Monday, November 24, 2008

Ironman Arizona. The Story.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm leading up to this event, it was of course a very enjoyable race! I can say that now it's over. And having come through it relatively unscathed. Though my feet might argue with that.

The Commitment

After Madison last September (07) I knew for sure I wanted to do another Ironman. Given that all of the 'official' IM events in the US and Canada (i.e. those run by North American Sports) fill up immediately after the current year's race - sometimes you even need to be onsite to get registered - we kicked around the idea of going to Brazil in May. Fun holiday and we knew a few locals who'd been down there for the race and had good things to say about it. The only problem was May would be very early to get enough outdoor bike training in. Florida in early November was another option but none of us were very excited about the extremely flat course and sea swim. So we let that one pass. Then as luck would have it announced a new race for 2009! IM Arizona has always been held in April but in 2009 there would be another race in November and then going forward it would be held in November every year. We just heard about it the day before registration opened and I was actually back in Ireland at the time. Through a flurry of emails and text messages one by one we all decided it was a good idea and duly went online that Monday morning... $550 later and Pam, Tanya, Susan, Kami (with a little gentle persuasion that she has not let me forget!) and myself were headed for Tempe, AZ.

The Training

Or lack thereof. I did pretty well early in the year. In fact I started swimming as soon as I got back from my NZ trip in mid-January and went 2-3 times a week for several months. Similarly with biking, I was going to Johnny J's 2hr spin classes 1-2 times a week for a couple months until it was decent enough weather to be outside. Given that the bike had been my worst part of Madison I knew I wanted to concentrate more on that this year. So without needing any further justification off I went to Grand Performance in St. Paul and purchased a very lovely Orbea Ora tri bike. All set. I'd put hundreds of miles on this baby over the summer. Oh and I would run lots too. That was a given considering my trail race schedule! Everything was going well up until and including the Liberty Half IM in mid-June. Thereafter, the swimming and biking got less and less as I focused more on running. And races. Lots of races. And so by October things weren't looking so good. Earlier in the summer I set a goal for myself of 11:22 (S:1:20, T1: 0:10, B: 6:00, T2: 0:10, R: 3:42). I was being a little generous with the transition times but I knew the run time was a bit ambitious for an IM. I think I was planning to feel soooo much better on the bike that my legs would not be as fatigued as last year so I could improve on my 3:48 at Madison. Well, I can safety say that plan went out the window as the race grew nearer, knowing I hadn't put in enough swim or bike time. Especially the biking. One century ride on the Madison course back in August and maybe four 70-90 miles rides over the course of a few months. Not exactly textbook stuff. I knew the course in Arizona should be a little easier than Madison but it could also be windy so I decided a more realistic goal would be sub-6:30. As for swimming... after a break of about 3 months I did get back into it in Oct/Nov and some days felt ok and some days not so much. I'd swam 1:20 last year which had surprised me no end. I thought 1:30 was a safe assumption this time around. Which all meant I needed to go under 3:50 on the run if I wanted to improve on last year's time of 11:59:43!

The Build

Mum and I arrived in Phoenix Friday around noon. Picked up the rental car and headed straight to registration. Got that all sorted pretty quickly, met up with the girls, and after a brief negotiation with TriBikeTransport (who I'll complain about on a later post once my bike is safely returned), we made our way over to the hotel which was only a short distance from the start/finish area. Most of the us were at the same hotel so it worked out pretty good. I decided to skip the 'mandatory' athlete's meeting that evening and went for dinner with Mum instead and then back to the hotel for an early night. Got a decent sleep which I needed after a busy few days. Next morning Tanya and I went for a quick swim in the lake. The lake which is really a river that runs through the center of Phoenix. Which, as you might guess, is really not a place you would ever want to fully submerge yourself in. Though I think I was prepared for something so awful that the reality ended up not being so bad! Dropped off the transition gear bags and that was all the logistics taken care of. Mum and I drove out of town that afternoon. No real plan in mind but we ended up on the road north toward Flagstaff. I knew it was too far to go all the way there but Mum had never been to the Southwest before so I wanted to show her a bit of 'countryside'. We drove for about an hour and next thing what do we see but a sign for an outlet shopping mall - so much for countryside! And obviously a few hours walking around shops is exactly what one should do the day before IM. Got back into town around 5pm and chilled out in a bookstore for an hour. Then grabbed a few snacks for dinner. I didn't feel like eating too much that night as I wanted to be ready for a decent breakfast at 4:30am which is oh about 5 hours before I normally eat breakfast...

