Tag Archives: Race Report

50-Mile Ultra Marathon Race Report: The 2015 North Face Endurance Challenge

SPOILER ALERT! 

Reaching the finish line:

Yeah, I was pretty damn happy.

WRAP-UP & WHAT’S AHEAD

Here’s my race report, 13 months later… The rough draft’s been sitting in my Evernote since last Christmas and I figure it’s time to push this one out… Plus it’s fun to remember the success as I look ahead to 2017. It was a good exercise for me to review what I did to prepare for the 50-miler in 2015, a full six months before I even started on my Uberman odyssey in 2016, especially now that I’m registered for my first 100-mile ultra in March 2017. More on that decision in the coming weeks.

Now onto the report…

THE DAY BEFORE

I worked in San Francisco the day before with all of my racing gear, commuting via Amtrak from Davis, then took a ferry to Larkspur, and from there I walked to my hotel – The Courtyard Marriott – selected because it was only 0.2 miles from one of the shuttle stops that carried racers to the starting area and I had enough Marriott Points to grab a free night. 🙂 Parking is sparse at the race start area, so the shuttle was definitely the way to go.

I arrived to the hotel around 1:00pm, checked in and worked from my room, then focused on organizing myself for the race.

For lunch, I had a Togos veggie sub and my pre-race dinner included a big salad and a gourmet burger. I’m a bit ashamed of the Togos sub, but options where surprising light in the hotel area. In both cases, I ate more bread that day than I do in month, some for the carbs and some to help block up my digestive track because I tend to have voluminous bowel movements on race morning, and I had been experiencing some as well on my long training days, mostly due to my conversation to a mostly plant-based diet. I wanted to circumvent digestive system issues if at all possible.  (Yes, such topics are normal conversations in my world…)

I was pretty nervous in the hotel, thinking about the day ahead – whether I was kidding myself about my preparation (more below on my training program). I was also feeling a bit sick with a cold, and as always, I lamented that maybe I didn’t train enough or do enough miles or do enough to prevent injury.

 

I got to bed before 8am, flipped on the TV and major score! I caught the end of “Blades of Glory” and the first part of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” I pretty much tossed and turned all night, waking up every hour to either fidget or use the bathroom.

WAKE-UP CALL

I set the alarm for 2:30am to catch the 3:00am bus to the starting area for the 5:00am start. I’m a beauty in the morning…

Event days are are long days, which is why the sleep two nights before a race is more important than the night before a race. I had Starbucks Via packets for coffee, a Clif Bar and a banana or two for breakfast. I mostly just wanted to get up and out to the race start area ASAP. It takes me a while to my body moving in the morning for training and racing. I don’t dilly dally, I just seem to have a lot of steps in my process. I got my race bags together, dropped off my computer and clothes at the front desk for Lena to pick up later and headed to the bus stop.

The shuttle ride was quiet. It’s a weird scene. You can feel the anticipation of everyone headed out there. We all try to act relaxed –  “Ho hum, just knocking out a 50-mile run this morning…” Truth is that everyone is scared shitless. Everyone had put in their hours of training, imagining this day every day for months, and now it was here. We all knew that this is it – the crescendo to the training, time and sacrifices that you and your family has made to get you there.

PRE-RACE, START & THE FIRST MILE

The shuttle arrived around 3:30am. It was a chilly morning, but not cold.  I dressed well in several layers – tights and sweats on my legs and several layers of shirts and a jacket on my torso. Once I checked in, I found a place to camp out under a tent to begin stretching and to prep my drop bags. I chatted with a couple of women, one was probably in her late 50s and was waiting to hear if she made it into the Western States 100 by way of lottery. Not her first rodeo on the ultra circuit. 😃

I put together my drop bag that included a bag of Hammer Perpetuem drink mix, a change of shirt and socks and a few other items that I can’t remember, then and checked in the bag. With nothing to do now, I was just killing time, taking my time stretching, using the bathroom, waiting for the coffee tent to open. Yum! Yum! when it finally did about 20 minutes before race start.

Racers migrated to the starting area about 5-10 minutes before 5:00am.  I was in Wave 5, which considering the race length and relativelu small number of racers (roughly 300-400), having waves seemed a little silly, save for making sure the pros were comfortably positioned at the front. I can see doing the waves in a marathon with 1000s of runners. For a 50-miler, the crowd from the starting line dissipates pretty quickly.

The clock struck 5:00am and off we went!

The first mile was just about realizing the race had finally come. I was mostly shuffling along to warm up and enjoy the fact that the day had begun – I was on the course and moving. Woohoo! From here, it was all about focusing on the next segment, then a mile at a time and returning to the finishing gate in one piece in a reasonable amount of time, uninjured.

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MILES 2-14: AND AWAY WE GO!

After a couple of relatively flat miles, we hit our first big climb. Everyone around me stopped and walked, which was my plan too. Plenty of chances ahead to run. I just wanted to situate my body and mind, and focus on reaching my first big landmark – the Mile 9 aid station.

This segment was very peaceful. The sky was dark with stars everywhere above and headlamps lining the trail ahead. Conversations with scattered enthusiasm from running neighbors quieted and I listened to the “crunch crunch crunch” of rocks under my feet. I had a moment of panic when I realized I’d left my supplements back at the race start -– Endurolytes, Race Caps and the like. I let it pass quickly and accepted that there was nothing i could do, and with the weather what it was, I didn’t feel like I absolutely needed them.

Once over and down the first climb, I dropped off my headlamp at the aid station (that later went missing and I never got back… :-/). I took time to balance my accouterments, retie my shoes and prep for the next five miles to the bottom of a long gnarly climb that started at mile 14.

This is where it felt like the day began. The first nine miles were a precursor in a way – a microcosm of the the rest of the day – running on a short spell of flats, walking up a big climb, pacing myself on the downhills, monitoring and adjusting my physical and mental state and walking up the inclines.

My strategy was to reach Mile 14 feeling good and warmed up, then walk from Miles 14-18 up the big climb, then know that once I got up to the top of the big climb at mile 18, then it was a bunch of rolling hills then a long descent to Mile 27 where I’d pick up James, my pacer. So even here at Mile 9, I was thinking about those next 18 miles, chunking them into manageable pieces.

After reaching the segment peak, there was a long, steep, treacherous downhill, including sections with craggy rocks jutting out from ground and steps built into the trail. I felt like I should be making up time on the downhill, but also didn’t want to crash and tumble into the ocean because that was definitely possible.

The top of the climb rewarded us with a view of the Pacific Ocean and the red sky reflecting the sunrise behind us. Magical. After a steep descent, I hit Mile 14. This stretch was familiar to me – it was here on my 50K attempt in 2010 that I felt the first twinge of a calf injury that eventually caused me to withdraw from that event by Mile 18. Psychologically, it was a little spooky at first to hit this same stretch. Today was different – I was good and strong today. Squarely in the 11:00-minute mile pace, I felt fresh and was nearly through a third of the race already!

MILES 14-18: THE BIG, LONG, SLOW CLIMB

This section started with switchbacks where I alternated between running and walking – running the flatter sections and walking the steeper ones. Even in walking, my pace wasn’t much slower or was equal to runners trying to run the inclines expending lots more energy that me.

I reached the mile 18 aid station feeling very accomplished. The course does a lollipop, and this stop doubles as the Mile 31 aid station atop a long painful climb aptly named “Cardiac.” (More on this later when I talk about my experience with this stretch.) Here, I saw a pro competitor coming up the last few steps of Cardiac. He was 13 MILES AHEAD OF ME ALREADY! Incredible.

I didn’t know who he was at the time, just that he was a complete badass to be at mile 31 when I was reaching mile 18. The dude was just humming along and it reminded me that one of the best parts about these long events is that I am running the same course as the pros. When the race starts, just like an Ironman race we all have the same challenge – the same obstacles, climbs, and distances, and that when I finish, I’ve completed the same challenge as the pros.

Later, I found the post-race interview with this runner and race winner, Zach Miller.

Seeing that Zach won a whopping $10,000 shows that the pros are out here because they love it. They’re not making millions of dollars, and in most cases, not even making $100k a year as athletes. They’re doing it for the love of the grind [INSERT LOVE THE GRIND] and the sport. This is something rewarding and redeeming to me, especially compared to Ironman races which have quickly increased their commercial value with more athlete sponsorships and higher paydays. The age grouping and competition for Kona spots becomes tiresome. Grant it, even the top Ironman athletes are barely breaking even each year too, and the ultra running competitors are an even earthier crowd.

It was also here that I knew I had this race beat. I knew if I could stay healthy, I’d be able to finish – I was fit and prepared – leaving the Mile 18 aid station feeling confident.

Mile 18-21: UP & DOWN

This stretch included a bit more climbing and a few places to open up and do some running. Coming out of the mile 18 aid station, I hit the eucalyptus forest and the single-track with two-way traffic. The single-track was a little frustrating because there were logjams with 10+ racers in a single line plus runners coming back the other way. Those of us in the outbound direction stepped off the trail to make way for the returning runners – that only seemed fair to the faster competitors. And I also I hoped that meant for good karma coming back… Not exactly altruistic, but that’s the way it goes…

I began drinking Coca-Cola at the mile 18 aid station to give myself a little boost, and began a concoction of water, Coca-Cola and whatever drink mix was left in my bottle. Interesting flavor that somehow tasted good.

With the slower pace, I kept reminding myself that there was still more than half the course left and that I should be thankful for the opportunity to conserve energy. I tucked in behind a couple of guys that I found to be relaxing and entertaining. The Bearded Guy was an ultra veteran, talking to his running mate about various runs in Colorado and other places in the nether regions of the ultra running land. They had no desire to run faster and Bearded Guy seemed to be simply pulling his buddy along. That was cool to see.

We finally hit a somewhat open stretch and I asked Bearded Guy if I could pass. “Yeah dude. Whatever you need. It’s all good. You just let me now when.” Once passed, I made my way up to the mile 22 aid station. I was still under a 12:00/mile pace at this point, and I expected to pick up some time on the descent down to Mile 27 where I’d pick up my pacer, James.

MILES 22-27: THE FIRST FALL

The good feelings continued at the Mile 22 aid station. Yes, I felt tired, but still strong and confident. My strength, conditioning and training that focused on building a “go all day” heart rate was paying off. I knew that I had mostly downhill for the next five miles, and that was exciting to me – I had made it to the zenith of the course, and James would be awaiting me in just five miles.

In this stretch, I did get back some of the course karma with outbound racers mostly stepped aside as I worked through the return.

The downhill started gently then got gnarly for the next three miles. For all of the open grassy switchbacks on miles 14-18 on the way up, steep, wooded switchbacks with tree roots and exposed rocks pestered me on the downhill.

I attached myself to a train of runners – about eight of us that kept a nice, steady pace so that I could see where the trail was going next by following the bright jacket colors ahead of me and focus on footing. We encountered plenty of day hikers coming up the hill, and having a train of runners helped to have the hikers step aside for us. Most of the hikers had a look of confusion and partial astonishment in seeing scores of runners zip past them.

As I watched my Garmin click off to Mile 27, I felt a sense of personal satisfaction that I had now run longer than I had ever done in my life. More than a marathon!!

And then almost immediately thereafter…

OOMPH!!!

I fell.

Hard.

