Couch Potato to Ironman - Part 3

Keith

Keith

Ironman Canada 2015

In Sept of 2014 my wife and I had planned to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in Hawaii.  We were going to spend 5 days in Kona and 5 days in Kauai.  At this point I was getting antsy to start training for another event and I was unsure of what that was going to be.   As luck would have it we found out a few months before the trip that we would be in Kona during the Ironman World Championship.  I was thrilled, however my wife was less than excited but at this point it was too late to change our plans.

So on the day of the race we decided to stay at the resort because much of the Island is shut down for the event.  I was thrilled to learn that some of the bike course would be going by our hotel so at the right time I went to the course to cheer on the athletes.  On the best of days, the weather during the Ironman World Championship is challenging because of the heat and wind and this day was even more challenging.  The wind was extreme and the riders that I observed had a real struggle against the headwinds.  As I watched the riders and cheered I kept thinking to myself, “this looks like fun, I think I can do this”   

That was it, the seed had been planted.  I had been contemplating doing an Ironman for the past several years but the swim was always the unknown factor that kept me from doing it.  However, this time I couldn't get it out of my head, even knowing training for this kind of undertaking is a huge commitment and not cheap.  After many weeks of prayer and contemplation I felt that the right path was to precede.

I started doing some research on races in my area. I needed time to train and I didn’t want to have to fly to get to the race.   As I researched race options, Ironman Canada seemed to be the best choice.  It was at this time that I approached my wife with my desire to do the race.  Her reaction surprised me even though it shouldn’t have.  She simply said “I know; I knew once we found out that the race was during our trip that you were going to want to do one”.  She knows me so well.

That was it, I had the Lord’s will and my wife’s blessing so without any triathlon experience of any kind I took the plunge and signed up for the Full Ironman Canada that would be 9 months away on July 26th 2015.  Now the pressure was on!

The next 9 months went so fast that I could hardly believe it.  2 a day training sessions multiple days a week split between swimming, biking, running and some cross training took up most of my time.  My training schedule was 6 days a week with Sundays off and Saturdays being my longest days.  Being in the best shape of my life and having completed a 53 mile UM I felt that swimming was going to be a challenge but was definitely doable.  However, reality soon set in when after the first day in the pool I could hardly complete two laps without gasping for breath.  I then really realized the enormity of what I was attempting to do and I got scared, had I bitten off more than I could chew?  Fortunately, I was able to work with some friends who had long distance swimming experience and they helped me learn the techniques needed to swim long distances.  That along with some on-line coaching and getting a few lessons with a swim coach made all the difference in the world.  

Race day finally arrived and I was ready.  I had trained as well as I could have and I felt comfortable with where I was.  The day before the race was spent getting my drop bags packed and placed and my bike checked in at transition #1.  Now all that remained was to get a good night’s sleep, pray and hope for the best.

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The morning of the race went well and I found myself at Alta Lake in my wetsuit ready to swim.  An Ironman has three different kinds of a swim starts.  They have a staggered start where athletes are sent into the water a few at a time, they have the mass run in start where all the athletes start on the beach and run in at the same time and they have a mass deep water start where all of the athletes swim out to the start line and tread water for a few minutes until the race starts.  This was the start that my race had, and unfortunately I had not practiced this.   

Once I swam out to the start line I found out very quickly that treading water can be very difficult.  Combine that with the adrenaline of the race and the wetsuit which compresses your lungs and I soon found myself in trouble.

As I was treading water I began to feel myself losing my breath and I began to hyperventilate.  This put me in the panic mode which made the situation even worse.  I knew that there was no way that I could swim 2.4 miles in that condition.  I knew that I was making the situation worse by panicking so I really tried to calm myself down, but to no avail.  Then after several minutes of this I heard the announcer start the countdown and I knew that I was in big trouble.  When the count got to zero and I heard the gun go off I, and around 1900 others began to swim.  I was hoping that I would be able to get into my rhythm and find my breath.  That hope was shattered very quickly when after about 5 strokes I couldn’t breathe and I had no choice but to stop swimming and call a kayak over to assist me.  Fortunately, in an Ironman, an athlete can use a buoy or a kayak to hang onto but they cannot use it to advance.  

