My Ironman story is really a tale of two journeys – One is just getting to the start line and the other is the race itself.
PART I – MY JOURNEY TO THE IRONMAN START LINE:
Starting to compete in triathlons in 2013, a full Ironman was not on my initial must do list. Over the next three years I had completed several Spirit, International and 1/2 Ironman distance events, but it was while training for the Boston Marathon in 2015 that my Ironman aspirations started to take place.
A torn meniscus in my left knee, along with major bone contusions from many years of running made me reevaluate and I realized that the pounding of marathon training was probably not going to let me run any more marathons. After a MRI that revealed significant damage, I was uncertain if I would ever be able to race again, at any distance. Based on medical advice, I took nearly eight months off of running, something that was hard to do after a lifetime of enjoying the sport. Luckily, as a newly minted triathlete, I was able to stay in shape by biking and swimming. At that point I said if I ever run another marathon it was going to be as part of an Ironman, and that quickly jumped up near the top of my bucket list. I targeted the initial Ironman Santa Rosa in July 2017 and started training for that. During the early stages of training the left knee started bothering me and I thought that I'd hate to put all this time and effort into training and have the knee knock me out at the last minute, so I decided to have surgery in February to clean it up. After six weeks of recovery I got back into the program and was on my way.
Then in May I had the bike ride that would change my life forever. While on a training ride I hit a rope that somebody strung completely across the road, causing me to have a crash and breaking my left hip and pelvis. It caught the bike's head tube, just below my handlebars, and I instantly went from 26 mph to zero, being thrown violently off the bike. It could've actually been much worse. If the rope had been a few inches higher my bike would not have caught the rope, but it would've hit my body directly and perhaps paralyzed or killed me. Three months on crutches and five months of no running (along with lots of physical therapy). During this time my wife and I realized that as we grew older we would not be able to stay in the two-story house we had been in for the past 28 years, so we sold the house and moved. That started a crazy sequence which resulted in five moves over the next nine months. Oh yeah, one other little thing. In September I was rushed to the hospital with rigors and completely incoherent with a 105 fever. Many tests later they finally discovered the root of the problem and I had surgery to remove my gallbladder. So basically, at this point, if I started running again in October I would have seven months to get back in shape and ready for the Ironman Santa Rosa in May 2018 (barring any more injuries). Despite this strange timing to begin training for such a hard race, I figured it was actually the ideal time to go for it. Mainly because I had not run at all over the past five months and my left knee would never be in better shape as far as rest and the healing of continual pounding was concerned. So, with the May 12 date for Ironman Santa Rosa, I laid out a 20-week training program which just so happened to begin on Christmas Day!
Despite lots of aching in my hip (which the doctors said typically take up to a year and a half to fully heal), I was able to stick to my training schedule and worked up to 15 hours a week of training. One other event played an important role in my getting ready to race. Not having done a triathlon in nearly three years I signed up for the Ice Breaker at Granite Bay just to get some transition practice before the big day. At that sprint race the totally unexpected happened. Despite pool swims of up to 2.5 miles, I could barely make it through the 1/2 mile swim in the cold, choppy water of Lake Folsom. If this had been the Ironman, I would have had to drop out. That terrible swim was an eye opener (and actually a blessing in disguise) and I immediately realized I had to spend the rest of my training in colder open water swims and forget the heated lap pool at In-Motion. Race day temps at Lake Sonoma were expected to be between 58-62 degrees. I got my wetsuit out and jumped into the chilly water at One-Mile Swimming Hole (in Bidwell Park) and spent the next few weeks practicing there, along with a full distance swim at Black Butte Lake, to acclimate. Although, with water temps hovering around 54-56 degrees I got hypothermia in my first swim there. I got some swim booties and ear wax to help and eventually started getting used to the cold water. Although not without incident. The current in Big Chico Creek is much swifter in the spring, especially after a heavy rain, and during one session I got swept over the dam and bruised my ribs pretty bad just three weeks before Ironman. Couldn't even take a full, deep breath until a week before the race.
I truly believe there is a reason for everything, and that nothing happens by coincidence. Despite everything that had happened over the year (or two or three), I was as ready for IMSR as I was ever going to be.
PART II – LETS GET READY TO RACE:
The big weekend was finally here, and as we were getting ready to drive to Santa Rosa I decided to get in one last little “work out the nerves” swim at In-Mo. Well, a funny thing happened. One of the swim coaches (Heather) asked how I was feeling about the race and I told her I was ready for the bike and run, but very nervous about the swim because I tend to get bad leg cramps in long swims. She said “pickle juice”. Her swimmers that tend to cramp swear by it. While driving down to Santa Rosa, my wife Googled lots of articles about pickle juice and cramping and everything sounded positive. So, as I toed the starting line for the swim I broke the #1 rule of a big event – never try anything new on race day and drank about 2 oz. of pickle juice along with my normal pre-race S Cap and gel. But I'll get back to the rest of swim in a minute, as my race morning had already had more drama that it should have had by that point, as I barely made it there in time to get into the water.
