Ironman Couer d’Alene

My ironman story is more about the journey than the race itself, but I knew it was going to be that way when I started training seven months ago.  I just never could have imagined the incredible series of events that would transpire once I put my plan into motion.  It seems the longer and harder the race, the more amazing the serendipities that unfold along the way.

As soon as I paid $550 online to register for my first ironman, I took a new job at my company.  It would mean traveling 170,000 miles over the next six months to China, Brazil, Bahrain, and frequent trips to India.  First thing I did was re-build my road bike to the exact same specs as my tri bike and ship it to India with my trainer so I could spin in my hotel room on business trips–riding outdoors is a death wish in India.  I had not anticipated that FedEx would lead me astray by shipping my bike to a port of entry not approved for bikes.  And being new to India, I had not planned on paying a $1,200 bribe to get my bike out of customs.  In the U.S., we call that extortion.  In India, it’s business as usual.

Just a couple months into my training, my boss asked me to manage the company’s sponsorship of the first person from India to qualify and race in the Race Across America (RAAM).  I eagerly took up the challenge and was quickly introduced to Samim Rizvi, India’s #1 endurance athlete and professional cyclist.  We quickly became friends, and in short order I found myself on a training ride with Samim, riding 50 miles near the town of Mysore, India in the middle of the night, our crew van following closely behind us as we dodged motorcycles, cows and pedestrians while negotiating India’s giant speed bumps.

Sam Rizvi and me after a training ride before the RAAM start.

The next thing I knew I was asked to join the crew for RAAM and support Samim in his bid to be the first Indian to complete the famously difficult race.  I joined the rest of the rookie crew in Oceanside, CA just three weeks before my own ironman race and found myself driving 20 mph across the United States in a van, following a deeply committed athlete from India on his bike.  That sort of shot the end of my ironman training in the ass, but Samim would eventually contract pneumonia and pull out of RAAM in Durango, Colorado.  I flew home just three days before leaving for Couer d’Alene.

With my training partners on Sat. testing out the frigid water.

I had several friends doing CDA with me, but unlike ultramarathons, ironman is a very solitary endeavor.  You do most of the training alone and you’re pretty much alone the entire race.  So finding some familiar faces in Couer d’Alene made the pre-race jitters a little easier to deal with as we all did our best to figure out what to do with the five gear bags we were given, get mentally prepared for a very cold swim and a very hot run, and try to get some rest before the big day.  By this time I had convinced myself I was well-prepared, despite my erratic training schedule, traveling overseas 60% of my time, and crewing for RAAM when I should have been putting in my longest miles.

There is nothing in the pool that can prepare you for a mass swim start with 2,600 highly trained athletes.  It was my first mass start and I had toyed with numerous strategies.  Start a full 10 minutes after everyone—but I would probably get lapped on the second loop.  Beat anyone senseless who even touches me—but there are bigger guys than me out there.  I decided to start way to the right of the buoys at the far end of the beach.  Nice idea except that it seemed half the field had adopted the same strategy.  An ironman swim is not for the timid swimmer.  I had my goggles kicked off once, and as I tried to maneuver through a sea of wetsuits, I kept noticing someone’s arm was coming far too close to me.  Then I realized it was my own arm! If I were swimming alone, I think I may have managed 1:20 on the swim, but I emerged in 1:31 and told myself to just get on with it.  I had lost only 10 minutes.

I made my way to T1 where a young boy quickly found bag #1648 and sent me to the changing tent.  Having taken the plunge a month earlier and shaved my legs as smooth as a baby’s bottom, I slipped out of my wetsuit with ease and fumbled through my transition bag as if I were inspecting the content for the first time.  By the time I had scampered out of the transition area with my bike, eight full minutes had gone by.  I had planned on five minutes.

I had planned to drive the bike course the day before with my friends but we all ran out of time so I wasn’t sure what to expect on the course.  The first 40 miles went quite well.  I was comfortable, riding with ease and well ahead of plan.  Then it started to warm up.  I knew the forecast called for 80 degree temps, but somehow I thought I could manage it on the bike.  By the time I started the second loop, I could feel all my energy being drained by the heat and there was nothing I could do about it.

Five hours into my race, I told myself I needed to abandon my 11:59 goal time and just try to finish.  It took me at least an hour more on the bike to process the fact that it was going to be a much longer day than I had planned.  I always knew I could finish, but after everything I had been through to get to this point, somehow just finishing didn’t seem good enough.  I’m glad sound judgment prevailed on this day.  I thought about my family who knew I had gone to the hospital before from a severe bonk.  I thought about my youngest sister Julie who suffers from MS.  I thought about the many people who were supporting me through my fund-raising drive for the National MS Society.  I had to finish.

