“Kenneth Woodruff!!! Superior!!! You did it, Kenneth! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!”
Hearing those words from the voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, completed the final page of this story I’ve been crafting for well over a year. Since that fateful day in December 2011 when Alex signed me up for my first Triathlon in NYC, I have had the Ironman in the back of my mind as a massive life goal but assumed I would be ready a few years from now. When the Boulder race was announced, I knew I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to participate in the inaugural race in my hometown. I’ve been living in triathlon heaven for 4 years now and Hollie put it best saying simply: “why wouldn’t you?”
I have a lot to talk about from the day and I’m still slowly remembering bits and pieces of the race. I have a fantastic team and support crew and everyone came together throughout the day to give each other a thousand small boosts to keep going. Having tons of friends and family on the course gave me something to look forward to around every corner and I was incredibly surprised by where Tera ended up on the bike course (twice)! The crowds in downtown Boulder were amazing and the volunteers made the day possible for all of us. I’m guessing there were as many volunteers as racers, if not more.
As this was one of the most painful days I’ve had, it’s taken me quite some time to get around to writing the race report and it’s always why this ended up being so long. There’s a lot to tell!
The lead up
Team Woodruff started showing up on Tuesday afternoon. The first to arrive were my parents, Gramma and Chief, who continued their month long road trip of the Northwestern United States by driving down the hill from Dillon, CO. Katie and Hannah got in late Wednesday to complete the troupe. I was lucky enough to be able to slip away from work for Thursday through Tuesday to enjoy spending time with the family before the race and recovering afterwards. The family time prior to the race really helped me relax and get my head in the right spot. It was also great to see how well the girls played together. Clayre and Hannah played together like they were never apart.
I’ve been in this sport now for 3 years and have a good idea of what it takes to complete a race, but I was somewhat awestruck by the amount of gear required. Knowing that it would take me a while to get organized, I made sure to go to the first available packet pickup opportunities to get a head start. Laying out all the gear in the bedroom made packing much easier and of course I had a ton of checklists to make sure I have everything. I’m used to throwing all the gear I need for a race in one back, not splitting it up between 5 different bags! The logistics for the entire event were pretty amazing. Say what you will about Ironman and WTC, they know how to put on a good show.
Friday morning, I met with Coach EK at Amante coffee shop in North Boulder for the pre-race briefing. When I arrived, EK teammate Kenny Withrow was finishing up his briefing and we got to spend a few minutes joking around before he headed off to finishing fueling the beast for what would be an awesome day. EK and I reviewed recent racing and training data and set targets for the bike and run. One of the great things about EK is that he doesn’t sugar coat anything. “it’s going to be a long day” and “this run is going to hurt” were a few of nuggets along with a great discussion on how to approach the run. I had a few last minute questions for him to answer and then it was back home to work more on packing those bags!
On Friday night, we took the crew out for dinner at The Kitchen Next Door and then walked to Boulder High School to watch some of the Ironman Welcome Ceremony. At this point, the excitement level kicked up a notch. It wasn’t the corny videos or the silly Ironband playing, but rather seeing the mix of anticipation and dread on everyone’s face as they were coming to terms with the task ahead. It was also funny watching people line up for autographs from Ironman legend and Boulder resident Dave Scott and Craig Alexander. Something about living in Boulder and seeing these folks around town make it a little different.
The alarm clock went off early. Very early. Not long after 3am. Never one to snooze on race day, before my brain could try to convince me otherwise, I was up and dressed in my warmup gear and headed out the door. One of the hardest parts of race day for me is doing my prep run. If I can get through it, I can get through the race. After all, it’s only a 20 min jog enjoying the brisk morning air and getting my head in the right place. It also serves another purpose and it’s surprisingly effective.
When I walked in the door, the house had an unusual buzz for 3:45am. Hollie, Dad and Katie were all up and ready to go. I usually prep for races alone, so it was exciting to have the family up and involved. We quietly slid out the door for the quick drive to downtown Boulder where we would drop gear bags and catch the bus to the Reservoir. While dropping gear at the track, I ran into 3 teammates, Liz, Conrad and Kenny. It was a big boost to see them and feel their excitement. Kenny had a look like he was ready to take on the world.
We made it to the reservoir, but not without incident. Our bus driver managed to miss the turn and we took the long way around
the back. While not a major event, it provided an unnecessary bit of anxiety to a group of already nervous athletes. After settling in at the Res, checking the bike and gear bag, I ran into Coach EK and got a last minute briefing before heading on my way for a quick warm-up swim and then it was time to get in line. My friend Pam, who was volunteering steered me in the right direction which meant back tracking around and through the transition area. It didn’t take long to find a good spot on the ramp and finish up my final mental preparation with a little positive visualization of the day ahead.
