The Tortoise and the Hare – Reimagined
Ironman Boulder – 2019 Race Report
by Mark Jimenez
Swim 2.4 miles
On June 9, 2019, I toe’d the line at Ironman Boulder with around 1,200 other nervous athletes ready start my 4th full Ironman, and hopefully complete my 3rd. The day before I had learned that this would be the last year Boulder hosted the full distance event, 140.6 miles. Boulder Colorado is one of my favorite venues. Watching the sun rise over the reservoir is amazing. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of Boulder when you are coming from the desert of Las Vegas.
I had been watching the weather closely for the last 10 days. The original forecast was for thunderstorms on race day. Lightning will cancel the swim in an Ironman, but the bike and run will go on, depending on the severity of the storm. Still, as the week progressed, the forecast changed to a low of 42, a high of 65, and partly cloudy skies. I thought it would be perfect racing conditions. The water in the reservoir, while cold, was actually warmer than the temperature outside. This means it’s usually not too bad when you get in the water.
Ironman allows you to self seed based on your projected swim times. Seeing as how my last 3 swims had been right around 1 hour and 20 minutes, I lined up with the 1:20 group. Ironman now does a rolling swim start. Picture a highway onramp with a meter. They only let one person every 2 seconds go. As you can imagine, it takes a while to get all 1,200 of us in the water. I looked around at my fellow green and pink swim capped friends. Some were making nervous talk with those around them. Some were deep in thought. I was a deep in thought guy. All I could think about was how bad I had to pee and how hard it is to get in and out of the wetsuit. Based on the wet patterns around me, several of my Ironman buddies didn’t wait to get into the water to pee.
Disgusting. Sometimes it’s best not to look down.
Slowly I crept towards the start. Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, was doing a great job walking through the crowded field and pumping us up. I’m not much for external motivation before a race, though. I was deep in my thoughts. My main concern was how cold the water would be and how fast I could warm myself up by peeing in my wetsuit when I finally got in the water. I know, it sounds gross, but I promise you that if you did an Ironman you’d do it too.
By the time I entered the water, several of the pros and elite athletes were starting the final stretch of the swim.
I know I can’t compete against the elite athletes. I’ve often said that Ironman training is like having another full time job. It takes an amazing commitment to do it right. I’ve never managed to do it right. Still, you can’t help but compare yourself to them. They have rock hard bodies chiseled by Zeus himself, I have a muffin top. They have a resting heart rate so low that a doctor might mistakenly pronounce them dead. I have a resting heart rate of 55. They can churn out an amazing amount of power on the bike. I can barely light a lightbulb. I know where I stand in all of this, and I know I can’t compare or compete, but the thoughts do cross my mind.
I’m a weird triathlete. I’m pretty good at swimming so I don’t practice it much. I know I can knock out 1:20 on the swim with only practicing once a week. It’s not a great time, but to improve by 10 or 15 minutes I’d have to put a ton of work in at the pool, so I figure I’ll just churn out my 1:20 and focus my training elsewhere. Many triathletes struggle in the swim, I just pretty much ignore it.
The hardest part about swimming, for me, is that it gets boring. There’s nobody to talk to out there and you get kicked and hit by other athletes. I’m sometimes tempted to grab on to them and let them pull me through the water, but that would be cheating. The good news is, though, that once I get my breathing pattern down I can swim pretty well.
There’s always a moment for me in an open water swim where I think I’m going to drown. This time it happened right when I entered the water.
“I can’t breathe!” the thought screamed through my head.
“Yes you can,” I calmly answered myself as I turned my head and took my first breath.
After that, I started having a great swim. I was breathing from both sides and I kept my pattern going. 1 – 2- breathe right, 1 – 2 – breathe left. Rinse and repeat for an hour and twenty minutes. Like I said, it gets boring.
If you haven’t done an open water swim event, the goal is to keep the buoys on your left as you head out. Yellow buoys signify you are on your way out, red means turn, and orange means you are on your way back. 2.4 miles is a long way to swim, and I was elated after I made my first turn. I was making good time, I felt, (I wasn’t going to stop and check my watch) and the buoys turned from yellow to orange pretty quickly, which told me that I was on my way back.
