The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

My turn: Local Ironman finisher tells story of epic journey


September 30, 2020

HAVING COMPLETED the 114-mile bike leg, Ken Bronson changes into running gear in the transition area of the Best of the West Triathlon area at Lewis Creek Park. From left are wife Fran Bronson, daughter Tori and sister Janet.

By Ken Bronson

Thousands have embarked on the Ironman pilgrimage. They have armed themselves with gadgets for their bike; they have worked with coaches and training partners; they have viewed inspirational videos; and they have gleaned insight from fellow triathletes.

All of this with one goal: to reach the cherished finish line and be anointed with this pronouncement: "You Are an Ironman."

But what happens when a world pandemic changes everything? Can anyone ascend to this mountain of intention under a COVID-19 regime? Maybe?

An Ironman.

Thought by many as one of the more grueling tasks to put your body through, it was one of those things that had been bugging me for years.

I have been an endurance athlete for, I think, forever. From marathons – in which, at the time, I was pretty quick, to extraordinarily long elk hunts that required climbing up and down mountain tops for that the beautiful six-point bull, to bike rides that covered immense elevation gains, to kayak trips that just made your arms beg to stop the masochist antics, I've proven to myself that I know how to beat my body up constantly.

A few years ago, I entered the triathlon world.

I have competed in a number of triathlons, but given the onslaught of years of endurance activities, coupled with a knee injury about five years ago, I've relegated myself to shorter triathlon distances.

To finish an Ironman – a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 114-mile bike ride leg and topped off by a full 26.2-mile marathon, I thought I would need a knee replacement – or perhaps, at my young age of 65, I could do an aqua man ironman (no run, just a longer swim and a longer bike ride).

Another challenge: With the COVID-19 pandemic halting all racing, if I were to embark on the Ironman journey, I would need to do it solo. No cheering fans chanting "you can do this" over and over again, no aid stations strategically placed along the route, no fellow tri-club members to compete against, no announcers, no rock-n-roll music at 5:30 a.m. at the start to fire up the contestants, no endless clanging of cow bells.

If I were to do any "Ironman" this year, it would be pretty much a self-contained task, without a lot of pomp and circumstance.

I called my tri buddy, Bill, and told him of my concocted pseudo Ironman endeavor. Two years ago, Bill and I had traveled to Whistler, Canada, where Bill completed the Ironman distance, while I opted for the half-Ironman. Bill, who's a mere pup at 55, and I are great friends and we compete all the time. But it just annoyed the hell out of me that Bill had the title and I did not.

I shared my "Ken creation" with Bill, who asked, reasonably, "Ken, why not just walk it? You'll chase elk for days on a elk hunt, so why not just walk the marathon?"

Walk, Don't Run

Hmmm. Walk the Ironman. A novel idea.

I can swim, not fast, but I could cover the distance. The bike portion was no problem after decades of cycling experience.

I just needed to complete the run or maybe the walk and make sure I finished within the 17-hour time limit for an Ironman distance. I could do this.

So I started training. I was already in pretty good shape. Two weeks prior, I had just finished a long bike trek covering hundreds of miles and a ton of climbing. My open- water swimming was not bad, so I just needed a plan.

I consulted with my son Blair, an accomplished triathlete, and his wife Staci, who had completed several Ironman races. Then I broached the idea to my beloved wife, Fran. Without hesitation, she said, "Kenneth, you need to do this. How can I help?"

Wow, within a few days, I went from the "Ken-plan" to full-fledged training for an Ironman that would happen in less than two months. Typically, triathletes need to train for six to eight months for this. I had to do it in two months so I'd be ready on the weekend following Labor Day.

I jumped in, full steam ahead, following the training program, putting in the miles, regardless of the summer heat. I swam in the morning and would throw down a healthy evening run. I would ride and then ride again, putting in those miles.

About a month before my race day, I watched and cheered as another local triathlete, Rebecca Wolthuis, completed her own solo Ironman effort. I thought to myself, "She did it, and so can I." Another 30 days of training and it would be Showtime.

