From the moment I signed up, to crossing the finish line, I had some level of doubt. I was fairly certain I could cover the required 140.6 mile course, but could I do it in the required 17 hour window? I knew I could run a marathon in about 4.5 hours, but I’ve never attempted to run 26.2 miles after riding a bike 112 miles. Heck, I never ran a single race at any distance, not even a training run, after riding a bike of any distance. I’ve ridden a few century rides that took over eight hours to finish. Again, that was not after a two-hour swim. I remember as a kid, swimming two miles at Boy Scout Camp. I believe that took most of the day and a little help from the boat leading us. All I knew was that I needed to start training. Put in time, and lots of miles. I was optimistic. I gave myself somewhere between 60 and 80 percent to finish.
When I first registered, there was an option to take out an insurance policy. If for some reason I could not make the start or the race (injury, disaster, etc.), I could transfer my $800 entry fee to next year’s race. I did not take that option.
In addition to injury, there are many other obstacles that can alter one’s training strategy. The best laid plans... It takes a total commitment. Work, friends, and family have to take a back seat. Any planned vacation or Army training would need an altered training strategy, or cancelation, if possible. Every outside event and/or distraction needed to be amended with an altered training agenda.
That IRONMAN Insurance would have come in handy in early March after a tornado ripped through my property taking half my house with it. I’m not sure why, but God decided to double down on my test. I had no choice but to push my friends and family even further back, figure out a way to keep my job(s), fix my home, and somehow find time to train. My finish line photo was fading fast. I gave myself less than a 50 percent chance to make it to the finish line.
My mornings started at 4 a.m. Either an early morning run or a swim. In the afternoon, I lifted or rode the stationary bike. Occasionally, on lift days, I’d ride after work. Otherwise, I’d come home to clear rooms of debris or clear fallen trees. I started slow, doing one hour sessions at the gym, seven-mile training runs, and one-mile swims. On weekends, when I didn’t have Army Reserve training, I’d do longer rides and increasingly longer runs. I was lucky in that my boss allowed me near total flexibility in how I’d get in my ’40-hour’ work week. I tried to remain positive in spite of my house literally caving in on me.
The Georgia heat took its toll. As I tried to increase training length and intensity, spring eventually turned to summer, and 2019 took on a whole new meaning of HUMID and HOT. Little things became big things. A change in my job resulted in a new boss and less freedom and flexibility. Living in a house where every room, but one, was under construction. Mental fatigue became more and more an issue for me than training itself. I was not even sure I’d make the start line. I would have cashed in on that Ironman Insurance policy, if I had it.
Through it all, I was getting is some good training days. I was getting in a few 11-mile runs and 2.4-mile swims on weekday mornings. Although I had to stop my afternoon workouts, I increased my after-work rides up to 36 miles. I still worked clearing brush and trees from my property and although my roof was replaced, I was still living in a one-room house. Weekend runs slowly increased to 22 miles, and I was approaching 100 miles on the bike. I was not doing too much transition work. I just could not find the time or energy to change disciplines after a long workout. My optimism level was pointing up. I gave myself a better that 50 percent change to finish.
I was hit again on August 31, 2019. A HOT weekend 96-mile training ride. I had a good nutrition and hydration plan worked out and despite the heat was riding hard. Until mile 80. I cramped real bad – my right IT band. I rode out the last 16 miles slow and it did not get worse. I decided to take a few days to rest it. I’d continue to swim and run because that did not seem to be affected. After about a week, I did a 16-mile test ride. It was not too bad. Three days later I decided to try 32 miles. It did not go well. I was a little concerned because now I had to give myself some time off to heal. I tried again after two weeks. I was running and swimming regularly without any connected pain. Unfortunately, when I tried to ride, my knee/IT band flared up again. Only 16 miles in, of a 32 mile planned ride. I decided to stop riding. I even backed off my run miles hoping that may help. My finish probability went down to less than 10 percent. I truly didn’t think my knee would hold out for 112 miles.
