Today I was not an Ironman- Part 1

27 06 2007

June 24, 2007- Scott Fliegelman


 Today I was not an Ironman. Indeed, I was handed my fair share of misfortune, but still I was unable to rise to the challenge and complete the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26 mile run. Well, actually I probably swam more than 3 miles this morning, but they don’t give you extra credit for covering more than the required course. Now, I’m faced once again with putting ‘failure’ in its proper place, while seeking the motivation to forge on with this sport that so often requires finding comfort in discomfort.

I’d arrived in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho three days earlier tapered, hydrated, rested, carbo-loaded, fitter than I’d ever been, and ready to take my best shot at qualifying for Kona by finishing in the top ten of my 35-39 age group. This would likely require about a 10 hour finishing time, which I’d divided into approximately 1:05 of swimming, 5:20 of biking, 3:30 of running, and five minutes to transition from one sport to the next. Of course, it would not matter if I took some from the other, or if the conditions of the day forced all racers to go slower, but it is good to have a plan penciled in for pacing purposes and to help with focus.

On Friday morning, just two days before the race, it appeared that I’d be giving some time back in the first leg as we arrived at the lake for a practice swim only to find a stiff breeze, choppy water, a tricky current, and colder water temps than expected that had me hyper ventilating for my first 100 strokes. I took solace knowing that the day before the water was flat and the forecast called for calmer winds on race day. Further, the relaxing environment that surrounded the post-swim really felt more like vacation as we lounged on the grassy hilly that overlooked the beach and chatted with dozens of friends from Boulder and new friends we’d met that day.

Driving the bike course is the next best thing to having ridden it, and the 56-mile/ two-loop route was a reasonable time to spend in the car. After a nice out-n-back section along the water with one good sized climb, we drove north toward Hayden Lake to scope out the “much hillier’ section that was a new edition for ‘07. True to the scouting report, the roads indeed tilted up in several sections; however they were relatively short climbs, usually preceded by a healthy downhill that would offer some assistance with keeping momentum. The landscape otherwise was truly gorgeous with views of the lake, deep forests, and rolling country-side… a nice alternative to the somewhat short, downtown section with the usual share of strip shopping centers. I came away confident that my training had prepared me well for what lay ahead, especially the workouts on the Morgul Bizmarck course with rather similar undulating terrain.

The remaining 36-hours before the cannon would sound on Sunday morning were filled with the usual activities, including the official pasta dinner and mandatory athlete meeting, which started late and droned on too long. The highlight for me was the ‘biggest loser” section where athletes were asked to stand if they’d lost considerable weight preparing for this race. Four athletes were then brought on stage with one woman having lost 170 pounds after being motivated watching the Ironman in-person for many years as a resident of Kona. In addition, a member of our Boulder contingent, Gary Gomulinski, had lost 70 pounds over the past few months as he prepared to become a first time Ironman, along with Susan Davis, Melissa Neal and Gerard Morris.

The people of Coeur d’ Alene were fantastic and remarkably friendly. In fact, I was struck by one brief encounter in particular that typified the welcoming attitude of the locals. While riding our bikes from the hotel down to the transition area to turn them in the day before the race, a car full of “punk” teenagers drove alongside and slowed so that one could yell something out the window. Contrary to what we’ve come to expect from these encounters, he shouted “good luck tomorrow guys!” with a genuine smile that demonstrated that the community indeed would be out in full support of our efforts. Very unexpected… very cool!

Race morning was smooth and nearly free of the anxiety which had accompanied my previous two efforts at IM Canada ’03 (10:39) and IM Florida ’05 (10:29). The alarm sounded at 4 am, and woke me from a surprisingly deep sleep. I put down the standard pre- IM breakfast, gathered my armada of water bottles and other assorted race morning essentials, and then Liz and I hopped in the car for the 5 minute drive down to the start area. Despite the forecast that called for a light 5-10 mph breeze, the flag over the beach area was flying straight out, and whipping from side to side. Of course that meant that the water would also be whipping about and sure enough the waves looked worse than the previous two mornings.

