Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ironman Arizona - A Magical Day

As I rolled around the corner to see the finish chute, the one thought came into my head was, "It's over, I finally did it!" The thoughts that go through your mind during an Ironman Triathlon are pretty amazing. I ran down the finish chute hard, comfortable and relaxed knowing I had just achieved a lifelong goal. Here is my story...

Training for an Ironman is a commitment. You must dedicate yourself to the training program and the preparation. They say, "The success is just showing up to the start line of an Ironman." The journey is long, arduous and grueling. There are many sacrifices you must make in order to train and prepare for this epic day. And when you cross the line, it becomes all worth it. Leading up to Ironman, my training hours/mileage for this year added up like this:

3100 miles on the bike
745 miles running
150,000 yards swimming

which equates to approximately: 450 hours of training time

This doesn't add in the time driving to and from workouts, cooking and eating for training, traveling to races and stretching and foam rolling. It is definitely a job in itself.

It doesn't take weeks to get ready for this 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run, it takes months and years of consistent work. Going into this Ironman, I was ready for the adventure to come to a conclusion. My mind was made up that I was not doing another Ironman, this is it, one time and out. I was ready, prepared and anxious for this long awaited day and it was time to see what I could do....

We drove to Arizona on Wednesday, got into town around 5:00 pm, settled into our rental house and relaxed before bed. The next morning Eric Blain (My good friend who I have been coaching for the past year) and I headed out on a easy 1 hour spin on our bikes. We rode into the main location of the event and cruised around the scene. We got familiar with the roads and were able to see some of the run course. It was good to see this before the actual race. The rest of the day we chilled and stayed off our feet. We woke up Friday morning and drove the bike course. Seeing the layout before you race is important. The course had a false flat heading towards the first turn around on the bike, so we were prepared for that. But the way back was slightly downhill and fast. We then headed towards the main location of the triathlon, parked and ran a small portion of the run course to get our legs moving. We were both feeling fresh, sharp and ready.

Tapering should be a well planned layout of decreasing training volume the last 3 weeks of the training plan. I always advise athletes to be very disciplined during this taper as this is the time to allow the body to fully adapt to the months of training. If you do not allow recovery these last few weeks, the body will have residual fatigue and you will not perform on race day. So, our taper was well planned out and both Eric and I were feeling ready.

Friday night the excitement started to escalate as we went to the mandatory meeting. Race directions were given to the 2900 signed up athletes. Eric, myself and Eric's cousin Kevin drove home that night all in anticipation of the big day ahead.

We woke up Saturday morning, hopped on our bikes for 40 easy minutes just to get our legs up and moving. It felt good. We were now 24 hours away from one of the biggest events of our lives. The rest of the day was filled with eating good food and relaxing, getting all of our gear checked in and situated and mental preparation. The time was now here...

After a solid 7 hours of sleep, my alarm woke me up at 4:00 am, normal for me, so I was up and showering. I started the coffee, ate a whole wheat english muffin with peanut butter and jelly and had a banana. I sat on the foam roll for a few minutes then went outside and went through a good warm up to release any nerves and prepare the body for the big day ahead. We headed down to the "hot spot" at 5:30 am.

Here's where the first road block of the day happened....

As we were walking to the transition area, a quick thought came into my head, "Did I put my timing chip in my gear bags?" See for Ironmans, you have gear bags and special need bags for the day, you do not put your transition bag by your bike. Well, I made a big mistake and left my timing chip in my transition bag, which was still out the house! Ok, it was 5:50 am and I was calm and knew it was enough time to have my wife, Stephanie, drive back and pick it up for me before the start. I put everything together for the morning, turned in my special needs bags, put my fluids on my bike and made sure everything was good to go. I called Stephanie, "Where are you." (very calmly) She said, "I am not even at the house yet, the roads have closures so I am on the freeway." The time is now 6:10. Ok, we still have time, I told her, "Steph, this is all my fault, but if I sound a little agitated, I am sorry, but please try and hurry." I went back to my bike, pumped up my tires and then started to put on my wetsuit. The time is now 6:25. I called Steph back, "Where are you?" She said she was on a road that had closures and couldn't get through. I started to walk back to her, probably about 1/2 a mile from the transition area. I had her on the phone, "where are you babe", I kept saying. I admit, I was freaking out a bit. The time was now 6:35, we have to be in the water at 6:50 and race starts at 7:00 am. She finally says, "Ok, are you by the parking structure?" I said, "just keep driving, I am right past it." I saw her, hopped a fence to get to the car, grabbed my chip, told her she was the hero of the day and ran back to the transition area, just in time to find Eric and Kevin and enter the water! Talk about cutting it close.

