The pro guy who spoke at the mandatory meeting couldn’t have been any more right when he said something like “Tomorrow is going to be a long day; on any given long day no matter what you’re doing, something will go wrong. It is how you handle what goes wrong that will make all the difference.”
This was number 3 for me. I was so relaxed. Hey, I’m a veteran Ironman… I’m cool. Maybe a little too cool. When I checked into the hotel I picked up the USA today and the front page of the sports page had an article entitled “Swimming deaths trouble triathlons.” Chuckling to myself and thinking how ironic to have that article 2 days before the IM, I couldn’t help but make sure my fellow Sunrise team mates saw the article so I promptly sent a picture of the article through the group text I had started so we could all have a good laugh. After a few text exchanges that included “needing swimmies, ironman body bags, rubber ducky inner tubes, and preparing the family” – the best was “You are a poop head Tony,” I quickly realized everyone may not be as relaxed as I was. I tried to calm everyone by saying “You guys crack me up! Nothing bad is going to happen! Tomorrow will be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, personal days of your lives. I mean that with all sincerity. Calm down and enjoy it. It’s now exactly 24 hours to blast off. I can’t freaking wait! You’ll see.”
At the entrance to the swim I hook up with Jason Sanders and his coach Lisa Colvin. Lisa is so excited and happy. It rubs off and I’m pumped. I’m not nervous at all, just ready to race. Jason gives me some last minute pointers about where to start. We will start at the front, right side and go like hell for a few minutes and it will clear up. I’d have to tread water for a few minutes, but I discovered on the practice swim treading water will help me warm-up. If anybody wants to pass me they’d have to go through me. I’ve been in that situation before and it doesn’t intimidate me. Right before we head to the water, I tell Jason “this is not about you, you’re going to be fine.” I wonder if he knows what I meant. If you think too far ahead in an IM, or you think too much about yourself, it can foster some self-doubt. I know he’s going to be apprehensive until he blows by the point where he had to drop out last year. We get in the water, swim out to the start line, tread water for a few minutes and I start getting tired. It was a different feeling than the day before. A couple of folks were hanging on to one of the big start line buoys so I swim over and do the same thing. Next thing I know 15 people are hanging on to that buoy. It was funny. I lose track of Jason. I saw one woman who had taken a small beach ball and was using it keep her afloat. I thought that was cheating until I remembered I was hanging on to the buoy. They have crammed way too many people in a small start area. That was really the only complaint I have about the entire race.
I look around the buoy for the start clock and see it’s just a few seconds to the start. I say a quick prayer for Jason. The cannon goes off. I sprint my heart out and immediately start to get pounded. I hit back. It feels like you’re in a bucket of fish with no water. It’s like a fist fight. I think to myself just protect that chip and my face; the rest of me can take anything. That goes on for an hour. It was supposed to last only 10 minutes. I feel the chip strap come out and it is dangling on my ankle. Thank goodness I used a safety pin on the Velcro part, but I can’t keep thinking one more swipe from a hand will take it off. I am not a good swimmer and so I realize most everyone had the same idea of starting at the front – my problem is the other 1,000 good swimmers are all passing me keeping me right in the middle of things. Not good. It takes forever to get to the first turn buoy. At the second turn I can tell I’m slowing down. I’m swimming too slowly. I lose concentration around me and them bam! Foot to the face! Crap, right in the left eye. I sit up (well sort of) and clear the water from my goggles, but I feel like my left eye is “cut” or has something stuck in it. My senses are off because I’m in the water. A little pain but not unbearable. The last leg of the swim down the channel was no fun. I exit the swim, pull my goggles off and yea, there’s definitely something wrong with my eye. But, I don’t have time to mess with it. I see Jeff and Christine Howells. That’s cool – they get my first forced smile as I look at my watch. Swim split was 1:29:45. Geez Louise, all those mornings getting up at 4:00 am to go to Red River Masters didn’t help me at all! Either that or I’m just a lousy swimmer. Janet Martin can’t even help me! I realized later that was my exact swim split, to the second, at my first IM in Arizona – freaky huh?
