Monday, May 07, 2007

The day I became a HALF IRONMAN

Sea of Galilee
Jordan Valley

Before we get to the facts the figures and the stories behind my first triathlon lets take a step back and examine some very rational facts, which may explain why I am not a rational person.

Fact #1 I have never competed in a triathlon, I have never even been too or watched a triathlon, I had no idea what happens in a transition area or what to take or how to set up my transition gear.

Fact #2 Most sane and sensible new triathletes start with a short race like a Sprint
Or Olympic distance (1500m swim, 40km bike, and 10km run)

Fact #3 The Half Ironman distances are as follows
1900m swim (Prior to last Monday I had never swum that far)
90km Bike (Never ever ridden that far previous best 75km with lots of stops, done in a group with lots of drafting)
21.1km Run (Half Marathon) Last time I did a long distance run I DNF’d due to heat and cramps and have not run this distance on a road since January)

Ok so we have established I am not the smartest triathlete to be, but I have great friends to train and travel with that have inspired me to this point and I will be forever indebted to Margaret, Andrea and Michael for introducing me to a new sport that I am sure will dominate my life for the years to come.

Now I had planned to just to the Olympic distance up until a week ago, a nice introduction to Triathlon, and I had done all distances previously. But for all those who know me, know one thing I do have a competitive streak, which for good or bad is part of me. So after the training day we had up on the Galilee a couple of week’s prior, with Andrea and Margaret with our training group we had all decided to sign up for the Olympic, well then Margaret gets talked into to doing the half Ironman as it is the only Half in Israel, and thusly if Margaret was going to do the Half then I was as well, even though I had not gone any of the distances, apart from the run.

The four of us drove up to the race on Friday, it is less than two hours away but on race day we were scheduled to start the race at 5:30 am, which meant getting up at 3:30am to eat and get to the race start.

The night before we all got together for a somewhat bizarre and nervous pre race meal, which naturally involved walking around the streets of Tiberius on the eve of Shabbat trying to find a restaurant that was open and served pasta for a pre race carbo load. Now anyone who has ever gone out with friends in a state of nervousness will know that you will walk around in circles trying to find what you want, so instead of walking into the first restaurant you spend an hour on your feet not resting walking past the same three restaurants in search of something as simple as a bowl of pasta. The trouble in Tiberius was that being Shabbat eve the only restaurants open seemed to be Lebanese that served meat and fish or fish and meat. Finally we managed to find one restaurant that had some bad pasta on the menu.

Frustrated but at least happy to have found some pasta we ate and headed back to the hotel to put the final touches to our nutrition plans making peanut butter and jelly wholewheat pitas and the funny touch of writing our race numbers on our arms.

Sleep well trying to get to sleep at 8:30pm is not the easiest especially when your nerves are wire tight and you know that ou have to get up at 3:30. Of course you are tenser about sleeping in and missing the start than you are are about getting a good nights sleep.

The alarm went off after what seemed to be the longest night with no sleep and immediately you eat and have a coffee and hope that nature will take its course in the next five minutes as going to the toilet is as important as not forgetting your kit at this hour of the morning.

Arriving at the race start we got our bikes together pumped up the tires to race pressure hoping in the dark that we would not get a puncture, even though twice in the past two weeks we actually have got together for practice sessions in changing flat tires, yes we trained to repair flat tires, it makes sense to anyone who has done a triathlon and yet seems dumb to anyone who has not. The difference can be ten minutes in being able to repair a tire quickly.

So in the dark we checked in through the safety check and headed for the transition area to unpack and prepare, even though I had never done this before it was fairly straightforward laying out what you need for the bike and run legs.


Dawn was just breaking as we lined up, the sun barely above the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee was as dark and dim as a scene from a Lord of the Rings movie. My nerves were stretched but at the same time I knew that since I was starting at the back to avoid the kicking and punching of the front swimmers in the washing machine in front. Naturally the start had been moved to 5:45 instead of 5:30am, but it mattered little as I tried to make out the buoys in the distance that we had to swim around. 1900m is easy to write and does not seem a long distance especially when you are used too or in my case having swum only once in my life five days before. But in the open water of the Sea of Galilee there is no black line on the floor and the water is just greenish, you can see your arms in front of you and that is about it.

The horn sounded and with a lump in my throat I plunged in and started my first triathlon. “I am a swimmer, I am a swimmer” stroke glide stroke “I am a swimmer” went through my mind and I began to relax and look around, the sun still not on the water but lighting the hills that make the Golan Heights that separate Israel from Syria taking on a magical glow, turning at the first buoy of the triangular course I could see the sun on the eastern coastline and I just focused on the next buoy to swim too. Now forget images of a bronzed Aussie in the mould of Ian Thorpe turning over freestyle in a relaxed manner, I breaststroke having never learnt to swim freestyle so all I could see where the leading and not so leading swimmers pulling away from me. I did not care or worry as my goal was to get through the swim without having burnt up to much energy when I knew I still had the bike and swim leg to go. In fact the key to a race of this length is the ability to pace yourself it is a long day at the office.

