Here’s some photo highlights from the race – click on them to see up close. The full report is below the pictures.
Also, Here’s a video of the Race that Ironman put together. I haven’t been able to find myself in the video, but it shows a lot of the things I mention below (including Hippie Hollow).
Background to my Triathlon Passion and Ironman Texas 2017
I took on my first Ironman a year after my first triathlon (a sprint), and a year and a half after my first running race (the Richmond marathon). Four years before, I had weighed 80 pounds more, and wasn’t athletic at all. Tracking my calories helped me start to lose weight, which made running a lot easier. I picked up biking and swimming to cross-train and to avoid running injuries. I quickly grew to love triathlons, and signed up for a full Ironman in the fall of 2016. It was ambitious, but I wanted to jump in and take it on while I still had a short commute to work and the ability to train in the morning.
I trained seriously for about nine months, building up to about 10 hours of training a week, although I was able to get in a few 12 or 13-hour weeks as well toward the end. Coming into the race, I felt very confident I could finish, it was all a matter of how well I could do. My goal was 12 hours: a 90-minute swim, six hours on the bike, and a four-and-a-half hour marathon. I thought this was achievable, especially if nothing went wrong. If something did go wrong, however, my goal was to just finish, no matter what.
Leading Up – Tuesday through Thursday before the Race
My wife (Audrey), daughter (Rachel, 3), and son (James, 9 months) packed into our van with me, and we started our drive from Milton, Georgia to Houston Tuesday evening before the race. Audrey had surprised me by decorating the windows with “Honk if you TRI,” “We Love Triathletes,” and “Ironman Texas.” Leaving several days before the race would give me plenty of time to settle into Houston – something I’m grateful I planned on beforehand. We made it to Mobile, Alabama the first night. Wednesday we dropped by New Orleans for lunch (a very good decision), and were at our hotel in Houston by Wednesday night.
Thursday I checked in at the expo and got my race bib and swag (an awesome backpack, a flag, poster, and a bunch of other goodies). It was the first time I’d been around so many serious triathletes. Every other person had an M-dot tattoo on his or her calf, and I felt like almost everyone had a finisher shirt on from some other Ironman event. The energy was high, and my family and I enjoyed walking around “Ironman village” and talking with all the people at the different booths.
The athlete briefing I attended was helpful. I was nervous about race day logistics, and hearing them walk through each part of the course helped put some of my worries to rest. I knew I could perform in a control environment – but knowing where to go and what to do in transition worried me. Thankfully, there were plenty of volunteers to guide me.
Thursday evening I went for a run. I had been tapering my training quite a bit, and hadn’t been able to work out much at all that week so far. My goal was to run slow, but I was doing 7:40 miles without trying, just because I had so much energy from my taper. I suddenly started to wonder if I could beat my marathon time of 3:35, which was an 8:12 average mile. I logged that new goal in the back of my mind, although I had a lot of doubt I could pull it off.
I made sure to get to bed at a decent hour Thursday night. I had heard Thursday night’s rest had the most impact on Race day, so Audrey made sure I was down by 10:30.
The Day Before – Friday
Friday I went to the lake in the morning for the practice swim. That was a ton of fun to get in the water and get used to what it’d feel like on race day. Again, being around all the athletes got me charged up, and I was just itching to race. I spent the rest of the day tuning up my bike (thank you YouTube for teaching me how to adjust my gears), and then checking in my bike to transition.
The days leading up to the race, I ate quite a bit more than usual – especially since I wasn’t training much. It was all in an effort to fully pack my muscles with glycogen. However, in retrospect, this is the biggest thing I would change. My body wasn’t used to all the food, and eventually it needed to clear everything out. I made several trips to the restroom throughout the night before the race. I had done the same thing before my marathon because I was so nervous. However, this time, my nerves were a lot calmer; my body just was carbed out. I forced myself to eat a couple bowls of cheerios – I was sick of eating – but I didn’t want to run out of fuel, so I made myself eat.
Friday night also brought the almost-ritualistic hair removal. Audrey trimmed my hair on my head to be nice and cool, and then I shaved my arms and legs to reduce drag in the water – especially since the water was probably too warm for a wetsuit. This was only the second time I’ve shaved my legs – but this time I trimmed them with the buzzer first, which made shaving go much, much smoother.
