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Ironman Florida
Tim Watson's account of Ironman Florida.

Congradulations Tim

For the past year I have been planning and training for the Ford Ironman held in Panama City Beach Florida (my first Ironman). Michelle, the kids, family, and friends have been very supportive of this crazy idea…as I got up early mornings at 5 am to swim, bike, and/or run (like the bad movie Groundhog Day). The long days, weeks, and months of being tired, sore, and irritable became part of my life….through the heat of the summer and the cold fall. Somebody said to me that training and getting to the start line are 90% of an Ironman…and I confirmed the truth behind this statement.

Race Week:
I arrived Tuesday evening in Panama City Beach Florida and settled into my hotel room (after changing rooms 3 times due to key problems and…let’s just say “bad odors”). One of the benefits of staying at this particular location is that it was the host hotel for this event…and right on the beautiful Panama City white sandy beach. EVERYTHING was there (start, finish, transitions…medical tents, ambulances, trauma units, etc.). The down side…it was not a Hilton…but my home for 6 nights (thank goodness for Fabreeze). To make things even more interesting, the weather became very cold a rainy just for the short duration of this weekend (just my luck). Try turning on a Florida room heater for the first time in what seemed like over a decade (now even more smell). The forecast was 50oF and dropping fast…and the projected race day weather was 39oF in morning with a high of 63oF!!!!…but at least sunny and windy (?). There is some good and bad with this weather development...the good: I race my best in cold weather…the bad: I need to change my race strategy and find the right clothing for the bike (fully change from my wet swim clothes before heading out for 112 miles in sub 40o temperatures). In addition to the travel logistics, I was still questioning my strategy to stick with an intense 2 week taper plan instead of 3-4 like some other plans. When I saw that I had to swim 2.4 miles, bike 60, and run 13 the weekend before the race, I about died….when does this stinking plan recover (I expected to see…lay on a couch and watch football with chips, BBQ, beer) ? Nevertheless, I stuck with MY plan even though I struggled with doubt. On Wednesday, I quickly registered for the race, bought some “stuff” in the Ironman store, got my bike from Tribike transport, and staged all my gear and planning. I got in a 2 mile run which seemed to help work out some of the tired legs. My plan was to avoid all the nervous triathletes and try to stay off my feet, relax, and eat healthy. God bless books on tape and the internet. Thursday, easy swim and easy bike (all checked out on my JAMIS T2 tri bike) it was time to rest rest rest. TRAINING OVER, DONE, NO MORE!!!! Time to race….

Michelle, Kerrie, and Dad arrived Thursday night to witness the event (or claim the body). Kerrie has been our best triathlon buddy for years …and our incredible massage therapist…and she spent the week working on my legs for full recovery. If any of you ever plan to do something even remotely like this (or something as stupid) …GET A MASSAGE THERAPIST (but you can’t have Kerrie!!!! ) Friday was a long day of nervous rest …and I finally settled into bed anticipating a 4 am wake up call.

Sat-Race Day:
No doubt…I woke up before 4. My legs were restless….but that was a good sign to me they were ready to hammer. I ate my planned 1 PBJ, 1 banana, and 270 cal of liquid Perpetium. I then went and got body marked, staged my bike and nutrition, and dropped off the last of my special needs bags (half way bike and run for your own nutrition). I immediately went back to the room and started going over my race plan in my head and stretched. Our room was literally right on the beach in front of the start. PERFECT! I watched out the window as hundreds gathered in the sub 40oF temp and kept warm by sitting in the 74oF water. Now the stinky room with the bad heater didn’t seem so bad! I had the advantage of being 100 ft from the start… and stayed my course of stretching and relaxing in comfort. At 6:40 AM, I jumped into my wetsuit and headed down, over the timing mat (to activate my timing chip), and right into the water to stay warm (the dry beach sand was FREEZING). By now there were >2400 athletes spread out on the beach in every direction ready for the mass start. I can’t tell you how intimidating that was…but I stayed focused. The last 5 minutes before the start this huge adrenaline rush came over me and I was so ready…mentally and physically…I was ready to “braaaang it” (a term coined by Lily and Lauren Watson).

