Posted by Chen
I am an IRONMAN!!!
Bananas, people. This Ironman thing is bananas.
I’m so happy that all of us finished (especially given the weather conditions – more on that later), and I’ll always look back on this whole training cycle and race experience with a huge sense of accomplishment. However, it’s extremely safe to say that I will never do an Ironman again. I had a wonderful experience with it – even more wonderful than I ever thought possible. But this is one of those things that I’m perfectly fine with doing once, and only once.
Backing up to the beginning…
I’ve never been this nervous before a race. Ever. With running races, even marathons, I can generally anticipate what might go wrong and what I would do in response to each situation, but with this IM – I HAD NO F-ING CLUE. Would I panic during the swim and have to pull out? Would I get a flat on the bike and spend an hour trying to change it? What if I got multiple flats and ran out of tubes? What if I got to the run and my stomach decided to revolt? What if my legs just decided to stop working all together? I’ve seen all of those YouTube videos of professional Ironman athletes literally crawling across the finish line – what if that happened to me???
No matter how much I tried to convince myself that I had trained for this and that I was physically and mentally ready, I just wasn’t having it. I remained a bundle of nerves for days and went to bed Saturday night feeling like this race might just take me out.
Despite my nervousness, though, I did manage to fall asleep relatively quickly and got some decent rest before my alarm went off at 3:30am. We all did our usual pre-race routine and then left the house around 4:55am to head to the shuttles. After body marking and a brief porta-potty stop, we boarded the buses to head to T1.
At this point, the weather was still cooperating – overcast with an occasional light drizzle, but nothing to write home about. Most of the forecasts that we’d stalked (and I do mean stalk) stated an 80% chance of rain, with the highest chance around 10-11am, but mainly in the form of showers. Seemed easy enough to deal with [foreshadowing: the science of meteorology still needs some work].
Once at T1, we made sure all of our gear was in the right places and then proceeded through our porta-potty rounds until it was time to get in the water to warm-up.
At 6:40ish, we headed in the direction of the three small buoys that marked the starting line for the swim. After a few warm-up strokes to test the chop (there wasn’t nearly as much as there had been on Friday – score!), Katie and I lined up behind the middle buoy but WAY to the back of the pack. And by that, I mean that there were literally only like three people further back than us. We met some other friendly athletes with a similar “I don’t want to get pummeled” mindset and made some small talk while we watched the pro men go off at 6:50am and the pro women at 6:55am.
While I was hoping that time would magically slow down via some sort of space-time expansion, the clock inevitably struck 7:00am, and the age group gun went off as scheduled. This was it. It was time to do an f-ing Ironman.
It took me a few dozen yards to actually reach the starting line itself since we had started so far back. While there was a little bit of congestion to get there, it wasn’t terrible, so I just put my head down and started swimming. I found myself surrounded by far more athletes than I had planned for (I guess it’s hard to avoid 1700+ other people all trying to get to the same buoy that you’re targeting), but I focused on staying calm and tried to think happy thoughts.
As I did at the Catfish Open Water Swim, I also focused on maintaining my usual pattern of bilateral breathing every three strokes in order to stick with what I was used to and remind myself that this was just like any other swim workout. My wetsuit was there to support me, and there was no need to freak out. Hear that? DON’T FREAK OUT, CHEN.
It probably took me until the first turn buoy to figure out how to continually navigate through people and get into a rhythm, but once I did, I felt good and knew that I would get through this swim without a panic attack. Thank the good lord. It helped that everyone around me was really considerate – every time someone accidentally hit me, they would immediately back off, and I would do the same. I like to think of us as the “oh sorry, you go,” “oh no you go, please” crowd.
I managed to get more towards the outside of the pack as we finished the first loop, which made me feel even more comfortable with my situation. As we made the turn to start the second loop, I glanced briefly at my Garmin to see how I was doing and saw that it wasn’t on the swim screen and just said “Triathlon.” Thanks, Garmin. I’m aware that I’m currently doing a triathlon. The screen did have a very small running clock, though, which read around 41 minutes, so I knew I was doing just fine.
