Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Tinman

A few years ago I watched my sister-in-law compete in an Olympic distance triathlon and was quite impressed by the fitness of the competitors and the challenge of multi-sport racing. At the time I had one marathon under my belt and was in training for another go at 26.2.

I am not sure if it's confidence, arrogance, genetic mutation or some weird psychosis in which I find joy in pushing the physical limits of my body (probably some combination of the four) but watching Susie rock the swim, bike and run I was hooked. It was just a matter of when.

"When" turned out to be the 25th Anniversary of the Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon - a half Ironman in Adirondack Park which took place this past Saturday.

Sure, I could have - and probably should have - eased my way into multi-sport with a Sprint or Olympic distance triathlon but for a variety of reasons (see above) that just wasn't to be. Fortunately I had the guidance and training companionship of several of my Hellgate teammates.

The day before the race Salena and I packed up the car, hooked up with teammates Eamonn and Jessica and began the hours long northward caravan to Tupper Lake. On the way I decided that my bike needed a name... After several pathetic and ill fitting attempts I settled on "Billy," as in Billy Goat - old and stubborn but still kicks pretty damn hard.

Upon arrival we immediately went to the beach to check out the swim course and transition area. It was at this precise moment that the excitement and mild anxiety I'd been feeling about the race turned to full blown fear and intimidation. The buoys just kept going and going and going... We couldn't even see the last one marking the half way point! What in God's green earth was I thinking?!?!?!?

Early on race morning we connected with the rest of the team - in all five Hellgaters were racing (Janine, Joel, Eamonn, Raul and me) and three-and-a-half were cheering (Jessica, Nazly and Salena + baby) - and headed to the start.

I cannot tell you how reassuring it was to be surrounded by friends when toeing the line of what felt like an insurmountable challenge. In particular, having Salena's support and unwavering faith in my ability helped to steel my reserve.


I suppose at this point I should tell you that I tend to act like a ham when nervous as illustrated by these first two photographs. Oh yeah...! I brought my game face!

What a dork!

Eamonn and me. What... us worry?

These next two shots will hopefully provide some additional perspective on scale. The first is the 100 or so people who started the race in the "green wave." There were six or seven other waves all consisting of about 100 people. The second photo gives a sense for just how far 1.2 miles is.

And we're off!

Can you see that last buoy?

The horn sounded, I wished Eamonn good luck and it was on. I'd like to reiterate that this is the very first time I have actually swam more than a few meters in open water with a wetsuit, let alone compete with other swimmers. I knew that there would be a rush and a fight for water but I was genuinely unprepared for this.

To grasp this situation, imagine a large school of docile fish in a small aquarium. Then drop in a hungry piranha. Arms and legs flailing, kicking and zig zagging... Mayhem!

Within minutes my heart felt as though it was about to explode and I was entirely out of breath. I looked up and realized I wasn't even close to the first buoy. I swam out of the main fray and began to breaststroke to catch my breath and let my heart rate fall. Neither occurred but it did give me a moment to regroup mentally.

I began to freestyle again but was unable to find my stroke or rhythm and ended up choking on a mouthful of lake water with my heart rate somewhere north of max.

I swam well off to the side again and began to breaststroke while competitors slipped by. Angry and frustrated, I seriously considered dropping out. The thought "I am in way over my head" actually came to mind. The irony of it was not lost on me.

Rather than going for one of the boats along the course, I focused on my training and all the early morning hours I spent in the pool. I focused on all the time I'd spent teaching myself to breath bilaterally, on how to reach and pull the water.

I freestyle swam a few meters and breast stroked a few. At one point I was swimming side stroke... Hell, I even thought about the back stroke. Anything to keep me moving forward!

After what felt like an eternity I made it to the half way mark. I was tempted to look at my watch but knew I'd just be discouraged. Instead I began to chant "just keep swimming" as Dory did in the Pixar movie "Finding Nemo."

The repetition of the chant (in my head of course) helped me to find a rhythm and the rhythm helped me to find my breath and stroke. I actually swam the second half reasonably well and was out of the water in 41:32.

I was pretty ecstatic when I finally saw the shallows and realized I could stand up! I raced to the shore pulling off my wetsuit with two thoughts in mind: 1) I am glad that is over; and 2) now I have to make up for it on the bike.

