Neal Ford  |
  • Author, Thoughtworker, & Meme Wrangler

Ironman Wisconsin 2003 (The Injured Eye Story)


You always want to do better in the next Ironman race than the last one, so I was training much harder for Wisconsin than I did for Great Floridian. I had my Joe Friel periodization schedule going, feeling good leading up to the race, with one long workout (the 21 mile run) to go at the end of a long, hard week. I was running in August in Atlanta, it was hot and humid (but not as bad as it could have been), and I was feeling good, anticipating the relative luxury of tapering. Then, at mile 17, my right knee starting aching. Uh-oh. I started the next 3-mile lap, and the knee starting aching more and more. So, I cut it short by a mile, going 20 instead of 21. My knee was achy for the next week, causing me to curse a blue streak out of annoyance every time I walked. To get to the last workout and end up injured!

Needless to say, my taper started early. I did some swimming and a little biking, but no running whatsoever. I had three weeks until the race to be All Better. In addition to the normal nervous energy leading up to an Ironman, I had to contend with this.

The trip to Wisconsin was uneventful. Candy and I stayed in the host hotel by a stroke of Hilton-Honors points luck. We could see the finish line from our hotel room. For the several days leading up to the race, I was moody and pensive, worried about my knee, which had stopped hurting at this point, but I hadn't run 26.2 miles on it lately either.

The lead-up to the race was typical Ironman stuff -- checking out the expo, putting the bike together (this was the first time I had carried the bike on a plane), checking in bikes, and the general hubbub before the race. Before you know it, it's time to rock.

The Race

Candy volunteered for body marking, and she had to be down at the transition area before me (a first!). We got up at 0-dark-thirty, she went to draw on people, and I finished packing stuff for the day. I had lugged my pump all the way from Atlanta, and felt silly for it before race morning because they said that the friendly bike company was going to be there pumping up tires. Of course, they didn't say that there were only two pumps for 2000 athletes. I took mine downstairs, pumped up my tires, and immediately became the most popular guy on my rack. I could have charged money for air!

I went and talked to Candy a few times, and she said that Terry had been down and gotten marked, but I never did see him before the race. I lurked around the transition area, trying not to worry about my knee. Before long, it was time to head down to the water. The race officials wanted everyone in the water 15 minutes before the gun, and I was one of the few that complied. As I got into the water, I did the typical ritual of spitting in my goggles, then washing them out with lake water to keep them from fogging. Folks were still crawling into the water during the national anthem. It was nice to go ahead and get in the water, because it allowed me to get used to the chilly temperature. I was wearing my wetsuit, so I could easily float and take it easy, waiting for the gun. One of the best sights in Ironman Wisconsin is the view from the water of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel and conference center with thousands of spectators hanging over the sides. The view from the water was spectacular, and it's kind of hard to get a photo of it.

The Swim

This was the largest deep water mass start I've ever experienced, so I positioned myself a few dozen yards back from the start line, about mid-way to the shore. When the cannon sounded, I made it to the start line in about a minute. It was crowded, but not as bad as I had feared. Time to take it easy, relax, stretch my stroke out, and enjoy the long swim.

The swim course is a two-lap, long rectangle with short sides that goes along the water front and back. As I approached the far end of the long rectangle, my left eye started burning. I could smell some boat fuel in the water (from a spectator boat down at that end), so I thought I must have gotten some gassy water in my goggles. Oh, well, it will start feeling better after while. Not much I can do about it while swimming. Well, it never got better; in fact, it got worse and worse. As I completed the first lap, I decided to take a little breather and try to wash my eye out a bit with lake water, figuring that would be better that whatever was burning it. At the close end of the rectangle, I stopped, floated, and took my goggles off, rubbing my left eye. OK, now that REALLY hurts! I don't know what's in it, but I don't like it. Not much I can do about it, so I start the second lap. Maybe it will get better over time.

I finished the second lap, with a disappointing swim time (I don't know where the time goes when I swim in races) of about 1:20. I climb out onto shore, stagger my way up to the wetsuit strippers, and they peel me like a banana. My left eye is killing me now! I'm walking with only my right eye open because that's the only thing that isn't excruciating. I stagger up the spiral parking deck ramp to T1.

