Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What was the “safe word” again?

I have wanted to write this for some time now, but I’ve been distracted with non-writing stuff ever since I have come back.

What was the “safe word” again? I think I need to get out of this.

The Ironman Hawaii this year was one of the biggest challenges I have had to overcome in at least the last 3 years. When I first stepped up from the Olympic distance to the 1/2 Ironman distance (70.3), I had my struggles there too. Fortunately, a ½ distance race going pear-shaped only takes an extra hour or two to get out of, at most. Having a bad day at an Ironman, regardless of how prestigious it is, can lead to a very long, very hard day.

The day started out at around 4am. Did the normal race morning rituals I had done for every race, except that this one would be the Hawaiian Ironman. Last year was my rookie year at this. I know I had made several mistakes in 2007 regarding hydration, electrolytes, strategy and inexperience with the heat. I was determined to learn from those mistakes and I had made several corrections and countermeasures. Unfortunately, all of the meticulous planning can be unraveled by not having the head together right on race day.

The morning at the pier was exciting. There was so much activity and buzz going on, it was what makes Kona such a memorable event. Two Navy SEALS that were participating parachuted in. Watching the 100+ kayakers, boarders, and surfers paddle out from the beach head. All of this went on as I saw the sunrise go over mount Mona Loa. All that was missing were a couple dolphins and a rainbow.

I was instructed by the officials to jump in from the pier and held a position in the relatively un-crowded front center. Everyone was either far right or far left, along the buoy markers boxing the start in. The start was chaotic mix of mixed languages, people surging back and forth from the start line as they treaded water, all waiting for the sound of the cannon. I swear I had a clear line of sight and nothing but open water in front of me, but as soon as the cannon went off, I found myself clambering over a surf board rider. No idea how that happened.

I had originally hoped to find a clean gap between the two sides. Never did. The entire swim for me was very turbulent, and any gap that would form, would quickly be filled in by other swimmers. My speedsuit, which I had practiced for miles in, was chaffing me on the triceps, a new place that it had not done before (I still have the scars from it two weeks later). With salt water entering the fresh scrapes on my arms, I could not wait for the swim to be over, and as it did, I quickly ran up the steps into the ensuing chaos of entering the T1 change tent with 200 other people.

T1 is pretty crazy. Everyone and everything is wet, people are everywhere, all trying to pull on their cycling gear onto wet bodies, which is frustratingly hard because of the friction. The exit on the bicycle from T1 was madness. Everyone was gunning it, popping out of the turns and pushing the climbs, seemingly to go at an all out effort. I forced myself to sit down and keep the effort low. There was nothing to be gained in the first 3 miles of a 112 mile race and my plan was to ride the bike as gently as possible and save the race for the run. The bike is hard, as there is nothing to see or do on the bike. It’s just lava fields and straight pavement. Once in a while I would come across an interesting racer, like the one who decided to make an aerodynamic fairing out of duct tape in the empty space between the down tube and seat tube on his bicycle (not the greatest idea in a race known for its cross winds. Disc wheels are prohibited for a reason). The ride was going as planned, and at the turn off to Hawi, the cross winds picked up. I’m sure the Duct Tape guy got blown out to sea, because the winds were very strong that day. It was a bad sign when I could see the riders ahead of me leaning at a 30degree angle, just before I got hit by it. It blew me almost 6 feet across the road before I could lean enough to correct it. The seriousness of the race was cracked at times when we would all look at each other and laugh in amazement how obnoxiously strong the winds were. This continued for the next hour, and then it got really ugly, when it turned into a headwind. The headwind was crushing. It made whistling noises as it blew across the rugged terrain and it was unrelenting in its force. I believe this is where my Ironman went from a race to “survival”. My head slowly tightened into a painful knot that could not be loosened. Nothing in my body was tired, but it was becoming increasingly hard to stay focused as the pain in my head turned into a migraine. I told myself I would feel better once I got off the bike, but in the meantime, what had supposed to be a routine ride, riding at a the same wattage level I had practiced for thousands of miles at, had become excruciatingly difficult.

