Santa Rosa IM race report:
Last Saturday I raced in my first ever full IM, almost exactly two years after I started training for my first Olympic distance triathlon. Upon returning from an epic, grueling summer-long bicycle-touring trip across four states in the southwest with Carlos Bas I was looking for a new challenge and a way to push myself to continue to stay fit. I was initially drawn to the challenge of the Ironman, and that ultimate goal was the basis for getting into triathlon training, as well as making other life changes such as adopting a plant-based diet and cutting back on booze. Though I had a decent amount of cycling under my belt and some casual running experience, when I started out training, I could barely make it across a 25m pool and the idea of even doing the Oly distance was extremely daunting. There was a period where I was entertaining breast stroking for my first race! Last year I trained for my first HIM in Santa Cruz, and during the run kept thinking how astoundingly impossible the full distance seemed. Still, I was intrigued and shortly after, signed up for a full 10 months out.
On the morning of the event I woke up around 4am with butterflies in my stomach and choked down a small bowl of oats, banana, and chia seeds and a cup of coffee before driving a short distance to T1 at Lake Sonoma. Everyone was nervously anticipating the temperature reading as the previous day they measured it at 76.5F, but due to cooler temperatures and some luck, we squeezed in with a barely legal wetsuit swim at exactly 76F.
I anticipated swimming around a 1:20 to 1:30 and seeded myself appropriately for the rolling start. They weren’t letting people into the water, so I had to start cold, which made the initially segment of the swim significantly more shocking to the system. Once I got in I started getting knocked around and pretty immediately developed some panic and anxiety, much different from the rolling start at Idaho 70.3 where it felt like everyone had a lot of space. The turns around the buoys were particularly congested and I had to fight through other swimmers to stay on the correct side of buoy when passing. It seemed like every other stroke I would smack down hard on someone else's leg, or someone would approach me from behind and shove my legs down. The first .5 of the swim was probably the lowest point of the whole race, and I had to momentarily fight back thoughts of raising my hand and asking to get pulled out. Worried that I was having negative thoughts so early in the race, I started counting my strokes, which relaxed me and I settled in. Still, I could tell I wasn't going particularly fast as many people were passing me, and I was also very hesitant about swimming too hard given the distance ahead. When I got out of the water for the first lap, I checked my watch and I saw I’d hit a 43 minute split, which was shy of my fastest 1.2 time, but still on target, so I was feeling pretty good about the second lap. At that point I was feeling much calmer and my breathing was relaxed, though the entire course was still considerably congested and I continued getting beat up in the water, particularly around the buoys. On the return route I could tell that I was starting to get tired because I would pull up to site the next buoy and find that I had pulled hard to the right, a common issue that happens when I’m swimming open water. It seemed like no matter how hard I tried to veer left I kept coming up far right of where I was supposed to be, and I’m sure I added to the overall distance of my swim for this reason. As I swam down the final stretch I started feeling nervous about cramps, as I’ve had bad calf cramps after every HIM race after the swim and was elated when I made it out of the water and started running up a steep, quarter mile hill to T2 without any issues. Many people around me were walking up the hill to transition, but I felt great and ran the entire way to the changing tent. I finished the swim at 1:32, not amazing, but I was happy with it given my relative inexperience as a swimmer.
Due to the longish uphill run to T2 I logged an ultra long T2 transition of 10:42, but at that point with my swim time I knew I wasn’t going to break 12 hours, so I wasn’t too concerned. The bike started with a immediate long and steep descent out of Lake Sonoma and into the wine country, where we then started our first, longest, and steepest climb of the ride before hitting a 56 mile stretch of rolling hills. I made a concerted effort not to go above 70% of my FTP and was getting passed by tons of people, especially on the hills. It was really hard to get into a rhythm due to the nature of the hills, which were just steep enough that I couldn’t slingshot over them and had to continually shift way up and down to stay within my power zone. After 60 miles the course flattened out almost completely and I gained significant speed, and started picking off loads of people over the last 56 miles. The low end of what I thought feasible on the bike was around 6 hours and I finished in 6:07 with an average of 18.2mph. Most of that speed came in the second half of the ride. I ended averaging just shy of 70% of my FTP and riding almost the entire ride in HR zone 1. I knew I could have pushed it much harder, but also knew I still had a marathon to run and wanted to play it conservative.
When I made the turn for the finish line I was surprised by how abruptly a swarm of volunteers rushed up, held my bike while I dismounted, and swiftly whisked my bike away. Disoriented by the experience I realized that I had forgotten my Garmin on the bicycle and started running up and down the transition area trying to get a volunteer to retrieve it for me. One told me he would find it and then find me after I changed into my running gear, but when I came out of the tent, I couldn’t find him, and after trying to no avail to track down another volunteer, I decided to take off with no way of monitoring my pace. Hence another slow transition at 7:46.
Immediately upon starting the run I felt shocked by how great I felt. My legs weren’t heavy at all and my lungs felt wide open. I tried to pace based off feel and perceived rate of exertion, but knew I was probably going way too fast and tried to force myself to slow down. Sure enough, I later figured out that I was running 8ish minute miles for the first 6 or so miles before I started slowly down. Unable to accurately execute my 9/1 plan, I walked the entire distance of the aid stations, taking in mostly Gatorade and dumping water and ice on my head before starting up running again after the “Last Chance Trash” signs. My stomach started sloshing around from taking in all the liquid and I kept telling myself to stop drinking as much, but when I’d get to the station I couldn’t help myself. Around mile 12 I hit one of my low spots in the race and could feel that I was noticeably slowing down, but around mile 18, which also marks the longest run I had ever completed in my life prior to the IM marathon, I got a huge second wind and even ran a couple of sub-8 minute miles. I had planned to tell myself a couple of mantras if things got really tough and was anticipating needing to really tough it out for the last 10ish miles of the run, but the dark moments on the run never really came and I was able to do the entire marathon with a quiet mind. By the time I hit the half-marathon it seemed like almost everyone around me was walking, not strategically, just some running for a short distance and then lots of walking. I knew as I started blowing by many many people that coach Rob had set us up with a solid pacing strategy. I do think that not having the watch screwed up my pacing and that I probably could have gone faster overall had I not gone out so hot and kept a more even pace, but I was still pleased with a 4:26 result given that it was the first marathon of my life!
Coming around to the finish line and seeing a big group of friends and family shouting and cheering was an incredible feeling. I ran up to them and slapped everyone five before crossing and hearing those magical words “Sam Kary, you did it, you are an Ironman!” It was an incredible experience and I’m so grateful to all of my friends and family, especially my training partner Carlos Bas, my fiancé Sabrina, and coach Rob Wilby and everyone on the team who helped get me to the finish line. Thanks, everyone!
Finish time: 12:27