Ironman Arizona is the last race of the Ironman season was a highlight for the triathlon community, with a great turnout from the professional ranks (can you imagine making a living at this??) and there was something of a cast party attitude among the race organizers. North America sports puts on the best races I have ever attended, and IMAZ met that high standard - but the end of the season has to look great to the organizers, and racers who have coordinated thousands of details to make these races come off.
Not to many people will ever be able to enter a golf tournament with Tiger Woods, or play basketball with Lebron James - but one of the great things about triathlon is that I lined up on Sunday, and raced the same race, as some multiple-time world champions. As they lapped me - I got to see first hand what amazing athletes they are. Both on foot and on the bike - you can hear them coming and pick them out with the different cadence and labored breathing. The pros do NOT make it look easy - they push themselves to the limit for 140.6 miles and you can see it in their faces.
My friends from last year’s race, Len Forkas and Scott Stewart also raced here in Arizona, along with their friends Sevy Petras (who also raced) and "Iron Sherpa" Melissa Hilton, who had the hardest day, tracking 4 of us along the race course and keeping track of gear, bags and cameras.
We got up about 4AM, and were thrilled to see the Tempe palm trees dead still...no wind to deal with. We already knew the temperatures would be high 70's with clear skies...so the wind was really the only concern and when we saw the calm weather - we knew we would have ideal conditions. It was shaping up to be a perfect race day.
We had a little brush with fame on our way out of the hotel. Ironman has a voice, and his name is Mike Riley. Mike calls every race in North America from the start, but most memorably calling out every single finisher by name as they cross the line. The best part of the day is running down the finishing chute with the crowd cheering and Mike calling out your name over the PA system. Going down the elevator we stuffed ourselves in - and there was Mike Riley himself. We all got handshakes and best wishes from him as we reached the lobby and I figured that was a very good omen.
We spent the next 2 hours eating breakfast (the hotel opened the breakfast buffet at 3:00AM for the racers!) and seeing to last minute details like pumping our bike tires up, and packing necessities in the 5 gear bags necessary to organize and stage fora race like this.30 minutes before the start, I had to repair a flat tire that exploded as I topped off my tires- but the bike pit shop was open for business and repaired the tire in minutes - which also saved me from having to use the spare I carried on the bike in case of another flat out on the course. There are a hundred details to see to, and you never feel like they are all covered – but too soon, the music stopped and we were called down to the lake shores for the race start.
At about this time, everybody starts to ask themselves 'What the hell was I thinking when I signed up for this race?" and ' This is going to hurt.." but we all had our wet suits and and peer pressure had us shuffling towards the shore. This race was a first for me - a deep-water start where all 2,200 racers had to swim about 200 yards out the start 'line' and tread water waiting for the gun to go off. Swimming is my best event, so I made my way towards the front of the pack, tried to pick out a good landmark to sight on and listened to a few thousand people on shore count us down to the start.
We swam into the sunrise, heading East down the Tempe Town lake. This course was a simple one, straight down for a little over a mile, under a bridge, and back the way we came. Between the murky water and a slightly leaky goggle, I was not swimming particularly straight and actually got shooed back on course by the safety kayaks twice. By the return leg, I settled into a groove, did a little better tracking the course. It is hard to see what is going on around you in the water- but by the thin crowd around me I could tell I was having a solid swim. Clambering out of the water on the temporary stairs I saw mytime, 1:01:56 or 15 minutes faster than last years race! I let out a war whoop and ran over to the strippers. ;-)
One of the unique features of the Ironman races are these strippers, who take the RACERS clothes off, not their own. Struggling out of a wetsuit with numb fingers can be a challenge (imagine a dog with his head stuck in a peanut butter jar and you get the picture ) so the strippers work in pairs to unzip and peel the wetsuit off your upper body, them (hopefully gently) push you down to the ground, yank the soggy suit off your legs and help you up again. This all takes
about 30 seconds - so between the swimming and the somersaulting getting undressed - you run down the chute a little disoriented to the Transition tent.
On you way you get you T1 bag which has cycling shoes, helmet, heart-rate monitor and sunglasses, duck into the changing tent, which takes on the look of a battlefield ER, and get going as fast as you can. Volunteers are on hand to help wrestle wet feet into shoes, find a pair of socks for anybody missing them, and help stuff your swim gear into the bag you just pulled your shoes out of. Everything was where I wanted it, so the T1 change went smoothly - and I went to the sunblock station. Here you are met with two women with rubber gloves and a bucket of sunscreen. You stopped for 10 seconds and they plastered any exposed skin with lotion, then you raced into the pen with 2200 bicycles all racked up. More volunteers here got you to your bike (ordered by race number) and helped get you on you way.
The 112 mile bike course was fairly flat and fast - through training I had figured out that I wanted to keep my heart rate about 145 and my power at about 190 watts on the bike and I was pretty well able to hold to those ranges since there were few turns or technical sections forcing anyone to slow down. The other important part of the bike is to think of it as a 5 or 6 hour meal. You obviously can't eat on the swim, and most people can't eat much on the run...so on the bike you strap on a feedbag and get as many calories in as possible. Between sports drinks, power bars and gels- I had about 2500 calories staged for the bike ride ( a full day's worth of food) and except for dropping 1/2 a bottle of Hammer Perpetuim drink mix - I ate all of it over the course of the ride.
