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Brock Brinkerhoff

 

Brock Brinkerhoff at the finish line of Ironman Texas 2013

Brock Brinkerhoff at the finish line of Ironman Texas 2013

 

Ironman Texas 2013 Race Recap

Hot – Damn Hot. That’s what was going through my head as soon as I got off the bike – It was roaster-oven, blast furnace hot. Strangely, that thought never crossed my mind until I rolled into T2, just off the 112 mile bike ride through the beautiful Texas countryside.

T2 was a transition in conveyance as well as a mental skip-shift. One moment I felt great and ready to run – It quickly melted away to grappling with the true magnitude of what I’d set out to do. And could I do it?

What was I doing?

And to think – I was doing this to myself, and of my own free will.

The course was Ironman Texas, 2013. Ironman is the pinnacle endurance race for many triathletes. It consists of 2.4 miles of open water swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles running, for a total of 140.6 miles. All three events occur back-to-back, and in that order. There is a strict time limit of 17 hours. Make it before that time and you’re an “Ironman”. Miss the cutoff – and well, better luck next time.

For those “in the know”, when you see a “13.1” white oval decal on a car in front of you – That means they ran a half marathon. A “26.2” means the person has completed a full marathon. A “140.6” means the person completed a full Ironman. I now have a “140.6” oval sticker on my car. A badge of honor. A badge of “are you stupid or something?”.

I started off in October 2012, having already had a good bit of running base doing about 30 miles a week. From there, I ramped up though December and then January of 2013, adding base and mixing in cycling and swimming. By February 1st, I was running 60 miles a week, and cycling 60. These all ramped up through training cycles until the end of April, when I started my taper.

My taper consisted of 3 weeks. Week 1 was a 50% reduction in milage. Week 2 was another 50% reduction, and week 3 (leading into race weekend) was only short runs and high turnover, but nothing longer than 3-4 miles.

We arrived in town on the Wednesday before the race, which would happen on Saturday.

I registered, visited the expo, and generally walked around a bit checking out the sights. The location was great – Lots of good vantage points for the run portion of the race, which had a large segment down a river walk downtown. I originally thought “oh, this will be great! Lots of energy from the crowd – It’ll keep me pumped up!”. I learned to hate that section with a passion – More on this later.

The Swim – 1:34
The race itself starts off in a lake in The Woodlands, Texas. This is a planned community just north of Houston which was where the race is based.

The swim was a mass start, with 2 exceptions. #1 – The pro’s started 10 minutes earlier, and #2 – Anyone wishing to wear a wetsuit started 10 minutes behind.

The vast majority of racers were placed into the water after the pro’s set off. There were 2,600 participants, so I’d estimate 2,400 of us started together.

All of us were treading water for about 15-20 minutes until the cannon went off signifying the beginning of the race.

When the race starts, it’s an utterly epic free-for-all. It’s very hard to describe the feeling of swimming amongst 2,400 people; To be hit, punched, kicked, swam over or otherwise treated like flotsam could be pretty intimidating. My main focus was to sight often, and minimize blows to the face. Being hit or kicked anywhere else was tolerable – Being hit in the face could end my day.

The race heads along a large set of buoys for about ~1,500 meters, then turns left, then left again (basically a big u-turn) and heads back another ~1,300 meters to a right turn into a canal for another ~900 meters.

On the first leg out, I just tried to settle into a rhythm and get into a position to minimize contact. As I swam, I would keep seeing a large yellow triangle buoy. “This must be the turn” I’d think. Nope. I can see another one down further. This repeated about 6 times. Each time I’d think “Come on! This has got to be it!” but no. It wasn’t until I sighted a large red buoy that I realized how the turns were marked. I also thought to myself “that was a long damn way to swim, and I’m not half-way”.

Truth be told, in my swim training I hadn’t covered 2.4 miles in open water. Not once. This would be the first time doing it for real. I’d covered the distance, in total, within the confines of a pool, but never in open water. Especially water so black you couldn’t see your hand 2 feet from your face.

The swim itself wasn’t arduous at all, but I wasn’t exactly trying to go very fast either. My thinking was pretty simple – Overall, the swim would only comprise about 10% of my total time. It just didn’t make sense to go out hard and really expend a lot of cardio effort – It would be a long day, and there wasn’t much to gain by trying to be fast on the swim.

Once we made the last turn into the canal, things got very, very tight. There were people on top of people, stroking for 900 meters like this. It took a lot of mental coaxing to just stay calm and “let it happen” without stressing about being pummeled.

As I neared the swim exit, I was reminded of the advice I’d been given, which was “slow down, float for a minute, get your bearings. Don’t get on the steps right away”. The thinking is you’ve been swimming for an hour and a half. Calm down and get ready to exit, so I did. Other people who hadn’t done this suffered for it and stumbled or almost fell backwards.

