Greg Roberts – AcroYogi – Life in Flow

EagleMan Triathlon – IronMan 70.3 – June 8, 2014

In the summer of 2013, I registered to race in a 70.3 Iron Man Triathlon, somewhat foolishly. I started serious training on January 1, 2014, and found out fast what 10 workouts a week felt like. I logged countless hours of intense swimming, cycling, and running across the days and months that followed. On a balmy Friday afternoon in June, I travelled north with my girlfriend to Cambridge, Maryland, where the race was to be held that Sunday. This is the story of my race experience… in fact, the story of my first triathlon ever.

eagleman-gbr

transition 2: bike to run. photo credit : Tara House

Every race begins with preparation:

T minus 12 hours

My dad and his fiance had driven up to witness the spectacle, and he treated Tara and I to a wonderful pre-race fueling ceremony. Following the example of Nigel, who just nailed a Kona spot in Texas, I opted for the ultra-meat-and-potatoes pizza. Following my own self-prescribed discipline, I opted out of the wine and beer, which everyone, including my fellow competitors, was consuming. I’m now positive, based on my performance, that that was the right decision. I ate the entire pizza and got back to the hotel for a semi-early bedtime. Did the final checklist: water bottles and gatorade in the freezer. Gear bag packed. with race belt. Timing chip on top of gear bag. Alarm set for 4:20 am. Backup alarm set for 4:25. What else? Oh yes. Into the bathroom. One last ceremonial shaving of the legs. And then, oh my, it can’t be true. It is! My dear Tara is in the bedroom, with a bottle of heated massage oil in hand, instructing me to lay down. I felt like a true professional, getting my awesome deep tissue massage on the eve of my race. Pass out into…

T minus 4 hours

The most restless sleep of my life. Even after passing out at a reasonable 11:00, and a lengthy delicious massage by my wonderful fiance, I woke up every hour on the hour, thinking every time that it was 4:20, my wake up time. Finally, it actually was 4:19am. I turned off the alarms, turned on the harsh fluorescent lights, brushed my teeth, and remembered the advice of my mentor: “From the moment you wake up, you have that RFID tracker on. From the minute you awake, to the minute you finish. No tracker, no race.” I grabbed the chip from atop my pack, and strapped it on securely.

Tara and I shared a fine breakfast at the hotel, which obligingly set up the breakfast buffet by 3am, and had lots of triathlete specific goodies. I had an easy meal of donuts, eggs, sausage, and coffee, grabbed as many gatorades as I could fit in my hands, and went up to the room for final packing.

Did one final check of my gear bag — this made my life soooo much easier than my former practice of five-canvas-bags-o-stuff — the Ultra-Tri Travel Bag by Zoot, highly recommended. And we went to the car and Tara drove as I visualized the race ahead.

We pulled over and parked the car on a little side road about a mile from the starting line… just in time to witness a beautiful sun rising above the Choptank river. Tara and I walked to the transition area, where a small army of triathletes carried their backpacks full of exotic aquatic, velo, and running gear to carefully load into their transition zones.

I entered, walked to the space where I had anchored my bike the night before, and began to carefully place all my gear: helmet, sunglasses, running shoes, socks. I had the very fortunate luck of being positioned on the very end of a bike aisle… so I could simply grab my bike and go, without having to slalom between any fellow racers getting their gear on. And that’s when a fine young filly walked up to me and gave me a pro pointer: “Dude, turn your bike around, so when you grab it, you’re already aimed towards the mount point.” I laughed, and did as told. And thought about it. How many seconds would that shave? Two? Three? Five, at most.

I saw her again as I approached the swimming finish. I thanked her for the tip, then qualified: “But seriously, how many seconds do you think that’s going to give me?” She replied without hesitation : “Dude, when you finish in 4 hours, 59 minutes, and 57 seconds and qualify for Kona, come thank me.” I was in shock and laughed. And challenged. That moment was literally the first time I had ever dared to think I might do a sub-5. Dangerous thinking, indeed. I smiled and advanced towards the starting line.

T minus 10 minutes

I stood in the swim area, watching closely as each age group gathered, positioned, and started. My start time was to be 8:00am. It was 7:45. The yellow caps were beginning to gather. As soon as I saw about 10 of them, I made my way to the front. With 300+ people in my age group, there was no way I would start in the back of the pack. I wanted good position. At 7:50, the announcer said “Age 45-49, enter the water!” and I immediately started swimming at a brisk pace towards the starting line. As it was, people weren’t hyper-competitive to get to the front, so I got a choice position just inside the inner lane, right in front. I silently prayed that I had to speed to not get trampled or face-kicked or drowned by speedier swimmers behind me.

