On Saturday, November 5, 2016, I had the most incredible, fun, awe-inspiring race experience ever! I had the opportunity to race a full-iron distance Ironman triathlon at Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach, FL. This will very likely be my one and only full-iron distance race – my life (and my body) just don’t support the volume of training required to make it through a race like that with a smile on my face (and if you’re not finishing with a smile, why even bother?), and I’ll tell you what – if I’ve only got one 140.6 in me, then I am so deliriously thrilled that this was it.
Ironman Florida has had a bit of a stigma the past several years – the cancelled swim and frigid (for Florida) temperatures in 2014 and the warm water temps of 2015 making for a wetsuit optional race – but Ironman Florida 2016 was terrific! A little bit of wind and a little bit of chop on the swim made it challenging and exciting, but not ridiculous by any means.
Deb and I arrived in Panama City Beach on Wednesday afternoon around 3:30pm. We stayed at the Boardwalk Beach Hotel (the host hotel) in spite of the warnings that it was not a great hotel. We were totally willing to trade less than ideal accommodations for the convenience of staying at the host hotel. As it turned out, we were given a room on the 2nd floor of The Tides building with a balcony facing the Gulf and the transition area right outside our front door! PERFECT!
As we headed down to the Ironman Village to check in – me at athlete check in and Deb at VIP check in – I couldn’t help but feel so grateful that I had, in the end, chosen to race IMFL instead of IMNC. I met up with my training partner, Megan, and her husband, Bryon, and we sailed through check in, getting out wristbands, packets, backpacks, and timing chips. Most people arrived on Thursday, so being able to get everything done on Wednesday was a huge bonus! It’s no secret that Ironman is a marketing machine, so it was no surprise that the athlete registration area flowed right into the Ironman store.
Folks, don’t even try to fight it, make some room on your credit card before you come to the race because you WILL buy ALL THE THINGS!!! I had the most frugal of intentions… I wanted a “name” shirt, a finisher jacket, a 140.6 decal for my car, a coffee mug, and one of those framed shadow box things with the medal, bib, your time, and such. That’s all I planned to buy. Yeah, right… LOL! We found out that the finisher gear wouldn’t be out until 7am on Sunday morning – as it should be. I had heard that the finisher stuff was out as early as Friday afternoon at other Ironman races, but I’m glad Florida held to tradition.
After check in, we headed out to meet our friend, Malachi, and his dad, Max, for dinner. It was so terrific to see him again. I’ve missed him terribly since he moved back up to Indiana in September. We ate at Schooners – fish, potatoes, and vegetables – it was the perfect dinner! Afterwards, we made a quick pitstop at Publix to grab a couple of groceries and then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Thursday was a difficult day for me. There really wasn’t a lot to do. The majority of the other athletes arrived on Thursday and the lines for check in were long. Deb and I went over to the Ironman Village and walked around looking at all the cool goodies that were at the vendor tents. I picked up my Beacon Tracker for the race and then we spent some more money in the Ironman store.
Then we made our way over to the Normatec booth to see what their “can’t resist” Ironman deal on compression boots was. We were a bit underwhelmed at their offering, so we made our way over to the Rapid Reboot tent. We knew what the Normatec boots felt like after using Malachi’s many times, so when we saw the price point of the Rapid Reboot product (substantially lower) we decided to do some comparative research. Two of the owners of the company were there and were able to answer all of our questions, gave us a couple of icy cold bottles of water (it was HOT out) and offered us the zero-gravity reclining chair if we purchased a pair of the boots. Honestly, I couldn’t tell a bit of difference between the Rapid Reboot product and the Normatec boots. If anything, the Rapid Reboots had MORE compression. They were awesome! Shut up and take my money!!
At 10am, we met up with Megan, Bryon, Malachi, and Max for a quick swim in the Gulf. I wore my swimskin because I really had no expectation that the swim on Saturday would be wetsuit legal – the water was delightful – around 77F. I swam out a bit and then swam back in – I had what I needed. The jellyfish were not nearly as plentiful as they had been a month earlier at camp, although there were some around. I felt good – very comfortable in the water. Then we went to the Athlete’s Meeting at 11am. It was a good briefing – not a ton of information I didn’t already know from reading the Athlete’s Guide, but good reinforcement.
