Postcard from the Edge of the World: Ironman Florida

Yesterday I did my third Ironman and Ms. Otherwise participated in her second.

This time it was Panama City Beach, which has a reputation as an “easy” Ironman, easy being a relative term of course. In this case “easy” means times are usually fast because the course is flat and the temps are usually cool, but there is still an ocean swim and always wind, and that means that as with all Ironmen, many people do not finish. So we spent the two days before the event in our 13th floor condo watching the chop on the water and nervously studying the flags along the beach. You know the winds are going to blow in Panama City, usually 10 to 20 mph. But the direction it blows from is very, very important. South is bad, northwest is OK, east is very bad.

I was here because this should be the perfect course for me. Despite lots of work, I am not a good cyclist and this course is flat, flat, flat. It is also traditionally cool. I want to break 12:30, forty one minutes faster than my time at Lake Placid, and this course is my chance to do that. Ms. Otherwise is much more blasé—last year she did not do the time she wanted, but this year because of an early season injury she is undertrained. If it’s a good day, she plans to try to chop an hour off last year’s time. If not, que serah. Next year she ages up to sixty, and will compete in a much easier group, so this year is as much training as anything else. This is the first time Ms. Otherwise and I have tried one at the same time. Usually we support each other during the race. This time we are doing it together, so our friend Bill is here for support.

Ironmen are, like marathons, strange sports to begin with. They really exist to provide those of us with little natural athletic ability a chance to participate in a high level athletic endeavor, complete with whippet-thin pros, fantastic logistical support, and extreme intensity. But recreational sport or no, Ironmen are not to be trifled with. As one coach has said, “You can soldier your way through a 70.3 (half Ironman—mile swim, 56 mile bike, half marathon). But if you make a mistake in an Ironman, it’s a long, bad day out there.” The truth is it’s a long bad day whether you make a mistake or not, but if you make a mistake in an IM, it can be a short, bad day, because you can end up in a tent with a needle in your arm.

Ironmen are three day events. You check in on Thursday (for a Saturday event,) drop off your bike and bags with all your gear on Friday, and do the event on Saturday. There is a bag that contains your bike gear that you use when you leave the swim and one that holds your shoes and hat for the change from bike to run. There are also two bags in case you want to drop off special foods or additional clothes or a flashlight or something halfway through the bike and the run.

The night before an Ironman is a nervous, tight time. Going over the race plan, checking the weather, mixing food bottles, and in my case, taping my legs. I have just begun using KT tape, that brightly colored stuff, because I think it helps prevent shin splints and knee pain. I never know how much of this is placebo and how much of real, and of the real part, I am not sure how much is simply moving the pain from one spot to another. At any rate, I go to bed with long blue tape lines running up and down my leg, and look like I should be in a hospital, not a race.


Ms. Otherwise gets up at 3 and I get up at 4. We choke down 1000 calories, not as easy as it sounds, and make ourselves drink glass after glass of water. It will be a miracle if we manage to get down to the garage without having to come back up to pee. We check the weather just before we leave. It’s from the northeast. That’s very bad.

Every early morning start is the same. Dark, cold and surreal, with too much traffic, much of it nervous people doing their first event. Often competitors bring entourages, who drive in caravans behind them erratically, peering through car windows soaped to say “You go Dad” and “You are my hero” and such. Finally, we make our way through the gauntlet to the corral. Only athletes are allowed in the bike corral for final preparations, pumping tires, putting water and food bottles on the bike, checking to make sure the gel packs taped to the cross bar of the bike are on securely, and just generally fidgeting. We leave Bill behind and go in. The entourages hang on the fence awkwardly, not sure what they are supposed to doing.

We get done checking the bike, exit, hand Bill the pump, and because it is cold, 51 degrees, go into the hotel lobby hosting the event and crouch on the floor waiting. At 6:40 or so, we make our way down to the starting corral. The water is flat and smooth, but there is a current running. At 6:50, the cannon fires and the pros start. The current quickly pushes them inside the buoys. We edge down, one foot in the water and one foot on the sand, and at 7:00 our gun sounds.

