Missed part 1? Check it out!
The sun is rising and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. 600+ wetsuit-clad ironman triathletes are standing below the starting arch on the beach. Everyone is within themselves, going through their pre-race thoughts and routine. Boats, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders are floating just offshore, waiting for the chaos to begin. The race director plays the national anthem and says a prayer for the athletes. Then everyone begins bouncing in time to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”
Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?
The air horn sounds. The ironman has begun.
I consider myself to be a moderately strong swimmer. Not fast, but I’m plenty comfortable in the water and I have decent form, so I’m fairly efficient. Even though I feel comfortable in the water, I hate the washing machine at the swim start. Rather than trying to deal with the mayhem that is an open water swim start, I tend to hang back a little bit, let all the crazies go, and find myself a little spot somewhere off to the side where I have some space to do my thing without too much contact.
Somehow for this swim, I didn’t place myself very well, and I ended up smack dab in the middle of the crazies.
Between the excitement of the race start, and the craziness of the washing machine, my heart was pounding and I wasn’t breathing smoothly. It didn’t take me long (a few hundred yards) to realize that I was in a place I didn’t want to be. But I’m proud of how I handled it. Rather than freaking out, I flipped over onto my back (very easy to stay afloat thanks to the wetsuit and the saltwater), took a couple deep breaths, and then started backstroking for about 30 seconds.
Just that quick little flip made a huge difference. I caught my breath, my heart rate came back down, and I stopped feeling overwhelmed. Once I flipped back over and started swimming normally again, I had a little bit of open space to work with, and I was able to settle into my groove.
My biggest worry for the entire day was with the swim. I had never done a saltwater swim before this moment. And with saltwater comes ocean life. With ocean life comes an overactive imagination. I was so afraid that my day would be cut short not because of a lack of fitness or swimming ability, but instead, a panic attack because I kept imagining a shark swimming around me. For many of my final long swims, I spent the entire time imagining a shark swimming below me in the pool, and thinking “okay, what do I do if I see a shark???”
During the race, I didn’t let myself think about anything related to ocean life. Somehow, I managed to stay in my little box, and only thought about my swim stroke, sighting, breathing, and all the flailing legs and arms around me. I didn’t let myself look directly down into the water. Instead, I always look straight ahead, just underneath the surface. This works well for me because it keeps me from looking down and potentially seeing something that will freak me out (and also stops me from thinking about it), and it also keeps me from getting kicked in the face. Win-win.
My swim felt surprisingly good. Once I got out of the craziness and found some open space, I just started plugging away. I felt like I was moving well, and breathing easily. I never felt like I got flustered or out of breath. Occasionally someone behind me would grab my leg, and I would give them a little kick to shake them off. They would back off and we would move on.
One nice thing with this swim is that you really don’t need to worry too much about sighting. (I still do it a lot because it gives me something to focus on.) Even the race director said this in our pre-race meeting. Since the swim is straight down the channel, it’s impossible to get lost. There are only two buoys that you need to turn around in a specific way, and other than that, you can swim wherever the heck you like. They do have some smaller green buoys out there for sighting purposes, but you don’t need to go around them at all.
I actually had a really nice time in this swim. I was relaxed and felt strong the entire time. And even though I was so worried about a potential shark sighting or panic attack, I never had a problem with my imagination getting the best of me. There was a brief moment after we rounded the turn at the end of the channel where I started to think I saw something that wasn’t really there (a shadow that looked like a hammerhead), but I just pushed it out of my mind, told myself to shut up, and keep swimming.
After we rounded the first turn out of the main channel, we started to swim back into the marina. The dock for the swim finish was clearly marked – with a big giant red wacky inflatable arm man, like this:
I have never been so happy to see one of those things before in my life.
Once I got my first glimpse of the wacky arm man, I was elated. The last few minutes getting into the dock went quickly and before I knew it, I was swimming the last few feet up to the ladder.
I climbed up the ladder, and managed not to stumble too much on the dock as I got my land legs back. I ran up to the first wetsuit stripper and he worked his magic like the pro he was. My wetsuit was off in about 5 seconds. He handed it back to me and I ran down the path, through the freshwater shower tent, over the timing mat, across the road, and into T1.
- Swim distance: 2.4 miles
- Swim time: 1:08:24 (this includes the wetsuit stripping, and a few hundred yards of running)
The crowds lining the path into T1 were great. They made you feel like a rock star. I ran into T1, grabbed my gear bag, and into the women’s changing tent.
