What Happens When You Flat 3X in an Ironman?

Courtesy of Steve Smith, Kona Podium finisher 2015


"I've raced the iron distance many times and never had a bike related failure," says an area athlete.  But there are a good number of folks who flat for one reason or other, and a couple even flat twice.  But here we see that it's possible to have even more punctures and still wear the mantle of IRONMAN come midnight.

“It was an epic race, but one I hope to never repeat.”  It was with these cryptic words that I agreed to meet Legacy athlete Tim Johnson from St. Louis at the finisher’s banquet the day following the 2015 IRONMAN World Championship in Kona.

Johnson was one of the folks I had the privilege of profiling for before the race so I knew some of what got him to Kona.  As a veteran of a dozen 140.6 mile efforts, he’d raced under many conditions, some pretty awful, and a host of different terrains. “Ever read the magazine know-it-alls who say that this course or that course is may be harder than this one?  Bunk, all bunk.”  This from a gent who’s raced Ironman Lake Placid, IM Wisconsin and the old St. George, Utah course.  “This one (Kona) beats them all.”

It didn’t help, of course, that Johnson was nursing an ailing Achilles and under chiropractic care for a recent flare up of a sore back.  It’s even more sore today.  Here’s why.  This athlete is a real student of the sport.  He knew precisely where to line up for an excellent swim.  A good T1 followed.  It would be the last good thing in his day for the next 15 hours.  He only made mile 4 on the bike before flatting.  Then he flatted at mile 5.  Now out of tubes, you guessed it, he flatted at mile 6.  As he described his pre-race preparation, he sounded pretty thorough with new tires and tubes a couple weeks out, several rides to make sure all was well, etc.

So, following this third flat tire, he waited about 20 minutes for the roving neutral support bike mechs, who also couldn’t explain the etiology of his situation.  They gave him a new tire and tube.  Plus a spare tube for the road so to speak, but unlike so many of us who'd say "This just isn't my day," fold their tent and quit, Tim shrugged, gave out a big sigh, and began to pedal.  He immediately separated the rubber off one of his brake pads!  (Course he did.)

Hard way to start this second wind, or would 4th wind be more appropriate?  But by now, he was basically cooked.  He missed his pre-race predicted bike interval so he had headwinds “about 70% of the time."  You read that right.  The out and back Kona bike course snakes through the rugged Kawaihae region of the island well known for this blowing both ways phenomenon.  It didn’t help this northbound athlete to view the southbound athletes, already having been to the turnaround, “about 1000 miles ahead of me,” he admitted as he trudged north.
Surprisingly, he made the bike cut off, although not by much.  He was spent, mentally exhausted.  He was only able to run only the first few miles of the marathon.  But, now well after dark, he was truly amazed at how beautiful the Hawaiian night sky was, the brightness of the millions of stars.  You might have been able to predict, that he had to walk the majority of the 26 miles saving his small reserve of kindling remaining to actually run the final mile to the finish.  

Cramping badly, Johnson was taken to the medical tent, weighed, and found to be 17 pounds down. Seventeen!  Through all this he still laughed when he told me, “Yes I was at the IRONMAN finish line at midnight.  Receiving my second bag if IV fluids in Medical.  Ha!”

But, as if you couldn't tell already, Tim Johnson is a glass is half full guy.  In spite his misadventures this day, he was still terribly impressed that he, Tim Johnson from Missouri, was able to "watch one of the most glorious sunsets I’d ever seen as the sun plunged into the Pacific. And you know, I’m doing it in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii!”

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