On Internal and External Forces, and Ironmen

Once again, remember: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” – Paul Romer, 2004

You’ve probably noticed that it’s taken me quite a while to get to another blog post. This was not necessarily due to an attack of empty headedness, but more the appearance of another sudden life changing event.

We moved. Just picked up (essentially) and relocated. After posting the last blog entry, we up and bought another townhouse about an hour and a half away, started moving ourselves box by box, celebrated Christmas with all 17 members of our family in a rather empty soon-to-be-sold townhouse, celebrated a 50th anniversary, and in early January we were – elsewhere!

Getting readjusted in a new location does not lend itself to long quiet periods for contemplating and writing. However, there were occasions where some seeds were planted that eventually came together with this post’s central theme.

One such occasion was the wake for my brother-in-law, where The Three Amigos (the male “out-laws,” the two daughter’s husbands and me) happened to be talking about the experience one of them had with his father-in-law in sailing his houseboat from a lake in Tennessee, downriver to the Mississippi and then back up the Mississippi to a winter dock above St. Louis. The tale was a bit harrowing in the telling, especially with the realities of “normal” sailing on the Mississippi, the added difficulties of traversing the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and on top of that dealing with the currents up stream where the Mississippi narrows (I must admit, I have never heard the word “narrow” used to describe the Mississippi).

After some thought, I mused on the complexity (and skill) needed to make that journey.

First, one had internal forces to master, those one could control – the two motors on the houseboat and dual rudders, and the ones not controllable – the shape of the double hulls in the water and wind resistance against the boat itself.

Then there were the external forces, none of which were controllable. Some were partially “known,” such as the wind from waving flags and forecasts but which one still couldn’t see directly, and water currents that you knew were there but could only see their surface churning. But there was a vast number of other external forces that, while you knew they were there you were still clueless about – the shape of the river bottom and its influence on the currents, and the currents themselves. And all of these leave out unpredictable forces and events such as other boats (and captains).

Sort of like life’s journey, I added. We’ve got our own internal forces, our temperament and personality traits and our skills and experiences, things we (mostly) have a handle on. But then there are the external forces we encounter. Some, encountered through family, clan, tribe, and our culture, can be good in helping mold us. But sometimes they’re not.

Then there are the unexpected external forces, those events that throw us into crisis.

How we deal with these, how we choose to deal with them has a significant impact on the direction and progress of our life’s journey. The event itself is just a first part. The critical part is the second piece, how we think about the event that determines what we choose.

A light bulb went on when I realized that this scenario bore a remarkable resemblance to traversing the unexpected realities in life (as an individual, a parent, a family, an organization, a culture, a nation, and even as a society or civilization). There will be certain internal forces you have to learn to recognize and deal with, as well as a multitude of external forces and events.

All of this bore a strange resemblance to Donald Rutherford’s oft-maligned comments about known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Maligned as these comments may be, the reality is – these forces and potential events exist everywhere and always.  It’s a consequence of Fundamental Principle 6: We will never have all the information.

Sailors and Pilots know; but for the rest of us – Breathers Prepare or Beware!

The second “seed” occasion actually preceded the one above and did not involve us at all, at least directly. We were just an overnight layover on the way.

It involves our oldest son, his family and friends, and the Ironman Maryland 2015 triathlon.

The common thread: This event also involved ample internal and external forces, and choices.

With his permission, here is the experience in his own words.


I wrote the following so I would remember the experience in 20 years. Happy reading! And thanks for all your good wishes and congratulations.

Ironman Maryland 2015

There were two events leading up to Ironman Maryland 2015 that had a major impact.

First, the race was originally scheduled for October 3rd but was cancelled at the last moment due to Hurricane Joaquin. Luckily, we found out just minutes before leaving Plymouth for Philadelphia where we planned to spend the night on our way down. This required adjusting my training plan and hoping a two-week mini-base, build, peak, taper periodization would work.

Second, on the way to Maryland for the rescheduled race day my friends Tamara, Brian, Rick and Tim had their car catch fire on the NJ Turnpike and burn – a total loss. Instead of giving up and turning for home they saved everything from the vehicle, rented a van, and continued on their way! It takes a special breed to be an Ironman I guess.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Truck Fire

The facts of my race: I completed my first Ironman distance in 10 hours, 34 minutes and 55 seconds. My swim time was 58 minutes (3,000 meters instead of 3,800 meters), bike was 5:13 (112 miles) and the run took 4:05 (26.2 miles). Throw in about fifteen minutes in transitions and you have a full day of exercise – from sunup to sundown I was putting one foot in front of the other. As we were advised during the athlete briefing, ‘Just keep moving forward!’

Race day started at 3:30 am, which was the appointed time to eat breakfast according to my coaches at QT2 Systems – 3 1/2 hours before race start. In actuality, I was up before that – not surprisingly I didn’t get too much sleep on Friday night. So up early and ate 3 cups of applesauce sprinkled with a scoop of whey protein powder, a banana, a bagel and a full bottle of Gatorade Endurance. A full stomach needs time to digest before being put under duress! Nothing like GI distress to ruin your race. Bike and gear were all checked in on Friday, so all I needed to bring was my swim gear and warm clothes – in the forties at race start.

