“In 1982 I dreamt of becoming a finisher at the IRONMAN World Championship. That quickly became a quest to be the champion. But by 1987 the race had evolved into a terrifying beast that I could barely think of facing. I wanted to dip one toe in to see if it was possible. But in reality, winning Ironman would require me to dive in headfirst with no guarantee of the outcome and definitely the risk of total collapse. Doing that scared me to my core. ”
In 1987 the only plan I could come up with to be better was to just work harder. That goal ended up with training that added up to logging almost 15,000 miles of swimming, cycling and running by race day. For sure some of that was an attempt to get my body stronger and fitter. But a lot of it was just a haphazard attempt to mask the paralysis I felt when I really thought about placing myself back in Hawaii on that demanding course against the most demanding foe ever, Dave Scott.
I’d seen two years earlier that a flyer on the bike was not going to crack the Ironman puzzle for me. This year I’d infuse a significant dose of patience into my race day pacing. Then if the day unfolded as planned, I’d wait until the run had worn past the sixty-minute mark before I even considered posting a lethal surge for victory.
It made sense on one level. If I just trained at extreme levels and survived, then maybe I’d be prepared to deal with the extreme demands of the race. I didn’t want another meltdown like I’d had two years earlier when I cracked completely and walked a lot of the marathon. Yes, just pummel my body as much as possible in training. If I could endure that, then I would be ready for Kona. At least that was the theory.
But the race wasn’t just about how I trained. My humanness melted down much quicker than my body in Kona. Like Pavlov’s dog, repeated brutal experiences at the Ironman were starting to bring me with a sense of looming disaster when I even thought about the race. This was so different than the first couple of years when Ironman felt like an amazing adventure about to unfold. It had gotten to the point where even the flight into Hawaii made me sweat. The instant the plane would make that left hand banking turn between Maui and Hawaii I could see the narrow ribbon of road called the Queen K Hwy. Almost the entire bike course could be taken in with one look. My conditioned response to seeing it? I’d feel sick to my stomach. Not the best way to approach my biggest race of the year!
I needed a new strategy. I’d seen that an early lead meant nothing against Dave Scott. I would have to beat him in the back half of the marathon, not on the bike or even in the first half of the run. My one goal in 1987 was to be more patient. Stick with the lead but don’t move into it until later in the race. Save more for the finish. Be patient!
Dave and I swam within three-seconds of each other. Our bike splits were separated by one measly second. We ran the opening miles of the marathon in perfect unison. I was waiting. He seemed to be uncomfortable in his skin. I felt great. As we neared the halfway point I could feel a stitch start to unravel in his armor. I surged. He didn’t respond. It was the first time ever that I had gained even an inch on Dave Scott during the marathon! My confidence soared. My pace quickened. The gap grew. With ten-miles to go in the marathon I had amassed a five-minute lead. I made the turn at the farthest point of the run, which in 1987 was exactly ten-miles straight out on the Queen K Hwy. It was out beyond the airport, which felt like I had run past the edge of the earth and onto another planet.
As I started my run back to town I passed Dave who still had some distance to cover before he hit the turn. He didn’t look good. He was struggling and showed no sign that he had what it would take to close the gap that was continuing to widen between us.
Unfortunately, even with that gap I still didn’t have that surging feeling of confidence. It was strange. I was leading and putting time on Scott, but I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. It felt like I was straddling the top of a teeter-totter that could tip at any second and throw me off. Maybe it was because I knew how quickly my lead could be eaten up if I fell apart. Maybe it was because I just didn’t know what it would feel like to have a lead that no one could touch in Kona. It was unsettling. I tried to relax and refocus on the task at hand. But a half mile later I could tell something was wrong.
My energy was dropping. I ate and drank extra at the next aid station with nine-miles to go to the finish. It did nothing to improve the way I felt. I walked through the one that followed with eight-miles left in the race. I grabbed extra food and fluids trying to refill the tank and get my energy back. Before I could make it to the next aid station with seven-miles to go everything fell apart and I was back in my familiar Ironman nightmare. I was walking.
It was 1985 all over again, but worse. I could feel my world go from winning to surviving. My focus went from sensing the finish line and victory to a shrunken microscopic universe where I could only make sense of one step then the next. I was in a strange state of panic that seemed to only have one focus: keep going straight ahead as fast as possible to keep something ominous that was chasing me from consuming me. Primal? Yes.
My mind felt like a bomb had gone off. I’d been running. Now I was walking. Running is racing. Walking is not even surviving. Surviving would be what the instinctive part of my brain wanted me to do right then and there, which was to stop. I could not coordinate my muscles enough to run. But there was more.
I stopped to go to the bathroom and saw there was blood. I was bleeding internally. The sensible part of me had shut down long ago. The muscle memory from those thousands of hours of training just took over and kept me going. Pain was there but it wasn’t really registering. Bleeding inside consumed my mind. I didn’t need to have a doctor tell me it was bad. Everything was shutting down: my muscles, my reasoning, even my ability to figure out pain and what those signals were telling me to do. I just kept going like some primitive nerve bundle that kept twitching even without the brain to stimulate it.
With four miles to go in the marathon Scott passed me. He was running. I was walking. He looked good. I did not! It would be Dave’s sixth IRONMAN World Championship. It was my fifth loss. I crossed the line in second place and was rushed to the hospital where I was found to be severely dehydrated and bleeding internally. It would take over twelve-hours for the bleeding to finally stop literally moments before the doctors were going to cut me open and try to figure out where it was coming from.
I was devastated emotionally and completely depleted physically. I thought I’d done the right work. I thought I’d paced it correctly. Five years and still nothing close to the race I felt I could have. My outlook was destroyed. I lost hope. A few months later I would pick up the pieces and pull myself together enough to contemplate going back another time. But as I lay in that hospital bed with tubes still sticking out of every part of my body there was no part of me that wanted to go back to that start line.