Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ironman Cabo 2014 Race Report


I was under pressure the morning of Ironman Los Cabos — pressure beyond the standard Ironman race-day pressure.   

I needed to swim like a respectable member of Team Every Man Jack — for once.  

————————————  

Back in 2011, before I accepted Ritch Viola’s invitation to join Team Every Man Jack, I considered myself to be a passable Ironman-distance swimmer.  And by that, I mean that I could dive into an ocean or a lake and do things with my arms and legs that propelled me forward for 2.4 miles.    

But whatever.  I was pretty proud of my swimming ability.  When I learned to swim 10 years ago, I could only swim half-way across a 25 yard pool.  I would walk the rest of the way.   So finishing any triathlon swim was a gargantuan improvement.

But expectations change over the years, and at team camp in 2012, Ritch sized up my swimming skills relative to the other guys on the team with the following words:

“Sooo… Steve, you need to head down to Lane 8.” 

"Lane 8?  I wonder where that is?" I thought, too embarrassed to ask.

But being a quick study, I found Lane 8 without much trouble — because, walking up to the pool, it was obvious that the crappy swimmers were precisely 8 lanes to the left of the good swimmers. 

Lane 1 is where the best swimmers flow through the water effortlessly with speed and rhythm.  Lane 1 is where Ritch, the collegiate All-American swims.  Lane 1 is where one of the top women pros, Meredith Kessler, swims.     

In the swimmer world, instead of people insulting you by calling you “slow", they euphemistically refer to you as “Lane 8.”  And on this team, Mike Hardy and I were the only two people in Lane 8.

We weren't bitter about being “Lane 8.”  It just was what it was.  Relative to the other guys on this elite team, we swam slowly.    

And it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to watch us.  

And we could be a little hazardous to others swimming nearby.  

Ok, in truth, I’m pretty sure that Lane 8 was created to provide a safety buffer between the great swimmers in Lane 1 and us spastic, limb-throwers.  

And in case you think I’m exaggerating the danger bad swimmers pose to others — we in Lane 8 barely know how to flip-turn (one of the most basic skills in pool swimming).  And when we do utilize this skill, we sometimes get so disoriented halfway through the underwater-flip-and-corkscrew-move that we (mostly me, I’ll admit) either miss the wall entirely, or, God forbid, push off into oncoming traffic.  

When I first learned to flip-turn, I became so disoriented on one occasion that I pushed off the wall and torpedoed someone in a completely different lane.  

That never happens in Lane 1 — I’m pretty sure.   

So, to spare myself a certain amount of embarrassment and for the safety of other swimmers, up until January of 2014, I swam alone in a pool near my house — a pool where I am the fastest swimmer. 

Well, I’m the fastest except for maybe this one budding Olympian.  But his VO2 max is off the charts.  When his “swim coach” drops him into the pool about 10 feet from the edge, the little guy goes under for a second and then he practically levitates himself like a hovercraft, screaming in terror while he doggie paddles for his life.  

Dude’s going to be something when he turns four.  

In February of 2014, I decided that something had to be done about my stagnant swimming ability.  I needed to train differently.  And I didn’t think that the lady in the "swim coach” wetsuit had the right training plan for a long-course triathlete.

I screwed up my courage and joined the Team EMJ Sunday swim workouts.  

So for the two months prior today’s race, I had spent 90 minutes every Sunday with my heart jack-hammering in Zone 4, staving off drowning in Lane 8.  Some say I survived by being last into the pool and the first person out — a “LIFO” swimmer, Ritch called me.  

Last In, First Out.  But at least I was there.   

The work had helped, I thought.  I was definitely getting faster in the pool.  But the real test was here today at Ironman Los Cabos where I hoped to post a swim time under an hour and six minutes.    

But I had a bad feeling...  

-----------------------------------------   

IM Cabo Race Day:

6:30 a.m. — about 10 minutes before the pro start.  

Standing on the beach watching the already-hot sun rise over the ocean, I crawled into my lucky ROKA wetsuit and spit into my American-flag colored goggles. 

Hanging out near bunch of stressed-out triathletes was making me antsy, so I figured I’d try some of this pre-race visualization/meditation that coaches talk about.  

