What a weekend.
337 days after hitting “register” on Ironman.com for the 2018 Ironman Maryland race, I crossed the finish line.
Back in November 2017, I posed the question here: Is it possible to train for an Ironman in 1 year?. Honestly, I didn’t know if it would be. Coming from a CrossFit background where a “long” workout is 20 minutes, to an endeavor that would take me nearly 13 hours to complete, it was a tossup.
But I got what I asked for.
I was drawn to this challenge, because it was just that, a challenge. Something that at the time, I was nowhere even remotely physically capable of completing. I would have to bust my butt doing 12 months of one tough Ironman training program to have a chance of toeing the line on September 29th.
The ups and downs were very real, but having now completed 140.6 miles, I can definitively say, that was the hardest and most rewarding physical accomplishment that I have, and probably will ever experience.
It was truly something I’ll never forget.
With that, I’m going to try to break down this past weekend and give a little insight into the pinnacle of my 11 month journey.
Athlete check-in: 2 days out
Thursday September 27th, was athlete check-in.
My mom and I arrived at Long Warf in Cambridge, MD around 10:30am-11:00am and I had a few items I needed to take care of that day:
- Check in, getting my athlete packet, swag, and bib
- Exchange my bike wheels for carbon race wheels
- Get the “lay of the land” in terms of transition, finish line locations, etc.
Check-in was as smooth as could be due to the fact that the Ironman village was well staffed and had everything laid out in order.
In order, I:
- Signed my waver
- Received my packet (containing bike stickers, swim cap, bracelet, running bib)
- Received my swag bag (containing a poster, stickers, restaurant coupons, etc.)
- Received my timing chip (i.e. my prisoners ankle bracelet) for race day
Funneled out of check-in and through the store, I got to eye up all sorts of shirts, hats, hoodies, etc. I could expect to spend my hard earned money on, but only after I crossed that finish line in 2 days.
I took my race packet and bags, and dropped them off in the car. I grabbed my bike, dropped that off at RaceDay Wheels, where I was renting Zipp 808’s (carbon wheels for added aerodynamics and weight reduction). We now had about a half hour to spare waiting for the wheel swap, so we decided to walk from Long Warf (i.e. the finish) to Great Marsh Park (i.e. Transition / Swim start).
We only briefly spent some time here, just to get a feel of where the swim would start, end, how the bikes would be racked, etc. With nothing left to do on Thursday but pick up the bike and head to the hotel, we got out of there to get some sleep.
Bike & gear check-in: 1 day out
Having already checked-in as an athlete on Thursday, Friday was reserved for checking in all the stuff.
Mainly 2 gear bags, and my bike (there were 3 other gear bags left for race morning).
In 1 gear bag I had to pack everything I’d want to wear on the bike that I would change into immediately following the swim. In the other gear bag, same idea, but instead I’d be packing all my running clothes.
Heading back over to transition sometime in late morning on Friday, I was able to check the bike in and drop the gear bags off relatively quickly.
This left the perfect amount of time to catch 2 athlete briefings. One was the general race briefing going over logistics, the course, cutoff times, etc. The latter was a briefing designed specifically for first-timers, to answer questions that both were, and were not asked (such as “how do the changing tents work,” etc.).
We got in, got out, and headed back to the hotel one more time.
The night before race day
Let’s be honest, I was basically a nervous wreck all week, and even more so the last 2 days. Knowing that my wife and old college roommate Kevin (and his girlfriend Sarah) were coming down Friday evening to have dinner with us, was a very welcome relief.
I spent some time in the hotel room obsessing over the 3 remaining gear bags I had to bring on race morning (swim gear, and special needs bags for the run and bike) until I got the call that Kevin and Sarah were arriving soon.
I stopped what I was doing, and my Mom and I went across the street to a tiny corner bar called Bannings in Easton, MD, to meet them for drinks (I had water) and food.
Not long after, I got a call from my wife Lori that she was almost there, and she needed to know where we were so she could meet up with us after she parked.
This is where things got special.
