Just keep swimming.
— Dory from Finding Nemo
As I bobbed in the lake, gasping for breath, swimmers crashing into me, my insides feeling like a raccoon was caught there and trying to claw his way out, I looked desperately for the nearest rescue boat.
Goddamn cayenne pepper shot.
One of the basic rules of doing an Ironman race is never, ever introduce something new to your system on race day. Ever.
I had spent $900 on a nutritionist instead of fixing my 2007 Passat, whose engine light had been on so long it now blinked, “Please drive me off a cliff and just end this already.” I did this to make absolutely sure that I had a winning nutrition plan for Ironman Lake Placid. Sarah of SoMoved Nutrition had reminded me a half dozen times not to try anything new the morning of the race.
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake my friend and Ironman enabler, Jim Kane, made at Mooseman Half Ironman in New Hampshire. He had what for him was a horrible swim.
“What happened?” I had asked after the race. “Your swim sucked.”
“I puked. It was all over me, so I dove two feet underwater to rinse the vomit off. I had to rest there a bit to recover.”
“I’m sure the people around you loved swimming in your vomit. What’d you eat this morning?”
“Three bowls of cereal with whole milk, a blueberry muffin, and orange juice. But I think the large Italian sub with everything on it, including extra hots, and the three beers I had last night was more of the issue.”
“You think? Dumbass.”
Fast forward to Ironman Lake Placid, 2018. Thirty minutes before I was going to rush into a freezing cold lake with 2,500 other people to swim two and a half miles, my uncle, Bob Falconi, veteran of roughly fifty Ironman races, handed me a tube.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s cayenne pepper juice,” he said. “Want some? It’ll help with cramps.”
Gee, I’ve never had this in my life. I hate spicy foods. I have no idea how my body is going to respond. And I’m about to do an Ironman. Why not? What could possibly go wrong?
But this was Uncle Bob, guru of ultra-races and Ironmans. So when he handed me the tube filled with liquid capsaicin pepper extract, I chugged it like a college freshman at a frat party handed a shot of fireball by a beautiful sorority senior.
To be fair, I had suffered cramps in every Ironman swim I’d done. If you don’t know what that’s like, try swimming two miles with only one leg because the other one is locked up in an agonizing spasm. Not ideal. And I don’t want to hear about all the physically challenged athletes who swim with one leg or one arm or blind every time. I’m not mentally tough like them. As Jim has told me, “You’re as soft as an overripe peach.”
So be it. I prefer to have both legs working during a race, and I wanted to see what I might do if I didn’t cramp up during the swim.
I had come so far in my aquatic aptitude since I started training for my first Ironman—Lake Placid 2012. Because Lake Placid Ironman sold out every year within minutes of when registration opened, Jim and I had signed up to volunteer in 2011 so that we would get priority registration and have a better chance of getting a spot in the 2012 race.
We decided we would familiarize ourselves with the course, starting with the two-loop swim in Mirror Lake. “I’m swimming a loop on Thursday at 7 a.m. if you want to join me,” Uncle Bob notified us. He was racing that Sunday and had a strict routine in place the days before the race.
Jim and I were feeling quite full of ourselves. “Look at us—a full year before the race, and we’re already training and familiarizing ourselves with the course. Those schmucks who won’t start training for another week won’t have a chance!”
On Thursday morning, we showed up in cargo shorts with deep side pockets, in which we each carried two cans of beer. We did this to ensure that they would still be cold when we finished the swim. Uncle Bob shook his head. “You two are something. You really are.”
In addition to having wildly ineffective swim gear, my form in those days was—in a word—lacking. Have you ever seen a dog or a young child just learning to swim, head and neck jutting out like a scared giraffe, looking for the nearest wall or escape from the water, arms thrashing and legs churning a mile a minute while the body inches forward? That was me.
Swimming is all about form—being streamlined and efficient. It should look effortless and graceful as you glide through the water, cutting through like a Ginsu knife through one of our beer cans.
TIP: You can’t win an Ironman race during the swim, but you can lose one. Slow and steady will get the job done, and you’ll live to see the bike. Stay calm and swim on.
I had moved to California to work for Disney at the beginning of 2012, so I joined the Disney Tri Team to meet some people and gain some training tips. One weekend, the team sponsored a swimming class with Masters swim coach Stuart McDougal and his daughter Mandy, founders of Mind, Body, and SWIM. It was…revealing.
The first thing Stuart and Mandy did was test my stroke by filming me swimming laps at race pace. I thought I was going to have a stroke by the time I finished. I was gasping for air so hard that one would have thought I had smoked a pack of cigarettes during the swim.
