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Ironman Arizona 2012 Race Report

Ironman ArizonaWell, another year of racing is in the books.  If adversity is the best teacher, 2012 was my sensei.  Practically race after race had some ridiculous set of unforeseen circumstances to test my mettle.  From freezing, rainy, and/or windy conditions (e.g., Oceanside 70.3, Ironman St. George, Boise 70.3, and Lake Stevens 70.3); getting clipped and crashing on my bike (e.g., Lake Stevens 70.3); or mechanical issues on the bike (e.g., Mountain Man Olympic), I feel like I have now seen it all.  (Note to The Race Gods, I know I have not in fact “seen it all” so please don’t feel that’s some challenge or offer to show me more…)  Only my first race of the year, Desert Classic Duathlon, had good conditions.  Going into Ironman Arizona, I was brimming with confidence.  I simply wanted the chance to test myself and my fitness.

Pre-Race

Ironman Arizona Pre-RAce

This being my fifth Ironman, I feel like I have the morning of down to a science.  I awoke at 4:00am and ate a small breakfast of oatmeal.  Over the next hour, I reviewed my gear one final time, packed my morning stuff, and headed down to transition.  Upon reaching transition, I enjoyed the energy of the moment.  The transition area at an Ironman event is vibrant; seemingly alive in some mysterious way.

I slowly wandered to drop my Special-Needs bags, set-up my bike, and get body marked.  During this time, I saw many friends and fellow racers.  One of the things I love about the whole triathlon community is how genuinely friendly and happy most people are.  Race morning, even for an event of Ironman magnitude, is no different.  After finishing my race prep, I headed to find my family.  The support and love that I get from them on race day is flat-out incredible.  They spend their entire day watching me swim, bike, and run in circles, all the while becoming more and more decayed.  Finding them, I exchanged hugs and kisses, applied the last bit of Body Glide, and donned my wetsuit.

All in all, I felt great.  My nerves were calm.  My emotions mellow.  I just had a great feeling about the day and kept a smile on my face.  When I began to see the masses queue to enter the water, I said my goodbyes and made my way as well.

Swim

Ahhh, nothing like getting into a tiny, man-made lake with 2900+ of your closest friends.  With the professionals starting fifteen minutes before everyone else, I wait until the last possible moment to actually get in the water.  Treading in 61 degree water for nearly fifteen minutes is an easy way to sap needed energy before the gun even fires.  Plus, it is easy reaching my starting point, regardless of how crowded the water has become.

Jumping in, I was very pleased to feel the normal coolness of the water rather than a biting cold.  I was wearing a new wetsuit: a sleeveless Blue Seventy Reaction.  I had done three practices open-water swims but race day can frequently be different.

Heading to my normal starting point, I made a small change to my plan.  Normally, I would begin on the very inside of the lake, near the front buoy.  But, there were literally hundreds upon hundreds of athletes INSIDE the buoy (i.e., a part of the lake where we are NOT supposed to swim).  The probability of them being moved to where they were supposed to swim made me nervous.  Consequently, I opted to stay closer to the middle of the start but still very close to the front.  As I tell anyone who asks, one of the easiest ways to start your day poorly (or VERY poorly) is bad seeding.  If you start amongst much stronger swimmers, they WILL swim over you.  If you start amongst much weaker swimmers, you WILL have to swim over or around them.  Either way, starting with swimmers of similar ability is very prudent.  The sheer volume of people near the dead-front concerned me.  Historically, only a very small percentage of the field will swim under 1:05, yet a massive part of the field will push its’ way to the front line.  Reaching what seemed like a good starting spot, I calmed my nerves and patiently waited for the gun…

BAM!  The shot echoed through the buildings and someone pressed the “Start” button on the biggest Human Washing Machine ever made!

Typically, there’s contact for a little while.  This happened and was expected.  But, when it normally begins to lessen, I found more and more contact and repeatedly encounter slow moving swimmers.  In four years of racing and four previous Ironmans, I have never had as much contact.  People were everywhere!  Each stroke was met with resistance.  I kept getting hit, punched, kicked, and generally annoyed.  Most frustrating were the blockades of snail-like swimmers.  I didn’t want to dunk them, but over them I swam.  I was simply amazed at the number of people around me.  (Later, I learned why.  The many hundred people who started inside the buoy line were shoved back about 300ish yards after the start.  This explained the unbelievable amount of contact that lasted much longer than normal.  Brilliant move Kayakers!  Thanks for doing that!)

Ironman Arizona Swim

(In the picture above, the RED line is the buoy line and the BLUE line is the line of boats and kayaks waiting to crush everyone.  We are supposed to stay between the RED line and the concrete shore.  Obviously, a very large part of the field went beyond the buoy line and was subsequently pushed back inside the RED buoy line.)

Eventually though, the crowd thinned and I found open water.  Even with my sleeveless wetsuit, I never got cold.  The water felt great and I felt fast.  Focusing on form, I reached the first turn buoy, then the second, and was on my way towards the swim exit.  The stretch between the Scottsdale Road and Mill Avenue bridges was very open and I upped my effort.  Upon reaching the last turn buoy, I upped my effort one final time and motored to the stairs.