The bike leg was 3 laps of a 37 mile course. Because I don't wear my watch in the water, I didn't have a clear idea of how the ride was going until I finished the first lap. After I calculated the time for the lap (ummm.. 1 hour plus 45 minutes is ummmm...oh! 1:45) I realized that was going ahead of plan also - I did the ride in about 6 hours last year and even in my addled state of mind
I was pretty sure 3 x 1:45 was less than 6 hours so I just tried to hold that pace. I ended up crossing 100 miles in exactly 5 hours which was the first 5 hour century I have ever done. I eased up a bit the last 10 miles to give my legs a break for the run , and made sure to eat everything I had at hand. I did start to get stomach aches after all the bananas - so I stopped eating them by the last lap.
Despite having 3 friends on the course, and an out & back course the whole way, I never saw Len, Scott or Sevy out on the bike course, despite having my head cocked across the course looking for them most of the time.
My total bike split was 5:37 for the 112 miles - about 30 minutes faster than last year. I put some new wheels on my bike this year which are highly aerodynamic - I think that had a lot to do with it. My power and HR were not very different but a faster course, a more aero bike and perhaps a better strategy picked up quite a bit of time. I felt like I could have gone a bit harder and still run well, but as it was - I transitioned very nicely into the run.
The transition from bike to run took me though the transition tent again, which was beginning to smell like a cattle yard in the dessert sun. With the stench as an incentive to move quickly, I changed over from bike gear to run gear in 2 minutes flat, that was as quick as some of the pros (the slow ones at least :-) ) and was something my coach Kevin had really worked on me improving this year. Quick transitions are truly free speed since they cost neither energy nor money to implement.
Out onto the run course, I tried to settle into a low-effort, quick turnover pace and just run from mile-to-mile. By the time I got onto the course, (after about 6:45 into the race) the pros were already running their 2nd and 3rd laps - and the different body types start to show their strengths and weaknesses. I started pass some of the bigger, more powerful guys who can power a bike like a motorcycle - but have a harder time with the run. And the taller, skinnier guys started to run me down. Since everybody has their age in Sharpie on their legs and you race mostly against your age group - you can see who is in your age group, with every one you pass marking a small victory, and a minor defeat at everyone that passes you.
As with last year - the marathon passed in a steady stream of mile markers...tackling this 1 mile at a time, munching a Tylenol every lap and tossing more water in my face than I drank.. it was kind of over before I realized it. I knew the sunset was about 5:30 and that a sub-11 hour finish would give me a shot at finishing with a bit of daylight still in the sky. At mile 23 I picked up my pace, and just like in the morning, aimed at the crescent of sun on the horizon as I headed West into town.
At this point, just about everybody was off the bike, and so the run course, and the cheering sections along the side were full, with the fans cheering everybody on...and of course Mike Riley at the finish calling out the finishers names. After almost 11 hours of racing, many of the racers were taking walk breaks, so I weaved through the course trying to keep my pace up still not really
knowing what my time was. I was having a hard time actually seeing the course as the light faded - so I could not call it daytime by any stretch, there may have just been a lighter part of the sky left.
I came into the finishing chute and saw the race clock showing 10:52 and any concerns about daytime or nighttime disappeared. This was almost 1 hour faster than last year and it turned out all my 1 mile runs added up to a 4:04 marathon, less than 5 minutes slower than I ran the Chicago marathon last October (in 90' heat) in a standalone race.. Another nice feature at the Ironman races is they pull the finishing banner across the course for every finisher…so I got to break the tape even though hundreds had already crossed the finish line ahead of me.
All told I picked up roughly 15 minutes on the swim, 30 minutes on the bike and 12 minutes on the run. It felt like a pretty goodeffort - but it was humbling to know that 370 people finished ahead of me, including over 50 women. That is another great thing about the sport – men and women go head-to-head with no handicaps, special rules or other concessions and they give as good as they get.For the second year in a row, with two miles to go and as I readied MY finishing kick - I watched a woman in front of me take off and run away from me so fast I had no hope of staying with her.
Scott and Sevy also had good days and beat or came close to personal bests. Len also finished strong, but had the added pleasure of crossing the finish line with his daughter Vienna, and had the rest of his family across the line where we all gathered up for a few pictures, some hot food and started the long process of tracking down all our gear. One task was simple as Iron Sherpa Melissa met us at the finish with a cooler of cold beers…
A final story that closed up a great weekend was running into Boulder legend Barry Siff and his wife Joanne at the Phoenix Airport. Barry runs all the races in the Boulder area, and was a pro racer himself back in the day. I ran into them again in baggage claim and since I was planning to take the bus home…invited myself along for their ride home. It was a great way to finish off the trip and get some inside perspective from such a successful race director…who is an 8x Ironman himself.
Thanks for reading, if you made it this far…maybe you should go enter a triathlon!