Swim 4.8 miles.
Bike 224 miles.
Run 52.4 miles.
Brag for two lifetimes.
Makes you want to say, “Aw, you did a single Ironman? That’s so cute!”
I had the opportunity to indirectly experience a double iron-distance triathlon, when my husband John competed in the Florida Double Ironman (Anvil) on February 27, 2014. It took him a little over 24 hours to earn his 5th place finish, and in that time frame, I learned much about what it takes to toe the line, to make it through the day (or days) and to get to the finish line.
It looks like just my kind of sufferfest.
Serving as John’s support crew for this race was an exercise in polar opposites; It was exciting and boring, invigorating and exhausting, inspirational and monotonous. It was an experience I will never forget, and one I would happily undertake again…and again.
John has described his day in his race report (click here), so this post describes the day from a different perspective: that of the Team U-Crazy double ironman support crew.
While crewing for any extreme endurance event includes quite a bit of sitting around and waiting, offering support at a double ironman is significantly different from a single Ironman – and it is not an easy task. Unlike a “regular” ironman, there are no aid stations. The support crew and camp set-up IS the primary source of aid for the racer. We were responsible to keep track of his supplies: nutrition, hydration, clothing, additional bike accessories, and more. We were responsible to monitor the race stats, his condition, and his equipment.
Most importantly: We were responsible to make sure he was safe.
For most of those 24 hours that John was racing, I was stressed to my mental limit, worrying about his energy levels, his nutrition, his sanity. Somehwere in that process, I almost lost mine when I started hallucinating from lack of sleep around 3 or 4 a.m. I thought I was in the middle of an airplane tarmac. When I snapped to, I thought, Huh. I better go talk to some humans… and make some more coffee.
The Florida Double Anvil, similar to other double-triple-quintuple-deca iron events like it, features lap courses for the swim, the bike and the run. The swim was 76 laps in a 50 meter pool. Yes. A pool.
The bike was 31 laps in a closed-to-traffic park, and the run was 30 laps (out and back) in that same park, but on a different section. There can be no doubt that the monotony is part of the challenge for an event such as this one.
But, from a crews’ vantage point, these laps are great because we didn’t have to traipse all over the place to bring his nutrition, fluids, and other odds an ends. We just set up camp, and waited. Counted. And, waited. Assessed. And waited. Cheered. And waited. Talked tough. And waited.
I kept a series of different sheets of paper with lap times, calorie counts, reminders, and other squiggles that may at one time have meant something important. When you crew an athlete for an event such as this one, you are the brains of the operation because he or she is a talking monkey for most of the day.
For the swim, John was completing 100 meter laps in about 93-96 seconds. Speedy freaking gonzalez, he is. So, my job during this time was to dutifully keep track of each lap (to double check the official timers), make sure he took sips of his fluid and nutrition from time to time, and not move from my seat.
So, let’s play this out. The swim started at 7:15 a.m. I made sure to evaluate my bladder and other regions prior to this start. Even so, 2 hours and 3 minutes sitting in the same spot got tricky. We woke up at 4 a.m., so I was heavily caffeinated (that is a theme for this day), which threatened my excretory system as it was, so I was afraid to drink even the smallest drop of water or morsel of food.
When he was on his last lap, I had two thoughts: 1) “Holy crap: He’s the first one out of the water!”, and 2) “OMG – I really have to take a crap.”
John was out of the water and on to the bike, so it was time for the Team U-Crazy Posse (myself, John’s parents John & Jeanne, and our sister-in-law Tiffany) to get to Flatwoods Park, which was about a 10-15 drive from the pool site. John, of course, would be riding there via bike. We would meet him along the loop in the Park, where we had set up our Team U-Crazy Camp, which would be home for the next 22 hours.
It took us some time to get to the park, and we were barely out of the car when John came around. He asked for water, and I had to pour it. His annoyance was clear. “We just got here!” I tried to explain. Rookie mistake. Next time, I will have a series of bottles set up and ready to go before the race even starts.
