Has He Lost His Mind ... July 27-29, 2001

"... can he walk at all, or if he walks will he fall?"
-- Ironman by Black Sabbath

The race portion of this report was published at Extreme Tri magazine

Eleven months ago I signed up for the Ironman USA Triathlon in Lake Placid.
I just got back. Here's my report.

On Thursday I find I've been assigned number 695. I guess that day I spent making sure I wanted to try this cost me the 666. Too bad. It would have been a nice couterpoint to the 13 that did me in earlier in July.

Me and my coach: world-famous triathlete Joe Isuzu
I've read the rules and regs a dozen times already, but I just know I'm going to forget something.

I packed everything and relaxed with a movie. Something light and frothy. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Just right.

Friday arrived much too early at 6 am, but I have a 6 hour drive to Lake Placid to be there in time to register. Traffic is light and I cruise. I have a dorm room at the Northwoods School (whose building sits back imperially on a broad green campus), about a mile and a half from the transition area. I check in to a nice, perfect room. Lots of space to spread my stuff about and a good view out the window.

Registration takes about 5 minutes. Very impressive, given that almost 2100 athletes are on the books.

There are many booths and displays from the various sponsors, hawking their various wares. The Timex booth has a drawing a couple times a day. Winners get to spin a wheel to determine their prize. Assistants randomly toss goodies into the crowd, who go nuts for them Mardi-Gras-style (including elbows).

The transition area is the center of the speed skating oval on which Eric Heiden won his 5 gold medals in the 1980 winter olympics. On my walk here I see many swimmers in Mirror Lake. The course looks long. Very long. I know it's only the right length, but it seems like I need binoculars to see the start. I am not happy about that, but this is my lot. I'm here and will do what I can.

"They call me the Jim Jones of the exercise movement: Able to convince hundreds of people to go to tropical climates and kill themselves."
-- Ironman Founder John Collins

Everyone here travels in clumps. The athlete is usually easy to spot. A mini-celebrity in their circle, the others are family, facilitators and fans. I am alone. It dawns on me that I will probably always be alone. I'm not really sure how that happened. I'll have to think about that later...

The stuff these triathletes use! There are race belts, fuel belts, areo-bar drinking systems, bicycles without seat posts, cranks that aren't connected (ie. spin independently) and more. The Ironman brand itself takes a whole tent for its merchandise. Among the new items was Ironman Endurance Water. The small print said it was "infused" with 1000% more oxygen. Oh, and it also was "enhanced" with anti-oxidants. Seems like a wash to me.

There was a carbo-loading pasta party that night. A lean guy named Dan from Ohio sat next to me. He's 33 and has been doing triathlons since he was 14. This is his fifth ironman race, which includes one time in Hawaii (which he qualified for!) If you don't already know, this means he is good! The pasta is quite fine for a multiple thousand seat dinner. The videos detail aspects of Lake Placid and the race. There is one piece about SPAM-man. He races ironman distance races wearing all SPAM logoed gear -- down to the sandals and, I'm assuming, underwear. This attracts attention, naturally, and he uses it to pitch his charity of choice: the American Lung Association and their efforts on the asthma front.

"Keeping your sense of humor on race day is really important. In 1989 Mark [Allen] and I had been together all day long. Towards the end of the bike ride, I remember going by this one guy who was sitting in a beach chair surrounded by empty beer cans. He had been in the sun all day and was beet red.

When Mark and I came back the other way during the early miles of the marathon, he was out of his chair. We were running about six-minute pace at the time and he hopped onto the 120-degree pavement barefoot and started running along with us. He's screaming, 'Come on, guys! Pick up the pace!' He lasted about 20 yards, but it kept me laughing for awhile."

-- Dave Scott, 6-time Ironman World Champion

Greg Welch takes the stage to a pumping techno beat, or is that his heart?

He tells entirely too many awful jokes, but has a story to help inspire those who are feeling down during the coming Sunday's race. In the early 90s when he was at the height of his power, he won IronMan Japan in record time. He decided this was it. He would dominate from then on.

The next year, with a substantial lead on the bike, he was taking a 45-50 mph downhill turn fast, just to see how fast he could go. On the other side he was hit by a truck on the supposedly closed to traffic course.

