Friday, September 2, 2011

Why You Do This. :) ----Mike Harju's Race Report--- :)

2011 Ironman Kentucky Race Report.

So, here I sit in the Galt House in Louisville, Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon in hand, trying to figure out how to capture what doing an Ironman is like.  After 10 months of dreaming, hoping & training, it’s over.  And, it was completely worth it.  The recap below will be part logistics, part recollection, in order to give friends & family an idea of what the whole experience is like.

Friday: Travel, athlete check in, banquet & mandatory race meeting.  The main worry about traveling was the 5pm deadline.  No check-in, no race.  I left at 6:30am from Holland, Mi and made it to hotel & athlete check in with plenty to spare.  I booked my hotel about 10 months in advance, so I was able to stay right in the heart of athlete central: The Galt House.  A great hotel, and the expo & check-in were on floor two.  From 4-5, I got together with the group for a social gathering & gear raffle.  Iamtri is a pretty cool site where the Ironman participants can go to exchange information, experiences, and – most importantly for us first timers – tips for surviving race day.

The banquet was amazing, with Mike Reilly (the “Voice of Ironman”, who announces the athlete’s names as they cross the finish line) cheering us on & interviewing the lead professional triathletes.  They also brought 6 amateurs onstage who had lost 60+ lbs on the way to their ironman goal.  One had lost 165 lbs.  Makes my 50+ lbs over the past 5+ years look easy!

Saturday: Official practice swim in the Ohio.  It was a preview of the race day magic & energy.  Athletes everywhere, most ultra fit & trim, but at least a few – men & women both – who looked like they might enjoy a pint or two.  My people, in other words.  One last short ride to make sure the bike was working okay.  By 5pm was Bike, T1 & T2 bag drop off, and then the wait.  I tried to get rest, but there’s a lot of walking in race day prep.  At this point I was – surprisingly to me – still more confident & excited than nervous.  I had done the preparation, the hard work & was determined to savor the experience as much as I could.  I prepared my nutrition bottles, and put them in the cooler to load on the bikes in the morning.  I headed to bed about 9pm and slept surprisingly well.

I woke at 4:30am as planned.  Transition opened at 4:45am, but I figured the day would be long enough, why not get a bit of extra sleep before the 7am start.  After all the fuss & worry about upper 90s temps from my two training rides in Louisville, the day’s weather was beautiful, with highs in the mid 80s.  If you told me a year ago that I’d have to run a marathon in anything above 70 degrees, I’d have said, “No way.”  It would be hot, but it felt like a blessing compared to the 3+ straight weeks of 90+ degrees and high humidity Louisville had experienced in late July & early August.  I headed to the bike transition area to load up my bike, pump air into the tires & make the long walk to the swim start.  (Side note: While the race is 140.6 miles (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run), what is easily forgotten is the “in-between” mileage.  .5 miles to the swim start from the hotel, .7 to the end of the swim line, another .3 (at least) snaking back & forth while in the swim line, the .3 ran inside the transition areas, and the .5+ to collect the gear after the race.  I bet it was easily a 143 mile day.)

The swim at Ironman Louisville is not the typical 2,000+ people in the water, “Ready, Set, Go!” format.  The swimmers are lined up – and this line makes Disneyworld look like the express lane – single file, and launched time-trial style off two docks.  I had come prepared with a disposable corrugated (cardboard to most people) chair in order to rest my legs.  The camaraderie amongst the athletes is pretty cool.  Some were too nervous or focused to talk, but most were willing to chat & exchange their Ironman journey for your.  I was next to a young guy hoping to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, and two 50-somethings who just wanted to finish.  Although it was my first IM, I had made the trip to Louisville and ridden the bike course twice with the Iamtri group during the summer, so I was able to share those experiences with people who hadn’t done their homework.  (Note: DO YOUR HOMEWORK!  There are a hundred things you can learn about the course that will make your day go better.  Do it.  You don’t know which of the hundred may be the difference.  If you can swim/ride/run any of the course several months ahead of the race, even better, as you’ll have time to adjust your training.)

