Friday, February 03, 2017


Ironman Chattanooga 2016

Corey Nelson --
“Why would anyone do this to themselves?” That's a good question. A question I've heard many times. A question that I heard several times on race day. One I asked myself during the first miles of the run. One I heard from the medical volunteers while I was laying in their medical tent getting multiple IV bags drained into my arm, along with literally hundreds of other athletes throughout the day. Why would anyone do this to themselves? I finished Ironman Louisville back in 2014, when the high temperature on race day was 97 degrees. It was miserable. I crossed the finish line that day and became an Ironman. So why do it again? Why put myself through the months of training, the 4am bike rides, the late night long runs, swimming lap after lap after lap when I didn't really want to be there. Why do all that work just to be exhausted, in pain, sick, hot, and miserable for 13+ hours?

When I completed Ironman Louisville, it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was hard, and tiring, and
painful, but at the same time, it was amazing. I was almost immediately ready to sign up to do it again. It took a year, but I signed up for Ironman Chattanooga 2016 the day after the 2015 race. I spent the next 12 months preparing for it. In the process, I changed jobs and my training availability changed as well. My weekday workouts were now starting at 4 am, and after 9 pm, and weekend long workouts were starting as early as 3 am in an attempt to relieve stress on family time. I had a good friend, Imran Mahmood, who signed up to do his 1st Ironman, but due to his work schedule, we were only able to train together maybe a dozen times. We both followed the same training plan that I used for IM Louisville, which is a free generic training plan from The plan is a 36 week, 3 stage plan that has a 12 week “build” stage, a 20 week “competitive” stage, and a 4 week “taper”. Both times I’ve hit a point at about 12 weeks out where I just didn’t want to do anything. I just got burned out. I decided to follow this plan again because I felt it would give me long enough to get ready and build up distance without getting injured. I was successful until 4 weeks out during my last “long” run, when I developed a severe pain on the top outer part of my right foot. I cut it short at mile 11 hoping to not cause further injury. Unfortunately, the damage was done and by the time I got home, the top of my foot had a 2” diameter bruise and hurt to walk. I was hoping I hadn’t just ended my chances of racing. I made a visit to Rehab Etc., where my mom works in the office, and saw the head therapist Jim. He suggested a visit to an orthopedic to make sure there was no further damage to the tendons or ligaments. Fortunately, there wasn’t, it was just tendonitis, but I was restricted to wearing a boot for 10-14 days with no running. I made it with the boot for 8 days. Over the next 3 weeks, I was able to get on the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill to try and keep some running fitness without risking further injury.

I made it to race week and Imran and I arrived in Chattanooga a couple of days out. I got checked in to the race and settled at the hotel Friday morning and KT, the kids, and my parents arrived that night. It was already hot, and the forecast for race day didn’t look very pleasant. The forecast called for sunny, with a high of 93. The weekend before was 81 (the weekend after ended up being 83). There wasn’t anything we could do except adjust to the temperature, meaning more fluids, slower pace, etc. Race morning came and we made our way to transition to add fuel to our bikes and air up our tires. With one IM worth of experience, I made it thru my pre-planned checklist fairly quickly with no problems. Imran on the other hand, had a problem with one of his valve extenders that kept him from being able to air up his tires. He had to get the on-site bike tech to replace it before we could hop on the bus to head to the swim start. Luckily, he was able to get it fixed and off we were, on our way to line up for the start of our long day. We lined up in the start line about 6:30 (for the 7:30 start) and were pretty far back in line. This IM race is similar to IM Louisville in that the swim start is a time trial format, or single file line one person starts at a time. With approximately 2700 athletes, they anticipated having everyone in the water by 8:00am. As 7:30 approached, I wondered where Katie and all of our families were. They were supposed to come meet us in line before the race started. About that time Frank, Katie’s dad, showed up. He asked where everybody was, and said they had all gone off and left him. It turned out that they had forgotten about the shuttles carrying people to the start line, so they ran 2+ miles to get to the start. Frank simply got on the shuttle and beat them all there. Either way, they all made it to the starting area in time and we were able to see them before we started.

