Saturday morning my phone woke me up at 4:10 a.m. to the theme song of Friday Night Lights. I grabbed it off of the night stand, slid the switch over to off and took a deep breath.
Ironman was less than 3 hours away.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do before I left for the parking lot to meet up with a couple of fellow competitors to car-pool over to the transition area as most of the pre-race preparation took place over the 72 hours leading up to race morning.
I had arrived to the Woodlands on Wednesday, taking my time driving down from Austin. I was remarkably calm during the trip, did not let traffic frustrate me, just tried to stay relaxed and conserve physical and mental energy. I was going to need all of it on Saturday. Instead of going to the hotel on Wednesday, I went directly to Athlete check-in, signed my waivers, picked up my Ironman Texas bag, my bib, timing chip, transition bags and did a little shopping in the Ironman Store. I returned to the hotel, got my bags packed, numbered, put the stickers on my bike, my helmet and got my shopping done at the local grocery store.
Thursday was a bike ride through the National Forest to scope out the most technical part of the bike course (Miles 40-57) and then on Friday, a short 500 meter practice swim to get used to the water temperature, sighting lines for the buoys and the clarity of the water – or lack thereof.
No surprises on Race Day. That is always a good philosophy. But with a race with as many moving parts as this one, and one covering 140.6 miles across three disciplines, you don’t want to be making it up as you go along out there. I was determined to stick to my plan as close as possible, and then be confident and secure enough in my ability to improvise when necessary never losing sight of the ultimate goal. Just finish this damn thing no matter what it takes. Get the medal. Earn your spot in the club.
I glanced down at my 10 item checklist that I made the day before and started crossing things off of my race morning list:
1. Apply your Race Numbers (Done Friday Night).
2. Apply Body Glide anywhere that skin contacts skin or clothing.
3. Apply sunscreen (don’t forget the backs of your ears or top of your head).
4. Get your frozen Bottles out of the freezer.
5. Place one frozen bottle in the cooler and put in your bike special needs bag.
6. Put on your timing chip.
7. Bring your cap, goggles, wetsuit.
8. Grab bike special needs bag and run special needs bag.
9. Put your phone in your goggles case and inside your morning clothes bag.
10. Have Fun. Do Not Quit.
So after crossing off all of the items with the exception of #10, I calmly forced down a bagel, bottle of EFS (Electrolyte Drink), A water and a small jolt of Coke Zero for the Caffeine it was time to go. I said my goodbye to Dawn who was kind enough to wake up early and get my sunblock in all the right spots on my bake, said goodbye to a sleeping tow-headed girl still dreaming away and walked down to the parking lot. Cannon in less than two hours.
TRANSITION AREA – PRE-RACE – 5:35 a.m.
I walked into the transition area, showed my Ironman wrist band and headed over to my Quintana Roo CD.01 that I had racked on Friday. I did not have a lot to accomplish, just put my bottles on the bike, clip on my bike computer and inflate my tires to 120 lbs. psi. I did not bring my own pump down, but I did remember my headlamp to help make things a bit easier. The line to have the bike technicians fill up tires already had more than 20 nervous athletes in it, so I decided to make a friend at my rack and ask if I could borrow his pump.
I supplied the light, he supplied the pumping power and in less than 10 minutes I was walking out of transition, headed to the swim start. The last thing I wanted to do was spend anymore time around the energy that was going on in Transition. People thinking too much, making adjustments to their set-ups. Tweaking their bikes. There was a time for all of that, but it was several weeks ago. At this point, you have to be committed. I was sticking with my plan and going to just simply do my best to hang in there.
Swim Start – 6:30 a.m.
I made the walk over to the swim start with two friends, Sean Shaikun who I worked with at my last company for more than a decade, and Tim Tait, who I met just this past weekend. Both in town from Atlanta, GA – we were coincidentally and rather amazingly staying at the same hotel. We were able to hang out quite a bit before the race, rode our practice ride and swam the practice session together. The walk distracted me from what was in store and as we got to the Swim start I still was feeling in control and calm.
Then the bathroom line was backed way up and it looked like we would not have enough time to get everything done and get a good spot in the water at 6:45 a.m.
We made the decision to abort the bathroom line, change into our wetsuits, drop off our morning clothes and special needs bags and head over to the water.
