MY FIRST IRONMAN - Beach to Battleship Race Report (Read 2447 times)

    “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” – Winston Churchill



    The first time I ever heard of an Ironman triathlon, I thought it was just unbelievable that a person could actually swim that far. Sure the bike and run are no small accomplishments… but to SWIM 2.4 miles seemed so out of reach - especially to someone who panicked at the thought of a 300 yard pool swim in my first triathlon 3 years ago.  But eventually, after joining a Masters swim class, a series of gradually longer swims, and buying a wetsuit, I did a half ironman last year. After that race, even though I initially wanted to do more half ironman races before trying a full, I took the plunge and signed up to attempt something that I had been afraid to even verbalize as a goal – to complete an ironman distance triathlon.


     “Even if he can't put it into words, every man is haunted by the question, “Am I really a man? Have I got what it takes…when it counts? - John Eldredge


    The shorter races this season leading up to the Ironman went very well (with a few exceptions) and I managed to place in my age group in some races, but the swim continued to be the big monster.


    The last two open water triathlons I’d had were meant to be confidence builders for my ironman  race, yet to my despair, they were the ones I most needed to forget. A snapshot into the last open water triathlon and I’m hanging onto a kayak about 200 yards into a 400 yard swim.  A girl beside me (also clinging to the kayak) says, “Never again. I’m never doing this again.” All I could think at that time was, “I have an ironman swim in 4 months…a swim that’s more than 10 times longer than this one… It took me 24 minutes to finish a 400 yard swim that day.



    So fast forward to Wrightsville Beach, Thurs morning at my hotel, two days before the race.  As I ate breakfast watching the waves break, I could only eat half a waffle.  What would normally have been a calming, beautiful morning at the beach was anything but calming.  And in my mind  I heard Casting Crowns singing,

    “But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me, Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed

    The waves they keep on telling me, Time and time again. 'Boy, you'll never win!' "You'll never win"”


    I kept reminding myself that I was there because of my own choice…and I knew that physically, I could do the distance, yet I still wasn’t sure what race day would bring.


    No matter how great an athlete you are, the day of an ironman race is a very long day.  So for the “dark” times when everything is crashing around you, it helps to remember something that keeps you going, something that motivates you to press on when you feel like you can’t…your “one thing”.



    Race day morning I woke up after about 4 hours of sleep at the most, and started getting ready.  I was nervous, but not overwhelmed like I thought I may be.  I took the shuttle to T1 and set things up there, then took the first shuttle to the swim start.  It was dark and the wait seemed like a really long time, but it is much less stressful to me to arrive early.  Before I knew it, start time was upon us, and I hadn’t even made it all the way to the beach to get in the water.  So off I ran toward the water, and I was able to get in and get wet.  The water temperature was perfect – around 69-70 deg.  The announcer told us it was time to get out of the water.  Almost “go-time”… and I started thinking, “this is really happening.” 


    As the announcer started us off, 1,000 people in wetsuits ran toward the water as Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” blasted over the speakers ….”His knees are weak, palms are sweaty…”  It’s hard to describe the feeling I had, but the best I can say is that it was a mix of adrenaline and relief, motivation and fear.  We all headed for the first buoy to make the turn down the channel, and it was pretty crowded at first.  A few times I skipped a breath because someone was on top of me or I felt a wave coming over me, but I managed to stay calm. I started counting strokes and then it hit me, “I’m doing this! I have started an Ironman swim!”

    About 300 yards in, I saw a guy to my right flip over on his back, so I swam wide to give him plenty of room.  The channel was wide enough that the crowd thinned out pretty quickly and I just focused on swimming long, easy strokes.  The taste of salt water was starting to bother  me and after a while I started gagging and dry heaving.... but that only took a few seconds, then I was back to swimming again. I could feel the current pushing us and I was very happy for that.  But the wind started picking up and the water got pretty choppy.  At one point, I took a big wave in the face just as I was taking a breath, so I swallowed a big mouthful of water.  I coughed, gagged, and almost threw up again, but held it together.  There was a big orange buoy that we were supposed to go to the right of (I thought), but it was drifting down the channel and when I got pretty far down, the kayakers were telling me to turn.  I start across the channel, and I could really feel the current pushing me.  It was a pretty slow swim with the cross current and I started feeling like I was swimming "in place"   I started counting strokes, then looking up, counting strokes, looking up, and eventually I could see that I was making forward progress.   It was foggy on the water which made sighting really tough, but the kayakers and the paddleboarders helped to direct us the way we needed to go.  As I started to get closer to the exit ladders, I knew that this felt like a fast swim, especially for me.  I climbed out of the water, looked at my watch, and it said 1:13 something.  Woohoo! I had just finished an Ironman swim! Apparently the timing mat isn't exactly as you come out of the water because my official time was 1:14:46.  Still much faster than I expected.


