Local, Virtual Ironman Triathlon – Special Report
Special report by Dave Munger – who blogs at Mungerruns
Three weeks ago, I had to cut my 16-mile run down to 10 miles due to excruciating pain from Morton’s Neuroma (a nerve irritation between the 3rd and 4th toes. WAY more painful than it sounds!). Two weeks ago, during my last “Superbrick” workout (a long run following a long ride), the pain was starting to get to me in the first MILE of my 90-minute run. Somehow I hobbled my way through and finished that workout, but I decided to take my podiatrist up on his offer to give me a cortisone shot a week before my virtual Ironman race. A week ago, I was in his office getting shot up for the second time in less than a month. On Sunday, despite not having run more than 14 miles since May, and no more than 16.5 in one push since January, I somehow managed to complete 26.2 miles after swimming and biking and became an Ironman! Well, sort of.
An Ironman is 140.6 miles of swim, bike, and run. But Ironman competitors are picky about who or what they call an “Ironman.” Some folks don’t consider it an Ironman if it is not an Ironman® brand race. Some won’t even call an Ironman-brand finisher an “Ironman” if they happened to be in a race that was shortened due to logistical / weather issues. I was registered for Ironman Arizona but leery about traveling across the country during Covid times — especially since social distancing meant that I would have limited support from friends and family (not to mention the official race organizers) during the race. In the end the race was cancelled just 10 days before it was scheduled to occur. So instead I asked my run, bike, and swim buddies at home in Davidson, NC to support me in my own personal virtual Ironman. I’d swim in Lake Davidson, bike in loops around Davidson, and run up and down the main road out of town and along a greenway in Davidson. Even though it may not technically be an “Ironman,” I was amazed at how my friends came through for me.
I was careful about one thing: To make sure that each event in the Ironman covered at least the regulation distances: 2.4 miles (or 4,224 yards) for the swim, 112 miles for the ride, and 26.219 miles for the run. I also did not stop the clock at any point, just like in a real race. Transitions, potty breaks, traffic lights, and mechanical issues would be included in the total time.
I started the swim at 6 am on a 46-degree morning. Since morning temps can drop well below freezing here this time of year, I was glad that it wasn’t too cold. The water was probably around 60 degrees (my usual lake temperature reference web site has been on the blink lately so I don’t know the exact temp). It was cold enough that I decided to go with a neoprene swim cap instead of the usual thin silicone one. I had tried it just once when the water temps were in the upper 60s and it was too warm, so I was hoping I wouldn’t get overheated.
My buddy Tristan would accompany me in his kayak, and we were joined by Tristan’s partner Noa, and another run buddy, Chad. We were quite a spectacle cruising across the lake in the morning darkness. Tristan’s boat was festooned with lights, and Chad and Noa sported bright headlamps, so I had excellent guidance in the dark.
Since GPS watches are rather unreliable in the water, I had Tristan carry mine on his boat. We charted a course straight north from the beach outside his condo; I would rely on Tristan to tell me when to turn around at the halfway point. I was hoping to swim at about a 2:30/100 yard pace, which would have me finishing in an hour and 45 minutes. I had swum this course three times before, so I knew what landmarks were at which points along the way, but it was still disconcerting to not know my time and pace. I stopped Tristan a few times to find out how far and fast I had swum. I seemed roughly on track at the turnaround point — 53 minutes — but I knew I would probably slow down a bit on the way back. It was a lovely morning with a gorgeous sunrise, which Tristan captured in this awesome photo:
As we approached the beach, Tristan asked if I wanted him to let me know when I had hit the exact distance. I could then stop and run along the waterfront to the spot where I had left my sandals. That seemed like a good idea, and we stopped about 30 yards short of my starting point. Swim time: 1:54:12 — a little slower than I hoped but not bad. The shoreline was uneven here, so I tripped and fell back in the water, losing my goggles. “Leave the goggles,” Tristan shouted. “We’ll find them later!” I seriously doubted we would, but I figured a $5 pair of goggles was a small loss for a day I had already invested an unmentionable amount of money in. I finally made my way to my sandals, which I struggled to put on for the 50-yard run to my bike. I didn’t want to step on a rock or something and aggravate my Morton’s Neuroma before I even started the real run, but I probably wasted a couple minutes in this effort. Finally I got to my bike and was able to change in the Adventure Van, which was not Tristan’s van but which he had in his condo parking lot (long story).
I stripped naked, lubed up, and put on my cycling gear, then headed outside to pee before getting on the bike. My swim-and-bike buddy, Finnin, would be accompanying me for the first half of the ride. Long-time run and swim buddy Hope was there to collect all my gear and drive my car to the town green, where she and run buddy Dawn would set up the aid station for the bike and run. Transition time: 14 minutes.
A good ride is the key to a good Ironman. Most decent swimmers can complete the swim relatively easily (I’m a slow swimmer but still didn’t have much trouble with it), and you can walk giant chunks of the run and still finish before the cutoff time — as long as you finish the ride in a reasonable amount of time. 112 miles on a bike is a serious chunk of distance, and there are lots of ways to mess it up. You can ride too hard and have nothing left for the run. You can go too slow and take too many breaks. You can crash, or have mechanical issues. You can neglect your nutrition and have nothing left for the end of the race. Your bike can be improperly fitted, or too aggressive in its setup, making the ride painful and setting yourself up for failure.
