Almost two months to the day before our ultimate test in Cozumel, five of our Tri-Club members gathered in Augusta, GA for our last official tune-up event – the Augusta Half Iron Man. Melissa, and I drove down to Columbia Friday night and, after a nice dinner with Mom & Howard, Celeste & Dwayne and my Nephews, Chase and Evan, we spent the night with Mom & Howard and had a great visit. Saturday morning it was on to Augusta, where we arrived in time for package pickup and a quick stroll through the Iron Man store before catching a 3:30 p.m. athlete briefing, all at the Downtown Marriott which was the host hotel for the event. Here we met Lori, Andre, Joni and Brian, who made the trip from Jacksonville. During the athlete briefing we were given the usual stern warnings about drafting (you must keep a four-bike-length distance between the bike in front of you for Iron Man events as opposed to a three-bike-length space in other USAT-sanctioned events), and we were given an updated forecast for race day – rain.
After leaving the expo, we dropped our bikes off at T1 and made our way to the Clarion Inn off of Washington Road. Here we ordered takeout from Bonefish and organized our equipment and transition bags for the next day. Melissa & Brian were nice enough to go pick up dinner so I could catch the kick-off of the Carolina vs. Auburn game on ESPN – a game I stayed up watching until past 11 p.m. against my better judgment. (Carolina lost a heartbreaker). By the time the game ended, Melissa was in her second or third REM cycle. Despite the anxiety built up during the game (Gamecock fans are an eternally optimistic and emotionally vested bunch), I faded off to sleep quickly, though it was a sleep common to those nights before races – a shallow sleep full of gauzy dreamscapes relating more or less to the pending event, though at times, inexplicably including a cameo by my mustachioed 1st grade home room teacher, Ms. Murray or a scene from my nine weeks at Army boot camp.
When the alarm chimed at 4:45 a.m. we rose quickly and I felt surprisingly rested. I loaded the car while Melissa made coffee, filled our water bottles and made a quick breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches. We met the rest of the group in the lobby at 5:30 and we were quickly on our way to the race site. We found parking spots within a quarter mile walk of T1 and were at our bikes setting up for race day by 6:15 or so. T1 was a hive of activity as 3,000 athletes milled about, organizing transition mats, bike shoes, running shoes, helmets, race belts, gel packets and all the other meager comforts and necessities to get them through 70.3 miles.
By the time we made it out of the transition area and over to the line for the busses which would take us to the swim start, the rain had started and the sun was just starting to rise, shedding light on the dense, low cloud cover which would keep us cool and wet all day. Had the race been 24 hours earlier we would have faced a glaring sun and temperatures in the mid 90’s – unseasonably hot for late September. Timing is everything, and we gladly accepted the rain since it meant cooler temperatures. We loaded onto yellow school busses for the short ride over to the Riverfront Marina and once there made final bathroom visits and donned wet-suits for the 1.2 mile swim in the Savannah River. By the time we made it over to the starting area, it was 7:50 a.m., and the first wave of swimmers had started. Mine and Brian’s waves started around 7:54 and Melissa, Lori and Andre’s waves came 20 to 30 minutes after that. It takes a while to get 3,000 people into the water. At the appointed time, I jumped into the water where I, along with the 50 or so people in my wave waited for approximately two minutes for our official start. Despite having visited the facilities just 30 minutes prior, I was feeling that familiar adrenaline-induced need to pee. Having no other option besides holding it until the transition, resulting in an uncomfortable swim (not an attractive option), I did what probably 2/3 of the other participants did just before the starting gun – I peed in my wetsuit. It was both revolting and somehow amusing in a Beavis and Butthead sort of way when I felt it bubble up out of the arm holes in my suit, but I did feel great relief and it also took my mind off of the task at hand, if just for a minute or so.
Swimming in the Savannah River, as in any triathlon swim, is disconcerting. Between absorbing frenzied jabs from the feet and elbows of nearby swimmers, the low-level panic always associated with swimming in the murky open water, and the added bonus of doing it in a known alligator zone, it was both physically and mentally challenging. All during the swim, long tentacles of sea-weed-like plants reached up toward us from the unseen river bottom, sometimes wrapping around our arms or necks and typically taking a few strokes to shake off. It was creepy.