SWIM!

The announcer called “30 seconds to start!” and started announcing the famous people in my group, previous winners and such. So great was my surprise when I heard him saying “and Greg Roberts, racing for Max and Alyson!” I jumped up and down with glee, and caught a glimpse of Tara on the shore doing the same. So they were here in spirit, after all, represented! Before I could think I heard “5-4-3-2-1-BOOM!” and I was screaming through the water, fast. I didn’t waste energy looking forwards or sideways. I surged. Well. The expected kicks and slaps never came. I was free. Within 5 minutes or so, I settled into a nice pace, and just kept it. Looked up, and was right on target for the buoy which marked our course. And then it was mostly easy cruising. I looked up in surprise once as I passed a purple swim cap. They had launched 10 minutes before us. A good sign.

Then something really weird happened. I felt a hand on my leg… and it wasn’t a slap, it was a grab and pull. I didn’t even look back, instead kicking with all my might to dislodge the offending hand. If someone was going to grab onto me, they were going to get a firm kick in the head. This actually happened twice more along the swim. My feet were my defense. I kept going.

Once I rounded the second key buoy for the final stretch, I was in a sea of purple and silver bathing caps. Both had started well before me, and I couldn’t see any gold caps at all, which were my color, so I had to be either decently ahead or hopelessly behind. I felt good. I must be in good position. Having recon’ed the course the day prior, and studied the pros exit earlier, I had formulated a butterfly/dig strategy for the swim exit. So with about 100 yards to go, in about 2 feet of water, I stood up, took two powerful strides, leapt forward with butterfly arms, went under, dug my hands into the sand, and repeated. This was fast. I was passing swimmers and runners left and right. It also was completely exhausting. After a few cycles, I opted for swim-swim-swim-swim-stand-jump-dig-pull-swim-swim-swim rhythmn.

T1 : SWIM to BIKE

time elapsed : 36 minutes
distance covered : 1.2 miles

About 50 feet from shore, I broke into a run… and realised I was about to enter transition, and my mind was totally empty. I speedily did my best to recall all the micro-steps I had memorized in the months prior. And then, before I knew it, I was standing in front of my bike. So, FAST : cap off, goggles off. helmet on. chin-strap secure. sunglasses on. GO! Really? Had I forgotten anything? That was lightning fast! No time to think, I was already running barefoot towards the exit, bike firmly in hand, water-bottles preloaded, shoes pre-clipped. And then, running at 8mph with my bike, I saw this beautiful yellow line painted on the pavement, with a big word “MOUNT” stenciled under it. This was the moment. Without hesitation, and with a little bit of fear, I leapt airborne, prone, in the famous “flying squirrel mount”, and luckily and truly landed both feet on my waiting shoes.

The rubber bands snapped, the bike was already in maximum gear, and I powered down the stretch. T1, from water to mount: 1 minute 31 seconds. NICE.

BIKE!

I passed many many people as I got up to full speed on the bike, and took a little coast break to adjust and secure my shoes. And then, oh yes, then it was pure power, all the way. A huge smile spread across my face as I slipped into the circular meditation of fluid power. Cycling at full speed, with proper form and total circle power application, is one of the great joys of life. Sensing my transition adrenalin, I ratcheted back my power and speed, just a hair. I had 56 miles and 3 hours ahead. I could take a few minutes to think, plan, and strategize. So I settled into a solid drive, and thought.

The head referee had made some pretty significant threats regarding enforcement of the no-drafting rule. If you were caught drafting, you would be shown a red card, and summarily banned to the penalty tent for four minutes. For reals. Yes, in the middle of a balls-to-the-wall athletic endeavor, violators of the draft rule would be sitting still in a tent. Adding insult to injury, penalty people weren’t even allowed to use the bathroom during their punishment. So I stayed my four bike-lengths back… for all of 8 seconds.

The person ahead of me was tracking at approximately 18mph… my training pace. But that wasn’t acceptable for race day. I gunned the engine, and passed them… only to find, that 15 seconds later, I was stuck behind another slow rider. I formulated my strategy through practice and repetition. When I decided to pass, which was most always, I would start a countdown… 20-19-18… and gradually increase power while staying in the saddle. If I wasn’t already past them with 5 seconds remaining, I mashed it hard. This strategy proved workab— WTF?!?! As I’m passing, an aerodynamic black blur screams past me on the left. Holy jesus. I was just starting to feel good about this race. Well, truly… If I’m going 20+ mph, that creature was pushing 25… so I can’t feel bad about it. In fact, I whoop up a cheer for the high performance triathlete.

