Mostly I am a runner but I do enjoy triathlons in summer and the cross training is wonderful. This is my story about the Chesapeake Man triathlon over ironman distance in Cambridge, MD on 9/24. An ironman is a 2.4mile swim, 112 mile Bike ride and then a 26.2 mile run (marathon) all in one continuous event, the clock never stops. For the running purists out there swimming is like taking a shower except there is no soap, your feet don't touch the ground, you are tightly bunched with other swimmers and you have no control over the water. Cycling is like doing your jogging sitting down except you are hunched forward most of the time, stopping can be difficult and cycling for hours can be a pain in the butt.
For years I have watched triathletes compete in Ironman competitions. Me emulating those athletics feats seemed about as likely as me going to the moon. 3 different, continuous events starting early in the morning and finishing in the dark was quite unachievable for an average, slightly clumsy guy like me. This year my summer running was going well, I was enjoying swimming in the lake and occasionally I would ride my bike. I exercised most days, was injury free (a rarity), my diet improved, I lost some weight and so overall I felt good and ready for a major event. Entering an ironman was a stretch but I signed up in August for the race in September.
Friday before the race was pouring rain and I feared we would spend race day soaking wet (By we, I mean my training partner and mentor, Jim B) However weather conditions on race day were ideal. Cool, overcast and no wind. Very light showers kept us refreshed. Jim and I bought Subway 12 inch sandwiches and loaded these onto our bikes in advance. This was a godsend for me as they tasted so good and wholesome compared to all the high density, hi-tech bars, gels and goos we usually eat.
The sun was just showing its weak and puny face as we entered the Chesapeake Bay. The water was cold but not frigid. Nervously and gingerly we walked down the boat ramp and swam out to the start line. 7.03am and we were off. The swim start was a "mob" start. No swim waves, all 300+ of us together and it was all knees and elbows. This was bad. It was like a washing machine for most of the race. We kept (accidentally) bumping, hitting and kicking one another. My goggles came off a few times and its possible I muttered some epithets. The big challenge about open water swimming is direction - you have to lift your head regularly to see where you are and in rough water you can only see a few yards around you. We swam in a rough rectangle - the inner leg close to the shore and quite calm, the longer outer leg was choppy with a swell. I did swallow some salty Chesapeake water a few times. Why can't we swim in Gatorade occasionally ? We spotted a lot of jellyfish in the water and we both got light stings. The swim was fast for me and I was pleased to comfortably finish the 2.4 miles in about 72 minutes.
T1 (transition from swim to bike) was terrible. It was a complete clothing change and I was a little confused and disoriented. I put my cycling shirt on inside out, couldn't remember what I was supposed to do with my socks (they go on the feet). Finally I put my cycling gloves on the wrong hands, then had to remove them and the fingers got twisted. I wasted a lot of time here and Jim passed me.
The bicycle leg was very long. I had nearly 7 hours in the saddle for 112miles, most of it in one "aero" position. This is crouching forward with elbows on the handlebars. For an inept cyclist like me, this position is very unstable especially when I try to reach the gears or brakes, or get some food or drink. We did 2 big loops and twice went through deep water in the marshes. The water was over my cycling shoes. The second loop was deeper as the tide came in. Somewhere out here I stopped for a nature break. It was a swamp and there were many savage, merciless, vicious and armed mosquitoes swarming around. Note to self - never drop your pants in a place like this. The subway sandwich at the halfway point was really nice. There were no signs telling us how far to the next aid station and there were places with no race signs for miles. Some places I got really worried if I was even still on the course or perhaps had wandered into Delaware.
I had some light stomach cramps towards the end of the bike but otherwise it was simply long and uneventful. My average speed started about 18mph but gradually faded to about 15-16. I was very happy to get off the bike and into running gear. Again my transition was a complete change of clothes and rather slow. My fingers were slightly numb from the long ride and I struggled to do laces and clip belts.
Starting a marathon after the swim and cycle legs is a bit daunting. There were aid stations every mile and thats how I thought of the whole 26. I simply carried enough water to get me to the next aid station and focused on 1 mile at a time. I rarely thought any more than that. The run course was out and back 3 times. This was great because I could see everyone else. JimB never stopped running and looked stronger every time I saw him, miles ahead of me. My run started well at about 9mins/mile but after 4-5 miles the stomach cramps kicked in hard. I walked and stalled for about an hour, but just kept moving forward. Every time I tried running, the cramps started and I had to stop. I think all the energy bars and bites were more than my stomach could handle. This was the lowest point of the race for me, my nadir. I still had so many miles to run and was feeling awful. I tossed the fancy food, switched to water only and eventually improved to the point I could run again.
Darkness settled in and the mosquitoes came out. I had a lamp but it was better to run in the dark. The second low point was about 20 miles in. I was tired after a long day, it was dark and lonely road. I could feel the sweat cooling on my skin, the batteries on my GPS watch died and I felt abandoned. I just kept plodding, swinging my arms and following the yellow line. This ennui did not last long as I could see the distant light and noise from the finish area about 2 miles out. At the final aid station one of the volunteers said to me "Another mile and you are an iron man". It struck me then that I would finish and finish well. My marathon time was about 5 hours.
Before the race I thought a finish time of 14-15 hours was reasonable. I finished in 13hrs37 minutes, a time I was thrilled with. It was a fantastic feeling to cross the finish line, a dream come true. My skin was tingling the last 1/2 mile and I was trying to memorize the flood of feelings and sense of floating I was having.
JimB did even better finishing his second IM in 12.18. Debbie M drove us there and back in her van, provided encouragement at transitions and took photos. A long day for her as well and neither medal nor glory for her reward save the thanks of a grateful duo.
Undoubtedly it was the hardest physical thing I have ever done. I am proud of myself for struggling through the low moments and fighting the good fight. It was a wonderful reward for a summer of hard training. Now I can max out on junk food and consume some serious calories.
Sunday I was constantly hungry, thirsty, sleepy and itchy (mosquito bites), a few blisters, one jellyfish sting but nothing serious. They feel like medals.