I woke up at 3:30am on 9/11/11, and I knew the day was finally here. Ironman. The race I’ve been aspiring to for the last three years, was going to happen in three and a half hours. Even if everything went exactly to plan, I knew this race would test me. But that wasn't the case. Almost nothing went how I planned.
The first indication of the challenges that were ahead was apparent as soon as I opened my eyes. The head cold I had been dealing with all week was still in full force. It was probably worse than the day before in fact. That was outside of my control though; all I could do was manage it the best I could with the medicine I had stuffed in all my bags.
I ate my typical race breakfast, drank coffee, and left for the race.
Distance – 2.4 Miles
It's an amazing thing to be in the water at an Ironman Swim start. Thousands of athletes were lined up in the murky but very glassy water. Mike Reilly was telling us we were all going to “be an ironman” today. The cannon went off, “Beautiful Day” by U2 was blasting on the PA, and suddenly the water erupted into chaos.
For the first 400 Yards I went hard. In mass starts I would rather be swam over than swim over other people...
I felt really good, and I was shocked and happy to see 1:20 on the clock when I got out of the water.
Time – 12:30
I carefully ran through T1, did what I needed to do, and got going. I was not going to be heroic running barefoot in T1 and screw up my day with a fall.
Time – 6:45:24
Distance 112 Miles
As the bike started out through Madison we entered a bike path that went under a city street. Unfortunately, with less than two miles in, a rider crashed her bike and was being attended to by paramedics, which stopped the bike course. It was frustrating to have my foot down while the clock was running, but the woman that fell off her bike had bigger issues. She was being taken off the course on a back board. I hope she was okay.
I made it through the “stick” and hit the first aid station, where I threw my bottle and picked up a bottle of powerbar and a bottle of water, and very nearly avoided a second pile up, when a rider went down at the aid station.
About ten minutes later, I grabbed my powerbar bottle to take a drink. It was empty. The volunteer that handed it up to me didn't screw the cap on tight, and the bottle drained out. The next aid station was water only, and the combination of those two issues meant I was going to be short about 200 calories in my first hour. I typically eat a cliff bar in T1, but that didn’t happen today. My stomach wasn’t feeling up to it, possibly because of the rough swim or because of my cold.
I was still biking very well and making many passes. My bike was set up well, and I was happy to see that with the addition of my aero helmet, wheels, and removing my two training bottles + holder I was averaging about 19 mph on the bike.
At about 25 miles in I was passing someone and I hit a BIG pothole I didn't see. I was immediately worried that I damaged something. A few miles later I felt the back of my bike bouncing. I looked down to see the rear tire flat and my heart broke. I knew my bike split was ruined. If I couldn't get moving again, my race was over. I'd been training for 12 months for this day, and it was hard to think this might be the end of my day.
I got off my bike, closed my eyes for 5 seconds, and got some perspective on things. An accident, nutrition problems, and now a flat and the clock wasn’t even at 3 hours yet... I’d like to say I was totally calm and prepared, but that would be a lie. I was a mess.
Okay, I thought, some things are happening that I don't want, but flats and colds are completely outside of my control. Regardless, I can quit now, or I can keep moving forward...those were my options. Walking away would have been very easy in that moment. Quitting becomes exponentially easier when you know that no matter how the rest of the day plays out you can't perform to the best of your ability. Continuing meant suffering a lot, for a sub-par performance. This was my first Ironman though, the race I've had my eye on doing for at least the last 3 years. I've sacrificed a lot to get to this day. My wife was out on Old Sauk with my parents, cheering for me. So, I decided to keep going, and just make it the best day I could.
I pulled my back wheel off and checked for damage. It looked ok, other than the flat. I grabbed the razor blade out of my flat kit and cut the flat tubular in half and peeled it off the rim. I pulled my spare on and inflated it. I was moving forward again, but I had lost about 15 minutes.
At about mile 32ish I finally hit an aid station that had calories. I drank some perform and supplemented with my EFS, just like in training, but things weren’t working like they did in training. My stomach went from feeling bad to feeling awful. My hamstrings/quads were starting to cramp. I was covered in salt and the day was proving to be a bit hotter than expected. I needed salt, calories, and water and I was struggling to get sufficient amounts of them. I was totally unprepared for all of this, as my nutrition had always been pretty much perfect in training.
At mile 46 I saw Lana and my Mom cheering for me at Old Sauk. I tried to smile and wave, they gave me such a positive lift, and I didn't really want to expose them to the badness I was going through.
I was doing the best I could to ride in my power zone on the bike, which was difficult as I had a lot of slower bike traffic to pass now, but overall things were getting better. By the time I went through Verona on my first loop I was feeling pretty strong and my stomach issues seemed under control. Unfortunately I had to stop at bike special needs to get my spare tubular / co2 from my special needs bag. After flatting once, I wasn't going to ride without a spare and risk a DNF, but that meant again my foot came down, more minutes gone.
