Thought for the Day

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

St. George Experience

You may find a couple of things about this blog post remarkable. First, it may seem like I've written a longer post for just the swim portion of an Ironman than anyone would expect if I had done the whole thing. Second, it may seem like a long, whiny list of excuses.
Well, that all may be true. But I see it as an explanation. Basically, I was again at the start of an Ironman race without having once done an Ironman distance swim in the required time. This time, I know I was a good enough swimmer that I could have made it if all conditions were perfect. No one should ever expect all conditions to be perfect, should they?

Conditions were actually excellent in several ways for this swim. The weather outside of the water was great. There was no wind to speak of at the reservoir, so the water was nice and smooth.
It was cold, but it was never so cold that it bothered me much. I had earplugs and a neoprene hood, so I may have been better off than others. I never got the shivers after getting out, as I did in 2009. The water temperature wasn't a factor except for the fact that it was cold enough for me to wear a wetsuit, which is a huge benefit. I can't complain about that.

But I did have some problems. None of these would have been enough to keep me from making it in time if I was better than a marginal swimmer. And I am to blame for not being a better swimmer. Like the last time, I worked very hard on it, but I started too late.
Next time, and there will be a next time, I swear I will have the swim in the bag.

I got up at 3 AM and my blood sugar was in good shape. I drank and bolused for a Banana Cream Ensure Muscle Health. Then I walked over to my Triabetes teammate, Brian's room and gave him back his Dexcom charger, which he had generously allowed me to borrow because I'd forgotten to bring mine. We were both staying at the Motel 6 next door to Denny's. I went over to Denny's and got toast and a huge cup of coffee to go. I thought I bolused right for that as well.
By a quarter to 5, on the bus out to Sand Hollow Lake, my Dexcom was saying my blood sugar was over 300, and I test at 281, so I took a big bolus to bring it down, thinking that it was probably rising because of nerves, and I wasn't likely to get any more relaxed as the start approached.
When we got to the lake, I went straight through the transition area to the porta-johns. After that, I went to get water to fill the bottles on my bike, and then I figured I would take a look at my blood sugar again.
That's when I notice my Dexcom receiver was gone. It had fallen out of my pocket.
I frantically retraced my steps. I asked volunteers at one of the changing tents if there was a place for lost and found items, and they sent me to the other changing tent. The volunteers there didn't know anything about a lost and found, but said I should go to the other end of the transition area and talk to the guy with the microphone. Over there, no one knew anything about a lost and found, but one volunteer said that I was the third person to ask about it.
So I went back to tracing my steps, and I could just barely see my Dexcom leaning against the base of one of the porta-johns, just sitting there waiting for me to come back.
Of course it had been out of range for a while, so it didn't provide any information, and I had started thinking about how much time I had left to get my wet suit on and get ready for the swim start.

I went over to the start, got my wetsuit on, and did one last blood sugar test. It was 127. I had set aside three energy gels for the swim, but I had to eat one right away, knowing that my blood sugar was on a downward trend. I had been hoping to start the swim with my blood sugar a little high, so the exercise could bring it down safely, but clearly I had over-estimated the effect that starting line stress was going to have on me.

There was supposed to be a table to drop off things like prescription lenses. I wanted to drop off my glucose meter. The problem was that there was not a drop off at water entry and a pick up at water exit. There was only one table, at water exit.
This simply meant that I had check my blood sugar, run over to water exit, then get back into the massive lineup at water entry. I don't know how someone who actually required prescription lenses to get around was supposed to drop off those prescription lenses and navigate back to water entry.

The one good thing about that was that I was lucky enough to run into my Mom, who came with me to St. George for support. She came in on the spectator shuttle, and the timing was perfect as she was headed toward the shoreline while I was going back to the start. It was nice to get a hug from her.

There was a very narrow gap, a single lane dirt road, down to the water entrance, with about 1500 people backed up behind it. With the pro start at 6:45 AM, there was only 15 minutes for all of these people, mostly barefoot, of course, to squeeze through the narrow space, get out into the water, and swim to the start.
It didn't help to have someone on the PA system telling us over and over that we had to get into the water. There simply was not enough time to get all of the swimmers through a narrow opening down to the water and out to the start.
I was up to my shins when the gun went off, and there were still many people behind me.

When I got deep enough to start swimming, my goggles started to fill with water. I hadn't pressed them down tightly onto my face to create a water-tight seal yet. I had to stop swimming, pull my goggles loose enough to shake out the water, and press them back on. Fortunately, it worked perfectly first try, and I didn't have any more problems with them.

Within a few yards of swimming, I hit the upper branches of a submerged tree. I looked around to see if it was another swimmer before I figured out what it was. Many of us swam over this tree. It would have been nice if the branches near the surface could have been trimmed off.

From where I was at start time, it wasn't at all clear where the start was, so I went off in the wrong direction.

