2011.05.14 – Boulder City, NV
Before going any further, let me just say, for the record, that was far. Really far. Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can talk about the “race.” The quotes are there because this was largely a “test of self.” That is in no way meant to discredit the other athletes. What I’m getting is that Ironman is, at the very highest level is maybe race-able by a handful of the very best athletes in the world. This past year in Kona, it was generally a race only for two men – Raelert & McCormack. I’m not sure that I’ve ever successfully raced an Ironman or even that I could if I had to. The nature of the Leadman course – both topographically and meteorologically (aka hills, heat, and wind) – mean that it is probably even less race-able than an Ironman. If there are perhaps, at most, 10 or 15 men that can race an Ironman, then I would say maybe 5 could race Leadman. Guys with big engines, pedigrees in the heat, and a lot of mileage on their bodies. I do not presume to yet call myself such an individual. And thankfully none of those folks who I would call such an individual decided to show up. I do believe that the longer the race gets, the more competitive I become, as I seem to be good at, “slowing down less,” but I’m certainly happy that there wasn’t someone bearing down on me in the last mile of the run. I have no idea what I would have – or even could have – done. No, this was not a race. This was an “event.” An obstacle. A challenge. One for the bucket list.
In the aftermath after crossing the finishline, I said it was the hardest race I’d ever done, but in retrospect, I corrected that statement in an interview with Timothy Carlson. The short version is that I basically said what I wrote above. This was about you versus the course. Very loosely about you versus the clock. And almost entirely without any semblance of you versus some other person. Thankfully…
The swim was remarkably uneventful. Small fields and flat water make for a nice start. More races should be like this, except that races with 40ish athletes would tend to paint a rather bleak picture for the future of our sport. While much was made of the 5km swim, I can’t help but feel that it’s just an extension of the total lack of preparedness that most triathletes carry into every race. Being able to “make it” 3.8km in an Ironman doesn’t mean you are prepared. The swim in a triathlon, with perhaps the exception of an ITU WCS race or maybe a big time 70.3 or Ironman, should be a non-event. You should finish it feeling, at worst, “warmed up.” Certainly the swim held nothing on the later two legs, and I would say for those folks who felt the swim was daunting, there’s a simple remedy. Swim more. I’d say that a 10km (or more) swim would have been the equal of the bike course. And that you’d need 6-7km to equal the run. 5km was nice. But it wasn’t epic. On another note, Lake Mead in mid-May is a really nice place to swim. Temperature with a wetsuit and no cap (peeled mine off) was just right. Water is clean and clear. It certainly was no harbinger of the wrath that we were about to unleash upon ourselves.
Onto the bike. The ride starts in a thematically appropriate way with a climb up from Lake Mead. That would become a hallmark of day. Almost everything seemed to be a, “climb up from XYZ.” I would say that within the first 10 pedal strokes, I knew I had good legs. As opposed to Wildflower, where I knew within the first 10 pedal strokes that it was going to be “do-your-best-and-hope-the-legs-come-around.” The bike course *is* this course. No questions. Without the bike course, it’d be neat, but nothing special. As it is, I’m not even sure it’s truly sane, but perhaps so. The ride was 140miles – 225km according to my Garmin vs. the claimed 223 – and that was typical of the ride. Just when you thought you’d had enough, there was more to come. I got, via my EDGE 500’s internal barometer, about 8,400vft. of climbing. But what made this so punishing was that it never came in big chunks. I don’t think any 30min lap (how I broke up the ride) had less than 500ft of climbing. Or very much more. They just always had that same amount, doled out in small chunks. The adage “death by a thousand cuts” is perhaps the most accurate metaphor. The course generally trends uphill on the way out, though we had a very light tailwind on the way out to the Valley of Fire. And then, as you knew would inevitably happen, fate turned against you and turned up both the temperature – high point on the ride in the Valley of Fire was 102F – and the wind. So you had to ride back into a raging wind without having had the luxury of it giving you a “free ride” on the way out. I have never consumed so many calories on a ride. Nor so much liquid. I consumed 2750 calories. I drank almost 12L (3gal) of liquid – 2x22oz bottles with 3 scoops of EFS to start and then nine 24oz bottles of Gatorade and seven bottles of water. Maybe more as I doubled up on water at some aid stations, drinking part of a bottle, showering with the rest, and then grabbing another. And another. And I continued to put the hammer down. It was about finding out what I could do. How much did I really have to give on the bike. And I think I found out. It might have been my best ever ride on a bike. If not the best, it was one of them, and I will carry a lot of confidence into races knowing that when the house – the merciless Nevada desert – came up with a full house, I came up quad aces.
