The good news with an Ironman marathon, when the race is going well, is knowing you can walk the damn thing and still finish before midnight.
That's what I thought as I walked toward the T2 changing tent from the bike dismount after my 112-mile ride. I couldn't pick my legs up enough to run, still trying to process the day's events to that point. The idea of running 26.2 miles in that moment seemed not just ridiculous, but cruel. It was 82 degrees with no cloud cover, which meant with the asphalt heat rising it would feel closer to 87.
I entered the dark changing area with my running gear bag, which a helpful volunteer held out for me as I rummaged through it to put body glide on my feet to avoid blisters, then socks, then my shoes. I took two Salt Stick canisters and a full packet of Pepto Bismal. Just as I reached to put it in my back jersey pocket, I was greeted with a loud wretching noise nearby. Another Ironman tribute was puking. "It's been happening all day," the volunteer said grimly.
I thanked the volunteer for his calm help and stepped outside the tent. I didn't realize how shady and cool the changing area was. An oasis. Then the best part of the oasis, a team of volunteers armed with nothing more than sunblock surrounded me, slathering me all at once. I sighed with delight and relief, not knowing I was sporting a wicked sunburn on my shoulders and lat muscles where my tri suit didn't cover. Pouring bottles of water all over me on the bike to stay cool showered away any semblance of sun protection. But in that moment, the topical felt just as soothing as massage oil applied during a spa visit.
Time to test the legs out. Would I be running or walking today? Surprisingly, my legs responded well. Not even a "This again?" squeal from my quads. All systems go. My body was getting used to this unique form of torture, even without solid food for nearly three hours. I saw Steph as I begain the first loop of the three-loop course -- the first of 10 times I'd have the privilege -- gave her a kiss, and it was on.
I had to employ various tricks during the first 13 miles to keep my body moving at a consistent sub-10-minute mile pace. The first trick is to break up the 13 miles into two 10k runs. I run six miles all the time, this would be no different. My brain knows it can handle this so my body follows. Then, I reward my body at every aid station by throwing a cup of ice cold water into my face. I'm getting very tired with each passing mile, so the water wakes me up and literally forces the breath out of me with the shocking chill. I also stuff soaked sponges down my jersey, front and back. After that, my ritual includes pouring ice into the jersey opening down my chest. My heart-rate strap acts as a sort of dam, so the ice centers and stops right over my heart and lungs. As a result, my heart-rate hardly ever rises above zone 2 (roughly 146 beats per minute) through the entire run.
That keeps me cool, but what would keep me nourished? Fool your mind, the body will follow. But without fuel, both body and mind are toast. Fortunately, I remembered the advice my Fortius teammate and friend Christina posted on my Facebook the night before the race. I'm convinced this single piece of advice saved my run, and enabled me to PR the marathon.
Christina told me that if I couldn't eat anything during the marathon, try grapes. "Lifesavers," she wrote.
They were. I ate at least five full bunches of grapes during my nearly 4.5 hour trek. The grapes gave me enough sugar to persist, and I found entertainment rolling them around in my fingers, squishing them apart in my mouth. Lifesavers they were.
There were other lifesavers on the course though. First and foremost was my new friend Colleen, whom I shall refer to as the Mayor of St. George because of the constant cheering for her I heard on every street of the course. Colleen lives in St. George, and was kind enough to reply to my St. George preview post from six weeks ago -- warning me that the first 20 miles of the bike course were not to be taken for granted.
Oh, how right she turned out to be. If it wasn't for her, I'm convinced I might not have been as mentally prepared.
Colleen and I seemed to be running the same marathon for the most part. For most of the afternoon, we leap-frogged each other, always encouraging the other to keep running, keep pushing, keep pacing. Unfortunately, Colleen was having some digestive issues that caused her to run at what probably was a slower pace for her -- and I think it was hurting her outlook. But since she is the Mayor of St. George, she had plenty of support to keep her on track. One nice guy literally ran alongside the two of us for around a half-mile, giving her a pep talk during the second loop that probably helped me just as much.
When you're sucking wind, you'll take anybody's encouraging words even if they're not meant for you.
At the half-marathon point, I looked to the tall tower in the town square where the finisher's chute was stationed. If I could maintain my current pace, I'd definitely break 13 hours -- which was my secondary personal goal. My first goal was a 12:30:00 finish, weather permitting. Well, the weather certainly did not permit. The next-best thing was to break 13 hours.