The day prior, I marveled at all the extreme bikes and superbikes at this race. I thought, either there is some serious performance here, some serious money here, or both. Turns out, “both” was the right answer. I made a practice of noting the bikes I passed, and whenever it was a superbike or better, I whisper-sang “Po!” all teletubbie-style in the offending cyclists ear. It was the most ridiculous and dada thing I could think to say… just as ridiculous and dada as an athlete cycling 15mph on a $15,000 superbike was.

I started to get really confident as I passed 10, then 20, then 50, then 100 fellow cyclists… 90% of whom were on fancybikes. And then it happened. I got chicked. No, I got super-chicked. Some 30-something girl wearing a fluorescent (I swear, it was either fluorescent or back-lit neon) PINK aero-helmet, on a matching PINK superbike, blew past me at about 25mph. Before I could even think, a cat-call was escaping my lips. My only saving grace was that she glanced back at me and smiled as she sped off into a crushing victory ahead of me.

It was about that same time that I remembered a key piece of data from the race-prep. Every single racer had their age written on their left calf, in big fat sharpie. So I started looking, every time I passed someone, at their left calf. Strategically chosen, since we were required to pass on the left. And what do you think I saw? 48, 55, 71, 65. AWRGH! I was passing senior citizens, and patting myself on the back for it! Urgh. Oh well. The small accomplishments of a real race. I was double-humbled.

Axs the ride progressed, I kept counting, until I had passed over 300 competitors. At least that made the pink chicking experience and the relentless grandpa-passing smart a little less. In fact, the more I thought about it, the less it hurt. If someone struggles mightily past you, that’s a comparable competitor. When someone blows past you at 20% faster than you’re traveling, that’s a superior athlete. I remained confident in the fact that about every person who passed me, did it with absolute authority. With rare exceptions, there was no thought of “catching up and re-passing.”

The aid stations were a blast. I learned fast to yell my order loudly on the approach: “Water and Banana!” Sure enough, as I cruised through, the precise ingredients I had specified would magically appear in the outstretched hands of a wonderful volunteer. I saw that people who didn’t shout, had to take what was offered. And I was not in the mood for powerade and gel when I needed my water and banana. I slowed down for the first couple stations, but as my confidence built, so did my through speed. The last aid station I hit, my arm almost ripped out of socket as the water bottle slapped into my hand. Nonetheless, I got it. 5 more seconds saved. Bam.

30 miles

At 30 miles, I really really really needed to pee. But the thought of stopping was unbearable. I had surveyed several serious athletes, most of whom agreed : just pee while riding. So I tried. And tried. But squeeze as I might, I could not make myself pee while peddling in tight bike shorts. I resolved to hold it in for the remaining 90 minutes. I could deal with the pain. Then I started the calculus. How many minutes would my pain hurt my time, vs. stopping and starting fresh? I decided I could stop, pee, and start and only lose 2 minutes. It was worth it. I saw a tree ahead, and prepared to pull over. Then I thought: I’ve got to try one more time. Then I literally heard the voice of Yoda : “No try, Padawan, only do.” That was it. All I could feel was a piercing pain in my groin, but I could hear fluid spraying a massive trail on the pavement below, marking the extent of my cycling domain. I smiled as relief slowly came across my body, and my speed increased back into my elegant power zone.

35 miles

About 35 miles in, my butt started to seriously hurt. Which worried me. Because I had gone easily 50 miles in training without strain. Then I realised, I had gone 50 miles in training, at 18mph, stopping every 15 miles to hydrate or pee or take a picture. I had never actually jammed it for 60 miles straight, non-stop. That was this ride. That was now.

45 miles

At 45 miles, my ass was in severe pain. But 10 miles remaining was a totally comprehensible distance. That was less than 30 minutes. I could stick it out. I alternated standing butt massages with loud screams and yells. It freaked out my fellow cyclists a bit, I got some stares, but it worked for me.

Anxious to reach the transition area, and started really tasting the intoxicating elixir of competition, I got more and more reckless as I approached the bike finish. A car came alongside me cautiously on the left, trying to pass. I yielded nothing, and kept pace for a mile. We got to a sharp right hand turn. The car veered in. I yielded nothing. I passed 3 cyclists who screeched to a stop, as I skidded into the turn, squeezing tightly between the SUV and the gravel edge. I came out ahead of both cyclists and car. Ha.

That scenario was to repeat itself… at several intersections, the slower bikers ahead of me would slow to near stops as they entered the turn. I would make fast moves to cut inside close to the cone and pass. On more than one occasion, these cyclists would make spontaneous, inefficeint and quick turns in towards the corner, effectively cutting me off. Technically they had the right-of-way, so I slammed on my handbrakes and skidded on sides of tires on the inside track. In fact, it reminded me of my childhood dirtbike days. So reckless, so fun. Everyone survived unscathed.

