Thursday, October 15, 2009

FROM COUCH POTATO TO IRONMAN

Up until two years ago I spent the past 30 years as a couch potato. The extent of my activities involved eating and watching TV. I lived a very pedestrian life. But two years ago I decided to compete in a triathlon. I was 30 pounds over weight, couldn't swim and couldn't run a mile without walking most of it. Through hard work, self-discipline and a lot of encouragement from family and friends I somehow managed to qualify for the biggest triathlon event in the world: The Ford Ironman World Championship. I still can't believe I was a part of it this year.

NOTE: This is more detail than most of you want to read, but I wanted to write down everything I could remember from this special day. Unlike the writer who said, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." I'm writing down everything. I hope after reading this you take away at least a hint of what the day was like for a former couch potato on his journey to becoming an Ironman.

Here's how race day went for me.
Turning the corner onto Alii Drive a flood of emotions poured over me. Running in the darkness through hundreds of spectators lining the street cheering me on, I couldn't stop smiling. Even after enduring 140 miles in under 13 hours I felt no more pain and no more exhaustion. Friends and strangers were calling out my name, patting me on the back and congratulating me. Oliver Kiel, owner of Cycle Station, ran out of the crowd and placed a lei on my neck.

A little girl about 3 or 4 years old was standing with her father on the side of the road clapping. When I ran by them the girl yelled out "You're an Ironman!" Her words were still hanging in the air when I turned the corner and saw the spot lights at the finish line. With just a couple of hundred yards to go I finally allowed myself to believe I was really going to be an Ironman.

That wasn't the case most of the day, however. I had doubts even before I got out of bed that morning that I could even finish the swim, let alone finish the race. I had spent a restless night trying to sleep. I woke up at 1:30 filled with anxiety and doubt about the day to come. I eventually fell asleep again, then woke at 2:30, dozed off then woke again at 3:30. I finally decided to just get up and get the day started.

Eating breakfast all I could think about was doing my first Ironman. And not just any Ironman. It was the world championship. TV, helicopters, thousands of spectators and 1,800 of the worlds best triathletes. I was nervous and calm at the same time. The day held so much unknown that it was both scary and exciting.

(Athletes getting body marked at around 5 a.m.)

BODY MARKING
Karen and I made our way down to the King Kam hotel at 5 a.m. We headed to the body marking station behind the hotel. I was directed into the body marking area by numerous volunteers. The air was filled with nervous chatter from the athletes. The volunteers who were marking me noticed I was from Kona and circled my numbers on my arms. A sign that an athlete was local.

All the volunteers were smiling and trying their best to keep us athletes calm. After body marking we had to walk over a timing mat to activate our timing chip. While standing in line waiting for my turn, I took a step backward and stepped on the foot of the athlete behind me. When I turned around to apologize I was staring face to face with Chrissie Wellington, the soon-to-be three time world champion. I apologized and was tempted to ask her for her autograph but she looked a little nervous herself so I just smiled at her and stepped on the mat and headed to the transition area to get my bike ready. The butterflies were in full force now. My heart rate must have been well over 100 beats per minute.

(The bike transition area.)

As I approached my bike a TV camera crew was waiting for me. (A few days before the race NBC had asked if they could interview me and follow me around throughout race day. I told them I was a pretty boring guy and there was nothing special about me. Since it was my first Ironman and I was local they wanted to see for themselves I guess.) As I walked up to my bike the camera guy threw the huge camera on his shoulder and started filming. The guy without the camera asked me how I was feeling, how it feels to have home course knowledge, and how it will feel to have so much local support. I gave a few lame answers and tried to ignore the camera that was just inches from my face. I filled my water bottles, pulled my bike out and pumped up my tires. All with the camera inches away.

When I filled my back tire I noticed my wheel would barely turn. I checked to see if the brake was rubbing on the wheel but it wasn't. "Great" I thought. "I'm being filmed and I have a major crisis to deal with. Perfect!" The camera moved from my face to my wheel and back to my face. Sweat started pouring down my forehead and people were staring. I'm sure they were wondering who the heck is that old guy and why are they filming him?

(Being interviewed by Active.com race day morning.)

