Thursday, August 30, 2012

2012 IMLP- The Run

I've had a decent Ironman swim. I've had a decent Ironman bike. Just for the record, I have never had a good Ironman run. Ever. Period. End of story.

In the past, I have known going in to the run that it was going to be a challenge. Sort of like a preemptive excuse. The first year was, well, my first year. Or I knew I was under trained. One year I hurt my quad playing softball before the race. I no longer play softball. Then it was a knee problem. Or I pushed too hard on the 2nd loop of the bike. It was always something.

This year, I had no real excuses. I did my training. I had no injuries. When I got done with the ride, my legs felt great. My spirit was high. I am ready for this run. I am a moron.

For those of you who don't know, the run leg is 26.2 miles. The distance alone is a feat. To say that it becomes a challenge after a 112 mile bike ride is an understatement. The ideal way to handle the run is slowly. Like, tortoise slow.

I have gone out too hard in the past. In Lake Placid, running too hard early on is incredibly easy. There are a couple of nice downhills right at the beginning. Running downhill is a cakewalk but it can wreak havoc on your quads. I needed my quads. So, I kept it slow. As I was starting my run, I had a mantra, "Control, control. You must learn control." (I even used my best Yoda voice.)

About 0.25 miles into the run, I got passed by a pro on his 2nd lap. It was Pete Jacobs, who was sitting comfortably in 2nd place. I read about pro triathletes and I see their pics (Pete is on the left). The media coverage doesn't really do them justice. Pete is a big guy. I stand at 5'10 and he towered over me. He was a lean, muscular man and I was envious as to the ease of his gait. Quick, I had to say something. Now, I'm kind of a tool. Perhaps I was low on blood sugar (completely plausible after that bike ride). All I could think of was, and this is a direct quote I promise, "GO GET 'EM, DAWG!"

I assumed that he was in a zone and immune to the nonsensical gibberish being spewed from fans, even if they are in the race. Nope. Pete actually responded to me. And what came out was just as much of a surprise as his stature. "Naw. He's way to far ahead," said Pete with a dismissal smile and a wave of his hand. Holy crap. I just had a mini conversation with a pro. He addressed me personally, after I called him 'Dawg." His thick Aussie accent only deepened the surprise of the moment.

In seconds he was gone and I was left with, "Control, control. You must learn control." I trudged on down the hill at about 1/10th the speed of the mighty Pete. After the gradual decline, we turned right and hit the real downhill. Called Mill Hill, it's rather steep and hurts going both up and down. We rolled through the small villa. Then hit the second big hill, which is unnamed to the best of my knowledge (although I'm sure that some of the athletes have given it plenty of names, most of which aren't PG enough for this blog). In the pic at the right, you can see a bridge at the end of the hill, this marks a left hand turn and the 2 mile mark. This far, my mantra is working. I am still feeling great.

There's something about an Ironman that removes you from the reality in which the rest of the world lives. You are so focused and intent on reaching your goals that you miss out on some of the real wonderful things in life. Lake Placid is a stunning place. Running technique has you focused on the ground roughly 20 feet or so in front of you. Once you make that left hand turn, all you have to do is point your head up and you are graced with this:

On your left is a farm that rescues horses and nurtures them back to health. Out in the distance is some breathtaking views of the Adirondack Mountains. They are dotted with the beautiful blue sky and fluffy white clouds. It really is a shame that many people miss this, including myself.

Shortly after entering this section of the road, I had another pro encounter. This time is was with the 3rd place bloke, named Romain Guillaume. He snuck up behind me just like any competitor. And, just like the tool I am, I ran with him. I was running with a pro. He is the human photo negative of Pete. Romain is small, light, almost elven in his silent way of running. He was clipping nicely at around a 7:15 minute mile pace. This is certainly within my skill set, at least in the short term. I decided to hang out with Romain for about 1/10th of a mile or so. The reason, the Finisher Pix guy was just up ahead. You can spot him easily as he's the dude sitting in the middle of the road with a camera. I was about to get my mug taken with a legit athlete.

I ran with him step by step. I tried to enlist him in conversation. Alas, he no speak English. See, he's from France. Had I done my research ahead of time, I would have known this and spoken to him in French. Even if I had picked the correct language, I doubt I'd have gotten much chatter out of him. He was focused on his race, probably missing the scenery, and definitely annoyed that some doofus refused to back off. Luckily for him, the picture guy was just up ahead and there was another runner on the course. Since pic guy was in the middle of the road, the 3rd guy (left side of the pic on the right) had to move out of the way. He moved right into my running path and forced me to slow. Dammit. He photo bombed my shot with Romain.