The rest of the day was spent in my new fancy boots and gathering up all the things for my gear bags and special needs bags for the race. At 4pm, I wandered down to the Rusty Anchor bar and met up with several people who I had only met in Facebook-land. We were part of a spin-off group from the Ironman Florida 2016 Facebook page who started a 90-Day challenge at the beginning of the year. Every day we posted our workouts for all to see. It was great accountability. At the end of the 90 days we didn’t want to let it go, so we just kept on going – all the way to race week. It was so cool to meet these folks in person and put a face and a personality to the workouts.
After our meet up it was time for the Athlete Welcome Banquet. It was what you might expect – mediocre food and a program designed to inspire and get everyone hyped up for race day. Mission accomplished! Deb and I went back to our room around 7pm and turned in by 9:00pm and I had my last good sleep of the trip. 2 sleeps to go.
Friday was another tough day. Megan and I started the day with another open water swim in the Gulf. I figured I should probably swim at least a little bit in my wetsuit since I hadn’t done so since Beach 2 Battleship last October! Happily, it still fit and the swim was really wonderful. We swam out to the first buoys and back. All systems were go.
Bike and Gear Bag check-in started at 10am. We went downstairs and racked our bikes and then placed our gear bags in their appropriate locations for race day and then just walked away. There was nothing left to do. I hemmed and hawed and fretted over my special needs bags most of the day. I had no idea if I had too much stuff, not enough stuff, or what – I just knew that I wanted OPTIONS! I had several different snack items ranging from salty to sweet, a tiny coke, a couple of blister band-aids, a packet or 2 of biofreeze, Advil, a hand towel, an extra pair of socks, and some wet wipes in each bag. It turned out to be ridiculous overkill, but if you ain’t never, you just don’t know!
Before dinner I went down to the finish line and met up with some of the other Swim Bike Moms – including THE Swim Bike Mom, Meredith Atwood (SQUEEEE!), and the Women for Tri ladies. Again it’s just so terrific to actually meet these amazing people who you only know from inside the computer. To my glorious surprise, Todd Nixon (aka Swim Bike Nap and Swim Bike Kid) was also in PCB! Again, such a treat to meet these folks! Triathlon brings so many amazing people together – it truly warms my heart!
Then, I met Deb in the Rusty Anchor for dinner. We had fish, mashed potatoes, and veggies and it was delicious. We walked down the boardwalk to our room and saw the last color of the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico and all I could think was “Until tomorrow Ironman!” I was so excited, so terrified by what I was about to do – it seemed very surreal. I applied my tri-tats, filled my bike bottles, and got my bike bag stuff together, but there wasn’t much left to do. 1 sleep to go!
I woke up at 3am on race morning and meditated, made coffee, and got ready for transition to open at 4:30. Megan arrived at our room about 4:20 and we went down and loaded our bikes, pumped our tires, double checked our gear bags, dropped our special needs bags at Alvin’s Island, and then went back upstairs to eat breakfast, drink coffee, and get our swim stuff on. As we were walking to our bikes, the announcement came over the speaker that the water temperature was 75.9F! WETSUIT LEGAL!!!! What a wonderfully welcome surprise!! Malachi and Max came by around 5:50 and we all got ready together. Max and Malachi had matching speedos, which was simply AWESOME! Pictorial evidence was essential!
The weather was cool and breezy so we stayed in the hotel room until about 6:20 and then joined the other 2296 crazy people making their way down to the beach. Hugs for Malachi and Max as they went to the speedy people corrals in the front. Deb walked with Megan and me down to the 1:40-2:00 corral. We kinda sandbagged our corralling but better to swim around people than get swam over in my book!
Many months ago, Megan and I hatched a plan to run this race together – from start line to finish line. Everyone we told about it said there was no way it would work because we would lose each other within the first 20 yards of the swim. But we also had contingency plans in place if that happened. But when the start gun sounded, we grabbed hands and started down the chute together. We entered the water and walked over to the right side of the action and waded out over the sandbar until the water was about chest deep and looked at each other and said, “Ready? Here we go!” and we started swimming.