My rack neighbor must have notice how flustered I looked and stopped what he was doing and said he would take a look. He spun my wheel. It barely moved. Then he grabbed a pedal and made a couple of revolutions. The wheel came to life and he put his ear down on the frame. He put my bike down and told me it would be alright. The wheel seemed to spin pretty well now so I reracked my bike, tried on my helmet and got everything else ready. All with the camera inches from my face.

With my bike ready I left it and the camera crew behind and headed back out to see Karen. I ran into Bree Wee on my way out and we wished each other good luck on the day and made some small talk as we made our way out of transition.

Just when I met up with Karen a camera crew from active.com grabbed me and asked what the circle around my number meant. I told them it was a way they mark athletes from the Big Island. The reporter asked if I would tell her that on camera. I said I would so they set up and then proceeded to ask me a few questions.

Needless to say it was a pretty overwhelming morning. I tried my best to stay calm, stay focused and get ready for the swim. I stripped off my street clothes and put on my BlueSeventy speed suit, sunblock and vaseline. I kissed Karen good-bye and told her I would see her on the course. I turned and headed for the beach just as Navy SEALs jumped from a plane a thousand feet over our heads. I briefly looked up at them but the butterflies in my stomach occupied all my attention. It was getting too close to race time and I didn't feel ready.

(Navy SEALs parachuting into Kailua Bay just before the start of the race)

THE SWIM
The sea of athletes making their way slowly to the steps that would lead us to the beach resembled a death march. No one talked. No one smiled. As I approached the steps I was both honored and intimidated to be among these great athletes. I had watched this scene countless times on Ironman videos - athletes slowly making their way into the ocean - and had often fantasized about being one of them. Now I was part of it, for real.

My fear subsided and pride began to take its place. I walked a little taller and stared ahead at the thousands of spectators lining the sea wall. "Now this is living," I thought.

The steps were crowded as some of the athletes hesitated to descend them. I made my way through the crowd and stepped into the warm Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of athletes lined the beach with only a few swimming out to wait for the start. I walked out until I was in waste-deep water and stood there. I looked up at Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, in the booth overlooking the bay. I looked at the crowd on the sea wall again and still had trouble believing I was really here. Last year I was one of them. I turned and looked out toward the swim start. The pros were lining up. I wanted to be in the water about 15 minutes before the start: spend 10 minutes warming up (AKA calming down) and then the rest of the time relaxing and trying to maintain my starting position.

I dived in and swam out in the direction of where I wanted to start. I felt relaxed, happy and incredibly lucky to be one of the athletes competing today. I swam at various speeds to get the blood pumping and did some breast stroke as well. After my warm up I found exactly where I wanted to start and flipped over on my back and floated.

BOOM! The cannon shook my body at the same time I heard it. The pros were off. I looked back at the beach. There were still the majority of the age groupers standing on shore.

(Kona boys: That's me on the lower left with my arm up. Jim Ragual, Sam Corace and Warren Hollinger are right there too just before the swim start. This photo was taken by Alissa Harkey)

I met up with a few Kona boys, Jim, Sam and Warren, so we floated around together waiting for the start. Sam kept repeating, "It's just a Peaman." Trying to help us remain calm. (Peaman is our local monthly swim/run events that we have right where we were floating. They are very competitive but also very fun and not serious at all.)

I heard the announcer tell the age groupers that they had to get into the water before they would start the race. I could sympathize with their fear.

A minute or so later the cannon went off for the second time and us age groupers were off. I started my stop watch and took off. I was expecting a rough start. Lots of hitting, kicking and bumping but it was a clean start with plenty of room.

I started on the left side of the line and just a few people back from the front. My plan was to hold that position for as long as I could and try not to get tangled up in the middle of the pack.

The swim was pretty uneventful for me. I kept alert so I wouldn't get boxed in or ran over. The one downfall of my training was I never swam the entire swim course so I had no idea how hard I should be swimming. The way out seemed to take forever. I thought we were never going to reach the turn around. There was no boat this year to mark the turn around. Only the same orange buoys that marked the rest of the course so you couldn't see the turn until you were there.

