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2014 Ironman Arizona Race Report

Ironman ArizonaEver have a set of plans and have some external circumstances completely derail them???  That was Ironman Arizona 2014 for me.  I had no preconceptions about my ability to “race” Ironman Arizona (meaning, I was completely underprepared and, thus, not racing at all) but I felt I was capable of hitting some potentially worthy targets.  However, as the day unfolded, all those targets became distant mirages and shifted my focus elsewhere…

Ironman Arizona: Pre-Race

In the weeks and months leading up to Ironman Arizona, I did very little training.  I didn’t skip endurance training because I was lazy, because I was disinterested, or any reasons similar to those.  Rather, my continued shifting focus on exercising and training just continued to evolve.  Getting up early to workout with my wife was simply far more compelling and appealing than any swim, bike, or run workout in my training schedule.  And I was totally fine with that.

My shifting perspective was the continuation of what had been happening throughout 2014.  As I shared in my Ironman 70.3 World Championship race report, it wasn’t that I stopped enjoying triathlons or endurance pursuits.  Quite the contrary actually.  It was more the growing realization that my love of them had created a major imbalance in my life and I needed to rectify that.  Shifting my focus back to where it should be was a far bigger driver than maximizing whatever abilities I may have to do long course racing.

In all candor, I wasn’t even certain I wanted to race Ironman Arizona.  But, after vacillating for days and days, I decided merely a few days before the event to give it a go.  Was I at my peak?  Not even close.  Would I be 100% focused on pursuing some arbitrary and somewhat meaningless time goals???  Again, not even close.  I was going to race to have fun and, if the day and my body allowed, have a good race.

Ironman Arizona: Raceday Morning

Given that Ironman Arizona 2014 would be my eighth Ironman, I felt calm and comfortable in getting ready.  Prepping my bike and gear took less time than waiting for my Dad before the race started frankly.  The only reason for this section was to mention the breeze.  See, at Ironman Arizona, the transition area is pretty sheltered.  Any wind in transition almost certainly means much more wind on the bike course because the bulk of the bike goes through completely exposed, undeveloped desert land.  A five mph wind in town will often be two or three times that outside of town.  Watching the flags dance and shake all morning, I knew we were likely in for a tough day.

Now, onto the race…

Ironman Arizona: Swim

Each time I’ve done Ironman Arizona, I’ve always started the swim in more or less the same place: near the middle of the lake and relatively close to the front.  From 2009-2011, this produced a decently uncrowded and smooth swim.  However, in 2012 and 2013, I believe a paradigm shift occurred as those swims were some of the most congested and physical I’ve ever experienced.  So, this year, I decided to start near the shore but still close to the front.  I hoped this might reduce the mass of humanity trying to swim over, around, and on top of me!  Nicely enough, the race organizers also unwittingly helped me have a calmer swim.

For some indiscernible reason, WTC, the governing body of Ironman Arizona, moved the swim entrance.  Rather than entering from a boat dock about 200 yards from the starting line, we now entered the water via the swim exit stairs, located nearly a half-mile from the starting line!  Yikes!  If someone happened to be a Back-of-the-Pack swimmer, well, you are welcome!  WTC just changed your standard 2.4 mile Ironman swim to a 2.7-2.8 Ironman swim!!!  How neat is that?

As an additional added bonus, poor planning and coordination also lead to a massive chunk of the field still being on shore when the gun sounded.  Seriously, does WTC give a crap about the athletes??? (Answer: No, they only care about money, specifically having more of it.)  What a disaster.

Entering the corral of sheep, uuhhh, I mean people, I realized we were moving wayyyyy too slowly.  This perplexed me as the start was very smooth in years past but as soon as I realized the new swim entrance, I realized what was happening.  Getting out of the crowd by making my way to the edge of massive nervous amoeba, I skirted around everyone until I was past the swim entrance but also past crowd of athletes waiting to enter the water.  With more than 3,100 athletes starting the day and a tiny set of stairs gaining them access to the water, I knew that bottleneck wouldn’t change.  But, I could now approach it from the opposite direction and had only a few people in front of me before I could leap into the liquid abyss.

Once in the water, I swam with some intensity to the start line and was stunned to reach it before the gun sounded.  (I learned later that they delayed the start of the race by 5-10 minutes because most of the field was still on shore.  Well done, WTC, well done.)  But, I only had to wait for a minute or two and the countdown began.  I was actually thankful as the meager time left me little opportunity to debate the soundness (or foolhardiness) of my decision to race.  Regardless, I was there and it was go time!

