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My Ironman Triathlon

Mike Drak

I INVESTED A GOOD chunk of 2022 getting ready for the Ironman triathlon on Nov. 20 in Cozumel, Mexico. A lot of people have asked me why I would even attempt an Ironman at age 68. I tell them I’m investing in my future self.

I know what I want my future to look like, and I’m focused on putting the pieces in place to get me there. My good health is a big piece of that picture. I want to enjoy a fulfilling, meaningful life. I want to experience life to its fullest with the time that I have left. And I want to lose those 53 pounds I managed to put on while writing three books and getting through the pandemic.

My goal wasn’t to finish Ironman. My goal is to become healthy again, to be active and athletic so I can do the things I love to do for as long as I can. Here’s my Ironman race report. Let’s just say it was a hell of a day.

Race day. At 5 a.m., I caught a taxi to get to my bike at transition area one (T1), where I’d switch from swimming to riding later that morning. I checked the air pressure in the tires and then loaded the bike with four bottles of nutrition, as well as eight gels and a bottle of salt pills. After that, I dropped off my special-needs bags at the designated buses.

Then I made my way to the shuttle buses and stood in line to be driven to the swim start. It was only a short ride, and soon we were all waiting for the beginning of the race. The pros were scheduled to start at 7 a.m., followed by the age groups, which were self-seeded based on their projected swim time.

Thinking I’d complete the 2.4-mile swim within 90 minutes, I went to join the swim group aiming for 80 to 90 minutes. While we waited, the winds picked up and the announcer reported that a rain squall was approaching. Race officials delayed the start for about an hour until the storm passed. I made it into the water at 8:15 a.m. That’s when the trouble started.

As boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” During Ironman, unexpected things happen, like a flat tire or a problem with nutrition. You’ll go through bad patches and your resolve will be tested numerous times throughout the day. You need to have a big “why” to get through the setbacks or you’ll never make it to the end.

That’s the beauty of this race. It will take you way out of your comfort zone, right to the edge, and then keep you there for the duration.

Punch No. 1. Within seconds of entering the water, someone’s hand hit me on the side of the head and ripped off my goggles. I wasn’t hurt—I was mad, mostly—but I couldn’t get my right goggle lens to stop leaking after that. Eventually, I decided to stop trying to adjust it and just swim. I was uncomfortable at first but eventually found a rhythm.

I kept trying to find someone’s legs to follow through the water, but the other swimmers always seemed to end up off-course. It felt like I was swimming all over the place and I was. One minute I was inside the race buoys and the next minute I was outside of them.

The morning was cloudy but there were lots of fish to see along the way. Scuba divers watching from below were taking photos of us swimming by.

Punch No. 2.  At some point, I felt a rapid drop in water temperature that surprised me. I started to swim through what I thought was seaweed, only it wasn’t. I ended up getting a lot of jellyfish stings close to the end of the swim. Figures.

When we exited the water at T1, there was a shower, where I spent a few minutes rinsing out my right eye. It was really hurting from the salt water. The long shower slowed my transition time, along with the fact that the race stewards decided not to provide us with the usual changing tents.

I’d never trained to take off my swimsuit and put on my cycling shorts while holding a towel. It’s a special skill that needs to be practiced. I hope no one was looking.

It was discouraging to arrive at the bike rack to see only a few bikes left. Almost everyone had exited the transition area ahead of me. Just at that moment, my spirits were buoyed by another retirement rebel like me. He was just sitting there, taking it all in. He talked like someone who grew up in the 1970s, cheering me on and reminding me what a great day it was.

I love hanging around retirement rebels. They’re a special kind of people.

Punch No. 3. One of my goals was to spend as much time as possible on my bike’s aero bars, handlebar extensions that allow riders to get into a low, tucked position. But I had terrible neck pain from the swim and couldn’t hold my head up to see ahead. I was forced to ride upright for the entire first loop and that cost me some time. Luckily, the neck pain went away during the second loop.

Punch No. 4. For some reason, my bike computer wasn’t working properly. Neither my cadence nor my power output was showing. Luckily, it still provided me with my heart rate, distance traveled and time taken, so I could make sure I remained within the bike cut-off time—or so I thought.

