I knew Ironman Boulder would be a bit of an experiment due to the altitude. I signed up anyway because I really like Boulder and it seemed like a good race destination for the family. I figured I might not be super-competitive racing there, but at least it would be a good family trip which was relatively a short flight away and with good restaurant options (we seem to plan most of our trips around food). I also knew the weather might be hit or miss in June, but no weather seems to be as good as the Central Coast in CA.
Leading up to the race, I started to become a bit more concerned with the weather over altitude. The forecast was calling for some hot weather, in the 90’s. I really didn’t want to race in the heat, so I became obsessed with checking the weather every 30 minutes the days leading up to the race. It looked like at best it would be in the mid-80’s and at worse, in the mid-90’s. I was hoping for the former.
We flew from San Jose to Boulder on Friday before the race. Friday was the last day of athlete checkin, so I needed to make it down to registration pretty much as soon as possible when we got into town. Just walking around outside and I was dripping sweat down my head and back from the heat. It was over 90 degrees, and I was melting when in the sun. Not very encouraging.
Registration was quick as the expo area was almost empty. Usually the couple days before the race the expo area is busy and there is definitely a triathlon buzz in the air. I didn’t get that feeling here. There didn’t seem to be many athletes around town, or in the hotel. Even walking the Pearl Street Mall, we didn’t see many other athletes so it didn’t have that normal Ironman vibe. I guess that can actually be a good thing, because it’s easier to focus on vacation instead of the race.
On Saturday, we ended up sleeping in to get the kids some extra rest and then rushing to the Ironkids race at 9am. We barely made it in time for Iyla to race her 2 laps around the track with Grandma. After the kids race, we walked the huge farmers market and grabbed some early lunch from some of the vendors. I then got back to the hotel to get my gear bags and bike ready for the mandatory bike and gear check. Since transition 1 was at the Boulder Reservoir, which was about 6 miles from town, I had to ride my bike over to transition in order to get it racked and get my bike gear bag checked in.
I got back to the hotel around the kids nap time, so I stayed in the hotel room and watched some tv while Caden took a nap and Camille went shopping with her mom and Iyla. After nap-time, we got ready to meet our friends Chad and Lexi for an early dinner (and dessert).
My goal was to be in bed Saturday night, by 8:30 and to be asleep by 9. Camille took the kids to the grandparents neighboring room while I was able to get ready for bed. The grandparents took Caden for the night, so I wouldn’t wake him in the morning, which helped take some of the stress off me for the night.
Ironman Boulder started at 6:20am, which is about an hour earlier than usual, which meant I needed to get out of bed extra early. My alarm was supposed to go off at 3:45, but I was awake already around 3:30. I quietly got out of bed and went into the bathroom, where I had all my clothes laid out already. I got dressed into my tri kit, put on sunscreen, grabbed my bags and some food and headed down to the hotel lobby. In the hotel lobby, they had coffee and some food already out for athletes. Breakfast for me was a couple bowls of granola with berries and a banana with chocolate nut-butter and coffee. I was still pretty full from dinner the night before, so I tried not to go overboard on breakfast.
To save my feet from the 20 minute walk to T2, where I needed to catch a bus to T1, I got an Uber from the hotel. I got dropped off at Boulder High School, where I double-checked my run bag and added drink bottle, dropped off my run special needs bag (extra socks and athletic tape), and got on a school bus to T1. The bus ride was a short 10 minutes and when I got to the reservoir I made my way to my bike. I added my water bottles, Garmin and clipped my shoes on the pedals. I borrowed a pump to pump up my tires and then made my way out of transition to find a place to relax for the next hour.
I ended up meeting Camille and Iyla who had taken the shuttle to watch the race start. We were able to talk a bit while I changed into my wetsuit and ate a quick Clif bar 30 minutes before the race start. I handed over my morning clothes bag to the volunteers and made my way to the swim start.
