Wow, so many thoughts and feelings, I’m not entirely sure where to begin.
Before I start, I should warn you that this blog entry may require you to have the reading equivalent of Ironman skills to make it to the end, and could very well end up being 140.6 miles long, if printed.
If you want the Cliff Notes version it was incredible – the scenery, the organization, the people, the pain and the joy. The supporters, volunteers and the locals made for an unbelievable event.
I’m Making a List, Checking Twice….and Twice More…and Once Again,
When I used to be an amateur motorcycle racer I, and many others, often laughed at the amount of gear I had to take with me to a race, but then again I was racing a Ducati and had to almost carry a spare bike due to some inevitable breakdown. “Never again”, I said, I’d stick to activities requiring a lot less gear. But then I discovered Ironman.
Due to the logistics you have to be pretty well organized, and at one point I was even making a list of the lists that I needed to make. You need to separate out what you’ll need for the swim, bike and run segments and then the two “special needs” areas, one on the bike and one on the run, where you can access your own personal essentials like a prayer book, electric motor etc. For example:
Oh, and don’t forget your bike.
After loading all this on Thursday morning I headed up to Santa Rosa, got an early check-in to the quaint Flamingo Resort, and went to get registered. After a super efficient process I was a registered “athlete”.
Next stop, the merchandise tent. After all this training I felt that I deserved a t-shirt, or five. I joked to my musician son, Ieuan, that t-shirts with my name were far outselling his merchandise….
The rest of Thursday was evenly split between eating and navel contemplation, with eating possibly taking a slight lead.
The Calm Before the Storm
I woke up early and nervous on Friday and headed to beautiful Lake Sonoma to check out the water temperature, and it really was a lovely morning to be out and about.
I got my wetsuit on and in I went with a few other fellow athletes. I swam for just a couple of hundred yards to get a feel for the temperature and not be surprised on Saturday morning, while some of the others swam the entire course!! Bugger that, it was time to drop the bike off and eat, again.
I drove just south of Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park to one of my favorites, the Black Bear Diner where I had a light snack as my final fueling exercise for race day.
Yes, it was a bit much, so I left the lettuce and orange peel thing. About 2,700 calories, definitely enough to power an afternoon nap by the pool. I think I could really get with this tapering thing if it wasn’t for all the training that precedes it.
The lovely wife and daughters turned up that evening and we headed back downtown to check things out and it was quite the moment to see them constructing the world-famous finishing chute. I was very much hoping to pass through it within the 17 hour cutoff time and hear those immortal words.
The Day Has Arrived
After a very short and restless night, the alarm went off at 3am and it was time to get up and eat (yes, again) and head off to start the day. Lorraine dropped me and my special needs bags at the shuttle out to Lake Sonoma. The lake is about 45 minutes north so it was a dark and quiet journey of contemplation, and trepidation. A few noisy athletes in the back were yakking away but even they got quiet as we approached the lake and the stream of taillights ahead of us. I headed to T1, got in my wetsuit and waited.
I estimated a swim time of 1:45 for the 2.4 miles and seeded myself in the 1:40 to 1:50 group and we eventually shuffled down the ramp and entered the water in groups of 5 abreast. The first 200-300 yards were pretty awful. Congested with the swimmers on their second lap, trying to get my body moving and the doubts started to creep in. “What am I doing here?”. It took me a little while to stop the internal whining, remember why I was there and get in to a rhythm. The water temperature was great, the view was amazing (although I should have been looking down, not around) and I started getting in to it. I made choo-choo train noises as I breathed out in the water, hummed some tunes from the music I’d been listening to during the various training sessions (Ieuan, Lorraine, Madness, Stereophonics) and before I knew it I was done with the first lap! Out of the water, across the timing mat and back in for another round of singing/swimming. The first lap was 45 minutes so I was slightly ahead of where I expected.
