Ironman Chattanooga through the eyes of a competitor
Ironman Chattanooga is just a few days away, and I’m in no shape to contest the 144.6-mile race. I’ve only swum a handful of times in 2015. My running buddies think I’ve skipped town. I still can’t decide which Gatorade flavor I like best.
That would be bad news—except I’m not even registered for this year’s event. Nope: I raced last September in the inaugural IMChoo, and I think I’m still recovering. This year, my only job is to help people learn from my experience—comical at 27 years old—and watch them accomplish their dream.
Many athletes disagree on the hardest part of being an Ironman. In fact, this debate is how the event came into existence: Big talents with big egos organized one big competition to crown one big winner. However, those were brash, experienced athletes. For mortals like me, I’d suggest that signing up a year in advance to the tune of $700 is as daunting as anything. It’s an expensive contract, with little chance of a refund if plans change.
But Ironman has always been, and continues to be, a powerful motivator. It inspires entrants to turn down one type of six-pack in hopes of gaining another. To train in the dark early morning, during lunch, and after the kids are asleep. To finish at all costs, even (especially) if it means peeing on yourself.
Me? I wasn’t even thinking about going the distance. I’ve been running and bicycling my whole life, but the Ironman bug hadn’t bitten me yet. I did my first sprint triathlon in 2008, working up to the Half Ironman distance by 2010. However, when they announced an Ironman in my backyard, I had little choice but to surrender my credit card. I couldn’t just admit that I wasn’t the best, could I?
Whoever says “It’s about the journey, not the destination” obviously has a better sense of humor than I do. My journey was littered with injuries, unattractive tan lines and obscenities hurled from car windows.
Eleven months out from the race, during an unnecessary 18-mile run, my left leg became what can only be described as “floppy.” It didn’t heal quickly, and I hobbled through winter. The floppy leg made me lopsided from compensating, which led to back pain on bike rides longer than an hour. The Ironman bike ride takes over five hours.
But with some physical therapy, tweaks to my bike, and a new strength and stretching regimen, I entered one of the biggest training blocks of the year. I was exercising 15 to 20 hours a week. However, I was seeing results. In a sport where people spend hundreds of dollars to save a few seconds, I was shedding minutes. I drove home from the Mach Tenn Triathlon on June 7 eager to show off my new trophy.
Instead, I returned to find my mom in the hospital. What had started as a stomach ache was soon diagnosed as something far more insidious. Though they weren’t my ovaries or my cancer, nobody would have blamed me for backing out of the race on the spot and spending more time with my family. Nobody except for my mother. She made it abundantly clear that not only would I finish the race, she would be waiting at the finish line. And only a fool argues with Patty.
I was privileged to attend a breakfast with pro athletes and coaches the day before the race, hosted by Chattanooga-based bike manufacturer Quintana Roo. Though our race strategies should’ve already been set in stone, the presenters emphasized the importance of pacing.
There are plenty of tools to help with pacing, none of which I use (I’m either a Luddite or a purist, depending on your perspective). They asked who was racing purely by feel. In a room of 60 athletes, only one hand, mine, went up.
But what scared me most about the race wasn’t the distance, or the hills, or the threat of rain. I was much more concerned about really critical things, like where to find a porta-potty, or whether anti-chafing balm would wash off while swimming.
Race day began at 4 a.m. with a carefully planned breakfast. Then my friends and I caught a bus to the swim start. Though we arrived an hour before the starting gun, we still found ourselves near the back of 2,400 racers. We lost a prime starting position, but also saved ourselves some of the stomach-churning anxiety of being first into uncharted territory.
Suddenly the line was moving. We were herded onto the temporary dock, with little time to see which way to swim. Luckily, the river only flows one direction. I used the 2.4-mile swim as a “warm-up,” occasionally passing swimmers who were inexplicably perpendicular to me. The swim took me 50 minutes, about 10 minutes quicker than expected because of the current. After getting slathered with sunscreen by amazing volunteers, I was on the bike.
My second-greatest Ironman fear almost came true when another rider crashed directly in front of me, less than 50 yards into the ride. Miraculously, I avoided injury and embarrassment, and steadied myself for the next 116 miles. (He was fine; I checked.)
The first hour was a blur. It felt like I didn’t even pedal, which was my general plan. Seeing friends from the Chattanooga Triathlon Club further lifted my spirits. And trying to nail my nutrition (the “fourth discipline”) took most of my brainpower. In fact, I’d made a spreadsheet of what to eat and when. Between hydration and solid food, I had plenty to think about.