The Day

No nerves. No real excitement. More like amusement that I was actually here, about to do this race that I felt so utterly untrained for. Sure, I had the endurance down. I'd run 100 miles 10 weeks prior. This had to be easier, right?? But 112 miles on the bike is a long ride no matter what way you look at it. And strong running legs do not translate into strong biking legs without adequate training. I was less worried about the swim simply because it was less time. Plus, I knew I'd be so busy getting to know a few of the 8800 limbs around me that I wouldn't have time to think about what I was actually doing. But, at 6am as we milled around in transition area, all of these thoughts had to be pushed to one side. There were things to do! Final check through gear bags, drop off our 'special needs' bags, get body-marked... and before I knew it I was pasting myself into my wetsuit. Really, that's what it felt like. With an extra 10lbs since my last triathlon in June (and none of it muscle), it was a rather snug fit! The air was still cool but we knew it would be a hot day ahead with temperatures expected to go above 80 at midday. The pros were in the water before us as they started at 6:50am. I jumped in just before they took off. The water felt pretty good.

The Swim

By the time I swam the 200 yards or so up to the start area under the bridge I had just enough time to find what seemed like an okay position - not too close to the front, kind of in the middle, with actual space around me... and BOOM. We're off. My heart rate never got as high as it sometimes does on the swim. I think this was helped by having a relatively fight-free time out there. I am not sure how but I managed to escape the crowds for most of the 2.4 mile loop. The course went straight for about 1 mile, left across the lake 0.2 mile, back and left again into the finish. I liked the course better than the 2 loops at Madison. My swim technique, such as it is, goes out the window when I get in the open water. But I seemed to keep finding people that I could swim along side for several hundred meters at a time. Either they or I would pull ahead but before long I'd find someone else. This helped me immensely. I was careful not to push the pace too soon, especially when my arms started to feel fatigued after only a few minutes! Though I knew this was just a matter of getting warmed up. I managed to stay close to the buoys almost all of the time and apart from one diagonal foray I'd say I kept on course pretty well. I was reluctant to look at my watch until half way. Took a quick peek just as I turned the first left. 33 minutes. Wow - I was expecting closer to 40. A few hundred meters, another left. And on the home stretch. Well, sort of. The bridge was still a long way off in the distance! But I kept finding people to swim with and slowly the buildings on the left side of the lake came more into view. Once I felt close enough to the bridge I looked at my watch again. 58 minutes. Not quite believing it, but knowing that the finish was a little way down from the start, and having to cross back to the south bank, I figured if I got to the bridge in ten minutes I'd make it home in another 10. To do the same time as last year was beyond what I could have hoped for starting out an hour earlier. Getting to the bridge seemed to take longer than ten minutes but I was in a groove and didn't look at my watch. And then the final turn came quicker than expected. And then I had other things to deal with. Guys - and really, it was just the guys that did this - one after another in this final stretch they would come barreling along beside me, and occasionally over me, and next thing they would STOP right in front of me and breaststroke for a bit to sight! It was maddening to say the least. But I was nearly done. And before I knew it I was done. There was the stairs out of the water to negotiate but a kind volunteer pretty much hauled me up! Quick peek at the watch. 1:15 something - my first thought - there's no way that was 2.4 miles! My next thought - screw 12 hours - I can do waaaaay better than that...