Quick stop first at the port-o-let. Fortunately, I find a chair right next to the water table. Here’s a T-1 tip – just go ahead and dump the entire contents of your bag on the ground. It’s all a big mess anyway and that way you can find what you’re looking for easier. While I’m changing, I take several cups of water and flush out my eye. I’m not too concerned at this point. Thank God my contact stayed in! I wear mono-vision contacts and my left eye is the one I can see distances with. If it had gotten knocked out on the swim I would have definitely had to drop out. Without that left contact anything farther away than 20 feet is a big blur. Zipping along on the bike at 20 to 25 mph would have been disaster. No way I can ride a bike without seeing out of that eye. T-1 was 7:36.
On the bike – I love the bike! Especially today. Down wind, feeling good, loving life. Even the headwind at mile 60+ is no issue for me today. I keep an eye (the right one) on my average speed, anything close to 20 mph and I’m in great shape time wise. Most 55-59 guys are slow on the bike and run and oh yea, I’m a veteran. I had loaded myself up with all my nutrition (no special needs bag and 2 PBJ’s down my shirt) so I wouldn’t have to stop. I was not going to stop. I did the entire bike and practically never stopped pedaling.
No need for more details on the bike. 112 miles and feeling great physically… except the eye. Something is wrong because it’s not feeling any better. Again, I have that feeling something is in it. Staying down in the aero bars and looking up is the only way I can see clearly. When I sit up and look straight my vision is foggy and it hurts. I stick my finger under my glasses several times and try to get whatever’s in there out. No success. I have to be careful not to touch my contact. It gets worse, and worse, and worse. 5:39 bike split; perfect time-wise and I feel great. I have not over extended myself. I feel good enough to run a marathon, even if it is supposed to be hot. By the time I come in to T-2 the eye is really worrying me. Please God not today – I’m exactly where I wanted to be.
I grab a volunteer and ask him to look at my eye. His response “Oh man, you definitely have something in there and it’s real bloodshot.” Before I have a chance to think he takes some TP and wipes it. Damn that hurt and I tell him. He apologizes. I apologize back. He shows me the TP. Holy crap there’s a big red and black blob, gross as heck on there. “That came out of my eye?” “Yea man, but it looks a lot better now.” More water to flush it out. It actually did feel a lot better. I still haven’t seen it either so I take off on the run. T-2 in 8:18.
The eye is very annoying. I hate annoying. I like things perfect. If my visor gets crooked I have to fix it. I run a couple of 9:00 minute miles and then I get into my 10:00/mile rhythm. That’s all I need to do. Slow and steady. It’s hot. Real hot, but that’s OK because I can handle it. I checked last year’s times and as long as I can break 12:00 I can finish top 10 for sure, maybe top 5. I start to zone out, but that’s good – just the way I like it. Alone in a crowd. I drink heavily at every water stop; walk a little every mile. First loop done and I’m right on track. A pit stop tells me I’m dehydrated. I drink even more. Another pit stop about mile 14 told me I was hydrated… or as hydrated as I’ll get all day. I know this feeling… remember I’m a veteran. Everybody is walking… a lot.
But, the eye is getting worse. Sometimes my eyelid sticks when I blink. Uh oh. I flush it out a lot. Warm water feels good on the eye, but I prefer cold water on the rest of me. There’s some really gross yellow gunky stuff in it. I clean it out at every water station. About mile 10 or so my vision starts to get foggy, blurry, and now I have that sense that it’s cut again. I run by people and feel a strange guilt. I wonder if they’re thinking that guy will bonk, he should be walking. I start stopping at Port-o-lets looking for a mirror, but none of them have mirrors. I’m afraid to ask volunteers to look at it now because they might try and pull me off the course. Small chance, but I’m not taking that chance. Too many stops, too much time, I start to look at my watch too much. Real worry sets in. It’s ok to walk some, but not stop. I hit the 13 mile mark at 9:40. That’s a problem. If I slow down any more breaking 12:00 is questionable. I pass Scott English on the second loop. We talk briefly; I can’t remember what we said. He was running so that was good.
