Today is the day I am going to break 12 hours. This is what I have believed since I set this goal and signed up 1 year ago.
We wake up every race morning at 4a.m. Pre-race night is just about the only time during the year where I actually get 8+ hours of sleep. I feel well rested since I went to bed at 7p.m. After a quick breakfast of peanut butter on a bagel, we are rolling out the door and on our way to the race start. By 5 a.m. we are in the transition area. I love race day just before the race. Everything is electric, and everyone is so focused on the long day ahead. We’re all nervous yet relaxed at the same time. It’s almost time to let the day unfold…
I’ve said in the past that Ironman race day is lots of little problem solving events after another. As things unfold throughout the day, you just have to make the best decision with the options that you have. About 6:30 a.m I kissed my wife goodbye and then headed back to my bike to drop off some nutrition and water. Then, as I was setting up my Garmin HR monitor, I realized that the watch was not picking up my HR from my HR strap. I know, I know, most of you are saying big deal, but if you’ve been training with a HR monitor for the past 364 days, targeting a specific HR, you have an “Oh Crap” moment, as you quickly have to move to “PLAN B’”, since the race is starting in 20 minutes. Quickly, I tried to run an initial set up on the watch so it would “find” the HR strap. Problem is that it kept finding multiple HR straps because there are 2500+ athletes standing all around me. I would venture to say that there is not a single athlete out there on race day without a HR monitor. “Oh Crap” is all I could think. 18 minutes to start. Time for me to forget about HR, I’m flying blind today…
The water is a very chilly 61 degrees. I jump in and start making my way about 200 yards to the starting area under the bridge. As I’m swimming over to the starting area I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t feel my jaw”. My feet and hands are pretty numb too. I laugh underwater as I paddle over to the start, remembering the words of encouragement from my wife, Ann. “Just pee in your wetsuit. That will keep you warm for the first 5 minutes…The terror will keep you warm for the rest.” I wanted to get out fast on the swim, because the area is very, very, crowded and it’s easy to expend too much energy fighting the crowds. So, I moved to about the 3rd row back, and far left, out by the 1st yellow buoy. But then, more and more people keep arriving in the water and you get more and more cramped in there to where it’s more difficult treading water, because you don’t’ have the space. About 2 minutes before the canon went off, someone got their arms tangled up in the quick release strap on my wetsuit, unlatching it a bit, and taking in a bit more of cold water. I fastened it back with 1 minute to go, then someone else got tangled in it again. This is going to be a problem I thought, it’s way too crowded here. I fastened the strap 1 more time, then made a hard bee-line left out to the very edge of the race field. I was about 15 yards outside the first yellow buoy.
Boom!!! The canon goes off! Here we go! I am actually doing Ironman Arizona. The first 10 minutes was a really rough swim. There were so many people, and I was probably in one of the better areas. I had my goggles knocked off from somebody’s elbow. Then I caught another stray arm that about ripped off my Timex stopwatch(my PLAN B). To say I swam my butt off would be an understatement. Visibility below water was zero. I kept sighting about every 30 seconds and kept heading generally toward the yellow buoys in the distance. Things started to thin out by the time I got to the first turn, then everyone gets bunched up again. I got to the turn around a looked as far ahead as I could. I could see 4 buoys I think. I just made a straight line towards the last buoy, and didn’t worry about the 1-3. This took my path mostly outside the path of the other swimmers which was fine by me. Then after what seemed like an eternity, I made the last left turn and sprinted towards the swim finish. I kicked excessively hard for about 30 seconds because my feet were still numb and the blood was all in my arms. Time to prepare for the next stage, the bike.
March of the Penguins
I got out of the water in 1:01:21, 4 minutes faster than Ironman Florida. So I put that 4 minutes in the bank for later. I headed off to Transition 1, quickly found my gear bag, ran in the tent, and dumped everything out on the ground. I simplified things this time and just put on bike shoes, helmet, sunglasses. Everything else that I might need was velcro’d to the bike. Transition 1 was 5:01, about 8 minutes faster than Ironman Florida. So, now I’ve got 12 minutes in the bank. I’ve got to find about 13 minutes more somewhere…
The bike route consists of a 3 x ~40 mile out and back type loop. The first 10 miles are flat, and the next 10 are uphill, then 10 downhill, followed by 10 flat. The hill is not severe, just very gradual. The big unknown about this course is the wind. On the first loop, on the first hill, my legs felt really fatigued. I was a little worried, as I was only 20 miles into a 112 mile ride at this point. Then I reached the top at the turnaround and realized I had been going into a steady headwind for 10 miles. So at the turnaround, it was like letting out the spinnaker on sailboat. the wind just carried me. I was changing to a bigger and bigger gear going downhill. It was effortless. I was spinning out at 37mph. Then the terrain flattened out and so did my speed. I made my way back into town to the turnaround to start lap number 2. The crowds at the turnaround were tremendous. They were in the thousands. I was so AMP’d, that it was really hard not to push things as hard as I could. I still had no HR reading, so I was going 100% by “feel”. So the next 2 laps, that is exactly what I did. I just rode and tried to focus my efforts to be the same “feel” as my training. Halfway through my 2nd lap I approached the special needs station. I didn’t even get off my bike. I stopped right in front of the box with my bag, grabbed some nutrition and then shoved off again. Next was another aid station to get more fluid. I had seen several people in front of me bungle this before, so I didn’t want to drop anything. As I approached the station, I slowed only slightly, then pointed directly and a volunteer that was holding “Ironman Perform” drink, so they would know I was going to them. I reached forward, grabbed the bottle while pulling the bottle in, like a football. Didn’t spill a drop. I did the same for another bottle of water. The wind on the 2nd and 3rd lap was different each time. It seemed that most of the time I was dealing with a cross wind from different directions. It was constant and not gusty. I had to lean in ever so slightly to one side to keep the wind from pushing me sideways. Each Lap needed to be just under 2hrs for me to have a good chance of being under 12 hours at the end. I split 1:57, 1:59, and 1:56, for total bike split of 5:52. Sweet!!! A full 17 minutes faster than my Ironman Florida bike split. This is the point in the race where I knew I was going to be under 12 hours. I have a full 29 minutes in the bank to put me 4 minutes under 12 hours.
