The mystique and challenge of Ironman (IM) has been an interest of mine since my first triathlon four years ago. Since my first, I have participated in about 15 triathlons, mostly Olympic distance (about a 32 mile or 2.5 hour race). Ironman is the pinnacle of triathlons at about 140.6 miles (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run). Let me share my IM Louisville experience:
I was 1 of 2,156 participants that signed up and paid $450 a year in advance. About 1950 showed up on race weekend to experience the rolling hills of Kentucky and ninety degree heat. The night before the race, I went to bed around 8 pm and woke up a few times: pre-race nerves. My alarm buzzed at 2:30 am so that I could eat and drink 600 calories. This was part of my “nutrition” game plan to offset the 11,000 calories that I would burn throughout the day. I was able to fall asleep again for about 90 minutes. I was pleased that I slept fairly well, as I had been warned about not being able to sleep the night before. I woke up at 4:15 am, took a cold shower, and stretched. My brother and my girlfriend joined me for the 20 minute walk to the transition area. Ironically, we passed by some Saturday night partiers that were leaving the nightclubs.
I arrived at the transition area around 5:15 am and immediately bumped into The Bachelor, Andy Baldwin; we took pictures together. Television makes him look taller. It is funny that the media in Louisville paid much more attention to Andy than any of the professionals. In the transition, I checked over my bike, inflated my tires, and got body-marked, #1203. I took a quick picture with my buddy Matt O’Connor, an IM veteran, who passed a ton of knowledge to me. Together, we walked 0.75 miles to the swim start.
The swim course changed two days before the race because of un-seasonal downstream current in the Ohio River. We sat around for about 30 minutes in a single file line for the time trial start, which meant that all participants would jump in 1 second after each other. I took a deep breath while my heart was beating heavily with excitement; I crossed the time-clock starting point to officially begin my day at 7:22 am.
The Ohio River was murky and a warm 85 degrees. A “no wetsuit” rule was put in place, so I didn’t have the buoyancy benefit and had to waste energy kicking or face a lower-body water drag. Throughout training, I had hoped to save my legs for the bike and run. The swim was 0.8 miles up current and 1.6 miles down current. While swimming upstream, I was kicked and elbowed a few times, so I went to the side to stay protected. The current was strong, and it felt like I was barely moving. The turn-around was a bottleneck with about 25 people trying to make the turn at the same time while the current pushed us against each other. After the congestion, I was able to settle in a groove and started drafting behind a couple faster swimmers. Drafting is okay in the swim but not the bike so it made sense to take the advantage. The downstream time went by quickly, and I stepped out of the water at around 1 hour and 17 minutes…not a bad start. I was happy to be out of the dirty, oily Ohio River.
As I got out of the water, I immediately saw my dad and my mom cheering for me. The crowd was totally supportive, and it was fun to run by all the people cheering. I then saw other friends and family. At the transition, I grabbed my bike gear bag, ran into the changing room tent, jumped into my bike clothes, sprayed on some sunscreen, grabbed my bike and helmet, and headed out of transition. Several bikers were leaving at the same time, and I ran through some mud as I was leaving.
I hopped on my bike, started pedaling, and encountered the first of four technical bike issues. My left cleat snapped in right away, but my right cleat wouldn’t snap in. I kept trying for about ½ a mile, and I got off my bike and had to clean the mud out of my right cleat. I jumped back on my bike, and this time my cleats snapped in. I started at a nice leisurely pace on the bike. Around mile 18, and right before a couple monster hills on the back and forth on Highway 393, my back bike brake started rubbing against my wheel. I had this very same problem two weeks earlier, and the bike shop said they fixed the problem. Unfortunately, it was not fixed, and I ended up stopping to release the tension on my bike brake, potentially dangerous, but I didn’t want to ride with friction on my bike wheel the rest of the day.
I hopped back on the bike, and I couldn’t snap in my right cleat. I rode about 1.5 miles while struggling to get my right cleat on. I finally got off my bike a 3rd time to clean my right cleat; the mud was gone this time. I got back on the bike and eventually snapped my right foot back in at a slightly off-center angle prior to the big hill on 393. I rode this way the rest of the race; I’m pissed off at Mission Bay Tri shop in Chicago because they installed new cleats the week before. I’ve learned my lesson to never let anyone tinker with the bike the week before a race.
