3:30AM: I woke up. I did a self-check on my back and my calf. They both seemed fine. I was moving a bit slowly, but there was barely any noticeable discomfort. I was going to start the race in hopes that everything would come together and my muscles would hold up. With these thoughts, I showered. My normal race morning routine also calls for a close shave, but today I decided against it. I shaved last night before going to bed. Today would not be about speed. It would be about patience, perseverance and endurance. The more I relax, the better I will do.
4:00AM: I ate some bread and peanuts. I was relaxed. I was moving slowly even after the shower (which was actually a good sign). I put on my bathing suit and shorts, a simple t-shirt and carried my wetsuit, goggles, bike nutrition and swim goggles down to the lobby with me. I was ready.
4:30PM: In the hotel lobby, I had scrambled eggs, a banana and fruit. I had a few sips of coffee and sipped my electrolyte drink. I sipped it lightly all morning. I didn’t really care about over-hydrating for this race. I’d be able to pee comfortably in the ocean and/or spend time going to the port-o-potty after the swim. Time was not of much essence; finishing was!
4:45AM: I boarded the bus with triathletes. Some were relaxed while some were nervously stretching or talking in loud voices. You could (almost) tell the rookies from the seasoned Ironmen and women. I closed my eyes and tried to envision the finishing line. I wouldn’t do anything fancy; just raise my arms in triumph before I collapsed. I didn’t care what the clock said as long it was less than 16:59:59. Thanks to Bill and Anne of Camlback Coaching, I have trained long and hard for this. In spite of my injuries for the past two weeks, today was the day.
5:30AM: After walking down to T1 where a thousand bicycles were parked in neat rows, I made casual conversation with a few athletes. Bicycles and athletes came in all shapes and sizes. There were ten-thousand dollar bikes lined up next to simple road bikes as athletes nervously and meticulously readied their bikes. I pumped my tires using a borrowed pump, loaded my two water bottles with about 500 calories each and stuffed five stinger waffles and some salt pills in my bike bento-box. I was also carrying Advil. I was keenly aware that my calf and back were dangerously close to giving out and Advil was my one defense mechanism in case that happened.
6:00AM: After readying my bike, I walked over to Will (bib 204). He was almost done with his bike too. He was in good spirits; confident and easy going. Whatever nerves I had were put to ease by talking to him briefly. I checked in my race-start bag and slowly made my way towards the starting line.
6:30AM: I ate a stinger waffle, drank some water and took 400mg of Advil. I wanted all my muscles to relax for the next 4 to 6 hours. This would carry me through the swim and the first 50 or so miles of the bike.
6:40AM: The pro men started.
6:43AM: The pro women started.
6:50AM: All amateur athletes huddled up on the beach. Men were wearing orange caps, women green. I thought about how crazy this sport is. I thought about my friends and family asking me one question over and over again, “Why do you do it?” My answer always is, “If you have to ask me that, you will never get it.” Truth be told though, I didn’t have a real answer to that question. Why do we do it? “Just because we can” is not a good enough answer.
My thoughts drifted to the finish line again. Remember today’s mantra, “Relax and flow.” My thoughts drifted to the time I met Chrissie Wellington. She was friendly yet intense. My thoughts drifted to Binita. She has been a pillar of support for me. She was here in Cabo. I hoped to see her during the run. I would need her energy today.
I saw an athlete overcome with emotion as she rested her head on a fellow athlete and wept. She was either really scared or was doing this for a cause. Either way, we were all in it together and we all knew it.
7:00AM: The horn sounded. We took off; all thousand of us diving directly into the Pacific Ocean. It was chaos with arms and legs flying everywhere. Some have described Ironman starts as being in a washing machine. I think it is worse because not only are you fighting the other athletes, you are also fighting the tide and your own demons. After the initial chaos that lasted about 400 meters, we took a ninety-degree left turn around a buoy and things settled down a bit. I was solidly swimming in the middle of the pack and felt really good about life. I thought, “I am actually swimming in the Pacific Ocean for 2.4 miles. I am finally actually swimming to become and Ironman.” Little did I know how things would transpire over the next dozen+ hours.
I concentrated on my stroke; long and smooth, head down, relax, breathe and try to draft. We took another left to go back towards the shoreline and then another left to head back to the beach. I was swimming effortlessly; I’m sure the wetsuit and salt water were keeping me buoyant. Soon, I could see the people cheering for us on the beach. I was almost done with my swim.