I never expected booby-traps, though. When police routed us around the first oil slick, I assumed it was an accident. However, upon seeing dozens of athletes with flat tires—victims of a thumbtack spill—I realized we’d been targeted.
My tires stayed inflated. I worked the familiar course to my advantage, even finishing 30 minutes faster than expected. Before I knew it, I was back on Riverfront Drive, spinning easy gears to give my legs a brief respite. Normally, I catch quite a few competitors on the run. With a marathon ahead of me, I had plenty of time to gain ground.
Running by feel got me through the first mile in an easy 7:50. The goal was 3:20 (7:37/mile), assuming no floppy leg. An experienced Ironman advised me not to push the pace yet, so I settled in for the long haul.
It was then, between miles two and three, that I realized I hadn’t thought about run nutrition at all. The fundamental key of finishing this race, which I’d so meticulously calculated for the bike, had completely slipped my mind.
Though it wasn’t terribly hot, I used iced sponges to keep cool, even putting cubes under my tongue and on my wrists. When I saw my parents at mile eight, I received a massive surge of energy. And at the Riverview Park aid station, I got word that I was in 12th in my age group. I took a celebratory shot of beer from a Dixie cup and began climbing Barton Avenue.
Though my legs grew heavier every mile, you could have set a clock against my pace. When it started to rain, I took it in stride, barely noticing the weight of my waterlogged shoes. Volunteers started distributing popsicle sticks with thick dollops of Vaseline, which I regrettably ignored. Just because you can’t feel the chafing doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Adrenaline took over as I crossed Walnut Street Bridge the second time. I sprinted to the finish arch, high-fiving strangers, trying not to trip over the rain-soaked, Ironman-branded red carpet. I had a moment of clarity long enough to hear legendary emcee Mike Reilly say, “Drew Streip, from here in Chattanooga, YOU are an Ironman! A first-time Ironman!”
Once my “catcher” (a coveted volunteer position) made sure I was coherent, volunteers thrust chocolate milk into my hands and placed a medal around my neck. After the obligatory finisher pictures, they draped a space blanket over my shoulders. As it turns out, you get chilly when you turn off a furnace that’s been burning for 10 hours.
I stumbled into an embrace from my mother. That moment—a lifetime, really—continues to live in a simple 4” x 6” photo on my desk.
So what’s changed? Nothing, and everything. I still train, but I don’t race as much. My triathlon bike is gathering dust. Instead, I reach for my mountain bike. I’m no longer afraid of crashing and undoing a year’s worth of work. The attire also just looks cooler, if we’re being honest.
My mom died in July. We each spent a year fighting our separate battles, though she didn’t get to choose hers. The race fully consumed me for a time, but at least it gave me back.
In hindsight, the hardest part of Ironman is something you can’t measure by time or distance. It’s not waking up at 4 a.m. or running a marathon or choking down pre-packaged energy bars. It’s choosing to struggle while knowing how many others don’t have a choice. And it’s finding the will to finish, no matter what is (or isn’t) waiting for you at the end.
Will I do another Ironman? Definitely. I’d like to earn my way to Hawaii, home of the original race, now the world championships, even though it will mean many more hours of hard work. However, come September 27, I’ll only be watching as friends and strangers alike are changed forever by four simple words: You are an Ironman.
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The 2015 IRONMAN Chattanooga
The Little Debbie IRONMAN Chattanooga is a family-friendly affair, with plenty of places to view the race. The action is centered around Ross’s Landing, home of the Ironman Village, swim exit, transition area, and the finish line. Here’s what you need to know:
Sunday, September 27
Start time: 7:20 a.m. (pro), 7:30 a.m. (age group)
8 a.m. (approx.): First professionals exit the swim
12:30 p.m. (approx.): First professionals finish the bike, begin the run
3:15 p.m. (approx.): First pro athlete crosses the finish line
By the numbers
Average temperature: 79° / 57° F
Winning times from 2014: Matt Hanson (8:12:32), Angela Naeth (8:54:55)
Number of 2014 finishers: 2,229
Where to watch
Wish athletes luck at Ross’s Landing as they finish swimming, start biking, and start running
Cheer for cyclists in Chickamauga as they reach the halfway point of their ride (shuttles available)
Crowd the corner of Aquarium Way and Riverfront Parkway as runners start their second loop
Line the red carpet or snag a seat in the grandstand! Finishers will be arriving from 3 p.m. to midnight.