Eagleman – In the books!

The first “major” race of my 2019 Ironman journey occurred on June 9 – the Eagleman 70.3 Half Ironman in Cambridge, MD. This is a long post, so TL;DR I did great and I’m psyched with my season so far. If that’s enough to make you happy, stop here 🙂

If you’re interested in the details that led to Eagleman, it’s full of intrigue and wonder (or at least it is in my mind). Let’s pick up where we left off – which was my last race on May 12. I had just run a 7:43 mile for a 10K (in the rain!), which was my best time for that length race in over 10 years. Next up was the Spring Lake 5 (a race I’ve done for over 20 years) and then the Navesink-or-swim 2.4 mile swim; both over Memorial Day weekend.

I was feeling great and having fantastic workouts. I had a lifting session on 5/22 that went well, but I did feel a little weirdness in my left knee as I was doing squats. By the end of the day, my left leg was really stiff and painful. I iced it, went to bed and hoped I would feel better in the morning.

On Thursday 5/23, I got up early to get ready for my Masters Swim group at 6am. My knee still did not feel well, but I swam anyway. Swimming felt great – it really didn’t hurt much to swim, but my leg still felt stiff the entire time. By the time I got home, Andrea had left me a message that my symptoms seemed like bursitis (which she had last year) and that I should call an Orthopedic Surgeon ASAP before things got any worse.

Fortunately, I know a local Orthopedist who happens to be a triathlete and Ironman. And he’s also a little older than me, so he doesn’t tell me to stop doing all this crazy stuff like most surgeons! He was able to fit me in Thursday morning so I rushed down to see him. He did an exam, got an X-Ray, and promptly reached his diagnosis – calcific tendonitis. This is something that occurs regularly in shoulders, but not all that often in knees.

The concern, he told me, was that this “stone” could be causing damage to the ligaments, which could lead to an ACL tear (as one example). In fact, it may have already happened, so he gave me a script for an MRI. He also did a treatment on my knee which I can only describe as a little hammer beating the crap out of my knee and causing a large amount of pain (which he did warn me about)!

I thanked him for beating the crap out of me, and proceeded to head up to Princeton Radiology to get my MRI. I had never had an MRI before! This was going to be a new experience. I was concerned, as I started thinking about what would happen if I did indeed have a tear. My training season would be over, and possibly permanently. All this time and effort (and money!) up in smoke. I don’t usually get inside my head like this, but I’ve really enjoyed the training and improvement over the course of 2019 and I didn’t want it to end.

Equally important, I wanted to run the Spring Lake 5 that Saturday – it’s my longest-ran running event (no pun intended). I started running it in 1996 and have only missed 2 years since – so I believe that would have made this year my 21st year running the event.

Friday, the MRI report was sent to the Orthopedic Surgeon and his office called to tell me there was no tear! I was very excited. But the Dr. also stated he did NOT want me to run the SL5 the next day. My knee was still not 100% and I should take a few more days off and get ready for Eagleman, which was the main goal. I was unhappy with this decision, but wanted to do the right thing to maximize success for Eagleman, so no SL5 🙁

On the positive side, he did say I could swim the 2.4 mile race on Sunday, so I started getting ready emotionally for that. In the meantime, it actually turned out great to be a spectator at SL5. First off, it was Andrea’s first time running the race, so I got to be emotional and fan support for once. Second, I did actually “run” a little bit – essentially getting into place in 3 different locations to take pictures of Naomi and Andrea at different stages of the race. Naomi wound up PR’ing (32 minutes!) and Andrea ran in well under an hour, which was her goal. I got some great pictures and my knee was actually feeling pretty darn good.

On Sunday, Naomi and I made the trek to Rumson, NJ to swim 2.4 miles in the Navesink River. I typically train in the river until the ocean warms up and then we swim in Long Branch, but it had been such a cold Spring that I only got into the river once prior to the race. With that said, I was pretty psyched to get some physical activity in, especially given my fairly sedentary Saturday. The Navesink-or-swim is actually two 1.2 mile loops – so you swim one loop, get back on land, go across the time tracker, get back in the water and do the same loop again.

