||Becoming an Ironman-Western Australia
My Ironman Experience
A year ago while riding on PCH and after completing my first half-Ironman race in Big Kahuna, I was convinced that I had what it took to complete a full Ironman distance race and felt that by choosing Western Australia I would have plenty of time to plan and prepare for the race. Deciding to do my first Ironman in a far away distant place to an exotic location was part of the motivation to try the ultimate test in triathlon. There are many lessons I learned about myself, about the sport of triathlon and about the people around me. Choosing Western Australia as my first Ironman distance race was probably the best decision I made. I had the support of my family and many of my friends. In the process I also made many new friends, especially from LA Tri Club.
Not really knowing anyone who would be in Western Australia. I made my arrangements with Tri Travel who specializes in putting together travel plans for triathletes. They helped me plan an itinerary and brought together a diverse group of people from all over the world at different levels of experience; the group included those of us who were doing our first Ironman to some who were doing their 10th. Accommodations ranged from 3 star motels up to 5 star resorts. We had a packed itinerary with group runs, swims, and fun outings. It was great to network with people from different parts of the world including New Zealand, South Africa, Dubai, England, France and the U.S. Race organizers get an A plus for their planning and organization. The pre-race festivities and events associated with the race were so well tuned with attention to detail that it felt like this race had been going on for years. The entire experience was enjoyable and was made memorable by the planners. A few days before the race organizers of the race made kayakers were available on the swim for those wanting to practice any portion of the swim. The first time I swam on the course, I only went for about 25 minutes and the second time I swam for an hour. When I got to the end of the jetty, I knew that if we had a windy race day, it would be difficult to swim through the swells. Although the bike course was not closed during the week, there was light traffic that allowed anyone on the course safely. And of course, the run along the coast through shaded trees on the west end of the jetty and the beautiful coast on the east end made it easy to practice the course a few days before.
When you first arrive in Busselton, Western Australia you marvel at the beauty of the Geographe Bay and its clear warm waters. You find it hard to believe anyone would want to build such a long jetty into the waters, but when you take a walk or a swim down to the end you understand whoever built it probably wanted to just keep going forever because of its splendor. On a windy day, if the wind is blowing from east to west you find that on the swim turnaround you are faced with large swells. During race week everybody talked about the winds on the bike course and how it would affect the race. Pre-race festivities included the interviews with the pros, a carbo-load dinner, a parade celebrating the athletes and the countries they represent, a race briefing that included information about shark sightings in the area and what to do in case of an evacuation. That was the least of our worries because we were also going to have to deal with lightning.
Two days before the race we were told to expect thunderstorms but did not realize how big the storm would be until night before; it lasted from about 9:00 pm to 6:00 a.m. It?s hard enough to sleep the night before and the sound of thunder and the flashing made it even harder. After getting only a few z?s in I awakened to the sound of rain and thunder; my thoughts quickly wandered to Ralph?s California half-Ironman last march and how difficult the weather conditions made the race. Having left all my gear and transition bags the day before at the race site I only had to focus on having my usual breakfast of coffee, bagel with peanut butter, banana and yogurt. When the bus picked me up at the hotel I could sense the other athletes? tension and nervousness. We had no clue as to what was going to happen or what to expect. Still, nobody spoke. All kinds of thoughts were going through our minds. ?Will it be cancelled?? ?how will we do the swim with all this lightning?, Will the storm bring more sharks as the one sited earlier in the week? What if they make it a duathlon--? What if they also cancel the bike? It was also quite chilly. Upon arrival at the race site, the rain kept falling and there was nowhere to do any sort of stretching or getting ready for the race. This is the type of thing that you have to prepare for and I was not ready. I am used to getting to a race about two hours early to make sure I do all my pre-race rituals of getting acquainted with all the small intricacies of the race set-up, warming up, stretching, getting all my gear in order and eating and drinking my pre-race food. Immediately, I knew that I would have to make many adjustments throughout the day, as I was to prepare mentally for the race.
