Three years ago, I experienced a major setback: I DNFd* at Ironman Louisville 2015.
To say it was a disappointment would be the most charitable assessment. MrsLarijani had been such a great sherpa, only to see me miss the final turnaround cutoff time and get pulled at mile 17 of the run.
As a result. I had unfinished business. I owed MrsLarijani a finish.
Like Julius Erving of those 1977 Philadelphia 76ers–who blew a 2-0 lead to the Portland Trailblazers–and like Jana Novotna, who blew a lead in the third set against Steffi Graf at the 1993 Wimbledon, and like Goran Ivanisevic–who pumped a record 37 aces past Andre Agassi in the 1992 Wimbledon Championship, only to come up short in 5 sets–I had a score to settle.
No, this wasn’t the NBA Championships, or Wimbledon for that matter.
I had a score to settle with the Ironman demon that torments every athlete on the second loop of the run. I call that demon IronBitch (heretofore referred to as India Bravo, or Ms. Bravo).
She waits patiently, usually somewhere past mile 10 of the run. But she is sadistic. She fights dirty. She will charm you and then plunge that knife into your heart as you begin to run out of gas.
This year, I signed up for Ironman Chattanooga. It is a 2.4-mile downstream swim, a 116-mile bike (4 miles longer than a standard Ironman), and a 26.2-mile run that features one of the toughest courses on the Ironman circuit.
In other words, I scheduled my appointment with Ms. Bravo for September 30, in the city where I met MrsLarijani. I decided I would settle my score with Ms. Bravo once and for all.
I trained for that meeting for 5 long months.
I rode my bike trainer religiously, and included transition runs after my rides. I blocked off Saturdays for long bike rides. In the 4 months leading to Ironman, I had 11 rides of 6 hours or longer, including the 160-mile Ride Across INdiana (RAIN).
I rode 3 times a week, I swam twice a week. And after my rides, I added small transition runs. I also did long runs the day after my long rides.
And in my long runs, I simulated long distances on tired legs, just to get mentally prepared for my meeting with IB on the back half of the run.
I also tapered for 2 weeks instead of 3: I wanted to make sure I was at peak fitness going into the race.
I felt very good going into race week: I had a minor stomach bug a week out of race day, but that cleared up quickly. Then, during race week, Chattanooga received the unexpected “gift”.
HEAVY RAINS. From Sunday through Thursday.
The runoff–and the necessary release of 100,000 cubic feet per second of water from the dam–made the Tenneseee River a fast-moving cesspool of sewage. On Thursday morning, three days before the race, Ironman officials cancelled the swim.
At the same time, they made our lives harder, not easier, by (a) going to a time-trial start on the bike, and (b) enforcing a modified cutoff time for the finish.
With that news, I felt that my finish would have an asterisk, as an Ironman triathlon includes all three disciplines.
At the same time, you can’t control the weather. I decided I’d make the most of what was now an IronBrick. Besides, that run is pure brutality.
I started just before 9:40 AM. Temperature was mild, in the 70s, and it was overcast. There had been rain, but it cleared out just as I started. The first 30 miles were uneventful. I was killing it. I was ready; I had slept well the night before–got a full 8 hours of REM sleep–and was jacked.
Then, at about mile 35 of the bike, the clouds moved out, the sun moved in, the heat went up, and so did the humidity. I started feeling tired.
During the bike, I started out consuming Gatorade exclusively at every rest stop. But I felt like I was bonking at mile 50–very unusual–so I cut back on the Gatorade and went to water.
On the second loop of the bike, no one passed me. I saw athletes WALKING their bikes up what seemed like otherwise mild hills. I also saw a fair number of folks who had flats or other mechanical issues. They looked defeated.
Still, I felt good on the bike, although I haven’t figured out how to prevent chafing. Body Glide is good but is still short of the glory. Oh well, a little chafing won’t ruin my day.
I finished the bike in 7:37, and, other than the chafing, felt great. I would have finished faster, but I had to stop to pee several times. I haven’t perfected the art of peeing in my pants while biking.
My goal for the bike was to have my legs ready for the run. Mission Accomplished!
I was also well-hydrated.
In transition, I was methodical: dried my feet, changed my socks, put on my running shoes, put on my race belt and back brace, and downed some gels and some water.
I figured I had 7 hours to do the run. Even in the Hell that is Ironman Chattanooga, this was doable.
Did I say I had my legs?
I was ready to OWN IronBitch; er, I mean Ms. Bravo.
Coming out of transition, I started slowly on the run: I jogged the grassy part coming out, then walked the uphill leading to the first bridge. I made a strategic plan to jog the downhills, walk the uphills, and run/walk the flats at a 50-step run/50-step walk pace.
I kept it very methodical, and paid close attention to my heart rate (HR). Coming out of transition, my HR jumped into Zone 4 too easily, so I made it a point to err on the side of going easy in the early stages.
As the sun started to set, and I started to get more shade in the park, my HR went down to Zone 3 on the jogs and Zone 2 on the walks. SUCCESS!!!!
