Its amazing what we can talk ourselves into doing. Back in February, sitting in a outdoor café, running buddy John Clidas and I was debating the equivalent effort between a marathon and a half iron-man triathlon. We concluded that while a half ironman would take longer, it would probably beat up the body about as much as a marathon. Shortly thereafter, John talked me into signing up for the Miami Man Half Ironman in November. All this without either of us having done even the shortest distance sprint triathlon. Well, time passes and we both, along with wife Salome and other similarly deranged friends, did several sprint triathlons over the summer. For those that don’t know the distances for these events, the sprint triathlon involves a 1/4 th mile swim, followed by a 10 mile bike ride, and finishes with a 3.1 mile run. The half ironman is a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run.
During each of our sprint triathlons over the summer, our motto was “If we don’t drown in the swim portion, we’ll be fine. “ We all come from running backgrounds, none of us being great swimmers. We would usually come out of the water in well back in our age groups and have to work our way back up in the standings in the bike and run legs of the events.
After running the Berlin Marathon together in September, John & I decided we needed to step up the training distances for the November 9th Half. We got in some good pool workouts, were we would swim 50 minutes and started riding longer distances. Unfortunately, my longest rides to date were 40 milers, but I finally managed to get a 56 mile ride in the week before the event. Thus, we figured we could at least finish the event and not get the dreaded DNF (did not finish) designation next to our names in the results listings.
The day before the race, we traveled down to the park next to the Miami Metro Zoo that was the staging area for the event. We brought our bike to set them up in the transition area and get our race packets. After setting our bikes up, we walked over to the lake where the 6/10th of a mile swim course was laid out with buoys. I have to say the course looks enormous and we would have to swim it twice. The race is just late enough in the year to allow the race direct to call it “wet suit legal,” meaning the water temperature is at 78 degrees or lower. This is important because you can use a wet suit in the fresh water lake making you more buoyant and therefore able to swim faster, or in our case, at least easier.
Now, I have never swum with a wet suit in a triathlon. I had ordered one from a company in California, which arrive the week before the event. Unfortunately, it ended up being too small and I have to send it back. Thus, I decided to buy one on sale at the expo for the race the next day. During the Q & A portion of the race course discussion we were required to sit through on Saturday, someone asks the elite woman triathlete lecturer if one should use a wetsuit if they hadn’t practiced with it in training. “Oh, no,” said the lecturer, “Don’t try anything in a triathlon that you didn’t throughly try out during your training. Forget that, I thought, there is no way I’m attempting a 1.2 mile swim without the extra advantage of the wet suit I’d just paid $200 for. I’ll take my chances.
After getting up at 3:15 AM on race morning, picking up John and driving an hour to South Miami, we set up our transition area in the dark at 5:30 AM. Its amazing how fast time passes before the start time comes up for an event you question whether you are truly ready to do. John mentions that with an International distance event (about half of the distance of each leg we will be doing) being held that morning, that all the wanna-be’s are weeded out of the pack for the half iron-man. I mention to him that perhaps we too are wanna-be half iron-men, but were too stupid to not do the lesser distance event. I start riffing on revised lyrics to Green Day’s “American Idiot” singing: I don’t want to be a half iron-man idiot, don’t want to swim 1.2 miles.
After waiting in line for a last chance to lighten the load and squeeze into our wet suits, we just have time to get down to the beach area of the lake. We are in the fourth wave of starter in the “45 and over” wave start. As we line up along the shore, the announcer states: “Boy, don’t these guys look great for being 45 and older.” I think how middle aged crazy we must seem to the ultra fit athletes in their 20s and 30s that do these events. I think that it’s a good thing I’m doing this before turning 50 in January when people would definitely wonder if I hadn’t gone off the deep end.
If you’ve never done a triathlon, imagine what it would be like to swim amongst 30 to 40 crazed swimmers each trying to go as fast as they can and being somewhat directionally challenged. There is a lot of grabbing and knocking into one another. It’s the polar opposite of the calm relaxed swim you have in the pool training for the event. The splashing and churning of the water that a group of excited swimmers produces is an invitation to get claustrophobic and start breathing too shallow. It usually takes me about 5 minutes to get over the excitement and calm myself to relaxed breathing and good stroke technique, or at least by my untrained standards.
