Ironman Chattanooga: Heat, Hills, and Hernias

Ironman Chattanooga was my second iron-distance triathlon, having completed Beach-to-Battleship last year. The year of training began with preparation for the Wrightsville Beach Marathon, where I qualified for the Boston Marathon (but subsequently did not make the cut-off; I was 2:00 faster than the qualifying time but the cut-off was 2:09).

The day before the race, I got up with my buddy Burke who was on track to complete his third of four Ironman races this year, having already completed Texas and Lake Placid. My wife also came in from a trip to Nashville to lend her support.

Ironman has a unique logistical setup where packet pickup is done on Friday before the Sunday race. Not sure if this helps book more hotel nights or makes it more of a full weekend for the athletes and their families. All I know, is that other than dropping off the bike, there’s not much to do on Saturday. We did go see an IMAX movie which was nice, sitting down in the air conditioning for a few hours. Overall, the Ironman operation is very organized with lots of volunteers to help out.

As usual, I did not get much if any sleep the night before. I’ve learned not to worry about it and just let my body be still with eyes closed, even if I don’t sleep (the important thing is to get a good night sleep two nights before the race).

Race Day

I was up at 4:30 and got my oatmeal and banana down, despite not much of an appetite. I drove down to the race site and parked in a parking garage a few blocks from the start. I met up with Burke at his hotel and we headed down to the start. As with most big races, there is controlled chaos as folks were getting body marked, topping off their tires, and lining up for the buses that would take us up river for the swim start. We were able to quickly board a bus, once we figured out there were two lines, one for spectators (long and not moving) and one from athletes (immediate boarding).

The Swim

We got to the swim start and it was swarming with people. The swim start is unique because there is no beach and swimmers must enter off of a dock. Thus, swimmers line up for what looks like a quarter of mile along a greenway sidewalk. Some people had actually dropped off chairs to hold their place in line. We managed to get to the front of the line and get into the water a few minutes after the gun (most swimmers are in the water within 15 minutes after the gun and their times don’t start until they walk across the timing mat on the dock). The swim was down-river, with the current (they say the current can be strong enough, depending on flow from the dam, to pull you the entire 2.4 miles in under two hours with no swimming). Once in the water, I stopped briefly to clear my goggles and then got into a steady pace. Given the width of the river and metering out of swimmers, it wasn’t too crowded. Occasionally, I would cross paths with a swimmer who was about my pace and I’d try to draft. As I’ve usually found, drafting seems to take more work and concentration than I’m willing to put in. And it seems to interrupt my rhythm.The swim brings you down underneath several bridges, then a left turn to some steps with volunteers helping you out of the water.

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I came out of the water feeling strong and ready for the bike.

Swim time: 1:03:32 (18th in AG)

The Bike

The bike leg is 114-116 miles, depending on whose Garmin you believe, either way it was over the standard iron-distance of 112 miles. The course is a lollipop with an 11 mile “stick”, followed by two 40-something loops, and then the stick back to T2. The stick is fairly flat and the loops have rolling hills with a couple of steepish climbs. The ride started out well with the air cooling off my wet tri-top. I was planning on pacing using my power meter but I hard time keeping my power low enough initially (One of the problems in starting up front on the swim is that you get passed by a bunch of people on the bike; a real temptation to up your speed). Toward the end of the first loop climbing a false flat, my left quad started hurting, a deep aching to the point where I was almost unable to pedal (foreshadowing). I attributed it to dehydration, perhaps being behind on my nutrition, or maybe not pacing myself during the first part of the ride. I stopped at the aid station after the first loop to gather myself. I mentioned to one of the volunteers that I might need to pull the plug . His response was “You’ve put in all this training; don’t throw it away now.” Reluctantly, I headed back out for the next loop as the heat was increasing. I kept up on the hydration and nutrition and completed the next loop. The heat was searing for the ride back into town and I was coming unglued. I made back to T2, got off the bike and was a little wobbly. One of the med guys asked if I was ok. Although I said yes, he stopped me and asked me to take off my helmet. I later realized that was a trick question to see if I had my wits about me.

