I know it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything on the blog. I always have the best of intentions to keep it updated, and life seems to always get in the way. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to write about my most difficult race/accomplishment to date.
I’ve sat down to write my race report several times in the couple of weeks since the race, and I seem to get stuck at the same point each time. I’m super excited to have completed the 70.3 distance triathlon for the first time, but I struggle to call the day a success. The single biggest reason I can’t call the day successful is because WTC (the company the owns the Ironman brand, and puts on all the official Ironman races) doesn’t consider me a finisher for the race despite the fact that I did indeed cover 70.3 miles (more on that in a minute). I am VERY proud of myself that despite knowing I wouldn’t be a finisher early on, that I continued on and completed the distance anyway. At this point I now have a baseline for improvement for this distance as well. I also love that this distance was so challenging to me, that I’ll definitely do it again until I’m better at it.
There Goes The Routine
I am very much a person of routine and habit when it comes to my pre-race and race day rituals. I think most athletes are this way, and it messes with our mojo if things don’t go as planned/expected. The plans had been in place for travel/pre-race for almost as long as I’ve been training for this race. My wife and I would leave Thursday night, and drive from Memphis to Texarkana. We’d spend the night there, and then at our leisure get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to Austin. Little did we know that my wife’s back would start hurting about 10 days before the race, and on Wednesday night before we were to leave, she’d slip and fall, exacerbating the pain in her back. On Thursday afternoon, I took her to the doctor where the said she needed to get an MRI which would be scheduled the following week. She couldn’t sit in a chair for more than a few minutes without being in extreme pain, so there was NO WAY she could make the drive with me to Austin. After some discussion with her, we decided I should make the trip without her to take part in the race.
Instead of leaving Thursday after work, since the wife wasn’t going with me, I decided to hitch a ride with my brother who was also taking part in the race, when he left Friday morning at an all too familiar 4:00am (hello long training rides). We drove straight through to Austin, went to packet pick-up/race expo, and attended one of the mandatory athlete meetings for last minute details on the race.
Day Before The Race
The plan on Saturday was to go swim in the lake first thing in the morning, go for a short run, and then drive the bike course to get a lay of the land. We woke up early to find it pouring outside, so went for our short run around the hotel, and decided we’d hold off swimming and driving the bike course until the rain passed. We got to the lake in the early afternoon and well, the water was so choppy that we nixed the plans altogether for a swim that day. Little did we know this is about how the lake would be on race morning.
Driving the bike course tested my mental ability to NOT LOSE MY SHIT at how hilly the course was. I had done several long training rides with overall ascent equivalent or higher to what the race website said the bike course was, but seeing it took it to a whole different level. Instead of the saying “what goes up must come down”, a more accurate saying for this race was “what goes up, can go up again”.
It’s worth mentioning that in the few weeks prior to the race Austin had been hit by deadly rains and flooding. Many of these roads we were going to be on were back roads that had been partially washed away during the flooding, and were a low priority to the city to fix compared to other higher-populated areas. So regularly we saw pot holes, or if it was on the edge of the pavement, complete sections of the road missing.
We finished out the day watching Notre Dame football, and then walked to the steakhouse across the street from the hotel for an early dinner.
My brother and I thought we’d get to the race fairly early, get everything set up, and then have time to take a nap in the car before we needed to be at the lake for the swim start. El. Oh. El. We couldn’t have been more wrong (or maybe stupid is more appropriate). Our swim wave started at 7:40, we arrived at the race at 5am, and we were moving almost non-stop the whole time. I had managed to do 6,000+ steps before the race had ever started.
Luckily we had (mandatorily) dropped off the bikes the day before at T1. We got out of the car, and rode the bus to take our bike bags to T1, along with a pump to ensure our tires had plenty of air. We setup our bikes, took advantage of the port-a-potties, then took the bus back to our car to get our run bags, and set them up at T2 (I know now how stupid this was, but it seemed like we’d have plenty of time that it wouldn’t be an issue). By this time the line to get on the buses to head back to the lake was super long, but thankfully the race volunteers were giving priority to racers, and spectators just had to wait.
We got back to the lake, and somewhere along the way I had lost my Roctane Gu that was meant as my pre-race fuel (and caffeine boost). I should have just gone and grabbed one of the ones I had taped to my bike, since there would be more available on the course, but didn’t think of that for whatever reason. This was the first mental hurdle for me. Immediately I started having negative thoughts about not being properly fueled going in to the water, and how that would affect my swim. I was able to calm myself after a minute or two, and convince myself it wouldn’t make a difference. That ALL of my swim training was without Gu, so this wouldn’t be any different.
