Ironman Santa Rosa
My phone alarm jolted me out of unconsciousness. It was race day. Strangely, I woke up feeling at peace. I had been training for almost a year for Ironman Santa Rosa. My first full Ironman. Still dark for a few hours, I turned on the lights and changed into my triathlon suit that had covered my frame through three Half Ironmans and a handful of shorter races. The race day checklist stared back at me from the breakfast table of my grandparents’ house. First on the list were affirmations. Stay grateful, let go of negativity, find steadiness in success and failures. Then I sipped my Greens and Beet shake, chocked full of vitamins and adaptogens.
I filled my water bottles and loaded the gear in my pack. My Iron-sherpa, Chris, started the truck. We were off. The drive to Lake Sonoma passed uneventfully as we talked over the steady pulse of my race day playlist.
Maybe I knew that today was more than just a race. Ironman Santa Rosa was a day to celebrate the journey of transformation that started five years ago when I started to face my PTSD head on in full sobriety; this race an opportunity for me to give thanks for my growth in Mind, Body, and Spirit. Or maybe my meditations and deep stretches had calmed me. Perhaps my body was also ready for the race, having gone through the race day morning rituals many times before. I reminded myself to let go of the outcome and simply be in the moment for each stroke, pedal, and stride. Like Mark Allen said, “transcend the numbers”. After all, whatever my finishing time, it would be a personal best.
Chris and I walked to transition amidst the bustle of cars parking, headlamps on athletes winding their way down the hill from the bus drop-off and the warm breeze touching our faces. Generator-fueled light stands illuminated the parking lot and I merged into the foot traffic of athletes entering into transition. Among the racked bikes, everyone scurried about to inflate tires, fix last-minute disasters, and don their wetsuits. A few bikes down from me stood Eric McElvenny, Marine, and spokesman for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. We met last year for the Oceanside Half and he recognized me. Eric lost a leg in Afghanistan and has been competing in long-distance triathlon ever since. He embodies Ironman’s slogan of “Anything is Possible.”
After inflating my tires and putting my water bottles in their cages, I slipped into my wetsuit and barefooted it down the longest boat ramp in the world. The extended wait for the porta-potty (when is it not?) did not leave much time for my swim warm up. The crowded boat ramp was not conducive to getting a few strokes in before the race. Oh well. I’d done many a race without a warm up and would ease into the 2.4-mile swim. In fact, I was more concerned about overheating with the lake temperature at 76.1. I planned to flush my 4mm suit often. Those one-armed isolation drills would come in handy.
The cannon fired and we were off….to a slow penguin waddle as the rolling start bottlenecked the eager athletes and spread out the traffic in the lake. Jumping in, I instantly knew I had never used a wetsuit in this warm of water. I swam 4 miles in the Willamette River a few weeks back without a suit. The river’s 70º temp felt great on my skin. But the suit would save my legs for the bike and run. So it goes. The golden sunrise over lake silhouetted the safety kayakers and buoys as I began the 140.6-mile journey. The mist lifted over the water and I rounded the buoys, settling into a rhythm.
My mantra for the swim steadied my energy and I focused my awareness on the body: high elbow recovery, good torso rotation, and keeping a long body. It’s fascinating what comes to mind when I allow space. My yoga instructor’s voice popped in like Obi-wan Kenobi guiding Luke’s Death Star run. “Let a steady breath be your guide.” Namaste, Perry. After the first lap, I exited the water to run across a timing mat, high-fiving volunteers and thanking them.
My mission to set a course record for most high fives was off to a great start.
Back in the water for round two. Feeling good and loose, I increased my pace a bit. No feet or elbows found my face. and I worked my way through the crowded spots. My only struggle was passing a swimmer who was slightly faster, but zig-zagging and unintentionally boxing me out. Before I knew it, the final meters of the swim lay in front of me. I increased my kick to get the blood flowing to my legs to offset the heart rate spike that accompanies the swim exit.