I mapped out an entire Ironman course. I was able to commandeer a few friends and family to be my support team. My beloved wife would be my rock. She was willing to ferry all over the course to ensure that I had nutrition or anything else that I would need for the very long day. My sister and my kids would help by either riding or running alongside for the race duration, or at least a portion thereof.

I had the course, I had the support team, and I was ready.

And then ... fire

2020 will likely go down as the worse year for anyone. COVID-19 had already disrupted families worldwide. And now, less than a week before I planned to attempt my Ironman, the state of Oregon was experiencing a firestorm of epic proportions, a million acres burning and an air quality index of more than 500 in Sweet Home. My hometown now had the worst air in the world.

I have heard other triathletes say that Ironman teaches you how to deal with challenges, and, well, this would be no exception. To compete as planned would be foolish, given the harsh smoke conditions and – oh, by the way, advancing fires.

I would need to wait it out. I might have to shelve this idea for a year. I was faced with the reality that my great big plan was going to come to a screeching halt.

And then, through some grace of God, it rained and rained. The fires were quelled substantially, and the smoke had been reduced.

I would compete nine days later than initially planned, but I had a green light.

Let the journey begin.

The Swim (2.4 miles)

Sunday morning, Sept. 20, was exceptionally dark. A few weeks ago, 6 a.m. was bright and cheerful when I did my morning swims, but now 6 a.m. looked more like 4 a.m. did then.

An uncharacteristically strong wind was blowing from the east as I plunged into the dark, 64-degree lake. A makeshift clap-of-the-hands "gun" at 6:08 a.m. was my cue.

"What have I done?" was my first thought. The lake responded immediately and slapped me in the face with a cold hand, replying "No whining, Skippy; you started this, and now you will finish it."

It took about five minutes before I was able to ease into a steady pace toward the marina.

As I peered to the west with every other breath, I used the lights from the condos near the marina like a ship captain uses a lighthouse. My trusty Garmin watch buzzed me; I had just finished 500 yards. All right, I just needed eight more dings from my watch to clear 4,224 yards – 2.4 miles.

I stroked on in the choppy water, to the marina, past Poverty Beach, then the Foster Dam spillway, where I used the caution lights as my beacon. I briefly laughed, thinking most people have a number of paddle-boarders out on the water to assist as they swam this leg.

Not today. Stroke, now look for the lights, and stroke again. I took advantage of the easterly wind, which helped push me to the dam. I reached the protective buoys by the dam and turned right, and that wonderful easterly friendly wind was now my nemesis, seemingly determined to stop my efforts.

As I returned past Poverty Beach, three fishermen were getting their lines ready for an early-morning start.

"Where the hell did you come from?" one shouted, clearly shocked when, out of nowhere, here came this old guy, battling the wind, thrashing through the choppy water.

I shouted back, "Shea Point," and returned to my battle.

The fisherman shook his head and commented to his buddies, "That guy is a few French fries short of a Happy Meal."

I fought with the wind, the water was still chilly. I hugged the south shore as much as possible until I rounded Shea Point and headed for shore. I hit the old highway, my starting point, right at 4,231 yards. I'd swum a few more than necessary, but you never want to be short on Strava, the GPS app I was using to verify my progress. Swim time 1:42:11.

Not fast, but I was done. It would be a long day and I needed to budget my energy.

My support crew (Fran and my daughters, Tori and Sierra) greeted me at the shore and helped me with food, change of clothes, and my bike, ready for the next leg, the 112-mile bike ride.

The Bike (114 Miles)

It took about five miles to settle into a comfortable pace on the bike. I started thawing out as I traveled across Foster Dam Road. As I rode past, the fishermen who had seen me swimming recognized me again.

I could hear them howling like a redneck symphony, heads shaking, probably wondering what bet I'd lost that would force me to undergo such self-inflicted torture.

By the north end of the dam, my pedal count started coming together and I cruised down the beautiful stretch of North River and Pleasant Valley. I had ridden these roads hundreds of times, and today was like seeing an old friend. A few turns and before I knew it, I was at McDowell Creek Road.

