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

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