At 70 years old and moving into retirement, I pulled out my bucket list to see ‘Ironman triathlon’ at the top.
Before I go any farther, I should let you know that I have a mythical Uncle Max whose philosophy for life was “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing”. Following Max’s approach, I thought that full distance triathlons were worth doing. With that, I began my planning and training.
Ironman Triathlon on My Bucket List
I swam competitively in high school and college. I ran several marathons in my 20s and 30s and picked up road biking in my 30s and 40s. In the early 1980s, I tried a 70.3 triathlon, my only triathlon until now.
The Ironman triathlon on my bucket list would be a real challenge, but something worth doing.
I started my training from a level of moderate fitness. Biking and walking were enjoyable. However, I had done no swimming in over 45 years.
I tried to be creative in my training as I had total hip replacement on both hips about 15 years earlier. My surgeon had told me to not run since running would wear out the new joints prematurely. Arthritis was also entering the picture.
Training initially went well. I trained with speed walking and occasionally a walk/run strategy.
Then I tore a hamstring. That didn’t stop me from swimming or some strength training. However, it limited my walking and biking.
Obviously, my training wasn’t going well. Eventually, I got back on track and was looking forward to my inaugural full distance (140.6 mile) triathlon, Ironman Wisconsin 2020.
However, Covid entered the picture and the race was canceled.
Setting My Sights on Ironman Wisconsin 2021
I regrouped and began a slightly more intense training program to prepare for the 2021 event. However, with the increased intensity and distance, I suffered a stress reaction and strained muscle in my left leg.
For the next ten weeks, I wore a boot and did no running or speed walking. After about eight weeks I could bike, but only for short periods and at low intensity. I basically took those 10 weeks off and started over again.
After restarting my training, I gained in fitness and confidence, lost some weight, and, despite a sense of chronic fatigue, felt good. I was well on my way to achieving my goal.
My goal was to finish the Ironman race, not win it. That meant I had 17 hours to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles over a technical and hilly course, and run (walk) 26.2 miles through the streets of Madison.
Nutrition is known as the “fourth discipline” of triathlon. It is a crucial component for people like me who will be on the course for nearly 17 hours.
I developed what I thought was a solid nutrition and hydration plan for the day. I wanted to stay hydrated and take in enough calories to maintain strength without causing an upset stomach.
Ironman Wisconsin 2021
Race day 2021 arrived. I thought I was ready to complete my top bucket list item, my first Ironman triathlon. The weather cooperated as temperatures were in the upper 60s. The wind didn’t start building until later in the day.
My swim went surprisingly well, I started out too fast, but settled into a manageable pace and came out of the lake feeling good.
Trouble on the Bike
However, within four miles of starting the bike course, my legs felt heavy and tired. I tried backing off the pace, but that didn’t seem to help.
The bike course is essentially a two lap route. I struggled to climb all the hills on the first lap. I also noticed pain in my quadriceps. Then they started cramping. These were hard cramps. I struggled but did finish the bike course. However, I was behind schedule.
I was also somewhat demoralized as I started the 26.2-mile run. I continued to experience cramping, was light headed, and was walking at a snail’s pace.
The reason? I was dehydrated and short on calories.
My hydration and nutrition plan was solid, but I “forgot” to follow it. Caught up in the excitement, and focused on the technical and challenging bike course, I didn’t eat or drink nearly as much as I should have. I struggled until just past mile 19 when I realized I would not be able to finish in 17 hours, the official cut off for the race. Because the dehydration had affected my reasoning power as well as my general wellbeing, I painfully withdrew from the race less than seven miles from the finish line.
Looking Back After the Triathlon
At the time, I considered this a failure. I felt I didn’t have the physical stamina, the mental toughness, and the discipline to complete this challenge.
However, in the weeks following the race, I looked back at all I had accomplished. I learned and improved swimming, biking, and pacing skills. I enjoyed pool and open water swimming and the long bike rides through the countryside. Most of the time, I had successfully completed challenging daily workouts. My overall health had improved. I was proud of my fitness level and that I had successfully met the rigors of a challenging training program.
