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Reflections–and Advice–from a WDW Radio IRONMAN!

by Happy Keller

Once Upon A Time…

…in a kingdom very distant from those at Walt Disney World, 27 “Cancer Warriors” gathered together to take on two challenges – one personal; one as a group.   The group challenge was to raise $270,000 for Cancer research and patient support while training together to take on the personal challenge – to have us each slay our own personal Ironman “Dragon”.  We knew that our “Dragon”s were hiding out in the even-more distant kingdom of Taupo, New Zealand, and that we’d have about a year (May 2011 – March 2012) to train for our battle(s).  I was personally intimidated by the “Warrior” / Athletes I was surrounded by.  While I had always had “Slay An Ironman ‘Dragon'” as a personal quest, the fact is that, as of the time of our first meeting, I had never slain a triathlon “Dragon” of any size.

Alright!…lets stop this flowery-storytelling right now!?!  Who do I think I am, Ridley Pearson???

The Distances & Time Requirements of Ironman  

For those of you who don’t know, an Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile Swim, a 112 mile Bike ride, and a 26.2 mile (marathon distance) run.  In addition to the lengthy distances involved, there are time cut-offs which must be met along the way or the Ironman-wannabe will not be allowed to continue.  If none of that were enough to frighten you, in addition to the interim cut-offs, the entire 140.6 miles must be completed in less than 17 hours or you are not an “Ironman”.

You Gotta Start Somewhere

While attempting to complete any one of the Ironman segment distances would be daunting, the one I was most worried about when we started was the 2.4 mile Swim…I had not done a swim of any significant distance since I was in high school and, to give you some idea of how long ago that was – Jimmy Carter was President during my high school years!

A small Band-Of-Four from our larger group, which included my wife, Pattie, and me, consulted with a Swim “Shaman” to gain insight into the intricacies of long-distance swimming, as well as the pre-requisite that we not drown while we were swimming. Our Shaman was very gifted, and his council very sage.  Within a couple of months, the concerns we each had regarding making the time cut-off for the Swim segment were removed.  The new question would become, “How much can we beat the Swim time cut-off by without thrashing ourselves for the Bike & Run???”

A “Brief Rehearsal”

As our training distances increased, we entered a preliminary event – an “Olympic Distance” Triathlon (1.5K Swim (0.93 miles), 40K Bike (25 miles), 10K Run (6.2 miles)) – just so we could practice all three events, plus transitions from one discipline to another, in a “timed event” environment.  While the distances involved were significantly shorter, the feeling of accomplishment I had after completing the event was profound.

During this stage of our training, we were all experimenting with our nutrition.  While you cannot take in as many calories as what you are burning during an Ironman, it is very important to find something you still want to be eating and/or drinking after 100 miles on the Bike, or any time during the final hours of the Run.  For me, the thought of taking Gels all day/night made me ill.  I consulted with a nutritionist to get my nutrition “dialed in”.  I also wanted to get some advise on how to safely lose some weight. Over the next several months, I would tweak what I was doing until I felt I had an Ironman Day plan for all conditions or foreseeable possibilities (plus I lost 30 pounds using the “everyday plan” she setup for me).

Onto the next challenge –> extreme distance training to get ready for Ironman New Zealand…(with a stop in-between at Walt Disney World!)…

A Disney World “Intermission”

In November, while vacationing for a week with my brother and family at Walt Disney World, I continued to train when we weren’t “Theme Park-ing” (or eating).  I probably slept 4 hours/day during this time, but I did do everything in my training schedule, as well as everything I wanted to do at Disney World too – including the Wild Africa Trek, auditioning for “The American Idol Experience”, AND meeting “Mr. WDW Radio” himself, Lou Mongello!…(no, we did NOT sing a duet)…

“Serious” Training Distances (and even more serious fund-raising)

Through the holidays and early months of 2012, our training distances would continue to increase and would include a 100 mile bike ride, a 5000 meter swim, and many long runs to make most of us feel reasonably sure we would have enough training to have a chance at completing Ironman New Zealand.  My personal log of training mileage showed that I Swam, Biked, and Ran over 3,000 miles prior to heading to New Zealand.

Our mileage wasn’t the only large number involved with our Ironman training –> our group of 27 beat our preliminary goal of $270,000, and actually raised over $345,000!  We were all pretty stoked as we packed our bags & bikes in late February to hop on a plane and head to Taupo, New Zealand for our Ironman (scheduled for March 3rd).

“Anything Is Possible!” (?)

