As many of you know in late May Carrie and I travelled to Houston, Texas so that I could make my Ironman 140.6 debut at the inaugural Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas.
I have to admit that one of the things I was most looking forward to, if I could finish, was hearing Mike Reilly (“The Voice of Ironman”) welcome me to the finish line with his trademark phrase. “Ben Schorr…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” If only I could finish.
Of course I’d made the challenge a little bit harder by turning my ankle pretty badly about 10 days before the race. Well, taper settled. I spent much of those 10 days walking with a cane and hoping to recover enough to race. Either way…I was already committed to going to Houston so I figured worst case I’d show up and be an IronSherpa for my friends.
Getting to Houston was the first part of the battle. I didn’t want to pay $200 (shame on you U.S. Airways!) to take my bike on the plane so I put her in her bike box and shipped her via UPS to the Bike Barn in Champions. That turned out to be not as good a deal as I expected as it cost about $130 to UPS the bike there…still cheaper than the $200 to take her on the plane and this way I didn’t have to schlep her through the airport.
That done a few days later Carrie and I made our way down to Phoenix to catch our US Airways flight to Houston. The flight went smoothly and shortly after 1PM we were in Houston, Texas making our way to Avis to pick up our rented Ford F-150 crew cab.
[Click on any picture to enlarge it]
Let me say one thing now about the big brown Ford…I know they’re Ironman sponsors and you see their sort of cheesy ads all over the Kona coverage but…it’s really the PERFECT vehicle for Ironman racing. We got 4 bikes in the back without taking the wheels off and had PLENTY of room for other gear. We got 4 adult triathletes AND a driver in the front and everybody was comfortable. It had power, legroom…just all-around perfectly suited to the task.
Our Home Stay
From the airport we went directly to Deborah’s home.
A quick bit of background – as you probably know Carrie and I moved from Honolulu to Flagstaff last year. Well I still have a number of great triathlete friends in Honolulu and three of them (IronGene, SuperTrish and Diana who needs a slick and socially acceptable nickname) were coming to do Ironman Texas. Along with them was a friend of theirs (and new friend of mine) Nick. Nick’s actually from Spring, Texas and his mother Deborah still owns a big beautiful home here. She very graciously threw open her doors to our ragtag band of triathletes and hosted us for the week.
I’ve had impeccable luck with homestays for races. Last year I enjoyed my friend Chris’s great hospitality for Ironman 70.3 Austin. This time Deborah turned on the southern hospitality to host us for Ironman Texas. I’m very grateful for both of them (and we still have a guest room if any of you want to come visit Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon!)
For the first day or so we settled into the house, made a grocery run to stock up on what we’d need for the days before the race and the race itself and swung down to Bike Barn in Champions to pick up Keira.
I want to give a little love to the guys at Bike Barn. They did a great job putting Keira together, were friendly and helpful on the 2-3 trips we made to see them for last-minute supplies and even gave SuperTrish and Diana’s bikes quick tweaks pre-race for free. Bike Barn will definitely be my bike shop of choice if I ever need a bike shop in Houston again.
On Thursday morning we loaded the bikes into the F-150 and drove to The Woodlands to get an easy practice ride on the actual bike course. We got to where the expo is, parked, unloaded the bikes and set off…and it’s possible that we actually criss-crossed the actual bike course once or twice. Whatever it was there were two things that were readily apparent:
- We had no idea where the actual bike course was.
- My navigational skills in the Woodlands, Texas are pretty poor.
Well, whatever. We enjoyed a pretty good 40 minute or so ride and made it back to the truck in plenty of time. The others took off for a 20-minute easy run but I wasn’t going to tempt fate on my dodgy ankle. I’d run a few tentative steps outside Bike Barn the day before and was still questioning if I’d be able to run much on Saturday.
[Top Picture: IronGene waits for the light to turn green while Diana points out something. Bottom Picture: SuperTrish flashes her famous smile.]
