#29: Swim, Bike, Desert Death March, wait what?

It being Sunday……my normal day to post, I guess I should, I had a pretty eventful weekend…..and since it took me 14 hours to finish this thing…..I thought I owed it to you to give you 14 hours of stories (OK, maybe not that long….).. 🙂


What started with a crazy travel debacle (family flew from Philly to Houston to Phoenix to Salt Lake and then DROVE the nearly 5 hours to get to St. George b/c of some airline mechanical issue) that my Brother, Wife & Kids handled remarkably meant that getting to sleep the night before the “big race” was a bit tricky.  I eventually did fall asleep and got a solid 4 hours in before waking up to get ready at 3A (when they arrived)…..shuttle buses to the reservoir left beginning at 430A and there was still a lot to do down there so earlier was better.  This was about 1/2 hour before I figured on getting up so not a big deal.  The kids were exhausted, they each gave a hug and half smile and climbed into a bed, out in no time.  The adults went over the plan for the day and that was it……off to the buses.

After checking in the remainder of my gear and jumping on the shuttle we rode out to Sand Hollow.  My seat-mate was a guy from the West Coast who had done a few of these races, but not this one.  It was a subdued buzz throughout the 30 min ride as everyone anticipated.  We talked about strategies, etc……we agreed that the big x-factor was going to be the heat…..we were right.

Fast forward through the tire pumping, multiple porta-potty trips, continuous sipping at electrolytes, wetsuit donning and cattle-herding of bright green and pink dotted heads into the swimmer start chute and there we stood, almost 2000, listening to the national anthem and getting ready to do this thing.  


This was the first detail I wasn’t quite ready for.  In the other 2 triathlons I’ve done they get everyone in the water, wish you well and fire the “cannon”.  This one they told people, hurry up and get in…….I had just gotten wet and started to make my way toward the starting line (a few 100 yards away) and “boom”, the race started.  Wait, I’m not ready…..oh well, dummy, get in the water earlier next time.  This was my first “learning experience” on the day and besides giving away a few minutes to get across the starting line, not a biggie.

The course was a rectangle:  A LONG stretch, a turn and short stretch, a turn another LONG stretch another turn and short stretch to the finish.  I felt much more comfortable this time than the last mass-start-swim I did….a whole lot less of that claustrophobic feeling and after a min or two found my groove.  Starting in the way back had one advantage for me…..it is and incredible boost to be passing people the entire way….things felt like they were getting in order and I felt like I was moving through the water well.  The water was still chilly (62deg F), but I was generating plenty of heat to be working up a sweat…..I cannot IMAGINE if it was 52 like last year.  Every 20 minutes I heard my watch just as planned.  At 40 minutes-ish, my right shoulder started barking some, but I made some adjustments on the fly and got to the next beep.  I couldn’t see the final turn buoy (really bright out there), but there were PLENTY of people to follow still.  I eventually got out of the water, somewhere around middle of the pack, way dizzier than I expected being.  Staggered a little, exhaled that this section was over and started to transition.  

IRONMAN (the brand) has this down to a science.  Out of the water you sit down and a team of people strip your wetsuit off.  Then you go “into transition”, call out your bib # and someone races and finds your bag.  You change (which is kind of tough when wet), get some sunscreen (which another team of folks apply).  Someone has already found your bike and away you go.

I took my time……I knew that I was mid-pack on the swim and knew it was going to be a long day, so I wanted to feel right on the bike, the (supposed) long leg of the journey.  I opted to wear the white long-sleeve wick-shirt I got from Disney Marathon to protect me from the sun and I think this may have been a key detail in getting across the finish.

The bike course is big and hilly but having done the computrainer many times I felt prepared.  Before I shipped my bike I also changed the cassette (the little sprockets on the back) to one that was a bit more suited for “climbing” and rented the racing wheels….2 additional decisions that paid off…..I FLEW.  I didn’t push it…..stayed within my game plan……and I passed riders.  For the next 6+ hours I passed people (a little more than 200 I think) which again felt good.  I’m sure 30-50 of them were people who I entered into swim transition with and I just took my time there, so that got me “even”……but the next 150 or so were all people who out swam me…..this says: 1. Swimming is not my strength (which I knew) and 2. I made up sound ground in my biking skill-set…..even after getting off to stretch once, I managed to pass 239 people on the bike, 25 from my age group.  

The ride to town was 21 miles and it went by quickly…..whew 21 miles gone already….at 25-ish I zipped by my family….they didn’t recognize me until I was right up on them and I heard Lindsay yell “SH**” as I passed b/c she missed her chance for a photo.  

