I’m sitting on the plane, coming home from North Carolina, but I wanted to get an early start on documenting this most interesting weekend I’ve spent in North Carolina at the Beach2Battleship Iron-distance triathlon which took place on Saturday in Wilmington. After arriving in North Carolina on Tuesday night, I took it easy for the next few days, doing light preparatory workouts to stay sharp and acclimating to the weather in North Carolina. On Friday we piled in the car and headed down to Wilmington, a medium-sized town on the southeast coast of North Carolina serving as host for the race. After traveling for what seemed like an inordinately long time through fairly desolate eastern North Carolina roads we arrived, starving and tired. Probably not the best way to start off a race... After checking in and having a cursory look at the transition areas we cast out in search of a decent restaurant, but were forced to settle on O’Charleys, I was feeling a few nerves that night- even though there was no reason to be nervous, you know that these days are hard and are going to hurt at least a little. I slept until about 2 AM, after which I basically laid there in the dark until 4:30. Around four, I decided I should have breakfast. Not wanting to wake my girlfriend, I cracked open a blueberry bagel and ate it in the dark, slurping it down with a gatorade. This freaked her out a bit, as she was also awake and not entirely sure what I was doing in the dark. As luck would have it, everyone in my group slept poorly, and we convened extraordinarily early to venture out.
The opening swim was held in Banks Channel, starting at the tip of Wrightsville Beach and winding north 2.4 miles to the Seapath Marina, where we would exit to the first transition area and grab our bikes. The swim was saltwater, and was with the current, which should provide a nice boost on swim times. I was counting on this boost; I have swam 1.2 miles exactly one time this year, in a half-Ironman I wound up not finishing. Shoulder injuries and a lack of decent pools in South Chicago had done the rest in crimping my training. While I was counting on the current, I was not counting on the cold. The forecast predicted comfortable highs in the mid 70s later in the day, but a temperature a titch above 40 degrees greeted me as I stood shivering on the beach. Yow! Beach2Battleship was unique in several ways, including the utilization of two transition zones (the aforementioned swim-to-bike area at the Seapath Marina and a second bike-to-run transition at the USS North Caroina Battleship Memorial) and the point-to-point starting swim. The latter provided a rather desolate start, one largely free of spectators to cheer the 500 or so competitors who charged into the intracoastal waterway at 7:10 AM. It felt as though we were standing at the end of the world on the tip of that island.
Once in the water I jockeyed for position but found no feet to follow. There was a good bit of contact early on, and I was kicked in the face several times, once strongly enough to unseat my goggles. I headed for the middle of the channel, as the current seemed to be strongest there. The swim (my first in saltwater) was well-marked, well-patrolled and beautiful as the sun rose over the waterway. I was cold, even wearing my new Nineteen wetsuit, and my feet lost all feelings as I puttered along. The current proved a powerful ally indeed: I found myself at the Seapath Marina, climbing out of the water after 65 minutes, a full 11 minutes faster than my last effort. Following a three-second freshwater shower and a wetsuit stripping, a lengthy 300-yard jog found me in transition one in 1:06:45, where I crammed my frozen feet into bike shoes and charged off onto the bike to the sounds of friends and family cheering me on. Apparently I was amped up, as I recorded the fifth fastest T1 time in the entire field. Now it was time to find the right bike cadence for the course. The weather was still cold, and I was wearing triathlon shorts, a sleveless jersey and little else. My legs were good as I drove out of town, passing riders left and right.
The 112-mile bike course headed north-by-northwest toward White Lake before completing a long lazy loop that concludes at the USS North Carolina. The course consisted of excellent roads, mostly very smooth (save for a few miles here and there) and free of much traffic. There wasn’t much to see, other than the occasional cow, barn, and roadkill. So far, so good. Within 40 miles I had passed about 150 people and had settled into a rhythm. My longest training ride was 56 miles, also done in the failed half-ironman. The course was flat, so pacing was a key issue- going too hard or too easy would mean time later on. I wasn’t racing with a computer, so I was exerting myself mostly by feel. It’s risky to push- sometimes you go out too hard and wind up paying for it by being re-passed by everyone the last three hours of your ride- but I was making good progress and doing everything I could to keep my energy levels high. I was certainly taking in a lot of fluids- drinking Gatorade and Heed (ugh), and had about ten or twelve energy gels out there. As I began to head in, it looked as though I was on pace for about a 6 hour bike split. Rather abruptly, another competitor rides up and asks me how it feels to be almost done. The mile splits given by race organizers were WAY off, and ten miles closer than I thought, less than a mile from transition 2. My six hour bike split turned into a 5:41 like that, and I was on a furious pace to break my previous personal best of 12:26 set last year. Coming into transition, I was moving nicely, handing off my bike and helmet to a volunteer and getting my shoes on and ready to go. I am pleased to announce that, of all the competitors in the race, I had the FASTEST transition time (I think) at a scant 66 seconds.