[Left Picture: The bike entry/exit to the transition area. The racks are for the bikes, the tent in the distance is the changing tent. Right Picture: the swim exit on the canal. The apparatus you see along the shore to the right are steps to help us get out of the water. Somewhat disconcerting – the yellow sign you can see on the shore just beyond the steps cautions “No swimming!” Umm…o.k.]
I have to admit…I really like getting that blue wristband clipped on that identifies you as an Ironman competitor. Yes, it’s a little annoying and this time I remembered to put it on my left wrist since I wear my watch on the right, but at the same time…you feel like you’re part of a special club or something. Everywhere you go you see other athletes with their blue wristbands and you exchange a knowing glance. You’re all in this together.
That wristband stays put until after the race – you’re not allowed to remove it until post-race so the race officials know that you’re a competitor. Some people leave theirs on for weeks afterwards. I think I had mine cut off by Sunday afternoon.
The Expo at Ironman Texas is an outdoor affair under the tents. We got checked in, bought a few souvenirs (I had to get my traditional bike jersey) then headed back to the house for relaxation.
“Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles, brag for the rest of your life.”
– Commander John Collins, pre-race instructions to the 15 entrants for the first Ironman.
After the dinner we headed home for what sleep we could get.
Friday – T-24 Hours
Friday morning they were letting us get in the water for a practice on the actual swim course. We weren’t allowed to swim the ENTIRE course – just as well, nobody wants to do 2.4 miles the day before the race – but we could at least get in the water and go a few hundred meters. Gene, Trish, Diana and I made our way down to the swim area to give it a go.
We checked our gear, waded down the boat ramp into the water and plunged in…
…to darkness. The water was a murky, muddy brown. It wasn’t terribly cold and it didn’t taste or smell particularly bad, but visibility was almost zero. When you were swimming you couldn’t see your hand on the pull.
The rest of the group made an 800 meter or so loop. I’m not super comfortable in the water so I just stroked easily back and forth between the boat ramp and one of the buoys, just getting comfortable, getting accustomed to the water, relaxing. I may have done 150-200 meters. It was plenty for me.
After we finished our swim we headed back up to the truck where Carrie was waiting and drove over to the transition area to check in our bikes. We got them to their appointed spots on the racks, gave them an affectionate pat goodbye (tell me I’m not the only one who does that?) and headed back to Deborah’s house to relax for the rest of the day. It was just after noon.
Back at the house we laid out our gear, prepared food for our special needs bags (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on potato bread for me) and put our feet up. We spent most of the afternoon watching movies including “Caddyshack” and…one or two others I don’t remember anymore.
Finally around 8PM we straggled back to our rooms and lay down to try and sleep. I actually slept fairly well considering – usually the night before a race I’m too anxious/excited to really sleep much. But this night I’d say I got a pretty decent sleep all things considered.
Up and at ‘em. It was race morning and we wanted to be at the transition area to get set-up by 0530. We got dressed in our gear, nervously nibbled on whatever we were going to have for breakfast and headed out to the Big Brown Ford for the 20 minute drive to the Woodlands. I was sipping Spiz all morning and I had a large Red Bull that I sucked down about 45 minutes before the race start.
At this point I’d decided that the ankle felt good enough to swim. I decided I’d go ahead and start the race, do the swim and see how it felt when I came out of the water. If I felt like I could get on the bike then I’d get on the bike and see how it went. If I finished the bike I’d see how it felt in T2. If it felt like I could start the run I’d get on the course and see how far I could go. Hopefully it would be 140.6.
Once at transition we loaded our race nutrition onto our bicycles, turned in our bike and run bags, checked our tire pressure and then…wait…gotta check the bike again. O.K., let’s head ov…no, wait, gotta check the bike again. O.K., O.K….off to the swim start we went.
Unfortunately we had to walk from T2 to the swim start. A half mile or so that would become all-too-familiar to us since later the same trek would be on our run course and we’d pass it three more times.