“Anything Is Possible!”…I remember hearing it for the first time while watching the Ironman World Championships on TV, and seeing it on the Official Ironman Website.  It is their motto.  It is a good motto.  Sadly, it would be disproved…

We arrived in New Zealand to windy & cool weather.  We didn’t mind the cold, but didn’t really like the wind.  As Ironman Day approached, the weather got continually worse, throwing in stronger winds and some rain (just for good measure).

At the “Welcome Dinner” on Thursday Night, after a wonderful evening of entertainment, camaraderie, and dining, the Race Director came to the microphone and told all 1,700 participants that the weather forecast was so bad, there was a good chance there would not be an Ironman for any of us to participate in on Saturday, March 3rd.  You could hear the gasp of all of the athletes in the auditorium as we were told this.  We were instructed to return on Friday night for an updated briefing.

Friday night came, and we were told there would not be an Ironman on Saturday.  There was a typhoon coming which was going to bring with it heavy rain and 70 mph winds (not to mention how rough the water would be for the Swim)…it was just not going to be safe for us out there on the course (or for the volunteers working at the aide stations either!).  They did say that the Ironman organizers would offer all of us discounted entry into another event during Spring 2012, as well as the New Zealand organizers trying to put on a Half Ironman on Sunday.  We were all instructed to return again on Saturday night to find out if there would be a Half Ironman on Sunday.

This was the first time in Ironman history that an entire event was cancelled.  There had been others where the Swim, Bike, or Run were cancelled, but not an entire event.

When Saturday morning came, we all knew the organizers had made the only decision they could have made cancelling the event –> the forecasted rain & winds came!  The wind was blowing roofs off of houses in the area, and the rain was flooding a lot of roads.  It would not have been safe for any of us to have been out there on (what was supposed to be) “Ironman Day”.

The “good news” would come that evening when we were told there would be a Half Ironman on Sunday.  We returned to our hotel to prepare our equipment for a 70.3 event (1.2 mile Swim, 56 mile Bike, and 13.1 mile Run).

When Your Longest Event Ever Still Leaves You Wanting…

The weather on Sunday was significantly better, but it was still not ideal –> the winds would still be strong, and temperatures cool/cold.  The water would be rough for the Swim, too, and the large buoys which would normally mark the Swim course would not be present (the bad weather prevented the organizers from placing them on the course).  Since the Swim course was compressed, the organizers would also be sending the men out 5 minutes earlier than the women.

The Swim was chaotic – I am not a particularly fast swimmer, and during the 1.2 miles I found myself getting swum over twice –> first by faster male swimmers, then later by the faster female swimmers.  The rough water and lack of large course markers also increased the difficulty of the Swim.  I was pleased to get out of the water in under 50 minutes.  Due to where the bikes were parked (and the changing tents were located), we’d all have to run (in our wetsuits) nearly half a mile…it was not pretty.

After changing into my Bike gear, I grabbed my cycle and walked it to the “mount line” where I was allowed to get on and start riding.  My heart rate monitor was freaking out on me, so I just went by “perceived effort” – staying under control so that I would still have some energy left when I got off of the Bike and needed to Run.  The Bike course was an out-and-back and, when we reached the far end and turned around to head back to town, I discovered in horror that the wind was blowing…and hard!  We experienced 20 – 30 mph headwinds coming back into town, and all cycling speed dipped down several miles per hour beneath what our training speeds were.  It was difficult to remain focused but, eventually, the last of the 56 miles peeled-off, and I got back to Taupo where I got to enjoy a really nice downhill prior to reaching the Transition Area where I would get off the Bike, change clothes, and begin to Run.

The Run consisted of three out-and-back laps near downtown Taupo which hugged the lake we swam in at the start of the day.  Since the course was an out-and-back, I got to see (and cheer for) all of my teammates that I trained with for the past year (including my wife, Pattie).  My Run/Walk timer kept beeping off segments, and the Finish Line kept getting closer.  When I came down the Finish chute, most of my teammates (who had already finished) were there to cheer me on.  I was very happy to have been successful completing my first Half Ironman ever…by far, the longest event I had ever finished.

The problem is – I didn’t train for a “Half Ironman”; I trained for an “Ironman”…the accomplishment was muted by this fact, and emotionally I felt very melancholy…In my mind and heart, I knew I still had “Unfinished Business”.  Time to pick another Ironman, and get back to training!

Training On Fumes

Within a couple of weeks, we received the information from the group which organizes/runs all Ironman events regarding which events we could enter for our “do over” Ironman.  The three domestic events were:  St. George, Utah…The Woodlands, Texas…and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  After consulting with our teammates & coaches, Pattie & I decided that we would sign-up for Ironman Texas at The Woodlands on May 19th.  In addition to us, there would be eight others from our group of 27 who would also join us to attempt to complete Ironman Texas.

