Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Upping our (spectator) game - IRONMAN Florida 2014

Last year we made a rare trip to Austin (without a race) to WATCH our first Triathlon. TriRock Austin was our first glimpse at a live swim-bike-run event. In the theme of "every year better than the last" and with Susan this close to getting Southwest A-List Preferred status, we added a few additional flights to go watch our friend Al at IRONMAN Florida in Panama City Beach.

Fortunately for us, we had veteran IM support traveling with us. Caryn had the pre-race routine memorized and she and Al laid out a great plan for support on race day. The swim and bike routes are loops so the only place we could see people was at the start and hope to catch specific people at the transition. The run segment was two out and backs, so we could be in full support mode for those into the late afternoon and evening hours.

This was our first time in Panama City Beach. If any place screamed "Spring Break," PCB certainly fits that description. Driving into the host hotel, we saw the rows of themed restaurants, bars and entertainment you'd expect from a tropical resort.
Pineapple Willy's was right outside of Al's hotel. The motto "Smile Big, Eat Big, Drink Big" was backed up well by the menu
Prepping for multiple events takes on a whole different level of complexity. The forecast was in the low 40's with winds up to 40 mph gusts at the 7 AM start time. Usually, we would just throw on a few layers and tighten our hats, but the brutal crosswinds had a lot of people worried about their wheels on the bike segment. Wheel rental was probably brisk as people traded down disc wheels for spokes for better control.

What was really uncertain was the tides. Up until the night before, the surf had been black flagged due to strong rip currents. From the hotel, we could see white caps out for hundreds of yards.

Race Day:
With a 7 AM start time, the plan was to be into the hotel parking garage by 5 AM. Road closures pretty much required that since the bike route went right by the garage. I wonder what it's like to be a non-participant in a hotel where everyone is up at 4 AM.

Al needed to be up early for body marking and bike check. As a veteran, he'd been adjusting his sleep cycle to be on east coast time for weeks so this wasn't a big deal. We were ready to stand in the wind to cheer people as they went by on the bikes. I can't remember the last time we were bundled up that much standing next to someone in what Susan called a 'onesie'.

The IRONMAN community is very tight. On the plane over, we struck up a few conversations with people who were on the way to the event. Even though we were on the outside looking in, we know it's a huge deal for people, especially the first timers. As we made our way out to the immaculate white sands for the swim start, we ran into Lisa Marie - a first timer - and her partner Ken who Al had met earlier in the weekend.

A few minutes before 7 AM, things changed drastically. Race officials, in an abundance of caution, cancelled the swim leg. The rip currents still hadn't subsided and white caps were visible for a mile out. Even the boats that would be monitoring the swimmers were having trouble negotiating the currents.  The bike segment would be a time-trial start format starting at 8 AM.

The decision made sense to me. Better to not risk lives. But for first timers like Lisa Marie who started planning this journey five years ago, it was a tough blow. Would this really be an Ironman? Does this count? Al spent the next hour talking her down. Having 34 Ironman events under his belt gave him perspective we'd couldn't begin to comprehend.

After stripping out of the wet suits ("I thought of something completely different when you mentioned there would be strippers!"), we waited about an hour before heading over to the bike start. Lisa Marie would be taking off around 8:30 and Al would follow about an hour later. Al's swim leg is usually his warm up and without that, he made the last minute call to add a windbreaker to his equipment. Fortunately, we had one handy.

9:34 AM: Al comes out of the bike start, Double Live Jacket and disc wheels equipped.

This is where the waiting starts. The 112 mile bike course is a single loop. Since there are strict rules about pacing or aiding IRONMAN participants, it didn't make sense to try to get out to the course, even for an enthusiastic music or cowbell station. We're used to seeing people for 10 - 20 seconds on the marathon support. Going out for 1 - 2 seconds on bike support, especially with the wind gusts didn't make sense, so we spent the next 5 hours back in the hotel watching the live tracker until Al hit the mile 91 mark. We were still in the hotel when Lionel Sanders finished his day with a 2:44 marathon time.

The run course was set up for multiple support points. Caryn handled the start/finish of the loop so she could have a change of sunglasses ready as the sun set around 6. Susan and I drove out toward  St. Andrews Park. Susan took a position at the 5K point, cowbells and coaching mentality ready. She actually got recruited into directing runners and cars near the crossing of Hilltop and Treasure. I'm thinking she made a big difference on the second loop since it was a pretty dark stretch of road. The checkpoint lead gave her a Volunteer Shirt for her troubles.