Bottom line, I had a great race. I finished in 1:12, which was 16 minutes faster than the last time I did this race 2 years ago. I also did the first loop in 34 minutes, which was by far my fastest 1.2 mile to date. I finished strong and felt good at the end! No knee pain. All great news, since we’re exactly 2 weeks away from Eagleman.

I went back to the Orthopedic Surgeon the following Wednesday for another “pain” treatment – I thought I was going to get beat up by little hammers again. Instead, he looked at the knee, asked me if I was in any pain at all (I was not) and declared me healed! He said it was miraculous, but it seemed that the swelling and tenderness had all left. He continued to caution me from biking or running on hills, to run on soft surfaces leading up to the race, and to ice my knee 2x/day and especially after workouts. He also asked me to keep taking the anti-inflammatory he prescribed until the Thursday before Eagleman. With all my instructions clear as a bell, it was time to start tapering and get mentally ready for June 9.

It was actually quite fun to taper – the workouts are so “easy” compared to the regular training schedule. And I was definitely paying attention to my knee, so little aches and pains that I would normally ignore I was instead acutely aware and focused on. But overall I felt strong and healthy and ready for Eagleman!

We (Andrea, Naomi, Mariel and I) drove down late Friday afternoon for Maryland. We stopped for a really nice dinner in Cherry Hill, avoided a really bad car accident that delayed traffic for 1.5 hours, and made it to Cambridge by 10:30pm. We missed all the events/check-in Friday, but we had plenty of time Saturday to get everything done.

Saturday morning, Naomi, Andrea and I headed over to Great Marsh Park (actually now renamed the Gerry Boyle Park at Great Marsh – Gerry ran Eagleman and IMMD for many years and passed away last year. Very sad not to have gotten to meet a legend). Mariel had a really bad head cold and decided to stay back at the hotel. We had a lot to figure out – navigating parking and where to go to register. We finally figured everything out and got our timing chips, swim cap and stickers for the bike. We really wanted to do a practice swim and small bike ride, so we looked to figure out where the practice swim area was located.

Due to high winds, they “switched” the official swim course from one side of the park (where the water is pretty wide open and susceptible to the wind) to the other side (which is a bit more closed off and sheltered). So, they didn’t have a practice area anymore, since you can’t swim on the official swim course. We were bummed, but we soon learned that they opened the original swim course for practice (are you keeping up here?) – but at your own risk. The water was a little choppy but didn’t seem too bad. Naomi and I went out and swam and we didn’t have any issues. It felt good to swim in open water and Naomi said my stroke looked strong – always nice to get positive feedback about my swimming, since I’ve only really been doing it since 2013.

After the swim, we jumped on our bikes and did a quick 10 mile loop on the bike course. While we did this, Andrea went on a run. The headwinds coming back on the bike were a bit strong, and it gave us an indication of what things would be like on Sunday. It was good to get that experience and at least know how the bike ride begins.

We headed back to the hotel, picked up Mariel and grabbed lunch. We went to the Harriet Tubman museum after lunch (a new mural of her was spectacular, and the museum is very well done), then went back to the hotel room to get everything ready for Sunday. A very pleasant dinner at a local fish house followed, then back to the hotel and in bed by 10pm.

Of course, I was wide awake at 11pm! This is my one problem with Ironman races – I get so hyped up I can’t sleep. I reminded myself that I tend to fall asleep pretty quickly when watching The Crown on Netflix (Naomi and Andrea are trying to get me to like it, but it’s so dry!) I did go back to sleep watching the show around 12:30am and woke up around 2:30am, then hung out in bed until 3:30 when my alarm went off. 3 hours of sleep, yay!

