Ironman Arizona (IMAZ) was not fun; I continuously questioned why I was even there, and whether I would ever race 140.6 again. I cried and cursed more than usual; the thought of quitting, though brief, crossed my mind. Even if I was not as well trained as I was for Ironman Florida (IMFL), my optimistic goal was to match my time of 13h43’ but I would’ve been thrilled with 14 hours. I wasn’t even close.
If there is one thing about Ironman is expect the unexpected. The distance is so great that plenty can go wrong in any of the three sports. And so it happened to me.
It’s not how the day started though. I felt calm and confident, having slept a full seven hours before my 4:00am wake up call. I set up my transition, and even found a port-a-potty with no line. A miracle in an Ironman start.
I had been lonely in Arizona, and thankfully the Miami crew took care of me. Joe and the boys would arrive on race day and knowing they would be waiting for me added to my determination to get this race done.
IMAZ is one of the few mass swim starts still left in the Ironman circuit. That means athletes are in the water, the gun starts, and everyone starts swimming at the same time. That made me nervous, and my strategy was to stay to the left (away from the wall, towards the middle of the lake) and closer to the front. I’m a decent swimmer, and even if I barely practiced since the Alligator Swim, I was afraid of getting stuck behind a slower group as in IMFL.
Waiting for the gun to sound, I was treading water when the area around me grew more dense. I knew as soon as the gun sounded, the guys in front would probably kick me while the ones behind might try to swim over me. Both thoughts were appalling, and a moment of panic struck. Yet as the gun went off, I began to swim and all intimidation was left at the start line. Someone slapped me, another pushed me to the side, and I became a defensive swimmer. Mess with me and I start kicking harder. Sorry – it was survival of the fittest.
Before I knew it I was turning and the predominant thought was: too bad the swim at Ironman isn’t any longer. This is going well, and soon I was done: 1h18’
For the amount of training I put in I was perfectly happy, still on target, and actually ran to the changing tent.
At IMFL, I took my time at transition. If they were offering coffee and a newspaper I would’ve stopped for both. This was an easy place to scrape off a few minutes. While many people wear the same tri kit for the whole race, I do a complete wardrobe change. I’d rather be comfortable. But to save time I pre-packed my cycling shirt with everything I needed and sealed it with duct tape. That way, all I had to do was put it on and was ready to go.
Heading out of transition was a blast with a ride through a narrow corridor filled with cheering spectators. You head into Tempe town, and after about seven miles you get onto the Beeline approximately a 2% grade incline for ten miles. The course was this 37 mile loop – three times.
The first aid station was around mile four. I didn’t see any bikes stopped so I decided to make a bathroom pit stop. That’s when I noticed I hadn’t started my Garmin. Shoot. I hit start, got on the bike and was ready to roll when a few hundred yards later I heard a pheeesh. I got a flat.
Really? Already? Fortunately, I was reasonably close to the aid station where Tribe Multisport had a bike repair stand. I decided it was probably faster to head there than try to go at it alone, so I began running back. A volunteer saw me, and offered to take my bike while I ran ahead, in my cycling shoes, carrying my wheel.
Mitch, from Tribe Multisport, helped me out and I was on my way. I thought, if I were going to get a flat in an Ironman; this was the way to do it.
Not even two miles later my bike felt weird again but it was so windy I couldn’t hear anything, and wasn’t sure what was going on. Then someone in their 70s passed me (no disrespect) and I thought “how?” I pulled over and there it was, flat number two.
I said “FU** me” apparently quite loudly and a guy ran towards me. I was embarrassed because I rarely curse and told him, “I didn’t mean that literally!” He introduced himself as Ben Stone and helped change my tire. Something was wrong with my wheel though, and after some banging and prodding he fixed it up for me. Though as fast, friendly, and efficient as Ben was, that took some time.
“There goes my chance for a personal best,” I thought. Yet instead of disappointment, much to my surprise, the thought was met with relief: the pressure was off. I wasn’t sure how much time I lost, but my Garmin reading put me at a pathetic average of 10mph.
I read somewhere there were about 600 flats that day mostly because the wind blew thorns from cacti and other vegetation onto the road. That should give you an indication that it was windy.
And that indication would be completely off. It was beyond windy.
Varying estimates placed the wind at sustained 20-25mph with higher gusts. To make things worst, the headwind hit you on the way up the Beeline. I put my head down and got to work, passing more often than I was passed.
I knew I could blow up my legs but the way I saw it was the run was going to suck no matter what, so I might as well rescue my bike. I inched forward, and when I finally turned around I got the tailwind. That was FUN, and coasting was a nice break. Then I remembered the accident I saw, with a man being placed on a wooden board pretty beaten up.
I hit my brakes. Joe and the boys were flying in at that very moment and we were going to head out on a one-week vacation after the race. We had been planning, talking, dreaming and looking forward for a year … if I fell, I would ruin it. My family had sacrificed enough during my training for me to risk getting hurt trying to make up a couple of minutes.
Except my Garmin told me my average speed had only increased to 13mph even after the descent. For someone who wanted to race at 17.5/18 mph that was a let down. I wanted to quit.
At that rate, I was afraid I would miss the bike cut off. In Ironman, if you haven’t gone a certain distance by a certain time, officials take your timing chip off and pull you out of the course. You do not finish. I’m nowhere near fast, but the cut offs never were a problem for me. I didn’t even know what they were. But at 13mph I thought I was at risk.