Staring at the ocean, I tried to imagine the swim start and visualized myself swimming like a dolphin until I wound up back on shore, sprinting through T1.  

Unfortunately, my transcendental state was interrupted by the needs of my bladder.   

The Porta Potties were too far away, so I sauntered into the water, about waist-deep, pretending to go for a practice swim.  The spectacular sunrise distracted the guys and girls standing around me while I peed in my wetsuit.  

I stood there in the warm, yellowing, Sea of Cortez and I visualized the run through T1.  I saw myself grabbing my blue transition bag, running to the big, white changing tent and…  

...and my teammate, James Duff walked up and broke the spell.  

“Hey Steve!  How’s it going?”    

It’s difficult to feel anything other than guilty, looking into another man’s eyes while you’re peeing in public.  

So I confessed.  “Hey James.  I’m peeing.” 

Duff looked me up and down and said, “Ok." 

James Duff is a Team EMJ professional triathlete.  Today would be his first Ironman.  And in truth, despite his prodigious athletic talent, he looked just a bit nervous — maybe about the race -- maybe because he was standing in the water not far from where I was peeing.    

We chatted for a few seconds about what a beautiful day it was and about how excited he was to do his first Ironman, when he suddenly turned his back to me and began to unzip his wetsuit.

“Hey, Steve, can you reach inside my wetsuit?  There’s a gel in one of my pockets somewhere.”

I had a flicker of hesitation about groping around in another man’s wetsuit with him still in it.

But, since James was a teammate, a gentleman and a fellow member of the California Bar, I took it on faith that he wasn’t looking for a cheap thrill.  Though maybe I overestimate the honor of our profession.

“Uh, sure,” I said.

I approached a bit more from the side than from directly from the rear, trying to move in way that said: “nothing to see here — just one guy helping another guy find his nutrition”.  

So, like a pickpocket, I stuffed my arm inside James’ wetsuit and groped around until I found something small and squishy.  Luckily for me (and I’m guessing, him) this was the gel packet.  

“Thanks,”  James said, squeezing the goop into his mouth.  "Hey can you throw the wrapper away for me?  I’ve gotta go.  I think the pro race is about to start.  Hey, have a great race!  I’ll see you out there!”  He said, with excitement, handing me the wrapper and smiling as he headed for the start line.

Ok, where was I?  Oh yeah, visualizing the run through T1.   

So, I’m imagining… grabbing the transition bag, taking out the helmet, putting it on while I’m running into the changing tent… and...

“Why are my fingers all sticky!?” I thought, snapping back to the present when I noticed that I couldn’t separate my middle finger from my ring finger.

Looking down, my hands were unconsciously squeezing Duff's not totally empty gel packet like a tube of tooth pace.  The sticky gunk was all over my hand.  

I washed my hands off in the water where I had just peed.

Looking around, wondering where to dispose of the wrapper, I heard “Hey Kuktinator!!” from up on the beach.  Tom Trauger, my Every Man Jack teammate walked up grinning excitedly — probably the only guy on the whole beach who literally couldn’t wait for the gun to go off.  

Tom’s an endurance sport masochist and the very idea that he was about to enjoy 10 hours of uninterrupted suffering was making him drool like a bloodhound waiting for his owner to drop a T-bone steak.

Seconds later, our buddy Dret joined us.  He claimed to be “cheerful and energetic” though his response lacked a certain truthiness, and he was definitely not as enthusiastic as Tom -- which is understandable since he swims kind of like me and the thought of touching other people in the water terrifies him. 

The gang’s all here — all except for our friend and teammate Adam Carlson, who was probably off pre-race visualizing — something I had now abjectly failed to do.   

"Whatever.  I’ve done this a bunch of times," I figured.  What could go wrong?

-------------------------------

THE SWIM: 

Tom, Dret and I lined up near the front on the outside right of the very narrow mass swim start.  

I realized that I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be.  I had just completed a two-week caffeine detox, so I thought that my heart would be racing after taking my caffeine pills this morning (yes, quitting caffeine for a couple weeks and then slamming a handful of caffeine tablets on race morning is really a thing — or so I’ve read).  

But nope.  I was remarkably at peace.  