Time to turn in our morning clothes and go get in line for our wave swim start. Then I hit my next mental hurdle. (1) It was 55 degrees out, and I’m wearing a sleeveless 2XU tri top, and knee length Speedos. (2) I’m one of MAYBE 5 people of the 2,500 about to take part in this race that does NOT have on a wetsuit when they announce the lake is about 68 degrees. Once again, the negative thoughts start kicking in. Kicking myself for not having a wet suit just in case. For not buying some throw away morning clothes that I could have worn until right before I got in the water. It took a little longer this time, but I again managed to calm myself down. Standing in the group, it was still chilly, but it wasn’t THAT bad, since others were blocking the wind. I had done all my swim training without a wetsuit, and my training pool is kept in the mid-70s, so 68 won’t be a huge shock.
Swim Start - My spirit animal is the duck
Swimming is by far my weakest sport. I can’t explain the anxiety I get from open water swimming in triathlons. I can and have swam in lakes before. I can swim fine in a pool. But put me in a race situation, with others around, and I experience anxiety like I’ve never felt before… Such is life, it’s time to face this challenge head on.
Each wave got to enter the water until we were all somewhere between waist and neck deep into the lake before they’d give us the go ahead to start our swim. Entering the water timidly, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that 68 degree lake water feels like bath water when you’ve been standing in 55 degree air temps. Well, it felt like bath water for about 30 seconds anyway.
I was SUPER calm waiting on the call to start our swim. I was ready to start this race, and overcome this challenge.
“3… 2… 1… GO!”
I start freestyle swimming, and feeling OK. Someone hits my arm, still OK. Someone smacks my leg, yep I’ll be fine. I decide to switch to a sidestroke for a few seconds to make sure I’m headed in the right direction, and I start getting smacked in the face over and over again with waves… To the point of choking several times.
“OH, CRAP.” I’m not even remotely a bilateral breathing swimmer. When I sidestroke, I’m facing left, ALWAYS. I keep going. I’m trying to catch my breath, and time my breathing in between the waves smacking me in the face. My anxiety just gets worse and worse. Take a look at my watch to see how long I’ve been swimming. “HOW THE HECK CAN IT ONLY BE 3 minutes?!?!?” Ugh… This is going to be a long swim. “Get ahold of yourself, Swanson. You’re NOT about to drown. Just keep swimming.”
Finally I make it to the first buoy, but then I hear my brother calling to me. He’s about 10 yards back holding onto a canoe, and telling me the lake is too rough, and he doesn’t think he can finish. Ugh… Talk about a mental hurdle for both of us. This is my brother, Brad, who is all around a better runner/triathlete than I am. He’s completed a half-iron distance race before. He’s done half a dozen triathlons (all in open water). If HE is having trouble, what hope do I have? “Just keep swimming, Brad. We CAN do this.” I yell out to him. Apparently the young woman in the canoe he was holding onto gave him some similar advice, and said he could just swim from buoy to buoy, and take a break at each one.
So, I kept swimming… from buoy to buoy… taking a short break at each one.
Finally at the first turn! “Just keep swimming”
Another buoy down, then another. “Oh look, the next buoy is the second turn. I’ve got this!”
“Wait, why isn’t this buoy red like the last turn buoy? Why isn’t everyone making the turn? What do you mean there’s two more buoys to go before the turn?!?!?”
I’m pretty sure I’ve single-handedly lowered the lake level by an inch or more because of the amount of water I’ve accidentally drank at this point. (Burp)
Finally on the last stretch of the swim. I keep looking at my watch, and at some point I realize, “I’m not going to finish in the required hour and 10 minute cut off for the swim.” Ugh…
“You could just get into a boat now. What’s the point?”
“Because you didn’t come out here to swim 1.05 miles, Swanson. KEEP MOVING! Make them pull you from this race.”
“OK, Fine.” So I keep swimming. “OF COURSE I’m getting a leg cramp!” I take a break for a sec, and try to relax.
“I’m GOING to finish this.”
Finally I can touch the bottom of the lake. I waddle out, trying to find my land legs again. I cross into T1 at 1:20:32 after I started the swim, a full 10 plus minutes slower than I needed to be. I’m seriously just happy that I finished the swim without quitting, and that it’s finally over.
