimming right around 8 am.

I quickly found a lane and was able to swim mostly unimpeded. Macho bravado aside, it is much nicer and safer to have the rolling start (vs. mass start with everyone taking off at same time), and not get physically beat up during the swim. It's a long, hard day as it is, no need to start off with bruised ribs or a busted nose... 

Once clear of the dock, I just swam along at a nice steady, pace; trying to keep any breathing issues at bay and save my energy for later. I heard the timer on my Garmin beep before I had made the halfway point, which I thought signified the first 30 minutes. Not quite as fast as I had hoped with a downstream swim in a wetsuit, but no need to overreact. I had also started having some leg cramping issues, but nothing major at that point.

I heard the next beep while I still had a fair amount of swimming to do, and at that point I was a little more concerned with my time. In addition, the cramping was getting worse, and things were getting more congested, with more bumping and pushing. As we started passing underneath the bridges towards the end of the course, I had a fairly severe cramping incident; so I just treaded water for a short bit and tried to relax, then got going again and was happy to get to the end of the swim and exit the water!

As I made my way out of the water and up to the transition area, I looked at my Garmin and saw that my time at that point was just over 1:03?!? I was very happy, but also a little confused, since my timer had gone off for the 2nd time at least 10 minutes before I got out. I later figured out that the timer was set to 25 minutes, not 30. Ha! So many details...

As I got into the transition area and started making my way through the crowd of athletes, I heard someone yelling my name and looked over and saw my wife and other family members standing up against the fence. I ran over and said a quick hello and got a couple of hugs, then headed over to the changing tent. I got through there quickly and ended up running into my friend Chad. We had finished the swim at nearly the same time, so we had a quick chat as we made our way through transition...

Then it was time to find the bike:

I got to my bike and got moving pretty quickly, and headed out on the bike course. My calves were a little sore from the cramping (esp. the right calf), so I was hoping that it would work out and not impact me too much later in the race. Overall, I was just thrilled to have had a good swim time to start things off and get on to the next leg :) One note about the IM Chattanooga bike course; it is actually 116 miles instead of the normal IM distance of 112. Guess they haven't been able to figure out a good way to shave off those extra 4 miles :)

My happiness on the bike did not last very long, as my race almost ended just a couple of miles into the bike leg. I went around one of the turns where there was a little bit of bike congestion, and a slight uphill grade. I started shifting gears to compensate when suddenly the drive train locked up and I could not pedal or change gears! I was forced to get off the bike and try to figure out what had happened... The chain appeared to be locked in so tight it seemed like it would snap, and I could not get it loose, move the pedals, or change gears. No, no, NO, NO!!! There is no way! I simply MUST FINISH this race!

My mind raced as I evaluated options and started thinking of my family waiting out there to see me finish, and what it meant to them (and me) for this day to be successful. The phrase kept running through my mind: This one is not about me...  I truly felt like I was failing Jeff and failing my family. I uttered a quick prayer (maybe with just a hint of frustration), decided I could not make things any worse, and just tried to brute force things back into moving. I finally heard a little click and was able to get the crank arm turning - hooray! I made up my mind that even if I had to stay in that one same gear, I was going to finish the race!

So, I was back on the road pedaling and making progress again; but VERY nervous about shifting gears, as I did not yet know what had actually caused the issue. Was the derailleur somehow damaged? Slowly but surely I tried some very subtle gear changes and things seemed to be working. Then I got into a section where there were a lot more up and down rolling hills and BOOM!... it happened again! This time I was able to fix it much quicker, and I also figured out the root cause. I noticed that I was in an unusual gear combination of big ring front to big ring back. That is referred to as cross-chaining, which I would normally avoid. But in the heat of the moment, with unfamiliar terrain and 2700 other bike riders to navigate around; I had apparently shifted into that configuration. That should never cause the bike to completely lock up, but it was what it was, and now at least I knew what I was dealing with. I made the strong mental note to be sure to shift into the small ring up front rather than use those last couple of rings in the back, and got moving again. That worked well, except for two instances where I shifted into the small front ring *too* aggressively and the chain came off. Ugh! That of course happened going uphill, so once I got the chain back on, I then had to try and get moving uphill from a dead stop. Fun stuff...

