I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.
–Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I’ve had a lot of people give me incredulous looks over the past week when they find out I just completed a Half Ironman. Like it was some Herculean feat that not only I shouldn’t be able to do, but that no one should ever willingly choose to do either. I don’t know what others thought my chances of finishing were, but I never had any doubt I’d complete the entire triathlon. I may have made deflecting comments in weeks prior about just quitting after the bike if I was too tired, but my training prep leading up to the event left me feeling 100% confident.
A 1.2 mile swim? Puh-lease. Granted I only found the time/energy to hit the pool three times in training, one ended with a coach stopping me on my way to the locker room to tell me what a beautiful stroke I had (like I don’t know), and the other included a solid set where after 600m of freestyle I finally found my groove and immediately declared myself ready. A 55.7 mile bike? I’ve had enough rides of greater distance than that this summer operating on less lung power. I am as comfortable on my saddle as I am on my living room couch. True, the hills would be a challenge, but I’ve been to hell and back on the bike before, and if there’s anything I know, it’s that I can survive. And a 13.1 mile run? My longest run of the summer was only 9 miles, but if had to walk, no worries. A pain of a half marathon is minuscule and over in the blink of an eye compared to the pain of chemotherapy. Bring it on.
I slid into my wetsuit, and we waded into the water near the front of the 2nd wave for the in-water start. As if I had any excuse to quit, there was a guy at the start floating behind me with no legs competing. Just a flipper attached to one of his nubs. Only a few minutes later, we all put our faces in the water and started spinning arms and kicking legs. Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t doing all I could to be at the head of the pack like in most of my triathlon swims, but it was very uncrowded. I hardly bumped into anyone or had to swim over top of others. I decided to stay within myself and take the swim easy – no sense in burning so much energy so early in the day for such little gain. Before the first turn, I had already passed a few people from the wave that started 7 minutes ahead of us.
The swim course was one of the easiest open water swims to sight I’ve raced in, and on the back stretch, I finally settled into a groove where I didn’t feel like I was forcing my arms forward against their will with each stroke. I drafted at the hip of other swimmers when I could, and, well, just kept on keeping on until the home stretch. As I was nearing the beach, I noticed one other swimmer with a different color cap (meaning he started in the wave behind me) pass me, but by my calculations, only getting passed by one or two swimmers was a pretty good start to the day. I exited the water in a little over 31 minutes, which is right what I predicted, and only a few minutes slower than my best time.
And so began the heart and soul of the SavageMan. My relatively quick transition saw me start the bike before Matt and Abe, even though they both swam faster than me, but I also bundled up less than them. It was a cool and cloudy morning, and with a long descent to start the bike course (and still being wet from the swim), I threw on a vest, arm warmers, and gloves to ward off the cold. Familiarize yourself with the profile:
Climbing Toothpick near the start, I immediately ran out of gears. Looks like I wasn’t going to be setting any records. It was time to stay within myself and just make sure I didn’t redline. The few rolling miles before the descent were windy and cold. We’d been instructed by the race directors about the numerous “dangerous, technical descents” on the course, but a fellow racer we met when setting up our in the transition area in the morning told us that aside from the first tight turn on the first descent, they weren’t that dangerous.
This was good knowledge to have. And it was correct. After a tight turn to start the downhill, I crouched down, took my fingers off the brakes, and sank like a stone. I still didn’t know the course, so I wasn’t going at my limit, but I still passed more than a handful of racers more scared/cautious than me.
And then the real test began. You ride through a couple of intersections in Westernport near the river, then take a 90 degree left turn, cross a timing mat, and if you’re foolish enough to look up at the road ahead, curse loudly to yourself. This pictures from the top of the Westernport Wall can not accurately depict the steepness of the climb itself, nor the fact that the lower three-quarters of the climb is seriously steep itself.
That top section in the photo, partially hidden by the tree and paved with concrete instead of asphalt, is the steepest section, maxing out at 31%. There’s no chance to carry any momentum into the base of it. The shouting crowds and repeating loop of the Rocky soundtrack and concurrent surge in adrenaline weren’t enough to get me to the top without hopping off my bike and walking.
But after finishing that climb, the road only continues to tick upwards. The Big Savage climb is timed (starting the clock at the base of the Westernport Wall), and it took me over 45 minutes to reach the top. 45 minutes of finding all sorts of different climbing styles. Out of the saddle. Paperboying. Woodpeckering. Hand in the hoods. Hands on the middle of my handlebar. The couple short downhill sections of the climb only meant that the other sections had to be that much steeper to make up for the lost elevation. I tried to remember to eat calories as much as I could, but it took me nearly 30 minutes to eat a single Clif bar. Any bite larger than a nibble rendered too much food in my mouth to both chew and breathe at the same time.
Though I will say, when I remembered enough to steer my head away from the road in front of me, there was some truly scenic countryside to gaze at and enjoy.
The descent off of Big Savage was my favorite part of the entire day. After enough time to warm up (and shed the vest and arm warmers at the bag drop), I settled into my tuck and bombed it. Sweeping turns through the forest required only a light feathering of the brakes, and all concentration turned toward carving up the road whizzing by me. My biggest concern was finding the right line around the slower racers. I’m told I caught a few of them off guard when my speed and closeness surprised them, but I never felt unsafe.
But on descent we shift from awareness to is, evaluating only the line itself, not how things could go wrong.
Near the bottom of the descent, I passed a few racers in full aero gear who were obviously not great descenders. As the next Cat 4 climb started, one passed me again and remarked about how effortless I made it look. Made my day.
I hadn’t memorized the course map or profile, so after Big Savage, I only knew what lay ahead of me based on how far I could see up the road. There were more climbs, steep as all the others, and now only short descents off of them. And then came Killer Miller.
Though at it’s steepest, the Westernport Wall is worse, Killer Miller is nearly just as steep in sustained sections, and much, much longer. There were spectators on this section of the course as well, but honestly, I can’t remember what any of them looked like. When my eyeballs weren’t examining the inside of my own skull, they were intently focused on the square meter of asphalt just beyond my front tire. I turned myself inside out, used the entire width of the road, and finally found myself in the flow state.
The remainder of the ride was mostly an exercise in trying to remain in the zone despite whatever was going on around me, and then easing back a little to prepare for the run.
Through most of the bike, my feet were pretty cold. I opted not to wear shoe covers, and I purposely over-tightened my shoes for most of the ride to make climbing a little more efficient, so the first mile of the run was simply an exercise in getting warm blood to my feet and feeling them out again. After a short trip to the port-a-potty to relieve some liquids, I still struggled to find my rhythm. I walked the uphill sections of the run, and waddled through the flats. It’s not that my legs were coming unhinged, but my gut was still not cooperating.
I ticked through the miles and held a relatively pedestrian pace of 11 minutes/mile through the first half of the two loop course. I don’t have a clue what I was actually thinking about.
Around mile 8, I stopped for another bathroom break – this time a little more lengthy -and finally, I could run. I switched to a half cup of Coke at every aid station, and quickly found new life. I was starting to catch and pass other runners for the first time, and my legs still weren’t tired. By not redlining while trying to set a PR, I held a comfortable pace the entire day. I negative split the run at a pace that didn’t exhaust me, and even after finishing, I felt like I could’ve continued on for hours more. My legs didn’t hurt. I’m not sure how else to explain it. You either understand, or you don’t.
I’m still waiting for photos from others and from the race photographers, as I’m especially anxious to share some of the other parts of the course with everyone, and trigger my own memories of other sections on the course, so if they’re uploaded in a timely manner, I’ll update with some of the better ones.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.