At 6:45 a.m. I zipped up, pulled down my goggles and slid into the lake. My nerves were really starting to build now and as I said goodbye to Sean I was all alone swimming over to one of the kayaks. My plan was to hang on to the kayak up until the last minute before the cannon fired so I would not have to tread water and waste precious energy. I had a good spot, only 3-4 rows of swimmers off of the starting line, but as 7:00 a.m. approached the number of swimmers around me more than quadrupled. I was going to be right in the middle of the swim start – bodies were going to be flying everywhere around me – there was no doubt about it now. I was about to start Ironman Texas.
The Swim – 7:00 a.m.
At 6:59:30 I switched my watch off of time of day and into swim mode. I pushed off of the kayak, took three breathes of water, dunking my head and waited for the sound.
Chaos. I could write paragraph after paragraph at this point and I do not think that I could possibly due justice what ensued. This was going to be the most violent, physical, aggressive swim that I’ve ever been a part of. There were a few factors that made it a challenge.
1. Visibility. There is none in Lake Woodlands. this is a shallow body of water with a silt bottom. The rain from the week leading up to the race washed a ton of dirt etc. into the lake and with the swimmers kicking and pulling the silty bottom gets stratified in the water and it is a dark brown. I could not see past my elbow under water during my catch, so there was no way to avoid another athlete before you made contact. No adjustments could be made in advance of hitting another swimmer. It was entirely backed up and we were swimming on top of each other.
2. The Course. Most Ironman Courses start with a straight shot to allow the swimmers to spread out. This lake had a subtle turn to the left, then a turn to the right before you reached the first turn buoys approximately 1.500 meters away. All of the swimmers were basically funneled from the widest part of the race (the start) to a narrow point at the first red turn buoy, so the contact actually increased as you went along instead of decreased. I never swam more than 15 strokes at any point without making contact with another body.
3. The Canal. After making the turn around and heading back North on the swim course, the route then made a right hand turn into a narrow canal for the last 800 meters. The Canal was 30 meters wide at the widest point, about 22 meters wide at its most narrow, again. Full contact, no relief all the way to the steps.
Reading the above and knowing that I am not a swimmer, having taken my first lessons only 3 summers ago, I’m sure you are thinking that I was freaking out.
The funny thing is I have never been more calm and in control during a triathlon than I was at Ironman Texas.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that I knew that the “freak-out” factor was going to be very likely going in, the fact that I was not surprised at all by the chaos, or that I knew that the only way I was going to hear Mike Reilly call me an Ironman was getting through to the end of that swim, but I remained relaxed throughout and simply hung in there to the end.
Swim time: 1:25:17
1,352 place – dead middle of the pack.
I pulled off the goggles and cap, unzipped and plopped down on the mat for the wetsuit strippers to do there thing. I gave the volunteer a quick hug/thank you and started making my run up the hill to the bags. Just before reaching the rows of Bike Gear Bags off to the left I saw Dawn and Landry cheering for Dad as he went by. Seeing there smiling faces, and I’m sure relief to some degree for Dawn that I made it out of the water got me excited to get changed and start on the bike. This was going to be the longest and in some ways most difficult part of the race for me. Winds were blowing hard from the SSW, not the SSE that would provide a tailwind on the way out. The bike was going to be a battle.
I grabbed a seat in the T1 with the goal of being completely dry and into a fresh triathlon kit for the bike. I wanted to start with dry feet and a dry seat.
Off came my jammers – yep, full on nudity in the Ironman Tent – and started with the bodyglide everywhere. Toes, bum, inner arms, waist, nipples, all the bad spots. Got into my gear and bike shoes, strapped on my helmet, filled up my T1 bag with all my swim stuff and handed it to a volunteer. I ran to the rack, pulled down my bike and made it to the bike mount line.
Bike – 8:37 a.m.
I started the bike computer, clipped in as a cyclist was having problems right in front of me and headed out onto the course very controlled. I wanted to keep my heart rate low and ride the first 30 miles under control. This was the only part of the course where I really could have ridden in the 22-25 mph range the way the wind was blowing, but that would come at a huge cost on the back half of the bike. I had originally hoped to ride something around 5:45/5:50, but quickly focused on a 6 hour bike. If I could ride 18.7 mph average, I’d have plenty of time on the marathon course to come in under 13 hours.
I immediately dropped down into the aero position and started to tick off the miles. I found a nice pack to ride with and due to my somewhat slow swim time, a lot of the faster athletes were already out in front of me. I was able to just stick to the left hand “lane” on the bike course, and constantly stay out of drafting trouble while passing the competitors in front of me.
