Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Triumph of the Spirit, A Failure of the Kidneys (or: The self-indulgent boastings of an Ironman)

(Note: This one is written just as much for my own record as it is to share with the masses. I hope you read it/enjoy it/pass it on, but I know that most people have better things to do than read through this whole thing. Here's the short version: I did an Ironman. It was pretty tough, but I crossed the finish line.)

3.8km swim
180km bike
42.2 km run

It may have been smug of me to feel prepared for numbers like those, but at that point if I couldn't tell myself I was ready then I might as well have gone back to bed. It was 5:30 on race day morning, and as I walked into transition to get suited up, Sarah asked me if it felt surreal. "Not really," I said with a shrug. "I've put my time in and this has been a gradual process. Feels pretty appropriate, to be honest with you."

I don't think either of us totally believed that, but we were happy to live the lie.

I walked solo into transition to scurry among the field full of racked and ready bikes with my peers for the day: 2,499 emaciated-looking athletes sporting the bare minimum of body hair, and then yours truly. I fit right in. With Phish in my ear phones I was able to zone out and pretend to check on my bike ("Yup, that looks tight..let me just wiggle this around...better spin the wheel again, just to make sure") until I wandered over to meet Max.

Max is a close friend from my days in Victoria. He and I started doing tris at around the same time, exchange e-mails about training in the off-season and race together whenever we can. And by "race together" what I mean is that we start the race standing side-by-side and then Max waits for me at the finish line, showered, wearing street clothes, having eaten dinner and gotten in a light post-race workout.

We finished checking our bikes and dropping off our transition bags (bike and run gear that we would change into when needed) and, along with our co-competitors, made our way through the funnel of assembling spectators and towards the start line
like pigs to the slaughter in a sacred act of pilgrimage.

An ironman mass start is really quite something. I would call what happens once the gun goes off "organized chaos", but in Max's words "rats escaping from a sinking ship" might be a little more apt. Here's a video of our race I borrowed from YouTube:

The gun goes off at thirty seven seconds. This was shot from right around where I started my swim, so feel free to play "Where's Waldo" and try to find me, even though I don't know if I'm in the video.

I started my swim wide, wanting to avoid the massive congestion, shoving and clawing which occur as people try to swim on the inside of the loop (it's a two-lap, rectangular course). After a few minutes I knew that going wide would not make for a good swim, as I was in a mass of spray and limbs and having a tough time spotting the buoys to orient myself. I moved over to get a little bit closer, and soon found myself staring at the buoy cable right underneath me, which meant that I was as far to the inside as possible and right in the war zone. I readied my elbows and prepared for a physical two laps.

Despite my willingness to drop the gloves, however, I found my swim counter-intuitively peaceful. Oh, I got kicked, scratched, yelled at and shoved, but for the most part it was easy to maintain a steady rhythm, with only occasional disruptions and contact. It was a soothing thing, being able to take ownership of my swim and steadily glide along amidst the bedlam surrounding me. Progress was marked by the fading of the announcer's voice as I swam out the long side of each loop's rectangle and its increasing volume as I made my way back in. One hour and twenty two minutes was almost exactly what I had been hoping for, so I was feeling good as I had my wetsuit stripped off by a volunteer and made my way to transition, grabbing my run gear and ducking into the changing tent.

Feeling good getting out of the water. Rod MacIvor photo. (If you want cool pictures of your Ironman, I highly recommend having a step father with media credentials and extensive photojournalism experience.)

I hope to God that the inside of that changing tent is the closest I ever come to a combat hospital. It was dark, it was muggy and there were body parts all over the place. I was still a little dizzy from the swim, and to add to the confusion people were shouting their numbers out so that volunteers could run and get their bikes. At one point I just sat down and laughed for a few seconds, taking in the absurdity into which I had wedged myself.

I had been looking forward to the bike. My training rides in the Rocky Mountains (Boulder was the ideal place to live while training) had been exercises in the epic and sublime, and had put me in a good place to hammer through North America's hilliest Ironman course. The rain came down hard during the first forty-five minutes or so, but it let up by the time I had made the ten kilometer descent into Keene on lap one, leaving us with cloudy skies and little wind. Ideal racing weather.

Like the swim before it and the run after it, the bike was a two-loop affair. This is great psychologically, as it allows the athletes (and me) to think of each distance in smaller increments. It also means the bike course goes through town twice, at which points we pass amidst the thousands of fans, locals and revelers who have assembled.

Right. The fans. Sarah and my sister had rallied the troops in a big way, and I was equal parts humbled, motivated and confused by the pack of 40-strong who sported the red t-shirts and held cutouts of my head on sticks all day.

The Shouldice/Hart/MacIvor families (both immediate and extended) and family friends. The Fitzpatricks represented in equal numbers, and also had the best tailgate party of Ironman day, according to the local paper.

