WOW! What a difference a year makes……Ironman Austin 70.3 in 2011 compared to 2012, worlds apart in terms of outcomes. Throughout this journey of endurance events the last 3+ years one very important quote by Vince Lombardi has touched me deeply, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” Now, I don’t pretend that any of the precious moments that I have had this year qualify as victorious in the classical sense….after all, a 42 year old seldom crosses the finish line grasping the winners prize or holding the tape aloft. However,for me, this past Sunday at the 2012 version of Ironman Austin 70.3 was a very special day both in terms of results and for what Coach Lombardi said “fulfillment”.
The day began, as most race days do, at a very unkind time in the morning, 4:30 a.m. I crawled out of bed in search of coffee and food. Thoughts wrapped around the impending race in not so pleasant mid 40 and low 50 degree temps. Sitting there on the bathroom floor eating breakfast while the rest of my beautiful family slept that extra bit of time. I felt pensive. Mornings before all my races seem to be that time that the trepidation of self doubt moves in to briefly occupy my thoughts. Fortunately, the sound of Jill’s alarm clock chased those ridiculous thoughts away and my brain was forced on to the task trying to make sure that we got everything out of the hotel and off to the race on time. I am a very lucky man to have such a supportive family but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how beyond fortunate I am to be married to my amazing wife Jill. As many of you know, long course triathlon or any endurance event requires an almost selfish devotion to the tasks, many times at the expense of those around the athlete. Jill wears many hats during the year, too many in fact to name, but her support is unyielding, her devotion to me and our daughters is priceless.
Once at the race site we were fortunate to get an amazing parking spot right next to T2. The Tahoe had the outside temperature reading as 42 degrees and I could see the flags around starting to get a bit of starch in them. All signs were pointing towards a chilly day at the office. I ventured over to my spot in T2 to drop off my run bag while the family stayed in the warm confines of the car. The crowds were lighter than last year, maybe the improved traffic situation from two years back had people getting there later. Once back to the Tahoe, I convinced the clan to get all their gear and head over to the shuttle buses for the journey to T1 and the swim start. I must say that the stress level compared to last year was already down ten fold. Last year the lines were long and I was so stressed that I actually ran from T2 to T1 with all my gear, worried about being there on time and all the other details. This time, everyone was with me, the pace was slow and everyone, except for the butterflies in my stomach, was very calm.
Once at T1, I went through body marking and took care of my bike. It was very disappointing to see that only half of the participants got carpet in the aisles between our bikes. The rest of us were going to be forced to deal with rocks and dirt/mud when trying to get out of T1 on our bikes. I have raced in 5 Ironman run events and Austin is by far the worst in terms of transition areas. Something really needs to change in Austin regarding this or they need to move the race.
It really was a beautiful, but cold morning. The kids were freezing but kept me warm with their smiles.
It was neat during the cold times that morning to be next to the run up to T1 and see the pros come out of the water. Andy Potts, Macca and others had steely determination running up that hill towards the bike. Eventually, however, it was my time to go. I abandoned the warmth of my jacket and shoes and jogged down to the swim start trying to get warm and ready. Once there the sound of pre-race chatter between competitors became a warming welcome. I found myself in a conversation with two first time racers……funny how just 14 months back I was in their same position. Yet now I was the one with three other 70.3 and one 140.6 races under my belt. As I left them at the end of the pack I gave what little advice I could, “Enjoy the Day”…..words I also thought to myself that I need to heed as well.
