I walked out towards the ocean. We had pumped our tyres and filled our water bottles in transition in the dark, scurried to the transition bags to put our last-minute items away while the loudspeakers brayed with a countdown to head to the beach for the swim start. I reluctantly took off my sweatshirt, my flip flops, and awaited a shiver in my tri shorts and sports bra, all that I was going to be wearing for the swim. But the air was already hot. Somehow you don’t notice the moment between dark and light when you’re occupied with a thousand thoughts. We had gone from the harsh glow of head lamps flashing in our eyes to a calm and underwhelming sunrise.
The ocean had its own surprises. Yesterday it has been a tranquil dozing beast. Today it had shaken off its stupor and the surf was crashing down, lashing out in mock fury at the nearly 3000 swimmers lined up on the beach. And it was a non-wetsuit swim due to the unusually warm sea temperatures.
Tom, Will and I ran into the waves for a quick wetting and warm-up before the official start. The ocean wasn’t playing nice. I fought my way out for less than a minute before heading back to shore. The swim is normally my best discipline of the three. I knew today’s swim wasn’t going to be good. It also didn’t help that I hadn’t done any swimming since the morning of the hit & run three weeks earlier. Never mind. It wasn’t the moment for doubts. I had had ample reason and opportunity to pull out of this Ironman, but by now I knew I was doing it, whatever the day would bring.
We squeezed our way into the starting queue. We were immediately absorbed by over a thousand hot bodies, naked skin against skin, smooth skulls in bathing caps and goggles hanging around necks, people anxiously glancing at their watches counting down until the start, the whole lot squeezing, pulsing, moving towards the start. At 6:15, the crush burst over the timing mats and we threw ourselves into the sea.
With thanks to Kris Swarthout and Nick Morales for this photo of Ironman Florida 2015 swim start
And so Ironman Florida began.
I think it’s fair to say that Ironman training had begun once we had completed Iceland’s Laugavegur Ultra Marathon on 17 July (best race I’ve ever done, by the way – see here for some spectacular photos). We had a week off after the ultra, and I had 3 weeks off after my crash, so that left 15 weeks of training for the Ironman. In that time, I:
- swam for 26 hours – 70 km / 44 miles in the pool and/or ocean
- cycled for over 76 hours – 2187 km / 1359 miles
- ran for over 48 hours – 471 km / 293 miles
Many people will have done a whole lot more to prepare, but nonetheless it was a significant time commitment and effort, and originally I had hopes for a good race. Then, stuff happened:
- I got hit by a car. Yeah yeah, you’re sick of me saying that by now. 3 weeks off pre-race and nursing injuries and wounds is not really ideal, though.
- It was too bloody hot so it was a non-wetsuit swim. For any non-triathletes reading this, wetsuits are like body-sized life preservers. They give you free buoyancy, free glide, free speed. Most swimmers are significantly faster in a wetsuit than without one. No, it’s not cheating because in most triathlons, wetsuits are mandatory so every single person has that same advantage.
- And…. I got completely decked by the surf going in for my second lap and I lost my goggles. Yes, lost my goggles!
Swim: 3.8 km / 2.4 miles – 1:26
My first lap was uneventful. There was the usual scrum of bodies kicking, hitting, punching, and trying to get through the surf took a while and lots of diving under the big waves, and then once we were out there was a pretty strong current dragging us off course if we weren’t sighting the buoys consistently. But overall I just kept it steady and made my way around and didn’t really worry. Swimming is normally my thing.
As I came out onto the beach after my first lap, I heard our friend Dave the announcer saying that huge numbers of people were losing goggles. I thought to myself as I ran back into the sea, what would I do if that happened?
A swimmer heads back out for the second lap, with thanks to Nick Morales
It was even rougher heading into lap 2. I had made my way out maybe some 300m, diving under the big waves, when I saw a huge one coming. I am comfortable in the sea, I am a strong swimmer, waves don’t scare me. I dived underneath, but it was no use – it slammed me to the ground, tumbled me upside down, dragged me to the side. For the moment, the race was forgotten and it was just the moment of staying calm and not fighting the drag until I could make my way to the surface. And then I came up sputtering, feeling for my head, knowing already that my goggles were gone. I saw a glimpse of them in the swirl of the opaque water but as I lunged for them, another swimmer thrashed over top of them and then both the swimmer and the goggles were gone. I felt around blindly. I was being dragged further out to the side into the bigger and bigger surf and I knew I couldn’t do another whole lap without goggles. For a brief moment, I wondered whether this race was just not to be. I could end it now. Swim to shore, walk to transition and turn in my chip. It was just too much after everything else that had happened.
