Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mining Iron in America's Hometown

Entering any first-time event requires a small leap of faith, since there is no history of success (or failure) one can rely upon in order to determine if it will be a worthwhile investment of time, energy, training, and money. Multiply that several times over for an ironman-distance triathlon, consisting of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 of cycling, and 26.2 of running. The probability of something going wrong—on the part of the race organizers, the competitor, or both—is fairly high.

Nonetheless, I decided to attempt the first Iron Distance Triathlon (IDT) In Plymouth, Massachusetts this past August 31. In part my decision was simply based upon geography: since the race was close to home, the complications of travel (booking hotel rooms and flights, as well as shipping a bicycle) would all magically disappear. This was the only ironman-length triathlon within reasonable driving distance from Boston (in fact, the first held in New England in several years), and one of the few that did not require one to register a year in advance of the race. Official “Ironman” events (owned and managed by the World Triathlon Corporation and with the well known “dot” above the “m” in their logo) are off the charts popular. How popular? At this year’s Lake Placid Ironman, scores of enthusiasts traveled from all over the country—not to compete, but to wait in the line the day after the race to sign up for next year’s race. In a matter of minutes, the field of more than 2,000 was filled for 2009.

The IDT was far easier to enter. In fact, I waited until just a few weeks before the race before registering, to make sure my training and health would allow me to have a reasonable chance to complete the distance. Once I had passed my own personal “test,” consisting of a solo bike ride of 106 miles followed by a 13-mile run, I felt confident I was ready to take on the daunting distance. I also had a bit of personal inside knowledge that promised the event would be well organized and managed: longtime friend Bill Lapsley was on the race committee and had assured me that months of hard work an effort on the part of the entire group had gone into planning for the race, to be certain it would be safe and enjoyable (well, as enjoyable as 140 miles can be) for all of the competitors.

My biggest concerns going into the race were the second half of the swim and the second half of the run. I was confident I would have a strong cycling leg, but the 2.4 miles in the salt water of Plymouth Harbor would be my longest swim in that kind of body of water by far. Specifically, the water temperature had me little worried. In my training swims at Nantasket Beach in Hull it been in the mid 60s; fine for a swim that would take 30 or 40 minutes, but not so much for one requiring up to an hour and a half. Thus, I decided to upgrade from a sleeveless to a fully-sleeved wetsuit before the race. I only had one dry run (or should I say, wet swim) in the new suit, but it felt fine and offered me peace of mind, that I would be able to avoid the hypothermia that plagued me in my last ironman race five years earlier. The effects of even mild hypothermia can be debilitating in such a long and energy-intensive event such as the ironman.

Then there was the run. To say I was undertrained would be an understatement, since I was only able to average about 20 to 25 miles per week of running during the summer, and my longest effort was the 13 miles in that final long training session. I would have to rely upon experience and good pacing to get through the 26.2 miles.

While picking up my race packet the day before the race, I was surprised to see how few entrants there were in the IDT; the pre-entry list was only a couple of pages long. (There was a concurrent Olympic-distance event that had several hundred entrants). But at the start, all of us assembled at the dock in our penguin outfits, it looked like a fairly sizeable group.

After so many open-water swims, I’ve learned you can always tell how cold (or not) the water is when you first jump in. If it’s very chilly, you feel it right away on all of your exposed skin: the hands, feet, and face. And in this race there was no easing into the water: we had to hop off a ramp into deep water and then swim over to the start, where we tread water until the starter’s command. I was pleasantly surprised that it felt reasonably comfortable, but the wind had kicked up, making the surface a little choppy.

As it turned out those would be the least of my worries. Just a few hundred yards into the swim the zipper on the back of my wetsuit came loose and water poured inside of the suit, ballooning me up like the Michelin Man. No way could this be happening! I tried to swim a few strokes but it would not work. My arms were lifting several pounds of water with each stroke. I had to stop swimming, tread water, and try to pull the zipper back up and secure it, all while trying not to drown. I’m sure the officials on the safety boats thought they had trouble on their hands. I managed to fix it, but it came loose again. I actually went through the routine several more times before got it fixed for good.

By then I figured I must have been in last place. I did not see many swim caps around me, that’s for sure. The actual swimming was not that bad, until we reached the far end of the break wall for the final six-tenths of a mile across the bay to the finish at Plymouth Park. By then the wind was really blowing and the water was very choppy. The route was well marked with neon buoys, however, so it was easy to follow the course to the finish at the dock. When I pulled myself up the ladder, I asked a race official if I was the last one left in the water. He laughed and said “no; there are plenty of people still out there.” With that bit of good news I sped off to the transition, happily not at all hypothermic, but with a throat and lungs full of sea water, unfortunately.

