(Note: The title has little to do with the race, but it was the song stuck in my head for at least the first 7 hours. Mom, please don't download this song off of iTunes. If you hear it, I may be out of the will.
“Listen, I’m not calling to bitch but if you were in Lafayette I would punch you right in the face. I’m exhausted, I’m angry, and I’m cranky because this weight cut has me eating soup and salad 85% of the time. If I see another rice cake, I may choke out the Quaker oats guy. And WJones, if you were in Lafayette you would be next.” This is how the typical taper conversation went between myself and WJones. In retrospect, he was quite patient with me. Especially because a physical confrontation would involve him telling me, “Go outside and practice falling down, I’ll be there in a minute.” After I would vent, he would calmly tell me “when you are done crying, go do the workout I put on the sheet. Trust in the path, and you’ll see the result. And do me a favor engineer boy; don’t think. Not even a little.” This pretty much summed up my world perception from two weeks pre-race until race week. I was panicky, I was nervous. I felt like shit. I didn’t even feel good during workouts. The numbers were there, but there was nothing easy about any of it. However, I have been listening to quite a bit of Brett Sutton lately, and my favorite comment of his was “You would never ask a boxer on his way to the ring, ‘Hey mate, how do you feel?’ So why the hell are triathletes worried about how they feel? You’re trained to do a job, so go out there and do your job.” I love the raw honesty of Brett Sutton, and in reality this was the only hope I had in my heart for a good race. I had to look at Ironman Florida through a boxer’s lens. I was trained to do a job, and regardless of how good or crap I felt was irrelevant. I was going to go out and do what I trained to do.
I promised myself that my race plan would have no bearing on who was here racing. For once, I was going to treat the race like a golf tournament instead of a UFC fight. UFC fights can end at any moment with a flurry of effort. On the other hand, a golf tournament is 72 holes no matter what (of course you have to make the cut). You can never win an entire tournament in one hole, but you can certainly lose it all in a moment. And that was my plan. The first round (swim) and second round (bike), make the cut. The third round (1st loop of the run), be on the leader board. The final round (2nd loop of the run), make your move and go for the win.
I won’t bore you with pre-race foods, rituals, etc. If you want all that, email me. However, one thing did change for me this race. It was the first Ironman race where I was flying solo. The good was that I had a ton of time to myself, and that I could do exactly what I wanted to do when I needed to do it. The bad is that I miss my entourage and that walk to transition race morning. There is something calming having your inner circle walking with you down to the battle. Maybe it’s that for one or two minutes on race morning you can take your mind off of the suffering that is about to envelope your entire day, or maybe it’s just that security blanket that you toted around as a kid that gave you the feeling that as long as it was here, all was right with the world. Either way it was a long, dark march to the inevitable.
After putting all the goodies in the bags, and air in the bike tires I got into the wetsuit and headed down to the water. Now after many years of racing, I went back to a trick I learned to get the wetsuit on/off quickly. I used KY jelly on my arms and legs. Let me tell you, next race you enter go to the grocery counter with a frozen pizza, a 20oz coke, and tube of KY jelly and try not to laugh. Before the girl even looked up, I said, “I swear it’s not what you think.” Anyway, after getting the wetsuit on properly, I headed down to find a good spot for the swim. For some reason I was way more calm for this Ironman as opposed to any of my previous races. I think it stemmed from the fact I said that this would be my last IM race for at least a year, and that I have done everything in the sport I ever hoped to do. This race was just for me. Just to see how fast I could go and if I could execute. No fighting to be in the first swim pack, no jostling for position on the bike. Just staying in my box going as hard as I can go, staying in the moment and moving forward. I got in the water and pulled my rude gentleman start move where I pretend to warm up swimming. This way when the paddle boarders whack us and tell us to get back, we back up and VOILA! Front row swimming. Well for some reason the paddle boarders let us start in the water. They weren’t pushing us all back. And just before the gun went off, I was splashing water and my wedding ring slipped about ¾ of the way off my finger. All of the weight cut, plus some strategic KY residue under the ring had made for a slippery environment. And since I was staying in the Harem of Panama City, I can imagine coming home after an unsupervised trip to the redneck Riviera. “But I swear Elyse, the ring fell off in the swim! Honest!” Yeah, right. So the frantic panic of trying to get the ring to stick on my finger and trying to hold my swim position ensued. And just as I got it to where the ring would only get to my knuckle and at least stick there for a second, KABOOM! Goes the cannon.
