Ironman Florida Race Report
November 5, 2011
The process for pre-race check in was a bit different than other races, but the feelings were similar. In this respect, I was within my comfort zone leading up to the race. About 45 minutes before the race started, I separated from Anthony to use the port-o-potties, and was unable to reconnect with him before the race started to wish him luck. Then with about 2 minutes to the start, I somehow spotted him behind me about 20 meters on the beach. I went up to him and wished him luck as the cannon fired and we entered the water side by side.
Immediately upon entering the water, I knew the swim was going to be more vicious than other swim starts of which I have participated. Within 3 minutes of entering the water, I believe I was stung on the right cheek by a jellyfish. With the mayhem of all the thrashing swimmers, I did not see the jellyfish, but felt a sting to the face very similar to that of a yellow jacket hornet. When I wiped at my face, I felt like I moved something crusty away from it. Not sure if that is what a jellyfish sting feels like, but I know I wasn’t kicked or scratched on the face at that moment.
As the swim continued, I noticed a lot of folks were not swimming in straight lines, but zigzagging all over the place, which led to multiple instances of being t-boned by swimmers. Some of the swimmers were viscous and ruthless out there. I do not know why, but when they got around other swimmers, I believe they just kick, scratch, and flail in the water to make space for themselves. I saw probably 2-3 dozen “pink meanies” jellyfish on each lap. Times like this, I wish my goggles fogged up a bit. Throughout the first lap of the swim, there were no more than two swim strokes free of collision with another swimmer. I took in a bit of water, but not much more than couple mouthfuls.
After exiting the water after one lap, I took a cup of water, saw Becca and my folks excitedly cheering me on, and reentered for my second loop. This loop was a bit less congested but still involved a lot of zigzags of swimmers and collisions. At one point, I was hit so hard from the right, my left earplug became loose, forcing me to breathe only on my right side for fear of getting water in my left ear if I were to turn that way. Just before reaching the beach on the second lap, I swam right into the largest jellyfish yet, putting my right hand through the creature. As I learned later on the bike, I was not the only one to swim into it because if its location and size. I am not sure if it was alive or not, because I swam as fast as I could away from it. Overall, the swim was ok, no real damage to the body and I finished in 1.11.11, which is just about 4 minutes faster than my goal of 1:15.
From the swim, I entered transition calling out my number to the volunteers who quickly located my transition bag. I was within the changing room a couple minutes later and pulled on my bike gear as best I could over my wet skin. I opted for the calf compression sleeves as they have worked well for me on long rides, but abstained from arm warmers. As I headed out on the bike, I again was able to see Becca and my mother cheering my on. I do not know how they made it around the transition area so quickly, but it was really nice to have them there to wish my luck on the bike ride. I felt lucky for such wonderful support as I pedaled out of town into the wind.
Once on the bike, I felt comfortable despite the headwind. I continuously hydrated, fearing the high winds and the sun may dehydrate me more than I would think, trying to finish a water bottle every aid station, which was about every 10 miles.
Everything was going smoothly until the first aid station at mile 13 when I crashed and slid across the pavement. I was not moving fast, maybe 5-8 mph. I had slowed down to grab a water bottle from a volunteer and there was only one other cyclist around who was about 50 feet ahead of me. As I approached the aid station, this cyclist was swerving into and away from the aid, as if he couldn’t decide what to do. I held my left hand on the front brake as I reached for a water bottle with my right hand. Just as I did this, the guy in front of me ultimately sees something he likes, yells, “ooh that’s what I’d like” locks his brakes up, unclips his pedals and puts his feet down on the ground as he lunged / shuffled himself and his bike the 5 feet to the right to the aid station. I tried to apply the brakes and swerve to the outside of him, but my front wheel just clipped his back right tire and I flew off the bike. The guy looked back, clipped his feet back into his pedals, and rode away. My left forearm and shoulder took most of the impact. I quickly hopped back onto the bike, grabbed the water bottle for which I was looking, and pedaled away. Right away I knew the crash wasn’t serious, but the swelling and bleeding on my left forearm was exactly on the spot where I rest in the aerobars. As I rode on, I picked the gravel out of the arm and wiped away the bloody skin, which had stuck to the pads on the aero bars. The pain wasn’t bad, but more than anything I as grumpy that I had crashed, and crashed so early on and for such a stupid reason. I did not know whether to blame the guy for acting indecisively, unsafely, and without caution for those around him, or whether to blame myself for not riding more protectively.
