Wednesday, May 08, 2013

My Journey to Fitness, a 5K, and my first Triathlon


At the finish line
My name is Brian and Sunday I became a triathlete. My journey started ten months ago when I decided to get back into shape after 15 years of being obese and out-of-shape with some yo-yo dieting in the middle. What changed? I'll get to that.

This weekend I competed in the first ever Rocketman Florida Triathlon which took place on the grounds of Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. In preparation I lost 50 lbs and 12 inches from my waist. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm a huge space buff. As a kid I wanted to become an astronaut. I went to Space Camp in Titusville when I was 10. Before that, I saw my first shuttle launch at 7 while on vacation. It was the final launch of the Challenger. I've written about that experience. I've seen three other launches since then including John Glenn's famous return to space as well as the final launch that ended the U.S. Shuttle Program.

The idea of biking on the restricted grounds and getting closer than any civilian has to the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and Space Shuttle launchpads was too much of a draw to let my poor fitness stop me from registering. I found out about it last August from my coworker, Lisa, and on the morning of September 1st I signed up the moment registration opened! I had 8 months to get in shape! Uh oh.

Rewinding a bit, I had already started getting in shape so in total I actually had ten months. I had started preparing for my first 5K race back in July. So what inspired me to get fit?

I had a couple things that inspired me; feeling terrible and fat and unhappy, my sister-in-law who broke her pelvis was doing a 5K, my wife did a 100 day fitness challenge and later on told me it was to inspire me and I wasn't inspired and felt guilty, I saw an MRI comparing the legs of a 70 yr old triathlete to a 70 yr old sedentary person, and being a father of young kids I want to be there for them as long as possible. 

These were all great inspiration that kept me searching for the "thing" that would make me take care of my body, and sadly though those were all great reasons I still hadn't changed. The moment that clicked was during a visit to my sister and her husband's for my wife's birthday. We had spent the night and I was up early with my kids when I saw my brother-in-law, who is a big fit guy, go out for a run. That's when it clicked for me. "Oh, so people..like...go and workout." I know that might sound silly, especially since I've worked out before in my life. It was a different kind of epiphany for me this time. This time I realized it wasn't about the working out to burn calories, or to lose weight, or to get a great body. It's to have a different lifestyle. It's to stop delaying. It's to just do it because that's what you've got to do. Boring, but extremely enlightening to me when it clicked.

I took this picture of the Vehicle Assembly
Building as I passed by on my bike
So on July 13, 2012 I began a 120 Day Healthy Living Challenge to myself. I would exercise and prepare to run the 5K on November 11. I would do it as publicly as possible to keep myself motivated while sharing both my successes and my failures. It was sharing my failures publicly on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr that turned out to be the most motivating and helpful thanks to the support and encouragement I got from friends. I would lose as much weight as I could, I set my goal to lose 56 lbs and get back to 180 lbs. I would count calories and use portion control. This was important because I've used pills and fad diets in the past, and they would work but the weight always came back. I wanted it to be a change I could maintain, and I felt that eating the foods I love, just less of them, was what would work. I'm a self-described foodie and love eating great tasting, well-executed food, so not having the flexibility to eat what I love wouldn't work.

Counting calories is boring and tedious, or so I've heard. Well I'm all math-nerdy so to me its just another data game along with stock trading, Fantasy Football, and how many miles I ran. But even I'll admit the idea of staring at nutrition labels and entering numbers into Excel would make me go cross-eyed. So in this day and age of "there's an app for that" it turns out...there's an app for that. MyFitnessPal. It lets you scan bar codes and search for foods by name which populates from a crowd-sourced database. Data is wrong or missing? Fix it yourself! But rarely do I need to, from Applebee's to Zaxby's, most major chains' and brands' nutrition data is already there, making it fast and easy to enter.

Weight loss is simple math, the calories you burn need to exceed the calories you eat. More exercise? Great you get to eat more food! No exercise? Welcome to a diet of carrot sticks. It really helped keep me motivated to exercise, just simply so I could have decent meals. MyFitnessPal calculates my goal intake per day and accounts for exercise I enter to let me know if I've eaten too much, too little or I'm on goal.  