At five thirty in the morning we finally got the word that the race would be delayed for half an hour as we waited for the winds to blow away the storm. The start was still quite windy and chilly as many athletes waited until the last possible moment to get into their wetsuits. It felt good to put on the wetsuit as it made a little warmer. Walking toward the beach, we could see ominous clouds still looming overhead, with some strong winds. As I looked out toward the water, it wasn?t the picture perfect turquoise waters that the website promises, but a brown swirling water and some strong northwest winds. It felt great going into the water as the 68-degree water quickly warmed us up from the shivering wind and cold that morning had brought. The start of the swim was quite an emotional roller coaster. As I walked to the start line the many thoughts of what have I got myself into were quickly vanished into thin air when fellow LAtriclub members Julie Guthrie and Ben Cornell assured me that things would be great. It was great to have Julie and Ben walking with me as they encouraged me and made me feel proud of my accomplishment of just getting to the starting line. The starting festivities included four fly-overs by the navy in four of their shiny new jets. A cannonball signaled the beginning of the race but we could not see anything as the peering sun blinded us as it shone brightly on us. In my head I could hear Bono singing loudly, ?it?s a beautiful day, the sky falls and you feel like it?s a beautiful day...don?t let it get away.? From this point I knew that I needed to stay calm and continue to say positive things in order to stay focused. The first half of the swim went without a hitch, except that I started out too far to the left of the jetty, forcing me to swim diagonally for too long. Nevertheless, I still made the jetty turnaround in 43 minutes, 3 minutes short of my goal. As I got closer to the end of the jetty, the winds started to pick up and at the turn around, the winds were whipping up to 25 mile per hour and the swells began to rise. I could see other swimmers next to me rising way above and to my right I could see the water crashing up against the wood pylons of the jetty. It sort of freaked me out so I tried to stay to the left as much as possible. Here is where I was happy to have had all sorts of drills practiced at the master?s swimming class. I needed to breath only on one side, hold my breath for up to ten strokes and keep my head up to sight the jetty on my right side. I was so nervous about crashing into the jetty that I ended up right up against the kayakers. With the swell being strong they could not even control their kayaks; one of them lost one of his paddles and hit me with it. As I looked up to see what was happening, he then went on to float over me, slightly grazing me and taking away my concentration. About 500 yards into the second half of the swim I looked at my watch and then at the finish line and knew that it would be the longest swim of my life. Before today, my longest swim had only been an hour and 20 minutes. An hour and 46 minutes later I finally finished the struggle. I was a little dizzy, but glad to be on my feet.
Not being a fast swimmer I was able to easily transition into my bike gear and I as I ran toward my bike I was not shocked to see that my bike was the only one left in my row. Although all the male pros were in my row, it was still a little disheartening to see the lone bike as the flags above whipped violently back and fro in the wind. Headed out and going east was at first a struggle as I tried to warm up my legs against a strong head wind. As I made my turn into the forest roads, it became even more difficult as I remembered a few days earlier when I had been testing out the course and recalled how easy it had felt before at 22 miles an hour. Instead I looked down and the computer showed that I was pedaling at a measly 12 miles an hour. Normally, the bike course is wind protected, but when a surprise storm comes to the Busselton area, there?s no knowing which way the wind will blow. As I got onto the longest straightaway section on the bike I continued to fight the wind but slowly bringing up the average to 14 mph as I headed toward the first turn relief was in sight as the other cyclists happily gave you the good news, ?you?re almost there?we have a tail wind?. For the next 14 miles I would mostly have a tail wind and I felt relief. Still, this is where the misconception of having a flat course really comes into play. In a flat course you don?t have the option to stop pedaling at any time in the course. One of the interesting things about doing the triathlon in Australia is that you have be ready for picking up your bidons (water bottles) and food from the left side of your bike and passing on the right. You quickly adapt and it does not hinder the rest of the race. One thing that was great about the bike course was that there were three mechanics with spare parts and tools in case you needed assistance. I didn?t see many flat tires and very few people on the side of the road. The roads are in excellent condition and at times this can be a problem because you find your mind wandering and your speed going down, unlike Vineman, where you have to stay on your toes the entire race with the rolling hills, all the potholes and the uneven pavement.