Friday night and Race Morning
Finally settling into bed around 11, I set two alarms for 4:15 AM. I think I woke up about every two hours, so by the time 4 rolled around, I was ready to get up. I took a quick shower to wake me up, and then started gathering my last minute supplies. James and Audrey were up shortly after – and James was especially full of giggles and sunshine. Rachel, fortunately, was with my dad and brother, still sleeping.
I checked the Facebook page and saw that it was not going to be wetsuit legal – which was a big relief for me. I think I swim better without a wetsuit, so now I wasn’t going to have to face that challenge.
We got to the swim start at about 5:30. However, I realized as I walked up that I was in the wrong place– I needed to go to the transition area where my bike was first. So, with two bags and a bike pump in hand, I jogged/ran a mile from the swim start to transition to try and make it before it closed at 6:15. Hundreds of people were coming the other way, so I felt pretty silly running with all my gear through the dark against traffic. It got me warmed up though – and I made it just in time. I pumped up the wheels on my bike (I had deflated them so they wouldn’t pop in the heat), and filled up my water bottles.
The guy next to me asked to borrow my pump after I was done with it – and as he pumped, a loud pop brought a ringing to my ear. My heart sank since I thought he had popped his tire. However, he had actually just broken my pump. I told him not to worry about it (I had gotten it at Aldi for $7), and tossed it in the trash as I hurried back to the swim start (after a quick port-a-potty break). At least I had gotten my bike ready before it broke.
Back at the swim start, reunited with Audrey, we dropped off my special needs bags and said our final goodbyes. Audrey gave me a big kiss and assured me that no matter what happened, she’d be there for me at the end. Then, she gave me a few motivational quotes she had gathered from my friends and family and told me to get out there and rock it. It felt so good to have her complete support for what was going to be the hardest physical feat I’d ever attempted.
I had made my way toward the front of the group for the rolling swim start. A volunteer had called out, “If you’re swimming under 1:30, then go behind me. Over 1:30, in front of me.” I was standing right in front of them, so I said to myself,
“Let’s be optimistic” and I walked past the volunteer to move into a quicker group of athletes. Music is pumping. Everyone’s nervous, moving back and forth. The ground is wet – but no one has been in the water yet – just a lot of pre-race jitters. I can see the crowd up on the bridge overlooking us – signs and balloons – cheering. There was a lady next to me in her 50s. I joked with her, “You’re not going to start this swim butterfly, right?” She laughed and replied,
“I don’t think I know how to do the butterfly.” That spoke some peace to my mind – at least she wasn’t going to be beating up on me as soon as we entered the water.
I’m ready. I feel fantastic. This is what I’ve been training for. I’ve put in the preparation, now it’s time to execute. The announcer counts down, and then at precisely 6:40 AM the Cannon goes off.
Swim – 1:21:30
The line in front of me starts rolling forward at a brisk pace. I see competitors streaming into the water. My hands are over my head, moving to the beat of the music just so I have something to do while I walk toward the scariest part of the race – swimming with a ton of people around me. I had heard so many stories of people being punched, grabbed, dragged down, pushed, and other abuses. The swim start is one of my major checkpoints – if I can get through this without any problem, then I should be fine (I have several of these checkpoints planned throughout the race).
I can see the water now – I’m just seconds away. Goggles and cap are good to go. All my thoughts melt away and my mind is solely focused on moving forward. I’ve never been in battle – but I can’t imagine the feeling is a too much different. You’ve trained and waited, and here you are, moving yourself forward with the crowd around you toward the unknown.
I pass over the timing mat, which is just a few yards from the water. I start the timer on my watch and quicken my pace as the group around me surges forward into the water. The person in front of me slows down, but I follow someone else around them to the side of the ramp into the water and move in. I take a couple steps into the water and then jump forward – immediately going into my freestyle stroke. I keep my head up for a few strokes to navigate around people and get a good sighting of where I’m heading. I spot the first yellow buoy. However, I quickly learn that rather than sighting buoys, it’s easier to just sight several people around me. They’re closer, and most of them have to be heading in the right direction.
The first few minutes are like a dance party in the dark. Hands and legs are all over the place constantly bumping into each other. However, to my pleasant surprise, everything is gentle. Everyone is swimming at race intensity, but when a hand comes across my back or leg, it instantly moves or pulls back. Despite bumps and hand brushes, the swim start is amazingly mild. My attitude quickly shifts from “protect myself from others,” to “we’re all in this together.” That calms my heart rate significantly, and I start going to work.
