(i asked Keith to chronicle his adventures for all to see and, most importantly, for him to have something to look back on months or years down the road when he’s forgotten all the details…)
Guest Blog by Keith Ritchey
Let me start off by telling you, this is long. Not quite 15 hours 16 minutes and 50 seconds but it’s not far off. What I learned is that the human body is an amazing thing. However, the mind is unmatched. You have to have a plan. If you do, and you have worked it, you can do anything. (If you would like coaching recommendations, I know a good one.) This was never a lifelong dream. It was not even a consideration. People have asked me over the past 8 months why I wanted to do this. The answer lies in Star’s 1st marathon last year. Until that day I thought I had found my limit and pushed as far as I could. I had done 2 70.3 Triathlons. She was able to push herself to a point that I did not recognize. I had not been to that place and it inspired me to find it. 1 year later I have now gone twice as far as I thought was my limit & still have not found the end.
We got to Louisville on Thursday which was a great decision. This gave us plenty of time to organize our room, gear and just settle in to the town. It instantly felt like we had an extra day to get prepared.
Friday morning, Star woke up and went on her 16 mile run, solo, in a town she had never been to. I had a group ride planned with about 60 people at 9:00. We just did the first 10 miles of the bike course and turned around to ride the last 10 miles. This was my first chance to check out part of the course & the competition! haha It did serve a purpose that would reveal itself later. I saw Star running as I rode back into downtown Louisville so I rode next to her for her final 2 miles. It was the least I could do to repay her for the countless hours she rode beside me this summer.
Saturday was an early breakfast followed by the practice swim. The race officials open up the swim exit so competitors can get in the water and get a feel for the river. I was very calm but I did not really know why. As I was suiting up I talked with a Marine named Armando. Super cool guy that was competing in his 2nd Ironman…attempting to qualify for Kona. (he did not qualify but I feel certain it won’t be long until he does) I had spent the last 2 days surrounded by some of the most intimidating athletes in the country. They were more than physically fit. These people were “shredded”, many had multiple Ironman finishes, $10,000 + bikes, and this air of invincibility. It hit me as I stood on the steps about to enter the water why I was so calm. I actually felt like I belonged. (This was what I was also feeling a day earlier but I had not figured it out yet) Not for the reasons listed above but because I had worked my ass off for the past 8 months. I have really worked hard for a year but those 8 months had a purpose. A focus like I have never known and now it was so obvious why. Star kept saying that I belonged here…August 28th, 2011.
So for me, one of the most amazing parts of the entire event was my sleep. I went to bed at 10pm on the button, woke up at 2am to pee and drink an Ensure (this was so thought out that I actually placed a bottle of Ensure at the toilet so I could drink it while I pee’d) then immediately back to sleep until the alarm sounded at 4am. Slept like a ROCK!! Drank another Ensure, ate a banana and we headed to the transition. Everything was dropped off the day before except my fluid bottles and food for the bike. We had approximately .7 miles to get to the swim start where I need to get my body marked and get in line. This is the only Ironman that does not have a mass swim start so the sooner you get there, the sooner you get started. My best guess is that we were within the 1st 500. The line continued to grow and was completely insane by 6:15. Try to imagine 2900 athletes about to jump out of there skin with excitement and fear. As the line began to move, we all started to make our final preparations and say our goodbyes to loved ones (STAR=Tears). I could not believe this was happening.
The gun went off and the line began to move quickly. I was jumping off of the dock at 7:07!!! My first 5 strokes were a precursor to the entire day, 2 strokes, breathe to the right, 3 strokes, breathe to the left. This may not sound like much but it told me there was NO panic. In past races when I start to tighten up and get nervous I will breathe every 2 strokes to the right…not today. I had a plan and it was already working. We swam upstream for .7 miles and then banked around Towhead Island to the left and out into the Ohio River. I pushed myself further out into the river as to avoid the crowd. I have heard that better swimmers will do this and now I was using this strategy?!? Who was this person? I cruised, breathed, thought, sang, but more than anything relaxed. I occasionally reminded myself that I was in the swim portion of an IRONMAN. This caused me to laugh a bit. As I approached the swim exit I could hear the crowd and the music but I stayed calm. I did pick up the pace a bit as I increased the speed of my leg kick. Another strategy I learned from veteran triathletes to help increase the blood flow in your legs before you try to stand up and bust your ass. (again, who am I?) Out of the water and hit the stop watch…1:28! Not bad since I told everyone I thought 1:30 would be perfect. Oh yeah, I had never actually swam 2.4 miles. I used our race strategy and walked through the chute. Screaming fans on both sides so I was going to soak this in. I saw Star (got my wedding ring from her) and the support crew and headed to transition. I just finished the swim in the Ironman Triathlon and I nailed it!
