It’s been almost two weeks since I raced my first Ironman in Louisville, KY. I am back at home, my parents have gone back to France, and it’s time to write up my post-race blog.
First things first: modifying the title of my blog! It is no longer “Pablo Torres, you are [going to be] an Ironman”! It is now “Pablo Torres, you are an Ironman.” That’s right! I’ve earned the title. Ironically, as much as I wanted to hear those words during my eight months of training, I didn’t actually hear them when I crossed the finish line. Between the exhilaration and excitement of the Fourth Street Live finishing chute and the never-before-experienced state of exhaustion, I simply did not register those words. At least I have the finish line video replay (race clock 11:32:45) to hear them as many times as I want!
I wondered what to write about in this blog post. I decided not to make this a race/course review. There’s plenty of them out there — videos included — for all those considering IM Louisville 2015 (here’s Gabi’s). I would, however, like to reflect on some of the thoughts and emotions I experienced during the race, how I performed, and how my views on racing Ironman have evolved having now finished my first.
Perhaps the time to start is the night before the race. I don’t know how many times I heard people say to get a good night sleep two nights before the race because the night before I wasn’t going to get any sleep. This didn’t prove to be the case for me. I slept well, about 6.5 hours. To me, having brushed the nerves and anxiety aside that night was an indication that I felt confident about my upcoming race. My nutrition that morning went down just fine, another sign that my stomach was not a knot of anxiety.
The next part of the day which I found to be one of the most emotionally-loaded moments of my Ironman journey was the single-file walk towards the swim start after the 7am cannon went off. [Note: IM Louisville has a unique swim start one-at-a-time off docks based on the order of arrival in line.] As the line started to move and the music electrifyied athletes and spectators, my heart and spirit were pumping with emotions. Without the race having even started, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment after eight months of arduous training. As my sister said to me, no matter what happens on race day, I was already an Ironman. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, I felt a sense of disbelief of the challenge I was about to take on, and uncertainty about what the day would bring. Above all, pride and excitement were sky high, and I could not wait to jump in that water and go become an Ironman.
The first third of the swim was in a narrow channel against a strong upstream current. Despite the single-file start, the channel got busy quickly and I found myself in a combat swimming situation. This raised my stress levels in a way I had not anticipated from looking at all the swim videos beforehand. Lucky for me, swimming is my forte and I managed to swim through the crowds (and unfortunately sometimes over the crowds it seemed) with strength and without hesitation.
As I rounded the buoy out of the channel and onto the downstream section of the swim, I knew the first leg of Ironman was in the bag. Swimmers spaced out and I was blazing by the buoys thanks to the strong river current. I decided to enjoy myself, take it all in, relax my body with smooth and long swim strokes, and I had another “I am doing an Ironman!!!” moment. I came out of the water, looked at my watch and clocked 56 mins for a 2.4mi swim. The current had a lot to do with that, but I’ll take it any day as motivation for what was to come.
Off I went onto the bike leg. I knew that if I stuck to my training pace, the 112mi course profile would actually be easier than some of my training rides. I also kept telling myself that I wouldn’t actually start racing until the later half of the marathon. The bike was just a long steady-pace bike ride I need to get done. I was never concerned about my fitness, and I never got overly focused on speed nor time. I did have two concerns to keep my head in the moment during the bike leg. The first one was safety. Being a two-loop bike course, other cyclists were always near me and the thought of a careless accident putting a sad ending to my Ironman journey kept me alert. This was particularly true for an out-and-back road in the early section of the course, which included a big downhill notorious as an accident-prone area. My second concern was having a major mechanical failure with my bike (broken chain, etc.) which would sideline me from the course for an unknown period of time until bike support passed through. At one point in the last 20 miles of the bike, I stopped to give a fellow athlete fixing a flat one of my CO2 cartridges. I figured this would earn me some road karma for the rest of the bike leg. Not so however, as I dropped my chain soon after and experienced some difficulties with sticky brakes, though I was able to resolve the situation promptly.
As all my training rides, the last hour of the bike was downright painful, not from fatigue, but from the discomfort of being on the saddle for so long. Part of me really wanted to dump my bike in the Ohio river once I reached the transition area! By this point in the race I felt I had been executing my race strategy flawlessly, sticking to my predicted pace and nailing my nutrition. I didn’t spend too much time celebrating my accomplishment on the bike however. Any excitement was quickly overridden by the overwhelming grandiosity of the run challenge that lied ahead.