8:04AM: I got out and was a bit wobbly on my legs. I didn’t expect this. I’m sure it had something to do with staying horizontal for so long and then going vertical all of a sudden. I staggered out of the water on to the beach and looked at my Garmin. It read 1:04. Wow. I expected a time of around 1:10. I guess the lessons with Anne (my swim coach) had helped. I was happy.
I went through the showers, removed my wetsuit, picked up my transition bag and went to the changing room. There was sand everywhere. I changed into my bike clothes and had the volunteer apply some sunscreen on my back. It took me about 11 minutes in T1, but I was off.
8:15AM: I mounted my bike and went straight uphill to the highway. We were to do three laps on the highway that connects San Jose Del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. The very reason that I picked this Ironman was because it was advertised as a “flat course.” The bike course is far from flat; it has undulating hills with total elevation changes of more than 5,000 feet. Ouch!
Immediately, I saw that my heart rate was in the 140s and 150s on the uphills. This was not good. I needed for it to be in the 130s, but simply couldn’t get it down. My perceived effort seemed lower but I actually hit the 160 mark once. My speed (including the initial uphill) was averaging around 16 in the first hour. At this rate, I would take 7 hours to complete the bike route. Little did I know what I had in store!
I made friends along the route. Jody (bib 94) and I were about the same speed at this point. She passed me a few times and I passed her. She and I were both going at between 15.5 and 16MPH average. I heard her talking to someone else that her target was 13 hours for the race. She had to have been a good runner. Not in my wildest dreams would I finish this race in 13 hours.
10:35AM: The first lap of about 38 miles took me about two hours and twenty minutes. I felt good. I was drinking enough fluids, taking enough nutrition, eating enough electrolytes. I had passed hundreds of people cheering me on. Most thought I was Hispanic and spoke to me in Spanish. “Vamos vamos” and “vamonos vamonos” chants were everywhere.
11:00AM: What’s this? The inside of my left thigh started talking to me. I could feel it cramping just a bit. I generally don’t have a problem with cramping muscles, so this was a bit foreign to me. It was hot and humid. The wind had picked up too. I doubted my nutrition and electrolyte intake. Was I drinking enough fluids? “This must be just temporary,” I told myself and kept going. The muscles in my thigh relaxed, but it was the first sign of more cramping to come.
12:15PM: I had done around 60 miles and was on my second lap when my other thigh started cramping up. I stopped for a minute and took 400mg of Advil along with my third stinger waffle and some salt pills. The hills, heat and winds were taking their toll on my body. I kept eating and drinking. I was more than half-way through the bike now. The wind was blowing from the East. The only good news was that I had more biking left from east to west than I did from west to east. My average speed had slowed down. I saw Jody stop for a flat. I felt bad for her, but she seemed like a seasoned veteran.
2:30PM: About 88 miles into the bike, I hit a wall. I was bonking. I had slowed down. Both my thigh and quad muscles were cramping with each bike stroke. I couldn’t flex my muscles fully for fear of them simply seizing up. This is the first time I had thoughts of simply giving up. I was at the bike special needs station and was ill-prepared. I hadn’t prepared a special needs bag. I was completely out of nutrition and calories. I was completely out of salt. I needed calories badly. I stopped and asked the volunteers. All they had was Gatorade (not the Endurance kind). I had my head down. I was seeing things in black-and-white. I thought of Chrissie and digging deep. Would it be stupid to dig deep in this heat? I thought of all my hours and hours of training. This was the moment. Should I give up or should I go on? I couldn’t go on without calories. I simply couldn’t.
This is where I met Maria, a law student from Penn State and a fellow triathlete. She had a cast on her left arm. She had stopped at the special needs station and offered me a chocolate muffin and some trail mix. I ate the muffin heartily and waited for some energy to return to my body. I would later find out that Maria had broken her arm in a bicycling accident but still finished the swim out of sheer will-power. Unfortunately, she was only on her second lap of her bike and knew that would get a DNF.
The next 2.5 miles were slightly downhill miles. This helped me. After waiting for around 10 minutes and regenerating some much needed energy (thanks to Maria and the muffin), I started coasting, and eventually pedaling, and eventually picking up speed. I had my wind back and was riding briskly. I caught up with Maria and we rode together for a few miles. She may not have finished the race today in less than 17 hours, but it was because of her that I was able to finish mine. I will remember her for this forever. Maria, if you ever chance upon this blog, know that you made a difference in my race. We will probably never meet again, but today, you were my life saver, and I thank you for it.