In the two months leading up to the race, I made an interesting transition from wondering whether or not I was going to even finish the swim to being excited about getting in the water and knowing it was going to be a fun ride. I attribute this change to coach EK’s mandate leading up to the race that at every session we had to go over race distance. Once it started, it quickly became the norm to show up early for practice and grind out 4,224 yards per session. Suddenly, the distance was manageable. My focus in the water was to stay “long and lean” and not worry about speed, but focus on technique, breathing and sighting. Calm and smooth all day long.
Standing on the boat ramp when the cannon fired was a new experience for me. I’ve raced a ton at the res, but never started from this position. It was a pleasant change to not line up facing directly into the sun. Once I found my spot, I chatted a bit with the folks directly around me, but mostly just sat in my own head and waited for the day to begin. Rather than a mass start, this race has a rolling start where your time doesn’t begin until you hit the timing mat at the edge of the water. I positioned myself at what I estimated would be the 1:20 group, seeding myself ahead of the 1:30 I was expecting to swim. Once the pros were in the water, there was a brief pause before the age groupers took to it. Conrad and Kenny were front and center and I could see Conrad pulling away as he launched forward to take down some of the pros.
Next thing I knew, we were slowly making our way to the starting line and about around 6:46am, I was in the water. Unlike previous races, I never got that moment of panic that makes me question my training and ability to come out of the water. Sure, I got kicked, punched, and swam over, but it was never an issue. I was calm. I was fast. I was drafting. The entire first leg, I stayed with a group of about 10 people and moved in and out of traffic. At the first turn, I went wide and cost myself some time, but it allowed me to get into some clean water and I ended up alternating leading and drafting with another gentleman. Halfway between buoys, I did a time check and was surprised that if my estimates were correct, I was on pace for a 1:20 and feeling strong. I decided to push it just a tiny bit and sped up. At the second and final turn, I cleared the turn buoy and since it was now as crowded as the airport, decided to take a line inside the markers for some clear water. All down the back stretch, I had a crystal clear view of the mountains every time I took a breath. Since I almost always breath on my right, I had the view for a solid half hour. As the markers ticked by and I neared the swim exit, I actually felt a little sad about having to get out of the water and was really amazed how much I enjoyed the swim despite my view that it’s my worst discipline.
As I ran out of the water, I hit the button on my watch, but never bothered to look at my time. Since I only checked once in the water, I had clue how I did. That said, I felt great and that was enough. Running up the hill, I made a quick stop to have the strippers pull off my suit (aren’t strippers supposed to be taking of THEIR suits?). In my haste, I ran down the wrong row and missed my bag. “BACON AND EGGS!!!” I shouted and a volunteer quickly pointed it out and I was on the way for a quick change in the tent. On the way out, I saw Dad, Katie and Hollie and heard a lot of cheering for the long run to the bike and then the long run with the bike through transition. On the way out, I stopped and had a volunteer hold my bike while I threw on my socks and bike shoes and was off.
At the mount line, I saw my friend and fellow BTC member Russell helping folks onto his bike and got a big boost. A perfectly executed “flying squirrel” mount and I was on the way. The family must have had a quick T1 as well, because they were close to the mount line cheering me on. It was the lift I needed to start the 6 hour sufferfest that is the IM Boulder bike course.
The Ironman Boulder bike course starts by leaving the Boulder Reservoir in the same way that every other Triathlon held there does. The feeling and energy though was decidedly different. I felt great to be on the bike and the cool morning could not be more perfect, but the 112 miles was not going to be easy. My first mistake of the day happened early. During my pre-race briefing, coach made sure I knew to only take in water for the first 10 minutes or so. Unfortunately, my calculations were incorrect and the frozen bottle I put on the bike was still a solid slab of ice. I was behind on water in the first 10 minutes on the bike and would not catch up the rest of the day. While I wasn’t going to let something like hydration end my day, it definitely put a damper on it.
As I headed up 36 towards Lyons, I passed my friend Esra Kellermans in almost the exact same spot I passed her in this year’s 70.3. Usually I will see a few people I know on the bike, but today it was just Esra. We exchanged a few quick words and then it was back to work.
I’ve ridden the front half of the bike course too many times to count and so I’m very familiar with the rolling hills and have practiced being patient and letting the course evolve. Unlike most days though, I had 3,000 other people out riding the course with me. Aid stations came and went and I was able to take on-board lots of water, but again, I just couldn’t get caught back up. Once you’re down on hydration, you’re down. That said, I did spend about an hour trying to pee to alleviate some discomfort on the back side of the bike course, but was unable to find relief. The mid-day sun brought on the heat and wind. The back half of the bike ride was harder than any of my training days.
