Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ironman Texas - it's a LONG DAY...

Last month I took part in the inaugural Ironman Texas Triathlon, and this is my race report from that event. There are a lot of memories and moments that occur on a day like this, which I tried to capture here as a journal of sorts. I realize that this is a bit lengthy, and there are more details than anyone but me probably cares to read about; so others can always opt for the very short version that I posted HERE , and maybe scan some of the pictures below... (although you'll miss the whole throwing up part, and that's some good reading!).

Ironman triathlons tend to stress me out more than any other race, primarily because it takes a LOT of training over many months; and all that training ends up boiled down to just one day. And it's not just myself that makes sacrifices... my wife Susie does more than her fair share as well. Every Friday night ends early, I'm gone most of the day nearly every Saturday (and not worth much when I do get home), plenty of workouts the rest of the week, endless conversations and references to training, etc. Given all that, it's pretty difficult not to have anxiety about doing well, and the extreme disappointment that would come with the dreaded DNF (as in "Did Not Finish").

In fact, I really hadn't planned on doing any more Ironman triathlons after Ironman Cozumel 2009, at least not for a few years. But when they announced that Ironman was coming to Texas... well that was too hard to pass up; especially with all of my triathlete friends that would be racing or volunteering! That included our local triathlon club; which got in the action with a nice social event to send off all the IM TX athletes. Gotta love these cupcakes custom-made by fellow tri club board member (and coaching partner) Cheryl...

Lead-up to the Race
I finished up final packing and preparation Wednesday, and then headed out Thursday morning with my good friend and training partner Glenn. Once we got to The Woodlands, we parked at our hotel and walked over to the expo for athlete check-in. We looked around the expo a bit and checked out some of the merchandise, although I generally don't buy race merchandise until after the race is over and I'm sure it's something I want to commemorate : ) The rest of the day included a quick bike ride around the run course, and the athlete dinner and meeting. While on the bike ride, I noticed that a good portion of the run was around and next to the waterway/canal. Hmmmm... and it was gonna be really, really hot... So, at the athlete meeting, I asked the head referee if there were any rules against us getting *in* the water during the run. He thought about it, and said "if you need to get wet, I guess you can get wet!". Then he chuckled and said he didn't know what violation he would charge, anyway. After the meeting, it was time to get back to the hotel and get some sleep.

Race preparation continued on Friday morning, starting with a nice practice swim in the lake. The folks from Tyr were there, and I got talked into purchasing a Torque swimskin. Triathletes as a rule can be talked into buying just about anything that they think will make them a little faster, we're not very bright that way. Later I got my bike and transition bags checked in and set up, and then it became a waiting game. Luckily, Susie came down that evening, so I was able to spend time with her and relax a bit. All the prep was done - race day tomorrow!

The weather for the race was very similar to Cozumel, meaning lots of heat and humidity. The temperature was forecast to be over 90 degrees, with humidity approaching 90% as well! My mantra for the day was therefore that it was going to be a LONG DAY... meaning that I needed to look at the full picture, not put too much importance or overdo any one segment - just stay strong and steady. This was not going to be a day to try and break any personal records, so just take it a step at a time, enjoy it, and do what I trained to do.

The first step race morning was to walk from the hotel to the transition area and get the bike set up (water bottles, tires pumped up, etc.); and put a couple of items in my transition bags. Susie came by the transition area at around 5:45 to get my bike pump and a couple of other items, and then she headed back to the hotel. She was going to track me via myathletelive.com and be there when I got back from the bike (that worked great, btw; not just for her, but for other family and friends that couldn't be there as well).

With transition all squared away, I walked over to the swim start, which was about 8/10 of a mile from the transition area (swim is point to point). I warmed up a bit, got my swim skinsuit on, put my special needs and dry clothing bags in the appropriate boxes, and headed to the swim start.

