Thursday, October 14, 2010

Competing at the 2010 Ironman World Championships

For nearly all of my life, good news has come in threes. The last few months have put an exclamation on that trend in a big way. First, the company I founded (NearbyNow) was acquired by a very exciting business in San Francisco. Second, my wife told me she is pregnant with our second child, a daughter comin' round in mid-March. Number three had been on my calendar for months now - a chance to fulfill a childhood dream and compete in the Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Too much life change in one month? For some, maybe. But for adventurers like me/us, I've never felt more invincible.

It's a good thing I was feeling on top of the world, for I would need every ounce of energy to keep up with the 1800+ world class triathletes here for the big show down. This event has more hardbodies than the Top 40 Rap Video countdown, and make no mistake they were here to COMPETE. I was certainly fit, but you could easily pick me out of a line up as one of the 200 lucky lottery slot winners. I don't even have an Ironman logo tattooed anywhere on my unshaven body, for the love of Pete.

(Ironmen do have fun, such as the Thursday Underpants Run)
I got sized up at every street corner and asked "where did you qualify?", only to watch the smile drift from their faces when I said this was my first-ever Ironman distance. Their expressions looked exactly like Ted Knight in Caddyshack when he says, "well, the world needs ditch diggers too". ;-)

No worries. I was AT KONA for IRONMAN. After applying to the lottery for 12 years and sticking to a solid training plan for five months, I was as ready as ever. I yearned to be a part of this now-world standard for crazy endurance challenges that sucked me in with their ABC and NBC one-hour specials decades ago (see video above...drama, baby!). This was long before I was pulled into the world of marathons, ultramarathons, and 100-milers, which even the Ironmen here will tell you is a bit off the deep end.  As a teenager when I heard that the origin of the sport was a dare from Commander John Collins in 1978 to combine the toughest swim, bike, and run tests on the island and settle a bet about which athletes were the most fit, I was seriously hooked. How could you not want to be part of a story like that?

(The Ironman Tribe, photo courtesy of Phoenix)
As an ultrarunner, hanging around the Ironman crowd felt like a big family reunion filled with distant cousins. We were all cut from the same cloth (lycra?) but I felt like the mountain hillbilly that came out of the woods to see what this whole swim-bike-run-thingy is. I'm sure others thought the same with all my body hair.

I was in good company, however. Western States 100-mile Run Champion Graham Cooper was here after qualifying at Ironman St. George, as was WS100 Champion and 25-time sub-24 hour finisher Tim Twietmeyer after claiming his spot at Ironman Wisconsin. Graham was hoping for a sub-10 hour, and this definitely wasn't his first trip here. His family helped him triple check all his drop bags like a fine-tuned machine. Tim was new to Ironman Hawaii like me, but he was a known quantity among his age group. When I asked Tim which is harder, Ironman or Western States, he just said "Are you kidding? You get to SWIM in the Ironman." True, true. But as a runner, it was the swim I feared the most.

Body numbering and drop bag set up were both fun rituals, much in thanks to 5,000+ volunteers that all show as much passion for this event as the racers. I was through in no time, and had enough time to return to the hotel room and watch the sunrise with my girls. When I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, number-tattooed and as fit as I've ever been in my whole life, I found that peaceful serenity of knowing the training was done and I was ready. 

The Speedo, however, looked ridiculous. But that's how I remember the Ironman, so I thought it best to honor those crazy athletes of the 80's.

(Only at Kona can I fit in with a Speedo and compression gear...sooo sexy)
(An Army of volunteers get us marked and ready)
(1,800+ athletes check their gear one last time)
We watched the pros go off at 6:30am, and there was a lot of discussion about the womens race, now wide open after 3-time defending champion Chrissie Wellington dropped with flu-like symptoms. Mirinda Carfrae, who set the marathon record here last year (2:56) in her very first marathon, and XTerra and Ironman 70.3 champion Julie Dibens, here for her first Ironman World Championships, were both up there. For the mens race, the talk was about temperatures predicted to only hit the high 80's by the time of the marathon, and how that might affect a race that usually rewards the heat-friendly like 2-time defending champion Craig Alexander and 2nd place Andreas Raelert.

