IronMan Arizona, 2011 by John R.

Just 14 short months after my first sprint triathlon, I found myself in Tempe Arizona getting ready to start my first Ironman. But it wasn’t an easy path.
I learned to swim very late in life. I grew up with ear operations, and as a result of that I remember my parents telling me “Don’t put your head in the water!” When I moved to Moraga California at age 10, I couldn’t even swim in our new pool. It was embarrassing. Moraga was a big swim town, and with people like Matt Biondi living down the street, I didn’t exactly fit in. In my adult years I’ve stayed pretty active with skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing, paragliding, and golf, but never endurance sports. As far as running goes, I never ran over a mile until about 3 years ago. A college friend dared us to race a half marathon in Phoenix. With support from my friend Bert and my sister Patti, I got started training. But I swore I would never do a triathlon. I was a horrible swimmer and didn’t own a bike. But I read an article about triathlons one day and something clicked. I bought a bike and started riding. Wow, riding a bike is fun! (I forgot). The pool was another story. I had never swum more than 20 yards until last year, and certainly never in open water. But I took that first step, and another, and another. I remembered the saying “Do that which you fear most and you will have ultimate power” When I get out of a swim now, I feel that power over my fears. I started more triathlon training with Neil’s group at TRIMORE Fitness and got hooked. I realized that the triathlon is not really about the triathlon, it’s about the shared struggle. And it’s not only the race, but the training.

Now, after 3700 miles on the bike, 1100 miles running, 150 hours in the gym, and 200,000 meters in the water over the last 12 months, I’m ready. In front of me is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and then a marathon – hopefully all in under 17 hours! I stand here at the base of my personal Mt. Everest ready for the big climb. That someday is today. Right here, right now. This is life.

But truth be told, some of the very hard parts were a few weeks before the race. Having done some half Iron Distance races earlier in the year, I had a decent fitness base. But I found the long bike rides required for the full Ironman much harder than expected. After my first 112 mile bike ride I can home completely smashed, wondering what I had got myself into. And I knew I needed to complete more similar rides before it was time to taper for the race. I don’t live near good biking roads, so to pull off a long ride required an entire day off work for me every week. I would drive and hour and a half to San Jose in traffic, ride the bike for 6 or 7 hours, and then do the long drive back home at night. Being a single dad meant that I can’t just do the long rides and runs on the weekend. Its soccer season for the kids, and I have 3 games to attend! And the emotional journey also follows the physical one. Of course there’s some anxiety about the race, and a really hard week of training sometimes produces moodiness, depression, and mood swings if you go to hard. And I really learned the importance of sleep. Lots of sleep. Without it the whole program crashes. I tried to skimp, and it didn’t work. God bless Carrie for putting up with me this fall.