Transition 2, was a blur. I was in and out in 2:33 and don’t really remember anything. I must have managed to take off my helmet and put on my running shoes, because all of a sudden I’m running out of the changing tent to tackle a marathon.
This is also the point in the race, where things get tough. I had 2 choices. 1 – I could just run the marathon nice and easy and come in just under 12 hours and be happy, but not really push myself. After all, I would still be reaching my main goal of 12 hours, which is still a personal best. Or 2 – I could find out how much gas is in the tank. How fast can I go today, I thought. Today I choose #2(and I hope I always do).
This entire day I’ve been going without a HR monitor, just going by feel. It’s no secret, the marathon portion of an Ironman doesn’t feel good to anyone. This is where you really have to face your demons. As I started out, I felt great. Way better than I should. I started out at 8:30 pace, then thought better of it and slowed down a bit for the first 8 miles. I was holding on to a 8:44 for about 5 miles, then as the miles went by, I got just a little bit slower. Somehow I saw my wife about mile 6 among thousands of people cheering. I was so happy to see her at this point. I waved and put on my best smile so she wouldn’t worry. One might say that I was even a little emotional at this point behind my sunglasses. I still think it was the numerous hot dog vendors in the area, probably slicing onions somewhere.
There’s something about the middle third of the marathon in an Ironman. It’s like you’re in the land of the damned. You’ve come so far, but you still have 18 miles to go. It’s an eternity and anything can happen. I run on. Then I start to have those thoughts in the back of my head. Hey man, you know you’re going to break 12 hours, no need to push so hard. Why not just slow down and walk for a bit. I’m not a professional athlete, and I’m not racing for a Kona slot. I don’t race to put food on the table, and nobody is depending on me to have a good race. I’m just one of several thousand age groupers. In the end, nobody would really fault you if you slowed down a bit and took it easy. They would all understand. It’s a long day…But, I’m stubborn. I hold on and run.
This conversation was going on in my head for what seemed like hours. Then, as I was running up a hill on the backside of my 2nd 8 mile loop, I saw an athlete running her first lap. She was running on a prosthetic leg from the knee down. When I see someone like that, I am always amazed and inspired. Not because of the physical challenge they are enduring, but because the courage they must have to even attempt it(dammit who’s slicing onions again).
Around mile 17-18(I think), the path leaves the lake area and heads under a bridge where they have a wall of speakers with the music cranked up so loud. I can hardly see as I go from the light of the sunset to the dark shadows underneath with my sunglasses still on. It’s loud under the bridge as the music is echoing off the concrete. It sounds like I’m at a Green Day concert and they’re playing Holiday. I can’t hear the volunteers, or anyone else. I can’t even hear the negative voices in my head. All I hear is the pounding music against my ribcage. The feeling is awesome! As I leave the bridge I am renewed with fight. I pick up the pace. I think I am going to be under 11:30! About 7 more miles to go. I pick up the pace and hold on.
By mile 22 I am running a pretty good pace still and feeling very nauseous. I think I may vomit. As I pass by an aid station I hesitantly decide to forgo anymore calories or fluid. I just pass on through. The feeling goes away…eventually.
Just before mile 24, I hear an athlete yell to one of his friends that he may break 11:20. He surges, but his friends stay behind. I stay right on his heals, then he starts to falter. I said come on man, stay on my heels, we can do this! At that, I took off looking like Forest Gump with his leg braces still on. For the next 2 miles I ran as hard as I could(Probably only 7:50 pace). My quads are cramping one minute, my calves the next. I am depleted. I have nothing left in the tank, and no matches left to burn, only the now pounding voice saying HANG ON!
As I approach the finish line area, the crowds get larger and larger, and the music gets louder and louder. Finally I turn the corner and see Mike Reilly with the microphone. I look up and see 11:17. I slow down for the final 50 yards or so to take it all in. I give out as many high fives and fist bumps as I can reach. It’s exhilarating. I cross the line in 11:17:47, a full hour+ better than my previous best.
Today was a great experience that I’ll always remember. I can’t help but wonder….If I can break 12 hours, what about…?
As for tomorrow…..Roadtrip!!!
Thanks for Reading!