Brian Whelan – IMCoz Race Report

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The following race report was written by my good friend and fellow athlete, Brian Whelan.  In 2011, I had the privilege of coaching Brian to his first Ironman finish in Coeur d’Alene (race report HERE).  This adventure in Cozumel was Brian’s effort to redeem his “DNF” from 2010 on this same course.  What a profoundly determined athlete!  Settle in for quite the inspiring (or crazy…or both) story.

-Ryan Chapman

Background

Ironman Cozumel (IM COZ) 2015 was the culmination of a desire that was born in May of 2009, when I, 40 pounds overweight and 2 years removed from any meaningful exercise, after a significant flare up of MS and the passing of my father, decided that enough was enough and it was time to stop dreaming about doing an Ironman race and start taking steps to accomplish the goal. The path led through a return to training and relative health, joining the West Sound Triathlon club to learn more about the sport, a crushing DNF (Did Not Finish) at IM COZ 2010, a rewarding finish at Ironman Coeur d’Alene (IM CDA) in 2011, and 3 level Artificial Disc Replacement surgery (Cervical discs 3-4, 4-5, 5-6) in 2012. That was followed by 2 years of trying, in varying degrees, to get back in shape for one more shot at evening things up in Mexico.

I flew down to Cozumel 2 weeks before the race to acclimate to the heat and wind and prepare for what would be my last full Ironman race. That time proved to be so valuable, particularly the laps around the island on the bike. Running in the heat was still a challenge but I hoped to finish the swim and bike with enough time to remove any doubts on being able to finish the run. That was the goal.

 

Race Morning

Race day dawned in darkness. I woke up around 4:45 feeling good about getting 4 hours of sleep. As much as I wanted to finish this race and knowing it would be my last Ironman, I was pretty calm. I knew the key was to always try to keep things light and easy emotionally. “NO DRAMA” was the mantra. I’d prepared my nutrition (Carbo Pro calorie drink and Hammer Nutrition – Heed and Hammer Nutrition – Endurolytes) for the bike and run portions of the race the night before and had dropped my run liquids off at T2 with my run gear bag. Sunday morning I made a fruit smoothie with a few hundred extra calories and started gathering my swim gear together as the family began stirring. There had been a few showers during the night but things were drying out nicely as we made the 5 minute walk to Chankanaab Park (T1) which was buzzing with activity as thumping bass beats filled the air. I walked my bike over to the maintenance area to top off the air in the tires, loaded my calories and electrolytes, and went out to rejoin my family, for the bus ride to the swim start at Marina Fonatur. The bus was full so most of us were standing in the aisle in the front of the bus. I sat down on the steps and took my grandson Jayden from my daughter so he could look out the front window. He was loving it as he laughed and jabbered the whole way. It was a welcome distraction.

We got to the marina and after a bathroom break walked to the swim start, where I slid in with the 1:40 -1:50 folks. The starting area was segmented by our anticipated finish times in the swim so I was at the back with the other slowpokes. At Friday’s pre-race briefing we were assured that the rolling start format (similar to a marathon start) would have everyone in the water within 5 minutes after the 7:30am start time. A rolling start is where each competitor’s 17 hour clock starts as they pass the first timing device, as opposed to the mass start in which everyone’s 17 hours began at the same time. Wasn’t even close. During the Pro start the temporary dock/ramp broke so they could only move a few people through at a time and they were slipping trying to climb through the break. The other complication for some was the depth of the water, about 3 ½ feet. One woman jumped in and broke her ankle on the rock slab landing.

 

The Swim

I entered the water at 8:27am (57 minutes after the Age Group start) and settled into the swim grateful for the fact that I didn’t have to fight anyone crawling over me. The scenery was beautiful and the brightly colored fish darting around made things pretty relaxing as I tried to keep the stroke smooth and even. I checked my watch at 15 minutes and felt good about my progress. I managed to pass a few people, along the way and could feel that I was running with the current. In 2010 the course was a loop with roughly half the race going against the current and half with it. Because my swim technique had a significant flaw in my kick that was actually working against me, going against the current caused me to expend too much energy and made for a nightmare bike ride that ended after 2 laps with the grudging acknowledgement that I wasn’t going to make the cutoff time. It wasn’t the result I had hoped or trained for but it was how the day went. This time, knowing that the swim course was point to point with the current and the fact that I was a more efficient swimmer (thanks to my coach Ryan Chapman and the Total Immersion Swim Technique) gave me a measure of added confidence and contributed to a pretty low stress swim.

The next time I checked my watch I saw that it had reset to zero. That was frustrating because I wasn’t exactly sure where I stood time-wise due to the rolling start and not knowing at the time how long it took to get into the water. My watch was going to be my only anchor point. Knowing that I couldn’t stress over what I couldn’t control I let it go and enjoyed the rest of the swim. I sighted in on the grass roofs of the Chankanaab Park docks and I knew my swim was almost over. I felt great as I made the turn for home about 300 yards from the exit and was pretty excited and relaxed. At least for the first phase I had met my goal of staying calm and not expending too much energy.

