Ironman 70.3 Boise
By Owen Kendall
June 8, 2013
6th M30-34, 35th OA!!!
The 59° water pouring down the neck of my wetsuit was not the first reminder that this was going to be difficult. Another competitor, one of 100 in my heat of M30-34 year olds, had put a little water down his suit right next to me so it had seemed like a good idea. It felt instantly like a poor choice. But it was my first half-ironman; my first 70.3; my first 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run of my life. I was just trying not to look like an idiot. That’s not to say that I’d never done a triathlon before: I had. I’d done a sprint triathlon one month before – my first – and it had gone incredibly well if you didn’t take my broken derailleur and inability to shift during the bike leg into account. I wasn’t a complete newbie in the world of triathlon?
No, the first reminder that this was going to be difficult came when I realized it would take almost an entire day to prepare my gear for the race, which had two transition zones that were twelve miles apart from one another, and three different bags full of gear needed for each of the three components of the race:
1) Swim bag: wetsuit, race cap, goggles, extra water
2) Bike bag: 5 carbohydrate gels, two water bottles full of sports drink, two aerosol containers for flats (this does not even included the bike, bike shoes, and aero water bottle full of sports drink that were all together in the first transition area)
3) Run Bag: Running shoes, 3 carbohydrate gels, salt tabs
Less than a minute later they were saying go and my head was instantly fully immersed in the 59° water and I was trying to remember what one of my best friends, Josh Holland, had noted when I told him that I only recently realized that it’s best to exhale when your head’s underwater while swimming so you can take a full breath in.
“So you’re saying you basically didn’t breathe for entire races in high school? No wonder you liked the sprints.”
The water was choppy to start with, but with two hundred swimmers hacking through it, it soon looked like rapids. There was a swimmer four inches to my right, another less than a foot ahead of me, and two more somehow swimming on top of one another less than six inches to my left. I managed to stay calm and keep swimming, sighting buoys that were 100 yards apart every six to ten strokes, and felt like I was going in a good direction for the first two hundred meters. Then, I realized there were hardly any swimmers around me. In fact, there was no one around me. I sighted again and noticed I was twenty yards away from the main slipstream of swimmers.
My direction was good, but I’d somehow drifted left – possibly to avoid the maelstrom that was their arms and legs and possibly because I was terrible at swimming in a straight line in open water. I changed direction slightly and headed closer to the buoys and headed on, soon turning right around the red turn buoy. Pretty soon I was fifty to one-hundred feet away from the buoys again. I turned back in to get close to the buoys, but every time I looked up, I was far away. I was trying to swim a straight line parallel to the line of buoys, but was only managing to swim in zigzags towards and away from each one.
Then, I remembered my practice swim in the reservoir three days before, remembered the strong current pulling me towards the far corner of the reservoir – in exactly the direction I was being pulled as I tried to stay parallel to the buoys. When I realized this, I changed my plan and began swimming slightly towards each buoy. My line straightened out, but it was clear that I’d swum several hundred meters extra over the 1.2 miles of the swim. I started swimming harder as I turned around the final red buoy and towards shore, six hundred meters away. The way to swim faster is to kick harder and pull harder and so I did, but since I’d been pulling hard the whole time the main thing that changed in my stroke was my kick. I started flying by people and, because I was swimming directly into the current, my direction was good.
The problem came with 100 meters left to go in the swim: my right calf cramped up completely, pulling my foot into the position ballet dancers call en pointe and everyone else calls uncomfortable. I kicked harder with my left leg, which caused my left calf to cramp 25 meters from shore. I’m glad I’m good at pulling because I ended up dragging my body through the last 25 meters of the swim and painfully standing up in the shallows, at which point I tried desperately to relax my calves as I ran up onto the boat launch.
I later saw Lexi’s video of my exit from the water. No one was fooled. ‘Why is he cramping up? Why is he cramping,’ she keeps repeating as I stumble onto the boat launch.
“Are you okay?” the race director said as I came up the boat launch.
“Yeah, fine. Both calves cramped,” I said, “I’m just gonna bike it off.”
“You sure,” a medic standing up the boat launch said. “I can stretch you out if you need.”
“I’m good,” I said. My calves started to relax as I ran up the ramp and around the corner of the transition chute.
At some point I saw my girlfriend and my parents with giant posters held high; they’d hid them from me so I wouldn’t be able to see them until the race.
Go Big, one read.
O, the next one read.
You are F*#%ing Awesome, read the third – homage to Macklemore.