As we walked slowly towards the dock that we would jump off to start the race, I was trying to stay relaxed. I had decided before that I would try not to let the music, announcer, and crowd get me too excited. So I talked to Imran and tried my best to ignore the excitement while still taking in the experience. I walked the whole way and just let people pass me who were really excited and wanted to run to the dock. We made it to the dock and I could finally see down the river where we’d be swimming. At that moment, I felt a rush of nervousness over my body. I gave Imran a high five, started my watch, and jumped in the river.

This swim course is a 2.4 mile, point to point, 100% downstream swim. I had purposefully spent less time swimming during my training, and more time running and riding, because I knew I would have the current helping me the entire time. I tried to stay relaxed and just swim easy the entire time. During training and IM Louisville, I had problems feeling nauseous/dizzy and had cramping in my feet while swimming longer distance non-stop, so I was worried about that coming into this swim. Luckily I didn’t have any of those problems and I was able to swim the entire distance without ever breaking stride. I came to the swim exit and was happy to be out of the water.

Swim: 2.4 miles - 1:04:20 – 1:39/100m

T1: 6:16

As I exited the water, I didn’t feel dizzy as I normally do, so I decided to run easy from the swim exit to transition, all the while scanning the crowd for Katie and the kids. As I entered transition, I heard everyone scream my name and I was able to see everyone and give them a wave. I found my T1 bag with no problem and made my way to the changing tent. One of the areas that I felt I could improve on from IM Louisville was my transition times. In Louisville, I spent nearly 30 minutes total in transition. I knew I could cut some time there. My T1 (swim to bike transition) was 6 minutes 16 seconds, which was almost 7 minutes faster than Louisville. I got out and on the bike with no problems. Heading out on the bike, it was still before 9:00 am, so still fairly cool and not much wind. I rode along trying not to push too hard even though I felt pretty good. I tried to eat on schedule and drink all I could to prepare for the heat that would be coming. The first loop was crowded, cool, and not much wind, which led me to push a little harder than I had wanted. By the time I started the second loop, the temperature was quickly rising and the wind had picked up quite a bit. At this point, I was about 70 miles into the ride and I was feeling the effects of the heat. I began to slow down and didn’t have much pop in my legs. The hills felt longer and steeper, and I felt like I had a head wind in every direction. I did the only thing I knew to do, I slowed down, drank what I could and tried to prepare for the run. As I approached T2, I started to feel a little better and felt like I had recovered a little, but I knew what was to come. Running a marathon by itself isn’t easy and is never much “fun”, but at that moment, after 7+ hours of racing and finishing a 116 mile bike, the thought of running even 1 mile sounded absolutely terrible. As I came into T2 and approached the bike dismount line, I actually wondered if I was going to be able to stand up without falling off my bike. I stopped and got both feet down and a volunteer was there to stabilize my bike while I got my legs under me. I had completed the 116 mile bike (4 miles longer than other Ironman distance bike courses) in 6 hours and 17 minutes.