Fortunately two things happened. First, I rolled my body to the side and landed on my shoulder rather than flat on my face. This cushioned the fall instead of scraping my hands and face. Second, my head landed about six inches short of a large rock. Whew. Another six inches and I probably would have cracked open my head. Who knew you needed a helmet for ultra running?

As I fell, I heard a runner behind me yell – “Ahhhh!” My fall disrupted the rhythm of the runners directly behind me who had to pull up to keep from tripping on me. The guy either cramped or jammed his hamstrings. (Hamstrings take the brunt of the force headed downhill, so stopping quickly puts even more torque on this muscle group.)

I took a second to take stock of how I felt– nothing broken and head in tact – then asked the guy me if he was okay, and luckily he was.

“Okay,” I thought. “Let’s keep going.”

I got back up and kept on the descent, reaching the Mile 27 aid station with James there, ready to rock. I took a few extra minutes here to stock up on food and clear the rocks from my shoes.

By the bottom on the descent, I barely scratched back any time on the 12:00/mile pace. Kind of a bummer, but still feeling good and strong. More than half the course was behind me, I had a pacer for most of the rest of the way. Just time to start thinking about getting into the 30s and 40s, then finishing this thing.

MILES 28-31: HIKING

Cardiac. Yep. That’s about right. I picked up James as a pacer and about the only thing we did for the next three miles was walk. Pretty frustrating. The trail was so steep that steps were built into the hill. Not even a gentle slope to jog a bit. I even joked with James – “You signed up to be a pacer and instead you get to hike.”

James was great. Really great. He kept saying – “This is awesome. I get to be out here in Muir Woods and nature. No worries. I can’t believe how beautiful it is out here!”

I never hit a truly dark moment in the race, though this section was one of two low moments. The slow move up Cardiac was a real bummer. After watching my pace per minute drop down into the 11:40s at the course peak, I watched seconds tick higher and higher until I was well past 12:00 minute miles. This was frustrating mostly because I felt good and wanted to run but couldn’t because of the steepness and terrain.

We hit some single track flats on the way to the Mile 31 aid station where I saw the course leader TWO HOURS AGO! That made his pace even more amazing to me. I was about six hours into my race hitting Mile 31and he hit this point at only four hours. Really amazing.

This was a big spot for me. In training leading up to the race, I thought about dropping back to do the 50k instead of the 50-miler. Now I knew that had I chosen to drop back to the 50k instead, I would have regretted it because I had plenty of gas in the tank and I would have missed out on pushing well past my previous limits.

I took a while at this station, rummaging through my drop bag,changing into a fresh shirt and restocking my nutrition. James was awesome. He helped me reset, filled my water bottle and got me square.

Feeling we reached a new beginning, I felt ready to finish. Less than 20 miles to go.

Let’s do this.

Off we went.

MILES 32-45: WINNING THE DAY

I only remember moments in bits and pieces from this part of the course – hitting a good stride for a while after Cardiac and making up some time, running through Muir Woods and forest and really feeling like we were pacing and making good time, passing a group of 4-5 slower runners on a downhill set of steps and one of them pulling up lame, and feeling that I caused that by trying to pass him and forcing him to change his stride and asking if he was okay, and while he said yes, I’m still not convinced I hadn’t caused it.

I remember passing a couple of racers on the 50k course and hearing them say – “A lot of these guys passing are doing the half-marathon…” then thinking- “Well I’m not one of them! I’m doing the 50-miler and I’m passing you!”

I remember tripping on an exposed tree root and landing pretty hard, and James asking how I was. “Let’s keep going. You fall off a horse, you get right back on it.” I really wanted to remain undeterred in getting to the finish.

I remember working back to the Mile 14 area of the course and making really good time. We were running an 8:30 pace on a flat area. Around mile 40, I asked James – “What time of day is it?” It was just past 1:00pm.

“If I run 11:00 minute miles from here out, I’ll break 10 hours.” I felt that good that Iet myself think this. I knew I had the course licked and I was seriously thinking I could run 11:00s from here to the end, even if I hadn’t considered whether the course would let me.

We reached the bottom of the hill and a rest stop. I turned and saw a huge open climb ahead on the fire trails. Starting the climb, we passed a couple of hikers who asked how far we were running. James told them – “50 miles.” Then they asked how far we’d gone so far today. With pride, I said – “We’re on mile 42.” It before 2pm and I’d freaking run 40+ miles already today! Even better, I knew I’d finished the full 50 miles save for a freak injury.

On this climb, we tried to jog the slight inclines, but there was little we could do. The climb was ferocious. We hit a turn that I thought was the peak and looked up only to see another long section of at least a half-mile of more climbing.

I blurted out: “That’s just gross.”

We eventually made it to the top and were treated to another long smooth descent, then back down to the mile 45 aid station where James would ceremoniously take leave of his pacer duties. His work was done. It was up to me now to finish the last 5-6 miles. Thank you, James!

I still felt good and strong (relatively speaking of course…), especially after the long descent with good pace.  A volunteer told me that the rest of the course was easy, and nothing would be as hard as what I’d been through. I was skeptical because I knew there was one more climb, but she remained steadfast on her message.

MILES 45-47: ONE LAST CLIMB

Out of the aid station, I immediately hit a climb. I remembered this climb from the half-marathon event I did here back in 2009, and I remembered it being tough but not heart-breaking. The problem was that there were no flat sections. It was all walking. My hopes of breaking ten hours were severely dampened, but not completely obliterated.

I told myself to stay patient and just get to the top to the last aid station. So I did. I kept a solid walking pace, passing other competitors.

THE BIG FINISH: MILES 48-50

At the last aid station around mile 47, I knew I had only downhill to go. I refilled one more time and prepared for one last push.

Coming out of the station, I heard a pair of runners talking – “I’ve got 30 minutes to get there.” His friend said “Go for it man.” I asked if he was going for a 10:15 race and he said “10:30.” The timing didn’t make sense to me. He took off and started bombing down the hill. I figured what the heck and I did my best to keep up with him.   I couldn’t but at least I had a rabbit ahead and a reason to keep pushing. The first mile or so from the aid station was a steep, rocky fire trail, so I made sure to use some caution to avoid a catastrophe. Then the course descent leveled off to a nice downhill and I pushed, running about an 8:30 pace.

The course worked down to the main road leading to the finishing gate. There was a slight incline and I kept pushing. Coming around the bend, I could see the field and the gate and then a feeling of utter elation came over me.

I crossed the line just before 3:12pm, which put me at a 10 hour, 09 minute day. (It took about three minutes to hit the starting line with my wave.). Wow. Awesome. Just awesome. And I felt like I could have gone more – another 25 if the course had required. Easy to say that post-race with no more miles ahead and adrenaline pumping, but I’m sure I had much more in the tank.

What a day. What a finish. What a sense of accomplishment.

NORTH FACE RACE ORGANIZATION & EXECUTION

I’ll hand it to North Face – the know how to put on an event. While there were a couple of hiccups along the way – the online registration app wasn’t working and I had to email and call to register which was kind of annoying, though they did answer the phone and respond to emails quickly. They lost my headlamp when I dropped it off at the Mile 9 aid station and made it up by responding to my emails and sending a replacement headlamp from those that went unclaimed.

This was my third North Face Endurance Challenge event. I did a half-marathon way back in 2009 and then attempted the 50k race in 2010 (the one from which I withdrew). Super job at the race start and finish – everything from tons of Port-o-Johns to race help to food and heaters. They run a top notch event and I’d definitely recommend any of The North Face Endurance Challenge events. In fact, James went back a year later and slain the 50-miler himself!

MY TRAINING PROGRAM:  STRENGTH, MOBILITY, FEWER MILES & MANAGING INJURY

I had a good fitness base going into specific event training in September – the Donner Half-Iron race in July and the Touch ’n Go 2.5 Alcatraz swim – to put me at a good place cardiovascularly. The swim training in particular gave my body a rest from the heavy running work.

Most of my running focused on keeping runs easy, light, and smooth with a big focus on heart rate. I only used my Garmin on training runs occasionally – about once a week for shorter runs just to make sure that I was keeping a consistent heart rate, and  for all of my longer weekend runs. For me, running under 140 bpm is a very good place, and on several longer runs in the 9-12 mile range, I was down in the 133-137 range.  On some of my longer training runs, my heart rate dropped down to 130 which was a bit alarming in that my body temperature would also drop and I’d feel cold even though I’d be 15 or 16 miles into a running session, but not low enough that I was experiencing bonk.

In total, I did only four long runs in the 17-19 mile range, each one the day after a 12 mile run the day prior. I tried to hit some semblance of hills by driving to Cantelow on a couple of occasions. I also did some running in San Francisco when I was there for work overnights. I knocked out my final long run on Thanksgiving morning on the trails at Forest Park in Portland – doing nearly 19 miles at a sub-10:00/pace over 2500 feet of elevation gain. That’s when I knew I was either ready or not for this thing.

My biggest goal was to get to the starting line without injury. At most, my body can handle 35-40 miles a week in total miles. I tried to inch up to a 50 mile week, and I could feel my knees, calves, and body generally feeling cranky on me.

I did mobility work about five nights a week, spending 10-20 minutes stretching my quads and hip flexors with ”Couch stretch,” my hamstrings and calves with a lacrosse ball, and rolling my calves and quads. Each leg and muscle group got two minutes of attention, thus the 10-20 minutes total. I would do the same before training runs, and a bit after. Mostly I was worried about my body holding up to the miles. In my two previous ultra attempts, I had to quit because of injury – once during the race and once before I could even get to the starting line. Check out “Ready to Run” by Kelly Starrett & TJ Murphy. (And thanks to Lena, who of course found the book for me…)

After my first two long runs, I decided that I would probably need to skip the eventual 30 mile day that I planned early in my training schedule for two reasons:

1) Time available to train: 30 miles in a day is a really long day. Even getting up at 4am and starting a run at 5am, with stops and rest and everything else that goes into a 30 mile run, that’s a 5-6 hour training session, which just seemed to be too much.

2) My body’s message to me: When I hit the 18-mile mark on runs, while I felt muscularly and cardivascularly that I could do more miles, it just felt like my legs and joints were telling me otherwise  “Dude chill. That’s all we’re doing today.”

I decided about six weeks before race day that I would rather do a solid, strong 18 miles than struggle to eek out a 30 miler and risk injury. About then, I also began introducing a few basic Crossfit workouts into my routine to give myself a strong midsection and core. Occasionally I’d throw in a few planks or stability work. These workouts were mostly body weight and kettle bell work with movements and exercises such as:

  • Burpees
  • Candlesticks
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Goblet squats
  • One-armed snatches
  • Kettle bell swings

An example workout would be 4 sets:

  • 25 push-ups or Burpees
  • 25 Sit-ups
  • 25 Kettle bell swings
  • 25 Squats (either goblet or air)

I also used my Elevation Mask regularly, including one run in San Francisco on the hills from the Marina to Pacific Heights then through the Presidio. Again, working on my breathing and heart rate. I figured if I could get into top cardiovascular fitness and was muscularly stronger enough, I could eschew training miles and manage my way through race day.

My one injury occurred trying to squeeze in a quick Cross-Fit workout one night at a hotel gym in late October. I didn’t warm up properly and jumped right into an exercise like the one shown above. I ended up tearing the tendon on my pubis bone. At the time, I thought it was a lower abdominal pull and I was able to manage through it.