Water temperature this morning was in stark contrast to air temp, 71 degrees. I swam over the the inside left front of my wave…Wave #9. Being positioned to go off 35 minutes after the pros means a swim full of chaos but you know that before the start. Once the gun went off I shot for the inside line with the buoys, ever mindful that, for me, the swim is a period of time to warm up, get in position and try to be patient to get it over with. I have had varied luck in my swim times during 70.3 races. Last year both Lake Stevens and Austin were 36 minute swims but earlier this year Galveston was 32 so target wise I was going to be ok with anything in between. For whatever reason, this year in Austin seemed even more congested in terms of swimming up on earlier waves, I think I counted at least 5 other swim cap colors during my swim, there just never seemed to be any decent open water and way too many people just treading water. The water clarity at this race is next to zero. Oh how I would have loved to have had the crystal clear waters of Lake Stevens or St. George to be able to navigate without running into or up onto slower swimmers….and I am not a fast swimmer!
Once out of the water I glanced up at the clock and saw that I was in the range of 33 mins (Actual clock time for swim was 33:08) so not bad but I exited the water knowing that I didn’t feel as though I had a good swim, too much effort was spent out there compared to what I had targeted. I did notices as we were running up the hill that we all had steam coming off us….a gentle reminder that the warmth of the swim was soon to be followed by a chilly, wet remainder of the day. I saw my support crew, TEAM TOMLINSON, about 3/4 way up the hill and briefly stopped to kiss the girls. I was living my dream and loving it, I wanted to share my joy with them. By the time I got to my bike I had, as I had feared, at least 1/4 inch of caked dirt/mud on my feet and my hands….no choice but to sit down in it and try to clean my feet before getting dressed. The weather of the day prescribed clothing options not normally necessary in a 70.3….extra layers, extra clothes mean longer transition times and my T1 time of 6:02 would come back to haunt me later. I got as much clothing on as possible, got my feet as clean as I thought I needed (not clean enough as I would learn on the run) grabbed my bike and carried it out of transition due to the every present warnings to not roll bikes in T1 due to the threat of thorns.
Once on the bike I noticed that my average HR was way too high, 147 BPM is not where I wanted to be so I held back on the watts, focusing on relaxing and staying aero. My coach, Brett Blankner, had advised I hit the lap button on my Garmin 310XT every 20 minutes so I used that as a gauging point. After about 40 mins I noticed that my average HR was going down and things were more in line with what the game plan was. However, the pre-race target for Watts was now out the window. The NNE wind was up much harder than anticipated and I knew that I needed to hold back when faced with that and take advantage when down wind. My mind went to my HR and the effects that burning it up now would have on my run. One scary moment happened around mile 9, I dropped my chain. I had to reach down and put it back on by hand while travelling about 30 mph…..not a good or safe thing. With this race being a wave start, and always being in the back waves, I am aware that I will almost certainly spend my day weaving through hundreds, or even thousands of fellow competitors on the bike. The disadvantage of being a strong cyclist I suppose. The form for this portion of the race fell in line with other 70.3s, I was never passed on the bike by anyone that didn’t eventually get passed and left behind by me but not because I was single minded. In fact, my portion of this race came out great in terms of my variability, I stayed within myself, rode hard but smart, kept an even cadence and got the most out this ride that I could. I wasn’t ever really cold but the toes and fingers weren’t thrilled. I put down a decent bike time that day all things considered (2:32:42 for a 22 MPH average on @222 WATTS)
The last mile of the bike my mind started drifting to questions about my legs, wondering what would be there when I got off the bike? What did I have left in the tank? Rolling into T2 I was again greeted with the warm faces of TEAM TOMLINSON, I felt so energized by their enthusiasm and it allowed me to focus on the next task…running 13.1 hilly miles. I had a decent T2 time of 2:49, most of which was actually running from my bike drop to the run out. My legs felt like a million dollars, I was stunned. I had so much excitement that I really had to work hard to slow down the first mile of the run. I was going out too fast and needed to use my brain to get things back in line, this was no time to be a hero, it was time to be patient. The run course in Austin is 3 very hilly loops so eating up miles and staying at a constant pace are critical. About 2 miles into the run, I started to feel some pain in my