Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
He was talking about the sport of boxing of course and not the triathlon, but on Sunday during the swim, thoughts of Mike Tyson came to me as I battled through my 1.2 mile swim. But as is the case in a lot of race reports, I’m already getting way ahead of myself. We’ll get to the swim in a minute.
“Kerrville” for me represented a lot of things. It was my first “long-course” triathlon, or 70.3 mile race. Otherwise known as a half-ironman. 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run.
Completing a race like this as recently as April 15th, 2011 was about as likely as me walking on the moon. April 15th was the morning of my first swim lesson with my swim coach Claudia Spooner. I was not able to swim a single length of the 25 meter pool. Not. A. Single. Length.
17 months later I was going to be putting myself out there, well outside of my comfort zone in only my 5th triathlon. It was something that I wanted to do for me and for no other reason really. After we lost Dom a couple of summers ago and just two weeks later I was holding Landry in the hospital, some tumblers clicked into place for me. I wanted to set an example for Landry, and remind myself quite frankly that life is for living. It’s not for playing it safe, taking the easy way out or for spectating. It is for seeking challenges in areas that interest you. Setting goals that at the time may seem a bit scary or ridiculous and then going out and accomplishing them.
When you reach those goals, set new ones. Higher ones. Harder ones. Scarier ones. Then reach those too.
Some day I’m going to look back through my box of race photos, long after my finisher medals have been tucked away and I shuffle along at 10 minute/mile pace a couple of times a week. I’m going to remember days like the New York City Marathon in November of 2011 or of my first Triathlon on my 44th birthday and smile. Those were days that celebrated life. They made me feel alive and that I wasn’t just a passenger on a bus.
Sunday morning was going to be one of those days no matter what happened. We woke up staring 70.3 miles of racing in the eye and were determined to race every last one of them.
Pre-Race: Kerville is about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Austin. On Saturday morning with rain all over central Texas and the hill country I loaded my bike into the cab of my truck, threw in my transition bag, my clothes and a cooler with my frozen bottles for the bike and some snacks and made the drive over to the race site to pick up my packet and check-in my bike. The ride was uneventful and very peaceful. Dawn and Landry would be following behind me in a few hours after I took care of all the gymnastics required to get ready for a two-transition area triathlon.
I listened to some music on the way down, called my mother to chat for a bit and just played my race plan over and over in my mind. Smooth swim, strong bike, crush the run. Smooth swim, strong bike, crush the run … I felt that gave us the best opportunity to race hard from start to finish and not leave our run in the saddle. The first time at any new distance is always tricky – you want to be sure not to give away time early by being too conservative, but you also want to be sure not to go too fast early and blow up. 70 miles is a long way to go. Smooth swim, strong bike, crush the run.
Check-In: I pulled into the parking lot of the host hotel at 11:55 a.m., 5 minutes before packet pick-up. My room at the hotel wasn’t ready, so I went down to the conference center to pick-up our race package. Numbers, swim cap, wrist band and all the usual materials. All participants got a great looking technical shirt and a run visor which I tucked right into my bag for after the race. Wearing any race gear before the actual race is a big no-no for me. Bad ju-ju putting on any clothing from the race before you hit the finishers tape. I was looking for all the good karma I could find.
I unpacked the bike, affixed my race number to the seat post and down tube. There was rain in the forecast, a lot of rain actually, so I removed everything I could from the bike that might take on water. My elbow pads on the aerobars, my repair kit, my bike computer – all of which I would put back on in the morning. I got in line at 12:50 to get into transition at 1:00 p.m. and was able to secure the A-1, prime spot in our rack for the bike.
With more time to kill before I could get into our room I walked down to the river to check out the swim start and finish. I wanted to find some landmarks that I could navigate by on Sunday morning in case it was difficult to spot the buoys. Luckily my wave was assigned Royal Blue swim caps which would not confuse us while we were sighting and looking for the orange and red buoys. In a few triathlons I have been assigned a red swim cap with my wave and it has made sighting a challenge.
The first thing I thought when I saw the lake was, “Holy moly – is that a long way to run”.