Knowing that my swim is my weakest link in these events, I decide to use a mental trick to keep the throng of swimmers from messing with my head. I decide to keep telling myself that I love to swim. By golly, swimming is my favorite portion of the triathlon. Funny thing is, it worked. As we enter the water and I’m getting slapped by stray arms and kicked by legs, I tell myself that this is fun. I notice the water is clear and you can see the lake bottom with fish and what looks like coral. This also help me from lifting my head too often to look for the next buoy which I find to be inefficient and takes me out of my rhythm. While the buoys seem far apart, it’s the only way to break the course up into manageable portions. Before I know it, I’m completing the first lap of the lake. To register that you’ve done two laps, we have exit the water, cross a mat and get back into the lake for the second lap. As you come out of the water, you think “Alright, I’ve finished my first lap.” Of course, the thought that comes right behind that is “Oh crap, I’ve got to get back in the water for the second lap.”
After working my way around lake a second time, I’m on my last leg approaching the lake shore. I think, “The swim was enjoyable. Perhaps it will end up being my favorite part of the course. Do I have to get out of the water.” Before I know it, I’m back on shore climbing out of the water. The wet suit worked great. Take that, Ms. elite triathlon lecturer. My time in the water: 51 minutes. Nothing to brag about, but I survived the 1.2 mile swim. The odds of me finishing the event just got considerably better.
I get to the transition area and notice that a lot of the bikes, which are group according to age groups, are gone. Thus, as usual, I will have to work my way up in the standing by passing the better swimmers on the bike or the run. I look over and spot buddy John’s bike still in the rack. John is swim challenged for reasons we can’t figure out. Prior to the event he was telling another buddy of ours that I would beat him out of the water. I replied that while I would beat him out of the water, it was really an issue of whether John would overtake me on the bike of the run stages. I have a history of going out too hard in races and having John overtake me in the later miles. There is an infamous half marathon story that involves jingle bells on John’s running shoes, but I digress. As I leave the transition area, I wonder how John is made out in the swim and how far back he is form me.
The initial miles of the bike ride are great. The whether is still somewhat cool and there appears to be a slight wind at our backs. I planned to try to average 18.3 mph on the bike, but am hitting 20 to 21 for the first 5 miles. Was I riding too hard. It didn’t seem so. I try to ride by perceived effort and not worry too much about the bike computer speed reading. Either I’m stronger today than I thought or I’ve getting some wind assistance. Sure enough as the course changes direction, my speed slows into the upper 17s and lower 18s. The bike course has many turns so we were getting the wind from all directions throughout the course. When the course faced directly into the wind, I slowed to an average of about 15 mph. During those portions, I thought “This sucks. I feel like a sail.” Adding to the wind issue was that fact that other riders would slow to an even greater degree. This was an unwanted opportunity to work even harder.
In triathlons, you are not permitted to draft off another bicyclist. If your distance from the rider in front of you becomes less than 3 bike links, you are obligated to either fall back to 3 bike links or pass the rider in front of you within 15 seconds. Otherwise, you are subject to time penalties and possible disqualification if observed by race course officials. Normally, when you pass people, it feels great. You are moving up your place in the race and you feel you are stronger than the other rider. This is also a necessity for people like me that are not as gifted in the swim. However, it is a less welcome gift heading into the wind. One must dig deep to summon the added speed to pass the biker that slows more than you as you ride into the wind. Thus, when these other riders dropped pace, I was forced to exert a level of energy I didn’t want to expend.
As I got to around mile 40, I realized that the last 16 miles were going to be the opposite of the ride out. Instead of being wind assisted, I was struggling to keep a reasonable pace into the wind. I also note that its getting hot out and the back of my legs are starting to feel sun burned. With about 5 miles to go, I’ve sucked the last of my two water bottles dry. This could make for a miserable last leg of the event.
In the last miles, I start to wonder how I’m going to get off the bike and run a half marathon. As I finish the ride, I think “That was about 16 miles longer than I wanted to ride.” I got sore in the knees, my hamstrings started to get sore, and don’t get me started about my butt. Let’s just say that I enjoyed riding harder at times just to get up and out of the saddle. It doesn’t help that the shammy in the tri shorts are thinner than regular bike shorts.
As I remount my bike back at the transition area, I notice that John’s bike is still out. He is still behind me, but I expect I will see him on the run portion. My total time for the 56 mile ride was 2:59:57, a pace of 18.67 mph. Better than I had planned. I switch out my bike shoes and helmet for my run shoes and runners cap. As I start to jog to the transition area, I think this is going to be rough. I had done some great bike/run brick training blocks with a 25 mile bike ride followed by a 10K run. I felt strong on both legs in those training blocks, but my legs feel like lead starting the half marathon. Fortunately, there is a water stop with sponges about a 1/4 mile into the run. Squeezing the water from the sponge on my head and neck never felt so good.
