“Til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove…”
2019 Ironman Louisville Race Report
113 AG 737 Overall
Thanks to the swim cancellation due to toxic algae, my alarm wasn’t set to go off until about 5:45 a.m. I partook in my standard pre-race breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and after applying my race tattoos, I was out the door. I was dressed in multiple layers since it was about 40 degrees outside and dark, and walked down to the transition area near the river and found my bike on my rack. I needed to inflate the tires before racing, so I headed over to one of the bike techs since I hadn’t brought my pump. As he unscrewed the cap of my rear valve I heard a whooshing noise, which was the complete deflation of my tire. Apparently, the removable valve core had unscrewed with the cap, and both had promptly fallen into the grass, never to be seen again. Thus, I needed a tube change before the race even started. I should have realized then and there that thing’s weren’t going to go my way that day. Instead, I naively told myself that I’d exercised all of the demons before the race even started.
Since we weren’t swimming, the bike was going to be a time trial start, with two racers going off every five seconds or so. We were starting lowest bib number to highest, and since I was bib 1651, I had a long time to wait. Essentially, I was in transition for two and a half hours freezing my tail off, so I had ample time to put in a new tube and to look over my bike. I didn’t want to be on my feet the entire time, so I sat on the ground near the fence for a long time and tried to stretch. About 20 minutes before my start, I shed my extra clothes and immediately started shivering.
Since it was going to be in the 40s and 50s for most of the ride, I was wearing an Under Armor shirt and leg warmers that I’d bought in the Ironman Village the day before. I had my normal finger-less cycling gloves, with an extra pair of Dollar Tree gloves on over those (to shed when I warmed up). Since I was shivering so much before the start though, I made the executive decision to put on my arm warmers as well. I’d rather get hot and shed clothing than be too cold and unable to warm up.
Around 9:45 a.m. it was my turn to take off, and as I approached the starting line I gave my bike a quick once-over one last time. I then crossed the timing mat, hopped on and started my day-long descent into physical and mental torture unlike any I’d experienced in a race before.
Bike: 6:13:15 (18.0 mph)
The bike course is an out and back “lollipop,” where you do the lollipop loop twice. Basically, you bike about 20 miles out of town to the northeast. The first 10 miles are flat, and then its pretty much all uphill until you turn right to start the lollipop loop. The loop is nothing but hills, one after another. After doing the loop twice, you then head southwest back into town. Historically, the wind blows from the southwest, so you’re supposed to have the wind at your back going out, with a headwind coming back in.
As I took off down River Road, I quickly noticed that I was getting passed by a lot of people. Nothing was noticeably wrong with my bike, but guys were going by me even though they seemed to be putting out very little effort. At first I didn’t think too much of it since the wind was a right quartering headwind instead of the tailwind I was expecting. Still, after about two miles, I felt like I was working way too hard, but was still getting passed by pretty much everyone, and I couldn’t get above 17 miles per hour. Eventually, I realized that I was working so hard that I’d never be able to make it 112 miles if I maintained that effort. Something had to be wrong with my bike.
My first inclination was to look at my tires to see if I had a flat. I did that while continuing to ride, but saw no issues. Around mile 4 I knew I needed to stop, so I pulled over. I picked my bike up so the rear wheel was off the ground and spun the crank. The wheel was spinning, and I couldn’t see any issues. After about 10 seconds, however, the wheel began to spin much faster and it felt like I needed half as much effort to spin the crank. I had no idea what had just happened, but when I climbed back on, getting up to speed seemed effortless. It was only after the race that I would realize that my rear wheel had been rubbing the frame. There’s not much room for error with 25 mm tires (I’d mostly ridden 23’s in the past), and it must have been rubbing just enough to cause a problem, but not so much that the wheel wouldn’t spin. During the race, though, I had no idea what the problem had been and I didn’t know if it would come back. Thus, it was in the back of my mind for the remaining 108 miles.
After getting back up to speed I tried to tell myself that it was a long race and that I didn’t need to blow it apart by trying to make up the time I’d lost from the mechanical. I was perturbed by the headwind since I’d been expecting a tailwind out of the gates, and I was warming up quickly and was ready to ditch the arm warmers at the first aid station. I only managed to get one off though, and would have to wait until the second aid station to ditch the other one.
I continued to fight the headwind for the first ten miles, and then the course went sharply uphill at mile 10.5 and was generally uphill rollers for the next ten miles. The going was slow, but I figured that I’d make it all up on the downhill portions. Around mile 20 I took a right turn onto Route 393 and started my first circuit of the “lollipop.” There was a very steep downhill portion, and I immediately started getting a bit nervous as the speed built up. It was only the second time on my bike since I crashed on my last century ride during training, and the rear disc was getting squirrelly on fast descents – particularly if there was a cross wind.
