I have been quietly putting in the running miles for Tunnel Hill 100 in November. As I run, I have a lot of time to think about the enormity of running 100 miles – the training, the race, the external needs, etc. I attempted the 100-mile run in 2021, but ultimately dropped at the 50-mile finish and was allowed to accept the 50-mile finisher award. I was warned as a 100-mile registrant to resist the urge to quit at 50 by many different people but quit I did. I’m not ashamed of it at all, as completing 50 miles is a pretty impressive accomplishment. But as all of the people warning me indicated, I would regret it sooner or later. For me, it was sooner. By the time I had gotten to the hotel, cleaned up, and had some food, I was already regretting it. I felt that I let myself down, my son and my daughter-in-law who had come to pace me, and my wife who was there for support and provide all the dumb things I needed to go 100 miles. They were there and ready to do their jobs, I just didn’t do mine.
Continuing past the 50-mile mark while attempting to hit 100 should have been a no-brainer. I often say that the hardest part of any run is taking the first step, as once you get started you often will finish the job. But I just didn’t take that first step past the halfway point. I spent miles 30 to 49 debating with myself as to whether to drop at 50 0r keep going. I vacillated back and forth many times, but at the time I was worn out, tired and sore and felt that going on would have been rough on me. I guess I was afraid of what was to come and getting the 50-mile finish was a pretty good consolation prize. Until it wasn’t.
I have spent many a training mile thinking about the mistake or mistakes I made last time, but I am reluctant to call them mistakes. I think that making improvements on what happened would be more productive, so I am focusing on the positive and trying to make improvements. Here are some of the things I have been thinking about improving upon.
DO THE APPROPRIATE TRAINING – My first attempt at Tunnel Hill in 2021 became a secondary event to Ironman Chattanooga when Covid-19 messed up my plans and put the two races in the same calendar year. Nothing I could do about it, but at the time I chose to make Chatty my priority, and focus my training on the Ironman and hope that it would be enough to get me through the ultramarathon. I’m not totally convinced that the Ironman training I was doing wasn’t enough to get me through 100 miles, but it’s really hard to substitute swimming/biking/running for just long-running. This time I decided to focus my training on just doing the ultra. I haven’t even raced a sprint triathlon or 5K this year, I’m just doing long, slow distance running.
TRAIN THE BRAIN – Ironman can be emboldening, making you believe that “anything is possible” (a motto of theirs), so I thought that if I can finish an Ironman (or now five of them) I can easily get through an ultra. Boy, I underestimated the ultra distance and what it took mentally to get through it. Pushing on was something I wasn’t able to do. How do you get over that mental hurdle? I’m still trying to figure it out, but for now, I keep pushing myself out the door when I need to do so. In marathon training, you typically build to one 20-mile training run before the race. I’ve done several 18-milers and a couple of 20-mile runs so far, with many more to do. I need to get those distances in not only for my legs but for my mind as well. I’m guessing with the miles I run and the time I put into them, my mind will get used to being along for the ride.
Right now it’s summer and it’s been a hot and humid one too. I have to resist the temptation to judge where I will be in November based on where I’m at now. My brain sometimes tells me that I’m going to struggle with this, but it’s all because I’m currently struggling with heat and humidity. Got to get through the plan and get close to race day, then I will know where I stand.
USE THE GADGETS – I acquired what I thought I might need to run long distances – shoes with more cushion, shoe gaiters, trekking poles, headlamps, portable watch and phone chargers, and other odds and ends, but I haven’t really used them much. Last year I did use the lights from about mile 35 to 50, but I wasn’t used to running with them. I did very little training running with lights, and they can be kind of weird. Some runners say that the bouncing movement of the light from a headlamp can make them feel a little unbalanced. I didn’t really have a problem with that, but I can see it having a strobe light-type effect. I did practice with the watch charger in training last year, but having a new watch with better battery life might make them unnecessary. I think the watch will last the full 100 miles. But I should probably refresh myself on how to use them while running.
DO SOME NIGHTTIME RUNNING – My wife Kari “coaches” me often with thoughtful suggestions, and one of them that I could benefit from is doing some nighttime running. Tunnel Hill starts at 7am in November and you had daylight until about 4:30pm, so not even 10 hours of sunlight. The majority of the race will be run in the dark. Last year it was so dark in southern Illinois that without the light I couldn’t see anything. There were people coming back to finish 50 miles without lights and I had no idea how they were staying on the path! Some practice running at night with lights would be a good idea. But I think she is also suggesting that I run at night when it’s the time of day that I’m getting tired. I don’t really remember feeling “sleepy” tired last year, thanks to caffeine, more of a fatigued muscles-type tired. But it is a good suggestion. I will suggest that she join me.
