Wow, where to start? I apologize in advance for the length of this blog but there so much to tell. It's almost as long as the Ironman so you really have to commit to reading this one. I spent my whole season doing long, slow rides and runs in preparation for this race which compromises top end speed a little bit but prepares you for the long grind of a ten hour race. Because of this I felt confident in my ability get to the end with some pep still in my legs. My short course results have been sub par thus far this season because of the lack of speed work, but I figured it would pay off in the long run. In short, I had turned myself into an aerobic machine and felt ready to go.
Louisville is a beautiful city with really friendly people and a nice waterfront. We all stayed at the host hotel which was quite impressive and, most importantly, close to the transition area. The atmosphere was electric and I've honestly never seen a fitter group of people gathered in one spot. Because Ironman Louisville is the only Ironman race with a time trial start, it can accommodate 3000 athletes making it the Ironman with the greatest number of participants in the world. So basically in the lead up to the race there are 3000 people walking around covertly checking out each other's ripped calves. It's easy to get intimidated by the competition before the race.
Friday and Saturday flew by with all of the preparation. The registration, mandatory meeting, transition check in, practice swim, and organization of five different transition bags is an endurance event in itself. Before I knew it I was standing in line for the swim start with Jodie and David, watching the pro start and trying not to look nervous. The swim start is unique in the sense that everyone is lined up and starts by running over a timing mat and then jumping off a dock to begin their race. The whole process takes about forty minutes but we were lined up fairly close to the front so we jumped in about five and a half minutes after the first person in line. And so off we went on our epic journey.
The water in the Ohio river was 85 degrees so no wetsuits, and super murky so no visibility. The early going was a bit tough. I kept running into the back of other swimmers because I couldn't see them in the hazy water, and I got a couple good whacks upside the head for my on the way, but eventually things cleared out and I swam easy for the rest of the distance. Because it wasn't a mass start there was virtually no drafting, but my stroke felt super relaxed and I got out in an hour and two minutes, a really good time considering no wetsuit and no drafting.
I resolved to take the bike fairly easy and leave lots in my legs for the marathon so I settled into a medium pace at about 36km/h on the flat beginning. That's when I got my first lesson in Ironman competitiveness. A whole pack of guys went flying by at about the five k mark and there was definitely some drafting going on. I dropped back and watched them head off into the distance. Drafting rocks in cycling but in triathlon it's illegal and I wasn't about to join in the festivities. And then the hills started... Wow, is this race hilly. The middle 140k of the bike really has hardly any flat at all. There are long sustained climbs, short, sharp rollers and everything in between. This is the section where the average speed takes a nosedive. The enormity of Ironman hit me about four hours into the race when I looked down at my computer, saw 80k done, and realized that I still had a hundred to go. Oh yeah, and a marathon. In Ironman it's best not to focus on what's to come lest despair gets the best of you. The first loop of the course was spread out quite well but on the second loop suddenly we hit the tail end of the racers who were still on their first loop and things got crowded and a bit hairy at times. There were lots of times when I had to squeeze by lapped people who were riding side by side or in large packs. My undoing started about 140 km into the ride. I heard somewhere that you're not supposed to drink much in the latter parts of the bike to prevent the stuff from sloshing around in your stomach on the marathon, so I only took a few sips in the last portion of the bike. Was this ever a mistake. The temperature was soaring, the sweat was dripping off me, and just as I needed liquids most I stopped taking them. Duh. With 15 k to go in the bike I started losing power in the legs and limped into transition feeling fairly weak. The 180 km took 5 hours 28 minutes (33km/h) which was way slower than I had planned. Lesson - don't make plans on how long an event will take in a race this long.
