There is no way in heck that I am going to do an Ironman 140.6. Those were my thoughts on mile six of the 13.1 mile run and shortly after crossing the finish line at Ironman Raleigh 70.3. Wow, that was hard, so hard!
One week ago, I made my way 70.3 miles from Jordan Lake in Pittsboro, NC to the finish line in downtown Raleigh. What an adventure, but gosh, it was difficult!
This post is a recap for the race last Sunday. It’s a longer post than normal, but six hours of a fun, self-inflicted pain, and misery-filled 70.3-mile triathlon is hard to describe in 600 words or less.
I guess I could describe it fairly well by saying it felt like I was hammering all of my toes to the ground after swimming and biking in a steam room for six hours. That pretty much sums it up in in 24 words but doesn’t quite take you there like I would like. So, read on as I take you with me, back to race day at Ironman Raleigh 70.3.
I hope you enjoy.
Last Sunday morning started when my alarm went off at 3:30 am. I slept well, just not very long. Looking back, I probably could have set my alarm for a little later, but I was worried about not getting to the race on time to set up my transition areas. It’s unusual to have two transition areas, but this was a point to point race, making two transitions necessary. This added an element of uncertainty that I wasn’t used to from my previous triathlon experiences.
Susanna, my lovely support person, and I got to downtown Raleigh at 4:30 and after setting up my run transition area with my running gear, we, along with other racers and spectators loaded onto charter buses for a 40-minute ride out to Jordan Lake. The ride provided a nice time to relax, to close my eyes and gather my thoughts about what was about to happen. We arrived at the lake a little before 5:30, plenty of time to set up my bike transition and warm up for the start of the race, two hours in fact. I could have gotten there a little later, but in triathlon, you must prepare for the unexpected. I felt better knowing that I was there with plenty of time to make sure my tires were holding pressure, my bike was ready, and my gear was properly organized for when I came out of the water to start the bike portion of the race.
Arriving early also allowed us to enjoy a relaxing pre-race sunrise over Jordan Lake. It was so nice to have that time and not feel so frantic trying to get ready for the biggest race of my life. We spent that extra time enjoying the sights and sounds of race morning with 1,200 participants, their supporters and all the volunteers that made the event happen.
It was interesting, for such a big race, that I was not as anxious or as nervous as I thought I was going to be. Yes, I had some pre-race jitters, but nothing close to what I imagined having. So much of participating and completing a triathlon is more mental than physical. Mentally, I was ready. During the last few weeks leading up to the race, I kept reminding myself to race “my” race, to stick with my race plan and to trust my training. I visualized, over and over again, my race plan in action. I rehearsed, in my mind, how I wanted to tackle each leg of the race and each transition. Because I had prepared myself mentally, and rehearsed it repeatedly, I didn’t have to anxiously think about any of that right before the race. I just had to go out there and execute.
As the professionals were getting ready to start the race at 7:00 am, I got into the water to warm up. I swam a couple hundred yards to get my body used to the water temperature and to loosen up a little. The water temperature was 81 degrees, too warm for wetsuits. While I was a little bummed about not being able to wear a wetsuit, I came out of the water after my warm-up feeling confident and ready.
With over 1,200 participants, the organizers divided everyone into age groups and had wave starts instead of one massive start with all 1,200 racers. At 7:35, I was moving into the water, along with 150 other males aged 40-44, for our 7:40 start. It was our time!
Standing waist deep in the water, all I heard was the music playing on the loudspeakers, the announcers’ words of encouragement and the spectators cheering everyone on. The announcer said, “have fun out there,” the horn blew, and off I went, diving into a washing machine of swimmers heading out toward the middle of the lake, the start of Ironman Raleigh 70.3.
At first it was difficult to get into a smooth swim rhythm as the group was bunched up, splashing and kicking, swimming over and bumping into each other. For that reason, the swim start is typically the most intimidating and overwhelming part of a triathlon. For me, this race was different because I was ready for it. I had trained extremely hard on the mental side of the race and was prepared for swimming through the turbulence I knew I would encounter.
My goal for the swim was to approach it one buoy at a time and not think about the entire swim distance. There were 18 large buoys, one every 100 meters or so apart. I found a good pace and before I knew it, I was approaching the first turn buoy, buoy six, 1/3 of the way to the swim finish.
I could tell I was swimming a slower pace than I typically do in the pool by myself, but I was feeling good racing my race. I was listening to my body and reminding myself that it was going to be a long day. I knew I needed every ounce of energy I had for the day, so feeling a little slower didn’t bother me too much.
About halfway through the swim, I got a shot of confidence that I wasn’t expecting as I started passing swimmers with green swim caps. These were racers that started four minutes ahead of my group. I may have been slower than I expected, but I evidently was faster than others out there. It’s funny how I gained confidence from that, but when racers that started passing me from the group behind me, in their fluorescent green caps, I shrugged it off as no big deal. I had to continue to race my race.
When I made that last right turn to head back to the shore, I thought to myself “I am really doing this. I am racing in my first Ironman 70.3, and I feel good!” I came out of the water after 43 minutes, a little slower than I expected, but feeling confident and good. Most importantly, I was having fun!
At transition, I dried off a little, ate half of a Cliff Bar, drank some of my sports drink, put on my bike shoes, and fastened my helmet. It was time to bike 56 miles back to Raleigh. I pushed my bike out of the transition area, clicked my shoes into the pedals and off I went with the morning breeze blowing gently in my face.