You can get fancier and focus on other data points, but calories is where you should start if you want to lose weight. Oh and get a food scale to weight your portions. I held out way too long and it turned out I was underestimating my food portions, robbing me of precious calories to keep the hunger at bay. 

You will get hungry. I was starving. I remember the first time I felt real hunger pains and thought I was sick. That made me realize just how much I overate if I never felt hungry. But to be fair, once I got used to the smaller portions the hunger pains went away. I get them from time to time still and I use that to guide me to a light snack like carrot sticks, (oh the irony).

Along with eating smaller, I needed to start running. Don't start with running, bad idea. Start with walking. I ramped up quickly, since my goal was to workout every day for 120 days. That was a stupid goal, seriously. I ended up hurting myself and needing therapy on my knee.  Try to workout 3-4 days a week, rest days are as important as workout days for your body, it needs to recover. For me I started with walking around my neighborhood and on the treadmills at the ESPN Employee Wellness Center. I use RunKeeper on my phone to track my run data. It's been extremely helpful for tracking my progress and keeping me motivated. It seems everytime I'm down on myself I get another email from RunKeeper telling me that I broke another personal record. For an analytical mind like mine, data is key to staying motivated because it lets me quantitatively measure my progress.

Even with my injury, I progressed to running a 5K within a few months and on November 11 I became a runner, completing my first 5K race with a pretty decent time of 27 minutes, 3 seconds and beating my fitness goddess of a wife to the finish line by 4 seconds. She has since trounced all my personal records as I turned the heckling up to maximum and motivated her as she had motivated me. With my 120 Day Challenge completed, I've continued to count the days. I'm not sure when I'll stop counting. Triathlon day was Day 297.

Once I had completed that first goal of the 5K, it was time to focus on the triathlon. I was excited I had set a goal for the following Spring to keep me motivated through the winter and holidays. I got a pass to the local high school pool and began swimming after my kids were in bed every week that I could.

For the bike, I decided to use the gym stationary bikes, which was a mistake in hindsight. After biking 36 miles on Sunday I now realized I should have prepared on a road bike earlier and with more determination since the race was so long. Lesson learned.

See most triathlons are organized in three legs with this order: swim, bike, run. As someone described it to me, you don't want to drown, you don't want to fall off your bike, and you want to be on your own two feet at your most tired so the order makes sense. Most events have several different lengths, often referred to as Sprint (shortest), Olympic, Half-Ironman and Ironman (longest, though there exist longer one) and each has standard lengths for each leg of the race. The Rocketman Triathlon had a non-standard length for the bike portion. This was to allow all competitors to get out and around the launchpads. So the "small" and "medium" courses had the same 36 mile bike course while the "large" Half-Iron had a standard 56 mile course. So when I elected to register for the "small" Classic+, I was electing to bike the same amount as the "medium" International+ competitors. Ouch. 

Even with months to prepare, race day came more quickly than I imagined. All of a sudden my Dad and I were in his RV loaded with my best friend's bike headed for Florida! We arrived Saturday, to check-in which included a mandatory racking of my bike in the transition area, which is the area where competitors would switch from swim to bike and from bike to running. I was nervous to leave my friend's bike but thankfully for the tight security through the night nothing happened.

Part of the bike route from the VAB to Pad 39A
Race morning I woke at 4:45am on sheer adrenaline alone, no alarm clock needed for me. I dressed, and we headed over and arrived just after 5:30am in the pitch black with a rapid-fire lightning storm off the coast that looked like it was filled with strobe lights. It was beautiful but I was focused on getting my bag of clothes and a towel over to my bike before the transition area closed before 6:15am. The first wave of competitors was set to start early and though my Wave 11 was to be in the water at 7:45am for an 8:00am start, I had to be here early. Next I got my timing chip, an ankle RF bracelet that tracked my movement on the course for the official race results. I was ready to go! 

