I was absolutely, completely positive I would not be able to sleep the night before the Ironman. Why would I be able to? It’s a huge race, with a couple thousand people in it, many of which had pretty much obsessed over just completing the thing.
And besides, I’m never able to sleep before a big race. Ever.
But I slept fine, thanks to Ambien. Specifically, The Runner and I each took a quarter of a 10mg pill around 8pm, figuring (without any data to back us up, but that’s par for the course) it would wear off well before the 7am race start.
We woke up to the alarm at 3:15am. Since we had everything packed and ready to go so we could get to 4:30am shuttle in a matter of minutes, there was one — and only one — reason for getting up this early:
It occurs to me that it may seem like I’m beginning to talk about pooping almost as much as Dug. But seriously, pooping before an all-day race is crucial. Vital. Essential.
I did not poop.
Eventually — and with many updates given to The Runner which I’m sure she was very, very happy to receive — I gave up and said, “Let’s get this over with.”
We parked the car, dropped off our “Special Needs” bags — each filled with a Mountain Dew, a Salted Nut Roll, and a Subway Club sandwich wrapped up with an ice pack — and found our shuttle to the reservoir.
A Quick Aside
This might be a good place for me to mention the way the St. George Ironman race was executed: I have never ever ever seen a race so beautifully and comprehensively directed, explained, or executed. It ran like clockwork — everything was where it was supposed to go, staff and volunteers were all over the place, ready to help, and the whole thing was generally organized to the nines. So well, in fact, that even a guy (um, me) who has no experience whatsoever in triathlons was able to understand what was happening and concentrate on racing, instead of on making sense of the race.
So, to both Ironman the company and the race director of Ironman St. George and to all the people who helped: Thank you. You were remarkable.
Seriously, I Will Eventually Stop Talking About Pre-Race Pooping
We got to the reservoir with about an hour to spare, which was good, because the shuttle ride combined with the rapidly-dawning realization that I was about to try to do an Ironman had shaken loose what the 3:15 alarm had not.
By the time my ten minute wait for a portapotty was over, I was able to successfully complete my business.
The Runner and I then went and found my bike transition bag, because I had forgotten to put a towel in it the day before.
Then we went back and got in line for the portapotty again. This time the line was 15 minutes long, but was well worth the wait.
Suit Up. Fast.
We then walked over to the bike area — as good a place as any — to strip out of our day clothes and put on our wetsuits. As we struggled into our suits — I believe I was working my right leg into it — the announcer said it was time to line up and get in the water.
So yes, after waiting around for an hour, suddenly we were late.
We rushed, hopping and pulling and yanking. We then helped each other with our zippers and started the walk to the water’s edge. As we walked to the line, I put my neoprene swim cap on…backwards.
Realizing my mistake, I fixed it, then put on the swim cap the Ironman organization had wanted everyone to wear over it. Most men’s caps were orange. Mine was purple. Whenever someone asked why mine was a different color, I said it was because they wanted to make it easier for the lifeguards to identify racers who were most likely to drown.
Last, I put on my goggles — a brand new set, nice and clear. I was amazed at how much the chlorine from the pool had fogged my old goggles.
On Your Mark…Get Wet…
Then the people in front of us stopped. Nobody, it seemed, was in a rush to step into the 59-degree water.
“Oh, stop being such babies,” The Runner said, and — taking me by the hand — led me through the mass of athletes. We walked into the water — very cold on the feet and hands at first, but thanks to the wetsuit, not bad at all on my legs, body, or arms — and then swam out to our pre-chosen spot: well back from the starting line, on the left side. We figured we would not get kicked and punched and crushed right from the start that way.
And luckily, there was a guy on a giant surfboard (a windsurf board maybe?) right where we wanted to be. We grabbed on, waiting for the race to begin.
We then looked back — and there were hundreds, or possibly even a thousand — of racers still on the boat ramp. Evidently, starting from the water was not a popular option.
The Runner and I talked to each other and other racers who had chosen this spot. Nervous chatter. Each of us saying over and over, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” Reminding each other we would continue to stay put for a minute or two after the gun goes off. Let the people who are on a mission do their thing. We just wanted to make it around the loop.
The gun went off, and The Runner and I enjoyed the spectacle of an Ironman swimming mass start:
Then I looked at the boat ramp. It was still full of people standing there, now walking — reluctantly, I’d say — into the water.
“Look. IronLemmings,” I said.
“I guess we’d better start swimming,” The Runner replied, not hugely impressed with my hilarity (or it’s possible that she didn’t hear — a neoprene swim cap with another regular swim cap over it tends to mute most sounds).