(Defending champion Craig Alexander chats with Ben Hoffman)
(That's the race number to have!)
I edged into the water about 6:45am, just noticing that I had torn my Speedo when sitting on lava rocks. Let's just hope it holds on! I don't want a penalty for failing the nudity rule. ;-)

The goal for my swim was to stay on the back 1/3 of the pack and have a comfortable experience. It was going to be a long day, so best to hit the bike feeling good and staying aerobic. The 2.4 mile swim distance wasn't a worry so much as the mass start with 1,700 people. When the cannon sent us off, the ocean exploded into a white mass of bubbles and we went heads down.

(On your marks, get set....)
(GO! And the sea becomes a washing machine)
(Look out fish, we're comin' through!)
The meyhem was AMAZING. Nobody could see in the bubble-filled water, so swimmers were darting everywhere. If the pack slowed down in front, the swimmers behind you would start climbing up your calves. It was like rushing the stage at a rock concert! Once a fast swimmer cut through us, we would all jump on his/her tail for drafting, and before too long the pack moved forward like a school of fish. Just tickle the feet in front of you, and don't be surprised if you are tickled yourself. And hang on!

At the halfway buoy, I caught a glimpse of my watch - 41 minutes. This is fast for me! I found a great line on the way back, using the waves from the open ocean swells wherever I could. I hit the beach in 1:20:44 and felt good. That was supposed to be the hardest leg, but honestly, it was fun! I changed into full bike gear, had the volunteers soak me in sunscreen, and hit the road.

(Swim done, now onto the bike)
After a quick loop in town, we made our way to the famed Queen K highway, known for it's unpredictable winds and road temperatures that can exceed 130 degrees. It was warm, but I had the feeling Madame Pele was cutting us some slack so far.

(Canada's Brian Preston shifts into high gear)
The Queen K is all about isolation. Lava flows on either side of the road, heat, and long stretches of highway as far as the eye can see provide a barren landscape worthy of self-contemplation. I hummed along at 23 mph and feeling good, careful to take water and S!Caps at every aid station.

(Chris Lieto takes it out fast, per usual)
(Does it get hot on the Queen K? HELL, yes!)
At mile 30 is where I had signs of my first issue. The ball of my left foot felt like I had stepped on a firecracker, and loosening the shoe straps showed obvious swelling. Hmmm, not good. The pain subsided when I spun in a lower gear, but was ferocious when out of the saddle. I had heard about "hot foot" before, but wasn't sure why it was hitting me now for the first time after thousands of miles of training. It didn't go away by the time we turned to Havi at mile 50, so I had to factor it into my pace and slow down. Graham Cooper was right - there are many more things that can go wrong in an Ironman.

Havi was a reminder about who is in charge on this island...and it ain't us. The heat kicked up to the 90-100's, and the cross winds coming off the mountain were keeping us leaning 20 degrees to stay upright. I had to get out of the aero bars and white-knuckle it for a few miles just to stay on the road. Fallen athletes were being picked up on both sides of the street, proving we are all just one gust away from unforgiving lava ditches.

(The isolation of the climb to Havi)
The return trip from Havi was just as brutal, but at least had some downhill to keep up the momentum. The heat at the bottom was well beyond 100 degrees and we all pushed hard to reach the breeze of the Queen K again. My foot swelling wasn't getting better, and now my obliques were twitching from all that white-knuckling (and let's not forget that swim). Holy cow, this is tough! As we hit 100 miles, my ass started to complain too. But luckily each body position only hurt one area, so I just "rotated the pain".

(Chris McCormack off the bike and putting on the chase)

(Ocean on the right...that means we're headed back!)

(The press follow the head-to-head duel of Chris McCormack and Andreas Raelert)
As I closed in on the final miles, I could see the press cars and helicopters following Chris McCormack and Andreas Raelert going shoulder to shoulder at mile 22 of the marathon. They were on a sub-8:10 pace so this was going to be a fast one! Marino Vanhoenacker and Craig Alexander were behind them and gaining ground too. If I timed it right, I could catch the finish before heading out on the run.