I’ve never been a big fan of public nudity, but in an ironman, there is no such thing as modesty. If you’re going 140.6 miles, you want to be comfortable, and you don’t give a damn who sees what in the process. Besides that, everyone else is so preoccupied with their own efforts, no one is even paying attention. So I grabbed a spot in the changing tent, and stripped off the shorts I had worn under my wetsuit. I made sure to towel off as much of the salt as I could, and put on my bike shorts and jersey. I had put some spray on sunscreen in my T1 bag, so I put on a liberal coating – nothing is worse than getting a sunburn in the middle of a day like this. I was also pleased to confirm that that morning’s application of copious amounts of bodyglide on my neck had prevented me from getting a wetsuit hickey (hooray!).
The wetsuit, towel, swim caps, and goggles went into my T1 bag, which I knotted up tightly and handed to a volunteer. I left the sunscreen in the tent for others to use. Triathletes are always ready and willing to share.
I ran across the transition area to my bike, where I quickly rinsed off my feet with the throwaway squeeze bottle I left there that morning. Popped my socks, shoes, helmet, and sunglasses on, and then unracked my bike and ran out of T1.
T1 time: 11:39 (not fast, but I’d rather be comfortable and make sure I don’t forget anything important)
I ran my bike to the mount line and hopped on. One thing that was pretty amazing was the girl next to me. She was blind and riding a tandem bike with a guide. I found out more about her later on the run – this was her fourth ironman, but only her second racing blind. She had macular degeneration after her second ironman, and continued to race anyway. She is a beast. I was in awe.
We took a roundabout route getting off Wrightsville Beach. Everything was clearly marked, coned off, and indicated with flaggers. The town of Wilmington is so accommodating for this race. We had entire lanes closed down for miles, and cops were stopping traffic left and right so we could safely cross intersections wherever we needed to. It was excellent. I never felt unsafe. Even when we were riding on the highway (an interesting experience in itself).
I went over the bridge to leave the island and headed out onto the bike course. This was where I spotted my family for the first time. I had warned them about the construction at the Wrightsville Beach bridge and suggested that they stay on the mainland side of things and just catch me once I got over the bridge. I’m so glad they did. The traffic was crazy! They were out there with their signs and cowbells, being the awesome support crew that they are.
What great spectators!
The first portion of the bike course was fairly uneventful. My legs felt good, and I was following my nutrition plan (eating/drinking every 20 minutes). Eventually, we were directed onto the on ramp for the highway, where we circled around and crossed into the left lane of the highway, which was closed off just for us. The right lane was still open to traffic, but I really didn’t feel unsafe at all.
The only thing that was unsettling/discouraging at this point in the bike leg was all the people just flying past me like I was standing still. That is, until I realized that they were all the front-of-the-pack halfers. Once I realized that, it made me feel better, and less sucky. But they were still pretty annoying. For a non-draft-legal race, they sure were drafting the crap out of each other and setting up huge pace lines. (I am too slow to actually really care about this, but rules apply to everyone, no?) They were also making some pretty dangerous passes. I was very happy when we finally split off from them somewhere around mile 30. I think most of the other full athletes were as well.
We rode on the highway for about 12 miles. The end of our time on the highway included the one significant climb of the course, up and over a bridge. But it really wasn’t too bad of a climb. I definitely didn’t like the guy that the bridge was named after at the time. But in hindsight, it wasn’t terrible.
We cruised down the off ramp and made a left onto another main (but reasonably quiet) road. My family was waiting for me at the turn, and it was nice to see them again.
There isn’t much to report about this part of the ride. We were finally on some quieter country roads, so things were fairly boring for quite a long time. I made a point to stop at every aid station to refill my water bottles (and grab a backup water bottle to stick in my jersey pocket just in case I ran out), and stretch out my legs. At this point, I was really feeling good. I had finally managed to get the nasty saltwater taste out of my mouth too, so that was a plus.