I tried to draft as much as possible. When the person I was drafting began to slow I would go past them and swim up to the next group until they would slow then move on up. Just before the turn around I got stung by a jelly fish on the hand and wrist. It hurt but not enough to stop.

At the half-way point I stopped for just a second to check my split: 38 minutes. I was disappointed and knew I had to pick it up on the way back. I basically tried to draft anyone I could that swam past me until I couldn't keep up with them any more. Coming into the beach at the finish was a rush. The crowd cheering. Hundreds of swimmers finishing at the same time, the volunteers, the cameras. Total pandemonium. I checked my time: 1:13:58. I wanted to beat 1:15 so I had to be happy with that and I didn't even feel like I swam hard.

The volunteers were yelling something to us swimmers as we stood up to run up the stairs but I couldn't make out what they were saying. I took a step toward the stairs and did a face-plant onto the steps. "There are steps in the water." I heard a volunteer yelling. "Don't trip."

As soon as I fell, volunteers grabbed me and hoisted me up onto my feet. One grabbed my zipper cord on my BlueSeventy and unzipped it for me. I told him thanks and ran up the stairs into T1.


T1 AND BIKE
I ran through the showers, basically a bunch of hoses suspended from the canopy, and was handed my bike bag and went into the changing tent. I pulled off my BlueSeventy, put on more sunscreen and vaseline and grabbed my bike gear - shoes, tube, air cartridge and energy gels and headed out to my bike. We had to run all the way around the pier before we could head for our bikes just to ensure that everyone ran the same distance from the water to the bike.

When I arrived at my bike the ever present camera crew was there. Again the camera was stuck inches from my face as I tried to get my shoes and helmet on. The producer guy asked me how the swim went and maybe something else but I don't remember. I said something lame like "It was the start of a dream day ..." Then I grabbed my bike and headed for the bike exit.
T1 time was 7:16.

(Cyclist head up the hill to Kuikini and through the throng of spectators. I'm back there somewhere.)


I knew this part of the course was going to be crazy fun. We exited T1 among thousands of people cheering, screaming and clapping. It was wild. I was smiling so big I was embarrassed but I couldn't help it. I was so excited and happy to be there. It was hard not to get caught up in the rush and go fast.

Near the top of the climb out of transition I spotted Karen and the kids. I yelled out to them and smiled even bigger. Then made my way onto Kuakini and headed north on a short route that would lead us to Queen K and back to the intersection where Karen and the kids were. Then south on Kuakini for about 4 miles then back to the intersection, up Palani to Queen K then about 90 miles round trip to Hawi and back. It was amazing riding through the streets I know so well and hearing your name being called by friends.

Once I was on Queen K and out of town it was a typical training ride for me. At least that's what I kept telling myself. I just tried to go the speed I did on my training rides. After about 40 miles my quads began to cramp up every so often. When it first happened I panicked thinking I might not be able to finish the bike portion of the race. At one point at about mile 75 I had to get off my bike and walk for a few steps because both legs cramped at once. I kept downing salt tablets like crazy. I think by the time I got back to T2 I was just getting caught up on my sodium.

I ended up averaging 17 miles an hour for 112 miles. That included a stop at the turn around to eat a quick bite from my food bag and a quick stop at the medical van to ask about my legs cramping. Total time on the bike was 6:35:18. It was about 35 minutes slower than I wanted but I felt good and the cramping had subsided.

T2 AND THE RUN
It was a blast riding into town and onto Palani. Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of spectators cheering us into T2. I tried to look like a serious athlete but I couldn't quit smiling. What a rush.

We dismounted our bikes and a volunteer grabbed them from us. We had a long run to the end of the pier then back up to grab our run bags - basically just the opposite of running out of T1 - then into the changing tent. With my legs cramping up on the bike, my friend Jimmy Beach, a volunteer in the changing tent, grabbed a masseuse and had him work out the kinks in my quads. Jimmy brought me a cold, wet towel and plenty to drink to help cool me off. The Masseuse knew exactly where to work. It was painful but felt good at the same time. Kind of like how the day was going. I changed into my running shoes, made a quick bathroom stop then headed out. T2 time was a whopping 15 minutes.

