2015: The Year of the Ironman

It was supposed to be a neat and clean year.  I was fortunate to get on board with Team Zoot for the year, which was awesome to finally get some backing from a company whose shoes I've been racing in for 6 years.  Great shoes, need I say more!  The plan for the year was simple.  Start training on January 1st.  Race a half marathon, do a tune-up half ironman in May, race a bunch over the summer, race nationals, and then Ironman Chattanooga in September.

Early Season Woes
But of course, things never work out like they are supposed to.  3 days into training I was swimming breast stroke at masters and noticed that the inside of my knee was hurting.  After a few weeks of slogging through some training, my left leg was going nuts; knee hurt, tight hamstring, etc...a trip to the doctor and an MRI later confirmed a slightly torn MCL.  How did this happen?  Who knows.

Fast forward to March and I think I'm healthy.  After easing back into some training I realize that my left hamstring is going crazy.  It's tight and nothing I do seems to help.  It doesn't seem to be getting worse, but not better either.

Then I make it to April, still training but struggling to feel good and get anything going.  Near the beginning of the month I'm at the weekly Tuesday Worlds bike ride doing 45 mph on a fast descent.  Something happens in front of me, I tap the wheel in front of me, and then consequently eat the pavement.  Fortunately I only suffered scuffed up bar tap, a bent RD hanger, some scratches on the frame, a good bit of road rash, a handful of bruises, and a deflated ego.

injuries/crashes circled in blue...would be funny if it wasn't painful!
Two weeks later I'm back at it but that wreck really jacked me up.  My whole body felt out of whack and my hamstring was still bothering me.  Nonetheless, I pressed on and in an attempt to get rid of the hamstring issues I began to use the foam roller religiously.  Like over an hour a day religiously.  Miraculously (but albeit slowly) my hamstring started to slowly get better and my hope of Ironman Chattanooga in September seemed to be intact.

Some Racing
At this point, things started to get better, my luck turned good, and I was able to string together some decent training and racing.  A last second switch from the half distance to the sprint distance led to a win at Gulf Coast (albeit not without a controversial DQ incident that saw me cross the line 3rd).  Local rival Jeffrey Shelley edged me at Buster Britton, Chattanooga saw a new race 10k PB, Borden beat me down on a brutal hot day in Florence at Renaissance Man, and Nationals was a less than stellar but still decent performance with a Worlds qualifier.
  • Gulf Coast Sprint Triathlon - 1st
  • Buster Britton Triathlon - 2nd
  • Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon - 6th
  • Renaissance Man Triathlon - 2nd
  • Age Group National Championships - 16th AG, worlds qualifier
From here, it was 6 big weeks and 7 total weeks to Ironman.  Things went well thanks to some expert guiding by Brian Stover at Accelerate 3 Coaching, and without a doubt this was the most and the hardest I've ever trained for anything and I was feeling confident heading into ironman.

Ironman Chattanooga
Goals...so how do you approach Ironman?  They say the goal should be to finish, for the first one at least.  I hate finishing. For some reason it just feels weird to me since I was pretty confident I could finish.  I was fully confident that if EVERYTHING (and I mean everything) went perfectly I could do a 9:30.  Lofty expectations?  Probably.  But here was my reasoning.  Down river current assisted 50' swim, ~5:05 bike, and a 3:30 marathon.  Nothing unreasonable and nothing I couldn't do individually or had not done in training.  Now, that being said, the odds of everything going perfectly in ironman seem to be pretty low, but I thought it was possible albeit not very probable.  More than likely I figured I would be around 10hrs.  Going sub 10 seemed like a good goal to have.  Tough but well within reason, so that is kind of what I settled on...although still hoping for a "perfect day".  And if everything went wrong, then yes my goal would be just to finish.

The week of the race brought lots of excitement!  No more training!  Yay!  20-24 hour weeks take their toil for sure.  I took to the whiteboard to express my high level of joy.  What was funny is that I was so nervous leading up to the race but my nervousness really peaked about a week out once we ironed out all of the logistics for getting there and such.  From there on it was just more of an excitement of a big day approaching, realizing that the hard training was over and knowing that both Lori and I were likely more prepared than 99% of the people racing.

somebody is ready for IM!

