By Billy Burleigh
It’s May 19, the sun is just coming up, and I’m in the middle of a lake treading water. I’m not alone though, there’s more than 2,000 others treading water with me. It’s 6:45 a.m., and in 15 minutes the cannon will fire to start the day’s journey. The finish line lies 140.6 miles ahead, but to get there we will have to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles. It promises to be a long hot day, but whether it will be a good or a bad day will be determined at some later point. It’s 6:58 a.m., and I’ve moved to a position directly on the starting line. My teeth are chattering; the water is cold. I have to swim fast off the line or those behind me will swim over me…. How did I get here?
My name is Clifton Burleigh, aka Billy, and I work for TBE at the Marshall Space Flight Center. I signed up for Ironman Texas back in October. I’d never participated in an Ironman event but dreamed of doing so for over two decades. I’ve participated in many marathons, a couple of ultra-marathons, and a couple of Half Ironman events, but I always experienced problems with muscles tightening and cramping, once so severe that I had to be hooked up to an IV. I’ve wanted to do an Ironman for a long time, but it scared me – would I, could I finish? The answer in the back of my mind was always “No.”
Growing up I had many challenges. I was a shy, rail thin, unathletic, funny talking (because of a speech impediment) kid who had learning difficulties, and I did not learn how to read and comprehend until the fifth grade. But because of these difficulties, I learned at an early age to set both short- and long-term goals. Dad would tell me to plan my work and work my plan. Mom would encourage me and accept nothing less than my best. I learned to set milestones and to keep my plans flexible, making changes as necessary to keep pushing forward. In doing this, I set and reached many goals, but an Ironman?
I enjoy training for and participating in many different events, setting my goals high and then working toward them, but my body would not always cooperate. Four years ago, though, I had a breakthrough! While participating in a marathon, it happened again. At about mile 17, my muscles tightened, and I started cramping up. I had to walk/run from that point to the finish line. When I got back to the hotel room, I looked in the mirror and was shocked. I was as white as could be – my face and body – white and gritty. I told a friend what had happened, and she told me that I was losing my electrolytes! That was a true “light bulb over the head” moment! Electrolytes in the body are like oil in your car. The oil doesn’t help your car go faster, but without it, your car will not go at all – the same with electrolytes in the body.
From that point on, I started learning about proper fueling and electrolyte replacement. I obtained some nutrition products and started experimenting with them in training and racing. They did the trick, and I got immediate results! I was now crossing the finish lines with my legs in pretty good shape. And then the thought of Ironman drifted back to me after a friend of mine completed Ironman Wisconsin. Again, I asked myself, could I finish an Ironman? The answer this time was, “Yes!”
When I signed up for Ironman Texas, my goal was to “Enjoy the Journey and Finish Strong.” My plan was to ride the trainer at home over the cold months, swim two to three times a week, and ramp up on the running with a milestone of participating in the Mercedes-Benz Marathon in February. Following the marathon, I upped my bike miles and got out on the road. My next milestone was to get in four 100-mile bike rides, with the last one being 4 weeks before the race. The weather was chilly for three of the rides, and I knew that Texas was going to be hot and windy. Without training in 90+ degree weather, though, there was little I could do to prepare for the heat. Race day approached and my family and I headed to Houston.
On arrival, I met up with a friend from Huntsville who was also participating in the race, and we completed all the required preliminaries. Race day started early when the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. I met my friend at 4:30 a.m. and, in the dark, we aired up our tires to 120 psi and my wife, Rachel, drove us to the swimming start point about a mile away. We went through body marking, dropped off our special needs bags, and then relaxed before start time of the event. At about 6:40 a.m. we got into the water to undertake the140.6-mile Ironman – my first Ironman!