I had started a sheet with a list of the check-in times and loop numbers for John’s bike. He was completing the loop in regular intervals of about 20 minutes (plus or minus). He would ride by; we would ask if he needed anything. Sometimes he would stop. Sometimes he would keep going. Write down the time. Keep track of the lap. Keep track of what he ate and drank. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
I had a five hour bike ride scheduled for the day (IM Coeur d’Alene waits for no double IM!), so I fit in some loops in-between his loops. While I stopped a few times during that ride to check on things, I relied on John’s parents to take over the main responsibilities, which they very capably did (thank you!!). When I was done my ride, I could sense their relief that I was back.
As I said: Crewing is stressful business.
The time was now about 5 p.m., and John was past the halfway mark on the bike, and had maybe 13 or 14 laps left. By this point, the sun was preparing to set, so we had to get the lights on his bike.
Again: here was another rookie mistake. We didn’t take the time pre-race to work out how this would go. We also had lights with low battery, low lumens, and all other sorts of bad things. There are just some things that you can only learn by going through this experience – just like any other new endeavor.
As the sun set and the night time set in, the reality of what we were doing really set in. It was cold – like 40 degrees cold (Um, this is FLORIDA, people?!), and everything started getting damp. I had about 5 sets of different clothes on, at least two sets of which were not my own, and I still had to wrap myself in a sleeping blanket while I waited for John to come around on his bike.
When John started his 26th lap (around 8 p.m.), he said, “5 laps to go!” I didn’t say anything. I smiled and cheered. But, as he went off into the darkness, I started reviewing his lap times. 5 laps to go? I was confused. I thought there there were 31 laps, which would mean 6 laps to go (as he was starting his 26th lap, not finishing it).
I started second guessing the lap times and the lap list. Did he have 5 or 6 laps to go? I checked in with the official timer, and after some checking, we were able to ascertain that his count was indeed off. He would have five laps to go the next time he came around.
I was the lucky winner to give him that news. When he came around on the next loop, I told him, “Um, about those laps…now you have five laps to go.”
“What?! Huh? No… It’s 30 laps.” His frustration was palpable.
Ah. There was the issue.
“No, John,” I started, as patiently as possible. “It’s 31 laps for the bike. It’s 30 for the run.”
The look on his face was devastation.
“Stop it,” I cautioned. “It is what it is. Get going.” And he did, but I could tell the monotony of the laps and the seemingly endlessness of the bike was wearing on him. And, did I mention he was doing this race with bronchitis? Yeah, so, the damp cold air was wrecking havoc on him, and his nutrition plan included regular dosing with cough medicine. How’s that for an iron stomach?
When he came around the next time, he had mentally absorbed what he needed to do, and now he was only 4 laps to go. I could feel his energy building, and mine went out to him.
Each time a bike went through the lap timer, it make a “whoosh” sound. But, for the final lap, it made the sound of an old-fashioned telephone. “Brrrrriiinnnggggg! Brrrrrriiinnnnggg!”
When John came around for his last lap on the bike, and we heard that telephone ring, we cheered and whooped! It was almost time for the run.
And, then it dawned on me: It was just shy of 10 p.m., and he still had 52.4 miles to run. Wow. I better go make some coffee. I had NO intention of sleeping, and we still had between 8-10 hours to go, depending on how his legs showed up for the run.
As I grabbed his run clothes, I realized they were a little damp. So, I asked his mom, Jeanne, “Okay, Jeanne, I have a weird request.”
She looked at me. Let’s review: we are in the middle of a park in the middle of the night while her son is riding loop after loop for 13 hours. How could it get any weirder?
“I need you to sit on John’s clothes – you know, like a mama hen – to warm them up.”
She didn’t even bat an eyelid. I put his clothes down on the chair, and she sat on them–just like a mama hen. At this point, everything was cold and damp. It was cold enough that when I exhaled, I could see my breath.