Ah, my first pit stop. I wolfed down a delectable PB&J, followed by a Carbo Pro drink and water filled with electrolytes. Maybe it's not what Gordon Ramsey would consider a a feast, but I needed to consume 100 calories every 15 minutes, and I the Carbo Pro was a high-carbohydrate formula engineered to meet those guidelines.

I wasn't really hungry or thirsty, but to finish an Ironman, you eat and drink while you ride to build up supplies for what you surely will lose on the run.

Another quick pit stop at the Berlin Fire station for a Payday bar and Fig Newtons, and I rolled on to pit stops on Berlin, Berlinger Scale, Lacomb Drive. I waved off the pit stop at the Lacomb store and headed to Meridian. There it was, a 1½-mile-long downhill that I used as a lovely resting opportunity while hitting speeds of up to 40 mph and then finished at the Larwood Covered Bridge, where I reloaded on food and fluids.

At that point, my sister Janet joined me for the next 85 miles. We headed out on Larwood Drive, northbound towards Scio. As I was riding on Richardson Gap Road, the morning fog turned into a smoke haze. The once-clear sky had succumbed to the ongoing fires, and the air quality began to deteriorate quickly as I pedaled through Scio.

We proceeded to Miller Cemetery Road, up and over a short but tough climb, and turned left and worked our way back south. I reached Gilkey Road and the smoke was now becoming a very real problem. We'd need to get a spare throat if we get much more smoke.

I stopped at the Hoffman Covered Bridge. Now the fact that this wasn't a sanctioned race turned into a plus. In a normal race you can't automatically change the coordinates, but since I was the race director and sole participant, I made an executive decision. I would reroute the course to Larwood Bridge and return the way I came, where the air quality would be better than where I'd planned to ride in the north county.

I would be 20 miles short on the course but I could make those up along the way and near Foster Lake, where the air quality was much better.

It wasn't all cake. Remember that lovely 1½-mile Meridian downhill? Like the easterly wind friend who turned into a foe at the lake, that downhill from earlier now was a brutal climb, 74 miles into the bike leg. I slogged up the hill in my lowest gear, which was clearly not low enough. But I made it.

Following a refreshing downhill to Lacomb, I weaved through the countryside back to my pit stop at Berlin Road. Two miles out of Berlin, I ran into another snag. I realized I had forgotten to start my Garmin. Now I had to add more miles at the end. Why? Because the world watches your efforts through Garmin/Strava postings.

The rolling hills of Berlin, McDowell, Pleasant Valley, and North River roads took their toll. I have ridden and summited them many times, but today my legs were fried.

I didn't have much left, but l rolled into Lewis Creek Park, but after another pit shop, more Carbo-Pro, I pedaled back out onto North River Drive to complete the 12 miles I was missing after my detour. I rode around Foster Lake and then out and back on Main Street into Sweet Home, actually gaining some newfound energy. Back at Lewis Creek, my Garmin showed 112.06 miles. The bike leg was done.

The Run (26.2 miles)

It was time for a shoe and shirt change. Friends greeted me with encouragement at the transition point, but there was no time to dawdle. The run would be three laps around Foster Lake with another out and back to the dam to get the 26.2-mile marathon distance.

My tri buddy, Bill, greeted me at the transition, and began barking orders: "You need to get going if you're going to meet the 17-hour limit."

Really, dude? Remind me why he's my friend.

On to Lap 1. Bill ran the first half mile with me and my daughter Sierra, who was accompanying me, coaching her regarding pace, etc. Then she took the lead and set a steady 11-minute pace. We ran for nine minutes and walked for one. We took in food and drink on the walk. Textbook!

Meanwhile, Tori and Fran stalked us with the car for our collective needs. By now, my wife had been shadowing me for nearly nine hours. Think about traveling in a car for 120 miles in nine hours. No one should do this, but my wife is a trooper.

Lap 1 done and 7½ miles behind me, I was on to Lap 2. Buddy Bill joined me, and like before, I continued the cadence, running about nine minutes and walking one minute. The 11-minute miles were quickly replaced with a 12:30 miner pace.