Side-by-side, stroke-for-stroke we swam the first 1.2 miles. The further we swam from shore, the choppier the water became. When we turned east at the turn buoy we were swimming against the current and the waves were 3-4 feet, although they sure felt a lot bigger. There were times when I would reach for the water to take a stroke and I would catch nothing but air… then I would fall into the trough of the wave. Thankfully, that only lasted for 200 yards each loop. There was one point near the end of the first loop when I lost sight of Megan for a moment, but when I got to the end, I got a quick drink and waited until I saw her and then we went back around for loop #2. Again, side-by-side we swam and it was a thing of beauty!! We came up the beach together and crossed the timing mat 1:35:30 (5 minutes under our goal time).
We bypassed the wetsuit strippers (I was NOT laying down in the sand) and headed through the showers and rinsed off for just a second and then went through the maze to our bike gear bags. A volunteer shouted out my bib number as I jogged down the appropriate row. A young volunteer handed me my bag and I was off to the changing “tent” (which was actually a ballroom in the hotel’s convention center).
T1 was interesting. It was the first time I every really CHANGED in transition. I just wore my swimsuit under my wetsuit because I knew I wanted to change into cycling shorts for the bike and it was chilly out so I didn’t want a wet tri-top from the get go. So, I took a deep breath, told Megan to turn the other way (we still have to be able to look each other in the eye, LOL), apologized to the wonderful volunteer who was helping me and stripped down to nothing, right there for God and the world to see. Talk about being outside your comfort zone!!! LAWD!! My volunteer was AMAZING! She rolled right with it and grabbed my cycling shorts and helped me tuck all my bits in the right places and then did the same for my kit top. I was so grateful! It just ain’t easy to stuff this body into lycra and spandex when it’s wet, ya know? Then we started shoving nutrition and my beacon tracker into pockets. I was lumpy, but I wouldn’t starve and people could find me! #winning Finally, socks, cycling shoes, helmet, and sunglasses and I was done! Megan had gone to use the potty and said she would wait for me past the bike mount line. I took my time and walked to my bike row. Another volunteer shouted out my number and by the time I got to my rack, someone was holding for me and I just took it and went on my way. This was GREAT!
I got to the bike mount line with about 30 other people, saw Megan and made my way to her carefully. Then we started off on the bike leg. It was windy. I know Saturday did not provide the brutal winds that Ironman Florida has seen in the past, but it was a stiff breeze. The weather app on my phone had predicted winds out of the NE at 5-10 mph, gusting to 15 mph. Someone posted the actual wind speeds as measured at the airport and it was actually more like 13-18 mph, gusting to 28! Regardless, the crosswind gusts through the areas where there were high-rise condos/hotels on both sides of Front Beach Road were brutal and I had to hold tight to my bars to keep from being blown into the passing bike traffic.
Once we turned north on 79, the wind was a mild head wind – it was manageable. Our plan for the bike was to ride the first 60-90 minutes easy – small chain ring and go maybe 16 mph. Let the fasties go on past – if we were conservative on the bike, there was a chance that the run wouldn’t be so punishing… a small chance, but a chance nonetheless. We turned right onto Route 20 at Mile 20 and it felt like we were riding straight into the wind. It was a hard 15 miles, but we did pass a number of people who were apparently having a harder time. We also saw Malachi on his way back down Route 20 in 44th place overall! There was much whooping when we saw him!
We stopped at aid stations when we needed to (I think we briefly stopped 3 times total, including special needs) and just kept plugging along. At mile 35, we turned south on Route 77 and had a reprieve from the wind for 7 miles. Then, a left turn on Bennett Drive – back into the wind for the rollers. Then a left on Blue Springs Road, which should have felt windy, but it didn’t. At 53 miles, we turned left onto Route 20 again and enjoyed a terrific tailwind – I was going 26 mph at one point on the flat without pedaling! I loved that part! We stopped at special needs and I looked at the buffet options I had packed and really all I wanted was my peanut butter pretzels, my Aquafor, and some Advil.
