For this race, the transition from swim to bike was through a large changing tent. Upon entering the tent, we were handed our bike bags, found an open area to sit down, and changed. Then, as we exited, we dropped off our swim gear (inside of the bike bag) and grabbed our bikes. My calves were still tight from the swim, but I knew they’d loosen up once I began riding.

On my way out, when I saw Robin and Kai we fist pumped and chanted Ryan Duzer’s slogan “no crashies, no flatties, no whammies”. For the first twenty miles, we wound our way through residential streets of The Woodlands, then entered the Hardy Toll Road. The route was tree-covered with a comfortable breeze and I was feeling excited about this leg of the race. Little did I know what was in store.

Enduring the wind tunnel  🌬🚴🏽

The majority of the bike course was on the Hardy Toll road which runs approximately 20 miles North-South from The Woodlands to Houston. It is completely exposed to the elements, with no trees, very few overpasses and it’s devoid of tall buildings that block the wind. We did two laps of the toll road before heading back into the neighborhoods and into transition.

The initial 20 miles was southbound into a 20 MPH headwind with 35-40 MPH gusts 😳.  My training rides are down near the coast on open farm roads, so I’m accustomed to “some” headwinds.  What we experienced was fucking insane. Typically, 20 miles will take me from 60-70 minutes (averaging 18-21 MPH). Today, it took me almost two hours to complete the first 20-mile stretch. When I realized that the headwind was going to be persistent, I knew that my goal of a 6-6 hr 15 min bike time was out of reach. While riding, I’m always tempted to try and maintain a minimum speed because going faster feels better mentally. The danger with that approach is that I’d end up pedaling way too hard for far too long. I’d finish faster while wearing my legs out and sacrificing the ability to run during the marathon. Ironman races are a balance of intensity over time. If I increase my intensity too early, I’m effectively borrowing the energy that will be needed later in the race. This is one of the real difficulties in shooting for a fixed finish time. Every action has a consequence that must be considered.

I made the decision to stick with my plan and manage the effort using wattage rather than speed. With a strong headwind, the same effort results in slower speeds (and bouts of frustration). At times, maintaining this discipline is difficult because inevitably I watch many, many other cyclists ride past me. My inner junkyard dog awakens and tries to convince me that I should increase the effort and put them behind me. I resisted. I opted to run my race and stick to my plan. From past races, I learned that I will very likely see them again later in the bike course or during the run as they tire earlier than expected. To stay focused on my effort and not be dissuaded by the intense headwind, I did constant housekeeping. This means I made sure that I was maintaining proper cadence, drinking and taking nutrition on schedule, belly breathing, and staying in aero as much as possible. Sitting in the aero position is a huge benefit going into the wind, but, unfortunately, my neck was so sore and fatigued that I couldn’t sustain the position for long stretches of time. Normally this doesn’t happen, but I think having to sight during the swim so frequently created excess neck fatigue.

The first turnaround felt glorious! Riding into a headwind not only saps my energy, but it’s also very noisy. So, once I had the wind at my back, it was as if I could hear my own thoughts again.  I immediately took advantage and increased my effort to the top of zone 2 – smiling as I watched my speed climb from 20 to 25 to 31 MPH! I let out a big sigh and yelled YEAH BABY, WOOOOOOHOOOOO !!! Here I go passing people again 😁.

Then, about halfway through the northbound section, I began noticing large white deposits on the backs of people’s shoulders, calf sleeves, and arm sleeves. Immediately recognizing it as dried salt from sweat, I knew precautions were needed. I realized that the overcast skies and strong winds were masking how much we were sweating. We were all dehydrating in the hot humid air but didn’t feel it. I eased my effort and decided that I’d stop at each aid station to pour a bottle of cold water on myself, double up on my salt intake for the remainder of the ride and fill my nutrition bottles with cold water each time. These additional rest stops would cause me to finish even later than the delay caused by the wind, but I knew dehydration could be terrible. Again, every action must be considered. In this case, ignoring the early signs of dehydration would be catastrophic for me as I ran the marathon. Once I get behind, catching up is not possible unless I stop racing altogether.

