After only one mile of the 26.2 mile run of Ironman Vineman, I knew I was in trouble. I was already showing signs of dehydration as the temperature hovered in the mid 80’s. At that point I knew finishing the race would be a physical and a mental struggle. I wasn’t sure I was up for it.
After having such a great experience finishing my first full-distance triathlon at Ironman Arizona (IMAZ) last November, there was no question in my mind that I would do another one. Soon after the completion of IMAZ, I began planning my 2016 season and looking for an IM event. IM Vineman seemed to be the perfect race for me since I have relatives that live in Sonoma County. A trip to NoCal in July would allow me to get away from the Texas heat, visit family, and knock out my second IM. I set my goals for IM #2 higher than the first time around. This time I not only wanted to finish but I had aspirations of trimming at least 30 minutes off of my IMAZ finishing time. A challenge for sure given the course and temperature differences between IMAZ and IM Vineman.
I was able to travel to west coast a few days in advance allowing me to spend time with family and check out the course. I am familiar with the area in Sonoma County and I knew that the scenery would be great. I was not disappointed. My practice swim in the Russian River went well, although I was a little concerned about how narrow the course was as well as concerns for a couple of shallow spots. It could get crowded on race day.
The course is set up such that the swim start and T1 are in Guerneville, and T2 and the finish are several miles away in Windsor. My biggest setback prior to the race was my bike components got a little out of whack during transport and shifting was not right on my practice ride. Unfortunately, there was no place to take it at the swim venue in Guerneville, so I had to drive all the way over to the Ironman village (~15 miles away) to get the minor repair done. I then had to scurry back to the swim start to check my bike in. A little stressful the day before the race.
Race morning was nice. The air temperature was 50 degrees. The “marine layer” of fog was in the trees as it got light and the Russian River Valley was pretty spectacular. My daughter and veteran crew member, Brittany, drove me to the swim start. She is pretty good at keeping things low stress. I was feeling nervous but ready for the day.
The swim was a rolling start, which means that athletes go into the water over a period of time rather than all starting at once. This helps with crowding at the start. The race organizers did a great job of controlling the number of people going in, which resulted in a very comfortable start for me. Not one kick or whack in the face! My fear of crowding in the narrow river subsided as a stroked along. There were a lot of people in the water, but surprisingly there was space for us all.
I did have to laugh at the walkers. Yes, several people got along the shallow spot close to the side of the river, stood up, and walked. I did hit my hands on the bottom a few times so it was pretty shallow. I guess those people thought it would be faster to walk. For me, I felt like I could go faster swimming (and walking felt a little like cheating). So, I’m proud to say that I did not walk any of the swim course.
Since the river has a dam near the swim start, there appeared to be very little current. The course was set so that you swim “upstream” going out and “downstream” coming back. The river has a reasonably sharp bend near the turn-around. Siting was pretty easy with the narrow river, which made it easy to stay on course. As I hit the second shallow area on the way back, I did notice that there actually was a current. This made the swim back a little easier I think. As I stepped out of the water, I glanced at my watch. To my surprise, I had swam the course 10 minutes faster than at IMAZ! I gave a quick fist pump and headed into transition.
I knew this bike course would present some challenges. Starting from Guerneville, it went out of the valley and over into the vineyards. With roughly 4,500 feet of elevation gain, I would not call it a flat course, but there are certainly more hilly courses on the IM circuit. The other factor is the temperature. As you go inland and as the day progresses, the temperature this time of year gets pretty hot. I believe we topped out at 91 degrees on this day. And to add to the challenge, the main part of the course was two loops in which we had to climb “Chalk Hill” twice. The second time at mile 100. It is a pretty nasty stretch that, I believe, increases in gradient as you near the top.
I was feeling reasonably well during the first half of the bike and made it through Chalk Hill with no problems. I was eating and drinking as planned, taking in about a bottle of fluids every hour along with my gels and bars. As I rounded a corner at about the 50-mile mark, there stood Britt cheering me on. Why was I not surprised? She seems to be everywhere on the course at my races.
I hit the 56 mile mark pretty much on my goal pace and certainly ahead of the same point previously at IMAZ. I had high hopes for a good day. At around mile 70 I started feeling some fatigue. I was also having a little digestive unrest-not uncommon during these types of endurance events. Recognizing that you always have highs and lows during long races, I eased up a little to try and recover. In hindsight, I should have been drinking more earlier on the bike. Hydration and nutrition is a hard code to crack.
At around mile 90 I had to stop for a bio break to deal with my digestive unrest. Time lost but sometimes you just have to go. I readied myself for the second go up Chalk Hill by taking a gel and some fluids. I’m not going to lie-climbing that hill the second time on the day after ~100 miles of cycling sucked! I very much appreciated the loyal spectators that sat up there all day cheering us on. It was a big help.
I was able to recover some as I finished up the last 12 miles of the bike. I had lost quite a bit of time over the last 40 miles. I was ready to get to my comfort zone-the run. What a great feeling it is when you come into T2 and you are finally able to climb off of the bike. For me, I’m not even thinking about the challenge ahead of completing a full marathon.
