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Saturday, September 4, 2010

I am an Ironman

When I awoke at 6am Saturday I decided to leave my hotel room and go for a little walk. The late summer northern coolness was in the air. For a few minutes I actually had some goose bumps. It felt marvelous. 66 degrees at 7am was perfect. I was excited for the Ironman the next day.

Sometime between Saturday morning and Sunday morning a warm front slid through Louisville, Kentucky. The chill was gone. Sunday brought Florida weather. 76 degrees and sticky.

Ironman in the heat? Bring it.

At 1:39am I shot bold upright in bed. I had a bad dream. When I checked my phone I found an unexpected message from a dear old friend. There two events coupled with the excitement of the event I was about to partake in could mean only one thing: I was awake for the day. Five hours of sleep was going to have to be enough.

I arrived at the transition area of the 2010 Ironman Louisville at 5am to find the place a flurry of activity. The goal of the day for most was to get there early. I wasn’t alone in my promptness. I took my time getting ready and eventually made the ¾ mile trek to the start.

When I got to the swim start I found there to be a wicked line. I mean a line that went well beyond my field of vision. Crap.

I went in search of the end of the line.

The Ironman Louisville is a time trail start. This means that 3000 people have to get into the water 2-3 at a time. I guess the people that REALLY wanted to get into the water early well, got there early. I was at least a ½ mile away from the start. It was 5:30am. I would wait for 2 hours.

Eventually the line started to move. At 6:50am the pros started then the amateur line started to roll at 7am. This is about the time I got hunger pings. Uh oh. I had my last gel and moved forward.

At 7:30am I reached the penultimate spot on the run up till race time. The goggles went on and we were instructed to run down the dock. I did.

I got to the water and jumped in. My Ironman debut was under way.

I decided in January to sign up for the Ironman. My secret goal was to qualify for the World Championships in Kona in October. I needed to find an Ironman to do and Louisville was the only one available that wasn’t full. I paid my $500 and I was training for the Ironman.

The winter and spring were good. I was swimming a ton and working my way into shape on the bike and on the run. Then as spring turned to summer my life got turned on its head, so to speak.

I got injured and then I separated from my wife. I held things together as best I could. A couple of weeks off from running and biking and I was back at it. I lost some fitness but I kept my head up. My new lifestyle actually allowed for more training time so that was a good thing.

As the peak of the hot summer months arrived it became more and more difficult to train. Swimming ironically was the worst. I just seemed to run out of gas so quickly in the water. It was awful. I tried to maintain my efforts but my swim workouts suffered. Running was a similar story.

I tried my best but my training for the Ironman just didn’t turn out the way it should have.

No matter. The day was here and I was as ready as I was going to get.

2.4 mile swim.

The swim started east up a narrow channel in the Ohio River. The current wasn’t strong in the channel. As we emerged into the main river I thought I would feel some current. I didn’t. Was I swimming strong? Uh, no.

The turn seemed like it would never come. Just before the turn I felt it. There was no mistaken that feeling. It was early and I’d be lying if I wasn’t concerned.


It started in my toes and worked into the feet and the calves. I had to slow down. I was less than 30 minutes into the race so I had to do something. Slowing down did little to help. It was hot so I was losing fuel. There are no water stations in the swim…

OK, it’s a swim.

As gross as this is I needed to do it. I started drinking the Ohio River. I cringe now thinking about it but it was something that I needed to do.

It helped.

The last 1.5 miles or so was straight west and downstream (with little to no current) in the Ohio River. The finish seems impossibly far away. I had intermittent cramps but I soldiered on.

Mercifully the swim ended. It was a complete and utter disaster; a travesty of the worst kind. I’d lost 10+ minutes in the swim because of cramping and generally crappy fitness in the water. My time was 1:17:09 and I was out of the water 921 out of about 3000. I knew in my heart anyway that, because of the heat, today was going to be more about survival anyway.

I got on my bike and started flying. I felt great and my spirits soared. I decided that I would throw caution to the wind and bike at hard as I could.

The first 23 miles I averaged around 22.3 mph. I felt real good and I was gaining confidence. As I hit mile 20 the gravity of the day hit me. I have been busting my butt for over 2 hours and I still had 92 miles to go on the bike?

