After finishing the Buffalo Springs Half Ironman last June, I swore I would never even think about doing a full Ironman.
Last Sunday, I did a full Ironman.
One of the great things God gives us is the ability to forget trauma. That day at Buffalo Springs was traumatic. I pushed too hard on the bike, and paid for it on the run. Like LeBron, I had massive cramps that brought me to a halt. I had to walk much of the half-marathon. I didn't see how anyone could do a full Ironman. But, gradually, I started to forget about how rough an experience it had been. I kept swimming, riding, and running. And then, last fall, I signed up for Ironman Coeur d'Alene (IMCDA) in Idaho, which would roll around June 29th of 2014. Plenty of time to train, and to forget.
I've got several buddies who have raced IMCDA, and they all loved it. They were right to rave about it--the town and course are beautiful. The organization is top-notch. The volunteers--4,000 of them--are hard working and ridiculously friendly.
The Ironman distance has always fascinated me. It was born from a barroom argument in Hawaii in 1977 over who were the better athletes: swimmers, cyclists, or runners. So, one man decided that the next year, 1978, they would hold a race that combined the distances and routes of the Waikiki Rough Water Swim Race (2.4 miles), the Around Oahu Bike Race (112 miles), and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). They would race the courses for those events consecutively, in that order, and if you could finish, you would be called an Ironman. A handful of men raced that first Ironman, and Gordon Haller won in just under 12 hours. The event and sport quickly grew from there, and is experiencing its biggest-ever growth spurt today. Since first reading about the Ironman in one of my bike magazines (after famous cyclist John Howard won the race in 1981), I've always wondered if I could finish the distance. Since I've been riding all of my life, running marathons the last seven years, and swimming the last two years, and since I'm not getting any younger, and since I had forgotten about the pain of Buffalo Springs, I decided the time was right for me to tackle the Ironman.
IMCDA is not the easiest Ironman course, with 5,000 feet of climbing on the bike leg, and four long hills on the run. But the weather is almost always good, and that was the most important factor for me, since, like LeBron (he and I are very similar athletically, in case you haven't noticed), my body doesn't function well in the heat, even though I train in Texas. I hate to think how bad I'd be in the heat if I trained in Alaska all the time.
Race day morning, the temps were perfect. It was going to be a cloudy day, with 50's and 60's in the forecast. However, when I woke up, I could hear the wind howling. I looked out the window, and the flags were stiff. I got down to the race start, on the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene, and the normally placid lake looked like an ocean with it's choppy conditions.
The swim is not my strength. I was hoping to finish the 2.4 miles in about 1 hour, 30 minutes. The gun went off, and the racers, all wearing wetsuits to protect from the 60 degree water, were funneled through a start shoot and into the drink. I tried not to think about how much it was going to suck, and instead just get on with the task at hand. If, at any time during the race, you stop to think about the enormity of the event, you can't handle it. You have to break it down to small races within the race. I just kept trying to swim to the next buoy, or the next turn.
The swim was tough for the good swimmers, and really tough for us slower swimmers. Going into the wind took forever--the water so choppy that it felt like you were getting nowhere. Plus, the rough water made for chaos. There were swimmers getting disoriented and going the wrong way, swimmers stopping to hang onto the kayaks to gather their wits, and swimmers (like me) who were getting surprised by big waves and accidentally swallowing part of the lake. I exited the water after 1:48--I was swimming for almost two hours! I was already well behind my projected pace for the race. I was so happy to get out of the water, though, I could have vomited.
The bike leg wasn't any easier, even though it's my comfort zone. The winds were brutal. I was almost blown off the road three different times by 30 mph cross-gusts on the descents. There were long, uphill stretches straight into the wind, which killed a lot of hopes, including mine. At mile 80, I faced my first big crisis: I wanted to quit. I had all of my excuses ready. I was way behind on my projected bike time, and overall race time. I was getting worn down and demoralized by the wind and climbs, and I couldn't imagine still having to run a marathon. I was going to do a U-turn and ride back into town and notify an official that I was done. I argued with myself for 10 minutes, and, in the end, I made a gentleman's agreement with myself, deciding I would at least complete the bike leg and see how I felt. So I did--finishing about 45 minutes slower than I thought I would, which I didn't like, but I wasn't able to do anything about it.
In the transition area, I made another deal with myself: run the first two miles of the marathon, and see how you feel. If it's bad, you can then quit. So I started running, and I felt OK. I ran two more miles, then two more. I was running very slowly, but I was running. My friend Grant, a veteran triathlete, told me once to "just keep running, because your slowest run is faster than your fastest walk." I kept thinking about that, and kept running. Instead of thinking about running 26.2 miles, I took it one mile at a time, just telling myself to run to each aid station (which were one mile apart along the run course), and then spend a minute walking through the station, partly for a rest, and partly to make sure I ate and drank enough. (Each aid station is packed with volunteers offering you water, sports drink, gels, bars, chips, pretzels, chicken broth, bananas, cookies--all to help fuel your body, and I ate all of it).
By the halfway point of the run, I was dead. I again had to talk myself out of quitting. I eventually figured that I'd come this far, done all of the training, and would probably never do another one of these stupid events again, so I might as well finish, even if I have to walk the rest of the way. My goal time was long gone, but I didn't care--I just wanted to finish. Besides, I had purchased an Ironman t-shirt the day before, and so I had to finish or I could never wear that shirt! Funny, the little things we come up with to keep us going.
I passed the time on the run by checking out the scenery, and it was breathtaking (or, perhaps it was the running that was taking my breath). I saw an incredible sunset over the lake. That's how long I was out on the course--I saw the entire day pass, all while racing.
During the second half of the marathon, I was still running, save for a few pee breaks, and some walking up the big hills. I ran 90% of the 26.2, but it still took me 5:30, so you can imagine how slowly I was running. I must have looked really, really ugly. I thought I could run the marathon leg in about 4:30, so again, I fell short of my goal, but again, I wasn't counting on the rough conditions on the swim and bike legs.
I finally made it to the finishing straight, and the crowds were amazing--it was like I was winning the race. There were thousands of people lining both sides of the road in downtown CDA, and they were loud (and, by this time of the evening, also drunk). As I crossed the finish line (after 14 hours!), I heard the race announcer say "Craig Miller from Dallas, Texas, you are an Ironman!" Pretty cool moment.
Looking back, I honestly don't know how I did it. That event is a testament to the human spirit. On the run, I was passed by 68 year old men and 62 year old women (everyone's age is written on their calf so other racers will know who is in their age group). But, I was passing 30 year old guys who looked to be in better shape than me. You never know what the body can do when the mind decides to push it.
There were almost 2500 starters at IMCDA this year, and about 500 didn't finish (a high DNF rate of 20%), I'm guessing because of the harsh conditions. My time was right in the middle, ranking about 1100th. I was about two hours slower than I thought I'd be, but I finished.
My long-time racing buddy Dave sent me this quote after the day was done, from Calvin Coolidge, which sums up the spirit of the Ironman:
"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."