Waiting for her to walk over, I kept glancing around to see if/when I could see her coming. During one of those glances, I saw someone who looked just like my other good friend and old roommate, Mike and his girlfriend Ashley. Having no idea they were coming (it was a surprise), I wrote it off as ‘not them’, but still managed to say “hey, that looks a lot like Mike and Ashley”.
My table grew very quiet, as I was the only one who didn’t know they were coming.
Eventually I figured out that it was them, and Lori had orchestrated this whole thing to surprise me with a little extra support pre-race day. In short, that meant the world to me, and I wouldn’t really understand how much it mattered until the next day.
September 29th, 2018: Ironman Maryland Race Day
This was it. A journey 337 days in the making, and naturally, it started at 4:00am.
Trying to keep my routine from training as consistent as possible, I woke up at 4:00am, and immediately sat in bed drinking coffee to ease into the day. It was going to be a long one.
After coffee, I ate some breakfast, and started getting dressed.
One by one my support crew came to the room. Lori was up, my Mom was there, and Ashley and Mike met me at the room too. We were driving together, and it was time to go.
4:50am: head to the course
We got in the car at 10 of 5, and made our way to T1 at Great Marsh park. The ride would take roughly 30-40 minutes (with traffic) and I was being dropped off at transition before everyone went to park the cars.
I arrived just around 5:30, and had plenty of time (roughly 1 hour) to check-in my special needs bags, dry off my bike, fill up my water bottles for the bike, and rejoin my crew ahead of swim start.
6:30am: T1 Closes
At 6:30 they closed T1 to the athletes, beginning to herd everyone over to swim start. A self seeded line based on estimated finish time.
It was here that I wiggled (literally) into my wetsuit and gave my morning crew one last hug.
6:56am: The Swim
I seeded myself in the 1:11-1:20 estimated finish time zone. I figured I’d be somewhere in that range for the 2.4 mile swim.
The swim itself was a 2 lap swim covering roughly 1,900m per lap.
The water was calm and a cool 73 degrees, making it wetsuit legal by 3.1 degrees.
Wearing a wetsuit was something I had looked forward to all week. Having not have worn one for either of the first 2 races, and knowing how much easier a swim of this distance would be with the added buoyancy, I was thrilled to see 73.
The course was lined with kayakers, boats, and enough sighting buoys to make it nearly impossible to get off course (despite the fact that I tried pretty hard once to wander into the middle of the river before correcting my path).
My only wish is that I could have had a camera with me on the swim.
Watching the sun come up over the Choptank river from the river itself, was a sight only 1,600 or so of us got to experience, and it’s something I won’t soon forget.
All in all, the swim felt great. I really felt the quality of my training in each stroke. I was able to keep my pace, remain calm, and overall simply enjoy being out in the water. My sighting was efficient, and I was able to get into a good rhythm and avoid most of the turn buoy carnage (though what’s an open water swim without some pushing and shoving?).
8:23am: Transition 1
1:26:57 was my time in the water.
Running out of the water, I was guided by volunteers who helped unzip my wetsuit once I emerged.
A few feet after that, a new set of volunteers had me lay down on the ground, they grabbed the arms of my wetsuit, and ripped the rest of it off, pulling me off the ground, and sending me into T1.
I grabbed my bike gear bag with all my clothes, helmet, etc. and made my way into the changing tent.
There I was able to shed my soaking wet swim gear, and change into a nice set of dry bike clothes, strap on my helmet, and make my way to the bike!
8:33am: The Bike
Little did I know, the bike was going to be quite the adventure. Somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 hours was the target for the bike, and I was hopeful for a nice flat course, with the 9mph wind gusts promised by weather.com (they were very, very wrong).
The bike course was a hot topic on race day, because due to some flooding from recent heavy rains, it had changed from what was originally planned.
6 miles of the double loop had been removed, and replaced with a 6 mile out-and-back towards the beginning. Not a major change, and we were able to keep the 112 mile distance, but either way, it was an unexpected change.