As I headed out on the bike I had a very concise plan…do NOT go out hard. You can easily get sucked into the “hammerheads” that start smashing their pedals from the jump. 112 miles is not for the soft but anyone can give it all they have. Very few can do that and then run a marathon, so a strategy, is imperative. This was an ego check because I was passed by plenty of people and I knew I could ride with them but that was not the challenge ahead. So I rode, and rode and rode for 30 miles. We had some great roads, along with the steepest climbs & descents on the entire course. (we even had 2 guys on a climb dressed up like the grim reaper and satan just like at the Tour de France) I was riding my breaks down hill at 40 mph while being passed by people hitting well over 50 mph!! At mile 38 we hit LaGrange KY. They have a festival and viewing party for friends and family. Somehow I managed to see Star and the crew as I breezed through town. This was helped by Steve’s height as well as his glasses!?!? My watch said 10:30 and I had 30 miles to ride the loop that would bring me right back to my 6 person support crew. The course was hilly but today we had a steady 12 mph wind. I am not complaining since the high was 82 but winds challenge me greatly. My goal was to see them again at 12:30. This part of the course was tough, windy, hilly, hotter, rough roads and boring. Worse of all I knew I would need to do it twice, so I just rode the best I could. I began to notice the scenery which was amazing. Around mile 65 I hit the special needs area. This is where I could access a bag that I packed with anything I thought I might need or want. Candy, more fuel, band aids, mechanical gear, etc. Star also used these bags to hide some great little motivational notes. (It’s great to be married to the coach.) I headed back through LaGrange and saw the crew again which was another great pick-me-up but too short lived. If I were to pick a low point in my day, this would be it. I realized that somehow I did not get my powder to mix my fuel!! How did I do this? My first mistake of the day and this could be very costly. I was also having some “dislike” for my Gu Chomps and Honey Stingers so I was forced to re-evaluate my eating strategy. I started to eat some gels and wash them down with water. I knew the calories needed so I had no choice to use the Ironman Perform fluid that was on the race course. I had used this in training but not as my main fluid and not for my final 40+ miles. The gels were working…I was getting them down and they were not giving me any cause for concern. I started slowly with the Perform since it seemed very concentrated and I was not crazy about the taste but I could tell very quickly that it was doing the trick!! I started to get excited and felt energized. I was hoping this was not just a quick adrenaline burst but at mile 90 I started to push my pace to find out. I started to notice the body language of the people I was passing and it was not good, so I made a game out of it. They got a number and with 20 miles to go I met #1 and promptly passed him. Then #2, #3, #4 and the chase was on!! I felt better and better and seemed to take the remaining energy from each person I passed. In the final 20 miles I averaged 18mph, I passed 40 people and only got passed by 4!!! Oh yeah, I had never ridden for 112 miles either.
The coolest thing for me about the Ironman was the support. The fans and volunteers were unlike anything I had ever seen. At mile 50 on the bike I stopped to fill up my water bottles and a little 9 year old boy asked me if I needed anything else. I quickly said no thanks but then stopped myself to look at him. I asked his name and he said “Aidan, what’s your name?” I told him my name was Keith and I asked him if he was going to do an Ironman one day. In the sweetest voice he said “ no sir, I don’t think I could ever do something this hard.” What?? That was me, not only when I was 8 but 1 year ago. I told him that if I could do it that he would and that I would think about him for the rest of the day. He said “thank you Mr. Keith” and I said “thank you Mr. Aidan”. Don’t say you can’t.
