Picture this:

It was shortly before 7:00 am, and I’m standing on a baby powder beach with about 2000 rubbery looking tri-athletes jammed into a pen at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a beautiful day.

The sun was just rising into a clean blue sky. Not a breath of wind. All I could feel was the thumping of my heart as I watched the media helicopter scan across the sea in front of us.

Then - "BLAM!" the start cannon blows and I hear U2’s "It’s a Beautiful Day" blast over the concert speakers.

It was an inspirational moment. One of those slivers of time forever burned into your ROM chip.

And I thought, "What the hell am I doing?"

1800 swimmers plow into the Gulf of Mexico and take me with them. I’m kicked, punched, grabbed, groped, slapped and hit. A washing machine. When I stop and look up to find some clear water to swim into, I get run over from behind, so I have to simply fight my way through this. I’m thinking, "If this continues for the next hour and half, I’m going to be toasted before the bike race starts".

During my warm-up swim here yesterday, the buoys (markers for the swim course) had not yet been placed and I asked someone how far out into the gulf the markers will go. He said "When you see how far out they go, you’ll crap yourself".

So my goals were to approach the swim one step at a time - first, to avoid being mashed, and second, to make it to the last buoy for my first right hand turn. It happened a lot faster than I thought and I ended up turning the corner without even realizing that I had - I just followed the swimmers I could see on my right side, since that’s the side I breath on.

Eventually, I noticed I was pointed back toward the beach. Then the water got a bit swelly and I swallowed some Gulf of Mexico - more sodium loading. Before long I could hear the announcer and all I could think about was making it to the beach where we were to get out of the water, run up on the beach, around a gate and then back out for our second loop. The small cup of Gatorade I was offered as I made my way around through the gate did a nice job of masking the salty taste in my mouth.

 
 

Thankfully, by the second loop, the crowd spread out and I found my own space to swim in. The second loop was much more relaxing - I didn’t have to worry about avoiding collisions as much and found time to browse for sea life, but I couldn’t see much of anything aside from some schools of small fish. No sharks.

I finished the swim in 1 hour, 20 minutes, right on schedule.

 
 

I ran up the beach as I started to strip off the top of my wet suit and up some stairs to the overhead showers, then hit the ground and let the prettiest volunteer I could find pull off the remainder of my suit.

Then I made my way through the rows of thousands of swim/bike transition bags and found my number, dumped it out in the change tent and took about 3 minutes to get ready for the bike ride. On my way out to find my bike, I waved to my fan club - my two kids Cody and Krista and my wife Helen.

I was happy to be on my bike, but wasn’t looking forward to spending six+ hours on it. Five continuous hours was the most time that I have spent on my bike in training - I wasn’t too sure how that sixth or possibly even seventh hour was going to feel. I also wanted to maintain a 30 km per hour pace, and have never been able to maintain that in training.

The first two hours on the bike was spent mostly passing other cyclists. 1850 cyclists riding in single file make one VERY long line. Since my swimming is quite slow, I ended up passing hundreds of peddlers who were faster swimmers, but slower cyclists than me. The temperature was a perfect 75 degrees, but I was sweating quite a bit and probably consumed at least two Gatorade bottles per hour.

After four hours, my average was still pegged at 30 km per hour, but I had settled into a group that was traveling at the same pace. To break the boredom, I would not let myself pass anyone without asking how they were doing - or saying something like: "you’re looking strong - way to go" as they passed me. It was great because I got to exchange little two-sentence conversations with fellow athletes along the way taking my mind off of the monotony. One of the members of my little 30km/hour club was Lew Hollander from Bend Oregon. Lew was 71 years old. Now if that doesn’t put things into perspective.

 
 

Everything was going great - I felt fantastic and the smile on my face was growing bigger by the minute. That’s about the time my right foot started to hurt. At first it was more of a familiar dull ache that I have experienced near the end of a long bike ride during training. The pain comes from prolonged pressure on the outside muscle of the bottom of my foot. But about 25 miles to the finish line, it started to really hurt big time.

The day before Ironman, during a conversation with my coach Steve Pyle, I expressed my concern about a glute problem I was having that would not go away. I was worried that this pain in my right glute after a couple of hours of cycling would prevent me from achieving my bike goal and then kill me on the run. He told me that if I were going to have a problem during the Ironman, it would probably be something that I hadn’t planned on or worried about.

He was right - this was the surprise problem. It hurt so bad I had to pull my foot out of my shoe and continually move my foot position around on the pedal. My 30 km average started to deteriorate. As I pulled into transition at around 6 hours, 11 minutes, I was afraid to step off the bike - afraid of how my foot was going to feel on solid ground. OUCH! I could barely walk to the transition tent. I checked my watch and saw that I had about 9 hours to finish the marathon before the cut off time, and I know that I can walk a marathon in 7 hours. However, I wasn’t even sure I could walk!

In transition, I popped a couple of Advil, changed my clothes and had a foot adjustment and massage from the friendly ART people. After 13 minutes, I felt that I had better get moving. Again, met up with the family on the way out of the change tent who were very concerned about my foot. I hobbled the first mile hoping that the pain would dissipate. Then all of a sudden it was gone. Vanished. So I started to jog, then run, and I was very happy. Very happy. I think I can honestly say that from that point on, I never stopped smiling or running. (Almost).

Like my coach Steve told me: "Cry in training, laugh on race day". It’s very true. I had to deal with nothing on my ironman race day that I have not encountered during training. And I have coach Steve to thank for that http://www.tri-ecoach.com . I started training for triathlons about 8 months ago due to not wanting to loose a friendly bet between my brother in law Tom and myself. Over a beer after work one day, we both agreed to register for an Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run) four months later in August.