It is a miserable swim. Sighting is difficult because of the chop and the glare from the sunrise, and the 2,500 of us spend the entire first loop banging into each other. The water is 70 degrees, which isn’t that cold, but in my sleeveless suit and with my low body fat, after an hour it takes its effect and my head begins to throb. I try to kick and because of the cold my left calf seizes up instantly. I rarely cramp, and never in the calf. After that I swim with just my arms, dragging my body behind. I have trouble finding the buoys, frequently swimming well off course and having the lifeguards in the kayaks blow their whistles to get my attention and tell me I am swimming sideways.

The second loop is easier than the first because the swimmers spread out a little bit, although about halfway through I get seasick and swim the last half mile fighting the nausea and praying for the shallow water. I get out of the water and the clock says 1:29, which would be slow, but it turns out I am looking at the pro clock, and my time is actually a personal best, by a handful of seconds, 1:19. Ocean courses can be fast because of the added buoyancy, but I did not expect to do this well. So far so good. Ms. Otherwise swims the same time as last year, but had a pretty comfortable go of it.

At the end of the swim, I am sick, almost hypothermic, and disoriented. I stumble up the ramp like a drunk, lurching from side to side. The first transition is a nightmare. The transition tent is a huge dirty clothes hamper—crowded, dark, and hot, and for some reason, people have decided to just leave their bags by the chairs once they are done, creating huge piles of debris everywhere. Even worse, I am in too bad shape to get dressed. I pull on as much of my clothes as I can and stumble outside. I find a volunteer and say “I can’t zip up my jersey. Can you help?” She looks at me and says, “It’s on inside out. You’re shivering and ice cold, you poor thing. Are you OK?” She helps me switch the jersey. Without answering, I thank her and stumble out. In my shabby state, I don’t want her to call over an EMT, who might well pull me off the course and put me in the medical tent until I warm up. It is as bad a moment as I have ever had in an Ironman, and the only time I have ever felt helpless.

For the first time ever, I have a slower transition than Ms. Otherwise, who is always methodical and deliberate while I tend to just slap on my helmet and shoes and go, often missing the occasional piece of equipment. This transition takes almost 15 minutes. It’s barely into the event, and my 12:30 is already in danger, due to the fifteen minutes I think I have lost on the swim and the ten minutes I know I have lost in transition.

The bike is better, and I recover my composure. It’s a comfortable sixty degrees on the bike, but for the first 30 miles we have a strong headwind. No exaggeration, thirty miles of riding straight into a booming wind without a break or a tree to hide behind. Then a small break as we jog south, then ten more miles of wind. I ride well, staying low in my bars and managing about 16 or so miles an hour. Some people pass me and I pass more. I pass one young man who is very muscular and huge. He’s already struggling twenty miles in. Later he will pass me, part of a huge and illegal draft pack, but then I will pass him again and never see him again. The first half of the ride is long and hard and slow, 3:07.

After the turnaround, the bike back in is fast, over 20 miles per hour, and we are all feeling great until we make the final turn and ride the last five miles directly into the wind. They have lots of complexes on this road that have high rises on either side of the road with a covered walkway bridge spanning the road. The wind funnels through these holes. When we hit these it is like a salmon fighting its way upstream. We slow to a crawl, maybe 12 mph and grind our way through. Finally, we turn into the bike chute, hand our bikes off to volunteers who will re-rack them, and run for the run gear bags.

I manage a 6:09 on the bike. It’s my best ever in an IM, but worse than the 5:45 I’d hoped for. It turns out though, that it’s still respectable. On average this year, the bikes were around a half hour slower than last year, and in my age group the winners were almost an hour slower. Ms. Otherwise did 20 minutes slower than last year, but her entire age group was on average 20 minutes slower. At the end of the bike, she is roughly an hour behind me.

