Dad’s Ironman NZ race

[ My Dad raced Ironman New Zealand March 1st 2003.  Here is the email  we received the following day from him, which is a bit short, and from Nadia, which has all the details.  Once Nadia posts the pictures, I’ll add them to this page.   I added the pictures and captions where I thought they fit, after Nadia wrote this and posted the photos. ]

Dear All,

I went out too fast on the swim and bike and I completely bonked on the run.  I had absolutely no legs.  I am however, thrilled to have finished and even more gratified that you all followed the race.  I’m am sitting here today licking my wounds.


Dad (Paul)

Dear All,
That’s his version.  Now let me tell you what it was really like.  It was more of a thrill than I could have imagined beforehand.  I’ve got some great pictures to go with this story, which I’ll post when I get home.
Before I tell you the story of the day, let me say that your dad did something incredible yesterday.  All he can think of right now is how he could have done better, but what he’s not talking about, and maybe doesn’t understand, is the amazing determination and commitment to a goal that he showed yesterday. He continued for miles after I was sure that he had run out of every last ounce of energy and fuel in his muscles. Sure, the elite athletes came in under 9 hours, but I can’t help but think of what your dad, and everyone else that endured even up until midnight, put out to finish that race. I was more moved by them than by the top finishers.

Now, let me tell you about the day.
The bus came to pick all the competitors up at 5:00 am.  We got up at 3:00 to have coffee and take care of any last minute details…extra contacts in case Paul got kicked in the face during the swim, etc.  I followed at 6:00 am to find a spot to watch the start.  Dawn started to break around 6:30 to reveal everyone milling around on the beach and the kayaks lined up in the water.  The ESPN helicopter was already swooping around like some strange predator trying to decide which tasty morsel to snatch.

Getting ready…

The ESPN helicopter (trying to decide which tasty morsel to snatch!).

The competitors got into the water around 6:50 am, all jockeying for their position.  The cannon went off at 7:00 and the swimmers went off in a giant wave.  You’ll see the pictures.  The field spread out a little, but apparently not enough to keep Paul free from being kicked several times during the swim.

When the lead swimmer was coming around the last buoy, I launched off to my next spot, on the pier for the final stretch.  I watched as the lead swimmer came into the finish area with the ESPN helicopter descending in for some close-ups.  After he was in, I positioned myself at the finish line to wait for Paul to come in.
The race ended at the yacht club, and the water exit was at steps leading up out of the water.  The volunteers supporting the race were incredible.  They stood in the (not too warm) water and lifted each competitor bodily out of the water and set them on the steps up to the finish, making sure that each one was steady on his or her feet before moving to the next.

A few minutes before the start of the swim, some races are warming up.

A mass confusion of arms and legs and bodies as the racers are underway in the swim!

Two competitors came in during this time that we watched all day with admiration.  One was a Hawaiian man, a double amputee who completed the swim, lifted himself up each step without help got into his wheelchair made his way up the very steep hill to the transition area.  He completed the race shortly before your dad, using only his arms to propel him. The second was a single amputee, who after the swim had to position his  prosthesis and run up the hill to start the swim.  We saw him again at the start of the run, but I don’t know what his final result was…

Back to the swim…  I started getting anxious at around 1:15.  I knew Paul was hoping for around 1:30 – 2:00 swim time.  I saw swimmers coming in that looked like they had just survived the swim and looked pale from cold.  (The water temperature was about 67 degrees. Couldn’t help but imagine all the things that could happen out there with all those flailing legs and arms.  Also, we had dinner one night with a couple that for some reason felt it necessary to tell us about all the bad things that have happened at Ironman competitions, just adding to my already too-active imagination.

I was so excited and proud to see Paul’s cap with 195 on it bob out of the water just after 1:20.  He looked great and crossed the timer at 1:26.  Off to the bike start to see him on his way…

Knowing how notorious Paul is on his snail-paced transitions, I was surprised to see him enter the bike course less than 15 minutes later. He looked good and confident.  The bike course was two laps of the same course, so I planned to catch him on his return on the first lap.  I walked back to the hotel and found Allan and Ivy waiting for me. They had a car, which gave us more options for following Paul during the day. We set off and positioned ourselves at the bike-run transition, waiting for Paul to finish his first lap. <

While we waited, we were able to watch the leaders finish the bike and head out on the run. Steve Larson lead by 11:00 minutes, appearing to leave Cameron Brown in the dust.  The competition was heightened, of course, by the fact that Larson is American and Brown a Kiwi, who Allan and Ivy claimed as their own.  Unfortunately, Brown was able to close the lead and overtake Larson quite easily to come in as the overall winner.

Paul came in strong on the first lap after about 3:20, a bit faster than the 3:30 to 3:45 we were expecting.  He looked great and confident on his way out for the second lap.  In the mean time, we stayed at the transition and cheered on the competitors going in all directions at this point.  We stayed to see Cameron Brown come in leading on the run then and headed off to the bike finish to wait for Paul.

On the bike!

As we waited the sun started to take over the day.  Although the clouds were gathering, the sun always managed to scorch its way through and blaze down on the pavement.  So the racers were dealing with hot sun, increasing winds and a pavement made out of small gravel barely stuck together with asphalt.  I started getting concerned (yes again) after 3:30 had elapsed for the second lap.  The sun was really getting hot and now worry about overheating replaced that of getting too cold in the water.  Paul came in well, though, still looking strong and ready for the run.

