The Joy of Failure
Belly full of lake water, I lumbered through the swim finish archway on Coeur d’Alene’s City Park beach, hearing my resoundingly pathetic time of 1 hour and 32 minutes shouted through the din of the crowd, the thumping music, the whir of the news chopper overhead, confirming what I saw on my watch and driving home the sense of disappointment. On the damp grass in T1 I sat and the wetsuit strippers did their thing while I wondered if I could get my race back on course. Then I realized someone was telling me to point my left foot out to make it easier for her to get the suit off me. If I had thought about this request I wouldn’t have done it. But I didn’t think, I pointed, and the calf cramp struck with the speed and power unique to cramps, lightning bolts and perhaps Dick Cheney's torture chambers. I spent the next minute, maybe longer, pulling my foot toward me, easing the pain. Onto the changing tent. As I yanked crap out of my transition bag it occurred to me that I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do next. I had not made a concrete plan for how to go forward. On a day with threatening weather, I wasn’t sure what to take and what to leave, whether I’d be too hot or too cold, carrying too much or not enough. The atmosphere struck me as noisy and frantic in a way it hadn’t the year before. I was on my way to an absurd transition, just shy of 12 minutes. In 2008, my T1 was 7:36. I think this is what is known as coming unglued.
* * *
A good thing about Ironman is there’s plenty of time to pull it back together. Plenty of time. Let me tell you what I mean: Back home in Portland on Monday, I walked to the top of Mount Tabor (this is a day-after Ironman Coeur d’Alene tradition of mine, dating back to ... 2008). So on top of old Tabor, all covered in the evening glow, I glanced at my phone and saw that it was 7:23 p.m. Exactly the time, 24 hours earlier, that I had finished IMCDA. I mused upon how effortlessly, how stealthily, those 24 hours had slipped by compared to the eternal half-day that preceded them. Yeah, yeah, when you’re relaxed and taking it easy time passes faster, and when you're in pain time passes slower; well-known facts. But the realization buried under that tired observation was that Ironman—with all the distress it causes, challenge it throws at you and effort it requires—pushes you deep into your consciousness. It’s personal, selfish, even narcissistic. Nothing matters except you and what you are doing and feeling at every moment. It’s not just pain, too. There’s confusion, exhilaration, sadness, you name it. Ironman is mind-altering, like psychedelics can be, that’s how it slows down time.
More about time: After doing 12:26:07 at Coeur d’Alene last year I had a goal of beating 12 hours this year. That goal inspired me through the months of training. Funny, though: It wasn’t until I let go of that goal on Sunday—a third of the way through the bike ride—that I began to race comfortably and well. Just now I looked through the bike splits for the people who finished the two-loop, 112-mile bike ride faster than my 6:15:13 by a minute or less. There were 14 people in that group. Not one of them did the final two-thirds of the bike course as fast as I did. In 2008, I rode a 6:11:54 and thought I had the fitness this year to trim five or 10 minutes off that this year. But I lost tons of time in the first third of the bike, as I struggled to recover psychologically and physically from the swim. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the bad swim on the rough waters kicked up by a southerly gale, nor the much-talked-about frigid temps, nor even what everyone I talked to agreed was the stunning amount of brutal swimmer-on-swimmer contact in the water, unusual even for Ironman, famous for its mass-start gang-fights. No, the problem was I didn’t have the skill and experience to deal with those conditions. That's why I was painfully slow and getting slower, and water kept going down the gullet, and the clock kept ticking.
I was out of the water 1605th.
* * *
I answered the urge to pee three times in the first one-third of the bike ride. The very idea of having to stop so early and so often on the bike was absurd—last year I stopped once on the whole ride, around Mile 90. They warn you that peeing on the side of the road will get you a penalty, so most everyone uses the porta-potties, and of course there are never enough of those. So there was waiting. Plus, even if you have to go desperately, it’s not so easy to yank down the shorts with your heart rate at 140 and cut loose with the stream just like that. Not for me at least. Sometimes a little patience is required, even cajoling. And then, given the condition I was in, once the stream started you could have read Infinite Jest from start to finish before it ended. I figure I spent two or three minutes at each piss stop, maybe more. Meanwhile, during that first portion on the bike I was reluctant to drink, which was a problem because my plan to get the calories I needed to carry me through the long day had at its foundation drinking one Gatorade bottle per 60 to 90 minutes. For the first two hours I couldn’t drink anything and this was freaking me out because nothing freaks you out in an Ironman like the idea that your nutrition is going to go off the tracks. No matter how fit or how persistent you are, bonking or getting sick can take you out.
Well those three stops got the lake out of me. Meanwhile, I did some calculating in my head and knew that under 12 hours wasn’t going to happen; I was 30-40 minutes off where I needed to be for that. So I told myself there wasn’t anything magical about 12 hours except what it represented, which was working hard, paying the price, making a big effort. All of that remained out there. I could still work hard, pay the price and make a big effort. So I rode on not spectacularly but better. While many racers fought to hold steady or even faded, my average speed over the final two-thirds of the course was about a half-mile per hour faster than on the first third. This despite one more stop to, well, you know what.