Things started to go south somewhere around mile 50 or so. By now, we had been separated from the halfers for about 20 miles – over an hour. There weren’t a ton of us, so were were fairly spaced out. Occasionally we would pass each other and say some hellos, but it was pretty quiet and you were very much on your own. Also at mile 50, I finally bumped into Betsy. I had been looking for her since racking my bike at T1 the day before. Betsy is my coworker’s college roommate. In our random conversations, my coworker and I discovered that her friend and I were doing the same race, and we happen to swim, bike, and run at roughly the same paces. So I had her race number and name in my brain, and had been keeping my eye out for her. When I saw her pass me on the bike, I shouted out a hi, and we said our hellos. We saw each other several more times throughout the day. You definitely fell into a group and got to know each other as you went back and forth for several hours. By the end of the run, we were all greeting each other like old friends.
Anyway, around mile 50, things went bad. The winds were nothing like the 30+ mph winds they had had the previous year, but they were enough to be annoying. We were all waiting for the moment where we turned and started to have a bit of a tailwind, but it just never came. Instead, we had a headwind the entire time. It was terrible! I was getting so tired, and frustrated, and my butt, back, and neck hurt SO BAD at this point. All I wanted to do was get off my bike. But there were still 50+ miles to go.
I stopped for a quick bathroom break and re-lubing session at the halfway point aid station. Fortunately, I didn’t need anything for my water bottles because they had somehow ran out of water in the few minutes prior to my arrival. People were freaking out. This was also the aid station where the bike special needs bags were located, and many people had nutrition they needed to mix, and no water to mix it with. As I was in the port-a-potty, I heard a girl panicking. So before unracking my bike, I tossed her my backup water and went on my way.
By now, I had been on the bike for over three and a half hours. That’s a lot of chocolate Gu eaten. When my garmin chirped to tell me it was time to eat another Gu, I felt like I wanted to throw up. Just the thought of eating another Gu gel made me feel sick. So I skipped it. I could not possibly stomach another stupid Gu gel. If I never saw one again, it would be too soon. Fortunately, I could still stomach my clif shot drink, so I kept up with that. I also had some packets of strawberry Annies gummy bunnies in my jersey, which ended up being a lifesaver. Whenever I was supposed to eat a Gu, I had those instead.
At this point, I hadn’t seen my family in a long time. I had been telling myself that the next time I saw them, I would let myself get off my bike and take a quick mental break and stretch out my neck. But they never appeared! I was getting so angry! (Not their fault, they were wonderful spectators, but I wasn’t really thinking clearly at this point.) I was in a BAD PLACE. I was angry at the world. I hurt, I was tired, and I was SO SICK of my stupid Gu. I had a few daydreams where I could see myself throwing my bike into a ditch and sitting on the side of the road. But I kept on pedaling. The tailwinds never came. And the false flats were everywhere.
Miles 50-75ish were like this. Then somehow around mile 75 I got my second wind. I felt stronger again, my speeds were up, and my neck was feeling better. But it didn’t last long. Probably only 5 miles or so. Then it was back to the BAD PLACE. This kept on going until just after the aid station around mile 95ish. At that last aid station, I got off the bike and just stood there bent over stretching out my hamstrings and neck. Someone else was sitting on the ground hunched over, looking miserable. I felt bad for the guy. I hope he was okay. There were a lot of people at this aid station just saying “oh my god please just let it be OVER!”
I got back on my bike and pedaled off towards the bike finish. Now that I was closing in on the end of the bike, I started to pick it up. It’s amazing what your brain and body can overcome when you know the finish is near. Coming back into downtown Wilmington and the convention center, traffic was backed up for quite a while. We were blowing along the side of the road past all the cars, which was nice. We made the final left turn onto the bridge to cross the Cape Fear River and get to T2. This bridge was awful! We had been warned about it beforehand, so we knew what to expect, but it was still scary. It’s a grated bridge, and the openings are rather large. So the race organizers covered a three foot wide path with rubber mats for us to ride on. Except the rubber seemed to grip our wheels and everyone felt like they were about to wipe out at any second. I just held onto my bars as tight as I could and hauled ass over it. It was scary. I was so close to the bike finish, I could see the convention center. I didn’t want to wipe out now!
After I got across the bridge and off those mats, I was feeling awesome. I cruised into the convention center telling every single volunteer how much I loved them. I was just so happy to be about to get off my bike. Even with the three hours in the dark place, I ended up being very happy with my bike split. My goal was 15 mph, and I was pretty darn close (according to my garmin, I was spot on).
- Bike distance: 112 miles (my garmin says 112.7)
- Bike time: 7:32:21
To be continued…
Read the rest of the story here: Part 3
Miss the beginning? Part 1