The pros went off at 6:50 and the rest of the “race smucks” waited till 7am. As I watched the pros hit the very low tide, you could see there was a current going from right to left…and a strong one. Great, one more thing…as if 140.3 total miles was not enough? So I moved down the beach another 50 yds to try to compensate. 7 am came….cannon went off… and away I went!!!! First 50 yards, no problem….second 50 no problem…3rd 100…YIKES…the current had taken me right back in buoy line and I immediately found myself right where I did not want to be…dead center the mass bodies. It is difficult to explain in words what a mass start of an Ironman is like. I got punched, drug under, lost my goggles (down to my neck thank God), and pulled under. Panicked people grabbing YOU as if you were some flotation device. It was like riding in laundry mat cloth dryers back in college at 2 AM (how do I know this you may ask?) I popped up spitting out water, flipped on my goggles…and tried to stay relaxed. It soon became apparent that if I remained passive, I was going to die… people swam over you, hit you in the face with flying elbows… if I swan faster, I got kicked in the face (I found dried blood in my nose the next day and no doubt it was from the swim). After the slight thought that my life was about to end, I decided to swim like I had planned…very aggressively and took off swimming as hard as I could. NOW I was swimming over people and being the “bad guy”…BUT, I was now moving into more open water. I lifted my face out every stroke to avoid a foot to the face and it seemed to work. I finally found open water, turned the 2 buoys and headed back to shore. NOW the currant was with me, my heart rate was down; I found space and got into a grove. I started noticing fish, sting rays, jelly fish…my days and love of SCUBA and the ocean took over and brought on an amazing calmness. I hit the beach and through the arches where my watch said 34 minutes for lap 1…and yes…started lap 2 (lap =1.2 miles…therefore 2 is the requirement). This is all part of the mental punishment that triathletes must deal with in the design of a race. I re-entered the water for lap 2 of the 2.4 miles and fought the current out again. This time I had space and accepted the slow battle out. On the way back in I was really enjoying the last half mile…I felt strong, was happy and the warm water of the gulf was beautiful. I started to plan my transition to the bike. Swim was 1 hr 11 min…about 9 min faster than I expected!

T1 (transition from swim to bike):
I hit the beach, got my wet suit peeled off by the “strippers” (no not that kind)…and ran a crazy maze through showers, over boardwalks, through the hotel to pick up my bike bag and find the changing tent. The changing tent was the biggest mess and in turmoil. It was clearly not big enough for all the men…it was like the toll plaza at the GW and there were a tons of pissed off people. I used some old football techniques, forearm shiver and a “swim” over technique to bully my way in…and proudly claimed (and defended) literally 1 sq ft of space to change. At last, the old football arm strength paid off as I deflected intruders with a flick of the arm ( I always thought there should be full contact triathlon). Off with the wet clothes and on with the dry…which was absolutely crazy trying to put on triathlon shorts, shirts, arm warmers, gloves, jacket…etc...after being in freezing conditions ( this is not a normal thing to do in any triathlon). I’ve done enough riding “wet” in cold CT to know the time to change was well spent. Oh, and somebody took my bike helmet! Thank goodness he came running back with mine as I was just leaving with his. The price of T1 ended up being 11 min….but I was confident it was the right decision.