The bike course was scenic but tough; it was filled with rolling hills. The hills were not steep (3-5%); they just kept rolling throughout the entire course, except the first and last 12 miles. At around mile 38 right before LaGrange, I saw my cheering family and friends again. A slight headwind continued on Highway 146, but the tailwind was pleasant on the return on Highway 42. I picked up my speed up until the 64 mile marker. As I was heading up a hill, my right inner quad started cramping. I slowed the pace down and soon felt the cramping pain in my left inner quad. A year earlier, on my first 100 mile training day, I cramped in the same place, and I couldn’t finish the training session. I only rode 91 miles that day. I experienced no cramps this summer while training so negative thoughts started creeping into my mind at that time. I couldn’t believe that I was only 60% finished with the bike with a marathon still to go. I started counting backwards to make sure I could finish IM in 17 hours, the cutoff time. I thought about my work colleagues and all my friends that knew I was racing. I didn’t want to tell them that I had to quit. I was determined to finish the bike slowly and walk the 26.2 mile marathon to finish within 17 hours. I was on the second lap and headed to LaGrange again. LaGrange, a small town on the bike route, had a nice spectator viewing area. The thought of seeing my family and friends kept me going. Little did they know that my legs were cramping since I passed them with a smile.
I kept a cautious pace after LaGrange to keep the cramps from returning. At around mile 76, the fourth technical issue occurred. I was speeding downhill to get momentum on the uphill when my chain fell off, as I was going from high to low gear. I had to get off my bike and re-chain my front gear and my back derailleur, which I had never seen or done before. IM is an individual sport, and participants are not allowed to get assistance. What seemed like an hour was probably 8 minutes of trying to figure out how to put on the chain. It was mid-day, around 1 pm, and the sun was beating down. My hands, covered with grease, were shaking, and for the second time, thoughts of quitting entered my mind. I was having what I feared most, which were the dreaded “bike issues;” I even stopped at Ruben’s place three nights earlier to re-learn how to fix a flat…little did I know at that time that I would encounter four bike issues.
Despite my engineering education, many of you know that I’m not mechanically inclined. It felt like a miracle when my chain eventually connected back onto the front and back gears. I climbed uphill slowly, and my journey continued on. I took it easy the last 34 miles. I estimated that 200 people had passed me while I was fixing my bike four times and another 200 people would pass me in the second half of the bike. I made a point to drink and eat a lot. I think I had 15 water bottles, 10 Gatorade bottles, 4 salt tablets (yummy), 8 Endurolyte tablets (a combination of salt and potassium), 12 Power gel packets, 2 Power Bars, 2 bananas, and 2 peanut butter sandwiches, and one Red Bull….4,500 calories.
A fellow 6-time IM athlete told me the day before to be cautious of the heat and to drink enough throughout the bike to have to pee. I asked her if she got off the bike to pee and she said that she peed in her pants and that it was really no different than sweating. She said to “just pour water from the water bottle if you feel unclean.” This was strange since I had never ever considered peeing while riding. Well after drinking so much water and Gatorade, I was hydrated enough and needed to pee. I didn’t want to take a chance of stopping and having my cleats not hook on again. So, I discovered the joy of peeing while riding, the warm rush down my right leg was soothing. I did this three times. By the end of the ride, since so many people had passed me, I even pulled out a couple times to pee while riding. I know this sounds troubling, but then again, at this point in the day I was definitely having some mental issues.
As I saw the Louisville skyline, I felt relieved to finally get off the bike. I was fortunate to not have a flat tire, though I was prepared. I carried a fanny pack with 2 tire tubes, 3 CO2 cartridges, and tools the entire 112 miles. I saw my family and friends again right before the transition; they were overjoyed to finally see me, 45 minutes behind my expected time. I also saw David Jones, a fellow triathlete and venture capitalist, on the sidelines. I finished the bike in 7 hours; now, I only have a marathon to run.
I entered the transition area, and a volunteer grabbed my bike. Throughout the day, the volunteer support effort was excellent. Like other IMs, the volunteer to athlete ratio was 3 to 2. I continued jogging forward and grabbed my run gear bag and went into the changing room. After I stripped out of my bike clothes, I recall sitting in a room with 30 sweaty, half-naked men and yelling “I need Vaseline.” Since I’ve run a few marathons before, I know that Vaseline is used to minimize blisters on your feet and mine was packed in my bike gear bag. Nevertheless, it was a vivid moment to be naked with a bunch of men and screaming for Vaseline. I put on my running outfit and headed out of transition at a slow pace trying to ease the blood flow to different parts of my legs. I knew the run would be difficult. After suffering an ankle injury 7 weeks beforehand, my longest run in training was only 14 miles.
