The IronMan Report
Race Report - Ironman USA 2006
As promised, the following is a detailed account of Ironman USA 2006. The pain, the suffering, the joy, the unbearable tedium. It's all here.
If you are thinking of competing in an Ironman this might be a helpful look at what to expect on raceday, but then again this is just one person's experience and probably won't be typical.
Mileage, as they say, will vary...
- Myself, Jeff M in the role of ironman virgin and blog host.
- MG as experienced Ironman and Clydesdale phenom.
- DS as 2nd time Ironman looking to improve on the Lake Placid course
- PH as support crew, both technical and spiritual
Thursday July 20: MG PH and myself drive from Toronto to Lake Placid. An early arrival is good, as it gives you some time to acclimatize to the race location and to find a certain comfort level with the surroundings. Arriving too close to race day would be a little too hectic and nerve-wracking, and besides, registration is actually 2 days prior to the race so last minute arrivals are impossible.
The town of Lake Placid is picturesque, very affluent, and pretty much entirely white. That's a bit of an adjustment for a boy from Toronto, but since triathlon is largely a white sport anyway (for whatever reasons - I'm not going to supply a socio-economic critique of multisport here) it wasn't too much of a shock. We were talking to Ironman North America head Poo-Bah Graham Fraser on Friday down at the beach and he told us that Lake Placid is about the perfect size for hosting an Ironman event. Any city over 30,000 is too big because there are just too many other distractions to compete with the event. In the smaller venues an IM is a really big deal, and the volunteers come out in the thousands. And make no mistake, they are needed to ensure the success of the race.
Friday July 21: We register for the race. That includes a weigh-in so that if you look like you're in serious trouble crossing the finish line they can tell if you've lost a dangerous amount of weight and get you hooked up to an IV in a hurry. More on that later. We get fitted for a competitors bracelet and pick up our swag bag, which unlike other races does not include a T-shirt. Nobody gets a shirt until they cross the finish line, which makes an IM shirt a very valuable item of clothing indeed.
In the two days prior to raceday we drove the bike course (just one 90km loop) to familiarize ourselves with it, swam a loop of the swim course and biked a loop of the run course, all for the sake of eliminating at least some of the unknowns of the race. For me at least, an Ironman is largely uncharted territory so this was helpful.
What was not helpful was the rain that started to come down on Saturday. By the time we had to rack our bikes in the transition area it was raining hard, hard enough to require some hasty garbage bag bike coverings to prevent everything from getting totally soaked overnight. Best case raceday scenario on Saturday night was looking like rain in the morning, maybe clearing by the afternoon in time for the run. Yikes. Not good. 180km of riding in the rain is nobody's idea of a good time, including me - I packed extra shirts plus a rain jacket in my T1 bag so I would be prepared for any kind of weather on raceday. Good move. I also packed extra socks in my run 'special needs' bag (which you pick up after loop 1 of the run - typically stocked with additional food but also with odds & ends like extra socks, sunscreen, Advil or whatever) in case my feet were wet. Nothing worse than blisters with another 21km to run.
When we went to bed on Saturday night it was still coming down in buckets, but for some reason I wasn't too worried about it. I've raced in the rain before and I imagine I'll race in the rain again, so it didn't keep me awake.
We were up at 4:45 so there would be plenty of time to get some food in before hitting the water at 7 a.m., and lo and behold the rain had stopped. It was still pretty wet on the ground, and it was a chilly 12 degrees or so but at least it wasn't raining. Hallelujah brother.
PH gave the three of us a lift down to the centre of town so we could get our wetsuits on and throw our dry clothes into a bag for pickup after the race. Mistake #1: as PH was pulling away to head back to the hotel I realized I had left my water bottles for my bike behind. Doh! Arrgggghh. The very first thing you have to do when you get on the bike is start drinking, in order to rehydrate after the swim. Sounds weird, but it's not like you can carry water with you on the swim and for sure you can't drink the water in the lake so you are typically in need of some rehydration immediately into the bike portion of the race. And here I was with no water on my bike at all. None. I felt quite the fool at this point, but both MG and DS reassured my that there would be plenty of water available on the course. MG even unselfishly gave me one of his water bottles to start the ride with - a noble act indeed and one that I was extremely grateful for. It calmed me down immediately too, which had at least as much benefit as the water itself.