Swim time 1:13:40
I gave out more high fives up the ramp as spectators cheered me and fellow athletes on. It took resolve to not run up the steep boat ramp, but I did not want to burn out later in the day. Steadiness. I came to the changing tent in transition and a volunteer handed me my bike gear bag. Immediately, I realized my rookie mistake and silently thanked whichever volunteer saved my ass.
Being my first full Ironman, I left my bike gear next to my racked bike. Bush league stuff, Mike. I learned that in full Ironmans you change in the changing tent and leave the bike racks clutter-free. During the swim, a volunteer had bagged my gear.
The bike leg started with an immediate steep grade uphill from the transition to the main road. Crossing the bridge above Lake Sonoma, I felt fresh. The light breeze began to dry my body without any chill. I let go of the thought that a warm morning might lead to a hot afternoon for the run. Heeding my coaches advice, I focused on gently lowering my heart rate by using a moderate cadence in a low gear. My aerobic threshold was 146bpm. I gradually eased my heart rate down as the long descent required minimal pedaling to move at a steady clip.
My other goals on the bike were to drink one water bottle per hour and sip my fuel (Hammer Nutrition Perpetuum) every 10 minutes for a steady supply of energy. Perpetuum had served me well in all previous Half Ironmans and I decided to stick with it. Two worried thoughts circled back to me every so often. The first was getting a flat tire. I had spare tubes and c02 inflators, but I was still concerned, having popped three tubes since getting new tires a few days before. Nothing new during race week!
The second source of worry was my left knee. I felt a sharp pain in the last few miles of my final long ride the week prior. It didn’t come back in the days following, but my mind considered the possibility of it making a 4th quarter appearance sometime during the 112-mile ride. I smiled and bowed to that thought. Then I gently guided my mind back to my cadence and heart rate. Steadiness.
Through the rolling hills of wine country and under a canopy of oaks I brought to mind the 29 Marines whose names adorned my jersey. Nine days ago was the anniversary of Todd Godwin’s death. A tear-filled sprint session on the trail that afternoon helped me accept the lingering grief surrounding his death, thirteen years ago. Godspeed and Semper Fi, buddy.
I allowed my mind to find gratitude for having known the “T-0-Double,” as we called him. Todd’s orange hair and fair complexion led to a few situations where higher-ups got us confused. Todd got chewed out a few times for my rookie mistakes as a young lance corporal, newest to the unit. He took them in stride and surprisingly never paid the hate forward to me. The entire barracks echoed with his hearty guffaw of a laugh. Everyone knew about his late-night trips to the vending machines to buy honey buns. Amazingly, these nocturnal binges never seemed to alter his chiseled physique and ability to outlift, outrun, and outfight most men in Alpha Company. Todd is a Marine to the core.
Once a Marine, always a Marine. Not even IED’s can change that.
The bike ride is the loneliest leg of a triathlon. No one bumping into you, like during the swim. And unlike the run, aid stations and crowds are few and far between. Lots of time to think. Lots of time for the mind to toss some doubt and worry my way. I am an average swimmer, decent runner, and a below average cyclist. But despite that, my mental strength makes up for these deficits. From yoga and meditation, a greater body awareness helps me to allow negative thoughts to come and go like the clouds. No need to block out and no need to hold on.
Any combat veteran has an unfair advantage in endurance sports. Many of us find solace in thoughts such as “No one’s shooting at me, so it’s a pretty awesome day” and “I’m not gonna die here. What, am I really gonna be afraid of getting tired?” (Of course, one man who had a heart-attack, but luckily there was a doctor racing who stopped and saved his life!)
Some of the course was familiar. The Vineman Half bike course followed and sometimes went the reverse of this course. Mostly flat with some rolling hills and hardly any headwind or crosswinds to fight against. My hydration strategy worked a little too well. (*TRIGGER WARNING*) I had already pissed four times in the first hour and aid stations were mostly just a chance to rinse my legs off with clean water.
