Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Wheels Fall Off (Part 3 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

This is part 3 of 3 of a series on my race at IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton. Disclosure: I did not receive any form of compensation for mentioning certain products in this posting. 

Part 1: Getting to the Start Line
Part 2: On Pace


I dismount. My first steps off the bike are reassuring. The slight cramp sensations in my hamstrings from removing my feet from my cycling shoes are temporary. They faded for the time being just moments after they began 100 meters from the dismount line of the bike course. My calf, hugged by a black compression sleeve, feels normal as I dash to the opposite side of transition to rack my bike. Caution, however, still shields it from the violent force of a normal stride. When I reach my spot in transition, I quickly rack my bike, place my black, Specialized helmet on the handlebars, and insert my feet, one after the other, into a pair of socks, then into my running shoes. The elastic Xtenex laces in my running shoes make shoelace tying obsolete. I simply yank on the ends, and the series of small knots in the laces catch on the shoe eyelets at the exact right tightness.

I pass under the "Run Out" arch. The force incurred during each foot strike comes with a special delivery of confidence, sent directly to my brain. Each step provides a bit more then the previous. Only a few hundred meters into the run, I feel strong and energized. My pace gradually dips close to 6:15 per mile. 

I hit the first aid station. Prior to the race, I completely abandoned the thought of trying UCAN Superstarch in a running flask again. Did I not want to carry the flask? Was UCAN not effective? No and no. I knew I entered the race in a sub-optimal state of fitness. The previous six weeks, as I mentioned in Part 2, were a complete logistical nightmare. There was zero stability. Combine that with Princeton being my last race, wanting to have a good performance in front of my family, and the goal of qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships (which I significantly tempered once our moving calendar became clearer). I'm usually one who tries to strike the balance between health and performance. That got thrown out the window today. 

"Water and two cokes," I call out at the first aid station. I dump the first cup of water over my head and proceed through the buffet line of fuel source options to grab two cups of Coke. Water and Coke worked for me in my last half-Ironman in North Carolina where I placed 2nd in my age group. I stick to that same strategy, at first by choice, later by absolute necessity. 

I feel some tightness in my quads. I definitely pushed the pace on the bike, but never felt I was overly smashing the pedals. It's a similar sensation to the one I felt coming off the bike in North Carolina. With some quickly absorbed fuel early in the run, I figure the tightness will work itself out, just like it has in the past. 

Around the mile 2 mark I find out that's not going to be the case today. I ease up slightly, contemplating a quick stop to stretch, hoping it would help relieve the tightness. Wrong decision. Horrible decision. Both sets of quads seized up simultaneously. Cramps grab hold of each with a vise-like grip. I can't relax them. A loud howl exits my cringing face. Both are stuck in a contracted state. The pain is excruciating, like two knives that have stabbed each. Bent over, I use my thumb to apply as much pressure as possible to each thigh, slowly digging into the muscle to trigger its release. 

It's the most unpleasant and painful deep tissue massage I've ever had. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last one that day.

As I'm slowly loosening my thigh muscles, I hear fellow athletes offer words of encouragement as they run by. It's helpful, but I'm still annoyed with the ground I'm losing, and to one athlete in particular. All of a sudden I hear an audible jumble of words that I can't quite make out, but includes the word "bike." I look up, it's the fellow 25-29 age grouper I sparred with on the bike course. I insert my own version of the rest of his statement: "Shouldn't have gone so hard on the bike." 

It lights a match under me. After a minute or two, I finally work out the cramps to a point where I can resume running. My focus narrows to one goal: pass that one athlete. Seeing his stride as he passed me, I know I'm a much better runner. I just need to hold off these cramps for a little while longer. 

Not long after relief arrives in my quads, I feel a lingering, inevitable pain in my right calf. Instead of walking, which I told myself before the race that I would only do as a very last resort, I modified my stride to a less impactful gliding-like gait instead of my typical stride with more pronounced knee-drive and back-kick. Even so, I still manage to work my way further into the field of athletes ahead of me. 

A mile before the end of the first loop, marking the midway point, I'm within striking distance of my goal. He's been in my sights the previous three miles. I've slowly chipped away at his time advantage. We exit one of the park's trails and onto the main access road. I come up on his left, pausing for a few steps to run alongside him. I glance over, look directly at him, then accelerate slightly to pass him. I don't look back.

