As comfortable as Craig Alexander, three-time Ironman World Champion and winner of the Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens triathlon, looked in the photograph that ran on the front of the The Herald’s sports section Monday, I looked the opposite after crossing the same finish line almost 2 1/2 half hours later.
By the time I finished Sunday’s 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run, the best triathlete in the world was probably on the plane heading back to Colorado. Yet, for as much as Alexander trains and as little as I did for this race, I think I got as much out of my 52-year-old body as he did out of his much younger one. And although Alexander and I came to Lake Stevens with different goals in mind, we both left more than satisfied.
The Lake Stevens Ironman was my comeback in the world of triathlons and 20 strokes into the swim portion, I wasn’t certain if I would even make it to the finish line. As I raised my head to breathe, I inexplicably gulped a wave of water and for a moment I was choking, coughing uncontrollably, being forced to take a second and tread water. An ominous omen? Unnerving, perhaps, but not enough to derail me.
I was determined to finish this thing, even if I only trained seriously for less than four weeks, was six years older than when I did my last Ironman-distance triathlon and was suffering from a mild case of plantar fasciitis.
The biggest challenge of doing one of these longer triathlons is being able to persevere through the mishaps — the problems that inevitably crop up during six-plus hours of being in the water, on a bike and then running half a marathon. This is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one.
So, with some positive self-talk after that initial moment of panic, I was determined to make things better. I continued through the 1.2 mile open swim in the warm water of Lake Stevens, defending myself against erratic swimmers who had no sense of direction as they climbed over other bodies and had no qualms about kicking someone else in the face.
I found my rhythm and fell in behind some steady swimmers, chipping away at passing each of the 20 buoys that lined the swim course. Emerging from the water, I was helped out by the first of many volunteers on the course that day assisting the athletes making their way to the finish line. Without these four volunteers who were standing in knee-deep water for more than two hours in the early morning cold pulling people from the water, many triathletes would have had difficulty getting out and transitioning to the bike.
Not quite pedal to the metal
My slow transition from the swim to the bike took more than five minutes but there was no need for me to attempt to shave seconds off my time like Alexander. In fact, as I exited the transition area, the clips on my bike pedals gave me some problems and I struggled to get pedaling, allowing a couple other competitors to zip by me.
“Relax.” I said to myself, “This is simply about finishing.”
Thus, my mantra for the next five hours began.
Biking 56 miles really is not that difficult. The Lake Stevens Ironman bike course, however, is a different matter.
I’ve biked the famed Richter Pass at Ironman Canada 140.6 where triathletes climb upwards of 2800 feet in 18 miles, but the Lake Stevens course had three ascents that were absolute killers consisting of two-plus mile ascents with grades more than three percent. For those who live out by Monroe, you know exactly what I mean when I mention the steep hills off of Woods Creek Road heading up Ingraham Road.
It was at the Ingraham Road climb where I was so worried — first about losing momentum and tipping over due to the steepness and then about breaking my chain due to the pressure I was putting on it while cranking away. So, I simply joined the majority of the triathletes and walked my bike up that section.
The Flowing Lake area had some steep inclines, as well, which naturally included equally steep declines resulting in some white-knuckle speeds that took me far outside of my comfort zone. On one rapid descent, a woman came flying by me as if I was on a tricycle. Obviously, she was more willing to exceed the 35-mile an hour speed limit on that back road than I was.
It was during the final 20 miles of the bike route that I saw a number of people on the shoulder fixing flat tires. And every time I would simply say a little prayer that the same fate didn’t await me.
Dismounting at the end of the bike course gave me a moment to take inventory on how I was doing relative to projected time. At almost 31/2 hours for the 56-mile bike portion (16-plus miles per hour), I felt very satisfied considering all the steep hills. Now for the tough part — running 13.1 miles.
Feet don’t fail me now
Normally, running would be my strong part of the triathlon. However, plantar fasciitis had brought me so much pain the past month that I had run a total of just seven miles during that stretch as I prepared.
My hope was that my therapy sessions at a clinic and a recent cortisone shot would be enough to allow me to hobble through the 13.1 miles. If nothing else, I planned on willing myself across the finish line with two Advil in my system to dull the pain.
Within the first half-mile, things didn’t feel promising. Running through the enthusiastic cheering section in downtown Lake Stevens, I did my best to smile even though the pain was excruciating. Once the course ventured north along Old Hartford Road, I took the first of many short walks.
I learned long ago in these long-distance races that it is best to pace oneself, finding the groove that will get you through whatever painful state you are temporarily in. Setting a goal of walking for only a short distance, then setting another goal to run to a certain spot before taking yet another short break is the key for those who are struggling. And I was struggling.
Two miles in, at the first of 10 aid stations on the running course — a spot where one could load up on anything from water to pretzels to Coca Cola to bananas to GU Energy Gels — I took my second short break. Sure, my stomach struggled with some bad cramps, but this was nothing that I couldn’t overcome with some Coke, a banana and mental toughness. This was going to test me.
Those aid stations began to play a huge roll in getting me to the finish line. Each one became my next goal. Get there, take a short break and drink something. And at every station, the good people manning those spots were an inspiration to every one of the 1,400 athletes who trudged by, often in pain and on the verge of cramping up.
Adding to my problem was an unusual muscle soreness in the inner side of both quads. The soreness was most likely the result of a rookie mistake of using a relatively new bike and a different seating position that my quads weren’t used to while pedaling the 56 miles.
Eventually, I got a good groove going, even passing a number of people on the two-lap course. At one point, as I said, “Nice job,” to another athlete who was obviously struggling, he responded with, “You, too. You’re an inspiration.” I didn’t know whether he was referring to my encouragement to him or to the fact that I was about twice his age. It didn’t matter. Out here, in the vulnerable arena of long-distance triathlons, age becomes virtually irrelevant.
The beauty of this two-loop Lake Stevens running course is that the runners get to soak in the boisterous downtown crowd four times. The champion, Craig Alexander, put it best when he said, “The people in these smaller towns really get behind the race … . And it’s nice to have people cheering you on like that.”
I agree with him. The cheering, more than anything, helped keep the athletes moving forward.
The end is near
Entering the final mile, with the end prominently visible across the cove of north Lake Stevens, I set in for a dramatic, furious finish. Passing two woman just before the last corner, I picked up speed only to be passed by both of them as we closed in on the finish line.
Immediately, after crossing the finish line, I started gasping for breath as if I were about to have an asthmatic attack even though I do not suffer from asthma. Two volunteers were right there asking me if I needed medical assistance. Only after I re-established my composure did they allow me to be on my own. Then, within seconds, my support group — my wife, my daughter, my mom and dad — were there to provide a helping hand as I attempted, with cramping legs, to sit in a chair.
It was a chance to enjoy, in some sick, twisted way, the sheer satisfaction of what I had just done. Granted, there were faster people who were older than me, guys and gals in their 50s and 60s who could still break six hours for this 70.3-mile test of endurance and will power. I was simply satisfied to be a 52-year-old who was able to finish the test.
I may not have thrived out there, but I did survive. And somehow, I believe, I got more satisfaction out of this test of fortitude than event champion Craig Alexander. I also found some solace in the idea that while I sat grimacing in the passenger seat as my wife drove me just a couple of miles across the trestle back to Everett, the champ was probably suffering his own cramps from having to squeeze himself into a compact airplane seat as he flew coach back to Colorado.