 

T1

image001As I walked up the steps from the water I had no idea of what my time was but felt confident that I’d done alright. I ran to the T1 changing tent pausing only to shower off and grab my gear bag for the bike. Because I intended to use the same suit (a one piece speed suit) for the entire race, I wanted to rinse the salt off as much as possible. My goal was to not rush through transition. I definitely didn’t want to sit around but more than anything I wanted to maintain the sense of calm that carried me out of the water on the bike ride. One thing I noticed as I started getting my bike gear on was that my arm pits had gotten chaffed during the swim. I’d have expected it for wetsuit races but definitely not today. It was a bit of a surprise and was definitely sore. I made sure to put some Vaseline on before asking the volunteers about sunscreen. That was the second slightly negative surprise of the day, discovering they were fresh out. I had decided against putting any in my bike gear bag because I was assured they’d have it. Oops! I wasn’t too worried about it much because I knew I’d find some at one of the aid stations on the bike course. I ran out of the changing tent to my bike and checked it over as I put on my helmet and sunglasses making sure the tires still had air and my calorie and electrolyte containers were full before pushing my bike out of T1. I saw my wife Peggy, daughter Amy, son Gabe, son in law Dustin, and grandson Jayden just before the bike mount line and slowed down to say hello. It was great to see them and everything was nice and relaxed as I said goodbye and got on the bike. It was already warm but didn’t feel too bad.

The Bike

A mile or so into the ride was the first water stop. Because they were providing disposable bottles I didn’t put any in my bottle racks at T1 so I grabbed 2 bottles and was ready to go. Lap 1 was great. Riding up the east coast of the island the wind was pretty stiff but I felt strong. It took about 50 minutes to make the 13 mile trip up the coast to the turn west. It was a welcome relief from the cross and head winds. Spending 2 weeks prior to the race to get acclimated to the heat, the wind, and the course made a huge difference in terms of managing expectations as to when I should be done with each part of the course (west coast, east coast, and the northern road that connected them). Also, the fact that I was riding a triathlon bike instead of a road bike was a major factor in staying aerodynamic for long stretches and feeling comfortable in that position. A little over 8 miles later I reached downtown Cozumel and crossed the timing mat to complete Lap 1 (5 miles shorter than the next 2, because the bike race started 5 miles south of town. My time of 2:01 was 39 minutes faster than my first lap in 2010 and I felt completely different. No cramping, much more relaxed and feeling great. I was hoping to break 7 hours for the bike leg and felt like I had a great shot at doing so. It was such a nice day. A little hot but not as bad as I’d seen it before so I felt comfortable pushing it a little heading down the west coast, always invigorated by the people sitting along the road, beating drums, ringing bells and shouting encouragement.

By this time I started getting passed by the leaders (I’d get one more look at them on the next lap). It was an interesting experience because during Lap 1 I’d passed a few folks and gotten passed by a few others. It was always a somewhat drawn out process. Nobody was blowing by each other and we had strict rules prohibiting drafting so we were always aware of our position relative to the one(s) passing or being passed. When the pros flew by the sound of the wind they created and the sustained low-pitched hum as they cranked out the pedal strokes was kind of mesmerizing. The difference in equipment and rider (mostly the rider) was pretty clear as they dropped me like a bad burrito. Still it was cool to see people of that caliber doing what they do best. Soon I was headed north again into the wind on the east coast for the second time.

I’d been taking regular sips of Carbo Pro from my center tank between the handlebars and of Heed from my electrolyte bottle as well as 2 Endurolytes every hour not to mention water whenever I needed it so I felt strong and hydrated. During the second lap my right quad started flirting with cramps so I’d back off as needed. Fortunately it never became a real problem and definitely not the nightmare of 2010. The difference in my physical and mental state at this point in the race between now and 2010, was ever-present in my mind and I was totally grateful for how things were going this time.image003

The trip north to the turn west went by a few minutes slower than the first lap but soon I was riding through town to complete my second lap. As I passed over the timing mat, at T2 I was suddenly aware that this is where my day ended in 2010. I was completely spent and knew I wasn’t going to complete Lap 3 before the cutoff time so I pulled out. Definitely, one of my worst days. Even as I cruised by, this time happy and ready to charge into the last lap, that memory of 2010 burned pretty strongly so it was nice to be able to relegate it to the painless archives of my mind.

Riding down the west coast for the last time was great. I took a few breaks from the aero position this time around as I could feel my back getting a little tired but my time was pretty good (for me) so I felt that being physically comfortable was more important than trying to press and pay for it during the run. That’s always the calculation during endurance events, “will the energy I exert or the muscles I stress now be needed in a few hours?”image005

As I reached Punta Sur (southern tip of the island) and headed into the wind again I started doing the math and given my priority of staying within a relative range of comfort it became clear that I wasn’t going to break 7 hours. Still I felt good and was happy to know that the home stretch was approaching (after 91 miles down, 21 to go felt pretty doable). I took the opportunity to appreciate the gorgeous blue ocean and rugged beaches to my right. As I turned west again for the last time, into the quiet calm of a tailwind, I was excited to knock out the last 8 miles and get on to the run.

Shortly thereafter I made the final turn and rode the last ¼ mile toward the finish. I checked my time and knew I’d missed my goal of breaking 7 hours. I was okay with 7:15, because the larger goal of feeling comfortable and strong had been accomplished. I slowed down, dismounted and handed off my bike to a volunteer at T2, feeling grateful for the way it had performed, and walked into the changing tent. For the first time I thought about my race at Ironman Coeur d’Alene (IM CDA – my only other finish) and compared how I felt today to how I felt at this point in 2011. In both cases I felt really good physically and mentally sharp. The fact that it was probably 30 degrees warmer today than in Idaho was something I recognized on some level but the fact that I was in the same type of unhurried, very positive headspace was what really stuck with me. It was encouraging.