As I exited with my bike, I got a glimpse of Michelle and Kerrie cheering me on in the crowd. I jumped on my bike and navigated what looked like the “tour de France” with cheering crowded streets… out to the road of mass bikers. About this time I was praising the taper plan because my legs were the strongest they have ever been. I was picking off bikers like ducks in a cheap arcade game. I turned East at mile 25 and the wind was almost to my back. AND everybody who did not change was paying a price and learning a lesson. People shivering, some on the side of the road stopped trying to get warm, others going slow to avoid any wind, and yes…garbage bags. By now, I was rolling 26-28 mph with very little effort and completely comfortable. I hit the half way mark strong, pick up my special needs bag (5 min stop to find it since they handed me the wrong one!)…I reloaded my nutrition and started back out. I’d take nutrition every 30 min with a plan for 500-700 cal / hr of a combo of Perpetium, PowerAde, Goo, and other double top secret formulas….but strictly a liquid diet for me (ask Michelle about the “poo poo” finisher she and Kerrie saw/ and smelt….THUS the liquid plan!). Miles 60-90 were dead into the wind and this is where I decided to spend some energy. I tucked into my tri-bars and laid down the hammer keeping an 18-20 mph pace…and there are hills in Florida! Other bikers were in the 14-17 rage so I had more fun picking off the “Cervelo, Trek, Specialized”…bikers (God bless Niantic Bay Bikes for building me a wicked fast machine!!! ). At mile 90 I headed home with the wind straight at my back…and now the wind was howling and I harnessed it all. My speed was between 27-30 mph with about 80% power as I flew home. I hit T2 at 5 hrs 18 min with a 21.1 mph average speed for 112 miles …I could hear my dad yelling but could not pick him out of the crowd. Two solid disciplines down and a marathon to go! I could not believe how well the bike went…I was so happy…I expected more like 6 hrs!

No problem…smooth and nice. In / out….and by now the weather was 60 and sunny!!! I entered the run course to a huge cheering crowd….feeling strong, full of adrenaline, and very ready for this final tough challenge.

The run was a 2 loop marathon… out and back course (13 and change miles per loop) through beautiful neighborhoods…out to the State Park for 2 mile of quiet wilderness/ mental solitude run…. and then back. I soon realized that each water/ aid station every mile or so was a theme…clowns, knights and castles, super heroes, etc. AND there was an unofficial “aid” station at mile 2…and let’s just say this time you can now use the “other” possible definition of “strippers”!!!!! I kept to my plan and took in water, nutrition, and avoided solids. The aid stations are like running through a food mart …except they did not have the line of lottery ticket buyers and chain smokers (however, you should see the lines for the port potties on the course…YIKES). Out to 6.5 at roughly a 8:30 min/mile pace (too fast for my plan and I knew it… so I adjusted)…. and back for a marathon split of ~1 hr 57 min…no walking and right on goal. NOW the fun starts…about this time I have been in motion for about 9 hrs…and my legs, feet, hips and body were feeling the pain that is so well talked about in Ironman events. I’m not sure how to describe it except …holly &%$#@*&%$!!!!!!!! I believe I made up new cuss words! At mile 15, I had my first sign of trouble… my lower stomach was hurting and I felt cramping…I figure that the cool day was misleading and I had not taken in enough electrolytes/ liquid. BUT I refused to walk. I worked to damn hard… and people sacrificed to damn much for me to give up that easy. So I just decided to race smart! I slowed my pace to about 10 min mile…hit every aid station for extra nutrition, water…and yes Coke. I remember Michellie Jones talking about how Coke helped calm her stomach and I was desperate for anything. IT WORKED! Mile 20 and my stomach cleared up quickly…I felt great and regained my normal stride. I soon headed out of the park and home…the last time I see any of that pavement….and between adrenaline and the thought that I was close to completing and Ironman close to an 11 hr mark...I significantly picked up the pace. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the resulting cold air was refreshing…about mile 24 I was starting t get excited because I could hear the finish line in the distance. I kept increasing my speed…and by now the streets were PACKED. The more people yelled…the faster I went. I could not feel my toes or knees by now…they had gone numb. All I could think about was the energy from the crowd. No pain could trump that! I was not sure of my time since my watch had stopped on lap 2 of the swim. All I knew was the race started and 7 AM and my watch was close to 6PM…. BUT, I had one last thought…I always set my watch FAST. As I hit the turn around again ….and other competitors were waved out for THEIR loop 2….I turned for the quarter mile final shot to the finish line (as one other runner yelled “lucky bastard”). I must have slapped high 5’s with dozens of cheering maniacs…and I found Michelle, Kerrie, and Dad about 150 yards out screaming their lungs out. Michelle says she has never seen me smile and look so excited before (only at the birth of our kids ….and when Ohio State kicks the sh@t out of Michigan). I then looked at the time in the distance…10 hr…57 min. I had made it…and I was going to break 11 hrs in this race….where I had thought 12-13 was the best I could do. I ran through the Wheeties arches and spot lights, past the Ford car podiums with flowers, and up the ramp…through the bleachers filed with people….with nobody in front of me…and nobody behind me….I had the place to myself!!!!. As I crossed the line and they had me on the big video tron pumping my fist as they yelled… “Tim Watson, you ARE an Ironman”!!!!! By now I had realized my smiles were accompanied sheer exhaustion…and a few tears.