left foot in the toe area. I realized that I must have not gotten my feet completely clean during T1 and that I must have dirt/debris in my sock and between my toes. I wasn’t going to stop and check, I was too close to my goal. I just decided that I would have to deal with it and keep moving. The first lap went by rather quickly, taking the approach to be steady and even up the hills and then relaxing heading down, taking in just a small portion of water at each aide station. Coming back around I found the girls cheering for me and again my spirits were lifted….the thought that this might actually be a very good day starting to come over me. I tossed my gloves that I wore during the bike and part of the first loop over to the girls and rounded the corner heading out for the second loop. The second loop is where the legs started to get a little heavy but I kept my pacing thoughts and hovered around 8:10 min per mile pace, drifting back on the uphills and catching back up on the down. It was right about now that I really started to notice the course getting crowded and the number of people walking. My mind drifted back to some of my previous races and I saw myself in their shoes…. I instantly said aloud “NOT TODAY” and pushed on. Rounding the end of the second loop I was around mile 9 or so and my body was hanging in there but then I saw Jill, I wanted to tell her that it was starting to hurt but I think that she could see it on my face. I avoided eye contact with her as I got really emotional thinking of what I was doing and how much the love of my family was there for me at that time. Rounding that last turn on the way out for the final lap for a brief moment I couldn’t catch my breath…..it was a weird sensation, trouble breathing was not what I needed at this time….I then remembered my little run mantra “bigger than me but not stronger than us” and I realized that I had come this far, and it was not time for it to end….keep running. Honestly, the third loop was broken into two sections, miles 8.5 or so til just past the 11 mile marker. Once I hit the aide station just past the 11 mile marker I was finally out of nutrition, got a last drink and told myself “come on, its just 2 miles, its like being at home, running towards the house” I kept watch on my pace as I tried to push it but I honestly don’t think I looked at my watch to see the total run time, I was busy doing the math in my head. After the last real hill, just short of a mile left I think I mumbled to myself “anyone can run a mile” …the days events all started flooding my mind, I was really close to putting in the effort that I wanted to from the first time I did one of these races. When the finish shoot came into view I darted right around a large group of other runners and took off. I didn’t care about HR or anything else, I was near the end. The finish at Austin is very unique because it is inside, so rounding that last bend of the finish shoot you are plunged into an arena filled with fans. I was all alone running down the carpet, sprinting at around 12 MPH. I heard the announcer call out my name and home town. The girls were on my right as I entered the arena and I heard them call my name but didn’t look up, I was looking on the other side of the finish line. I crossed that line officially with a time of 5 hours and 30 seconds, a PR by over 25 minutes! I put down a run of 8:04 min per mile pace after a 1.2 mile swim and 56 mile bike and I was fired up! My finish photo shows me crossing the line, fists clinched, ready for a fight. I think I scared the camera person when I screamed out load my excitement!
I took my finisher medal and hat in a bit of daze….wondered out the back of the finish corral realizing that my family was back behind me. About that time I heard Jill call out my name and I turned to see the kids running towards me. My emotions got the better of me and a burst into a sob. I couldn’t control or fight back the tears. Here I was, a 42 old man balling his eyes out at the finish line of an event that I never doubted I would finish. I finally looked back at the finish clock trying to figure out if I broke the 5 hour mark to no avail. The kids were asking me why I was crying, I didn’t know how to tell them that I was so happy…I had honestly given it all I had that day, I had faced that critical point that comes in all long endurance events where you give in or you fight on. I had found the “suck”, embraced it, then I kicked it in the teeth and kept going. No, I didn’t hit my time goal but I toed the line, I fought, and I finished fulfilled by my effort. I did finish 17th in the 40-44 age group out of 350+ races and 159 out of 2539 in the event. I know what I am working on is making me faster and there will be other days This day and the events of this race are why I do these things, I don’t pretend others can or will understand, frankly I don’t care if they do. I got a chance to dig deep inside and expose the best of me today to myself, my kids, my family and my friends. I think Coach Lombardi would say that today was one of my finest hours!