My T1 transition time was 3:18 which isn't all that great but isn't all that bad either.


While training for this race I bumped into a woman who had run it the year before and she described the bike course as "rolling hills just like Central Park."

Central Park is in Manhattan, a more or less flat island at sea level. Tupper Lake is in the Adirondack Mountains....

I feel as though this merits repetition:

Adirondack M O U N T A I N S!!!!
Not "rolling hills" by any stretch of my now waterlogged imagination. I crawled up seemingly endless "hills" as slow as 7mph and hammered down them topping out at about 45mph only to find a bigger and steeper climb lay ahead.

Forgetting something for your first triathlon is probably inevitable and I was no exception. I forgot to pack water bottles for the bike. Instead I crammed a bottle of Gatorade into one of the bottle holders and a small bottle of "rest stop" brand bottled water from the road trip up into the other.

Getting water down was easy enough but the Gatorade proved a little more challenging because it was a regular screw top lid rather than a nozzle. At some point I got the idea to grab a bottle of water from the next aide station, dump it out and pour in the Gatorade.

So here I am with both bottle caps in my mouth and about to pour Gatorade from a wide mouth bottle into a narrow one directly over the computer on my bike while doing 23mph. It dawned on me that this could really only end one way: badly. Thankfully I jettisoned the bad idea and the empty water bottle before giving myself an asphalt makeover.

About 35 miles into the race I approached a group of slower riders inching up one of those "rolling hills" and I moved left to pass. As I made my move the group picked up a the pace a little and at the very same time a faster rider further to my left passed us all. As a result I was squeezed in and forced to drop back.

Riding behind and witnessing this was an official on a motorcycle and I was assesed a 4 minute penalty for drafting. First, how can you possibly be drafting while going uphill at less than 8mph? Second, I wasn't behind the other riders for more than a couple of seconds (rules state you have 15 seconds to pass or drop back). And third, as soon as the faster rider cleared I made another move and passed the slower riders.

Regardless, I am not the least bit annoyed or dissapointed. I know I rode a clean race and that is really all that matters.

Fatigue began to play a part at about mile 45 and I did all I could to stay positive and geek myself up for the run. Finally the finish line appeared and with that I was two-thirds of the way to the finish. My bike time was 2:53:36 for 56 miles - an average speed of 19.4mph.

My transition from bike to run went really well and I was out of T2 in 1:31.

Look out I'm coming through!

Bad hair day.


Things got ugly on the run. Real ugly. Real fast. At this point I've been awake for seven hours and racing for almost four. Substantial calorie deficit and cumulative fatigue were weighing in big time. To make matters worse I had stomach issues.

I ran, walked, jogged, shuffled and willed myself forward but the stomach cramping and bloating was physically challenging and mentally debilitating. I pulled off to the side of the road on several occasions to try to force myself to belch or vomit to no avail.

Mile after mile I ran when I could, jogged when I couldn't and walked when I had to. But I never stopped.

At about mile seven I saw Jessica cheering and got a little lift from her encouragement. The defining moment of the run however came somewhere around mile nine. I had again faded from run to jog to shuffle and was just demoted to walking when a woman passed me by with the words "stay strong." With this I mustered up some strength and began jogging again.

A few seconds later, while plodding up another of those rolling hills I came across a guy about my age and build who was really struggling. As I passed him I touched him on the shoulder and shared those very same words: "Stay strong."

Those last few miles clicked by slowly but I knew I'd see the finish line. Exhaustion, pride and pain mixed and at several points emotion welled up within me.

At mile twelve something changed. Fatigue subsided and all I could think about was finishing. My pace quickened and before I knew it I was running what felt like a 7 minute mile. I turned a corner and could hear the crowds at the finish. Instinctively I began to kick even harder. The crowd cheered and the announcer called out my name, urging me to the finish. I must have covered the last 800 meters at a 6:30 pace.

The home stretch!

I crossed the finish line in 2:05:44 which is a pace of 9:36/mile. Slower than I'd hoped for but not too far behind my expectations.

I finished the 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run (a total of 70.3 miles) in 5 hours 45 minutes and 38 seconds.