  It can take up to 40 minutes to send almost 2,500 athletes into the water two by two, and this was delayed even further by a medical emergency just before I was to go in the water.  Although we didn’t know it at the time, an athlete from New York had suffered a heart issue and, tragically, later died in the hospital.  I can only hope his family knows that he died doing something meaningful to him.
I remained surprisingly calm, with my send-off music being Michael Franti’s “Everybody Ona Move” – one of my favorite songs.  I figured it was a good omen, and clapped my hands & bounced in time with the music.  Into the water I went, legs scissored to keep from going under too far, lest the next swimmer land on top of me.  Despite the time-trial start, the water was still packed with people.  I’ve done enough tri’s to know to stay cool, look for open space & sight a lot in the beginning.  The first 400 meters was tough, with lots of arms & legs flailing about – the true “blender” experience of a triathlon swim.  I was blocked in, run over & made contact dozens of times.  Again, lots of open water training and experience paid off.  No heart rate spike, just a cool analysis of where I was, where the open water was & when I got there to get into a smooth swimming stroke.  I noticed after the first few buoys that people would tend to veer toward the buoy when they got close, creating more contact.  Buoy on the left, look out for swimmers coming in from the right.

The Louisville swim is about .7 miles upstream, 1.7 down.  There is little current though, and entering the main channel from behind Towhead Island I didn’t notice much difference, other than a slight temperature drop in the water and a more prevalent oil/gas odor presence.  When you’re on a long swim in a crowd, your picture of the swimmers and the world around you is limited to what you can see while breathing & sighting.  It gives a bizarre outlook sometimes, like a slow strobe effect.  There was a young lady that seemed to appear out of nowhere in front of me, then just as quickly disappeared.  Another guy seemed to be standing upright, but stayed in front of me somehow for at least a minute.  The only conclusion I could draw was he was running on a sandbar.  Or… maybe I was just swimming slowly.  My plan was to worry more about not getting beat up until we hit the turnaround buoy at .7 miles, then apply moderate power from there.  I’ve learned from running that if you want to shave off time in longer races, don’t rely on making up time by sprinting at the end.  Start increasing the effort slightly earlier in the race, and your time will drop.   If my heart rate started rising, or I got tired, I’d back off.  Neither happened during the swim.  I had relatively clear water, knew to sight on the two red roofs of the Galt House, and swam home to a 1:21 time.  I wasn’t dizzy at all coming out of the water, and the volunteers were great helping everyone up the ramps.

Total swim time: 1:21:20 (about right at my goal pace).

T1: 15:03
I’ve never worried about fast transition times, and this was no different.  It was going to be a long day anyway, why spike my heart rate by sprinting through transition?  I felt great about my time from the swim, so I slowly jogged through the cheering crowd, picked up my T1 (swim to bike) transition bag, and entered the changing tents.  The volunteers were amazing in the race from start to finish.  T1 was a great example of that, with ample people in attendance to do anything from fetching water to putting gear back into bags.  I grabbed two waters to top off my bike bottles, found my bike & pushed my bike to the bike course.

I had biked this course twice during training, so I thought it would be a known quantity.  I knew where the hills were, when to take nutrition, & how to approach the race.  I knew to pedal easy the first 25 miles or so (just “riding along”, as they say), and not worry about anyone passing me.  But, each day is different, and I found myself going into a Hurricane Irene caused headwind on the way out.  Nothing too horrible, but it sapped my energy and my patience.  Where I had previously ridden at 19 mph, I found myself at 15-16.  I did my best to stay even & worry more about keeping light on my pedals and not worry about time.  One thing I was surprised by was the amount of riders stopped for tires & mechanical in the first 10 miles.  One kid had the crank arm fall off, leaving him stranded at mile 4.  I stopped to see if I could help, as I carry an allen wrench for crank bolts, but he had lost the bolt entirely.  I told him, “Good luck” and headed out, hoping that the Ironman support crew would be able to help him back on his way.