After enjoying 20 miles of tailwind, I gritted my teeth and prepared to endure another 20 miles of headwind. I could hear other athletes cursing and moaning with mutual suffering. The second lap wasn’t mentally difficult, I had accepted the fact that the wind was out of my control, and I was focused on hydrating and staying cool. No matter how slowly I moved I needed to keep pedaling. As long as I didn’t miss the bike cutoff, I’d be good to go.  Although I completed the remainder of the ride feeling strong, I was disappointed that I didn’t pee while riding. I was able to do that during Ironman 70.3 Galveston and felt absolutely liberated. Seriously, I wanted to do it again.

Once again, the transition was via a changing tent. We handed our bikes to volunteers and were given our run bags as we entered the tent. Immediately entering the tent I realized that I hadn’t peed in a long time and I felt a little lightheaded. Clearly, some dehydration was in play! I drank a few cups of water in the tent, slowly removed my bike bib and jersey, changed into running socks and shoes then stood up too fast.

Dizziness hit me and gave me pause. I sat back down and took a few deep breaths as I considered what to do. Walking slowly, consuming plenty of water and salts with a protein bar was my choice. I used the port-a-John and confirmed the mild dehydration based on my urine color. Then I knew I wasn’t in bad shape, I could recover if I tended to it immediately.

The Marathon

Other than being slightly lightheaded, I felt good. Two events were done and I was now excited about experiencing the marathon. Fellow BTA member Kevin Coleman was leaving the tent just ahead of me, we fist-bumped and he set off. He’s a faster runner so I didn’t expect to see him much unless he lapped me. My first mile was slow, I mostly walked to allow the dizziness to subside and to give my body some time to absorb the water and salts I was ingesting. The first section of the course was full of spectators and the energy was high. Actually, I felt slightly uncomfortable walking with all the cheering voices around. They were so encouraging that I felt compelled to begin running, so I did.

I’d decided that keeping a 12:30-13:00 minute pace would be sustainable. Physically I’d be capable of running the entire marathon. But mentally would I be strong enough to endure running the entire time? Once I began running, I was determined to only walk through the aid stations. Since it was still hot and humid, in addition to drinking it, I poured ice water over my head and into my tri-suit at each stop. I also ate a small cup of chips and a slice of orange to get salts and sugar.

Six miles into the run, the plan was working, I felt strong, my heart rate was reasonably low and there were no signs of mental fatigue. Suddenly, a woman began running right behind me. She told me that she was going to stick with me because I was moving at a good pace for her and she needed the help. I told her great, I love a running partner so come on and let’s do it together. Her name was Aly and this was her first Ironman. She’d supported her husband as he completed a few Ironman races and even placed 1st in his age group at Chattanooga, so she was familiar with the event. She was struggling but, like the rest of us, determined to reach the finish line.

Our conversation was easy because we clicked quickly. The time and the miles just went by and I was grateful for her company. Like every previous Ironman, I attracted a struggling runner. They were looking for support but I also benefit greatly from the distraction and shared energy. Inevitably, when one of us felt like walking the other didn’t and that’s how we kept pushing ourselves. It’s a beautiful experience and one that I look forward to during each race.

During the 3rd lap, I was expecting the accumulated fatigue to start fucking with my mind. In the past, somewhere between miles 15 and 18, I surrendered to the pain and walked more than I ran. Today, I was tired, but my legs weren’t hurting. My mind was screaming “go ahead and walk”. Rather than just try to shut the noise out, I did a self-check and asked myself… do your legs hurt, or can you keep picking them up and maintaining your cadence? If you can, then there is no reason to walk, keep going. I did this over and over again and it worked. I just kept running. Occasionally after having that conversation with myself, I noticed that my pace was faster than it felt (10-10:30 min/mile) which was encouraging, I still had gas in the tank. Undoubtedly, having an accountability partner contributed to my strength too.

