Solo Ironman: 140.6 Miles through Unfamiliar Territory

2020 was disorienting, a year that made mockery of our plans and expectations and made division and uncertainty an aspect of daily living.

It was a climb over false ridges, navigating across a landscape I didn’t have a map for—that none of us had a map for.  Lost?.. yes, and loss itself seemed everywhere. Our social, political and professional worlds were upended, and however well-intended, we all struggled to find footing in unfamiliar territory.

I navigated the year as a firefighter and father, as did my wife Julie, working as a hospice RN. We juggled the unknowns and risks of Covid alongside the responsibilities of being parents.

As unfamiliar as the territory was, we did have a compass to guide us and we did our best to find our way. As spring rolled into summer I got my bearings and followed its needle, and on September 6, 2020 navigated through 140.6 miles of a solo-Ironman Triathlon in Bellingham, WA.

This would have been my sixth Ironman, and it became my own personal response to 2020. It was a message to myself, and to my wife and our boys; that despite the hardship and uncertainty this year brought, I’d stay in the game and maintain forward progress in the direction of something positive. Creativity, resiliency and patience would guide our way through 2020. ‘Together and alone’ we would do this.

Photo by Julie Watts


The unsettling year began, in my case, with a meniscus torn in my left knee during a fire department training exercise, a search and rescue drill in a vacant and dark house. Painful, and unable to bend my leg completely, I had meniscus surgery on St. Patrick’s Day (just a few days after the March 13th statewide school closure announcement). Luckily the fix happened just in time, as the surgery center was mandated to close the same afternoon as my procedure. Physical therapy offices were also closing, leaving me to rehab my knee on my own. The surgeon’s advice: “ride a bike.”

The day after the surgery, I hobbled onto two wheels and tried to make one revolution with the pedal. It hurt, but I did it. The next day I did two. Things continued in this way for the next few weeks, eventually adding in hill climbs and trips to the end of the road and back.

Looking back on 2020 it’s important to recognize we never knew what was going to happen next. There was no clock on this game. Our playbook was being written in real time and the lasting consequences of what was happening were uncertain, difficult and painful.

Still those first few weeks of springtime closures and quarantine, with everyone home, was in many ways nice. Despite a growing sense of disarray, we thought we’d be OK. The spring weather in Bellingham was unusually benevolent and it all felt like a reset of sorts; an unscheduled break from the daily grind. The planet too was taking a breather, and everyone went outside together. The challenges we faced felt surmountable, and we believed in six weeks life would return to normal.

However, as April passed it became apparent this wasn’t going to be the case. As a nation, the social and political fracture became very real. Covid numbers were getting worse, not better. Closures were not going to reopen anytime soon. Kids were not going back to school; and the reality that these challenges were going to be with us indefinitely began to sink in.

Because pools and gyms remained closed as well, I began swimming in Lake Padden for workouts. The water was still cold, but the isolation in the middle of the lake was beautiful and rejuvenating. Julie and the boys often joined me.

In some ways it was a reprieve for all of us; a departure from zoom classes and hours on a screen. As firefighters, we were getting hammered in the city; arson, violence, Covid and social unrest on a scale we’d never experienced. Julie’s work as an RN was also overwhelming, made more difficult by PPE shortages and the politics of corporate medicine. For all of us, work shifts were full and long.

The days were getting longer too, in part because of the extending summer light but also because time itself seemed to be stretching. The pace of the day seemed to carry more hours than I remembered it holding, and as a consequence my runs and rides were taking me farther from home.

Photo by Julie Watts

I wasn’t training for anything and still recovering from knee surgery, so I never reached what anyone would consider an adequate training level for an Ironman Triathlon. In August however, I thought to myself…why not just do another Ironman, all alone and unprepared…2020 style? It wasn’t rational, but it would be a metaphor of the year. I called it a ‘SoloMan.

I mapped out the 140.6 mile Ironman Triathlon course here in Bellingham, confirming the distances with a Garmin, iPhone, and Google maps.  This race would start and end at the Lake Padden swim beach, the 2.4 mile swim being a two-loop course, swimming twice across the lake to the dog park and back.

The bike course went into the north county, riding from Lake Padden to a five-loop (16 mile) course near Everson. On the loop was a construction site with a porta-potty; it served as an aid station, behind which I stashed a cooler with food, water and Gatorade (it was a Sunday, so no workers).

The Lake Padden trail was perfect for a marathon; at 2.6 miles around, ten laps made 26.2 miles. Inside my car (parked at the swim beach) I kept another cooler of food, water and Gatorade. This would serve as the run aid station.

In the past, the Ironman triathlon has taken me between 11 and 14 hours. This time, undertrained and unsupported and unprepared, I was uncertain as to how this day would go or how long it was going to take, so I gave myself the biggest daylight window possible and started at sunrise.

There wasn’t a car in the parking lot when we arrived. It was a beautiful and clear morning, the dark sky becoming orange now with dawn. As the sun crested Galbraith Mountain to the east at 6:22 a.m. Julie gave me a countdown “3-2-1 Go Ironman” and I was off, nervous but also oddly relaxed. My prior Ironman swim times always came in under 60 minutes, but this morning’s swim was the fastest, finishing in 50:17.

