Radical Immersion

Ironman Training with Life, Marriage, Children & Work

Category: Ironman Coeur d’Alene

2015: The Long & Short of It

There was no singular event, race or accomplishment to define the past year.  However, there were many firsts — new experiences, new friendships and new adventures.

  • For the first time, I raced outside the continental United States in March with a trip to Puerto Rico.
  • I ran a half marathon personal record by about eight minutes in April when Esme and I took a weekend trip to Raleigh.
  • Later in the year, I ran a marathon personal record during a training run and lopped about eight minutes off of that time too.
  • After more than a decade away from it, I swam the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim during a heat wave.  I crossed in about 1:46 or as fast as I ever have.
  • I had fun — and some success — with local Olympic distance races that I’d never been to in Charlottesville and Colonial Beach.
  • In late June I showed up for my fourth Ironman in four years.  By my own assessment, I was more fit and more prepared for Coeur d’Alene than the previous races.  It was far from my most successful race.  I barely dragged myself into the finish area.  Nonetheless, it was a great trip to a beautiful corner of the country.
  • I was able to see all four members of the tribe swim in the “A” meet for two consecutive weekends for their summer swim program.
  • During one four week period in the summer I raced three times, in three formats — Ironman, Olympic and open water marathon swim.
  • I volunteered at a race — a 5k — where Desmond won some hard earned recognition.
  • In July I did my first ever race in the ocean.  The nine mile course in Ocean City is worthy of the term “marathon swim.”
  • In September, my team of two years began the process of folding up.  Then in October I joined a new team — with a whole new set of people to learn.
  • During the summer, I spent the better part of an afternoon volunteering with kids in a program with the DC Parks and Recreation teaching and answering questions about swimming and triathlon.  Later in the year I guided a blind athlete during a half marathon.
  • When November rolled around, I found myself going long again for the JFK 50 — my first ultra-marathon.
  • I watched Desmond flourish in cross country and Josephine in the field events of their first year of track.
  • A couple weeks ago I ran with Esme for the third straight year at the Celtic Soltice — and she dropped nearly seven minutes from her 2014 time.

In all, I swam more than 233,800 yards which is just a bit shy of 133 miles.  Though I didn’t check, this may be the first time ever that I ran more than I rode my bike.  Cumulatively I was on the saddle nearly six days during the year covering 1,765 miles (not including commuting).  By contrast I ran the equivalent of 7.7 days for a total of 1,261 miles.

The blue dots on the chart below represent the intensity of a workout.  The closer to 1.0 the harder the session.  Each blue dot corresponds to a red dot.  The red dots along the X axis are days that I did not exercise.  Red dots above the axis show how much “work” I did that day.

There is a clear pattern with a minor peak in March for Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico and the Raleigh Half Marathon and a major peak at the end of June for Ironman Coeur d’Alene followed an Olympic race and the Ocean Games.  Then my fitness declined; I continued to work out but without a clear plan or schedule of races.  At the end of August I decided to do the JFK 50 and the workload and frequency of sessions picked up straight through Thanksgiving.  At that point, I started “offseason” until about a week or two ago when I started swimming again.

