I set three alarms to wake us at 4:30 am: wristwatch, hotel alarm, and hotel wake-up call. Even though I slept better before this race than any marathon preceding it, my eyes popped open at 4:20 am and in seconds I was brushing my teeth, waxing the mustache, brewing the coffee, and giddy to tackle my first Ironman 70.3 race. This would be the only time in the day no one was passing me, so it was good that I enjoyed it.
My bags were prepped the night before and my wife made a handmade sign reading “wetsuit and food” for me, left at the room door. I drank my coffee+L-Glutamine magic powder+almond milk+Splenda beverage, nuked an extremely sad bowl of oatmeal in a plastic storage tub, and gobbled a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. After jumping up and down a few times I managed to get a jumper in the door and ran to the toilet to take care of business.
One dump with gusto later I was pulling on the tri suit, grabbing my plastic transition bags, and heading out the door to catch the 5:30 am shuttle to the reservoir.
People in line were gregarious and chatty. A wide mix of people from over 47 states, men and women of all shapes and sizes. Lots of discussion about which men had shaved their legs, how many Cervelo bikes we had all seen in T1, and who was going to ride a beach cruiser with a flower basket on the front into T2. The couple sitting in front of me and the fellow next to me on the shuttle were exceptionally friendly and happy to share their personal stories of how they came to triathlon. My experience with triathletes is that because of the individual nature of the competition, and the sheer difficulty of the event, that people are very enthusiastic and friendly. We’re all out there on the same course, on the same day, against the same elements. Be nice! What other sport has the world’s elite doing the same tasks as the weekend warrior? Sure, the pros go first and have really nice toys. But they earned it, and any one on that starting line has the opportunity to blow the doors off the pros and earn a podium position. Not everyone can play in the NBA, or the Major League, or even ride the Tour de France. But I can throw down $200 and catch a sight of Desiree Ficker hauling serious ass on the very same course that’s about to destroy my own.
We arrived just past dawn at Lucky Peak, a snow melt reservoir about a 20 minute drive from downtown. The wind was blowing harder than the days prior. At the practice swim the day before the surface was smooth as glass, and now it was looking like a meringue. I overheard someone say, “welcome to Idaho” in response to the wind. Coming over the rise to the T1 setup was a big rush – it looked just like photos of all the other Ironman events; a monster game of chutes and ladders. I passed through the athlete checkpoint, got my body written on by exceptionally friendly volunteers (made difficult by having black tattoos everywhere) and made my way to my bike rack to begin setup.
I loaded my 4 bottles to the bike and strapped the fuel belt to the top tube. It wouldn’t sit straight on the top tube but I was running out of time to mess with it. Suddenly I had to pee, so I trotted over to the 5 porta-potties that already had a line of 20 people. The shuttle dropped off at 6, we had until 6:45 to get out of T1 and into our wave starts and time was running out. Mr. Announcer indicated I had 10 minutes to get into my wetsuit and get to the start line. Argh! (We were under strict orders from the day before not to whizz on the agribusiness, but they were seriously short of porta potties.) Remembering there was a park toilet outside the T1 area I jogged around and found it, with only two women waiting in front of me. Nothing like cold weather weenie shrinkage on race morning. Ran back to my slot and got into my wetsuit. With only a few minutes to spare I got my neck and shoulders body glided, the wetsuit on, a rack neighbor zipped me up, and I was able to grab my swim cap, goggles, and wax earplugs. Wife and Boise buddy made it to T1 and I waved to them as I made my way towards the swim start thinking for sure I was missing something.
There’s few things as silly looking as clutches of athletes in wetsuits milling around in their groupings (called waves). It’s March of the Penguins with Stadium Rock blasting over a PA system to get all the penguins pumped up and race ready. Unless AC/DC, Sabbath, The Rolling Stones, and other has-been jock rock bands aren’t your thing, in which case the swim start will be a sonic assault and the dive into the water a blissful release from musical agony. I’d love starting to Ride of the Valkyries or the 1812 Overture.
