It’s going to be a long day (photo credit Competitor Group)
After a night of minimal sleep and plenty of staring at the ceiling, the alarm went off at some hour that I have blocked out of my mind. As far as I knew, this race was going on as planned despite any concerns about temperatures or frozen roads. I was ecstatic to see that it was 30 degrees out! Was definitely thinking mid-high 20s.
The house began to stir as we put on the coffee and I made my oatmeal. The plan was to essentially get race ready in the house and drive to the finish line as late to possible. Standing outside in 30 degree temps for any extended period of time did not seem like a good way to start an Ironman.
I was feeling loose and ready to roll. I put on a pre-morning play list as I gathered my things. There were a lot of great tunes that played, but this is the one that would stick as…
Calm Rush Before the Storm
A final word with Pops before heading to the beach
Staying in the house for as long as possible meant arriving to the insanity of the transition area with a pointed agenda and no time for fumbling around. I got to my bike to put air in the tires and of course the little plastic baggie I put over the seat was no match for the ice that would freeze across the leather. After getting transition areas set up, I walked over to my personal body-marker, M2 sista from another mista, Alessandra Sales. We hugged it out for a good-luck embrace and she ensured me that I’d see here and Evgenios out on the course.
I suited up, hugged and kissed the support crew – Mom, Dad, Ali and Nancy – and told them that I’d see ’em on the other side.
“This is it. Don’t get scared now.” Kevin McCallister, Home Alone
Enter the abyss
I stood in the icy sand listening to the National Anthem, moving to keep warm, and taking in the dreamlike setting that would be the venue for this race. The way the steam rose off the water and dissipated, giving way to the snow-capped mountains was surreal.
There was a general vibe across athletes and spectators alike that was part appreciation of the unique circumstances and beauty, part what the hell are we doing, but all excitement. As the singer finished, the music started pumping and there was less than a minute until the pros started. I was so freakin pumped and ready to go, that my keep-warm movements turned into genuine excitement.
The gun or cannon or horn (I was too in the moment to remember which) went off and the race started. Per Ironman’s new swim start format, it was a rolling start instead of a mass start, so your race didn’t start until your chip crossed the mat, similar to a running race.
Most folks in the race took their time walking into the water. Tahoe is knee deep for about the first 100 meters, so most people would opt not to burn energy by water-running anyways. Layer on top of that the uncertainty of how long it would take bodies to warm up and caution seemed to be the MO. I was completely on board.
My goal for the swim was 1:10. I figured that on my best day I could do about an hour and change. I made a marked decision to back off on an altitude swim to set myself up for a solid day.
Run across the land of a thousand daggers
The water was a relief. At 50-some degrees it was more than 20 degrees warmer than the air temp. Sighting was somewhat of a challenge as the steam off the water made buoys and rest platforms appear at the last minute. The water however was, per usual, the clearest water I’ve ever been in. So taking stock of the race around me and swimming on the right feet was easy.
To this end, I really liked the self-seeding, corral start. I didn’t have to fight not to be dropped or pick through traffic that usually happens when a race shakes out of a mass start.
As I came back into the beach, my body started to shiver. The water was becoming shallower and the affect of the air became greater. I exited the water and my feet immediately turned to block on the jagged, icy sand. 1:09:54 – I was stoked to be exactly where I wanted.
SWIM DETAILS | Division Rank: 27
I ran through the transition bags and grabbed my bag of full cycling gear. Normally in a triathlon, the majority of athletes opt to transition at their bike, stripping their wetsuit, staying in the same kit they wore underneath and pedaling away. There is a tent available for those who would like to take the time to do a full dry change.
Use your imagination to make a chicken coop. I’m horrified of birds and hell to me is a chicken coop.
The problem with a race at 30 degrees is that no one is transitioning at their bike, everyone is doing a full dry change and that this tent that is available as an option to some, becomes a necessity to all. It was an absolute train wreck. Athletes packed, running around like chickens in a chicken coop. Someone accused me of stealing their wetsuit, I could barely stand upright to put my clothes on, and worst of all I lost a glove. I realized this as I finally Heismanned my way through the crowd and headed to my bike. I decided it was worth going back into that mess of humanity to find it because I couldn’t imagine trying to shift or handle my bike with a frozen hand.
That was absolutely useless. Thank God I ended up coming into an extra glove before getting on my bike, or else it would have been trouble. Speaking of trouble, I was now at my bike and my feet were so numb, I couldn’t put my socks and shoes on. A volunteer came over to help me.
