As most folks know, IMLP 2016 was to be my 8th Ironman race, and 4th time to jump into Mirror Lake for the start of the event. But IMLP was going to be my first time to start an Ironman post open heart surgery. Therein lies the story.
Flashback to July 2016 when I learned I needed surgery to repair a severely leaking mitral valve. I asked my chosen surgeon if I needed to withdraw from the Ironman race and he suggested that if I had the surgery in September, I should be ready to start training in January. So putting my trust in him and the rest of the medical team, I went ahead with the surgery and kept the date for IMLP
January through June my training was ok, if not completely consistent. I battled mental demons that told me there was just no way I would be ready for IMLP, that my bike times would barely make the cut offs and my run would NEVER come around. I kept plugging away as consistently as I could, but between a job change and kitchen remodel job, keeping a consistent training schedule was a challenge.
I did continue strength training, working with a trainer at Lifetime Fitness who put me through grueling hour long HIIT sessions. They were kicking my ass, and while I didn’t recognize it at the time, were really helping my swim/bike/run.
I had Syracuse 70.3 on the schedule and was looking forward to putting all three disciplines together in one day. I DID NOT expect the course to chew me up like it did. I managed to finish just inside the cut offs, having had a very tough bike and completely walking the entire 13.1 miles of the run.
I was at my lowest mental point after that race, and had convinced myself that I needed to drop out of IMLP. I was looking at another 4 weeks of big volume and couldn’t see the point of doing all that, only to miss the cut offs.
In the vein of “never make an important decision in an emotional state” I didn’t pull the trigger on withdrawal. I did some soul searching and re-evaluated WHY I was doing this race in the first place. When I started training in January I was going to give myself the best possible chance to finish, but to only worry about what I could control (stay inside my box) and let go of the stuff outside my control I also began to do the math to figure out exactly what it would take to make all the cut-offs and finish under 17hrs.
Having some data to go by really helped, and it seemed that my training really fell together in the last few weeks. I rode several 100+ mile hilly rides (thanks TeamNRGY!) each one feeling better than the last at least in feeling, if not in overall time. My long swims were consistently in the 1:05-1:10 time frame. I also landed on a walk-run plan that seemed to work, although I was woefully short of run volume.
We planned to stay for a full week (Thursday through Wednesday) and we rented a small cottage in town. We really scored on location, size, amenities and location. Everything was a very easy walk from our cottage. We arrived late afternoon on Thursday and hustled over to do the VIP registration for Fran and the athlete registration for myself. Since I’ve been doing Ironman racing for 11 years, these events become a mini-home coming. I couldn’t walk more than 5 minutes before seeing someone I’ve known from past races, or from social media, or hearing my name called from across the street. It’s one of the reasons I was so very grateful to be back to participate in the event. It’s a wonderful community.
Friday was spent hanging out, running last minute errands and visiting with friends and teammates, swimming a full loop of the lake and just soaking in the experience.
Saturday was bagging up gear, parceling out nutrition, checking in bike and gear bags, trying to settle nerves and mental preparation.
Since we were so close to transition and the lake, and I had ordered Tri-Tats (love them!) I knew I could skip body marking, AND wait back at our cottage to stay out of the stressful pre-race transition zone. Stacy Marcus came by early with her sister in law, and we went down to set up transition, put nutrition on bikes, pump tires etc. Then we went back to the cottage to wait in a more calming environment. The rest of Stacy’s family showed up and we all walked down to the lake. Last minute hugs and some tears all around, into the wetsuits, a quick warmup swim, then into the cattle-pens for the wait to start.
My plan was to try to seed with the 1:00-1:10 group, but because of the crowding I found myself standing with the 1:20-1:40 group. I was trying not to stress on this, but became increasingly crowded into smaller spaces. Once the race started though, I was able to sneak to one side of the crowd and get closer to my predicted pace group.
As some of you know, I had a second goal at IMLP this year. In 2012 I DNF’ed due to a panic attack in the water. I really wanted some payback for that failure. So it was nice that Jason Santarcangelo and mom Kathleen were there at the water’s edge to see me off. They were the first ‘family’ I saw when DNF’ed in 2012 and it seemed to close that circle for me when they were the last folks who saw me enter the water this year.