It was at this moment that I understood exactly what love means. You will do anything for someone. You will sit on their clothes. You will stay awake all night. You will freeze your arse off while they go chase their dreams. That’s just what you do.
When John got off the bike, I could tell he was laboring. This race was different – not just because it was longer – but because of the bronchitis. I had been giving him cough medicine about every 3-4 hours, and I was concerned about how this race would affect him long term. Pneumonia is no fun. But, I knew there were only two ways he would leave the course: when he finished the 52.4 mile run, or if he collapsed and we had to drag him off. I was really hoping it would be the former.
There were a few times when he came through on the laps that his speech was slurred or a little incoherent. At those moments, I would force him to talk to me while I shoved food in his mouth. That seemed to work. (I had learned that trick when he ran the 100 miler last March at the NJ Ultra Trail Series.)
For each run lap, the crew was permitted to work with their athlete for about 200 yards. Then, you came to a cone that indicated “No More Support.” Our camp was positioned right next to the timing device. So, I waited for John to complete the loop, and then I would hop out of my chair, bring him food and drink and run with him to that cone.
I would permit him to use that time as a walk break, which gave him the opportunity to eat whatever food I gave him, and let me know what he thought he might need for the next time. But, at that point, he has lost most of his mental power, so I took over, giving him whatever I thought he needed in terms of calories and drink.
When the run started, I also realized that my job was no longer just to give him food and make sure he had what he needed. My job responsibilities now also included motivation. It was a weird place to be because I never had to do that for John before. But, I’m bossy by nature, so it came to me pretty naturally.
The first few laps, he was complaining about certain areas of his body hurting. I knew giving him sympathy and letting him mull over that wouldn’t work for 8+ hours or running, so I gave lots of tough love at this point.
“Man, my shoulders are killing me.”
“Yeah, well, you were sitting in aero for 13 hours. That makes sense. Don’t think about it.”
Next loop: “Ah, my quads.”
“Dude, you are doing a Double Ironman – how did you think it was supposed to feel? Unless you are injured, I don’t want to hear about it.”
Next loop: “I just need to walk a bit.”
“Okay – but only until the cone.”
As I left him at the cone I turned around, and saw he was still walking. “IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE YOU ARE RUNNING!” I screamed. And, off he would go.
I also treated him to some of my most favorite mantras and other motivational gems:
- “It’s only pain.”
- “Of course it hurts, but you aren’t dying.”
- “Be objective.”
- “Don’t give in to the voices.”
- “Look at the stars! Take energy from them.” (It was a gorgeously clear night – if it wasn’t so FREAKING COLD.)
- “Hurry up. I want to go to sleep.”
There was a man with an RV camped right at that cone at the end of the support “zone”. I can only imagine what he thought of the 30 odd things I yelled after John as he ran into the night.
After John had been running for about 3 hours, it became very obvious to me that he was gaining on fourth place. So, I figured I would use that as a carrot to keep him occupied and involved. And, that worked. When John got off the bike, he was 3 run laps down on fourth place. By the time he finished, he was only 3 minutes behind him. So close!
And, the man that went fourth place has an incredible amount of experience – having most recently completed a triple deca ironman: that’s 1 ironman every day for 30 days. Yup – it’s a whole new level of crazy! We were clearly the sanest crew there. For now, anyway.
When John was within 5 minutes of finishing, the race director allowed me to run out to greet John and give him the American Flag with which he would run across the finish line. It was an incredible shared moment in our lives. I was so proud to be there, by his side, as he finished what was the craziest adventure yet.
For over 24 hours, I lived my life in laps. I counted laps and calculated lap times. I counted John’s calories and calculated how many he would need for the next lap. I counted on my sanity to stay with me through the day. I calculated how many hours of sleep I could miss and still not hurt someone. (In case you are curious: the limit is about 36 hours.)
For over 24 hours, I lived my life in laps, and was completely enveloped in the present moment, with a focus that I could not have imagined was possible. I witnessed a strength of spirit and determination that inspires me. I’m plan on repaying the favor for John, and giving him the crew experience in 2015.