2015 TSS


Meltdown in the Mountains — 80 Minutes of Medical Attention

A list of the weird things my body did upon finishing Ironman Coeur d’Alene

  1. I became dizzy, disoriented and had narrow, tunnel vision.  I slurred my speech and repeated the same thing several times.
  2. I talked excessively to a guy I met at the finish line, Scott Rigsby, like I had known him for years.  It was very uncharacteristic behavior for me but he didn’t seem to mind and was the person who steered me into the medical tent to find someone to help my crazy-talking self.  I’ve known of him for years, but never met him.
  3. I did not recognize two friends who stood “bedside” shortly after I arrived.  According to their report hours later, at first I just stared blankly at them like we’d never met.  Sorry about that.
  4. There was a metallic taste in my mouth.
  5. My teeth and my feet became tingly and numb.
  6. My right calf seized up into a monstrous cramp the first time I shifted and tried to sit fully upright.
  7. Freezing cold towels were draped over my legs to help the cramp which made me start shivering and shaking so bad that I couldn’t talk and I crushed a paper cup full of soup because my hands clenched while they shook.  The cold towels were removed and I was given a space blanket.  We were in a massive tent, on asphalt, it was 105 degrees and I was happily bundled in a blanket.
  8. The vastus medialis muscle above my right knee went into a spasm that lasted approximately 30 minutes.
  9. I had a twitch in my left foot; for about five minutes it just kicked out an inch or two to the left every five seconds.
  10. I forgot Dana’s phone number.  Fortunately, the medical attendant who agreed to text her for me was able to look at my Road ID to get the number.  For some reason, during this conversation I developed a stutter.  It was amazingly frustrating because I felt like my brain was working at 80 percent normal speed but the messages — which I was thinking — were not coming out of my mouth.  She would say, “What would you like me to tell her?”  I could not get the words out to say something as simple as “I’m fine.  A little dizzy.”  This exchange with an extremely patient women trying to help me communicate made me cry.  She gave me a towel to wipe my face and it was still cold from the leg incident which caused an immediate headache.
  11. I became extremely emotional — nearly weepy several times like when they first took my vital signs, overjoyed at other points, and worried about details that were entirely insignificant like how tight the laces were on my shoes.  I apologized several times for taking up space when there were obviously people who needed help.  I was assured that I was in fact one of those people — only I couldn’t recognize it.
  12. Several times I called out to the guy in the chair opposite me.  I thought poor Kevin — only about eight feet away — was in terrible shape if he didn’t recognize his own name after the race.  Only about an hour later, when Kevin arrived in the medical tent and took the spot two chairs to my right did I realize the guy I’d been harassing was someone else, wearing entirely different colors in his kit, and with his name clearly visible on his bib — it wasn’t Kevin.  I was the mess, not the other guy.
  13. For the first half hour I was in the tent, my nose would not stop running.
  14. I became mildly paranoid about my heart rate and kept checking it even after they removed my watch to improve circulation to the extremities.  The watch had the heart rate on display so I had to count it out.  This would be no big deal but I was paranoid and doing it every few minutes.  Every time I checked it was within a few beats of when they came by and checked it which was in the low to mid 60s.  My blood pressure was also pretty stable around 110/70.
  15. I felt drunk.  We’re not talking buzzed or tipsy.  I was like that guy you’ve all seen who gets so loaded at the tailgate he never makes it into the stadium.  The only difference is he usually sleeps in the parking lot a mile from the game and I was awake, on a plastic lounge chair, totally falling apart in a parking lot only 10 yards from the finish line.

The medical personnel said that I had acute hyponatremia and not to worry but to drink my fluids — chicken broth and Gatorade.  I knew enough about hyponatremia to get a little freaked out.  I kept thinking about the irony that I was going to drown, on dry land, when the thing I did best at these races was swim.  Later, before I was released, it was explained that if I had more serious symptoms or if I had vomited even one more time, I would have had an IV immediately and probably been shipped straight to the hospital.  Their prescription was salty drinks and time.  It worked.

I didn’t have it from drinking too much fluid but rather from too low of sodium concentration because I had been sweating out electrolytes faster than I could keep them down and absorb them.

I was also told that it was both helpful and a good sign that I was able to recount for the medical team my “history” which is to say I was able to detail my nutrition over the previous six hours — how much I drank, how many salt tablets I took, how many gels I ate, how many times I vomited and my estimate of how many gels I kept down.  It was helpful because it gave them a picture of how long I had effectively been running on empty and they didn’t have to guess or assume the worst.

It was a good sign because even though my mind was playing all sorts of games and working slowly, the ability to count a variety of items/activities and recount them was a good sign.  I knew how many salts I had taken and the intervals at which I had taken them going back ten hours but could not recognize friends who stood next to me or sat across an aisle.  I gave a detailed account of my Gu consumption but was dizzy enough that three people had to lower me into the chair.