I learned that I was using roughly 10,000 strokes on each lap—a few more than the fourteen I should have been taking. This, they explained, meant that I was shortening my stroke—that is, my arms were churning in short, quick bursts, reducing the length of the “pull” through the water and diminishing the distance traveled per stroke. The result was that it took me many more strokes to swim the same distance, expending way too much energy.
Stuart and Mandy taught me how the arms should fully extend in long strokes, lengthening the distance per stroke. They taught me how my hips and shoulders should rotate. They taught me to kick from the hips in compact, efficient kicks to generate power and speed.
My other big problem was that I stuck my head out of the water every second, angling my body in the most water-resistant position possible. I couldn’t have created more drag had I tied a parachute to my leg. I looked nothing like a missile speeding efficiently through the water, unless missiles now moved like Nemo, the one-finned clownfish.
I took my newfound knowledge and revamped my swim stroke. I bought hand paddles to improve my form and strengthen my arms and shoulders. I no longer exhausted myself swimming two laps.
Through the years, I made other slight improvements in my swim preparation, mainly concerning learning the value of a proper wetsuit. Ironman racing is an expensive proposition, so to save money, Jim and I bought our wetsuits at Ocean State Job Lot, saving roughly $800.
I saved even more by buying a child size large for $19 instead of an adult small. We gave each other knowing glances at the lake and hoisted our beers at the bar, acknowledging how much cleverer we were than all the morons paying full price for their fancy wetsuits.
Then we noticed all those morons passing us as we took on more water than the Titanic. Their wetsuits were much more buoyant, raising the hips and legs to facilitate a more effective swimming position. They were more flexible and didn’t impede arm or leg motion, encouraging better technique and more power. They were aerodynamic. They were made with a slick neoprene, low-absorption rubber rightly advertised as “lightning fast.”
Those expensive wetsuits with names like Maverick X, Velocity Ultra, Aquaman, Vanquish, and Rip Curl E-bomb were designed to be buoyant, flexible, and fast. Mine was as buoyant as a brick. Mine absorbed water like a bath sponge and was two degrees more flexible than a straitjacket. Mine was designed for a twelve-year-old boy to dig clams in two-feet-deep water.
I broke down and bought an Xterra Vortex 4 for $400. This was a big improvement, though I still had issues to overcome. At Ironman Boulder in 2014, I put the wetsuit on right before the swim. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t fitting properly.
“Hey, jackass,” Jim said. “You might want to dial back your expectations for this swim.”
“What are you talking about? I’m dialed in. You’re going to drown in my wake!”
“Okay, big boy. But you might have a better chance if you figure out that your legs don’t go in the arm sleeves.”
I had somehow put my legs in the arm sleeves and arms in the leg sleeves. I had to scramble before the starting gun to put it on correctly.
TIP: Pay for a good wetsuit. And wear it. And learn how to put it on. Some athletes choose to swim in only a Speedo, thinking they need to pass some sort of swim-purity test. Don’t be so stupid. Wetsuits, made with about a quarter inch of neoprene, do three things: keep you warm(er); keep you more buoyant, meaning you don’t have to work as hard to stay afloat; and help you swim faster. I’ve raced with a wetsuit and with a swimsuit marketed as a speedsuit. I swam much slower in the speedsuit and had to work much harder to achieve that slow pace. I recommend training in a bathing suit, then racing with a wetsuit. It will feel like moving from a 1940s hickory-stick golf club hitting a baseball to a Callaway Warbird slicing through a perfectly wound long-distance golf ball. Ping.
By Lake Placid 2018, I had figured a lot out in the swim. In past swims, I primarily used only my arms, theorizing that I could save my legs for the bike and the run. While this might give my legs a little more gas later, the result was a slower swim. But this year, I was feeling strong. My form was good! I was going to employ my flutter kick for the first time! I had hired a nutritionist, goddammit!!
My engine for past races had been fueled by Cocoa Puffs, pizza, and beer. Sarah had shown me the light. I had not eaten any refined sugar or processed food in weeks. I had cut my two-glasses-of-wine-with-dinner-a-night wine habit and didn’t drink for six months. I wolfed down brussels sprouts and broccoli with the same zeal I had once dedicated to Talenti banana chocolate swirl gelato. I ate clean.