I knew the first 10 miles of the run was going to be a blast. Friends and family would be dotted throughout that part of the course cheering me on. Running out of T2 was awesome. People cheering and yelling. I saw Erin Miller, one of my co-workers, just outside T2. She took my photo and cheered me on. Karen and the kids and Rob Van Geen were on Kuakini. Rob warned me not to get carried away with the crowd and run the first mile too fast.

Giovanni, Robin and Frank were just down the road. All of them made such a difference in my attitude at the beginning of the run. It was awesome. They set the tone for my whole run.

Turning onto Alii I saw more friends who encouraged me. Telling me I had a good pace going. My goal on the run was to not walk any of Alii Drive. I did walk a few steps at all the aid stations just because I couldn't run and drink at the same time. I think I ran the Alii portion - 10 miles - in 1:31. When I passed by Karen and the kids on my way back I hugged them and kissed Karen and told her I'd probably be walking soon. I was feeling pretty tired by then and I had achieved my first goal by not walking on Alii.

(Rebecca and Aaron waiting for me on Kuakini.)

Before race day I really didn't think I would have the energy to keep running much past Alii if that far, so I didn't have any goals for the rest of the course. When I found myself still running while ascending Palani to Queen K I was kind of surprised. But I still was expecting to be walking soon so I made small goals to keep myself running as long as possible.

At first it was to run just to the top of Palani to Queen K. When I made that goal it was to run to the next aid station, and so on and so on. Around mile 14 I was really slowing down and seriously thinking about walking, but I started chatting with a fellow runner and we seemed to run and talk our way to the Energy Lab.

Running into the Energy Lab was awesome. The sun was just setting and it was setting directly at the end of the road I was running on. Running into the sunset. A huge, orange ball slowly sinking into the sea. A beautiful ending of daylight on such a great day. Shortly after the sun set a motorcycle pulled up with an NBC camera guy on the back. NBC had given everyone they were filming a GPS tracker so they could find them when they wanted to film them. The trackers also allowed our family and friends to track us live online. It would tell them where we were and how fast we were going. During those times on the course when I felt utterly alone it really helped to know that my family and friends knew exactly where I was and how I was doing. So NBC had found me at the Energy Lab and I found myself picking up the pace. Gotta look good for the camera, right? As I picked up the pace, they picked up the pace to keep up with me. Somehow that camera was motivating me to run faster. After about a half mile they headed off to find the next athlete they were filming. But for once I was grateful they were filming me. It had brought life back into my legs.

At the turn around in the Energy Lab I picked up my run food bag. All I had in it were two ibuprofens. I grabbed them, grabbed some water from the aid station and was set. It was dark now. 8 miles to go!

I was at the corner in the Energy Lab. That meant it was 1 mile slightly up hill to Queen K. I had run that 1-mile hill dozens of times in training. That was my sprint mile repeat hill. Just as I started up the hill a convertible pulled along side with yet another camera guy. They paced me up most of the hill. I think I did nearly an 8-minute-mile on that hill. When we were about halfway up I finally looked over at them and asked them if I was supposed to say anything. The camera guy told me to just keep doing what I was doing and that they would ask me questions in a minute.

So I kept running, feeling stronger with each step. They finally asked me a question or two. Something about is it a race or a journey and motivations. All I remember telling them is that I was looking forward to seeing my family at the finish line. The camera guy said it must be quite a pull because I was really moving. I said that it was. He said it was too bad that the camera didn't show that I was running uphill and moving as fast as I was. The camera guy told the driver to pull ahead to the motivational mile sign at the top of the Energy Lab and they would film me running by the sign.

When I got there my name flashed on the reader board with Karen's message to me. I couldn't help but smile and raise my arms. It really is a motivator. At mile 20 I felt great. With only 6 miles to go I told myself that I had run 6 miles dozens of times. I could run 6 more miles easily.
I convinced myself that I was just leaving my house on a fast 6-mile run. Some of the runners still on their way to the Energy Lab cheered me on saying "way to finish strong!" and "Great job!"

(Running near the beginning of the run course.)