Race officials strongly encouraged everyone to take the shuttle buses from the downtown Ironman Village to Lake Sonoma, about 45 minutes away. I got to the bus stop location in plenty of time at 5:00. However, there were a lot of athletes waiting and not a bus in sight. About 45 minutes later, two buses finally rolled up and we were off at 5:46, less than an hour before the swim start. We arrived at T1 at 6:34, only six minutes before the race started and six minutes before they closed T1. Racing around to try and set up my bike and get in my wetsuit was not the way I envisioned the morning going. Luckily, I had put enough air in my tires the day before, because there was no time to check the pressure or anything else at that point. With the start a 1/3 of a mile away I quickly headed down the hill to the water. The good news was it was a rolling start with self-seeding corrals. I had planned to place myself in the 1:20-1:30 group, and as luck would have it right as I got to the water I saw the sign for the 1:30-1:40 group, which meant the group I wanted was just finishing up entering the water, so I was able to catch the tail end of my desired group and jumped right into the water without missing a beat. I decided to go out very conservative, and was just looking for a nice smooth swim with the goal of breaking 1 1/2 hours. Everything went great on the two-lap course (and as it turned out, because of a recent heat wave, the water temp was a wonderful 68 degrees!) and I came in with a time of 1:27. A good opening leg, especially after the nerve wracking trip getting there.
As we did the long climb from the water's edge to T1, they had set up a station about half way up the hill where some volunteers acted as wetsuit strippers. That was wonderful! In a matter of a couple of seconds the wetsuit was stripped clean off. No muss, no fuss. It was funny, because the person who stripped my suit was someone I knew from Chico. I had seen her on the way down, so as I approached the area I called out her name and she came over and immediately separated me from my suit.
As I jumped on my bike the main thing I was thinking about was a nice steady pace (wanted to average between 18-19 mph for the 112-mile ride) and my nutrition plan. The plan was to eat every 1/2 hour (with a total intake of about 300-400 calories per hour), and to drink about 6 oz. of fluid every 15 minutes, regardless of thirst or hunger. That plan worked great, and despite some rough roads the beautiful scenery and nice light breeze from the north made for a great ride. That is, until about mile 80. I was feeling great and would have easily finished the ride with an average well into the 18-mph range. However, at that point the weather took a drastic turn and what had been a light northerly breeze turned into a brutal 23-mph headwind from the south. It caught everyone by surprise and wreaked havoc over the last 30 miles or so. It became an effort just to keep a pace of around 15 mph and by the end dropped the overall average for the entire ride to just a hair over 17 mph. In addition, the extra effort needed to finish the bike definitely took some of the energy away that would’ve been good to have on the run.
I had done a lot of brick runs in my training and they definitely paid off as I felt good on the run almost immediately from the start. My goal was to run an even paced race in the 9:30/mile range, giving me a total time of under 4:20. I was right on that pace for the first ten miles (and my heart rate was staying in the high 2/low 3 zone which was perfect), but it turns out that extra effort needed to finish the bike ride finally caught up to me. Even though my legs would not physically go any faster, I mentally made a commitment to myself that I was not going to walk during the marathon except at the aid stations. And I was able to keep that commitment, running clear through to the finish line. I will say, by the end of the day I was sick and tired of gels and the one thing that I ended up craving at many of the aid stations was the orange slices. For some reason they tasted sooo good. Near the end of the run a passage from 2 Timothy popped into my head, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Crossing the finish line it was great to hear Mike Reilly call out my name. I was lucky enough to actually come up the chute without anybody else around. So instead of just quickly saying that I was an Ironman, he actually had time to say a bit more. His words to me were, “A first timer, from Chico, California, 60-year-old Jim Peplow. You are an Ironman Jim.”
Having to readjust my goal times during the run really made me think and realize it’s not about the time (unless of course I had a shot at Kona), but the whole experience. I originally wanted to break 13 hours, but after those strong winds I ended up finishing at 13:23:36. After I crossed the finish line I was greeted by my wife Janice, and our dog Buddy. Daren Otten (who did the race last year, and returned this year to support it) and his family were also there and it was great to talk with them. After getting some post-race food and taking a nice hot bath in the hotel room, I went back out to the finish chute for the last couple of hours to help welcome and support those athletes who were finishing their race and trying to beat the midnight deadline. What a great experience that was. For the final hour Mike Reilly came down onto the finish chute red carpet and personally greeted and high-fived the late finishers. He even got the crowd, in unison, to shout to several of the finishers “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” which brought many a smile. One of the late finishers was John Wragg, who had just done the Texas IM two weeks earlier. This was IM #245 for him, the all-time record for Ironman finishes! Mike Reilly then came over and recorded my own personal, “Jim Peplow, you are an Ironman” video (which many of you have seen on Facebook).
All in all a great weekend, and I’m glad I was able to not only complete the journey (the long crazy journey), but now I fully understand the whole experience and what it means to partake in it. The comradery, the friendships, the emotions, the dedication, the enthusiasm, the heartbreak. It’s something I will carry with me forever, and no one can ever take that away.