Where to even begin? With the sign up? The training? The countdown? Arriving in Tempe? Or race morning itself? The process has been so overwhelming and all consuming that it’s difficult to find any one point of entry from where to begin the report.
I first drove out to Tempe the day before IMAZ 2016 with the intention of volunteering and then signing up to do it myself for 2017. It was a fantastic experience—I had the opportunity to watch so many of my friends and training buddies complete the race and I had fun enjoying the general Ironman atmosphere.
Fast forward a year and it was my turn. After 3 years away from the sport I buckled down and started training again. I started racing again and had a fun season. Now it was time to finish things off.
In the days leading up to the race I tried to prepare as best I could while staying as relaxed as possible. Didn’t quite happen. Even though I’d brought along the absolute best race companion in the world, my friend Corinne, little things kept popping up that caused me to worry.
IT band pain had left me sidelined from running for the past few weeks. I was confident enough that I’d get through the run even after such a lengthy break, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. On top of that, I could feel the dry Tempe climate was sucking the moisture out of me with every passing moment, and each morning I woke up feeling stuffy nosed and worse than I had the previous day.
I did my best to make up for the lost fluids by hydrating frequently but could never seem to top off properly. I ended each day feeling drained and exhausted and curled up in bed. I didn’t give it another thought—assuring myself that I was just obsessing over the race and letting the stress wear me down. I also had the idea that my body was forcing me to slow down and take things easy in an effort to conserve energy for the big day. Maybe both were true. Maybe not.
Regardless, after a fun few days of browsing Ironman Village and taking in the sights, Race Day Eve had come and I put the final touches my prep and planning. I spent the afternoon watching simple fun movies and then went to bed early.
After fearing that I’d end up pulling an all nighter before the biggest physical test of my life, I did manage to get some sleep and woke up bright and early around 4:00am. Corinne and I had written out a strict morning schedule a few days before and I moved through the steps of getting ready with smooth precision. I got up, put on my pump up music, started making breakfast and then put the finishing touches on my special needs bags (adding salt and chap stick to each). Got dressed easily and then was ready to go.
I wanted to stay calm most of all and I knew that letting the stress and anxiety get to me before the race even started could be more devastating than the race itself. So I stayed loose and stayed comfortable, falling into my usual habits. I got my coffee, headed over to IM village, and got ready to go.
All told this was probably the smoothest race morning I’ve ever had—no rushing around in transition, no waiting in absurdly long bathroom lines (I had scoped out the site days before and knew where all of the hidden porta-potties were), and I even managed to eat and drink according to my schedule. It was working out to be a good day.
I left the rest of my clothes with Corinne and scurried down to the Swim Start entrance. This is where things started getting hairy. Turns out I had lingered a bit longer than I should have, and was having trouble figuring out how to get to the end of the line so that I could wiggle into my start corral.
After weaving through dozens of people I finally gave up and approached the fence adjacent to my start corral (1:10 swimmers). I saw a few of the bigger guys ahead of me hopping the fence with ease and decided to try the same. However, I always seem to forget that I’m short.
Had I been calmer I probably would have walked away but I was in conquer-the-world-race-mode, and after a summer of Coach Gerry’s deck ups I was in prime fence-hopping condition. I managed to hurl myself up and over the fence with little trouble (in spite of the gasps and admonitions from spectators) but on the way down I twisted my thumb and ended up with the first of a few bruises that the day would bring. But I landed flat on my feet and took it as a good sign. I shuffled into the middle of the cluster and waited for the race to start.
I was ecstatic to discover that I had managed to plop myself next to race buddies Christelle and MJ. I was also relieved to no longer be the sole pink cap in a clump of greens. The practice swim the day before had been a thrash fest and I wasn’t looking forward to repeating the experience surrounded by so many men. But as always, I promised to give as good as I got.
Finally, we all started moving calmly and slowly as one big mass. At the water’s edge we split off down the ramp and jumped into the lake.