Now, instead of being “done”, we had to get psyched-up again to train at some extreme distance for another two months.  This was extremely difficult but, since the distances involved in Ironman are so daunting (and scary), we found the internal strength we needed to just “get on with it” to give us the best chance of finishing.

I did do one thing to make things easier for me –> I rented a (bright blue) QuintanaRoo bike for Ironman Texas.  While my current bike could have made the journey, and served me well in New Zealand, having a lighter & faster bike would (potentially) help me shave time off of my Bike segment, and give me a better chance of finishing Ironman Texas.  Members of the WDW Radio Running Team helped me nickname the bike “KangaLou-sh” – “Kanga”, since “Roo” was already part of the bike brand…”Lou” because, well, he is “the face” of WDW Radio and started the WDW Radio Running Team (and he is my “boss”, as I ‘Coach’ the WDW Radio Running Team)…and the entire phrase – “KangaLou-sh” – harkens back to the salute – “Kungaloosh!” – given from one adventurer to another at “The Adventurer’s Club” (my all-time favorite Pleasure Island club).  No excuses now!…the only thing wrong with my new bike would be the “loose nut behind the handlebars” (me!)…

Our long training sessions included another 100 mile ride, and several long runs & swims.  Unlike the New Zealand sessions, where we at least had 20+ other people to train with and support in case of a mechanical issue on our bikes, I only trained with the Swim “Band-Of-Four” I had been training with for months.  The two months flew by, the “4,000 miles trained” barrier was crossed, and we were getting ready to travel to The Woodlands to attempt to complete Ironman Texas when…

The “Degree Of Difficulty” Has Been Raised

Two weeks before Ironman Texas, Pattie & I took our two Golden Retrievers (Mocha & Kona) to a local Dog Beach to have some fun.  They had a blast!  Right around the time we were about to take the dogs home, Pattie yelled “Look out!”…at that same moment, I felt my legs being taken out by a sprinting doggie (not one of ours).  My legs got all twisted-up, and the pain in my right ankle was immediate (the doggie was okay, by the way).  After a few shrieks of “Why now???…Why now???”, I got up, gathered our dogs, and hobbled away from the beach.

The doctor would tell me I had a “grade 2” ankle sprain, and told me to wrap it tightly to try to get the swelling down (it was so swollen the first week after the injury that I couldn’t wear anything other than my (Disney) Crocs comfortably.  On a subsequent visit, he gave me a 60% chance of my ankle being able to finish Ironman Texas (and only gave me that much chance because he knew how determined I was).

Since there was nothing I could do to make things “better”, I kept my ankle wrapped tightly and packed my gear for Ironman Texas.

“Anything Is Possible!”…(Take 2)

The one thing we wouldn’t have to worry about at Ironman Texas would be the weather…well, that isn’t exactly right – instead of worrying about a typhoon wiping out the event, we’d be worried about the heat and humidity not allowing us to use our wetsuits during the Swim, and potentially making us wilt on the Bike and Run.

We arrived, checked our bikes, and went for a test ride.  It is the first time I tried to Bike or Run since the “Dog Beach Incident”. During the 45 minute ride, our group checked-out the Transition Area for Ironman Texas, rode over to the Swim Start area, and covered some of the first miles of the Bike course.  My ankle held up “okay”, but was pretty uncomfortable during the ride…at least “KangaLou-sh” performed brilliantly!

The next day we went for a test swim in the same lake where the Swim would be held the following day.  The temperature of the water in the lake was nearly 80 degrees (it was 90+ degrees, with 70% humidity outside of the lake), and the visibility in the water was less than 2 feet (it was clean, but “murky”).  If the water temperature rose to just over 84 degrees, we wouldn’t be able to wear our wetsuits for the 2.4 mile Swim…I was worried about this…I wanted/needed the buoyancy provided by the wetsuit to keep myself from expending too much energy during the Swim (and give myself the best chance of completing the Bike & Run too). Since, ideally, you don’t kick during an Ironman Swim, my ankle was just fine during the test swim.

At the Welcome Dinner, the 10 of us (from our original group of 27) who signed-up for Ironman Texas sat together with our families and celebrated that we got there.  It was an inspiring evening, only muted for me personally anytime I looked down at my swollen & wrapped ankle (or had to gimp around on it).

“Ironman Day” (Finally) Arrives!