As I passed other runners I also encouraged them. With 4 miles to go I passed a guy walking. I told him that we only had 4 miles to go and that he had run 4 miles a million times before and that he could run this last 4 miles easily. He started running again.

In the dark of Queen K it was hard to see approaching runners or the traffic cones. Spotlights from the aid stations ahead made it even harder to see. The last three aid stations are a blur to me. I was counting down the final miles of my first Ironman. That's all I remember. I know I didn't even slow down at the final aid station just before Kmart hill. I just kept on going. I was almost home.

Running up Kmart hill I was surprised to see so many spectators out cheering us on. I thought how great is that that they could be watching the finish line - where the party is - but they are out here supporting us. Awesome? I also passed a lot of runners just heading out to the Energy Lab and I hoped they would make it to the finish line before midnight.

After climbing the hill on Queen K I turned onto Palani and the sweeping downhill that I dreaded during training. It's a steep hill that can hurt old knees like mine. But tonight it felt great. I ran down it like I was in my 20s. There were more spectators lining the road. I could hear Mike Reilly in the distance calling out the new Ironmen. My heart began beating harder. Not from the pace but from excitement.

Turning onto Kuakini for the final time I saw Rob and Giovanni. They came running up beside me. Rob stuck out his phone to show me my GPS dot from the tracker on the map and to prove I really was running on Kuakini. They patted me on the back and cheered me on. I was all smiles.

Turning onto Hualalai more and more spectators cheered and congratulated the athletes. Tears were starting to blur my vision. I really couldn't believe I was about to turn onto Alii drive for the final few yards of the Ironman World Championship.

Turning the corner onto Alii Drive a flood of emotions poured over me. Running in the darkness through hundreds of spectators lining the street cheering me on, I couldn't stop smiling. Even after enduring 140 miles in under 13 hours I felt no more pain and no more exhaustion. Friends and strangers were calling out my name, patting me on the back and congratulating me. Oliver Kiel, owner of Cycle Station, ran out of the crowd and placed a lei on my neck.

A little girl about 3 or 4 years old was standing with her father on the side of the road clapping. When I ran by them the girl yelled out "You're an Ironman!" Her words were still hanging in the air when I turned the corner and I saw the spot lights at the finish line. With just a couple of hundred yards to go I finally allowed myself to believe I was really going to be an Ironman.

I heard Giovanni yell out my name. I ran over to him and gave him a high 5. It was like I was in a dream. The noise, the lights, high 5s, the tears.

Suddenly I was under the Ironman banner and on the Ironman carpet. I was in the finishing chute of the Ironman World Championship. The cheers, the lights, high 5s. I couldn't stop smiling. I raised my arms in victory. Everything happened in a blur, in seconds, but I'll never forget the last few steps up the ramp to the finish line. My arms raised high, cameras flashing, cheering, Mike Reilly calling out my name, and finally seeing Karen, Rebecca, Aaron, Jonathan and Janelle.

(Randy Wrighthouse. You are an Ironman!)

I gave them each a hug saving Karen for last. As I hugged her I whispered, maybe more to myself than to her, "I did it!"

Run time: 4:30

(Waiting for me at the finish line.)

(Hugs all around after finishing 140.6 miles in 12:42)

(A much-needed massage after the race.)

(All that and a medal, too.)

(Ready for the next great adventure.)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the finish you did much better than I did in my IM. I was not actually a transition volunteer, but a PC Athlete handler. I was on my way to watch wellington finish when I saw you come in. Since I had an all-access pass I came to assist you. The ART guys saved my race. I was cramped bad and two guys worked me at the same time. My t2 was 17 minutes. I was able to run the next 16 without walk other than the aid stations.

J Beach

Randy said...

Well Jimmy thanks for coming to help me. You helped calm me down and took excellent care of me.

debbie said...

I am almost speechless. This story is my favorite story ever. I laughed and cried and found my self cheering again. This is so freaking cool!!!. What an incredible day for you and everyone that was there. Congratulations on such a great finish. And thanks for NOT keeping it short. I loved it!!

MAY 17-25 SKETCHES

Here's a  few sketches from the past week or so. The train trestle near Bryant Park in Albany, Oregon. and with the actual trest...