So on race day the alarm sounds at 3:55 AM. I get out of bed and go immediately to my race morning checklist. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. One thing on my list was “Remember to have fun! Enjoy this day, you’ll remember it forever.” I gave my girlfriend Carrie a hug and kiss and headed out into the darkness. There’s a lot to do race morning. There really wasn’t time to sit down and just get nervous. Drive to race, park, get gear, bathroom, T1, special needs bag drop-off, put fuel on bike, check tires, bathroom again, wetsuit, then head down to the water with 2800 people in black wetsuits and matching swim caps.
I line up to get into the water closer to the back of the pack because I’m still a slow swimmer and didn’t want to get to beat up at the swim start. All athletes need to pass under an arch and timing matt before getting into the water, and things got backed-up. When I was 50 meters from the edge of the lake (and still another 300 meters away from the actual start, a race official near us screams “1 minute!”. What? This is not the relaxing start I’d planned. I was late and there are still 300 people behind me. “30 seconds” they shout! We were supposed to go down some stairs at the water’s edge and then jump in. Then a race official then shouted “climb over the fence and jump from the wall, jump! Now! Now!” I jump from the wall trying not to hit a body below and plunge into the cold dark water. Seconds later I hear the starting cannon fire, and I’m not even near the start line yet. Oh well, I just thought that at least I won’t get caught in the thrashing of the front or middle of the pack. I breaststroke for a few seconds, then swim freestyle with my head up. The stories of “full contact, no rules, every man for himself” thrashings at the start had me intimidated. But I put my head down and started my normal swimming and breathing pattern that I had practiced for months. I wasn’t fast, but got comfortable much quicker than I had anticipated. No big deal. Some kicks and bumps, but the goggles stayed on. It was similar to other wave starts that I have done. Granted I was near the back, but I knew that 5 or 10 minutes difference in my swim time wouldn’t affect my overall race plan.
I make it to the halfway point and I collide again with another swimmer. This time I flinch and then feel a sharp pain in my left calf. I scream, stop, and grab my leg. Perhaps my quick contraction started a cramp. Don’t panic I think. It will go away. Just relax, put your head back down, and go. It worked and 60 seconds later I was making forward progress. As I moved back toward the swim finish I could taste gasoline in the water from the emergency watercraft. It reminded me of the smell of fishing from the motor boat with my father. It was oddly comforting. Then bamm! I had another collision with a swimmer. I think I accidentally punched him in the face. He stopped, grabbed his face and crooked goggles. I apologized, but then quickly moved on. That’s part of the swim. Then with about 20 minutes to go, I really needed to use the bathroom, but had not “practiced” this in my wetsuit. Should I? Now? Here? Not sure I can. OK, just swim towards the exit quickly. I exit the swim in 1:45, about 5 minutes slower than my goal, but I knew that wouldn’t really matter. I survived the swim! Carrie said I looked very pale and disoriented after the swim, and the photos confirm that.

After the bathroom break in T1, I head into the changing tent. It was nice a warm. I chose to keep on my same tri shorts and shirt to “save time”. But putting on my arm warmers over cold arms took forever. My transition was still slow. Before I exit the tent I look over at another athlete sitting in his chair. He’s very pale, cold, shivering and looked sick not even changing into his biking clothes. I felt for him, but at the same time felt fortunate I was OK to start the bike.
The temperature for the bike leg was pleasant. My plan was to shoot for a 6:15 if conditions were perfect, but adjust after one lap based on the wind. I’m standing up frequently on the bike to try to stretch out my calf which still hurts from the swim. I’m 3 miles into the bike on lap one and here come the pros on lap two. They quickly pass me like I’m standing still. They all have a “P” on their legs instead of their printed ages like the age group athletes. I joked with other riders that I think the “P” stands for PASS. I get to the turnaround half way through the first lap. I’m making the U turn very slowly because of the athlete in front of me was turning very slow. Then someone then passes me aggressively on the inside of the U turn. “Jesus” I yell out somewhat irritated. I look at her number and bib from behind. It reads “Kessler” (The female pro who placed third that day). I laughed to myself and moved on. I get to the top of the hill ready to go fast. Coach Neil always teaches us to stand and push over the top of the hill and race down. I remember his words in my head “Your days of resting at the tops of hills are OVER!” The wind is usually at your back on this downhill, so I knew it would be fun and fast. So I was doing just that as a fast looking female athlete moves in front of me. Being a bit heavier than her, I thought to myself, “OK – I’m going to keep up with you speedy”. I look at the back of her bib “Cave”. (The female pro who took first place that day). So I kinda, sorta, kept up with her for about 45 seconds going down the hill at 33 mph, then she dropped me. It was fun anyway! I finished the first lap in about 2:06. Perfect I thought. Right on plan. But the wind changed for the second lap. Coming back into town was into a headwind. That 33 mph downhill turned into 18 mpg. The second lap comes in around 2:25. Time for plan B I thought. I decide to “save it for the run” and keep my heart rate low for the rest of the bike. I pass a couple of downed bikers on the pavement that must have crashed. Nothing serious I think. This is a bit surprising because it’s not a technically challenging course. Later I see Alicia in her pink kit fly by the other way on the bike course. She’s half a lap ahead of me and looking good, and I know she’s going to kill the run. Then I pass a sign from a spectator that I just loved. It read “you’re NOT almost there”. I finish in just under 7 hours, but I’m still feeling decent. My back was killing me, but I knew it would feel great to stand up and run. I’m still thinking I can break 14 hours if I run the marathon in under 5 hours. I think this should be no problem since I can run sub 4 hour on fresh legs. Yea, right…

