En route to race day, I raised $400 for charity, swam 77 miles, ran 567 miles, and cycled 1540 miles- and now I am an IronMan! Just before turning 34 I finished my first iron-distance Triathlon- the 2013 Beach2Battleship Triathlon- in 12 hours 31 minutes. I had a blast.
I’ve got a long read below; quick race highlights: (1) “Lose Yourself” and a sub-70 minute swim in warm saltwater in the sound after freezing for a few hours in the pre-dawn cold; (2) negative-splitting my bike ride 30 minutes faster than I planned, and passing scads of bikers on the back 40; (3) seeing and hearing my family on practically each leg of my race; and (4) rocking my spider-man shirt & getting tons of cheers.
For the most part I was pretty calm during my final week of tapering my training leading up to the race. Yes, I was excited, and nervous, but I felt like I had done enough training to get me across the finish line. I just had to wait it out and get to Wilmington!
Even though ‘packet pickup’ spanned the two days before Saturday, I was really tempted to somehow get to Wilmington on Thursday and bike, swim, or run part of the course- especially because I hadn’t done more than try on my new-to-me wetsuit. That wasn’t to be, and instead my family made the trip down to Wilmington Friday morning, arriving downtown a few minutes before noon. The registration/packet pick-up line at 11:45 Friday morning was pretty long, so I didn’t have enough time to attend the mandatory athlete meeting at noon. Fortunately Katie took the kids to lunch, so I didn’t have to worry about keeping them entertained while waiting in line.
After picking up my gear bags we drove through Wilmington traffic to Wrightsville Beach, to drop off my bike and check into our hotel. My first triathlon was the Wilmington YMCA triathlon, which used much of the same swim course and transition area as this race- so it was nice to be familiar with this part of the race. Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Sunspree, ended up being a pretty solid choice too. The hotel is on the beach, and had both an indoor and outdoor pool. Once Noah saw how close the beach was he almost immediately stripped in the hotel room to put on his swim suit and run to the beach- despite the windy 55°F weather.
Even though I was pretty tired I couldn’t get to sleep until after 10pm or so; I was out of bed by 4am less than six hours later. Sadly I was not the only one up at that ungodly hour- I think I roused both Ellie and Katie, who finally shoed me out of the room at 5 in the morning.
Breakfast was two mini-bagels with cream cheese. My plan was to take the Holiday Inn shuttle to T1. I waited a few minutes in the lobby for the shuttle driver, but eventually I wound up hitching a ride with another couple going to race. The Holiday Inn is less than a mile from T1, so the ride was short. Once I got there I fueled up my bike and pumped up my tires. I didn’t really have a plan for retrieving my bike pump, so it wound up be donated to charity- but not before receiving a fair amount of use from folks who wanted to top off their own tires. At the Raleigh 70.3 I just put the pump in my transition bag; here I rationalized that I spent so much money on training- from fueling to swim/bike/run gear, to training plans, to hotel rooms, gas, etc., that I would just have to eat the cost of a cheap bike pump.
After pumping my tires and getting marked at T1 I took an early shuttle to the swim start, still an hour or so before dawn. Even though I knew the weather forecast that morning practically by heart I still hadn’t prepared well enough for that 40° temperatures- I really wish I had worn my swim socks before the race Saturday morning, rather than opting for flip-flops. Getting off the shuttle there were a handful of folks milling around, but generally it was a pretty quiet morning. Eventually I pulled on my wetsuit with the help of another athlete. I ‘wore’ the plastic bags I had for putting on my wetsuit over my sandals to try and keep my feet just a little warmer, but that didn’t really help. I wasn’t too nervous, but getting a bit worried that my numb feet might hurt my swim. Finally, around 7 I got tired of standing around by the road and the port-a-johns and walked over to the swim start.