This was just nuts.
17:50 later, I was running out of T1 to the cheers of my family and friends. I shook my head in disbelief. Looking around me and seeing the athletes that were exiting with me, I knew that this set me back.
Bundled up, tongue out, having fun
The plan was to ease into the long saddle time and build into race watts on cold legs. The reality however was that I had 17 minutes worth of athletes in front of me that I need to get by. The way passing rules work in triathlon is that you have to make a full pass and be out of the no-draft zone. When there is a line of 20 athletes spaced out at 3 bike lengths (no-draft zone), you have to pass the whole line, as falling into a draft zone half way is illegal.
So I kept my eyes on the watts and rode at the upper end of the range, making work of the traffic. It took 30 miles to really feel like I was in the clear to ride my own race. Which was what I was hoping for, because I wanted to avoid the bottle neck in Truckee, leading into the climbs. The crowd was out in full force and riding through Truckee was like a cycling road race!
Something I noticed around this point – as my feet began to thaw, my right foot was kind of hurting, specifically in the pinky toe area. I chalked it up to my feet being numb when I put my shoes on and tightening them too much. Stopping, taking the booty off, adjusting, putting it back on…nah, didn’t seem worth it.
The first of the two mega climbs came in the Martis Camp area. Since it was closed until race day, this was my first time riding it. I knew what climbing watts at altitude looked like from riding Brockway before, but something about Martis Camp was more difficult. Brockway is a steady grind without any real change in grade or direction. Martis Camp was much more full of switch backs and steep pitches. My body was sending off altitude warning signals – higher heart rate, leg burn – at watts that were totally fine on Brockway. So I dialed it back.
Another challenge in Martis Camp was that I started to overheat a bit. At almost 40 miles into the race it was warmer and while climbing, I was working harder. The big descent down to Brockway was like a built in engine coolant and I leveraged it with all 4 layers upzipped.
Family and underwear men ahead at Brockway Summit
For how difficult it was to settle into a groove during the undulating Martis Camp climb, Brockway was smooth sailing. Put the head down and grind at a set cadence all the way up. The awesome thing about Brockway is that the line of traffic going the other way for supporters driving to Squaw was a continuous cheering section. As the climb got closer to the top, the crowd turned Tour de France and supporters stood cheering on both sides of you. At one point a dude in underwear was even running beside me like I was Froome himself. A very unique and appreciated aspect of this race.
Grinding out the last few feet of Brockway
The goal was to do second loop better than the first, but that would be somewhat challenging given how much harder I had to ride during the first 30 miles to get past the unplanned traffic. I kept an eye out for the Champagne Prius my family would be driving the opposite way to T2/Finish in Squaw Valley and sure enough I saw them and gave them a wave.
2 loops down and onto Squaw Valley
I was feeling pretty good, but something weird was happening – I kept peeing. I was kind of concerned because I was drinking as much as planned, but I was afraid my body wasn’t using all of it since I wasn’t sweating that much. I told myself it was still important to drink due to the unseen effects of dehydration, but I was a bit uneasy about it.
Contrary to plan, lap 2 ended up being worse than lap 1 by about 10 watts on average. Though I was feeling good, numbers were just down across the board and not nearly as consistent in either Martis Camp or Brockway. By the time I descended Brockway again and made it to the climb out of King’s Beach en route to Tahoe City, I was feeling a bit zapped. From Tahoe City to Squaw the watts just weren’t there. I was ready to get off the bike and run, but was a bit ticked to see the watts fall off.
And so the first negative thoughts begin to creep:
Why did T1 take so long? Surely I spent more gas earlier on the bike than I would have wanted because of that. Why was I peeing so much? Was I flushing myself out? What is the DEAL with my right foot? This shoe must be on super tight for it to be hurting like this.
You just rode your bike 111 miles, calm down and get to T2. Getting on the run will…wait there’s Virgilio, already mile into the run. Due to a crazy work schedule, my main man hadn’t trained more than a couple hours a week for the last weeks. He waved as I mouthed, “What the f*&%?” Ughhh…Get me off this bike!
Meanwhile, at the ranch…
Beautiful day to watch some triathlon
Taking in the sites before the athletes parade in
The ‘rents, Ali, Nancy and Vince were all enjoying the plush treatment of the VIP access that John and GU were able to hook up. It’s tough for better viewing conditions than a sunny day in Squaw, until you throw all the free food and libations you could ever want on top of that. I’m sure they wouldn’t have minded if I did another loop on the bike!