“Wait, where’s the person that’s going to pull me since I time-capped on the swim?”
“So, there just going to let me continue? Maybe I misunderstood the rules?”
“Please, someone pull me from the race?!?!?”
I get to my bike, and realize no one is going to stop me from continuing. “OK, let’s do this then.”
I took my time pulling on my tights and other stuff I’ll be wearing for my ride, catching my breath, and getting mentally ready for the next stage of this race. Out of T1 in 11:02.
Bike Leg - After the swim, how bad could the bike be?
The start of the bike leg is a slight climb out of the arena area we are in, into a steady downhill. Unfortunately the downhill was northeast and into the wind, so really couldn’t take much advantage of it. After a few turns we start our first big climb of the race. The website shows the course elevation at this point MAYBE changing by 50ft. I’d argue that it was AT LEAST twice that. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s early, and I remember all to well how many hills are ahead of me on this course. On the upside after we cleared this hill, except for a few smaller rolling hills, it’s a steady net downhill for the next 10+ miles. I felt good through the first 30 miles or so, averaging somewhere around 16.5MPH which is pretty fast for me. There were definitely some challenges on the course, but they were manageable.
As I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of potholes. One of the recurring issues on the course was in some of the back areas, you’d climb a hill to immediately go down the other side down to a bridge crossing a small creek, with a hill equal to the one you just topped on the other side. The problem being that the bridge going over the creek had so many potholes that the race had assigned volunteers to stand there and ensure we all slowed down.
“Yay, fast downhill!”
“Crap, gotta break to not kill myself here.”
“WTF, they took away our speed and now we’ve got to climb a hill?”
Over and over again…
“Embrace the suck!” – A statement I use often in CrossFit before a particularly long or grueling workout, and seemed very appropriate here.
I had just crested a hill and saw another downhill with small bridge with a ton of potholes on it. There was a volunteer there begging everyone to slow down for their own safety. Another rider comes flying by me, and uses no brakes on the downhill. I decide to follow his lead, and he seemed to find the perfect path through the potholes without breaking. I managed to find the edge of the bridge where at one point there was about a one foot gap of nothing but air… At the last minute, I pulled up on my bike to try and “bunny hop” over this hole, but the back tire SLAMMED into the far side of it, and I got jostled pretty good. I continued on for about 100 yards when I realized another rider was yelling at me that I had lost one of my water bottles. I turned around to go back and get it, and saw the volunteer picking up my bottle and adding it to the 50+ bottles she had already collected. When I stopped to grab it from her, I realized that “shoe cage” on my left pedal had all but fallen off, and was barely hanging there by the strap. (Yes, that’s right, I don’t have clipped shoes/pedals. Yes, I know I’m missing out on power, but my money tree is bare these days.) So I take a minute to try and secure it on the bike so that I can properly reattach it later(after the race), instead of having to replace it completely. Onward I go, to climb the next hill…
I knew things were going all too well
Somewhere around mile 41, I have no explanation for how it happened other than I just zoned out for a minute, but I ended up too close to the edge of the pavement, and slipped off the pavement into the gravel. Unfortunately at the time I was doing over 20MPH… The bike came to a sudden stop, and I flew over the handlebars. I don’t remember all the details of it, but based on scratches and bruising, I must have landed on my hands first and sort of somersaulted to land on my back and slide a few feet.
I get up, trying to figure out what just happened, because it’s all a blur. Look at my hands are see blood all over both of them.
“Ugh, I just crashed.”
“I can’t believe I’ve been through all this to crash on the bike and not finish this race.”
Another rider finally comes by, and asks if I’m OK. “Uh, I just crashed and went over my handlebars.”
“OK, we’ll send someone back for you.”
I start to take inventory… “What hurts?”
My head seems OK, my helmet is still on and did it’s job.
Right shoulder pretty sore, but I’m not using that for anything more than support today, so I’ll just deal with that. Hands… “God, they hurt. Do I have rocks INSIDE my riding gloves? Oh, I tore one of my gloves, that’s how the rocks got in.”
“Am I actively bleeding? No, you’re just scraped up really bad, but you can make a fist and it doesn’t hurt TOO bad.”
The rest of my body, seems unharmed.