RE-EVALUATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS – Last year I had no idea what to expect and just going off of what my training leading up to the race was telling me, I foolishly thought that a sub-24-hour finish was probable. Heck, I was averaging 5.5 miles every hour in training and thinking a sub-20-hour finish might happen! Man, did that race teach me a lesson. I did happen to finish the 50 in 11 hours and 32 minutes, but there was no way I was going to be able to do another 12-hour 50 miles. The experience from last year has made me adjust my expectations a little. I’m still going to shoot for around 24 hours, but the overall goal, and one I can’t overlook, IS TO FINISH THE DAMN DISTANCE!
WHAT THE PACE? – One of the crucial elements of running 100 miles is going at a pace that won’t kill you too soon, and I think I blew this part of it last year. That’s a surprising statement seeing that my local friends all went out much faster than me for the first 25 miles of it. It was quite a shock to be bringing up the rear when I was holding a sub-20 pace myself! With the exception of Leah, who turned in and impressive 22:54, Jim ended up slowing and dropping out around the 70 mile mark, and Jodi seemed to run out of gas as well, but added another exceptional finish to her ultra running resume. I think that they tend to run until they can’t any more, and then walk some to recover. I try to build walk breaks into my miles by run/walking, essentially running four minutes and then walking for 2. But am I doing enough walking?
As I mentioned above, I could hold 5.5 miles/hour fairly well, which gave me the expectations of easily going sub-24, but I tired and ended up slowing down in the last 15 miles pretty dramatically. I settled on a 4-minute run/2-minute walk method in order to give me a break and keep me from overdoing it. But I think it was still too fast. Since I hit the 5-mile mark around 50 minutes, I have tinkered with walking the remaining 10-minutes of every hour. This will give me an additional extended walking break, and still keep me on track. I will see how this goes.
GET THE NUTRITION DIALED IN – In my five Ironman races I have been fortunate to have been pretty consistent with my in-race nutritional needs. For some reason, I just struggle with it during training. Lately I have been a little better, but on race days I tend to skip eating solid food when I shouldn’t. Sometimes what the race is offering isn’t all that appetizing to me. Sometimes I don’t eat enough. My two Backyard Ultra races this year I struggled both times with getting enough food, even though I was trying to do better. It’s tough to run on a full stomach, so I might have to experiment with eating more over a longer period of time, rather than just scarfing down a bunch of food in a 2-3 minute break.
So there you have it, I’m sticking to the plan, trusting it, doing the work, and trying to avoid the mistakes. I just hope I’m not overthinking it. Future updates to follow, I’m sure. Thanks for reading.
I have to start by saying thanks to WausaUltra, the race directors, the staff, and the volunteers for hosting such a great event. Everything was well done. They made everyone feel welcome and became our biggest fans, even if we only made a handful of yards. They made me feel like I had a slim chance of winning. Ha!
On Facebook, the staff was welcoming everyone who had signed up with a short video and I was a little surprised at my welcome, as the guy thought that being 58 years old and doing this event was an amazing feat. Listen up, whippersnapper! I’m not old!
I drove to Wausau on Thursday afternoon and took a look around. I wanted to make sure I knew how to get there, and also know how long the drive would be from Minocqua.
Friday morning I got around and made it to the park in plenty of time to get set up. I opted for my one-man pop-up tent just because it would be easier to set up and tear down. The runners started trickling in and you could start to feel the excitement. This group seemed to be pretty serious about going deep into the event.
We heard the 3-minute warning just before 10 am and everyone made their way to the corral for the start. The weather was cool, and there was no rain for now. It was shaping up to be a good day.
The start is somewhat anti-climatic as the first twenty yards after the pavilion area was very wet, and the road quickly became a hill. So there was no bolting out of the chute, we walked it.
I ran the first yard to get the lay of the land and then took my phone along for the second one to snap some photos. The first part of the course was crushed granite road and trail and was uphill. All uphill portions were walked.
So that is the course in pictures, which show what we dealt with better than I could explain it. It was a challenging course for sure.
The first few loops went pretty well, but I still struggled with sweating too much. It was tough to balance it because it was very cool in the higher parts of the course and warm on the climbs and lower parts. I eventually ended up shedding the pants I started with and swapped my trail shoes out for my regular running shoes for some additional toe space.
My big mistake however, was not taking in enough hydration and electrolytes. I don’t know why I have this dialed in so well for an Ironman but can be clueless when attempting these backyard events.
The fifth yard became my nemesis. I was giving some consideration as to how many more yards I could get through, and figured that I would attempt at least 2-3 more. But I started to get some hamstring and calf cramping here and there toward mile three and I wasn’t so sure anymore. When I came to the little wooden bridge section in the latter part of the 3rd mile of the fifth yard I wasn’t worried about it at all – it wasn’t technical, nor really anything that you had to concentrate all that hard about. But my tired legs must have kept my foot from clearing something and I tripped, falling flat onto the boards and bouncing into the moist dirt next to it. It happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to really catch or brace myself. I hit pretty hard and was almost in shock by it. I struggled to get myself up, as I now found myself cramping pretty badly. I knew I had to get to my feet and keep moving. That’s when I got very light-headed and quickly grabbed a tree to keep from falling again. After a brief moment I was able to collect myself and start walking again, taking an assessment of the damage I had done. I had a scraped knee and a cartoon-sized bump on my left forearm, but other than that I wasn’t in any significant pain.