He landed next to the road, one wheel bent beyond motion with busted arm and collarbone. He saw his pursuers catch up and smile at him as they continued ( unlike Lance and Jann ). His wife Sian (a world-class triathlete herself, and one of the principals in the "crawl-off" at Hawaii '97) finally arrived. She lent him a new wheel for his bike, and off he went to catch up.

He was way behind, but managed to catch up to 3d, almost even with 2d near the end of the run. As luck would have it, a train crossing activated after the leader ran through it and before Greg and the other guy arrived. In Japan, you do NOT cross the tracks against the signal, even without a train in evidence. He was reduced to standing there talking to his rival, holding his arm (which was quite swollen by now) and tilting his head to one side to favor the fractured collarbone.

He finished second.

Later at the hospital, he can't get service in a hot emergency room crowded with doctors, cops and race officials. It was the triathlon equivalent of the Stateroom scene in the Marx Bros' "A Night at the Opera". Through an interpreter, he learns that the cops don't want him sedated until he can give a detailed statement about the accident. And the race officials are there to disqualify him for receiving outside help (the wheel from his wife).

The moral? Be glad you're not hit by a truck.

A good outlook most days, in my opinion.

Another video profiled Joanna Zeiger. She's a pro who represented the US at the Sydney Olympics (highest placing at 4th). She's also a PhD in Genetic Epidemiology (her MS is in "Genetic Counseling" -- we all wondered what that was about). As Dan from Ohio said afterward: "There's humbling, and then there's humbling."

Back to my room for more compulsive gear sorting. I have to place all my running gear into one bag. All my bike gear into another. I have to arrive ready to swim, and put my warmup clothes in another bag. All bags will be returned to me post-race. My run clothes need reflective tape, since I will running after dark. My race bib need to be on the front for the run, but on the back for the bike. And on and on. I make lists for what needs to be done the next day. It's kind of like pretending you have Alzheimers and will forget to go to work in the morning.

Saturday was easy. I delivered my bike and finely sorted bags of crap to the transition area. I am now free of them until tomorrow. I managed not to buy any more crap that might need sorting, but was still a sucker to sign up for drawings for free shit. Sucker.

There is a parade for the athletes. Actually, the athletes are the ones who parade. We march according to where we're from. Not thinking, I explain a bit too much and get stuck carrying the standard for Louisiana. I refuse to carry the sign, but do carry the flag. I'm the only one for Louisiana.

"Mars" settles in between Massachussetts and Maryland. Who said martians could spell?

There are hundreds of people lining Main Street for the parade. No one recognizes the Louisiana flag. It's got a freaking pelican on it! How many states could get away with that? The woman cheering for, and announcing, each state in turn ignores me. Even the accordion-playing, rollerblading, lederhosen-wearing guy didn't stop to talk to me.

Someone yelled to him,
"Hey! Wisconsin is back here!"

Maryland (just behind me) was popular. Everyone was yelling "Go Maryland!" Illinois (just in front of me) got a bit jealous and started chanting "Abe! Abe! Abe!" whereupon Maryland made fun of their flag: "Oh yeah? Well you've got a damn pelican on your flag!"

Much indignation followed, but none from me. I was just glad someone had noticed the pelican.

As punishment for "volunteering" to carry the flags we all had to line up facing the stands for the presentation of the colors. The Norwood Volunteer Fire Department Marching Band played. No one would fuck with them because they marched carrying axes. They exited trouncing "When the Saints go marching in". The Illinois guy jabbed me in the ribs and in a perfect, but unintended Eric Idle imitation, winked and nudged.

The athlete briefing followed with many do's and don'ts, most illustrated with funny anecdotes of unfortunate people from prior years. For example: DO wear something under your wetsuit. It's a long 400 meters to the changing tent otherwise.

I took in "Planet of the Apes" and a bucket of buttered popcorn afterward. I was actually startled about 2/3 through to realize I was in Lake Placid not 12 hours from the big event. I still have no idea how it will feel.

I got unexpected VIP-like treatment at Mr. Mikes Pizza and Pasta for dinner as a party of one. Caught myself breathing quickly while waiting for my Alfredo. I've got to compartmentalize the race sections. It's too big to consider all at once.

Walked home the long way, taking in the beautiful North Country. I love it here. Sat outside writing in my journal, watching the sunset over the mountains, through the blenderized clouds. Someone started playing the Chili Peppers out of their dorm window. "... pleasure spiced with pain, that motherfucker's always spiced with pain ..."

