The year is 2020. The world is in the midst of a pandemic. Covid19 has been the cause of a yearlong of races and events cancelations. But it is now November and Ironman Florida, in sunny Panama City Beach, is a go! First full distance Ironman in the U.S. this year and the only one with a pro field. I know! I could hardly believe it myself. I think I only believe it would take off… well when I was walking to the start line? But it happened and it was amazing.
Let me start by saying that I have done IM Florida 4 times before so, I know that this is a fast, flat course and given it happens in November, it is usually pretty chilly. This means that athletic performance is faster than about 90% of the races in the circuit since heat is one of the main limiters to the human body in exercise. But being fast also means you do not get any break, it is full gas all the way or you will be losing time.
The buildup for this race was challenging. For the past 10 months I had been surfing thru race cancellations, odd events such as the brutal Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim and other random challenges I set myself to. And, in the expectation of a race that would happen, I never really stopped, so I must confess that this late in the year I was starting to feel a bit physically “stretched”. Still, with the perspective of being the only full distance Ironman race to be held in North America and with a $100k prize purse on the line, it was a case of go hard and go home.
November 7, 3:00am. I rolled out of bed for my pre-game breakfast of champions – or just like a baby? – unsweetened apple sauce with banana and whey protein and a full bottle of Powerbar Iso Active, and out the door to transition. Remember my early description about how cool IM Florida always is? Forget it because we woke up to a pretty warm day compared to previous years. The high of 79F for the day was about 25 degrees warmer than 2019 and with the water at 73F, it was a non-wetsuit swim for pros. Because of Covid19 restrictions no warm up swim was allowed or race morning bags down at the beach so we were given space blankets and escorted to swim start about 20 minutes before. And there we were, a line of sparkling wrapped burritos, waiting for the start gun to go.
The swim started like always in Panama City Beach: run to the water, a bit of dolphin diving and surfing thru the waves before we got to water deep enough to swing arms. The ocean in the Gulf is salty as a margarita and a bit choppy, even on seemingly calm day. Two loops with a dreadful Australian exit halfway, just to start that build of lactate in the legs as we make our way thru soft sand. Some more dolphin diving and we were in for loop two. Second loop is always a bit more eventful as we hit the back of the AG peloton starting their first loop. Avoiding being kicked to the face and loosing contact with your swimming mates is the goal at this point. Somewhere in that second loop, the big main group shattered a bit, but I managed to stay calm and attentive, and keep a position on the front end of the split. Came out of the water with 54:04, I believe in either 7th or 8th place, and long run into T1.
I made contact with the first group quickly. I use a double BOA shoe as I feel like it gives you more power for the buck, and I really struggled to get it in. In the process, the inner slip of my shoe got all rolled down making it uncomfortable. And as much as I tried to correct it when the main pack slowed down a little bit and I was able to catch a breather, I could never really fix it. But when there is a will there is a way and despite the discomfort, I just rolled with it (pun intended).
The pain train was being led by Andy Dreitz and he pretty much did all the work as far as I saw it. We caught up with the swim leader (Brent McMahon) within the first 15 miles, but the pace did not let up for a bit. Sam Long caught up shortly after. That was also when I felt like something was off with my aero bar. For those familiar with the P5D integrated aero extensions, that one piece that you grab as your front extensions slides back and forth, and that was the one piece that started to come loose. My guess is that the bolt must have come loose during the plane trip to PCB and road vibration did the rest. We were about 1hr in so the next 3h were not looking very appealing. On many other occasions this set back would have been enough for me to tap out of the race mainly due to the safety hazard it represents, but I guess age, experience and so little racing this year made me dismiss that idea right away and I said to myself: you CAN do this! I had to stop for a minute to try and put the bar back together but despite my best efforts, I had nothing in hand to really solve it. My solution was to pull back that loose piece all the way back and hold it with my hand all while not applying forward pressure for… 80 miles. I tried to stay cool, ride within a pace that I knew I could hold for the entire way and try to apply all the pressure to my elbows and upper arms and never to the front of the aero extensions. Far from ideal, but I got it to work. A lone steady crusade for a 4h18 split at the end, and I am proud of it. Nevertheless, I got to T2 with such an amazing relief to be done with it without any other setback or accident.
Onto the run. I knew I had lost some time to the front guys and I was either 9th or 10th. In the meantime, David Plese had caught me on the final stretches of the bike so I wasn’t completely alone out of T2. The new venue of IM Florida had us run two loops along Front Beach Rd on an out and back with basically a headwind all the way out and tailwind all the way back. Mentally this course is much more demanding than the previous venue as without those little turns and corners to make up little imaginary goals, it is just a full gas kind of run. On the later stages of the bike I started to feel very warm and while I drank plenty of fluids, I started to feel a bit dehydrated right off the bat on the run. Due to Covid19 restrictions, there were fewer volunteers and aid stations, so the run to the first aid station felt like a marathon by itself. Sooooo long. And I was getting HOT. Not just like hot when I wake up and look amazing, but really overheating.
Also, and I am almost embarrassed to tell you this, but my socks also got rolled under my feet when I put the shoes on at T2. Not long after every step hurt. Well, just another challenge to overcome. Again, I kept telling myself: you CAN do this!
On first time out at the far turn around point I got the chance to see everyone in front of me and their paces and assess what were my changes of going up in the rankings. I recognized everyone in front of me, it was a phenomenal field so I kept focus on what I could: nutrition, trying to keep cool with the limited aid stations, stabilizing my hips and trying to work my cadence.
Absolutely nothing felt easy at any point, I never felt a real high on the run and both my feet were screaming in agony for me to stop. But I hung on. Despite fading a bit on the second loop, I noticed Brent McMahon was within reach and with 6 miles to go I had about a 3 min deficit to bridge up. I thought about my wife and all of that she sacrifices in her own career so I can pursue my own goals in racing at the highest level in the sport. And I just went for it! I bridged the gap and made the pass with 2 miles to go (BBC sport commentators would go nuts with this move!). I was able to build enough of a cushion to look back on the final turn into the finish line and not see anyone behind me. And there it was, the red carpet to the finish line. And what a huge relief it was to see it. At the end, although not a PR, I am actually quite happy with my 2h54 marathon.
Overall happy and immensely proud, not only with the numbers, 8h13 race time and placing in 7th in a very deep field, but also with an improved mental strength to overcome pain and frustration. Probably the result of all the work dealing with this pandemic, as I tried to keep motivated and mentally sane the whole year.
I’m excited for what 2021 will bring and can’t wait to get back on a racecourse.