I chose to do this race because it is voted the best Ironman course for first time Ironman racers, and I was, at the time, a first time full Ironman wannabe. The swim is in the Gulf of Mexico, the bike has just around 1,300’ of elevation gain, and the run is what they call “pancake” flat. It checked all of my boxes, until I found out about the sharks and jellyfish in the water, the potential hurricane force winds on the bike, and the unnerving heat on the run. All of that considered, I closed my eyes and hit the “submit payment” button and then went through all of the emotions of signing up for my first full Ironman. I used Matt Fitzgerald’s level 6 full Ironman training program and it was fantastic. I used Tri Bike Transport to get my steed, a Cervelo P2 with Zipp 808 on the front and a disc on the back, race tires and latex tubes, to the race. This was an excellent decision because I did not want to have to mess with making adjustments to my bike prior to race day. My goal times were sub 13 hours with a stretch goal of 12 hours and 30 minutes.
15 days out and the weather report looked as if it was going to be a perfect day. Race day conditions were predicted to be in the mid to high 50’s in the morning and the low 80’s for the high with winds from the NNE at 5-10 mph, which would provide for a nice tail wind the last 20 miles of the bike. I kept checking and the weather predictions remained consistent and my hopes of a perfect day were being realized.
Checking in for the race made me quite nervous and anxious with all the transition bags and gear bags and morning bags and changing tents and wondering how to navigate all of this on race day. The atmosphere at the Ironman Village was filled with pent up energy of all the other Ironman finisher hopefuls. I could hardly sleep the night before the race and was not sure if it was because of the 3,000+ calorie dinners I had the previous two nights. (Vegan orange chicken with brown rice and a pint of dairy free Ben and Jerry’s). Or, maybe I was over hydrated.
It’s race morning and I put my nutrition and hydration in the bags and on the bike. I am a plant powered athlete and make my own gel concoction I call Jolt Juice, Double Jack Cold Brew Coffee, Chocolate Perpetuem, Medjool dates, MCT oil, vanilla, cinnamon, and BASE Salt. I also had some sweet potato pancakes that are not very flavorful, and for good reason, and used Vega Lemon Lime Hydrator for electrolytes. I had some Vega Pre-Race drink with some chia seeds and a banana with almond butter for breakfast.
My De Soto T1 First Wave Bibjohn and Pullover wetsuit is on (I have my De Soto Forza Flisuit and 2XU calf sleeves on under my wetsuit) and we are all out of the transition area and on the beach in the dark with the full moon shining on us just above the horizon getting ready to set over the Gulf of Mexico, it was beautiful. I was reminded by Denise that no matter what goes wrong or right, we have 17 hours to complete our race. I felt like I was on a roller coaster making the initial climb getting ready to crest the top into the big unknown. Here we go…The swim was pretty smooth and the water was clear and 70.8 degrees. It felt like I was swimming wide at all the turns on the first lap and I so I adjusted my strategy on the second lap. I only saw one jellyfish and lots of phytoplankton in the water and kept to my 70-75 minute goal coming in at 74 minutes. I “ran” past the wetsuit peelers because they were overloaded and everyone was laying on the sand getting peeled. I did not want all that sand on me, I knew that for sure. Straight to T1. (Time – 1:14:09, 1:41 min/100 avg pace, 138 avg HR, burned 953 calories, 208 sTSS on Training Peaks)
T1 was set up nice and there was an open chair for me to sit in, so I dumped my T1 bag out and stuffed all of my swim gear and wetsuit into it. I suited up for the bike and was grateful for that open chair to sit in and get my heart rate down to a normal rate. Out of T1 in 7:43, which was better than I expected. Get ready my steed, I am coming for you.