I had never finished an Ironman in under thirteen hours, but this time was going to be different. In my imagination, I’d cross the finish line in first place in my age group—somewhere in the nine- to ten-hour range—an Ironman god like Lionel Sanders, Jan Frodeno, or Daniela Ryf. Okay, maybe I’d settle for demigod. But I was going to slay!
I decided that this race, I’d flutter kick my little legs for the entire swim like super-speedy Dash in that scene from The Incredibles. To use a golf analogy, I was going to grip it and rip it and see what happened.
What happened was instead of going 300 yards down the middle of the fairway, my golf ball hit the nearest tree, ricocheted back, and slammed into my gut.
Here I was, a mile into the swim, trying to find the nearest rescue boat, bobbing like the Lego Stormtrooper my three-year-old had thrown into the toilet bowl before I unwittingly flushed him down. The left side of my stomach felt like someone had put my torso in a vice and begun squeezing.
I assumed it was a stomach issue brought on by the pepper shot. But what if it was something serious? For years, I had heard the family story of seven-year-old Austin Daly, my distant Irish relation who complained to his teacher of stomach pain and asked to be excused from school. She thought he was being lazy and refused.
By the time Austin got home, his appendix had burst, and it was too late. He died that afternoon before they got him to the hospital. What if my appendix was bursting? What if I was putting myself in jeopardy? Did I need to get to the hospital? What if I passed out from the pain and drowned?
Dying during the swim was not unheard of. A British woman had gone into cardiac arrest just a few months prior during the swim portion of a Half Ironman in Spain. She was rushed to the hospital where she remained brain-dead until she died the next day.
The year before, a fifty-four-year-old man became distressed two hours into the swim at Ironman Texas. He was pulled from the water, and CPR was performed on him for about twenty minutes. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he also died.
So dying is a distinct possibility for those racing in an Ironman. And despite it being the first leg of the race and covering the shortest distance, swimming has proved to be the most likely place to perish.
One study analyzed the results of 2,971 USA Triathlon-sanctioned events held from 2006 to 2008, during which fourteen participants died—thirteen of them while swimming and one while biking. Eleven were men.
Researchers conducting a study of triathlon deaths between 1985 and 2015 identified 109 cases of race-related sudden death, 12 instances of resuscitated cardiac arrests, and 15 trauma deaths.
An example of a trauma death would be when a man on the bike leg of Ironman France in Nice took a steep descent at a brisker-than-recommended pace and couldn’t make a turn. He went off the road and crashed into a wall. In the words of a local emergency services aide, “he suffered a major head injury and had a cardiac arrest…we were unable to revive him at the scene and following an emergency airlift by helicopter he died en route to the hospital.”
The study also found that most of the deaths and near deaths were middle-aged males. So…me. Was it my time to be flushed (wittingly) down the toilet of life?
I don’t think it should really surprise anyone that if you’re going to die doing an Ironman, the swim is where it will happen. Let me describe the typical Ironman jaunt in the water.
First, you’re not swimming laps in a nice wide lane in a heated pool at the YMCA where you can stand or grab the side and rest every few laps. No sir. You swim in an ice-cold lake or a freezing ocean with waves and currents and jellyfish stinging you. Or, if you participated in the Ironman U.S. Championship in 2012, you swam in raw sewage after a broken sewer line dumped millions of gallons into the Hudson River.
I once swam in the Nautica Triathlon in Malibu, California, in six-foot waves. As I headed toward shore, a giant wave crashed on me and knocked me ass over teakettle. I thought I was going to drown as I washed around the bottom of the Pacific Ocean like I was in my washing machine’s spin cycle.
You also have to contend with three thousand other people all swimming at the same time, swimming over each other, kicking each other, pulling each other, punching, and clawing. And you’re not swimming a 100-meter dash. You swim 2.4 miles—far enough that your legs are so tired you can barely walk on them when you get out of the water.
By the end of the first mile, you’ve been kicked in the head eighteen times. You also probably lost your goggles in the first fifteen minutes, weren’t able to see the markers through the fog, and swam the wrong direction for an additional mile before realizing you were swimming out to sea and needed to turn around.
TIP: Lake Placid is one of the few Ironman swims in the world that has an underwater cable on the buoy line. If you’re comfortable getting knocked around, fight for the cable, and use it to help you sight where you’re going and stay on course. You’ll also take advantage of the pull of the current generated by all the swimmers. But be prepared for a bumpy ride. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Ironman now has athletes swim in waves so that everyone isn’t starting at the same time. But back in 2012, they were still using the quaint method of a mass start. Mass start is another term for chaos.
