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.