That move was a blessing in disguise. I needed to reduce my speed. "Control, control. You must learn control." Yoda was still displeased with my decision. I slowed from a near 7 minute mile to my pre-planned 8:30. Life was good.

At one point during the run, I was trudging along and I was passed by another runner. This is/ was/ will not be anything new. In the spirit of triathlon, running is easily my weakest link and therefore I will get passed. I was diligently running the tangents on the curves of the road and some dude ran by. For the most part, triathletes are the greatest people on Earth (just under the volunteers). This guy was no different. He shouted out words of encouragement as he flashed by. Actually he said, and I quote verbatim as his words are forever emblazoned on my mind, "Wow, it looks like you are out for just another Sunday stroll."

And ya know what, he was right. I was 5 miles into the run, had 21 miles left and repeating the mantra "Control, control. You must learn control" thinking that I had solved the problem. I was just out for a Sunday stroll. My pace was slower than normal. My spirits were high. I was still feeling great. I was enjoying the scenery. We were on a road. Near a river. Hence "River Road". Get it. I did. It really is a good place to run.

The turn around is near mile 6. I got to undo all of the doing I had just done. No problem. I was following my hydration and nutrition plan. I was controlling the pace. Everything was in place until mile 9. Here's where the fun started...

Most muscles in your body do work by contraction. The opposite of work is called relaxation. Should a muscle contract on its own, viola, muscle cramp. Every now and then, my quads would cramp up. Then, I would yell at them. Cramps would go away. We continued this for a mile or 2. I was now at mile 9 on the run.

While the striated muscle that lined either side of my femur was trying to decide how they felt about my continued forward progression, my sphincter muscles were making decisions of their own. The human body has several sphincter muscles, mostly associated with your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When contracted, a sphincter muscle closes a tube. When relaxed, it opens a tube. The most famous of these sphincters, the anal sphincter, is a really great insult. And, starting at mile 9, it started insulting me.

"Control, control. You must learn control" started to take on completely new meanings for this run. My comfortable pace had slowed to an uncomfortable squeeze. There are aid stations at every mile on the run. I successfully hit the porta potty at mile 9, mile 10, and mile 11. Stopping in the middle of a run for a bathroom break wreaks havoc on your average pace time. My chance for a PR was starting to slip into blue sanitary liquid.

Not to be outdone, my esophageal sphincter joined the fun. This is the muscle that keeps the stomach closed off from the esophagus. Translation: I now wanted to hurl. My body was looking for an excuse to halt my forward progress. When the leg muscles failed, the body sent the army from behind. When that failed, it sent the forces from within. My spirits were down. Way down.

Despite my discomfort, I kept going. However, I needed a new mantra. "Control, control. You must learn control," was not as inspiring as it once was. I changed to, "Running, even slowly, is better than walking." My 8:30-9:00 minute pace had gone to 10:30-11:00 pace. I was happy. Why? Because, "Running, even slowly, is better than walking." (I'm starting to buy into this positive thinking thing.)

I ran- slowly- for most of the way up. Sure, the stomach was rebelling. The bowels completed the GI pressure. The Ironman is more than just a swim, bike, run. It is an obstacle in which many small decisions add up to enormous success. Or enormous failure. I was still hopeful for success. Granted, I was sweating profusely as compared to my effort. But, I was making forward progress, which at this point was all that mattered.

Near the halfway point, there is a special needs bag drop. What seemed like 85 hours earlier (really it was only 8 at this point), I dropped off a medium-sized white bag labeled with my race number and stuffed with 3 gels and a pair of socks. My feet were sloshed in my own perspiring excrement. I was feeling miserable. I wasn't hungry. I thought I would get salvation in some dry footwear.

There are a bunch of volunteers manning the special needs area and 2 of such (maybe I looked desperate) coddled my every need. They reached into my bag and removed my items while I sat down on the ground. Please understand that sitting during an Ironman is a very bad idea. Very bad. I had 127 miles on my legs. You can only imagine how sweet the sit felt, even if it were on rough asphalt. I instantly felt like getting up was not an option. Luckily the volunteers were as motivating as they were helpful.