Lap 2 was much like lap 1 and it flew by, well, for my slug pace. I think this photo captures the essence of relief that it was over, but I enjoyed the swim about a thousand times more than I expected.
During the swim I stayed about 20-30ft off the ‘racing line’ to avoid getting swam over by those that knew what they were doing but Garmin are truly taking the piss if they think I swam an additional 1,100 yards. That would be an average of 1 minute 40 seconds per 100 yards, and they’d have been fishing my expired body out of the lake at that pace for that length of time!
No, I didn’t come ashore on that bottom leg. Honest.
Coming out of the water it was a long walk up the hill to T1 where they promised strippers, but they were truly rubbish, not like those ones in Vegas that time……. Anyway, they were fully clothed and all they wanted to do was get my wetsuit off so I let them and they didn’t even shove a dollar bill in my trunks. Lame.
Swim time: 01:33:53
Transition 1, I Didn’t Drown!
I picked up my bike gear bag, in to the tent, quick change in to my soon-not-to-be-dry bike gear, dumped the swim gear bag, got sunscreen applied by a very efficient crew of volunteers, grabbed the bike and headed out. Knocked one of my nutrition bottles off as I swung my leg over the bike so dismounted, fixed the bottle in place, mounted again and took off this time.
T1 time: 00:14:26
I Want to Ride My Bicycle……Get Me Off This Thing
This was definitely the part I was most comfortable with, and I was somewhat buoyed (get it?) by not drowning on the swim.
The ride starts with a long downhill where some people seemed really uncomfortable with the speed. I’m a little fond of it so I let rip and figured it was a few minutes less in the saddle.
The first 50-60 miles just flew by as we rode in beautiful weather on sometimes jarring road surfaces.
As we approached Windsor for the first time there was an air ambulance coming in to land to pick up a fallen cyclist. A little further on the police were holding traffic to allow bikes to go straight through the junction but as I approached one of the cars the driver started to turn right in to my lane and I narrowly missed hitting him. I kept going while I heard the officer yelling at the driver.
As we turned north for the second loop there was a fair headwind blowing and I thought that would be great for the remaining 40 miles or so when we turned south but no, it was not to be.
The last 40 miles were, to say the least, grueling. The 14-17mph headwinds made for a long, long slog. When you’re starting to watch 1/10th of a mile increments on your bike computer, you know things are bad.
After passing the remnants of an armed robbery arrest on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, it was great to see the final miles ticking down and finally I got to T2, handed my bike off to another helpful volunteer and walked awkwardly towards the changing tent. I still felt like I was “wearing” my bike.
Based on my training rides with Dave I’d estimated the bike ride to be about 7 hours at an average pace of 17mph. I hadn’t factored in the wind nor the drain of having to pass people within 25 seconds due to Ironman’s no-drafting rules. My legs were pretty much done and I had no idea how I was going to finish a marathon.
Transition 2, Should I Stay or Should I Go?
I went in to the tent, sat down and wondered what to do about the run. My legs were pretty much done. I opened the gear bag and in one of my running shoes I had stuffed a photo of me during the worst of my treatment days, the same one I had taped to the bag on my bike for “those moments”. I thought about the journey so far, the fund raising efforts my friends had generously contributed so and pulled up my big boy (running) shorts. After a liberal application of vaseline to my aching toes I dropped off the bag with sweaty bike gear, ran the gauntlet of sunscreen wielding volunteers and started down the exit chute.
Waiting at the end were Team Williams! A wonderful sight at my time of need…..
I found it hard to say too much due to my emotional state. We had a much too brief of a chat and I faked a casual run around the corner before I lost it.
My First Marathon
The course was along the Santa Rosa Creek and the first mile or so was paved and had a lot of spectators before it switched to a trail surface with fewer supporters. Folks whose houses backed on to the trail were very supportive and one guy was offering a very welcome mist from his hosepipe, so to speak.