T2

My goal for T2 was to take a few extra minutes to relax and stretch. Although I wasn’t exactly sure of my overall time I felt like I was in good shape so I took time to rinse off, sit down, change shoes and get my gear ready for the run. Once I was sure I had everything ready to go I took a few more minutes to stretch out my legs and back. What I’d learned over the last 6+ years of training and racing was that in the longer races I had finished (3 half Ironman, 1 full), I tended to cramp during the run. Over the years I had experimented with salt tabs and different forms of electrolyte liquids and capsules but I’d never been able to change it. Heat didn’t seem to be as much of a factor because it happened in 50 degree weather and in the 90’s. My neurologist said the MS probably plays a role because of the degree of spasticity (or stiffness) in my muscles (it’s my ‘go to’ excuse for anything… “sorry, honey, I forgot to pick up groceries… must be the MS” – always taking the high road). All kidding aside the impact of my MS has been relatively minimal on my triathlon activities. I experience numbness, tingling, and intermittent weakness on my left side from head to toe, particularly in my extremities and as a result I have to be very aware of lifting my left foot when I run or walk. It becomes more of an issue when I’m tired or on autopilot and more than once I’ve taken a tumble after scuffing my left foot.

Finally after a good stretch and a bathroom break I put on my belt (Nathan Vapor 2 Elite) and walked out of the tent to a place I’d never been before, the last leg of IM COZ. One last note about gear; my belt was important to me because I wanted to have 1200 calories and at least 22 oz. of electrolyte drink onboard. They were supplying Gatorade and water on the run course but I was using Heed and the rule of thumb is to race with what you train with so it was key to be able to carry enough fluids with me to get me through the run. My belt held two 23 oz. bottles and I was used to running with it so while it was a little cumbersome the benefit, even if only mental, of having what I needed right there, was worth it.

 

The Run

As I left the tent I saw my family and walked over to greet them. We took a minute or so to chat and Gabe said I was doing fine time-wise; that I had till around 1:20am to finish. That was encouraging as I got a hug and a kiss from everyone including my grandson and ran off into the warm dusk of Cozumel’s main street. Again, I was happy with how I felt and my energy level was good so it seemed like finishing wouldn’t be a question. Because of ankle, knee and calf injuries over the course of training for previous races, my run training had always been affected. In each training cycle (IM COZ in 2010, IM CDA in 2011, and again IM COZ in 2015) I was on crutches or unable to run for a month or so. Recognizing that in addition to my propensity to cramp during the run, I decided during the 2010 IM COZ training cycle to walk a full marathon as fast as I could to see how long it would take (6 hours, 58 minutes). This told me that I’d have to complete the swim, bike and transitions in under 10 hours. That exercise was a huge benefit mentally because it gave me the success criteria I needed to achieve my goal. In IM CDA, it was a non-issue. I finished in 16:03. This time, I was a little ahead of that pace so I was confident that I’d finish. I’d hoped to break 15 hours and at that point I felt strong enough to do it.

The first couple of miles went by and I was able to enjoy interacting with my fellow athletes and the people who were cheering me on. My plan was to run the first 3 or 4 miles then use a run 10 minutes, walk 4 pattern. I settled into that and reached the Lap 1 turn around point, at just under 4.4 miles out. As I ran and walked back toward town I made a point of always taking 2 cups of ice water at every aid station (seemed to be every half mile of so) and getting a sip of calories and electrolytes in between. Sometimes I’d drink both cups. Sometimes I’d dump one on my head or down the back of my suit to help stay cool. It seemed hot as darkness fell but it wasn’t unbearable and I still felt good. Within a mile or so of the end of Lap 1, I’d reached the 10 minute mark of my run in the run/walk cycle and started walking again. I’d started to feel a little drained so when I’d walked for 4 minutes I started into a jog and couldn’t sustain it. I’ve been in spots especially in hot races or run courses with steep hills where I’ve tried to run or maintain the illusion of running (that effort where I’m pumping my elbows and picking my knees up and down) but I’m actually moving slower than if I’d just walk. Knowing that conserving energy was paramount I decided to walk. If that was all I could do from that point forward I was okay with that. Just before the turnaround marking the end of Lap 1 I saw my family and asked Gabe exactly where I was time-wise because I wanted to know how much time I had in case I needed every minute. He had been tracking me using an Ironman Tracker app so he had my start time and all my splits. He told me I had till about 1:27am. At that point I couldn’t have imagined how critical a role he would play in helping me finish.

Lap 2 started slowly and seemed to be more of a mental effort. My energy level had dropped off more than I’d have hoped at this point in the race and running seemed all but impossible. My legs and back had started to cramp so I had to stop and stretch more often. I continued to take in calories, electrolytes and water but I wasn’t feeling much of the benefit. My family could see that I was struggling a bit and given that they were just on the sidewalk they were able to talk to me and encourage me to press on. In retrospect it must’ve been an odd site; my wife and son, daughter and grandson in a stroller, walking along with me and having to consciously try to not leave me behind. I recognized that, at some point during Lap 2, but seemed unable to do much about it. The cramps became more severe so the stretching breaks became more frequent. After what seemed like ages I reached the halfway point for Lap 2 and headed back toward town. By this time I had reached a mental state where it was becoming all about survival and finishing. I never got there during IM CDA. Although I had problems with cramping and some gastro issues there was never a point where I felt beyond my physical capabilities so the mental aspect of pushing beyond those limits never came into play. I recognized this change and attempted to steel myself for the grind though I still had so far to go (probably 12 miles, at that point).

