Saturn V shaped finisher's medal for the 2015 Rocketman Florida Triathlon, courtesy Smooth Running

In the summer of 2015, I had ruptured my acl while recovering from foot surgery.

I find it remarkable how quickly my knee improved with the articulated brace. I pretty much recovered my full range of motion in a couple weeks. I was told that I could even jog in the brace, but I was too chicken to try. 

However, I had no qualms about cycling and swimming with the brace. The more I moved, the better my knee felt. I rebuilt my strength and Richard and I took the bikes on our usual thirty mile trips. For a change I kept the pace that he set. I’m more accustomed to leading, but considering the circumstances, I felt great.  

The pool became almost magical with the knee brace. Constructed from neoprene, with parallel steel bars, keeping the knee aligned, the brace was slightly buoyant. It certainly demonstrates the advantage of wetsuits for triathletes, as effort is expended entirely on forward momentum not worrying about sinking. Even in the ocean, with enough muscle mass in proportion to body fat, sinking is the default instead of floating for most athletes.

Wetsuits are allowed for water temperatures below 78º F according to USA Triathlon rules. Wetsuits can be worn up to 84º F but you won’t be eligible for awards. I was never expecting an award, but my transition times were so abysmal, that I didn’t want to lose more time by getting out of a wetsuit. My philosophy, as a Florida based triathlete, goes like this. I don’t sign up for wetsuit legal races. I like my ocean/open water swim to feel like bath water. I’ll tolerate water into the low 70s but that’s my limit and I’m not dressing for anything colder when I jump in the water.

So, I’m training in spite of the 2015 Season being lost to me. I can’t run. My leg is held together with an elaborate rubber band, metal bars with hinges and velcro. That was about the time that the organizers of the Rocketman triathlon announced their last Rocketman triathlon.

Rocketman Florida was only possible because of the turnover period of Kennedy Space Center between the Space Shuttle Program and the beginning of the new Space Launch System (SLS) and the Commercial Crew program involving Space X. Once launches resumed, there was no longer enough time to establish a race course, secure the needed permissions and publicize it to the participants. It must have been a terribly complex race to organize. For all the complaints I heard from other racers, Rocketman was a luxurious experience with almost every amenity I would want. 

I scrolled through my social media stream one day and the Rocketman organizers had posted a beautifully shot photo of the 2015 finishers medal. The medal itself is a scale model of the Saturn V rocket that took men to the moon. 

The photo featured the rocket shaped medal in sharp focus, with the red, white and blue ribbon which goes over the finishers heads, cascading from the top of the rocket and flowing into the foreground. The rocket sits on a wooden dock and calm water and the sea wall stretch into the background. At once, I was smitten and heartbroken. Everyone knew that this was likely to be the last Rocketman Florida race ever and there was no way I could run.

“I could probably walk the 5K,” I wondered aloud. 

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Barbara said.

I was convinced this would never happen. I hadn’t fully understood the implications of what my wife had said. Assuming that I wasn’t heard or that I wasn’t understood, I repeated myself as I gazed upon the most beautiful finisher’s medal I could imagine. “I could probably finish the race if I walked the 5K. 

Again, the response was, “Don’t hurt yourself.”

It slowly dawned on me, what my wife was telling me. I asked if she was actually encouraging me to attend a race with my bad knee. Like Poe’s raven, the answer didn’t change. “Don’t hurt yourself.” There was only a month left to prepare. This was utter madness. 

There was a little more discussion, but Barbara had figured that I would have too many regrets  if I didn’t go. I’m not sure that I ever regained enough composure to consider the possibility. 

I signed up for the race. I told Richard that I was going to join him for the ride down to Titusville. By this point, he had already made alternate plans to travel with his wife and his brother-in-law, a more serious athlete, would also be joining the caravan. However, we were going to do it. There was no way we were going to miss the race. 

Two years of meandering to the race course, was replaced with the concrete reality that the only way I could do this was to have every move planned in advance. There was no sprinting back to get something, because I only had one good knee. 