I took it easy up the first couple of hills and was surprised at how quickly the first hour went.  Before I knew it, I was entering the out-and-back on 1694 – site of the two largest hills of the race.  We had just a bit of a tail wind for some of this section, so that was a nice boost.  I took in my nutrition – I was taking two sips of a concentrated sports drink (Gu Electrolyte Brew) every 10 minutes, along with water, and a Gu packet about every 90 minutes.  On the out-and-back, you ride into a valley, up the other side & then turn around and retrace your route.  I had been looking forward to this, as you reach 40+ mph on the downhill, and it gets the two largest hills out of the way.  For some reason this section had always woken me up & left me energized.  Today was no different, but, like much of the course for the first 60 miles, I simply wasn’t able to ride the race I wanted.  There were too many bikes, with multiple lanes of riders passing slower ones.  During my training, almost all my rides were solo, so this was frustrating.  I like to kick it downhill & use that momentum to carry me along until I easy spin up the next hill.  I was having to ride my brakes on the downhill instead.  I know this cost me precious time & energy, and the constant bike traffic was distracting.  Still, my IM friends had told me things go wrong on race day.  It’s how you react that matters.  I just adjusted, mentally accepted the loss of time and moved on.

After the out & back was completed, I hit my first Gu packet in preparation for the first of two loops through lots of rolling hills.  IMKY doesn’t allow you to hunker down and churn out miles, you’re constantly shifting: Big chain ring, small chain ring, top gear to bottom and back again.  I had practiced this, which allowed me to gain speed in some technical sections.  I also knew the hills well enough to take my nutrition before or after the hills.  Going through Lagrange was incredible.  There was a nice long section, with people lined all along the street & cheering like mad.  Even better, it was just as loud on the 2nd loop when I really needed it.  I played it up, pointing to the crowd & getting them as loud as I could.  Again, thanks to my IM experienced friends, I knew enough to enjoy the experience to the fullest.  Loop one was slow due to the traffic, and I noticed somewhere between mile 50 & 60 that I had forgotten to take any of my electrolyte pills.  [FACEPALM!]  I use Sportlegs, so I quickly popped two of them.  Too late though, as my left arch started cramping up a bit later.  I rode about 30 miles with that stupid cramp, trying to pedal mainly by pulling upwards.  I finally realized it just wasn’t going to go away, so I stopped twice between miles 70 & 90 to stretch it out.  My 2nd loop would have been faster than my first if it weren’t for that.  For all my practice, that was rookie mistake #1 of the race & it definitely cost me time.  The last stop seemed to really help, or the electrolytes finally kicked in & the cramp went away.  I sailed through the last 22 miles, passing lots of people and feeling better than I had in the first half of the ride.  Maybe I was summoning energy for the big challenge in front of me: The run!

Total bike time: 7:17:16 (15.4 mph avg), about 18 minutes slower than my target.

T2: 14:41
I cruised into T2, keeping high RPM on the bike to wake my legs up before the run.  There was a 2”+ sidewalk we had to ride up onto (a bit annoying), then the dismount line wasn’t clearly marked.  Can you tell that you might be just a bit cranky by this point?  Little things pop up, and I know that I start reviving my old hockey playing vocabulary after mile 70 of the bike.  I unclipped, hopped off the bike & handed it to a volunteer (very cool, by the way, to not have to rack the bike) and walked down the chute towards the T2 tent.  Again, I  took my time, making sure I had everything I needed, got plenty of sunscreen (applied by a very cute volunteer, by the way) & walked my way to the run start line.

I started off the run feeling better than I should ever have expected.  For some reason, I’ve always done the bike to run fairly well – in fact, I tend to run too fast at first.  My original plan was to run four minutes, then walk one, to keep my temperature down & make my legs last as long as possible.  At this point, I knew I could walk the entire marathon & still probably make the midnight cut-off, so I was in great spirits.  It wasn’t that hot (by Louisville standards, at least), and I felt great, so I decided to just run & see how I felt.  Rookie Mistake # 2!  The first two miles are up & over a bridge – no shade, and the only decent inclines on the race.  Before I hit mile two I had overheated & was forced to walk.  Every time I started to run, I’d start overheating again within a minute or two.  I adjusted, accepted the fact that I was going to finish closer to midnight than my 9pm-ish goal, and just kept moving.