I have a pretty aggressive setup on my triathlon bike. I bought it for sheer speed and aerodynamics as I tried to get faster on shorter events where these things matter more than comfort. But it was also designed to go the distance in a full Ironman, so I had trained myself to get used to the aggressive riding position, gradually gaining the ability to ride 100+ miles in the awkward aero position.
My plan was to try to average about a 19.5 mph pace, using a power meter to monitor my efforts. Over 200 watts was definitely not going to be sustainable on a ride this long, so I watched and dialed it back when I started pushing too hard. However, on my training rides I always stopped the timer for traffic lights and breaks. This time the clock would keep running, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to maintain that pace when all the little stops were averaged in. The course was four loops of about 27 miles each (the first was a little longer to make sure I had the required 112 miles). I also needed to consume about 36 ounces of Gatorade and a Clif Bar during each loop to make sure I had enough left in the tank for the run.
A few miles later I started work consuming my second bottle of Gatorade for the loop. Only it wasn’t Gatorade, it was water! I was the one who packed the bottles, so it was my fault, but I wanted to make sure the mistake wasn’t repeated. “Finnin, do you have a phone on you? Can you call Dawn at the aid station and make sure we get two bottles of Gatorade?” He did, but he had to stop to get it out of a Ziplock baggie, so he told me to go on alone to the aid station. He knew he wouldn’t be able to catch up to me after a stop. At the aid station, Nicole was planning on joining me as ride buddy, and Finnin would be finished anyways. I soldiered on to the aid station where Nicole joined me.
I was slowing down a bit but managed to keep the average pace around 18.8 for the ride. After a couple of technical issues (fortunately easily resolved) and witnessing a near-collision between two cars, Nicole and I completed lap 3. Only one lap to go, and two more riders — Shawn and Morgan — would be joining us. At this point, after over 100 ounces of Gatorade / water, I really needed to pee again, so I headed up the steps to the church next to the aid station. The church pastor, Peter Henry, was waiting for me at the door. “No need to mask up; there’s no one in there!” he said. He had waited after the virtual service ended just to let me in! We headed off for the last lap, our average speed down to 18.5 mph after the bathroom break. While my body was starting to break down a bit, I was cheered by our new companions. Shawn got an awesome group selfie during the ride (per Ironman rules, I did not draft behind Shawn — notice he is off to the side, not in front of me!).
The plan was to maintain a 10:18 pace as long as possible, including a built-in 1-minute walk break for each mile. If I could sustain that for the whole marathon, I’d finish it in 4.5 hours. If I slowed a bit, I might still squeak in under 5 hours, both very respectable marathon times for an Ironman. This whole section of the race was in the town of Davidson, and people were out on their porches cheering us on, and honking as they drove by. It was like one big town party, except for the part about me struggling to keep pace and keep my gimpy foot from lashing out in excruciating pain!
I held on to the pace for the entire first loop, stopping at the aid station for a super-refreshing cup of Coke and grabbing some Golden Oreos to munch as I started on Lap 2. After one bite of the Oreos I realized that was a bad idea. Fortunately Chas, who planned on pacing me for the entire run, was happy to take the extras and toss them in the next trash can along the route. Carl and Chas stayed with me on Lap 2, and we were joined by Robert and Joey, with Ben hopping in for a bit as well. I eventually abandoned my 1-minute-per-mile walking plan and started to walk on nearly every uphill, as well as some downhills. 4.5 hours wasn’t going to happen; at this point it was just about managing my effort and my pain. It started to drizzle a bit, and it was also getting dark. We passed the halfway mark with a cheer, then headed back up the hill into town. Robert dropped back to make a phone call, and we all wondered what that was about, but we soon found out. He was calling a friend and band-mate who lived along the route. The guy was on his front porch rocking out the guitar solo from “Ironman” by Black Sabbath. It was an awesome moment!
I found that I didn’t need to walk as much as I had during Lap 2. I was able to run longer between walk breaks. We were SOOO close! A mile from town, Natalie’s husband and three kids were on the side of the road cheering “GO DAVE!” With 3/4 of a mile to go, some neighbor kids I’ve never even met had chalked “DAVE, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” on the sidewalk. As we approached the finish, Chas reminded me that an actual marathon is 26.219 miles, not just 26.2. And since GPS results are sometimes rounded down, I should run 26.23 miles before stopping my watch, just to be sure. At this point, Thomas had run out from the aid station to meet us and check if anything was wrong. We sent him ahead to let them know we were on our way. Chas figured I would need to do an extra lap around the town green to be sure of the mileage, so Thomas told everyone I wouldn’t be quite done when we arrived.
Then I saw my Greta, who gave me a huge hug despite the fact that I was a sweaty, stinky mess. It was a great moment, and Dawn got a great picture of us: