No point in burying the lead: I did it!
In what was without question one of the longest and hardest days of my life, I managed to cross the finish line in Boulder and hear Mike Reilly call my name announcing that I was an Ironman! The satisfaction (as well as relief) I feel at having accomplished this is difficult to put into words.
It was a long journey leading up to a long weekend. The best place to start all of this is probably at the start of that weekend.
Days Leading Up
I took Friday off and began the day by getting a haircut so that I had comfortably short hair for race day. The same man has been cutting my hair since I was fourteen so that means trips up to my hometown of Greeley about every three or four weeks. A lot of people find that absurd but I like his work and on some things, I am loyal to a fault.
With that task complete, it was about an hour to Boulder to park near Boulder High School and walk over to the exposition area that is referred to by the organizers as Ironman Village. In addition to vendors demonstrating their various wares, the logistics of the race are there and it’s at this location where on checks in.
That process was straight forward and I completed the requisite medical forms and releases and within a few minutes was in possession of a very nice back-back and some other swag as well as the things I would need for race day; timing chip, bib, bike stickers and gear bag stickers. Somehow my swim cap didn’t get in the bag but I was able to pick up a replacement the next day.
During the process, I realized I had forgotten to attach my bento box to my bike and had no practical way to carrying the nutrition I would need. As it happened, there was a very extensive bike shop in a tent at the village selling everything except actual bikes. I was able to get a very nice X-Lab box and solve that problem. I had also forgotten to pack a pair of bike shorts to pull on over my triathlon shorts during the ride but I decided to forgo that and just wear the kit like everyone else.
The rest of the day was just to get some food, relax, see a movie and get a decent night’s sleep.
I was up a little after 7:30 Saturday morning to do an easy 30 minute run. My coach typically puts this on the schedule the day before any race. The idea is neuromuscular activation, not to go out and set any world records.
Since my hotel was adjacent to part of the run course, I headed west to see some of it in person. It was clear after reaching Eben G. Fine Park that there was going to be at least one big hill leading to the west turn around. I was feeling fresh and strong so climbing it on Saturday morning proved to be no problem. The run was over soon enough and soon my wife and I were having a nice brunch at a place across the street from our hotel.
Once the meal was complete, it was time to start preparing in earnest. I had printed up checklists for everything I needed to pack and step-by-step she and I went through the items one by one until both the bike and run gear bags were ready.
The hotel we had chosen is one of the nicer ones in town and even with the Ironman discount it was expensive. However, it was incredibly convenient and the walk back to the village and the run bag drop off was short.
I arrived just in time for the 11:00 athlete briefing and sat through most of it before the weather started showing signs of rain. They had gotten to the run portion of the brief at that point and I knew that while there might be some surprises, I did not expect anything major.
Dropping off my bag at the track was much like last year. Volunteers had them all aligned in sections grouped by bib number. The threat of rain overnight had prompted me to put my shoes in their own plastic bag just to ensure that they and the socks tucked inside them would stay dry. I also cinched the bag up fairly tight.
The next step was to go back to the hotel, get my bike and load it up into the car for a drive out to Boulder Reservoir. The weather was holding off for the moment, but the clouds were thick and it really felt like we were going to see some moisture at some point.
Parking was in the main lot near the swim beach which meant a much shorter walk from there to the bike racks which were my first stop. After a picture at the entrance (which I’m sure is for insurance purposes) I found my spot and proceeded to rack in.
Ironman races are known for their high level of service. The backpack I got at check-in is a tangible example of this. The plethora of food and beverages along the course and the generous meal voucher for $25 at several downtown restaurants are also good examples. Unfortunately, the bike racks are cheap and largely inadequate.
My bike has a stand-over height of slightly less than three feet. Factor in the seat post height and the two bottles that go in back and it clears that height and then some. Bottom line was that there was no way to hang my bike by the seat without tipping it to the side first. While that’s no problem when there’s no bike on one side, it can get pretty tricky when the rack is full. There are times when a business, like WTC, needs to invest some money into capital improvements. This is one of those times.
Since there’s not much I could do about it, I just racked in and then covered my saddle with a plastic laundry bag from the hotel. I saw others had covered their cranks and handle bars but I was mostly concerned about keeping my but dry since I figured the saddle had the greatest ability to absorb and hold water.
Normally, I would be letting air out of my tires to prevent a tube burst that was the result of the afternoon heat. However, on this afternoon it was barely breaking 70* and having checked a few tires around me, no one else was deflating theirs either. I decided to keep them full which was around 110 to 115 psi.
Satisfied that I had positioned everything correctly, I moved on to the bike gear bag drop-off which sits just outside the change tents and very near the swim exit. Here again, volunteers were making efforts to line the bags up in order. I got mine situated and figured it was best to cinch the draw string tight to try and keep moisture out.
I spent a little time walking around the area and observed the buoys positioned way out on the lake. But there was really nothing else to do out there and I didn’t want to exert too much energy strolling around.
I headed back into town, stopping off at a grocery store for my special needs nutrition and then went back to the hotel to pack those bags.
We had an early dinner with my brother and his wife and soon I was back to my room and ready to call it a night. I was in bed by just after 8:00 and I think asleep by 9:30 or so. I slept restlessly but I probably got a little over five hours which was not bad.
I was kind of already awake when my 3:00 am alarm went off. Despite the obscene hour of the day, getting up was really no problem and I proceeded to consume my usual pre-race meal of a bagel and cream cheese, a bottled smoothie, a banana and a cup of coffee from the in-room machine. I then dressed and found that I still had nearly an hour before I needed to head out the door.
My nerves were starting to work-up a bit but I remained mostly calm as I thumbed through social media on my tablet and willed the minutes to go by. They did and soon I was kissing my wife goodbye and hauling my gear bags downstairs.
Not long after dropping everything except my morning clothes bag, I hooked up with my brother who had generously and graciously offered to come out to the reservoir with me and hang out prior to the swim start. We soon boarded a Boulder County school bus and were there in just a few minutes.
It was dry but overcast and a bit foggy when we arrived. Of course, it was also still dark so that did not matter. I noticed right away that the transition area was better lit than it had been last year. Nevertheless, my headlamp was helpful as I set about filling my bottles with water and Gatorade and otherwise preparing the bike.
The seat cover proved to be a good choice because it had indeed rained the previous evening and while not bone-dry, at least it was not drenched either. Both tires were at the right pressure and it looked like there would be enough room to tip to the side when it came time to un-rack.
I was satisfied with my set up and then went to check on the status of my bag. Everything inside it was dry much to my relief and I knew I’d be ready to go. With that done, all that was left was to wait.
My brother had brought stadium seats for us to sit on which beats the asphalt parking lot. We chilled while he made a couple of Facebook posts and in what seemed like really no time at all, it was time for me to don my wetsuit and get going.
My energy levels were up and I was feeling pretty anxious at this point. I had cut it close enough that I was having to make my way through the crowd to get to the front of the swim corrals but I finally got there with a few minutes to spare. It was time to race.
I waded in to about waist deep and then took a big dive forward and was underway. This year’s field was considerably smaller than last year’s and that made for less of a washing machine. Indeed, for the first few minutes, I wasn’t really encountering anybody and getting a nice steady rhythm proved to be no problem at all.
However, after I started to sight, I noticed that I had gone pretty far to the right of the buoys and had to make my way back in. I can’t say why, but all through the swim, I found myself pulling right. Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty good and fatigue was never really a factor.
It’s a long way to the first turn but it still felt like it came up fairly soon and I was pleased to discover that the pushing and shoving match from last year was not present. The buoys turn from yellow to orange about halfway through the back stretch and I mistakenly thought the first of these was the turn. As I got closer it was apparent no one was turning however and as I went by, I recalled that the number on the side started over. I was not let down, though. As I glanced at my watch, it showed about 35 minutes had passed so I knew I was on target for my goal pace.
Another uneventful left turn had me heading in and this section seemed to go by quickly. The sky remained overcast but visibility was good and I could see the various tents and finish arch. Not long after that, I could hear the PA system announcing swimmers as they came out of the water.
When my hand touched the bottom near the exit, I remembered that we were on a boat ramp rather than a beach so I accepted the hand that was helping me out and moved cautiously until I was on the carpeted runway and making my way to the change tent. Volunteers stripped me out of my wetsuit quickly and then my number was called out ahead and a volunteer handed me my bag.
I was pleased to find a change tent that was not crowded at all. Unlike last year when I was wedged in between groups of naked men, I found a chair with no one around, sat down and began the process of getting my bike gear on.
Because things were less crowded, volunteers were able to offer individual attention and I had a nice gentleman packing my suit in my bag as I pulled on shoes and helmet. There was a table with water and I downed a glass before running out. My coach was one of the volunteers in transition and I said hi on my way out. I think he was surprised because as it would turn out, my time was far faster than expected.
Sunscreen was applied generously and then it was on to my bike. As I ran, I felt something in my shoe and then realized that I had failed to apply chamois cream. This was no time to be bashful so when I arrived at my bike, I opened the packet, applied it to my hand and shoved my hand down my shorts and rubbed it on. Not particularly polite behavior in most circumstances but this was not most circumstances.
I jogged the bike out of transition and got to the top of the hill and turned left instead of right like last year. Once on the mount line I was rolling down a hill and ready to start. I had to struggle a little bit to get my wife’s Scoshe to pair with my Garmin but I figured it out after a few minutes.
It was still overcast and fairly cool as we rode southwest on the diagonal highway and the shoulder had been black-topped the day before making for pleasant riding. I had some concerns about the under the highway but when I arrived traffic was light and getting through was really no problem.
My initial plan had been to stay in the small ring as I rode northeast in the direction of Longmont figuring I would need to save some energy. However, the decline was such that shifting up and pedaling just a little harder was really not taking a toll and giving me some additional speed. I kept that up most of the way down the stretch until reaching Highway 52.
That climb really felt like nothing this year. I did not flat and it was not hot. There were also very few people along this section and that’s where the lower overall registration again showed itself. No complaints from me, though. After cresting, I was able to cruise down to Highway 287 at around 30 MPH.
Climbing back up on Lookout Road was not easy but neither was it devastating. I just kept spinning my lowest gear and taking each section one at a time until being rewarded with a fairly steep downhill to 75th Street. The sun had come out of the cloud cover by now but the temperature remained mild. Going by the spot where I dropped out last year gave me a bit of a psychological boost and I felt good heading into the two big laps.
I was getting dropped a lot on the initial sections and really didn’t mind. I was determined to do my own, fairly conservative race and just make sure I left enough matches in the book to complete the run. The section from Jay Road and 28th Street all the way up until the right turn at Neva Road is one of the more difficult on the course. The shoulder is tight, there can be high wind and there’s a fair amount of climbing. I managed to stay focused and fairly positive throughout and the reward is some speed as you head back east. Then it’s a nice easy stretch all the way until 63rd Street. The rollers on that street were fine and I continued to make good progress and anticipate the truly most challenging section: the climb up Nelson Road.
While it’s said that familiarity breeds contempt, in my case, it made that section seem a lot shorter. Twice on last year’s ride and twice more on training rides this year made me mostly familiar with the stretch. That’s not to say I went up it with blazing speed—because I didn’t. However, I did see the distinct sections more clearly and on the very brief downhill sections, I got to recover some.
Rolling north on Highway 36 to its intersection with Highway 66 near the town of Lyons is the most rewarding part of the course. With only minimal pedaling, I was still making great time as I tucked into aero position and relaxed the legs. Things got a little more difficult as I headed east on 66 end route to Hygiene but I think that was just because I had gotten so used to the free speed. My Training Peaks analysis says I managed to go almost 20MPH through this section while only expending about 123 watts of power so it actually was going a little better than planned.
I took my first actual rest on St. Vrain Road and it was quick. A volunteer had cold water and bananas so I ate one and washed it down with the water before using another bottle to refill my torpedo. I was off in less than a minute and still feeling good as I got into some of the flatter sections of the course.
I hit special needs and only stayed long enough to collect a pouch of peanut butter cookies, my extra nutrition and some Gatorade mix for my nutrition bottle. There was no water there so I rode on to the next aid station and stopped again at the next aid station where I filled my nutrition bottle with water.
I had been doing a fairly good job of consuming a CLIF shot near the top of each hour and taking several large drinks from my bottle at the bottom. I did not feel hungry or week but as time went by, I did feel a little queasy. My guess is that all of the sugar was just a bit too much for my system. The problem was relatively minor, however and I kept going.
There’s no denying that fatigue was starting to set in as I began the second and final lap but the fact that I only had to run it one more time provided good motivation. After clearing Jay Road, I once again made the climb up 28th Street for Broadway where I knew relief would come in the form of a downhill.
As I neared Broadway, I could see a police vehicle blocking the left turn lane but since it was to the left, I didn’t think it was anything other than a minor traffic accident. Then I started to cruise downhill and I saw several vehicles and it was clear something was wrong. A volunteer was making the universal slow down signal (both arms extended, palms down and waving arms at the ground) and I heeded the warning. A brief glance to my right and I saw a couple of bikes on the side of the road. That there was an accident was obvious, but I didn’t see an ambulance or paramedic’s motorcycle so I had no idea how bad. What I learned later was very upsetting.
For the time being, I took it easy and stayed to the right of the shoulder. This is a tough section of course because the paved shoulder drops off a couple of inches to the unpaved side of the road. I’ve gone off it a couple of times in races and it is disconcerting. I was trying to avoid that while also letting folks pass me on the left.
Once again a Neva Road, the cruising downhill was enjoyable and while just a little slower than the first lap, I still felt good. I was also slower on 63rd Street but not noticeably and the time was passing by fast. Sure I wanted off the bike, but I wasn’t miserable and I’m not sure I could have said the same at that point in the race a year earlier.
I made a stop at the Nelson Road aid station and poured cold water on myself which felt great if a bit shocking. That shock was what told me it was working. The day had not become overly hot, but the sun was out and I was sweating a bit more than I had at the start of the day.
As I headed down the steeper section of US 36 back toward Lyons, I figured I could pour on a bit more speed by shifting up into the big ring. I was completely spun out in the small ring and figured since I still felt reasonably well, this would be a good spot. Then my chain dropped.
It’s frustrating after two tune ups and a couple hundred dollars spent that a shop can’t adjust the front derailleur so that it doesn’t happen but it did and I found myself on the side of the road putting the chain back on. Fortunately, that was easy and soon I was rolling again, albeit with much less momentum.
The flatter roll along Highway 66 to 75th Street did not seem as bad this time and part of that may have been that I was looking at hitting the 90-mile mark. That’s not really where you see the barn but it does mean a fairly short and not overly difficult portion remains.
I had planned on making a second stop at the St. Vrain aid station again but went through before I could determine whether or not there was cold water available. Turns out it was, but I was already cruising away and I figured I could just hit the next station at 63rd Street and the Diagonal Highway.
That’s what I did once again dousing myself with the chilly liquid including my face this time and feeling better for it. I had not passed the 100-mile mark which was symbolically important in that it was further than I made it last year.
The sick feeling was persisting a little bit but I was also absolutely determined to get off the bike and onto the run. There’s no cycling equivalent of walking. If you are going up a big hill, you have to push down on the pedals and go. Once on foot, I knew I could ease the pace regardless of terrain.
As I approached the intersection of Jay Road and 28th Street for the last time, I saw my brother and two of his in-laws who had all come out to cheer me. I would have done this race if not a soul in the world knew about it, but it was terrific to see them there and I was feeling like I was having a good ride.
The roll down Folsom Street to the finish was even easier than I imagined it might be. The one hill at Valmont Road was really nothing more than a bump and after that I just kept cruising right up to the finish.
I’m usually pretty good about getting of the bike and jogging it in, but when I saw others around me walking in, it kind of made sense. Sure, I could save a minute or two but it was hot and I was tired.
I walked at a moderate pace until crossing the pedestrian bridge before entering the football stadium. I had the presence of mind to get what I needed off the bike (sodium tablets and my Garmin) and then let the catcher take it away.
Getting my bag from the track was easy but now I was really feeling the warmth of the afternoon. I didn’t worry about it but I knew it could be a factor later on. I continued on to the tent. It’s a long transition at nearly a quarter mile from dismount to the tent.