Maybe the tiny bit of visualizing had relaxed me?  

Errr, no.  What relaxed me was that I forgot to take my caffeine pills — left ‘em sitting next to the sink in the hotel room.  I could visualize them there. 

Two weeks of caffeine withdrawal and a week of headaches for nothing.  I’m an idiot, I thought.   

While I was wondering whether it was even possible to race a decaffeinated Ironman, the gun went off, much to my surprise.  The bang scared me, causing my body to spasm like it does when you’re starting to fall asleep.    

While I was sleep jerking, a thousand eager competitors began to stampede through me into the surf.  

The last thing I saw before I was swallowed by the herd of triathletes and an oncoming wave was my buddy Dret, running sideways along the beach, out of the crowd, towards open water, roughly on a course to the Galapagos Islands. 

“Coward," I thought.

Never let it be said that Dret doesn’t have a race strategy — unorthodox as it might be.  He claims he hasn't touched another swimmer in an Ironman in the last 10 years, since he adopted his “run away and swim on the extreme outside of the course" tactic.  

After a few minutes of swimming blindly into the sun, getting kicked in the groin and being mounted by a small woman who appeared to mistake me for a trained Orca, I found myself wishing I’d run away with Dret.  

Fortunately, the melee ended within a few minutes and the water was just clear enough that I could see people a few feet away — a big advantage if you were trying to draft.

And, unlike Dret, I’d draft anyone or anything.  When you can ride as fast as Dret and you’ve qualified for the Ironman World Championships about a dozen times, your swim time doesn’t matter much.  I, on the other hand, was no German uber-biker and I had a lousy swimming reputation to fix.   
Despite what I hoped was a newly improved swim stroke, in the first 10 minutes of the swim, I was disappointed to realize that I wasn’t feeling any better or faster than I had in my other Ironman swims.  

It didn’t help that I was swallowing mouthfuls of sea water and that the current seemed to be pulling us sideways, towards shore — and not towards the part of the shore where the swim exit was located, but rather towards the part of shore where powerful waves were giving it their all to erode a giant pile of rocks by nightfall.  

"I should avoid those rocks," I thought.

I did what I could to get into a rhythm, and as we made the second of four left turns, I found a little pod of swimmers who seemed to be my type of people — small, non-violent, straight-swimmers.  I think they were all women.

And for about 20 minutes, things were really nice in our peaceful little group.  Everyone knew their place and everyone swam courteously.  There was one person at the front, and he or she was doing a really fine job of keeping the pace, so the rest of us just lined up like a little raft of ducklings following momma.

But as with all such stories, eventually, evil descended on the kingdom.  Actually he backed into the kingdom, having been dropped by his own pod.  He wore a Blue Seventy wetsuit and he wasn’t like us.  He kicked and splashed a lot and plowed his big, uncoordinated body rudely into our pack.  Then he muscled his way into the second spot behind our leader — which wouldn’t have been so bad, except, as I mentioned, he was a splasher and a kicker.  And there’s nothing worse than drafting off someone who makes bubbles like a jacuzzi.  It’s like trying to swim in a snowstorm.

Things were looking bad for us.  My pod scattered here and there, trying to avoid the human jacuzzi.  I dodged left to avoid his big stupid elbow and lost the draft.   

But I was determined to not let this interloper win.  I had a good thing going with my girlfriends and I wasn’t giving it up without a fight. 

I pulled myself back up to him and began touching his feet.  Eventually, frustration got the better of him and he began to breast stroke (figuring he could confront me better if he could see me, I suppose).  Seeing my opportunity, I swam hard to get around him, and in a stupid, adrenaline-fueled decision, I swam past the our pack leader and began pulling the group, hoping to drop the annoying guy.  

It worked better than I could have planned — at least initially.  After a couple minutes of fast swimming, not only had we lost Mr. Bubbles, but the whole original raft of ducklings found its way back together — with me now in the lead.

And that’s when my poorly thought-out plan hit a pothole.  

It turns out that it’s very tiring to swim at the front of the pack.  Plus, a man wearing a black wetsuit in warm, shallow water, I discovered, will overheat fairly quickly if he swims too hard for too long.  