Quick aside on the congestion/breathing issues... I was coughing and hacking on a regular basis, apparently bad enough that I had a fellow biker pull up next to me and ask if I was OK. I just looked over and said "yeah, I just need to quit smoking"; which got a very strange look until I just laughed and told him that I was getting over some bronchitis. I had a few more times on the bike and run where people asked me if I was OK after a coughing spasm, so it must have looked pretty interesting to the outside observer :)

Back to the actual biking - the last part of the second loop going south seemed to take forever. The winds were blowing from the South, and that section had the worst roads and a lot of hilly up/downs. I was *extremely* happy once I made the turn back to the North (just before mile 80), and was finally on the home stretch! The roads on that back section of the loop were smoother, I had a little bit of wind behind me, and the hills there were easier to roll up and keep momentum. One noticeable difference from the first loop was the small town of Chickamauga. On the first loop it was packed with people that had shuttled there to cheer us on; but by the 2nd loop the shuttles were done and the town was mostly empty. The good news was that making it through Chickamauga the second time marked the 100 mile mark and now it was down to the last 16 miles of the bike! During the final 20 or 25 miles, I really felt the payoff from all the bike training I had done; and had good leg strength all the way through (while maintaining my target HR/effort). I ended up finishing the bike with a time of 6:08; which was great considering all the bike issues I had and the extra 4 miles!

I once again was able to draw a lot of strength and encouragement from my family as I made the transition from bike to run. This time they were a little more spread out, but I got to see everybody again and get some hugs and words of encouragement :) And that also reminded me of why I was here and what I was running for. It's not about me this time.

And now it was time for the run... An Ironman run is very different (to me) than a normal marathon. Right from the start of the IM marathon you are fatigued, somewhat dehydrated, etc.; so you don't get that first 15 miles or so of cruising along before you start hitting the wall - you START the run thinking you already are at the wall :)

My goal for the run was to just keep very steady, and try to eat/drink and keep up with electrolytes in order to sustain some level of energy. The course is basically a two-loop course, and the last 5 miles of each loop has some pretty good hills (elevation profile). I figured that by the second loop I would be walking at least some of hilly section, I just hoped it would not beat me down entirely.

The first loop went pretty well - I was able to keep a steady pace and do a steady jog/run up most of the hilly section; other than a couple of very short and steep hills where it seemed that a little walking might be the smart move. I finished that first loop in under two hours, which was right in line with what I had hoped for.

On the second loop, I started feeling the fatigue kick in around mile 15. Then, somewhere around 16.5 miles, I had a brief bout with leg cramps that caused me to lock up for a few moments. I managed to walk through that and started putting a little more emphasis on hydration and electrolytes. I also started doing the "Ironman Shuffle" run technique, where you are just holding the legs somewhat still and shuffling forward from your hips. Looks funny, but you can keep up a pretty good pace and keep the cramps at bay. In this picture I had noticed the photographer, and decided to give an honest portrayal of what I felt like :)

Of course, even if I just had to walk the last few miles, I was going to finish! Luckily, though, I seemed to be through the worst of things by the time I hit round 2 of the hills. Just to be safe I walked a good portion of the longest of those hills (Barton Ave), then did my shuffle again until I got to the last short/steep hill (Riverside). Once past that there was a good section of mostly downhill and flat; so I took advantage of the friendlier terrain and got back to a much quicker pace. I was able to walk/run the backside of Barton Ave, and then felt that wonderful, freeing feeling of being close to the end and started cruising to the finish line! My last 3 miles were 9:14, 9:01, and 8:11 pace... so you can tell that I was really "smelling the barn" at that point :)