When I reached mile 10, where IronBitch–er, I mean Ms. Bravo–stabbed me 3 years ago, I felt great this time, even as the hills of the North Shore were getting brutal. When I pulled into the halfway point–three years ago I was defeated–I was looking forward to meeting Ms. Bravo this time.
I was looking for her, calling her name!
Other than needing to poop–which I did at mile 15–I felt good, even though I was clearly getting slower. The fatigue was coming, but it wasn’t the pale dread of bonking. I had beaten back Ms. Bravo’s minions. I wanted to fight her.
Doing the math, I knew I was ahead of schedule, but I didn’t want to get complacent either, because Ms. Bravo will make you pay for complacency. I knew what pace I needed to keep, and I was still on my target. Coming into mile 17, where I got pulled 3 years ago, I muttered, “Yippie Kiyay!”
I was tired, but I knew I was going to finish. I was jacked!
Yes, I had one more trip into North Shore for those hills.
Yes, it was going to suck.
But I was going to finish.
I saw those hills as a necessary evil. Every mile, I muttered, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Then, with 5K to go, I spotted Ms. Bravo, the demonic killer of Ironman dreams, hiding in the bushes. She was crying.
She asked me if she could walk with me.
“I’ll take a HELL with the NO to GO…”
When I saw the marker for mile 25, I knew I was good to go. I was sore, but not that sore. I was tired, but it was more of an “I had a long day and I want to be done” kind of tired rather than an “Oh God please put me out of my misery!” tired. All I had to do was go up and over the bridge, make a turn, and head into the finisher chute.
The announcer at the athlete briefings had said 12:40 would be the cutoff. It was just past 12:20 AM. As I headed in, I looked for MrsLarijani. Then, as I approached the chute, I saw her.
MrsLarijani: “Speed up, the cutoff is 12:30 AM!”
Me: “No, it’s 12:40, I’m fine!”
MrsLarijani: “Are you sure?”
The bad news: we were both wrong.
The good news: I still made cutoff!
(They implemented a flexible cutoff, but they were trying to account for the advantage that athletes would have received from the easy swim. They had said 12:40, then suggested giving all athletes 14:40 total to finish. They settled on 14:50. All athletes who finished with times over 14:50 were DNFd, which just means they didn’t accrue official points for Ironman-related programs. I beat it, but just within 5 minutes.)
As I crossed the finish line, the announcer looked at me, called my name–and he didn’t butcher my last name, as most people do–and yelled, “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
It was anticlimactic. My feeling was more along the lines of, “Mission Accomplished!” MrsLarijani and I enjoyed the moment–Abigail was at the home of some friends and was sleeping–and headed out so we could get to bed.
I ran the race I trained for. I figured the bike course would be hot and humid, and I had many long rides in hot, humid, crappy conditions. I was ready for that race.
And even though I had no long runs greater than 18 miles–and none of them with hills like North Shore–I trained in hot weather, and simulated running with tired legs. I kept a smart strategy of walking the uphills and capitalizing on the downhills, and it worked.
My final time was close to the cutoff, only because running is my weakest area due to my back, hip, and knee issues.
My mission was to get a decent bike performance that left me enough time to do a run within my physical limits. I did exactly that.
But there was something that stuck out from the race…
In the run, I was tempted many times to walk the flats on the second loop and instead chose to jog them.
Had I walked them, I would have been DNFd.
I believe that temptation to walk was Ms. Bravo trying to lure me into a backstabbing. And the conscious need to jog when I could, that was God yelling from the corner and warning me of the trick play.
Sure, there was no swim, and for that reason I feel like I still may have to attempt another race at that distance.
Still, after talking to several finishers who had multiple Ironmans under their belts, the word out was that, even without the swim, this was harder than most Ironmans.
I believe it.
Had this been Louisville, the bike course would have been slightly harder–but 4 miles shorter–but the run would have been a joke, as it is all flat. Where the Chattanooga run course took me 7 hours, I would have cleared the Louisville course in under 6. And the Louisville swim course, while tougher than Chattanooga, is still pretty easy.
As I process everything I went through to get to this point, I am pondering whether to sign up for another Ironman, just to get in all three disciplines.
My heart says, “Yes, this would be fun! I was ready, I can do this again!” And I must admit, flipping off Ms. Bravo was kind of fun.
On the other hand, my hips, back, and knees are screaming at me, telling me, “Why do you hate us so much???”
In addition, the risk of weather-related cancellations is always there: last year, I had a half-Iron triathlon cancelled due to storms. This year, Ironman North Carolina was cancelled due to hurricane damage in Wilmington.
Even though athletes were allowed to defer to another date, how would you like it if you trained for a big race, only to end up deferring to an “alternate” race in 6 months due to a storm-related cancellation?
And a full-Ironman can run about a thousand dollars.
Ultimately, this was an official finish, and it was my best ultra-endurance performance.
And I won my rematch with Ms. Bravo.
*DNF: Did Not Finish. It denotes someone who either (a) started the race and, due to a number of factors, did not finish, or (b) those who finished but missed an official cutoff time. Ironman events typically have stingy cutoff times. That’s part of the Ironman lore.