The swim can be summed up easily. Uneventful. I “gently” placed one guy in the right direction after he was making a kamikaze move diagonally away from the swim course. I placed him in the right direction, and I think one day he may thank me for it. Out of the water in the first lap and the clock read 44:xx. I could do the math, a 29min first loop. Not too shabby, considering the chop that was out there. And back into the water for lap two. Once again, the loop was uneventful except for seeing that awful, choppy swim stroke and that signature soul patch. Yep, 3,000 people in the water and I run into Jeremy on the swim. It was almost comical. We battle each other in training, in races, even in eating the most chips and salsa at La Pagua. To paraphrase the Joker from Batman Begins, “ I have a feeling that you and I are destined to do this forever.” Out of the water, and into the maze that is Transition 1.
Florida is a funny bike course. It’s deceptively evil. I compare it to the Siren’s that would crash boats into the rocks. The course begs you to go fast. The conditions allow you to go fast. The groups form to help you keep the pace fast. It’s all there. And first couple of hours feels almost easy, like it shouldn’t be this easy. So you go to the front and try and get away. The pace is fast, 25, 26, 27mph. So you start thinking crazy thoughts. Like “maybe I can stick it at this pace for the ride.” Um, no. Reality bites, and about mile 70 it will bite you in the ass if you let those thoughts drive your legs. So my goal was to ignore temptation and wait until hour 3 to 3.5 to really work. No matter what happened in the first two hours, the rules were to stay out of the draft zone and avoid a stupid penalty, and the second was to just observe what was going on around me. I had to remind myself about 50 times in the first two hours that the goal of the bike was just to “make the cut.” During the two hours of observation, I realized who was what in our group. The worker bees, the wheel suckers, and the people who generally had no interest in spacing out by the rules. This is where I will tip a cap to Mr. Riccitello and his USAT official crew. They were in force for this race, and handed out appropriate penalties. Our group had a motorbike with us for about an hour of the bike ride. The cheaters got dinged, and the people riding legal were left alone to race. I liked it. Anyway, after a mishap with the special needs bag, the second half of the bike is where I started to really feel good. I noticed people putting their heads down, letting gaps grow to 20-30 meters between them and the next guy, and a lot of uniforms with salt all over them. I knew it was time to start my shenanigans. The first dig was at mile 70, and I just rode off the front. Nothing really fancy, but somehow effective. I thought I may have gotten away, but Das Wunderkid (a German guy that was DRIVING the group at a knee groaning 55rpm) drug me back into the fold. All was well until mile 90 when I tried it again. In a stroke of quasi-intelligence, I actually researched where aid stations would be on the course. Then I wrote the mile markers on some athletic tape I put on my aerobars. This way I would know when they were coming up and if I wanted to stop and get some water. I knew the last station was mile 92, and it was starting to warm up. So I made the deal that I would grab water and immediately gun it out of the aid station. Whoever came with me was my partner in crime. Well, no one did, but I caught a guy who was riding well. We worked together into the beach road, when he disposed of me like a bad carton of milk. Coming into to transition was when I got the news: I made the cut.
The bike to run transition was maybe one of the cleanest I’ve ever done for the amount of stuff I had to grab. The weather had warmed up to a breezy 82 degrees. Now, I’m not the most intelligent guy out there but I knew that it was going to be a stretch for me to try and run my goal pace the whole way when it was 10-15 degrees warmer than I planned on it being. So I immediately called an audible and settled on running 7:00 miles until I hit the finish line or the doors blew off. Either way, I was going all in. And during that first loop, it was all butterflies and fields a bloom. I mean, I had never EVER felt that way coming off the bike. I was holding back running the pace. It was incredible. The run course in Florida is very imaginative. Out/back, out/back. So it is very chewable and easy to understand where you sit in the field. In the first 6.5 mile out section, I did notice I wasn’t seeing very many runners. No big deal, nothing to worry about. I just kept counting the foot strikes. When I was about .5 miles from the turnaround and saw Mirinda Carfrae, I thought, “That’s odd. But she did race Kona 3 weeks ago. Maybe she’s just mailing it in.” The back section of the first lap got a little more serious. I started to really focus on the effort, and getting those calories down. The heat did worry me so the magic salt water was getting knocked back with some frequency. As I came into town, some of my Lafayette friends were yelling at me, “DUDE! You are crushing it! Keep it up.” Which is very nice, but not informative at all. Either way, I knew that I was running in my space and that round 3 (lap 1 of the run) was a success. I had no idea how much though.