After the first sixty miles, the course took us downtown Santa Rosa and crowds cheered. It was a welcome boost to hear the thumping music and see familiar faces before slingshotting around the corner and back out to the country roads.
A couple sections of the road felt like they been transplanted from Iraq. Potholes and crumbling asphalt lay waste to a few tires of fellow triathletes, who resolved themselves to a time-draining tube change. Among the wreckage were dozens of water bottles, launched from their cages after encountering a fatal bump in the road. My only loss was some feeling in the nether-regions after one surprise bump and the rubber top to my bike’s internal bento box. Adapt and overcome.
While the second half of the bike course was less scenic, the motivation from the cheering crowd and sections of super-smooth roads made up for it. About 80 miles in, that familiar knee pain began to arrive. Allowing some space in my mind, a helpful phrase popped in. “Focus on what you can do and let go of the rest,” I tell my clients each day. Now I had the opportunity to practice what I preached. So I focused on the upstroke of my left, which eased the pain. Occasionally I massaged the tight spot and simply decided to keep going. I was confident this was a stiffness from overuse and not the pain of injury.
My growing saddle sores rejoiced when I cruised into transition and handed my bike off to a volunteer. Trotting into the changing tent, I felt like royalty not needing to rack it myself.
Bike time: 6:03:09
In the tent, the menthol sting of an Icey-Hot or tiger balm products instantly assaulted my eyes and nose. I changed socks and removed my helmet while chatting with my fellow triathletes. Upon hearing this was my first Ironman, they all flashed huge grins and gave me some sage advice.
“Enjoy the run, don’t worry about your time. Ease into it”
“Take your time in the chute and soak it all up. And for God’s sake, don’t look at your watch at the finish line! I’ve ruined a finish photo doing that!”
I welcomed the offer of volunteers to apply a new coat to my #FreeRangeGinger body and rounded the corner into the run course. My heart surged when I saw my wife and daughter waving at me. The little one was ringing a cow bell as I gave her a kiss. My sister, grandparents, and friends also lined the sidewalk and sent me off with a fresh dose of motivation.
I felt good. Really good. My legs were fresh and spirits were high. The knee pain from the bike vanished. I subdued my desire to head out too fast and settled into an easy jog. Keeping my heart rate below 146 bpm, I heeded the advice of my coach (Nick Carling) and fellow athletes to ease into the run.
My coaches game-plan was for me to stay “MAF,” or under 146 bpm until I “knew I would finish.” The second part of that struck me as much more ambiguous today. I mean, I knew I was going to finish before I even started this run. But I stuck to the plan and decided I wouldn’t push above 146 bpm until after the first 13 miles. I’d heard plenty of stories about people hitting the wall around mile 18-20 and didn’t want to make that first-hand experience.
For nutrition, I decided to use a Clif shot every 30 minutes and supplement with Gatorade as needed. I just haven’t found another great option for the run in a triathlon and I wasn’t about to switch it up today.
Within a few miles I found a woman who matched my pace and as we ran she asked why I was running this race. I told her about Todd Godwin, Brad Faircloth, Dave Houck and the twenty-six other Marines on my jersey. This was what it was all about! People hearing about these guys. Celebrating their lives and honoring their sacrifices in the symbolic act of pushing past my own limits to become an Ironman. She told me about how she was running this race to deal with the pain of her husband leaving her. Definitely no shortage of inspiration at this race.
My run strategy worked well. The run course was divided into three loops of 8-point-something miles and swooped back into the downtown each time. By far the most spectator-friendly course I have run. The course was at least half on smooth dirt trails the width of a fire road and made it easier on the knees. I felt good during the first loop. Through the second loop my legs began to stiffen and fatigue a bit, but my stomach handled the Clif shots like a champ and my spirits were high.
I allowed myself to wonder how it was going to feel crossing that finish line and hearing Mike Reilly shout out his trademark phrase, “Michael Ergo, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” I didn’t linger too long in the fantasy. There was still running to be done. My third loop started with tired legs. For the first time in my running career, it was a struggle to even get up to my aerobic threshold of 146 bpm. Usually, I have to slow myself down on a regular basis with my watch beeping to alert me of an overzealous pace.