I visited my bike, filled the tires, and armed it with 3 water bottles of my special sports drink, ample Clif Bloks and sodium capsules. I went over my race day fuel/ hydration strategy in my head, which was revamped recently following an “epiphany” workout. Michael Kelly and I had completed a 7.5 hour workout 18 days out from the race, and despite consuming all the food and drink I’d planned for the day, managed to lose 7.5 pounds! Upon reflection, I was clearly dehydrated for the latter half of the workout, and likely had been habitually in a similar state for most of my endurance races over the past several years, given my now obvious need for a significantly greater amount of fluid replacement. In fact, the chronic hamstring cramps which had derailed many a great race over the years may have indeed been more a result of lack of fluids and electrolytes than I believed. This was great news and a reason to emphasize race simulation workouts prior to the actual race in order to gain confidence from a good experience as well as learn from and make adjustments when things go less than ideally.

The remaining hour before the start was spent relaxing with Liz, doing some light warm ups (including Dynamics by myselfJ), and gradually getting my wetsuit and “game face” on. The swim would be quite a challenge given the conditions and the fact that 2,000 of us would start at the same time heading for the same turn buoy 1,000 meters or so from the beach. To add to the mental challenge, the announcer offered the field the chance to “opt out” of the swim and participate in a bike/ run duathlon instead… an option that a few dozen accepted. I felt confident in my improved swimming ability and the overall strength I’d gained from weekly lifting “torture” sessions with Danny Suter for the past few months. As the clock ticked closer to the 7:00 am start, I was relaxed, focused, and filled with a very strong feeling that this would be a ‘breakthrough’ day that would go as planned or even better.

The cannon sounded and I ran swiftly for the 10-15 strides it took to get thigh deep, then dove into the 60 degree water ready for an all out effort for the first 300-400 meters before hopefully settling into my desired pace with minimal contact from my fellow “aggressive” swimmers. It didn’t quite work out that wayJ. The choppy water was battering me from all sides from the first stroke and my breathing was once again tilted more toward exhalation without enough inhalation. Others around me seemed to be having similar difficulty and as soon as we slowed forward progress we were overtaken from behind by the next wave of swimmers. Eventually my breathing evened out, but the waves were still tossing me about and worst of all made sighting the buoys that marked the course an impossibility. I tried sighting every third stroke, but each time I lifted my head I could only see water, and was left to follow the pack with an occasional glimpse of the hill across the lake that let me know I was still heading in the correct general direction.

I finally arrived at the first turn buoy and was surprised to see about 100 swimmers bobbing up and down while they waited for the “line” to clear before making the left turn directly into the sun. I never saw the next buoy until I was 50 meters too far inside the course, then had to make the tediously slow correction, before heading back toward the beach with hopefully some assist from the now favorable current. I’m sure I was moving more swiftly now, but the sighting still remained a huge problem as I zig zagged my way toward shore. Miraculously, I arrive at the completion of lap #1 in only 35 minutes, spotted Liz who informed me that some of my friends were only one minute ahead, which was comforting to hear. Lap two was a slightly more tolerable version of the first, and I actually felt strong and fluid and never felt the fatigue that came about 45 minutes into my last two IM swims. Much to my disappointment however, my second lap took even longer and I reached the shore with a disappointing time of 1:15.

I had a lethargic transition to the bike, but was looking forward to settling into the five hours plus of pedaling, eating, and drinking for which I’d prepared so arduously over the past several months. I found my rhythm right away and was easily passing dozens of riders as I headed out along the water to the first of many out-n-back sections where I’d get a chance to spot some friends who I’d been expecting to have in my proximity for much of the ride. As I neared the turnaround, I saw Garry and Neil heading the other way looking strong, and Michael Kelly was not far behind.

I stayed patient, focusing on my nutrition plan that called for a Clif Blok then a sodium capsule at alternating 15-minute intervals, a bottle of my carbo/ electro drink and a bottle of water per hour. I rode strong as I came back through town and made the sweeping turn up Government Way and felt the rear of my bike slide unusually while making a strange sound or two. It is hard to describe the deflating feeling that accompanies the first few moments when you realize you have a flat tire in the first few miles of your biggest race in the past 18 months. I tried to convince myself otherwise for a few more blocks up the street, before pulling over to inspect the damage.