The run course was not only very scenic, it was sizzling with energy. We passed loud, encouraging crowds throughout. As I’ve said before, the energy of the crowd is game-changing for us, especially during the last 8 -10 miles of the marathon. I saw Robin and Kai several times, and she took each opportunity to push my buttons and urge me to pick up the pace. Coach Johnny was there with words of support and my triathlon club members were scattered throughout the course yelling and cheering the whole time. There were energy boosts everywhere and I loved it. I noticed that my watch was down to 1% and mentioned to Aly that it was about to die. I was prepared to run by feel for the remainder of the race. However, a nearby runner asked what type of watch I had and offered his battery pack and cable! He said, I’m bib number 751, train with TriDoT, find me afterward. I was blown away. The triathlon community is awesome.

Aly also saw her husband and family a few times and she stopped to acknowledge them. I reminded her to walk, when she hit the red carpet. She remarked that it will be dark by the time we finish. I responded that all the lights will be on her. Telling her that she will be the star of the show and will feel like a celebrity. Everyone will be banging and cheering and calling your name. At that moment, the reasons for all of the sacrifices, the commitment, and the training will show up. The magnitude of your accomplishment will hit home. So, take the moment to honor yourself and those that have supported you. Just take your time while there.

Finishing

During the last 10K, we kept playing leapfrog woman (who I now know as Tati) that had the word “Archangel” on the back of her tri-kit. She was hurting badly and decided to run behind us for a little while. So we’d pass when she walked, then she’d pass us as she ran. When we were about 2 miles from the finish she began speaking with us and admitted how much she hurt. I told her that she’d made it this far, she was going to finish. We asked for this pain, so use it and know that you can keep going. You have a well of power inside of you, reach in and use it, it’s there for you. She waved and ran ahead again. The day after the race Tati found me online and sent a note informing me how much we helped her during the race.

YouTube player

As Aly and I rounded the last turn to run the final mile, our excitement began to build. She exclaimed, “we did it”! I shook my head in agreement. As we made the final turns and approached the area of the finish line, we began to hear Mike Reilly calling people Ironmen. I got goosebumps. Then, we saw the lights and heard the cheers and I told her to go first because I wanted to see her cross her first red carpet. She insisted that I go ahead because I was still looking so strong. I proceeded and took my place in the spotlight, giving high-fives and throwing my fists into the air as I approached. Just before I crossed under the arch, I saw Kai and waved to him. After walking through the timing arch, one of my triathlon club mates hung my medal around my neck and gave me a hug. It was over and I felt a wave of relief. I spotted Robin and Kai, exhaled, and wanted nothing more than a shower and to get off of my feet.

https://youtube.com/shorts/F608u60oOdw

Finish Time 15 hours 23 minutes. Not my fastest time, nor my slowest. However, this was the most solidly executed of the three Ironman races that I’ve completed.

Post-race reflections

  • The excessive leg cramping during the swim made me realize that I need to focus on setting a new neurological pattern of kicking. I’ll work on drills that increase foot and ankle flexibility as well as those that relax my legs while kicking. I plan to do a race where I swim at a speed that I know I’m capable of so I must prevent the cramping.
  • Throughout the race, my body held up very well. I had some concerns about my readiness because it didn’t hold up well during Ironman Florida in November. During that race, my pelvic floor control disintegrated while I was riding the bike. I didn’t experience any of that during this race.
  • My legs and hips felt strong during the entire marathon. I realize that I could have run at a quicker pace. Maintaining a quicker cadence made a huge difference for me. I suspect speed work will be in my future.
  • The awareness and focus that I’ve developed by practicing yoga, I believe, was the reason I noticed and processed the excess salt deposits on the athletes during the bike leg. The global awareness is an unexpected benefit of my practice.
  • Increasing my salts and hydration while on the bike saved me from the effects of hyponatremia and dehydration on the run. There were many athletes vomiting, cramping up, and suffering from dehydration.
  • I realize that I have a bigger athletic engine than I have been willing to acknowledge. Now, I intend to more fully step into engaging that engine to see how far I can go. I’m excited.