I finished my first triathlon today: the Ironman 70.3 Ohio!
I figured that the Ironman experience would be pretty similar to the experience of large road races (i.e. marathons and half-marathons) that I’ve done before — albeit with some swimming and cycling thrown in along with the running. But it was different.
Way more intense.
The participants were more intense. The official race procedures were more intense. Race Day itself was more intense. And the effect on my body was more intense.
This event was also different because I was a part of the “John Drage Entourage” — racing alongside a friend who’s been battling an aggressive form of brain cancer for the last six months. His treatment has been going relatively well, and his doctors cleared him for participation, but it’s not clear how many more races he may be able to run. So his family and friends came alongside him, in case this might be his last one, with a crowd of maybe 30-50 of us joining in for various points of the festivities. It was an honor to be included in the group — but it also added another layer of intensity to things.
Athletes were required to check in on Saturday afternoon. There was a rigorous process of checking identification, picking up our race packets, our timing devices, and our race swag — then we were hustled to an official, military-style briefing where every detail was covered from course maps, to safety procedures, to rules for competition… It took about 45 minutes, even though it was highly-organized. After we finished with everything at the “Ironman Village” in downtown Delaware (Ohio), we had to hustle north to the state park where we checked in our bicycles at the place where we would be starting the swimming and cycling segments the following morning.
The Transition Zone where the bicycles were stored gave me another indication of how different and how intense the Ironman community is.
I felt insecure as wheeled in my regular city bicycle, which I use for everyday transportation in Kent. I’d taken off its luggage rack and saddle-bags to make it a little bit lighter, but it still had its fenders, simulated basket-weave handles, and bicycle bell on the handlebars. The other bicycles in the Transition Zone were ultra-light, aerodynamic marvels of engineering, and they probably cost three times as much as my bike (which wasn’t cheap, by any means!). John estimated that there was about $10 million dollars’ worth of cycling equipment in this corral!
From the bicycle check-in location, we also got our first look at the swimming course. It looked way longer than I thought it would look, all stretched out in one big triangle. All throughout the training process, the swimming segment was the most worrisome to me. But with some coaching from John, I felt ready to give it a try — but not until after an evening of rest, back at our friends’ house, and a night of sleep.
I didn’t sleep great overnight. My accommodations were more than adequate, but my mind was busy. My body was antsy. I always get a little bit anxious before a race — but the extra elements of unfamiliarity made me extra-anxious. I probably got three or four hours of real, deep sleep, plus an equal amount of shallow, fitful sleep.
The house started stirring again at 4:30 AM, and I ate a quick breakfast before making my final preparations. We decided to pack into three vehicles, to minimize the number of vehicles filling the route to Delaware State Park and the parking lots around the lake. Other athletes and spectators were probably trying to do the same thing. Even so, we got stock in about 25 minutes of traffic — pushing us uncomfortably close to the race’s start time. When we got about half-mile away from the starting line, we jumped out of the car and briskly walked the rest of the way.
The intensity picked up with each step of the way to the starting line.
We started by reporting to an area labeled with a large flag saying “Body Marking.” At this station, volunteers used permanent markers to write my race number — 1616 — on each arm and my age — 42 — on my right calf. After that I dashed briefly into the Transition Zone to leave the last of the equipment I’d want to use for the cycling segment. I dropped the rest of my personal items in a bag just outside the corral. And then it was time for the national anthem and the cannon blast to signify the official start of the race.
Somewhere in all this swarm of activity, John (and his son, Josh) found time to connect with a local news crew for a brief segment featuring his story.
As the race started, we all found our spots in the starting line, sorting ourselves by expected pace, from fastest to slowest. The race officials released four athletes, every five seconds — but even so, I was far enough back that it took about fifty minutes before I got to the starting line! It was a weird feeling to stand there in my swimming gear the whole time, looking at the masses of competitors in front of me.
On the one hand, the whole felt very serious. Very intense. Almost like soldiers going into battle. Up in the distance, I could see that the water was churning with arms and legs splashing through the water, with neon green and neon pink swim-caps bobbing to mark each participant.
On the other hand, they were blasting pop music and cracking jokes from the heavy-duty sound system set up near the starting line. I think I’ll forever associate the Miley Cyrus hit Party in the U.S.A. with the moment when I finally crossed the timing mat and splashed into the water to start the Ironman 70.3 Ohio.
The first third of the swimming segment was chaotic and terrifying. My senses of sight, sound, and touch were overwhelmed as other participants splashed through the water on every side of me. I had to continually adjust my line to accommodate for other swimmers. My lungs felt too full of air, so I kept rolling from breast-stroke to side-stroke to back-stroke to side-stroke, trying to find a rhythm. It was crazy. As we came upon the buoy marking the first turn — and the jockeying for inside position intensified — I genuinely thought about calling it quits.
But for whatever reason, sometime shortly after rounding the first bend, I found my rhythm. I settled into my breast-stroke, and I grew in confidence. Even when some dudes in wet-suits were being overly-assertive in the last third of the swim, I kept swimming my race. And when I got out of the water, I was delighted to see that I had finished in about 53 minutes.
Two minutes ahead of “schedule.”