And then before I could think about it, there it was, the final chute into transition. Cyclists were slowing down to ridiculous speeds to dismount, and I passed another 10 bikes on the way to the dismount line… and another 5 as I unclipped, leapt off, and sprinted with my stallion to my racking point.

T2 : BIKE to RUN

bike time : 2 hours 44 minutes
distance biked : 56 miles
average speed : 21 mph

I hadn’t had time to pre-viz this transition, so luckily it was somewhat simple. Kick off the bike cleats, get the helmet off, put on the ball cap, socks, and running shoes… and go! Oh, wait! RACING BELT! Got it, ON. And now, comes the highlight of this story.

As I sprinted towards the running start line, I heard my dearest Tara shouting “Greg Roberts! Go Greg! You’re rocking it! Go! Go! Go!” I ran towards her, and the start line, as she snapped photos. And as I passed through the gateway, and slammed a cup of cold water into my face, she tracked with me. And as I ran the first quarter-mile onto the main roads, she continued to run alongside, cheering and dancing and leaping and smiling the whole time. What an inspiration! I smiled widely and proudly as I entered the most grueling part of the race to come…

T2, from bike dismount to running free: 2 minute 12 seconds. Onward!

RUN!

Thus began the pain. I started out on the run well enough. Especially compared to my last effort. In 2012, I had trained for and attempted a 70.3, only to be absolutely crippled as I got off the bike and entered the run. As in, I could hobble-walk faster than I could run. This time, I had *really* trained, to the tune of 10 workouts a week… and I was at least moderately prepared for the bike to run transition. So I started off at around a 10 minute mile, a gentle jog. No one was really passing me, and I wasn’t passing anyone, so this felt OK. I told myself that I would settle into a comfortable pace, allow my legs to adjust, and pick up the pace at mile 3. Meanwhile, my body started to overheat.

At mile 1, there was an aid station, and thank god, they had a barrel-full of sponges, soaking in ice-water. This. was. heaven. As I grabbed three sponges and squeezed them all over myself, I literally felt the blood returning to my skin, like a tingling feeling. I suddenly and effortlessly increased my pace by about 1 minute per mile. But the euphoric effect turned out to be short lived.

I maintained the pace, but the heat returned. At mile 3, I grabbed two cups of ice and poured them down the front of my shirt, where they quickly made my abdomen pleasantly numb… and obscenely lumpy. This is also where I got my first dose of hard medicine. Some woman jogged solidly past me on my right. I caught a glimpse of her grey hair under her visor, and braced: glancing down at her calf, I saw my judgement. I had just been chicked by a 59 year old woman!!!!

It stang. In training, NO ONE passed me. EVER. I trained on college campuses, and aced track and field scholars. I trained against semi-pros, and sprinted until my aorta almost burst. So when Grandma passed me, I naturally, after recovering from shock, accelerated. Or rather, I tried to accelerate. My legs simply would not add speed. I watched, helplessly, as grandma faded from view, towards victory lane.

Then this unfortunate event happened not once, not twice, but three times! Thrice was I passed by silver haired endurance warriors. Thrice was I unable to counter their steady advances. Oh well. I would run my race. Not much I could do at this point but slog out another 10,000 steps on my 13 mile odyssey of pain.

Given that I couldn’t accelerate, I started observing. The run was a classic “there-and-back”, so we had the unique privelege of seeing our leaders at all stages of the run for the whole way out, and our followers during the final 6 miles. So I started to study them: their body language, their facial expressions, their cadence, their form. I realised quickly that Iron Man is a brutal event. In 99% of these runners, form was thrown out the window. They looked almost exactly like the 4+ hour crew on the last 3 miles of the marathon: worn, gasping for air, agonized, just getting one foot ahead of the other in any way humanly possible.

It was at this point that I dubbed this race “the SoulTaker.” Then something interesting started to happen.

I realised that I was passing the same people again and again and again. Now how could this be? They were, of course, passing me too. But I was running at a steady pace, of that I was sure. And then I got my answer: these people were doing a pattern of sprint-walk-sprint-walk-sprint. Ha! My self-designed race integrity was simple: do the full distance of each discipline, uninterrupted. In other words : swim constantly without doggie-paddling; ride constantly without dismounting; run constantly without walking. I quickly realised, if I could increase my steady pace just a little, I would pass these phase-shifters.

So I upped it. And then… I cramped. FUCK! I started to slow, determined to walk it off, and join the haggard soldiers. But just then, a buff dude passed me, and yelled “Keep pushing it, man! Keep running!” And I was like, hell, that man’s words were better than ice-sponges and tangerines. I was energized. I ran. He helped me out.