Once inside the tent, I was again pleased to see it mostly empty and found a chair right away. Changing out items was easy and I found myself on my way in short order, albeit with a stop at the porta-potties to relive some of the copious amounts of water I had been drinking on the bike.
Sun screen reapplied, I looked down the start to the run, hit the lap button on my Garmin and began the last, long stage of the event.
I had switched from my wife’s Scoshe to my own in T2 and I decided to wait until my first walk break to pair it with my Garmin. As I had planned, I ran for five minutes at a fairly easy pace and was under no illusions about setting any marathon PR’s.
Pairing the HR monitor with the watch took a bit longer than I expected and the scheduled one-minute walk break actually took ninety seconds. I felt okay about that and after another five minutes, I took 1 ½ minutes again.
All of the water was giving me a bit of an abdominal cramp right below the center of my rib cage. It wasn’t debilitating but it did hurt. I was also still feeling a bit queasy still. I think I may never be able to consume another CLIF shot again!
After about five of the intervals, I was feeling especially tired. My HR was not especially high, but I felt gassed and my legs were complaining. I did one more section near the turnaround at Baseline Road and the Foothills Parkway and then took an extended walk break. It was clear that my running race plan was going to have to be changed on the fly.
For roughly the next half hour, I walked at my best possible pace (around 15:35 per mile) and let the cramps subside and my stomach settled down a bit. I was taking water but nothing else sounded good so I avoided it.
There’s an aid station near the northeastern turn around and not long after passing it, I managed to talk myself back into running some more. I had initially thought about just going a minute at a time but I felt strong enough to make it two minutes. Then I walked for five. Part of me wondered if I was being too conservative, but a bigger part said that finishing the race was all that mattered.
As the course approached the underpass at 55th Street, I was anticipating a turnaround, but the course made a sharp left and paralleled the street. It made sense. Unlike the first two years of this race when the finish was near the Pearl Street Mall, they had moved it south this year to avoid closing the busy streets of Canyon and Walnut. The distance had to be made up somewhere so this little stretch was it. It may have felt psychologically worse than it was.
As I approached the turnaround, my brother was there to cheer me on. After returning from the swim venue, he had seen me on the bike and now I was seeing him for the first of several times during the run.
I was just hitting a walk break so he walked along side to see how I was doing and give me encouragement. I let him know about some of the difficulty I was having but also that I still felt okay.
He caught me again when I passed back by the aid station and he suggested that if my stomach was still upset, I should try having a cola. That made sense and I made a mental note to look for it.
Ted also told me that our wives were a few miles ahead which I knew meant near the high school which not the true center of the course but is its main focal point. I continued my progression of running for two minutes and walking for five and while I was not exactly setting the course on fire, I did find it sustainable and faster than 100% walking. When I found an aid station with cola, it wasn’t flat so I took but a sip and then dumped it.
There were only a few empty sections of the run course though they became more plentiful as the day went on and became a night. I struggled on with my 2 minute run, 5 minute walk pace until I was at roughly mile 16. I took a longer walk break and the decided it was best to change to one minute runs and keep the same walk interval. I knew it was going to be a slow run and that I was probably going to miss my soft goal of a fourteen hour race, but I was more concerned with finishing than anything else.
I had seen others going by the wayside and I wanted to keep moving, even if it was only at walking pace. Several others around me seemed to have the same idea. Truthfully, it was more about mental discipline at this point. My legs ached, my heartrate shot up into the 90’s even when walking and I was hot. But I was not discouraged. I knew that the challenge of finishing would be difficult, but with each step, I felt better.
Around mile 23 I encountered my coach who asked how I was doing and encouraged me to keep going. I knew he had been in the same situation himself and he was keenly aware of how difficult things get at this point.
As I climbed up into the canyon for the last time, I was astonished by how warm it was. The sun was down and I was walking along a swift creek that had been snow melt not long before yet the wind coming at me was not just warm but hot! It was crazy but I shook it off.
Going around the last turnaround was a huge relief. I had all but given up on running at this point but I was able to make a decent walking pace and was relishing the thought of being done.
