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home > community > viewpoint > a devil of an ironman

A Devil of an Ironman
One characteristic of an Ironman triathlon is that you should—and in most cases have to—sign up and commit to a race a long time in advance of the actual event.

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By By Don Allison
Posted Friday, 24 October, 2003

One characteristic of an Ironman triathlon is that you should—and in most cases have to—sign up and commit to a race a long time in advance of the actual event. For most "m-dot" Ironman races (those staged by the international Ironman Corporation, with the trademark "dot" above the "m") gaining entry into the race requires quick and decisive action. The Lake Placid, British Columbia, and Wisconsin Ironmans all fill up within hours after opening for entry. And Hawaii? Forget it. That landmark event is pretty much invite only. For a procrastinator and late decider such as myself, this is not a good scenario. By some miracle I did sign up for the 1998 Ironman Canada (my only Ironman prior to this year) a year in advance, a personal record of sorts. But this year would be a different story.

2003 developed as a decent but not great year of running for me. I finished the tough Crown King 50 Mile in Arizona in March, then completed my 50th lifetime marathon at Boston a month later, clocking 3:30:58, a mere one second inside the qualifying time for my age group. Persistent knee pain led me to do less running and more cycling after Boston however, so I thought I would try a few triathlons once I got myself reasonably healthy again. I finished an Olympic distance race in July (in 2:30), followed by a half Ironman, the hilly Timberman at Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire in August (in 5:47). Since I had the training rolling pretty well, I thought I might give an Ironman a shot in the fall, although the aforementioned sign-up restrictions limited my choices. One race that was open was the Duke Blue Devil Ironman in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. The race setting seemed nice, the size of the field manageable, and in addition all proceeds benefited cancer research. As many of you know I lost a sister to ovarian cancer in April. Thus, it seemed like a good race choice.

Three weeks before the race I wrapped up my hard training on a cool, crisp day with a 100-mile bike ride from Weymouth to the Cape's Sagamore bridge and back in an even six hours , followed by a 13-mile run in 2:05. Despite feeling strong on the bike, the run was a struggle, a sign of what I was to face in actual Ironman.

Charlotte and I arrived in Durham two days before the race after an easy, non-stop flight from Boston. All seemed to be going well until later that night, when after turning off game two of the Red Sox-Yankees playoff series (a lost cause for us Sox fans—and another portent of future misery), I positively, absolutely could not sleep. You always hear experts tell you not to worry if you can't sleep the night before a big race, that it is two nights before the race in which a good night's sleep really matters. Well, what if you can't sleep on that night? In the end I got about four hours of sleep, but felt tired during the next day, a situation not helped by dreary, rainy weather. But forge ahead I must, so I went about the business of getting ready for the race, getting my bike assembled, attending the pre-race meeting, and preparing my race bags, none of them inconsequential tasks.

Friday night's sleep was a little better, but still less than optimum, given that I needed to be awake before 4:00 a.m. in order to eat and be digested for the 7:00 start. At 6:55 I headed towards the lake where the two-lap, 2.4-mile swim was ready to begin. For some reason I had not checked the water temperature until then, and was shocked to feel how cold it was. The rain from the previous days had clearly made it much chillier than expected. It was well below the predicted 70 degrees for sure.

Shortly after 7:00 and a stirring rendition of the national anthem that echoed off the surrounding mountains, we were off on our journey. I quickly received another shock: the water was pitch black! I could literally not see even an arm's length in front of me. That resulted in a lot of collisions and logjams among the field of 350. Once things settled down I felt pretty good however, and tried to relax and take long, smooth strokes and steer clear of other swimmers, thus minimizing wasted energy. I completed the first 1.2 miles in just less than 40 minutes; after a scamper across the beach it was back into the water for another lap of the lake. That one was decidedly slower, just over 45 minutes. All in all, I was happy to be out of the water. One discipline down, two to go.

It was not until the swim-to-bike transition that I realized just how cold I was, more than a little hypothermic despite the protection of a wetsuit. The cool, overcast conditions certainly did not help. I found the transition difficult, exacerbated by my lack of finger dexterity and a ridiculously crowded changing tent. In the confusion I neglected to put on my knee support, an omission that would become problematic later on.