The first half of the bike was great, I maintained a nice high power zone 2 and kept my heart rate in a low zone 3 and was averaging over 20 mph on the bike. The roads were so smooth and there was little wind to wrestle with. It was great looking at all of the other cool bikes out on the course and the different set up’s that everyone had. One of my biggest fears was having a flat. I carried three tubes with me and four CO2 cartridges and some patches…OCD…yes. At mile 30 I heard this loud “POP” and I turned around to see if anyone behind me was pulling over. My bike was still rolling smooth, but I think my HR spiked at that time. Tragedy averted…for now anyway, I still had over 80 miles to go. A couple of miles before the special needs station the course turned onto a road that was causing my bike to bounce all over the place. I actually pulled over and checked my tires because it felt like my wheels were out of true and had a flat. Once again, tragedy averted. I stopped at the special needs station and refilled the water bottles and took down more jolt juice. I carried 15 ounces of jolt juice with me on the bike with 500 calories per 5 ounces and wanted to make sure I was done with one bottle at the halfway point taking in 100 calories every 30 minutes. So far so good. The heat was picking up and I started stopping at the water stations and would pour ice water all over me which created a nice cooling effect while riding. I powered down to low zone 2 on the power to get my heart rate into my high zone 2 range so I could start saving some leg for the run. The last 5 miles of the race, I tried telling myself to flush the lactic acid from my legs and to start preparing to run, over and over and over again. Not sure if that helped, but it kept me from thinking about other negative things, like how bad I wanted to get off of my trusted steed or that I could still get a flat tire due to the construction about a mile outside of the bike finish. My goal time on the bike was a sub six hour ride and I ended up coming in at just over five and a half hours. It was a great relief to be finishing the bike and handing it off to someone to corral for me. My steed and I had spent too much time together and needed some alone time. (Time – 5:35:07, 20.05 avg speed, 125 avg HR, 159 avg pwr, 75 avg cadence, 1,358’ elevation gain, burned 3,211 calories, 287 TSS on Training Peaks).
T2 tent was great. Sitting down again was amazing. I decided to keep my tri kit on for the run and changed into my Hoka One One Clayton 4’s, powered down three sweet potato pancakes, put my nutrition belt on and filled the front of my tri kit with ice. I think I must have used 15 – 20 cups of ice, lol. I was feeling pretty confident leaving the T1 tent and went on to tackle my strategy to at least run the entire first half of the marathon.
Running strong and feeling good. It was not too hot and there were not too many people passing me yet. I end up walking the water stations and pouring more water over my head to cool down and kept trudging along at an average pace of about 10 min/mi. The course is great and the spectators are amazing, aside from some of them smoking cigars, it was pretty cool they were out there supporting us. I have 15 ounces of jolt juice with me and planned to take 100 calories every two miles. Still feeling strong at the 6 mile mark and turning to come back to the start of the run. I get to Hammerhead Fred’s and there is my wife and Kevin cheering me on. I was starting to get a little dizzy at this time and was starting to struggle a little. I get to the halfway point and grab my special needs bag. I knew I had some more pancakes in there and downed them without really chewing them, it’s a gift. I grabbed my Vega Hydration and then noticed my wife left me some cards with encouraging words on them like “I believe in you”, “You can do this”, “You are amazing”, “The end is near”. The last one could have been taken in a negative light as I was not feeling very strong at that point, but I almost started crying because of the love that my wife gave me there. I saw her again at Hammerhead Fred’s and gave her a great big hug and kiss and told her I loved her and then went to finish the rest of my adventure. The card she left me about how she believed in me stayed with me the entire rest of the run. That note was invaluable.
Mile 14 is where the race began. I was walking, I had to go to the bathroom (#2) and could not find a port-o-potty anywhere. I thought about going in an alley or asking a spectator if I could use their restroom, but I didn’t. I finally came across a port-o-potty at mile 14.94 and just sat there for a while. It seemed like forever, but like everyone, it gave me some time to think. As I heard once before, “Your workout does not start until you want to stop”. I could walk the rest of the race and it would take me 3 more hours to finish, or I could nut up and try and jog in between the water stations. I started jogging and was able to maintain an 11-12 min/mi pace. After all, my wife believed in me, and my friends were rooting for me and believed in me, why didn’t I believe in me… I was wrestling with the metaphorical “Ironman” and battling him and telling him that I would be victorious and that I would defeat him. Mile 20 is when I started stepping into the body of the “Ironman” I had been fighting. We were trading blows and I was getting stronger. It was starting to get dark and at mile 23 it was totally dark, however, I could hear the announcer in the distance telling the finishers that they were an Ironman. I kept reminding myself of everyone that believed in me and started to pick up the pace. My cadence picked up and at mile 25.25 I started to stride out a bit and told myself I was going to finish strong and at that time knew that I had defeated and stepped into the “Ironman” I had been battling with since mile 14. Sprinting across the finish line in 12:04:27, 26 minutes faster than my stretch goal, I heard, “Jason Berchek, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”, it was glorious. I had so much adrenaline coursing through me that I could not feel any pain. It was a perfect day. #DEMOLISHYOURGOALS!!! (Time – 5:00:09, 11:22 min/mile avg pace, 130 avg HR, 156 avg cadence, 137’ elevation gain, burned 2,032 calories, 263 rTSS on Training Peaks. Total time – 12:04:27, total calories burned – 6,243)