It took me a few minutes to run from the water’s edge to the spot where my bicycle was parked. I had to put on my socks, shoes, helmet, sunglasses, and Camelbak backpack. I sprayed myself with a layer of sunscreen. And then I had to walk / jog my bicycle to the place where I could exit the Transition Zone. Just before the exit, some volunteers offered nutrition and water. And I took advantage of the opportunity to get even more sunscreen, when other volunteers held out hands covered in medical gloves, covered in sunscreen lotion. They just slathered on my arms, legs, and neck, letting the sunscreen lie in gloppy, white streaks — and then I was on my way.
Two miles into the bike ride, I came upon the scene of an accident. Cars were backed up for perhaps a quarter of a mile, in the left lane U.S. Route 23 North. Bicycle traffic, in the right lane, was slowed but still moving. When I got to the front of the line of cars, I saw a woman lying on her back on the far side of the left lane. She was unresponsive, and there was blood on her face and on the pavement all around her. A crowd of perhaps ten other athletes and motorists were clustered around her, one doing chest compressions and another checking for vital signs. But it didn’t seem like there was much to be gained from stopping to watch. So I kept riding north, praying for her and her family inside my head. I found out later that the woman died as a result of her injuries, which occurred when she left the cycling lane to pass other cyclists. In the moment, though, the accident was a sobering reminder to keep the intensity in check. We all pedaled on, ashen-faced and silent, until we put a few miles between us and the accident.
I had a tailwind for the first twenty miles, which pushed me faster than I expected. Even so, I was one of the slower cyclists. A few of the other cyclists made comments like, “Nice bike, man!” as they passed me — and while some of them were probably sincere, others were chuckling as they said it, and a few of them even carried a snide tone. This was an element of the “Ironman Intensity” that I did not appreciate. The whole Ironman brand seems to push the point that its athletes are the best and brightest in the world, trucking in a sort of elitism that is probably pretty lucrative for them and all of their partner companies. Partly through the nature of the disciplines involved, and partly through the culture that’s developed, Ironman is a rich man’s sport.
The average person who does these events regularly probably has a specialty one-piece triathlon suit ($50 minimum), a wetsuit for colder races ($150 minimum), a specialty triathlon bicycle ($2500 minimum), a specialty ultra-aerodynamic triathlon bicycle helmet ($50 minimum), a specialty triathlon GPS watch ($400 minimum) and/or a bicycle-mounted GPS computer ($250 minimum)… and the event registration itself is $315! This doesn’t even get into costs for footwear, travel, race weekend accommodations, specialty nutrition, and the fact that most triathletes are paying for some kind of gym membership where they can get in their swimming practice!
So yeah… I was invested at maybe a quarter or a third of the level of most people participating in the Ironman… And it seemed like there was something built into the culture of the event that made some people want to put me in my place as they passed me on their ultra-aerodynamic bicycles.
I’ll admit that the cycling segment was not super-comfortable for me. I had to work hard. I took advantage of every aid station (placed roughly 15 miles apart along the course), stopping to use the bathroom, top off my nutrition and hydration supplies, and restore circulation to my groin and seat area. But I did it! I biked all 56 miles in 3 hours and 43 minutes.
Another 17 minutes ahead of “schedule.”
By the time I started my run, I felt pretty confident that I was at least going to be able to finish the race. Since I made the cut-off for the swim and the cycling, even faster than I had been anticipating, I had almost four hours remaining to complete the run — and running is my most familiar discipline. Even my slowest half-marathons have been in the range of about two hours. So I was pleased with that…
But I’d never attempted to run a half-marathon after about five hours of intense physical activity. I’d never attempted to run a half-marathon starting around 12:30 in the afternoon on a late-summer day, where temperatures hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d never attempted anything quite like this.
So, the truth of the matter is that I struggled to finish.
I ran out of gas or got overheated (or both) during the running segment. I probably walked more than I ran. And I’m not proud of that from a runner’s perspective. But I am proud of the overall accomplish because I did finish the race. It was especially meaningful to do a few miles of the running (or, really, power-walking) segment together with John. We talked about each of our race day experiences. We talked about his joy for triathlons. We talked about his passionate desire “To joyfully finish for the honor of His name.”
And then, we finished the race.
Our miles together happened when John was on his second lap, but I was still on my first lap of the running course (I started my race much later than John did). So, I didn’t get to see John cross the finish line — though, most of his entourage did. John came down the final home stretch in Selby Stadium, arm in arm with his son Josh, and I’ve seen the photos and videos to know that it was a beautiful moment. I struggled for another hour until I managed to finish my own race. Even after crossing the finish line, I felt pretty awful for a good while after I finished.
But I finished.
My system is still rebounding.
I sat in the shade at the Ironman Village for twenty or thirty minutes, nibbling at a cheeseburger and sipping on a Sprite, until I felt well enough to retrieve my bicycle and gear bags. The air conditioning in the car and back at our friends’ house was helpful. But the thing that helped me to feel the most like myself again was thirty minutes of floating in the shady end of our friends’ pool, with a foam noodle under my armpits to prop me up.
I still didn’t have my appetite back when I left Delaware to start driving back to Kent. But I started to feel a little bit hungry on the drive and eventually decided to call ahead for a Donato’s pizza stop in Mansfield. I figured I would be able to easily smash a whole large pizza, with the number of calories that I burned over the course of the day. I was only able to eat about half of it, but that half tasted good and gave me hope that my appetite — along with the rest of me — would eventually return to full strength.