My very first Half-Ironman (70.3 Haines City Florida )
I’m going to do my best to put into words an experience that words can’t really capture. How do you describe the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do physically and mentally? I guess I should start with “The Decision” (not Lebron James leaving Cleveland for Miami) to challenge myself with a race that will cover 70.3 miles in a single day. That’s a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile half marathon run. I was looking for something that would be challenging and would give me butterflies thinking about it.
So after 16 weeks of focused intense training race day was now upon me. As what seems to be a common occurrence with race participants the night before the race is a sleepless night. As my mind raced and wondered what the next day would present. After waking up every hour on the hour, I decided to get up to start the journey. I would definitely recommend packing and loading the car with as many things as you can load in the car the day before. You don’t need any additional worry about packing up the morning of the race. I packed everything except my race packet and food as I wanted to re-read the race packet information that night.
There exists a phenomenon that I didn’t believe before I experienced it first hand, call race day stupid. This is when you do and forget seemingly trivial things that you can’t imagine you would be stupid enough to do. I shrugged this phenomenon off as something that happens to other people. Nervous with anticipation, I headed into the kitchen to make my bullet-proof coffee. I had some coconut meat, bacon and headed out the door knowing all was packed the night before.
Heading to the race venue, I was determined to get to the race about 4:30 am to a stress free bike and race check-in. I mean what the hell, I was up anyways I may as well arrive early. Arriving so early, I was able to pull my car all the way to bike check-in unload everything with a calm reassurance that all was well. I could spend the last two hours enjoying my nervous energy, chatting with the other triathletes and going to the restroom every hour. Imagine my horrific surprise to realize that I had left the entire race packet on the kitchen table!
For those who don’t know, the race packet has all the essential information needed to race. This golden pack has your race number stickers, bib, timing chip etc. Without the race packet you are not allowed to compete…NO EXECEPTIONS! To further complicate the matter, each athlete has to be checked in an hour before race start. So now I had only an hour to speed home, grab my race packet, and get back in time to make the check-in cutoff. The only problem is that the distance to my house is a 45 minute “regular” drive one way! I had worked too hard to be defeated by my own race day stupidity. I just told myself, that if I’m going down, I’m going down hard with an arrest and everything. I hopped in the car and drove like Mario Andretti to my house. I ran red lights, I broke speed limits I made it to my house and back to the race in about a little over an hour. Luckily it was early on a Sunday morning with little traffic.
Of course by this time my heart is racing, I’m sweating and pumped full of adrenaline even before the start of my most terrifying portion of the race the open lake swim. I am not off to a good start to my most challenging day. I finally calm down and do my pre swim ritual of going to the potty at least 2X no matter how many times I’ve gone before that.
The moment is finally here, my age group is called to enter the water and prepare to start. You want to talk about butterflies, my stomach had full blown birds flying around. As strange as it may seem, this “conquering your fears” feeling is what I love about the sport. To have this feeling of anxiety and fear, and yet still motivate yourself to go forward makes me feel like I can do anything. As the clock counts down, my plan is simple, avoid the mass start of arms and feet flailing and don’t drown. As the race starts I’m instantly overcome with anxiety and fear. I start to really struggle to put my swim strokes together without hyperventilating. My saving grace is that I do have the confidence to stay afloat and manage myself in the water. I decided to swim on my back till I get my nerves under control.
What I forgot about was there were other waves of swimmers coming after us. Before I knew it, I was smack dab in the middle of the next group of faster more aggressive swimmers. When I would rotate to breathe instead of getting a much needed breath of air, my mouth was greeted with a thirst quenching gulp of delicious brown lake water. This cycle went on, for what seems like hours and hours.
The swim course was shaped like an M, and I was finally on the last leg and all I had to do was swim a straight line to shore. The shore was not a sandy gradual incline, but a mushy swamp pit of holes and drops. I almost got a leg cramp trying to exit the lake. The transition from a 1.2 mile horizontal swim to a vertical run in sand takes a lot of energy out of your legs. My good friend Willie showed up and said “I just had to see you come out of that water! Now I’m ready to do my first triathlon”. I found strength in his words, as motivating other black people to do triathlons is my true passion.
The good news I was finally out of the lake and on dry land. Onward to the first transition (T1) or the bike segment of the race. The bike segment is my favorite part of the triathlon. I’ve loved bikes since I was young and the love has never waned. I was determined to hop on my bike named Zoey and make up some of the lost time lost in the water. During the bike portion of a race is where you are supposed to take in some nutrition and hydration. However, my stomach was a mess from swallowing so much lake water and I couldn’t keep anything down.
