Two weeks ago I did, by far, the toughest thing I have ever done when I raced Ironman Texas in The Woodlands. It's taken every bit of two weeks to recover from the race and to gain the proper perspective on what I went through that day, and what I went through in the preceding ten months to prepare for that day. I'm sure I can't do the experience justice in words and photos, but I'll do my best.
I've often heard it said about Ironman that the man who finishes the race is not the same as the man who starts the race. I couldn't agree more. Looking back on my first blog in July 2012, I'm blown away at how far I've come since that day. I remember signing up for Ironman and wondering how I would ever be able to swim 2.4 miles, or ride a bike for 100 miles. As I passed those milestones in training again and again my perspective changed. I stopped worrying about finishing and started considering how fast I might finish or how I might attack the bike to set myself up for a stronger run. Tactics and preparation replaced fear.
I hit my training peak in early April about six weeks out from race day. Along the way I ran four marathons in as many months, setting a 3:31 PR at the Houston Marathon in January. My training became a routine. My weekdays consisted of pre and post work strength, run and bike training and trips to Clark Pool in Brownsville dominated my lunch breaks. My weekends were filled up with 80 + mile rides, long runs and bricks along the chip seal South Texas country roads from Harlingen to Port Mansfield, and on my stationary trainer for countless solitary hours in the pain cave.
In April I participated in a couple of warm up races to test my fitness level and practice my transitions. In back to back weeks to start the month I finished first overall at the Brownsville ISD Anyone Can Tri Mini Triathlon and finished first in my age group at the Republic of Texas Triathlon Festival Half-Iron in Corpus Christi. With the age group win in Corpus I qualified for the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this August. Not bad.
Who has two thumbs and a Half Iron age group win? This guy!
After my test race in Corpus, I felt a lot better about my fitness level and changed my focus to maintenance. I finished April with over 30,000 yards in the pool, another 650 miles on the bike and more than a 100 miles on the pavement. I maintained a similar pace through the first two weeks of May before finally starting my taper on the 11th. I spent the last week before the race maintaining my fitness level without going overboard, studying the weather and race reports, packing and re-packing my gear and getting in plenty of sleep and healthy eating. It was a weird feeling to dial back the intensity after ten months of heavy training. I'd forgotten how much free time I used to have before I started the journey to IMTX.
Carb loading with Javier during taper week.
The days before the race were a bit of a blur. Packet pickup. Bike and gear check. Athlete dinner and race briefing. Practice swim. Final preparation. On and on. Ironman is not just a race. It is an event on a magnitude which I have never before been a part of. As I shuffled from one pre-race event to another I must have looked like a lost child. I was overwhelmed and my anxiousness was readily apparent to everyone around me.
Relax, dude. It's packet pickup.
The practice swim on Friday morning added a degree of calm that I hadn't expected. Though The Woodlands had emerged from it's relatively cool spring with a vengeance about a week before the race, Lake Woodlands was still hovering close to the 76 degree wetsuit cutoff on Friday morning. Wading out into the lake and taking stock of the water temperature and quality on an 800 meter swim focussed my mind and gave me a better feeling about Saturday's swim.
I was nervous leaving transition and walking to the swim start, but didn't really get a chance to full on panic because Mark, Lacy, Mike, Crystal, Sheralee and the Vasquez family were all walking to the start line with me. I was able to politely chit chat and and pass the time without my mind getting in my way too much. We huddled together, said hello to Mark Coppins and Rick Seija and their families and listened to the announcer giving instructions and race updates. I learned that the water temp had climbed to 77, less than a degree warmer than the day before, but into the "wetsuit optional" category. I had a choice at that point...swim without a wetsuit or swim with a wetsuit and be ineligible for possible age group awards or World Championship slots. I decided to keep the suit on. Javier did too. We reasoned that the energy saved by pre-race buoyancy awaiting the cannon and extra buoyancy on the course would outweigh the possible discomfort of overheating during the swim. And neither of us had any expectations of getting on the podium. When the pros started at 6:50 I kissed Lacy goodbye and made my way to the start line.
Those next few minutes were the best of the day for me. I looked back at the bridge over Lake Woodlands and waived to the spectators. I made small talk with another athlete from Quebec and wished everyone around me good luck and good health. Everyone was cheerful and engaging.