Swim: 2.4 miles @ 1:06:59
Beach2Battleship always starts with the same song- Eminem’s Lose Yourself. At 7:29 am, when the song came on the loudspeakers I got goosebumps- it was finally time to race, after months of training, and years of thinking about completing an Ironman. I was ready to go! Honestly goosebumps doesn’t cover it; things briefly got a bit misty on the beach for this first-timer. With that song amping up I was finally at the foot of my dream, face-to-face with one of the biggest goals I have set for myself, and one clung to for the last 10 years.
I had been standing on the beach for about 20-30 minutes prior. As the athletes slowly made their way to the swim start from the shuttle drop-off area (and the handful of space heaters), the announcer practically implored us to get into the water- “it feels great, its warm!” No way I thought- there were only one or two people warming up, a far cry from the numbers that usually do. Completely unbelieving the announcer I finally hobbled into the water as slowly as my numb feet would go- and I was so happy I finally got in. The 70°F saltwater was a relief- and especially for my half-frozen feet. I was going to be ok.
The full swim is a mass start- so roughly 700 (500 men & 200 women) people starting at the southern tip of Wrightsville Beach island, going up the Banks Channel towards Harbor Island and the SeaPath Yacht Club. Even with all the swimmers the contact wasn’t too difficult to get through, and eventually I was making a steady pace up the channel.
The cardinal rule of triathlons is never doing anything for the first time on race day. Of course that cardinal rule is broken by practically every single athlete during every race, in ways both big and small. One of the first times I broke this rule was by wearing a new-to-me wetsuit for the first time during a swim. I did try on the wetsuit a few days beforehand, but had no idea how well it would work during an actual swim. Fortunately my wetsuit functioned pretty well for the entire swim- it didn’t restrict my stroke, and I had no noticeable leaks. Unfortunately I still suffered a good case of chaffing on my back neck from the wetsuit. I knew chaffing from the wetsuit would be a problem area, but even two liberal applications of Body Glide weren’t enough to stop the chaffing. Next time I will either use aquaphor or simply tape my neck.
I used a different pair of goggles than usual on Saturday too, which turned out to be a poor decision. Normally I wear tinted prescription goggles, but Saturday I wore untinted ones that I hadn’t worn since my last race in June. Either due to bad fit or some other misfortune my left eye goggle filled up with saltwater only several minutes into the swim. I considered stopping to fix my goggles, but kept putting off that pitstop because I thought the longer I went, the more push I could get from the tide when I did finally stop to adjust the goggles; in the end I just left them that way. Adding insult to injury, as the sun rose to the right of the channel over Wrightsville Beach (on the side of my good eye) it only got brighter and brighter, making it harder to sight with my right eye. Harder, but not impossible. I got through it.
During the swim I did practically all of my sighting by keeping land about equally distant from my left and right side while following the stream of swimmers in front of me; I was surprised at how few buoys I saw along the way. One of the few buoys I did see, and swim toward, was the left-hand turn buoy opposite the Blockade Runner hotel. I knew there would be little, if any, penalty for cutting this buoy but I still wanted to do the distance, so I stayed honest on this part of the course, and only started towards the Yacht Club/T1 after passing the turn buoy.
Even with water in my goggles I never felt like the swim was taking that long. As I closed in on the turn buoy I knew the swim was almost done, as I was swimming on the same course as my first sprint triathlon (the Wilmington YMCA triathlon in 2002). With my spirits raised by reaching a familiar part of the course, I was surprised to see many racers seemingly taking a poor line to the Yacht Club/T1; they seemed to be swimming pretty close to the houses on south harbor island, more in the form of an s-curve and away from the main channel. Ignoring the field, I used the 10-11 story Yacht Club building as my sighting tool, and I made my north on the last leg of the swim. I felt a bit smug until I hit the shallowest water opposite the Yacht Club, where the stagnant water seemed to transform into molasses- get back to the channel! Soon I hit the ladders, and I was out on the docks.
Bummer- when I went to press “stop” on my watch for the swim leg it still read zeroes- I forgot to turn on my watch for the swim portion, and I don’t have the GPS data to confirm how well my sighting & navigation was on the swim. Even without the GPS data I feel pretty happy with my swim- under 70 minutes, and my best leg of the day compared to the field. (127th out of all males).