“OK, what about your bike?” chain popped off, and my two water bottles are gone, otherwise looks OK. One water bottle is laying about 10 feet behind the bike in a GIANT ant hill, and is already covered by ants. “Y’all can keep that one. I’m good.” The other water bottle is on the other side of the road. While I’m sitting there waiting, I decide to go ahead and get the chain put back on. Everything looks OK.
“I wonder if the bike is able to be ridden?” I test it out, and damn my good fortune, but everything is working fine. I decide instead of sitting there for who knows how long, I’d just go ahead and ride to the next aid station which has to be coming up soon.
By the time I got to the aid station, I had already decided I would continue on with the race. I didn’t want to let a few scrapes and bruises keep me from completing this distance. I had physically and mentally come too far to give up. Of course right before I actually got to the aid station, my quads started severely cramping. I don’t THINK this was a result of the crash, but at the time seemed like an odd coincidence. I came to a complete stop at the aid station, and the volunteers asked me what I needed. I had several pieces of bananas and some of their electrolyte drink they were offering. I knew it wasn’t the Nuun I had been using all day and during my training, but didn’t figure it would bother me too much. After sitting there for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a couple minutes, my cramps had settled down enough that I wanted to push on. I knew the longer I was out there, the more likely I was to quit.
The last 10+ miles was a real grind. The hills got steeper, and longer. The muscle cramps came and went, but stayed longer each time.
Finally I make it back to the arena, and into T2. Time on the bike, 3:50:54, with a snail pace average speed of 14.55mph.
I walk my bike to my spot in T2, and really struggled as to whether I was even going to bother doing the run. This was by far mentally the darkest place I had been in all day. I just couldn’t FATHOM doing a half marathon after all the crap I had already been through. I was thinking about my wife, and how she couldn’t be with me despite wanting to be. How I just wanted to go and be consoled by her, but I couldn’t even talk to her, because my phone was packed away with my pre-race gear.
For those that don’t know, my wife is kind of a bad ass. After years of working out almost every day, and playing various sports, both in high school, and on rec teams, she had to have a hip replacement on her right hip. That was March 2014. At her last physical therapy appointment after her surgery, believing that she was days away from getting back to working out, and doing whatever she wanted, she got a call from her doctor that confirmed they believed she had breast cancer, and needed to have a diagnostic mammogram done. In june 2014 she had surgery, and the months after involved chemotherapy, and radiation. But she KICKED CANCER’S ASS.
So, as I’m standing there in T2, not wanting to continue, I (for not the first time of the day) hear that voice in my head that’s not my own, but my wife’s. “Oh, did you get scratched up and you can’t continue? Poor baby (snicker). Think I had a choice when I was going through my cancer treatments to stop? Do you think I didn’t want to quit? But I didn’t… So tell me again how bad you’ve got it that you can’t go run a freakin’ half marathon, which is such a trivial distance for you Mr. Ultramarathoner…” (Keep in mind, my wife wouldn’t say anything like this to me in real life. But it’s how she talks to me in my inner dialogue) “Suck it up, Buttercup. Get out there and finish this.”
“F@#$ Cancer…I’m never going to live this down if I quit.”
And so I walked out of T2 in 6:21, elapsed race time 5:28:49.
Running – Just. Keep. Moving.
The run course was three loops that started and ended by the arena. The largest cluster of spectators (and cheerleaders) were in the first/last 3/4 of a mile of the loop. So I started “running”, because I couldn’t let all these spectators see me walk. I think I made it exactly 3/4 of a mile AND ONE STEP before I had to stop and walk. My quads were locked up tight, and I just couldn’t figure out how to get them relaxed.
As I’m walking along, I’m trying to come up with a plan to get me through the run without being completely miserable the whole time. I’ve been staying hydrated all day with Nuun. I’ve been taking in Roctane Gu as fuel every 45ish minutes. “So why am I cramping?” And then it hits me… The bottle I left for the ants was my water with nothing added to it. “Maybe, I just need water?”
I get to the first aid station, and I guzzle some water, (a) because it was water, but (b) because it was ICE COLD. It was so good, I grabbed another one from the next volunteer at the aid station.