And then, in a moment, it began...
If you like the sensation of drowning, you'll love the Ironman swim start!
Team Never Quit/RGV Tri Club/Footworks
So aero. So very, very aero.
The first 50 miles of the bike were beautiful as we climbed north out of The Woodlands into Conroe, Montgomery County and the Sam Houston National Forest. A light tail wind, clean pavement and still rising sun let me keep at a pace above 20 mph without much effort. By mile 60 I had become increasingly aware that the heat had gone up and the wind (now on the nose as we turned to the southeast) were going to make the rest of the ride a lot less enjoyable. I ate according to my pre race plan and took in almost 200 combined ounces of water and sports drink along the course, but began to realize that I was going to have trouble staying hydrated for the run if I didn't slow down a little on the bike. From mile 60-85 I backed off the pace, choosing only to push it on the down hill portions (which were few and far between). By mile 90 I needed to pee (a great sign as far as I was concerned - it meant I was hydrated) so I stopped and took care of business and checked my time. I was on pace for a bout a six hour bike finish. By my calculation, I would be off the bike and on the run by about 2:30pm. That meant that I would have covered two thirds of the race with 9.5 hours remaining on the clock. I smiled. I knew that I could walk a marathon in under seven hours if I had to. I knew, in that moment, that if I could avoid a catastrophic accident in the next 22 miles, I would go to bed an Ironman.
I finished on pace and took my sweet time in transition. As I mentioned earlier, The Woodlands chose to emerge from a cold spring with a vengeance the week before Ironman. The temperature on race day was 91 degrees (a high for the year thus far) with a heat index over 100. Pavement on the bike and run course were radiating at a temperature of 110-115. It was, in a word, hot.
I've run hot races before. I've run hot halfs in Brownsville, hot fulls in San Antonio and hot Olympic triathlons in Austin. But running a marathon in the low 80's in the morning at Rock N' Roll San Antonio in November is a very different animal than running a marathon in the low 90's in the mid afternoon in East Texas humidity in May. It was like running in a hot bowl of soup. And it put a hurt on me almost immediately.
Everyone who knows me knows that I am a very good runner. I love to run. I run in the heat of summer and cool of winter. I run numerous sub-4:00 marathons a year. I run on the road, on trails and on the treadmill. I run on vacation. I run with my dogs. I run with my wife. I can run a half in a little more than 1:30. I run 30-40 miles a week year round. I coach runners. I once ran a 41 mile ultramarathon. I run for speed and for distance. Seriously...running is my thing. But at Ironman...I could barely run at all.
My blistering IMTX marathon pace. Get it?
Within a 5K of the start line my calves began to violently cramp. The hydration level I was so confident about at mile 90 of the bike had evaporated in a pool of salty sweat by mile 3 of the run. With each leg cramp I had to slow my pace to a walk in order to let the cramp pass. And each time I restarted my run the distance between starting to run and the next leg seizing cramp was a little less. Complicating matters was the heat induced nausea that I was feeling which prevented me from taking in little more nutrition than ice water and the occasional handful of potato chips, and the hot spot on my left forefoot that was clearly developing into a blister with each subsequent step.
The race course had become an infirmary. At the 5K point I look around and saw walking wounded everywhere. I saw athletes double over vomiting and seated along the course grabbing their calves and crying from pain. I realized in that moment that I had two paths to the end of the race: 1) walk/run/shuffle through the final 23 miles stopping to hydrate and eat what I could at every aid station or 2) push myself to hard and end the race in the back of an ambulance. I chose option 1.
The next 15 or so miles were pure misery. The cramps and nausea continued and the blister grew. But my spirits were lifted when, near the start of the third lap of the run course, I saw Mark and Lacy and Jun! Mark gave me the worst pep talk of all time, Lacy said something sweet and encouraging and Jun jumped up and down yelling "KRISSSS! You're gonna be an Ironman! YOU CAN DO IT!!!" Since the worst of the heat had passed by that time, I used their combined enthusiasm to force myself to run a little harder and push for the finish line.