The rest of the second loop was pretty uneventful, but I did notice the rain pick up quite a bit. It clearly didn’t affect the swim at all since we were, you know, already covered in water, but when we made the final turn towards the shore, I realized just how much the weather conditions had worsened. While most of the swim had very little chop, this last leg into shore had straight up ocean-like waves. I felt like I was being tossed around like a rag doll and kept inhaling water when I tried to breathe or sight. This normally would have freaked me out, but I was so close to being done that I just kept pushing forward towards land.
Eventually, I started to see the ground come into view, and soon after that, it was time to stand up. Holy crap – my IM swim was over! Seven months of learning to swim properly and practicing over and over and over, and it all came down to this. And I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. My Garmin said that I swam well over 4600 yards – if that’s accurate, it meant that I swam waaaaaaay wide, but oh well. Better that than an elbow to the face.
Swim time: 1:25:43
(Official pace of 2:02/100yd, but 1:50/100yd according to Garmin; real pace probably somewhere in between)
After getting stripped of my wetsuit and grabbing my T1 bag, I headed into the changing tent, where a kind volunteer directed me towards an empty chair. I took my sweet @$$ time getting changed and making sure I had everything I needed for the bike. As I exited the tent and headed towards the porta-potties, I heard Brandon and Rachel’s family yell my name. I made sure they were aware of the fact that I was eating food as I walked into a porta-potty (no one ever said this sport was glamorous), took care of business, and then came back out and went over to them to chat for a minute or so before finally walking off to get Bert the Bike.
As I walked Bert out of transition, I noticed that it was raining pretty hard, but I was still warm from the swim, so I didn’t really think anything of it at the time. I walked past the mount line, hit the lap button on my Garmin, and I was off to do the longest outdoor ride of my life.
T1 time: 14:59
(Hahaha. Beat that.)
We exited Rainbow Park and turned right onto Alta Lake Road to begin our first mini-climb of the day. Despite the rain, I was feeling fine as we turned right onto 99 South and started our first of two large out and backs. This part was rolling down, and I started to get colder and colder with every descent. It was down pouring by this point, and I felt puzzled, as this rain felt much heavier than the forecasted “showers.”
At the half-hour mark, when I usually start to eat on a ride, I also discovered that I had forgotten to open my Ziploc bag full of prepared Clif Bars and tried to open it while on the move. However, I had sealed that thing SHUT to keep dry overnight, and this was also when I learned that I had very little use of my hands due to the cold. After trying for a couple minutes, including trying to open it with my mouth, I decided that it wasn’t going to happen.
I knew that under-fueling would be the end of me on the bike, so I decided to pull over and open the bag with both hands. It was hard for me to do even that, and then when I got to my Clif Bars, I realized they were all but frozen together. What the hell was happening?
As I pried a chunk from the brick ‘o chocolate chip Clif Bars, a spectator came over to see if I was OK, and I assured him that I was just trying to eat. At the same time, I heard another spectator behind him chuckle “oooohhh cookie monster… me want cookie...” I couldn’t decide if he was referring to me and if I should be offended, but then I decided it was pretty hilarious. After all, I WAS about to inhale 1680 calories of chocolate chip Clif Bars over the next 7.5 hours.
After making sure that I had access to food, I pulled onto the road again and continued to tackle the rolling descent. The jacket I was wearing was not at ALL waterproof, and I was already fully soaked. I remember thinking to myself “there’s no way I can finish this race if these conditions continue,” but I also remembered that the rain was supposed to die down towards the middle of the day, so I figured that I just had to suck it up, and I kept trudging on.
In retrospect, I don’t think I fully recognized just how bad the conditions were at the time, because I was doing my first Ironman, and I figured it was going to be hard. Me feeling somewhat bad didn’t seem like it was out of the ordinary for a 140.6-mile race, so I thought that maybe I was just being a wimp. However, reading through the online forums afterwards made it clear that this was one of the worst race days that even seasoned IM veterans had seen, and it turns out that well over 400 athletes (of the nearly 2000 registered) either didn’t start or didn’t finish.