So I came off the bike and the amazing volunteers just take it (bike) from you. Super cool!! I walked by my adoring wife and fans (Brad and Juliana had now arrived and provided and extra shot of adrenaline) with the biggest smile on my face. Star asked how I felt and my smile was because I did not think she would believe my answer…”I feel great”. How could this be happening?!? Oh yeah, cuz I trained my ass off. I took off my bike shoes so I would not cramp and did a real light jog just to see how the legs felt…not bad. Into transition, changed clothes, got my fuel belt, visor, more sweet notes in my bag and headed out to run a marathon. (another distance I had never done before) Saw the crew again and got a pic with Star. As I headed out the coach yelled “take it easy to start”. Why would I stop listening now!!!
The run starts with the one and only real hill on the course. You go up a bridge that crosses the Ohio River, just past midway and then turn to run back down. I began to work my strategy of and 8 minute run followed by a 2 minute walk until. Do it Until. Saw the gang again at the bottom of the bridge with another boost of adrenaline and then I was off by myself. From this point we ran out through downtown Louisville, through a very nice neighborhood, University of Louisville campus to the left, sketchy neighborhood, Churchill Downs on right, (I missed this the first time) and then turn around at mile 8. The most important thing that happened to me on my run out to mile 8 was a burning pain that was developing on the outside of my left knee at mile 4. This was obvious to me that it was my IT band rubbing on my knee but what was surprising was my right knee has been my nemesis for years. It did not worsen but it also did not go away. This is a good point to talk about my fueling. I went through my accelerade/carbo pro fuels bottles within the first 5 miles but that was ok. I needed calories and my stomach was tolerating everything I put in. I also continued to take 1 S-Cap per hour which I had been doing since the first hour on the bike. Water-not a problem, Perform-not yummy but no issues. I had zero GI issues or gagging problems with anything I ingested. I felt like Cookie Monster. There was a slight downhill around mile 11 that took us under an overpass and this is where my left knee just collapsed. I felt this pain before at Memphis in May Triathlon 2008 but that was the beginning of ITBS in my right knee not my left. I walked for a bit, stretched and did lunges to get it to loosen up. I started to run delicately and hit the 13.1 mark at 2:45. I will take that! I felt so good at the start of the run that I really wanted to have a negative split for my marathon. I had no idea how hard this would be but it sounded like a fun goal within the race. As we ran back to town we actually turned onto 4th street and headed towards the finish line. They had a lane for finishers to the left and your 2nd loop to the right and I was going right. We must have come within 200 yards of the finish line and then poof…it was gone. Fortunately as I turned, the crew was right there for me at mile 14!! I talked with everyone and then Star walked with me for a few minutes. I remember telling her I felt good, all things considered, but I was worried about my knee. I knew that 2:30 + more hours of pounding was going to leave its mark but I hoped it would happen later than sooner. She said that her, Steve, Brad and Juliana were going to get their bikes and come find me. Bring it on! So off I went headed away from the finish, away from my friends, and away from Star. This was a pivotal part of the day because I had already pushed my body for 128 miles but this was my first moment of loneliness. The sun was setting and my knee pain was my one true companion. (bastard) I plodded along mile 14, mile 15, thanking everyone I saw. I think I do this as a distraction. Don’t get me wrong, my gratitude is deep for each and every spectator and volunteer I saw but I am also looking for some sort of interaction. If I get a 20 second conversation, those 40 feet come and go that much quicker. Remember this, there are no Iphones or Ipods allowed so you dig deep to occupy your mind. It was not time to think about the reality of the situation…not yet.
