At the ten mile mark, over seven hours and 67 miles after I had started, I turned to Laura and said I thought I might be able to run to the finish. She wished me luck. I took a deep breath in, let it out and before I could take it back I started, well, not running exactly, but shuffling more quickly than I had been for the past three hours. I just wanted this over now as quickly as possible. This was not how today was supposed to go. At all.
At the end of 2014, coming off an age group win in an Olympic, I set my sights on stepping up to the half iron distance in 2015. The next step in the grand plan to one day do the full iron distance. I took some time off at the end of ’14, recovered physically and mentally and started slowly ramping up the training volume in December with the (relatively) local Patriot Half 70.3 in June as the big goal for 2015.
In retrospect, all the little warning signs are much clearer. In the fog of training, however, I was always able to find an excuse or just plain stubborness to push on. I was more fit than I had probably been since two-a-days during high school basketball. How could I be struggling with some of these workouts? Why was I so tired? Why did my stomach hurt so much? How could I be short of breath going up the stairs? I kept going. I was doing this race.
Even though the race was less than an hour away (same area as the Cranberry Olympic from last year), with two little ones at home, I decided to splurge on a hotel room near the race to ensure a good night’s sleep and lessen the chances of something weird happening in transit on race morning. I drove the hour or so southeast on Friday afternoon and picked up my packet at the race site. No lines, no fuss, all good. I drove the couple miles over to the Holiday Inn and settled in for an early night. I didn’t have much of an appetite for dinner, but chalked it up to nerves. See? Stubborn.
After rain and humidity the previous few days, race day dawned gray and wet, but with promises of lowering humidity and sun by mid-day. I was able to get most of my usual pre-race breakfast down, loaded up my gear and headed to Camp Cathedral for body marking and chip pickup. Like the Cranberry Oly, the race had enough volunteers and organization that marking and chip pick up where not a problem. Even as time got tight, the lines remained fairly manageable from what I could tell.
The Patriot promotes itself as a good first time half distance race and there was a certain amount of excited, nervous energy in the air. It’s also run by a smaller, regional outfit, so there was a distinct lack of some of the self-seriousness and aggression that you can sometimes see at larger, more well known races. Everyone seemed happy to be there and ready to race. I finished setting up T1, tugged on the wetsuit, went through the normal confusion of trying to get my Garmin into multi-sport mode then headed down to the lake to get warmed up.
The transition area and the swim are held on a private campground so there is not a lot of opportunity to practice in the lake unless you go to the swim clinic offered by the race team. I did not and was relieved to see a much larger (and presumably deeper) body of water than the nearby venue that the Cranberry race uses. Getting up and running would not be an option for this swim. The course was a single loop out and back rectangle. The water was typical of a New England lake, a bit murky and bit dark, but good enough to swim in with about 1,000 of your friends. Temps were cool, as expected in mid-June still, but very manageable with the wet suit.
I went to push and latch onto the latest group to pass me and….nothing. I had no power. No reserve. Nothing left. Good thing I only had 50 miles and a half marathon still to run.
After a quick 400 yards or so warm-up, I exited the water and mingled about waiting for the start. We were grouped into a rough line snaking away from the water, based on divisions and soon enough we were inchign forward as 3 person groups were sent into the water in a time trail start. Soon enough I could see people strung out on the water almost to the first turn buoy, then I found myself in the water, trying to get a little space, but stay on some feet and get a good rhythm going. The time trial start made kicking and spacing less of an issue until it bunched up a bit around the turns, but I soon found myself heading back in, not trying to think to far ahead and just keep a consistent stroke to the finish.
By my watch, I swam an extra 150 yards or so, not too bad given the distance and starting position. My time was 39:14 or 1:43/100. A a little on the slow side, I was hoping to be in the mid to low 1:30s. But this being my first half, I was very cognizant of not going out too fast. Maybe a little too conservative.
Swim: 39:14 30/45 division, 291/607 overall
The bike is where things really came off the rails. T1 didn’t start well. After peeling off my wetsuit, I went to stuff some nutrition into my new racing top and couldn’t find the pockets. I panicked. Did I really buy a top without pockets? How could I not check that? I felt the clock ticking as I fumbled another attempt to pocket the gels. No go. I stuffed them (uncomfotably) in my bike shorts and called it good. It was not good. The sharp plastic corners would poke, dig and prod me the next 56 miles, but that soon became the least of my issues.
About five miles into the bike, after recovering a bit from the swim and T1, I became aware of many, many people passing me. I’m not a great biker, average at best, but it was like I was spinning in place. I went to push and latch onto the latest group to pass me and….nothing. I had no power. No reserve. Nothing left. Good thing I only had 50 miles and a half marathon still to run.
At this point, I remember thinking it was one of two things. Maybe three things. Either I had screwed up my nutrition and was bonking, unlikely given the early stage of the race. Two, I was getting sick. This felt more likely as my youngest had come down with a fever the previous day. Maybe I had caught the same bug? Three, I had overtrained and was having a very bad day. Whatever the answer, I kept going at my snail’s pace, passing no one, wondering why today of all day’s my body decided to shut it down.
Eventually, after falling on the bike twice (on some mild hills) and sliding pretty much to the back of the pack, I made it back to the campground and T2. Like most people at this point in a triathlon, I was just relieved to be done with the bike. It wasn’t until I tried to run that I first seriously considered pulling the plug and dropping out.
Bike: 3:37:28 (15.5 mph) 46/46 division, 578/607 overall
I actually stopped in the transition chute for almost five minutes debating pushing on or quitting. I shuffled on to the aid station at mile 1 and sat down in what felt like the world’s plushest chair (it was a standard metal folding chair). The volunteers gave me food and water and asked if I wanted a ride back. I tood the food and drink and declined the ride. I sat for a bit. Eventually I got up and started walking with a very upbeat woman.
We walked the next ten miles at which point, I had decided if I was going to finish, I’d finish trying to run. I shuffled the next few miles, then when that proved too much, ran/walked between the telephone poles until the finish line finally came into sight. It was a mercy.
Unbeknowst to me, my family had come to see me at the finish (originally they were staying home because of the little one’s fever, but she bounced back overnight). I had expected to finish in five to five and half hours. I ended up finishing in almost eight and half hours. My wife was (rightfully) freaking out.
Run: 3:34:26 (16:23/mile) 45/46 division (someone else dropped out), 604/607 overall
Total: 8:03:00 45/45 division, 592/607 overall
It was over. At least the race.
I wouldn’t end up in the ambulance on the way to hospital for almost more two months.