“Let’s go, O! Let’s go!” my dad and girlfriend and mom screamed.
“You’re fifth out of the water,” my girlfriend yelled. “You’re doing awesome.”
I ran and ignored my calves. Ran harder and unzipped my wetsuit down to my waist, pulled my arms from the sleeves as I headed towards a giant line of wetsuit strippers (no, not that kind… the roles are switched), in front of whom I sat down so they could tear my wetsuit from my legs.
“Thank you,” I said. “You are all amazing. Thank you.”
I ran down past some people handing out water, drank a cup on the run, and then passed row after row of bikes costing upwards of $5000 apiece, rear disc wheels like black holes pulling my gaze. As I ran my body relaxed, but it still felt odd to hurry. The day was just beginning.
Almost every bike in my age group was still on the rack. The swim had gone well. I grabbed the two aerosol containers for flats and jammed them in the pocket on the right side of my BU Tri Team jersey, slipped a handful carbohydrate gels in the pocket on the left side, jammed my wetsuit in the plastic bike bag so it would get to the finish line, and began running towards the bike out area with my bike light by my side. My calves felt good as I ran. The cramping gone away it seemed, and as I passed through the “bike out” arch and the bike mount line, I heard my girlfriend and my dad cheering me on. I’m sure my mom was cheering, too, and I felt her cheering, but her voice is a touch quieter, but knowing they were all supporting me was a pretty intense lift that rivaled the 20 mph blowing wind I was about to ride into for the next thirty miles.
The first part of the bike course in Boise is perfect for improving morale. First, while slipping on your shoes, there are speed bumps so you don’t feel like you’re losing; you can’t pedal hard anyway. Then you cruise over the Lucky Peak Dam – the one creating the reservoir – and then it’s straight downhill with 20 mph gusts pushing at the flanks of your bike so you feel like you might slip right over the side of the road and down the cliff, at the bottom of which is a small water park. At least the landing would be cool.
There was only one rider ahead of me on my descent since few competitors (besides pros that were far ahead and had started in a wave 19 minutes before me) had beaten me out of the water; each wave was only separated by four minutes. The woman was in her forties and I passed her like she was frozen in time even though she was in aero position. My gears were maxed out and I was spinning fast, likely going over 50 mph, making the gusts feel like slaps in the face, tears pouring from the corners of my eyes. At the bottom of the grade, the road curves slowly right and that’s when I saw the line of bikes making their way up the grade. There were fifteen or so riders ahead of me over the coming two miles of road that reached up and up. I passed every one of them over the course of the hill and never once came out of aero position; even though I had no tech on my bike and no way to guess my speed, it felt like things were going well.
At the time I felt good, but the heavy headwind, too much excitement, my lack of technology, overexcitement, and inability to switch off my crazy got the better of me and I started slipping off the pace after about thirty miles. I remember long stretches of straightaways with desert to my left and the airport to my right where I could hear nothing but the howl of the wind in my ears. Fast, sleek riders passed me, their disc wheels howling eerily as they buzzed by. There were times when I felt I was back to spinning well and feeling good and I’d pass groups of bikers, doing especially well uphill, but by mile thirty my left hip was tightening up.
By mile forty I felt a twinge in my left groin that left me grinding out the miles awkwardly, but by that point nearly everyone had been fried by the heat and the wind and even those who had passed me were coming back. I’d pass them, they’d pass me, and back and forth. There were two riders who kept switching position with me over the last twelve miles and that gave me hope, made me push the last few miles harder even with my hip and groin screaming, my pedal-stroke sometimes catching and clacking as I came through wonky on the left side.
Most of the bike course was out of town and, besides the bikers and the volunteers, who were amazing; there was almost no one out there to cheer us on. There was only the wind to keep me company over my first 56 mile bike race ever. I learned how to use the aid stations to rid myself of empty bottles and get two full bottles of PowerAde Perform rather than just the one I’d expected to use, dumping one in my aero bottle between my aero bars and stashing one in my bottle holder for later, learned how to pass legally (turns out that if you get within four bike lengths of the rider ahead, you have to pass within 20 seconds or you get a 5 minute penalty; you have no option to back out of a pass… giving the leading rider a sneaky way to punish a rider attempting to pass), and learned that very few fellow riders say “hi” during a pass (these guys are serious!). One thing that helped me tremendously during the bike portion and kept me going when my body started to crumble and my hip felt like it was going to explode were the words I received from a fellow rider. Maybe I looked bad or maybe he was just a nice guy.