The line to get people into the water was very long and very slow. They had two different timing mats everyone had to cross over, one for those that chose to wear wetsuits (and would therefore not count in the age group rankings), and one for everyone else. There wasn't really anyone enforcing it, though, and sadly it seemed that many of the wetsuit wearing people didn't cross over the proper timing mat (some of which later had to be removed from age group awards and world championship slots after validating via photos).

I finally made it into the water and started waiting for the countdown. I heard the song "Ironman" by Black Sabbath being played through the loudspeakers, and I knew it was about to happen... Then the crowd started the countdown and the horn blew - Let's Do This!

I found some space pretty quickly and got into a good swimming rhythm, staying closer to the shoreline in order to have a clearer path. That was working well, as I was able to keep up a good pace without too much contact. Overall, I was feeling good, feeling pretty strong, and very happy to finally be underway!

I continued like that until I reached the far side of the lake, where we had to round two turn buoys before heading back down the other side of the lake. At that point, things just seemed to really bunch up and there started to be a whole lot more contact; especially after rounding the second buoy. Things were tighter on that side, and the contact became more frequent and aggressive. I also started feeling a few pangs of muscle cramps in my feet and calves, due to swimming with my muscles too tight; which only intensified when the contact got more physical. The vast majority of the contact is not on purpose, it's just what happens when there are that many people in a small area trying to swim; and the murky water doesn't help, since you don't see people until you run into them. Click on the picture below and you can get a bit of an idea what it was like : )

By the time we got to the point where we heading into the canal (approx 1000 meters left to swim), the cramps had become a little more frequent and severe. I was close to the shore, so I just swam over to where I could stand for a few seconds and stretch out my calves. There was a lifeguard on a paddle board sitting there, and when she saw my pained expression as I tried to stand, she started to put her whistle up to her mouth. "No, I'm OK!", I had to yell out before she whistled and had someone come pull me from the race... There was NO WAY I was going to let that happen! : )

As I entered the canal, I was hoping that things would improve... wrong! Besides the fact that we were funneled into a narrow canal which increased the bumping and shoving, there was also a ton of churn and chop. The canal had high concrete walls on each side, so the waves we were all generating had nowhere to dissipate, they simply fed back into the middle to create a washing machine effect. Looking back, I'm very envious of the faster swimmers that got through that section with much less contact and churn... reason # 712 that there is more to swimming faster than just saving a couple of minutes from your overall time : )

At last I got to a section where I could see a bridge that told me I was getting close to the end of the swim. Right after that came the swim exit, and man was I *SO* happy to finally get there! I ended up with a 1:22 swim, which I wasn't overly thrilled with. However, there were two things that I told myself at that point: 1) If the swim took longer than you expected, it was likely longer for others as well; and 2) It is a LONG DAY (my mantra for the race); just keep plugging away! And really, all you can do when you hit the low points is shrug it off and keep moving forward.

Transition 1 (Swim to Bike)
T1 went fine, I went through it steadily but not in a huge rush. Just calmly follow the steps and get ready for the bike ride... I avoided having to spend any time in the changing tent by having bike shorts that I simply pulled up over my tri shorts. That double layer is remarkably effective at reducing chafing and increasing comfort, and staying comfortable and in an aerodynamic position on the bike more than makes up for the 5 seconds it takes to pull on the bike shorts.


It's always a good feeling once you get going on the bike. The swim is over, everything is in working order on the bike, you have a lot of energy... you just start cruising along and clicking off the miles. And on this particular day, we also got a little lucky and had overcast skies (even a few light sprinkles at one point). That helped keep the heat at bay, at least for a while.

The bike portion can also be deceptive, though. The flattest and smoothest part of the course was the first half, and we had the wind to our back as well. That made for pretty fast splits in the first half. Around 40 miles in I was feeling great and averaging just over 20 mph, but I had to keep myself under control and not get too carried away. The reality was that the back half of the course had more incline and rougher roads; plus we'd have headwinds most of the way back and it would be getting hotter. That all added up to something close to 4 hours of tougher bike riding to go... followed by a full marathon in very hot and humid conditions!