Anyone who was experienced hypothermia—even a mild case—knows how hard it can be to think straight and execute even simple physical actions. I certainly found it difficult to get into a comfortable cycling rhythm early on as I struggled to regain warmth. Eventually I did, although by the time my mind cleared I began to realize just how hilly the bike course was. From the start it was constant climbing followed by quick descents. Although I managed to hit my goal pace of 16 to 17 miles per hour over the first two hours, it seemed to require much more effort than in my last long training ride, when that pace seemed to flow so easily.

A longer then planned pit stop at 40 miles further dampened my spirits and just a few miles later things took an even worse turn when my gearing completely locked up going down a steep hill. For a few scary moments I thought I was going to do an "endo" over the handlebars, but managed to wrestle the bike to a stop—on a desolate road out in the middle of nowhere. As other competitors whizzed by, I fiddled with my derailleur, hoping it would ameliorate the problem. I spent a few moments contemplating how long it would take for the single bike mechanic on the course to find me. I had visions of being out on the course until midnight. I was able to get the bike operational, but not until I had burned close to ten minutes on the sidelines. To make matters worse, my left knee was bothering me, which resulted in a slightly altered pedaling position, further reducing my comfort level.

The Ironman bike ride is 112 miles, significantly more mentally challenging than a mere "100" miles, a number you can more easily wrap your remind around. After 50 miles, you don't have just another 50 left, you have another 62. And so on with each 10 you complete. (The Duke course consisted of a nine-mile out leg, two 47-mile loops, and then the nine miles back to the start.). Nonetheless, I managed to regroup during the last 32 miles, getting them done in exactly two hours. My final cycling time was seven hours and three minutes, including a full 20 minutes off the bike. And was I ever sore and tired! Unlike during that last training ride, I could not even remotely contemplate any running, much less 26.2 miles. Dismounting the bike I could hardly move. It took me forever to find my changing bag and get ready for the run. My heart was racing and every muscle in my body seemed to have seized up. Even after a 15-minute transition between the bike and run—which had to be the slowest of anyone in the race—I was in no better shape to start the marathon. But there was no other choice. I had 26.2 miles on foot still separating me from an Ironman finish.

I thought the bike course was hilly, but the running route was even tougher. The 5.3-mile loop contained three wicked climbs, each of which would remind me just how meager my 20 to 25 miles per week of running had been in training. The first mile took me close to 12 minutes, the second almost 11. It did not take much math acumen to figure just how slow this marathon was going to be. I just could not run up the steep hills at all. After completing the first of the five 5.3-mile laps in 58 minutes, I really fell apart. Feeling weak and slightly dizzy, I could foresee a DNF if I did not regroup. I walked for a long while, tried to eat and drink as much as I could, and hoped things would improve.

Thankfully my physical situation did get marginally better, and I made a game effort at picking up the pace during lap three. By the end of that lap a curtain of darkness had fully enveloped the course, staged in a state park with absolutely no ambient lighting. It felt like the swim all over again! Unable to see much in the pitch black, I occasionally found myself veering off the road, running into either the cones on the side of the road or off the pavement completely. The aid stations workers were all upbeat and supportive, and that helped move me along. I met Charlotte once on each lap, although she was admonished by a race official for running alongside me for even 10 or 15 seconds.

No matter how exhausted I ever become in a race, I never seem to lose track of time and pace, and that proved true again in this Ironman. By early on in the marathon, I realized I would be nowhere near my time from Canada (12:54); and in fact would have to suck it up to even finish inside of 15 hours. But if that was all that was left to aim for, that was all that was left. I was so damn happy to finally be on my last lap that any time at all would have been acceptable at that point. After running as much as I could on the last lap, I crossed the finish line in 14 hours, 25 minutes, and 55 seconds. I was so exhausted that it was all I could do to gather up my gear in the darkness, and with Charlotte driving, make the 45-minute trip back to the hotel. We got there at about 11:00 p.m., whereupon I had a bath and went right to sleep. My insomnia had been cured!

All in all the race and trip were a success. We had a bit of an adventure the next day when the bike mechanic who promised to reassemble my bike never showed up. We had to scramble, and found a savior in a newfound friend from Arizona who managed to get the bike taken apart and into the case, ready for the flight home later that day. We subsequently toured the Duke and North Carolina University campuses, then packed up and headed for the airport and the trip back to Boston.

I was happy to have finished my second Ironman, especially given all of the unforeseen obstacles I had to overcome during the event. In retrospect though, I guess there really is a reason why you should commit to these Ironman races a year or more in advance!

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