The lollipop was nothing but hills, which included rollers, long grueling climbs (like Grandma’s Hill) and short quad-crushing climbs. There were several 90 degree turns at the bottom of steep hills, which forced you to lay on the brakes and lose all of your momentum just to make the turn – only to be faced with a nasty climb immediately after turning. There was also a 180 degree turn near the aid station at mile 37/72, which killed your momentum, so the course wasn’t really set up for a fast ride. One of my least favorite aspects of the course was that it was open to traffic, and I got stuck behind vehicles several times.
I was doing okay making my way around the first loop until I got to about mile 50. I was set to make the turn onto Route 393 to start the second loop at about mile 56, and I knew that doing so would give me a mental boost. I was just starting to climb one of the many hills on Route 42, when I heard someone yell “whoa” to my left. I felt a hand push into my left shoulder which seemed to be from someone on my left who’d lost control. While I don’t think the shove was intentional, it had the effect of knocking me off the road to my right into the ditch. I fell down to my right, with my right shoulder and head slamming into the V-shaped ditch, and then my legs and bike went over the top. When I came to rest, I was laying on my right side with my neck contorted a bit and my legs up the other side of the ditch above me.
I was too pissed to feel anything at that point, and the adrenaline was pumping, so that probably helped. The guy that pushed me over was nowhere to be found, but a girl who was behind me pulled over to see if I was okay. My first concern was my bike, because I sure as hell didn’t want to be done for the day, and I was hoping that it was still in working order. The chain had come off, and after getting it back on, I spun the wheels to make sure they were still true. The bike seemed to be okay, and I told the girl thanks for stopping, but that she should go on ahead.
After getting back on my bike and under way, I tried to assess the situation. The adrenaline wore off after a few miles and then my neck and right shoulder started getting sore. I also realized that my hands were bleeding and that blood was dripping everywhere. Honestly, I didn’t even feel the cuts on my hands, but my hands started turning black as the blood dried.
Injuries aside, I started getting into a pretty bad mental funk on the second loop. With the mechanical at the beginning of the race and then the crash, my time goals for the bike were way out the window. I knew that everyone tracking me would see that something was wrong, and I had no way to let anyone know what had happened. I tried to “ride angry” on the second loop to make up some time, but I got stuck behind some more traffic, which only made things worse.
At mile 80 I turned left onto Route 42 to head back towards downtown Louisville, and I’d been waiting for that part of the ride for a while since it was generally downhill. I knew that historically its a slow grind due to a headwind, but I was hoping that the elevation loss would outweigh the effects of the wind. I was sorely mistaken. The wind was blowing right in my face and on the flat sections it as hard to do more than about 16-17 mph.
Route 42 is nothing but hills, and I just felt like I couldn’t make any progress. By that point, my neck was killing me from the crash, so much so, that I couldn’t lay in aero more than a few minutes at a time. The aero position is tough on your neck in the best of times, and I was having to alternate between laying in aero and sitting up. When I was in aero, my neck was killing me. When I sat up, it was like I was wearing a parachute because of the headwind and I wasn’t going anywhere.
Miles 90 to 100 on Route 42 heading back into town were, by far, my worst time on a bike in my life. I certainly never considered quitting, but I was completely consumed by pain and self-pity. There was a five mile stretch in there when the water works started up, which tells you how bad it got for me. The physical pain was a part of it for sure, but there was also the mental part where you train for a race for a year, only to have everything go to shit on you.
Eventually I made it to mile 100 and finally hit the nice downhill portion that I’d climbed about five hours earlier on my way out of town. Ticking over the century mark helped my mindset quite a bit, but the ride back into town was still pretty slow due to the headwind. As I got back near the river, the scenery improved a bit, and there was another mental boost when I finally saw the Louisville skyline.
I’d wanted to ride the course in about 5:45, and certainly under 6 hours, but between the mechanical, the crash, the hills and the wind, it took me 6:13 and some change. I guess that’s not terrible under the circumstances, but it wasn’t what I set out to do for sure. In hindsight, there was too much climbing for the rear disc and it was catching too much of the cross-winds on the downhills. My Zipp 404’s or a 60/90 combo would have been a much better choice, so I’ll have to chalk that up as a learning experience.
As I coasted back into town, I’d already lost the swim because of algae and I’d had a craptastic time on the bike. I had no idea how my neck would hold up on the run, but I was trying to channel my frustration into a solid run split in a last ditch attempt to salvage some part of the day. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t in the cards.
I’ve never been so happy to get off of a bike as I was heading into T2. I saw my dad soon after dismounting, and told him that I’d crashed and showed him my bloody hand. I didn’t really go into details, but he asked me if I was going to keep going and I told him that I was.