In early 2016, I visited a sports doctor and a specialist who informed me of what the injury was. Unfortunately, this injury doesn’t heal without either surgery or LOTS of rest. It’s now January 2017 and I’m still at the same spot with this injury 15 months later… Kinda sucks. I need to figure this one out…

NUTRITION & EATING

For the months leading up to the race, I started and kept on a mostly vegetarian diet, partly for health and partly experimental. Most of my protein came from avocados, seeds, nuts and dairy. I did use some protein supplements and ate protein bars.  I wanted to scale back “bad” meats, especially processed meats or poorly farmed meat, and I wanted to see if would maintain the same, or better, nutrition and health without meat. As described in my detailed post about this decision, I’d been reading about more and more ultra athletes going straight vegan. I wasn’t ready to go that far, but did want to try a shift.

I can’t say one way or another if the diet made a difference. This got me eating far more salads – usually a salad as the main course for most meals, especially breakfast and dinner. Along with my mobility and strength work, I was able to stay injury free and I do attribute my recovery time between workouts to my diet and nutrition.

As a manner of habit, I also stay away from simple sugars and carbohydrates. I do eat a lot of fruit – bananas, apples, strawberries and whatever else is in season. While these all have sugar, they also have fiber to help with digestion. I skip bread, pasta and anything with added sugar. So while not officially “low carb,” I am definitely carb-conscious.

Post-race, I barely felt any soreness whatsoever. While I wasn’t interested in hitting the trail the next day, or even for a few days, my recovery time was very short.

COMPUTER OUTPUTS

My computer outputs from my Garmin activities page for the event:

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Man vs Nature: Swimming Across Catalina Channel #Uberman #Triathlon

This is one of a series of posts chronicling my attempt at Uberman – The World’s Toughest Triathlon. Check out all of the related posts on the Uberman 2016 page here.

Departing from the Mainland

We departed Marina del Rey late morning on Tuesday and arrived to Catalina in the early afternoon with the crew –  Mike (boat captain), Nicki (my kayaker), Dan (Uberman race director), Lena (my wife) and Samson (kayaker for a second swimmer slated to leave Catalina that night on at 6pm with a different boat.)

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The swim crew

Pulling into Two Harbors

Pulling into Two Harbors

The weather was GORGEOUS! We departed  around 11am for a 2.5 hour boat ride to Catalina Island under beautiful blue skies and nearly perfect conditions. Despite some queasiness on the ride over, I arrived to Catalina in good shape and excited for what was ahead.

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Quick tour of Two Harbors

Our plan was to hit the water at 4am on Wednesday, October 19th.

Sidenote… Most swimmers opt for either a night crossing, or to start at midnight to finish the swim by midday to avoid currents, wind and chop that arise each day. We instead opted for the 4am swim to avoid swimming across the shipping lanes at night.While the huge freighters are easy to spot, distance and speed can be difficult to tabulate at night. Additionally, while Mike was an experienced boat captain that guided paddle boarders across the Channel, he hadn’t guided a swimmer doing the crossing in a single effort. I had done a TON of research on this and discussed our start time in multiple conversations with Mike, Dan and Lena and all variables considered, we felt the 4am start time, despite setting ourselves up for a more difficult swim, was better for safety purposes.

Feeling Scared

We docked, then Lena and I enjoyed a hefty lunch of burgers and fries at an outdoor cafe at Two Harbors. After lunch, we walked to the other side of the island to check out the second harbor and on the way, I admitted to Lean that I was scared. Really scared. Before that, I had always hedged how I felt when asked about Uberman by saying – “I’m somewhere between excited and scared.” Now I was just plain scared.

Lena gave me some great advice – “Scared is just one emotion you’re feeling. You probably have others – excitement, anticipation.” Of course she was right, but scared was the 1000 lb gorilla in my mind right now.

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Captain Mike determining our course for the morning

Around 4:30pm, we made our way back to the boat to prep nutrition and food before nightfall a couple hours later. I spent an hour in the galley mixing my various food and nutrition concoctions – labelling bottles and talking with Mike, Lena, Nicki and Dan about tomorrow’s safety procedures.

After that, there wasn’t much to do except rest, so around 7:30pm I retired to the master stateroom graciously offered to me hoping to get a solid seven hours of sleep. I slept pretty well. The quietness of the night and the subtle rocking of the boat offered some comfort. It was all happening now. Nothing more to do, nothing more the plan, no more logistics. It was time to just do.

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Final preparations

Hitting the water

Alarms beeped at 3am across the boat. The morning air was cool and peaceful. Just past a full moon, stars dotted the early morning sky. Sam and I did our final preparations, reviewed plans with everyone and headed to the Catalina shore. We docked a few hundred feet from the beach, so I hitched a ride from Nicki from the boat docked a couple hundred yards from shore. Why do any more swimming than absolutely necessary, right? 🙂

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Hitching a ride on the kayak

Sam and I stood there on the beach, looked at each other, shook hands and wished each other luck. I yelled “Starting!” and off we went.

Sidenote… 

As I mentioned, Sam was supposed to leave at 6pm the night before with another guide boat and athlete. But….they left without him. On purpose – because the captain of that boat decided having two swimmers and one boat through the night would be too much to handle. Perhaps true. And perhaps would have been nice to inform Sam and Samson about that before departing for Catalina rather than by phone to Dan twenty minutes after they left.

Sam had flown from Scotland to Los Angeles that day to do the swim, filling in for another athlete part of a relay team that withdrew at the last minute. Even better, Sam had just successfully crossed the English Channel five days before – the same distance and swim but in colder water on Saturday. Now, here he was halfway across the world to tackle the Catalina Channel. Amazing that he would even agree to this. Astonishing that the boat crew knowingly left without him. 

In the Water: Hours 0-3

Much like my Tahoe swim earlier this summer, the first miles were flowing and smooth. (The Tahoe crossing was immensely valuable, and I don’t think I would have completed the swim without that open water experience.)

The water was calm and soft, and I focused on long, smooth, slow strokes. Every bit of energy and efficiency I could save would mean more in the tank later. We got out to Dinosaur Rock around the time for the first feed.

The “Feed Plan” was every 30 minutes. I alternated between real food – a watery mix of sour cream and avocado for fat and protein, and a nutrition drink mix called 3Fuel that dumps fat into my system to burn for energy instead of relying on short-term carbs. (More on this in my eventual nutrition post).

Nicki and I found a rhythm pretty quickly. She was great from the onset and very comforting throughout the day with her positive attitude and confidence. She maintained a steady pace between one-thirty and two o’clock on my right side so that I could sight on every right-side breath. (I breath bilaterally – right, left, right, breathe. Left, right, left, breathe.)

During these early miles, I felt tiny pin pricks across my face every 10-20 yards as I moved through water – either they were tiny jellyfish stinging my face or I was running into expunged stingers from larger jellyfish covering the water’s surface. Later in the morning as daylight broke, I could see larger jellyfish swimming around 10-20 feet below and around me.

Somewhere between the first and second hour, the boat pulled up and directed me to slow down. My stroke pace was 60-64/minute and I was pulling away from Sam. There too much distance between us this early in the swim. It was still dark and with only glow sticks and headlamps, and now three miles from shore, we needed to stay closer to each other. No worries. Firstly, even though I thought I was swimming at a slow pace, I was probably too amped up and couldn’t keep that stroke pace for the entire swim. Secondly, I knew that every ounce of energy I saved early would payoff later.

We slowed to about 52-56 strokes/minutes for the next hour, and we reached the end of our first three hour segment only to have the boat ask me to slow down again. Even Nicki voiced some frustration because she had my stroke count at 48. I kept the same attitude as before – slower is better. Less energy burned now means more later. This was surprising because he and I talked about our predicted swim times, and they were about the same – 13-14 hours for him and 14-15 hours for me. That said, the guy did just fly halfway across the world after swimming the English Channel a few days ago!

(About the only positive in my swim form is that I get a lot of each stroke. Random swimmers I’ve met at pools have told me how they admire my long strokes. That’s about the only compliment I ever get for my swim form.. :-).

Early morning after sunrise

Early morning after sunrise

Towards the end of the third hour, the sun rose over my right side. The course from Two Harbors to Rancho Palos Verdes runs south to north, so the sunrise in the east was exactly to my right side. The sky turned from black to blue to pale gray, and eventually yellow and gold. Only a few minutes after peeking the horizon, the sun came into full view. It then dawned on me (pun intended…) that I would be following the sun’s ascent on my right, then over my head, then down my left side to sunset throughout the day. With any luck, I’d finish right round sunset to avoid refitting the kayak and myself with another round of glow sticks. There was something peaceful about this. The sun was my timer and marked my progress. As it rose in the sky and eventually we hit midday, it was a a more amiable signal of my progress than any mileage count or time marker.

Hours 3-6: Past the Beginning & Just starting

This segment was just all about early progress. At the end of the third hour, we swapped nutrition bags. I had eight water bottles prepped at a time – two were freshwater and the remaining six were filled with nutrition mix and the sour cream/avocado mix. We also had cooked sweet potatoes and white rice in ziplock bags for me to eat throughout the day. With the 30-minute feed cycles, each batch lasted three hours.

Smooth as glass

Smooth as glass. Far from land.

The water remained incredibly blue and smooth – even softer and smoother than Lake Tahoe. I felt like I was gliding and after the six hour mark, we stopped for a feed and to swap out the nutrition bags again. Dan told me I was already six miles into the swim and making huge progress. “You’re a third of the way there!”

“Well, not quite,” I said in a way to reserve any excitement. I felt satisfied knowing that I “only” had 15 miles to go. This was my plan going into the swim – I didn’t want to know distance or mileage until I had 15-16 miles to go because from there, I could psychologically get myself to think that 15 miles wasn’t that far… But I knew I had 15 miles to go and while getting six miles from the start was a checkbox, the real swimming wouldn’t start for many miles ahead.

“Well, almost…” replied Dan.

I appreciated Dan’s demeanor even if I didn’t express it throughout the swim and the entire experience. He was positive and a constant cheerleader for me and everyone. I felt a little badly about dousing his enthusiasm. Sorry, Dan…

Seasickness hit Lean, and I needed Dan to fill in to complete the nutrition plan. While treading water six miles from shore, I was shouting directions to him on what to put in each of the eight water bottles then made him repeat it back to make sure he got it right. I’m a stickler for my plan on this and I didn’t want any surprises. The exchange was made and off Nicki and I went for the next three hours.

Now several hours into the swim and the day, while the sun rose into a perfectly clear and blue sky, the moon persisted above to my left. I could also still see the edge of Catalina Island to my left too. They were my last anchors to the swim start which I think helped me to avoid what otherwise could have been an overwhelming sense of “Oh shit, I’m in the middle of the fu*cking ocean.”

Hours 7-9: The Transition Zone

The anterior of my shoulders near my rotator cuff started to ache with every stroke.

The next distance update from the boated reported that we were nine miles into the swim. I rolled back my wetsuit sleeve to check my Garmin for the first time, and it corroborated that we were indeed nine miles into the swim, though for me, it didn’t matter that I swam one, ten or a hundred miles so far. All that mattered was how much I had left to get to shore. I was solely focused on how much I had left to finish, not how far I’d gone.