Snafu #1 – Do you see my Garmin watch in my pictures? Nope…you won’t. I forgot it back at Deborah’s house. It was still on the charger. O.K., so I won’t be at the mercy of the cruel dictator of the watch. In some ways I think that turned out to be a GOOD thing.
Once at the swim start area the nerves were really firing. We got our numbers drawn on and waited in epic porta-potty lines until finally Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, called us down to the water’s edge to get ready for the start.
Suddenly this song comes on the loudspeakers and you know it’s game on…
Was I nervous? Well…maybe a little.
What the heck was I nervous about?
Oh. Yeah, that’s what.
The Swim (2.4 Miles/3.8Km)
The gun goes off and 2500 triathletes all started to swim towards the same distant buoy. An Ironman swim is a full-contact sport. You hit people, they hit you. You swim over people, they swim over you. Everything is allowed. Most of it is incidental contact but that doesn’t make you feel a lot better when you get kicked in the face.
TIP: I tend to start at the back and outside, where there’s less traffic. I’m a slow swimmer, so I let the faster swimmers take off and go ahead, and that way I find calmer water and fewer flying fists.
There I go…nice high-elbow recovery. Notice the lady above with the snorkel? I didn’t even know snorkels were legal. Didn’t see very many of them –maybe a couple – usually being used by people I was passing. I have to admit that I tend to take sort of a dim view of people who use a snorkel in an Ironman swim. Just feels wrong somehow. Oh well.
The swim course took us down the lake about 1600 meters, then around a couple of buoys and back down the other side of the lake about 1400 meters and finally we made a right turn into a canal for the last 800 meters or so. The 1600 meters going out felt o.k., I found a couple of guys in wetsuits to draft off for a while, though 100 meters or so from the turn they sort of broke up and fell behind. The 1400 meters coming back felt ENDLESS. I kept peeking my eyes up to see if the canal was coming any time soon. It wasn’t.
TIP: If you can find some feet to follow you can draft off them and it lets you go faster with less effort. Drafting is LEGAL in the swim segment of an Ironman and you can get a benefit even as far as 19 feet back. Be careful not to smack people’s feet or swim up the back of anybody though.
The lack of visibility presented a special challenge in the crowded waters…it was hard to tell if you were right alongside somebody or about to run into them. Since you could barely see to the end of your own arm it was pretty easy to find yourself suddenly in the middle of a pod of other swimmers and having to take some evasive action.
I got hit a couple of times, but nothing too dramatic.
(Yes, that’s me in the photo on the right)
The canal is pretty shallow – barely 4 feet deep – but the bottom was mucky and we were warned that there could be rebar or broken glass down there so I was reluctant to put my feet down. It was strangely comforting to know we could if we needed to though.
The biggest problem in the canal was the crowd. On a couple of occasions I had to pull up and tread water for a few moments because I found myself boxed in by slower swimmers (slower than ME?!?!). Finally I managed to find a way to get around them and press on.
Coming to the ladder exits I felt pretty o.k. about my swim. Wasn’t record breaking but I felt like I’d done what I came to do. Imagine my surprise to discover I’d swum a 1:55. Fully 10-15 minutes slower than I’d been hoping for. I’d allowed myself up to 2 hours for the swim but hadn’t really expected to cut it THAT close. Other friends who did the race said their swim was pretty slow too so I’m hoping it’s just a slow course and that the crowded canal accounts for my extra-sluggish time.
I cruised into T1, got changed into my bike kit, got a generous slathering of sunscreen (my arms aren’t normally that white) and took Keira out for a little spin in the Texas countryside.
- If you don’t like zero-visibility water, you might not want to do this race.
- The lake was a little choppy on practice morning, but it was a bit calmer on race morning.
- Though there were plenty of kayaks and other support people I didn’t see them much during the swim. Compared to IM Hawaii 70.3 (and even Austin 70.3) where I saw one almost every time I turned to breathe.