My race plan was to finish the swim in 1:05-1:10, bike in 8:00-8:15. Factoring up to 30 min for both transitions, left me about 7:30 to finish the marathon.
Nutrition plan was water, Endurolytes and EAAs (3 caps every 45 min). Solid food to be taken off the course if I felt I needed or wanted it. I had packs of peanut butter cheese crackers as treats simply for my sanity. I did not plan on taking any gels, carb drinks or other sugar-based stuff. This plan had worked really well in training but it was the first time I had tried it in an Ironman race.
I really wanted to stay out of the scrum as much as possible, and stick to my 1:40-1:45/meter pace that I’ve developed in training. I really wanted to get on the wire as quickly as possible, but didn’t feel like fighting for it. I knew that if I got within 2-3 yards of the wire, I’d start to get pulled along in the current of other swimmers. I quickly fell into a groove of swimming, and started to pass people. I passed far more than passed me, and at times found some fast feet to draft behind. I came out of the water in 1:06:40, with close to even splits.
Jason was right there to greet me as I exited the water and you can see the sense of relief and determination on my face as I got my payback and headed out on the bike.
In and out of T1 in 10:17, and onto the bike. I know I had the widest grin on my face for the first loop of the bike. I thought to myself “I woke up on the green side of the grass this morning, and am racing Ironman again. It doesn’t get much better!” The first climb out of town felt pretty good and smooth. Down the descent into Keene felt smooth and comfortable, topping out around 40mph. On the flats into Jay I kept down a manageable power output and just kept hydrating and pedaling. I was getting passed by a LOT of folks, but I knew that would be the case and never really felt bad about it. I was focused on my plan, racing in the mile I was in at the time.
I hit bike special needs around after 3:45 bike time knowing that it was a bit too fast. I knew that lap two would bite me because of it. I loaded up fresh tube of EAAs, some other goodies, did a bit of stretching and off to the second lap.
The climb out of town was harder and overall pace was lower on the second lap. I really, really struggled from mile 90 into the finish. Neck & shoulders were tight, power numbers were way down, but I just kept moving forward. These last miles, especially the last 11 miles uphill back to town which takes over an hour (for me on this day) were the darkest part of the race. It was the hottest part of the day, I had developed a hot spot on my left big toe that was killing me and I could hardly keep my head up from the neck pain. All I could focus on was turning the pedals over. Thankfully I had the 28 tooth sprocket in the rear to help me crawl up the hills.
Finally, back into T2 in 8:03, and off on the run 10 minutes later. I had my own receiving line just inside T2 when Jason, Steven Richardson and Steven Grossman all jumped up to congratulate me and push me forward!
My run strategy was to do 5 min run/2 min walk as long as possible. By my watch I had over 8 hours left to complete the race and I knew I could power walk the marathon and make the cutoff. My confidence got a big boost from that math, and another boost from seeing Rob & Nicole Martzen, Lori Carlo, Jess Hagenbuch and Brenda Ross, on the course, and another MAJOR surge of happiness, getting a HUGE hug from Fran.
I was able to keep up the run/walk plan only for a short time, then settled into power walking the hills, slow walking the steeper hills, and jogging between points when I could. It was great to see Fran Caggiano-Swenson at the Mirror Lake turn around on the first lap! After the first lap of the run course I had 4:30 remaining before midnight, and I knew I would make it in. At that point I wanted to savor every minute so I talked to a lot of other athletes who were also finishing up their race. I heard a LOT of great stories of courage, devotion, and discipline at the back end of the race. The folks who are the 16-17hr racers have to really be in tune with their WHY in order to be out there so long. Almost to a person there was a higher meaning for their race that was driving them forward. Truly inspiring times and my favorite part of the race up to that point.
Finally, back into town, through the INTERMINABLE last two mile out and back on Mirror Lake Drive, I knew it was my turn to be an Ironman again. I was sore, tired, blistered and sunburnt, but none of that mattered. I was alive, healthy and racing Ironman. My wife Fran was at the finish line waiting to put the medal around my neck, and I began to run. Through the Hoka Arch, around the final turn of the ice track and heard Mike Reilly call out my name and give me a high-five. Cross the finish line and into the arms of my love..
It doesn’t get ANY better than that.