T1 the usual chaos. I changed clothes, put on bike stuff, and started out to the bike. I asked one of the volunteers to look at my left eye to see what's going on with it -- do I have a chunk of concrete in it? Is it actually in ragged sheets of shredded eye material like it feels? He says "Well, it's red, but I don't see anything in it". I tried to wash it out with some water, then it's off to the bike! I ran into Terry while duck-walking in my bike shoes towards the bike start. He had a good swim and was right behind me. We gave the normal nondescript encouraging words to each other and we're off on the bike at the same time.

The Bike Trip to Hell

Oh, my God! I thought my eye hurt when a 3 mph wind hit it while I was walking. The 15+ mph of the bike revealed new levels of pain. It felt like someone had a sharp spike, gouging around in my eye. I'm really hinky about my eyes anyway -- I almost fight the optometrist when he tries to put in eye drops. I ride the bike with my left eye closed -- I can't hold it open.

As if that weren't bad enough, it's hurting so much that it's causing a really severe histamine reaction -- my eyes are watering and my nose is running. My whole head has become a highly efficient mucous factory. At the first aid station, I stop and wash my eye out again. It feels 1% better until I start riding again, when the mucous factory kicks into high gear. Wisconsin has lots of rolling hills, and as I go down the hills, I'm blind by the time I get to the bottom because my left eye is closed and my right eye is watering so much I can't see. At the bottom of every hill, I stop to wipe my eyes.

At the second aid station, I called for a medic. The volunteers were great -- as soon as I called for help, they sprang into action (without physically helping me, which would disqualify me). The medic looked at my eye and didn't see anything in it. He was able to hand me some saline solution to wash out my eye. Ouch! It stung, and made it feel 0% better. At this point, I had reconciled myself to finishing the race in awful pain. I was close to half way on the bike, so I could limp my way through the rest of the bike, then just have to endure the 6 mph wind in my face when I run.

However, the mucous factory problem was getting worse. And it caused side effects. I was generating so much, um, fluid, it was leaking into my stomach, making me nauseous. As this problem escalated, I found that I couldn't eat and eventually couldn't even drink. That's a problem! Even if I can finish the bike, I'm screwed on the run if I can't take nutrition on the bike.

This realization led me to the medics at the halfway point of the bike. And I bailed. My first ever DNF. Rats! The medics put me in an ambulance and drove me back to the medical tent. They washed out my eye and put some numbing eye drops in, which was immediate relief for about 15 minutes. When I got to the medical tent, it was deserted -- everyone was still out on the bike. They looked me over and didn't find anything in my eye, but they presupposed that I probably washed out whatever it was during one of my many irrigations. They put an eye patch on me and told me to see a doctor the next day if it didn't feel better. I called Candy and she came and checked me out of the tent. I went back to the hotel, moped, napped, and produced mucous. My eye started hurting again almost right away, and I didn't have anything to make it feel better. I got up long enough to watch Terry finish, then back to bed.

The Cause and Aftermath

The next day, my eye still hurt, so Candy took me to an urgent care center. The doctor had the right equipment to dye my eye and see just what was going on. Candy got to look though the scope. She described it as a 3 millimeter rectangular cut in my cornea, which looked like it had been scooped out. The guess is that a piece of glass or sand got into my goggles and fell into my eye a quarter of the way through the swim. The doctor put more numbing drops in my eye (which lasted all of an hour this time), put another (nicer) eye patch on me, and had me back the next day. By the next day, it was finally better (and my eyes and nose finally stopped watering) and I got to take the patch off right before the flight home.

The Moral

It was interesting to see the whole medical tent side of an Ironman, but now that I've seen it, I don't ever need to see it again. My eye is fine now -- it was cured after about a week of slightly blurry vision. I was all worried about my knee, and it never came into play. I think it would have been OK because I did the Berlin Marathon four weeks later with no problems. You can never tell what is going to happen during an Ironman. You prep for months, try to handle all the possible contingencies, and a grain of sand ruins your whole day. If that's not humbling, I don't know what is. What a sport!

   Follow Neal on Twitter music image opera image reading image

Neal Ford  |
  • Author, Thoughtworker, & Meme Wrangler