I start on the run after seven hours and fifty minutes, which not only means I am on track for my 12:30, but I have a good chance of doing even better if I can manage my target run pace, 10:15 minutes per mile, that is a 4:30 time for the marathon—four hours and thirty minutes. Even if I do a little worse, like 4:45-4:49 as I did in my other two Ironmen, I should still break my personal record, 13:10 in Lake Placid last year. Ms. Otherwise is a little behind her time last year, but just, and she’s in much better physical shape this year than last. This course is flat and cool, so I am hopeful that I will actually do much better than I did in hot Louisville or hilly Lake Placid. I am even dreaming of a 4:10.

I deliberately am not looking at time on the run, but instead running only by watching my heart rate monitor. So at the halfway point, I am not sure how I am doing, but it feels fast. (It turns out it is—10 min pace.) But unlike both Louisville and LP, where I began walking at mile 16 and mile 20, respectively, this time I am determined to run the whole way (except while drinking.) I see Ms. Otherwise starting her first loop as I finish mine, meaning I am about 2 hours ahead of her. I stop to talk for a few minutes when we pass and she tells me she is quitting after 13 miles. She simply does not want to struggle in at 11 p.m. again.

My dream may be a 4:10 marathon, but Ironmen are not kind to dreams. And the second half of the marathon is where those dreams all come undone. It’s getting dark when I start my second loop. I pull on arm warmers and run on. People on either side of the road are laughing and cheering, some in costumes and waving beers, but I am not into it this time and the noise irritates me. I smile, thank them anyway, high five some children and run on.

In my back pocket I have a pill bottle full of electrolytes, ibuprofen, and caffeine, and that rattling noise drives me crazy too, so I empty it out, spilling the pills into the shrubbery in front of a hotel. I try to stuff the bottle into my back pocket and instead drop it. I stop to pick it up and stumble and almost fall, reeling sideways, unable to regain my balance until I bump up against a post. Another runner picks it up and brings it to me. At the 20 mile turn I know I am in trouble for my 12:30. I am still running rather than walking, unlike Lville and LP, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. No matter how I do it, my marathons are just slow. Again, slow being relative. The final numbers aren’t in yet, but it is likely that well over half these people out here tonight will run slower than I do.

The real pain—physical or mental– always starts on the second half of the marathon. Usually it’s my shins and knees, but this time, maybe because of the tape, it’s not my shins or my knees but my quads and my feet. Some of the pain in my feet is blisters—I can feel the wet slickness in my shoes as they pop. I will lose four toenails tonight. But something else is going on, because for some reason half my right foot goes numb at mile 23. There’s nothing to be done for it, so I run on, hoping I haven’t broken something.

I promise my legs, “If you can make it to the next aid station, Legs, I will let you walk for 30 feet while I drink water. Just hang on for that.” Then I get to that station, walk and drink, then start the mantra again. I also have a terrible pain under my arms, and at some point a volunteer gives me a glob of Vaseline and I smear it on. It turns out the repetitive swing of my arms has worn the sides of my chest raw. That’s never happened before, and I wonder if it’s something to do with salt water or perhaps three years of swim training has given me muscles where I did not have them before and I am rubbing those. By mile 25, I do the mental math and I know it’s going to be very close. If I can just sprint a little in the finishing chute, I can make it.

But I can’t. I ask my legs to sprint. They refuse.12:30:49.

At the end I am completely knackered. Worse than I have ever felt before at the end of a race. I stagger across the line. A catcher grabs me and asks if I am OK, “Yes,” I say, then as she lets ago, “Not really.” She grabs me again and helps me to chair where another volunteer wraps a space blanket around me. Eventually, I am strong enough to walk to the end of the chute and meet Ms. Otherwise, who is fresh as a daisy. She helps me to the food tent and gets me a Coke and a piece of pizza, and, after awhile, I am all right. Again, all right being relative.

I gave it everything I had out there, and some days that has to be enough.

4 replies »

  1. So you missed your goal by 49 seconds. The way I see it, you still improved over your personal best by 44 minutes, 11 seconds. Which is flat out awesome.

    As a runner, I know that’s not necessarily how you feel right after the race, however.