We zipped over the the run start again to wait for him to exit the transition – again remarkably quickly.  And he was off on what for everyone is the greatest challenge of the race.  All commentators we heard talked about how the swim and the bike are just preludes to the “real” race – the marathon.  After watching over 1000 people of all shapes and ages and capability do it, it’s still hard to imagine running a full marathon after the swim and the bike.  An added challenge was the fact that the run course also was 2 laps – out and back on the same course twice, passing people that were on their finishing lap while you were still on your way out.

Early in the run, still smiling.

This was where people really started to show what they were made of. They all pushed themselves well beyond their limits to finish.  We stayed and cheered individuals on, loving the smiles and thank yous from runners who were glad for even that to help them through. Then we headed up the hill to the turnaround to catch Paul at the 1/4 point.  As we waited, the clouds final began to gather and eventually the rain started.  At first we were glad, especially for the runners, and the much-needed cool down.  But then the rain turned to a downpour and the wind turned to a gale.  Water came up around our feet and by the time Paul came by, Ivy and I were the only spectators out standing under a tree.  The officials had had to take down all the signs for fear of them being blown away.  Runners were wading through at least 6″ of water and running into rain that felt like hail because it was being driven into them so hard.  The rain ended after about 1/2 hour or so.  Paul looked good, but now tired, at the first turn.  I was excited.  At this pace, he would finish under 14 hours!  We headed back down the hill after a while and saw him again half way back.

We stopped for dinner at a place where we could watch for Paul going out for the second (and final) lap.  He came by between the appetizer and the main course.  (Yes, I felt guilty having a meal while he was struggling, but he chose his torture, and besides, I had to keep Allan and Ivy company).  As he came into sight, I charged out of the restaurant to catch up with him.  He dropped his drenched Survivor (appropriate!) “thing” (yes, the same ugly thing that went to Australia with us) and sunglasses.  He was starting to hurt now.  He was still moving along, though more slowly and now stiffly.  He had lost some time and 14:30 was looking more like his finish.

We finished up dinner and headed back up the hill.  The sun was setting and they were passing out glow sticks at the aid stations.  We passed Paul halfway up the hill.  He was walking now and I could feel his disappointment.  He was still moving, though, and incredibly determined. We didn’t stop to talk to him, but instead went and stationed ourselves at the turnaround. 

This was the place that to me represented the spirit of the Ironman.  It was here, with dark descending and finally fully there, with the crowds gone (it was we 3, the officials, and an occasional passerby) where the real spirit came through.  Each runner struggled up to the turn, each with his or her own demon in tow and headed back for the final 11 km. We knew almost all would finish at this point, but their pain and weariness was overwhelming.  And people of every description came by. The double amputee in his special wheelchair came by still propelling himself with his arms and his will.  A 70 year-old local hero came by (after your dad) whom you could tell was just making one foot go in front of the other to get through to the end.  Young competitors that were hurting or must have had trouble somewhere along the way came by. Everyone of them a hero in my estimation.  They pushed way beyond their limits to accomplish their goals.

Your dad came by and at this point he was really out of energy.  He had used up all the capacity of his legs and he was being driven now only by determination.  We called out to him that he was on his way, that he would finish.  And his response was, “Of course I’ll finish.  No question about that.”  As he disappeared into the dark, we waited around to cheer some more of the late competitors and will them to the finish.  We then drove back down to the 3 km mark to wait for Paul to come in.

It’s now dark, but he’s still pushing himself.

He came struggling in, as you will see in the picture.  He still managed to leave Allan in the dust as he tried to run alongside.  Allan, Ivy, and I ran, walked, and trotted alongside Paul for the last 3 kms.  And again the real spirit of the event was overwhelming.  Every few meters, another group of spectators were cheering the runners in and the cheers and congratulations and admiration was so strong and so special.  It brings tears to my eyes again now thinking back.  People were cheering from across the busy street from restaurants and hotels as each individual came by.  Those that had programs would call out to cheer Paul on by name, calling him Francis or Frank.  It made me think of his father and how much I wished that he were still around to share this moment.  Made me wonder if maybe he was there, summoned by the calls of “Well done, Frank, you’re almost there.  You’re a hero.”

As we came in the last stretch, Paul  told me he was saving a little up so that he could make a good finish.  Vanity drove him at the last.  He just had to come into the finish running. The finish area was a huge party, with grand stands, a giant TV screen hung from a crane, flood lights, a band, and the announcers still calling in every competitor as he or she approached.  As Paul came into the shoot, they announced “And here is number 195, Francis Butler, competing in an age group at 60 years young…”  and brought him across the finish at a grueling 15:13:00.  He had made it!! What a thrill.

Yeah, still smiling after completing an IronMan!

We picked him back up at the other side of the aid tent, where the racers got medical attention, massages, food.  He came out quickly.  The doctors found that he weighed exactly what he did when he set out, and so released him without further ado.  He grabbed a cup of tomato soup and joined us outside the barricade — with his medal and a smile.  It was a wonderful moment.

It took a couple hours to get to sleep.  Too much to talk about, plus we listened as the spectators still cheered the few competitors that still were pushing toward that midnight cutoff.

It was an amazing day and an amazing accomplishment.  I am waiting for when Paul gets beyond the “I could have…” and can feel the pride that he is now “An IRONMAN”

PS Pictures soon to come.

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