- Wetsuits were optional for this race. If you chose to wear one you had to enter the water across a different timing mat and you were disqualified from awards or Kona slots. This came back to bite at least one competitor who took 2nd in her age group but was denied a Kona slot because she’d chosen to wear a wetsuit.
The Bike (112 Miles)
I actually felt pretty good getting started on the bike. I was on-pace, the ankle felt o.k., it was a nice overcast morning so the heat wasn’t too high and I quickly settled in for a long cruise in the saddle. I had allowed myself 7 hours and 30 minutes for this segment in my race plan.
The ride takes you through some pretty nice sections of the Texas countryside. Most of it is on small roads past farms and ranches, with a nice stretch in the middle through the Sam Houston National Forest. There are aid stations every 10 miles where helpful volunteers run to pass you bottles of water or Ironman Perform.
Drafting is not allowed, but as you go you do tend to settle into mini-packs (at a legal distance, of course) with other athletes who are riding at around your same pace. Those little groups are great as you tend to chat a bit, swap wisecracks, give each other encouragement and just generally keep morale up.
“Hey, we’re doing an Ironman! How cool is that?”
It was nice to chat with John, Forrest and brother Vu (who had an unfortunate rear derailleur problem that he had to battle for nearly the entire ride)
Just past halfway was an aid station where they had our Bike Special Needs bags. I decided to stop and get my bag. Those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sounded pretty good at that point and sure enough, they hit the spot. I ate one and stuck the other in the back pocket of my bike jersey for later. I also swapped out my water bottles – at this point nearly empty – for new bottles, preloaded with powdered Spiz.
TIP: You do *NOT* get your special needs bags back after the race is over. So don’t put anything in there you care about. I anticipate this and carried throwaway water bottles for the first half of the ride, putting my nicer ones in the bags so that I’d finish the ride with those on my bike.
To that point my ankle was holding up well, though around mile 75 I started to feel it a bit. Not so bad that I’d stop, but at the top of my pedal stroke on the right side I could feel it start to ache a little. I was glad for the Aleve I’d taken preemptively.
For the most part the road surface was pretty good. At a couple of places we were entering or exiting bridges and there was a bump to go over. You could always spot those places because a few yards past the bump would be a little field of debris from the cyclists who had come through and had their water bottles, nutrition, even sunglasses jarred loose and scattered to the roadway.
Around mile 85 though we hit a section that was really rough. It felt like somebody had just blacktopped over a gravel road without bothering to sweep off the gravel. It was a pretty unpleasant section to ride over, slow and rough – felt like it was going to rattle my sunglasses right off my face. And by now the sun was coming out… Needless to say I was starting to look forward to getting off the bike. The last 15-20 miles were a pretty tough slog for me.
Finally we got back to the Woodlands and were into the last few miles of the ride. I came across another rider who was by the side of the road and looking a bit unsteady. “You O.K.?” I called out as I rolled past. “No.” He replied. “I’ll send you some help” I called back as I rode on.
Half a mile further up there was a policeman stopping traffic at an intersection. I rode up to him, told him there was a fellow half a mile back who apparently needed help and he got on his radio to call it in. As I pushed on the officer thanked me and said that an ambulance was on its way to check on the fellow.
Finally we made the last turn and I could see the entrance to T2 ahead. I reached down, tugged loose the velcro straps holding my shoes closed, and pulled my feet out of my bike shoes, resting them on top of the shoes as I gently pedaled the last 50 yards or so to the dismount line.
When I arrived at the dismount line I hopped off Keira and walked towards the bike catchers, starting to gauge my ankle. I passed off the bike, unsnapped my helmet and started an easy trot through the grass towards the run bags and the changing tents. I decided I was o.k. to start the run, grabbed my bag and ducked into the tent.
Once in the tent I found an empty chair and proceeded to sit there for a few minutes just catching my breath and getting some fluids in. It had gotten hot. Eventually I struggled out of my bike kit and into run clothes – I had decided to make a full kit change in each transition in order to try and be more comfortable. I knew it was going to be a long, hot, day and I figured the extra few minutes changing clothes would be worth it. It was.