3:45PM: I had burnt through the calories from Maria’s muffin and I still had one more steep hill and another 6 miles to go. Once again, I needed to consume calories. I was re-bonking. At an earlier aid station, they had run out of gel and bananas. Frustrating. I came to the aid station at mile 106 just before the steep hill only to find out that they too had run out of gel and bananas. I stopped and pleaded with them. For the last 10 miles, both my thighs were cramping up. Once again, I had to ease my stroke and not flex my muscles fully. My pace had slowed in spite of the wind in my back. One of the volunteers searched for a stray left-over gel and found a solitary Acai gel. That was good enough for me. I ate it quickly, stuffed some ice on my bike shorts and waited for a few minutes to regain energy. One more steep hill and then I could pretty much coast to T2.
It would take me more than 8 hours to finish 112 miles of the bike and it was a struggle, but all I had left now was a marathon. “Even if I walk the entire marathon, I will make the cut-off time,” I thought. Little did I know how much truth there was in that statement.
4:15PM: It was joyful to reach T2. I saw Binita for the first time today. She asked me how I was feeling and I told her about my cramps. She encouraged me to keep moving; just keep going. I went into T2 with a new burst of energy. It took me around 10 minutes to change out of my bike shorts and into my run gear, but I now had salt with me for electrolytes and the run aid stations would have plenty of bananas and gels.
4:25PM: As I left T2, I walked for the first quarter mile and then started a slow jog. This time, it was my calf muscles that started cramping. It felt as if the muscles were twitching around a guitar string; and I had to stop jogging. I walked for a bit and attempted to jog again. Same result. What was I to do? My heart rate was in the 120s and 110s. I had energy. I was fine. I could walk the whole course and finish the race by midnight. I walked and walked and walked. I saw Will jogging. He had a smile on his face and looked good. I would later find out that he would finish in 10:35 (which is an excellent time for this tough bike course).
5:30PM: I started playing games. I walked 20 steps and ran 25 steps. I figured out that I was feeling the effects of cramping when I jogged for around 20 steps; hence 25 would be my jogging threshold. On all the uphills, I walked. On all the downhills, I ran until I felt the cramps. I did this for the next 4 hours. I didn’t know what else to do. I made friends along the route. I clapped for the volunteers as the spectators clapped and cheered me on. I had a few bananas. I had a few gels. I had a few cups of water. I had a couple of cups of Pepsi. I kept going.
9:30PM: I was averaging anywhere between 13 and 15 minutes per mile. I was on the home stretch on my final lap of the 3-lap run course. A few athletes passed me in a slow jog. I uttered some words of encouragement as I passed slower walkers. I could clearly see that some were struggling. A couple of guys were throwing up at the side of the road. I had another 5 miles to go. Having done the loop twice already, I knew all the twists and turns. I even knew some of the volunteers. Some were beginning to pack up the aid stations. I could hear the ocean. I could hear the horses neighing in a distance. It was dark and quiet otherwise. I knew I would be an Ironman soon.
10:15PM: With a couple of miles to go, I saw Sar slowly walking on the bridge. He was couple of miles behind me. I reflected on all my friends who have trained with me. Kristi, Kristen, Will, Shelly, Mike, Mark, Eric, Brett, Chris, Kim, Colleen, Will, Angela, Gerry and the list goes on and on. I thought of Binita who has picked me up when I’ve been down. I thought of Chrissie who has been such an influence and inspiration to me. I thought of India and how I used to swim late into the night for “swim camp” with my siblings (Sheel, Naman, Ami), Mana, Suju, Monica, Mihir, Nirmita, Shivangi, Amit and the rest of my old old friends. I thought of Maria who had helped me earlier today. Someday, I will pay it forward.
I now had less than a mile to go as I took the final turn towards the finish.
10:43PM: “From Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, Gaurav Parekh, you are an Ironman.” I heard those words as I crossed the finish line and raised my right hand instinctively towards the heavens. Just before the finish, I saw Binita and Will on the sidelines. What happened after is somewhat of a blur, but I had a medal around my neck, Will snapped a picture and I ended up in the medical tent for 2 bottles of IV.
I was resting when Binita showed up by me to congratulate me again. After I left the medical tent and picked up my finisher t-shirt, it was a slow walk back to pick up my bike, my gear and back to the hotel. After telling Binita the highlights and lowlights of the race, we walked mostly in silence. As tired and sore as I was, I was in my happy place.
All of a sudden, I had the answer to the question that my friends and family have asked me a million times, “Why do you do it?” I will blog about it when I reflect on becoming the Ironman.