It would be hard, but doable.
(The video below is the official Ironman St. George 2012 highlights video. It summarizes the entire day in case you're sick of reading all this. Look for me at the 5:17 mark!)
My body wasn't cooperating though. The mile pace times started to creep into the 10:20 per mile range, then slower. Soon, I was consistently running in the 10:10s and getting worried. My heart rate was low, but so was my output. I became scared that I was bonking with a whole lot more running to do. Maybe I would have to walk?
The trick to finishing the second half of an Ironman marathon is to count backwards from 13 miles. Twelve more miles to go. Eleven. Ten, and so on. My goal is to get to that six-mile mark, knowing it's "just" one last 10k. Only by the time this 10k began, I was in danger of missing the 13-hour window. I needed to pick up the pace.
Too bad though. I had hit the wall. Miles 20 and 21 were almost at the 11-minute per mile pace. Miles 23 and 24 were slower. My body was breaking down. The lack of food was catching up to me. Things got so bad that when spectators were high-fiving me, they were actually slowing down my pace. Instead of giving me energy, fans were taking it with each slap of my hand. But then I realized, this is it. I was running the final two miles of my Ironman. An Ironman that I originally worried would only have an asterisk next to it because it wasn't on the same course as the first two brutally tough St. George events. There would be no asterisk. This course was giving me everything I could handle. I had already made peace with my Tri-asshole nemesis from 2010. Was he here racing? Who knew? Who cared? I was. Nobody could accuse me of taking the "easy" way out at an Ironman course.
All these thoughts invigorated me. I wanted to give this remaining run everything I had left. To find strength I didn't know existed. So I made a promise to myself. No. More. Stopping. From mile 24 until the end of the race, I was going all-out. Even through the toughest part of the course, a mile-long steady climb on Diagonal Street, I would not stop. The faster I ran, the faster this torture would be over. Plus, maybe I could salvage a sub-13-hour finish. It was possible, if I just kept on pushing.
My final two miles were 9:45 climbing and 8:40 descending. Not record-breaking times but among my fastest miles of the day. Heading down towards the final turnaround, I found Steph, told her to get ready, it was time for a victory celebration in the finisher's chute. Thinking of Chris McCormack and his awkward Ironman victory photos with sponges shoved in his chest, I got ready for my close up. I flung out four sponges, and opened my jersey all the way to drain water and ice.
This was almost it. Still, there was a quarter-mile to go. The clock tower was out of sight and the last time I saw it, it read 7:55 p.m. C'mon Ryan! I implored...finish strong! The turnaround came, the clock tower came back into view...12:56. Four minutes to run make the right turn on Main Street and hear Mike Reilly call me an Ironman for the third time.
I liked my chances!
And so the celebration began. My arms instinctively became airplane wings, and I flew from one side of the crowd to the other, accepting all the high-hives I could touch. I never wanted this moment to end, and yet that's all I wanted.
"Ryan Schneider, Sherman Oaks, California...You're an Ironman!"
At the finish line, I looked at my watch: 4:26:11. A marathon PR. 12:57:32. Mission. Accomplished.
I found Steph in the chute shortly thereafter. She missed the finish because the course was blocked off and made it hard for her to cross the street from her personal cheering perch to get into the stands. Steph accepted a long embrace, and my apologies for telling her she'd be able to see me no problem at the finish. We had a good laugh.
Once the euphoria of the race wore off, the chills set in. I couldn't stay warm. My body was cold and required medical attention to warm up with several blankets, chicken broth and massage work. After nearly an hour of recovery in the massage and medical area, it was time to go home.
The Ironman Games had concluded. I survived. I took everything the Gamesmakers threw at me and never panicked. In some ways, I got to know myself better as a result. And I appreciate myself a little more. Tri-asshole is dead. And the only asterisk next to this race is to signify that it was statistically the hardest Ironman in the history of the sport.
In Arizona, I left a piece of my heart and soul on that course. Coeur d'Alene has my gratitude, but no scars to speak of. St. George...that's the place I'll remember where I confirmed who I really am. A fighter. And a finisher.
I finish what I start. No matter what. I finish.
I won my own version of the Ironman Games.