Special Ironman Grand Slam Edition!
It all started last year in Panama City Beach, Florida. I went down early in the week to participate in my second full Ironman event. I went alone to have some time to get my equipment ready and get my mind right for the upcoming Ironman event. Suzanne and all three of my kids would come down later in the week to support me. I had some great weather; some good short workouts and things were just perfect. The weather was gorgeous, sunsets stunning. I took a picture of the sunset on that Thursday evening and I thought to myself, I am very lucky to be here in this moment right now and I don’t ever want to forget it. I still have the picture on my background of my phone and Facebook to remind me daily, it was one of those times when I felt great and great to be alive.
Race day, the weather took a turn for the worst. Temperature dropped to 39 degrees with 40mph wind gust. You could not see the ocean because it was dark, but you could hear it and it sounded horrifying to me. Rip currents were bad and the kayaks couldn’t stay up right so they canceled the swim. A lot of people were very disappointed but it was not in our control. We still got to do a miserable 112 mile bike ride in the cold and wind. It also set us up for some good running weather too, still a very long day, even without the swim.
The next day, after the race, we went down to Ironman village to buy some stuff. I had to have an Ironman jacket, with or without the swim. I thought, I may do several Ironman’s in the future but I will probably only buy one or two jackets. I know myself; I have run the Boston Marathon 10 times but only have 2 jackets from Boston. The more races I do, the more selective I get about what I buy; I have to really like it. Not only did we go to buy gear, we went to see about registering for next year. For those of you that have never registered for an Ironman event, it is no easy task. Not only do they have a hefty price tag, $725, events like Ironman Florida fill up in minutes after registration opens. If you do the event, they tend to let you register a year in advance while you are there. I saw a big line from the Ironman merchandise shopping area. I had already waited in a long line to buy the jacket and other Ironman merchandise. I told Suzanne, “I am not waiting in that line to register for next year; I will only register if I don’t have to wait to spend $725.” I got checked out and went over and ask what the line was for? Breakfast, you are kidding me. Registration was around back. I walk around back, straight to a computer and 2 minutes later I was registered for Ironman Florida 2015.
After Ironman Florida 2014, I took a few months off of swimming and cycling. I did what I always do in the winter, run trails and trail races. I like to run Mt Mist 50k trail run if I can and especially like running the Mt Cheaha 50k trail run in February, I have run all 10. Spring is also my time to train for the Boston Marathon and The Strolling Jim 40 mile run. I don’t do Triathlons before June, well, I haven’t yet. Strolling Jim 40 is the first Saturday in May and I have run it 29 years straight, so that speaks for itself, you know where to find me on the first Saturday in May. I start back swimming and cycling gradually because I know just how much I will be doing when the days get longer and the sun gets warmer in preparation for the Fall Ironman. In the back of my mind I was thinking, I will be turning 50 years old in June, I have to do something special for the 50th year, but what? Run a 50 miler? That’s too easy. No disrespect to the 50 mile runs distance but I have already been doing 50 mile runs consistently for the past 29 years. I will think of something I thought, I need to have some kind of goal.
I started getting messages about Ironman Chattanooga. Several of my friends were signing up and it had filled up in minutes the year before. I had already heard about the super-fast swim times that happened in its first year. The swim was point to point downstream, as easy a swim as one can find in an Ironman. It is especially inviting for someone like me who has only been swimming 3 years. I thought, IM Chattanooga is 9/27/15 and IM Florida is 11/7/15, plenty of time between the two races. I had only done two Ironman but I figured I could do two in the same year. I stood in Costco, on my phone and next thing I know I was registered for IM Chattanooga.
Melissa Johnson had signed up for her first Ironman and she chose Maryland. Suzanne decided she would do it as well with Melissa as her first one. Rick Grief was talking about going to The Great Floridian 140.6 down in Clermont FL. It was the 25th anniversary of the event and the race was offering entries complementary to anyone who had ever completed the 140.6 GFT before, all you had to do was pay a $50 processing fee. This was a great deal for a full Ironman. Somewhere during this time my mind started thinking about an Ironman Grand Slam.
Several years ago, I put together what I called the Fleet Feet Sports Grand Slam. Dizzy 50’s trail run, Rocket City Marathon, Recover from the Holidays 50k XC run and finish up with Mt Mist Trail Run 50k. It began in November and finished up in late January. I figured that would be a fun little challenge for the local runners to attempt. Most of the trail runners were pretty much already running more than one of the events anyway so why not have a little series of Huntsville’s 4 longest races. I really did not think much of it but it seemed to catch on and folks made a pretty big deal over it. I have always been one to encourage people to set goals and the Fleet Feet Grand Slam became several peoples goal from year to year.
I registered for Great Floridian, it was way less expensive, a no brainer. My goal for the 50th year was developing. I told Suzanne that since she was going to do Ironman Maryland and I would be going too, I might as well do it. I registered and 4 Ironman’s were in place for my Ironman Grand Slam. I figured this was going to be a hard goal to achieve but realistic. I would have to get myself in pretty good shape and I was going to have to have some good conditions and a little good luck.