The mass start begins with athletes waiting in line to enter the water…a slow slog of people pressing up against each other like a crowd of overzealous bargain hunters pushing through the Walmart entrance on Black Friday.
Then, when the starting gun goes off, the scene resembles a herd of water buffalo in Africa all rushing to the same river in a panic, crashing into each other, climbing over one another, pushing the others down, eyes filled with fear, trying to escape the lions chasing them. And that’s just entering the water.
They say the average Ironman swim takes four times more energy to complete than running the same distance. To me, the swim is the least physically taxing leg of the Ironman. But it is by far the scariest and most mentally grueling. There is good reason to be afraid.
Once you get in the water, you spend much of your time fending off the barbarian horde coming after you.
People have no qualms about grabbing your leg and pulling you back if you’re in their way. I’ve had people swim right on top of me, pushing me down into the murky, churning breach. You will get kicked in the head, guaranteed. Your goggles may fog up, and then you might as well swim blindfolded.
TIP: To prevent your goggles from fogging, rinse them with tearless baby shampoo right before you enter the water. You may still cry like a baby, but it won’t be because of the shampoo, and at least you’ll be able to see.
It’s hard to stay calm in the swim. And when the adrenaline is pumping and your heart is pounding out of your chest, bad things can happen.
I tried to stay calm, but I was suffering. I had a wife and three young kids. And my wife worried excessively about my well-being during races. I should also mention that she hates that I do Ironmans. She actually forbade me to do them until all our kids were out of diapers. I finally broke her, and she relented for this one last hurrah in Lake Placid. “Jim, I’m a go for LP! I got the Rocky speech from Karoline…except instead of ‘just win’ she said, ‘don’t die.’” Real inspirational stuff.
Yes, my wife Karoline’s only request was that I not die. I agreed to this. No race is worth dying over. I had to think of my young family. I looked around for boats or officials in kayaks to pull me out and end the misery—and keep me from drowning.
But I knew that the minute I touched a boat or received help, I would be done for the day. I would not hear Mike Reilly announce twelve hours or so later that Russell Newell was an Ironman. And that was seemingly more important at that moment than seeing my kids grow into adulthood.
I bobbed for a few moments more and decided it was simply stomach issues caused by my stupid cayenne pepper adventure and that I had to try to make it to shore where I could rest and reassess.
Maybe if I just took a shit in my wetsuit right there in the lake, the agony would abate, and I’d be able to make it. At Ironman Boulder, I had peed while we waited in line to enter the water before the swim. I thought it would be inconspicuous enough until a yellow stream began rolling down the gravel hill toward the lake.
As the stream made its way through the feet of the people in front of me, they began looking down to see why their feet were getting wet. When they realized what it was, they turned around in disgust to confront the guilty party. So naturally, I looked down then turned around too, giving the people behind me a nasty look. You disgust me.
I decided peeing was one thing, but unleashing full-fledged diarrhea on all those people in the lake with me was beyond the pale of what I was willing to do, and my fellow swimmers might do more than just give me dirty looks. They might put me in an alligator death roll to hasten my demise.
I floated on my back the rest of the way and eventually made it to shore, where a team of strippers awaited me—not naked men or women who offer you a dance and a flirtatious compliment, but volunteers who throw you on the ground to strip your wetsuit off.
One young man grabbed me by the ankles and hiked me up like he was going to help me deliver a baby. He pulled at my wetsuit until it felt like my balls were going to pop off and fall on the ground. He pulled so hard, I began sliding across the tarmac like we were in some backwards Slip ‘N Slide wheelbarrow race.
I got through that ordeal, and the only thing standing between me and relief was 874 yards to the transition tent, where a porta potty awaited. You make that run barefoot on pavement covered with slippery carpet through a chute where throngs of people on either side cheer you on to the 112-mile bike race.
I’ve been in that throng, cheering friends, and there is one thing I distinctly remember. As you watch the athletes run past, you can tell who is probably not going to finish the race. They have the same look Roberto Durán had in the eighth round in his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, and you know they are one punch to the face away from throwing in the towel and mumbling, “No más.” I knew I had that look. I was in bad shape.
I trudged to the tent and spent the next twenty minutes crouched over a pit filled with excrement in a 110-degree shit-sauna, crapping so violently I feared that my liver might be among the spray of brown putrid liquid shooting out of my ass. I wondered how on earth I was now going to bike 112 miles and then run a marathon—and why in hell I wanted to.
 JAMA: The Journal of American Medical Association, Minneapolis Heart Institute cardiologist Kevin Harris, 2010 study. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/185622