As I walked toward town I felt an overwhelming sense of weariness. My body felt heavy and my steps seemed to be coming more even slowly. Recognizing this, I consciously worked to pick up my left foot, knowing that trying to catch myself after tripping or actually taking a fall would cost valuable energy plus it would upset the level of mental calmness I’d worked so hard to maintain all day, not to mention the possibility of getting hurt. This minor concession to my disease (MS) seemed trivial in comparison to what other competitors have faced over the years and realistically, probably in this very race. My mind drifted to the individuals who inspired me over the years, setting an example of grace under fire as they pressed on toward their goals even as their physical limitations fought them with each stroke, pedal or step. I know others who because of MS, face seemingly insurmountable challenges in just the normal activities of daily life. It can be so unpredictable. Nerve damage can show up overnight and suddenly walking or seeing can be compromised. Progressive MS is far worse. In most cases it is a one-way trip to a destination no one would choose. And still, the people in my life who deal with it motivate me to fight to maintain a positive outlook and to continue doing whatever I can to be as active as possible; to never give up.

My reverie was interrupted as for the first time, the thought crossed my mind that despite my best efforts, I might not finish this race under 17 hours. I had made the decision 9 months before when I began my training that this would be my last full Ironman race. During the final 4 months of this training cycle I was working 50 hours a week and training 30. With plans to return to school next year and wanting to enjoy life with my family more, I was looking forward to new adventures that didn’t have to be sandwiched in around training. Now the reality of that decision was settling in and I began to grapple with the fact that there are some goals in life that may not be achievable and this one that I had been chasing for over 6 years might just have to be one of those. I know that I’ve been shaped in the most positive ways by some of the hardest things I’ve experienced in my life and I took comfort in the fact that my value came from God and he wouldn’t love me any less if I didn’t finish this race. That is the bedrock of my faith and it forms the foundation of the optimistic outlook I have on life. I am however, a human being just like everyone else with the same ego and narcissistic tendencies so the process of reconciling myself to the possibility of facing the crushing disappointment of another DNF was not easy.

With that bit of unpleasant mental work behind me I pressed on, still feeling exhausted but resolute in the knowledge that I would keep taking steps as long as I was able. There were a number of medical tents on the run course with a few cots in them (some occupied) for people who needed IV fluids or to just simply collapse and every time I’d pass one, I’d see the cots and want nothing more than to lay down. They looked so soft and inviting that it became a mental effort to not veer in their direction. More than once I found myself looking over my shoulder longingly as I passed them by. With every stop to stretch I became acutely aware of just how easy it would be to just not go forward any longer. The hardest thing was the recognition that I still had another lap to go. Even through the fatigue what was most interesting was that although it seemed like such an effort to continue to put one foot in front of the other I never felt unsteady and in my mind I was keeping a fairly even pace albeit a slow one. The reality was, however that as much as I felt like I was moving well enough, the clock showed the truth that I had slowed down significantly from my Lap 1 split time so any margin I had carried from a faster swim and bike and a solid first lap, had evaporated. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was, time-wise but in some corner of my mind I knew I wouldn’t be able to coast in.

By this time, Gabe was with me for good, continuing to provide moral support. A little over a mile from the end of Lap 2 we picked up Peg, Amy and Jayden. They could all see that I was struggling and began encouraging me with Bible verses and worship songs. They also posted on my Facebook Group, asking friends and family members to pray for me and post messages of support. It was a pretty amazing example of the impact real-time social media can have, not only for those who were tracking me, but, more importantly at the time, for me, the one who needed it most. In a matter of minutes, they were reading messages from the hundreds of people who were following my progress. Amy was singing some of my favorite choruses and the impromptu in-person and Facebook church service lifted my spirits as I made the turnaround and headed out for Lap 3. The turnaround point in town was set up so that people who still had laps to complete would make a U turn and continue the run and those who were fortunate enough to be finishing made a left turn which took them into the final stretch, about 100 yards from the finish line. I confess to feeling a little envious of the folks in front of me who were making that left turn and I hoped and prayed for the opportunity to do the same.

As I walked north through town there were fewer athletes on the course and people in front of the shops to cheer us on. At that point still grateful for the encouragement, I was unable to do more than smile or raise a hand to acknowledge their efforts. It reminded me of my first half-Ironman race in Boise, Idaho in June 2010 (Gabe was with me there as well) where cramps during the last half of the run had settled in and I couldn’t do anything but walk. Coming down the final stretch, people were cheering and telling me to run and being caught up in their enthusiasm I tried to use it to burst forward in a joyous gallop only to have my quads and calves lock up, reducing me to a painful hobble until the cramps subsided. This must’ve happened 3 times over the last ¼ mile (takes me awhile to get it). I felt like Charlie Brown racing forward to kick the football Lucy was holding, reveling in the implicit faith that this time would be different. Now 5 and a half years later I thought back to that day and the conflict between mind and body. My mind said to break out and fly free. My body just wasn’t able to act on that desire so I walked on knowing that I was doing what I could and hoping that it would be enough.