The past two years, I trained for one Fall Ironman. I trained hard, up to 21 hours some weeks. This year was going to be different. One would think that to train to do 4 Ironman’s in 7 weeks, extra training would be required. I did not think so. In fact, I decided that it would be best to train less. It is easy to get burned out on training for an Ironman by doing too much. How would I be able to avoid burnout training for 4? I got my mind set on training for Ironman Chattanooga as my goal race, which would be where I would try to get a PR, the next 3 were going to be to just do them and survive. My biggest week leading up to IM Chatty was 18 hours. I usually just trained around 15-16 hours per week. I did focus on more quality workouts and less quantity. I have always believed that quality triumphs quantity.
Whenever talk of turning 50 came up, folks always told me, “It’s just a number,” or “you are only as old as you feel.” 50 is not just another number. I can remember when I was in my 20’s going to a birthday party for someone turning 50. I remember thinking, damn he looks old, and I may never make it to 50! 50 is half a century. 50 is over the hill. Why do I say this? I really don’t expect that I will live another 50 years. I do know it is possible but not likely. If I was just another number, I would chose 25. If I were only as old as I felt, I would still be 25. I feel pretty darn good but the fact that I am 50 is just that, fact. I have to wear glasses now to see. I go to the doctor way more than I used too. My times are much slower than they used to be. Getting “chicked” in a race used to be rare, now it’s pretty normal for girls to beat me at every race. Recovery takes longer. My oldest son Alan is 27 and getting married next year, I could be a Grand Daddy in the near future. I am perfectly happy with my age. I feel like I have already had a good “quality” life and that’s what I am going for, quality, not quantity. I feel like no matter my age, I got to keep moving, doing the things I like to do and always have an athletic goal.
Training over the summer went pretty good. I love the long warm days. More daylight makes training easier. Several of my training partners always knew they could depend on me to be on the bike for a long ride on Sunday mornings by 6am and a run to follow. Suzanne was always up for a quick trip over to Lake Guntersville for a long open water swim. Summer is also a time for me to travel on vacation and work conferences as well. While I did not take my bike on any trips where I had to fly, I did always take my swim and run equipment. I can always find somewhere to swim and run, not much equipment is needed. I train for Ironman’s the same way I train to run, every day, I don’t take days off unless absolutely necessary. I have always felt like rather than take a day off, go for a short swim, bike or run instead. It makes me feel better and I like to be outside.
I always posted to my training friends when and where I would be working out, along with approximate distances and times. Even though I let my friends know where I would be training for some company, most of my training is still done alone, especially on week days. Some of my post would go like this, “I am going to be on the bike Sunday morning, my house, starting at 6am for an 80 mile ride over to Guntersville Dam followed by a 6 mile run, rain or shine.” Most mornings, when the forecast called for 80% chance of rain, no one would show up, that is expect for one person, Tina Eakin.
Tina started working at Fleet Feet Sports this year. She was hired as a sales associate and Suzanne told me, wait to you meet Tina, she is some kind of Triathlete with several Ironman Kona’s on her resume. She said you are probably going to want to do some training with her. She was right. I met Tina and first thing I did was invited her to go over to Florence and ride the WC Handy Century ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway. She say, “I am already entered in the Wet Dog Sprint Tri over in Decatur but I probably need that ride much more than a sprint Tri.” I had done the same thing; I had entered Wet Dog too but knew I needed that ride more. We went. It was a hot day and we rode in the front pack. I took some time in the front pulling with Christopher Borden and Tina was tucked in the pack as well, the only female in the lead pack. Next thing I knew, I got dropped and I watched Tina fade away with the pack. We finished the ride and went for a run. Tina said, “sorry for leaving you but I could not let them go.” I told her I was a big boy and probably needed the 70-80 miles alone with no drafting. We went for a 3 mile run off the bike. This was after 106 mile ride and it was near 100 degrees. First mile was 7:20 and Tina dropped me again, I could not keep the pace, especially when she ran the second mile in 7:00.
Needless to say you can guess who showed up for my workout sessions no matter the weather. Tina was always up to train when no one else was. It did not matter if it rained, or if it was hot. One morning this fall, we left out and it was 35 degrees, a pretty miserable day to ride. Tina and I became good friends over this past Tri season. I got to know her well. I learned she was a lot like me. Does not miss workouts and makes no excuses. I live by that, “When you are looking for an excuse, any one will do.” I also got to witness Tina crush her competition no matter where she raced. Somewhere along the way I branded her with the nickname “The Crusher” and now that is the only thing I call her anymore and it has stuck with her. She just laughs.
