Scott Gamboe, author

Ironman Florida 2015

Ironman Florida 2015 Race Report

 Another year, another crazy race. This time, we traveled to Panama City Beach for the 17th running of IMFL. I put a lot of extra work into this year's race, as Jill will attest, hoping to crush my personal best at the IM distance. Didn't quite work out that way! The race was the backdrop for an incredible reunion with an Army brother from the 82nd Airborne, James Culp. I haven't seen him since he was levied to Germany in 1989, in time to watch the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was Jim's first IM race, and only his second triathlon! Amazing. And he a bit of Murphy's Law kicking him in the days leading up to the race.

It started when we picked up his bike from Tri-Bike Transport. They had removed one of the end-plugs from his aerobars and forgot to put it back. Luckily, he noticed, and got it squared away. The next morning, he came back from his hotel to the race site and found a convenient place to park near the Ironman Village. A place where many other cars were parked. A half hour later, his car had been towed. You had to look across two fences and a stand of tall weeds to see the tow-away sign. I told Jim that he could call the rental car in as stolen, then break into the tow yard and set the car on fire, like most people do. But he decided to play it safe. So we drove in my car to the tow yard, where the worker told us they only accepted cash. Drove around and found an ATM, then returned only to find out they didn't have change. Ummm... So we got through all that. We picked up his bike from my hotel room, where he noticed that his pedal was striking the derailleur with each stroke. We rolled it over to the Ironman Village to a bike shop, where they repaired that problem rather quickly, but then noticed that someone had taken off his handlebars and not replaced one of the spacers. Jim is about 6'5", so his bike is very tall. Without the spacers, the long bolt in the head wasn't tight. You could rock the handlebars side to side and see the forks flex. If the tech hadn't noticed that, Jim would likely have crashed. We thought it was Tri-Bike Transport that took his bike apart, but it turned out that it was the bike tech back in Austin who tuned up his bike before the race.

Here was the view from our hotel room:

On to the race. One major factor was the weather. Last year, the pre-race temp was in the 40's. This year, the high was in the low 80's, with sun and 80% humidity. Since we haven't had heat like that back home for a while, I wasn't at all acclimatized for that kind of weather. Second problem: something in the water called "red tide." I don't know what it is, exactly, but it comes around once in a while. It kills the fish, so the resorts have to occasionally clean their beaches. The problem for humans is more respiratory. Everyone is coughing and sneezing and fighting cold-like symptoms, along with a burning sensation in the throat. Swallowing water on a long swim can't be avoided, and between the salt and the red tide, that likely contributed to the problems many of us had.

The day before the race, I walked through all of the transitions to make sure I knew where I was going. When I did my last practice swim, I ran into the water where the race would start and found out there was a steep drop-off right away, then a short distance later there was a steep climb to a sandbar. Good to know, especially with the waves we would end up facing. I went for a short run in the morning, and found my heart rate about 20 beats higher than normal. That's a normal effect in high humidity when you haven't acclimated, but a bad sign nonetheless.

The swim event for IMFL consists of a 1.2 mile out-and-back loop, a short run on the beach, and another 1.2 mile loop. The swim conditions have varied widely over the years. Some races have featured the waters of the Gulf as smooth as glass. Others, like 2013, had some pretty decent waves. Last year, rip currents led to the cancellation of the swim. But I doubt they've ever had a year quite like this one. The water temp was almost 78 degrees, so for the first time in the history of the race, the swim was not wetsuit-legal. That's a killer for me. I'm not a great swimmer to begin with. At the Ironman swim distance (2.4 miles), taking away my wetsuit adds 10-12 minutes to my time. Adding to the trouble was the size of the waves. Each time I went out to start a loop, I was standing in water about 2 feet deep, with waves cresting about a foot over my head. I'm 6'1", so that's saying something.

I made a mental adjustment to my race goal. Since I was getting some time added on by losing the wetsuit, I added that much time to my plan. I planted myself out toward the edge of the pack away from the buoys in order to avoid as much of the "washing machine" as I could. Shortly after clearing the big breakers, I could feel sand inside my tri-top and my shorts. Yep, the same clothes I would be wearing all day. As I sit here now, two days later, the raw skin is finally starting to heal. I'd like to take this time to point out something to a couple of other competitors. When your entire arm comes down across another swimmer's (my) back, it's probably best to just pull your arm back and try again. Pulling downward harder might sink the other swimmer, but your arm still isn't real likely to pass completely through that person and complete the stroke. I'm just sayin'... Anyway, the second loop was more difficult because they had us running back out at a 45 degree angle to the waves. It's almost impossible to swim that way, especially for someone like me who doesn't have a lot of swim skills. At one point when I was nearing the turn buoy on the second loop, I peaked ahead to see how far I had to go. I timed it wrong and ended up with the top half of my body hanging out over the edge of a wave. The resulting belly flop would have hurt less if I had been wearing a wetsuit. So I got through it in 1 hour and 28 minutes. Although that was slower than my previous best (1 hour and 26 minutes), I still consider that to be my best effort, when you factor in the lack of a wetsuit. I came out of the water in 1,143rd place out of about 2,800 athletes. Top half, I guess. For the rest of the day, my tongue felt swollen and burned from all of the salt water.

