How I became an Ironman

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

Everyone has a story after the first Ironman. There is a saying, you come to Ironman with a plan, but the Ironman has its plans for you. The plan is not a pretty one in most cases. My talent is to complicate everything: love, life, cooking, racing.... You name it, I can complicate it. I sure as hell did not disappoint on that score.

I was slumped over my aero bars in pain, barely moving. I was being passed by everyone at this point and I knew I was in serious trouble. The clock kept ticking, unmindful of my pain.

I got up at 3am, and felt good. The body felt just right. The previous day was a blur in checking in my supplies and bike, and going over the course. I got in 750 kilocalories over the next three hours and was at the ocean at 6.45am. The Caribbean Sea was choppy, but my mind was calm. I was ready. The national anthem got me all goosebumped and teary-eyed. The day I was training for was here. We walked the ramp, with ‘We Will Rock You’ blaring in the background. There were people on both sides giving us high fives.

The water was cool and clear as I went under. I came up to the familiar melee of thrashing arms and legs. I did not panic this time. I relaxed and followed a bunch of legs, their draft reducing my effort. After the first half an hour, I accelerated gently. I was passing groups now, and, at one point, had a group drafting off me. I saw the last buoy and swam hard. I got out of the water and checked my watch: 1 hour, 30 minutes for a 2.4-mile swim. I was ahead of my anticipated 1:45 time.

I was smiling as I ran to the showers and rinsed off the salt. My first time in a changing tent was interesting. There was all types of nudity. Before you run to sign up, be warned that it was unisex. I changed quickly and ran out to the bike. I saw my family waiting at the bike start. I do not know which one of us was more thrilled. I stopped and savoured the hugs, and took off.

The bike ride was 112 miles, almost three rounds of the island of Cozumel. I was headed south and downwind and was flying. I felt great, but deep down I knew this could not last, and it did not. The minute I took the turn to go north, the wind hit. It was vicious. I stayed down in the aero bars to minimise resistance. The 12-mile stretch took me over an hour. The professionals caught up and were lapping me, their toned bodies flying past me, almost as if I was standing still. I made my way into town on the north end, and the crowds were there to greet us. The roads were closed for traffic and there were thousands of people on either side cheering. There were bands playing. I felt like a star.

The second round was a repeat, except the wind at my back became a crosswind. I stopped at the 56-mile mark. There were people lying on the side of the road groaning. Bikes were strewn all over. One athlete asked me for ibuprofen, which I gave him. I asked whether this was his first Ironman, and he told me it was the second. “I stopped too long over here [the first time] and couldn’t make the bike cut off [time],” he said. “Let’s go,” I said, getting on my bike. “You go ahead,” he said. “I will be right behind you.” I never saw him again. The wind was picking up. I maintained a steady power, but my speed was dropping. My first warning sign was that I had not urinated yet, but I ignored it.

I finished the second round, and had about 30 miles to go, when I felt it. A strange numbness in my right thigh which turned into excruciating pain that caused me to scream out a few expletives. “What the hell was that?” I thought to myself. I tried to pedal again, and the pain came right back, and although it did not seem like it could get any worse, it did. I cruised for a bit. “Don't panic,” I told myself. Just pedal with the left leg and let the right recover. As I pushed down with my left, the exact same thing happened on my left thigh, too. I was slumped over my aero bars in pain, barely moving. I was being passed by everyone at this point and I knew I was in serious trouble. The clock kept ticking, unmindful of my pain.

I kept on at this snail pace, right leg pedal, scream in pain, cruise… left leg pedal, scream in pain… repeat. When I started, I knew the only way they were going to get me off the course was in an ambulance, and I knew I was getting close to that point when my fingers began contracting into claws. I was severely deficient in electrolytes and had miscalculated my sweating because of the wind. If I were in a hospital, I would start an IV and give myself normal saline (9gm of sodium in 1 litre of water). I did the next best thing. I took all my 20 electrolyte pills (roughly 4gm sodium) and washed them down with water, and hoped I was not going to kill myself.

Nothing happened as I limped along. I was way behind my bike time now. But, about fifteen minutes later, I did not feel the pain as I pedalled with my right. I tried the left… no pain. I pushed. Nothing happened. I was back in the game. I pedalled with everything I had. I was flying now, but realised that I was out of electrolytes. At the next station I switched to Gatorade to get my electrolytes, which was an issue, because I had not tolerated Gatorade in the past. But, I had no choice. Luckily, my body held. I came into town again and I must have been one of the last riders. I handed my bike to a volunteer and limped into the changing tent. I needed help to change my shoes and had someone tie my laces as my hands were still cramped. Bike time: 7 hours, 50 minutes.

I had a marathon to run, but I had my electrolytes back. I ran out and my family was there again cheering me on. But I could see that they were anxious, which meant I was not looking good. I started running and my legs felt okay, and I finally felt like urinating. I was really worried about kidney failure and a condition called rhabdomyolysis caused by excessive muscle breakdown. The urine was dark and concentrated, but it was a start. I was hydrating well at this point, and surprisingly, I was feeling stronger as the race went by. The run was three loops through town and the atmosphere was like a carnival. By mile 13, I was back to urinating regularly and my pace was steady. I knew I was going to make it.

I thought about my life during those next three hours. My ups, downs, my inspiration, my frailties and how I could be a better person. I thought of the patients I had lost... my friend's mother fighting for her life in a hospital bed. It was close to midnight as I made my way to the finish. The streets were deserted, except for the odd drunk. I looked worse than they did. I finally came to the finish and I saw a lady heading out for her last round. It was 12.15am and there was no way she would make it, but she was running like she was winning the race, a steely determination on her face. Nothing embodied Ironman more. I shouted out to her and flashed a thumbs-up sign. She turned, smiled, waved back and vanished into the night.

I turned into the light. It was my turn. The music was playing, I hugged my family and just before the red carpet, a man ran up to me and asked whether he could run in with me. “Sure,” I said. I did not know it then, but it was the world champion, Michael Weiss. I felt light, my legs suddenly felt powerful again, the lights were on my face like the sun, and I was smiling. I heard my name being called. After 16 hours and 20 minutes, after 142 miles of swimming, biking and running, I was still standing. I was an Ironman.