I finished the last lap with a little less pain and a lot more purpose. I had a mantra in my head: "Left, right, repeat. Left, right, repeat." I put my head down and plowed ahead. As I neared the finish line I saw Mark Coppins who was about to head out on his third lap. He smiled and said "Kris Healey, you are an Ironman!" I smiled knowing that Mark was well under the cut off to start the third lap and finish under 17 hours. I could hear the crowd at the finish line at that point and could hear Mike Reilly welcoming each finisher across the line. I picked up the pace turning into the S shaped finisher chute and facing the packed bleachers adjacent to the finish line. I saw my wife and friends in a field of neon yellow Footworks shirts. Jun was on his feet leaping up and down. Lacy, all 4'10" of her, was so elated that she looked to be about 7' tall. As I ran past I blew Lacy a kiss and said "I love you," and then, just like that, the finish line, Mike Reilly, a nice man grabbing my elbow and escorting me to the side, a cold bottle of water, a towel across my shoulders, a photograph and a long, long sigh of relief. 14:16 and change.
Rick, Me, Javier and Mark. RGV Tri Club pretty much wrecked shop as the kids say.
Crossing that finish line was a the culmination of what had been a very long road. Much, much longer than the 140.6 miles I raced on that Saturday in The Woodlands. At the end of the journey I crossed the finish line alone...but along the way I was never, ever truly alone. I was surrounded by friends, family and others who gave me inspiration, motivation and encouragement. I was supported along the way by co-workers and teammates. I leaned on others and relied on them to lift my head up when I was tired, help me hold on when I felt like letting go, and carry me through the rough patches. I may have be alone when the cannon boomed and the race began, but without dozens of others, I never would have been there to begin with. And it is for those others that supported me that I must say a heartfelt and deep thank you.
Lacy for standing by me, supporting me, worrying for me, cheering me on and joining me in my crazy athletic exploits. Mark for flying across country to cheer me on, cook me dinner and give me an off-colored pep talk at mile 15 when I really needed it. Sue, Deb and Jun for showing me what was possible. Javier, Mark, Fabian, Sheralee, the Crazy Legs Running Crew, the Bod Squad Running Team, Footworks and the RGV Tri Club for sharing the miles. Amy and Gina who inspire me everyday with the way they challenge themselves and inspire and encourage others. Renea and George for giving us another family and making Lacy and I a part of their dream and passion. The Lone Survivor Foundation for all that they do for our veterans and Marcus for the inspiration and for his service. Noah and Maya for reminding me that all of this stuff is supposed to be fun. My Healey, Everly, Landry, Welch and Klostermann families for cheering me on from near and far. My Mom and my Father-in-Law for reminding me that limits are meant to be pushed and broken and that you're never too old to try something new. My Dad for teaching me about dedication and perseverance. Courtney for giving me inspiration to fight. Kate and Beth for encouraging me to start running. Casey and Alli for always having the right words to make me smile. Team Iron Raccoon for covering duty, swapping call weeks, encouragement and support. Art and Alex for upping the PR and pushing me in every race from 5K to Marathon. Dr. Joe for keeping me upright and healthy along the way. Footworks for everything they do for Harlingen and the running community. Bicycle World, Austin Tri Cyclist and Wally's for the education. The awesome staff at Clark Pool and Josue at Valley Baptist for always asking me how my training was going and encouraging me to push harder. And everyone who watched me on the course on Saturday from across the country. I didn't cross that finish line alone. You were all there with me.
With my support crew at the finish line. Couldn't have done it without these two.
So, now what? What is in store for the Ironman now that he's earned the title? Well, for the last two weeks I've engaged in an aggressive, if frustrating (like going from 60-0), course of recovery focussing on a gym and swim routine to regain upper body muscle and rest the legs. When I've sufficiently recovered I'll go on a two week vacation to Maine with Lacy and then tackle the fall race season with a, hopefully, renewed vigor. I'm planning two more half irons and an Olympic before the end of the year. And, I'll probably need to get myself an m-dot tattoo at some point...
But, for now, I'm mostly focussed on being the best Iron mate that I can be. Lacy has a long list of honey do's that I've been putting off and I'm more than happy to oblige her. And, in case you were curious, my wife has caught the Ironman fever...by the Monday after the race she had enrolled in Ironman Cozumel - December 1, 2013. Her 31st birthday. And if you though I was determined and dedicated on my iron journey, you haven't seen anything yet.
Thank you for following me along the way and cheering me on. And thank you for your combined $1275 worth of donations to the Lone Survivor Foundation along the way. I truly appreciate it.