When I step back and think about how the full scope of an Ironman race, I almost always feel amazed that the last part of it includes running a full marathon. That one piece blows me away every time. Oddly, I don’t feel the amazement while training or when I actually ran the race. The feeling only occurs when I step back and look at it for what it really is… a grueling test of mental and physical endurance. The differences in my perception are difficult for me to understand. I think that I’ve lost a lot of perspective through both training and spending time with people who do the same activity. “Normal” is relative. My normal is forever changed from what it was 18 months ago. 

As I stated in the Ironman cycling post, I enjoyed the bike leg of the race, but because my ass hurt so much towards the end, I was ready to get back on my feet. To my surprise, I didn’t feel intimidated or have any reservations about running a marathon, it simply was what I needed to do next. Period. I think this highlights the importance of one’s mindset when attacking a large endeavor.

My plan

Having a clear plan allowed me to remain remarkably calm. Working with Johnny helped me develop the physical capability and the confidence to know that I could do this thing. All ambiguity had been removed. I knew what I could and should do to finish.  The other things that impact the race (ie., weather, terrain, and the other competitors) were out of my control and I didn’t worry about them.

The big picture items were:

  • Manage my fluids and electrolytes – I sweat like I’m imitating a lawn sprinkler resulting in water and mineral loss and greatly impacting my ability to perform. Just like the bike leg, I packaged my Infinit Nutrition into baggies that I could carry. I also put energy gels on my race belt for the occasional carbohydrate and caffeine boost. 
  • Know my pace and stick to it. – Based on the last performance assessment, Johnny told me that I was capable of running a 9min 11 sec/ mile pace and could finish the marathon in just under 4 hours.
  • Focus on maintaining good running form. Although this is a race, I thought it would be great to practice holding my form as much as possible. I didn’t want to experience the IT band injury again.
  • Run more than I walk. I loved the idea of running the entire time but didn’t think I could actually do it.

The execution

When I’ve competed in shorter triathlons, getting off the bike and trying to run is like standing on jello. The muscles in my legs have to be forced to switch from pedaling to running and it’s a real bear. People train their bodies for this by doing “brick” workouts.  However, the transitions at Ironman are much longer, typically 10-20 minutes vs 3-10 minutes at a sprint or Olympic distance race. Contrary to the common training among local athletes, I chose not to do brick sessions.  I couldn’t understand their purpose in an Ironman. I rolled the dice and made a choice with no experience.

After completing the 112-mile course I dismounted my bike and I immediately felt pain in my left foot. Walking hurt a lot, not because my legs were tired, but because my shoe is too narrow for my foot. I quickly walked over to the curb and took my shoes off. Walking in my socks was much more comfortable than in the rigid cycling shoes.  Fortunately, the distance from the dismount line to the bike rack was great enough to allow my legs to prepare for the run. Skipping the brick workouts didn’t come back to haunt me, yay.

The transition from bike to run is significantly faster than changing from swim to bike. Instead of removing a tight neoprene suit, then quickly trying to get dry enough to put on compression clothes, a helmet, shoes, gloves, and pack nutrition, all we have to do is take stuff off, slide on running shoes grab a hydration bottle. and go. Also, the aid stations are set more frequently on the run course, so forgetting something in transition has less of an impact than when we’re riding the bike. Also, during the run, we are in close proximity to people and tend to be very social. People ask for help from other athletes all the time. For example, somewhere around mile 4 or 5 a guy ran next to me and asked if I had some salts he could have. He’d forgotten his and was beginning to cramp. I could see the anxiety in his eyes and said of course. I told him to take as much as he needed, that I had more than I’d use. The relief that he felt was immediately apparent, his tension seemed to melt and his stride opened up. Those small, but important things, are not necessarily race killers, but they begin to unsettle your mind, chipping away at confidence and creating more space for negative thoughts and emotions.

Running is the discipline that I enjoy the least. I’m also, not surprisingly, “un-confident” in my abilities…  <== Negative feedback loops are real and not easily broken. 

Starting strong

With those feelings in the back of my head, I maintained a positive outlook and began the marathon feeling strong. In the weeks leading to today, I’d spent hours visualizing this part of the race. I spent time feeling the road at my feet, the fatigue as it built up, I even went as far as feeling the rhythm of my legs spring off of the pavement while my arms and torso pivot side to side. I knew that wouldn’t have any music to create a beat, so I practiced creating one mentally and hoped it would resonate through my muscles and keep me feeling light and springy for hours. I also visualized breathing from my diaphragm while and keeping my heart rate low. I knew that my muscles were conditioned enough to run the marathon, my heart and lungs would do well too. My mind was going to fuck with me… maybe not at first, but eventually, the negative shit would begin to spew.  It would be in those moments that I’d have to be physically on auto-pilot so that I could focus on controlling my mind. That is when the battle for victory, at least for me, will be waged.

In everyday life, running a marathon by itself intimidates me. So, to keep my mind from feeling overwhelmed, I had to approach the run from a different perspective. The course was two laps out and back along the beach. We would have to run 6.5 miles one way, turn around, and then 6.5 miles back to where we started then repeat the loop.  Four, 6.5-mile blocks felt much, much more manageable than one 26.2 miles effort. Doing those types of mental games helped to keep my anxiety down.

As I started the run I had no idea what time of day it was, I remember noting that the sun was still fairly high in the sky. Other than that, I couldn’t tell how long I’d been racing. I was in a zone where time didn’t exist, only the next objective. At this point, my objectives were reaching the next aid stations or a turn in the street, never the finish line. I hadn’t’ thought about how far way the finish line was at all. Finishing was a foregone conclusion, how I’d finish was what I wanted to know.