The crowds were super supportive, as always, and there were more and more people as I got closer to the finish line. I started feeling the emotions of everything that had led up to this day, which came over me in a mix of of emotions - sadness at why we were all there and joy in the conclusion of a day to remember and honor. As I came down the last 100 yards or so I was looking intently to find my wife and family members, and I finally spotted them just a few yards from the finish line. In this photo you can see the moment that I saw my wife and family and started towards them:

And in the video clip below, you can see me stumble to the left for a quick hug and kiss from my wife; and then I tapped my chest (with Jeff's name on it) and pointed up to Jeff - who I knew was there watching. I crossed the line with a 4:12 marathon and an overall time of 11:38; and a HUGE sense of relief... I had wanted this race to honor Jeff's memory, and I felt like I had accomplished that goal.


First of all, I have to say a HUGE Thank You to Susie for all of her love and support! The spouse/significant other of someone training for an Ironman puts up with a lot - the term "Ironman Widow" came about for good reason. I also want to thank my dad, stepmom, sister Heather White and brother-in-law Will White; and of course to Jeff's family: Wife Julie Stewart Griffis and their 3 children: DJ, Garrett, and Rylee. It was wonderful to have family support all week, and especially the support and encouragement on race day! And thank you to my friends from Georgetown Triathletes: Chad, Jamie, and Christine; for sharing in the pain/joy of training for and competing in the Ironman :)

I also want to *really* encourage everyone to continue the FIGHT against cancer. There are just too many family and friends that have been impacted by this horrible disease. This race was in honor of my brother Jeff; but I also was thinking of others taken all too soon; including Susie's father Lee Skaggs and Chad's wife Kristi. #cancersucks  #kickcancer

And one final note/reminder: This all started as a way to support Jeff. He could not be there in body, but I KNOW he was there in spirit. Please read and share the YouCaring page linked below, and consider helping provide for his children's education.

Jeffrey Griffis Memorial Trust

Thursday, June 14, 2012

HITS Marble Falls Triathlon - same but different

I participated in the HITS Marble Falls Triathlon back on April 29th. This was a half iron distance triathlon, which is the same as the Ironman Texas 70.3 Triathlon that I did back on April 1st. So, it was essentially the same basic type of race with the same distances; but in many ways it was completely different...

To start with, it was a much, much smaller race - just under 100 total people for the half iron distance (and less than 20 that did the full iron distance); compared to the nearly 2500 participants for Ironman Texas 70.3. The venue was also very different... Marble Falls is in the Texas Hill Country, with remote county chip seal roads and lots of rolling hills (including a couple of fairly big ones). TX 70.3 was at Galveston Island on the coast along the beachfront - smoother roads and flat as a pancake. Additionally, the HITS triathlon is a fairly low key event with relatively few spectators; while the IM TX 70.3 is an official WTC Ironman-branded event with all the associated hoopla and thousands of spectators. So, a very different race in those respects... but still the same 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run!

Race Summary
Here's the short version for the ADD crowd: It was a tough day with hot, humid, and windy weather; and a very hilly bike and run course. Even though I came into the race feeling just as prepared and strong (if not more so) than Galveston, I finished about 17 minutes slower. With the small number of participants, that was good for 7th place overall, and I won my age group... sorta kinda... You might want to read the part at the end about the strange/unusual way that HITS handles age groups and awards : )

Now on to the full blown race detail...