When on the run, your stomach evolves into a very finicky organ that lets you know very quickly if anything isn't right.

On the run, you have a whole array of new food choices: watered-down Gatorade, chicken broth, Coca-Cola, all sorts of gels, Picky bars, etc. The goal is to consume a little bit every 10 minutes and hope that your stomach accepts the offering.

Around mile 13, I took a swig of chicken broth. Ugh. Note to file: Make sure the chicken broth is diluted by 50 percent. When the concentrate is right, the taste is manna. Unfortunately, fully leaded broth leads to fully leaded gas.

By this point, I was in terrible shape. I needed to stabilize my stomach. No more chicken broth tonight. Back to bite-sized pieces of Picky bars, gels and electrolyte water.

I was able to maintain pace to finish Lap 2, which was an issue because of that 17-hour time limit.

Staci joined me an Bill and they began tag-teaming me. The run had now become a walk. Yep, I would walk the rest of the marathon.

Staci became the constant cheerleader with the voice of positivity. She and I chatted while Bill walked ahead about 15 feet, setting pace.

"Just keep moving" began to echo in my head. I reached the 18-mile mark, and my body was now giving the one-finger salute. I was delighted to maintain a 14.30 minutes-per-mile pace.

It was now dark, and all three of us wore headlamps. The loop around Foster Lake is quite nice, but walking along Highway 20 during nighttime can only be described as quite stupid. So, like the bike route, I called an audible and decided to double back and forgo the entire loop. Instead, we would trek to Shea Point and then double back onto the dam and then to Lewis Creek.

As I clicked off more miles, my fellow triathlete, Rebecca and her husband Ivan, traveled in a large truck along the road, leapfrogging to the next mile. Every few minutes they would roll up, with cow bells clanging and passengers cheering, which made me smile.

As I finally reached Mile 20, Blair took over for Staci while Bill continued the pace. It was time to start the Coca-Cola drip. You don't need much, but once you start on the Coke trail, you don't leave until you're finished.

I took a swig and got a burst of energy. Yeah, I could walk another half-mile and another.

Now I thought, "I can do this." I just had to finish under 17 hours or it would all be a waste. Anything over 17 hours would be just a long miserable slog.

I started back across the dam to Lewis Creek. Mile 21, Mile 22, Mile 23. They say you build all day to survive the last eight miles. It true, it's soooo true.

By this point anything sweet was being rejected by my stomach. Blair grabbed some salty corn chips from his assortment of treats. They worked!

Heck, my body didn't taste the salt. I just washed it down with a little water. The three of us made it to the entrance of Lewis Creek, where Blair retrieved more corn chips and water.

Bill exited stage left. He was cooked.

I turned around and set out for another 3.65 miles.

The final leg

Blair and I marched along in the dark. It was an amazing journey. I got to finish this epic trip with my son for the last 3.65 miles.

He was committed, a soft voice of encouragement. He continued his calculated attempts to get enough calories into my body to hold off a complete bonk. More chips, please.

By now my body had progressed past "are you kidding me?" to "you're an idiot."

I took on more chips with a water chaser, and my body responded with a decisive "no, thank you" from below.

YOU ARE AN IRONMAN! Ken Bronson exults at the finish line at Lewis Creek Park.

Thankfully, I'd equipped myself with toilet paper for the last stretch of miles and, fortunately, it was very dark. I was with only my son, and I had no idea that a milepost could be used as a leaning post for certain activities. I need not say more.

At last we made the final right turn into Lewis Creek Park. The end was in sight, and I started to jog/slog to the finish. Staci had already set up the PA system, ready for my arrival, and as I crossed the line at 16 hours 37 minutes, I heard the pronuncement: "Ken Bronson, You Are An Ironman."

What a day! I nearly collapsed, but I'd made it.

It was now nearly 11 p.m., and friends came beside me to share in some photos. I reflected on the events leading up to this moment. I had taken a journey that no one else will ever take. I had some amazing support from friends, my family and my wonderful wife.

It was my turn to tell the story of Ironman.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2020

Rendered 10/28/2020 10:45