I call this “The Transition Zone” because I was moving from the first half to the second half of the swim. While the absolute miles from nice to ten, ten to eleven, eleven to twelve are the same as the first mile or from mile one to mile two, these middle miles felt longer because psychologically I wanted to get down to single digit miles to go so that I could take the swim one mile at a time to the finish.

Worse, the math of the course began to skew. While the swim course is 20.5 miles in a straight line, I knew that because of current, our actual course would be at least 1-2 miles more than the straight line despite our best efforts to course correct along the way. So even while nine miles was a big accomplishment, I also knew I had at least twelve to go, and probably more than that. This is a difficult hurdle to overcome mentally and why these are hard miles.

We went another couple of feeds when I learned that we had about 10.5 to go. I checked my Garmin and saw that I was at 10 ten miles swam so far. I didn’t have the display show decimals, so to see “9” at the last check then swim for an hour and a half and then see “10” the next time I checked was pretty tough. I knew I could have gone from 9.1 to 10.9 in that time, but it was hard to see the raw numbers. I decided that I wouldn’t check my Garmin again for a while. Even here behind me, I could still see the edges of Catalina behind me while starting to see land ahead of me where I would eventually land. When we got to 8 miles to go, I checked again and saw “14” on my Garmin – confirmation that we’d be swimming more than the 20.5 miles of a straight line course.

Somewhere out there, I heard squeaking noises when I dipped my head below the surface and thought they might be dolphins. During a feed, Lena called out from the boat – “There are dolphins EVERYWHERE are you swimming around! It’s so cool!” I only wished I could have seen them. Still a pretty cool experience that I’d read about in other swimmer posts.

A bit of traffic in the shipping lanes that day

“I’ve never seen this much traffic out here…” -Mike, Boat Captain

Now in the middle of the channel, we approached the shipping channels – large ships arriving from some or headed another to port on the other side of the world. These freighters were giants even from several miles away, and later I learned from Lena that Mike, the boat captain, commented – “I’ve never see this much freighter traffic out here…” A couple of months before the race, Lena asked me if they would shut down the shipping lanes for the race (no they can’t…) but right about now sure seemed like a good idea…

2016-10-19-12-47-35Fortunately the timing of the freighters crossing worked out and we pushed through the shippig lanes without incident, save for the 2-3 brown sludge pools left behind for me to swim through.

Somewhere around this point, I decided to drop from 30 minute to 20 minute feeds. The 30-minute intervals became too difficult to maintain, the time and distance was taking it’s toll on my psyche. In seeing land ahead of me, I was again glad for my Tahoe swim this summer – knowing that distances were deceiving in the water and to just focus on the next mile. Lena had recovered from her seasickness, and it was very, very motivating to see her standing on the boat watching me. She took video and asked me to say hello to Benjamin.

To pass the time, I tried counting strokes. Normally I just count – “One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.” I read in Lynne Cox’s book “Swimming to Antartica” that she counted 1000 strokes at a time to pass the time and distance. I tried this approach for a couple of 20-minute segments, getting to 800-1000 in sets of 100 strokes. After 2-3 sets, I found it too difficult to think about so many strokes between feeds instead of focusing on each stoke presently. I dropped this approach and went back to “One, two, three, breathe.”

We worked through the next couple of miles and got down to six miles to go. During a break, Mike commented – “You’ve covered a long way so far – really takes a lot of stamina to get this far.”

I replied – “We haven’t gotten to the part where stamina kicks in.”

I know that my retorts to encouragement make me seem awfully surly. I had to do this for myself to retain focus and the feeling that while I had made a significant effort to get to any one part of the course, that within my mind, I still had plenty in reserve left for the work that lay before me.

With six miles to go, the current and wind picked up noticeably. I could see the swells rising and falling each time I turned to breathe. I’d breath and see the horizon, and the next time on that side I’d see only the peak of a swell a hundred yards off. Ripples formed on the top of the water. I could begin to make out the lighthouse we were aiming for and the beach where we’d land. I also knew we still had a long way to go. In the sky, the sun had migrated from my right side to my left side and I begin to wonder if we’d have to reequip the kayak with glow sticks for me to finish.

Hours 10-11: Just. Keep. Swimming

I stopped along the way a few times here for a round of breathing exercises thatI  picked up from Brian Mackenzie – three rounds of ten deep inhales and exhales, then a 20-second hold on inhale #10, then an exhale and a 20-second hold. Three rounds of this to oxygenate my body and reset my brain.  (Check out more here at XPTLife.com)

As I got more tired, I started to wonder if I would make it and shared this with Nicki. She said – “You’re doing great. Trust your motor.” Trust my motor. Solid gold advice. She was right. I did an inventory and aside from my rotator cuffs, the rest of my body was fine. My posterior shoulders were strong and I relied on them to lift my arms out of the water. My legs felt great. My body temperature was warm and mental faculties felt sharp. Trust my motor.

Eventually we worked down to 5.5 miles, then to 4.9 miles. At this rate, I was swimming about mile every 40 minutes, or 1/2 mile for each 20-minute feed segment. While slower than the start of the swim, I was comfortable with this pace and progress and I found it was motivating to knock out a half a mile between each feed.

From 4.9, we got to 4.5 in 20 minutes. From 4.5 to 4.1 over the next 20 minutes. My pace was slowing because of the wind and current. My stroke count was consistent – we were simply facing Mother Nature.

The boat left us again at 4.1 miles to go back to check on Sam, and after two feeds, they returned. I was now down to 3.3 miles – still going 0.4 miles every 20 minutes, or 1.33 mph. Not great, but still okay.

The sun was gaining on the horizon to my left. The whiteness of the daytime sun was fading into a shade of yellow as it crept towards horizon. The blue sky behind it became darker as the afternoon wore on. I considered it a race to reach shore before sunset.

It was also around here that I began thinking about tomorrow’s bike segment, and how I might need to skip it entirely. My shoulders were aching and throbbing. I kept focus on where I hurt and it always came back to my shoulders. My mind felt sharp. From the water, I was lucid and felt like I was still in control. I tried to make a quick joke or conversation with Nicki during feeds, or make a decision to tell the boat to do this or that.

Hours 12-14:25: One Last Push

“3 miles to go!” called Lena. Getting close!

I yelled back – “That’s just a 5000 yard workout. Five by 1000s. I can do that.” On the boat, I saw Sam wrapped in a towel – he had dropped almost two miles behind me and was getting caught in the same current. He went from 4.1 miles to go to 4.8 miles to go. From here, I knew the boat and the day would now 100% focused on me and getting me across.

I slogged my way down 1.8 miles to go, and somewhere in here we dropped to 15-minute feed segments. I didn’t need the feeds so much as I just needed a break to hang on the kayak for a moment or two and reset for the next block.

The water temperature dropped as expected and it felt refreshing on my face and neck. I could see how this temperature drop could be troublesome on a swimmer without a wetsuit. Our pace continued to slow.

At 1.8 miles to go, the boat did a check on us then sped off towards shore. That was disconcerting.

“Where the f*ck are they going!?” I yelled to Nicki. “This is the most important part of the swim when I need them the most and they’re f*cking taking off and leaving us here. We have no radio and no way to communicate and they’re fucking leaving us. What the f*ck?!” yeah, I was losing it a little… Not my best moment.

From 1.8 miles to go, we got to 1.6 miles to go in 15 minutes, then to 1.4 miles to go over the next 15 minutes after that. My speed had dropped to 0.8 mph. A friend of mine did the English Channel a few years ago, and when his speed dropped to below 1.0 mph because of current, they considered pulling him from the water. I didn’t think I was in jeopardy of getting pulled because the crew was new for this swim crossing, so as long as I said I could keep going and stay warm, I knew I’d be able to stay in the water. It was just tedious to know I was swimming less than 1 mph.

My bigger concern was that the current would continue to increase to the point where I wouldn’t be able to make any progress at all. Low tide that day was 7:09pm, so not only was I fighting the current, but also the tidal flow out  from the mainland.

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Current direction in the Catalina Channel (October 19, 2016)

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Low tide was 7:09pm on October 19, 2016

I understood now how a swimmer could reach this point only to be forced to call it quits. Land was getting closer. It changed from a haze ahead to where I could begin to make out individual rocks and trees.

Looking back up onto the boat, I noticed everyone outside watching me. From Lena’s body language, she was watching closely and getting concerned. Aside from my shoulders and the fatigue, I felt fine.

We got down to 1.2 miles – just a half-Ironman swim – and I still considered that I might not make it – that I could go all this way only to call off the swim because of conditions. I told myself that as long as we could keep getting closer to shore and that my faculties were in check, I would keep going. There was no clock. Even if I have to breaststroke or crawl my way there little by little, I was determined to get to shore.

Lena asked – “How are you doing?”

“I’m tired but I’m okay. The water’s much colder, but I’m warm and I feel good.”

By now, I switched to two stroke breathing, breathing only on my right side and relying on my right arms to do most of the swimming. I significantly increased my stroke count:

Notice my stroke count increase over the last 90 minutes

Stroke count calculation from my Garmin

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My stroke count increase over the last 90 minutes

From 1.2 to 1.0. Then from 1.0 to 0.8. Still swimming at 0.8 mph, I was making progress, and digging hard. The water turned brown and murky.

Once we hit 0.8 miles to go, I knew that I would finish no matter what, even if it took me until midnight, but I received some interesting news here…

Lena yelled out to me – “When you hit shore, you have to swim back to the boat!”

Huh? That’s not right. The plan was to meet Tbone on shore with The Beast parked nearby. She’d tend to me, get me fed and ready for the bike segment tomorrow. While I had resigned to the fact I’d need to skip tomorrow’s bike, I just wanted to get to a place where I could crash and rest. Tbone could drive us back to Marina del Rey while I slept and we could figure out tomorrow in the morning. The boat ride back to the marina could take up to two hours with current and waves, and after 14+ hours, the last thing I wanted was to spend any more time in or near water.

I yelled back – “No – Tbone’s meeting me on the shore!”

“Change of plans! We got pushed south by the current to another part of the beach. TBone can’t get to you so you have to come back to the boat. After you hit land, you have to swim back to the boat!”

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Why I had to swim back to the boat

Aerial view

Aerial view

“Nicki – There’s no f*cking way I can swim back to the boat – you’re gonna have to give me a ride.”

We dug in for another 15 minute segment, then she told me – “You’re only 0.2 miles!”

“How is that possible?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“We went from 0.8 to 0.2 miles in 15 minutes?” I was baffled. I didn’t realize it at the time, but natural land extensions  just to the north blocked the current and made the last segment much easier. I didn’t think about it too long because ahead I could now make out individual rocks and plants on the shore. The finish was right there!

I dug in again – 100 strokes, then a crawled for 20-25. 100 more strokes, then crawled for 20-25.

“200 yards! You’re going to make it!”

Close to shore, I saw the Terranea rocks that many swimmers before me cursed. I climbed over and through a kelp bed closer to rocky shore, looking for a place to land. The waves pushed me into a wall of rocks where I tried to grab hold, then pulled me away again. The rocks were slippery and I couldn’t find a path to shore.

Up against the wall of rocks, I pulled myself over and dropped off into a small pool. I couldn’t touch anything below me – I was caught in a mixing bowl of seawater and foam.

The waves were hammering Nicki’s kayak against the rocks as she tried to stay close to me. The sun had set minutes again and it was dusk, almost dark. The air was brown and gray.

