Hawaii Ironman 2006

(This is going to be a long one, so I won’t be offended if you skim it)

The earthquake is probably a good place to start. We were in Honolulu and the hotel began shivering like it was cold. Then the power went out as the room started to rock violently until, suddenly, it stopped. At the time we didn’t realize how serious it was. But 10hrs of sitting with no food/water/electricity in the Honolulu Airport took our enthusiasm away from us like a TSA screener confiscating a container of liquid from a carry on. Luckily, we got occasional updates from worried folks from the mainland wondering if we were alive. Word was there was lots of damage but only minor injuries. The 6.7 quake may have shut the big island down, but no one was killed. The worst news was that landslides had covered parts of the Ironman course, and I was beginning to wonder if the race would go on.

We got to Kona 20mins after my family (mom, sis, her husband Mike, and their two children, David and Jack) who had left Atlanta a half a day after us. My friend Jeff, the film maker, was also there. The rest of his crew was stuck in L.A.—kinda sad as the earthquake would’ve made for some serious drama—but all I could think about at the time was some food. So we drove into town, found some grub, and ate dinner before crashing in the condo. It was 3:30 a.m. Atlanta time.

Six hours later I crept out of bed and jumped in the shower. I needed to get the congestion out of my head and lungs. I’d been sick for three weeks now—my first cold in two years—great timing, huh?—but kept telling myself I was going to wake up race morning and be perfectly healthy. So I stood in the steam for probably half an hour and hacked up a lung and blew my nose, not too worried about waking Di. We had a water heater in our room that made a loud gurgling/peeing sound every 15mins, so if she could sleep thru that….

At 7 a.m. I went for my first run of the week. Stepping outside, I thought to myself, it’s not that hot. 5miles later I would’ve still said the same, but the sweat on my shirt spoke differently. I’ll take heat over cold any day, but I was beginning to respect what it might feel like after 9hrs of racing.

Mike drove me over to Bike Works later that morning. The crew at the shop took me in as one of their own, building up my bike for free and bending over backwards during an extremely chaotic week to make sure my race went smoothly. Even with all the racers flooding the shop, you never would have imagined that less than 24hrs earlier the entire contents of the store were all over the floor. When I walked in, they knew exactly who I was—the documentary crew had sent 2 gigantic movie posters with pics of me on them so big it was embarrassing—and treated me like royalty. Linda, manager extraordinaire and the person who set up my relationship with Bike Works, said she recognized me cuz of my legs. I just hope she wasn’t referring to how short they are.

Next on the agenda was a recon of the swim course. I planned to do the entire 2.4 to get an idea of what time I should shoot for—my P.R. is a 56, but that was without surf-able sized waves making it difficult just to get off the beach. The water conditions in Kona can be rough, but the lingering effects of the earthquake had the ocean in a particularly foul mood. Nobody else was swimming—a stark contrast to the hundreds of athletes that would invade the water each morning in the days to follow. Though the tides were so chaotic I never found a swim-able rhythm, I actually enjoyed the ride as I was tossed up and down and back again. I swallowed a ton of water but figured I’d need to sodium load anyway. And it’d definitely help clear up the congestion in my head and lungs. After 35mins I called it a day. I’d swim the whole course on race day—I hoped.

Got a call from Bike Works that my bike was ready and one of the owners, Janet, wanted to meet me. Mike drove me over there, and I met Janet (who drives a Mini like me) and Matt, the mechanic who had my bike primed for 112. I asked him what kind of beer he liked, knowing it’s good karma to take care of the guy who takes care of your steed. He told me Corona (which I later brought by and was subsequently enjoyed by 6 of his co-workers who told me they’d take care of it…).

The next day I had an interview at 9:15 with NBC (which was also filmed by the documentary crew who flew in mid-afternoon on Monday) and then went to registration. Some things which struck me first were:
--everybody is F-I-T!!!
--English is rarely spoken as most of the competitors are from outside the U.S.
--this ain’t no joke—the doc crew wanted to film the sign-in process, but nobody other than athletes were allowed in the registration area. Eventually their contact with Blair (the head person in charge of Media at Ironman whose husband happens to know and has raced with me) got them anywhere, so they were able to get the shots they needed. And if the camera crew following me around didn’t make me feel like a rock star (or uncomfortable about the attention for those of you who might believe that), then the registration process did.

When they pulled my file, instead of M30-34, my paperwork was marked “Purple.” This distinction sent me over to the table where the 200 or so pros in the race picked up their race credentials along with the other athletes with stories NBC was highlighting. I lined up between a pro from Austria (a woman shorter than me!) and the 66year Dick Hoyt whose son has serious brain damage leaving him unable to use his arms and legs. Now this guy is amazing. He’s done I don’t know how many Ironmans, all pulling or pushing his son thru the swim, bike, and run. He ended up not finishing the swim leg by the cut off time this year because the conditions were so bad, but he is truly an inspiration. I was more humbled to stand by him than any of the other 1852 athletes in the race.