I loved the bike course. Most of the ride is near the ocean and it’s simply beautiful. On the negative side, the ride was hotter than hell. I noticed a small lizard run across the road. Not long after that, a much larger lizard did the same thing. It felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park.

I rode past some vultures feeding on roadkill. On the second loop, there were many more of them, forcing me to ride between them. I imagined they were looking at me funny, trying to figure out a way to knock me off my bike. Someone my size could probably feed them for a week. I think the heat was starting to get to me.

Punch No. 5. After about 30 kilometers, my right leg began to suffer from hot foot, a painful burning on the ball of the foot caused by riding in hot weather. It eventually spread to my left leg as well. The pain became excruciating, forcing me to stop and get off the bike for a few minutes at every aid station, which were located 12.5 kilometers apart. My routine was to take a bottle of ice water from a volunteer, have a gulp and pour the rest over my shoulders and head.

Eventually, I made my way to the bike special needs section at 90 kilometers. I was surprised by the number of bags still hanging there, which meant those riders hadn’t gotten this far. Later, I learned that a third of the competitors had dropped out of the race, mostly because of the heat.

I avoided dropping out because my nutrition plan was solid. I had done my homework and packed my remaining bottles in a cooler bag with ice packs. They were still cold when I got to them. Boy, did they ever taste good, and my spirits were lifted.

The sun started to go down. Based on my numerous hot training rides, I knew I would soon get my second wind and become both stronger and faster.

Punch No. 6. This was the biggest punch of all. I rode into town and took the turn for my third bike loop. For some reason, the road was blocked off. A race official told me to get off my bike and that my race was over.

This didn’t make any sense to me because I was still within the bike cut-off time of five hours and 30 minutes, and was on pace to finish the overall race. I couldn’t get a straight answer other than it had something to do with road closures.

I walked over and put my bike on the rack at transition area No. 2, as instructed. I met others there who were complaining about their race ending this way, too. One young lady told me it was her first Ironman and that she was ashamed to get a “did not finish” (DNF) result. I told her not to be ashamed because it wasn’t a DNF but rather a NATF—not allowed to finish. It was the race organizer’s fault.

As for me, I was in good shape. I knew I could have earned that finisher’s medal because I had spent a lot of time practicing my walk-run in hot humid weather. The bonus is that the crowd support during the run is electrifying. I would have had extra motivation, too, because my family was there to cheer me on.

But the victory was denied me after all those months of training and expense. It wasn’t right, but despite sending emails to both the organizer and race judges, no one has yet responded. It reminds me of when Air Canada let me down on a flight earlier this year. The lack of appropriate response was similar. No one seems to want to do the right thing these days.

What important lessons did I learn from my experience? First, Ironman was a rebirth for me, a big change in lifestyle, as well as a change in attitude. It was a form of play. It gave me the chance to become a child again and play with other retirement rebels.

While training I got to remember who I really am. When I was younger, I was creative and authentic. When I was younger, I did things my way. My energy came from taking risks and winning. Ironman brought back my childlike wonder, and I can laugh at the world again. It’s nice to be back.

I also learned that I’m more capable and resilient than I thought. I learned that if I have a big enough “why”—and if I’m willing to put in the work—anything is possible. We can become more than we ever were before in this period of our lives. Yet many of us choose not to reach beyond our comfort zone and the TV. We act as if we’re sedated, we don’t take risks, we don’t go for the gold.

How boring. What a waste.

I also learned that I sweat heavily in competition, so I’m not very good in the heat. That’s why I’m not planning on returning to Cozumel next year to take care of unfinished business.

Where do I go from here? Now that I’ve got my health back, it’s time to move on to bigger and better things. I’ll be focusing on the “giving back’ phase of my life. I plan on giving free “longevity lifestyle design” seminars to nonprofit groups. If you’d like to book one, shoot me an email.

I’m also going to be careful not to let my hard-earned health slip through my fingers. I’ve put the two-day Ride for Cancer in June, followed by the Niagara Falls Half Ironman in September, on my dance card for next year.

The party, as they say, is far from over.

Mike Drak is a 38-year veteran of the financial services industry. He’s the co-author of Longevity Lifestyle by Design, Retirement Heaven or Hell and Victory Lap Retirement. Mike works with his wife, an investment advisor, to help clients design a fulfilling retirement. For more on Mike, head to BoomingEncore.com. Check out his earlier articles.

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