Getting out to the beginning of the first loop was a breeze (literally). The winds were light, as was the traffic. Getting to the loop involved completing roughly the first 23-25 miles, a great length of time to settle in, and get comfortable for the ride to come.
The loop portion of the bike, was beautiful. It was a winding course through Blackwater Refuge, a nature reserve in Dorchester County, MD. During my time out there, I counted 3 eagles (at least one bald eagle) and tons of other beautiful birds who called our course home.
It was relaxing, enjoyable, calm, and downright fun. For a bit.
Bike incident #1: The truck
On the back side of loop 1, there is a stretch of highway where the road and wide shoulder are separated by the warning rivets designed to vibrate your car if you start to drift off the road.
While the shoulder was wide, it wasn’t quite wide enough to pass, so if you wanted to pass the person in front of you, you had to pop into the road, pass them, then squeeze back in between the rivets to get in front.
Coming up on a biker in front of me, I looked for cars, saw none, and decided to go for the pass.
I scooted out into the road and began pedaling fast, only to hear an approaching car, one I clearly hadn’t seen.
Not having the ability to hop back into the shoulder thanks to the rivets, I got as close to the white line as I could, and waited for them to pass me.
Instead of going onto the total opposite side of the empty highway to give me space, the lifted truck decided to buzz by me with maybe 2 feet to spare.
To be even more of a jerk, he slowed down just in front of me, stomped on the gas, and blew a billowing cloud of black smoke right in my face before speeding off.
I shook, my bike wobbled, but I managed to stay up. No idea how I didn’t go down.
Bike incident #2: The wind(?)
Despite being angry at the truck driver, I didn’t die, or fall for that matter.
I completed my intended pass, got back into the shoulder and continued on with my race.
The ironic part of this story comes 5 miles later when, for absolutely no reason whatsoever (so I’ll blame the wind), I found myself wobbling, then suddenly in the grass.
Being laid down in my aero bars, I couldn’t get to my brakes, so I had one choice: bail.
I unclipped my feet, and laid the bike down in a ditch, popping off the chain, and smashing down onto my right side.
A woman passed yelling “are you ok?!?!”, I popped up, and did a self check, and replied “uhh.. yeah, actually I am!”.
I couldn’t believe it, I was fine. Small scrape on the knee and a popped chain were the worst of my problems. One easily fixed, and the other easily ignored.
Finishing the bike
After my truck and fall adventure, the remainder of my ride was relatively uneventful. The only ‘event’ worth noting is how inaccurate weather.com’s 9mph wind gusts were. I would venture to guess, for the final 50 miles of the bike, not only was the wind head on, but it was easily 10-20mph in spots.
I pushed equally hard for 23mph as I did for 12mph in some spots, in the same gear.
But that’s ok, I made it. 112 miles on the bike, 24 miles further than I had ever gone before, in roughly 6.5 hours. I had just 1 thing standing between me and the finish. A tiny cool-down run some might call, a marathon.
3:03pm: Transition 2
6:29 was my time on the bike and at quarter after 3 in the afternoon, I arrived at T2.
I racked my bike right where I had found it in the morning, grabbed my run gear bag, and made my way back to the changing tent.
Out of bike clothes, and into the most comfortable running clothes I had.
I changed my clothes, shoes, and strapped on my bib, and I was off. Only 26.2 miles stood between me and the finish.
3:13pm: The Marathon
My goal here was simple. Don’t go out too hard, and try to finish under 4 hours. That was the plan. I had intended to walk at every aid station (roughly 1 mile apart), make sure to get fluids, dump water on my head if I felt warm, and use those moments to collect myself and relax.
The course was a 2.5 loop run, starting in the middle and heading off to my right (the north side of the course) first.
My training pace all year had been a 7:30 mile. I knew that was probably out the window for race day, but after starting my 70.3 run off WAY too hot at 6:05, I made sure to run at fastest, a 7:30 first mile.
I did, 7:30.1 was mile number 1, and eventually I settled into an 8:30 pace, where I felt much more comfortable given the fatigue that had set in.
