The story of this race does not begin on Race Day. It begins more than a year earlier, after the Disney Marathon. I look around and thought, Well, I survived that. What’s next? Then I heard about the Half Ironman. I figured that since I had done most of the distances (except the swim), it should be pretty easy. Haha! Folly is rewarded with PAIN!
The race is not cheap, Fortunately, Vitamin Water stepped in with some extremely generous sponsorship, and support. Thank you Sharlie, for making this a possibility! Your contribution played a bigger part than you know in the final hours of the run portion!
Then there was the bike. I didn’t own a road bike. Funds were tight, so I built one out of bamboo and carbon fiber. I found other people online who had done it and followed their excellent and well-documented examples on Instructables.com and other places. Huge thank-you to Brano Meres and the others who were generous with their experiences and thoughts. Thanks to Ben Willard for helping me figure out how to use Carbon Fiber, and To the Orlando Bicycle Community, specifically: “Rob” from Craigslist, Kyle of Kyle’s Bike Shop, and the team at Orange Cycle. All provided great advice, parts, service and were willing to answer questions from an amateur bike maker.
The Bamboozle was built! If you go to www.jamesjessup.com and click on the blog section, the saga of it’s birth is documented there. There are other bamboo bikes, prettier bamboo bikes and faster bamboo bikes, but not in my garage!
There was training! We swam! In a 25-yard pool, it takes 42 laps to go the full 1.2 miles. I worked up to it and did it… with many breaks and stopping to stand in the shallows, look at the clock, go Geez, I don’t know if I can do this! The usual bugaboo. I swam in Lucky’s lake. I made the 1K crossing in about ½ an hour, and figured I could do it again if I had to. The water was warm and clear, and I didn’t panic too much as the opposite shore kept sneaking away, elusively.
We biked! We rode most of the major trails in Orlando. We preferred the Cross-Seminole to Cady Way trail, from Oviedo to Baldwin Park. Take a break, grab a smoothie, sit for an hour, and head back. It’s a fun way to log 20 miles, especially towing a 90-lbs trailer with two kids in it. The Seminole-Wekieva trail is beautiful, with gentle hills and lots of shade. If you catch another leg of the Cross Seminole trail in Oviedo, you can go about 30 miles on it. The West Orange trails goes from the slums of Apopka to the hills of Winter Garden, and is a great way to get a good 40-mile ride. Lori, Lisa, Joe, Matt, Vince, and Leslie were frequent riders, and I appreciate their company.
We ran! Oh, wait… no… no we didn’t run. The last time I RAN, a bear was chasing me in the woods in the middle of the night. No lie! I don’t run well. I don’t run fast. I walk fast…enough… I thought…
I felt ready! Race Week arrived, I was fit, strong and mentally prepared… to have a panic attack the day of the event. I was also ready to push though it and keep moving. Then, the Friday before the Sunday Race, I woke up sick. Sore throat, coughing, headache, watery eyes. Merde! Racing was going to be hard enough. How do you swim a mile when your lungs are full of snot? I vowed to find out. Cold Meds: Check! Check them against the Banned Substance List so I don’t get DQ’d for taking Sudafed: Check!
Saturday, we went to check in. Lori and I got our bags, checked our swag. The Bamboozle proudly hung on the rack with the other racers’ bikes. It gathered a LOT of attention! People took pictures of it. I’m wondering if that’s because it was cool, or if it’s because they wondered who would be foolish enough to try to ride a homemade bike in this event. In any case, the Vitamin Water sticker affixed to the frame got lot of exposure, and it felt nice to have something I had worked so long on be appreciated by fellow competitors, in addition to all the great feedback I’d gotten from my friends.
Lori and I dropped the kids off with my Mom, and went out for a pre-race dinner of sushi. I still wasn’t feeling well, so instead of carb-loading, I ate 4 pieces of fishie and some rice, and called it a night. I think we were in bed by 8 PM. Ever try to fall asleep quickly when you know you’ve got a big event the next day? Doesn’t work so great! I kept going through the race in my head; what each section was going to look like, where the turns were, how I was going to feel. It worked. The alarm went off at 3:30 AM, and we were out the door.
We arrived at Disney about 5:00ish, boarded the shuttle bus from Parking to the event, and then we were there! So was everyone else! In the dark, people were going about their business with a purposeful look. We checked our gear, prepared the transition area, and marked our numbers on our bodies. In addition to the body-marking, Lori and I both wore a necklace with our vital info, an anklet with the same info, and a timing chip to record our times.
