Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alligators, Doritos, PR and Good Friends - IRONMAN 70.3 Augusta

As the good folks at ON ON Tri say, “PR or ER,” and that was the mentality I took to the IRONMAN 70.3 race held on Sunday, September 29 in beautiful Augusta, Georgia.  It was an absolutely beautiful weekend for a triathlon and the folks in Augusta know how to host and run an outstanding event.
Having completed my first 70.3 race at IRONMAN 70.3 Raleigh in June, I was not only excited to race closer to home; I was much better prepared and more relaxed than prior to my first event. It’s amazing what a good teacher experience is if you take time to learn for her!  Having completed my first IRONMAN 70.3 in 6:28 I had set my sights on eclipsing that time and besting my times for the swim, bike and run segments of the race. It was an aggressive goal but I was happy to be competing against myself and not against others.  As the Army says, “Be the Best You Can Be” and that was what I intended to do!
Race week is usually difficult for me in a couple of ways. First, the taper is just plain hard to do. Being used to piling up the miles and the workouts, it’s hard to cut back and stop training in the days leading to a race in order to get to the finish line fresh, rested and ready to put forth maximal effort! Couple forced rest with the nervous energy of competition and race week can be a bundle of emotions.  This week was no different but had an added bit of suspense.
On the Wednesday of race week I was catching up with my good friend Ben Breazeale as we usually do several times a week.  We talk about our families, work and oh yes, about our training and our race goals. This week was no different as the conversation was dominated by questions about my upcoming IRONMAN 70.3 race in Augusta.  I just love Ben as not only is he a great training partner but one of the best friends a person could ask for.

As we chatted about the race, the conversation turned towards the swim. I was explaining that unlike Raleigh where we swam in Jordan Lake, in Augusta we had the “luxury” of swimming 1.2 miles downstream in the Savanna River.  Aided by what current there was that day, I felt rather confident in my ability to conquer yet another swim.  My confidence and bravado was short lived as our conversation took an interesting turn. Ben told me a friend of his who had done the race explained to him that someone had placed a bag of Doritos in the river where the race started and it “swam” to the swim exit in around an hour or ten minutes ahead of the imposed swim cutoff time.
“JUST GREAT” I mused to myself.  Not only do I have to worry about surviving the swim, I have to worry about getting beaten by a bag of processed corn product!  There is nothing like a little added pressure to make this race really interesting! As many of you know, swimming is not my strong suit and now I wished I had put in more laps in the pool.  I thought about leaving work early and heading to Publix to buy a few bags of Doritos and throwing them in the pool to see if I can actually outswim them!  I have given up long ago trying to outswim the person in the lane next to me but I was confident I could give the Doritos a good race.  My good friend Jen Coleman and I have a running joke about her love of Doritos. I never told her this story as I was didn’t want to put her in a tough spot for whom to root for on race day. Oh the pressure.
The Friday of race week May, Elli, Ann Prince and I all loaded up the car and headed to Augusta to check-in. Being only a little over an hour from our home, it made sense to get a jump on the weekend. This was one less thing we had to do on Saturday and allowed us some more time to enjoy the weekend.  It was nice ride to Augusta on a beautiful afternoon as we shared stories and laughs.
Checking in at an IRONMAN event can be a bit overwhelming your first time.  Although IRONMAN events are extremely well organized and very well run, the enormity of it all can be breathtaking for first timers.  You  visit three different stations, sign numerous forms, pick up your swag bag and timing chip and all of this is usually right next to the IRONMAN Village and sponsor expo!  Having experienced this orchestrated maze of steps in Raleigh, it was much less intimidating and more enjoyable this time around. What I did notice was the nervousness of some folks registering and I could only imagine it was their first IRONMAN event or they too were worried about getting beaten by a bag of Doritos.  Nope, it had to be the registration process as only I could have a phobia of this nature about processed food.