We agreed we would leave the hotel at 4:40am so we could be at transition by 5am. Transition opened at 4:45am, and we didn’t need to be the first ones there, but I wanted to try to avoid some of the rush and also give ourselves plenty of time to calmly get ready. We were also waiting to see the temperature of the water, as the temperature dictates whether or not the race is “wetsuit legal.” If the water temp is 76.1 or below, then you can wear a wetsuit legally. If it’s above 76.1 (and below I think 83 degrees), then you can wear a wetsuit, but then you go into the water after all the non-wetsuit folks and you are not eligible to win. Now, winning the event in my age group is not a consideration for me, but going in after all the non-wetsuit people was a big consideration. I did not want to go towards the end! So, I decided I would not wear a wetsuit if the race was not wetsuit eligible, as did Naomi.

As soon as we got to the Park, they were already announcing that the water temp was 75 degrees, so wetsuit eligible! Great news. Time to get ready and start getting prepared for the swim. I met several men in my age group and found everything from first timers to a police officer doing his 6th Half-Ironman. One of the “youngsters” in the 40-45 group walked over to say he heard they might cancel the swim due to high winds. So, how do you prepare for a great race when you don’t know if you’re even swimming?

Transition was supposed to end at 6:45am, at which point we were supposed to line up for the swim. At 6:30am, they made the announcement that the swim was indeed cancelled. The Coast Guard called it off – their boats were rocking all over the water, not to mention the kayaks that were going to house the water safety personnel inside the swim course. While there was a lot of grumbling about this and I personally was frustrated, we found out later that two people died in the water at an Ironman event in Wisconsin that day (apparently both from cardiac arrest) and it certainly shone a light on what’s most important.

So, the race has changed. The announcer (a really funny and upbeat guy, he did a great job) told us that there was still going to be a race, and it would still be “official.” There would just be no swim component. They would start the bike at 7:05am on a rolling basis based on your bib number. The Pros would go first, followed by all of us amateurs.

I should add that at this point, the weather was beautiful. Partly cloudy, 75 degrees, very little humidity, just perfect weather.

Here’s the problem with this rolling start. There were about 2900 people signed up for Eagleman, and my bib number was 2506. So, I was going to go out near the end of all the participants. As much as I wanted to avoid going last on the swim, I had no choice but to go out last on the bike. This also meant waiting until nearly 8:35am to actually get on my bike and start. Naomi’s number was 1056, so she went out much earlier than me, around 8am.

The idea is to keep your head up and focused, so I spent the time speaking with other participants and making frequent visits to the port-a-potties. I did feel good and was prepared for a great race. Finally, it was time for my row to start rolling out. I struggled to clip-in on the bike as we were half-walking/half-running our bikes to the starting line, but after nearly tumbling head first over my bike, I clipped in and got going.

The first 5 miles were nice and easy. I was going at a good clip riding on the same course we had practiced on the day before. All solid.

Then the rain came.

We knew it was supposed to rain, but not much – just a drizzle for most of the morning. It started as a drizzle around Mile 7, but by Mile 12, it turned into a full fledged rain storm. I biked through driving rain for nearly 10 miles, but still maintained a good pace and passed more people than were passing me. I guess that makes sense when you’re in the back of the pack!

Around Mile 24, we hit our first headwind. It was about 16 mph and definitely impacted speed, but not terribly. The course is so flat it’s easy to get into a groove, and the only real issue is just keeping track of your bike on the wet road. The smartest thing I did was around Mile 45 (when we hit the second headwind): I decided to maintain a 20 mph pace, even though I could have gone faster. I wanted to save energy for the run (which I hadn’t done in my previous races, and I paid the price on the run).

As we got to Mile 50, it was apparent that I was going to finish the bike in around 2:45. This would make my average speed over 20 mph for the entire 56 miles which was my stretch goal. I didn’t try to extend that – I probably could have done 2:42 or 2:43 but it would have made me tired for the run. Not doing that turned out to be a very smart move.