In the pre-dawn, we wandered around, and the tension mounted to palpable levels. Usually, this is the point where I purge myself of anything I’ve eaten, but I’d eaten so little the day before, it didn’t happen. Or, I was better prepared. Or Lori’s nervousness trumped mine. In any case, I was ready. As dawn broke, a blast of the cannon announced that the first swimmers were in the water, they churned through the lightening water, following a line of buoys that seemed to stretch out of sight. They would be out of the water within half an hour- before I would even enter the water.
At 7:09, it was my turn. Surrounded by a group of men approximately my own age, we ran into the water, and took off swimming, before realizing that it was faster to just slog through the shallows for the first 10 yards or so. Then we began to swim. It was a nice swim. I kept thinking I was going to be more tired, but I’d swim, then backstroke to catch up. Then a wave would go over my face, and I’d choke and sputter, and flip over again. At this point, I’d realize I was off-course, and swim determinedly in the right direction. I tried to stay away from the pack for the most part, to avoid getting kicked, and this plan worked. I think I kicked more people trying to pass me than I got kicked. I was passed a lot. I’m okay with this. My goal for the swim was to exit the water before time was called, and I actually surpassed this, leaving the water about 1 hour after entering. I did not rest, although it was offered by friendly kayakers with floaty-things.
Ted and Cheryl met me as I slogged out of the water. It was nice to see some friendly faces as I jogged to the transition area. The weather was perfect. Not too cool, not too hot…yet.
Lori was waiting at the Transition with words of encouragement and a look that said, “I still think you’re crazy.” I washed my feet off, dried them carefully, and put my socks and bike shoes on. I prepped some bottles with Hammer Sustained Energy (which tastes like drinking bread, but keeps me going), and then trotted off through the transition area to the mounting point.
The bike portion started off beautifully, though tree-lined paths and streets of Fort Wilderness. Roads got bigger and bigger until we were riding along a blocked-off section of the super-highways that connect Disney to the World. There were a few turn-arounds, and then we headed out to Hwy-192. The course was well-marked and police were on hand directing traffic. I can’t think of how it could have been better managed. Around mile 30, my back started to hurt for some reason. I still can’t figure out why. My body started to realize that most of my training rides had been about 20 miles, and I was beyond this distance. At mile 40, my left shoe started to squeak, and the bottom bracket of Bamboozle developed a clunk. Squeak, Clunk, Squeak, Clunk, for 16 more miles! Left knee started to hurt, too, and I started to fall behind my schedule.
Then the Devil appeared.
“You know you’re not going to make it,” he whispered. I don’t know how he had enough breath to talk so easily. He’d been biking for more than 40 miles, too, and looked like he had enough energy to go all day. At this point, I’d been biking for over 3 hours and was starting to tire. You don’t look so good, he said. You’re not eating enough. He was right. I had loaded my bike with about 4000 calories and only taken in about 500. I should have been filling up, but my stomach just did not want any. Additionally, the wind gave me a nasty runny nose, which I had inadvertently blown… all over the mouthpiece of my Camelbak.
“If you’re too sick to finish, maybe you should just drop out now and save yourself the hassle. You’re already exhausted, and you’ve still got half a marathon to run…IF you make it back to the transition area. Oh, and I noticed you forgot your bike pump, so if you do get a flat tire, you’re S.O.L. It’s been nice riding with you, but I’m going to finish this, so I’d better pedal a little faster. See you at the loser tent! ” And then he pedaled off into the distance. I could hear him laughing until he was well out of sight.
I’ve seen him before on rides like this. His gear is impeccable, and he rides effortlessly. But I’ve never seen him at the end of the race, only on the tough stretches. I decide to keep going. I really wanted to stop at a rest stop and stretch my back out, but I didn’t. I have this fear that if I stop, I won’t start again. Momentum is more valuable than comfort. I think this is one of the more important lessons of this event. A few minutes later, I start thinking of good comebacks for the Devil, and vow to taunt him, if he shows up again. He doesn’t but the headwinds are more than enough to keep me occupied. I saw a snake… and some buzzards. I didn’t like the way they looked at me. “You bag of guts, you’d better keep moving, because if you stop, you are just so much meat, and we don’t care if you have an MBA. Your eyes will taste just as juicy.”
So things get a little hazy at the ragged edge of endurance. I don’t know what goes through other peoples’ minds, or how they deal with the madness that creeps in. I like to imagine that the Elite are just focused on nothing but winning. I wonder if that’s just a fiction, though. I forget the distance of the bike ride, and thought it was only 54.6 miles. It was 56. I almost cried for the last two miles, but I didn’t have the energy.