I finally found a pedestal of rocks to the left of me that would disappear and reappear with each wave. With the next wave set, I pulled myself up halfway to my waist, waited from the next wave set to cover and uncover them, then I hoisted my two feet atop the rock to clear the water, yelled “CLEAR!!” then jumped back into the mixing bowl. “Let’s get the f*ck out of here!”

The view from the boat the moment I cleared the water

The view from the boat the moment I cleared the water

“Absolutely!” yelled Nicki. I pulled myself out of the mixing bowl back into the water and told Nicki – “I can’t swim back to the boat – I’m done. You’re gonna have to pull me in.”

She maneuvered the kayak to head back out to sea and I grabbed onto the rear. “Let’s go!”

She paddled while I kicked. “You don’t need to kick.”

“The water temperature is cold and my body temperature is going to drop if I don’t keep moving.” I think this is the most I’ve ever kicked while swimming.

The boat was a good 1/4 mile or more from shore and to the east from our landing spot. “They’re gonna have to come over and meet us.” She pulled and pulled and then boat crawled slowly to meet us. Dan and Sam pulled me up by my arms and shoulders and got me aboard. Then Nicki.

We. Were. Done.

The Beast in waiting, which I never saw... Sorry Tbone!

The Beast in waiting, which I never saw… Sorry Tbone!

Now my options were to either swim back to shore once we got a bit farther West to meet Tbone, or to simply go back to the Marina on a two-hour boat ride. There was no way I’d be able to swim, and the two-person kayak was stowed and was taking on water earlier in the day anyway. It was nighttime now and I could just imagine myself getting lost at sea because of fatigue and darkness. We bagged the meet up option to home and headed back to the Marina.

As I undressed, I discovered two large gashes on the bottom of my left foot. We wrapped them with paper towels, and I didn’t think much of them at the time.I couldn’t lift my arms above sternum height. My neck and shoulders were covered with deep abrasions from my wetsuit. Despite trying to keep the skin lubricated beneath the wetsuit, there was no solution for 14+ hours of the constant rubbing of 20,000 strokes and 40,000 yards.

My Garmin recording of the swim

My Garmin recording of the swim

I had somehow remembered to stop by Garmin at the landing spot to record the time. 23.76 miles in 14:24 – more than 2.5 extra miles compared to the straight line route.

Back on the boat - safe, dry & happy

Back on the boat – safe, dry & happy

The ride home was peaceful and quiet. Almost eerie. As we pulled away from Rancho Palos Verdes, a long white wake formed behind the boat pointed back to our landing spot. Lena and I sat in the stern of the boat, looking back to RPV slowing moving farther and farther from view.

 

We watched the landing pattern of airplanes at LAX. We looked at stars. Aside from the boat engines, it was very, very quiet. I wanted to talk about the swim and take pictures, but I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I know Lena was tired and ready to go home, and ready to just enjoy being on the boat. The stars and moon were out again – the same sky that I saw 15 hours ago from Catalina Island.

Somewhere in this ride, I decided once and for all that I’d need to skip tomorrow’s bike segment. I needed to rest, and more so, I wanted to take the day to celebrate with everyone in Venice what we just accomplished. Right then, in that moment, I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment – that even if my injuries would prevent me from going any farther on the race course, I was happy and content. If I could go farther, every mile from here would be gravy…

COMING SOON: See if I made it onto the bike after all…

[Spoiler alert… Yes, I did.]

 

[VIDEO] The Moment I Finished #Uberman & What I’m Most Proud of Accomplishing

This is the moment that I decided it was time to finish my Uberman experience and attempt to complete “The World’s Toughest Triathlon” – 84 hours from the time I slipped into the water at Catalina Island and swam nearly 24 miles to shore, after 140 miles of desert terrain on my bike, then persisting nearly 38 miles on foot from Badwater Basin along CA-160 towards Mt. Whitney – captured on video, and I’m delighted to share this moment with you:

I’ve chronicled each segment of my Uberman experience in detailed posts here:


I’ve thought about the experience many times since this moment captured above – from the decision on April 1 to start my training to this finish. Looking back, the seven months flew by, yet I know that each training day and week seemed endless at times. I wanted to see how far I could push myself and to know what enough felt like. And I found it, right there, in the middle of Death Valley with my closest friends and family at mile 37.72 of the run.

People have already asked me – “Will you do it again next year?” If I could hop into a time machine and be magically transported to the starting line, then yes. I love personal challenge. I just can’t do the training anymore – scheduling every moment of every day, negotiating time with myself and my family, finding good calories to consume six… seven… eight times a day, waking up at 5:00am to swim 5000 yards or do sets of deadlifts.

I’ll continue to do events – ultra-marathons seem most appealing because of the relatively low training burden and enjoyment of trail running.

Here’s what I’m most proud of accomplishing over these past seven months:

1 – Successful completing the Catalina Channel swim with the best time of any competitor.

This swim was beyond any single endurance event I’ve ever attempted, This include my three Ironman races. In those races, I knew that barring the catastrophe of a bike crash or some kind of freak injury, I would finish the event within the prescribed 17-hour time limit. The same with the 50-mile ultra-marathon I ran last year – I knew I’d finish, it was just a matter of what my finishing time would be.

For the Catalina Channel swim, my finishing time of 14 hours 25 minutes was exactly in the 14-15 hour range I predicted, and was the best of the competitors that attempted it. So technically, I was leading the race after the swim… 🙂

More so, that meant my training and personal expectations were exactly correct.

The Catalina Channel is one of the three marathon swims comprising the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming. (The English Channel and circumnavigating Manhattan Island are the other two.)

For the Catalina Channel swim, I was very, very scared – scared of the distance, scared of the currents and tides, scared of getting lost at sea, scared of sharks and scared of being ill-prepared because of my training program choices. (More on this later.)

I was scared of not finishing – approaching shore only to get pulled because of body temperature or conditions. I’d read enough blog posts from experienced marathon swimmers who got as close as a mile did not complete the swim. These fears were very real and very true.

We could have packed up here and I would have been happy and excited with my accomplishment. Everything past the swim was just gravy for me.

A number of variables affected the probability of completing the swim:

  • The 4:00am start time. Most swimmers begin at midnight from Catalina to avoid typical late afternoon winds that create chop and a headwind. While I hit headwinds and current as expected, I was very lucky to have had an remarkably smooth first 15-16 miles for the swim. As I saw and felt conditions change with about six miles to go and the final 3-4 miles were extremely tough. [More details here in the Swim Segment chronicle.]
  • Currents. The swim route from Two Harbors to Rancho Palos Verdes is essentially south to north. The currents that day would be moving in a southeasterly direction, meaning that as the current and wind picked up later in the day, I would be swimming “uphill” into a current to reach our planned end point of Terranea Beach. Many swimmers report getting pushed south towards San Pedro because of these currents, forcing them to swim 3-4 miles longer than planned. We chose a straight line route with course corrections throughout the day to swim the shortest possible distance. Even taking this approach, the 21-mile course took me 23.76 miles to complete.
screenshot-2016-11-03-06-47-46

Current direction day of the swim. Source: http://www.sccoos.org/data/hfrnet/

  • Timing of low and high tides that day. On the day of the swim (October 19th), low tides were in the early morning as we started, high tides just past 12noon, and the next low tides again just past 7:00pm. This meant that I’d be reaching the midpoint at high tide and fighting the low tide waters getting shore at my expected finishing time.
  • Tidal flow relative to the moon phases, which affect the severity of the tide. Because we started just past a full moon phase, the tide heights relative to baseline range were high as two meters. Here’s a graph of the variance that day from NOAA:

2 – Being physically & mentally ready. Accomplishing any one of these endurance events on their own – the Catalina Channel swim, a 140+ mile bike ride or a 38-miles desert run – would be a huge personal accomplishment. I did each these in four days’ time and felt muscularly and mentally ready for each day. I owe that all to my programming, training and diet. The only adverse effect I experienced was the thrashing of my rotator cuffs, and I’m not sure any amount of training could have prevented this.

I not only trained very hard, I had the RIGHT training program. (Thanks to my awesome wife and Brian MacKenzie.)

ready-to-go-on-the-bike

I eschewed the typical long, slow distance (LSD) training (more on this in a later post…). Any one of these three segments – the swim, bike or run – would reasonably take six months of dedicated LSD training just to complete that one event. I was training to compete in all three in five days’ time, so LSD simply would not be feasible even if I training as a full-time athlete and had no job or family. More so, I believe that LSD without building muscle tissue strength and tolerance to the extreme physical tests would not have been enough.

After hitting a peak of LSD training in late July to build my endurance engine, I consciously switched to higher intensity, CrossFit-infused training for a month on my own, then followed a training program set up after spending a day training with Brian at my wife’s suggestion.

For context, just 15 months ago, I swam 2.5 miles roundtrip from Aquatic Park to Alcatraz and back. My Catalina swim was 23.76 miles – nearly ten times the distance, and across a challenging body of water and more than doubled my longest distance swim of 10.5 miles across Lake Tahoe.

Then completing the 144 mile bike ride, and then 13.5 hours later starting on the Badwater run mentally ready and excited to claim as much of the 135 miles course as possible. I sincerely felt that I was physically able to complete the entire run course, however long it might take me. To reach that mental and physical state is incredibly satisfying.

The 144 miles on the bike is 30 miles longer than any ride I’ve ever done. I hit the 37.72 mile mark on the run with PLENTY in the tank before stopping.

3 – Making good, rational decisions throughout Uberman to return home safely.

I need to give a huge amount of credit to my wife, Lena. Throughout the event, she allowed me to make decisions on my own even though after making these decisions, she was happy and relieved that I made them. A few examples:

  • Skipping Day 1 of the bike. Because of my physical condition coming out of the swim (shoulders and feet injuries), it would have been unsafe to spend 14-16 hours covering 200 miles on a bike. Not only that, it would not have been fun or joyful.
  • Ending the Day 2 bike segment at 144 miles instead of going the full 200 miles. We reached the peak at Town Pass well past sunset. Navigating the 10 mile descent would have been treacherous and irresponsible from a safety standpoint. While I felt strong and able to cover the last 56 miles, finishing when we did and giving myself an opportunity to start the run the next day relatively fresh was absolutely the right decision.
  • Riding on Pedro (my road bike) for a large chunk of the ride because of road conditions and descents, and because I felt far less strain and pain in my shoulders vs my TT bike (a.k.a. “George”).
  • Doing weigh-ins & doing urine checks during the run. While the heat wasn’t overbearing, I had a hard time forcing myself to eat and consume calories on the run. We did a couple of weigh-ins to make sure I was maintaining my weight. Tim to monitored my urine – color and frequency – to make sure that my mind’s desire to keep going was overriding my body’s operating system.
  • Finishing Uberman at mile 37.72 of the run. I felt completely satisfied and a sense of “enough” for perhaps the first time in my life.

There were a hundred ways to get hurt out there, or even encounter life-threatening situations. We minimized the risk at every turn with planning and discussion and decision-making.