The second thing I thought was, “are you kidding me? Look how steep that is.” As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
I walked down to the water and chatted with a few members of the Team in Training group that had just done a swim workout. They said the water temperature was great and that there was not a lot of current running. I couldn’t see much of the course due to all the trees surrounding the lake, so I made my way up the long hill to the top where the bike transition was located, said a final goodbye to the bike until morning and decided to put my run bag together and take that over to the Transition 2 area where the bike course would end and the run course would begin. It was approximately 2 miles from the Race start and Transition 1.
I placed my race flats, race number belt, fresh socks, a run visor and my run watch in bag number 219 and drove over to Transition 2. I parked, walked in to the secure area and found a good spot for my bag on the end of the rack that was reserved for athletes with numbers between 201 and 220. I double bagged everything to make sure my shoes stayed dry overnight, tied the bag on the rail and made my way back to the hotel to rest a bit.
Saturday Evening: Dawn and Landry arrived right at 4:00 p.m. as was our plan. We hung around a little bit and then went out for dinner at Valentino’s a local pizza and pasta restaurant for a very relaxing and surprisingly tasty pre-race dinner. Shrimp Diavolo, side salad, bread and a slice of Landry’s Pizza topped off our pre-race carbohydrate loading. I thought about a pre-race beer, but decided against it. There would be plenty of time for celebrating if we made it to the finish line on Sunday.
We got back to the hotel, played with some Legos, watched the Gamecocks dismantle Kentucky in the second half and settled in to bed with Landry tucked in between us around 9:00 p.m. I had loaded up on sleep Friday night with more than 8 hours – which is a borderline record for me these days – so anything I would get on Saturday night would be a bonus.
My race gear, bike equipment, tire pump and cooler were all ready for the morning. Thoughts of racing played over in my mind as I dozed off to sleep. Swim smooth, bike strong, crush the run.
Race Morning: I woke up at 4:40 a.m., 5 minutes before my alarm. Quick shower to loosen up the muscles, a bagel, banana, coke zero, Gatorade and we were ready to get moving. I tucked a Clif Bar into my transition bag with another bottle of Gatorade and then got lubed up with body glide just about everywhere before getting dressed for the race. I also liberally applied some of Landry’s “triple paste” before putting on my TRI bottoms – which is a product to reduce diaper rash. It’s pretty magical to be honest with you, and I thought with a little bit of moisture hanging around, and certainly a wet bike seat after I got out of the swim, I should err on the side of caution regarding any irritation or rash development.
I once again made it to the transition area a couple of minutes early and was the fourth person to be body marked and allowed in to set-up my bike.
I laid out my towel, shoes, socks and tucked my Stinger Waffles into my shoes to make sure I tucked them into the back of my cycling jersey before I left on the bike. I replaced the pads on my aero bars, placed my helmet upside down with the straps open and put my glasses inside open and ready to go when I got out of the water. Lastly I put my frozen bottles on the bike, straight Grape Gatorade in the front bottle in between my aero bars and two bottles of frozen EFS in my rear cages behind the seat.
I should not have to slow down to take any water or fluid replacement on the bike with 68 ounces of fluids on the bike for 56 miles in 65 degree weather. At least that was the plan. Of course everybody has a plan before half-ironman. It’s in the execution of that plan where your race comes together. Or where it doesn’t.
After getting the bike set-up I then jumped in the truck and drove over to Transition 2. I went in, set out my run transition area so I wouldn’t have to wrangle with my bag of stuff after getting off of the bike. I laid out another towel, my race flats, my number belt for the run and a visor that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need given the cloudy conditions – but better to be safe than sorry. This transition would be much more simple than T1 where we had to bag up all of our belongings before heading out on the bike course. Your wetsuit, goggles, swim cap and any towels or other items would have to be placed 100% in your T1 bag so the volunteers could move it to the finish line area.
For the run transition, you just simply racked your bike in your spot, changed into your run gear and left everything there with your bike – pretty standard triathlon operating procedure.
Satisfied I had not forgotten anything, I walked over to the shuttle bus and caught a ride back to the hotel so my truck would be at the finish line after the race.
At 6:20 a.m. I snuck back into our room and climbed back in bed next to Landry and Dawn for an extra 25 minutes of downtime. Again, my thoughts returned to the race. Swim smooth, bike strong, crush the run.