And eventually, painfully, the bike ride was over. I walked my bike into the transition area, and my loving wife was there. Just seeing her really added a lot to a failing system. I put on two knee braces, my Injinji toe socks and my running shoes, grabbed a water bottle and trotted off with a confidence I faked.
The crowds of well-wishes fall off after a quarter mile, as well as my ability to trot. I settled into a brisk walking pace behind a man old enough to be my grandfather. My own grandfather was smarter than to spend his remaining heartbeats in the agony everyone felt. I’ve seen pictures of the Bataan Death March that looked about like we felt. The trail had three U-turns that felt never-ending, a few aid stations that provided life-sustaining fluids, and above all, ICE! Thank the gods for cold water. I don’t think I could have endured without cold fluids to keep my body temperature down. The trail led off the roads into the fire roads along the canals of Disney’s wilderness. They are hot, humid, dusty and endless. Did I mention we had to go three laps? The Run portion is half a Marathon, 13.1 miles. Each lap is about 4.3 miles, so it’s tough to do that calculation. It’s really tough to do math in the heat and exhausted. And everyone was exhausted. Exhaustion Management is the key to success, scratch that, SURVIVAL in this event. At about mile 3, I started getting stomach cramps. I’d heard that this happens after the bike, as your body tries to absorb the food on the run. Then, on a 2 mile stretch of nothing but heat and humidity, the Devil caught up with me again.
He was jogging, I was barely walking. “Cramps, huh?” I shook my head, dully. “That’s too bad. At this rate, you’ll never make the three o’clock cut-off for the last lap. You know about that, right? If you don’t start your third lap by three, you’re not allowed to finish. You need to walk 4 miles an hour, but you’re barely able to maintain 2. What are you going to do?” I didn’t have a good answer. He was right. That’s what I hate most about him. But I knew something that he didn’t. I am the James. And I know what that means. In this case, it meant that I was not going to quit while I could still keep forward momentum. If I fell, and someone had to carry me off the course, so be it, but while under my own power, I was going to continue toward the finish line.
What could I say to the people who put their faith in me? To Lori, who stayed there all day in the hot sun; How could I tell her I started to hurt and dropped out? To Vitamin Water, who had enough faith to sponsor me; How am I going to tell them I wasn’t comfortable so I bailed. That’s not the way I want people to think of me. If I fail, it will be beyond my control. While I have any say in the matter, I’m going to keep going.
I looked over at the Devil, “Dude.” Yeah, I called the Devil, Dude. “This is the freakin’ Ironman (well, half). Do you think that I thought it would be easy? I knew there would be pain. I was READY for there to be pain. And now the pain is here. This was all part of the plan, just like your arrival. Everyone hits their own wall, and you showed up right on schedule. You are completely predictable, and I was ready for you. So find some sucker who thought this would be easy, because you’re talking to a lost cause” But I was talking to myself, because he was already gone.
I did a lot of talking to myself. After lap one, I realized that I was NOT in fact going to make the cut-off time if I kept going so slow, so I had to find a way to get rid of the cramps. I visited the port-o-let, and that seemed to help. This would be the only time throughout the day I wasn’t moving forward. The cramps backed down, and I realized I also hadn’t consumed as many calories as I thought I would, so I grabbed a couple gels from an Aid station, and started refueling. This worked, and I jogged through the gates to the magical third lap just ahead of the cut-off. No, seriously. I was the LAST ONE THROUGH.
Previous laps, there were lots of people moving forward, passing me, talking and keeping up. “We’re almost there!” they’d say.
“Not me!” I’d cheerfully reply. “I’ve still got more laps to go.”
“Oh,” they’d awkwardly respond, but by then they had moved on.
At this point, I couldn’t see anyone coming up behind me. There were only six people within the mile ahead of me that I could see. As I kept walking at my fast-walk pace, a golf cart crept up behind me. A voice said into a radio, “Athlete number 1785 is the last one.”
The Last One. I’ve been there before. At a previous adventure race, my team came in absolutely last, and officially didn’t finish because we forgot to punch a card at a checkpoint. I was okay with that. We finished. At this point, there was nothing that could stop me. Every race has someone who comes in last. I was that person, and therefore, I HAD TO finish. It was a natural fact. My father used to say, “You know what they call the person who graduates last in his class at Johns Hopkins? Doctor.”
I caught up with the two people in front of me at the Aid station. The volunteers there knew they were near the end and were having a fire sale trying to unload 40 lbs of bananas and about 30 gallons of water on us. We marched off together, happy in our knowledge that we had secured significant positions in the race.