In a twist of fate, I think I finished steps behind the woman who had encouraged me by telling me to stay strong. We exchanged congratulations and a high-five.

Salena ran up at this point and gave me a huge hug and kiss which was great for me but must have been a little sweaty and gross for her!

Having Salena's support and encouragement
through all the months of training was indispensable but seeing her there at the finish was awesome. There's really no one I'd rather share this accomplishment with. Thanks babe!

We stuck around to watch the rest of the team come into the finish. Eamonn finished his first Half Ironman exceptionally stong. Despite injury Joel ran a great race. Janine ran an absoluely huge PR by shaving 40 minutes off her previous best. Raul also ran a fantastic triathlon finishing strong and looking fresh no less!

Here's a couple of fellows who deserve an ice cold beer!

In the hours after the race I was asked several times if I'd do it again. The honest answer at the time was a resounding "No." After a shower, lunch and a beer the honest answer was "well, maybe." Before dinner I was already thinking about how I could have trained better and raced smarter.

I'm hooked.

"Come what may, Time and the hour runs through the roughest day."
-William Shakespeare


DebbieJRT said...

Congratulations on the finish!!

Sempre Libera said...

Wow, what an incredible experience and a great story. Congratulations!

nyflygirl said...

talk about diving in headfirst!! :)

great job for your first half-ironman. loved the story and the pictures (and captions!)

Phil said...

Great report and a great first triathlon. I've done about 6 tris now, and up until Tupper Lake, I always questioned what the heck I was doing and wanted to bail on the swim - it passes quickly though.

You must have swam the second half really well to end up with a decent time. Too bad about your penalty, but it sounds like you've got the right attitude about it. I can sympathize, because it was a fairly congested route at some spots, especially the climbs.

I had the same feelings about never wanting to do that distance again; the more time that passes, the less it hurt.

MammaSingh said...

Have I told you lately that you are absolutely awesome? Well done, and well written!

Uptown Girl said...

Wow! What a great race report. I felt like I was there with you. So what's next?

JustRun said...

Eeeee! Congratulations! Great report. And I love that no way to maybe to okay, yeah feeling. So cool!

the_ubster said...

That's awesome Josh. Well done.

Deene said...

great report! you did an awesome job!

stephruns said...

Now I can really say "way to go". What a journey. How funny how little time it takes to forget about the pain.

Congratulations Josh.

Chelly said...

Great race! What an accomplishment. And great pics and race report to document the whole thing. Kudos to you!!!

Bex said...

LOOOVE the race report. What a tough tri to tackle the first time around! You did a great job, and I'm very impressed. I've been kicking around the idea of doing a tri in the next year. But I'll think I'll do an Olympic-distance tri first.

Phil said...

Congratulations on your first Tri. Starting with an olympic distance took guts. The good news is now you don't have sit around wondering when you're ready to step up to this distance.

Great report. Loved the pictures. Especially the helmet hair shot.

Sempre Libera said...

By the way, I also LOVE that you sing-songed the bit from Finding Nemo to yourself. Too funny!

SkiRough said...

Okay... ummm.... holy freaking crap. I think we had the same EXACT swim going on. First of all, I had the exact same panic attack and then ALSO sang the Nemo song! Ahhh... soo strange. Although I was in the white group.

I also did breast and backstroke to the first buoy.

GREAT RACE REPORT!! I love all the pics and writeups. This is everything my Tinman race report aspired yet failed to be :)

Nice blog, psyched to have found ya!

Mark MacLeod said...

What an amazing achievement! Congratulations!

Great narrative, too.

Ginger Breadman said...

great job - too cool! My brother did his first half iron last summer and i've had the itch ever since watching it - it's still a 'someday' in my world, but your post is inspiring. My husband is training for his first half iron in less than 4 weeks. As I read through your post, I decided I should have him read it. It seems like you had some sort of 'go for it' approach, no matter what you faced. The 'stay strong' from that woman is going to stay with me.

13akbal said...

Nice race and a great finishing time too! Congrats!

The details of your swim cracked me up :-) Thanks for sharing your experience.

Morrissey said...

congrats josh! damn you are freaking machine!!!!!!!

Just12Finish said...

That's a great report. Big congratulations to you!