Pre-Race/Race Morning
Since it is just about an hour drive from my home, I had previously confirmed with the event staff that it would be OK to show up Sunday morning to pick up my race packet and check in my bike (one of the nice perks of smaller races). As soon as I arrived, I was impressed with the staff and volunteers - they were all very friendly and helpful. I was able to quickly check-in, got my race numbers and chip, and headed over to the transition area. The HITS folks have a new and different type of transition area setup, and I must say that I really liked it a lot! It is such a smarter way to do things compared to the typical metal poles you hang your bike from. They actually have a wooden structure on the ground that forms a box for each athlete to put their stuff into, and two grooves cut into the box where your wheel fits to hold your bicycle. That has two nice advantages over the traditional set up: 1) The bike is fully on the ground and much more stable, and 2) The boxed off gear area allows you to set up your bike and run items without fear of having them kicked around or blown away. They even provide a stool for you to sit on! Here's a picture where you can see the stool and the boxed storage area:

While I was getting things organized in transition, I ran across my good friends Kat and Justin. They have been part of our local triathlon community for years, and both have very fun and positive personalities. Kat was there to cheer on Justin, who was also doing the half iron distance. It was nice to see some friendly faces. Here's Justin and I just before the race start:

There wasn't much else going on before the race, so once we were set up and ready to go, we just made our way down to the water. A little warmup swim, and it was time to start the race...

With just over 100 total competitors, everyone started at the same time, including the athletes that were racing the half. Plenty of room, and the course was well-marked, so a fairly stress-free swim. Time ended up being very close to my time at IM TX 70.3, about 35 minutes. Kat was able to spot me coming out of the water and grab this video:

I had been told that there would not be wetsuit peelers, but there were! Yay : )  That helped make for a quick transition, and I also liked how easy it was to pull the bike out from the slots in my transition box and get going (no clutter of stuff to worry about, either). As I headed out of transition, I saw Justin starting his bike just ahead of me. Hey, wait for me! : )

Here's a short video clip of me heading out to start the bike (thanks again Kat!).

Once the bike course gets away from the lake, we had to cross the main highway that goes through Marble Falls (Hwy 281). There was a fair amount of traffic to cross, and a short section of the highway to ride on before we made our turn onto the country roads, but the police were doing a good job to get us through.

It was cloudy and overcast, which was good; but also VERY windy, which was not so good. And the first 10 miles were mostly rolling hills and an upward elevation trend, so I knew right away that today was not going to be a terribly fast day. The exception to the upward trend was a VERY BIG hill that we went down around 4-5 miles from the start... Hmmm... didn't that mean we'd be going UP that hill at the end of the bike?!

As we got further away from the city into the back county roads, the roads also got a little worse, but nothing too terrible (not if you're used to Texas chip seal roads...). The turns and intersections were very well marked - big white signs with black arrows pointing you in the right direction. There weren't always people around, though, at least not people that were visible. That, combined the small field of participants, made for one of those rides where it was mainly just you and your own thoughts. I did see Justin once in while, usually when we'd hit a long straightaway and I could see him up ahead in the distance.

Even the aid stations were very quiet, usually it was just one guy out there handing out water bottles. There were supposed to be sports drinks, bananas, gels, etc.; but all I remember seeing or being called out was water. I did not actually stop, so maybe there was more there... but it didn't seem like it to me. I hope nobody was counting on that for their nutrition!

I ended up catching up with Justin around mile 22 of the bike course. It's too bad that on a wide open course like that you are still not allowed to ride near each other, even side by side; as it would have been nice to just chat for a few minutes... It's a long day : )  I did say hello and ask him how he was doing, and we wished each other luck. Shortly after that we came up to a pretty tough, steep hill; which Justin tackled with a bit more vigor than I did, so he was up ahead of me again after that.

I reached the turnaround at the 28 mile point, and caught up with Justin again. This time I ended up passing him and moving a little ahead. Guess it was my turn to be the rabbit : )  Right after that we hit a great section of road that seemed to be smoother and had a dowhill elevation, and we had the wind at our back! Didn't last long enough, but it was nice for a while. That section ended in a small city (Burnet) where we went through a neighborhood with a number of cross streets, but nobody around to help look out for or direct traffic; which made me a bit nervous. I made it through that area fine, though, and headed back on the same roads that I had started on. That meant it was time for the Revenge of the Big Hill. Yes, that hill that we had flown down at the beginning was now coming back to give us something to work on before we could finish the bike. And oh, by the way, the run course also came out on that same road... so, hey - I'll be seeing you soon!