I’ve always really really loved swimming and lately it’s become the sort of thing that doesn’t leave me. Even after days, weeks, or even years away from open water, the skills return as if they had never left. I had spent the summer ocean training with Tower 26, but hadn’t attended a session since August. I wasn’t worried. Back in April I had raced an Olympic triathlon after 3 years of no open water training and I received my best swim time ever. I don’t say this to brag but to express gratitude for everything I’ve learned from Coach Gerry and also for everything I’ve developed within myself as a swimmer. Launching myself into Tempe Town Lake felt as familiar as anything, and I was just as comfortable in the water as I’d always been.
The lake was a nice cool mid-60’s and the water was smooth and calm. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that I had just taken the first step toward finishing an Ironman or that I had a long day ahead or that over the course of the next few hours I would watch the sun both rise and set. Instead, I did what everyone had advised me to do—accept the day in pieces and take each event one at a time. And I knew it was time to swim.
So I swam.
Yes I was supposed to start slow. Yes I had a race plan. Yes I was supposed to build effort strategically. Did I do these things? I honestly don’t remember. I think I did but I really don’t recall much of the swim. Coach Jim says these memory lapses happen when you reach a flow state and maybe that’s what happened (it wouldn’t be the first time for me while swimming). I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and an instinctual reaction to the water.
I only remember flashes—counting buoys, switching my breathing side every 100 yards, trying to keep a tight course ahead, making turns, getting a nice draft for about 500 yards (which gave me a relaxing eight minutes or so of rest), and then sprinting to the finish.
I came back upon the entry dock and swam right into the hands of a volunteer who pulled me up. A loving shout from training buddy Bonita brought everything back and I rushed into transition to get started on the bike.
Goal Swim Time: 1:10 for 2.4 miles
Actual Swim Time: 1:12 for 2.4 miles
Who wants to know a secret?
I actually love cycling.
I swear. I do. But what makes it so painful is how the sport doesn’t seem to love me back.
When I was a kid I used to imagine myself as a serious cyclist when I was all grown up. I used to be excited to get home and ride my bike after school and race the other neighborhood kids and do tricks and wheelies. Then something happened. Not quite sure what. I stopped riding. I think I outgrew my bike and never got around to getting a new one. When I took up triathlons a few years ago I had hoped there’d be some latent remnants of the passion I’d had for the sport as a kid.
But it’s okay. The past four years has been a process of realigning and setting realistic goals, and the past year has been about inching towards progress slowly and surely. There have been improvements, and my sheer ability to complete races has been a testament to that. But there have also been times when I’ve lost it, when the stress of killing myself during training sets for marginal, minimal improvements has pushed me over the edge. I don’t like being bad at things, and having to be bad at something 3 to 4 times a week for 14 months straight will do a number on your psyche.
Amidst all the supportive texts and encouraging emails I received in the days leading up to IMAZ, the single most overriding concern for me was whether or not I could make the bike cut off. My longest ride during training was a grueling 6-hour set which netted me about 85 miles. At that rate I could expect to finish an Ironman bike course in 8 hours which, depending on my swim time, could put me too close for comfort up against the time limit. Then I had to take into account transition and break times. Not to mention a whole series of other issues that arise when racing an Ironman—mechanical problems, nutrition/hydration, not crashing at an aid station, debating going aero vs not. At some point during race prep I actively shut out these concerns and just let myself believe that it would all take care of itself.
So back to the race.
I made it out of transition, loaded up on food, grabbed my bike, jogged to the mount line and got going. It was nice and cool after the swim and the day was just starting. It was beautiful. I knew enough about the bike course to expect a false flat and headwind on the way up and out of town with a generous downhill and tailwind on the way back. Each loop was just short of 40 miles, and the entire course was 3-loops, meaning I would have the chance to see friends and spectators frequently, which was something to look forward to.
At this point the reality of the race settled in and I started to get excited. All week I had been telling myself to just focus on getting to the marathon, and I knew that everything would take care of itself from there. I imagined T2 as a glorious haven where my worries would be gone and I could finish the process I had started. But of course, I had to get there first, and 112 miles stood in my way.