The loons cry. Tonight I mean the birds. Tomorrow ...

Race Day: Get Breakfast!

Cinnamon-raisin french toast (with real Maple syrup, of course), bacon and chocolate milk. Hmmm... triathlicious...

I'm shivering. It's freezing out here! I stumble down Main Street to the entrance. First step, get your arms/legs marked with your race number. I had more than 30 minutes until I had to be down at the water, but I put on my wetsuit now, just to warm up. Drink more water. Use lavatory. More water.

Barefoot march down to Mirror Lake (exactly 72 degrees). The water feels warm to my cold toes, but it's cold on my chest in the wetsuit. My teeth chatter uncontrollably waiting for the national anthem to finish. Yeah, yeah, rockets red glare.

And the cannon booms. The water starts churning. I cease being cold immediately and try to get out of the way of almost 1800 people.

I start out last and begin to lose ground immediately.

I'm very nervous and can't steady my breathing. I have to backstroke a bit to settle down. Judy, on a surfboard, keeps me company and on course (mostly). I'm going nowhere slowly. Frustration overcomes nerves and I turn over. I make better progress with the crawl, but I am alone in last place less than 5 minutes into the race.

No problem. The course is out-and-back twice. My first leg (1/4 mark) split is a horrible :37 minutes. At this pace I'll exceed the time limit by one minute. Must swim faster. I'm scared, and I use the adrenaline to pull myself through the water.

Just before I get to the buoy at the end of the first leg, I realize I'm about to get passed by the pros. I move right to avoid being run over. They come through throwing a jet behind like a speedboat. Their wake pushes me further right.

Everyone else passes me on the my second leg.

My 1.2 mile split is 1:18. Very bad. I've got to do another 1.2 miles in 1:02. I'm surprisingly sanguine about this. A volunteer tries to shepherd me into the chute for finishers, but I insist I have another lap to go. She looks at me piteously. I smile wryly and wade in.

This time I was accompanied by a kayaker named John. I didn't require course corrections, because I could sight much better swimming normally. I was concentrating on reaching farther, pulling harder and following through. My splits got worse, tho. I couldn't figure out what to do with my legs. A big kick seemed to slow me down. A flutter kick tired me out more quickly. No kick seemed OK, but because of my wetsuits awesome positive buoyancy, had me over-flexing my lower back. I ended up trading off between the latter two.

Every other stroke I think about quitting. I'm never going to make the cutoff. Just call it and head back to my room. I've done well simply to get here. I just didn't prepare well enough. Quit. Don't quit. Repeat.

1:23 for the second 1.2 miles. I'm over the time limit by 20 minutes. I knew I would be half-way through the last leg. I slowed down slightly, so I suppose I could have shaved a couple minutes off that. Just for perspective: that 20 minutes is just shy of half the time the lead pro took to do the whole course. This was my longest swim ever, and hopefully my slowest time ever for this distance.

The crowd cheers me as I emerge from the water. What are they doing here? Isn't the race somewhere else? I point self-consciously to my chest and grin. "Don't be shy now!" someone yells.

I pass a quick lucidity test and flop on my back to have the wetsuit pulled off me. A beautiful woman in an official-looking shirt asks for my race chip. I'm disposed to give her anything she wants, but I realized this is it. I've known it for a half-hour now. I'm being disqualified. Relieved of command. My heart sinks.

She takes the chip and sees the disappointment in my face. "Would you like to continue?" she asks. Yes, I would. I don't want to get anyone in trouble. I know I'm unofficial, but I'm not here for anyone else but me. Let me continue. She walks me most of the way to the changing tent, and gives me back the chip.

The guard sees me walk up the carpeted chute from the swim, carrying a wetsuit and swim mask. He blocks my path.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Uh, to change into my bike clothes?"

My angel reappears and assures him I'm OK to pass.

The volunteers in the change tents have thankless jobs. They are there to help people change from one sport to another, as fast as possible. I had their full attention. They couldn't find a cup for me to have some gatorade, so one of them gave me his own water. Lake Placid has 3500 residents. There were 3500 volunteers at the race. The whole town is involved, and they're all as friendly as can be.

I grab my bike and cross the timing pad to start the bike, but the timing computer beeps loudly. The officials are about to stop me, but my angel is there again, smoothing it out. Thank you!

