By Heath McKnight
I finished my first IRONMAN race in Panama City Beach, Florida, on November 2, 2019. Mike Reilly, the voice of IRONMAN, said, “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” And then gave me an awesome high five. It was the end of an epic and rewarding day, and 9 months of training. This is a review of how I finished my first IRONMAN race.
- 2.4 Mile Swim 🏊♂️
- 112 Mile Bike 🚴♂️
- 26.2 Mile Run 🏃♂️
Read more: How Long Is a Triathlon
I chose IRONMAN Florida for my race because the region was hit by Hurricane Michael in 2018. IM Florida moved to Haines City, FL, that year, and this was their triumphant return, and a way to help the local economy. Plus, I live and train in South Florida. I also knew Mike Reilly would be there, calling triathletes across the finish line, and I dreamt of him saying his signature call, which kept me going for months of long training.
As I detailed in my blog, “Training For My First IRONMAN,” a lot of preparation goes into getting ready for an IRONMAN race. I signed up at the end of January, and kicked off training soon after. I needed to build a base for the amount of time I’d be spending in the pool, on the bike, and running. The jump from sprint and Olympic distance training to full IRONMAN is quite large. I would also suggest doing a half IRONMAN (70.3 miles) before you do a 140.6 distance race.
A Minor Setback
Towards the end of September, as I was entering into peak training, I slipped on a step and sprained my right ankle. The good news was, nothing serious, per an x-ray. It was a bit of a setback for me and that peak training. My sports medicine doctor was able to treat the ankle, and that helped me recover quickly.
When I returned in early October from an incredible MySwimPro and MyTriPro Team Retreat, I did a week of light biking and swimming – no running. By the second weekend, my doctor cleared me to run 3-4 miles, with my ankle supported with special tape, and I also did a 102 mile bike ride. I felt like I was back in action! The only downside was, I had to skip a long brick workout (bike-run).
Triathlon Expo and Final Preparation
We rented a nice condo near the expo and start/finish line, and I picked up my bib number, backpack and the bags I’d need for transition and special needs 2 days before the race. Unlike a traditional triathlon, where your transition with swim, bike and run gear are laid out under you bike, an IRONMAN hands you five bags you use to store gear and special needs. More on that below.
The expo was cool, and I bought some nice IRONMAN-branded items, and I also met the voice of IRONMAN, Mike Reilly. He signed his inspirational book, “Finding My Voice,” and took the time to talk to my wife and I. If you’re considering signing up for an IRONMAN race, find one that Mike Reilly is calling racers home. I promise it’s worth it!
We also attended a special ‘carb loading’ welcome banquet hosted by Reilly, which included a performance by singer Ryan Kinder, who was also racing. We met some inspirational triathletes, and ate plenty of pasta and dessert.
Transition Bags For Race Day
The day before the race, my wife helped me prepare the five bags for the race. They included:
- Morning Clothes, which I put a clean pair of clothes in
- Bike, which I stored my outfit, helmet, shoes, nutrition, sunblock, etc.
- Run, with clean running clothes, socks, shoes, visor, etc.
- Two special needs bags for halfway through the bike and run, which you can add snacks, inspirational messages, more sunblock, etc.
I brought my bike down to be checked in, and I racked it up. I knew I’d arrive early the next morning to put Gatorade and water in my two bottles.
Read More: Preparing For Your First Triathlon
IRONMAN Florida Course, Panama City Beach
IRONMAN Florida has been around since 1999, and aside from the 2018 move to Haines City, it has been in Panama City Beach. The swim and run are double loops, but the bike course was altered this year, and was a single loop. Triathletes really got to enjoy the scenery of Northwest Florida, from the beach to the countryside.
The 2.4 Mile Swim: 1.2 Miles Out and Back, Twice
We were very fortunate that a cold front arrived 2 days prior, and the wind had died down to about 10 mph from the north. The water was calm for the swim, though it did get slightly choppy towards the end.
The swim is two loops, out-and-back at 1.2 miles each, and that morning it was nice, calm, and wetsuit legal. I was near the back, and was able to get two loops in, and had an unofficial PR for me, a pace of 2:09 per 100 yards. However, officially IRONMAN marked it as 2.4 miles and 2:31/100 yards; a few triathletes and I were pushed east a little on the two loops of swim, so I think I swam closer to 2.5 miles.
Final Swim Time: 1:40:26
Transition 1: Swim to Bike
As I was walking through the water to the beach, I started removing my sleeveless wetsuit, goggles and swim cap. I passed through the official exit and timing mat for the last time, heard Mike Reilly call my name, and the wetsuit strippers helped me out. They laid me down on the sand, got my wetsuit off, and helped me up.