I swam to the step and was helped out by the awesome volunteers. Swim Accomplished. I was very glad that was behind me. Onto the bike!

T1 – Transition 1 – Swim to Bike
There was organized chaos in the mens changing tent for T1. The volunteers are all prior IM finishers (a requirement to work this area), and knew what was needed. The person who helped me asked if I needed anything as I was changing. I realized I had developed a serious rash in my left armpit, so I asked for Vaseline. As I was getting my bike shoes on, he lathered me up with Vaseline – An odd experience I assure you.

From the tent I ran out and was met by sunscreen appliers. With their nitrile gloves, they’d rub down any part you wanted them to cover. What a great service – Almost as good as the spa.

I ran into the bike area, and sighted for my bike. They had called my number ahead of me and had my bike ready to go. Again – Awesome volunteers.

Nutrition – An Intro
The goal was to be heart rate driven for the whole event. My target heart rate was 130-135 bpm. In order to do a full Ironman, the fourth discipline (after swim, bike, run) is nutrition. Screw this up and you’re toast. Pace wrong and you’re toast. And not good toast either.

It takes roughly 10,000 calories to do a full Ironman. An adult has roughly 2,400 calories of glycogen (sugars) stored within their tissues. You can’t use all of those calories either because if you did, you’d “bonk” eg. Your body will forcibly stop. In other words, you’ll DNF (Did Not Finish).

To accomplish this, you must fuel all the time during the event. The caveat here is that your body will only process about a maximum of 300 calories an hour. For a 13 hour event, that means you can only put back ~3,900 calories. Eating more won’t help – You’re body can’t process it, and you’ll just end up with GI distress.

Taking the 3,900 in fuel, plus the 2,400 in glycogen results in 6,300 calories. Still not enough to finish. Where does the rest come from? Fat.

Exercising aerobically causes your body to burn fat for energy. This is usually up to ~65% of your max heart rate. Go much above that, and you start burning glycogen at an increased rate. Much above 80% will be burning 100% glycogen. So the trick is to burn stored fat for the remainder of the calories needed. To do this, you MUST stay within a very strict heart rate (or level of effort).

For me, during training, I determined what I felt would be a good level of effort to burn the fat I needed. Make one mistake with this calculation and your day is done. It doesn’t matter how bad you want it – You’re body can stop completely. It happens. All the time.

Bike – 5:53
I started out on the bike focused on getting my heart rate in check. Since the monitors don’t work under water, the swim portion has to be done on feel. As I left out of T1, I had a tail wind, and the course was very, very fast, so settling in was a little odd – Even though I was going much faster than I thought I would, my heart rate was coming into check, so I continued on. I passed literally hundreds of people on the bike, and made up a lot of positions.

The first “gotcha” of note on the bike was around mile 35. While coming down a slight decline, I had been jockeying with a large group of riders. In Ironman, you aren’t allowed to draft, which leads to some strange riding tactics. As it was, I decided to pass the group. While doing this, I poured on the power and was showing 41mph on my speedo, when to my absolute terror I noticed the cop at the intersection in front of me waving a truck / trailer to turn left in front of me, into my lane.

For those who’ve never ridden a tri bike – Your hands are nowhere near your brakes when down on your aerobars, and even if they were, stopping from 41mph doesn’t happen quickly.

I locked onto the cop in the lane – I could see the “oh my god what have I done?” look on his face as I was hurling a stream of expletives and profanities at him, and ever so gently, gingerly, and narrowly leaning slightly right to miss him and the trailer by inches. I’m relatively sure had I not spent as much time as I do on motorcycles that I would’ve hit the truck.

It took a good 15 minutes to get back into my rhythm, and for my heart rate to no longer reflect a good temperature for cooking enchiladas.

From there, it was rolling hills through the countryside. It would transition from farm land, to woods, to shaded single lane. It was very pretty. However, I made the fool mistake of passing up the porta-john somewhere around mile 52. Drat – Another 10 miles, and the rode surface changed from butter smooth to someone’s horrible joke of a cheese grater. “Chip seal” as it’s called is very rough. Doing rolling hills on chip seal while needing the port-john is even worse, especially bent over on the aerobars.

Mile 62 saw a short pit-stop. That one stop energized me for the rest of the ride. It was glorious.

As the ride continued, it got warmer, and we were fighting headwinds, along with repeated hill climbs. I was able to get well clear of most of the pack. Somewhere around mile 85-90 I saw 3 guys crash out. It didn’t look too serious and help was on the spot.

About mile 92 I was mid pass on another rider when they jerked left to miss something. In reaction, I jerked left and had pedaled hard with my right leg. Instant cramp. This was easily the only place on the course that scared me with the thought of “you won’t finish”. The cramp was so bad I unclipped and had to shake my leg out. I never stopped, but I worried it wouldn’t go away. Luckily, after about 2 miles (~6 mins) it was gone, never to show up again.