As I made the last little uphill climb to the finish area, a guy standing there asked if I was okay. I told him that I fell and he went and told the staff. I made it to the finish and told the others there that I had banged myself up. Staffer Ellen was kind enough to get me an ice bag for my swollen arm and bandaged up my knee. I was advised that I still had about five minutes left to get ready for the next loop, but I told them there was no way. My two or three more yards estimate was immediately quashed as soon as I got up from that fall. I decided right there and then that I would not push my luck. Had I fallen on those rocks it could have really messed me up, and I wasn’t prepared to go back out there being behind on my hydration and energy.
I let the 3-2-1 minute countdown pass and stood and watched the others parade by. My day was done. I went over and rang the DNF bell of shame and then began the two hour packing up process to head home. Five yards, and a little more than 20 miles. It was less than I was expecting to do, but not too bad for this difficult course. The day sure made for a great and memorable experience.
NOTES FOR NEXT TIME
This was a very technical course. I need to practice that type of terrain more.
Running downhill wasn’t too bad here, but it always wears my quads out quickly. Maybe add some leg press strength work or run more downhills in training.
Get that nutrition/hydration/electrolytes figured out.
Make sure my wife is there to help me! It was tough without a crew member.
I really enjoyed this event and I will definitely be back in the future. Thanks for reading!
BIG HILL BONK – WISCONSIN’S BACKYARD ULTRA – LAST RUNNER STANDING RACE REPORT
April Fool’s Day can be cruel and fun at the same time, and since the second running of the Big Hill Bonk happened to occur on April 1st, thirty-one runners including myself set out to do some foolhardy running through the woods of Beloit, Wisconsin. Foolish as it may seem to run an unknown and unlimited amount of 4.167-mile trips around the park, it was also a ton of fun. April Fool’s Day treated us to a cold morning start, and a campsite with an inch of snow on the ground to place our tents upon, but that didn’t seem to bother any of us. The day would stay sunny all day long and warm up to the mid-forties providing a mostly comfortable day of running.
Kari and I set up our tent and I made my way into the Welty Center to check in and get my bib and swag. I said hello to the race director Tyler, made my way over to the table, and was greeted by Tyler’s dad, who knew my name and said he loved reading my blog posts about training for last year’s race. I’m always surprised when someone tells me they have read my blog. It wouldn’t be the last time I was greeted with “you’re the guy with the blog!” A travel coffee mug with the Big Hill Bonk on it was the swag in place of a t-shirt this year, and I gladly filled it up with some warm coffee and made my way back to the tent to get off my feet and keep warm, thanks to a little propane-fueled camp heater I picked up just for this occasion.
I believe I was one of three who had run the 2021 inaugural edition of the Big Hill Bonk to return for some more “fun” in 2022. Of course, the other two returning runners were last year’s winner Jon, and another runner named Zac, who would be the one to make sure Jon didn’t have a walk in the park win this time around. There were a couple of other significant differences between the 2021 event and this one. First, 2021 was held in August and started at 5:30 pm. This year it was moved to April, the race director Tyler’s personal preference, and we started at 10 am. So nine out of the ten yards I did was done with daylight, and I barely needed the headlamp on the last yard. It was also much colder, which I think helped prevent me from overheating and getting somewhat dehydrated like I did last year, although I was still sweating and couldn’t find a comfortable amount of layers. It was much warmer at the bottom of the course than it was at the top, and I would overheat walking up the Big Hill. Then when we hit the road for the last mile, the cold breeze was in our face and made for a slightly uncomfortable finish to the yard. Since there was snow on the ground when we began the event, I jokingly told Tyler that I was circulating a petition to get it moved back to August. But as the race progressed I’m not sure what time of year I prefer to run this type of event. I think I have more experience managing myself in the heat than the cold. It’s easier, too. Just one layer – no hats, gloves, extra pants, or other things to keep me warm.
ONTO THE YARDS
As we heard the first three whistles, letting us know that the race would begin in three minutes, we all started to stir and made our way to the starting area. I met a young man named Blair who advised that he had read my blog to gain some insight about this event. I took an immediate liking to Blair and I would spend almost the entirety of my yards running with him. We had some great conversations about ultra-running. It also helped that we were running at roughly the same pace. I was enjoying not only Blair’s company, but there were plenty of others to enjoy conversations with this time around.
