Jon & Richard at the finish line

The first Rocketman Triathlon was run on May fifth 2013. It was my first triathlon. I said that I would be happy with a time under four hours. I finished in just over three and a half hours. My friend Richard joked at the time, “next year in under three hours.” I was heavy, but clearly fit enough to complete the race.

In August of 2014, I developed a blister while doing some yard work. I have non-diabetic neuropathy. I feared bad blisters on my feet for years, so I called my doctor the next day to take a look. I followed instructions and the foot improved.

There was one spot, under the joint of my left big toe that wouldn’t heal. It was tiny, but it concerned me. Most of all, I worried because that crazy idea that Richard planted in my head was starting to look like a reality.

I had become serious enough about sprint distance triathlon, that I was chasing the goal of earning an official ranking. Getting ranked is a simple matter of completing three USA Triathlon (USAT) sanctioned races in a single year.

To be completely honest. I had no illusions of winning any races. I’m big. I’m slow. However, I have only finished last in one race.

Going into the second Rocketman Triathlon, I had dropped over 30 lbs. I was running ten to twelve minute miles (slow, but faster than my fifteen minute mile from my first race). I looked and felt great, but I had this tiny hole in my toe, but hey, it was mostly closed off by a callous.

My doctor told me that running was not the reason that the foot wouldn’t heal. I had consulted with my doctor, when yet another callous fell off to reveal the same wound. I was referred to a wound care specialist. Following their advice, I continued training and planning for my first race of the season.

My first Beach Blast Triathlon remains my worst performance in a race to this day. I was the next to last person across the finish line. It was only my second race ever. I wanted to look the part of a triathlete and had changed my hydration from a backpack to water bottles in cages, because “no one else used hydration packs.” About a hundred feet out of my second transition (T2), my calf muscle cramped. It felt almost like my leg had been caught in a vise. I needed the race for my ranking, so I walked painfully for a full 5K run course until I reached the finish line.

At the finish line, the race volunteers urged me to run in the last few steps. I tried. I really really tried but it wasn’t happening. On the one hand, I felt let down that I finished so badly for such a stupid reason, essentially peer pressure. On the other hand, I learned a valuable lesson and still had two more races ahead of me that year.

The wound specialist declared that I hadn’t done any additional damage to my foot during the race, so I was cleared to keep going.

Rocketman has an unusual history compared to other triathlons I’ve read about. Most destination races can count on a great setting and a predictable schedule. Rocketman had the setting in Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for a historic backdrop but the schedule was dictated by NASA’s launch schedule, which meant that races needed to be scheduled around the open spots between launches.

The swim entrance for the Rocketman Triathlon 2014
The swim entrance for the Rocketman Triathlon 2014

The Rocketman race course featured other irregularities, like a thirty mile cycling portion through Kennedy Space Center, including landmarks like the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads used for Apollo and Space Shuttle flights. In 2014, the race organizers added the War Bird Museum, a collection of vintage war planes in the run portion of the race. That change turned an expected 3.2 mile run into four miles and we only learned of the distance change on the morning of the race. There was a lot of grumbling because the sprint and Olympic distance racers already had a longer bicycle portion than most other races.

Richard and I arrived at the race site with only a couple hours to spare. The race organizers required all racers to rack their bicycles on the afternoon before the race. I pulled Richard’s bike off the rack and set it down with the expected bounce. I then pulled my own bike off the rack and set it down with a dull and very solid thud. I had a flat.

We reloaded the bikes on Richard’s van and hurried to the hotel. We checked into our room with all haste and I tore the wheel off of my “sleek black beauty.” It was the wrong bike for triathlons, but I loved it. I was actually riding a 29er mountain bike in the race with road slicks.

As I ran the newly inflated inner tube through the water filled bathroom sink to find the leak, Richard was running his finger through the inside of the tire. He found the thorn in the tire about the same time I found and marked the hole in the tube. I only rode with one spare tube. I wanted to save it for the race, “just in case,” so I patched the tire.

We rushed back to the race venue for bicycle check-in. I was wary of the patched tube and hoped that I wouldn’t need the new unused tube the next morning. I fully expected the tire to be flat by 5:00 am, but I had few choices.

Richard and I returned to the hotel room after an early dinner of Chinese food in Titusville along US 1. When I removed my shoes and socks, I was struck by an odd sweet odor. I would later learn this is the aroma of necrosis. Something with my toe didn’t seem quite right. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the appearance of my foot, compared to its appearance of the last few weeks.

Richard and I discussed my foot and my big toe. I argued, “my toe won’t fall off if I run the race tomorrow.” We determined that whether I ran the race or not, I wouldn’t suffer any significant additional damage that hadn’t been done in training during the previous few weeks. We climbed into our respective beds to grab whatever sleep we could.