But I knew I wouldn’t do that.
I fought my way out of the water. The big surf kept dragging me back every time the waves rolled in, and so it took me ages to get back to the beach. I ran along shouting “goggles!” and – bless her, bless her, bless her – a woman reached into her bag and threw a pair in my direction. I have a terrible time getting goggles to fit my face at the best of times so I made these as tight as they would go and crashed back out into the water for my second lap. While I was utterly grateful to this unknown woman for allowing me to continue the race, these new goggles were terrible. They were tiny and dark and foggy and they pinched and hurt. I couldn’t see a swimmer next to me until they thwacked me and I definitely couldn’t see the buoys to sight properly. But don’t mistake this for a complaint, because those goggles got me around when I would have been a DNF (“Did Not Finish”).
I finished the swim in 1:26. In absolutely ideal conditions (never count on those!) – that is, no accident, wetsuit swim, calm waters – I would have hoped for 1:00 to 1:05. This was the slowest swim I’d ever done in any triathlon. Oh well. I reckon I lost 10 minutes to the goggles incident. In reality, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I was 36th out of the water in my age group out of 126. I reckon if I hadn’t lost my goggles, I would have been top 10. Tant pis.
I’m slow in transition at the best of times. This was the worst of times. We had a long run up from the beach (600m according to Tom’s Garmin, or nearly half a mile) and into a hotel ballroom. The volunteers were excellent. One grabbed me and proceeded to help me – yes, don’t laugh – wash the salt out of my wounds, clean them up, cover them in vaseline (she barked as she dabbed her fingers into a giant tub – “you don’t have any blood born illnesses, do you?” – and then she wrapped me up with my assortment of sticky burn windows and bandages. Then she helped me get my compression sleeves over the wounds (important to keep the bandages on, the wounds clean and the sun off of everything), calf sleeves on my legs for yet more sun protection, my sleeved-top over it all, sprayed the remaining showing skin with sunscreen and filled my pockets with my food for the bike. She was superb. I wouldn’t mind having her dress me every day. Without her, I expect my 12 minute transition time could have been closer to 20.
Bike: 180.2 km / 112 miles – 6:22
The bike remains my weakest discipline of the 3. Unlike my first Ironman, Ironman Lanzarote, this time I didn’t have any fears about actually making it around the course, but this almost entirely flat course had some of its own challenges. The wind is always an issue in Florida, because it is so flat – there is nothing to stop it as it comes blowing in, whistling through the flat land and giant clear-cut roads. The forecast that morning showed that we would start with a headwind, and then end with one too, because the wind would change direction during the course of the day, so that was fun – a headwind for most of the ride. That said, it wasn’t a terribly strong wind so it really could have been much worse. The course is, quite frankly, dull. There was one wooded section early on that looked like it had some nice trails, and I thought, ooh, trail running, that sounds like much more fun. Otherwise it was black or grey tarmac ahead, white lines, avoiding cars, avoiding cyclists, eat, drink, pedal pedal, don’t think about the painful hip, don’t think about the painful elbow and hands, just pedal. For over six hours.
My one major criticism of Ironman Florida was that much of the bike course was on open roads. That is to say, roads fully open to cars, trucks, motorbikes etc. Every other triathlon I have ever done has been mostly closed roads, with just the occasional local vehicle going by. No, this was full on heavy traffic and given that I was hit by a car for no good reason at all 3 weeks previously, that did make me nervous. Especially since the shoulder was full of cyclists in race mode, overtaking while big trucks thundered by. I emphatically did not enjoy those big roads in any way.
