To Family, Friends & Clients:
For those of you who saw my post this past Saturday, I promised you a second installment on my fitness journey in the world of endurance events. This is that second installment, and I hope it inspires you to join me on the swims, bike rides, and jogging trails of a triathlon event. You won’t regret it.
My true journey began in the Fall of 2012, when I made the decision that I was going to complete what is called a full Ironman (IM) triathlon. I chose an event called IM Texas because it would be held at a convenient time of year, mid-May 2013, and near my home in a beautiful venue known as the Woodlands. While I knew that a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and then a 26.2 mile (full marathon) run, all to be completed in 17 hours or less, would be a significant challenge, I had no idea what a challenge it would be. Furthermore, I had no true appreciation for the almost reverent status accorded those who complete an IM.
If you have never been to the Woodlands, then you should visit sometime. It is 27 miles north of downtown Houston, and 50 miles from my home in west Houston, and it is every bit one of the finest master planned communities in the United States, if not the world. Condos, restaurants, and businesses beautifully arranged to peacefully co-exist together. Single family homes nestled among acres and acres of pine trees. Lakes and waterways with wonderful vistas. PGA quality golf courses, and more. Based on all the surrounding beauty, the Woodlands could not be a better venue for IMTX.
After almost five months of training that involved miles and hours of swimming, cycling, and running, and as the training became more and more mind consuming, as opposed to physically consuming, I couldn’t wait for my day to arrive. The training time took me more and more out of the office in terms of weekend time. As such, I fell behind in my personal admin work, as well as the firm’s admin work. From mid-March through mid-May, I hardly worked a single weekend, because once you jog 12-16 miles on Saturday, and then cycle 75-80 miles on Sunday, going into the office on either day was the last thing on your mind, unless there was a client related deadline.
Finally, however, Saturday, May 18, 2013 arrived. My alarms went off at the appointed hour of 5:00 a.m., and I popped right out of bed. I put on my bike shorts and bike shirt, then the sleeveless wetsuit, and then the timing chip. I put the swim goggles around my neck, and the swim cap inside my bike shirt. The goal was to be out the door by 5:30 a.m., and we, Team Mendel (my wife) and I, were. At 5:40 a.m., Team Mendel dropped me off as close to the transition area as possible.
For those not familiar with the term transition, it is the place where swimmers exit the water, put on their bike gear, and get on their bikes for a 112-mile bike ride. Upon their return to transition, they put on their running gear and then jog 26.2 miles.
After a short walk, I was in transition by 5:45 a.m. While in transition I checked my bike’s tire pressure, loaded the water bottles and sports drink onto my bike, and placed my food in my bike and run gear bags. I exited transition shortly after 6:15 a.m., then commenced my walk to the swim area.
The walk to the swim area was kind of tough. My tri-coaches (Greg, Maureen, and Balazs) wanted me to consume approximately 550 mg of sodium (which I did with two sports drinks), and consume 500 calories of food before the swim start. The sports drinks went down fine. My choice of food (small kolaches and a peanut butter sandwich) went down slow. I actually started eating on the drive to transition, but the challenge was that I normally do not eat that early and besides that, I was a little tight about the event. Nevertheless, I knew I had to eat. After all, I would be in the water for probably 1 hour and 45 minutes, and you should not exercise that long without food, especially if your next event was a 112-mile bike ride.
The other tough part was that the swim area was about a mile away (seemed further). The ambient temperature was 75 degrees with 90% relative humidity, and I was getting hot in the wetsuit. Although the top half of the wetsuit was pulled down to my waist, I was still perspiring.
As I approached the swim area, I wondered where Team Mendel might be standing. No sooner than the thought crossed my mind, she appeared. She knew it would be difficult to find me in the swim area, and knew it would be almost impossible to find me once I entered the water. What she knew, however, is that I have a penchant for being on time, but not especially early, and she was right. She found me fairly easily because I was one of the last persons to make his way over to the swim area from transition. While it might seem like I was cutting it close, I was standing near the shore line with 15 minutes to spare.
As I stood in the swim area, the swimmers were separated into two groups. Those with a wetsuit, and those without a wetsuit. Whether you wore a wetsuit depended on your goals. If you want to win prize money or awards, like an entry to another event, then you do not want a wetsuit. If money or awards is not your goal, then you can wear a wetsuit if the water temperature is between 76.1 – 83.8 degrees. This was known as the wetsuit optional temperature. The downside of a wetsuit on a wetsuit optional day, however, is that you are penalized 10 minutes. If the temperature was between 68 – 76.1 degrees, then everyone (except the pros) could wear a wetsuit, and no penalty would be assessed. For the pros to wear a wetsuit, the water temperature would need to be below 68 degrees. I know it sounds strange, but those are the rules.
With an official water temperature of 77.6, it would be a wetsuit optional day. This meant the pros would start at 6:50 a.m., the non-wetsuit swimmers would start at 7:00 a.m., and then the wetsuit swimmers would start at 7:10 a.m. Regardless of what time you start, the deadline to finish is midnight. (FYI, no one worries that the pros start 10 minutes ahead of everyone else, because they will be finished by 4:00 p.m.).
For me, the decision was easy. Given that this was my first IM, I was going to wear a wetsuit. The extra buoyancy would improve my overall swim time by more than the 10-minute penalty that I would be forced to incur. After all, for me, it was all about finishing before midnight. Finish before midnight, and you acquired the revered status of IM. Finish after midnight and you are labeled DNF (did not finish).
As I approached the swim area, I finished the second of my two sports drinks. There was a gentle breeze and the energy level in the swim area was off the charts. The announcer’s energy was strong and infectious. In addition, if the blaring music did not get the adrenaline flowing, then nothing would.