Once the kayak arrived I grabbed on and the volunteer asked me what was wrong.  I explained that I couldn’t breath and she began to attempt to calm me down.  I quickly started justifying myself to her as I explained that I had trained for the race and did several open water swims, that I had taken this very seriously.  Se told me that this was very common and that I had plenty of time so to try and just relax.  

I hung on to the kayak for several minutes and even though I was still not breathing very well the realization that the race was slipping away from me was heavy on my mind so I decided to try swimming again and again after just a few strokes I couldn’t breath and had to call over another kayak.  

I did this three times for a total of about 17 minutes.  I was literally the last person on the course and my moral was crushed.  I began telling myself to just quit and stop prolonging the agony, that there was no way to continue in this condition but something deep inside would not allow me to do that.  I started remembering all of the conversations that I had had with so many people who expressed their total confidence in me.  I thought about the over 3000 miles’ worth of training I had put in, but most of all I thought that this is my calling and that I would find it very difficult to live with myself if I just quit.   

I felt blessed that day in so many ways.  Finally, after 17 minutes I was able to calm my breathing and to give it one more try.  I started very slowly and after about 30 seconds I started to feel my rhythm and breath coming.  The feeling of relief, joy and gratitude was overwhelming and I was so thankful for my faith for helping me through the most difficult experience I had ever had in a competition.  My attitude of gratefulness was such that I started singing hymns to myself and these helped me keep my rhythm going.

Now the enemy was the clock.  The swim in an Ironman must be completed in 2 hours and 20 minutes.  If you don’t finish by then you are pulled from the race.  I knew I had wasted about 20 minutes but I was reluctant to swim at my normal pace fearing that I would start having breathing issues again.   As the race continued I was able to get into a very good rhythm and actually started passing people while swimming or people who had stopped for a rest.  As I rounded the final corner and started making my way to the beach I did not know how much time I had left so I kept pushing hard.   The thought of barely missing the cutoff was all that I could think of.

Finally, I was able to get my feet on the ground and start running out of the water to cross the finish line for the swim and once again the feeling of gratitude was enormous.   In training I had decided that I was shooting to finish the swim in a conservative 1 hour and 30 minutes.  I crossed the line at 2 hours and 12 minutes, 8 minutes ahead of the cut off.  My time was horrible but at this point I did not care, I had finished.  Now it was time for the bike.

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Once I picked up my transition bag and got into the changing area I began to quickly remove my wetsuit to get into my cycle gear.  The volunteer assisting me told me to calm down and to relax, that I had a very long day ahead of me.  He assured me that comfort and a cool head would be much more important to me on the bike course than a few seconds saved in transition.   He of course was right and it was at this point I started to calm down.

As I started the 112-mile bike ride I felt good.  The cutoff time for the bike leg is 10.5 hours from the start of the race, that meant that I had a little less than 8.5 hours to finish the bike course.  In my training I had decided to travel to Whistler and ride the actual course for practice.  I did this while carrying all of my gear and having to fix a flat and I was able to do the course in 8 hours so I felt good about my chances.  My goal was to do it in 7.5 hours or less.   

What makes this course very challenging is the amount of climbing required over the 112 miles.  Overall there was about 6900 ft. of climbing with a very difficult 15-mile uphill slog about 80 miles in.  In addition, the weather conditions on the day were challenging.  The race took place on July 26th 2015 and race day the year prior was a very hot one.  This day however was to be just the opposite.  The temperature never got above the mid-50s and it rained much of the day.   

