Be Fierce, but Race Happy

Well, a week out from Ironman Louisville, I have had some time to reflect on the day. First, I was so happy that my wife Mary Beth, and my daughter, Kristin, got to join me.    My son Boone got to travel with us to Ironman Florida in 2010, but this was Kristin’s first Ironman experience. I can say this was a very different race for me.   With Ironman Louisville being my second Ironman, I had different goals, and just had a healthier mindset about what I wanted to accomplish on the day.  There have been some races where I just wanted to hammer down, and go to war.  This was especially true back in my single-sport road racing days.  But in triathlon, it has largely been about the clock, the course, and me.  I like that about the sport of triathlon, especially long-course racing.

I noticed a difference in my attitude from the time I got to Louisville this year.  I felt much more calm than in other “A” races in previous seasons.  This course made me nervous for sure, though.  Being one of the only Ironman races where wetsuits would not be allowed, and the hilly bike course, I knew I was in for a very long day.  The weather forecast all week also indicated that it would be one of the hottest races ever.  But I found myself saying, “It is, what it is” a lot during race week.  After all, I had trained in Georgia during one of the hottest summers on record!

Race morning wasn’t the normal tense rush to get everything done.  I felt ready and relaxed.  Up early and down to transition at 4:45 a.m. was nothing new to me.  I am always among the first to show up at local races back in Georgia.  So just a quick visit to transition to drop off my bottles of nutrition, and to pump up my tires.  No delays except that I seemed to be the only guy who had a pump!  “Hey, can I borrow your pump?”  “Sure”, I said…. over and over finally making my way out so I could get rid of the pump by handing it off to Mary Beth.

As most know, Ironman Louisville is the only Ironman race with a time trial swim start.  The line was very, very long.  So this meant a lot of sitting around.  Luckily Mary Beth and Kristin were both there to keep me company.  I got in line early, but I still felt I was at the back of the line.  As we got closer to start time, I could hear that the pros were starting, and then the line began to move.  Still, I felt calm.  Just grateful to be there.  The line began to move quickly, and after only a few minutes I was jumping off of the dock starting my day- it was 7:13 a.m.

The 2.4-mile swim was smooth and uneventful.  The water was calm, but warm. I focused on long and even strokes making contact with only a few athletes along the way.  I had decided ahead of time not to swim hard… just keep it on the easy side due to the heat of the day. After the turn buoy, it was nearly a two-mile straight shot to the swim exit and transition.  My time was a few minutes off from my goal, but what’s 2 or 3 minutes in an Ironman? No big deal, that’s what.

I got out of the water quickly and headed towards transition.  I found my swim-to-bike bag quickly with the help of a volunteer, and straight into the changing tent.  I moved though the tent towards the exit and took a seat.  A volunteer was immediately there to help me.  Sunscreen was priority one, and the nice volunteer helped me get my bike gear on, and I was off on the bike.  Now we had driven the bike course two days prior, so I already knew it was hilly.  My plan was to carefully conserve my watts while trying to keep my speed up.  And that’s just what I did.  By mile 30 of the 112-mile course, I was exceeding my speed goal while maintaining super-low watts.  Yes!  I felt great on the bike, and around mile 30 was the first time I noticed- I was racing happy.  Seriously, and it made a difference.  I would not have wanted to be any other place on earth- great volunteers, great locals cheering us on, and some nice folks to race along side.  This was so different of an attitude for me during racing, and I loved it.  And then it happened – a flat.  Seriously?   I have trained thousands of miles this season, and not one flat.  And now, a flat in Oldham County, Kentucky?  On race day?  Really?  I stopped at the entrance of a horse farm where there were two guys sitting on the tailgate of their truck. Both said they worked at the farm, and they couldn’t have been nicer. I apologized for bothering them, and one said “no problem, that’s what we are here for”.  That made my day.  My front tire was flat with a tack.  A tack!  One of the guys said “well I hope no one did that intentionally”.  I said, “let’s assume not”. But I knew what happened.  Someone threw tacks on the bike course.  This had happened in 2009 too.  But still I felt calm- happy even.  I chatted with these two guys as I changed my front tube, then a lady appeared with several bottles of water.  “Do you want some water?”  “I’m good”, I said as I finished up with the tire.  I thanked my new friends as they handed my water bottles back to me, and then I was off again.

The flat already cost me 15 minutes or more on my bike split.  As I continued down highway 42, I saw 10-15 athletes on the side of the road changing flats.  As I passed one I asked, “Hey, what was in your tire?”  He yelled “a tack”.  So this pretty much confirmed that someone had sabotaged the bike course.  Still I felt lucky.  After all, my flat was to my front tire, which made it easier to change, and I only had one flat.  But the flat happened on the first loop of the bike, and that meant I had to stop and get my spare tube out of my special needs bag at mile 67.  Another 5 minutes lost!  Crap.  So I stopped to get my spare tube out of my special needs bag right before LaGrange, and chatted with the volunteer for a few minutes.  They had already heard about the tacks, and he said a lot of people had to deal with problems.  Then I was off again through the town of LaGrange where hundreds of people had turned out to cheer us on in the heat.  I thought that was nice, and I tried to wave at everyone as I went through town.

