Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Run

So leaving T2 is always a nervy experience in IM because, no matter how well the rest of the race has gone, you just never really know what it's going to feel like when you start running. Could be easy, could be next to impossible. You just don't know until you take those first tentative steps onto the course.

In '06, having just come off of a cold and pretty miserable bike ride, I was shocked to discover that the run started super easy, and it stayed that way for about 17 miles. In '07, upon leaving T2, I immediately felt an uncomfortable bloat in my belly, which stayed with me for most of the marathon, but was manageable enough so as to keep going. Two different IM races, and two different run experiences. This year, having already experienced some cramping on the bike, I was especially unsure of what the run was going to offer. I took another pee break heading out of T2, and shuffled toward the transition exit.

Crap, I thought to myself. Not feeling too good. The legs were turning, but I felt really slow and my heart rate already seemed too high. But I figured, "Give it some time, let the salt tabs kick in, get into a nice rhythm, everything will work itself out." Made my way around the Capitol square, past the first water station, and gritted my teeth for pretty much the next 26 miles.

Cue the Drama Queen Moment (DQM): This was by far the most difficult run I've ever endured. I don't think I've ever had to pep talk myself more, engage in more internal negotiations ("Okay, just run to the next aid station, and then you can walk for as long as you want..."), or just plain demanded that I continue the forward motion than I have during this race. Which is funny, because I don't recall being in extreme pain, or having (too bad of) an upset tummy, or anything that would usually make you want to sit down and cry, but something inside me really, Really, REALLY just wanted to walk. Running just seemed too damn hard. There were definitely moments, especially early on, when I didn't think that I'd finish. Then I thought that I'd probably finish, but much later than I had hoped. After that, I figured that we were looking at a repeat of '06 - running for the bulk of it, but walking in the last 10k.

But, luckily, the miles somehow kept ticking by. I'd run aid station to aid station - downing water, Gatorade, and/or Coke - telling myself that, if I could just get to the next aid station, I'd get another break. Apparently, a great many of my fellow competitors had a similar deal going with themselves, because I saw very few people running through the aid stations. And quite a few people had given up running entirely - they'd be walking in one's or two's, commiserating about "what went wrong" and how hot it had become.

At around mile 8, a nice guy named Juan drifted back to me and started running alongside, asking how I was doing and if I wanted a runningmate for a while. I said sure, despite the fact that I really didn't have much conversation in me at this point. It was taking all my will just to keep soldiering from mile to mile. But it went well - not a lot of talking, just a few questions or comments here or there, and we knocked off miles 9 through 12 together, before Juan faded a bit and I was alone again.

Pretty soon I was back at the Capitol, where the course takes you tantalizingly close to the finish line before scooting you back onto your second loop. Although I still felt pretty lousy, I figured that I was a half-marathon away from finishing my third IM, and that started to feel totally do-able. I feel bad for all the volunteers who handed me cups of liquid during that second loop, though, because the look on my face must have been a mix of anger/dread/fear/pain great enough to intimidate an NFL linebacker. I don't even recall faces, or cheers, or much of anything at that point except my internal dialogue telling me to "run, don't walk." Drew once reminded me that your slowest jog is almost always much faster than your fastest walk, and that if I could just keep turning my legs over...

Coming toward mile 16 or 17, I knew that we were once again approaching the only really steep section of the run course - a series of hills that take you over the top of the UW campus before heading back toward State Street. I had already walked this section on Loop 1, and actually looked forward to doing the same on Loop 2. Knowing that this break was coming gave me a huge boost. I knew that the final miles were counting down as I made the last turn on State Street, and once again hit the lakefront trail that would take us out toward the Ford inspiration zone (an electronic board where people's messages of support are shown when your chip trips the corresponding mat). That's at mile 22. The aid station there was great - the volunteers were all dressed up as characters from famous movies - but I was still pretty grim-faced and serious as I thought about the handful of miles I had left.

About a half-mile later I saw Cath and Drew running together going the opposite direction - I was excited that Cath looked like her chipper self (she's probably the happiest racer that you've ever seen - smiling, high-fiving, and cheering on other athletes), although Drew looked like he might be struggling a bit. We exchanged encouragement, and I went another 50 yards before I had to stop and walk. The last four miles had a lot that: run 50 yards, walk 10 yards, run 50 yards, walk 10 yards, etc. I finally got to the 25 mile marker, and could visualize the last mile+ to the finish, but again had to agree to a walk break through the last aid station before my legs would let me run again. I saw Ross at this aid station, where he was volunteering, and I barely remember telling him something about how glad I was to be finishing up.

The adrenaline kicked in when I sensed how close I was to the line, and then, out of no where, there was the finishing shoot - I let the one gal in front of me have her finishline moment, and crossed the line with three fingers up on each hand to signify my third time coming home as an IM finisher. 12:03.22. A 30-minute improvement over my time in 2007, and almost two hours faster than 2006. My super-secret, really-shouldn't-even think-this, don't-tell-anyone, pie-in-the-sky, goal time was sub-12, and to be this close, after the run I had just endured, was too good to be true. I couldn't believe it.

It's really impossible to explain what's going through your head when that finish line finally arrives. Words just really don't do it any justice. It's weird the way that the finish is always a million miles away during the race, until it's right there in front of you - there's, like, no transition from being hip-deep in the heart of the race until it's absolutely over. No mental downhill to the line, just racing and then there's no more racing. Even after such a long day you want desperately for that finishing shoot to go on for just one more block, to allow you to absorb the enormity of what you've accomplished, but then it's done. You're an Ironman.

Crossing the line, two volunteers ("catchers") grabbed my arms and immediately asked how I was feeling ("great!"), what size t-shirt I wore ("medium"), if I needed any water or Gatorade ("yes, water, please") and helped me get a photo taken (yeah, great, my hat's on crooked). I walked around a bit and soon found a folding chair to collapse into. Sipping a mix of water and Gatorade, I just sat there, silently watching as athletes made their way across the line and into the arms of waiting volunteers, each person's face etched with a mix of joy and relief. It took me a bit for the emotions to hit me. I had never expected to be so close to 12 hours for this race, especially after suffering through what I thought was a horrible run (oddly enough, my 4:18.14 was actually a 10-minute improvement over my run at IMAZ in '07). The PR, combined with all the mental pushing that I had to do during those last 26 miles, almost had me in tears. This race was really hard - much harder than IMAZ - and I actually felt like I had done something pretty special. Sure, my finish time didn't get me to Kona, and wouldn't win me any praise on Slowtwitch, but it meant a lot to me. I kept on going. I ran when I could have walked. I overcame the doubts. I persevered.

And I think that's what Ironman is really all about.

The numbers:

Overall - 544/2397
Total Time - 12:03.22
Swim - 1:17.43
T1 - 11:07
Bike - 6:07.58
T2 - 8:21
Run - 4:18.14 thoughts.


  1. I have been waiting for the final section of you're report to comment. Congrats on such a great race John! And nice work on the run. That's a pretty impressive run split by any standard, especially if you weren't feeling it.

  2. Congratulations John! What a great write-up. I really like how you described the finish, but the whole report has been amazing. You had a very strong swim and bike and your run was courageous and inspiring. Way to push through out there. 3 time Ironman, absolutely amazing. Congrats!!

  3. Wait - you got a folding chair at the finish??? :) Way to tough it out. I would have killed for that run even if it wasn't one of your best. You must be thrilled with how great you did. So where are the final thoughts?