Wednesday, August 14, 2013

First timer Ironman race report - Savas Gunduz


It was 3:30am on July 28th, 2013. I had already been lying awake in bed for 40 minutes when my alarm went off. 18 months ago, two of my best friends, EK and JR told me that they were going to do Ironman Lake Placid, and JR specifically wrote me a lengthy 4-page email detailing the reasons why I should join them, summarizing his magnum dissertation with the question - So, you in? My one-word email response, "Yep", set in motion the next year-and-a-half of buying a tri-bike, hiring EK as my coach (more on that later), training more hours than my work or family life was comfortable with, but both accepted, all leading up to this point. 3 hours from the start of the biggest athletic achievement of my life.

I have been an athlete my whole life. Soccer from the moments that I could walk. Then rowing in college, and a weak attempt at the US Rowing National Team in the years to follow college. Some minor stints as a Cat 5 cyclist, winning 2 local crits, but nothing more, and then some local triathlons where I consistently finished in the middle of the pack. Top 3rd would be a good race. But now, as I walked down the stairs of the rented house in Lake Placid at 3:32am, my athletic life would culminate in a race that everyone knew of....athletes and non-athletes alike. My co-workers, my friend, heck even my Mom knew that "Ironman Lake Placid" held a special place in the heart and soul of any person who has elevated their heart rate for the sake of competitions.

3:42am - I'm standing in the kitchen with EK and JR, coffee in hand, eggs and rice on plates....eating and drinking enough calories and energy to be fueled up, but not over-full that we don't digest.

3:51am - we're done eating. Water bottles are already filled with our special caloric mixes on the counter. Bikes have already been checked in the day before (or earlier that day? Hard to tell), and all of our transition and special needs bags have been packed, and re-packed. And then checked and re-packed again. Nothing else to do but sit in the pre-dawn darkness, EK, JR and I, and talk about anything other than the impending day that we have before us. We talked about rowing races we had won and lost in the past. We talked about cross-country skiiing training weekends in -9 degree temperatures in New Hampshire, where when we opened the door to our cheap-ass Motel 3, the heat and humidity from the motel room's shower colliding with the sub-arctic temps outside to literally form a cloud in our door-way. We talked about the good old days when we roomed together, rowed together, partied together, suffered together, and all of the good things that 3 friends talk about when miles have separated them in their adult lives, but memories bring them back closer than ever before.

Before long, the sky turned a light shade of grey, and without formally acknowledging it to each other, we each knew that it was time to walk down to Mirror Lake, to the start of the race. We filled our bags with our water bottle, slung our bags over our shoulders, and marched down in the cloud-covered grey dawn to get body marked, suited up in our wetsuits, and plow into the water with 3,000 of our new closest friends.

Mirror lake:

The first doubts grabbed me at the 1/4 point of the swim. Just as I rounded the first turnaround, I was getting pounded, kicked, smacked and otherwise beaten down by my 3,000 "friends", I realized that it was not my day. I hadn't trained enough with work and family. I could always come back another year and do it right. No shame in tapping out, and as I looked frantically for a boat to latch on to, I decided to just take 2 more strokes. Then 2 more strokes. Then 2 more strokes (where's that damn boat?!?). Then 2 more strokes. Then 2 more strokes. After a while I realized a couple of things. (1) that boat was no where near me and (2) I was actually finding a rhythm with my 2-strokes at a time. I finished the first lap feeling good, and headed into my second lap latched into the draft of someone's feet. Not someone speedy, mind you, but someone my speed. Before knew it, I was 200 years from the finish of the 2.4 mile swim, and even if my goggles got kicked off my head I knew that I would finish the swim. Things just got better from there.


The bike started off slow, but steady. My Coach, EK, had told JR and I "People should be passing you on the first 5 mile climb. If not, then you're going too fast." Well, if that's the case, then I'm doing it right. First the guys passed me. Then the fat guys. Then the women. Then get the point. But I kept it under control, crested the hill, and descended 6 miles in the rain and on wet roads into the town of Keene. From there, I again found a rhythm to my stroke, enjoyed the moment and rode intelligently...for me. Starting the climb out of the valley, back up to Whiteface and Lake Placid I started to real in the same people that passed me on the initial ascent. Aid stations were there when I needed them, and I rolled thru each one perfectly, grabbing water and Gel's and continuing on my march. I climbed the last 3 climbs (Mama Bear, Baby Bear, and Papa Bear) without breaking a sweat, especially since our Coach had told us about them on the pre-race ride the day before, and rolled back into the town of Lake Placid to begin my second lap. I felt great. Perhaps too great? Should I speed up and go harder on the bike? have a plan to break 12 hours, you're on plan, don't get greedy. The second lap went by without a mistake...which again were words of wisdom from Coach. "Just don't make a mistake". No crashes, no mechanicals, no missing any fueling opportunities, and most importantly - no burning any matches. I rolled into T2 feeling like the worst was behind me, and the only thing between myself and the finish line were my own legs. Not getting kicked in the swim, or crashing on the bike. Those were behind me. It was just me for the next 26.2 miles.

"Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast" was the mantra that my Coach had told us the day before and what ran thru my head in transition. Don't forget anything, don't make a mistake, and be smooth. I did a check of my watch and realized that my goal of sub-12 hours was seriously in jeopardy. I wanted to do a 1:15 swim. A 6:15 bike. 15 minutes total for transition and then a 4:15 run....finding 1 second somewhere to be able to come in at 11:59.59. But my swim took 1:17, my bike took 6:20, and my transitions, while smooth, were not "fast". Shit. I had to run nearly a 4-hour marathon to be able to break the 12 hour mark. My fastest, and admittedly only, other marathon to date was a 4:09 in Boston in '06. I was supposed to now run faster than that, after 2.4 miles on my shoulders, and 112 miles on my legs?!? Yeup. Let's do it.

26.2 what?!
My first 13.1 mile lap had me at 1:58.30 pace. Great, I had 90 seconds to play with for lap two. I held off the goblins for the first 6 miles, but then the goblins started to grab my toes. I would later find out that one of my toes was rubbing against my shoes and I would lose my toenail. But I pressed on. The goblins tried again to grab my hamstrings, but again I shook them off. They then tried to give me a cramp in my quads, but I beat them back with a banana at a feed zone. I ran thru another aid station at mile 21 and went to grab another banana, but it slipped out of my hands and fell to the ground behind me. A volunteer, a kid, perhaps 15 or 16 said "Keep running...I'll bring it to you". By then my mind was a bit blurry. "How will he bring it to me, what should I do. I need that banana". What seemed like an eternity, but what was probably only 20 yards, the kid came sprinting alongside me (mind you, I say "sprinting", but I wasn't moving that fast to begin with") and handed me another banana as I ran. He even had the composure to say "Do you need anything else?" I shook my head "no", thanked him, and he drifted on back behind me to rejoin the ranks of the other absolutely amazing volunteers who would do anything to make our lives just a little bit better in those moments of pain.

I decided to walk thru the next feed station so that I didn't make another mistake. And the next feed station. And the next hill. And then I ran past where my beautiful wife was cheering for me with my 5 month old son at mile 23. She told me that our 2-year old daughter was with her Uncle, my Brother, at the finish line. I ran as hard as I could for the last 3 miles....not so much to finish the race, or to break 12 hours, but rather to make my daughter proud as she watched her Dad finish the Ironman. If she was going to be at the finish line, Goddamnit, I was, too. My GPS watch died with 1 mile to go so I didn't know my time, didn't know my pace. I knew that I slowed down a lot in the 2nd half of the run, and that a 12-hour race was slipping away. All I could do was run. I ran past JR and EK's families - both of those guys had long since finished, but their families were like my families and they stayed out on the course to cheer me on in the last mile. I entered the Olympic circle, and saw my daughter waving at her Dad. I touched her hand as I ran by, and floated the last hundred yards to the finish.

12:01:16 said the clock above me as I crossed the finish line. But I didn't care. I had finished an Ironman. Without a doubt the hardest athletic achievement of my, or most anyone's else's, life. The first person I saw as I crossed the finish line was the woman who handed out medals. The second person was my Coach, EK who had been waiting for me (after his own race, mind you) right at the finish line. He who told me relentlessly for the past 18 months that "time doesn't matter", told me with a smile that I broke 12 hours. Huh? With the rolling start time, I actually entered the water 5 minutes after the gun went off, and my official time was 11:56. I gave EK a hug, as I couldn't have achieved what I did without him.

Will I do it again? Who's to say. I don't need to right now, as the experience I had was absolutely perfect. Given the time commitment that I had to train with work, a 2 year old, and 5 month old at home....I couldn't have asked for a better race. I executed on my plan, achieved my meager little goal, and have a lifetime of stories to tell all wrapped up in one 12 hour (11:56) day. But the future is unpredictable, and I wouldn't rule out anything. Beside, I think that I could break 11:30 some day with just a bit more training. :)

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