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Ironman Arizona: Race Report

December 2, 2012

I’m finally getting around to writing my race report, before I forget too many of the details of the day! This post will probably be long, but only because I have so many interesting stories to share from such a long race. The short version of the day: Amazing beyond belief. I don’t even have words for how incredible it is to cross that finish line. And I pretty much nailed my goals. 2:03:24 on the swim, 6:56:48 on the bike, and 5:00:31 on the run. If you don’t read this whole post, be sure to check out the end for my “lessons learned.”

PRE-RACE

I didn’t get in bed the night before the race until after 10 pm, and barely got any sleep at all, tossing and turning with nerves and anticipation. Fortunately I felt wide awake and ready to race when my alarm went off at 3:50 AM. I had a breakfast of bananas, bagels, and peanut butter along with a couple cups of coffee (less for the caffeine, more to make sure I had to use the restroom before the race to clear everything out!). By 4:40 AM, I made my way to my coach’s hotel room for our team pow-wow. We listened to music and jumped on the beds. Our coach told us how proud she was of us and how ready we were. And our coach and her husband slipped notes to us into our bike special needs’ bags, telling us to read them during the race (more on that later). Adrenaline already pumping, we piled into the hotel van to get to the race course at 5:00 AM.

0257_362180257_00705We had to check in our bikes and transition gear the day before the race, so that was all waiting for us on site. But in the morning we still had to put water and food on our bikes, double check tire inflation, and any other last-minute pre-race things. We also had to use the restroom and drop off our special needs’ bags and our morning clothes’ bags (where we could put dry clothes, cell phones, and anything else we would want after the race). Fortunately my team managed to find each other after taking care of all that, so that we could make our way to the swim start together. [Final pre-race photo of us, around 6:30 AM, at left] Getting 2700 athletes into the water takes a while, and we had about a 1/4 mile swim from the swim entry to the actual start line. So we made sure to be near the front of the pack getting ready to enter the water to give ourselves maximum time to get used to the water and decide where we wanted to be in the start pack. Around 6:40, they let us get into the water [photo at right]. We gave each other our final high fives right before jumping into the water. At that point we were all on our own.

THE SWIM

0257_008540257_19880The swim start was definitely chaotic. 2700 athletes, all treading water, trying to find where they want to be in the pack for the start [photo at left, yellow buoy marks actual start line]. I decided to start in under the bridge in the middle of the pack, avoiding the bunches along the wall and along the buoy lines. Starting there, I wouldn’t actually cross the start line until a couple minutes after the start gun, but I would avoid the worse of the jostling of the faster swimmers trying to get in front. I did have someone swim right into me before the start, but fortunately I was able to stay calm. Around 6:55 AM, they sang the star spangled banner on shore. You can’t exactly stop what you’re doing when you’re treading water! And then at 7:00 AM, the start gun went off. And 2700 athletes were underway [photo at right]. I managed to find a pocket of water that wasn’t too crowded, relax, and just swim my race. I was amazed at how calm I was. The swim is an out-and-back course. The first leg is facing the rising sun (sun rise was at 7:02, just after the start), but it wasn’t until the end of that first leg that the sun was really in my eyes. Fortunately I read enough reviews to know to wear tinted goggles!

0257_38196After the turn-around, on my way back to the swim finish, I did panic a few times when I noticed how the number of athletes left around me was thinning out. I wanted to make sure I finished before the swim cut-off! After a few frantic strokes each time, I managed to calm down and remind myself to just swim my race. I was going to be faster that way anyways. I finished the swim in 2:03:24, 17 minutes to spare to the swim cut-off! The volunteer who helped me out of the water asked how I was doing, and I grinned and said “great!” She said keep up that attitude all day. [Photo at left] I was definitely glad that I had invested in neoprene booties. In my practice swims in cold water, my feet were numb and frozen for hours later. But on race day, in neoprene booties, my feet were fine right out of the water. My swim target time was 2 hours, so I was right on target. But, critically, I felt like I had barely exerted myself on the swim. I was going into the bike full of energy. With more swim training, I could definitely finish faster at the same effort, but this was better than I expected to do for where I was on race day.

