As I went into the T2 transition tent, my body was shaking uncontrollably from the wet and cold. I had just finished the 112 mile bike portion of Ironman Arizona (IMAZ). I sat in a chair shivering and desperately trying to change into my run gear. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would get up and head out to start the 26.2 mile run. There was some question as to whether I would finish it.
It was one year ago almost to the day that I had signed up for IMAZ, my first full distance triathlon. It was hard for me to believe that the big day had already arrived. I had followed my training plan, but going 140.6 miles was a complete unknown to me. And I had no idea how the day would go.
I had set my alarm for 4:30 AM, but I didn’t need it. I woke up promptly at 4:15 after having slept pretty well. Surprisingly, the nerves were in check. My pre-race meal was one cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. I had even practiced this and it seemed to be the right combination. Me and my Crew (my wife Beth and daughter Brittany) were out of the hotel and at the race site by about 5:40, which should have provided plenty of time to get ready before the 7 AM race start.
But I had no idea of the chaos of the transition area at an Ironman event. 2700+ athletes all trying to set up and get ready to race. I tried to stay calm. I had to set up my bike with hydration bottles, air up tires, put a couple of last-minute items into the transition bags (which were not in the same place as the bike), get my body marked, take the last minute bio-break, and get my wetsuit on. My Crew was there to help me with the wetsuit. I was ready-and not a moment too soon. The pro athletes had already started and the race official was about to start the masses of age groupers.
I worked my way through the crowd to the place where I thought I should be. The swim was a “rolling start,” which means that athletes enter the water in lines and your time starts just before you get in. I was happy about this because I was very nervous about a “mass” start where everyone starts together in the water. Little did I know that the rolling start is not much better. I made my way down the steps and plunged into the frigid 63 degree water. There was lots of flailing of arms, kicking, and swimming over each other for the first few hundred meters. I was caught right in the middle of the fray and the going was tough at the start.
I finally got some room to swim as the crowd spread out, and I tried to get into a comfortable rhythm. It seemed to get crowded and then thin out over and over again. I just kept siting the buoys and hoping to see the red one, which would indicate the first turn. I finally made it and turned for the short swim across before turning again for the swim back down the lake to the start/finish. I hit a comfort zone and the going was pretty easy for most of the way back. Stroke, stroke, breath. Repeat.
You have time to think while you are stroking along. So I did. That’s when I realized that I had forgotten to put on my calf compression sleeves. I had been experimenting with them in the previous weeks and I really liked them. So my plan was to put them on at the start and wear them throughout the race. I had left them in my backpack so I couldn’t even put them on at transition. I fretted over this miscue for the whole second half of the swim.
I made the last turn to get back to the swim start/finish-almost done. But, as expected, it got congested again as people were funneling into the narrow swim finish. I quickened my pace and made a mad dash for the swim exit. Before I knew it, I was staggering up the steps to a loudly cheering crowd. I had made it over the first hurdle of my day.
With my wetsuit now off, thanks to the help of the volunteers, I was shirtless and wet-translation: cold. Little did I know at the time that would be the theme for the day. As I ran up to transition I spotted my Crew and quickly asked Britt to get the compression sleeves in hopes that I might get them before the run. Transition took a little longer than expected. I had chosen to change into cycling shorts and a cycling shirt that already had my nutrition stuffed in the pouches, arranged in the order that I planned to eat them. In a shorter race, I would not have changed clothes. But it would be a long ride on the bike and I wanted to be comfortable. I then made my second tactical error of the day. When I pulled the jersey out of the bag it was upside down and all of my bars and gels spilled out. Rats! I quickly crammed them back in knowing that I would be fishing around in the pockets later looking for the right bar to eat.
On the way out of the change tent I stopped to put sunscreen on (I would later realize that I didn’t need it). As I rubbed it on the back of my neck, I got the stinging sensation of alcohol on a wound. I had previously had a neck chaffing problem with my wetsuit. I thought I had a remedy but it clearly had not worked. Interesting that I did not notice it during the swim. Probably the numbingly cold water had masked the rubbing. Well, at least it wasn’t in a more sensitive region. Onward to the bike.
I was now out on the bike. Other than still being cold, I was feeling really good. It was a cool morning in Tempe and overcast skies, so there would not be the sun to warm things up. That would be ok. Cool is better than hot. The bike route was a three-loop course with each loop approximately 37.3 miles. That would break it up nicely into manageable segments. The course was mostly flat but it had a lengthy incline in the middle of the loop. The best part was that once you reached the turn-around you could recover and speed back down the hill. The roads were all good so it made for a very pleasant ride.
The one thing I promised myself that I would do is drink a lot while I was on the bike. The hydration would pay off in the run. What I did not count on was the cool temperature, which meant that I was not sweating nearly as much as I did on my training rides in the Texas heat. That can only result in one thing-lots of bio breaks. Too many. I’m pretty sure I stopped at least six times during the bike to empty my bladder. This day was about finishing so I was not too worried about the lost time.
The first lap went great and I was pretty close to where I wanted to be from a time perspective. I headed out for the second lap as I watched the sky darken. Hmm? The last forecast I looked at called for a 20% chance of showers. We were in Arizona. It doesn’t rain here, does it? The answer was yes on this day. It started with a light drizzle and then the wind kicked up and it rained harder. Just keep pedaling, I told myself.
Just as during the swim, while out on the bike you have time to think. I had gotten over forgetting the compression sleeves. Now as I was pedaling along in the rain, my mind moved to another subject: SOCKS. I didn’t bother to put extra socks in my transition bag. I moved my toes around and my socks were drenched. Was I going to have to run a marathon in wet socks? How would my feet hold up? Was there any chance I could get my Crew to get the socks that were in my backpack (which they had with them)? Questions to be answered later. At this point I had to focus on getting through the bike ride.
Toward the end of the second lap, it looked like the clouds were breaking and the rain had nearly stopped. For the moment. As I headed out for the last lap, the skies opened up again even harder than before. Now it was downright COLD. As I pedaled along I began shivering. I could control it as long as I stayed very still in the aero position with only my legs moving. But when I moved my upper body the shivering would worsen. Miserable might be a good word to describe the conditions.
I had to stop for yet another bio break.
I never thought I would be happy to step into a port-a-pot, but today I was.
It was so warm I just wanted to stay in there. But I couldn’t. I had to push onward and get this bike leg finished. So I stiffly got back on the bike to finish it off.
As I rolled into the second transition, I was relieved to be off the bike. I did not feel fatigued-just cold. I grabbed my transition bag and wobbled toward the change tent. I spotted Britt and she was waving the calf compression sleeves at me. Great! I went and grabbed them, not knowing if I was breaking Ironman rules-but at that point I didn’t really care. Those sleeves would warm up my legs and help my run. I went into the changing tent and found a chair. It was crowded and very muddy, which made changing a challenge. The uncontrollable shivering did not help. The guy sitting next to me had the same problem. We commiserated as both of us tried to get the wet clothes off and dry clothes on. Keeping the mud off of my wet socks was critical. I could not afford to have grit in my shoes for that run distance. Wet socks would be bad enough but the grit would surely guarantee blisters.
Getting dressed took a LONG time. More time than I wanted. But it was more important to not rush to give myself the best chance for a successful race finish. I was up and moving toward the exit of the tent where a volunteer handed me a garbage bag to wear as a rain jacket. I’ll say that the volunteers were amazing throughout the race. The guy helped me get the bag on and then he rubbed my arms to try and get me warmed up. Hard to describe my gratitude for his help in getting me moving to start the run.
As I got started, I spotted my Crew again (they seemed to be everywhere). As I ran by, the only thing I could say to them was “I’m so cold.” And I kept going, not knowing what the next four hours would bring. The first half mile was tough because my body was still shaking. I ran along with another athlete and he was experiencing the same problem. I then noticed I had a “lump” in my shoe where my sock was bunched up. That would not be sustainable so I made a quick stop to try to straighten it out. After about another quarter mile, the sock problem had worked itself out and my feet felt pretty good. I was not going to worry about the wet socks. I would be fine. Within a mile after starting the run, my shivering had stopped and I was starting to feel better. I can do this. So I moved forward in my garbage bag rain suit and started ticking off the miles.
The rain had stopped and I had warmed up enough to ditch my garbage bag after about two miles. My mile pace was pretty good and well within where I had hoped it would be. My thoughts shifted from “will I finish” to “I think I can lay down a respectable marathon time.” So I kept my pace and took my gels and fluids. My stomach was in pretty good shape with no real digestive unrest, which often happens during these endurance events. When my stomach did start feeling a little bad, I took a salt capsule. I have learned that salt is my magic elixir, helping settle my stomach and providing my muscles a little pick-me-up.
I went through mile 5 and I was really feeling good. The course set-up and the crowds helped. The run route was two loops and it passed by the start/finish area (at Tempe Beach Park) multiple times. In spite of the weather, the spectators lined the course and were cheering for all of the athletes, calling out your name (it is printed on your race number) and yelling encouraging comments. I ran along smiling and taking it all in; I even high-fived a few people as they stuck out their hands. I was actually having fun.
Mile 10 and I was still feeling good. I had not slowed my pace and my hopes were rising for a good run split. Although in my mind I was still thinking that I would likely have some struggles in the second half of the run and I might even need to take walk breaks (which I never did except to drink at the aid stations). But that was later and for now I was feeling good and making good time. Just before the halfway point, I had my first hint of fatigue. I slowed a bit and took on some nutrition.
I ran through the cheering crowds at mile 13 and headed out for the second lap. I saw my Crew and Britt was waving a jacket at me. After I had seen them earlier, they were so worried about me that they had run over to the Ironman store and bought me a rain jacket. But by that point if I would have put a jacket on, I would have gotten hot, so I waved and declined. It made me feel really good that they were there looking out for me.
I pushed on. And then, to my surprise, I somehow got a second wind. I was feeling strong and I began passing people that really seemed to be struggling. I was not. There was still a long way to go, but in my mind I knew I had this.
I had not used any caffeine during my training but I had been reading a lot about the benefits late in an endurance event. I had brought a couple of caffeinated gels along and decided I would try one. Not the wisest idea to try something for the first time during the actual race, but I felt that it was low risk. I will say that I felt a definite boost and had no adverse digestive effects. It was worth the gamble.
Along about mile 16 a guy named Kent settled in beside me and started a conversation. I was good with that. In a shorter race, I would not have been interested, but today was different. Most of us were out there with one goal-get to the finish line. We were both first timers. The conversation helped both of us I think as he asked me where I was from, etc.
As we ran along together in the early evening darkness, out of nowhere, the rain started again. Really? We could not believe it and it was certainly a bit demoralizing. So close to finishing and now the wet and cold had returned. Kent had said he was dropping back to save something for the end so I plodded on without him. As I went through the next aid station, I grabbed another garbage bag in an attempt to stay dry and warm. I needed video at this point because my guess is that it was a little comical. I slowed to put the bag on. First I ripped a hole for my head to go through. I then made several attempts to actually get my head through the hole, failing each time and ending with my head buried in the plastic bag. Not good when you are trying to breathe. I was wasting time. Finally, I stopped completely and got the bag over my head. I was happy I did because I immediately warmed back up. The rain shower was short-lived and I soon took the bag off as I was starting to get too warm. Now, keep moving forward.
I had run marathons earlier in my life, and in each one I always seemed to hit the infamous mile 20 “wall.” I was a little worried about that on this day. But I never did come to that wall. I saw the 20 mile marker and ran right passed, feeling tired but still feeling strong. Now it was just a mind game to get myself to the finish. I thought about it in time, not miles. I’ll be finished in less than 50 minutes, 40 minutes, etc. For good measures, I grabbed another caffeinated gel at the mile 22 aid station. It tasted horrible. When I later looked at what I had grabbed, it was caffeinated but also had “aminos,” which I believe contributed to the bad taste.
Mile 24 and I hear a voice coming up from behind me-“Hey Austin” (I’m from Austin, TX). It was Kent. I welcomed him back and now we were on the move to the finish and pushing each other along. I told him to not let me slow him down, and he eventually pulled ahead. I told him I would see him at the finish and I carried on at my own pace. I hit the aid station at mile 25 and grabbed one last sip of energy drink to get me through the last mile. I then said aloud “finish this thing” and picked up my pace.
Approaching the finish was amazing. Both sides of the long finishing shoot were lined with people and they were all cheering and making noise. It was dark and I’ll I could see ahead of me was a very bright spotlight pointing directly at me. I just kept running toward the white light. I checked my jersey to make sure it was zipped (I wanted to look neat for the picture), and quickened my pace once more. I crossed under the finisher banner and I was done. I did it. I had achieved a life goal that I had set for myself years earlier.
As I crossed through the finish, I was met by a volunteer. I keep using the word amazing but that is what he was. He was genuinely happy for me and asking if I was ok. He turned me around and pointed at the timing clock and excitedly said “look what you did!” He put a finisher cap and a medal on me and led me over to Beth who was waiting at the finish. We took the finisher pictures and that was it. I walked away with a rush of emotions. I found Britt and as I walked over to her, the fatigue finally hit me. I was spent but the day could not have ended any better.
As I reflected on my accomplishment it was still hard for me to comprehend what I had just done: swam 2.4 miles in 63 degree water, rode a bicycle 112 miles in a cold rain, and then finished with a 26.2 mile run. All in less than 13 hrs. The cold and the rain made the feat even more satisfying. I could not be happier and it was an incredible experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Mission accomplished.