I entered T2, and walked my swollen foot to the change area. The volunteers took one look at it and called over a medical person, who said something about "metatarsal swelling...foot cooked from hot minutes". Clearly I was not the first person with this problem, and I was far from their biggest problems in the full medical tent. Within seconds my foot was packed in ice and they were changing my clothes.

The conversation with the volunteers reminded me of any great crew trying to get their ultrarunner out of late-race aid station. Does it hurt to walk? Well, you've got nine hours to walk a marathon. Did you come this far to drop now? I didn't think so. How about we cram that foot into a running shoe and get you out the door and see what happens? We did just that, and I took an extra minute to watch Chris McCormack win his second world championship before taking off.
(Speedy runners already 10 miles up on us)

(Feeling good enough to run right out of T2)

(Catching a breeze on Ali'i Drive)

(Volunteers were top notch all day...and even recycled 98% of the trash)
I was pleased to quickly figure out that if I ran on my heels (the opposite of barefoot running), my swollen foot felt okay, so I could shuffle along at a 9 min/mile. My legs wanted to do more, but this wasn't going to be their day. It was my first Ironman, so let's just try and finish without a permanent injury. I hollared at Christi to let her know this would be a 4-5 hour marathon, and cruised down Ali'i Drive.

(Alaska's Katy Rosane doesn't let a minor thing like a broken foot stop her from completing an Ironman)
It wasn't hard to occupy myself. Fans were lined up everywhere, runners going in both directions of Ali'i Drive, and the ocean was always on our side. I shuffled the miles, stopping for ice at each aid station.

(Plenty of aloha spirit along the course)

(Oklahoma's Angela Stewart smiles as we climb up to the Queen K)
Before too long, we were on the desolate Queen K again (mile 9) which played mind games with its never-ending expanse. I made a few friends along the way, happy to finally have a chance to chat with other athletes.

I got a huge surprise at mile 10, when Tim Twietmeyer walked along with me. He was working through some back spasms (and massively swollen hands) but laughing his way through the whole thing. It was awesome to see him out there and get a surge from his ever-positive vibe.

(Tim Twietmeyer keeps me in good spirits at mile 10)

(Madam Pele was nice enough to throw in some cloud cover on occasion)
We turned into the Energy Lab, the last out and back before heading home. Everybody could smell the barn door now so there was a lot of smiling. The sun began to set, and each minute brought cooler temperatures. Aaaahhh, it's nice back here!

(Super stoked to see this sign...getting close!)

(Yup, we're running on a live volcano)

(The inspirational mile says "Go, Scratch, Go!")
The Ford inspiration mile gave me one last boost as we returned back on the Queen K. It said "Go, Scratch, Go!", referring to the nickname of Uncle Scratch given to me by my nieces and nephews. Apparently, the goatee is a little scratchy when giving a kiss. ;-) It put my mood in just the right place, and I cruised down the darkening highway wishing the best to those still headed out. The Queen K was eerily quiet, leaving nothing but the sounds of footsteps and the occasional crazy party of volunteers.

In an instant, the calm and quiet of the Queen K was replaced with cheering fans four-deep on either side as I headed down Ali'i Drive one last time. The finish was a party that would rival Times Square, and I crossed in 12:04, good enough for 1,333rd place. I gave a little dance to Kool and the Gang, and the crowd shouted out "YOU ARE AN IRONMAN". I couldn't believe it!

(At last, there it is...the final ramp)

(What a great time!)

(Crossing the finish, with enough energy for a few dance moves to Kool and the Gang)

(Look, I'm getting lei'd on the big screen!)
I got a massage and some food, and packed up my gear to head back to the hotel with my girls. But I didn't stay for long, and ended up coming out at midnight to cheer on the last few finishers in grand style. I tried to get it on video, but it's hard to capture the positive energy that exudes as thousands of spectators cheer each finisher. 2010 champions Chris McCormack and Mirinda Carfrae (winning after clocking a course record 2:53 marathon this time, and only the third sub-9 hour finish of all time) were there to great finishers. It was magical.