In swim-to-bike transition (T-1), I bumped into my coach, Carey Weaver. He helped me pick through my gear and reminded me that I had my calf compression sleeves in the bottom of the bag. Normally, I wear them under my wetsuit. But when wetsuits aren't allowed, you can't wear anything below the knees or past the shoulders. Had he not been there, I would likely have headed out without them. I don't know what that would mean, but I appreciate the help! I had allotted 10 minutes for both T-1 and T-2, but I got through in about 7 minutes. Out onto the bike.

The bike is where I have made the most progress. As my fitness has increased this year, my bike speed has really improved. My swim form is bad, so all the conditioning in the world won't help. And with my knee problems from the Army, my run never seems to get much better. I managed to stick to the bike plan pretty well. I targeted an average speed of 20.4 mph over the 112 miles course. Although my GPS watch gives me my average speed, it can still be hard to maintain a certain speed because of unintended stops. Things started out well. I guess I'm kind of a unique bird when it comes to triathlon--not too many people are as bad at the swim as I am, but can still knock out a decent pace on the bike. I spent a good chunk of the first half of the ride passing long lines of bikes. At one point, an official warned me about not getting back over to the right after a pass. The problem was that the space she had me slide into was small enough that I wouldn't have wanted to parallel park my bike in it. But you never argue with the ref. Just move on. There was a Dodge pickup truck that blocked me on three occasions. To give the driver credit, he got as far out into the middle of the road as he could while he was trying to get through, but the truck was too large for me to fit between it and the shoulder. The third time was the worst... he blocked me all the way down a hill, so I had no momentum going into the uphill. Yes, contrary to rumors, there are hills on the IMFL bike course.

Early in the ride, I caught a couple of very faint hints of what was to come: nausea. Again. Nothing major, and both times it went away fairly quickly. I was holding an average speed of a little over 21 mph and feeling pretty fresh. Not even the ten-minute downpour slowed me down, although I do have to say that at 24 mph, a decent rainfall feels quite a bit like sleet. Or maybe hail. Lucky that the course doesn't have a lot of sharp turns, so I didn't have to worry about the wheels sliding out from under me. The other thing I realized was going to affect my race was the heat and humidity. It's hard to feel it when you're holding a good pace on the bike, because the wind cools you off. I didn't even feel hot during the bike ride Labor Day weekend, when I raced a half-Iron triathlon in 95 degree heat. But I knew that when I got off the bike and started running, the humidity would be nasty.

I felt great until about 10 miles to go in the bike, and then the stomach problems hit me pretty hard. I reduced my speed and rolled into transition in 5 hours and 24 minutes, an Ironman record for me by 39 minutes. My average pace was 20.7 mph. I had moved from 1,143rd place overall, up to 481st place. I had passed nearly 700 people more than had passed me. Definitely rocked the bike. This time, I decided to take my time in T-2 (but still got through it in 6 minutes). I knew my original goals needed to be adjusted again because of the heat, and now especially because of my stomach. Ironman triathlon racing is different from other races. While you can get by in a 5k or even a half-marathon with an upset stomach, that just won't work in an IM. You have to constantly feed your body in order to keep your engine moving. If your stomach shuts down completely, your body will soon follow. So I got my run bag, headed into the changing area, and relaxed. While changing my shoes, I heard a strange sound, the kind of sound you hear at a bowling alley when someone drops their ball on concrete. Turns out, it was a guy at the water table passing out from a standing position and hitting his head on the floor. Believe it or not, they let him continue. I didn't see his number so I don't know if he finished.

So I hooked up my belt with my bottles of liquid nutrition and headed out onto the marathon course. My legs felt like bricks, of course, but soon I found my stride. My pace on the bike was fast, but not so fast that I had cooked my legs. But within the first two miles, I knew my chance of getting the time I wanted were gone. All the training in the world wasn't going to get my body to keep moving when I couldn't get any food down. I ended up not even trying to drink the stuff I brought. I stuck with water and Base Salt, and the things they have at the volunteer stations: cola, oranges, pretzels, and chips. I ran the first couple of miles, then had to walk for a bit. The run is two 13.1-mile loops, and for the rest of that first loop I mixed a slow run with a power walk. I saw some pretty interesting signs along the way, the funniest of which I probably shouldn't quote in here. The crowd support was also pretty solid early on. A surprising number of people recognized the AA on my jersey as being the 82nd Airborne. And there were enough people playing 80's hair band music to keep me motivated.