Race Start: I made the short walk over to the start area in my race gear and stopped on the curb to get into my wet suit up to my waist. I received a great tip from a friend at the Bicycle Sports Shop in Austin buying a wetsuit repair kit to fix a small tear in my suit a couple of weeks ago to put bread bags on your feet before slipping into your wetsuit. Just like putting on your snow boots or galoshes as a kid, my feet went right in like butter.
I walked down the long hill to the water and climbed into my wetsuit sleeves with some help from a fellow competitor.
Star Spangled Banner, and then promptly at 7:30 with a countdown from 10 – the first wave of participants went off. 10 minutes to go time.
I joined my blue capped Age Group competitors, said hello to my friends Ron and Blake and with a couple of minutes to go it was time to put on my goggles and cap. I decided with such a long swim to put my goggles on underneath my cap to guard against a stray arm or elbow that might knock my goggles off.
They called our wave and we made our way into the water with roughly 75 participants aged 40 to 49. As I dove/slid off of the steep platform onto my chest, I took four or five strokes to feel the water and then lined up mid-pack.
My wetsuit gave me plenty of buoyancy, which was welcomed as I could not touch the bottom with my feet. We would be treading water for 4 minutes before our wave would go off.
Before I knew it they started the countdown, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, – Horn!
The Swim: I waited a beat to let the two swimmers in front of me kick out and then I took my first strokes up the river. We would swim into the current for approximately 300 meters, make a left turn at the first red buoy, swim 20-25 meters, then make a second left turn at the top of the “box”corner – then we would swim a long stretch of the river down past the starting area which was a straight stretch of perhaps 1,100 meters. Another left turn around the third red buoy, then a fourth turn and then we would head for home at the end of 1.2 miles.
I found my rhythm at first and felt pretty decent, then came a moment I get in every triathlon swim. I feel a little clunky, I miss a breath, water will get in my nose, mouth or both. I lose my comfort level and start to feel uneasy. I have to slow everything, relax, just swim smooth I tell myself and after 30 or 40 meters it passes and I feel great. I just have to fight through this I told myself, it happens every time. Swim smooth, bike strong, crush the run.
And then came the moment that I remembered what Mike Tyson had said so many years ago. As I pulled back on my right side and rotated out of the water to catch a breath I caught another swimmers foot straight in the face.
My goggles jostled slightly, but did not come off or fill with water.
My mindset immediately changed. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
I thought to myself, “Oh, it’s going to be like this.” And I started to swim. Strong.
I swam a tangent right at the red buoy, no taking the turn wide, if I was going to get bumped or pushed around, I might as well mix it up myself.
I hit the first buoy just off my left shoulder, perhaps only the width of a single swimmer around the corner between myself and the big red TYR Triangular buoy.
I swam straight at the next buoy, sighting every 5 strokes and quickly closed on it. Again, I left my left arm by my side and took three consecutive right strokes to make the turn. Just like that we were in the long straightaway.
I stayed close to the left and marked the intermediate buoys as we went by. I focused on swimming long, keeping my palms facing directly behind me on my pulls to push the water behind me and not down. I swam onto the back of a slower swimmer from the previous wave at the midpoint of the long back stretch, without breaking my rhythm I swam right, went over his legs and around.
I was able to tuck next to a swimmer for the next 100 meters to do a little drafting. As he tired and his pace fell off, I pulled away.
Before I knew it I could make out the third red buoy. I guessed that we had swam close to 1,400 meters at that point. Just a 500 left. You do this all the time in the pool.
Again I cut close to the buoys, mixed it up a bit with the other competitors but all in all came through very much unscathed. Pull, glide, pull, glide, pull glide and off to the right I could see the crowds around the swim ramp.
I broke from the pack and swam a direct line to the ramp. Unsure why everyone was staying near the buoys, the straightest distance between two points is a straight line – no matter what. We swam strong to the ramp and when I reached it there were no other swimmers directly in front of me or behind me. My fingers scraped the carpeted ramp and I pulled myself to my feet. A volunteer’s hand grabbed me and gave me a good yank up and out.
Holy sh$% I thought to myself. You just swam 1.2 miles. Race On.