Last year everyone seemed to be more serious and less talkative. A couple of ladies named Stefanie and Kerri would strike up a bond and provide a lot of positive energy for the rest of us. I asked them on one of the yards if they had known each other beforehand. Nope, they met that day and were instant pals. I loved seeing the others finding the right group for themselves. It was an eclectic group for sure. There was a guy wearing a yellow and blue jacket, who had to lead every lap and finish each lap before everyone else. Not always the best tactic in this kind of event, but he seemed determined to own that. Another guy wore just a singlet and shorts, while the rest of us had on a few layers. There was a guy who ran in sandals, which is something I could never do. Another entrant was a kid who looked about 15-years old, but I learned was 18. He was a machine and made each yard look like it was nothing. I think that I was the oldest entrant, most of the others were well under 40. The only other guy in his 50’s was very consistent with his effort and was locked in. He outlasted me.
The first yard was done with snow covering the ground, but I somehow avoided getting wet shoes/feet. By the third yard, the snow would be gone for the most part, with the exception being a few areas in the woods shaded from the sun. The most technical part of the course is the descent from the top of the hillside down toward the path that would lead to the lowest part of the course. It was a little muddy and slippery, and I had seen some muddy legs from a few runners who may have slipped on this portion of the course. I took my time on it, as losing my footing would have meant a pretty good tumble down the hill. Some of the runners commented on how they weren’t expecting the obstacles that we had to get over and around, but I think they all found the course to be a lot of fun.
As we came to the finish line of the first yard, everyone pretty much started shedding the layers that they had overestimated needing. I was certainly in that group. I took the windbreaker off and went to a thinner pair of gloves. One guy had said that he was switching to just a t-shirt. But figuring out the right combination of layers and clothing was one of the harder things to figure out for the day. One runner had doubled up on running tights and was stripping down to just a single layer after the first yard. I’d start slightly cool, but at about a mile into the run we would head up a steep hill and I would get warm. The lowest portion of the course was the warmest, thanks to the namesake Big Hill shielding us from the wind coming from the west. Getting up the hill and onto the road for the last mile back into the finish area was the coolest, and I often wished I had another layer at that point.
In regard to hydration and nutrition, I think I handled it a little bit better this year. I had a decent breakfast at the hotel around 7 am, and I saw an opportunity to use the heater I bought to not only warm up the tent but to toast a Pop-Tart, which I promptly ate just before the start. I had purchased a Jimmy John’s roast beef sandwich on Thursday and was able to eat about three 2-inch sliced portions of it throughout the day. I snacked on potato chips, pretzels, a Payday bar, and yogurt in addition to eating some GU gel every lap. I also downed some Gatorade and a Lipton Brisk Raspberry Tea for the caffeine. Blair had said that he was sticking primarily with liquid nutrition, but that is never enough for me. The young kid was eating a banana often and I was kicking myself for not having a few on hand.
As for the rest of the yards, I will summarize: The day warmed up, the whistles blew, we lined up and went again, occasionally someone would drop, the guy in the yellow and blue jacket would lead us all in, and we would come back for a quick rest in the tent, eat some food, and then do it all again. A guy named Doug said he read my blog, as well as the kid – well, the kid admitted that his dad had read the blog and told him about it. When the kid saw that I was still going on Yard 9, he was genuinely happy for me to get past what I had accomplished last time. It eventually got dark and the winner from last year would get the win after 25 yards (104.2 miles).
I ran the last yard with Kerri, a runner from South Dakota, who had also said that she was dropping after ten laps. We teamed up to get through that last yard and she made the mistake of telling me that she was interested in doing an Ironman, and then had to listen to my lecture on how to do an Ironman. I’m not sure if she’ll still want to do one after that.
After getting back to the tent and giving my wife Kari and much deserved hug, I had walked over to Blair’s tent nearby and thanked him for making my day and dragging my butt through 40+ miles. The day ended with me sitting in the tent with a blanket wrapped around me and huddled in front of the heater to keep me warm as Kari began the process of tearing down our stuff and hauling it to the car. I spotted a gentleman walking by my tent and he backtracked after seeing me and said “way to go – seriously, great job!” I think he was impressed someone near his age could keep up with these young guys and gals for as long as I did. Maybe next year I’ll shoot for 12 yards. There’s still a lot of miles left in these legs.
Thinking of doing a backyard ultra/last runner standing event like the Big Hill Bonk? Here are a few pointers.
Having a tent as a home base is very helpful. You may not need it, but if the weather turns it could come in handy.
Bring extra running gear – shoes, socks, shirts, hats, etc. I sweat in summer and winter, and I made several clothing changes.
Sunscreen and lip balm are your friends. I had sunscreen on my face, but forgot to put some on my bald head. My chapped lips are still trying to feel normal three days later.
There are some common drop points in the race where it’s common to see people decide they are done – hitting the yards and covering the marathon, 50K, 50 mile, 100K, and of course the 100 mile marks. Make those your goals, or know to avoid them if you are not trying to hit a specific mileage.
Train for it like it was an ultra.