The Swim: 3.8 Kilometres (2.4 Miles)
Into the water with 2399 other bobbing heads to the strains of The Star Spangled Banner and 'Clocks' by Coldplay. This is my favourite part of any race, especially when it's an in-the-water start (as opposed to a beach start). For some reason I just like the moment of floating out there waiting for gun to sound, surrounded by all those identical faces - swim caps and goggles and ton of nervous energy, it's a weird and energizing feeling.
The crowds at Lake Placid are huge, too. Unlike most local races where you might have a few hundred (or fewer) spectators, an Ironman draws a big crowd - thousands of friends, family and local residents come out to see what is one of the most exciting moments in sports, the mass swim start. Mirror Lake is long and narrow with a sort of a sheltered beach at one end so it forms a kind of natural amphitheatre. It was packed.
The trick to surviving a mass start is to pick your spot carefully. If you are a slow swimmer you need to get near the back of the pack so faster swimmers aren't swimming over top of you once the race starts, and conversely if you are a good swimmer you need to be nearer the front so you don't have to swim over top of anyone else. You'll have enough to worry about with swimmers on both sides of you anyway. For me, I'm kind of a middle of the pack swimmer so I don't get too near the front. If you pick your spot right you'll generally be swimming with the same crowd for most of the race.
My plan for the swim was to hit the beach at 1:10 to 1:15, and after the first loop I was 35 minutes gone. Right on track. I think I swam off course more in the second loop, so I finished with a 1:14:something. Not bad for the longest swim of my life. After letting a couple of lovely wetsuit peelers pull my suit off I headed to transition feeling pretty good. Even my heart rate was pretty well under control at this point, which meant I hadn't spent too much on the shortest part of the race.
T1 & Bike: 180 Kilometres (112 Miles)
I decided to go with the short sleeve jersey and to carry a light jacket in my pocket. Good move, because after about 10 minutes I was absolutely freezing. I stopped and put on the jacket right away and immediately felt better. Losing a couple of minutes on a long ride is no big deal so I was feeling quite pleased with myself at this point.
My target time for the bike ride was 7 hours. I knew if I hammered it I could put in a quicker time but after my miserable experience in Peterborough 2 weeks before I felt that a more reserved bike pace was better strategy and would leave me with something for the run. I had read over and over in many magazines and training guides that "An ironman is not a bike race", so an easy, steady ride was my gameplan.
That gameplan didn't include 9 stops along the way (one for putting the jacket on, one for taking it off, and 7 more to answer the call of nature) but as it turned out the stops didn't affect my time at all: I finished the 180km in 7 hours, 1 minute and 25 seconds. Right on target.
MG passed me while I was stopped for a nature break and a quick drink mix pretty early on the first loop. As is his wont he was hammering his ride and would turn in a sub-6 hour time. I didn't see DS until late in the first loop, almost back into Lake Placid. We would ride more or less together until about a third of the way into the next loop, and then he was gone too. He would finish with a 6:33 bike time. Nicely done, lads.
The Lake Placid bike course is pretty spectactular - mountains, valleys, lakes and rushing streams, plus a long out-and-back leg through a mostly forested area. The entire region is a national park so it's very lightly populated. I brought along a disposable camera to shoot some snaps along the way and this made the ride even more enjoyable. Lots of laughs and surprised faces from the spectators and support crews when they saw me taking their picture!
T2 and Run: 42.2 Kilometres (26.2 Miles)
PH was making the most of his IM experience by volunteering at the race, something I wish I had thought of last year, so he was right there in T2 when I dropped off my bike. It was great to see a friendly face and get a high five after a long day of riding. I love my bike, but 7 hours in the saddle is long enough. I was glad to be off the bike and doing something different.
Into the change tent and into the run gear, then quickly out onto the course. By this time the weather had warmed up considerably. In fact it was pretty much a perfect day and had been that way since less than half way into the first bike loop. Mid to high 20's, scattered cloud cover and light winds. Amazing, especially when you consider what the weather might have been like based on predictions the day before.
My run, however, would not be so amazing. I felt awful right from the start. This is not unusual - in many past races I have felt terrible getting off the bike and I had anticipated this for the IM, so I wasn't too worried about it and just pushed ahead anyway. I thought things would come around in a few minutes and I could get down to the business of plodding along with everyone else. Wrong. I managed to run much of the first loop, following my plan of walking every aid station, but my stomach was doing flips the whole time. I was forced to walk more and more until finally on the second loop I actually came to a full stop and sat down with my head in my hands for a few minutes. Someone, thankfully, yelled out to me to keep moving and I snapped out of it enough to get back to my feet.