My plan was to take the swim easier than normal. I figured the altitude would affect me the most on the swim, so I lined up at the back of the 1 hour group and in front of the 1:15 swim group.
When the cannon went off, I baby-stepped with the masses of others towards the start line. Rolling starts are always so anti-climactic. All this energy, waiting for the cannon, and then just baby-stepping with the crowd to the start line. We walked down the boat ramp and then 2-by-2 were able to finally cross the timing mat and take a running dive into the water.
The first thing I noticed was the water temperature. It was nice and warm. So no cold shock jumping in. I settled into a very relaxed pace and tried to just focus on long strokes. After the first few hundred yards, I was getting a little out of breath and had to breathe every 2 strokes to get in some more air. But overall I wasn’t as out of breath as I thought. Eventually, I was able to settle into my normal breathing of every 3 strokes with maybe an extra breath here or there.
The swim is a single triangular-shaped lap. The first leg was pretty uneventful. I think I started far enough back in the group to not get caught up with all the fast swimmers. So most of the people around me were going to same speed and I was able to relax and just try to swim in a straight line. Luckily we had some cloud cover blocking the rising sun, or else it would be right in our eyes and hard to sight the buoys.
After the first turn, I was still feeling good. I knew it wouldn’t be my fastest swim, but I was okay with staying relaxed and saving my energy for later. We started to get some chop in the water on the second leg, which made things a bit more interesting, but overall is was a very easy course.
It still amazes me how some people cannot swim in a straight line. I always see people zig-zagging across the course, so every now and then I had to put in some extra effort to get around those people. Because of that, I usually don’t worry about drafting and just swim my own line, unless I find someone I can follow that I can trust.
On the third leg, I started feeling like I wanted to move on from the swim. 2.4 miles is a long swim and gets boring and tiring at the end. I was ready to get out of the water and get on the bike. After what seemed like an extra-long time, I finally made it to the boat ramp and out of the water. I slow-jogged up the ramp while trying to wrestle off the top half of my wetsuit. I made it to the wetsuit strippers and got on my butt as they pulled my suit off and helped me off the ground and running towards my bike gear bag. A volunteer handed me my bike gear bag as I ran through to the change tent. All that was in my bag, were socks and a helmet. I sat in the change tent and put on my socks (which is very challenging with wet and grassy feet) and helmet as a volunteer picked up all my swim gear and shoved it all in my bag. Then I was off and jogging towards my bike.
Swim Time: 1:02:34
I grabbed my bike and ran with it up the hill to the mount line. Once on my bike, it took a while to get my shoes on, but I finally was able to settle in, rub in the sunscreen the volunteers had slathered on me, wave to Camille as I passed, and then settle into the aero position as I made my way out of the reservoir.
The bike course is 3 loops north of the reservoir, and then a few more miles back into town and to T2. Each loop had 2 climbs and 2 descents, so it was pretty easy to break up the race into chunks. Right away on the first loop, I focused on drinking some fluid and just getting a sense of how I felt. As far as I could tell, I was feeling pretty good. Nothing was too stiff and I didn’t seem to have any big negative effects of the altitude, so I was pretty happy with how things were going.
I knew it was going to be a warm day, so I tried to start drinking right away. However, I could see there was some cloud cover, which would help keep me cooler. My goal was to drink almost two bottles of water per hour along with about 300 calories of food and some added salt pills. Here was the specific plan I had laid out ahead of time:
Nutrition: 300 cal/hr = 1500 cal
3 gels = 270 ca
1230 cal from Perpetuem = 9 scoops
Hydration: 6150mg sodium total on the bike (7.5L or 10.5 bottles of water)
1700mg from Skratch in first bottle
945mg from Perpetuem
Need 14 pills total: 3 per hour
After the first lap, I was a bit ahead of goal power, which was nice. And I was feeling pretty good. My goal was about 215 watts and I was at 217 watts on the first lap.