Mile 13-40 were spent mostly with anger at the crash and trying to get myself to just forget it and move on. Somewhere around the mile 40 aid station, I stopped to use the port-a-potty and thought to myself that my legs feel pretty great considering the headwind the entire way. From miles 40 to the turnaround point around mile 56, I struggled as the headwind was straight on and brutal. My pace dropped to around 17 mph and I was even forced to climb out of the saddle on flat roads just to keep my momentum forward. I kept telling myself that when I hit the turnaround, the rest of the bike would just be a quick, easy spin.
Mile 52 brought the most atrocious road pavement one could imagine. It was one of those old roads that have a crack running the entire width every 20 feet. So every second or two, you would hit a sizable bump that would jar the bike and the body. The roadway became littered with the goods of other athletes; water bottles, gels, nutritional bars, and curse words were dropped everywhere.
Then the turnaround and the special needs bags arrived. I opted to skip the stop for this, as my nutrition intake was going just as planned, and I had sufficient supplies to finish the ride. I had also packed a spare bike tube and co2 cartridge in the event I had gotten a flat before this point and wanted to restock the bike.
At this point, I was halfway through the bike with a time somewhere around 3 hours 5 minutes and an 18.2 mph average. I was pleased. Despite an early crash and a seriously challenging headwind, I was on pace for my goal of 6:15 and knew the way back to town should have a good tailwind. All I had to do was get off this crappy pavement in another few miles and I should be good to go. Then, the trouble really started. I continued to hit those bumps every 20 or so feet and then one particularly jarring bump, I heard an ear deafening gunshot. My tire has finally caved into the hard pavement and riding, and blew out. It was so loud, folks heading my direction shouted and, when they got closer, commented on that being the loudest blowout they’d heard. Folks riding past me for the next 30 seconds commented on how far back they had heard the pop. I pulled off the side of the road, trying to keep calm. It was my front tire, and I had changed many flats in training. I methodically went about changing the flat, and finished in roughly 6 minutes.
I climbed back on the bike and pedaled away, leaving more curse words on that road. Once back on smooth pavement around mile 59, I tried to look at the positives. I still had a spare tube, and two spare co2 cartridges. My bike was operating, I was moving forward, and even with the time spent changing the flat, I should still hit my bike goal if I rode the remainder at the same pace as the first half, which I was confident was possible given how my legs were feeling and the winds were now favorable. One thing that still troubled me was that my speed was just a bit off, and I felt the handling of my front tire was a little too sensitive.
Then, the lowest point of my day arrived. Just about mile 68, another pop. It turns out the sensitivity in my front wheel had remained because in that first tube blowout, I had actually blown a hole in the side of the tire itself. Now, about ten miles later, I was on the side of the highway and completely screwed. The tire now had a complete two inch hole blown out of its sidewall. This was a tire that only had 100 miles on it, and should have been up to the task of the day. I was screwed.
Trying not to panic and figure out my options, I was attempting to use multiple patches from my patch kit to piece together the tire, knowing I wouldn’t get anywhere. As packs of riders continued to fly by, I turned desperate and started shouting out, “does anyone have an extra tire!” and a few people asked if I meant a tube, and I yelled back, not a real tire. This only went out for about four shouts and 25-30 seconds before one guy yelled back, “you mean, a tire, tire?!” and yelled “YEAH” as he continued to ride away. He reached into his left pouch of his jersey, pulled a tire out, and threw it to the side of the road about 50 yards past me. I hollered thank you as loud as I could and ran up the road to retrieve the tire. It was a Michelon tire, valued somewhere around $70 and this guy just threw it to me. He had just saved my race, and I didn’t get his bib number or anything. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was, and how grateful.
Struggling to put on the new tire as well as a replacement tube, it took me longer than it should have. A gentleman spectator on a bicycle tried to help me fix the tire and I did everything I could to reject his assistance. After a bit of work, the tire was finally fixed and back on the bike, but I was completely out of repair materials. I had no more tubes, co2, tires… nothing. I had ridden by my special needs back with the extra supplies before getting my first flat. Now I had 44 miles to ride praying that if I were to get another flat, I would have to rely again on the generosity of my fellow ironmen. Knowing this, and that my bike goal was now completely out the window, I tried to relax the remainder of the bike ride and focus on running a good marathon.
It was about this time that I realized my nutrition wasn’t working for me. I was following the plan just as it had been perfected in the past. Every 25 minutes, I alternated between taking a powerbar gel and a baby clif bar. In between, if I was feeling I needed something more, I would sip on a flask of EFS power shot. Drinking water frequently, and using a couple rest stops to relieve myself, I knew I was properly hydrated. But something was off. I started dreading to fuel myself. However, I was able to force down some calories for the remainder of the ride. I believe the energy spent, both physically and mentally, from my crash, two flats, and blown out tire and subsequent rescue from a good Samaritan, led to my depleted and miscalculated fueling.
