The dogged Ironman

Patrick O'Neill battles to an impressive finish

We’re all getting older -but no less interesting, I discovered at my Loyola High School 30th reunion celebration recently. The boys from the class of ’81 are finding various ways to battle, or slow down time. Some of them are using sport and/or adventure racing. In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you about Kevin Vallely; but today I’m publishing a guest post from one classmate who was too busy training to make it to the reunion.

Patrick O’Neill, who was featured in an earlier post, recently completed another ironman triathlon in Florida. Here are his thoughts.

GUEST POST

6:55AM, November 5, 2011 Panama City Beach Florida – As the sun rose over the Gulf of Mexico I stood at the water’s edge once again asking and myself, “why am I here, why not just run a quick 5K and go back to bed?”.

Reflecting back on 2011, it was a rigorous but satisfying  year of training and racing…11 months, 7,700 miles, 602 hours, 2 ironman events, 1 marathon, and several other short-course races. Clearly, if you don’t like the training it is next to impossible to fully embrace the Ironman experience.

Two key elements have contributed to my enjoyment of, and a reasonable level of success in, endurance racing. First, it is realizing that almost all of us are capable of safely pushing the body to truly surprising levels of physical endurance. The only real limiter to tapping this resource is our mental capacity to deny those capabilities. Luckily for me those mental constraints have never really developed. Second, I have a finely tuned ability to ignore advice. I have read several books and articles on endurance training. Opinions vary considerably on nutrition, training plans, bike technology, swim efficiency, running form, recovery and race frequency. Most published authors are former successful racers with a wealth of knowledge and experience however what works for them will not necessarily work for others. I still can’t find a single expert that suggests eating a peanut butter and jam sandwich at mile 60 on the bike segment – this is a critical piece of my Ironman “nutrition strategy”.

The sound of the canon at 7:00AM brought me back to the task at hand…survival. 2500 racers charged into the ocean heading out on the 2 loop, 2.4 mile course. Aside from a few early elbows and kicks, I managed to find open water and quickly settled into a comfortable pace. By the time I circle around and re-entered the water for lap two, the crowd had thinned out considerably.  Now it was just me, a few sea creatures and open ocean. When I finally hit the beach and passed through the swim exit my watch read a reasonable 1:10.

T1 was congested with racers shaking off swim-induced vertigo while prepping for the bike transition. After stripping off my wet suite and squeezing into my compression socks, I exited T1 onto the 112 mile bike course.  Air temperature was in the high 40s with a fairly strong wind. While I knew it would be cold for the first hour or so, I opted not to layer on the extra clothes. Today it would be all about staying as “aero” as possible to save energy – flapping clothes can have a significant negative impact over six hours of riding. 15mph headwinds for 10 mile stretches can wear down the best riders – reducing wind resistance would be a key advantage. Along the way I munched on pretzels, sucked back a few gels, drank gallons of Gatorade and, of course, enjoyed a PB&J sandwich. The last ten miles along Beach Road were straight into a strong headwind.  Pulling into T2, my watch read 5:26 / 20.6 mph – a good result but did I have anything left for the run?

T-2 was quicker – hand off the bike to a volunteer, run to the change tent, remove bike shoes, slip on running shoes, stock up on gels, hit the pot-o-potty and run like hell on wobbly legs for the exit.

O'neill likes his peanut butter at Mile 60.

The marathon is the toughest part of Ironman.  While the physical challenge is obvious, the mental aspect of the race really kicks in the early run miles. Mile marker 1 never seems to show up and legs are screaming for a break.  It wasn’t till mile 5 that I started to feel stronger. The course took us through Panama City neighborhoods with the turn around point in a State park along the coast.  Water and caffeine gels got me through the first 20 miles but by 10hrs or so, my body was beginning to fade (Editor’s note: what a surprise!) .  Coke was available at all water stops but I tried to resist as long as possible – the energy jolt could well be offset by stomach problems.  Finally, at mile 21, I gulped back a full cup of coke. The impact was immediate – the energy surge I needed to push through the last few miles.  As with the last races, my feet were barely touching the ground over the last mile. The crowd was five deep on either side of the finishing chute cheering enthusiastically for ever racer. I crossed the line with a 3:56 run and an overall time of 10:50:03. Those famous words we all wait for, “You are an Ironman”, capped off a perfect day. 

Hard to tell how long this personal science experiment will last but for the moment I am enjoying the ride.  After a few days of rest I will begin planning my training routine for Lake Placid IM 2012.

Patrick O’Neill

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