Bike time: 6:55:25 (56 in AG)

The Run

I got my bag (they were very organized in getting you bags ready for you in transition) and walked very slowly to the changing tent. I saw a chair sitting in front of this huge fan. I took my seat and tried to cool off . While sitting there, two guys were talking:

“Man, I’m wiped out. My legs are cramping from the ride”

“Yea, I know. It was a tough bike”

“I think I might drop out”

“Dude, you can’t drop out. If you do, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

Hmmm, I thought to myself. We’ll see about that, since the same thoughts of dropping out were swirling around my head.

After a super-long transition (14:17), I started out on the run course. It was so hot. Soon I realized I was having a hard time running but I was in good company. Maybe 10% of the people  around me were running. This marathon had turned into a walk-a-thon!

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A rare pic of me running (maybe I was doing for the camera!)

My goal was to get to mile five and make an assessment. I tried to run but could only make it a hundred yards before I needed to walk. It took me an hour to run/walk four miles. By mile five, I was ready to throw in the towel. Maybe I could have walked the rest of the way for a 7+ hour marathon but my body hurt too much. At the aid station, I told the volunteer I was dropping out. I joined two others who were dropping out as well. One was laying on the ground with massive cramps; the other was delusional and disoriented. When the medics showed up, I was looking good compared to those guys so I decided to walk back to the start and turn in my chip. I got about two miles from the start and realized I was having a hard time even walking and that my left leg really hurt. I cut over to the mile 2 aid station (it was an out and back) and was able to get a ride back. The guy next to me in the cart was laying on a stretcher. He had done the race two years ago in 8:10. This year he collapsed with cramps during the run.

I made it back to start, turned in my chip, and called my wife to come get me. Since transition was closed, we headed back to the hotel for a shower and then came back to get my bike and also find Burke. Burke was just coming out of transition and looked wiped out but so happy to be done. He did a great job. He had a great swim (56 min), crushed the bike (6:14), as much as one can in that kind of heat, and suffered through the run (5:18). 12:42 total.

Post-Race Analysis and Aftermath

Overall, my age group had 144 entrants. Of those, 32 did not start, 77 finished, and 35 DNF’d like me. Obviously, the heat was a major factor in the race. The high reached 97 (in the shade), the warmest September 25th since 1931. According to one report, 611 athletes were treated in the med tent this year, up from 200 last year. Of those treated, 14 went to the emergency room.

The next morning, I could not walk on my left leg. I had to hobble to the car. After the 9h drive back, we went straight to the orthopedic urgent care. At that point, I was in tears from the excruciating pain down by quad. The X-ray showed L5/S1 disc deterioration. I got a shot in the butt to help with pain and some high power pain meds. After several days and much GI stress from the meds (how can anyone get addicted to oxycodone?) the pain eventually subsided. Doing a little research, it appeared that L5/S1 would have given rise to sciatica pain (down the back of the leg). Quad pain was associated with L4/L5. Sure enough, an MRI confirmed an L4/L5 herniated disk. Yikes! The herniation not only was the source of the referred pain but was causing numbness down the shin and inside of the foot and a very weak knee (it would collapse if I put too much weight on it).

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L4/L5 Disk Herniation

After several weeks, the pain has subsided but my numbness is still there and the knee is weak. I’ve been told swimming is ok, light cycling is allowed but but no running. It’s going to be a long road to recovery.

Looking back, I wonder if this herniation was starting with my AML_X ride, with the first big climb. I also remember last year, coming off the swim at Beach2Battleship and having my quad really ache for several miles at the start of the bike. Certainly the aching during the bike of this race was due to disk. What caused it to herniate during the race? There some who think dehydration can weaken the disk. One likely contributing factor was the hilly terrain. I tried to not come out of my saddle to conserve energy but I may have been under-geared while in the saddle, putting pressure on my back. And perhaps core weakness contributed as well.

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