Coming back under Broadway my coach was still there and told me I had to jog the finish. I was too tired to argue so I gently picked up the pace and only walked up the steep slope you encounter after you go under Arapahoe Avenue. Now making a right turn like a freeway onramp, I was in the chute and I knew when I made the final turn, I would see the finish line.
I could hear Mike Reilly making his finishing announcements and I could see bright lights framed by the black finish arch. I was not going fast, but I was going to be an Ironman.
It was noisy but through the din I heard it:
“Paul Johnson, Parker Colorado, you are an Ironman”
Total Time: 14:18:31
Total Time: 14:18:31
Post-Race and Some Observations
My coach was the first person to greet me in the finish area. After introducing him to my family, I made my way out of the area away from some of the heat and toward some refreshment. A volunteer asked me if I needed any medical attention and I politely but emphatically declined. If I never enter another medical tent, it will be too soon.
Ted met me just outside the finisher area and I sat down on one of the benches that faces the giant band shell in Boulder’s Central Park. Soon the rest of the family joined me and after finishing the coke I had been drinking, we headed over to Reuben’s for a late meal.
It was a long walk back to get my bike and gear bags from the stadium, but I really didn’t mind and soon my wife and I were back at the hotel where I took a much needed shower and did my best to scrape away the hours of sweat, salt, sunscreen and who knows what else that had accumulated. My legs hurt and I had profound saddle sores but I was still in good spirits. Although poor sleep can be a risk after these races, I actually slept pretty soundly.
I learned at this point the bike crash aftermath I had seen had been fatal. A young woman named Michelle Walters from McCook, Nebraska had been hit by a vehicle. I’ve since heard she may have veered out of the shoulder on a section where I warned in this very blog that things can get dicey. I am absolutely heartbroken at the news and feel terrible for her friends and family. My day was one of celebration while theirs was…well I just can’t find the words. I don’t know who was at fault and I really don’t care. I’m just sorry it happened and I hope it’s the last time we hear of such a thing even though I know it won’t be.
Like all USAT sanctioned events, an Ironman is a non-drafting race. I understand and agree with that. However, the distance has gone from three bike lengths a few years ago to four and now to six. Short of Andre the Giant riding ahead of me, I’m not at all clear how I am getting any kind of a wind shadow from that far back.
As we climbed up Highway 52, an official’s motorcycle was clocking people to see if they were drafting. My own pace up this section was under 10 MPH. No one is getting any drafting benefits here. I think Ironman needs to revisit this rule, especially as it is applied to those of us in the middle and back of the pack.
The Boulder Creek path is a public, multi-use path. It is not closed to public access during the race and I think some folks out there had a genuine need to be on it. I’m not a parent, but if I were, I think Ironman Sunday is an absolutely horrible day to take your young child on a bike ride along it. Other folks just walking along or bringing their tubes up to the top of the creek seemed less intrusive.
In spite of all of my gripes, however, I have to say that an Ironman branded race is a good one. That’s not to say that I don’t have a few problems with some of the ways they conduct business (equal numbers of professional men and women to Kona is a major one) but from an age-group athlete perspective, it’s a good race.
For the tragedy that happened, I hope some smart people can figure out a way to make the course safer. I really don’t know how you avoid U.S. 36 as it makes its way out of town. It might be advisable to send the traffic up Olde Stage Road and down Lefthand Canyon at least for the portion that is headed north. It might mean metering the traffic the way it is when you get on a freeway during rush hour. Truthfully, I don’t know.
I don’t want to end this post on a down note however. I am proud that I can now call myself an Ironman. I am grateful to everyone that helped me along. That means my coach and his diligence to get me ready for this, my brother for his moral support and encouragement, my wife for her patience, for every stranger that read my name off my bib and cheered me on, to all of the distant friends and family that gave me encouragement on Facebook even though I was not aware of it at the time.
Two days after the event, I’m still very stiff and sore. My left big toe is a shade of light purple that does not look normal and I have two big red arcs where I sunscreen did not get fully applied and I’m still happy about it all.
Thanks for reading about this race and about everything that happened on the journey.
The quest for an Ironman finish is complete, but the blog will continue!