My wave was age group 30-34, the absolute prime for men in endurance sports (or ex-fat guys like me who are late bloomers). Most of these were guys who could eat me for an appetizer before eating a Buick for dinner. I was in fifth wave so I was able to watch the staging process and get comfy with how the race would start. A wet start, athletes entered the water from the boat dock and made their way to the first buoy to await the race gun. There was plenty of room to move around in the water and find swim space. The first gun went off and a few dozen pro men were on their way. Fast. Then smoothly and quickly, each wave went off and we moved down the chute. Within a few minutes I was entering the water myself for a 7:20 start, right on schedule. Yes, it was cold, but it didn’t seem so bad. To me, it felt about the same as the day before and it certainly wasn’t the Pacific in April. The wind was blowing some chop on the surface, but it seemed totally navigable. Better than having to dive through surf towards uneven ocean floor with possible stingrays or jellyfish face welcoming committees.
Floating in the water with 50 or so of my age groupers my heart rate was low, I felt great about my energy level, and I reminded myself that the day before my slow practice swim got me to the first orange buoy turn in just under seven and a half minutes. I had an hour forty to complete the swim before they closed the course. I could totally do this. Everyone seemed really happy, no thousand yard stares or mean mugging in the bunch. Even the big guys were bopping their heads to Eminem over the PA.
BANG! The gun sounded and we were off. I went right into my freestyle stroke and the first thought was “mmmm – CLEAN!” The reservoir was like swimming in a cool glass of water, a far cry from the heavily chlorinated pool or worse, the RSV-causing Pacific ocean where I have to check web sites to find out what sewage has been accidentally dumped into the water that week. I settled into my stroke and got into my groove. I saw some people having trouble, zig zagging, and avoided a few kicks to the face, but otherwise things seemed fine. I hit the first orange buoy (the short leg of the rectangle) at 7 min 24 seconds, my first clue that the pace you train is the pace you race. The second orange buoy was considerably further down the reservoir, but I focused on my stroke and didn’t veer too far left or right with wasted distance. Unlike my Wednesday ocean swim, these buoys didn’t drop out of sight for minutes at a time behind giant waves. They were easy to sight and stay on target. I hit the second orange buoy at 24 minutes in. I noticed I was no longer surrounded by my fellow red swim caps but was in a mix of grey, green, and a few red. I figured I was being swum over by the wave before me – it would turn out I had caught the 50+ age groups in the waves ahead of me. I kept on going, a short leg to the next buoy which I turned at 38 minutes. The SWIM OUT sign was clear and easy to sight as I made my way back in to the end of stage. I checked my watch one last time as I was coming out of the water and to my absolute surprise I was out in 52 minutes! I still had almost an hour before the course closure. Sweet! I focused on getting the wax earplugs out of my ears, cap and goggles off, and began stripping the top of the suit off while jogging out of the swim area. I felt fantastic. As I rounded the corner someone directed me to what is now my absolute favorite thing on earth: wetsuit strippers. “Get down!” she yelled to me, so I dropped to my back and two women (there were easily 20 volunteers) grabbed the suit and yanked it off in one smooth pull. In less than 5 seconds I was out of the suit! I spent two minutes getting out of my suit last year and this made a huge difference in energy and frustration. I jumped back up and ducked into the porta potty, knowing this was my only chance before long miles on the road with a lot of admonitions not to pee on the agriculture. I have no idea what the cold does to women, but when a fellow’s junk is compressed by a tri suit, wetsuit, and it’s friggin’ cold, it can be like wrestling an Otter pop. That done, I trotted barefoot on pavement to my bike and began transition. Later I would find out they had to pull over 24 people out of the water because they were having trouble. I can only assume they were unprepared for the cold, maybe used to pool conditions for swim training. I’m a newbie, but I have been swimming in the ocean speed circuit weekly for almost three months. Training makes a difference!