The Bike

10 miles later facing into a headwind I wasn't so sure! Not to mention that my butt was already beginning to hurt. Oddly enough, for someone who has enjoyed several long days (and nights) on the trails this year, one of my first thoughts setting out on the bike was "What am I going to think about for the next 6+ hours?!" One thing for sure - despite the dismal feeling as I hit the wind on the first loop, I knew it was too early to start complaining! And since it was a straight out and back (3 loops) I knew that as hard as it was going out, it would be that much nicer on the return journey. And so it was. After a long, but not very steep, climb to the turnaround, it was as easy 27mph for a bit and then settled into around 22mph pace for quite a few miles, finishing the first loop just over 18mph average speed. As I headed out for loop two I was delighted to hear my Mum calling my name. It was a real boost at that point where you know the hard slog is starting again, and there's still another loop after this one! Loop 2 was hard for me as my stomach started to play up. I'd made an effort not to eat anything out of the ordinary in the lead up to the race but maybe it was the heat starting to bother me. I wanted to stop for a bio break but knew there was no point in stopping until I really had to, if you know what I mean. So I pushed on until halfway and made a pit stop just after the turnaround. As it turned out it was a good mental break as well as the physical rejuvenation. It's amazing what a few words exchanged with other weary competitors in the line for a porta potty can do for the mind! Back on the bike and a speedy return to town. Though with the toilet break, and then a stop at my special needs bag at mile 62 to replace my water bottles, I averaged just under 18mph for the loop. Heading back out for number 3 was so much nicer! 19 miles to get through but then it would be turning for home for the last time... I picked up the pace and tried to keep it above 18mph for as long as I could on the way out. The final stretch of climbing was tough but knowing it was the last time was sweet - and the guy who was behind me at the turn singing "Turnaround bright eyes... every now and then I fall apart... turnaround, bright eyes..." It was hilarious. I asked him to bike behind me the whole way back and sing. Anything to break the monotony! Another thing that kept me going on parts of the bike was watching out for the girls. I spotted Pam and Susan every time. It was fun (ok, not quite fun, more like, WTF - how fast are they biking?) figuring out how far they were ahead of me each time. More and more each loop as it turned out :)

Once on the downhill I hammered hard, and tried to keep it up all the way back. I knew it wasn't helping my legs any but I wanted to off the bike and onto two feet. For a fleeting moment as I enjoyed those final few miles on the bike knowing I'd soon be done and figuring I'd make it in under 6:10 I wondered if maybe I would do another IM someday. That feeling didn't last too long once I got running and figured out just how badly biking can screw up your feet!

The Run

Of course it wasn't the biking so much as my biking. I don't have the best form and while I did okay with staying in aero position for much of the ride I have a tendency to point my feet down which leads to bad circulation and lots of numbness. Usually I get over this within a mile of running. The heaviness in my quads begins to ease, my stride starts to loose out, and my feet start to feel again. But while my legs started to feel pretty good, my feet never felt right for the whole run. At first it was the numbness which resulted in odd shooting pains along the outside sole of my left foot every fourth or fifth step. It was maddening. I knew it wasn't anything serious, no injury waiting to happen. It was just the remnants of the bike. But it was hard to shake off and damn painful to run through. Soon that gave way to my left Achilles that I've been dealing with a bit recently. The inside of my heel had been pretty tender all week and I could feel the strain. But I knew it would warm up and wasn't too worried about it. The recent tendon issue on my right foot didn't bother me until well into the run and never got too bad. But hey, enough about aches and pains. I was running, not swimming, not biking, just running. And I'd started the run with 7:30 on the clock. If I did a 4hr marathon I would beat my 12hr goal by 30 minutes!! But wait a minute, the 12hr goal was dismissed hours ago... oh yeah, I was aiming for 11:22 once again. At halfway I calculated I was at 1:52 so I needed to run 2hrs for the second half to make it. So around a 9 min pace. Surely I can do that? No sooner had I decided that than I needed a toilet break. And not a quick 30 second in and out one. Not good. I'd taken two gels so far but knew I wouldn't be having any more. So I settled for alternating gatorade and coke at the aid stations that were (thankfully) located at every mile. After a few more miles I started eating pretzels which has been my saviour at a few trail races this year. I wouldn't look at a pretzel from one end of the year to the next but for some reason during a race if I'm not feeling good it's the only solid food I can stomach. The mile pace was a bit erratic, some below nine but mostly over. And 16 or 17 with another bio break was a lot over. I continued on for a few miles trying to keep the pace as close to 9 as I could. Soon, it was getting dark and with the heat of the day dissipating and my stomach starting to feel okay again, and knowing the finish was within reach I managed to pick it up mile by mile. I missed the mile 20 mark on our final trip accross Tempe Bridge so by the time I got to mile 21 I knew I just had to try my best to keep this pace and it would all come together. It was just along here, in the section on the south side of the water where runners pass each other that I knew if I didn't see Pam it meant she had finished in an awesome time. That totally spurred me on. And also seeing how well Susan was running when I met her on the second loop. After such fast bikes both ladies were still going strong. Now with only a few miles to go, despite both feet complaining, I was feeling pretty good. Much as I'd like to, I can't honestly say I was having fun. Not like I had during the run at Madison. I felt good about being able to run strong. And yes, it felt good to pass quite a few in my age group (though it felt even better to pass the 27 year old guys who has zipped past me on the bike hours earlier). But I never felt fully relaxed on the run and I knew that much as I wanted to make my goal each step was adding recovery time to my feet. Still, that wasn't going to stop me now... speeding up a little more, the last 2 miles were pretty sweet. Apart from a searing pain on the sole of my right foot that gave me such a fright. It only lasted a few seconds so I thought it might have been a trapped nerve or something. Turns out when I finally looked at the sole of my foot today it was a huge blister right along the ball of my foot that must have popped! It wasn't exactly a scenic run course but it was quite enjoyable when it got dark and looking across the water at mile 24 seeing the finish area all lit up, knowing it was within reach... now, that felt good! Next it was the 40km mark, then I was back by the water on the south side. Huge crowds of people along here. The music getting louder as I passed close to the transition area. I didn't see the mile 25 mark but knew I had to have passed it.