Ironman Chattanooga #1; this is the race I was most excited about. The point to point down river swim along with a fast bike course was well suited for me. I went up to Chattanooga on Friday morning with Alex and Amanda Clarke. Suzanne and Skylor would come up later. The race was on Sunday but when you are doing an Ironman event, there are strict rules to follow; one of them is that you must be checked in two days prior to the race. Race directing the Rocket City Marathon now for several years, you would not believe the complaints we receive because we do not have race day packet pick up, only the day before. I won’t go into details why but we have our reasons and they are very good ones. Ironman, last chance to pick up is 5pm two days before the race, no exceptions. I actually prefer it this way. Not only does it force you to get to the race early, it allows you to get settled in, take care of your equipment and get your mind right. It takes you away from work and the stress of ever day life. This is a very important race; you spend hours and hours, even months training for it so you should treat it in a very special way.
The Crusher had set up a group message with several of my Fleet Feet Tri Racing team members that were doing the race. We chit chatted about the upcoming event and it also allowed us to get together and pick up our packets together and hand out and go out to eat. It was rainy, wet, foggy but overall pretty mild temperatures. The announcers were telling us to have our wetsuits ready because they felt like the water temperature was going to be right on the verge of “wetsuit legal.” Wetsuit legal is 76.1 degrees or below. What does that mean for guys like me? It means a much faster swim. I don’t float very well but you get me in a wetsuit and everything changes for me. I was pretty excited of the thought of being in a wetsuit.
Saturday, The Crusher, Alex Clark, Blake Sparks and I went for a little ride on the bikes. I have established a routine of always riding the bike the day before the race. You can take it easy and make sure your bike is going to be ready to roll for 112 miles. We had some light rain and the streets were wet. We rode over to the Georgia state line and back. I was asking myself how this course could be so fast. We had a couple of railroad tracks that were pretty rough and there were some pretty sharp turns but then again we only rode the first 7 miles. It was bound to be better once we got into the country.
Saturday night, we ate dinner early. I chose my usual place, Mellow Mushroom. Several of us met there and we had a nice dinner as usual. I like the atmosphere at Mellow and I like to visit the different ones in each town I go to. I have lots of fond memories of Mellow Mushroom and I will continue to find them everywhere I go. After dinner, we went up Signal Mt to watch the Auburn game and visit with the Carter’s. Steve and Jennifer now live in Chattanooga so going to hang out with them was a given. It was the first time I have been to their new home, we had a nice time.
Race morning was early as usual. Transition opened at 5am. It may have been earlier than that; I just know it was very early and dark. At Ironman events, you have to rack your bike the day before the race, turn in a bike gear bag and a run gear bag. They allow you to return to them on the day of the race. This is when you put air in your tires and load the bike with water bottles and nutrition. Unfortunately, they announced that the water temperature was 77, so no wetsuit. While I knew it would be a slower swim, I still felt okay about it being downstream. From transition it was onto a bus for a short ride to the start. From there, you get in line and sit and wait. Thousands waiting for the start, the port-o-jon lines far too long. Chattanooga would be my race where I got to be with the most friends. We had a nice morning talking to make time pass before the big race. I was pretty relaxed and happy, not nervous.
IM Chatty was a time trial start, which is what I prefer. The line moved fast and before I knew it we were at the end of the pier and jumping into the water and everyone pretty much disappeared, it’s hard to see much on the swim. The Fleet Feet Triathlon team members all started together, it was fun. It seemed pretty dark still and it was an overcast sky. I can tell you that in each Ironman I have done, I always make a mistake. This was Ironman #1 and my mistake was on the swim. Race Team member Dianna Cioppi and I always swim very similar times, doesn’t matter if we start at the same time or several minutes apart, our times are always similar. Somehow I stayed on the left side of the river. For a few minutes, when I breathed on my right side, I could see Dianna. She disappeared pretty quickly. I wanted to get more toward the middle but there were too many people swimming on my right and I kept get pushed over to the left. Since this was a down river swim, you need to get more toward the middle where the current is strongest. I just could not get over and I got hit a lot by other swimmers. I am certain that I lost several minutes because Dianna was 3 minutes ahead of me at the end. Despite my frustration on the swim, it would still be my fastest swim of the IM Grand Slam. I am going to go faster next year.
IM Chatty was my goal race and with a two week taper leading into the race, I was ready go. When I got on the bike, my legs felt fresh for the first time this year, full of energy. It felt good. The sky was still overcast with temperatures in the 70’s. The first 7 miles was just as I remembered but then we hit the country roads. There was little to no wind and the pace as fast. The northern Georgia Mountains surrounding us was exactly what I had looked forward to seeing. There were some hills but nothing too outrageous, maybe one big hill; the down hills were also nice and fast. I locked on to 21mph on the bike and just would not let up. Although I am 50 I just always knew one day I would find an Ironman and hold 21mph. Today would be that day. At 80 miles, on some of the hills, my average slipped to 20.9mph. I hit a big downhill and got up to 42mph, I just kept hammering until I got my 21 back around 100 miles and held it in. Although I could feel the temperature and humidity rising throughout the ride, I was in a good mood when I got off the bike.