And we went.
The swim course for the St. George Ironman was a rectangle. 1000 meters, left turn, 500 meters, left turn, 1600 meters, left turn, and then swim for the exit ramp.
So I guess it wasn’t a rectangle. It was a quadrilateral.
I hadn’t expected any real way — apart from the turn buoys — to mark my progress, but the race director explained that there would be buoys every 100 meters or so. Which is incredibly helpful to know.
I began swimming, initially sighting every ten or fifteen times I breathed. Then I realized I didn’t need to anywhere near that often. As I took each breath, I could easily see whether I was parallel to or starting to angle to –or away from — other swimmers. Trusting in the wisdom of crowds, I just swam with the group.
Every so often, I would run into someone’s feet. And every so often, someone would run into my feet. At first that freaked me out. Then I got used to it and stopped worrying about it at all.
Except for the one time someone clawed his or her way over the top of me. That was kind of freaky.
Within moments I lost The Runner — we knew we wouldn’t be able to hang together for this incredibly anonymous part of the race — and my only companions were the sound of my breathing and my mental tally of buoys.
I should point out, by the way, that I never even once got the buoy count right in my head before I came to the next turn.
Although I am quite pleased to say that I was swimming a straight enough line that I hit buoys three different times.
The Longest 100 Meters
I would never ever have expected to say this, but during the swim, I … I … I got into a swimming groove. At least three or four times I cocked my head up to take a breath and was surprised to see another buoy to my left.
But there was one stretch that I didn’t think would ever end. And I’m not sure why.
Maybe it’s because I sighted the buoy too soon, when it was really far away. Maybe there was a current. Maybe I was starting to sag. Regardless, I found myself sighting for that buoy over and over and over, and it just never seemed to get any closer.
Finally, I started swimming harder, determined to get to that thing, no matter what. And of course, eventually I did.
And then the next one seemed to come about thirty seconds later.
It seems perfectly obvious to me now, but I never considered it until it happened: after the last turn — so you have about 800 meters to go (guessing here) — you can see the boat ramp.
And that is probably the most encouraging thing I could ever have imagined.
The thing is, though, the distance to that boat ramp is deceptive. You see the shore, but you don’t really take into account that it’s a long way away still.
But still: it’s getting closer.
I chugged away, swimming toward the ramp, with no idea whatsoever how long it had taken me to swim that far. I wasn’t worried though; it seemed unlikely — with as many people surrounding me as there were — that I had missed the cutoff time.
I reached the ramp — wading the last 10 feet or so, thinking it might make it easier for me to get used to being upright again — and stumbled, giddily, up. Someone yanked my zipper down and I peeled down the top half of my suit.
I think there must have been a clock nearby, but I didn’t see it, so I asked the man next to me: “How’d we do?”
“1:20, I think,” said the man.
“No way!” I said. Here I am, saying “No way!”
Seriously, that was way beyond all my expectations and hopes. Looking at my stats for the race, I came out of the water in 979th place out of around 2000. About as mid-pack as you can be.
I walked to the men’s changing tent, which was stuffed to the gills. As I walked, I noticed a strange tingle in my feet, which I gradually became aware was the feel of rocks and asphalt as I casually walked on them.
It took a moment to find a chair, but then I matter-of-factly began to change into my bike clothes. Happy. Content. The part of the race I was most afraid of was behind me; the part I knew how to do was next.
And then I looked around.
People all around me were shaking, shivering, completely unable to use their hands. Some looked truly hypothermic.
“Strange,” I thought to myself, because I wasn’t cold at all. I finished changing, waving away help from volunteers.
Later that night, The Runner would describe a similar scene from when she was in the women’s change tent: people shivering, cold, and unable to function, while she felt great.
And that’s when we both realized we owed Aqua Sphere a huge “thank you.” Neither The Runner nor I really know anything about wetsuits, but the fact is, we both had great completion times considering our lack of Ironman experience. And more importantly, our suits kept us warm and comfortable in 58-degree water.
The day after the race, I found Justin — the guy from Aqua Sphere who had set The Runner and me up with wetsuits — and told him how great they had worked out. The Runner interrupted by just giving Justin a big hug.
Which I think got the point across nicely.
I found my bike and headed out. One event down, two to go. The day was sunny, the wind was mild, and I felt fine.
I could tell: this Ironman thing was going to be easy.
PS: Thanks to The Runner’s brother, Scott, for taking all the photos in this post.