Ironman Texas - May 16, 2015
By: Chris Nasser (M 25-29)
What does Hawaiian lei signify during a post-race celebration? To me, it is a sense of accomplishment, a sense of gratitude, the feeling of happiness, an overwhelming flood of joy with tears rolling down my smile-wrinkled cheeks, and the beginning of a new journey. At the prime age of 27, I am now a Kona Qualifier for the 2015 Ironman World Championships. This race report will cover much more than the "race week events" that led to this qualification. The story goes back much farther than that week and will continue long past October 10, 2015.
NOTE: If you are only interested in the race itself, skip down to the section titled "Swim." I believe that there is much more to having a good race than just what happens on race day. Hence, there is much more to this race report than swim, bike, and run.
Thursday, May 14th, 2015 – 2 Days to IMTX
I started this day as I do any other Thursday: with a drive through Brookhaven to a parking lot where several athletes meet for a 5:45 a.m. run. After the run, my good friend and training partner sat down with me in Starbucks to chat about the trip. I could tell he was sad he could not come along for the journey. A Marta trip and plane ride landed me in Houston where a few of my new friends gave me a ride to The Woodlands for athlete check-in. I was solo through check-in and for the several hours until my mother arrived. She had driven the 13 hours from Georgia to The Woodlands in her minivan with my bike safely tucked in the back. It was good to see her and know that she arrived safely after a slight delay due to running out of gas in her van. The rest of the evening consisted of hotel check-in, the athlete welcome dinner (where we made some new friends), heat acclimation (no AC in hotel room or car), grocery shopping, and a treadmill jog. The treadmill jog was in front of a wall of mirrors. This may sound vain to some, yet running in front of the mirrors was a very good pre-race ritual for me. This run was where I practiced how I would cross the finish line and began playing that image of myself over and over in my head.
Friday May 15th, 2015 – 1 Day to IMTX
I arose early to drive to pick-up Jaclyn from where she was staying with a family friend. The 40-minute drive was just what I needed to get my mind straight. It was just me, the open windows, and a Hillsong United CD. Jaclyn and I ate, she took me to swim practice, and then we headed to meet my mom. The three of us worked together to pack my T1 and T2 bags and prep my bike. Then, we headed back to the race area for one last spin and jog before checking in my bags and bike. I walked through transition picturing how to best navigate the area on race day. The constant rain from the preceding days caused a very large mud pit in the center of where every bike was racked in the grass field. This would be an interesting obstacle for race day. My mom went with her new friends for an ITL manicure and pedicure while Jaclyn and I headed back to the hotel. I spent the rest of the evening writing post cards to many of the people who had impacted my training and life over the past year. I highly suggest this practice to anyone. It settled my mind, kept me inside seated and rested, distracted me from worrying about the race, and allowed me to reflect on the amount of love and support I would have when the cannon went off. Dinner was a cool wrap from Chick-Fil–A eaten under a gazebo outside with the two ladies. I stretched and finished prepping my gear. I was early to bed, and I slept well.
Saturday May 16th, 2015 – RACE DAY!
Since my last unsuccessful push for a Kona slot in September, 2014, at Ironman Chattanooga, I had been dreaming of the opportunity to race again. My coach, George Darden, and I had spent 45+ minutes on the phone the day before reviewing my race plan. We discussed nutrition, power, cadence, heart rate and avoiding the mistakes I had made in previous races. George has been coaching me since Ironman Chattanooga, so this would be my first Ironman with a coach.
The alarm went off early. Oatmeal with banana, cinnamon, natural peanut butter, and BASE salt were on the menu for breakfast. I drank more Nuun and avoided coffee. I did not need the extra caffeine to get me jittery before the race. Nuun and BASE salt were both part of the nutrition plan. I had been drinking Nuun and adding BASE salt to each meal all week long in preparation for a hot race. Jaclyn, my mom, and I left for the race. I checked my bike one last time and dropped of my special needs bag. During the night, the transition racks had sunk into the grass due to the weight of all of the extra bikes, making the racks lower and therefore adding difficulty to un-racking your bike. I quickly made the necessary adjustments, shared my headlamp and pump with a few athletes, then headed to the swim start.
Mom and Jaclyn were very helpful at swim start. There was a lot to do: body marking, sunscreen, bathroom line, Slather, speed skin, more Slather, GU, pictures, goggles, swim cap, set Garmin to auto multisport, and get in line. The swim start was self-seeded in waves, so I lined up in the 1hr to 1hr 10min wave where I chatted, made some new friends, and took my personal moment of meditation. Two markings were evident on my forearms. Each helped to set the tone for the day. On the left was written "BE TOUGH." On the right, in honor of my father's mother, Teta, who had recently passed away, was a cross bearing the Arabic writing of "Nooshkrallah" (in English, "Thank God"). My Teta was a God-fearing woman who taught her children and grandchildren the importance of love and gratitude.
Before I knew it, the moment I had been focused on for 7 solid months was finally here. It was time to race.