I got back into town and finished off the last few miles of the bike. As expected, a fairly slow bike course; coming in just under 3 hours. And now it was very hot, and it was time to run 13.1 miles :  )

I slid my bike into it's slot in the transition bikes, pulled on my running shoes, grabbed the visor and race belt, and it was off to the final leg.

Here's another video clip, this time of me starting the run and trying to get my race belt on... The tall guy in red that you see as I go by is another friend of mine, Jamie Carlile. He was training for Ironman Texas (a FULL distance IM), and was out for a 100 mile bike ride that he routed thru Marble Falls so he could see Justin and I race. BTW: Jamie did complete IM Texas and is now officially an IRONMAN - way to go Jamie!.

As best as I could tell, I was around 10th overall as I started the run; assuming that I had counted returning bikes correctly. The sun was out in full force, so it was very hot, and I knew I had a hilly run course in front of me. Right off the bat, there is that slow uphill climb leading away from the lake, which is a little tough on the legs after a hard bike ride. I did settle into a rhythm, though, and concentrated on knocking off one mile at a time. The aid stations were spread out a little further than the 1 mile spacing that I'm used to, so I made sure to take advantage of each one; getting plenty to drink and cooling down with water, sponges, etc. Running in hot, humid, sunny conditions on the open road with no shade and already tired; I knew I had to stay on top of the heat and hydration from the beginning.

The last aid station before the halfway turnaround point was around 4 1/2 miles in, and I was starting to feel a little bit nauseated, so I had to start backing off on the drinks (especially sports drinks). The hills were also taking their toll, and my legs were feeling very fatigued. I started seeing the race leaders during that stretch as they headed back the other way, and was able to count them and see that I was in 8th place overall.

As I made the turnaround point (again, no timing mat), Justin was coming up right behind me. As we passed each other, I told him I was pretty cooked and I thought he'd be passing me pretty soon. He smiled and gave a shake of the head with a look that said "maybe not"; so it was clear he was suffering a bit as well.

As I came to the Big Hill that I had been dreading, I caught up with the person in 7th place, who was walking. I had already determined that I was going to have to walk a good part of the hill, or I'd end up setting off some massive leg cramps. So, I settled into a walk next to him and we both talked for a couple minutes as we made our way up the hill. The volunteers at the top of the hill were yelling out encouragement to keep going, and told us not to worry - everyone else in front of us had walked that hill as well : )  Towards the top, I was able to start running again, and my hill buddy also took off a few seconds later; staying not too far behind me for the last few miles.

Near the end of the run, I had to make the crossing at Highway 281 again; and this time it was a bit of an adventure. Racers were more strung out, and harder for the police to see as they came up the road; plus there was more traffic as it was now around noon. All that added up to the traffic not being stopped right away, and I couldn't really see where I was supposed to cross the street. So, I just ran down 281 looking for a break until the traffic was stopped and I could see the crossing point (a friend of mine had a similar issue on the bike and turned too quickly at the last moment, crashed and ended up with separated shoulder and possible broken finger).

Once across 281, I was on the final homestretch and happy to have more of a downhill run for the last couple of miles. I was really starting to hurt at that point, and I could see two people behind me (my hill buddy and my friend Justin). I kept thinking that I just wanted to hold it together and keep moving, so I could at least stay in the top 10. Then, with about a mile to go, I had sudden and massive leg cramps... The kind where your legs seize up and you can barely stay upright. I literally almost fell over, and started limping along trying to work out the cramps; massively frustrated that all that hard work could disappear if I ended up having to walk that last mile. Luckily, though, after walking about 100 yards it started relaxing just a bit; and I was able to slowly and surely break into a slow jog and then finally something resembling a run. Justin later commented that he could see me up ahead of him walking, and he joked that he thought maybe I was just waiting so we could have a sprint to the finish line : )

With the cramps worked out, the remaining run was just a steady, slow, "keep moving" thing of ugliness that nevertheless got me to the finish line. I ended up with a 1:47 run split, and kept my position of 7th place overall.