And amazingly, I had to go again leaving T2, which accounted for a transition increase from 5:28 in 2008 to 7:46 this year. No big deal. I also forgot to remove my bike gloves in the changing tent, which I didn’t notice until I got in the porta-potty. Upon exiting said commode, I quickly hunted down a transition volunteer and he was happy to take them and put them in my stashed transition bag. Great volunteers.
Heading into the run, I was in 1121st place, having moved up 484 spots on the bike.
* * *
I set out uncertain. I told myself to be cautious until I got a feel for my condition. I’ve run a 3:18:52 standalone marathon, but my Ironman marathon last year was 4:34:11 as I fell apart at the hill at Mile 7, my early 9-minute miles quickly turning to 10s, then 11s and even some 12s. So when I hit the first mile in 9 minutes on Sunday I wondered if I was on my way to repeating that sad history—and yet I knew, too, that I had brought better running fitness into this race. My races this spring and my training told me that. Plus, given that my chance of breaking 12 hours overall was gone, it didn’t seem so important to me to be cautious and run a "correct" IM marathon. A little imprudence? What the hell. I told myself to try to stay at or under 9:30 pace and see how long I could keep that up.
Meanwhile, the weather was deteriorating. I was underdressed compared to a lot of the other racers (having left the arm warmers and jacket at T2) in what occurs to me only now was quite the Oregon runner’s getup: A 2008 Portland Triathlon cap, 2009 Race for the Roses technical shirt, and 2008 Mt. Hood PCT 50-miler race shorts. The IMCDA marathon is two loops—pretty much two out-and-backs—with much of it on roads and paths along the Lake Coeur d’Alene shoreline. The wind was howling off the lake and though it wasn’t raining, you could feel the air getting heavier and heavier with moisture. It was only a matter of time before we’d be wet. It felt cold, too, which surprised me at the time, but later I checked the Coeur d'Alene weather stats and indeed the temperature would plunge through the 50s and into the 40s as afternoon turned to evening and then night.
Now, running 9:30 miles takes some getting used to when you think of yourself as someone who should be well under eight minutes per mile on a marathon. But I had done a better job with long runs in my training this year. On Sunday, I thought about those long runs, imagining myself heading from my house in the North Tabor neighborhood out through Laurelhurst and Buckman to the river and doing loops over the Hawthorne and Steel bridges. I tried to convince myself that just as those runs were so relaxing as to be invigorating, so too could this one. This mind-trick helped, and just to be running was, in a narrow sort of way, kind of glorious. Running is by far my favorite, so simple and basic and I guess it helps that I'm a lot better at it than I am at swimming and biking. But there was still the problem of fueling the machine. I had indeed begun to take in food and some drink as the bike wore on, but I doubt my total consumption, since the cannon boomed to start the race at 7 a.m., had topped 1,500 calories. By the run, I needed calories, but my stomach wasn't going to let me just throw down anything. It doesn't work that way after eight hours of nonstop motion. I carried a Mojo bar and a baggie containing candied ginger out of T2 and did gobble the Mojo quickly. It stayed down uneasily. There were aid stations every mile thereafter, and typically what I'd do, in the early going on the run, was grab a sip of Gatorade or water and a few pretzels while jogging very slowly through the aid station. Then, a little farther along, I'd nibble on some of my candied ginger, which provided sugar and seemed to calm my stomach. Later, I switched from Gatorade to cola, and also ate random bites of cookie or pretzel, as well as a spot of banana here or there.
* * *
It's a strange scene running the first loop of the IMCDA marathon. People are heading back in as you head out but except at one short specific point you can’t tell if they're on their first loop or second. You envy them because they're farther along, but you don't know whether they're way farther along or just a few miles ahead. I distracted myself from the weather by trying to guess as people went by. First loop. Oh, second loop. Definitely first loop. Wow, strong, gotta be second.... That kind of thing. Around Mile 10, I think it was, the rain began to fall. It was a light rain but pushed by the wind and with the temperature now at 50 or below, it was tough. I grabbed a space blanket at an aid station but wasn't keen on holding it around my shoulders so I stopped and tried to poke holes in it for my head and my arms but my three holes became one big hole. I felt like a bit of an a-hole, carrying this shredded space blanket, which I put around my neck and stuffed in my shirt and wore as a sort of scarf for a few miles. It warmed me a little but was too stupid-looking to carry on with, plus I was getting wetter and wetter and my fingers were cold. So as the second lap began—still in the nines on the mile pace—and the rain came a little stronger I got a new blanket and held it around myself as I ran. Now, I generally hate to have anything in my hands when I run. So I was surprised that this was not too bad, running holding a space blanket wrapped around myself. My hands, arms and shoulders were now covered and warmer. My core wasn't getting wetter. I was still miserable, but, what the hell, it was the marathon on an Ironman. Comfort was not among my expectations.
