The Extra Mile

My Journey Late in Life as a Triathlete – Setbacks and Triumphs

Ironman Chattanooga 2021 Race Report

by | Oct 2, 2021 | Race Reports | 0 comments

So far, 2021 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for my family and me. Surprisingly, it has seemed more difficult than in 2017 when I was almost killed in a bike crash and suffered a fractured C1 vertebra, among other things. From my wife Sandra’s breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, and treatment to being forced to replace our kitchen cabinets, countertop, kitchen and hallway floor, and front door due to a dishwasher water leak to going through the college admissions process and ultimately sending our daughter off to college and dealing with her absence from our lives. It has also been physically challenging for me to train without pain. I have suffered from Achilles issues in both ankles since a hilly half marathon in November of last year. One side healed, and the other flared up just in time to pick up the slack and make sure I couldn’t do much running for the year. The healed side flared up about a week before the race, running off the bike after doing my longest ride ever of 117 miles.

Going into the race, I felt like I could do well on the swim and the bike but didn’t have much hope for the run. Even at a week out, I was still feeling pain in my left Achilles and was worried about it just being inflamed for the whole marathon. I had done Timberman 70.3 5 weeks before the race and struggled on the run after mile 6. I had twinges of pain throughout and just felt like my run fitness was terrible. I also remember towards the end of the swim, thinking, “how the hell am I going to do twice this distance.” I did it in 33 minutes, which is good for me, but I felt like it took a whole lot of effort.

The couple we had arranged to stay with (Holly & Scott) were driving down and, getting there a day ahead of us, had offered to take my bike and gear down. So I dropped my bike and gear off with them on Tuesday night. A couple of hours later, I got a phone call from Holly, and my first thought was, “Oh, maybe they forgot something, and I’ll need to stop by their house to grab it.” If only – it turns out our VRBO was canceled with less than 24hrs notice, and we were now faced with trying to get a new place to stay. VRBO told Holly they would find a comparable place or put them up in a hotel, but they ultimately proved useless. We found a house on Airbnb and booked it. My wife also posted to the Facebook Chattanooga group, and we received many offers of help there. Our flight down and rental car pickup went well. Later that day, we met up with one of my training partners (Bryon) for the last three years and his wife (Bridget). The six of us managed all the pre-race rituals leading up to race day.

For race week, I limited myself to just a one-hour run and a relatively short bike/ROTB. I kept my activity level pretty low other than the 1.5 mile walks down to Athlete Village leading up to the race.

The night before the race, I didn’t get too much sleep and got up six times to pee. I used the Osmo Preload Hydration per-race day, but I didn’t retain much with all the times I had to get up during the night. I got up before my alarm went off at 4 am and started the ritual of eating 4 cups of applesauce mixed with a scoop of protein powder. Sandra joined me with a smaller sympathy bowl of the same mixture and declared that it tasted good. I guess it does, if you don’t have to scarf down 4 cups of it. Feeling pretty bloated, dealing with the nagging feeling that I forgot something in my bike and run bags or put run stuff in my bike bag and vice versa, we set off for the village around 5:15 am. The plan was to be on the bus to the swim start by 6 am. We all pumped up our tires, checked our bags, and made it on the bus in time – mission accomplished.

After figuring out where to drop off my morning bag, I found my spot in the 1-1:10 pace. While waiting, the guy behind me commented on how awesome my checkered flag flip flops were and I discovered we shared the same taste in Family Dollar flip flops. I got to hug Sandra before going down the chute and then I finally got to the jumping point off the dock. After two and half years of waiting, I was finally ready to race again.

I jumped in, popped up after what seemed like an eternity, leaned forward, and started pumping my arms. I came upon a few people, but I was swimming by myself for the most part, between the start and three-quarters of the way. At the halfway point, my watch said I was at 27 minutes. I thought to myself, holy crap, this is going to be a fast swim. It got a little congested when I was 100-200 yds out, but I managed not to get held up by people in front of me. Out of the water, I ran all the way to transition and looked at my watch and saw I was around 52 minutes. Wow, I wasn’t expecting to make up time from the halfway point.

Grabbing my bike bag and making it through transition was surprisingly easy. I had everything I needed and didn’t forget anything. The ride out of town was pretty congested with other competitors but overall pretty uneventful. I had plugged in the workout from Best Bike Splits on my 520 to help me stick to my race plan, and everything was going to plan. It was pretty cool to see the fog as we headed into Georgia, but I hoped it would burn off soon. I didn’t want to risk crashing because I couldn’t see or someone couldn’t see me. Because of my weight, I go fast downhill and slow uphill, so here was a lot of passing people on the flats and downhills and getting passed on the uphills. I tried getting enough momentum for some of the rollers, but many of them were too long for that. I also kept reminding myself to stick to the plan and not get caught up in passing people. I also backed off in places because I knew I would end up burning myself out when I got into too many draft zones and needing to push more watts to pass. The smoothness of Hog Jowell Road helped me to relax a bit more and enjoy the ride. I also thought this would be great in the second loop. I saw my wife Sandra and our friend Bridget in Chickamagua cheering me on and thought to myself – “ok, you are almost halfway, and everything is going good, keep it up.”

I slowed down a little on the second loop, and I think it was because the field seemed to spread out a bit more, and I didn’t end up in too many draft zones to force me to pass. There was one point in the rolling part that I played the passing game with a woman who commented when she was passing me uphill, “I don’t know why I keep doing this. you’re going to just bomb past me on the downhill!” I just laughed and agreed, knowing that she would drop me once we made it to the false flats up ahead and sure enough, she did.