Having registered in no time at all, we had to spend time at the IRONMAN Village and the sponsor’s expo.  Not only is this a right, it was almost a requirement!  The hard work was done, we were in the race, now it was time to separate ourselves from a little more cash and bring home even more M dot (IROMAN) logo valuables and anything else we could find.  It was also a time to put the leash on Elli and let her run wild to burn off a little energy in hopes that chasing her would keep me from spending too much money and would wear her out so she would take a much needed nap on the ride home.
The expo is a wonderful experience with the red M dot logo on everything.  Wild Elli or not, I was able to find a host of wonderful merchandise including a nice race top, socks, cap and totally awesome IRONMAN 70.3 Augusta winter jacket that I just had to have.  What a great way to spend an afternoon.  One thing about an IRONMAN expo is you are guaranteed to spend money, see a lot of shaved and muscular legs, hear tales from races past, reconnect with old friends, make new friends and see a LOT of M dot tattoos on assorted body parts.  Only IRONMAN could create such a strong brand and cult following that people will pay to permanently advertise IRONMAN on their bodies 365 days a year, 24 hours day.  With our purchases in hand we set off for home.

Saturday morning arrived in quick fashion as May; Elli and I loaded up and headed to Augusta. Saturday at an IRONMAN event is a busy day as you have to take your bike to the transition area, get situated in your hotel and oh yes, make one more trip through the IRONMAN village and race expo.  Arriving early allowed us to beat the traffic to set up my bike at transition one (T1) and gave us plenty of time to explore Augusta and get back to the room for a nap and some college football. 

T1 was right next to the Savannah River and it was a beautiful site.  Unlike Jordan Lake, I could actually see to the other side of the river which was comforting in many ways, namely my ability to get to dry land quickly should I need to.  Seeing shore on both sides gave me some confidence. Then I remembered the last time I got confident with Ben I was faced with a challenge by a bag of Doritos so I quickly moved away from the water, set up my bike and headed back to the car.  My days work was done, now it was time to relax and enjoy the day.

We had an absolutely wonderful lunch at Nacho Momma’s in Augusta. I questioned the logic of eating a veggie and bean burrito the day before I would push myself hard over 70.3 miles but hunger pains won the battle and we devoured a mountain of incredibly tasty food.  We will definitely return next year, only this time most likely for a post-race meal! ;)

The rest of the day was spent watching football, checking my alarm 100 times and going through my transition bag equally as many times. I’m not sure why triathletes do that but we have the tendency to check our gear bag over and over and over. I guess its nervous energy or force of habit but all my gear was present and accounted for and after a nice meal at Carrabba’s Italian Grill, it was lights out at 8:00 pm as race morning was just around the corner.
I actually got a good night’s sleep and was awake before the alarm went off at 4:00.  I had a cup of coffee and May and Elli took me to T1 as I prepared for my day. I have always liked to be early to any event, and IRONMAN events are no different.  The race started at 8:00 and I was there at 5:00 am. It was a beautiful morning with no wind and temps in the mid-50‘s, a perfect day for a race. I don’t know why I arrive so early but it gives me a chance to get my mind right, meet some new people, share stories, stretch and pray for a safe and fun day.  This day was no different.  In the back of my mind I knew why…it gave me time to get my mind around the swim.  The swim is most peoples least favorite segment of the race and causes the most angst so early arrival gives one time to “get their head in the game.” 
As we neared the race start I was engaged in a fun conversation with a couple of gentlemen in my age group and a nice lady who was setting up her swim to bike transition area behind us.  The conversation turned towards the swim and we were talking about how nice it would be to swim downstream.  The race announcer had told us the water temp was in 69 degrees and the race was wetsuit legal so that was a bit of relief, or so I thought.
Being friendly, the lady next to us let us know she had swum the course yesterday and that it was going to be a nice swim.  The course was set up that we would enter the water off the dock that was placed in the river so all we had to do was swim straight downstream, keeping the buoys on left and the shore on our right.  “I can do that” I said to myself, no worries here. That was about to change.  She let us know that in order to receive maximum benefit from the current we needed to swim as close to the buoys as we could and far from the shore. 
It’s what she said next that really got our attention.  “Another reason you want to stay next to the buoys and away from the shore is because “those things” live near the shore.”  With a puzzled look on my face I said, “Those things? What things would that be?” She looked at me like I had asked her if what little hair I had was on fire and just pointed at the gentlemen next to me.  I slowly turned my head and looked at his shirt and there it was a picture of an alligator.  “Really, there are alligators in this river?”  Without blinking or cracking a smile she replied, “Yep.” And that was that.  Nothing else was spoken as the guys I was talking with just looked at each other and without a word we looked at our gear and just went silent. 