Justin finished right behind me for 8th place, and here we posed for a picture; looking just a little more ragged than we did in the pre-race pictures!

There wasn't a whole lot going on in the finish area... I just hung around with Kat and Justin waiting for the awards ceremony and watching racers come in. There was plenty to drink, and some typical bagel/banana/pretzels type of fare. For the cost of admission, I really would have liked a couple slices of pizza or something similar; but not a big deal. 

One thing that's still weird to me about the HITS races is the award for every age (not age group, every age...). They give out top 3 male and female overall; and then each age gets a first place award (no second or third place). That leads to some goofy results - I'll use a hypothetical example to illustrate:

- 41 yr old does race in 5:10, another 41 yr old is 30 seconds behind
- 42 yr old does race in 6:02
- 43 yr old does race in 5:00, another 43 yr old 2 minutes behind
** Per HITS policy, the 41,42, and 43 that crossed first for their age get first place awards. Neither the 2nd 43 yr old (who was second in that total group), nor the 2nd 41 yr old get any award. It is what it is, though; and here's Justin and I with our first place Age awards:

Overall, I'm very happy that I chose to do the race. I didn't have to train much, since it was only 4 weeks after IM Texas 70.3. And with it being fairly close to home, there was no overnight hotel stay, etc. So, with relatively minor hassle, I was able to race another half iron distance triathlon, and in a really nice setting (I always enjoy Marble Falls, it's a great town).

As far as my evaluation of the race itself... This race costs about the same as the Ironman Texas 70.3 triathlon; so I can't help but compare them against each other. Based on that objective cost/value evaluation, I really can't see that I would go back and do this race again; unless they either raise their level of athlete support or lower their prices. While it was a fun race and I had no major issues, there were a few things that fall a little short; which mainly come down to more support for the athletes out on the course. Some of these things simply must get fixed: get enough volunteers, aid stations MUST be stocked with what is advertised, roads must be manned and have excellent traffic control, need to have timing mats at the turnarounds... and another one or two strategically placed aid stations on the run would have been good with that kind of heat. Perhaps this a bit of a chicken and the egg thing, in that they might feel like they can't put more into the race with so few racers. I think that will backfire on them, though; as the numbers likely won't come until that value proposition improves.

What's next?
The next event I'll be participating in is the Texas 4000 Atlas Bike Ride on June 2nd, which is a kick-off ride for a team of University of Texas students that ride 4000 miles from Texas to Alaska as a cancer research fundraiser. The rest of June is family vacation time, and then we'll just see what comes after that...


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Texas 4000 Atlas Ride 2012

On Saturday, June 2nd; I'll be participating in a group bike ride sponsored by Texas 4000, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing and fighting cancer. I do realize that there are only so many times I can go to the well for support of the many charities and causes that I am involved in, so apologies if I'm starting to sound like a panhandler! : )  At the same time, however, certain events just capture my attention and make me want to participate, and this is one of them. If nothing else, I thought it might be interesting to learn about the Texas ATLAS 4000 ride, and be inspired by the tremendous things that people will do to support each other... We certainly hear enough about the rotten things that people do TO each other! So, here's a description of the organization and the bike ride that I'll be doing, as well as how that fits in with the larger 4000 mile bike ride that the actual team is doing. Thank you for reading : )


Texas 4000 is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and fighting cancer. Each year a team of dedicated University of Texas students brave the elements to complete a more than 4,000-mile bike ride from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska sharing Hope, Knowledge and Charity along the way. As their flagship event of the year, the LIVESTRONG Texas 4000 ride is the longest annual charity event bike ride in the world. Texas 4000 riders train, fundraise and develop as leaders and servants in the community and to date have contributed more than $2.5 million to the fight against cancer. Cultivating the leaders of tomorrow, Texas 4000 organizes and performs numerous charity events including the Texas 4000 Tribute gala and the ATLAS Ride send-off throughout the year.