Eric ran ahead of me and barked the info. “You’re 1 minute back from 2nd place, and 9 minutes back from the leader in your age group. You’re running 30 seconds a mile into both of them.” Eric’s monotone delivery kind of numbed me to the shock of what he just said. Are you kidding me?! I’m 3rd in my age group at Ironman Florida? And we are at mile 14?! No way! This is not possible. I should be back in 14th or 23rd trying to run up into a good spot. This silly golf analogy really did work out. Holy shit! I really am on the leader board. What happens if I can actually pull this off? Yes, these were all the thoughts that went through my head in the span of about 1 minute. But like that moment you find out that the beautiful girl you’ve been eyeing actually would give you the time of day, you try and be Joe Cool about it all. So I told Eric, “Good, this is where I meant to be. Time to do my job.” On this comfortable couch, with the A/C on, it’s not such a big deal. But what a ridiculous acting job I just pulled. I was freaking out inside.
About this time, I started to hit some rough patches. My feet were crazy wet, and I could feel every strike on the concrete run through me. As if you could wrap up “Just stop for a second and relax. Everything will be fine” as a Christmas present, and if I opened it right then I would be signing with joy. That is all I wanted, just to walk for a second. Bad idea. I gave in at an aid station at mile 16. “Just to get some coke and water down,” I said to myself. I had all these very elaborate, very legitimate excuses to justify why I could walk the aid station. And I did walk, all of 18 steps. And that was it. The internal voice came back, “What the Eff is wrong with you? Dude, you freaking selfish prick. You hog time, fit your workouts in, demand WJones look at your power files, borrow people’s equipment to do velodrome tests, loan Eric’s space boots for 2 months, so you can walk in this race? Do you know how much time EVERYONE, not just you, put in to make you successful? You think Jessica likes waking up at 4:30 to coach swim? You think Lisa likes the “hey do you think we can get those parts for the bike by Friday” phone calls so you can have that “must have” “watt saving” gizmo? John Fell, you talk A LOT of shit about racing. How you’re gonna go as fast as possible, or blow up trying. What was it, ‘like a top fuel dragster. Either the run of your life or blow the engine sky high.’ Well guess what mother lover, THIS IS IT. Here is your chance to back up that mouth. Here is your chance to prove to yourself what you have been chasing all of these years. That you are a fast IM racer. That you can run 3 hours in an Ironman. That everyone has to come from somewhere, so why can’t there be a fast Ironman from Scott, LA. Here is your chance to NOT QUIT ON YOURSELF. You drop the walking, lift the pace, and roll that action!”
And that was the watershed moment. I never walked again. I spent all of the mental and physical energy I had left to move forward. And the difference between the first loop and the second loop was noticeable. The weird thing was, when we hit the state park for the second time Mirinda was in about the same spot that I saw her on the first loop. Either she was caving, or I was putting together one hell of a run.
During the training, I had this theory that I based off of UFC fighting. Truth is, I love UFC. There are so many parallels to Ironman, minus of course the 8-foot high steel cage and getting punched in the mouth. However, a funny thing happened while watching a fight. This guy gets knocked out, but by all accounts he is still fighting and defending himself. Only the trained eye knows he is comatose, but the body knows only one thing: defend. And born of that was my theory. I convinced myself if I could teach my body “the pace” which was my goal pace (3:00:00), then when things got dicey and the isht inevitably hit the fan, my body would default to that pace. Well, at mile 21, it was time to put that theory to the test. However, to help was the first time Luke appeared. A friend of mine from Baton Rouge was so excited to see me on the course putting it together, and I had seen him a few times earlier in the day. But now he was going to help me in a way neither of us ever saw coming. The first split was “John, 2nd place is 1 minute up on you and he looks terrible. DUDE you can do this! You just have to run. RUN!” And that was what I had echoing in my brain, with my immediate silent rebuttal, “Um, that’s all she’s got Cap’n! We are FULL THROTTLE!” But then a crazy thing happened. Luke lied to me.
