Ironman, a triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile open water swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. 140.6 miles of mental and physical determination to complete a 140.6 mile course.
My Ironman story actually starts over a year ago. However to quickly sum things up, I got into triathlon by participating in the Montoya BFAST sprint triathlon at Mickler’s Beach in Ponte Vedra Beach, then an Olympic triathlon in Marineland. These two races were but a tiny taste and got me to think about training for the Ironman. I sought advice from a friend, Sara Dipaolo, an Ironman in her own right and she gave me a 3 month training program to get ready for the undertaking of the Longhorn Ironman 70.3 in Austin, TX.
This event gave me the inspiration to continue to reach for this Ironman goal, another taste. Ironically the Ford Ironman World Championship was the following week, another taste. Two weeks later and it was Ironman Florida 2010. I drove out to Panama City Beach to volunteer for 8 hours racking bikes, checking gear, and getting the belongings back to the athletes as they claimed it. I was stationed at the transition point, yards from the finish line and was able to hear the finishers complete there day of glory, agony, joy, choose your emotion. Each athlete crossing and hearing their name announced, along with, “You are an Ironman!” That night I lost my voice from yelling out numbers and cheering the athletes on. This night was more than a taste. It was a full serving of inspiration and anticipation.
The next morning, volunteer shirt on, I made my way to the volunteer registration line for Ironman 2011. While in line I met two people who I now call friends, Leann and Jessica. Both from Jacksonville we talked about the race the day before and how amazing it was. After making our way through the line to the registration tent we signed up, took pictures and walked out of that tent with a year long commitment to train and prepare as best we could for our day, November 5th, 2011.
Over the next 12 months, I took part in the St. Anthony’s Olympic Triathlon in Clearwater, one of the world’s best olympic distance courses that draws the best athletes in the world.
I also did a sprint triathlon as well as the Hammerhead Olympic Triathlon, and as the acronym for that race implies, it was H.O.T. I also had the opportunity to run for a charity, Run for the Fallen, Maine in the Boston Marathon, one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
I had been training for all of these events for the first half of the year, which gets us to about 6 months prior to November 5th, This is when the more intense training began. Weekend rides increasing by 10 miles about every 4 weeks starting at 40 miles, then 50 and so on until early October, the 105 mile ride to Daytona in the MS 150 and then a 65 mile ride the day back, in brutal headwinds, was the longest of my long weekend rides. The following two weekends were made up of 50 and 70 mile rides followed by 5 and 7 mile runs respectively. A big thanks goes out to my friend Lisa for being an awesome training partner on those long days.
Swimming improved each week as well as I began consistently swimming 8:30 – 9 minute 500 repeats. I also swam in the Hammerhead Ocean Marathon, a 2.5 mile swim in uncertain currents and no wetsuit for a time of 1 hour 35 minutes. Speaking of the Hammerheads, the Jacksonville Triathlon Club, I joined back in April and have enjoyed the community of enthusiastic and friendly camaraderie.
My running was the most challenging aspect of my training. All year I had been dealing with the gray area of training and injury prevention. The stabbing pain in my right foot had been looming on the edges of my longer runs and whenever I felt it creeping in I had to stop short on runs to avoid further damage. I decided to hang up the running shoes completely for about a month and focus completely on biking and swimming and relying on my cross country days to get me through some of the more mental aspects of long distances. About 2 months out I started short distances of 3-4 miles of running and built up to a solid 7 miles consistently and figured I would leave the longest day for race day.
Which brings us to the week of the race, never before did it feel so good to train as little as possible. Tapering a workout regimen is a good feeling, which also gave me the time I needed to construct my award winning halloween costume, Edward Scissorhands!
I left for Panama City Beach on Thursday at 6 a.m. and arrived at my condo at about 11 a.m. I made my way to registration and picked up my race packet, headed back to my room and put numbers on my bike, and helmet, set up my transition bags with their run and bike gear, double checked everything to make sure all was accounted for, then took a nap!
That night was the welcome banquet where we ate well, heard inspiring stories, and basically were just getting pumped up to do this thing. After the banquet it was an early night and I was in bed by 9 to get as much rest as possible.
The next day was gear and bike check in. The stage set. Later that evening I picked up my Mom from the airport and we headed to a pre-reace dinner with the rest of the Hammerheads, took pictures and had a wonderful night of getting to know each other a little better and having all of our spectators get better acquainted. Final countdown 12 hours till race start.
The next morning started for me at 4:15 a.m. I had a 350 calorie bottle of ensure for breakfast to prime the engine, and took some quiet time in the still of the early morning, said a few prayers, and listened to the sound of a pristine gulf with gentle waves lapping the dark beach. I woke mom up at about 4:45 and we were out the door by 5. We drove to the parking lot and got in line for the shuttle, only to realize in my quiet time I had totally forgotten my bottles filled with nutrition! Fortunately i had plenty of time and drove back to the condo, grabbed them out of the fridge and then headed back to the shuttle, whoops! So now we are on the shuttle making our way to transition. Walking down the dirt sidewalk (the sidewalk was under construction) generators powering blinding lights where everyone looks like a silhouette, I made my way to the body marking station and had my number drawn on in big black sharpie, 1060. Next stop, put the bottles on the bike, make sure they’re secure, double check tires to make sure they are inflated solid and all that’s left to do is put on my wetsuit and get ready to swim.
