Monday, 3 October 2016

Ironman Chattanooga

I'm running through the park.  It's a slow shuffling run, which I can only sustain for a hundred meters or so at a time until back to walking.  Off to my left a woman is on her knees, vomiting into the grass.  I turn right, heading across the river.  Suddenly a woman to the right of me screams out, wailing as she clutches her right leg, rubbing it furiously. I know what that's like. Mine did the same thing an hour ago. I carry on across the bridge. 

Blue bike, carrying my blue drink

How hot was it?  I was stopping my bike to pick up other peoples' discarded water bottles to pour it over myself.  It's race day in Chattanooga. About 2200 people jumped into the water in the morning.  Of that, 26% would not make it to the finish within the time limit. I would manage with just 15 minutes to go before my time ran out.

Swim 1:28:06. Bike 7:30. Run 6:15:21. Total 15:58:10.

Dean and me, on Lookout Mountain high above Chattanooga
 We left early Wednesday.  You have to sign in by Friday, so it’s important to get some distance down the road towards the race site.  We traveled most of the day, looking for a layover in Kentucky.  The Historic Boone Tavern sounded like a good bet.  Unfortunately the clerk advised that it was not a wet county, so we wouldn’t be getting any beers around there.  Daniel wasn’t serving anymore. My partner this trip was my brother Dean.  The kids are all grown up, so it's not a family adventure anymore.

We got to Chattanooga on Thursday and hit the usual tourist locations.  We visited Lookout Mountain and Rock City.  For my afternoon run on Thursday, I went out around 5 PM.  It was ferociously hot in the sun at that time of day.  Not a good sign, since I should be freshly off my bike on Sunday at that hour.

Let me put this into perspective.  In 2007, the Chicago marathon shut down during the race when temperatures hit the high 80’s. Some of the aid stations were out of water, and medical support was overloaded, so they radioed across the course to get everyone to stop running.  In 2012, with projected highs in the high 80’s, the Boston marathon offered participants to forgo running, and come back the next year instead.  The Kona Hawaii triathlon, known for its heat, on average is 84 degrees . There, everyone gets 17 hours.  Chattanooga on Sunday topped out at 97 degrees, with 80% humidity.

This was more than unusually hot, it was past what other races considered safe. This is Ironman.  We were good to go. The forecast was in the nineties.  Water temperature was measured at 83, making it just one degrees below the safety limit where wetsuits are forbidden. I’ve trained in warm water with my wetsuit, and ended up overheated and tired.  It’s a poor way to start the day.  I thought it would make an interesting change to race in just my swimsuit, so I was looking forward to leaving the wetsuit at home.  

Behind me is the second / fourth bridge of the race
Laying out my gear on Friday night, there was no timing chip. I reread the instructions, and it was on a table that I skipped during sign-in.  No matter, I quickly found the timekeeper on race morning and got set up with one.  I also skipped the morning clothes bag, coming to the waterfront in old running shoes, of which I have plenty, and a nightshirt. I abandoned both in the grass to jump off the dock for race start. I was in the water at 7:40.  It’s a time-trial start, with the long line of us going onto the dock in single file.  It takes about a half hour to get everyone in. We each get 16:15:00 as time limit counting from when we start. As I commonly do, I headed off course and was chased down by a woman In a kayak. "That way", she pointed.  I was headed across the river and would have missed the left channel around the island. It was a scenic swim, beside the cliffs where the art gallery sits, then under two bridges.  The current helps us along, but only gained me 10 minutes over my previous swim times for the distance. Skipping swim training entirely this year, my preparation all summer for it consisted of the swimming pool in the hotel on Friday night. In 90 minutes I was out.  Dean high fived me at swim exit, then he stayed to watch the rest.  An hour later, there was one racer who failed to make the time limit in the water portion; ending her day early.  

