When I tell a friend or acquaintance that I’m a triathlete, they usually ask: “did you do the Ironman in Hawaii?” This idea that the only triathlon is a full 140.6 mile ironman is not just held by our non-triathlete friends, it eventually permeates the psyche of just about all triathletes too. Sure, we can be fulfilled and successful doing sprint, Olympic and 70.3 distance triathlons, but in the back of our minds, whether we admit it to anyone or not, we too think “will I ever be able to do a 140.6 mile ironman?” Certainly that was where I found myself in the spring of 2019.
I didn’t start my triathlon journey until I was well past 50. I started, like many triathletes, with a sprint. It was doable. I finished. I was hooked. Before I knew it, I had a coach and bought a bike and a watch and a wetsuit and all kinds of stuff. I moved from sprints to Olympic distance and then to 70.3s. While rarely on the podium, I was always “better than average” and hoping to improve. Injuries and age and life too often got in the way. And that was fine, because to finish a sprint, Olympic, or even a 70.3 there is a margin for error in the training that allows for life’s event and challenges. I was pretty happy just cruising along. Then it happened.
I was having lunch with a friend from Baton Rouge. We had raced several “destination” triathlons and often took long runs together at the legal conferences that drew us together in the first place. Over what he described as the world’s best oyster po’boy sandwich at a little restaurant on Lake Pontchartrain, he says “let’s do Ironman Florida.” I responded, “no, I’m not ever planning on doing a 140.6 race. I really like the 70.3’s I’ve been doing.” “Come on, it’ll be fun.” The seed was planted.
Later that day, I saw him again. “Let’s do it. I’ve done this race before, but the swim was cancelled and I really want to finish the whole thing.” “No, I’m good.” The seed was germinating. Hours later, at a reception that evening “Have you changed your mind?” he asked. This time I said, “l’ll think about it.”
And so I did. It was all I could think about for the next week. This was in May of 2019. If I was going to do this, I’d need to commit soon. So, I picked up the phone and called my friend, who had always been known as simply “Burton,” and said “Damn you Burton” “I’m in”. I didn’t tell anyone but my coach. Not my wife, not my friends. I guess I was scared I couldn’t do it, or I’d get an injury and have to quit; and I didn’t want to be known as a quitter.
Over the next several months my training rides and runs got longer and longer. I found a friend my age who pulled me along for hundreds of miles. He’s done Alcatraz and Lake Placid – he was a real triathlete. It was all I could do to just hang on. Then I started being the one who was doing the pulling. Holly cow, I thought, “I can do this.” I just needed to stay consistent in my training and avoid injury. Two two-week jury trials out of town did not help – no bike, and no time for long runs, and no swimming. And so much stress that a stressful workout was simply not possible. Yikes! Time was running out and I was not running or biking or swimming enough.
By now my wife had figured it out. She was not happy. “This is taking up too much time.” She was right. It takes a long time to ride 100 miles or more. Sometimes my mid-week long runs did not start until after dinner and I got home after mid-night. But I kept training. I discovered that my history of getting sick during the runs of all my prior 70.3 races was likely caused by dehydration. I started using Drip Drop and then Precision Hydration. I got a hydration backpack. Game changer! I was finishing long runs and rides and feeling great. I tried all kinds of eating protocols and eventually discovered Maurten. Another game changer! I was now able to eat and drink and ride and run without getting sick. I was getting confident. “I can do this” I thought. Then it happened – I changed shoes. They felt great and fast. So off I went on a 16 mile run. Wow, no achilles pain – a problem that has plagued me for years. “These are the best shoes ever!” or so I thought through mile 14. I walked miles 15 and 16. The top of my right foot was burning. My great toe hurt. I was injured. The carbon plate in my fancy new shoes had caused a sprain in the top of my foot.
There was only a month left. And the only cure was rest. I tried a couple of 5 mile runs and walked home in pain after only a mile or two. Crap – how was I going to run a marathon (something I had never ever done before) if I could not run 5 miles? So I doubled down on the biking. One day I did over six hours on my Wahoo trainer.
I also figured it was time to start swimming a little more seriously. So, I bought a new wetsuit and tried it out. The first swim was at the lake for 2.2 miles. Not a problem. I guess I was never worried about the swim. Of course, I’d been swimming regularly as part of my training, but if I needed an off day, I’d skip the swim. When I did swim, I focused heavily on strength and efficiency regularly using a parachute as I’ve found that nothing is better for giving me a sense of “feel” relating to my arms pulling through the water. I did a couple more swims that were right at 2.4 miles and checked the swim off my list.
But, I was still not running and the race was just a week away. I ultimately decided that I’d take my chances and not run until I got to Florida. At that point I’d be nearly a month with no run workouts. And I’d be doing my first marathon. This was indeed a frightening thought.