On the Sunday before the event, my tri-coach (Greg) gave me a different game plan for this swim. In Galveston, for the 70.3 Half IM, I started at the right buoy, while the crowd hugged the buoy line on the left. This time he said hug the buoy line. What? Are you crazy? Before I could blurt out those words he said, I know you think it will be crowded, but in reality, it will be more crowded by the shore. After the start, it will get crowded quickly, but after 500 yards, it will thin out.
As I stood near the shore, looking at the start line, I realized he was right. There was hardly anyone by the left buoy line. After I waded into the water, I gently swam to the left buoy. It was just me and about six other swimmers. I couldn’t believe it.
When the cannon sounded, we took off. Like Galveston, this was not a race for me, nor the roughly 2,800 other athletes. The race portion was for the pros, and they numbered about 15. For me and the rest of the athletes, this was an event. A competition against ourselves. I reminded myself that I was in the pool. The goal was long, smooth, stretching strokes. A smooth easy pace to match the pool would help me control my breathing and energy. Like Galveston, it worked.
Greg was right. It got crowded along the left buoy line and fairly quickly. While I am not one to kick a lot during a long swim, I kicked a fair amount during the first 500 yards. The reason was to make sure that if anyone wanted to run over me, because they were a faster swimmer, than they needed to know that they ran the risk of my foot in their mouth or, worse, my foot would knock off their goggles. The plan worked, as I had only a couple of instances where someone tried to run me over.
Once I got about 500 yards down the buoy line, the crowded began to thin out. First, the faster swimmers had pulled ahead of me. Second, there was still a fairly large group of swimmers moving from right to left towards the buoy line.
Now some folks wonder what you think about on such a long swim. It was easy, really. When I was not repeating my swim coach’s mantra of long, smooth, stretching strokes, and rotating my body, I contemplated the mysteries of the universe, such as who invented liquid soap and why? What is the cheese to sauce ratio of a pepperoni pizza? Important lessons to be sure.
One of the things you worry about on these long swims is to make sure you do not turn a 2.4 mile swim into a 2.6 mile swim. To avoid this problem, I would site the buoys every third to seventh stroke. The plan could not have gone better. About the farthest I ever got from the buoy line was probably 5-6 yards. Furthermore, I cannot tell you how many buoys I passed where the side of my arm gently brushed the buoy. It was like Galveston, with a torpedoes bead.
My dream swim would be 1 hour, 30 minutes, but as I moved through the water, I knew that was never going to happen. In the deep recesses of my mind, I thought it important to swim a slower pace and to not expend all my energy on the swim. After all, after the swim, I still had to cycle 112 miles and run a full marathon. At the pace I was going, I figured 1:45 to 1:50 would be more probable. After about 3200 yards, I finally made the turn from open water to what is called the canal or channel. Just 1,000 yards to go.
At this point, knowing I was 1,000 yards out, I could feel an increased sense of energy, as measured by the fact that I was passing people. I continued to sight (look) for the final red turn buoy. I knew that once I made the final turn, I would only have about 30-40 yards to go.
Finally, at about 150 yards out, I saw the third and final red turn buoy. As I continued my torpedo bead down the buoy line of the channel, I had a flash from Top Gun. Steve, you’re at 150 yards, call the ball. Roger, Steve has the ball (the buoy in site).
Why a fighter pilot movie like Top Gun popped into my mind while I was swimming is beyond me, but it did, and I couldn’t shake it. It probably should have been Run Silent, Run Deep, or some similar movie associated with water, but that’s not what happened.
As I got closer to the red buoy, I could feel a swimmer coming up on my left. I thought he had made a serious mistake. If I am hugging the buoy line, then he had to be to the left of the buoy line. Since all turns at the buoy had to be to the right, his choices were to either cut in front of me, or go around the right side of me, which would mean a small loss of time.
As he tried to pass me, I refused to yield my position, and I refused to swing wide to accommodate his siting error. I had the lead (as between he and I), and the torpedo bead on the buoy. Like the other buoys earlier in the swim, my left arm would brush the final turn buoy. I increased my stroke rate and started kicking to make sure I did not give up any ground.
As I turned the corner, the other swimmer was no longer a worry for me. I then focused on the landing stairs ahead. I picked a section that would be empty upon my arrival and pushed towards it. Upon arrival, I was greeted by two volunteers who pulled me out of the water. I hit the lap button on my Garmin (a sports watch) to switch to transition mode, and saw a swim time of 1:55. While I was not happy about the swim time, I was even more unhappy with the Garmin. It had water under the glass.
OMG! Are you kidding me? The Garmin chose to break on the day of my big event? While I was not happy about the prospect, I thought, well, the unit was under warranty and besides that, I had a separate unit just for the bike, and a backup for the run. Like a NASA flight control director, I had redundancy in my plan and in my equipment. In other words, I hoped for the best, but planned for the worst. I then turned my attention to getting my bike bag, getting to the wetsuit strippers, getting to the changing tent, and then grabbing my bike.
Unfortunately, I had the sequence of events wrong. The very next thing to happen was I entered the wetsuit stripping area. As I ran into the area, one of my morning swim mates appeared out of nowhere. For a split second I thought, what’s Maria doing here? I had forgotten that Maria volunteered to be a wetsuit stripper. The next thought was thank goodness Maria was here. I needed a friend’s help because I never would have gotten out that wetsuit by myself. The wetsuit fit me tight, like a second layer of skin.
As Maria and Jesse (another Masters swim mate) pulled off my wetsuit, I could hear someone yelling my name. WAY TO GO STEVE!!! GO STEVE!!! I would learn later that the person screaming my name was my swim coach. I never saw her. All I saw was Maria and Jesse, and in a few seconds I was gone, jogging down the concrete path to get my bike gear.