I was able to get into the park. Thanks to the Ranger at the gate for letting me in without parking fees since I was clearly not there for camping! The stretch between miles 6/19 and 7/20 was under trees and some open beach front. I didn't go all the way to the turn at the end of State Park, but I heard it was pretty exposed. I did my best to call out names and encouragement, ringing the cowbell for all I was worth.

At some point, I wasn't actually consciously ringing the bell. I was just so cold standing there that my arm was shivering.

Lisa Marie started her bike about an hour before Al, so we were looking for her first. I have to say, technology really rocked this time for communication. It's a huge deal for people supporting a race to be there for their athlete. Knowing when they were coming was a great help.

Lisa Marie at the first turnaround. We had lots of daylight left on the first loop of the run segment. 
After Al passed the turn on the way back, I knew I had a while before I would see them again and a while before they got back to Caryn at the turn. He didn't look nearly as chipper as I would expect and I found out later a few things about Al's ride. At a particularly windy stretch of road, someone in front of him lost control of his bike and went down hard, ending up with a compound fracture of his leg. Al had to bunny hop over him to avoid running him over. Al then stopped to help the injured rider until medical arrived.  It explained why one segment was quite a bit slower than previous check points. In the process of avoiding the other rider though, Al landed with his full weight on the aero bars. For the first 6.5 miles, he was having trouble taking in food or liquids and even taking a full breath - not the way you want to start a marathon.

He found out later after seeing his doctor at home that he had broken two ribs and cracked another three. Maybe the cold was keeping the swelling and bruising from showing up, but his doctor said he was amazed he could stay vertical. Al said he wanted to set a good example for us since he's been asking us to push our limits. I'm never going to argue with him on that again.

Making the time pass faster as both a cheer squad participant as well as an Ironman marathoner is a challenge. The couple shown above were holding hands every time they passed us on the course. Now that's built in support!

The sun set a little after a quarter past 5 PM. Lisa Marie was fully into the Bite Me Zone, already planning her retirement from the Ironman. Al came through looking really tired. I tried to honor the no-aid rules and stayed with him as long as I could before letting him go off into the last 6.5 miles. I hope the cowbells were a good incentive and not an annoyance. If anything, people would want to go faster to get away from the noise.

I drove ahead to find Susan holding down the 5K point. I didn't quite get there in time to see Lisa Marie, but Al came by shortly after I parked. By the time we piled into the car and headed to the finish line it was a little after 8:30. Lisa Marie passed Caryn at 8:45 about with about a half mile to go. Al met up with Caryn about 5 minutes later. 

Caryn had watched a few of Al's Ironman races but never got the chance to see him finish. With a quarter mile to go, Al took a break at Alvin's Island to give Caryn a chance to get to the finish line. He ran the last hundred yards at a pretty good clip, finishing at 9:05 PM.

As exhausted as he looked at the finish line, Al has a tradition to come back out and watch the last finisher cross the line. The official cut off time was 12:24 AM (adjusted due to the cancellation of the swim leg). The last finisher came in, unofficially, at 12:47.

Recovery, at least for his enthusiasm, was quick.
Susan headed back to the hotel since she had a long week at work with little sleep. With the crowd dwindling, I hung around the finish area to help hand out water to the finishers. 

Lew Hollander is an Ironman legend. At 84 years, 144 days old, he was the oldest finisher in Florida. He will be racing in a newly created 85 - 89 year old age group next year at the World Championships in Kona. I sent Ann Wessling this picture and told him "Annie sends her best."

Sister Madonna Buder, at age 84 is actually older than Lew by a number of days. She didn't finish IM Florida, missing the cutoff by 6 minutes. The rules are strict. Even for the legends. I doubt this is the last Ironman she'll run.

The last finisher crossed the line 18 minutes after the official cutoff time. Even without the medal, the crowd gave him the honor of hearing "YOU are an IRONMAN".

The day didn't start the way it we were expecting. Without the swim leg, people may always wonder what could have been. First timers and bucket list 'one and done' participants may have to struggle with how they talk about this day. The high winds caused a lot of people to drop out during the bike leg. There are 134 pages of results at the Ironman Florida website and the last 14 of them didn't make the cutoff or didn't start. I like to think that we've gone through a lot of long days, but after being on the sidelines in Panama City Beach for almost 20 hours one thing is clear to me...

...This is way bigger than most people even dream of doing. Getting to finish, getting to the transition, even getting to the starting line, is a huge accomplishment. It was an honor to watch and cheer for every single athlete.

We're already making plans to come back next year. We'll save up some weather luck to keep the currents calm.

And we're holding out hope that we'll see Lisa Marie again. In our minds and hearts, she's an Ironman. It would be great for her to feel like she's earned it.

No comments:

Post a Comment