I was under strict wife orders to apply sunscreen (triathletes are a leathery bunch), so I slathered on the LA Tri Club-approved Hawaiian Creations SPF 50 white paste as best I could (thus resulting in looking like a Bhuto dancer the rest of the race – be warned), grabbed a loose food baggie and tucked it under my right leg elastic, then did the same on my left leg with a tube of mustache wax. Yes. Mustache wax. For two days the comment I received the most was not about my many tattoos, it was “how are you gonna keep the ‘stache after the swim?” I had 56 miles to address that question. I threw down my towel, sat down and yanked on socks and bike shoes on my still wet feet. Turns out I still had an extra food baggie in the bag (I forgot to eat prior to the swim). I stuffed all the swim gear and wet towel into the bag, popped on the gloves (tearing one in the process – panic fire), helmet, and sunglasses, unracked The Butcher and started trotting. I bit and spit the extra food baggie, chugged a mouthful of yams and peanut butter and tossed it in the trash as I headed towards the T1 exit chute and BIKE MOUNT placards. As I crossed the mat I tapped the lap marker on the watch – under 8 minutes. Way better than LA. Not great, and a far cry from the pro’s 1 minute, but a Personal Best is still good time in my book.
The bike started with a quick and easy climb out of the reservoir and The Butcher’s gearing was unaffected by staying in the elements overnight (mandatory bike check-in was 12p-6p the day before in possible rain). Then a long, fast downhill away from the dam (yay gravity-fed power) passing a few people as I hit about 40 mph for a full minute. Two cars were on the road, which was not supposed to happen, but we rode to their left and just kept on rolling. The day before at the athlete briefing the USAT head ref made the drafting rules absolutely clear (and terrifying). A rider’s draft zone was 4 bike lengths behind their rear wheel. Any rider entering the front rider’s draft zone had 20 seconds to pass the front tire of the rider, at which point the person being passed had to drop back 4 bike lengths. Moreover, once you committed to passing a rider you must pass or be hit with a 4 minute penalty to be served on the course at a penalty tent. This was prime in my head every time I approached another rider, especially because if you were evil you could use that penalty as strategy to bury your opponents. If you wanted to sucker someone into passing, and then pour on the speed once they committed to the pass, you just had to stay ahead of them for 20 seconds in front of a ref and they’d get hit with the violation. Race officials were constantly visible and present on motorcycles. I didn’t actually see any of that strategy go on, but it was clear that a pro could use that to crush their enemies. I was able to pass a few people and then began a long ascent out of the valley towards the airport and the residential areas beyond.
Scott at Triathlete Zombies told me simply, the 70.3 is “all about energy conservation”. I kept this in mind every time I felt the urge to stand up in the pedals and bound my way up those gorgeous agricultural hills. I needed my legs for the run and didn’t want to blow out my energy stores early. I kept my pedaling cadence fast and steady and used a lot of shifting to lower gears to tackle the inclines. Normally I train with an iPod and listen to podcasts to keep my mind engaged. There is a strict prohibition against listening devices (which can also be used as audio pacing cues, also illegal) which means you’ve got to condition your mind to be quiet and strong for many hours. For me, this meant watching my bike computer and monitoring my average speed. I wanted to keep above 18 mph as much as possible, which for the first half was quite do-able. I was doing a lot of time calculations for food and water, making myself drink from the bottles every five minutes and eat a yam baggie every 45 minutes whether I wanted to or not. Even with all the hills I raced exactly my training pace, which means on uphills I went 8-11 mph, downhills at 25-45 mph depending on incline, and flats averaged 15-18 mph. Exactly my training pace. Proof that if you want to race faster, train harder.
The bike course was beautiful, the weather cool and moist with a light rain at the end of my ride. While the first half of the bike course went through residential and suburban tracks, including a nice uphill to the Birds of Prey Sanctuary (and then a roaring downhill out again), the course was stellar. A low of 2500 feet and a high of 3200, with some brief periods of intense climbing but nothing lasting more than a half mile. Most of the climbing was in the first half, and the second half long stretches of open road with cows criticizing cadence.