Despite an uphill start with several early turns on the bike, I was pedaling very easily and felt strong. Whenever I do a training ride and think to myself at the start, “Gee, I feel great,” the first thing I ask myself is this: “Am I being helped by a strong tailwind?” The answer is invariably yes, and that was true on this day as well. For the first 15 miles of the bike route, heading south on the very hilly Route 3A, we were being pushed along by a monster tailwind. Even going up the steep climbs felt easy. I did not want to consider what was waiting on the back side of the loop on Long Pond Road. Sure enough, we faced a ferocious headwind as soon as we turned. At least it was somewhat more protected than the open 3A, but it took a lot of energy to sustain a decent cadence on that part of the loop.

Four times we went around, being pushed down 3A and then fighting back up Long Pond Road. In addition, the temperature quickly rose and in the dry, baking, sun it felt very warm. Not the greatest conditions, but what can you do? It was a heck of a lot better than cold rain and wind, which has been known to happen on Labor Day weekend in New England.

For a good portion of the distance I was able to keep my average speed over 18 miles per hour, which was heartening; I thought even 17 might be tough to sustain on such a hilly configuration, never mind the wind. That made the trip go by more quickly; before I knew it I was closing in on halfway. I made two quick pit stops along the way (all that seawater, along with the fluids I was consuming to remain hydrated were begging to get out), but was back in the saddle quickly.

I was amazed that upon the completion of the fourth loop we were being directed back toward the transition area just a few miles away. My cyclometer only read a little over 100 miles; where would the extra miles be added? The answer was that they would be not added at all. Instead of the standard 112 miles, this bike segment of the iron distance would be a few miles short of the full 112. I had mixed feelings about this turn of events. Sure, it was nice to be done with the bike portion of the race in less than six hours, but it was troubling not be completing the true 140.6 miles of the standard ironman distance. There was not a lot I could do. It wasn’t like I was going to tell the race officials, “Hold on while I add a few more miles around town to reach the required 112.” The race was the race and I would complete the route they told us to do.

Charlotte and Roberta, my loyal crew, were waiting at the transition area, offering much-needed moral support (as well as part of turkey sandwich, which got me a scolding from a race official decked out in full black-and-white, striped referee’s outfit). All that remained was a quick 26.2-mile jaunt. O.k., make that a slow, 26.2-mile slog. After finding my land legs, I made a brave attempt at running for the first several miles, and actually settled into a slow but steady pace. About seven miles in however, I realized it would not last much longer. My mind said run, but my body said walk. So I compromised and split the difference. Trot a little, walk a little.

At least I had company. During the latter part of the bike leg I pedaled alone for so long I felt like I was out on a solo training ride. Once on the 4.8-mile out-and-back section of the run however (which we would have to complete four mind-numbing times), it seemed many of the competitors had re-congregated. Pleasant encouragements, such as “good job” and “keep it going” were exchanged as we passed one another going back and forth. In addition, I got to see my crew on every loop, bolstered by several L-Street Running Club supporters. It was fun, aside from the fact that my lower back and hamstrings had tightened up and were sending constant messages to my brain, mostly of the “what the hell are you doing to me” variety.

The race, which seemed to be going by so quickly during the swim and bike segments, had suddenly slowed to a crawl, much like my running pace. Mid afternoon turned to late afternoon, and then to dusk. To complete a truly fast iron-distance triathlon, you need to perform well in all three disciplines. Two out of three ain’t bad, but it also ain’t going to bring you to the finish line in a fast time. My worries about the second half of the marathon were well founded, but I had no choice but to slowly plug away at the miles. Who knew a five and a half hour marathon could be so taxing and energy consuming? As Frank Shorter once said in a difficult marathon, “Why couldn’t have Phidippedies have died after 20 miles?”

No such luck. Slowly but surely, however, the finish line drew closer. The road had turned pitch black, our only defense against the oncoming traffic a glow in the dark halo we were given to wear around our necks. Passing a local hotel as I approached the Plymouth town center, I spied a group of revelers gathered on a balcony, cheering loudly as I passed by. It was one of those warm feelings one can only experience in a very long race. That was repeated again as I turned onto the final quarter-mile to the finish, the red digits of the race clock glowing in the distance, pulling me closer, step by step. An announcer called my name as the surprisingly big group of spectators cheered me across the line. The clock read 13:16:59 as I finally came to a stop, thankfully.

The rest of the night was mostly an exercise in survival: keep moving (barely doable), try not to tighten up (impossible), remain comfortable on the 40-mile drive back to Quincy (beyond impossible), remain awake long enough to clean up and collapse in bed (barely doable). To have completed this race was worth all of the effort and the discomfort, however. While my days of personal records may be over, setting and achieving a difficult goal such as the ironman distance triathlon (well, darn close to the ironman distance anyway) gave me focus and a clear goal for 2008. Thanks for reading and thanks to everyone who generously supported me on race day. And thanks to the race organizers for having an ironman so close to home.