Planning for Ironman Wisconsin 2022
Now it’s on to 2022. There was some unfinished business in Madison. I developed a better training plan, enhanced my nutrition and hydration plan (and resolved to follow it closely), and sought the advice of a biking consultant. The training was tough, but I had that sense of pride after each workout, because I faced the daily challenges and met them. Over the next 10 months I again gained confidence, strength, and endurance. I was ready to become and Ironman.
When training as a “senior” athlete, the concept of age is a huge challenge. I don’t mean that if you are old, you cannot train. When I was going through an intense workout I would think that this is way too hard for a 72 year old so I should back off on the intensity and the duration, and even add more rest after the workout. But I don’t think of myself as a 72 year old and won’t use that as an excuse. There are times I feel so good that I forget I am 72 and think I am 40 and I should be doing more. Logically, I should back off and train smart, but I still don’t feel 72 so the battle continues
Unexpected Weather on Race Day
I watched the weather forecast daily as we approached race day. I was expecting moderate to warm temperatures and strong winds. Not ideal, but I was ready.
Unfortunately, as we know, weather forecasts are not always accurate. The night before the race, rain entered the picture and stayed with us for the next 40 hours. Not only was it raining, it was “cold” (55 degrees) and the wind was averaging 15 to 18 miles per hour.
It was pointed out to me that at 72 I was the oldest competitor in this year’s race. I began to wonder what I was doing in cold, rainy and windy weather for 17 hours
As we wait to start the race, we are standing in mud, with rain and wind. We are wearing wet suits and swim caps but somehow are still cold. When the race begins we hit the water which was 71 degrees and actually felt good. Although I had a very strong year of swim training, my swim went poorly. I never found a rhythm and had some difficulty dealing with the rough water. I finished and actually felt okay as I exited the lake and moved toward the bike.
When changing into bike clothes, I was cold and shivering. I had difficulty using my hands. But after a few extra minutes, I was on my bike, ready for 112 miles in the rain and cold.
I followed my nutrition and hydration plan closely. However, because my hands were becoming numb, I had to stop on the side of the road to open packets or squeeze my water bottle. Despite that, my mindset was good. I was on pace to complete the triathlon.
I ignored the cold and kept pedaling. By 40 miles, I had difficulty braking and switching gears and even holding on to the handlebars and was shivering violently. No cramps this time. My legs were cold but working fine.
Then, at about mile 82, I felt my back tire go flat. Normally, a flat tire would not have been a big deal. I would hop off the bike, repair the flat, and move on. I’m not very good at repairing flats. This would normally be about a 10 minute process.
This was not the case today. Because of the cold, my hands weren’t working properly. I was shivering violently. It took nearly 10 minutes for me just to open my saddlebag and to remove the wheel from my bike.
But it got worse. I could not remove the tire from the wheel because I had no feeling in my hands. On top of this, my core temperature continued dropping because I was no longer working hard.
The End of My Race
I was finally rescued by spectators who gave me a ride to a rest stop where I could warm up. There were five other bikers already at that rest stop suffering from the cold and wet conditions. Eventually, the weather conditions caused over 35% of the participants to not complete the race. I was one of them.
Reflecting on My Race
Was I disappointed? Yes.
But I was also proud because my mindset during the race was to continue despite the rain and cold. I withdrew because of safety issues (couldn’t brake, switch gears, or hold on to handlebars) and because I could not repair a flat tire.
Again, I reflect on the journey. I have trained for nearly 3 years, learned new skills, developed improved physical and mental toughness, enjoyed the training and felt an almost daily sense of accomplishment. My wife has given me continuous support and encouragement. I may have even inspired my son to take up running and be more active.
My Bucket List Still Includes an Ironman Triathlon
I am proud of the journey and the accomplishments. Since I believe I can check off the box on my bucket list next to ‘Ironman triathlon’, I will be back again next year.
If I fall short, I will look back on all the satisfaction, sense of accomplishment and fun I have had along the way. It is a long journey but I enjoy the ride.
A race is just one day, but the training is months and years. The rewards from daily training and accomplishments far outweigh one day.
About Steve Stewart
Steve and his wife Karna live in Big Lake, Minnesota. Steve is retired after 36 years in residential real estate sales and 13 years in school administration and teaching. He also coached high school swimmers for nearly 25 years. Steve and Karna have four adult children and two grandchildren. When not training, Steve enjoys travel, reading, and volunteering at his church.
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