Not only was I feeling good on pace, there were more surprises on the course waiting for me. In the first half mile of the run, I saw 2 other friends, Jess & Yancy from my CrossFit gym, cheering me on. You can’t imagine the HUGE smile on my face that brought, and then to see 3 more friends, Jarrett, Laurie and Anne a few miles in, was awesome. In addition my wife, my Mom, my in-laws, and other family and friends I already had seen, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.
Mile 1-10, felt pretty good. I was cheerful, bantering with the crowd, and overall just loving life.
Miles 10-18, I still felt good, pace slowed a tad closer to 9 minutes, but I felt controlled, used the aid stations to rest, and was locked in, ready for that sub 4 Ironman marathon.
Then it happened.
Mile 18: The Wall
I went from feeling fresh and in control, to the brink of fainting in the matter of about 4 steps.
I crossed over the 18 mile mark, and my body just said “enough”.
That was it. I ran out of steam. Fuel tank = empty. I was shocked.
I stood still for a moment in the middle of the run, and for about 60 seconds, for the first time in the 11 hours on the course so far, negativity snuck in.
“What if I can’t finish”, “What if I have to withdraw”, “There are still 8 miles left, that’s going to take all night!”
So, I did the only thing I could think to do. I picked up one foot, and put it in front of the other and just started walking.
I needed a new plan. I needed to walk to the next aid station, double up on Gatorade and bananas, and see how things went from there.
I ended up repeating that process for 4 consecutive aid stations.
For 4 miles, I walked and tried to refuel. The Gatorade and food helped, but if we’re being real, it didn’t help NEARLY as much, as having friends and family walking along side me throughout those miles.
Telling me “you got this!”, and “forward is progress!”.
Not quite sure how I didn’t break down and cry.
The support was overwhelming. The emotions were overwhelming. I had hit my lowest point of the day, wondering if I’d squeeze out the last 8 miles of 140.6, and greeting me in that darkest moment, were the brightest lights of encouragement anyone could ask for.
All of you are how I finished.
Mile 23: What Wall?
The love, support, and encouragement (not to mention the electrolytes I had shoved in my body for an hour) eventually added up to enough strength to get me jogging again.
I had 1 hour to finish 3 miles to break 13 hours. That was my new goal. My new mission.
Prove to myself that I could break through the wall. Prove to those around me struggling that the suffering does subside and there is light at the end.
At mile 23, I began to run.
It wasn’t fast, and god was it probably not pretty, but it was a run.
I took some friends by surprise on my approach to mile 25 that I was in fact, running. As I passed them yelling, they started running alongside to get to the finish before I would.
“Go Josh Go!” was all I heard. Head down, eyes forward into the dark that had overtaken the course.
At this point, we were running by moonlight, and determination. After passing my family, I realized this was the last mile.
The last mile of a 140.6 mile journey that lead to the bright, bright finisher tunnel at the bottom of the hill.
7:49pm: The finish
I was sprinting (or what felt like it) down High St. towards the glowing finish line lights.
I could hear the music, the crowd, and Mike Riley, the voice of Ironman, calling people in.
Stepping off the course and onto the finish line carpet was like stepping into another world.
There was now no lack of light, but an abundance of it. There was no deafening silence, but rather a roar of exuberance.
“Catonsville Maryland first timer, 30 year old, Josh Muskin! You are an Ironman!” – Mike Riley screamed over the microphone.
I just let it go. This was it. The end of an 11 month journey to get to this point. This one right here.
I clenched my fists and just screamed. 337 days of 4am alarm clocks, 8:30pm bedtimes, canceled plans to train, events missed due to exhaustion, blood, sweat, tears, accomplishments, disappointments, milestones hit, milestones missed, all came down to these final few steps.
I did it. Or rather, WE did it. I mean that, WE. You, reading this right now helped contribute to getting me here. Those of you following this journey from near and far made this possible, and the race day support took it straight over the edge.
We made it, on September 29th, 2018, because of all of you, with a chip time of 12:53:04, I became an Ironman.