4 – That my son stayed happy and safe. The kid is a trooper. Even his low points with patience and frustration barely scraped typical low points we might hit on any day of any given week. He found entertainment in counting cacti and determining which was the pointiest, throwing dirt on to the highway at rest stops, hiking and looking for rocks, sitting in The Beast and waving to me through the windows. Everyone stayed focused on him throughout the journey and his presence there gave me a sense of calm and perspective.

benajmin-happy

benjamin-desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the on the long drive home from Panamint Springs to Davos on Sunday, he chilled in The Beast with me for nine hours, never complaining or whining or going stir crazy.

I could have done this race alone with Lena and asked my family to stay back in Davis with Benjamin while I was out there. I wanted him there to see the desert and to make this a family adventure, not some crazy thing Scott does on the side.

5 – My team. (I’m saving the best for last here…)

From beginning to end, never did the team hit a point of outward frustration towards each other, the race, the demands of the expedition or me.

I give all of the credit to the team – Lena, Tbone, my in-laws (Nina & Paul), Tim and Benjamin for staying patient and accepting the challenge of supporting me not just on the course, but 24 x 7 throughout the entire event.

2016-10-22-17-37-56

The end of each day was always the most trying. Being out on the course is work, but you’re in the moment and thinking about what needs to happen next – when is the next feed, how many miles to go, where should we meet you next, what does Scott need at the next rest stop. These activities kept the crew focused on a task.

But… at the end of each day, there was a huge transaction cost going from the finishing point to the next morning:

  • Packing up The Beast and getting to the next hotel
  • Finding a place to park The Beast
  • Cleaning The Beast from the day and prepping for the next day
  • Checking into the hotel
  • Finding a place to eat
  • Tending for my injuries
  • Making sure our son is fed, bathed and comfortably to bed each night
  • Deciding who’s sleeping in the hotel and who’s sleeping in the camper
  • Building a plan the next day’s segment – who is getting up early with me to push me on to the course
  • … just to name a few…

I got a sense of what it might be like to be a professional athlete – a team of people that care for every aspect of your self and body. You saw me breakdown in the finishing video because at the end of the run, I felt the overwhelming love and support of everyone that helped me reach this point – from training to planning to executing Uberman. I felt, and always will feel, forever grateful for everyone that helped me along to way to take part in this endeavor.

__ __ __

If you want to read the details from each segment – the swim, bike, and run – I’ve chronicled each in detail here:

I hope you’ll read them, and understand if you don’t. Most of all, if you found this post or anyone of the posts I’ve done related to Uberman, please share them with a friend.

While I write these posts as much for myself to document and remember the adventure, I’m hopeful that somehow these posts will be useful to someone else considering the same type of adventure, or that they will motivate someone to take the next step towards their own adventure.

I’ll be posting over the coming weeks and months beyond these race reports – sharing a few ideas and experiences around:

  • Nutrition and diet plans during training and Uberman
  • Details about my training program
  • Planning & logistics (lists, checklists, mistakes made)
  • What I’d do differently: Uberman planning and execution
  • Stuff I’ll miss about Uberman
  • Stuff I won’t miss about Uberman
  • The Beast
  • Gratitude to everyone that cheered me on Facebook

Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. Please share this post if you found it valuable, or think it will be valuable to a friend.

I’ve also prepared a talk about my Uberman experience for companies, triathlon clubs and teams. Click here to learn more.

Can 6 months = 1 hour? Ironman Coeur d’Alene 2011 Race Report

2_body_marking1_cda_sign3_grass_on_towel4_swim_start_15_swim_start_26_swim_to_bike_17_bare_butt8_bike_loop_19_bike_loop_210_lena_sign12_run_course13_run_entering_chute11_nina_sign14_run_in_chute15_scott_lena_hug16_scott_lena_post_kiss18_scott_kevin17_scott_lena_post_race19_family_post
If last year was an adventure, then this year was a mission. Last year was about finishing and the extraordinary sense of accomplishment accompanied with my 12:59:20 finish. A glorious finish by any measure.  This year was about focus, diligence, and finishing 11:59 or better – knocking a full hour off of my time.  I put everything I had into the last six months

To get to a sub-12:00, I estimated:

0:14 transitions (same as last year)
1:15 swim (same as last year)
6:30 bike (20 minutes faster)
4:00 marathon (40 minutes faster)

The bike and swim seemed most reasonable and I secretly felt I could do better on the swim. If all went well, I could be on the bike 1:15 which would buy me time for the run.  On the bike, I bought George this year, had an aero-helment, lost about 15 pounds and was a better all-around cyclist. I thought that should buy me 20 minutes (or more).  The marathon was much more optimistic goal.  I’d been running 8:30 off the bike in training and figured that a 9:07 was a generous fall back time to get to 4:00. But still, I knew this was aggressive.

I don’t enjoy doing triathlons. I enjoy finishing them. It’s not fun to be in pain, especially in this distance because you know how long it will persist.  I see people smiling along the race course and it doesn’t make sense to me. In exceptional moments, laughter is the best medicine, but generally speaking smiling is for liars and fools. Hours expire quickly.  It’s the minutes that take you into a black hole of time. And for these reasons, I went into this year’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene deciding that this would be my last for a while so I’d better make it good.

Pre-Race

Exceedingly more organized this year, I had my transition bags, special needs bag, and bike checked in early Saturday afternoon.  Sunday morning was about filling my nutrition bottles getting mentally relaxed.  I was awake at 4:00am, breakfast and coffee, stretch at 4:15, pack my bags at 4:30, out the door at 4:45. My written schedule dictated every movement since Friday.

After getting marked, I popped in the bike area for a last tire check and to fill my nutrition bottles. I hit the power button on Garmin.  Nothing happened.  Hit it again. Blank screen. Really. You just can’t make up this stuff. 

“Lena!” I yelled, looking through the steel fence for her.  “Lena!”  I was back and forth along the fence like a pounded dog.  “Lena!”  Found her.  “My Garmin is dead.  It won’t turn on. I had it plugged in all night but must not have connected it to the wall.”  It was around 5:30. Getting the Garmin home would give me about 2 hours of charge before I could pick it up on the bike course.  Lena was now in control – called her dad to pick it up.  As for me, it was business as usual.  To my transition bags for a last few items then to the grass to wait.  

A few minutes later, Lena called to check on progress.  The Garmin wasn’t charging.  Then I remembered – it might need a manual reset. (This happening randomly to me earlier this Spring during training.) Droid does.  Found the forum post explaining what to do and relayed directions over the phone.  Whew. – Garmin was charging.  We planned to do a hand-off either on mile 2 or 14 on the way out or back from the Lake Couer D’Alene spur.

(If you’ve not done a long-distance race, you’re wondering – why the heck does he care so much about a stupid Garmin.  Isn’t the course marked? Garmin shows time and speed, but more importantly, it displays heart rate – the key metric for knowing how hard to push at any one time on the course. Nearly every Ironman athlete uses one, some in tandem with a power meter.)

Never a dull moment…

Swim

Nauseous (noun): The severance of the space-time continuum during the period after which you don your wetsuit and 6:59:59 AM.

Through the timing gates and to the beach with 2500 others. I lined up inside left like last year and could see the countdown clock.  While everyone else stood around me, I sat on the cold sand to stay calm, trying to avoid burning unnecessary calories.  Before every race, I tell myself – “Patience.  Persistence. Perseverance.” 

Boom!  Lots more contact than last year. Don’t know why but it took a good 2-3 buoys to find any real opening to swim.  Once I got going, I felt strong and smooth.  Lap 1 done.  Out of the water, on the beach, back in the water.  My split time was just under 35 minutes.  Good news.  Even with a 40 minute second lap I’d be right at last year’s time of 1:15.

Lap 2 was going along swimmingly.  First turn. Second turn. Cramp!  Holy crap.  My right calf stiffened right when I was about 2/3 finished emptying bladder and on the final stretch of the swim.  So there I am around mile 1.9 of the swim – arm-stroking, peeing, cramping, and laughing about it simultaneously. (See? I can have some sense of humor out there.)  It worked itself out and I paddled to shore.  There’s a tall single tree that stands out in the distance on shore that I remembered from last year – it was a nice comfort to see it and swim to it all over again.

Out of the water in 1:09+.  Gave myself a little first pump and started thinking about getting out of transition and on the bike by 1:15 for some bonus time.

64/357 age group
399th overall

Swim-to-bike transition as George Costanza

I locked in on a couple of pink-shirts and plopped to the ground. The two girls helping me couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old.  They grabbed the bottom of my wetsuit and with impressive strength, yanked my wetsuit to my ankles, taking along my tri-suit with it.   Let me repeat that – taking along my tri-suit with it

Well, let’s just say that if this was these young ladies’ first experience up close and personal with a man’s private parts, they will be considerably more delighted and impressed in their second. They must have been thinking – “Really?  That’s it?” The water was very cold. 

After redressing and retrieving my transition bag, I ran through to the back of the transition tent.  (This was part of the plan.  Everyone plops on the first seat they see so there’s little space in the front and too few volunteers per athlete.  In the back, there were volunteers sitting idle.)

As I dressed, I shivered a bit and my skin was still wet.  Made it tough for putting on arm-warmers.  A volunteer took control.  He yelled – “Lean against me!”  I put my arm to his chest and he unrolled the arm warmer like pantyhose on my arm.  I seized my PBJ and drank my pre-made Perpetuem mix (I wrote “DRINK ME” all over the bottle so I’d remember to imbibe the 400 calories mixed therein. It’s hard to think straight was the chaos and cold.  I did forget the 2 Clif Bars I had ready for the ride.)

Out of the changing tent, I wound around the left side of the orange steel fence to keep from dodging bikes, grabbing George and off we went.  Out of transition at 1:17.  Slow but not horrible.  I gave back 2 minutes I hoped I’d earned as bonus.  I immediately wondered if that was going to cost me later…

Bike

The first objective was rescuing my Garmin.  Wound through downtown and there was Lena wearing her distinctive blue hat and my yellow cycling jacket.  I waved my arms and slowed.  The hand-off was perfect. I put the Garmin in my back pocket then 1/2 mile around the corner pulled over to strap it on to George. I counted the seconds out loud to see what this would cost me.  Got to 22 and I was off and running.  I wondered if that would cost me later…

I rode this first spur a couple of times during the week so I knew exactly where I should be with speed and heart rate – very comforting.  It was also time to lock into my nutrition plan.  I had 2 Clif bars in my Bento box, the PBJ, and a full tank of Perpetuem in my Speedfil.  A bite of solid food every 15 minutes washed down with water and a swig of Perpetuem 7.5 minutes after that.  Repeat this process 25 or so times over the next 6.5 hours.

After the first turnaround, you pass the mile 10 marker which is a nice feeling of accomplishment.  In your mind you think – only 100 to go!

Yes, it was chilly but not cold.  Before the first aid station I finished my first tank of water from my frontmount, grabbed another water bottle and re-filled.  My hydration strategy was to repeat this process for each of the 10 aid stations along the bike course.  The objective is 1 liter per hour. That would give me 10 pints of water – about 5 liters over 6.5 hours.  

Passing back through town.  The course winds left and right – sort of like a crit race, except hopefully without the crashes.  Once you hit a last right hand turn, it’s north for the next couple of hours for the first loop.  