“Dude! The gap is 51 seconds. Come on John Fell, you have to go now. It’s mile 23. Dig deep my dude!” It was almost as if it gave me a shred of hope that I could lasso this guy back. 51 seconds in 3 miles. So possible. So I started working, and I mean really working. I know I have 51 seconds in me. Then the internal voice started, “Didn’t you tell WJones that no one is tougher than you? Big talk for a small dude. If you said it, than back it up son. Time to be tough.” The next split was 37 seconds. “John you are closing the gap, but you gotta go!” Man, I knew what was happening. I was doing it, but I was going to run out of real estate. It wasn’t going to be possible. 37 seconds in 2 miles was just a bit too much of a gap. I resigned that I might not catch him, but I told myself “You still run as hard as you can. We are 2.2 miles to go and you haven’t quit all day. You have 2.2 miles. Don’t quit on yourself.” At mile 25, the gap was 26 seconds. Then it happened. Luke saw it, I saw it. And he just couldn’t contain himself.
The 2nd place guy was easily 6 foot 5 inches tall, and had the goofiest handlebar moustache I’ve ever seen. However, it was easy to spot him. So there he was, about 200 meters up the road on me, coming to a walk. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Luke about lost it. I think he was losing faith that I could close the gap as well, until now. He sprinted over to me and took this Gatorade bottle he was carrying and squirted me in the face. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to being in the UFC. He got in my face and yelled the loudest whisper (he didn’t want to spook the guy into running and call attention to me) He said to me words that I will carry to my grave. “John, in 2 months the pain you’re feeling in your legs right now will be completely gone. However the pain of disappointment you will feel if you don’t close that gap and take that dude will haunt you forever. Go for it!” As I came within 20 meters of the guy, He started running again. He never looked back, never saw me. He just started his death march to the finish line.
I was locked and loaded. I knew we were inside mile 25, and I knew where I was. I have run this race 3 other times, and run this route countless times pre-race. We would make the bend, run over the boulevard, turn right on the beach road, and run toward Gulf Crest. I knew exactly how far every stretch was. I knew I had it in me to take this guy, but where would I do it? How would I do it? Do I go with the Alistair Brownlee move and pass so close that I brush him, while accelerating so hard it immediately breaks him? Do I go with the Dave Scott where I go on the opposite side of the road so I don’t draw attention to myself? A stealth move. Do I pull a Macca and sit behind him until the finish chute and then slingshot passed him (also called a Ricky Bobby slingshot)? And if I go too early, he may gather himself and re-pass me. Or what if I go and don’t have enough kick to make it home? Whatever I do, it’s gotta be violent and it’s gotta be decisive. Just as I settled on the spot and style of my pass, the moustache man stops smack dab in the middle of the road and starts stretching his hamstrings. This was it, it was all instinct. I went completely blank. It had to be now. I went to the outside of the road and used some runners on their first lap as camouflage. I never turned around, and never looked back. I just went as hard as I could. I ran from the bottom of my soul. I have run faster, but I doubt I’ve ever run harder than that moment. I ran like a scared animal. I was weaving in and out of athletes. I willed every muscle in my foot to push off just a little bit harder. I scraped my body for a smidge faster turnover. I made the left after the downhill by Gulf Crest. I promised once I committed to the move I would only look back once. And I would look when I took a left so it wasn’t so obvious. I saw nothing I could make out. It was a sea of runners. All running after me. I saw the Lafayette people. They were screaming. So was my body. My hearing was gone. I might as well have been in a tunnel of silence. I cut through pairs of athletes hogging the lane walking and talking about their awesome bike splits. I was on fumes. I could barely talk. I tried to ask people who was behind me. I would have been better off speaking mandarin Chinese. People just looked at me. As I ran toward Alvin’s island and the finishing chute, my boys were there. Eric, “Captain Canada” Trevor Casper, Brett, Luke and Pat O. They were going BANANAS! I am begging them for a view of what was behind me. They were just hysterically screaming at me. This had to stop. How could this guy answer that kind of attack? It was brutal. I almost destroyed myself. I finally ask the volunteer manning the chute, “Is he behind me?” No dude, you’re clear.