The return trip down 20 was about 25 miles of suck – I remember this being a pretty dark and twisty section when we rode the course at camp, but I still felt good. We weren’t setting any speed records, but we were feeling good. At Mile 74, we turned right and headed north on Route 79 and this was the worst part of the course! From mile 74 to mile 81.5, we were riding directly into a stiff headwind – it was hard to go 13 mph. At one point I looked down and I was only going 11 mph and it was taking a grand effort to keep it up! The turnaround at mile 81.5 was a delightful sight and the tailwind that came after the turn was even better.
Somehow, Megan got a drafting penalty at mile 90. We had been very careful about keeping separation between us, so it was unintentional, but it is what it is. We figured that the next penalty tent was at the next aid station and Megan told me to just keep going. I told her that was silly and that I could use 5 minutes out of my bike shoes – the timing was perfect! Only, the next penalty tent actually ended up being back at transition, so we missed out on our break.
When we got back to Front Beach Road at mile 106, we turned into a WALL of air! It was somewhat deflating to be that close to the end and get tossed around by the wind even more. But the wind wasn’t consistent at the beach – one minute it was a stiff headwind, the next it was a crosswind, then back to a headwind. Those 6 miles SUCKED, but as we made the turn onto S. Thomas Drive, I got all choked up. I had just swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles in an IRONMAN! The wave of gratitude I felt for this amazing opportunity simply overwhelmed me and I had tears rolling down my face as I got off my bike.
Megan headed to “time out” (the penalty tent) and I headed to the run gear bags and changing tent to get ready for the run. I changed into my tri shorts, stuffed more Infinit into my pockets, drank some water, walked around barefoot for a few minutes, and waited for Megan to emerge from her time out. She came running into the changing room with the biggest smile on her face, declaring time out to be “the BEST thing EVER!” Only Megan! Always making lemonade out of lemons! She got ready and we headed out for the marathon. When people told me that you get off the bike and think “it’s only a marathon” I was like, “yeah, right!” I’ve run a full marathon and it sucked worse than just about anything I’ve ever experienced, but an Ironman marathon is very different. I see that now.
We took our time walking through transition and onto the run course. We were running 3:1 intervals. We decided to walk the first interval just to get our legs back a bit. Just as we started running, we passed Malachi who was headed to the finish line! IMPRESSIVE AS HELL! We ran 3:1s all day/night long. We talked with people. We thanked the volunteers and the police officers who were on the course. We stopped to fill bottles when we needed to. We saw friends on the course racing and we saw people who had come to cheer from Megan’s tri team. There was so much to occupy my attention that I forgot to worry about how my legs felt. Before we knew it we were at special needs. Deb and Malachi met us there and we got the news that Malachi finished first in his age group and qualified for World Championships in Kona! How about THAT? No one deserves it more – we were so, so happy for him and it gave us a great boost into our second run loop. I handed most of my special needs bag to Deb untouched. All I wanted was my headlamp and my glow stick wand that Megan had gotten for us.
On the way back out onto the run course, I saw Meredith and Todd and even got one of Todd’s patented race course selfies! I felt on top of the world! I could NEVER have predicted feeling this good after 127.5 miles! The wheels started to come off the bus around mile 18 of the run. I asked Megan if we could walk through an extra interval. She obliged. I told her that my feet and quads hurt. She started sharing my own rhetoric with me. She suggested that I take all the hurting bits and put them in a box and then put the lid on the box and put the box up on a shelf. Then they wouldn’t hurt any more. Hmmm, where have I heard this technique before? LOL! Deb was SO proud of her! :)
Then at mile 20 I kind of went on auto-pilot. When I would run, I was running faster than I should have and by the end of the interval, I was way ahead of Megan. Finally, she said, “Okay Angie, if you want to run so far ahead, you go ahead, but I don’t want to hear ANYTHING about taking extra walk breaks on the way back!” Oh my Megan! The perfect thing to say! I reined it in for the last 6 miles and I’m so glad I did. With about 4 miles to go we picked up a running buddy who was also running 3:1s, but his watch had died on the course. He ran with us almost the whole way back. It was his 5th and final Ironman race. I hope he did well!