Most of these symptoms that emerged in the medical tent, I’m told, were brought on as my systems tried to “turn themselves back on” as more electrolytes entered my bloodstream and the balance of water, sugar, salts etc. regained a semblance of normal.  It took almost a week for my stomach to get back to normal.  I’m going to lose one toenail to the race.  I felt mentally sluggish for several days after the race and had term memory problems — like when I called someone and had trouble with the voicemail because I couldn’t remember my own phone number or difficulty with my computer passwords.  All in all, it probably took about a week to get back to normal.

Thank you to the people of Coeur d’Alene who lined the run course with ice, hoses, sprinklers and good cheer.  I’m sure you kept many people out of the hospital.  The volunteers kept us all out of the hospital.  The medical volunteers were smart, attentive, patient and genuinely humane.  Thank you all.

The Dramatic Arc — or Arch — of Ironman Coeur d’Alene

Powerful stories often follow a narrative of conflict.  There is man versus man, man versus God or Nature, and ultimately, the most challenging and compelling stories feature man versus himself.

The 2015 edition of Ironman Coeur d’Alene offered all three.

Ascribing myself the protagonist role, it is fair to say that I came out with the short end of the stick in the first two conflicts.  Others in the field handled the day much better than I did.  Many bested my results.  My efforts to anticipate, address and respond to the 105 degree heat were inadequate.  Enough so that after vomiting four times on the second half of the run I finally finished and promptly found myself in the medical tent for 80 minutes.  But when the demons came out, long after the body was weakened, I continued the mental fight.  I’m not sure if it was mind over matter but the mind certainly mattered.  After a certain point, the disappointment fades, the pain dulls, and the other competitors become scenery.  The only question becomes “How do I keep myself moving forward?”  Everything else is stripped away and the essence of a mental battle is laid bare in just a handful of words.

Despite an unexpectedly poor bike segment, all was not lost until the run.  I had hopes of running as fast as a 3:40 -- it actually took an additional 90 minutes.

Despite an unexpectedly poor bike segment, all was not lost until the run. I had hopes of running as fast as a 3:40 — it actually took an additional 90 minutes.

Man Versus Man

I began the day ready mentally, and I believe physically, to compete.  I arrived with a goal to continuously put myself into the top ten of my age-group until such time that I could no longer.  I wasn’t sure if the moment would come or if it would come early on the bike or midway through the run.  The stage was set for a battle of man versus man — I would take all comers, refusing any quarter and following my plan with discipline.  I had set a goal to swim with the lead pack but was prepared to let them go if I felt my heart rate climbing too high, too early.  I knew my nutrition plan — adjusted for the weather with fewer solids and more fluids and salts.  I knew my goal watts for the first half of the ride, for the second half of the ride and for any hill that looked as if it might take more than three minutes to climb.  I had practiced running in the heat by adjusting my speed and effort to keep my heart rate two beats per minute below where my body turns over into low anaerobic level.

The swim ended as comedy.  I started on the front row on the right corner of the rope line.  At the sound of the cannon, I ran into the water, took several strokes and found myself sharing the lead with two others.  We more or less occupied a space five meters across from the buoys to my position and stayed that way for approximately 600 meters.  As we approached the first turn, I felt them accelerate.  I could have gone.  I was tempted to shoot into the corner because I could have taken a better line.  But prudence ruled.  It was disappointing but I let them ease up ahead of me and I started following the disturbed water behind them instead of the stand up paddleboards that were gently gliding ahead of the field.  By the time we had turned and organized into a straight line again, I wasn’t swimming in third but was swimming in a field of about half a dozen people ally vying for position and following the leaders.  It remained that way throughout the rest of the first loop.  I came out of the water with a handful of men and two age-group women.  At least four of us finished the second loop together as well.

The comedy came at the conclusion of the swim.  When we were only about 50 meters from the finish, a guy who had been swimming for half an hour on my left suddenly veered over and dunked me.  It was not the sort of contact that one gets because everyone is jostling for position.  It was what must have been the culmination of his frustration.  Immediately prior to the episode I had been swimming straight toward the exit arch and he had slid over to the right three times and bumped me.  He was like a dolphin trying to inch me over to the side.  He thought the line to the beach was about 5-10 degrees further right than it actually was and each time our arms tangled.  Each time we kept swimming and he would surge just a bit to try to get far enough ahead to turn his line to the right.  Eventually he swam up and put his whole right arm over my head and forced it down.  I was so shocked I stopped swimming for a moment.  My first instinct was to give chase and retaliate with a yank on his feet but instead I got myself moving, got immediately behind him and laughed.  This guy was way too intense for his own good.  I vowed to take him on the bike.

