Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2007 Race Report

This was the toughest race of my life. It wasn’t because of the strength of the field, which was very strong, or the weather, which was quite windy, but the circumstances which I fought. I learned a lot about myself.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve followed my discussion of the new book, Lone Survivor, by my friend Marcus Luttrell. Marcus, his twin brother Morgan, my top support-crew guy JT, and a few other guys I am close with, are all Navy Seals, (Marcus actually just retired). In a way, I’ve kind of been adopted by the Navy Seal family. Marcus was the only Seal to survive the deadliest day in Navy Seal history 2 years ago in Afghanistan. His book recounts the events which killed 19 of his friends and teammates, and his incredible story of survival against all odds. It also details the training he went thru, and how the Navy Seal training is designed to see how badly you want it, and who will quit. They push you to the limits, then further.

A part of the book which really helped me in the race was where the instructors are explaining what it takes to become a Navy Seal… “the body can take damn near anything. It’s the mind that needs training…Can you cope with that kind of unfairness, that much of a setback? And still come back with your jaw set, still determined, swearing to God you will never quit? That’s what we’re looking for.”

“Don’t let your thoughts run away with you, don’t start planning to bail out because you’re worried about the future and how much you can take. Don’t look ahead to the pain. Just get through now.”

It was a tough week leading up to this race, with the surprise death of my friend, Jim McCann on Wednesday. I found out Thursday, and I took it hard. I was being tested before the race even started. The words in Marcus’ book would ring in my head throughout the race, and help me to the finish, as the tests would continue.

Up at 0400, and out for an easy 15 min jog, everything felt great. Back in for breakfast and final prep, with my first cups of coffee in weeks. Off to the race, and everything was looking great.

The water was choppy and rough with the wind, but nothing different than what we had seen all week leading up to the race. I was ready. At the start line I had Lovato on my left, and Victor Zymetsev on my right. I knew the swim would be lead out by Bryan Rhodes, Luke McKenzie, and Tom Evans. I decided it would be best to stick with the chase pack, as I didn’t want to end up being strung out away from Luke and Tom, swimming solo. I needed a good draft, and think for the long haul. I also wanted to use Zymetsev’s experience to help me. He had won 5 Ironman titles, and beaten Tom the year before by pacing his efforts just right. I felt it was best to key off him and use his experience to help me.

The race starts with the cannon, and we’re off. I am right where I want to be, next to Lovato and a few others. End of lap one, and Greg Welch tells me I’m 90 secs off first, Rhodes. I figure perfect, I just need to hold pace on the second lap, as 3 mins is fine if that’s the gap.

2nd lap I settle perfectly onto a quick age-grouper’s feet, with Jasper Blake on my feet, and come out 3 mins down, 7th, perfect! Victor had made a little surge on me late, but I felt it was best to wait it out. I head out of T2 chasing Jasper and Victor. Glance at my watch for swim time, 54 mins and change. Not great, but I realize I’m right in the mix, and I feel good.

Out of T1, and my wife tells me about 4 mins to 1st, and I’m in 7th. I begin the road through town, and man there are a lot of people out! I pass Jasper about 5 miles in, get out to the turnaround and see Rhodes leading, followed by Evans, McKenzie, Victor, and Fabio Carvahlo. We get back into town, and Paulo and Johnathon Caron give me a bike split of 3:45. I get to the long straight away and my wife tells me 3:30, so they’re coming back. I overtake Carvahlo, and do a few time checks on Victor, and see I’m closing in on him. I just wanted to use him to keep the pace honest and work together legally. I knew he didn’t really know who I was, so that would probably play to my advantage. The gap closed to 15 seconds as we hit the first descent, just before the 25 mile marker.

I dug into the turns, riding in the aerobars thru the blind corners, speeds near 45 mph. I could feel the wind begin to open my jersey just a bit. Suddenly, I feel what seems like a stab wound, right to my chest! “Ughhhhh!” I realized right away, bee sting. I sat-up out of the aerobars, hit the brakes, and lifted the jersey. I reached in and pulled out the stinger. I was cursing out loud, “I can’t believe this happened again!” Wildflower was a similar instance, but that happened in my right arm.

I pass by the 25 mile marker, and see the split, 1:01:33. I’m on a pretty good pace, but not killing myself by any means. I begin to wonder, what does this bee sting mean? What happens now? I know I’m allergic, but to what degree will it affect me in the race? What can I do to stop it, or prevent it from effecting me? I decided I would just continue to race, stick to my plans and see if it affected me. I hoped I had pulled out the stinger before it could really release much venom into me. (After the race, the sting area would form a 3rd nipple on my chest!)

By now, Victor had put another 30 seconds between us, while I dealt with the bee, and I was solo. Over the course of the first loop, the gap to the leaders would fluctuate between 2:30 and 3:50. If it was a hilly section, the gap grew. If it was flat, I brought them back.

I come back into town, and see the lead group. Victor has nearly caught them, and has passed Rhodes. Right about now, I’m struggling a little, and feeling a little weak. By the time I get back out at the turnaround, Evans has made a move, and I’m losing time. Lovato is catching me, and I’m wondering what’s happening.

Mile 76, and Lovato catches me. He turns and looks at me, and says, “Are you okay?” It was clear I was going backwards, and I’m looking pale. A little later, Jasper Blake has caught and passed me. I am trying to assess the problem, and realize it’s not nutrition, I’m stuggling to breathe deeply and get going hard again. I decide to focus on filling up on water and hydrating, fearing the sting has effected my hydration levels.