The next stop was the changing tent. As I ran to the tent, I was greeted with the view of an exposed, sagging rear end. My god man, cover yourself. I have a bike ride to think about. Did no one tell you to wear your bike shorts under the wetsuit, and if you did not wear a wetsuit, then to swim in your bike shorts. What the heck is ongoing on here???
Now don’t get me wrong. I can handle being mooned. But if it is going to happen, then I need one of those 30-year old female athletes from the other tent doing the mooning, and not some guy my age or older.
Fortunately, I quickly composed myself and focused on the words of one of my tri-coaches, Balazs, a pro triathlete who would finish 7TH on the day. Balazs said dump your gear on the ground so there is no chance that you might inadvertently leave something important in your bike bag. I did as he said, and I didn’t forget anything. Yet, for reasons I cannot explain, I spent 10:37 in transition. Not an awful time, but not a good one either.
As I jogged through the transition area to my bike, it was obvious I was one of the slower swimmers. Of the 2,814 registrants, there might have been 300 bikes left. While I regretted that fact, I knew there was no time to stand around and feel sorry for myself. I got to my bike as quick as I could, gave a high 5 to one of my triathlete friends and took off for a 112-mile journey.
At this point it is roughly 9:10 a.m. The temperature was now climbing to the 80’s, and per my bike Garmin, would reach a high of 95 degrees. Per a weather report, the southerly wind was only about 8 mph when I started the bike ride, but it would climb to 15 mph per hour before the day would end. The only way to describe the weather to be endured was brutal. Greg, one of my tri-coaches, later told me that Saturday’s course conditions were the “toughest you’ll see anywhere, including (Kona).” (Note: For those not familiar with triathlete jargon, Kona is Kona, Hawaii, the place where the IM Championship is held. Kona is considered the ultimate IM event).
Yet, at 9:10 a.m., I was in a state of blissful ignorance. I mounted my bike and headed north out of the Woodlands towards the highway. Within five minutes of reaching the highway, someone yelled at me. HEY STEVE. CONGRATUALTIONS STEVE. I turned to see who it might be, but I did not recognize anyone in the lines of cars stuck in traffic. I turned my eyes back to the road to push on, but I could not help wondering, who knows I am out here. I know it’s not Team Mendel, I saw her smiling angelically at me from a shady spot on an esplanade as I rode out of the Woodlands. I learned later it was one of my former associate attorneys, who left the practice of law to go into financial services.
The first 20 miles on the bike were great. My average rate of speed climbed steadily. 15 mph. 16 mph. 17 mph, and still climbing. This was better than I anticipated, and all without extending myself physically. When I hit 17.8 mph, I figured I was probably 10 minutes from hitting 18 mph as my average speed. I was doing so well that I decided to switch the data screen on my bike Garmin to compare my current progress to that of the virtual rider built into the Garmin.
Unlike an iPhone where the slightest swipe will take you to the next screen, this model Garmin requires a fair degree of pressure. So with a degree of pressure, I swiped the screen to compare my present metrics against those of the virtual bike partner. The screen went blank. Damn. I swiped in the wrong direction. So I swiped the screen again, but in the opposite direction. Still blank. What the heck is going on here? Please tell me I am not going to have to slow down or, worse, stop to resolve this matter. I then proceeded to make a series of nonstop swipes, each with the same result – nothing.
OMG! Please tell me this Garmin did not die (it was less than a week old). Knowing my speed, time, and distance was critical. To be left without these important metrics over the course of the next 92 miles could be a huge problem. I tried to repower the unit, but to no avail. Finally, I stopped the bike, took a deep breath, hit the power button a second time, and the unit powered up. YES!!! The cycling gods were still with me. Now I just need to see the unit pick-up where it turned off. Within seconds I realized, NOT GONNA HAPPEN. I could save the data up to the point the unit turned off, but the odometer for the ride started back at zero. While I was not pleased, I clipped back into my pedals and took off.
Losing my data hurt in many ways. I went from averaging 17.8 mph to not knowing what my average speed was, and being forced to establish a new set of metrics, and I would need to add 20 miles to each odometer reading to determine total distance traveled.
Just as bad, if not worse than losing the initial Garmin data, I learned shortly thereafter that half of the energy bars that I so carefully cut into 60 calorie pieces melted back together. It was as though I had never cut them. This was a problem because it made it difficult to quickly refill the food pouch on my bike. The idea was a 2-3 minute stop every 80-90 minutes. With large solid bars, as opposed to small pieces that you can just pop into your mouth, I would need to do something else.
For the half that did not melt back together, I was able to refill my food pouch. The only problem with these other bars was the melted icing that smeared across my fingers. I then had the joy (NOT) of licking my fingers to minimize the amount of icing that would make it onto the handle bars.
For miles 20-40, I endeavored to get my average mph back to 17+. It was not to be. I got to about 15.8 mph before the heat and gentle rollers (more uphill than downhill) began to take their toll. I knew the southerly winds were around 13-15 mph, but when you’re hot and going uphill, it feels like no breeze at all.
At this point I was taking either one water bottle and/or a sports drink bottle at each aid station. I always kept the second water bottle as the emergency backup. Starting at the aid station at mile 42, I decided that whatever water was still in the primary bottle would be poured on my head and upper body. I would no longer waste a single drop. What was not consumed internally was poured on me externally to keep me cool.
My tri-coaches warned me that at some point in the ride, I would be visited by mind demons. Mine began to appear around mile 50. For those who know me, this was of little concern.
