This year was supposed to be a big year of racing for me. I had planned on doing the Boston marathon in April, Ironman St. George in May, and add on possibly another Ironman in hopes of a Kona qualification. Plus, I had the 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand which I was super excited about.
But of course, Covid had other ideas. Before I knew it all of my races were cancelled and there looked to be no hope of any triathlons being able to go on at all. I deferred the 70.3 Worlds to next year in St. George, and Boston was completely cancelled. My Ironman in St. George was also cancelled, however we were given options to defer to races later in the year.
Luckily, I chose to defer to Ironman Florida, the only race on the list that still made it to the start line.
It was tough trying to train for a race that I was doubtful would ever even happen. I also came down with Covid in June and was sidelined from any meaningful training for about 4-6 weeks. The relentless fever that lasted a week and chest burning cough that lingered for months made running, biking, and swimming a tough prospect.
Fortunately, I slowly recovered and got back into the training mindset, always remaining hopeful that I would be able to compete in some sort of race before the year was over. As summer turned to fall and Ironman Florida still hadn’t been officially cancelled, that hope tuned to excitement.
Finally, around September or October, I started receiving emails about the race and things got real. Panama City Beach was actually going to host both the full and half Ironman! With Covid protocols in place it was definitely going to be a different race, but I was just grateful to have the opportunity to actually compete this year.
I arrived at Panama City Beach on Thursday, two days before the race. Ironman had us pick an hour time window to come register and pick up our packets to limit the crowds. Even though registration was outside, everything was set up with flags and markers on the ground to ensure social distancing.
Volunteers were seated behind plexiglass and everything was pretty much done without any actual contact. Temperature checks were done when you entered different areas, everyone wore masks, and there were hand sanitizer stations set up all over the place. Everyone involved was super helpful and they really pulled out all the stops to make this as safe of an environment as they could during this strange Covid time.
After checking in I dropped off my bike at the Playtri tent to have some mechanical issues worked on. The guys did an excellent job to get my bike race ready and I will definitely be using them again at future races. I wandered around the Ironman Store as I waited, then picked up my bike and headed to my hotel to get some rest.
I woke up Friday to get in a quick swim, bike, and run. I drove down to the pier only to find that I had forgot my goggles at the hotel. Perfect start to the day! Not wanting to have to deal with parking again I decided to do a quick 30 minute bike, and then run to my hotel to grab my goggles and run back to my car. The 4 mile jog worked out perfectly!
I walked down to the pier and did a quick 10 minute swim in the ocean. The waters weren’t too choppy, but I knew that could quickly change. After my short pre-race day workouts I headed back to the hotel and got my bike and race bags ready for check-in.
Like registration, everyone had a preset time to check in their bikes to avoid congestion. I racked my bike around 5, dropped off my bike and run bags, and headed home for some rest and carbs.
As usual, I had prerace jitters and woke up at 4 before my alarm even went off. I put on my trisuit, grabbed my First Endurance hydration bottles I had mixed up the night before along with my wetsuit and goggle, and headed out to transition.
Transition was pretty similar to past races, other than the fact that everyone was wearing masks. I had my tires topped off with air, filled up my aero bottle, and made sure my bike and run bags had all the essential.
Due to Covid, there would be no changing tents with chairs in transition. We had to leave our bags by our bike and did everything on our own during transition. This was actually fine by me. As much as I love how much the volunteers help us out, sometimes it’s easier for me to grab what I need on my own.
The 2.4 Mile Swim
We waited by our bikes until they called out our projected swim times so that we could start walking down to the swim start. I am a horribly slow swimmer with my best time being around 1:11. I was a bit ambitious and walked down with the one hour to 1:10 group in hopes that I could draft off some faster swimmers.
We were ushered into the water three swimmers or so at a time every five seconds. About 10 minutes after the official start time I was finally in the water. And boy was it rough! There was about a 10-12 mile per hour wind coming from the northeast and it made the water pretty choppy. Not the worst I have swam in, but definitely made me motion sick and had me swallowing a decent amount of salt water. I was just happy to make it through, even with a slow 1:15:30 time.
It was a long run back up to transition. With no wetsuit strippers I peeled off my suit myself, found my helmet and shoes in my bike bag, and started out on the longest part of the day.
112 Miles of Biking
The course at Panama City Beach is flat, but the wind can still make it a challenging ride. The first 40 miles or so of the bike was mentally tough as we pedaled into a headwind most of the way. The rest of the ride was a mix of tailwind, headwinds, and crosswinds.
I felt like I was doing decent with my power and staying well hydrated. However, the big issue I have with a flat course is that I forget to take posture breaks. Obviously you want to stay aero as much as possible, but I had to remind myself to sit up once in a while to stretch out my back and give my gut some space to digest the carbs I was gulping down.
The last part of the bike was into a headwind, and I was so happy to finally clip out and be done with a bike split of 5:14:20.
Unlike the typical Ironman, there was no one to grab my bike for me and I had to run it back to the rack myself. Kind of a bigger bummer than I thought. Sometimes it’s the little things you take for granted!
Once I racked my bike I bent down to grab my run bag and that’s when the first big stomach cramp hit me. All of my abdominal muscles seized up at once and I had to stand up and arch back to try to stretch them out as I massaged my abs. Not good. The pain eased up and I slipped on my socks and shoes, grabbed my visor and sunglasses, and clipped on my race belt. Last leg, here we go!
The beginning of the run I felt great! After training in the humidity of the Florida Keys, the weather actually felt nice. But around mile 2 the stomach cramp hit again. “No, don’t do this!” I actually said out loud to myself as I took some deep breaths and started massaging my abs while I kept running. Again the pain lessened, and I kept going.
I made it to the 13.1 mark and still felt pretty good when the cramping came on full force again. I tried running through it but had to eventually stop completely to try to stretch out my abs again. This time, I couldn’t get the pain to stop so I tried just running (or rather shuffling) through it.
Usually, the run will have aid stations every mile. However, because of Covid, they were now every 2-2.5 miles apart. At first, this wasn’t a big deal, but as the race stretched on this was a game changer. Quitting a race has never been an option for me, but with about nine miles left I didn’t know if I could make it. Aerobically, I felt fine. But my stomach cramping was killing me, and my legs were finally starting to feel the impact of 137 miles of racing.
I had just about used up a flask of First Endurance Gel so I emptied the rest and filled it with Gatorade at the next aid station to carry along with me between aid stops. I just told myself I had to keep moving my legs. I knew my time was suffering, but I just had to make it to the finish line. Ignoring the pace on my watch I just tried to keep my legs going. Finally, after what seemed like forever with a shuffling snails pace of running, I made it to the red Ironman carpet.
It was great to be done, but sad not to see the usual crowd lining the finish line, giving high fives. Thanks Covid….
But at least there was Mike Reilly, and when I heard him announce my name as an Ironman it was the best feeling I had all day!
My final time was 10:28:54, a couple of minutes faster than my time at Florida in 2019. When I got back to my car I finally looked up my results and realized I had finished first in my age group!! WHAT!?!! I couldn’t believe it! That guaranteed me a Kona spot for next year.
So after a crazy year of Covid and cancelled races, there was a happy race ending at least. And I am so glad I pushed myself to finish the race. I am super pumped to be going to Hawaii next year and will be putting in some serious training in 2021.