The remainder of the bike leg was uneventful, and I made it through the second loop of the course with no additional flats.  When I took a left again on highway 42 and saw the “Louisville 33 (miles)” sign, I went to work.  By this time we had a pretty bad head wind, but I knew I had some time to make up due to the flat.  Traffic was closed on 42 on the way back, so that was good.  When I got back into the city of Louisville the crowds began to build- it was good to see people again.  I felt great, and was really ready to start my run.  I saw Mary Beth just after I handed off my bike, so that was nice.

I felt really relaxed as I sat down in the changing tent.  Again, a volunteer was right there asking what he could do to help.  He dumped out my bike-to-run bag on the seat next to me as I took my bike gear off.  I chatted with the volunteer as I put on extra sunscreen, and got my run gear on.  I knew I had already taken a bit longer in T2, but I still had a marathon to run I thought.  And it was nearly 3:00 p.m. and 92 degrees!  I made my way out of transition, and started my run through the city of Louisville.  My plan for the marathon was to go easy for the first 6 miles.  As we ran across the 2nd Street Bridge, I couldn’t help but to look down the Ohio River where our day had started 8 hours earlier.  What a long day!  I began taking in my salt tabs and water right away.  At the first aide station I took in a gel, and got plenty of ice.  Ice was my friend today!  In my hands, down my shorts, whatever it took to keep my core temperature down.   We turned at the other end of the 2nd Street Bridge almost in Indiana, and made our way back to Louisville.  At mile 2, I saw Mary Beth and Kristin again, and then we left downtown Louisville.  Within 2-3 blocks, things got quiet.  The marathon took us through some older sections of Louisville where there weren’t that many spectators cheering, but plenty of locals just watching from their front porches.  Honestly, they were looking at us like we were all insane.  The heat was awful, but I ran along the curb where I would find a little bit of shade.  The turn around for the second loop was around the 8-mile mark, and I was heading back to town again.

Coming back into the city was great.  It was good to see the crowds again as we got back downtown around 14 miles.  I was still feeling solid, and I even tried to get the crowds going as I took a left on Muhammad Ali Boulevard.  People were screaming, and it was great.  But I knew the worst part of the run was about to happen.  That place between miles 17-21 of an Ironman marathon when you think you are going to die.  It happens to everyone, and how you get through the tough spot can make or break your day.  As I ran back out for my second loop on Oakdale and Southern Parkway, things got really quiet.  There were hundreds of athletes around me, but I remember thinking “damn, it’s so quiet”.  All I could hear was birds, and the footsteps of runners.  Weird.  It didn’t help that I could hear my own breathing because that was just a reminder of how much it hurt at this point.  My paced dropped as expected, but I was still running when most weren’t.  The heat had reduced many very fit triathletes to walking the marathon.  While my pace had dropped, I was still feeling good up until mile 19 just before the final turn back to town.  By then every footstep hurt.  My stomach began to bother me by this time, and I was only taking in Coke and water. I made the turn at mile 20 to head back to town, and my spirit came back.  That last 6 miles was the best.  Everything hurt, but I felt so good at the same time.  I thought about all of those long 7-8 hour days I had done all summer long, and how hard I had worked to get to Louisville.  It was almost over.  The last mile was the longest, but in a weird way I didn’t want it to end.  The finish line at an Ironman is something you want to make last forever.  With just a few blocks to go I could see 4th Street Live! and the crowds getting larger.  The Ironman Louisville finish line is the best, and I took my time running through it even high- fiving a couple of people before I made it to the finish.  Really, really cool!

I will leave out the details of the next 30 minutes as the body has some interesting reactions to racing for over 12 hours and then just stopping all of a sudden.  But once we got back to the hotel and I took a shower, I was ready to go back downtown to watch the final athletes come in all the way to midnight.  We met a few buddies of mine at the finish for a few beers and a well-deserved cheeseburger, and by 10 o’clock I was standing along the finish screaming at the final athletes.  It was amazing to watch these final athletes make their way to the finish all the way to midnight.  These people were out on the race-course for 16-17 hours, and had to run their entire marathon in the dark!  What an inspiration.

Looking back, I really loved Ironman Louisville.  The city was great, the volunteers were the best, and the course makes you honest.  In many ways it was even better than my first Ironman.  The course and heat were challenging enough, but having to overcome the flat during an important race made the day even more of a learning experience.  But the biggest lesson was what I learned about myself.  That my attitude while racing really had the biggest impact on the outcome.  By intentionally choosing to enjoy the day, no matter what, it changed how I felt about everything that happened along the way.  Unlike any other race, I just felt grateful to be there. That God has given me the resources and health to even be able to participate in this sport, when so many cannot, is a wonderful thing.

Be fierce, but race happy!