I’m almost done with a book called Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke. From Amazon: This book is about pleasure. It’s also about pain. Most important, it’s about how to find the delicate balance between the two, and why now more than ever finding balance is essential. We’re living in a time of unprecedented access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli: drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting… The increased numbers, variety, and potency is staggering. The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. As such we’ve all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption.
I’m as addicted to some of the above as the rest of the world. My biggest vice comes in the form of adventure sports and at the top of the list is Ironman triathlon racing. For me there is no better dopamine rush than the one that is triggered at the finish line after swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. No matter the pain nor struggle of the very long day there are few that don’t sign up for another race in anticipation of a dose of dopamine shortly after their finish.
My addiction hit an all time high when I showed up for Ironman Maryland last weekend after just completing Ironman Wisconsin 6 days prior. I’ve done 3 in a year and also 4 in 2017 but never back to back weekends with only 5 days of recovery in between.
From triathlete.com on what happens to the body during an Ironman event: Blood gushes through veins and arteries like traffic through night highways in a time-lapse video. Within muscle cells, glucose and triglyceride molecules are tossed into the fiery furnace of mitochondria at a breakneck pace, as though someone has put a DVD of the process at rest on 4x fast forward. Armies of oxygen radicals punch holes in muscle cell membranes, causing a general deterioration that calls to mind those computer animations that show a person aging 20 years in 10 seconds.
Indeed, from an internal perspective, completing an Ironman is a bit like sitting on a sofa for 12 hours and aging two decades. In other words, the changes the body undergoes in 12 hours of extreme exertion are similar to some of those that occur in the body over the course of two decades of non-exertion, as a result of normal aging. Fortunately, though, those years are restored to you within a few weeks. Then it’s time to start thinking about tickling the reaper again.
I’m happy that I now understand the goings on in my brain that trigger this crazy behavior. It all started when I crossed the finish line on September 13, 2009 completing my very first triathlon. It was a Sprint distance race on the Jersey Shore. 440 yard swim, 12 mile bike, 3 mile run. The euphoria of the 1 hour 33 minute finish was greatly enhanced by my younger daughter, 10 years old at the time, running up to me and saying “I don’t care how wet you are I need to hug you I’m so proud!”. That’s all it took. Addiction started and the chase for a repeat of that dopamine high was on its way.
Shorty after my finish a friend of mine that actually got me into triathlons emailed me to congratulate me on the finish. The email said “I’m sure we’ll see you in Kona one day.” I had no idea what that meant so I Googled Kona triathlon and found this video….
After watching it and several others, a new goal was immediately etched into my mind. I will be an Ironman and I will race in the world championship in Kona one day. I had no idea when or how but I was going to make it to the big island of Hawaii and compete in what is referred to as the Hardest Day in Sports in front of a nationally televised audience toeing the starting line with the best of the worldwide best in the sport.
I started training for and racing longer distance triathlons and running races in preparation for a first Ironman attempt. This included the Rutgers Half Marathon in April 2010, Columbia MD Olympic Distance Triathlon in May, the Toughman (half Ironman distance also known as 70.3) in September and the New York City Marathon in November. Each finish brought with it a great sense of accomplishment, a great hit of dopamine and built up my confidence that I could actually complete a full 140.6 mile triathlon so I registered for Ironman Lake Placid taking place in July 2011.
I found a local triathlon coach and started training in earnest in January. A full write up of my experience there can be found here. In summary, on July 24, 2011 at 8:38 PM when I crossed the finish line in the storied Olympic village I heard the glorious words I’ve been dreaming of…”Steven Pivnik, You Are An Ironman!”. The dopamine rush was greater than all the events of the previous year combined. Now I was sure that I was 100% addicted to this.
After I finished I learned more about my chances of getting into the World Championship in Kona. At every race the top 3 finishers in every age group qualify and there was an annual lottery for 100 others. I like lofty goals but I didn’t think it would be possible to shave 3 hours off my finishing time so I committed to racing yearly so that I can enter the lottery.
Ironman Austria was next, followed by Ironman Los Cabos and then Ironman Louisville Kentucky. Each got me a lottery spot but no dice. By then their lottery system was deemed illegal somehow and they needed to change the rules and created something called the Legacy Lottery. Not only did you have to race the year of the drawing but you needed to have completed 12 full distance events to be eligible to enter. Now it was time to accumulate 12 finishes.