Everyone handles weather differently, and fortunately for me, I deal with cold and rain much better than I deal with heat and humidity (when working out, that is), so I was able to get through without suffering from any major issues. Aside from feeling very cold and somewhat miserable, I don’t think I was actually ever at risk of hypothermia or anything more serious.
Also, reading through Rachel’s race report made me realize that those who had swum faster were forced to face these terrible conditions for a much longer period of time. The rain had picked up while I was still swimming, but thanks to the water being 67 degrees, the swim portion ended up being the warmest leg of the day, so I was only affected by biting downpours for maybe an hour or so on the bike. Moral of the story: it pays to suck at swimming sometimes!
Anyway, despite being generally OK, I was very much looking forward to our first climb up Callaghan, because it was an opportunity for me to generate some body heat. Aside from a few steep stretches, the climb was pretty reasonable, and it was the first time that I thought that maybe this bike course wouldn’t be as beastly as I’d made it out to be in my mind. That said, I knew that Callaghan was supposed to be considerably easier than the final climb from Pemberton back to Whistler at mile 90, so I continued on with my hyper-conservative pacing plan.
It was great to see Rachel, Travers, and Matt coming back down Callaghan as I was climbing (I somehow missed Mark), and the turnaround point came along relatively quickly. While I normally look forward to the end of a climb, I was actually kind of sad when it was over, as the rain still hadn’t let up, and I was genuinely concerned for my safety as I made my way back down the hills. I could see sheets of water flowing over the road, and like Rachel, I wondered if hydroplaning on a road bike was a thing.
This was actually my first time biking in any sort of precipitation, so I just played it super safe with my speed, and I managed to make it back down without any issues. At some point during the descent, I heard someone singing “Eye of the Tiger,” and I looked over to see Katie smiling and looking super strong (“Eye of the Tiger” was the song that Matt and I played to pump ourselves up before our first marathon back in 2009). I yelled out a “woot!” and wished her a great ride, though it turns out that we would stay with one another for the next 40 miles or so, which was awesome.
After descending, we turned left onto 99 North and rolled back upwards towards the Olympic Village in Whistler. This stretch was pretty uneventful, aside from the fact that the lane they had marked off for us included the middle divider of the road, which had some slippery yellow lines and divots for the reflectors. I’m terrible at bike handling, so this made for some tricky passing conditions, but I made it through without falling on my face or causing someone else to fall on his/her face, so, #winning.
Once we passed by the village, we had the whole driving lane of the road to ourselves, and we soon started the descent into Pemberton. By this point, the rain had let up; I was starting to dry out, and things were starting to look up. Having Katie there with me made it feel more like any other training ride rather than an intense Ironman race, and I was able to relax a bit, chat with Katie, and take in the scenery around us.
At the bottom of the descent was the special needs station, where I picked up my precious bag of sour cream and onion chips and savored in its delicious, oniony saltiness. I didn’t want to spend too much time standing still and getting cold, so I shoved the bag into my jacket pocket and continued to eat chips in between bites of Clif Bar for the next hour or so. Mmmmm salt.
The next 30+ miles were completely flat, with the first half having a tailwind and the second half having a pretty nasty headwind (nasty for us, anyway – sounds like it was lighter earlier on for the faster athletes). However, I didn’t actually know that we had a tailwind on the way out, and I was wondering why 17-18mph felt so easy. I knew I needed to play it conservative here in order to have enough energy for the final climb, so the speeds we were hitting were making me a little nervous. It felt OK, though, so I went with it. Everything became clear when we turned around and I immediately struggled to hit 14-15mph. Ballsack.
While I had acquired aerobars several weeks prior to race day (admittedly way too late), I never actually got to test them out thanks to my bike fall during our last long ride. This flat stretch would have been the perfect time to go into aero, but I felt too nervous and didn’t think it would be a good idea to test things out for the first time in the middle of an Ironman, so I would end up just carting those things around for 112 miles. Brilliant.