The biggest surprise of the day was seeing my good friend Tera at one of the farthest points on the north east part course. Literally in the middle of nowhere. It was another great reminder that I had a great support group who was cheering for me as well as the other athletes sweating it out on the Boulder roads. She popped up again on the Southside of the course. Both times I saw Tera, I was able to lift myself back out of a rut and get my head back to the task at hand. The mental games you play and the voices can be detrimental. Seeing a familiar face can be the catalyst to stopping the negativity. Tera, thank you!
At around mile 80, my feet began to ache. The balls of my feet felt like they were trying to separate. It wasn’t until the week after the race when I had a chance to sit down with EK that we figured out I likely have an issue with my pedaling mechanics caused my not fully un-weighting the pedal during the recovery phase of my pedal stroke. This caused a great deal of pain in the last 30 miles and contributed negatively to the run.
At the 100 mile mark, the course dives down HWY 52 after a long climb and you get a break and can spin some of the crud out of your legs. Or, you can sit there not breathing and taking massive breaths getting ready for the hill that is coming when you make the long sweeping left hander onto 79th to head up a series of hills affectionately known as the “three bitches” on your way to lookout road. It was a the top of the climb where I had the high-point of the ride. I look up to hear screams of “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!??!?!” and see Rob and Luke running full speed alongside me up the last hill. Yelling “GET UP THIS HILL!!!”, Luke proceeded to give me a smack on the ass that I’m fairly certain left a bruise! I assumed having seen the boys set me right mentally for the last 12 miles and the start of the marathon.
The lowest point on the bike would come almost immediately. Turning off Lookout Rd onto 75th for the run down to Jay Road, I began to come up to cruising speed. Suddenly, I made eye contact with a bee and prepared for the worst. The bee went over the top of my helmet and was sucked into the port on the back. It stung instantly. I screamed. Going full speed in as much pain as I was in, it was all I could do to not end up in the ditch. I managed to get stopped in front of a group of ladies who managed to get the stinger out, hose me down and send me packing. I would later come to be know by them as “bee sting guy”.
The rest of the bike ride is a bit of a blur and at that point I was in so much pain that it was all I could do to not pull over to the side of the road and soak in my own misery. Onward was the only way and though my power fell off significantly, I managed to make it back to T2 in good spirits, but hardly in shape to run a marathon. My feet already ached. It was going to be a long day. To say the least, I was VERY happy to get off the bike. I couldn’t help but think to myself “Wow, I’m more than 2/3rds of the way through the freaking Ironman!” It was a great feeling, despite the pain.
The ride took a lot out of me and more than I expected. Still, that was no reason to dilly-dally through transition. I came off the bike smoothly on 17th street and started the long jog behind the high school, over the river and onto the track. Coming around the corner, I was very surprised and happy to see my sister with her coach, both screaming their heads off. It was a big lift after a long and painful ride. Dropping the bike with the bike catcher, I quickly headed down the wrong lane and completely missed my bag. I was also distracted by how amazingly hot the track was. After the race, I heard horror stories about people who had their day come to an end because of damage they did to their feet on the scalding track. I was dumblucky enough to wear socks on the bike partly because having seen the run into T2, I didn’t want to take that chance. But I digress…. so… somehow, screaming “BACON AND EGGS” clicked with two of the volunteers who must have noticed my elegantly decorated gear bag. One of the volunteers quickly snagged and tossed it to me and I was off for a quick change in the tent. One thing about Ironman transition tents. It’s naked dude o’clock… I couldn’t get out of there fast enough! A quick stop for sunscreen, and I was off on the run. I couldn’t help but think “wow, I’m doing a freaking Ironman. This is really cool.”
I never expected to negative split the marathon, but I also didn’t expect that my first two miles would be my fastest for the day. A little over a mile into the run, I passed the crew at Millennium Harvest Hotel where Marty was hosting a big party for everyone watching the race. As you can see from the picture, I was already in pretty bad shape, but I did get a big boost from seeing the crew.
It was all I could do to hold a pace around 10:00 min/mile. I would work for the first time during mile 3. It was about that time that my buddy Gene Karaffa passed me. I ran for a bit to talk with him, but couldn’t hold the pace. His words were encouraging “you’ll be passing me back in no time!” By mile 5, my run was over. I managed a pace of 10:33 min/mile for the first five miles. Over the remaining 21.2, I would clock in a pace of 14:32 min/mile. It was not pretty. The only option I had was to try and run between aid stations, take in as much fluid as I could without having it come back up and just grind it out. Man, did it ever hurt!