By the time I reached T2 I was a mess, completely wiped out from the heat and ready to be finished.  I wasn’t even sure how long the bike had taken me but it didn’t really matter anymore.  Someone grabbed my bike for me and I headed to the transition area to get my run bag, having no idea how I was ever going to run a marathon.  Eight minutes later, I stepped out of the changing tent and decided to just start walking.

I walked the entire first mile past all the spectators and thought this just sucks.  I was actually calculating how long it would take me if I walked the entire marathon.  I had never even thought about that before and here I was trying to figure out what it would take just to make the cutoff.  Wow, what a humbling thought.  Before I reached the first turnaround, I decided to just take it easy and enjoy the rest of the day.  It’s a nice thought, except that by this time I had already been on the course for over 10 hours and now I was seriously tired.  I managed the first half of the run in exactly three hours and told myself if I could run a negative split, I would finish in under 15 hours.  Instantly, that was my new goal.  15:01 sounds about an hour longer than 14:59.

Heading out for the turnaround on the second loop, the sun was setting.  That meant it was finally beginning to cool down.  At the final turnaround, I finally felt like I could run again, and it felt great to have something left in the tank after nearly 14 hours.

There isn’t anything in racing quite like an Ironman finish.  Making the last turn, I could see the finish line for about a half mile.  The streets were lined with people screaming, “you are an Ironman!”  The last 200 yards through the grandstands and finish chute is something I’ll never forget.  The grandstands were packed with people screaming my name, waving, reaching out to give me a high five.   It’s pretty special.  I finished in 14:56 and felt great crossing the finish.  My time was nowhere near what I had hoped, but the time didn’t even matter anymore.

Final Thoughts
Completing an ironman was a lifetime goal for me, not like any other event I have ever done.  It was my Everest, and I had dreamed about doing one for at least 20 years.  Now that I’ve done it, I know I’m capable of performing much better next time, so I’m sure I’ll do another one.  I don’t think I’ll be signing up for my next one right away.  There are just so many other events I want to do and I’ll still be traveling a lot over the next year.  There’s also something in me that tells me I can go even farther than an ironman and I know I will probably push that boundary.  I think most people can go about twice as far as they think they can.

I’m very grateful for all the support I received from so many people who supported my fund-raising drive for the National MS Society.  I try to pick one race a year to support a good cause.  This year, I raised over $13,000 through my ironman race, bringing my total to over $22,000 since I started this drive a year ago.  I know it gives my sister some comfort to know I’m doing this in her honor, and I’ve been deeply touched by the many stories I hear from donors who have told me about their own battle with MS or about people in their lives affected by MS.   I feel blessed to have my health just to have the opportunity to take on the ironman challenge but at the end of the day, an ironman is just a race.  I hope I’m making a small difference through my effort for those who suffer the most.


2009 Transrockies Run — Final Thoughts

Rocky MountainsLots of people have asked me if the Transrockies Run was everything I expected.  The answer is yes and no.  Yes, I expected an epic week of running and Colorado certainly delivered.  The views were stunning, the TRR staff was incredible, the atmosphere was electric.  But due to Kevin’s injury, we did not get to run hard everyday like we wanted to, so we didn’t get to experience the one thing we wanted more than anything–to push ourselves to the limit and see how we stacked up against a very solid field of runners from 10 countries and 29 states.  Am I disappointed?  Not in the least.  Most things in life don’t turn out according to plan.  I am grateful for even having the opportunity to participate. 

Kevin wasn’t the only one to run with a serious injury.  Ultra running legend Dean Karnazes took a hard fall on Stage 3 and cracked three ribs.  He ended up on a tow-line behind his partner Helen Cospolich (past women’s winner of the Leadville 100).  I ran a few miles with Devon Sibole on the very first day and watched her tumble ass over tea kettles twice right in front of me, putting a nice gash in both knees.  Aaron Heidt of the Two Joes from Canada fell in Stage 2, sustaining a broken tooth and split lip which required a root canal, stitches and glued tooth to fix.  They still finished in third place overall in the Open Men’s division.  There was plenty of carnage along the way.  As each day passed, more runners had bags of ice strapped to an appendage around camp.  And some unfortunate flatlanders seemed to never acclimate to the altitude and felt like crap almost the entire week.  Still, I am immensely proud of my teammate Kevin who ran the entire race with a torn muscle.  I have never witnessed anyone struggle through so much pain for so long in a sporting event.  I probably spent more time thinking of his condition than my own, but in a team event, an injury to one is like an injury to both.  Days after the event, I still wince at the thought of Kevin shuffling, staggering and plodding his way through the last few miles each day.  Every single step hurt.  Kevin is a stud.