Susan, my swim instructor at the YMCA masters swim class, has been working with me on my swim form for several months. She’s stopped me several times in the middle of a workout and said, “Alex, you’re all upper body,” which she’ll demonstrate by the side of the pool with just her arms moving. “You need to engage your core and whole body.” Thanks to her help, I recently learned what that feels like, and it greatly improved my stroke. About eight minutes into the swim, I heard Susan’s voice remind me, “Alex, you’re all upper body,” as I realized that between sightings to see where I was going, my stroke form was less than it could be. As I developed some room around me, I start to increase the reach of my stroke, use my shoulders and back, lengthen my pull, and glide more. I instantly felt my speed increase, and I settled into a steady rhythm. Again, my mind went blank, and I was completely in a flow state in the moment. Everything was focused on getting to the next buoy, finding someone to follow, and keeping up my speed.
Toward the end of the lake, there’s a turnaround, and then the buoys switch from yellow to orange. I rounded the turn and started heading back up the lake. Someone had said that once you hit the orange buoys, you are halfway done with the swim – so I was excited to be halfway done. That turned out to be incorrect, but it probably was better for me to think I had made so much progress.
In the back of my mind, I started to be ready for the swim to be over. It felt good – and I could have gone on for hours – but I was anxious for the bike to start. I knew I had a long day in front of me, but the reality of it hadn’t quite sunk in yet. I just kept swimming. A few times I got behind someone that was about the same speed as me – and that was fun as I tried to draft behind them. I’m not sure it did anything, but I haven’t done much drafting practice while swimming, so it was something new to try at least. A few times I ran into someone wearing a swim skin – which are made of really smooth fabric. Each time I bumped into someone wearing one, I thought, “Woah, what is that?! It feels like a dolphin.” I immediately realized what it was, but four or five times when I felt one, each time my brain immediately went to, “Woah, dolphin! Cool!” I might need to get one just so I can feel like a dolphin in the water as well.
The swim course goes down and back Lake Woodlands, and then goes through the Woodlands waterway, which is a long canal that flows through all the hotels, restaurants, and shops of the woodlands. When I first saw the orange buoys, I was actually closer to 1/3 of the way finished. Turning into the canal, I was 2/3 of the way through – although I had not studied the course that well beforehand, so I wasn’t sure how much farther I needed to go. There were people lined up cheering through the entire canal though, so it was motivating to see them and keep going. I was constantly on the lookout for bright yellow and pink shirts – that’s what my family would be wearing. I knew they probably wouldn’t be along the route, but I still looked extra hard each time I saw a bright pink shirt. If nothing else, it gave me something to focus on besides the slow burn that was starting in my arms.
The best part about this far into the swim was that collisions with others were far less frequent. There were still a lot of people around me, but everyone was swimming at about the same pace in parallel. At times, I would be swimming right next to someone for a good three or four minutes. We’d be just inches apart, and while I mostly breathed on my left side, they would breathe on their right. It was a surreal experience to be in sync with someone like that. Usually, I was impressed with what a hardcore athlete they looked like chugging away like that. Then I’d smile inside knowing that I was keeping up with them – so either I was also hardcore – or the truth that we were both just trying our best at figuring everything out.
After about twenty minutes or so in the canal, I saw the swim exit. That was motivating, and I picked up my pace slightly. Just a few hundred more feet and then I could be done with my least best sport. My calves started to cramp a bit, and when I reached the stairs to exit, they cramped pretty bad. A volunteer helped me navigate the stairs, which I was very wobbly on from the cramping – my feet don’t like being pointed for that long I don’t think. After I took a few drunken steps on land, however, the cramps dissipated, and I was left with only disorientation.
Transition One – Swim to Bike – 5:44
I hustled to get my bag with my bike gear. I thought the volunteers would just hand me my bag – but they told me I had to run to the end of the bags first. They called out my number, and someone helped find my bag for me. After grabbing it, I went to the change tent and found a free chair to sit down on.
I had already taken off my goggles and swim cap on the way over, so I put those into my bag. I put on my helmet right away, and grabbed my shoes and socks. The ground looked pretty dirty, so I didn’t put my shoes on yet. I stood up, emptied myself of some of the lake water I had consumed, and walked toward my bike. After I left the change tent, I noticed that most others were running to their bikes in their bike shoes. I stopped and sat on a big cooler and put on my socks and bike shoes. I noticed my feet had some mud and grass on the bottom – but time was of the essence, so I just put on the socks and went for it. I had to stop once while I was jogging toward my bike a few seconds later to pull up one of my socks – but besides that, I never noticed anything with my feet – the grass and mud never crossed my mind again.