“How you holding up?” he said as he passed me.
“My hip’s shot and I’m in a lot of pain,” I said. I couldn’t tell if he had heard me over the heavy wind and the wailing of his disc wheel. Two miles later, I overtook him while he was taking a drink and eating a gel.
“You’ve got this, man; you’re doing great,” he said. Three miles later, he passed me again and soon disappeared ahead of me, but his words stuck and I kept hammering.
As we closed in on downtown, the crowds grew and the support was unbelievable for such a small community. There were groups with cowbells, families in yards, men with big bellies cheering loudly, and small groups of young people yelling support and then I realized we were closing in on transition two. I recognized the chute into the transition area from about 400 meters out and, when I did, quickly unvelcroed my shoes and took my feet out, pedaling hard with my feet atop my shoes until I turned into the chute… and there was my cheering squad. Incredible.
My body was aching, my back killing me, my hip felt horrible, and I knew I’d pulled a muscle in my groin or hamstring, but when I saw Lexi, my dad, and my mom, I really didn’t care about any of that. I had survived the bike and was now starting my specialty. Everything was fine and all my energy and enthusiasm came back like I hadn’t just biked 56 miles in 2:37… The third fastest I’d ever biked that distance and certainly the fastest if you took the conditions into account. My dismount from the bike was fast and smooth even though my feet were numb on the ground, and I quickly found my run bag in the transition area.
With my bike racked, I unloaded my pockets (both full of sticky, brown goo from partially eaten gels), grabbed three new gels from my bike bag, slipped on my socks, and then pulled my shoes on. The transition was slow because my back was so tight I was having trouble thinking, let alone moving, and I was yelling back and forth with Lexi who was outside the transition area telling me how well I’d done and how impressed she was. With my shoes on, I took off towards the entrance to the run, my stride a bit off, and headed out towards the course, spinning my race belt around to bring my number to the front. As I did, I tore my number from my race belt. Running quickly out of the chute, I asked a volunteer if it was a problem that my number was now blowing and twisting around, hanging from one string.
“I hope not,” the only one who responded said.
‘Me too,’ I thought. ‘Me too.’ I tucked the torn side under the belt itself and hoped it would stay. Then I ran like hell, blowing by runners like I was still on a bike.
Running is my specialty. It’s what I love to do. It makes me feel free. Completely free. Like I’m actually flying. Like I’m a bird. And I’m pretty good at it. Better than the average runner, at least. And I’m also a strength runner, which means that when I got off the bike I knew I’d be able to power through the run even with a pulled hamstring and legs that felt like mush.
The route was two laps of the downtown park with asphalt paths that are partially tree covered, offering shade for slightly less than half the time. That means that when we were in the shade the temperature dropped from 90 to 86. This helped. There were a few hairpin turns, including one about 100 meters before the finish line. The course was beautiful and the volunteers on it handing out ice and water and sports drink and gels every mile incredibly supportive. I needed them.
I passed one of the guys who’d biked by me near the end of the bike section after 800 meters and thanked him for pushing me on the bike. He didn’t say a word at the time, but he came up and gave me a hug after the race, telling me then how impressed he was by my run. I passed two more people in my age group over the next 400 meters.
I came through the first mile in 5:45. Shit, I thought… that’s my goal pace and I’m actually doing it. I pushed on, but tried to relax. I reeled people in like they were minnows and I was using 100 pound test line. Ahead, I saw someone who looked like a strong runner whose form was breaking down – he was hurting bad and looked like he’d be leaving it all out there. As I neared him I recognized my old goalkeeper from Vassar – Chris Bagg, now a pro triathlete.
“Hey, you’re Chris Bagg, right?” I said.
“Nice job. You’re looking good.”
“Thanks,” he said. He seemed humble and kind – the way I remembered him from college.
“I’m Owen. We played soccer together at Vassar years ago. I don’t know if you remember me.”
“Wow, cool,” he said. He was out of breath and I wasn’t, so I felt like an asshole for keeping him talking since he’s a pro and I was still on my first lap.
“This your second lap?” I said. He nodded. “Kick ass, man. Kick it in hard. I’ll be cheering for you.”
I left him behind as we passed mile marker 2.5 and picked up the pace once more, passing people as I went. Ahead were two runners running side-by-side. I only recognized the guy who’d spoken to me on the bike when we were running three-abreast.
“You’re killing this run. Go get ‘em,” he said, slapping my ass and sending me on my way.