George told me I would have plenty of time during the first 10 minutes of the swim to warm up and find my groove. I felt fast, efficient, and motivated as I swam through the murky waters of Lake Woodlands. The water was crowded with no current but was easy to sight. It was only an out-and-back course leading into a narrow canal. I had covered my feet and legs with an anti-chafing body lotion called Slather; this kept the wandering hands of fellow athletes from accidently grabbing hold of me. The canal proved to have warm, wavy waters and was very entertaining due to the sights and sounds of spectators lining the shores. This canal is narrow with concrete-walled sides and it is only six feet deep which made that part of the swim loud, congested, and warm, but this is part of the IMTX experience. I had planned to exit the water in 1:04, but came out around 1:11 instead. I could have let that deficit get in my head but I knew better than that. There was still 138.2 miles of racing left of my two favorite events. Official swim time—1:11:48
I ran out of the water and up the stairs with the helpful hand of an IM volunteer. I then ran through the piles of Swim-to-Bike bags, finding mine along the right-side fence. In the changing tent, I quickly found a seat. I put on my Stealth Top, poured baby powder in my shoes, stuck a bottle of GU in my right pocket, stuck BASE salt in left pocket, put on my helmet with its visor, slammed a GU, grabbed my shoes, and ran out of the tent. I carried my shoes to avoid their getting covered in mud, but the mud pile was so thick that I dropped my shoes twice while running to my bike. I arrived at the wrong rack, not able to find my bike, when I heard Jaclyn instructing me: "Next rack! Leave your shoes off! There are pools of water and volunteers at the mount line!" I gathered my bike and ran off to the pools, shoes tight in my grip. I washed my feet, strapped my shoes, and mounted my bike to start the fun part of the course. Official T1 time—4:26
George and I had a plan for the bike. I would watch my cadence, heart rate, and power. The only need to focus on time was for nutrition intake. My watch did not show mileage or speed. I would know how far I had gone by the on-course markers. The nutrition plan was sipping Gatorade out of the front bottle every 5 minutes, alternating GU and Cliff Bar pieces every 30 minutes, each 15 minutes between taking salt. I would follow each solid intake with a sip of Nuun. This helped me stay hydrated but avoided the overload of calories that could hurt my stomach. At each aid station I would sip water before drenching myself with the remainder of the bottle and only grab Gatorade or water as I needed to replenish the bottle on my bike. I pushed for a high cadence ride, working my heart and saving my leg muscles for a stronger run. My heart rate was maintained, never exceeding the max but testing my limits. I watched my power closely and made sure not to push too hard, too early. The real opportunity to push—where I could "turn the screws just slightly" in George's words—was going to be between miles 60 and 90. After that, I would back down to finish out the bike course.
Along the route, I avoided packs. At one point, a guy was penalized for drafting me. I met a 47-year-old guy who thought it was cool to hang with a young guy like me for a few miles. I also got hit by a side wind that woke me up and kept me alert. Although Mom and Jaclyn could not come out on the bike course to spectate, they waited patiently at the transition area with Jaclyn's mom Kristy and Kristy's long-time friend Tracey. Kristy had made the trip with Jaclyn from Atlanta and had recruited Tracey, a The Woodlands local, to help spectate and cheer; both are great additions to the ITL family. There were plenty of smiling faces from the volunteers and police officers during the bike segment, I made sure to thank each along the route. An athlete with a "27" written on his left calf surged past me at Mile 100 after I had passed him during my "push" several miles back. I kept him in my sights and dismounted next to him. As we ran into transition, I asked him, "You ready to run?" He replied, "Not really; I'm starting to cramp." I responded, "Good, because I'm feeling great!" This was the first of two mean moments I had on the course that day.
Whenever I ride, I pick a song to replay in my head and sing aloud when I need the motivation. This is typically an old church hymn because (a) I know them by heart, (b) they are positive and inspiring, (c) they remind me about perseverance, and (d) they are easy to repeat over and over again with a steady tempo. In honor of my Teta, I chose her favorite, "This Is the Day." It was a good song choice. Not once did I get tired of those lyrics, the message, or picturing my grandmother smiling in her chair as she cheered me along. Official Bike time—4:54:39
The volunteers were great! After they took my bike, I trotted through the piles of bags, finding mine in the hand of a smiling volunteer who then led me into the changing tent. I took off my helmet, bike shoes, and Stealth Top, and I put on socks, shoes filled with baby powder, my race belt, an ITL visor, and my sunglasses. I stuck BASE Salt, Tums, and S-caps in my left pocket, and I stuck two Gus in my right pocket. I sipped water while changing, and then ran out the tent and onto the run course. Official T2 time—3:39
I love to run! I started running as a high school freshman needing to lose several pounds, and now here I was with a plan, a goal, and 26.2 miles to get myself out of 11th place and onto the podium.