I finished the bike on a seven mile stretch of headwind along to gulf. Riding into T2, my time on the bike was 6:29:04. I had missed my goal of 6:10. My garmin watch calculated my actually riding time as 6:00:42, which meant my time fixing my mechanical problems and using the rest stops, added up to 28+ minutes. Heading into the run, I knew my total race goal of 11:30 was now out of reach. In all honesty, there was some satisfaction and calm that came with that realization. I could now just focus on running a marathon at whichever pace I felt comfortable. I had run 23 marathons and ultra-marathons before this day, so I was completely in my comfort zone. Nothing could happen on this run that I had not experienced before.
I saw my family and Becca again coming in off the bike, and was happy to relieve the stress of waiting for me. I knew they had received a bike split for my first half, and knew they must have become increasingly worried the longer it took me to arrive back at the transition area. Knowing they were waiting helped keep my pushing the pedals and cranking the gears.
Heading out onto the run, I knew I would not be able to stomach any more food. Now, I have run marathons without eating in the past, and I know this leads to some suffering in the pain cave, but I was prepared to go there. I have been forced to walk significantly in a marathon in the past, during a trail marathon at 9K feet elevation in the Rockies, so I knew that as unenjoyable as that can be, I found comfort in having done it before. My new game plan was to run as much of the first loop as possible, and then walk as much of the second loop as I had to.
The run is a two loop out and back course, so really I had to run the same stretch of road 4 times. This is boring scenery, but easier mentally. I excel at loop courses because I can break them down mathematically and push in the right places. This also gave me confidence heading into the run. My first 5.75 miles were mostly ran at a pace that would not upset my stomach. I tried to consume the flattened cola at the aid stations, but was not able to eat anything else. My pace for this first stretch was 9:42. I am happy with that. The following 7.35 miles through the turnaround and back into town caused more nausea, but I was motivated knowing that my family would be waiting at the turnaround. I kept telling myself that once I see them, I could let them know that I was going to walk a lot the second loop and to not get too nervous if I took a while. I saw my dad around mile 11, as he had walked out from the turnaround point to provide additional support. This was greatly appreciated and gave me a boost to run most of the way back to the turnaround. This stretch was run at around 11:30 pace for a split in the first half of just over 2 hours.
As I turned around and headed back out, I saw my mother and Becca cheering me on. I took the opportunity to suggest it was going to be a long lap, and they encouraged me by telling me to take my time and they would see me at the finish. I walked from there, with the nausea completely taking over. I had emptied the tank on the first half and had absolutely nothing left to burn. I started to panic, thinking that after all this trouble, training for the last year, battling through the challenges of the bike ride, that it was all going to go to waste because I was going to collapse on the run and end up in a med tent or hospital. This is the lowest I have felt physically in a run. I have felt dehydrated, weak, and nauseous before, but this was a new pain. I could not even stomach putting a cola to my lips, even without opening my mouth. My stomach was fucked.
I though to myself, if I cannot get something into my stomach, this is over. I will go until I collapse, but I will collapse before the finish. If I quit now, I will only eat and drink and feel fine in a few hours. Then I would be so upset with myself for so many reasons. I tried to think rationally. I kept walking as fast as I could. My legs felt fresh, as though I had just been on them all day and ran some, but they were nowhere near cooked. I was hydrated, thinking logically. The sole problem was my stomach. As I walked through the next aid station, I stopped walking completely. I stayed put until I got something into my stomach. If I tried to walk another mile to the next aid station, I would not make it. I finally managed to keep down about 1 ounce of cola without dry heaving. I crabbed another cup to go and some pretzels and continued walking. That one ounce of cola opened the door to my stomach again, just slightly. I through the pretzels away a minute later as I continued to walk.
At the next aid station at mile 15, I grabbed two cups of cola and a chips ahoy cookie. The cola stuck and I ate the cookie in no less than 30 bites. I was nibbling the thing, but kept it down. At this point I saw my dad for the last time before the finish. It was getting dark out and I handed him my sunglasses. He walked with me for a few steps and I tried to tell him this was ugly but that I was going to finish. He encouraged me as much as a father can, and told me I may get a second wind if my stomach feels better. The next two aid stations, I began to feel better. I ate as much cola and chips ahoy cookies as I could. By mile 17, I felt ok. My stomach was mostly settled and I knew I had eaten enough to sustain me for a bit. I decided to start running again. The next mile was spent shaking the stiffness and tightness out of my legs that had settled over the last four miles of walking. As I entered the state park at mile 18.4, I had covered the last 5.3 miles at 14:22 pace. Not only is that a walking pace, that is a slow walk.