I got passed, a lot. I knew I’d get passed by stronger athletes, but I also got passed by some real chunkers. I had to struggle to fight the demotivation being passed brings and I would find out later that many had trouble on the swim and were making up time on the bike. Still, it was a good reminder that I need to pedal harder and lower my bike split time considerably. Later I would find out that a tri bike doesn’t reward the rider with aerodynamic speed gains until speeds over 23-25 mph. Therefore I need to get my speed up first, then I can reward myself with a tri bike. The Butcher and I have some serious saddle time in the very near future.
At mile 40 I hit my first race problem. I discovered my tri suit was really designed for Sprint and Olympic distance. My ‘taint was getting very, very sore. All my 50-60 mile rides had been done in the luxury of fine Italian bibs by Capo Forma. The thin chamois of the Orca suit was insufficient past the 40 mile mark and I started having some pain in the ass. For real. This meant I had to stand in the pedals to get blood flowing back to my pelvis, and this meant less spinning. It also meant that when I was spinning I was putting out much less wattage from discomfort and mental disconnect. I pushed through to the end and the long downhill into downtown Boise, but as I came into T2 I was pretty unhappy.
Thankfully my uncle Rich had reminded me to train train train my bike to run transition. He’s absolutely right. Switching from bike to run last year I was crab walking out of T2, but this time I had almost no groin pain having practiced the transition for the last month solid. I saw my wife and friends on the sidelines, blew them kisses as I duffed the bike gear, grabbed my hat, race belt loaded with 5 Gu packs (which I thankfully did not have to eat), bent down and applied a band-aid to my left heel (damn Sauconys are blistering my heel to death) and jammed on the shoes. I ran to the exit chute of T2 and grabbed yet another desperately needed whizz before starting the run. (Again, with the admonition of not peeing on the agriculture there wasn’t enough porta potties in The Big Nothing to help out. Farmers are friendly until you pee on their great tasting spinach.) You can find your own metaphor for the condition of my junk after being compressed on a three and a half hour bike ride in spandex with low blood flow in the last hour. T2 time was just over five minutes for that reason. (I was admonished for all the discussion of bodily function in my race report. But I maintain that all of us have to do it and it has a direct impact on time and performance, so it’s germane. Especially the woman who wrote about discovering why sliding her bento box to the back, affixed to the seat post and top tube, was a bad idea when she peed on her lunch.)
As I rounded the chute into downtown Boise the Ironman announcer called out my name, age, and city which gave me a hearty wake-up call that I was still doing this. I had made it to all three events, was well under the course closures, and my energy levels were still good. My photographer friend almost missed me coming in on the bike because I was beating my own projected times, and when he saw me he remarked that I looked pretty tired on that first loop, but internally I was very happy. I was beating my own estimates, I had made it to all three events, and all that was left was a run which if I was completely shot could walk. Turns out I didn’t have to!t have to!
The first loop was spent clocking mileage and telling myself, “it’s just 13 miles, you can do this. It’s a long run. You’ve run marathons and lots of halves. You know this distance. Just crank it out.” My first loop of the lovely downtown Greenbelt was done in just over an hour, with much of the course populated by cheering locals of all ages, families taking picnics, and even some LDS folks in neck to ankle gingham. Boise people were simply incredible hosts, volunteers, and spectators. Because our names were printed on our numbers we had our names shouted throughout the course, which was a huge boost. The Greenbelt is 25+ miles of bike and pedestrian path that runs alongside the river and all the way out to the reservoir. It’s one of the best features of Boise, with parks strung along the path like pearls. Boise is a gem of a city and well worth visiting. Bring the bike because it’s awesome training ground.