My nutrition plan was to take in a package of sport beans every :30 minutes past the hour on the bike, 2 salt tabs every :45 minutes, 1 stinger waffle every hour and drink my electrolyte replacement drink every 10 minutes.
As we rode through the Woodlands and entered the National Forest at mile 30, everything went according to plan from a nutrition perspective and a degree of effort. I had averaged 18.93 mph through the first 30 mile check-point of the race, but at this point things were going to change pretty significantly as we turned West and headed right into the SSW wind.
The next 26 miles were tough. Rolling hills and a lot of headwind/crosswind. My average speed through this section was only 16.34 mph, but the effort actually increased quite a bit. I was able to stay on my nutrition plan until we reached the 4 hour and 30 minute mark. When I pulled my sport beans out of my bento box on top of my frame, the thought of eating a single one of them made my stomach churn. I tucked them back in, decided to stay on plan with my hydration and salt tab regimen, but I would skip that feeding and see how I felt at the 5 hour mark.
At the midway point of the ride, 56 miles in I thought to myself that I had never raced further than the half-ironman distance on the bike (56 mi). In a lot of ways I was heading into uncharted waters and once we eclipsed mile 100 on the bike, I was really in no-man’s land, as I had never ridden further than 100 miles at any point. I tried to hold back on the first half, so I could push harder on the way back and it was time to start that pursuit.
I continued to pass riders and finally we reached the Woodlands again for the final 12 miles of the bike course. My legs still felt strong, but mentally I was ready to get out of the saddle. I was not able to at the 5 hour mark or the 5:30 mark, just relying on Ironman Perform for my calories, salt and water for my hydration. I was able to pee twice on the bike, but the second time, I could tell that I was behind the hydration schedule as very little emptied from my bladder. I washed things off with cold water as I pedaled for home. But the wind had really beaten us up on the way in.
I averaged 19.90 mph over the 2nd 56 miles of the bike course.
I hit the dismount line, clipped out of my pedals and kicked off my bike shoes for the run back into transition. Ironman Bike was in the books.
911 place – we had passed 441 riders on the bike course.
I had a hard time finding my run legs coming off the bike. I ran a few strides, walked a bit, tried to run again, walked a bit. It was pretty clear that I needed to take some time in T2 to get my legs back under me, so I took my time as the volunteers called out my number 2330, 2330, 2330. By the time I reached my bag a volunteer handed it to me and I made my way back into the tent.
I sat down, pulled open my bag and saw running shoes that did not belong to me. The volunteer had handed me bag #2230 not 2330.
I had to wait for them to change the bags out, which ended up costing me a couple of minutes. Once they returned, I started the second costume change of the day and got into my compression underwear and compression run shorts so that I would be able to place and hold ice in my pants during the marathon to stay cool. Fresh socks, fresh tri top and visor. I stopped at the suntan lotion volunteers on the way out and hit the run course at a comfortable, but slow jog.
Marathon – 2:49 p.m.
I entered the run course, crossed the timing mat and made a mental note that all I had to do was keep moving and I was going to finish. With 9 hours left in the race before they started DNF’ing athletes at Midnight – I could walk the entire marathon and finish. I came into the event with the goal of running the whole marathon, only walking the aid stations for nutrition and hydration. I started off with that plan in mind and took my first strides down the course. Keep in mind this felt very hard to me at this point, but my pace was closer to 10 min/mile than the 9 min/mile I had envisioned during training. When you mixed in the walking of the 26 aid stations I was going to be averaging 11 min./miles – but I very steadily started picking my way through the field with each mile.
The course was a 3 loop, 8.8 mile route. So again, just break it down into bite-size chunks I thought. Run this thing one loop at a time and before you know it you’ll be on the final lap and just 90 minutes or so away from the finish.
Dawn and Landry would be at the hotel pool for the entire first loop, so I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for them. Instead I met up with a runner, George from Washington State and we decided we would run together, keep each other company and motivated and just keep ticking off each mile before we reached the next aid station.
I was trying to make up for my lack of nutrition over the final 90 minutes on the bike, but my stomach was feeling a little queasy from all of the liquid sloshing around in there. The aid stations had the same set-up mile after mile.
Plain Water, Perform, flat Coke, Ice Water, fruit, potato chips, Gu, Gu Chomps, Cookies, Cups of Ice.