Second loop done. One more that’s all. You know, when things start to go bad in a marathon they go bad in a hurry. I know because at this point I’m in the middle of my 21st marathon. Been there done that. Half way through the last loop I can’t really see and there’s a rock in my eye I can’t get out.
At the mile 21 water station I stop and get 3 cups of water and walk off the course. If anybody is watching me I’m sure they think I’m dropping out. I had realized a few miles back breaking 12:00 is impossible. It makes no difference to me now what place I finish if I can’t at least finish in the top 10. Well just screw it! Depression has set in. Plus now I’m really worried about my eye. This was so stupid. I should have dropped out and gone to the ER hours ago! I had a detached retina a couple of years ago in my other eye and I’m taking a chance with my good eye? I think about Forrest Gump… Stupid is as stupid does.
I take my contact out and it’s a gunked up mess. I stick it in a cup of water and start flushing my eye out with the other cup. Oh man that feels good. And my vision is clearing up. 5+ more minutes wasted. I’m going nowhere fast. I would find out later the 4th place guy (Francisco Arriola) probably passed me while I was stopped. I try to put the contact back in and the wind blows it off my finger. Gone. Damn! Nothing left to do now but take it on in. With that nice long rest running a 10:00 pace is not bad. What the hell I’m out of the race anyway.
At about mile 23 I see Jeremy Brown for the third time. Holding a poster I can’t read and wearing nothing that I can tell. What is wrong with that boy? Thanks for being weird Jeremy. Another forced smile; Jeremy needed it. With about 2 miles to go I come up on a guy who is flat on his back being attended by a couple of medical people. He is out cold and they have his neck cocked back and one guy has hand in his mouth. It’s serious and reminds me this sport can be very dangerous. By the time I run another half mile they have him on the back of golf cart going really fast and it zooms right by me.
Going through the finish chute you kind of feel obligated to ham it up for the crowd. Weird, but true. All these people who you don’t know are cheering for you. You can’t let them down. So I finish acting like I’m loving it. I’m not exactly super sad but not real happy either. Found out later Janet was in the chute yelling her head off at me but I never heard or saw her. Missed my chance for a kiss 100 feet from the finish line. I guess I had a hard time slowing down crossing the line because a volunteer puts his hand in my chest to slow me down. 12:14:38. Hey, the sun is still out! I had an 11:27 in IMFL, but it was in November and the sun had gone down. It was really dark in IMAZ with a 12:59.
I get my medal, towel, finisher hat and shirt. Picture… forced smile again. And then I see Jason. He finished and had a great race! Kicked my butt. Man, what a relief. Nobody should work that hard and be denied. My spirits pick up a bit. And there’s Lisa again – still happy and all excited. Jason’s parents and Holly are there too. It’s time to end the pitty patty party I was having for myself. I find Janet and we head straight for the medical tent. Very few people are in there – it’s just a matter of time. Doctor takes a look at my eye. Says it looks real bad, but since I’m breathing and know my name I’m good to go. Janet tells me I finished 5th in the AG. I’m shocked! No way! I tell myself those have to be preliminary results.
I’m hungry so I go get some of the free food and chocolate milk. I start to get depressed again, but don’t even look for beer – I know… now you are shocked if you know me. A young guy throws up a few feet away. Usually I’d laugh, but it’s not even funny.
All I want to do is go back to the hotel and crash. At the hotel I finally get a good chance to look at my eye. Looks real red and all kinds of gunk in it. Janet goes to a sandwich place and brings me back a sandwich. I promise Janet that if it’s not better in the morning or wakes me up I will go to ER. Now that I’ve eaten twice I am ready to just lie down. My feet hurt. I experienced a “burning” sensation in both of my feet during the run. Ordinarily, it would have occupied all my thinking were it not for my other problem. I bought a size 9.5 instead of the 10s I’ve been running in for years, but hadn’t run more than 16 in them leading up to the IM. I go to sleep to just forget the day.