Oh sweet, mercy! Now it was time for the pimp check. Zip up the jersey, straighten it. Wipe sweat and snot off the face. Look presentable, your mother-in-law is watching. I come into the chute and there is 9:04:xx on the clock. Oh wow. I hear on the loud speaker clear as day, “And here is your 2nd age grouper of the day, from Scott, LA John Fell.” I just lost it. 2nd age grouper overall and 2nd in my age group at one of the oldest Ironman races on the circuit. My heart was exhausted but happy, because I did my job.
I ran all day with my uncle Bob in my heart. That’s what the kisses to the finish line and thumbs up were about. This was my gift to him. He has always been the inspiration behind my endurance sports drive. In Hawaii, the ultimate honor is to say someone “would go.” So if you’re surfing and scared of a wave, they would say “Bob would go.” It is to show that Bob is courageous, and that he would go and so should you. So that is what was written on my hand. “Bobwouldgo”. Because Uncle Bob is courageous, and if he was racing Ironman Florida then it would be racing at the front with courage. And that is how I wanted to race, and wanted to honor my Uncle. Through all of the courage he has shown in the past 2 years with his battles, he has inspired people to be courageous in all avenues of life.
I see my buddy Trey, and there are just no words. I don’t even know what to say. I go over to where Eric, Brett and Trevor are. Questions ensue but I just nod and smile. I sit against the generator, happy and exhausted because I finally did what I always wanted from myself, which was full effort. I never quit on myself. I never gave up. And I have a 2nd place age group finish to prove it. That is when Eric tells me, “Dude, you won your age group.” Como say what? Well, apparently when they were screaming and yelling at the turn by Alvin’s Island had nothing to do with excitement. The fact that I just caught and passed 1st place in my age group was the reason for the hysteria. You read that right; I caught and passed 1st place in my age group 750 meters from the finish. I guess that’s the thing about Ironman. It really is never over until the finish line.
This was easily the biggest sporting result of my entire life, without equal. And on Facebook I said it was my “Turtle on a fence post” moment. And that is how I still feel today. You see that turtle way up there on that fence post. Every one sees the turtle, but the truth is you know that the turtle didn’t make it up there solely on his effort. And neither did I. My family has been there through the ups and downs, breakdowns, bad races, and crazy training schedule. They have been supportive and patient. My man WJones with his mad scientist training, and doing the impossible which is getting me to actually believe in myself. To paraphrase him, “Hey, champions have to come from somewhere. Why not Scott, LA?” Lisa at Capital Cyclery for seeing something in me and helping me out 10 years ago as I was a young punk roadie kid who loved to go fast but couldn’t quite put it together. PFizze Pat Fellows for keeping me healthy and well shoed with those beautiful Run bird Mizuno shoes. Kris my massage therapist for lying to me before every race and telling me that I’m as lean and that my muscles feel as ready as they have ever felt. Jessica for putting up with my swimming diva fits, and giving me all those sweet doses of Gurzi “Shut up and swim”. My training buddies, who most times (Mike, Eric) sacrificed their rides so I could get pushed just that much closer to the edge. Our battles are always epic, and always a highlight of the week. And last but most important, my wife Elyse. In our texts after the race, I said “This is our victory, not mine.” and I meant it. You are my best friend and the best teammate I could ask for. Thank you for permission and support to dream big.
So what happens now? Well, I ran most of the race knowing that this was my last Ironman race for at least a year. But after the race, I talked to Elyse and my Dad about going back to Kona. Elyse wanted a do-over, as school only allowed her to come in the day before the race. And my dad set me straight, “Son, two reasons we are going back to Hawaii for that race. First, we (Fell men) don’t leave things undone. And I feel like we left that island last time with things unfinished. And second, I really love that farmer’s market in Kona. So I think that we should go back so I can hit the farmer’s market again.” So in short, I’m going to suffer next October so my wife can enjoy the race atmosphere and my dad can get star fruit at the farmer’s market. Sounds like a fair deal to me.