The mind demons are the equivalent of Darth Vader gently inviting me to come to the dark side. They knew the force was strong in this athlete, so the invitation had to be subtle. The mind demons knew that if they were too confrontational, then it would be easy to banish them from my mind.
You know how it starts. The somewhat humorous and nonthreatening question of “why I am doing this?” “Whose idea was this?” Funny questions when you are just shooting the breeze with someone. Initially, the thoughts were easy to overcome. Yet, as I struggled more and more with the heat and the uphill portion of the ride, the dark side became a challenge.
Although you have 17 hours to finish all three events, you are not the master of how to budget your time. The rules impose certain deadlines at certain points in the course. For the bike, all riders had to be at mile 60 or beyond by 1:40 p.m., or they would be pulled from the course. Despite the heat and reduction in average speed as each mile passed, I was still running about 30 minutes ahead of the deadline. While this was a good sign, my concern was that I still had the worst part of the ride ahead of me.
From miles 55-60, the mind demons gave up their subtle approach and made an all-out assault. They obviously knew the course better than I. They knew that if they did not turn me to the dark side and soon, then it would never happen. I was battling the heat and hills, and then came another blow. Around mile 55, I found it difficult to tolerate solid food, which were my energy bar bites. I quit eating my own bars, and started taking small energy bar packs at the aid stations. Yet, at mile 55, instead of eating 60 calories every 10 minutes, I found myself dropping to 40 calories every 10 minutes.
While 20 calories may not seem like a big deal, you have to remember that nutrition, hydration, and sodium are everything at these events. If I am burning 800 calories per hour on the bike, then I need to replenish my body with 400 calories per hour (from all sources). If I consume 20 calories less every 10 minutes, this meant a 30% reduction in calories, and the mind demons wasted no time in presenting mental images to me of failing to finish due to a lack of nutrition.
Yet, like a NASA flight director, I was prepared for the possibility that I might not be able to tolerate solid food. More specifically, I had a 4TH bottle on the bike, and it contained 24 oz. of a gooey gel known as a Clif Shot, and roughly 4 oz. of water (shaken, not stirred, well). If I could no longer tolerate solid foods, then I would have to get my nourishment from liquid sources, and so I did. From mile 65 on, I hardly touched the solid foods and stuck mostly with my gel bottle.
Close to mile 60 we had our Sgt. Foley/Zack Mayo (a la An Officer & a Gentleman) confrontation. The demons were demanding my DOR (dismissed on request). I refused. I was not going to quit. I had a 30 minute lead over the course requirements, and the next deadline was not until 5:30 p.m., when all riders had to be back in transition to earn the right to get on the run course.
For me, however, the real deadline was 5:00 p.m., and the mind demons knew this. I knew if I could be back in transition by 5:00 p.m., I would have 7 hours to finish the marathon. My first ever marathon in January 2013 was right at 6 hours. My half marathon (after a 56-mile bike ride) as part of a 70.3 IM event was completed in 3:15. I figured I would use 10 minutes in transition and, if I ran well, then I would finish the marathon in 6:30 or 6:45 tops. This meant I would have to ride strong, and so the decision was made. If the ride official wanted to pull me from the course, then he could, but I was not going to be swayed by the dark side. I was not going to quit. If I missed the transition deadline, then so be it, but it would not be because I quit. I would have to suffer a mechanical bike failure or just flat-out run out of energy in order for me to miss the 5:30 p.m. deadline.
In order to fight the mind demons, I filled my mind with positive thoughts and affirmations. Among other affirmations, I kept telling myself I can, am, and will finish this event. I can, am, and will finish this event. I also remembered what Greg had told me – trust your training. Trust your training. And so, around mile 62, the mind demons gave up the fight.
With every challenge that is overcome, there is a reward, and my reward for defeating the mind demons was a blessing from the bike gods. Like manna from heaven, I heard one of the riders who obviously had done the event previously say, “good news, we are going to get more down hills than up hills.” Even better, the southerly winds were more of a crosswind than a head wind. At this point I felt a renewed sense of strength. Absent a mechanical failure, I was going to be in transition by 5:00 p.m. and running the marathon by 5:10 p.m. (+/-). Victory was in sight.
Several people ask what do you think about on such a long ride. I told them about the battle with the mind demons, but after that, all I thought about was my time, speed, and distance, consuming my sodium every 20 minutes, consuming my nutrition (energy gel) every 10 minutes, and consuming 30 oz. of water and/or sport drink every hour.
The other thing I thought about was that I was sure getting tired of drinking the lemon-lime sports drink. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I salivated at the thought of a different flavor sports drink, and prayed for same. At around mile 85, a man, a guardian angel, who was not affiliated with the aid stations held up two Gatorades from an ice chest filled with Gatorades – one orange and one lemon-lime. I could see condensation on the bottle, which meant the bottle was cold.
This guardian angel was obviously not skilled in the art of the handoff because he was holding the bottle wrong. Yet, I didn’t care. I yelled for the orange Gatorade and practically ran over the cyclist in front of me to get it. If necessary, I was prepared to dismount and fight for it. Fortunately, my guardian angel ran to me, handed me the orange Gatorade, and without delay I took off. Ahhhhhhhh!!! A niiiiiiiiiiice coooolllllllld, orange Gatorade. My god, it was good. There were no available water cages on the bike, but I didn’t care. I was not giving up my Gatorade, and I was not giving up any hydration on the bike. It was crunch time, and so I carried the Gatorade to the next trash drop zone.