    Next were the wetsuit strippers, and they got me out of my wetsuit quickly and pointed me toward the hot shower tent where I probably spent more time than I should have.  A painful run in Florida immediately after swimming in the ocean had taught me NOT to run without thoroughly rinsing the salt water out of my shorts.  I knew if the 6 miles that day was painful, salt water chaffing for 138 miles would make my day really miserable. 


    I’m not really sure why the rest of my transition was so slow.  From the swim exit to transition is about 400 yards, and I couldn’t really run fast because the pavement was rough and my feet were cold.  I got to the transition area, grabbed my changing bag, and went into the changing tent.  I dried off with my towel, took off my swimsuit, put on my tri shorts, heart rate monitor strap, tri top, arm warmers, socks, gloves, cycling shoes, ate an oatmeal cream pie (which took all of 3 bites), took a drink of water, stuffed my wetsuit and everything else back in the bag and headed out.  I stopped at the porta toilet, and there was someone waiting in line, so I waited for no more than 2 minutes, then just decided to go on.  I ran to my bike, mixed the perpetuem powder, put my bottle on my bike, put my cap, helmet, and sunglasses on, then ran with my bike to the transition exit.

    All of that somehow took 19 minutes.  I had expected 10-15 minutes.



    The bike course is very flat, so based on my training, I expected to come in under 6 hours fairly easily.  I knew the only thing that may prevent that would be a strong headwind…and that’s exactly what we got for the first 70 miles.  To make sure I wasn’t exaggerating, I checked Weather Underground for the data for that day.  The time I was on the bike heading into the wind, the wind speed ranged from 10.4 mph to 18.4 mph with gusts up to 23 mph.  So heading into that, as I got started, even though I felt a little bit under dressed, I thought I would be cold a few miles, then warm up.  Big mistake!  I couldn’t believe how cold I was.  At the first aid station, I swapped an empty bottle for a full one, put it in the holder between my aero bars, but the nozzle was open, so water sprayed out and my right glove got soaked.  By this time, I’m REALLY cold, and the water made things worse.  My hands were stiffening up, and my feet started to hurt from the cold.  I had stupidly decided not to put the toe covers on my shoes, so the wind was going through the vents and making my feet cold.  As if things couldn’t get worse, it started misting rain.  Some people said it was sleet, but the lowest temperature we got was 48 degrees, so I doubt it was sleet.  My primary goal now became making it to mile 51 where my special needs bag was waiting, and inside it I had put a jacket…. just in case it wasn’t as warm as I thought.


    At 20 mph, your mile splits are 3 minutes.  I usually keep track of how far I am ahead or behind 20 mph, but because of the headwind, and because of how terribly slow I was going, I made myself stop looking at the mile splits and just try to keep a steady effort.  My body really wasn’t wanting to go faster though, because faster meant more wind, and I was seriously beginning to wonder if I could even make it to mile 51.  After the race, I learned that one Pro had to drop out due to hypothermia.  I’m not sure how I avoided it.


    I’ve never been so happy to see an aid station as I was when we reached mile 51.  I pulled in, unclipped, grabbed my bag from the volunteer, and opened it up…so relieved that the jacket was there! After I put my jacket on, I started to open the water bottle I had put in the bag with dry perpetuem mix, and found that my right hand could not grip the bottle tight enough to open it.  After several tries, I was finally able to get it loose, but I wasted quite a bit of time.  I mixed up the bottle, gave the bag back to a volunteer, hit the restroom, then headed out again.  Even with the jacket, I was still cold, but it was a tolerable cold, and much better than the first 51 miles.  Now my focus was to make it to mile 70 where we would turn back toward the beach and finally get HELP from the wind!  Somewhere between mile 50 and 60, a girl was on the side of the road cheering everyone on.  I couldn’t hear anything but wind, but she jumped, kicked, swung her arms and made such gestures that it just put a big smile on my face. 