The next day I went to the pool and almost passed out after about 20 meters. Then I hired a coach.

I trained hard for 4 months leading up to the triathlon swimming for an hour in the morning followed by another hour in the afternoon of running or cycling. Then each weekend, I would do my long slow run and long slow bike ride, adding a bit of distance each week. After two months I finally got to the point where I could swim 1500 meters with a floatation buoy between my legs, run two hours non stop and cycle at a pretty good pace for about 4 hours.

The triathlon in August went well - both Tom and I finished with respectable times. The next day I called coach Steve and told him that I wanted to leverage my training by trying an Ironman in Nov - Ironman Florida on Nov 10th, 2001. I asked him if three months was enough additional training time and he said yes - but the training would be difficult.

He was right. The training was tough, but I loved every minute of it. My weekly long runs eventually topped out at around four hours and long bike rides at five hours. I would swim for an hour in the morning plus one long (1.5 hours) swim per week, then another two hours in the afternoon with various levels of either run or bike intensities.

I was permanently sore, grumpy, tired, and hungry. I had a damaged anterior tibia on my left leg, a bit of shin splints on both, a touch of Plantar Fasciitis, Piriformus Syndrome on my right glute, patellofemoral syndrome on my right knee, Hammer toe on my right foot, sore elbows from swimming and AC joint arthritis in my shoulder from an old skiing injury. And I loved it. Cry in training, laugh on race day.

The Ironman triathlon is a 140-mile buffet. It’s especially true for the marathon. Aid stations are placed every mile so you have 26 chances to eat and drink - and plenty of variety. I drank a cup of Gatorade every aid station as well as ate a GU gel every few stations.

I can’t say enough about the Panama City volunteers! They were cheery and encouraging and so helpful. I passed through neon disco hoops, saluted by the cadet station (she stood motionless and expressionless in her uniform in a permanent solute for the entire race!), and danced for by hoola girls. The people of Panama City were lining the streets and filling the outdoor bars. With beers in hand they would cheer and shout and holler and clap. You couldn’t help but smile.

At about the 10 km point in the marathon I finally passed 71 year old Lew. Again, let me put that into perspective for you: If this Ironman was a 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike ride and a 10 km run, 71 year old Lew would have beaten 40 year old Greg.

 
 

The marathon was a two-loop course and they play a very cruel joke on you at the half waypoint. First of all, they arrange for it to start getting dark. Then they make you run into the spectator area right beside the finish line. Then you have to run under the sign that says "Run Start". And you know that you have to do it all over again, and the cheers aren’t for you - they’re for the athletes who are FINISHING. Again, that’s NOT you. They make you run by the place where the finishers are eating pizza and drinking beer and hugging each other. Not you. You have to run in the shadow of the fence that defines the home stretch - the carpeted, spot lit runway with hundreds of spectators screaming and yelling. In fact - they spell it out for you. The runway is split with a big sign in the middle "FINISHERS - STAY RIGHT, 2nd LOOP - STAY LEFT". The sign may as well have read "FOR YOU JACKASSES WHO HAVE TO RUN THE WHOLE 13 MILES AGAIN (THAT MEANS REPEAT EVERYTHING YOU HAVE BEEN DOING FOR THE LAST 2+ HOURS FOR AN ADDITIONAL 2+ HOURS), STAY LEFT".

Thankfully, Helen and the kids were waiting for me at the half waypoint encouraging me on. As a consolation I spent about five minutes at my run special needs bag. I had packed a can of Clamato juice - that’s a salty mix of tomato and clam, a Red Bull energy drink and a small tin of Pringles potato chips. The Clam/bull drink is a potent mix! Helen was frantically gesturing me to get moving, so I started on the second half with the tin of Pringles tucked into my shorts and a belly full of liquids that was making clug-clug sounds as I headed back out into the dark.

The run course loop runs through Panama City beach for about five km, and then enters the darkness of the state park where there are no buildings, no vehicles, and no lights of any kind. A spooky kind of darkness - no moon either that night, just a sky full of stars. Very cool. At 10 km you pass by sand dunes and the ocean on your left, then turn around and head back to the city. It got so dark; I almost ran into slower runners in front of me that I could not see.

I checked my watch for the first time at the turn around with about 11 km left to go. I saw that I had a little more than an hour to make it to 13 hours total and nobody wants a time with a thirteen in it, so I was suddenly very motivated to get a move on so I could finish BEFORE the thirteen hour mark. So, I picked up the pace and to my surprise, still felt fantastic - and yes, I think I was still smiling.

 
 

The excitement started to grow inside of me as I reached the lights and noise of the city again - I knew then that I would make it to the finish line before thirteen hours, and I knew the end wasn’t far away. My grin started to grow and I could hardly contain myself.

As I approached the finish area, I could finally this time, take the path to the right - the path where FINISHERS go (that was me!). Into the lights, onto the carpet and past the full stands where people were shouting and cheering. They announced my name as "Little Willy Willy" by Sweet blasted from the speakers. I’ve heard about finishers getting all teary eyed at that point, but really never thought it would happen to me. Wrong - I couldn’t hold back the tears as I leaped through the finish ribbon with both arms high in the air.

It was very cool. The sorest muscles at the finish line were my cheeks from smiling so much!

Of course, none of what I have accomplished would be possible without the loving support and encouragement from my family. I thank them most of all.

Would I do it again? I’m signed up for Ironman Utah in June of 2002.