I found my bike, and shuffled toward the bike start. As I came out of the transition area, I saw my family, right there at the bike mount line. I was elated to see them – all bright in their neon pink and yellow shirts. I think I said hi, but I was a bit tunnel-visioned with my focus on getting going on the bike. Nevertheless, them being there was an important mental boost that went to my reserve for later in the race.
Bike – 5:24:02
The bike started off with a perceived challenge. For some reason when I mounted my bike, my left cleat didn’t click into the pedal. The right was just fine, but the left felt weird and kept coming up a bit. Suddenly, it flashed through my mind, “Oh no, when you were running in your bike shoes, you may have broken your cleats.” The cleats lock into the pedals, which locks your feet to the pedals. This makes cycling much easier, with no wasted energy from your feet coming off the pedals.
I kept fidgeting with my shoe – it seemed to sort of lock in place, but still slipped a bit. A mile or two went by, and even though I never heard a click – I suddenly realized that my left shoe was finally locked in place. I still haven’t looked at my bike shoes to see if something had gone wrong with my cleats – but my shoes stayed locked in, so I started cranking away.
I was using a different Garmin watch that I had just recently got off of Craigslist (like almost all my gear). Because I was unfamiliar with it, I didn’t stop the swim timer until a mile or so into my bike – and thus started my bike timer a bit late. I had purchased the watch (at a screamin’ deal) because it could show and record power data from my power meter. My goal was to stay within 190 to 200 watts, or 70-75% of my functional threshold power of 271 watts. Essentially, measuring your effort in watts is the best way to cycle, because it’s an accurate measurement of how hard you’re working. So, for example, you go into a headwind, you may be going slower, but you can still work at the same rate despite the increased resistance.
Mentally, 190 to 200 watts was my goal, but I also felt fantastic and felt I could push it a bit. Everyone says to hold back on the bike for the run, and after the first hour on the bike, when I think my average power was more around 220, I pulled back a bit. It was just so fun to pass people – and to get into my aero position and feel the air flow around me.
I pieced together my bike off of parts on Craigslist – something I’m very pleased with. My bike has a lot of me in it – and a good story about how I got each part. The frame, for example, is a 2012 Cervélo P3. When they came out, they cost $4000. I got mine damaged for $75, and then paid $200 to have it repaired. It turned into a pretty awesome machine that never broke the bank (although it did consume all of my Christmas and birthday). So as I was flying by bikes that easily cost ten times what I paid total, which was definitely an ego boost.
Eighty miles of the course was on the Hardy Toll road – a three-lane highway that they shut down for us. That meant it was smooth and flat – except for the overpasses. The overpasses were great though – and my favorite part of the course. We would have a gradual ascent, where most people slowed down. I usually stood up and picked up my power on the hill – passing people almost every time. The downhill was the best though. Many people would coast down, but that’s when I went to work. I would accelerate and pedal down the entire hill, tucking down into as aero a position as I could get. Whenever I did this, I would fly by others. I think that’s an efficient use of power – but even if it’s not, the mental stimulus was worth it.
I passed quite a few people, and a decent amount of people passed me as well. There were a dozen or so that I would pass, and then they’d pass me a mile or so later, and we’d go back and forth for a while. For the first twenty miles, I tried to follow people, but most of the people I tried to follow ended up not being quick enough, so I’d pass them and search for someone else. At the end of the day, I really didn’t follow anyone the entire time but set my own pace.
Once I got onto the toll way, it was straight and flat. So I knew it was time to get down to business and start cranking away at a steady pace. I kept looking at my watch to see how much power I was putting out. And it was either fairly high in the 230-240 range, or it was missing some of the signal and unrealistically low in the 150-170s. So I picked a pace that felt good and sustainable, and just started counting the miles from there. Mile 20 came up quickly, and I still felt fantastic.
I passed my first aid station about that time. I had learned at the athlete briefings that all the aid stations had the same order: water, then Gatorade, gels and bloks, clif bars, Gatorade, and water again. That was the first time that I’ve had an aid station while riding a bike, so that was a novel experience. I’m happy to say that I’m pretty much a pro at grabbing water bottles while I ride. At the first aid station, quite a few people jumped off their bikes and ran into the port-a-potties. Thankfully, I was doing well with bathroom issues and didn’t need to stop at the port-a-potties at all on the bike.