After getting a few hours of sleep following the Welcome Dinner, Pattie and I drove to the Transition Area for Ironman Texas to actually start an “Ironman” event.  The 10 of us met for the final time before walking from Transition to the Swim Start (a mile away).  All of us wondered whether or not we would be fortunate enough to reach the Finish Line.  There wasn’t much talking during the walk to the Swim Start…

Once we reached the Swim Start area, I had to put on my wetsuit, and take off the wrap around my ankle.  Those around me who saw me do it (and who were not a part of our group) just looked and shook their heads.  We all got in the water, and waited for the cannon to fire for the start.

As I had heard from others, I learned first-hand that the Swim at an Ironman is a “contact sport” – the bumping, kicking, and hitting was pretty constant over the 2.4 miles of the Swim, but I finished with a smile on my face, and headed for the changing tent before getting on “KangaLou-sh” for a ‘little’ ride.

“KangaLou-sh” seemed pleased to see me, and we ripped off the first 40 miles without too much hassle.  Then the 90+ degree heat, 70%+ humidity, and my injured ankle started to take the starch out of me.  I kept pedaling…I kept smiling…and the miles continued to tick away.  My ankle would get so irritated from time-to-time that I had to stop, unclip from my pedal, and move it around just to be able to keep going.  For some reason, it also hurt worse when I was in “Aero Position”.  No matter…after a year worth of training, and a burning desire to live up to my doctor’s “60%”, I just kept going.  When I returned to The Woodlands, I was thrilled!  I knew I would get off of the Bike prior to the cut-off.  2.4 miles (Swim) + 112 miles (Bike) = only 26.2 miles (Run) to go!

After dropping off “KangaLou-sh”, I went into the changing tent to get into my running garb, which (of course) included my blue WDW Radio Running Team shirt (with my name painted on it)!  Now I would find out if I could run on my ankle, or discover that it would be as painful/tender as it was during the Bike.  I set my Garmin off to do a [0:15] Run / [0:45] Walk, and headed out.  To my great good fortune, I learned that the Run / Walk would be more comfortable for me than the Bike was.

The Run course was 3 laps around the central area of The Woodlands.  Towards the middle of lap 1, I was passed by two of my ten teammates.  We exchanged pleasantries, and then got back to our individual experiences.  I kept running…I kept walking…I was vigilant about my nutrition.  I was feeling as good as one could feel after being “on the go” for over 115 self-propelled miles (out of the 140.6 I would need to cover to become an Ironman).

As lap 1 melted into lap 2, night began to fall…it was just a matter of time!  I always knew, even if I were totally healthy, that I would be finishing in the dark!  Towards the end of lap 2, I came across one of my teammates who had already become an “Ironman” walking back to his hotel room with his wife.  He asked me what lap I was on and, after some mental calculations, told me “You are gonna make it!”…I broadly smiled back at him and said, “Yes, I am!”…

Lap 3 would be a wonderful, 8+ mile, “Victory Lap”…I had plenty of time & distance to recall everything that had led up to this moment.  When I reached the mile 19 marker, I passed the last “time cut-off point” before the Finish Line…I had plenty of time.

After the mile 23 marker, a blister which had been developing on the ball of my right foot burst, and I “shut it down” as far as running goes – I would “walk it in” to the Finish.  I knew I had plenty of time.  Even though I was walking, I was still passing more people than were passing me.  Every step brought me closer to my goal…every step would make me smile more broadly.

At mile 25.5, I was directed toward the Finish Chute…only 0.7 miles to go until Mike Reilly, the “Voice of Ironman”, would loudly welcome me into the Ironman fraternity.  I don’t remember needing any effort to walk to the Finish.  I do remember high-5ing many of the people who were cheering for all of us who were finishing during the “Magic Hour” (the last hour, between 16 hours and [16:59:59]).  As I made the last turn, I remember seeing Mike Reilly, and the smile he had for me was electric (he lives near us in San Diego, and actually rode with our group during one of our weekly training rides)…He was my last high-5 before he would proclaim, “HAPPY KELLER…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!”

I got my Ironman medal (which I promised I would wear for a month, and I am keeping my promise), and was handed a large bottle of water which I chugged in about a minute…I asked for another and did the same again…this was not a “good thing” – after taking such good care of myself, nutrition-wise, for 140.6 miles and 16 hours 27 minutes, I “blew it” by chugging all of this water so quickly.  A few minutes later I would “lose” all of the liquid I had just drank, and would need to be “re-hydrated” with a needle (don’t worry folks…I still felt a lot better than other finishers who were around me in the medical tent).