Thus I arrived at mile 10. I felt like I had barely accelerated from the start. Which was bad. I also felt like if I did accelerate, I would hurt myself. Which was bad. And then a man in black pulled alongside me, looked right at me, and said: “Keep it up. When you get to mile 1, go balls out.” Then he accelerated. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. As if to oblige, he turned around, and yelled: “Do you understand? 1 mile to go, BALLS TO THE WALL” I shouted my understanding and continued running.

I actually kept the man in black in my sights for the remainder of the race. At Mile 1, as instructed, I started to lay down the pedal to the metal. With three-quarter mile to go, I passed him, with a silent nod of thanks. With a quarter-mile to go, I was fucking sprinting, in aneraerobic state. I passed at least 4 more people as I came down the final corridor, my heart and lungs about to explode. I vaguely heard Tara and my Dad yelling my name as I got within 20 feet of the finish gate. David Lee Roth was booming from the massive sound system, to the tune of Van Halen’s 1984 “Jump”. And. that’s. exactly. what. I. did.

GRATITUDE

This race required 5 months of hard training, and the amazing and selfless support of SO MANY PEOPLE! I will try to thank all of you as best I can remember. A race needs a team. Here’s mine:
THANK YOU…

  • Tara House for being my constant companion, supporter, and motivator. And for sponsoring me with the most awesome, sturdiest, ostentatious, Pornj running shoes ever. And for being the best cheerleader ever seen, making all the other athletes jealous. And much, much, much more.
  • My dad, Bob Roberts, for being the constant voice of reason, and for actually showing up on race day, in person, and most especially for hugging me strongly after the race and genuinely congratulating me. I never knew so much how much I craved the approval and pride of my father. Especially since I’m not much of a golfer.
  • Max Roberts for showing me how you can train from zero to something
  • Alyson Roberts for being my remote head cheerleader, and showing genuine interest in my progress
  • Karl Roberts for supplying me my original pro running gear, cajoling me into doing a triathlon in Maryland, and harassing me when I wasn’t training hard enough. And for providing significant emotional challenges along the way. What does not kill us, makes us stronger.
  • Suzanne Roberts for being compassionate, calm, and encouraging even in the midst of challenge and conflict. For selling me my first training bike. AND for being the first person in my family to actually complete a triathlon.
  • Kevin Morgan for so many things: giving me a place to stay and train from, giving me solid advice from his years of experience with Iron Mans, and perhaps most importantly, telling me to focus on the good parts of training and racing: eating, good friends, and having fun.
  • Myles House and Mer Keen for being my running companions and providing conversation.
  • Marshall Butler for the original inspiration, and showing it was possible for a “normal” person to train and complete an actual ironman triathlon.
  • Rick Fee for expert swimming advice and loaning me his pro-class wetsuit.
  • Deb Morgan for feeding me and entertaining me and coaching Tara on cheerleading tactics.
  • Kevin Ryan for early encouragement and tips on the bike.
  • Emma Sudduth for giving me something to do other than training.
  • Julia Hartsell for providing my very first training base. And so much more.
  • Dorrie Derge for constant family cheer.
  • Kathy Derge for behind the scenes emotional support and encouragement.
  • Jeff Popkin for being my first cycling training partner, and for taking the time for bars and sport while training
  • Jay Bender for making the Team Triathlon Group a living, breathing conversation about the sport.
  • Scott Herrick for a simple, free, workable, and accurate training plan findable via google.
  • everyone else who encouraged and cheered me along the way with emails, text messages, facebook posts, and hugs.

CONCLUSIONS

I had some time to think about this for a few days post-finish.
Here are some of my conclusions:

  • entering into and racing in an Iron Man Triathlon is a highly selfish endeavor
  • Iron Man participants have unusual reserves of stamina and willpower
  • Iron Man is at least partially a money sport, via the bike
  • The ironman lifestyle is not entirely healthy.
  • Iron Man people look hard as rocks and… a little bit… weathered and worn.
  • You wouldn’t be able to recognize a world champion iron man in the grocery store. Their bodies look… normal and mildly fit.
  • Getting a competitive Iron Man finish time is, in a way, a simple cross-correlation of how much pain your mind can stomach, vs. how much your body can perform without breaking under extreme pressure. It’s the former that’s the real trick.
  • the race itself takes a signifiant toll on your body and your health.
  • these people are totally insane
  • i will have to complete a full distance iron man to firmly close this chapter. And my final conclusion…
  • Save it for the run.

For the stunning conclusion,
click the link below:

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