I wake up hungry and go ravage the free breakfast at the hotel. Man, I love me some free breakfast! Eye is really blood shot and hurting, but not really worse than the night before so on the smallest of small chances I go to the post-race “roll-down” tent to see if all the people in front of me turned down the Kona spot. Hey, you never know… the Saints won the Super Bowl!
At the results table, good and bad news. There were 2 Kona spots in my AG, but the first 2 guys claimed them. The good is I actually did finish in 5th place! And, oh my God, I am getting an award at the banquet! Well, I’m not going to the ER now. We have to check out of the hotel and be at the banquet at 11:30. Outside the banquet hall I see Francisco. I recognize him because he was wearing his race bib with his name on the bike. I saw his age and knew he was in my AG. I introduce myself. On the bike I could tell he had runner’s legs and I worried about him on the run. We went back and forth on the bike a couple of times, but he had stopped for his bike special needs bag and I never saw him again. He ran a 4:27 marathon and that’s how he took 4th. I ran a 4:49. I was expecting around 4:30. What a super nice guy. He finished 7th last year and he is very happy. I’m happy for him too. I don’t tell him about my eye. His wife, Trinni, is very nice too. We talk for a while and lose track of them. Later, we sit in the back at a table in the banquet hall. A few minutes later Trinni comes up and says they saved a couple of seats for us at a table on the front row.
My 15 seconds of fame are assured now as the awards banquet is very well organized and professionally done. Now I’m ready for a beer or two and I head straight for the hotel bar. When we go on stage as our names are called, I am first on the stage because I was 5th. Francisco is next (Frank to his friends – he puts “Francisco” on his bib so he knows when a real friend is calling his name). On stage I purposely call him Francisco and tell him I’m gunning for him next time – he gets the joke. There are several hundred people in the big banquet hall and with all the bright lights and pictures being taken of us on the stage I get that “surreal” feeling people talk about. It is really cool. I’m wearing my glasses, oh well.
You never know what the heck is going to happen in an IM. Just when things are going really well it can change and go really bad. I realized that even when you think things are going really bad, they may in fact be really good. It was hot and my eye did cause me to lose focus, but you can never give up… ever! Focus on your effort in an IM, not your time. 5th place in my AG in 2012 IMTX was 11:47. This year I got 5th with a 12:14. Time is relative – duh!
For a couple of other reasons (work) I didn’t go to the eye doctor until I got home the following Thursday. Sure enough I had a lacerated conjunctiva. That’s the membrane that surrounds your entire eyeball. When the conjunctiva is cut, it will bleed, but with the tiny vessels it will seal up quickly. By then it’s 5 days later and he tells me it’s healing very nicely. Had I been in when it happened he would have put me on an antibiotic and given me some eye drops, but no need now. He says I was lucky it didn’t get infected.
Long story, sorry. I’ll be back… Cozumel 2014. I will get to Kona one day – the old fashioned way. It took me 6 marathons to get to Boston so the way I figure it I’m still learning this IM thing.
Finally, I can’t end without mentioning all the other Shreveport/Bossier athletes and fellow Sunrise members. Every one of us finished! All 13 of us! That says a lot if you look at the non-finisher rate which I believe was about 15%. I have always believed that for us amateurs this is a team sport. You may race alone, but you train and spend 98% of your time with your team mates and friends. You will never get to the start line alone.
2013 IMTX Finishers: Bethanie Reyes, Kirsten Wiederkehr, Marty Regan, Heather Emory, Jessie Flores, Renee Umstead, Jeff Gaydos, Cole Guthrie, Scott English, Cheryl Webb, Jason Sanders, and Chris Avery.
And, of course, I want to say a special thanks to my wife Janet. Why she puts up with all this stuff I’ll never know.