Another thought that occupies your time, or at least mine, is that at this point in the event, what should I do if I catch up with other riders. The rules require a 4-bicycle length distance in order to avoid being hit with a 4-minute drafting penalty. You would think keeping 4 lengths back would be easy, but if your cadence is a mere 2-3 rpm faster than the person ahead of you, then you will eventually catch that person, and then you have to decide whether to give up some speed to hold your 4-length position, or draw upon your energy stores and pass the rider. Over the last 30 miles there were several riders where I really did not want to expend the energy to pass, but the thought of giving up speed and, therefore, time was unacceptable, and so I passed every one of them, and never once regretted it after I made the pass.
There was another problem over the last 30 miles – casualties. Not blood and guts or broken bones. It was worse – broken spirits. And not many. Maybe 6-7 riders is all I saw, but I am sure there were more. Their bikes lay on the side of the road, while they leaned against a wall or a tree in the shade. They looked spent. I don’t know what brought them to this place, this point in time. Maybe it was the dark side. Maybe they just did not have the energy to go on. It was probably a combination of the two. I knew, however, they committed the ultimate sin. Per my coaches, do not stop. Pedal half-time if you must. Coast if you must. But for god’s sake, do not stop. You cannot afford to let your body move into a state of rest. They stopped, and it would be their undoing.
As I approached the aid station at around mile 90, I noticed I had about 3 oz. of water in the lead water bottle. Per the plan since mile 42, I poured the last 3 oz. on me, and threw the water bottle in the permitted trash drop zone and yelled for water. The volunteer yelled back Perform, which is the sports drink. Did you not understand me? I know how to project my voice, and I clearly did not make my request with a whisper. I yelled again, only louder. WATER!!! She yelled back, WE’RE ALL OUT.
It took a few seconds to comprehend what she just said. What? What did she say? OMG!!! Are you kidding me? I just poured 3 oz. of valuable water on my body to cool myself, and you tell me at mile 90 that you are out of water. Is this some cruel joke? If so, why am I not laughing? Unbeknownst to me, there would be one more aid station, but I did not know that here. I immediately grabbed the emergency water bottle and moved it to the front. I knew between the water bottle, sports bottle, and gel bottle, I had plenty of fluids and nutrition to cover the last 22 miles. If I arrive in transition dry, then so be it, but I was not cutting back on my rate of consumption. I hoped an aid station would be at mile 100 (+/-), but if not, I was still going to make transition by 5:00 p.m.
I knew a Marine that survived two WWII Pacific island invasions. He once told me there are no atheists on a beach landing when there is a hail of gunfire. The same can be said of an IM course, as you are routinely engaged in prayer to the higher power of your choice. And, like a prayer being answered, within 2-3 miles of being told station 9 was out of water, another guardian angel appeared.
There were 2-3 people under a tent pouring water into cups and holding the cups out for riders. Like the Gatorade angel, this was not a sanctioned aid station, but I could see my water angel was a pro. He made the handoff as though we practiced it a half dozen times. Within a Nano second my mind realized two things. This wasn’t just water. This was COLD water. I drank half of the cup, and then poured the rest on my head. It felt soooooo good.
At this point I was in count down mode. 20 miles. 19, 18, and so on. I was so excited. I was on target to hit transition at about 4:55 p.m. When I made the turn onto Woodlands Parkway, I was probably 6 miles out. My mental state was the complete opposite of miles 55-60. My goal to complete an IM would soon be a mere 7 hours from reality.
For many, the mere thought of taking 7 hours to complete any activity would seem like an eternity. For me, those 7 hours would go by as fast as a couple of hours.
As I approached the final turn before the home stretch to transition, I was looking for Team Mendel. Where is she? Why isn’t she in the spot she was sitting when I left? I needed to see that smiling face. Fortunately, she saw me and yelled, “Steve.” I turned in the direction of my name being called. Our eyes met. We smiled at each other, and we both knew all was good. Within a couple of minutes thereafter, I was back in transition, and a volunteer grabbed my bike for me. The time was 4:54 p.m. The dream was becoming a reality.
I immediately tried to jog to where my run gear was stored, but the legs did not want to run. This was not good, but I figured it was more of let the legs get used to the ground instead of the pedals. I jogged a little, but mostly walked. I grabbed my run bag and headed into the changing tent.
With Balazs’ words still fresh in my mind from the first transition, I poured all my gear on the ground, so that it would be impossible to forget something. As much as it pained me, I decided to switch shirts, from a dark one to a light one. Now some athletes change clothes because they are concerned about looking good. The only reason I did it was because I was concerned about the heat. I thought a lighter shirt would help me better tolerate the heat. After all, the sun would still be up for another three hours.
The problem, however, is that these particular shirts only zip half-way down. I got the first shirt off, but I could not get the second shirt pulled down. I was tired, and had to ask for help. A volunteer, without hesitation, helped me get the shirt on.
I then put on my final Garmin backup. The first one, intended for the swim and run, died during the swim. The second one was purely for the bike. Thank goodness I didn’t get rid of that third Garmin. I thought about selling it on EBay on several occasions, but just never got around to it. Now, I not only needed it, but I had it.
After I got my shoes, shirt, and Garmin on, I entered the Twilight zone. I was in transition for 15:22. A completely and totally unacceptable amount of time. I was tired and staring at my gear. I kept repeating to myself to make sure you have everything because once you cross the timing line, there is no coming back. Make sure you have it all. At probably the 10 minute mark, I mentally regrouped. At this point all I could think about was I have to get out of here. Come on, let’s go. Whereupon, in quick order I hit the restroom, got two volunteers to pour ice down the front and back of my shirt, pulled on my cap and took off. It was 5:10 p.m. I had 6 hours and 50 minutes to finish, and figured that while it might be close, I had more than a fair chance.