Eventually I got my run clothes on, scarfed down the second peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my bike bag, grabbed the Red Bull I’d stashed in my Bike-to-Run bag and headed out the door. Bike time…7:05. Not great, but well under what I’d allowed myself.
- The course was somewhat hillier than expected. Even the course profile didn’t really do it justice. There wasn’t anything particularly steep but there was enough hill to be challenging.
- The locals seemed pretty patient, despite the fact that in several places they were held up in long traffic lines waiting for bikes to come through.
- Seen on the course: “Congratulations, you’re an Ironman…and broke.”
Run (26.2 Miles)
Coming out onto the run I was feeling pretty good. I knew I still had a big challenge ahead of me but I was glad to be back among the crowds for the three loop run and still on pace to have a chance to finish.
Here I am leaving T2. I’ve got my Red Bull in my hand and my pockets stuffed with sandwiches and pretzels. Spirits are pretty high at this point, though I can already tell that I won’t be able to run much of this race.
The run course is actually pretty nice. Through the neighborhoods, along a road past the swim start, more residential streets, down a wooded path, along side the lake for a bit, then another neighborhood before emerging back into the Woodlands Marketplace for a couple of miles along the canals, with cheering crowds much of the way. Then…a right turn out onto the loop and start it all over again. 3 laps.
Along the way you meet some pretty neat people.
Rodney is a teacher and high school volleyball coach from Texas who was doing his 3rd Ironman. Like me he was hobbled by an injury so he was forced to walk much of the race. We spent about 12 miles together mostly walking, occasionally challenging each other to jog for a little ways, mostly just chatting, swapping stories and enjoying the day.
Even though he had done two previous Ironman races Mike Reilly had never called him an Ironman.
Rodney was a lap ahead of me though so I was going to have to do the last lap on my own. Towards the end of his last lap (and my 2nd) we encountered Eric who was really struggling and not sure he could make it. We invited him to come along with us and for a little ways he did, but eventually he dropped back. I’m not sure what happened to Eric, but I checked the results later and, even though I never got his last name, I’m pretty sure he made it.
Coming down the last stretch Rodney and I wished each other luck and he set off down the finish chutes as I veered right to start my 3rd lap. I couldn’t hear it at the time but later Rodney confirmed…Mike Reilly called him an Ironman this time. Cool.
The 3rd lap is the loneliest lap. Not only was Rodney done but so were a lot of people. The first two laps you have a lot of company, but by the 3rd lap it’s dark and you’re out there more or less by yourself. Occasionally you pass another racer and the spectators and aid stations are still doing their best to rock but there’s a lot of time to get into your own head.
I passed the time, just trying to stay positive. I didn’t have a watch but I had a general idea of the time and I figured if I just maintained a steady pace I could make it. I walked mostly, ran a little.
When I got to the right turn where you enter the wooded path I saw something that almost stopped me dead in my tracks. I wish I’d had a camera. The woods were completely pitch black…but the race folks had taken multi-colored glow sticks, lit them up and laid them across the path about 18 inches apart. Looking into the woods all you could see was this incredible rainbow-colored path of phosphorescent lines winding and stretching into the distance. I’d never seen anything like it and it made me glad (momentarily) to be so slow on the day. If I’d finished with Rodney I’d never have seen that.
I ran (well, trotted) easily down the path, taking in the beauty of it, before emerging on the other end and going thru the lakeside aid station. From there I found myself gradually catching and passing a small stream of other athletes.
“Come on, we’re going to make it!” I’d say reassuringly as I passed.
“Mike’s been waiting all day to call our names. Let’s not keep him waiting!” I told a few.
Step by step our tired but merry little band of stragglers pressed on through the night. Each aid station felt familiar and marked another mile closer to our goal. Finally onto the canals you could HEAR the finish line party, still going strong. Music blaring, Mike Reilly on the PA system, crowds cheering. We’re almost there. Up the hill, past the transitions, one turn, past some crowds, then a left turn into the Marketplace the finish chutes.