Once back in transition, I started thinking very much about the run and how I would start. Both the runs in my previous 70.3 events were not good, and I was dealing with some heavy head trash in this area. But first thing first – I had to pee like crazy! The rest stops on the bike only had 2 porta-potties and there was a long-ish line each time, so I kept saying “I’ll use the next one.” Once I got to the last bike rest stop at Mile 45 and there was still a line, I decided I’d go at the porta-potties in transition – there were more of them and they were literally 10 feet from my spot in transition. But there was a line there too! I had no choice. I had to pee. So, I lost 2 minutes or so in transition. But in hindsight, that rest was likely invaluable.

Right after some much needed relief in the porta-john, I had my first negative experience of the day. Right at the entrance to the run, a young volunteer was handing out water. I grabbed a cup, started drinking, and heard “Hi Dad” – it was Naomi! I was very confused – even with her 35 minute head start there was no way she could have finished the race already! I asked her what was going on and she said “I crashed on the bike course, but I’m fine. Now, go run!” She high-fived me. I was trying to unscramble what she had just said, but she had a smile on her face so I quickly determined all was well and I should focus on the run. So, off I went!

My plan was to run 9:00 miles for as long as I could, and if I was feeling strong, to start to do “negative splits” – essentially running the 2nd half of the race faster than the first half. I have always sucked at that, but it’s an important skill, especially in distance races. In previous events, I’ve also gone out way too fast on the run – 8:00 or 8:30 miles which I could only maintain for a few miles, and then I’d bonk. So, 9:00 it was. And I was doing really well. Here were my splits for the first 6 miles:

Mile 1: 8:48
Mile 2: 8:50
Mile 3: 9:00
Mile 4: 8:56
Mile 5: 9:08
Mile 6: 9:10

Not bad… but I was getting slower. Was I tired? I didn’t think so. I felt good. My slower splits were actually from stopping at the rest stops—a recommendation I had read in a triathlete magazine. Something I didn’t do well at previous races was ensuring I was fully hydrated. So, I was slowing down and walking while I took a solid drink of Gatorade at each rest area, which proved to be very useful. Plus, all those times were within 10 seconds of 9:00, which I felt was pretty darn good. So, let’s keep going:

Mile 7: 9:14 (they had these ridiculous snow cones we were told we had to try, but they were honestly horrible)
Mile 8: 9:08
Mile 9: 9:06
Mile 10: 8:52

at this point, I decided I was really going to head home strong and try to do solid negative splits. It seemed to work!

Mile 11: 8:36
Mile 12: 8:30
Mile 13: 8:18

Damn! I was getting faster. Even better, I was watching a lot of people walking the last mile or two (and trying to incent them to finish strong, I got a lot of thanks for the pep talks!) I was passing a lot of people, and I just felt wonderful. I wasn’t tired, my fingers weren’t tingling (a symptom I had in many races) and I won’t say I was floating on air, but I did feel pretty light.

As I turned the last turn into the park, I realized I was going to beat my goal for the run and have a PR. It was just a little bittersweet since the swim wasn’t part of this great day, but honestly I didn’t feel any less accomplished when I high fived Andrea right before the finish line… nor when I actually did finish and realized I would not need to go to the Medical tent for the first time after a 70.3! Andrea had my protein shake ready to go and about 15 minutes after the race, we were ready to get the girls and head back to NJ.

Naomi had gone back to the hotel with Mariel to clean herself up – she had a pretty bad case of road rash and a little bit of a bruised ego. It’s hard to ride in such a large group, much less in the rain. She’s not exactly sure how it happened, but she did lose control on the bike and took a bad fall. It’s her first real setback in a triathlon. I think it’s a good thing, since she can learn from it and setbacks always help you appreciate your accomplishments even more. But a large part of me felt really bad – I honestly love the fact that Naomi is a rock star in these events and faster than me, and I always love to see her excel in these races. It would have been so great for both of us to have amazing events at the same time. I’m sure it will happen soon!

So, my first solid 70.3 and just in time as I now turn my attention to IMMD – the full Ironman at the same location in September 2019. Ideally the weather will cooperate and I will share whether I can address a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 run. Based on last weekend, I’m confident I can do this!

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