 

 

 

THE BIKE

0257_47168It took me 13:03 in my swim-to-bike transition. I knew I wasn’t competing for the podium, so I didn’t worry too much about transition time. I was wearing my bike clothes under my wetsuit, but I took the time to pull on my compression socks — difficult on dry skin, very difficult on wet skin. But for long rides they make me much more comfortable. Still, I can’t help but think that I could have shaved a few minutes off of that transition and still been comfortable. I felt great as I set off on the bike [photo at right]. The bike course was three out-and-back laps of about 37 miles each. The first 10 miles of the way out was relatively flat, but the last 6.5 was uphill at a 2-3% grade. Not that bad, but enough to slow you a little. As I started the first lap, I decided to follow my coach’s advice and take the bike slower than I thought I could go. I had a long day ahead. I just relaxed and let myself enjoy as I settled into the ride. I also saw my coach going the other way, near the start of her second lap. She shouted out “good job Jeff,” and I could hear the relief in her voice to see me on the bike.

0257_10155Even though the bike is the longest event, it passes the quickest in my memory. I held a consistent effort and just enjoyed. The desert can actual be quite beautiful, and the straight course made it easy to stay down in aero [see photo at left]. I relied mostly on liquid nutrition on the bike. I had a bottle of spiz (carb/protein drink) that would last me three hours, supplemented with almonds. Every 10 miles there was an aid station, where I took a fresh bottle of water and used it to fill the aero bottle between my handlebars (see photo). Aid stations were about 75 feet long, on the side of the road, and designed for us to cycle through. Volunteers held out water, sports drink, gu, energy bars, and bananas for us to grab. I got water at the beginning of the aid station, and by the end of the aid station had emptied the bottle on to my bike and could throw it out. I also added electrolyte tablets to my water, and took a salt stick tablet every 45 minutes.

Right after I turned around at the mid-way point of the second lap, another rider, Gerry, said to me “and now comes the fun part.” We both laughed and agreed. The down hill was much better than the uphill! Me and Gerry played leap frog for the rest of that lap, and continued to talk whenever one of us passed the other, encouraging each other on. Around mile 66, we finally got our special needs bags. Before the race, we loaded these with whatever we were going to want half way through the bike. When we pulled up to the special needs station on race day, a volunteer grabbed our bag for us and held it open while we grabbed our gear. I had a second bottle of spiz to replace my empty one, more almonds, a spare tube (which I thankfully didn’t need), a couple sugar cookies with Ironman logos on them (thanks to a friend!), a “Stay Aero” bumper sticker as a reminder to myself, and the notes from my coaches. I chowed down on the cookies while loading the other gear on my bike and reading the notes from my coaches, thanked the volunteer, and was back off on my way.

0257_17666As I started the third lap, I was beginning to feel the wear of the day [photo at right, not sure if that’s start of the second or third lap]. I wasn’t struggling yet, and I had a lot of energy left, but I definitely wasn’t fresh anymore either. I did push my pace a little more over the the third lap, but not much. I needed to stay fresh for the run. A few miles into the third lap, I stopped to use the restroom. That was when I noticed my jersey streaked with salt! I didn’t realize just how much I had been sweating. The air was so dry that I never felt my jersey and skin wet, the way I’m used to in Chicago. It was a good thing I had been taking in so much salt already. If I hadn’t, I would be in trouble by now.

During that third lap, my thoughts often turned to where Jeremy was. He was supposed to land at noon in Phoenix. It was now around 2 in the afternoon, so I knew he should be near by. And then with less than a mile to go to the end of the bike, I saw my family. I first spotted my mom and dad and shouted out to them. And then I saw Jeremy back behind them, too far to say hi to, but close enough I could see his grin. I was past them before it even fully registered. But I knew they were here. And tears of joy began unexpectedly streaming down my face. I was completely overcome with emotion as I entered the bike-to-run transition. As a volunteer took my bike from me, she asked how I was. “Great” I managed to get out, past the tears. My overall bike time was 6:56:48, 16.12 mph average (my target was 16-18 mph). I don’t want to second-guess my bike time too much. The course was hillier than expected based on our computrainer, and I had a lot of energy left for the run. Still, I know my heart rate was really low for the whole bike ride, and I can’t help but wonder if I could have pushed just a little faster and still had the same energy for the run.