The worst part of the bike ride was the steep descent coming down from the Olympic Park Training Center on Callaghan Rd about 20 miles in.  Climbing in these cool conditions is not a problem and can be advantageous compared to hot weather, however descending in these conditions travelling between 30 and 35 miles per hour wet and sweaty is miserable.  I have trained in some very miserable conditions over my years and thinking back I cannot remember ever being that cold, ever!    Even though I had several layers covering my body, legs and arms and wearing gloves the cold was bone chilling.  Many times I saw competitors who had shoved the reflective blankets that the race provided in their jerseys or tied them around their necks.   Later, after the race was done I found out that there were many competitors who were pulled from the course and treated for hypothermia.   Again I felt so blessed that I was not one of them.

The bike leg turned out to be my best leg.  I had planned to finish in 7.5 hours or better but because of my consistent hill training I was able to crush that time and finish in 6 hours and 51 minutes.  During the race I passed hundreds of athletes, especially on the steep hill climbs and I was so happy that I had put in the many hours training on the hills.  As I crossed the finish line for the bike course I was extremely thankful that I had once again been able to finish, now for the final stage of the race, the Marathon.

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At the second transition I was tired but again feeling pretty good.  My wife later told me that I looked great compared to some other competitors that she saw who were running on a slant as they started the run.   After changing into my running gear I was off, again getting recharged by the great crowds cheering us on.  It was here that I was finally able to find my wife and family, give her a quick kiss and then start running.

The beginning of the running portion of a triathlon is frequently called a brick run.  It’s called this because after being on the bike for so long, having gotten used to the pedaling motion, when you start running your feet feel like bricks.   I had experienced this in training and I experienced it again this day.  Fortunately, I was able to loosen up pretty quickly and move past it.

Much of the time during these ultra-endurance events the athletes have to force themselves to fuel properly because they just aren’t hungry.  I knew this first hand and as the run progressed I was very aware that I had to continue to eat and drink properly if I was going to finish strong.  

As the race progressed and I ticked off the miles I could tell that my endurance was starting to get stretched as each step became more and more of an effort.  It’s at this time where the race becomes a mental game rather than a physical one.  The question becomes, do you have the mental toughness to push through the fatigue and pain to continue?  I knew from prior experience that I did.

About 13 miles into the race I met another competitor named Kate.  For several miles we had been running roughly at the same pace so I decided to introduce myself to her in the hopes of starting up a conversation and helping both of us to pass the time and get our heads out of the race.    

Through our conversation I discovered that Kate was in my age bracket, was a triathlon coach and this was her second Ironman race.  What struck me the most about Kate was even though she was hurting, especially her quads, she always smiled.  She went out of her way to be upbeat for the crowd and to smile and thank the volunteers every chance she could.  I also did my best to be this way as well but seeing how everyone reacted to her in such a positive manner encouraged me to try to do it even more.  

As we ran together, Kate and I took turns encouraging each other and helped push the other when they started to falter.  We were each other’s encourager and for that experience I will always be grateful.

As we got closer to the finish chute we could hear the crowds and the announcer as he announced the racers crossing the finish line.  I was quickly approaching my physical limit but I knew that I only had to hold out for two more miles.  It was at this point when I told Kate that I was going to pick up the pace and finish as strong as I could.  My plan was to finish with nothing left in the tank, to leave it all on the course.  She told me to go and that we would see each other at the finish line.  

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As I picked up the pace I kept telling myself that soon it would all be over.  That all of the long days and thousands of miles of training was for this moment.  I continued to pass competitors either barely shuffling along or walking.  As I passed them I encouraged them as best as I could.  

Entering the finisher chute was a surreal experience.  The chute is about 50 yards long and it is packed several rows deep with spectators cheering and yelling encouragement.  As I entered the chute the feeling of gratitude, thankfulness and accomplishment was overwhelming.  Even now as I write these words I am getting chills thinking about it.  I wanted to respect the other competitor’s space at the finish line so they could have a picture with just them crossing the line.  I wanted this for myself as well so I timed my pace to have some distance between me and the competitors in front and in back.  As I ran down the chute I wanted to really enjoy the experience so I started running side to side giving high fives to anyone who wanted one.  I frequently tell people that now I know what Bono feels like.  Then as I approached the finish line I heard the announcer say the words every person training for an Ironman dreams of hearing, “Keith Madlena, you are an Ironman!”  As I crossed the finish line I knew that all of the sacrifice and time spent preparing for the race was all worth it and I thanked the Lord for giving me the support structure, an awesome wife and the ability to finish and to persevere at the beginning of the race when it didn’t look like I was going to even get started.  