I didn’t know my time as I no longer wear a watch in the swim.  But, I felt very fast and sleek in the water and found myself exiting with fast-moving people.  Unfortunately, I was very disappointed to later learn that my swim time was 1:03, much slower than my sub-1 hour goal.  Upon reviewing swim times later, it appeared that overall the swim times were slower than normal.  I strongly suspect this was due to the excessive contact (which I believed was caused by that dreadful decision to move swimmers back between the buoy line and the shore AFTER the start).  So, in retrospect, the 1:03 is probably not as bad as I think but still slower than my goal.  Of course, the “slower than my goal” was quickly to become a theme on this day…

Transition 1

Exiting the water, I sprinted to the first available wetsuit stripper (I seriously LOVE those people).  They quickly helped me out of my suit and I was off.  Sprinting through the chutes, I heard my name a few times.  Even though I don’t stop to acknowledge it, the support always gives me a lift.  (For my friends and family reading this, please know how much I love and appreciate you being there with me.  Regardless of how I am feeling, having your support is amazingly wonderful.)  Turning into the T1 bag area, a spectacular volunteer was already holding my bag so I never broke stride; I just grabbed it and ran to the change tent.  Another volunteer helped me with socks, shoes, arm-warmers, and my “Newspaper Jacket”.  I cannot express enough how great the volunteers are.  But, this year, they seemed especially amazing.

In spite of feeling like I was moving at lightspeed, my T1 time was 5:27.  How I spent five minutes going from the stairs to the mount line is beyond me.  I swear there’s some crazy time-warp at Ironman Arizona’s T1.  (Side note, one of my “Big” goals was the be out of T1 in under 1 hours.  I was already more than eight and a half minutes behind this objective.  I may need to re-evaluate this for 2013…)

Bike

Let the cold begin!  Being of a svelte nature, I do not retain much body heat.  The equation goes like this:

Cold + Toby = Unhappy Toby

So, with each successive Ironman Arizona, I closely monitor the morning weather for days and try to plan according, as best as I can.  In spite of all that, I still suffer for a good 30-60 minutes.  Not terribly (like other races this year), but still cold to chilly and Ironman Arizona 2012 was no exception.  During this time, I just focused on keeping my head down and staying within my planned effort range.

Ironman Arizona BikeThankfully and mercifully, the sun’s energy finally reached my core.  I warmed, reached the first turn-around, and headed back towards Tempe.  I dropped my arm-warmers at my family (a VERY slight rule violation) and started my second loop.

Candidly, the bike portion was pretty uneventful.  Only three things were remarkable.  First, there are too many people who do this race.  The first fifty or so miles of my bike were incredibly crowded.  I don’t know what others experiences, but having watched this race grow from around 2,100 entrants to nearly 3,000 this year, I am convinced that’s just too many.  I know the World Triathlon Corporation only cares about money but sections of the bike were unsafe due to crowding.  For a completely untechnical, relatively flat course, I saw WAY too many crashes, falls, and (later on the run) obvious signs of falls.  WTC, if you are reading this, please consider a true cap on the number of entrants.

Second, there’s always drafting at races (some intentional and some unavoidable) but this year was off the charts.  Massive packs of riders would cruise by as a single entity.  I find this behavior appalling.  It is one thing to get stuck drafting because you cannot get around someone for a bit, but it is another to sit inches off the wheel in front of you.  Wonderfully, I saw cyclists standing in every penalty tent.  One of these blatant cheaters I have to admit I know and watching him stop kinda made me smile a little.  But, another buddy of mine doing his first Ironman got a penalty.  This guy is NOT a cheater and, just like my bogus penalty from 2009, simply got stuck.  Neither he nor I cared about the four minutes lost but that’s not the point.  Punish the wrong-doers; not those who get stuck simply because WTC allows too many people in too small a space.Ironman Arizona Bike

Third, let’s all keep some level of decorum and this applies to both the racers AND the officials.  In any crowd, there’s going to be jerks.  I accept this fact and remain unsurprised when some athlete acts less than cordial.  But, about Mile 45, some Course Marshall found my behavior so deplorable that he (a) literally screamed and cursed at me while (b) only warning me that I might get a penalty.  For the record, I was out of aero, eating a gel pack before the approaching aid station so that I could dump my garbage there.  I was also doing this because a MASSIVE pack of riders was clumped just up the road from me and I wanted to avoid passing them in the aid station, risking a fall from a dropped bottle in the aid station, or drafting around the aid station.  Silly me, I thought I was being prudent.  Contrary to my belief, he viewed my actions as worthy of a bitch-out session but not a penalty.  Seemed a little harsh and contradictory to me but oh well.

Ironman Arizona Bike

Very, very aero

Final time on the bike was 5:24.  Given that this is a twenty three minute improvement over my best Ironman Arizona bike time, I was extremely pleased.  Especially because I didn’t over extend myself.  I stayed small and aero while working easily within my planned range.  I even reduced my effort just slightly in the last fifteen-ish miles to give my body and tummy time to mellow and prepare for the run.