With the bulk of the athletes still trying to reach the starting line, my swim was stunningly boring and calm.  Normally, the front line of any Ironman swim start is a nasty, unforgiving place.  Hyper-competitive, ultra Type-A people live there and they don’t like infidels of any sort.  Should you decide to visit that place, be ready for combat as combat you shall have.

More or less, I had somewhat open water to swim and I enjoyed every moment of it.  At the two turn-buoys near the turn around, the contact increased but was still a small fraction of what is typical.

Quicker than seemed possible, I reached the last turn-buoy and made a left turn towards the exit stairs.  Even here, where the physicality will skyrocket, I had little contact.  Upping my effort to get out of the water, I reached the stairs and was done with my swim.

My swim time was a semi-disappointing 1:06.  On its face, that’s not too bad, especially given how little swimming I’d done prior to Ironman Arizona.  Nicely enough, I later learned that many people felt the swim was long and that swim times were 2-3 minutes slower than normal.  If that’s true, my 1:06 looks even better, but even if that’s completely wrong, I’ll take a 1:06 anytime!

Ironman Arizona: Transition 1

Exit the water.  Drop for the wetsuit strippers.  Stand.  Sprint to changing tent.  Empty bag.  Don gear.  Go!  T1 was a blur of familiarity to me thankfully.  I didn’t sprint like normal and my 4:51 reflects that.  But, I do think anything under five minutes is good so I was stoked with my time.

Ironman Arizona: Bike

With temperatures much warmer than normal, I skipped most of my normal “get warm” tactics (e.g., gloves and arm-warmers) and just went with the Tour de France newspaper trick.  Being on the bike felt great, especially since I wasn’t shivering, unlike every other year.  But, having done this race five times, I knew the boredom that was coming: the Bee Line.  Ugh…  6-ish miles away from transition, the bike turns left onto the Bee Line Highway, a dreary, boring, and often stinky stretch of roadway that we all get to travel 12+ miles in one direction before U-turning to retrace those same miles.  Nicely enough, with the three loop course, we get to do that THREE TIMES!!! Sigh…

Oh well, head down and get through it.  If you get frustrated or annoyed, you only waste precious molecules of glucose that you’ll certainly want later so staying positive, happy, and focused is key.

This year, however, Mother Nature welcomed us with wind.  Lots and lots of wind.  No biggie, I thought.  I’ve done many windy races before, even Ironman St. George in 2012.  I can handle this.

Finishing my first loop, I checked my time and was very pleased to see it took me one hour and fifty minutes.  If I could hold that pace (and I biked the first loop very conservatively), that meant a 5:30 bike split.  In any Ironman, I’d be elated with that so I started my second loop all smiles.

Sadly, those smiles lasted for 6-ish miles.  Making that dreadful left turn onto the Bee Line, I disappointedly noticed the wind had picked up.  For a few miles, I continued entertaining that 5:30 bike split, like having a blind date with a super-hot, successful chick who you’ve heard is a bitch.  You hope it’ll go well and you do everything you can to make it go well.  You try and keep her happy.  You open doors, you compliment her, all the little things.  But, in the end, her bitchy-ness doesn’t disappoint and you can’t ignore it any longer.  Eventually, you accept that reality and know this date won’t go anywhere.

Well, that was my bike.  The wind was absolutely relentless and merciless in its ferocity.  Without teeth it bit at me all day and without hands it pushed against me like the surge of ocean waves; I was powerless against it.  The tailwind going back towards transition was phenomenal, but it never makes up for the time and energy lost in fighting its evil brother, Horrendous Headwind.

I did my best to stay positive and keep that 5:30 possible but, eventually, it became so obvious it was a pipe-dream.  I just had to let it go and move on.  Sadly, this meant two things:

One, by sacrificing so much time on the bike, any overall time goals I might’ve entertained were unreachable.  No way and no how.

Two, having to use so much extra energy battling the wind meant any run goals were very likely unreachable as well.  The probability that I’d dismount and have anything left in my legs was puny.

That left me with a choice.  I could grumble and gnash my teeth through the rest of day, being pissed off that some wind had ruined my day.  Alternatively, I could accept the change and focus on different, non-temporal objectives.  I hope it comes as no surprise that I selected Option 2.  Your outlook determines so much in life.  Focus on the negatives and negatives in every situation you shall see.  Focus on being positive and finding the good, even in crappy moments, and goodness will be everywhere.  (At least, that’s what I told myself!)  🙂

With that mental approach, I kept biking.  It sucked.  I didn’t have much find going against the wind but I sure enjoyed when it was at my back.  The only other remarkable part of my second loop was the long and heated debate that raged in my mind as I approached the end of the loop and had to face a U-turn to start my third loop.  I’ve never quit a race and didn’t want to have my first at Ironman Arizona.  But, I’d be lying if I said I was anything other than dreading that U-turn.  No part of me wanted to bike at third loop.  I knew the wind would be terrible (it was) and I’d be drained at the end (I was).  But, make the U-turn I did…

The third loop was all I expected.  Windy, crappy, boring, and stinky (thanks to the dump and wind) best describe that loop.  Nicely enough, my awesome Coaches were the one positive.  Bill and Anne Wilson were at the turn-around by Shea (the top of the hill) to cheer any athletes they knew racing that day.  Seeing them was a nice, little pick-me-up, especially since I knew I’d have the wind at my back the remainder of the bike.

In the end, my bike time was a 6:18, by far the slowest Ironman Arizona bike split I’ve ever had.  But, given the conditions and my shifting set of objectives, it was unsurprising and I was fine with it.

Ironman Arizona: Transition 2

Normally, T2 is fast and uneventful.  This day though, I literally dismounted next to a good buddy (who was instrumental in saving my Ironman Arizona 2013).  So, I moved slower than normal, chatting with him and trying to decide if we were going to run together.  He was feeling less than ideal, so I took off and challenged him to catch me, just like he did in 2013.  Having posted sub-2 minute T2’s at Ironman Arizona in the past, my 3:23 seemed so slow, but I really didn’t care and enjoyed briefly talking with a good friend.

Ironman Arizona: Run

For a 26.2 mile “run”, I don’t have nearly as much to say as I might otherwise.  Leaving T2, there was little question about what this marathon would hold.  Actual running, personal records (of the good kind), or any similar objectives were extreme long shots.  Could I turn in the 3:30 I’d been dreaming about leading up to IMAZ???  Sure, it was possible.  Could I actually run (regardless of pace) the entire 26.2???  Sure, that was possible as well.  But, did those really matter to me?  Would anyone, other than me, care AT ALL if I did anything other than finish?  I think the answer was a pretty strong, unequivocal “No”.

Not only had the conditions of the day drained, but so had my heart for Ironman racing in a way.  Heck, until just days before the event, I was still trying to determine if I would even participate (notice, I didn’t say “race”)!  As much of a cliche as it sounds, my heart just wasn’t there for the torment that an Ironman brings.  Beyond deciding though, I began to debate what really mattered when it came to my racing.  Did an Ironman PR mean something to me?  Is qualifying for the Ironman World Championships that important to me?? (Aside from the obvious question of whether I could even do that!)  Did the hours upon hours of training (not to mention the taxing that such training brings) help me get closer to the person, Dad, husband, etc. that I want to be???  Ultimately, I realized that while I love long course racing, it was pulling me in a direction that I didn’t want to go.  I wanted to be the best Dad and Husband I could; not spend years in pursuit of Kona, a sub-10 hour Ironman, or any other arbitrary, meaningless badge of supposed honor.  Spending half of my weekend running, riding, or recovering was counter-productive to what mattered most: my family.  So, while I entered Ironman Arizona, I did it knowing that was a  massive chance it would be my last and I was going to do my best to enjoy it!

Now, onto the actual “run”… As soon as I left T2, I had one goal: have fun.  My marathon, therefore, was composed of multiple stops to chat with friends, see my family, or walk with fellow athletes.  Each time I caught up to a buddy, I walked and chatted.  When I saw spectators I knew, I stopped to say hi.  When I could express thanks to the many volunteers, I stopped to do so.  I didn’t care about time, placement, rankings, or any of that crap.  I cared about having fun and, in some way, saying goodbye.

My “run” time was a 4:32, by far the slowest Ironman Arizona marathon I’ve ever submitted!

Ironman Arizona – Conclusion

Here’s the true irony, to me at least, my overall time was a 12:05; my slowest Ironman Arizona ever and about thirty minutes slower than the first one I did in 2009.  Along with that, I had my slowest swim and bike as well.  (Somehow, I inexplicably had decent transition times; how that happened I haven’t a clue!)  Given that the prevailing wisdom is, “Fast racing = happy/fun racing”, you would think that I would be disappointed or bummed by my performance.  Wrong.  That was, by far, the most fun I’ve ever had an Ironman race.  Somehow, my slowest day was also my best day.  I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere but I’ll leave each reader to determine their own moral of this story.  For me, I was just happy to be there and smile…

The finish line of an Ironman is a pretty amazing place and I will always cherish the eight times I’ve been there.  But, I just don’t see me being back there again, at least not wearing a race kit!  With a little better balance in my life, I am looking forward to exploring the world of ultra running more and possibly sneaking in a triathlon here or there at some point!

Until next time, thanks for reading as always!

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