Essentially, my taper began on August 31. In late October, I ran Uchee Creek 10K and took 2nd place. I also ran a few training runs with my daughter in Green Bay. Otherwise, I was in totally crash-taper mode. All I could do was rest my knee and come up with some kind of race strategy to where I was not stressing my knee.
On October 31, we (my daughter Kristie and Gautham) headed out to Panama City Beach for the race. It was a relatively warm day. When we got into PCB, the wind was VERY strong and the waves were like three-foot swells. The red flags were out and a few swimmers were battling with little success. My apprehension with the conditions and my knee took me way down. I was almost certain I would not finish. We took in a few mandatory pre-race briefings. The logistics of transition, time limits, and mechanical breakdowns, swirled through my head. Thank goodness we had Gautham to help set up and ready to assist on race day. Staging and strategy for transition is a lot more detailed and involved than simply running a race.
The pre-race dinner helped. There was great grub and some inspirational speakers. One guest speaker was running his first triathlon after losing both of his legs. Another woman talked about her journey from a Vietnamese orphanage to American and her first triathlon. Any amount of motivation and/or encouragement for me was more than welcome. I needed the distraction and to calm down.
November 1, came with unbelievable nervousness. I think I was starting to rub off on my daughter. I was truly scared, but both she and Gautham did their best to reassure me I was ready. The weather turned. It was 31 degrees when I walked down to the beach, but it was calm, no more swells. We spent the morning getting ready. Packing our gear/transition bags, nutrition planning, and double checking we did not miss anything. After setting up our bikes and equipment we spent some money on memorabilia; stuff that would not mean anything if I did not finish. A pre-race swim helped to ease my apprehension a little.
I’ve never gone into a race with the degree of apprehension I was having. I knew I prepared to the best of my abilities. At least with the given circumstances. Still, I was afraid of failure. No, I was terrified of failure.
Race morning started at 3 a.m. We started with breakfast—a banana and a protein shake. Spent some time pacing, double checking my swim gear bag, and some lying around. At 5 a.m. we rode to the start convention center/boardwalk, loaded our race nutrition, got marked up, dressed, and hunkered down trying to stay warm before braving the 40-degree temps on the beach.
It was a rolling start so I went into the ‘corral’ with the 1:40 swimmers; Kristie with the 1:20 swimmers. I’m was thinking of all that money I spent on swim team for my daughters. At 6:40 the Pros took off. Everyone was supposed to be in the water no later tan 7:10. At 7:30, my feet were numb and I felt like I was nearing hypothermia. I started up a conversation with a 71-year old gentleman next to me. It was his second Ironman with a 10 year hiatus between. He was a little apprehensive as well, but seemed to have a positive take.
When we finally started to move, my mind forgot about my knee, the cut off times, and began to focus on my goggles and equipment. I no longer noticed the cold on my feet nor was I shivering. It was go time.
When given the green light, I jumped into the water. I did dolphin push offs from the bottom for the first few feet then began to swim. I could not see the buoys, but I kept other swimmers in my sights and followed them. The water felt great, I felt great. I just started to swim and actually slowly passed a few folks. I was in the back of the pack.
Going out really sucked because the sun was directly in my eyes. (Note: I had to get new goggles because mine broke at the hotel trying to adjust the nose piece.) There was a few kicks to the face and because we started so late some of the first swimmers were on their second lap to my first. As I made the turn-around I could see a little better. The sun was not in my face and it was a bit lighter out. It almost felt as if I was on a leisurely swim. The only bad part was my armpits got extremely sore with rub marks. I think just chafing and salt water. I never trained in the open water salt water other than the half triathlon I did at Calloway Gardens. The second lap was as good as the first. I was passing many people, and I no longer had to deal with folks passing me. As I exited the water I had no clue how fast I swam, but I figured I was in good shape by the number of swimmers still in the water.