Frank, who has raced in 19 IMs, gave me great advice the week before the race, “Run slow. Even 12 or 13 minutes per mile is so much better than walking.” As I left the transition area one last time, the sun was beating down, and there was no shade to hide in. I started shuffling my feet at a slow jogging pace. I passed a few walkers immediately. I ran the first mile in 10 minutes, so I slowed the pace down since I had 25.2 more to go. Over the next 10 miles, I drank water, Gatorade, Coke and chicken broth. The bubbles, caffeine, and sugar in a Coke were a nice change from all the Orange Gatorade on the bike. The chicken broth had much needed salt and another very different flavor. It was hard to stomach food, so I tried to stomach a Power Gel every 3rd mile and popped in a salt tablet every hour. I was focused on each mile, one at a time; after 8.5 hours of swimming and biking, thinking about running an entire marathon was difficult. I broke down the run into 26 mini stages and played mental games to try and pass each stage: one at a time. However, after a few miles, I noticed that Frank’s advice was accurate; I was slowly passing many of the athletes that were too tired or dehydrated to run.
Crossing the halfway point was a disappointment. I could see the finish line 50 meters ahead, but instead of running straight to the finish, I had to take a right to run the 13 mile loop again. At around mile 17, I hit a wall and my legs were stiffening up. I considered walking but kept shuffling my feet. At that point, I had probably passed 100 people. Somehow, I caught a second wind and was able to jog. I think I passed another 200 athletes in the last 10 miles. I finished the final 2.2 miles at a 9 minute and 30 second pace. My final run time of 5 hours pleased me.
The last 100 meters was distinctly memorable. The closest person in front of me was 100 meters ahead and the runner behind me was about 100 meters back. A red carpet was draped a hundred yards to the finish line, and I was running solo. Crowd support was amazing, and I recall high-fiving a lot of people. I saw my mom, my brother, Lauren, Tom, and Laurie on my right side. My dad jumped in on my left side to run the last 25 yards by my side. I heard the announcer shout “#1203 from Chicago Illinois is Eddie Lou and next to him is his father. Eddie, you are an Ironman.” I don’t often choke up, but I was so happy that I wanted to cry; I was simply too dehydrated to form any tears. After 13 hours and 38 minutes, I really did place 2nd…keep reading just a bit more to find out how.
Let me thank my parents Alex and Margaret, my cousin Gary and his girlfriend Bethany, and my buddies Tom and Laurie. I saw each of them after the swim, twice on the bike, and numerous times throughout the run. A special thank you goes out to my brother Michael who organized my friends and family so that I could see everyone many times. I also want to thank all my relatives and the Ogle family for watching me cross the finish line which was aired live on the internet. Thanks goes out to OCA Ventures for their support and accommodating my workout schedule.Thanks to Matt O’Connor and David Jones for the tips on the Louisville IM course. Thanks to all my Lakeshore training partners, you know who you are. I spent many hours over the past 8 months in the pool, in the spin room, and on the Chicago lakefront; and an extra thanks to Jen who joined me on most of my long rides or runs. Lastly, I want to thank Lauren, who had to put up with my training diet, stay in on a Friday/Saturday nights, or wake up at 4:30 am for one of my workouts; you are the best!
As part of Louisville IM, I raised money for the Urban Students Empowered Foundation. Over a hundred friends, family, and work colleagues donated over $42,000 to help Chicago’s urban youth gain the resources and support necessary to go to college. As part of Louisville IM, I was one of fifty-four athletes to compete in the Janus Charity Challenge. With your generosity, I placed 2nd overall and Janus will donate an additional $8,000 to the charity. On behalf of the Urban Students Empowered Foundation, and directly, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank each and every one of you for this fantastic accomplishment. At my weakest moment, when I thought about quitting after my chain fell off, you and the urban youth who the program helps were the inspiration that kept me going.
My IM Louisville experience was very representative of what Ironman is all about. Each of the distances are tough individually; somehow this combined 140.6 becomes a magically challenging number. The heat and hills were extra challenges and nutrition became vitally important. Despite all the hours of preparation ahead of the race and unanticipated surprises (in my case, no wetsuit and four mechanical bike breakdowns) during race day, I think every athlete hits a point where they think about quitting and it is amazing what your body can do physically when your mental desire takes over.