Ironman Louisville 2009: the swim
The day of the race started very, very early, around 4:30AM. I usually sort of guess when I need to be ready to do things like wake up and then figure out the details later on. This greatly annoyed some girlfriendy members of my expedition. They wanted much more firm details on when we’d be getting up and when we needed to be places. Some sharp words were had.
Eventually the logistics were mostly worked out and Julie, my then-girlfriend and I went to sleep in our hotel room in our shabby hotel outside Louisville.
Once awake, but still long before dawn, we drove to the finish line and parked about a block away from it. We really got premium parking. My reasoning was that it’s better to be close to the finish line because when I’m done with this I’m not going to feel like hiking very far to the car. There was some dissent in the ranks about my choice of parking spots, and I dealt with it by ignoring it.
I turned over my keys, cell phone and wallet and so forth to the girls and we all marched to the start. We were quiet. They didn’t know what to say and I had a lot to think about.
It had been a long year. Twelve months before that morning I was working for a startup that was going under, in a relationship with a girl I cared a lot about that was coming apart, and very much at a loss. My good friend Mike Nessen asked me if I wanted to do an Olympic distance triathlon and I said yes. I bought a bike, joined a tri club, and started running and swimming and riding.
I found that it filled the empty places. When I was running and things got hard, I would just think about being hurt and lonely and I could run longer. I thought about my Mom passing away, and how I wanted her to be remembered by someone who was worth being remembered by. I had a newborn niece and I wanted her to have an uncle who was fit and effective.
But mostly I thought about the family I’d like to have some day, and what type of person I would need to be to be the cornerstone of it. Fitness. Effectiveness. Mental toughness. Those are things I thought I would probably need.
I did two workouts a day five to six days a week for most of those twelve months. I completed the Olympic distance race, as well as a Half Ironman, a Marathon and various other running and cycling events. I felt fit and effective.
Along the way, a year after we’d broken up, I got back together with my girl. Finally, I thought, this dream I have is coming together. I had been right, this girl will be the mother of my children. We were meant to be together and I was right to work so hard on this path. All those hours of running alone in the cold and the rain were worth it.
That was my mindset as I walked to the start of the race. My dad was there. My friend Julie was there. My girl was there. Now all I had to do was do 140.6 miles and this dream was mine.
My triathlon club had 5 racers there, so one of the girls who was there just to sherpa and not to race got up stupid early, like maybe 4:00 AM, and went down and got in line. Also, I had to go by transition and drop off my foods bags so I was late to the start line. I think I got there around 5:45 or so and the line was super super long.
After a while of sitting on a sidewalk waiting to start, Everyone stood up and the line started to compact. It moved fast. I tried to take a last minute PRS (Pre-race “poop”) but I was denied. I had to wait in line for the port-a-potty behind someone who wasn’t an athlete, which was pretty annoying. Can’t you hold it a few seconds longer so I can get in and out, buddy? Got a few things on the schedule today, you know.
There was a cannon blast, and the pros took off. They were really fast in the water, as you’d expect.
Then the officials sent a blind athlete off on his way. He was swimming attached to a cord that went to a sighted person who was swimming ahead and sighting for him. I thought that was kind of odd. Seems like they’d start him late, but I guess they wanted to give him every time bonus to make the midnight cutoff.
Eventually it was time to do it. I stripped off my shorts and tee shirt and handed them to the girls and filed down a ramp with the other racers toward a dock in my tri suit (sort of a full-body swimsuit with cycling shorts attached). There were teams of race volunteers waving their arms and showing us which way to go. They all yelled things like “This way! This way! Hurry hurry!” over loud rock music blaring from speakers set up around the start. One by one, everyone jumped in ahead of me and it became my turn.
I walked across the mats on the dock and they recognized the signal from the timing chip on my ankle. The computers attached to the mats beeped loudly and I leaped into the air. I was on the Ironman course.
Once in the water, I realized quickly that my goggles sucked ass. I lost my good ones the week of the race and had to buy a replacement pair. So I had to go by this crappy sports store called City Sports because I didn’t have time to drive up toward the north end of town to the triathlon-specific place. So I had to settle with the Kaiman “Vista” model goggles which offer a vista of.. water. Water that is inside the goggles, mind you, where no water should be.
They also are perfectly formed to press hard on my eyebrow area, causing great pain over time. This pain is not detectable in the few minutes usually employed to check goggle fit in a store, but over the hour and a half I was in the water that day, they hurt quite a bit. So, the “Vista” model is not for me.
I spent a few seconds every once in a while stopping and emptying them and then sticking them to my face again, but it was a battle between the pain of having them tight or the annoying factor of water splashing into my eyes.
Those troubles aside, I looked up at one point and saw someone whom I assumed to be Jesus in a pair of tri shorts plodding on top of the water. Then I dug a hand into river bottom and realized that it wasn’t Jesus, we’d just hit a sandbar. Shortly after that, I hit a submerged branch.
I turned around and shouted to the swimmers behind me, some walking and some still swimming, “HEY THERE IS A BRANCH HERE!”. Someone shouted back “OKAY”.
Soon after the submerged island, Jesus, and the underwater branch, I made a 180 degree and got the benefit of the current, as I had been swimming upstream until now. I couldn’t really tell. It seemed like I was moving faster on the upstream part but that may just have been because there were trees on either side to help me gauge my progress upriver.
The swim start had nothing to do with anyone’s athletic seeding, just how early each athlete was willing to wake up in the morning. So, there were a lot of fast people who had gotten to the start later swimming over slower people who had gotten up earlier. I got kicked in the face once and bumped into, as well as grabbed and poked many times.
I recalled that at my first race I would apologize to people when I bumped into them in the water. In an Ironman race, no one gives a damn. If they hit you, they keep plowing. If you hit them, they keep plowing. That’s just racing. One of my buddies got inadvertently punched in the face in the water at the practice swim on Saturday morning and had a gushing nosebleed. No one stopped swimming.
Near the end of the swim I churned on top of someone and got entangled in what felt like a rubber hose of some kind. I didn’t think much about it at the time, I just thrashed around until I was free and kept moving.
Later, I realized what I had plowed into. That’s right. I caught and swam on top of the blind guy. Sorry, bro!
Shortly after that my right leg cramped solid from the knee down. That’ll be instant karma for impeding a sightless Ironman candidate I guess.
As I approached the swim out I heard my friend Jen Waller’s name called and I know she’s a good swimmer, so I figured my time was ok. I did about 45 mins at my half so I was hoping for 1:30 in my Ironman and that’s what I got. I think the current had a lot to do with it, but it’s a decent middle-of-the-pack time, especially for a fat man.
I got out and limped it up the chute to the changing tent, my right leg still cramped. Not good.
I changed into my cycling kit and shoes and put my helmet on and headed out on the bike. I saw my dad and my friend Amy yelling at me along the way. It felt really good.
Once out of transition I mounted my bike and headed off.
“See you guys in six or seven hours,” I thought.