During the bike, nutrition was a challenge. I drank as much water as I needed and added flat cola. In addition to my clif bars, trail mix and my bagel with peanut butter, I ate bananas and mixed my own gu with water. It was too much of an effort to mix my drinks and in the future I will not use the water system in the front and I will need to get used to the electrolyte drink that the race is offering. I didn?t think I needed that much electrolyte drink since I had been using salt tablets instead. I don?t think I had enough protein on the bike and I would pay for it later on the run. As I was finishing the last loop on the bike the weather started to change dramatically; the winds died down the clouds disappeared and it started to warm up. I had only trained to be on the bike for 6 hours. The last half hour was harder than the first six hours combined. I had to stop a little while to stretch my right side as it locked up at the knee and I needed to rub it down. It was similar to the tightness I felt during my 100-mile bike ride in Santa Barbara the month before. That day I felt something pop on the inside of my right knee and the last five weeks of training would limit my training on the bike. During race week, the pain in the knee started to increase and I wasn?t sure if I would be able to race. The good thing was that it didn?t hurt when I ran or cycled, so I decided to racy anyway. In addition to his knee problem I felt a discomfort on the top of my right foot. It was strong enough that if I still felt the pain I would not start the run. As I got to the end of bike I thanked God for letting me finish the bike without incident and bringing me back safely. One thing that I am grateful for is having the ability to redirect my focus from one part of the race to the next. With the bike behind me, I took my time in the change tent and prepared to go out on the run?my favorite part of the triathlon. As I got ready, I realized that there are many decisions that you have to make at that moment?so many options. ?How much food should I bring? How many salt tablets? Should I take the potato chips that I know I crave on mile 18 or 20? Do I need the trail mix? Do I change socks?? While I am asking all these questions I still have to remember to get the sunscreen applied, make sure my number is on correctly on the shirt (now I know why you should sew it on instead), know which way to run, put on a hat and sunglasses. When I stood up to start the run I totally forgot about the foot pain and the knee problem and headed out for, what would be my longest run ever!! It takes about 8 miles of running a marathon in an Ironman race to make the humblest of people even more humble. In my mind and all through my training I was convinced that I had the ability to run under any conditions and that I could do it fast. Every time some body asks me what my strength in triathlon is I always say it?s the run. Well, on this day I would learn that running a marathon in an Ironman is not the same as running a marathon. It was about patience. It was about pacing. It was about focus. It was about willpower. Oh, yeah, it was also about a balanced nutrition plan. And finally, it was about being flexible. Running along the beach homes, many families were enjoying the day, shouting encouragement to the participants, drinking beer and firing up the Barbie. They were an asset, as the day grew longer. By the fourth time we came around they didn?t need the program to know our names. It was as if my own family was shouting my name with encouragement. My run started as any other run I have. I felt light, quick and excited about my journey. I was glad to be off the bike and running along the beach. The water was no longer brown, but still very choppy. The sky was no longer gray, but bright blue. The sun no longer needed to peer though the clouds; instead it shone as bright as it shines on a desert plain in the middle of summer. The run started out great, I got to see many of the competitors?the fast ones on their second loop of the run and the slower ones on my second loop. I saw all the people I met during race week and some that I was looking forward to seeing. When I started the run the winners were coming in so I didn?t get to see many pros.
The problems began at about mile 10. I was starting to feel bloated. I never had to relieve myself during the bike and I only stopped twice on the run. Still, the feeling did not go away. By the half way point of the marathon I had walked more than I wanted to, but was still on pace to do my sub four run. It finally hit me, ?I started too fast? like I always do. The rest of the run would come down to self-talk and finding the right balance of foods to keep my energy up, my sodium levels balanced, and my hydration stable. At mile 18 I began to crave my salty chips that I decided not to bring. At this moment I thought, ?how stupid?to not take advantage of the special needs bag for the run.? At the time I did not understand or know how to take advantage of that bag. I thought it was for having a warm sweater in case I had to run into the night. I was so confident I would not need it as I was expecting to finish before sunset. But with all the confusion in the morning and at transition, I realized I had made a big mistake. With my energy beginning to wane, I ate at every aid station: bananas, oranges, melon, flat cola, water, and ice. The aid stations were so long I would walk for up to a minute and a half and then would have to talk myself into continuing to run. The aid stations can be traps. There were too many of them and they would be stretched out too long. I would end up walking through all but the last two. By the last two I was too full and I just wanted to sidestep them all and finish. There was a three-mile stretch at mile 22 that I felt good and my mind overcame my body?s plea to stop. At this point I knew I would come in under 13 hours. Skipping the last two aid stations would be a mistake. As I passed the last station, I began to feel dizzy and had to slow down. Still I felt I could make the 13-hour cutoff even if I stopped and let it pass. I ate a gu and looked all over the place for water to wash it down. Nothing. Soon a girl on a bike goes by and I ask her for her water bottle. Finally I get out of it, my blood sugar level comes back up and I am ready to charge. I go 50 yards and then all of sudden my right leg cramps up. I can?t move. I am paralyzed. Since I don?t have water, I can?t take my final salt tablet. I am stuck. I walk about 300 yards with a female pro who is injured and facing surgery. At this time I can see the lights and hear the announcers from far away. I end up walking the last 10 minutes and miss the 13-hour mark. I say goodbye to the pro and I get ready for the final 300 yards. It seemed like an eternity when I woke up about 15 hours ago. The whole race begins to flash before me like in a movie where the day just flashes by in seconds. At this point I go numb. No pain, no dizziness, no cramps.