Thanks to my relatively fast swim time, the first loop around the course was sparse and calm with everyone in good spirits. Same old story—I got passed but I’ve gotten better about dealing with it. In keeping with Ironman race rules, the passee is supposed to drop back 6 bike-lengths in order to avoid a draft penalty, but if I hit my brakes and slowed for each of the hundreds of people who pass me in any given race, I’d never finish. So I ignored them and focused on hitting my heart rates. (Don’t worry though, I never did manage to get a draft).
I kept an eye on my speed and felt the headwind taking its toll with each passing mile. I had expected this so it didn’t bother me much. Instead I focused the attention on my feeding schedule, eating 1 gel every 20 minutes as prescribed. Unfortunately, the arid Arizona dryness had left me more dehydrated than I realized, and I had a headache right out of the gate.
As the day continued I began to feel much worse. A sore throat crept in and my nose became a streamer. I flashed back to dusty fall afternoons spent at lacrosse practice which had left me bundled up with a cold the following day. As much as I had tried to dismiss the warning signs over the past few days, something really was off and my body was not in good shape.
But there was nothing I could do about it now. I focused on staying in my zones, eating, and drinking. Between those three tasks I managed to keep my mind occupied. I reminded myself that I knew how to be sick. As a child, I had grown up with really bad allergies (part of why I never got into swimming when I was younger). I went to school sick, I played lacrosse games sick. Growing up, it didn’t even occur to me that most people didn’t usually get sick as much as I did. I was always sneezing, always coughing, always blowing my nose. It wasn’t until I left Texas that my health started to normalize as my allergies lessened (even though I do still have permanent breathing problems from scarring). But those years had taught me the difference between annoying discomfort and serious illness. I knew that I was all right for now and that I could deal with the consequences later.
About four hours in, around Mile 60, I collected my Special Needs bag filled with replacement rations and told myself that I wouldn’t get off the bike again until I had reached T2. I knew by my calculations that I still had about 3.5 hours to go. However, I also knew that while I still had half the course left, I was already finished with the harder half. I had done 2 long, slow rides into the headwind, and only had 1 left. By contrast, I could now look forward to 2 fast and easy rides with the help of a tailwind, and that made all the difference. So I clipped in, shoved off, and didn’t look back.
This is when I started to get scared. I could feel exhaustion taking over and I still had a final lap to go. I told myself that I didn’t know how on Earth I would manage to get through. But I also told myself that even though I didn’t know how it would happen, it still would happen, and that it would be cool to see.
I sat on my bike for 3.5 more hours. Didn’t stop. Didn’t get off. I remember approaching the final turnaround and seeing some great friends—Rebecca and Stuart and Corinne—and that helped quite a bit. But I had still reached the lowest point of the day—having to turn around and go back out onto that dusty windy highway, away from comfort and civilization and friends. And now, since we were approaching the edges of the day, the course had cleared considerably, and was just as barren as it had been during my first loop.
Even as the headwind died, my exhaustion and fatigue from the previous laps into the wind kept me at the same grueling pace. And as the headwind died, the tailwind followed and what I had expected to be an exciting final gallop into town was more of a shuffle as I barely had the strength to keep my legs going.
During all of this I still managed not to fall into the trap of thinking about the marathon that awaited me. My plan from the beginning had been to just survive the bike course and let the marathon take care of itself. I expected this to be the hardest part of the day and I gave everything I had to getting through it.
And so I did.
I rode along back to IM village and into transition. It was like the final scene in Inception where everyone wakes up and can’t believe that it’s over. I even managed to dismount without falling as a volunteer took my bike. I was also very relieved and thankful that I hadn’t cramped at all (I had been fairly meticulous about salts and electrolytes). Even though I was still hungry and dehydrated, I was moving and for that I was grateful.
Goal Bike Time: Make the cut off
Actual Bike Time: 7:25 for 112 miles
On the way into transition I was sad to see that fellow racer Chris had been pulled from the course after he timed out. I felt his pain, knowing that what had been his worst fear had also been mine, and that while I had made it, he hadn’t. He wished me well and I said he’d get it done next time. I jogged into transition and got ready to run.
Running was my gateway into triathlons. New Year’s Day 2010 I made a commitment to myself to become a runner and made it happen. This year, under the tutelage of a master marathoner, I’ve finally started to develop the skill. Weekly double digit runs became my staple along with grueling hill repeats, vicious track sets, and endless loops around the same courses and pathways. Second to the swim, I had been the most excited about the run to see what I could do.
