The day finally arrived!
On race morning I woke up at 5:20 AM to stretch out and have a small breakfast of boiled eggs, yogurt, and an uncrustable before I headed out to the race. I carefully applied body glide to all my *ahem* sensitive areas, gathered my gear, and headed over about 6AM. It was a warm morning, about 71 degrees, which was OK because the weather was due to drop temperature in the afternoon when I’d be on the run. There was also some rain in the forecast during the bike. Again, I was OK with that so long as it didn’t create an unsafe condition.
More on that later.
I got to the transition, put my bottles on my bike, handed my special needs bags off to the volunteers, and did one more walkthrough of the transition. Then we started a roughly 1 mile walk up the river to the starting area. It was extremely pleasant, but a wind was picking up from downstream.
Louisville has a rolling start, where you self identify your anticipated swim time and then get in the water with that group. This is to avoid as much as possible fast swimmers behind slow ones. I had done a 4K swim in 1:17 in training, and planned to go easy, so I selected 1:20-1:30 to be safe. While waiting in that line, I realized I was not nervous. Then I started to get nervous about NOT being nervous, as in, was I not respecting this enough? This is how you get yourself worked up! I told myself I would be fine and to calm down.
Meanwhile, the gun went off and people started lining up. Laura and Scully stayed with me a while, then left to get to their volunteer station on the bike course. The line to start meanwhile winded around down to a boat dock, where they had everyone go on two different platforms and jump in from there (no diving!). I ended up getting in the water at just before 8:00am.
The swim course starts you upstream, but you are next to an island that shelters you from the main current. On the left, the island sits there covered in trees and not much else. On the right is clearly where rich people keep their boats. Once you come out from behind the island you are exposed to the current, and have to fight it to the red buoy, then turn and come the rest of the way downstream.
Sounds like the easy part is downstream, right?
Well, maybe most days. On this day the pleasant swim was behind the island. Very calm and beautiful in the morning twilight. Once out from behind the island you got slower, but not too bad. Then we turned…and suddenly I was in ROLLING waves from the wind. I mean, 2-3 foot waves like being in the ocean. Luckily that only lasted about half of the way, but it does make for a tough time breathing when waves smack you in the face.
In all my reading the night before I picked up a fantastic tip. Once around the island you can see downtown Louisville from the water, but you can’t see the finish. One coach had pictures from the course and gave a specific building to swim towards while in the water. This was fantastic because I never had to try and figure out the next buoy or anything–just keep swimming to the building. It worked great, and I felt confident swimming in through the rest of the course to the end.
Getting out of the water you navigate some iron stairs to the bank and then run about a quarter mile to the transition. Volunteers guided me to an area to the side and yanked my wetsuit off, and more volunteers asked me if I had any needs. This was a theme throughout the day–hundreds of volunteers, all taking the initiative to help the athletes in a way I’ve not seen before. Huge shout out to them, as at different parts of the day I was physically steadied, had my bike held while I went to the restroom or stretched, had extra help finding any specific items I needed, had help clearing away my gear bags, one even opened my 5 hour energy drink for me and threw the empty bottle away!
Checking my watch entering the change tent I realized I swam the swim in 1:10:45, MUCH faster than I thought. I took my time in transition getting my gear ready: compression socks, energy shot, food, shoes, and used the restroom. Then I hopped on my bike for my 112 mile trek.
The bike course starts out flat for about 10 miles, then starts climbing as it gets away from the river. At the river, you can see huge, old plantation style buildings that are just gorgeous. Once you turn from there, you are still in nice homes but much more recently built. I spent a lot of time telling myself to keep to the plan, which was about a 6:30 bike. I had to have enough juice for a marathon, after all.
At mile 12 I encountered my first accident, a bad one. There were a number of potholes that had been outlined in orange paint to help bikes avoid them (I’d rather they just filled them, but whatever) and this stretch had a number of them. I can only assume this biker hit one and the 4-5 bikes behind him couldn’t avoid him. I passed by with him face down and unmoving on the concrete. I hoped he was OK, but the first responders were already racing to the scene (they were luckily nearby at the time) and there was really nothing I could have done had I stopped. I pressed on.
The next part of the course was rolling hills through some of the prettiest horse country you can imagine. Huge stables and fields filled with horses. I had a bad experience with a horse when I was small so they make me nervous, but I still enjoy seeing them. At mile 21, you turn and do the first of 2 loops. This part of the course was challenging, because rollers became steep climbs and drops. There was guidance before the race to not clump up and keep 6 bike lengths between each other, but nobody listened. In fact, there were several points where people were talking to one another that I had to pass three bikes abreast just inside the yellow line. Keep in mind the road is NOT closed, so this can be pretty dangerous. It’s also dangerous because any mechanical or human failures will lead to wrecks. I saw multiple times someone threw a chain or had an issue and another biker plowed right into them.