Approximately two and a half hours into the day I started to notice things were off.  By the time I was halfway through the bike I knew I was no longer at the front of the field and was slipping backward within my age group.  In the conflict of man versus man, I was coming up short.

Man Versus Nature

I’m not sure that you ever “win” by challenging nature.  The best outcomes are found when you can adapt and find a balance that allows you to absorb what comes your way.  The day after the race, the heat index on Interstate 90 where most of the bike course snakes up and out of Coeur d’Alene to a turnaround point was reported at 140 degrees.  Water was important but no amount of water was going to cool a body off.  When I noticed the wind picking up late in the morning as I made my way back on the last 20 miles of the course, it was a hot wind and made me think of a pizza oven.  I could feel the heat radiating off of the road up through the face shield on my helmet.

Yet it was beautiful.  All along the course were ranches long rolling hills with mountains on the horizon.  Even as we made our way through a low pass — presumably putting a mountain behind us — mountains remained on the horizon all the time.

I took salt pills just like I had practiced.  I pedaled downhill.  I rode within myself and yet for more than 45 miles I saw my normalized power first slide down some 15 to 20 percent below my targets and then hover ominously before I started taking shortcuts like sitting up early on the climbs and coasting down parts of the descents.

Nature was beating me down and I knew it.  I had not thrown in the towel on the race but knew I was falling out of contention.  I redoubled my mental effort to make sure I would not miss any of my nutrition because I had stopped paying attention.  In hindsight, I think I came off the bike in fairly good shape.  Perhaps a little worse for wear but I had ridden at least two hours well below my training levels so even if it was hot, my legs were a bit “rested” compared to what I had prepared them to do.

Sitting in the changing tent as I slid on my shoes, first one and then the other hamstring cramped up.  I would have fallen out of the chair had it not been for a kindly volunteer who suggested that I “rub that charlyhorse real good” before standing.  In addition to advice, he supported my whole left side by putting his hand on my arm to balance me back onto the chair.  Someone handed me an ice-cold towel that I draped over my head and neck and held in place with my visor.  With that, I hobbled out of the transition convinced that within 15 minutes, a little running would work out the kinks.  I wasn’t leading, but I was still in the race and ready to go.  At this point, I was no longer in control of my destiny.  I was counting on at least some of the people who had passed me on the bike to blow up on the run.

In the conflict with the elements, it was a genuine drama.

I saw evidence everywhere, and ignored it, that the drama would likely turn tragic.  There were people sitting in the aid stations.  Ambulances and golf carts littered the course.  Before I turned the corner to come into the first aid station as I passed through mile 11 or 12, I watched a woman hold onto a mailbox and vomit Gatorade all over the road.  Several professionals were walking.  Almost immediately I found it difficult to talk in the aid stations.  I couldn’t ask for what I wanted and resorted to nodding and pointing.  After peeing on the bike course around the 75 mile mark, I didn’t have to go again until mile 17 of the run course.

Despite my slow pace, I continued optimistically and with an eye on my heart rate.  At mile 14, while still in the aid station, I vomited into a garbage can.  It was an old-fashioned power-puke the likes of which I have not performed since college.  At this point irony enters the story.  Everyone around me could see what was happening, but I was oblivious.  I’ll be fine, I thought.  Just need to get going and it will sort itself out by the next aid station, I told myself.  That was the bad stuff, that wasn’t absorbing now I’ll replace it with easier to digest fluids, I dissembled.

I was in a spiral and the only question was whether or not I would make it another dozen miles before I was totally wrecked.  At this point, the walking began in earnest.  I was repeatedly dizzy anytime my heart rate went over 120 or 125.  I vomited three more times before the finish including on mile 25 when I fell down and stood up facing the wrong direction.  Thankfully other competitors were walking by and oriented me toward the library parking lot that served as a gateway to the final chute down Sherman Street.  In the contest between man and nature, nature won handily.