One nice distraction on the bike was coming across Luis Alvarez. Luis is well known in the triathlon world for being the only person to have competed at every Ironman Triathlon venue in the world. They had mentioned him at the Athlete's Meeting and said this was his 67th Ironman; but he corrected that when I mentioned that total... he said it was actually his 73rd!!! Let that sink in for a bit... I can't even imagine! He also corrected me when I wished him a good race, and pointed out that he was "only a participant". It's too bad that you aren't allowed to ride side-by-side when nobody else is around, because it would have been fun to talk with him for a while.

The second half of the bike was fairly uneventful, just continued plugging away at the miles. People get quieter and more serious as the fatigue sets in, I think; and there's more internal focus to finish the bike ride and mentally prepare for what is to come. The overcast conditions had cleared up by the end of the bike, and the sun came out in full glory. That made the last hour or so a little more challenging. On the final stretch on Woodlands Parkway, I remarked to a fellow competitor that the road had seemed to have become much, much longer : )

But at last. the final turn came into view, and it was time to get off the bike! No flats, no major problems; just a nice steady ride at a good pace and with my HR in the proper range. It was now REALLY hot, though, so I new that the real challenge was about to start.

Transition 2 (Bike to Run)
Given the heat and humidity, I accepted some water from the volunteer in the transition area and took a couple of drinks of nice, cold water. Normally I wouldn't want to waste time drinking in transition, but I just felt like I needed it. And, it was that mantra again of it being a LONG DAY. I also got a little more sunscreen on my shoulders and arms, and then it was time to get after the run.

As I exited the transition area, I saw Susie there waiting for me. The gps tracker had worked well, so she knew exactly when I finished and was able to catch me without waiting around for an hour or more. When I saw her, I ran up to quickly say hi, told her I was doing pretty good, and got a quick kiss to send me on my way.


To get right to the point, the run was brutal from the start. Imagine if someone told you about a marathon (26.2 mile run) that was going to start at 2:30 in the afternoon, in a place where it would be over 90 degrees when it started, with humidity as high as 80-90%... think many people would jump at that?!? And that's not taking into account having done over an hour of hard swimming and six hours or so on the bike immediately beforehand.... I knew all of this going in, so it's nothing that I can complain about; just the reality of what the run was like.

The first "uh-oh" moment occurred almost immediately after starting the run. When previewing the course, myself and everyone else that I talked with had looked at the run course and assumed we'd be running the first 3 miles or so on the concrete sidewalk path; which is covered with a thick canopy of trees that provide a lot of shade and protection from the sun. As I started out on that stretch of the run, though, I realized that we were instead running in the street, with no shade whatsoever. And I was already pretty hot and tired. Uh oh...

So, starting with the first aid station, I developed my official aid station routine. Slow down and grab a drink of water (or two), then grab a couple cups of ice and dump that inside my shirt and shorts (yes, it was that hot...), and then finish it off with the ice water sponges for the head, chest, and back. Run to the next aid station and lather, rinse, repeat. I knew it was costing me a little time to do that, but I also knew that otherwise I would most likely hit the dreaded "bonk" and be reduced to a walk. If you do the math, losing 15-30 seconds each mile is nothing compared to the time you lose when you start walking at 15:00/mile or slower. And my stomach was starting to bother me, which for me is a warning sign that I need to heed.

