Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ironman Florida 2104 Report

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure. ― Eric Liddell

I’m not particularly fast, but I have learned to endure. Ironman Triathlon is all about endurance with its 2.4 mile swim, followed by a bike ride of 112 miles, and capped off with a run of 26.2 miles. Perseverance, endurance, working through challenges, problems and pain is at its core. It’s a wonderful metaphor for life, and for me it is all about my life.

Divine pleasure, a connection with God, is what I experience in endurance athletics. It may have been that way from the beginning. That was more than thirty-five years ago, so I don’t really remember. I do know Ironman Florida, from the moment I signed up, was about that. I signed up in November of 2013 and immediately questioned my decision. At that point I prayed, “If you don’t want me to do this, then make it clear through obstacles or injuries.”

Staying injury-free while training for Ironman is difficult. There is so much wear and tear on the body and plenty of opportunity for injury, especially at 55 years of age. While I struggled with strained hamstrings on the run early in the training cycle, I never experienced anything that kept me from doing all three disciplines. In fact, I believe this was the best training cycle I’ve ever experienced for anything. I took that as God’s blessing and was thankful.

In 2014, leading up to November 1, I:

  • swam more than 70 miles 
  • rode more than 4600 miles 
  • ran around 900 miles 

To the best of my ability I tried to do all these miles during non-work hours and in a way that did not take away from my responsibilities. I know I failed along the way from time to time, for which I have experienced adequate guilt. Kedra constantly encouraged me and kept me looking forward. She is amazing!

All of my running miles were by myself, and all of my swim miles were with others. My bike miles
were a mixture of solo and group efforts. My training partners, whether present or not, were the key to my success. They are amazing encouragers and supporters. Without them my Ironman journey would not have been possible. They are a picture of a true community, a family.

For many years I had labeled triathlons “impossible,” even though I had an interest in them. I had also judged Ironman “absolutely impossible,” because of the time it takes to do one, up to 17 hours. I knew how I felt after marathons run in the 3.5 to 4 hour range. They were was no way to endure 14-17 hours. Absolutely impossible! Yet I was intrigued Ironman, really intrigued.

Then I met friends who were Ironmen, initially running with them. Later I started riding with them, purchasing an old but good triathlon bike, about 4-5 years ago. I wanted to spend time with them, and they rode more than ran in the summer. This led to me signing up to do RAIN – Ride Across
INdiana, a journey of about 160 miles, in 2011. Long story short: I made it 158 miles before a trip to the ER and a night in the Richmond hospital.

My RAIN disaster had me on the course for around 14 hours. As I recovered from that, I thought about how I was working for nearly the same amount of time as an Ironman event. I was fine for most of that time. This allowed me to change my thinking from “absolutely impossible” to “possibly possible.” There was one big obstacle in the way, however. Swimming. Can an old dog learn a new trick?

If you know me, then you know two years ago I could not swim. I literally could not swim, even dog-paddle, to save my life. When I jumped in (eased in, actually) the pool the first night, determined to learn to swim, I was terrified of putting my head in/under the water. Patient friends moved me along week by week and month by month. It was a slow journey.

This year I swam and progressed to a mile and then to 2 miles. Then came the “Iron distance” of 2.4 miles, which I did several times at a rate that would easily get me out of the water before the two hour twenty minute cut off of Ironman. Concerning my progress, I heard the word “miraculous” said with a laugh a time or two. Maybe it was technically not miraculous, but it was certainly divine pleasure, in my mind.

With months of training completed, we made our way to Panama City Beach on Monday. Roy and I rode down in his car. Jim and Rand came a few hours later. Steve and Brent each drove down, arriving Tuesday.

The top priority in the days leading up to Saturday for me was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. We did this for three mornings, and each time I improved. My confidence level was high regarding the swim. We rode a little and ran a little, releasing some nervous energy. The weather was perfect: 80s and beautiful!

Our families started arriving on Thursday. It was great to see them, especially my precious granddaughter, Cora. For Christmas last year we gave our four children and their “significants” a weekend at the beach. They just had to make their way there. It was wonderful for all of us. We had a beautiful condo on the beach and a wonderful time together.

Leading up to Saturday we registered and got our packets. We attended meetings. We loaded our five bags. You get a bag to keep your biking and running gear in, as well as a bag for your discarded wetsuit and swim wear.  You also get two “special needs” bags, one for the bike and one for the run. These are offered at the halfway point of each discipline and can contain special food, drinks, clothes–whatever might be helpful to you. I put additional clothes in my run bag and very little in my bike bag.

On Friday we had to check our bikes in, along with our bike and run gear bags. After that was finished, I had a nice dinner with my family and an early night. The water was calm on Friday, but the forecast for Saturday was ominous, very ominous. Winds of 20-30 mph were predicted, along with rough water. I did not sleep well.

I got up at 3:45 to eat and get ready to go. We left a little before 5 a.m. I met up with Jim, Rand, Steve, Brent, and Roy. We walked to the body marking area, where our numbers and ages were put on our calves, hands, and upper arms. Next we entered into the bike transition area to make last minute adjustments to our bikes. Steve had a major problem and had to seek support for a tire issue. It was dark, cold, and windy.

While we waited on Steve, we donned our wetsuits and tried to stay warm. He arrived and met us. We were on the verge of being late, but we took time to pray. Since I was, as Jim likes to say, the professional, I asked God to calm us and to calm the water. One out of two ain’t bad, I suppose.