While on the flight down, my Mom had the pleasure to meet a woman named Kate whose husband was in the race as well. They happened to be staying at the host hotel and allowed me to use their room to take care of last minute needs and get into my wetsuit. I was all set and ready, heading down to the sand. Start of the race, 20 minutes. As I was standing there with the rest of the hammerheads I reached for my swim cap, it was gone! I had tucked it into the little pocket in the back of my shirt, but it simply was gone, I ran back up to the room against the mass of wetsuited humanity and it was just gone. Pre race jitters suck and this amplified them 10 fold. Without a cap you can’t swim and I had a mini freakout moment but then found my way back to the beach and asked one of the more experienced triathletes what I should do and she said they should have extras by the start, they did, my race was not ruined and my day was about to begin, thank you Susan! I went back to the spot on the beach and found my Mom, she gave me a hug and said good luck, and that was probably one of the most emotional moments of the day.
Every moment of the last 12 months in preparation for this one vanished. In a way it all mattered, but in another way it didn’t. For the next 13 hours and 10 minutes whatever was going to happen would happen and I knew I was prepared and ready as I could be. Once I swallowed the knot in my throat and sucked back the excessive moisture in my eyes I headed through the arch of the swim start. The national anthem was sung, applause was given on “…brave!” and we had 2 minutes to go till the canon sounded. My feet in the wet sand as the small waves lapped up the shore, closed my eyes took a few deep breaths, secured the goggles, checked the swim cap, 10 seconds, hands on hips, waiting, 3, 2, 1, BOOM!
Athletes entered the water by the hundreds, hundreds became thousands. Athletes 100 yards across and soon to be stretched out over a half mile long. The water is a frenzy with feet, elbows, swimmers left, right, in front, behind, and sometimes on top of me. I do my best to maintain a rhythm, but inevitably you bump into everyone around you because all you see around you are bubbles and the occasional foot. Looking for some clean water I try to get into my rhythm again only for it to close up around me again, oh look a moon jellyfish, and another, and whoa crap, that one was right in front of my face! Yes there were lots of jellyfish out there, but not too bad. For the most part they were at least 5 feet down, but occasionally you would get a close up view where you could practically count the tentacles! I actually did hit one with my right forearm, but fortunately I think I hit the bell (the top) and just the edges of the tentacles got me on the sides of my arm, no biggie, hey it’s an Ironman
My first lap of the swim felt good, my second lap felt great. The second time around the buoys the field had thinned out and there was a lot more room to find my rhythm. The clear Gulf waters and the comfortably cool temperatures were really enjoyable.
After the swim it was up the beach to the wetsuit strippers, lay on my back they pull it off in about 2 seconds and then they help you up and you are on your way into transition to pick up your bike bag. I run about 100 yards across the parking lot into the hotel ballroom where there is a changing area. In this space about the size of a volleyball court are about 300 athletes changing. Think about it, 300 athletes, their wetsuits, and bags of bike gear in that space, now, change into the bike gear. There was nowhere to change until I found a space big enough for me to plop down and sit while I put on my compression sleeves, socks, arm sleeves, helmet, sunglasses, shoes and bike jersey. Not my most earth shattering transition time, however the extra sleeves where a much needed part of my ride to keep warm on the chilly, windy day. Out the door and I clip clop my way across the parking lot to find my bike racked and ready to go, roll it to the bike out arch and with about another fifty yards of negotiating the other athletes, I hop on and roll out and begin the 112 mile ride.
The first 10 miles of the ride are very chilly riding through the shadows of towering condos until I can make the turn north on 79. At this point however I’m riding into a headwind that is keeping my top speed to around 17.5 to 18 mph. Not bad at all. Next challenge was the West Bay bridge at a height of 121 feet, much like the bridges in the Jacksonville area I am used to and then continuing on north to 20, take a right turn and then east, more headwinds. This whole time I am managing my hydration and nutrition by squeezing a concentrated mixture of Perpetuem(endurance type of formula, like supercharged Gatorade) into my aerobottle and then filling up the rest of the way with water handed out on the course. It is not the most pleasant tasting stuff, but it gets the job done. (Sidenote, I look forward to getting through my current supply and trying something new!) I also was consuming an energy gel about every 15 miles. Continuing on 20 east takes me to a south turn on 77, FINALLY HEADING SOUTH! Glorious tailwinds got me in the 23-24 mph range and I was flying it seemed compared to the first 40 miles or so. All to be slowed down again with a turn to the northeast directly into the headwind. Grueling at times, however,occasionally the wins would ease up. This brings me to the most unpleasant portion of the ride, about 8 miles, what seemed like 20, of a bumpy out and back leg on Bennett road. This was a bone jarring stretch seemingly testing the quality of my bike. The road was littered with tubes, bottles, CO2 cartridges and many other random pieces of bike gear. At the end of the stretch there was a timing pad as well as my special needs bag which had some ibuprofen, a peanut and butter jelly bagel, and some fruit snacks. I took a couple of minutes to enjoy my snack, take it all in and think, “Holy crap! I’m doing an Ironman!”