Bike: 116 miles – 6:17:56 – 18.42 mph

T2: 12:37

I decided (and by decided I mean I didn’t have a choice physically) to walk through T2 and let my legs recover. I took my time, got my bag and headed into the changing tent. It was extremely hot and humid inside the tent. I sat and drank water, but the longer I sat, the worse I felt. I tried to get up and head out but felt nauseous so I sat back down. I was finally able to get out of the tent where there was a breeze. Unfortunately there was also no shade from the sun. Starting out, I tried to do a 2:1 run/walk (run 2 minutes followed by 1 minute of walking). That quickly turned into a 1:1 run/walk. The heat at this point was awful, and there was no shade for the first 5 miles of the run. I continued the run/walk intervals and continued to drink as much as my stomach would allow. As I came to the bridge to cross over to the north side of the river at about mile 8, I came up on Imran. He was walking and struggling with cramping. I tried to encourage him to run/walk, but he was hurting. I gave him my Base salt tablets and water and I continued on hoping he would make it. The next 5 miles on the north side of the river are brutal. Hills. BIG hills. I walked up and ran down and tried to conserve energy and leg strength. I would need it as I would see those hills again after another 8 miles, on the second loop of this 2 loop course. As I came back to the bridge to head back south to start the second loop, I saw Mike. He was on his bike and had been riding the course. We talked as I walked out some foot cramps and he told me the crew was waiting on the bridge. As I ran onto the bridge, Katie and Imran’s wife were waiting for us. Katie ran about halfway across the bridge with me and said “I hate to say this, but I’m tired”. So I got a kiss and continued on to the second loop. The kids and the rest of the family were waiting at the other side of the bridge so I was able to see them too for the last time before the finish. Lap 2 is where things really fell apart. At about mile 15, I started feeling sick and noticed that I was no longer sweating. I also realized that I hadn’t peed since about halfway through the bike (about 5 hours prior by this point). That was a bad sign and I knew it. I tried to drink as much as I could but the nausea was getting worse and I felt myself zoning out. I knew if I vomited I was probably done, so I did everything I could not to. I even got to a point about mile 19 where I was lying on a bench pouring ice water over my face and seriously considering the dreaded DNF (did not finish). I was able to get myself to the next aid station where they had started handing out warm chicken broth. I know it sounds disgusting given the situation, but it was the best stuff I could have had at the time. I was able to sip on it while I walked and slowly began to feel better and better. By now, I knew I would finish, I just didn’t know how long it would take. About mile 21, as I crossed over the bridge to head back to the north side of the river, I noticed I was sweating again and was able to run for short periods. I again walked the uphills and ran the downhills and was feeling pretty good. As I crested the Barton Ave hill to head back to the bridge, I could just see the lights of the finish line across the river. That was a major confidence booster. I was able to run the remaining ~2.5 miles into the finish and actually ran a sub 9 minute final mile. As I came to the finishing chute, I was so excited that I didn’t even slow down to enjoy it. I remember seeing the family and yelling and then crossing the finish. I did it! Ironman #2 was complete, and I had actually bettered my IM Louisville time by about 14 minutes (although my run time was about 3 minutes slower).

Run: 26.2 miles – 5:42:15 – 13:03 min/mile

Overall: 13:23:24

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was so exhausted that I nearly collapsed. The volunteers helped me to a chair where I was able to sit and get some fluids for about 15 minutes until I was able to walk out on my own. Once I got up and moving I felt fine. I saw Katie and the kids and was able to see everyone who had come to cheer us on. We were still waiting on Imran to finish. We knew he wasn’t feeling well, but he was going to make it. As we were standing there waiting, I began to feel sick again and had to sit down. I began to cramp and feel nauseous. The next thing I remember is laying on my back with Frank and a medic standing over me. They carried me to the medical tent where I was given 2 bags of IV over the next hour and a half. Katie said the kids were upset so she took them back to the hotel with her dad while my parents waited for me. When I was finally able to get up and move again, I was walking through the medical tent and there was Imran, laying there getting an IV himself. He had finished and ended up in the medical tent as well. The walk/trolly ride back to the hotel was slow. Once I made it back, I was finally hydrated enough that I was able to use the bathroom again. It had been nearly 11 hours since I had last urinated, despite drinking multiple gallons of fluid throughout the day. Mom and Dad went across the street to the little diner and got me a club sandwich and sweet potato fries, but I was only able to eat a few bites before feeling sick again. I fell asleep easily and slept through the night.

IM Chattanooga was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever been through. But it wasn’t just physical. Finishing that race was as much mental as it was physical. At mile 19 when I was lying on the bench contemplating a DNF, I could have easily given up and gotten a ride back to the finish line. It would have been much more pleasant. I wouldn’t have felt sick. I wouldn’t have had any more foot cramps. I could have sat down and stayed there until I was ready to get up. I wouldn’t have had to run another 7+ miles to the finish… but I didn’t give up. I did what I needed to finish. I was able to fight past the desire to quit, and push through the pain. I had put in the work leading up to that day and I wasn’t going to quit. Not that close to the finish. Not with all of my family there. Not that they would have cared, but I would have and it would have eaten at me forever. So to answer the question “Why?”, I would say, because you learn something about yourself when you face those types of challenges. It wasn’t life or death, or anything that would affect my family or career, but fighting through and finishing that race gave me a self confidence that is hard to replicate. It’s hard to describe. All I can say is, do it yourself, and you’ll know “Why?”.

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