Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Forged in the Furnace: Becoming an Ironman

The road to the Ironman was truly a trial by fire. I was a novice swimmer who hadn't swam in five years. I was novice cyclist who hadn't been on a bike more than three times in the past decade. I had never completed a triathlon of any distance, let alone a full Ironman. The task at hand was daunting and loomed large, but the task was simple. As a child growing up, and even as a young adult, I had considered athletic feats like the fabled marathon and Ironman to be in a realm far beyond my natural abilities. But, as I got older and took on endurance challenges head on, I realized how false my misconceptions were about my own personal limits. After years of setting aside the notion of attempting an Ironman, I decided that 2014 was the year I was finally going to make it happen. In February 2014, I took the plunge and entered Ironman Louisville.

The training for an Ironman was a much needed reality check, and due my spring running schedule, I only had four months to spare. In the early stages, the idea of completing a 2.4 mile swim seemed overwhelmimg as I struggled to swim even a couple laps in a pool before needing to rest. Learning how to ride a road bike wasn't much better as I found myself stiff and sore from riding only 30 minutes. For the first time in a long time none of my running experience mattered, none of my marathon times matter, and none of my ultras mattered. Swimming and cycling were completely different beasts, and they couldn't care less how many races I had run. This was not running, and at times I wondered if I was in over my head.

But.....I was patient. I picked up good advice, practiced, and kept practicing. I went at it day after day, week after week, and month after month. Slowly but surely I could ride 30 miles comfortably, then 40, 50, 60, and 70. My swimming efficiency also improved as I increased my workouts from 500 meters, to 1k, to 1 mile, 1.5 miles, and then 2 miles non-stop. But, it wasn't some amazing overnight transformation. After grinding it out for months and months, I could start to see the triathlete being born, and eventually witness myself becoming more than just a runner. All was going as well as I could have planned, and then on one of my final long rides my IT band completely gave out and forced me to cut my ride short by 30 miles. One of my big fears had been realized as I was now only two weeks away from the Ironman and my IT band was shot. The doubts began to rear their ugly heads, and I began to wonder how on earth I could complete Louisville's notoriously hilly 112 (actually 115) mile bike course, when I couldn't even do half the distance without pain on a flat bike path. I trained my ass off for four months and it came down to this? The questions mounted. Did doing the rim to rim to rim at the Grand Canyon three weeks earlier jeopardize my chances at completing my Ironman, and did I virtually sacrifice one bucket list item by doing another too close? Only time would decide, but one thing was for certain. I owed it to myself to at least show up to the starting line.

On August 21st, my dad and I made the long 700 mile drive from Virginia to Kentucky. The hustle and bustle of race weekend could have been a blur, but I took the time to enjoy it and enjoy some quality time with my dad. The weather forecast was ominous as an unusually hot heat wave was predicted to blanket Louisville through race weekend. On top of that, race day temps looked to be the worst, as the heat index would reach 103 degrees with very little shade. In the mean time, I shifted my focus to doing last minute gear adjustments, trying to relax, and also enjoy a bit of the town.

Race morning was a bit surreal to wake up knowing what would transpire over the next day. In that sense it was much like any other race morning trying to absorb the great expanse of physical and mental things I knew I would experience by the time I would be back in my hotel room. From a race perspective, I had waited six months to do this event, and it always seemed that race day was some far off event that was just out of reach. The reality sank in as I acknowledged that that very day had arrived, and in essence it was a day that I had been waiting not just six months for, but rather many years.

The early morning was still dark, but alive with energy from the spectators, athletes, crews, and thousands of volunteers. I made my final round dropping off gear bags and walked to the swim start with my dad. The sky was beginning to lighten and the energy was building up to a palpable frenzy of focus and nerves. The only real glitch of the day occurred when I was misdirected as to where to line up for the swim which cost me 2 miles of walking and also had me being one of the last athletes in the water. I shook off the incident, made my way to the dock, and waved to my dad one last time before jumping into the water and officially starting my Ironman quest.

I knew the swim would be the toughest leg of the race mentally, and I was right. Having never done an open water swim of any kind, I freaked out as soon as I hit the water. Visibility was non existent and I was experiencing the bumping and nudging notoriously associated with triathlon swims. This was made considerably worse knowing that it was the point of no return, and there was only one way to go, and that was forward. For some reason, it brought me back to learning how to swim as a child. I would stand at the edge of the pool, my dad would hold out his arms and tell me to jump, I would take a leap of faith, swim as hard as knew how, and eventually get scooped up in my dad's arms. This, by comparison, was like the first time I had to jump in a pool without my dad there. I knew I could swim, but the proverbial safety net was gone. The Ohio river was not a pool where I could rest at the wall every 25 meters if I had to. Somehow I quickly collected myself and remembered to apply the smooth swim techniques I had practiced over and over in the pool. My breathing calmed down, my muscle memory found itself, and soon I was passing a number of folks in the water. At the turn around I took advantage of the generous current and gained some much needed time before the crux of my day, the bike portion. I popped out of the water, ditched the wet suit, waved to my dad, and made my way into transition one.

