I. Cannot. Believe. I. Finished.
That is what I feel three days removed from the physically hardest and most mentally draining sporting event I’ve ever completed. Of course, I’m talking about Ironman Lake Tahoe. And yes, I finished Ironman St. George in 2012, when I felt like the Wilson volleyball from Castaway during the tempestuous swim and bike portions. There is no debate for me — Tahoe was tougher. I never wanted to quit in Utah. I’d sign up for St. George in a heart beat if the World Triathlon Corporation re-instated the full-distance triathlon.
Maybe it’s too soon, but I cannot say the same for IMLT. WTC, WTF.
This is my race-day story. It is not as dramatic as other folks — I didn’t crash, I didn’t break any bones, I didn’t suffer from hypothermia (came close though), and I didn’t cry (I wanted to though). I simply came as close to mentally breaking down as I’d ever like to approach again, and I’m disappointed that the notion of quit exists in a dark room deep within my psyche. Had it not been for two very supportive fellow triathletes, a frank answer from a run aid station volunteer, and a jog with my mom, I’d have been yet another DNF casualty.
I arrived in Squaw Village with my coach and teammates almost a week before the event, mostly confident in my fitness and form. Fresh off a decent Ironman 70.3 World Championships performance, despite the toilet lake water, unexpected steady rain and rising humidity that came with it, I was (mostly) ready to race again. The “mostly” part, like Billy Crystal’s famous caveat in The Princess Bride, is a key qualifier. In hindsight, maybe I wasn’t “all the way” ready to race. In the days that followed the World Championships, I experienced a profound sense of relief from checking that bucket-list item off my triathlon racing list. As a result, I don’t think my usual chip-on-shoulder, underdog sense of fight was keenly sharpened. My workouts weren’t snappy, my bike power dwindled and my swim times stagnated. Though I was frustrated, I was also satisfied, and that’s a dangerous word. I was mildly excited about Ironman Lake Tahoe, much like how I felt about the new season of Boardwalk Empire. You know, it’s cool and all, but they could have ended it in season two and I’d be fine. In other words, even in the days leading up to IMLT, I never felt like “OMG!!!! Homeland season three is five days away!!!! Clear my DVR NOW!” Considering where I had come from since last December, my year was already a wild success.
What a terrible mindset going into what would become the hardest Ironman on record.
To complete an Ironman of any kind, you need a never-say-die attitude above everything else. Even above being in great shape or having a sound nutritional strategy. That mindset saved me in my first Ironman when I faced searing IT band issues and dry-heaving. It saved me in my second Ironman, when I lost my Garmin 310XT coming out of the water and finished the race on feel alone. It saved me on my third Ironman, when I got tossed about St. George’s reservoir and almost thrown into the rock island there, not to mention blown across the side of the road on my bike. My fourth Ironman? That never-say-die attitude apparently lingered on vacation in Sin City, staggered from a weekend bender. Yet somehow, Mr. Attitude checked-back into the Olympic Village around 5:30 p.m. at mile 15 of my run. Better late than never.
I also let the uncertain nature of our race-day status get into my head. Due to Saturday’s snow flurries, wet roads and plunging temperatures, I honestly expected the WTC to shorten the course or even convert the race into a duathlon. When I arrived to T1 around 5 a.m., I was actually shocked to learn we were going the full distance. I wasn’t excited. I was numb. Physically, and perhaps mentally. I blankly scraped ice off my bike stem, pumped up my tires, and scurried into King’s Beach Events Center to warm up. ”OK, I guess I’m doing an Ironman today,” I remember thinking. Wow. Had it come to that?
I pumped myself up walking towards the water by dancing in a circle near the swim start. Then, I removed a thermal top, socks, foot warmers and my Chuck Taylor Cons and prepared to swim. Thanks to a snappy self-seeding start, I was in the water within minutes. Worth noting though is that for the first time, I couldn’t picture my grandparents smiling at me on the horizon during our national anthem. In fact, I didn’t even close my eyes. That is not like me…it’s usually my moment to really lock in, embrace what I’m about to do, revel in my grandparents’ warmth and spirit. No such luck. The anthem ended, and less than five minutes later, I was off.
The sky was more ominous, but this pic my dad took is just too cool.
