When I first considered trying the Half-Iron distance, Ironman 70.3 California was the race I wanted, but it had sold out months before. When it opened a couple weeks before Vineman 70.3, I jumped on it. My initial motivation was just to complete the race in honor of my fallen brothers from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. Fortunately the race turned out to be about a lot more than that. Ironman 70.3 California offered a chance for a race early in the season and a bike ride through Camp Pendleton.
A Purpose Worth Racing For
In December, an email from Ironman informed me that a group called the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) would be raising money for a program called Operation Rebound. Reading more, I learned that CAF’s mission is to empower physically challenged people by providing them with the adaptive equipment and entry fees to compete in athletic events like runs and triathlons. Operation Rebound was focused on active duty military and veterans. Since racing Vineman, I had been searching for an organization to support in my next race. I immediately knew CAF’s Operation Rebound was the perfect fit. I registered with CAF and set my fundraising goal for $5,000. Go big or go home, right? Now all I had to do was find out how to fundraise and get over my personal fears with asking people to donate money.
I was eager to start building my base in early December. One key piece of gear was my bike trainer, which allowed me to ride in my garage in the early hours and during the rain. This cut down on time previously spent on gearing up for cold weather rides and helped me concentrate on technique by doing one-legged drills.
Swimming in the winter mornings got a little cold. There were a few morning where my kick board gathered a sheet of ice while I was swimming, but my pool is heated so the water was fine inside. I enjoy running in the cold and even in the rain, so the El Niño storms did not bother me. The biggest hinderance to my training was a perpetual feeling of fatigue. Getting up early proved to be much harder than I planned for. I also did not use my trigger point roller enough, which led me to have a stiff right calf and right arch. The tightness and pain kept me from running for most of January until my doctor encouraged me to work on my calf to alleviate the arch pain.
Bringing in the Funds
My friends, family, and a local rotary club came up big with donations for my fundraising campaign. Together we raised over $5,000 for Operation Rebound, the 3rd highest amount of all participants. I found this out the day before the race a luncheon hosted by CAF for those of us who had raised money. As a thank you, they gave me a cycling jersey and a Project Rudy Transition backpack. The gift was unexpected, but very much appreciated. During the luncheon we heard from some of the athletes sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. They shared their story of losing limbs in combat and how racing had empowered them and given them back their zest for life. I was able to meet and talk with a few fellow Marines that spoke about their experiences with CAF.
After the luncheon I staged my bike in the transition area. I really liked doing this the day before and having one less thing to hassle with on race day. I would need to set up the rest of my gear the next morning, but that was okay. Fundraising for CAF had many perks, including our own area in transition, being able to start in the 3rd wave with the challenged athletes, and getting to hang out post-race in our own VIP tent.
My pre-race dinner consisted of fish tacos and chips in San Clemente. We stayed with my aunt & uncle and they proved to be outstanding hosts. They were both excited for the race and made sure everyone in the neighborhood knew it.
After dinner I did a junk-on-the-bunk gear inspection to make sure I had everything. I felt the pre-race nerves, but this time it was more excitement than anxiety.
Laying out my tri-suit, I took a few moments to reflect on why I race.
I rolled out of bed at 4:30 am and slipped into my tri-suit. After drinking down a cup of Endurolyte and throwing my gear in the car, I kissed my sleeping daughter and wife goodbye. See you at the finish line. I’m not sure about the efficacy of coffee before a race, but it’s part of my routine so I stopped for a cup along the way. Apparently Starbucks opens at 4:30 each morning in San Clemente.
Driving down to Oceanside I passed Camp Pendleton, where the bike leg would take place. Spirits were high walking from the parking lot to the transition area as many of the athletes wished each other a good race. I set up my gear and chatted with some of the other CAF fundraisers as we got ready with sound of the surf behind us. The only drawback to swimming in Oceanside Harbor for Ironman 70.3 California is that no one could warm up in the water. I did some chest opening stretches and jogged in place to get the blood flowing. The sun was starting to peek over the hills of Camp Pendleton as I waited in the swim corral. A young PFC in dress blues sang the national anthem as we stood waiting, adrenaline beginning to pump through my body as I got into the zone to cover 70.3 miles.