The crowds are going nuts and I passed a woman who was laboring to jog it in. “Come on, let’s take it in!” I said with a pat on the shoulder as I passed. She smiled and held her pace.
At this point I have to admit…I wanted to finish alone. I wanted Mike to call my name and not just a bunch of people finishing together. A bit selfish maybe. I looked ahead and there wasn’t anybody else ahead of me to the finish line. The only person close behind was the lady I just passed and I picked up my pace a bit to add a little distance. She should get her own spotlight for her finish too I rationalized.
The finish line at Ironman is amazing. Lights, crowds, music…and over the loudspeaker as I approached I heard Mike Reilly say…
“He’s 42 years old, from Honolulu, Hawaii. BEN SCHORR! Congratulations…you’re an Ironman!”
Wow…what a feeling. 16:21:27.
- The aid stations on the run course are like a rolling buffet. Water, Ironman Perform, bananas, oranges, cookies, pretzels, gels. One aid station had burgers! (I didn’t have one). After the sun goes down most of the aid stations also have warm chicken broth. Rodney encouraged me to give it a try but I decided not to. The only way you can run out of nutrition on the course is if you’re not helping yourself at the aid stations.
- At the 9 and 18 mile marks on the run you get a chance to get into your Run Special Needs bag. I decided to just skip it – I was making good progress and didn’t feel like I needed the Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches I’d stashed in there.
- The crowds along the run course were great. I was surprised how many of them were still out there at 11PM when most of the race was already finished.
- Seen on the course: A ton of signs for somebody named “Brent”. Not sure who he is but his friends sure spent a lot of time making signs.
- The ankle was a little sore but held up o.k. I actually had just as much problem with blisters on both feet. I’ll have to reexamine my sock/shoe situation before Ironman Arizona.
It was an amazing experience. Going into the race I was quietly wondering if I’d made a mistake in already signing up for Ironman Arizona. I was worried that I might hate it – that the suffering on the course might be too much but that I was already committed to put myself through it all over again in November. By the finish line there was no thoughts of that. I loved it. Can’t wait for Ironman Arizona where I hope to go somewhat faster than the hobbling 16:21:27 I managed in Texas.
By the way…Gene, Trish, Diana and Nick all finished too. SuperTrish ended up blasting a 10:47:49 getting 3rd in her age group and qualifying for Kona. Diana rocked her first Ironman with a 13:35:42. IronGene battled the elements but still came up with an 11:28:24 and 30th in his age group (out of 140 finishers). Nick was right behind Diana with a 13:43:43.
What made the experience extra-special though was the love and support of my Team Hawaii friends Gene, Trish & Diana and new friend Nick. The camaraderie of Forrest, Vu, John, Eric and especially Rodney. The wonderful hospitality of Nick’s mom Deborah and the other folks in Spring and Woodlands, Texas. My family and friends across the globe who offered words of support and encouragement including Patricia, Meredith, Jana, Nicole, Michael, my parents Morris and Sharon, Brian and my BC Endurance crew back in Hawaii, Lora, Freddie, Erin, Hannah and the rest of the TnT gang in Flagstaff, Michael and the Red Rock Racing crew and many many others.
Most of all, of course, my beautiful wife Carrie who was the best IronSpouse a guy could ask for. Cheerful, loving and supportive every step of the way even though she had a ton of her own work to do. You’re amaZing sweetheart and I love you with every bit of me.
Photos from Others:
- Training Peaks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trainingpeaks/sets/72157626672107133/
- Lava Magazine: http://lavamagazine.com/racing/new-sheriffs-in-town-llanos,-morrison-win-inaugural-ironman-texas#axzz1R5l7KRqo
- Lava Magazine Photo Gallery: http://lavamagazine.com/features/gallery-heat-in-the-woodlands#axzz1N1vwIs1k