Once again I harnessed gratitude. This time it was for my family. I am immensely grateful for my wife, Sarah, who lets me spend the long hours training while she herds two little kids around the house and attends to their constant needs. I strive to do most of my training in early hours of the morning, but there is not squeezing in a 5-hour bike ride before the kids get up. Compared to raising young children, running a marathon is easy. It was just over 5 years ago that she took a risk and demanded the “real me” and convinced me to step out of my self-made prison of alcoholism. She’s fiercely loyal and has stood up for me when others haven’t. She knows me better than anyone else. She’s put up with the different fad diets, Crossfit evangelism, biohacking, spear fishing adventures, and questionable fashion choices I’ve made over the years.
Compared to raising young children, running a marathon is easy. It was just over 5 years ago that she took a risk and demanded the “real me” and convinced me to step out of my self-made prison of alcoholism. She’s fiercely loyal and has stood up for me when others haven’t. She knows me better than anyone else. She’s put up with the different fad diets, Crossfit evangelism, biohacking, spear fishing adventures, and questionable fashion choices I’ve made over the years.
I thought about my daughter Adeline. She is my little shadow, constantly running with me on the trails. Addie tells me someday she wants to do a “tuh-ra-thuh-lawn” with me when she’s bigger. She came into this world during November, a month previously overloaded with the memories of death and killing in the city of Fallujah. Fear, loss, chaos, and anger staked claim to November. But her birth changed doom and gloom to hope and life. The moment I saw her delivered from Sarah’s womb the universe collided with my past, pushing it behind me. In those intense moments of absolute presence, I shifted. I too was delivered and born again as she looked into my eyes and held my finger in those first minutes of her life.
And of course my nine-month-old baby boy, Liam. He was born almost exactly three years after Adeline. His middle name, Todd, is of course after one of the greatest warriors I have known. He is a living reminder of how those we love are never truly gone because we carry them in our hearts forever.
I’m not into astrology or numerology, but I find symbolism and meaning in numbers. After all, what is special about the distance of 140.6 miles? It tells a story. The story of the first Ironman and the three races that preceded it on Oahu. My race bib was number 346 and it matched up with three birthdays of my wife and kids. Mine is on the 5th. Whatever the meaning behind it, number 346 gave me the presence of mind to cultivate a spirit of gratitude for the most important people in my life.
Gratitude is my secret weapon. Much more than a positive thought, gratitude is a stirring feeling of thankfulness. Each heartbeat sent shockwaves of joy throughout my body. My legs came back to life and picked up the pace. I quickly did the math and knew that if I hustled I might, just might get close to a 12-hour finish. With my coaches calculations, I planned on a 13-hour finish.
I began to pick up the pace and going faster actually felt better. Maybe this was just delirium. I rounded the final turns of the course and entered the chute. Now I finally let myself believe it. A few more steps and I am an Ironman, I thought.Not by myself, but because of an all-star cast of a support crew. Sarah, Adeline, Liam, my extended family, swim team, coworkers, community, and of course the spirit of 29 Marines adorning the front and back of my jersey.
Whoever says triathlon is an individual sport misses the point. The individual may get the glory, but it’s the people behind the scenes that deserve the credit.
Thumping bass notes and distant cheering grew louder as I rounded the last turn in the chute. The home stretch! The fading, late afternoon sun gave way to shadows pierced by the finish line flashes from cameras and cell phones.
I slowed to a steady jog, soaking it all in. I’ll never have another first Ironman, I thought to myself. Let’s savor the moment.
The final 50 meters were so loud I couldn’t even hear my own voice. Spectators enthusiastically banged the side boards on the chute and cheered me in as my own support crew shouted my name excitedly. And just as I had imagined in my head for over a year, Mike Reilly finally proclaimed,
“MICHAEL ERGO, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
Run time: 04:19:08
Total Time 11:56:01
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