It was a chilly ride downhill from the lake and out into the county. An hour or so in I settled into a nice pace and the sun began to feel warm. It was peaceful and quiet circling the rural farms. Half way through the bike leg I was on pace to finish the 112 miles in under six hours, but decided that this pace was too ambitious, so I slowed down and made it back to Lake Padden with a bike time of 6:45.

Photo by Julie Watts

My wife and kids were there to greet me. They’d tracked me using the ‘find my phone’ app. I admit my legs were very tired. An afternoon wind had whipped up making the last two hours of the ride (plus the climb back up to the lake) a grind. Also, prior to this my longest ride had only been 75 miles and the lack of conditioning felt apparent. Still, I told myself, ‘this is an Ironman…it’s not supposed to feel good.’ I handed my bike gear off to my family, high fives’s all around, and set out to run the marathon.

As any Ironman finisher will tell you, the first few miles of the run are an awkward waddle as the body adjusts from hours of being hunched over pedal strokes and depleted quads, to an upright running stride.

The first few laps around Lake Padden were difficult, but I maintained a comfortable nine-minute mile pace and looked forward to seeing my family as I rounded the swim beach every half hour or so. I stopped at my car for a minute or two each lap to input some fluids and food, attempting as best I could to digest a few hundred calories an hour.

And while the first half of the run felt good, I knew it wouldn’t last. My longest run prior this summer had only been 13 miles, a far cry from a marathon. The second half, I expected, was going to hurt.

As if on cue, after six laps around the lake I started to cramp up, initially in my calves and then a hamstring. Being well aware of all the tricks and gimmicks for muscle cramps, I understand from experience that none of them really work. Cramps are something to be patient with, and best managed by slowing down and crossing your fingers that they go away (which they rarely do). To make matters worse, a nagging muscle tear in my left calf (which I’ve battled on and off for years) tore again, and I noticed its tell-tale sign—pain, swelling and bruising quickly appearing in my calf.

For every Ironman participant, at some point the idea of quitting comes to mind, and while you may do well to ignore it and deny the emotion the attention it craves, the option to quit is always available. That afternoon, quitting framed itself like this… “this isn’t worth getting genuinely injured over…you still need to show up to the firehouse tomorrow.” It spoke with a rationality I had to consider; but the decision was easy: Of course I wasn’t going to quit. I would just slow down, demand less from my body and ask more from my mind.

The spirit of this wasn’t speed anyway, it was about endurance. The deal was to continue despite uncertainty and discomfort for as long as necessary and until it was over. An Ironman race is always just an expression for the athlete, the tackling of a challenge and acceptance of long, and at times difficult, realities. The choice becomes how you manage to navigate the struggle. My approach is one step and one heartbeat at a time for as long as it takes. Ultimately, that effort is suffered alone, but it’s made more possible with love and support from the people around you.

Photo by Julie Watts

So, with three laps (nearly eight miles) to go and struggling to jog peg-legged, I asked my wife and boys if they’d join me for the rest of it, and they did. We walked as much as we jogged, and we laughed and talked. There was no rush to this. Finishing 140.6 miles was going to take whatever it took and for however long, and that was OK. And much like the interminable year of 2020, the solo-Ironman turned out to be anything but alone.

My boys dragged me across an imaginary finish line at the swim beach. Having started the race exactly at sunrise, I finished exactly at sunset. It was 7:06 p.m., 12 hours and 44 minutes after I started. 14,483 calories and 126,380 heartbeats later, the ‘SoloMan’ was complete, but it was hardly solo. The phrase ‘together alone’ rang true.

I was feeling pretty crummy once I got home (just 5 minutes away from the lake). I didn’t have much of an appetite and my head ached with a nauseating migraine. I was also shivering almost uncontrollably, a result of core body temperature coming down to normal after running hot all day. This is how I always feel after an Ironman, but I was happy and smiling.

That night we all slept on a couple of mattresses outside on the deck, as we’d done nearly all summer. That awful smoke from September’s wildfires hadn’t blown in yet, and the night sky was full of stars and beautiful. My legs ached under down blankets and I still shivered, but I was content and I felt optimistic. I felt hope.

I have no idea when 2020 will end because it certainly didn’t end with the calendar year, but eventually it will become a memory. The false ridges we’ve been climbing will at some point crest and the distances and divides that we’ve been forced to keep from each other will close.

But that still won’t be the end.

Our landscapes are forever wrinkled in all directions, full of endless ridges and valleys, and peaks. There isn’t a finish line. There is only a progression made one step and one heartbeat at a time, and while the effort is ours alone, its meaning comes mostly from the people we love who travel alongside us.

In truth, we’re always in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that’s the point of things as we do our best to find the way, together and alone. It’s often difficult. Sometimes it’s still beautiful.

For the past twenty years Jimmy Watts has been a firefighter in downtown Seattle, the craftsman behind Shuksan Rod Company split-cane fly rods, and a writer.  He lives with his family outside Bellingham, WA.

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