Everything seemed to be going well as I pedaled through the countryside around Jordan Lake. I was feeling pretty good and I was comfortable, which is a good thing, especially since I had to be on my bike for another 50 miles or so.
The weeks leading up to the race, I had been contemplating buying a triathlon bike, which is built more for speed and aerodynamics, but decided against spending the money and using my normal road bike as I had planned. As racer after racer riding their tri-bikes passed me on the flat portions of the course, I knew I was at a disadvantage and decided to start thinking more seriously about buying one for my next big race.
At this point, though, the route was mostly flat with an occasional rolling hill, nothing like the mountains of WNC. At mile 14, I passed an aid station where volunteers handed me a fresh bottle of Gatorade as I whizzed by throwing out my empty water bottle. I knew hydration and calories were extremely important for such a long race and didn’t miss an opportunity to fill up. I settled back into a good cadence and began passing a few riders until my right shoe became unattached to my pedal. “Crap!”
I pulled over on the side of the road to figure out what had happened. I quickly realized the cleat that screws into the bottom of my shoe and that clicks into the pedal had come unscrewed from my shoe. I tried and tried, but I could not get the cleat unattached from the pedal without my shoe attached. I pried, pulled and twisted, but I couldn’t produce enough torque to get it off. I had the right tool to screw the cleat back into my shoe, only if I could have gotten it off the pedal. As a group of racers passed me, I made the decision to just get back on the road with one foot clipped in and one not.
The next 40 miles were somewhat of a blur as I was focused on keeping my right foot balanced on the small pedal, not clipped in. I had lost power and while I felt good physically, I definitely felt my speed had reduced. Up until about mile 30, the course remained mostly flat. My unclipped shoe seemed okay during those stretches of flat roads, however, after mile 30 it changed.
The course became more rolling over the last 25 miles and it was much more challenging to produce consistent power on each climb without my shoe sliding around on the pedal. While the hills were much smaller than the mountains I trained on, they were more difficult with my shoe situation.
It seemed like forever, but I made it to mile 50 on the bike and got a second wind, knowing that I only had six miles and about 15 minutes left of pedaling.
With the taller buildings of Raleigh getting larger and larger as I approached them, I began to mentally prepare myself for the run, a half marathon after four hours of swimming and biking.
Coming into Raleigh I still felt good physically. I had peddled over 40 miles with one shoed clipped in and one not. I overcame that unexpected challenge and now it was time to transition to the run.
After a 4-minute transition where I refueled, put on my socks and running shoes, I was off on my last leg of the race.
During the first couple miles of the run, I felt ok, however, the heat and humidity, along with exhaustion, was starting to make an impact on my performance. At that time, I was keeping a sub-9 minute per mile pace, but that quickly changed. My body kept wanting me to stop, but I wasn’t going to. Each mile started to seem longer and the aid stations couldn’t come quickly enough. I stayed hydrated and dumped plenty of water and ice over my head along the way, but I just could not sustain the pace I had planned on keeping. After five hours of racing, I still had about seven miles to go.
Somehow, I was able to find a little energy and felt a little stronger on miles nine and ten. At that point, I remember thinking that I only had a 5k left. Easy peasy, right? Well, again, my muscles kept wanting me to stop and those last three miles were tortuous. I kept going, pushing through the hills that seemed like mountains, walking some, but got closer with every stride. The announcer had just told us the day before, that “forward is a pace.” I may have been going slow, but I was going forward.
After what seemed like an eternity for those last three miles, I was a quarter of a mile away from the finish.
Turning left onto Fayetteville Street, in front of the NC state capitol building, gave me the final push I needed. Making that turn allowed me to see the Ironman carpet and the finish line. The spectators were lining the street encouraging all the racers with bells and cheers. As I got closer, the announcer said, “Here comes Matthew Wells from Waynesville, NC.” I didn’t have the energy, nor the desire, to make it a sprint finish, but I smiled knowing that I was about to finish my first Ironman 70.3, something I had committed myself to doing and trained so hard to complete.
I crossed the finish line in 6 hours, 14 minutes and 51 seconds, officially. The sense of accomplishment hit me quickly. I was tired, my entire body was sore and exhausted. Sweating from head to toe, I was chaffed, and my feet were killing me, especially my toes, but I was smiling!
I had fun out there, in a weird way, but dang that was so hard, especially the run. Yes, it took me a little longer than I wanted, but I am tickled to death with my results. Even with mechanical problems that slowed me down on my bike or the heat and exhaustion that were difficult to overcome on the run, I finished and I am happy.
I am so thankful that I said, “why not,” when I first had the idea of completing an Ironman 70.3 roughly six months ago. Yes, the race was the hardest thing I have physically ever done, but I’m so glad I did it and I look forward to doing it again.
For the next few weeks, though, I am reducing my training schedule to spend more time with the people I love and who have encouraged and supported me on my Ironman journey. I plan to breathe a little deeper, relax a little, write and read more, cook some great meals and one of my favorite things, to just be. Why not be?
Do you have a goal or a challenge that you would like to take on or try to accomplish? If you are trying to decide whether to attempt it or not, ask yourself, “why not tri?” What do you have to lose?