Early on the morning of July 18, 2010, I found myself at a Half Ironman event in Racine, Wisconsin. Looking at my fellow 50 to 54 age group competitors clad in ubiquitous black body sculpting wet suits, my resolve shuddered a bit. Just exactly what had I gotten myself into?
The previous summer was my first experience with triathlons. A full-time writer, I found myself with more time on my hands than usual after the economy tanked. The publishing industry was in the midst of a steep decline. Rather than whine about long-term relationships with editors that were disappearing on a daily basis, I decided to use the opportunity to challenge myself with a new physical and mental goal.
With four marathon medals hanging on my office wall, the 26.2-mile distance no longer sparked an inspirational fire. A friend who competed in the Northwoods Triathlon in Nevis, Minnesota, suggested I give the multisport option a shot.
After I notched a few short sprint distance triathlon finishes, the lure of completing a true Ironman distance triathlon beckoned. Could I push my 50-plus body through a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and then a marathon?
A plan began to evolve. Find a training program, enter a Half Ironman event and extend the training required to cover those distances to the full Ironman distance.
Alas, there is a significant difference between plan and practice. Working my way through an online triathlon training program, I found myself in worse physical condition than I expected. Swim workouts and long bike rides left my body tired, sore and tempered my motivation on days designated for running.
Still, my endurance improved and I started to believe I could actually live up to the challenge of covering a "70.3": a 1.2-mile swim, 54-mile bike ride and a half marathon run.
My Half Ironman
Waiting for the starting horn to launch my age group into the cold waters of Lake Michigan, first-time jitters wrestled with my intention to finish the event, no matter how much pain, agony or frustration would come.
The horn's blare shattered the mental debate. Forty-three minutes later I wobbled out of Lake Michigan. So far, so good. The swim leg went better than expected. The water polo-like entanglement of arms and legs didn't interfere much with my swimming and I passed enough competitors to believe I wouldn't be the last of my group out of the water.
Moving to the transition area to get my bike, I noticed how easily so many competitors stripped off their wet suits, pushed their feet into their bike shoes and headed out on the road. My version of that dance was less graceful. My wet suit didn't peel off as easily and my shoes were buried in a gear bag containing items to cover every possible contingency.
Helmet: Check. Sunglasses: Check. Water bottle: Check. Gloves: One. Where was the other? Both hands pushed through my bag looking for the stray glove. It was certainly there at 4:30 a.m. when I rechecked my gear for the ninth time.
Stressing about how much time the transition was taking I decided to leave with just one glove. As I stood up, the missing piece revealed itself. I had been sitting on it. Compared to better and more experienced triathletes, my 7 minute swim-to-bike transition seemed like forever.
For the first 30 miles of the bike leg, my pedaling cadence was smooth and consistent. But the heat and humidity of that summer day seemed to increase with each mile. I sucked dry two water bottles and a CamelBak before the halfway mark. During my marathons, mastering the water cup transfer at aid stations didn't require much skill. But in Racine on the bike, I missed, fumbled and wasted the efforts of way too many enthusiastic volunteers doing their best to quench my growing hydration deficit.
Riding a road bike like many other competitors, I experienced firsthand the effectiveness a true triathlon bike offers. Stretched out on the tri-bars and pedaling lightweight aerodynamic frames and wheels, a parade of tri bike riders passed me. Working out how many additional freelance writing assignments would be required to afford my own rocket helped pass the next 10 miles.
Nearing the transition area for the second time, my legs felt heavy and my pace slowed. Although dreading the half marathon yet to come, I couldn't wait to get my saddle sore backside off the bike.
Mother Nature tried to help with the heat, humidity and hydration dilemma by dropping a short, but intense thunderstorm on the transition area the moment I arrived. Pelted by cold rain, I peeled off my cycling paraphernalia and fumbled with my running shoes, hat and water bottle belt. I finished the 56-mile bike leg in 3:18, averaging a slower than planned 16.9 mph. Even with the thunderstorm, the second transition breezed past in 5:29.
Two legs down, one to go
Yes, I finished, but the effort was ugly. My legs screamed with pain and cramped when faced with a long uphill climb just a hundred yards after leaving the transition area. Quickly accepting that my performance over the next 13.1 miles would be less than I hoped for, I plodded toward the finish line. The two-loop course tortured the slower, pain-plagued runners like me who were forced to turn for a second lap just short of the finish line. The cheers of spectators and family members would have to wait before they would be legitimately aimed at my number.
I crossed the finish line 3 hours and 9 minutes after starting the run leg. My pace for the half marathon deteriorated from 7:46 per mile over the first half to an 14:26 average for the final six miles.
Overall, I finished my first 70.3 half Ironman event in 7:23:53. Once the pain faded, a sense of accomplishment replaced the utter fatigue I felt in the finishing area.
The long-term plan remains the same, albeit revised to accommodate reality. I've registered for a return trip to the 2011 Ironman Racine 70.3. The training log already looks a little better than it did a year ago but I still ride the same road bike and worry about how I will endure the half marathon. But I expect to knock at least an hour off last year's overall time.
The idea of completing a full Ironman is more daunting than ever, but I'm signing up for the 2012 Ironman Wisconsin in Madison the moment registration opens.
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.