A close-up of the t-shirt design, courtesy of my sister's immensely talented friend Emily Chen.

The bike ride is a long and solitary endeavour, so knowing that I would have warm faces and familiar voices waiting for me in town was a much-needed boost as the winds picked up and I grimaced my way through the winding, rolling Wilmington notch and started the final 15km climb back into town on each lap. Approaching the village I was fully in my glory on the "Papa Bear" hill at the end of both laps, yelling "That's right, baby!" as I kept a high cadence and blasted my way up and through a narrow valley created by the thick line of spectators on both sides of the road. I passed a good chunk of other riders on the first time up especially, but knew full well they would probably catch up to me once the course leveled out (lap 1) or we started the run (lap 2).

Everything you read about Ironman racing - especially on a course as hilly as Lake Placid - says to not go too hard on the bike. There's no sense being a hot shot on the bike, as the conventional wisdom goes, and having nothing left in the tank for the run. While that advice holds true, I know now that, Papa Bear notwithstanding, I was too conservative on the bike. My rides in and around Boulder had gotten me used to climbing, and I knew I wasn't going to be strong on the run anyway, so there would have been no harm in leaving a little more on the course. My time of seven hours, forty-five minutes was slower than I had been hoping for, but I was feeling alright physically and mentally as I pulled into the transition at the end of my ride. I was a little over nine hours into my race.

I had stopped to pee two or three times on the bike, in addition to slow-downs for food at any of the five aid stations along each loop, and one much-needed stop at an ambulance for safety pins after a wardrobe malfunction had left me a little more exposed than I would have preferred. Fortunately, I had thus far avoided the dreaded "sloshing" of excess fluid in the stomach, so I was striking a good balance. The nutrition part of the day can be a challenge, as taking in enough fluids and calories is hugely important, but it is almost equally important to not take in too many and risk cramping or vomiting (both of which are common sites along the course). After another port-a-potty stop in transition, I exited the oval and started the marathon.

Here again, crowd support was huge. My legs were feeling strong but certainly not fresh, so to have my crew on both sides of the street giving me huge love while I emerged from the tent and started off was, well, necessary. I can not overstate what a tangible difference they made at every encounter.

My plan of running for the first 5k before taking a walking break went great for the first kilometer or so. My then-modified plan of walking at the aid stations (which were found at every one mile, or one-point-eight km) and running between them was also highly successful for the first thousand meters or so before falling apart.

So it didn't take long to realize that the tank was running low, and what had started as a comfortable jog out of transition had turned into a run/walk relying heavily on inertia. I had envisioned a daylight finish, trotting into the stadium with a respectable marathon time and a bona fide sense of accomplishment. Instead, I had to accept the reality that I would be among the stragglers; a late-in-the-day finisher whose time on race day was perhaps not a fair representation of the training hours spent getting to the finish line. I took solace, though, as the kilometers slowly faded by, in knowing that even if I walked pretty much the whole marathon, I would still be in by the midnight cutoff. My goal for the run then changed again, this time to a simple binary rule: never, ever stop moving forward. No matter how slow I was going, how much of a joke my run had become, there was no way I was going to stop putting one foot in front of the other. I was tired, demoralized and more than a little pissed off, but the decision to not stop at all gave me the sense that one small part of the day was still entirely within my control. Let the death march begin.

Back into town as I finished the first marathon loop, and the red army was still out in force, propping me up in a big way. By that time they had been supporting me for thirteen solid hours. Jesus. These people were out there all day to cheer me on, yet the total time they saw me was less than five minutes. Heroes.

Partly to convince them (and myself) that I was feeling strong, and partly to take advantage of the boost they provided, I ran my way into and out of town. I probably should have stopped to say hello, but I wanted to make hay while the sun was shining, so to speak, so I used their energy to dial up the speed a little bit as I headed out of town.

The second half of the run was almost entirely a walk. The sun had set, and with only the slower folks left on the course things got cold and lonely, although the camaraderie between the athletes was at its peak in these darkest hours, and the later it got the more I appreciated every single spectator and volunteer who was sticking with us. Literally every single one was making a difference at that point. My lightweight running gear was damp with the evening dew and the remnants of the afternoon's sweat against my skin as a bright Adirondack moon rose above the River Road.

The day remained a privilege, even at its most punishing.

I refused the emergency blanket offered to me by race officials as I plodded along. Sure I was cold, but taking the blanket seemed like a tacit acceptance that I had stopped putting in any speed-related effort. While that may have been the case, I didn't want to admit it by donning a tin foil cape.

Max and my cousin (in-law) Marc appeared on their bikes and found me on a particularly desolate stretch of the run. Max had done the bike in a little over five hours and run a ridiculous three fifteen marathon to finish in 10:07. That's not a typo: he ran 3:15 - just five minutes off the Boston qualifying time for our age group - after averaging 34 km/h on the bike over 180km. Think about that for a second. It's absurd.

