The Road to Ironman
When I left the blog high and dry I had just finished the Gulf Coast Half Ironman Triathlon in Panama City Beach, FL and was evaluating my path to Ironman. It was about this time the pressure was mounting to an uncomfortable degree. From trying to balance my professional life with training and my personal life to maintaining a long distance relationship and finding the time to go grocery shopping and get laundry done, my life had turned into a game of straw pulling. There was simply too much going on and not enough time to get it all done. For the most part this isn't a bad problem to have but I definitely cherish my down time which was slipping away quickly so I freaked out and started cutting out superfluous activities.
The months leading up to Ironman were filled with their own challenges. Nowhere in my original training plan did I expect to spend some of my weekends driving or flying to Chicago. My plan was to follow the training to the letter, doing each of the workouts as they were meant to be done on the day they were scheduled. With all this unexpected traveling I had the stress of trying to train while in another city. Needless to say I didn't handle the stress well; fortunately for me Devra was very good at managing this balancing act and helped me work training into the visits.
Another unexpected challenge, and probably the biggest one from my angle, was burnout. My training schedule through Mark Allen (my professional coach) was demanding. In fact it was the most demanding training schedule I've ever done. It got me so well prepared that I was able to do an Ironman distance triathlon about 3 months before the actual event. And that's when it hit me.
At some point in July I crashed. And I crashed hard. The stress of managing my life and the training, though I did cut out as much as possible, got to be too much. To top that off I was peaking too early. I had enough of everything so I virtually stopped all training. I needed a mental break from all things related to Ironman because I was miserable. I was miserable because the exercise I loved doing so much caused me to start living my life on a minute-by-minute schedule. I hated it and it showed. I was becoming someone I didn't like so I had to make a change. That change was to stop my formal training and exercise when I felt like it. Changing my daily life from a minute-by-minute schedule to one where I choose what I do and when I do it. Ultimately that helped me keep a positive point of view and get through Ironman.
But burning out wasn't the only major hurdle I had to overcome. About a month before the race I moved to Chicago to be with Devra. As if I didn't have enough on my plate, I was spending time flying between Chicago and Minneapolis doing job interviews and the general move process. In all that I managed to land a job and make the move. It was a pretty stressful point but I made it.
Living in Chicago was a big shock to the process as I needed to figure everything out from scratch: where to swim, where to bike, where to run, where to meet up with people to do anything. Luckily Devra lives about 1 mile from the Lake Michigan shore and another mile from a 0.5 mile long lap lane. That solved the swim problem. Running was simple. There are plenty of running groups right in the neighborhood. Plus the lake shore makes for some excellent running.
Biking was (and still is to this day) the real challenge. Because of the congested roads and innumerable stop lights, taking my TT bike out from the house is veritable suicide. It's barely suitable for the road bike. Biking on the lake shore isn't an option either. There are countless people out there and too many sharp turns for comfort. The only option I've found so far (which is great as it turns out) is to drive up to Deerfield and start there. Biking from there and heading west I get to bike on more reasonable roads with a diverse landscape and lots of great sights.
So while Chicago didn't offer a perfect solution to my training needs I was able to find a very reasonable compromise and get in the distance I needed to get in.
As I mentioned above, a few months before race day I both physically and mentally crashed. This wasn't part of my plan but it was what it was so there was no point in getting upset about it. I just rode with the flow and took the situation as it presented itself to me.
When race weekend finally arrived the only emotion I had was relief. My personal nightmare was finally coming to an end. As for the race, the excitement of racing disappeared. After all, a few months prior to that I was literally doing the distances for training. Everyone around me was concerned because I wasn't excited like a person usually gets when getting this close to a huge event. But I knew I was going to be fine. I've done around 13 marathons, ridden 100+ miles countless times and swam a 5K (3.1 mile) distance at least 4 times to this point. The only thing I was excited about was being done with this thing.
I rode up with Devra's dad to Madison since I wanted to get there a little earlier than she could and he was headed up that day anyway. He and I had a nice car ride and I was talking about my burnout and desire to just be done with it all. He said I was in a good place and as long as I was confident in my distances and pace I'd do just fine.