Out on the run, I carried a bit of swagger, though it might have been the heat. Or the relentless climbing. The run gains about 1,800vft over the course. And descends about 18vft. It’s just up and up and up, running from Lake Mead to the crest of Boulder City center. The first miles are the worst. That feeling of running so slow off the bike is compounded by the fact that you are, in fact, running really slowly because you are running uphill and into a headwind. But with the wind, finally, came a break in the heat as a front blew in. The temperature dropped throughout the run, mercifully, perhaps the only mercy that the course showed on the day. On the flat section of the rail trail to Hoover Dam, my legs started to come around. I felt like cold towels at every aid station finally got my core temperature under control about three miles in. And on the way too short four mile out-and-back with the only shade on the day – through the railroad tunnels – I actually found myself feeling pretty good. I stopped, literally, at every aid station. I’ve never done that before. I have slowed, but never stopped. But this time, I stopped. It seemed interminably long every time I did, but my Garmin reports it at only about 5min in total, or less than 30seconds per aid station on average, which isn’t as bad I had thought. Heading out on the rail trail, I felt like I had a good lead, and I allowed some thoughts to enter my mind like, “if anyone kept up with me on that ride, I’ll be impressed. And I’ll be even more impressed if they can still run after doing so.” And when I emerged from the last tunnel and hit the 7mi/3mi mark and hadn’t seen anyone and couldn’t see anyone far down the course, I knew that it was basically alone. From there, I focused on getting in nutrition and keeping the feet moving, one foot in front of the other. For most of it, I just tried to relax and let my legs find a “comfortable” pace, which often seemed to be about 8min miles on the slowly climbing road. When the road kicked up, I saw my average pace slow further, to 10min miles – and slower – as the road seemed to climb interminably upwards. And then, at the very brief 1/2-mi or so out and back around 12mi, I was actually enormously glad for the spiraling ascent. On that brief 1/2-mi of downhill, I knew just how empty I was. My legs would have been wrecked had I had to run a lot of downhill. As hard as it was to just slug away up the hill, it finally became clear that it was almost an act of kindness the way the course was designed. Of course, 9-plus hours into the race, I only thought of how stupid the race, the course, and – most especially – I was for doing this.
And then, the day that seemed like it might never end finally did. I rounded a corner, and there, in the shadows of some trees and with the green grass of a park around, the finishline popped into view. It seemed almost a mirage, as if I might get up close, and it would suddenly deflate, and someone would point to a U-turn arrow and tell me it was time to head back down. Or up. Or somewhere. Anywhere.
The clock read 9:32:XX. The number had no meaning to me. It was just a sign, finally, that it was over. Was it good? Bad? It was done. I felt less like a gambler who’s won big and taken the house down. It was more like being a gunfighter who’d finished the day shot full of lead – perhaps the name is just that appropriate – but who grinned because he’d live to draw down another day. Even now, I struggle in a lot of ways to make sense of the race. Right now, I feel like I have the world’s worst hangover. Only I don’t drink. It’s the hangover of a 9-1/2 hour race. Of 3 gallons – or 24 pounds – of fluid on the bike. It’s the hangover of going into the well until the well is not quite dry, but close. But I’m also left with the feeling that even with those quad aces, I might have had another one up my sleeve. And I suppose that’s the feeling I’m most thankful for.
It was special for another reason. Going into Ironman Arizona in 2010, I wanted to win because winners get to take the stage. They get the microphone. And while the audience in the Del Mar ballroom wasn’t quite so large, I finally got to say my thank you to Tom Sanchez. And with that, the cowboy rode – or rather, drove – away.