The first of 2 loops went pretty well…..absolutely gorgeous morning for a ride and the heat was only barely coming into play……it was probably 80 or hotter at that point, but when you’re traveling b/t 15 and 20 mph, it felt cooler.  The first time up the “veyo wall” I cranked…….not heavy pushing cranked, just good alignment, steady pedaling cadence and passing another 10-15 riders……more climbing back past “Snow Canyon” and then some tremendous descending back into town.  I remember as the bike whizzed down the hills that I should be nervous going that fast, but I wasn’t…..it felt great.  I can’t wait to look at my garmin data, I probably hit 50 mph.  

ANYWAY….the second loop began and although I could have lived without it, things were still going as planned…..by mile 70 it was getting hot….the air was stagnant and I had lost a water bottle….ugh!  Recover, recover I kept saying to myself and I backed off and watched my heart rate fall back into any easier place.  At that point I did a little body check and realized that my L knee was pretty achy……that darn quad tendon….way too long to go for this to be a problem, so I started massaging and planned to stretch at mile 80-ish water stop.  I also felt the back of my right knee feeling almost “tacky”.  I thought, oh no, maybe I missed sunscreen there….that’s going to SUCK tomorrow.  It was then that I realized the powerbar pieces (that they cut in half and therefore are open on 1 end) that I had tucked in the bottom of my shorts had melted and were dripping down my leg…….GROSS.  I’m sure to anyone who saw this that melted powerbar was NOT what they thought was dripping down my leg, but with a heavy dousing from the remaining water in my bottle, I was able to scrape off enough to not have to get off the bike.  

Mile 90 was VEYO a second time…..and it was TOUGH on tired legs…..but I still passed people…….the computrainer is an amazing device…….back up the final climbs, and back down into town.  I had finally found my “people” (the group that was going about the same pace)….the last 10 minutes there was a cluster of 5 of us who would pass each other back and forth……

Heading to Transition 2


Into transition feeling decent.  My legs were tired, but I expected this kind of tired…..it was the kind of tired that comes from riding a bicycle 112 miles……and I was about where I thought I should be time wise…..got my gear on, took a couple of good gulps of fluid and forgot to use the porta john……oh well, mile 1 there’s a water stop……and this is the fateful moment.  Not to gross you out talking about urine…..but let’s just say when it’s orange and there’s not much of it…..DEHYDRATION is on your mind.

OH NO…..damn dry desert heat.  It was doing exactly what I had feared…..pulling water off me without me realizing it……and I was drinking a ton on the bike……I got out of the porta john and gulped down a few 4oz glasses….  The water belly feeling ensued a little…..but I said to myself….if I was going to do 26.2 starting out dehydrated, in the heat of the day (which had to be at least 93 on the road) on a brutal course, I HAD to get some fluid in…..and I jogged off…..next stop mile 2….same routine, but I still had in my head that I would “get right” so I put in some carbs too; the mix was too much……  

It’s definitely what I needed…..by my body didn’t like the idea.  My stomach couldn’t clear, meaning everything just sat in my stomach sloshing around….what a horrible feeling……like a water belly that won’t go away.  I could literally see my belly get distended and feel it sloshing around…..oh, I better walk this off…..

Walk? yes.  Walk it off? no.  

Every time I started to jog my stomach would cramp up…..terrible……first it was jog a little….nope.  Then it was jog the down hills…..nope.  Eventually it was just walk……and walk…..and walk…..

Utter disappointment…….everything was on track only a short time ago and now this?  My legs were still feeling like they could go……my heart rate was where it should have been……but I’m CERTAIN my body temperature was not in a good place…..without fluid it couldn’t have been.  My breathing was more labored than it should have been and I knew I was in for a long day.  

About the only thing I could get in at that point was cola….about 4 oz per mile.  Thank God for nutritional crack…..it’s what got me through.  The high-calorie, high-sugar, high-sodium, terrible for you unless you need sugar fast elixir was the only thing that didn’t make me feel like I was going to burst.  The problem is, it wasn’t nearly enough fluid or nearly enough sugar and I was losing ground. 

 By mile 10, when I saw my family/cheering section they were doing what great families do….they were desperately trying to pick me up……I was really disappointed.  I didn’t want my kids to see me like this…….I pulled my hat brim down as low as it could go, flashed them the I Love You hand gesture and sucked back tears with barely enough left to shuffle-jog by…….finally to the 1/2 marathon turn……

“I have to do this all again?” 

I thought…….well, there was no way I wasn’t finishing this thing and by then I had come to terms with the fact that if I was going to finish, it was going to have to be with fuel economy in mind.  If I depleted myself too fast, I was going to crash.  Even just walking, a couple of times I’d feel myself stagger a little and I thought “No WAY”….get your self together.