Right after crossing the finish line I was grabbed by two volunteers whose job is to make sure that you don’t collapse because frequently this is what happens.   I was given my finisher medal and shirt and then one of the volunteers started walking me over to the spectators and to where the food was located but all I really wanted was to find my family. Unfortunately that was easier said than done as the crowd was so thick it was impossible to find my wife.. but after about 20 minutes of wandering around we finally ran into each other and I was finally able to get a hug and a kiss I so needed.

After getting a quick massage provided by the race we headed to the hotel room. The cold and wet weather and fatigue had really kicked in at this point and I could not stop shivering so Marjie ran a hot bath and I just soaked for 30 min.  As I was able to start to unwind mentally and physically it was one of the best feelings I had ever experienced.  

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I didn’t sleep well that night because I was so tired and achy.  Anyone who has experienced an event like this knows that even if you don’t feel like it, it is best to move as much as possible the next day to work out any lactic acid and soreness from the event.  So since sleep eluded me I got up around 6 AM and went for a walk.  I was surprised how good I felt.  Achy and tired but not really sore.   I again thanked the Lord for this experience and the blessing of finishing.

My stats for the race are nothing impressive but I’m OK with that.   My goal was to finish the race and do the very best I could and I can honestly say that is what I had done.

Race Stats:

  • Finish Time: 14 hrs and 24 min (24 min over my goal)

  • My Overall Ranking:  1024 out of 1948

  • Age Division Ranking: 102 out of 254

Training Stats:  

  • 9 months of training

  • Total Swimming:  99 miles

  • Total Biking: 2349 miles

  • Total Running:  562 miles

  • Total Miles: 3064 miles

And finally I have to ask myself, what did I learn from this experience?

  • I learned

    • First and foremost, that the finish line isn't the prize.  The real prize comes from pushing outside of your perceived limits and the journey along the way.

    • That I was overwhelmed by the depth of my support from my family and friends

    • That with the proper mindset a person you can do things that may seem impossible at first glance

    • I learned that my faith called me and supported me in doing something incredible - like signing up for a full Ironman with no triathlon experience.

    • And I learned that chocolate milk is a great recovery drink and very tasty!

I learned that sometimes the Lord calls us to do things that from our viewpoint look stupid, like signing up for a full Ironman with no triathlon experience.  I learned that no matter what it is that the Lord calls us to do, all we are responsible for is to say, here am I Lord, send me.  I learned that the old adage that God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called is very true.  I learned that it is the Lord’s responsibility to enable me to do what he calls me to do and even if I fail by the world’s standards, if I do what the Lord commands then I am successful.  During the swim start when I was at my lowest I learned that when we come to the end of ourselves and we have no one else to trust in and we give everything to the Lord, that is a good place to be.  And finally I learned that we serve an awesome God who is all powerful and all loving and I am blessed to be called a child of God.

I have asked myself if I hadn’t been able to finish if I would still feel this way.  It’s easy to say yes and not mean it but I can honestly say that I would.  I’m not saying that I would not have been greatly disappointed but I have come to realize that this experience was not about me finishing the race and being able to call myself an Ironman, it was about me trusting in Him and hopefully being able to use that experience to help others do the s

If you'd like to keep up to date with Keith you can find him on: 

Instagram: Fitnesswithoutfear  
YouTube: Keith Madlena

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Keith

Keith

Keith rediscovered the joys of training a few years ago and has become an experienced ultra distance athlete, tackling a number of challenges along the way. Currently taking on a personal gymnastics challenge, Keith is balancing his instincts of attacking a challenge hard with training smart to manage the impact on the body and reduce the chance of injury.

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