When I finished day one of the MS-150 on April 21, which was a 112 miles, Greg sent me out on an 8-mile jog. He did so to simulate what it would be like on this day. Based on what I did during the MS-150, my original IM goal was to jog 2 minutes and walk briskly for 2 minutes. Due to the heat (still in the mid-80’s), I cut the time back to a 1:30 jog and 2:30 brisk walk.
If you are wondering what the other folks were doing, they were doing the exact same thing – most did a combination of jog/walk. A large contingent of others had no energy to jog anymore and were just walking. A few, like the bike riders I saw on the side of the road, committed the cardinal sin. They laid down in the grass to catch their breath.
The course was 26.2 miles, and was a 3-loop course. The first two loops were approximately 8.5 miles each. You had to finish 17 miles (2 loops) by 9:50 p.m. If you did, then you had a chance to finish the event. If you did not finish Loop 2 by 9:50 p.m., then you would be pulled from the course.
On a normal day, my typical jog/walk pace is 4.50 – 4.75 mph. On an especially good day, I can hit 5.0+ mph. For today, I wanted to maintain a minimum 4.25 mph pace for two loops, and hoped I could do 4.35 mph. If I maintained 4.25 mph, then I would cross mile 17 with 40 minutes to spare.
For the marathon, the aid stations were every mile, and my routine was virtually the same – refill my water bottle with the first person, drink two cups of the orange sports drink (for the sodium and electrolytes), one cup of cola (for the sugar and caffeine), and then eat a gel shot (for the nutrition). On a couple of occasions I had some chips, but otherwise, I was still not feeling up to eating solid food in the form of energy bars. Starting around mile 9, the restroom stops were every 2-3 miles. Once the sun went down, the rate of perspiration dropped, which meant my body had to void the fluids through my bladder as opposed to perspiration and the pores of my skin.
Although it was hot and the breeze was a little light, the first loop could not have gone better. I averaged 4.25 mph. I was on target to easily make the 17-mile cut-off time. The only problem was that the heat was getting to me. I didn’t know it at the time, because I was numb to the pain, but I was developing blisters on the back of my heels. I also had a second degree sunburn on three small sections of my right side, near my shoulder.
As I would do each time I made a loop, I would look for Team Mendel. I needed to see her smile, and she needed to see I was okay. She told me later how she and the other spouses talked about how important it was to see us. If they could see us, then they would know how we were doing.
As I passed her on the first loop, she asked how I was doing. I said okay. She knew I looked anything other than okay, and there was nothing I could do to hide the fact. It was hot, and I still had 17-18 more miles to go. While I may not have looked good, I did feel okay. I was running within myself, within my plan, and so from my perspective everything was good.
Once I got about a mile into Loop 2, I decided that I would temporarily cease the jog/walk routine. This was a dangerous decision, because I risked letting the body acquire an unacceptable degree of rest. The secret would be to maintain a brisk walk instead of a slow walk. Nevertheless, the modified plan seemed like a good one. The first two miles went so well, or so I thought, that I continued the brisk walk with the idea of preserving as much strength and energy as possible for a final push, if a final push would be required.
Like the bike ride, family and friends would later ask, what do you think about for 6 hours and 42 minutes of a marathon. For me, it was easy. I thought about eating 100 calories every 14-15 minutes, and made sure I did, take my sodium tables every 30 minutes, and drink fluids constantly. When I wasn’t thinking about hydration or nutrition, or making sure I jogged in the shade instead of the sun, I did what I called the math. In other words, I was consumed with constantly recalculating my time, speed, and distance. At this speed, will I make it in time? Can I keep the brisk walk, or do I need to start jogging? If I start jogging, how long? How far per segment? I ran the numbers over and over again, and each time I figured I was going to make it.
At around mile 12, however, something bad happened. I needed to make a restroom stop and there were only two porta-toilets at this particular aid station, and both were occupied. By the time I got in and out, that particular mile segment was 19:55, an unacceptable pace given the remainder of the distance I had to cover. At the same time, Team Mendel was tracking me with an app that I downloaded to her smartphone. At almost the same time I realized I was going to have a bad split time, Team Mendel’s phone died. The last thing she saw was that I had a 17-minute average for some amount of distance. Neither she nor I realized at the time that the actual split for that particular mile was 19:55.
To say Team Mendel was freaked would be an understatement. Team Mendel knew there was no tracking me for the next 14 miles, and she would see me and be able to communicate with me at most two more times. She also worried if I knew I had a bad split time. She knew that if I knew about the bad split, or how close things were time-wise, then I would will myself to finish. After all, I had not come this far to come up short. That I would succeed before the midnight deadline was not negotiable. The only negotiable part was the time it would take to finish.
Somewhere around mile 15, I couldn’t take it anymore. Every time I did the math, based on the current splits, my arrival time at the finish was hitting 11:58 p.m., and one calculation put me at 11:59 p.m. This was unacceptable. I needed a margin of error greater than 1-2 minutes, and so I needed to modify my plan.
Most fitness coaches will tell you that you can do anything for 60 seconds, and I think that is true. Well, I decided for the next 11 miles, I can do anything for 30 seconds. I decided to run for not less than 30 seconds out of every 2-minute segment, and I did. In fact, sometimes I ran 40-45 seconds out of every two minute segment. Based on the math, if I maintained a minimum 30/90 (jog/walk) pace, I should finish with 7-8 minutes to spare. This could work.
The desire to walk the whole distance was great, because it seemed like everyone else was doing it. But I wanted to be an IM, and unless you were on your final loop (and I wasn’t), you couldn’t walk your way to IM status. I needed to hear Mike Riley (the voice of IM events) call my name. I needed to hear him say for me, as he would say for probably 2200 others, STEVE MENDEL, YOU! ARE! AN! IRONMAN! At this point in the journey, those were words everyone lived to hear, and I was determined that I would not be denied.