As much pain as I was in, I did take time to soak it all in. The crowds in Boulder were absolutely amazing and being out there with 3,000 other athletes focused on the same objective made it an amazing day. On my second lap, I started to see people who spent 7 or 8 hours on the bike and knew there were plenty of folks who were going to be thrilled just to beat the midnight deadline. It helped me put into perspective the disappointment of missing my time goal and the reality of how little it mattered.
One of the great thrills of the day was seeing my teammates and others with whom I spent countless hours training for this one event. I can’t even begin to name them all, but I hardly went a mile without seeing someone I knew.
I passed the family again and headed to the special needs and turn around. Rob would later tell me that the most impressive thing he saw out of me all day was that when I passed him the second time at mile 12, I looked like death and then I ran another 15.2 miles. At special needs, I swapped out my bottles and about 500 yds later it dawned on me how badly my feet hurt and that they were soaked. I missed an opportunity to grab a fresh pair of socks. After making the turn around in agony, and angry with myself, I slowly made my way back to the special needs area. Once again, “BACON AND EGGS” came to the rescue (thanks Liz!) and I was able to put on a fresh pair of socks and continue my journey.
As I came back around to the Millennium hotel, my sister joined me a few hundred yards out from the family. I remember saying something to the effect of “I’m toast.” She immediately started pouring on the ecouragement. When we passed the family, I stopped briefly for a few hugs and high-fives. Having already run a half-marathon on the course while I was on the bike, Katie joined me for most of the remaining miles. I did a bit of the out-and-back sections by myself, but having her there pushing me to keep going was what got me through the race. She nearly ran an entire marathon herself.
During the long stretch back to the turn around, I saw two very good friends not very far apart. Marty, who I can always count on for a big cheer during a race even when he’s grinding away and Susan. I spent every Tuesday morning for the better part of a year slapping Susan’s feet in Lane 1 at Rally. I gave her a huge hug and after the race she told me “I wasn’t sure you were going to let go!”
Making the final turnaround was a big deal emotionally. At that point I knew I was going to finish and it was mostly downhill the rest of the way home. It was also there that I ran into a Jill Moses I hadn’t seen since my first 70.3 where she rescued me with 2 gifts of salt tabs. Once again, she gave me the gift of salt. This time it was pretzels…
I mentioned earlier that there is no way to get caught up on hydration. That’s not exactly true. If you go slow enough and take in enough, you can actually catch up. I got so caught up, I had to stop at the last port-o potty because I was in so much pain that I could no longer jog and I wanted to finish the race “running”. That was a major relief.
As I rounded into the home stretch, I was greeted to cheers of “Go Bee Sting Guy!!!” by my helpful friends from 79th street. I waved and charged ahead to the finish. Entering the finishing chute was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my life. Mom, Dad, Hollie and the girls and Katie were all there at the end along with Mr. Rob and a few others. The cheers of the crowd made the pain vanish for a few brief moments as I did my typical race celebration airplane maneuver. Crossing the finish line and hearing Mike Reilly call me an Ironman is something I’ll never forget.
Photoshopped to show the actual finish time
What a day! After crossing the finish line, things get a bit hazy. Coach EK was waiting just past the line and I went over for a congratulatory hug and a brief chat. I was then shuffled through the picture line and sort of out the back of the chute. The food didn’t look like anything I really wanted… who can eat pizza after an almost 14 hour workout? Not this guy!
I left the finishing area and headed towards where my family had been. Somehow we missed each other, but I was able to borrow someone’s phone and let them know I was headed to Reuben’s Burger Bistro. My broken thought chain was that it was in the direction of the car, and there was outside seating so I was sure to see them. I would have loved to get pictures after the race, but I was in another mind and just done. On the way to Reubens, I ran into Warren and had a quick chat with him about the day.
Eventually the family found me sitting shivering with a glass of water at Reuben’s. I’m not sure why they never brought me a beer, and I still haven’t been back since.
On Monday night after the race, we got the team together for what now feels like a last hurrah. Since race day, we’ve gotten together here and there and crossed paths some, but we’re now all on different paths.
- Swim: 1:18:49
- T1: 6:31
- Bike: 6:11:45
- Run: 6:03:05
- Total Time: 13:48:08
- Age Group: 173
- Overall: 1065
I’m pleased with how the race turned out, but know that it was not my best possible effort. Though I will likely take a few years to race the 70.3 distance, I will eventually return to 140.6. This has truly been a one of the greatest years of my life. I’ve been able to balance work and life, training and racing. While doing so, I’ve been able to spend my time with an amazing group of individuals that came together as a team and supported one another all year. There were days I would have not made it through the training sessions without someone there to drag me around Coot lake. I’m looking forward to the next year of training with this crazy collection of folks but go in knowing that it will be different in many ways, but the same in quite a few, but that no other year will quite be like 2014 which saw us all driving headlong toward the same objective day in and day out.