I was following behind one lady who had a large amount of water come out of her seat. I quickly sped up to pass her, and as I did so, I called out “That was pretty hardcore,” to which she smiled. I too tried my hand at “going on the go” and was surprised to find it much more difficult than one would think. I finally figured out that if coasted down a hill and gave myself a little bit of time without pedaling, bladder relief would soon follow. At about mile 40 was the second aid station on the toll way. This one was manned by a local Boy Scout troop. That was pretty cool because leading up to it, they had 12 signs, each one with one of the scout law precepts such as “courteous” “kind” “obedient” “cheerful.” At the beginning of their aid station, they had a big PVC pipe circle with a trash net in it about the size of a hot tub where they were collecting all of the empty bottles people were throwing off. I tried both times I passed it to make my bottle in, but alas, I missed both times.
It was about this time that I saw the pros for the first time. Quick side note—we had the entire right side of the Hardy Toll Way which was 3 lanes. The left lane was for the second half of the loop. The middle lane was for the first part of the loop. And the right lane was for support vehicles to drive back and forth. However, nothing was marking that the far right lane was for support vehicles, so for most of the race, bikes were taking up all three lanes. Officials on motorcycles would periodically drive down the far right lane and wave everyone back over to the middle lane.
The entire bike portion I was very nervous about getting a drafting penalty. I tried really hard to stay the six bike lengths behind whoever was in front of me. But, because I was continually passing people, that was very difficult. Usually, if I was behind someone for more than a few seconds, I would try to move left of them so that I wasn’t directly behind them. And then at the next opportunity, I would speed up and pass them. Almost everyone seemed like they were abiding by the rules. One or two people who were in front of me lost water bottles and then I’d watch for a minute and see them reach around for it for some time, not wanting to admit that they’d dropped it. Someone on the Ironman Texas Facebook group had suggested using hair ties to keep your water bottles secured in. This is where being married is awesome, because Audrey had an ample supply of hair ties, and the trick worked perfectly – especially since the Gatorade and water bottles were a bit thinner than most bike water bottles.
I saw quite a few people on the side of the road that were changing flats. Probably a total of 20-30 people on the entire course that I passed. We turned around on the toll road about mile 40 and then went back another 20 miles. The entire time riding back, I switched between looking for the mile marker and glancing at my watch, just waiting for mile 56 to come up as soon as possible. By this point in the race, I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. My legs felt fine, my energy level was good, but my tush was quite sick of sitting on my saddle. The adrenaline from the start of the race and from passing so many people the first couple hours was wearing off and my mood switched from excitement to endurance mode.
I said a quick prayer to myself, out loud, thanking God that I had done so well so far, that I didn’t get beat up in the swim, and that I had the means and opportunity to be part of this race. It was also about this time when I glanced down and took a few seconds to look at the picture of my family that I had taped to my water bottle. That lifted my spirits, and I told my tush to deal with it ‘cause we still had a lot of work to do.
It was about this time as well that the bike course started to fill up with many of the slower competitors who were just making their way onto the toll route. I finally hit mile 60, and I knew the turnaround was close for the second lap. By this time, I’d also developed my own little routine at each aid station. I would grab a bottle of water, open it, and put it upside down into my jersey, so that the water would slowly pour out onto me as I went through the rest of the aid station. Then I would grab another bottle of either Gatorade or water, put it on my bike, grab any other food, then take the water bottle in my jersey out and spray it all over me, finishing it just in time to toss it off before the trash cut off. Feeling refreshed, I’d get back down in aero position and power through for a few more minutes.
At about mile 70, time started to float away in a sense. The mile markers kept coming but it felt like a constant now or in the moment. I was in a “flow” state – completely at one with the world – that is why I love racing. Nothing else was on my mind beside the drive to push forward.
Despite the floating flow feeling in my head, the feeling of being uncomfortable continued to intensify, and I was very excited to get off my bike; however, as I approached mile 80, I discovered that if I leaned forward, way over my handle bars, and barely rested just one tiny spot of my bum on my seat (so there was barely any weight on it) it felt really good – or as good as it can get 80 miles into a ride. For the last few miles up unto this point, I was able to sit in aero position for a minute or two and then I would need to readjust. But once I found this forward leaning position, I could stay in aero for 20 or 30 minutes without shifting. This was especially fortunate to find at that point because I was approaching the second turnaround, and a wind front had just come in.