My watch had died at the start of the run, so I had no clue what my time was, and I did not care. My only goal at this point was to finish the race. As I continued to run in the state park, I knew my legs were hurting, but I have been in this position before. This is my comfort zone, I know how to push my legs just hard enough to get to the finish line.
After 12 hours of straight racing, I started to feel the most comfortable all day. No one was kicking me in the water, no jellyfish to sting me, no more relying on my bicycle to function properly. There was nothing to rely on except for my own strength. This is why I love running. If something doesn’t go right, it is your own fault. Total self-reliance. In swimming there are tides, jellyfish, other swimmers. Your race can end there because of elements out of your control. This is even truer with biking. There is so much riding on the performance of your machine. Pun intended. A race can end quickly because a bike is not doing its job. I can think of no such instance while running. Sure, shoes can brake down and wind can be challenging, but you can still run if you are strong enough.
I thought about this as I reached the turnaround and headed back to town. I wanted to leave everything out on this course. I started training for this race with the knowledge that it was this ironman or no ironman. This is not something I will do for a lifetime. I was going to race this ironman as hard as I could knowing it was the only one I will ever consider attempting. The race demands too much of my time; too much strain on personal relationships. This one race has caused too much to suffer. From family, friends, and finances, every part of my life has been consumed negatively due to this personal and selfish goal of mine. I knew this going in. I have asked too much of everyone around me. I have let too much slip away while trying to prove to myself that I can truly accomplish the most difficult event in endurance sports. I cannot justify competing in this race by any means, but as long as I was out there, I was leaving every last bit of sweat, blood, and tears in the streets of Panama City Beach.
From when I started running at mile 17, I did not slow down until the finish of the race. There were no more walking breaks, no more sips of cola. I had what I needed in my body to get me to the finish. Years of racing marathons gave me the confidence to know I had just enough to push myself increasingly hard to the finish. I have never been more focused. It was like I was on autopilot, running with complete efficiency because I had nothing that could be wasted. I thought to myself that I may run myself straight into the medical tent, but that would be once I finished, and I could think about it then.
As I got closer and closer to town, my speed increased. I felt like I was flying out there. I probably covered the last few miles in 8 minute pace, but I cannot be sure, and it does not matter. What matters to me is that I ran it hard. My limits were stretched. I knew I had this race. Turning into the finishing chute, I heard my mother scream my name and I smiled to her, trying to hold my emotions in check until I crossed the finish line. Then I saw my father and Becca cheering me one. The announcer, “Trevor Lava, you are an IRONMAN!” He enunciated the word ironman. I had covered the last 7.8 miles at a pace of 9:33 per mile, my fastest pace of all four legs. The total time for the run was 4.51.10. With transitions of 8:40 and 4:19, my total time for Ironman Florida was 12:44:24.
A volunteer walked me all around the finish area as I collected my medal, finisher’s shirt and hat, and had my picture taken. I then went to exit the corral and saw Becca. A year’s worth of emotions surrounding this challenge came out at once. It was over. The ironman is done. I had finished the race, and she had supported me the entire way. I know she shared in the accomplishment entirely. My parents as well. They had done everything for which I could have hoped. I am so grateful for their support, and really do not know how I could have achieved this goal without it.
After leaving the finishing corral, I sat down and my body began to shut down. As I had suspected, I really did have nothing left. With Becca’s concern, we went over to the medical tent, where I was swiftly admitted and administered to. I was now face to face with the medical director that two days earlier at the mandatory pre-race meeting said he hopes to never see us after the race because that means we are in terrible shape. I had done what I had committed to doing, in the pitch black of the state park just an hour before. I ran as hard as I could through the finish, emptying myself of everything I had, and landed myself straight into the med tent. I spent the next hour trying to get my nausea to subside following the same technique as in the race. This time, however, the cola was not working. Not for the first twenty minutes. I just sat there wrapped in space blankets with other injured and broken down ironmen. It really was amazing how wonderful the volunteer medics were. Within an hour, I had managed to force down a slice of cheese pizza and felt I could get home without further issue. Becca walked me to my car where my parents were waiting and I was back at the condo within minutes. The race was done, and I am an Ironman.