As soon as my feet hit the ground I knew I was in trouble. My gut hurt a lot with every step and I still had a marathon to run. Oh boy. In retrospect I know this was a result of severe dehydration but at the time I thought that I had too much in my stomach. The brain doesn't work at it's optimum capacity six and a half hours into a race. I headed to the porta-potty and tried to make myself throw up - no go, just dry heaves, the stomach was empty. The fact that I was dehydrated should have been clear from the fact that I felt no need to pee after 180km on the bike. On BCC rides I'm known as Mr. Public Urination. So after a glacial transition I was off and running at a glacial pace and walking rather leisurely through the very long aid stations. I honestly thought that I would be out on that run course forever. After 10k my brain kicked in and noticed that I wasn't sweating; not a good sign. That's when I started gulping down two cups of liquid per aid station while continuing the death march. The ironman marathon becomes a massive slog, especially when you're not feeling well. You literally live from one aid station to the next where you can walk, force back some liquid, and stuff your jersey full of ice which will be melted by the next aid station a mile down the road. You just have to grind ahead and avoid thinking about how many miles are left because that number is always too high.
Well, it was a long day and after a massive down, things started to turn around about half way through the marathon. I started to sweat again and my pace picked up considerably, plus the pain and fatigue had by then been going on for so long that it became the normal state of affairs and no longer bothered me so much. At the fifteen mile mark the organizers play a cruel trick on the racers, ending the first loop right by the finish line. You actually run toward the finish line before veering off to the right at the last minute and heading off for another 11 miles of foot crushing torture. Psyche! The rest of the run is a blur. The only thing I was aware of was that I was on about 10 hour 40 minute pace and that a 10:39 looks better than 10:40.
The finish line was sublime. I rolled in with my hard earned 10:39 with well over a thousand people cheering in the famous enclosed area on Fourth Street. A camera man was running beside me, famous announcer Mike Riley was yelling, "Patryk Biegalski, you - are - an - Ironman" and Brooke was cheering like crazy. Relief. Elation. For the first time I understood what the big deal was about. After going through hell the finish line is heaven. They even have a bright light for you to run towards.
Amazing how fast you crash after that high if you're not well. I started feeling terrible almost immediately after the finish so off we went to medical where I spent the next hour and a half on a stretcher getting two bags of electrolyte water pumped into my vein through IV (I remember the doctor saying, "This is a two litre guy"). That sure hit the spot but I was amazed that I ran the whole marathon (except for the aid stations). Must've been a really slow release adrenaline rush.
Jodie and David also finished without incident and despite some ups and downs we all generally walked away with a positive impression of, and a healthy respect for Ironman. So, my final tally, 1:02 swim, 5:28 bike, 3:54 marathon. I was probably the only racer who ran the second half of the marathon significantly faster (or rather less slowly) than the first. Add two rather lengthy transitions and you get 10:39 which was 39 minutes longer than I had hoped for. However, the three h's (heat, humidity and hills) made the race hard. My being a bonehead made it harder. So, all in all, I'm happy with the result and I'm taking another crack at the ten hour mark in Mont Tremblant next August.
After the race, a shower, and dinner, we went down to the finish line to watch the last racers coming in before the 17 hour cut-off. Seeing grown men and women, some of them in their seventies, weeping as they ran down that chute to deafening applause was something else. Despite my own sorry state I was jumping up and down cheering for all I was worth. The place went absolutely ballistic as three people managed to make it in with less than thirty seconds left. No finish line matches the intensity of the Ironman. You feel like a rock star coming toward that line.
Some additional notes. The volunteers and medical staff at the race were fantastic. Everyone was super friendly and helpful and bent over backwards to help the racers. The locals were also great and very encouraging along the course.
Finally, it was awesome having Brooke there cheering me on and recording video as usual. Brooke and Jodie's wife Monica were on the race site the ENTIRE day and deserve an Ironman medal for that feat of endurance. Brooke is the greatest and will have a medal of her own at Ironman Mont Tremblant next year. She's already getting nervous.
So, Ironman is an unforgettable experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a brutal day of suffering and doesn't value their toenails too much. Congrats to Jodie and David and a huge thanks to Brooke and Monica for the cheers. Cheers.
PS Thanks Alexx for the update post and thank you to everyone for the encouraging emails.
PPS Enjoy the vids and pics courtesy of Brooke.
PPPS Jodie, if you have any pics please post.