I always seem to forget something when I do a triathlon. At Ironman St. George I forget all my nutrition in the trailer. There I was in the transition area when I realized I didn’t have any nutrition for my bike ride. I quickly turned into the world’s friendliest guy and went around asking for the scraps from my fellow triathletes. I got a half a stick of gum and a couple of clif bars. It was enough to get me through. God bless triathletes.
Here at Ironman Boulder I didn’t forget my nutrition. I forgot the Body Glide. Actually, I didn’t forget it, I just forgot to apply it. As I turned my head left and right to breathe, I could feel the back of my neck chafing against the wetsuit. It’s not like I had much of a choice, though, it was either chafe my neck or not breathe. I chose chafing.
As I write this we are 8 days removed from IM Boulder. My neck still hasn’t fully healed. Ouch.
The damage from the wetsuit chafing
The Ironman Boulder swim is a big triangle. There are only two turns in it. I made my second turn and I was really happy to head back. Then a funny thing happened. My left leg cramped right at my calf. I’m not a guy that gets a lot of cramps, and I’ve never had a cramp while swimming. I immediately went back to third grade and my mom telling me not to go swimming until 30 minutes after I ate. I always thought those were stomach cramps she was talking about. Was this what she meant? Why didn’t my mom clarify? The pain was excruciating!
The few times that I had cramped on land I just stretched my muscle out by pushing my foot against something solid. There isn’t anything solid in the water. I tried to swim a little bit but I wasn’t very successful. Have you ever tried to paddle a boat with the oar just on one side? I seemed to go in circles. That, and the pain was getting worse. I’m actually kind of proud of myself for staying calm. I looked around and spotted two rescue boats that would easily hear me if I called for help, but I also knew that calling for them would effectively end my day. I didn’t go all the way to Boulder to end my race before the bike even started. I turned to my back and started what my Junior Shark swim teacher called the elementary back stroke. I glided like that for a little bit and eventually the pain in my calf became tolerable. I turned to my stomach and continued swimming freestyle. I could still feel the pain in my calf, but it wasn’t cramping anymore, so I was able to keep moving forward.
Have you ever felt like you are making progress towards something but not getting any closer? In math there is the concept of the limit, that you can get infinitely close to something without ever reaching it. That’s how I felt as I swam towards the shore. I knew I was moving forward because I kept passing buoys. I kept counting them, but when I looked up the shore didn’t look any closer. It was the darndest thing. Soon I started noticing something else, the water was getting colder. How was that possible? Well, I was wearing a wetsuit, not a dry suit. The water comes into the suit, and I could definitely tell that the water was getting colder as I came in.
The reservoir is filled from snow runoff from the Rocky Mountains. The water was flowing high this year and snowmelt is always cold. I postulated that I was swimming towards where the water entered the reservoir. These are the things I think about when I swim. I mean, who uses the word “postulate” when swimming, or doing anything for that matter? Me, that’s who. Handle it.
Even though I was wearing ear plugs and had my swim cap pulled tight over my ears, I could eventually start to hear the crowd and Mike Reilly’s voice over the speakers cheering the swimmers on as they exited the water. Still, I didn’t seem to be getting any closer, I was only getting colder. I tried not to look up and see the land because I didn’t want to be disappointed again, so I just concentrated on moving from buoy to buoy.
After what seemed like an eternity I was coming up the ramp and out of the water. The first thing I did was take my goggles off my head and then yank ear plugs out. A volunteer was chasing my up the ramp unzipping my wetsuit. It was awesome.
2016 IM Boulder Swim: 1:19:56
2016 IM Arizona Swim: 1:23:10
2017 IM Boulder Swim: 1:20:21
2019 IM Boulder Swim: 1:25:14
That cramp slowed me down. At least, that’s what I’m saying happened.
A brief pause here to thank all of the volunteers at events like this. They are the true unsung heroes. They stood in cold water ankle and knee deep helping people like me as we came out of the water. I did my best to thank as many of them as I could when I was out there, but it still wasn’t enough.
I got my arms out of the wetsuit ok and headed to the grass to pick up my bike bag. This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the race, because this is where the wetsuit strippers are. I found two able-bodied men and lay flat on my back. They grabbed ahold of my wetsuit and I lifted my butt and legs in the air.
They pulled and my wetsuit came off in a jiffy. It was awesome!
It was also freaking cold.