When I came in from the first loop, I headed into the Run Special Needs area. I dropped off my sunglasses, because I wouldn't need them for long, and got rid of my nutrition belt, which had gouged the sand in my shorts into my hip and left a nice rash. That was about the point when I came to realize just how many spots on my body had been rubbed raw. Next time I do a race with a salt water swim, I'm changing clothes afterward. The extra time would be worth keeping more of my skin with me at the finish line. This was also the point where another issue began to rear its ugly head. I had been dumping ice water on myself throughout the run to keep my body temperature down. Unfortunately, gravity has a bad habit of pulling things in a downward direction. By coincidence, my shoes, socks, and of course my feet were all directly beneath this gravitational mess. When I started mile 14, I realized that I could hear the water squishing around in my shoes with every step. At every volunteer station, I would grab more liquids, salts, and a little something to eat, but when I took off running (jogging) I could feel everything sloshing around in my stomach. Obviously not getting much fuel to my muscles.

Up through about mile 19, I managed to keep a pretty strong pace, all things considered. It wasn't the 9 minutes per mile pace I had planned on, but with the shape I was in, running at a 10 minute pace and walking at a sub-14 minute pace was actually not bad. Granted, my race times don't reflect that pace, because when you stop at the porta-potty the clock keeps ticking. Those last 7 miles, though, things changed again. I had depleted whatever energy was still in my body and couldn't maintain even a light jog for very far. My walking pace fell to 15 minutes+. The sand in my bike shorts was really getting painful at this point. I think by then, I was ready for the finish line to come and get me.

So I pushed on through, and somehow summoned up the energy to run in from a little over a mile out. Seeing the finish line once again gave me a bit of a boost and let me finish as if I'd been running all day, although in my finisher pics my face looks like I just stepped on a rusty nail. I think that last 100 yards of an Ironman is where athletes tell the biggest lie in sports. For 140.5 miles, you spend a grueling day of beating your body into the ground, pushing yourself to your utter limits. And then the finish line comes up, and you take off sprinting as if this was the easiest thing you've ever done. After all, they're taking pictures and videos, so you can't drag your ass down the red carpet. Internet video is forever! I had puzzled over my finisher pose through the whole marathon. I had promised Erica that next year, I would finish like the knights on Monty Python And The Holy Grail: gallop through the chute as if I was on a horse, then cross the line and "dismount." I almost decided to do it this year, but I settled for my original plan: a celebration of Ozzie Smith's "Go Crazy Folks" moment. If you aren't a fan of Cardinals baseball, it might be lost on you. And in fact, I was so weak by then that if I hadn't told you, I bet you probably wouldn't recognize it for what it was. I finished the marathon in 5 hours and 47 minutes... over 100 minutes slower than I had planned. Big disappointment after all the extra training this season. But the important takeaway: I finished. I was in 879th place out of 2800. My final time of 12 hours and 54 minutes was 11 minutes off my best, and well over 90 minutes short of my goal. But I finished.

I went up to the room and showered, then kicked my aching legs up and tried to relax for a bit. A blister on the back of my heel (a present from the bike ride) was apparently still bleeding, because it glued itself to my sock. And it's too big for Band-Aids, so I'm stuck with wearing flip-flops. I finally managed to eat a sandwich, which for me is a post-IM first because of the problems with my stomach. Then we went back to the finish line and sat in the rain, watching for Jim to finish. He came charging across the red carpet, gave a nice fist pump for the cameras, and became an Ironman. Very proud of him! All that was left was to eat breakfast at the Waffle House the next morning, and our journey was complete.

The next afternoon, Jim and I went back over to the Ironman Village to try to exchange his finisher shirt, which was the wrong size. All of the IM staff had left, so he was out of luck (that problem has since been resolved). We headed back to my hotel and were standing in the lobby, waiting for one of the elevators. As we stepped into one elevator, the doors for another one across the hall opened and two guys rolled a long cart out, with something on top tucked under a blanket. Of course, with my background, I had to make a joke about how someone from the race didn't make it. As the cart came out completely into view, I realized it really was a dead person. A dead person being wheeled out of our hotel, by the Coroner's Office. Don't know the details. Yet.

Next year, I'm already signed up for Ironman Louisville, my 4th full-distance IM race. I plan to train hard for it, but not as hard as I did this year (thank you, Jill, for putting up with all those long hours!). And for my race plan, I'm going to keep the pace below what I think I'm capable of, and just run a nice, leisurely race, one that might allow me to enjoy the race.

I really want to thank Jill again for her patience (and permission, of course) in putting up with my IM training. During the peak time, I put in about 18 hours in one week. That's a lot of time away from home, especially with a full-time job. This year, I had the added pleasure of having her oldest brother, Mike, and his wife, Beth, come down to watch the fun. They had a great time, and they helped to support Jim in his race. I can't imagine trying to tackle something of this magnitude without a full support staff to back me up. Thank you, everyone!
Me with Coach Carey weaver. Under his guidance, every race I ran this year had a personal best record in at least one discipline... in some of the races, a personal record in every discipline. Thanks for everything, Carey!
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