The plan was to maintain a pace without letting my heart rate get out of control. I was to take one GU every two miles, sip water at every aid station, take BASE salt as often as needed, and drench myself with water as often as possible. George had explained that I could save sweat and keep from overheating by allowing the water I was pouring on myself to cool me off rather than my own sweat. At each aid station I would grab at least three cups of ice. One went down the front of my jersey, one went down the back of my jersey, and one was carried to munch between aid stations. I would also grab at least three cups of water: two to pour over my head and one to sip on. If sponges were available, I would stick them around the neckline of my tri top to keep me cool.
I started off feeling good and motivated. During Mile 3, I began to feel pain on the bottom of my right foot. I decided to stop and take off my shoe to examine it. There was a blister forming that went from between my big toe and second toe to the bottom of my foot. There was nothing I could do but keep going. Over the remaining miles I kept on running my pace, only slowing my effort if I felt a possible cramp. I maintained cadence, form, posture, and composure as much as I possibly could with the pain I was feeling in my feet.
The course was three loops. Around each loop I was motivated by seeing my supporters, the Dynamo coaches Brent and Matt, and the many other fans. I encouraged other athletes to distract myself from my feet. Among them was a local triathlete, Katie Colville. Katie would go on to place first in the 18-24 age group. I had met her father, David, on the airplane. He was one proud man!
Throughout the run I saw my dreams of Kona qualifying crumbling before my eyes. I was not expecting the pain in my feet and I knew my pace was not on track with the goals I had set for myself. I kept on going, though, since I had not written, "BE TOUGH," on my forearm for nothing. At Mile 23, I saw Matt Rose and Brent Pease again and each got in my face and gave me the motivation that a good coach gives an athlete when there is so much on the line. I was very grateful for their words of . . . we will call them "encouragement." J A half-mile later, Mom and Jaclyn were on the side of the course relaying a message sent from Adam: "Just pass everyone!" I pushed. I couldn't let down so many people who were cheering me on from home. In those last two miles, I was determined, and I believe that was evident on my face. At the last aid station, I had the second of my two mean moments. A male athlete was blocking the ice table and in my way. I was not stopping, so I took his ice cup from his hands and yelled over my shoulder, "Sorry!"
Seeing the red carpet and Ironman arches, hearing Mike Reilly announcing my name, and feeling the energy from the crowd, I crossed the finish line. I spread my arms and soaked it all in just as I had practiced two nights before on the treadmill. I did not know my time or my position in my age group but I had accepted that I did not have the run I needed for a podium slot. All I wanted to do was take off my shoes. I'll admit it: I wept as I hugged my Mom, then Jaclyn. I was an emotional mess. Official run time—3:20:56
Official Race Time—9:35:28
After exiting the finisher's chute, I plopped down along a fence, took off my shoes, and gazed at my blistered feet. Jaclyn and Mom took me to the medical tent. There I made a few new friends and began to feel more chipper. I felt accomplished for completing my third Ironman. The wonderful volunteer medical staff offered to remove two of my toenails but I declined and accepted a simple tape job instead. The walk to the car was barefoot and long but I was in a good mood after learning that I finished fourth in my age group. I was very grateful for my support crew there, and I enjoyed chatting with them all.
We arrived back to the hotel where I requested a moment to myself to sit on the curb in my tri shorts with taped up toes just to gather my thoughts. During this time I got . . . THE CALL! The revised Kona slot allocation list for Ironman Texas, had been published. Rather than only three people in my age group earning entries to Kona, I found out four of us would go. Having finished fourth, I would receive the last Kona Qualifying slot!!! I wept for the second time that day. Messages of congratulations flowed in and I felt accomplished and happy. I was a Kona Qualifier!
We showered and enjoyed a nice dinner. It was set up by my friend Jeffrey at his restaurant in The Woodlands, Cru. Again, I was very grateful to celebrate the race with the four lovely women who supported me the whole day. We took Mom back to the hotel before Jaclyn and I returned to get my bike, which was covered in mud. We then headed to the finish line once again, this time at dark, to cheer on the last of the IMTX finishers. It's a beautiful thing watching the last few people cross the finish line. There were more people cheering and the crowd had much more energy at midnight than they did eight hours earlier when I crossed that same line.
I didn't sleep much that night. I was excited about the finisher's ceremony the following day. We woke up, and because Jaclyn had to train for Ironman Chattanooga this September, she went for a run. Mom and I packed, and the three of us headed to the ceremony. We sat with several other qualifiers including Sean Schnur of All3Sports and his beautiful family. It was a pleasure racing in the same kit as Sean as both of us qualified for Kona at the same race. I accepted my podium award, a large red plastic M-Dot engraved with my placement information. It is going on the mantel! Then, the slot allocation started. When Mike Reilly announced my name, I jumped up with joy and accepted my slot. I gladly accepted my lei and put in my registration for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii!
Recovery has been much needed and I have spent time getting reorganized, planning the Kona trip, and setting my race schedule between the time I am writing this and my chance to race on the Big Island on October 10, 2015. May 15th, this was all but a dream, now it is real, now it is time to train for Kona! I could not have realized this dream without the support of a lot of people. First and foremost was my cheer crew, a familiar face alo