So many months, weeks, days and hours of training had led me here and now time seemed to speed up. The horn sounded as the Men’s Pro Wave kicked the race off, followed 3 minutes later by the Women’s Pro Wave. We entered the water and each did our version of a quick warmup at the starting line.
Smiles were abundant as the MC rallied the crowd in anticipation of our swim start. The horn sounded and we were off. The course was a counter-clockwise dog leg, so there were a few extra left turns. I got into a good rhythm and adjusted my breathing and stroke to account for the slight swell that picked up as I got closer to the harbor mouth. Yum, I got my daily dose of sodium after eating a few waves.
Turning at the halfway point, navigating became much more difficult due to the sun cresting over the hills in the east. I just kept swimming and following the pack as best I could, occasionally sighting with my hand over my eyes like some kind of wayward Viking searching for land.
A few men from the next wave passed me and I resolved to follow them. They seemed to know where they were going, right? Worked for me. Towards the home stretch crowds appeared on the jetty and before long I heard the MC and “pump me up” music blasting from the speakers. I found my footing at the ramp and slogged up with a few other athletes. At the top of the ramp I was greeted by Evan Morgan, one of the challenged athletes I met the day before. In true Marine Corps fashion, he was high-fiving and motivating the others from our wave as we ran to transition. I laughed and gave him a loud “Yuutttt!” (the unofficial greeting of the Marine Corps) as I thought about what a stud this guy was to smoke me on the swim despite being sans legs.
Despite my transition spot being close to the bike/run exit, it took some time to jog over there because the swim exit wound us all the way around to the back of the transition area. Once there I made sure to honor my ginger heritage by applying a generous amount of Zealios sunblock. I planned to take my time in transition to make sure I had what I needed for the bike leg and to make sure I didn’t make any rookie mistakes (like bending over and dripping water all over my sunglasses), but I was shocked after the race to see I took over 9 minutes in T1. New PR!
The day was warming up enough to make the first leg few miles of the bike very pleasant. It was only in the low-sixties, but warm enough to feel nice as the breeze dried the ocean water from my skin. Today was my first race with my new Rudy Wing57 helmet. It fit great, was incredibly light, and had my favorite feature of oversize clip-on sunglasses. No need to hassle with extra gear!
The bike route took me on base within a mile and across I-5 on an overpass onto Main-side Camp Pendleton. Commissary workers on their cigarette break sat on crates in the back alley watching us pass with an impassive “hell is this about?” look. Like every triathlon, it was not long before dropped or jettisoned water bottles and snack bags littered the course. I passed some base housing and eventually found myself in the infamous “31 Area” of Pendleton where Marines spend a month of boot camp learning field skills and how to shoot. Pedaling past the dilapidated barracks I began a literal trip down memory lane. “That’s where Martinez threw up chocolate milk when we were getting smoked on a Sunday!” and “That’s the PT table where drill instructors would demonstrate judo throws on recruits as we learned MCMAP!”
I hadn’t been here since December of 2001, but memories returned with the force of a tidal wave and I reflected on the mindset of the 18 year old kid who went from a soft, Walnut Creek upbringing to training for war in a post-9/11 world. Yut!
During the bike leg, I never got hungry, upset stomach, or felt close to bonking. My nutrition was dialed-in and I did not get either thirsty or the sloshy-stomach feeling from over-hydrating. My second flash of nostalgia came when cycling down Basilone Road into the School of Infantry-West area. Packs of boots scurried down the sidewalk in groups of four, trying so hard not to walk, not march in step with each other. Some of them glanced at us we rode past the less-dilapidated barracks and training facilities, but decided in typical boot fashion that staring too long might get them yelled at. A few times I was tempted to yell “get in step!” or “fix yourself, devil dog!” or any number of good life-outs, but decided they were miserable enough being boots and I had many more miles on the bike to worry about. That, and the accompanying knife-hand would probably destine to me crashing into the sidewalk and looking like a total boot. Negative.
At one point my chain came off and took me a minute to fix. Glancing up I saw cyclists ascending the first of the many large hills Camp Pendleton had to offer. I was relieved not to dismount and have the “walk of shame” up to the top. After this point in the ride, I began to notice the trend of cyclists smoking past me. “Race your own race,” I told myself.
