What do I/will I think about over the course of 11-17 hours during an Ironman?

Here were some of my thoughts.

I have no idea what runs through the minds of others on the course, of course. I did pay more attention to what runs through my own head during this last race. My findings were really quite interesting. Focusing on what was running through my own head highlighted just how tired I was and how poorly my mind was actually functioning. Maybe that partial braindeadedness is what gets me through and keeps me coming back.

The swim is quite busy in my own mind. When swimming in the pool I usually get into quite a meditative or contemplative state. I often occupy part of my brain with counting laps and the rest is lightly focused on solving a problem, planning my day – or in my case usually the constant attempt at planning my full life – or perhaps I am dwelling on something in the past. Occasionally I am actually in the moment, occasionally I even focus on my stroke, particularly if it is a sprint set. But race conditions do not allow such contemplation; one must be quite alert in order to survive the ordeal, watching out for limbs of other swimmers that may kick or pull you, and ensuring that most of the time you get a good breath of air rather than a swallow of water-or worse, water up the nose. And when such things happen, one must focus on staying calm and recovering, hopefully while still moving forward so as not to get trampled or pulled under water by the swimmers behind you. At some point I also start thinking about how much further I have to go, by the end this takes the form of a bit of dread. This last race had numbered buoys and I knew there were 24 of them, so for better or worse I was quite aware of how far I had gone and how much further I had to travel.

On the bike course, after getting out of town and into a long stretch on a single, closed, road, I started to try to occupy my mind. I started by going through the alphabet and thinking of something triathlon related to go with each letter. It was fine and a good mental distraction for awhile. At some point later in the day I tried the same alphabet game but thinking of something I was grateful for for each letter. This was a minor disaster because my mind was occupied with comforts that I couldn’t have at the moment. B for burger, c for car, h for hotel, s for shower…you get the idea. It was not a very productive exercise. It was the last time during the race that I would have enough energy to attempt a mental game to get my mind off the race.

About 35% through the bike course, I spent about 2 hours thinking that 66 miles was half of 112 miles, which meant that I was doing the first half in more than half of the time I had to make the bike cut off. I realized how determined I was to finish, and how much I wanted Mike Reilly to welcome me across the finish line, but I also wasn’t sure how much faster I could physically pedal and I knew I had lots of wind to contend with. I had made a stop at an aid station, and I was just hopeful that I could make it all work by not stopping and pedaling as quickly as I could.

Something wasn’t quite adding up. I had gone back through town for the second time, I had gotten my special needs bag, I knew that many people were still behind me and it just didn’t seem like I had been so slow that I was pushing not finishing. Finally, it occurred to me that 56 miles was the half Ironman distance, which alerted my half-brain to the fact that indeed 56 miles is my own halfway point, meaning that I was doing okay on time. Not a ton to spare, but I had definitely reached the halfway point in less than half my allotted portion for the bike based on my swim time and bike cutoff time.

It is amazing that my brain was functioning so poorly. I can do some silly things in my brain and I’m not great at math, but this was a special level of brain fart that lasted so long. I was tired!

The rest of my time was spent just thinking about nothing, or staying on the bike, or forcing myself to eat every 30 minutes. I was tired and knew that I needed to stay upright, despite cross winds, and to stay aware of passing vehicles, etc. I was happy to handoff my bike and to stay closer to the ground where I felt much safer.

Transitioning to the run feels different mentally, there is a new burst as I begin to use different muscles. But I was still tired and thought of little other than continually re-counting whether I was going fast enough to make the race cutoff time. I was also constantly attempting to push myself. Jog to this spot, then walk to this spot, and pick-up again. Or walk this hill as quickly as possible. I would also people watch. We received 3 bands at the turnaround of each of 3 laps, so I would look at the arms of people passing, envious that they were nearly finished when I still had 2, then 1, lap to go. I’m usually warry of drunk people, but I’ll tell you, especially near the end, they make great cheering crowds which were very welcome to push me along.

I never know quite what to do at the finish line and I didn’t have the mental energy to figure it out. When arms came out for high fives, I gave folks a high five. The lights are so bright in your eyes, and I rarely can find any family in the stands. I didn’t this time either. I gave Mike Reilly a high five, I passed someone who was hanging out in the chute, unsure really what to do about him and weather to go on by. The finish was celebrated in this race before I think I had actually crossed the finish line, so the finish photos are a bit bland, but there I was ready to let my mind recover.

In conclusion – what does one, or at least what do I think about for my 16+ hours in an Ironman? Surprisingly little beyond staying alive and finishing, and that’s okay with me.

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