On a climb about 60 miles in I saw my friends Seth and Jessica. I had no idea they were going to be there, and I kind of had to do a double take when I saw them. Seth ran next to me briefly as I climbed and I told him about my flat. I had this odd thought. Ultrarunners talk about how they get these hallucinations after running for hours, of ghost wolves chasing them and things like that. I wondered briefly if I was being chased by a ghost Seth, but I quickly dismissed the idea, as that would probably be the lamest hallucination ever.
I saw Lana again in Verona on my second loop, probably around mile 90. Again, it was a much needed pick up. The cramps were back again. I was now about 700 calories under plan, putting me at around 150-200 an hour. Not nearly enough. I was struggling to balance getting more calories and water in with not vomiting, and I was losing. I only peed once on the bike, around mile 60, so I was dehydrated as well. I was beginning to struggle with holding power. I’ve never had nutrition problems in a race; I can normally eat anything anytime, and be fine. I was totally unprepared for a nutritional emergency. I was getting really frustrated and angry, which happens when my blood sugar is low. I was cramping badly, something else that doesn’t really happen to me, especially on the bike. I took some of my emergency salt; it was more likely a function of my lack of nutrition/hydration. I didn’t really understand at the time how far gone I really was though. By now I was struggling to hold 60% power and my focus was really slipping.
But the decision was made, I was going to keep racing. Finishing would have to be good enough. I was going to finish.
At mile 102, on my way back to town, I noticed my back wheel starting to bounce. It was low on air...I had no idea how. I still don't, in fact. My first intention was just ride it for the last few miles. It wasn't quite flat, and it was a tubular anyway, so I figured it would maybe make it to 112. Unfortunately about 107 I noticed it was getting worse. I knew I was working harder to pedal on a flat, I was worried I was going to roll the tire off the rim, and I knew my bike time was screwed anyway… So, I stopped for a third time, and put another CO2 cartridge into the tire. Luckily, this time it held until I got back to transition, but I lost more time with a third stop.
Yeah, I was having a bad day. But, things could have been worse. There was a guy I passed riding into T2. He was carrying his bike, covered in blood, back into T2 to start his marathon.
T2 was a mess. There was lots of carnage, and a lot of folks looking less healthy than me. I did my thing, changed socks and shoes and went. The cramps were still there so I took more salt and drank some water. I tried some gel but it didn’t stay down.
Distance 26.2 Miles
I was very worried when I started the run. Scared may be a better word. Running a marathon isn't an easy thing on my best day and I knew I wasn’t in any shape to do it at the moment. I was running very easy 10 minute miles, but my stomach was still wonked and my nutrition was worse. Every time I tried to drink anything with calories at the aid stations I'd throw up. My calves were and quads were cramping very badly. I stopped taking in calories at about mile 6 because I was worried that they'd see me get sick and pull me off the course. I was also worried that it would make my hydration situation worse.
I saw Lana, my parents, and our friends Seth and Jessica at Mile 7.5. By the time I saw them again, around mile 14, I was in the weeds. I was walking. I was totally bonked. I couldn't feel my teeth or look at the ground without it spinning. I was cramped beyond belief. I remember asking Lana if I could make the cutoff if I had to walk. I was pretty much done. Luckily, Mom and Dad went to eat, I really didn't want them to see me like that. I knew they'd be worried enough. At that point someone made the suggestion to try pretzels at the aid stations. I figured that I had nothing to lose, besides more walking and vomit. Sure enough, that did the trick. I only ate a few pretzels per aid station, but it was something and they were staying down. I was able to add bananas, chicken broth, and a little coke on top of that. Things got just a little better, and I was able to run most of the last half of the marathon. It wasn't a fast or pretty run, but it was a run. The cramps got slightly better too. In the end I think I probably ran the entire marathon on 10 pretzels and a quarter of a banana.
On Being an Ironman
As I turned towards the finish, it seemed bittersweet. It was a day that had lots of downs, and very few ups.
When people asked me how fast I was going to finish this race, I told them my goal was 16:59:59, but I knew I had a 12 hour IMOO in me. Maybe I did, I’ll never really know. As it turns out, my first Ironman was going to be more about perseverance than performance.
It's cliché to say things like “well, just play that hand that you're dealt” or “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” but things are cliché for a reason. In the end, I turned down the carpet, “hi fived” the fans, and smiled when Mike Reilly called out “Michael Bernico, 34, of Bloomington Illinois, you are an Ironman!”
There’s no question that putting together a 12 hour race where everything went to plan would have made me very happy, but fighting for a 14:18:09 where nothing went right is probably better.