At 7:30, I was at the dock in my neon green rubber cap that marked my fellow male competitors ages 35-39. We filed down the dock together and got in the lukewarm water while the sky was grey and misting which made it feel quite cold, especially for Florida! We got in the water, and kept moving to stay warm before the 8:00am send off. It was fun, we counted down to the large red LED clock at the end of the dock and then I was swimming! 

Toward a large red buoy, I had to go out and back for a total of a quarter-mile swim. Seeing the water froth from arms, bumping a bit with others in the crowd, but still the river water was a light brown with my goggles under the surface. It was a lot different from watching the markings on the bottom of the Newtown High pool! The hardest part was navigation and keeping sight of the buoy. Suddenly I was rounding the buoy, I touched it for good luck. It felt fast like it was flying by. I headed back to the dock where the ladder was. I started swimming hard, feeling I was close. I popped my head up to discover in my excitement I was headed in the wrong direction and was off by about 90ยบ! Oops, time to check my direction more regularly. Now that I was a bit flustered, the second half of the swim felt a bit slower. Then I was at the dock starting to climb the ladder when I felt hands on my back and a man shouting "Go, Go, GO!" I was startled and fell back in the water, and he pushed ahead of me. The ladder attendant called my urgent competitor rude and apologized to me so I guess that type of behavior isn't the norm. It didn't set me back, I actually found the man quite funny.

Now I was running up the dock and around the corner to the transition area! There was my Dad in the crowd shouting! Hi, Dad!! I rounded into the transition area and found my bike where I left it. I took a breath and started to dry off and get into my running socks and shoes. I only wore a regular men's bathing suit so I had to pull on a shirt. For my next triathlon I'll get the spandex shorts and shirts most of the other competitors had, but for my first it was overkill. Other competitors have special bike shoes, but I simply slip into my running shoes I've had for training the past few months. I put on a fanny pack with some food like an energy bar and some energy gummies. I put on my helmet, double-check I have everything I need and then I'm off!

I ran from the transition area with my bike to the orange line where I was allowed to mount it. I swung my leg over and there I was, pedaling toward the Max Brewer Causeway, a large bridge from the mainland over to Cape Canaveral. It rises about 500 feet and is the only "hill" on the entire Florida flat course. With fresh legs I made it over the causeway with ease and topped out at 28.3 mph thanks to gravity as I came down the backside. I know my speed because I was wearing a GPS watch and I had RunKeeper on my phone in my pocket tracking my progress.

For the next 19 miles things were looking good and I averaged about 17 mph, well above my goal of 15 mph. About 45 minutes later, at Mile 13, I reached the Vehicle Assembly Building. It's was wonderful, and I smiled for the professional photographer stationed there to take my picture. I went as slow as I could and even snapped a picture with my phone. I had made it! It gave me a second wind and I pedaled hard for the next big scenic view, Launchpad 39A which still has the tower for the shuttles standing upon it. It was awesome and could easily imagine a Space Shuttle Orbiter with an orange external tank and two tall white solid rocket boosters standing on the pad. I soaked in the moment. I was as close to this pad as I could get without being an astronaut or crew that get to go on the pad itself! The last big scenic point was the second Shuttle Pad 39B which currently has 4 tall lightning towers that look like radio towers, but the shuttle tower itself has been removed. It still was impressive to be that close to history.

It was at this point that I realized I was 20 miles in and had seen the major sights. I had a second pass around the backside of the VAB at Mile 23 but I was starting to hit a wall. And then the wind picked up. The sun has come out around Mile 5, but this wind toward the ocean hit just as I was losing steam at Mile 20 and it made it feel like I was moving through molasses. 

The last 16 miles were the hardest thing I have done in my life. It took me a little over an hour to do the first 20 miles. It took almost another two hours to finish the last 16 miles. Thankfully other cyclists were very encouraging as they passed. Many shouted things like "you've got this!" while others offered advice like "drop your gears and it will be much easier". I thanked every one and heeded all advice, but 16 miles is 16 miles. I hummed, I counted, I focused on the pain in my knees, I distracted myself with daydreams. Around Mile 25, near the exit of the restricted area, I remembered I had food. I might not have been thinking clearly since it took 5 miles of exhaustion before I realized it.