Have a support system or crew if allowed. My wife Kari was so helpful in having my water bottles replenished, my food ready, my change of clothes laid out, and give the emotional encouragement that is so important.
Although there’s usually some great ultra-type food buffet options at the event, bring some food that you know works for you.
Make some friends on the first lap and enjoy the company!
In February 2021, I took a couple of coworker buddies Micah and Tom up to my lake home in Minocqua, Wisconsin to do some ice fishing and we had a great time. (You can read it about it here: Ice Fishing Fun). Tom is the fisherman, Micah likes outdoor fun, and I am fortunate enough to have a house on a lake to enjoy great activities all year long. Although we only caught one dang fish in 2021, and nearly froze our rear-ends off, we decided to go back to give catching some fish another go. Unfortunately, another buddy Lou couldn’t make it again this year, so he’ll just have to read about the fun here instead. Next year for sure, Lou!!!
We left work in the afternoon and motored along until stopping for dinner. As there’s not a lot of choices of places to stop for a quick meal, I suggested a common stop for me – Culver’s in Portage, Wisconsin. Tom and I were convinced we hadn’t stopped there before, but Micah was sure we had – “This is the same damn Culver’s we ate at last time, you jack-loads!” Micah was right. What can I say, there’s not much variety in Wisconsin.
Last year we went to a new bait shop in town and the owner kind of treated us indifferently. I think Tom said he treated us like “Fibs” – a Wisconsin put-down for Illinoisians. Fortunately, Kurt’s Island Sport Shop opens at 6am, so Tom hopped in his truck and came back with a bucket full of minnows and shiners (a bigger minnow) and some helpful advice as to where the hot spots for fishing was. Now it was time for some breakfast.
Micah loves to cook and once again Tom and I were glad to let him do so. I was a little concerned about the chocolate-flavored pancake mix Tom brought along, but I have to admit that they were really tasty. I was disappointed in them somewhat when they opted for the fake Aunt Jemima syrup over real maple syrup, but whatever.
Hoping for warmer weather than what we had in 2021 was pointless. It was brutally cold, and also windy. And to add to that, later in the day it started snowing like crazy. Typical Northwoods weather in February, I guess.
After a few hours of not catching anything, we decided to head back inside, eat an early lunch, warm up a little, and then head back out.
We found that the wind was really howling in the afternoon so we decided to head over to a cove that was protected from the wind and try our luck there. It was definitely better to be a little more sheltered from the wind, but the fish still weren’t biting.
We opted to call it a day and head inside to shower and get ready for dinner. I had made reservations for us at Minocqua Prime, knowing that they had a pretty good Friday night fish fry. We all had the bluegill and enjoyed our dinners.
A post-meal trip to Walmart to pick up some more food and some more propane for the heater, we then headed home. After a day on the lake and a very filling dinner, we found ourselves pretty tired and hit the sack at 8:30pm. Ended the day with zero bites and caught no fish.
Saturday morning didn’t start quite the way we were expecting, but after another great breakfast from Chef Micah, we were ready to hit the ice once again. The temperature was once again very cold, but we had sunshine and hardly any wind, so it made for a pretty comfortable day.
We chose a new location for some deeper water but it didn’t yield any action. We are starting to be convinced that there are no fish in the lake in the winter. After a little while, we moved closer to what’s called Clumbs Island hoping for some luck near a weedier part of the lake but still had no bites.
Since we had gotten a little bit of a late start to the day we decided to skip lunch and fish until we had enough. Once again, the conversations Tom and Micah were having were very interesting. I don’t know when I became an old man, but I found myself shaking my head at the stuff these two were talking about. But it was entertaining nonetheless.
We finally pulled the plug on fishing and packed it up for the day. The neighbor has some open water near his on-the-lake boathouse which prompted those two to once again think about doing the Northwoods version of the Polar Plunge. That made me really nervous. I was relieved when their scouting of the water made them reconsider doing that. Why can’t they be normal? (lol)
Since they had deemed the Polar Plunge to be out, we opted to do some sledding down the hills in my yard. That’s more my speed.
We showered up and headed over to a wood-fire pizza place called Oakfire. Another great meal and more great conversations with these two.
Tom was pushing really hard to drive his truck on the lake and I was trying really hard not to let him do it. But I finally relented and we found ourselves driving onto the lake. A minute later he got off the packed down snow and we quickly found ourselves stuck in the snow! My fears were becoming reality! I probably wouldn’t have been too nervous about it, but Tom had already told us a story of how he got stuck in the snow with his truck. Micah and I got out to help push, and after Tom cleared some snow from the tires, we pushed. Micah fell down, I laughed, and we got ourselves unstuck. I think these two live to see me have nervous breakdowns.
Upon getting home, Tom wanted to play a game but I told him the games I had stunk. Sorry about that, Tom. I’ll have some better games next year.