And overheat, I did.

So, with about 500 yards to go, the swim became a major challenge.  I watched as my friends disappeared into the distance, following a new leader -- without so much as a sympathetic look back. 

Ironman is a cruel business.  

I really wanted to stop and take a rest — and strip off the insanely hot wetsuit.  But being unable to devise a stroke that would allow me to swim holding my wetsuit, and realizing that no amount of stuffing was going to fit my big rubber wetsuit into the back of my shorts, I kept on swimming, getting slower and slower.

Half delirious, overheated and swimming with my eyes closed, my face eventually plowed into the beach.  

Crawling out of the surf into the ankle-high soft sand at the swim exit, I stood and tried to walk off the nausea and dizziness that I experience every time I go from horizontal to vertical out of the water.  
Nausea, though, was the least of my worries.  The sun was broiling me in my wetsuit. 

Trudging through the deep sand to the timing mat, I miraculously snagged the rip-cord on my neoprene straight-jacket on the first try.

As I ran to the rack of transition bags, I wrestled my arms out of the wetsuit and grabbed the bag containing my helmet, socks and sunglasses.   

“Ok, we almost visualized this,” I thought to myself.  “Put on the helmet and sunglasses… run into the tent… sit down and slip into socks.”  Check.  

I reached into the bag, pulled out the helmet and jammed it onto my head with one swift, impressively violent movement.

“Holy crap.  Ouch!”  

Inconveniently forgotten inside my helmet, were my sunglasses — or a small hatchet — I couldn't be sure until I got the helmet off my head.

The pain from having nearly split my head in two caused me to yank the helmet off my head a little too quickly.  

This created a centrifugal force that launched my sunglasses 20 feet backwards over my head.

“Stephen!  Stephen!”  Someone yelled.  (Ok, he didn’t actually yell “Ste-ven” as such.  What he yelled was more like a cross between Stephen and Esteban, “Estep-hen” is probably as close I can come to spelling it out phonetically).   

“Ju loose glahsses!” 

“Thanks!” I shouted, wanting to make my fans feel like they were part of the team. 

I turned around, ran back and dug the sunglasses out of the beach.  

Trying to make up for lost time, I sprinted to the tent door… and:

“Meester!  Senior Estep-hen!  You loose socks!”

“Let it be some other Estep-hen’s socks,” I hoped, wishing ill-will on someone else.  

But I wasn’t lucky enough for someone else to be unlucky today.  

"How did those socks escape the bag?” I wondered, staring stupidly into the bag, looking for a non-existent hole.  

I trudged back, picked up the socks and said “Thanks!” to my fan — who was doubled over with laughter and pointing at me.  

Finally arriving into the changing tent, I sat down, took a deep, cleansing breath and attempted to slide my feet into my socks.   

Of course, having run through on the beach with wet feet, my feet were now covered in wet sand.  

I stopped myself from filling my socks with sandy feet in the nick of time and, instead, wiped my feet with my hands — which was just one more mistake in what was now an epidemic of bad decisions.  

The sand that was stuck to my feet was now stuck to my hands as well.  

So I sat in my plastic folding chair, feet in the air, hands in the air, like a man doing a “Navasana” pose, hoping that someone would rescue me from my own stupidity.  

Fortunately, the guy in the chair next to me was a thinker — he had a guy pouring water over his feet to remove the sand.  

Soon, after getting the attention of a volunteer and pointing out what was going on in my neighbor’s chair, I too had a man pouring water over my feet and hands. 

I struggled a little to pull the socks over my now soaking feet, but I was determined to exit the transition tent at any cost.  Of course, when I stood up to leave the tent, the sand stuck to the outside of my now wet socks.  

I just wasn’t going to win this battle with T1, but at least I was running towards my bike.  

Until....  

“Meester, you take.”  My new volunteer buddy, stood there blocking my way, holding out my transition bag, into which he had kindly stuffed my wetsuit.  

“Why? Where? What do I do with it?”  I babbled, shrugging my shoulders for emphasis.  (Usually — and by “usually" I mean ALWAYS — we leave the bag in the changing tent and the volunteers make it magically appear at the finish line.)  

