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Becoming an Ironman at Ironman Florida

November 11, 2009 By Matt Meltzer in Miami: Sports News  | 5 Comments

Photos by Justin Collier


When I was a little fat kid, I always thought the two hardest things in the world were Marine Corps boot camp and the Ironman triathlon. Having knocked out the first one on the list in 1997, all that remained on my short list of life’s challenges was the Ironman. And this past weekend in Panama City, that dream came true.

For those unfamiliar, the Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a full, 26.2 mile marathon. All in one day. The training for this event consumes your life, as I’m pretty sure I can count the number of nights out, dates, and relaxing days I’ve had in the past six months on one hand.



This past weekend, the Florida Panhandle beach town of Panama City Beach was taken over by thousands of lean, fit people on bicycles and in wetsuits. All jamming the streets usually occupied by overweight rednecks and drunk college kids on vacation. As the mayor told us all at the opening banquet “We like the Ironman. It’s a clean event.”

The race started at 7 a.m. on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, as 2,700 participants as well as 7,000-plus spectators crowded the sand for the massive swim start, People even stood on the balconies of their condos to catch a glimpse of the start. I had never participated in an event with this many people watching, nor had I ever attempted to swim in salt water with 2,700 other people. But being one of the larger people in the race had its advantages.


imageAs soon as the cannon fired we all charged into the water like an invading army, looking like a school of angry fish as we made our first lap around the 1.2 mile loop. With every stroke I not only moved myself along, but hit somebody else out of the way. I was kicking swimmers off my legs, and constantly moving others aside so I could get ahead. It certainly used a lot more energy than swimming laps in the pool at the gym, but it also kept my mind off how far, exactly, I was getting from the shoreline. And besides, even if someone got pissed, what were they going to do. Complain to a ref? “Oh yeah, it was that guy in the wetsuit and the red cap.”

At one point, I got up to sight where I was and heard a female voice say “Hey man, you’re being kinda aggressive.” I ignored her and charged on through the swim. If you’re gonna swim with the big boys, sweetheart you’re gonna get hit. Past that, you can’t really tell the boys from the girls in the middle of the gulf. And besides, a lot of those ladies swim faster than most of the guys.

We transitioned from the swim to the bike in a hotel ballroom partitioned off for men and women. Everyone put on their bike clothes, shoes, helmets and sunglasses in what amounted to a makeshift locker room with plastic folding chairs. Our bikes were brought to us by volunteers, and with that, we clipped in and headed out on the 112-mile course.



The course at Ironman Florida is relatively flat, but the wind can be brutal. Going from the beachfront highway out to the backwoods of North Florida, all seemed fine until I hit an eastbound turn at mile 22. Then the headwind hit. As a large person on a bike that is not tailor-made for triathlons, wind is really my Achilles heel. And so from mile 22 to mile 50, all but about 20 of the throngs of people I’d passed during the first 22 miles passed me. It didn’t hurt that a good number of them were drafting, which is illegal in the race, but for some reason still widespread on the course. Drafting cheating bastards, all of them. But drafting, cheating bastards getting ahead of me on the bike. I guess my integrity was worth the extra time.

Every ten miles, an aid station with bottled water and Gatorade came around, and the pleasant, mid-70 temperature made the ride pretty manageable. I had ridden in a month prior when it was 89 degrees and I had limited water, but this trip was vastly easier. And as I turned back onto the beachfront highway at mile 105 of the bike, I realized that this Ironman was over two-thirds done. I had it.



I pulled back into the transition area, got on my running clothes, and headed out to the final 26.2 miles of running. As someone who does not run particularly well, I wasn’t overly concerned about the run wearing me out. My legs felt fine, if a little sore, and I knew if I kept my pace I was going to make it just fine. You can’t use iPods on the Ironman course, a fact some find unconscionable. So you’re basically out there, alone, for 5 hours. If you’re slow like me.

Another fun part of Ironman Florida 2009 was that it occurred after daylight savings. Meaning that everyone who could not finish in under 10 hours (roughly 90 percent of the field, including me) would be running in the dark. So after lap one, it was a nighttime jaunt through the streets of Panama City Beach and St. Andrew’s State Park.

About mile 20, you begin to walk the water-and-snack stations they have set up every mile. You drink your water slowly, chew on some pretzels and maybe a cookie, have some chicken broth, then tell yourself “Ok, body. You got 6 miles to go. Do this and I give you the rest of the year off.”


Everyone has a different part of their Ironman that is the hardest. For me, it was miles 20-25, where it started getting cold and my quads were swollen past recognition. But I told myself there was no way I wouldn’t finish at this point, that I’d run 6 miles on a short day countless times in the past six months. This is what my life had been about, this road to Ironman. This last six miles was the culmination of all the work I’d been putting in. And all I had to do was grit through some numbing pain.



I hit the last mile, lined with spectators and people handing out beer, and adrenaline took over. I got to the final turn to the finishing chute and out of nowhere, my roommate (who had done the race in 2007) shows up with a plate and says “Hey, this is your finish line pizza. Take a bite when you run across.” Great idea. I turned the corner and saw the bright light of the finish line in my face. My eyes got huge, my legs got lighted, and about 25 yards out, I heard my name.

“Matt Meltzer, YOU are an Ironman!” With that I stopped, took a bite of my slice, and crossed the line. Though it took me just under 13 hours to finish, the time went fast. 6 months, and really 2 years, of training and it was all over in half a day. But for the rest of my life, no matter what happens, nobody can take away what I did this past Saturday. And much like that title I earned back in 1997, I will forever be an Ironman.

Related Categories: Miami: Sports News,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

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5 Comments on

"Becoming an Ironman at Ironman Florida"

Pezlo says:

hey, hats off man!

Posted on 11/11/2009 at 12:35 PM

Christy says:

Wow, Congrats Matt! Luckily I grew up being athletic so I don’t have any of these lofty goals, because I could never do it now. Do you now have another goal in mind?

What’s drafting? Cookies and pretzels? Where were the granola bars? Does chicken broth have a benefit when you’re running? That’s new to me.

You’ve kind of inspired me..If I see a 5K race, maybe I’d sign up. Although I’d have to buy sneakers.

Posted on 11/11/2009 at 4:09 PM

Carlos Miller says:

Congratulations, Matt. Quite an accomplishment.

Posted on 11/11/2009 at 10:29 PM

Eddie Suarez says:

C: Congrats Matt! That’s an amazing accomplishment. Hearing those words as I crossed the finish line at 2008 IM CDA “EDDIE SUAREZ, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”, just opened up a flood of emotion. You’re right, for ever you are an IRONMAN! Are you getting your EMDOT tat? w00t!

Posted on 11/12/2009 at 9:42 AM

Matt Meltzer says:

Thanks everbody.

Don’t think I’m gonna go for the ink. At least not yet. I said that about the Marines tattoo, and never got one. So we’ll see.

They had fruit and Power Bars at the aid stations too, but I mean who wants that stuff when you can have cookies? Anything high in sugar and/or sodium (like cookies and pretzels) is good in this type of event as it gives you energy and helps you retain water.

Drafting is where you ride your bike right behind someone to avoid wind resistance. It’s popular on group rides, as it essentially gives people a break and you can trade off being in the front. In races, though, it is illegal. Theoretically, anyway.

Posted on 11/12/2009 at 4:46 PM

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