Turning around for the second lap, shortly after mile 80, I began pedaling straight into the wind. My Garmin file shows my average speed drop from 21 down to 17 mph. Quite a few people were struggling, but with my new found, forward leaning aero position, I was able to get small and power forward. I ended up passing quite a few people, sometimes sharing a word of commiseration with them about the wind. “Man, this wind is fierce,” or “man, it’s a Suffer Fest.”
Since this was the second lap on the toll route, I knew exactly what to expect and was eagerly looking for the next landmark, aid station, and penalty tent – anything to keep my mind off of how uncomfortable I was. For some reason, a song from Moana (the “shiny” song) was stuck in my head for a good hour or two, and I really, really wanted some other music to get that out of my mind.
At last, the sign that says “Mile 100” was within view with the exit off the tollway shortly after. Once I was off the tollway, it was the home stretch. The course had a lot more turns, and the roads were bumpier, so my attention was all on the course rather than any of the pain I felt. I didn’t push too hard because I knew the run was coming up.
When I started to recognize that I was getting close to the end, I coasted once more for an on the go “go,” in hopes that I wouldn’t have to stop when I was running. I was feeling really good but I was incredibly excited to be off my bike. In fact, I thought to myself, “as soon as I don’t have this stupid seat wedged between my legs, I can run all day. It’s not gonna be a problem at all.” As I neared the dismount line, there were a ton of people cheering, which was nice because it’d been a quiet 5 hours as far as encouragement goes. There had been a couple people that had made their way to the bike course, but they were few and far between. And mostly just cheering for their own specific athlete. I finally reached the dismount line but almost fell over trying to unclip my second foot. A volunteer took my bike, and I trotted toward the run bag pickup and was soon in the changing tent again.
Transition Two – Bike to Run – 8:27
I plopped down in an open chair and a volunteer came over and asked if I wanted water. I said, “Yes please,” and I slowly began removing my bike shoes. They had gotten mud all over them from walking through transition, so I asked for a bag to put them in. The kind volunteer said,
“All I have is a trash bag, will that work?” I assented, so he brought over a ginormous trash bag and even put my shoes in it for me. I rubbed a healthy amount of Vaseline everywhere I could to avoid any chaffing. Then, I slowly put on my shoes and was pleasantly surprised to find notes of inspiration from my mom on my shoes laces. I’m not even sure my brain recognized all the words, but they had their intended effect and I felt loved and encouraged.
I tied my shoes, put on my race number belt, threw on my hat and my sunglasses, and made my way to the port-a-potty. I spent a minute in there thinking to myself, “I’m glad I’m getting this done with so I won’t have to stop on my run.” Then I followed the volunteers’ arm signals and made my way through a cloud of sunscreen spray onto the run course.
Run – 3:50:51
Every podcast I’ve listened to talks about when you start the run when you come off the bike, it’s going to feel so good that you’re just going to fly, but that you need to pull back and not go out too fast. Knowing this, I deliberately slowed down to a pace that I thought was very sustainable, however, when I looked at my watch, I saw that I was still running a 6:15 min/mile pace. This blew me away because it felt so easy! But I pulled back and slowed down even more until I was at an 8 minute pace. (Side note – some people have asked which podcasts I recommend. My favorite is the Triathlete Training Podcast.)
The run course was a completely different experience because there were signs and people cheering the entire way. This made it much more motivating and there was a lot of distractions that would take my mind off of the fact that I could really use a ginormous meal and a chair. The first loop was about 9 miles. The problem I faced running wasn’t that my legs were tired but that all the food I’d been eating had caught up with me. At the second and third aid stations, I had to make additional port-a-potty stops, which meant that even though I was running at an 8 min/mile pace, I spent 30 seconds or so in the port-a-potty for the first 3 or 4 miles.
Eventually as my tummy finally settle down, I was able to keep chugging along without stopping. I hadn’t yet seen my family at all, and as I was about to start the second loop, my emotions came through a little bit. Even though I knew they were probably still on their way, part of me was a little bit worried and sad that maybe I missed them or they ended up somewhere that I wouldn’t be able to see them. I told myself that I would see them and everything would be ok and made myself smile and keep going.
The last part of the loop is in the downtown woodlands area, and it was a complete party. There were signs lined up along the entire route and tons of loud people cheering for everyone passing by. Some of the particular highlights were “hippie hollow” in which a bunch of people were dressed up like hippies banging garbage cans and bongo drums. One man in particular who was wearing a fur vest and underpants would chase athletes at random and slap their butt.
