Forum v IM Florida: Sailing to the Sunshine State

An Armada of Pirates on the 3.8K swim

The RW Pirate Ship continues to sail to new Ironman venues and made it’s inaugural trip across the Atlantic Pond to wreak havoc at Ford Ironman Florida on November 3. The illustrious party comprised, in no particular order, Debbo, Pebble, Dermot, Barlist, IronMelissa, Smiley Lady, Swoosh, KegKiller, Zuppy, Fat Buddha, Petal and Bryan the Snail. The last two were aiming for their first IM finishes with Petal having a score to settle after a DNF at her first IM attempt in Austria in July. Barlist’s mum, Val, even made the trip. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about having been bored rigid by her son about his IM exploits for years (me thinks she’s still bored rigid …) She was a great supporter and was spoilt rotten by Barlist – the lad does have a tender side not seen on the forum!

Held in the "delightful" resort of Panama City Beach (aka PCB) in Florida’s panhandle region on the Gulf of Mexico - only our American friends know how to ruin 17 miles of glorious white sandy beachfront with huge high rise condominium blocks that are like sky cities and create their own wind hazards when you’re riding past them – it was like an American take on Torremolinos without the English pubs and warm beer.

Fat Buddha makes the run look so easy

November sunshine and a warm sea helped overcome the downsides of PCB which can be unseasonably cool in autumn. We all just hoped that conditions wouldn’t be as bad as 2006 when it was very windy and the morning temperature was 4ºC. As it happened, race day was just about perfect - 12ºC at the start, rising to 26ºC during the day, then dropping quickly down as night fell (when most Pirates would be finishing).

Ready, Steady, Time To Weigh Anchor!

By race morning we were all itching to go. 2277 athletes would start the race with the pros setting off at 6.50am and the rest (including more than 1000 first timers) starting at 7am.

The sun was starting to peek over the horizon as the start gun went for the mass swim. Despite being spread out along a 100m-stretch of beach for a two-lap out-and-back 3,800m swim, everyone seemed to hit the water together. Now, maybe the Americans have a different approach to open water tri swims to the Europeans but none of us can remember ever having been punched, kicked, held down, grabbed and generally swum over, under and around quite so much. It was brutal - even us bigger guys (FB and Pebble being retired rugby props) found it rough-going. The only way to handle it was to give as good as you got and get your retaliation in first. Smack, punch, wallop – take that you Yanks! Petal was sporting a lovely cheek bruise after the event.

Other than that, it was a lovely sea swim. Fat Buddha spotted a horseshoe crab and others saw large jellyfish, but thankfully no sharks which are common in the area. One of the pros complained after that he may have encountered one as his wetsuit showed strange rip marks - probably his excuse for a poor swim!

Zuppy was first out of the water in 1:02:26 but then immediately pulled out – after suffering knee and leg problems all year, he was in no fit state to ride or run so took the DNF route and went off pistol-shooting instead. He will soon be licenced to carry a concealed weapon in 31 US states. His gun instructor, Earl, wasn't the women's lib type so Zuppy told him that his "little lady (aka Smiley Lady) had gone off shopping"! He now has a large sheet of paper in the shape of a person with holes shot through it and the poor lad is so proud of it (if you’re ever in Cork, don’t mix with Zuppy...).

Next out of the water was IronMelissa, seven seconds ahead of Petal. And to his great relief, Bryan the Snail, finished in 1:44. Before the race he’d thought he would miss the swim cut-off - in fact, he came in well inside the time limit.

Pedal Power

The 180K bike course was essentially flat with just a few undulations and one river bridge to test the legs so we were all able to keep up good average speeds. With roads that flat and straight it was like taking part in a carnival procession – every time you looked up there was just a big line of bikes ahead and behind. There are many accusations of drafting in this Ironman event and, to an extent, they are true - you can’t help but get caught up in a pack of riders going at the same speed. A lot of the drafting is unintentional, some deliberate (as we all witnessed), but generally most riders seemed to leave some space around them to do their own thing. Good road surfaces also made for quick times although there were a few rough sections. One stretch of road looked like it had scattered the contents of a bike shop all over the place – bottles, spare tyres, tubes and CO2 canisters everywhere. The locals must be saving a fortune on spares!

Metal Petal digs deep in the heat

Coming back over the bridge, with about 30km to go, we faced a strong headwind after being sheltered by trees for most of the leg. This sapped our already-tired legs and for many proved the worst part of the race. Everybody felt the wind and struggled to maintain previously good speeds. This was offset by the tailwind of the final stretch into transition– a lovely way to coast and ease the legs down for the run.