My ride was uneventful. The road lay ahead, long straight sections. It was hot but overcast. We had 5 minutes of rain late into the ride. I tried hard to eat on schedule, as per all the long training rides I’d done – alternating between Clif bars and Honey Stinger Waffles every hour, and drinking my bottles of Scratch Labs. I stopped at a couple of aid stations for water and bananas, I stopped three times to pee, had to queue once for the loo, and otherwise I plugged away for 112 miles. The puncture wound on my elbow made going into aero position very painful so I mostly stayed upright the whole time, very uncomfortable on a tri bike. I reckon I got down into aero maybe 30% of the time. Enough for one photographer to snap a photo, at least.
Pre-crash, my goal for the bike was around 5:50-6:00. I still had pain in my left hip when I pedalled, aero position meant full weight on an open puncture wound, and I’d had nearly 3 weeks of no cycling. I was not unhappy with 6:22. I came off the bike 42nd in my age group.
Another painfully slow transition. I changed socks. I re-applied sunscreen. I swapped out uneaten food for gels. I took 2 ibuprofen for my hip. I ate a gel. I blow dried my hair. Ok, not quite.
Run: 42.2 km / 26.2 miles – 4:32
I didn’t know how well my hip would hold up for the run. I also think it hurt me a lot to have essentially 3 weeks off running prior to the race. But it was what it was, and I was going to make the best of it, at whatever pace I could manage. My plan was to walk the aid stations for no more than 30 seconds, and otherwise to maintain a steady if not fast run. And that actually worked out pretty well. The only time I didn’t run outside of an aid station was just before mile 19 when I stopped to vomit 5 times. Yeah, that wasn’t so good. My stomach was happy on the bike and for the first 10K running, but I am generally not great with gels and despite practicing with them, my stomach still started rebelling after the first hour. I stopped for the loo a few times but nothing helped… the stomach was just getting worse and worse until finally I vomited, when I then felt much better, and decided I would have to continue from that point onwards taking on no more nutrition. Just water and a little bit of coke (in retrospect, I should have had a lot more coke). And here is a dirty secret. Not long after the vomiting episode, I came to an aid station where they were offering chicken broth. I’ve been vegetarian for around 3 years but at that moment I needed to get something down me, something salty, not sweet. I took that paper cup and I downed it in three gulps and it was absolutely delicious.
It was unseasonably hot. But it was a cloudy day and that helped enormously. I put ice in my cap at every aid station, poured ice water over myself, and stuffed sponges down my front and back in an effort to keep cool. It seemed to work – I never suffered from heart rate drift like I so often did on the super hot long brick days I did in training. This was not my best day running, by any means, but I kept moving, was consistent, and I overtook 598 people on the run course. Pre-accident, I was looking to run 3:45 to 4:00 for the marathon; on the day, I ran 4:32. Again, I wasn’t unhappy with my result considering the circumstances.
The run course is two laps, and it gets dark very early in Panama City – sunset was 5:15, I believe, which meant that you had to finish within 11 hours to finish in daylight. Once the sun had gone, the course was dark, as in properly dark, couldn’t see where you were putting your feet type dark, which I hadn’t expected. But I’ve done a lot of very early morning training runs before sunrise so I’m not unused to running semi-blind, and at plodding speed you don’t risk tripping up quite so much. Before long I was on the home stretch, stomach still in a bloated knot, legs barely lifting but still running until the end. The red mats of the finish line stretch came up sooner than I had expected (who says that in an Ironman?!) and then it was all over. As I crossed the finish line, the loudspeakers boomed with announcer Dave’s voice,
You are an Ironman, Julia. Major car accident, hit on her bike 3 or 4 weeks ago. Way to go Julia. Brain power trumps body power.
Total time: 12:41:57
I finished 27th in my age group, 125th woman and 670th overall out of around 2980.
This was my second Ironman. I’m not in love with the distance, but I haven’t decided whether I’m done with it yet or not. I also have had major bike crashes weeks out from both Ironmans. It would be kind of nice to see what I could do if I weren’t nursing injuries or forced to take time off to convalesce. My original goal for this Ironman was 11:10-11:45, and I reckon it was not unreasonable if things had gone right. But I’m not sure I need to chase that goal any further – does a number really matter? Maybe I will move on to new and different challenges. I’m still taking it a day a time. It’s two weeks post-Ironman right now and my hip still hurts to walk or run, so I have been focusing on yoga and having a harsh reminder that being fit to swim/bike/run means nothing once you enter a yoga studio!
This was Part II of my Race Report. You can read Part I here.