At the second to last aid station, I decided to toss one bottle of EFS and lose the extra weight. I still had one bottle in the rear cage, and the between the arm bottle was full. I’m not sure if that was the right decision in retrospect because I didn’t realize I either didn’t pack the right number of gels or left some in transition. I also ended up dropping a gel somewhere after I tossed the bottle. I had no gels with about 1.5 hrs to go and one full bottle of EFS. I couldn’t remember if there was one more aid station, but thankfully, there was, and I grabbed a Maurten gel there. About two miles out from transition, my groin muscles started cramping, and I had to back off to avoid having them seize. I thankfully brought a bottle of HotShot with me and downed that a minute or two after the cramps started. Unfortunately, it didn’t do the trick. I kept having to back off to prevent the cramps from locking my legs up.

I completed the bike with a time of 05:54:50. Best Bike Splits had me doing it in 05:48:57. Not bad – I made it within 6 minutes of BBS. Luckily, my legs didn’t lock up getting off the bike like in Ironman Canada 2018. The transition went well again, and I got one of the volunteers to spray my neck with sunscreen. He also complimented me on my choice of shoes. He was wearing Saucony Endorphines as well. My choice of footwear on race day was a hit with everyone. LOL

I took a quick detour at the portalets, and I was off for the run. I was hopeful that my achilles would let me finish the race without too much pain. I saw Sandra waiting for me as I rounded the corner downhill to Riverfront Parkway. She told me how awesome I was doing and how Elliot, my coach, was so proud of me. I started to think about the run and how I needed to have a flawless run if I wanted to crack top 20 in my age group. My race goal was to finish in the top 20 in my age group and come in under 12 hours. Then my Achilles began to twinge with pain sporadically. As I was coming up a hill on RiverFront Parkway, some announcer commented on the need to use sunscreen, and then saw me and said I had done a great job covering myself. My face must have been pasty white from the stuff because my beard tends to make it stand out.

For the first two miles, I looked at my watch and thought, “you’re going to fast, slow down.” I was bouncing between a 8:50 and 9:10 pace. I was also going downhill, so I figured I was ok. I walked through each aid station as planned and managed only to feel twinges of pain in my Achilles occasionally. Everything was going well. Between mile five and six, a guy struck up a conversation with me about the race, and we shared stories of how we got started and different races. He shared that he had only done two sprint triathlons before this race. I let him know he was crazy, but was doing an amazing job in his first Ironman. We ran together for a couple of miles and separated somewhere around the hills on Barton Ave. At this point, I noticed that I felt no pain in my Achilles, and I was able to keep running up Barton.

In talking with my coach Elliot the night before, the goal was to not walk on the run except for the aid stations. So far, I was keeping true to that. Then I got to the footbridge, and my calves started cramped. I resigned myself to walk a little up the footbridge to keep the cramps at bay. Once I crested the middle of the bridge, I started running again and put on a good face when I passed Sandra and Bridget at the halfway point on the run. When I got out of eyesight from them, my claves betrayed me and my feet were turning inward or outward, and it was like I was running on club feet. The same thing happened to me in Ironman Arizona 2017. I thought to myself, “shit, there goes all three of your goals.” Now the goal was to figure out how to get running again. The drill now was run until your feet start twisting, walk it out and start the whole thing all over again. I did this for about 3 miles because the Hotshot I put in my special needs bag had no effect, and I left the other one I brought in my transition run bag. About three miles into the run, I started putting ice under my hat and had a brain freeze when I had it towards the front of my cap. I had the brilliant idea that maybe if I gave myself a brain freeze, it would force my brain to pay attention to that, and the cramps would go away. It seemed to work for about a quarter of a mile, and then the cramps came back.

Then somewhere around mile 16, the cramps subsided, and I could run again. At this point, I was in somewhat of a daze, and I started feeling somewhat sleepy, not just tired but sleepy. It lasted for about two miles, and then I started cramping again, and I resumed the run/walk dance. I decided at his point it was time to try taking in red bull. In 2018 at Ironman Canada, I thought I was done after the bike, but the combination of red bull and getting out of the sun, (a good part of the run was on a trail in the woods at Whistler), saved my race. For some reason, I didn’t get any red bull at mile 20 as I planned. Instead, I started taking it at mile 21 and immediately felt its effects. From then on, I only walked at the aid stations and for one steeper section of a hill. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by the run. But it’s going to be a massive motivator for Lake Placid next year.

Ultimately, I finished the run 5 minutes and 15 seconds faster than my best IM marathon with a 4:44:29. To my surprise, I reached my goals of sub 12 hours with an 11:44:48, and I came in 16th for my age group. I set PRs for each leg of the race and finished my fourth full Ironman.

I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of my wife Sandra. I am amazed by how strong she is with all she has faced in the past 14 months. I am lucky to have her in my life.

Spending the week with the other Northeast Multisport members made racing much more enjoyable. It was great seeing other members on the Zoot Team out there racing and the Zoot Team member that fist-bumped me each time I came down Barton.

Thank you, Bryon, Bridget, Holly, and Scott for a great week. Congratulations to Bryon, Holly, and Scott on becoming an Ironman again. Thank you to Bryon, Meredith, and Rachel for putting up with me for the last two years of training together. And to Elliot Kawaoka, my coach, thank you for helping me manage my Achilles issues and training me to PR in each leg of this race.

Now it’s back to the daily grind. I really miss having people yell at me all day about how awesome I am. Chattanooga is a great place to race.