Another section had loud dance music playing with a bunch of college age boys in speedos and seashell stickers as makeshift bras dancing around runners. There was the “twerk zone,” the sign that said “free high fives and hugs,” and in parentheses “butt slaps upon request.”
Some of my favorite signs included “There’s no time for walken” with a picture of Christopher Walken. Another one said, “You’re running better than our government.” One had Mr. T on it and said, “I pity the fool who’s not an ironman.” One from a local tri club said, “You are NOT almost there,” which made me smile every time I passed it, especially because it was on mile 25. One with Donald Trump’s face that said “The Finish Line, it’s gonna be HUUUUUUGE”.
As I made my way onto the second lap, I still felt pretty good. I was coming up on ten miles and crossing the bridge back toward the swim start, it was at that point that I saw the bright neon pink and yellow shirts of my family. I waved to them, and they waved back. Now my reason to keep pushing was reinforced. As I made my way around the corner and saw them, I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to be with my family. I stopped and gave Audrey a kiss. My dad called out, “Is there anything you want to say?” to which I replied,
“It’s really good to see you guys.”
I kept plodding along now looking for the mile 13 marker that would signal I was halfway done. As I passed it, I thought to myself, “I do not feel as good as when I normally finish a half marathon run.” There was one turnaround at the end of each loop where they would spray you down with water and look up your bib number and call out your name on a speaker. And that was pretty fun to hear my name a few times. Lots of people would call out my name from seeing my bib. For a while, I was running next to someone named Alex, so we both got double the cheers.
As I finished the second loop, things started to get rough. I had begun to run out of fuel, and I could feel myself starting to fade. I tried Gatorade but it wasn’t until I tried some coca cola that things got better. That was about mile 18. And man, that stuff works miracles. I drank a couple small cups of coke and ate some potato chips and within a minute or two, I was back up to speed. I had heard from podcasts I’d listened to that once you switch to coke, you need to keep doing it the rest of the race. So from then on out, I would grab coke and potato chips every chance I could. They were the ruffle chips which for some reason, just makes them better. When I was still in the darkest point is when I came by my family the second time on my third lap. Seeing them kept me going until the fuel kicked in again.
About halfway into the marathon, I started slowing down a bit at the aid stations. About mile 19, I noticed that when I slowed to a walk, my knees started hurting excruciatingly bad. I wanted nothing more than to stop or at the very least just walk. Quite a few people were walking now. And there was a strong temptation to just walk a mile or so. I had done the math in my head and realized that if I could do an under 4-hour marathon, then I’d be able to beat 11 hours total. This was far beyond anything I’d hoped for. I knew I could walk and still meet my 12 hour goal, but with a sub 11 so close, I had to force myself to start running again. So after each aid station, even though it burned like a firebrand being screwed into my legs, I picked up the pace and kept going.
I kept looking at my watch counting down the minutes and the tenths of a mile that just weren’t passing fast enough. “Only 90 minutes left,” I would tell myself. And then after what seemed an eternity, “only 87 minutes.”
About miles 22, which was my third lap, as I went through the aid station, I saw two missionaries in white shirts and ties holding up a sign and waving to everyone. I went over and gave them a high five and said “I served in Japan.” And they asked where I was from and I said “Atlanta.” Right after, the runner on my left asked “which mission in Japan?” I said “Nagoya.” He replied, “Ah, I served in Fukuoka.” That was pretty cool to have another former LDS missionary running beside me right then. As I looked closer at the aid station, I saw that most of the volunteers were wearing missionary tags. So it looked like the LDS church was manning the aid station, which was pretty cool. I wish I had known that the first two times I passed by – I would have said something funny to the volunteers – but now I was just hanging on for dear life.
At this point, complete tunnel vision had settled in. I wasn’t thinking about anything except, “keep moving forward.” It wasn’t even to Dory’s song of, “Just keep Swimming,” it was just a shout in the dark, “Keep going!”
Some words of encouragement from Paul Russell came to mind. He had written Audrey, who had passed on to me, “Just take one more step and keep going.” This seemed appropriate since he helped me run my first race, which was a half marathon, which he facilitated just for me. Words from my mission president, Bruce Traveller, came to mind,
“You aren’t here to start an Ironman; you’re here to finish an Ironman!”
By about mile 24 my mind had gone pretty much blank and I was pushing forward on sheer will power. It was nice having done two previous loops because I knew exactly what the landmarks were. At the last aid station, they had a bell you could ring when you were on your third lap. So I focused on getting to that point and rang that bell with a smile. Then I soon passed the mile 26 marker. I knew the turn off to the finish line was coming, and at this point, adrenaline took over. I powered up the hill from the turn off toward the finish line. A volunteer yelled out “you only have three turns left!”