I ticked off several miles in quick succession, aided by friends and family who were stalking me to cheer me on. The course was two laps, and let me be the first to say that the event organizers were a little off when they said it was flat. There were three monster bridges, and a handful of significant inclines of a quarter-mile in length. To wit, the winner of the race did a 4:35 on the bike, then a proportionately much slower 3:21 run. Most of my training has been run-based though, and I had good legs today. There were 13 or 14 aid stations on the course, and I was slogging down coke, broth, and dumping water over my head on what had become a very nice (and somewhat warm) day.
The Ironman race is too long to go by without some sort of crisis hitting. My first problems hit around mile 5, when I felt a blister forming under the ball of my right foot. This was bad. A similar blister had knocked me out of the Great Illini half Ironman a month and a half ago. With my limited progress thus far, I was now reduced to wondering whether I would be able to finish if this got any worse. The ache intensified. Finally, just to try something, I tied my right shoe as tight as I could possibly make it. Sometimes you get lucky, and this was one of those times. The ache in my brain stayed the same, then got a little better, and was then supplanted in my focus by other muscle groups, a sure sign that my fix had worked.
I run ironman marathons by the Galloway method: 5 minutes of running, followed by 1 minute of walking. Rinse and repeat. This is the best way, in my experience, to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, especially for a 200+ pounder like me, whose feet take a pounding. The strategy was working: I ran the first half of the marathon in 1:54, and had started the final lap when crisis number 2 hit. It had actually begun many hours before, on the bike. Despite the warm forecast, I had neglected to bring any electrolyte products or salt tabs on the bike. By the time I had started the run, a crust of salt had built up on my shirt and shorts, and by the time I hit mile 14 the problem had become acute. Running up the first bridge, my legs suddenly lost their bounce and wouldn’t fire like I wanted them to. My quads were starting to cramp up, something that NEVER happens, and the extra exertion was beginning to shut my stomach down- a quick way to end your day early. I immediately recognized the problem and compensated for it. I took more frequent walk breaks and tried to force more sodium into my body, but it was too late in the race to recover. I was now fully in damage control mode. The run course was scenic but fairly byzantine, and marshalls were everywhere, pointing us in the right direction and cheering us on. Once again, my world narrowed to the tiny focus of getting to the next mile marker. My walk breaks were more frequent now, and I was hemorrhaging time. Slowly, I clicked off miles: 20, 21, 22...
The last bridge over the Cape Fear River was hellish: I struggled up it running a minute and walking a minute. Several runners passed me, but it was all I could do. Once I reached the summit of the climb I saw mile marker number 25. It was downhill and then flat to the finish, and I wondered if I had enough in my legs to repass the three runners I had let slip by on the way up. I decided to run the last 1.2 miles. This sounds pretty ridiculous until you factor in the previous punishment of 139.4 miles on my legs and multiply that by the steepish descent and harsh metal grating of the bridge. I ran, quads barely able to support me. I re-passed two of the three who’d passed me, and reached the straightaway before the left-hand turn for the finish alone. The crowd support was phenomenal, and I crossed the line a little more emotional than I’d been in my first attempt at the distance. The second half of the run was a much crappier 2:15, and I finished the marathon in 4:09 for a total of 11 hours, three minutes, and 40 seconds. I made it about twenty yards before being mobbed by friends and family, and another twenty before essentially collapsing. Before long, a foot appeared in my field of vision, which belonged to a member of the medical staff, who briefly took me into their care until I convinced them I was (probably) in no immediate risk of dying.
Afterwards, I headed home for a hot shower, then out for a nice seafood dinner with the group. The next morning, I hit the awards ceremony, held on the Henrietta III Riverboat, and found out I had come in 56th overall, and won second place in my division. It was a fabulous and, as always, humbling experience to take on an iron-distance triathlon. I thought the event was first-rate, and would definitely consider tackling it again in the future, although my body begs to differ right now.
For those thinking of doing the race, I can say that it offered all the support of an Ironman race, a fraction of the price in a venue just as good. Perfect weather (nonwithstanding a little early chill), more volunteers than a typical IM (they said more volunteers than participants) and an aided swim. This race is going to get bigger and more popular as the organizers work out the minor logistic issues (like the water taxis) by next year. On the negative side... let's see... not much. The bike course wasn't the most gorgeous, but the roads were SO smooth (a very underrated feature for the sore of taint). Not much to say about this race that isn't positive.