IMCDA Race Report Part II: Making Friends With Pain

As you'll recall from Thursday's blog, at the end of my Ironman Coeur d'Alene swim I looked down at my wrist to check my split.  No Garmin. NO GARMIN!!!!

Believe it or not, the race photographer shooting all the swimmers exiting the water caught my expression the moment I realized I was going to have to bike 112 miles and run a marathon by instinct alone.

This is what my first boss out of college affectionately labeled "The Very Concerned Face."

I remember two things about that moment: 1) "OMG! My day is over!" and 2) "Calm down!  Don't panic!  You're going to do this by feel.  Let's move on."

If IMCDA had been my first Ironman, I would have listened to my first thought and not my second.  Instead, I calmly gathered my transition bag and settled into the changing tent to put on dry clothes for the bike ride.  It took me a while to put on my tight sleeveless tri jersey and zip the cycling jersey I wore over it.  I just didn't have warm enough fingers to do it quickly and precisely, losing precious minutes in T1.  Then, as I was about to retrieve my bike, I had to pee again.  Remember how strategic I thought I was by peeing in the lake before exiting the water?  Well, that became more wasted time as I spent another two minutes waiting for the urinal trough inside the changing tent.

Finally, ELEVEN minutes later, I was on the bike course. I felt great physically except for a massive knot in my left calf from the previous swim cramps, but my mind was spiraling out of control.  "How will I know when to hydrate and eat?"  "When will I ingest my Endurolytes without knowing what time it is?"  "How will I keep my heart rate in check?"  "How will I make sure I don't ride too hard?"

It was at this point that I reminded myself of my recent conversation with Chris McCormack and trusting your instincts. We're not robots and we shouldn't race like them, focused purely on numbers and tracking data.  I calmed down and decided that I'd play it conservative from a nutrition standpoint.  I guessed that I'd average between 16-17 mph on the hilly course, so that meant counting every 16 miles and popping two or three Endurolytes at that point.  I'd drink at what felt like every three miles, and eat when I hungry, or approximately at every 10 miles.  This approach turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it kept my brain engaged in the moment and didn't allow me to wander mentally. I had to stay focused and totally in tune with how my body felt.

I also had to contend with wondering and reacting to how I did in the swim compared to my Fortius teammates.  I knew that David, Richard, Kelly and Eddie were all faster than me in the water. Where were they on the bike?  How much ground would I need to make up to catch them?  I got my answers within the first 10 miles of the bike.  I saw Eddie, David and Richard a few minutes behind me, which made me feel real good that I didn't have as poor a swim and T1 as I thought.  If they were near me, then it was a tough swim hands-down. Then, I went on the lookout for Kelly, whom I met up with around mile 12.  We were both climbing the first big hill, trading some stories for a few minutes and I continued on.

The first loop of the bike really breezed by.  I never climbed out of my saddle on the many hills, concentrated on my breathing and nutrition, and took in the amazing scenery around me.  I briefly pushed when I saw my buddy Chris approximately 10 minutes ahead at a turnaround point -- he must have had an amazing swim, I thought.  Then, I remembered that PATIENCE had to be my mantra. I'd have to find him on the run.

As I rolled back into town, I checked a couple of outdoor clocks blinking from banks or shopping centers.  To my surprise, I was right on schedule to reach the half-way point around six hours and eight minutes -- exactly where I would have wanted to be pacing based on watch data.  I couldn't believe it.  How did I time it just right?

I was invigorated.  The day was not only salvageable, but I was feeling great -- no sign of cramps, no nutritional issues and a wave of confidence.  I decided to play it conservative for the next 10 miles with a well-timed potty break (one rest stop before special needs pickup knowing traffic would jam there) and subsequent special needs bag pickup of my own for a sandwich and mini-can of Coke.  I ate half of my peanut-butter English Muffin on the bike, felt full and pounded away.  Here I also got lucky as I threw off my cycling jacket to the Fortius team at their hangout tent just before race officials rounded a corner, I later learned.  Had they seen me, I would have received a four-minute penalty for ditching equipment illegally -- but I honestly didn't know this would be a big deal which is why I was so brazen about doing it.  This small unintentional gamble saved me from overheating on the much warmer second loop of the bike.

Around mile 75, my ride started to go south.  I experienced my first bout with adductor cramps, my leg literally froze mid-pedal stroke on a hilly climb.  It was bent almost at a 90-degree angle and wouldn't budge.  There was no choice here of getting off my bike as I couldn't move my leg or unclip my foot from the pedal -- that's how badly I cramped.  I would have tumbled over and been in even more pain.  Normally, I would have panicked, but I just didn't have that option in the heat of the moment.  Instead, I told myself to JUST BREATHE THROUGH IT.  I tried a yoga trick that had never worked for me in my practice -- focusing all my energy on the pain point and breathing straight to it.

It worked!  My leg unlocked as I continued to pedal slowly up the hill.  I was ecstatic.  Never before in all my training or racing had I simply breathed through a cramp and kept going without losing time.  I couldn't believe it. It truly was going to be my day.

Then, my right leg locked up on the next hilly climb.  Clearly something was wrong -- I was bonking.  Even though I hadn't felt dehydrated, clearly I hadn't taken on enough liquids or electrolytes.  I went into full borne self-protection mode. At each mile that I counted off in my head for the next five, I popped three Endurolyte pills.  I even accepted aid from a man running alongside me in a helmet adorned with moose antlers!  He offered Ibuprofen pills and an ice slushy that looked like a Freeze Pop.  I hadn't had one of those since I was a kid!  Sure, why not, I needed the simple sugar rush.

BAM.  Over the next 10 miles or so, no cramps, an energy surge and I'm back on my game.  Now we're at mile 90.  I can do this, I thought, only 22 more miles to pedal.  I figured it would take me 1.5 hours based on my slower pace and more conservative approach.  I settled in and rode on.

At this point, my arm warmers are long gone and my cycling jersey unzipped, revealing my sleeveless tri jersey underneath.  It's a battle between me, the heat of the day (which wasn't that hot), nutrition, my cramps, my goals, and no real knowledge of how I'm tracking against them.  Each time my hamstrings or adductors would scream in the form of a cramp, I'd slow down just a bit, breathe through the pain, wait for the muscle to unseize itself, and continue on.  I knew I had broken through a new personal pain plateau and that was deeply satisfying.  Chris McCormack, in his "I'm Here to Win" book, wrote extensively about making friends with pain.  I did that on my Ironman Coeur d'Alene bike ride.

I saw my first clock heading back to Coeur d'Alene, right around the 100-mile mark.  It was 10 minutes to six hours on the bike.  OK, I can do this.  I can be back by around the 6:20 mark -- exactly as Gerardo had predicted all along.  The cheers from the throngs of townspeople lining the road brought me back to the race site.  I felt like a pro with all the cowbells clanging and everyone shouting at me to continue on -- total strangers!  It fueled me and I arrived back to the bike-to-run transition at the 6:24 mark -- a little slower than I would have liked but a conservative ride that left my legs mostly intact.  My butt hurt, my legs ached, my left calf was still tight from the morning swim cramp, and my adductors were clearly going to be a problem the rest of the day.

I still had to run 26.2 miles before calling myself a two-time Ironman.

I knew I had room in the tank to complete a marathon.  But I had no idea how much of it I'd run or walk.

More on that tomorrow.