“Oh great, alligators” I said to myself in a tone only I could hear.  Not only did I have the pressure of simply swimming the 1.2 miles, I had the added benefit of having to beat a bag of Doritos and now I had to worry about being eaten by an alligator.  “Really, did she have to tell us that?” I thought.  Some people don’t seem to have a filter and this was one of those times.  Well I couldn’t worry about that now, I had to get ready to get in creature infested water and get this day started.  If I saw a pair of eyes without goggles and no brightly colored swim cap on it was time to pray harder than ever and if I got eaten, it simply wasn’t my day.  I sure hope that would be man eating gator liked Mexican food.  I did take some comfort in the fact that I am 5’ 5’ and 125 pounds as if an alligator was looking for a meal, there were plenty of more “hearty” choices to choose from that this little old appetizer from Columbia. Remind me again why we do this to ourselves?
It was just about time for this day to start and the sunrise had been absolutely gorgeous.  I was at the swim start pacing with enough nervous energy to power the town of Augusta for the day when I ran into Ann and Scott Prince. Ann and Scott are dear friends of ours and Ann has been a wonderful training partner and very supportive in my efforts to become a triathlete.  We chatted for a while the Scott prayed for me to have safe, fun and productive day. What a good friend!  That prayer was more comforting than he would know. I wasn’t about to tell him about my recently acquired case of Herpetophobia (fear of reptiles, really BIG man eating reptiles) as not only would he think I was crazy, but I wanted to keep him as friend.
As before any race start, I had my own prayer that everyone would have a safe and enjoyable day, everyone’s families would be safe and that someone would come to know Christ through this wonderful event.  Oh, and yes, I did pray for no gators and to have a safe swim.  Another pre-race ritual is my going over my race strategy one more time. As with any event, you come away with an understanding of the mistakes you made in previous events and have a plan on how to correct them. This event was no different. I had a better nutrition and fueling strategy and I had done more long runs after bike rides, better known as “brick workouts.”  I was ready, let’s just get this day started.  Little did I know this race was not going to start like I had envisioned it would.
The swim start was a wave start and the set up was nice as you could see the start of the race from the shore.  There was a dock that extended out to the river and competitors simply had to jump in the water and start swimming.  That’s easy enough I thought. As I stood there and watched the professional women get ready to race, I noticed several of them leaning over splashing water on their face and getting it down their wetsuit. “That’s strange” I said to myself. Little did I know that was a race lesson in the making.  Every four minutes another wave went off and my wave was scheduled to hit the river at 8:30.  Based on the new wave start format, I actually had two hours and thirty minutes to beat the cutoff and continue the race but that was not on my mind. I knew I could swim this distance in well under that time but would I beat the Doritos? Maybe the alligators could eat the bag of Doritos instead of me. Darn it all, I should have thought of that sooner, oh well game time was here as we made our way to the doc.
Like my previous race, my strategy was to start at the back of my wave and ease into the swim. This was more mental than anything but it was my plan and I was sticking to it.  The horn went off and splashes abounded everywhere as the men 45-49 mad their way into the Savannah River.  With some distance between us, it was my turn to enter the water in my Batman looking wet suit and off the dock I went.  That is where the fun stopped.  They announced water temperature that morning was 69 degrees but it had to be closer to 60!  I literally froze!  The shock of the cold water not only took my breath away, I was so stunned I could not get into a swim rhythm.  I continually tried to put by face in the water but I could not breathe and certainly could not get any semblance of a swim stroke going.
Looking like a mad cat you had just thrown in a pool, there I was flailing around as all the lime green caps from my age group effortlessly made their way down the Savannah River with comfort and ease. It was a horrible experience.  In sharing this experience with Greg Howell after the race he explained why the pros were splashing water on their face and getting it down their wetsuit. It was to help them get acclimated to the coolness of the water.  Lesson learned but that was not going to help me now.
I must have really looked pathetic and in need some serious support as a young lady in a support kayak paddled up to me and uttered the words you never want to hear while swimming in a triathlon…”Sir are you alright?”  Well not really I thought but managed to just float there for a minute and get my bearings. My fellow age groupers were long gone and there I was all alone, just me in my lime green cap, they lady in the kayak and thousands of fans on the shore that I am sure were watching this debacle. Where is a gator when you need one?
I thought that it may not be my day and almost packed it in.  It’s funny what can motivate you when your back is against the wall.  I had to keep racing. Was it pride that kept me going? Nope. Was it a sense of accomplishment?  Not that either. Was it the fear of defeat? That wasn’t it either.  It was the awesome winter jacket I bought at the IRONMAN Village on Friday. I love that coat and really wanted to wear it this winter but there was no way I could if I didn’t finish this race.  I am sure glad I bought that jacket!
I looked at the young lady in the kayak and let her know I was fine and it was time to get on with this swim. Now more determined than ever, it was time to take off and get serious about this race.  By the time my body had gotten acclimated to the water, the women 50+ had passed me.  It was a sea of pink caps and time for me to join in. Mad at myself for this tactical error, I kicked into high gear and tore down that river like a school kid headed to recess.  I had made my mind up I was not going to stop and look for the buoys.  Gators or not, I was going to swim straight down the river and make something out of this swim.
One by one I passed many pink caps and then something absolutely amazing happened, I started to see a few lime green caps. WOW, I actually caught some of my age group competitors.  That has never happened before!  Motivated more than ever I kicked and pulled as fast as I can in an effort to make up lost time.  I recall looking at the shore and seeing a lot of fans and thought to myself “that’s strange, it looks like the starting area but it can’t be. I know I swim slow but not that slow.” Now confused, I paused briefly to look up and get a spot on where I was and to my utter amazement, I was at the finish line.  39 minutes!  WOW. I was pushing so hard I almost swam right past the race exit!  How about that!  My swim was over; I beat my Raleigh swim time by 17 minutes and was ready for a wonderful rest of my race.  I didn’t get eaten by an alligator and I beat the bad of Doritos! It was going to be a wonderful day.