(Sophie swipes my lei and makes eyes for the medal)

My body was completely drained, but my soul was spilling over with joy. Is an Ironman tougher than a 100-miler? Well, it's a different kind of tough. I certainly won't be recovering as fast as an ultra. The Ironman training and discipline required is definitely harder, but to approach the mental challenge of a 100-miler, you would probably at least have to do one more lap of the swim and the marathon. But I get the whole Ironman thing now. I can see why the tattoos are so common. This is a bold statement to engage fully in life and find your best, then toe the line with fellow warriors from your tribe. There's nothing wrong with that at all, my cousins!

A huge "mahalo" to all of the directors and great volunteers for putting on a spectacular event. And thanks so much for keeping that lottery system around - I will keep putting my name in and hope to come back again! But for now, it's time to go sit on a beach and rest with a few mai-tai's. It's what Madame Pele would want, no?



  1. Well done, Scott. Your persistence and smiles pay off once again. That was great to have your family there to share it too. Kurt

  2. First time "comment" here.. Great post and congrats for such an amazing experience!! I've just started running this year, but also bike quite a bit, and have started swimming (my worst area) recently...

    thanks for a great blog!!
    Lima, Peru

  3. Congrats! Not only did you finish, it looks like you had a great time doing it. And of course even bigger congrats on your family and work achievements!

  4. great report! congratulations! I loved the Uncle Scratch part. :)

  5. Congrats, "Ironman" Scott, and further congratulations on you growing family!

  6. Congratulations on a terrific race. And, as always, you are a bit modest in the success of your efforts.

    I always enjoy reading your stuff - keep up the great work.

  7. just started reading your blog withinthe last year, fun, informative and inspirational. congratulations and thank you

  8. To IRONSCOTT: three congrat's tp, four--congrats on another great report (you're supposed to be on vacation now!). I still hope to chat with you sometime. And I still think that your inherent gifted ability/physiology/mental focus puts you in the sub-10 hr potential for the Ironman (or at least sub 10:15 in the high heat index of Kona). Your important family obligations make the commitment to that more difficult, as it should be, but, if you ever want to try, my ears are open to help, no strings attached! Plus, if we move back to CA, my husband would make a great cycling buddy. Have a safe trip home---Kona rubbed off here in the Bay Area--a few record 90 plus degree days this week. Thank goodness it is supposed to cool by Sat when I will be hobbling off of the PCTR Diablo event. Every time I hurt (and I will, due to OA) I'll just think of what you just went through :). BTW, I am defnitely going to try a sprint tri, and, thanks (I think) to you I found myself looking at the St. George 70.3 IM....hummm...we'll have to see where this fork in the road goes...... Thanks for the inspiration, Ann

  9. even if I am not a trail runner or ultrarunner of any sort (the world ends after 26.2 miles afar), I am addicted to your blog...

    Now is time to really make my warmest compliments:
    A) first of all for the coming birth
    B) second for being a Ironman, even if getting the entry to Kona via the lottery obviously will be regarded as a theft by any "serious" IM addicted
    C) for the IPhone applications... even if I use a BlackBerry... never blogged on how much and how you train... so I am expecting more from you about it !!

  10. Wonderful report -- a great read. I love reports like this that balance the personal experience with the practical/informative info so well. I thought about you and the other Ironman athletes a lot Saturday a.m. as I completed my first real ultra (DCFT50) and gained strength from imagining you guys in Kona. Great pictures of Craig (Crowie) Alexander. If you're interested, I did a Q&A on him on my blog after a crazy coincidence of sitting next to him on a 13-hr flight. What a good guy. Great picture of you and Tim T too. take care & congrats.

  11. Congratulations on all three counts! Funny, I just found out my wife's pregnant with our second child too! And she's due at the end of March!

  12. Congratulations Scott!!!! One item off the bucket list, but this one belongs in a golden bucket. I'm signed up for the Coeur d'Leane Ironman, and you are my inspiration.

  13. Scott,
    I've been following your blog for sometime now, we even enjoyed a race last year...yeah you kicked my ass. Congrats on being an iron-man. I'm super jealous.