Now I am not going to downplay my breaststroke because like the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady actually had me catch up with the slower free style swimmers, and I actually tried to draft behind a slow free styler but to be honest did not seem to make the slightest difference except I was swimming in the bubbles of his feet.

The shore and finish eventually came and my feet touched the rocks after 59 minutes 45 seconds and looking around Margaret was next to me so we laughed and shuffle ran up to the transition area surrounded by fast little 10 year olds competing in the children’s race. My heart rate for the swim was avg 103 max 110, which was spot on easy relaxed and energy to burn.

Transition #1 Swim to Bike

By the time Margaret and I got to the transition area the first thing we noticed was how few bikes remained the rest of the people doing the Half Ironman seemed to be long gone. I focused dried my feet put on the bike shoes quickly ate a banana grabbed my helmet and headed out to the mounting zone. You cannot just get on your bike and ride all areas in the transition are controlled and ruled by officials with the power to disqualify you on the spot. Transition time incl run from water 9 minutes.

Leg #2 THE BIKE – 90 km’s

Hey two laps of a 45 km loop seem easy to say in conversation. But it is a bloody long way and the reality was that I actually expected to take close to four hours to complete this leg. Remember I have never ever ridden 90km before in my life. 75km’s in a group with drafting yes, alone with no drafting was a daunting prospect.

Again the key to my strategy was to pace myself, remain in low gears and maintain a high cadence so that my thighs and quad muscles would have the energy to run the half marathon.

To make myself feel good in the first few km’s all those little kids who had raced past me running out of the water I blasted past them on the bike, ok it does not mean much being able to out cycle an 11 year old but in my mental state of trying to maximize every positive these were small victories.
After 5 km the kids turned and all of a sudden I was alone, no one in front of me and for the next 15 km’s I rode alone pushing as hard as I dared. I had calculated that to do well on the bike I had to eat and drink smartly as nutrition is often referred to as the fourth leg of a triathlon.

Riding alone on an empty highway seemed strange, tucking into my bento box (food box) on the bike I nibbled on cut up dates and kept sipping water and sports drink. Suddenly ahead of me a bike streaked past heading back in the opposite direction. The leaders were on the return of the first lap, these guys were motoring and seemed to fly past, but then again I was comfortably pushing along trying to maintain 30 kmh., Which I did quite successfully for the entire time on the bike.

I did the first half of the loop in 47 minutes and turning back grabbed a bottle of water and took a gel for energy. I was going to save my peanut butter pita bread for the second lap as a reward.

It was so strange to be alone on the road as I passed the few riders who were behind me it felt good to not be at the back but then again I really did not care. Since no matter what time I did it was going to be a personal best time.

One of the good aspects of loop courses is that you see and pass your friends and it was great to see Margaret and Michael on the course, both seemed to be as focused as me.

The second leg of the first loop saw the traffic jam of the sprint and Olympic distance riders now on the course and mentally it felt great to crank up and pass other riders, with my energy levels high and heart rate below 140. In fact over the entire bike section my heart rate was an average 122 with a max at 140 beats per minute.

The second half of the first loops I did in 44:52 and settled back in to start munching on my peanut butter pita. Note to self here do not wrap so well in plastic wrap not easy to undo one handed at 3o kmh. The leaders raced past me going the other way and I just focused on keeping my head together and maintaining a good cadence to save my legs the third section I did in 49:36, within two minutes of the first one heading back now I passed Margaret and we shouted encouragement and shared a smile in less than an hour I would be off the bike and running. My god my bum and crotch were getting numb by now.

Hang on up ahead another rider, yes another rider after 65km’s I actually past another rider doing the Half Ironman. Hey after 2:45 minutes I actually overtook another rider.
Heading into the final two km’s I dropped the gearing to low and gently try to change the muscles the run awaited.

My final leg took 47:39 for a total bike time of 3 hours 10 minutes and 11 seconds, given that I had hoped for four hours having never done the distance I jumped off the bike at the marshalling area and felt my legs go to jelly with the first step I took, oh dear ….

Transition #2 Bike to Run

Now I wish I could say that my legs felt fantastic, when in fact they felt like two rubber bands for those first twenty steps and by the time I got my bike back into the transition rack, the rider that I had passed had also entered the transition and was off like greased lightning. Taking a minute longer than I wanted I changed shoes and grabbed a drink before hobbling off, but with each tentative step my legs did come back.

Leg #3 – THE RUN

I have run the half marathon distance many times in races and in training so of all the disciplines of the day, this was the one that I felt good going into. I had fueled well and drank plenty so I thought that dehydration was not going to be a factor. Little did I realize how much fluid I was going to need and the Gastro problems that awaited me?