I don't think the diagram of the swim course was accurate. This might have been helpful. The diagram made it look like the start was right at the shoreline. It wasn't. It made it look like the first long straightaway of the swim went parallel to the shore. I don't think it did. I think it actually angled away from the shore.
If you look at the aerial photo below, you see some rocks pointed to at B at the bottom. The first long line of buoys actually ran straight from about the island toward those rocks, not the direction indicated by the diagram.
The start was not at the shoreline, but many yards out from A. I don't know how far, because I never knew exactly where the start was. We should have swam toward the island, then turned right, to the south. I didn't know where to go, so I started going parallel to shore long before I got out far enough. When I realized I was alone, I looked up and saw some people swimming diagonally away from shore, and others swimming perpendicular to shore.
I yelled and yelled at boats and kayaks I saw. I mostly loudly yelled, "Which way?!"
I was definitely down at this point, with the thought filling my mind that it was already over. I had to fight it off and tell myself to just keep trying. I wasn't going to give up.

I kept trying to guess which way I should be going, and swim in that general direction. After a while, someone finally did answer me and put me on the right track, but it didn't seem like anyone was trying to do that in the critical first 200 to 300 yards.

After I got on the course, I could see I wasn't alone. There were others who were going to be close to the cutoff time. There was one guy in particular who was doing a lot of breast stroke. I would pass him while he was doing that, then he would pass me when he switched to freestyle again.
At the first left turn, I saw someone getting out of the water onto a boat. I could sympathize, but I thought I was going to be fine. I was doing much better than I have in any long open water swim in the past.
I had already noticed that I was having a hard time swimming a straight line. I needed to sight out ahead frequently.
When I got to the second left, turning northward, I grabbed the buoy and took a look at my watch. I knew I was more than a mile into the swim, and it was 56 minutes since the start, so I was doing all right. But I had to keep pushing to make it.

Sometime after the first quarter of that long northward straight, a woman on a surfboard came alongside me while I was resting for a second, to ask if I needed help. I pulled one of the power gels out of my wet suit, sucked it down and handed her the wrapper.
She stuck near me for a while, and I decided I may as well sight on her if she was going my way. I asked her if she would stick with me and if I could sight on her, and she said it was fine. I'm sure it helped some, and I'm sure that at times she was too close to me, and I got an unfair drafting advantage, but it didn't go as well as I would have hoped.
Very soon she was crowding me on the left side, and I assumed that I must have been going too far to the left, so I steered right. After a while she told me, "You're going too far to the right."
If I had gone to the left more, I would have hit her surfboard.
I should have known then that she and I had different ideas about how this should work. I should have told her, "Just go in a straight line parallel to the buoys, and I will try to stay parallel to you."
Instead, I was never sure if she was getting closer or farther away simply because she wasn't going in a straight line.
After I had kept my head down and sighted only on her for several hundred yards, then looked up, I saw I was way out to the right of the line of buoys, and I said, "I'm way off course!"
She said, "You're fine. Do you want to swim closer to the buoys?"
But I still didn't explain to her what I wanted. I didn't want to complain, and I thought that it was obvious. But the obvious thing was that she didn't know what I expected.
We approached the last turn, which, rather than being way out in the lake as indicated in the diagram, was very close to the point marked as C in the photograph. I was unsure if I was just tired, or low, so I ate my last power gel.
I was afraid to swim past the turn buoy, so I made several unnecessary stops as I got closer. When I finally made the turn, I had a hard time seeing the finish. When I finally saw the line of buoys ahead of me, I lined myself up, put my head down, and started swimming. The volunteer on the surfboard started yelling at me after only a few strokes, "You're going too far to the right!"
So I stopped and looked up. I was still in a perfect line with the buoys. So she didn't correct me when I was going a long way off line, but was yelling at me when I was still in line.
They told me I had twenty minutes. So I put my head down and tried to swim as consistently as I could. The surfboard kept me from going too far to the right, which is always my problem. When I finally took another sighting, they told me I had ten minutes left.
I wasted a few seconds toward the end. I almost hit the boat dock. Someone warned me at the last moment, and instead of crashing head first, I put my hand on the end of the dock. I took the biggest gulp of lake water I'd had all day and coughed it out.
I started back to the boat ramp, and the water was so clear, I could see the concrete underneath me. It looked shallow enough to walk, so I stopped swimming and put my feet down, but I couldn't reach the ramp. I swam on, and when I was sure I was in shallow water, I did the same thing, with the same result. So I swam some more, and put my feet down, and just barely touched ground.
Then I walked up the ramp to some disappointed looking race officials.
I reached the end of the swim about 2 minutes too late to continue. I know that if I had been a better swimmer, little things wouldn't matter, and I would have finished in time. There's no reason why I should have expected everything to go perfectly.
It was a good thing I had the gels during the swim, since I tested at 109 shortly after the finish.
Here's the Dexcom graph from the swim, starting at 7 AM and ending at 9:22 AM. The gap is where I lost my Dexcom receiver in the transition area for a while.

I ate one gel at about 6:30. As I said, my meter said 127, but the Dexcom said 174. When I tested at 109 at the end, my Dexcom said 177.
So my Dexcom was consistently higher than my actual blood sugar. My Dexcom graph shows a low of 143 during the swim, so my blood sugar was probably close to going low.

Anyway, that was it. I was a spectator again for most of the day.
I went to the motel pool toward the end of the day, for a symbolic swim. I just wanted to make a statement to myself that I wasn't beaten, I would keep working until I made it.
It was of course a very small pool, so it took about three strokes to cross it diagonally, from one corner to the other.
Someone at the pool asked me if I had done the Ironman that day. I knew I still had the number "52" painted on my leg, buy I didn't want to explain. I just said, "No."