    At mile 56, I don’t remember exactly what my time was, but I do remember telling myself sub-6 was out of the question, and to prepare for a 6:30+ bike split… 45 minutes slower than what I thought I would  have on a good day.  This was a really dark place for me because even though I was going so slow, I already felt tired halfway through the ride.  Then I started thinking about the marathon and wondering how I would do it.  I have read many times that there is no such thing in Ironman as a good bike split followed by a bad run… meaning your bike split is only good if it isn’t too fast to ruin your run.   But now I was thinking I would have a bad bike split followed by a bad run.  In that fog of despair and self pity, I remembered the advice my friend Ron had given me – think only about 10 minute blocks of time – what do you need now, and 10 minutes from now?  So I tried to do that, and I told myself it really wasn’t about time, but about finishing the race and dealing with what the day presented -  10 minutes at a time.


    I finally made it to mile 70, but it wasn’t until about mile 72 that we got to feel a strong wind at our backs.  The mile split times DRAMATICALLY changed once I made the turn.  Even so, I didn’t feel a lot of energy, so I relaxed a little and rested up a bit.  It was nice to do “easy” miles at 20+ mph.


    Somewhere after the turn, I realized I was going to have to make another bathroom stop.  I guess the cooler weather, and sweating less meant that the fluid had to go somewhere, so even though I hated to, I started looking forward to mile 101 where I had remembered the aid station would be.  Finally to the aid station, I pulled in and a volunteer held my bike and asked if I needed anything.  I asked if she could swap water bottles and she did while I hit the restroom.   I remember trying to see the good part about stopping, and thinking that maybe I wouldn’t have to stop on the run.  Then I started wondering how my body would hold up for the marathon I was about to run. Then I reminded myself that the marathon was NOT in my 10 minute window, and I just focused on getting my bike down the road.  11 more miles. 


    The last 11 went pretty quickly, and I remember one of my mile splits was just over 2 minutes, so it was pretty fun to be pushed by the wind that fast.  Heading into T2 in Battleship park, I was actually looking forward to getting off the bike and starting the run.

    My bike split was 6:21 (17.6 mph avg) 29th of 68 in my Age Group.


    T2:  I rolled into T2, grabbed my bag and ran into the changing tent.  All I had to do was take off my helmet, put my shoes on, put my race belt on, and start the run.  I remember a guy in the changing tent who kept saying something about the girls outside were going to see him get undressed….then it was like he was making an announcement that he was taking his shorts off… then several times he said, “sorry guys”.  I just ignored him, but now that I think about it,that was pretty funny, in a strange/funny way.  As I exited the changing tent and started my run, I immediately realized that although it didn’t make sense, I had to make another restroom stop, so I did, then out of the restroom to the run start.  Official T2 time: 6:37




    “When you get off the bike, and start the marathon you find out what Ironman is about.” – Coach Rob


    As I headed out to the run course, my sisters were there taking pictures.  I smiled and commented to them, “Only a marathon left!”  Although I was smiling, I knew this was the moment of truth.


    My plan was to monitor my heart rate and keep it under 145 for the first 5 miles, drink something at every aid station, and take my first gel at mile 5.  As I started the run, I had to ease back on the pace to get my heart rate where it needed to be.  In the first mile, there were two bridges, so quite a bit of climbing, which made it tough to stay under 145.  I trudged along at what I thought was a ridiculously slow pace, a little bit worried about what my first split would be.  My rough time goal for the marathon was a 4:22, which would be a 10 min/mile pace.  I tried hard not to care what my pace was and just focus on effort, but I was anxious to see what my pace would be.  “Beep!” First mile split – 9:18.  Happy, but knowing there’s a lot of unknown ahead, I focused on sticking to the race plan.


    For the first 3 miles, I had to make an effort to keep holding back so my heart rate stayed under 145.  My 2nd mile split was 8:58.

    The run course exits Battleship Park, crosses two bridges, then goes into the downtown area along Front Street along the river.  As you come into downtown, there are hotels, restaurants, and bars and shops along the way, and the street transitions from pavement into brick.  To the left side of the street is a big blue warehouse type building, and the sidewalk is lined with ornamental cast iron lamp posts.  I remember from the Half last year that this was one of my favorite parts of the race - people holding signs, ringing cowbells, it’s as if everyone has come out to see a parade, and they all cheer for you by name because you have it written on your race bib.


    So I felt pretty good going through town and not long out of downtown, I hit mile 5 and took my first gel.  About 1.5 miles to the turnaround and ¼ of my Ironman marathon would be done.


    I don’t remember much about coming back through town, except that I passed my sisters before they saw me, and a group right beside them yelled out my name, “GO TONY!!”, then my sisters realized it was me. 