Sticking to my paces, I managed to get in about 2 good miles out of the full 26.2. Coach Jim had told me to expect the first 2 miles to feel awful, but in hindsight they were the high point of my day. Then the walls started closing in. I was hungry. I was tired. I was thirsty.
Things got worse.
I was hungry but couldn’t take in any more food. I was thirsty but couldn’t take anymore liquid. I was tired and wanted to sit down but knew that if I stopped that I might not start again. I hoped that if I babied the first half then I’d have strength to actually get some real running done for the second half.
After about 11 miles of taking it easy, I finally started feeling better, but unfortunately by then, the toll on my legs had started to catch up to me. The sun had set and the chill was rising. I was stranded in a singlet and shorts, unable to eat or drink or move very far without getting winded. My body was breaking down in a way that I had never experienced before but I thought it was something that just came with the territory. In hindsight, it was more dehydration than I had ever experienced and I didn’t realize how far I needed to go to catch up.
Around Mile 13, I saw Coach Cindy and I wrapped her in a big hug. I started crying but stopped, fearing that I didn’t have enough water in me to waste on tears. She told me to eat bananas for the nausea and drink as much as I could stand. She sent me off with words of encouragement and said she’d catch me again around Mile 16.
Around Mile 15, my friend Corinne surprised me and helped me keep pace for about a mile (one of the longest 13-minute stretches I’ve ever had, soon to be surpassed by each subsequent mile on the course). She cheered me up by singing a song she had made up on the spot. She tried to encourage me, telling me that I’d be an Ironman soon but I felt nothing like an Ironman. I felt like someone doing very poorly at something they usually do fairly well.
Once Corinne left, I met up with Cindy again around Mile 17. I knew that Cindy’s tough love wisdom was exactly what I needed to get through the next 9-miles as quickly as possible. I voiced the dark thoughts in my head and she batted them down swiftly.
Me: This is embarrassing. People are tracking me.
Cindy: Nope. We’re gonna stop that right now. This is your first Ironman. You’ve never had to work like this before.
Cindy: There are so many people who won’t get to finish and who can’t do what you’re doing.
She made me drink chicken broth and eat bananas and finally, I managed to slow my rate of exhaustion. I made small talk with other runners and we all took turns shuffling and jogging and walking down darkened paths. I cheered for people I saw wrapping up their races and put my head down to finish mine. I entertained visions of collapsing on my bed when all was said and done.
However, as utterly depleted, exhausted, miserable as I felt, it was still better than what I had felt going out on the bike for the final lap. I’m not quite sure how that makes sense, but even now I would still rather experience what I felt on the run over what I felt on the bike.
Time stretched. Space dilated. 1 Mile turned into 10 Miles. 200 meters turned into 200 miles. I rounded the corner approaching the finisher’s chute and didn’t quite believe it until I could feel the glow of the lights. Then I remembered how to run again, putting down one foot after the other and returning to the speed I had hoped to carry into the race. I felt the energy of the crowd, threw out waves and slapped hands and managed to finish with a smile.
Goal Run Time: 4.5 – 5 hours
Actual Run Time: 5:56 for 26.2 miles
I felt once again the welcome, familiar daze of finally having finished a seemingly impossible journey, and doing so successfully. I accepted the medal, paused for pictures, and returned to my friends. In writing this I’ve been able to process the day and the race. As I was told to expect, there were a lot of highs and a lot of lows but each and every moment a learning experience.
I’m so phenomenally and eternally grateful for everyone who came with me on this journey, both physically and in spirit and I have a greater awareness and appreciation for everything I’ve gained in training. I was thrilled with the swim, satisfied with the bike, disappointed with the run but overall, happy with the journey. I had promised to retire from triathlon after this race but I guess everyone was right when they said that wouldn’t happen. I expect that I’ll try my hand at the distance again before too long. Until then, I still want to get in a real run, so I’ll probably try my hand at some stand alone half-marathons this winter. Stay tuned!