I removed my left sock. Much to my amazement, the lady volunteer stuck out her hand as if I were going to hand my disgusting remnant of a foot covering to her. I couldn't do it. No matter how much she insisted that it was no bother to her, I refused to allow her to handle this item. Human decency must have its limits. I placed my stinky in the bag myself, donned my left sock and reapplied my shoe. It was time to do the right. As I removed my right shoe, I started crying.

Remember when I told you about involuntary muscle contraction? Well, my right leg decided to prove science correct. The entire gastrocnemius muscle, AKA the calf, decided that super-extra, involuntary contraction was the best route, while I'm sitting on the ground. I stretched my leg. I rubbed my calf. It felt like a solid brick. I still refused to give my dirty sock to the volunteer despite my pain. I pocketed my gels and tried to stand. Nope. Back down for another round of "Rub out my pain". The volunteers, bless their hearts, had no idea what to do with me. I didn't know either. I tried to stand one more time, with the assistance of my 2 newest best friends, this time successful. I tried to put weight on my right leg with much less success. I limped on.

For the third time during the race, I needed a new mantra. "Running, even slowly, is better than walking," didn't seem to apply anymore. I couldn't run if you paid me. I had 13 miles left to go. I couldn't walk. I couldn't eat. I had a constant urge to poop. I had to make a decision whether or not to continue. I was in the most convenient place to stop, roughly 3/4 of a mile away from transition. There I could find medical assistance. There I could find comfort. There I could find an end to my misery. Dropping out was a real consideration at this time.

Then, I looked about 10 feet to the north. Between the place where I limped and Mirror Lake was the incoming bike lane. I had traveled this path on my bike roughly 2 hours ago. There were still people biking in from the course. Not just a couple of people, but many of people. They were smiling as if they were happy to be done with the hills, which is probably really close to reality. They weren't giving up. Neither was I. I made the decision right there that I was going to finish this, no matter what my body told me.

I started walking. I mean hobbling. As a science guy, I know how to conduct an experiment. My goal was to answer this question: How can I orient my legs most efficiently whilst experiencing the least pain? I tested several different hypotheses until I found the one that worked the best. This process took a couple of miles. I didn't mind as I was heading back downhill for round 2 on the run course. My right calf, once every 100th step or so, felt kinda alright.

It was also during this time that I experimented with different food stuffs on the course. The Ironman aid stations are a catered buffet. They have water, gels, ice, fruit, pretzels, cola, cookies and probably more stuff that I can't remember. I was looking for something that didn't make my tummy hurt so that I can get some calories in me. I tried some pretzels. Failed. I tried some oranges. Failed. I tried some Perform. Failed. I tried some grapes. Failed. I tried just plain water. Success- until you realize that h-2-o has no calories. By this time, it was getting later in the race and they were ready to pass out the chicken broth. Success- until you realize that chicken broth has little to no calories.

Now that I had something in my stomach that didn't make me want to puke, I was able to look around and start appreciating the race again. My body had mostly become numb to the discomfort. Running still seemed to be out of the question but walking seemed manageable. I noticed that there were several others with similar race strategies. Meaning, I was surrounded by many other walkers. And almost all of them were faster than me. Even in the world of the walkers I am pokey. I didn't care. I had a new mantra, "I'm going to enjoy myself."

I did happen to slowly pass exactly 1 person- Tony. He was from the New England area and was a slower walker than me. He told me, during our time spent together, that he had a knee problem and didn't want to push it.  We hung out for the next 6 miles. I slowed to his walking pace and couldn't have been happier.

We worked the crowd. Shared some laughs. Thanked the volunteers. We walked slowly. I had completely forgotten how much I hurt. Funny how sharing your misery will do that for you. Only, I wasn't miserable. "I'm going to enjoy myself," held true for me.

Tony had some great ideas which never came to fruition. All of them involved running. For example, he would say, "Let's try running at _____." (Insert sign/ special needs/ turn around cone.) We never did. We kept on walking, joking, and enjoying.

After starting the run in 228th place, I dropped down to 1212th. That means nearly 1000 people passed me on the run. Ouch had a second meaning. My finish time was a Banter slowest 13:38.

I had learned a new appreciation for the people who walk long distances. It is HARD. I would much rather run the marathon than walk it any day. I did walk the mile in someone else's shoes and I didn't like it. But, I did finish the race. I did enjoy myself. I am once again, and always, an Ironman.

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