I hit the run and as usual, the first mile off the bike feels really easy and is usually a bit too fast. I tried to keep it in control. Mentally I felt great. My Dad was standing there alone in the first mile and he yelled “Tina is 20 minutes ahead of you. Go!” When I reached the first mile, my left hamstring immediately started cramping. It pretty much stopped me in my tracks. There was a guy standing there at the Base tent. Base is a salt product and I had been using it on the bike. He said keep moving and I will catch back up to you in a minute with a special drink. It was something Base made and it tasted terrible but I downed it. He said it would stop the cramps and it did.
I focused on running smooth and easy. I kept my miles around 8:15. I was content there. The sun would come out from time to time and it felt very hot. I kept pouring water over my head to stay cool. I love water over my head but I don’t like that it makes my shoes wet. It is a tradeoff. Ironman events are always looped courses, IM Chatty was two loops. The first 6 miles were flat and then you hit a series of pretty big hills. My miles slowed down a bit on the hills and I could feel the leg cramps trying to return. By 17 miles my stomach got quizzy and I had to stop and throw up. My stomach just does not like heat. It tends to shut down if I get too hot. I had like an 11:00 mile and I just tried to keep moving. I did take a few seconds to speak to Jamie Miller as he was struggling too. From there I would just drink coke and be cautious. My miles were slow through the second lap of the hills but I was still moving better than most of the folks around me. Somewhere around the 23 mile marker, I started regaining my pace and actually started running well again. I saw Carter on the course at his Fleet Feet tent and he yelled “Crusher is killing it!” I wasn’t surprised.
It felt good to hit the 25 mile marker, I knew that Ironman #1 was about to be done. I also knew that I was going to be well under 4 hours for my marathon. I know that does not sound fast, but only about 10 percent of all Ironman participants can break 4 hours at the end of an Ironman. I crossed the finish line in PR time, 10:44:50 and I was happy, PR’s at age 50 are hard to come by. The Crusher went 10:02 and was the first non-pro female overall and qualified for The World Championships at Kona 2016, no easy task. The Crusher is an incredible athlete.
As soon as I got home on Monday, I had to turn around and reload my equipment and have it ready to go ASAP. Ironman Maryland was on Saturday, just 6 days after IM Chatty. Suzanne and Melissa were driving all the way to Maryland at a nice easy pace with plans to be there no later than Thursday; I would fly up Thursday morning in time to check in by 5pm. I was kind of excited about doing 2 Ironman in a one week time frame. There was only one problem, a hurricane was lurking and the weather forecast was dismal. Long story short, race officials sent everyone back home and delayed the Ironman for 2 weeks. Suzanne and Melissa were not very happy.
I knew trying to do 4 Ironman in 7 weeks was not going to come easy or without problems. Suzanne felt like there was no way we could travel back to Maryland in 2 weeks because of the Liz Hurley 5k and Skylor’s school and XC. I was thinking one Ironman down and there may not be a Grand Slam after all. Ironman was pretty quick to let us know what our options were but they encouraged us to do Maryland. One of the options for me was Ironman Louisville. I put in a request to transfer to Louisville and it was approved on the Tuesday before the race. I had 3 days to prepare for the race and on Friday, I headed out to Louisville for my 2nd Ironman in 2 weeks.
I did not have much time to plan IM Louisville and Suzanne was busy with work and Skylor had a XC race. So, I did something that makes doing an IM a little more difficult, I went to Louisville alone, with no Sherpa. I know it does not sound like a big deal, but after one does and Ironman, there is a bike and lots of other equipment to retrieve and it may or may not be near the finish. You are kind of tired after an Ironman.
I had never been to Louisville. It’s a pretty good size city. I was able to find a parking place near Ironman village and I went over to check in. I ran into a few people I knew as usual. It was another wet day, just like Chattanooga. I got my packet and hung around for a little while. Although my truck wasn’t too far away, I was not familiar with the town and I was worried a little about my bike, even though I had a lock on it. I decided to go get and just put it in the Fleet Feet Louisville tent while I walked around. I noticed the bike did not feel right. My last ride on it was IM Chatty and it rode great. I typically train on my road bike and save my TT bike for racing so I had not ridden it. Sure enough, the back break was sticking. This was bad news. The good news was I had one day to get it fixed. I went over to a bike shop at the Expo where I had to get in line. I couldn’t believe so many folks were getting bikes worked on one day before the bike check in. Lady told me that they were very busy and I would have to leave it overnight with them. This concerned me a little too but I needed it fixed.
Race hotels near the start were running in the $250-400 a night range in the downtown area. I decided that I was alone and doing several races so I opted for a short drive over the Ohio River into Indiana and stayed for $84 a night. After patiently working my way through traffic, I made it to the hotel and got settled in and decided I wasn’t doing anything else until all of my equipment bags, Tri kit, etc was ready to go. This took some time but it was done. I had a nice late dinner at Outback Steak House alone at the bar and I was starting to relax a bit.
I typically like to get up the day before the race and get my bike ride in, turn in my equipment and just enjoy resting and looking around the town, take in the sights. The lady at the bike shop said that my bike wouldn’t be ready until 11am. This put a little damper on my routine. No worries, I would just do something else to kill some time so a trip to I-Hop was put in place. I typically eat very light breakfast but I thought it may be a good opportunity to pack on some extra calories for the upcoming race, I would probably need them.