About 4:45 the next morning, Richard and I woke up. The alarms were set for a little after 5:00 a.m. I asked Richard, “are you really going back to sleep?” He admitted that it was very unlikely, so the lights went on and we donned our spandex, grabbed our race kits of numbers, swim caps, and loaded race belts.

In the 2013 race, the Clydesdale racers (over 220 lbs) entered the water with bright pink swim caps. It was silly, but I certainly felt singled out as all of the heftier racers had what felt like feminine pink caps. I had lost the weight. I looked as good as I’d ever looked going into the 2014 Rocketman. I had my race kit from the organizers and there it was. My age group swim cap color was pink again. I feigned humiliation until I hit the water.

As older “age groupers” we are among the last to enter the water. The longer distance racers go first. All divisions enter the water in roughly the same order. Elites enter the water first. Age groupers follow, with the younger age groups before the older groups. Rocketman had Half Ironman, Olympic plus and Classic plus distances. The “plus” designation was added because the thirty mile bicycle portion instead of a more typical distance of twenty miles for Olympic distance or the ten to fifteen mile distance of a Sprint distance race. The Rocketman Half Ironman racers hit the course around7:00 a.m. Richard and I wouldn’t enter the water until around 8:00 a.m.

Dressed in our fresh spandex, Richard and I took the van across the road to the IHOP for a pre-race breakfast. The race would burn around 3000 calories over my usual daily budget of roughly 2000. Though not necessary, I have no hesitation about loading up with an omelette with a short stack on the side for a roughly 1000 calories. It makes the hours of waiting for the race start a little more tolerable for me.

We felt nourished and energized with about 30 minutes remaining before the transition area would be closed. There is a ritual of preparing transition. Anything you don’t need in the water is left behind. Everything must fit under your bicycle within its length and the width of the handlebars. The towel lays on the ground. Shoes and socks go on the towel. Hydration in the bottle cages and my backpack hangs on the saddle. My helmet hangs on the handlebars and the gloves go in the helmet with my race belt.

I had also carried an extra pair of shoes, to help my feet cool off after the race, and a cooler full of Gatorade. This would eventually lead to the realization that the transition area is no place to make decisions. However, that epiphany wouldn’t come until later that morning.

Richard and I wandered the waiting area outside of transition, picking up nutrition samples and rubbing elbows with other athletes. At the time I was very nearsighted. I realized that I was still wearing my glasses and had left my goggles in the transition area. I flagged an official and was led back to my bicycle to retrieve the goggles and leave my glasses near my bicycle.

There are many jokes about triathletes, like “triathletes are too stupid to realize that one sport is hard enough.” Triathletes can only count to three but there are also two transitions, and so forth. It’s the self deprecating humor of people who frequently need it as balance. As one cyclist said to me on a group ride, “you can always tell when there’s a triathlete in the group, because they’ll tell you.”

However, I still believe it’s a bit of a stretch to call the starting venue used in 2014 and 2015 of the Rocketman Triathlon a swim. At least for the Classic Plus athletes, it would best be described as a damp walk. Most of the swim course was barely above knee level, very muddy, and headed directly towards the rising sun. The second year of the race would be the first of two races held along Florida HWY 405. In 2014, most athletes really tried to swim until they simply could not. The following year, many athletes just gave up and walked the swim course.

I passed Richard as I was leaving the first transition, T1, usually a good sign, that he was still there. That meant that I hadn’t wasted too much time. Unfortunately, the official times showed that I had practically taken a vacation if you look at my T1 time. The ride to the launch pad was beautiful. The return trip felt very strong. Again, I spent too much time in T2, playing with electronics in a transition that shouldn’t have been much more than hanging my bike on the rack and changing my helmet for a running cap.

The course was brutally hot. The 405 turned into a solar oven as the October sun in Central Florida climbed higher in the sky. Drivers were not happy to be stopped to allow runners to cross the highway. My water bottle was empty too early in the run. The Warbird Museum was neat. We ran past classic war planes and around the hangers. The little Dixie Cups of water were hardly of much value. I poured one on my head on the way into the museum. I poured the other down my throat on the way out.

Compared to my home training, Titusville is flat. After more than thirty miles of racing which felt daunting enough, there was one berm of a hill. As I crested it, I heard Richard’s clear and ebullient voice from behind me, “you’re looking good!” My daydreams of beating Richard to the finish line evaporated in the late morning heat.

Richard picked up his pace after a short rest with me. He cheered me to the finish and I had completed my third triathlon, taking about 37 minutes off of my first year’s finish time. My official time was 3:01:51.

Jon and Richard's finish times for the 2014 Rocketman race.
Jon and Richard’s finish times for the 2014 Rocketman race.
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