Ok, now back to the triathlon...

The swim was a one loop, 2.4 mile swim in Tempe Town Lake. The water temperature was a chilly 61 degrees but when I jumped in, I was warmed up and the water didn't feel too cold. We had to swim about 200 yards to the start line, which was good to get the arms moving. We waited in the water for about 5 minutes before the big cannon suddenly went off and the race started. 2900 athletes all starting at once is a bit chaotic but the first 10 minutes went by fast and wasn't too bad. I was able to find some space and get into my rhythm. Randomly during the swim, there was traffic and swimmers all around you fighting for space and then it would clear out. I dealt with this and continued on with the swim. For me, the 1st half of the swim was a warm up, just getting going and loosening up. Once I made the turn around, I was able to put in a few hard pick ups and upped my pace. I did this throughout the second half of the swim. I would settle, let the heart rate come down and then pick up the pace again. I felt my best on the last 15 minutes of the swim. Once we made it back to the bridge where we started, I knew we just had about 300 yards to go. So I kicked my legs out to wake them up, started to mentally prepare for the bike and I gave a big underwater "YES"....the swim was over.

I quickly got out of the water and a volunteer helped me shed my wetsuit which was awesome. I told her thank you and jogged through the transition chute, picked up my bike gear bag and headed over to the changing tent. I quickly put on my bike shoes, helmet, sunglasses and race belt and hurried to my bike. I was feeling fresh, strong and ready to take on 112 miles on the bike.

Going into the bike, my whole race plan was to conserve my energy to have enough in me to put together a strong run. The bike was a 37 mile loop that was to be completed three times. The first loop for me was a warm up. I was spinning a light gear the first 17 miles, remember it was a false flat so I stayed conservative and made sure I was getting in my fluids and fuel to stay well ahead of the game. When I made the turn around, it was quickly noticed that this was going to be a fast section of the course. The wind was at our back and we were on a slight downhill. We were hitting speeds of 25-32 mph and not even working that hard. I was liking this! Very fast we were finishing the first loop of the bike. I was feeling strong. It was great because we were able to see our family and friends many times during this bike course. Seeing them really increases your energy for the next loop of the bike. The 2nd loop was a little different than the first. The wind decided to change directions and was with us on the way out. I didn't mind this because I was able to push a little faster speed on the false flat without taking too much energy. When I turned around I was still able to keep my fast pace on the slight downhill. I kept telling myself, "stay conservative, we still have a long way to go." I did and continued to eat, drink and stay fueled, maybe too much (you will see later). I wanted to get to the 3rd loop feeling fresh and ready to go, I did and was excited to have this feeling. In fact between mile 74-90 is when I was feeling the best on the bike. I was able to put in some big efforts and increase my speed without blowing up my legs. This was encouraging. Once I hit the final turn around, there was now only 18 miles to go. My energy was good, my legs felt fine but my stomach started to become a bit achy. I slowed down on the fluids only taking in water and carbo pro to see if it would subside. I knew I had saved energy and my legs for the run but as I finished the bike and dismounted and headed over to the changing tent, my stomach was full, bloated and a bit unsettled....

I sat in the changing tent, taking my time to put on my running shoes, let my heart rate drop a bit and wanted to make sure I was all good to go for the run. A marathon awaits and I wanted to make sure I did any last minute preparations for the run.