  14. Great report and my congrats on being an ironman,your company being sold, and on having another kid on the way!
    Sounds that besides a bum foot you didn't have any major issues. The ultrarunner in you is probably used to dealing with the other issues.
    Btw, the 3rd place finisher is Marino Vanhoenacker from Belgium, not Mario Von Honacker. As a fellow belgian, it's painful to see our names massacred in print.

  15. Hey Scott,

    Well I have been coming here every day since Saturday to get your update. GREAT JOB. You are an inspiration. Hopefully we catch up soon on a run around here. Here's hoping we both get in Miwok. Maybe we can even car pool (third times the charm ;).

    Charles Zuckerman

  16. great writing, congrats on your achievement. having finished 14 Ironman's (most under 10:30) and countless 50Ks & 50 milers and 1 x 100 miler (sub 23)... 100 milers is heaps, I repeat HEAPS harder then any Ironman I have done... oh, and screw those folks who might look down on lottery, you were at the same starting line, and probably beat many of them.
    ps. I have no IM tats... I don't need to brag, let alone advertise for that over-charging corporation...

  17. Looks amazing! Love your photos as usual!

  18. Scott,
    Congratulations on your Ironman and fulfilling a life long dream. After meeting you at the Flagline 50k I was looking forward to seeing how your Ironman experience went. Thanks for a great race report and since the Ironman was my forte and I'll have to let you know how I feel after my first 100 miler. Cheers!

  19. hmmm ... this report and the fact that Tim did it has me thinking I might have to just do the lottery thing to see if I get "lucky."

    Nice job my brother from another mother.

  20. Awesome! Great job! Are you planning to do another Ironman next year? Come' know you want to :)

    12 hours on your first go - let alone at a tough course like Kona - is awesome.

  21. Way to go Scott! So flipping impressed...that you posted a picture of yourself in a speedo :-) Seriously, though, way to do us ultra folk proud. I followed you the day of the race and couldn't wait to read the details, they far exceeded expectations!

  22. Thanks for the comments, all! Finally back from a week off. A few replies:

    Anon - Thanks for the correction on the name spelling. I'm horrible with names! Corrected above.

    shs/Anon - Appreciate the comments from an Ironman gurus! I will likely do another Ironman, and will certainly continue putting my name in the hat for Kona again. But the training is crazy, so I'll have to ask Christi when I can disappear for another 4 months. Likely 2012 with the baby coming.

    by7 - You're right that I don't blog much about training. Perhaps I'm too busy training? ;-) Anyway, my training plan for IM Kona started in mid-Aug. Prior to that I had three months of unstructured swimming, biking, and a focused running plan for the Burning River 100m. Then two weeks off after BR100 and a schedule that looked like the following (two work outs are 2-a-days):

    Mon: 5-mile trail run (easy), 2500 yd swim

    Tues: 90 min bike, 3500 yd swim

    Wed: 8-mile run w/6-8x800, 2500 yd swim

    Thurs: 90 min bike (easy), core routine

    Fri: 5-mile trail run (easy), 3500-4500 yd swim

    Sat: 12-30 mile run

    Sun: 2-5 hr bike (this became bricks in the final 3 weeks)

    I check my heart rate every morning, and if it's elevated, I take a day or two off (which happened about once every 7-10 days). My training emphasized the swim more than usual since it was my weak spot.

    As you can see, it takes a lot! My hat is off to the IM regulars. I have no idea how you do it.


  23. Pretty friggin' awesome. I had no idea from your blog that you were in Ironman shape. Fantastically done and eager to read more of your stories and adventures in the future!

  24. Outstanding Scott! I've been following you for a while, fellow trail runner, and am totally energized by your accomplishment. Wow, how do you top that?

  25. Congratulations Scott, thats terrific report and great finish at Kona. congrats on other 2 news as well :).


  26. This is the best Ironman write-up I have ever seen. Nice job, and thanks for sharing!

    You are such a stud!
    We're all so proud of you- especially SSS; he loved the picture of you "In those funny underpants"

    xoxo Tita


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