Sunday morning came and Tom headed out to the lake while Micah and I opted to stay inside and have breakfast.
Tom was able to land a couple small fish, but I never got to actually see them. But even so, this trip will forever be known as the no-fish ice fishing trip. Oh well, try again next year!
After doing this race in 2019 and nearly melting from the heat, my buddy Dave and I were in agreement about not wanting to ever experience that again. I definitely tried to avoid Chattanooga, but fate pushed me there.
I had signed up for the 2020 Ironman Louisville race but it got canceled due to some social unrest in the city and of course, a worldwide pandemic. Ironman gave me four options to transfer to, three of which were also fall 2020 races and clearly not going to happen. The only other option was to go back to Chatty in 2021 and hope that the world would settle down. Thankfully, we had a better knowledge about the virus, and the vaccine helped keep the option for racing open in 2021. Things still aren’t ideal, but it’s getting better.
So I opted for a return trip to Chattanooga and I was soon joined by my Gunner buddies Jeff, his sister Jan, and eventually Dave. A few local friends also opted to give Choo a go – Susan, John, and Charlie, as well as first-timers Angela and Daniel. At first I thought that this race was going to be a solo affair for me, but now it was a full-fledged party!
Training thirty weeks for an Ironman is an awfully long time.
Once again I broke out the old trusty Be Iron Fit training book and followed the plan. 30-weeks broken into base, build, and endurance phases that has prepared this self-coached triathlete well in four previous Ironman races.
I follow the plan pretty closely with a few changes that I have found over the previous training cycles to be beneficial to me. First, I reduced the swim from the hour-plus swim, 2-3 times per week that the book dictates, to two 30-minute swims per week. I’m not the greatest swimmer, but once I had the technique down, I found that the swim training that the book wants me to do is INSANE. Plus, I get so bored swimming that I just can’t take much more than 30-minutes. I did get in a longer open water swim in Minocqua at my lake home, and I did one 4200 yard swim in my pool in the closing weeks of training just to prove to myself that I could do the distance.
Biking was more of a group thing for me this time around, and I often joined the locals for the rides out to Elwood. My coworker Tom, who had caught the triathlon bug and signed up for Ironman Muncie 70.3 was also a training ride partner. A couple of weekends I was joined by Susan, which were much needed in order to help each other get over the mental struggle of training. She won’t take any credit for turning me around mentally, but she deserves some none-the-less. Overall, it was a pretty good year for cycling leading up to the race.
As for the running – oh boy. I foolishly signed up for a “last runner standing” format ultra which also got postponed to August. I just used my Ironman training and it got me through 8-loops and 33 miles, completing my first 50K distance ultramarathon. After that, it was back to the plan and doing the work with one exception – I also foolishly signed up for the Tunnel Hill 100, an ultra-marathon in November. I’m pretty dumb. So I decided that even though I wasn’t going to increase my mileage, I did adapt to doing some run/walk long runs. I learned that a ratio of about 4.5 minutes of running with a 1.5 minute walk break on my Sunday long runs was working pretty good for me. Since I was doing Chattanooga, I figured that I was going to be walking most of the marathon anyway, so why not get used to that style of running.
How hot is it going to be this year?
Summer was hot here in the Chicago area again this year and I could sense that race day might be ugly once again. Boy was I wrong. I generally avoid looking at the weather forecast until it gets closer to race day, but it was shaping up to be beautiful. How beautiful? How about mid to upper 70s, no rain and no wind. If you could pick the perfect day, this might have been an ideal race day forecast. And if that wasn’t good enough, it rained for several days leading up to the race which cooled the water temp down below the wetsuit legal temperature of 76.1. I think this was a first for Chattanooga – a wetsuit legal swim!
What can go wrong will go wrong.
Race week meant one final check of the bike and I decided to give the drive train one last going over. That’s when my 8-year-old rear derailleur decided to die.
I drove the bike up to Spokes in Wheaton, Illinois and begged a guy named Chris to fix it for me. He said I was screwed. Actually, he said that they don’t stock 10-speed parts as they aren’t being used anymore. But he searched through an old box of spare parts and found a lesser level Sram 10-speed derailleur in workable condition. He bolted it on, I took it for a test spin, happily forked over the $70 bucks, and then thanked my lucky stars. The next day the bike was in the car and I was headed to Chattanooga.
When Carla wasn’t involved in picking out our lodging, things can get weird.
Since Dave was a last minute sign up, his wife Carla wasn’t doing all of the work finding us lodging. I didn’t mind our last hotel that we stayed at in Chattanooga, but I was hoping for something closer. I settled on the Marriott Residence Inn, which I totally picked because it was a block away and it had a little kitchenette thing. When I checked in I got some attitude from the guy at the front desk about not canceling our second room soon enough, and then I made my way to the room. It was a little dirty and smelled a little, but I was glad to have plenty room for my stuff. It got a little weird when the toilet wouldn’t flush and they had to call a plumber in to remove the travel-sized deodorant that someone had flushed down it. Fun times.