My family and I walked on, Peg and Amy taking turns pushing Jay in the stroller and Gabe staying with me, keeping me aware of my time. I made an effort to pick up the pace a little but I couldn’t be sure that the mental initiative was translating into physical execution. A mile or so from the halfway point of Lap 3, I made the decision to change up my nutrition. I was still taking my calorie liquid but my electrolyte fluid was gone and I was aware that my already low energy level was fading. In every long distance race I’ve been in, water stations supplied coke and potato chips or pretzels as well as oranges, bananas and other fruit. In talking, over the years with the folks in my tri club and my coaches, I learned that, once you made the switch to solid-based carbs from liquid based, like Carbo Pro or Perpetuem, particularly to the integration of sugar and caffeine-based liquids like coke, you shouldn’t try to switch back because your body processes these things differently. First of all you’re redirecting blood flow and internal energy toward digestion rather than to muscles and introducing sugar and caffeine raises the possibility of a crash when you burn through it so you need to stay on that train through the end of the race once you’ve made the choice. All I knew was that I wasn’t getting what I needed and even if the benefit was only mental, I was losing ground and needed to do something different. From that point forward I took a cup of coke and pretzels, along with water to pour over my head. I also started eating bananas whenever they were available. In the final analysis, it’s tough to determine how much of a role the dietary change played in the outcome of the race but as far as I was concerned it didn’t matter as long as I finished under 17 hours.

After reaching the turnaround halfway through Lap 3 Gabe told me I was at 15 hours 42 minutes. He said, “You’re doing okay but you’ll need to pick it up a little.” I managed to lengthen my stride a bit and tried to increase my cadence without costing myself too much in the energy department. Physically I was still fighting the back and leg cramps and would bend over in the middle of the road and crouch down to stretch out my back and quads. I also stopped to stretch my calves and hamstrings on trees or light poles, always being aware of the ticking clock. Mentally I wasn’t getting any worse. I didn’t seem to have the psychological resources to do any more than remain focused on moving forward but that was all I needed. It was a strange state to be in, almost like suspended animation. Although I was exhausted my mind was clear and calm. I could hear people around me but wasn’t willing or able to expend whatever energy it took to respond to them. I’d also noticed that I wasn’t able to speak much louder than a whisper so there didn’t seem to be much point in trying.image007

Occasionally, I’d think about trying to run again, but the inclination never made it down to my legs so I continued to try to stride out as much as possible and called it good. With Peg and the kids providing the encouragement along with the stalwart group of spectators over the last couple of miles through town, I managed to increase my walking pace, finally outstripping my grandson as he was pushed in his stroller by my daughter and locking in to the unmistakable bass-thumping sound of the finish line in the distance. Gabe stayed with me and with a half mile to go I managed to stumble into a run. There was no real decision, no mental psych job followed by a burst of energy. It just was. I was no better or worse off than a few seconds before but now I was just moving faster. I heard Gabe shout that I was going to make it and cheering as he ran ahead to try to get video of me crossing the finish line. That goal was still a few minutes ahead so I just focused on keeping the momentum going. What struck me was the absence of emotion as I closed in on THE bucket list item I’d been chasing for 5 years. I flashed back to the last half mile in Coeur d’Alene and the elation I felt and the physical and mental capacity I had to purposefully drink it all in. It was amazing but wouldn’t be close, I’d imagined to what I’d feel if I actually finished this race, finally erasing the pain of the failed first attempt and bathing in the unabashed joy of reaching a life goal that was so important to me. And now as I approached the left turn I’d been anticipating for hours, the milestone I’d been chasing for years, I felt… nothing. Autopilot had taken over and it was all about moving forward until I didn’t have to anymore. It was neither awful, nor awesome. I guess a sort of quiet contentment was about as far as I’d go to characterize my emotions. Not exactly the over-the-top response the normal adrenaline junkie would hope for to mark an occasion such as this.

The Finish

Within about 30 yards of the turn into the finish chute, I heard Mike Reilly announcing the athlete who was almost to the finish line, “From… here is … and he’s just over the cutoff time…” Those words cut through the fog in my head and drove straight into my heart. In the few seconds it took to reach the turn, I felt for that guy the crushing disappointment that can only come from coming up short in an undertaking such as this and I vividly recalled the sting of those feelings I had experienced 5 years before. The fact that I never even got to the run didn’t change that. A DNF in the record books was still just that and I suppose I’ll always have a connection to the feelings it produced (probably because I’m that shallow). As I ran toward the finish line I heard Gabe yelling and raised my arms overhead as Mike Reilly said, “From Squamish… (as opposed to SUquamish, where I actually live)… he’s under the cutoff time…” and as I crossed the finish line I heard, “Brian Whelan, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!” And while I was too spent to demonstrate boundless joy, the impact of those words in that place was significant and well understood, then and now.image009

My time of 16:54:43, was just 5 minutes and 17 seconds under the 17 hour cutoff and it altered forever, my concept of what a difference 5 minutes can make.Almost immediately after crossing the finish line I was met by a race official who congratulated me then asked how I was doing (they probably figure anyone who’d been out there this long was bound to be nigh onto death. I really didn’t feel too bad. I was exhausted but wasn’t on the verge of collapse or anything. I told her I was tired and a little shaky but that I felt alright. She asked me if I needed anything and I said I wanted to get to the massage tent, hoping I hadn’t missed my opportunity.She directed me to pick up my finisher’s medal and shirt then toward the massage tent and watched me, probably to make sure I wasn’t going to fall apart as I walked out of the finish area. I picked up my bike in the parking garage next to T2 and Gabe ran up to give me a hug. We just hung on to each other for what seemed like minutes. It was an important moment, because he was there at our house in May of 2009 when the overweight me said I wanted to do an Ironman race and in June of 2010 in Boise when I finished my first half Ironman. He was with me in Cozumel in November of 2010 for the pain of the DNF and for the rush of joy at the finish of IM CDA in June 2011. And now the enormity of what he had done to help me finish was felt by both of us as I started to become more aware and appreciative of what had just transpired. Peg, Amy and Jayden came up and we celebrated together. It was a great moment despite my lack of resources to fully grasp it. They told me about how our Facebook group had exploded with all the prayers and well-wishes through the end, and beyond. I was pretty blown away at the level of support I received from so many. Peg and I walked to the massage tent where I was grateful to learn that I wasn’t too late to get my legs and back worked on. After 30 minutes of heaven I walked out to our giant Suburban and Gabe drove us back to our condo. I thought I might take a shower before bed but decided to lie down “just for a second” and stayed there till the next morning. I was pretty thrashed but given what I’d just been through I felt about like I’d expected to feel.

