Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Race report: Ironman Florida

I arrived in Panama City Beach two days before Ironman Florida. It was cool there. A little too cool. Like “I hope I brought warm enough clothes for the race.” The warm sun helped, but low 70’s and a stiff breeze made it seem like November.

I went down to the beach to look at the Gulf of Mexico. The swim was my only real concern about the race. I’m not a fast swimmer, and although the cut-off time at IMFL is a generous 2 hours, 20 minutes, I kept reminding myself that there’s a reason they allow an extra 20 minutes for this open water swim. (All other Ironman events in North America have a 2 hour cut-off, after which an athlete is not allowed to continue the race.)

The water was calm, even with the wind: only mild swells of a foot or so. Suddenly, the tape in my mind switched from “I hope I can” to “I can do this!”

Swim: 2.4 miles, 1:36
The cannon fired at 7:00 a.m., as the sun was still trying to force itself into the chilly morning. Then the mob of 2,200 triathletes, looking like penguins in our wetsuits, waded into the water. If you’ve never stuck your head under water to study the agitator in your washing machine, it might be hard to understand what a mass swim start is like. But try to picture roughly 4,400 legs and 4,400 arms churning the water into a roiling pot, and they’re all aiming right at your face!

The swim is the only portion of an Ironman where drafting (taking advantage of the person in front of you creating a slipstream so you use less energy to go the same speed) is legal. Ideally, you find someone else who’s just slightly faster than you, tuck in behind them, and swim in their wake. In a mass start, this is tough for all but the most aggressive swimmers. Everyone else gets caught in a start-stop, speed up/slow down traffic jam where it’s hard to get into a consistent stroke rhythm. That lasted through the first two turns, and then people spread out a bit in the stretch to complete the first loop of the swim.

IMFL is unique in having a two loop swim where the athletes exit the water, run on the beach for a couple hundred yards, and then go back into the water for the second loop. I checked my watch on the beach and was pleasantly surprised to see that I had completed the first 1.2 mile loop in 43 minutes – a bit behind my best time for that distance during a half-Ironman event. I knew it was going to be a good day. During the second loop, swimmers were more spread out, and I could occasionally catch someone’s wake a draft a bit. Proof that drafting helps: my second 1.2 mile loop took eight minutes longer than the first, even with the start-stop traffic jam in the first loop.

Later, I heard someone say they saw schools of fish during the swim. Either they were fast enough to be ahead of the masses, or they were swimming way out to the side away from everyone else, or they were hallucinating. I saw one fish, and I tend to notice critters during my swims, bikes, and runs.

T1: 8 minutes
Triathlon has two transitions: T1 is the change from the swim to the bike, and T2 is from bike to run.

I emerged from the Gulf into a chute lined with hundreds of spectators, cheering on the athletes. On the beach, a group of strippers was there to greet me. No, not that kind of stripper – these volunteers quickly remove athletes’ wet suits so the athlete can move on to the changing tent. Running under a fresh water shower and onto the boardwalk, I came to another group of volunteers who handed me my bike gear bag. I ran into the changing tent, pulled my bike shorts on over my tri-shorts, grabbed my helmet and bike shoes, put on my race number, and moved on to get my bike. Seems like one could do that in less than eight minutes.

Bike: 112 miles, 6:59
Once out of the changing tent, a volunteer had my bike off the rack and ready to roll. I took the bike, ran to the “mount” line, and got on my way. I was still wet, and the air temperature was in the 50’s, but the adrenaline and exertion kept me warm.

The bike segment of Ironman Florida is flat. Not quite Kansas flat, but only a few gentle hills along the route. The good news here is that there are no major climbs to push you into the red zone and pump lactic acid into your legs. The bad news is that there are no descents, no coasting – you have to earn every bit of the distance. The first 1,000 miles or so was into a steady head wind – not a strong wind, but aggravatingly steady. After that (maybe it was really about 50 miles before turning out of the wind), the tail wind and side winds gave me a bike speed I had been planning for the entire ride. So my bike segment was slower than I had expected, but I’ll take it.

T2: 5 minutes
I felt fine coming off the bike. That’s not always the case, as I have a habit of pushing myself on the bike and finding my legs tired when the run starts. After handing my bike to a volunteer, and taking my run gear bag from another, I went into the changing tent for a quick change. Bike shorts off, leaving my tri-shorts for the run. Bike shoes switched for running shoes. Helmet became cap. Race number rotated from back to front. Ready to go.

Run: 26.2 miles, 5:03
I was able to run out of transition – plenty of “brick” workouts during training, going from a long ride straight to a run, had my legs ready to go. The first few minutes I ran a pace of about 9 minutes, 30 seconds per mile, but my heart rate was higher than my target, so I slowed down.

The IMFL marathon is two loops on an out-and-back course: 6.55 miles out, then back, twice. The course takes you along part of Panama City Beach’s hotel and shopping corridor, through neighborhoods, and out to a wooded state park. Several parties along the course keep runners entertained, although it’s not clear who’s more entertaining to whom: the runners or the partiers.

They talk about marathoners hitting “the wall” around the twentieth mile of the run. The wall is a mental and physical hurdle when the glycogen is gone, the pounding pavement is taking its toll on feet and legs, and the mind is ready to be done, leaving little but determination and fear of failure to keep you going. I hit that wall at mile two. From there on, I kept telling myself, “I’ll walk when I have to, but I’m not there yet.” I did walk through the aid stations so I could drink a full cup of Gatorade. The aid stations were positioned every mile, so I walked about a minute each mile. Otherwise, I ran.

When I made the final turn and saw the twenty mile marker, I started counting down the miles. “I can run six more miles…five more miles…four more miles.” By the time I got to “three more miles,” I could hear the finish line. The voice of Mike Reilly announcing each name as the triathlete crossed the line and became an Ironman. The roar of the crowd, cheering wary runners to a strong finish. From that point on, my legs did not hurt as they kept turning over, one stride at a time. When I hit the last mile, I met the first concentration of the finish line crowd. Hands stretched out for high-fives. Banners. Smiles. Everyone yelling, whooping, singing. Not for me, but for everyone, for the achievement, the commitment, the will to do it. For the idea of Ironman.

And then I hit the finish chute, with 100 yards to go. I crossed the timing mat and heard the words, “Kevin Peter from Philadelphia, for the first time in your life, You Are An IRONMAN!”

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