One-Hundred Seconds: 1999 Ironman Florida

It all started with an argument over who were the best athletes: swimmers, cyclists, or runners. During a 1977 running race awards banquet in Hawaii, Navy Commander John Collins grabbed a microphone and laid down a challenge which would settle the debate. He invited the crowd to an ultra-endurance race which borrowed courses from the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles).

“I said the gun will go off about 7 a.m., the clock will keep running, and whoever finishes first we’ll call the ‘Ironman.'”

logoTwenty-two years have since passed and I find myself standing on a chilly beach in Panama City, Florida hidden amongst a crowd of other racers. The announcer’s voice is barely discernible as last minute instructions are repeated and the countdown clicks toward zero. The start cannon blasts and the mass of adrenaline-filled competitors scurry en mass to the Gulf water. The inaugural Florida Ironman triathlon is underway in grand fashion.

If you’re a skittish swimmer, if you cringe thinking about others clawing at your feet, if you can’t take the occasional hand slap to the head, if an occasional mouthful of saltwater makes you gag, this is not your race. The math is simple. There are 1,561 athletes single-mindedly sprinting towards the first big course buoy a half mile away. According to Michigan Ironman veteran Laura Sophiea, it’s always “armpits to armpits.” The only benefit is there’s no chance of going off course when you’re confined to swimming in an area no bigger than a bathtub.

After passing a couple of buoys, we turn and swim towards shore. As the water gets shallower, swimming turns to porpoising (pushing off the bottom with both legs) which turns to running. With a short jaunt across a timing mat on the beach, we swing around and head back to the swim course for a second 1.2 mile lap.

There had been a lot of concern prior to the race about the Gulf’s waves, red tide (algae blooms), and jellyfish. Fortunately these are not a problem this morning. While I did see three jellyfish, they were well submerged in the crystal clear waters, avoiding all the commotion at the water’s surface.

The second swim lap was much more relaxed as the field was spread across the course, affording everyone a little more personal space. Instead of worrying about survival, I now have time to think about lessor problems, like how my wetsuit is rubbing my neck raw. As I learned later, not applying lubricant (e.g. Body Glide) to these susceptible areas is a common newbie mistake.

The race clock creeps past the one hour mark and I’m running from the water while simultaneously removing the top of my wetsuit. Once past the timing mat, volunteers order me to lay on my butt as volunteers grab both sides of my wetsuit and pull it off faster than you can imagine. As I jump back to my feet, they hand me my folded wetsuit and I continue my run through the freshwater showers and towards the bike transition.

This brief run is lined with barricades and enthusiastic spectators. The loud cheering provides a sharp contrast to the past hour spent listening to splashing water. It’s very motivating!

The run meanders through long wooden racks. These racks have numbered hooks holding our bike gear bags. I quickly find my hook #818 (my race number), grab my bag, and continue running to the changing tent. Changing is simple. You dump your bag’s contents on the ground, grab what you want and drop what you don’t. As you leave the tent, a volunteer stuffs the used or unwanted items back in the bag for you before returning it to the rack.

The run continues from the tent to the bike. In between are a few volunteers with sunscreen smeared on their gloved hands. I gladly accept their services and go from SPF 0 to 45 in seconds.

As I take my bike from the rack, I notice that Grosse Pointe’s Ironstud Todd Briggs has already grabbed his bike and is on the course. This is no surprise as this other Todd is three-quarters dolphin and his swim split proves it. While I was happy to be 96th out of the water, he was a most impressive 8th!

The first ten miles of the bike course follows the Gulf shoreline. The road is littered with motels, miniature golf courses, and small stores which shamelessly hawk liquor, tattoos and body piercing alongside T-shirts, sunglasses, and Frisbees.

As the bike course turns inland, the scenery shifts between residential and rural. The roads are very flat even by Michigan standards, and to make it even easier, the wind is a mild 5 to 10 MPH. It’s going to be a fast day for everyone.

I am at mile 17 and my posterior is already very sore from sitting on the saddle. It shouldn’t be. I’ve ridden much longer than this without any issues. Nonetheless, I’m playing the shifting game, sitting differently on the saddle trying to find that magical place where the pain disappears. Eventually, either I’ve found the correct position or I’ve gone numb because the pain is gone by mile 30.

The bike course scenery is not postcard material, however, it is peppered with handmade signs along the road. My girlfriend, Diana along with friends, Steve and Diane conspired the night before the race to put humorous signs along the course to motivate the Michigan contingent. “Go Todd!” “Go Robin Bo Bobbin!” “Cheeseburgers ahead!” These signs help put a smile on my face and some spark in my legs.