Spinning in a circle, I searched for other people doing something with their bags, but weirdly, there weren’t many people in the tent and no one was leaving just then.  

My volunteer buddy stared at me, holding the bag. 

Starting to panic a bit, I blurted out:  “Donde con la bolsa?”  Whoa, when did I learn Spanish?!!?

He smiled and pointed generally at the bike racks.      

I grabbed the bag and ran to my bike, figuring that I’d solve the mystery when I got there.

Naturally, it wasn’t that easy.  Somehow, despite what I knew was a crappy swim, every bike near mine was still in the rack.  How was that even possible?  Did they organize bike racks by how lousy you swim?  

Looking at the next rack of bikes, I spied a blue transition bag laying on the ground where a bike used to be.  

I flung my bag down, grabbed my bike and headed out of the transition area like a man in a lead jumpsuit trying to escape the gravitational pull of Jupiter. 

Frustrated by the swim, the transition — I could see my race unraveling.  

And yet, I had just had the fastest Ironman swim of my life — by a lot:  I had managed to swim 2.4 miles in 1 hour and 6 seconds — not six minutes.. seconds!  Of course, I didn’t know that I had had a great swim, because I hadn’t had the courage to look at my watch yet, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have helped because I had accidentally started my watch when I was groping around in James’ wetsuit — something I didn’t figure out until much later.


THE BIKE:  

I forced a smile and took a deep cleansing breath.

Ok. So the swim didn’t go as I’d hoped, I thought to myself.  But at least I was about to do the one thing I’m pretty good at.  I was really looking forward to the bike.

Saddling up with my bike shoes already attached to my pedals, I began to pedal up a steep hill standing on the shoes because the road out of transition was too steep to allow me to slip my feet into the shoes just yet.  

That’s when I hit a speed bump and my rear bottle launched itself into the front wheel of the guy riding behind me.  

He stayed up.  Barely.

“Hey!” he shouted, waving his fist at me.  

“Sorry!” I yelled.   

Fortunately, since I hadn’t slipped my feet into my shoes yet, it was relatively simple to pull over, lay my bike down on the curb and chase my bottle down the hill to make sure it didn’t take out any unsuspecting riders. 

Yes, it was embarrassing to start the bike leg running backwards down the hill into a parade of surprised cyclists, yelling “bottle! bottle!”  But, on the bright side, the sand that was caked onto my my socks was coming off.

Closing in on the surprisingly speedy bottle, I kicked it into the bushes at the side of the road.  

I quickly dug the bottle out a remarkably thorny bush and returned to my bike with my bottle.  That’s when I noticed that I had stopped on a really steep slope.  And my shoes were still clipped to the bike.  Certain disaster loomed if I tried to remount the bike here, I thought.  

Fine.  I grabbed the bike and began to push it up the hill.  Ironman Cabo was now a cyclo-cross race.  Why not? I thought.   

At that point, the shoes, which were still clipped to the pedals, flopped around and whacked the next speed bump, bouncing the bike into the air and ejecting the shoe.   

Really?!!  

I pulled over, laid my bike on the ground and retrieved my shoe.   Sitting on the curb putting on my bike shoes, I tried to convince myself that things would get better.

-----------------------------


THE BIKE PART II (This is where I finally mounted the bike and started riding.):

As I pedaled up the first hill, I stole a quick look at my watch.  

Bad idea.  

The watch said I had been racing for 1 hour and 30 minutes.  

Even with a slow transition, the bottle ejection and the shoes coming unclipped, I still calculated that I been in the ocean for over 1 hour and 20 minutes. 

Depression set in.  

For the next hour on the bike, I was despondent.  A 1:20 swim was beyond slow, given all the work I had put in.  I had visions of Ritch sending me to Lane 9 — where I would just run back and forth next to the pool.

That’s when I saw Duff coming the other way, riding with the pros.

About 15 minutes later, Adam and Tom appeared, separated by less than a minute.  

I guessed they must be at least 20 minutes ahead.  I’d know for sure when I hit the turnaround.

I pedaled along, trying to figure out what went wrong.  The swim stroke felt reasonably good, I didn’t swim a terrible line, and the ocean chop felt more annoying than slow.  Sure I got hot and lost my group of friends, but that couldn’t have have been my slowest Ironman swim ever, could it?  