The day before we left for Titusville, I realized that I hadn’t planned for any race nutrition. If you’ve never been involved in endurance sport, it may seem odd to eat and drink while trying to maintain a steady pace. However, at my exceedingly slow pace, even a sprint distance race will drain your body of needed fluids, salts and energy. 

Race nutrition is an industry of it’s own and includes things like sports drinks, chewables and gels. My favorite is a product called Gu, which has the consistency of cake frosting, and contains dextrose (sugar), electrolytes (salt) and a small boost of caffeine in a convenient 100 calorie pouch, which I dutifully tuck into the leg of my triathlon shorts, roughly every 30 to 60 minutes, so that I’m not littering. 

I have multiple bottle cages on my bike. I kept one empty because one of the courtesy stations, passed out bottles of gatorade as cyclists entered and left the space center. I would typically burn about 3000 calories during a race. The only way that you don’t pass out, is that you keep feeding yourself energy and hydration from the time that you get out of the water. On my huge 29er mountain bike (the absolute wrong bicycle for this kind of race) the thirty mile slog on the bikes took about two hours of pedaling without stopping. 

So I wandered into my local running store. I grabbed a few packets of Gu in my favorite flavors. I  quipped that I had never gone to a race with so little training and feeling unprepared. However, I remember feeling exhilarated just  to be going. I also knew that whatever happened, the time on the clock wouldn’t matter. 

We left for Titusville the next morning. We met Richard’s brother in law at the appointed time and place. There was a minor incident in a fast food parking lot as Richard tore lose a piece of plastic shielding under the car. Otherwise, the trip down was mostly uneventful. The bikes were racked and we had a nice but early evening. 

Because of the knee, I pared myself down to the few items that I knew I would need. I was wearing new triathlon shorts with an almost matching tank top. Triathlon shorts are slightly different from ordinary cycling shorts, in that they have a denser pad in the seat. This prevents the shorts from feeling like a wet diaper as you leave the water. With the exception of a wetsuit and shoes, the racers wear the same thing across the finish line that they wear in the water.

The water was a little cool that morning as I recall. A cool front had passed through the area on the previous night. I slogged through the knee deep water and muddy bottom to the starting area. It was a very low tide. After the obligatory “Star Spangled Banner” and starting tone, it wasn’t as much of a swim as a damp walk. Like many of the racers that morning, I swam, until I’d bump into someone walking the course. I’d stand, take a few steps to get ahead of the walkers, dive back in and repeat the process until I came around the buoy and I walked most of the way back to the stairs, which marked the end of the swim and the start of transition. 

Normally, racers run from the swim to the first transition (T1). I walked back to T1, grabbed my bike, gloves and helmet, dried my feet, slipped my feet into socks, then shoes and mounted the bike in the designated area at the end of the bike corral. I noted the time on my stopwatch. I was moving pretty well. It was just dawning on me that by eliminating decisions in transition, I had just made a huge improvement to my racing.

The bicycle portion of the race was terrible. The cool front had passed through the area but the remaining clouds conspired to provide nearly fifteen miles of unrelenting headwinds. I simply ran out of expletives and had to start making them up because forward momentum was so much work, and yet I was passing people. 

A rider’s position on a mountain bike is very upright. It’s great for supporting yourself on drops and jumps with your knees for off-road riding. It puts the human body in a position that acts like a sail on an open cycling course. In my case, I was trying to sail into the wind and that simply does not work. I remember having to use all my energy to maintain a ground speed in excess of 10 or 11 miles per hour. With my road slicks, I should have been moving closer to 15 or 16 miles per hour.  

As we turned from Kennedy Parkway onto Saturn Causeway, some of the participants actually dismounted their bikes to get pictures of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Of course, for a nominal fee, the race organizers had a photographer stationed on the course to capture that moment as racers pedaled past the iconic structure, where the Apollo rockets and Space Shuttles were stacked on the monstrously large crawlers that transported them to the launch pads. I rolled past the sightseers and rolled my eyes, while I looked for the race photographer. 