Most people would assume there’d be a social aspect to biking 112 miles but this is not the case at the Ironman. The explicit rules prohibit cycling too close to others in order to eliminate the benefits of drafting. The Ironman race is strictly an individual effort and a squadron of officials and volunteers on motorcycles prowl the course to make sure it stays that way.

But despite their efforts, those athletes who want to cheat are finding a way. A pace line of six riders passes me and I slowly watch them pull away. This is frustrating so I click up a couple gears and stand on the pedals. Soon I’ve bridged the gap and slowly but decisively pass this group rider by rider making eye contact along the way. As I come alongside the biggest wheel sucker I sternly ask, “are you passing or drafting.” He doesn’t respond.

As it turns out, this was nothing. Perhaps 20 miles later I was passed by a peloton of fifty riders riding 3 and 4 abreast. If this isn’t enough to make me furious, when pressed, the nearby official says “there’s nothing I can do about it. Beat them on the run.” Fortunately more officials catch up to the pack and start handing out token 3-minute penalties until the group disperses. At that point, I pass most of them back. These cheaters don’t go as fast without the group’s aero advantage.

The miles drift by along with the monotonous scenery. I am concentrating on keeping my head down as I ride – my neck muscles are killing me.

Unlike my neck, my legs feel fine. I know there’s certain level of effort and when I go above this level, my legs will eventually wear down and tire out. Below this level, I can ride all day long. My pre-race strategy was to train hard to raise this level as high as possible. My race strategy is to ride consistently at this level and I’m starting to see the results. While over a hundred cyclists have passed me throughout the first 70 miles, I’m starting to pass them back. And with a slight tailwind at my back pushing me over 25 MPH, this is becoming very motivating.

So far I’ve managed to grab a bottle handout at each aid station, which are spaced roughly 10 miles apart. I’ve grabbed one bottle of Gatorade for every two bottles of water. I’ve dumped the bottles into my aero-drink bottle, which is nestled between my aero-bars. The straw nearly pokes me in the face and provides a constant reminder to drink and stay hydrated.

Behind my saddle is another bottle which I’ve filled with slightly diluted espresso-flavored HammerGel (a sports energy gel.) It contains the equivalent of about 18 GU packets, and I’m taking the last gulp as I approach the century mark. I’ve stashed a Clif Bar on my bike in case I crave solid food but it remains untouched.

The course is winding through the outskirts of town as my bike odometer creeps towards 112 miles. Before the race, my goal was to average 20 miles per hour but it looks like I’ve beaten that by averaging 21. That should give me an extra margin of error so I can meet my overall goal of 10 hours.

With less than a mile to go, I cruise past my rented condo unit and I grin at the thought of stopping for a shower and nap. As I learned the next day, another rider did drop from the race by turning into the condo and calling it a day – the victim of a nasty stomach virus.

“SLOW DOWN.” We’re riding through race volunteers and into the transition area. “DISMOUNT HERE.” With a smooth cyclocross dismount, I’m off my bike. “I’ll take your bike for you.” I’m running through another set of racks and I grab my run gear bag and head for the changing tent. I quickly throw on some fresh shorts, a tank top, running shoes, and my fuel belt.

Before leaving the tent I make a quick pit stop in the much-touted men’s porta-poddy trough. Another athlete steps up to do the same and states a slight variation of the standard bike race announcement “passing on your right.” I can’t help but laugh as I finish my business and get back to racing.

Running feels awesome! I hadn’t run the past few weeks due to a sore right kneecap. It felt great to get back into it.

Cheering spectators of all ages are sprawled along this 2 lap, 13.1 mile out-and-back run course. The aid stations are fully staffed with volunteers eager to keep everyone hydrated and full of energy. The sun is out but the temperatures are only in the comfortable seventies. I’m very happy running at a 7:30 to 7:45 minutes per mile pace.

My right kneecap is starting to ache early and that’s not a good sign. I pop a few ibuprofen which I’ve stashed in my fuel belt and hope it doesn’t get worse. I’m also paying attention to the road surface. Wherever I can, I’m running on the part of the road where it slopes to the right. The slight slope somehow reduces the impact to my damaged knee.