The bike course was actually very pretty. There were some climbs and then some fast downhills with some rolling hills mixed it. I was a good mix of terrain to help pass the time. It was nice to look around and catch some views. Overall, I was happy with the course layout. The only downside was that it was all open to car traffic, which seemed a bit dangerous at times. There were a couple short sections where we were on a highway and getting passed by cars so I had to keep looking back and watching for cars every time I had to pass other riders. It felt like a normal training ride with the cars, but not ideal for racing.
On the second lap, I was still feeling pretty good. I tried to keep eating and drinking along with plan, but my stomach was feeling a bit more full and heavy. There were more riders on the course by then, so I had to pay a bit more attention with all the passing. My power dropped a bit on the second lap, but only by a few watts, so I wasn’t too concerned. It was fairly hard to keep power up on the long downhills and I was losing motivation to hold higher power on the climbs.
112 miles is a long bike ride. Especially without the music or podcasts I’m used to in training. That really starts to hit you around mile 70 or 80, when you’ve been on the bike a long time and start to get achy, but realize you still have a ways to go.
The last loop, I started to get somewhat uncomfortable. My bladder was always pretty full from all the fluid. My stomach was starting to get a bit off from all the starch in my nutrition and my body was getting a bit sore. This is all pretty normal, but uncomfortable nonetheless. I really was looking forward to the last long downhill to the reservoir on the last lap. I ended up really letting my power slip on that last section.
After the third lap to the reservoir, I was finally able to make the turn towards the finish line which was another 6 miles or so. That section was pretty empty and I only saw a few more riders during that time. Both my energy and power were pretty low during that section and I ended up getting passed by a couple riders in my age group. There were a lot of twists and turns on the course as I made my way back into downtown Boulder and to the high school for T2. By the time I got off my bike, I was starting to feel pretty beat up and ready to get off the saddle.
I was finally off the bike, running to get my run bag, and then slowly jogging in to the change tent to put on my running shoes, visor, glasses and race belt. I also grabbed another bottle of fluid from my bike for the first part of the run.
Bike Time: 5:05:30, 208NP/201AP
Right away on the run, I wasn’t feeling the best. I was feeling a bit tired and out of breath. For me, it’s pretty usual in an Ironman run to feel horrible after getting off the bike. I think it’s just shifting the body from being in one position for 5 hours to another position and all the jostling involved with running when your stomach is already a bit off. Usually, I can start feeling better after the first 30 minutes or so.
I took a few sips of my bottle as I ran away from transition. In the first mile, I was feeling really fatigued in my lungs though. I came up to where Camille and the family were and I gave her a quick kiss and told her I wasn’t feeling well and something was off. I kept running, but had to stop at the next aid station and take a breather. I used the restroom at the aid station which ended up making my stomach feel better without the pressure of a large bladder. I also ditched my bottle of fluid and drank some coke instead, hoping it would help with my energy.
I started running again, but right away I was still feeling my lungs were really fatigued. I looked at my heart rate, and it was lower than expected, so I didn’t see anything wrong like dehydration or altitude issues. Usually, in an Ironman run, my body is telling me to walk, almost all the time. The trick is to ignore that feeling and push through no matter what. But this time, I could tell something was different, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. So I decided to walk a bit and see if that would “reset” anything. I walked for about a minute and I could feel my energy coming back a little. So I decided to run again. But after a few hundred yards, I was having breathing issues again where it felt like I couldn’t take in deep enough breaths to support my running. Almost like I was breathing through a straw. I checked my heart rate again, and all looked good. I had to stop running and walk again in order to catch my breath.
As I walked I tried to describe for myself what I was feeling, so I could sort it out. I felt like I had the energy to run, and I even wanted to run, because walking was frustrating. But I felt a tightness or fatigue/inflammation in my lungs where I could not get a full breath. If I tried to inhale a full breath, it felt constricted at the end of the breath and made me cough and tighten up in the throat.