I drop all the way to 9th, and begin wondering how far down I will plummet. I think about dropping out, realizing the bad luck has come, and perhaps this isn’t my day. I remembered what I said about Jim McCann’s death in my blog, and how I had to give my best. Dropping out certainly would not be my best. I thought again about my situation, and saw that I was still in the top 10, a fair showing for sure. I needed to soldier on, as the race was far from over.

At mile 90, I began to get things back under control, as my hydrating plan seemed to be paying dividends. I moved back into 8th, and pushed for T2. Bike split of 5:00:19, struggling.

I come in to T2, a few minutes down on Jasper, and quickly get changed and off. The crowd is very large, and cheers can be heard as I leave the transition. I start off gingerly, and see where I’m at. I get to mile 1 and it’s about 6:42. Feeling better, I decide it’s time to start winding it up. I get moving back thru the crowd, and picking up the pace.

I begin to find the quick rhythm I want, and suddenly, I’m having a lot of trouble breathing. I’m suddenly an asthmatic, but I’m not an asthmatic! The lungs will not allow me to take a deep breath, and my diaphragm is spazzing. I almost become a little panic stricken, and wonder what the hell is going on, as I’ve never felt this way in all my years of running! This was the second mile, so how in the hell was I going to run a marathon? (It wasn’t until after the race when talking with a few doctors that I find out bee stings attack the respiratory system, and the symptoms I was displaying very normal for an allergic reaction. They were amazed I finished, much less how well! Come to think of it, so am I!)

I slow down to catch my breath and see Heather Fuhr and Paula Newby-Fraser. I tell them I need medical, and they say it’s right there. I look over and realize they mean I have to stop racing and step off the course to the medical tent. I couldn’t do it. I had to keep pushing and racing. I couldn’t quit, my body would have to give-in before my mind.

I slowed down and just tried to find the fastest rhythm I could, without suffering the breathing issues. I check the split for the next mile, 6:24. I do the math in my head, and realize this is still sub-3 hours for the marathon, and if I can hold it, I’ll still do well. Next mile was 6:22. This 6:20-6:30 pace continued until about mile 17, when I started to struggle, and couldn’t breathe again. I had told Jonathon Caron to radio medical of the situation at about mile 4, and was worried I might collapse out there, from the reaction to the sting. I wanted them to know what was going on if I suddenly passed out. I honestly had no idea what to expect, and I was truly scared.

Come the second lap, my left quad and IT band were tightening up badly, and I didn’t know if I would make it even another step, much less another mile or to the finish. At the final turnaround I do a time check, and I’ve lost some time on the guys in front of me, but I’ve got a big gap to 9th. I realize all I have to focus on is finishing at this point. All I could think of was Marcus’ book, “Just get through now”!

I look up the road at a target, trying to get to it, before choosing another. One foot in front of the other, trying to make my breathing as relaxed as I could. Every step so painful in my leg, and painful in chest. I was on sheer willpower, (and coke, cookies and water from the aid stations!)

I hit mile 25 and begin to realize I’m really going to make it. I come near the corner to turn down Sherman to the finish, and people are congratulating me, and I wince out a smile, almost incredulous it’s really about to end.

I round the final turn and hear a HUGE roar down the street, as it’s lined with people 3-4 deep! Two police cyclists are waiting to escort me down the final 5 blocks. I am in such pain, disappointed about the circumstances, but emotionally charged that I made it thru the worst, and scariest race experience of my life.

I come to the finish area arch, slow to a walk, and I’m in tears. I don’t know if it’s from the pain, fear, or realization that I had suffered thru and made it. I’m overwhelmed with the emotion of a top 8 finish, despite facing challenges greater than just the distance itself. I walk thru the tunnel of people, giving high fives, and break the tape, 9:06:40. I had run 3:08:09 for the marathon, in a suffer-fest of pain, breathing issues, fear and doubt.

I cross the line and my wonderful wife Orlanda is right there to give me a hug. I could not believe I had made it. It had looked so horrific and impossible. I learned so much of myself and how I am capable of amazing things if I truly keep my mind strong.

Thanks Marcus for your words in the book. Thanks Jim McCann, for helping me to make a promise to do my best.


moonpie said...

Congrats for making it through the race and not bailing! It's all about keeping things in perspective!

Fsckin' bees!!!

jp said...

wow Jim. Talk about mind over matter....

Incredible story...thanks for sharing it. That certainly will serve as some inspiration in the desperate, painful moments of a future race.


Paulo said...


Great meeting you last Monday and thanks for the acknowledgment :-)

MikeS said...

Inspiration is right. We often ask, what is possible? Based on Jim's race, I think we need to ask instead, What isn't possible?

When I watched you cross the finish line (on the live video) and hug Orlanda, the intensity came through loud and clear.

I'm still in awe that you placed 8th after all of that.


Anonymous said...

If you can do this well under difficult circumstances, think how well you will do under more ideal ones!! These obstacles only make you stronger--your strength will prove invaluable some day in the future.

Thanks for sharing!


dianafuller said...

Hey Jim,
Congrats, Jim you are an inspiration for us all!!!!!!!!!!
I am very proud of you, i enjoy watching you online
Love ya

Craig Zelent said...

Great race Jim! I'm glad I did not have to go through that kind of suffering. You are 1 tough Husker!