As we walked onto the beach, we heard the stunning announcement. “Due to a dangerous rip tide and water conditions, causing the water safety team to be unable to keep themselves or the swimmers safe, the swim from Ironman Florida has been cancelled.” What?!?

There was a mixture of emotions from the crowd. Some cheered; some cried. I was disappointed and relieved, more disappointed than relieved. Disappointed because I wanted to do this and was ready, ready to overcome so much, ready to prove to myself I could swim 2.4 miles in the Gulf. I was relieved because the water was so rough, dangerous, and intimidating.

Now everyone was scrambling, trying to process and figure out how the thing would continue. They
quickly announced an hour delay. The pros would start the bike portion at 8, and the rest of us would follow them, two by two, beginning with the lowest numbers. Rand, Steve, Brent and I had high numbers. Jim and Roy had low ones. They started over an hour ahead of us.

I started my ride around 9:50 local time, which meant I waited from 6:30 to get on the bike. That was a long time to wait. I changed from my wetsuit to bike clothes and then waited. Fortunately I found Brent, so we stayed together most of the time, talking and waiting. I would have rather been in the water than to have waited that long.

As we waited, we wondered about the windy weather. It was cold, in the low 50s, and very windy. Finally the time came to get in line with my bike. Finally the wait was over. I mounted my bike and headed into the wind. The first 22 miles were into the wind, a wind of 25 mph with higher gusts. It was tough, but this is what I came to do. I had ridden in the wind a lot earlier in the year. It helped prepare me.

The ride was fairly uneventful. I rode fairly well. I remembered a line I saw somewhere during training: “ride what you should not what you could.” In other words, be conservative with your energy. You still have a marathon to run after this. The 112 miles came and went. While the wind was an issue, it didn’t bother me that much. I just dealt with it. What else could I do? I was pleased to average around 16.5 m.p.h.

It was pretty neat arriving back at T2, transitioning from bike to run. I changed clothes and was ready to run. I did not know how my hamstrings would do. They were making themselves known, but the rest of my body felt pretty good. Overall I felt really good. I saw my wonderful family at the beginning of the run course. I stopped for a few seconds to talk with them. Seeing them throughout the day was so encouraging. Good-bye! Got a marathon to run!

It took me a while to get going. I ran the first mile but my legs were really tight. I stopped and walked for a short while. I did a run/walk for the next mile or so. By then my legs loosened up and I started feeling good. I ran from before mile 3 all the way to mile 21, I think. I consciously thanked God numerous times for his blessing of a good day. I stopped briefly to get my special needs bag, changing shirts and getting some special food (pop tarts and jelly beans!). John Heatherly came out and helped me with all that. I was very glad to see him and have his help.

At mile 21 I walked briefly, due to being tired. I then resumed running. I came up on Steve. He was struggling, so I stopped to talk with him to make sure he was OK. I then took off, and I guess he followed me for the next mile or so. I stopped again, and he caught up. We chatted briefly and ended up working together the rest of the way. I think it helped both of us. I had no set time to achieve. I just wanted to finish well, which I did. No medical tent for me!

The finish was amazing! There was a long chute, the last parted carpeted with the Ironman M-dot logo. The crowd, including my family and friends, was screaming, clanging cowbells, making an unbelievable noise! Many had their hands out wanting a high five. I gave it to them. I felt euphoric! I was listing leftward, not sure why, but I raised my hands skyward, so thankful, so grateful to God for the completion of this journey. It was simply amazing! I couldn't hear it over the joyful celebration, but the announcer shouted, "Allen Burris YOU-ARE-AN-IRONMAN!" Dreams do come true, and impossible is possible!

My time was 12 hours and 15 minutes. This, of course, is without a swim time. I feel confident my swim plus transition would have been around 2 hours, maybe a little more. I feel like I would have broken the 14:30 mark, which would have thrilled me.

As I finished, I saw John Heatherly and ran over to him, and then I heard my family on the other side and ran over to them. It was so great to see everyone! I leaned on some volunteers as they removed my timing chip. Then we went to the lady with the medals. I removed my cap and slowly tipped my head forward. She placed the medal around my neck, the medal that wasn’t even in my dreams 3 years ago. I know for her it was nothing special. She had been doing it for a few hours, but for me, it was one of the moments that will go on my life’s highlight reel.

After hugging my family, I made my way to the food tent, where I saw more friends. Then I saw Jim and some others. Jim encouraged me to get a massage. I did, and it was great.

The only problem I had was a couple of bloody toes. Who needs toenails anyway? I saw a couple of signs out on the course: “Toenails are for Sissies.” Indeed! Ha ha.

The day was long but filled with peace. I never felt stressed or nervous, after the swim was cancelled. I was nervous about the swim, nervous but confident I would complete it.  I had a mantra prepared for the day: This is what you came for - finish it! Funny thing, I never had to use it! I never once thought of quitting or even wishing it was over. In fact I found myself thanking God for feeling so good on the run. I felt his presence and his pleasure.

This event is so full of life parallels, but this post is too long already, so they will have to wait. As exhilarating as it was, it is but a dim reflection of the thrill of successfully finishing this life and receiving the crown of life. This is my true purpose.

Thank you to all my family and friends who made the trip south and to all who have been so kind and encouraging along this wonderful journey!

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