Since I wasn’t running much, I started to eat from the food offered on the course.  At low heart rates, I’ve been able to eat just about anything, even while exercising.  For those of you who haven’t experienced an Ironman, the run is like a buffet.  Aid stations every mile, with grapes, bananas, chicken broth, coke, cookies, pretzels and lots of other things.  I tried the grapes (great), chicken broth (better than expected), coke (fantastic), and, around mile 5, tried a single cookie.  Rookie mistake #3 – don’t eat what you haven’t practiced with.  The refined sugar of that cookie hit my stomach like a dirty bomb.  Instant nausea.  From that moment on, I was fighting a battle with my stomach, trying not to vomit, but trying to keep my nutrition (Shot Bloks & Gu Electrolyte Brew) going.

Throughout this, my legs felt fantastic – better than a couple of the marathons I’ve run, in fact.  As the temperature dropped, and when my stomach wasn’t threatening a minor revolt, I was able to run well.  I came toward the end of loop one, which brings you oh-so-tantalizingly close to the finish line, and hit the halfway point at about 2:45.  Seeing that line gave me a bit of energy, and I ran at least ¾ of the next 5 miles.  I hit the turnaround for the last time (just after mile 20), still fighting nausea, but feeling I was over the worst of it & would still come close to my “best case” goal time of 14 hours.  I popped a Gu gel packet at mile 22, hoping that would help carry me home.  Instead, it sent me right back into horrible stomach issues, with me belching & urping my way through mile 24.  Somewhere (mile 23? Mile 24?) I hit an aid station, with a choice: chicken broth, or coke?  I knew – there was no doubt – that one would heal me, and one would make me puke.  Which one?  I chose the coke.

Just after the mile 24 marker, my body let me know the results, declaring all out war as a response to the abuse it had taken.  I developed tunnel vision, got dizzy, and staggered over to the side of the road.  Leaning up against a pole, I puked until I dry heaved.  I collapsed on the ground, leaned over & dry heaved some more.  The sudden change to a laying down position sent my blood rushing, screwing up my blood pressure big time.  As competitors walked and ran by, I lay on side of the road with my lips numb, arms & legs tingling so bad I had to look and see if I was shaking.  I laid there, seeing the sky like I was looking through reversed binoculars & just thinking, “I’m two miles away.  My day can NOT end at mile 24 of the run.”  Somewhere in there, two police officers & that were manning the road block came over to check on me.  They asked if I needed medical attention.  I told them, “I just need some time to recover.  I’ve got over two hours to make two miles.”  Truth be told, I was scared to death that a medic would take my BP and pull me out of the race.  After a few minutes, the dry heaves stopped, but I still was afraid to stand up because my arms & legs were tingling so bad, I might just fall over.  I remember people walking by, saying encouraging things, but I have no clue what they were.  Finally, after I don’t know how long, I had the bright idea of elevating my legs.  At first I hugged my knees to my chest, then put my straightened legs up in the air.  After a couple of minutes, my arms & legs went from a frantic buzzing to just mild vibration.  The tunnel vision cleared.  Okay, I thought.  I better get going, who knows how long the next two miles is going to take.

One foot in front of the other.  That’s all I could do.  The puking had settled my stomach down to a low rumble, but I felt completely drained.  Any nutrition I had was purged, and I was afraid to run, lest it send me tumbling off the road again.  At mile 25 I had a bit of chicken broth (ahhh, that’s what you should have chosen, my body told me) and sipped it.  Since you get so close to the finish line, you know exactly how far away you are.  I was about ½ mile out, and a woman caught up to me, absolutely sobbing while she walked.  I felt sorry for her and tried to help.  “Do you realize that tonight you’re going to be an Ironman?” I asked.  Apparently NOT the right thing to say, as it sent her off the deep end, moving to downright wailing on the Cry-O-Meter.  I told her good luck, and decided I had enough energy to run a bit after all.  With just two corners left, I broke into a light job.  I could hear the finish line announcer, and the crowd going crazy as each finisher came through.  I had enough presence of mind to straighten up my race belt, wipe my face off a bit (I had puked all over, after all) and prepare for the finish.  The last corner, and as I saw the finish line lights about ¼ mile away, all pain, all nausea just disappeared.  There was no doubt – this was it.  Years of dreaming, 10 months of training & staring at course videos, and I was going to be A FREAKIN’ IRONMAN!!!!  Lots of people say they don’t remember the finish, but I swear I remember just about everything.  Row after row of faces, screaming and cheering.  I pointed to each side of the crowd as I ran, making them cheer even louder.  50 yards to go, and I raised both hands in the air, letting out a war cry that came from the depths of my very soul.  I cupped my hand behind my ear & the crowd just exploded with noise and I high-fived my way down the last 25 yards to the finish.  As I headed through the final gate, I heard Mike Reilly say, (with the crowd joining in for the last three words), “MIKE HARJU, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