The Finish

Less than a kilometer to go. Time to start smiling! The last several hundred meters were pretty cool. Full on sprint as I turned the corner with about a hundred yards to go. 11:20 something on the clock. No one in front of me in the finish chute and no one behind me. Every finish is special, but taking the tape held up just for you, and hearing Mike Reilly call your name is pretty neat. I don't know if he said the famous words "You are an Ironman." But it didn't matter. I knew I was. And it just felt so damn good to be done!

It was awesome seeing Karen at the finish line - I knew she was volunteering until 11:30 hours on the clock so I told her I'd made it in time to have her "catch me!" And next thing I saw my Mum and she was able come in and we got a photo together at the finish line. Very cool. And then it was time to eat. After 2 hours with hardly anything and my stomach feeling good again I needed something. And salty fries were just the job.

The Support

Let me just say, ALL the supporters were amazing. It is definitely a spectator-friendly course. The run course especially but even out on the bike course there were people along the way. A big thank you to Tim who I saw a few times, and Mike and Helen who cheered for me on the run but I was in the 'zone' at the time! It is always so great to have friendly faces out there cheering for you amongst the great supporters. But there's nothing quite like having your mammy there! I got to see Mum at T2 and chatted to her for a few seconds. Then a few more times along the run course which was brilliant. It was great to be able share the whole weekend with her, having her see some of what makes up my life.

The Stories

I've written about my race but the real story of day was not mine at all. For myself, Tanya and Kami it was our second IM, for Susan her fifth (I think), and for Pam her first. And who do you think had an outstanding day? With a great swim, an incredible 5:28 on the bike (20.45 mph) and an awesome 3:47 run (with the final 6 miles at 7:48 min pace), Pam finished in 10:37!! Good for 6th in our age group. Amazing. Truly amazing given that she suffered a pulled calf muscle at Voyageur 50M in late July which meant she couldn't run for all of August and couldn't bike for a few weeks. And on top of that she's had a crazy work schedule for most of the year. She really worked hard to be ready for her first one and no question she's capable of improving on that time having gone through the experience once. As I saw her each loop on the bike course she looked so strong. Totally focused. And several times on the run as we met going in both directions each loop, the gap would be a little wider each time so I knew she was continuing to have an awesome day. I had to laugh as I saw her one time and remembered how just last weekend when we were out running in Afton with John, I'd said how I thought she should do more Olympic distance triathlons next year as I thought that distance would suit her given her power in all three disciplines. She is a great 10K runner and would be able to bike that distance above 24mph. But clearly, Pam doesn't have any problems spreading out her power over several hours!! She also possess that quality of being able to reach another level on race day. When she sets her sights on something and knows she's prepared well for it, no one is going to stop her.