I emerge onto the bike course in first place.

At least that's what some spectators thought. They're not paying enough attention, obviously.

The pros pass me like SR-71 Blackbirds. The sonic booms almost blow me off the road. Their calves are ripped like cartoon superheroes. I'm passed like I'm a tree. The TV cameras on the motorcycles must have multiple shots of me in the background of these guys. I'll probably be digitally edited out.

Some of them give me an encouraging word. This is one of those things that keep people coming back to triathlons. You (a duffer) get to ride side-by-side (for a nanosecond) with the world's best. In very few sports is that possible.

I'm in last place. Not even an official competitor. Yet people think I'm in the thick of it, despite my obvious incompetence. I'm an IronFraud.

Not that one look wouldn't tell the story. I'm struggling. The hills are brutal. I trained on some, what I thought were, hills. They were speedbumps. The temps rise into the 80s with hardly any clouds. On the plus side, I discover my personal mantra. Every time I'd round a corner and spy the next ridiculous hill I'd mutter "fuck me!" After a while it had a calming effect.

I'm getting progressively more ragged. I need to average 15 mph to finish the bike leg in regulation. I'm working on 14. Even the big downhills don't help me much with their sharp turns. At 45 miles, I'm wasted. Just in time for the final all-uphill finish of the first loop. I'm looking for that truck Welch promised...

I don't have a granny-enough gear. I can stand up in my lowest gear. Any harder and I'll have to get off and walk. Mechanically speaking, I'm at my limit. Physically, my legs are shaking.

I pass the entrance to Whiteface Mountain where I have skiied several times. It has a bad rep for being mondo icy all the time. I've never seen it green and verdant. Some folks are sitting at the big sign cheering. I pass excruciatingly slowly. They stop clapping. I look up at the slopes and comment "not too icy today..." They are stunned and then burst out laughing.

I'm so not gonna do the second loop. Maybe I could, but I'm not gonna. I'm a free-agent now, setting my own agenda. Goddammit, I wanna run! I'm gonna do the marathon purely for pride (I've read about this and it seems inexpensive ... :)

They wouldn't have let me back onto the bike course anyway. It was full of runners. I give up my chip (not that it was registering anything anyway) and change into my run duds.

This time I was in the thick of the changing. The tent was crowded with people hopping around half-naked, trying to get into something too tight. The ubiquitous volunteers were patient as saints in their help. Not to me. I didn't need any, and other, still official folks did.

A medical guy was wandering about looking for people that seemed out of it. He'd question them about their urination. Anything other than copious merited a quick exam and possible medical disqualification. I passed. I had been lax on the second half of my bike loop. I consumed GU regularly and guzzled gatorade and some water in the first couple hours, but not as much the second couple hours. I needed to catch up.

My plan had always been to walk the aid stations and run between them. The aid stations were placed every mile. They featured water, gatorade, various fruits, GU, IronMan bars, pretzels, salt, vaseline, chicken broth, ice, sponges with cold water and encouragement from more of the wonderful volunteers (like one Marina). I ate everything (not the vaseline) and drank heavily.

I sloshed when I ran.

The course starts down Main Street with people cheering you on, often by name. That's a bit disorienting, but nice.

Spectator: "You look great!" Me: "You're too far away!"

Then it's a mile-long downhill. Just what the quads need after the bike. But you don't think about that. You think about running up it at the end. These course designers are sadists.

For days before the race, Janus Mutual Funds had a tent where you could make signs for placement along the course. They provided the raw materials (corrugated plastic and markers). These signs were everywhere. My top five:

5. If you can read this, you're running too slowly.

4. #666 Go Daddy!

3. Ironman Go Home!

2. #___, the year is 2001 and George Bush is the President. Use this information wisely.

1. #1842 You Suck!

I realized I should have made some signs of my own. The possibilities for mischief are juicy. During a marathon, your mind wanders:

  • #2105 Hey Honey! I'm Pregnant!

  • Iron is hard / Iron's not porous / Trouble on the run? / Use the Force! / Burma Shave

  • Do or do not, there is no Tri

  • Sting those Canucks!

And so on.

Heavy black clouds had moved in. It was misting lightly once in a while. Perfect.