Man Versus Himself

Before it was all over, my performance had sunk past comedy, rocketed through tragedy and settled on farce.  My body was not in revolt so much as shutdown.  The swim and the bike had brought my systems to a subsistence level of operation.  As long as I didn’t overdo things, I would be able to ingest and absorb just enough to keep going.  The double cramps in the changing tent were evidence of how thin the line was between performance and packing it in.  The vomiting depleted all reserves and from that point I couldn’t absorb electrolytes or sugars fast enough to compensate for my metabolism in the heat, let alone for any sort of running.

My mind would wander but it kept coming back to fundamental questions about the next mile, the next aid station, the next…

I played games to keep focus.  My watch kept a running tally of the pace of the current mile.  I would walk until it got up to 15 minute miles and then run the pace down as far as I could.  Several times I got it down to the 11 minute range before my vision narrowed or I had to puke again.  When I discovered that the “dizzy zone” was a heart rate in the 120s, I’d go as far as I could to see if I could hit 126 without a problem, then 127, then, suddenly, I couldn’t.

I held out affection for the mile markers like a starving man desperate for food.  I was actually running and in control of everything when I came upon the 20 mile marker.  I was so upset that I had somehow gone right past 19 without noticing it that I slowed to a walk, incredulous that I had missed 19 which I had so been looking forward to seeing.  My emotions were all over the map — literally I was veering toward a dark mood because I had been  looking forward to a sign and now wouldn’t see it.  I had invested in that sign.

I wanted to see the finish arch.  Fears surfaced that I haven’t really addressed, ever.  My mind was at once delicate — careening from this idea to that, losing focus and finding insight — and fearsomely devoted.  I felt compelled to finish.  No one I loved would care if I walked off the course.  But I cared.  It mattered to me.  I didn’t want to fail in what I had started.  I wanted to be an example of perseverance for my children.  I had trained for seven months to race, to compete, by God I was at least going to finish upright.

In the biggest battle of the day, I dueled with myself.  In that way, I was doomed to lose but through the effort and willingness to accept the darkest, most difficult elements eventually came out on top.

I found that finish arch.  In fact, I raced down the final eight blocks at a pace that I had not seen since the first mile of the marathon.  Upon reaching the goal, I indulged in a smile — not of relief, rather it was a base joy — and summersaulted across the line.

Whereupon I was soon escorted to the medical tent and monitored because as one friend later described it, I was “delirious” and totally “out of it.”

Next up — My body performed a virtual circus of weird behaviors.  Details to follow in a future post.  From tingling in my teeth and feet, to spasms and convulsions — I was a mess.


You Did Good, Papa. I Got a Chipper Sandwich, See?

I went to Idaho last weekend.  Like previous Ironman experiences, it was big and grand and memorable.  I was fit.  I was ready.  I was excited.  The race didn’t turn out how I wanted.  There were good aspects, but mostly, I bombed out.

After traveling all day and night Monday and then working on Tuesday, I rode straight to the tribe’s diving meet after work.  I was behind schedule and as it turned out, arrived too late.  It stung.  It was a totally avoidable mistake.

The pool sits atop a hill.  It is an eighth of a mile and about a seven percent grade to get up the hill.  I churned with all that I had to drag my aching body and my commuter bike up that hill.  At the top, I rode straight to the fence, peered through and saw that there were teenagers diving already.  I was too late.  And, I was dizzy so I layed down right there in the driveway.

I’m not sure how long I sprawled on the asphalt.  I was disappointed and sweaty and mad and, I was dizzy.  Tobias came out.  He played with my helmet and the blinky light.  Then he announced, “You did good, Papa.”

There was a pause.  I asked what he meant.  I had missed his dives.  I had barely gotten around the second loop of the run in Coeur d’Alene.  He held the pause.  Finally I opened my eyes and he held up his ice cream treat.  “I got a chipper sandwich, see?  And, you did good.  We saw you do a summersault at the end.  Mama laughed.  It was funny.”

It was worth it.  Every painful step.