Precisely one minute and 45 seconds after seeing Adam and Tom, I was at the turnaround.

Huh?  

Doing some math (which I am capable of doing only until about 50 miles into an Ironman bike leg), I was only 3 to 4 minutes behind Adam and Tom.  They normally out-swim me by 6 to 8 minutes. Being 3 or 4 minutes behind those guys after an hour on the bike was a full-blown miracle.   

See, girls and boys, hard work does pay off!  Either that or Tom and Adam are going to be really pissed about their swim times, I thought.  But I chose to be positive about this unexpected development.

I reached behind me to toast this good news with a swig of sports drink and realized that my bottle had abandoned ship somewhere on the ride to Los Cabos. 

Note to self: This may be a good time to conserve water, I thought as I began climbing one of a dozen or so hills back into town.  

Six minutes after I made the turn back to town, I had more evidence I must have swum decently.  Either that or I had evidence that Dret’s navigational skills had gone badly awry somewhere in the Sea of Cortez.

Flying towards me, all 6 feet 5 inches of arms and legs and biking fury, was my buddy Dret — 10 minutes behind me.  I mean, his “touch-me-not” swim strategy is deathly inefficient, but 10 minutes is a very, very long way back.  Usually, he and I get out of the water pretty much together. 

With renewed enthusiasm, I drove the bike forward, steadily losing ground to Duff, Tom, Adam and Dret.

Yes — losing ground.  (Unbridled enthusiasm only takes you so far.  In the end, those guys still pedal harder than me.)  

At mile 100, I had lost time to all of my best buddies, but those guys are rock stars, and in the real world, I had pulled into 4th place in my Age Group.  But the intense heat, particularly bad on the roller coaster climbs, was wearing me out.  And when a guy in my age group blew by me a mile from T2, knocking me back into 5th, I decided that it was time to lower my heart rate for the remainder of the bike and save something for the run.     

By the time we arrived at T2, I could practically hear Dret (who is in my age group) whispering all German-like, “I am coming Kuktinator.  You must run!!!!” in my ear.

(Bike split: 5:20. Ten minutes faster than last year, exiting the bike 5th in the age group.  Same AG position as last year — right on the bubble of Kona qualifying, I figured.  Same feeling of desperation as I started the run.)

THE RUN:

After a weirdly uneventful T2, I arrived on the run course almost too quickly, heart still pounding from the fear of giving up a big lead over Dret. 

He was coming.  I could feel him back there, grinning madly, doing his Jens Voigt impersonation.  I hoped he was planning to spend his usual half-an-eternity in T2, doing whatever the hell he does in there.  (“I am doing things,” he always says, when I ask him for the hundredth time how a simple shoe change can take 4 minutes.)   

I found a comfortable cadence that seemed to work for a 7:45 pace and tried to hold it there.  I did this for a few miles, right up until my body stopped wanting to do it.  

Ninety degrees is a lot hotter when you're running than when you’re biking.  

As I slowed to a more manageable 8:00 minute mile pace at mile 4, I heard “Kuktinator!!  How are you feeling?”  

Dret was here, just over my left shoulder, like I knew he would be.  

I had that Freddie Krueger moment where the victim has been running for so long, with such fear, that when the deranged killer arrives with his chainsaw, the victim throws his hands up, trips over his own feet, and screams uncontrollably.  

Luckily Dret wasn’t carrying a chain saw — although had he been, I would have felt better about my chances of catching him later in the race.  Those things are heavy.  I had to rent one once.  

Dret looked great, smiling, striding fast and hardly panting.

I tried to cheer myself up by saying to myself: “You love the heat.  Just keep running.”  Myself wasn’t buying it.

I knew I should have dropped a couple more pounds.  

Stupid Gummy Bears.

“Ok, I’m in 6th.  That could still be enough for a Kona slot,” I lied to myself.  (I lie to myself a lot in races, otherwise, I would walk a lot.  Fortunately, I often believe these lies because I’m a bad judge of character when I’m that tired.)

Adam and Tom ran back towards me at mile 7 or so.  Tom had a look on his face like someone was extracting his fingernails with a pair of pliers — he couldn’t have been happier.  And Adam just looked fast and light.  