Barricades lining the road slowly come into few, draped with repeated logos of Training Peak, Tacx, TIMEX and other IRONMAN partners. My eyes dart back and forth to try and spot my family. They are standing along the right side of the road, somewhat spread out, to offer more smaller doses of encouragement rather than all at once. As I round the left turn to enter the second loop, I shoot a thumbs up sign to my wife and dad. I'm feeling okay.

Long before I made it to this point, I transformed the run course in my mind from a daunting 13.1 mile slog, to a series of one mile repeats. I focus only on running to the next aid station, located about one mile beyond the previous. When I think about the half-marathon in smaller segments, it seems much more manageable. "Just get to the next aid station," becomes my mantra. For a while, it works.

I pass through another aid station, taking water and Coke, which has become standard protocol. It's been five miles since the cramps struck like two lightning bolts. I'm still gliding along, and actually feel optimistic about holding off any more cramps. Just a few minutes after the thought, though, the cramps strike again. The agonizing pain once again shoots through my quads. They seize up. I yell. Once again, it's time to apply as much pressure as possible with my fingers to relax the contracted muscles. Under my grip, beneath the skin, I feel the lively flurry of out of control muscle spasms.

Frustration returns to my thoughts. Cardiovascularly I feel 100 percent fine. It's like my legs won't work how I want them too. They feel totally disconnected from how I'm mentally and aerobically feeling. "And all the people I just worked so hard to pass are now all passing me," I think to myself. It takes a few moments longer this time then the previous to work things out. But, I do. I'm moving again.

A mile and a half up the road, more cramps. Same story. I give up my goal of beating that one fellow age grouper, who since passed me for the second time. It's all about finishing now, however I can. The cramps would come with greater frequency during the second half of the run. I stop five times in all, including one right next to an aid station, and another less than a mile from the finish line. I don't care how often they come, though, I'm determined to run when I can, and finish the race on my terms, giving it ever ounce of mental and physical effort I have left in my body.

I pass the 12 mile sign. The finish feels within reach. I stop once more because of a cramp, just steps from my family. I'm sure they see the pure agony on my face. I grit my teeth, and with a grimace on my face, a limp in my gait, and my cousin running alongside me for the final half mile, I complete the most brutal and painful triathlon I've ever done. 

I cross the finish line with a brief moment of disappointment on my mind. I had ambitious expectations coming into this race, and my five hour and nine minute finish time didn't even come close to them. Instead of proceeding directly through the finish corral after the finish line, I take a few moments to myself, to reflect on the previous five hours, mostly the past hour of torture. The disappointment quickly fades, though, when I see my cousin's two young boys, one three and the other seven. I know perseverance in the face of adversity is a valuable lesson. I hope I played at least some role in helping them understand that lesson. And that's the "win" I choose to leave the race with. 

Run Split: 1:52:48

Finish Time: 5:09:01 (19th in 25-29 age group / 147 overall)  


Stuff happens. Life intervenes. Every race is not always going to be a personal best. Things will go wrong. Stress influences performance much more than we think. Did I have ambitious goals for the race? Absolutely. Do I wish I raced better? No question. Do I know I can race better? Heck yea. But, will there be another race? Yes. Did I learn something from the race? Hand down, without a doubt. Did I experience something during the race I've never experience before? Will these experiences make me a better athlete? A better coach? A better husband? A better person? Emphatically, yes. 

It makes me think of a quote from the movie Life as a House, "Sometimes things happen for a reason. Something bad to force something good." It's all about perspective and finding the good in everything we do and experience. I just finished reading an amazing book, The Obstacle is the Way (stay tuned for a new blog on it), and if anything captures how I feel looking back on the race it's this:

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” 

My story of IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton is one of grit, persistence, and knowing I gave the race what I honestly and truthfully had on that day. I fought through pain. I raced with the unknown of how an injury would hold up, and it turned out okay. I toed the start line even when I could have easily backed out of the race, whether because of moving or injury. I learned something about myself that day. I explored an unknown part of me. I experienced something new and unforgettable in this magical, unpredictable, and sometimes unrelenting world of ours. 

And that's a win. And I'm grateful for it.

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