It was about 2:30pm, the sun was high in the sky, and the afternoon heat index was 98-100 degrees. My marathon strategy was to “jog” the first six miles at 30 seconds/mile slower than race pace, then run a steady race pace through mile 20 or so, and then giving it all I had left in the tank for the last six miles. The first six miles seemed laborious considering they were the easiest part of the run. I did manage however to pick up my pace after mile six, and this gave me a boost in confidence. My hopes of holding a steady pace eventually faded though, as my pace climbed above what I was used to in training. I sorted my thoughts and accepted this fact. I felt some disappointment, but overcame it with another “I am going to be an Ironman, who cares that the pace is slower than expected!” moment.
In miles 17ish-23ish I encountered some of the greatest mind-over-body challenges I have ever confronted. They were a test of will like no other. Arriving at each aid station, I walked 30-45 seconds to take in my nutrition and shower myself in ice cold water, as planned. Then came the challenge of starting to run again to the next aid station. However, my body wanted me to walk a little longer at the end of each aid station. I had to find the mental toughness to overcome these signals and start running again despite a level of fatigue never before experienced. I had to find the right message in my brain to override the fatigue and the achiness. I am not sure one can practice for this moment, seeing how the level of fatigue is non-replicable in training. It seems only racing experience prepares an athlete for these moments of the race. Lucky for me, I found a convincing message in my head that got me going after each aid station. I told myself “the sooner you start running and the faster you run, the sooner the hurt will end and the sooner you will be an Ironman.” I don’t know where this message came from, but it worked. I kept running when I had to, and I passed 133 runners during the marathon. Not only did I find the will to get going at the end of those aid stations between miles 17-23, but I also found the strength to pick up my pace in the last 2-3 miles of the race, running past the last aid station or two.
Running down the finishing chute was one of the most glorious and satisfying moments of my life. I felt enormous pride, a tremendous sense of accomplishment, of being at the top of the world, all eyes on me, my moment. I double-handed high fived the spectators on one side and raised my arms in victory crossing the finish line. No more than a few steps after I found it necessary to support myself on volunteers to prevent me from collapsing to the ground. I was overwhelmed by the realization of what I had just accomplished. Moments later I regained my strength, only to succumb to my emotions. Tears came pouring down my eyes, in great part from the happiness of having my parents and in-laws present at the finish line, and my sister on the phone in the middle of the night Berlin time.
Conversations soon followed about how I felt, my time splits, the opportunities we got to see each other along the course, and how my parents and in-laws survived a long day of spectating in the Kentucky summer heat. Amazingly, I found the energy to retrieve my gear from transition and walk a mile back to the condo we were renting. I showered and came right back out to the finish line, awaiting for Gabi’s arrival. She finished around 10:30pm and we hung out at the Fourth Street Live finish line to wait for the midnight finishers. I knew my body was exhausted, but the energy of the Lousville Ironman finish line made me put aside my aches and pains. The moment belonged to those crossing the finish line, and it was time to give them all my support, including and especially to those who didn’t make the midnight cutoff.
I couldn’t be any more pleased with my race performance. I executed my race plan almost flawlessly, finishing within four minutes of my estimated time in 11 hours and 19 minutes. To my pleasant surprise, I placed 198 overall out of 2300+ participants, or within the top 10%. I placed 35th in my age group. The swim, bike, and first half of the marathon were relatively easy — I just had to “get them done.” The race didn’t really start until the second half of the marathon. Even then, I didn’t see it as a race against other athletes as much as a race against myself, a mental battle like no other. I managed to find the mental toughness to run when I had to, and this translated into rewarding race results.
Will I do it again? Most likely. I don’t want to think I will never be as fit in my life again. Next year? Definitely not. Triathlons are a lifestyle and competing in an Ironman is the greatest journey and feeling in the world!
This blog post would not be complete without a big thank you to all my family members and friends who supported me and kept me motivated throughout the long months of training and on race day. I am enormously grateful to my parents for coming all the way from France to support me on race day. I feel very lucky to have had them there. The same goes for my sister, who couldn’t make it in person but who was present throughout the day through her pre-race video, letters and skype calls. Thank you to everyone who followed me online on race day. I knew you were watching and I tried to put up the best performance for ya! Thank you to all those DC Tri friends I trained with, including a special shout out to Mauricio B. for the several long rides, Adam S. for keeping me company on my first 100K AND 100mile rides, and John W. for “coming along” for 110miles on my peak training weekend. Those were tough training days and I couldn’t have done it alone. As for all my other non-triathlete friends whom I have neglected this year, I promise to catch up now that I am getting my social life back!
Anything is possible if you set your mind to it — Pablo.