My swim time was 40:57, 2:07 per 100 meters. I had never swam under 2:10 per 100 meters at any triathlon regardless of distance.
Transition 1: I pulled off my goggles and cap and started to work on my wetsuit. I reached the wetsuit strippers and a volunteer pulled down my sleeves, told me to sit on the ground and she yanked my suit off of my legs. It was awesome.
This would unfortunately be the site of the first mistake of the day. My timing chip around my left ankle had been hit in the water by a swimmers hand. I felt it move a bit, but it had stayed on luckily.
When the wetsuit stripper pulled off my suit, my timing chip came off of my ankle and ended up inside the leg of my suit. She didn’t see it on the ground, I didn’t feel it come off. We had lost our chip.
As I made the run up the hill Dawn and Landry were on the side of the carpet. Dawn asked if I wanted her to take my wetsuit, and the thought of not having to fight stuffing that wet, heavy suit into a small bag sounded great to me. I handed my suit to Dawn, gave Landry a kiss and ran up into the bike area. That decision would later save my race.
I ran into transition and saw my friend Blake getting on his bike. We talked a bit as I put on my bike socks and shoes, tucked my waffles into my shirt, put on my helmet and glasses and bagged up my belongings. We exited right behind each other and mounted at the line. Hammer time.
The Bike: I immediately started hammering away at the pedals. I was a bit nervous that I would be cold on the bike, but my elevated heart rate from the swim and the wind blowing at our backs as we headed out to the East/Southeast over the opening 14 miles made the temperature perfect. Overcast skies, no rain falling, cool temps. All great stuff. I did know however that the wind was blowing a solid 16-18 mph, and when we made the turn back up course towards the start area we would pay the price.
I rode with Blake for the first four miles when I glanced down to my left leg. I did not have my timing chip. I was momentarily crushed. I pulled next to Blake and told him what had happened, he told me to just ride hard and the guys at the finish would figure it all out. It was exactly what I needed to hear and it buoyed my spirits. Afterall, the only person I had to prove anything to at the end of the day was riding firmly on the seat of my bike. Time or not. Official result or not. I was going to be a half-ironman finisher no matter what lay ahead. Just keep riding Joe. Keep riding.
Blake and I rode alongside each other for the first 16 miles or so. I was taking in my sports beans (jelly beans) every 5 miles and would eat a stinger waffle at mile 20 and again at mile 40. That would give me approximately 300 calories per hour on the bike, then some additional carbohydrates and electrolytes through my Gatorade and EFS drinks. My nutrition plan was coming together and I was feeling very strong.
I had hit the first 14 miles in a little over 35 minutes. That put me on pace for a sub 2:40 bike given the wind on the other half of the course. We had hoped for 2:45, I had never ridden 56 miles in under 2:55 in training. We were riding fast.
The effort felt sustainable in my mind however and I didn’t want to back off just because of some numbers on an arbitrary bike computer. When I reached mile 21 and had finished my vanilla waffle, drank some EFS and settled back into a rhythm, screw it I thought to myself. You are riding great, passing competitors left and right. You dropped Blake behind you and he is a top Age Grouper in the 40-44 group. Just keep riding Joe.
We made it back through town and saw the cheering crowds, my thoughts went to Dawn and Landry and if I could tell Dawn that I lost my chip – maybe she would be able to talk to an official while I was on the course. Alas, I didn’t see them through town, they had most likely gone back to the hotel to get some breakfast so we started our second loop. At mile 28 we were at 1:19:00. Still on sub 2:40 pace. Just keep riding Joe.
The second loop started much like the first. Fast. Miles 29-40 came in at 20.9, 25.8, 24.8, 24.2, 27.6, 26.4, 26.0, 24.7, 26.7, 24, 23.6, 23.0 and 22.9 mph. I grabbed my last waffle, this one honey flavored, hit my water bottle and got back in the aero position. I had stayed aero virtually the entire race to this point, I would now just fill my front water bottle with EFS that had been frozen in my rear thermal bottles. No getting out of the saddle except for the two steep, short climbs on the back half of the course that required you to stand on the pedals to the top. For the first time in a long time I did the math. Still on pace for 2:38-2:40 on the bike if we could keep it together.