As I cruise along the course, I making sure I’m hydrated and properly fueled. When I see an aid station ahead, I pull one of my gel flasks from my belt and take a swig of HammerGel. Once at the aid station, I slam a cup of water to help flush the sugary gel into my system.

runningThe run gets mentally tougher at the halfway point when you must turn around and start a second lap. When you’re tired and just want to get the race over with, it’s hard to run away from the finish line. And to make matters worse for me, my left kneecap is starting to ache. Since my right kneecap is no longer bothering me, I’m switching strategies and running where the road slopes to the left. This is definitely slowing my pace to somewhat over 8 minutes per mile.

The course is much more crowded on my second lap and passing slower runners provides a little distraction. One drawback of this two lap course is you don’t know exactly who’s on their first lap or their second, whether you’re passing someone or just lapping them. Nonetheless, you can make a good guess by closely examining each runner’s clothing: freshly applied sunscreen indicates a first lap runner while sweaty, salt-stained clothing indicates a second lap veteran.

One of the memorable points on the course involves running past a crowded bar where spectating revelers offer slurred encouragement to the passing athletes. Their cheer of choice seemed to be “don’t let’em pass you!” I heard they saved their more obnoxious cheers for the female racers.

Another memorable moment for me is reaching the 18-mile mark. I only have 8 miles to go, which happens to be the distance of my weekly Thursday night group run back home. Finishing this race seems a little easier as I visualize myself starting my familiar training route.

At roughly a half mile past the three-quarter turnaround, I see another Michigan runner heading the other way. It’s Bob Karalis and he’s about a mile behind me. I like Bob but I have no intentions of letting him catch me. In our close knit training clique, if you don’t beat everyone you know, you’re vulnerable to abuse. I didn’t want to hear the inevitable “How could you let Bob beat you?” Instead, I want to be “first shift” and I want to “set the bar.”

As the race clock continues to mark the minutes, my pace is more erratic and definitely slower. The aid stations don’t arrive as quickly as they did hours ago and I find myself looking at my watch more often. As I pass a mile marker and press the lap button on my watch I’m alarmed to see that my last mile took 9 minutes and 32 seconds. I respond by picking up the pace a little bit but my tight and worn leg muscles are keeping my stride very short.

There are only a couple miles left when some tall runner with the letter “G” written on his leg passes me. “G” indicates my age group, the 35 to 39 year old men. My brain yells at my legs “are you going to let him just pass you like that” and my legs don’t respond.

I am forcing my legs to take longer strides with one and a half miles to go. The crowds along the run course are getting larger and louder with every bend in the road.

Without slowing I run past the last aid station and grab a wet sponge to quickly rinse my face of sweat, salt, and worse. Even in this state of delirium, I still have enough sense to worry about my appearance for the finish line photo.

With about a half mile to go, I make a turn onto the long final stretch of road. The screaming crowds have grown closer to the course and their intensity has increased. But to me it’s just a blur as I’m too busy concentrating on every step towards the finish line.

As I continue to ramp up my speed to an all-out sprint, I notice the gap to the tall “G” runner is rapidly narrowing. At this rate I’m at his heels and past him in no time.

Through the first tight corner my brain is concentrating on staying upright while my legs are locked into automatic full sprint mode. One last turn and I’m running past the fan-filled bleachers, the finish is within reach. I hear my name on the fully cranked speakers, I raise my arms and cross the line.

Everything changes at that instant. A volunteer is in my face asking questions.

“How do you feel?”
“Did you pee during the run?”
“Was I supposed to?”
“We’d prefer it if you did.”
“Oh… I did go before the run.”

Satisfied with my answers, I’m handed off to two young girls, one at each arm. They guide me through the crowd to the medals woman. I lower my head and accept the award. Next someone hands me a free souvenir towel and a nice cold bottle of water. The girls then swing me over to the finisher’s T-shirt table and the pizza table before dropping me off just outside of the medical tent. Diana momentarily evades the Ironman security, hops the fence, sits beside me and helps keep me smiling with accolades.

finishedIt’s been a long day. My 3:36 marathon put me 4 minutes past by goal of 10 hours which is good enough for 104th place overall and 18th in my age group.

However, as I would learn the next day, this was not good to qualify for the 2000 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. There were only 15 slots offered in my age group and the top 15 men took them. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was exactly 100 seconds behind 15th place.

Was it fun? I’ll give it a reluctant “yes.” The race had its moments but its biggest value comes afterwards. It definitely toughens you. The Ironman’s high profile and high-mileage provide good “bragability,” especially among those less connected with the sport of triathlon.

So, who is the better athlete, the swimmer, cyclist or runner? When you finish an Ironman race you’ll learn it just doesn’t matter.

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