This is also a good time to mention that I had grossly underestimated how warm it would be/feel at this point in the race for me. The high was only supposed to be in the low 70s, but I’m wearing running tights and a long sleeve dri fit shirt. “GOD, IT’S HOT OUT HERE.” I’m scanning the other athletes looking for a runner who isn’t wearing a shirt, because somewhere in the back of my mind I think it’s against the rules or something. But I keep moving…
By the time I get to the next aid station, I’m hardly able to run at all. I can power walk like nobody’s business, managing around a 14:30min/mile pace, but can’t run for more than 10-20 yards at a time. I take in some more water, and grab some pretzels. Then, I hear one of the volunteers say something that catches my attention “We’ve got Red Bull over here!”
“Wait, what? Did he just say Red Bull?” Of course I grab some, because I’m desperate at this point. I’d probably have snorted some cocaine if someone had offered it to me and convinced me I’d be able to run after doing it. (It’s also worth mentioning that this was probably a 1-2oz shot of Red Bull. They weren’t handing out cans of it.)
Just keep moving…
I get to the next aid station. I take in more water, and another “shot” of Red Bull.
Ok, headed back to the arena now to finish up my first loop. In the final mile of the first loop, my brother Brad catches up to me. I hadn’t seen him AT ALL since seeing him in the water in the first couple hundred yards of the swim. It was good to see him out here, and apparently feeling really good. I asked him where he was at in the run, and he was finishing up his second loop. He walked with me for a minute, and I told him about crashing on the bike. He told me that it was awesome that I was still going after the crash, and we just chit-chatted for another minute, before he decided to start running again.
As he pulled away from me, I started doing the math in my head about whether I’d be able to finish the race under the time cap of 8:30:00 to be considered an official finisher. I know I had technically already time capped because of the swim, but I still had the goal of finishing under 8:30:00 in my head. After doing the calculations, there was NO WAY I’d be able to finish in under 8:30:00 at my current average pace. “Crap!”
“Oh, there’s a runner without a shirt on.” So I immediately take off my long sleeve shirt and tie it around my waist. Leaving me the picture of Adonis in my running tights with my gut hanging over them, and my heart rate strap on my ALL TOO WHITE skin. I was very grateful it was a sunny day and as a result so many people had on their sunglasses, because they needed them when I came by.
First loop finished in just under an hour, and that was WITH the “long run” I did at the start of the loop, and I just didn’t feel like I had that in me to do again.
“You’re going to finish this. MAKE THEM TAKE YOU OFF THE COURSE.”
“I don’t want to JUST FINISH. I want to be a ‘finisher’.”
“OK, Let’s run then.”
And to my amazement, I started running, and it wasn’t painful. My quads actually felt OK.
First aid station, and I grab some water, and some Red Bull.
“Run the down hills. Power walk the up hills to conserve yourself.”
Second aid station, I grab water, pretzels, and some Red Bull. I’m still feeling good. I’m knocking out between 11:30 and 12:45min/mile average paced miles! “Alright, headed back to the arena again. Keep it up!”
Second loop finished in around 45 minutes. Suddenly, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I finish this race under 8:30:00.
Somewhere around mile 10 overall in the run, I hit what runners refer to as “the wall”. This isn’t similar to anything I had mentally or physically experienced already. This was the “my body has reached the limit of what it feels like it can do today” kind of concrete wall that was not going to budge. Apparently I hadn’t been taking in enough calories since I had gotten off the bike. I had another Roctane Gu with me, but the thought of eating ANOTHER sweet gel just wasn’t pleasant. I couldn’t make myself eat it. The power walk was a lot more of a struggle. It took concentrated effort to keep moving at the pace I needed to move at.
JUST. KEEP. MOVING.
Final 3/4 of a mile and I get to run into the arena and finish my race. I’d been walking for at least a mile at this point, hoping that when I got to this point, I’d be able to run the final stretch in front of the spectators. I just couldn’t mentally make myself run. So I kept walking. Random strangers called out “You’ve got this, Brian! You’re Almost there. Run it in!” and I couldn’t make myself run.
I finally get to the split where you either turn around to go out for another loop, or turn to run down and into the arena through the finishing chute, and I start to run. Not fast by any stretch, but I just knew I needed to finish this race running. I get to the bottom of the hill, and another athlete comes by and says “We’ve got to sprint it in from here, man!” “Uh, I *am* sprinting.”
Into the arena, and there’s the finish line. I hear them call out my name as I cross it. DONE in 8:17:42. I’m not an official finisher, but I’ve completed a 70.3 Half Ironman race in under 8:30:00.
Here’s my Garmin data for those that might be interested: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/951722076