I chose Beach2Battleship in Wilmington, NC as the venue for my first Iron distance triathlon based on a number of factors. First, the location is much less likely to experience hot weather on race day, as opposed to Ironman Florida, which is on the same date. The course is known to be more or less flat and the swim takes place in the a channel of the Intracoastal Waterway where the tide is usually coming in at the start of swim, so swim times are generally a little shorter. Since swimming is my weakest discipline, I figured that this was probably the best event for me for a fall race. Factor in that my training essentially fell apart during the summer (after being sent twice to Hungary on business) and a course with no real hills or heat, combined with a bit of a current on the swim, and I had the perfect venue for my first Ironman triathlon.
Having arrived in Wilmington, NC and checking in at packet pickup on Thursday, Jen and I went to the athlete’s meeting and then back to the hotel to set up my transition bags and special needs bags. I had organized all of
these items at home, but felt the need to walk through it all again now that I was onsite — maybe it was nerves — before bagging the items up and taking them to the drop-off location. It was difficult to decide what I needed to take since the air temperature would be cooler than I was used to swimming or biking in so I didn’t have a lot of context on which to make decisions about gear needs. Once completed, I racked the bike and headed over to T1 to drop everything off.
Nutrition is another area that I wished I had been more prepared for as the race grew nearer. A friend of mine preached Hammer products to me and a few weeks before the event, I learned that the aid stations on the course
would all have Hammer products. I used the BikeMS (event for Multiple Sclerosis Society) as a test run for my nutrition and was very pleased with the Perpetuem product.
My day would start with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a 20 oz. (roughly) Gatorade for breakfast. I would mix a bottle of HEED to sip on during the pre-race hours and up until the start of the swim. On the bike, I would consume two three-hour bottles of Perpetuem (two scoops per hour, based on my body weight of 180 pounds) and the occasional solid food if I felt so inclined. I mostly carried solid foods (Cliff Shot Blocks) for the taste rather than as an active part of my nutrition plan. I also carried another peanut butter and jelly sandwich in case I felt like eating. I did not count on this nutrition, but I knew that my stomach could handle it with no problems. I would stop taking on any solids at least one hour or 20 miles before the end of the bike course, and my goal was to have the last of Perpetuem consumed about this time as well, moving on to only water for hydration purposes.
Once on the run, I planned to use Hammer gels every 45-50 minutes as needed, making sure to always have at least two with me in the pocket of my triathlon jersey. I actually found that during the run, I consumed only four Hammer gels, though I took on several cups of warm chicken broth and flat cola, as well as several pretzels. I felt at the start of the run as though my body had started metabolizing fats for energy (i.e. hitting the “wall”) so I had an unplanned Cliff Shot Block as I came out of T2.
I had difficulty sleeping the night before the race, much like before my first marathon. Oddly, I slept fine for every marathon after that one, so I’m sure this is just a “first race” nerves issue. Regardless, after lying down at 8:00PM, it was after 1:00AM when I fell asleep. Given that my wakeup time was 4:00AM, I knew this would likely come back to haunt me later.
I got up at 4:00AM and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drank a water bottle of Gatorade while I got dressed. During this time, I mixed two bottles of Perpetuem for the bike and mixed a bottle of HEED to sip on before the swim start. Heading out 5:00AM, I met up with my training buddy, Rob, down in the lobby to ride in to the transition area where his wife, Brandi, was going to drop us off. As Jen walked me down to the lobby, she handed me a booklet and told me to read it once I was waiting to go to the swim start.
We drove the 10-minute drive over to the transition area and went through body-marking and I took my water bottles to the bike. I was cold, despite wearing a pair of warm-up pants, a pair of thick socks, and a sweatshirt. I got into my wetsuit and took out the booklet Jen had given me. She had asked a number of friends to write words of encouragement, personal stories, or words of advice, and compiled them in a booklet for me to read. Some were runners I had coached in the Team In Training program, others were friends from work, many were fellow members of the Hammerheads Triathlon Club. A couple of them were personal heroes that I’ve admired since I started racing. By the time I was on the shuttle arriving at the swim start in Wiltshire Beach, I was teary-eyed, but felt like I had a hundred friends with me as I started the biggest challenge of my life.
The swim is a mass start from the beach in Wrightsville and the full-distance event participants start at 7:00AM, an hour and a half ahead of the half-distance participants. There was a camera crew following around behind Jaron Tate, who was apparently a contestant on some season of The Biggest Loser. The air temperature was around 36F and while the water was certainly warmer, the sand on which we were standing was very cold and made my feet hurt. When it was time for the start, we all headed into the water, which was pleasant with a wetsuit. I saw one guy with only a pair of triathlon shorts – there’s one in every bunch, I suppose.
Once in the water, I was actually very comfortable. I focused on swimming intervals of freestyle and breaststroke for as much of the first half of the swim as possible. I hadn’t been in the pool since late May or early June (five months) and the swim went similar to how I expected. I swam most of the second half of the course in breaststroke, coming out of the water in 1:17.