I knew the bike was going to be my weakest link. IT band issues had cut several important long rides well short of their intended distances. I had also feared the rolling hills, which I couldn't train for on the flat Dismal Swamp bike path, would flare up my already iffy IT band. Conservative would be the name of the game, but I would learn that even a conservative 112 mile ride is still hard work. The first 10 miles were fairly flat and sufficient cloud cover meant the temps rested in the mid 80's. However, the comfort was short lived as the sun would come out for the remainder of the day and the hills would begin and not relent for another 90 miles. Per usual, the beginnings of Ironman carnage began to show as bikes began to break down and then the athletes themselves. Two loops of the bike course meant you knew what hills to expect the second time around. Both good and bad. For most of the bike portion I was passed by quite a few folks. For most sports, I believe the gear does not make the athlete. An expensive pair of running shoes, or golf clubs mean nothing if the person using them has no skill. However, though I have a fairly nice bike that retailed for $899, there was absolutely no way I could compete with folks on triathlon bikes that cost upwards of $2,500-$5,000+. One sad reality of triathlons, and specifically Ironman events, is that they cater to an audience that has a high level of disposable income. I would have to make do on my bike, and realize that sometimes you can't always have what others have, and that's the way the playing field goes at triathlons. Much to my chagrin, my bike was going to take an hour longer than my goal time, but at least the final 10 miles back to transition two was flat.

Finally off the bike, I was now in familiar territory. The run. From here to the finish, those fancy $5,000 bikes no longer gave an advantage, and the only thing we had to project us forward were our feet and a pair of shoes. I welcomed back the even playing field, but alas the 103 heat was undeniably present. While the bike provides a constant breeze, running the downtown streets of Louisville was unforgiving. There was no shade, no wind, and only the heat resonating from the pavement and buildings like a furnace. Water stops were plentiful, the course now flat, but the toll was heavy on many of the weary athletes. I was only managing a light shuffle with walk breaks to hydrate and fuel, but it was still faster than many of the folks reduced to a lethargic 26.2 mile "death march". After reaching the outbound turn around, I made my way back to the city and to the end of loop one. In a most cruel fashion the end of loop one literally brings you a hundred yards from the finish line cheers and coveted Timex finish clock, but then directs runners to veer right to endure another 13 miles of pavement.

Those last 13 miles are a gut check, and for many it's where Ironman dreams either live or die. As the sun set, the temps remained in the 90s, but even the slight cool down gave me renewed energy. If anything, I wanted to make sure that I finished my Ironman experience feeling strong and looking strong. I found my stride and passed mile markers 20, 21, and then 22. It was the homestretch with less than four miles to go, but with persistent heat even at night there was still no room for error. I continued to hydrate, take my gels, and dump water on my body as I had the entirety of the run. With 5k to go I accelerated, with a mile to go I pushed even harder, and with a half mile to go I flipped the switch to a full out sprint. I negative split the marathon by 11 minutes. A quarter mile from the finish I saw my dad, made a left hand turn, and finally a right toward the electric 4th street finish pavilion. I blasted down the final hundred yards, urged the crowd to make some noise, and arrived at the finish line in a place I had envisioned being for many years. As I crossed under the clock a voiced boomed over the loudspeakers "Mike Bailey, you are an Ironman!".

It had happened, and it happened on a day that saw the most DNF's ever at Ironman Louisville. One of my lifelong dreams had finally become a reality. I WAS an Ironman. While it was a sweet victory in itself, it was made even sweeter by having my dad to share it with. While my family hasn't had the opportunity to witness many of my running events, it harkened back to a time where they saw me become a black belt, play baseball, win my first ultra, and finish with my sister at her first marathon. While in duration, the road to the Ironman was only six months long, with four months of training, it was a road far longer in length. Thanks to the many volunteers on the course and my #1 support crew, my dad, for being there the entire way. Here's to many more adventures along the way.

