Monday, September 10, 2012

The Joy of Sisyphus

The day in Madison started with a checklist.  Hand in special needs bags.  Check air in bike tires.  Put bottle of Gatorade on bike.  Check on transition 1 bag.  Turn on myathlete gps.  Check on transition 2 bag.  Get body marked.  Apply body glide. Put on wetsuit.  Turn in morning clothes bag.

For a runner who only recently transitioned into triathlons I'm still not used to all the rigmarole associated with the sport, but I was able to make the rounds with plenty of time to spare.  I had heard the entrance to the swim is narrow - and that some people who wait too long find themselves just getting into the water as the cannon booms.  So, I went into the water just a few minutes after it opened up at 6:30am. 

I had almost 30 minutes in the water before the race start, but with the buoyancy of the wetsuit you actually don't have to expend much effort to stay afloat.  I tried to channel my grandfather who could float on his back in his pool.  He was so relaxed that sometimes he would even fall asleep.

As I calmly treaded water - I noticed I kept getting pushed out to the center of the lake by a current.  The effect of the current was that the 50 meters closest to the red buoy (marking the inside of the course) was packed with people.  About 5 minutes before the start I found myself in that mess.  There were people bumping into me on all sides.  Thank goodness I'm not claustrophobic, but I knew that I needed to at least try to find a less congested area.  I waded my way through people towards the shore and within 25 meters it thinned out.  At the start I was about 4th row from the front and nobody was within an arms length of me.

The announcer yelled "Today you will be an Ironman!" - we all cheered and about 30 seconds later we were off.  My last minute positioning change was key.  Yes, I certainly bumped into a few people at the beginning, but I didn't get any hard elbows or kicks.  In fact, there were only two incidents in the entire swim that were scary.  On the first turn (the turns are always more crowded) I got a pretty firm kick to the goggles and I also took in a bunch of water down the wrong tube a little later on.  Trying to cough out water from your trachea and swim at the same time is not exactly fun. 

I didn't check my watch the entire swim.  I decided it would mess up my rhythm and I might not like what I saw.  So, I was completely surprised and overjoyed to see 1:03 and change coming out of the water.  To put this in perspective, in June I swam over 40 minutes for the Kansas 70.3 (half the distance of an Ironman).  To be fair - the conditions were pretty bad at Kansas.  The temperature of the water meant that we couldn't wear wetsuits and there was a 20 mile per hour wind - which resulted in 2-3 foot whitecaps and a pretty brutal cross current. 

It was such a poor showing though that I decided I needed a coach to help me with my stroke.  Luckily the president of our local triathlon club also coaches a few of the athletes with swimming - so, he agreed to meet with me once per week.  He completely overhauled my stroke.  At first there was so much to think about that I was really uncomfortable.  But slowly I started to put it together - and the results are undeniable.  Thanks Jim!

Inside my mind I was jumping up and down at this point - but I tried to stay calm - I mean, I did have close to 9 hours left to go!  Madison is unique in that the transition areas are actually in the Monona Terrace building (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright).  The first transition is very long.  You have to make your way up a helix that is usually for vehicles to get to the parking lot.  The entire helix was filled with people cheering. 

As you enter the building they direct you to the room with your gear for the bike.  You pick up your bag and then make your way to the male changing tent.  In the changing tent there are people waiting to help you with whatever you need.  I took off my swimsuit and applied sun block - which stung a bit because the wetsuit tends to rub you raw in a few places.

The bike was relatively uneventful for the first 40 miles or so.  My goals had been 1:15 for the swim, 5:30 for the bike, and 3:00 for the run with 15 minutes for transitions etc for a total of 10 hours.  Since I was over 10 minutes faster on the swim than planned I was pretty relaxed at the beginning of the bike.  Although some people had told me to delay taking in gu's on the bike, I decided to load more of my calories early on the bike.  Overall my nutrition plan was to take in one gu every 30 minutes and a bottle of Perform per hour (basically gatorade with more salt) with water as needed.  I figured that since I had no calories during the swim that I should over compensate for the first few hours of the bike.  Instead of gu's every 30 minutes I took gu's (100 calories per) every 20 minutes for the first 2 hours of the bike.