There was a long run down towards the river to get into the transition area, and I noticed a lot of tightness in my left Achilles as soon as I got off the bike. I’ve never had Achilles issues before, and I was hoping that it would just loosen up as I ran. I headed into the changing tent and took my time re-applying Bodyglide everywhere. I put on a fresh pair of socks, then threw on my hat and glasses and headed out of the tent. I did hit the portapotty quickly on the way out of transition, and was hoping that I could make it through the run without having to stop again.
Overall, it wasn’t a speedy transition, but I wanted to make sure that I got everything taken care of properly before starting the marathon. A simple lack of Bodyglide in sensitive areas can be enough to make for a tortuous run.
Run: 4:41:29 (10:45 min/mile)
My super optimistic goal for the run was 4 hours, but I knew long before I got off the bike that that wasn’t going to happen, and that shooting for it would be a fool’s errand. 4:15 was more realistic, and I thought that I’d have a shot to hit that target, particularly since the course was mostly flat and since the weather was cool enough to turn in a good run split. The run course had changed in 2019, and was 3 loops of about 8.5 miles each. You’d get a wrist band once you started each loop, and after the final time around the loop, you could head up to the finish line.
Miles 1-3 (9:29)(9:39)(9:40)
As I took off out of transition, I noticed that my left Achilles wasn’t loosening up like I’d hoped. In addition, the right side of my neck was really hurting since I’d rolled over into the ditch on the bike and jammed my head into my right shoulder. I’d taken a couple of Tylenol during transition, but so far, they weren’t helping.
There was good crowd support in the first two miles, but then it thinned out after that quite dramatically. I wasn’t having any trouble hitting a 9:30-9:40 pace, but I had initially planned on running 10 minute miles for the first three miles. Honestly though, I was kind of pissed off about the entire day up to that point, and wanted to see if I could push it a little to compensate for the shitty bike split.
Miles 4-6 (9:45)(9:49)(9:47)
By mile 4 I realized that I had a big problem brewing with my left Achilles. It just kept getting tighter and tighter and it was getting painful to run. My neck continued to hurt, but that was really just salt in the wound. I began having trouble with my pace, and it degraded a bit to about 9:46/mile. I really started thinking about stopping and stretching, but I wanted to keep moving for a couple of reasons.
First, I was worried that it would be tough to get running again if I stopped. Second, I knew that my wife, my coaches and my family were tracking me, with my splits being posted every mile or two when I crossed a timing mat. As soon as my pace dipped I knew that the warning bells would start going off at home, particularly since they wouldn’t know what was going on. Thus, I kept trudging on hoping for a positive change of the status quo.
Miles 7-9 (10:13)(11:05)(11:00)
Change for the better just wasn’t in the mail, and everything continued to go downhill into mile 7. I was still running, but I was now visibly hobbling due to the left Achilles. I made it close to the end of the first loop between miles 8 and 9 before I finally broke down and stopped to stretch. It helped a little, but not much. As I set off onto the second loop, all I could think about was that I still had two more full loops to do before I could head towards the finishing chute. The way I was progressing (or regressing), I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep running, and the thought of a very long walk began to weigh on me.
Miles 10-12 (10:46)(11:27)(11:15)
Loop number 2 was pretty much the darkest point for me in an Ironman race to date. I ran as much as I could, but I was having to stop, stretch and walk more and more. By that point I knew that everyone tracking me knew I was in trouble, but didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t see my dad when I finished the first loop, so I had no way to let anyone know what was going on with me.
On top of the Achilles, my neck continued to get worse and I pretty much fell into a well of self-pity, which was captured in the picture below. An overwhelming sense of loneliness also crept in, which is hard to explain. I was surrounded by people, but I felt like I was on an island. The water works started up for the second time that day.
Miles 13-15 sucked even worse, and my bouts of walking and stretching continued to increase. On the upside, my pain levels pretty much had maxed out and weren’t getting worse. On the downside, I still had a long way to go. I did hit the portapotty one last time in mile 14, which was my slowest split of the day. I probably would have skipped it if I was running faster, but figured that I might as well be more comfortable bladder-wise since everything else was a shit show.
Miles 16-18 (11:31)(11:28)(11:23)
Somewhere around mile 17 I finished the second loop and got my third and final wristband. One more time around the loop would end it for me, and that gave me a little mental boost. Now, every time I passed a landmark it would be the last time I’d see it. I was also encouraged by the fact that there were so many people who were still on the first or second loops of their runs. A few people jokingly asked if they could steal one of my wristbands, but I would have fought to the death for them at that point.