I will be taking part in the 2012 Texas 4000 ATLAS Ride, a one-day community bicycle ride benefitting Texas 4000 and the fight against cancer. This event will celebrate the first day of Texas 4000's cornerstone event, a more than 4,000 mile bike ride from Texas to AlaskaThe three tenets of Hope, Knowledge, and Charity serve as the pillars to the organization's mission, where the ultimate goal is to help win the battle against cancer by aiding the life of one individual and one community at a time. 

The seventh annual ATLAS Ride will be held on June 2, 2012 in Cedar Park, TX, where I will have the opportunity to ride 70 miles for those who have been affected by cancer. In addition to riding, I also have the opportunity to fundraise for this important cause. Every dollar raised will go towards Texas 4000's mission of spreading hope, sharing knowledge, donating to cancer research, and empowering student riders to be the next generation of cancer-fighters.

Ever dollar counts, so to donate, simply click on my fundraising link below or to find out more information about Texas 4000, visit Thank you for support in the fight against cancer!

Fighting Cancer Every Mile...

Donation Link

Thank you!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tour of Livestrong Center in Austin

This past weekend, Livestrong held an open house/bike ride event nearby in Austin; as a kick off for the Livestrong Challenge.  I've been getting more involved in Livestrong since learning of my brother's cancer diagnosis, including the fundraising page that I did on his behalf when I raced the IM Texas 70.3 triathlon. So, I decided it might be interesting to drive into Austin and check things out. Below are a few pictures and notes from the tour.

Side Note: Speaking of Livestrong, they are currently providing my 15 seconds of internet fame (not minutes, this is internet time)... If you go the main LS page at; on the bottom left of the page is a section on the MH Ironman Texas 70.3 triathlon with 4 small photos. That goofy guy on the top right is actually me - ha! The pictures may not be on the front page long, but that thumbnail image links to the full picture in Flickr, which should stick around for a while.

Now, back to the main topic... I arrived at the Livestrong building early Saturday morning, in time to see the bike riders getting ready to head out. The ride itself didn't quite fit into my schedule that day, unfortunately, but I was excited to tour the building and learn more about what they do there. Things got started with a short greeting and a couple of announcements about the Livestrong Challenge bike ride, including the news that it would now be flat $50 fee; with no fundraising minimum requirement. That should allow many more people to participate, as they can just sign up for the race and not have to worry about their ability to raise funds.

 Bike riders getting ready to head out.

A few minutes after the bike riders left, we started the tour of the Livestrong building. It turns out that building is really two buildings in one:  The main Livestrong Headquarters/Office, and a Navigation Center where they provide on-site assistance for cancer patients (evaluating treatment options, financial counseling, emotional counseling, etc.). Here are a few pictures and notes on some of the things I found interesting...

Reception Desk. Note the sign on the desk

Inspirational quotes and mottos like this are everywhere in the office

Lance's 7 Tour de France Yellow Jerseys

Open, cubicle environment. Even the CEO sits out here.

Plenty of cool stuff like this custom-made motorcycle...

 and this mobile art piece. Each "bike" tells a different story from Lance's life

Tribute wall

Livestrong Core Values

Employee fitness room, with aerobics studio above it

Actual table from local restaraunt (ZTejas) where the idea for Livestrong was hatched.

Entrance to the Navigation Center

 Inspirational quote on wall in Navigation Center

So, I'm glad that I made it down there for the tour... It was really quite interesting and informative, and it was great to meet some of the Livestrong team. Every person that I met was very passionate about what they do and why they do it. It is nice to know that people like my brother have advocates like that, fighting for their cause, and helping direct them through this painful and difficult process!