I lost Katie at some point during this return stretch, and I realized that I would have to face the final climb back into Whistler alone. I had no idea what to expect, but as we started to ascend, I once again learned that it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as I’d made it out to be. There were certainly some steep stretches, but most grades were fine, and they were also broken up by nice stretches of downhills. At this point, I thought about all of our training rides in the Bay Area and was SO thankful that we had prepared ourselves properly for this course.
While the overall climb was pretty long (13-14 miles), it actually passed by pretty quickly (the whole ride did, actually), and soon it was time for the final rolling uphill stretch back to the Olympic Village. Right at the end of the ride, I saw Brandon and Rachel’s family cheering from an overpass, and I gave them a big smile as I went underneath. BECAUSE IT WAS FINALLY TIME FOR THE BEST SPORT EVER!!!
Going under the final underpass
Bike time: 7:28:04
After dismounting my bike and placing my Garmin back on my wrist, I gladly handed Bert over to another super awesome volunteer (the volunteers were truly the best). I grabbed my T2 bag and headed into the changing tent, where another volunteer found some open space for me. While I had originally planned on wearing my tri kit for the full race, nothing sounded better than fresh, dry running clothes at that point, so I made a full change. I took my time once again, made another porta-potty stop (I had been holding it in for the entire bike ride), and got sunscreened up.
I couldn’t believe I had actually gotten through both the swim and the bike without facing any major obstacles, and now all I had to do was run a marathon! I know marathons; I can DO marathons. It was on.
T2 time: 9:23
I had no idea how my legs would feel at the start of the run, as I had never run off of a super long bike ride before. Not surprisingly, they felt extremely tight and heavy, but I just focused on keeping the effort easy. The course started with a couple pretty nasty hills, but once we got past those, the rest was manageable. Still hilly, but manageable.
While my legs started to loosen up over the first few miles, I noticed that my stomach was doing some serious flip turns. Having consumed over 150% of my daily fiber earlier in the day, this came as no surprise, but it was also something I wasn’t used to dealing with on a run. Usually, if my stomach ever feels like that, I just stop running and live to fight another day.
I couldn’t exactly stop running here, though, so I instead slowed my pace a bit and tried to breathe deeply. While this helped, I would ultimately end up stopping for porta-potty breaks maybe 3-4 times over the course of the run. That would be the worst of my issues that I would face, though, so no complaints there.
Throughout the run, I was generally able to maintain a 9:15-9:25 pace pretty easily while running, which of course averaged out to a slower pace when you fold in my water and bathroom stops. A little slower than anticipated, but the effort felt surprisingly great, and I was so happy that I was able to truly enjoy the entire run leg.
After making the first loop around Lost Lake, we made our way north towards Green Lake. It was here that I got to see Matt, Travers, and Rachel, and I laughed when Rachel ran by me and said, “you’re on the best sport!” (I once yelled this while cheering at a tri; the athletes, many of whom were struggling on the run, did not seem to appreciate it).
It was here that I was actually able to take in the beauty of my surroundings (I’m always staring straight at the ground on the bike), and I felt myself break into a $h!t-eating grin as I relished in the fact that I was finally on the run. Finally on MY sport. A sport that didn’t make me want to poop my pants just thinking about it. It wasn’t until this point that I knew I would actually become an Ironman that day, and I started to get really excited. I saw Katie and Mark as I made my way back towards the village to start my second loop, and they both looked strong and happy. Awesome. We were all doing this!
I wasn't lying about the $h!t-eating grin
Around mile 13, I noticed that my Garmin kept beeping “low battery,” which I thought was odd, as the 920 is supposed to have a 17-hour battery life. I would later learn that this likely happened because my Bluetooth setting was on, so my watch was constantly searching for a signal all day, which ended up draining it much more quickly. It managed to stay with me until after mile 19, though, which was helpful so that I could monitor my pace and make sure I wasn’t doing anything stupid.