When I exit T2 and begin running I feel very good. I look at my Garmin and my pace is 9:30 per mile. Too fast I thought. My plan for the first 5K was 11 minute miles. I slow down. Then I need an extended bathroom break at the first aid station. It was a “re-emptive strike” to avoid ugly “GI” issues later in the run. My pace is close to plan, but I’m stopping much more than anticipated for bathroom breaks. Later on in lap one I hear my name called out. Felicity comes up behind me looking good. She said she had 3 miles to the finish. (I’m on lap 1 and still have 23 miles). I knew she would kill the swim and bike, so I was happy to see her closing in on the finish. It turns out she missed her Kona slot by only 1 place! My goal was to run (albeit slowly) and only walk the aid stations. I pretty much accomplished that. But my goal of a 4:45 marathon quickly went out the window after about mile 10. I mentally adjusted my mind to plan C – finish, without walking the marathon. I opt for potato chips and cola for most of the run. My stomach felt alright, and I seem to prefer some solid food on both the bike and run.
I see Carrie taking my picture on mile 20 of the run. I was so happy to see her. She had been tracking me all day, and saw me many times, but I couldn’t pick her out of the loud crowd. I gave her a hug and a kiss, smiled, and said I still had 6 miles to go. The last lap of the run was dark and lonely at times, but every couple of miles you had a brightly lit aid station with great volunteers, fuel, and music. The goal just turned into running to the next aid station. Some of the volunteers wanted to high-five me as a ran past, but my body was so tired and fragile at that point that even the thought of having my hand slapped didn’t appeal to me. I would politely grunt “Thank You” or just give a thumbs up. Running around the lake at night was beautiful. Three bridges were all lit up over the water, one with brightly colored lights. The weather had cooled, but it felt really nice, all things considered. Carrie was tracking me, updating friends and family on my progress via my Facebook and text. It was great to know I had support and so many people watching and cheering for me.

On the last part of the last run lap I cross the final bridge with someone dressed like Elvis next to me. We can hear Mike Reilly at the finish line calling people in. The end in near, I thought! I come around the final corner and see the finish. After the final turn you just have about half a block till the finish line. The bright lights with loud cheering fans was almost sensory overload, but in a great way. It was a bit overwhelming after many relatively quit hours. Before I cross the line I hear my name called out. It’s my good college friend Steve who came out to surprise me at the finish line! And he had a cold beer in a bag for me! Carrie and Felicity also greeted me after the finish with warm congratulations. I grab some hot french fries and pizza in the finisher’s tent and head out to meet Carrie and Steve. My mom calls me on my cell. She’s worried sick I was “going to die”. But she tracked me online and just wanted to say congratulations.
I finish with a 15:07, a couple of hours slower than I anticipated, but I was still filled with pride and a great feeling of accomplishment. Planning the race on paper and executing a marathon after 9 hours of exercise are two different things. But I did it! I survived the swim, had a fun ride, and kept my legs moving on the run. I am an Ironman.

After picking up my bike and gear, we head out for some food and a beer. It’s close to midnight but we don’t want to stick around another hour with my gear. Later that night I see a photo that really moved me. The photo was of a woman crossing the finish line in 16:59:59! One SECOND before the midnight cutoff. The crowd was going crazy. What a sport. We celebrate the professional athletes and the fast finishers, but we also celebrate those who struggle most. That reminds me of the quote: “Success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” Orison Swett Marden.

I decided before the Arizona race that I will not race a full Ironman in 2012. The 3 month build to the race was so time consuming, I want a break next fall. But as I was driving home with Carrie, I couldn’t help but think: “I could have done a little better”. And maybe in 2013 we could consider Ironman Mont-Tremblant, or Ironman Coeur d’Alene, or…..well, you know how it goes!

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