Run a marathon? Deep breath…

Attempting an Ironman is a noble feet. You train and prepare. You invest in equipment, make the drive and get a hotel room. Plans are made. You get excited. You are ready.

You aren’t ready. There is nothing on this earth that can prepare you for your first Ironman. This cross you alone must bear. It’s physical yes. The physical part loses its importance as the race goes on. Eventually it all comes down to you and what your mind decides for you.

I’ve already mentioned my personal struggles leading up to the race. In the weeks before the big day there were times that I doubted myself. I was a little scared that my ambition would abandon me. I was afraid that I just wouldn’t have the stones to carry on when it was gut check time.

I went alone to this race. I go alone to races all the time. This one was different because it was so big and there were so many people there supporting other Ironman. I never calculated how hard the loneliness would be. This could have defeated me.

It didn’t. I wasn’t alone after all. I was texting multiple people the whole time I was in Kentucky. I was sending pictures and talking on the phone. I was chatting on Facebook. Then when I saw that my old friend had reached out to me it all was crystallized. I wasn’t alone and mentally I was ready.

I hammered on through the bike course. The second checkpoint was 17 miles long and I average 21.5 mph. Man, Kentucky is hilly.

The first 10 miles were dead flat then the hills came; hill after hill. Then the bike creaks and the knee pain came. At least I wasn’t cramping.

Crap. Cramps…

For the first 40 miles I was absolutely jamming up the hills. Guys with super fast wheels and aero helmets would pass me on the flats then I’d dump them on the hills. It was kind of fun. Eventually I had to slow down on the hills for three reasons.

My knee. My right knee started hurting when I stood up and pushed on the pedals. I really couldn’t stand after mile 70 or so. Whatever.

The creak. After the race I looked at my bike while it was on the rack. “Wow! Is my derailleur hanger supposed to be bent like that?” This made for quite an annoying sound. I certainly pissed off a guy named Guido. He always passed me on the flats then I came creaking by him on the hills. I apologized profusely.

Cramps. I did a pretty good job of keeping the cramps at bay during the bike ride. Standing on the pedals gave me cramps so I avoided that.

The next 30 miles I averaged 20.5 mph. Do we see a pattern developing here? While I was getting tired the biggest problem going through mile 70 was my neck and back. Man, they just hurt. My back is always sore but my neck? Well I know was caused that.

Two weeks before the race I did my last long ride: 110 miles in the Florida heat. It was awful. It made even more awful because of the crash 50 miles into it. I was accelerating to make a light and BLAM I hit the ground. Hurt my neck. (…and bent my derailleur hanger! Who knew!)

70 miles into the race my neck just plane hurt… and my back… and my knee… and… whatever. It’s an Ironman.

By now the temperature was in the 90’s. I saw at least a dozen athletes in various places lying in a heap under a tree. I saw guys on $5000 bikes soft peddling at 12 mph because they were shattered. 105 degree heat index will do that to you. I was fine; in a lot of pain but fine.

The last 40 miles I averaged 19.7 miles per hour. I rode in on the pathetic train. The numbers don’t tell the story. The agony that I was peddling through I can’t put into words. I will however try.

The last 20 miles of an Ironman bike ride can seem euphoric. You’d think that seeing the finish would push you through. No dice. It’s a death march of the worst sort.

112 miles is a long freakin’ way on a bicycle; it really is. Did I mention that 77 minute swim in the Ohio River? There wasn’t even a beer to think about. Yeah, there was a marathon to think about.

By the last 20 miles I was done. Getting hit by a school bus was more appealing then riding 20 miles on my bicycle. The hills were done but I didn’t care. I couldn’t ride anymore.

But I did.

I just kept peddling. On and on I peddled. Because it was flat and now 100 miles into the bike race I found myself mostly alone with my bike. Don’t get me wrong. I love riding a bike. Not now though. This bike had worn out its welcome under my ass.

The achiness is my body was unreal. My neck, back, hips, knees, feet…

I was ready to be done. 5 hours and 25 minutes and it was over.

Transition. Running shoes. Visor. 94 degrees. Marathon. Holy shit.