First into transition was Fat Buddha in a bike time of 5:30:24 – his fastest IM bike time by some 50 minutes – quickly followed by Pebble, Smiley Lady, Melissa and Petal. KegKiller brought up the rear in 7:27:24 – still a respectable time given his problems (more of which later).

A Crocodile Caper

At the start of the run it was scorchingly hot but as the afternoon progressed it thankfully cooled down to make the run a much more pleasant affair. That’s if anyone can ever describe an IM marathon run as 'pleasant' - it’s not. It’s tough – very tough – and if anyone can run the whole distance they’re either superhuman or haven’t been trying on the bike. Thankfully, aid stations with fuel, water, coke, gels and snacks are positioned every mile or so to help the athletes keep up their energy levels. Most adopt the tried-and-tested 'walk the aid station, run between the aid stations' strategy but it can still be grim out there. A marathon is still a marathon in anyone’s books.

The two-lap run was again predominantly flat - through the residential back roads of PCB and into St Andrews State Park. Here we spotted a notice: "No food or drink beyond this point – beware of alligators". What? Alligators on an IM course? Surely some ploy just to keep us moving? No – it was true, there are alligators in that park but thankfully not too close to where we were running!

Fat Buddha was finding the run leg tough to start with and was soon passed by a speeding Smiley Lady, followed shortly by IronMelissa. It was looking like an all-female showdown to the finish.

Ahoy Maties!

The crowds on the run were superbly encouraging - the Pirate kit was easily recognised and commented on. Shouts of "Arrrrr Pirate!" and "Great kit!" were to the fore and there were supporters in fancy dress, others playing accordions and singing, even an unofficial beer station (which FB took advantage of on the last return leg) – the locals were all joining in the spirit of an IM. Shouts of "Awesome!" and "You’re an inspiration!" sounded strange to our cultured European ears.

The flat course led to fast times for everyone. First home was Smiley Lady in 11:16:58, followed by IronMelissa in 11:45:56. Brian the Snail brought up the rear in 16:08:42 but he didn’t care - he can now call himself an Ironman. All previous Ironmen saw PBs – FB cut a massive (in more ways than one) one hour 20 minutes off his previous PB and Barlist dipped under 15 hours for the first time. Petal got her reward too, finishing in just under 13 hours after her problems in Austria.

The only major disappointment was for KegKiller who recorded a DNF. Having endured diarrhoea for most of the day after the swim, a lack of energy as a result of this finally caught up with him at about mile 14 of the run and he decided to call it a day. A great shame, but he’ll be back for the next Pirate outing to Ironman France in 2008.

Couldn't have done it without you: Barlist crosses the line with his biggest fan

Was it worth it?

You betch’ya sweet ass dudes! And, as they say in Florida, "Good job!" (which is Yankee for "Well done!" in case you were wondering). This was the most common heard encouragement during the run - pronounced "Good jaaawbbb!" and hollered at 110dB in the main!

While PCB is an ugly place in a lovely location it holds a fine Ironman which athletes return to year after year, probably because it’s flat. And as it doesn’t hurt as much as some of the hillier courses like France and Switzerland, it can be tamed and improvements seen year on year. Also, all competing athletes (and race volunteers) are offered an automatic entry to the following year provided they signed up, and paid, the day before this year’s race. More than 1000 participants take this option each year - that’s why so few places are left over for the general public when the online entry opens the day after race-day. So few, that 2008 entries sold out in four minutes. If you want an entry for this race you need to be quick!

Tribute to Dorothy Barnett-Griffin

Ironman is not without its dangers - in the form of swim fights, bike crashes, and run cramps - but for the second year running, Ironman Florida witnessed an unfortunate death. While the cause is still unknown, Dorothy Barnett-Griffin, a Texas athlete taking part in her first Ironman (but a seasoned triathlete) collapsed near the end of the swim and was rushed to hospital. She died on November 8 having not regained consciousness. We send her family our heartfelt condolences.

NamePosition Swim Bike Run Time
Stephan Vuckovic (non-forumite)
Smiley Lady
Fat Buddha
Bryan the Snail

The Next Step

Find out more about our forum tri team, the Pirate Ship of Fools, (including forthcoming fixtures, kit orders and top training advice) on the Triathlon section of our forum. Of course, you don't need to be toying with the idea of an Ironman to join in the banter - you're promised a warm Pirate welcome whatever your tri ability or ambition!