After mile 20 is when I was planning on just giving the race what I had left anyway, so I wasn’t too upset when the screen finally went blank around mile 19.5. I’m usually not a fan of running “blind,” but in this case, it allowed me to focus more of my energy on the amazeball crowds that were lining our running path. While I always appreciate crowd support in any race, this was the first time that spectator cheering actually had an effect on my mental state and pace. I got a serious boost of energy anytime someone yelled my name, and I made sure to smile and thank everyone for coming out.
At this point, I noticed that I was one of the few people in my cohort of racers who was still running the entire time. I saw many athletes struggling out there, though many of them still offered generous words of encouragement as I ran by – lots of “looking good!,” “nice pace!” and my favorite: “you have way too much energy for the end of an Ironman!” I was grateful that my conservative pacing strategy had paid off once again, and I was also grateful that this epic journey would conclude with my strongest sport.
I’ll also never forget a lady I passed around mile 23 who was cheering so joyfully and heartily. I gave her a big smile as I ran by, and she looked at me and just kept repeating “Wow. Wow. Wow.” She made me feel like what I was doing was awe-inspiring, and I thought, “you know what? This IS f-ing awesome.” Once upon a time, I thought I could never finish a marathon, and here I was, throwing down an 8:30 pace in the final 5K of a marathon AT THE END OF AN IRONMAN, all with a smile on my face. I never want to forget that feeling.
The last part of the course wound its way through the Olympic village itself, and it was lined with crazy spectators yelling their heads off. Just after the final turn, I saw Brandon and Rachel’s family, and I ran over to give them high fives before sprinting my way to the finish. I threw my arms up as I ran through the finisher’s arch, and finally, after so many months of hard training and struggles, I heard Mike Reilly* say my name. I had become an Ironman.
*[edited to add: 3 weeks later, and I've learned that Mike Reilly was actually at Ironman Lake Placid that day, and he did not, in fact, say my name. Sad face frown. But I'm still an Ironman, g'damnit!]
*[edited to add: 3 weeks later, and I've learned that Mike Reilly was actually at Ironman Lake Placid that day, and he did not, in fact, say my name. Sad face frown. But I'm still an Ironman, g'damnit!]
A cool running shot captured by Brandon (I'm in there, I swear)
Run time: 4:15:04
Overall time: 13:33:13
We are Ironmen!!!
Part of me can’t believe that we actually did this thing and that it’s actually over. After reading the online forums, I also can’t believe that we weren’t more affected by the conditions out there (and that I didn’t really comprehend what was happening at the time).
I mentioned in my last post that I didn’t have a time goal aside from finishing within the 17-hour cutoff, which is true. However, in the back of my mind, I did think that I was capable of finishing within 14 hours if I played it safe and smart and if nothing went drastically wrong. Finishing in 13:33 felt amazing, and doing so in the conditions we faced was just icing on the cake.
I’m so grateful to our entire cheering squad for braving the storm and coming out to watch us swim, bike, and run for an ungodly amount of time. Brandon, Becky, Kristen, Mrs. Marullo, Mr. Marullo, Alison, and Paul – you are all saints.
I also have to thank the rest of my friends and family for putting up with me over the last seven months. While the Ironman is a very individual sport, Ironman training is anything but. Training required a ridiculous amount of support and patience from those around me, and I’m frankly not sure how everyone was able to deal with me. All of my whining about training and constantly declining invites to do fun things in the name of a long bike ride or run must have been frustrating at best. So thank you for not giving up and abandoning our relationships :-).
And now – I’m back! I’m ready to do all of the fun things! I’m ready to talk about anything other than triathlon training! And this transition back to real life is off to a very strong start as I enjoy our two-week road trip vacation down to the Bay. Cheers!
Hiking in Vancouver yesterday
Sunsets in Bellingham, WA are not too shabby
Whatcom Falls Park hiking
Dinner at the pier in Bellingham