As I came around for the second loop, a woman named Danelle asked if she could take my hip because I was doing her pace. I had trepidation because I didn’t know if I could hold that pace for lap 2, but agreed figuring she could dust me if she wanted. She was amazing. A single mom from Washington, she had done multiple Ironman distance and half Iron distances before, including a monster 20 hour run of the Grand Canyon. We had loads to talk about (she’s learning physical therapy, had started coaching in her spare time) and we just clicked. In no time I stopped looking at miles and the time disappeared. It was a great throwback to the long runs I did with a friend where we’d crank out ten to eighteen miles and keep each other entertained and motivated. We started running with some other friends, and that social aspect made it even more fun. A lot of the training guides I’ve read say that you want to run at a fast pace while still able to talk, which means limiting your heart rate spikes. Running the second loop with Danelle was amazing, and it was wonderful to find a new friend so quickly. In 1982 when she was a kid she and her dad watched Julie Moss drag herself across the Ironman finish line. She asked her triathlete dad if girls could really do that, and he said girls could do whatever they wanted. She has maintained a lifelong passion for sport, and her own nine year old just did his first triathlon. Triathletes are incredible people.
Danelle’s hip was bothering her and she asked if I would mind walking a minute interval. Honestly, just her asking was great because it gave me permission to take a small break. I probably would have run myself into the ground, but I was glad to take a little respite which marathon experience told me wouldn’t dramatically hurt my overall time (and could prevent injury since my right meniscus was hurting). Coming to the end of the course I asked if she felt good enough to sprint the end. She likes to take her time and bask in the glory of the crowd, which sounded good, but I also felt recharged and thought I could do something big. As we came up to the two block stretch leading to the finish she said “go for it”. I floored it.
The Boise folks had crammed the downtown areas and cheered through the light rain that started at noon. They were still there at the finish line, extending two full city blocks down with signs, clappers, and raw enthusiasm. I’m not a sprinter by any means. But the legs were willing, the tank had the gas, and the will surged inside me like a colossal swell from the Pacific. I saw a dude in front of me wearing a silly hat and I thought, “I can take him” and blew by just as I started entering the cheering lines of the finish. The crowds noticed what I was doing and they suddenly increased their volume and enthusiasm. So I went faster. I blew past a second runner and hit the home stretch of the chute in a full-on locomotive sprint with huge strides and heart rate pounding. People were screaming, really going nuts, and I took it all in and used it for fuel. I saw the mat like a clear runaway and launched myself into the air. I took a huge leap across the finish line, throwing my fist in the air in a gigantic victory strike.
Of course, building up that much speed and then launching yourself into the air is one of the less friendly things you can do to volunteers and photographers camped at the finish line. While hanging in the air for several minutes I had time to think of the folly of my victory Jesse Owens move. “Where am I going to land?” I thought to myself. “That person looks nice. I hope they won’t mind.” Thankfully, two volunteers caught me and helped me land safely, ensuring I stayed in a locked and upright position and all rubber hit the road. My wife and friends were there, clapping, crying, cheering, waving signs and holding balloons. I shrugged off the aluminum foil that turns every athlete into a TV dinner and was handed a finisher’s hat and medal. Still in an ecstatic haze I was maneuvered into a photo op position, photographed, and returned to my loved ones like a tagged animal. Danelle came in to the finish line and we hugged one another in joy and gratitude. I’ll say it again – tri people are the nicest people on earth. This thing is hard enough by itself without being mean. We exchanged email addresses, which in our race stupor we managed to hand each other the other’s card, which means I gave myself my own email address. So Danelle, if you’re out there, shoot me an email! Also, it turns out that sprint was good for my time. I finished four seconds under 7 hrs.
Crossing that finish line forged a single thought in my new athlete’s mind: this is my perfect distance in my favorite sport. 70.3 is long enough to be a challenge, hard enough depending on the course specifics, and right for my body. I know that a full Ironman is in my future, but for now I will be quite content racing at half that atomic weight. Because now,
I AM AN ALUMINUM MAN.