It took a few minutes to settle into my rhythm on the bike. I was now in my comfort zone. Once in my zone, I hit a moment of euphoric ecstasy. Runners refer to this feeling as the “runners high”. Every sport has it, and I was having my “high” on my bike. All of my senses were hit at the same time. I was seeing in the scenic view, smelling the sweet fragrance of the orange groves, feeling the wind blow by me as Zoey and I whizzed along. The feeling of passing by others was very satisfying. Some of these people I thought had swam right over me in the Lake, but now it was my turn to extract some revenge. The bike course had a few hill inclines and some patchy road, but for the most part very enjoyable.
Well the bike portion seemed to fly by and before I knew it, it’s time for the second transition (T2) aka the run.
Now if swimming 1.2 miles while drinking a gallon of delicious brown murky water and biking 56 miles wasn’t enough for me. I now just have a half marathon in 90 degree Florida humidity to complete. My original race plan was to try to do an 8 min/mile pace for a respectable finish. However, I quickly found out that my race day errors would all culminate during the run. After starting out with a pretty decent pace, I was quickly greeted by a steep gradual hill that just seem to zap the last bit of energy I had left. I ended up only running half-way up the hill and then walking each subsequent hill of the 3 loop run.
The residents of Haines City were setup outside their houses with water hoses and boisterous cheers which gave us all a much needed boost. After a while, my failure to keep my nutrition down on the bike caught up with me as I began to cramp severely. I had to stop at each aid station and pack the inside of my shorts full of ice (never wear a onesie) on all sides.
Onward I marched until the next aid station. During the second loop I just happened to be looking at someone’s shoes when I noticed their timing bracelet. I began to look down at mine and realized my timing belt was missing! Where was my timing bracelet that tracks my time etc? Then a sinking feeling hit me and I realized that I took it off briefly in the T2 transition to put on my compression socks! I quickly found a race director who was kind enough to go into the bike transition area and get my timing bracelet. He then told me something I did not want to hear, that I had to back up to the last timing spot if I wanted to keep my time somewhat accurate. Luckily I only had to back track a couple of blocks to the last timing spot (there is a God). At this point in the race, each step seemed like a monumental task. I noticed that 95% of the runners are doing some form of death march/super slow jog combo. It is really a matter of just finishing what you start at this point.
One lap to go and I’m really in some major pain. The sugary gooey gels, bars, and Gatorade that I had resisted up to this point were really calling out my name. I needed some form of sugar in my body to give me a boost so I could finish this race. I was dehydrating and completely depleted of any energy stores in my body. I took in a PowerAde drink, a couple of gel packs and began my death march in earnest. Only four more miles to go and I would complete my goal of my first 70.3 Ironman! The thought of finishing and the boost from the sugary substances inspired me to try to finish strong via the run. I quickly picked up my pace, ignoring the excruciating pain and began the last 4 miles at a blistering 10 minute/mile pace. After walking a big portion of the run, the 10 minute pace felt like I was in an all out sprint. I was able to maintain this pace to the finish line passing what seemed like 100 competitors just in the last four miles.
With about a quarter of a mile to go, I went into a full on sprint. The feeling of crossing the finish line is what all this sacrifice is about. Summoning every ounce of energy in my being, with the crowd cheering me on and the announcer finally saying my name is priceless. I’ve found yet another thing money can’t buy. Money can’t buy the emotions of completing something that seemed like a crazy dream. The hugs from family, the joy of knowing my son and daughter got to see their Dad being a winner.
After the adrenaline rush wore off, I was about to find out what pain and suffering really was. Every muscle in my body began to lock up starting with my toes. You heard me correctly my big toe cramped in an upward position quickly bringing me to my knees in agony. This toe pain was quickly followed by hamstring, quadriceps and abdomen pain.
This is where I’ve learned to trust when you set out for something grand help will come from the most unlikely places. I call this help angels, because that is what they are. Angels have come to me during my most agonizing moments. Like the time I was about to quit during my first marathon and during total body lockup in my first Olympic distance triathlon. This time my angel showed in the form of a 10X Ironman veteran who just happened to be a board certified doctor. The absolute perfect person in the entire venue to help me. She happened to see me in the fetal position writhing in pain and offered many of her ready-made potions of homemade magic elixirs for pain, dehydration and the likes. In a short amount of time I was able to sit up and gather my thoughts.
The good doctor suggested I still go to the first aid tent and have them check my vitals. After trying to stand on my feet, I quickly realized the wisdom of her words. My quads began to cramp again and she and my mate helped me to the first aid tent. Even though I was in pain, I felt great knowing I had conquered many demons and fears today. After recovering in the first-aid tent I wanted to watch the last of the competitors (yeah there were still triathletes finishing). Many say watching the competitor’s finish line is the best part of Ironman racing and I couldn’t agree more. The lasting memory for me was watching the very last qualifying triathlete a 72 year old man, give every ounce of energy to beat the clock by 10 seconds! Better than any movie you could see.