 

The Day After

I woke up around 8:30 and decided to take a shower for the 10:00 massage appointment I’d scheduled a few days before. I felt about the same as I had the night before though my legs were a little stiffer. As I walked to the bathroom Peg saw my legs get rubbery as I repeatedly reached for (and missed) the door frame, like a slow motion cartoon. My understanding is that I leaned back against the wall and slid down into a sitting position, eyes and mouth open but completely unresponsive. I remember nothing from the point I started walking toward the bathroom. Peg ran over and tried unsuccessfully to wake me. She thought I was dead and yelled for Gabe but she couldn’t be heard, due to a voice lost to laryngitis a few days before. It was a nightmare. She dragged a nightstand over from near our bed to prop me up while she ran to get Gabe. By that time more than a minute had passed and I started making a strange noise in my chest and she wondered if it was the ‘death rattle’ she’d heard about. Another minute or so after Peg got Gabe, I started to come around, totally unaware of what had happened and ready to take my shower. It didn’t seem odd that I was sitting on the floor outside the bathroom and I told Peg and Gabe that I’d be fine. She filled me in on what had happened and soon I was sitting in the tub, under the warm spray of the shower. I managed to rinse away the grime and salt from the race and, still having an hour or so before my massage, decided to enjoy the warmth of the tub. Peg started bringing me Gatorade and Gabe brought in a toast and egg sandwich. It was the first solid food I’d had since making the switch to Coke, pretzels and bananas the night before and it tasted pretty great.

After a few bites, panic ensued as I realized with absolute certainty that I’d never keep the food down and soon I was tossing my toast and eggs as well as the coke and pretzels and bananas from the night before, not to mention (but I will) pretty much all the Gatorade, water, Carbo Pro, and Heed from the last few hours of the race onto my plate, forming a decorative cascading falls down into my wonderfully warm bath. It seemed almost comical as I was unable to do anything to stop the wave after wave that launched forth. Gabe came into the bathroom and I could offer little more than a helpless grin. He took my plate of toast and eggs and puke and I set about rinsing out the tub and trying to shower off, yet again.

Order was shortly restored and I was ready for my massage. Once again, I spent over an hour in complete bliss getting my aches and pains worked out. While this was going on, my family was talking with a few other triathletes who were staying at the condo and all were convinced that I was suffering from dehydration and should go to the hospital for IV fluids. Peg called ahead and we loaded into the Suburban and headed for CMC CostaMed, a new hospital in the middle of town. Since I’d thrown up 90 minutes before, Peg was pumping Gatorade laced with electrolyte powder into me to attempt to improve my hydration and electrolyte levels. Within a block of the hospital I emptied it all onto the street in a repeat performance of the hydration follies and with that I was ready to talk with the doctors.

After explaining the situation to the ER folks, the first question out of their mouths was not, “How are you feeling now?” or “Tell us more about passing out”. It was much more critical to their diagnosis… it was, “Did you finish?” While the importance may have been lost on Peg, their question reflected the awareness that Ironman was a fixture in the life of most Cozumel residents, particularly in the medical community, many of whom in this hospital had volunteered at the event. I may have even stumbled by some of them at the aid stations as I lusted after the cots they were tending. With my vital signs taken and medical history given (including the MS) I asked to go to the bathroom. They wheeled me down the hall as Peg and Gabe followed along. I remember stopping in front of the door when suddenly, folks were gathered around me, looking all concerned and wheeling me back to the exam room. Evidently I had passed out again, this time for about 30 seconds. They immediately ordered an EKG to make sure nothing was going on with my heart. My daughter Amy was connecting one of the doctors with my neurologist back home to discuss the potential role that MS might have played in my condition. A CT scan of my brain was ordered and I was whisked away. Both tests came back negative and the docs were fairly certain my condition was caused by dehydration. Blood tests revealed that my electrolyte, sodium, potassium, and other critical fluid levels were zeroed out. I was a mess.  It appeared that for whatever reason, although I was still taking in carbs, electrolytes and water, my body wasn’t actually processing them. Because I’d been dumping ice water over my head during the last 4 hours of the run, I did know whether I’d stopped sweating or not (generally, a definitive indicator that all is not well). It is also possible to overhydrate and wash electrolytes and other nutrients out of your system. I will probably never know what the actual cause was but I was grateful to finally be connected to an IV to begin reversing the trend. I was equally grateful for the fact that my body chose to wait until after the race to begin shutting down.