By mile 17, my stomach had started to FINALLY settle and the outside temperature was starting to come down…..I felt MUCH better……..I thought…..no problem, 9.5 miles left, I can jog this out…..only a few weeks ago I did this in a little over an hour…..but after walking the better part of 17 miles…..the body was now feeling like what a body feels like at mile 17…..hamstrings OUCH……quads OUCH…..lower back CRAMP…….neck and shoulders CRAMP…..L hip Barking……nope; this was not happening.  Looking back, I probably could have stretched out and gotten at least decently back on track……but I was done…..mentally checked out….just wanted it to be over…..and so I trudged along……

By mile 22, after talking with a few of the long line of people in the same situation (most everyone in fact) I was psyching myself up to at least jog the last couple of miles to the finish.  I knew that I would be passing my loyal fan base, who had been sitting in the heat all-day, worried to death at times (I’m sure), and I felt like I owed it to them to show them some strength…..I tried to hold my head up and jog…..it was tolerable…..so I jogged some more. 

Only a 5K left…..3.1 measly miles….of course this is where I had planned on “racing”…..but that was gone now…..just finish strong with your head up…..get finished. They yelled and Eric ran along side me a little telling me “you’re looking strong now” (he was lying)….but it didn’t matter, this thing was going to be done.  I slapped high fives with my kids and said “now let’s get this stupid thing done” (I’m sure that’ll come back to haunt me…we don’t say “stupid” Dad)……they cheered and made their way to the finish line.

Within 1/2 mile from the finish I could see the crowds lining the streets and I felt the urge the thank them.  I started slapping high-fives and all the way down the row and people started getting into it……I could hear the excitement coming through and it was AWESOME……I heard my wife yell from somewhere on the right and I put my hands up…….14 hours and 13 minutes later, roughly 2 hours longer than I expected….it was done…..or so I thought.

Ecstatic, relieved, and 10 yards from the finish

They escorted me to the family area and after I assured them I was OK (I came to realize I wasn’t) I sat down as my family kept a watchful eye on me……I was really depleted and that last bit of energy it took to cross took the rest of what was left.  About 2  minutes after talking to my Mom on the phone, the adrenaline wore off and I felt like I was going to fall asleep….I laid down.  Again….support network to the rescue.  I could see they were getting worried, I could barely sit up straight.  My Dad and Sister corralled my kids and got them back to the beds……Eric and Lindsay hopped the fence and got to work getting me OK.

“Get some food in you” they’d say  “I can’t” I’d respond.  They found the semi-hot chocolate.  They got me to take a sip and kept me talking……I knew what they were doing….I’ve been in that spot before……and I was so glad they were doing it…..they told me about facebook and about the people watching on-line…..have another sip……they told me about all of the friends who were following the day and how well the kids behaved……and I cried…….have another sip…….they reassured me that “everyone crashed on that run”…..have another sip…..and that “this the toughest course we’ve ever seen”……have another sip……they showed me a picture of me coming across the finish that someone posted (thank you whoever did this)…..have another sip……and then 3 cups of chocolate later and some final emotional purging and I started to come back to life…..they were obviously relieved and we found my gear, put by bike on the “transport truck” and found the car. 

On my goals – I got about 6 of 17 objectives met…..which would’ve scored a 28 in my little game…..finished, just in the top 50%: 829 out of 1914.  Did the bike in 6:25 (only twenty minutes longer than it took to do the “run”….ouch).  I think I would have hit the first swim goal had I started at the starting line, but it is what it is.

This is NOT something I’ll be doing again for a while…….I’ve overdrawn big-time on family time….and I need to start paying back with interest…….the accomplishment is by no means lost on me, but there is no doubt, as happy as I am to have done what very few do, on a course that Ironman USA calls, “the toughest Ironman course in the world”, I am not satisfied.

As they drove, I read the posts of encouragement, responded to the texts, saw the “likes”.  What awesome people.  What awesome support.  You all are really the best and I couldn’t possibly explain how meaningful this is to me.

And now….the morning after…..with some gatorade and a bowl of cereal in my system and a big hug and smile from my “early bird” middle child…..who has been an incredibly tactile, loving, hugging kid from day one (and the only one awake with me)……I feel good.

Sure I hurt…..my knee is stiff.  My L upper shoulder is tight.  My neck is achy and the bottom of my feet are still a little numb (had I known the speed at which I would be traveling, I’d probably have packed hiking boots)…..but I feel good.……far from satisfied…..but good…..a finisher……an IRONMAN.
Humbled and then some,

Mike E.