The run is two loops of about 6 ½ miles through and around the Miami Metro Zoo. About a half mile into the run, there is a sign for the 7 mile mark on the second loop of the course. I guy running near me turns and says: “Only 6 miles to go.” “Unfortunately, this is my first lap,” I reply. I notice is really hot out. I figure its probably about 11:30 and I’ll be running for the next 2 hours or more. Whenever I see people out running at high noon in South Florida, I think: “This guy is nuts. He’s going to get heat stroke and die. What kind of idiot runs at noon?” I now have my answer.
The portion of the run between miles 2 and 4 in the first lap and miles 8 and 10 on the second lap are a long out and back route from the park to the parks main entrance. As I’m coming back on the first loop, I spot John. He’s about 3/4th of a mile behind me. We yell “Hey” to each other and continue on our way. I wonder if he’ll pull me in.
The portion of the route through the zoo was interest. You get somewhat distracted from you discomfort by the various animals along the route. However, the route through the zoo is a nightmare of twists and turns. Worse are the kids and parents strolling by licking their lemon-aid frozen popsicles. I offer a lady $100 for her popsicle, but she turns me down. Probably a good thing as I had no money on me.
As I approach the transition area, there is a split where you either keep going for lap 2 or turn off for the finish line. As you approach this area, they call out the finisher’s name over a loud speaker. As I approach, I hear the announcer call out my name. “Nope,” I say, and hold up two fingers to indicate I still have to do lap 2.
As I pass the water stop that had sponges for the second time, the group of cheerleaders working the water stop are as cheerful as ever. However, they are now out those water soaked sponges. Darn, they were so great on the first lap. Oh, well, I think, at least I’m on my last lap of what now feels like a run through the zoo...in Hades. Around mile 7, the expected happens. Here comes buddy John, the guy who conned, I mean talked me into signing up for this mess. As he passes me, I start singing the refrain from the Rolling Stone’s song “The Last Time.” “This could be the last time, this could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don't know.” He shouts back, “Isn’t this fun?” I reply by finishing the lick: “Oh no!” Cheerful bastard. As we pass each other again on the out and back loop to the front of the zoo between miles 9 to 10, I notice he’s getting farther ahead of me. “You look strong,” I yell.
From here on to the finish, I note that lots and lots of the athletes are now walking it in. As a runner, I refuse to buckle into the peer pressure to walk. Come on, I think, you guys are in better shape than me. You can at least shuffle your way to the finish. I don’t know if it’s the that I’m doing better than these other runners or if the cloud coverage got better, but I seem to be running better and stronger. It helps that on the second lap, you know what’s coming up ahead on the course. As I keep passing the walking wounded, I start visualizing the next quarter to half mile to get down the next section. Don’t think about where you are, I take mental note, think about the next section just ahead of where you can see. Get to that point, and you’ll be that much closer to the finish. Finally, the finish line comes into view, and I see John near the finish line cheering me on. I give him a high five and cross the finish line. Whew! I’m glad that”s over.
My run time was nothing to write home about 2:22, for a total event time of 6:26:06. This was a little better than our guesstimate of about 6 ½ hours. John completed in 6:16. I tip my running cap to John. I believe you’re time in any event like this is a measure of your fitness level on that day. Today, John was the more fit man.
Afterward, John explains that he took off his timing chip in taking off his wetsuit and forgot to put it back on. Thus, he did his bike leg without a timing chip. He attempt to hand me a pyretic victory by claiming that he might get disqualified for not having his timing chip on during the total event. I explain to him that often a chip won’t register at a mat during a triathlon and that the race officials will simply look at the mats that registered to back in his bike time. Sure enough, this is what was done.
All in all, I’m glad I did this event. I’ve never done an event where you are exercising for over six hours. I try to complete my marathons in under 4 hours. Even on a bad day, I’m done by around 4:20. Thus, this event is a good 2 hours more than I’m used to doing. Does it beat the body up as much as a marathon? No. But at some point, I have to ask myself: what’s the point? I think I had merely adequate training to get through this event. Even at that, the training tends to fill up most of your free time.
With a couple of days recovery time, I’m feeling pretty good. Triathlon season has ended and I don’t have to think seriously about this until the Spring. It begins to occur to me that the real problem with the half ironman is that you end up doing the run portion in the heat of the day. Now, if you do the full ironman, the middle of the day is taken up in the bike portion. At least on the bike you get somewhat of a breeze going just by biking. By the time you get to the run its already 4 to 6 PM. It’ll be cooling off. Now you’re talking. Kool-Aid anyone?