I got my bike and a bill for $20, not bad. I then took off for a short ride shortly after 11am. Saturday morning was sunny and cool, 50’s. The coolest weather I had felt since summer. I was curious if just my Tri kit would be enough clothes on the bike? I had to keep in mind that I would be coming out of the water. Should I spend time changing into a dry kit or just go? The transitions looked longer than usual. I always take two Tri kits, just in case. I did my ride on the first few miles of the course and decided that with highs reaching the upper 70’s, I could just be a little cold in the beginning until it warmed up. I put some arm skins and gloves in my bike bag just in case I wanted them.
The rest of the day was pretty relaxed, my usual trip to Mellow Mushroom for lunch (I really liked Louisville’s MM) and Sushi for dinner, with friends. It was a relaxing and enjoyable day. I was now pretty familiar with Louisville and more comfortable getting around. Now all I had to do was get some sleep and race day was going to be here very soon.
I went over to transition the morning of early. Even though I was early, the line was really long to get in. I couldn’t believe how long. I ran into Bill Fisher, a regular customer at Feet Feet. His wife was going to drive him the 1 mile to the swim start. I was going to walk it after I got my bike ready. Bill promised to hold me a spot in line and just to find him. It was a time trial start and we had a really good spot in line. Water temperature was a perfect 69 degrees. This is a temperature I find to be perfect in a wetsuit and it was. The first 1500 yards was up stream in a pretty narrow section of water. There was an island on the far side from the bank. Sometimes I would notice that I was swimming within 5 feet of the island, mainly because I don’t like swimming in the crowds. It was upstream but felt pretty easy since I was in a wetsuit, oh I love swimming in a wetsuit! We left the slew and hit a turnaround buoy out in the middle of the Ohio River and started going down stream. I was moving pretty fast and enjoying the swim as much as I could. The scenery was awesome, middle of the Ohio River with lots of big bridges; it was beautiful with the sun coming up. When I got near the end, it got crowed again and I was glad to get out of the water.
I got through transition as quick as I could. It was very long. I grabbed my arm skins and gloves but by the time I got to the line to mount on my bike I decided that I did not want to take the time to put them on so I threw them to a volunteer. The bike was a cold start but nice and flat for the first several miles. I was rolling pretty well along the river and then we made the right turn that I heard so much about. I had reviewed the bike course map the day before like I normally do. I like to get familiar with where the major turns are. I basically take a snap shot of the course in my mind so I get no surprises. It also helps me know how to break the ride up into sections instead of miles. That right hand turn was where the hills began. This course was hilly, I mean hilly. Up one hill and flying down another. I knew this course was going to be hillier than Chattanooga. I was about 30 miles in on the ride and I thought, “I can’t believe I am out here again on the bike with 72 more miles to ride!” The sun was bright and the temperature was going up, once I got to 100 miles I knew I had made through the hills and it was flat the rest of the way in, only the marathon left to do.
It was a cloudless day. The temperature reached the upper 70’s but the humidity was low. I went out on the run with a little less steam than I had at IM Chatty. First few miles were a little slower but by 8 miles I got into a pretty good pace. The course was completely flat with lots of spectators. I ran well until about 18 miles and then I just started feeling a little tired. I did slow down but I never had any major problems. The lower humidity definitely had a positive effect on the run, my marathon time ended up much faster than Chattanooga. Over all I was slower, swim and bike were both slower times but I was very happy with my finish time at Louisville, IM#2 was done.
The Ironman was over but remember I was alone. I was not feeling to great after the race. I did not get sick during the event like Chatty. I started walking back to pick up my bike and gear in transition, it was a mile away. The sun was dropping fast and it was cooling down fast. I stopped along the way and threw up. It made me feel better but I was getting cold. The one thing I remember very well is when I got to transition, I saw one of the most stunning sunsets I had ever seen over the Ohio River. It was incredible only I did not have my phone with me so I got no picture. It was a rare sunset; wish I could have captured it.
I made my way back to my truck; it was less than a half mile away. I was very tired by this time and cold. I got in my truck, cranked it up, turned the heat up, laid the seat back and fell asleep, still in my Tri kit. I don’t know how long I slept but I am guessing it was a couple of hours. I woke up feeling better and drove back over to the finish. I did not realize that is where my morning clothes bag was, in the civic center. I had walked right by it after the finish, just did not realize it. I got it, put my clothes on and hung out with Gayle Reese. She had finished and was recovering and waiting for her friends to finish. I drank several chocolate milks, I was glad they had it; it is my favorite thing to have after a long event, I could care less about food, just give me chocolate milk. I can take 1,000 calories of chocolate milk pretty easy.