THE RUN

My spirits remained high as I entered bike-to-run transition. I took the time for a full costume change: fresh tri jersey, running shorts, compression sleeves instead of compression socks (the socks give me blisters on the soles of my feet if I run in them), fresh socks, fresh shoes, and a running hat. I also put fresh body glide on the soles of my feet (skin lubricant to help prevent blisters and chafing). If I were to do it again, I would have to decide if it was really worth the time to change from compression socks into sleeves, that took a long time (14:47 overall for transition). But for my first Ironman, I’m happy with that. As I was changing, Gerry came into the changing tent. He said “you made it!” We gave each other high five and chatted while we both changed.

Before leaving transition, I had a volunteer apply sunscreen for me. I was relieved when she told me that I hadn’t burned yet, and the soreness on my neck was chafing from my wetsuit, not sunburn! Chafing is also not fun, and I had a bruise for several days there, but a lot better than sun burn. Like the bike, the run course was also three laps, about 8.7 miles each. Meaning we would run past the finish-line turn-off at the start of each lap! The run was sort of a modified figure eight around Tempe Town Lake, going back and forth over the bridges. This meant it was very spectator friendly, as we would pass the same spots several times. And the crowd support was amazing!

I felt slow as I set off on the run, but my gps watch told me I was running at a 7:30 mile pace. Oops. I had to force myself to slow way down, knowing I need to be closer to a 10:00 pace. It was about an hour until sunset when I started the run. Depressing, but at least it meant that it would finally begin to cool off. By a mile into the run I had managed to settle into a better pace. My race plan was to walk through the aid stations (about every mile) and run the rest at a 9:30-10:30 mile pace. There was very light crowd support for the first three miles of each lap, but then crowds picked up a lot (there was one other dead spot between miles five and seven). By the time I made it to those crowds on the first lap, I felt amazing. My legs were sore, but I had lots of energy, and felt like I was at a consistent manageable pace. I smiled at spectators, gave high-fives to the little kids, talked to people when I could, and just enjoyed myself. I didn’t see my family on the first lap, but I just assumed they must be getting dinner (probably accurate).

As I started the second lap, I got a boost of adrenaline from passing the thick crowds in the transition area. My legs felt more sore, but I still felt like I was at a manageable pace. I was working a little to hold my pace, but I wasn’t struggling too much. I was, admittedly, probably walking an extra 10-15 seconds at aid stations. The crowds definitely helped more on that second lap. I really ate up the energy. When I smiled and talked to people, it was really to take my mind off what I was doing. Half way through the second lap, I got my run special needs bag. I had another cookie, another bottle of spiz, more honey stinger chomps, and fresh socks and body glide. Nutrition is a challenge for me on long runs: the wrong types of food wreck havoc with my GI tract. Before the race, I had never done spiz on a run, only on the bike. But I was very glad I decided to go with it. I was switching off spiz and honey stinger chomps every 20 minutes, and it was working well for my stomach. I took water from the aid stations, but otherwise most of the stuff there was not appealing. I also had more salt stick for the run.

For a mile leading up to the run special needs station, I was debating what I was going to take. Did I want to eat that cookie? Yes. Was I going to stick with the spiz? Yes. But the key question: was I going to take the time to change socks and apply fresh body glide? I decided yes. I’m a heavy sweater, so on long runs I’m prone to blisters on the bottom of my feet. At that point in the race, my feet didn’t feel that bad. It was dry enough in Arizona that they weren’t wet with sweat, like they would be in Chicago. But I still had half a marathon to go. I erred on the side of caution. As I changed my socks, I saw the guy next to me had fresh shoes!