To my chagrin, my watch, a Garmin Forerunner 945, was not tracking accurately (GPS errors?). I noticed that it would report my pace at 6:20/mile (which I never run) then 16:40/mile then 11min/mile so I couldn’t depend on it for pacing. I had planned to push for a 10-10:30/mile pace hoping to finish in about 4h15min-4h30min. However, now I had to rely on feeling for pace. I’ve run 10 min/mile in training, so I have a good idea of how it feels when I’m fresh. Getting in that type of groove after 7-8hr of prior effort was quite a bit more difficult (actually impossible). My legs were heavier, my hips were fatigued and the springiness of my body was not there as a feedback mechanism. So, I did what I thought would be sufficient and kept putting one foot in front of the other while focusing on my form and always paying attention to my thoughts. 

I saw several of the Pearland Triathlon Racing Club members on the run course. Jeff, Robert, Khon, Bryan, Kyle, and Terri were all ahead of me. Sid, Lea, Thomas, Jesslyn, and Hai were behind me. However, because we were running a loop, there was really no way to determine who was at what point in their individual race. Early on, everyone looked fairly bright-eyed. But as the sun began to set, those that were still on the course with me began to go dark inside. I could see it in their eyes. It was also evident in the language they used when we spoke. We were now past 10 hours of continually pushing our bodies to move forward. Of course, some were hurting more than others. The crowds lining the street helped perk us up a lot. Their cheers, shouting and hand smacking take away the pain for a few moments. In those fleeting moments, there is a relief. Just enough relief to reset the suffer-meter and to quiet the mind for a little while longer. We gladly continued to endure.

As I approached the halfway turn, I saw Robin standing on the side cheering.  I happened to be running with a guy from Dallas (I didn’t know him) and his wife and daughters were standing next to Robin and they were yelling and cheering excitedly. He told me that this was the first time he’d seen them today. He became overwhelmed with joy and began to cry as we stopped to say hi (they were across the street). He told me that he didn’t want his daughters to see him that way, so put on his sunglasses. I suggested that he take them off so his family could see how happy he was to see them. Let them feel how much you are moved by seeing them.

The reckoning

I proceeded to the turn around without him, grabbed my headlight and extra nutrition from the special needs bag, and got back to running. I felt a renewed sense of energy knowing that I was on the back half of the run. I began to think about crossing the finish line. Only for a moment, however. The pain in my legs quickly returned me back to the present moment. Still feeling physically strong, I was becoming weary of the intense pain that I felt with each step as I ran. My feet were hurting, but my quadriceps were in intense pain that was increasing.  I was still “fairly” determined to finish close to 4h30min. I realized now what other racers meant when they told me that the real race doesn’t begin until the 2nd half of the marathon. I was at war with my mind now. I knew that I was able to run another 13 miles. I also knew that I wanted the pain to stop. I was not prepared for the intensity of the pain and my determination for a 4hr30 min finish was fading fast. 

Somewhere around mile 15, I gave in. I decided that relief from the pain was more important than the finish time so I stopped running and began walking more.  I wasn’t upset, just disappointed that I hadn’t sufficiently prepared mentally for this part of the race. But, now I know what to expect. I look forward to facing the agony and self-doubt again in the next Ironman.

Coming towards the end of the final 6.5-mile lap (mile 23-24ish) I saw the bright lights of the finish line. Then about a mile out, I could hear Mike Reilly calling the names as people crossed the finish line and I got a chill from the back of my head that ran the length of my spine. The hairs on my arms stood up and I got a burst of energy. The pain simply disappeared – I knew I had done it,  I was about to be an Ironman!

Well, the burst of energy lasted for about 1/2 of a mile then the pain smacked me back into the present moment reminding me that I wasn’t done yet!  As I approached the turn to the transition area and the finishers chute, I was walking. There was a spectator standing by himself in the dark yelling at us. He was shouting THIS IS A  NO WALK ZONE! YOU MUST RUN TO THE FINISH! THIS IS A NO-WALK ZONE GO!  He pointed to each of us as he said it and it was exactly what we needed. I picked my feet up and jogged the rest of the way to the finish.  The crowds were lined up cheering for us.  Then, just before I turned to the finish line, I saw Robin and Kai yelling and clapping. I wanted to run over and hug them, but the crowd was thick and I was nasty so I waved and shouted back at them before heading off. 

I also ran into the faster racers from my club who had already finished. They were sitting on the side of the street watching us become Ironmen. As I passed them, they all gave me a hi-five and reminded me to walk when I got on the red carpet. To go slow and enjoy my moment. 

Finish time 14:03:58

The signature Ironman red carpet was awesome. I had enough space between the next athlete that I could take my time on it. Due to COVID-19 precautions, there were no crowds, only volunteers who were shouting and clapping.  I remember every step and hearing Mike Reilly say:

“Chris Tubbs, Pearland TX, You are an Ironman”.

I’m smiling as I write this.

Then, in an instant, it was over. My body was hurting, I was hungry, tired, and for the first time at a loss of what to do with myself. I had been warned to get some warm clothes after I finished because my body would be too depleted to warm me up. So, I picked up my finisher medal, t-shirt, then grabbed some fruit and a turkey sandwich. More than anything, I wanted to just sit in the grass and eat, but I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get back up once I sat down. 

I chose to sit and it felt soooo good.

I started to get cold, so I ate half the sandwich and the banana then got up and looked for the way out. I wanted to find Robin and Kai then go get my shit from transition. I wanted a hot shower before my body completely shut down.

My post-race lessons and the focus going forward will be the next installment of this Florida Ironman series.