Remember that question about the waterway that I asked the head ref about it? Well, I did it! I was starting to really feel the heat exhaustion set in on the first loop; and I just figured with 2 1/2 more loops to go it was worth it at that point. I quickly slipped off my shoes and socks and race belt (since gps unit was attached); and got in the water at the ramp. I let myself down and got completely submerged for about 15 seconds or so, and then got out and slipped the shoes and socks and belt back on; and off I went - feeling MUCH better. A few of the people that ran by made comments about how great that must feel. I know I risk some ridicule for that move, but honestly, I think the only stupid thing about it was that I didn't do it on the 2nd or 3rd loops! Back to my theme of it being a LONG DAY... even if that took a full minute worst case, the degree to which it cooled me down and made me feel better was well worth it. And, to be honest, I'm happy that I had the guts to do something that I thought would help my race without worrying about what others might think.

Just after my "water experience", I saw Susie standing on the other side of the waterway. That was a great pick-me-up, as we waved and said hello. I told her I'd be back around on her side of the water shortly and continued running on. Even though those moments are very brief, it is amazing how much it lifts your spirits and spurs you on. Susie got this picture of me walking away and getting back to the run... my body language seems to be saying that I'm not necessarily relishing what is to come : )

Another uh-oh moment came at the end of the first loop. I was pretty sure I was going the right way, but all of a sudden I was in the finisher's chute!... what?!? Turns out I was OK, it was just a slightly cruel twist of the run course. The run course was 3 loops, and at the end of the first two loops you went down the finisher's chute; only to take a right turn about 50 yards from the finish line to continue on to your next loop. Ouch...

One of the great things about the race being local is all the friends I had in the race. I had seen my good friend Justin a couple of times on the bike, and saw him again on the run. I saw a few other friends as well (Jeff K, John B, Keith C), some of whom were having a rough time. Seeing friends seems to snap that zombie-like mode you can get in, and gives you the opportunity to smile and laugh for a couple minutes. The one person I hadn't seen all day was Glenn (my main training partner). I got my first glimpse of him on the second loop of the run, finally, but he was too far off to hear me; quite a bit ahead of me on the other side of the waterway.

Ironman has its ups and downs, and one of my "down" moments was when I crossed mile 13. It just hit me hard that I had still had a full half-marathon to go! You can't let the negative thoughts creep in, though, so I just had to push on through and keep going. I had dedicated this race to my mother-in-law Marilyn, who had recently passed away, and that made me think about how I only had to put up with the pain and discomfort for a relatively short time; and what a privilege it was to be healthy and fit enough to even be participating in an Ironman. Yes, JD, you are truly blessed... so suck it up and keep running.

A little later, I came up on another athlete and we started talking. It turned out to be Tom Rodgers, a multiple Hawaii Ironman Championship qualifier/finisher who has a successful coaching career; who also writes articles and books about triathlons (inc. this article previewing IM TX). We had a very interesting and enjoyable chat about triathlons and IM's; including a few pointers on what it takes to get to the level he has achieved. Oh, and in case you were wondering, he was on his 3rd and final loop; while I was still on my 2nd : 

At the end of the second loop, I decided to do a quick pit stop and get into my special needs bag to change into some dry socks; due to some blistering that had started. I did that fairly quickly and took off, ready to finish off the final loop. At that point it was pretty much head down, one foot after the other, keep going and soon we'll be done! Then, just after mile 22, I heard my name and turned around to see... Glenn?!? Apparently, I had passed him by at the last aid station. We walked for a minute or so just to catch each other up on how our day had gone to that point. Glenn had done amazing on the swim (6th in his age group!), and had a very good bike, and was doing OK on the run; but the heat had taken its toll on him as well. We were both pretty cooked, actually; and I mentioned that my stomach was really giving me grief, and maybe I'd feel better if I just threw up and got it over with. Glenn laughed and said "why not?, can't hurt!". Hmmmm....