Run time: 6:02:19 (13:49 / mile).

Finish: 15:10:39

Post Race:
I’d love to end the story right there, and walk off into the sunset, but that’s not how life, nor an Ironman works.  A volunteer places the finisher’s medal around your neck, another takes your timing chip, and another guides you down the street toward the convention center.  They make conversation with you, trying to ascertain if you are lucid, need medical attention, and generally what your state of mind is.  I felt fantastic and talked her ear off the whole way.  She said the goal is to not have the athlete unattended at any point until after they’ve eaten and rested a bit.  Too much chance of someone keeling over & hurting themselves, I guess.  Apparently I passed the test (or maybe she got tired of me talking), as I was steered past the med tent and to another room so I could pick up my finisher’s hat & shirt & get something to eat.

I will tell you, the piece of pizza and Snickers bar I had that night might have been the best I’ve ever tasted.  I waited in the food area for a bit, talking with other finishers about their experience.  At 11:40 something, I headed back out to the finish line to watch the last people come in.  Midnight is the cut-off.  If you don’t finish by then, no medal, no official time.  It’s cruel, but it’s like you never were even there.  That has to be heart breaking.  I will skip all the details, but will say this: If you ever have a chance, watch the finish of an Ironman.  I about cried, watching the final finishers drag themselves across the line and realizing their dream as well.  As the countdown came and the race clock reached 17:00 (midnight), my heart broke for those still out on the course who would not make it.  Their dream would have to wait for another day.

Or would it?  At midnight, Mike Reilly announced to the crowd that due to the delay in the swim start, the WTC was adding 10 minutes onto the time clock.  Anyone finishing by 12:10 would be awarded an official time.  As far as I know, this has never been done before, and may never be done again.  They knew there were at least four people that had a chance (there’s a timing mat at mile 25, and these people had already crossed it).  The crowd went crazy again, sending all its energy out to those people, trying to collectively will them in.  All four made it.  These people thought they had no medal, no official time and were finishing through – what?  Sheer stubbornness?  Willpower?  Guts?  To watch their faces was amazing.  One woman burst into tears when she was told.  A guy came across, looking devastated, and had to be told twice that he was an official finisher.  To have your dream disappear, then come back like that had to be amazing.

I’ve been asked (by just about everyone): Will you do another one?  The answer is a resounding, “HELL, YEAH!”  It was an incredible journey, capped off by an even more amazing day.  I found courage and determination in myself I never knew existed.  I saw others overcome incredible obstacles (like the guy walking the marathon with his arm immobilized – literally taped to his body – but still finishing).  While 90% of the participants were in better shape than I’ll ever be, and were riding bikes that I can’t afford, the 10% that were reaching for that dream on a shoestring budget and might have been 30, 40+ lbs overweight were the most inspiring.  Some of us made it.  I talked to several others that failed.  While they were crushed, they were even more determined to try again.  These are all things I will draw on later in life.  I loved this race – the good, the bad & the ugly – and by doing the Ironman, found a tribe of fellow crazies that felt like family.  Hell, yeah, I’ll be back.


Gray Beard said...

Steve? That you? Not your typical amount of expletives.

~L said...

Mike, you are a good writer. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Anonymous said...

I'm just getting caught up on your blogs. Thanks for posting, Steve! And, thanks for being part of this journey, as we've ran & biked many a mile together.