Alpine flowersThe final results are humbling.  Kevin and I figured in our best condition, we might have covered the course in about 23 – 24 hours.  That would have put us in roughly 12th place in our division, exactly in the middle of the pack and right where we thought we might finish when we started the race.  I remind myself that our original goal was simply to finish injury free.  Well, at least we finished.  It took us 30 hrs., 57 mins., just edging out the California Old Goats, the oldest team in the field at 65 and 70 years young.  Right behind them were speed-inspiring names such as the Blazing Rocking Chairs and the Big Fat Cohibas.  Notice the lack of major brand names preceeding their team names.  Team names starting with Salomon, Nike, Montrail, North Face, and Nathan all led their divisions and were showered with schwag all week long.  The winnning time posted by Run Flagstaff was 14:59:59, less than half the time it took me and Kevin.  That’s just about the difference between running and going for a hike.

And that raises another point.  Most people think of the Transrockies as an ultra event.  It’s even called an ultra in some of the promotional material, but it really isn’t.  This year the course was 113 miles but we never ran more than 24 miles in a single day.  You don’t need to be an ultra runner to do the Transrockies.  In fact, just about anyone in decent running condition can complete it and fully enjoy the experience.  The cut-off times are very generous and you can walk the tougher uphills and still make the cut-off.  I trained by doing back-to-back-to-back long trail runs for 8 – 10 weeks.  I’m glad I did that but it certainly wasn’t necessary.

Clouds in ColoradoI think there was a big missed opportunity with the elite field that had assembled this year.  We had a fair amount of free time in the afternoon and early evening.  I thought it would have been great to have Hal Koerner do a chalk talk on how to run your first 100-miler, or have Anita Ortiz talk about her recent win at WS100.  Nikki Kimball has great tips on how to run down hills.  Dean Karnazes always delivers a captivating talk on any number of topics.  There were so many elite runners that have accomplished so much, it seemed like a wasted oppotunity not to have them share some of their knowledge with the other runners.  We were together for a whole week and never really had a chance to tap into their wisdom.  I chatted with a few of them during the course of the week, but you don’t necessarily want to jump all over them every time you see one of them.  It’s also nice to just have a beer with them and hang around the campfire.

I’m really glad I decided to use the Transrockies Run as a fund-raising event for the National MS Society.  The emotional boost it gave my sister was worth every step I took.  She spent the entire time I was racing in the hospital getting treatments for her MS.  It gave the whole experience much more meaning for me.  I have raised $7,000 and I still intend to reach my goal of $10,000.  The many other people I met who were also running for charities inspired me to do more and I am grateful for the example they set.

Bear Lake sunriseWould I do the Transrockies again?  I would love to but probably won’t, unless by a fantastic but improbable set of circumstances, several friends from my local running club all decided to do it in the same year.  If I could afford it and could make the time to do another stage race, I think I would choose the Trans-Alpine Run in Europe.  It’s eight stages instead of six, criss-crosses four countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy), with over 45,000 ft. of elevation gain over the Alps.  There are also countless other events on my bucket list, so doing the same week-long event again, as memorable and as it was, is unlikely as long as I have to work to make a living.

Others have asked me where the Transrockies ranks in all the events I have done.  Is it at the top of the list?  That’s hard to explain to non-runners or non-athletes without sounding like a pompous ass.  My first marathon, my marathon PR, my first ultra, my longest ultra, my best triathlons–they are all very special to me.  There is no hierarchy of good, better and best experiences.  I remember more of the good experiences than the bad, and each race and every effort adds to a lifetime of experiences.  I hold an unbreakable record in the pole vault at my high school which stood for over 20 years before the school eventually closed.  I’m pretty proud of that. 

The Transrockies clearly has its unique place.  For me, it was the epitome of trail running and a celebration of the sport.  It combined so many things about running you just can’t capture in a single event.  The views are spectacular; the competition is fierce; the atmosphere is fun and exhilirating; the support staff is uncompromising.   But the two things that make it unlike any other event is the 6-day stage format and the team aspect.  Getting up in the morning to do nothing but run for six days in a row is a very liberating feeling.  No work, no commute traffic, no email or voice mail, no family commitments, no responsibilities other than to get your ass over the finish line that day.  Now do it with your teammate and don’t separate by more than two minutes all week.  It was the adventure of a lifetime and I loved every minute of it.