The whole ride was stress free until we got to the Madison city limit. At that point it started hitting me that I was about to do an Ironman triathlon and I've been slacking for the past few months. My nerves started betraying me and I began getting really anxious.
The anxiety didn't leave when I got out of the car either. For the rest of the day through everything I was doing I had the jitters all through my body. Madison had turned into Ironman central. Everything about that town was related to Ironman: the hotels, the streets, the people walking around, the shoppes. Even the farmer's market on Saturday was centered around Ironman. All this started the wheels turning in my head that this thing was real and it was happening.
After getting settled down a bit I walked over to Monona Terrace (Ironman central) to pick up my packet. The line for packet pickup was enormous and if I've never felt so alone in a crowd this was the time for it to happen. Just then I turn around and see a handful of my friends from Minnesota that I spend the past half year training with. There's nothing like smiling faces and warm hugs to take the edge off. We all randomly showed up for packet pickup at the same time. It was a great moment and part of what made the weekend amazing.
The rest of the time leading up to the race was just relaxation. Devra showed up, we went to the farmer's market, ate some unhealthy (but delicious) food, walked around a lot, shopped, dropped the bike off to transition as well as my T1 and T2 bags, visited a local tea store for an in-house tea experience, had a great pre-race dinner and slept the night away (thankfully). All this leads us to what I've been training for since January:
For some reason my anxiety left me. Mentally I ran through this day hundreds of times from the start of the swim to crossing the finish line. In my mind I started and finished this race so many times I felt like I had really already done it. Maybe that's part of what lead me to my burnout. Regardless, this morning the anxiety left and I was just there. A job needed to be done and I knew I could do it. There was no question or concern. I would show up, do it and wear my medal proudly.
Devra woke up with me and she and I walked over to body marking where she proceeded to mark me for the race. There were thousands of athletes, all ready to take on the task at hand, and the anxiety was palpable. You could practically cut it with a knife. There were people freaking out and others just lying calmly waiting for cannon to go off. Fortunately I was one of the calm guys.
Devra walked with me for a bit until it was time to part ways: her to the VIP section, me to the swim start. I met up with some of my friends and we all made the slow march over to the swim start.
The morning was perfect. A nice cool breeze headlined a beautiful sunrise and the start to a very long day. My friends and I were making the long and slow march to the swim start. There was so many people trying to dump into the water that our progress was reduced to a slow shuffle. With 10 minutes until the official race start for us, we heard the cannon go off to start the pros. At that moment some guy was cutting through the crowd of athletes in a panic. In fact he was moving so fast he stepped on my foot as he was pushing me out of the way. He kept yelling: "I missed my start. I missed my start."
Turns out this was one of the pros and he didn't make the swim start. After a good laugh my friends and I felt much better about our situation.
As is customary they played the national anthem. The guy in front of us was singing it and it normally would have made me a bit testy except for the sign we saw on his swim shirt: "BLIND ATHLETE". That made me pause and consider what I was doing. All the problems, all the burnout, all the time I spent training for this thing. And here was a guy getting set to do an Ironman triathlon and he couldn't even see it. The sunrise, the water, the athlete all around him. Nothing. It really makes you stop and reflect when you see someone with a challenge like that accomplish something like this. We "normal" people have all the cards in our hand and exault ourselves when we accomplish the mission. Here's a guy who is doing exactly what we're doing but with one of the biggest disadvantages a person can have. Now THAT is a true Ironman.
After the national anthem they started playing the usual start song to the Ironman: U2's Beautiful Day. My friends and I looked at each other and all had the same thought: This is OUR beautiful day.
With only moments to spare we got into the water, quickly lost sight of each other in the crowd, and found our spot. And then: BOOOOMMM. Ironman Wisconsin 2010 officially began.
There's really nothing I think a person can do to get ready for a swim like that. There was so many bodies in the water that getting into a horizontal position to swim was nearly impossible without kicking someone or being kicked yourself. The Ironman swim is as much (if not more) mental as it is physical. You have to train yourself (and luckily I did) mentally to face the unexpected without losing your head. The swim consisted of a lot of stop-and-go as I'd swim into people, swim around people and get swum into. Beyond that it was two uneventful loops.