I was in and out of the T2 change tent pretty quickly. I looked for a port-a-pot but somehow I missed it. No problem-I would just stop at the first aid station, and then get serious about laying down a good time. As I passed Britt coming out of T2, she informed me that I was still ahead of pace. I said something like: “yeah lost some time on the bike, time to go.” I headed out for the three-loop out-and-back run course.
I ran my first mile right on goal pace and I felt pretty good. I decided to stop for the bio break at the one-mile aid station. Endurance athletes know that a good way to gage hydration is to look at the color of your urine. Clear to pale yellow, good; dark yellow to amber, bad. The urine indicator was not good. How did that happen? I drank 6 ½ bottles on the bike! At that point a little bit of panic set in as I thought about the 25 miles remaining to run.
I quickly formulated a plan. I would slow down and try to “catch up” on hydration over the next few aid stations (at about every mile mark). I would have to balance the intake to avoid upsetting my stomach (which already was not in great shape). As I passed through the next few miles, I watched my mile time splits go up. I was losing my earlier gains. My plan for a great run split was slipping away.
Unfortunately, I could not keep the negative thoughts out of my head. I had already completed an Ironman and I had nothing to prove by just “finishing” this one. I had no interest in “walking” the marathon. What’s the use of finishing if I’m going to post a “bad” time? I started looking for excuses: my stomach was upset; my nipples were getting chaffed (another common occurrence) and would never last; and that nagging calf injury I had three weeks ago was bothering me (although it really wasn’t). I was talking myself into stopping when I finished the first loop at the 8.5 mile mark. My plan was to have a discussion with Britt and my wife Beth and let them know I was done.
Just before I reached the turnaround to start the second loop, I found Britt (Beth had not arrived yet). I pulled off to the side of the course and told Britt that I just did not have it today (with all intentions of quitting). She was very calm and said a few things like: “you are doing just fine; just go up to the aid station and get some water and I’ll meet you on the other side.” She was gently not letting me off the hook. I reluctantly agreed. I made the turn-around, got some fluids and Vaseline for the chaffed nipples, and found Britt. Again, I stated my case for not having it and that I did not want to walk the marathon. She asked me what was wrong and did I have an injury. The answers were clear: I really didn’t have a reason to stop. Finally I said: “Ok, I’ll go” and headed out for the second loop.
At that point, the thought of quitting left my head. I had accepted the fact that my hopes for time improvement were gone, but now I was all-in for finishing the race. From that point on the mental challenge was gone and only the physical challenge remained. Make no mistake-running 17+ miles when your body is fighting dehydration and digestive un-rest is not a simple task. So I set milestones. Make it to the aid station, take on fluids, electrolytes, and nutrition, and then try to make it to the next aid station. And so it went. I had to swallow my pride and walk when I hit some of the up-hills. I will say that I was not the only athlete that resorted to this tactic as the day wore on. But I was in survival mode and I was going to finish.
As I made it back for the second-loop turn-around, I heard the distinctive voices of Beth and the family. They had all made it to cheer me home. While physically I was a mess, my spirits were pretty good as I turned to head out for the last loop. I told Britt that it would take a while but I would make it back to finish.
As the evening approached, the once hot temperature started dropping as the winds from the coast started to bring in the night-time marine layer. Now I was worried about getting cold. I tried to pick up the pace but my body would not let me. Each time I tried to speed up I could feel cramps forming in both of my calves. So I slogged along alternating running and walking. It was not pretty.
Finally, I made it up the last big hill before the finish and I started the long stretch that circled around to the finish banner. As I rounded one of the last corners, I spotted my Dad cheering me home. I had told him to not worry about coming out because of the large crowds, parking, etc. But there he was. I smiled, made the last turn, and ran under the banner. Somehow I had made it. Again.
The feeling this time was very different than my first IM finish. Instead of elation and euphoria like the first time, this time it was a mix of relief and frustration. I took my medal and t-shirt, got my picture taken, and exited the finishing area with my thoughts of just getting out of there as quickly as possible.
I then found my family. There was Beth and the kids smiling and congratulating me. And there was Britt in the background smiling. This finish was all hers. She is the one that got me through. I would have never made it if she had not been there. I could not have been more proud of her.
And then my dad came walking up and gave me a big hug. He told me how proud he was of me as he got very emotional. My dad was quite an athlete in his day and he truly appreciated what I had just done. At that point, I realized why I had finished the race. It wasn’t about achieving some race time or finishing high in the standings. It was about making my family proud, and giving that gift to my dad on the day before his 85th birthday.
I later got a text message from my other daughter, Bailey (who could not be there because of a new job). It almost brought me to tears as she told me how I taught her and Britt to never give up and finish what you start, and that she was so proud of me for providing this example. Funny, it was Britt that had to reinforce that out on the course on this day, and Bailey that had to remind me of it.
It is my nature to re-live my race, second-guess my tactics, and think about the “what-ifs.” And to be disappointed in my results (I was over an hour slower on the run than I had hoped). But I have come away from this race with a new perspective on results. After all, I did “get the t-shirt” by finishing an Ironman-no small feat. I got a gift from my daughters and I gave a gift to my dad. At the end of the day, this race was a “win” for me.
Now, what’s next…?