Then it was back into the saddle for the second half of the ride. Fortunately the winds were coming from the back and I was flying back down Bennett road at about 24 mph, the bone shaking bumps did not seem as bad this way which was a relief. North turn onto 2301 with some swift downhills followed by tough climbs all the way back to 20 where the tailwinds and a mile long downhill awaited me and I was cruising at about 30 mph. This was the next intense Ironman moment, not sure if it was just the wind or my emotions but the exhilaration of high speeds and feeling the benefits of so many months of training coming into such sharp focus, the feeling that I was more than halfway through this ride, the feeling of being part of this experience all caught up to me and carried me through as those tailwinds pushed me faster and faster, the feeling that anyone seeing me going by knowing that they would be thinking, “Damn! That dude is flying!” was one of the apex moments of the day. It seems silly at first, just a short little strip of road, one like I’ve ridden before, but there was such depth to that moment, I hope I have conveyed it well enough, if not, let’s just say it was a special part of the ride. Moving on, I still had a long way to go till I got back to the south turn on 79, so I was mixing up that stretch with some stand up pedaling to give my butt a rest and it was the best time to do it since aerodynamically speaking, the wind was at my back for the next 20 miles until eventually I did make it to that south turn, where again, the tailwinds were with me, a little from the left but still giving a push. Then right before the bridge another short out and back and then up and over the bridge down to the final stretch that would take me out to the beaches, a final left turn onto the beach front road and right into oncoming headwinds. At this point in the day I think the wind had shifted, or at least felt like they had because the last 8 miles were TOUGH!
This takes me all the way back to transition where I hop off my bike and sort of shuffle over on jelly legs to the run gear bag. This transition was much smoother with fewer athletes in the room. I took off the cycling jersey, helmet, bike shoes and sunglasses, put on my running shoes and visor and then I was off on my marathon.
As I began my marathon I started it with the best possible person I could ask for, Susan Wallis, president of the Hammerhead Triathlon Club and 37 time Ironman. She asked how I was doing and gave me some words of encouragement and then we set off on our chosen paces.
The marathon takes you out through residential neighborhoods, 1000′s of spectators cheering you on, hundreds of volunteers handing out nutrition and hydration and into the state park. Once there you head back to the half marathon marker and then again back out onto the same loop for a second time. As the miles slipped by, the fatigue seeped in. I felt good for the first 1/4 of the marathon and then around mile 7 I was feeling the effects of salt loss. A crampy sort of lightheadedness. I got down as many pretzels as I could to try and replenish. With a pretzel and a sip of water, and another and other, I managed to get a handful down and tried to do that at each station until I was feeling better. Eventually 2.5 hours into the marathon I finished the first half of the run feeling, all things considered, good. I stopped for my run special needs bag had another dose of ibuprofen to try and ease some of the pain and it helped. At this point I got to see the Hammerhead fan club, stopped for a quick picture and then I was off on my second half marathon.
As I was approaching mile 15 the sun was getting low, the shadows long and the pace manageable. Another few miles in and I could feel the small twitching effects of cramps beginning to surface. Whenever the twitching turned to pain, I had to walk it out in longish strides to try and stretch out the muscles while maintaining forward progress. This strategy brought me through the next several miles when the temperature began to drop. Somewhere with about 5 miles to go I began to realize I was going to break my goal of a 14 hour day. I think this realization somehow gave me a second wind, or perhaps it was the powergel, but either way I began to feel really good about what I had done so far and was looking forward to the end with a motivated pace. I stopped a couple of times for some chicken broth and flat cola and that hit the spot and was exactly what I needed. For the last 3 miles I ran past every station and just locked into my pace I knew exactly how far I had to go and with each controlled and focused stride I was determined to run all the way to the end.
Coming down the final strip the roads are lit with neon from the t-shirt shops and attractions, I could see about a 1/4 mile down the road the blue glow of the Ford arch and for a moment I thought back to a year ago, remembering that glowing blue arch and how awesome it was going to feel when I ran under it, knowing that that was the moment my name was going to pop up on the announcers screen and in about another 100 steps, as I was cheering a year ago for the athletes in 2010, now the crowd was cheering for me, for my moment, for this day that had started before the sun rose and was about to end long after it had set and accomplishing everything I had set out to do 18 months ago over the course of thousands of miles of training, I hear the words, Rob Knox, You are an Ironman!