I reach deep down and prepare to run down the shoot where the loud cheering grows louder and hundreds of spectators line up and enthusiastically high-five the athletes as they come in. Just before I enter the shoot I get rid of my unused gu, freshen up for the cameras, and I take off the Livestrong bracelet I had been wearing for two years on my wrist.
Two years ago I had taught myself to swim and my first triathlon was going to be an indoor event. My father had been sick for several years and at the end of his days he was fighting stomach cancer that had been spreading. I knew that he was suffering and he did everything in his power to live strong until the day he died. He had always been an inspiration in that in spite of all his struggles in life he knew how to live strong and survive whatever challenges came his way. Cancer did not beat him; instead he died instantly of a heart attack. I was scheduled to do my first triathlon the day we buried him and from the day the livestrong bracelets became available I promised myeself I would wear one for as long as it took me to complete my first Ironman event. As I reached the finish line I took the Livestrong band and raised it to the sky, thanking my father for giving me the courage to complete the ultimate test in endurance and strength in the sport of triathlon. I also thanked God for giving me the opportunity and ability to complete the feat. I was so exhilarated and overcome with joy and relief that I didn?t even hear my name announced at the finish. Final Time 13:10.
Upon crossing the finish Its an amazing feeling to be attended by the volunteers who put a finishers towel around you, place a medal around your neck, and hand you a finisher?s shirt. They slowly lead you to the recovery tent where they offer you the beverage of your choice. At this time I think about how badly I wanted to reach for the beer that was being offered at so many barbies in the neighborhood, instead I reach for the water. The volunteer then walks you over to the massage tent where another volunteer helps you with your shoes and socks and gives you a nice sponge bath in preparation for the massage. The volunteer then walks you over to one of the tables where another massage therapist takes good care of your aching body with a well-deserved half hour massage. As you wake up from the table you slowly make your way to the buffet and dinner awaiting you, not feeling too hungry, yet depleted, you focus on the tasty ice-cream dessert. By this time I have just enough energy to get dressed and I pick up my belongings and get ready to leave. I check the cell phone and a message from my brother, Ray, appears. He's congratulating me and shouting in the background are JoNell, Ryan, Jackie and Gerry. They stayed up until 3 in the morning to see me coming in at the finish on Ironmanlive. It was great to know that I was not alone in my journey. According to Gerry I "looked ecstatic. From what we saw, you certainly could fool anyone that you had a tough race." Apparently he saw me running down the shoot high fiving everybody and jumping for joy as I reached the finish.
The night finally comes to an end when I get on the shuttle and head back to the 5 star resort. There the night manager provides me with three bags of ice to soothe my aching and burning muscles. I put the ice in the in-room Jacuzzi bathtub, fill it up with water and gingerly walk and sit in the elixir. I can only stand it for a few minutes but it works. I then take a long hot shower. If you are fortunate enough to finish early you have the option of ordering room service. Since I missed the 9:00 pm cutoff for room service I end up having a couple of bacon and egg muffin sandwiches before I call it a night. Wishing I could be at the finish line bringing the final athletes in, I instead opt for the rest and slowly crawl to bed, smiling and thinking, ? I did it, I finally did it and it feels great,? Gerardo Barrios, you are an Ironman!
The night is not a comfortable one and I wake up early to go soak my still aching bones in the Indian Ocean. The morning is calm and beautiful. I can hear the birds singing in the almost summer sky and as I stand in the water I look around and the water is as calm as a lake thinking about what might?ve been. Quickly I feel grateful for having just completed the race and I go for a walk. The day would be filled with the excitement of post-race accomplishment. The Tri Travel arranges a full breakfast for the group and we enjoy the outdoors and talk about our splits. We head for the merchandise tent and pick up some finishers apparel and get our medals engraved. We talk some more and then it is time to get our transition bags and pick up our bikes. It feels great to be pedaling slowly back to the hotel. That night the awards dinner is a festive atmosphere where we drink, eat and dance. It is a privilege to sit with over 500 people who just finished the race and are thankful to be part of the family?the Ironman family.