But there they were, waiting as I rolled into Transition 2, ready to get off the bike and into my running shoes.
BIKE DETAILS | Division Rank: 11
I wanted to be consistent, so I botched transition 2 as well. In addition to a gear blunder (left the watch on the bike, volunteer chased it down), I was about to really find out what I was in for with this right foot. I took off my cycling shoe and immediately let out an expletive or seven. My right toe felt like it was broken. I mean, I really thought it was broken.
What was the deal, might you ask? Well I’d put hand warmers in my socks so that my feet would warm more quickly. I handled the left foot, but as you might recall, I had a volunteer helping with the right foot. Of course he didn’t know there was a handwarmer in my right sock, and so of course he didn’t take it out. But since my foot was literally numb, I couldn’t feel that it was there.
Hobbling out of T2
So I rode 112 miles with a little baggie handwarmer bunched up on top of my upper right foot. Stellar.
I left T2 in a pretty crappy place mentally. I was already not pleased with where I was at in the race, upset with the lost time of chasing down the watch and pretty sure I was going to have to run a marathon on a broken toe.
No shortage of inspiration on the IMLT course
The first mile of the run was spent deciding if my toe was broken. Or rather, even if it was broken, could I run on it? After deciding that, yes, I can run, it was time to start running well. I took a moment to center myself and remember just how long a day of Ironman is. I was starting a marathon – nothing before this mattered, so much could play out in my favor if I ran the way I was capable of.
So off I went. It’s net down hill out of Squaw Valley and to the Truckee River. Even still, I went out too hot. The plan was to ease in from 7:30s down to 7:00s and below and I just couldn’t hold back. By the time I got down to 89 I was getting sucked up into running with other guys and I should have stuck to my slow burn plan.
I made the turn around at mile 9 and change and I was feeling a bit off. Mile 10 went by and I was starting to loose my grip on the pace. As I approached the 12 mile marker, I did something I’ve never done in a race: I stopped.
I stopped running and stood there. Something was not right. Sure I was feeling fatigued, but something else felt off. As I began to run, I immediately stopped again, clutching my stomach. It was totally jacked and prevented anything more than a walk/jog. And all the while I had freakin’ Starship stuck in my head. Not the time for We Built This City! Need to revise playlist criteria.
I got myself to the porta-John at Mile 13, hoping that would do the trick. But it continued to be a struggle. I felt absolutely awful. Until that point I’d done only Coke and my concentrated electrolytes. Now I could hardly stomach anything.
So there I was, wondering what the next 13.2 miles had in store for me. How was I going to get to the finish line? Until now, I was finding silver linings, realizing it was a long race and even running 8:30 miles could net out to a solid day if others were struggling. But this was pretty much the nail in the coffin for hopes of a competitive finish. It became a game of survival.
As I got to the entrance of Squaw Valley, I put on my brave face and trotted by the supporters. As soon as I hit the hill returning to the Village, I began walking again.
Mile 13: 8:41
Mile 14: 9:51
Mile 15: 12:20
This was getting bad.
Considerably less pep in the step than seen above in the same spot, lap 1
This is where I bottomed out. At the top of the hill, trusty Alessandra saw me walking and began to run with me. She really got me moving again and even though my stomach prevented me from running well, at least I was running. She sent me off into the Village where seeing my family meant everything. It was what drove me.
I struggled to run through the village, but the wild support really kept me alive. I saw my family and stopped and gave each one a kiss (except Vince, sorry bud) and told them I was doing my best and I’d see them soon. I think at this point they knew it wasn’t the day that I wanted, but they were all smiles.
9 miles left and the goal was no walking. This is where the magic of Tahoe really shone through, because the course was littered with SFTri, GGTC, EMJ, Viva Pink and all the other Bay Area staples. Having supporting during almost the entire run was all the difference.
Driving the struggle bus at mile 22
Then it came back, and at mile 20.5 I was back in the porta-John. Twice. Miserable. Directly uphill after that and I was walking. I drew strength by thinking of my loved ones, thinking about how much I’d asked them to stand by me and – sometimes – play second fiddle as I prepared for this. I owed it to them to do my best. It’s truly what kept me running. The determination grew.
