Don’t Panic: My Ironman Santa Rosa Race Report

At some point during the three-hour drive I undertook with my wife, Nataki, from our home in Oakdale, California, to Santa Rosa last Thursday I came up with a motto for the Ironman I would race two days later: Don’t panic. The phrase arrived out of the blue, as they say, but it did not come out of nowhere. For I have long believed that the primary job of an athlete’s mind during an endurance race is to accept, embrace, and address reality as it prevents itself, and panicking is pretty close to the opposite of that. One of the biggest mental mistakes a racer can make is to hope everything goes his way and then wish things were going his way when they inevitably don’t. This is all the more true in an Ironman.

Sure enough, lots of things did not go my way on Saturday. The first notable setback befell me midway through the swim, when my calves cramped (an all-too-common occurrence for me), resulting in a second-loop split (34:03) that was waaay slower than my promising first-loop split (31:49). Remembering my motto, however, I brushed off the disappointment and moved on to T1, where I spent a freaking eternity wrestling a pair of thermal sleeves onto my wet arms. After experiencing a close brush with hypothermia during a reconnaissance ride of the bike course two weeks before, I thought that packing the sleeves in my transition bag was a smart idea. In hindsight, it was not. Not only did the effort to don them inflate my swim-bike transition time to a humiliating seven minutes and change, but I ended up overheating fairly early in the ride because of the damn things and scrunching them down to my wrists, where they created a noticeable amount of wind drag.

This happened after I discovered that ALL of my Maurten energy gels had fallen out of my tri suit pockets and before I was flagged with a five-minute drafting penalty. Regarding the latter, let me just state for the record that I did not draft with cheating intent. The violation (which I do not dispute) occurred when a fellow racer overtook me on a hill climb and then sort of bogged down in front of me. At that point the only way I could stay within the rules was to essentially stop pedaling and allow six bike lengths to open between us, but I REALLY didn’t want to stop pedaling on a relatively steeply pitched ascent, and I figured you can’t gain much of a slipstream advantage on a climb anyway, so I stayed close behind the other guy until we summited and then let him drift ahead. And that’s when the course marshal pulled up next to me.

Still, I didn’t panic. By way of making the best of the five-minute forced intermission (which did not actually take place until I came to the next penalty tent, positioned at Mile 91—some 40 miles beyond where I received my blue card), I gobbled a few PowerBar slices and peed in my shorts. Someone’s five- or six-year-old son was hanging out under the penalty tent and saw the puddle forming at my feet.

“Someone spilled something,” he said innocently.

“It’s called multitasking, kid,” I said.

When at last I reached T2, another kindergartener fetched my run bag for me, except it was not my run bag but another athlete’s. I may have shouted a little in repeating my race number to the well-meaning but perhaps underqualified towhead (he’d heard 1625 instead of 1645 the first time), but I swear I wasn’t panicking. Nor did I panic when, less than a mile into the marathon, I developed intense pain on the bottoms of both feet. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and the only possible explanation I can come up with is that it was a bad reaction to the carbon plates embedded in the midsole of the Nike Vaporfly 4% racing flats I was wearing, though I had no issues with them in the two interval workouts and the half marathon I’d run in the same pair. Whatever the reason, I felt as if I were running on matching sets of 26 broken bones. Not a pleasant experience, to be sure, but I told myself that I wasn’t actually injured and if I could simply tolerate the pain I’d survive.

From that point on the only significant challenge I faced was the one that every Ironman participant faces: mounting fatigue. I sensed early, however, that I was at no risk of hitting the wall as long as I paced myself sensibly and kept on top of my nutrition. I covered the first half marathon in 1:37:00 and lost only a little momentum over the second half, which I completed three minutes slower. This got me to the finish line in 9:48:06, good for 50thplace overall and seventh in the insanely competitive men’s 45-49 age group.

A part of me would love to have a second chance at this one, but a bigger part of me is quite satisfied with both my performance and the overall experience. I was almost totally in control of my thoughts and emotions from start to finish, and I used this control not only to make the best of an everchangingly imperfect situation but also to maximize my enjoyment of the race, and I truly did enjoy myself out there. To have attained this level of self-mastery in competition is especially satisfying for me given how mentally weak I once was, as any reader of Life Is a Marathon knows.

As old as I am, and as long as I’ve been training and competing, my passion to test my physical and mental limits remains undimmed, in part because I believe I can go even further in this journey, at least on the mental side. I’m already plotting my next adventure, but that’s a story for another time.