If there is a next time I might try to push the swim harder to see how well I can do. I could also do a much better job of drafting, and potentially ignoring the turn buoy.
Bike: 112 miles @ 6:32:48
Leaving transition I heard my family cheering me on, which is always a great thrill. Turning onto Causeway Drive at the bike mount line I was forced to dodge some hapless rider who crashed only a few feet outside of the transition area- doh! I jogged 10-15 feet away from the mount line and got on my bike with no problems. For a 112 mile bike ride, that tiniest ounce of prevention and 5 seconds or so was well worth it.
Last Sunday in Raleigh I went out for a brief ride- only three hours or so, that turned out to be preparation for the race day ride, since the weather was so similar- about 50°F with a slight wind. Wait, three hours is a brief ride? After multiple rides of 5, 6, and 7 hours, yes a three hour ride felt pretty short to me at the tail end of my training. On that training ride alone I rode further than I did for all of 2011. But fortunately it was cold enough for me to test out my cold weather gear- long compression pants, gloves, long sleeve shirt. I sacrificed more time in transition to be comfortable on the ride, and again I think this decision was a smart one.
One common and slightly humiliating experience from my two half-iron distance triathlons over the last year was getting passed on the bike. And not just by one or two folks, but by a streammmmmmmmmmm of riders that never seemed to let up. So I was ready for that this time around- but oddly I didn’t feel like that many people passed me. I did wonder if I was going out too hard, but my heart rate seemed to be around 130-140, about where I wanted it for the entire ride, so I kept on going.
My bike plan consisted of 1) staying within 125-150 heart beats per minute, and 2) relying on a serving of roctane and half of a bonk breaker for fueling. In the end I think I executed my bike plan relatively well, and fortunately only suffered two minor mishaps. By the second aid station at around mile 40 I had finished off my first bottle of fuel [A “between-the-aero” (BTA) water bottle with two servings of roctane], according to plan. So by the third hour of the ride I was working on my second bottle of fuel, another bottle of 2x Roctane on my downtube. I decided to stop at the aid station to fill up my BTA bottle, and ready another fuel bottle with Roctane. The problem was I didn’t pay enough attention to simply stabilizing my bike when I got off to grab a bottle of water, and the bike nearly fell over. A full yardsale likely would have cost me a valuable bottle of fuel, but luckily I caught my bike just in time and proceeded to finish topping off my bottles.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my front brake must have been knocked a bit; when I left the aid station my ride was noticeably more difficult, and I couldn’t figure out why in the world I was dragon ass. Eventually I looked down at my front brake and realized “oh, by the way, you might not want to ride with your brakes engaged the entire time.” Once I re-adjusted the brakes I was back on track.
Those five minutes were probably the worst part of my ride. The best part? The 15-20 miles after the special needs stop halfway through the course. The Special Needs stop comes about halfway through the course, at mile 55 of 112. I used this stop to both refuel and ‘dehydrate’; once I got back into the saddle my spirits were high and my energy renewed.
I am not a fast rider; the overall winner finished the bike course in under five hours, compared to my six-and-a-half hour joyride. Nonetheless I was surprised to be reeling in cyclists on the third quarter of the ride. Perhaps the wind had finally turned, or at least been stymied by the denser forest in the back section of the course; perhaps I was just pushing harder, especially on whatever descents I could find- or imagine. Regardless miles 55-75 flew by, until I hit a poor stretch of pavement that slowed me down a touch.
Around the special needs stop I started hearing a few other riders complaining about the headwinds on the bike course. I was happy that I didn’t train on flat terrain; the hills aren’t huge in the Triangle, but I felt like the B2B bike course was easier than my normal terrain, headwind or not. It’s not supposed to be easy- it’s an ironman! HTFU!
By the last quarter of the ride, when we were all back on 421 heading south into Wilmington, my arms started to feel a bit numb from being in aero for the better part of the day. Fortunately that didn’t hamper my progress all that much, and before I knew it I was passing under I-140.