At one aid station I discover they have chocolate flavored GU. This is a first for the race. The pros must hoover them up before we age-groupers get here. Anyway, I'm reading the ingredients and it has Belgian chocolate in the third spot. Hot damn!

A couple houses are playing music for us. One features the Chilli Peppers and that same motherfucker spiked with pain. Several others are playing The Moody Blues "Days of Future Passed". Nice.

"Free Beer Ahead!" This race is picking up. Just gotta follow these signs.

There's a guy with a real Olympic gold medal at one station. He won it in '68 for rowing. He lets us all touch it as we run by.

There are 3 pretty girls dancing to techno at one station. I call them the spice girls. They don't let me take their picture.

One of the aid stations is sponsored by the local prison. There is an Irish flag next to the sign.
I take this as a sign I'm dehydrated and drink several cups of gatorade and water.

One helpful person asks if the course is two laps. In some prior life I knew it was, but at this moment I was convinced it wasn't. She left before I returned to apologize.

About mile 14 my feet started complaining. The point on the top of the foot where it starts curving up into the shin would scream if I ran. I could walk on it with only minor pain, but running was out. So, just 12 miles to go.

More IronFraud as the crowd really gets into cheering us strugglers. I take this as Karma. I pass along at least as much encouragement to others as I receive.

In the last several miles I pass a guy holding his broken arm. He got it in a crash on the bike. Hours ago.

I am passed by a guy wearing a huge Bullwinkle hat.

In the last mile, in the dark, a slow-moving brother going the other way waves at me and says "Go Louisiana!"

My dilemma: in town the crowds are thick. I want to slip away and not enter the oval. Finishers are announced, displayed on the big screen and cheered to loud, thumping music. I don't deserve that, and won't demean their achievement by crossing the finish line. After crossing the 26.2 mile mark I find a thin spot and no one says anything as I duck out. I remove my race number and that's that. Modified mission accomplished.

Now for the full-body massage!

Maria, from San Antonio ministers to me. Good hands. A guy was losing his cookies repeatedly behind us, but we didn't care. She was hungry so I gave her my 2 remaining chocolate GUs. A more than fair trade.

I made my way over to the food tent. Several raisin bagels with cream cheese. And multiple cups of chicken broth (damn that was good!)

People are staggering in every couple minutes. Some are fresh, others ashen. Everything the photos I've seen told about the finishers is true. I was sore, but not destroyed.

I had the walk home with bags and bike as a nightcap. I saw the last few finishers on the course. They were grimly struggling to get there before the 17 hour cutoff. They were a pitiful, determined bunch. I yelled encouraging words, but most probably couldn't hear me. They were deep within themselves.

"You tha man!" I yelled to one, who turned out to be an older woman, leaning far to the left as she ran. "Uhh, sorry."

A japanese man was stumbling along. "Gambatte!" I yelled. He turned to me and smiled, then looked ahead. A couple seconds later, he looked puzzled and looked back at me. I smiled. He smiled.

In fact, that's the most common remark I got from the spectators: "What a great smile! Way to go!"

Swam 2.4 miles in 2:41, Biked 56 miles in 4:14, Ran/Walked 26.2 miles in 7:05

Obviously I am a lousy swim self-coach. Obviously I need more hill training on the bike.

If only this guide had been available earlier.

Some observations:

Yes I failed, but I'm not discouraged. From the start I've viewed this as a beginning--not an end. I feel an odd mixture of disappointment, pride and elation. I'm gunning for bigger game. This "setback" is nothing. I had fun and proved something to myself. I was reaching for my limit. It has moved.


From: Cathy Mancino

Great story. What a relief from all the overtrained zealots.
You have, from my point of view, the proper perspective of the sport.

From: Matthew D Trim

Read your article on Xtri, sounded like a painful way to start your ironman

career, but I'm pretty sure it ain't ever going to be worse than that.

Thank you for not crossing the line, I admire your determination in getting
to the end in the best way possible. Good luck for the future

From: Joe Foster

"There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within,
no insurmountable barrier except our own inherent weakness of purpose." - Elbert Hubbard

From: Wayne Stocker

Great article on xtri, an "Iron Fraud" you're not. Keep going, your all heart.
See you at the races.

From: John Murray

Great story... I haven't tried the full Ironman yet, but have done a
half, and later a marathon. I didn't make the cut for the marathon so I can relate.
Thanks for the laughs.