My pace drifted up to 6:15s and 6:20s as I clicked away the miles through the first half, my mind keeping me from pushing for fear that my whole frame might collapse if I went too hard, though I’m sure now that I was being conservative. I poured water over my head, put ice down my shirt, took a tiny bit of water and sports drink. At one point I thought I was going to puke, but then that feeling went away, too. My feet hurt, but I knew the only way to make that stop was to finish the race and lie down, so kept on, turning my legs over fast, leaning, but not pushing hard. 30 seconds after going around a hairpin I saw Chris Bagg coming my way and cheered him on. He looked destroyed, but smiled still, and I was impressed by how hard he could push himself. He made me feel weak.
Then came the sharp turn left up towards the finishing stretch, but I’d be doing the hairpin instead. I wondered if I should just cheat and run through the finish line. I wanted it to be over. I felt both completely spent and capable of another three loops, if necessary. I was so tired I almost felt like I was watching myself run. I turned the corner a second after catching a glimpse of the finish line. I’d be there soon enough. I picked up the pace and then cheered for Chris Bagg a few seconds later as he passed on the way to the finish line.
I have no recollection of how the next lap went except that I was happy. Ecstatic. It was like I had every known upper in my bloodstream with none of the side effects. I was so high I was giddy, thanking every volunteer and cheering on every runner I saw. At some point I caught the guy I’d been talking to before the swim start.
“You’re having an amazing first half-ironman,” he said.
I thanked him and pressed on because running any slower than hard hurt too much and made me worry I might stop.
The turn towards the finishing stretch came quicker than I thought and I dropped the pace down below six again. I passed the aid station and pushed on and there were my dad and mom. There was Lexi. Each one held a sign high over their heads.
Go Big O… You are f*#%ing awesome!
“He’s right behind you!!! You’ve gotta push it!! He’s gaining on you!” my dad screamed as I passed.
I’d told him to tell me if anyone was near so that I could push at the finish and make sure I didn’t get out-kicked. So I kicked and pulled away from my biggest competitor, finishing the race at sub-5 pace while high-fiving kids and adults, mothers and fathers. I fist pumped as I crossed the finish line. I’d done it. Reached my goal. I said I wanted to do it in 4:30 or below and I’d run in the 4:30s. I crossed the finish line all alone in 35th place overall and 6th in my age group with no one nearby. They announced my name as I approached the finish.
“And here’s Owen Kendall, running a fast time for the Terriers. Let’s cheer him across the line!” I don’t remember any cheers. I was too excited to be done.
I finished. I tested myself in new ways. I found out I can push myself beyond what I had previously thought possible and then keep pushing. I found out I can still be a nice person while I’m doing it, congratulating both bikers who passed me and runners I passed. For me, this was important because I remember times when runners in previous races told me to stay with them when they passed me, told me I could do it and that we should run together. Sometimes I couldn’t dig any deeper, but they often reminded me that there was a little more to give and that another person’s support can help bring that out.
My mom and dad and Lexi were all there when I exited the finishing chute. They hugged me. I think they were impressed that I wasn’t dead. They told me they still liked my mustache. I told them I was tired. I told each one of them that I loved them because those 70.3 miles had reminded me of my mortality and my frailty.
After the race I ran into a lot of the triathletes I’d either been passed by or who I’d passed during the race. I got hugs and handshakes and a lot of congratulations. Some gave advice, some complained about the conditions, and some just smiled and said how happy they were to be done. Matty Reed, the previous year’s winner, came over and said hello while I was soaking in an ice bath. We’d spoken the day before and he was clearly a nice, genuine guy. His race hadn’t gone well. The heat had gotten to him and he’d come apart at the end of the bike, he told me. He was frustrated, but he still congratulated me and wished me a good evening.
While I sat in the ice water, the cold worming its way into my exhausted muscles, I thought back to my first marathon. I remember thinking I never wanted to do another marathon because the race had been so painful. I’d finished in 3:11:56. I’d wanted to qualify for Boston and had missed the time by 57 seconds, but I’m not sure I cared because the experience had been so painful and I couldn’t figure out why I’d raced a marathon in the first place after crossing the finish line. In the ice water, after a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike, and a half-marathon that I’d run in 1:21:14, all I kept thinking was,
I can’t wait until I recover and get stronger so I can do this again, but next time do it better.
Triathlon is f*#%ing awesome.
The Boise Half-Ironman 2013 was an amazing and humbling experience.