The swim ends at a marina dock in the channel and athletes run about a quarter-mile to the transition area. A number of athletes stashed shoes just off the dock so that they could wear them across the marina parking lot and down the road to T1, but I didn’t bother doing this. I figured that while the ground would be cold, but it actually wasn’t bad at all. I bypassed the wetsuit strippers because I am pretty good at getting out of it on my own and didn’t really want to lie on the cold ground.
I saw my wife and her family (her mother had come down from New Jersey to watch and her brother and his girlfriend drove over from Charlotte) as I ran down the road, which made me happy.
Heading into the changing tent in T1, I grabbed my T1 bag, which had all of my swim-to-bike gear. I had packed cold-weather gear based on the forecast, so I ended up donning a long-sleeve running shirt under my cycling jersey, tights over my cycling shorts (I opted to wear cycling shorts rather than triathlon shorts, which I wouldn’t do on a shorter course) and a fleece-lined skullcap. I tossed my wetsuit and swim suit into the bag with my cap and goggles, left them for a volunteer, and headed out to get my bike.
I headed out onto the bike course feeling good and looking forward to the next six hours. The weather forecast was promising with a slight head wind of 0-2 miles per hour, which you would hardly feel. About the time we were turning around to head back into Wilmington, the wind was forecast to increase to 5-7 miles per hour, making for a nice tail wind to help push me back home. [average info]
I saw Jen and her family around mile 25 and stopped for about one minute to say ‘hello’, get a kiss for good luck, taking time to brag about how I was totally going to average a faster speed than I had originally planned due to the wind. Heading off as quickly as I had stopped, I got back on the road and settled in for the ride.
When you’re in an Iron distance triathlon, you aren’t allowed to draft (except at Ironman Florida — from what I’ve seen, it must be allowed there) and you are basically alone for the 112 miles. My point is not that this isn’t OK, but that there’s nothing to do except watch the scenery of the bike course and stare at your cycling computer. I use a Garmin Edge 705 which gives me tons of data while I ride, so I spent much of the time doing math and realizing what great time I was making. I think this probably helped me ignore the fact that there was more than a 0-2 mph head wind, as it was probably more like 3-5 mph.
As we cycled across the northern part of the course to head back south to Wilmington, I stopped at Bike Special Needs to change out anything that I had packed for the bike course. This bag is intended to hold any special items that are available in the aid stations on the bike course. I packed basic First Aid items (Alleve, sun block, Band-Aids, etc.) as well as an extra water bottle with extra Perpetuem nutrient solution (in case I dropped and spilled one of the bottles on my bike) and a HeadSweats cool cap. I traded my fleece-lined skullcap for the cool cap and headed off, only staying about a minute. It’s worth noting that some of the volunteers from the Navy were on the course just before this stop with two-way radios and when I pulled up to the aid station, someone was calling me over to them and holding my bag out to me before I even unclipped from my pedals. The volunteer support in this event was absolutely stellar.
As I was turning south toward Wilmington, I noticed not only that the wind was quite faster than 5-7 mph, but that it now seemed to be coming out of the south. I continued to power into the wind hoping that it would slow or change directions again, but it didn’t. Suddenly I had a lot of time to watch my speed and do more math. It wasn’t pleasant as I figured out that I was actually going to go closer to seven hours than to six. Every flag that I cycled past was standing straight out and facing toward the direction from which I was coming – well, except for the many Confederate flags which were all laying limp.
This is about the time that my lack of sleep from the prior night came back to haunt me. I could feel myself getting sleepy despite the adrenaline of the event. There were times that I recall wishing I could just close my eyes for a few minutes, despite the fact that I was cycling. I felt as though I should be at the end of a really bad, long day, rather than finishing a bike course and preparing to start a marathon. Ugh, a marathon.
I think the biggest hit to the psyche is the math. I got so excited that I was going to come in faster than I expected that dealing with the wind and recalculating the time took a real toll on my mental state. There were times that a gust of wind would slow me to 14.5 mph and really nothing I could do about it. I saw a couple of groups go by that were in outright pelotons and it made me furious. Not only would they keep their time low, but they would expend less energy than I would even at the speed I was traveling. Regardless, I kept my head down and continued pedaling until I saw my wife at mile 107.
Seeing my wife again, even though only for a few seconds, helped and I headed out to finish the last few miles of the bike course and start on the dreaded marathon. I did not want to admit to my wife that I secretly worried I would walk the entire marathon. The last mile of the bike course was a monster bridge that was not only long but quite steep. It was amazing how miserable those few minutes felt. I turned the corner and headed into T2 (at the Battleship Park where the USS North Carolina is a floating museum), handing off my bike to a volunteer, grabbing my bike-to-run bag, and heading into the change tent. My final time on the bike was 6:50, almost an hour longer than I had at one point thought.