At mile 15, I was still 2 miles from the cut-off point. I had until 9:50 p.m. to reach mile 17. After the first loop, I was on schedule to pass mile 17 with 40 minutes to spare. Under the new jog/run schedule, I would pass mile 17 with a mere 10 minutes to spare. It was also near mile 17 that I saw Team Mendel again. While I was tired, I know I looked and felt better. The humidity was around 60%, and the temperature was in the low 80’s. More importantly, Team Mendel knew I was doing okay because of the tone of my voice when I said hi. She also knew the dream was becoming a reality.
As I crossed the turn for the final loop, it was 9:40 p.m. Team Mendel was near the turn. She said at 9:50 p.m., course volunteers promptly began to stop all those who did not make the cut-off. I asked what was their reaction. She said essentially none. They just laid down in the grass. While I didn’t know who was behind me, you could only feel bad for those athletes. They were 9 miles from their goal, and they were being escorted off the course.
As I moved into the final loop, I knew that in roughly 2 hours, I would be an IM. Again, you might think 2 hours would seem like an eternity, but it wasn’t. It flew by because I remained totally occupied with maintaining not less than a 30/90 (jog/walk) pace, eating a gel shot every 14-15 minutes, consuming my sodium, and constantly hydrating. In addition, and despite my confidence that I would finish before midnight, I took nothing for granted. I did the math over and over and over again.
The run course essentially went around the lake, where the swim was held, and then up and down the channel. The channel was probably two miles long, with several thousand people on both sides yelling your name (name was on the bib) and cheering you on. Despite the challenge of making sure I kept moving forward, and even though they were complete strangers, their words of encouragement made the journey better. I high-fived every kid that stuck out his or her hand, because I felt they needed to be recognized for their support.
Sometime around 10:30 p.m., I was probably around mile 21.5. I heard a volunteer say that anyone who had not made it to where he was standing would probably not finish. I immediately increased the jog/walk ratio from 30/1:30 to 45/1:15, and while I did, I redid the math yet again. His numbers had to be wrong, I thought. I was still on target for 11:52 p.m. (+/- a minute or two). It was hard to increase the jog/walk ratio, but I was less than 5 miles out. If I was going to become an IM, then I would have to do whatever it took.
At around mile 23, I was back in the channel area, running east on the south side of the channel (the finish would be on the north side). It is approximately 11:00 p.m., but something was wrong. Where are all the people? Where were the fans that were cheering me earlier? I wanted, I needed, to hear their voices. Besides, Balazs promised me that cute girls would be cheering for me at the end. When I saw none, I thought, maybe Balazs needs to be a defendant in a deceptive trade practices case. Oh sure, he was younger, more athletic, and better looking than me. But what did that have to do with the promise. More importantly, I felt confident I could prove detrimental reliance, and even if I couldn’t, I knew every male juror age 55 and up would vote for me. Unable to comprehend where everyone went, I accepted the fact that the last three miles might be a little lonely.
As I approached mile 24, it was time to start looking for Team Mendel again. Where was she? Where was my cheerleader? My biggest fan? Out of nowhere, she appeared. Come on, she said. You have to start running. I looked at my Garmin and thought, sorry, the Garmin says to walk. She pointed back to the bridge not far away, where there were still a lot of runners. She said that the volunteers said that anyone still on the bridge would not finish. At this point, I was almost incapable of doing any more calculations. Yet, I knew one thing. I was not on the bridge. I was out in front of those runners.
Nevertheless, Team Mendel is a forceful individual. Like a Nascar racecar driver talking with his crew chief, Team Mendel and I engaged in a “spirited” debate about what I needed to be doing, how fast I needed to be doing it, and that I needed to be doing it now. I was in the street. She was on the sidewalk. She took off jogging. Come on she said, come on. Unfortunately, she thought I was responding to her call to action. In actuality, the Garmin alert went off and so I took off. When I hit my 45 seconds of run, I started walking again. She told me later that she thought about coming into the street, which was for athletes only, and killing me and smashing my Garmin into little pieces. As crew chief, Team Mendel hated the idea of being overruled by a Garmin alert. Our debate continued for a few more minutes. Suddenly she said, come on, just 200 meters to go.
WHOA!!! Stop the race. I thought, my god, where did she get that number? Even worse, since when did this Texas girl start talking like a European? This is Texas, darlin’, and we talk in yards, not meters, and miles, not kilometers. She’s just lucky I decided to finish the event rather than take the time to woodshed her over this serious transgression.
As we made the next turn, the rest of the way was uphill. The volunteer yelled out, just 200 meters. Just 200 meters. OMG, am I going to have to woodshed this woman as well? The thought left my mind the moment she pointed at a narrow passage way called the chute. Run to the chute she said. Run to the chute.
At this point, I forgot I even had a Garmin. Like a well-trained dog, when told to run I took-off. I did not ask how fast or how far. I just started running.
Upon my arrival at the chute, I realized why virtually no one was on the waterway or channel part of the course. They were all at the finish.
The chute was quite narrow, maybe 6 feet wide. With my name on the front of my bib, people were yelling my name. Come on Steve, you can do this. You’re an Ironman. Come on. You can do it. With each yell I felt like I was running faster. I ran from side to side high fiving everyone in sight. As I approached the finish line I raised my arms in victory, and as I crossed the line every negative thought that I had through-out the day and all the pain and suffering that I had endured was erased from my mind and body. The rush of finishing an IM within the required time was overwhelming. I was an IM, and I now understood the importance and meaning associated with it. Like an old Milwaukee beer commercial, I thought “it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
The moment you cross the finish line, a volunteer is on you like a bee on honey. My volunteer was a little girl (young woman) who probably did not stand taller than 4’-10”. She was perfect. Her shoulder, which she leaned into me, was the height of a crutch for someone my size. She immediately said congratulations, and then moved me through the crowd the way a skillful racecar driver maneuvers through traffic. Like the IM event itself, the goal was to keep moving forward.