I woke up the next morning and while loading up my stuff, I rode my bike around the parking lot. Felt okay. I know Ironman #2 was just completed but it was time to start thinking about #3. Each time I finished an Ironman, I could not think about being done. There was no time for postrace blues, I had to keep moving and stay focused. I never took more than one day per week off after each Ironman. I would take the day after the race, usually traveling, off. Then it was back to training. I would do a reverse taper. I would taper for each Ironman, then, reverse it the week after. By the weekend, it was usually a 50 mile bike ride and a short run, then start tapering again for the next one. Each Ironman was 13 or 14 days apart.
GFT. Great Floridian Triathlon. #3. Whenever I see someone wearing a shirt from this event, I always take a second look. I have a feeling of respect whenever I see someone wearing a finisher shirt from this race. They have a slogan and they ask “Are you tough enough?” and “Tougher than Iron.” This is one of the oldest full distance Tri’s in the US but it is not an “Ironman” brand event. Where Ironman events fill to capacity, usually 2,500-3,000 participants, you can register for GFT the day before the race. They call it a Triathlon Endurance Festival; with several different options, shorter races offered, but the main race is the 140.6.
Eric Doehrman sent me a text and asks was I still going to GFT? I replied of course. He was thinking about doing the aqua-bike. Aqua-bike just means you swim, bike and then you are done, no marathon to suffer through. I told him I was going alone and he was welcome to go with me. It is a 10 hour drive so I did not mind having someone to share the driving as well as some company. We made plans and made the trip as short as possible. We left on Thursday and drove all the way there. Packet pickup was on Friday along with bike rack and equipment turn in.
Since I had done GFT 2 years ago as my first full distance, I knew exactly what I was getting in to. Clermont FL is 20 miles from Orlando. It is a hot place. Even in October, temps are usually around 90 degrees. The swim is in beautiful Lake Minneola, of course it has lots of alligators in it too but I have not seen any there. Clermont is also the only place in Florida that has mountains. That’s right, mountains, in Florida. This was going to be my 3rd Ironman distance race in 5 weeks and I had no intentions of “racing” any part of this event, I have much respect for this race. I knew survival was the key. Eric was “only” doing the Auqua-bike and he felt like he might have a good chance of finishing well in his division. After a nice Fall Ironman in Louisville, it was back to shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and a bottle opener, that’s all you needed, it was summer time again.
Since this was not an Ironman event, they went by USATF rules. Water temperature was 77. Not wetsuit legal by Ironman standards but it was by USATF. This was good news for me but I did notice the course looked longer than it did 2 years ago. I have become pretty good at judging swim distances over the years. No worries, I am in a wetsuit, I don’t care how long it is.
David Harper is an ultrarunning friend of mine who once lived in Huntsville but now resides in Clermont. He sent me a message and he warned me that the course had been changed from when I did it last. He said it’s hilly, even hillier than I would remember. He said that the new course had 5,600’ of elevation gain. I couldn’t believe it. It is a 3-loop course. Two years ago we went over Sugarloaf Mountain one time, now you went over it all 3-loops. Sugarloaf Mountain is the highest point on the geographic Florida Peninsula. It also climbed Green Mountain and had several other big hills. This is crazy by Florida standards. The run course had also been changed but they took the hills out of the run.
Race had a mass start. It was crowed the first 1,500 yards then it was more in line with the way I like swims, less crowed. I have my Garmin 920 set up to give me splits every 500 yards, I like to know where I am and I know by my splits how I am swimming. I was swimming pretty good, water felt great, it was pretty calm. Lake Minneola water is pretty much just black, can’t see anything. I finished the first loop, it was a 2-loop swim, and my split was slower than 2 years ago, it was pretty disappointing but I knew the course was long. It looked long and now I was getting confirmation by my Garmin. I did not care; I knew this was going to be the coolest part of my day most likely.
Onto to the bike and I plan to take it easy for loop 1. In all honesty, I could not believe how hilly it was. I was not pushing but I also had to work on the hills. Ironman 1 and 2, I spent all of my time in the big ring of my bike. GFT, I spent half of my time in the small ring. I could not believe how much time I had to use the granny gear, out of the saddle and climbing. We were up or down the whole way, nothing flat. I came through the first loop in 2:02 and thought that is over 6 hours for this ride if I can hold it. I had never done an Ironman ride over 6 hours. I thought Louisville was hilly but now I was thinking that 5:45 at Louisville wasn’t so hilly after all.
Eric is in a different league on the swim than I. He was planning on a fast swim and then going for it on the bike. His swim was 20 minutes faster than mine and his first loop on the bike was 10 minutes faster than mine. On loop number 2, I was climbing Sugarloaf. I saw people pushing their bikes and lying on the side of the road. I had to take a double look and I be dang if Eric wasn’t lying on his back at the top of the mountain, done. Half way through the bike, he said his legs and hips locked up. Made me glad I had a conservative approach to this race. This race shows no mercy on anyone.