In my perfect world, Megan and I would have run the finisher chute and crossed the finish line together. However, when I told her my idea, she adamantly said “No! This is your only Ironman. You need to have your moment. I want you to go first and enjoy it and that’s final.” I tried to argue, but she wouldn’t hear it. So when we turned the corner at Alvin’s Island and then turned toward the finish line, I went ahead. My SBMAT teammate, Colleen, had messaged me earlier in the week and reminded me to soak it all in – not to rush to the finish line, and so I slowed down. I high-fived children on the sides, I listened to the cheers, I saw the bright lights, and for that moment I was a ROCK STAR! I heard Dave Ragsdale pronounce me a 1st time Ironman and I crossed the finish line. A nice man “caught” me and shepherded me over to get my medal. Deb was right there and it was the perfect exclamation mark on this journey for her to be able to place that medal around my neck! Megan crossed the finish line one second after I did. I could never have done as well as I did without her out there with me – pushing me when I needed to be pushed, reining me in when I needed to slow down. I am so grateful for her – as a training partner and as a friend!
Then the man took us over to the backdrop for pictures and he gave me a mylar blanket so I wouldn’t get cold.
Deb took me over to the pool so I could get something to eat. I had a couple of bites of pizza, but that was a bad idea. We sat around for a bit, but I really just wanted to go take a shower. LOL! My plan was to come back to the finish line for midnight, but I fell asleep hard within 20 minutes of getting out of the shower. But Deb did go back down and said it was just as cool as everyone says it is.
I slept like a rock until 3:30am and then my eyes popped open and it was like I was launched out of a cannon. The man in the Ironman store said we should start lining up for finisher gear at 5:30am, so I went down and met Megan while Deb took the puppies out to pee. There was NO ONE in line at 5:30… By 5:45, we moved to the front of the building and there were 3 people in line, so we grabbed a seat. Megan brought her warm, pink Snuggie, thank goodness, because it was chilly! We begged the man in the store to open up at 6:30, but no dice. By 7am, the line wrapped around the parking lot and down Thomas Drive, so it was totally worth getting in line early. We got in the store, picked our finisher gear and checked out in 20 minutes. I cannot wait for it to get chilly so I can wear my jacket!!
Then Deb and I went back to our room and took a nap until 9:30 when it was time for awards and the Kona slot rolldowns. We wanted to go support our favorite tri-guy, Malachi Henry. It was such a thrill to watch him take 1st place AG and claim his spot in the 2017 Ironman World Championships! Now to make plans to go watch him race next October! :)
After the awards, Megan and Bryon had to head home, Malachi was coming back to Port Orange for a few days to take his last board exams before officially becoming DR. Malachi Henry, DC, Max was heading back to Indiana, and I WAS HUNGRY! We said our goodbyes and Deb and I headed to Schooners for lunch and I ordered the biggest cheeseburger they had on the menu (with avocado, of course) and it was THE BEST damned cheeseburger I ever tasted! We went back to the room since we weren’t leaving until the next morning and took another nap. I kind of regretted that cheeseburger when I woke up from the nap – good lord was I ever sick! But still, totally worth it! ;)
We said goodbye to Panama City Beach the next morning and headed home. It was, indeed, the BEST RACE EVER!!
My Ironman experience was everything I hoped it would be and then some. Malachi asked me the next day what I would do differently, and honestly, I can’t think of a thing. My hope was to finish in under 15 hours. I finished in 14:49:17. My hope was that I wouldn’t hit the wall. I really never did – not like I have in the past anyhow. I fueled well, I executed my plan, Megan and I finished together, I raced with a grateful heart, I was present and enjoyed the day as it unfolded. It was PERFECT!! Sure, I imagine I could’ve gone faster here and there, but so what! I carried my 51 year old body 140.6 miles in less than 15 hours! I am immensely proud of that fact! I had the best time EVER with my friends. I raced with my bestie! I got to see Deb multiple times throughout the day! I saw my son from another mother qualify for the Ironman World Championships. Days just don’t get much better than that. Now, I just have to figure out “what’s next…”