At mile 41 I said to myself for the first time - “just keep grinding it out”. I would repeat that to myself at the start of every new mile. I am not a high-cadence, fast spinning rider. I ride like I run. Powerful and in a lower gear than most cyclists. That combination with my light weight 138 lb. runner body allows me to stay small, stay aerodynamic and gobble up hills on the bike. I know I am not a “cyclist” – I’m just out there doing the best that I can. But I can ride fast and I have a good engine. I just needed to keep fighting, keep grinding it out.
With a mile to go I pulled behind a strong young cyclist named Robert who had his run belt on backwards, which is how I got his name. We chatted a bit over the final mile and talked about making sure we took the last turn to the finish line wisely and didn’t run into the back of anyone dismounting. I hit the dismount line, threw my leg over the water bottles in the back and we were done with the bike.
2:38:10 – 21.2 miles per hour for 56 miles.
Now it was time to see just how much of a bite that bike split took out of our run.
Transition 2: I made it down the steep hill in my bike shoes without any problem, racked the Cervelo P1 and quickly transitioned from cyclist to runner. Off came my bike shoes and on went my race flats. I chose to run in my Adidas Aegis II’s that I had run the NYC Marathon in. I had not had them on my feet since coming through the chute with our Marathon PR last November. I put my run belt on with my number turned to the back, I would flip it around facing front when we made the final turn to the finish. Until then I wanted it behind me out of the wind.
I decided to take the time to put on my Garmin run watch just in case I needed to prove my time and distance to the race organizers when we finished. I was still wondering what to do about my missing timing chip. I decided against my visor as the sun was still behind the clouds. The temperature was now a little under 70 degrees and would not be getting much hotter. The only variable that was left was the wind, which was now blowing 16-18 miles per hour. It was going to be a head wind and tail wind 50% of the time the way the looping run course set up. At times helping, at other times cruelly punishing the tired runners.
As I was exiting transition I stopped into a porta-potty and took care of my fluids from the bike. Just a short :20 delay and we were off. Just a half-marathon to go.
The Run: I fell in next to a runner who was on his second loop of the 3.28 mile course. He was competing in the Olympic Distance Triathlon, so he was just about done, only one more loop remained for his 6.2 mile run after a 28 mile bike and 1/2 mile swim. He looked over at me and said, “Man, you shouldn’t look that good right now after that long bike ….”, the truth was I was light on my feet, up on my toes and smoothly starting to settle into my run. I decided to just settle into a pace that I felt I could sustain for the next 10 miles. With 3 miles to go I would just spend whatever capital I had left. Having never “been there”before, I knew the run was going to throw me a few surprises.
I made the run through the aid station, down to the corner and made a right heading to the off-road section. Up a small bridge and then a hairpin right onto the trail, all the while picking off runners in front of me. Normally on the run you look for runners with your Age Group written on their right calf. Anyone with a 45, 46, 47, 48 or 49 is fair game for me. I power past them and try to break their spirit. It is the only time during the triathlon that I think about other competitors.
But given the nature of the Kerrville event a runner with a 45 on his calf may be completely irrelevant. He may be on his 2nd loop while I am on my 3rd, he may be doing the Olympic Distance Triathlon while I am doing the Half-Ironman. Instead I just focused on the runners on the trail ahead and started to pass them one by one by one by one. Everyone was fair game.
I made the turn at the end of the course and started to run back into the wind. I could measure for the first time just how hard it was blowing. It wasn’t good. I finally reached the hairpin turn, left the trail back onto the bridge and made my way back up to the road. I made the left turn and headed straight toward the finish line area, again, wind howling in my face. I spotted Dawn and Landry on the side of the course 3 miles into my run. I told Dawn that I lost my chip and to check with a race official to let us know what we should do.
Little did I know at the time that Dawn was going to go back to the hotel room and retrieve my timing chip from the pant leg of my wetsuit where it had gotten swallowed up by the wetsuit stripper. Superwife to the rescue. She and Landry were going to save my race quite literally.
As I made the left turn towards the finishing chute there was a cruel sign manned by a volunteer. FINISH to the left, less than 1/10 of a mile away, ADDITIONAL LOOPS to the right. I had three more to go.