Checking in on Saturday at Space View Park
I ate the energy gummies (like candy jellies with vitamins) faster than I've eaten anything in my life. I started salivating profusely as I ate and realized how much I needed nutrition. At Mile 26 I approached the second water and Gatorade station. I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade and drank it like it was the nectar of the gods. I was getting a third wind, and being out of the restricted NASA area was a milestone of the end was coming, but I still had 10 miles to go. It wasn't an eventful 10 miles until I got to the causeway again.

When I reached the causeway for the second time, it looked like it had grown by a thousand feet. I kicked my 26 speed bike into its lowest gear, looked down and just...kept...pedaling. I resolved not to get off and I didn't. There was a woman cheering for everyone at the top. She may be my favorite stranger ever. Using her as the light at the end of the tunnel I kept going as hard as it physically was, and when I reached her, I thanked her and coasted down the causeway to the bike dismount point.

I hopped off my bike and what I thought would be sweet relief turned into legs of Jell-O. If I hadn't had the bike to hold on to I would have hit the ground, no question. My father was there (he has the preternatural ability to find me in crowds) and he has the video proof of my near spill. It's quite funny to watch.

I jogged my bike back to its rack, took off my helmet and I was off again! My legs were asleep. You know that feeling when you lay on your arm and it not only gets numb but also is paralyzed? That's what my legs felt like.  But I willed them to start jogging, and I rounded the corner out onto the running course with my Dad cheering me on again (seriously, preternatural).

The run was definitely my strongest leg. Crazy since I was so exhausted at this point, but I love running and my training over the past 10 months has focused on running the most heavily. I hit the halfway point, which was also a turnaround point and was feeling great. I was even averaging a good pace, a 9 min mile which is a usual treadmill pace for me these past few months. And then the cramp hit. My left hamstring seized. I had read about cramps and knew it was a possibility, but I still wasn't prepared. I stopped, stretched, tried to make it let go. I had to keep moving so I went peg-leg and started walking funny. I was disappointed that I can't claim I ran this whole 3.2 mile leg of the race. I started to lose motivation and thought I might walk the final mile.

Then I saw two little girls giving everyone who would pass them a high five. I thought, these girls are reminding me I can do this. My leg uncramped enough for me to start jogging and I ran up to them, gave high fives and thanked them for getting me running again.

As I approached the finish line I spotted my father. He was positioned at the final bend with a banner made by my kids attached to the nearest palm tree. He was fumbling to get his camera phone recording while also holding the banner up for me to see. I got near and realized he wasn't ready, so I jogged in place. He started recording and we laughed and I started jogging for the finish. A family of spectators just up ahead saw what was happening and the father said "well now you need to sprint for the finish to make up for it!" So somehow I found my last reserves and I sprinted as fast as I could the last few hundred feet to cross the finish line, hear my name and town announced, and to receive my medal.

In the end, it was all worth it. I finished without injury, which is more than I can say for some of my fellow competitors. I saw sights I've dreamed of all my life and got closer to them than any non-NASA employee can get. I pushed the limits of my body further than I thought they could ever go. Seriously, I'm just a fat computer guy that sits in a chair all day. I am a stereotype. Not anymore. 

I am a triathlete.

Oh and how did my Dad and I celebrate?

"Brian Jackson, you just completed the Rocketman Florida Triathlon? What are you going to do next?"
"I'm going to Disney World!" 
And we did, about an hour later.

At Disney's Wilderness Lodge to celebrate


During all of this I've been journaling my progress on Tumblr so please check out my posts there: http://jaxzin.tumblr.com

Also if you're data-driven like me and interested to see my race data....
From RunKeeper (on my phone, didn't capture every leg of the race).
Bike > Run

Swim > T1 > Bike > T2 > Run
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