Despite realizing that each course is different, my mind would start doing the math and trying to calculate if I could beat my Vineman bike-time of 2:55. Coming on mile 30 the mental games began and I acknowledged the thoughts and redirected my mind to the experience I was having in the present moment. How fortunate am I to be healthy, in-shape, and racing through Camp Pendleton in April? Eventually it became clear that I was not going to make my arbitrary 3 hour cutoff, so the mental games shifted to “I better be able to finish in under 6 hours.” I reminded myself that no one cared about that goal either and felt my spirits lift as the crowds cheered everyone into T2.
Mental Games on the Run
One more dab of sunblock. One? Make it two, I’m not driving. A change of shoes and porta-potty visit later I was on the road, working the cement out of my legs. The mental games continued and my mind brought me award-winning thoughts such as “You didn’t do enough brick workouts” and “You’re not gonna make it under 6 hours.” Despite my personal practice of mindfulness and leading meditation groups at work, I was not immune from the mental chatter of doubt and anxiety that creeps up when the going gets tough. I noticed my attachment to a sub-six hour finish and making my family proud of me. I also noticed my ego and the need to show others I was a good athlete.
Thanking volunteers proved once again to ease the mental chatter and returned me to a feeling of gratitude just to be out on the course. I came to an acceptance that my ego, doubts, and anxieties were within me. But I could make room and take them with me as I enjoyed the race.
The run course was an interesting figure-eight that took us past the finish line 3 times before finally coming down the home stretch and finishing. The day was heating up, but the coastal breeze and scenery lightened the mood considerably. I was able to average an 8:52 pace despite missing a month of running due to a stiff achilles and arch pain. I knew a sub-six hour finish would be tight, but I managed to take my mind off it by high-fiving other CAF athletes on the course and chatting with a couple of runners along the way. There were a couple short hills, but nothing bad.
As promised, the people of Oceanside really showed up to support us. One woman was mixing it up on her turntables and blasting great music. I had a laugh seeing a sign that read ” One thumb up if you peed during the swim. TWO thumbs up if you peed during the bike.” Solid two thumbs up. I was pretty sure I could hose off my shoes and bike later that afternoon.
The last mile and change of the run along the shoreline helped me to dig deep and run with everything I had left in the tank. I tempered my excitement at hearing the finish line crowd and MC so as not to burn out prematurely. I pushed through the pain of fatigue and soreness to give it everything I had with the crowd cheering me on.
I staggered around like a zombie until my family found me and hugs abounded. My aunt Maureen was volunteering at the finish line and pointed me towards the food and the CAF’s own VIP tent. Thank God for that. It’s a challenge to think straight after 70.3 miles.
I enjoyed some pizza, subs, and a massage at the CAF tent. Daniel Riley chatted with me about the race as my family was able to sit and relax in the VIP tent alongside me. It would not have been complete without a chance to take a picture with and thank Jennifer Rose, who was CAF’s point-of-contact and organizer for this race. It was a great feeling to meet someone with a genuine passion and excitement to help others and it showed through how smooth the pre-race luncheon &post-race tent was set up, as well as her relationship with all the challenged athletes.
Reflecting back on the day, I lost count of how many great people I had met. There was a powerful feeling of community with the Challenged Athletes Foundation staff and athletes and I drove away grateful for the time I could spend getting to know them. I felt a sense of purpose racing today. Not only could I honor the Marines my unit had lost, but I was able to bring tangible support to those vets living today by helping them “get back into the fight” after transitioning home from combat wounds.
I am grateful to my wife, Sarah, for putting up with my training schedule and encouraging me. Thank you to coach Kerry O’Brien at Walnut Creek Masters for helping me improve my swim. In addition I owe many thanks to those who supported my campaign to raise over $5,000 for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, coming in 3rd place!
I missed my 6-hour goal by less than a minute, finishing in 6:00:40. The idea made me laugh in how my arbitrary personal goal paled in comparison to the overpowering feeling of purpose in racing with other veterans and helping raise funds to get even more wounded vets get out of their hospital beds and into racing. It was an honor to meet my CAF friends and shoot the breeze after the race. Secondly, I was able to enjoy the race itself, not just the finish line. I’ll continue to hone my skills and be ready for another 70.3 this September in Santa Cruz!