Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ironman 70.3 Augusta - My Journey To The Finish Line

Sit down, relax, grab a cup of coffee and take a short ride along with me. Let me share my experience as I became an Ironman 70.3 finisher.

I had in my mind that the weather was not going to hamper my spirits for the Ironman 70.3 Augusta. I trained long and hard and something I could not control was just not going to get in the way. I did not look at the weather predictions for Augusta until early in the week and the e-weather man had called for more of the same. 70% chances of rain is what he said.

As we were leaving home on Friday afternoon the rain started to come down. Off and on for most of the drive it kept coming. The passage through Atlanta was under a torrential downpour. Again, I was thinking… nothing will get in the way. I must admit however, that my only concern was for the swim. What condition was the river in? Had the water swelled so that it would render the river un-swimmable? And what about the quality of the water? The race director had posted on the website that all had been cleared, but I had to wonder if this was just what he had to say to ensure he wouldn’t have massive numbers of “no-shows” and they would make a race time decision on the swim portion of the tri.

On Saturday morning accompanied by my wife, I went to the pre-race meeting. The race director assured us that the river was in perfect condition. Water temperature was 72 degrees and it would be wetsuit legal! (Sigh of relief from yours truly) and big round of applause from all present. After going through all the rules and regulations we were dismissed and on to the packet pick up area where the culmination of the long journey was coming together. I was given an orange “Ironman 70.3” I.D. bracelet and the race bib with number 2039. My age group was the 55-59 and fittingly enough the swim cap color was silver. My swim wave would start at 8:39 on Sunday morning.

After spending some time at the race expo and just a few dollars to support the vendors present, we left in search of the key race areas; transition, swim start, finish line. Unfamiliar with the city and not very descriptive maps in our hands it took us just long enough to get to transition in time to have the bike checked in. Just a few minutes before 2 pm but they were allowing bikes in already so I racked mine and covered it with plastic to protect it from water for rain was still coming down and it was to rain all night.

We drove to the swim start just to check it out. There were a couple of swimmers practicing but there was no swim support. I remember wondering how smart this was. One swimmer must have been some 400 yards from the dock. His wife had a terrified look on her face for on his way back we all could tell he was struggling. He was swimming at this point, up-river.

It was time to go back to the hotel room for a small nap prior to dinner time. We just knew that we needed to get to a restaurant early if we wanted to eat early enough. We were right. We left the hotel room around 5:45 and as it happened, it was already too late. Every restaurant we stopped at had close to a two hour wait. Then it came to us, we should take our dinner back to the hotel.

As I have always done, I did tonight. After double checking all my gear and ensuring all was ready for the morning, I was in bed and ready to go to sleep by 9 pm. Lights out. Good night.

Then 1 a.m. came. And as always before it happened again. I couldn’t go back to sleep. Remember looking at the clock several times during the remaining of the night. At 4:45 I got out of bed and made a cup of coffee.

Left the room at 5:45. Arrived at transition at 6:10. The transition area was already full of activity but a quiet activity. You could sense that everyone was entering their “zone”. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand. I put on my head phones and turned on my music. Got focused quickly and set up my transition towel. Nothing more I could do now, so I grabbed my wet suit, cap, goggles and banana and headed to grab the shuttle to swim start. Upon arrival I noticed that somewhere along the line, somehow I had been separated from my banana! Good thing my wife was there with a replacement.

The skies were cloudy. Thick dark, heavy clouds overhead. If it rained, I was ready. The temperature was in the low 70’s. If today was to be like yesterday, it would be perfect.

Arrived at swim start about 6:45. First wave, the pros, would be off at 7:30. Picked up my timing chip and went looking for my staging area. There I waited until it was time to get started. The national anthem was played and announcements were made. The race director told us that some 2800 racers would be racing today. This race would be dedicated to two triathletes that were killed during a training ride just a couple of weeks ago.

The largest age groups were Men 35-39 with 370, Men 40-44 with 324, Men 30-34 with 268 and Men 45-49 with 202. Each one of these groups were divided into three separate waves. The swim start waves were set up so that the Men 30-39 would go immediately after the pros and the Men 40-49 would go at the end. Can’t imagine the mess in transition if these two groups were not separated as such. My wave, which consisted 55 and older was 74 strong was the one immediately in front of the first wave of the 40-49 age group.

We jumped in the water and hung on to the dock waiting for our wave to start. There were four minutes between waves. All the nerves that were bottled up magically faded away the minute I hit the water. It was time to get it done. The water felt cold but even that was not an issue. Then the horn blew and we were off.

I remember taking it slow and smooth. Getting my strokes in rhythm and my breathing in place. Everything was going as planned. Only issue I still have to address is my inability to swim straight. Fell off course several times and I felt like I was going every which way but straight. I just know that this alone added and extra minute or two to my time because of the adjustments I had to make. But even with all this, I felt good. Really, really good. The instructions we were given at the beginning of the swim was to look for the sausage buoys that would be the end of the swim.