After nearly a dozen flats this spring thanks to debris strewn Boulder roads, I thought I’d earned more than enough karma points to avoid such bad fortune on race day, and despite my practice changing them during training, now I’d be dealing with a tubular tire on rented race wheels, which would present some unfamiliarity. Ironically it was Ironman champion Michael Lovato who’d originally taught me how to change a tubular tire five years earlier, but alas he was 30-minutes up the road from me at this point and would be of little helpJ. I removed the wheel, and prepared the assorted devices needed for the process, and began to work the flat tire from the carbon rim with both my hands and a sturdy tire lever I’d packed for the job. It started poorly and didn’t improve much. Unlike the tubular tire glue I was expecting, this tire was affixed to the wheel with cement-like tape and wouldn’t budge.

After 15 minutes of working my now-numbing fingers and the tire lever to no avail, I made the mental concession that my Kona slot was now beyond reach. I was cold and needed to pee, so I took a little walk to find a port-o-let or nearby tree and when I returned I found a knife sitting near the wheel. As I’d mentioned, the people of Coeur d’ Alene were SO nice, and dozens had already offered to help, but race rules require you to be self sufficient and therefore I had to politely decline their assistance. But now I was facing a DNF after only two hours, and decided to use this “miracle” knife that had mysteriously appeared. Unfortunately, even the knife was of little help, as I still could not free the tire and was concerned that I not damage the wheel (or gouge my hand) as my frustration mounted.

Finally I decided to cut through the pathetic looking tire completely and was able to peel it off clockwise, as opposed to rolling it off the rim as planned. After 30 minutes of frustration… step #1 was now complete. I now needed to remove the 3” valve extender from the old tire and affix it to the spare in order to work with the deep-dish Zipp 808 wheels. Once again, despite having done this before with my hands, I was now unable to muster the strength or dexterity to do so, and made the mental note to pre-attach a valve extender to my spare should I ever decide to race againJ

With far less concern for race rules at this desperate point, I decided to ask the nearby cop if he had a pair of pliers. He said he did not, but would radio for a bike repair person. I knew that “neutral bike support” was allowed but it did not occur to me that I could actually request such a thing as opposed to just hoping one would come along.

Another friendly local offered up pliers from his nearby truck, and I quickly had the valve extender on the spare tire and mounted onto the wheel. I filled the tire, praying that my three-year-old spare would hold air. I probably only got about 90 psi into the tire, when I heard a leak coming from somewhere near the valve. I guessed correctly that I had not tightened the extender enough and with one half turn of the pliers the awful leaking sound ended. I emptied my second CO2 canister into the tire and put the wheel back onto the bike, just as the bike mechanic showed up… elapsed time approximately 55 minutes! Instead of asking to use his floor pump to top off the tire AND having him inspect the sketchy placement of the spare on the rim, I thanked him and sent him off to help others.

I was more than ready to get back on the bike at this point, and grabbed my helmet when the strap buckle came off in my hands. Yet another rule (and rather common sense) dictates that your helmet strap must be buckled at all times when you are on the bike. I took another few minutes to perform the task of threading the strap through the buckle, as my hands had had about enough of this sort of thing by nowJ

Helmet properly atop my head, I threw a stiff and cold leg over the bike and took my first few pedal strokes in over an hour. Amazingly, there was still a pretty steady stream of riders coming up the hill, so I carefully merged in with them, while acknowledging a few cheers from the locals who’d been supporting me throughout the ordeal.

See Part 2 for the exciting conclusion…




2 responses

16 08 2007
Zone 1 Swimming… Duh! « FastForward Sports Blog

[…] for the motivation to even get in the pool in the first place. As fate would have it, after my DNF at IM CDA in June, I decided to commit to doing The 24 Hours of Triathlon- Solo on September 1st and 2nd, […]

28 11 2007
Cyclocross Update « FastForward Sports Blog

[…] by mechanical problems with my tire/ wheel. Ironically, unlike the issue that was my undoing in my June Ironman, when I could not remove a flat tubular tire from my rim, now I was faced with the tire removing […]

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