Both of them were running faster than me.  I was envious. 

And unfortunately, as I attempted to focus on finding a running rhythm, I found myself running near a female pro who was implementing a seldom seen, sprint/stop strategy.  She would sprint past me, stop, then grab her waist and bend over until I ran by.  Then, after I built a small lead, she would sprint ahead again.  

We did this for several amusing miles.   

Still, I was managing to focus on my race — until her boyfriend/coach rode up alongside on a mountain bike and started shouting encouragement.  

“C’mon babe.  You can do it.  That’s it, run!  Ok, walking is great.  Drink something.  Do you think you can run again?  Awesome!  You’re crushing it!  Ok, walking is fine, just keep fueling.  No, no.  Don’t stop.  Keep walking.  Grab some ice.  That’s it.  Chew it.  Put it in your shorts.  Way to run!  You’re having an awesome day babe!"

I had my doubts that my pro friend was enjoying an awesome day.  She could barely keep up with me and I was running not-very-fast.  Plus, she had started earlier than I had and I had caught her.  No, an awesome day for a professional triathlete does not usually involve being caught by a 48 year old lawyer from Vallejo.

Then there was the non-awesome fact that she seemed just as likely to fall into the next aid-station ice-bucket face-first as she was to run in a straight line.  But who was I to judge?

At some point around mile 17, things started to look up.  I finally outlasted the pro, who appeared to be considering alternative transportation back to the finish line.  And then my world brightened further as I saw my wife, Laura, smiling and cheering.  

“Dret’s only a few minutes ahead.  Try running faster!”  

I smiled huge, giving her the impression that I was taking her advice to heart.  I hate looking weak in front of anyone, particularly my girl.  She inspires me to be better and I desperately wanted to make her proud by finding another gear.  

But in my head, I was knew there was no way I was catching Dret.  Not the way he was running.  Not the way I was running.  But I promised myself that I would at least keep running whatever pace I was currently at.  

It hurt.  And it didn’t help that I saw Adam and Tom running fast (both about to qualify for Kona) to the finish line when I still had 3 or 4 miles left.  

I was seriously considering walking as I entered the parking lot of the “swim with the dolphins” center, a few miles from the finish.  But that’s when I saw an unmistakeable silhouette up ahead.  A very tall, lanky guy, moving not very quickly.  

I knew this silhouette.  I had seen it on one other 90 plus degree day at Ironman Canada a few years back.  

Dret had this way of exploding in the heat that took him from “race-machine" to guy-strolling-through-the-park-on-a-spring-day.  It was quite the contrast.

I ran up next to him, patted him on the back and said, “Hey, Dret!  I’m back!”  

“I am very hot,” he replied.  

“I know, buddy.  It happens to 6 foot 5 guys who train in Switzerland in the snow and race an Ironman in Cabo.  But we’re almost there."

“Come on, run with me.  Just a few more miles.”  (At 137 miles into a race in 90 degree heat, for me, friendship trumps competition.  I get pretty sentimental when I’m nearing physical collapse and I might need someone to call an ambulance for me.)

“I will try, but I am very hot” he said.  

And try he did — for about half a mile. 

But no one can run through heat stroke, so finally Dret said “Go on, run Kuktinator.  I think I must walk.”

Of course, after leaving Dret, I thought:  "Am I back in contention?"  I didn’t know.  But I was going to finish the race giving it everything I had.    

I arrived at the finish line in 10 hours and 33 minutes.  Over 25 minutes faster than last year.  And based on last year’s Kona qualifying times at this same race, I should have been very close to a qualifying slot.  

And my reward was… 11th place out of about 200 guys.  At least 5 spots out of qualifying.  Somewhere along the long and hot run course, I had been passed by no less than 5 guys in my age group — and I hadn’t even noticed.  

Still, despite the disappointment, I’m heading back to Lane 8 with my head held high, a new Ironman swim PR and the knowledge that at 48 years of age, I’m a little fitter than I was at 47 — and a lot fitter than I was when I was 39.    

Heck, I might even check in with the guys in Lane 7 later this year.


The end.    

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