When the race arrived, I left Atlanta early Thursday and drove by myself down to Florida. First, I checked into what was surely the worst condo/hotel I had stayed in since college Spring Break. But I could see the ocean and the finish line. It was pretty exhilarating. My wife would arrive Friday by airline and we’d spend the day together, have dinner with Damn you Burton and his wife, and I’d be racing Saturday morning!
I then made my way to the long snaking line to check in to the race. While I’d been to several Ironman branded 70.3 races, the excitement that is a 140.6 Ironman race was something I’d never experienced before. I met all kinds of athletes. Some just wanted to finish. Some wanted to win. And still others were looking to finish race number 20 – or more. Some had six packs, and others looked like they had consumed several too many six packs; but collectively they all hoped to be Ironmen.
After completing all the check-in details, I decided it was time to check to see if I could run. So down the road I went – it felt pretty good. Hell, it felt great. I was all set and prepared to have a really good race and fast time. I wanted to be in the top 10%! I’d done the math, it was pretty possible. That would be a great day!
Friday was pretty uneventful, but it was going to be cold and I was simply not prepared for that kind of weather. So off to Walmart we went. Proving that my room was truly something special, not only could I see the ocean and starting line for the race, I could also see the Walmart. We purchased a long sleeve surfer/swim shirt and a pack of ten pairs of gardening gloves (that’s all they had as apparently I was not the only athlete who neglected to bring gloves!). (I took the extra gloves to the race and handed them out like a mafia don handing out cigars.)
We enjoyed a very fancy early dinner with Damn you Burton and his lovely wife, and I spent the rest of the evening getting ready. I’d never shaved my legs for a race before - but every watt counts = so I took care of that out on the balcony. My wife helped! Although resistant to the idea at first, always the supporter, she was all in on race day. I packed up my nutrition, went over my plan, and got to bed pretty early.
Race day was beautiful but cold! Damn you Burton had suggested that we buy VIP passes for our wives (best decision ever) so they were set for the day with food and a place to be. I got in my wetsuit and headed out to the beach. There was a table with a volunteer who promised to take my eyeglasses and have them for me at the finish of the swim. Great service – or so I thought!
The swim was pretty uneventful and I came out of the water ready to ride. But first I had to find my eyeglasses. To the first volunteer I saw, I asked: “do you know where the eyeglasses are?” “No.” And so it went all the way to the changing building. No glasses there either. So I put on my Podium kit, and gardening gloves and ran around looking for my glasses. Note the problem here – I was without my glasses looking for my glasses. I was very much a chicken with no head. I finally found them all the way back at the end of the swim - on a table off to the side. Ugg. That took more than twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! So much for a great time.
Now that I was saddled with the world’s longest T1, I had a decision to make: Be pissed off because a volunteer trying to help thousands of strangers put the eyeglasses table in a place I could not see, and be miserable for the next 12 hours, or accept that shit happens and make the most of it and have a fun day. Fortunately I chose the latter and off I went with the goal of having a really fun day. I said hi to everyone who passed me and to everyone I passed. I stopped for lunch. I thanked the volunteers. I offered encouragement to everyone!
A word of advice – dress for mile 5, not for mile 1. That was the advice my coach gave me; and while I was cold for a few minutes I was just right as the ride progressed. In contrast, I passed way too many people laboring against clothing more suitable for the Artic than for an Ironman race.
I had a great bike ride. I took my time in T2 and took off for my first marathon with no idea what that would be like. As I ran along, I’d make a friend a run with them for a while and then move on to the next new friend. It was supposed to be really hard, but I was just cruising along having a great day. Catered exercise! But I knew, because everyone told me and I believed them, that it would all fall apart somewhere around mile 22. The advice was to walk or risk not finishing. So I figured I’d better walk a little when I got that far to make sure I could finish. My longest run ever had been 18 miles and that was now months ago before I hurt my foot and went the last month without running. Yep, if I was going to finish I figured I needed to follow the advice of the “you better walk a little” crowd. So I found myself walking next to someone about 30 years younger than me. We struck up a conversation and asked “why are you walking?” He said “because my friends told if I didn’t I would crash and burn.” “Me too”, I responded. Then I said, “you know what, I’m really feeling like that was not good advice” and off I went. I was flying! I mean I ran the last two miles in the 8 minute range. I crossed the finish and there was my wife cheering. I felt great! I didn’t get nearly the time my fitness would have allowed, but with that 20’ minute screwup at the beginning I had long since stopped worrying about time and instead focused on the joy of the day. Best decision ever. Even cruising along I was still way better than average and the best I’d ever been.
My next 140.6 will be in a couple of years when I’m 65. And all I can say is this: top 10%, here I come!
A triathlete trying hard not to be the oldest dad in the room.