Kari flew in and soon the whole Gunner gang was in town. The next couple of days were spent checking in for the race, organizing our gear bags, and then dropping the bags and the bikes off. Gunner Jeff, a four-time Ironman, for some reason could not remember the bike/bag drop-off procedure, which I found highly entertaining. Race week anxiety does some weird stuff to your brain.
We typically try to find a restaurant to eat a prerace meal at, but since we couldn’t find something at such a short notice for our big group, we opted for a family-style spaghetti dinner, courtesy of Jill and assisted by her daughter Emma and my wife Kari. It might have been the best prerace dinner ever. We had such good conversations and the meal was delicious.
Why am I nervous? Prerace anxiety sucks.
After setting a couple of alarms I was ready to hit the sack. Except there was no way I was going to fall asleep. At 10:30pm or so, I got back up and took a portion of an Ambien and tried again. According to Kari, I was soon asleep. According to me, my brain was active all night long.
Race day is finally here!
The alarms went off and I got up and showered. Dave always showers before the race but it’s a sometimes for me. I felt like the shower might wake me up more and needed a shave, so I took one. Next up was getting dressed and grabbing some food. Then off to meet the gang to walk down to the village and into transition to check the bike and bags.
We hopped onto the school bus for the shuttle ride to the swim start and then settled into to await the start. I heard that the kayak volunteers were late getting into the water for some reason, which delayed our start by about ten minutes, but we heard the pro racers start and we would be next.
I had made a Facebook friend, a guy named Marc the Shark, and had missed seeing him at Louisville in 2017 and so far for this race too, but as I was looking around there he was just a couple of people away. I said hello and we wished each other well.
Next thing I knew I was walking down the ramp and jumping into the Tennessee River with hardly any performance expectation other than to finish without getting too worn out.
59 MINUTES!?!? THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT!
The swim went swimmingly. I drifted to the right, away from the shore and more toward the middle of the river in order to take advantage of any current that was pushing us along. The kayakers will only let you get so far away from the buoys, so I found myself pretty much between them and the kayakers. It seemed like I was swimming by myself, once again enjoying the almost 100% contactless swim. I had a little hint of a foot cramp happening, but I was able to kick it out of my system.
As the buoys turned from yellow to orange at the halfway point, I found myself getting closer to them and eventually looked up to find them on my right side for the first time. I got past the island in the middle of the river and the three bridges were dead ahead. The next thing I knew I rounded the red turn buoy and swam to the ladder, and that’s when I glanced at my watch – 59 minutes. That’s insane. I know that this course could give me a quick swim, but never in my life did I think I could swim 2.4 miles in under an hour. 00:59:43 officially. A swim PR for me.
SWIM: 00:59:43 – 52nd in Male 55-59 Age Group / 529th Male / 679th Overall
Why do I suck at the swim to bike transition?
My plan going for getting through the first transition was to not waste time like I usually do. So what did I do? I found a way to waste time.
As you can see in my swim photos I still have my swim goggles on. That’s because they are prescription and I need them to see where I am going, find my bag, and go find a place to sit down and get ready for the bike. All that went well enough but as soon as I put my eyeglasses on, they fogged up. Nice. Now I couldn’t see much at all. I couldn’t find my socks at first, but then I remembered that I had put them into one of my shoes. I found my towel and dried my feet and got some Skin Glide on them and then struggled to get my socks on. Next were the arm sleeves that went on okay thanks to me rolling them on, but then I realized that I hadn’t put on any sunscreen yet and I was sure that I would take the arm sleeves off when I warmed up. So I started looking for my spray can of sunscreen and couldn’t find it. Since I knew that they had a sun screen table at the exit of the bike corral, I stopped looking for my own and got all of my swim crap into the bag. The helmet got strapped, my nutrition, consisting of five Payday fun size candy bars, a Stroopwafel, and my gel flask, got thrown into my back pockets, and off I clopped to find my bike.
I walked the bike over to the table with the sunscreen and took off my gloves and started hitting the most vulnerable spots heavily. The gloves went back on and off I clopped again to the mount line to begin my tour of a sliver of southern Tennessee and a big chunk of northern Georgia.
They say this is a beautiful and scenic bike course. I’ll take their word for it.
Almost all of the Ironman bike courses are listed as “scenic” and I’m sure that they are. But when you are riding along at 18 mph or so, with others jockeying around you on roads that sometimes aren’t in the best shape, you tend to spend more attention to not crashing than the beautiful scenery. But this time I did actually take a few moments to gaze at the mountains and the local picturesque landscape. I did notice some low lying fog in the early stages.
I had a long sleeve shirt that I intended to put on when I started the bike but I opted not to use it and I was fine. I rode with the arm sleeves and gloves for more than half of the race before tossing them.