I smiled and gave the camera a thumbs up or or something as I rolled by for my photo op. All the while I was silently cursing the wind. It almost felt like I could dismount and walk the bicycle faster, bad knee or not. 

Finally, I could see the race officials directing traffic through a parking lot next to a building with a large Space X logo painted on its side. 

A marvelous thing happened as I turned my bike around the orange cones that separated the incoming cyclists from the returning racers. The abominable headwind became a tailwind. Suddenly, the disadvantage of sitting upright on my 29er was a blessing. My body caught the wind, but now it was pushing me towards the transition area. Somewhere ahead of me, I was certain that I’d catch Richard. I passed lots of road bikes. I played tag for several miles with a racer, riding a red, white and blue Schwinn time trial bike. I even remarked as the other racer and I jockeyed for position that I had no idea that Schwinn even made a time trial bike.

I had one more advantage. Where I train in Tallahassee is very hilly compared to the rest of Florida. The Space Coast is exceptionally flat. Somewhere in the rolling landscape that led us over the various bridges returning to T2, I pulled ahead of more cyclists who were more accustomed to flat terrain. 

As race officials held traffic, I swung to my left towards the transition area. That’s where I saw Richard starting his run. We exchanged pleasantries as we passed. I knew at this point, that I was finishing on my own, but I only had to walk from here. 

I swung my leg over the seat at the dismount point and walked my bike back to my designated spot on the rack. I exchanged my helmet for a runners cap. I grabbed one of my Gatorade bottles and began my three mile stroll. 

One thing bothered me though. The bike was racked less than two and a half hours after the starting tone of the race. I had executed another good transition, leaving T2. I was way ahead of my personal best time for Rocketman, and I couldn’t run.

It’s not unusual for those of us in the back of the pack in triathlons to do a lot of walking. You meet some nice people along the way, hear good stories. You are surrounded by people in good shape and tight fitting spandex, often in a scenic location. There are few better places to feel completely exhausted. The rush of endorphins don’t hurt either.

One of the other racers pointed out that even though I was walking, I was still doing something that 90% of the population would never accomplish, by finishing the race. It was salve for the long stroll down the road and across the bridges. But I kept looking at my watch. At some point on the way out, I expected to see a time that would erase my hope for a three hour Rocketman finish.

“Well” I thought, “I had been told that I could jog if I wanted to.” I had also been told “the damage is already done. Jogging with the brace won’t make it worse.” Somewhere under the mid morning sun, as the day began to finally heat up, I tried to jog. It was not a pleasant sensation. I was acutely aware that my knee was being kept together by the knee brace. 

I walked some more. I saw my time and I tried jogging a little. Still, it was an unpleasant feeling. The dilemma was that my walking pace and my jogging pace after swimming and riding for thirty miles were nearly the same pace. As I got closer to the finish line, I became more acutely aware that I was within the window for my best personal finish. 

I jogged a little more. I walked a little less. I was hot. I was tired. I was still making good time. I was watching racers who had completed the half Iron-man distance leave T2. As I approached the next to last turn, Richard was waiting to cheer me on. “Run Jon. Run it in the rest of the way.”

The stopwatch on my wrist showed seconds to spare. I found whatever well of energy I had in my reserve and I jogged most of the way to the last turn. It was one more deep breath and ran for the red carpet at the finish line. I heard my name announced on the sound system. I was done. I didn’t make it under three hours, but I was so close. In the end, the 2015 Rocketman Florida was second best finish by only about 12 seconds, with only one good knee. I’ll take that. I also got that beautiful medal to hang on my wall. 

Richard and I posing with our Saturn V medals
Richard and I after the race, posing with our Rocketman Florida 2015 medals.

Special thanks to Smooth Running for the use of the image at the top of this page.

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