Ironman Canada at Whistler British Columbia was next followed by Ironman Frankfurt, Ironman Lake Placid two more times, Ironman Vichy France, Ironman Arizona two times and Ironman Barcelona for number 12 in September of 2018. I also raced a handful of Ironman 70.3 races which are a lot of fun and only half as hard.
My Legacy Lottery entry after #12 hit and I got the magic email I was hoping for … “Congratulations, you are going to Kona!”. But there was a catch of course. My Kona entry would be for 2022 and I needed to keep racing a combination of full and 70.3 races each year to maintain eligibility. Ironman is a business at the end of the day and they know how to squeeze more $$$ from their customers but they also want them to stay in great shape for the grueling conditions of super high heat and humidity in Kona Hawaii.
I competed Ironman Santa Rosa in California in 2019 and signed up for many events that were canceled in 2020 due to Covid. I wasn’t sure how they would treat eligibility requirements with race cancelations and I found that Ironman Cozumel in Mexico was still on so I registered. It was the only race that I could not finish. It was a super windy day, I was undertrained, I had a bad cold and I called it quits after 75 miles on the bike. Fortunately Ironman waved finish requirements for that year and when I presented proof of signing up for several races they said I met my 2020 requirements and that I needed a full Ironman finish in ’21 and a finish of any Ironman branded race in early ’22.
So earlier this year I signed up for Ironman Maryland thinking that it’s a relatively easy and local race with a flat bike course unlike the unrelenting hills of most of the others. Then I learned that my friend signed up for Ironman Wisconsin. This guy also known as my motivational coach, nutrition coach, training coach and all around awesome friend has already completed 26 full distance Ironman races and has a back to back Ironman weekend under his belt. I figured that I would add to the challenge and race back to back weekends as well and join him in Wisconsin.
I was still feeling a bit nervous about actually finishing because of my DNF in Mexico and due to some breathing issues I had when attempting to summit Mt. McKinley in Alaska this June (blog post here). As a backup I also signed up for Ironman Florida in November. So I gave myself 3 chances to finish and punch my ticket to Kona.
When race weekend started in Wisconsin I was more excited about completing Maryland and recording an epic two back to back finishes. I thought I had trained pretty well for this race recording over 400 miles biking and 180 miles running in the few months prior. The swim did not go as well as I hoped for and I got out of the water in an hour and 49 minutes which is 10 to 20 minutes slower than I’ve done in the past. The transition was super long as we needed to ascend several flights of a parking lot helix to get to our bikes that were waiting for us in a very long parking lot. That took over 11 minutes total.
Then during my first aid station stop on the bike I started leaning to the left and was unable to unclip in time and fell over. Yes while standing still. Embarrassing!! Next stop was the first-aid station to tend to my scratched up knee for a minute or two. The bike course lived up to its reputation of being super hilly and challenging. The strong winds made it even worse. Hours and hours were ticking away and I knew I was cutting it close for the cutoff time but was happy to see that no one stopped me from continuing when I finally got back into transition 8 and half hours after I left. I then overheard volunteers saying they were closing the bike course in 10 minutes and I was relieved that I made it, so off to the marathon I went.
At this point I knew that I only had 6 hours before the 17 hour race cut-off so I needed to dig deep and get a decent run in. It was very tough and I was definitely hurting from spending so much time on the hilly windy bike course. All thoughts of doing this again next weekend in Maryland vanished. I told myself that all I needed was this one finish and there was no point in putting my body through this again so soon. I completed the marathon in 5:45 and crossed the finish line in 16 hours and 29 minutes to the never gets old… “Steven Pivnik, You Are An Ironman”. I was euphoric and kept fist pumping Kona! Kona! Kona!
My buddy collected me from the finish area. He usually finishes in under 12 hours. When we race together he goes back to the hotel, showers, naps, eats and comes out to cheer me on and to assist my hobbling self to retrieve my bike and bags. I told him too that next week is off as far as I’m concerned. I’m hurting pretty bad and there is no way I am racing again in 6 days even if I wanted to.