After lunch with the family, I took my bike for a spin down the main drag. As I checked out the competition running or cycling up and down Alii Drive, memories of the road I took to get here kept threatening to choke me up. It was a feeling I’d have over and over, especially during race day. Not so sure tears are conducive to speed, I put my game face back on and rolled 30mins out/30mins back. Felt like I had a tail wind in both directions and was encouraged—maybe I’d have a good blood day on Saturday.

The next few days were much the same. Swim in the a.m. (with Megan Malgaard, 2008 Olympic swimmer shoe-in, documentary assistant, and an actress in The Guardian) followed by a bike (Wed’s was a bad blood day), interviews with my family and the documentary crew, touching base with friends who were racing or just there in support, some A.R.T. with my good friend, Dr. Steven LaScala to keep me healthy, a few fun things like a luau where Di and I shared the ultrasound pics of our impending child (who’s obviously a BOY!!!), and as much down time as I could muster—which wasn’t a lot. While it may sound cool to have a camera filming your every move, and I know it’s for a greater cause than my own, it was time consuming. Things which should normally take 1hr took 2 or 3. Logistics were often a nightmare. Speaking of which, thoughts of the filming process and the interviews and what was said (are they gonna show that?) would keep me up at night. Or maybe that was just the damn water heater.

Thursday, Jeff drove me and Di along the bike course with Dave (one of the cameramen) and a couple of cameras to film me as well as the view out the windshield. Desolate and windy would be a good description. Another planet would be a better one. The black lava fields sprinkled with hints of greenery were like nothing I’d ever seen before. The bareness of the course could easily lull you into losing focus which, as a cyclist we saw nearly get blown off the road proved, would not be a good idea. There weren’t many turns. Just long straight-aways with mile long descents and ascents like you’d see on any other highway—this one just happened to be the Queen K—infamous in the tri world for its wind and heat and a characterizing feature of the Hawaii Ironman. Bring it on.

Friday was one last swim, spin, and short run to loosen me up and get some of the crap out of my lungs. I must have spit out more loogies across the Hawaiian landscape than all the other mucous discharges I’ve had in my life (now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). Found out today (3 days post race) that the attractive attribute to which I refer above was courtesy of bronchitis coupled with a secondary bacterial infection. Whatever it was, the symptoms, which took a turn for the worse on Thursday afternoon, left me with fading confidence. But I was still determined to be well on race day.

Which started dark and early at 4:00 a.m. The film crew arrived at 4:30 or so to film the chaos of race morning. By then I’d already eaten, stretched, and put on my sweet, new 2XU tri suit generously donated to my Ironman effort by Chris at Sports Multiplied . With Eminem playing in the background to ward off any slow, depressing music from infecting my head, I was ready to rock. With their credentials, the doc crew was able to drive me right up to where it’d all begin—bodymarking.

Because of my “purple” status, I went into a different line and didn’t have to wait among 1500+ nervous athletes to get my arms and legs numbered. I barely had enough arm length for my number, 1351, but got complimented by the woman writing my age on my left calf. Walked into transition with a camera dude chasing me, put some Hammer Gel in my run bag, and then got my bike prepped. Then I stood in the port-a-let line for my second #2 of the a.m. The final few minutes before the water were spent with my family who had made it to the race start by then. I slipped into my new 2XU Super Elite tri suit which I’d wear over my other 2XU race apparel during the swim. I kept repeating the company’s logo to myself: “you’re faster than you think.”

At 6:30 I got antsy about start position and pushed my way through the mass of athletes swarming down the stairs to the race start. The water was cold for me, and I’m sure I suffered from some immediate shrinkage, but it helped me wake up. I gently swam the 100m to where the pros were starting to ensure my place at the front. Maybe it’s the Southern gentleman in me, but I hate swimming over slower people—even if it means getting half drowned by folks more hydrodynamic and barbarian than myself. There were some tires lining the side of the dock from which the announcer would try in vain to keep the rabid age groupers remotely organized. Being small, I fit perfectly in the center of one with most of my body out of the water. Either the water or my cold was beginning to give me chills. Most of the other athletes treaded water after the pros were sent off with a 15min head start. But several made their way to the tires to hang on and conserve their energy. When a woman asked if she could hold on to my leg cuz she couldn’t reach a tire, I welcomed the heat of her hand. By the time the cannon fired (without warning) I was ready to swim.

The first 500m was a melee of thrashing arms and legs in a sea of white foam, so it really wasn’t swimming. When I got pushed down by a guy trying to swim not over or around but through me, I nearly went postal on the dude and started stroking with closed fists. That eased things up a bit, and I found some open water. 500m later the chaos returned with a vengeance and escorted me all the way back to the swim exit. Checking my watch, I saw 1’04”. Checking my body, I saw no blood. I’d take it.

Rinse off, strip off the Super Elite, pick up the Bike Bag, run to where my Blue T12 was racked, throw on my helmet and shoes, and stuff some extra nutrition into a pocket. A part of my consciousness picked up on the battle between an NBC guy and J.D., one of the cameramen shooting the documentary. They were fighting over the rights to the best shot of me. I think J.D. won, but didn’t stick around to see as I ran my bike out, crossed the mounting line, and jumped on my bike without stopping. Time to roll!