Overall I negative split my ride, making three refueling stops, and largely dehydrating on the go. I didn’t feel too pressured for any particular part of the ride. For the opening leg and last few miles of the ride the course traversed several heavily-trafficked areas, but I was never too bothered. Traffic cops really afforded us our room, which I appreciated. As I rolled into the convention center at bike’s end I heard my dad cheer, but couldn’t see him, and I was pretty focused on the dismount line and not crashing anyway. I was relieved the ride was over, and pretty excited with my bike time. I expected the 112 miles to take around 7 hours, or to average 16mph. Based on some of my training rides this speed may have even been slightly ambitious. As it was I came in around 6.5 hours, averaging well over 16mph, even with my three stops.
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Run: 26.2 miles @ 4:28:07
I didn’t spend too much time stretching my legs during the last few minutes of the bike; rather, after I counted down each one of the bike course’s 20 miles I was suddenly riding off the bridge, turning downtown, and rolling into the Wilmington convention center. I was pretty focused on getting things right at the dismount line- so I think I actually look much sillier in those pictures than in the rest of the shots where I cheesed it up for the camera.
Once I dismounted my bike outside the convention center loading dock, I jogged my bike inside, where it was almost immediately taken by a volunteer. Another volunteer relayed my race number ahead to the bang handlers. Jogging in bike cleates is a bit absurd, but I kept jogging/hobbling to the back of the convention center room to grab my bag, and back around the other side to reach the men’s changing area. Again, I knew I wasn’t going to win any competitions today, so I sacrificed transition time to focus on staying comfortable; I actually went into the washroom to wash off my face before heading out on the run.
By far the best decision of my race plan was wearing my Spider-man tech shirt during the run. I got so many cheers from the crowd all along the race course it really kept my spirits high and pushed me to keep running. I think I heard my family cheering as I started the first leg of the run course; when the course doubled back south towards the convention center I was able to stop and see everyone. I don’t know what it is about racing, but my children always seem taken aback when I stop to give them a hug during the race. They are never exactly frightened, but they didn’t really know what to do as I bent over to hug them.
The Beach2Battleship full distance run course passes by the finish line three times before you actually get to go down the finishers chute. On the plus side you get to soak in some of the energy from the loud music and the crowd as you continue on. On top of that a lot of folks noticed my Spider-Man shirt and cheered me on. Those cheers made it easier for me to pay it forward, especially in the first half of the marathon when my energy was high and the sun was out. I cheered on fellow runners- both those running the full, and a few stragglers still running the half- those folks probably needed the cheering the most.
I didn’t do any course recon the day before, so I was surprised to face a small hill running away from downtown when I turned up Ann. St. from Water St. Fortunately those 50 feet or so would be the steepest of the hills, and it was really only 15 feet or so of elevation change. From that small hill the run course continues south, away from downtown Wilmington and below highway 74. Eventually the course turns up Greenfield St. for a few blocks before heading toward and around most of Greenfield Lake. I was a bit surprised by how long that area of the course was as it wound around the lake, but I was able to get a lay of the land on the first lap before the sun went down around 6:30 or so. At some point around the lake I came upon a dude wearing a UNC shirt- I joked around with him that I would be pacing him for the rest of the day, and that any time he passed me I would have to speed up. [I meant it.]
My run plan consisted of going around 9:00 minute miles for the first 6-8 miles, and adding 30 second walk breaks at each aid station; ideally after mile 8 or so I could consider picking up the pace. Well, that was at least part of the plan; I had a good idea that setting a personal record for my marathon time was unrealistic, so running any faster than 9 minute miles was silly talk.
To listen to some folks talk about race execution some athletes just fly off the bike and run 7-8 minute miles- that wasn’t me as my legs weren’t that fresh. On the other hand I felt comfortable enough going at my “E” pace early on. As the first half of the marathon wore on my pace slowed; 9 minute miles became 9:30 miles became 9:45 miles. I was still moving relatively well as I returned to downtown Wilmington, getting another boost from my family near the convention center and passing special needs at the end of the marathon’s first lap.