Also at this time my bar tape started to become undone. It wasn’t a big deal, but it annoyed me and was a mental distraction the whole ride. I found myself trying to hold it in place and tuck it back together at various points. It never really held, but I was able to finish with it still useable.
At mile 25 (mile 60 on the second loop) there was an aid station. I stopped and ate some nutrition, stretched my legs, and got back on feeling really good. We wove through several small towns where I swear the whole town came out to cheer us on, some of them in just their underwear (not sure what that was about). At one point, a guy in a pirate speedo decided he was going to give the bikers who passed high-fives. In the middle of the road. Not wanting to encourage this, I tried to ride past but he slapped my shoulder and patted my saddle as I rode by, nearly knocking me over. NOT COOL. If you ever come out to spectate, don’t touch the competitors unless it’s mutual. Don’t be that guy in the speedo (easy enough for most of us).
At mile 38/73 I saw Scully and Laura on the course, which was also a nice lift. I saw them again on the second lap. Scully was a trooper, but she looked pretty bored. We got her out for some extended frisbee the next morning to make up for it.
Meanwhile, the wind was starting to pick up. We turned back on the last leg of the loop with the wind right in our face. I thought to myself about all those times I was training back in Kansas on hills and realized that I was ready for this. SO glad I did that. It was very mentally challenging as it was, and I heard many athletes comment on it later. But I pushed through, stopping at another aid station for a quick bite about mile 50. I was ready to get to my special needs bag at mile 60, which had chips, cheetos and M&Ms inside! I stuffed the M&Ms into my back pocket, swallowed the chips while stopped, and put the cheetos in my front pouch. This led to some funny moments the next 20 miles as I munched cheetos out of my front pouch and wiped the cheeto fingers on my leg. I saw many riders glance at me, realize what I had, and get a little jealous (or disgusted, they look about the same at that point).
At mile 62 I said to myself, just one more half-century to go. No problem! Then I laughed at how ludicrous that sounded. I think I was a little loopy by then.
By the time we got back to the turn home the second time the wind was really, really strong and the rain was coming in full force. It was a torrent by the time I passed the mile 50/85 aid station. I had planned to stop, but the wind at that point was so strong it was blowing the volunteer tents away. I mean literally, right as I passed they were toppling into the road. That, plus the fact it was at the base of a hill and I didn’t want to try to regain momentum in those conditions uphill, led me to just push past. This means I couldn’t eat the nutrition out of my back pouch, so I decided to eat the M&Ms. This posed a challenge however, because the wind was blowing EVERYONE all over the road, and it was all you could do to not veer 1) off the road 2) into someone else or 3) into oncoming traffic, which was becoming pretty steady. I could not get the ziplock bag open to save my life, so I improvised and tore a hole in the corner with my teeth, and spent the next 5 miles sucking them out of the hole one by one. It worked!
The last part of the ride was really dangerous because the roads were slick and it was mostly downhill with lots of speed. This especially becomes a problem when you are trying to not plow into either oncoming traffic or slower riders, but you don’t want to give up speed either because that lowers the energy you have to output. It’s a tough balance. Branches and other objects from overhanging trees were everywhere and tough to avoid. We tried to point them out to each other as we saw them, but the rain had clouded my glasses to the point I couldn’t see very far ahead. I heard a story later about a branch breaking off and taking out 2 riders. Pretty scary. Plus at this point my back derailleur was acting up and not shifting clean, probably from my hitting a few pieces of debris.
I stopped at the mile 100 aid station and had a scary moment when my hamstring cramped up on me as soon as I stood off the bike. It went away after a few seconds, but my race flashed in front of my eyes. I had some more to eat, cleaned the rain off my glasses, and carried on.
As I rolled back into town I was glad I was going to make it out of the bike without a true mechanical issue–many, many other bikers were not so lucky. Laura reported a van filled with bikes of those that didn’t make it, and I saw at least a dozen myself by the side of the road on the course. I finished in 6:37, which was a great success to be only 7 minutes off my goal, considering my many stops and the weather.
When I got back to the transition a volunteer took my bike and racked it for me, which was a first for me in 50+ triathlons. I had the feeling they’d all been coached that we would be on the edge of exhaustion and need all the help they could give to avoid unnecessary movement. My spirits were high, because I knew I had this–I came in at 4PM, and had 8 and a half hours before I would not be allowed to finish (We had 16:30 to finish from our start time). I joked with the guys in the tent that “I think we may have overdone our warmup for this marathon!” After putting my bike stuff in the bag, an attentive volunteer tied it up for me and whisked it away. I set out to see if I could add a marathon to everything else I had done so far.
It was a really neat run course. A few miles were downtown, then into a historic district with beautiful homes, then into the University of Louisville, then past a slightly seedy area to Churchill Downs, then out into suburbia to the turn around. We did two laps like that. It was enjoyably flat. It was also cool, in the high 50s, and the rain had mostly stopped. Perfect running weather.