Back in the room after a shower, some food and a couple of celebratory beers I logged on to the Ironman tracking app to see my stats and splits. To my horror I saw “Did not finish. Over the maximum time allowed for the bike”. I never really read the fine print in the race guide because I never had an issue with any of the cutoff times. Apparently there is a 10 and a half hour individual cutoff time for the Swim + T1 + Bike. I missed that by 90 seconds!! I’m not sure what I was more furious about, missing the cutoff or no-one telling me and then busting my butt to squeeze out a sub 6 hour marathon for no reason.
The bike course was elongated by 2 miles due to construction so my buddy and I thought I had a valid argument to appeal the DNF with timing officials in the morning. Even though I was hurting I was too wired to fall asleep so I needed the assistance of Advil PM and was out by 2 AM. After 4 hours of sleep it was off to breakfast and back to Ironman Village to the awards ceremony where we hoped to find someone to speak with. That we did, but they wouldn’t hear it. “Our rules are our rules. Period. We don’t make any timing exceptions.” Obviously I wasn’t happy to hear that but I did appreciate their adherence to policy. Making exceptions becomes a slippery slope and the integrity of results becomes questionable.
My friend suggested that I continue my appeal up the food chain but I didn’t think I would have any luck. Then I couldn’t believe the words that came out of my mouth next “I’m doing Maryland next weekend.” I think just saying those words gave me a dopamine rush. We had some time to kill before our flight home to NJ so I started looking for accommodations in Cambridge Maryland. I’m doing Wisconsin in 5 days….what ?!?!?!
My friend let me borrow his secret weapon for accelerated recovery. The Normatec leg compression system worked its massaging wonders and I was race ready by Saturday morning.
There was a lot of chatter online about jelly fish in the water. Many were saying it’s no big deal and I wasn’t worried because I’ve swam amongst them many times and have never been stung. There was also a lot of chatter about how great the flat bike course was going to be. My legs were really looking forward to that and I was hoping the forecast for only 7 MPH winds would hold true. If I got in a decent bike leg I could leave myself enough time to speed walk the marathon if I had to.
The instant I entered the water for the 2.4 mile swim I got stung in the face by a jelly fish. Damn did it burn! And then the usual Ironman swim turbulence of arms and legs all around you began and the kicking and punching, all inadvertent but sometimes painful non the less, began. The first 20 minutes was really bad and I just couldn’t catch my breath. For the 1st time in over a dozen of triathlons I actually had to stop twice and hold on to a buoy to rest. Then the mind started playing games and I started having visions of either being pulled out of the water by officials or not making the swim cut off time of 2 and a half hours.
I settled into some sort of rhythm but was continuously bothered by my burning face, the choppy water and more arms and legs. When I made the final turn to shore I was shocked that my watch read 1 hour and 35 minutes. All this “slowness” was in my head and while I didn’t break any records I actually finished the swim 2 minutes faster than last weekend which really gave me a confidence boost.
As mentioned the bike leg was completely flat but the strong head winds made it very challenging. The lack of hills made it an incredibly monotonous 112 miles. No pedaling breaks nor coasting down hill. I really didn’t want to push it and wanted to save my legs for the run. I knew if I averaged just 15 MPH I would leave myself 7.5 hours for the marathon. I finished the bike an hour faster than last weekend and then started the marathon.
The only disadvantage of starting the run early is the heat. It was super hot and humid. I mostly ran/jogged for the first couple of hours and then got into a nice walk/run combo where I walked for a quarter mile and then ran the rest of the mile averaging 13 minute miles. This was enough to get me across the finish line with plenty of time to spare and only 4 minutes slower than last weekend. At 10:27 PM after 15 hours and 22 minutes out there I heard those dopamine inducing words again … “Steven Pivnik, You Are An Ironman!”. I was elated that this was probably the last full distance race I would be doing before the big show in Kona. My addiction will need to be curbed for about year.
The next morning I submitted my proof of finish to the Legacy Lottery team at World Triathlon Corporation, the company that owns the Ironman brand, and I’m waiting for confirmation of receipt which should come soon. Then it’s any one Ironman distance race before August. I’ll probably do a 70.3 or 5150 (Olympic). If my 140.6 addiction rears its ugly head before Kona I think I will seek the assistance of a medical professional 🙂