The bike course is a stick and loop.  From Madison you make your way 16 miles to Verona where you begin a 40 mile loop - which you do twice before heading back to Madison.  Madison is known for having the second hardest bike course of any Ironman race in the U.S.  There are courses with longer hills - but there isn't a course with more consistent hills coming one after another.  Although there are hills all along the course there are three hills in particular that are infamous.  People even drive out, or take buses, to cheer people up the hills.  It's like a Tour de France atmosphere - with people in weird costumes - sometimes even running alongside the cyclists.

The oddest thing I saw was actually on the second lap.  About a mile a way from one of these hills I heard some strange horn noise - I looked over to the side of the road - and there in the bushes was a man dressed as a clown squeezing a clown horn with a very strange smile on his face.  I'm still not sure whether I just imagined the whole thing.

On my first lap I felt good - I powered my way up the hills pretty easily - making sure to stay in a small gear.  On the top of each hill I would quickly change to my big chain ring to take full advantage of the downhill.  On the 3rd hill I just made it over the top - as I tried to change gears I hear the sound of metal snapping.  I looked down in horror to see the picture below.  My front derailleur was split in two.

I had a good minute or two of panic - but then I quickly accepted my predicament.  There was a very small likelihood that the bike tech support on the course would have a front derailleur - and even if they did it would take more time to fix it than I would probably lose being restricted to my small chain ring.  I even tried to tell myself that it might be a good thing.  "On a course like Wisconsin that big chain ring can only get you into trouble!" I tried to convince myself.  This happened around mile 50 - so, I had over 60 miles to go with my bike in this condition.

On the flat and slight downhills I got passed constantly.  On the uphills I would pass people and on the steep downhills I didn't lose much time.  Overall though it was a little depressing - to know that I was getting passed because I didn't have my big chain ring was frustrating.  There wasn't much use in getting too upset - I still had a marathon to go - and since running is my strongest event - I figured I would pass most of them back. 

The only really scary moment on the bike involved a dog.  People - why do you bring dogs you can't control to a bike race?!  Did we learn nothing from the Tour de France this year?  I was heading down a decent hill on a wooded stretch of road at ~30 mph when I saw a loose ~70 lbs Dalmatian sprinting in my direction on along the right side of the road.  I veered toward the middle of the road and put on my brakes a little - just then one of the people with the luxury of having a big gear was passing me.  I didn't mean to - but I veered into her line - and without some good bike handling on her part we probably would have both gone down.

Having survived the dog my main concern now was a flat tire.  I had a string of flats in the late spring this year.  I think I was over inflating my tires - but, how often it happened certainly was in the back of my mind.  To make me even more paranoid the front race wheel that I had borrowed from a friend somehow went flat during my drive from Omaha.  Luckily I had brought my regular wheels in case something happened.  My road bike with clip-on aerobars, an aero race wheel on the back, and a regular training wheel on the front probably looked a little ridiculous compared to what everybody else was riding.

I limped my way back to Madison - coming in at 5 hours and 38 minutes - 8 minutes off of my goal.  Considering I was missing my big chain ring for half the race it wasn't awful.  Plus, I was feeling fresh from my forced coasting (there was no reason to pedal over 24 mph) and a little pissed from getting passed so often.  I also knew that I had a little bonus time from my swim.  At the start of the run I was at 6 hours and 55 minutes.  I needed to run a 3:05 marathon to meet my goal time.  Since my PR is 2:32 at Boston and Madison is a relatively flat course - I felt like that was doable.

I decided to not look at my watch the first few miles of the run.  I just wanted to get into a rhythm.  The first mile is almost completely downhill - although it's a gradual downhill - pretty much perfect for running fast.  I was passing people pretty quickly.  I finally looked at my watch at mile 4 - I was under 24 minutes.  It took me a second to do the math - but I soon realized I was well under six-minute pace.  I was feeling good - but I knew that was probably a little quick - so I dialed it down a notch.

The marathon course is two loops.  I knew that I would be one of the better age-group marathons of the day.  At Kansas I had the 7th fastest run of the day - 2nd fastest non-pro.  I thought I would stack up around the same place with the top pro's going about 10 minutes or so faster than me.  I had no expectation that I would be going at a faster pace than the leader.

Although it seems stupid looking back - that's why I didn't realize that I passed the leader on the Observatory Hill.  The official on the bike or the police motorcycle probably should have clued me in - but, I was kind of in mental autopilot.