The transition was a bit longer than I would have liked. Some volunteers stripped off my wetsuit. It didn’t come straight off. Then, I ran up to grab my Swim to bike bag. My bare feet did not appreciate the asphalt. It took me a while to strip down and throw on my bike clothes. I ran out the changing area, cleats on, towards my bike and was praying I would not feel any knee pain.
I was cautious when I first mounted the bike. This would be the true test. I was relieved I made the swim, but now all my thinking was on my knee and biking. It was still relatively cool so that was great. As I took off down Thomas Drive there were thousands of screaming spectators. The support we receive as athletes, especially during these endurance events, is priceless.
The bike leg will make or break your triathlon. 112 miles and over 50 percent of your race time is on the bike. Two things I kept telling myself. Stay in the saddle and keep at a low gear with high repetitions. Lower the stress on my knee as much as possible. When I hit mile 20, I was thinking I was going to be good. Reality came quick as I did the math, 92 miles to go. Keep your head, keep your focus.
One of the main reasons I like to stand is to take pressure off my backside. I have a little sciatica pain going on and those bike seats are not made for comfort. On the way out, it was either a cross wind or head wind. It was not too bad for the first 50 miles. I kept my gear ratio high and was actually passing a few folks. There were some who were passing me as well. The bike leg was going to be my Achilles heel. My butt was getting real sore at mile 50 so I needed to stand a few times, but I did not peddle. Just coasted. From mile 50 to 70-75, we were straight into a very strong head wind. I thought it would never end. The guys coming back were absolutely flying with the wind to their back. That was the worst part of the whole race. I kept thinking, once I get that tail wind, I can fly to the finish. I mean start of the marathon leg. It would creep into my head a few times as my butt was numb and feet were stinging in pain, and I still had a full marathon to run. My knee issue was slowly fading from my head, but It was there. When I tried pushing a bit harder, I felt the twinge. I still had 30-40 miles to go. When I finally made the U-turn, had the wind to my back, I absolutely flew. There was some turns where we had a cross wind including the last five miles or so but I felt great and home free the rest of the way. I even got yelled at for going no handed as I came into the bike shoot to finish.
The transition from bike to run went a bit faster. I was relieved to get off my butt and my feet felt 100 times better in running shoes. Still, it took a mile or so to get my legs under me. I was run-walking for the first eight miles or so. I’d run at a good tempo for three-quarters of a mile and fast walk through each aid station. I drank so much Gatorade on the bike, I was nauseous. At the first aid station I took two cookies, water, and a coke. That seemed to calm my stomach down. Unfortunately, I started cramping around mile eight. I was walking more and more. I’m not sure where but sometime after mile 8, maybe mile 10 I saw my daughter. She was finishing up her first lap. I’m guessing she was about an hour ahead of me. I was slowing down, she got extra energy because she did not want her dad to catch her. [It was not going to happen]. I started taking salt hits and drinking chicken broth and my cramps went away. By the second lap, my cramps seemed to disappear. I also was no longer thinking ‘could I’ but rather ‘when I’ finish. I had no idea what my time was, I just figured there was lots of athletes behind me.
I think with that thought in mind, I slowed down the second half. I was now only concerned as to how I looked the last mile with all the spectators cheering and clapping. I was in conserve mode to make the final mile look good. I think I could have ran that second lap at least 30 minutes faster, but I was not thinking of time. 13 miles to go. 6 miles away. 2 miles from the finish. Pick it up. One mile to go!!!! I’m going to make it!!! I’m going to be an IRONMAN!!!! I make the final turn into the shoot. It’s lined with spectators yelling, screaming, and cheering. Then, I see the arch and the IRONMAN carpet... I thought I was going to get a little emotional. The culmination of a year’s training and the hurdles. Maybe I was too exhausted. I raised my arm as my name was called. John Luecke ‘ you are an IRONMAN.”