Winds were W-SW which meant a nice little tail wind during the gradual ascent to the eventual rollers near Hayden Lake that begin around mile 25.  As I crept closer to this part of the course, it was time to begin thinking about my first on-the-bike bladder relief.  Got through the first couple of hills then found a nice descent where I could coast and think about waterfalls. Yes, this is gross. This is Ironman. I wondered how much time I’d save by deploying this strategy…

Had an almost-moment of panic a few miles down the road.  Coming down another long descent later, there’s a quick right turn onto Ohio Match Road.  Lots of bike traffic around me with racers gaining speed. I usually descend faster than others because I’m bigger than most others and I had to cut to the inside when another cyclist ahead went wide.  I swept to the inside and whipped around the corner.  Nice having a performance ride.  :–)

On the last 10-12 mile stretch heading back to town, I found lots of racers flying by me finishing this first loop.  I figured they:

A) were crappy swimmers
B) were really good cyclists
C) didn’t pay attention to their heart rate monitors

I found another racer up ahead that was moving nice and smooth. I caught up and saw the ’57’ on her calf.  Figuring I’m about as fast as a 57-year old woman on the bike, I knew I was at the right pace.  I let her pace me back to town to conserve energy.  My split time was about 3:08 which felt a little fast and it devilishly got me thinking about a 6:15 bike.  That would be fantastic but too fast.  Logic took over and instead I set on a 3:20 second half for a a 6:30 split.  With the bonus 5 minutes I picked up on the swim, a 6:30 would mean I’d need “only” 4:10 marathon to get me the sub-12:00.

As we reached town, my bladder screamed again, but there’s no privacy for the next 20 miles of the course.  As I worked out to the spur, I jumped off the bike and into the bushes.  I counted aloud again and got over ’60’ before getting back on the bike.  That’s a minute gone.  Ugh.  

A mile later I decided to grab my special needs bag. I went through my 2 Clif bars and my Speedfil was down to 1/3.  Stuffed the 2 extra Clif bars in my pocket and grabbed my water bottle with Perpetuem powder.  At the next aid station, I grabbed two waters – one for my frontmount and one for my back pocket.  Coming back to the neighborhood stretch on Mullin Road, I deftly poured water into my water bottle, mixed, then filled my Speedfil. Kind of felt like Maverick there – “You were flying a Mig-32 inverted in a negative G dive…”  (Lena has a great picture of this.)

When I hit the next loop of hills, my legs were feeling it.  Fatigue, low power.  Just focused on heart rate on the way up, tucking on the way down.  Later in the second loop, I saw a crash.  A racer took a left-hand turn after a long descent too quickly, ended up kissing a parked car on the corner.  Faced bloodied, sitting there in a state of disbelief.  All I could do was wish him well and be thankful that wasn’t me.

As I polished off the last hill and mile 100 on the bike, the last 12 miles meant being patient on the bike and thinking about the run.  It’s easy to push hard in these miles because you’re excited to finish and thinking about shaving a few minutes on your time, but after 6 hours on the bike, upping your speed from 17.5 to 18.5 mph only saves you about 3 minutes in 10 miles.  Blasting your legs for those 3 minutes can easily cost you 30 minutes or more on the run. That’s why you stay patient.

Finished off the bike in 6:25 so I was in good shape to maintain my race plan.

148th age group (man I suck as a cyclist…)
970 overall

Bike-to-Run Transition

Nothing eventful here except I got out in just over three minutes.  Hopped off the bike, grabbed my Garmin, to the tent, changed socks and shoes, slapped on my belt and I was off.  Until a volunteer asked where my racing number bib was.  It was caught up in my running belt, so I yanked it to the front and ripped a corner, which meant taking 20 seconds to fasten on the extra bib from my transition bag.  No way those 20 seconds could possibly make a difference in my day, right?

Run

In my training, I was able to consistently pump out 8:15-8:30 miles in brick workouts after long rides.  I knew I couldn’t keep an 8:30 pace for the 26.2 miles, so my plan was to scale back to an 8:30-8:45 after 1-2 miles, then drop to 9:00 when needed, then to a 9:10-9:20, then to a 9:30-9:45.  This would give me some buffer and a target 4:00 marathon and average pace of 9:07.  For each mile I ran sub-9:07, that was time in the bank for a 4:00 marathon.  With the six minutes I picked up on the swim, two on the bike, and three in transitions, I thought about a 11:45 time and blowing away my 11:59 target.

(BTW – there’s an excellent article in the recent Lava magazine about hitting target times.  In short, to break 12 hours, you need to be prepared to do a 11:30 race.  I knew I wasn’t there, but I did tell Lena that if I had a perfect race, I could go low, thinking about a 11:45 time.)

Once out of the transition, the legs felt much heavier than usual.  Made sense – I just did a hard 112 miles on the bike, plus there’s a little uphill as you cruise past the downtown crowd. In training, my run legs opened up after 1/2 mile.  I heard a woman in crowd say – “It’s about 2:50.”  Then another woman said – “It’s 2:53.”  Why does this matter?  Simple math.  I needed to run slightly better than a 4:10 to hit my time goal. I “only” had to run a 4:10 marathon…

Well, 1/2 mile came and went. A mile came and went.  Legs still heavy. Heavier than I ever felt them in any training run. My back was aching from the bike and my bladder was calling again. I was running 8:53s already. I decided to pit stop at the first aid station to empty and stretch on the ground.  Man, this was going to be a long march if I couldn’t pick up my pace, because I already knew that if I was at this pace now, my second 13.1 miles would be into the 10:00 range and I’d miss my goal time.

The night before the race, I told Lena that if she saw me at the corner of Mullin Road at 3:00, I was in great shape. If at 3:15, then I was right on target.  If after 3:15, I’d have tears in my eyes.  I wasn’t sure what time it was when I got there, but later she told me that I didn’t look good. Turned out to be 3:11. I was already just hanging on with 24+ miles to go.

As I shuffled through most of the first leg, it was all about keeping light quick steps, mentally at least.  Coach Kevin talked about how the first 13.1 miles should feel like a light jog, the next 6.3 would be considerably more difficult, and the last 6.2 should feel indescribably horrible.  I tried to keep that perspective.  As I hit the big hill before the first turnaround at mile 5, I imagined being a quarter horse.  I was looking for a pacer and found a couple to get me up the hill.  Descended to the turnaround then back up and over.  As I hit mile 8, I saw that my pace had slowed to 9:07 miles.  Ugh.  That’s okay, if I can keep this pace for a while, I’ll be fine.  By mile 11, I was fading to a 9:11-9:12 pace.  I planned to use Cola only if needed for extra punch in the last stretch.  I started reaching early. 

By the turnaround at mile 13.1, I had exactly a 2 hour split, meaning I’d need better than a 2:10 second half to get home.  I started thinking about those places where I gave up minutes and seconds.  My legs went from “heavy but tolerable” to “in pain” with my quad muscles grinding against each other. I thought about how this leg was supposed to be “considerably more difficult.”  Yes, it would be.

At mile 19 before the hill climb, I was slowing more and more.  My pace was down to 9:33.  I found a female racer to pace me up the hill.  Chugging up the hill. Found pacers and they were usually women.   Even at mile 20, I held to hope.  I was 3:10 into the run, and figuring that with 6.2 miles to go, that if I could run slightly better than 10:00 miles, I’d get there.  As I moved back towards town, shuffling through aid stations and markers in the path, I worked to increase my pace but I couldn’t shake the 9:33 pace.  

It’s a tough conversation to have with yourself – that I had to accept that I just wouldn’t get there in time.  I’d still try for a final push in the fading miles, but I began to focus the pride of finishing. A 12:05 time showed huge improvement over last year. It conflicts with the spirit of Ironman, but I tasted bitterness considering a post-12 hour time. I started wondering if this would be it for me.  Is this really my last Ironman?  I couldn’t foresee pushing myself through another year of training and thousands of dollars just to scrape up 5 more minutes.  Race day conditions were perfect.  I trained about as hard as I realistically could have.

(What I discovered after the race was that my Garmin was set to should TOTAL average pace, not CURRENT pace.  What that means is that I wasn’t running 9:33 miles like I thought – I was running slower and slower as the race wore on – that’s why my pace times moved so slowing and held at 9:33.  In that thrid leg before turning from home, I was running 9:45, 10:00, and 10:00+ miles.  Time never slows. There are no short cuts. Here is my mile by mile splits. You can see how I got progressively slower:

1     08:40
2     09:17
3     09:15
4     09:13
5     09:18
6     09:49
7     09:13
8     08:50
9     09:29
10     09:28
11     09:37
12     09:37
13     09:46
14     09:32
15     09:59
16     10:20
17     09:36
18     09:54
19     10:19

Yes, I was getting pretty slow for the 7 miles from 13 to 19.  And worse, I didn’t even realize it.)

Getting to mile 23, I’d been able to keep a steady pace on the flats and I saw that I had 30 minutes to go 3.2 miles. That last 0.2 plays an awful trick on you. I’m pretty decent with numbers, but doing long division after moving constantly for 11 hours – I might as well been trying to take an integral of an imaginary number.  But even with the enormous doubts that had taken over my psyche, I reached for cautious optimism.

For this last stretch, I found a rabbit – a smaller guy that had some bounce to his step.  If I could keep him within eye shot, maybe I had a chance.  He started pulling away.  But, running down the last small descent past mile 23, I managed to move my pace time from 9:33 to 9:32.  Less than 3 miles to go and something in me pressed harder.  Instinct, I think.  

My mind worried about cramping or pushing too hard too soon. Just focus on small goals.  Turn this corner.  Get to the straightaway on Mullin.  Turn left – get into the neighborhood.  Turn left then right down by the mansions. 

Somewhere here, I tried to think of negative motivators – people who said didn’t I have it.  People who thought I was too ambitious trying to knock an hour from last year’s time.  Instead, I found myself motivated by positives. My friends at home watching the race, following me.  Thinking about how this was going to make for a great story if I could somehow, someway break 12 hours. 

My pace picked up some more.  Legs were holding – no cramps.  Push, push, push.  Don’t get there 30 seconds late with regrets.  Push harder.  This was it.  Push harder.  One rest station to go. I remembered last year’s Ironman where Chris McCormack skipped the last station and won.  I felt like I was running 8:30s but my Garmin showed 9:32.  One more left, then a small incline, then a right.  Last stretch before the final left onto the long straightaway to the gate. I made the turn and the finishing gate looked like a distant oasis.  I couldn’t see the clock until I pulled closer.  Finally, I could barely make it out.  I saw a “12–” then I blinked and looked again.  No!  

My eyes tricked me!  The clock read “11:59:25” with about 150 yards to go.  My pace turned into a sprint.  31, 32, 33… Time never stops. I hit the final chute as the clock clicked to 42, 43.  One last sprint past my rabbit and through the gate at 11:59:47.  I pointed to the clock as I crossed and yelled in relief.  It’s over!  I made it with 12 seconds to spare.

And post race:

Here are my final 7.4 mile splits I have no idea where that extra 0.2 came from, but it meant running an extra 2-3 minutes to get there in time. 
20     09:28
21     09:39
22     09:29
23     09:50
24     09:13
25     08:52
26     08:46
27     07:34 (0.4 miles)

My actual race pace was a 9:27 mile.  The Ironman website results include your bike-to-run transition time in the calculation that shows a 9:34 pace.