Afterthoughts: In 2005, a friend of mine discussed which was harder, an Ironman or an ultra. Having now done both, an Ironman is much harder than a 50 mile ultra, or even 100k ultra. However, it does not beat you up nearly as much as a 50 miler, and definitely not as much as a 100 miler. Ironman training is more demanding and stricter as you are training for three sports. When doing solely running, you can have high mileage weeks and still work in rest days. Rest days are almost non existent in triathlons because you are always rotating sports. The only real soreness I have from the ironman is in my glutes, neck, and shoulders, which is entirely from the bike portion. My quads only have moderate tiredness from the marathon, and it doesn't appear the swim caused any soreness.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Inya'a, Hala, and Aha- A Journey of Rim to Rim to Rim

For nearly a millenium the Havasupai Indians have inhabited and wandered a place of ancient marvels and lore. For much of the world the Grand Canyon only exists as a photograph in a magazine, or as a photo op on along a bustling tourist route. But, long before Europeans stumbled through the great red sandstone rocks, the Havasupai graced a landscape that mirrored the meaning of their very name which is translated as “the people of the blue green-waters”.

For me running and hiking rim to rim to rim was not about conquering a particular distance or terrain in a specific set time frame. In the world of running, we all too often limit our experience through the gripping confines of clocks, splits, placement, and competition. The Grand Canyon, as I perceived it, was far too venerable and noble to reside within the cages of the race environment. And as I would learn, the greatness of the canyon in its own expansive form, does not allow itself to be held on a level so miniscule as to be cluttered with races. The Grand Canyon is above racing, and although the Rob Krars of the world have run it in 6:21, the expanse of the canyon is bigger than any FKT and any one athlete. I believe anyone who has ever completed R2R2R, no matter how fast, how slow, or what utter lack of reverence they began with, ultimately climbs out of the canyon knowing this. The Grand Canyon serves as a warm womb where a metaphorical rebirth tends to occur as people incubate within the living breathing hearth that is the red and verdant canyon walls. While I personally did not experience anything like this, I ascended out of the great canyon knowing that I was tied to a place and experience that few humans on earth would ever know. Part of writing about this is that some people by choice, or by circumstance, will never have the opportunity to see what I have, and reading this is one way I can grant to others some level of empathy of the rare things I have enjoyed.

It is August 4th, 2014. Along the South Kaibab trail a dark glittered night sky turns to navy, and then a spectrum of deep reds and light blues. On this particular dawn, I am going to complete a solo self supported double crossing of the Grand Canyon. Flashes of fiery orange give way to the golden sun and then the light begins to dance around the seemingly endless miles of the canyon walls. Myself and a handful of others, some turning back after just a few brief miles, are just visitors among a primitive world forged from the forces of the earth over the past 40 million years. As I drop lower and lower into the canyon I am simultaneously traveling back in time mimicking the colored transitions and textures in the rock faces. Intense beams of sunlight radiate into the dark confines of the canyon and make the early morning shadows retreat with the evening. I pass through sandstone, limestone, shale, and the myriad of paleozoic elements that remind me just how small of a speck the human life span is on the scale of earth's own creation.

The trail seems to have a rhythm of its own as it snakes around the bends in the rock. It creates an aesthetic pattern of switchbacks down to the river floor and serves as a gateway to the Colorado river. After seeing a few dozen folks near the South rim, there are but only a handful of hikers on the trail scattered once every few miles. After seven miles and 4,800 feet of elevation loss from the South Kaibab's 7,260 foot rim, the river signifies the end of the first, and easiest, leg of R2R2R. After crossing the Colorado river by way of bridge, in its own way symbolizing my crossing of the Grand Canyon, I am welcomed by mules trains en route to nearby Phantom Ranch. It is here I leave the South Kaibab trail for good and unite with the North Kaibab trail that will bring me to the North rim in 14 miles.

I am now at the geographic low point of the day, as in the lowest elevation of the R2R2R route. After Phantom Ranch I enter The Box, which is narrow section of the canyon that follows along the light chocolate colored Bright Angel Creek. It actually reminded me a lot of the chocolate river from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though the last thing you would want to try and drink would be that. For the next five miles the canyon rose straight up thousands of feet to my left and to my right. I was taken off guard by the pleasantly surprising abundance of lush greenery that coated the basin with a quaint floral aroma. In contrast, the steep walls of The Box were an ominous presence as I knew they concealed the enormity of the task at hand. After several small bridge crossings, and just beginning to feel acquainted with my new friend Bright Angel Creek, the trail pops out into an exposed valley of cacti and shrubs. It is here, near Cottonwood Campground, that the identity of the North rim comes into view and you realize just how far a mile of elevation gain looks when you see it from below.

The climb up the North rim keeps you honest. The bright white colored granite near the top of the rim served as a constant reminder how far you still have to go. The trail here could be defined by one word, majestic. Though it starts off rather benign, the North Kaibab trail has been known to make even the heartiest of souls feel a little queasy in their stomachs. At certain junctures the trail is only several feet wide and right along sheer cliff drops, and yet I felt fairly relaxed. My mind was simply more occupied by the beauty of my surroundings, and though I exercised good judgement, my brain had no vacancy for irrational fears. Nearing the North rim, as expected, I began seeing a lot of people, and again it was a great reminder that most people don't get to experience much more than 1-5% of the Grand Canyon. But not me.