What made it fun was when I got out of the water. As I got out I noticed my two friends immediately ahead of me. We all finished the swim at essentially the same time (yes, I was the last of the three of us). But we got to share the third transition together. It was a blast running up that spiral with them. So ended the swim portion. I consider the swim a success because I was in no way winded for the rest of my day.
Admittedly this was the part I was most nervous about. And if I don't miss my guess it's the part most people get nervous about. After all, it's the longest part of the race by far and it contains the most amount of uncontrollable variables: the weather, road conditions, flats, other mechanical problems, etc.
The bike, other than long, was uneventful. I was smart about my pacing, remembering that I still had a marathon to run. I was also smart (at least I thought) about my nutrition. I drank plenty of the Ironman replacement drink and had a peanut butter & jelly sandwich in my special needs bag. As I was about to find out though, the Ironman replacement drink is barely more valuable than urine.
And then it happened. My perfect day started its quick decline into Hell. After a very successful swim and bike I was in the home stretch: 26.2 miles, two loops and then into the food tent I go. I've run in thirteen or so marathons by this point in my life and had no concern about this one. I started feeling great, like I do at the start of any marathon. But it wasn't even half way into Mile 1 that I noticed something was off.
My stomach wasn't draining. My stomach had so much fluid in it that I was uncomfortable keeping a slight jog. And it wouldn't drain. No matter what I did. I ruled out all the usual suspects: sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes because I was drinking the Ironman replacement drink on the bike course. It couldn't be a blood sugar issue. I took care of that with the things I ate on the bike. What was it?!
There was an aid station at each mile and I was trying one thing at each to figure it out. I tried water at one, chicken broth at another, oranges and another. I kept going down the line but nothing was working. The first thirteen miles were like this until I met up with a very smart person. He told me it was indeed sodium and that the Ironman replacement drink was crap. He gave me a few packets of salt and told me to slam those and drink no water. I did what he said, slammed the salt packets and waited.
Within 20 minutes my stomach cleared and I was back in the game. It took me thirteen miles to figure out what I should have known right away. In the mean time I got passed by all my friends and was on track to having the worst marathon of my life. But that didn't matter. I was on on track to being an Ironman triathlete.
Eventually I managed to increase my pace and catch up with a few of my friends. Some I never saw and they did indeed kick my butt. However, the one friend I met up with kept me on track and he and I crossed the finish line together.
Crossing the finish line of an Ironman triathlon is unlike anything I've ever done. The energy surrounding that last quarter mile is incomparable. There are people everywhere yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs. The music is blaring and there's large screens all over so people can watch you finish.
By mile 140.4 you've got 0.2 miles left and at that moment in time you don't feel your body any more. The energy of the crowd pulls you in. And then, in that last glorious stretch, you round the corner and see it spelled out in huge, red letters: FINISH. It's in this moment you know that 9 months of training has won you the day. 9 months of sacrificing, 9 months of emotional and physical roller coasters. Of balancing work and life with sport. All of it. It all rolls up into one moment. This moment. This moment when you cross the finish line and hear Mike Reilly yell:
"Jim Sheldon. You... are... AN IRONMAN!!!"
And just like that I have a new title. I'm a brother, a son, a friend, a boyfriend. I'm an underwriter, a teacher, a scholar, a mathematician, a volunteer. I'm also a runner, a marathoner, an ultra marathoner, a swimmer, a cyclist, and a triathlete. And now. I'm an Ironman.
After the high of the race subsided I went into virtual seclusion from exercising. I've done a few long runs and long bikes but at the end of the day I'm done training. It's time to focus on other aspects of my life. I need to focus on my new job, learn a new city, and grow together with my woman. 2011 will definitely be filled with races but I think I need to step away from Ironman for a while. I'm sure there'll be more in my future but for now I need to refocus and maybe get back to my roots.
So far 2011 has me doing the IL marathon in April. Other potential races include the Cincinnati Flying Pig marathon, Door County triathlon and Breakwater triathlon. I'm going to sign up for the lottery for the Escape from Alcatraz tri as well. We'll see how that goes.
More on 2011 as it happens.
But this is what took me two months to write. An now, it's off to the next adventure.