From then on, I tried to do a run/walk cycle. I knew any good run time was lost, but I could still finish slower, doing a run/walk combination. But over the next 30 minutes, my runs became short and my walks longer. By then, I was getting my energy back and I felt like there was nothing holding me back from running other than this lung issue. Every time I tried to run, I would have to stop immediately because it felt like I was trying to run breathing through a straw. It felt like I could not get enough air to support the higher heart rate of a slow run. But the lack of air didn’t seem to come from less oxygen at altitude, but from my inability to take deep breaths, maybe from lung inflammation or from diaphragm fatigue. I was only able to take in about 30% the volume of air I would normally take in per breath.
It just got worse from there. I was limited to only walking and I was only a couple miles in to my marathon. I was getting passed by everybody and, at that point, was the only one walking. I certainly had the energy to run and really wanted to. Every time I tried, I could feel that breath restriction in my lungs and throat.
At that point, I stopped taking in any calories at aid stations and moved only to water. I figured, I probably was in fat burning mode at this pace, and wasn’t burning any sugar, so no point in taking in additional calories. I still felt like I had good energy. I was able to talk and joke with volunteers and spectators. Even walking, I still couldn’t take full breaths. It also helped to only breathe through my nose and keep my mouth closed.
All I kept thinking about was how my poor family would be stuck waiting for me, expecting me to run by at a certain time. I felt really horrible they were going to have to wait so long before they saw me again. So mostly I was feeling embarrassed that I would let them down. Also embarrassed walking passed the tons of spectators on the course. This race had some of the best crowd support and turnout I have seen at any Ironman. And here I was, walking by, early in the run course.
And that’s pretty much how the rest of the run went… I walked. I had a lot of time to think. I felt fine, and was in good spirits the whole time. I really really wanted to start running, or even do a run-walk. I kept trying, but as time went on, it was harder and harder to breathe through my mouth. So while walking, I had to take short breaths through my nose. Even drinking water became harder and I had to take baby sips.
So now I know what it feels like to walk an entire 26.2 miles. It takes a really really long time. Over 6 hours of walking. And 6 hours of not eating food and only drinking water. But I had good energy the whole time and only started getting fatigued towards the end. I think 6 hours of walking would make anyone tired.
I spent most of the 6 hours feeling sorry for my family and friends who had to wait it out. The rest of the time I thought about how I was going to tell this story or come up with a cool title for my Strava “walk” activity. I wondered if I could change the activity type on my Garmin from “run” to “walk”. I thought about a lot of odd things that I can’t even recall now. Either way, I made myself laugh a lot and spent a lot of time creating my own race narrative and storyline of what was going on. I definitely had to swallow my pride walking by all the volunteers and spectators. But overall, it was actually enjoyable. Instead of the pain of running, I actually had a pleasant time walking. I got to think, talk to people, stop and talk to family, and really pay attention to the experiences and faces of the other athletes.
But finally after over 6 hours of walking, I finally made it to the finish. I actually jogged down the finish shoot, cause there was no way I was going to walk across the finish. My legs were achy, but I had more energy at the finish than any other Ironman race.
Run Time: 6:14:46, 14:18/mile
Overall Race Time: 12:33:47
This was not the race I wanted. By far my worse time, by a couple hours. But it was actually a good experience and offered a nice perspective on racing. Now I know, worse case, I can always walk…. And walk for a long time. I also know I have good endurance. I can walk over 6 hours with no food without feeling the need for food, even after an hour swim and 5 hour bike ride. It was also a very humbling experience. Probably more so than anything I’ve done. A good lesson in humility overall.
I’m still not quite sure what happened on the run. It didn’t seem like a direct relation to altitude. Maybe somehow indirectly related. I’m still trying to figure that out. But I don’t plan on racing at altitude anytime in the near future until I do get a handle on how to prevent this in the future.
I am happy I stuck it out and crossed the line to get that 7th Ironman finisher medal. Overall, it was a great family trip and a good race experience.