Another stellar performance was Susan's who totally crushed her goal of going sub-12 with an awesome 11:08! Susan is a swimmer and also loves to bike, running not so much - but she looked so strong when I saw her on the run that I knew she was doing well - 4:14 for the marathon, after a 5:38 bike. Tanya and Kami both had issues on the bike - Tanya's were physical with bad stomach issues for most of the ride and again on the run. Kami on the other hand had to deal with a tangled chain and a dog jumping out in front of her. Not good. But both did really well. I hadn't expected to see Tanya again after she passed me at the end of the first bike loop as she was flying it. But having felt pretty crappy on the swim she started to feel nauseous again on the second bike loop, I caught her just after the final turnaround and we talked for a minute. I was intent on getting off the bike as soon as possible so was hammering it home. And fair play to Tanya, despite how she was feeling she made a point of keeping me in sight and made it into the transition tent just after me! She had to make a few more stops on the run but still managed to run solidly and finished strong. Casey and Anthony both had strong races. Despite Anthony flatting on the bike he still pulled off a 10:21! And Casey came home in a super time at 11 hours even.

The Wrap

And so a year after signing up, the race has come and gone. Ironman is a great event. And for anyone who enjoys triathlons and wants to try the endurance distance I would absolutely recommend entering one of the NAS events. No question, it's an expensive gig. But the organization is first class and the wonderful volunteers and spectators make it so special. But perhaps what gives it most meaning to me, is that despite the obvious competitiveness that surrounds the whole weekend, and triathlons in general, I witnessed and heard about so many moments of encouragement and kindness amongst the athletes throughout the day. So many people I passed on the run were clearly suffering badly but took the time to say 'good pace' or 'nice run'. I am not sure I would have the energy, much less the generosity of spirit. And there was the guy on the swim who, as the risk of getting run over himself, took the time to check that Kami was okay when a girl had whacked her on the side of the head. As with any type of endurance event, there were stories and moments of pure inspiration that rightly humble us. Take the oldest competitor in the field. A 76 year old competing in his 4th IM of the year!

The Why

The moment in this race I will never forget is coming up to a lady around mile 2 on the run and seeing a six-zero marked on the back of her left leg. On a day when I was pleasantly surprised by my swim and bike time, it was pretty awesome to realize that this 60-year old lady had gone faster than me. And she wasn't hanging about on the run either. With a 4:40 marathon she finished in 12:08. It is a testament to what can be achieved if you choose to reach, and work, for it.

The Stats

1:15:58 Swim
0:06:46 T1
6:02:51 Bike
0:04:41 T2
3:50:35 Run

And, the photos...


At some point on the last loop of the bike, as I was flying along at 22mph with the wind behind me and less than 10 miles to go I thought to myself - this ain't so bad... maybe I will do another ironman someday. By mile 13 of the run that idea had completely evaporated!

I'm done!

But I finished on a high. I guess I am pretty good with predictions after all. Back in early summer I set a goal of 11:22. That was recently revised to sub-12 given my lack of swim and bike training. And no matter how well I thought I could run I knew it wouldn't be enough to make up for it. Well, what do you know... I end up having a faster swim and bike than expected, and a slower run than I'd hoped... and finished in 11:20:51!

BUT, the story of the day is Pam's. Her first IM, and having recovered from a pulled calf muscle in July at Voyageur which left her unable to run or bike for weeks... she finished in 10:37!!! Phenomenal. She got 6th in our age group and was so close to the top times but only 3 qualify for Hawaii and everyone took their spot so no roll downs. But no question she'll get there if she decides to try to go for it someday.

All the girls did really well and we had a fun time hanging out over the past few days. Helped by the glorious sunshine and 80 degree temps! And it was awesome having my Mum there to share the experience. She saw me a few times on the bike and run and I chatted to her for a minute at T2. And we got a finish line photo which was cool.

Back to the Minnesota winter this evening. And the detailed report to come later...