The first thing I noticed was that more people seemed to be shouting my name.  I did have my name on my bib - I had heard a few people yell - "Go Benjamin!" early on in the run - since I go by Ben I knew they must be reading my bib.  Then I hear someone yell "Go Ben!" - only it was from so far away that there was no way he could have been reading my bib.  I thought - well, I know a few people who are spectating - they must know me - so I waved back in their direction.

Finally I put two and two together.  I ran past some college girls - and they said - "hey, they're both named Ben!" - then the bike came by and said "Lead runner coming through!".  I thought - I'm an idiot.  The guy I passed on the hill was in the lead - and apparently his name is Ben. It turned out to be Ben Hoffman - a top pro.  As he passed he muttered something under his breath - he was probably wondering what the hell I was doing waving at people cheering for him.

I decided to back off - I didn't want to impede him.  So, I just ran about 10 feet behind him.  I heard the lead bike radio-in that we were hitting 6:30's per mile - which was fine with me.  It also gave me someone to key off of - which makes keeping a pace much easier.  Around mile 22 for him (about mile 9 for me) - he started to slow.  I read an article today that he started to get some cramping around this point. 

I still wanted to keep my pace - and I started to overtake him, but I felt a little foolish for taking so long to recognize that he was winning the freaking race - and waving to people who were cheering for him - so, I decided to make a joke.  As I passed him I said - "if you take over 5 hours and 30 minutes on the bike - the run is much easier."  I think he chuckled.  I then sheepishly added - "my name is Ben too" - trying to explain why I was waving to fans clearly cheering for him.

He rode 4 hours and 38 minutes for the bike - a full hour faster than me.  The pace he averaged on a hilly course over 112 miles I would be lucky to average over 10 miles on a flat course.  Truly amazing.

The rest of the run went relatively smoothly.  I took perform, water, cola, and wet sponges at pretty much every stop - which are about once per mile.  I took a few chomps and one or two gu's.  The cola and perform seemed to keep my calorie count up sufficiently - plus I think my frontloading of calories on the bike probably helped.

Being a good runner in a triathlon is awesome.  Good swimmers do their thing away from the crowds and then have to get passed the rest of the race.  Good bikers also usually don't have many people to cheer them on - and even if they do - most spectators probably can't tell the difference.  By the time I was on my second lap I was passing people on their first lap who were shuffling or even walking.  It was especially fun near the bars - people seemed to pick up on the fact that I was running pretty strong - kids wanted to give me a high five - it was awesome.

I did have a tough spot around mile 21 - but by mile 23 I was thinking - "I just have a 5k - I can do anything over 5k".  With a mile to go I found myself very emotional.  I was going to make my goal of 10 hours with over 10 minutes to spare.  I was also going to kill my 3 hour goal in the marathon.  Over the last mile you start thinking about everything that has led you to this point.  You think about people who have inspired you, people who support you, people who have taught you things that made it possible to accomplish your goals on this day.  Over 20 years of racing I've never found myself choked up during a race until yesterday - that's why the Ironman is special.

In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher Albert Camus discuses how the myth of the man forced to roll a rock up a mountain for perpetuity speaks to the absurdity of life.  In very stark terms Camus says there are several ways to react to the absurdity of life, but the only one that allows us to accept this absurdity and still see life as meaningful was "revolt".  The revolt happened not by overthrowing whatever power forced Sisyphus to roll that rock everyday - but rather by embracing his effort.  Camus wrote - "the struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The transformative effect of the Ironman is that you become Sisyphus in a very tangible way.  Over the months of training you are rolling a rock up a hill everyday - sometimes with friends - but many times all by yourself.  On race day it might be a bigger hill and a bigger rock - but there is a great amount of joy to be found in all the people supporting you along the way - family, friends, and mostly strangers.  You don't have to imagine Sisyphus as happy - in the Ironman you find his smile on your lips.


Deb Bahr said...

What a great story of your experiences Ben.......Dang it, you made me cry!

Ben said...

Thanks Deb! I hope training is going well for you!

George said...

Congratulations on the solid finish. I, like you, am a former collegiate runner who tends to outrun most folks in my triathlons. (You're a much better swimmer than I, but I bike well.) I'm doing IMWI in September, so your blog is very helpful. Thanks!