They had come to make sure I was feeling alright and offer a bit of solidarity. I was grateful for the company, and Max humoured me as we compared notes and pretended we had been a part of the same event. After some idle chatting, and once I had milked the distraction for all I felt it was useful for, I sent them on their way.

"Thanks boys. I'll take it from here."

I dialed it up a bit after they pedaled away, and I started looking more like a power-walker circling the mall than a trauma patient regaining the use of my legs. It was all about the small victories at this point.

As I approached within 5km of the finish, I knew a hell of a party was waiting for me. The Ironman organization is a well-oiled machine, and one of the things they do best is make sure there is a pumped and rocking crowd waiting for those athletes who need the support the most at the end of the day. I could hear the music as I approached, and Dance Mix '95 never sounded so good. I made my way along the village roads, striding over top of a day's worth of gel wrappers and paper cups discarded by the swifter afoot. The streets ran sticky with sports drinks and orange peels.

No way I was going to walk into that stadium, so with about 2km left I discovered some untapped reserves and cruised along Mirror Lake Drive towards the finish line at the outdoor speed skating oval, where they set up temporary bleachers every year. It was overwhelming, after the darkness and isolation of the marathon, to be amidst bright lights, cranking music and literally thousands of people. But damn if it wasn't a glorious confusion, and damn it felt good to be a rock star. I was crossing the finish line of an Ironman. And while the time wasn't what I had hoped for, my race had long ago become a yes-or-no undertaking.

Yes, indeed

After I grabbed my medal, finisher's hat, t-shirt and two slices of pizza that were clearly baked in the oven of God and delivered by angels, Sarah - who had found me right away - led me to the rest of the crew. There were handshakes and hugs all-around, and I don't know that I have ever felt a deeper moment-specific sense of gratitude than I did just then. Training for and "competing" in an Ironman are such self-indulgent endeavours that the extent to which they can be glorified is a little much. That having been said, knowing that I had those people in my corner every second of the day lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of accountability. As I said, the difference it made to my day was tangible and I milked for everything I could, both mentally and physically.

With the dust settling I collected my bike and transition bags and started walking, entourage in tow, up the hill to my old friend Jon's apartment above
The Bookstore Plus where we were staying. I was feeling relaxed and lucid, though starting to shiver a little, and pretty much everyone - myself included - was relieved that I wasn't among those whose day ended in the medical tent or the back of an ambulance. That being said, my sister knew I wasn't quite out of the woods.

"Hart, when was the last time you peed?"

"Uuhhh...the second transition, I guess. So about six hours ago But don't worry, I've had lots to drink."

As an emergency room doctor with a background in sports medicine, Elizabeth knew that the combination of sixteen hours of physical activity, high fluid intake and lack of urine output meant that I could be in trouble. She kept her cool, but immediately sent her partner Jordan to buy as much Gatorade as Bazzi's Pizza could sell him by law.

And so I sat at the kitchen table while a select few watched me pound five sports drinks and a little water with the intent of flushing out my system. Before long I was in the bathroom, and despite my sister's warnings I was a little taken aback at how much my urine looked like blood. The reason it looked like blood, of course, is because it was blood (well, blood and Gatorade, I suppose). Apparently when there is so much muscle tissue breakdown in one day the tissue can clog the kidneys and the kidneys can start to fail, which is what had happened to me. I was fine after flushing them out (though I felt fine before then, too, which is a little concerning), and am grateful that my sister was on the ball.

With my kidneys back in action I hit the pillow.

Ironman number one: check.

I've had mixed feelings reflecting back on the day, and the months of training that led up to it. In some ways I let myself down, in others I pushed myself immeasurably beyond where my thresholds of endurance and self-doubt were years, or even months or weeks before the race. I feel an immense sense of pride in finishing, and yet feel a little sheepish at even taking it on.

We're a funny people, North Americans. When we're short on suffering, we orchestrate it ourselves. Then the especially ludicrous among us invite people to watch us grunt our way through it, following which we blog about it as if it is some noble thing to swim, bike and run until your kidneys fail (alright, so that part does make me feel hard core). When you think about it, the whole thing is a little ridiculous.

Which is why perhaps my proudest Ironman-related accomplishment is not the race itself, but the fact that I largely kept it in perspective. I made a very conscious decision early on - right from the moment I signed up, bankrolled in my registration as a graduation present from my Mom - that I would not mortgage my life to this thing. Of course I made sacrifices - it would be physically impossible for anyone with family obligations and a full time job to not sacrifice things and still finish the race - but I also skipped workouts when required to maintain my identity and sanity. I also continually sought to remember where the race fit into the overall scheme of things. I tried to be careful not to make it sound like a chore to go out and train or have to plan my summer around the race, because at the end of the day it was one of the greatest priviliges I have known, and an experience I would not have traded for anything.

I just hope that next time my kidneys are up to the challenge.