Transition 2

Getting off the bike is a wonderful moment in an Ironman.  While you have a full 26.2 mile marathon staring you in the face (yes, this is daunting), being OFF that saddle is heavenly.  Just as in T1, I dismounted and the volunteers were awesome.  Had I not misstated my bib number, I would have been even faster.  But, I juxtaposed my number, telling them “2021” rather than “2120”.  This small error had them get the wrong bag, forced me to retrace my steps, and probably cost me about thirty seconds.  My T2 time was 2:17 and I am extremely happy with that.  Anything under three minutes in an Ironman transition is fantastic.

Run

Ironman Arizona Run

I love my fans, especially my kids!

Exiting T2, I snuck a glance at the race clock and was mystified to see 6:36 and change.  I felt like I had had a great swim and knew I was on the bike just over 5:40.  Doing the math, I quickly realized, I either had a much worse swim than I thought or spent more time in the “Transition Time-Warp” than seemed possible.  Since I knew I did not lollygag in either transition, I knew my swim was not what I wanted for the first time.  Regardless, I did some math and knew that my sub-10 hour goal was going to be extremely tough if not unreachable.  Accepting that possible fact, I took of running, shifting my focus on simply getting ready for my marathon. The first two miles passed uneventfully.  I saw a good friend (the awesome Sue Adkins) at the first aid station and that was very cool.  Beyond that, I felt ok and held just under 8-minute miles, which was my planned pace.  Unfortunately, this would be the end of my “feeling ok” phase.  Before even reaching my family at Mile 4, I started to feel uncomfortable.  While I was very tired (to be expected after a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike), my stomach began to tighten.  This sensation would only worsen as the day progressed.  Very quickly, my pace deteriorated as I struggled to simply jog.  I had it together for the first loop, as my average pace inched closer and closer to 9-minute miles.

Ironman Arizona Run

Still feeling good

At the start of my second loop, all the wheels came off and I fell apart.  Feeling bad and lethargic, I made the poor decision of taking some caffeine.  In retrospect, this was a terrible move as I am certain that it was the final straw for my stomach.  While I suspect my stomach was already pretty acidic and teetering on the edge of trouble, the caffeine was very likely what pushed it over the edge.  It certainly helped me feel better for the remainder of my first loop but, once that effect was gone, my stomach went from tight to profoundly painful.  In short, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut by Mike Tyson for hours.  My entire gasto-system was collapsing upon itself like a supermassive black hole.  Not a good time.  Thus, the second loop was terrible and my pace decayed from just over 9-minute miles to around 11-minute miles.  While this was happening, I was disappointingly watching all of my time goals recede further and further into the distance, eventually disappearing completely.  Not going to lie, for the first time in any race, I pondered whether I wanted to ever do another Ironman.  I also had to fight tears upon passing my family both times on the second loop.  It was that bad.

At the start of my third loop, I saw my Coach, Bill Wilson.  He told me that I was very likely suffering from extreme acid indigestion and that nothing was going to make it feel better.  He told me to follow a “2-minute run, 1-minute walk” strategy to the end.  Leaving him, I forced myself to run the first 2-minute block.  As odd as it sounds, running actually didn’t hurt.  I was suspecting that running would ratchet up the pain but, in contrast, the brief respite offered a chance to focus on something else.  I didn’t really have the energy to run for an extended period (I tried and failed to do this) but two minutes was a very manageable and digestible (yes, pun intended) period of time.

With each successive 2-minute window, I pushed my effort more and more.  No matter how hard I ran, the pain remained the same.  So, I decided I would run as hard as I could for the two minutes since, hey, it was going hurt anyway might as well hurt while going fast.  Comically enough, for most of the two minute period, I was running close to or under 7-minute miles, a heroic pace.  This helped reduce my average pace over the last loop to mid-to-high 9-minute miles.  My run time was an unimpressive (to me) 4:24, my slowest marathon time ever, under any circumstances.

My final time was 11:03, which I know is better than it seems to me.  That time is but five minutes slower than my best ever (a 10:58) yet was done under the worst internal circumstances I have ever experienced.  I take some small solace from being able to persevere and produce that performance in spite of my gut and frustration.

Ironman Arizona Run

My lessons from they day are two-fold.  One, be aware of what is called “sugar gut” in the endurance world.  While not scientifically solved, a mountain of anecdotal evidence supports the idea that constantly bombarding the stomach with the same simple sugars, along with the accompanying acid, can causes the acid indigestion I experienced.  In 2013, I am going to test a variety of different fuels to hopefully avoid this in the future.  Two, I would strongly suggest avoiding caffeine or, at least, don’t use caffeine tablets.  While I had tested using caffeine in both training and other races, I am certain it was the wrong move on this day.  Plus, like sugar gut, there’s a ton of evidence supporting the contention that caffeine can cause severe stomach irritation (ummm, yeah, I know about that.)  Take my lessons for what they are worth.  Ironman Arizona was a tough, brutal day for me; something I’d like to avoid again (and something I hope you can avoid as well.)

That’s it for my year.  Next year will feature two fulls (Ironman Lake Tahoe and Ironman Arizona), a few halves, and a smattering of other events, including my first 50-mile run!  Until next time, thanks for reading!

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