On Friday morning of race week, Lori and I headed up to Chattanooga, in the rain.  Check in was a breeze, although it was also in the rain...and it was just a tad muddy.  Saturday, it rained some more.  I was beginning to think that it may rain nonstop for the entire trip, which would be rather inconvenient.  Miraculously, the forecast started to look decent for race day and the weather shaped up quite nicely.

Race Morning
Race morning came early but the excitement made it easy to get going!  After some oatmeal, 2 bananas w/peanut butter, and some coffee, we were ready to head down to the race site. Fortunately, bikes and gear bags are checked in the day before the race so there's really nothing to think about on race morning except showing up and dropping off special needs bags.  I planned on not using run special needs so all I had was an extra tube/co2 for my bike special needs "just in case", and a half bottle of bike nutrition just in case something crazy happened like my calorie bottle flying out of my bottle cage.  In a race this length and this expensive, you've got to think about all the worst case scenarios and what you are going to do to get through them and finish the race...

amount of bags needed for IM is ridiculous...

After getting to transition, we topped off our tires with air, cleaned and lubed our chains (it rained the night before), and made a last second check over everything before meeting up with my parents, who graciously took my bike pump and backpack and loaded it in their car.  I can't thank my parents enough for doing this...it was a huge help and made race day logistics a tad easier!  Then it was onto the shuttle bus to make the 2.4 mile trek up river to the swim start. 

The swim start line was INSANE.  I felt like we walked for 10 minutes to get to the back of the line!  Once in line we had about an hour to waste before they officially started the race.  It went by rather quickly and before we knew it the race was rapidly approaching.  I'd say we were in the back quarter of the line so most racers were in front of us.  I was slightly concerned about this causing congestion on the bike course but then I realized that most IM finishers only believe in biking or running.

pre-race, still pitch black outside

Swim - 51:20
Rumor had it that the river current was going to be similar to last year, meaning fast times for all.  My plan here was to swim "comfortably" hard, with more emphasis on the "comfortable" part.  Save up for the rest of the day and take it easy...no need to do anything stupid in the first 30 minutes, right?  A couple minutes after the first racers entered the water, Lori and I were getting ready to jump in the river.  As soon as we got on the dock and crossed over the timing mat, I ignored the volunteers telling me the walk down to the end of the dock and I just jumped right in.  For being near the back of the line, I was pleasantly surprised at how little congestion there was in front of me.  Most seemed to be hugging the shore, whereas I opted to cut the tangent, aiming just off the southeast corner of Audubon Island.  The swim went by rather quickly.  At the halfway point (where the buoys changed colors) I took a long stroke to glance down at my watch and saw a 25:00.  Right on track.  Another 25 minutes went by and just like that the swim was over.  Uneventful and not much else to say...just how a good race should be.

T1 - 5:21
Good grief...this has to be my all time record for the longest transition ever.  Did I take a nap in there or something?  Running up to the gear bags, I just happened to glance over and see my dad among a crowd of people...pretty cool!  No issues picking up my gear bag, and then it was onto the changing tent.  I threw an Uncrustable PB&J in my mouth and started putting on my socks, shoes, and helmet, and then I was off, awkwardly running in my bike shoes towards my bike, and then finally out on the course.  I also (for some reason) had to pee really bad so I made a quick bathroom stop.  In hindsight I would have ran to my bike with my shoes in my hand but I guess I'll just save that for IM #2.

Bike - 5:18:28
Onto the bike and I felt good.  Legs weren't cramping, breathing felt good, the skies were overcast, and the roads did not seem overly congested.  The plan called for about 30k at 190 watts before bumping it up a tad with a 200 watt ceiling.  I hit that right on as I navigated the 10 miles out of town to North GA where we would complete two 48 mile loops.  After making it to the looped section, I seemed to find a handful of guys my age.  I'm thinking this would be good...it would help give me something to focus on and stay mentally in the game.

right off the Chattanooga Times Free Press...Zoot kits looking good!