My first km’s were done in a respectable 5:29, 5:27 and 5:24 which are by all factors respectable times and though I felt slow my watch did show I was moving well. It was becoming a mental game and my mantra was “ I am a runner” and through the whole run over the next two hours never did the dreaded left side of the brain ever take full control. Sure it tried but it was the heat that was becoming the critical factor, the run again was a double loop and on the first leg there were runners from the other distances on the course so at no times was there empty path ahead of me.

The path was a brutal fully exposed no shade footpath of hard concrete alongside the hwy south and it was a matter of trying not to look at the signs and distance markers on this first loop as all I could focus on was the thought of on the next loop I will be counting down rather than counting up.

One great thing on the loop system was that I was to see Mike, Margaret and Andrea and we could high five each other, well low five actually but somehow this simple act helped bond us and mentally gave me a great lift to know that all of us were going through the same and yet we took the time to help each other by the simple act of slapping hands as we took another step towards the end.

The first loop was highlighted by the fact that when I got to the Half Ironman check point the volunteer upon seeing my number approach dashed back to the table and grabbed my special need bottle that had been dropped off earlier in the morning, I declined knowing that on the second loop this would be a great mental boost for me. Lets face it since when is purple Gatorade a mental advantage but it was to be.

I knew that up to this point my fluid intake had been good, as I actually had to stop and go to the toilet, ok more than you need to know, but it showed that I was drinking enough to this point.

The run back to the turn around point was tough and the sun and the heat was physically taking its toll, I tried not to look up but simply concentrate on my mantra and keeping my legs moving in what seemed like the slowest shuffle, my km splits were down to 5:50 and 6:00 sometimes longer as I walked through all drink stations taking two cups of water, one to drink one to pour on myself to try and cool down my head.

On the second leg of the run loop my best km split was to be 5:56 minutes per km and after picking up my purple Gatorade and downing yet another gel I walked with another competitor for two minutes as we tried to psyche each other up to run, we did eventually but after 100 m he stopped and I continued pushing as best I could.

I realized that water I had been getting on the run had been coming out of these portable water tanks and that the volunteers had been tipping them up to get the last of the water out, mentally this just started to make me think and sure enough I started to cramp in the stomach.

I needed more water and as bad as I felt I knew that this was crunch time I had less than five km’s to go and as I passed Margaret for the last time I tried to smile but inside I was hurting real bad but did not want to show it. Andrea had finished her Olympic distance and as an act of true friendship came back down the course to find Margaret and me and as I passed her she offered me water from a bottle she was carrying. I really at this point was mentally beyond my zone and thanking her just continued I was so bloody close that I could not figure out why these last km’s were taking so long, my km time were blowing out to 6:30 to 7:30. But I was moving, my legs felt like jelly for a few hundred yards and as I walked they loosened and I wobbled but mentally pulling myself I got back into a run as slow as it was.

Then I heard the best sound of any event you enter the announcer at the end on the loud speaker reached me and down inside I knew that I had made it just another 500m and it would be all over.

There is always a part of you that wants it to be over, but at the same time the journey has taken you through so much and made you realize what it takes that you somehow do not want it to end the journey has made you a better person and the end seems not fair. You want the feeling to never end because you understand what it takes and what you have been through.

But the finish line was there and as I crossed I realized that I had done it I was a Half Ironman. Hang on does this mean I want to be an Ironman. At this point I truly do not know but to push yourself to a new limit is such an emotional high that inside you want more.

My time 6 hours 33 minutes the seconds really do not matter, what mattered was that all of us had taken a challenge and we had all won.

Margaret got a trophy for second place in her age group and packing up the cars tired and exhausted beyond anything I have ever done before.

I felt an elation and endorphin high, today I had with friends done better than my best, we all had.


21stCenturyMom said...

Amazing! You are tough as nails and that is an astonishing and GREAT time for a 1/2 IM. I know people who train for months and do them in 6.6 hours. Mal - you are such a strong athlete. Congratulations on your rookie effort at triathlon. One can only imagine what would happen if you actually trained. WELL DONE! I hope you are ecstatic with that time.

PLANET3RRY said...

Mal! AWESOME! For being way (way, way) undertrained you had an awesome race. I've done a number of sprints and the Half seems so intimidating... just goes to show your character and courage to tackle something of that magnitude! Great job!

So when are you going to take the "half" out of your blog title??

jeanne said...

That is awesome. Yes, imagine what would happen if you had REALLY trained! Congrats!

bari said...

Weren't you glad that the heatwave ended the day before?

After completing the sprint (I'd planned to do the Olympic, but my coach vetoed my plans -- and I was nowhere near as undertrained as you!), I did a slow walk out and back on the grass next to the run course (about 2.5 km in each direction) and I spent some time standing talking to a friend and watching the runners. I saw a guy in a funny hat, who, as it turns out, finished right ahead of you, so I must have seen you out there, too.

Congratulations and great job, though I have to admit that I think you're a little bit nuts! :-)

dpeach said...

Congratulations Mal! What a great story.

As always, you are an inspiration. Keep up the great work and don't forget to tell us about it.