As someone handed me my finisher medal, she was yelling LARGE, for the size finisher shirt I was to receive. She grabbed my finisher cap, and offered to hold my medal. I knew she was just trying to be helpful, because a lot of folks collapse when they cross the finish line, but there was going to be a rumble over the finisher medal. I was not going to let go. I thanked her. She smiled and said come on, let’s get your picture. You bet, I thought. I want this moment immortalized forever. After my picture was taken, she escorted me to the exit from the finish area.
Fortunately, I saw Team Mendel making her way through the crowd. I yelled for her and was rewarded with her beaming smile. She saw me finish and said it brought tears to her eyes. My coaches were also near the finish line, but it was so crowded, they couldn’t get to me. It was probably a good thing because if I could, I would have given them each a bear hug, which brings me to my last point.
I did the work, but it took a team of supporters to help me accomplish the goal.
First, I want to thank my Peak Performer group for their words of encouragement each time I would issue a report on one of my fitness events. Your words of encouragement mean a lot to me. Furthermore, while I regret that I missed the Philadelphia event, I appreciate your understanding as to the reason why. IMTX was a major Peak Performer goal for me, and I needed to be ready.
Second, I want to thank my attorneys and staff. It took an understanding law firm team to remain patient with their high-energy, high-strung boss who became even more high-energy and high-strung in the days leading up to the event. They did their best to minimize the distractions, so that I could focus on producing work product for the firm’s clients. They knew it was important that when I left the office Thursday night, all client related matters would proceed efficiently over the coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Third, I want to thank my four coaches – Greg (tri-coach), Maureen (tri-coach), Balazs (tri-coach), and Jan (U.S. Swim Masters coach). All four probably thought I was crazy. When Greg, Maureen, my wife, and I had our first meeting, Greg and Maureen asked what was my goal. I said IMTX. You could see in their eyes the thought of “is this guy kidding?” Is he for real? He’s never done a sponsored triathlon event in his life, and he is talking about doing IMTX. As physicians, they probably thought about issuing an incapacity statement to my wife, so that she could immediately move for a guardianship over me. Unfortunately, she and they failed to act quickly, and so it’s too late now.
Jan, my swim coach, helped me make consistent strides in my swimming. When I first started with Jan, I was winded after 1,500 yards of swimming. In short order she had my endurance up to 2,800 – 3,000 yards, and even then the fatigue factor was not great. She also improved my stroke technique. Long, stretching strokes means fewer strokes, which means greater distances traveled with less energy. The end result at IMTX was that I finished the swim portion of the event with almost 25 minutes to spare. Those were precious minutes I would need elsewhere during the day.
Balazs is a professional triathlete, currently ranked 19TH in the Ironman Kona rankings, and as stated earlier, he finished 7TH on the day. Balazs provided me with some wonderful race day tips. In fact, it was Balazs who told me to squeeze my gel shots into a water bottle. That one idea alone was priceless, because it was a huge time saver when I struggled to tolerate solid foods. Drinking from a gel bottle is a lot easier and faster than hassling with gel packets.
Greg and Maureen were my lead coaches from beginning to end. Whether it involved nutrition, hydration, workout regimens, race day plans, dealing with minor injuries and aches and pains, equipment problems, whatever I needed, they were my go-to coaches. I cannot begin to count how many emails and text messages they graciously traded with me since we started this journey together last Fall. Their confidence in me, and telling me that I could do this, was a huge help. I didn’t know what the journey would be like, but I knew I could trust Greg and Maureen. They had traveled this road before, and I knew they would put me in a position to succeed.
As an aside, if you ever choose to have a coaching relationship with someone, whether it is an IM, Peak Performers, or any other endeavor, then do your coaches a favor – be coachable. Listen and ask questions. Ask questions not because you doubt the value or accuracy of their advice, but to understand the “why” aspect of what you are being asked to do. I knew that if I understood the “why,” then anything is possible. I then tried to do whatever it was they said within the time constraints of running a full-time law practice, and within my physical abilities.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank Team Mendel, my wife. She was my biggest fan. My cheerleader. The cute girl that Balazs promised me, who walked and sat hours on end during this event, just to make sure I was okay.
From a nutritional standpoint, Team Mendel cooked the dinners I needed cooked. She would have breakfast or lunch ready for me on the long run days on Saturday, and those long bike ride days on Sunday. She knew how important it was that I eat immediately upon my return home.
On days when I would cycle 75-80 miles, I lacked the space on the bike to carry all the nutrition and hydration that I would need. Nevertheless, like a trooper she would meet me at some designated point to bring me the nutrition and hydration that I would need to finish the ride.
When I needed to be picked up in La Grange after cycling 112 miles and then jogging 8 miles, she was there. (La Grange is 90 miles from our home, and about a 1:15 hour drive each way).
When design, equipment, or material decisions needed to be made on the home renovation project we had going on (on a room by room basis, for the past several months, and which continue as of this writing), she made as many decisions as she could, reserving for me only those might require an attorney or an architect (I hold both licenses), or to apply my negotiating skills to obtain a discount of some sort.
In short, Team Mendel did everything she could to minimize the distractions, and help me maximize my training time. While she did not compete, she was nevertheless a competitor. My pain was her pain. My goal was her goal. This would be a victory we would share together, and we did. She was my true guardian angel.