Passing more people than were passing me, I knew these first few miles would tell me if I was having a good or a bad blood day. I normally get stronger the longer I ride, but if my hematocrit is particularly low, I feel it almost from the first pedal stroke. 5miles into it and I didn’t feel bad, so I settled into a comfortable pace. 112miles can be a long way, especially if you have a cold and need to run a decent marathon after it. So my strategy was to stay on top of my nutrition/hydration and to never hurt.

Going through the first 22+miles in the first hr, I felt like I was following my plan. I hated being passed by folks but knew I needed to race within myself. When I push it now, I cramp. And while that would have made some good drama for Dave on the motorcycle filming me, I thought I’d save that performance for another day.

As the winds picked up, so did the drafting. I kept looking around for race officials to bust some of the obvious packs up, but they seemed as rare on the bike course as shade. The motorcycle I saw the most of was Dave’s. Race official’s orders allowed him to follow me only for 3mins at a time (never in front of me) so I wouldn’t get a penalty for pacing. He also couldn’t speak to me as that’d be considered encouragement, though one time I did see him give me the thumbs up. He told me later that he got a kick out of me violently coughing like a smoker and chucking loogies as I passed whole packs of riders drafting each other.

At mile 70, I started to feel a bit sleepy and realized that I was behind on my nutrition. I quickly took in some Hammer Nutrition based calories and then a brief rain storm chilled me enough to keep me out of R.E.M. I was also beginning to feel some irritation on my taint from the combination of salt water and aero position and began to dread the pain of a post race shower. But instead of slowing down, I sped up, smelling the finish line and anxious to relieve my crotch and ever filling bladder.

I rolled into T2 in 5’05” feeling relatively fresh and handed my bike to a “catcher.” Then I ran toward my run gear as Linda, another camera person, trailed me. I lost her when I dove into the port-a-let for a long, welcome pee break (a sign of good hydration), but she caught me again as I exited T2 to start the run. Forcing back sudden tears again, I found my wife in the crowd and gave her a high five, getting a few steps past her when I realized I hadn’t voiced the words in my head: “I love you.”

From mile 1, I was afraid that I might cramp. Not my legs or anything. I thought my face might cramp. I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was running in the Hawaii Ironman World Championships, competing against the best in the world, despite a 4 week long cold, a 6.7 strength earthquake, and freakin’ leukemia. These folks had no idea how hard the past two years had been. The physical and emotional turmoil I’d endured just to get here made 26.2 seem, like life, simply too short. I wanted to enjoy it. And I did. Every step I took I savored, almost laughing at my own inside joke—my little secret which made the brutality of Ironman a whole lot easier to endure. When I caught the eyes of some of the spectators, they’d all say the same thing: “nice smile!” And I’d grin bigger, thinking “I’m just happy to be here.”

After a final trip to the port-a-john at mile 5 so that the remainder of the marathon would not have bodily musical accompaniment, I kept knocking off effortless sub 8’s until mile 13. I was pretty much alone on the Queen K when my left extensor hallucis tendon started aching a bit. Put it out of your mind and keep going. Entering the dreaded Energy Lab on what should’ve been a welcome downhill, I felt my left hamstring twinge. F_ _ _! Slow it down a bit. Just a warning sign from your Gleevec. Keep your gait under control and force the hammie to relax. Knock down an extra Endurolyte. There…now put the smile back on your face.

With 7 miles to go, I knew I had sub-10, even at my much reduced pace. I was a little frustrated I couldn’t just let it all hang out and go 9:40 or better. But the growing number of athletes I passed who were being forced to walk or who were spreading the contents of their stomachs along the road made me realize that some forward motion was better than none. I gave words of encouragement to a few of them, their answering silence lifting in waves of heat from the hot, black asphalt I quickly put between us.

At mile 25 I saw Linda from Bike Works and thanked her for everything. I took it gingerly down Palani Road, not wanting to replicate my cramping performance of Coeur d’Alene and trying to keep the threatening tears from making an appearance too soon. I heard my name more and more often as I closed in on the finish and wondered how these people knew me. As I made the final turn onto Alii, I saw J.D. with a camera running alongside me. “How do you feel?” he yelled to be heard above the noise of the cheering crowd and the announcer in the closing distance. “Happy to be alive, man!”

I entered the finishing chute and grabbed a bag from Mike. Reaching inside I grabbed some yellow Livestrong bracelets and tossed them to the crowd on the right. I gave a few high fives and tossed some more to the crowd on the left. I vaguely remember seeing my sister, mother, and Di and then the finish line came. “Too soon,” I thought as I walked into the arms of my friends Nina and Gillian. I hugged them and tried not to cry, reserving the tears for the two who would best understand: my wife and my mom.

My watch read 9:50:10. But only I knew the true time it took me to get here.

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