I caught myself casually looking over my shoulder wondering when the calvary would show up and I was trying to recall the conversation Star and I had. I began to doubt whether or not I made my desire for them to come find me clear. Did I act too casual? Did she take that as a sign that I did not want the company? Did they decide it was too challenging now that the sun had dropped? Then BAM, they all rolled up to my left and I was back on track! I believe this was around mile 16ish. I made small talk with each one of them but they probably thought I was crazy. I remember asking Brad and Juliana how their drive up was and did they get any sleep? Again, not that I did not care but I’m sure I was trying to take the focus off of me and mile 131. Star would ride up next to me and the other 3 would drop back a little so we could have a moment to ourselves. She would try to assess my attitude and physical state while offering words of encouragement. Then Star would ride ahead to take some pictures and they would ride up next to me again. I definitely noticed their attention to our space…very cool. I continued for mile 17 took a gel, S-cap, filled my water and drank some Perform, mile 18 some water bottle fill ups. I think mile 18 aid station was the one with the best music all day. This particular trip through they were playing “whipping post” by The Allman Brothers. It was crazy loud and I was caught up in the jam session for a few minutes. Mile 18 & 19 came and went but I can’t really remember much of the conversation. Star told me that they would stay with me to mile 20 and then head back to town to get a good spot for the finish. I tried to think of how I could get in that little bike bag but it was not possible. As we approached their bail out mile I distinctly remember Steve saying “this is the halfway point, mile 20 of the marathon is halfway” my response for all to hear was “who the fuck invited Steve?!” I meant that the best way possible. He has done several marathons and looking back, I feel like his comment served a valid purpose…this was far from over. I gave Star a kiss, thanked the 3 stooges (JK) and they were off into the night. This was it. I had 6.2 miles left and I felt like the only person still out there.
I hit the turnaround and headed back to town…to the “Finish?” of an Ironman Triathlon. How much longer could this possibly take? The course was sparse with spectators but I continued to thank them and engage them in conversation as much as possible. I started to notice that 90% of the athletes were walking. Some with limps, others leaning to one side, many staggered along with vacant stares. It looked like the Thriller video with compression socks! I also saw plenty of participants sitting on the curb and you could damn near see the thought bubble over their head…”how in the hell can I get to the finish line?” I did not have the answer…not yet. While running up to mile 21 I noticed a really fit man on the other side of the course laying in the grass reaching for his legs. I asked if he need salt or food and he said nothing. He was cramping but unable to know what he needed. Right about this time my right knee buckled. It was exactly the same pain and lack of functionality I was having in my left knee for the past 17 miles. I could not quite figure out how to limp on both legs so I walked. I was incredibly frustrated because I was better off than everyone around me. I was still eating, my thoughts were relatively lucid, I was not puking, I was just having mechanical failures. Every time I ran, I could make it 2-4 minutes and then the pain was to the point I could feel the buckling was coming with the next step so I would stop. At one point I began to run backwards and it actually helped. I ran close to 1/2 mile backwards and then stopped because I was certain I would trip. I also had this feeling that people would somehow think I was being disrespectful. Who knows?!? These miles ticked away and I just kept moving forward. Before I knew it there was mile 24 and I was starting to tear up. I had to stop myself since it could take me who knows how long to go those last 2 miles and I did not want to cry the whole way. Mile 25 had an aid station with a ton of volunteers. I took my first cold sponge in several hours as I told the guy I needed to clean my face for my finishing pictures. He patted me on the back and said I was about to be an Ironman. I ran this last mile and was determined to not walk. I even stopped my watch that had been chiming walk intervals. I took a quick left off of 3rd street and had one block to 4th street which was the finish line. This was now happening so fast that I was sort of confused. Everyone was yelling to me that I was an Ironman and that I had done it. Really?!?!? Right turn onto 4th and all I saw was a bright light that actually made me question whether or not I wanted to go towards it! I could hear the music and feel the energy and let me tell you it was electric.
The voice of Mike Reilly was off in the distance. He is the OFFICIAL voice of IRONMAN finish lines. When you watch the World Championships in Kona, that is his voice at the finish line. Suddenly I was running on the cobblestones (bad idea) towards the “light” and high fiving people as the screamed over the barriers. Then as quickly as I had lost them at mile 20, there was the “crew”. My IronSherpas!! All 8 of these people that took precious time from their lives to come support me. They were going f-ing nuts!!! Well I had to high five my peeps. Star was the only face I truly recall and she was magnificent. All I said to her was “we did it”. The last 50 yards was like a dream. I got the the line and Reilly said “from Memphis TN in his first Ironman”… and I stopped…and he stopped…I looked down and stepped across the finish line to “Keith Ritchey, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” 15:16:50