* * *
Could be that the cold was costing me additional calories—calories being a measure of energy, of course, and energy being necessary to maintain body temperature, not to mention continued forward motion—but on the second loop I began to feel a more dramatic need to feed the fire. A precarious stomach still had me cautious with my consumption. I continued to take just a nibble or two at most aid stations, along with a sip of coke, followed by the ginger. The ginger helped, I believe. And, now, 100 yards or so past each aid station, a cola burp would come and that would be a tremendous relief. A few times there was some dramatic tension as the pressure rose up in my stomach. By that I mean, it was hardly clear that gas alone would be released. However, no upchucking occurred—which reminds me, I didn't see a single barfing episode on Sunday. (At Half Vineman once, on a hot day on the run, a guy barfed just before he passed me going the other way and I stepped in part of it. Now that’s triathlon.)
Around Mile 18, some of that blurry, wobbly feeling began to hit me. My mile splits were inching past 10 minutes. I decided then that the only way to finish strong was to get some decent calories in me, and that would mean drinking a whole cup of cola and eating a handful or two of food. And the only way to do that would be to slow to a walk for several minutes. So I made a plan—this was actually smart, and I must say demonstrated shockingly clear thinking—to eat at the aid station before the hill on Mile 21, walk the quarter mile to where the hill begins and continuing walking all the way up the hill, and then walk at least partway down the hill. This was brilliant for several reasons. First, the time gained by running the hill would have been minimal while the energy expenditure would have been huge. Second, by the time I came back down the hill, I was already feeling energized. Which leads to another aspect of my plan that attests further to its brilliance: I knew that no matter what I could rally to run the final three miles of the marathon a little faster. I was hurting but just as I'm a weak swimmer with scant experience dealing with swimming challenges, I am a strong runner with lots of experience dealing with running challenges. So when I hit Mile 22 and needed to begin running again, the plan was to use that mile to gently get back into running mode after my walk, then at Mile 23 switch to a stronger effort that I could carry all the way to the finish. And that's what I did. I ran with some fellow struggling runners on 22, turning in a mile somewhere around 12 minutes, then at 23 began to pull away from them. I had a tiny drink and a little more ginger around Mile 24, then drove it home.
* * *
I should say, late in the run I did begin to think, periodically, that bettering my time from last year remained in reach. But while I had indeed conceived, on the fly, the stupendous plan to finish the race relatively strong that I outlined above, I could never figure out the precise math on beating my '08 time. With five miles to go I had an idea that I needed to average under 11 minutes per mile, but when I’d try to do the equations to confirm this the numbers would float away from me. I do remember—I think—that when I got to the 23-mile marker, leaving me 3.2 to the finish, I had 35 minutes to play with.
So, as I say, I ran harder harder through the 24th and 25th miles, where I barely slowed down to ask a spectator wearing a gorilla costume, "Would you be so kind as to properly dispose of this?" He nodded his head yes and I handed him my space blanket. I wasn't going to finish an Ironman wearing a space blanket, no way. Soon thereafter I got to the point where if you're finishing the race you go to the far left and if you have another lap to do you go to the right. There's a volunteer telling you this, and I went left, and then there's another volunteer making sure you’re really supposed to go left. This second volunteer said, "This is it, you've done two loops and it's time to finish?" I replied: "It sure is."
Onto Sherman Avenue. I was five or six minutes ahead of last year’s time and had just a minute or two to go. I ran hard, passing a few people in a way that I don’t think was churlish. I was just racing all the way. I could hear the announcer and the crowd a few blocks down the avenue. I told myself that I was a mediocre triathlete who had failed at his modest goal of beating 12 hours and while there's nothing wrong with being a mediocre triathlete who fails at his modest goal, probably I should realize my limitations and take the shit and myself a tad less seriously. I mean, c'mon, blogging every single day about your hardly impressive training? Sheesh. I also told myself I was one studly mutha-ucka (cool Flight of the Conchords reference there) for (1) signing up to do this stupid race; (2) training hard to do this stupid race; (3) coming to this stupid race all alone, no sherpa to help carry things or assist in dealing with what is really a ridiculously complex logistical effort, not a single person I knew along the entire course saying "Go, Pete," just a lot of sweet people saying, "Go, Peter," because that was the name they saw on my race number and they didn't know that nobody who knows me except Mom and Grandma calls me Peter; (4) enjoying myself quite a bit out there, the fellow racers with their individual styles of dress and racing, the scenery, the fans, the ridiculous spectacle of it, all good; and for (5) keeping going until I could figure out a way to keep going a little faster. For racing the stupid race all the way. That made me feel good and made it seem worthwhile. Yes, it did.
I finished in 850th place, passing 272 people on the run with a marathon time of 4:16:21.
More race charts and stats can be found at Bay Area Triathlon, from which the graphic atop this post is taken.
P.S.: A thank you to all who were interested and indulgent along the way with this silliness, including Liz and Debbie and other family members, Facebook friends like Elizabeth, old pals such as Mary Anne and Steve, and many fellow tri-bloggers, including Sheila, Al and Steven. Deserving special mention, however, are two guys, a little guy and a big guy. Niko and Dan, I'll always be grateful.