Post race:
A wonderful volunteer called a “catcher” grabs you and stays with you for some time to ensure you are OK. He said, do you realized your time was <11 hrs? I said, “Is that good” and he laughed and ensured me it was (not sure exactly what I said but something like that…I was entering a coma). I started to head through the maze….but my legs no longer responded anymore to brain signals…. and I stumbled like a kid learning to walk (“catcher” did his job right on cue and held me up….thus the beauty of the catcher). My body was done…but my adrenaline was high. We slowly made it to where they put the plastic blanket on me, got my finisher medal, shirt, hat…and then stopped to pose for a photo op. By now, Michelle, Kerrie, and dad had come running over with tears in their eyes and shouting “you did a sub 11 hr”…and it started to sink in. All my training, all the races I did this year, my taper concerns, all the long weekends, early mornings, running at 5 am on every business trip in crazy places….and I had put together 3 solid disciplines….even with the little mishaps in the swim, T1, and run…I stuck with my plan, adjusted, and kept going. 1hr 11 min swim, 5hr 18 min bike, 4 hr 9 min marathon.

Michelle and I feel in love with this crazy sport about 5 years ago and it is our thing together…we support each other, our kids support us… and we them. They are amazing athletes each in their own sport and we all set examples for each other and love to be fit.
In the post college / football years I lost any competitive edge and became fat and out of shape (some people miss “fat Timmy”). I use my football injuries and shortcoming as excuses and drifted away from exercise. Michelle and the kids were the wakeup call that I needed. The Ironman was a noble challenge just crazy enough to put a fire back in my belly to achieve something for me…and by now, this sport had become a life style. I’m not out to fool anybody, I’m not going to win these things, nor win my age group, or qualify for Kona….but I was in the top 20% in an official Ironman. Not many people can say that…
Additional Stuff
1. Post Race meal: 2 big Macs and 2 large French fries…Extra SALT (for those of you who claim not like McDonalds…you are all liars!!!!!)
2. First beer…Bud Light lime…followed by Corona….rewind …repeat.
3. First flight of stairs…no problem…day after…BIG problem
4. Went to bed at 9PM…woke up at 12 midnight. To sore to sleep. I did hear the end of the race canon at 12….was sad to think of those who did not finish.
5. Got to race with a blind Ironman. Jack Chen…what a story and inspiration.
6. Got in a line at 6AM to be able to buy a “finisher” jacket…the hottest commodity after an event.
7. Michelle and Kerrie signed up for next year…me, I get to support them!
8. I flew to Japan the Monday after the Ironman for work….and I did not take any work out cloths for the first time in 2 years!!!!
9. I wrote this on the plan to Japan…and still can’t sleep…so it probably is all babble.
10. The “Ironman” red dot Tattoo….soon to be on my injured leg right over the break!