99th age group (a top 100!)
642 overall

Post-Race

A volunteer grabbed me and asked if I was okay.  I just smiled. Elation. Pure elation. I started looking for Lena and spotted her blue hat. “I made it!  11:59:47!” That was an incredible moment to share.  We hugged and kissed a couple of times, then I hugged her Mom and Dad. (Later she told me that she looked at my split time at the last turnaround and knew my chances of making it were pretty minute.  She was in the bleachers watching the clock click along – 11:55, 11:56, 11:57, 11:58, 11:59… already preparing what to say if I didn’t make it. It wasn’t until I told her that she knew.)  

I walked over to the fence on the other side and found Coach Kevin.  Same as Lena. He saw my splits and realized I’d need to run my fastest 7 miles of the day to get there and didn’t think I’d make it.

I love it when people doubt me.  They had good reason to doubt.  I had my own. It’s fun to surprising.  :–)

Prologue

Last year I thought about all the places that saved 39 seconds to break 13 hours.  This year? It’s laughable to try this exercise for a measly 12 seconds. Those 12 seconds didn’t come from any one place or action – they came from six months of training – every extra mile I rode on my bike around my neighborhood after every ride, every gram of protein I ate and sugar I avoided, following every training session Coach Kevin set up and devouring every race-day tip I could consume.

Later that night, I went back to the finish line to watch a few of the 16-hour finishers come through.  62-year old women, 75-year old men.  Young men with heat blankets draped on their shoulders.   Ironman rubs you raw – emotionally, mentally, physically.  

I love the Ironman challenge but I have Ironman fatigue. Ironman provided an opportunity for me to set and achieve a goal, and I’ve taken advantage. Twice.  It’s time to move on (for now…).  My sense of accomplishment is not defined by a single event.  I’m pretty banged up – mostly immobile on Monday and Tuesday. I wobbled getting up from sitting and my right calf and hamstring still give me a limp five days later – time for a rest. 

Someone asked me how long the buzz lasts. The answer? At least a couple of days, but it never really leaves you.

What’s next? I’ve registered for the Rock ‘n River 50-mile ultramarathon that’s a qualifier for the Western States 100.  (Need to finish the 50 miles in under 11 hours to qualify.)  

Gratitude

To my parents – You learned how to text just so you could keep up with me on race-day.  That says enough.  :–) You’ve never asked me why I do these things, you’ve just asked how.  Thank you.

To Nina and Paul – thank you for being there on race-day.  It’s fun to watch your amazement and admiration for all 2500 of us out there.

To Bernhard – thanks for letting me tag along on training rides.  Seeing you out there on Cantelow and Cardiac made those nasty 6 hour rides slightly more tolerable this Spring. You’re a great roommate too – glad we shared the place in CDA.

To Keith & Susan – thanks for keeping our kitties alive.  I’m glad you like organic veggies because I’m not sure what else we have to trade with you.

To Coach Kevin and Triforce – Wow.  In two months time, you gave me the restructuring in my training program that got me over the top.  Those two-hour trainer sessions, mid-week bricks and high-intensity swim workouts majorly suck sometimes, but they absolutely made the difference.  Equally, the preparation and strategy advice gave me the experience to manage myself through the final stages of preparation and race-day. Watching you run past me on the run (as you were on your second loop and as I was starting my first) gave me a nice boost to know I wasn’t out there alone. I’m baffled how someone can be so fast with a smile on their face.  Congratulations on your finish.

And most of all, to Lena, my wife. She’s incredible for persisting and supporting me in these crazy endeavors.  I love you.  We joke about being married for 100 years, but I hope we both live to be a 1000 so we have that much longer together. Every day of my life is better in every way because of you.

Nutrition

Because I’m asked, here’s what I consumed race-day.  According to Garmin, I burned about 14,000 calories on the bike and run. I figure another 1000 on the swim.  

Breakfast:
* Triple espresso
* Toasted Bagel with peanut butter and jelly
* Greek yogurt with blueberries and granola

Pre-Swim:
* 1/2 Clif bar with water as I was shuffling through the timing gate to the beach.

Bike: 
* 4-5 Clif bars (1350 calories)
* 25 scoops of Perpetuem in my Speedfil (3400 calories)
* 2 Endurolytes every 45 minutes
* 5-6 liters water
* 3/4 Almond butter & Jelly sandwich.  First began eating at mile 75.  Ate some more around mile 100. (400 calories)

Notes: I was able to keep my nutrition pace pretty well.  Around 3.5 to 4 hours on the bike, I found myself slacking to the point where I yelled at myself aloud – “Scott – you HAVE to keep eating!”   I started with 2 Endurolytes every hour, but moved to 2 per 45 minutes as the day heated up.

Run:
* 2-3 Clif Bars (~600 calories)
* 2 Espresso Hammer Gels (~200 calories)
* Water at every aid station
* Cola every 2-3 stations starting around mile 10 or 11
* Perpetuem in my running belt (4 bottles with 400 calories each)
* Switched out my bottles in my special needs bag with two new bottles but I didn’t drink most of these refills
* 2 Endurolytes every 30 minutes.  

Notes: This was ghastly.  My Perpetuem bottles were hot from sitting in my transition bag and even hotter when I switched them out for the refills in my special needs bag.  After 4-5 Clif Bars on the bike, forcing another down your throat gets awfully tough, but I did. (Another shout out to Coach Kevin for that.) I packed multiple flavors of Clif Bars to give myself variety throughout the day.  That helped some.  By the last few miles, I was popping 2 Endurolytes every 15-20 minutes.  I’m sure this made no difference in performance. I was just reaching for anything that would give me a boost.

Ironman Houston results

Ironman_houston

Run a 2:49 marathon after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike, and still not make up ground on the leader? These guys were absolutely hammering – 6:45s on the run.  Wow.

This is as close of a photo finish as it gets on an Ironman course.

His mudder was a mudder – TBF Trail Half-marathon race report

(Writer's note – I had a much better report, but because Google's email system doesn't allow one to find the draft I accidentally discarded, I'm starting all over…)

Two weeks later, it's hard to believe that winter was in full force on race day for the Fleet Feet Trail Half-marathon, organized by TBF Racing.  Rain, cold, wind. It pays to be a mudder on days like this. The course is a few rolling hills, with rolling hills sprinkled in, along with some rolling hills.  I ran the same trails back in October and finished in 1:57, 28/90 overall and 10/16 in the 30-39 age group.  The conditions then were rainy, but not the wrath we will getting today.

The race start was at 9:00am.  I woke up at 7:00am to howling winds and rain pelting my house.  I even checked the TBF website just in case, secretly hoping the race was cancelled. Nothing doing.

Pre-race – I went light on food – Clif bar, banana, and Startbuck Via.  I've come to love these little packets.  All the caffeine without needing to imbibe copious amounts of liquid to get there.  Got to park and paid the $10 entry fee.  (This is my only gripe about races here.  $10 entry fee to park is crappy.  TBF should figure out a way to bake this into the race fees or offer some kind of discount.  I did send out a carpool notice, but no takers.)

After arriving, I did my changing and got my running belt together.  Electrolyte pills and my concoction of Hammer Strength Perpetuem. I thought for a moment that perhaps I could sneak into a top 3 spot for my age group, but after seeing the other runners, I realized that only the hard core come out on days like this.  Didn't give myself much time to spare.  (If you've read my other race reports, this should come as no surprise).  Most of all, I told myself to take it easy. This was ultimately a training run for the big race in June.  There's no glory in getting hurt at a random trail race in March.  Countdown to start and away we go.

Mile 1-3 – Started off pretty quickly.  The trail was mostly open and gravel.  Some puddles, but nothing awful.  I figured if the track was like this the whole way, I'd be fine with that.  I was figuring that race pace of 8:00/miles would be fast but a sold goal.  By mile three, my heart rate was up a bit and I was at an 8:06, so I dropped by target time back to 8:15s figuring I'd get slower with more hills.

Mile 4-5 – Runners really spread out by now. I've found I'm a pretty strong runner on hills (climbing that is.  I'm slow on descents.)  I imagine myself as a Quarter Horse or a semi truck in second gear, or on a roller coaster just after it clicks in to pull you up to the top.  As I'm climbing, I hear the clack-a-clack-a-clack in my head, control my breathing, and picture myself running strong with good form.  Seems to work.  The course also moved into the wood – a single track course with TONS of mud everywhere.  Went from avoiding puddles to just splashing down right in the middle of them.  The mud around the puddles was thick from the other runners, so mid-puddle was the most firm ground other there.

Saw a runner wrist-deep in the mud fishing out an orphaned shoe he lost in the deep mud.  A few slips here and there made me think about popping my knee or blasting my Achilles or ACL, but alas, keep moving at a pace faster than was safe.

Mile 8 – I found myself completely alone on the course – no one in view ahead or behind.  As I turned a switchback, I saw a runner I'd passed back at Mile 4 gaining.  Nothing motivates you more than seeing someone you thought you buried miles ago.   I was thinking I was getting lazy and turns out I was.

Mile 9 – The course and hills were taking its toll.  Started feeling fatigued.  It's the half-marathon version of the "wall" people talk about in marathons. Nothing like the Mile 18 wall of a full marathon, but a mental hurdle nonetheless.  Towards the end of the mile, the course opened up and I could see ahead. Two runners in sight.  One looking much stronger than the other.

Mile 10 – The weaker of the two ahead slowed and eventually stopped to fix his shoe.  Picked him off and I was about 1/8 mile from the next rabbit, but gaining slowly.  The trail started narrowing back to the single track in the woods.

Mile 11 – I picked up my pace and started running hard tangents.  That gets kinda tricky with the slop.  I hit the tangent with my outside foot, then almost wiped out twice as I turned.  Keep my balance and kept driving.  By the end of the mile, I was about 5-10 strides away, with two more runners in sites, about 25 yards ahead.  Both were wearing Fleet Feet running shirts, one with arm-warmers.  This meant these guys were real runners, not middling triathletes pretending to be a runner like me.

Mile 12 – I finally passed the first ahead and crept up to the Fleet Feeters.  They heard me behind them, seemed surprised, and picked up the pace some more.  

Mile 13 – Final aid station.  I was only 3-5 strides behind the Fleet Feeters who stepped right to grab a Gatorade.  I decided now was the time to kick, so I burst out as the trail opened into a long flattish segment.  About 1/2 mile to go, I sneaked a look and saw I was well ahead of three runners I passed, and looked ahead and found one more rabbit.  The headwind was vicious, probably 20-25 mph.  Turned the last corner and was about 50 yards from the last rabbit but only had 100 yards to go.  He turned around, saw me, and started sprinting.  I yelled ahead – "Don't worry! I can't catch you!" finishing 6 seconds behind him. 

I crossed the finish line, grunted a few times, and felt absolutely spectacular.  My Fleet Feet friends were 0:01:20 behind me, for 13/90 overall and 5/14 in my division, with a time of 1:47:15 – a full 10 minutes faster than my October race is far worse conditions. (Funny side note – the next day at work, a colleague asked how the race went.  Told him I was 13th.  He said – "That's still pretty good."  No, that's INCREDIBLE for me – I've never been this close to the top of the board.)

Afterwards as I was changing my shoes and shirt, a women asked me – "Do you ever wonder why you do these things."  I said without thinking – "I wonder how people don't do these things.  There's always a few minutes in the morning when I ask why, but once I'm out here, it's awesome."  I still don't think she understood.   Sometimes I don't.  Well, that's not true.  I know exactly why I do these things.