As I reached the North rim, there was no celebration, but rather a brief moment of pause to rest and have a quick lunch. Though 22.8 miles were completed, more than half of the adventure still lay ahead. The trip down North Kaibab was energizing as I passed many of the hikers I had seen in the previous hour. I passed through the narrow ledges, down the mule worn rutted steps, and as time seemed to float by I was already back at Cottonwood campground. Once again I refilled my pack with the most vital nutrient I could have on this long journey, and that was water. Though only 54 degrees at sunrise and high 70's at the North rim, the temperatures of the canyon floor had gradually risen to 110 degrees. The "dry heat" is deceptive, and I knew it. It can lull people into a false sense of comfort, they push hard, and then before they realize it they are broken down. The heat is why over 200 people are rescued in the canyon every year, why even elite runners have died there, and why many choose the early spring to attempt R2R, nor less R2R2R. Though water was available roughly every 7 miles, I still chose to fill my 3L hydration pack to full capacity. My logic was simple. I'd rather carry more weight and move slower, 16 lbs total, than not enough and end up in deep deep crap.

From here, I retraced my way back through The Box, which I could have then aptly been named The Oven. The red rock acted like a heat conductor and even in the shade it radiated the absorbed warmth from the intense afternoon sun. Fatigue is starting to set in, as expected after nearly 6,000 feet of quad jarring descent wearing 10x more weight than I would normally carry during a race. But, again, this was no race, and I had to remind myself that in this place, where you are now is just as important as where you will end up. The time it took was not a relevant matter in this excursion, and in a world fixated on speed and instant gratification, I wanted to savor this. With a few hours of sunlight left I arrived back at Phantom Ranch and now made a right hand turn back over the Colorado river, but now on the Bright Angel Trail. For the first few miles the trail falsely climbed a few hundred feet, only to drop back to the river. This was a bit unsettling since I knew I would soon be making up all the elevation gain at some point. On paper, the climb to the North rim is said to be steeper, but in reality the net gain from the base of the South rim climb is actually more. Eventually the climb in earnest began and the miles got slower and slower. 20 minute miles gave way to 30 minute miles, and 30 second rest stops become several minutes. But again, time need not exist in this place, or at this moment for it held no value amongst the composition to earthen hues.

In the reverse order as they had appeared in the morning, the bright blue sky became yellow, then amber to rose to blush. Night had fallen on the great Grand Canyon. Now instead of being able to see for endless miles, my world had shrunk down to the 50 feet illuminated ahead of me by my headlamp. The South rim, which had seemed unreachably far like the unreachable star was now shrouded in black. I was Don Quixote slaying windmill giants, but now the giant existed on as the small lights of grand canyon village in the distance. The trail continued into the night, one turn followed by another, then another, and another. This continued for hours and then I could hear the faint chatter of tourists and the clamouring of cars and children. Out of the dark a single bobbing headlamp arose from the mighty canyon and back into a modern world of gift shops, restaurants, post cards, and hi speed wi-fi.

I was done. Rim to Rim to Rim. Solo.

As I reflected on the day's events it reminded me how small of an expense humans choose to live in comparison the large literal expanses like the Grand Canyon. Part of me knows the Grand Canyon, among many other places, are the physical and geographic representation of what some like myself embody in personality. It's why we are drawn not necessarily to the challenge, but also in knowing that we are seeing the natural world not just from a lens, but from a more complete perspective. My relationship with the Grand Canyon will always be shaped after events like my R2R2R experience, and I hope to continue this paradigm shift in a culture increasingly diluted with "technologies" that suffocate the human experience. Though somewhat curious, I don't think I would ever want to see how fast I could run R2R2R, as I believe it would negate the value of such a magnificent place. I wouldn't sprint by Michelangelo's David, the Pieta, or the Mona Lisa with just a quick glance would I, so why do the same with nature's most impressive art?

One of the great ironies is that during the hottest and toughest parts of my R2R2R all I could think about were luxuries like having an ice cold drink, being back in my air conditioned apartment, and having a cool comfortable place to sleep. In the ensuing days, once I was back at my apartment with the amenities I had day dreamed about, all I could think of was being back in that beautiful hot abyss of the Grand Canyon. But, as I sifted through my dirty laundry from the trip, I could still smell the canyon as I shook the red dust from my clothes. As much as the bright red dirt had encrusted my shoes and clothing, I realized that the Grand Canyon as a whole had soaked into myself just as much. Even 1,800 miles away, I had brought the canyon back home with me.