As I rolled into T2, my legs felt numb, my head was pounding and I felt exhausted. I sat in the chair to change shoes and I just wanted to take a nap. I paced myself out of the T2, waiting for that migraine to melt away. It didn’t happen. It was just hot, and now with the pounding head, the feeling of fatigue, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. It was all too much. I wasn’t sure what caused the migraine. Maybe it was too much effort on the bike (even though my wattage download showed it to be right on), or too much fighting the wind, or too much mental stress of the day, but I broke down very badly. The migraine was so bad, the only thing on my mind was to lie down and sleep. Liz was there screaming at me. She was everywhere screaming at me, like a sergeant drilling a new recruit. I tried to ask her what was going on with me and all I got was more screaming. At one point, I just told her I didn’t want hear her anymore, resulting in only more screaming at me. The yelling persisted for another 4 hours as I stumbled my way through 21 miles, half awake, with the other half concerned with only lying down. Someone handed me a cup of chicken soup and I saw the Tiki torches being lit up…the clues that I had been out here for a while. I was eventually left alone after the Energy Lab and I staggered my way back to the finish.

Alii Drive was filled with people. Everyone was screaming and cheering. The street was lined with people and activity; it was all a blur to my head. I saw the bright lights of the finish, so I headed toward them. I couldn’t think about anything but making my head stop pounding and now the noise and people screaming was deafening. As I approached the lighted stage at the finish, I was concerned that I didn’t see my family as I knew they would be waiting for me along Alii. I found myself on the finish carpet and walked up the ramp to a volunteer.

I felt horrible. They kept asking me where I was from. I kept on saying Chicago, and that I was not sure why I was feeling unwell. I was quickly dragged to medical, got weighed at 1lb less than what I started and was given a cot. All I could do was lie there in the fetal position, clamping my head between my arms. Someone came by asking questions about where I was from. Chicago. My head hurt. My chest felt like it was being pulled apart. Someone else took my pulse. Another decided to take off my shoes. A blood sample was taken from my arm and for some reason the valve for the needle didn’t close, so now I was lying in small pool of blood. Then an IV went in. A scribbled note on yellow paper was handed to me“Buck up camper. – Liz”. Then the IV came out and I was starting to become able to think without so much cloudiness in my thoughts. I talked with the doctor who had been overseeing me, and we agreed that I had just needed a moment to get over my “understandably long day”. He helped me up and then helped me find Liz. I was a little bit better, but the head was still very painful, and now my ears were starting to ring from the pain. I asked to be lowered on the ground and Thomas gave me a big assist. I just wanted to go home.

I don’t know what happened. The day was very hard, and I’m sure that I did not meet the expectations people had for me, but in the end, I was glad just to finish. Truth be told, the only thing I really regret about the day was missing my family at the end. Apparently they had been feet away from me at the finish line, screaming their heads off as I passed within an arm’s reach of them. I had absolutely no recollection they were there, only having found out after being told about it. I also did not get family photos with them on the little stages in the back of the finish, as 9 people had come from across the world to be with me. As for the Ironman, I don’t know where things went wrong. It’s totally possible I stressed myself out in the expectations of doing good here, or maybe it was something I failed to do with my nutrition, but the experiences on this trip was a lot more than just the end time on a clock.


rr said...

Chris - I could see the struggle, but had no idea it was a migraine. I'm sorry, I can't imagine fighting anything worse on raceday - they suck. Way to stick it out. And not kill the yelling wifey.

E.L.F. said...

BUCK UP CAMPER, love love...wife.

Beth said...

That sounds awful. But you got through!! And that's what just amazes me over and over again! Like you said, it's one thing to suffer through a 70.3 but 140.6? Awesome job Chris! Now wise up and move back down to Olympic distance racing... :)

Jennifer Harrison said...

Hope you are drinking yourself silly now! Or eating Deep DISH pizza every night while elizabeth gasps!
:) Jen H.

Anonymous said...

Hey mouse buster-
Worry when she stops yelling at you! You gave it a good try.
the mother-in-law

kevin said...

Great race report and good seeing you and Sam in SL. See you in Dec.