One Last Note

If you have read this far, I hope you won’t mind one more bit of self-indulgence.  In the days after I became an Ironman (the photo is the “Group Of Four” with our Swim Coach), I kept thinking of this one phrase I remember hearing Al Trautwig use for a very inspirational Ironman as he approached the finish during one of the Ironman World Championship videos I have on my DVR (and I hope he doesn’t mind me paraphrasing):

“Is it possible to finish an Ironman on a severely sprained ankle?  Yes, it is, Happy.  Anything Is Possible!  And, ironically, the two letters you remove from ‘Impossible’ to make it so are ‘I’ ‘M’ – IRONMAN!

8 of the 10 of us who started, including my wife Pattie, would finish Ironman Texas.

“Thanks for the story/stories, but how can this help me?”

Ah!…GREAT question!  Here are some tips you can take away from my Ironman experience:

  • Decorating Your WDW Radio Running Team Shirt – I decorate all of the shirts I plan to run events in (actually, my wife Pattie does most of the painting).  Why?  Because, even though runDisney does put your name on your Bib, the font is so small that people cannot read it as you run by.  Puffy (fabric) paint is available at most craft/hobby stores, comes in a many colors, and is washable.  I always put my name on my shirt…some have additional decorations (characters, sayings, and dedications).  It is so inspiring to have people scream your name as you run by them…make their job easier by painting your name on your shirt!
  • Participating With An Injury – I want to make sure you notice that I consulted a Doctor after I got “run over” by the doggie at Dog Beach.  After an exam, he told me I wasn’t going to do any permanent damage by attempting to do Ironman Texas.  He also told me to not do any more training before Ironman…so I didn’t!  Don’t continue training with an injury – stop and get it checked-out by a Doctor!  That old sports saying, “No Pain, No Gain!” has no place in endurance sport training.  I did exactly what my Doctor prescribed for me and, due to that (partially), I am an “Ironman” today.
  • Nutrition – Early during the training, I experimented with many different foods, drinks, gels, etc. to keep me as fueled as I could during the long training sessions in preparation for Ironman.  If you are doing any runDisney event longer than a 5K, you should be taking in some planned calories + electrolytes to help keep yourself from the dreaded “Bonk”…trust me, you don’t want to go there!  If you already have a plan that works for you…great!  If you don’t, start experimenting and get yourself a plan!
  • Losing Weight – It can be difficult to lose weight while you are training because muscle weighs more than fat, and you will develop muscles during your training.  With the volume of training I was doing for Ironman, I was more worried about losing too much too quickly…that’s why I consulted with a nutritionist.  The plan we came up with had me losing about a pound per week.  So far, I have lost about 35 pounds from where I started…there are no short cuts to weight loss –> eat less, and exercise more (and do both “smartly”)…
  • Motivation During An Event – Ironman is a very long day/night covering 140.6 miles…fortunately, there aren’t any runDisney events that (officially) cover more than 39.3 miles during a two-day period.  The key I hope you’ll take away from my experience is to “just keep moving forward”…Lou says this every week at the end of each WDW Radio Podcast I have ever listened to…(you know, he might have a future in Coaching, if he wants one!)…this may sound simple, but it is truthful –> if you just keep moving forward, doing the best that you can do, you will be moving closer to the Finish Line (and that wonderful Disney BLING!)
  • Post-Event Care With Food and Drink – I stopped thinking after I crossed the Finish Line, and cost myself several hours where I could have been celebrating.  Instead I needed fluids pumped back into me via an IV…all I did was chug a couple of bottles of water – what could be the harm???  Well, it can do plenty of harm…in my case it threw-off my fluid & electrolyte balances, and punished me for doing so.  You will want/need some liquids and/or nutrition after your event.  PLEASE just sip your drink, and nibble at your nutrition over time…If you do, you will greatly reduce the possibility that you will suffer my fate!
  • Join The WDW Radio Running Team! – If you aren’t a member already, go to www.wdwradio.com/running/ right now and find out more!  The WDW Radio Running Team benefits “The Dream Team Project” whose proceeds are donated to The Make-A-Wish Foundation.  Members will find a world of support, published schedules for all runDisney events, a Facebook page wholly dedicated to our team, and a piddly little ‘Coach’ (me) with an e-mail address (wdwradiorun@gmail.com) you can write to for individual attention and support.

I hope you enjoyed sharing my journey…I know from checking the Facebook page after Ironman Texas that there were many WDW Radio Running Team members who were following my progress all day/night.  I am beyond flattered!  Thank you all so much!!!  I can’t wait to see each and every one of you at a future runDisney event!

Dream Big!