After hobbling along for another couple of kilometres my stomach finally won and I had to have a quick hurl at the side of the road, not 20 metres from an ambulance and a few state troopers. Nobody noticed. At the time I was torn between wanting them to see me and take me off the course (and perhaps shoot me a few times) and hoping they wouldn't so I could keep going. Lucky for me the sight of someone puking on an Ironman is no big deal and the paramedics paid no mind. I got up and stumbled on.
By this time my stomach had shut down completely. The thought of actually eating or drinking anything was right out of the question, but I knew that if I didn't at least drink something I would be in serious trouble before long. I managed to choke down some Gu and some water, but mainly just chewed ice and sipped Coke for quite a long time. My pace got slower and slower and I noticed that not only was I not moving forward at anything like a brisk walking pace, I was actually staggering along like a Saturday night drunk. I don't think I have ever felt worse in my life than I did at that point. Thankfully that didn't last too long - I started chatting with a woman who was walking beside me for a while, I think she was talking to another guy and I sort of jumped into their conversation. I ended up walking with the guy (sorry, don't remember your name), an Italian guy from somewhere around Poughkeepsie NY and also feeling like death on a stick and cursing the day he signed up for an Ironman. I remember both of us swearing we would never be stupid enough to sign up for another one, and how utterly crapulous we both felt. We walked for a long, long way. A couple of hours I think, because we made the turnaround on the River Road and walked all the way back to the top of the first hill on the outside of town about 2 miles from Lake Placid before I started feeling better. By this time it was dark and getting cool and we had grabbed some mylar sheeting to wrap around ourselves to keep warm. The multiple cokes had done the trick and I felt up to attempting a run. He didn't - his problem was cramped muscles, not stomach issues so he wished me good luck, we shook hands and off I went.
Incredibly, the final 4 miles felt really good. I was running at a decent pace and stopped mostly at the aid stations. I warmed up quickly, and felt good enough to run the last 30 meters of the Big Hill in the middle of town, which made the spectators there go nuts. What a great feeling. There's a guy every year who parks himself at the top of that awful hill and barks through a megaphone at all the runners, shouting encouragement. He saw me break into a run and it must have looked like Lazarus rising from the dead. "Look at this guy! Hey, buddy, where you been hiding that run?!!" People were screaming their heads off at me as I ran by, pumping my fist. A rush? You bet.
The next couple of miles were long, but the final 500 meters into the Oval and the loop around and into the finish line were an amazing thing. What a great feeling to finally break that tape.
MG and PH were at the finish line, and a welcome sight they most definitely were. A race official grabbed me though and hung on for a couple of minutes while firing questions at me to see if I was coherent or not. I must have passed the test because she let me go eventually, without even a trip to the scales to see how much weight I had lost. For sure I lost some weight - PH and MG both commented immediately as I crossed the line, and the finish line photo confirms it. How much is hard to say, you don't have to take much away from a 146 lb frame to make it show.
A quick photo with the medal around my neck, a slice of pizza and another blessed Coke (which I normally loathe) and we were ready to scram. Just in time too because just as we were packing up it started to pour rain again. I can't imagine how miserable it would have been to have still been out on the course at that point, trudging along in a cold rain. Awful.
Final finish time: 14 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. I had actually allotted myself 14 hours to complete the course so I wasn't too far off that mark, though I now know that had I not been suffering from such a bad stomach I could have easily bettered the 14 hour mark. My overall place was 1700 out of 2159 who started the race, 180th of 233 in my age group. Not very impressive! But acceptable when you consider the number of DNFs.
MG's time: 12:30:01 I think the :01 part stung a bit, but that's a great time.
DS's time: 12:58:31 Also a good time and a huge improvement on 2005.
Alchemical transformation complete, C has become Fe...
Did I enjoy the experience? Overall, yes. Two thirds of the race I felt great, nine tenths of the run I felt horrible, but I feel pretty good about just finishing the race. My objective going in was to finish the race without requiring medical attention and although it was close at one point I did accomplish at least that. The finish time is irrelevant now, at least for a first attempt.
For the next one I have to sort out my nutrition issues and I think it would be wise to hire a coach or follow some kind of structured training plan. Going it alone might work for some people (like MG for instance) but for me I would feel more confident with some professional assistance in the training phase.
When will the next Ironman be? Hard to say. Maybe not next year, but a return in 2008 sounds likely.