We kept up a decent pace. We probably could have gone a little faster, but I’ll confess, it was like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders, and we frankly forgot about the rules that the race officially ended eight hours and thirty minutes after the last wave hit the water. As we got to the last Aid station at Mile 12, we were in high spirits, until an official told us we might not be allowed to finish. This caused a minor panic, and we set off hobbling at an advanced pace. It’s not that we were lollygagging, we just knew we’d want to jog in for the finish, and frankly, had to save up the energy for that.
Two Medical techs on bikes kept pace with us the last mile. They commented that one guy had been pulled off the course with a fever of 107.5. Ouch. That can kill. A final reminder that not everyone who tries and is in phenomenal shape finishes. We pulled into the final stretch and broke into a light jog.
It was the scene from Memphis Belle, where most everyone has gone home, and given up, except for a few people emotionally invested, vowing to wait to the end, and beyond . The crews were cleaning up and tearing down, and the announcer goes over the air to say that the final three runners are coming in. And we crossed the finish line, not to adoring crowds, but to the dozen or so people that were around and not at the awards ceremony that was going on by that time. We jogged over the line, and bowed our heads to receive finisher’s medals. We had won our races, not against our competitors, but against ourselves.
Lori was there to see me finish. She’s been with me through the dead of night, mosquitoes like vampire clouds, sweltering heat and frigid colds. I can’t wait to be given the opportunity to cheer her the way she’s been there for me. Thank you, Lori. I love you more than I can express.
A few people wanted pictures of the Bamboozle, so we obliged, and dragged our gear and selves back to the bus to the parking lot. It seemed like a loooooong time since we’d driven in. So long, in fact, they dropped us off in a different parking lot, and we thought we’d lost the car for a few minutes.
At home, I was dirty, incredibly sore, and spectacularly sunburned. Oops. I even put on sunscreen! Oh, well. Small price to pay. It took a while to sink in that it was done, and I’d finished it. More than a year went into the planning for this day, and now the execution was complete, and as planned, more or less.
Lori reports that there were many people who didn’t start the bike ride, and even more who didn’t start the run. I know of several who didn’t make the three-o’clock cut-off for the third lap. I feel fortunate that I was able to finish. I am humbled by the many athletes of all ages, sizes, and shapes who finished ahead of me. There was one man who had no arms. He was so far head, I only saw him once on the run. The man with no legs likewise dusted me, as did a very nice 64-year old woman who shared the trail with me briefly. There are many people out there who make commitments and see them through, beyond the pain, beyond the doubts, to victory over self.
This would not have been possible without you. I didn’t have enough strength or endurance on my own to complete this. Without the resources I tapped into, the creativity, the skill, the knowledge, support and encouragement, I would have failed. I was thinking of you out there, and it helped me keep going.
Special thanks to Vitamin Water, who provided generous funding and support. Thank you, Sharlie for making this a possibility. Our jerseys looked great out there, and lots of people got a kick out of the XXX label on the Bamboo Bike. Ben Willard, thanks for the Carbon Fiber and the knowledge of how to use it. The bike worked great, and nothing fell off! Kyle of Kyle’s bike shop was great about finding hard-to-find parts for custom bike. Nowhere else in town has a claw adapter for a rear derailleur hanger, but Kyle has one. Orange Cycle was great with the tips for nutrition and had some great sales on apparel. Track shack was helpful in finding me some orthopedic insoles so my flat feet didn’t ruin my hip joints on the long run.
Thank you Mom, for watching the kids. Thank you Rowan and Morgan, for keeping an eye on Gramama. Thank you Dad and Cheryl for getting up crazy early to watch a fool hurl himself into a lake, and then drag himself out again an hour later. Thanks Jaime and Lisa for your care and for keeping Lori busy with updates. Thanks Joe, Matt, Vince/Pat/Pal, and Leslie, for all the fun training rides and the liquid Carb loading. It worked! Thanks to my Full Sail buddies; Cassi, Laresa, Jim, Bekka, Charles, and the many others whose ears I bent about this. Thank you Robin, for the warm wishes and thinking to wish me well. It was deeply appreciated. Thank you to Pat, my mother-in-law, who supported us in this endeavor. You weren’t here to see it happen, but we brought you with us in our hearts. Thanks go to YOU the person reading this! Thinking of the tale I’d have to tell made me hike a little harder. Studies show that positive thoughts can improve healing, even when the person being focused on isn’t aware of it. I could feel the love, mixed in with a lot of , “Dude, you’re nuts!” Yeah, but it keeps me out of trouble.
Finally, my thanks go to my wife, Lori, who set out on this journey with me, and saw it all the way through to its conclusion. Your faith in me never wavered, even when mine did. I love you, and won’t put you through this again.
…any time soon.