We ran into a conference room for T1, and volunteers asked for my bib number and handed me the special transition bag. I stripped out of my swim shorts and tri jersey, and put on my bike shorts and jersey. I took a little too much time in T1, especially since my bike was towards the back, and I needed to use the bathroom. In an IRONMAN, T1 can take 10-15 minutes — I took 20.
The Bike Course: 112 Miles of Beautiful Northwest Florida Scenery
This was a brand new bike course, single loop, and featured some beautiful north Florida and beach scenery. And while advertised as flat, it did feature small rolling hills. The only ‘hills’ in South Florida are bridges, and I didn’t do enough bridge repeats on the bike.
Overall, what kept me going for 112 miles was seeing so many of my fellow triathletes on their bikes. As we passed each other, yelling out, “On your left,” we usually said, “Looking strong, have a great race!” That really helped me out.
Within the first 2-3 miles, I hit a large bump in the road, and my second hydration system, which sat on my aero bars, flew off. I couldn’t stop in time to collect it, because there were a lot of riders behind me. I also saw quite a few bottles strewn about, so I knew I wasn’t the only one with that problem. I was able to ride slowly through aid stations to grab a bottle of water, and stop every other or so to refill my Gatorade.
At the halfway point, they have a spot for your bike special needs bag (but no hydration and nutrition), which you can add inspiration notes, extra nutrition, a snack (in my case, Doritos), more Infinit, etc. I spent a little too much time there, using the port-o-let, stretching, and eating. Then more time soon after to get water and Gatorade. I probably wasted 15 minutes right there.
There was a 10 mile north portion of the course with small rolling hills and a 10+ mph headwind, but after we turned and went south about 25-30 miles, the tailwind was divine. Before I knew it, I was riding next to the beach, passed 100 miles, and then the final 12 miles into T2.
Final Bike Time: 7:15:30
Transition 2: Bike to Run
This one was a bit easier than T1, since all I did was change into my MyTriPro jersey, kept my shorts on, put on my socks and shoes, and used the bathroom. I was on my way!
Run: 26.2 Miles of Running, Slow Jogging, Walking and Shuffling
The run course is a double-loop, and a total party of volunteers, spectators and triathletes. I started strong on the run, not going to lie. I was pacing well with some running and short walks, despite being feeling a little stiff. It was also fun to wave and chat briefly with other triathletes.
I kept the GU gels to a minimum, and relied on water, Gatorade, chicken broth and pretzels. I made sure I hit every aid station, as I did on the bike. Unfortunately I was over-hydrated due to the cold. I hit quite a few port-o-let’s on the run, likely adding 15 minutes to my run. I’m no Eliud Kipchoge, but if you want to learn how he ran a sub 2-hour marathon, see here.
Around the halfway point, I grabbed my special needs bag (just a treat of Doritos and a bar), and continued on. At that point, I was very sore and stiff, and did more slow jogging and walking. A few people asked how I was, and suggested that I eat some bananas. So I started to do so, and between 18 and 22 miles, I could run without stopping. Then I hit a wall at mile 22, and had to walk until the finisher’s chute.
Final Run Time: 6:48:14
“YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
Mike Reilly has often talked about how he loves Hero’s Hour, when it’s the final hour or two of a race. He’ll come down out of the tower, and they will be dancing while calling IRONMAN finishers home. The volunteers and spectators are having a ball, even if most of the course had been cleared.
I saw the lights of the finish line, and soon heard the music and Mike’s voice. Energized, I was able to run and shuffle down the final .2 miles of the finisher’s chute, giving high fives to those left in the crowd. I heard my name called out, and Mike Reilly yelled those sweet words I wanted to hear for over 9 months: “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!” He gave me a high five, a truly genuine smile and I thanked him profusely. It was very emotional.
The kind volunteer ‘catcher’ walked me over to the Men’s winner of the day, Joe Skipper, who put my medal around my neck. The top 3 Men’s Pro division were partying at the finish line. I got a photo and walked over to my wife for a big kiss and hug. We had some pizza, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I am forever an IRONMAN!
Final IRONMAN Time: 16:19:48
Read More: Lessons Learned From My First IRONMAN
During the race, I kept saying, “This is a one-and-done race for me. I’ll focus on Olympic and 70.3 races.” Two days later, I started to think about the lessons I learned, and perhaps I might do another full IRONMAN, but not for a couple of years. I’d like to thank the race director, race team, officials, the amazing volunteers, the city of Panama City Beach, the spectators, my fellow triathletes, my friends and family, and most especially my wife.
“Swim 2.4 Miles. Bike 112 miles. Run 26.2. Brag for the rest of your life.” – John Collins, IRONMAN co-founder
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