WARNING: following paragraph rated VC for moderate vomiting content:
So, why not, indeed?... I told him I'd try to catch up in a minute, and walked over to the side of the course where there was a grass embankment next to a bridge over the waterway... and proceeded to empty the contents of my stomach. As I sat there on my knees, a number of people came by asking if I was OK, and each time I replied that I was fine - just needed to clear my stomach. Then I heard another couple of runners coming up, and a female voice that yelled out something along the lines of "oh my gosh! I just did the same thing a little while ago and it was the best thing ever!". Taking her word for it, I got back up on my feet and started on my way again; quickly realizing that she was right! I felt much, much better - and was able to start running at a good pace again : )  I caught up to Glenn, who saw how I was doing and told me to go ahead and finish it off strong, he'd see me at the finish line.

Those last 3-4 miles I just kept running along, not wanting to jeopardize my happy stomach with anything other than a couple sips of water. And finally, there it was, the finish chute! And for real this time!!! Heading down that chute, I had that mixed feeling of "I *really* want this to be over" and "wow, I'm finishing the Ironman!".

I heard Mike Riley calling my name as I approached the finish, and that brought a little bit of a smile to my face. Then a final burst and I was across the finish line in a time of 12:02:13. Given the conditions, I was very pleased with that result. Later, I found out that was good enough for the top 15% of my age group, and top 18% overall. Ironman number four was officially in the books!


The photo above was taken immediately after I crossed the finish line, and you can see that I look a little dazed and confused : )  I walked just past that point, and Susie was there waiting with a couple of our friends. We all talked for a few minutes, and then I decided I needed to sit down. As I sat there, a volunteer came over and offered me a wheelchair. Wheelchair, for what? They said I could rest for a little bit, and that sounded like a good offer. So, they took me into the building set up as the medical area, and gave me warming blankets and some good hot chicken broth (love the chicken broth!).

While I was lying there, who should walk by but my good friend Glenn! We laughed when we saw each other and talked for a few minutes (trained together, race together - why not med tent together?!?), then he went to go get his share of the chicken broth. My blood pressure and body temp came back up to normal (bp was 108/50 and body temp 96 when I got there), and I was ready to go. I found out later that Susie had checked on me at one point, only to be told I wasn't in there! Since she had actually watched them take me in, she was smart enough to press the issue and go to the back entrance and find me.

Once Susie and I had found each other, and talked for a while with our friends; we headed back to the transition area to collect my bike and transition bags; and then walked back to the hotel. I grabbed some Chick-Fil-A from the restaurant across the street, and then we joined up with Glenn and headed over to a local supermarket to get some wine and beer. I also found some ice-cream sandwiches, which just looked really really good. We all talked for a while and then it was time for some sleep!

The morning after the race I got up early (as I normally do) and went down to the expo to check out the Finisher's merchandise. I bought a nice tech shirt and a coffee mug. I know... really JD - you spent even more money?!? I guess the truth is, no matter how cynical I get, completing an Ironman really does give me a great sense of accomplishment; and it is something that is worth remembering for me (thus this lengthy blog post).

After returning from the expo, I got Susie and we went downstairs for the breakfast buffet... and boy did I ever eat! Western omelette, pancakes, bacon, smoked sausage, potatoes, cinnamon roll, cinnamon raison toast, fruit, juice, water, coffee... Susie was truly amazed at seeing me eat that much : ) After devouring breakfast, the only thing that was left to do was pack everything up and head home; and start planning a way to pay my wife back for her sacrifices over the last few months (a good start was taking her to San Antonio for a nice stay on the Riverwalk the following weekend).

As for the future, there will be no more Ironman distance races for quite a while for me (no, really!). I'll more likely focus on the Half IM as my maximum distance for at least the next 2-3 years; if not longer. The main reason is simply that it takes too much time to train properly, and I don't have it in me to do a race without the proper training. As much as I love the sport of triathlon and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing an Ironman, there are other parts of my life that are more important; and those parts get out of balance. Time to start getting some of the balance back.

Oh, did I mention I'm signed up for the San Antonio Marathon this November?...



  1. Wow, I stand and applaud you. Ironman is such a great accomplishment

    And you earned a Pukie, which I will have posted on Friday

  2. Your Pukie Award is up