I exited the tent and immediately knew my stomach was knotted up. I had my fuel belt on with my bottle of gatorade and quickly took the bottle and tossed it to my wife. I didn't want to carry that bottle. I dealt with some major stomach cramps the first loop. I ran decent for having this problem. The 2nd loop, this problem became worse. My run slowed and walking at times became a better choice to allow the stomach to settle. My mental thoughts started to shift at this point. I figured if these stomach issues do not let up, it could make for a long, long marathon. I could be out there till 7:00, 8:00 pm. Miles 10-13 were tough because I couldn't run the way I know how and it was starting to get to me. My pace slowed to 11+/min/mile.

I came to mile 13 and decided to stop in the porta potty to let my heart rate come all the way down and allow my stomach to settle a bit. I had to make a decision right there and it ended up being the game changer for my day. I made myself throw up. This is a bit scary, because I have never done this before and the thoughts of dehydration and not having any fluids in me the rest of the marathon came into my head. But I did it. Three tough and hard vomits led to the release of approximately 25 ounces of fluids. I stood up, regained my thoughts and had an unbelievable resurrection. I came out of the porta potty, popped a breath mint in my mouth, drank some water and now it was on. My game had changed. The next 4 miles were ran fast, at 7:30 pace. I saw my parents at Mile 17 and they noticed the change and saw Stephanie and the rest of the crew at mile 19 and they saw the change. Now I was doing what I am good at.

That pace lasted to the 20 mile mark and then I slowed up a bit so I knew I needed some fuel. I took a gel, which gave me a big side ache but I was able to get that one to subside and continued running at a strong pace. I was literally passing droves of other athletes during the last 7 miles of the run. This is the best I had felt the entire day. Yes, after 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 20 miles of running, I was feeling my best. It was a true testament to my training program. I saw my parents and my uncle at mile 24 and was excited to see them with my new and energized spirits and running pace.

This is where I knew I would have a strong finish. I gulped down a small cup of water at the last aide station and took off for the finish. I ended up running the last 5k in sub 24 minutes, which equates to 7:40 min./mile.

The finish of an Ironman is surreal. Honestly, it seems like a dream, I barely remember the last 400 yards. All I know is that I was running hard, I was strong, I was happy, I was relieved it was over, and the crowd was cheering loud for everyone finishing. I gave a fist pump at the line and the race had ended. I heard, "Justin Levine, you are an IRONMAN!" Pretty awesome feeling.

Final time: 11 hours 14 minutes
Swim time: 1 hour 13 minutes
Bike time: 5 hours 44 minutes
Run time: 4 hours 4 minutes

All of the training, the hours on the bike, the sacrifices came down to one day. That one day of testing your body and your mind to the extreme limits. And when you crossed that finish line the emotion running through your body was magical. I wanted to see my wife, my daughter and Linda (our foreign exchange student) and wanted a sweatshirt, I was cold. I sat with my family by the finish for about 20 minutes post race and tried to take in the whole day and experience. So much was going in my head. But the one big thing that I was thinking, "What could I have done with a complete, strong marathon?" Sub 11 hours is for sure in the cards, I could do that! Low 10 hours is possible. I can push a little harder on the bike, learn from my mistakes and not drink too much and then get off and run a 3:30ish marathon, I can do that! Dangit, did the bug get me....?

Well, as for now, I want to recover, enjoy the Holidays and enjoy some time off from structured training. Next year, the goal is to concentrate on shorter distance races, build my top end speed and not commit to anything big. I want to run sub 1:20 half marathons. I will take December as an unstructured training month, doing workouts that sound fun but more importantly allow for 100% recovery.

I want to thank my wife for giving me massive support in my lifestyle. She is definitely my #1 fan and I love her very much and thank her very much. And thank you to all of my friends and family that supported me, followed me on race day and kept me in their thoughts. It is truly humbling. I would not be who I am and in the position I am in if it weren't for the people in my life.

And now to the next adventure and challenge....

Past writings