I changed out of cycling shorts and a jersey (including sleeves and tights) and put on triathlon shorts and a triathlon singlet. I took time to dry my feet completely and put on fresh socks, and then put on my running shoes. I took a couple of Alleve since I was starting to feel a headache coming on during the last hour or so of the bike and headed out of the tent. My official time for T2 was 14:24. I didn’t feel like I took any longer in this transition than the one earlier that day.
I ran out of transition feeling basically like I had hit a wall. Unlike in my first couple of marathons when I would get grumpy and miserable, I typically just get hazy vision and a craving for greasy food when I hit a wall these days. No sooner was I out of T2 than I started to feel this way. I stopped briefly in a portable bathroom and made my way out of the Battleship Park onto the run course.
The run course consists of two loops of an out-and-back course, so you run out 6.5 miles and back (where the Run Special Needs bags are handed out) and then do it again to finish up the marathon. Miles 1 and 2 are both huge bridges (who does that to people?!) and by definition, so were miles 12 and 12, and 25 and 26. It was pretty miserable climbing the bridges and I probably spent more time at the first aid station than I should have. Once I got something cold to drink and started running again, I began to feel better.
Throughout the run, I continually felt better and better. The first loop was a little warm since the sun was still high, though I knew the temperatures would drop quickly as the day went progressed. I made the turnaround in mile 6 and headed back toward the midpoint, slowing enough to tell my wife that I would maintain a 3:00 half-marathon pace at the slowest, putting me through the Finish Line in less than six hours. It dawned on me as I left her that perhaps I was being a tad ambitious that my pace would remain the same (or close to the same) as it was at only nine or ten miles into the course. One thing that continued to resonate in my mind was that only did a couple of long runs since starting my training for
this event in May and the longer of those two runs was ten miles. I worried that things could still fall apart on the run.
The temperature was dropping quickly and I was getting cold (I had put on a pair of running gloves not long after turning around at mile 6), so I grabbed some items from my Run Special Needs bag. I pulled on a pair of sleeves, stuffed a knit cap in my triathlon singlet pocket, and ditched my visor and sunglasses. Heading back out, I decided that I would start taking chicken broth at the aid stations, the thought of which had completely repulsed me prior to the race. I learned quickly that as the evening got colder, the chicken broth got better. I had only taken a couple of small cups of HEED on the run, so starting on the second half of the course, I took a cup of chicken broth, a cup of flat cola, and two pretzels at almost every aid station. I ran through a couple of them without stopping.
As I made my way through the last leg of the marathon, I noticed that my run intervals were getting significantly faster, usually at about 9:45/mi or so. During this six-mile stretch, I was able to make up about ten minutes of time on the course and was ahead of my mental schedule as I headed down the second of the two bridges toward the Battleship Park. As I turned into the park, a couple women from the UNC track team joined me and told me they were going to run in with me for the last quarter-mile and continued to say encouraging things to me as they did. At one point I told them that I needed to walk, but realized as soon as I slowed that I actually needed to keep running. We all laughed about that and as I headed into the Finish Chute, they congratulated me again and then broke off to go back to their waiting area for another runner.
As I ran the last 100 yards or so, I could hear my wife and our family screaming for me. I actually felt better at this point than any other time during the run, and probably could have gone on a bit longer, I think. That said, I was damn glad that it was over.
I came in at 5:48 for the marathon, certainly slower than my previous standalone marathons, but given that I started running approximately 115 miles into the course, I’m fine with the time.
After gathering my transition bags, we headed back to the hotel so I could take a quick shower and put on compression gear. We caught a water taxi that left within minutes of our arrival at the dock and dropped us at the hotel dock only moments later. The post-race transportation was apparently a problem at times last year (the inaugural event) but things seemed to flow very smoothly this year.
We went out for Italian and I had wonderful lasagna that I couldn’t eat more than a quarter of for some reason. I stayed in compression gear as we came back to the hotel and was asleep in less than a minute after lying down. I remember telling Jen after my shower that I felt no worse than after running a marathon, opting to not even take an ice bath, which I usually do after any run longer than 18 or 20 miles. I woke up the following morning and was trying to make my way to the bathroom when I realized that I didn’t quite feel as great as I did when I came back to the hotel. I was pretty sure my quads would explode before I made it across the room, but that soreness wore off over the next few days and I was pretty much back to normal by Wednesday.
Also of notable interest, the elevation gain on the bike was 1,219 feet and I burned approximately 6,775 calories. On the run, the gain was 3,561 feet and I burned another 2,728 calories.
About the Race
One last word about Setup Events and the Beach2Battleship triathlon. This was my first Iron distance event, but certainly not my first triathlon. To date, this is the best run event that I’ve seen with excellent support from the company that runs it and the most fantastic set of volunteers I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across. There were two volunteers for every three athletes and it showed. I would highly recommend this race for anyone looking to do their first full or half-Ironman event and would also urge anyone interested in their other venues (Setup presents approximately 150 events per year) to consider doing those as well.