Have you ever been soaking wet in cold water that you swam in for an hour and twenty five minutes, and then stood outside in nothing but a tri kit when it’s 42 degrees? Like I said, it was cold. The second that wetsuit came off the temperature hit me like a Mike Tyson body blow. My teeth immediately started chattering. A volunteer gave me my bike bag and I headed into the tent for the first transition, known as T1 to cool triathletes like me.
By this time the pros had been out of the water for over an hour (keep in mind they started at least 30 or 40 minutes ahead of me and they swim like fish).
Ironman does a good job with transitions. They put two tents up, one for men and one for women. With my bike bag in hand I entered the tent and started my transition.
The men who read this will know what I’m talking about. Have you ever been in the men’s locker room at a gym? Usually there are older men walking around in the nude. Sometimes with a newspaper in their hand. They like to chat with each other and random younger men while letting it all hang out. The men’s transition tent is a lot like that. My first thought was, “how did all these old naked dudes beat me out of the water?” To be fair to my ego, I started telling myself that these guys just saw a pop up gym and decided to stop in to chat and read the newspaper. Realistically, though, they had beat me out of the water. Good on them!
About this time two volunteers grabbed me and physically moved me in front of a portable heater. I realized that I was shaking and my teeth were chattering. I was cold. “Stay here” they told me.
But all I saw was people leaving T1 and headed out onto their bikes. I should have stayed. I should have warmed up and dried off. Instead I thought, “I’ll dry off on the bike,” and I left the watchful eyes of the volunteers and snuck out.
On my way to the bikes I stopped at the sunscreen station, which was manned by moms. “Don’t be shy!” I shouted to them as they started lathering sunscreen all over me. They weren’t. Their hands went under the straps on my shoulders and down my back. There is no modesty in a triathlon, and the moms manning the sunscreen station didn’t hesitate. They did a wonderful job. I did not get a sun burn on the bike ride.
I took my bag and headed to the bike! I ran it to the mount line and off I went!
Lesson learned from T1: Bring a change of clothes and take the time to change into them. Riding a bike warm is better than riding cold.
Bike 112 miles
Have you ever rode your bike soaking wet when it’s 42 degrees outside? I have. I will not be doing that again. There isn’t much to say about the first 2 hours of the bike ride. I was shaking violently trying to heat up. I was so cold. I looked at the other cyclists around me and realized that they had planned much better than I had. Some were wearing throw away sweatshirts, others had warmer clothes. I was still dripping and cold. I was so cold that I couldn’t squeeze my water bottles to get water out of them. I was shaking so hard that I thought for sure I’d fall off my bike and end up in a ditch somewhere.
I considered quitting so many times on the bike. I just wanted to stay warm. Sometimes the sun would come out for just a minute and it would feel so good, then it would go away again. Sometimes I would see a patch of sun on the ground and all I wanted to do was pull over and lay down, curling up into a ball and getting warm. It’s hard to say just how cold I was. I have never been that cold before in my life. It took so much energy out of me. Shaking that hard for that long was a new experience for me, and I didn’t like it.
I remember thinking, “I’m probably hypothermic.” But then I thought to myself, “Self, if you are thinking about hypothermia then you probably don’t have hypothermia because people who are hypothermic don’t realize they are.” At least, that’s the logic I told myself. I don’t know if it was true. I do know that I didn’t truly stop shaking until I had a cup of French onion soup after the race finished.
The 112 mile bike course is two loops through the countryside around Boulder, CO. Around mile 45 or so the leader lapped me. He took my man card on the way. “Please hand over your man card,” he said as he flew by with his motorcycle escort. He was bib #2. I was big #1056. In my mind, that made him 1054 times better than me. Since I’m a math teacher you’ll just have to trust me that it makes sense.
Also, he didn’t really ask me for my man card. He went by too fast to ask for it. I did, however, throw it at him when I saw him again (the leg I saw him on was an out and back, he passed me on the out and I threw my man card at him on the back). I was also lapped by several other pros. It is too shameful to talk about, so let’s just say I was having a bad bike ride and leave it at that.
I’ve got to say, the 2nd lap was poorly marked. There was a section that confused quite a few athletes. I had the option of going straight or turning right. I chose correctly by going straight, but I could totally understand how some people when right. The straight option took you on another long out and back, and when you came back to the turn in question, you went right. If you went right first you ended up knocking about 8 miles off your bike ride, and even worse, you were disqualified.