By then, I’d settled into my run-walk-stretch routine, so my pace stayed pretty much the same. I wanted to run faster for sure, but was encouraged by the fact that I wasn’t getting any slower. It was also pretty much dark outside and I was starting to get chilly. I had a long sleeve shirt in my special needs bag, but I felt like I could make it through without it.
Miles 19-21 (10:50)(11:06)(11:16)
I was in pretty bad shape by mile 19 pain-wise, and one of the other runners was nice enough to give me a couple of his Advil. The Tylenol in T2 had done nothing, so I wasn’t expecting much from the Advil, but it couldn’t hurt. As bad off as I was though, there were others fairing even worse than me. I went through an aid station with a couple of guys around mile 21 and one of them vomited loudly and violently just behind me. He stopped for about 5 seconds and then round 2 hit him. All I could think of was, “glad I’m not that guy.” I wasn’t wishing ill will on anyone, but there was a little mental boost to knowing that some people were worse off than me.
It was completely dark at that point and I didn’t have a headlamp or a flashlight. Most of the course was lit well enough, but there were a few spots that were almost pitch black, and you really had to slow down and and watch your step. There were some mobile lights on generators, but they definitely needed more of them.
Miles 22-24 (11:18)(11:05)(10:45)
By mile 22, I was headed back into town along the river. Barring another unforeseen setback, I knew that I would be able to finish without having to walk it in. Any and all time goals had gone out the window long ago, but I was still motivated to finish as quickly as possible. I was able to pick up my pace a little bit, and looking back, I’m super proud about how I handled loop 3. Loop 2 was the lowest of the low, but I was able to pull myself up out of the well somewhat on loop 3.
Miles 25-26.2 (10:48)(10:53 pace)
After passing mile 25, I came to the end of loop 3. Instead of taking a left turn to begin another loop, I showed my three wrist bands to the volunteer and was allowed to keep straight so I could head to the finish. There was a left turn shortly thereafter, and then a long climb up from the river towards downtown. This part of the course was pretty dark, and by and large, I was alone. I knew that I was close to the finish, but it was eerily quiet and dark.
Your brain knows when you’re almost done, and I’m pretty sure that it tells your body to go ahead and start shutting down. In the last half mile I started getting dizzy, even though I hadn’t been dizzy all day. My limping got worse, and it was tough to keep moving forward. Eventually, I began to hear the finish line crowd, but there was still no one around. There were two right turns in quick succession, and then the finish line was right in front of me.
The Ironman Louisville finish is touted as one of the best on the Ironman circuit, and the last 100 yards or so was packed with people. As I ran towards the finish line though, I swerved to my right and ran up against the barrier since I was pretty dizzy. That can be seen if you watch the finish line video. I wanted to feed off of the crowd and finish on a high, but honestly, the day had completely taken it out of me. Between the physical pain in my neck and Achilles, combined with the emotional toll of the race, I was done. I was angry, depressed and defeated, but mostly just defeated. I crossed the line with my head down and was promptly approached by some of the volunteers since I was unsteady on my feet.
As I took my post-race photo, I was pretty unsteady, which can be seen by my lean to the side. A “catcher” was just off camera, and I was offered a wheelchair since I looked like I was about to pass out. I declined, and then saw my dad for the first time since entering T2. He helped me get to the post-race food, which helped alleviate the dizziness.
Looking back at the race, I’m still conflicted about the day. It pretty much went wrong from start to finish, and I was disappointed by my bike and run splits. On the other hand, I was confronted by things outside of my control and managed to get through the race, even though I felt like it nearly beat me into submission. In some ways, I guess I could consider it one of my best race accomplishments, but its just really hard for me to do so. Honestly, I have nothing but bad thoughts when I think back about Louisville, and just “getting through” a race isn’t in my DNA.
Needless to say, it was a long 8 hour car ride back to Richmond the next day, and my thoughts varied from quitting Ironman altogether to wanting to race another full again as soon as possible for redemption. Part of the reason that these races take such an emotional toll is that I train for them for so long, and then have to live with the outcome for a couple of years before I get to have another go at it.
After Louisville, the next race on my calendar was the Turkey Day 5k in Martinsville, which is always a fun race to do with the family. Unfortunately, life was about to go sideways on me with another skin cancer diagnosis shortly after getting back from Louisville. Surgery under general anesthesia would be needed, and a lymph node was going to have to be removed to find out if the cancer had spread. The surgery wasn’t going to be until December, and I wouldn’t get the lymph node biopsy results until weeks after the surgery. Thus, there were a lot of unknowns for the future, and I’d gone from wondering if I’d race a full Ironman again to wondering if I’d ever race again. So, things got put back into the proper perspective pretty quickly.