When I reached the 3rd loop, I was tired. There had not been any cloud cover all day. The sun was bright and it was around 90 degrees. I was going up Sugarloaf for the 3rd time and I dropped my chain. I got off the bike for the first time during an Ironman and fixed the chain. I had a hard time getting back on the bike because the grade was so steep. I lost a little time here but did not really care. The back side of Sugarloaf was not only steep, it was a rough road. I was just praying for no flat going down the backside at 43mph. It was rough. One would think after doing this loop for the 3rd time, I would know the course by now. Things began to look different. I saw land markers that I did not remember. I could not see anyone in front of my or behind me, no markers. Was I off course? What turn did I miss? I never got off course, but it sure did feel like it, the heat was making me delirious I believe. I was happy to be done with the bike after over 6 and a half hours, 1 hour slower than Chatty and the course was 2 miles short.
I started the run tired. It was hot and I made the mistake of not carrying a water bottle. I just did not feel like it and aid stations were every mile. I figured I would be fine. I planned to just walk through every aid station and survive. Although I had run 2 sub 4 hour marathons in the previous 2 Ironman’s, I knew it would not be even a possibility that day. Two years ago I ran 4:48 and it was miserable. This day was going to be a repeat.
Eric was there each loop and he encouraged me. I was pretty quiet. I did not really run with anyone nor did I talk to very many folks. I knew what kind of shape I was in. I was dehydrated and tired. My stomach shut down by 13 miles. I was happy when the sun went down. It did not help my situation any but it was not as hot with the sun gone. I got into the routine of going through the aid stations, take some fluids and then just throw up. This would continue the rest of the race. I was moving slow. I could hear others talking and having a good time, I was not.
Somewhere around 23 miles I was stopping for my routine heaving. Whatever I put in came back up. A girl named Laura Cole saw me doubled over and she was concerned. I just said in a quiet voice, “I’m okay.” I started walking. Laura seemed like she was having fun and she was very loquacious. I was pretty quiet. She pretty much refused to leave me. I told her to go on and do her race and that I only had 3 miles to go and I would be done with this thing. She was actually on her first loop and seemed pretty fresh. It was dark, I couldn’t see her very well but I could hear her voice just fine. We talked; she did most of the talking. I apologized for not being very social and for being so slow. She didn’t seem to mind. For the first time in over 12 hours, I was with someone. She stayed with me until my turn to finish. I thanked her and she was off into the night to finish what she started.
The minute I finished, I went to straight to medical. I already knew I was dehydrated. Eric said I looked grey. The folks in medical said how do you feel? I said horrible, I am dehydrated and I can’t keep anything down. They ask if I would like an IV to get some fluids in me. I just basically said “What are you waiting for?” I already knew that I would take one if they offered, in fact I took 2. I was also thinking about Ironman #4. I knew an IV would not only help me feel better at that moment, it could help me with recovery. I need all the help I could get, after all, I am 50 now. I took a look around; the place looked like a war zone. Most every bed had been taken. I was not surprised when I heard that the DNF rate was near 50%. I had survived Ironman #3, my personal worse time, 13 hours, but I did not care, I was “tougher than Iron.”
At one point in time, I thought I may try to go for a good time at Ironman Florida in Panama City. I knew the bike course and the run course were flat and fast. But by the time Ironman #4 came around, 2 weeks after GFT, finishing would be my only real concern. The accumulative effect of doing 4 Ironman in 7 weeks was taking a toll on me. Possibly more mental than physical, probably both were dissipated.
I was happy to be back in Panama City Beach FL. I love it down there. Here it was, November and still summer time. Not the best racing conditions but very pleasant for hanging out at the beach. I did a practice swim on Thursday. The water felt nice but I could not tell what the temperature was. The waves weren’t too bad and I actually swam well for about a mile and in my sleeveless wetsuit. I figured every Ironman Florida had been wetsuit legal up to this point and so would this year, wrong. This was Ironman #4 and I guess I needed more of a challenge as fate would have it.
Race morning it was announced, water was 77. Not wetsuit legal. You can wear and wetsuit but you would not be counted in the age group results. 800 entrants would take this route. They would still count just not listed in the age division results. I figured that I would follow the rules. Although I had done pretty well in my age division in the past races, I was probably not going to be much of a factor in the men 50-54. I elected to go without it the comfort of my wetsuit. This was probably my mistake for the day.
Alan and his fiancée along with Skylor would drive down late Friday night so they weren’t at the swim start. Suzanne walked down to the beach with me to the start. We could not believe how big the waves were. Typically in the morning, it’s pretty nice and the waves get bigger throughout the day. Not today. It was some of the biggest waves I had seen in Panama City ever. The swim course looked long. I just could not believe it. My 4th Ironman and what appeared to be my toughest swim ever. I was concerned as was Suzanne, she was worried. She is a swimmer and she thought it looked bad.