Several people were DQ’d because of this turn. Even some pros.
Around mile 70 the man on the bike next to me says, “What does your GPS say for mileage?”
“70” I said.
“Crap,” he said, “I missed a turn.”
I felt bad for him. What do you do at that point?
My legs started hurting around mile 60. More specifically, my knees. The pain started on the outside and worked to the top of the knee and then eventually every single part of my knee. It was so bad that I felt that my knees would explode and that bone and tendon would go flying everywhere. The whole course seemed uphill from there out as I struggled to keep pace. Once again I felt like quitting.
Then I heard my little Amy, my youngest daughter, telling me, “Brave bears don’t quit.”
The story of the brave bear started when we were on the I-15 several years ago driving through the Virgin River Gorge. Traffic was stopped. Amy was about 4 years old. I had to pee very bad. I made it to an off ramp, pulled over, and started peeing against the side of the cliff.
Amy rolled down her window and shouted to me, “Daddy, I can see you peeing!” (Don’t worry, my back was turned to her). “You’re doing it! You’re peeing on the side of a mountain just like a bear! You’re a brave bear daddy!”
And ever since then, “Brave bears don’t quit,” has been my motto.
I must have repeated it a million times that day. I gritted my teeth and kept telling myself that brave bears don’t quit.
Brave bears do have to pee, though, and I stopped at an aide station to use the restroom. I quickly noticed that my knees didn’t hurt when I walked, so I knew that if I could get off my bike I would finish the race. I also stopped later to use the bathroom again.
It took my 6 1/2 hours to finish the bike ride. Around mile 90 I became very religious. I started praying. I stated making promises. I started praying to other gods because my god wasn’t answering. I started making bargains. Nothing seemed to work. The pain didn’t go away, and I wasn’t going any faster. I did see a dead rattlesnake, though, and I wondered if it was a sign. I don’t think it was.
By the time I finished the bike ride I considered giving my bike to the volunteer who came to take it.
“Welcome back,” she said.
“Screw this stupid bike, I hate it. Do you want it?” I thought about saying.
Instead I just kind of grunted and told her, “I might fall getting off my bike. Please don’t laugh.”
She laughed and said, “I won’t laugh.”
I didn’t fall. She didn’t laugh (again).
The bike ride was over. I told myself, “Self, that’s the last time you will ride your bike for at least 7 months. Enjoy it.”
Ironman Boulder 2016 Bike: 5:40:41
Ironman Arizona 2016 Bike – 78.7 miles, 4:23:07 – DNF
Ironman Boulder 2017 Bike: 6:02:47
Ironman Boulder 2019 Bike: 6:28:59
I got slower.
Transition 2 (T2) was uneventful. The volunteers weren’t super helpful, but that’s ok. One of them grabbed my transition bag and literally dumped it out in front of me. I was like “um, thanks.” Then he started grabbing the helmet off my head. It was still buckled. I calmly told him that I wasn’t setting any land speed records and that he didn’t have to help me that much. I changed into my shoes and put my bib on (1056) and started.
I once again headed to the sunscreen station. This time it was manned by high school girls. “Don’t be shy!” I shouted to them.
They stared at me.
I walked over and started putting sunscreen on myself.
They started to help.
Kind of. They more or less threw sunscreen on me from a distance.
I did get sunburned on the run.
Lesson learned: moms apply sunscreen better than teenagers.
Run 26.2 miles
I started off the run great. I got 7 miles in without stopping, which was a first for me in a full distance Ironman. Great thoughts were going through my head. “If you can knock an hour off your run you can still PR!” I kept telling myself. I was staying very positive. It was good!
In every marathon I’ve ever done there has always been a time where my brain starts thinking about walking. Sometimes I’m able to overcome it, sometimes I’m not. But usually I think about it.
This time I just stopped running and started walking. I remember thinking, “I didn’t even think about that.”
Once you start walking, it’s a long road from there. I kept picking points and choosing to walk to that point and then run again. Around mile 10 or so I ran into some friends from Vegas who were cheering me on. I felt so bad for them. I knew it was going to be a long day. I felt bad that they were out there. The pro they had come to see had finished 90 minutes before I saw them, and I knew it would take me at least 3 more hours to finish. But they smiled and cheered me on anyway, even running with me at one point. It meant the world.