By the second half of the marathon my run execution started breaking down, but to borrow a programming term, at least it seemed to fail gracefully. That is, even though my walk breaks got longer and I tried a handful of ‘new’ foods on the run I never went so far off the rails that I walked for longer than 90 seconds. I had some minor GI distress- enough to keep me at arm’s length from the regular aid station buffets, but not enough to cause me to slow down. After finishing off my third or fourth gel I tried coke, chicken broth, and pretzels- I can’t really say that any of those helped or hurt on the run.
Predictably, miles 16-22 were the toughest- I knew I had reached the suck. My pace slowed below 10 minute miles, and my walk breaks stretched from 40 seconds to 60 seconds to 90 seconds. Heading south again to Greenfield Lake, I could feel one pinky toe blistering up, and then the other. Night fell, and I soldiered on, trying to ’embrace the suck’ and simultaneously ignore my toes.
The crowds felt thinner in the dark, and the aid stations less helpful around Greenfield Lake on the second lap. The portable lighting seemed a bit too stretched out for my taste, and merely seemed to punctuate the trail at discrete points rather than provide guidance for safe footing. At times I was mildly surprised how difficult it was to even see fellow runners on the trail. But I was on the second and final lap of the marathon. I had less than 10 miles to go, less than 8, less than 6. I reached the turnaround at the end of Greenfield Lake, and I passed the dude wearing a Carolina Jersey going the opposite direction- about a minute or two behind me. I wasn’t going to let him catch me.
By mile 22 I grew accustomed to the dark, I was in the midst of a second 12+ minute mile and a third 90 second walk break when I finally said to myself “This is the last aid station. This is the last walk break. I am FINISHING THIS RACE.”
Now, a 35 minute 5k is pretty slow- Garmin tells me my pace for the last 3.35 miles was 10:32 minutes/mile. But I felt like I was flying. I wasn’t going to negative split the marathon, but once I started moving around mile 23, I knew I had the race in the bag, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be caught by that Tarhole. I was moving. Somewhere in the dark someone shouted “I love you Spiderman!” and I cheered back as I kept on running. I passed one aid station, and another. I was downtown. I was on the cobblestones. I was moving. I was reeling in folks who were suffering as much as me, but couldn’t muster anything better. I was having fun.
Hours, minutes, seconds later, I reached the finish line at 8:01pm. I AM AN IRONMAN!
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My run split of a little under four and a half hours was good for 151st among men overall.
Finish: 140.6 miles @ 12:31:00
In 2011, I biked 35 miles on three rides. I ran 0 miles. I swam 0 miles. On one day in October of 2013, I swam 2.4 miles, I rode 112 miles, and I ran 26 miles. I DID IT! My 12:31:00 time was good for 194th overall out of 474 males.
I kept on walking/hobbling past the timing mat to get my finisher’s medal and pajama pants. My mom was the first person in my family I saw after crossing the timing mat- she had been trying to snap pictures for most of the time and was chatting up a volunteer. Eventually I was excited to see the rest of my family, and I walked over to the food stand in a half-daze. Sadly, there was no chocolate milk to be had, but that average slice of mushroom pizza tasted A-MA-ZING.
Somehow I still had enough energy to hold both my kids for a few photos; other than that I was… exhausted, believe it or not. But happy, and triumphant.
Post-race dinner was nothing fancy- I picked up a burger from Five Guys, and the kids got Chick-Fil-A. I slept well Saturday night. Even better than sleeping was the hotel’s outdoor pool. Sunday morning we all went for a swim; the cold water in the outdoor pool was perfect for my tired muscles- I only wish I had spent more time freezing my ass off in that pool.
As hard as the race is for any participant, it is said that spectating is ten times harder. That is true for race day, and all of the training time leading up to the race. I trained for about 240 hours between the June Raleigh 70.3 Ironman and late October Beach2Battleship Full. I could not have trained or raced without the help & support of Katie and my family. I was so happy they could watch the race in Wilmington, and join me as I finished one of my biggest goals.