I grabbed my quads, strutted like an old man up the mulch stares back onto 89 and closed in on the 23 mile marker. A guy with my age group on his calf in was front of me and something clicked.
“You have 3.2 miles left in this freakin’ Ironman. Balls up and run like you know you can to the finish.”
I passed him emphatically and charged uphill to the finish. Any pain didn’t matter. I can run a 5K, I’ve done it a thousand times. I latched onto a guy running even faster and pretended it was a track workout and he was leading. When someone yelled, “Let’s go, Mike!” he turned his head and said, “Yeah, let’s go, Mike,” and turned up the pace. Fine by me, I’m here dude!
We flew by the EMJ group again and after going through the final aid station, I asked if he wanted me to take a pull. I cranked it up a notch further, while we exchanged words of encouragement. He dropped about a mile from the finish. It was really cool to strike that connection and fire each other up.
I passed the SFTri group again and I heard Adam Smith’s unmistakable British accent say, “There’s Mike, he’s looking good now.” That’s how bad it was earlier.
With the blinders on as I go full bore through the village
As I made the turn to go into the village, I was out of my skull. So much pain. So much emotion. So much energy from the crowd. Thank God I had sunglasses on because my eyes were definitely sweating. The day had not gone to plan, but I’d be damned if I was going to leave a drop on that course.
I made the final turn and saw the finish line. I can’t even describe how painful my body felt but how amped my mind was. Staring at that finish line didn’t even feel real. The crew was on the left but I didn’t even see them, all I could see was the line.
Charging to the finish
Vince extends for the high five, to no avail
Overcome. Family and Vince, arms raised in the background.
RUN DETAILS | Division Rank: 8
I literally had nothing left in my body when I crossed the finish line. Tearfully, I reached out to Vince and gave him the high five I’d missed coming down the chute. When I crossed they asked me some questions to which I responded, “Everything hurts.” After some time in the med tent (I was shuffled there to get my core temperature back up), I came back out to hug it out with the crew.
I was so grateful to them for being so supportive. We headed back to the VIP pavilion so I could partake in the food and beverage party. I think I had about 4 sips of my beer and could only eat for about 10 minutes before I was toast. I looked over to see Chris McDonald, the winner of the race, cheersing folks, right as rain. Good for him. I felt like sh!t.
The list of takeaways is way too long to put here. And in some ways, I’m not sure exactly how much there is to take away. With so many extreme variables across the day, it’s tough to point at the body breaking down before the half way point of the run and know exactly what caused it. I have my theories, ranging from effort to nutrition, but as of now they’re just that, theories.
The biggest takeaway is that even though I didn’t get the result I wanted, I had an immensely successful training build, reached new levels of fitness and learned so much about myself along the way. It may have been my worse race by the numbers, but I think it’s the finish I’m most proud of, because it truly took everything.
I can’t thank Ali enough for her support through the year. After being together, but across the country for 3 years, she moved out here this spring. I know it wasn’t easy to settle into a new place when I was logging Ironman training hours, but she really was supportive and I’m grateful.
The family for always showing their support, and coming to share in the big races. It was great to have my parents there and I know Nick was rooting along at home. It was incredible to have Nancy (Ali’s mom) out here as well, as it was to have the support of Andrew and Amy remotely.
Michael and the M2 gang. The support to get me across the finish line started on our New Years Day ride and lasted until the end. My physical progress was no doubt accelerated by being a part of this crew, and it was a blast of a season with all of you.
The Bay Area tri community. Whether you were racing on the course or a supporter in the crowd, awesome, awesome support out there. As I mentioned earlier big shout outs to everyone that was there from SFTri, GGTC, EMJ and Viva Pink. I could list almost all of you off by name, but the list would be long. Thanks!
My Fitbit crew for being so supportive, it’s great to work with a group of people who value this kind of journey. John and the folks at GU, I knew you had my back this year, but it was really great to see my family enjoy the race from the VIP section – mimosas on the dock in the morning to rounds next to the finish line by afternoon. Stellar!
And to everyone else supporting via texts, calls, emails, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Thank you! Every not meant a lot and was a source of inspiration as I had to dig deep to finish.
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That’s a wrap on the 2013 season…! Tough to believe. I’ll write a season wrap up, 2014 preview, but for now, I think I’m going to go eat some cake. Offseason.
The crew enjoys tequila and tacos at Tahoe Blue Agave the day after IM