As I exited the water I made a mental note on my errors I made that day but more importantly I chastised myself for being timid and not more confident as a swimmer. I may not be the best swimmer but I was not the worst and I needed to be more aggressive and trust myself more in the water. I was actually anxious for my next race to try out my new found confidence.
T1 was uneventful as I made a quick change into my tri top, donned my helmet and sunglasses, loaded up my pockets with race fuel and headed out for a 56 trek through the countryside of Georgia and South Carolina.  I must have really put some effort into the swim as I noticed my thighs were feeling it during the first five miles of the bike ride. So be it. I was on the bike and time to make up some lost ground.

The bike was uneventful. I met some nice people along the way and had a few interesting conversations. Much to my amazement I talked to two other individuals that had the exact same experience I did with the swim start. I guess misery loves company and we all shared a couple of laughs. The course was scenic and one of the nice things about the bike segment is you get to see parts of the country side you will never see with the advent of today’s modern interstate system.  What the riders experienced was a true slice of Southern Americana.
The middle section of the bike was on the hilly side and we faced some decent head winds but nothing too difficult. The hardest part of the bike was drinking my Gatorade.  I have made some serious changes to my diet over the past year and most recently I have worked extremely hard to reduce the amount of refined sugar I consume.  No Gatorade, no soda, no Mike and Ike’s (oh say it isn’t so), unsweetened Almond and Soy milk, etc.  When I took that first drink of Gatorade I nearly gaged, it was so sweet.  Mistake and lesson number two, be sure to incorporate the food you will use on race day into your training.  Too late for that and I managed to get it down and was no worse for the wear.