When the sun went down the aid stations started serving chicken broth. I have never tasted anything so amazing. Give me chicken broth on any other day and I’ll say thank you. Give me chicken broth 132 miles into a 140 mile race and I’ll hook it up to my veins and take every last drop. It was amazing. My first cup was even hand delivered. Amazing. Thank you, Ironman, for the chicken broth. One day I’ll finish before the sun goes down, and then I won’t get any. But until that day, I’ll enjoy it.
There isn’t much more to say about the run. It was really more of a walk. It took a long time. I hurt everywhere, but I knew that I would finish.
The finish was emotional. It was the first time I finished without my kids present. I started to cry before I even got to the finish line. I was physically drained, and that took down all my emotional barriers. I wanted my kids to be there at the finish line cheering me on. I wanted to hug them like I had in the past. My time was horrible. The pros had been done for over 5 hours by the time I finished. They had their massages, their blood transfusions, and whatever else they get. I was still out there doing my thing. But at the end of the day, I finished.
And this is where it gets interesting. I actually beat some pros, but only because several were disqualified for taking the wrong turn. The tortoise and the hare. I kept going, I got it done.
Don’t get me wrong, I can’t compare myself to those guys and gals. They are amazing athletes. I’m an average joe. It does help, though, to think that even a pro can have a bad day.
Ironman Boulder 2016 Run – 5:48:35
Ironman Arizona 2016 Run – DNF
Ironman Boulder 2017 Run – 5:27:34
Ironman Boulder 2018 Run – 5:37:46
After the race I started shaking again. I was cold. Friends helped me get my backpack and I put my jacket on and a pair of sweats, but I was still shaking. The French onion soup and a hot shower saved me. I slept like a baby that night.
Lesson Learned – I need to train better. I will not do another full distance 140.6 mile Ironman until I can properly train. I do too much. I can’t have 3 jobs, 4 kids, and train for an Ironman. It just won’t work. It leads to a long day and worse, a painful day. I’ll keep doing the 70.3 half Ironman races, but until I am able to get in a better place, no more fulls.
I’m not quitting, I’m giving it time. I’ll do a full again. Just not until the time is right.
I don’t know why I do Ironman races. 140.6 miles is a long way to go. It’s hard. It hurts my body, it hurts mentally, and it takes a long time to recover. I also hate the recognition. I didn’t do anything that anybody else couldn’t have done. For crying out loud, it took me just over 14 hours. I think anybody could have done that, and most people would have done it better. What I did isn’t amazing or hard, it was just an exercise in patience. The time was going to pass anyway, all I did was swim, bike, and run.
People do harder things every day. Being a good parent, that’s hard. Setting an example for your kids, that’s hard. Making good choices and being a part of a community, that’s hard. There are so many things that are more difficult than what I did, and I think those people deserve way more recognition than I do. I’d rather spend my energy thanking them and building them up. For me, I am very uncomfortable celebrating myself. I always have been, and I probably always will be.
I learn things about myself when I go this distance. I learn about patience, grit, and hard work. I achieve mental clarity and I am able to experience emotional highs and lows unlike just about anything else in my life. Endurance exercise is a form of therapy unlike any other. It teaches you about yourself in ways that I never imagined.
I’m sad to see Ironman Boulder go. I know I’ll do another 140.6 race, but now I’ll have to find another venue. I won’t be doing Ironman St. George. It’s something to think about. For now, though, I’ve got to get some things settled in my personal life. I’ve got to start focusing on marathon training. Cross Country season is starting, and I’m so excited about what the kids will do this year.
We can’t spend too much time looking backwards. We have to keep moving forward. This was the worst Ironman I’ve ever done, but I kept going. I finished.
What’s next? Let’s see what I can do at the St. George Marathon in October. Let’s see how Cross Country season goes. The future is exciting. It’s wonderful to look forward.
But not too far forward. It’s still too soon for me to think about getting back on my bike!
Ironman Boulder. 140.6 miles, and all I got was a backpack, a medal, and hypothermia.
That isn’t fair. I got way more than that. I learned about myself, and at the end of the day, that’s the best lesson there is.