The first three miles were covered in about 24 minutes. I can do this. Before I reached the four mile mark I was reduced to walking. The calf cramps were unholy.

I was in deep trouble.

To be 22 miles worth of foot travel away from the finish line is hard. A 2.4 mile swim adds an element of fatigue. 112 mile bike? That is nothing compared to the fact that it was 94 degrees and the heat index was 105. Again, holy crap.

I needed to find a way to get through this. I needed to suck it up and go when my go was gone. It was time to reach deep.

Reach deep I did.

Eventually I found a rhythm. The feed stations were every mile. The mile markers were in between. At the aid stations I got two sponges and squeezed them over my head. Then I’d drink a Gatorade cup. Next it was a gel and two full cups of water. I downed it all as I moved through the aid station. When I was through I jogged to the mile mark. Then I would walk until I could run again.

I repeated this process for hours.

All of a sudden I didn’t need to walk anymore. I found a rhythm and I ran aid station to aid station. It was almost like a second wind. My second and third run segments were 9:50 and 9:30 respectively. The fourth was 8:19. Somehow from mile 12 to mile 16 the cramps went away and I could actually run again.

Believe it or not the sun went behind a cloud for about 30 minutes. Strange but true. Around mile 16 the sun came back out and the cramps returned.

For four hours I ran, ate, drank, walked… and suffered.

At mile 20 I again felt a euphoria that the finish was near. I was still an hours worth of running away from being done.

At one point I looked at my watch and realized that I’d been out here for 10 hours. 10 hours. My God, what in the blazes was I doing?

How was I still standing? Never mind running 10 minute miles.

Then a miracle came; to me it was a true miracle. I saw the sign post for mile 24. I was going to make it. I ran the life out of me.

I past mile 25 and I started to get the chills. I was about to accomplish the greatest achievement in mainstream endurance sports. I was going to finish the Ironman.

I ran and ran. The last aid station came and went. I didn’t even slow down. It was my time. It was my time to hear the cheers; to hear the announcer say THE words. It was my time to be a star. My greatest moment… I could smell the finish.

Left turn. Right turn. Left turn. Right turn… there it was.

Between me and being an Ironman was 100 yards and 100’s of screaming fans. I was going to savor the moment.

I passed the split; 2nd lap to the right. Been there done that. I stayed left; this is where the Ironman finishers go. When the people saw me stay left I could hears some cheers. That wasn’t enough. Come on people, I just did an Ironman.

Yeah, I put my arms in the air. I pumped my fists. I held my head back. I brought out the cheers. I deserved it. I worked the crowd. 10 hours and 53 minutes worth or swimming, biking and running. You people are going to cheer for me.

Then I heard the greatest words in sport. The announcer boomed for the entire world to here, “RICK COPLEY! YOU ARE AN IRONAN!” My God.

That finish shoot came to an end and so did my moment in the sun. I crossed the line and fell to my knees. Instinct kicked in and I kissed the ground. I had never been so happy to see a piece of carpet in my entire life.

I finished 123rd out of 3000 people. The marathon took me a pathetic 4:03:26. While I’m not happy with the run time I can tell you that my last mile was the fastest of the race. You know I ran 7:00.

I emptied the tank. I did my best.

Those last 100 yards meant something. As I type these words 5 days later I am free to admit that this moment was the greatest moment of my athletic career.

I’ve won at all levels. I’ve done a lot in the last 23 years. I am proud of many moments. This one though is special. Finishing this race was the pinnacle of my career. This I have no doubts about.

At the end of the finish shoot I got my hat and t-shirt. Then as I walked out the back it was put around my neck. I took a deep breath as the lady draped that heavy finisher’s medal around my neck. It was an emotional moment for me; my most valuable medal.

When I finally reached my ailing fathers side the first thing that I did was to give him that precious medal. It was the least I could do for my biggest fan.


  1. This was a great post!! I Cannot imagine what it would be to endure that sort of physical agony by choice! I Guess as you said, it becomes a mental game. Maybe I will quit whining about my work outs!!:)

  2. This is a well written and surprisingly motivating blog! I am glad to know you

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