Heading out of town was at a fast pace. It was that way in 2019, too. I didn’t feel like I was pushing hard or anything, but after about an hour of a pace faster than I normally train at, I knew that I would be pushing pace all through the bike. The first 56 miles was under three hours by a lot, a time that I would have been really proud of if it was just a 70.3 race.
Like usual, I was glad to be getting off the bike at the end. I didn’t feel as miserable as I normally do, but 116 miles and a little over 6 hours is a long time to be riding a bike. I handed my bike to a kid volunteer to put away and jokingly told her to change the oil and give it a wash and I would be back to pick it up in five hours. She looked at me like I had two heads. Tough crowd. I guess comedy isn’t my thing.
My Garmin had me at 6:06 with the autopause turned on. That’s a huge PR for me. Garmin also has a 18.9 mph average and a top speed of 39.1 mph.
BIKE: 6:18:27 – 55th Male 55-59 Age Group / 544th Male / 662nd Overall
Time for the emotions to kick in.
As I walked from dropping the bike off with the kid, I got hit with the feels. Usually this hits me around the last mile or so of the marathon, but I was pretty proud of what I just did on the bike, as well as the swim. It didn’t last long. I was handed my Run Gear bag and off to the changing tent to waste some time.
I sat down and pulled the cycling gear off and looked for the Dude Wipe (basically a big wet wipe) and wiped my face off, as well as the bugs that I had accumulated on my sweaty shoulders. It always makes me feel a little fresher to clean up a little.
Amazingly enough, I had a sun screen can in my bag. It’s less necessary at this part of the race, but I sprayed my bald head and arms anyway. With the bib belt, shoes and visor on, I grabbed my nutrition and started out of transition.
T2 – 7:11
This marathon is no joke. I’m not going to crush this.
On Friday, I approached a first timer as he was talking with his wife about the run course and I told him that the run starts on the sidewalk about 300 yards back there and the walk starts here, pointing to the hill not even a quarter mile into the course. I was joking, but not really. I saw a photographer and gave a half-hearted effort at running for the picture but it wasn’t going so well for me.
I felt hot, which is not uncommon for me. Yes, it was still sunny and later into the day, but when you are riding you have that constant wind blowing on you to help cool you off. I walked about a half-mile before I even started thinking about running.
After the first couple of aid stations, I started to get more hydration and sugar into me and started to come around. By the time I got four miles into it I was feeling better.
It wasn’t long and Gunner Jeff caught me. I knew he would. We would leap frog back and forth sharing the run lead for the rest of the way, but seeing that he had made up the difference in what little lead I had with the swim and bike, I knew that he was ahead of me by chip time even if he was standing right next to me. The same thing happened last time as well, it just happened sooner this year. He’s good.
In 2019, I made it a goal at the start of the second loop to try to get through the wooded park along the river walk before it got dark but didn’t get it done. This time it was no problem.
I caught Jeff again and we walked up the dreaded Barton Avenue hill together and for most of the rest of that north side of the river portion of the course. I recognized my local friend Daniel just as we were turning off of Barton. He seemed to be somewhat doubtful about finishing, but I tried my best to encourage him to keep moving forward. He was in a rough place mentally, but he overcame it and finished in plenty of time.
Jeff and I also saw Dave heading up the hill as we were heading down and knew he was also going to finish not far behind us.
As we approached the walking bridge I told Jeff that I was going to walk the uphill portion of it and not to wait for me. I could have jogged with him, but I wanted him to go get his glory and cross the line first. He finished about a minute ahead of me according to the time of day, but he bested me by about 11 minutes.
As I got over the bridge I was forced to run through a gauntlet of fans that crowd the run course and one guy got an extended evil eye from me and got out of my way. I ran down the hill and turned onto the road to finish. As I approached the finish chute I kept checking in front and behind me to have a good finish for myself and things were looking good. But all at once this dope comes screaming past me and spoils my finish. And to add to that disappointment, the announcer didn’t even call me in! WTF? Oh well, it’s not my first Ironman finish, and it probably won’t be my last. But the photos still prove that I had a great race.
RUN: 5:04:47 – 50th Male in 55-59 Age Group / 476th Male / 612th Overall
FINAL TIME: 12:42:42 – 2nd fastest Ironman Finish / Swim & Bike Ironman PR’s / 5th Ironman Finish
But wait, there’s more!
Loads of thanks to go around. To my wife Kari – you’re my Iron Rock. Thanks for supporting me not only once or twice, but five times now. I promise to take next year off!
To my Gunner teammates Dave, Jeff, and Jan – thanks for being on the journey with me once again. Doing a race without you would never be as fun.
To my local friends Susan, John, Charlie, Angela, and Daniel – WELL DONE! You are all IRONMEN! And let’s not forget Casey, who magically appeared at the finish line as a volunteer and handed a much surprised me my finisher hat, medal and shirt! That was unexpected and a great way to finish.