Fear led me to push hard on the second loop. The wind had picked up even more and the way up felt like a march of death: a quiet single file line. No one was smiling, cheering each other, or even exchanging any words. We were all too focused on pedaling and not tipping over. I did call out “hey cactus buddy” to any cactus buddy I saw. These are people from a Facebook group which I loved being a part of. We all purchased tattoos to wear during the race so we could recognize each other. Proceeds from the sales were donated to a local Tempe charity.
I barreled through the wind to the top, but on my way down I would control my speed and was often passed by people zooming by.
The end of the second loop I considered quitting again, this time much more seriously as the thought of enduring the wind again seemed too big for me. But I was racing for Brianna, an eight year old girl in my son’s class who passed away waiting for a heart transplant. I have been talking to her mom who lives in a constant disappointment, in a life that’s incomplete. I did not want to be another disappointment for that family. I imagined Brianna there with me, worried that this too will be a failure, much like her heart failed her. I did not want to carry that load. I told her “don’t worry sweet heart, if someone thinks I am going to quit is because they don’t know me.”
I asked someone if I was at risk of missing the cutoff and they said not by a long shot. I relaxed, and began heading up the hill. Miraculously, it felt better than the previous two times. I pedaled without compassion for my legs. They were doing okay, but my privates were screaming. I would stop every 15 miles and apply a new coat of Vaseline, which I always carry with me. I lost all dignity, but gained much needed relief.
On the way back down, I looked at my Garmin, which said I was riding at 14mph. It finally dawned on me it was crazy as I knew I was going at least 20mph. I realized things were not great, but may not be as bad as I thought. I enjoyed second-guessing the numbers and riding in suspense. I was feeling strong, and at no point did I feel woozy or sick.
I came into transition, changed outfits as fast as I could and headed out for the run. Nine hours had gone by in an instant, and all hopes of finishing near my Ironman Florida time were gone. Yet I still had a marathon ahead of me, where the run is by far my weakest sport.
Somewhere, before the race even started, I knew I would be walking as I struggled on almost every training run. I began the marathon at my correct pace, but was waiting for the inevitable collapse.
I ran 4:1 intervals. Run for four minutes, walk for one; a strategy that works well for me. However the walk breaks didn’t always coincide with the water stations so I was a bit loose on the formula. Nothing really hurt, except my mind.
In my thoughts I wanted to walk more than I wanted to run. By then I knew I would finish, and my race time was blown anyways. I caught up to Mike, a friend from Miami somewhere around mile 10. He said he was struggling and I stayed with him a bit. He kept pushing me to go ahead of him, but what he didn’t know was that I was looking forward to a walk/run buddy. I would’ve stayed with him the entire time were it not for the thought that Joe and the boys were waiting for me and it was freezing cold for warm weather folks like us. I had to try to pick up my speed and with much regret, left Mikey’s company.
Soon enough, I was at the half way point and looking forward to getting a jacket from my special needs bag. That’s when I saw them. I heard my kid’s voices over a loud cheering crowd and a flood of emotions swept me. I hugged and kissed them, we walked together for a mile while I told them about the wind, bike, flats, and struggles. I wished they could’ve stayed with me longer but they were frozen. Joe was going back to the hotel, and would return to see me finish. I warned him it was going to take a while as I still had a half marathon and was about to slow down.
Seeing them did give me a boost, and all of a sudden I was at mile 15. My body was holding up quite well, I had some stomach troubles but the folks from BASE Performance took fantastic care of me. Between their salt and amino acid drink, and the grapes on the course I didn’t need as many gels and my stomach problems eased.
My legs were also fine. I’ve had runs where I was in so much pain I couldn’t take another step. It wasn’t the case that night.
But even if all systems were a go, my mind kept me from running. And in that frame of mind, no amount of salt, Gu, energy or music will get you running for any respectable amount of distance.
I would start chatting with someone, and tell myself “it’s rude to just leave them.” I knew Joe was tracking me, and figured he’d take his time to get to the finish. And so the last six miles went. I met up with other Cactus Buddies, chatted a while, ran a bit, walked a lot.
I passed the BASE Performance folks one last time, and they walked with me giving me the final encouragement I needed. With about half a mile to go, I was talking to a man from California when I heard “there she is!”
It was Joe and the boys again. I hugged and kissed them knowing it was almost over. I told Joe not to worry that I would never be doing that again (hmmmm – can I take that back?) and we walked together until the finish shoot where they could not go with me.
The finish line was incredible. It’s what gets you hooked each time. This one was very narrow, but loud and bright. I high fived every hand that was stuck out, and was smiling from ear to ear. It was over. I finished, with my hand in my heart, thanking Brianna for keeping me company this whole way.
A week has past since Ironman Arizona, and I have been traveling around the desert with my family. I’ve had plenty of time to think, and to come to terms with my performance. I earned that finish line, but I could’ve been better on the run.
Perhaps I could’ve come in fifteen minutes earlier? Maybe? In a race of fifteen hours it really isn’t that big deal. So it’s not the time that bothers me. The wind and flats took out any hope of fourteen hours. It was my mentally checking out that bothers me. Quitting was never an option, and Brianna helped with that. But I didn’t leave it all out on the course, and that is eating at me.
Until I put it in prospective and think … “holy cow, I just did an Ironman.”
And in the end, finishing is all that matters. Difficulties just make the finish line sweeter, and maybe Ironman Arizona was more fun than I originally gave it credit for.