The swim was gorgeous — everything I expected and more. As many have described, Hollywood couldn’t have even made for a more beautiful start. Steam rising off the lake. Steel gray skies with hints of peach peeking over the top. Stand-up paddleboarders’ silhouettes in the distance — our only chance at spotting where the buoys might be. I have no idea how I did it, but somehow I managed to hug the buoys spot-on for the first loop without barely being able to see them. I was able to draft effectively without getting too beat up (minus a punch to the jaw and an inadvertent kick to the groin). My 4,000-yard swim workouts — that’s 4,000 yards in a pool without stopping — made the 2.6 miles I actually swam in Lake Tahoe feel like a relative breeze. Not once did I have that sense of “When will this be OVER!?” that would haunt me on the bike and run. Maybe because I knew the low 60-degree water temperature would be the warmest part of the day.
I emerged from the water in 1:09, a three-minute Ironman PR. Right on schedule. The last time that phrase would be used for the day.
Ahhh, the changing room. Imagine a crowded YMCA locker room on the first day of summer swim camp. Now replace the kids with frigid, frantic, competitive adults, yet shrink the locker room in half. Absolute carnage. Someone kicked over my gear bag, and suddenly I couldn’t find my leg warmers or gloves. There were literally people at my feet putting on their clothes and I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with several other half-naked wackos. That was at least five minutes after I first opened my bag, which I couldn’t do immediately because I couldn’t feel my fingers. Seventeen minutes later, I stumbled out of the transition tent, ripped my dad’s gloves off his hands when I saw him (sorry Dad!), and pushed onward.
Once on the bike, it took me about two hours before I felt my feet. My teeth chattered uncontrollably. The only thing I kept thinking was, “It’s got to get better. It’s going to get better. Hang in there. Keep pedaling.”
Then came Martis Camp. Saturday’s snowfall prevented us from seeing the hardest parts of this private, posh hideaway. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing, because there were a few Alp d’Huez-like switchbacks that surely would have thrown me for a loop the night before the big race. Sometimes, the evil you don’t know is indeed better. I managed to climb through Martis and Brockway, half encouraged by the Tour de France-like crowds and yet discouraged that my sub-11 hour finish dreams had evaporated like the wetness from the road. Still, what can you do but just keep pedaling — unless you have to swerve to avoid a rider sprawled on a descent who was being attended to. That’s when you remind yourself it can always be worse.
My coach caught me on the second loop of the course, in Martis Camp. My sense of fight and positive spirit had already vanished. I felt bad for being so negative around him, but that’s just how I felt at that point. I had beaten Gerardo at the past few races and knowing he was going to torch me in Lake Tahoe deflated my sense of fight even more. I figured he’d pass me during the marathon, but on the bike? (Coach, I’m truly happy for you! You deserved that great race!!!) I rode on, passing him by again. At this point, my nutrition strategy was in tatters. The honey-water approach was barely holding together. I included bananas and Honey Waffle Stingers into my eating routine and did my best to hold my stomach together. A Pepto Bismal tablet helped too. My friend Zach saw me around mile 100 and shouted encouragement my way. He later told me I made him laugh out loud when I shouted back, “This is fucking brutal! I’m over this shit!”
Mercifully, I gave my bike to a volunteer in just about six hours and 40 minutes. By far the longest ride of the year for me. Physically, I made it OK. No real cramps, though I had to dismount briefly around mile 105 to massage my left adductor muscle. Mentally, despite my struggles, I was ready to run. Six minutes and one relieving pee later, I was trotting down Squaw Valley Road.
Taken about two miles before my epic mental meltdown.
Everything fell apart starting around mile 6. Two miles prior, my coach passed me again — this time for good. He ran by me as if he was starting a morning jog on a fresh pair of legs. How did he do that? Why did it look so easy for him? What’s wrong with me? Why won’t my legs pick up more? Fuck, it’s really cold. I’m sweaty. I’m wet. I’m tired.
This is not fun.
I don’t want to be here.
Hey, I just did Vegas. It’s OK if I want to stop. I have nothing left to prove.
That’s how quick it happens when your brain and willpower implodes.
Why not just DNF? Who cares? You’ve already done three Ironmans! Hell, you conquered St. George! This isn’t what you signed up for. This isn’t the same course I previewed a year ago. It’s not the same course I wrote about for Ironman.com and Lava.com. Who would blame me? I can even say I’m saving myself for Ironman Arizona in November.
Whatever the brain does, the body will follow. Assuming there’s enough fuel in the tank to aid. That’s my mantra for when a race is going well. Funny how the same thing happens when the race isn’t going well. My brain was tired, my body listened, I didn’t have enough fuel. I started walking more. The shade got colder. My heart rate dropped into the 110s. Is this healthy? Probably not. Around mile 15, at the special needs station, I asked the volunteer captain what the DNF protocol is. Could I get a shuttle back to the med tent? I don’t want to do this anymore. That never-say-die attitude? It was dead. The volunteer kindly said he’d check and came back to tell me the tent was overflowed with people. If I wanted to DNF, it would be faster to walk back to Squaw Valley Resort.