With a nice tailwind and relatively flat roads headed back into Augusta, nearly three hours on the bike was taking its toll on my bottom. I don’t have much down there for padding in the first place and tri shorts have about as much padding as a band aid, thus a sore bottom.  It’s funny how a modified version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can come into play during times of physical exertion. About five miles from the end of the bike and coming into transition two (T2), all I wanted was to get off my bike, sit down and put on my shoes and go to the bathroom. You could have offered me $1,000 or those three items and the money would never be considered.  Funny what will make you happy at times of duress!
I got off my bike, sat down and put on my shoes and made a much needed trip to the bathroom.  It was a very smooth transition and I headed out of T2 ready to run 13.1 miles on the flat streets of Augusta on a very HOT Sunday afternoon.  As I exited T2 I saw Scott Prince and he smiled and said “You’ve got this bud, only two loops and you are done!”  That was comforting. I always know if I can make it to the run, I have the race licked.

It had been 4:30 that morning since I last saw Elli and May and I was anxious to see them cheering for me on the course. I had to chuckle as I could only imagine how much fun Elli was having cheering on all the competitors. She just loves watching races, clapping her little hands together going “YAY, YAY!”  I also wondered how May was holding up taking care of an excited two year old at a race. In her own right she completed an IRONMAN of a different sort that day and deserved a medal just as much as the race finishers. They are my support team and I couldn’t wait to see them!

One of the lessons I learned from my first race what the need for more bike/run brick workouts to better prepare my legs for the run. I worked hard on my bike/run bricks and as I left T2 I noticed my legs felt great, absent was that wobbling feeling one can have for the first two miles.  I was strong, confident and ready to make up more ground on the field. My strongest part of a triathlon is the run and I was happy to be on my two feet. 

While I only compete against myself, it is always fun to try and pass people as its motivation to push through the pain. It’s kind of like eating potato chips, (or Doritos Jen) you can’t stop at just one.  You just keep trying to pass people, just one more, just one more, just one more, and always in the spirit of sportsmanship and encouraging others as you pass them; just as others that pass you do the same.
My first mile on the run 7:32 per mile then settled into a nice pace in the 9:30 range. It was a great start to the run and all that stood between me and the finish line was two hours, and a lot of pavement.  The run was also uneventful as it was flat as a board, unlike Raleigh that was the hilliest half marathon course I have ever been on.  Ironically as the race progressed I started to think that I preferred hills but for today it was flat and fast and hills would have to wait for another day.
I saw my friend Ann on the run and exchanged “good jobs” and onward I went. In similar fashion to the bike, the modified version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs once again surfaced at mile 11.  With 2.1 miles to go, I was hot, soaking wet and beat.  My needs were boiled down to the lowest common denominator, $1000 or the ability to stand still.  You guessed right, all I wanted to do was NOT be in motion.  Standing still never sounded so good and this from a guy that NEVER stays still. But I pressed on. 
There is precious little that is more rewarding in an IRONMAN race than seeing the finish line. Not only does it signify that you will soon be able to sit down and drink a cold beer or two, the road to the finish is lined with thousands of screaming and cheering fans that make you feel like a rock star! It doesn’t get better than that.

I finished IRONMAN 70.2 Augusta in 6:04:55, nearly 24 minutes faster than my first race and a new PR!  Although I wanted to have a sub six hour race, I was happy with my effort and results and will have a sub six hour next time out.  I gave back about 10 minutes on the swim so that is even more motivation for me to work even hard and improve my performance.

My hats off to all the competitors for a great race, to all the fans and friends for their encouragement, and to the city of Augusta and the WTC for staging and hosting an excellent event.  We had a great time as we do at all events and I learned even more about myself and what I can do with God’s help and grace. Just remember, if you think you can’t do this, you are wrong!  If I can do it, so can you and the triathlon community welcomes you into our wonderful sport.  It all boils down to how bad do you want it?
Oh yes, one last thing. Chris Vokaty – 1, Bag of Doritos – 0.  J
Until next time ……Here is to being fit for a lifetime!

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