To tell you that I was surprised and obviously happy to see those buoys would be an understatement. Surprised because I had no clue I was already there and happy because, well I had no clue I would already be there. My internal jubilation increased when I saw my watch and it showed 34 minutes and change. Okay, for some of you reading this, this may not be a magnificent time, but for those of you following my progress are well aware of my struggles in the water. My goal was to do the 1.2 miles in the water in 40 minutes, I would have been happy with 45. So imagine how I felt with 34. My official time came in at 34:34.

At T1 there was help to get the wet suits off. We unzipped and pulled the arms off the suit and a volunteer grabbed and pulled the suit off. This was a huge help. My T1 time was 6:34.

The 56 mile bike ride went pretty much without incident. Actually, it went off without any incident. Had plenty of fluid and nutrition and I felt I took what I needed when I needed it. The entire course was crowded to say the least. As far as the toughness of the course, for me I would have to rate it a 7 out of 10. Those that claim that the course was not hilly are either showing off or got lost and took the wrong turn somewhere. Man, those hills. At one point when the group I was with (momentarily of course) took a sharp right turn you could hear a collective “Oh S** T, look at that hill”! There was plenty of police support, plenty of volunteer help and very well marked. Water stations were separated fine but some folks thought the distance between the first and second could have been closer. Didn’t notice this.

Somewhere around the first hour of my bike the clouds that were covering the skies disappeared, the sun came out and the wind started howling. Really howling. Oh yeah, the temperatures soared. I estimated the temperature at this point to be in the 80’s and it kept rising as the day moved on.

Okay, remember I mentioned that the 40-49 year old men were sent off right after us? Not a good idea… not a good idea at all! How do you think us older guys felt all during the bike being passed by what seemed to be each and everyone of those 40-49 age groupers?

The last eight miles of the course were somewhat flat. Somewhat. And hot, very hot. I tried to take it easy to get my heart and legs ready for the run. I wanted my bike time to be 3:30. At least that was my plan. I had trained for that. I looked for that. My official bike time was 3:32:27. How close was that?

Entering T2 my left toes were hurting. When I took of my shoes they felt like they were bleeding. A quick look at my sock confirmed otherwise. Loosened up the sock and put on my running shoes. The pain quickly disappeared. T2 went without a hitch, except that when I tried to switch my Garmin from bike to run, it turned off and couldn’t get it started again. So I put my sports watch back on. At least I could tell my pace at the mile markers. Couldn’t worry about this now. T2 time was 5:43.

Coming out into the run I felt great. Couldn’t believe how good I felt. I remember thinking how glad I was I had done all those bricks during training. But this was short lived.

About a quarter of a mile before mile marker “1” it all went down hill. Every muscle group in both my legs cramped, all together, all at once. Quads, hamstrings and calves. Stopped to stretch but that seemed to make it worse for the cramps became more intense. But, I knew that stretching would help solve the problem so for about 10 minutes I stretched and stretched until I felt comfortable enough to continue. A few runners asked if I was okay, I gave them the thumb up. Tried to run but could only jog. Two blocks later, the cramps came back but not as intense. I knew at this point that it was going to be a long 13.1 miles. And they were. Could only manage to get two blocks of running at a time. Then stop, stretch, jog, continue. A long, very long, hot 13.1 miles. A bank’s thermometer on the route read 92 degrees.

This was truly a mind over matter test. I am here to tell you that there was no way, no how that I was not going to make it to the end. As a matter of fact, my only thoughts were of what I could do to ensure a finish.

The run course itself was flat. Very flat. Not sure what I think about a double loop. As runners kept passing by (and plenty did) some where asking if this was my first or second loop. It was nice to finally answer “second”. To my best estimate there was plenty of water and Gatorade stops, about every 1.5 mile. And I took advantage of each and every one of those.

And then there it was, just around the corner, one hundred yards and I would be a “finisher”. As I made that final turn into the straight ahead headed for the finish line, all pain and anguish was gone. At the other side of the finish line, a very nice young lady placed the finisher medal around my neck and all I could say to her was: “earned, not given.” She laughed!

There were 3500 athletes registered, about 2800 started and 2525 finished. I am proud to say that I was one of them. My goal time was 7 hours. My actual time was 7:19:45. And the thing that keeps coming back into my mind is the fact that all this was accomplished just 8 days before my 55th birthday, accomplishing my goal of finishing a Half Ironman before that day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One Short Week

It has been on my mind all day long today. The thought that just one week from today I will be at the Ironman 70.3 Augusta, competing in my first Half Ironman!

Woke up this morning and the very first thing I did was look at the clock. Then next thing I did was to think that one week from now I would be somewhere half way through the swim. And the rest of the day was more of the same... "next week at this time I will be...".

Well, next week at this time, God willing and the creeks don't rise, I will be resting at the hotel room savoring the experience. I would have completed my first Half Ironman and true to my goal, prior to my 55th birthday.

One big question has been in my head all day long: "Have I done enough?" Well, nothing more I could do right now so I will try to put that out of my mind. This week I will taper, will stay loose, will carb load, will enjoy the journey and will prepare mentally.