When we arrived at transition the wind was non-existent and the Choptank River dead calm. Perfect swim conditions! I deposited my bags in the appropriate locations and headed to my first of many stops – at a Porta-Potty. Between the time I went in and came out (a minute? maybe two?) the wind had kicked into high gear. I’m sure there’s a meteorological explanation for what happened, but at the time it was like someone had simply thrown a switch. When I came out, the flags were at full attention on their poles, and the river looked angry. No more perfect swim conditions. This is the point when mental preparation really helps, and I was struggling to remind myself that I had prepared a year (and two weeks!) for this moment. And it wasn’t just me that thought the conditions had radically altered – the race director announced shortly before race start that the National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory and that meant that no paddleboards, jet skis, kayaks, or small boats were allowed in the main part of the river. Considering that was how all of our lifeguards were going to protect us, it was time to change the layout of the swim course! This delayed the start of the race by half an hour and shortened our swim from 3,800 meters to 3,000 meters. My first thought? ‘Does this mean I will still be an Ironman?!’ ‘At the end of the day, you will still be an IRONMAN!’ said the announcer. A big cheer from the crowd.

The Swim

It was the usual wavy, crazy, thrashing affair all triathlon swims are but I’ll remember this one for two things. First, I called him ‘the Kicker-doodle’ – the guy I couldn’t get away from with the crazy stroke and flailing legs that kept cutting in front of me. It was hard to stay in my ‘box’ with him so close but I couldn’t shake him. Eventually I convinced myself that actively slowing down was not going to cost me a Kona slot, so I let him go. Back in my box. However, as I was cruising along and feeling pretty good about 100 yards from the end, someone’s stroke came down on my right calf. The result was one of the most painful charlie-horses I had ever felt, and because the water was so cold my entire body seemed to go into a sympathetic seizure – my left leg and both forearms seized up as well, my arms so badly that for a moment it pulled my hands into fists that I couldn’t unclench. My first though was ‘my Ironman is over before it has even begun’. I dropped an F-bomb on my next breath that I’m sure every lifeguard on the Choptank River heard. I struggled to shore and limped through transition, hoping I could work it out on the bike before I had to run a marathon. My pace was exactly as I had hoped – 1:47/100 – and I came out of the water with a low heart rate and feeling pretty good, despite the right calf.

The Bike

WIND. Wind. More wind. We originally signed up for IMMD because the course was flat, and we didn’t want to have to worry about hills. But the downside to flat, and surrounded by water, and late fall, is that you have to deal with wind. 30 mph gusts shortening the swim? No such abatement on the bike! There is nothing that inhibits forward progress on a bike like a steep climb….. or wind. At least on a climb there is a distinct end, and a technique to save energy and get to the top as quickly as possible. No such luck with wind – it was simply grin and bear it, and I kept reminding myself that *everyone* was dealing with the exact same conditions. As Tamara described it, the entire IMMD course was ‘A BEAST’. I agree. As any cyclist will tell you, the best thing about a headwind is you can turn around and make it a tailwind! Just make sure your headwind is first and you end with the tailwind. That didn’t occur on Saturday – a tailwind out, and a ‘gale force wind’ in on both loops. While I was extremely pleased with my pace (5:13 = 21.4 mph) I paid for it with a very sore lower back – the muscles that help work the push and pull of the cyclist’s cadence. My calf held up, but the back suffered for much of the ride. But I didn’t let it slow me down, because I had been there many times before – I know what my body can put out on the bike for extended periods of time, and this was just a matter of getting through 112 miles with the wind and the pain. It was the run that had me worried.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Brent Biking

The Run

Having never run more than a half marathon before (and only twice at that length), I had no idea how my body would respond to being asked to run a full marathon. And to do my first one *after* swimming for an hour and biking for 5? Crazy. The logical approach would be to start slowly instead of starting too fast. So that’s exactly what I did – although it *felt* like I was blistering the course (in relative terms, of course) I was able to manage sub-9 minute miles for the first 10 miles and sub-10 minute miles from mile 10 through 19.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Brent Running

And then I hit my wall, or face my line – I’ve heard it called many things, but these two most often. The point when the road starts snaking in front of you, you can’t feel your extremities, you’re hungry but can’t fathom putting another Clif-blok or Gu gel pack in your mouth, and you just want to sit down and call it a day. Mile 20? 11 minutes. Mile 21? 13 1/2 minutes. But mile 21 is where I discovered the magic of the Special Needs Bag. In this bag racers are allowed to put anything they want, anything they think they might need or enjoy on the bike and run courses when feeling at their lowest. Food? Check. Photos of the family pet? Check. Notes from loved ones? Put it in there. My run special needs bag originally consisted of dry socks, Vaseline and pretzel rods. On Friday night we swung through Dick’s Sporting Goods to pick up a few forgotten items, and in the checkout line I impulse purchased a huge Kit Kat bar and stuck it in the bag. So there I was at mile 21, feeling like I was about to bonk, and I passed the special needs zone. I stopped. I waited for the wonderful volunteer to find my bag out of the lineup of 1,400 bags on the ground. I ate one bite of pretzel, and spit it out. On to the Kit Kat – three strips shoved in my mouth, and it was like someone hit me with an adrenaline shot. Only 5 miles to go! Each mile got faster from there, and as I got closer to the finish line I finally determined that I was, in fact, going to be able to finish and become an Ironman. Look at my finishing photo closely – clutched tightly in my right hand is my Kit Kat bar, carried with me the final five miles. Just in case I needed another shot.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Brent Finishing

The Aftermath

Soreness. Black toes and toenails. The inability to stand up or sit down without looking like I was 100 years old. And the wonderful, jubilant, exhilarating feeling of crossing the finish line and hearing my name called: ‘Brent Edmonds, YOU. ARE. AN IRONMAN!!’


It is said that success can best be measured in the quality of people you raise up and release. In reality, I contend this is best measured by the success of the people you have released and what they do. After all, isn’t that the point of leadership development, team building, and parenting?

And he’s just my oldest.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 09: Doing, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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