The last 10 miles were painful – Not in a physical way, just a “Jane! Get me of this crazy thing” way. I wanted to be done with the bike, and was anxious to get out and run.

I rolled into T2 pretty much by myself. The volunteers were there to point out the dismount line, and to grab my bike – Again excellent service – 10/10 – Highly recommend.

It wasn’t until I was jogging through T2 that I realized how blazing hot it was. I don’t know why it hadn’t effected me to that point, but it hit me like someone draping a hot towel over my face.

I ran into the change tent, donned my visor, shoes and grabbed my bottle, and off onto the run course.

Run – 5:57
Hot – Damn Hot. A setting for London Broil hot!

My primary goal was heart rate. My secondary goal was to run the entire marathon. Starting on the run, my heart rate spiked to 155. I couldn’t control it. It was simply just too hot. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was officially 99f at that time (2:30p), and I was fighting the heat AND the humidity. I chalked my heart rate up to the transition, and continued running.

The course is a 3 lap loop around The Woodlands. The entire loop was covered with spectators, but 1/2 of it was downtown on the river walk, and there were thousands of people who’d come out to cheer everyone on.

I ran the first 4 miles. In that 4 miles I started to witness absolute agony, pain, the look of defeat, and general “oh my god what have I done” look on some peoples faces. This was the best I’d see. For the next 6 hours, it only got worse, mainly because as I would finish a loop, I’d be joining people who were 1 or even 2 loops behind me. They’d suffered on the bike course even longer, and now were in for a 26.2 miles of this heat.

For my part, I witnessed person after person getting sick – People throwing up, walking to the side and getting medical, and even saw people drop to the ground right in front of me. It was at that point, coupled with my uncontrollable heart rate, that I decide to stick solidly to my plan, and walk if that’s what it took to keep my heart rate in check.

For the next 5 1/2 hours, I ran/walked. I had brought along a sports bottle in a carrier, so I’d at least have fluids anytime I needed them and didn’t have to wait for an aid station (placed every mile). This proved to be an great idea and one I will always use from now on.

As the run progressed, I’d only be able to run for short periods, and walk longer periods. If was at this point I had the realization – Most people I knew didn’t care what time I finished in – They’d only ask 2 questions – “Did you finish?” and “Are you ok?”. I told myself there was NO WAY I would DNF, even if I had to crawl. Given my current pace, I’d finish in less than 14 hours, so I contented myself with that, and instead took more advice from my mentor and just enjoyed the event. I thanked as many volunteers as I could, and essentially just walked when I needed to, and ran when I could.

As the sun started going down, I was only 3 miles from the finish. The temps had been dropping, and I was just pushing like a machine. One foot in front of the other.

And therein lay what I didn’t like about the crowded river walk – For all the people there cheering everyone on, I felt compelled to run! I had to! If they were there, I didn’t want to walk, even though every sane person around me was doing exactly that. As the evening wore on, I was ok with being seen walking. I didn’t want to DNF, no matter what.

As I got within 1/2 mile, I knew I’d make it. It was dark along the river walk. I was alone. But the echoes reverberating off the buildings pointed me in the direction of the finish line.

The energy of everything around me kept increasing with each step towards the finish. 1/3 mile. 1/4 mile – I make the last turn onto the road with the finish chute. The lights – I can see all of the lights. And the people.

The entire 4 lane road is mine. It is lined on either side with white metal barricades, and there are spectators jam packed up the the barricades – Everyone cheering, whistling, yelling. It’s magic.

And it’s my turn.

I’m alone in the center of the street. Blinded by the lights in front of me. Then I hear Kayla yelling my name. Out of the whole crowd, I can hear her because she’s calling me by the nickname she gave me.

I’m emotional by this point – It’s not something I can describe adequately. It’s finishing. It’s being done. It’s being there. It’s knowing you just did something that will redefine you. It will be how you gauge things. It will be your litmus paper for future tests, both physical and mental. It’s scary. It’s eye opening.

When I crossed the finish line and Mike Riley said my name, it was the end to a great event. Kayla and my friend Scott were there waiting for me, and I walked down the street knowing I’ll never do a first Ironman again, but I knew I’d race another Ironman.

 

  • Special thanks to my supportive daughter Kayla (that’s PFC Brinkerhoff, US Army btw), who trained for months with me and along side me, and put up with my grumpy demeanor during some of those training runs, rides and swims.
  • To Scott who traveled all the way from San Francisco to cheer me on and help out.
  • Also to Rob Wight – 6 time Ironman finisher (with 2 more coming this year at Kona) – He was a great mentor throughout the entire event, and took a ton of time to explain the do’s-and-dont’s, and followed along, the entire journey.
  • And to my son Indy – I wish you could’ve been there. You would’ve loved it. Keep running, and competing. Your first full marathon will be sooner than you probably know, and you gotta outrun the old man.