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What a great bike course.  The hills and valleys of Georgia were beautiful.  The rolling hills had nothing very steep or high for us to ride on.  There were two fast downhill spots, where they warned us with caution signs.  Not really that fast, I don’t think I topped 50 km/h all day.  After the half way, heading to my second lap of the loop, my neck got to be really painful.  That was a problem, since a breeze from the south made a headwind, and with the lack of any technical difficulty to the ride, it was a great opportunity to sit low on the aerobars for long periods. I couldn’t take that any longer, and rode up on the brake hoods or even sitting fully upright holding the cross piece of the handlebars.  The heat was getting to me, and I noticed that I couldn’t swallow my fourth Clif Bar.  I had to wash it down with Gatorade.  With that warning me of dehydration, I stopped at all the next aid stations to chug half a bottle of water, pouring the remainder over my head and arms and legs. Sipping it while riding was getting me enough. The volunteers were great.  I asked for sunscreen, and immediately was given a bottle of sunscreen to refresh my layer.  There was always water, usually cold.  That’s a big deal.  If they ran out, many more of us would have been in trouble.  Between aid stations, I resorted to picking up discarded water bottles, hot from the pavement, to further douse myself.  That helped a lot, because the air flow while riding wet like that kept me cool.  There were many, many riders stopped at roadside to sit under a shading tree with head in hands.  I persevered and made it back to Chattanooga at 5:30 PM.  Coming around the last corner, my right thigh adductor seized up, and I leapt off to the shoulder of the road to let it ease up.  Back on the bike, it immediately cramped again.  A guy riding by called, “walk it off. walk it off”  Good advice.  Walking helped, but I wasn’t sure I could ride any further.  A passerby commented that it was all downhill.  Another good idea.  I got back on and coasted the couple hundred meters to the gate.  

Dean was there, handing out water.  He was smiling and happy. I could tell he was having a good time with the other volunteers.  Volunteering is more fun than racing, with the camaraderie you get from working together. 

Done it!  Dean in the red shirt.
Out to the run course.  All summer I enjoyed PowerBar chews instead of gels for the runs.  So I filled a ziplock bag with several packages of them for the run.  Collecting that at transition 2, the heat had melded them together into a big glob.  Maybe they will pull apart, I thought. First they stuck to a couple fingers, then a couple more, then the palm, and in short order I was wearing the entire lot like a mitt.  That had to stay for the 2 km until the first aid station for me to wash it off.  This was my aid station last year!  They had Clif Blocks! Cold ones! Hurray! I was saved again by the volunteers. I didn’t bother running for the first little while. If my hip cramped again, I was finished.  I wasn’t going to risk that.  Instead, more eating. I ate 4 Clif bars and 3 Rice Krispies on the bike. Now I started into chips.  Salty, crunchy, potato chips.  I was nicely hydrated, as evidenced by my ability to take on several cups of chips.  That plus the Clif Blocks gave me plenty of energy to keep going. I chatted with another walker, who had the impression we got 17 hours. No. With 16 ¼ available, I needed to finish just before midnight.  It’s a brisk walk to cover it in the time I had.  More support needed from an aid station. Vaseline. I selected my shorts because they prevent chafing, but it didn’t work like I needed.  Then came the blisters.  I could feel them painfully swell up one after another in my heels and under the ball of the foot.  I've never gotten blisters; not even on my long run a week before in the rain where my shoes filled with water for 10 km. Except that one time when I came out of the water to find no socks set out at my bike. I ran the 21 km that day with no socks and got a nasty welt at the Achilles. No matter, after finishing the first lap, I raised a finger in the air, excitedly shouted "Uno Mas!" and went back for another. I got my second Mountain Dew from my special needs bag.  This is the first time I’ve used a special needs bag.  The Mountain Dew was great.  An extra load of caffeine to start each lap of the run. Now in the dark, I put on a string of glow sticks.  All the more like a zombie, I was nevertheless able to run a few short bursts.  Shortly past 11:30 I crossed the final bridge and managed a lumbering run down the hill to the finish.  Once again Dean was there.  What a great Sherpa he was. I had a good time.  Time was tight, but always within reach, and then suddenly, there it was.