Between miles 3 and 4, barely past a 5K, I was ready to call it a day. I was employing a strategy of running for 10 minutes, walking for 1 minute to try and get around a 12 minute mile pace but I just felt that I couldn’t run any more. I figured it was going to be pointless to try and walk the remaining 22 miles so back in to the pocket I went, pulled out the same photo, started humming Madness’ Last Boat to Cairo, and shuffled forward, one step at a time.
We were doing three loops of the 8.75 mile course so some people were on their first lap, like me, and others were on their last. Lucky bastards. Well, not lucky, they had put in a serious amount of training, but you know what I mean.
Somehow I finished the first lap with my combination of running and walking, walking through the aid stations and eating a delicious gel every 30 minutes. I was wearing a Betty Designs tri top, not quite as fashionably as their model, but enough to get shouts of encouragement from athletes and spectators that either knew I was wearing women’s clothing or agreed with the sentiment of “F*** Cancer”, or both.
My eldest son told me that my “sheer bloody-mindedness” would get me through the event, which I like to think was some sort of compliment, but there were definitely many moments of doubt. One lap became two, day became night, spring turned to summer etc. On and on I went.
I reverted back to humming my training song catalog (see the swim section for details) as I figured it would be too risky to actually sing with other humans within earshot. I didn’t want them to mistake my attempt at singing with a medical incident and have me carted off the course.
What seemed like hours later, probably because it was, I started the final lap. The last 6 miles or so were pretty rough and I’d had quite enough of my own company for one day. I managed to get back in to a semblance of a run/walk cadence as I realized that I might be able to beat the 17 hour cutoff, something that seemed highly improbable a few hours ago.
That last part of this epic day was truly indescribable. It’s a left turn in to the finish chute and all the spectators had left the streets leading up to the finish to congregate there. It’s like a surreal scene out of a zombie movie with no-one in sight but there was a loud din coming from around the corner. You finally make the turn, see the crowds and the noise is truly up-lifting.
In the 437,000 blog posts, articles and videos that I had researched in my quest, many said to savor that last couple of hundred yards. Supporters had their hands outstretched for high fives and I hit as many as I could, taking a few steps backwards when I missed one. Unbeknownst to me, Team Williams were on the left of the chute while I did my thing down the right. The crowds were amazing, the day was amazing and I really didn’t want it to end. My legs did, but the rest of me, which to be fair had not done as much as the legs, felt great and wanted to keep enjoying the moment, but then it was all over. I heard Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, say “Simon Williams, you are an Ironman” and I crossed the finish line some 15 hours and 14 minutes after walking in to the lake.
What a day. What a thing to accomplish just 10 months after my first ever 5K run. There are still times when I have to hold on to something for a few moments when I stand up from a chair, yet I had just somehow managed this ambitious feat. The human body is a very resilient thing, if you can get the mind to go along with it.
I have to thank my wife Lorraine and Team Williams for all their support for this endeavor, and everything I’ve put them through over the last 2 years. None of this would be possible without them. I also thank my parents for their contribution to the grit and “bloody -mindedness”.
My friends have been incredibly supportive and helped me raise $3,500 for the Cancer Support Community to help other cancer victims deal with this horrible disease. I thank each and every one of them, and those that have sent me messages of support along the way.
I would like to thank the team at TriDot for their excellent program and support. A big thanks to my good friend and bicycle training buddy David Paslay for showing me around Sonoma County on two wheels and my good friend Rick Williams for his boundless energy and constant support. Thanks to the team at TFX for helping me on the road to recovery, real Ironmen Brian and Sherwick for their support, guidance and answering my inane questions and finally, a thank you to the lovely people of Betty Designs for rushing me their lovely triathlon top in time for me to flounce around in it. Lastly, a huge thank you to the volunteers and supporters at Ironman Santa Rosa 2018.
A few people have asked “Would you do another one?”. I would if they had one in an idyllic seaside resort somewhere……..
Thank you all for following along, and Fuck Cancer.