I was happy to see my mom about 50 yards from the start of the third lap. I stopped and gave her a hug (she later told me I was really wet). She pointed to the rest of my family, standing across the course, about 20 feet back. I almost ran back to them, but couldn’t bring myself to go back. I’ll see them later in this lap I told myself. I told my mom I was starting my last lap, almost done. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t realize the laps were 8.7 miles long. She thought I meant that I had one more of the electric check-points left. There were six of these checkpoints in every lap, allowing them to live-update our results on the internet, about every 1.5 miles. So my family headed right over to the finish line to see me. I meant that I had 8.7 miles left, but they thought I meant that I had 1.5 miles left.

That third lap was all mental. I was really beginning to hurt now. My pace had slowed to closer to 11:00-11:30 running pace, and walking a little longer through aid stations. But I never stopped walking at aid stations, and never walked outside of aid stations. The crowds helped a lot more on this last lap. I needed the support. And I could hear in their voices when I passed that I looked better than most of the people still out there — I was still running, and maybe sore, but holding it together! Some of the best signs I saw while on the run: “High five if you still like running” (I gave her five). “Smile if you peed in your wetsuit.” “Chuck Norris never did an Ironman.” “Shut up legs.” “Hurry up, our beer is getting warm.” I especially enjoyed passing little kids. They were so enthusiastic and loved giving and getting high five. It made me smile.

A couple miles in to the third lap, as I approached a short hill, I saw Damon, a friend from Chicago who was also doing the race. I called out to him as I was approaching from behind. We chatted very briefly, wished each other good luck, and he said he’d see me at the finish line. After the race I learned that he had run most of the run, but had started walking more just before I saw him. A couple miles later, I saw Paul, Damon’s boyfriend. I said hi and told him Damon was right behind me.

The last five miles were really difficult. The right side of my stomach was cramping up. I kept thinking “it’s okay if you walk just a little, you won’t be that much slower.” But every time that thought ran through my head, I remembered the line we heard in a video at the pre-race athlete dinner: “If you stop, nobody will care, but you will always know.” I was so close. I could push on. I could finish that run out the right way. And I pushed on. If the cramping got bad enough, I would have to walk, but for now I could push through it. Even when I faced the one long hill around mile 5.5 of the last lap, I kept running. Nobody else around me was running up the hill, but I pushed on.

A mile and a half from the finish line, I saw my grandparents walking back to their hotel. They were on a bridge over me, so we couldn’t talk. But we shouted and waved. (I later learned my grandma was freezing and needed a jacket.) By now my side cramp was clearing up. And as I entered the final mile, I found some extra energy. As I approached the finish-line turn off, it must have been obvious I was close. I know I had the biggest grin over that final stretch. And all the spectators told me “you’re there, 400 yards left, turn just ahead!” They didn’t even need to ask if I was on my final lap. They could see it on my face.

THE FINISH LINE

That finish line chute is the most amazing thing. For the last 100 yards, thick crowds of spectators line the sides of the course. There’s only about 8 feet for the course, meaning spectators are close on both sides. I saw Paul again about 100 yards from the finish! I gave him high five, and continued giving high fives to tons of strangers as I ran down the chute for the next 50 feet. And then I moved more towards the center of the course, arms up over head, overcome with emotion. I did slow down just a little to let the person ahead of me clear the finish line, so that we both crossed alone. Several of us were within 10 seconds of each other, so the announcer called out our names in succession, and then the famous “You are an Ironman!”

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I finished the marathon in 5:00:31, almost a full six minutes faster than my first marathon! Overall, I finished in 14:28:33 (meaning it was now 9:28 PM, and I had been racing since 7:00 AM). My run pace was faster than most people with similar finish times to me. I’m way at the slow end of the swim and at the slower end on the bike (partially to make sure I have enough energy for the swim), so most people who finished around me were faster on the swim or bike and slower on the run. I’m happy that my coach’s race plan helped me make sure I paced myself well throughout the day, so that I still had a smile on my face at the finish line. Of course, in retrospect it’s easy for me to wonder: could I have pushed myself just a little harder on that last lap of the run? Could I have held my orinal pace for all three laps? And did I really need to stop to change socks? Couldn’t I have continued on? Maybe I could have cut some time off, but I don’t want to second guess my race too much. I had as close to a perfect race as I have ever had. For where I was on race day, that was as good or better as anything I expected. Sure, there’s enough potential left to make me think about a next time. But I am very happy with my race.

0257_53684I can’t even describe my emotions crossing that finish line. So much more intense than any marathon I’ve ever done. Sheer joy and amazement. Tears of joy were at the corners of my eyes and a delirious grin on my face. Right past the finish, a volunteer “catcher” grabs you, puts a foil blanket around you (body temperature drops quickly), and keeps you walking. They make sure you’re not injured and don’t need medical attention. My coach and a teammate quickly found me and took over from the volunteer. They walked me over to get my finisher photo [right]. And then they told me to sit down in a chair for a little bit to recover. Once I was ready, the team was going to meet up for a post-race photo. I grabbed some chocolate milk and sat.

Five minutes later, I got up to grab some of the post-race finisher food, and that was when I saw Jeremy, waiting for me at the far end of the finisher area. I grinned when I saw him. I was so happy to see him there. I went right over and gave him a big hug. I found out he had waited for me while everyone else went back to the hotel to get sweatshirts. Awww, so sweet. He called my parents and they came and found us. After talking for a little bit, I told them I needed to get some food and find my team for a group photo. I told them to meet me on the other side of the post-race area (that area was athlete only).

It was at least 45 minutes after I crossed the finish line before I finally left the race site with my family. My stomach was still a little topsy-turvy, but I decided I better get dinner (I had already had some food at the post-race area). I didn’t feel especially hungry right then, but I knew my body needed the energy! And even though I didn’t feel so hungry, I was able to eat a good meal at Chili’s, along with dessert. I finally got back to my hotel room around midnight that night, just as the last finishers should be crossing the finish line. Thankfully, the hotel had a bag of ice waiting for me! I was physically exhausted, but knew I couldn’t sleep yet anyways. So I took an ice bath. My legs would thank me for that in the morning. And then I finally got into bed, satisfied with a very long day.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Try to follow the drafting rules on the bike if you can, but don’t stress too much about them. Technically, the rule is that you have to leave 7 meters between you and the cyclist in front of you. Once you enter that zone, you have to pass and have to finish the pass in 20 seconds. If you don’t pass in that time, you can get a time penalty. Before the race, the refs announce the rule in a way to intimidate you. But in practice, as long as you’re trying to follow the rules, you’re very unlikely to get a penalty. The refs realize that it’s difficult to follow that rule when you’re going uphill, in thick crowds, near aid stations, or other situations.
  • SMILE. The. Whole. Time. Enjoy the race. I’m so happy I did this.
  • Train and race with a team, if you can. It made the training better. And it made race day so much easier. It really calmed my nerves to go to the course together and know my teammates were out there with me. And now we can all relive it together.
  • Do talk to fellow athletes. This goes with the enjoy the race. It’s a lot more pleasant that way, and you encourage each other on.
  • Do high five everyone. Especially the little kids. They love it, and it gives you more energy. The crowds are great and their energy can lift you up, if you let it.
  • Do put something sweet in your special needs bags. You might end up not wanting or needing it, but it’s really good to have it there waiting for you if you do want it.
  • If you see your family and want to stop for them, do. You might not see them again. I wish I ran back that 20 feet to hug my husband and the rest of my family at the end of lap two on the run. I was sure I would see them again in the middle of lap three, but I didn’t. (After the race, I saw all the photos on my camera of my family, and saw how much they had walked around the course. I was again overwhelmed with emotion. We only managed to see each other twice on race day, but they were there the whole time.)

14 Days Since Ironman Arizona!

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4 Comments
  1. Steve permalink

    Congratulations Jeff! I’m really happy for you and your accomplishment. Thank you for taking the time to share it with everyone. It’s inspiring to see such an ambitious goal realized!

  2. Amazing race and post! Way to go! I LOVED following your journey!!!

  3. Congrats on an awesome race!! Very happy that the stars aligned and you had a great first Ironman experience.

  4. Beth Kozura permalink

    Yes, Jeff, You are an IRONMAN. Bonded forever. Congrats and take time to recover.

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