After reaching 30k or so, I decided I was feeling good BUT not good enough to bump up the power any.  It felt like I was exactly where I needed to be so I just made the executive decision to stay around 190 watts steady.  Soon after, around 50 minutes into the race, I passed Lori and Sarah Gibson in quick succession and wished them a great race.  Everyone was feeling good.  I was feeling good.  Everything is going according to plan.  Everything was...

rolling through Chickamauga...not in aero for some reason...

And then, POP!!  What the heck?  Was that me?  I looked around for another rider nearby, but to my dismay I was all alone.  The realization that the "pop" had come from my bike started to slowly seep in.  In that split second, the feeling was sickening.  I waited a second for something bad to happen, thinking that my tire had exploded.  But nothing happened.  Weird.  Then I looked down and saw a horrific sight; my front wheel was wobbling side to side, nearly hitting my brake pads (felt like it was just barely brushing them).  What had actually happened still failed to register with me.  I was actually just rolling up to an aid station and I also had to pee (again) very badly, so I said ok, I'm going to stop here, use the restroom, and then survey the damage to make sure my wheel isn't going to explode.  A volunteer at the aid station quickly confirmed that, yes,  a spoke on my front wheel had broken right in the middle.  Are you kidding me?  After 8 years and probably 30,000+ miles of riding bikes I have never broken a spoke, ever.  What bad luck!  Now I've spent 3 minutes on the side of the road not moving, am only at mile 20 of 116, and am now unsure if I'll be able to finish.

data, data, data
But, without any other foreseeable options, I just got back on my bike and started riding again, hoping and praying that I could finish the bike, and finish the race without wrecking.  Lori and I had certainly prepared physically for this race, but in the week leading up to the race we talked about what we would do if we had a flat tire or some sort of mechanical.  Remain calm.  Don't rush.  Slow down and think clearly.  Don't panic.  It's going to work out.  So as I rode I started thinking...surely the neutral support vehicle has spare wheels.  I'll get a spare front wheel and then I'll be good to go!  As if it had dropped down from the High Heavens, I looked up seconds later and saw a race vehicle headed towards me.  I literally flagged him down and stopped in the middle of the road to explain my situation.  I quickly learned that all he had was a radio and could only call for help and I would need to camp out right there and wait.  No way I could do that...I'll just take my chances and ride on...so that is what I did.  Another 1-2 minute wasted.

As I started riding again, the wheel was wobbly but it seemed to not be getting any worse.  This was encouraging.  I backed off the power and rode easy for a bit, thinking that at any second the wheel would just fail.  But as time went on I gained more confidence that I might be ok.  I eventually said screw it and got back up to normal power.  The two 40+ mph descents on the course were somewhat concerning and sketchy but I got through them unscathed.

The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful.  I stuck to my nutrition plan, rode a pretty low VI, and didn't do anything dumb.    Nutrition wise, I had a 33 oz. calorie bottle with around 2050 calories of Infinit Nutrition in it.  Adding in another Gu gel brought me to 2150 calories total.  Around mile 80 or so I finally caught up to Kendrick so that was really fun to see someone I knew on the course.  We ended up staying mostly together along with a few other "surgy" guys for the rest of the bike.  When it was all said and done, I was pleased with a 5:18 for 116 miles considering the 2-3 minutes stopped on the side of the road and the threat of a front wheel becoming inoperable.  To be honest, I was just happy to be off a mechanical device that could break and leave me stranded!

pressure sure this isn't supposed to happen

T2 - 2:29
Transition #2 went without a hitch.  Got my gear bag, into the tent, rolled my socks on, slipped my shoes on, stuffed my nutrition into my pockets, and then grabbed my race belt and Garmin Forerunner 310XT and headed out the door.

