Seventeen years ago I had a motocross accident that lead to a sedentary lifestyle. On September 26, 2013, I weighed 280 lbs and struggled to walk 100 yards on the beach. Sitting alone while my family walked the boardwalk, I decided I would become an Ironman.
From September 2013 to March 2014 I focused on weight loss. I logged every calorie. By March, I was 235 lbs and purchased a commuter bicycle. I rode to work during the summer of 2014 and by August was taking weekly 100 mile rides.
I grew up around water but was not a distance swimmer so Ryan (15yo son) and I joined Masters Swimming. He got up with me at 5:30AM every Tuesday and Thursday.
Even though I had dropped 50 lbs and was able to swim or bike for hours, I was still scared to run. To this day I am still afraid of damaging my knee running. The marathon in the Ironman was the first time I’ve ever gone over 13.2 miles. While cycling was my first love, my favorite sport right now is running. I’m not fast (2 hour half marathon) but I enjoy the solitude and that all it takes are shoes.
My newfound obsession with fitness started to rub off on my family. Ally, our 13 year old daughter, has run every day for the last few months. She is a big fan of Zombies, Run!. Ryan is a very strong swimmer. As part of my Ironman training, we did an Olympic on June 7th 2015. I did all three events and Ryan swam, Ally biked and my wife, Kim, ran.
The week before the event I developed a horrible cold/flu, the kind with vomiting and migraines. As part of the pre-race preparations, you are supposed to taper off exercise so you can rest up but I stopped. Two days before the event, I went out for a 1 mile run and felt horrible energy-wise but I could feel the fever had broken and was starting to feel better. The cold cleared the day before the race and I felt fine the night before as I was heading to bed.
The Louisville Ironman starts with all 2500 people jumping in the river two at a time. The person at the start of the line has 16 hours and 30 minutes to finish the 140.2 miles and the person at the back of the line gets about 45 minutes less. Knowing I may need every minute of the 16 hours and 30 minutes, Kim and I left the hotel at 3:45AM. I got in line at 4:10AM and focused on keeping a low heart rate. The 7:30AM start cannon went off right as the sun started to rise. During the first 1000 yards of the swim, it was hard for me to get my heart and breath to slow down. I was nervous. The water was so murky I couldn’t see my hand. The air temperature was 46 degrees while the water temp was 69 so there was a fog. As we were swimming directly into the sun the fog made a really cool effect but there was nothing to site off of other than the person right in front of you. I am a strong swimmer but I am not used to the feeling of leading 2500 people in a race where you can’t see where you are going and are getting passed, punched and crawled over by even faster swimmers. I got kicked in the face and one person pushed me down so hard I thought they were intentionally trying to drown me. Contact in the open water is just part of the sport but for some reason I was irrationally freaking out about it for the first 1000 yards. I finally told myself that each time somebody touched me they were simply trying to give me a massage and since I didn’t have time for it I would have to ignore them and keep swimming. Somehow this worked. I calmed down.
Partly due to the inability to see the buoys due to the fog but also because I have a strong tendency to “veer left” when swimming in open water without the benefit of lane markers, I ran into the island twice and and one point was pointed in the wrong direction. But by the halfway point in the swim I found my groove. I was having a blast. As the second to last buoy came up I thought it was the final buoy and was upset the swim was coming to an end, however when I saw we had one more to go I was ecstatic to get to swim for a while longer. Without a doubt it was the best swim I have ever had in my life. The water was warm. I felt like I could go for days and was having fun just focusing on form and slip-sliding through the water like a kid. As I exited the water I saw my family cheering me on. Every time during the day I would see them they would give my spirits a pick me up.
The transition from swim to bike was a circus. Unlike my shorter training triathlons where I wore the same thing for the swim, bike and run, I decided to use the “the men's changing tent” to change into bike gear. I had a bit of a wait as the men’s tent was full and they wouldn't let me in the female tent. Due to a bathroom break and fiddling with my bike the transition somehow took me 17 minutes.
The first 10 miles of the bike were super flat and it was easy to go 20+ MPH, but I stuck to my plan. My plan said to go 15 - 16 MPH and coach Vicki had told me not to push it until mile 80+. So I kept it on cruise control. Miles 10-30 had some serious hills (elevation change on the full course was over 5000 ft so it was much more hilly than anything I had trained on). Around mile 18 I had to stop to pee. The line for the outhouse was about 3 deep and took my average speed from 17 down to 15 MPH so it gave me an excuse to crank up the speed a notch. By about mile 70 the hills were getting to me and the fact I had stopped to pee two more times had my average speed around 15 MPH even though I was effectively averaging around 16.5MPH. I knew I could do that pace all day and then some so I wasn’t worried. But then I got to mile 75 and my sit bones just screamed out a big “I WANT TO STOP”. I could not find a comfortable spot. I spent the next 25 miles fidgeting. I kept telling myself to just get to mile 100 because I remembered the first 12 miles were flat. Somehow the return side of the road was Pothole City, worse than anything I would ride all year. I simply wouldn’t ride a road that rough for safety reasons. Something terrifying happened around mile 105. The biker in front of me started swerving around. I figured he was making an effort to avoid the potholes. Then he swerved over to the left lane. I still wasn’t too concerned because the road was shut down and I figured he was just trying to see if it was any smoother over on the left side of the road. He continued to swerve and then abruptly drove across all lanes of the road into the ditch. He had passed out from fatigue. He was OK and a volunteer was quickly with him. I was on my way to finish the last 7 miles of the bike and start the run. The bike course scenery and weather were glorious. However, the hills and road condition will scar me.
Unlike the bike, the run was flat and a rather boring two lap loop of a 13.2 mile street course that started in the heart of Louisville and went past Churchill Downs before ending in a semi-residential area. There were aid stations every mile and the streets were lined with drunk people on the side of the road holding signs and partying.
I had one goal: to finish before midnight to become an Ironman. I felt strong and part of me wanted to see if I could replicate my half marathon pace (sub 10min/mile). However, I knew a 15min/mile marathon (6+ hours) had zero chance of cramping and as long as I kept it on a slow burn I would make it with 30 minutes to spare. So that is exactly what I did. I stuck to the pre-race plan and I set my watch to beep at me any time my pace dipped below 15min/mile and when it beeped I would run. It wasn’t pretty and I could have gone faster, but I was there to finish. I kept telling myself “You know what they call the person who comes in last in this race? An Ironman!”
As I finished my first 13.2 mile lap, I could see the finish line and my family. Ally ran with me for a quarter-mile… well, technically, she ran on the sidewalk since only racers could be on the course. I loved her energy but I had to ask her to go back to her mom since at that point I was struggling to remember my name and the story about zombies she was telling me simply confused me. I kept the slow-burn jog going and finished the marathon.
The finish line in Louisville is epic. It is part Las Vegas strip, part Time Square and small enough you can see everything. I intentionally didn’t scout it out the day before because I wanted to experience it for the first time as I finished. It was worth it. As the announcer yelled “First Timer Scott Studham from Columbia Heights Minnesota, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” and I crossed the finish line with my family to the side cheering me on. I felt overwhelmed with satisfaction.
The journey took 746 days and could not have been done without the love and support of my family and friends. Not only can we walk the beach together, but they will likely race me on land and water when we get there because we have all learned a little more about our own fitness.