I could hear the music, and as I rounded a corner, I saw my family again. They were cheering, videotaping, and jumping up and down. I gave high fives to my family and then kept giving high fives to everyone I passed. Before I made the final turn though, I had a minor trip from my knee giving out. I didn’t go down, but it took me a second to regain my footing and get back up to speed. I could see the finish line in front of me, and I heard my name called out.
I ran the last few steps and jumped in the air as I crossed the finish line.
“Alexander Fuller from Milton Georgia. Lost 80 pounds. You are an Ironman!”
I used the last strength I had and jumped across the finish line. The journey was over.
Total time, 10:50:34, over an hour better than my 12-hour goal. Ranked 35 in my age group, 317 overall of 2,617 athletes.
After Crossing the Finish Line
Right away, a volunteer caught me, gave me a water bottle, put a finisher’s medal on me, and wrapped me up in a foil blanket. The foil blanket was very good, since I started shaking from the cold as soon as I stopped. The volunteer walked me over to get my picture taken, gave me a finisher medal, my finisher shirt and hat, and a recovery drink. Then I took a few more steps toward my family. I came over and gave Audrey an embrace thanking her for making this all possible. My family talked with me for some time, and then I made my way to the after race food tent Nothing has tasted so good – a chicken burrito, some pepperoni pizza, carrot cake, fruit, grapes, potato chips and probably some other stuff I ate that I don’t remember. I told my family all about my race, and then we went into the Ironman store to purchase a few items in celebration.
We went back to the hotel, where I took a nice long shower. We did dinner, and then Audrey and I came back at 11PM to cheer on the final finishers. That was incredible – so motivating to see these people give it their all for almost 17 hours, and somehow find a way to cross that finish line. I highly recommend being there that last hour – Audrey and I were dancing away to the music and having a party cheering until our voices gave out for my fellow triathletes.
Final Thoughts on My Ironman Texas Experience
The experience was incredible. I am exceedingly glad I did it, and deeply grateful that not only did I have the opportunity race, but also that everything went so well. My family was so supportive, and Audrey even said a few times on our drive home that she was very glad that I did the race – which meant so much to me.
If I were to change something, I would have not eaten so much leading up to the race, but just kept my normal diet. At the very least, I wouldn’t have eaten when I wasn’t hungry. There’s no reason to force food. I also would have done some longer runs to prepare – I think my legs would have lasted longer if they were used to more mileage.
The pain of the last 8 miles was something I haven’t experienced before. It pushed my limits. Everything inside of me was screaming to stop, but by sheer willpower, I kept going. That willpower transfers over into my non-racing life as well. Developing that self-mastery is worth the sacrifice and pain.
Training also became very enjoyable. It helped me prioritize my life, and cut out everything that wasn’t important to me. It made me focus more on my family when I was with them, work when I was there, and training when it was time to work out. It helped me live more in the moment.
To me, nothing is more satisfying then making a goal and smashing it. This was an audacious goal, and I did better than I’d ever planned.
For about 45 minutes after I finished, I thought, “man, that hurt – I’m not doing that again.” Then I started thinking, “What would I have to do to break ten hours…”
Ironman Texas was one of the best days of my life – a day when I pushed myself and lived life to the fullest.
Now I’m ready to live life even fuller.
This is mostly for me to remember for the future, but here’s a quick diary of what I ate during the Race
- Infinit: Go Far for first 2 hours
- Tried to do one clif blok every six minutes – Margarita flavor that I brought from home – not a whole package every six minutes, but 1 of the 6 bloks in the package
- Did one more gel an hour and a half in
- Did a clif mini bar about two hours in
- Total of 5 or 6 Endurance Gatorade bottles once my infinit ran out
- Started feeling kind of sick about 3 hours in so I switched to watered down Gatorade or just water for a half hour.
- One more pack of clif block spearmint flavor from the aid station, which tasted like toothpaste – yuck!
- About 20 minutes before end of bike, did another gel
- Gel either in transition or soon after. Sipped Gatorade every aid station because my stomach still didn’t feel fantastic.
- One clif bar mini around mile 16
- Last 8 miles Coca-Cola and potato chips, some pretzels – which saved me.
- After the race, I had a recovery shake, several pieces of pizza, a chicken burrito, fruit, chips, and carrot cake. It tasted amazing.