I positioned myself back further in the crowd than normal. 3,000 people starting a swim in a rough ocean was pretty intimidating for me. I just thought, I got to stay calm and keep my stroke going. If all these people can do it, so can I. Gun went off, I ran into the water and the first big wave turned on me and knocked my goggles off, which was a first. These were big waves, probably 10ft. I just dove through the first couple and made my way out to sea. The swells were amazing. I had taken Dramamine the night and morning before to help prevent sea sickness. It worked for me. Others weren’t as lucky as they were throwing up all around me. It was crowed and I was pretty miserable. When I reached the first turn, I was getting pounded by other swimmers and being pulled under. I went into panic mode for the first time this year. I couldn’t breathe and I was questioning being out there. I saw a kayak over to my left and I swam for it. I grabbed a hold of the side, this was the first time I had ever done that. I told the guy, I said, “These guys are killing me, I need a break to try and calm down.” I looked at my watch and it was over 1,200 yards. I thought, I still have another turn and then go back. It was a 2 loop swim. 2.4 miles is 4,224 yards. You do the math. Not only did I think it looked long, it was WAY long. Some of the triathletes reported distances up to 3 miles on their GPS’s, insane. I had never swum that long before, not in distance or in time.
I got myself together and swam the loop back in. I was way up in the air and then I would try to body surf the waves in. Mostly you just got slammed onto the beach. I walk through the check point and then started my 2nd loop, if I could do it once, I could do it again and I did. The longest, scariest swim of my life but I got through it. I was so happy to be on the bike.
It had been unseasonably warm in PCB. Weather called for sun, high humidity and mid 80’s. The wind was not too bad. I decided that the bike would be my best opportunity to make some good time. My swim was already a PW and I did not expect the run to go too well with the heat. I managed to work my way up to 21mph on the bike, same as Chatty. I was pretty happy about this except I knew it was warmer and holding it could be difficult. I just hammered the best I could. The bike was definitely more fun, just hot. As the day wore on, my average slipped. I expected it. I knew the accumulative effect was present. I did not feel fresh and my energy was not great. In each of the 4 Ironman, around 70 miles on the bike I always get a sharp pain in my right shoulder blade. If feels like a knife has been stuck in my back. It is irritating and it wears on me. If I can ever get this problem resolved, I may be able to improve on the bike. Although the pain intensifies, I am able to start thinking about getting the ride done. Once I get to 90 miles, I feel like I have it made. IM Florida bike was just 2 minutes off my best split ever, I will take it.
When I got off the bike, I walked through T2. This is a far cry from Ironman #1 when I was sprinting through transitions. I took my time and needed some recovery. I was tired and I still had a marathon to run. I went out conservative. First mile was close to 10:00. I knew it could be a long run. I saw my family at the first half mile under a Fleet Feet tent; I warned them that I could be out there awhile.
Since I had just experienced a hot marathon 2 weeks earlier, I had a different strategy put into place. Not only would I carry my water bottle, I would fill it up every mile with water and ice. In-between the aid stations I would keep the ice water poured over my head about every other minute. I drank water and drank coke; I took Base Salt about every 4 miles. That was it. I got plenty of calories on the bike so I decided not to take in much on the run. I felt like my stomach would have a problem if I did. First loop 13.1 mile loop took my 2:15. Not too good. Then the sun went down. I kept doing what I had been doing and the next thing I knew I was flying by other runners. Hard to believe 9:00 miles felt like “flying” but it did. I was able to run the second half in 2:00 and really got to enjoy the final 10k, feeling pretty darn good. I just completed my Ironman Grand Slam goal. It was by no means perfect but it was complete.
Turning 50 was just another day for me really. It gave me an excuse to have a goal that was a little more unique than most years. It gave me an opportunity to have some fun and challenge myself physically and mentally. I did the best I could do. Setting this goal did require some things. It came with sacrifice, time commitment, focus and knowing exactly what I wanted. Anything in life that you want is going to require these things. It doesn’t matter what it is, it is a matter of whether you want it bad enough or not. I challenge you to do the same, set goals, go after the things you want out of your life and make memories along the way, the best memories we make will be all we have in the end.
A look at the numbers
2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run, total 140.6 miles
Ironman Grand Slam
9.6 miles swim, 448 miles bike, 104.8 miles run, total 562.4 miles
9/27 Ironman Chattanooga 10:44:50
10/11 Ironman Louisville 11:03:51
10/24 Great Floridian 13:00:29
11/7 Ironman Florida 11:50:13
Total race time 46:39:23
A look at the numbers according to Garmin 920:
Ironman Chattanooga swim 2.3 miles, bike 115.3 miles, run 25.83 miles
Ironman Louisville swim 2.5 miles, bike 112.2 miles, run 25.91 miles
Great Floridian swim 2.55 miles, bike 110 miles, run 26.17 miles
Ironman Florida swim 2.77 miles, bike 111.9 miles, run 26.2 miles
10.2 miles swim, 449.4 miles bike, 104.11 miles run, total 563.71 miles
Best swim, IM Chattanooga 1:12:17
Best bike, IM Chattanooga 5:30:39 (21mph ave)
Best run, IM Louisville 3:46:26 (8:38 pace)
Worst swim, IM Florida 1:49:00
Worst bike, GFT 6:32:11 (17.1mph)
Worst run, GFT 4:54:48 (11:16pace)