At 7:00 a.m. the cannon went off, and everyone started swimming. I felt many hands on my feet and legs as I started to swim off the start line. I had to get out quick, but we were so close together that the draft I was creating allowed others to spend less energy and stay with me – I had to pull ahead. After about 200 yards, I didn’t feel as many hands on my legs and feet; I was breathing heavy and knew I had to get into my distance stroke. With the mucky water and fog, it was hard to stay on course. To add to the difficulty, I swam over some water plants that left a grit down both sides of my body. With each stroke, it felt like sand paper was between my arm and torso. Knowing there was nothing I could do about it, I pressed on! I completed the 2.4-mile swim in 58 minutes and 17 seconds, the 57th best overall swim time; I then grabbed my T1 bag and headed into the changing tent. After 8 minutes, I jumped on my bike and hit the road. So far, it was a good day.
The beginning of the bike ride was wonderful. It started out with pretty cool temperatures and a slight tailwind. I knew, though, that it was going to get hot, and I had to stay ahead on my hydration and keep up my electrolytes – if I should fall behind on either, it would be game over. The first 40 miles were very smooth and easy, but the temperature was climbing, and the wind was picking up. At about mile 55, I had already consumed 230 ounces of water; my legs were in good shape and I was well hydrated. From mile 65 to 95, it felt like a constant headwind. The pace on the way back slowed from 20.2 mph to 18.0 mph. My legs were starting to feel heavy and my back was hurting from staying tucked in the time-trial/aero position – I pressed on. I drank nearly 450 ounces of water and had to stop seven times to get more water or to use a porta-potty. I completed the 112-mile bike ride in 5 hours and 52 minutes and was the 441st person to finish the bike course. I grabbed my T2 bag and headed back into the changing tent. After 12 minutes, I ran out of the tent and on to the run course. So far, it was a good day.
The run course was three laps around the lake that we swam in and then one-half mile run to the finish line. It was hot, and I was hungry. The first lap went pretty well. I ran at a smooth pace but deviated from my fueling plan and ate six orange wedges. The second lap was not good. My stomach and my legs were hurting. The heat was getting to me, and I didn’t feel like drinking anything. I had to start walking and my head was dropping down. At this point, I had to focus on my goal and think what I had to do to get there. I had to cross the finish line by 12:00 midnight, that’s when the race was officially over. I had lots of time but had to keep making forward progress. On the second lap I passed my wife, and she asked me if I was following my fueling plan. I told her that I fell off of it on the first lap. Her advice to me was very simple – get back on your fueling plan. OK, I should have thought of that, but in the condition I was in, it was like another light bulb over the head moment. So I started drinking more water and my perpetuem/water mixture and took a few more electrolyte capsules. With the sun starting to sink in the sky and the temperature dropping slightly, I started to feel better and was able to start running again. The third lap went faster than the second and my mind was focused on the goal.
The most memorable part of the day was when I hit the third lap detour and had a half mile to go to the finish line. The half-mile path was lined on both sides, with people cheering the runners on to the finish line. The energy was incredible! My legs and body were hurting, but that energy carried me to the finish line. About 50 yards from the finish line the announcer said over the cheers of the crowd, “Clifton Burleigh from Huntsville Alabama, you are an Ironman!” I did it! I reached my goal! The marathon took me 5 hours and 11 minutes to complete, much slower than I had hoped. My overall time was 12 hours, 22 minutes, and 21 seconds. I placed 69th in my division and 655th in the overall ranking. It was then fully determined with an explanation point – today was a good day!
I share my story to encourage you to set a goal of completing a 5K or even 10K run. By setting your goal, planning your work, working your plan, and sharing the experience with others, you can make it to the finish line and have the prize of achieving your goal. Crossing the finish line is a wonderful experience, a true sense of achievement. I truly believe in the words that I continuously tell myself – “Keep Looking Up and Keep Pressing On!”
About the Author
Billy Burleigh is a senior systems engineer who works in Space Systems on the Specialized Engineering and Project Support (SEPS) program. A Gold Medal winner in the Go-for-the-Gold program since joining TBE in 2008, Billy strongly advocates the program for a better, healthier lifestyle. He has also won the Blue Bat 5K the last 2 years and encourages others to set a personal goal and complete the run as well.
Blue Bat 5K
The Blue Bat 5K is coming up in October, and group training will start in September. If you are interested in training for the run with other TBE employees, please contact TBE Wellness Manager Jennifer Geist at 726-1425 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.