Might as well keep going, right? I donned a pair of running tights and added a Nike Combat fleece under armor shirt over my tri kit top, arm warmers, and Assos cycling vest. It was going to be a long night, I figured.
Then, I met Joe and James, and my race changed. Both Joe and James were walking in front of me. One of them had a 70.3 World Championships tri kit. We got to chatting about that race and where he qualified (Boulder, like me) and I told them I was about to quit. “NOOO NOOO NOOO!” they shouted in unison. They said their day was hosed too, but were going to walk-jog together. They literally made me join them. I can honestly say I probably wouldn’t have finished the race in the time I did were it not for their encouragement and good cheer. We shared some laughs, ran-walked for about four miles, and I graciously accepted their unused coconut water filled with yummy electrolytes.
My doldrums finally cleared at mile 18, when I saw my family as I started the second loop of the run. The highlight of my race was my mother, all 65 years of her, running alongside me for about 150 yards. Beaming. Shouting encouragement. All while clutching her purse with both arms. I have many memories of my mother. This one is now at the top of the list — and to think it wouldn’t have happened if I had quit three miles back. NEVER. EVER. GIVE. UP.
Why, hello, Mr. Attitude! Nice of you to meet up again! How was Vegas?
Of course, seeing my wife a few times on the run always amps me up. Her hugs especially. But my dad gave me the kick in the teeth I needed to push me over the top. When I was a kid playing club soccer, He’d bend both his elbows chest-high, make fists in each hand, and give me the most Clint Eastwood of stares as he shook his arms. It was his “HTFU” face before I ever knew what that meant. His message for me as I passed the finisher’s chute? ”Dig Deep!”
And now, it was on. I ticked off the miles, one at a time. I ran a full mile, I walked for three minutes. I ran half a mile, I walked for 30 seconds. Whatever it took to get up those hills. But the shivering started to kick in right at sunset. I grabbed a mylar blanket and draped it over my shoulders. That calmed me back down. Mile 23, the long hike up the final big hill. Mile 24, the long windy bike path jaunt in the dark. Head lamps dotting the landscape like a Pac-Man level. Mile 25. Seriously, where the hell are you, Mile 25?! I know you’re here somewhere!!!! WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU!!!!!
Oh, there you are, next to the luau-themed aid station! The lights. Mike Reilly’s voice in the distance. The village. The chair lifts. The brick walkway into the village. The chute starts. The near-tears…I DID it. I didn’t quit. How did I just do that? HOW?!
I rounded the corner. The lights! So bright! Blinding! Thumping music. What was playing? I have no idea! I didn’t care! I found my family in the stands. My wife is impossible to miss — the world’s best cheerleader. All I could do was shake my head, put my hands in the air and gesture, “I have no idea how I just finished this.”
The high-fives with the crowd came next, the finish gate grew closer. And for the first time all day, I allowed myself to look at the actual time. 13:04. ”Wow,” I thought. “Only a few minutes slower than St. George.” All that whining and bitching, and I did almost as well on a tougher course in frigid conditions. I held four fingers triumphantly in the air to signify my four completed Ironmans, and crossed the finish line in a total time of 13:02.
I’m an Ironman. Again. And it almost didn’t happen.
What will I make of this Ironman experience years from now? I was reminded that mindset is everything. If you don’t want something bad enough, either someone will take it from you or you’ll squander it yourself. I learned once again that just because a certain strategy works for a shorter distance doesn’t mean it will work for a longer distance. I was also reminded that staying focused on yourself in a race is critical. The moment you get wrapped up in what other people are doing, you are losing sight of things you can control — mainly your attitude. As Coach Jesse Kropelnicki likes to point out, racing is about setting goals, targets and outcomes, in order of what you can control the most.
People often ask me what I find appealing about Ironman. It’s simple, really. When you are taken to the dark places in your soul– where your body and mind want to break down and run away — that’s where you confront who you really are. How will you respond?
Ironman Lake Tahoe reminded me that I’m above all else, a survivor. If not a lucky one. And when things get really bad, maybe there are a few people up ahead who might be able to lend you a hand. Even if you can’t see them yet, just keep going. You never know what’s around the corner.
That’s a healthy nugget to tuck in your back pocket the rest of your life.
Proud to be included in this esteemed group of IMLT finishers, my teammates and coach.