After several hundred yards I managed to find some separation from the other swimmers which at least alleviated the congestion. At the 27 minute mark, I exited at the Augusta Rowing Complex and entered T1. The race officials offered quite a nice touch at T1 as there was a row of volunteers lined up to assist the participants with taking off their wetsuits. We simply peeled off the wetsuit down to the waist, laid on the ground with legs up and the volunteer would jerk the suit the rest of the way off. We began referring to them as the “Wetsuit Strippers” which, as an aside, I think would be an awesome name for a band.
I made it through T1 as quickly as I could and was out on the bike for a rainy 56 mile ride back across the river and through the back roads of Aiken County, S.C. It was a hilly ride with almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss throughout the course. During the ride the rain grew heavier and at times on the fast down hills it felt like tiny pellets against my exposed face, arms and legs. The bike leg is always the most humbling part of the triathlon for me. Simply put, I’m slow. My slowness was exacerbated by the game plan from Martin (Coach), which required me to keep my heart rate in the 140’s during the ride, so that I would have something left for the run. I kept it within that range with a few deviations on the steepest of the hills, and in doing so I rode at an even slower pace than I typically do. I was passed by what seemed like hundreds of riders – including one generously proportioned octogenarian on a hybrid bike. Despite this, I fought the impulse to go faster and maintained a steady, if unimpressive 18.3 mph average. Keeping the mind occupied on the 56 mile bike leg is a big challenge (and it will be an even greater challenge during the 112 mile full Iron Man course in Cozumel), so I set about doing this by meticulously tracking my water and food intake. Take a sip of water every 15 minutes, eat something every 45 – that was the strategy, and I followed it to the tee. A book on tape, or perhaps a crossword puzzle would be the preferred method to distract the mind, but unfortunately this obsessive exercise would have to do.
After just over three hours on the bike, I pulled into T2, dropped the bike off, exchanged my cycling shoes for running shoes and headed out for the 13.1 mile run course. I was immensely relieved to be off the bike and beginning the final leg of the race and for the first four miles or so, I felt strong. And then, for reasons I’ll have to diagnose and correct between now and Cozumel, my run turned into an ugly slog that seemed to have no end. My knees throbbed and the miles went by with painful slowness. The run course consisted of two loops around the downtown of Augusta, which despite the less than perfect weather, provided an ideal vantage point for the hundreds of spectators, mostly lining Broad Street. It was a huge boost to the morale to have cheering spectators there, some even calling my name (names were listed on the number bibs) and running on that street was the highlight of the entire race, even during the most painful miles. Around mile eight or nine I saw Dad and Joan who had come out to see Melissa & I. Seeing them was another boost to morale and for a precious sixty seconds or so, took my mind off of my sore knees. By this point I was beginning to see finishers walking along the race route, presumably back to their cars, and I noticed them wearing their finishers medals, providing even more motivation.
Around 1:30 pm I rounded the last corner onto Reynolds Street, shuffled the last .2 miles or so and with great relief, made it through the finisher’s chute where I collected my own medal and found the nearest patch of grass on which to become horizontal. Before long Brian found me and, gentleman that he is, brought me a cold Sprite while I lay prone, attempting to quiet the howling protests of my quads and hamstrings and knees. After a while, Andre and Joni found us and then we found Melissa and Lori as well. They had found each other at some point during the run and had the good fortune of finishing together. Brian had a phenomenal finishing time of just over five hours. Andre was also sub-six hours, while Melissa, Lori and I finished in just over six. Joni took a photo – our group of finishers – and soon after we began the lengthy, uncomfortable walk back to the transition area to retrieve our bikes and sodden equipment. (It must be said that Joni – Andre’s wife – was a God-send. She was there to support us and all of us saw her multiple times during the event, unfailingly in high spirits, smiling and cheering us on. The effect of things like that on morale during the course of a 70.3 mile race cannot be overstated).
That night, Melissa & I stayed at my Dad & Joan’s and had a wonderful visit with them, despite the depths of our weariness. After hot showers and a short nap, we went to a great local restaurant and enjoyed the chance to catch up with them over dinner and conversation. We were back at their place and fast asleep by 9:30.
It had been an exceedingly long day, but a good one nonetheless. We all had a positive experience, despite universally agreeing that the run sucked and the entire event was harder than we expected – a real wake-up call for just how arduous Cozumel is going to be. We’ll spend the next two months fine-tuning our training, tweaking our diets, getting plenty of rest and most importantly, preparing our minds for the challenge of Iron Man.