Run - 3:50:48
On to the run...where it's all decided in any race but especially in IM.  Starting out, I definitely did not feel bad but I didn't necessarily feel great either.  But, to this point I had taken in all my calories as planned and I did not feel hungry so I figured that was encouraging.  The plan was to run around 8:00-8:15/mi and hopefully hold that all the way through the end.  I set a "floor" of 8:00's for the first mile or two thinking that I would feel great and would really need to tell myself not to go out too hard.

finishing lap 1..."only" a half marathon to go
I quickly found out that it was REALLY hard to run slower than 8:00/mile.  And it wasn't that I felt great, because I didn't...I actually felt haphazard and it was like I couldn't control my pace.  At the end of the first mile I stopped at an aid station to pee as I had been holding it for a few hours now.  Back at it and mile 2 still felt like I couldn't control my pace.  Finally, at mile 3, I started to settle in and everything started to come "back to normal".

For the the rest of the flat southern side of the run course (8 miles or so) I was steady around 8:00/mile.  Nutrition wise I was alternating between a Gu gel and Gu chomps every other mile, starting at mile 1, and that was going well.  On to the north side of the course and the hills came quick and with force.  I still felt solid though.  My pace slowed but only due to the elevation, which was expected.  As I was nearing the bridge to head back over the river to start the 2nd loop, I saw Sarah/Herchel Portella as well as Hallie Blunck...all great friends from Birmingham.  I remember starting to feel surprisingly good right before seeing them, and this heightened my good feelings.  After crossing the bridge to the other side of the river, I saw my parents, Lori's parents, and a host of Birmingham friends.  Things were looking good!

can you tell where things went wrong?
And then someone flipped the lights off.

I can't quite explain it, but it was as if someone flipped a switch in my brain and all of the sudden, things were not quite as good as the once where.  This was rather discouraging, as I still had 13.1 miles to run.  I saw J Ford and he ran beside me for a few so that was cool, but my pace had slowed to around 8:30/mile and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.

By mile 16 I had caught up and passed Kendrick, but things were deteriorating rather quickly.  Mile 17 was around 9:00 and at that point "it was over".  I wasn't melting down by any means but I literally could not turn my legs over and I knew that 9:00/mi was probably the best it was going to get for the next 9 miles.

ready to be finished
The next 9 miles were not what I had hoped for, but I still had fun out there, smiling where I could and encouraging racers that looked like they were in bad shape (which was just about everyone out there).  I ran/walked the rest of the way at 9:00-10:30 pace or so, which wasn't fun but it was a finish nonetheless.

Lori was having an absolutely stellar day and caught me with about a mile to go en route to running a 3:30 and finishing 1st in her age group and 2nd overall female.  We ran together as we passed our family and friends, which was really cool!

Finally, I turned down the home stretch and jogged it in.  I think I even stopped in the finish line chute to high five a few people!

Total - 10:08:26 - 10th AG, 97th overall
For a first ironman I think it went about as well as it could, but finishing the way it I did was somewhat unsatisfying.  I was about 8 minutes from my goal of sub 10, which would have been pretty dang close without the front wheel mishap.  But it happens and you've got to roll with it.  It was my first IM but certainly won't be my last.

happy to be finished!!

There's too many people to thank here, but I'll just note a few.  Thanks to expert IM'ers Kendrick Gibson and especially Chris Borden for answering my zillion questions about IM logistics.  Chris helped me hone in on my simple nutrition plan so that was a huge benefit.  Actually, I just copied exactly what he does and it worked out perfectly!  And then thanks to the Gibsons for letting us crash at their house for the race (and also multiple times during training).  Of course, thanks to Brian Stover of Accelerate3 for the master plan and getting me to the line prepared, uninjured, and in shape.  Thanks to Team Zoot for supporting me in 2015 and of course for the good looking kits (even though they are Auburn colors).  Thanks to both of our parents for tagging along on race weekend and providing much needed support.  And most of all thanks to my amazing wife who not only put up with me while training all year, but she actually trained with me herself and had a killer race.  Looks like we'll be in Kona in 2016...I'll be race Sherpa and Lori will be cruising through the lava fields!

Williamson Support Crew
Von Pingel Support Crew

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