As I moved from place to place at the hospital on the way to my room, I encountered many different individuals, in their various roles and throughout my stay over the next 24 hours the one constant from everyone I spoke with, from the janitorial staff to the specialists, was the burning question, “Did you finish?” and every time I answered I couldn’t help remembering how it felt when the answer was, “No.” This time was infinitely better.

As I lay in my room later that afternoon Peg asked me if it was worth it. I said, “Of course it was!” because I knew or at least suspected I’d recover (didn’t realize it would take a month to do so) and the memories I’d built over the last 3 weeks would be with me forever. I spent the rest of the day sleeping and talking to family members on the phone. The fluids were helping but the effects of the dehydration felt like the flu. I’d fluctuate between chills and sweats and raging diarrhea. I hurt everywhere, even my skin hurt. It wasn’t the typical muscle soreness I’d experienced after IM CDA. My legs weren’t all that sore because I’d walked most of the marathon. I’d gotten heat stroke in Australia, in 1980 and was hospitalized to receive IV fluids. This felt exactly the same. No fun. I wasn’t really psyched for the pending flight home.

 

The Trip Home

The next morning started with another blood test to see whether I could travel as scheduled. My electrolyte and sodium levels were almost normal and I was able to check out in time to make the ferry to Playa del Carmen and a van to the airport in Cancun. 2 ½ hours later we arrived at the airport and waited for our flight 3 hours later. Gabe had flown out the previous day so now it was 3 conscious adults, 1 child, and 1 semi-conscious childlike (childish?) adult. I was already starting to fade so by the time we got on the plane I was a mess. All I could do was embrace the pain and rush to the bathroom when the need arose… suddenly, without warning. All I wanted to do was sleep but Peg had strict orders to keep forcing me to drink. At that stage of dehydration it’s common to not be thirsty so I felt like every swallow was an effort. I kept telling myself that a real Ironman would do it without whining (even to himself) so every time her phone alarm went off I’d take whatever liquid she offered before dropping back off to sleep. 5 hours later (around 9:30 pm), we arrived in Phoenix as I continued to feel like crap. We had a little over an hour to make our connecting flight to Seattle but had to get through customs and TSA first. Racing as much as possible we arrived at our gate 8 minutes before takeoff. The problem was that the door had closed 2 minutes before and the American Airlines gate attendant was in no mood for requests or complaints. While I sank into a chair across the concourse, completely spent, Peg negotiated with the customer service representative to get our accommodations set up and our seats booked on the next flight the following day. We then gathered up our stuff and walked to get the shuttle to the motel. I was so wiped out it felt like I was doing Lap 2 of the run all over again. I wanted nothing more than to lie down but it just wasn’t an option. By the time we got to our motel we had about 5 hours to eat and sleep before heading back to the airport. Needless to say it was a miserable trip home but Peg was unwavering in her commitment to keep me hydrated. She was amazing. I spent most of the next week in bed and began to improve slowly. It took just over 4 weeks to get to the point where I wasn’t tired all the time or laid low with the slightest bit of expended effort. It was another illustration of how hard it is for me to lay around and do nothing. It was humbling and frustrating at the same time. I expected to be putting up Christmas lights and shopping and everything that goes with Christmas but I did nothing and depended completely on everyone else doing things for me.image011

A week after I got home I did what I’d hoped I’d be doing 5 years ago; getting my M-Dot tattoo. It’s quasi tradition to get a tattoo of the Ironman symbol after finishing an Ironman race.  I designed the art for it a few months before IM COZ in 2010 then, Oops! I didn’t earn it. Then 7 months later when I finished IM CDA, I couldn’t come up with anything else, so I figured I’d wait. Fortunately (by 5 minutes, 17 seconds) it worked out. I will say that the 2 ½ hours it took to get the tattoo done were as challenging as anything I experienced during the race. It hurt like crazy. Now I know why people do it under the influence of mind-altering substances. Good thing I don’t have to get another one. It’s on my right calf.The verse below the tattoo is…Proverbs 27:17 – “As Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

The Final Analysis

Now that I’ve had time to process everything that happened on this adventure, from the two weeks I spent in Cozumel acclimating and training, to the race itself and its aftermath I’m still glad I did it and more grateful than ever that I finished. It showed up in little ways, after I got home; things like unpacking my bike. As I bent over the bike box and undid the clamps, I felt a little tinge of joy as the thought banged around in my head, “You did it, you finished!” It was important because I remember doing the same menial types of tasks 5 years earlier and the tinge was a sting of hollow emptiness. All the hours, all the injuries, all the pain… all for nothing (at least, that’s how I felt at the time). My head knew that I’d done all I could do but my heart was having none of it so I just kept on moving till I got some healing behind me. This time around, those moments of unbidden happiness, came and went and I loved every one of them. Still do. Am I sad that it’s over? Will I miss having “the goal” dominating my consciousness so I have to fill the void with something else? No and No. There are so many other things to fill my days, I won’t have to look far to do it. I tend to get caught up in the big adventures. Now I need to catch myself in the small ones. The payoff is different but it’s every bit as sweet.

 

Thanks

I’ve been inspired by so many people since this endeavor began but I want to recognize my MS Fund Honoree, Deb Crabtree, because it is her spirit, driven by her faith in God, that has seen her through the ravages of progressive MS, all the while, still maintaining a positive outlook on life and being the backbone of her family’s business endeavors. She was the one I thought of often as I struggled to keep putting one foot in front of the other and I’m grateful for her example.

