Over the last two years, my free time has largely been filled with a singular (maniacal?) goal, and that was finishing my second Ironman. I’m happy with my race and I’m leaving Busselton feeling content about what I did on Sunday, but even happier with what it represents about my life.
Given the fact that I was on crutches in March, unable to run without pain until the last two months, and sick about half of the year, I can’t quite believe it. My finishing time of 11:12 is more than 90 minutes faster than the 12:45 I posted four years ago. I knew I was in better shape, and despite the lies I told myself and others, I would have been disappointed if I didn’t go under 12 hours. Still, there was a nagging concern about how my body would hold together after the last year of trauma.
Now, you’re lucky I’m not feeling prolific – after my first Ironman I wrote an entire post for every leg of the race….5 posts in total. But we’ll try to get it done in two posts.
Pre-race: All systems go
Justus and I arrived in Busselton on Thursday afternoon, and I spent Friday and Saturday doing the usual prep of assembling my bike, driving the bike course, getting something fixed at the bike shop, getting in a practice swim and going for a practice ride. The night before the race, I slept incredibly well. It helps going West for a race, because your body wants to sleep earlier and get up earlier, which it what you need when the race starts at 5:45 AM.
I had a few goals: beat my previous time by at least 45 minutes (i.e. go under 12 hours), not need a “pit stop” so many times (first IM was 6 total stops!!), and not walk on the run.
The Swim: Aquatic Combat in Paradise
I managed to get a decent warm-up in the ocean, and peed while warming up. Check and check!
Despite it being a wide open course, it was more of a melee than I had expected. I ran into a handful of pods of chaos, with swimmers who were opting to stay near others rather than just swim without being pummeled. At one point I was kicked in the goggle, and my calves were actually sore coming in from having so many people slap them. I’ll admit while I am pretty good about not slapping people’s feet and just forging my own way, I do retaliate when someone is just being ridiculous. And there was plenty of retaliation Sunday.
Overall I was swimming well “within myself” and could have gone a lot harder, but I had a game plan and I needed to save everything for the run given how little running I had been able to do over the past six months.
My one major mistake was heading toward the Busselton Jetty instead of the swim exit, and including that I probably tacked on an extra 50-150m over the entire course of the swim with poor navigation.
Overall, Busselton has to be one of the best swim courses in the world, if not the best (I have very limited experience but it’s hard to imagine something better, and a lot of my teammates who have done multiple races confirm it). The water is clear, the perfect temperature, and you have a massive landmark in the Jetty that you can follow. Luckily I breathe on the left side so I could always see the Jetty if I was veering off course.
The Bike: One position, five and 2/3rds hours
My game plan was based on a specific power level, but the one challenge with my Garmin power-sensing pedals I have is calibration. I don’t think the power readout was correct – it definitely felt low given my level of effort. I wasn’t pushing anything that hard, but the wattage was too low given my speed. Luckily I know what my legs should feel like and kept the effort level where it should be. I felt great after lap 1, and knew that I had enough in the tank to exit the bike ride with something for the run.
The wind came up a bit during the second lap, and my pace dropped a little in the face of a slight wind. The course is beautiful, and the surface is great. It’s just dead flat so you’re in the same position for 5-6 hours. And my man-parts were feeling it much worse than my legs. Time to look at some new saddles…
The course officials seemed to do a decent job of catching people drafting, though one friend got two penalties when in both cases he had been illegally passed.
Near the end of the race, seeing ~5:40 as my bike time, quick maths told me I had a shot at an 11 hour Ironman. I pushed that aside and told myself to follow the plan and not get cocky.
The Run: Suffering and wait… even more suffering
My first two ks were supposed to be the slowest of the marathon, but I started off too fast: my body was happy to be off the bike, wanted to move, and I was fighting to hold it back to the correct pace.
The first lap of ~12kfelt good (for all my friends back in the U.S., a marathon is 42k), and I took my first pit stop mid-way through. The second lap also felt great – I was holding pace just fine, but needed a second pit stop, but felt that it would be my last. It was! 1 goal accomplished.
The third lap, the wheels didn’t just come off, they fell off, caught fire, and disintegrated. All of a sudden, I was dizzy – I couldn’t run straight. My legs got wobbly and I couldn’t concentrate. I began to walk. Confusion dominated the next two minutes trying to decide if I had too much salt, not enough salt, not enough calories, or not enough water. My race hung in the balance of the next two minutes. I had seen enough videos and first hand evidence of people collapsing during races that I knew what could happen. My mind drifted into the negative: I hate walking. I had now failed one of my main three goals, but I put that aside. I tried running again but my legs were jelly and could barely catch each stride I was making, and my balance had completely left me.
Finally I threw back a gel, a salt tablet, and three cups of water, and began to feel a little better. My legs were still wobbly, but my mind was clear. During that time, Scott Miller, a fellow kidney transplant recipient, passed me and said hello. Then Natalie, from my tri-club, came by and said “you can do this, Bryan.” And that’s what got me started.
I began to run again, and ran side by side with Natalie while I felt my system recover, then as I got stronger I picked up the pace. I was back on race pace (and actually way too fast during one section as I went through the crowd, knowing I had just one lap to go). Kyle and Justus were there cheering, and Scott and Sarah were yelling a bit further down the course. At that point, I knew I’d finish, and go under 11:30.
Looking back, there’s no question it was simple dehydration that caused my near collapse. My nutrition was fine, I just wasn’t feeling thirsty even though I desperately needed the water.
The final 4K were tough, but much easier than my fight with dehydration. I asked my legs for more, and they grudgingly gave me a slightly faster pace, but there were no adrenaline reserves to speak of. I crossed the finish line with scores of muscles in pain, but more happy to be finished. The finish line comes so quickly in the last moments.
After the finish line I found my teammates, I found Scott Miller, and I found Kyle, Justus, Scott, and Sarah. Having them there made the celebration so much sweeter.
What it all means
So, I spent almost a full day in the ocean and racing around roads in Western Australia. What’s the point? Just to prove that I’m as daft as everyone thinks? (Please don’t answer that.) I’ve been training for two years for this – why have I spent ever spare minute pursuing this? Well, several reasons:
Four years ago in Austin, my training partner used his Ironman quest as a way to focus his energy and come back to life after a difficult end to his marriage. I suppose I started my journey the same way, two years ago, using the suffering and focus of training to cleanse my heart and mind of the anger and the hurt from my partner’s callous disregard for our relationship.
Along the way, I found Room to Read; I found a cause I cared about – where I could actually see the difference my donations could make. I met girls who could attend school for a year for the price of a nice dinner in Sydney. I met Kall Khan, who taught me about giving more and more every day.
I came back from injury and illness – a stress reaction in the femoral neck of my left leg a year ago. After seven weeks on crutches I still had months of rehab to undo the damage to the surrounding tendons. Winter brought a three-month intestinal infection. September, October, and November were near perfect, though I managed to contract a nasty lung infection two weeks before the race.
About 25% of the people in my age group did not finish the race – the run was hot and difficult. There’s some extra pride there. Four years ago, one of my coaches, Christie, told me that the journey is much more memorable than the race. And despite the difficulty of the last two years, the journey has been incredible, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Finally, and most important: In two weeks, I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of my kidney transplant. I don’t ever cross the finish line alone: my cousin Diane is always with me. I can’t wait to see her in January! She’s both the reason why I’m physically able to run even 5K, and the motivation behind why I love this sport. She was at the finish line at Ironman Arizona four years ago, and the one upside of not having here there is that I didn’t spend 15 minutes after the racing crying and holding on to her.
Coming soon…. The Gratitude Honor Roll.