Just as I made the turn my friend Shelly from Austin spotted me with her Team in Training friends, they gave out a huge GO JOE! As I made my way past and my stride lengthened. I waved and gave them a big smile as I settled into loop number two. The wind shifted to my back and I started the second loop. I glanced down at my watch and with the wind I was able to run just under 7:30 pace which was where my target was for the half-marathon after the bike. Roughly one minute per mile slower than I would run on a windy stand alone half marathon.
Into the wind however my pace would creep up into the 7:40′s. I knew that as the loops mounted, I was going to have a hard time meeting that 7:30 overall goal. Just keep grinding it out I thought. Keep grinding.
At each water station I would alternate between water and Gatorade. Just a sip or two to keep me hydrated and give me a little bit of calories and electrolytes. I had done my fueling on the bike, there wasn’t much that was going to help me now.
The second loop came and went quickly, again I passed the finish area, got a big shout out from Shelly and the gang, I made the turn and again headed down water street toward the aid station. More water and then the right turn down toward the trail. Loop number 3 was starting to get hard. Every patch of grass I ran over or root that was spray painted glow-orange for the runners to navigate I thought, “only one more time after this”. I hit the turnaround and crossed over the timing mat for the third time I could hear other runners chips setting off the electronic chirp. My feet were silent going over the mat.
I ran back out of the trail area, again up the bridge, down water street into the wind to encouragement from the crowd and other runners. We had not been passed once.
I ran toward the chute and thought next time by we are going right to that finish line. My pace remained steady in that 7:30 to 7:45 range to this point but things were starting to hurt. Small hills were feeling larger. My hamstrings were getting sore especially on the downhills. The bike. It had taken a bit out of me. The voice in my head one final time told me, keep grinding it out.
We made the bottom loop, hit the aid station for our final drink and we now had less than 2 miles to go. We exited the trail system and ran up to the top of the bridge. We were 1 mile from the finish.
I can do anything for one mile.
Pass him I thought, pass that one, pass another one, pass those two on your right, that one on your left. Keep grinding it out.
As I approached the final turn my stride came back to me and I knew we had it. I saw Dawn and Landry on my left – What is that in Dawn’s hand? My chip. She had found it and checked with the race officials – I just needed to carry it across the finish line and my time would be recorded.
I made the turn, powered past the sign that had mocked me time after time after time and a smile crept onto my face as I went left instead of right. With no runners ahead of me the finish line volunteers had strung up the finisher’s tape across the chute. The best part of any race is that final 1/10 of a mile. I glanced at the race clock above the chute, 5:16 and change and I started to do the math. My wave started 10 minutes after the first group.
I had just finished my first half-ironman in just over 5 hours.
Our half-marathon run time was 1:40 and change – 7:39 min/mile pace – good enough for the 6th fastest half-ironman run time of the race.
The Finish: I slowed in the chute and made my way over to the race officials. I spoke with them about what had occurred, they checked the computer and my time had registered fine. I was just going to be missing my bike split.
My Official Time was 5:06:57
18th place overall, 17th male finisher.
3rd place in Age Group.
We made the podium in our first half-ironman.
Post Race: After talking with the race officials and making sure everything was squared away, I got my hugs from Dawn and Landry. Landry got her finisher’s medal and Dawn my never-ending gratitude for such great race support and for going above and beyond to get back to the hotel, retrieve my timing chip and get in a position to get it in my hand just 400 meters from the finish line in a 70.3 mile race.
She is simply the greatest.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this one in the last 24 hours or so. My training, my effort, my race plan and my execution were all as good as I could have hoped them to be given our first attempt at this distance.
The one thing I am perhaps most proud of is that when we did have a moment of feeling sorry for ourselves on the bike we quickly set it aside and did not let it take away from our effort or the event. It would have been easy to fold the tent with every gust of wind or every muscle that started to rebel. “Ah, who cares, nobody will know your time anyway” that little voice in my head could have said. Instead, I was able to put that to the side and keep fighting, keep battling and grind it out to the end.
Now it’s time to chase down the last goal on our list at the Chevron Houston Marathon on January 13, 2013. 2:59:XX. We’ll have a plan for that day as well.
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.