I had hoped to make a 9-10 minute mile pace when running, and was prepared to walk a lot of it if needs be. My target was 5 hours. I’d run marathons in 3:40, but I knew this wasn’t like any other marathon I’d ever ran and I needed to not expect that kind of time. I set up my apple watch to track the run and realized by mile 1 I was rabbiting, so I slowed the pace up considerably. Still, the whole trip out I had plenty of energy and no issues at all running a comfortable 9 minute mile.
I kept telling myself to slow and remember I was running a marathon AFTER 114.4 miles of other stuff. I started playing a little game mentally. Since the bike was fresh in my mind, and the run was roughly 1/4 the distance, each time I came to a mile marker I multiplied by 4 and thought “this approximates the same distance on the bike”. I remembered where I was on the bike and it kept me aware just how much I had to go. It also gave my mind something to do.
After the turn I cruised back and mentally started checking off landmarks I had passed on the way out. “There’s the purple bus on the side of the road”. “There’s the fish sandwich joint”. “There’s the aid station populated entirely by sorority women from UL”. “There’s the burger joint in an old streetcar”. “There’s the guy dressed as a slice of bacon”. Etc. Doing that shortens the run in an odd way, since you aren’t running 26.2 at once, you’re just running to the next landmark. Oh the games you play to keep your mind off what you are doing.
And by the way, never come to an IM dressed as a slice of bacon. I might have been willing to kill to have a slice of bacon at that point. Very, very dangerous.
At mile 11 Mark joined me. Mark was a veteran of Ironman and we chatted for about a mile and a half about prior races and such before he veered off to the restroom. It was a nice break from the internal monologue, but I was also glad when he left because I knew the second half of this run I would need my focus. But meanwhile, as I turned towards the finish line only to veer off for a second lap, I knew I had it. I had walked only through aid stations and only by design, never by necessity. I had plenty of energy. I had enough time that I could walk the last lap if needs be. I was going to be an Ironman. I just had to keep moving.
After the turn for lap 2 there were the runner special needs bags. I grabbed my snacks out of it and wolfed down the M&Ms inside. This is where my body started to shut down. All along the course I had seen people cramping up, vomiting etc. I knew I had been on point with my hydration so cramping wasn’t an issue, and I didn’t need to vomit, but I realized that I felt very bloated and I think it was because my body was no longer digesting properly. This meant I had to be very, very careful the next 12 miles. I had to keep putting stuff into my body, but if I did too much I could cause a serious problem and derail my race (vomiting can absolutely wreck you at that point of an event).
I tried to eat a few chips at mile 17 along with some water, and got them down, but the feeling of bloat just got worse. I tried gatorade, red bull, orange slices, anything for a few calories that wasn’t solid. I wanted to burp. I wanted to do anything to relieve the pressure. I carried on since it wasn’t really affecting my run. I was starting to feel pain in my feet from the pounding, and stiffness in my knees. At the mile 19 aid station I for the first time had trouble going back into a run after walking it. But I was able to do it.
By mile 22 the slowing down of my nutrient intake was taking it’s toll. I started telling myself to reel in the next mile marker, the next aid station, then I could walk a bit. I started repeating to myself what I wanted so bad to finish this: to make all the training worthwhile. To get the tattoo. To get my finisher shirt and hat. To be able to wear the stuff I bought at the expo without guilt. To be an Ironman. To not have to explain to everyone “what happened” if I failed. Anything I could recite as a reason I started reciting like a mantra.
Meanwhile, I was WAY ahead of the 5 hours I had planned for the marathon. I was crushing it. I was OWNING it. But that last 4 miles was tough!
Finally I passed mile marker 26 and ran the rest of the way. I could hear the music. More and more spectators were cheering. I could see the finish in my mind from when I passed it a few hours earlier. I was ready to be done.
I got it in sight and I really don’t remember much. I started to cry a bit as I ran down the carpet. I cry a bit now thinking about it. There were hundreds of people down there, cheering, pounding the walls, yelling us home. It was all the adrenaline I needed to finish. A few people passed me and I let them, because I wanted to cross alone. It was MY moment. I got to the end in 12:29:26 (slightly before 8:30PM), raised my hands in the air, and knew I was an Ironman.
Good thing I knew it without help too, because in all of it I never heard “George Widenor, you are an Ironman” from the announcer. Probably best. He said my name wrong from what I understand.
A great volunteer wrapped me in a foil blanket, got me water, fetched my medal, hat and shirt for me and walked me over to take my picture. Very friendly and a nice way to guide disoriented folks to where they needed to go. He was awesome, like all the volunteers.
I got some hot post-race food (beef stew, cornbread, fries), headed back to the hotel, and then the body started to not cooperate. I couldn’t stand up properly. I couldn’t shower. I needed help taking off my stuff. I couldn’t even walk.
It didn’t matter.
I was finally an Ironman.
Edit: Photos added!