    I was looking forward to the second loop because I had decided I would start taking drinks of flat coke at the aid stations only after I started the second loop.  I had a big decision to make at the half point where the special needs bags were located.  I had packed a long sleeve shirt in case I needed it if it got colder.  It was still daylight and I felt ok, but I decided to err on the warm side this time and I was glad I did.


    About 2 miles into the second loop, at about mile 15, I was feeling ok, but a bit of fatigue was starting to set in.  At this point I thought about my “one thing” … the thing that motivates me and keeps me going.  Without getting too personal, during the last 5 years there have been some really tough times, and in some cases it has appeared to the people I love the most that I threw in the towel, that I gave up without much effort... but I didn’t.


    Finishing an Ironman doesn’t make me a certain type of man.  It doesn’t erase mistakes, or  instill new qualities inside of me.  But it is a tough interrogator,  a trial by fire, on a public  stage for everyone, including myself to see if I have what it takes to suffer, and continue to the finish. 


    And as my footsteps struck a rhythm, and the sun began to fade, the song I heard Thursday morning staring at the waves came to me again,

    “…But the giant's calling out my name and he laughs at me, Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed, The giant keeps on telling me Time and time again "boy, you'll never win! "You'll never win."

    “But the voice of truth tells me a different story, And the voice of truth says "Do not be afraid!"

    And the voice of truth says "This is for My glory", Out of all the voices calling out to me

    I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”

    As I sang this in my mind, I was almost overcome with emotion, but I felt new life in my legs as I made the turn and headed into down town once again.


    The second trip out through downtown was surreal because it was late now, and I was more fatigued, so I had that race fog making the whole world look a little bit different, almost as if I was watching it happen in slow motion. 

    I was sticking to my race plan, drinking water, flat coke, and now I had started on the chicken broth at the aid stations.


    Going out of downtown, on the ground as we ran up a short hill, there was a sign that read, “beer here” with an arrow pointing toward a bar.  Two girls stood in the parking lot holding cold beer mugs and one gave me a big smile and asked, “Would you like a stout?”  I laughed and said, “Yes I would, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t finish the race if I took it.”  And I pressed on.


    Past mile 17 I remember thinking this was farther than I had ran in training, but to keep my mind occupied, I kept calculating the pace I had to run to finish the race at a 10 min pace. With each mile, I was banking time and even at mile 17, I knew things would have to go really terribly bad for me not to make it in at a 10 min pace.


    Not long before the turnaround I saw my friend Paula again.  She was having an incredible race that she started off with a 48 min swim!  When I saw her the two times before on the course, she seemed too far ahead for me to catch, but this time she wasn’t far ahead and I could tell by her face that she was feeling the fatigue.  I know this feeling very well, so I felt for her.  After the turnaround, she must have sped up in spite of how she felt because it wasn’t until about mile 21 that I caught up to her.  I knew at that point you don’t really feel like chatting, so I just told her, “Good job Paula, we’re going to make it! We’re going to be Ironmen!” (Paula ended up placing 3rd in her Age Group for her 1st Ironman!)


    I had started doing something that really wasn’t in my plan, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing but it seemed to work for me for a while.  After about 15 or 16 miles, I had started pouring water on my legs, just to shock some life into them.  It had seemed to work, but it was getting colder now and I was hoping I didn’t get cramps. 


    I headed back into downtown, past the girls with the beer, and onto the brick streets with the cheering crowds.  I only wish I had a video of that sight as I came into town and all the cheers, all the people, and I knew then, even if things went really bad, I was going to finish.  I remember two girls beside the road yelling out my name and I high fived them, and started high fiving the crowd.  I have always said that I hated to hear someone say, “Only a 5K left!” in a marathon, but someone yelled that to me and I thought, “AWESOME! ONLY A 5K LEFT!”  I saw my sisters again before heading out of town and they said, “Slow down so we can make it to the Finish to see you!”.  I said, “You better hurry!” 


    I decided I would not stop at another aid station.  As the cheering crowd faded behind me I made my way toward the bridge.  My legs hurt, my feet hurt, and my calves felt like they were tightening up, and I told myself to hold on for one more bridge.  I was passing people left and right now, because many were walking and those who were running weren’t going fast.  One guy asked me what mile we were on because he heard the mile split beep on my watch.  I told him mile 24, but I thought it was wrong.  I was wrong, not the watch, and I had forgotten about the SECOND bridge I still had to cross.  Still I was so close, it didn’t matter.  I made my way up the second bridge, then it was downhill to Battleship park.  Volunteers directed me into the maze before you head into the finish chute.  I saw my sister Debbie as I made the last turn, and she took a picture and told me Carla was at the finish.  I looked ahead at the finish arch and was almost overwhelmed with emotion again.  I regained my senses because I didn’t want to be squalling like a baby for the finish photo.  Then just like that, a dream I was afraid to dream, something I was not certain I could do, became a reality, and as the announcer called my name, I crossed the line, and a guy put the medal around my neck.

    My marathon P.R. is 3:54.  I thought 4:22 would be a good marathon Ironman marathon time for me.  A 4:09 marathon split only entered my mind in those, “what if I have a day too good to believe?” kind of thoughts.  But my watch said 4:09, and the official results confirmed it. 


    SWIM 1:14:46 (65th of 68 in my Age Group)

    T1: 0:19:11

    BIKE: 6:21:44 (29th of 68 in my Age Group)

    T2: 0:06:37

    RUN: 4:09:40 (8th of 68 in my Age Group)

    TOTAL TIME: 12:11:56 (27th of 68 in my Age Group)


    I can’t describe the feeling, but it has been 4 days and I’m still on an Ironman high.  I’m so thankful to be blessed with the health, the time to train, the encouragement of everyone.  It was every bit as tough, as dramatic, as exciting, as motivating, as emotional and inspirational as I had imagined.  

      What a great read.  Well done & thanks for posting.  Wasn't it also Winston Churchill who said "When you're going through hell, keep going"?

        Great report, very inspiring.  Thanks for posting it.

          Congrats Tony and thanks for sharing

          Will Crew for Beer

            Great race report Tony. Thanks for sharing.

            Rule number one of a gunfight, bring a gun. Rule number two of a gunfight, bring friends with guns.


              That's the best race report I've ever read. 

              Thank you for sharing.  I'm 199 days from my Ironman, and as excited as I am, it seems a little overwhelming to properly prepare.  Over the past few months, I've been looking at your training log and figuring out what you've done to properly prepare. 


              Very inspirational.  Very impressive.


              "But the voice of truth tells me a different story, And the voice of truth says "Do not be afraid!""


              Have a wonderful week!

              So, when will you get the IM tattoo?



              2018 Goals:

              #1: Do what I can do (250+ training days, 300+ aerobic hours).

              #2: Race shape - BUILD aerobic base

              #3: Race (Cincinnati MiniMarathon - 3/18, Grand Rapids 70.3 Tri - 6/10, Ironman Florida - 11/2)


                A killer race report--the emotion/energy/anxiety of the event you put in there was awesome.


                Congratulations, ironman!

                "When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn't matter. Am I tired? That doesn't matter, either. Then willpower will be no problem." 
                Emil Zatopek

                  Great report on a major accomplishment. Congratulations!


                  This was also my wife’s first full-distance tri, so I got to see up close all the work and preparation involved—from all the training, nutrition planning, and equipment tweaking, to standing out on the beach that morning to cheer her on. You guys had a long, cold day and did great.


                  But please remember, legally it’s not an “ironman” race. It’s an “iron distance” race. You don’t want to end up in court, do you?  Wink

                  A Saucy Wench

                    Simply awesome!

                    I have become Death, the destroyer of electronic gadgets


                    "When I got too tired to run anymore I just pretended I wasnt tired and kept running anyway" - dd, age 7

                    Princess Cancer Pants

                      What an awesome, engaging, inspiring report!  Congrats, Ironman!  You earned a good rest.

                      '18 Goals:

                      • Recover from 2017

                      • Surgery in March

                      • Continue showing Cancer that it's not welcome back. Ever.

                      • Rebuild to racing and big running & biking miles in 2019


                      Getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to

                      remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.    

                           ~ Sarah Kay


                        A killer race report--the emotion/energy/anxiety of the event you put in there was awesome.


                        Congratulations, ironman!


                        2012: Wish a Mile Ride: 300 miles in 3 days to benefit the kids of Make A Wish.

                        old woman w/hobby

                          Wow!  Congratulations!



                          Just run.

                          Just a dude.

                            Awesome job Tony... And thanks for the well written report.



                            Getting back in shape... Just need it to be a skinnier shape... 

                              Thanks! I tried to make it shorter, but there was just a lot to say - I'm glad you enjoyed it! 


                              What a great read.  Well done & thanks for posting.  Wasn't it also Winston Churchill who said "When you're going through hell, keep going"?

                                 Thanks Nickp!

                                Great report, very inspiring.  Thanks for posting it.