Ironman Florida race report

“Eileen Sullivan, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!”  Those are the words I had been looking forward to hearing for almost a year, ever since November 2017 when I signed up for Ironman Florida, which was the Team Z Ironman race for 2018.  It almost didn’t happen.  And then, it almost didn’t happen again.  But then, finally, after months of training, and after 16 hours, 43 minutes, and 21 seconds of continuous forward movement, in really difficult race conditions, I heard Mike Reilly announce those magical words.

Ironman Florida is held every year in Panama City Beach, in Florida’s panhandle.  Which is flat. Very flat.  For months, I did my best to train in similar conditions that I expected I would have on race day in Panama City Beach.  Rather than biking on relatively hilly roads near me in northern Virginia, I drove out to St. Michaels, Maryland.  There, I could train on pancake flat roads, get used to non-stop spinning, and being in aero position continuously for 60, 80, or 100 miles.  I followed my training plan, got all of my key long rides and long runs in, and was getting excited. I felt I was ready!

Then, three weeks before the race, Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle, and devastated that area of the state.  It quickly became clear that the race could not take place as scheduled, but what wasn’t clear was if there would be a race at all.  Not knowing what would happen was awful.   I wasn’t willing to lose out on my year of training, so I weighed my options and decided to register for Ironman Cozumel as an “insurance” race, knowing that if IMFL was cancelled, I would still be able to race Ironman this year.  The next day, Ironman announced that it was moving Ironman Florida from Panama City Beach to Haines City, Florida.  At first, I was upset because Haines City would not give me the race I had trained for.  The bike and run were hilly, and I trained for flat.  I was anticipating an ocean swim, and instead would be facing a very complex two-loop lake swim.  I would likely lose out on the cost of airfare to/from PCB, and incur additional costs in booking new flights and finding new lodging, etc., not to mention losing out on the registration cost for Cozumel (which admittedly was an “insurance” purchase.)  The costs of my dream to become an Ironman were increasing dramatically.  However, I quickly got over being upset, and starting looking forward to racing with my friends and Team Z teammates in Haines City.

So, on November 4, 2018, I raced the race I was given.

The swim

The swim was, in a word, awful.  The swim was two loops of a course shaped like a pair of pants, with a pinch point midway through each loop (in the crotch of the pants) where swimmers had to swim past timing sensors.  Thirteen total turns.  I studied the swim course before the race, knew there were a lot of turns, and had a plan.  In the past, I have occasionally had high anxiety during open water swims, especially when I’m in a mass of people kicking all around me.  All of my open water swims during the past year were great, without any problems.  I knew that this would be a very tight, crowded course, so my plan was to swim to the outside of the course, to give myself a bit more room, and lessen the chance of being right in the middle of the crush of people.  As I entered the water, I flushed a bit of water down my wetsuit to help me acclimate to the water temperature.  I got to the outside of the course, and started to swim.  After about three strokes, I felt myself starting to breathe heavily, felt the anxiety come on, and I instinctively popped upright in the water.  I told myself to keep swimming, and tried to count my strokes, which usually helps me to get into a rhythm.  I swam a bit, but couldn’t get my anxiety under control, and couldn’t swim more than three or four strokes in a row without stopping to try to catch my breath. The water felt very choppy, there were people seemingly all over me, and the water patrol in the jet ski kept zipping around the outside of the course to assist swimmers, creating a wake and adding to the choppiness of the water.  After only minutes in the water, I almost convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to finish the swim.  However, I trained too long and too hard for this race to let the swim, which is normally the best part of the race for me, keep me from finishing.  So I forced myself to keep going.

About halfway down the first leg, I swam up to a kayak and held on to the side.  I told the volunteer in the kayak that I just needed to stop for a minute to calm myself down a bit.  While I was waiting with the kayak, I saw one person being pulled out of the water, another yelling for assistance, and several others holding onto kayaks and paddle boards.   One person also grabbed onto the kayak I was at and said he had been kicked in the head.  After maybe a minute, I thanked the volunteer and kept swimming, having calmed down a tiny bit.  I continued swimming, but still had to keep stopping every several strokes to try to catch my breath.  By the time I got to the timing sensors, which was the narrowest section of the course, the faster swimmers on their second loop had caught up to and were swimming past and over the swimmers on their first loop.  Going through the timing sensors felt like being in the middle of an MMA fight.  I told myself I just had to get to the next buoy.  I stayed to one side and tried to get through as quickly as I could, without getting hit or kicked.  I made it past the timing sensors and, starting to feel a bit better, finished the first loop, and was able to get out of the water.  I looked at my Garmin, and saw that what should have taken me about 43 minutes took me a solid hour.  Before I entered the water again for the second loop, I stood for a minute and drank some water, trying to reset a bit.  The second loop of the swim was considerably better than the first, as I had finally gotten my anxiety and breathing under control.  I swam up to the volunteer in the kayak that I had held onto during the first loop, thanked her for helping me, and gave her a red “thank you” bracelet that I had on my wrist.  I continued the second loop without any further issues.  The overall swim took almost two hours, much longer than the time that I had expected and knew I could do.  Regardless of the time, I was ecstatic to be finished with the swim and out of the water.