My routine consisted of:
1. Grab two cups of water and drink them down. Grab a third cup and pour it over my head.
2. Try to take sip of perform. I got a gulp down once or twice, but most aid stations I had to throw it out.
3. Flat coke, drink one down.
4. Grab a cup of ice water, pour it over my head.
5. Grab red grapes and watermelon when they had it.
6. Put an orange slice in my mouth, suck it dry and throw it away.
7. Grab two cups of ice, pouring one into my shorts, the other down the front and back of my tri top.
8. Grab two more cups of ice, combine it into one and exit transition.
I would drink the melted water from the cup of ice over the first 1/2 mile of the run on the way to the next transition stop. Then I would get a mouthful of ice and pour the remaining ice down the front of my shorts.
Don’t judge me. It was 85 degrees, We are running a marathon coming off a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike. Comfort above all else.
They say that there are no atheists during the ironman marathon. I can attest that this is 100% gospel truth.
The run course took us through a quiet area along a wooded path for a couple of miles and then through a beautiful neighborhood of huge homes in the Woodlands. At the 6 mile mark of the course, we then landed on the waterway, scene of the ironman swim and ran along the path with huge crowds of spectators. All hooting, hollering, encouraging the athletes. They were providing a hug boost to the competitors with high-fives, motivational signs, shouts of encouragement and calling each of us out by name telling us how great we were doing.
The first loop was sort of a recon mission. I quickly learned where the wind was helping, where it was hurting, where the aid stations were and were there were potential for tight spaces, turned ankles and danger.
George and I continued to click off the miles at 10:00 min./mile run pace, 11:00-11:15 total pace including the water stops and never looked further ahead than that mile on that loop.
We spoke about how we ended up at Ironman Texas. Our families, what finishing meant to us and laughed quite a lot at the spectacle that was unfolding.
Every mile we ran became one more mile that we weren’t going to walk and that became the #1 goal. Let’s run this whole thing. No walking, no giving up, just keep going and get that medal.
At the midway point of lap 2 I was able to see Dawn and Landry, pick up Ironbaby and give her a big kiss and hug. Dawn told me she would catch me at the finish line and as we passed the turn off that separated lap 2/3 and FINISH we started the final loop.
To this point things were going fairly well, but the aid stations started becoming more and more welcomed for that :60 seconds worth of walking. Like clockwork, we would pick out a trash can, a sign or a flag and determine that as the starting point to begin running again. We ran through the trail section, back over the bridge that went over Lake Woodlands and past the swim start where our day had begun close to 12 hours earlier. We ran back past the Mansions, and finally the waterway. 3 miles to go. Just a 5K to Ironman.
George and I never separated, never broke cadence and simply ticked them off.
As we got to the turn off we decided we would split up to create some separation between us so we could enjoy our moment at the finish line.
As I started to hear the crowd my legs finally woke up from their slumber. In what I’m sure surprised George a bit, out marathoner’s legs sprung back to life and I dropped pace down to 7:00/mile flat for the final 400 meters. At the first turn of the corral, Dawn and Landry were on the front row, hanging over the barrier with huge smiles on their faces. At that point I never felt my feet hit the ground again until I hit the mat.
As I approached the finish, arms up, I heard Mike Reilly – voice of Ironman, say the words I had played over and over in my mind throughout all of the long rides, long runs, swims in the quarry.
“Joe Marruchella, You. Are. An. Ironman.”
For good measure as I clapped my hands in the chute he added, “You’re an Ironman Joe”.
Total Time: 12:41:39
830th place – we had passed another 81 athletes on the run course.
The volunteers at Ironman truly make the event. I had my own volunteer Chris who helped me through the chute, checked to make sure I was o.k. while another volunteer took off my timing chip, grabbed my finisher’s hat and shirt.
Another volunteer put an ice towel around my neck, while another held my gear for post-race pictures. First class all the way around.
I made it to the end of the chute and caught up with Dawn and Landry – which was the perfect end to a long, long but amazing day.
The complexities of a race like this are truly mind-numbing if you have not experienced it firsthand as I still had to get my morning clothes bag, try to get some food and water in me. Make my way back to the Transition area about a mile away, pick up my transition bags, the Quintana Roo, load everything up, grab some dinner with my girls and then head back to the hotel.
I returned to the hotel room exactly 17 hours after I had left it. A long day by any definition.
But as I got out of the shower, changed into dry clothes and tried to wind down enough to get some much needed sleep over and over in my mind I kept hearing the same thing over and over again.
“You’re an Ironman Joe.”