An effort such as this doesn’t take place in a vacuum and although it’s an individual sport, I couldn’t have accomplished what I did on my own. It truly starts and ends with Peg. She agreed to put up with another training cycle that began in February of 2015 (though in a sense, it began when I didn’t finish in 2010). She put up with my absences at various family events and almost every weekend for the last 4 months leading up to the race. She encouraged me throughout the process and, most importantly when I was struggling during the run. We approach life from opposite perspectives when it comes to our physical health. She sees things like injury, fatigue etc, as warning signs that should prompt a change in behavior. I’m an adrenaline junkie who sees those things as roadblocks to overcome in the pursuit of whatever goal I’m trying to reach. Neither is inherently bad or good, they just are. If people didn’t push through challenges we’d never discover anything or have any heroes. If they died because they blindly pushed themselves beyond what their bodies could take, we’d be in the same boat. The bottom line is that I know what it cost her emotionally, to tell me to keep going, that I was going to make it and that she had faith in me. The next morning when she thought I died, it was even harder to deal with and still she encouraged me to get better. She was and is my rock. Words will never be enough so I’d better make sure the actions prove to be. I love you, Peg. I thank God for you always.

My kids also put up with my training schedule as it impacted them as well. Their support before, during, and after the race was huge. In particular, Amy and Gabe were incredible. Gabe supplied the bulk of the logistical support as well as feeding my emotional and spiritual needs for the last 12 miles of the run. He kept me on track with where I needed to be time-wise and I don’t know that I’d have finished in time without him. With my watch resetting during the swim, I didn’t have my bearings with my overall time and admittedly, I wasn’t processing all that well mentally, down the stretch so the reminders were a very big deal. The fact that he’d been an integral part of my Ironman experience since I decided to do one 6 ½ years before, made this finish with him even more special.

With Amy as worship leader, walking on the sidewalk singing amazing songs and quoting passages from the Bible, it created an environment of inspiration that transcended individual, even opposing beliefs. My favorite moment from the race happened early in Lap 3 of the run. I was walking slowly out of town with Peg, Gabe and Amy (pushing Jayden in the stroller) nearby on the sidewalk. At one point, Amy read a verse from the Bible (wish I could remember which one) and another athlete a few yards ahead of me (also moving slowly), turned back and said, “I’m an atheist, but that encouraged me! Thanks!” It couldn’t have been more perfect. Between the prayers and encouraging words of the people posting on Facebook and my family walking beside me, God was honored and his presence was felt by all of us.

Ryan Chapman, my coach for IM CDA and advisor for this effort was amazing as usual. I bounced every inane question I had off of him and took his recommendation of using the PiYO video series for my core and flexibility workouts. They were a huge help and Ryan’s friendship, mentoring and general support were key in my preparation.

Tom Clune and the guys at BI Cycle were amazing. Tom became a great friend and constant source of information for all things bike-related. The day always got brighter every time I walked into his shop.

My accommodations in Cozumel (almost 2 weeks at B&B Caribo and 1 at Paradise Condominiums) were first rate and I’m so grateful to Jorge Luis Gutierrez at B&B and Hippie Bob Hunter at Paradise for providing such great places to stay.

I’d be crazy to not thank my boss and team at Boeing for allowing me the schedule flexibility to train and to spend 3 weeks in Mexico, prepping for the race. They’ve been a huge encouragement.

A big “Thank You” to Rex Roxwell at Slave to the Needle in Ballard for his work on my M-Dot tattoo. He really brought the concept to life.

I’m so appreciative for everyone else, family and friends all over the world who prayed for me and encouraged me to ‘get this one’. It was so great during the few weeks before the race when I was down in Mexico, to read your posts on Facebook and feel the support from so far away.

To everyone who donated to the National MS Society, I can’t thank you enough. Your decision to actively participate in this event is a blessing to me but more importantly to the over 400,000 people in the US who struggle with MS and to the doctors, nurses and scientists who are fighting for a cure. I have a vested interest in eradicating this disease, not only for myself but I have cousins who have it as well. If you have MS, please know it is not the end. The mindset with which you approach this battle means everything. I know of individuals who have given up from the day they were diagnosed and of others who have chosen to make the best of a challenging situation and fight with whatever resources they have available, always looking for the best in themselves and in others. From personal experience, I can promise you, attitude matters. Anyone who still wishes to donate, please go to my MS Fund page: http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/brian.whelan. Again; Thank You, so much!

Finally, I’m thankful to God whose grace makes it possible for an obsessive, hyper-focused, sometimes self-destructive workaholic and adrenaline junkie to know that he’s loved beyond comprehension apart from any of the goals he’s chased. As much as I seek validation in accomplishments, none of them will outlast God’s love for me or anyone reading this. That is the foundation of the confidence I have which drives my rose-colored view of life. Time and again, in my own life and in others, I’ve seen insurmountable challenges and mind-numbing pain overcome by the faith to believe that there’s a bigger picture beyond the immediate situation and that all things work together for good, for those with the courage to trust God. That step has turned my life into a series of adventures that continually surprise me with the creative ways God shows me how he loves me. My prayer, for everyone reading this, is that you will be able “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” – Ephesians 3:18.

 

See you on the next adventure!

1 Comment

  • Murphy

    March 18, 2016

    What a wonderful testimony Brian! It’s so amazing what you accomplished and I hope it inspires others to not give up on their dreams/goals. Thanks for takjng the time to share this inspiring story! 🙂 ~ Peggy is as inspiring as well, what a WONDERFUL woman! 🙂