The Bike

I saw my husband Kevin as I headed to my bike in the transition area and was overjoyed to see him cheering….and just so happy to have finished the swim!  When I got to my bike, I saw that almost all of the racks around me were empty, so I knew that pretty much everyone was ahead of me on the course.  While I was disappointed with my swim and to be starting the bike so much later than I wanted, I was happy to see that most of my friends and teammates were already out on the bike course.  I started out on the bike knowing that it would take me about eight hours to complete, so I tried to conserve my energy at the start and get into a rhythm.   I had driven the bike course a couple days earlier, so I knew that there were a lot of rolling hills.  None of the hills were crazy, but I knew that on this course, my overall pace would be closer to 14 mph, rather than the 15.5-16 mph that I had been riding while training on flat courses.  For the first several miles of the bike, I couldn’t get the swim out of my head, and feared that it would ruin my entire race.  Finally at about mile 20, I found my rhythm, forced myself to let go of the swim, and was able to focus on the bike.  As I was heading up the hill on the out-and-back, at about mile 82 or so on the second loop, I saw two of my Team Z teammates, Laurie and Lisa, coming down the hill, and realized that I wasn’t as far back as I had feared.  It was so great to see those friendly faces!  I saw Kevin cheering for me twice on the bike course, as well as the Team Z Cheer Squad at about mile 90-something.  Each time I saw them, they gave me a needed boost and I seemed to pedal faster for a bit.  The wind really started to pick up on the second loop of the bike, and it rained for a while as well.  As I was heading back into town toward transition, I saw another teammate Dave looking strong at about mile 3 or 4 on the run course.   I caught up to Lisa at the very end of the bike, and we headed into T2 together.  Overall, the bike was uneventful and went pretty much as expected, except that I wasn’t able to take in as much nutrition as I had planned.  I finished the bike in just under 8 hours, with an average pace of 14.2 mph.

The Run

The run is always the hardest part of triathlon for me.  Leaving transition, my legs didn’t want to run.  My plan was to walk about a half mile, then start on short run/walk intervals.  I ended up walking about the first two miles before my legs felt like they could do a few short run intervals.  At this point, I wasn’t feeling well, and was doing much more walking than running.  My legs felt fatigued, my stomach was a bit off, and knowing that I still had a marathon to go was overwhelming.  I saw Kevin again during the out and back at the beginning of the run.  He asked how I felt and I was honest, telling him I felt like crap.  He gave me some encouragement, and I kept going, trying to maintain steady run/walk intervals.  Keeping an eye on the time, I knew I had to seriously pick up my pace if I was going to finish by the cut-off.

The sun went down shortly after I started the run, and by the time I started the first of three loops, it was dark. And then I heard thunder, saw lightening, and the rain started.  And it didn’t stop.  It just continued to rain harder and harder.  Parts of the run course quickly became flooded, and we were running through water past our ankles and up to our shins.  Still, I kept going.  During the first loop, I kept looking at my Garmin, trying to do the math to figure out what pace I had to maintain to be able to finish in time.  At one point during that first loop, in the pitch dark, and in the pouring rain, I realized that I wasn’t going to finish before the cut-off.  There was no way I could make up enough time.  This realization almost crushed me.  All of the time and energy (physical, mental, and emotional) spent working toward this goal, only to have it slip away from me.   I was so close, but it was just out of reach.  I thought about all of my family and friends who were supporting me, and knew that I had to keep fighting for it, and keep moving forward.  I’ve never quit anything in my life, and I wasn’t about to start now, so as much despair that I felt at that moment, I kept moving forward.  I pulled out the stack of cards that Kevin prepared for me with messages from friends and family and read a few of them, including two cards from my parents.  Those cards helped boost me, and I kept moving forward–running when I could, walking when I had to.

As I finished the first loop and started on the second, the rain was coming down particularly hard.  I passed by the Team Z tent, where dozens of people were cheering, but I don’t think anyone could recognize who was who, as I didn’t hear anyone yell out my name.  That was ok–I was still in a dark place, and needed to just dig deep and push through.   Early in the second loop, I saw my teammate Patti cheering in the pouring rain, ringing a cow bell and encouraging all of the runners as they passed by.  She told me to keep moving, and to make sure that I started the third loop by 10:07 pm.  For the next several miles, the only thing I thought of was getting to that third loop by 10:07.  As I finished up the second loop, Kevin was cheering for me by the Team Z tent.  It was about 9:45, so I knew I would make the interim cut off, and I told him I thought I can finish in time.  He said “Yes, you can!”, and gave me some more encouraging words.

My Garmin died at about mile 21 of the run.  I kept an eye on the mile markers, and asked everyone I passed what time it was, and continued to do the math in my head.  By time I reached about mile 24 of the run, I had made up enough time that I knew that even if I walked the rest of the way, I would be able to finish in time.  That was the first time all day I felt I could relax a bit.  As I finished the third loop and headed toward the finisher’s chute, I kept thinking “I did it!” and “I’m so happy it’s over!!”

I was running as I entered the finisher’s chute.  There was a person in front of me, and one behind, but we were spaced enough apart that I figured I would have the finish line to myself.  But then the woman in front of me stopped for a minute to grab a flag that she raised as she ran to the finish line.  I decided to walk the rest of the way to the finish line, to enjoy the moment, and also to ensure that I wasn’t hidden behind the other runner’s flag in my finish line photos.  As I walked toward the finish line, Kevin was off to the right cheering, and I heard Mike Reilly announce “Eileen Sullivan, You Are An Ironman” as I crossed the finish line.  I raised my arms in victory, so happy to be done, and could not stop smiling!  I finished this incredibly difficult race with the help and support of my family and friends, and with less than 17 minutes to spare.  The feeling is indescribable.

Will I do it again?  In the weeks and months leading up to the race, I said I’m “one and done”.  In the days before the race, I said I won’t do this again.  Even during the race, I said never again.  One week post-race, to my own disbelief, I actually uttered the words “Yes, I would do it again!”